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   Chapter 15 THE TRUCE

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 10272

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Tommy was in a bad temper with everyone-a most unusual state of affairs. The weather was improving every day; the rains were nearly over. He was practically well again, too well to be sent to Bhulwana on sick leave, as Ralston brutally told him; but it was not this fact that had upset his internal equilibrium. He did not want sick leave, and bluntly said so.

"Then what the devil do you want?" said Ralston, equally blunt and ready to resent irritation from one who in his opinion was too highly favoured of the gods to have any reasonable grounds for complaint.

Tommy growled an inarticulate reply. It was not his intention to confide in Ralston whatever his grievance. But Ralston, not to be frustrated, carried the matter to Monck, then on the high road to recovery.

"What in thunder is the matter with the young ass?" he demanded. "He gets more lantern-jawed and obstreperous every day."

"Leave him to me!" said Monck. "Discharge him as cured! I'll manage him."

"But that's just what he isn't," grumbled Ralston. "He ought to be well. So far as I can make out, he is well. But he goes about looking like a sick fly and stinging before you touch him."

"Leave him to me!" Monck said again.

That afternoon as he and Tommy lounged together on the verandah after the lazy fashion of convalescents, he turned to the boy in his abrupt fashion.

"Look here, Tommy!" he said. "What are you making yourself so conspicuously unpleasant for? It's time you pulled up."

Tommy turned crimson. "I?" he stammered. "Who says so? Stella?"

There was the suspicion of a smile about Monck's grim mouth as he made reply. "No; not Stella, though she well might. I've heard you being beastly rude to her more than once. What's the matter with you? Want a kicking, eh?"

Tommy hunched himself in his wicker chair with his chin on his chest. "No, want to kick," he said in a savage undertone.

Monck laughed briefly. He was standing against a pillar of the verandah. He turned and sat down unexpectedly on the arm of Tommy's chair. "Who do you want to kick?" he said.

Tommy glanced at him and was silent.

"Significant!" commented Monck. He put his hand with very unwonted kindness upon the lad's shoulder. "What do you want to kick me for, Tommy?" he asked.

Tommy shrugged the shoulder under his hand. "If you don't know, I can't tell you," he said gruffly.

Monck's fingers closed with quiet persistence. "Yes, you can. Out with it!" he said.

But Tommy remained doggedly silent.

Several seconds passed. Then very suddenly Monck raised his hand and smote him hard on the back.

"Damn!" said Tommy, straightening involuntarily.

"That's better," said Monck. "That'll do you good. Don't curl up again! You're getting disgracefully round-shouldered. Like to have a bout with the gloves?"

There was not a shade of ill-feeling in his voice. Tommy turned round upon him with a smile as involuntary as his exclamation had been.

"What a brute you are, Monck! You have such a beastly trick of putting a fellow in the wrong."

"You are in the wrong," asserted Monck. "I want to get you out of it if I can. What's the grievance? What have I done?"

Tommy hesitated for a moment, then finally reached up and gripped the hand upon his shoulder. "Monck! I say, Monck!" he said boyishly. "I feel such a cur to say it. But-but-" he broke off abruptly. "I'm damned if I can say it!" he decided dejectedly.

Monck's fingers suddenly twisted and closed upon his. "What a funny little ass you are, Tommy!" he said.

Tommy brightened a little. "It's infernally difficult-taking you to task," he explained blushing a still fierier red. "You'll never speak to me again after this."

Monck laughed. "Yes, I shall. I shall respect you for it. Get on with it, man! What's the trouble?"

With immense effort Tommy made reply. "Well, it's pretty beastly to have to ask any fellow what his intentions are with regard to his sister, but you pretty nearly told me yours."

"Then what more do you want?" questioned Monck.

Tommy made a gesture of helplessness. "Damn it, man! Don't you know she is making plans to go Home?"

"Well?" said Monck.

Tommy faced round. "I say, like a good chap,-you've practically forced this, you know-you're not going to-to let her go?"

Monck's eyes looked back straight and hard. He did not speak for a moment; then, "You want to know my intentions, Tommy," he said. "You shall. Your sister and I are observing a truce for the present, but it won't last for ever. I am making plans for a move myself. I am going to live at the Club."

"Is that going to help?" demanded Tommy bluntly.

Monck looked sardonic. "We mustn't offend the angels, you know, Tommy," he said.

Tommy made a sound expressive of gross irreverence. "Oh, that's it, is it? Now we know where we are. I've been feeling pretty rotten about it, I can tell you."

"You always were an ass, weren't you?" said Monck, getting up.

Tommy got up too, giving himself an impatient shake. He pushed an apologetic hand through Monck's arm. "I can't expect ever to get even with a swell like you," he said humb

ly,

Monck looked at him. Something in the boy's devotion seemed to move him, for his eyes were very kindly though his laugh was ironic. "You'll have an almighty awakening one of these days, my son," he said. "By the way, if we are going to be brothers, you had better call me by my Christian name."

"By Jove, I will," said Tommy eagerly. "And if there is anything I can do, old chap-anything under the sun-"

"I'll let you know," said Monck.

So, like the lifting of a thunder cloud, Tommy's very unwonted fit of temper merged into a mood of great benignity and Ralston complained no more.

Monck took up his abode at the Club before the brief winter season brought the angels flitting back from Bhulwana to combine pleasure with duty at Kurrumpore.

Stella accepted his departure without comment, missing him when gone after a fashion which she would have admitted to none. She did not wholly understand his attitude, but Tommy's serenity of demeanour made her somewhat suspicious; for Tommy was transparent as the day.

Mrs. Ralston's return made her life considerably easier. They took up their friendship exactly where they had left it and found it wholly satisfactory. When Lady Harriet Mansfield made her stately appearance, Stella's position was assured. No one looked askance at her any longer. Even Mrs. Burton's criticism was limited to a strictly secret smile.

Netta Ermsted was the last to leave Bhulwana. She returned nervous and fretful, accompanied by Tessa whose joy over rejoining her friends was as patent as her mother's discontent. Tessa had a great deal to say in disparagement of the Rajah of Markestan, and said it so often and with such emphasis that at last Captain Ermsted's patience gave way and he forbade all mention of the man under penalty of a severe slapping. When Tessa had ignored the threat for the third time he carried it out with such thoroughness that even Netta was startled into remonstrance.

"You are quite right to keep the child in order," she said. "But you needn't treat her like that. I call it brutal."

"You can call it what you like," said Ermsted. "I did it quite as much for your benefit as for hers."

Netta tossed her head. "I'm not a sentimental mother," she observed. "You won't punish me in that way. I object to a commotion, that's all."

He took her by the shoulder. "Do you?" he said. "Then I advise you to be mighty careful, for, I warn you, my blood is up."

She made a face at him, albeit there was a quality of menace in his hold. "Are you going to treat me as you have just treated Tessa?"

His teeth were clenched upon his lower lip. "Don't be a little devil, Netta!" he said.

She snapped her fingers. "Then don't you be a big fool, most noble Richard! It doesn't pay to bully a woman. She can always get her own back one way or another. Remember that!"

He gripped her suddenly by both arms. "By Heaven!" he said passionately. "I'll do worse than beat you if you dare to trifle with me!"

She tried to laugh, but his look frightened her. She turned as white as the muslin wrap she wore. "Richard-Dick-don't," she gasped helplessly.

He held her locked to him. "You've gone too far," he said.

"I haven't, Dick! I haven't!" she protested. "Dick, I swear to you-I have never-I have never-"

He stopped the words upon her lips with his own, but his kiss was terrible. She shrank from it trembling, appalled.

In a moment he let her go, and she sank upon her couch, hiding her quivering face with convulsive weeping.

"You are cruel! You are cruel!" she sobbed.

He remained beside her, looking down at her till some of the sternness passed from his face.

He bent at last and touched her. "I'm not cruel," he said. "I'm just in earnest, that's all. You be careful for the future! There's a bit of the devil in me too when I'm goaded."

She drew herself away from him, half-frightened still and half petulant. "You used to be-ever so much nicer than you are now," she said, keeping her face averted.

He answered her sombrely as he turned away, "I used to have a wife that I honoured before all creation."

She sprang to her feet. "Dick! How can you be so horrid?"

He shrugged his shoulders as he walked to the door. "I was-a big fool," he said very bitterly.

The door closed upon him. Netta stood staring at it, tragic and tear-stained.

Suddenly she stamped her foot and whirled round in a rage. "I won't be treated like a naughty child! I won't-I won't! I'll write to my Arabian Knight-I'll write now-and tell him how wretched I am! If Dick objects to our friendship I'll just leave him, that's all. I was a donkey ever to marry him. I always knew we shouldn't get on."

She paused, listening, half-fearing, half-hoping, that she had heard him returning. Then she heard his voice in the next room. He was talking to Tessa.

She set her lips and went to her writing-table. "Oh yes, he can make it up with his child when he knows he has been brutal; but never a single kind word to his wife-not one word!"

She took up a pen with fingers that trembled with indignation, and began to write.

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