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   Chapter 16 THE OASIS

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 8550

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

For two months Tommy possessed his impulsive soul in patience. For two months he watched Monck go his impassive and inscrutable way, asking no further question. The gaieties of the station were in full swing. Christmas was close at hand.

Stella was making definite plans for departure in the New Year. She could not satisfy herself with an idle life, though Tommy vehemently opposed the idea of her going. Monck never opposed it. He listened silently when she spoke of it, sometimes faintly smiling. She often saw him. He came to the Green Bungalow in Tommy's company at all hours of the day. She met him constantly at the Club, and he never failed to come to her side there and by some means known only to himself to banish the crowd of subalterns who were wont to gather round her. He asserted no claim, but the claim existed and was mutely recognized. He never spoke to her intimately. He never attempted to pass the bounds of ordinary friendship. Only very rarely did he make her aware that her company was a pleasure to him. But the fact remained that she was the only woman that he ever sought, and the tongues of all the rest were busy in consequence.

As for Stella, she still told herself that she would escape with her freedom. He would speak, she was convinced, before she left. She even sometimes told herself that after what had passed between them, it was almost incumbent upon him to speak. But she believed that he would accept her refusal philosophically, possibly even with relief. She restrained herself forcibly from dwelling upon the thought of him. Again and again she reminded herself that he trod the way of ambition. His heart was given to his work, and a man may not serve two masters. He cared for her, probably, but in a calm, judicial fashion that could never satisfy her. If she married him she would come second-and a very poor second-to his profession. And so she did not mean to marry him. And so she checked the fevered memory of passionate kisses that had burned her to the soul, of arms that had clasped and held her by a force colossal. That had been only the primitive man in him, escaped for the moment beyond his control-the primitive man which he had well-nigh succeeded in stifling with the bonds of his servitude. Had he not told her that he would have given all he had to forget that single wild lapse into savagery? She was sure that he despised himself for it. He would never for an instant suffer such an impulse again. He did not really love her. It was not in him to love any woman. He would make her a formal offer of marriage, and when she had refused him he would dismiss the matter from his mind and return to his work undisturbed.

So she schooled herself to make her plans, leaving him out of the reckoning, telling herself ever that her newly restored freedom was too dear ever to be sacrificed again. In Mrs. Ralston's company she attended some of the social gatherings of the station, but she took no keen pleasure in them. She disliked Lady Harriet, she distrusted Mrs. Burton, and more often than not she remained away. The coming Christmas festivities did not attract her. She held aloof till Tommy who was in the thick of everything suddenly and vehemently demanded her presence.

"It's ridiculous to be so stand-offish," he maintained. "Don't let 'em think you're afraid of 'em! Come anyway to the moonlight picnic at Khanmulla on Christmas Eve! It's going to be no end of a game."

Stella smiled a little. "Do you know, Tommy, I think I'd rather go to bed?"

"Absurd!" declared Tommy. "You used to be much more sporting."

"I wasn't a widow in those days," Stella said.

"What rot! What damn' rot!" cried Tommy wrathfully.

"There is no altering the fact," said Stella.

He left her, fuming.

That evening as she sat on the Club verandah with Mrs. Ralston, watching some tennis, Monck came up behind her and stood against the wall smoking a cigarette.

He did not speak for some time and after a word of greeting Stella turned back to the play. But presently Mrs. Ralston got up and went away, and after an interval Monck came silently forward and took the vacant seat.

Tommy was among the players. His play was always either surprisingly brilliant or amazingly bad, and on this part

icular evening he was winning all the honours.

Stella was joining in the general applause after a particularly fine stroke when suddenly Monck's voice spoke at her side.

"Why don't you take a hand sometimes instead of always looking on?"

The question surprised her. She glanced at him in momentary embarrassment, met his straight look, and smiled.

"Perhaps I am lazy."

"That isn't the reason," he said. "Why do you lead a hermit's life? Do you follow your own inclination in so doing? Or are you merely proving yourself a slave to an unwritten law?"

His voice was curt; it held mastery. But yet she could not resent it, for behind it was a masked kindness which deprived it of offence.

She decided to treat the question lightly. "Perhaps a little of both," she said. "Besides, it seems scarcely worth while to try to get into the swim now when I am leaving so soon."

He made an abrupt movement which seemed to denote suppressed impatience. "You are too young to say that," he said.

She laughed a little. "I don't feel young. I think life moves faster in tropical countries. I have lived years since I have been here, and I am glad of a rest."

He was silent for a space; then again abruptly he returned to the charge. "You're not going to waste all the best of your life over a memory, are you? The finest man in the world isn't worth that."

She felt the colour rise in her face as she made reply. "I hope I am not going to waste my life at all. Is it a waste not to spend it in a feverish round of social pleasures? If so, I do not think you are in a position to condemn me."

She saw his brief smile for an instant. "My life is occupied with other things," he said. "But I don't lead a hermit's existence. I am going to the officers' picnic at Khanmulla on the twenty-fourth for instance."

"Being a case of 'Needs must'," suggested Stella.

"By no means." Monck leaned forward to light another cigarette. "I am going for a particular purpose. If that purpose is not fulfilled-" he paused a moment and she felt his eyes upon her again-"I shall come straight back," he ended with a certain doggedness of determination that did not escape her.

Stella's gaze was fixed upon the court below her and she kept it there, but she saw nothing of the game. Her heart was beating oddly in leaps and jerks. She felt curiously as if she were under the influence of an electric battery; every nerve and every vein seemed to be tingling.

He had not asked a question, yet she felt that in some fashion he had made it incumbent upon her to speak in answer. In the silence that followed his words she was aware of an insistence that would not be denied. She tried to put it from her, but could not. In the end, more than half against her will, she yielded.

"I suppose I shall have to go," she said, "if only to pacify Tommy."

"A very good and sufficient reason," commented Monck enigmatically.

He lingered on beside her for a while, but nothing further of an intimate nature passed between them. She felt that he had gained his objective and would say no more. The truce between them was to be observed until the psychological moment arrived to break it, and that moment would occur some time on Christmas Eve in the moonlit solitudes of Khanmulla.

Later she reflected that perhaps it was as well to go and get it over. She could not deny him his opportunity, and it would not take long-she was sure it would not take long to convince him that they were better as they were.

Had he been younger, less wedded to his work, less the slave of his ambition, things might have been different. Had she never been married to Ralph Dacre, never known the bondage of those few strange weeks, she might have been more ready to join her life to his.

But Fate had intervened between them, and their paths now lay apart. He realized it as well as she did. He would not press her. Their eyes were open, and if the oasis in the desert had seemed desirable to either for a space, yet each knew that it was no abiding-place.

Their appointed ways lay in the waste beyond, diverging ever more and more, till presently even the greenness of that oasis in which they had met together would be no more to either than a half-forgotten dream.

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