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   Chapter 17 BLUEBEARD'S CHAMBER

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 9535

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Bhulwana in early spring! Bhulwana of the singing birds and darting squirrels! Bhulwana of the pines!

Stella stood in the green compound of the bungalow known as The Grand Stand, gazing down upon the green racecourse with eyes that dreamed.

The evening was drawing near. They had arrived but a few minutes before in Major Ralston's car, and the journey had taken the whole day. Her mind went back to that early hour almost in the dawning when she and Everard Monck had knelt together before the altar of the little English Church at Kurrumpore and been pronounced man and wife. Mrs. Ralston and Tommy alone had attended the wedding. The hour had been kept a strict secret from all besides. And they had gone straight forth into the early sunlight of the new day and sped away into the morning, rejoicing. A blue jay had laughed after them at starting, and a blue jay was laughing now in the budding acacia by the gate. There seemed a mocking note in its laughter, but it held gaiety as well. Listening to it, she forgot all the weary miles of desert through which they had travelled. The world was fair, very fair, here at Bhulwana. And they were alone.

There fell a step on the grass behind her; she thrilled and turned. He came and put his arm around her.

"Do you think you can stand seven days of it?" he said.

She leaned her head against him. "I want to catch every moment of them and hold it fast. How shall we make the time pass slowly?"

He smiled at the question. "Do you know, I was afraid this place wouldn't appeal to you?"

Her hand sought and closed upon his. "Ah, why not?" she said.

He did not answer her. Only, with his face bent down to hers, he said, "The past is past then?"

"For ever," she made swift reply. "But I have always loved Bhulwana-even in my sad times. Ah, listen! That is a ko?l!"

They listened to the bird's flutelike piping, standing closely linked in the shadow of a little group of pines. In the bungalow behind them Peter the Great was decking the table for their wedding-feast. The scent of white roses was in the air, languorous, exquisite.

The blue jay laughed again in the acacia by the gate, laughed and flew away. "Good riddance!" said Monck.

"Don't you like him?" said Stella.

"I'm not particularly keen on being jeered at," he answered.

She laughed at him in her turn. "I never thought you cared a single anna what any one thought of you."

He smiled. "Perhaps I have got more sensitive since I knew you."

She lifted her lips to his with a sudden movement. "I am like that too, Everard. I care-terribly now."

He kissed her, and his kiss was passionate. "No one shall ever think anything but good of you, my Stella," he said.

She clung to him. "Ah, but the outside world doesn't matter," she said. "It is only we ourselves, and our secret, innermost hearts that count. Everard, let us be more than true to each other! Let us be quite, quite open-always!"

He held her fast, but he made no answer to her appeal.

Her eyes sought his. "That is possible, isn't it?" she pleaded. "My heart is open to you. There is not a single corner of it that you may not enter."

His arms clasped her closer. "I know," he said. "I know. But you mustn't be hurt or sorry if I cannot say the same. My life is a more complex affair than yours, remember."

"Ah! That is India!" she said. "But let me share that part too! Let me be a partner in all! I can be as secret as the wiliest Oriental of them all. I would so love to be trusted. It would make me so proud!"

He kissed her again. "You might be very much the reverse sometimes," he said, "if you knew some of the secrets I had to keep. India is India, and she can be very lurid upon occasion. There is only one way of treating her then; but I am not going to let you into any unpleasant secrets. That is Bluebeard's Chamber, and you have got to stay outside."

She made a small but vehement gesture in his arms. "I hate India!" she said. "She dominates you like-like-"

"Like what?" he said.

She hid her face from him. "Like a horrible mistress," she whispered.

"Stella!" he said.

She throbbed in his hold. "I had to say it. Are you angry with me?"

"No," he said.

"But you don't like me for it all the same." Her voice came muffled from his shoulder. "You don't realize-very likely you never will-how near the truth it is."

He was silent, but in the silence his hold tightened upon her till it was almost a grip.

She turned her face up again at last. "I told you it was madness to marry me," she said tremulously. "I told you you would repent."

He looked at her with a strange smile. "And I told you it was-Kismet," he said. "You did it because it was written that you should. For better for worse-" h

is voice vibrated-"you and I are bound by the same Fate. It was inevitable, and there can be no repentance, just as there can be no turning back. But you needn't hate India on that account. I have told you that I will give her up for your sake, and that stands. But I will not give you up for India-or for any other power on earth. Now are you satisfied?"

Her face quivered at the question. "It is-more than I deserve," she said. "You shall give up nothing for me."

He put his hand upon her forehead. "Stella, will you give her a trial? Give her a year! Possibly by that time I may tell you more than I am able to tell you now. I don't know if you would welcome it, but there are always a chosen few to whom success comes. I may be one of the few. I have a strong belief in my own particular star. Again I may fail. If I fail, I swear I will give her up. I will start again at some new job. But will you be patient for a year? Will you, my darling, let me prove myself? I only ask-one year."

Her eyes were full of tears. "Everard! You make me feel-ashamed," she said. "I won't-won't-be a drag on you, spoil your career! You must forgive me for being jealous. It is because I love you so. But I know it is a selfish form of love, and I won't give way to it. I will never separate you from the career you have chosen. I only wish I could be a help to you."

"You can only help me by being patient-just at present," he said.

"And not asking tiresome questions!" She smiled at him though her tears had overflowed. "But oh, you won't take risks, will you? Not unnecessary risks? It is so terrible to think of you in danger-to think-to think of that horrible deformed creature who sent-Ralph-" She broke off shuddering and clinging to him. It was the first time she had ever spoken of her first husband by name to him.

He dried the tears upon her cheeks. "My own girl, you needn't be afraid," he said, and though his words were kind she wondered at the grimness of his voice. "I am not the sort of person to be disposed of in that way. Shall we talk of something less agitating? I can't have you crying on our wedding-night."

His tone was repressive. She was conscious of a chill. Yet it was a relief to turn from the subject, for she recognized that there was small satisfaction to be derived therefrom. The sun was setting moreover, and it was growing cold. She let him lead her back into the bungalow, and they presently sat down at the table that Peter had prepared with so much solicitude.

Later they lingered for awhile on the verandah, watching the blazing stars, till it came to Monck that his bride was nearly dropping with weariness and then he would not suffer her to remain any longer.

When she had gone within, he lit a pipe and wandered out alone into the starlight, following the deserted road that led to the Rajah's summer palace.

He paced along slowly with bent head, deep in thought. At the great marble gateway that led into the palace-garden he paused and stood for a space in frowning contemplation. A small wind had sprung up and moaned among the cypress-trees that overlooked the high wall. He seemed to be listening to it. Or was it to the hoot of an owl that came up from the valley?

Finally he drew near and deliberately tapped the ashes from his half-smoked pipe upon the shining marble. The embers smouldered and went out. A black stain remained upon the dazzling white surface of the stone column. He looked at it for a moment or two, then turned and retraced his steps with grim precision.

When he reached the bungalow, he turned into the room in which they had dined; and sat down to write.

Time passed, but he took no note of it. It was past midnight ere he thrust his papers together at length and rose to go.

The main passage of the bungalow was bright with moonlight as he traversed it. A crouching figure rose up from a shadowed doorway at his approach. Peter the Great looked at him with reproach in his eyes.

Monck stopped short. He accosted the man in his own language, but Peter made answer in the careful English that was his pride.

"Even so, sahib, I watch over my mem-sahib until you come to her. I keep her safe by night as well as by day. I am her servant."

He stood back with dignity that Monck might pass, but Monck stood still. He looked at Peter with a level scrutiny for a few moments. Then: "It is enough," he said, with brief decision. "When I am not with your mem-sahib, I look to you to guard her."

Peter made his stately salaam. Without further words, he conveyed the fact that without his permission no man might enter the room behind him and live.

Very softly Monck turned the handle of the door and passed within, leaving him alone in the moonlight.

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