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   Chapter 18 EVIL TIDINGS

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 17015

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

They walked on the following morning over the pine-clad hill and down into the valley beyond, a place of running streams and fresh spring verdure. Stella revelled in its sweetness. It made her think of Home.

"You haven't told me anything about your brother," she said, as they sat together on a grey boulder and basked in the sunshine.

"Haven't I?" Monck spoke meditatively. "I've got a photograph of him somewhere. You must see it. You'll like my brother," he added, with a smile. "He isn't a bit like me."

She laughed. "That's a recommendation certainly. But tell me what he is like! I want to know."

Monck considered. "He is a short, thick-set chap, stout and red, rather like a comedian in face. I think he appreciates a joke more than any one I know."

"He sounds a dear!" said Stella; and added with a gay side-glance, "and certainly not in the least like you. Have you written yet to break the news of your very rash marriage?"

"Yes, I wrote two days ago. He will probably cable his blessing. That is the sort of chap he is."

"It will be rather a shock for him," Stella observed. "You had no idea of changing your state when you saw him last summer."

There fell a somewhat abrupt silence. Monck was filling his pipe and the process seemed to engross all his thoughts. Finally, rather suddenly, he spoke. "As a matter of fact, I didn't see him last summer."

"You didn't see him!" Stella opened her eyes wide. "Not when you went Home?"

"I didn't go Home." Monck's eyes were still fixed upon his pipe. "No one knows that but you," he said, "and one other. That is the first secret out of Bluebeard's chamber that I have confided in you. Keep it close!"

Stella sat and gazed; but he would not meet her eyes. "Tell me," she said at last, "who is the other? The Colonel?"

He shook his head. "No, not the Colonel, You mustn't ask questions, Stella, if I ever expand at all. If you do, I shall shut up like a clam, and you may get pinched in the process."

She slipped her hand through his arm. "I will remember," she said. "Thank you-ever so much-for telling me. I will bury it very deep. No one shall ever suspect it through me."

"Thanks," he said. He pressed her hand, but he kept his eyes lowered. "I know I can trust you. You won't try to find out the things I keep back."

"Oh, never!" she said. "Never! I shall never try to pry into affairs of State."

He smiled rather cynically. "That is a very wise resolution," he said. "I shall tell Bernard that I have married the most discreet woman in the Empire-as well as the most beautiful."

"Did you marry her for her beauty or for her discretion?" asked Stella.

"Neither," he said.

"Are you sure?" She leaned her cheek against his shoulder. "It's no good pretending with me you know, I can see through anything, detect any disguise, so far as you are concerned."

"Think so?" said Monck.

"Answer my question!" she said.

"I didn't know you asked one." His voice was brusque; he pushed his pipe into his mouth without looking at her.

She reached up and daringly removed it. "I asked what you married me for," she said. "And you suck your horrid pipe and won't even look at me."

His arm went round her. He looked down into her eyes and she saw the fiery worship in his own. For a moment its intensity almost frightened her. It was like the red fire of a volcano rushing forth upon her-a fierce, unshackled force. For a space he held her so, gazing at her; then suddenly he crushed her to him, he kissed her burningly till she felt as if caught and consumed by the flame.

"My God!" he said passionately. "Can I put-that-into words?"

She clung to him, but she was trembling. There was that about him at the moment that startled her. She was in the presence of something terrible, something she could not fathom. There was more than rapture in his passion. It was poignant with a fierce defiance that challenged all the world.

She lay against his breast in silence while the storm that she had so unwittingly raised spent itself. Then at last as his hold began to slacken she took courage.

She laid her cheek against his hand. "Ah, don't love me too much at first, darling," she said. "Give me the love that lasts!"

"And you think my love will not last?" he said, his voice low and very deep.

She softly kissed the hand she held. "No, I didn't say-or mean-that. I believe it is the greatest thing that I shall ever possess. But-shall I tell you a secret? There is something in it that frightens me-even though I glory in it."

"My dear!" he said.

She raised her lips again to his. "Yes, I know. That is foolish. But I don't know you yet, remember. I have never yet seen you angry with me."

"You never will," he said.

"Yes, I shall." Her eyes were gazing into his, but they saw beyond. "There will come a day when something will come between us. It may be only a small thing, but it will not seem small to you. And you will be angry because I do not see with your eyes. And I think the very greatness of your love will make it harder for us both. You mustn't worship me, Everard. I am only human. And you will be so bitterly disappointed afterwards when you discover my limitations."

"I will risk that," he said.

"No. I don't want you to take any risks. If you set up an idol, and it falls, you may be-I think you are-the kind of man to be ruined by it."

She spoke very earnestly, but his faint smile told her that her words had failed to convince.

"Are you really afraid of all that?" he asked curiously.

She caught her breath. "Yes, I am afraid. I don't think you know yourself, your strength, or your weakness. You haven't the least idea what you would say or do-or even feel-if you thought me unkind or unjust to you."

"I should probably sulk," he said.

She shook her head. "Oh, no! You would explode-sooner or later. And it would be a very violent explosion. I wonder if you have ever been really furious with any one you cared about-with Tommy for instance."

"I have," said Monck. "But I don't fancy you will get him to relate his experiences. He survived it anyway."

"You tell me!" she said.

He hesitated. "It's rather a shame to give the boy away. But there is nothing very extraordinary in it. When Tommy first came out, he felt the heat-like lots of others. He was thirsty, and he drank. He doesn't do it now. I don't mind wagering that he never will again. I stopped him."

"Everard, how?" Stella was looking at him with the keenest interest.

"Do you really want to know how?" he still spoke with slight hesitation.

"Of course I do. I suppose you were very angry with him?"

"I was-very angry. I had reason to be. He fell foul of me one night at the Club. It doesn't matter how he did it. He wasn't responsible in any case. But I had to act to keep him out of hot water. I took him back to my quarters. Dacre was away that night and I had him to myself. I kept my temper with him at first-till he showed fight and tried to kick me. Then I let him have it. I gave him a licking-such a licking as he never got at school. It sobered him quite effectually, poor little beggar." An odd note of tenderness crept through the grimness of Monck's speech. "But I didn't stop then. He had to have his lesson and he had it. When I had done with him, there was no kick left in him. He was as limp as a wet rag. But he was quite sober. And to the best of my belief he has never been anything else from that day to this. Of course it was all highly irregular, but it saved a worse row in the end." Monck's faint smile appeared. "He realized that. In fact he was game enough to thank me for it in the morning, and apologized like a gentleman for giving so much trouble."

"Oh, I'm glad he did that!" Stella said, with shining eyes. "And that was the beginning of your friendship?"

"Well, I had always liked him," Monck admitted. "But he didn't like me for a long time after. That thrashing stuck in his mind. It was a pretty stiff one certainly. He was always very polite to me, but he avoided me like the plague. I think he was ashamed. I left him alone till one day he got ill, and then I went round to see if I could do anything. He was pretty bad, and I stayed with him. We got friendly afterwards."

"After you had saved his life," Stella said.

Monck laughed. "That sort of thing doesn't count in India. If it comes to that, you saved mine. No, we came to an understanding, and we've managed to hit it ever since."

Stella got to her feet. "Were you very brutal to him, Everard?"

He reached a brown hand to her as she stood. "Of course I was. He deserved it too. If a man makes a beast of himself he need never look for mercy from me."

She looked at him dubiously. "And if a woman makes you angry-" she said.

He got to his feet and put his arm about her shoulders. "But I don't treat women like that," he said, "not even-my wife. I have quite another sort of treatment for her. It's curious that you should credit me with such a vindictive temperament. I don't know what I have done to deserve it."

She leaned her head against him. "My darling, forgive me! It is just my horrid, suspicious nature."

He pressed her to him. "You certainly don't know me very well yet," he said.

They went back to the bungalow in the late afternoon, walking hand in hand as children, supremely content.

The blue jay laughed at the gate as they entered, and Monck looked up, "Jeer away, you son of a satyr!" he said. "I was going to shoot you, but I've changed my mind. We're all friends in this compartment."

Stella squeezed his hand hard. "Everard, I love you for that!" she said simply. "Do you think we could make friends with the monkeys too?"

"And the jackals and the scorpions and the dear little karaits," said Monck. "No doubt we could if we lived long enough."

"Don't laugh at me!" she protested. "I am quite in earnest. There are plenty of things to love in India."

"There's India herself," said Monck.

She looked at him with resolution shining in her eyes. "You must teach me," she said.

He shook his head. "No, my dear. If you don't feel the lure of her, then you are not one of her chosen and I can never make you so. She is either a goddess in her own right or the most treacherous old she-devil who ever sat in a heathen temple. She can be both. To love her, you must be prepared to take her either way."

They went up into the bungalow. Peter the Great glided forward like a magnificent genie and presented a scrap of paper on a salver to Monck.

He took it, opened it, frowned over it.

"The messenger arrived three hours ago, sahib. He could not wait," murmured Peter.

Monck's frown deepened. He turned to Stella. "Go and have tea, dear, and then rest! Don't wait for me! I must go round to the Club and get on the telephone at once."

The grimness of his face startled her. "To Kurrumpore?" she asked quickly. "Is there something wrong?"

"Not yet," he said curtly. "Don't you worry! I shall be back as soon as possible."

"Let me come too!" she said.

He shook his head. "No. Go and rest!"

He was gone with the words, striding swiftly down the path. As he passed out on to the road, he broke into a run. She stood and listened to his receding footsteps with foreboding in her heart.

"Tea is ready, my mem-sahib" said Peter softly behind her.

She thanked him with a smile and went in.

He followed her and waited upon her with all a woman's solicitude.

For a while she suffered him in silence, then suddenly, "Peter," she said, "what was the messenger like?"

Peter hesitated momentarily. Then, "He was old, mem-sahib," he said, "old and ragged, not worthy of your august consideration."

She turned in her chair. "Was he-was he anything like-that-that holy man-Peter, you know who I mean?" Her face was deathly as she uttered the question.

"Let my mem-sahib be comforted!" said Peter soothingly. "It was not the holy man-the bearer of evil tidings."

"Ah!" The words sank down through her heart like a stone dropped into a well. "But I think the tidings were evil all the same. Did he say what it was? But-" as a sudden memory shot across her, "I ought not to ask. I wish-I wish the captain-sahib would come back."

"Let my mem-sahib have patience!" said Peter gently. "He will soon come now."

The blue jay laughed at the gate gleefully, uproariously, derisively. Stella shivered.

"He is coming!" said Peter.

She started up. Monck was returning. He came up the compound like a man who has been beaten in a race. His face was grey, his eyes terrible.

Stella went swiftly to the verandah-steps to meet him. "Everard! What is it? Oh, what is it?" she said.

He took her arm, turning her back. "Have you had tea?" he said.

His voice was low, but absolutely steady. Its deadly quietness made her tremble.

"I haven't finished," she said. "I have been waiting for you."

"You needn't have done that," he said. "I won't have any, Peter," he turned on the waiting servant, "get me some brandy!"

He sat down, setting her free. But she remained beside him, and after a moment laid her hand lightly upon his shoulder, without words.

He reached up instantly, caught and held it in a grip that almost made her wince. "Stella," he said, "it's been a very short honeymoon, but I'm afraid it's over. I've got to get back at once."

"I am coming with you," she said quickly.

He looked up at her with eyes that burned with a strange intensity but he did not speak in answer.

An awful dread clutched her. She knelt swiftly down beside him. "Everard, listen! I don't care what has happened or what is likely to happen. My place is by your side-and nowhere else. I am coming with you. Nothing on earth shall prevent me."

Her words were quick and vehement, her whole being pulsated. She challenged his look with eyes of shining resolution.

His arms were round her in a moment; he held her fast. "My Stella! My wife!" he said.

She clung closely to him. "By your side, I will face anything. You know it, darling. I am not afraid."

"I know, I know," he said. "I won't leave you behind. I couldn't now. But a time will come when we shall have to separate. We've got to face that."

"Wait till it comes!" she whispered. "It isn't-yet."

He kissed her on the lips. "No, not yet, thank heaven. You want to know what has happened. I will tell you. Ermsted-you know Ermsted-was shot in the jungle near Khanmulla this afternoon, about half an hour ago."

"Oh, Everard!" She started back in horror and was struck afresh by the awful intentness of his eyes.

"Yes," he said. "And if I had been here to receive that message, I could have prevented it."

"Oh, Everard!" she said again.

He went on doggedly. "I ought to have been here. My agent knew I was in the place. I ought to have stayed within reach. These warnings might arrive at any time. I was a damned lunatic, and Ermsted has paid the price." He stopped, and his look changed. "Poor girl! It's been a shock to you," he said, "a beastly awakening for us both."

Stella was very pale. "I feel," she said slowly, "as if I were pursued by a remorseless fate."

"You?" he questioned. "This had nothing to do with you."

She leaned against him. "Wherever I go, trouble follows. Haven't you noticed it? It seems as if-as if-whichever way I turn-a flaming sword is stretched out, barring the way." Her voice suddenly quivered. "I know why,-oh, yes, I know why. It is because once-like the man without a wedding-garment, I found my way into a forbidden paradise. They hurled me out, Everard. I was flung into a desert of ashes. And now-now that I have dared to approach by another way-the sentence has gone forth that wherever I pass, something shall die. That dreadful man-told me on the day that Ralph was taken away from me-that the Holy Ones were angry. And-my dear-he was right. I shall never be pardoned until I have-somehow-expiated my sin."

"Stella! Stella!" He broke in upon her sharply. "You are talking wildly. Your sin, as you call it, was at the most no more than a bad mistake. Can't you put it from you?-get above it? Have you no faith? I thought all women had that."

She looked at him strangely. "I wasn't brought up to believe in God," she said. "At least not personally, not intimately. Were you?"

"Yes," he said.

"Ah!" Her eyes widened a little. "And you still believe in Him-still believe He really cares-even when things go hopelessly wrong?"

"Yes," he said again. "I can't talk about Him. But I know He's there."

She still regarded him with wonder. "Oh, my dear," she said finally, "are you behind me, or a very, very long way in front?"

He smiled faintly, grimly. "Probably a thousand miles behind," he said. "But I have been given long sight, that's all."

She rose to her feet with a sigh. "And I," she said very sadly, "am blind."

Down by the gate the blue jay laughed again, laughed and flew away.

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