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   Chapter 19 THE BEAST OF PREY

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 22334

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


In a darkened room Netta Ermsted lay, trembling and unnerved. As usual in cases of adversity, Mrs. Ralston had taken charge of her; but there was very little that she could do. It was more a matter for her husband's skill than for hers, and he could only prescribe absolute quiet. For Netta was utterly broken. Since the fatal moment when she had returned from a call in her 'rickshaw to find Major Burton awaiting her with the news that Ermsted had been shot on the jungle-road while riding home from Khanmulla, she had been as one distraught. They had restrained her almost forcibly from rushing forth to fling herself upon his dead body, and now that it was all over, now that the man who had loved her and whom she had never loved was in his grave, she lay prostrate, refusing all comfort.

Tessa, wide-eyed and speculative, was in the care of Mrs. Burton, alternately quarrelling vigorously with little Cedric Burton whose intellectual leanings provoked her most ardent contempt, and teasing the luckless Scooter out of sheer boredom till all the animal's ideas in life centred in a desperate desire to escape.

It was Tessa to whom Stella's pitying attention was first drawn on the day after her return to The Green Bungalow. Tommy, finding her raging in the road like a little tiger-cat over some small contretemps with Mrs. Burton, had lifted her on to his shoulders and brought her back with him.

"Be good to the poor imp!" he muttered to his sister. "Nobody wants her."

Certainly Mrs, Burton did not. She passed her on to Stella with her two-edged smile, and Tessa and Scooter forthwith cheerfully took up their abode at The Green Bungalow with whole-hearted satisfaction.

Stella experienced little difficulty in dealing with the child. She found herself the object of the most passionate admiration which went far towards simplifying the problem of managing her. Tessa adored her and followed her like her shadow whenever she was not similarly engrossed with her beloved Tommy. Of Monck she stood in considerable awe. He did not take much notice of her. It seemed to Stella that he had retired very deeply into his shell of reserve during those days. Even with herself he was reticent, monosyllabic, obviously absorbed in matters of which she had no knowledge.

But for her small worshipper she would have been both lonely and anxious. For he was often absent, sometimes for hours at a stretch wholly without warning, giving no explanation upon his return. She asked no questions. She schooled herself to patience. She tried to be content with the close holding of his arms when they were together and the certainty that all the desire of his heart was for her alone. But she could not wholly, drive away the conviction that at the very gates of her paradise the sword she dreaded had been turned against her. They were back in the desert again, and the way to the tree of life was barred.

Perhaps it was natural that she should turn to Tessa for consolation and distraction. The child was original in all her ways. Her ideas of death were wholly devoid of tragedy, and she was too accustomed to her father's absence to feel any actual sense of loss.

"Do you think Daddy likes Heaven?" she said to Stella one day. "I hope Mother will be quick and go there too. It would be better for her than staying behind with the Rajah. I always call him 'the slithy tove.' He is so narrow and wriggly. He wanted me to kiss him once, but I wouldn't. He looked so-so mischievous." Tessa tossed her golden-brown head. "Besides, I only kiss white men."

"Hear, hear!" said Tommy, who was cleaning his pipe on the verandah. "You stick to that, my child!"

"Mother said I was very silly," said Tessa. "She was quite cross. But the Rajah only laughed in that nasty, slippy way he has and took her cigarette away and smoked it himself. I hated him for that," ended Tessa with a little gleam of the tiger-cat in her blue eyes. "It-it was a liberty."

Tommy's guffaw sounded from the verandah. It went into a greeting of Monck who came up unexpectedly at the moment and sat down on a wicker-chair to examine a handful of papers. Stella, working within the room, looked up swiftly at his coming, but if he had so much as glanced in her direction he was fully engrossed with the matter in hand ere she had time to observe it. He had been out since early morning and she had not seen him for several hours.

Tessa, who possessed at times an almost uncanny shrewdness, left her and went to stand on one leg in the doorway. "Most people," she observed, "say 'Hullo!' to their wives when they come in."

"Very intelligent of 'em," said Tommy. "Do you think the Rajah does?"

"I don't know," said Tessa seriously. "I went to the palace at Bhulwana once to see them. But the Rajah wasn't there. They were very kind," she added dispassionately, "but rather silly. I don't wonder the Rajah likes white men's wives best."

"Oh, quite natural," agreed Tommy.

"He gave Mother a beautiful ring with a diamond in it," went on Tessa, delighted to have secured his attention and watching furtively for some sign of interest from Monck also. "It was worth hundreds and hundreds of pounds. That was the last thing Daddy was cross about. He was cross."

"Why?" asked Tommy.

'"Cos he was jealous, I expect," said Tessa wisely. "I thought he was going to give her a whipping. And I hid in his dressing-room to see. Mother was awful frightened. She went down on her knees to him. And he was just going to do it. I know he was. And then he came into the dressing-room and found me. And so he whipped me instead." Tessa ended on a note of resentment.

"Served you jolly well right," said Tommy.

"No, it didn't," said Tessa. "He only did it 'cos Mother had made him angry. It wasn't a child's whipping at all. It was a grown-up's whipping. And he used a switch. And it hurt-worse than anything ever hurt before. That's why I didn't mind when he went to Heaven the other day. I hope I shan't go there for a long time yet. It isn't nice to be whipped like that. And I wasn't going to say I was sorry either. I knew that would make him crosser than anything."

"Poor chap!" said Tommy suddenly.

Tessa came a step nearer to him. "Ayah says the man who did it will be hanged if they catch him," she said. "If it is the Rajah, will you manage so as I can go and see? I should like to."

"Tessa!" exclaimed Stella.

Tessa turned flushed cheeks and shining eyes upon her. "I would!" she declared stoutly. "I would! There's nothing wrong in that. He's a horrid man. It isn't wrong, is it, Captain Monck? But if he shot my Daddy?" She went swiftly to Monck with the words and leaned ingratiatingly against him. "You'd kill a man yourself that did a thing like that, wouldn't you?"

"Very likely," said Monck.

She gazed at him admiringly. "I expect you've killed lots and lots of men, haven't you?" she said.

He smiled with a touch of grimness. "Do you think I'm going to tell a scaramouch like you?" he said.

"Everard!" Stella rose and came to the window. "Do-please-make her understand that people don't murder each other just whenever they feel like it-even in India!"

He raised his eyes to hers, and an odd sense of shock went through her. It was as if in some fashion he had deliberately made her aware of that secret chamber which she might not enter. "I think you would probably be more convincing on that point than I should," he said.

She gave a little shudder; she could not restrain it. That look in his eyes reminded her of something, something dreadful. What was it? Ah yes, she remembered now. He had had that look on that night of terror when he had first called her his wife, when he had barred the window behind her and sworn to slay any man who should come between them.

She turned aside and went in without another word. India again! India the savage, the implacable, the ruthless! She felt as a prisoner who battered fruitlessly against an iron door.

Tessa's inquisitive eyes followed her. "She's going to cry," she said to Monck.

Tommy turned sharply upon his friend with accusation in his glance, but the next instant he summoned Tessa as if she had been a terrier and walked off into the compound with the child capering at his side.

Monck sat for a moment or two looking straight before him; then he packed together the papers in his hand and stepped through the open window into the room behind. It was empty.

He went through it without a pause, and turned along the passage to the door of his wife's room. It stood half-open. He pushed it wider and entered.

She was standing by her dressing-table, but she turned at his coming, turned and faced him.

He came straight to her and took her by the shoulders. "What is the matter?" he said.

She met his direct look, but there was shrinking in her eyes. "Everard," she said, "there are times when you make me afraid."

"Why?" he said.

She could not put it into words. She made a piteous gesture with her clasped hands.

His expression changed, subtly softening. "I can't always wear kid gloves, my Stella," he said. "When there is rough work to be done, we have to strip to the waist sometimes to get to it. It's the only way to get a sane grip on things."

Her lips were quivering. "But you-you like it!" she said.

He smiled a little. "I plead guilty to a sporting instinct," he said.

"You hunt down murderers-and call it-sport!" she said slowly.

"No, I call it justice." He still spoke gently though his face had hardened again. "That child has a sense of justice, quite elementary, but a true one. If I could get hold of the man who killed Ermsted, I would cheerfully kill him with my own hand-unless I could be sure that he would get his deserts from the Government who are apt to be somewhat slack in such matters."

Stella shivered again. "Do you know, Everard, I can't bear to hear you talk like that? It is the untamed, savage part of you."

He drew her to him. "Yes, the soldier part. I know. I know quite well. But my dear, do me the justice at least to believe that I am on the side of right! I can't do other than talk generalities to you. You simply wouldn't understand. But there are some criminals who can only be beaten with their own weapons, remember that. Nicholson knew that-and applied it. I follow-or try to follow-in Nicholson's steps."

She clung to him suddenly and closely. "Oh, don't-don't! This is another age. We have advanced since then."

"Have we?" he said sombrely. "And do you think the India of to-day can be governed by weakness any more successfully than the India of Nicholson's time? You have no idea what you say when you talk like that. Ermsted is not the first Englishman to be killed in this State. The Rajah of Markestan is too wily a beast to go for the large game at the outset, though-probably-the large game is the only stuff he cares about. He knows too well that there are eyes that watch perpetually, and he won't expose himself-if he can help it. The trouble is he doesn't always know where to look for the eyes that watch."

A certain exultation sounded in his voice

, but the next instant he bent and kissed her.

"Why do you dwell on these things? They only trouble you. But I think you might remember that since they exist, someone has to deal with them."

"You don't trust Ahmed Khan?" she said. "You think he is treacherous?"

He hesitated; then: "Ahmed Khan is either a tiger or-merely a jackal," he said. "I don't know which at present. I am taking his measure."

She still held him closely. "Everard," her voice came low and breathless, "you think he was responsible for Captain Ermsted's death. May he not have been also for-for-"

He checked her sharply before Ralph Dacre's name could leave her lips. "No. Put that out of your mind for good! You have no reason to suspect foul play where he was concerned."

He spoke with such decision that she looked at him in surprise. "I often have suspected it," she said.

"I know. But you have no reason for doing so. I should try to forget it if I were you. Let the past be past!"

It was evident that he would not discuss the matter, and, wondering somewhat, she let it pass. The bare mention of Dacre seemed to be unendurable to him. But the suspicion which his words had started remained in her mind, for it was beyond her power to dismiss it. The conviction that he had met his death by foul means was steadily gaining ground within her, winding serpent-like ever more closely about her shrinking heart.

Monck went his way, whether deeply disappointed or not she knew not. But she realized that he would not reopen the subject. He had made his explanation, but-and for this she honoured him-he would not seek to convince her against her will. It was even possible that he preferred her to keep her own judgment in the matter.

They dined at the Mansfields' bungalow that night, a festivity for which she felt small relish, more especially as she knew that Mrs. Ralston would not be present. To be received with icy ceremony by Lady Harriet and sent in to dinner with Major Burton was a state of affairs that must have dashed the highest spirits. She tried to make the best of it, but it was impossible to be entirely unaffected by the depressing chill of the atmosphere. Conversation turned upon Mrs. Ermsted, regarding whom the report had gone forth that she was very seriously ill. Lady Harriet sought to probe Stella upon the subject and was plainly offended when she pleaded ignorance. She also tried to extract Monck's opinion of poor Captain Ermsted's murder. Had it been committed by a mere budmash for the sake of robbery, or did he consider that any political significance was attached to it? Monck drily expressed the opinion that something might be said for either theory. But when Lady Harriet threw discretion to the winds and desired to know if it were generally believed in official circles that the Rajah was implicated, he raised his brows in stern surprise and replied that so far as his information went the Rajah was a loyal servant of the Crown.

Lady Harriet was snubbed, and she felt the effects of it for the rest of the evening. Walking home with her husband through the starlight later, Stella laughed a little over the episode; but Monck was not responsive. He seemed engrossed in thought.

He went with her to her room, and there bade her good-night, observing that he had work to do and might be late.

"It is already late," she said. "Don't be long! I shall only lie awake till you come."

He frowned at her. "I shall be very angry if you do."

"I can't help that," she said. "I can't sleep properly till you come."

He looked her in the eyes. "You're not nervous? You've got Peter."

"Oh, I am not in the least nervous on my own account," she told him.

"You needn't be on mine," he said.

She laughed, but her lips were piteous. "Well, don't be long anyway!" she pleaded. "Don't forget I am waiting for you!"

"Forget!" he said. For an instant his hold upon her was passionate. He kissed her fiercely, blindly, even violently; then with a muttered word of inarticulate apology he let her go.

She heard him stride away down the passage, and in a few moments Peter came and very softly closed the door. She knew that he was there on guard until his master should return.

She sat down with a beating heart and leaned back with closed eyes. A heavy sense of foreboding oppressed her. She was very tired, but yet she knew that sleep was far away. Just as once she had felt a dread that was physical on behalf of Ralph Dacre, so now she felt weighed down by suspense and loneliness. Only now it was a thousand times magnified, for this man was her world. She tried to picture to herself what it would have meant to her had that shot in the jungle slain him instead of Captain Ermsted. But the bare thought was beyond endurance. Once she could have borne it, but not now-not now! Once she could have denied her love and fared forth alone into the desert. But he had captured her, and now she was irrevocably his. Her spirit pined almost unconsciously whenever he was absent from her. Her body knew no rest without him. From the moment of his leaving her, she was ever secretly on fire for his return.

Had they been in England she knew that it would have been otherwise. In a calm and temperate atmosphere she could have attained a serene, unruffled happiness. But India, fevered and pitiless, held her in scorching grip. She dwelt as it were on the edge of a roaring furnace that consumed some victims every day. Her life was strung up to a pitch that frightened her. The very intensity of the love that Everard Monck had practically forced into being within her was almost more than she could bear. It hurt her like the searing of a flame, and yet in the hurt there was rapture. For the icy blast of the desert could never reach her now. Unless-unless-ah, was there not a flaming sword still threatening her wherever she pitched her camp? Surround herself as she would with the magic essences of love, did not the vengeance await her-even now-even now? Could she ever count herself safe so long as she remained in this land of treachery and terrible vengeance? Could there ever be any peace so near to the burning fiery furnace?

Slowly the night wore on. The air blew in cool and pure with a soft whispering of spring and the brief splendour of the rose-time. The howl of a prowling jackal came now and then to her ears, making her shiver with the memory of Monck's words. Away in the jungle the owls were calling upon notes that sounded like weird cries for help.

Once or twice she heard a shuffling movement outside the door and knew that Peter was still on guard. She wondered if he ever slept. She wondered if Tommy had returned. He often dropped into the Club on his way back, and sometimes stayed late. Then, realizing how late it was, she came to the conclusion that she must have dozed in her chair.

She got up with a sense of being weighted in every limb, and began to undress. Everard would be vexed if he returned and found her still up. Not that she expected him to return for a long time. His absence lasted sometimes till the night was nearly over.

She never questioned him regarding it, and he never told her anything. Dacre's revelation on that night so long ago had never left her memory. He was engaged upon secret affairs. Possibly he was down in the native quarter, disguised as a native, carrying his life in his hand. He had a friend in the bazaar, she knew; a man she had never seen, but whose shop he had once pointed out to her though he would not suffer her-and indeed she had no desire-to enter. This man-Rustam Karin-was a dealer in native charms and trinkets. The business was mainly conducted by a youth of obsequious and insincere demeanour called Hafiz. The latter she knew and instinctively disliked, but her feeling for the unknown master was one of more active aversion. In the depths of that dark native stall she pictured him, a watcher, furtive and avaricious, a man who lent himself and his shrewd and covetous brain to a Government he probably despised as alien.

Tommy had once described the man to her and her conception of him was a perfectly clear one. He was black-bearded and an opium-smoker, and she hated to think of Everard as in any sense allied with him. Dark, treacherous, and terrible, he loomed in her imagination. He represented India and all her subtleties. He was a serpent underfoot, a knife in the dark, an evil dream.

She could not have said why the personality of a man she did not know so affected her, save that she believed that all Monck's secret expeditions were conceived in the gloom of that stall she had never entered in the heart of the native bazaar. The man was in Monck's confidence. Perhaps, being a woman, that hurt her also. For though she recognized-as in the case of that native lair down in the bazaar-that it were better never to set foot in that secret chamber, yet she resented the thought that any other should have free access to it. She was beginning to regard that part of Monck's life with a dread that verged upon horror-a feeling which her very love for the man but served to intensify. She was as one clinging desperately to a treasure which might at any moment be wrested from her.

Stiffly and wearily she undressed. Tommy must surely have returned ages ago, though probably late, or he would have come to bid her good-night. Why did not Everard return?

At the last she extinguished her light and went to the window to gaze wistfully out across the verandah. That secret whispering-the stirring of a thousand unseen things-was abroad in the night. The air was soft and scented with a fragrance intangible but wholly sweet. India, stretched out beneath the glittering stars, stirred with half-opened eyes, and smiled. Stella thought she heard the flutter of her robe.

Then again the mystery of the night was rent by the cry of some beast of prey, and in a second the magic was gone. The shadows were full of evil. She drew back with swift, involuntary shrinking; and as she did so, she heard the dreadful answering cry of the prey that had been seized.

India again! India the ruthless! India the bloodthirsty! India the vampire!

For a few palpitating moments she leaned against the wall feeling physically sick. And as she leaned, there passed before her inner vision the memory of that figure which she had seen upon the verandah on that terrible night when Everard had been stricken with fever. The look in her husband's eyes that day had brought it back to her, and now like a flashlight it leapt from point to point of her brain, revealing, illuminating.

That figure on the verandah and the unknown man of the bazaar were one. It was Rustam Karin whom she had seen that night-Rustam Karin, Everard's trusted friend and ally-the Rajah's tool also though Everard would never have it so-and (she was certain of it now with that certainty which is somehow all the greater because without proof) this was the man who had followed Ralph Dacre to Kashmir and lured him to his death. This was the beast of prey who when the time was ripe would destroy Everard Monck also.

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