MoboReader> Literature > The Lamp in the Desert

   Chapter 20 THE FLAMING SWORD

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 19223

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The conviction which came upon Stella on that night of chequered starlight was one which no amount of sane reasoning could shake. She made no attempt to reopen the subject with Everard, recognizing fully the futility of such a course; for she had no shadow of proof to support it. But it hung upon her like a heavy chain. She took it with her wherever she went.

More than once she contemplated taking Tommy into her confidence. But again that lack of proof deterred her. She was certain that Tommy would give no credence to her theory. And his faith in Monck-his wariness, his discretion-was unbounded.

She did question Peter with regard to Rustam Karin, but she elicited scant satisfaction from him. Peter went but little to the native bazaar, and like herself had never seen the man. He appeared so seldom and then only by night. There was a rumour that he was leprous. This was all that Peter knew.

And so it seemed useless to pursue the matter. She could only wait and watch. Some day the man might emerge from his lair, and she would be able to identify him beyond all dispute. Peter could help her then. But till then there was nothing that she could do. She was quite helpless.

So, with that shrinking still strongly upon her that made all mention of Ralph Dacre's death so difficult, she buried the matter deep in her own heart, determined only that she also would watch with a vigilance that never slackened until the proof for which she waited should be hers.

The weeks had begun to slip by with incredible swiftness. The tragedy of Ermsted's death had ceased to be the talk of the station. Tessa had gone back to her mother who still remained a semi-invalid in the Ralstons' hospitable care. Netta's plans seemed to be of the vaguest; but Home leave was due to Major Ralston the following year, and it seemed likely that she would drift on till then and return in their company.

Stella did not see very much of her friend in those days. Netta, exacting and peevish, monopolized much of the latter's time and kept her effectually at a distance. The days were growing hotter moreover, and her energies flagged, though all her strength was concentrated upon concealing the fact from Everard. For already the annual exodus to Bhulwana was being discussed, and only the possibility that the battalion might be moved to a healthier spot for the summer had deferred it for so long.

Stella clung to this possibility with a hope that was passionate in its intensity. She had a morbid dread of separation, albeit the danger she feared seemed to have sunk into obscurity during the weeks that had intervened. If there yet remained unrest in the State, it was below the surface. The Rajah came and went in his usual romantic way, played polo with his British friends, danced and gracefully flattered their wives as of yore.

On one occasion only did he ask Stella for a dance, but she excused herself with a decision there was no mistaking. Something within her revolted at the bare idea. He went away smiling, but he never asked her again.

Definite orders for the move to Udalkhand arrived at length, and Stella's heart rejoiced. The place was situated on the edge of a river, a brown and turgid torrent in the rainy weather, but no more than a torpid, muddy stream before the monsoon. A native town and temple stood upon its banks, but a sandy road wound up to higher ground on which a few bungalows stood, overlooking the grim, parched desert below.

The jungle of Khanmulla was not more than five miles distant, and Kurrumpore itself barely ten. But yet Stella felt as if a load had been lifted from her. Surely the danger here would be more remote! And she would not need to leave her husband now. That thought set her very heart a-singing.

Monck said but little upon the subject. He was more non-committal than ever in those days. Everyone said that Udalkhand was healthier and cooler than Kurrumpore and he did not contradict the statement. But yet Stella came to perceive after a time something in his silence which she found unsatisfactory. She believed he watched her narrowly though he certainly had no appearance of doing so, and the suspicion made her nervous.

There were a few-Lady Harriet among the number-who condemned Udalkhand from the outset as impossible, and departed for Bhulwana without attempting to spend even the beginning of the hot season there. Netta Ermsted also decided against it though Mrs. Ralston declared her intention of going thither, and she and Tessa departed for that universal haven The Grand Stand before any one else.

This freed Mrs. Ralston, but Stella had grown a little apart from her friend during that period at Kurrumpore, and a measure of reserve hung between them though outwardly they were unchanged. A great languor had come upon Stella which seemed to press all the more heavily upon her because she only suffered herself to indulge it in Everard's absence. When he was present she was almost feverishly active, but it needed all her strength of will to achieve this, and she had no energy over for her friends.

Even after the move to Udalkhand had been accomplished, she scarcely felt the relief which she so urgently needed. Though the place was undoubtedly more airy than Kurrumpore, the air came from the desert, and sand-storms were not infrequent.

She made a brave show nevertheless, and with Peter's help turned their new abode into as dainty a dwelling-place as any could desire. Tommy also assisted with much readiness though the increasing heat was anathema to him also. He was more considerate for his sister just then than he had ever been before. Often in Monck's absence he would spend much of his time with her, till she grew to depend upon him to an extent she scarcely realized. He had taken up wood-carving in his leisure hours and very soon she was fully occupied with executing elaborate designs for his workmanship. They worked very happily together. Tommy declared it kept him out of mischief, for violent exercise never suited him in hot weather.

And it was hot. Every day seemed to bring the scorching reality of summer a little nearer. In spite of herself Stella flagged more and more. Tommy always kept a brave front. He was full of devices for ameliorating their discomfort. He kept the punkah-coolie perpetually at his task. He made the water-coolie spray the verandah a dozen times a day. He set traps for the flies and caught them in their swarms.

But he could not take the sun out of the sky which day by day shone from horizon to horizon as a brazen shield burnished to an intolerable brightness, while the earth-- parched and cracked and barren-fainted beneath it. The nights had begun to be oppressive also. The wind from the desert was as the burning breath from a far-off forest-fire which hourly drew a little nearer. Stella sometimes felt as if a monster-hand were slowly closing upon her, crushing out her life.

But still with all her might she strove to hide from Monck the ravages of the cruel heat, even stooping to the bitter subterfuge of faintly colouring the deathly whiteness of her cheeks. For the wild-rose bloom had departed long since, as Netta Ermsted had predicted, though her beauty remained-the beauty of the pure white rose which is fairer than any other flower that grows.

There came a burning day at last, however, when she realized that the evening drive was almost beyond her powers. Tommy was on duty at the barracks. Everard had, she believed, gone down to Khanmulla to see Barnes of the Police. She decided in the absence of both to indulge in a rest, and sent Peter to countermand the carriage.

Then a great heaviness came upon her, and she yielded herself to it, lying inert upon the couch in the drawing-room dully listening to the creak of the punkah that stirred without cooling the late afternoon air.

Some time must have passed thus and she must have drifted into a species of vague dreaming that was not wholly sleep when suddenly there came a sound at the darkened window; the blind was lifted and Monck stood in the opening.

She sprang up with a startled sense of being caught off her guard, but the next moment a great dizziness came upon her and she reeled back, groping for support.

He dropped the blind and caught her. "Why, Stella!" he said.

She clung to him desperately. "I am all right-I am all right! Hold me a minute! I-I tripped against the matting." Gaspingly she uttered the words, hanging upon him, for she knew she could not stand alone.

He put her gently down upon the sofa. "Take it quietly, dear!" he said.

She leaned back upon the cushions with closed eyes, for her brain was swimming. "I am all right," she reiterated. "You startled me a little. I-didn't expect you back so soon."

"I met Barnes just after I started," he made answer. "He is coming to dine presently."

Her heart sank. "Is he?" she said faintly.

"No." Monck's tone suddenly held an odd note that was half-grim and half-protective. "On second thoughts, he can go to the Mess with Tommy. I don't think I want him any more than you do."

She opened her eyes and looked up at him. "Everard, of course he must dine here if you have asked him! Tell Peter!"

Her vision was still slightly blurred, but she saw that the set of his jaw was stubborn. He stooped after a moment and kissed her forehead. "You lie still!" he said. "And mind-you are not to dress for dinner."

He turned with that and left her.

She was not sorry to be alone, for her head was throbbing almost unbearably, but she would have given much to

know what was in his mind.

She lay there passively till presently she heard Tommy dash in to dress for mess, and shortly after there came the sound of men's voices in the compound, and she knew that Monck and Barnes were walking to and fro together.

She got up then, summoning her energies, and stole to her own room. Monck had commanded her not to change her dress, but the haggardness of her face shocked her into taking refuge in the remedy which she secretly despised. She did it furtively, hoping that in the darkened drawing-room he had not noted the ghastly pallor which she thus sought to conceal.

Before she left her room she heard Tommy and Barnes departing, and when she entered the dining-room Monck came in alone at the window and joined her.

She met him somewhat nervously, for she thought his face was stern. But when he spoke, his voice held nought but kindness, and she was reassured. He did not look at her with any very close criticism, nor did he revert to what had passed an hour before.

They were served by Peter, swiftly and silently, Stella making a valiant effort to simulate an appetite which she was far from possessing. The windows were wide to the night, and from the river bank below there came the thrumming of some stringed instrument, which had a weird and strangely poignant throbbing, as if it voiced some hidden distress. There were a thousand sounds besides, some near, some distant, but it penetrated them all with the persistence of some small imprisoned creature working perpetually for freedom.

It began to wear upon Stella's nerves at last. It was so futile, yet so pathetic-the same soft minor tinkle, only a few stray notes played over and over, over and over, till her brain rang with the maddening little refrain. She was glad when the meal was over, and she could make the excuse to move to the drawing-room. There was a piano here, a rickety instrument long since hammered into tunelessness. But she sat down before it. Anything was better than to sit and listen to that single, plaintive little voice of India crying in the night.

She thought and hoped that Monck would smoke his cigarette and suffer himself to be lulled into somnolence by such melody as she was able to extract from the crazy old instrument; but he disappointed her.

He smoked indeed, lounging out in the verandah, while she sought with every allurement to draw him in and charm him to blissful, sleepy contentment. But it presently came to her that there was something dogged in his refusal to be so drawn, and when she realized that she brought her soft nocturne to a summary close and turned round to him with just a hint of resentment.

He was leaning in the doorway, the cigarette gone from his lips. His face was turned to the night. His attitude seemed to express that patience which attends upon iron resolution. He looked at her over his shoulder as she paused.

"Why don't you sing?" he said.

A little tremor of indignation went through her. He spoke with the gentle indulgence of one who humours a child. Only once had she ever sung to him, and then he had sat in such utter immobility and silence that she had questioned with herself afterwards if he had cared for it.

She rose with a wholly unconscious touch of majesty. "I have no voice to-night," she said.

"Then come here!" he said.

His voice was still absolutely gentle but it held an indefinable something that made her raise her brows.

She went to him nevertheless, and he put his hand through her arm and drew her close to his side. The night was heavy with a brooding heat-haze that blotted out the stars. The little twanging instrument down by the river was silent.

For a space Monck did not speak, and gradually the tension went out of Stella. She relaxed at length and laid her cheek against his shoulder.

His arm went round her in a moment; he held her against his heart. "Stella," he said, "do you ever think to yourself nowadays that I am a very formidable person to live with?"

"Never," she said.

His arm tightened about her. "You are not afraid of me any longer?"

She smiled a little. "What is this leading up to?"

He bent suddenly, his lips against her forehead. "Dear heart, if I am wrong-forgive me! But-why are you trying to deceive me?"

She had never heard such tenderness in his voice before; it thrilled her through and through, checking her first involuntary dismay. She hid her face upon his breast, clasping him close, trembling from head to foot.

He turned, still holding her, and led her to the sofa. They sat down together.

"Poor girl!" he said softly. "It hasn't been easy, has it?"

Then she realized that he knew all that she had so strenuously sought to hide. The struggle was over and she was beaten. A great wave of emotion went through her. Before she could check herself, she was shaken with sobs.

"No, no!" he said, and laid his hand upon her head. "You mustn't cry. It's all right, my darling. It's all right. What is there to cry about?"

She clung faster to him, and her hold was passionate. "Everard," she whispered, "Everard,-I-can't leave you!"

"Ah!" he said "We are up against it now."

"I can't!" she said again. "I can't."

His hand was softly stroking her hair. Such tenderness as she had never dreamed of was in his touch. "Leave off crying!" he said. "God knows I want to make things easier for you-not harder."

"I can bear anything," she told him brokenly, "anything in the world-if only I am with you. I can't leave you. You won't-you can't-force me to that."

"Stella! Stella!" he said.

His voice checked her. She knew that she had hurt him. She lifted her face quickly to his.

"Oh, darling, forgive me!" she said. "I know you would not."

He kissed the quivering lips she raised without words, and thereafter there fell a silence between them while the mystery of the night seemed to press closer upon them, and the veiled goddess turned in her sleep and subtly smiled.

Stella uttered a long, long sigh at last. "You are good to bear with me like this," she said rather piteously.

"Better now?" he questioned gently.

She closed her eyes from the grave scrutiny of his. "I am-quite all right, dear," she said. "And I am taking great care of myself. Please-please don't worry about me!"

His hand sought and found hers. "I have been worrying about you for a long time," he said.

She gave a start of surprise. "I never thought you noticed anything."

"Yes." With a characteristic touch of grimness he answered her. "I noticed when you first began to colour your cheeks for my benefit. I knew it was only for mine, or of course I should have been furious."

"Oh, Everard!" She hid her face against him again with a little shamed laugh.

He went on without mercy. "I am not an easy person to deceive, you know. You really might have saved yourself the trouble. I hoped you would give in sooner. That too would have saved trouble."

"But I haven't given in," she said.

His hand closed upon hers. "You would kill yourself first if I would let you," he said. "But-do you think I am going to do that?"

"It would kill me to leave you," she said.

"And what if it kills you to stay?" He spoke with sudden force. "No, listen a minute! I have something to tell you. I have been worried about you-as I said-for some time. To-day I was working in the orderly-room, and Ralston chanced to come in. He asked me how you were. I said, 'I am afraid the climate is against her. What do you think of her?' He replied, 'I'll tell you what I think of you, if you like. I think you're a damned fool.' That opened my eyes." Monck ended on the old grim note. "I thanked him for the information, and told him to come over here and see you on the earliest opportunity. He has promised to come round in the morning."

"Oh, but Everard!" Stella started up in swift protest. "I don't want him! I won't see him!"

He kept her hand in his. "I am sorry," he said. "But I am going to insist on that."

"You-insist!" She looked at him curiously, a quivering smile about her lips.

His eyes met hers uncompromisingly. "If necessary," he said.

She made a movement to free herself, but he frustrated her, gently but with indisputable mastery.

"Stella," he said, "things may be difficult. I know they are. But, my dear, don't make them impossible! Let us pull together in this as in everything else!"

She met his look steadily. "You know what will happen, don't you?" she said. "He will order me to Bhulwana."

Monck's hand tightened upon hers. "Better that," he said, under his breath, "than to lose you altogether!"

"And if it kills me to leave you?" she said. "What then?"

He made a gesture that was almost violent, but instantly restrained himself. "I think you are braver than that," he said.

Her lips quivered again piteously. "I am not brave at all," she said. "I left all my courage-all my faith-in the mountains one terrible morning-when God cursed me for marrying a man I did not love-and took-the man-- away."

"My darling!" Monck said. He drew her to him again, holding her passionately close, kissing the trembling lips till they clung to his in answer. "Can't you forget all that," he said, "put it right away from you, think only of what lies before."

Her arms were round his neck. She poured out her very soul to him in that close embrace. But she said no word in answer, and her silence was the silence of despair. It seemed to her that the flaming sword she dreaded had flashed again across her path, closing the way to happiness.

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