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   Chapter 21 TESSA

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 20347

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The blue jay was still laughing on the pine-clad slopes of Bhulwana when Stella returned thither. It was glorious summer weather. There was life in the air-such life as never reached the Plains.

The bungalow up the hill, called "The Nest," which once Ralph Dacre had taken for his bride, was to be Stella's home for the period of her sojourn at Bhulwana. It was a pretty little place twined in roses, standing in a shady compound that Tessa called "the jungle." Tessa became at once her most constant visitor. She and Scooter were running wild as usual, but Netta was living in strict retirement. People said she looked very ill, but she seemed to resent all sympathy. There was an air of defiance about her which kept most people at a distance.

Stories were rife concerning her continued intimacy with the Rajah who was now in residence at his summer palace on the hill. They went for gallops together in the early morning, and in the evenings they sometimes flashed along the road in his car. But he was seldom observed to enter the bungalow she occupied, and even Tessa had no private information to add to the general gossip. Netta seldom went to race course or polo-ground, where the Rajah was most frequently to be found.

Stella, who had never liked Netta Ermsted, took but slight interest in her affairs. She always welcomed Tessa, however, and presently, since her leisure was ample and her health considerably improved, she began to give the child a few lessons which soon became the joy of Tessa's heart. She found her quick and full of enthusiasm. Her devotion to Stella made her tractable, and they became fast friends.

It was in June just before the rains, that Monck came up on a week's leave. He found Tessa practically established as Stella's companion. Her mother took no interest in her doings. The ayah was responsible for her safety, and even if Tessa elected to spend the night with her friend, Netta raised no objection. It had always been her way to leave the child to any who cared to look after her, since she frankly acknowledged that she was quite incapable of managing her herself. If Mrs. Monck liked to be bothered with her, it was obviously her affair, not Netta's.

And so Stella kept the little girl more and more in her own care, since Mrs. Ralston was still at Udalkhand, and no one else cared in the smallest degree for her welfare. She would not keep her for good, though, so far as her mother was concerned, she might easily have done so. But she did occasionally-as a great treat-have her to sleep with her, generally when Tessa's looks proclaimed her to be in urgent need of a long night. For she was almost always late to bed when at home, refusing to retire before her mother, though there was little of companionship between them at any time.

Stella investigated this resolution on one occasion, and finally extracted from Tessa the admission that she was afraid to go to bed early lest her mother should go out unexpectedly, in which event the ayah would certainly retire to the servants' quarters, and she would be alone in the bungalow. No amount of reasoning on Stella's part could shake this dread. Tessa's nerves were strung to a high pitch, and it was evident that she felt very strongly on the subject. So, out of sheer pity, Stella sometimes kept her at "The Nest," and Tessa's gratitude knew no bounds. She was growing fast, and ought to have been in England for the past year at least; but Netta's plans were still vague. She supposed she would have to go when the Ralstons did, but she saw no reason for hurry. Lady Harriet remonstrated with her on the subject, but obtained no satisfaction. Netta was her own mistress now, and meant to please herself.

Monck arrived late one evening on the day before that on which he was expected, and found Tessa and Peter playing with a ball in the compound. The two were fast friends and Stella often left Tessa in his charge while she rested.

She was resting now, lying in her own room with a book, when suddenly the sound of Tessa's voice raised in excited welcome reached her. She heard Monck's quiet voice make reply, and started up with every pulse quivering. She had not seen him for nearly six weeks.

She met him in the verandah with Tessa hanging on his arm. Since her great love for Stella had developed, she had adopted Stella's husband also as her own especial property, though it could scarcely be said that Monck gave her much encouragement. On this occasion she simply ceased to exist for him the moment he caught sight of Stella's face. And even Stella herself forgot the child in the first rapture of greeting.

But later Tessa asserted herself again with a determination that would not be ignored. She begged hard to be allowed to remain for the night; but this Stella refused to permit, though her heart smote her somewhat when she saw her finally take her departure with many wistful backward glances.

Monck was hard-hearted enough to smile. "Let the imp go! She has had more than her share already," he said. "I'm not going to divide you with any one under the sun."

Stella was lying on the sofa. She reached out and held his hand, leaning her cheek against his sleeve. "Except-" she murmured.

He bent to her, his lips upon her shining hair. "Ah, I have begun to do that already," he said, with a touch of sadness. "I wonder if you are as lonely up here as I am at Udalkhand."

She kissed his sleeve. "I miss you-unspeakably," she said.

His fingers closed upon hers. "Stella, can you keep a secret?"

She looked up swiftly. "Of course-of course. What is it? Have they made you Governor-General of the province?"

He smiled grimly. "Not yet. But Sir Reginald Bassett-you know old Sir Reggie?-came and inspected us the other day, and we had a talk. He is one of the keenest empire-builders that I ever met." An odd thrill sounded in Monck's voice. "He asked me if presently-when the vacancy occurred-I would be his secretary, his political adviser, as he put it. Stella, it would be a mighty big step up. It would lead-it might lead-to great things."

"Oh, my darling!" She was quivering all over. "Would it-would it mean that we should be together? No," she caught herself up sharply, "that is sheer selfishness. I shouldn't have asked that first."

His lips pressed hers. "Don't you know it is the one thing that comes first of all with me too?" he said. "Yes, it would mean far less of separation. It would probably mean Simla in the hot weather, and only short absences for me. It would mean an end of this beastly regimental life that you hate so badly. What? Did you think I didn't know that? But it would also mean leaving poor Tommy at the grindstone, which is hard."

"Dear Tommy! But he has lots of friends. You don't think he would get up to mischief?"

"No, I don't think so. He is more of a man than he was. And I could keep an eye on him-even from a distance. Still, it won't come yet,-not probably till the end of the year. You are fairly comfortable here-you and Peter?"

She smiled and sighed. "Oh yes, he keeps away the bogies, and Tessa chases off the blues. So I am well taken care of!"

"I hope you don't let that child wear you out," Monck said. "She is rather a handful. Why don't you leave her to her mother?"

"Because she is utterly unfit to have the care of her." Stella spoke with very unusual severity. "Since Captain Ermsted's death she seems to have drifted into a state of hopeless apathy. I can't bear to think of a susceptible child like Tessa brought up in such an atmosphere."

"Apathetic, is she? Do you often see her?" Monck spoke casually, as he rolled a cigarette.

"Very seldom. She goes out very little, and then only with the Rajah. They say she looks ill, but that is not surprising. She doesn't lead a wholesome life!"

"She keeps up her intimacy with His Excellency then?" Monck still spoke as if his thoughts were elsewhere.

Stella dismissed the subject with a touch of impatience. She had no desire to waste any precious moments over idle gossip. "I imagine so, but I really know very little. I don't encourage Tessa to talk. As you know, I never could bear the man."

Monck smiled a little. "I know you are discretion itself," he said. "But you are not to adopt Tessa, mind, whatever the state of her mother's morals!"

"Ah, but I must do what I can for the poor waif," Stella protested. "There isn't much that I can do when I am away from you,-not much, I mean, that is worth while."

"All right," Monck said with finality, "so long as you don't adopt her."

Stella saw that he did not mean to allow Tessa a very large share of her attention during his leave. She did not dispute the point, knowing that he could be as adamant when he had formed a resolution.

But she did not feel happy about the child. There was to her something tragic about Tessa, as if the evil fate that had overtaken the father brooded like a dark cloud over her also. Her mind was not at rest concerning her.

In the morning, however, Tessa arrived upon the scene, impudent and cheerful, and she felt reassured. Her next anxiety became to keep her from annoying Monck upon whom naturally Tessa's main attention was centered. Tessa, however, was in an unusually tiresome mood. She refused to be contented with the society of the ever-patient Peter, repudiated the bare idea of lesson books, and set herself with fiendish ingenuity to torment the new-comer into exasperation.

Stella could have wept over her intractability. She had never before found her difficult to manage. But Netta's perversity and Netta's devilry were uppermost in her that day, and when at last Monck curtly ordered her not to worry herself but to leave the child alone, she gave up her efforts in despair. Tessa was riding for a fall.

It came eventually, after two hours' provocation on her part and stern patience on Monck's. Stella, at work in the drawing-room, heard a sudden sharp exclamation from the verandah where Monck was seated before a table littered with Hindu literature, and looked up to see Tessa, with a monkey-like grin of mischief, smoking the cigarette which s

he had just snatched from between Monck's lips. She was dancing on one leg just out of reach, ready to take instant flight should the occasion require.

Stella was on the point of starting up to intervene, but Monck stopped her with a word. He was quieter than she had ever seen him, and that fact of itself warned her that he was angry at last.

"Come here!" he said to Tessa.

Tessa removed the cigarette to poke her tongue out at him, and continued her war-dance just out of reach. It was Netta to the life.

Monck glanced at the watch on his wrist. "I give you one minute," he said, and returned to his work."

"Why don't you chase me?" gibed Tessa.

He said nothing further, but to Stella his silence was ominous. She watched him with anxious eyes.

Tessa continued to smoke and dance, posturing like a nautch-girl in front of the wholly unresponsive and unappreciative Monck.

The minute passed, Stella counting the seconds with a throbbing heart. Monck did not raise his eyes or stir, but there was to her something dreadful in his utter stillness. She marvelled at Tessa's temerity.

Tessa continued to dance and jeer till suddenly, finding that she was making no headway, a demon of temper entered into her. She turned in a fury, sprang from the verandah to the compound, snatched up a handful of small stones and flung them full at the impassive Monck.

They fell around him in a shower. He looked up at last.

What ensued was almost too swift for Stella's vision to follow. She saw him leap the verandah-balustrade, and heard Tessa's shrill scream of fright. Then he had the offender in his grasp, and Stella saw the deadly determination of his face as he turned.

In spite of herself she sprang up, but again his voice checked her. "All right. This is my job. Bring me the strap off the bag in my room!"

"Everard!" she cried aghast.

Tessa was struggling madly for freedom. He mastered her as he would have mastered a refractory puppy, carrying her up the steps ignominiously under his arm.

"Do as I say!" he commanded.

And against her will Stella turned and obeyed. She fetched the strap, but she held it back when he stretched a hand for it.

"Everard, she is only a child. You won't-you won't--"

"Flay her with it?" he suggested, and she saw his brief, ironic smile. "Not at present. Hand it over!"

She gave it reluctantly. Tessa squealed a wild remonstrance. The merciless grip that held her had sent terror to her heart.

Monck, still deadly quiet, set her on her feet against one of the wooden posts that supported the roof of the verandah, passed the strap round her waist and buckled it firmly behind the post.

Then he stood up and looked again at the watch on his wrist. "Two hours!" he said briefly, and went back to his work at the other end of the verandah.

Stella went back to the drawing-room, half-relieved and half-dismayed. It was useless to interfere, she saw; but the punishment, though richly deserved, was a heavy one, and she wondered how Tessa, the ever-restless, wrought up to a high pitch of nervous excitement as she was, would stand it.

The thickness of the post to which she was fastened made it impossible for her to free herself. The strap was a very stout one, and the buckle such as only a man's fingers could loosen. It was an undignified position, and Tessa valued her dignity as a rule.

She cast it to the winds on this occasion, however, for she fought like a wild cat for freedom, and when at length her absolute helplessness was made quite clear even to her, she went into a paroxysm of fury, hurling every kind of invective that occurred to her at Monck who with the grimness of an executioner sat at his table in unbroken silence.

Having exhausted her vocabulary, both English and Hindustani, Tessa broke at last into tears and wept stormily for many minutes. Monck sat through the storm without raising his eyes.

From the drawing-room Stella watched him. She was no longer afraid of any unconsidered violence. He was completely master of himself, but she thought there was a hint of cruelty about him notwithstanding. There was ruthlessness in his utter immobility.

The hour for tiffin drew near. Peter came out on to the verandah to lay the cloth. Monck gathered up books and papers and rose.

The great Sikh looked at the child shaken with passionate sobbing in the corner of the verandah and from her to Monck with a touch of ferocity in his dark eyes. Monck met the look with a frown and turned away without a word. He passed down the verandah to his own room, and Peter with hands that shook slightly proceeded with his task.

Tessa's sobbing died down, and there fell a strained silence. Stella still sat in the drawing-room, but she was out of sight of the two on the verandah. She could only hear Peter's soft movements.

Suddenly she heard a tense whisper. "Peter! Peter! Quick!"

Like a shadow Peter crossed her line of vision. She heard a murmured, "Missy babal" and rising, she bent forward and saw him in the act of severing Tessa's bond with the bread-knife. It was done in a few hard-breathing seconds. The child was free. Peter turned in triumph,-and found Monck standing at the other end of the verandah, looking at him.

Stella stepped out at the same moment and saw him also. She felt the blood rush to her heart. Only once had she seen Monck look as he looked now, and that on an occasion of which even yet she never willingly suffered herself to think.

Peter's triumph wilted. "Run, Missy baba!" he said, in a hurried whisper, and moved himself to meet the wrath of the gods.

Tessa did not run. Neither did she spring to Stella for protection. She stood for a second or two in indecision; then with an odd little strangled cry she darted in front of Peter, and went straight to Monck.

"It-it wasn't Peter's fault!" she declared breathlessly. "I told him to!"

Monck's eyes went over her head to the native beyond her. He spoke-a few, brief words in the man's own language-and Peter winced as though he had been struck with a whip, and bent himself in an attitude of the most profound humility.

Monck spoke again curtly, and as if at the sudden jerk of a string the man straightened himself and went away.

Then Tessa, weeping, threw herself upon Monck. "Do please not be angry with him! It was all my fault. You-you-you can whip me if you like! Only you mustn't be cross with Peter! It isn't-it isn't-fair!"

He stood stiffly for a few seconds, as if he would resist her; and Stella leaned against the window-frame, feeling physically sick as she watched him. Then abruptly his eyes came to hers, and she saw his face change. He put his hand on Tessa's shoulder.

"If you want forgiveness for yourself-and Peter," he said grimly, "go back to your corner and stay there!"

Tessa lifted her tear-stained face, looked at him closely for a moment, then turned submissively and went back.

Monck came down the verandah to his wife. He put his arm around her, and drew her within.

"Why are you trembling?" he said.

She leaned her head against him. "Everard, what did you say to Peter?"

"Never mind!" said Monck.

She braced herself. "You are not to be angry with him. He-is my servant. I will reprimand him-if necessary."

"It isn't," said Monck, with a brief smile. "You can tell him to finish laying the cloth."

He kissed her and let her go, leaving her with a strong impression that she had behaved foolishly. If it had not been for that which she had seen in his eyes for those few awful seconds, she would have despised herself for her utter imbecility. But the memory was one which she could not shake from her. She did not wonder that even Peter, proud Sikh as he was, had quailed before that look. Would Monck have accepted even Tessa's appeal if he had not found her watching? She wondered. She wondered.

She did not look forward to the meal on the verandah, but Monck realized this and had it laid in the dining-room instead. At his command Peter carried a plate out to Tessa, but it came back untouched, Peter explaining in a very low voice that 'Missy baba was not hungry.' The man's attitude was abject. He watched Monck furtively from behind Stella's chair, obeying his every behest with a promptitude that expressed the most complete submission.

Monck bestowed no attention upon him. He smiled a little when Stella expressed concern over Tessa's failure to eat anything. It was evident that he felt no anxiety on that score himself. "Leave the imp alone!" he said. "You are not to worry yourself about her any more. You have done more than enough in that line already."

There was insistence in his tone-an insistence which he maintained later when he made her lie down for her afternoon rest, steadily refusing to let her go near the delinquent until she had had it.

Greatly against her will she yielded the point, protesting that she could not sleep nevertheless. But when he had gone she realized that the happenings of the morning had wearied her more than she knew. She was very tired, and she fell into a deep sleep which lasted for nearly two hours.

Awakening from this, she got up with some compunction at having left the child so long, and went to her window to look for her. She found the corner of Tessa's punishment empty. A little further along the verandah Monck lounged in a deep cane chair, and, curled in his arms asleep with her head against his neck was Tessa.

Monck's eyes were fixed straight before him. He was evidently deep in thought. But the grim lines about his mouth were softened, and even as Stella looked he stirred a little very cautiously to ease the child's position. Something in the action sent the tears to her eyes. She went back into her room, asking herself how she had ever doubted for a moment the goodness of his heart.

Somewhere down the hill the blue jay was laughing hilariously, scoffingly, as one who marked, with cynical amusement the passing show of life; and a few seconds later the Rajah's car flashed past, carrying the Rajah and a woman wearing a cloudy veil that streamed far out behind her.

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