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   Chapter 23 FALSE PRETENCES

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 10584

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


They were a merry party at mess that night. General Sir Reginald Bassett was a man of the bluff soldierly order who knew how to command respect from his inferiors while at the same time he set them at their ease. There was no pomp and circumstance about him, yet in the whole of the Indian Empire there was not an officer more highly honoured and few who possessed such wide influence as "old Sir Reggie," as irreverent subalterns fondly called him.

The new arrival, Bernard Monck, diffused a genial atmosphere quite unconsciously wherever he went, and he and the old Indian soldier gravitated towards each other almost instinctively. Colonel Mansfield declared later that they made it impossible for him to maintain order, so spontaneous and so infectious was the gaiety that ran round the board. Even Major Ralston's leaden sense of humour was stirred. As Tommy had declared, it promised to be a historic occasion.

When the time for toasts arrived and, after the usual routine, the Colonel proposed the health of their honoured guest of the evening, Sir Reginald interposed with a courteous request that that of their other guest might be coupled with his, and the dual toast was drunk with acclamations.

"I hope I shall have the pleasure of seeing more of you during your stay in India," the General remarked to his fellow-guest when he had returned thanks and quiet was restored. "You have come for the winter, I presume."

Bernard laughed. "Well, no, sir, though I shall hope to see it through. I am not globe-trotting, and times and seasons don't affect me much. My only reason for coming out at all was to see my brother here. You see, we haven't met for a good many years."

The statement was quite casually made, but Major Burton, who was seated next to him, made a sharp movement as if startled. He was a man who prided himself upon his astuteness in discovering discrepancies in even the most truthful stories.

"Didn't you meet last year when he went Home?" he said.

"Last year! No. He wasn't Home last year." Bernard looked full at his questioner, understanding neither his tone nor look.

A sudden silence had fallen near them; it spread like a widening ring upon disturbed waters.

Major Burton spoke, in his voice, a queer, scoffing inflection. "He was absent on Home leave anyway. We all understood-were given to understand-that you had sent him an urgent summons."

"I?" For an instant Bernard Monck stared in genuine bewilderment. Then abruptly he turned to his brother who was listening inscrutably on the other side of the table. "Some mistake here, Everard," he said. "You haven't been Home for seven years or more have you?"

There was dead silence in the room as he put the question-a silence, so full of expectancy as to be almost painful. Across the table the eyes of the two brothers met and held.

Then, "I have not," said Everard Monck with quiet finality.

There was no note of challenge in his voice, neither was there any dismay. But the effect of his words upon every man present was as if he had flung a bomb into their midst. The silence endured tensely for a couple of seconds, then there came a hard breath and a general movement as if by common consent the company desired to put an end to a situation, that had become unendurable.

Bertie Oakes dug Tommy in the ribs, but Tommy was as white as death and did not even feel it. Something had happened, something that made him feel giddy and very sick. That significant silence was to him nothing short of tragedy. He had seen his hero topple at a touch from the high pinnacle on which he had placed him, and he felt as if the very ground under his feet had become a quicksand.

As in a maze of shifting impressions he heard Sir Reginald valiantly covering the sudden breach, talking inconsequently in a language which Tommy could not even recognize as his own. And the Colonel was seconding his efforts, while Major Burton sat frowning at the end of his cigar as if he were trying to focus his sight upon something infinitesimal and elusive. No one looked at Monck, in fact everyone seemed studiously to avoid doing so. Even his brother seemed lost in meditation with his eyes fixed immovably upon a lamp that hung from the ceiling and swayed ponderously in the draught.

Then at last there came a definite move, and Bertie Oakes poked him again. "Are you moonstruck?" he said.

Tommy got up with the rest, still feeling sick and oddly unsure of himself. He pushed his brother-subaltern aside as if he had been an inanimate object, and somehow, groping, found his way to the door and out to the entrance for a breath of air.

It was raining heavily and the odour of a thousand intangible things hung in the atmosphere. For a space he leaned in the doorway undisturbed; then, heralded by the smell of a rank cigar, Ralston lounged up and joined him.

"Are you looking for a safe corner to catch fever in?" he inquired phlegmatically, after a pause.

Tommy made a restless movement, but spoke no word.

Ralston smoked for a space in silence. From behind them there came the rattle of billiard-balls and careless clatter of voices. Before them was a pall-like darkness and the endless patter of rain.

Suddenly Ralston spoke. "Make no mistake!" he said. "There

's a reason for everything."

The words sounded irrelevant; they even had a sententious ring. Yet Tommy turned towards him with an impulsive gesture of gratitude.

"Of course!" he said.

Ralston relapsed into a ruminating silence. A full minute elapsed before he spoke again. Then: "You don't like taking advice I know," he said, in his stolid, somewhat gruff fashion. "But if you're wise, you'll swallow a stiff dose of quinine before you turn in. Good-night!"

He swung round on his heel and walked away. Tommy knew that he had gone for his nightly game of chess with Major Burton and would not exchange so much as another half-dozen words with any one during the rest of the evening.

He himself remained for a while where he was, recovering his balance; then at length donned his mackintosh, and tramped forth into the night. Ralston was right. Doubtless there was a reason. He would stake his life on Everard's honour whatever the odds.

In a quiet corner of the ante-room sat Everard Monck, deeply immersed in a paper. Near him a group of bridge-players played an almost silent game. Sir Reginald and his brother had followed the youngsters to the billiard-room, the Colonel had accompanied them, but after a decent interval he left the guests to themselves and returned to the ante-room.

He passed the bridge-players by and came to Monck. The latter glanced up at his approach.

"Are you looking for me, sir?"

"If you can spare me a moment, I shall be glad," the Colonel said formally.

Monck rose instantly. His dark face had a granite-like look as he followed his superior officer from the room. The bridge-players watched him with furtive attention, and resumed their game in silence.

The Colonel led the way back to the mess-room, now deserted. "I shall not keep you long," he said, as Monck shut the door and moved forward. "But I must ask of you an explanation of the fact which came to light this evening." He paused a moment, but Monck spoke no word, and he continued with growing coldness. "Rather more than a year ago you refused a Government mission, for which your services were urgently required, on the plea of pressing business at Home. You had Home leave-at a time when we were under-officered-to carry this business through. Now, Captain Monck, will you be good enough to tell me how and where you spent that leave? Whatever you say I shall treat as confidential."

He still spoke formally, but the usual rather pompous kindliness of his face had given place to a look of acute anxiety.

Monck stood at the table, gazing straight before him. "You have a perfect right to ask, sir," he said, after a moment. "But I am not in a position to answer."

"In other words, you refuse to answer?" The Colonel's voice had a rasp in it, but that also held more of anxiety than anger.

Monck turned and directly faced him. "I am compelled to refuse," he said.

There was a brief silence. Colonel Mansfield was looking at him as if he would read him through and through. But no stone mask could have been more impenetrable than Monck's face as he stood stiffly waiting.

When the Colonel spoke again it was wholly without emotion. His tones fell cold and measured. "You obtained that leave upon false pretences? You had no urgent business?"

Monck answered him with machine-like accuracy. "Yes, sir, I deceived you. But my business was urgent nevertheless. That is my only excuse."

"Was it in connection with some Secret Service requirement?" The Colonel's tone was strictly judicial now; he had banished all feeling from face and manner.

And again, like a machine, Monck made his curt reply. "No, sir."

"There was nothing official about it?"

"Nothing."

"I am to conclude then-" again the rasp was in the Colonel's voice, but it sounded harsher now-"that the business upon which you absented yourself was strictly private and personal?"

"It was, sir."

The commanding officer's brows contracted heavily. "Am I also to conclude that it was something of a dishonourable nature?" he asked.

Monck made a scarcely perceptible movement. It was as if the point had somehow pierced his armour. But he covered it instantly. "Your deductions are of your own making, sir," he said.

"I see." The Colonel's tone was openly harsh. "You are ashamed to tell me the truth. Well, Captain Monck, I cannot compel you to do so. But it would have been better for your own sake if you had taken up a less reticent attitude. Of course I realize that there are certain shameful occasions regarding which any man must keep silence, but I had not thought you capable of having a secret of that description to guard. I think it very doubtful if General Bassett will now require your services upon his staff."

He paused. Monck's hands were clenched and rigid, but he spoke no word, and gave no other sign of emotion.

"You have nothing to say to me?" the Colonel asked, and for a moment the official air was gone. He spoke as one man to another and almost with entreaty.

But, "Nothing, sir," said Monck firmly, and the moment passed.

The Colonel turned aside. "Very well," he said briefly.

Monck swung round and opened the door for him, standing as stiffly as a soldier on parade.

He went out without a backward glance.

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