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   Chapter 24 DEVILS' DICE

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 11038

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"It's a pity," said Sir Reginald.

"It's a damnable pity, sir," Colonel Mansfield spoke with blunt emphasis. "I have trusted the fellow almost as I would have trusted myself. And he has let me down."

The two were old friends. The tie of India bound them both. Though their ways lay apart and they met but seldom, the same spirit was in them and they were as comrades. They sat together in the Colonel's office that looked over the streaming parade-ground. A gleam of morning sunshine had pierced the clouds, and the smoke of the Plains went up like a furnace.

"I shouldn't be too sure of that," said Sir Reginald, after a thoughtful moment. "Things are not always what they seem. One is apt to repent of a hasty judgment."

"I know." The Colonel spoke with his eyes upon the rising cloud of steam outside. "But this fellow has always had my confidence, and I can't get over what he himself admits to have been a piece of double-dealing. I suppose it was a sudden temptation, but he had always been so straight with me; at least I had always imagined him so. He has rendered some invaluable services too."

"That is partly why I say, don't be too hasty," said Sir Reginald. "We can't afford-India can't afford-to scrap a single really useful man."

"Neither can she afford to make use of rotters," rejoined the Colonel.

Sir Reginald smiled a little. "I am not so sure of that, Mansfield. Even the rotters have their uses. But I am quite convinced in my own mind that this man is very far from being one. I feel inclined to go slow for a time and give him a chance to retrieve himself. Perhaps it may sound soft to you, but I have never floored a man at his first slip. And this man has a clean record behind him. Let it stand him in good stead now!"

"It will take me some time to forget it," the Colonel said. "I can forgive almost anything except deception. And that I loathe."

"It isn't pleasant to be cheated, certainly," Sir Reginald agreed. "When did this happen? Was he married at the time?"

"No." The Colonel meditated for a few seconds "He only married last spring. This was considerably more than a year ago. It must have been the spring of the preceding year. Yes, by Jove, it was! It was just at the time of poor Dacre's marriage. Dacre, you know, married young Denvers' sister-the girl who is now Monck's wife. Dacre was killed on his honeymoon only a fortnight after the wedding. You remember that, Burton?" He turned abruptly to the Major who had entered while he was speaking.

Burton came to a stand at the table. His eyes were set very close together, and they glittered meanly as he made reply. "I remember it very well indeed. His death coincided with this mysterious leave of Monck's, and also with the unexpected absence of our man Rustam Karin just at a moment when Barnes particularly needed him."

"Who is Rustam Karin?" asked Sir Reginald.

"A police agent. A clever man. I may say, an invaluable man." Colonel Mansfield was looking hard at the Major's ferret-like face as he made reply. "No one likes the fellow. He is suspected of being a leper. But he is clever. He is undoubtedly clever. I remember his absence. It was at the time of that mission to Khanmulla, the mission I wanted Monck to take in hand."

"Exactly." Major Burton rapped out the word with a sound like the cracking of a nut. "We-or rather Barnes-tried to pump Hafiz about it, but he was a mass of ignorance and lies. I believe the old brute turned up again before Monck's return, but he wasn't visible till afterwards. He and Monck have always been thick as thieves-thick as thieves." He paused, looking at Sir Reginald. "A very fishy transaction, sir," he observed.

Sir Reginald's eyes met his. "Are you," he said calmly, "trying to establish any connection between the death of Dacre and the absence from Kurrumpore of this man Rustam Karin?"

"Not only Rustam Karin, sir," responded the Major sharply.

"Ah! Quite so. How did Dacre die?" Sir Reginald still spoke quietly, judicially. There was nothing encouraging in his aspect.

Burton hesitated momentarily, as if some inner warning prompted him to go warily.

"That was what no one knew for certain, sir. He disappeared one night. The story went that he fell over a precipice. Some old native beggar told the tale. No one knows who the man was."

"But you have your eye upon Rustam Karin?" suggested Sir Reginald.

Burton hesitated again. "One doesn't trust these fellows, sir," he said.

"True!" Sir Reginald's voice sounded very dry. "Perhaps it is a mistake to trust any one too far. This is all the evidence you can muster?"

"Yes, sir." Burton looked suddenly embarrassed. "Of course it is not evidence, strictly speaking," he said. "But when mysteries coincide, one is apt to link them together. And the death of Captain Dacre always seemed to me highly mysterious."

"The death of Captain Ermsted was no less so," put in the Colonel abruptly. "Have you any theories on that subject also?"

Burton smiled, showing his teeth. "I always have theories," he said.

Sir Reginald made a slight movement of impatience. "I think this is beside the point," he said. "Captain Ermsted's murderer will probably be traced one day."

"Probably, sir," agreed Major Burton, "since I hear unofficially that Captain Monck has the matter in hand. Ah!"

He broke off short as, with a brief knock at the door, Monck himself made an abrupt appearance.

He came forward as if he saw no one in the room but the Colonel. H

is face wore a curiously stony look, but his eyes burned with a fierce intensity. He spoke without apology or preliminary of any sort.

"I have just had a message, sir, from Bhulwana," he said. "I wish to apply for immediate leave."

The Colonel looked at him in surprise. "A message, Captain Monck?"

"From my wife," Monck said, and drew a hard breath between his teeth. His hands were clenched hard at his sides. "I've got to go!" he said. "I've got to go!"

There was a moment's silence. Then: "May I see the message?" said the Colonel.

Monck's eyelids flickered sharply, as if he had been struck across the face. He thrust out his right hand and flung a crumpled paper upon the table. "There, sir!" he said harshly.

There was violence in the action, but it did not hold insolence. Sir Reginald leaning forward, was watching him intently. As the Colonel, with a word of excuse to himself, took up and opened the paper, he rose quietly and went up to Monck. Thin, wiry, grizzled, he stopped beside him.

Major Burton retired behind the Colonel, realizing himself as unnecessary but too curious to withdraw altogether.

In the pause that followed, a tense silence reigned. Monck was swaying as he stood. His eyes had the strained and awful look of a man with his soul in torment. After that one hard breath, he had not breathed at all.

The Colonel looked up. "Go, certainly!" he said, and there was a touch of the old kindliness in his voice that he tried to restrain. "And as soon as possible! I hope you will find a more reassuring state of affairs when you get there."

He held out the telegram. Monck made a movement to take it, but as he did so the tension in which he gripped himself suddenly gave way. He blundered forward, his hands upon the table.

"She will die," he said, and there was utter despair in his tone. "She is probably dead already."

Sir Reginald took him by the arm. His face held nought but kindliness, which he made no attempt to hide. "Sit down a minute!" he said. "Here's a chair! Just a minute. Sit down and get your wind! What is this message? May I read it?"

He murmured something to Major Burton who turned sharply and went out. Monck sank heavily into the chair and leaned upon the table, his head in his hands. He was shaking all over, as if seized with an ague.

Sir Reginald read the message, standing beside him, a hand upon his shoulder. "Stella desperately ill. Come. Ralston," were the words it contained.

He laid the paper upon the table, and looked across at the Colonel. The latter nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly.

Monck spoke without moving. "She is dead," he said. "My God! She is dead!" And then, under his breath, "After all,-counting me out-it's best-it's best. I couldn't ask for anything better at this devils' game. Someone's got to die."

He checked himself abruptly, and again a terrible shivering seized him.

Sir Reginald bent over him. "Pull yourself together, man! You'll need all your strength. Please God, she'll be better when you get there!"

Monck raised himself with a slow, blind movement. "Did you ever dice with the devil?" he said. "Stake your honour-stake all you'd got-to save a woman from hell? And then lose-my God-lose all-even-even-the woman?" Again he checked himself. "I'm talking like a damned fool. Stop me, someone! I've come through hell-fire and it's scorched away my senses. I never thought I should blab like this."

"It's all right," Sir Reginald said, and in his voice was steady reassurance. "You're with friends. Get a hold on yourself! Don't say any more!"

"Ah!" Monck drew a deep breath and seemed to come to himself. He lifted a face of appalling whiteness and looked at Sir Reginald. "You're very good, sir," he said. "I was knocked out for the moment. I'm all right now."

He made as if he would rise, but Sir Reginald checked him. "Wait a moment longer! Major Burton will be back directly."

"Major Burton?" questioned Monck.

"I sent him for some brandy to steady your nerves," Sir Reginald said.

"You're very good," Monck said again. He leaned his head on his hand and sat silent.

Major Burton returned with Tommy hovering anxiously behind him. The boy hesitated a little upon entering, but the Colonel called him in.

"You had better see the message too," he said. "Your sister is ill. Captain Monck is going to her."

Tommy read the message with one eye upon Monck, who drank the brandy Burton brought and in a moment stood up.

"I am sorry to have made such a fool of myself, sir," he said to Sir Reginald, with a faint, grim smile. "I shall not forget your kindness, though I hope you will forget my idiocy."

Sir Reginald looked at him closely for a second. His grizzled face was stern. Yet he held out his hand.

"Good-bye, Captain Monck!" was all he said.

Monck stiffened. The smile passed from his face, leaving it inscrutable, granite-like in its composure. It was as the donning of a mask.

"Good-bye, sir!" he said briefly, as he shook hands.

Tommy moved to his side impulsively. He did not utter a word, but as they went out his hand was pushed through Monck's arm in the old confidential fashion, the old eager affection was shining in his eyes.

"He has one staunch friend, anyhow," Sir Reginald muttered to the Colonel.

"Yes," the Colonel answered gravely. "He has done a good deal for young Denvers. It's the boy's turn to make good now. There isn't much left him besides."

"Poor devil!" said Sir Reginald.

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