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The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 13765

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"You said Everard was coming. Why doesn't he come? It's very dark-it's very dark! Can he have missed the way?"

Feebly, haltingly, the words seemed to wander through the room, breaking a great silence as it were with immense effort. Mrs. Ralston bent over the bed and whispered hushingly that it was all right, all right, Everard would be there soon.

"But why does he take so long?" murmured Stella. "It's getting darker every minute. And it's so steep. I keep slipping-slipping. I know he would hold me up." And then after a moment, "Oh, Mary, am I dying? I believe I am. But-he-wouldn't let me die."

Mrs. Ralston's hand closed comfortingly upon hers. "You're quite safe, dearest," she said. "Don't be afraid!"

"But it's so dreadfully dark," Stella said restlessly. "I shouldn't mind if I could see the way. But I can't-I can't."

"Be patient, darling!" said Mrs. Ralston very tenderly. "It will be lighter presently."

It was growing very late. She herself was listening for every sound, hoping against hope to hear the firm quiet step of the man who alone could still her charge's growing distress.

"It would be so dreadful to miss him," moaned Stella. "I have waited so long. Mary, why don't they light a lamp?"

A shaded lamp was burning on the table by the bed. Mrs. Ralston turned and lifted the shade. But Stella shook her head with a weary discontent.

"That doesn't help. It's in the desert that I mean-so that he shan't miss me when he comes."

"He cannot miss you, darling," Mrs. Ralston assured her; but in her own heart she doubted. For the doctor had told her that he did not think she would live through the night.

Again she strained her ears to listen. She had certainly heard a sound outside the door; but it might be only Peter who, she knew, crouched there, alert for any service.

It was Peter; but it was not Peter only, for even as she listened, the handle of the door turned softly and someone entered. She looked up eagerly and saw the doctor.

He was a thin, grey man for whom she entertained privately a certain feeling of contempt. She was so sure her own husband would have somehow managed the case better. He came to the bedside, and looked at Stella, looked closely; then turned to her friend watching beside her.

"I wonder if it would disturb her to see her husband for a moment," he said.

Mrs. Ralston suppressed a start with difficulty. "Is he here?" she whispered.

"Just arrived," he murmured back, and turned again to look at Stella who lay motionless with closed eyes, scarcely seeming to breathe.

Mrs. Ralston's whisper smote the silence, and it was the doctor's turn to start. "Send him in at once!" she said.

So insistent was her command that he stood up as if he had been prodded into action. Mrs. Ralston was on her feet. She waved an urgent hand.

"Go and get him!" she ordered almost fiercely. "It's the only chance left. Go and fetch him!"

He looked at her doubtfully for a second, then, impelled by an authority that overrode every scruple, he turned in silence and tiptoed from the room.

Mrs. Ralston's eyes followed him with scorn. How was it some doctors managed-notwithstanding all their experience-to be such hopeless idiots?

The soft opening of the door again a few seconds later banished her irritation. She turned with shining welcome in her look, and met Monck with outstretched hands.

"You're in time," she said.

He gripped her hands hard, but he scarcely looked at her. In a moment he was bending over the bed.

"Stella girl! Stella!" he said.

"Everard!" The weak voice thrilled like a loosened harp-string, and the man's dark face flashed into sudden passionate tenderness.

He went down upon his knees beside the bed and gathered her to his breast. She clung to him feebly, her lips turned to his.

"My darling-oh, my darling-have you come at last?" she whispered. "Hold me-hold me!-Don't let me die!"

He held her closer and closer to his heart, so that its fierce throbbing beat against her own. "You shan't die," he said, "you can't die-with me here."

She laughed a little, sobbingly. "You saved Tommy-twice over. I knew you would save me-if you came in time. Oh, darling, how I have wanted you! It's been-so dark and terrible."

"But you held on!" Monck's voice was very low; it came with a manifest effort. He was holding her to his breast as if he could never let her go.

"Yes, I held on. I knew-I knew-how-how it would hurt you-to find me gone." Her trembling hands moved fondly about his head and finally clasped his neck. "It's all right now," she said, with a sigh of deep content.

Monck's lips pressed hers again and again, and Mrs. Ralston went away to the window to hide her tears. "Please, God, don't separate them now!" she whispered.

It was many minutes later that Stella spoke again, softly, into Monck's ear. "Everard-darling husband-the baby-our baby-don't you-wouldn't you like to see it?"

"The baby!" He spoke as if startled. Somehow he had concluded from the first that the baby would be dead, and the rapture of finding her still living had driven the thought of everything else from his mind.

"Don't move!" whispered Stella, clasping him closer. "Ask them to bring it!"

He spoke over his shoulder to Mrs. Ralston, his voice oddly cold, almost reluctant. "Would you be good enough to bring the baby in?"

She turned at once, smiling upon him shakily. But his dark face remained wholly inscrutable, wholly unresponsive. There was something about him that smote her with a curious chill, but she told herself that he was worn out with hard travel and anxiety as she went from the room to comply with his curt request.

Lying against his shoulder, Stella whispered a few halting sentences. "It-happened so suddenly. The Rajah drives so fiercely-like a man possessed. And the car skidded on the hill. Netta Ermsted was in it, and she screamed, and I-I was terrified because Tessa-Tessa-brave mite-sprang in front of me. I don't know what she thought she could do. I think partly she was angry, and lost her head. And she meant-to help-to protect me-somehow. After that, I fainted-and when I came round, they had brought me back here. That was ever so long ago." She shuddered convulsively. "I've been through a lot since then."

Monck's teeth closed upon his lip. He had not suspected an accident.

Tremulously Stella went on. "It-was so much too soon. I was-dreadfully-afraid for the poor wee baby. But the doctor said-the doctor said-it was all right-only small. And oh, Everard-" her voice thrilled again with a quivering joy-"it is a boy. I so wanted-a son-for you."

"God bless you!" he said almost inarticulately, and kissed her white face again burningly, even with violence. She smiled at his intensity, though it made her gasp. "I know-I know-you will be great," she said. "And-your son-m

ust carry on your greatness. He shall learn to love-the Empire-as you do. We will teach him together-you and I."

"Ah!" Monck said, and drew the hard breath of a man struggling in deep waters.

Mrs. Ralston returned softly with a white bundle in her arms, and Stella's hold relaxed. Her heavy lids brightened eagerly.

"My dear," Mrs. Ralston said, "the doctor has commanded me to turn your husband out immediately. He must just peep at the darling baby and go."

"Tell him to go himself-to blazes!" said Monck forcibly, and then reached up, still curiously grim to Mrs. Ralston's observing eyes, and, without rising from his knees, took his child into his arms.

He laid it against the mother's breast, and tenderly uncovered the tiny, sleeping face.

"Oh, Everard!" she said.

And Mrs. Ralston turned away with a little sob. She did not believe any longer that Stella would die. The sweet, thrilling happiness of her voice seemed somehow to drive out the very thought of death. She had never in her life seen any one so supremely happy. But yet-though she was reassured-there was something else in the atmosphere that disturbed her. She could not have said wherefore, but she was sorry for Monck-deeply, poignantly sorry. She was certain, with that inner conviction that needs no outer evidence, that it was more than weariness and the strain of anxiety that had drawn those deep lines about his eyes and mouth. He looked to her like a man who had been smitten down in the pride of his strength, and who knew his case to be hopeless.

As for Monck, he went through his ordeal unflinching, suffering as few men are called upon to suffer and hiding it away without a quiver. All through the hours of his journeying, he had been prepared to face-he had actually expected-- the worst. All through those hours he had battled to reach her indeed, straining every faculty, resisting with almost superhuman strength every obstacle that arose to bar his progress. But he had not thought to find her, and throughout the long-drawn-out effort he had carried in his locked heart the knowledge that if when he came at last to her bedside he found her-this woman whom he loved with all the force of his silent soul-white and cold in death, it would be the best fate that he could wish her, the best thing that could possibly happen, so far as mortal sight could judge, for either.

But so it had not been. At the very Gate of Death she had waited for his coming, and now he knew in his heart that she would return. The love between them was drawing her, and the man's heart in him battled fiercely to rejoice even while wrung with the anguish of that secret knowledge.

He hardly knew how he went through those moments which to her were such pure ecstasy. The blood was beating wildly in his brain, and he thought of that devils' tattoo on the roof at Udalkhand when first that dreadful knowledge had sprung upon him like an evil thing out of the night. But he held himself in an iron grip; he forced his mind to clearness. Even to himself he would not seem to be aware of the agony that tore him.

They whispered together for a while over the baby's head, but he never remembered afterwards what passed or how long he knelt there. Only at last there came a silence that drifted on and on and he knew that Stella was asleep.

Later Mrs. Ralston stooped over him and took the baby away, and he laid his head down upon the pillow by Stella's and wished with all his soul that the Gate before which her feet had halted would open to them both.

Someone came up behind them, and stood for a few seconds looking down upon them. He was aware of a presence, but he knelt on without stirring-as one kneeling entranced in a sacred place. Then two hands he knew grasped him firmly by the shoulders, raising him; he looked up half-dazed into his brother's face.

"Come along, old chap!" Bernard whispered. "You mustn't faint in here."

The words roused him. The old sardonic smile showed for a moment about his lips. He faint! But he had not slept for two nights. That would account for that curious top-heavy feeling that possessed him. He suffered Bernard to help him up,-good old Bernard who had watched over him like a mother refusing flatly to remain behind, waiting upon him hand and foot at every turn.

"You come into the next room!" he whispered. "You shall be called immediately if she wakes and wants you. But you'll crumple up if you don't rest."

There was truth in the words. Everard realized it as he went from the room, leaning blindly upon the stout, supporting arm. His weariness hung upon him like an overwhelming weight.

He submitted himself almost mechanically to his brother's ordering, feeling as if he moved in a dream. As in a dream also he saw Peter at the door move, noiseless as a shadow, to assist him on the other side. And he tried to laugh off his weakness, but the laugh stuck in his throat.

Then he found himself in a chair drinking a stiff mixture of brandy and water, again at Bernard's behest, while Bernard stood over him, watching with the utmost kindness in his blue eyes.

The spirit steadied him. He came to himself, sat up slowly, and motioned Peter from the room. He was his own master again. He turned to his brother with a smile.

"You're a friend in need, St. Bernard. That dose has done me good. Open the window, old fellow, will you? Let's have some air!"

Bernard flung the window wide, and the warm wet air blew in laden with the fragrance of the teeming earth. Everard turned his face to it, drawing in great breaths. The dawn was breaking.

"She is better?" Bernard questioned, after a few moments.

"Yes. I believe she has turned the corner." Everard spoke without turning. His eyes were fixed.

"Thank God!" said Bernard gently.

Everard's right hand made a curious movement. It was as if it closed upon a weapon. "You can do that part," he said, and he spoke with constraint. "But you'd do it in any case. It's a way you've got. See the light breaking over there? It's like a sword-turning all ways." He rose with an obvious effort and passed his hand across his eyes. "What of you, man?" he said. "Have they been looking after you?"

"Oh, never mind me!" Bernard rejoined. "Have something to eat and turn in! Yes, of course I'll join you with pleasure." He clapped an affectionate hand upon his brother's shoulder. "It's a boy, I'm told. Old fellow, I congratulate you-may he be a blessing to you all your lives! I'll drink his health if it isn't too early."

Everard broke into a brief, discordant laugh. "You'd better go to church, St. Bernard," he said, "and pray for us!"

He swung away abruptly with the words and crossed the room. The crystal-clear rays of the new day smote full upon him as he moved, and Bernard saw for the first time that his hair was streaked with grey.

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