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The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 14062

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

To Bernard, sprawling at his ease with a pipe on the verandah some hours later, the appearance of a small girl with bare brown legs and a very abbreviated white muslin frock, hugging an unwilling mongoose to her breast, came as a surprise; for she entered as one who belonged to the establishment.

"Who are you, please?" she demanded imperiously, halting before him while she disentangled the unfortunate Scooter's rebellious legs from her hair.

Bernard sat up and removed his pipe. Meeting eyes of the darkest, intensest blue that he had ever seen, he gave her appropriate greeting,

"Good morning, Princess Bluebell! I am a humble, homeless beggar, at present living upon the charity of my brother, Captain Monck."

She came a step nearer. "Why do you call me that? You are not Captain Monck's brother really, are you?"

He spread out his hands with a deprecating gesture. "I never contradict royal ladies, Princess, but I have always been taught to believe so."

"Why do you call me Princess?" she asked, halting between suspicion and gratification.

"Because it is quite evident that you are one. There is a-bossiness about you that proclaims the fact aloud." Bernard smiled upon her-the smile of open goodfellowship. "Beggars always know princesses when they see them," he said.

She scrutinized him severely for a moment or two, then suddenly melted into a gleaming, responsive smile that illuminated her little pale face like a shaft of sunlight. She came close to him, and very graciously proffered Scooter for a caress. "You needn't be afraid of him. He doesn't bite," she said.

"I suppose he is a bewitched prince, is he?" asked Bernard, as he stroked the furry little animal.

The great blue eyes were still fixed upon him. "No," said Tessa, after a thoughtful moment or two. "He's only a mongoose. But I think you are a bewitched prince. You're so big. And they always pretend to be beggars too," she added.

"And the princesses always fall in love with them before they find out," said Bernard, looking quizzical.

Tessa frowned a little. "I don't think falling in love is a very nice game," she said. "I've seen a lot of it."

"Have you indeed?" Bernard's eyes screwed up for a moment, but were hastily restored to an expression of becoming gravity. "I don't know much about it myself," he said. "You see, I'm an old bachelor."

"Haven't you-ever-been in love?" asked Tessa incredulously.

He held out his hand to her. "Yes, I'm in love at the present moment-quite the worst sort too-love at first sight."

"You are rather old, aren't you?" said Tessa dispassionately, but she laid her hand in his notwithstanding.

"Quite old enough to be kissed," he assured her, drawing her gently to him. "Shall I tell you a secret? I'm rather fond of kissing little girls."

Tessa went into the circle of his arm with complete confidence. "I don't mind kissing white men," she said, and held up her red lips. "But I wouldn't kiss an Indian-not even Peter, and he's a darling."

"A very wise rule, Princess," said Bernard. "And I feel duly honoured."

"How is my darling Aunt Stella this morning?" demanded Tessa suddenly. "You made me forget. Ayah said she would be all right, but Ayah says just anything. Is she all right?"

"She is better," Bernard said. "But wait a minute!" He caught her arm as she made an impetuous movement to leave him. "I believe she's asleep just now. You don't want to wake her?"

Tessa turned upon him swiftly-wide horror in her eyes. "Is that your way of telling me she is dead?" she said in a whisper.

"No, no, child!" Bernard's reply came with instant reassurance. "But she has been-she still is-ill. She was upset, you know. Someone in a car startled her."

"I know I was there." Tessa came close to him again, speaking in a tense undertone; her eyes gleamed almost black. "It was the Rajah that frightened her so-the Rajah-and my mother. I'm never going to ask God to bless her again. I-hate her! And him too!"

There was such concentrated vindictiveness in her words that even Bernard, who had looked upon many bitter things, was momentarily startled.

"I think God would be rather sorry to hear you say that," he remarked, after a moment. "He likes little girls to pray for their mothers."

"I don't see why," said Tessa rebelliously, "not if He hasn't given them good ones. Mine isn't good. She's very, very bad."

"Then there's all the more reason to pray for her," said Bernard. "It's the least you can do. But I don't think you ought to say that of your mother, you know, even if you think it. It isn't loyal."

"What's loyal?" said Tessa.

"Loyalty is being true to any one-not telling tales about them. It's about the only thing I learnt at school worth knowing." Bernard smiled at her in his large way. "Never tell tales of anyone, Princess!" he said. "It isn't cricket. Now look here! I've an awfully interesting piece of news for you. Come quite close, and I'll whisper. Do you know-last night-when Aunt Stella was lying ill, something happened. An angel came to see her."

"An angel!" Tessa's eyes grew round with wonder, and bluer than the bluest bluebell. "What was he like?" she whispered breathlessly. "Did you see him?"

"No, I didn't. I think it was a she," Bernard whispered back. "And what do you think she brought? But you'll never guess."

"Oh, what?" gasped Tessa, trembling.

Bernard's arm slipped round her, and Scooter with a sudden violent effort freed himself, and was gone.

"Never mind! I can get him again," said Tessa. "Or Peter will. Tell me-quick!"

"She brought-" Bernard was speaking softly into her ear--"a little boy-baby. Think of that! A present straight from God!"

"Oh, how lovely!" Tessa gazed at him with shining eyes. "Is it here now? May I see it? Is the angel still here?"

"No, the angel has gone. But the baby is left. It is Stella's very own, and she is to take care of it."

"Oh, I hope she'll let me help her!" murmured Tessa in awe-struck accents. "Does Uncle Everard know yet?"

"Yes. He and I got here in the night two or three hours after the baby arrived. He was very tired, poor chap. He is resting."

"And the baby?" breathed Tessa.

"Mrs. Ralston is taking care of the baby. I expect it's asleep," said Bernard. "So we'll keep very quiet."

"But she'll let me see it, won't she?" said Tessa anxiously.

"No doubt she will, Princess. But I shouldn't disturb them yet. It's early you know."

"Mightn't I just go in and kiss Uncle Everard?" pleaded Tessa. "I love him so very much. I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"Let him rest a bit longer!" advised Bernard. "He is worn out. Sit down here, on the arm of my chair, and tell me about yourself! Where have you come from?"

Tessa jerked her head sideways. "Down there. We live at The Grand Stand. We've been there a long time now, nearly ever since Daddy went away. He's in Heaven. A budmash shot him in the jungle. Mother made a great fuss about it at the time, but she doesn't care now she can

go motoring with the Rajah. He is a nasty beast," said Tessa with emphasis. "I always did hate him. And he frightened my darling Aunt Stella at the gate yesterday. I-could have-killed him for it."

"What did he do?" asked Bernard.

"I don't know quite; but the car twisted round on the hill, and Aunt Stella thought it was going to upset. I tried to take care of her, but we were both nearly run over. He's a horrid man!" Tessa declared. "He caught hold of me the other day because I got between him and Mother when they were sitting smoking together. And I bit him." Vindictive satisfaction sounded in Tessa's voice. "I bit him hard. He soon let go again."

"Wasn't he angry?" asked Bernard.

"Oh, yes, very angry. So was Mother. She told him he might whip me if he liked. Fancy being whipped by a native!" High scorn thrilled in the words. "But he didn't. He laughed in his slithery way and showed his teeth like a jackal and said-and said-I was too pretty to be whipped." Tessa ground her teeth upon the memory. It was evidently even-more humiliating than the suggested punishment. "And then he kissed me-he kissed me-" she shuddered at the nauseating recollection-"and let me go."

Bernard was listening attentively. His eyes were less kindly than usual. They had a steely look. "I should keep out of his way, if I were you," he said.

"I will-I do!" declared Tessa. "But I do hate the way he goes on with Mother. He'd never have dared if Daddy had been here."

"He is evidently a bounder," said Bernard.

They sat for some time on the verandah, growing pleasantly intimate, till presently Peter came out with an early breakfast for Bernard. He invited Tessa to join him, which she consented to do with alacrity.

"We must find Scooter afterwards," she said, as she proudly poured out his coffee. "And then perhaps, if I keep good, Aunt Mary will let me see the baby."

"Wonder if you will manage to keep good till then," observed a voice behind them.

She turned with a squeak of delight and sprang to meet Everard.

He was looking haggard in the morning light, but he smiled upon her in a way she had never seen before, and he stooped and kissed her with a tenderness that amazed her.

"Stella tells me you were very brave yesterday," he said.

"Was I? When?" Tessa opened her blue eyes to their widest extent. "Oh, I was only-angry," she said then. "Darling Aunt Stella was frightened."

He patted her shoulder. "You meant to take care of her, so I'm grateful all the same," he said.

Tessa clung to his arm. "I'd like to come and take care of her always," she said, rather wistfully. "I can easily be spared, Uncle Everard. And I'm really not nearly so naughty as I used to be."

He smiled at the words, but did not respond. "Where's Scooter?" he said.

They spent some time hunting for him, but it was left to Peter finally to unearth him, for in the middle of the search Mrs. Ralston came softly out upon the verandah with the baby in her arms, and at once all Tessa's thoughts were centred upon the new arrival. She had never before seen anything so tiny, so red, or so utterly beautiful!

Bernard left his breakfast to join the circle of admirers, and when the doctor arrived a few minutes later he was in triumphant possession of the small bundle that held them all spellbound. He knew how to handle a baby, and was extremely proud of the accomplishment.

It was not till two days later, however, that he was admitted to see the mother. She had turned the corner, they said, but she was terribly weak. Yet, as soon as she heard of the presence of her brother-in-law, she insisted upon seeing him.

Everard brought him in to her, but for the first time in her life she dismissed him when the introduction was effected.

"We shall get on better alone," she said, with a smile. "You come back-afterwards."

So Everard withdrew, and Bernard sat down by her side, his big hand holding hers.

"That is nice," she said, her pale face turned to him. "I have been wanting to know you ever since Everard first told me of you."

He bent with a little smile and kissed the slender fingers he held. "Then the desire has been mutual," he said.

"Thank you." Stella's eyes were fixed upon his face. "I was afraid," she said, with slight hesitation, "that you might think-when you saw Everard-that marriage hadn't altogether agreed with him."

Bernard's kindly blue eyes met hers with absolute directness. "No, I shouldn't have thought that," he said. "But I see a change in him of course. He is growing old much too fast. What is it? Overwork?"

"I don't know." She still spoke with hesitation. "I think it is a good deal-anxiety."

"Ah!" Bernard's hand closed very strongly upon hers. "He is not the only person that suffers from that complaint, I think."

She smiled rather wanly. "I ought not to worry. It's wrong, isn't it?"

"It's unnecessary," he said. "And it's a handicap to progress. But it's difficult not to when things go wrong, I admit. We need to keep a very tight hold on faith. And even then-"

"Yes, even then-" Stella said, her lips quivering a little-"when the one beloved is in danger, who can be untroubled?"

"We are all in the same keeping," said Bernard gently. "I think that's worth remembering. If we can trust ourselves to God, we ought to be able to trust even the one beloved to His care."

Stella's eyes were full of tears. "I am afraid I don't know Him well enough to trust Him like that," she said.

Bernard leant towards her. "My dear," he said, "it is only by faith that you can ever come to knowledge. You have to trust without definitely knowing. Knowledge-that inner certainty-comes afterwards, always afterwards. You can't get it for yourself. You can only pray for it, and prepare the ground."

Her fingers pressed his feebly. "I wonder," she said, "if you have ever known what it was to walk in darkness."

Bernard smiled. "Yes, I have floundered pretty deep in my time," he said. "There's only one thing for it, you know; just to keep on till the light comes. You'll find, when the lamp shines across the desert at last, that you're not so far out of the track after all-if you're only keeping on. That's the main thing to remember."

"Ah!" Stella sighed. "I believe you could help me a lot."

"Delighted to try," said Bernard.

But she shook her head. "No, not now, not yet. I want you-to take care of Everard for me."

"Can't he take care of himself?" questioned Bernard. "I thought I had taught him to be fairly independent."

"Oh, it isn't that," she said. "It is-it is-India."

He leaned nearer to her, the smile gone from his eyes. "I thought so," he said. "You needn't be afraid to speak out to me. I am discretion itself, especially where he is concerned. What has India been doing to him?"

With a faint gesture she motioned him nearer still. Her face was very pale, but resolution was shining in her eyes. "Don't let us be disturbed!" she whispered. "And I-I will tell you-all I know."

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