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   Chapter 27 THE SERPENT IN THE DESERT

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 16835

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The battalion was ordered back to Kurrumpore for the winter months, ostensibly to go into a camp of exercise, though whispers of some deeper motive for the move were occasionally heard. Markestan, though outwardly calm and well-behaved, was not regarded with any great confidence by the Government, so it was said, though, officially, no one had the smallest suspicion of danger.

It was with mixed feelings that Stella returned at length to The Green Bungalow, nearly three months after her baby's birth. During that time she had seen a good deal of her brother-in-law, who, nothing daunted by the discomforts of the journey, went to and fro several times between Bhulwana and the Plains. They had become close friends, and Stella had grown to regard his presence as a safeguard and protection against the nameless evils that surrounded Everard, though she could not have said wherefore.

He it was who, with Peter's help, prepared the bungalow for her coming. It had been standing empty all through the hot weather and the rains. The compound was a mass of overgrown verdure, and the bungalow itself was in some places thick with fungus.

When Stella came to it, however, all the most noticeable traces of neglect had been removed. The place was scrubbed clean. The ragged roses had been trained along the verandah-trellis, and fresh Indian matting had been laid down everywhere.

The garden was still a wilderness, but Bernard declared that he would have it in order before many weeks had passed. It was curious how, with his very limited knowledge of natives and their ways, he managed to extract the most willing labour from them. Peter the Great smiled with gratified pride whenever he gave him an order, and all the other servants seemed to entertain a similar veneration for the big, blue-eyed sahib who was never heard to speak in anger or impatience, and yet whose word was one which somehow no one found it possible to disregard.

Tommy had become fond of him also. He was wont to say that Bernard was the most likable fellow he had ever met. An indefinable barrier had grown up between him and his brother-in-law, which, desperately though he had striven against it, had made the old easy intercourse impossible. Bernard was in a fashion the link between them. Strangely they were always more intimate in his presence than when alone, less conscious of unknown ground, of reserves that could not be broached.

Strive as he might, Tommy could not forget that evening at the mess-the historic occasion, as he had lightly named it-when like an evil magic at work he had witnessed the smirching of his hero's honour. He had sought to bury the matter deep, to thrust it out of all remembrance, but the evil wrought was too subtle and too potent. It reared itself against him and would not be trampled down.

Had any of his brother-officers dared to mention the affair to him, he would have been furious, would strenuously have defended that which apparently his friend did not deem it worth his while to defend. But no one ever spoke of it. It dwelt among them, a shameful thing, ignored yet ever present.

Everard came and went as before, only more reticent, more grim, more unapproachable than he had ever been in the old days. His utter indifference to the cold courtesy accorded him was beyond all scorn. He simply did not see when men avoided him. He was supremely unaware of the coldness that made Tommy writhe in impotent rebellion. He had never mixed very freely with his fellows. Upon Tommy alone had he bestowed his actual friendship, and to Tommy alone did he now display any definite change of front. His demeanour towards the boy was curiously gentle. He never treated him confidentially or spoke of intimate things. That invincible barrier which Tommy strove so hard to ignore, he seemed to take for granted. But he was invariably kind in all his dealings with him, as if he realized that Tommy had lost the one possession he prized above all others and were sorry for him.

Whatever Tommy's mood, and his moods varied considerably, he was never other than patient with him, bearing with him as he would never have borne in the byegone happier days of their good comradeship. He never rebuked him, never offered him advice, never attempted in any fashion to test the influence that yet remained to him. And his very forbearance hurt Tommy more poignantly than any open rupture or even tacit avoidance could have hurt him. There were times when he would have sacrificed all he had, even down to his own honour, to have forced an understanding with Monck, to have compelled him to yield up his secret. But whenever he braced himself to ask for an explanation, he found himself held back. There was a boundary he could not pass, a force relentless and irresistible, that checked him at the very outset. He lacked the strength to batter down the iron will that opposed him behind that unaccustomed gentleness. He could only bow miserably to the unspoken word of command that kept him at a distance.

He was too loyal ever to discuss the matter with Bernard, though he often wondered how the latter regarded his brother's attitude. At least there was no strain in their relationship though he was fairly convinced that Everard had not taken Bernard into his confidence. This fact held a subtle solace for him, for it meant that Bernard, who was as open as the day, was content to be in the dark, and satisfied that it held nothing of an evil nature. This unquestioning faith on Bernard's part was Tommy's one ray of light. He knew instinctively that Bernard was not a man to compromise with evil. He carried his banner that all might see. He was not ashamed to confess his Master before all men, and Tommy mutely admired him for it.

He marked with pleasure the intimacy that existed between this man and his sister. Like Stella, though in a different sense, he had grown imperceptibly to look upon him as a safeguard. He was a sure antidote to nervous forebodings. The advent of the baby also gave him keen delight. Tommy was a lover of all things youthful. He declared he had never felt so much at home in India before.

Peter also was almost as much in the baby's company as was its ayah. The administration of the bottle was Peter's proudest privilege, and he would walk soft-footed to and fro for any length of time carrying the infant in his arms. Stella was always content when the baby was in his charge. Her confidence in Peter's devotion was unbounded. The child was not very strong and needed great care. The care Peter lavished upon it was as tender as her own. There was something of a feud between him and the ayah, but no trace of this was ever apparent in her presence. As for the baby, he seemed to love Peter better than any one else, and was generally at his best when in his arms.

The Green Bungalow became a favourite meeting-place with the ladies of the station, somewhat, to Stella's dismay. Lady Harriet swept in at all hours to hold inspections of the infant's progress and give advice, and everyone who had ever had a baby seemed to have some fresh warning or word of instruction to bestow.

They were all very kind to her. She received many invitations to tea, and smiled over her sudden popularity. But-it dawned upon her when, she had been about three weeks in the station-no one but the Ralstons seemed to think of asking her and her husband to dine. She thought but little of the omission at first. Evening entertainments held but slight attraction for her, but as time went on and Christmas festivities drew near, she could not avoid noticing that practically every invitation she received was worded in so strictly personal a fashion that there could be no doubt that Everard was not included in it. Bernard was often asked separately, but he generally refused on the score of the evening being his best working time.

Also, after a while, she could not fail to notice that Tommy was no longer at his ease in Everard's presence. The old careless camaraderie between them was gone, and she missed it at first vaguely, later with an uneasiness that she could not stifle. There was something in Tommy's attitude towards his friend that hurt her. She knew by instinct that the boy was not happy. She wondered at first if there could be some quarrel between them, but decided in face of Everard's unvarying kindness to Tommy that this could no

t be.

Another thing struck her as time went on. Everard always checked all talk of his prospects. He was so repressive on the subject that she could not possibly pursue it, and she came at last to conclude that his hope of preferment had vanished like a mirage in the desert.

He was very good to her, but his absences continued in the old unaccountable way, and her dread of Rustam Karin, which Bernard's presence had in a measure allayed, revived again till at times it was almost more than she could bear.

She did not talk of it any further to Bernard. She had told him all her fears, and she knew he was on guard, knew instinctively that she could count upon him though he never reverted to the matter. Somehow she could not bring herself to speak to him of the strange avoidance of her husband that was being practised by the rest of the station either. She endured it dumbly, holding herself more and more aloof in consequence of it as the days went by. Ever since the days of her own ostracism she had placed a very light price upon social popularity. The love of such women as Mary Ralston-and the love of little Tessa-were of infinitely greater value in her eyes.

Tessa and her mother were once more guests in the Ralstons' bungalow. Netta had desired to stay at the new hotel which-as also at Udalkland-native enterprise had erected near the Club; but Mrs. Ralston had vetoed this plan with much firmness, and after a little petulant argument Netta had given in. She did not greatly care for staying with the Ralstons. Mary was a dear good soul of course, but inclined to be interfering, and now that the zest of life was returning to Netta, her desire for her own way was beginning to reassert itself. However, the Ralstons' bungalow also was in close proximity to the Club, and in consideration of this she consented to take up her abode there. Her days of seclusion were over. She had emerged from them with a fevered craving for excitement of any description mingled with that odd defiance that had characterized her almost ever since her husband's death. She had never kept any very great control upon her tongue, but now it was positively venomous. She seemed to bear a grudge against all the world.

Tessa, with her beloved Scooter, went her own way as of yore, and spent most of her time at The Green Bungalow where there was always someone to welcome her. She arrived there one day in a state of great indignation, Scooter as usual clinging to her hair and trying his utmost to escape.

Like a whirlwind she burst upon Stella, who was sitting with her baby in the French window of her room.

"Aunt Stella," she cried breathlessly, "Mother says she's sure you and Uncle Everard won't go to the officers' picnic at Khanmulla this year. It isn't true, is it, Aunt Stella? You will go, and you'll take me with you, won't you?"

The officers' picnic at Khanmulla! The words called up a flood of memory in Stella's heart. She looked at Tessa, the smile of welcome still upon her face; but she did not see her. She was standing once more in the moonlight, listening to the tread of a man's feet on the path below her, waiting-waiting with a throbbing heart-for the sound of a man's quiet voice.

Tessa came nearer to her, looking at her with an odd species of speculation. "Aunt Stella," she said, "that wasn't-all-Mother said. She made me very, very angry. Shall I tell you-would you like to know-why?"

Stella's eyes ceased to gaze into distance. She looked at the child. Some vague misgiving stirred within her. It was the instinct of self-defence that moved her to say, "I don't want to listen to any silly gossip, Tessa darling."

"It isn't silly!" declared Tessa. "It's much worse than that. And I'm going to tell you, cos I think I'd better. She said that everybody says that Uncle Everard won't go to the picnic on Christmas Eve cos he's ashamed to look people in the face. I said it wasn't true." Very stoutly Tessa brought out the assertion; then, a moment later, with a queer sidelong glance into Stella's face, "It isn't true, dear, is it?"

Ashamed! Everard ashamed! Stella's hands clasped each other unconsciously about the sleeping baby on her lap. Strangely her own voice came to her while she was not even aware of uttering the words. "Why should he be ashamed?"

Tessa's eyes were dark with mystery. She pressed against Stella with a small protective gesture. "Darling, she said horrid things, but they aren't true any of them. If Uncle Everard had been there, she wouldn't have dared. I told her so."

With an effort Stella unclasped her hands. She put her arm around the little girl. "Tell me what they are saying, Tessa," she said. "I think with you that I had better know."

Tessa suffered Scooter to escape in order to hug Stella close. "They are saying things about when he went on leave just after you married Captain Dacre, how he said he wanted to go to England and didn't go, and how-how-" Tessa checked herself abruptly. "It came out at mess one night," she ended.

A faint smile of relief shone, in Stella's eyes. "But I knew that, Tessa," she said. "He told me himself. Is that all?"

"You knew?" Tessa's eyes shone with sudden triumph. "Oh, then do tell them what he was doing and stop their horrid talking! It was Mrs. Burton began it. I always did hate her."

"I can't tell them what he was doing," Stella said, feeling her heart sink again.

"You can't? Oh!" Keen disappointment sounded in Tessa's voice. "But p'raps he would," she added reflectively, "if he knew what beasts they all are. Shall I ask him to, Aunt Stella?"

"Tell me first what they are saying!" Stella said, bracing herself to face the inevitable.

Tessa looked at her dubiously for a moment. Somehow she would have found it easier to tell this thing to Monck himself than to Stella. And yet she had a feeling that it must be told, that Stella ought to know. She clung a little closer to her.

"I always did hate Major Burton," she said sweepingly. "I know he started it in the first place. He said-and now she says-that-that it's very funny that the leave Uncle Everard had when he pretended to go to England should have come just at the time that Captain Dacre was killed in the mountains, and that a horrid old man Uncle Everard knows called Rustam Karin who lives in the bazaar was away at the same time. And they just wonder if p'raps he-the old man-had anything to do with Captain Dacre dying like he did, and if Uncle Everard knows-something-about it. That's how they put it, Aunt Stella. Mother only told me to tease me, but that's what they say."

She stopped, pressing Stella's hand very tightly to her little quivering bosom, and there followed a pause, a deep silence that seemed to have in it something of an almost suffocating quality.

Tessa moved at last because it became unbearable, moved and looked down into Stella's face as if half afraid. She could not have said what she expected to see there, but she was undoubtedly relieved when the beautiful face, white as death though it was, smiled back at her without a tremor.

Stella kissed her tenderly and let her go. "Thank you for telling me, darling," she said gently. "It is just as well that I should know what people say, even though it is nothing but idle gossip-idle gossip." She repeated the words with emphasis. "Run and find Scooter, sweetheart!" she said. "And put all this silly nonsense out of your dear little head for good! I must take baby to ayah now. By and by we will read a fairy-tale together and enjoy ourselves."

Tessa ran away comforted, yet also vaguely uneasy. Her tenderness notwithstanding, there was something not quite normal about Stella's dismissal of her. This kind friend of hers had never sent her away quite so summarily before. It was almost as if she were half afraid that Tessa might see-or guess-too much.

As for Stella, she carried her baby to the ayah, and then shut herself into her own room where she remained for a long time face to face with these new doubts.

He had loved her before her marriage; he had called their union Kismet. He wielded a strange, almost an uncanny power among natives. And there was Rustam Karin whom long ago she had secretly credited with Ralph Dacre's death-the serpent in the garden-the serpent in the desert also-whose evil coils, it seemed to her, were daily tightening round her heart.

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