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   Chapter 28 THE WOMAN'S WAY

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 11306

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was three days later that Tommy came striding in from the polo-ground in great excitement with the news that Captain Ermsted's murderer had been arrested.

"All honour to Everard!" he said, flinging himself into a chair by Stella's side. "The fellow was caught at Khanmulla. Barnes arrested him, but he gives the credit of the catch to Everard. The fellow will swing, of course. It will be a sensational trial, for rumour has it that the Rajah was pushing behind. He, of course, is smooth as oil. I saw him at the Club just now, hovering round Mrs. Ermsted as usual, and she encouraging him. That girl is positively infatuated. Shouldn't wonder if there's a rude awakening before her. I beg your pardon, sir. You spoke?" He turned abruptly to Bernard who was seated near.

"I was only wondering what Everard's share had been in tracking this charming person down," observed the elder Monck, who was smiling a little at Tommy's evident excitement.

"Oh, everyone knows that Everard is a regular sleuth-hound," said Tommy. "He is more native than the natives when there is anything of this kind in the wind. He is a born detective, and he and that old chap in the bazaar are such a strong combination that they are practically infallible and invincible."

"Do you mean Rustam Karin?" Stella spoke very quietly, not lifting her eyes from her work.

Tommy turned to her. "That's the chap. The old beggar fellow. At least they say he is. He never shows. Hafiz does all the show part. The old boy is the brain that works the wires. Everard has immense faith in him."

"I know," Stella said.

Her voice sounded strangled, and Bernard looked across at her; but she continued to work without looking up.

Tommy lingered for a while, expatiating upon Everard's astuteness, and finally went away to dress for mess still in a state of considerable excitement.

Stella and Bernard sat in silence after his departure. There seemed to be nothing to say. But when, after a time, he got up to go, she very suddenly raised her eyes.

"Bernard!"

"My dear!" he said very kindly.

She put out a hand to him, almost as if feeling her way in a dark place. "I want to ask you," she said, speaking hurriedly, "whether you know-whether you have ever heard-the things that are being said about-about Everard and this man-Rustam Karin."

She spoke with immense effort. It was evident that she was greatly agitated.

Bernard stopped beside her, holding her hand firmly in his. "Tell me what they are!" he said gently.

She made a hopeless gesture. "Then you do know! Everyone knows. Naturally I am the last. You knew I connected that dreadful man long ago with-with Ralph's death. I had good reason for doing so after-after I had actually seen him on the verandah here that awful night. But-but now it seems-because he and Everard have always been in partnership-because they were both absent at the time of Ralph's death, no one knew where-people are talking and saying-and saying-" She broke off with a sharp, agonized sound. "I can't tell you what they are saying!" she whispered.

"It is false!" said Bernard stoutly. "It's a foul lie of the devil's own concocting! How long have you known of this? Who was vile enough to tell you?"

"You knew?" she whispered.

"I never heard the thing put into words but I had my own suspicions of what was going about," he admitted. "But I never believed it. Nothing on this earth would induce me to believe it. You don't believe it, either, child. You know him better than that."

She hid her face from him with a smothered sob. "I thought I did-once."

"You did," he asserted staunchly. "You do! Don't tell me otherwise, for I shan't believe you if you do! What kind friend told you? I want to know."

"Oh, it was only little Tessa. You mustn't blame her. She was full of indignation, poor child. Her mother taunted her with it. You know-or perhaps you don't know-what Netta Ermsted is."

Bernard's face was very grim as he made reply. "I think I can guess. But you are not going to be poisoned by her venom. Why don't you tell Everard, have it out with him? Say you don't believe it, but it hurts you to hear a damnable slander like this and not be able to refute it! You are not afraid of him, Stella? Surely you are not afraid of him!"

But Stella only hid her face a little lower, and spoke no word.

He laid his hand upon her as she sat. "What does that mean?" he said. "Isn't your love equal to the strain?"

She shook her head dumbly. She could not meet his look.

"What?" he said. "Is my love greater than yours then? I would trust his honour even to the gallows, if need be. Can't you say as much?"

She answered him with her head bowed, her words barely audible. "It isn't a question of love. I-should always love him-whatever he did."

"Ah!" The flicker of a smile crossed Bernard's face. "That is the woman's way. There's a good deal to be said for it, I daresay."

"Yes-yes." Quiveringly she made answer. "But-if this thing were true-my love would have to be sacrificed, even-even though it would mean tearing out my very heart. I couldn't go on-with him. I couldn't-possibly."

Her words trembled into silence, and the light died out of Bernard's eyes. "I see," he said slowly. "But, my dear, I can't understand how you-loving him as you do-can allow for a moment, even in your most secret heart, that such a thing as this could be true. That is where you begin to go wrong. That is what does the harm."

She looked up at last, and the despair in her eyes went straight to his heart. "I have always felt there was-something," she said. "I can't tell you exactl

y how. But it has always been there. I tried hard not to love him-not to marry him. But it was no use. He mastered me with his love. But I always knew-I always knew-that there was something hidden which I might not see. I have caught sight of it a dozen times, but I have never really seen it." She suppressed a quick shudder. "I have been afraid of it, and-I have always looked the other way."

"A mistake," Bernard said. "You should always face your bogies. They have a trick of swelling out of all proportion to their actual size if you don't."

"Yes, I know. I know." Stella pressed his hand and withdrew her own. "You are very good," she said. "I couldn't have said this to any one but you. I can't speak to Everard. It isn't entirely my own weakness. He holds me off. He makes me feel that it would be a mistake to speak."

"Will you let me?" Bernard suggested, taking out his pipe and frowning over it.

She shook her head instantly. "No!-no! I am sure he wouldn't answer you, and-and it would hurt him to know that I had turned to any one else, even to you. It would only make things more difficult to bear." She stopped short with a nervous gesture. "He is coming now," she said.

There was a sound of horse's hoofs at the gate, and in a moment Everard Monck came into view, riding his tall Waler which was smothered with dust and foam.

He waved to his wife as he rode up the broad path. His dark face was alight with a grim triumph. A saice ran forward to take his animal, and he slid to the ground and stamped his feet as if stiff.

Then without haste he mounted the steps and came to them.

"I am not fit to come near you," he said, as he drew near. "I have been right across the desert to Udalkhand, and had to do some hard riding to get back in time." He pulled off his glove and just touched Stella's cheek in passing. "Hullo, Bernard! About time for a drink, isn't it?"

He looked momentarily surprised when Stella swiftly turned her head and kissed the hand that had so lightly caressed her. He stopped beside her and laid it on her shoulder.

"I am afraid you won't approve of me when I tell you what I have been doing," he said.

She looked up at him. "I know. Tommy came in and told us. You-seem to have done something rather great. I suppose we ought to congratulate you."

He smiled a little. "It is always satisfactory when a murderer gets his deserts," he said, "though I am afraid the man who does the job is not in all cases the prime malefactor."

"Ah!" Stella said. She folded up her work with hands that were not quite steady; her face was very pale.

Everard stood looking down at the burnished coils of her hair. "Are you going to the dance at the Club to-night?" he asked, after a moment.

She shook her head instantly. "No."

"Why not?" he questioned.

She leaned back in her chair, and looked up at him. "As you know, I never was particularly fond of the station society."

He frowned a little. "It's better than nothing. You are too given to shutting yourself up. Bernard thinks so too."

Stella glanced towards her brother-in-law with a slight lift of the eyebrows. "I don't think he does. But in any case, we are engaged to-night. It is Tessa's birthday, and she and Scooter are coming to dine."

"Coming to dine! What on earth for?" Everard looked his astonishment.

"My doing," said Bernard. "It's a surprise-party. Stella very kindly fell in with the plan, but it originated with me. You see, Princess Bluebell is ten years old to-day, and quite grown up. Mrs. Ralston had a children's party for her this afternoon which I was privileged to attend. I must say Tessa made a charming hostess, but she confided to me at parting that the desire of her life was to play Cinderella and go out to dinner in a 'rickshaw all by herself. So I undertook then and there that a 'rickshaw should be waiting for her at the gate at eight o'clock, and she should have a stodgy grown-up entertainment to follow. She was delighted with the idea, poor little soul. The Ralstons are going to the Club dance, and of course Mrs. Ermsted also, but Tommy is giving up the first half to come and amuse Cinderella. Mrs. Ralston thinks the child will be ill with so much excitement, but a tenth birthday is something of an occasion, as I pointed out. And she certainly behaved wonderfully well this afternoon, though she was about the only child who did. I nearly throttled the Burton youngster for kicking the ayah, little brute. He seemed to think it was a very ordinary thing to do." Bernard stopped himself with a laugh. "You'll be bored with all this, and I must go and make ready. There are to be Chinese lanterns to light the way and a strip of red cloth on the steps. Peter is helping as usual, Peter the invaluable. We shan't keep it up very late. Will you join us? Or are you also bound for the Club?"

"I will join you with pleasure," Everard said. "I haven't seen the imp for some days. There has been too much on hand. How is the boy, Stella? Shall we go and say good-night to him?"

Stella had risen. She put her hand through his arm. "Bernard and Tommy are to do all the entertaining, and you and I can amuse each other for once. We don't often have such a chance."

She smiled as she spoke, but her lips were quivering. Bernard sauntered away, and as he went, Everard stooped and kissed her upturned face.

He did not speak, and she clung to him for a moment passionately close. Wherefore she could not have said, but there was in her embrace something to restrain her tears. She forced them back with her utmost resolution as they went together to see their child.

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