MoboReader> Literature > The Lamp in the Desert


The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 18015

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Punctually at eight o'clock Tessa arrived, slightly awed but supremely happy, seated in a 'rickshaw, escorted by Bernard, and hugging the beloved Scooter to her eager little breast.

Her eyes were shining with mysterious expectation. As her cavalier handed her from her chariot up the red-carpeted steps she moved as one who treads enchanted ground. The little creature in her arms wore an air of deep suspicion. His pointed head turned to and fro with ferret-like movements. His sharp red eyes darted hither and thither almost apprehensively. He was like a toy on wires.

"He is going-p'raps-to turn into a fairy prince soon," explained Tessa. "I'm not sure that he quite likes the idea though. He would rather kill a dragon. P'raps he'll do both."

"P'raps," agreed Bernard.

He led the little girl along the vernadah under the bobbing lanterns. Tessa looked about her critically. "There aren't any other children, are there?" she said.

"Not one," said Bernard, "unless you count me. We are going to dine together, you and I, quite alone-if you can put up with me. And after that we will hold a reception for grown-ups only."

"I shall like that," said Tessa graciously. "Ah, here is Peter! Peter, will you please bring a box for Scooter while I have my dinner? He wants to go snake-hunting," she added to Bernard. "And if he does that, I shan't have him again for the rest of the evening."

"You don't get snakes this time of year, do you?" asked Bernard.

"Oh yes, sometimes. I saw one the other day when I was out with Major Ralston. He tried to kill it with his stick, but it got away. And Scooter wasn't there. They like to hide under bits of carpet like this," said Tessa in an instructive tone, pointing to the strip that had been laid in her honour. "Are you afraid of snakes, Uncle St. Bernard?"

"Yes," said Bernard with simplicity. "Aren't you?"

Tessa looked slightly surprised at the admission. "I don't know. I expect I am. Peter isn't. Peter's very brave."

"He has been more or less brought up with them," said Bernard. "Scorpions too. He smiled the other day when I fled from a scorpion in the garden. And I believe he has a positively fatherly feeling for rats."

Tessa shivered a little. "Scooter killed a rat the other day, and it squealed dreadfully. I don't think he ought to do things like that, but of course he doesn't know any better."

"He looks as if he knows a lot," said Bernard.

"Yes, I wish he would learn to talk. He's awful clever. Do you think we could ever teach him?" asked Tessa.

Bernard shook his head. "No. It would take a magician to do that. We are not clever enough, either of us. Peter now-"

"Oh, is Peter a magician?" said Tessa, with shining eyes. "Peter, dear Peter," turning to him ecstatically as he appeared with a box in which to imprison her darling, "do you think you could possibly teach my little Scooter to talk?"

Peter smiled all over his bronze countenance. "Missy sahib, only the Holy Ones can do that," he said.

Tessa's face fell. "That's as bad as telling you to pray for anything, isn't it?" she said to Bernard. "And my prayers never come true. Do yours?"

"They always get answered," said Bernard, "some time or other."

"Oh, do they?" Tessa regarded him with interest. "Does God come and talk to you then?" she said.

He smiled a little. "He speaks to all who wait to hear, my princess," he said.

"Only to grown-ups," said Tessa, looking incredulous.

Bernard put his arm round her. "No," he said. "It's the children who come first with Him. He may not give them just what they ask for, but it's generally something better."

Tessa stared at him, her eyes round and dark. "S'pose," she said suddenly, "a big snake was to come out of that corner, and I was to say, 'Don't let it bite me, Lord!' Do you think it would?"

"No," said Bernard very decidedly.

"Oh!" said Tessa. "Well, I wish one would then, for I'd love to see if it would or not."

Bernard pulled her to him and kissed her. "We won't talk any more about snakes or you'll be dreaming of them," he said. "Come along and dine with me! Rather sport having it all to ourselves, eh?"

"Where's Aunt Stella and Uncle Everard?" asked Tessa.

"Oh, they're preparing for the reception. Let me take your Highness's cloak! This is the banqueting-room."

He threw the cloak over a chair in the verandah, and led her into the drawing-room, where a small table lighted by candles with crimson shades awaited them.

"How pretty!" cried Tessa, clapping her hands.

Peter in snowy attire, benign and magnificent, attended to their wants, and the feast proceeded, vastly enjoyed by both. Tessa had never been so fêted in all her small life before.

When, at the end of the repast, to an accompaniment of nuts and sweetmeats, Bernard poured her a tiny ruby-coloured liqueur glass of wine, her delight knew no bounds.

"I've never enjoyed myself so much before," she declared. "What a ducky little glass! Now I'm going to drink your health!"

"No. I drink yours first." Bernard arose, holding his glass high. "I drink to the Princess Bluebell. May she grow fairer every day! And may her cup of blessing be always full!"

"Thank you," said Tessa. "And now, Uncle St. Bernard, I'm going to drink to you. May you always have lots to laugh at! And may your prayers always come true! That rhymes, doesn't it?" she added complacently. "Do I drink all my wine now, or only a sip?"

"Depends," said Bernard.

"How does it depend?"

"It depends on how much you love me," he explained. "If there's any one else you love better, you save a little for him."

She looked straight at him with a hint of embarrassment in her eyes. "I'm afraid I love Uncle Everard best," she said.

Bernard smiled upon her with reassuring kindliness. "Quite right, my child. So you ought. There's Tommy too and Aunt Stella. I am sure you want to drink to them."

Tessa slipped round the table to his side, clasping her glass tightly. As she came within the circle of his arm she whispered, "Yes, I love them ever such a lot. But I love you best of all, except Uncle Everard, and he doesn't want me when he's got Aunt Stella. I s'pose you never wanted a little girl for your very own did you?"

He looked down at her, his blue eyes full of tenderness. "I've often wanted you, Tessa," he said.

"Have you?" she beamed upon him, rubbing her flushed cheek against his shoulder. "I'm sure you can have me if you like," she said.

He pressed her to him. "I don't think your mother would agree to that, you know."

Tessa's red lips pouted disgust. "Oh, she wouldn't care! She never cares what I do. She likes it much best when I'm not there."

Bernard's brows were slightly drawn. His arm held the little slim body very closely to him.

"You and I would be so happy," insinuated Tessa, as he did not speak. "I'd do as you told me always. And I'd never, never be rude to you."

He bent and kissed her. "I know that, my darling."

"And when you got old, dear Uncle St. Bernard,-really old, I mean-I'd take such care of you," she proceeded. "I'd be-more-than a daughter to you."

"Ah!" he said. "I should like that, my princess of the bluebell eyes."

"You would?" she looked at him eagerly. "Then don't you think you might tell Mother you'll have me? I know she wouldn't mind."

He smiled at her impetuosity. "We must be patient, my princess," he said. "These things can't be done offhand, if at all."

She slid her arm round his neck and hugged him. "But there is the weeniest, teeniest chance, isn't there? 'Cos you do think you'd like to have me if I was good, and I'd-love-to belong to you. Is there just the wee-est little chance, Uncle St. Bernard? Would it be any good praying for it?"

He took her little hand into his warm kind grasp, for she was quivering all over with excitement.

"Yes, pray, little one!" he said. "You may not get exactly what you want. But there will be an answer if you keep on. Be sure of that!"

Tessa nodded comprehension. "All right. I will. And you will too, won't you? It'll be fun both praying for the same thing, won't it? Oh, my wine! I nearly spilt it."

"Better drink it and make it safe!" he said with a twinkle. "I'm going to drink mine, and then we'll go on to the verandah and wait for something to happen."

"Is something going to happen?" asked Tessa, with a shiver of delighted anticipation.

He laughed. "Perhaps,-if we live long enough."

Tessa drank her wine almost casually. "Come on!" she said. "Let's go!"

But ere they reached the French window that led on to the verandah, a sudden loud report followed by a succession of minor ones coming from the compound told them that the happenings had already begun. Tessa gave one great jump, and then literally danced with delight.

"Fireworks!" she cried. "Fireworks! That's Tommy! I know it is. Do let's go and look!" They went, and hung over the verandah-rail to watch a masked figure attired in an old p

yjama suit of vivid green and white whirling a magnificent wheel of fire that scattered glowing sparks in all directions.

Tessa was wild with excitement. "How lovely!" she cried. "Oh, how lovely! Dear Uncle St. Bernard, mayn't I go down and help him?"

But Bernard decreed that she should remain upon the verandah, and, strangely, Tessa submitted without protest. She held his hand tightly, as if to prevent herself making any inadvertent dash for freedom, but she leapt to and fro like a dog on the leash, squeaking her ecstasy at every fresh display achieved by the bizarre masked figure below them.

Bernard watched her with compassionate sympathy in his kindly eyes. Little Tessa had won a very warm place in his heart. He marvelled at her mother's attitude of callous indifference.

Certainly Tessa had never enjoyed herself more thoroughly than on that evening of her tenth birthday. Time flew by on the wings of delight. Tommy's exhibition was appreciated with almost delirious enthusiasm on the verandah, and a little crowd of natives at the gate pushed and nudged each other with an admiration quite as heartfelt though carefully suppressed.

The display had been going on for some time when Stella came out alone and joined the two on the verandah. To Tessa's eager inquiry for Uncle Everard she made answer that he had been called out on business, and to Bernard she added that Hafiz had sent him a message by one of the servants, and she supposed he had gone to Rustam Karin's stall in the bazaar. She looked pale and dispirited, but she joined in Tessa's delighted appreciation of the entertainment which now was drawing to a close.

It was getting late, and as with a shower of coloured stars the magician in the compound accomplished a grand finale, Bernard put his arm around the narrow shoulders and said, with a kindly squeeze, "I am going to see my princess home again now. She mustn't lose all her beauty-sleep."

She lifted her face to kiss him. "It has been-lovely," she said. "I do wish I needn't go back to-night. Do you think Aunt Mary would mind if I stayed with you?"

He smiled at her whimsically. "Perhaps not, princess; but I am going to take you back to her all the same. Say good-night to Aunt Stella! She looks as if a good dose of bed would do her good."

Tommy, with his mask in his hand, came running up the verandah-steps, and Tessa sprang to meet him.

"Oh, Tommy-darling, I have enjoyed myself so!"

He kissed her lightly. "That's all right, scaramouch. So have I. I must get out of this toggery now double-quick. I suppose you are off in your 'rickshaw? I'll walk with you. It'll be on the way to the Club."

"Oh, how lovely! You on one side and Uncle St. Bernard on the other!" cried Tessa.

"The princess will travel in state," observed Bernard. "Ah! Here comes Peter with Scooter! Have your cloak on before you take him out!"

The cloak had fallen from the chair. Peter set down Scooter in his prison, and picked it up. By the light of the bobbing, coloured lanterns he placed it about her shoulders.

Tessa suddenly turned and sat down. "My shoe is undone," she said, extending her foot with a royal air. "Where is the prince?"

The words were hardly out of her mouth before another sound escaped her which she hastily caught back as though instinct had stifled it in her throat. "Look!" she gasped.

Peter was nearest to her. He had bent to release Scooter, but like a streak of light he straightened himself. He saw-before any one else had time to realize-- the hideous thing that writhed in momentary entanglement in the folds of Tessa's cloak, and then suddenly reared itself upon her lap as she sat frozen stiff with horror.

He stooped over the child, his hands outspread, waiting for the moment to swoop. "Missy sahib, not move-not move!" he said softly above her. "My missy sahib not going to be hurt. Peter taking care of Missy sahib."

And, with glassy eyes fixed and white lips rigid, Tessa's strained whisper came in answer. "O Lord, don't let it bite me!"

Tommy would have flung himself forward then, but Bernard caught and held him. He had seen the look in the Indian's eyes, and he knew beyond all doubting that Tessa was safe, if any human power could make her so.

Stella knew it also. In that moment Peter loomed gigantic to her. His gleaming eyes and strangely smiling face held her spellbound with a fascination greater even than that wicked, vibrating thing that coiled, black and evil, on the white of Tessa's frock could command. She knew that if none intervened, Peter would accomplish Tessa's deliverance.

But there was one factor which they had all forgotten. In those tense seconds Scooter the mongoose by some means invisible became aware of the presence of the enemy. The lid of his box had already been loosened by Peter. With a frantic effort he forced it up and leapt free.

In that moment Peter, realizing that another instant's delay might be fatal, pounced forward with a single swift swoop and seized the serpent-in his naked hands.

Tessa uttered the shriek which a few seconds before sheer horror had arrested, and fell back senseless in her chair.

Peter, grim and awful in the uncertain light, fought the thing he had gripped, while a small, red-eyed monster clawed its way up him, fiercely clambering to reach the horrible, writhing creature in the man's hold.

It was all over in a few hard-breathing seconds, over before either of the men in front of Peter or a shadowy figure behind him that had come up at Tessa's cry could give any help.

With a low laugh that was more terrible than any uttered curse, Peter flung the coiling horror over the verandah-rail into the bushes of the compound. Something else went with it, closely locked. They heard the thud of the fall, and there followed an awful, voiceless struggling in the darkness.

"Peter!" a voice said.

Peter was leaning against a post of the verandah. "Missy sahib is quite safe," he said, but his voice sounded odd, curiously lifeless.

The shadow that had approached behind him swept forward into the light. The lanterns shone upon a strange figure, bent, black-bearded, clothed in a long, dingy garment that seemed to envelop it from head to foot.

Peter gave a violent start and spoke a few rapid words in his own language.

The other made answer even more swiftly, and in a second there was the flash of a knife in the fitful glare. Bernard and Tommy both started forward, but Peter only thrust out one arm with a grunt. It was a gesture of submission, and it told its own tale.

"The poor devil's bitten!" gasped Tommy.

Bernard turned to Tessa and lifted the little limp body in his arms.

He thought that Stella would follow him as he bore the child into the room behind, but she did not.

The place was in semi-darkness, for they had turned down the lamps to see the fireworks. He laid her upon a sofa and turned them up again.

The light upon her face showed it pinched and deathly. Her breathing seemed to be suspended. He left her and went swiftly to the dining-room in search of brandy.

Returning with it, he knelt beside her, forcing a little between the rigid white lips. His own mouth was grimly compressed. The sight of his little playfellow lying like that cut him to the soul. She was uninjured, he knew, but he asked himself if the awful fright had killed her. He had never seen so death-like a swoon before.

He had no further thought for what was passing on the verandah outside. Tommy had said that Peter was bitten, but there were three people to look after him, whereas Tessa-poor brave mite-had only himself. He chafed her icy cheeks and hands with a desperate sense of impotence.

He was rewarded after what seemed to him an endless period of suspense. A tinge of colour came into the white lips, and the closed eyelids quivered and slowly opened. The bluebell eyes gazed questioningly into his.

"Where-where is Scooter?" whispered Tessa.

"Not far away, dear," he made answer soothingly. "We will go and find him presently. Drink another little drain of this first!"

She obeyed him almost mechanically. The shadow of a great horror still lingered in her eyes. He gathered her closely to him.

"Try and get a little sleep, darling! I'm here. I'll take care of you."

She snuggled against him. "Am I going to stay all night!" she asked.

"Perhaps, little one, perhaps!" He pressed her closer still. "Quite comfy?"

"Oh, very comfy; ever-so-comfy," murmured Tessa, closing her eyes again. "Dear-dear Uncle St. Bernard!"

She sank down in his hold, too spent to trouble herself any further, and in a very few seconds her quiet breathing told him that she was fast asleep.

He sat very still, holding her. The awful peril through which she had come had made her tenfold more precious in his eyes. He could not have loved her more tenderly if she had been indeed his own. He fell to dreaming with his cheek against her hair.

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