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   Chapter 30 RUSTAM KARIN

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 11119

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

How long a time passed he never knew. It could not in actual fact have been more than a few minutes when a sudden sound from the verandah put an end to his reverie.

He laid the child back upon the sofa and got up. She was sleeping off the shock; it would be a pity to wake her. He moved noiselessly to the window.

As he did so, a voice he scarcely recognized-a woman's voice-spoke, tensely, hoarsely, close to him.

"Tommy, stop that man! Don't let him go! He is a murderer,-do you hear? He is the man who murdered my husband!"

Bernard stepped over the sill and closed the window after him. The lanterns were still swaying in the night-breeze. By their light he took in the group upon the verandah. Peter was sitting bent forward in the chair from which he had lifted Tessa. His snowy garments were deeply stained with blood. Beside him in a crouched and apelike attitude, apparently on the point of departure, was the shadowy native who had saved his life. Tommy, still fantastic and clown-like in his green and white pyjama-suit, was holding a glass for Peter to drink. And upright before them all, with accusing arm outstretched, her eyes shining like stars out of the shadows, stood Stella.

She turned to Bernard as he came forward. "Don't let him escape!" she said, her voice deep with an insistence he had never heard in it before. "He escaped last time. And there may not be another chance."

Tommy looked round sharply. "Leave the man alone!" he said. "You don't know what you're talking about, Stella. This affair has upset you. It's only old Rustam Karin."

"I know. I know. I have known for a long time that it was Rustam Karin who killed Ralph." Stella's voice vibrated on a strange note. "He may be Everard's chosen friend," she said. "But a day will come when he will turn upon him too. Bernard," she spoke with sudden appeal, "you know everything. I have told you of this man. Surely you will help me! I have made no mistake. Peter will corroborate what I say. Ask Peter!"

At sound of his name Peter lifted a ghastly face and tried to rise, but Tommy swiftly prevented him.

"Sit still, Peter, will you? You're much too shaky to walk. Finish this stuff first anyhow!"

Peter sank back, but there was entreaty in his gleaming eyes. They had bandaged his injured arm across his breast, but with his free hand he made a humble gesture of submission to his mistress.

"Mem-sahib," he said, his voice low and urgent, "he is a good man-a holy man. Suffer him to go his way!"

The man in question had withdrawn into the shadows. He was in fact beating an unobtrusive retreat towards the corner of the bungalow, and would probably have effected his escape but for Bernard, who, moved by the anguished entreaty in Stella's eyes, suddenly strode forward and gripped him by his tattered garment.

"No harm in making inquiries anyway!" he said. "Don't you be in such a hurry, my friend. It won't do you any harm to come back and give an account of yourself-that is, if you are harmless."

He pulled the retreating native unceremoniously back into the light. The man made some resistance, but there was a mastery about Bernard that would not be denied. Hobbling, misshapen, muttering in his beard, he returned.

"Mem-sahib!" Again Peter's voice spoke, and there was a break in it as though he pleaded with Fate itself and knew it to be in vain. "He is a good man, but he is leprous. Mem-sahib, do not look upon him! Suffer him to go!"

Possibly the words might have had effect, for Stella's rigidity had turned to a violent shivering and it was evident that her strength was beginning to fail. But in that moment Bernard broke into an exclamation of most unwonted anger, and ruthlessly seized the ragged wisp of black beard that hung down over his victim's hollow chest.

"This is too bad!" he burst forth hotly. "By heaven it's too bad! Man, stop this tomfool mummery, and explain yourself!"

The beard came away in his indignant hand. The owner thereof straightened himself up with a contemptuous gesture till he reached the height of a tall man. The enveloping chuddah slipped back from his head.

"I am not the fool," he said briefly.

Stella's cry rang through the verandah, and it was Peter who, utterly forgetful of his own adversity, leapt up like a faithful hound to protect her in her hour of need.

The glass in Tommy's hand fell with a crash. Tommy himself staggered back as if he had been struck a blow between the eyes.

And across the few feet that divided them as if it had been a yawning gulf, Everard Monck faced the woman who had denounced him.

He did not utter a word. His eyes met hers unflinching. They were wholly without anger, emotionless, inscrutable. But there was something terrible behind his patience. It was as if he had bared his breast for her to strike.

And Stella-Stella looked upon him with a frozen, incredulous horror, just as Tessa had looked upon the snake upon her lap only a little while before.

In the dreadful silence that hung like a poisonous vapour upon them, there came a small rustling close to them, and a wicked little head with red, peering eyes showed through the balustrade of the verandah.

In a moment Scooter with an inexpressibly evil air of satisfaction slipped through and scuttled in a zigzag course over the matting in search of fresh prey.

It was then that Stella spoke, her voice no more than a throbbing whisper. "Rustam Karin!" she said.

Very grimly across the gulf, Everard made answer. "Rustam Karin was removed to a leper s

ettlement before you set foot in India."

"By-Jupiter!" ejaculated Tommy.

No one else spoke till slowly, with the gesture of an old and stricken woman, Stella turned away. "I must think," she said, in the same curious vibrating whisper, as though she held converse with herself. "I must-think."

No one attempted to detain her. It was as though an invisible barrier cut her off from all but Peter. He followed her closely, forgetful of his wound, forgetful of everything but her pressing need. With dumb devotion he went after her, and they vanished beyond the flicker of the bobbing lanterns.

Of the three men left, none moved or spoke for several difficult seconds. Finally Bernard, with an abrupt gesture that seemed to express exasperation, turned sharply on his heel and without a word re-entered the room in which he had left Tessa asleep, and fastened the window behind him. He left the tangle of beard on the matting, and Scooter stopped and nosed it sensitively till Everard stooped and picked it up.

"That show being over," he remarked drily, "perhaps I may be allowed to attend to business without further interference."

Tommy gave a great start and crunched some splinters of the shattered glass under his heel. He looked at Everard with an odd, challenging light in his eyes.

"If you ask me," he said bluntly, "I should say your business here is more urgent than your business in the bazaar."

Everard raised his brows interrogatively, and as if he had asked a question Tommy made sternly resolute response.

"I've got to have a talk with you. Shall I come into your room?"

Just for a second the elder man paused; then: "Are you sure that is the wisest thing you can do?" he said.

"It's what I'm going to do," said Tommy firmly.

"All right." Everard stooped again, picked up the inquiring Scooter, and dropped him into the box in which he had spent the evening.

Then without more words, he turned along the verandah and led the way to his own room.

Tommy came close behind. He was trembling a little but his agitation only seemed to make him more determined.

He paused a moment as he entered the room behind Everard to shut the window; then valiantly tackled the hardest task that had ever come his way.

"Look here!" he said. "You must see that this thing can't be left where it is."

Everard threw off the garment that encumbered him and gravely faced his young brother-in-law.

"Yes, I do see that," he said. "I seem to have exhausted my credit all round. It's decent of you, Tommy, to have been as forbearing as you have. Now what is it you want to know?"

Tommy confronted him uncompromisingly. "I want to know the truth, that's all," he said. "Can't you stop this dust-throwing business and be straight with me?"

His tone was stubborn, his attitude almost hostile. Yet beneath it all there ran a vein of something that was very like entreaty. And Everard, steadily watching him, smiled-the faint grim smile of the fighter who sees a gap in his enemy's defences.

"I'm afraid not," he said. "I don't want to be brutal, but-you see, Tommy-it's not your business."

Tommy flinched a little, but he stood his ground. "I think you're forgetting," he said, "that Stella is my sister. It's up to me to protect her."

"From me?" Everard's words came swift and sharp as a sword-thrust.

Tommy turned suddenly white, but he straightened himself with a gesture that was not without dignity. "If necessary-yes," he said.

An abrupt silence followed his words. They stood facing each other, and the stillness between them was such that they could hear Scooter beyond the closed window scratching against his prison-walls for freedom.

It seemed endless to Tommy. He came through it unfaltering, but he felt physically sick, as if he had been struck in the back.

When Everard spoke at last, his hands clenched involuntarily. He half expected violence. But there was no hint of anger about the elder man. He had himself under iron control. His face was flint-like in its composure, his mouth implacably grim.

"Thanks for the warning!" he said briefly. "It's just as well to know how we stand. Is that all you wanted to say?"

The dismissal was as definite as if he had actually seized and thrown him out of the room. And yet there was not even suppressed wrath in his speech. It was indifferent, remote as a voice from the desert-distance. His eyes looked upon Tommy without interest or any sort of warmth, as though he had been a total stranger.

In that moment Tommy saw that sacred thing, their friendship, shattered and lying in the dust. It was not he who had flung it there, yet his soul cried out in bitter self-reproach. This was the man who had been closer to him than a brother, the man who had saved him from disaster physically and morally, watching over him with a grim tenderness that nothing had ever changed.

And now it was all done with. There was nothing left but to turn and go.

But could he? He stood irresolute, biting his lips, held there by a force that seemed outside himself. And it was Everard who made the first move, turning from him as if he had ceased to count and pulling out a note-book that he always carried to make some entry.

Tommy stood yet a moment longer as if, had it been possible, he would have broken through the barrier between them even then. But Everard did not so much as glance in his direction, and the moment passed.

In utter silence he turned and went out as he had entered. There was nothing more to be said.

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