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   Chapter 31 PETER

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 7261

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Tessa went back to the Ralstons' bungalow that night borne in Bernard's arms. She knew very little about it, for she scarcely awoke, only dimly realizing that her friend was at hand. Tommy went with them, carrying Scooter. He said he must show himself at the Club, though Bernard suspected this to be merely an excuse for escaping for a time from The Green Bungalow. For it was evident that Tommy had had a shock.

He himself was merely angry at what appeared to him a wanton trick, too angry to trust himself in his brother's company just then. He regarded it as no part of his business to attempt to intervene between Everard and his wife, but his sympathies were all with the latter. That she in some fashion misconstrued the whole affair he could not doubt, but he was by no means sure that Everard had not deliberately schemed for some species of misunderstanding. He had, to serve his own ends, personated a man who was apparently known to be disreputable, and if he now received the credit for that man's misdeeds he had himself alone to thank. Obviously a mistake had been made, but it seemed to him that Everard had intended it to be made, had even worked to bring it about. What his object had been Bernard could not bring to conjecture. But his instinctive, inborn hatred of all underhand dealings made him resent his brother's behaviour with all the force at his command. He was too angry to attempt to unravel the mystery, and he did not broach the subject to Tommy who evidently desired to avoid it.

The whole business was beyond his comprehension and, he was convinced, beyond Stella's also. He did not think Everard would find it a very easy task to restore her confidence. Perhaps he would not attempt to do so. Perhaps he was too engrossed with the service of his goddess to care that he and his wife should drift asunder. And yet-the memory of the morning on which he had first seen those streaks of grey in his brother's hair came upon him, and an unwilling sensation of pity softened his severity. Perhaps he had been drawn in in spite of himself. Perhaps the poor beggar was a victim rather than a worshipper. Most certainly-whatever his faults-he cared deeply.

Would he be able to make Stella realize that? Bernard wondered, and shook his head in doubt.

The thought of Stella turning away with that look of frozen horror on her face pursued him through the night. Poor girl! She had looked as though the end of all things had come for her. Could he have helped her? Ought he to have left her so? He quickened his pace almost insensibly. No, he would not interfere of his own free will. But if she needed his support, if she counted upon him, he would not be found wanting. It might even be given to him eventually to help them both.

He had not seen her again. She had gone to her room with Peter in attendance, Peter who owed his life to the knife in Everard's girdle. He had had a strong feeling that Peter was the only friend she needed just then, and certainly Tessa had been his first responsibility. But the feeling that possibly she might need him was growing upon him. He wished he had satisfied himself before starting that this was not the case. But he comforted himself with the thought of Peter. He was sure that Peter would take care of her.

Yes, Peter would care for his beloved mem-sahib, whatever his physical disabilities. He would never fail in the execution of that his sacred duty while the power to do so was his. If all others failed her, yet would Peter remain faithful. Even then with his dog-like devotion was he crouched upon her threshold, his dark face wrapped in

his garment, yet alert for every sound and mournfully aware that his mistress was not resting. Of his own wound he thought not at all. He had been very near the gate of death, and the only man in the world for whom he entertained the smallest feeling of fear had snatched him back. To his promptitude alone did Peter owe his life. He had cut out that deadly bite with a swiftness and a precision that had removed all danger of snake-poison, and in so doing he had exposed the secret which he had guarded so long and so carefully. The first moment of contact had betrayed him to Peter, but Peter was very loyal. Had he been the only one to recognize him, the secret would have been safe. He had done his best to guard it, but Fate had been against them. And the mem-sahib-the mem-sahib had turned and gone away as one heart-broken.

Peter yearned to comfort her, but the whole situation was beyond him. He could only mount guard in silence. Perhaps-presently-the great sahib himself would come, and make all things right again. The night was advancing. Surely he would come soon.

Barely had he begun to hope for this when the door he guarded was opened slightly from within. His mem-sahib, strangely white and still, looked forth.

"Peter!" she said gently.

He was up in a moment, bending before her, his black eyes glowing in the dim light.

She laid her slender hand upon his shoulder. She had ever treated him with the graciousness of a queen. "How is your wound?" she asked him in her soft, low voice. "Has it been properly bathed and dressed?"

He straightened himself, looking into her beautiful pale face with the loving reverence that he always accorded her. "All is well, my mem-sahib," he said. "Will you not be graciously pleased to rest?"

She shook her head, smiling faintly-a smile that somehow tore his heart. She opened her door and motioned him to enter. "I think I had better see for myself," she said. "Poor Peter! How you must have suffered, and how splendidly brave you are! Come in and let me see what I can do!"

He hung back protesting; but she would take no refusal, gently but firmly overruling all his scruples.

"Why was the doctor not sent for?" she said. "I ought to have thought of it myself."

She insisted upon washing and bandaging his wound anew. It was a deep one. Necessity had been stern, and Everard had not spared. It had bled freely, and there was no sign of any poisonous swelling. With tender hands Stella treated it, Peter standing dumbly submissive the while.

When she had finished, she arranged the injured arm in a sling, and looked him in the eyes.

"Peter, where is the captain sahib?"

"He went to his room, my mem-sahib," said Peter. "Bernard sahib carried the little missy sahib back, and Denvers sahib went with him. I did not see the captain sahib again."

He spoke wistfully, as one who longed to help but recognized his limitations.

Stella received his news in silence, her face still and white as the face of a marble statue. She felt no resentment against Peter. He had acted almost under compulsion. But she could not discuss the matter with him.

At length: "You may go, Peter," she said. "Please let no one come to my door to-night! I wish to be undisturbed."

Peter salaamed low and withdrew. The order was a very definite one, and she knew she could rely upon him to carry it out. As the door closed softly upon him, she turned towards her window. It opened upon the verandah. She moved across the room to shut it; but ere she reached it, Everard Monck came noiselessly through on slippered feet and bolted it behind him.

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