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   Chapter 32 THE CONSUMING FIRE

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 8307

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


As he turned towards her, there came upon Stella, swift as a stab through the heart, the memory of that terrible night more than a year before when he had drawn her into his room and fastened the window behind her-against whom? His wild words rushed upon her. She had deemed them to be directed against the unknown intruder on the verandah. She knew now that the madness that had loosed his tongue had moved him to utter his fierce threat against a man who was dead-against the man whom he had-She stopped the thought as she would have checked the word half-spoken. She turned shivering away. The man on the verandah, that vision of the night-watches, she saw it all now-she saw it all. And he had loved her before her marriage. And he had known-and he had known-that, given opportunity, he could win her for his own.

Like a throbbing undersong-the fiendish accompaniment to the devils' chorus-the gossip of the station as detailed by Tessa ran with glib mockery through her brain. Ah, they only suspected. But she knew-she knew! The door of that secret chamber had opened wide to her at last, and perforce she had entered in.

He had moved forward, but he had not spoken. At least she fancied not, but all her senses were in an uproar. And above it all she seemed to hear that dreadful little thrumming instrument down by the river at Udalkhand-the tinkling, mystic call of the vampire goddess,-India the insatiable who had made him what he was.

He came to her, and every fibre of her being was aware of him and thrilled at his coming. Never had she loved him as she loved him then, but her love was a fiery torment that burned and consumed her soul. She seemed to feel it blistering, shrivelling, in the cruel heat.

Almost before she knew it, she had broken her silence, speaking as it were in spite of herself, scarcely knowing in her anguish what she said.

"Yes, I know. I know what you are going to say. You are going to tell me that I belong to you. And of course it is true,-I do. But if I stay with you, I shall be-a murderess. Nothing will alter that."

"Stella!" he said.

His voice was stern, so stern that she flinched. He laid his hand upon her, and she shrank as she would have shrunk from a hot iron searing her flesh. She had a wild thought that she would bear the brand of it for ever.

"Stella," he said again, and in both tone and action there was compulsion. "I have come to tell you that you are making a mistake. I am innocent of this thing you suspect me of."

She stood unresisting in his hold, but she was shaking all over. The floor seemed to be rising and falling under her feet. She knew that her lips moved several times before she could make them speak.

"But I don't suspect," she said. "The others suspect. I-know."

He received her words in silence. She saw his face as through a shifting vapour, very pale, very determined, with eyes of terrible intensity dominating her own.

Half mechanically she repeated herself. It was as if that devilish thrumming in her brain compelled her. "The others suspect. I-know."

"I see," he said at last. "And nothing I can say will make any difference?"

"Oh, no!" she made answer, and scarcely knew that she spoke, so cold and numb had she become. "How could it-now?"

He looked at her, and suddenly he saw that to which his own suffering had momentarily blinded him. He saw her utter weakness. With a swif passionate movement he caught her to him. For a second or two he held her so, strained against his heart, then almost fiercely he turned her face up to his own and kissed the stiff white lips.

"Be it so then!" he said, and in his voice was a deep note as though he challenged all the powers of evil. "You are mine-and mine you will remain."

She did not resist him though the touch of his lips was terrible to her. Only as they left her own, she turned her face aside. Very strangely that savage lapse of his had given her strength.

"Physically-perhaps-but only for a little while," she said gaspingly. "And in spirit, never-never again!"

"What do you mean?" he said, his arms tightening about her.

She kept her face averted. "I

mean-that some forms of torture are worse than death. If it comes to that-if you compel me-I shall choose death."

"Stella!" He let her go so suddenly that she nearly fell. The utterance of her name was as a cry wrung from him by sheer agony. He turned from her with his hands over his face. "My God!" he said, and again almost inarticulately, "My-God!"

The low utterance pierced her, yet she stood motionless, her hands gripped hard together. He had forced the words from her, and they were past recall. Nor would she have recalled them, had she been able, for it seemed to her that her love had become an evil thing, and her whole being shrank from it in a species of horrified abhorrence, even though she could not cast it out.

He had turned towards the window, and she watched him, her heart beating in slow, hard strokes with a sound like a distant drum. Would he go? Would he remain? She almost prayed aloud that he would go.

But he did not. Very suddenly he turned and strode back to her. There was purpose in every line of him, but there was no longer any violence.

He halted before her. "Stella," he said, and his voice was perfectly steady and controlled, "do you think you are being altogether fair to me?"

She wrung her clasped hands. She could not answer him.

He took them into his own very quietly. "Just look me in the face for a minute!" he said.

She yearned to disobey, but she could not. Dumbly she raised her eyes to his.

He waited a moment, very still and composed. Then he spoke. "Stella, I swear to you-and I call God to witness-that I did not kill Ralph Dacre."

A dreadful shiver went through her at the bald brief words. She felt, as Tommy had felt a little earlier, physically sick. The beating of her heart was getting slower and slower. She wondered if presently it would stop.

"Do you believe me?" he said, still holding her eyes with his, still clasping her icy hands firmly between his own.

She forced herself to speak before that horrible sense of nausea overcame her. "Perhaps-David-said the same thing-about Uriah the Hittite."

His face changed a little, but it was a change she could not have defined. His eyes remained inscrutably fixed upon hers. They seemed to enchain her quivering soul.

"No," he said quietly. "Nor did I employ any one else to do it."

"But you were there!" The words seemed suddenly to burst from her without her own volition.

He drew back sharply, as if he had been struck. But he kept his eyes upon hers. "I can't explain anything," he said. "I am not here to explain. I only came to see if your love was great enough to make you believe in me-in spite of all there seems to be against me. Is it, Stella? Is it?"

His words seemed to go through her, tearing a way to her heart; the agony was more than she could bear. She uttered an anguished cry, and wrenched herself from him. "It isn't a question of love!" she said. "You know it isn't a question of love! I never wanted to love you. I never wholly trusted you. But you forced my love-though you couldn't compel my trust. And now that I know-now that I know-" her voice broke as if the torture were too great for her; she flung out her hands with a gesture of driving him from her-"oh, it is hell on earth-hell on earth!"

He drew back for a second before her, his face deathly white. And then suddenly an awful light leapt in his eyes. He gripped her outflung hands. The fire had kindled to a flame and the torture was too much for him also.

"Then you shall love me-even in hell!" he said, through his clenched teeth, and locked her in the iron circle of his arms.

She did not resist him. She was very near the end of her strength. Only, as he held her, her eyes met his, mutely imploring him....

It reached him even in his madness, that unspoken appeal. It checked him in the mid-furnace of his passion. His hold relaxed as if at a word of command. He put her into a chair and turned himself from her.

The next moment he was fumbling desperately at the window fastening. The night met him on the threshold. He heard her weeping, piteously, hopelessly, as he went away.

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