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   Chapter 33 GREATER THAN DEATH

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 14320

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"If you ask me," said Bertie Oakes, propping himself up in an elegant attitude against a pillar of the Club verandah, "it's my belief that there's going to be-a bust-up."

"Nobody did ask you," observed Tommy rudely.

He generally was rude nowadays, and had been haled before a subalterns' court-martial only the previous evening for that very reason. The sentence passed had been of a somewhat drastic nature, and certainly had not improved his temper or his manners. To be stripped, bound scientifically, and "dipped" in the Club swimming-bath till, as Oakes put it, all the venom had been drenched out of him, was an experience for which only one utterly reckless would qualify twice.

Tommy had come through it with a dumb endurance which had somewhat spoilt the occasion for his tormentors, had gone back to The Green Bungalow as soon as his punishment was over, and for the first time had drunk heavily in the privacy of his room.

He sat now in a huddled position on the Club verandah, "looking like a sick chimpanzee" as Oakes assured him, "ready to bite-if he dared-at a moment's notice."

Mrs. Ralston was seated near. She had a motherly eye upon Tommy.

"Now what exactly do you mean by a 'bust-up,' Mr. Oakes?" she asked with her gentle smile.

Oakes blew a cloud of smoke upwards. He liked airing his opinions, especially when there were several ladies within earshot.

"What do I mean?" he said, with a pomposity carefully moulded upon the Colonel's mode of delivery on a guest-night. "I mean, my dear Mrs. Ralston, that which would have to be suppressed-a rising among the native element of the State."

"Ape!" growled Tommy under his breath.

Oakes caught the growl, and made a downward motion with his thumb which only Tommy understood.

Mrs. Burton's soft, false laugh filled the pause that followed his pronouncement. "Surely no one could openly object to the conviction of a native murderer!" she said. "I hear that the evidence is quite conclusive. Captain Monck has spared no pains in that direction."

"Captain Monck," observed Lady Harriet, elevating her long nose, "seems to be exceptionally well qualified for that kind of service."

"Set a thief to catch a thief, what?" suggested Oakes lightly. "Yes, he seems to be quite good at it. Just as well in a way, perhaps. Someone has got to do the dirty work, though it would be preferable for all of us if he were a policeman by profession."

It was too carelessly spoken to sound actively malevolent. But Tommy, with his arms gripped round his knees, raised eyes of bloodshot fury to the speaker's face.

"If any one could take a first class certificate for dirty work, it would be you," he said, speaking very distinctly between clenched teeth.

A sudden silence fell upon the assembly. Oakes looked down at Tommy, and Tommy glared up at Oakes.

Then abruptly Major Ralston, who had been standing in the background with a tall drink in his hand, slouched forward and let himself down ponderously on the edge of the verandah by Tommy's side.

"Go away, Bertie!" he said. "We've listened to your wind instrument long enough. Tommy, you shut up, or I'll give you the beastliest physic I know! What were we talking about? Mary, give us a lead!"

He appealed to his wife, who glanced towards Lady Harriet with a hint of embarrassment.

Major Ralston at once addressed himself to her. He was never embarrassed by any one, and never went out of his way to be pleasant without good reason.

"This murder trial is going to be sensational," he said, "I've just got back from giving evidence as to the cause of death and I have it on good authority that a certain august personage in Markestan is shaking in his shoes as to the result of the business."

"I have heard that too," said Lady Harriet.

It was a curious fact that though she was always ready, and would even go out of her way, to snub the surgeon's wife, she had never once been other than gracious to the surgeon.

"I don't suppose he will be actively implicated. He's too wily for that," went on Major Ralston. "But there's not much doubt according to Barnes, that he was in the know-very much so, I should imagine." He glanced about him. "Mrs. Ermsted isn't here, is she?"

"No dear. I left her resting," his wife said. "This affair is very trying for her-naturally." He assented somewhat grimly. "I wonder she stayed for it. Now Tessa on the other hand yearns for the murderer's head in a charger. That child is getting too Eastern in her ideas. It will be a good thing to get her Home."

Mrs. Burton intervened with a simper. "Yes, she really is a naughty little thing, and I cannot say I shall be sorry when she is gone. My small son is at such a very receptive age."

"Yes, he's old enough to go to school and be licked into shape," said Major Ralston brutally. "He flings stones at my car every time I pass. I shall stop and give him a licking myself some day when I have time."

"Really, Major Ralston, I hope you will not do anything so cruel," protested Mrs. Burton. "We never correct him in that way ourselves."

"Pity you don't," said Major Ralston. "An unlicked cub is an insult to creation. Give him to me for a little while! I'll undertake to improve him both morally and physically to such an extent that you won't know him."

Here Tommy uttered a brief, wholly involuntary guffaw.

"What's the matter with you?" said Ralston.

"Nothing." His gloom dropped upon him again like a mantle. "Have you been at Khanmulla all day?"

"Yes; a confounded waste of time it's been too." Ralston took a deep drink and set down his glass.

"You always think it's a waste of time if you can't be doctoring somebody," muttered Tommy.

"Don't be offensive!" said Ralston. "I know what's the matter with you, my son, but I should keep it to myself if I were you. As a matter of fact I did give medical advice to somebody this afternoon-which of course he won't take."

Tommy's face was suddenly scarlet. It was solely the maternal protective instinct that induced Mrs. Ralston to bend forward and speak.

"Do you mean Captain Monck, Gerald?" she asked.

Major Ralston cast a comprehensive glance around the little group assembled near him, finishing his survey upon Tommy's burning countenance. "Yes-Monck," he said. "He's staying with Barnes at Khanmulla to see this affair through. If I were Mrs. Monck I should be pretty anxious about him. He says it's insomnia."

"Is he ill?" It was Tommy who spoke, his voice quick and low, all the sullen embarrassment gone from his demeanour.

The doctor's eyes dwelt upon him for a moment longer before he answered. "I never saw such a change in any man in such a short time. He'll have a bad break-down if he doesn't watch out."

"He works too hard," said Mrs. Ralston sympathetically.

Her husband nodded. "If it weren't for that sickly baby of hers, I should advise his wife to go straight to him and look after him. But perhaps when this trial is over he will be able to take a rest. I shall order the whole family to Bhulwana if I get the chance." He got up with the words, and faced the company with a c

ertain dogged aggressiveness that compelled attention. "It's hard," he said, "to see a fine chap like that knocked out. He's about the best man we've got, and we can't afford to lose him."

He waited for someone to take up the challenge, but no one showed any inclination to do so. Only after a moment Tommy also sprang up as if there was something in the situation that chafed him beyond endurance.

Ralston looked at him again, critically, not over-favourably. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?" he said.

Tommy hunched his shoulders, all defiance in a second. "Going for a ride," he growled. "Any objection?"

Ralston turned away. "None whatever, my young porcupine. Have mercy on your nag, that's all-and don't break your own neck!"

Tommy strode wrathfully away to the sound of Mrs. Burton's tittering laugh. With the exception of Mrs. Ralston, who really did not count, he hated every one of the party that he left behind on the Club verandah, and he did not attempt to disguise the fact.

But when an hour later he rolled off his horse in the compound of the policeman's bungalow at Khanmulla, his mood had undergone a complete change. There was nothing defiant or even assertive about him as he applied for admittance. He looked beaten, tried beyond his strength.

It was growing rapidly dark as he followed Barnes's khansama into the long bare room which he used as his private office. The man brought him a lamp and told him that the sahibs would be back soon. They had gone down to the Court House again, but they might return at any time.

He also brought him whisky and soda which Tommy did not touch, spending the interval of waiting that ensued in fevered tramping to and fro.

He had not seen Monck alone since the evening of Tessa's birthday-party nearly three weeks before. On the score of business connected with the approaching trial, Monck had come to Khanmulla immediately afterwards, and no one at Kurrumpore had had more than an occasional glimpse of him since. But he meant to see him alone now, and he had given very explicit instructions to that effect to the servant, accompanied by a substantial species of persuasion that could not fail to achieve its object.

When the sound of voices told him at last of the return of the two men, he drew back out of sight of the window while the obsequious khansama went forth upon his errand. Then a moment or two later he heard them separate, and one alone came in his direction. Everard entered with the gait of a tired man.

The lamp dazzled him for a second, and Tommy saw him first. He smothered an involuntary exclamation and stepped forward.

"Tommy!" said Monck, as if incredulous.

Tommy stood in front of him, his hands at his sides. "Yes, it's me. I had to come over-just to have a look at you. Ralston said-said-oh, damn it, it doesn't matter what he said. Only I had to-just come and see for myself. You see, I-I-" he faltered badly, but recovered himself under the straight gaze of Everard's eyes-"I can't get the thought of you out of my mind. I've been a damn' cur. You won't want to speak to me of course, but when Ralston started jawing about you this afternoon, I found-I found-" he choked suddenly-"I couldn't stand it any longer," he said in a strangled whisper.

Monck was looking full at him by the merciless glare of the lamp on the table, which revealed himself very fully also. All the grim lines in his face seemed to be accentuated. He looked years older. The hair above his temples gleamed silver where it caught the light.

He did not speak at once. Only as Tommy made a blind movement as if to go, he put forth a hand and took him by the arm.

"Tommy," he said, "what have you been doing?"

Out of deep hollows his eyes looked forth, indomitable, relentless as they had ever been, searching the boy's downcast face.

Tommy quivered a little under their piercing scrutiny, but he made no attempt to avoid it.

"Look at me!" Monck commanded.

He raised his eyes for a moment, and in spite of himself Monck was softened by the utter misery they held.

"You always were an ass," he commented. "But I thought you had more strength of mind than this."

Tommy made an impotent gesture. "I'm a beast-I'm a skunk!" he declared, with tremulous vehemence. "I'm not fit to speak to you!"

The shadow of a smile crossed Monck's face. "And you've come all this way to tell me so?" he said. "You've no business here either. You ought to be at the Mess."

"Damn the Mess!" said Tommy fiercely. "They'll tell me I ratted to-morrow. I don't care. Let 'em say what they like! It's you that matters. Man, how infernally ill you look!"

Monck checked the personal allusion. "I'm not ill. But what have you been up to? Are you in a row?"

Tommy essayed a laugh. "No, nothing serious. The blithering idiots ducked me yesterday for being disrespectful, that's all. I don't care. It's you I care about, Everard, old chap!"

His voice held sudden pleading, but his face was turned away. He had meant to say more, but could not. He stood biting his lips desperately in a mute struggle for self-control.

Everard waited a few seconds, giving him time; then abruptly he moved, slapped a hand on Tommy's shoulder and gave him a shake.

"Tommy, don't be so beastly cheap! I'm ashamed of you. What's the matter?"

Tommy yielded impulsively to the bracing grip, but he kept his face averted. "That's just it," he blurted out. "I feel cheap. Fact is, I came-I came to ask you to-forgive me. But now I'm here,-I'm damned if I have the cheek."

"What do you want my forgiveness for? I thought I was the transgressor." Everard's voice was a curious blend of humour and sadness.

Tommy turned to him with a sudden boyish gesture so spontaneous as to override all barriers. "Oh, I know all that. But it doesn't count. See? I don't know how I ever had the infernal presumption to think it did, or to ask you-you, of all men-to explain your actions. I don't want any explanation. I believe in you without, simply because I can't help it. I know-without any proof,-that you're sound. And-and-I beg your pardon for being such a cur as to doubt you. There! That's what I came to say. Now it's your turn."

The tears were in his eyes, but he made no further attempt to hide them. All that was great in his nature had come to the surface, and there was no room left for self-consciousness.

Monck realized it, and it affected him deeply, depriving him of the power to respond. He had not expected this from Tommy, had not believed him capable of it. But there was no doubting the boy's sincerity. Through those tears which Tommy had forgotten to hide, he saw the old loving trust shine out at him, the old whole-hearted admiration and honour offered again without reservation and without stint.

He opened his lips to speak, but something rose in his throat, preventing him. He held out his hand in silence, and in that wordless grip the love which is greater than death made itself felt between them-a bond imperishable which no earthly circumstance could ever again violate-the Power Omnipotent which conquers all things.

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