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   Chapter 34 THE LAMP

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 12004

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The orange light of the morning was breaking over the jungle when two horsemen rode out upon the Kurrumpore road and halted between the rice fields.

"I say, come on a bit further!" Tommy urged. "There's plenty of time."

But the other shook his head. "No, I can't. I promised Barnes to be back early. Good-bye, Tommy my lad! Keep your end up!"

"I will," Tommy promised, and thrust out a hand. "And you'll hang on, won't you? Promise!"

"All right; for the present. My love to Bernard." Everard spoke with his usual brevity, but his handclasp was remembered by Tommy for a very long time after.

"And to Stella?" he said, pushing his horse a little nearer till it muzzled against its fellow.

Everard's eyes, grave and dark, looked out to the low horizon. "I think not," he said. "She has-no further use for it."

"She will have," said Tommy quickly.

But Everard passed the matter by in silence. "You must be getting on," he said, and relaxed his grip. "Good-bye, old chap! You've done me good, if that is any consolation to you."

"Oh, man!" said Tommy, and coloured like a girl. "Not-not really!"

Everard uttered his curt laugh, and switched Tommy's mount across the withers. "Be off with you, you-cuckoo!" he said.

And Tommy grinned and went.

Half-an-hour later he was sounding an impatient tatto upon his sister's door.

She came herself to admit him, but the look upon her face checked the greeting on his lips.

"What on earth's the matter?" he said instead.

She was shivering as if with cold, though the risen sun had filled the world with spring-like warmth. It occurred to him as he entered, that she was looking pinched and ill, and he put a comforting arm around her.

"What is it, Stella girl? Tell me!"

She relaxed against him with a sob. "I've been-horribly anxious about you," she said.

"Oh, is that all?" said Tommy. "What a waste of time! I was only over at Khanmulla. I spent the night at Barnes's bungalow because they wouldn't trust me in the jungle after dark."

"They?" she questioned.

"Barnes and Everard," Tommy said, and faced her squarely. "I went to see Everard."

"Ah!" She caught her breath. "Major Ralston has been here. He told me-he told me-" her voice failed; she laid her head down upon Tommy's shoulder.

He tightened his arm about her. "It's a shame of Ralston to frighten you. He isn't ill." Then a sudden thought striking him, "What was he doing here so early? Isn't the kid up to the mark?"

She shivered against him again. "He had a strange attack in the night, and Major Ralston said-said-oh, Tommy," she suddenly clung to him, "I am going to lose him. He-isn't-like other children."

"Ralston said that?" demanded Tommy.

"He didn't tell me. He told Bernard. I practically forced Bernard to tell me, but I think he thought I ought to know. He said-he said-it isn't to be desired that my baby should live."

"What?" said Tommy in dismay. "Oh, my darling girl, I am sorry! What's wrong with the poor little chap?"

With her face hidden against him she made whispered answer. "You know he-came too soon. They thought at first he was all right, but now-symptoms have begun to show themselves. We thought he was just delicate, but it isn't only that. Last night-in the night-" she shuddered suddenly and violently and paused to control herself-"I can't talk about it. It was terrible. Major Ralston says he doesn't suffer, but it looks like suffering. And, oh, Tommy,-he is all I have left."

Tommy held her comfortingly close. "I say, wouldn't you like Everard to come to you?" he said.

"Oh no! Oh no!" Her refusal was instant. "I can't see him. Tommy, why suggest such a thing? You know I can't."

"I know he's a good man," Tommy said steadily. "Just listen a minute, old girl! I know things look black enough against him, so black that it's probable he'll have to send in his papers. But I tell you he's all right. I didn't think so at first. I thought the same as you do. But somehow that suspicion has got worn out. It was pretty beastly while it lasted, but I came to my senses at last. And I've been to tell him so. He was jolly decent about it, though he didn't tell me a thing. I didn't want him to. Besides, he always is decent. How could he be otherwise? And now we're just as we were-friends."

There was no mistaking the satisfaction in Tommy's voice. He even spoke with pride, and hearing it, Stella withdrew herself slowly and wearily from his arms.

"It's rather different for you, Tommy," she said. "A man's standards are different, I know. There may be what you call extenuating circumstances-though I can't quite imagine it. I'm too tired to argue about it, Tommy dear, and you mustn't be vexed with me. I can't go into it with you, but I feel as if it is I-I myself-who have committed an awful sin. And it has got to be expiated, perhaps that is why my baby is to be taken from me. Bernard says it is not so. But then-Bernard is a man too." There was a sound of heartbreak in her voice as she ended. She put up her hands with a gesture as of trying to put away some monstrous thing that threatened to crush her-a gesture that went straight to Tommy's warm heart.

"Oh, poor old girl!" he said impulsively, and took the hands into his own. "I say, ought I to be in here? Aren't you supposed to be resting?"

She smiled at him wanly. "I believe I am. Major Ralston left a soothing draught, but I wouldn't take it, in case-" she broke off. "Peter is on guard as well as Ayah, and he has promised to call me if-if-" Again she stopped. "I don't think Ayah is much good," she resumed. "She was nearly frightened out of her senses last night. She seems to think there is something-supernatural about it. But Peter-Peter is a tower of strength. I trust him implicitly."

"Yes, he's a good chap," said Tommy. "I'm glad you've got him anyway. I wish I could be more of a help to you."

She leaned forward and kissed him. "You are very dear to me, Tommy. I don't know what I

should do without you and Bernard."

"Where is the worthy padre?" asked Tommy.

"He may be working in his room. He is certainly not far away. He never is nowadays."

"I'll go and find him," said Tommy. "But look here, dear! Have that draught of Ralston's and lie down! Just to please me!"

She began to refuse, but Tommy could be very persuasive when he chose, and he chose on this occasion. Finally, with reluctance she yielded, since, as he pointed out, she needed all the strength she could muster.

He tucked her up with motherly care, feeling that he had accomplished something worth doing, and then, seeing that exhaustion would do the rest, he left her and went softly forth in search of Bernard.

The latter, however, was not in the bungalow, and since it was growing late Tommy had a hurried bath and dressed for parade. He was bolting a hasty tiffin in the dining-room when a quiet step on the verandah warned him of Bernard's approach, and in a moment or two the big man entered, a pipe in his mouth and a book under his arm.

"Hullo, Tommy!" he said with his genial smile. "So you haven't been murdered this time. I congratulate you."

"Thanks!" said Tommy.

"I congratulate myself also," said Bernard, patting his shoulder by way of greeting. "If it weren't against my principles, I should have been very worried about you, my lad. For I couldn't get away to look for you."

"Of course not," said Tommy. "And I was safe enough. I've been over to Khanmulla. Everard made me spend the night, and we rode back this morning."

"Everard! He isn't here?" Bernard looked round sharply.

"No," said Tommy bluntly. "But he ought to be. He went back again. He is wanted for that trial business. I say, things are pretty rotten here, aren't they? Is the little kid past hope?"

"I am afraid so." Bernard spoke very gravely. His kindly face was more sombre than Tommy had ever seen it.

"But can nothing be done?" the boy urged. "It'll break Stella's heart to lose him."

Bernard shook his head. "Nothing whatever I am afraid. Major Ralston has suspected trouble for some time, it seems. We might of course get a specialist's opinion at Calcutta, but the baby is utterly unfit for a journey of any kind, and it is doubtful if any doctor would come all this way-especially with things as they are."

"What do you mean?" said Tommy.

Bernard looked at him. "The place is a hotbed of discontent-if not anarchy. Surely you know that!"

Tommy shrugged his shoulders. "That's nothing new. It's what we're here for."

"Yes. And matters are getting worse. I hear that the result of this trial will probably mean the Rajah's enforced abdication. And if that happens there is practically bound to be a rising."

Tommy laughed. "That's been the situation as long as I've been out. We're giving him enough rope, and I hope he'll hang, though I'm afraid he won't. The rising will probably be a sort of Chinese cracker affair-a fizz, a few bangs, and a splutter-out. No honour and glory for any one!"

"I hope you are right," said Bernard.

"And I hope I'm wrong," said Tommy lightly. "I like a run for my money."

"You forget the women," said Bernard abruptly.

Tommy opened his eyes. "No, I don't. They'll be all right. They'll have to clear out to Bhulwana a little earlier than usual. They'll be safe enough there. You can go and look after 'em, sir. They'll like that."

"Thank you, Tommy." Bernard smiled in spite of himself. "It's kind of you to put it so tactfully. Now tell me what you think of Everard. Is he really ill?"

"No; worried to death, that's all. He's talking of sending in his papers. Did you know?"

"I suspected he would," Bernard spoke thoughtfully.

"He mustn't do it!" said Tommy with vehemence. "He's worth all the rest of the Mess put together. You mustn't let him."

Bernard lifted his brows. "I let him!" he said. "Do you think he is going to do what I tell him?"

"I know you have influence-considerable influence-with him," Tommy said. "You ought to use it, sir. You really ought. It's up to you and no one else."

He spoke insistently. Bernard looked at him attentively.

"You've changed your tune somewhat, haven't you, Tommy?" he said.

"Yes," said Tommy bluntly. "I have. I've been a damn' fool if you want to know-the biggest, damnedest fool on the face of creation. And I've been and told him so."

"For no particular reason?" Bernard's blue eyes grew keener in their regard. He looked at Tommy with more interest than he had ever before bestowed upon him.

Tommy's face was red, but he replied without embarrassment. "Certainly. I've come to my senses, that's all. I've come to realize-what I really knew all along-that he's a white man, white all through, however black he chooses to be painted. And I'm ashamed that I ever doubted him."

"He hasn't told you anything?" questioned Bernard, still closely surveying the flushed countenance.

"No!" said Tommy, and his voice rang on a note of indignant pride. "Why the devil should he tell me anything? I'm his friend. Thank the gods, I can trust him without."

Bernard held out his hand suddenly. The interest had turned to something warmer. He looked at the boy with genuine admiration. "I take off my hat to you, Tommy," he said. "Everard is a deuced lucky man."

"What?" said Tommy, and turned deep crimson. "Oh, rot, sir! That's rot!" He gripped the extended hand with warmth notwithstanding. "It's all the other way round. I can't tell you what he's been to me. Why, I-I'd die for him, if I had the chance."

"Yes," Bernard said with simplicity. "I'm sure you would, boy. And it's just that I like about you. You're just the sort of friend he needs-the sort of friend God sends along to hold up the lamp when the night is dark. There! You want to be off. I won't keep you. But you're a white man yourself, Tommy, and I shan't forget it."

"Oh, rats-rats-rats!" said Tommy rudely, and escaped through the window at headlong speed.

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