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   Chapter 35 TESSA'S MOTHER

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 13579

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"It really isn't my fault," said Netta fretfully. "I don't see why you should lecture me about it, Mary. I can't help being attractive."

"My dear," said Mrs. Ralston patiently, "that was not my point. I am only urging you to show a little discretion. You do not want to be an object of scandal, I am sure. The finger of suspicion has been pointed at the Rajah a good many times lately, and I do think that for Tessa's sake, if not for your own, you ought to put a check upon your intimacy with him.

"Bother Tessa!" said Netta. "I don't see that I owe her anything."

Mrs. Ralston sighed a little, but she persevered. "The child is at an age when she needs the most careful training. Surely you want her to respect you!"

Netta laughed. "I really don't care a straw what she does. Tessa doesn't interest me. I wanted a boy, you know. I never had any use for girls. Besides, she gets on my nerves at every turn. We shall never be kindred spirits."

"Poor little Tessa!" said Mrs. Ralston gently. "She has such a loving heart."

"She doesn't love me," said Tessa's mother without regret. "I suppose you'll say that's my fault too. Everything always is, isn't it?"

"I think-in fact I am sure-that love begets love," said Mrs. Ralston. "Perhaps when you and she get to England together, you will become more to each other."

"Out of sheer ennui?" suggested Netta. "Oh, don't let's talk of England-I hate the thought of it. I'm sure I was created for the East. Hence the sympathy that exists between the Rajah and myself. You know, Mary, you really are absurdly prejudiced against him. Richard was the same. He never had any cause to be jealous. They simply didn't come into the same category."

Mrs. Ralston looked at her with wonder in her eyes. "You seem to forget," she said, "that Richard's murderer is being tried, and that this man is very strongly suspected of being an abettor if not the actual instigator of the crime."

Netta flicked the ash from her cigarette with a gesture of impatience. "I only wish you would let me forget these unpleasant things," she said. "Why don't you go and preach a sermon to the beautiful Stella Monck on the same text? Ralph Dacre's death was quite as much of a mystery. And the kindly gossips are every bit as busy with Captain Monck's reputation as with His Excellency's. But I suppose her devotion to that wretched little imbecile baby of hers renders her immune!"

She spoke with intentional malice, but she scarcely expected to strike home. Mary was not, in her estimation, over-endowed with brains, and she never seemed to mind a barbed thrust or two. But on this occasion Mrs. Ralston upset her calculations.

She arose in genuine wrath. "Netta!" she said. "I think you are the most heartless, callous woman I have ever met!"

And with that she went straight from the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.

"Good gracious!" commented Netta. "Mary in a tantrum! What an exciting spectacle!"

She stretched her slim body like a cat as she lay with the warm sunshine pouring over her, and presently she laughed.

"How funny! How very funny! Netta, my dear, they'll be calling you wicked next."

She pursed her lips over the adjective as if she rather enjoyed it, then stretched herself again luxuriously, with sensuous enjoyment. She had riden with the Rajah in the early morning, and was pleasantly tired.

The sudden approach of Tessa, scampering along the verandah in the wake of Scooter, sent a quick frown to her face, which deepened swiftly as Scooter, dodging nimbly, ran into the room and went to earth behind a bamboo screen.

Tessa sprang in after him, but pulled up sharply at sight of her mother. The frown upon Netta's face was instantly reflected upon her own. She stood expectant of rebuke.

"What a noisy child you are!" said Netta. "Are you never quiet, I wonder? And why did you let that horrid little beast come in here? You know I detest him."

"He isn't horrid!" said Tessa, instantly on the defensive. "And I couldn't help him coming in. I didn't know you were here, but it isn't your bungalow anyway, and Aunt Mary doesn't mind him."

"Oh, go away!" said Netta with irritation. "You get more insufferable every day. Take the little brute with you and shut him up-or drown him!"

Tessa came forward with an insolent shrug. There was more than a spice of defiance in her bearing.

"I don't suppose I can catch him," she said. "But I'll try."

The chase of the elusive Scooter that followed would have been an affair of pure pleasure to the child, had it not been for the presence of her mother and the growing exasperation with which she regarded it. It was all sheer fun to Scooter who wormed in and out of the furniture with mirth in his gleaming eyes, and darted past the window a dozen times without availing himself of that means of escape.

Netta's small stock of patience was very speedily exhausted. She sat up on the sofa and sternly commanded Tessa to desist.

"Go and tell the khit to catch him!" she said.

Tessa, however, by this time had also warmed to the game. She paid no more attention to her mother's order than she would have paid to the buzzing of a mosquito. And when Scooter dived under the sofa on which Netta had been reclining, she burrowed after him with a squeal of merriment.

It was too much for Netta whose feelings had been decidedly ruffled before Tessa's entrance. As Scooter shot out on the other side of her, running his queer zigzag course, she snatched the first thing that came to hand, which chanced to be a heavy bronze weight from the writing-table at her elbow, and hurled it at him with all her strength.

Scooter collapsed on the floor like a broken mechanical toy. Tessa uttered a wild scream and flung herself upon him.

Netta gasped hysterically, horrified but still angry. "It serves him right-serves you both right! Now go away!" she said.

Tessa turned on her knees on the floor. Scooter was feebly kicking in her arms. The missile had struck him on the head and one eye was terribly injured. She gathered him up to her little narrow chest, and he ceased to kick and became quite still.

Over his lifeless body she looked at her mother with eyes of burning furious hatred. "You've killed him!" she said, her voice sunk very low. "And I hope-oh, I do hope-some day-someone-will kill you!"

There was that about her at the moment that actually frightened Netta, and it was with undoubted relief that she saw the door open and Major Ralston's loose-knit lounging figure block the entrance.

"What's all this noise about?" he began, and stopped short.

Behind him stood another figure, broad, powerful, not overtall. At sight of it, Tessa uttered a hard sob and scrambled to her feet. She still clasped

poor Scooter's dead body to her breast, and his blood was on her face and on the white frock she wore.

"Uncle St. Bernard! Look! Look!" she said. "She's killed my Scooter!"

Netta also arose at this juncture. "Oh, do take that horrible thing away!" she said. "If it's dead, so much the better. It was no more than a weasel after all. I hate such pets."

Major Ralston found himself abruptly though not roughly pushed aside. Bernard Monck swooped down with the action of a practised footballer and took the furry thing out of Tessa's hold. His eyes were very bright and intensely alert, but he did not seem aware of Tessa's mother.

"Come with me, darling!" he said to the child. "P'raps I can help."

He trod upon the carved bronze that had slain Scooter as he turned, and he left the mark of his heel upon it-the deep impress of an angry giant.

The door closed with decision upon himself and the child, and Major Ralston was left alone with Netta.

She looked at him with a flushed face ready to defy remonstance, but he stooped without speaking and picked up the thing that Bernard had tried to grind to powder, surveyed it with a lifted brow and set it back in its place.

Netta promptly collapsed upon the sofa. "Oh, it is too bad!" she sobbed. "It really is too bad! Now I suppose you too-are going to be brutal."

Major Ralston cleared his throat. There was certainly no sympathy in his aspect, but his manner was wholly lacking in brutality. He was never brutal to women, and Netta Ermsted was his guest as well as his patient.

After a moment he sat down beside her, and there was nothing in the action to mark it as heroic, or to betray the fact that he yearned to stamp out of the room after Bernard and leave her severely to her hysterics.

"No good in being upset now," he remarked. "The thing's done, and crying won't undo it."

"I don't want to undo it!" declared Netta. "I always did detest the horrible ferrety thing. Tessa couldn't have taken it Home with her either, so it's just as well it's gone." She dried her eyes with a vindictive gesture, and reached for the cigarettes. Hysterics were impossible in this man's presence. He was like a shower of cold water.

"I shouldn't if I were you," remarked Major Ralston with the air of a man performing a laborious duty. "You smoke too many of 'em."

Netta ignored the admonition. "They soothe my nerves," she said. "May I have a light?"

He searched his pockets, and apparently drew a blank.

Netta frowned in swift irritation. "How stupid! I thought all men carried matches."

Major Ralston accepted the reproof in silence. He was like a large dog, gravely presenting his shoulder to the nips of a toy terrier.

"Well?" said Netta aggressively.

He looked at her with composure. "Talking about going Home," he said, "at the risk of appearing inhospitable, I think it is my duty to advise you very strongly to go as soon as possible."

"Indeed!" She looked back with instant hostility. "And why?"

He did not immediately reply. Whether with reason or not, he had the reputation for being slow-witted, in spite of the fact that he was a brilliant chess-player.

She laughed-a short, unpleasant laugh. She was never quite at her ease with him, notwithstanding his slowness. "Why the devil should I, Major Ralston?"

He shrugged his shoulders with massive deliberation. "Because," he said slowly, "there's going to be the devil's own row if this man is hanged for your husband's murder. We have been warned to that effect."

She shrugged her shoulders also with infinite daintiness, "Oh, a native rumpus! That doesn't impress me in the least. I shan't go for that."

Major Ralston's eyes wandered round the room as if in search of inspiration. "Mary is going," he observed.

Netta laughed again, lightly, flippantly. "Good old Mary! Where is she going to?"

His eyes came down upon her suddenly like the flash of a knife. "She has consented to go to Bhulwana with the rest," he said. "But I beg you will not accompany her there. As Captain Ermsted's widow and-" he spoke as one hewing his way-"the chosen friend of the Rajah, your position in the State is one of considerable difficulty-possibly even of danger. And I do not propose to allow my wife to take unnecessary risks. For that reason I must ask you to go before matters come to a head. You have stayed too long already."

"Good gracious!" said Netta, opening her eyes wide. "But if Mary's sacred person is to be safely stowed at Bhulwana, what is to prevent my remaining here if I so choose?"

"Because I don't choose to let you, Mrs. Ermsted," said Major Ralston steadily.

She gazed at him. "You-don't-choose! You!"

His eyes did battle with hers. Since that slighting allusion to his wife, he had no consideration left for Netta. "That is so," he said, in his heavy fashion. "I have already pointed out that you would be well-advised on your own account to go-not to mention the child's safety."

"Oh, the child!" There was keenness about the exclamation which almost amounted to actual dislike. "I'm tired to death of having Tessa's welfare and Tessa's morals rammed down my throat. Why should I make a fetish of the child? What is good enough for me is surely good enough for her."

"I am afraid I don't agree with you," said Major Ralston.

"You wouldn't," she rejoined. "You and Mary are quite antediluvian in your idea. But that doesn't influence me. I am glad to say I am more up to date. If I can't stay here, I shall go to Udalkhand. There's a hotel there as well as here."

"Of sorts," said Major Ralston. "Also Udalkhand is nearer to the seat of disturbance."

"Well, I don't care." Netta spoke recklessly. "I'm not going to be dictated to. What a mighty scare you're all in! What can you think will happen even if a few natives do get out of hand?"

"Plenty of things might happen," he rejoined, getting up. "But that by the way. If you won't listen to reason I am wasting my time. But-" he spoke with abrupt emphasis-"you will not take Tessa to Udalkhand."

Netta's eyes gleamed. "I shall take her to Kamtchatka if I choose," she said.

For the first time a smile crossed Major Ralston's face. He turned to the door. "And if she chooses," he said, with malicious satisfaction.

The door closed upon him, and Netta was left alone.

She remained motionless for a few moments showing her teeth a little in an answering smile; then with a swift, lissom movement, that would have made Tommy compare her to a lizard, she rose.

With a white, determined face she bent over the writing-table and scribbled a hasty note. Her hand shook, but she controlled it resolutely.

Words flicked rapidly into being under her pen: "I shall be behind the tamarisks to-night."

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