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   Chapter 36 THE BROAD ROAD

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 15735

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Bernard Monck never forgot the day of Scooter's death. It was as indelibly fixed in his memory as in that of Tessa.

The child's wild agony of grief was of so utterly abandoned a nature as to be almost Oriental in its violence. The passionate force of her resentment against her mother also was not easy to cope with though he quelled it eventually. But when that was over, when she had wept herself exhausted in his arms at last, there followed a period of numbness that made him seriously uneasy.

Mrs. Ralston had gone out before the tragedy had occurred, but Major Ralston presently came to his relief. He stooped over Tessa with a few kindly words, but when he saw the child's face his own changed somewhat.

"This won't do," he said to Bernard, holding the slender wrist. "We must get her to bed. Where's her ayah?"

Tessa's little hand hung limply in his hold. She seemed to be half-asleep. Yet when Bernard moved to lift her, she roused herself to cling around his neck.

"Please keep me with you, dear Uncle St. Bernard! Oh, please don't go away!"

"I won't, sweetheart," he promised her.

The ayah was nowhere to be found, but it was doubtful if her presence would have made much difference, since Tessa would not stir from her friend's sheltering arms, and wept again weakly even at the doctor's touch.

So it was Bernard who carried her to her room, and eventually put her to bed under Major Ralston's directions. The latter's face was very grave over the whole proceeding and he presently fetched something in a medicine-glass and gave it to Bernard to administer.

Tessa tried to refuse it, but her opposition broke down before Bernard's very gentle insistence. She would do anything, she told him piteously, if only-if only-he would stay with her.

So Bernard stayed, sending a message to The Green Bungalow to explain his absence, which found Mrs. Ralston as well as Stella and brought the former back in haste.

Tessa was in a deep sleep by the time she arrived, but, hearing that Stella did not need him, Bernard still maintained his watch, only permitting Mrs. Ralston to relieve him while he partook of luncheon with her husband.

Netta did not appear for the meal to the unspoken satisfaction of them both. They ate almost in silence, Major Ralston being sunk in a species of moody abstraction which Bernard did not disturb until the meal was over.

Then at length, ere he rose to go, he deliberately broke into his host's gloomy reflections. "Will you tell me," he said courteously, "exactly what it is that you fear with regard to the child?"

Major Ralston continued to be abstracted for fully thirty seconds after the quiet question; then, as Bernard did not repeat it but merely waited, he replied to it.

"There are plenty of things to be feared for a child like that. It's a criminal shame to have kept her out here so long. What I actually believe to be the matter at the present moment, is heart trouble."

"Ah! I thought so." Bernard looked across at him with grave comprehension. "She had a bad shock the other day."

"Yes; a shock to the whole system. She lives on wires in any case. I am going to examine her presently, but I am pretty sure I am right. What she really wants-" Major Ralston stopped himself abruptly, so abruptly that a twinkle of humour shone momentarily in Bernard's eyes.

"Don't jam on the brakes on my account!" he protested gently. "I am with you all the way. What does she really want?"

Major Ralston uttered a gruff laugh. It was practically impossible not to confide in Bernard Monck. "She wants to get right away from that vicious little termagant of a mother of hers. There's no love between them and never will be, so what's the use of pretending? She wants to get into a wholesome bracing, outdoor atmosphere with someone who knows how to love her. She'll probably go straight to the bad if she doesn't-that is, if she lives long enough."

The humour had died in Bernard's eyes. They shone with a very different light as he said, "I have thought the same thing myself." He paused a moment, then slowly, "Do you think her mother would be persuaded to hand her over to me?" he said.

Ralston's brows went up. "To you! For good and all do you mean?"

"Yes." In his steady unhurried fashion Bernard made answer. "I have been thinking of it for some time. As a matter of fact, it was to consult you about it that I came here to-day. I want it more than ever now."

Ralston was staring openly. "You'd have your hands full," he remarked.

Bernard smiled. "I daresay. But, you see, we're chums. To use your own expression I know how to love her. I could make her happy-possibly good as well."

Ralston never paid compliments, but after a considerable pause he said, "It would be the best thing that ever happened to the imp. So far as her mother's permission goes, I should say she is cheap enough to be had almost without asking. You won't need to use much persuasion in that direction."

"An infernal shame!" said Bernard, the hot light again in his eyes.

Ralston agreed with him. "All the same, Tessa can be a positive little demon when she likes. I've seen it, so I know. She has got a good deal of her mother's temperament only with a generous allowance of heart thrown in."

"Yes," Bernard said. "And it's the heart that counts. You can do practically anything with a child like that."

Ralston got up. "Well, I'm going to have another look at her, and then I'm due at The Green Bungalow. I can't say what is going to happen there. You ought to clear out, all of you; but a journey would probably be fatal to Mrs. Monck's infant just now. I can't advise it."

"Wherever Stella goes, I go," said Bernard firmly.

"Yes, that's understood." Ralston gave him a keen look. "You're in charge, aren't you? But those who can go, must go, that's certain. That scoundrel will be convicted in a day or two. And then-look out for squalls!"

Bernard's smile was scarcely the smile of the man of peace. "Oh yes, I shall look out," he said mildly. "And-incidentally-Tommy is teaching me how to shoot."

They returned to Tessa who was still sleeping, and Mrs. Ralston gave up her place beside her to Bernard, who settled down with a paper to spend the afternoon. Major Ralston departed for The Green Bungalow, and the silence of midday fell upon the place.

It was still early in the year, but the warmth was as that of a soft summer day in England. The lazy drone of bees hung on the air, and somewhere among the tamarisks a small, persistent bird, called and called perpetually, receiving no reply.

"A fine example of perseverance," Bernard murmured to himself.

He had plenty of things to think about-to worry about also, had it been his disposition to worry; but the utter peace that surrounded him made him drowsy. He nodded uncomfortably for a space, then finally-since he seldom did things by halves-laid aside his paper, leaned back in his chair, and serenely slept.

Twice during the afternoon Mrs. Ralston tiptoed along the verandah, peeped in upon them, and retired again smiling. On the second occasion she met her husband on the same errand and he drew her aside, his hand through her arm.

"Look here, Mary! I've talked to that little spitfire without much result. She talks in a random fashion of going to Udalkhand. What her actual intentions are I don't know. Possibly she doesn't know herself. But one thing is certain. She is not going to be attached to your train any longer, and I have told her so."

"Oh, Gerald!" She looked at him in dismay. "How-inhospitable of you!"

"Yes, isn't it?" His hand was holding her arm firmly. "You see, I chance to value your safety more than my reputation for kindness to outsiders. You are going to Bhulwana at the end of this week. Come! You promised."

"Yes, I know I did." She lo

oked at him with distress in her eyes. "I've wished I hadn't ever since. There is my poor Stella in bad trouble for one thing. She says she will have to change her ayah. And there is-"

"She has got Peter-and her brother-in-law. She doesn't want you too," said her husband.

"And now there is little Tessa," proceeded Mrs. Ralston, growing more and more worried as she proceeded.

"Yes, there is Tessa," he agreed. "You can offer to take her to Bhulwana with you if you like. But not her mother as well. That is understood. It won't break her heart to part with her, I fancy. As for you, my dear," he gave her a whimsical look, "the sooner you are gone the better I shall be pleased. Lady Harriet and the Burton contingent left to-day."

"I hate going!" declared Mrs. Ralston almost tearfully. "I shouldn't have promised if I could have foreseen all that was going to happen."

He squeezed her arm. "All the same-you promised. So don't be silly!"

She turned suddenly and clung to him.

"Gerald! I want to stay with you. Let me stay! I can't bear the thought of you alone and in danger."

He stared for a moment in astonishment. Demonstrations of affection were almost unknown between them. Then, with a shamefaced gesture, he bent and kissed her.

"What a silly old woman!" he said.

That ended the discussion and she knew that her plea had been refused. But the fashion of its refusal brought the warm colour to her faded face, and she was even near to laughing in the midst of her woe. How dear of Gerald to put it like that! She did not feel that she had ever fully realized his love for her until that moment.

Seeing that her presence in her own bungalow was not needed just then, she betook herself once more to Stella, and again the afternoon silence fell like a spell of enchantment. That there could be any element of unrest anywhere within that charmed region seemed a thing impossible. The peace of Eden brooded everywhere.

The evening was drawing on ere Bernard slowly emerged from his serene slumber and looked at the child beside him. Some invisible influence-or perhaps some bond of sympathy between them-had awakened her at the same moment, for her eyes were fixed upon him. They shone intensely, mysteriously blue in the subdued light, wistful, searching eyes, wholly unlike the eyes of a child.

Her hand came out to his. "Have you been here all the time, dear?" she said.

She seemed to be still half-wrapped in the veil of sleep. He leaned to her, holding the little hand up against his cheek.

"Almost, my princess," he said.

She nestled to him snuggling her fair head into his shoulder. "I've been dreaming," she whispered.

"Have you, my darling?" He gathered her close with a compassionate tenderness for the frailty of the little throbbing body he held.

Tessa's arms crept round his neck. "I dreamt," she said, "that you and I, Uncle St. Bernard, were walking in a great big city, and there was a church with a golden spire. There were a lot of steps up to it-and Scooter-" a sob rose in her throat and was swiftly suppressed-"was sunning himself on the top. And I tried to run up the steps and catch him, but there were always more and more and more steps, and I couldn't get any nearer. And I cried at last, I was so tired and disappointed. And then-" the bony arms tightened-"you came up behind me, and took my hand and said, 'Why don't you kneel down and pray? It's much the quickest way.' And so I did," said Tessa simply. "And all of a sudden the steps were gone, and you and I went in together. I tried to pick up Scooter, but he ran away, and I didn't mind 'cos I knew he was safe. I was so happy, so very happy. I didn't want to wake again." A doleful note crept into Tessa's voice; she swallowed another sob.

Bernard lifted her bodily from the bed to his arms. "Don't fret, little sweetheart! I'm here," he said.

She lifted her face to his, very wet and piteous. "Uncle St. Bernard, I've been praying and praying-ever such a lot since my birthday-party. You said I might, didn't you? But God hasn't taken any notice."

He held her close. "What have you been praying for, my darling?" he said.

"I do-so-want to be your little girl," answered Tessa with a break in her voice. "I never really prayed for anything before-only the things Aunt Mary made me say-and they weren't what I wanted. But I do want this. And I believe I'd get quite good if I was your little girl. I told God so, but I don't think He cared."

"Yes. He did care, darling." Very softly Bernard reassured her. "Don't you think that ever! He is going to answer that prayer of yours-pretty soon now."

"Oh, is He?" said Tessa, brightening. "How do you know? Is He going to say Yes?"

"I think so." Bernard's voice and touch were alike motherly. "But you must be patient a little longer, my princess of the bluebell. It isn't good for us to have things straight off when we want them."

"You do want me?" insinuated Tessa, squeezing his neck very hard.

"Yes. I want you very much," he said.

"I love you," said Tessa with passionate warmth, "better-yes, better now than even Uncle Everard. And I didn't think I ever could do that."

"God bless you, little one!" he said.

Later, when Major Ralston had seen her again, they had another conference. The doctor's suspicions were fully justified. Tessa would need the utmost care.

"She shall have it," Bernard said. "But-I can't leave Stella now. I shall see my way clearer presently."

"Quite so," Ralston agreed. "My wife shall look after the child at Bhulwana. It will keep her quiet." He gave Bernard a shrewd look. "Perhaps you-and Mrs. Monck also-will be on your way Home before the hot weather," he said. "In that case she could go with you."

Bernard was silent. It was impossible to look forward. One thing was certain. He could not desert Stella.

Ralston passed on. Being reticent himself he respected a man who could keep his own counsel.

"What about Mrs. Ermsted?" he said. "When will you see her?"

"To-night," said Bernard, setting his jaw.

Ralston smiled briefly. That look recalled his brother. "No time like the present," he said.

But the time for consultation with Netta Ermsted upon the future of her child was already past. When Bernard, very firm and purposeful, walked down again after dinner that night, Ralston met him with a wry expression and put a crumpled note into his hand.

"Mrs. Ermsted has apparently divined your benevolent intentions," he said.

Bernard read in silence, with meeting brows.

DEAR MARY:

This is to wish you and all kind friends good-bye. So that there may be no misunderstanding on the part of our charitable gossips, pray tell them at once that I have finally chosen the broad road as it really suits me best. As for Tessa-I bequeath her and her little morals to the first busybody who cares to apply for them. Perhaps the worthy Father Monck would like to acquire virtue in this fashion. I find the task only breeds vice in me. Many thanks for your laborious and, I fear, wholly futile attempts to keep me in the much too narrow way.

Yours,

NETTA.

Bernard looked up from the note with such fiery eyes that Ralston who was on the verge of a scathing remark himself had to stop out of sheer curiosity to see what he would say.

"A damnably cruel and heartless woman!" said Bernard with deliberation.

Ralston's smile expressed what for him was warm approval. "She's nothing but an animal," he said.

Bernard took him up short. "You wrong the animals," he said. "The very least of them love their young."

Ralston shrugged his shoulders. "All the better for Tessa anyhow."

Bernard's eyes softened very suddenly. He crumpled the note into a ball and tossed it from him. "Yes," he said quietly. "God helping me, it shall be all the better for her."

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