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   Chapter 37 THE DARK NIGHT

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 15660

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


An owl hooted across the compound, and a paraquet disturbed by the outcry uttered a shrill, indignant protest. An immense moon hung suspended as it were in mid-heaven, making all things intense with its radiance. It was the hour before the dawn.

Stella stood at her window, gazing forth and numbly marvelling at the splendour. As of old, it struck her like a weird fantasy-this Indian enchantment-poignant, passionate, holding more of anguish than of ecstasy, yet deeply magnetic, deeply alluring, as a magic potion which, once tasted, must enchain the senses for ever.

The extravagance of that world of dreadful black and dazzling silver, the stillness that was yet indescribably electric, the unreality that was allegorically real, she felt it all as a vague accompaniment to the heartache that never left her-the scornful mockery of the goddess she had refused to worship.

There were even times when the very atmosphere seemed to her charged with hostility-a terrible overwhelming antagonism that closed about her in a narrowing ring which serpent-wise constricted her ever more and more, from which she could never hope to escape. For-still the old idea haunted her-she was a trespasser upon forbidden ground. Once she had been cast forth. But she had dared to return, braving the flaming sword. And now-and now-it barred her in, cutting off her escape.

For she was as much a prisoner as if iron walls surrounded her. Sentence had gone forth against her. She would not be cast forth again until she had paid the uttermost farthing, endured the ultimate torture. Then only-childless and desolate and broken-would she be turned adrift in the desert, to return no more for ever.

The ghastly glamour of the night attracted and repelled her like the swing of a mighty pendulum. She was trying to pray-that much had Bernard taught her-but her prayer only ran blind and futile through her brain. The hour should have been sacred, but it was marred and desecrated by the stark glare of that nightmare moon. She was worn out with long and anxious watching, and she had almost ceased to look for comfort, so heavy were the clouds that menaced her.

The thought of Everard was ever with her, strive as she might to drive it out. At such moments as these she yearned for him with a sick and desperate longing-his strength, his tenderness, his understanding. He, and he alone, would have known how to comfort her now with her baby dying before her eyes. He would have held her up through her darkest hours. His arm would have borne her forward however terrible the path.

She had Bernard and she had Tommy, each keen and ready in her service. She sometimes thought that but for Bernard she would have been overwhelmed long since. But he could not fill the void within her. He could not even touch the aching longing that gnawed so perpetually at her heart. That was a pain she would have to endure in silence all the rest of her life. She did not think she would ever see Everard again. Though only a few miles lay between them at present he might have been already a world away. She was sure he would not come back to her unless she summoned him. The manner of his going, though he had taken no leave of her, had been somehow final. And she could not call him back even if she would. He had deceived her cruelly, of set intention, and she could never trust him again. The memory of Ralph Dacre tainted all her thoughts of him. He had sworn he had not killed him. Perhaps not-perhaps not! Yet was the conviction ever with her that he had sent him to his death, had intended him to die.

She had given up reasoning the matter. It was beyond her. She was too hopelessly plunged in darkness. Tommy with all his staunchness could not lift that overwhelming cloud. And Bernard? She did not know what Bernard thought save that he had once reminded her that a man should be regarded as innocent unless he could be proved guilty.

It was common talk now that Everard's Indian career was ended. It was only the trial at Khanmulla that had delayed the sending in of his papers. He was as much a broken man, however hotly Tommy contested the point, as if he had been condemned by a court-martial. Surely, had he been truly innocent he would have demanded a court-martial and vindicated himself. But he had suffered his honour to go down in silence. What more damning evidence could be supplied than this?

The dumb sympathy of Peter's eyes kept the torturing thought constantly before her. She felt sure that Peter believed him guilty of Dacre's murder though it was more than possible that in his heart he condoned the offence. Perhaps he even admired him for it, she reflected shudderingly. But his devotion to her, as always, was uppermost. His dog-like fidelity surrounded her with unfailing service. The ayah had gone, and he had slipped into her place as naturally as if he had always occupied it. Even now, while Stella stood at her window gazing forth into the garish moonlight, was he softly padding to and fro in the room adjoining hers, hushing the poor little wailing infant to sleep. She could trust him implicitly, she knew, even in moments of crisis. He would gladly work himself to death in her service. But with Mrs. Ralston gone to Bhulwana, she knew she must have further help. The strain was incessant, and Major Ralston insisted that she must have a woman with her.

All the ladies of the station, save herself, had gone. She knew vaguely that some sort of disturbance was expected at Khanmulla, and that it might spread to Kurrumpore. But her baby was too ill for travel; she had practically forced this truth from Major Ralston, and so she had no choice but to remain. She knew very well at the heart of her that it would not be for long.

No thought of personal danger troubled her. Sinister though the night might seem to her stretched nerves, yet no sense of individual peril penetrated the weary bewilderment of her brain. She was tired out in mind and body, and had yielded to Peter's persuasion to take a rest. But the weird cry of the night-bird had drawn her to the window and the glittering splendour of the night had held her there. She turned from it at last with a long, long sigh, and lay down just as she was. She always held herself ready for a call at any time. Those strange seizures came so suddenly and were becoming increasingly violent. It was many days since she had permitted herself to sleep soundly.

She lay for awhile wide-eyed, almost painfully conscious, listening to Peter's muffled movements in the other room. The baby had ceased to cry, but he was still prowling to and fro, tireless and patient, with an endurance that was almost superhuman.

She had done the same thing a little earlier till her limbs had given way beneath her. In the daytime Bernard helped her, but she and Peter shared the nights.

Her senses became at last a little blurred. The night seemed to have spread over half a lifetime-a practically endless vista of suffering. The soft footfall in the other room made her think of the Sentry at the Gate, that Sentry with the flaming sword who never slept. It beat with a pitiless thudding upon her brain....

Later, it grew intermittent, fitful, as if at each turn the Sentry paused. It always went on again, or so she thought. And she was sure she was not deeply sleeping, or that haunting cry of an owl had not penetrated her consciousness so frequently.

Once, oddly, there came to her-perhaps it was a dream-a sound as of voices whispering together. She turned in her sleep and tried to listen, but her senses were fogged, benumbed. She could not at the moment drag herself free from the stupor of weariness that held her. But she was sure of Peter, quite sure that he would call her if any emergency arose. And there was no one with

whom he could be whispering. So she was sure it must be a dream. Imperceptibly she sank still deeper into slumber and forgot....

It was several hours later that Tommy, returned from early parade, flung himself impetuously down at the table opposite Bernard with a brief, "Now for it!"

Bernard was reading a letter, and Tommy's eyes fastened upon it as his were lifted.

"What's that? A letter from Everard?" he asked unceremoniously.

"Yes. He has written to tell me definitely that he has sent in his resignation-and it has been accepted." Bernard's reply was wholly courteous, the boy's bluntness notwithstanding. He had a respect for Tommy.

"Oh, damn!" said Tommy with fervor. "What is he going to do now?"

"He doesn't tell me that." Bernard folded the letter and put it in his pocket. "What's your news?" he inquired.

Tommy marked the action with somewhat jealous eyes. He had been aware of Everard's intention for some time. It had been more or less inevitable. But he wished he had written to him also. There were several things he would have liked to know.

He looked at Bernard rather blankly, ignoring his question. "What the devil is he going to do?" he said. "Dropout?"

Bernard's candid eyes met his. "Honestly I don't know," he said. "Perhaps he is just waiting for orders."

"Will he come back here?" questioned Tommy.

Bernard shook his head. "No. I'm pretty sure he won't. Now tell me your news!"

"Oh, it's nothing!" said Tommy impatiently. "Nothing, I mean, compared to his clearing out. The trial is over and the man is condemned. He is to be executed next week. It'll mean a shine of some sort-nothing very great, I am afraid."

"That all?" said Bernard, with a smile.

"No, not quite all. There was some secret information given which it is supposed was rather damaging to the Rajah, for he has taken to his heels. No one knows where he is, or at least no one admits he does. You know these Oriental chaps. They can cover the scent of a rotten herring. He'll probably never turn up again. The place is too hot to hold him. He can finish his rotting in another corner of the Empire; and I wish Netta Ermsted joy of her bargain!" ended Tommy with vindictive triumph.

"My good fellow!" protested Bernard.

Tommy uttered a reckless laugh. "You know it as well as I do. She was done for from the moment he taught her the opium habit. There's no escape from that, and the devil knew it. I say, what a mercy it will be when you can get Tessa away to England."

"And Stella too," said Bernard, turning to the subject with relief.

"You won't do that," said Tommy quickly.

"How do you know that?" Bernard's look had something of a piercing quality.

But Tommy eluded all search. "I do know. I can't tell you how. But I'm certain-dead certain-that Stella won't go back to England with you this spring."

"You're something of a prophet, Tommy," remarked Bernard, after an attentive pause.

"It's not my only accomplishment," rejoined Tommy modestly. "I'm several things besides that. I've got some brains too-just a few. Funny, isn't it? Ah, here is Stella! Come and break your fast, old girl! What's the latest?"

He went to meet her and drew her to the table. She smiled in her wan, rather abstracted way at Bernard whom she had seen before.

"Oh, don't get up!" she said. "I only came for a glimpse of you both. I had tiffin in my room. Peter saw to that. Baby is very weak this morning, and I thought perhaps, Tommy dear, when, you go back you would see Major Ralston for me and ask him to come up soon." She sat down with an involuntary gesture of weariness.

"Have you slept at all?" Bernard asked her gently.

"Oh yes, thank you. I had three hours of undisturbed rest. Peter was splendid."

"You must have another ayah," Bernard said. "It isn't fit for you to go on in this way."

"No." She spoke with the docility of exhaustion. "Peter is seeing to it. He always sees to everything. He knows a woman in the bazaar who would do-an elderly woman-I think he said she is the grandmother of Hafiz who sells trinkets. You know Hafiz, I expect? I don't like him, but he is supposed to be respectable, and Peter is prepared to vouch for the woman's respectability. Only she has been terribly disfigured by an accident, burnt I think he said, and she wears a veil. I told him that didn't matter. Baby is too ill to notice, and he evidently wants me to have her. He says she has been used to English children, and is a good nurse. That is what matters chiefly, so I have told him to engage her."

"I am very glad to hear it," Bernard said.

"Yes, I think it will be a relief. Those screaming fits are so terrible." Stella checked a sharp shudder. "Peter would not recommend her if he did not personally know her to be trustworthy," she added quietly.

"No. Peter's safe enough," said Tommy. He was bolting his meal with great expedition. "Is the kiddie worse, Stella?"

She looked at him with that in her tired eyes that went straight to his heart. "He is a little worse every day," she said.

Tommy swore into his cup and asked no further.

A few moments later he got up, gave her a brief kiss, and departed.

Stella sat on with her chin in her hand, every line of her expressing the weariness of the hopeless watcher. She looked crushed, as if a burden she could hardly support had been laid upon her.

Bernard looked at her once or twice without speaking. Finally he too rose, went round to her, knelt beside her, put his arm about her.

Her face quivered a little. "I've got-to keep strong," she said, in the tone of one who had often said the same thing in solitude.

"I know," he said. "And so you will. There's special strength given for such times as these. It won't fail you now."

She put her hand into his. "Thank you," she said. And then, with an effort, "Do you know, Bernard, I tried-I really tried-to pray in the night before I lay down. But-there was something so wicked about it-I simply couldn't."

"One can't always," he said.

"Oh, have you found that too?" she asked.

He smiled at the question. "Of course I have. So has everybody. We're only children, Stella. God knows that. He doesn't expect of us more than we can manage. Prayer is only one of the means we have of reaching Him. It can't be used always. There are some people who haven't time for prayer even, and yet they may be very near to God. In times of stress like yours one is often much nearer than one realizes. You will find that out quite suddenly one of these days, find that through all your desert journeying, He has been guiding you, protecting you, surrounding you with the most loving care. And-because the night was dark-you never knew it."

"The night is certainly very dark," Stella said with a tremulous smile. "If it weren't for you I don't think I could ever get through."

"Oh, don't say that!" he said. "If it weren't me it would be someone else-or possibly a closer vision of Himself. There is always something-something to which later you will look back and say, 'That was His lamp in the desert, showing the way.' Don't fret if you can't pray! I can pray for you. You just keep on being brave and patient! He understands."

Stella's fingers pressed upon his. "You are good to me, Bernard," she said. "I shall think of what you say-the next time I am alone in the night."

His arm held her sustainingly. "And if you're very desolate, child, come and call me!" he said. "I'm always at hand, always glad to serve you."

She smiled-a difficult smile. "I shall need you more-afterwards," she said under her breath. And then, as if words had suddenly become impossible to her, she leaned against him and kissed him.

He gathered her up close, as if she had been a weary child. "God bless you, my dear!" he said.

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