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The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 11213

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was from the Colonel himself that Stella heard of Everard's retirement.

He walked back from the Mess that night with Tommy and asked to see her for a few minutes alone. He was always kinder to her in his wife's absence.

She was busy installing the new ayah whom Peter with the air of a magician who has but to wave his wand had presented to her half an hour before. The woman was old and bent and closely veiled-so closely that Stella strongly suspected her disfigurement to be of a very ghastly nature, but her low voice and capable manner inspired her with instinctive confidence. She realized with relief from the very outset that her faithful Peter had not made a mistake. She was sure that the new-comer had nursed sickly English children before. She went to the Colonel, leaving the strange woman in charge of her baby and Peter hovering reassuringly in the background.

His first greeting of her had a touch of diffidence, but when he saw the weary suffering of her eyes this was swallowed up in pity. He took her hands and held them.

"My poor girl!" he said.

She smiled at him. Pity from an outsider did not penetrate to the depths of her. "Thank you for coming," she said.

He coughed and cleared his throat. "I hope it isn't an intrusion," he said.

"But of course not!" she made answer. "How could it be? Won't you sit down?"

He led her to a chair; but he did not sit down himself. He stood before her with something of the air of a man making a confession.

"Mrs. Monck," he said, "I think I ought to tell you that it was by my advice that your husband resigned his commission."

Her brows drew together a little as if at a momentary dart of pain. "Has he resigned it?" she said.

"Yes. Didn't he tell you?" He frowned. "Haven't you seen him? Don't you know where he is?"

She shook her head. "I can only think of my baby just now," she said.

He swung round abruptly upon his heel and paced the room. "Oh yes, of course. I know that. Ralston told me. I am very sorry for you, Mrs. Monck,-very, very sorry."

"Thank you," she said.

He continued to tramp to and fro. "You haven't much to thank me for. I had to think of the Regiment; but I considered the step very carefully before I took it. He had rendered invaluable service-especially over this Khanmulla trial. He would have been decorated for it if-" he pulled up with a jerk-"if things had been different. I know Sir Reginald Bassett thought very highly of him, was prepared to give him an appointment on his personal staff. And no doubt eventually he would have climbed to the top of the tree. But-this affair has destroyed him." He paused a moment, but he did not look at her. "He has had every chance," he said then. "I kept an open mind. I wouldn't condemn him unheard until-well until he refused flatly to speak on his own behalf. I went over to Khanmulla and talked to him-talked half the night. I couldn't move him. And if a man won't take the trouble to defend his own honour, it isn't worth-that!" He snapped his fingers with a bitter gesture; then abruptly wheeled and came back to her. "I didn't come here to distress you," he said, looking down at her again. "I know your cup is full already. And it's a thankless task to persuade any woman that her husband is unworthy of her, besides being an impertinence. But what I must say to you is this. There is nothing left to wait for, and it would be sheer madness to stay on any longer. The Rajah has been deeply incriminated and is in hiding. The Government will of course take over the direction of affairs, but there is certain-absolutely certain-to be a disturbance when Ermsted's murderer is executed. I hope an adequate force will soon be at our disposal to cope with it, but it has not yet been provided. Therefore I cannot possibly permit you to stay here any longer. As Monck's wife, it is more than likely that you might be made an object of vengeance. I can't risk it. You and the child must go. I will send an escort in the morning."

He stopped at last, partly for lack of breath, partly because from her unmoved expression he fancied that she was not taking in his warning words. She sat looking straight before her as one rapt in reverie. It was almost as though she had forgotten him, suffered some more absorbing matter to crowd him out of her thoughts.

"You do follow me?" he questioned at length as she did not speak.

She lifted her eyes to him again though he felt it was with a great effort. "Oh, yes," she said. "I quite understand you, Colonel Mansfield. And-I am quite grateful to you. But I am not staying here for my husband's sake at all. I-do not suppose we shall ever see each other any more. All that is over."

He started. "What! You have given him up?" he said, uttering the words almost involuntarily, so quiet was she in her despair.

She bent her head. "Yes, I have given him up. I do not know where he is-or anything about him. I am staying here now-I must stay here now-for my baby's sake. He is too ill to bear a journey."

She lifted her face again with the words, and in its pale resolution he saw that he would spend himself upon further argument in vain. Moreover, he was for the moment too staggered by the low-spoken information to concentrate his attention upon persuasion. Her utter quietness silenced him.

He stood for a moment or two looking down at her, then abruptly bent and took her hand. "You're a very brave woman," he said, a quick touch of feeling in his voice. "You've had a fiendish time of it out here from start to finish. It'll be a good thing for you when you ca

n get out of it and go Home. You're young; you'll start again."

It was clumsy consolation, but his hand-grip was fatherly. She smiled again at him, and got up.

"Thank you very much, Colonel. You have always been kind. Please don't bother about me any more. I am really not a bit afraid. I have too much to think about. And really I don't think I am important enough to be in any real danger. You will excuse me now, won't you? I have just got a new ayah, and they always need superintending. Perhaps you will join my brother-in-law. I know he will be delighted."

She extricated herself with a gentle aloofness more difficult to combat than any open opposition, and he went away to express himself more strongly to Bernard Monck from whom he was sure at least of receiving sympathy if not support.

Stella returned to her baby with a stunned feeling of having been struck, and yet without consciousness of pain. Perhaps she had suffered so much that her faculties were getting numbed. She knew that the Colonel was surprised that his news concerning Everard had affected her so little. She was in a fashion surprised herself. Was she then so absorbed that she had no room for him in her thoughts? And yet only the previous night how she had yearned for him!

It was the end of everything for him-the end of his ambition, of his career, of all his cherished hopes. He was a broken man and he would drop out as other men had dropped out. His love for her had been his ruin. And yet her brain seemed incapable of grasping the meaning of the catastrophe. The bearing of her burden occupied the whole of her strength.

The rest of the Colonel's news scarcely touched her at all, save that the thought flashed upon her once that if the danger were indeed so great Everard would certainly come to her. That sent a strange glow through her that died as swiftly as it was born. She did not really believe in the danger, and Everard was probably far away already.

She went back to her baby and the ayah, Hanani, over whom Peter was mounting guard with a queer mixture of patronage and respect. For though he had procured the woman and obviously thought highly of her, he seemed to think that none but himself could be regarded as fully qualified to have the care of his mem-sahib's fondly cherished baba.

Stella heard him giving some low-toned directions as she entered, and she wondered if the new ayah would resent his lordly attitude. But the veiled head bent over the child expressed nothing but complete docility. She answered Peter in few words, but with the utmost meekness.

Her quietness was a great relief to Stella. There was a self-reliance about it that gave her confidence. And presently, tenderly urged by Peter, she went to the adjoining room to rest, on the understanding that she should be called immediately if occasion arose. And that was the first night of many that she passed in undisturbed repose.

In the early morning, entering, she found Peter in sole possession and very triumphant. They had divided the night, he said, and Hanani had gone to rest in her turn. All had gone well. He had slept on the threshold and knew. And now his mem-sahib would sleep through every night and have no fear.

She smiled at his solicitude though it touched her almost to tears, and gathered in silence to her breast the little frail body that every day now seemed to feel lighter and smaller. It would not be for very long-their planning and contriving. Very soon now she would be free-quite free-to sleep as long as she would. But her tired heart warmed to Peter and to that silent ayah whom he had enlisted in her service. Through the dark night of her grief the love of her friends shone with a radiance that penetrated even the deepest shadows. Was this the lamp in the desert of which Bernard had spoken so confidently-the Lamp that God had lighted to guide her halting feet? Was it by this that she would come at last into the Presence of God Himself, and realize that the wanderers in the wilderness are ever His especial care?

Certainly, as Peter had intimated, she knew her baby to be safe in their joint charge. As the days slipped by, it seemed to her that Peter had imbued the ayah with something of his own devotion, for, though it was proffered almost silently, she was aware of it at every turn. At any other time her sympathy for the woman would have fired her interest and led her to attempt to draw her confidence. But the slender thread of life they guarded, though it bound them with a tie that was almost friendship, seemed so to fill their minds that they never spoke of anything else. Stella knew that Hanani loved her and considered her in every way, but she gave Peter most of the credit for it, Peter and the little dying baby she rocked so constantly against her heart. She knew that many an ayah would lay down her life for her charge. Peter had chosen well.

Later-when this time of waiting and watching was over, when she was left childless and alone-she would try to find out something of the woman's history, help her if she could, reward her certainly. It was evident that she was growing old. She had the stoop and the deliberation of age. Probably, she would not have obtained an ayah's post under any other circumstances. But, notwithstanding these drawbacks, she had a wonderful endurance, and she was never startled or at a loss. Stella often told herself that she would not have exchanged her for another woman-even a white woman-out of the whole of India had the chance offered. Hanani, grave, silent, capable, met every need.

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