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   Chapter 39 THE FIRST VICTIM

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 12839

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

An ominous calm prevailed at Khanmulla during the week that followed the conviction of Ermsted's murderer and the disappearance of the Rajah. All Markestan seemed to be waiting with bated breath. But, save for the departure of the women from Kurrumpore, no sign was given by the Government of any expectation of a disturbance. The law was to take its course, and no official note had been made of the absence of the Rajah. He had always been sudden in his movements.

Everything went as usual at Kurrumpore, and no one's nerves seemed to feel any strain. Even Tommy betrayed no hint of irritation. A new manliness had come upon Tommy of late. He was keeping himself in hand with a steadiness which even Bertie Oakes could not ruffle and which Major Ralston openly approved. He had always known that Tommy had the stuff for great things in him.

A species of bickering friendship had sprung up between them, founded upon their tacit belief in the honour of a man who had failed. They seldom mentioned his name, but the bond of sympathy remained, oddly tenacious and unassailable. Tommy strongly suspected, moreover, that Ralston knew Everard's whereabouts, and of this even Bernard was ignorant at that time. Ralston never boasted his knowledge, but the conviction had somehow taken hold of Tommy, and for this reason also he sought the surgeon's company as he had certainly never sought it before.

Ralston on his part was kind to the boy partly because he liked him and admired his staunchness, and partly because his wife's unwilling departure had left him lonely. He and Major Burton for some reason were not so friendly as of yore, and they no longer spent their evenings in strict seclusion with the chess-board. He took to walking back from the Mess with Tommy, and encouraged the latter to drop in at his bungalow for a smoke whenever he felt inclined. It was but a short distance from The Green Bungalow, and, as he was wont to remark, it was one degree more cheerful for which consideration Tommy was profoundly grateful. Notwithstanding Bernard's kind and wholesome presence, there were times when the atmosphere of The Green Bungalow was almost more than he could bear. He was powerless to help, and the long drawn-out misery weighed upon him unendurably. He infinitely preferred smoking a silent pipe in Ralston's company or messing about with him in his little surgery as he was sometimes permitted to do.

On the evening before the day fixed for the execution at Khanmulla, they were engaged in this fashion when the khitmutgar entered with the news that a sahib desired to speak to him.

"Oh, bother!" said Ralston crossly. "Who is it? Don't you know?"

The man hesitated, and it occurred to Tommy instantly that there was a hint of mystery in his manner. The sahib had ridden through the jungle from Khanmulla, he said. He gave no name.

"Confounded fool!" said Ralston. "No one but a born lunatic would do a thing like that. Go and see what he wants like a good chap, Tommy! I'm busy."

Tommy rose with alacrity. His curiosity was aroused. "Perhaps it's Monck," he said.

"More likely Barnes," said Ralston. "Only I shouldn't have thought he'd be such a fool. Keep your eyes skinned!" he added, as Tommy went to the door. "Don't get shot or stuck by anybody! If I'm really wanted, I'll come."

Tommy grinned at the caution and departed. He had ceased to anticipate any serious trouble in the State, and nothing really exciting ever came his way.

He went through the bungalow to the dining-room still half expecting to find his brother-in-law awaiting him. But the moment he entered, he had a shock. A man in a rough tweed coat was sitting at the table in an odd, hunched attitude, almost as if he had fallen into the chair that supported him.

He turned his head a little at Tommy's entrance, but not so that the light revealed his face. "Hullo!" he said. "That you, Ralston? I've got a bullet in my left shoulder. Do you mind getting it out?"

Tommy stopped dead. He felt as if his heart stopped also. He knew-surely he knew-that voice! But it was not that of Everard or Barnes, or of any one he had ever expected to meet again on earth.

"What-what-" he gasped feebly, and went backwards against the door-post. "Am I drunk?" he questioned with himself.

The man in the chair turned more fully. "Why, it's Tommy!" he said.

The light smote full upon him now throwing up every detail of a countenance which, though handsome, had begun to show unmistakable signs of coarse and intemperate habits. He laughed as he met the boy's shocked eyes, but the laugh caught in his throat and turned to a strangled oath. Then he began to cough.

"Oh-my God!" said Tommy.

He turned then, horror urging him, and tore back to Ralston, as one pursued by devils. He burst in upon him headlong.

"For heaven's sake, come! That fellow-it's-it's--"

"Who?" said Ralston sharply.

"I don't know!" panted back Tommy. "I'm mad, I think. But come-for goodness' sake-before he bleeds to death!"

Ralston came with a velocity which exceeded even Tommy's wild rush. Tommy marvelled at it later. He had not thought the phlegmatic and slow-moving Ralston had it in him. He himself was left well behind, and when he re-entered the dining-room Ralston was already bending over the huddled figure that sprawled across the table.

"Come and lend a hand!" he ordered. "We must get him on the floor. Poor devil! He's got it pretty straight."

He had not seen the stricken man's face. He was too concerned with the wound to worry about any minor details for the moment.

Tommy helped him to the best of his ability, but he was trembling so much that in a second Ralston swooped scathingly upon his weakness.

"Steady man! Pull yourself together! What on earth's the matter? Never seen a little blood before? If you faint, I'll-I'll kick you! There!"

Tommy pulled himself together forthwith. He had never before submitted to being bullied by Ralston; but he submitted then, for speech was beyond him. They lowered the big frame between them, and at Ralston's command he supported it while the doctor made a swift examination of the injury.

Then, while this was in progress, the wounded man recovered his senses and forced a few husky words. "Hullo,-Ralston! Have they done me in?"

Ralston's eyes went to his face for the first time, shot a momentary glance at Tommy, and returne

d to the matter in hand.

"Don't talk!" he said.

A few seconds later he got to his feet. "Keep him just as he is! I must go and fetch something. Don't let him speak!"

He was gone with the words, and Tommy, still feeling bewildered and rather sick, knelt in silence and waited for his return.

But almost immediately the husky voice spoke again. "Tommy-that you?"

Tommy felt himself begin to tremble again and put forth all his strength to keep himself in hand. "Don't talk!" he said gruffly.

"I've-got to talk." The words came, forced by angry obstinacy. "It's no-damnation-good. I'm done for-beaten on the straight. And that hell hound Monck-"

"Damn you! Be quiet!" said Tommy in a furious undertone.

"I won't be quiet. I'll have-my turn-such as it is. Where's Stella? Fetch Stella! I've a right to that anyway. She is-my lawful wife!"

"I can't fetch her," said Tommy.

"All right then. You can tell her-from me-that she's been duped-as I was. She's mine-not his. He came-with that cock-and-bull story about-the other woman. But she was dead-I've found out since. She was dead-and he knew it. He faked up the tale-to suit himself. He wanted her-the damn skunk-wanted her-and cheated-cheated-to get her."

He stopped, checked by a terrible gurgle in the throat. Tommy, white with passion, broke fiercely into his gasping silence.

"It's a damned lie! Monck is a white man! He never did-a thing like that!"

And then he too stopped in sheer horror at the devilish hatred that gleamed in the rolling, bloodshot eyes.

A few dreadful seconds passed. Then Ralph Dacre gathered his ebbing life in one last great effort of speech. "She is my wife. I hold the proof. If it hadn't been for this-I'd have taken her from him-to-night. He ruined me-and he robbed me. But I-I'll ruin him now. It's my turn. He is not-her husband, and she-she'll scorn him after this-if I know her. Consoled herself precious soon. Yes, women are like that. But they don't forgive so easily. And she-is not-the forgiving sort-anyway. She'll never forgive him for tricking her-the hound! She'll never forget that the child-her child-is a bastard. And-the Regiment-won't forget either. He's down-and out."

He ceased to speak. Tommy's hands were clenched. If the man had been on his feet, he would have struck him on the mouth. As it was, he could only kneel in impotence and listen to the amazing utterance that fell from the gasping lips.

He felt stunned into passivity. His anger had strangely sunk away, though he regarded the man he supported with such an intensity of loathing that he marvelled at himself for continuing to endure the contact. The astounding revelation had struck him like a blow between the eyes. He felt numb, almost incapable of thought.

He heard Ralston returning and wondered what he could have been doing in that interminable interval. Then, reluctant but horribly fascinated, his look went back to the upturned, dreadful face. The malignancy had gone out of it. The eyes rolled no longer, but gazed with a great fixity at something that seemed to be infinitely far away. As Tommy looked, a terrible rattling breath went through the heavy, inert form. It seemed to rend body and soul asunder. There followed a brief palpitating shudder, and the head on his arm sank sideways. A great stillness fell....

Ralston knelt and freed him from his burden. "Get up!" he said.

Tommy obeyed though he felt more like collapsing. He leaned upon the table and stared while Ralston laid the big frame flat and straight upon the floor.

"Is he dead?" he asked in a whisper, as Ralston stood up.

"Yes," said Ralston.

"It wasn't my fault, was it?" said Tommy uneasily. "I couldn't stop him talking."

"He'd have died anyhow," said Ralston. "It's a wonder he ever got here if he was shot in the jungle as he must have been. That means-probably-that the brutes have started their games to-night. Odd if he should be the first victim!"

Tommy shuddered uncontrollably.

Ralston gripped his arm. "Don't be a fool now! Death is nothing extraordinary, after all. It's an experience we've all got to go through some time or other. It doesn't scare me. It won't you when you're a bit older. As for this fellow, it's about the best thing that could happen for everyone concerned. Just rememer that! Providence works pretty near the surface at times, and this is one of 'em. You won't believe me, I daresay, but I never really felt that Ralph Dacre was dead-until this moment."

He led Tommy from the room with the words. It was not his custom to express himself so freely, but he wanted to get that horror-stricken look out of the boy's eyes. He talked to give him time.

"And now look here!" he said. "You've got to keep your head-for you'll want it. I'll give you something to steady you, and after that you'll be on your own. You must cut back to The Green Bungalow and find Bernard Monck and tell him just what has happened-no one else mind, until you've seen him. He's discreet enough. I'm going round to the Colonel. For if what I think has happened, those devils are ahead of us by twenty-four hours, and we're not ready for 'em. They've probably cut the wires too. When you've done that, you report down at the barracks! Your sister will probably have to be taken there for safety. And there may be some tough work before morning."

These last words of his had a magical effect upon Tommy. His eyes suddenly shone. Ralston had accomplished his purpose. Nevertheless, he took him back to the surgery and made him swallow some sal volatile in spite of protest.

"And now you won't be a fool, will you?" he said at parting. "I should be sorry if you got shot to no purpose. Monck would be sorry too."

"Do you know where he is?" questioned Tommy point-blank.

"Yes." Blunt and uncompromising came Ralston's reply. "But I'm not going to tell you, so don't you worry yourself! You stick to business, Tommy, and for heaven's sake don't go round and make a mush of it!"

"Stick to business yourself!" said Tommy rudely, suddenly awaking to the fact that he was being dictated to; then pulled up, faintly grinning. "Sorry: I didn't mean that. You're a brick. Consider it unsaid! Good-bye!"

He held out his hand to Ralston who took it and thumped him on the back by way of acknowledgment.

"You're growing up," he remarked with approval, as Tommy went his way.

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