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   Chapter 40 THE FIERY VORTEX

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 6802

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"There is nothing more to be done," said Peter with mournful eyes upon the baby in the ayah's arms. "Will not my mem-sahib take her rest?"

Stella's eyes also rested upon the tiny wizen face. She knew that Peter spoke truly. There was nothing more to be done. She might send yet again for Major Ralston. But of what avail? He had told her that he could do no more. The little life was slipping swiftly, swiftly, out of her reach. Very soon only the desert emptiness would be left.

"The mem-sahib may trust her baba to Hanani," murmured the ayah behind the enveloping veil. "Hanani loves the baba too."

"Oh, I know," Stella said.

Yet she hung over the ayah's shoulder, for to-night of all nights she somehow felt that she could not tear herself away.

There had been a change during the day-a change so gradual as to be almost imperceptible save to her yearning eyes. She was certain that the baby was weaker. He had cried less, had, she believed, suffered less; and now he lay quite passive in the ayah's arms. Only by the feeble, fluttering breath that came and went so fitfully could she have told that the tiny spark yet lingered in the poor little wasted frame.

Major Ralston had told her earlier in the evening that he might go on in this state for days, but she did not think it probable. She was sure that every hour now brought an infinitesimal difference. She felt that the end was drawing near.

And so a great reluctance to go possessed her, even though she would be within call all night. She had a hungry longing to stay and watch the little unconscious face which would soon be gone from her sight. She wanted to hold each minute of the few hours left.

Very softly Peter came to her side. "My mem-sahib will rest?" he said wistfully.

She looked at him. His faithful eyes besought her like the eyes of a dog. Their dumb adoration somehow made her want to cry.

"If I could only stay to-night, Peter!" she said.

"Mem-sahib," he urged very pleadingly, "the baba sleeps now. It may be he will want you to-morrow. And if my mem-sahib has not slept she will be too weary then."

Again she knew that he spoke the truth. There had been times of late when she had been made aware of the fact that her strength was nearing its limit. She knew it would be sheer madness to neglect the warning lest, as Peter suggested, her baby's need of her outlasted her endurance. She must husband all the strength she had.

With a sigh she bent and touched the tiny forehead with her lips. Hanani's hand, long and bony, gently stroked her arm as she did so.

"Old Hanani knows, mem-sahib," she whispered under her breath.

The tears she had barely checked a moment before sprang to Stella's eyes. She held the dark hand in silence and was subtly comforted thereby.

Passing through the door that Peter held open for her, she gave him her hand also. He bent very low over it, just as he had bent on that first wedding-day of hers so long-so long-ago, and touched it with his forehead. The memory flashed back upon her oddly. She heard again Ralph Dacre's voice speaking in her ear. "You, Stella,-you are as ageless as the stars!" The pride and the passion of his tones stabbed through her with a curious poignancy. Strange that the thought of him should come to her with such vividness to-night! She passed on to her room, as one moving in a painful trance.

For a space

she lingered there, hardly knowing what she did; then she remembered that she had not bidden Bernard good-night, and mechanically her steps turned in his direction.

He was generally smoking and working on the verandah at that hour. She made her way to the dining-room as being the nearest approach.

But half-way across the room the sound of Tommy's voice, sharp and agitated, came to her: Involuntarily she paused. He was with Bernard on the verandah.

"The devils shot him in the jungle, but he came on, got as far as Ralston's bungalow, and collapsed there. He was dead in a few minutes-before anything could be done."

The words pierced through her trance, like a naked sword flashing with incredible swiftness, cutting asunder every bond, every fibre, that held her soul confined. She sprang for the open window with a great and terrible cry.

"Who is dead? Who? Who?"

The red glare of the lamp met her, dazzled her, seemed to enter her brain and cruelly to burn her; but she did not heed it. She stood with arms flung wide in frantic supplication.

"Everard!" she cried. "Oh God! My God! Not-Everard!"

Her wild words pierced the night, and all the voices of India seemed to answer her in a mad discordant jangle of unintelligible sound. An owl hooted, a jackal yelped, and a chorus of savage, yelling laughter broke hideously across the clamour, swallowing it as a greater wave swallows a lesser, overwhelming all that has gone before.

The red glare of the lamp vanished from Stella's brain, leaving an awful blankness, a sense as of something burnt out, a taste of ashes in the mouth. But yet the darkness was full of horrors; unseen monsters leaped past her as in a surging torrent, devils' hands clawed at her, devils' mouths cried unspeakable things.

She stood as it were on the edge of the vortex, untouched, unafraid, beyond it all since that awful devouring flame had flared and gone out. She even wondered if it had killed her, so terribly aloof was she, so totally distinct from the pandemonium that raged around her. It had the vividness and the curious lack of all physical feeling of a nightmare. And yet through all her numbness she knew that she was waiting for someone-someone who was dead like herself.

She had not seen either Bernard or Tommy in that blinding moment on the verandah. Doubtless they were fighting in that raging blackness in front of her. She fancied once that she heard her brother's voice laughing as she had sometimes heard him laugh on the polo-ground when he had executed a difficult stroke. Immediately before her, a Titanic struggle was going on. She could not see it, for the light in the room behind had been extinguished also, but the dreadful sound of it made her think for a fleeting second of a great bull-stag being pulled down by a score of leaping, wide-jawed hounds.

And then very suddenly she herself was caught-caught from behind, dragged backwards off her feet. She cried out in a wild horror, but in a second she was silenced. Some thick material that had a heavy native scent about it-such a scent as she remembered vaguely to hang about Hanani the ayah-was thrust over her face and head muffling all outcry. Muscular arms gripped her with a fierce and ruthless mastery, and as they lifted and bore her away the nightmare was blotted from her brain as if it had never been. She sank into oblivion....

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