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   Chapter 41 THE DESERT OF ASHES

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 20962

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Was it night? Was it morning? She could not tell. She opened her eyes to a weird and incomprehensible twilight, to the gurgling sound of water, the booming croak of a frog.

At first she thought that she was dreaming, that presently these vague impressions would fade from her consciousness, and she would awake to normal things, to the sunlight beating across the verandah, to the cheery call of Everard's saice in the compound, and the tramp of impatient hoofs. And Everard himself would rise up from her side, and stoop and kiss her before he went.

She began to wait for his kiss, first in genuine expectation, later with a semi-conscious tricking of the imagination. Never once had he left her without that kiss.

But she waited in vain, and as she waited the current of her thoughts grew gradually clearer. She began to remember the happenings of the night. It dawned upon her slowly and terribly that Everard was dead.

When that memory came to her, her brain seemed to stand still. There was no passing on from that. Everard had been shot in the jungle-just as she had always known he would be. He had ridden on in spite of it. She pictured his grim endurance with shrinking vividness. He had ridden on to Major Ralston's bungalow and had collapsed there,-collapsed and died before they could help him. Clearly before her inner vision rose the scene,-Everard sinking down, broken and inert, all the indomitable strength of him shattered at last, the steady courage quenched.

Yet what was it he had once said to her? It rushed across her now-words he had uttered long ago on the night he had taken her to the ruined temple at Khanmulla. "My love is not the kind that burns and goes out." She remembered the exact words, the quiver in the voice that had uttered them. Then, that being so, he was loving her still. Across the desert-her bitter desert of ashes-the lamp was shining even now. Love like his was immortal. Love such as that could never die.

That comforted her for a space, but soon the sense of desolation returned. She remembered their cruel estrangement. She remembered their child. And that last thought, entering like an electric force, gave her strength. Surely it was morning, and he would be needing her! Had not Peter said he would want her in the morning?

With a sharp effort she raised herself; she must go to him.

The next moment a sharp breath of amazement escaped her. Where was she? The strange twilight stretched up above her into infinite shadow. Before her was a broken archway through which vaguely she saw the heavy foliage of trees. Behind her she yet heard the splash and gurgle of water, the croaking of frogs. And near at hand some tiny creature scratched and scuffled among loose stones.

She sat staring about her, doubting the evidence of her senses, marvelling if it could all be a dream. For she recognized the place. It was the ruined temple of Khanmulla in which she sat. There were the crumbling steps on which she had stood with Everard on the night that he had mercilessly claimed her love, had taken her in his arms and said that it was Kismet.

It was then that like a dagger-thrust the realization of his loss went through her. It was then that she first tasted the hopeless anguish of loneliness that awaited her, saw the long, long desert track stretching out before her, leading she knew not whither. She bowed her head upon her arms and sat crushed, unconscious of all beside....

It must have been some time later that there fell a soft step beside her; a veiled figure, bent and slow of movement, stooped over her.

"Mem-sahib!" a low voice said.

She looked up, startled and wondering. "Hanani!" she said.

"Yes, it is Hanani." The woman's husky whisper came reassuringly in answer. "Have no fear, mem-sahib! You are safe here."

"What-happened?" questioned Stella, still half-doubting the evidence of her senses. "Where-where is my baby?"

Hanani knelt down by her side. "Mem-sahib," she said very gently, "the baba sleeps-in the keeping of God."

It was tenderly spoken, so tenderly that-it came to her afterwards-she received the news with no sense of shock. She even felt as if she must have somehow known it before. In the utter greyness of her desert-she had walked alone.

"He is dead?" she said.

"Not dead, mem-sahib," corrected the ayah gently. She paused a moment, then in the same hushed voice that was scarcely more than a whisper: "He-passed, mem-sahib, in these arms, so easily, so gently, I knew not when the last breath came. You had been gone but a little space. I sent Peter to call you, but your room was empty. He returned, and I went to seek you myself. I reached you only as the storm broke."

"Ah!" A sharp shudder caught Stella. "What-happened?" she asked again.

"It was but a band of budmashes, mem-sahib." A note of contempt sounded in the quiet rejoinder. "I think they were looking for Monck sahib-for the captain sahib. But they found him not."

"No," Stella said. "No. They had killed him already-in the jungle. At least, they had shot him. He died-afterwards." She spoke dully; she felt as if her heart had grown old within her, too old to feel poignantly any more. "Go on!" she said, after a moment. "What happened then? Did they kill Bernard sahib and Denvers sahib, too?"

"Neither, my mem-sahib." Hanani's reply was prompt and confident. "Bernard sahib was struck on the head and senseless when we dragged him in. Denvers sahib was not touched. It was he who put out the lamp and saved their lives. Afterwards, I know not how, he raised a great outcry so that they thought they were surrounded and fled. Truly, Denvers sahib is great. After that, he went for help. And I, mem-sahib, fearing they might return to visit their vengeance upon you-being the wife of the captain sahib whom they could not find-I wrapped a saree about your head and carried you away." Humble pride in the achievement sounded in Hanani's voice. "I knew that here you would be safe," she ended. "All evil-doers fear this place. It is said to be the abode of unquiet spirits."

Again Stella gazed around the place. Her eyes had become accustomed to the green-hued twilight. The crumbling, damp-stained walls stretched away into darkness behind her, but the place held no terrors for her. She was too tired to be afraid. She only wondered, though without much interest, how Hanani had managed to accomplish the journey.

"Where is Peter?" she asked at last.

"Peter remained with Bernard sahib," Hanani answered. "He will tell them where to seek for you."

Again Stella gazed about the place. It struck her as strange that Peter should have relinquished his guardianship of her, even in favour of Hanani. But the thought did not hold her for long. Evidently he had known that he could trust the woman as he trusted himself and her strength must be almost superhuman. She was glad that he had stayed behind with Bernard.

She leaned her chin upon her hands and sat silent for a space. But gradually, as she reviewed the situation, curiosity began to struggle through her lethargy. She looked at Hanani crouched humbly beside her, looked at her again and again, and at last her wonder found vent in speech.

"Hanani," she said, "I don't quite understand everything. How did you get me here?"

Hanani's veiled head was bent. She turned it towards her slowly, almost reluctantly it seemed to Stella.

"I carried you, mem-sahib," she said.

"You-carried-me!" Stella repeated the word incredulously. "But it is a long way-a very long way-from Kurrumpore."

Hanani was silent for a moment or two, as though irresolute. Then: "I brought you by a way unknown to you, mem-sahib," she said. "Hafiz-you know Hafiz?-he helped me."

"Hafiz!" Stella frowned a little. Yes, by sight she knew him well. Hafiz the crafty, was her private name for him.

"How did he help you?" she asked.

Again Hanani seemed to hesitate as one reluctant to give away a secret. "From the shop of Hafiz-that is the shop of Rustam Karin in the bazaar," she said at length, and Stella quivered at the name, "there is a passage that leads under the ground into the jungle. To those who know, the way is easy. It was thus, mem-sahib, that I brought you hither."

"But how did you get me to the bazaar?" questioned Stella, still hardly believing.

"It was very dark, mem-sahib; and the budmashes were scattered. They would not touch an old woman such as Hanani. And you, my mem-sahib, were wrapped in a saree. With old Hanani you were safe."

"Ah, why should you take all that trouble to save my life?" Stella said, a little quiver of passion in her voice. "Do you think life is so precious to me-now?"

Hanani made a protesting gesture with one arm. "Lo, it is yet night, mem-sahib," she said. "But is it not written in the sacred Book that with the dawn comes joy?"

"There can never be any joy for me again," Stella said.

Hanani leaned slowly forward. "Then will my mem-sahib have missed the meaning of life," she said. "Listen then-listen to old Hanani-who knows! It is true that the baba cannot return to the mem-sahib, but would she call him back to pain? Have I not read in her eyes night after night the silent prayer that he might go in peace? Now that the God of gods has answered that prayer-now that the baba is in peace-would my mem-sahib have it otherwise? Would she call that loved one back? Would she not rather thank the God of spirits for His great mercy-and so go her way rejoicing?"

Again the utterance was too full of tenderness to give her pain. It sank deep into Stella's heart, stilling for a space the anguish. She looked at the strange, draped figure beside her that spoke those husky words of comfort with a dawning sense of reverence. She had a curious feeling as of one being guided through a holy place.

"You-comfort me, Hanani," she said after a moment. "I don't think I am really grieving for the baba yet. That will come after. I know that-as you say-he is at peace, and I would not call him back. But-Hanani-that is not all. It is not even the half or the beginning of my trouble. The loss of my baba I can bear-I could bear-bravely. But the loss of-of-" Words failed her unexpectedly. She bowed her head again upon her arms and wept the bitter tears of despair.

Hanani the ayah sat very still by her side, her brown, bony hands tightly gripped about her knees, her veiled head bent slightly forward as though she watched

for someone in the dimness of the broken archway.

At last very, very slowly she spoke.

"Mem-sahib, even in the desert the sun rises. There is always comfort for those who go forward-even though they mourn."

"Not for me," sobbed Stella. "Not for those-who part-in bitterness-and never-meet again!"

"Never, mem-sahib?" Hanani yet gazed straight before her. Suddenly she made a movement as if to rise, but checked herself as one reminded by exertion of physical infirmity. "The mem-sahib weeps for her lord," she said. "How shall Hanani comfort her? Yet never is a cruel word. May it not be that he will-even now-return?"

"He is dead," whispered Stella.

"Not so, mem-sahib." Very gently Hanani corrected her. "The captain sahib lives."

"He-lives?" Stella started upright with the words. In the gloom her eyes shone with a sudden feverish light; but it very swiftly died. "Ah, don't torture me, Hanani!" she said. "You mean well, but-it doesn't help."

"Hanani speaks the truth," protested the old ayah, and behind the enveloping veil came an answering gleam as if she smiled. "My lord the captain sahib spoke with Hafiz this very night. Hafiz will tell the mem-sahib."

But Stella shook her head in hopeless unbelief. "I don't trust Hafiz," she said wearily.

"Yet Hafiz would not lie to old Hanani," insisted the ayah in that soft, insinuating whisper of hers.

Stella reached out a trembling hand and laid it upon her shoulder. "Listen, Hanani!" she said. "I have never seen your face, yet I know you for a friend."

"Ask not to see it, mem-sahib," swiftly interposed the ayah, "lest you turn with loathing from one who loves you!"

Stella smiled, a quivering, piteous smile. "I should never do that, Hanani," she said. "But I do not need to see it. I know you love me. But do not-out of your love for me-tell me a lie! It is false comfort. It cannot help me."

"But I have not lied, mem-sahib." There was earnest assurance in Hanani's voice-such assurance as could not be disregarded. "I have told you the truth. The captain sahib is not dead. It was a false report."

"Hanani! Are you-sure?" Stella's hand gripped the ayah's shoulder with convulsive, strength. "Then who-who-was the sahib they shot in the jungle-the sahib who died at the bungalow of Ralston sahib? Did-Hafiz-tell you that?"

"That-" said Hanani, and paused as if considering how best to present the information,-"that was another sahib."

"Another sahib?" Stella was trembling violently. Her hold upon Hanani was the clutch of desperation, "Who-what was his name?"

She felt in the momentary pause that followed that the eyes behind the veil were looking at her strangely, speculatively. Then very softly Hanani answered her.

"His name, mem-sahib, was Dacre."

"Dacre!" Stella repeated the name blankly. It seemed to hold too great a meaning for her to grasp.

"So Hafiz told Hanani," said the ayah.

"But-Dacre!" Stella hung upon the name as if it held her by a fascination from which she could not shake free. "Is that-all you know?" she said at last.

"Not all, my mem-sahib," answered Hanani, in the soothing tone of one who instructs a child. "Hafiz knew the sahib in the days before Hanani came to Kurrumpore. Hafiz told a strange story of the sahib. He had married and had taken his wife to the mountains beyond Srinagar. And there an evil fate had overtaken him, and she-the mem-sahib-had returned alone."

Hanani paused dramatically.

"Go on!" gasped Stella almost inarticulately.

Hanani took up her tale again in a mysterious whisper that crept in eerie echoes about the ruined place in which they sat. "Mem-sahib, Hafiz said that there was doubtless a reason for which he feigned death. He said that Dacre sahib was a bad man, and my lord the captain sahib knew it. Wherefore he followed him to the mountains and commanded him to be gone, and thus-he went."

"But who-told-Hafiz?" questioned Stella, still struggling against unbelief.

"How should Hanani know?" murmured the ayah deprecatingly "Hafiz lives in the bazaar. He hears many things-some true-some false. But that Dacre sahib returned last night and that he now is dead is true, mem-sahib. And that my lord the captain sahib lives is also true. Hanani swears it by her grey hairs."

"Then where-where is the captain sahib?" whispered Stella.

The ayah shook her head. "It is not given to Hanani to know all things," she protested. "But-she can find out. Does the mem-sahib desire her to find out?"

"Yes," Stella breathed.

The fantastic tale was running like a mad tarantella through her brain. Her thoughts were in a whirl. But she clung to the thought of Everard as a shipwrecked mariner clings to a rock. He yet lived; he had not passed out of her reach. It might be he was even then at Khanmulla a few short miles away. All her doubt of him, all evil suspicions, vanished in a great and overwhelming longing for his presence. It suddenly came to her that she had wronged him, and before that unquestionable conviction the story of Ralph Dacre's return was dwarfed to utter insignificance. What was Ralph Dacre to her? She had travelled far-oh, very far-through the desert since the days of that strange dream in the Himalayas. Living or dead, surely he had no claim upon her now!

Impulsively she stooped towards Hanani. "Take me to him!" she said. "Take me to him! I am sure you know where he is."

Hanani drew back slightly. "Mem-sahib, it will take time to find him," she remonstrated. "Hanani is not a young woman. Moreover-" she stopped suddenly, and turned her head.

"What is it?" said Stella.

"I heard a sound, mem-sahib." Hanani rose slowly to her feet. It seemed to Stella that she was more bent, more deliberate of movement, than usual. Doubtless the wild adventure of the night had told upon her. She watched her with a tinge of compunction as she made her somewhat difficult way towards the archway at the top of the broken marble steps. A flying-fox flapped eerily past her as she went, dipping over the bent, veiled head with as little fear as if she were a recognized inhabitant of that wild place.

A sharp sense of unreality stabbed Stella. She felt as one coming out of an all-absorbing dream. Obeying an instinctive impulse, she rose up quickly to follow. But even as she did so, two things happened.

Hanani passed like a shadow from her sight, and a voice she knew-Tommy's voice, somewhat high-pitched and anxious-called her name.

Swiftly she moved to meet him. "I am here, Tommy! I am here!"

And then she tottered, feeling her strength begin to fail.

"Oh, Tommy!" she gasped. "Help me!"

He sprang up the steps and caught her in his arms. "You hang on to me!" he said. "I've got you."

She leaned upon him quivering, with closed eyes. "I am afraid I must," she said weakly. "Forgive me for being so stupid!"

"All right, darling. All right," he said. "You're not hurt?"

"No, oh no! Only giddy-stupid!" She fought desperately for self-command. "I shall be all right in a minute."

She heard the voices of men below her, but she could not open her eyes to look. Tommy supported her strongly, and in a few seconds she was aware of someone on her other side, of a steady capable hand grasping her wrist.

"Drink this!" said Ralston's voice. "It'll help you."

He was holding something to her lips, and she drank mechanically.

"That's better," he said. "You've had a rough time, I'm afraid, but it's over now. Think you can walk, or shall we carry you?"

The matter-of-fact tones seemed to calm the chaos of her brain. She looked up at him with a faint, brave smile.

"I will walk,-of course. There is nothing the matter with me. What has happened at Kurrumpore? Is all well?"

He met her eyes. "Yes," he said quietly.

Her look flinched momentarily from his, but the next instant she met it squarely. "I know about-my baby," she said.

He bent his head. "You could not wish it otherwise," he said, gently.

She answered him with firmness, "No."

The few words helped to restore her self-possession. With her hand upon Tommy's arm she descended the steps into the green gloom of the jungle. The morning sun was smiting through the leaves. It gleamed in her eyes like the flashing of a sword. But-though the simile held her mind for a space-she felt no shrinking. She had a curious conviction that the path lay open before her at last. The Angel with the Flaming Sword no longer barred the way.

A party of Indian soldiers awaited her. She did not see how many. Perhaps she was too tired to take any very vivid interest in her surroundings. A native litter stood a few yards from the foot of the steps. Tommy guided her to it, Major Ralston walking on her other side.

She turned to the latter as they reached it. "Where is Hanani?" she said.

He raised his brows for a moment. "She has probably gone back to her people," he answered.

"She was here with me, only a minute ago," Stella said.

He glanced round. "She knows her way no doubt. We had better not wait now. If you want her, I will find her for you later."

"Thank you," Stella said. But she still paused, looking from Ralston to Tommy and back again, as one uncertain.

"What is it, darling?" said Tommy gently.

She put her hand to her head with a weary gesture of bewilderment. "I am very stupid," she said. "I can't think properly. You are sure everything is all right?"

"Quite sure, dear," he said. "Don't try to think now. You are done up. You must rest."

Her face quivered suddenly like the face of a tired child. "I want-Everard," she said piteously. "Won't you-can't you-bring him to me? There is something-I want-to say to him."

There was an instant's pause. She felt Tommy's arm tighten protectingly around her, but he did not speak.

It was Major Ralston who answered her. "Certainly he shall come to you. I will see that he does."

The confidence of his reply comforted her. She trusted Major Ralston instinctively. She entered the litter and sank down among the cushions with a sigh.

As they bore her away along the narrow, winding path which once she had trodden with Everard Monck so long, long ago, on the night of her surrender to the mastery of his love, utter exhaustion overcame her and the sleep, which for so long she had denied herself, came upon her like an overwhelming flood, sweeping her once more into the deeps of oblivion. She went without a backward thought.

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