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   Chapter 42 THE ANGEL

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 9224

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was many hours before she awoke and in all those hours she never dreamed. She only slept and slept and slept in total unconsciousness, wrapt about in the silence of her desert.

She awoke at length quite fully, quite suddenly, to a sense of appalling loneliness, to a desolation unutterable. She opened her eyes wide upon a darkness that could be felt, and almost cried aloud with the terror of it. For a few palpitating moments it seemed to her that the most dreadful thing that could possibly happen to her had come upon her unawares.

And then, even as she started up in a wild horror, a voice spoke to her, a hand touched her, and her fear was stayed.

"Stella!" the voice said, and steady fingers came up out of the darkness and closed upon her arm.

Her heart gave one great leap within her, and was still. She did not speak in answer, for she could not. She could only sit in the darkness and wait. If it were a dream, it would pass-ah, so swiftly! If it were reality, surely, surely he would speak again!

He spoke-softly through the silence. "I don't want to startle you. Are you startled? I've put out the lamp. You are not afraid?"

Her voice came back to her; her heart jerked on, beating strangely, spasmodically, like a maimed thing. "Am I awake?" she said. "Is it-really-you?"

"Yes," he said. "Can you listen to me a moment? You won't be afraid?"

She quivered at the repeated question. "Everard-no!"

He was silent then, as if he did not know how to continue. And she, finding her strength, leaned to him in the darkness, feeling for him, still hardly believing that it was not a dream.

He took her wandering hand and held it imprisoned. The firmness of his grasp reassured her, but it came to her that his hands were cold; and she wondered.

"I have something to say to you," he said.

She sat quite still in his hold, but it frightened her. "Where are you?" she whispered.

"I am just-kneeling by your side," he said. "Don't tremble-or be afraid! There is nothing to frighten you. Stella," his voice came almost in a whisper. "Hanani-the ayah-told you something in the ruined temple at Khanmulla. Can you remember what it was?"

"Ah!" she said. "Do you mean about-Ralph Dacre?"

"I do mean that," he said. "I don't know if you actually believed it. It may have sounded-fantastic. But-it was true."

"Ah!" she said again. And then she knew why he had turned out the lamp. It was that he might not see her face when he told her-or she his.

He went on; his hold upon her had tightened, but she knew that he was unconscious of it. It was as if he clung to her in anguish-though she heard no sign of suffering in his low voice. "I have done the utmost to keep the truth from you-but Fate has been against me all through. I sent him away from you in the first place because I heard-too late-that he had a wife in England. I married you because-" he paused momentarily-"ah well, that doesn't come into the story," he said. "I married you, believing you free. Then came Bernard, and told me that the wife-Dacre's wife-had died just before his marriage to you. That also came-too late."

He stopped again, and she knew that his head was bowed upon his arms though she could not free her hand to touch it.

"You know the rest," he said, and his voice came to her oddly broken and unfamiliar. "I kept it from you. I couldn't bear the thought of your facing-that,-especially after-after the birth of-the child. Even when you found out I had tricked you in that native rig-out, I couldn't endure the thought of your knowing. I nearly killed myself that night. It seemed the only way. But Bernard stopped me. I told him the truth. He said I was wrong not to tell you. But-somehow-I couldn't."

"Oh, I wish-I wish you had," she breathed.

"Do you? Well,-I couldn't. It's hard enough to tell you now. You were so wonderful, so beautiful, and they had flung mud at you from the beginning. I thought I had made you safe, dear, instead of-dragging you down."

"Everard!" Her voice was quick and passionate. She made a sudden effort and freed one hand; but he caught it again sharply.

"No, you mustn't, Stella! I haven't finished. Wait!"

His voice compelled her; she submitted hardly knowing that she did so.

"It is over now," he said. "The fellow is dead. But, Stella,-he had found out-what I had found out. And he was on his way to you. He meant to-claim you."

She shuddered-a hard, convulsive shudder-as if some loathsome thing had touched her. "But-I would never have gone back," she said.

"No," he answered grimly, "you wouldn't. I was here, an

d I should have shot him. They saved me that trouble."

"You were-here!" she said.

"Yes,-much nearer to you than you imagined." Almost curtly he answered. "Did you think I would leave you at the mercy of those devils? You!" He stopped himself sharply. "No I was here to protect you-and I would have done it-though I should have shot myself afterwards. Even Bernard would have seen the force of that. But it didn't come to pass that way. It wasn't intended that it should. Well, it is over. There are not many who know-only Bernard, Tommy, and Ralston. They are going-if possible-to keep it dark, to suppress his name. I told them they must." His voice rang suddenly harsh, but softened again immediately. "That's all, dear-or nearly all. I hope it hasn't shocked you unutterably. I think the secret is safe anyhow, so you won't have-that-to face. I'm going now. I'll send-Peter-to light the lamp and bring you something to eat. And you'll undress, won't you, and go to bed? It's late."

He made as if he would rise, but her hands turned swiftly in his, turned and held him fast.

"Everard-Everard, why should you go?" she whispered tensely into the darkness that hid his face.

He yielded in a measure to her hold, but he would not suffer himself to be drawn nearer.

"Why?" she said again insistently.

He hesitated. "I think," he said slowly "that you will find an answer to that question-possibly more than one-when you have had time to think it over."

"What do you mean?" she breathed.

"Must I put it into words?" he said.

She heard the pain in his voice, but for the first time she passed it by unheeded. "Yes, tell me!" she said. "I must know."

He was silent for a little, as if mustering his forces. Then, his hands tight upon hers, he spoke. "In the first place, you are Dacre's widow, and not-my wife."

She quivered in his hold. "And then?" she whispered.

"And then," he said, "our baby is dead, so you are free from all-obligations."

Her hands clenched hard upon his. "Is that all?"

"No." With sudden passion he answered her. "There are two more reasons why I should go. One is-that I have made your life a hell on earth. You have said it, and I know it to be true. Ah, you had better let me go-and go quickly. For your own sake-you had better!"

But she ignored the warning, holding him almost fiercely. "And the last reason?" she said.

He was silent for a few seconds, and in his silence there was something of an electric quality, something that pierced and scorched yet strangely drew her. "Someone else can tell you that," he said at length. "It isn't that I am a broken man. I know that wouldn't affect you one way or another. It is that I have done a thing that you would hate-yet that I would do again to-morrow if the need arose. You can ask Ralston what it is! Say I told you to! He knows."

"But I ask you," she said, and still her hands gripped his. "Everard, why don't you tell me? Are you-afraid to tell me?"

"No," he said.

"Then answer me!" she said, her breathing sharp and uneven. "Tell me the truth! Make me understand you-once and for all!"

"You have always understood me," he said.

"No-no!" she protested.

"Well, nearly always," he amended. "As long as you have known my love-you have known me. My love for you is myself-the immortal part. The rest-doesn't count."

"Ah!" she said, and suddenly the very soul of her rose up and spoke. "Then you needn't tell me any more, dear love-dear love. I don't need to hear it. It doesn't matter. It can't make any difference. Nothing ever can again, for, as you say, nothing else counts. Go if you must,-but if you do-I shall follow you-I shall follow you-to the world's end."

"Stella!" he said.

"I mean it," she told him, and her voice throbbed with a fiery force that was deeper than passion, stronger than aught human. "You are mine and I am yours. God knows, dear,-God knows that is all that matters now. I didn't understand before. I do now, I think-suffering has taught me-many things. Perhaps it is-His Angel."

"The Angel with the Flaming Sword," he said, under his breath.

"But the Sword is turned away," she said. "The way is open."

He got to his feet abruptly. "Wait!" he said. "Before you say that-wait!"

He freed himself from her hold gently but very decidedly. She knew that for a second he stood close above her with arms outflung before he turned away. Then there came the rasp of a match, a sudden flare in the darkness. She looked to see his face-and uttered a cry.

It was Hanani, the veiled ayah, who stooped to kindle the lamp....

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