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   Chapter 43 THE DAWN

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 13373

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"This country is like an infernal machine," said Bernard. "You never know when it's going to explode. There's only one reliable thing in it, and that's Peter."

He turned his bandaged head in the latter's direction, and received a tender, indulgent smile in answer. Peter loved the big blue-eyed sahib with the same love which he had for the children of the sahib-log.

"Whatever happens," Bernard continued, "there's always Peter. He keeps the whole show going, and is never absent when wanted. In fact, I begin to think that India wouldn't be India without him."

"A very handsome compliment," said Sir Reginald.

"It is, isn't it?" smiled Bernard. "I have a vast respect for him-a quite unbounded respect. He is the greatest greaser of wheels I have ever met. Help yourself, sir, won't you? I am sorry I can't join you, but Major Ralston insists that I must walk circumspectly, being on his sick list. I really don't know why my skull was not cracked. He declares it ought to have been and even seems inclined to be rather disgusted with me because it wasn't."

"You had a very lucky escape," said Sir Reginald. "Allow me to congratulate you!"

"And a very enjoyable scrap," said Bernard, with kindling eyes. "Thanks! I wouldn't have missed it for the world,-the damn' dirty blackguards!"

"Was Mrs. Monck much upset?" asked Sir Reginald. "I have never yet had the pleasure of meeting her."

"She was more upset on my brother's account than her own," Bernard said, giving his visitor a shrewd look. "She thought he had come to harm."

"Ah!" said Sir Reginald, and held his glass up to the light. "And that was not so?"

"No," said Bernard, and closed his lips.

There was a distinct pause before Sir Reginald's eyes left his glass and came down to him. They held a faint whimsical smile.

"We owe your brother a good deal," he said.

"Do we?" said Bernard.

Sir Reginald's smile became more pronounced. "I have been told that it is entirely owing to him-his forethought, secrecy, and intimate knowledge obtained at considerable personal risk-that this business was not of a far more serious nature. I was of course in constant communication with Colonel Mansfield. We knew exactly where the danger lay, and we were prepared for all emergencies."

"Except the one which actually rose," suggested Bernard.

"That?" said Sir Reginald. "That was a mere flash in the pan. But we were prepared even for that. My men were all in Markestan by daybreak, thanks to the promptitude of young Denvers."

"If all our throats had been slit the previous night, that wouldn't have helped us much," Bernard pointed out.

Sir Reginald broke into a laugh. "Well, dash it, man! We did our best. And anyway they weren't, so you haven't much cause for complaint."

"You see, I was one of the casualties," explained Bernard. "That accounts for my being a bit critical. So you expected something worse than this?"

"I did." Sir Reginald spoke soberly again. "If we hadn't been prepared, the whole of Markestan would have been ablaze by now from end to end."

"Instead of which, you have only permitted us a fizz, a few bangs, and a splutter-out, as Tommy describes it," remarked Bernard. "And you haven't even caught the Rajah."

"I wasn't out to catch him," said Sir Reginald. "But I will tell you who I am out to catch, though I am afraid I am applying in the wrong quarter."

Bernard's eyes gleamed with a hint of malicious amusement. "I thought my health was not primarily responsible for the honour of your visit, sir," he said.

"No," said Sir Reginald, with simplicity. "I really came because I want to take you into my confidence, and to ask for your confidence in return."

"I thought so," said Bernard, and slowly shook his head. "I'm afraid it's no go. I am sealed."

"Ah! And that even though I give you my word it would be to your brother's interest to break the seal?" questioned Sir Reginald.

Bernard's eyes suddenly drooped under their red brows. "And betray my trust?" he said lazily.

"I beg your pardon," said Sir Reginald.

He finished his drink with a speed that suggested embarrassment, but the next moment he smiled. "You had me there, padre. I withdraw the suggestion. I should not have made it if I could see the man himself. But he has disappeared, and even Barnes, who knows everything, can't tell us where to look for him."

"Neither can I," said Bernard. "I am not in his confidence to that extent."

"Why don't you ask his wife?" a low voice said.

Both men started. Sir Reginald sprang to his feet. "Mrs. Monck!"

"Yes," Stella said. She stood a moment framed in the French window, looking at him. Then she stepped forward with outstretched hand. The morning sunshine caught her as she moved. She was very pale and her eyes were deeply shadowed, but she was exceedingly beautiful.

"I heard your voices," she said, looking at Sir Reginald, while her hand lay in his. "I didn't mean to listen at first. But I was tempted, because you were talking of-my husband, and-" she smiled at him faintly, "I fell."

"I think you were justified," Sir Reginald said.

"Thank you," she answered gently. She turned from him to Bernard, and bending kissed him. "Are you better? Peter told me it wasn't serious. I would have come to you sooner, but I was asleep for a very long time, and afterwards-Everard wanted me."

"Everard!" he said sharply. "Is he here?"

"Sit down!" murmured Sir Reginald, drawing forward his chair.

But Stella remained standing, her hand upon Bernard's shoulder. "Thank you. But I haven't come to stay. Only to tell you-just to tell you-all the things that Bernard couldn't, without betraying his trust."

"My dear, dear child!" Bernard broke in quickly, but Sir Reginald intervened in the same moment.

"No, no! Pardon me! Let her speak! She wishes to do so, and I-wish to listen."

Stella's hand pressed a little upon Bernard's shoulder, as though she supported herself thereby.

"It is right that you should know, Sir Reginald," she said. "It is only for my sake that it has been kept from you. But I-have travelled the desert too long to mind an extra stone or two by the way. First, with regard to the suspicion which drove him out of the Army. You thought-everyone thought-that he had killed Ralph Dacre up in the mountains. Even I thought so." Her voice trembled a little. "And I had less excuse than any one else, for he swore to me that he was innocent-though he would not-could not-tell me the truth of the matter. The truth was simply this. Ralph Dacre was not dead."

"Ah!" Sir Reginald said softly.

Bernard reached up and strongly grasped the hand that rested up

on him. But he spoke no word.

Stella went on with greater steadiness, her eyes resolutely meeting the shrewd old eyes that watched her. "He-Everard-came between us because only a fortnight after our marriage he received the news that Ralph had a wife living in England. Perhaps I ought to tell you-though this in no way influenced him-that my marriage to Ralph was a mistake. I married him because I was unhappy, not because I loved him. I sinned, and I have been punished."

"Poor girl!" said Sir Reginald very gently.

Her eyelids quivered, but she would not suffer them to fall. "Everard sent him away from me, made him vanish completely, and then came himself to me-he was in native disguise-and told me he was dead. I suppose it was wrong of him. If so, he too has been punished. But he wanted to save my pride. I had plenty of pride in those days. It is all gone now. At least, all I have left is for him-that his honour may be vindicated. I am afraid I am telling the story very badly. Forgive me for taking so long!"

"There is no hurry," Sir Reginald answered in the same gentle voice. "And you are telling it very well."

She smiled again-her faint, sad smile. "You are very kind. It makes it much easier. You know how clever he is in native disguise. I never recognized him. I came back, as I thought, a widow. And then-it was nearly a year after-I married Everard, because I loved him. It was just before Captain Ermsted's murder. We had to come back here in a hurry because of it. Then when the summer came we had to separate. I went to Bhulwana for the birth of my baby. And while I was there, he heard that Ralph Dacre's wife had died in England only a few days before his marriage to me. That meant of course that I was not Everard's legal wife, that the baby was illegitimate. But-I was very ill at the time-he kept it from me."

"Of course he did," said Sir Reginald.

"Of course he did," said Bernard.

"Yes," she assented. "He couldn't help himself then. But he ought to have told me afterwards-when-when I began to have that horrible suspicion that everyone else had, that he had murdered Ralph Dacre."

"A difficult point," said Sir Reginald.

"I told him he was making a mistake," said Bernard.

Stella glanced down at him. "It was a mistake," she said. "But he made it out of love for me, because he thought-he thought-that my pride was dearer to me than my love. I don't wonder he thought so. I gave him every reason. For I wouldn't listen to him, wouldn't believe him. I sent him away." Her breath caught suddenly, and she put a quick hand to her throat. "That is what hurts me most," she said after a moment,-"just to remember that,-to remember what I made him suffer-how I failed him-when Tommy, even Tommy, believed in him-went after him to tell him so."

"But we all make mistakes," said Sir Reginald gently, "or we shouldn't be human."

She controlled herself with an effort. "Yes. He said that, and told me to forget it. I don't know if I can, but I shall try. I shall try to make up to him for it for as long as I live. And I thank God-for giving me the chance."

Her deep voice quivered, and Bernard's hand tightened upon hers. "Yes," he said, looking at Sir Reginald. "Ralph Dacre is dead. He was the unknown man who was shot in the jungle two nights ago."

"Indeed!" said Sir Reginald sharply.

"Yes," Stella said. "He too had found out-about the death of his first wife. And he was on his way to me. But-" she suddenly covered her eyes-"I couldn't have borne it. I would have killed myself first."

Bernard reached up and thrust his arm about her, without speaking.

She leaned against him for a few seconds as if the story had taxed her strength too far. Then Sir Reginald came to her and with a fatherly gesture drew her hand away from her face.

"My dear," he said very kindly, "thank you a thousand times for telling me this. I know it's been infernally hard. I admire you for it more than I can say. It hasn't been too much for you I hope?"

She smiled at him through tears. "No-no! You are both-so kind."

He stooped with a very courtly gesture and carried her hand to his lips. "Everard Monck is a very lucky man," he said, "but I think he is almost worthy of his luck. And now-I want you to tell me one thing more. Where can I find him?"

Her hand trembled a little in his. "I-am not sure he would wish me to tell you that."

Sir Reginald's grey moustache twitched whimsically. "If his desire for privacy is so great, it shall be respected. Will you take him a message from me?"

"Of course," she said.

Sir Reginald patted her hand and released it. "Then please tell him," he said, "that the Indian Empire cannot afford to lose the services of so valuable a servant as he has proved himself to be, and if he will accept a secretaryship with me I think there is small doubt that it will eventually lead to much greater things."

Stella gave a great start. "Oh, do you mean that?" she said.

Sir Reginald smiled openly. "I really do, Mrs. Monck, and I shall think myself very fortunate to secure him. You will use your influence, I hope, to induce him to accept?"

"But of course," she said.

"Poor Stella!" said Bernard. "And she hates India!"

She turned upon him almost in anger. "How dare you pity me? I love anywhere that I can be with him."

"So like a woman!" commented Bernard. "Or is it something in the air? I'll never bring Tessa out here when she's grown up, or she'll marry and be stuck here for the rest of her life."

"You can do as you like with Tessa," said Stella, and turned again to Sir Reginald. "Is that all you want of me now?"

"One thing more," he answered gently. "I hope I may say it without giving offence."

With a gesture all-unconsciously regal she gave him both her hands. "You may say-anything," she said impulsively.

He bent again courteously. "Mrs. Monck, will you invite me to witness the ratification of the bond already existing between my friend Everard Monck, and the lady who is honouring him by becoming his lawful wife?"

She flushed deeply but not painfully. "I will," she said. "Bernard, you will see to that, I know."

"Yes; leave it to me, dear!" said Bernard.

"Thank you," she said; and to Sir Reginald: "Good-bye! I am going to my husband now."

"Good-bye, Mrs. Monck!" he said. "And many thanks for your graciousness to a stranger."

"Oh no!" she answered quickly. "You are a friend-of us both."

"I am proud to be called so," he said.

As she passed back into the bungalow her heart fluttered within her like the wings of a bird mounting upwards in the dawning. The sun had risen upon the desert.

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