The Lamp in the Desert - Ethel M. Dell - ebook

The Lamp in the Desert ebook

Ethel M. Dell

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Ethel May Dell was a British writer of popular romance novels who produced about thirty novels and several volumes of short stories. The public loved her stories and the books were hugely popular. The scene of this splendid story is laid in India and tells of the lamp of love that continues to shine through all sorts of tribulations to final happiness. When Stella comes to India unaccompanied to join her brother Tommy with his regiment, the tongues wag. In order to become respected she foolishly marries a bounder, who, incidentally, has a wife back in England. There is passion, honor, pride, angst, suffering, and all sorts of happenings keeping the lovers mentally, emotionally and physically part. They grow, trust in God and find peace and long-lasting love in the end.

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Contents

PART I

CHAPTER I. BEGGAR'S CHOICE

CHAPTER III. THE PRISONER AT THE BAR

CHAPTER IIII. THE TRIUMPH

CHAPTER IVI. THE BRIDE

CHAPTER VI. THE DREAM

CHAPTER VII. THE GARDEN

CHAPTER VIII. THE SERPENT IN THE GARDEN

CHAPTER VIIII. THE FORBIDDEN PARADISE

PART II

CHAPTER I. THE MINISTERING ANGEL

CHAPTER II. THE RETURN

CHAPTER III. THE BARREN SOIL

CHAPTER IV. THE SUMMONS

CHAPTER V. THE MORNING

CHAPTER VI. THE NIGHT-WATCH

CHAPTER VII. SERVICE RENDERED

CHAPTER VIII. THE TRUCE

CHAPTER IX. THE OASIS

CHAPTER X. THE SURRENDER

PART III

CHAPTER I. BLUEBEARD'S CHAMBER

CHAPTER II. EVIL TIDINGS

CHAPTER III. THE BEAST OF PREY

CHAPTER IV. THE FLAMING SWORD

CHAPTER V. TESSA

CHAPTER VI. THE ARRIVAL

CHAPTER VII. FALSE PRETENCES

CHAPTER VIII. THE WRATH OF THE GODS

PART IV

CHAPTER I. DEVILS' DICE

CHAPTER II. OUT OF THE DARKNESS

CHAPTER III. PRINCESS BLUEBELL

CHAPTER IV. THE SERPENT IN THE DESERT

CHAPTER V. THE WOMAN'S WAY

CHAPTER VI. THE SURPRISE PARTY

CHAPTER VII. RUSTAM KARIN

CHAPTER VIII. PETER

CHAPTER IX. THE CONSUMING FIRE

CHAPTER X. THE DESERT PLACE

PART V

CHAPTER I. GREATER THAN DEATH

CHAPTER II. THE LAMP

CHAPTER III. TESSA'S MOTHER

CHAPTER IV. THE BROAD ROAD

CHAPTER V. THE DARK NIGHT

CHAPTER VI. THE FIRST GLIMMER

CHAPTER VII. THE FIRST VICTIM

CHAPTER VIII. THE FIERY VORTEX

CHAPTER IX. THE DESERT OF ASHES

CHAPTER X. THE ANGEL

CHAPTER XI. THE DAWN

CHAPTER XII. THE BLUE JAY

PART I

CHAPTER I

BEGGAR’S CHOICE

A great roar of British voices pierced the jewelled curtain of the Indian night. A toast with musical honours was being drunk in the sweltering dining-room of the officers’ mess. The enthusiastic hubbub spread far, for every door and window was flung wide. Though the season was yet in its infancy, the heat was intense. Markestan had the reputation in the Indian Army for being one of the hottest corners in the Empire in more senses than one, and Kurrumpore, the military centre, had not been chosen for any especial advantages of climate. So few indeed did it possess in the eyes of Europeans that none ever went there save those whom an inexorable fate compelled. The rickety, wooden bungalows scattered about the cantonment were temporary lodgings, not abiding-places. The women of the community, like migratory birds, dwelt in them for barely four months in the year, flitting with the coming of the pitiless heat to Bhulwana, their little paradise in the Hills. But that was a twenty-four hours’ journey away, and the men had to be content with an occasional week’s leave from the depths of their inferno, unless, as Tommy Denvers put it, they were lucky enough to go sick, in which case their sojourn in paradise was prolonged, much to the delight of the angels.

But on that hot night the annual flitting of the angels had not yet come to pass, and notwithstanding the heat the last dance of the season was to take place at the Club House. The occasion was an exceptional one, as the jovial sounds that issued from the officers’ mess-house testified. Round after round of cheers followed the noisy toast, filling the night with the merry uproar that echoed far and wide. A confusion of voices succeeded these; and then by degrees the babel died down, and a single voice made itself heard. It spoke with easy fluency to the evident appreciation of its listeners, and when it ceased there came another hearty cheer. Then with jokes and careless laughter the little company of British officers began to disperse. They came forth in lounging groups on to the steps of the mess-house, the foremost of them–Tommy Denvers–holding the arm of his captain, who suffered the familiarity as he suffered most things, with the utmost indifference. None but Tommy ever attempted to get on familiar terms with Everard Monck. He was essentially a man who stood alone. But the slim, fair-haired young subaltern worshipped him openly and with reason. For Monck it was who, grimly resolute, had pulled him through the worst illness he had ever known, accomplishing by sheer force of will what Ralston, the doctor, had failed to accomplish by any other means. And in consequence and for all time the youngest subaltern in the mess had become Monck’s devoted adherent.

They stood together for a moment at the top of the steps while Monck, his dark, lean face wholly unresponsive and inscrutable, took out a cigar. The night was a wonderland of deep spaces and glittering stars. Somewhere far away a native tom-tom throbbed like the beating of a fevered pulse, quickening spasmodically at intervals and then dying away again into mere monotony. The air was scentless, still, and heavy.

“It’s going to be deuced warm,” said Tommy.

“Have a smoke?” said Monck, proffering his case.

The boy smiled with swift gratification. “Oh, thanks awfully! But it’s a shame to hurry over a good cigar, and I promised Stella to go straight back.”

“A promise is a promise,” said Monck. “Have it later!” He added rather curtly, “I’m going your way myself.”

“Good!” said Tommy heartily. “But aren’t you going to show at the Club House? Aren’t you going to dance?”

Monck tossed down his lighted match and set his heel on it. “I’m keeping my dancing for to-morrow,” he said. “The best man always has more than enough of that.”

Tommy made a gloomy sound that was like a groan and began to descend the steps by his side. They walked several paces along the dim road in silence; then quite suddenly he burst into impulsive speech.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Monck!”

“I shouldn’t,” said Monck.

Tommy checked abruptly, looking at him oddly, uncertainly. “How do you know what I was going to say?” he demanded.

“I don’t,” said Monck.

“I believe you do,” said Tommy, unconvinced.

Monck blew forth a cloud of smoke and laughed in his brief, rather grudging way. “You’re getting quite clever for a child of your age,” he observed. “But don’t overdo it, my son! Don’t get precocious!”

Tommy’s hand grasped his arm confidentially. “Monck, if I don’t speak out to someone, I shall bust! Surely you don’t mind my speaking out to you!”

“Not if there’s anything to be gained by it,” said Monck.

He ignored the friendly, persuasive hand on his arm, but yet in some fashion Tommy knew that it was not unwelcome. He kept it there as he made reply.

“There isn’t. Only, you know, old chap, it does a fellow good to unburden himself. And I’m bothered to death about this business.”

“A bit late in the day, isn’t it?” suggested Monck.

“Oh yes, I know; too late to do anything. But,” Tommy spoke with force, “the nearer it gets, the worse I feel. I’m downright sick about it, and that’s the truth. How would you feel, I wonder, if you knew your one and only sister was going to marry a rotter? Would you be satisfied to let things drift?”

Monck was silent for a space. They walked on over the dusty road with the free swing of the conquering race. One or two ‘rickshaws met them as they went, and a woman’s voice called a greeting; but though they both responded, it scarcely served as a diversion. The silence between them remained.

Monck spoke at last, briefly, with grim restraint. “That’s rather a sweeping assertion of yours. I shouldn’t repeat it if I were you.”

“It’s true all the same,” maintained Tommy. “You know it’s true.”

“I know nothing,” said Monck. “I’ve nothing whatever against Dacre.”

“You’ve nothing in favour of him anyway,” growled Tommy.

“Nothing particular; but I presume your sister has.” There was just a hint of irony in the quiet rejoinder.

Tommy winced. “Stella! Great Scott, no! She doesn’t care the toss of a halfpenny for him. I know that now. She only accepted him because she found herself in such a beastly anomalous position, with all the spiteful cats of the regiment arrayed against her, treating her like a pariah.”

“Did she tell you so?” There was no irony in Monck’s tone this time. It fell short and stern.

Again Tommy glanced at him as one uncertain. “Not likely,” he said.

“Then why do you make the assertion? What grounds have you for making the assertion?” Monck spoke with insistence as one who meant to have an answer.

And the boy answered him, albeit shamefacedly. “I really can’t say, Monck. I’m the sort of fool that sees things without being able to explain how. But that Stella has the faintest spark of real love for that fellow Dacre,–well, I’d take my dying oath that she hasn’t.”

“Some women don’t go in for that sort of thing,” commented Monck dryly.

“Stella isn’t that sort of woman.” Hotly came Tommy’s defence. “You don’t know her. She’s a lot deeper than I am.”

Monck laughed a little. “Oh, you’re deep enough, Tommy. But you’re transparent as well. Now your sister on the other hand is quite inscrutable. But it is not for us to interfere. She probably knows what she is doing–very well indeed.”

“That’s just it. Does she know? Isn’t she taking a most awful leap in the dark?” Keen anxiety sounded in Tommy’s voice. “It’s been such horribly quick work, you know. Why, she hasn’t been out here six weeks. It’s a shame for any girl to marry on such short notice as that. I said so to her, and she–she laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s beggar’s choice! Do you think I could enjoy life with your angels in paradise in unmarried bliss? I’d sooner stay down in hell with you.’ And she’d have done it too, Monck. And it would probably have killed her. That’s partly how I came to know.”

“Haven’t the women been decent to her?” Monck’s question fell curtly, as if the subject were one which he was reluctant to discuss.

Tommy looked at him through the starlight. “You know what they are,” he said bluntly. “They’d hunt anybody if once Lady Harriet gave tongue. She chose to eye Stella askance from the very outset, and of course all the rest followed suit. Mrs. Ralston is the only one in the whole crowd who has ever treated her decently, but of course she’s nobody. Everyone sits on her. As if,” he spoke with heat, “Stella weren’t as good as the best of ‘em–and better! What right have they to treat her like a social outcast just because she came out here to me on her own? It’s hateful! It’s iniquitous! What else could she have done?”

“It seems reasonable–from a man’s point of view,” said Monck.

“It was reasonable. It was the only thing possible. And just for that they chose to turn the cold shoulder on her,–to ostracize her practically. What had she done to them? What right had they to treat her like that?” Fierce resentment sounded in Tommy’s voice.

“I’ll tell you if you want to know,” said Monck abruptly. “It’s the law of the pack to rend an outsider. And your sister will always be that–married or otherwise. They may fawn upon her later, Dacre being one to hold his own with women. But they will always hate her in their hearts. You see, she is beautiful.”

“Is she?” said Tommy in surprise. “Do you know, I never thought of that!”

Monck laughed–a cold, sardonic laugh. “Quite so! You wouldn’t! But Dacre has–and a few more of us.”

“Oh, confound Dacre!” Tommy’s irritation returned with a rush. “I detest the man! He behaves as if he were conferring a favour. When he was making that speech to-night, I wanted to fling my glass at him.”

“Ah, but you mustn’t do those things.” Monck spoke reprovingly. “You may be young, but you’re past the schoolboy stage. Dacre is more of a woman’s favourite than a man’s, you must remember. If your sister is not in love with him, she is about the only woman in the station who isn’t.”

“That’s the disgusting part of it,” fumed Tommy. “He makes love to every woman he meets.”

They had reached a shadowy compound that bordered the dusty road for a few yards. A little eddying wind made a mysterious whisper among its thirsty shrubs. The bungalow it surrounded showed dimly in the starlight, a wooden structure with a raised verandah and a flight of steps leading up to it. A light thrown by a red-shaded lamp shone out from one of the rooms, casting a shaft of ruddy brilliance into the night as though it defied the splendour without. It shone upon Tommy’s face as he paused, showing it troubled and anxious.

“You may as well come in,” he said. “She is sure to be ready. Come in and have a drink!”

Monck stood still. His dark face was in shadow. He seemed to be debating some point with himself.

Finally, “All right. Just for a minute,” he said. “But, look here, Tommy! Don’t you let your sister suspect that you’ve been making a confidant of me! I don’t fancy it would please her. Put on a grin, man! Don’t look bowed down with family cares! She is probably quite capable of looking after herself–like the rest of ‘em.”

He clapped a careless hand on the lad’s shoulder as they turned up the path together towards the streaming red light.

“You’re a bit of a woman-hater, aren’t you?” said Tommy.

And Monck laughed again his short, rather bitter laugh; but he said no word in answer.

CHAPTER II

THE PRISONER AT THE BAR

In the room with the crimson-shaded lamp Stella Denvers sat waiting. The red glow compassed her warmly, striking wonderful copper gleams in the burnished coils of her hair. Her face was bent over the long white gloves that she was pulling over her wrists, a pale face that yet was extraordinarily vivid, with features that were delicate and proud, and lips that had the exquisite softness and purity of a flower.

She raised her eyes from her task at sound of the steps below the window, and their starry brightness under her straight black brows gave her an infinite allurement. Certainly a beautiful woman, as Monck had said, and possessing the brilliance and the wonder of youth to an almost dazzling degree! Perhaps it was not altogether surprising that the ladies of the regiment had not been too enthusiastic in their welcome of this sister of Tommy’s who had come so suddenly into their midst, defying convention. Her advent had been utterly unexpected–a total surprise even to Tommy, who, returning one day from the polo-ground, had found her awaiting him in the bachelor quarters which he had shared with three other subalterns. And her arrival had set the whole station buzzing.

Led by the Colonel’s wife, Lady Harriet Mansfield, the women of the regiment had–with the single exception of Mrs. Ralston whose opinion was of no account–risen and condemned the splendid stranger who had come amongst them with such supreme audacity and eclipsed the fairest of them. Stella’s own simple explanation that she had, upon attaining her majority and fifty pounds a year, decided to quit the home of some distant relatives who did not want her and join Tommy who was the only near relation she had, had satisfied no one. She was an interloper, and as such they united to treat her. As Lady Harriet said, no nice girl would have dreamed of taking such an extraordinary step, and she had not the smallest intention of offering her the chaperonage that she so conspicuously lacked. If Mrs. Ralston chose to do so, that was her own affair. Such action on the part of the surgeon’s very ordinary wife would make no difference to any one. She was glad to think that all the other ladies were too well-bred to accept without reservation so unconventional a type.

The fact that she was Tommy’s sister was the only consideration in her favour. Tommy was quite a nice boy, and they could not for his sake entirely exclude her from the regimental society, but to no intimate gathering was she ever invited, nor from the female portion of the community was there any welcome for her at the Club.

The attitude of the officers of the regiment was of a totally different nature. They had accepted her with enthusiasm, possibly all the more marked on account of the aloofness of their women folk, and in a very short time they were paying her homage as one man. The subalterns who had shared their quarters with Tommy turned out to make room for her, treating her like a queen suddenly come into her own, and like a queen she entered into possession, accepting all courtesy just as she ignored all slights with a delicate self-possession that yet knew how to be gracious when occasion demanded.

Mrs. Ralston would have offered her harbourage had she desired it, but there was pride in Stella–a pride that surged and rebelled very far below her serenity. She received favours from none.

And so, unshackled and unchaperoned, she had gone her way among her critics, and no one–not even Tommy–suspected how deep was the wound that their barely-veiled hostility had inflicted. In bitterness of soul she hid it from all the world, and only her brother and her brother’s grim and somewhat unapproachable captain were even vaguely aware of its existence.

Everard Monck was one of the very few men who had not laid themselves down before her dainty feet, and she had gradually come to believe that this man shared the silent, side-long disapproval manifested by the women. Very strangely that belief hurt her even more deeply, in a subtle, incomprehensible fashion, than any slights inflicted by her own sex. Possibly Tommy’s warm enthusiasm for the man had made her more sensitive regarding his good opinion. And possibly she was over ready to read condemnation in his grave eyes. But–whatever the reason–she would have given much to have had him on her side. Somehow it mattered to her, and mattered vitally.

But Monck had never joined her retinue of courtiers. He was never other than courteous to her, but he did not seek her out. Perhaps he had better things to do. Aloof, impenetrable, cold, he passed her by, and she would have been even more amazed than Tommy had she heard him describe her as beautiful, so convinced was she that he saw in her no charm.

It had been a disheartening struggle, this hewing for herself a way along the rocky paths of prejudice, and many had been the thorns under her feet. Though she kept a brave heart and never faltered, she had tired inevitably of the perpetual effort it entailed. Three weeks after her arrival, when the annual exodus of the ladies of the regiment to the Hills was drawing near, she became engaged to Ralph Dacre, the handsomest and most irresponsible man in the mess.

With him at least her power to attract was paramount. He was blindly, almost fulsomely, in love. Her beauty went to his head from the outset; it fired his blood. He worshipped her hotly, and pursued her untiringly, caring little whether she returned his devotion so long as he ultimately took possession. And when finally, half-disdainfully, she yielded to his insistence, his one all-mastering thought became to clinch the bargain before she could repent of it. It was a mad and headlong passion that drove him–not for the first time in his life; and the subtle pride of her and the soft reserve made her all the more desirable in his eyes.

He had won her; he did not stop to ask himself how. The women said that the luck was all on her side. The men forebore to express an opinion. Dacre had attained his captaincy, but he was not regarded with great respect by any one. His fellow-officers shrugged their shoulders over him, and the commanding officer, Colonel Mansfield, had been heard to call him “the craziest madman it had ever been his fate to meet.” No one, except Tommy, actively disliked him, and he had no grounds for so doing, as Monck had pointed out. Monck, who till then had occupied the same bungalow, declared he had nothing against him, and he was surely in a position to form a very shrewd opinion. For Monck was neither fool nor madman, and there was very little that escaped his silent observation.

He was acting as best man at the morrow’s ceremony, the function having been almost thrust upon him by Dacre who, oddly enough, shared something of Tommy’s veneration for his very reticent brother-officer. There was scant friendship between them. Each had been accustomed to go his own way wholly independent of the other. They were no more than casual acquaintances, and they were content to remain such. But undoubtedly Dacre entertained a certain respect for Monck and observed a wariness of behaviour in his presence that he never troubled to assume for any other man. He was careful in his dealings with him, being at all times not wholly certain of his ground.

Other men felt the same uncertainty in connection with Monck. None–save Tommy–was sure what manner of man he was. Tommy alone took him for granted with whole-hearted admiration, and at his earnest wish it had been arranged between them that Monck should take up his abode with him when the forthcoming marriage had deprived each of a companion. Tommy was delighted with the idea, and he had a gratifying suspicion that Monck himself was inclined to be pleased with it also.

The Green Bungalow had become considerably more homelike since Stella’s arrival, and Tommy meant to keep it so. He was sure that Monck and he would have the same tastes.

And so on that eve of his sister’s wedding, the thought of their coming companionship was the sole redeeming feature of the whole affair, and he turned in his impulsive fashion to say so just as they reached the verandah steps.

But the words did not leave his lips, for the red glow flung from the lamp had found Monck’s upturned face, and something–something about it–checked all speech for the moment. He was looking straight up at the lighted window and the face of a beautiful woman who gazed forth into the night. And his eyes were no longer cold and unresponsive, but burning, ardent, intensely alive. Tommy forgot what he was going to say and only stared.

The moment passed; it was scarcely so much as a moment. And Monck moved on in his calm, unfaltering way.

“Your sister is ready and waiting,” he said.

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