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THE LAMP IN THE DESERT

by

ETHEL M. DELL

Author of _The Way of an Eagle_, _The Knave of Diamonds_,
_The Rocks of Valpré_, _The Swindler, and Other Stories_,
_The Keeper of the Door_, _The Bars of Iron_, _The Hundredth
Chance_, _The Safety Curtain, and Other Stories_, _Greatheart_

1919






[Illustration: "He knelt beside her, his arms comfortingly around her."]

Drawn by D.C. Hutchinson




I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO

MY DEARLY-LOVED

ELIZABETH

AND TO THE MEMORY OF HER GREAT GOODNESS

WHEN SHE WALKED IN THE

DESERT WITH ME

_"He led them all the night through with a light of fire."_

PSALM lxxviii, 14.

Lamps that gleam in the city,
Lamps that flare on the wall,
Lamps that shine on the ways of men,
Kindled by men are all.

But the desert of burnt-out ashes,
Which only the lost have trod,
Dark and barren and flowerless,
Is lit by the Hand of God.

To lighten the outer darkness,
To hasten the halting feet,
He lifts a lamp in the desert
Like the lamps of men in the street.

Only the wanderers know it,
The lost with those who mourn,
That lamp in the desert darkness,
And the joy that comes in the dawn.

That the lost may come into safety,
And the mourners may cease to doubt,
The Lamp of God will be shining still
When the lamps of men go out.




CHAPTER

PART I

I. - BEGGAR'S CHOICE
II. - THE PRISONER AT THE BAR
III. - THE TRIUMPH
IV. - THE BRIDE
V. - THE DREAM
VI. - THE GARDEN
VII. - THE SERPENT IN THE GARDEN
VIII. - THE FORBIDDEN PARADISE

PART II

I. - THE MINISTERING ANGEL
II. - THE RETURN
III. - THE BARREN SOIL
IV. - THE SUMMONS
V. - THE MORNING
VI. - THE NIGHT-WATCH
VII. - SERVICE RENDERED
VIII. - THE TRUCE
IX. - THE OASIS
X. - THE SURRENDER

PART III

I. - BLUEBEARD'S CHAMBER
II. - EVIL TIDINGS
III. - THE BEAST OF PREY
IV. - THE FLAMING SWORD
V. - TESSA
VI. - THE ARRIVAL
VII. - FALSE PRETENCES
VIII. - THE WRATH OF THE GODS

PART IV

I. - DEVIL'S DICE
II. - OUT OF THE DARKNESS
III. - BLUEBELL
IV. - THE SERPENT IN THE DESERT
V. - THE WOMAN'S WAY
VI. - THE SURPRISE PARTY
VII. - RUSTAM KARIN
VIII. - PETER
IX. - THE CONSUMING FIRE
X. - THE DESERT PLACE

PART V

I. - GREATER THAN DEATH
II. - THE LAMP
III. - TESSA'S MOTHER
IV. - THE BROAD ROAD
V. - THE DARK NIGHT
VI. - THE FIRST GLIMMER
VII. - THE FIRST VICTIM
VIII. - THE FIERY VORTEX
IX. - THE DESERT OF ASHES
X. - THE ANGEL
XI. - THE DAWN
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.

They ascended the steps together, and the girl who sat by the open
window rose with a stately movement and stepped forward to meet them.

"Hullo, Stella!" was Tommy's greeting. "Hope I'm not awfully late. They
wasted such a confounded time over toasts at mess to-night. Yours was
one of 'em, and I had to reply. I hadn't a notion what to say. Captain
Monck thinks I made an awful hash of it though he is too considerate to
say so."

"On the contrary I said 'Hear, hear!' to every stutter," said Monck,
bowing slightly as he took the hand she offered.

She was wearing a black lace dress with a glittering spangled scarf of
Indian gauze floating about her. Her neck and shoulders gleamed in the
soft red glow. She was superb that night.

She smiled at Monck, and her smile was as a shining cloak hiding her
soul. "So you have started upon your official duties already!" she said.
"It is the best man's business to encourage and console everyone
concerned, isn't it?"

The faint cynicism of her speech was like her smile. It held back all
intrusive curiosity. And the man's answering smile had something of the
same quality. Reserve met reserve.

"I hope I shall not find it very arduous in that respect," he said. "I
did not come here in that capacity."

"I am glad of that," she said. "Won't you come in and sit down?"

She motioned him within with a queenly gesture, but her invitation was
wholly lacking in warmth. It was Tommy who pressed forward with eager
hospitality.

"Yes, and have a drink! It's a thirsty right. It's getting infernally
hot. Stella, you're lucky to be going out of it."



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