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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 14. A Man's Confidence
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 14. A Man's Confidence Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2898

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 14. A Man's Confidence

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS CHAPTER XIV. A MAN'S CONFIDENCE

"Aren't you going to kiss Aunt Avery under the mistletoe?" asked Gracie.

"No," said Piers. "Aunt Avery may kiss me if she likes." He looked at Avery with his sudden, boyish laugh. "But I know she doesn't like, so that's an end of the matter."

"How do you know?" persisted Gracie. "She's very fond of kissing. And anyone may kiss under the mistletoe."

"That quite does away with the charm of it in my opinion," declared Piers. "I don't appreciate things when you can get 'em cheap."

He moved over to Jeanie's sofa and sat down on the edge. Her soft eyes smiled a welcome, the little thin hand slipped into his.

"I've been wishing for you all day long," she said.

He leaned towards her. "Have you, my fairy queen? Well, I'm here at last."

Avery, from the head of the schoolroom table, looked across at them with a feeling of fulness at her heart. She never liked Piers so well as when she saw him in company with her little favourite. His gentleness and chivalry made of him a very perfect knight.

"Yes," said Jeanie, giving his hand a little squeeze. "We're going to have our Christmas Tree to-night, and Dr. Tudor is coming. You don't like him, I know. But he's really quite a nice man."

She spoke the last words pleadingly, in response to a slight frown between Piers' brows.

"Oh, is he?" said Piers, without enthusiasm.

"He's been very kind," said Jeanie in a tone of apology.

"He'd better be anything else--to you!" said Piers, with a smile that was somewhat grim.

Jeanie's fingers caressed his again propitiatingly. "Do let's all be nice to each other just for to-night!" she said.

Piers' smile became tender again. "As your gracious majesty decrees!" he said. "Where is the ceremony to be held?"

"Up in the nursery. We've had the little ones in here all day, while Mother and Nurse have been getting it ready. I haven't seen it yet."

"Can't we creep up when no one's looking and have a private view?" suggested Piers.

Jeanie beamed at the idea. "I would like to, for I've been in the secret from the very beginning. But you must finish your tea first. We'll go when the crackers begin."

As the pulling of crackers was the signal for every child at the table to make as much noise as possible, it was not difficult to effect their retreat without exciting general attention. Avery alone noted their departure and smiled at Jeanie's flushed face as the child nodded farewell to her over Piers' shoulder.

"You do carry me so beautifully," Jeanie confided to him as he mounted the stairs to the top of the house. "I love the feel of your arms. They are so strong and kind. You're sure I'm not too heavy?"

"I could carry a dozen of you," said Piers.

They found the nursery brilliantly lighted and lavishly adorned with festoons of coloured paper.

"Aunt Avery and I did most of that," said Jeanie proudly.

Piers bore her round the room, admiring every detail, finally depositing her in a big arm-chair close to the tall screen that hid the Christmas Tree. Jeanie's leg was mending rapidly, and gave her little trouble now. She lay back contentedly, with shining eyes upon her cavalier.

"It was very nice of you to be so kind to Gracie last night," she said. "She told me all about it to-day. Of course she ought not to have done it. I hope--I hope Sir Beverley wasn't angry about it."

Piers laughed a little. "Oh no! He got over it. Was Gracie scared?"

"Not really. She said she thought he wasn't quite pleased with you. I do hope he didn't think it was your fault."

"My shoulders are fairly broad," said Piers.

"Yes, but it wouldn't be right," maintained Jeanie. "I think I ought to write to him and explain."

"No, no!" said Piers. "You leave the old chap alone. He understands--quite as much as he wants to understand."

There was a note of bitterness in his voice which Jeanie was quick to discern. She reached up a sympathetic hand to his. "Dear Sir Galahad!" she said softly.

Piers looked down at her for a few moments in silence. And then, very suddenly, moved by the utter devotion that looked back at him from her eyes, he went down on his knees beside her and held her to his heart.

"It's a beast of a world, Jeanie," he said.

"Is it?" whispered Jeanie, with his hand pressed tight against her cheek.

There was silence between them for a little space; then she lifted her face to his, to murmur in a motherly tone, "I expect you're tired."

"Tired!" said Piers with gloomy vehemence. "Yes, I am tired--sick to death of everything. I'm like a dog on a chain. I can see what I want, but it's always just out of my reach."

Jeanie's hand came up and softly stroked his face. "I wish I could get it for you," she said.

"Bless you, sweetheart!" said Piers. "You don't so much as know what it is, do you?"

"Yes, I do," said Jeanie. She leaned her head back against his shoulder, looking up into his face with all her child's soul shining in her eyes. "It's--Aunt Avery; isn't it?"

"How did you know?" said Piers.

"I don't know," said Jeanie. "It just--came to me--that day in the schoolroom when you talked about the ticket of leave. You were unhappy that day, weren't you?"

"Yes," said Piers. He added after a moment, "You see, I'm not good enough for her."

"Not good enough!" Jeanie's face became incredulous and a little distressed. "I'm sure--she--doesn't think that," she said.

"She doesn't know me properly," said Piers. "Nor do you. If you did, you'd be shocked,--you'd be horrified."

He spoke recklessly, almost defiantly; but Jeanie only stretched up a thin arm and wound it about his neck. "Never!" she told him softly. "No, never!"

He held her to him; but he would not be silenced. "I assure you, I'm no saint," he said. "I feel more like a devil sometimes. I've done bad things, Jeanie, I can't tell you how bad. It would only hurt you."

The words ran out impulsively. His breathing came quick and short; his hold was tense. In that moment the child's pure spirit recognized that the image had crumbled in her shrine, but the brave heart of her did not flinch. Very tenderly she veiled the ruin. The element of worship had vanished in that single instant of revelation; but her love remained, and it shone out to him like a beacon as he knelt there in abasement by her side.

"But you're sorry," she whispered. "You would undo the bad things if you could."

"God knows I would!" he said.

"Perhaps He will undo them for you," she murmured softly. "Have you asked Him?"

"There are some things that can't be undone," groaned Piers. "It would be too big a job even for Him."

"Nothing is that," said Jeanie with conviction. "If we are sorry and if we pray, some day He will undo all the bad we've ever done."

"I haven't prayed for six years," said Piers. "Things went wrong with me. I felt as if I were under a curse. And I gave it up."

"Oh, Piers!" she said, holding him closer. "How miserable you must have been!"

"I've been in hell!" he said with bitter vehemence. "And the gates tight shut! Not that I was ever very great in the spiritual lines," he added more calmly. "But I used to think God took a friendly interest in my affairs till--till I went down into hell and the gates shut on me; and then--" he spoke grimly--"I knew He didn't care a rap."

"But, dear, He does care!" said Jeanie very earnestly.

"He doesn't!" said Piers moodily. "He can't!"

"Piers, He does!" She raised her head and looked him straight in the eyes. "Everyone feels like that sometimes," she said. "But Aunt Avery says it's only because we are too little to understand. Won't you begin and pray again? It does make a difference even though we can't see it."

"I can't," said Piers. And then with swift compunction he kissed her face of disappointment. "Never mind, my queen! Don't you bother your little head about me! I shall rub along all right even if I don't come out on top."

"But I want you to be happy," said Jeanie. "I wish I could help you, Piers,--dear Piers."

"You do help me," said Piers.

There came the sound of voices on the stairs, and he got up.

Jeanie looked up at him wistfully. "I shall try," she said. "I shall try--hard."

He patted her head and turned away.

Mr. Lorimer and Miss Whalley entered the room. The former raised his brows momentarily at the sight of Piers, but he greeted him with much geniality.

"I am quite delighted to welcome you to the children's Christmas party," he declared, with Piers' hand held impressively in his. "And how is your grandfather, my dear lad?"

Piers contracted instinctively. "He is quite well, thanks," he said. "I haven't come to stay. I only looked in for a moment."

He glanced towards Miss Whalley whom he had never met before. The Vicar smilingly introduced him. "This is the Squire's grandson and heir, Miss Whalley. Doubtless you know him by sight as well as by repute--the keenest sportsman in the county, eh, my young friend?" His eyes disappeared with the words as if pulled inwards by a string.

"I don't know," said Piers, becoming extremely blunt and British. "I'm certainly keen, but so are dozens of others." He bowed to Miss Whalley with stiff courtesy. "Pleased to meet you," he said formally.

Miss Whalley acknowledged the compliment with a severe air of incredulity. She had never approved of Piers since a certain Sunday morning ten years before when she had caught him shooting at the choir-boys with a catapult, during the litany, over the top of the squire's large square pew.

She had reported the crime to the Vicar, and the Vicar had lodged a formal complaint with Sir Beverley, who had soundly caned the delinquent in his presence, and given him half a sovereign as soon as the clerical back had been turned for taking the punishment like a man.

But in Miss Whalley's eyes Piers had from that moment ceased to be regarded as one of the elect, and his curt reception of the good Vicar's patronage did not further elevate him in her esteem. She made as brief a response to the introduction as politeness demanded, and crossed the room to Jeanie.

"I must be off," said Piers. "I've stayed longer than I intended already."

"Pray do not hurry!" urged Mr. Lorimer. "The festivities are but just beginning."

But Piers was insistent, and even Jeanie's wistful eyes could not detain him. He waved her a careless farewell, and extricated himself as quickly as possible from surroundings that had become uncongenial.

Descending the stairs somewhat precipitately, he nearly ran into Avery ascending with a troop of children, and stopped to say good-bye.

"You're not going!" cried Gracie, with keen disappointment.

"Yes, I am. I can't stop. It's later than I thought. See you to-morrow!" said Piers.

He held Avery's hand again in his, and for one fleeting second his eyes looked into hers. Then lightly he pressed her fingers and passed on without further words.

On the first landing he encountered Mrs. Lorimer. She smiled upon him kindly. "Oh, Piers, is it you?" she said. "Have you been having tea in the schoolroom?"

He admitted that he had.

"And must you really go?" she said. "I'm sorry for that. Come again, won't you?"

Her tone was full of gentle friendliness, and Piers was touched. "It's awfully good of you to ask me," he said.

"I like to see you here," she answered simply. "And I am so grateful to you for your kindness to my little Jeanie."

"Oh, please don't!" said Piers. "I assure you it's quite the other way round. I shall certainly come again since you are good enough to ask me."

He smiled with boyish gallantry into the wistful, faded face, carried her fingers lightly to his lips, and passed on.

"Such a nice boy!" Mrs. Lorimer murmured to herself as she went up to the nursery.

"Poor little soul!" was Piers' inward comment as he ran down to the hall.

Here he paused, finding himself face to face with Lennox Tudor who was taking off his coat preparatory to ascending.

The doctor nodded to him without cordiality. Neither of them ever pretended to take any pleasure in the other's society.

"Are you just going?" he asked. "Your grandfather is wanting you."

"Who says so?" said Piers aggressively.

"I say so." Curtly Tudor made answer, meeting Piers' quick frown with one equally decided.

Piers stood still in front of him. "Have you just come from the Abbey?" he demanded.

"I have." Tudor's tone was non-committal. He stood facing Piers, waiting to pass.

"What are you always going there for?" burst forth Piers, with heat. "He doesn't want you--never follows your advice, and does excellently well without it."

"Really!" said Tudor. He uttered a short, sarcastic laugh, albeit his thick brows met closely above his glasses. "Well, you ought to know--being such a devoted and attentive grandson."

Piers' hands clenched at the words. He looked suddenly dangerous. "What in thunder do you mean?" he demanded.

Tudor was nothing loth to enlighten him. He was plainly angry himself. "I mean," he said, "if you must have it, that the time you spend philandering here would be better employed in looking after the old man, who has spent a good deal over you and gets precious little interest out of the investment."

"Confound you!" exclaimed Piers violently. "Who the devil are you to talk to me like this? Do you think I'm going to put up with it, what? If so, you're damned well mistaken. You leave me alone--and my grandfather too; do you hear? If you don't--" He broke off, breathing short and hard.

But Tudor remained unimpressed. He looked at Piers as one might look at an animal raging behind bars. "Well?" he said. "Pray finish! If I don't--"

Piers' face was very pale. His eyes blazed out of it, red and threatening. "If you don't--I'll murder you!" he said.

And at that he stopped short and suddenly wheeled round as he caught the swish of a dress on the stairs. He looked up into Avery's face as she came swiftly down, and the blood rose in a deep, dark wave to his forehead. He made no attempt to cover or excuse his passionate outburst, which it was perfectly obvious she must have heard. He merely made way for her, his hands still hard clenched, his eyes immovably upon her.

Avery passed him with scarcely a glance, but her voice as she addressed Lennox Tudor sounded a trifle austere. "I heard you speaking," she said, "and ran down to fetch you upstairs. Will you come up at once, please? The ceremony is just beginning."

Tudor held out a steady hand, "Very kind of you, Mrs. Denys," he said. "Will you lead the way?" And then for a moment he turned from her to Piers. "If you have anything further to say to me, Evesham, I shall be quite ready to give you a hearing on a more suitable occasion."

"I have nothing further to say," said Piers, still with his eyes upon Avery.

She would not look at him. With deliberate intention, she ignored his look. "Come, doctor!" she said.

They mounted the stairs together, Piers still standing motionless, still mutely watching. There was no temper nor anger in his face. Simply he stood and waited. And, as if that silent gaze drew her, even against her will, suddenly at the top she turned. Her own sweet smile flashed into her face. She threw a friendly glance down to him.

"Good-night, Mr. Evesham!" she called softly. "A happy Christmas to you!"

And as if that were what he had been waiting for, Piers bowed very low in answer and at once turned away.

His face as he went out into the night wore a very curious expression. It was not grim, nor ashamed, nor triumphant, and yet there was in it a suggestion of all three moods.

He reached his car, standing as he had left it in the deserted lane, and stooped to start the engine. Then, as it throbbed in answer, he straightened himself, and very suddenly he laughed. But it was not a happy laugh; and in a moment more he shot away into the dark as though pursued by fiends. If he had gained his end, if he had in any fashion achieved his desire, it was plain that it did not give him any great satisfaction. He went like a fury through the night.

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