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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 18. Horns And Hoofs
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 18. Horns And Hoofs Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2847

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 18. Horns And Hoofs

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS CHAPTER XVIII. HORNS AND HOOFS

It was the Reverend Stephen Lorimer's custom to have all letters that arrived by the morning post placed beside his breakfast plate to be sorted by him at the end of family prayers,--a custom which Gracie freely criticized in the sanctuary of the schoolroom, and which her mother in earlier days had gently and quite ineffectually tried to stop. It was always a somewhat lengthy proceeding as it entailed a careful scrutiny of each envelope, especially in the case of letters not addressed to the Reverend Stephen. He was well acquainted with the handwriting of all his wife's correspondents, and was generally ready with some shrewd guess as to their motives for writing. They were usually submitted to him for perusal as soon as she had read them herself, a habit formed by Mrs. Lorimer when she discovered that he looked upon her correspondence as his own property and deeply resented any inclination on her part to keep it to herself.

Avery's arrival had brought an additional interest to the morning budget. Her letters were invariably examined with bland curiosity and handed on to her with comments appropriate to their appearance. Occasionally envelopes with an Australian postmark reached her, and these always excited especial notice. The brief spell of Avery's married life had been spent in a corner of New South Wales. In the early part of their acquaintance, Mr. Lorimer had sought to draw her out on the subject of her experiences during this period, but he had found her reticent. And so whenever a letter came addressed in the strong, masculine hand of her Australian correspondent, some urbane remark was invariably made, while his small daughter Gracie swelled with indignation at the further end of the table.

"Two epistles for Mrs. Denys!" he announced, as he turned over the morning's mail at the breakfast-table two days after Christmas. "Ah, I thought our Australian friend would be calling attention to himself ere the festive season had quite departed. He writes from Adelaide on this occasion. That indicates a move if I mistake not. His usual _pied-a-terre has been Brisbane hitherto, has it not?"

His little dark eyes interrogated Avery for a moment before they vanished inwards with disconcerting completeness.

Avery stiffened instinctively. She was well aware that Mr. Lorimer did not like her, but the fact held no disturbing element. To her mind the dislike of the man was preferable to his favour and after all she saw but little of him.

She went on therefore with her occupation of cutting bread and butter for the children with no sign of annoyance save that slight, scarcely perceptible stiffening of the neck which only Gracie saw.

"I hope you are kind to your faithful correspondent," smiled Mr. Lorimer, still holding the letter between his finger and thumb. "He evidently regards your friendship as a pearl of price, and doubtless he is well-advised to do so."

Here he opened his eyes again, and sent a barbed glance at Avery's unresponsive face.

"Friendship is a beautiful thing, is it not?" he said.

"It is," said Avery, deftly cutting her fifth slice.

The Reverend Stephen proceeded with clerical fervour to embellish his subject, for no especial reason save the pleasure of listening to his own eloquence--a pleasure which never palled. "It partakes of that divine quality of charity so sadly lacking in many of us, and sheds golden beams of sunshine in the humblest earthly home. It has been aptly called the true earnest of eternity."

"Really!" said Avery.

"An exquisite thought, is it not?" said the Vicar. "Grace, my child, for the one-and-twentieth time I must beg of you not to swing your legs when sitting at table."

"I wasn't," said Gracie.

Her father's brows were elevated in surprise. His eyes as a consequence were opened rather wider than usual, revealing an unmistakably malignant gleam.

"That is not the way in which a Christian child should receive admonition," he said. "If you were not swinging your legs, you were fidgeting in a fashion which you very well know to be unmannerly. Do not let me have to complain of your behaviour again!"

Gracie's cheeks were crimson, her violet eyes blazing with resentment; and Avery, dreading an outburst, laid a gentle restraining hand upon her shoulder for an instant.

The action was well-meant, but its results were unfortunate. Gracie impulsively seized and kissed the hand with enthusiasm. "All right, Avery dear," she said with pointed docility.

Mr. Lorimer's brows rose a little higher, but being momentarily at a loss for a suitable comment he contented himself with a return to Avery's correspondence.

"The other letter," he said, "bears the well-known crest of the Evesham family. Ah, Mrs. Denys!" he shook his head at her. "Now, what does that portend?"

"What is the crest?" asked Avery, briskly cutting another slice.

"The devil," said Gracie.

"My dear!" remonstrated Mrs. Lorimer, with a nervous glance towards her husband.

The Reverend Stephen was smiling, but in a fashion she did not quite like. He addressed Avery.

"The Evesham crest, Mrs. Denys, is a gentleman with horns and hoofs and under him the one expressive word, _'Cave.' Excellent advice, is it not? I think we should do well to follow it." He turned the envelope over, and studied the address. "What a curious style of writing the young man has, unrestrained to a degree! This looks as if it had been written in a desperate mood. Mrs. Denys, Mrs. Denys, what have you been doing?"

He began to laugh, but stopped abruptly as Julian, who was seated near him, with a sudden, clumsy movement, upset a stream of cocoa across the breakfast-table. This created an instant diversion. Mr. Lorimer turned upon him vindictively, and soundly smacked his head, Mrs. Lorimer covered her face and wept, and Avery, with Gracie close behind, hurried to remedy the disaster.

Ranald came to help her in his quiet, gentlemanly way, dabbing up the thick brown stream with his table-napkin. Pat slipped round to his mother and hugged her hard. And Olive, the only unmoved member of the party, looked on with contemptuous eyes the while she continued her breakfast. Jeanie still breakfasted upstairs in the schoolroom, and so missed the _fracas_.

"The place is a pig-sty!" declared Mr. Lorimer, roused out of all complacence and casting dainty phraseology to the winds. "And you, sir,"--he addressed his second son,--"wholly unfit for civilized society. Go upstairs, and--if you have any appetite left after this disgusting exhibition--satisfy it in the nursery!"

Julian, crimson but wholly unashamed, flung up his head defiantly and walked to the door.

"Stop!" commanded Mr. Lorimer, ere he reached it.

Julian stopped.

His father looked him up and down with gradually returning composure. "You will not go to the nursery," he said. "You will go to the study and there suffer the penalty for insolence."

"Stephen!" broke from Mrs. Lorimer in anguished protest.

"A beastly shame!" cried Gracie vehemently, flinging discretion to the winds; she adored her brother Julian. "He never spoke a single word!"

"Go, Julian!" said Mr. Lorimer.

Julian went, banging the door vigorously behind him.

Then, amid an awful silence, the Vicar turned his scrutiny upon his small daughter.

Gracie stood up under it with all the courage at her disposal, but she was white to the lips before that dreadful gaze passed from her to Avery.

"Mrs. Denys," said Mr. Lorimer, in tones of icy courtesy, "will you oblige me by taking that child upstairs, undressing her, and putting her to bed? She will remain there until I come."

Avery, her task accomplished, turned and faced him. She was as white as Gracie, but there was a steadfast light in her eyes that showed her wholly unafraid.

"Mr. Lorimer," she said, "with your permission I will deal with Gracie. She has done wrong, I know. By-and-bye, she will be sorry and tell you so."

Mr. Lorimer smiled sarcastically. "An apology, my dear Mrs. Denys, does not condone the offence. It is wholly against my principles to spare the rod when it is so richly merited, and I shall not do so on this occasion. Will you kindly do as I have requested?"

It was final, and Avery knew it. Mrs. Lorimer knew it also, and burst into hysterical crying.

Avery turned swiftly. "Go upstairs, dear!" she said to Gracie, and Gracie went like an arrow.

Mrs. Lorimer started to her feet. "Stephen! Stephen!" she cried imploringly.

But her husband turned a deaf ear. With a contemptuous gesture he tossed Avery's letters upon the table and stalked from the room.

Mrs. Lorimer uttered a wild cry of despair, and fell back fainting in her chair.

For the next quarter of an hour Avery was fully occupied in restoring her, again assisted by Ronald. When she came to herself, it was only to shed anguished tears on Avery's shoulder and repeat over and over again that she could not bear it, she could not bear it.

Avery was of the same opinion, but she did not say so. She strove instead with the utmost tenderness to persuade her to drink some tea. But even when she had succeeded in this, Mrs. Lorimer continued to be so exhausted and upset that at last, growing uneasy, Avery despatched Ronald for the doctor.

She sent Olive for the children's nurse and took counsel with her as to getting her mistress back to bed. But Nurse instantly discouraged this suggestion.

"For the Lord's sake, ma'am, don't take her upstairs!" she said. "The master's up there with Miss Gracie, and he's whipping the poor lamb something cruel. He made me undress her first."

"Oh, I cannot have that!" exclaimed Avery. "Stay here a minute, Nurse, while I go up!"

She rushed upstairs in furious anger to the room in which the three little girls slept. The door was locked, but the sounds within were unmistakable. Gracie was plainly receiving severe punishment from her irate parent. Her agonized crying tore Avery's heart.

She threw herself at the door and battered at it with her fists. "Mr. Lorimer!" she called. "Mr. Lorimer, let me in!"

There was no response. Possibly she was not even heard, for the dreadful crying continued and, mingled with it, the swish of the slender little riding-switch which in the earlier, less harassed days of his married life the Reverend Stephen had kept for the horse he rode, and which now he kept for his children.

They were terrible moments for Avery that she spent outside that locked door, listening impotently to a child's piteous cries for mercy from one who knew it not. But they came to an end at last. Gracie's distress sank into anguished sobs, and Avery knew that the punishment was over. Mr. Lorimer had satisfied both his sense of duty and his malice.

She heard him speak in cold, cutting tones. "I have punished you more severely than I had ever expected to find necessary, and I hope that the lesson will be sufficient. But I warn you, Grace, most solemnly that I shall watch your behaviour very closely for the future, and if I detect in you the smallest indication of the insolence and defiance for which I have inflicted this punishment upon you to-day I shall repeat the punishment fourfold. No! Not another word!" as Gracie made some inarticulate utterance. "Or you will compel me to repeat it to-night!"

And with that, he walked quietly to the door and unlocked it.

Avery had ceased to beat upon it; she met him white and stiff in the doorway.

"I have just sent for the doctor," she said. "Mrs. Lorimer has been taken ill."

She passed him at once with the words, not looking at him, for she could not trust herself. Straight to Gracie, huddled on the floor in her night-dress, she went, and lifted the child bodily to her bed.

Gracie clung to her, sobbing passionately. Mr. Lorimer lingered in the doorway.

"Will you go, please?" said Avery, tight-lipped and rigid, the child clasped to her throbbing heart.

It was a definite command, spoken in a tone that almost compelled compliance, and Mr. Lorimer lingered no more.

Then for one long minute Avery sat and rocked the poor little tortured body in her arms.

At length, through Gracie's sobs, she spoke. "Gracie darling, I'm going to ask you to do something big for me."

"Yes?" sobbed Gracie, clinging tightly round her neck.

"Leave off crying!" Avery said. "Please leave off crying, darling, and be your own brave self!"

"I can't," cried Gracie.

"But do try, darling!" Avery urged her softly. "Because, you see, I can't leave you like this, and your poor little mother wants me so badly. She is ill, Gracie, and I ought to go to her, but I can't while you are crying so."

Thus adjured, Gracie made gallant efforts to check herself. But her spirit was temporarily quite broken. She stood passively with the tears running down her face while Avery hastily dressed her again and set her rumpled hair to rights. Then again for a few seconds they held each other very tightly.

"Bless you, my own brave darling!" Avery whispered.

To which Gracie made tearful reply: "Whatever should we do without you, dear--dear Avery?"

"And you won't cry any more?" pleaded Avery, who was nearer to tears herself than she dared have owned.

"No," said Gracie valiantly.

She began to dry her eyes with vigour--a hopeful sign; and after pressing upon Avery another damp kiss was even able to muster a smile.

"Now you can do something to help me," said Avery. "Give yourself five minutes--here's my watch to go by!" She slipped it off her own wrist and on to Gracie's. "Then run up to the nursery and see after the children while Nurse is downstairs! And drink a cup of milk, dearie! Mind you do, for you've had nothing yet."

"I shall love to wear your watch," murmured Gracie, beginning to be comforted.

"I know you'll take care of it," Avery said, with a loving hand on the child's hair. "Now you'll be all right, will you? I can leave you without worrying?"

Grade gave her face a final polish, and nodded. Spent and sore though she was, her spirit was beginning to revive. "Is Mother really ill?" she asked, as Avery turned to go.

"I don't know, dear. I'm rather anxious about her," said Avery.

"It's all Father's fault," said Gracie.

Avery was silent. She could not contradict the statement.

As she reached the door, Gracie spoke again, but more to herself than to Avery. "I hope--when he dies--he'll go to hell and stay there for ever and ever and ever!"

"Oh, Gracie!" Avery stopped, genuinely shocked. "How wrong!" she said.

Gracie nodded several times. "Yes, I know it's wrong, but I don't care. And I hope he'll die to-morrow."

"Hush! Hush!" Avery said.

Whereat Gracie broke into a propitiatory smile. "The things I wish for never happen," she said.

And Avery departed, wondering if this statement deserved to be treated in the light of an amendment.

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