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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 26. Substance
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 26. Substance Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1968

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 26. Substance

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS CHAPTER XXVI. SUBSTANCE

It was a blustering spring day, and Avery, caught in a sudden storm of driving sleet, stood up against the railings of the doctor's house, sheltering as best she might. She was holding her umbrella well in the teeth of the gale, and trying to protect an armful of purchases as well.

She was alone, Gracie, the black sheep, having been sent to school at the close of the Christmas holidays, and Jeanie being confined to the house with a severe cold. Olive, having become more and more her father's constant companion, disdained shopping expeditions. The two elder boys and Pat were all at a neighbouring school as weekly boarders, and though she missed them Avery had it not in her heart to regret the arrangement. The Vicarage might at times seem dreary, but it had become undeniably an abode of peace.

Mrs. Lorimer was gradually recovering her strength, and Avery's care now centred more upon Jeanie than her mother. Though the child had recovered from her accident, she had not been really well all the winter, and the cold spring seemed to tax her strength to the uttermost. Tudor still dropped in at intervals, but he said little, and his manner did not encourage Avery to question him. Privately she was growing anxious about Jeanie, and she wished that he would be more communicative. He had absolutely forbidden book-work, a fiat to which Mr. Lorimer had yielded under protest.

"The child will grow up a positive dunce," he had declared.

To which Tudor had brusquely rejoined, "What of it?"

But his word was law so far as Jeanie was concerned, and Mr. Lorimer had relinquished the point with the sigh of one submitting to the inevitable. He did not like Lennox Tudor, but for some reason he always avoided an open disagreement with him.

It was of Jeanie that Avery was thinking as she stood there huddled against the railings while the sleet beat a fierce tattoo on her levelled umbrella and streamed from it in rivers on to the ground. She even debated with herself if it seemed advisable to turn and enter the doctor's dwelling, and try to get him to speak frankly of the matter as he had spoken once before.

She dismissed the idea, however, reflecting that he would most probably be out, and she was on the point of collecting her forces to make a rush for another sheltered spot further on when the front door opened unexpectedly behind her, and Tudor himself came forth bareheaded into the rain.

"What are you doing there, Mrs. Denys?" he said. "Why don't you come inside?"

He opened the gate for her, and took her parcels without waiting for a reply. And Avery, still with her umbrella poised against the blast, smiled her thanks and passed in.

The hair grew far back on Tudor's forehead, it was in fact becoming scanty on the top of his head; and the raindrops glistened upon it as he entered behind Avery. He wiped them away, and then took off his glasses and wiped them also.

"Come into the dining-room!" he said. "You are just in time to join me at tea."

"You're very kind," Avery said. "But I ought to hurry back the moment the rain lessens."

"It won't lessen yet," said Tudor. "Take off your mackintosh, won't you? I expect your feet are wet. There's a fire to dry them by."

Certainly the storm showed no signs of abating. The sky was growing darker every instant. Avery slipped the streaming mackintosh from her shoulders and entered the room into which he had invited her.

The blaze on the hearth was cheering after the icy gale without. She went to it, stretching her numbed hands to the warmth.

Tudor pushed forward a chair. "I believe you are chilled to the bone," he said.

She laughed at that. "Oh no, indeed I am not! But it is a cold wind, isn't it? Have you finished your work for to-day?"

Tudor foraged in a cupboard for an extra cup and saucer. "No. I've got to go out again later. I've just come back from Miss Whalley's. She's got a touch of jaundice."

"Oh, poor thing!" said Avery.

"Yes; poor thing!" echoed Tudor grimly. "She is very sorry for herself, I can assure you; but as full of gossip as ever." He paused.

Avery, with her face to the fire, laughed a little. "Anything new?"

"Miss Whalley," said Tudor deliberately, "always gets hold of something new. Never noticed that?"

"Wouldn't you like me to pour out?" suggested Avery.

"No. You keep your feet on the fender. Do you want to hear the latest tittle-tattle--or not?"

There was a wary gleam behind Tudor's glasses; but Avery did not turn her eyes from the fire. A curious little feeling of uneasiness possessed her, a sensation that scarcely amounted to dread yet which quickened the beating of her heart in a fashion that she found vaguely disconcerting.

"Don't tell me anything ugly!" she said gently, still not looking at him.

Tudor uttered a short laugh. "There's nothing especially venomous about it that I can see." He lifted the teapot and began to pour. "Have you heard from young Evesham lately?"

The question was casually uttered; but Avery's hands made a slight involuntary movement over the fire towards which she leaned.

"No," she said.

At the same moment the cup that Tudor was filling overflowed, and he whispered something under his breath and set down the tea-pot.

Avery turned towards him instinctively, to see him dabbing the table with his handkerchief.

"It's almost too dark to see what one is doing," he said.

"It is," she assented gravely, and turned back quietly to the fire, not offering to assist. A soft veil of reserve seemed to have descended upon her. She did not speak again until he had remedied the disaster and brought her some tea. Then, with absolute composure, she raised her eyes to his.

"You were going to tell me something about Piers Evesham," she said.

His eyes looked back into hers with a certain steeliness, as though they sought to penetrate her reserve.

"I was," he said, after a moment, "though I don't suppose it will interest you very greatly. I had it from Miss Whalley, but I was not told the source of her information. Rumour says that the young man is engaged to Miss Ina Rose of Wardenhurst."

"Oh, really?" said Avery. She took the cup he offered her with a hand that was perfectly steady, though she was conscious of the fact that her face was pale. "They are abroad, I think?"

"Yes, in the Riviera." Tudor's eyes fell away from hers abruptly. "At least they have been. Someone said they were coming home." He stooped to put wood on the fire, and there fell a silence.

Avery spoke after a moment. "No doubt he will be happier married."

"I wonder," said Tudor. "I should say myself that he has the sort of temperament that is never satisfied. He's too restless for that. I don't think Miss Ina Rose is greatly to be envied."

"Unless she loves him," said Avery. She spoke almost under her breath, her eyes upon the fire. Tudor, standing beside her with his elbow on the mantelpiece, was still conscious of that filmy veil of reserve floating between them. It chafed him, but it was too intangible a thing to tear aside.

He waited therefore in silence, watching her face, the tender lines of her mouth, the sweet curves that in childhood must have made a perfect picture of happiness.

She raised her eyes at length. "Dr. Tudor!"

And then she realized his scrutiny, and a soft flush rose and overspread her pale face. She lifted her straight brows questioningly.

And all in a moment Tudor found himself speaking,--not of his own volition, not the words he had meant to speak, but nervously, stammeringly, giving utterance to the thoughts that suddenly welled over from his soul. "I've been wanting to speak for ages. I couldn't get it out. But it's no good keeping it in, is it? I don't get any nearer that way. I don't want to vex you, make you feel uncomfortable. No one knows better than I that I haven't much to offer. But I can give you a home and--and all my love, if you will have it. It may seem a small thing to you, but it's bigger than the calf-love of an infant like young Evesham. I know he dared to let his fancy stray your way, and you see now what it was worth. But mine--mine isn't fancy."

And there he stopped; for Avery had risen and was facing him in the firelight with eyes of troubled entreaty.

"Oh, please," she said, "please don't go on!"

He stood upright with a jerk. The distress on her face restored his normal self-command more quickly than any words. Half-mechanically he reached out and took her tea-cup, setting it down on the mantelpiece before her.

"Don't be upset!" he said. "I didn't mean to upset you. I shan't go on, if it is against your wish."

"It is," said Avery. She spoke tremulously, locking her hands fast together. "It must be my own fault," she said, "I'm dreadfully sorry. I hoped you weren't--really in earnest."

He smiled at that with a touch of cynicism. "Did you think I was amusing myself--or you? Sit down again, won't you? There is no occasion whatever for you to be distressed. I assure you that you are in no way to blame."

"I am dreadfully sorry," Avery repeated.

"That's nice of you. I had scarcely dared to flatter myself that you would be--glad. So you see, you have really nothing to reproach yourself with. I am no worse off than I was before."

She put out her hand to him with a quick, confiding gesture. "You are very kind to put it in that way. I value your friendship so much, so very much. Yes, and I value your love too. It's not a small thing to me. Only, you know--you know--" she faltered a little--"I've been married before, and--though I loved my husband--my married life was a tragedy. Oh yes, he loved me too. It wasn't that sort of misery. It was--it was drink."

"Poor girl!" said Tudor.

He spoke with unwonted gentleness, and he held her hand with the utmost kindness. There was nothing of the rejected lover in his attitude. He was man enough to give her his first sympathy.

Avery's lips were quivering. She went on with a visible effort. "He died a violent death. He was killed in a quarrel with another man. I was told it was an accident, but it didn't seem like that to me. And--it had an effect on me. It made me hard--made me bitter."

"You, Avery!" Tudor's voice was gravely incredulous.

She turned her face to the fire, and he saw on her lashes the gleam of tears. "I've never told anyone that; but it's the truth. It seemed to me that life was cruel, mainly because of men's vices. And women were created only to go under. It was a horrid sort of feeling to have, but it has never wholly left me. I don't think I could ever face marriage a second time."

"Oh yes, you could," said Tudor, quietly, "if you loved the man."

She shook her head. "I am too old to fall in love. I have somehow missed the romance of life. I know what it is, but it will never come to me now."

"And you won't marry without?" he said.

"No."

There fell a pause; then, still with the utmost quietness, he relinquished her hand. "I think you are right," he said. "Marriage without love on both sides is a ship without ballast. Yet, I can't help thinking that you are mistaken in your idea that you have lost the capacity for that form of love. You may know what it is. Most women do. But I wonder if you have ever really felt it."

"Not to the full," Avery answered, her voice very low. "Then I was too young. Mine was just a child's rapture and it was simply extinguished when I came to know the kind of burden I had to bear. It all faded so quickly, and the reality was so terribly grim. Now--now I look on the world with experienced eyes. I am too old."

"You think experience destroys romance?" said Tudor.

She looked at him. "Don't you?"

"No," he said. "If it did, I do not think you would be afraid to marry me. Don't think I am trying to persuade you! I am not. But are you sure that in refusing me you are not sacrificing substance to shadow?"

"I don't quite understand you," she said.

He shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I can't be more explicit. No doubt you will follow your own instincts. But allow me to say that I don't think you are the sort of woman to go through life unmated; and though I may not be romantic, I am sound. I think I could give you a certain measure of happiness. But the choice is yours. I can only bow to your decision."

There was a certain dignity in his speech that gave it weight. Avery listened in silence, and into silence the words passed.

Several seconds slipped away, then without effort Tudor came back to everyday things. "Sit down, won't you? Your tea is getting cold."

Avery sat down, and he handed it to her, and after a moment turned aside to the table.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "I have just come back from the Vicarage."

"Oh, have you?" Avery looked round quickly. "You went to see Jeanie?"

"Yes." Tudor spoke gravely. "I also saw the Vicar. I told him the child must go away. That cough of hers is tearing her to pieces. She ought to go to the South Coast. I told him so."

"Oh! What did he say?" Avery spoke with eagerness. She had been longing to suggest that very proposal for some time past.

Tudor smiled into his cup. "He said it was a total impossibility. That was the starting-point. At the finish it was practically decided that you should take her away next week."

"I!" said Avery.

"Yes, you. Mrs. Lorimer will manage all right now. The nurse can look after her and the little ones without assistance. And the second girl--Olive isn't it?--can look after the Reverend Stephen. It's all arranged in fact, unless it fails to meet with your approval, in which case of course the whole business must be reconsidered."

"But of course I approve," Avery said. "I would do anything that lay in my power. But I don't quite like the idea of leaving Mrs. Lorimer."

"She will be all right," Tudor asserted again. "She wouldn't be happy away from her precious husband, and she would sooner have you looking after Jeanie than anyone. She told me so."

"She always thinks of others first," said Avery.

"So does someone else I know," rejoined Tudor. "It's just a habit some women have,--not always a good habit from some points of view. We may regard it as settled then, may we? You really have no objections to raise?"

"None," said Avery. "I think the idea is excellent. I have been feeling troubled about Jeanie nearly all the winter. This last cold has worn her out terribly."

Tudor nodded. "Yes."

He drank his tea thoughtfully, and then spoke again. "I sounded her this afternoon. The left lung is not in a healthy condition. She will need all the attention you can give her if she is going to throw off the mischief. It has not gone very far at present, but--to be frank with you--I am very far from satisfied that she can muster the strength." He got up and began to pace the room. "I have not said this plainly to anyone else. I don't want to frighten Mrs. Lorimer before I need. The poor soul has enough to bear without this added. Possibly the change will work wonders. Possibly she will pull round. Children have marvellous recuperative powers. But I have seen this sort of thing a good many times before, and--" he came back to the hearth--"it doesn't make me happy."

"I am glad you have told me," Avery said.

"I had to tell you. I believe you more than half suspected it." Tudor spoke restlessly; his thoughts were evidently not of his companion at that moment. "There are of course a good many points in her favour. She is a good, obedient child with a placid temperament. And the summer is before us. We shall have to work hard this summer, Mrs. Denys." He smiled at her abruptly. "It is like building a sea-wall when the tide is out. We've got to make it as strong as possible before the tide comes back."

"You may rely on me to do my very best," Avery said earnestly.

He nodded. "Thank you. I know I may. I always do. Hence my confidence in you. May I give you some more tea?"

He quitted the subject as suddenly as he had embarked upon it. There was something very friendly in his treatment of her. She knew with unquestioning intuition that for the future he would keep strictly within the bounds of friendship unless he had her permission to pass beyond them. And it was this knowledge that emboldened her at parting to say, with her hand in his: "You are very, very good to me. I would like to thank you if I could."

He pressed her hand with the kindness of an old friend. "No, don't thank me!" he said, smiling at her in a way that somehow went to her heart. "I shall always be at your service. But I'd rather you took it as a matter of course. I feel more comfortable that way."

Avery left him at length and trudged home through the mud with a curious feeling of uncertainty in her soul. It was as though she had been vouchsafed a far glimpse of destiny which had been too fleeting for her comprehension.

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