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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 27. Shadow
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 27. Shadow Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2801

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 27. Shadow

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS CHAPTER XXVII. SHADOW

The preparations that must inevitably precede a departure for an indefinite length of time kept Avery from dwelling overmuch on what had passed on that gusty afternoon when she had taken shelter in the doctor's house.

Whether or not she believed the rumour concerning Piers she scarcely asked herself. For some reason into which she did not enter she was firmly resolved to exclude him from her mind, and she welcomed the many occupations that kept her thoughts engrossed. No word from him had reached her since that daring letter written nearly three months before, just after his departure. It seemed that he had accepted her answer just as she had meant him to accept it, and that he had nothing more to say. So at least she viewed the matter, not suffering any inward question to arise.

She saw Lennox Tudor several times before the last day arrived. He did not seek her out. It simply came about in the ordinary course of things. He was plainly determined that neither in public nor private should there be any secret sense of embarrassment between them. And for this also she was grateful, liking him for his blunt consideration for her better than she had ever liked him before.

It was on the evening of the day preceding her departure with Jeanie that she ran down in the dusk to the post at the end of the lane with a letter. Her Australian friend had written to propose a visit, and she had been obliged to put him off.

There was a bitter wind blowing, but she hastened along hatless, with a cloak thrown round her shoulders. Past the church with its sheltering yew-trees she ran, intent only upon executing her errand in as short a time as possible.

Her hair blew loose about her face, and before she reached her goal she was ashamed of her untidiness, but it was not worth while to return for a hat, and she pressed on with a girl's impetuosity, hoping that she would meet no one.

The hope was not to be fulfilled. She reached the box and deposited her letter therein, but as she turned from doing so, there came the fall of a horse's hoofs along the road at the end of the lane.

She caught the sound, and was pierced by a sudden, quite unaccountable suspicion. Swiftly she gathered her cloak more securely about her, and hastened away.

Instantly it seemed to her that the hoof-beats quickened. The lane was steep, and she realized in a moment that if the rider turned up in her wake, she must very speedily be overtaken. She slackened her pace therefore, and walked on more quietly, straining her ears to listen, not venturing to look back.

Round the corner came the advancing animal at a brisk trot. She had known in her heart that it would be so. She had known from the first moment of hearing those hoof-beats, that Fate, strong and relentless, was on her track.

How she had known it she could not have said, but the wild clamour of her heart stifled any reasoning that she might have tried to form. Her breath came and went like the breath of a hunted creature. She could not hurry because of the trembling of her knees. Every instinct was urging her to flee, but she lacked the strength. She drew instead nearer to the wall, hoping against hope that in the gathering darkness he would pass her by.

Nearer and nearer came the hammering hoofs. She could hear the horse's sharp breathing, the creak of leather. And then suddenly she found she could go no further. She stopped and leaned against the wall.

She saw the animal pulled suddenly in, and knew that she was caught. With a great effort she lifted a smiling face, and simulated surprise.

"You! How do you do?"

"You knew it was me," said Piers rather curtly.

He dropped from the saddle with the easy grace that always marked his movements, and came to her, leaving the animal free.

"Why were you running away from me?" he said. "Did you want to cut me?"

He must have felt the trembling of her hand, for all in a moment his manner changed. His fingers closed upon hers with warm assurance. He suddenly laughed into her face.

"Don't answer either of those questions!" he said. "Didn't you expect to see me? We came home yesterday, thank the gods! I'm deadly sick of being away."

"Haven't you enjoyed yourself?" Avery managed to ask.

He laughed again somewhat grimly. "I wasn't out for enjoyment. I've been--amusing myself more or less. But that's not the same thing, is it? I should have drowned myself if I'd stayed out there much longer."

"Don't talk nonsense!" said Avery.

She spoke with a touch of sharpness. Her agitation had passed leaving her vexed with herself and with him.

He received the admonition with a grimace. "Have you heard about my engagement yet?" he enquired irrelevantly, after a moment.

Avery looked at him very steadily through the falling dusk. She had a feeling that he was trying to hoodwink her by some means not wholly praiseworthy.

"Are you engaged?" she asked him, point-blank.

He made a careless gesture. "Everybody says so."

"Are you engaged?" Avery repeated with resolution.

She freed her hand as she uttered the question the second time. She was standing up very straight against the churchyard wall sternly determined to check all trifling.

Piers straightened himself also. From the pride of his attitude she thought that he was about to take offence, but his voice held none as he made reply.

"I am not."

She felt as if some constriction at her heart, of which till that moment she had scarcely been aware, had suddenly slackened. She drew a long, deep breath.

"Sorry, what?" suggested Piers.

He began to tap a careless tattoo with his whip on the toe of his boot. He did not appear to be regarding her very closely. Yet she did not feel at her ease. That sudden sense as of strain relaxed had left her curiously unsteady.

She ignored his question and asked another. "Why is everybody saying that you are engaged?"

He lifted his shoulders. "Because everybody is more or less of a gossiping fool, I should say. Still," he threw up his head with a laugh, "notions of that sort have their uses. My grandfather for instance is firmly of the opinion that I have come home to be married. I didn't undeceive him."

"You let him believe--what wasn't true?" said Avery slowly.

He looked straight at her, with his head flung back. "I did. It suited my purpose. I wanted to get home. He thought it was because the Roses had returned to Wardenhurst. I let him think so. It certainly was deadly without them."

It was then that Avery turned and began quietly to walk on up the hill. He linked his arm in Pompey's bridle, and walked beside her.

She spoke after a few moments with something of constraint. "And how have you been--amusing yourself?"

"I?" Carelessly he made reply. "I have been playing around with Ina Rose chiefly--to save us both from boredom."

There sounded a faint jeering note behind the carelessness of his voice. Avery quickened her pace almost unconsciously.

"It's all right," said Piers. "There's been no damage done."

"You don't know that," said Avery, without looking at him.

"Yes, I do. She'll marry Dick Guyes. I told her she would the night before they left, and she didn't say she wouldn't. He's a much better chap than I am, you know," said Piers, with an odd touch of sincerity. "And he's head over ears in love with her into the bargain."

"Are you trying to excuse yourself?" said Avery.

He laughed. "What for? For not marrying Ina Rose? I assure you I never meant to marry her."

"For trifling with her." Avery's voice was hard, but he affected not to notice.

"A game's a game," he said lightly.

Avery stopped very suddenly and faced round upon him. "That sort of game," she said, and her voice throbbed with the intensity of her indignation, "is monstrous--is contemptible--a game that none but blackguards ever stoop to play!"

Piers stood still. "Great Scott!" he said softly.

Avery swept on. Once roused, she was ruthless in her arraignment.

"Men--some men--find it amusing to go through life breaking women's hearts just for the sport of the thing. They regard it as a pastime, in the same light as fox-hunting or cards or racing. And when the game is over, they laugh among themselves and say what fools women are. And so they may be, and so they are, many of them. But is it honourable, is it manly, to take advantage of their weakness? I never thought you were that sort. I thought you were at least honest."

"Did you?" said Piers.

He was holding himself very straight and stiff, just as he had held himself on that day in the winter when she had so indignantly intervened to save his dog from his ungovernable fury. But he did not seem to resent her attack, and in spite of herself Avery's own resentment began to wane. She suddenly remembered that her very protest was an admission of intimacy of which he would not scruple to avail himself if it suited his purpose, and with this thought in her mind she paused in confusion.

"Won't you finish?" said Piers.

She turned to leave him. "That's all I have to say."

He put out a restraining hand. "Then may I say something?"

The request was so humbly uttered that she could not refuse it. She remained where she was.

"I should like you to know," said Piers, "that I have never given Miss Rose or any other girl with whom I have flirted the faintest shadow of a reason for believing that I was in earnest. That is the truth--on my honour."

"I wonder if--they--would say the same," said Avery.

He shrugged his shoulders. "No one ever before accused me of being a lady-killer. As to your other charge against me, it was not I who deceived my grandfather. It was he who deceived himself."

"Isn't that a distinction without a difference?" said Avery, in a low voice.

She was beginning to wish that she had not spoken with such vehemence. After all, what were his delinquencies to her? She almost expected him to ask the question; but he did not.

"Do you mind explaining?" he said.

With an effort she made response. "You can't say it was honourable to let your grandfather come home in the belief that you wanted to become engaged to Miss Rose."

"Have I said so?" said Piers.

Avery paused. She had a sudden feeling of uncertainty as if he had kicked away a foothold upon which she had rashly attempted to rest.

"You admit that it was not?" she said.

He smiled a little. "I admit that it was not strictly honest, but I didn't see much harm in it. In any case it was high time we came home, and it gave him the impetus to move."

"And when are you going to tell him the truth?" said Avery.

Piers was silent.

Looking at him through the dusk, she was aware of a change in his demeanour, though as to its nature she was slightly doubtful.

"And if I don't tell him?" said Piers at length.

"You will," she said quickly.

"I don't know why I should." Piers' voice was dogged. "He'll know fast enough--when she gets engaged to Guyes."

"Know that you have played a double game," said Avery.

"Well?" he said. "And if he does?"

"I think you will be sorry--then," she said.

Somehow she could not be angry any longer. He had accepted her rebuke in so docile a spirit. She did not wholly understand his attitude. Yet it softened her.

"Why should I be sorry?" said Piers.

She answered him quickly and impulsively. "Because it isn't your nature to deceive. You are too honest at heart to do it and be happy."

"Happy!" said Piers, an odd note of emotion in his voice. "Do you suppose I'm ever that--or ever likely to be?"

She recoiled a little from the suppressed vehemence of his tone, but almost instantly he put out his hand again to her with a gesture of boyish persuasion.

"Don't rag me, Avery! I've had a filthy time lately. And when I saw you cut and run at sight of me--I just couldn't stand it. I've been wanting to answer your letter, but I couldn't."

"But why should you?" Avery broke in gently. "My letter was the answer to yours."

She gave him her hand, because she could not help it.

He held it in a hungry clasp. "I know--I know," he said rather incoherently. "It--it was very decent of you not to be angry. I believe I let myself go rather--what? Thanks awfully for being so sweet about it!"

"My dear boy," Avery said, "you thank me for nothing! The matter is past. Don't let us re-open it!"

She spoke with unconscious appeal. His hand squeezed hers in instant response. "All right. We won't. And look here,--if you want me to tell my grandfather that he has been building his castle in the air,--it'll mean a row of course, but--I'll do it."

"Will you?" said Avery.

He nodded. "Yes--as you wish it. And may I come to tea with Jeanie to-morrow?"

His dark eyes smiled suddenly into hers as he dropped her hand. She had a momentary feeling of uncertainty as she met them--a sense of doubt that disquieted her strangely. It was as if he had softly closed a door against her somewhere in his soul.

With a curious embarrassment she answered him. "Jeanie has not been well all the winter. Dr. Tudor has ordered a change, and we are going--she and I--to Stanbury Cliffs to-morrow."

"Are you though?" He opened his eyes. "Just you and she, eh? What a cosy party!"

"The other children will probably join us for the Easter holidays," Avery said. "It's a nice place, they say. Do you know it?"

"I should think I do. Victor and I used to go there regularly when I was a kid. It was there I learnt to swim."

"Who is Victor?" asked Avery, beginning to walk on up the hill.

"Victor? Oh, he's my French nurse--the best chap who ever walked. We are great pals," laughed Piers. "And so you're off to-morrow, are you? Hope you'll have a good time. Give my love to the kiddie! She isn't really ill, what?"

"Dr. Tudor is not satisfied about her," Avery said.

"Oh, Tudor!" Piers spoke with instant disparagement. "I don't suppose he's any good. What does he say anyway?"

"He is afraid of lung trouble," Avery said. "But we hope the change is going to do wonders for her. Do you know, I think I must run in now? I have several little jobs still to get through this evening."

Piers stopped at once. "Good-bye!" he said. "I'm glad I saw you. Take care of yourself, Avery! And the next time you see me coming--don't run away!"

He set his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle. Pompey immediately began to execute an elaborate dance in the roadway, rendering further conversation out of the question. Piers waved his cap in careless adieu, and turned the animal round. In another moment he was tearing down the lane at a gallop, and Avery was left looking after him still with that curious sense of doubt lying cold at her heart.

The sight of a black, clerical figure emerging from the churchyard caused her to turn swiftly and pursue her way to the Vicarage gate. But the sounds of those galloping hoofs still wrought within her as she went. They beat upon her spirit with a sense of swift-moving Destiny.

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