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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 30. The Conflict
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 30. The Conflict Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2219

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 30. The Conflict

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS
CHAPTER XXX. THE CONFLICT

Stanbury Cliffs was no more than a little fishing-town at the foot of the sandy cliff--a sheltered nest of a place in which the sound of the waves was heard all day long, but which no bitter wind could reach. The peace of it was balm to Avery's spirit. She revelled in its quiet.

Jeanie loved it too. She delighted in the freedom and the warmth, and almost from the day of their arrival her health began to improve.

They had their quarters in what was little more than a two-storey cottage belonging to one of the fishermen, and there was only a tiny garden bright with marigolds between them and the shore. Day after day they went through the little wicket gate down a slope of loose sand to the golden beach where they spent the sunny hours in perfect happiness. The waves that came into the bay were never very rough, though they sometimes heard them raging outside with a fury that filled the whole world with its roaring. Jeanie called it "the desired haven," and confided to Avery that she was happier than she had ever been in her life before.

Avery was happy too, but with a difference; for she knew in her secret heart that the days of her tranquillity were numbered. She knew with a woman's sure instinct that the interval of peace would be but brief, that with or without her will she must soon be drawn back again into the storm and stress of life. And knowing it, she waited, strengthening her defences day by day, counting each day as a respite while she devoted herself to the child and rejoiced to see the change so quickly wrought in her. Tudor's simile of the building of a sea-wall often recurred to her. She told herself that the foundation thereof should be as secure as human care could make it, so that when the tide came back it should stand the strain.

The Vicar would have been shocked beyond words by the life of complete indulgence led by his small daughter. She breakfasted in bed every day, served by Avery who was firm as to the amount of nourishment taken but comfortably lax on all other points. When the meal was over, Avery generally went marketing while Jeanie dressed, and they then went to the shore. If there were no marketing to be done, Avery would go down to the beach alone and wait for her there. There was a sheltered corner that they both loved where, protected by towering rocks, they spent many a happy hour. It was just out of reach of the sea, exposed to the sun and sheltered from the wind--an ideal spot; and here they brought letters, books, or needlework, and were busy or idle according to their moods.

Jeanie was often idle. She used to lie in the soft sand and dream, with her eyes on the far horizon; but of what she dreamed she said no word even to Avery. But she was always happy. Her smile was always ready, the lines of her mouth were always set in perfect content. She seemed to have all she desired at all times. They did not often stray from the shore, for she was easily tired; but they used to roam along it and search the crevices of the scattered rocks which held all manner of treasures. They spent the time in complete accord. It was too good to last, Avery told herself. The way had become too easy.

It was on a morning about a week after their arrival that she went down at an early hour to their favourite haunt. There had been rain in the night, and a brisk west wind was blowing; but she knew that in that sheltered spot they would be protected, and Jeanie was pledged to join her there as soon as she was ready. The tide was coming in, and the sun shone amidst scudding white clouds. It was a morning on which to be happy for no other reason than lightness of heart; and Avery, with her work-bag on her arm, sang softly to herself as she went.

As usual she met no one. It was a secluded part of the shore. The little town was out of sight on the other side of a rocky promontory, and the place was lonely to desolation.

But Avery did not feel the loneliness. She had had a letter only that morning from Crowther, the friend of those far-off Australian days, and he expressed a hope of being able to pay her a flying visit at Stanbury Cliffs before settling down to work in grim earnest for the accomplishment of his life's desire. She would have welcomed Edmund Crowther at any time. He was the sort of friend whose coming could never bring anything but delight.

She wondered as she walked along which day he would choose. She was rather glad that he had not fixed a definite date. It was good to feel that any day might bring him.

Nearing her destination she became aware of light feet running on the firm sand behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, but the sun shone full in her eyes, and she only managed to discern vaguely a man's figure drawing near. He could not be pursuing her, she decided, and resumed her walk and her thoughts of Crowther--the friend who had stood by her at a time when she had been practically friendless.

But the running feet came nearer and nearer. She suddenly realized that they meant to overtake her, and with the knowledge the old quick dread pierced her heart. She wheeled abruptly round and stood still.

He was there, not a dozen yards from her. He hailed her as she turned.

She clenched her hands with sudden determination and went to meet him.

"Piers!" she said, and in her voice reproach and severity were oddly mingled.

But Piers was unabashed. He ran swiftly up to her, and caught her hands into his with an impetuous rush of words. "Here you are at last! I've been waiting for you for hours. But I was in the water when you first appeared, and I hadn't any towels, or I should have caught you up before."

He was laughing as he spoke, but it seemed to Avery that there was something not quite normal about him. His black hair lay in a wet plaster on his forehead, and below it his eyes glittered oddly, as if he were putting some force upon himself.

"How in the world did you get here?" she said.

He laughed again between his teeth. "I tell you, I've been here for hours. I came last night. But I couldn't knock you up at two in the morning. So I had to wait. How are you and Jeanie getting on?"

Avery gravely withdrew her hands, and turned to pursue her way towards her rocky resting-place. "Jeanie is better," she said, in a voice that did not encourage any further solicitude on either Jeanie's behalf or her own.

Piers marched beside her, a certain doggedness in his gait. The laughter had died out of his face. He looked pale and stern, and fully as determined as she.

"Why didn't you tell us to expect you?" Avery asked at last.

"Were you not expecting me?" he returned, and his voice had the sharpness of a challenge.

She looked at him steadily for a moment or two, meeting eyes that flung back her scrutiny with grim defiance.

"Of course I was not expecting you," she said.

"And yet you were not--altogether--surprised to see me," he rejoined, a faint jeering echo in his voice.

Avery walked on till she reached her sheltered corner. Then she laid her work-bag down in the accustomed place, and very resolutely turned and faced him.

"Tell me why you have come!" she said.

He gazed at her for a moment fiercely from under his black brows; then suddenly and disconcertingly he seized her by the wrists.

"I'll tell you," he said, speaking rapidly, with feverish utterance. "I've come because--before Heaven--I can't keep away. Avery, listen to me! Yes, you must listen. I've come because I must, because you are all the world to me and I want you unutterably. I don't believe--I can't believe--that I am nothing to you. You can't with honesty tell me so. I love you with all my soul, with all there is of me, good and bad. Avery--Avery, say you love me too!"

Just for an instant the arrogance went out of his voice, and it sank to pleading. But Avery stood mute before him, very pale, desperately calm. She made not the faintest attempt to free herself, but her hands were hard clenched. There was nothing passive in her attitude.

He was aware of strong resistance, but it only goaded him to further effort. He lifted the clenched hands and held them tight against his heart.

"You needn't try to cast me off," he said, "for I simply won't go. I know you care. You wouldn't have taken the trouble to write that letter if you didn't. And so listen! I've come now to marry you. We can go up to town to-day,--Jeanie too, if you like. And to-morrow--to-morrow we will be married by special licence. I've thought it all out. You can't refuse. I have money of my own--plenty of money. And you belong to me already. It's no good trying to deny it any more. You are my mate--my mate; and I won't try to live without you any longer!"

Wildly the words rushed out, spending themselves as it were upon utter silence. Avery's hands were no longer clenched. They lay open against his breast, and the mad beating of his heart thrilled through and through her as she stood.

He bent towards her eagerly, passionately. His hands reached out to clasp her; yet he paused. "Avery! Avery!" he whispered very urgently.

Her eyes were raised to his, grey and steady and fearless. Not by the smallest gesture did she seek to escape him. She suffered the hands upon her shoulders. She suffered the fiery passion of his gaze.

Only at last very clearly, very resolutely, she spoke. "Piers--no!"

His face was close to hers, glowing and vital and tensely determined. "I say 'Yes,'" he said, with brief decision.

Avery was silent. His hands were drawing her, and still she did not resist; but in those moments of silent inactivity she was stronger than he. Her personality was at grips with his, and if she gained no ground at least she held her own.

"Avery!" he said suddenly and sharply. "What's the matter with you? Why don't you speak?"

"I am waiting," she said.

"Waiting!" he echoed. "Waiting for what?"

"Waiting for you to come to yourself, Piers," she made steadfast answer.

He laughed at that, a quick, insolent laugh. "Do you think I don't know what I'm doing, then?"

"I am quite sure," she answered, "that when you know, you will be more ashamed than any honourable man should ever have reason to be."

He winced at the words. She saw the hot blood surge in a great wave to his forehead, and she quailed inwardly though outwardly she made no sign. His grip was growing every instant more compelling. She knew that he was bracing himself for one great effort that should batter down the strength that withstood him. His lips were so close to hers that she could feel his breath, quick and hot, upon her face. And still she made no struggle for freedom, knowing instinctively that the instant her self-control yielded, the battle was lost.

Slowly the burning flush died away under her eyes. His face changed, grew subtly harder, less passionate. "So," he said, with an odd quietness, "I'm not to kiss you. It would be dishonourable, what?"

She made unflinching reply. "It would be despicable and you know it--to kiss any woman against her will."

"Would it be against your will?" he asked.

"Yes, it would." Firmly she answered him, yet a quiver of agitation went through her. She felt her resolution begin to waver.

But in that moment something in Piers seemed to give way also. He cried out to her as if in sudden, intolerable pain. "Avery! Avery! Are you made of stone? Can't you see that this is life or death to me?"

She answered him instantly; it was almost as if she had been waiting for that cry of his. "Yes, but you must get the better of it. You can if you will. It is unworthy of you. You are trying to take what is not yours. You have made a mistake, and you are wronging yourself and me."

"What?" he exclaimed. "You don't love me then!"

He flung his arms wide upon the words, with a gesture of the most utter despair, and turned from her. A moment he stood swaying, as if bereft of all his strength; and then with abrupt effort he began to move away. He stumbled blindly, heavily, as he went, and the crying of the wheeling sea-gulls came plaintively through a silence that could be felt.

But ere that silence paralysed her, Avery spoke, raising her voice, for the urgency was great.

"Piers, stop!"

He stopped instantly, but he did not turn, merely stood tensely waiting.

She collected herself and went after him. She laid a hand that trembled on his arm.

"Don't leave me like this!" she said.

Slowly he turned his head and looked at her, and the misery of that look went straight to her heart. All the woman's compassion in her throbbed up to the surface. She found herself speaking with a tenderness which a moment before no power on earth would have drawn from her.

"Piers, something is wrong; something has happened. Won't you tell me what it is?"

"I can't," he said.

His lower lip quivered unexpectedly and she saw his teeth bite savagely upon it. "I'd better go," he said.

But her hand still held his arm. "No; wait!" she said. "You can't go like this. Piers, what is the matter with you? Tell me!"

He hesitated. She saw that his self-control was tottering. Abruptly at length he spoke. "I can't. I'm not master of myself. I--I--" He broke off short and became silent.

"I knew you weren't," she said, and then, acting upon an impulse which she knew instinctively that she would never regret, she gave him her other hand also. "Let us forget all this!" she said.

It was generously spoken, so generously that it could not fail to take effect. He looked at her in momentary surprise, began to speak, stopped, and with a choked, unintelligible utterance took her two hands with the utmost reverence into his own, and bowed his forehead upon them. The utter abandonment of the action revealed to her in that moment how completely he had made her the dominating influence of his life.

"Shall we sit down and talk?" she said gently.

She could not be other than gentle with him. The appeal of his weakness was greater than any display of strength. She could not but respond to it.

He set her free and dropped down heavily upon a rock, leaning his head in his hands.

She waited a few moments beside him; then, as he remained silent, she bent towards him.

"Piers, what is it?"

With a sharp movement he straightened himself, and turned his face to the sea.

"I'm a fool," he said, speaking with an odd, unsteady vehemence. "Fact is, I've been out all night on this beastly shore. I've walked miles. And I suppose I'm tired."

He made the confession with a shamefaced laugh, still looking away to the horizon.

"All night!" Avery repeated in astonishment. "But, Piers!"

He nodded several times, emphatically. "And those infernal sea-birds have been squawking along with those thrice-accursed crows ever since day-break. I'd like to wring their ugly necks, every jack one of 'em!"

Avery laughed in spite of herself. "We all feel peevish sometimes," she said, as one of the offenders sailed over-head with a melancholy cry. "But haven't you had any breakfast? You must be starving."

"I am!" said Piers. "I feel like a wolf. But you needn't be afraid to sit down. I shan't gobble you up this time."

She heard the boyish appeal in his voice and almost unconsciously she yielded to it. She sat down on the rock beside him, but he instantly slipped from it and stretched himself in a dog-like attitude at her feet.

His chin was propped in his hands, his face turned to the white sand on which he lay. She looked down at his black head with more than compassion in her eyes. It was horribly difficult to snub this boy-lover of hers.

She sat and waited silently for him to speak.

He dropped one hand at length and began to dig his brown fingers into the powdery sand with irritable energy; but a minute or more passed before very grumpily he spoke.

"I've had a row with my grandfather. We both of us behaved like wild beasts. In the end, he thought he was going to give me a caning, and that was more than I could stand. I smashed his ruler for him and bolted. I should have struck him with it if I hadn't. And after that, I cleared out and came here. And I'm not going back."

So with blunt defiance he made the announcement, and as he did so, it came to Avery suddenly and quite convincingly that she had been the cause of the quarrel. A shock of dismay went through her. She had not anticipated this. She felt that the suspicion must be verified or refuted at once.

"Piers," she said quickly, "why did you quarrel with your grandfather? Was it because of your affair with Miss Rose?"

"I never had an affair with Miss Rose," said Piers rather sullenly. He dug up a small stone, and flung it with vindictive force at the face of the cliff. "Ask her, if you don't believe me!"

He paused a moment, then went on in a dogged note: "I told him--of a certain intention of mine. He tackled me about it first, was absolutely intolerable. I just couldn't hold myself in. And then somehow we got violent. It was his fault. Anyway, he began it."

"You haven't told me--yet--what you quarrelled about," said Avery, with a sinking heart.

He shrugged his shoulders without looking at her. "It doesn't matter, does it?"

She made answer with a certain firmness. "Yes, I think it does."

"Well, then,"--abruptly he raised himself and faced round, his dark eyes raised to hers,--"I told him, Avery, that if I couldn't marry the woman I loved, I would never marry at all."

There was no sullenness about him now, only steadfast purpose. He looked her full in the face as he said it, and she quivered a little before the mastery of his look.

He laid a hand upon her knee as she sat above him in sore perplexity. "Would you have me do anything else?" he said.

She answered him with a conscious effort. "I want you to love--and marry--the right woman."

He uttered a queer, unsteady laugh and leaned his head against her. "Oh, my dear," he said, "there is no other woman but you in all the world."

Something fiery that was almost like a dart of pain went through Avery at his words. She moved instinctively, but it was not in shrinking. After a moment she laid her hand upon his.

"Piers," she said, "I can't bear hurting you."

"You wouldn't hurt a fly," said Piers.

She smiled faintly. "Not if I could help it. But that doesn't prove that I am fond of flies. And now, Piers, I am going to ask a very big thing of you. I wonder if you will do it."

"I wonder," said Piers.

He had not moved at her touch, yet she felt his fingers close tensely as they lay upon her knee, and she guessed that he was still striving to control the inner tumult that had so nearly overwhelmed him a few minutes before.

"I know it is a big thing," she said. "Yet--for my sake if you like--I want you to do it."

"I will do anything for your sake," he made passionate answer.

"Thank you," she said gently. "Then, Piers, I want you--please--to go back to Sir Beverley at once, and make it up."

He withdrew his hand sharply from hers, and sat up, turning his back upon her. "No!" he said harshly. "No!"

"Please, Piers!" she said very earnestly.

He locked his arms round his knees and sat in silence, staring moodily out to sea.

"Please, Piers!" she said again, and lightly touched his shoulder with her fingers.

He hunched the shoulder away from her with a gesture of boyish impatience, and then abruptly, as if realizing what he had done, he turned back to her, caught the hand, and pressed it to his lips.

"I'm a brute, dear. Forgive me! Of course--if you wish it--I'll go back. But as to making it up, well--" he gulped once or twice--"it doesn't rest only with me, you know."

"Oh, Piers," she said, "you are all he has. He couldn't be hard to you!"

Piers smiled a wry smile, and said nothing.

"Besides," she went on gently, "there is really nothing for you to quarrel about,--that is, if I am the cause of the trouble. It is perfectly natural that your grandfather should wish you to make a suitable marriage, perfectly natural that he should not want you to run after the wrong woman. You can tell him, Piers, that I absolutely see his point of view, but that so far as I am concerned, he need not be anxious. It is not my intention to marry again."

"All right," said Piers.

He gave her hand a little shake and released it. For a second--only a second--she caught a sparkle in his eyes that seemed to her almost like a gleam of mockery. And then with characteristic suddenness he sprang to his feet.

"Well, I'd better be going," he said in a voice that was perfectly normal and free from agitation. "I can't stop to see the kiddie this time. I'm glad she's going on all right. I wonder when you'll be back again."

"Not at present, I think," said Avery, trying not to be disconcerted by his abruptness.

He looked down at her whimsically. "You're a good sort, Avery," he said. "I won't be so violent next time."

"There mustn't be a next time," she said quickly. "Please Piers, that must be quite understood!"

"All right," he said again. "I understand."

And with that very suddenly he left her, so suddenly that she sat motionless on her rock and stared after him, not believing that he was really taking his leave.

He did not turn his head, however, and very soon he passed round the jutting headland, and was gone from her sight. Only when that happened did she draw a long, long breath and realize how much of her strength had been spent to gain what after all appeared to be but a very barren victory.

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