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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 37. "La Grande Passion"
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 37. 'La Grande Passion' Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :946

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 37. "La Grande Passion"

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS
CHAPTER XXXVII. "LA GRANDE PASSION"

She spoke to him at last, half-frightened by his silence, yet by his attitude wholly reassured. For he wanted her still, of that no doubt remained. His hands were clasped behind her. He could have held her in his arms; but he did not. He only knelt there at her feet in utter silence, his black head pillowed on her hands.

"Piers!" she said. "Piers! Let me help you!"

He groaned in answer, and she felt a great shiver run through him. She knew intuitively that he was battling for self-control and dared not for the moment show his face.

"You--can't," he said at last.

"But I think I can," she urged gently. "It isn't so very long ago that you wanted me."

"I was an infernal blackguard to tell you so!" he made answer.

And then suddenly his arms tightened about her, and he held her fast. "That you--you, Avery,--should come to me--like this!" he said.

She freed one of her hands and laid it on his bent head. "Shall I tell you what made me come, Piers?"

He shook his head in silence, but there was passion in the holding of his arms.

For a space he continued to hold her so, speaking no word, and through his silence there came to her the quick, fierce beat of his heart. Then at length very suddenly, almost with violence, he flung his arms wide and started to his feet.

"Avery," he said, "you were a saint to come to me like this. I shan't forget it ever. But there's nothing--nothing you can do, except leave me to my own devices. It's only just at first, you know, that the loneliness seems so--awful." His voice shook unexpectedly; he swung round away from her and walked to the end of the room.

He came back almost immediately and stood before her. "Victor was a criminal fool to bring you here. He meant well though. He always does. That note of yours--I ought to have answered it. I was just coming in here to do so. I shouldn't have kept you waiting so long, but somehow--somehow--" Again, in spite of him, his voice quivered. He turned sharply and walked to the fireplace, leaned his arms upon it, and stood so, his back to her, his head bent.

"It was so awfully good of you," he went on after a moment. "You always have been--awfully good. My grandfather realized that, you know. I think he told you so, didn't he? He wasn't really sorry that I wouldn't marry Ina Rose. By the way, she is engaged to Dick Guyes already, so there was not much damage done in that direction. I told you it was nothing but a game, didn't I? You didn't quite believe me, what?"

It came to her that he was talking to gain time, that he was trying to muster strength to give the lie to the passion that had throbbed in the holding of his arms, that for some reason he deemed it incumbent upon him to mask his feelings and hide from her the misery that had driven Victor in search of her.

She rose quietly and moved across the room till she stood beside him. "Piers," she said, "tell me what is wrong!"

He stiffened at her approach, straightened himself, faced her. "Avery," he said, "do you know, dear, it would be better if you went straight back again? I hate to say it. It was so dear of you, so--so--great of you to come. But--no, there's nothing wrong,--nothing that is, that hasn't been wrong for ages. Fact is, I'm not fit to speak to you, never have been; far less make love to you. And I was a cur and a brute to do it. I've had a bit of a shake-up lately. It's made me feel my responsibilities, see things as they are. I've got an awful lot to see to just now. I'm going to work mighty hard. I mustn't think of--other things."

He stopped. He was looking at her, looking at her, with the red fire of passion kindling in his eyes, a gleam so fierce and so insistent that she was forced to lower her own. It was as if his soul cried out to her all that he restrained his lips from uttering.

He saw her instinctive avoidance of his gaze, and turned away from her, leaning again upon the mantelpiece as if spent.

"I can't help it, Avery. I'm so dog-tired, and I can't sleep. I'm horribly sorry, but I'm nothing but a brute-beast to-night. Really--really--you had better go."

There was desperation in his voice. He bowed his head upon his arms, and she saw that his hands were clenched.

But she could not leave him so. That inner urging that had impelled her thither warned her to remain, even against her own judgment, even against her will. The memory of Victor's fears came back to her. She could not turn and go.

"My dear boy," she said, speaking very gently, "do you think I don't know that you are miserable, lonely, wretched? That is why I am here!"

"God knows how lonely!" he whispered.

Her heart stirred within her at the desolation of the words. "Nearly all of us go through it some time," she said gently. "And if there isn't a friend to stand by, it's very hard to bear. That is the part I want to play--if you will let me. Won't you treat me as a friend?"

But Piers neither moved nor spoke. With his head still upon his arms he stood silent.

She drew nearer to him. "Piers, I think I understand. I think you are a little afraid of going too far, of--of--" her voice faltered a little in spite of her--"of hurting my feelings. Is that it? Because,--my dear,--you needn't be afraid any longer. If you really think I can make you happy, I am willing--quite willing--to try."

The words were spoken, and with them she offered all she had, freely, generously, with a quick love that was greater possibly than even she realized.

She was standing close to him waiting for him to turn and clasp her in his arms, as he had so nearly clasped her once against her will. But seconds passed and he did not move, and a cold foreboding began to knock at her heart lest after all--lest after all--his love for her had waned.

He stirred at last, just as she was on the point of turning from him, stretched out a groping hand that found and drew her to his side. But still he did not look at her or so much as raise his head.

He spoke after a moment in a choked voice that seemed to be wrung from him by sheer physical torture. "Avery, don't--don't tempt me. I--daren't!"

The anguish of the words went through her, banishing all thought of anything else. Very suddenly she knew that he was fighting a desperate battle for her sake, that he was striving with all the strength that was in him to set her happiness before his own. And something that was greater than pity entered into her with the knowledge, something so great as to be all-possessing, compelling her to instant action.

She slipped her arm about his bent shoulders with a gesture of infinite tenderness. "Piers--dear boy, what is it?" she said softly. "Is there some trouble in your past--something you can't bear to speak of? Remember, I am not a girl, I may understand--some things--better than you think."

She felt his hold upon her tighten almost convulsively, but for a while he made no answer.

Then at length slowly he raised his head and looked at her. "Do you--really--think the past matters?" he said.

She met his eyes with their misery and their longing, and a tremor of uncertainty went through her.

"Tell me, Avery!" he insisted. "If you felt yourself able to get away from old burdens, and if--if there was no earthly reason why they should hamper your future--" He broke off, and again his arm tightened. "It's damnable that they should!" he muttered savagely.

"My dear, I don't know how to answer you," she said. "Are--you afraid to be open with me? Do you think I shouldn't understand?"

His eyes fell abruptly. "I am quite sure," he said, "that it would be easier for me to give you up." And with that he suddenly set her free and stood up before her straight and stiff. "Let me see you home!" he said.

They faced one another in the dimness, and Avery marked afresh the weariness of his face. He looked like a man who had come through many days and nights of suffering.

He glanced up as she did not speak. "Shall we go?" he said.

But Avery stood hesitating, asking herself if this could indeed be the end, if the impulse that had drawn her thither had been after all a mistaken one, or if even yet it might not carry her further than she had ever thought to go.

He turned towards the conservatory door by which she had entered, and quietly opened it. A soft wind blew through to her, laden with the scent of the wet earth and a thousand opening buds. It seemed to carry the promise of eternal hope on unseen wings straight to her heart.

Slowly she followed him across the room, reached him, passed through into the scented darkness. A few steps more and she would have been in the open air, but she was uncertain of the way. The place was too dim for her to see it. She paused for him to guide her.

The door closed behind her; she heard it softly swing on its hinges, and then came his light footfall close to her.

"Straight on!" he said, and his voice sounded oddly cold and constrained. "There are three steps at the end. Be careful how you go! Perhaps you would rather wait while I fetch a light."

His tone hurt her subtly, wounding her more deeply than she had realized that he had it in his power to wound.

She moved forward blindly with a strangled sensation at her throat and a rush of hot tears in her eyes. She had never dreamed that Piers--the warm-hearted, the eager--had it in him to treat her so.

The instinct to escape awoke within her. She quickened her steps and reached the further door. Before her lay the open night, immense and quiet and very dark. She pressed forward, hoping he would not follow, longing only for solitude and silence.

But in her agitation she forgot his warning, forgot to tread warily, and missed her footing on the steps. She slipped with a sharp exclamation and went down, catching vainly at the door-post to save herself.

Piers exclaimed also, and sprang forward. His arms were about her before she reached the ground. He lifted her bodily ere she could recover her balance; and suddenly she knew that with the touch of her the fire of his passion had burst into scorching flame--knew herself powerless--a woman in the hold of her captor.

For he held her so fast that she gasped for breath, and with her head pressed back against his shoulder, he kissed her on the lips, fiercely, violently, hungrily--kissed her eyes, her hair, and again her lips, sealing them closely with his own, making protest impossible. Neither could she resist him, for he held her gathered up against his heart, bearing her whole weight with a strength that mocked her weakness, compelling her to lie at his mercy while the wild storm of his passion swept on its way.

She was as one caught in the molten stream of a volcano, and carried by the fiery current that seethed all about her, consuming her with its heat.

Once when his lips left hers she tried to whisper his name, to call him back from his madness; but her voice was gone. She could only gasp and gasp till with an odd, half-savage laugh he silenced her again with those burning kisses that made her feel that he had stormed his way to the last and inner sanctuary of her soul, depriving her even of the right to dispute his overwhelming possession.

Later it seemed to her that she must have been near to fainting, for though she knew that he bore her inwards from the open door she could not so much as raise a hand in protest. She was utterly spent and almost beyond caring, so complete had been his conquest. When he set her on her feet she tottered, clinging to him nervelessly for support.

He kept his arm about her, but his hold was no longer insistent. She was aware of his passion still; it seemed to play around her like a lambent flame; but the first fierce flare was past. He spoke to her at last in a voice that was low but not without the arrogance of the conqueror.

"Are you very angry with me, I wonder?"

She did not answer him, for still she could not.

He went on, a vein of recklessness running through his speech. "It won't make any difference if you are. Do you understand? I've tried to let you go, but I can't. I must have you or die."

He paused a moment, and it seemed as if the tornado of his passion were sweeping back again; but, curiously, he checked it.

"That's how it is with me, Avery," he said. "The fates have played a ghastly joke on me, but you are mine in spite of it. You came to tell me so; didn't you?"

Was there a note of pleading in his voice? She fancied so; but still she could not speak in answer. She leaned against him with every pulse throbbing. She dared not turn her face to his.

"Are you afraid of me, Avery?" he said, and this time surely she heard a faint echo of that boyish humour that had first won her. "Because it's all right, dear," he told her softly. "I've got myself in hand now. You know, I couldn't hold you in my arms just then and not--not kiss you. You don't hate me for it, do you? You--understand?"

Yes, she understood. Yet she felt as if he had raised a barrier between them which nothing could ever take away. She tried to ignore it, but could not. The glaring fact that he had not cared how much or how little she had desired those savage kisses of his had begun already to torment her, and she knew that she would carry the scorching memory of those moments with her for the rest of her life.

She drew herself slowly from him. "I am going now," she said.

He put out a hand that trembled and laid it on her shoulder. "If I will let you go, Avery!" he said, and she was again aware of the leaping of the flame that had scarcely died down but a moment before.

She straightened herself and resolutely faced him. "I am going, Piers," she said.

His hand tightened sharply. He caught his breath for a few tense seconds. Then very slowly his hold relaxed; his hand fell. "You will let me see you back," he said, and she knew by his voice that he was putting strong force upon himself.

She turned. "No. I will go alone."

He did not move. "Please, Avery!" he said.

Her heart gave a quick throb at the low-spoken words. She paused almost involuntarily, realizing with a great rush of thankfulness that he would not stir a step to follow unless she gave him leave.

For an instant she stood irresolute. Then: "Come if you wish!" she said.

She heard him move, and herself passed on, descending the steps into the dewy garden with again that odd feeling of unreality, almost as if she walked in a dream.

He came behind her, silent as a shadow, and not till she deliberately waited for him did he overtake and walk beside her.

No words passed between them as they went. They seemed to move through a world of shadows,--a spell-bound, waiting world. And gradually, as if a soothing hand had been laid upon her, Avery felt the wild tumult at her heart subside. She remembered that he had refrained himself almost at her first word, and slowly her confidence came back. He had appealed to her to understand, and she could not let his appeal go wholly unanswered.

As they passed at length through the gate that led into the Vicarage lane, she spoke. "Piers, I am not angry."

"Aren't you?" he said, and by the eager relief of his voice she knew that her silence had been hard to bear.

She put out a hand to him as they walked. "But, Piers, that--is not the way to make me love you."

"I know--I know," he said quickly; and then haltingly: "I've been--so beastly lonely, Avery. Make allowances for me--forgive me!"

He had not taken her hand; she slipped it into his. "I do," she said simply. She felt his fingers close tensely, but in a moment they opened again and set her free.

He did not utter another word, merely walked on beside her till they reached the Vicarage gate. She thought he would have left her there, but he did not. They went up the drive together to the porch.

From his kennel at the side of the house Mike barked a sharp challenge that turned into an unmistakable note of welcome as they drew near. Avery silenced him with a reassuring word.

She found the key, and in the darkness of the porch she began to fumble for the lock.

Piers stooped. "Let me!"

She gave him the key, and as she stood up again she noted the brightness of the fanlight over the floor. She thought that she had lowered the light at leaving; she had certainly intended to do so.

Very softly Piers opened the door. It swung noiselessly back upon its hinges, and the full light smote upon them.

In the same instant a slim, white figure came calmly forward through the hall and stopped beneath the lamp.

Olive Lorimer, pale, severe, with fixed, accusing eyes, stood confronting them.

"Mrs. Denys!" she said, in accents of frozen surprise.

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