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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 38. The Sword Of Damocles
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 38. The Sword Of Damocles Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1272

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 38. The Sword Of Damocles

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS
CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES

The encounter was so amazing, so utterly unlooked for, that Avery had a moment of downright consternation. The child's whole air and expression were so exactly reminiscent of her father that she almost felt as if she stood before the Vicar himself--a culprit caught in a guilty act.

She looked at Olive without words, and Olive looked straight back at her with that withering look of the righteous condemning the ungodly which so often regarded a dumb but rebellious congregation through the Vicar's stern eyes.

Piers, however, was not fashioned upon timid lines, and he stepped into the hall without the faintest sign of embarrassment.

"Hullo, little girl!" he said. "Why aren't you in bed?"

The accusing eyes turned upon him. Olive seemed to swell with indignation. "I was in bed long ago," she made answer, still in those frozen tones. "May I ask what you are doing here, Mr. Evesham?"

"I?" said Piers jauntily. "Now what do you suppose?"

"I cannot imagine," the child said.

"Not really?" said Piers. "Well, perhaps when you are a little older your imagination will develop. In the meantime, if you are a wise little girl, you will run back to bed and leave your elders to settle their own affairs."

Olive drew herself up with dignity. "It is not my intention to go so long as you are in the house," she said with great distinctness.

"Indeed!" said Piers. "And why not?"

He spoke with the utmost quietness, but Avery caught the faintest tremor in his voice that warned her that Olive was treading dangerous ground.

She hastened to intervene. "But of course you are going now," she said to him. "It is bedtime for us all. Good-night! And thank you for walking home with me!"

Her own tone was perfectly normal. She turned to him with outstretched hand, but he put it gently aside.

"One minute!" he said. "I should like an answer to my question first. Why are you so determined to see me out of the house?"

He looked straight at Olive as he spoke, no longer careless of mien, but implacable as granite.

Olive, however, was wholly undismayed. She was the only one of the Vicar's children who had never had cause to feel a twinge of fear. "You had better ask yourself that question," she said, in her cool young treble. "You probably know the answer better than I do."

Piers' expression changed. For a single instant he looked furious, but he mastered himself almost immediately. "It's a lucky thing for you that you are not my little girl," he observed grimly. "If you were, you should have the slapping of your life to-night. As it is,--well, you have asked me for an explanation of my presence here, and you shall have one. I am here in the capacity of escort to Mrs. Denys. Have you any fault to find with that?"

Olive returned his look steadily with her cold grey eyes while she considered his words. She seemed momentarily at a loss for an answer, but Piers' first remarks were scarcely of a character to secure goodwill or allay suspicion. She rapidly made up her mind.

"I shall tell Miss Whalley in the morning," she said. "My father said I was to go to her if anything went wrong." She added, with a malevolent glance towards Avery, "I suppose you know that Mrs. Denys is under notice to leave at the end of her month?"

Piers glanced at Avery too--a glance of swift interrogation. She nodded very slightly in answer.

He looked again at Olive with eyes that gleamed in a fashion that few could have met without quailing.

"Is she indeed?" he said. "I venture to predict that she will leave before then. If you are anxious to impart news to Miss Whalley, you may tell her also that Mrs. Denys is going to be my wife, and that the marriage will take place--" he looked at Avery again and all the hardness went out of his face--"just as soon as she will permit."

Dead silence followed the announcement. Avery's face was pale, but there was a faint smile at her lips. She met Piers' look without a tremor. She even drew slightly nearer to him; and he, instantly responding, slipped a swift hand through her arm.

Olive, sternly judicial, stood regarding them in silence, for perhaps a score of seconds. And then, still undismayed, she withdrew her forces in good order from the field.

"In that case," she said, with the air of one closing a discussion, "there is nothing further to be said. I suppose Mrs. Denys wishes to be Lady Evesham. My father told me she was an adventuress. I see he was right."

She went away with this parting shot, stepping high and holding her head poised loftily--an absurd parody of the Vicar in his most clerical moments.

Avery gave a little hysterical gasp of laughter as she passed out of sight.

Piers' arm was about her in a moment. He held her against his heart. "What a charming child, what?" he murmured.

She hid her face on his shoulder. "I think myself she was in the right," she said, still half laughing. "Piers, you must go."

"In a moment. Let me hear from your own dear lips first that you are not--not angry?" He spoke the words softly into her ear. There was only tenderness in the holding of his arms.

"I am not," she whispered back.

"Nor sorry?" urged Piers.

She turned her face a little towards him. "No, dear, not a bit sorry; glad!"

He held her more closely but with reverence. "Avery, you don't--love me, do you?"

"Of course I do!" she said.

"There can't be any 'of course' about it," he declared almost fiercely. "I've been a positive brute to you. Avery--Avery, I'll never be a brute to you again."

And there he stopped, for her arms were suddenly about his neck, her lips raised in utter surrender to his.

"Oh, Piers," she said in a voice that thrilled him through and through, "do you think I would have less of your love--even if it hurts me? It is the greatest thing that has ever come into my life."

He held her head between his hands and looked into her eyes of perfect trust. "Avery! Avery!" he said.

"I mean it!" she told him earnestly. "I have been drawing nearer to you all the while--in spite of myself--though I tried so hard to hold back. Piers, my past life is a dream, and this--this is the awaking. You asked me--a long while ago--if the past mattered. I couldn't answer you then. I was still half-asleep. But now--now you have worked the miracle--my heart is awake, dear, and I will answer you. The past is nothing to you or me. It matters--not--one--jot!"

Her words throbbed into the silence of his kiss. He held her long and closely. Once--twice--he tried to speak to her and failed. In the end he gave himself up mutely to the rapture of her arms. But his own wild passion had sunk below the surface. He sought no more than she offered.

"Say good-bye to me now!" she whispered at length; and he kissed her again closely, lingeringly, and let her go.

She stood in the doorway as he passed into the night, and his last sight of her was thus, silhouetted against the darkness, a tall, gracious figure, bending forward to discern him in the dimness.

He went back to his lonely home, back to the echoing emptiness, the listening dark. He entered again the great hall where Sir Beverley had been wont to sit and wait for him.

Victor was on the watch. He glided apologetically forward with shining, observant eyes upon his young master's weary face.

"_Monsieur Pierre_!" he said insinuatingly.

Piers looked at him heavily. "Well?"

"I have put some refreshment for you in the dining-room. It is more--more comfortable," said Victor, gently indicating the open door. "Will you not--when you have eaten--go to bed, _mon cher, et peut-etre dormir_?"

Very wistfully the little man proffered his suggestion. His eyes followed Piers' movements with the dumb worship of an animal.

"Oh yes, I'll go to bed," said Piers.

He turned towards the dining-room and entered. There was no elation in his step; rather he walked as a man who carries a heavy burden, and Victor marked the fact with eyes of keen anxiety.

He followed him in and poured out a glass of wine, setting it before him with a professional adroitness that did not conceal his solicitude.

Piers picked up the glass almost mechanically, and in doing so caught sight of some letters lying on the table.

"Oh, damn!" he said wearily. "How many more?"

There were bundles of them on the study writing-table. They poured in by every post.

Victor groaned commiseratingly. "I will take them away, yes?" he suggested. "You will read them in the morning--when you have slept."

"Yes, take 'em away!" said Piers. "Stay a minute! What's that top one? I'll look at that."

He took up the envelope. It was addressed in a man's square, firm writing to "Piers Evesham, Esq., Rodding Abbey."

"Someone who doesn't know," murmured Piers, and slit it open with a sense of relief. Some of the letters of condolence that he had received had been as salt rubbed into a wound.

He took out the letter and glanced at the signature: "Edmund Crowther!"

Suddenly a veil seemed to be drawn across his eyes. He looked up with a sharp, startled movement, and through a floating mist he saw his grandmother's baffling smile from the canvas on the wall. The blood was singing in his ears. He clenched his hands involuntarily. Crowther! He had forgotten Crowther! And Crowther knew--how much?

But he had Crowther's promise of secrecy, so--after all--what had he to fear? Nothing--nothing! Yet he felt as if a devil were laughing somewhere in the room. They had caught him, they had caught him, there at the very gates of deliverance. They were dragging him back to his place of torment. He could hear the clanking of the chains which he had so nearly burst asunder, could feel them coiling cold about his heart. For he also was bound by a promise, the keeping of which meant utter destruction to all he held good in life.

And not that alone. It meant the rending in pieces of that which was holy, the trampling into the earth of that sacred gift which had only now been bestowed upon him. It meant the breaking of a woman's heart--that of the only woman in the world, the woman he worshipped, body and soul, the woman who in spite of herself had come to love him also.

He flung up his arms with a wild gesture. The torment was more than he could bear.

"No!" he cried. "No!" And it was as if he cried out of the midst of a burning, fiery furnace. "I'm damned--I'm damned if I will!"

_"Monsieur Pierre! Monsieur Pierre!" It was Victor's voice beside him, full of anxious remonstrance.

He looked round with dazed eyes. His arms fell to his sides. "All right, my good Victor; I'm not mad," he said. "Don't be scared! Did you ever hear of a chap called Damocles? He's an ancestor of mine, and history has a funny fashion of repeating itself. But there'll be a difference this time all the same. He couldn't eat his dinner for fear of a naked sword falling on his head. But I'm going to eat mine--whatever happens; and enjoy it too."

He raised his glass aloft with a reckless laugh. His eyes sought those of the woman on the wall with a sparkle of bitter humour. He made her a brief, defiant bow.

"And you, madam, may look on--and smile!" he said.

He drank the wine without tasting it and swung round to depart. And again, as he went, it seemed to him that somewhere near at hand--possibly in his own soul--a devil laughed and gibed.

Yet when he lay down at length, he slept for many hours in dreamless, absolute repose--as a voyager who after long buffeting with wind and tide has come at last into the quiet haven of his desire.

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