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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 5. Life On A Chain
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 5. Life On A Chain Post by :koalo Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2844

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 5. Life On A Chain

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS CHAPTER V. LIFE ON A CHAIN

"Oh, I say, are you going out?" said Piers. "I was just coming to call on you."

"On me?" Avery looked at him with brows raised in surprised interrogation.

He made her a graceful bow, nearly sweeping the path outside the Vicarage gate with his cap. "Even so, madam! On you! But as I perceive you are not at home to callers, may I be permitted to turn and walk beside you?"

As he suited the action to the words, it seemed superfluous to grant the permission, and Avery did not do so.

"I am only going to run quickly down to the post," she said, with a glance at some letters she carried.

He might have offered to post them for her, but such a course did not apparently occur to him. Instead he said: "I'll race you if you like."

Avery refrained from smiling, conscious of a gay glance flung in her direction.

"I see you prefer to walk circumspectly," said Piers. "Well, I can do that too. How is Mike? Why isn't he with you?"

"Mike is quite well, thank you," said Avery. "And he is kept chained up."

"What an infernal shame!" burst from Piers. "I'd sooner shoot a dog than keep him on a chain."

"So would I!" said Avery impulsively.

The words were out before she could check them. It was a subject upon which she found it impossible to maintain her reticence.

Piers grinned triumphantly and thrust out a boyish hand. "Shake!" he said. "We are in sympathy!"

But Avery only shook her head at him, refusing to be drawn. "People--plenty of nice people--have no idea of the utter cruelty of it," she said. "They think that if a dog has never known liberty, he is incapable of desiring it. They don't know, they don't realize, the bitterness of life on a chain."

"Don't know and don't care!" declared Piers. "They deserve to be chained up themselves. One day on a chain would teach your nice people quite a lot. But no one cultivates feeling in this valley of dry bones. It isn't the thing nowadays. Let a dog whine his heart out on a chain! Who cares? There's no room for sentimental scruples of that sort. Can't you see the Reverend Stephen smile at the bare idea of extending a little of his precious Christian pity to a dog?" He broke off with a laugh that rang defiantly. "Now it's your turn!" he said.

"My turn?" Avery glanced at his dark, handsome face with a touch of curiosity.

He met her eyes with his own as if he would beat them back. "Aren't you generous enough to remind me that but for your timely interference I should have beaten my own dog to death only yesterday? You were almost ready to flog me for it at the time."

"Oh, that!" Avery said, looking away again. "Yes, of course I might remind you of that if I wanted to be personal; but, you see,--I don't."

"Why not!" said Piers stubbornly. "You were personal enough yesterday."

The dimple, for which Avery was certainly not responsible, appeared suddenly near her mouth. "I am afraid I lost my temper yesterday," she said.

"How wrong of you!" said Piers. "I hope you confessed to the Reverend Stephen."

She glanced at him again and became grave. "No, I didn't confess to anyone. But I think it's a pity ever to lose one's temper. It involves a waste of power."

"Does it?" said Piers.

"Yes." She nodded with conviction. "We need all the strength we can muster for other things. How is your dog to-day?"

Piers ignored the question. "What other things?" he demanded.

She hesitated.

"Go on!" said Piers imperiously.

Avery complied half-reluctantly. "I meant--mainly--the burdens of life. We can't afford to weaken ourselves by any loss of self-control. The man who keeps his temper is immeasurably stronger than the man who loses it."

Piers was frowning; his dark eyes looked almost black. Suddenly he turned upon her. "Mrs. Denys, I have a strong suspicion that your temper is a sweet one. If so, you're no judge of these things. Why didn't you leather me with my own whip yesterday? You had me at your mercy."

Avery smiled. Plainly he was set upon a personal encounter, and she could not avoid it. "Well, frankly, Mr. Evesham," she said, "I was never nearer to striking anyone in my life."

"Then why did you forbear? You weren't afraid to souse me with cold water."

"Oh no," she said. "I wasn't afraid."

"I believe you were," maintained Piers. "You're afraid to speak your mind to me now anyway."

She laughed a little. "No, I'm not. I really can't explain myself to you. I think you forget that we are practically strangers."

"You talk as if I had been guilty of familiarity," said Piers.

"No, no! I didn't mean that," Avery coloured suddenly, and the soft glow made her wonderfully fair to see. "You know quite well I didn't mean it," she said.

"It's good of you to say so," said Piers. "But I really didn't know. I thought you had decided that I was a suitable subject for snubbing. I'm not a bit. I'm so accustomed to it that I don't care a--" he paused with a glance of quizzical daring, and, as she managed to look severe, amended the sentence--"that I am practically indifferent to it. Mrs. Denys, I wish you had struck me yesterday."

"Really?" said Avery.

"Yes, really. I should then have had the pleasure of forgiving you. It's a pleasure I don't often get. You see, I'm usually the one that's in the wrong."

She looked at him then with quick interest; she could not help it. But the dark eyes triumphed over her so shamelessly that she veiled it on the instant.

Piers laughed. "Mrs. Denys, may I ask a directly personal question?"

"I don't know why you should," said Avery.

They were nearing the pillar-box at the end of the Vicarage lane, and she was firmly determined that at that box their ways should separate.

"I know you think I'm bold and bad," said Piers. "Some kind friend has probably told you so. But I'm not. I've been brought up badly, that's all. I think you might bear with me. I'm quite willing to be bullied." There was actual pathos in the declaration.

Again the fleeting dimple hovered near Avery's mouth. "Please don't take my opinion for granted in that way!" she said. "I have hardly had time to form one yet."

"Then I may ask my question?" said Piers.

She turned steady grey eyes upon him. "Yes; you may."

Piers' face was perfectly serious. "Are you really married?" he asked.

The level brows went up a little. "I have been a widow for six years," said Avery very quietly.

He stared at her in surprise unfeigned. "Six years!"

She replied in the same quiet voice. "I lost my husband when I was twenty-two."

"Great Heavens above!" ejaculated Piers. "But you're not--not--I say, forgive me, I must say it--you can't be as old as that!"

"I am twenty-nine," said Avery faintly smiling.

They had reached the letter-box. She dropped in her letters one by one. Piers stood confounded, looking on.

Suddenly he spoke. "And you've been doing this mothers'-helping business for six years?"

"Oh no!" she said.

She turned round from the box and faced him. The red winter sunset glowed softly upon her. Her grey eyes looked straight into it.

"No!" she said again. "I had my little girl to take care of for the first six months. You see, she was born blind, soon after her father's death, and she needed all the care I could give her."

Piers made a sharp movement--a gesture that was almost passionate; but he said nothing.

Avery withdrew her eyes from the sunset, and looked at him. "She died," she said, "and that left me with nothing to do. I have no near relations. So I just had to set to work to find something to occupy me. I went into a children's hospital for training, and spent some years there. Then when that came to an end, I took a holiday; but I found I wanted children. So I cast about me, and finally answered Mr. Lorimer's advertisement and came here." She began to smile. "At least I have plenty of children now."

"Oh, I say!" broke in Piers. "What a perfectly horrible life you've had! You don't mean to say you're happy, what?"

Avery laughed. "I'm much too busy to think about it. And now I really must run back. I've promised to take charge of the babies this afternoon. Good-bye!" She held out her hand to him with frank friendliness, as if she divined the sympathy he did not utter.

He gripped it hard for a moment. "Thanks awfully for being so decent as to tell me!" he said, looking back at her with eyes as frank as her own. "I'm going on down to the home farm. Good-bye!"

He raised his cap, and abruptly strode away. And in the moment of his going Avery found she liked him better than she had liked him throughout the interview, for she knew quite well that he went only in deference to her wish.

She turned to retrace her steps, feeling puzzled. There was something curiously attractive about the young man's personality, something that appealed to her, yet that she felt disposed to resist. That air of the ancient Roman was wonderfully compelling, too compelling for her taste, but then his boyishness counteracted it to a very great degree. There was a hint of sweetness running through his arrogance against which she was not proof. Audacious he might be, but it was a winning species of audacity that probably no woman could condemn. She thought to herself as she returned to her charges that she had never seen a face so faultlessly patrician and yet so vividly alive. And following that thought came another that dwelt longer in her mind. Deprived of its animation, it would not have been a happy face.

Avery wondered why.

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