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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 6. The Race
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 6. The Race Post by :koalo Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :679

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 6. The Race

PART I. THE GATES OF BRASS CHAPTER VI. THE RACE

"Hooray! No more horrid sums for a whole month!" Gracie Lorimer's arithmetic-book soared to the ceiling and came down with a bang while Gracie herself pivoted, not ungracefully, on her toes till sheer giddiness and exhaustion put an end to her rhapsody. Then she staggered to Avery who was darning the family stockings by the window and flung ecstatic arms about her neck.

"Dear Mrs. Denys, aren't you glad it's holidays?" she gasped. "We'll give you such a lovely time!"

"I'm sure you will, dear," said Avery. "But do mind the needle!"

She kissed the brilliant childish face that was pressed to hers. She and Gracie were close friends. Gracie was eleven, and the prettiest madcap of them all. It was a perpetual marvel to Avery that the child managed to be so happy, for she was continually in trouble. But she seemed to possess a cheery knack of throwing off adversity. She was essentially gay of heart.

"Do put away those stupid old stockings and come out with us!" she begged, still hanging over Avery. "Don't you hate darning? I do. We had to do our own before you came. I was very naughty one day last summer. I went out and played in the garden instead of mending my stockings, and Father found out." Gracie cast up her eyes dramatically. "He sent me in to do them, and went off to one of his old parish parties; and I just sneaked out as soon as his back was turned and went on with the game. But there was no luck that day. He came back to fetch something and caught me. And then--just imagine!" Again Gracie was dramatic, though this time unconsciously. "He sent me to bed and--what do you think? When he came home to tea, he--whipped me!"

Avery threaded her needle with care. She said nothing.

"I think it was rather a shame," went on Gracie unconcernedly. "Because he never whips Jeanie or Olive. But then, he can make them cry without, and he can't make me. I 'spect that's what made him do it, don't you?"

"I don't know, dear," said Avery rather shortly.

Gracie peered round into her face. "Mrs. Denys, you don't like Father, do you?" she said.

"My dear, that's not a nice question to ask," said Avery, with her eyes on her work.

"I don't know why not," said Gracie. "I don't like him myself, and he knows I don't. He'd whip me again if he got the chance, but I'm too jolly careful now. I was pleased that you got Ronnie and Julian off the other day. He never suspected, did he? I thought I should have burst during prayers. It was so funny."

"My dear!" protested Avery.

"Yes, I know," said Gracie. "But you aren't really shocked, dear, kind Mrs. Denys! You know you aren't. I can see your sweet little dimple. No, I can't! Yes, I can! I do love your dimple. It goes in and out like the sun."

Avery leaned back abruptly in her chair. "Oh, foolish one!" she said, and gathered the child to her with a warmth to which the ardent Gracie was swift to respond.

"And you are coming out with us, aren't you? Because it's so lovely and cold. I want to go up on that big hill in Rodding Park, and run and run and run till I just can't run any longer. Ronnie and Julian are coming too. And Jeanie and Olive and Pat. We ought to begin and collect holly for the church decorations. You'll be able to help this year, won't you? Miss Whalley always bosses things. Have you met Miss Whalley yet? She's quite the funniest person in Rodding. She was the daughter of the last Vicar, and she has never forgotten it. So odd of her! As if there were anything in it! I often wish I weren't a parson's daughter. I'd much rather belong to someone who had to go up to town every day. There would be much more fun for everybody then."

Avery was laying her mending together. She supposed she ought to check the child's chatter, but felt too much in sympathy with her to do so. "I really don't know if I ought to come," she said. "But it is certainly too fine an afternoon for you to waste indoors. Where are the boys?"

"Oh, they're messing about somewhere in the garden. You see, they've got to keep out of sight or Father will set them to work to roll the lawn. He always does that sort of thing. He calls it 'turning our youthful energies to good account.'" Very suddenly and wickedly Grade mimicked the pastoral tones. "But the boys call it 'nigger-driving,'" she added, "and I think the boys are right. When I'm grown up, I'll never, never, never make my children do horrid things like that. They shall have--oh, such a good time!"

There was unconscious pathos in the declaration. Avery looked at the bright face very tenderly.

"I wonder what you'll do with them when they're naughty, Gracie," she said.

"I shall never whip them," said Gracie decidedly. "I think whipping is a horrid punishment. It makes you hate everybody. I think I shan't punish them at all, Mrs. Denys. I shall just tell them how wrong they've been, and that they are never to do it again. And I'm sure they won't," she added, with confidence. "They'll love me too much."

She slipped her arm round Avery's waist as she rose. "Do you know I would dreadfully like to call you Aunt Avery?" she said. "I said so to Jeanie, and Jeanie wants to too. Do you mind?"

"Mind!" said Avery. "I shall love it."

"Oh, thank you--awfully!" Grade kissed her fervently. "I'll run and tell Jeanie. She will be pleased."

She skipped from the room, and Avery went to prepare for the walk. "Poor little souls!" she murmured to herself. "How I wish they were mine!"

They mustered only five when they started--the three girls, Pat, and Avery herself; but ere they had reached the end of the lane the two elder boys leapt the Vicarage wall with a whoop of triumph and joined them. The party became at once uproariously gay. Everyone talked at the same time, even Jeanie becoming animated. Avery rejoiced to see the pretty face flushed and merry. She had begun to feel twinges of anxiety about Jeanie lately. But she was able to banish them at least for to-day, for Jeanie ran and chattered with the rest. In fact, Olive was the only one who showed any disposition to walk sedately. It had to be remembered that Olive was the clever one of the family. She more closely resembled her father than any of the others, and Avery firmly believed her to be the only member of the family that Mr. Lorimer really loved. She was a cold-hearted, sarcastic child, extremely self-contained, giving nothing and receiving nothing in return. It was impossible to become intimate with her. Avery had given up the attempt almost at the outset, realizing that it was not in Olive's nature to be intimate with anyone. They were always exceedingly polite to each other, but beyond that their acquaintance made no progress. Olive lived in a world of books, and the practical side of life scarcely touched her, and most certainly never appealed to her sympathy. "She will be her father over again," Mrs. Lorimer would declare, with pathetic pride. "So dignified, so handsome, and so clever!"

And Avery agreed, not without reserve, that she certainly resembled him to a marked degree.

She was by far the most sober member of the party that entered Rodding Park that afternoon. Avery, inspired by the merriment around her, was in a frankly frivolous mood. She was fast friends with the two elder boys, who had voted her a brick on the night that she had intervened to deliver them from the just retribution for their misdeeds. They had conceived an immense admiration for her which placed her in a highly privileged position.

"If Mrs. Denys says so, it is so," was Ronald's fiat, and she knew that such influence as he possessed with his brothers and sisters was always at her disposal.

She liked Ronald. The boy was a gentleman. Though slow, he was solid; and she suspected that he possessed more depth of character than the more brilliant Julian. Julian was crafty; there was no denying it. She was sure that he would get on in the world. But of Ronald's future she was not so sure. It seemed to her that he might plod on for ever without reaching his goal. He kept near her throughout that riotous scamper through the bare, wind-swept Park, making it plain that he regarded himself as her lieutenant whether she required his services or not. As a matter of fact, she did not require them, but she was glad to have him there and she keenly appreciated the gentlemanly consideration with which he helped her over every stile.

They reached the high hill of Gracie's desire, and rapidly climbed it. The sun had passed over to the far west and had already begun to dip ere they reached the summit.

"Now we'll all stand in a row and race down," announced Gracie, when they reached the top. "Aunt Avery will start us. We'll run as far as that big oak-tree on the edge of the wood. Now line up, everybody!"

"I'm not going to do anything so silly," said Olive decidedly. "Mrs. Denys and I will follow quietly."

"Oh no!" laughed Avery. "You can do the starting, my dear, and I will race with the others."

Olive looked at her, faintly contemptuous. "Oh, of course if you prefer it--" she said.

"I do indeed!" Avery assured her. "But I think the two big boys and I ought to be handicapped. Jeanie and Gracie and Pat must go ten paces in front."

"I am bigger than Gracie and Pat," said Jeanie. "I think I ought to go midway."

"Of course," agreed Ronald. "And, Aunt Avery, you must go with her. You can't start level with Julian and me."

Avery laughed at the amendment and fell in with it. They adjusted themselves for the trial of speed, while Olive stationed herself on a mole-hill to give the signal.

The valley below them was in deep shadow. The last of the sunlight lay upon the hilltop. It shone dazzlingly in Avery's eyes as the race began.

There had been a sprinkling of snow the day before, and the grass was crisp and rough. She felt it crush under her feet with a keen sense of enjoyment. Instinctively she put all her buoyant strength into the run. She left Jeanie behind, overtook and passed the two younger children, and raced like a hare down the slope. Keenly the wind whistled past her, and she rejoiced to feel its clean purity rush into her lungs. She was for the moment absurdly, rapturously happy,--a child amongst children.

The sun went out of sight, and the darkness of the valley swallowed her. She sped on, fleet-footed, flushed and laughing, moving as if on wings.

She neared the dark line of wood, and saw the stark, outstretched branches of the oak that was her goal. In the same instant she caught sight of a man's figure standing beneath it, apparently waiting for her.

He had evidently just come out of the wood. He carried a gun on his shoulder, but the freedom of his pose was so striking that she likened him on the instant to a Roman gladiator.

She could not stop herself at once though she checked her speed, and when she finally managed to come to a stand, she was close to him.

He stepped forward to meet her with a royal air of welcome. "How nice of you to come and call on me!" he said.

His dark eyes shone mischievously as they greeted her, and she was too flushed and dishevelled to stand upon ceremony. Pantingly she threw back her gay reply.

"This is the children's happy hunting ground, not mine, I suppose, if the truth were told, we are trespassing."

He made her his sweeping bow. "There is not a corner of this estate that is not utterly and for ever at your service."

He turned as the two elder boys came racing up, and she saw the half-mocking light go out of his eyes as they glanced up the hill. "Hullo!" he said. "There's one of them come to grief."

Sharply she turned also. Pat and Gracie were having a spirited race down the lower slope of the hill. Olive had begun to descend from the top with becoming dignity. And midway, poor Jeanie crouched in a forlorn little heap with her hands tightly covering her face.

"The child's hurt!" exclaimed Avery.

She started to run back, but in a moment Piers sprang past her, crying, "All right. Don't run! Take it easy!"

He himself went like the wind. She watched him with subconscious admiration. He was so superbly lithe and strong.

She saw him reach Jeanie and kneel down beside her. There was no hesitation about him. He was evidently deeply concerned. He slipped a persuasive arm about the child's huddled form.

When Avery reached them, Jeanie's head in its blue woollen cap was pillowed against him and she was telling him sobbingly of her trouble.

"I--I caught my foot. I don't know--how I did it. It twisted right round--and oh, it does hurt, I--I--I can't help--being silly!"

"All right, kiddie, all right!" said Piers. "It was one of those confounded rabbit-holes. There! You'll be better in a minute. Got a handkerchief, what? Oh, never mind! Take mine!"

He pulled it out and dried her eyes as tenderly as if he had been a woman; then raised his head abruptly and spoke to Avery.

"I expect it's a sprain. I'd better get her boot off and see, what?"

"No, we had better take her home first," said Avery with quick decision.

"All right," said Piers at once. "I'll carry her. I daresay she isn't very heavy. I say, little girl, you mustn't cry." He patted her shoulder kindly. "It hurts horribly, I know. These things always do. But you're going to show me how plucky you can be. Women are always braver than men, aren't they, Mrs. Denys?"

Thus admonished, Jeanie lifted her face and made a valiant effort to regain her self-command. But she clasped her two hands very tightly upon Piers' arm so that he could not move to lift her.

"I'll be brave in a minute," she promised him tremulously. "You won't mind waiting--just a minute?"

"Two, if you like," said Piers.

Avery was stooping over the injured foot. Jeanie was propped sideways, half-lying against Piers' knee.

"Don't touch it, please, Aunt Avery!" she whispered.

The other children had drawn round in an interested group. "It looks like a fracture to me," observed Olive in her precise voice.

Piers flashed her a withering glance. "Mighty lot you know about it!" he retorted rudely.

Pat sniggered. He was not fond of his second sister. But his mirth was checked by the impulsive Gracie who pushed him aside with a brief, "Don't be a pig!"

Olive retired into the background with her nose in the air, looking so absurdly like her father that a gleam of humour shot through even Piers' sternness. He suppressed it and turned to the two elder boys.

"Which of you is to be trusted to carry a loaded gun?"

"I am," said Julian.

"No--Ronald," said Avery very firmly.

Julian stuck out his tongue at her, and was instantly pummeled therefor by the zealous Gracie.

"Ronald," said Piers. "Mind how you pick it up, and don't point it at anyone! Carry it on your shoulder! That's the way. Go slow with it! Now you walk in front and take it down to the lodge!"

He issued his orders with the air of a commanding-officer, and having issued them turned again with renewed gentleness to the child who lay against his arm.

"Now, little girl, shall we make a move? I'm afraid postponing it won't make it any better. I'll carry you awfully carefully."

"Thank you," whispered Jeanie.

He stooped over her. "Put your arm round my neck! That'll be a help. Mrs. Denys, can you steady her foot while I get up?"

Avery bent to do so. He moved with infinite care; but even so the strain upon the foot was inevitable. Jeanie gave a sharp cry, and sank helpless in his arms.

He began to speak encouragingly but broke off in the middle, feeling the child's head lie limp upon his shoulder.

"Afraid it's serious," he said to Avery. "We will get her down to the lodge and send for a doctor."

"By Jove! She's fainted!" remarked Julian. "It's a jolly bad sprain."

"It's not a sprain at all," said Olive loftily.

And much as she would have liked to disagree, Avery knew that she was right.

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