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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 8. A Talk By The Fire
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 8. A Talk By The Fire Post by :boloreid Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1329

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 1. The Gates Of Brass - Chapter 8. A Talk By The Fire


The Reverend Stephen Lorimer was writing his sermon for the last Sunday in Advent. His theme was eternal punishment and one which he considered worthy of his utmost eloquence. There was nothing mythical or allegorical in that subject in the opinion of the Reverend Stephen. He believed in it most firmly, and the belief afforded him the keenest satisfaction. It was a nerve-shaking sermon. Had it been of a secular nature, it might almost have been described as inhuman, so obviously was it designed to render his hearers afraid to go home in the dark. But since it was not secular, it took the form of a fine piece of inspiration which, from Mr. Lorimer's point of view at least, could scarcely fail to make the most stubborn heart in his congregation tremble. He pictured himself delivering his splendid rhetoric with a grand and noble severity as impressive as the words he had to utter, reading appreciation--possibly unwilling appreciation--and dawning uneasiness on the upturned faces of his listeners.

Mr. Lorimer did not love his flock; his religion did not take that form. And the flock very naturally as a whole had scant affection for Mr. Lorimer. The flock knew, or shrewdly suspected, that his eloquence was mere sound--not always even musical--and as a consequence its power was somewhat thrown away. His command of words was practically limitless, but words could not carry him to the hearts of his congregation, and he had no other means at his disposal. For this of course he blamed the congregation, which certainly had no right to wink and snigger when he passed.

This Advent sermon however was a masterpiece, and as Mr. Lorimer lovingly fingered the pages of his manuscript he told himself that it could not fail to make an impression upon the most hardened sinner.

A low knock at the door disturbed these pleasant thoughts and he frowned. There was an unwritten law at the Vicarage that save for the most urgent of reasons he should never be interrupted at this hour.

Softly the door opened. Humbly his wife peeped in.

"Are you very busy, Stephen?"

His frown melted away. Here at least was one whose appreciation was never lacking. "Well, my dear Adelaide, I think I may truthfully say that the stress of my business is fairly over. You may come in."

She crept in, mouse-like, and a distant burst of music wafted in with her, causing her to turn and quickly close the door.

"Have you finished your sermon, dear? Can we have a little talk?" she asked him nervously.

He stretched out a large white hand to her without rising. "Yes. I do not think much remains to be said. We have as it were regarded the matter from every point of view. I do not think there will be many consciences unaroused when I have enunciated my final warning."

"You have such a striking delivery," murmured Mrs. Lorimer, clasping the firm white hand between both her own.

Mr. Lorimer's eyes vanished in an unctuous smile. "Thou idle flatterer!" he said.

"No, indeed, dear," his wife protested. "I think you are always impressive, especially at the end of your sermons. That pause you make before you turn your face to the altar--it seems to me so effective--so, if one may say it, dramatic."

"To what request is this the prelude?" enquired Mr. Lorimer, emerging from his smile.

She laughed a little nervous laugh. Her thin face was flushed. "Shall we sit by the fire, Stephen, as we used to that first happy winter--do you remember?--after we were married?"

"Dear me!" said Mr. Lorimer. "This sounds like a plunge into sentiment."

Nevertheless he rose with a tolerant twinkle and seated himself in the large easy-chair before the fire. It was the only really comfortable chair in the room. He kept it for his moments of reflection.

Mrs. Lorimer sat down at his feet on the fender-curb, her tiny hand still clinging to his. "This is a real treat," she said, laying her head against his knee with a gesture oddly girlish. "It isn't often, is it, that we have it all to ourselves?"

"What is it you have to say to me?" he enquired.

She drew his hand down gently over her shoulder, and held it against her cheek. There fell a brief silence, then she said with a slight effort: "Your idea of a mother's help has worked wonderfully, Stephen. As you know, I was averse to it at first but I am so glad you insisted. Dear Avery is a greater comfort to me than I can possibly tell you."

"Avery!" repeated the Reverend Stephen, with brows elevated. "I presume you are talking of Mrs. Denys?"

"Yes, dear. I call her Avery. I feel her to be almost one of ourselves." There was just a hint of apology in Mrs. Lorimer's voice. "She has been--and is--so very kind to me," she said. "I really don't know what the children and I would do without her."

"I am glad to hear she is kind," said Mr. Lorimer, with a touch of acidity.

"My dearest, she is quite our equal in position," murmured Mrs. Lorimer.

"That may be, my dear Adelaide." The acidity developed into a note of displeasure. "In a sense doubtless we are all equal. But in spite of that, extremes of intimacy are often inadvisable. I do not think you are altogether discreet in making a bosom friend of a woman in Mrs. Denys's position. A very good woman, I grant you. But familiarity with her is altogether unsuitable. From my own experience of her I am convinced that she would very soon presume upon it."

He paused. Mrs. Lorimer said nothing. She was sitting motionless with her soft eyes on the fire.

Mr. Lorimer looked down at the brown head at his knee with growing severity. "You will, therefore, Adelaide, in deference to my wish--if for no other reason--discontinue this use of Mrs. Denys's Christian name."

Mrs. Lorimer's lips moved, but they said nothing.

"Adelaide!" He spoke with cold surprise.

Instantly her fingers tightened upon his with a grip that was almost passionate. She raised her head, and looked up at him with earnest, pleading eyes. "I am sorry, Stephen--dear Stephen--but I have already given my friendship to--to Mrs. Denys. She has been--she is--like a sister to me. So you see, I can't possibly take it away again. You would not wish it if you knew."

"If I knew!" repeated Mr. Lorimer, in a peculiar tone.

She turned her face from him again, but he leaned slowly forward in his chair and taking her chin between his finger and thumb turned it deliberately back again.

She shrank a little, but she did not resist him. He looked searchingly into her eyes. The lids flickered nervously under his gaze, but he did not relax his scrutiny.

"Well?" he said.

Her lips quivered. She said nothing.

But her silence was enough. He released her abruptly and dropped back in his chair without another word.

She sank down trembling against his knee, and there followed a most painful pause. Through the stillness there crept again the faint strains of distant music. Someone was playing the Soldiers' March out of _Faust on the old cracked schoolroom piano, which was rising nobly to the occasion.

Mr. Lorimer moved at length and turned his head. "Who is that playing?"

"Piers Evesham," whispered Mrs. Lorimer. She was weeping softly and dared not stir lest he should discover the fact.

There was a deep, vertical line between Mr. Lorimer's brows. "And what may Piers Evesham be doing here?" he enquired.

"He comes often--to see Jeanie," murmured his wife deprecatingly.

He laughed unpleasantly. "A vast honour for Jeanie!"

Two tears fell from Mrs. Lorimer's eyes. She began to feel furtively for her handkerchief.

"And Dr. Lennox Tudor,"--he pronounced the name with elaborate care,--"he comes--often--for the same reason, I presume?"

"He--he came to see me yesterday," faltered Mrs. Lorimer.

"Indeed!" The word was as water dropped from an icicle.

She dabbed her eyes and bravely turned and faced him. "Stephen dear, I am very sorry. I didn't want to vex you unnecessarily. I hoped against hope--" She broke off, and knelt up before him, clasping his hand tightly against her breast. "Stephen--dearest, you said--when our firstborn came--that he was--God's gift."

"Well?" Again that one, uncompromising word. The vertical line deepened between her husband's brows. His eyes looked coldly back at her.

Mrs. Lorimer caught her breath on a little sob. "Will not this little one--be just as much so?" she whispered.

He began to draw his hand away from her. "My dear Adelaide, we will not be foolishly sentimental. What must be, must. I am afraid I must ask you to run away now as I have yet to put the finishing touches to my sermon. Perhaps you will kindly request young Evesham on my behalf to make a little less noise."

He deliberately put her from him, and prepared to rise. But Mrs. Lorimer suddenly and very unexpectedly rose first. She stood before him, slightly bending, her hands on his broad shoulders.

"Will you kiss me, Stephen?" she said.

He lifted a grim, reluctant face. She stooped, slipping her arms about his neck. "My own dear husband!" she whispered.

He endured her embrace for a couple of seconds; then, "That will do, Adelaide," he said with decision. "You must not let yourself get emotional. Dear me! It is getting late. I am afraid I really must ask you to leave me."

Her arms fell. She drew back, dispirited. "Forgive me,--oh, forgive me!" she murmured miserably.

He turned back to his writing-table, still frowning. "I was not aware that I had anything to forgive," he said. "But if you think so,--" he shrugged his shoulders, beginning already to turn the pages of his masterpiece--"my forgiveness is yours. I wonder if you would care to divert your thoughts from what I am sure you will admit to be a purely selfish channel by listening to a portion of this Advent sermon."

"What is it about?" asked Mrs. Lorimer, hesitating.

"My theme," said the Reverend Stephen, "is the awful doom that awaits the unrepentant sinner."

There was a moment's silence, and then Mrs. Lorimer did an extraordinary thing. She turned from him and walked to the door.

"Thank you very much, Stephen," she said, and she spoke with decision albeit her voice was not wholly steady. "But I don't feel that that kind of diversion would do me much good. I think I shall run up to the nursery and see Baby Phil have his bath."

She was gone; but so noiselessly that Mr. Lorimer, turning in his chair to rebuke her frivolity, found himself addressing the closed door.

He turned back again with a heavy sigh. There seemed to be some disturbing element at work. Time had been when she had deemed it her dearest privilege to sit and listen to his sermons. He could not understand her refusal of an offer that ought to have delighted her. He hoped that her heart was not becoming hardened.

Could he have seen her ascending the stairs at that moment with the tears running down her face, he might have realized that that fear at least was groundless.

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