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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 1. Dead Sea Fruit
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 1. Dead Sea Fruit Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :579

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 1. Dead Sea Fruit

PART II. THE PLACE OF TORMENT
CHAPTER I. DEAD SEA FRUIT

"I doubt if the County will call," said Miss Whalley, "unless the fact that Sir Piers is to stand for the division weighs with them. And Colonel Rose's patronage may prove an added inducement. He probably knows that the young man has simply married this Mrs. Denys out of pique, since his own charming daughter would have none of him. I must say that personally I am not surprised that Miss Rose should prefer marriage with a man of such sterling worth as Mr. Guyes. Sir Piers may be extremely handsome and fascinating; but no man with those eyes could possibly make a good husband. I hear it is to be a very grand affair indeed, dear Mrs. Lorimer,--far preferable in my opinion to the hole-in-a-corner sort of ceremony that took place this morning."

"They both of them wished it to be as quiet as possible," murmured Mrs. Lorimer. "She being a widow and he--poor lad!--in such deep mourning."

"Indecent haste, I call it," pronounced Miss Whalley severely, "with the earth still fresh on his poor dear grandfather's grave! A May wedding too! Most unsuitable!"

"He said he was so lonely," pleaded Mrs. Lorimer gently. "And after all it was what his grandfather wished,--so he told me."

Miss Whalley gave a high-bred species of snort. "My dear Mrs. Lorimer, that young man would tell you anything. Why, his grandfather was an inveterate woman-hater, as all the world knows."

"I know," agreed Mrs. Lorimer. "That was really what made it so remarkable. I assure you, Miss Whalley,--Piers came to me only last night and told me with tears in his eyes--that just at the last poor Sir Beverley said to him: 'I believe you've pitched on the right woman after all, lad. Anyway, she cares for you--more than ordinary. Marry her as quick as you can--and my blessing on you both!' They were almost the last words he spoke," said Mrs. Lorimer, wiping her own eyes. "I thought it was so dear of Piers to tell me."

"No doubt," sniffed Miss Whalley. "He is naturally anxious to secure your goodwill. But I wonder very much what point of view the dear Vicar takes of the matter. If I mistake not, he took Mrs. Denys's measure some time ago."

"Did he?" said Mrs. Lorimer vaguely.

Miss Whalley looked annoyed. The Vicar's wife obviously lacked sufficient backbone to quarrel on the subject. She was wont to say that she detested invertebrate women.

"I think the Vicar was not altogether surprised," Mrs. Lorimer went on, in her gentle, conversational way. "You see, Piers had been somewhat assiduous for some time. I myself, however, did not fancy that dear Avery wished to encourage him."

"Pooh!" said Miss Whalley. "It was the chance of her life."

A faint flush rose in Mrs. Lorimer's face. "She is a dear girl," she said. "I don't know what I shall do without her."

"The children are getting older now," said Miss Whalley. "Jeanie ought to be able to take her place to a very great extent."

"My little Jeanie is not strong," murmured Mrs. Lorimer. "She does what she can, but her lessons tire her so. She never has much energy left, poor child. She has not managed to finish her holiday-task yet, and it occupies all her spare time. I told the Vicar that I really did not think she was equal to it. But--" the sentence went into a heavy sigh, and further words failed.

"The Vicar is always very judicious with his children," observed Miss Whalley.

"He does not err on the side of mercy," said his wife pathetically. "And he does not seem to realize that Jeanie lacks the vitality of the others,--though how they ever got through their tasks I can't imagine. It must have been dear Avery's doing. She is a genius with children. They all managed it but poor Jeanie. How ever we shall get on without her I cannot think."

"But she was under notice to go, I am told," observed Miss Whalley.

"Yes,--yes, I know. But I had hoped that the Vicar might relent. You see, she has been invaluable to us in so many ways. However, I hope when she comes back that we shall see a great deal of her. She is so good to the children and they adore her."

"I doubt if she will have much time to bestow upon them if the County really do decide to accept her," remarked Miss Whalley. "You forget that she is now Lady Evesham, my dear Mrs. Lorimer, and little likely to remember old friends now that she has attained the summit of her ambition."

"I don't think Avery would forget us if she became a royal princess," said Mrs. Lorimer, with a confidence that Miss Whalley found peculiarly irritating.

"Ah well, we shall see, we shall see!" she said. "I for one shall be extremely surprised if she elects to remain on the same intimate footing. From mother's help at the Vicarage to Lady Evesham of Rodding Abbey is a considerable leap, and she will be scarcely human if it does not turn her head."

But Mrs. Lorimer merely smiled and said no more. She knew how little Avery was drawn by pomp and circumstance, but she would not vaunt her knowledge before one so obviously incapable of understanding. In silence she let the subject pass.

"And where is the honeymoon to be spent?" enquired Miss Whalley, who was there to glean information and did not mean to go empty away.

But Mrs. Lorimer shook her head. "Even I don't know that. Piers had a whim to go just where they fancied. They will call for letters at certain post-offices on certain days; but he did not want to feel bound to stay at any particular place. Where they are at the present moment or where they will spend to-night, I have not the faintest idea. Nobody knows!"

"How extremely odd!" sniffed Miss Whalley. "But young Evesham always was so ill-balanced and eccentric. Is it true that Dr. Tudor went to the wedding this morning?"

"Quite true," said Mrs. Lorimer. "I thought it was so kind of him. He arrived a little late. Avery did not know he was there until it was over. But he came forward then and shook hands with them both and wished them happiness. He and young Mr. Guyes, who supported Piers, were the only two present besides the Eveshams' family solicitor from Wardenhurst and ourselves. I gave the dear girl away," said Mrs. Lorimer with gentle pride. "And my dear husband conducted the service so impressively."

"I am sure he would," said Miss Whalley. "But I think it was unfortunate that so much secrecy was observed. People are so apt to talk uncharitably. It was really most indiscreet."

Could she have heard the remark which Piers was making at that identical moment to his bride, she would have understood one of the main reasons for his indiscretion.

They were sitting in the deep, deep heart of a wood--an enchanted wood that was heavy with the spring fragrance of the mountain-ash,--and Piers, the while he peeled a stick with the deftness of boyhood, observed with much complacence: "Well, we've done that old Whalley chatterbox out of a treat anyway. Of all the old parish gossips, that woman is the worst. I never pass her house without seeing her peer over her blind. She always looks at me with a suspicious, disapproving eye. It's rather a shame, you know," he wound up pathetically, "for she has only once in her life found me out, and that was a dozen years ago."

Avery laughed a little. "I don't think she approves of any men except the clergy."

"Oh yes, she clings like a leech to the skirts of the Church," said Piers irreverently. "There are plenty of her sort about--wherever there are parsons, in fact. Of course it's the parsons' fault. If they didn't encourage 'em they wouldn't be there."

"I don't know that," said Avery, with a smile. "I think you're a little hard on parsons."

"Do you? Well, I don't know many. The Reverend Stephen is enough for me. I fight shy of all the rest."

"My dear, how very narrow of you!" said Avery.

He turned to her boyishly. "Don't tell me you want to be a female curate like the Whalley! I couldn't bear it!"

"I haven't the smallest leaning in that direction," Avery assured him. "But at the same time, one of my greatest friends is about to enter the Church, and I do want you to meet and like him."

A sudden silence followed her words. Piers resumed the peeling of his stick with minute attention. "I am sure to like him if you do," he remarked, after a moment.

She touched his arm lightly. "Thank you, dear. He is an Australian, and the very greatest-hearted man I ever met. He stood by me in a time of great trouble. I don't know what I should have done without him. I hope he won't feel hurt, but I haven't even told him of my marriage yet."

"We have been married just ten hours," observed Piers, still intent upon his task.

She laughed again. "Yes, but it is ten days since we became engaged, and I owe him a letter into the bargain. He wanted to arrange to meet me in town one day; but he is still too busy to fix a date. He is studying very hard."

"What's his name?" said Piers.

"Crowther--Edmund Crowther. He has been a farmer for years in Queensland." Avery, paused a moment. "It was he who broke the news to me of my husband's death," she said, in a low voice. "I told you about that, Piers."

"You did," said Piers.

His tone was deliberately repressive, and a little quiver of disappointment went through Avery. She became silent, and the magic of the woods closed softly in upon them. Evening was drawing on, and the long, golden rays of sunshine lay like a benediction over the quiet earth.

The silence between them grew and expanded into something of a barrier. From her seat on a fallen tree Avery gazed out before her. She could not see Piers' face which was bent above the stick which he had begun to whittle with his knife. He was sitting on the ground at her feet, and only his black head was visible to her.

Suddenly, almost fiercely, he spoke. "I know Edmund Crowther."

Avery's eyes came down to him in astonishment. "You know him!"

"Yes, I know him." He worked furiously at his stick without looking up. His words came in quick jerks, as if for some reason he wanted to get them spoken without delay. "I met him years ago. He did me a good turn--helped me out of a tight corner. A few weeks ago--when I was at Monte Carlo with my grandfather--I met him again. He told me then that he knew you. Of course it was a rum coincidence. Heaven only knows what makes these things happen. You needn't write to him, I will."

He ceased to speak, and suddenly Avery saw that his hands were trembling--trembling violently as the hands of a man with an ague. She watched them silently, wondering at his agitation, till Piers, becoming aware of her scrutiny, abruptly flung aside the stick upon which he had been expending so much care and leaped to his feet with a laugh that sounded oddly strained to her ears.

"Come along!" he said. "If we sit here talking like Darby and Joan much longer, we shall forget that it's actually our wedding-day."

Avery looked up at him without rising, a queer sense of foreboding at her heart. "Then Edmund Crowther is a friend of yours," she said. "A close friend?"

He stood above her, and she saw a very strange look in his eyes--almost a desperate look.

"Quite a close friend," he said in answer. "But he won't be if you waste any more thought on him for many days to come. I want your thoughts all for myself."

Again he laughed, holding out his hands to her with a gesture that compelled rather than invited. She yielded to his insistence, but with a curious, hurt feeling as of one repulsed. It was as if he had closed a door in her face, not violently or in any sense rudely, yet with such evident intention that she had almost heard the click of the key in the lock.

Hand in hand they went through the enchanted wood; and for ever after, the scent of mountain-ash blossom was to Avery a bitter-sweet memory of that which should have been wholly sweet.

As for Piers, she did not know what was in his mind, though she was aware for a time of a lack of spontaneity behind his tenderness which disquieted her vaguely. She felt as if a shadow had fallen upon him, veiling his inner soul from her sight.

Yet when they sat together in the magic quiet of the spring night in a garden that had surely been planted for lovers the cloud lifted, and she saw him again in all the ardour of his love for her. For he poured it out to her there in the silence, eagerly, burningly,--the worship that had opened to her the gate of that paradise which she had never more hoped to tread.

She put her doubts and fears away from her, she answered to his call. He had awaked the woman's heart in her, and she gave freely, impulsively, not measuring her gift. If she could not offer him a girl's first rapture, she could bestow that which was infinitely greater--the deep, strong love of a woman who had suffered and knew how to endure.

They sat in the dewy garden till in the distant woods the nightingales began their passion-steeped music, and then--because the ecstasy of the night was almost more than she could bear--Avery softly freed herself from her husband's arm and rose.

"Going?" he asked quickly.

He remained seated holding her hand fast locked in his. She looked down into his upraised face, conscious that her own was in shadow and that she need not try to hide the tears that had risen inexplicably to her eyes.

"Yes, dear," she answered, with an effort at lightness. "You haven't had a smoke since dinner. I am going to leave you to have one now."

But he still held her, as if he could not let her go.

She bent to him after a moment with that sweet impulsiveness of hers that so greatly charmed all who loved her. "What is it, Piers? Don't you want me to go?"

He caught her other hand in his and held them both against his lips.

"Want you to go!" he muttered almost inarticulately; and then suddenly he raised his face again to hers. "Avery--Avery, promise me--swear to me--that, whatever happens, you will never leave me!"

"But, my dearest, haven't I already sworn--only today?" she said, surprised by his vehemence and his request. "Of course I shall never leave you. My place is by your side."

"I know! I know!" he said. "But it isn't enough. I want you to promise me personally, so that--I shall always feel--quite sure of you. You see, Avery," his words came with difficulty, his upturned face seemed to beseech her, "I'm not--the sort of impossible, chivalrous knight that Jeanie thinks me. I'm horribly bad. I sometimes think I've got a devil inside me. And I've done things--I've done things--" His voice shook suddenly; he ended abruptly, with heaving breath. "Before I ever met you, I--wronged you."

He would have let her go then, but it was her hands that held. She stooped lower to him, divinely tender, her love seeming to spread all about him like wings, folding him in.

"My dear," she said softly, "whatever there is of bad in you,--remember, the best is mine!"

He caught at the words. "The best--the best! You shall always have that, Avery. But, my darling,--you understand--you do understand--how utterly unworthy that best is of you? You must understand that before--before--"

Again his voice went into silence; but she saw his eyes glow suddenly, hotly, in the gloom, and her heart gave a quick hard throb that caught her breath and held it for the moment suspended, waiting.

He went on after a second, mastering himself with obvious effort. "What I am trying to say is this. It's easier--or at least not impossible--to forfeit what you've never had. But afterwards--afterwards--" His hands closed tightly upon hers again; his voice sounded half-choked. "Avery, I--couldn't let you go--afterwards," he said.

"But, my own Piers," she whispered, "haven't you said that there is no reason--no earthly reason--"

He broke in upon her almost fiercely. "There is no reason--none whatever--I swear it! You said yourself that the past was nothing to you. You meant it, Avery. Say you meant it!"

"But of course I meant it!" she told him. "Only, Piers, there is no secret chamber in my life that you may not enter. Perhaps some day, dear, when you come to realize that I am older than Jeanie, you will open all your doors to me!"

There was pleading in her voice, notwithstanding its note of banter; but she did not stay to plead. With the whispered words she stooped and softly kissed him. Then ere he could detain her longer she gently released herself and was gone.

He saw her light figure flit ghost-like across the dim stretch of grass and vanish into the shadows. And he started to his feet as if he would follow or call her back. But he did neither. Be only stood swaying on his feet with a face of straining impotence--as of a prisoner wrestling vainly with his iron bars--until she had gone wholly from his sight. And then with a stifled groan he dropped down again into his chair and covered his face.

He had paid a heavy price to enter the garden of his desire; but already he had begun to realize that the fruit he gathered there was Dead Sea Fruit.

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