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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 10. Sanctuary
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 10. Sanctuary Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :3404

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 10. Sanctuary

PART II. THE PLACE OF TORMENT CHAPTER X. SANCTUARY

"Hullo, sonny! You!"

Edmund Crowther turned from his littered writing-table, and rose to greet his visitor with a ready smile of welcome.

"Hullo!" said Piers. "How are you getting on? I was in town and thought I'd look you up. By Jove, though, you're busy! I'd better not stay."

"Sit down!" said Crowther.

He took him by the shoulders with kindly force and made him sit in his easy-chair. "I'm never too busy to be pleased to see you, Piers," he said.

"Very decent of you," said Piers.

He spoke with a short laugh, but his dark eyes roved round restlessly. There was no pleasure in his look.

The light from Crowther's unshaded lamp flared full upon him. In his faultless evening dress he looked every inch an aristocrat. That air of the old-Roman patrician was very strong upon him that night. But there was something behind it that Crowther was quick to note, something that reminded him vividly of an evening months before when he had fought hand to hand with the Evesham devil and had with difficulty prevailed.

He pushed his work to one side and foraged in his cupboard for drinks.

Piers watched him with an odd, half-scoffing smile about his lips. "Do you never drink when you are by yourself?" he asked.

"Not when I'm working," said Crowther.

"I see! Work is sacred, what?"

Crowther looked at him. The mockery of the tone had been scarcely veiled; but there was no consciousness of the fact in Crowther's quiet reply. "Yes; just that, sonny."

Piers laughed again, a bitter, gibing laugh. "I suppose it's more to you than your own soul--or anyone else's," he said.

Crowther paused in the act of pouring out. "Now what do you mean?" he said.

His eyes, direct and level, looked full at Piers. They held no anger, no indignation, only calm enquiry.

Piers faced the look with open mockery. "I mean, my good friend," he said, "that if I asked you to chuck it all and go round the world with me--you'd see me damned first."

Crowther's eyes dropped gravely to the job in hand. "Say when!" he said.

Piers made a restless movement. "Oh, that's enough! Strong drink is not my weakness. Why don't you answer my question?"

"I didn't know you asked one," said Crowther.

He set the tumbler in front of Piers and began to help himself.

Piers watched him for a couple of seconds longer, then leapt impulsively to his feet. "Oh, I'm going!" he said. "I was a fool to come!"

Crowther set down the decanter and straightened himself. He did not seem to move quickly, but he was at the door before Piers reached it.

He stood massively before him, blocking the way. "You've behaved foolishly a good many times in your life, my lad," he said. "But I shouldn't call you a fool. Why do you want me to go round the world with you? Tell me that!"

His tone was mild, but there was a certain grimness about him notwithstanding. He looked at Piers with a faint smile in his eyes that had in it a quality of resolution that made itself felt. Piers stood still before him, half-chafing, half-subdued.

"Tell me!" Crowther said again.

"Oh, what's the good?" With a defiance that was oddly boyish Piers flung the question. "I see I've applied in the wrong quarter. Let me go!"

"I will not," Crowther said. Deliberately he raised a hand and pointed to the chair from which Piers had just sprung. "Sit down again, sonny, and we'll talk."

Piers swung round with an impatient gesture and went to the window. He threw it wide, and the distant roar of traffic filled the quiet room like the breaking of the sea.

After a distinct pause Crowther followed him. They stood together gazing out over the dim wilderness of many roofs and chimneys to where the crude glare of an advertisement lit up the night sky.

Piers was absolutely motionless, but there was a species of violence in his very stillness, as of a trapped animal preparing to make a wild rush for freedom. His attitude was feverishly tense.

Suddenly and very quietly Crowther's hand came forth and linked itself in his arm. "What is it, lad?" he said.

Piers made a jerky movement as if to avoid the touch, but the hand closed slowly and steadily upon him. He turned abruptly and met Crowther's eyes.

"Crowther," he said, "I've behaved like a cur. I--broke that promise I made to you."

He ground out the words savagely, between clenched teeth. Yet his look was defiant still. He held himself as a man defying shame.

Crowther's eyes never varied. They looked straight back with a wide kindliness greater than compassion, wholly devoid of reproach.

"All right, Piers," he said simply.

Piers stared at him for a moment as one in blank amazement, then very strangely his face altered. The hardness went from it like a mask suddenly rent away. He made an inarticulate sound and turned from the open window.

A second later he was sunk in Crowther's chair with his head in his hands, sobbing convulsively, painfully, uncontrollably, in an agony that tore like a living thing at the very foundations of his being.

A smaller man than Crowther might have been at a loss to deal with such distress, but Crowther was ready. He had seen men in extremities of suffering before. He knew how to ease a crushing burden. He sat down on the arm of the chair and thrust a strong hand over Piers' shoulder, saying no word.

Minutes passed ere by sheer violence that bitter anguish wore itself out at last. There came a long, piteous silence, then Piers' hand feeling blindly upwards. Crowther's grip encompassed it like a band of iron, but still for a space no word was spoken.

Then haltingly Piers found his voice. "I'm sorry--beastly sorry--to have made such an ass of myself. You're jolly decent to me, Crowther."

To which Crowther made reply with a tenderness as simple as his own soul. "You're just a son to me, lad."

"A precious poor specimen!" muttered Piers.

He remained bowed for a while longer, then lifted at length a face of awful whiteness and leaned back upon Crowther's arm, still fast holding to his hand.

"You know, you're such an awfully good chap," he said, "that one gets into the way of taking you for granted. But I won't encroach on your goodness much longer. You're busy, what?" He smiled a quivering smile, and glanced momentarily towards the littered table.

"It will keep," said Crowther quietly.

"No, it won't. Life isn't long enough. On my soul, do you know it's like coming into sanctuary to enter a place like this? I feel as if I'd shut my own particular devil on the other side of the door. But he'll wait for me all right. We shan't lose each other on that account."

He uttered a laugh that testified more to the utter weariness of his soul than its bitterness.

"Where are you staying?" said Crowther.

"At Marchmont's. At least I've got a room there. I haven't any definite plans at present."

"Unless you go round the world with me," said Crowther.

Piers' eyes travelled upwards sharply. "No, old chap. I didn't mean it. I wouldn't have you if you'd come. It was only a try-on, that."

"Some try-ons fit," said Crowther gravely. He turned towards the table, and reached for the drink he had prepared for Piers. "Look here, sonny! Have a drink!"

Piers drank in silence, Crowther steadily watching.

"You would have to be back by March," he said presently.

"What?" said Piers.

It was like a protest, the involuntary startled outcry of the patient under the probe. Crowther's hand grasped his more closely. "I'll go with you on that understanding, Piers," he said. "You'll be wanted then."

Piers groaned. "If it hadn't been for--that," he said, "I'd have ended the whole business with a bullet before now."

"No, you wouldn't," said Crowther quietly. "You don't know yourself, boy, when you talk like that. You've given up Parliament for the present?"

"For good," said Piers. He paused, as if bracing himself for a great effort. "I went to Colonel Rose yesterday and told him I must withdraw. He had heard the rumours of course, but he advised me to hold on. I told him--I told him--" Piers stopped and swallowed hard, then forced himself on,--"I told him there was truth in it, and then--he let me go."

There fell a painful silence, broken by Crowther. "How did this rumour get about?"

"Oh, that was at Ina Rose's wedding." Piers' words came more freely now, as if the obstruction were passed. "A cousin of Guyes', the bridegroom, was there. He came from Queensland, had been present that night when I fought and killed Denys, and he recognized me. Then--he got tight and told everybody who would listen. It was rotten luck, but it had to happen." He paused momentarily; then: "I wasn't enjoying myself, Crowther, before it happened," he said.

"I saw that, sonny." Crowther's arm pressed his shoulder in sympathy. It was characteristic of the man to display understanding rather than pity. He stood ever on the same level with his friends, however low that level might be.

Again Piers looked at him as if puzzled by his attitude. "You've done me a lot of good," he said abruptly. "You've made me see myself as you don't see me, dear old fellow, and never would. Well, I'm going. Thanks awfully!"

He made as if he would rise, but Crowther restrained him. "No, lad. I'm not parting with you for to-night. We'll send round for your traps. I'll put you up."

"What? No, no, you can't! I shall be all right. Don't worry about me!"

Piers began to make impulsive resistance, but Crowther's hold only tightened.

"I'm not parting with you to-night," he reiterated firmly. "And look here, boy! You've come to me for help, and, to the best of my ability, I'll help you. But first,--are you sure you are justified in leaving home? Are you sure you are not wanted?"

"Wanted! I!" Piers looked at him from under eye-lids that quivered a little. "Yes," he said, after a moment, with a deliberation that sounded tragically final. "I am quite sure of that, Crowther."

Crowther asked no more. He patted Piers' shoulder gently and rose.

"Very well," he said. "I'll take that six months' trip round the world with you."

"But you can't!" protested Piers. "I never seriously thought you could! I only came to you because--" he halted, and a slow, deep flush mounted to his forehead--"because you've saved me before," he said. "And I was so--so horribly near--the edge of the pit this time."

He spoke with an odd boyishness, and Crowther's lips relaxed in a smile that had in it something of a maternal quality. "So long as I can help you, you can count on me," he said.

"You're the only man in the world who can help me," Piers said impulsively. "At least--" he smiled himself--"I couldn't take it from anyone else. But I'm not taking this from you, Crowther. You've got your own pet job on hand, and I'm not going to hinder it."

Crowther was setting his writing-table in order. He did not speak for a few seconds. Then: "I am a man under authority, sonny," he said. "My own pet job, as you call it, doesn't count if it isn't what's wanted of me. It has waited twenty-five years; it'll keep--easy--for another six months."

Piers got up. "I'm a selfish brute if I let you," he said, irresolutely.

"You can't help yourself, my son." Crowther turned calm eyes upon him. "And now just sit down here and write a line home to say what you are going to do!"

He had cleared a space upon the table; he pulled forward a chair.

"Oh, I can't! I can't!" said Piers quickly.

But Crowther's hand was on his shoulder. He pressed him down. "Do it, lad! It's got to be done," he said.

And with a docility that sat curiously upon him, Piers submitted. He leaned his head on his hand, and wrote.

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