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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 2. That Which Is Holy
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 2. That Which Is Holy Post by :JPatrick Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2633

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 2. That Which Is Holy

PART II. THE PLACE OF TORMENT
CHAPTER II. THAT WHICH IS HOLY

No bells had rung at the young Squire's wedding. It had been conducted with a privacy which Miss Whalley described as "almost indecent." But there was no privacy about his return, and Miss Whalley was shocked afresh at the brazen heartlessness of it after his recent bereavement. For Sir Piers and his wife motored home at the end of July through a village decked with flags and bunting and under a triumphant arch that made Piers' little two-seater seem absurdly insignificant; while the bells in the church-tower clanged the noisiest welcome they could compass, and Gracie--home for the holidays--mustered the school-children to cheer their hardest as the happy couple passed the schoolhouse gate.

Avery would fain have stopped to greet the child, but Piers would not be persuaded.

"No, no! To-morrow!" he said. "The honeymoon isn't over till after to-night."

So they waved and were gone, at a speed which made Miss Whalley wonder what the local police could be about.

Once past the lodge-gates and Marshall's half-grudging, half-pleased smile of welcome, the speed was doubled. Piers went like the wind, till Avery breathlessly cried to him to stop.

"You'll kill us both before we get there!" she protested. In answer to which Piers moderated the pace, remarking as he did so, "But you would like to die by my side, what?"

Victor was on the steps to receive them, Victor dancing with impatience and delight. For his young master's prolonged honeymoon had represented ten weeks of desolation to him.

Old David was also present, inconspicuous and dignified, waiting to pour out tea for the travellers.

And Caesar the Dalmatian who had mourned with Victor for his absent deity now leapt upon him in one great rush of ecstatic welcome that nearly bore him backwards.

It was a riotous home-coming, for Piers was in boisterous spirits. They had travelled far that day, but he was in a mood of such restless energy that he seemed incapable of feeling fatigue.

Avery on her part was thoroughly weary, but she would not tell him so, and they spent the whole evening in wandering about house and gardens, discussing the advisability of various alterations and improvements. In the end Piers awoke suddenly to the fact that she was looking utterly exhausted, and with swift compunction piloted her to her room.

"What a fool I am!" he declared. "You must be dead beat. Why didn't you say you wanted to rest?"

"I didn't, dear," she answered simply. "I wanted to be with you."

He caught her hand to his lips. "You are happy with me then?"

She uttered a little laugh that said more than words. "My own boy, you give me all that the most exacting woman could possibly desire and then ask me that!"

He laughed too, his arm close about her. "I would give you the world if I had it. Avery, I hate to think we've come home--that the honeymoon is over--and the old beastly burdens waiting to be shouldered--" He laid his forehead against her neck with a gesture that made her fancy he did not wish her to see his face for the moment. "P'r'aps I'm a heartless brute, but I never missed the old chap all the time I was away," he whispered. "It's like being dragged under the scourge again--just when the old scars were beginning to heal--to come back to this empty barrack."

She slid a quick arm round his neck, all the woman's heart in her responding to the cry from his.

"The place is full of him," Piers went on; "I meet him at every corner. I see him in his old place on the settle in the hall, where he used to wait for me, and--and row me every night for being late." He gave a broken laugh. "Avery, if it weren't for you, I--I believe I should shoot myself."

"Come and sit down!" said Avery gently. She drew him to a couch, and they sat down locked together.

During all the ten weeks of their absence he had scarcely even mentioned his grandfather. He had been gay and inconsequent, or fiercely passionate in his devotion to her. But of his loss he had never spoken, and vaguely she had known that he had shut it out of his life with that other grim shadow that dwelt behind the locked door she might not open. She had not deemed him heartless, but she had regretted that deliberate shirking of his grief. She had known that sooner or later he would have to endure the scourging of which he spoke and that it would not grow the lighter with postponement.

And now as she held him against her heart, she was in a sense relieved that it had come at last, thankful to be there with him while he stripped himself of all subterfuge and faced his sorrow.

He could not speak much as he sat there clasped in her arms. One or two attempts he made, and then broke down against her breast. But no words were needed. Her arms were all he desired for consolation, and if they waked in him the old wild remorse, he stifled it ere it could take full possession.

Finally, when the first bitterness had passed, they sat and talked together, and he found relief in telling her of the life he had lived in close companionship with the old man.

"We quarrelled a dozen times," he said. "But somehow we could neither of us keep it up. I don't know why. We were violent enough at times. There's an Evesham devil somewhere in our ancestry, and he has a trick of cropping up still in moments of excitement. You've met him more than once. He's a formidable monster, what?"

"I am not afraid of him," said Avery, with her cheek against his black head.

He gave a shaky laugh. "You'd fling a bucket of water over Satan himself! I love you for not being afraid. But I don't know how you manage it, and that's a fact. Darling, I'm a selfish brute to wear you out like this. Send me away when you can't stand any more of me!"

"Would you go?" she said, softly stroking his cheek.

He caught her hand again and kissed it hotly, devouringly, in answer. "But I mustn't wear you out," he said, a moment later, with an odd wistfulness. "You mustn't let me, Avery."

She drew her hand gently away from the clinging of his lips. "No, I won't let you," she said, in a tone he did not understand.

He clasped her to him. "It's because I worship you so," he whispered passionately. "There is no one else in the world but you. I adore you! I adore you!"

She closed her eyes from the fiery worship that looked forth from his. "Piers," she said, "wait, dear, wait!"

"Why should I wait?" he demanded almost fiercely.

"Because I ask you. Because--just now--to be loved like that is more than I can bear. Will you--can you--kiss me only, once, and go?"

He held her in his arms. He gazed long and burningly upon her. In the end he stopped and with reverence he kissed her. "I am going, Avery," he said.

She opened her eyes to him. "God bless you, my own Piers!" she murmured softly, and laid her cheek for a moment against his sleeve ere he took his arm away.

As for Piers, he went from her as if he feared to trespass, and her heart smote her a little as she watched him go. But she would not call him back. She went instead to one of the great bay windows and leaned against the framework, gazing out. He was very good to her in all things, but there were times when she felt solitude to be an absolute necessity. His vitality, his fevered desire for her, wore upon her nerves. His attitude towards her was not wholly natural. It held something of a menace to her peace which disquieted her vaguely. She had a feeling that though she knew herself to be all he wanted in the world, yet she did not succeed in fully satisfying him. He seemed to be perpetually craving for something further, as though somewhere deep within him there burned a fiery thirst that nothing could ever slake. Her lightest touch seemed to awake it, and there were moments when his unfettered passion made her afraid.

Not for worlds would she have had him know it. Her love for him was too deep to let her shrink; and she knew that only by that love did she maintain her ascendancy, appealing to his higher nature as only true love can appeal. But the perpetual strain of it told upon her, and that night she felt tired in body and soul.

The great bedroom behind her with its dark hangings and oak furniture seemed dreary and unhome-like. She viewed the ancient and immense four-poster with misgiving and wondered if Queen Elizabeth had ever slept in it.

After a time she investigated Piers' room beyond, and found it less imposing though curiously stiff and wholly lacking in ordinary cheery comfort. Later she discovered the reason for this grim severity of arrangement. No woman's touch had softened it for close upon half a century.

She went back to her own room and dressed. Piers had wanted her to have a maid, but she had refused until other changes should be made in the establishment. There seemed so much to alter that she felt bewildered. A household of elderly menservants presented a problem with which she knew she would find it difficult to deal.

She put the matter gently before Piers that night, but he dismissed it as trivial.

"You can't turn 'em off of course," he said. "But you can have a dozen women to adjust the balance if you want 'em."

Avery did not, but she was too tired to argue the point. She let the subject slide.

They dined together in the oak-panelled dining-room where Piers had so often sat with his grandfather. The table seemed to stretch away inimitably into shadows, and Avery felt like a Lilliputian. From the wall directly facing her the last Lady Evesham smiled upon her--her baffling, mirthless smile that seemed to cover naught but heartache. She found herself looking up again and again to meet those eyes of mocking comprehension; and the memory of what Lennox Tudor had once told her recurred to her. This was Piers' Italian grandmother whose patrician beauty had descended to him through her scapegrace son.

"Are you looking at that woman with the smile?" said Piers abruptly.

She turned to him. "You are so like her, Piers. But I wouldn't like you to have a smile like that. There is something tragic behind it."

"We are a tragic family," said Piers sombrely. "As for her, she ruined her own life and my grandfather's too. She might have been happy enough with him if she had tried."

"Oh, Piers, I wonder!" Avery said, with a feeling that that smile revealed more to her than to him.

"I say she might," Piers reiterated, with a touch of impatience. "He thought the world of her, just as--just as--" he smiled at her suddenly--"I do of you. He never knew that she wasn't satisfied until one fine day she left him. She married again--afterwards, and then died. He never got over it."

But still Avery had a vagrant feeling of pity for the woman who had been Sir Beverley's bride. "I expect they never really understood each other," she said.

Piers' dark eyes gleamed. "Do you know what I would have done if I had been in his place?" he said. "I would have gone after her and brought her back--even if I'd killed her afterwards."

His voice vibrated on a deep note of savagery. He poured out a glass of wine with a hand that shook.

Avery said nothing, but through the silence she was conscious of the hard throbbing of her heart. There was something implacable, something almost cruel, about Piers at that moment. She felt as if he had bruised her without knowing it.

And then in his sudden, bewildering way he left his chair and came to her, stooped boyishly over her. "My darling, you're so awfully pale to-night. Have some wine--to please me!"

She leaned her head back against his shoulder and closed her eyes. "I am a little tired, dear; but I don't want any wine. I shall be all right in the morning."

He laid his cheek against her forehead. "I want you to drink a toast with me. Won't you?"

"We won't drink to each other," she protested, faintly smiling. "It's too like drinking to ourselves."

"That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," he declared. "But we won't toast ourselves. We'll drink to the future, Avery, and--" he lowered his voice--"and all it contains. What?"

Her eyes opened quickly, but she did not move. "Why do you say that?"

"What?" he said again very softly.

She was silent.

He reached a hand for his own glass. "Drink with me, sweetheart!" he said persuasively.

She suffered him to put it to her lips and drank submissively. But in a moment she put up a restraining hand. "You finish it!" she said, and pushed it gently towards him.

He took it and held it high. The light gleamed crimson in the wine; it glowed like liquid fire. A moment he held it so, then without a word he carried it to his lips and drained it.

A second later there came the sound of splintering glass, and Avery, turning in her chair, discovered that he had flung it over his shoulder.

She gazed at him in amazement astonished by his action. "Piers!"

But something in his face checked her. "No one will ever drink out of that glass again," he said. "Are you ready? Shall we go in the garden for a breath of air?"

She went with him, but on the terrace outside he stopped impulsively. "Avery darling, I don't mean to be a selfish beast; but I've got to prowl for a bit. Would you rather go to bed?"

His arm was round her; she leaned against him half-laughing. "Do you know, dear, that bedroom frightens me with its magnificence! Don't prowl too long!"

He bent to her swiftly. "Avery! Do you want me?"

"Just to scare away the bogies," she made answer, with a lightness that scarcely veiled a deeper feeling. "And when you've done that--quite thoroughly--perhaps--" She stopped.

"Perhaps--" whispered Piers.

"Perhaps I'll tell you a secret," she said still lightly. "By the way, dear, I found a letter from Mr. Crowther waiting for me. I put it in your room for you to read. He writes so kindly. Wouldn't you like him to be our first visitor?"

There was a moment's silence before Piers made answer.

"To be sure," he said then. "We mustn't forget Crowther. You wrote and told him everything, I suppose?"

"Yes, everything. He seems very fond of you, Piers. But you must read his letter. It concerns you quite as much as it does me. There! I am going. Good-bye! Come up soon!"

She patted his shoulder and turned away. Somehow it had not been easy to speak of Crowther. She had known that in doing so she had introduced an unwelcome subject. But Crowther was too great a friend to ignore. She felt that she had treated him somewhat casually already; for it was only the previous week that she had written to tell him of her marriage.

Crowther was in town, studying hard for an examination, and she felt convinced that he would be willing to pay them a visit. She also knew that for some reason Piers was reluctant to ask him, but she felt that that fact ought not to influence her. For she owed a debt of gratitude to Crowther which she could never forget.

But all thought of Crowther faded from her mind when she found herself once more in that eerie, tapestry-hung bedroom. The place had been lighted with candles, but they only seemed to emphasize the gloom. She wondered how often the last Lady Evesham--the warm-blooded, passionate Italian woman with her love of the sun and all things beautiful--had stood as she stood now and shuddered at the dreary splendour of her surroundings. How homesick she must have been, Avery thought to herself, as she undressed in the flickering candle-light! How her soul must have yearned for the glittering Southern life she had left!

She thought of Sir Beverley. He must have been very like Piers in his youth, less fierce, less intense, but in many ways practically the same, giving much and demanding even more, restless and exacting, but withal so lovable, so hard to resist, so infinitely dear. All her love for Piers throbbed suddenly up to the surface. How good he was to her! What would life be without him? She reproached herself for ingratitude and discontent. Life was a beautiful thing if only she would have it so.

She knelt down at length by the deep cushioned window-seat and began to pray. The night was dim and quiet, and as she prayed she gradually forgot the shadows behind her and seemed to lose herself in the immensity of its peace. She realized as never before that by her love she must prevail. It was the one weapon, unfailing and invincible, that alone would serve her, when she could rely upon no other. She knew that he had felt its influence, that there were times when he did instinctive reverence to it, as to that which is holy. She knew moreover that there was that within him that answered to it as it were involuntarily--a fiery essence in which his passion had no part which dwelt deep down in his turbulent heart--a germ of greatness which she knew might blossom into Love Immortal.

He was young, he was young. He wanted life, all he could get of it. And he left the higher things because as yet he was undeveloped. He had not felt that hunger of the spirit which only that which is spiritual can satisfy. It would come. She was sure it would come. She was watching for it day by day. His wings were still untried. He did not want to soar. But by-and-bye the heights would begin to draw him. And then--then they would soar together. But till that day dawned, her love must be the guardian of them both.

There came a slight sound in the room behind her. She turned swiftly. "Piers!"

He was close to her. As she started to her feet his arms enclosed her. He looked down into her eyes, holding her fast pressed to him.

"I didn't mean to disturb you," he said. "But--when I saw you were praying--I had to come in. I wanted so awfully to know--if you would get an answer."

"But, Piers!" she protested.

He kissed her lips. "Don't be angry, Avery! I'm not scoffing. I don't know enough about God to scoff at Him. Tell me! Do you ever get an answer, or are you content to go jogging on like the rest of the world without?"

She made an effort to free herself. "Do you know, Piers, I can't talk to you about--holy things--when you are holding me like this."

He looked stubborn. "I don't know what you mean by holy things. I'm not a believer. At least I don't believe in prayer. I can get all I want without it."

"I wonder!" Avery said.

She was still trying to disengage herself, but as he held her with evident determination she desisted.

There followed a silence during which her grey eyes met his black ones steadily, fearlessly, resolutely. Then in a whisper Piers spoke, his lips still close to hers. "Tell me what you were praying for, sweetheart!"

She smiled a little. "No, dear, not now! It's nothing that's in your power to give me. Shall we sit on the window-seat and talk?"

But Piers was loath to let her go from his arms. He knelt beside her as she sat, still holding her.

She put her arm round his neck. "Do you remember your Star of Hope?" she asked him softly.

"I remember," said Piers, but he did not turn his eyes to the night sky; they still dwelt upon her.

Avery's face was toward the window. The drapery fell loosely away from her throat. He stooped forward suddenly and pressed his hot lips upon her soft white flesh.

A little tremor went through her at his touch; she kept her face turned from him.

"Have you really got all you want?" she asked after a moment. "Is there nothing at all left to hope for?"

"Didn't we drink to the future only to-night?" he said.

His arms were drawing her, but still she kept her face turned away. "Did you mean anything by that?" she asked. "Were you--were you thinking of anything special?"

He did not at once answer her. He waited till with an odd reluctance she turned her face towards him. Then, "I was thinking of you," he said.

Her heart gave a quick throb. "Of me?" she questioned below her breath.

"Of you," he said again. "For myself, I have got all I can ever hope for. But you--you would be awfully happy, wouldn't you, if--"

"If--" murmured Avery.

He stooped again to kiss her white bosom. "And it would be a bond between us," he said, as if continuing some remark he had not uttered.

She turned more fully to him. "Do we need that?" she said.

"We might--some day," he answered, in a tone that somehow made it impossible for her to protest. "Anyhow, my darling, I knew,--I guessed. And I'm awfully glad--for your sake."

She bent towards him. "Not for your own?" she whispered pleadingly.

He laid his head suddenly down upon her knees with a sound that was almost a groan.

"Piers!" she said in distress.

He was silent for a space, then slowly raised himself. She had a sense of shock at sight of his face. It looked haggard and grey, as if a withering hand had touched him and shorn away his youth.

"Avery,--oh, Avery," he said, "I wish I were a better man!"

It was a cry wrung from his soul--the hungry cry which she had longed to hear, and it sent a great joy through her even though it wrung her own soul also.

She bent to him swiftly. "Dearest, we all feel that sometimes. And I think it is the Hand of God upon us, opening our eyes."

He did not answer or make any response to her words. Only as he clasped her to him, she heard him sigh. And she knew that, strive as he might to silence that soul-craving with earthly things, it would beat on unsatisfied through all. She came nearer to understanding him that night that ever before.

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