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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 7. The Gates Of Hell
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 7. The Gates Of Hell Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1028

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 7. The Gates Of Hell

PART II. THE PLACE OF TORMENT CHAPTER VII. THE GATES OF HELL

Up and down, up and down, in a fever of restlessness, Avery walked. She felt trapped. The gloomy, tapestried room seemed to close her in like a prison. The whole world seemed to have turned into a monstrous place of punishment. One thing only was needed to complete the anguish of her spirit, and that was the presence of her husband.

She could not picture the meeting with him. Body and soul recoiled from the thought. It would not be till the morning; that was her sole comfort. By the morning this fiery suffering would have somewhat abated. She would be calmer, more able to face him and hear his defence--if defence there could be. Somehow she never questioned the truth of the story. She knew that Tudor had not questioned it either. She knew moreover that had it been untrue, Piers would have been with her long ago in vehement indignation and wrath.

No, the thing was true. He was the man who had wrecked her life at its beginning, and now--now he had wrecked it again. He was the man whose hands were stained with her husband's blood. He had done the deed in one of those wild tempests of anger with which she was so familiar. He had done the deed, possibly unintentionally, but certainly with murderous impulse; and then deliberately cynically, he had covered it up, and gone his arrogant way.

He had met her, he had desired her; with a few, quickly-stifled qualms he had won her, trusting to luck that his sin would never find him out. And so he had made her his own, his property, his prisoner, the slave of his pleasure. She was bound for ever to her husband's murderer.

Again body and soul shrank in quivering horror from the thought, and a wild revolt awoke within her. She could not bear it. She must break free. The bare memory of his passion sickened her. For the first time in her life hatred, fiery, intense, kindled within her. The thought of his touch filled her with a loathing unutterable. He had become horrible to her, a thing unclean, abominable, whose very proximity was pollution. She felt as if the blood on his hands had stained her also--the blood of the man she had once loved. For a space she became like a woman demented. The thing was too abhorrent to be endured.

And then by slow degrees her brain began to clear again. She grew a little calmer. Monstrous though he was, he was still human. He was, in a fashion, at her mercy. He had sinned, but it was in her hands that his punishment lay.

She was stronger than he. She had always known it. But she must keep her strength. She must not waste it in futile resentment. She would need it all. He had entered her kingdom by subtlety; but she would drive him forth in the strength of a righteous indignation. To suffer him to remain was unthinkable. It would be to share his guilt.

Her thoughts tried to wander into the future, but she called them resolutely back. The future would provide for itself. Her immediate duty was all she now needed to face. When that dreaded interview was over, when she had shut him out finally and completely then it would be time enough to consider that. Probably some arrangement would have to be made by which they would meet occasionally, but as husband and wife--never, never more.

It was growing late. The dinner-gong had sounded, but she would not go down. She rang for Victor, and told him to bring her something on a tray. It did not matter what.

He looked at her with keen little eyes of solicitude, and swiftly obeyed her desire. He then asked her if the dinner were to be kept for _Monsieur Pierre_, who had not yet returned. She did not know what to say, but lest he should wonder at her ignorance of Piers' doings, she answered in the negative, and Victor withdrew.

Then, again lest comment should be made, she forced herself to eat and drink, though the food nauseated her. A feeling of sick suspense was growing upon her, a strange, foreboding fear that hung leaden about her heart. What was Piers doing all this time? What effect had that message, delivered by Tudor, had upon him? Why had he not returned?

Time passed. The evening waned and became night. A full moon rose red and wonderful out of a bank of inky cloud, lighting the darkness with an oddly tropical effect. The night was tropical, breathless, terribly still. It seemed as if a storm must be upon its way.

She began to undress at last there in the moonlight. The heat was too intense to veil the windows, and she would not light the candles lest bats or moths should be attracted. At another time the eerieness of the shadowy room would have played upon her nerves, but to-night she was not even aware of it. The shadows within were too dark, too sinister.

A great weariness had come upon her. She ached for rest. Her body felt leaden, and her brain like a burnt-out furnace. The very capacity for thought seemed to have left her. Only the horror of the day loomed gigantic whichever way she turned, blotting out all beside. Prayer was an impossibility to her. She felt lost in a wilderness of doubt, forsaken and wandering, and terribly alone.

If she could rest, if she could sleep, she thought that strength might return to her--the strength to grapple with and overthrow the evil that had entered into and tainted her whole life. But till sleep should come to her, she was impotent. She was heavy and numb with fatigue.

She lay down at length with a vague sense of physical relief beneath her crushing weight of trouble. How unutterably weary she was! How tired--how tired of life!

Time passed. The moon rose higher, filling the room with its weird cold light. Avery lay asleep.

Exhaustion had done for her what no effort of will could have accomplished, closing her eyes, drawing a soft veil of oblivion across her misery.

But it was only a temporary lull. The senses were too alert, too fevered, for true repose. That blessed interval of unconsciousness was all too short. After a brief, brief respite she began to dream.

And in her dream she saw a man being tortured in a burning, fiery furnace, imprisoned behind bars of iron, writhing, wrestling, agonizing, to be free. She saw the flames leaping all around him, and in the flames were demon-faces that laughed and gibed and jested. She saw his hands all blistered in the heat, reaching out to her, straining through those cruel bars, beseeching her vainly for deliverance. And presently, gazing with a sick horror that compelled, she saw his face....

With a gasping cry she awoke, started up with every nerve stretched and quivering, her heart pounding as if it would choke her. It was a dream--it was a dream! She whispered it to herself over and over again, striving to control those awful palpitations. Surely it was all a dream!

Stay! What was that? A sound in the room beyond--a movement--a step! She sprang up, obeying blind impulse, sped softly to the intervening door, with hands that trembled shot the bolt. Then, like a hunted creature, almost distracted by the panic of her dream, she slipped back to the gloomy four-poster, and cowered down again.

Lying there, crouched and quivering, she began to count those hammering heart-beats, and wondered wildly if the man on the other side of the door could hear them also. She was sure that he had been there, sure that he had been on the point of entering when she had shot the bolt.

He would not enter now, she whispered to her quaking heart. She would not have to meet him before the morning. And by then she would be strong. It was only her weariness that made her so weak to-night!

She grew calmer. She began to chide herself for her senseless panic--she the bearer of other people's burdens, who prided herself upon her steady nerve and calmness of purpose. She had never been hysterical in her life before. Surely she could muster self-control now, when her need of it was so urgent, so imperative.

And then, just as a certain measure of composure had returned to her, something happened. Someone passed down the passage outside her room and paused at the outer door. Her heart stood still, but again desperately she steadied herself. That door was bolted also.

Yes, it was bolted, but there was a hand upon it,--a hand that felt softly for the lock, found the key outside, softly turned it.

Then indeed panic came upon Avery. Lying there, tense and listening, she heard the quiet step return along the passage and enter her husband's room, heard that door also close and lock, and knew herself a prisoner.

"Avery!"

Every pulse leapt, every nerve shrank. She started up, wide-eyed, desperate.

"I will talk to you in the morning, Piers," she said, steadying her voice with difficulty. "Not now! Not now!"

"Open this door!" he said.

There was dear command in his voice, and with it the old magnetic force reached her, quick, insistent, vital. She threw a wild look round, but only the dazzling moonlight met her eyes. There was no escape for her--no escape.

She turned her face to the door behind which he stood. "Piers, please, not to-night!" she said beseechingly.

"Open the door!" he repeated inexorably.

Again that force reached her. It was like an electric current suddenly injected into her veins. Her whole body quivered in response. Almost before she knew it, she had started to obey.

And then horror seized her--a dread unutterable. She stopped.

"Piers, will you promise--"

"I promise nothing," he said, in the same clear, imperious voice, "except to force this door unless you open it within five seconds."

She stood in the moonlight, trembling, unnerved. He did not sound like a man bereft of reason. And yet--and yet--something in his voice appalled her. Her strength was utterly gone. She was just a weak, terrified woman.

"Avery," his voice came to her again, short and stern, "I don't wish to threaten you; but it will be better for us both if I don't have to force the door."

She forced herself to speak though her tongue felt stiff and dry. "I can't let you in now," she said. "I will hear what you have to say in the morning."

He made no reply. There was an instant of dead silence. Then there came a sudden, hideous shock against the panel of the door. The socket of the bolt gave with the strain, but did not wholly yield. Avery shrank back trembling against the shadowy four-poster. She felt as if a raging animal were trying to force an entrance.

Again came that awful shock. The wood splintered and rent, socket and bolt were torn free; the door burst inwards.

There came a brief, fiendish laugh, and Piers broke in upon her.

He recovered himself with a sharp effort, and stood breathing heavily, looking at her. The moonlight was full upon him, showing him deadly pale, and in his eyes there shone the red glare of hell.

"Did you really think--a locked door--would keep me out?" he said, speaking with an odd jerkiness, with lips that twitched.

She drew herself together with an instinctive effort at self-control. "I thought you would respect my wish," she said, her voice very low.

"Did you?" said Piers. "Then why did you lock the door?"

He swung it closed behind him and came to her.

"Listen to me, Avery!" he said. "You are not your own any longer--to give or to take away. You are mine."

She faced him with all the strength she could muster, but she could not meet those awful eyes that mocked her, that devoured her.

"Piers," she said, almost under her breath, "remember,--what happens to-night we shall neither of us ever forget. Don't make me hate you!"

"Haven't you begun to hate me then?" he demanded. "Would you have locked that door against me if you hadn't?"

She heard the rising passion in his voice, and her heart fainted within her. Yet still desperately she strove for strength.

"I don't want to do anything violent or unconsidered. I must have time to think. Piers, you have me at your mercy. Be merciful!"

He made a sharp movement. "Are you going to be merciful to me?" he said.

She hesitated. There was something brutal in the question, yet it pierced her. She knew that he had divined all that had been passing within her during that evening of misery. She did not answer him, for she could not.

"Listen!" he said again. "What has happened has happened by sheer ill-luck. The past is nothing to you. You have said so yourself. The future shall not be sacrificed to it. If you will give me your solemn promise to put this thing behind you, to behave as if it had never been, I will respect your wishes, I will do my utmost to help you to forget. But if you refuse--" He stopped.

"If I refuse--" she repeated faintly.

He made again that curious gesture that was almost one of helplessness. "Don't ask for mercy!" he said.

In the silence that followed there came to her the certain knowledge that he was suffering, that he was in an inferno of torment that goaded him into fierce savagery against her, like a mad animal that will wreak its madness first upon the being most beloved. It was out of his torment that he did this thing. She saw him again agonizing in the flames.

If he had had patience then, that divine pity of hers might have come to help them both; but he read into her silence the abhorrence which a little earlier had possessed her soul; and the maddening pain of it drove him beyond all bounds.

He seized her suddenly and savagely between his hands. "Are you any the less my wife," he said, speaking between his teeth, "because you have found out what manner of man I am?"

She resisted him, swiftly, instinctively, her hands against his breast, pressing him back. "I may be your wife," she said gaspingly. "I am not--your slave."

He laughed a fiendish laugh. Her resistance fired him. He caught her fiercely to him. He covered her face, her throat, her arms, her hands, with kisses that burned her through and through, seeming to sear her very soul.

He crushed her in a grip that bruised her, that suffocated her. He pressed his lips, hot with passion, to hers.

"And now!" he said. "And now!"

She lay in his arms spent and quivering and helpless. The cruel triumph of his voice silenced all appeal.

He went on deeply, speaking with his lips so close that she felt his breath scorch through her like the breath of a fiery furnace.

"You are bound to me for better--for worse, and nothing will ever set you free. Do you understand? If you will not be my wife, you shall be--my slave."

Quiveringly, through lips that would scarcely move she spoke at last. "I shall never forgive you."

"I shall never ask your forgiveness," he said.

So the gates of hell closed upon Avery also. She went down into the unknown depths. And in an agony of shame she learned the bitterest lesson of her life.

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