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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 9. The Great Gulf
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 9. The Great Gulf Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1750

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 2. The Place Of Torment - Chapter 9. The Great Gulf

PART II. THE PLACE OF TORMENT
CHAPTER IX. THE GREAT GULF

"Hullo!" said Piers. "Has the Queen of all good fairies come to call?"

He strode across the garden with that high, arrogant air of his as of one who challenges the world, and threw himself into the vacant chair by the tea-table at which his wife sat.

The blaze of colour that overspread her pale face at his coming faded as rapidly as it rose. She glanced at him momentarily, under fluttering lids.

"Jeanie has come to stay," she said, her voice very low.

His arm was already round Jeanie who had risen to meet him. He pulled her down upon his knee.

"That is very gracious of her," he said. "Good Heavens, child! You are as light as a feather! Why don't you eat more?"

"I am never hungry," explained Jeanie. She kissed him and then drew herself gently from him, sitting down by his side with innate dignity. "Have you been riding all day?" she asked. "Isn't Pompey tired?"

"Caesar and Pompey are both dead beat," said Piers. "And I--" he looked deliberately at Avery, "--am as fresh as when I started."

Again, as it were in response to that look, her eyelids fluttered; but she did not raise them. Again the colour started and died in her cheeks.

"Have you had anything to eat?" she asked.

"Nothing," said Piers.

He took the cup she offered him, and drained it. There was a fitful gleam in his dark eyes as of a red, smouldering fire.

But Jeanie's soft voice intervening dispelled it. "How very hungry you must be!" she said in a motherly tone. "Will bread and butter and cake be enough for you?"

"Quite enough," said Piers. "Like you, Jeanie, I am not hungry." He handed back his cup to be filled again. "But I have a lively thirst," he said.

"It has been so hot to-day," observed Avery.

"It is never too hot for me," he rejoined. "Hullo! Who's that?"

He was staring towards the house under frowning brows. A figure had just emerged upon the terrace.

"Dr. Tudor!" said Jeanie.

Again Piers' eyes turned upon his wife. He looked at her with a sombre scrutiny. After a moment she lifted her own and resolutely returned the look.

"Won't you go and meet him?" she said.

He rose abruptly, and strode away.

Avery's eyes followed him, watching narrowly as the two men met. Lennox Tudor, she saw, offered his hand, and after the briefest pause, Piers took it. They came back slowly side by side.

Again, unobtrusively, Jeanie rose. Tudor caught sight of her almost before he saw Avery.

"Hullo!" he said. "What are you doing here?"

Jeanie explained with her customary old-fashioned air of responsibility: "I have come to take care of Avery, as she isn't very well."

Tudor's eyes passed instantly and very swiftly to Avery's face. He bent slightly over the hand she gave him.

"A good idea!" he said brusquely. "I hope you will take care of each other."

He joined them at the tea-table, and talked of indifferent things. Piers talked also with that species of almost fierce gaiety with which Avery had become so well acquainted of late. She was relieved that there was no trace of hostility apparent in his manner.

But, notwithstanding this fact, she received a shock of surprise when at the end of a quarter of an hour he got up with a careless: "Come along, my queen! We'll see if Pompey has got the supper he deserves."

Even Tudor looked momentarily astonished, but as he watched Piers saunter away with his arm round Jeanie's thin shoulders his expression changed. He turned to her abruptly. "How are you feeling to-day?" he enquired. "I had to come in and ask."

"It was very kind of you," she answered.

He smiled in his rather grim fashion. "I came more for my own satisfaction than for yours," he observed. "You are better, are you?"

She smiled also. "There is nothing the matter with me, you know."

He gave her a shrewd look through his glasses. "No," he said. "I know."

He said no more at all about her health, nor did he touch upon any other intimate subject, but she had a very distinct impression that he did not cease to observe her closely throughout their desultory conversation. She even tried to divert his attention, but she knew she did not succeed.

He remained with her until they saw Piers and Jeanie returning, and then somewhat suddenly he took his leave. He joined the two on the lawn, sent Jeanie back to her, and walked away himself with his host.

What passed between them she did not know and could not even conjecture, for she did not see Piers again till they met in the hall before dinner. Jeanie was with her, looking delicately pretty in her white muslin frock, and it was to her that Piers addressed himself.

"Come here, my queen! I want to look at you."

She went to him readily enough. He took her by the shoulders.

"Are you made of air, I wonder? I should be ashamed of you, Jeanie, if you belonged to me."

Jeanie looked up into the handsome, olive face with eyes that smiled love upon him. "I expect it's partly because you are so big and strong," she said.

"No, it isn't," said Piers. "It's because you're so small and weak. Avery will have to take you away to the sea again, what? You'd like that."

"And you too!" said Jeanie.

"I? Oh no, you wouldn't want me. Would you, Avery?"

He deliberately addressed her for the first time that day. Over the child's head his eyes flashed their mocking message. She felt as if he had struck her across the face.

"Would you?" he repeated, with arrogant insistence.

She tried to turn the question aside. "Well, as we are not going--"

"But you are going," he said. "You and Jeanie. How soon can you start? To-morrow?"

Avery looked at him in astonishment. "Are you in earnest?"

"Of course I'm in earnest," he said, with a frown that was oddly boyish. "You had better go to Stanbury Cliffs. It suited you all right in the spring. Fix it up with Mrs. Lorimer first thing in the morning, and go down in the afternoon!"

He spoke impatiently. Opposition or delay always set him chafing.

Jeanie looked at him with wonder in her eyes. "But you, Piers!" she said. "What will you do?"

"I? Oh, I shall be busy," he said. "I've got a lot on hand just now. Besides," again the gibing note was in his voice, "you'll get along much better without me. Avery says so."

"She didn't!" exclaimed Jeanie, with a sudden rare touch of indignation.

"All right. She didn't," laughed Piers. "My mistake!" He flicked the child's cheek teasingly, and then abruptly stooped and kissed it. "Don't be angry, Queen of the fairies! It isn't worth it."

She slipped her arm round his neck on the instant. "I'm not, dear Piers. I'm not angry. But we shouldn't want to go away and leave you alone. We shouldn't really."

He laughed again, carelessly, without effort. "No, but you'd get on all right without me. You and Avery are such pals. What do you say to it, Avery? Isn't it a good idea?"

"I think perhaps it is," she said slowly, her voice very low.

He straightened himself, and looked at her, and again that vivid, painful blush covered her face and neck as though a flame had scorched her. She did not meet his eyes.

"Very well then. It's settled," he said jauntily. "Now let's go and have some dinner!"

He kept up his light attitude throughout the meal, save that once he raised his wine-glass mockingly to the woman on the wall. But his mood was elusive. Avery felt it. It was as if he played a juggling game on the edge of the pit of destruction, and she watched him with a leaden heart.

She rose from the table earlier than usual, for the atmosphere of the dining-room oppressed her almost unbearably. It was a night of heavy stillness.

"You ought to go to bed, dear," she said to Jeanie.

"Oh, must I?" said Jeanie wistfully. "I never sleep much on these hot nights. One can't breath so well lying down."

Avery looked at her with quick anxiety, but she had turned to Piers and was leaning against him with a gentle coaxing air.

"Please, dear Piers, would it tire you to play to us?" she begged.

He looked down at her for a moment as if he would refuse; then very gently he laid his hand on her head, pressing back the heavy, clustering hair from her forehead to look into her soft eyes.

"What do you want me to play?" he said.

She made a wide gesture of the hands and let them fall. "Something big," she said. "Something to take to bed with us and give us happy dreams."

His lips--those mobile, sensitive lips--curved in a smile that made Avery avert her eyes with a sudden hot pang. He released Jeanie, and turned away to the door.

"I'll see what I can do," he said. "You had better go into the garden--you and Avery."

They went, though Jeanie looked as if she would have preferred to accompany him to the music-room. It was little cooler on the terrace than in the house. The heat brooded over all, dense, black, threatening.

"I hope it will rain soon," said Jeanie, drawing her chair close to Avery's.

"There will be a storm when it does," Avery said.

"I like storms, don't you?" said Jeanie.

Avery shook her head. "No, dear."

She was listening in tense expectancy, waiting with a dread that was almost insupportable for the music that Piers was about to make. They were close to the open French window of the music-room, but there was no light within. Piers was evidently sitting there silent in the darkness. Her pulses were beating violently. Why did he sit so still? Why was there no sound?

A flash of lightning quivered above the tree-tops and was gone. Jeanie drew in her breath, saying no word. Avery shrank and closed her eyes. She could hear her heart beating audibly, like the throbbing of a distant drum. The suspense was terrible.

There came from far away the growl and mutter of the rising storm. The leaves of the garden began to tremble. And then, ere that roll of distant thunder had died away, another sound came through the darkness--a sound that was almost terrifying in its suddenness, and the grand piano began to speak.

What music it uttered, Avery knew not. It was such as she had never heard before. It was unearthly, it was devilish, a fiendish chorus that was like the laughter of a thousand demons--a pandemonium that shocked her unutterably.

Just as once he had drawn aside for her the veil that shrouded the Holy Place, so now he rent open the gates of hell and showed her the horrors of the prison-house, forcing her to look upon them, forcing her to understand.

She clung to Jeanie's hand in nightmare fear. The anguish of the revelation was almost unendurable. She felt as if he had caught her quivering soul and was thrusting it into an inferno from which it could never rise again. Through and above that awful laughter she seemed to hear the crackling of the flames, to feel the blistering heat that had consumed so many, to see the red glare of the furnace gaping wide before her.

She cried out without knowing it, and covered her face. "O God," she prayed wildly, "save us from this! Save us! Save us!"

The man at the piano could not have heard her cry. Of that she was certain. But their souls were in more subtle communion than any established by bodily word or touch. He must have known, have fathomed her anguish. For quite suddenly, as if a restraining hand had been laid upon him, he checked that dread torrent of sound. A few bitter chords, a few stray notes that somehow spoke to her of a spirit escaped and wandering alone and naked in a desert of indescribable emptiness, and then silence--a crushing, fearful silence like the ashes of a burnt-out fire.

"And in hell he lift up his eyes." ... Why did those words flash through her brain as though a voice had uttered them? She bowed her head lower, lower, barely conscious of Jeanie's enfolding arms. She was as one in the presence of a vision, hearing words that were spoken to her alone.

"And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments...."

She waited quivering. Surely there was more to come. She listened for it even while she shrank in every nerve.

It came at length slowly, heavily, like a death-sentence uttered within her. "Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."

The words were spoken, the vision passed. Avery sat huddled in her chair as one stricken to the earth, rapt in a trance of dread foreboding from which Jeanie was powerless to rouse her.

The lightning flashed again, and the thunder crashed above them like the clanging of brazen gates. From the room behind them came the sound of a man's laugh, but it was a laugh that chilled her to the soul.

Again there came the sound of the piano,--a tremendous chord, then a slow-swelling volume of harmony, a muffled burst of music like the coming of a great procession still far away.

Avery sprang upright as one galvanized into action by an electric force. "I cannot bear it!" she cried aloud, "I cannot bear it!"

She almost thrust Jeanie from her. "Oh, go, child, go! Tell him--tell him--" Her voice broke, went into a gasping utterance more painful than speech, finally dropped into hysterical sobbing.

Jeanie sprang into the dark room with a cry of, "Piers, oh, Piers!"--and the music stopped, went out utterly as flame extinguished in water.

"What's the matter?" said Piers.

His voice sounded oddly defiant, almost savage. But Jeanie was too precipitate to notice it.

"Oh, please, will you go to Avery?" she begged breathlessly. "I think she is frightened at the storm."

Piers left the piano with a single, lithe movement that carried him to the window in a second. He passed Jeanie and was out on the terrace almost in one bound.

He discerned Avery on the instant, as she discerned him. A vivid flash of lightning lit them both, lit the whole scene, turned the night into sudden, glaring day. Before the thunder crashed above them he had caught her to him. They stood locked in the darkness while the great reverberations rolled over their heads, and as he held her he felt the wild beating of her heart against his own.

She had not resisted him, she did not resist him. She even convulsively clung to him. But her whole body was tense against his, tense and quivering like a stretched wire.

As the last of the thunder died, she raised her head and spoke.

"Piers, haven't you tortured me enough?"

He did not speak in answer. Only she heard his breath indrawn sharply as though he checked some headlong word or impulse.

She stifled a great sob that took her unawares, and even as she did so she felt his arms slacken. He set her free.

"There is nothing to be afraid of," he said. "Better come indoors before the rain begins."

They went within, Jeanie pressing close to Avery in tender solicitude.

They turned on the lights, but throughout the frightful storm that followed, Piers leaned against the window-frame sombrely watching.

Avery sat on a sofa with Jeanie, her throbbing head leaning against the cushions, her eyes closed.

Nearly half an hour passed thus, then the storm rolled sullenly away; and at last Piers turned.

As though his look pierced her, Avery's eyes opened. She looked back at him, white as death, waiting for him to speak.

"Hadn't you better send Jeanie to bed?" he said.

Jeanie rose obediently. "Good-night, dear Avery."

Avery sat up. Her hand was pressed hard upon her heart. "I am coming with you," she said.

Piers crossed the room to the door. He held it open for them.

Jeanie lifted her face for his kiss. An unaccustomed shyness seemed to have descended upon her. "Good-night," she whispered.

He bent to her. "Good-night, Jeanie!"

Her arms were round his neck in a moment. "Piers, thank you for your music, but--but--"

"Good-night, dear!" said Piers again gently, but with obvious decision.

"Good-night!" said Jeanie at once.

She would have passed out instantly, but Avery paused, detaining her.

Her eyes were raised steadily to her husband's face. "I will say good-night, too," she said. "I am spending the night with Jeanie. She is not used to sleeping alone, and--the storm may come back."

She was white to the lips as she said it. She looked as if she would faint.

"Oh, but--" began Jeanie, "I don't mind really. I--"

With a brief, imperious gesture Piers silenced her for the second time. He looked over her head, straight into Avery's eyes for a long, long second.

Then: "So be it!" he said, and with ironical ceremony he bowed her out.

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