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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 3. The Game
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 3. The Game Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :3064

Click below to download : The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 3. The Game (Format : PDF)

The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 3. The Game


Jeanie rallied. As though to comfort Avery's distress, she came back for a little space; but no one--not even her father--could doubt any longer that the poor little mortal life had nearly run out.

"My intervention has come too late, alas!" said Mr. Lorimer.

Which remark was received by Avery in bitter silence.

She had no further fear of being deprived of the child. It was quite out of the question to think of moving her, and she knew that Jeanie was hers for as long as the frail cord of her earthly existence lasted.

She was thankful that the advent of a nurse made it impossible for the Vicar to remain, and she parted from him with almost open relief.

"We must bow to the Supreme Will," he said, with his heavy sigh.

And again Avery was silent.

"I fear you are rebellious," he said with severity.

"Good-bye!" said Avery.

Her heart bled more for Mrs. Lorimer than for herself just then. She knew by instinct that she would not be allowed to come to her child.

The nurse was middle-aged and kindly, and both she and Jeanie liked her from the outset. She took the night duty, and the day was Avery's, a division that pleased them all.

Mr. Lorimer had demurred about having a nurse at all, but Avery had swept the objection aside. Jeanie was in her care, and she would provide all she needed. Mr. Lorimer had conceded the point as gracefully as possible, for it seemed that for once his will could not be regarded as paramount. Of course, as he openly reflected, Lady Evesham was very much in their debt, and it was but natural that she should welcome this opportunity to repay somewhat of their past kindness to her.

So, for the first time in her life, little Jeanie was surrounded with all that she could desire; and very slowly, like a broken flower coaxed back to life, she revived again.

It could scarcely be regarded in the light of an improvement. It was just a fluctuation that deceived neither Avery nor the nurse; but to the former those days were infinitely precious. She clung to them hour by hour, refusing to look ahead to the desolation that was surely coming, cherishing her darling with a passion of devotion that excluded all other griefs.

The long summer days slipped away. June passed like a dream. Jeanie lay in the tiny garden with her face to the sea, gazing forth with eyes that were often heavy and wistful but always ready to smile upon Avery. The holiday-task was put away, not because Mr. Lorimer had remitted it, but because Avery--with rare despotism--had insisted upon removing it from her patient's reach.

"Not till you are better, darling," she said. "That is your biggest duty now, just to get back all the strength you can."

And Jeanie had smiled her wistful, dreamy smile, and submitted.

Avery sometimes wondered if she knew of the great Change that was drawing so rapidly near. If so, it had no terrors for her; and she thanked God that the Vicar was not at hand to terrify the child. The journey from Rodding to Stanbury Cliffs was not an easy one by rail, and parish matters were fortunately claiming his attention very fully just then. As he himself had remarked more than once, he was not the man to permit mere personal matters to interfere with Duty, and many a weak soul depended upon his ministrations.

So Jeanie was left entirely to Avery's motherly care while the golden days slipped by.

With July came heat, intense, oppressive, airless; and Jeanie flagged again. A copper-coloured mist rose every morning over the sea, blotting out the sky-line, veiling the passing ships. Strange voices called through the fog, sirens hooted to one another persistently.

"They are like people who have lost each other," Jeanie said once, and the simile haunted Avery's imagination.

And then one sunny day a pleasure-steamer passed quite near the shore with a band on board. They were playing _The Little Grey Home in the West_, and very oddly Jeanie's eyes filled with sudden tears.

Avery did not take any notice for a few moments, but as the strains died-away over the glassy water, she leaned towards the child.

"My darling, what is it?" she whispered tenderly.

Jeanie's hand found its way into hers. "Oh, don't you ever want Piers?" she murmured wistfully. "I do!"

It was the first time she had spoken his name to Avery since they had left him alone nearly a year before, and almost as soon as she had uttered it she made swift apology.

"Please forgive me, dear Avery! It just slipped out."

"My dear!" Avery said, and kissed her.

There fell a long silence between them. Avery's eyes were on the thick heat-haze that obscured the sky-line. In her brain there sounded again those words that Maxwell Wyndham had spoken so short a time before. "Give her everything she wants! It's all you can do for her now."

But behind those words was something that shrank and quivered like a frightened child. Could she give her this one thing? Could she? Could she?

It would mean the tearing open of a wound that was scarcely closed. It would mean a calling to life of a bitterness that was hardly past. It would mean--it would mean--

"Avery darling!" Softly Jeanie's voice broke through her agitated thoughts.

Avery turned and looked at her,--the frail, sweet face with its shining eyes of love.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," whispered Jeanie. "Don't think any more about it!"

"Do you want him so dreadfully?" Avery said.

Jeanie's eyes were full of tears again. She tried to answer, but her lips quivered. She turned her face aside, and was silent.

The day waxed hotter, became almost insupportable. In the afternoon Jeanie was attacked by breathlessness and coughing, both painful to witness. She could find no rest or comfort, and Avery was in momentary dread of a return of the hemorrhage.

It did not return, but when evening came at length and with it the blessed coolness of approaching night, Jeanie was so exhausted as to be unable to speak above a whisper. She lay white and still, scarcely conscious, only her difficult breathing testifying to the fluttering life that had ebbed so low.

The nurse's face was very grave as she came on duty, but after an interval of steady watching, during which the wind blew in with rising freshness from the sea, she turned to Avery, saying, "I think she will revive."

Avery nodded and slipped away.

There was not much time left. She ran all the way to the post-office and scribbled a message there with trembling fingers.

"Jeanie wants you. Will you come? Avery."

She sent the message to Rodding Abbey. She knew they would forward it from there.

Passing out again into the road, a sudden sense of sickness swept over her. What had she done? What uncontrolled force would that telegram unfetter? Would he come to her like a whirlwind and sweep her back into his own tempestuous life? Would he break her will once more to his? Would he drag her once more through the hell of his passion, kindle afresh for her the flame that had consumed her happiness?

She dared not face the possibility. She felt as if an iron hand had closed upon her, drawing her surely, irresistibly, back towards those gates of brass through which she had escaped into the desert. That fiery torture would be infinitely harder to bear now, and she knew that the fieriest point of it all would be the desperate, aching longing to know again the love that had shone and burnt itself out in the blast-furnace of his sin. He had loved her once; she was sure he had loved her. But that love had died with his boyhood, and it could never rise again. He had trodden it underfoot and her own throbbing heart with it. He had destroyed that which she had always believed to be indestructible.

She never wanted to see him again. She would have given all she had to have avoided the meeting. Her whole being recoiled from the thought of it. And yet--and yet--she saw again the black head laid against her knee, and heard the low, half-rueful words: "Oh, my dear, there is no other woman but you in all the world!"

The vision went with her all through the night. She could not escape it.

In the morning she rose with a sense of being haunted, and a terrible weariness that hung upon her like a chain.

The day was cooler. Jeanie was better. She had had a nice sleep, the nurse said. But there could be no question of allowing her to leave her bed that day.

"You are looking so tired," the nurse said, in her kind way to Avery. "I am not wanting to go off duty till this afternoon. So won't you go and sit down somewhere on the rocks? Please do!"

She was so anxious to gain her point that Avery yielded. She felt too feverishly restless to be a suitable companion for Jeanie just then. She went down to her favourite corner to watch the tide come in. But she could not be still. She paced the shore like a caged creature seeking a way of escape, dreading each turn lest it should bring her face to face with the man she had summoned.

The tide came in and drove her up the beach. She went back not unwillingly, for the suspense had become insupportable.

Had he come? But surely not! She was convinced he would have followed her to the shore if he had.

She entered the tiny hall. It was square, and served them as a sitting-room. Coming in from the glare without, she was momentarily dazzled. And then all suddenly her eyes lighted upon an unaccustomed object, and her heart ceased to beat. A man's tweed cap lay carelessly tossed upon the back of a chair!

She stood quite still, feeling her senses reel, knowing herself to be on the verge of fainting, and clinging with all her strength to her tottering self-control.

Gradually she recovered, felt her heart begin to beat again and the deadly faintness pass. There was a telegram on the table. She took it up, found it addressed to herself, opened it with fumbling fingers.

"Tell Jeanie I am coming to-day. Piers."

It had arrived an hour before, and she was conscious of a vague sense of thankfulness that she had been spared that hour of awful certainty.

A door opened at the top of the stairs. A voice spoke. "I'll come back, my queen. But I've got to pay my respects, you know, to the mistress of the establishment, or she'll be cross. Do you remember the Avery symphony? We'll have it presently."

A light step followed the voice. Already he was on the stairs. He came bounding down to her like an eager boy. For one wild moment she thought he was going to throw his arms about her. But he stopped himself before he reached her.

"I say, how ill you look!" he said.

That was all the greeting he uttered, and in the same moment she saw that the black hair above his forehead was powdered with white. It sent such a shock through her as no word or action of his could have caused.

She stood for a moment gazing at him in stiff inaction. Then, still stiffly, she held out her hand. But she could not utter a word. She felt as if she were going to burst into tears.

He took the hand. His dark eyes interrogated her, but they told her nothing. "It's all right," he said rapidly. "I'm Jeanie's visitor. I shan't forget it. It was decent of you to send. I say, you--you are not really ill, what?"

No, she was not ill. She heard herself telling him so in a voice she did not know. And all the while she felt as if her heart were bleeding, bleeding to death.

He let her hand go, and straightened himself with the old free arrogance of movement. "May I have something to eat?" he said. "Your message only got to me this morning. I was at breakfast, and I had to leave it to catch the train. So I've had practically nothing."

That moved her to activity. She led the way into the little parlour where luncheon had been laid. He sat down at the table, and she waited upon him, almost in silence, yet no longer with embarrassment.

"Aren't you going to join me?" he said.

She sat down also, and took a minute helping of cold chicken.

"I say, you're not going to eat all that!" ejaculated Piers.

She had to laugh a little, though still with that horrified sense of tragedy at her heart.

He laughed too his careless boyish laugh, and in a moment all the electricity of the past few moments had gone out of the atmosphere. He leaned forward unexpectedly and transferred a wing of chicken from his plate to hers.

"Look here, Avery! You must eat. It's absurd. So fire away like a sensible woman!"

There was no tenderness in his tone, but, oddly, she thrilled to its imperiousness, conscious of the old magnetism compelling her. She began to eat in silence.

Piers ate too in his usual quick fashion, glancing at her once or twice but making no further comment.

"Tell me about Jeanie!" he said, finally. "What has brought her to this? Can't we do anything--take her to Switzerland or somewhere?"

Avery shook her head. "Can't you see?" she said, in a low voice.

He frowned upon her abruptly. "I see lots," he said enigmatically. "It's quite hopeless, what? Wyndham told me as much. But--I don't believe in hopeless things."

Avery looked at him, mystified by his tone. "She is dying," she said.

"I don't believe in death either," said Piers, in the tone of one who challenged the world. "And now look here, Avery! Let's make the best of things for the kiddie's sake! She's had a rotten time all her days. Let's give her a decent send-off, what? Let's give her the time of her life before she goes!"

He got up suddenly from his chair and went to the open window.

Avery turned her head to watch him, but for some reason she could not speak.

He went on vehemently, his face turned from her. "In Heaven's name don't let's be sorry! It's such a big thing to go out happy. Let's play the game! I know you can; you were always plucky. Let's give her everything she wants and some over! What, Avery, what? I'm not asking for myself."

She did not know exactly what he was asking, but she did not dare to tell him so. She sat quite silent, feeling her heart quicken, striving desperately to be calm.

He flung round suddenly, and came to her. "Will you do it?" he said.

She raised her eyes to his. She was white to the lips.

He made one of his quick, half-foreign gestures. "Don't!" he said harshly. "You make me feel such a brute. Can't you trust me--can't you pretend to trust me--for Jeanie's sake?" His hand closed fiercely on the back of her chair. He bent towards her. "It's only a hollow bargain. You'll hate it of course. Do you suppose I shall enjoy it any better? Do you suppose I would ask it of you for any reason but this?"

Something in his face or voice pierced her. She felt again that dreadful pain at her heart, as if the blood were draining from it with every beat.

"I don't know what to say to you, Piers," she said at last.

He bit his lip in sheer impatience, but the next moment he controlled himself. "I'm asking a difficult thing of you," he said, forcing his voice to a quiet level. "It isn't particularly easy for me either; perhaps in a sense, it's even harder. But you must have known when you sent for me that something of the kind was inevitable. What you didn't know--possibly--was that Jeanie is grieving badly over our estrangement. She wants to draw us together again. Will you suffer it? Will you play the game with me? It won't be for long."

His eyes looked straight into hers, but they held only a great darkness in which no flicker of light burned. Avery felt as if the gulf between them had widened to a measureless abyss. Once she could have read him like an open book; but now she had not the vaguest clue to his feelings or his motives. He had as it were withdrawn beyond her ken.

"Is it to be only make-believe?" she asked at last.

"Just that," he said, but she thought his voice rang hard as he said it.

An odd little tremor went through her. She put her hand up to her throat. "Piers, I don't know--I am afraid--" She broke off in agitation.

He leaned towards her. "Don't be afraid!" he said. "There is nothing so damning as fear. Shall we go up to her now? I promised I wouldn't be long."

She rose. He was still standing close to her, so close that she felt the warmth of his body, heard the sharp indrawing of his breath.

For one sick second she thought he would snatch her to him; but the second passed and he had not moved.

"Shall we go?" he said again. "And I say, can you put me up? I don't care where I sleep. Any sort of shakedown will do. That sofa--" he glanced towards the one by the window upon which Jeanie had been wont to lie.

"If you like," Avery said.

She felt that the power to refuse him had left her. He would do as he thought fit.

They went upstairs together, and she saw Jeanie's face light up as they entered. Piers was behind. Coming forward, he slipped a confident hand through Avery's arm. She felt his fingers close upon her warningly, checking her slight start; and she knew with an odd mixture of relief and dismay that this was the beginning of the game. She forced herself to smile in answer, and she knew that she succeeded; but it was one of the greatest efforts of her life.

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