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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 6. The Encounter
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 6. The Encounter Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :608

Click below to download : The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 6. The Encounter (Format : PDF)

The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 6. The Encounter

PART III. THE OPEN HEAVEN
CHAPTER VI. THE ENCOUNTER

Piers was right. When Avery left Stanbury Cliffs she went back to her old life at Rodding Vicarage.

Local gossip regarding her estrangement from her husband had practically exhausted itself some time before, and in any case it would have been swamped by the fevered anxiety that possessed the whole country during those momentous days.

She slipped back into her old niche almost as if she had never left it. Mrs. Lorimer was ill with grief and overwork. It seemed only natural that Avery should take up the burden of her care. Even the Vicar could say nothing against it.

Avery sometimes wondered if Jeanie's death had pierced the armour of his self-complacence at any point. If it had, it was not perceptible; but she did fancy now and then that she detected in him a shade more of consideration for his wife than he had been wont to display. He condescended to bestow upon her a little more of his kindly patronage, and he was certainly less severe in his dealings with the children.

Of the blank in Mrs. Lorimer's life only Avery had any conception, for she shared it with her during every hour of the day. Perhaps her own burden weighed more heavily upon her than ever before at that time, for the anxiety she suffered was sometimes more than she could bear. For Piers had gone from her without a word. Straight from Jeanie's death-bed he had gone, without a single word of explanation or farewell. That she had wounded him deeply, albeit inadvertently, on that last day she knew; but with his arm closely clasping her by Jeanie's bedside she had dared to hope that he had forgiven the wound. Now she felt that it was otherwise. He had gone from her in bitterness of soul, and the barrier between them was such that she could not call him back. More and more the conviction grew upon her that those moments of tenderness had been no more than a part of the game he had summoned her to play for Jeanie's sake. He had called it a hollow bargain. He had declared that for no other reason would he have proposed it to her. And now that the farce was over, he had withdrawn from it. He had said that he had not found it easy. He had called it mere pretence. And now she had begun to think that he meant their separation to be final. If he had uttered one word of farewell, if he had but sent her a line later, she knew that she would have responded in some measure even though the gulf between them remained unbridged. But his utter silence was unassailable. The conviction grew upon her that he no longer desired to bridge the gulf. He meant to accept their estrangement as inevitable. He had left her, and he did not wish to return.

Through the long weary watches of many nights Avery pondered his attitude, and sought in vain for any other explanation. She came at last to believe that the fierce flame of his passion had wholly burnt itself out, consuming all the love he had ever known; and that only ashes remained.

So she could not call him back, and for a time she even shrank from asking news of him. Then one day she met Victor sorrowfully exercising Caesar along the confines of the Park, and stopped him when with a melancholy salute he would have passed her by.

His eyes brightened a little at her action, but he volunteered no information and she decided later that he had obeyed orders in adopting this attitude. With an effort she questioned him. How was it he was not with his master?

He spread out his hands in mournful protest. _Mais Monsieur Pierre had not required his services _depuis longtemps. He was become very independent. But yes, he was engaged upon war work. In the Army? But yes again. Did not _Madame know? And then he became vague and sentimental, bemoaning his own age and consequent inactivity, and finally went away with brimming eyes and the dubiously expressed hope that _le bon Dieu would fight on the right side.

It was all wholly unsatisfactory, and Avery yearned to know more. But the pain of investigating further held her back. If that growing conviction of hers were indeed the truth, she shrank morbidly from seeming to make any advance. No one seemed to know definitely what had become of Piers. She could not bring herself to apply to outsiders for information, and there was no one to take up her case and make enquiries on her behalf. Lennox Tudor had volunteered for service in the Medical Corps and had been accepted. She did not so much as know where he was, though he was declared by Miss Whalley, who knew most things, to be on Salisbury Plain. She sometimes wondered with wry humour if Miss Whalley could have enlightened her as to her husband's whereabouts; but that lady's attitude towards her was invariably expressive of such icy disapproval that she never ventured to put the wonder into words.

And then one afternoon of brilliant autumn she was shopping with Gracie in Wardenhurst, and came face to face with Ina Guyes.

Dick Guyes had gone into the Artillery, and Ina had returned to her father's house. She and Avery had not met since Ina's wedding day more than a year before; but their recognition was mutual and instant.

There was a moment of hesitation on both sides, a difficult moment of intangible reluctance; then Avery held out her hand.

"How do you do?" she said.

Ina took the hand perfunctorily between her fingers and at once relinquished it. She was looking remarkably handsome, Avery thought; but her smile was not conspicuously amiable, and her eyes held something that was very nearly akin to condemnation.

"Quite well, thanks," she said, with her off-hand air of arrogance which had become much more marked since her marriage. "You all right?"

Avery felt herself grow reticent and chilly as she made reply. The girl's eyes of scornful enquiry made her stiffen instinctively. She was prepared to bow and pass on, but for some reason Ina was minded to linger.

"Has Piers come down yet?" she asked abruptly. "I saw him in town two nights ago. I've been up there for a day or two with Dick, but he has rejoined now. It's been embarkation leave. They're off directly."

Off! Avery's heart gave a single hard throb and stood still. She looked at Ina wordlessly. The shop in which they stood suddenly lost all form and sound. It seemed to float round her in nebulous billows.

"Good gracious!" said Ina. "Don't look like that! What's up? Aren't you well? Here, sit down! Or better still, come outside!"

She gripped Avery's arm in a tense, insistent grasp and piloted her to the door.

Avery went, hardly knowing what she did. Ina turned commandingly to Gracie.

"Look here, child! You stay and collect the parcels! I'm going to take Lady Evesham a little way in the car. We'll come back for you in a few minutes."

She had her own way, as she had always had it on every occasion, save one, throughout her life.

When Avery felt her heart begin to beat again, she was lying back in a closed car with Ina seated beside her, very upright, extremely alert.

"Don't speak!" the latter said, as their eyes met. "I'll tell you all I know. Dick and I have been stopping at Marchmont's for the last five days, and one night Piers walked in. Of course we made him join us. He was very thin, but looked quite tough and sunburnt. He is rather magnificent in khaki--like a prince masquerading. I think he talked without ceasing during the whole evening, but he didn't say a single word that I can remember. He expects to go almost any day now. He is in a regiment of Lancers, but I couldn't get any particulars out of him. He didn't choose to be communicative, so of course I left him alone. He is turning white about the temples; did you know?"

Avery braced herself to answer the blunt question. There was something merciless about Ina's straight regard. It pierced her; but oddly she felt no resentment, only a curious sensation of compassionate sympathy.

"Yes, I saw him--some weeks ago," she said.

"You have not decided to separate then? Everyone said you had."

Ina's tone was brutally direct, yet still, strangely, Avery felt no indignation.

"We have not been--friends--for the last year," she said.

"Ah! I thought not. And why? Just because of that story about your first husband's death that Dick's hateful cousin spread about on our wedding-day?"

Ina looked at her with searching, challenging eyes, and Avery felt suddenly as if she were the younger and weaker of the two.

"Was it because of that?" Ina insisted.

"Yes," she admitted.

"And you let such a thing as that come between you and--and--Piers!" There was incredulous amazement in Ina's voice. "You actually had the--the--the presumption!" Coherent words suddenly seemed to fail her, but she went on regardless, not caring how they came. "A man like Piers,--a--a--Triton like that,--such a being as is only turned out once in--in a dozen centuries! Oh, fool! Fool!" She clenched her hands, and beat them impotently upon her lap. "What did it matter what he'd done? He was yours. He worshipped you. And the worship of a man like Piers must be--must be--" She broke off, one hand caught convulsively to her throat; then swallowed hard and rushed on. "You sent him away, did you? You wouldn't live with him any longer? My God! Piers!" Again her throat worked spasmodically, and she controlled it with fierce effort. "He won't stay true to you of course," she said, more quietly. "You don't expect that, do you? You can't care--since you wouldn't stick to him. You've practically forced him into the mire. I sometimes think that one virtuous woman can do more harm in the world than a dozen of the other sort. You've embittered him for life. You've made him suffer horribly. I expect you've suffered too. I hope you have! But your sorrows are not to be compared with his. He has red blood in his veins, but you're too attenuated with goodness to know what real suffering means. You had the whole world in your grasp and you threw it away for a whim, just because you were too small, too contemptibly mean, to understand. You thought you loved him, I daresay. Well, you didn't. Love is a very different thing. Love never casts away. But of course you can't understand that. You are one of those women who keep down all the blinds lest the sunshine should fade their souls. You don't know even the beginnings of Love!"

Passionately she uttered the words, but in a voice pitched so low that Avery only just caught them. And having uttered them almost in the same breath, she took up the speaking-tube and addressed the chauffeur.

Avery sat quite still and silent. She felt as if she had been attacked and completely routed by a creature considerably smaller, but infinitely more virile, more valiant, than herself.

Ina did not speak to her again for several minutes. She threw herself back against the cushion with an oddly petulant gesture, and leaned there staring moodily out.

Then, as they neared their starting-point, she sat up and spoke again with a species of bored indifference. "Of course it's no affair of mine. I don't care two straws how you treat him. But surely you'll try and give him some sort of send-off? I wouldn't let even Dick go without that."

Even Dick! There was a world of revelation in those words. Avery's heart stirred again in pity, and still her indignation slumbered.

They reached the shop before which Gracie was waiting for them, and stopped.

"Good-bye!" Avery said gently.

"Oh, good-bye!" Ina looked at her with eyes half closed. "I won't get out if you don't mind. I must be getting back."

She did not offer her hand, but she did not refuse it when very quietly Avery offered her own. It was not a warm hand-clasp on either side, but neither was it unfriendly.

As she drove away, Ina leaned forward and bowed with an artificial smile on her lips. And Avery saw that she was very pale.

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