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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 7. The Place Of Repentance
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 7. The Place Of Repentance Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1176

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 7. The Place Of Repentance


Like a prince masquerading! How vivid was the picture those words called up to Avery's mind! The regal pose of the body, the turn of the head, the faultless beauty of the features, and over all, that nameless pride of race, arrogant yet wholly unconscious--the stamp of the old Roman patrician, revived from the dust of ages!

Aloof, yet never out of her ken, that picture hung before her all through the night, the centre-piece of every vision that floated through her weary brain. In the morning she awoke to a definite resolve.

He had left her before she could stay him; but she would go to him now. Whether or not he wanted her,--yes, even with the possibility of seeing him turn from her,--she would seek him out. Yet this once more she would offer to him that love and faith which he had so cruelly sullied. If he treated her with cold contempt, she would yet offer to him all that she had--all that she had. Not because she had forgiven him or in any sense forgotten; but because she must; because neither forgiveness nor forgetfulness came into the matter, but only those white hairs above his temples that urged her, that drove her, that compelled her.

There were no white hairs in her own brown tresses. Could it be that he had really suffered more than she? If so, God pity him! God help him!

For the first time since their parting, the prayer for him that rose from her heart kindled within her a glow that burned as fire from the altar. She had prayed. She had prayed. But her prayers had seemed to come back to her from a void immeasurable that held nought but the echoes of her cry.

But now--was it because she was ready to act as well as to pray?--it seemed to her that her appeal had reached the Infinite. And it was then that she began to learn that prayer is not only a passive asking, but the eager straining of every nerve towards fulfilment.

It seemed useless to go to the Abbey for news. She would master her reluctance and go to Crowther. She was sure that he would be in a position to tell her all there was to know.

Mrs. Lorimer warmly applauded the idea. The continued estrangement of the two people whom she loved so dearly was one of her greatest secret sorrows now. She urged Avery to go, shedding tears over the thought of Piers going unspeeded into the awful dangers of war.

So by the middle of the morning Avery was on her way. It seemed to her the longest journey she had ever travelled. She chafed at every pause. And through it all, Ina's fierce words ran in a perpetual refrain through her brain: "Love never casts away--Love never casts away."

She felt as if the girl had ruthlessly let a flood of light in upon her gloom, dazzling her, bewildering her, hurting her with its brilliance. She had forced aside those drawn blinds. She had pierced to the innermost corners. And Avery herself was shocked by that which had been revealed. It had never before been given to her to see her own motives, her own soul, thus. She had not dreamed of the canker of selfishness that lay at the root of all. With shame she remembered her assurance to her husband that her love should never fail him. What of that love now--Love the Invincible that should have shattered the gates of the prison-house and led him forth in triumph?

Reaching town, she drove straight to Crowther's rooms. But she was met with disappointment. Crowther was out. He would be back in the evening, she was told, but probably not before.

Wearily she went down again and out into the seething life of the streets to spend the longest day of her life waiting for his return. Looking back upon that day afterwards, she often wondered how she actually spent the time. To and fro, to and fro, this way and that; now trying to ease her soul by watching the soldiers at drill in the Park, the long, long khaki lines and sunburnt faces; now pacing the edge of the water and seeking distraction in the antics of some water-fowl; now back again in the streets, moving with the crowd, seeing soldiers, soldiers on every hand, scanning each almost mechanically with the vagrant hope of meeting one who moved with a haughty pride of carriage and looked like a prince in disguise. Sometimes she stood to see a whole troop pass by, splendid boys swinging along with laughter and careless singing. She listened to the tramping feet and merry voices with a heart that sank ever lower and lower. She had started the day with a quivering wonder if the end of it might find her in his arms. But ever as the hours passed by the certainty grew upon her that this would not be. She grew sick with the longing to see his face. She ached for the sound of his voice. And deep in the heart of her she knew that this futile yearning was to be her portion for many, many days. For over a year he had waited, and he had waited in vain. Now it was her turn.

It was growing dusk when she went again in search of Crowther. He had not returned, but she could not endure that aimless wandering any longer. She went in to wait for him, there in the room where Piers had found sanctuary during some of the darkest hours of his life.

She was too utterly wearied to move about, but sat sunk in the chair by the window, almost too numbed with misery and fatigue for coherent thought. The dusk deepened about her. The roar of London's life came vaguely from afar. Through it and above it she still seemed to hear the tread of the marching feet as the gallant lines swung by. And still with aching concentration she seemed to be searching for that one beloved face.

What did it matter what he had done? He was hers. He was hers. And, O God, how she wanted him! How gladly in that hour would she have yielded him all--all that she had to offer!

There came a quiet step without, a steady hand on the door. She started up with a wild hope clamouring at her heart. Might he not be there also? It was possible! Surely it was possible!

She took a quick step forward. No conventional word would rise to her lips. They only stiffly uttered the one name, "Piers!"

And Crowther answered her, just as though no interval of more than a year lay between them and the old warm friendship. "He left for the Front today."

With the words he reached her, and she remembered later the sustaining strength with which his hands upheld her when she reeled beneath the blow.

He put her down again in the chair, and knelt beside her, for she clung to him convulsively, scarcely knowing what she did.

"He ought to have let you know," he said. "But he wouldn't be persuaded. I believe--right up to the last--he hoped he would hear something of you. But you know him, his damnable pride,--or was it chivalry this time? On my soul, I scarcely know which. He behaved almost as if he were under an oath not to make the first advance. I am very sorry, Avery. But my hands were tied."

He paused, and she knew that he was waiting for a word from her--of kindness or reproach--some intimation of her feelings towards himself. But she could only utter voicelessly, "I shall never see him again."

He pressed her icy hands close in his own, but he said no word of hope. He seemed to know instinctively that it was not the moment.

"You can write to him," he said. "You can write now--tonight. The letter will reach him in a few days at most. He calls himself Beverley--Private Beverley. Let me give you some tea, and you can sit down and write straight away."

Kindly and practical, he offered her the consolation of immediate action; and the crushing sense of loss began gradually to lose its hold upon her.

"I am going to tell you everything--all I know," he said. "I told him I should do so if you came to me. I only wish you had come a little sooner, but that is beside the point."

Again he paused. Her eyes were upon him, but she said nothing.

Finding her hold had slackened, he got up, lighted a lamp, and sat down with its light streaming across his rugged face.

"I don't know what you have been thinking of me all this time," he said, "if you have stooped to think of me at all."

"I have often thought of you," Avery answered. "But I had a feeling that you--that you--" she hesitated--"that you could scarcely be in sympathy with us both," she ended.

"I see." Crowther's eyes met hers with absolute directness. "But you realize that that was a mistake," he said.

She answered him in the affirmative. Before those straight eyes of his she could not do otherwise.

"I could not express my sympathy with you," he said. "I did not even know that it would be welcome, and I could not interfere without your husband's consent. I was bound by a promise. But--" he smiled faintly--"I told him clearly that if you came to me I should not keep that promise. I should regard it as my release."

"What have you to tell me?" Avery asked.

"Just this," he said. "It isn't a very long story, but I don't think you have heard it before. It's just the story of one of the worst bits of bad luck that ever befell a man. He was only a lad of nineteen, and he went out into the world with all his life before him. He was rich and successful in every way, full of promise, brilliant. There was something so splendid about him that he seemed somehow to belong to a higher planet. He had never known failure or disgrace. But one night an evil fate befell him. He was forced to fight--against his will; and--he killed his man. It was an absolutely unforeseen result. He took heavy odds, and naturally he matched them with all the skill at his command. But it was a fair fight. I testify to that. He took no mean advantage."

Crowther's eyes were gazing beyond Avery. He spoke with a curious deliberation as if he were describing a vision that hung before him.

"He himself was more shocked by the man's death than anyone I have ever seen. He accepted the responsibility at once. There is a lot of nobility at the back of that man's soul. He wanted to give himself up. But I stepped in. I took the law into my own hands. I couldn't stand by and see him ruined. I made him bolt. He went, and I saw no more of him for six years. That ends the first chapter of the story."

He paused, as if for question or comment; but Avery sat in unbroken silence. Her eyes also were fixed as it were upon something very far away.

After a moment, he resumed. "Six years after, I stopped at Monte Carlo on my way home, and I chanced upon him there. He was with his old grandfather, living a life that would have driven most young men crazy with boredom. But--I told you there was something fine about him--he treated the whole thing as a joke, and I saw that he was the apple of the old man's eye. He hailed me as an old friend. He welcomed me back into his life as if I were only associated with pleasant things. But I soon saw that he was not happy. The memory of that tragedy was hanging on him like a millstone. He was trying to drag himself free. But he was like a dog on a chain. He could see his liberty, but he could not reach it. And the fact that he loved a woman, and believed that he had won her love made the burden even heavier. So I gathered, though he had his intervals of reckless happiness when nothing seemed to matter. I didn't know who the woman was at first, but I urged him strongly to tell her the truth before he married her. And then somehow, while we were walking together one night, it came out--that trick of Fate; and in his horror and despair the boy very nearly went under altogether. It was just the fineness of his nature that kept him up."

"And your help," said Avery quietly.

His eyes comprehended her for a moment. "Yes, I did my best," he said. "But it was his own nobility in the main that gave him strength. Have you never noticed that about him? He has the greatness that only comes to most men after years of struggle."

"I have noticed," Avery said, her voice very low.

Crowther went on in his slow, steady way. "Well, after that, I left. And the next thing I knew was that the old man had died, and he was married to you. You didn't let me into the secret very soon, you know." He smiled a little. "Of course I realized that you had gone to him rather suddenly to comfort his loneliness. It was just the sort of thing I should have expected of you. And I thought--too--that he had told you all, and you had loved him well enough to forgive him. It wasn't till I came to see you that I realized that this was not so, and I had been in the house some hours even then before it dawned on me."

Again he spoke as one describing something seen afar.

"Of course I was sorry," he said. "I knew that sooner or later you were bound to come up against it. I couldn't help. I just waited. And as it chanced, I didn't have to wait very long. Piers came to me one night in August, and told me that the whole thing had come out, and that you had refused to live with him any longer. I understood your feelings. It was inevitable that at first you should feel like that. But I knew you loved him. I knew that sooner or later that would make a difference. And I tried to hearten him up. For he--poor lad!--was nearly mad with trouble."

Avery's hands closed tightly upon each other in her lap. She sat in strained silence, still gazing straight before her.

Gently Crowther finished his tale. "That's about all there is to tell, except that from the day he left you to this, he has borne his burden like a man, and he has never once done anything unworthy of you. He is a man, Avery, not a boy any longer. He is a man you can trust, for he will never deceive you again. If he hasn't yet found his place of repentance, it hasn't been for lack of the seeking. If you can send him a line of forgiveness, he will go into this war with a high heart, and you will have reason to be proud of him when you meet again."

He got up and moved in his slow, massive way across the room.

"Now you will let me give you some tea," he said. "I am sure you must be tired."

Had he seen the tears rolling down her face as she sat there? If so he gave no sign. Quietly he busied himself with his preparations, and before he came back to her, she had wiped them away.

He waited upon her with womanly gentleness, and later he went with her to the hotel at which Piers usually stayed, and saw her established there for the night.

It was not till the moment of parting that she found any words in which to express herself.

Then, with her hand in his, she whispered chokingly, "I feel as if--as if--I had failed him--just when he needed me most. He was in prison, and--I left him there."

Crowther's steady eyes looked into hers with kindness that was full of sustaining comfort. "He has broken out of his prison," he said. "Don't fret--don't fret!"

Her lips were quivering painfully. She turned her face aside. "He will scarcely need me now," she said.

"Write and ask him!" said Crowther gently.

She made a piteous gesture of hopelessness. "I have got to find my own place of repentance first," she said.

"It shouldn't wait," said Crowther. "Write tonight!"

And so for half the night Avery sat writing a letter to her husband which he was destined never to receive.

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