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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 8. The Release Of The Prisoner
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 8. The Release Of The Prisoner Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :564

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 8. The Release Of The Prisoner

PART III. THE OPEN HEAVEN
CHAPTER VIII. THE RELEASE OF THE PRISONER

How long was it since the fight round the chateau? Piers had no idea. The damp chill of the autumn night was upon him and he was cold to the bone.

It had been a desperate fight in which quarter had been neither asked nor given, hand to hand and face to face, with wild oaths and dreadful laughter. He had not noticed the tumult at the time, but the echoes of it still rang in his ears. A desperate fight against overwhelming odds! For the chateau had been strongly held, and the struggle for it had seemed Titanic, albeit only a detail of a rearguard action. There had been guns there that had harried them all the previous day. It had become a matter of necessity to silence those guns. So the effort had been made, a glorious effort crowned with success. They had mastered the garrison, they had silenced the guns; and then, within an hour of their victory, disaster had come upon them. Great numbers of the enemy had swept suddenly upon them, had surrounded them and swallowed them up.

It was all over now. The tide of battle had swept on. The place was silent as the grave. He was the only man left, flung as it were upon a dust-heap in a corner of the world that had ceased to matter to anyone.

He had lain for hours unconscious till those awful chills had awakened him. Doubtless he had been left for dead among his dead comrades. He wondered why he was not dead. He had a distinct recollection of being shot through the heart. And the bullet had gone out at his back. He vividly remembered that also--the red-hot anguish as it had torn its way through him, the awful emptiness of death that had followed.

How had he escaped--if he had escaped? How had he returned from that great silence? Why had the dread Door shut against him only, imprisoning him here when all the rest had passed through? There seemed to be some mystery about it. He tried to follow it out. Death was no difficult matter. He was convinced of that. Yet somehow Death had eluded him. He was as a man who had lost his way in a fog. Doubtless he would find it again. He did not want to wander alone in this valley of dry bones. He wanted to get free. He was sure that sooner or later that searing, red-hot bullet would do its work.

For a space he drifted back into the vast sea of unconsciousness in which he had been submerged for so long. Even that was bound to lead somewhere. Surely there was no need to worry!

But very soon it ceased to be a calm sea. It grew troubled. It began to toss. He felt himself flung from billow to billow, and the sound of a great storm rose in his ears.

He opened his eyes suddenly wide to a darkness that could be felt, and it was as though a flame of agony went through him, a raging thirst that burned him fiendishly.

Ah! He knew the meaning of that! It was horribly familiar to him. He was back in hell--back in the torture-chamber where he had so often agonized, closed in behind those bars of iron which he had fought so often and so fruitlessly to force asunder.

He stretched out his hands and one of them came into contact with the icy cold of a dead man's face. It was the man who had shot him, and who in his turn had been shot. He shuddered at the touch, shrank into himself. And again the fiery anguish caught him, set him writhing; shrivelled him as parchment is shrivelled in the flame. He went through it, racked with torment, conscious of nought else in all the world, so pierced and possessed by pain that it seemed as if all the suffering that those dead men had missed were concentrated within him. He felt as if it must shatter him, soul and body, dissolve him with its sheer intensity. And yet somehow his straining flesh endured. He came through his inferno, sweating, gasping, with broken prayers and the wrung, bitter crying of smitten strength!

Again the black sea took him, bearing him to and fro, deadening his pain but giving him no rest. He tossed on the troubled waters for interminable ages. He watched a full moon rise blood-red and awful and turn gradually to a whiteness of still more appalling purity. For a long, long time he watched it, trying to recall something which eluded him, chasing a will-o'-the-wisp memory round and round the fevered labyrinths of his brain.

Then at last very suddenly it turned and confronted him. There in the old-world garden that was every moment growing more distinct and definite, he looked once more upon his wife's face in the moonlight, saw her eyes of shrinking horror raised to his, heard her low-spoken words: "I shall never forgive you."

The vision passed, blotted out by returning pain. He buried his head beneath his arms and groaned. . . .

Again--hours after, it seemed,--the great cloud of his agony lifted. He came to himself, feeling deadly sick but no longer gripped by that fiendish torture. He raised himself on his elbows and faced the blinding moonlight. It seemed to pierce him, but he forced himself to meet it. He looked forth over the silent garden.

Strange silhouettes of shrubs weirdly fashioned filled the place. At a little distance he caught the gleam of white marble, and there came to him the tinkle of a fountain. He became aware again of raging thirst--thirst that tore at the very root of his being. He gathered himself together for the greatest effort of his life. The sound of the water mocked him, maddened him. He would drink--he would drink--before he died!

The man at his side lay with face upturned starkly to the moonlight. It gleamed upon eyes that were glazed and sightless. The ground all around them was dark with blood.

Slowly Piers raised himself, feeling his heart pump with the effort, feeling the stiffened wound above it tear and gape asunder. He tried to hold his breath while he moved, but he could not. It came in sharp, painful gasps, sawing its way through his tortured flesh. But in spite of it he managed to lift himself to his hands and knees; and then for a long, long time he dared attempt no more. For he could feel the blood flowing steadily from his wound, and a deadly faintness was upon him against which he needed all his strength to fight.

He thought it must have overwhelmed him for a time at least; yet when it began to lessen he had not sunk down again. He was still propped upon hands and knees--the only living creature in that place of dead men.

He could see them which ever way he looked over the trampled sward--figures huddled or outstretched in the moonlight, all motionless, ashen-faced.

He saw none wounded like himself. Perhaps the wounded had been already collected, perhaps they had crawled to shelter. Or perhaps he was the only one against whom the Door had been closed. He had been left for dead. He had nothing to live for. Yet it seemed that he could not die.

He looked at the man at his side lying wrapt in the aloofness of Death. Poor devil! How horrible he looked, and how indifferent! A sense of shuddering disgust came upon Piers. He wondered if he would die as hideously.

Again the fountain mocked him softly from afar. Again the fiery torment of his thirst awoke. He contemplated attempting to walk, but instinct warned him against the risk of a headlong fall. He began with infinite difficulty to crawl upon hands and knees.

His progress was desperately slow, the suffering it entailed was sometimes unendurable. And always he knew that the blood was draining from him with every foot of ground he covered. But ever that maddening fountain lured him on...

The night had stretched into untold ages. He wondered if in his frequent spells of unconsciousness he had somehow missed many days. He had seen the moon swing half across the sky. He had watched with delirious amusement the dead men rise to bury each other. And he had spent hours in wondering what would happen to the last of them. His head felt oddly light, as if it were full of air, a bubble of prismatic colours that might burst into nothingness at any moment. But his body felt as if it were fettered with a thousand chains. He could hear them clanking as he moved.

But still that fountain with its marble basin seemed the end and aim of his existence. Often he forgot to be thirsty now, but he never forgot that he must reach the fountain before he died.

Sometimes his thirst would come back in burning spasms to urge him on, and he always knew that there was a great reason for perseverance, always felt that if he slackened he would pay a terrible penalty.

The fountain was very far away. He crawled along with ever-increasing difficulty, marking the progress of his own shadow in the strong moonlight. There was something pitiless about the moon. It revealed so much that might have been mercifully veiled.

From the far distance there came the long roll of cannon, shattering the peace of the night, but it was a long way off. In the chateau-garden there was no sound but the tinkle of the fountain and the laboured, spasmodic breathing of a man wounded wellnigh unto death.

Only a few yards separated him now from the running water. It sounded like a fairy laughter, and all the gruesome horrors of the place faded into unreality. Surely it was fed by the stream at home that flowed through the preserves--the stream where the primroses grew!

Only a few more yards! But how damnably difficult it was to cover them! He could hardly drag his weighted limbs along. It was the old game. He knew it well. But how devilish to fetter him so! It had been the ruin of his life. He set his teeth, and forced himself on. He would win through in spite of all.

The moonlight poured dazzlingly upon the white marble basin, and on the figure of a nymph who bent above it, delicately poised like a butterfly about to take wing. He wondered if she would flee at his approach, but she did not. She stood there waiting for him, a thing of infinite daintiness, the one object untouched in that ravaged garden. Perhaps after all it was she and not the fountain that drew him so irresistibly. He had a great longing to hear her speak, but he was afraid to address her lest he should scare her away. She was so slight, so spiritual, so exquisite in her fairy grace. She made him think of Jeanie--little Jeanie who had prayed for his happiness and had not lived to see her prayer fulfilled.

He drew near with a certain stealthiness, fearing to startle her. He would have risen to his feet, but his strength was ebbing fast. He knew he could not.

And then--just ere he reached the marble basin, the goal of that long, bitter journey--he saw her turn a little towards him; he heard her speak.

"Dear Sir Galahad!"

"Jeanie!" he gasped.

She seemed to sway above the gleaming water. Even then--even then--he was not sure of her--till he saw her face of childish purity and the happy smile of greeting in her eyes!

"How very tired you must be!" she said.

"I am, Jeanie! I am!" he groaned in answer. "These chains--these iron bars--I shall never get free!"

He saw her white arms reach out to him. He thought her fingers touched his brow. And he knew quite suddenly that the journey was over, and he could lie down and rest.

Her voice came to him very softly, with a hushing tenderness through the miniature rush and gurgle of the water. As usual she sought to comfort him, but he heard a thrill of triumph as well as sympathy in her words.

"He hath broken the gates of brass," she said. "And smitten the bars of iron in sunder."

His fingers closed upon the edge of the pool. He felt the water splash his face as he sank down; and though he was too spent to drink he thanked God for bringing him thither.

Later it seemed to him that a Divine Presence came through the garden, that Someone stooped and touched him, and lo, his chains were broken and his burden gone! And he roused himself to ask for pardon; which was granted to him ere that Presence passed away.

He never knew exactly what happened after that night in the garden of the ruined chateau. There were a great many happenings, but none of them seemed to concern him very vitally.

He wandered through great spaces of oblivion, intersected with terrible streaks of excruciating pain. During the intervals of this fearful suffering he was acutely conscious, but he invariably forgot everything again when the merciful unconsciousness came back. He knew in a vague way that he lay in a hospital-tent with other dying men, knew when they moved him at last because he could not die, suffered agonies unutterable upon an endless road that never seemed to lead to anywhere, and finally awoke to find that the journey had been over for several days.

He tried very hard not to wake. Waking invariably meant anguish. He longed unspeakably for Death, but Death was denied him. And when someone came and stooped over him and took his nerveless hand, he whispered with closed eyes an earnest request not to be called back.

"It's such--a ghastly business--" he muttered piteously--"this waking."

"Won't you speak to a friend, Piers?" a voice said.

He opened his eyes then. He had not heard his own name for months. He looked up into eyes that gleamed hawk-like through glasses, and a throb of recognition went through his heart.

"You!" he whispered, striving desperately to master the sickening pain that that throb had started.

"All right. Don't speak for a bit!" said Tudor quietly. "I think I can help you."

He did help, working over him steadily, with the utmost gentleness, till the worst of the paroxysm was past.

Piers was pathetically grateful. His high spirit had sunk very low in those days. No one that he could remember had ever done anything to ease his pain before.

"It's been--so infernal," he whispered presently. "You know--I was shot--through the heart."

Tudor's face was very grave. "Yes, you're pretty bad," he said. "But you've pulled through so far. It's in your favour, that. And look here, you must lie flat on your back always. Do you understand? It's about your only chance."

"Of living?" whispered Piers. "But I don't want to live. I want to die."

"Don't be a fool!" said Tudor.

"I'm not a fool. I hate life!" A tremor of passion ran through the words.

Tudor laid a hand upon him. "Piers, if ever any man had anything to live for, you are that man," he said.

"What do you mean?" Piers' eyes, dark as the night through which he had come, looked up at him.

"I mean just that. If you can't live for your own sake, live for hers! She wants you. It'll break her heart if you go out now."

"Great Scott, man! You're not in earnest!" whispered Piers.

"I am in earnest. I know exactly what I am saying. I don't talk at random. She loved you. She wants you. You've lived for yourself all your life. Now--you've got to live for her."

Tudor's voice was low and vehement. A faint sparkle came into Piers' eyes as he heard it.

"By George!" he said softly. "You're rather a brick, what? But haven't you thought--what might happen--if--if I went out after all? You used to be rather great--at getting me out of the way."

"I didn't realize how all-important you were," rejoined Tudor, with a bitter smile. "You needn't go any further in that direction. It leads to a blank wall. You've got to live whether you like it or not. I'm going to do all I can to make you live, and you'll be a hound if you don't back me up."

His eyes looked down upon Piers, dominant and piercingly intent. And--perhaps it was mere physical weakness, or possibly the voluntary yielding of a strong will that was in its own way as great as the strength to which it yielded--Piers surrendered with a meekness such as Tudor had never before witnessed in him.

"All right," he said. "I'll do--my best."

And so oddly they entered into a partnership that had for its sole end and aim the happiness of the woman they loved; and in that partnership their rivalry was forever extinguished.

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