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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 9. Holy Ground
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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 9. Holy Ground Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1938

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The Bars Of Iron - Part 3. The Open Heaven - Chapter 9. Holy Ground

PART III. THE OPEN HEAVEN
CHAPTER IX. HOLY GROUND

"They say he will never fight again," said Crowther gravely. "He may live. They think he will live. But he will never be strong."

"If only I might see him!" Avery said.

"Yes, I know. That is the hardest part. But be patient a little longer! So much depends on it. I was told only this morning that any agitation might be fatal. No one seems to understand how it is that he has managed to live at all. He is just hanging on, poor lad,--just hanging on."

"I want to help him," Avery said.

"I know you do. And so you can--if you will. But not by going to him. That would do more harm than good."

"How else can I do anything?" she said. "Surely--surely he wants to see me!"

She was standing in Crowther's room, facing him with that in her eyes that moved him to a great compassion.

He put his hand on her shoulder. "My dear, of course he wants to see you; but there will be no keeping him quiet when he does. He isn't equal to it. He is putting up the biggest fight of his life, and he wants all his strength for it. But you can do your part now if you will. You can go down to Rodding Abbey and make ready to receive him there. And you can send Victor to help me with him as soon as he is able to leave the hospital. He and I will bring him down to you. And if you will be there just in the ordinary way, I think there will be less risk of excitement. Will you do this, Avery? Is it asking too much of you?"

His grey eyes looked straight down into hers with the wide friendliness that was as the open gateway to his soul, and some of the bitter strain of the past few weeks passed from her own as she looked back.

"Nothing would be too much," she said. "I would do anything--anything. But if he should want me--and I were not at hand? If--if--he should--die--" Her voice sank.

Crowther's hand pressed upon her. "He is not going to die," he said stoutly. "He doesn't mean to die. But he will probably have to go slow for the rest of his life. That is where you will be able to help him. His only chance lies in patience. You must teach him to be patient."

Her lips quivered in a smile. "Piers!" she said. "Can you picture it?"

"Yes, I can. Because I know that only patience can have brought him to where he is at present. They say it is nothing short of a miracle, and I believe it. God often works His miracles that way. And I always knew that Piers was great."

Crowther's slow smile appeared, transforming his whole face. He held Avery's hand for a little, and let it go.

"So you will do this, will you?" he said. "I think the boy would be just about pleased to find you there. And you can depend on me to bring him down to you as soon as he is able to bear it."

"You are very good," Avery said. "Yes, I will go."

But, as Crowther knew, in going she accepted the hardest part; and the weeks that she then spent at Rodding Abbey waiting, waiting with a sick anxiety, left upon her a mark which no time could ever erase.

When Crowther's message came to her at last, she was almost too crushed to believe. Everything was in readiness, had been in readiness for weeks. She had prepared in fevered haste, telling herself that any day might bring him. But day had followed day, and the news had always been depressing, first of weakness, fits of pain, terrible collapses, and again difficult recoveries. Not once had she been told that any ground had been gained.

And so when one day a telegram reached her earlier than usual, she hardly dared to open it, so little did she anticipate that the news could be good.

And even when the words stared her in the face: "Bringing Piers this afternoon, Crowther," she could not for awhile believe them, and sought instinctively to read into them some sinister meaning.

How she got through that day, she never afterwards knew. The hours dragged leaden-footed. There was nothing to be done. She would not leave the house lest by some impossible chance he might arrive before the afternoon, but she felt that to stay within its walls was unendurable. So for the most part she paced the terrace, breathing the dank, autumnal air, picturing every phase of his journey, but never daring to picture his arrival, praying piteous, disjointed prayers that only her own soul seemed to hear.

The afternoon began to wane, and dusk came down. A small drifting rain set in with the darkness, but she was not even aware of it till David, very deferential and subdued, came to her and suggested that if she would wait in the hall Sir Piers would see her at once, as he had taken the liberty to turn on all the lights.

She knew that the old man made the suggestion out of the goodness of his heart, and she fell in with it, realizing the wisdom of going within. But when she found herself in the full glare of the great hall, alone with those shining suits of armour that mounted guard on each side of the fireplace, the awful suspense came upon her with a force that nothing could alleviate. She turned with sick loathing from the tea-tray that David had placed for her so comfortingly close to the fire. Every moment that passed was an added torture. It was dark, it was late. The conviction was growing in her heart that when they came at last, they would bring with them only her husband's dead body.

She rose and went to the open door. Where was his spirit now, she wondered? Had he leapt ahead of that empty, travelling shell? Was he already close--close--his arm entwined in hers? She covered her face with her hands. "Oh, Piers, I can't go on alone," she sobbed. "If you are dead--I must die too!"

And then, as though in obedience to a voice that had spoken within her, she raised her head again and gazed forth. The rain had drifted away. Through scudding clouds of darkness there shone, serene and splendid, a single star. Her heart gave a great throb, and was still.

"The Star of Hope!" she murmured wonderingly. "The Star of Hope!"

And in that moment inexplicably yet convincingly she knew that her prayers that had seemed so fruitless had been heard, and that an answer was very near at hand....

There came the sound of a horn from the direction of the lodge. They were coming.

She turned her head and looked down the dark avenue. But she was no longer agitated or distressed by fear. She knew not what might be in store for her, but somehow, mystically, she had been endued with strength to meet it unafraid.

She heard the soft buzz of a high-powered car, and presently two lights appeared at the further end. They came towards her swiftly, almost silently. It was like the swoop of an immense bird. And then in the strong glare shed forth by the hall-lamps she saw the huge body of an ambulance-car, and a Red Cross flared symbolic in the light.

The car came to a stand immediately before her, and for a few moments nothing happened. And still she was not afraid. Still she was as it were guided and sustained and lifted above all turmoil. She seemed to stand on a mountain-top, above the seething misery that had for so long possessed her. She was braced to look upon even Death unshaken, undismayed.

Steadily she moved. She went down to the car. Old David was behind her. He came forward and opened the door with fumbling, quivering hands. She had time to notice his agitation and to be sorry for him.

Then a voice came to her from within, and a great throb went through her of thankfulness, of relief, of joy unspeakable.

"Victor, you old ass, what are you blubbing for? Anyone would think--" A sudden pause, then in a low, eager tone, "Hullo,--Avery?"

The incredulous interrogation of the words cut her to the heart. She went up the step and into the car as if drawn by an irresistible magnetism, seeing neither Crowther nor Victor, aware only of a prone, gaunt figure on a stretcher, white-haired, skeleton-featured, that reached a trembling hand to her and said again, "Hullo!"

For one wild second she felt as if she were in the presence of old Sir Beverley, so striking was the likeness that the drawn, upturned face bore to him. Then Piers' eyes, black as the night, smiled up at her, half-imperious, half-pleading, and the illusion was gone.

She stooped over him, that trembling hand fast clasped in hers; but she could not speak. No words would come.

"Been waiting, what?" he said. "I hope not for long?"

But still she could not speak. She felt choked. It was all so unnatural, so cruelly hard to bear.

"I shan't be like this always," he said. "Afraid I look an awful guy just at present."

That was all then, for Crowther came gently between them; and then he and Victor, with infinite care, lifted the stretcher and bore the master of the house into his own home.

Half an hour later Avery turned from waving a farewell to Crowther, who had insisted upon going back to town with the car that had brought them, and softly shut out the night.

She had had the library turned into a bedroom for Piers, and she crossed the hall to the door with an eagerness that carried her no further. There, gripping the handle, she was stayed.

Within, she could hear Victor moving to and fro, but she listened in vain for her husband's voice, and a great shyness came upon her. She could not ask permission to enter.

Minutes passed while she stood there, minutes of tense listening, during which she scarcely seemed to breathe. Then very suddenly she heard a sound that set every nerve a-quiver--a groan that was more of weariness than pain, but such weariness as made her own heart throb in passionate sympathy.

Almost without knowing it, she turned the handle of the door, and opened it. A moment more, and she was in the room.

He was lying flat in the bed, his dark eyes staring upwards out of deep hollows that had become cruelly distinct. There was dumb endurance in every line of him. His mouth was hard set, the chin firm as granite. And even then in his utter helplessness there was about him a greatness, a mute, unconscious majesty, that caught her by the throat.

She went softly to the bedside.

He turned his head at her coming, not quickly, not with any eagerness of welcome; but with that in his eyes, a slow kindling, that seemed to surround her with the glow of a great warmth.

But when he spoke, it was upon no intimate subject. "Has Crowther gone?" he asked.

His voice was pitched very low. She saw that he spoke with deliberate quietness, as if he were training himself thereto.

"Yes," she made answer. "He wouldn't stay."

"He couldn't," said Piers. "He is going to be ordained tomorrow."

"Oh, is he?" she said in surprise. "He never told me!"

"He wouldn't," said Piers. "He never talks about himself." He moved his hand slightly towards her. "Won't you sit down?"

She glanced round. Victor was advancing behind her with a chair. Piers' eyes followed hers, and an instant later, turning back, she saw his quick frown. He raised his hand and snapped his fingers with the old imperious gesture, pointing to the door; and in a moment Victor, with a smile of peculiar gratification, put down the chair, trotted to it, opened it with a flourish, and was gone.

Avery was left standing by the bed, slightly uncertain, wanting to smile, but wanting much more to cry.

Piers' hand fell heavily. For a few seconds he lay perfectly still, with quickened breathing and drawn brows. Then his fingers patted the edge of the bed. "Sit down, sweetheart!" he said.

It was Piers the boy-lover who spoke to her with those words, and, hearing them, something seemed to give way within her. It was as if a tight band round her heart had suddenly been torn asunder.

She sank down on her knees beside the bed, and hid her face in his pillow. Tears--tears such as she had not shed since the beginning of their bitter estrangement--came welling up from her heart and would not be restrained. She sobbed her very soul out there beside him, subconsciously aware that in that hour his strength was greater than hers.

Like an overwhelming torrent her distress came upon her, caught her tempestuously, swept her utterly from her own control, tossed her hither and thither, flung her at last into a place of deep, deep silence, where, still kneeling with head bowed low, she became conscious, strangely, intimately conscious, of the presence of God.

It held her like a spell, that consciousness. She was as one who kneels before a vision. And even while she knelt there, lost in wonder, there came to her the throbbing gladness of faith renewed, the certainty that all would be well.

Piers' hand was on her head, stroking, caressing, soothing. By no words did he attempt to comfort her. It was strange how little either of them felt the need of words. They were together upon holy ground, and in closer communion each with each than they had ever been before. Those tears of Avery's had washed away the barrier.

Once, some time later, he whispered to her, "I never asked you to forgive me, Avery; but--"

And that was the nearest he ever came to asking her forgiveness. For she stopped the words with her lips on his, and he never thought of uttering them again.


EPILOGUE


Christmas Eve and children's voices singing in the night! Two figures by the open window listening--a man and a woman, hand in hand in the dark!

"Don't let them see us yet!" It was the woman's voice, low but with a deep thrill in it as of full and complete content. "I knew they were coming. Gracie whispered it to me this morning. But I wasn't to tell anyone. She was so afraid their father might forbid it."

The man answered with a faint, derisive laugh that yet had in it an echo of the woman's satisfaction. He did not speak, for already through the winter darkness a single, boyish voice had taken up another verse:


"He comes, the prisoners to release
In Satan's bondage held;
The gates of brass before Him burst,
The iron fetters yield."


The woman's fingers clung fast to his. "Love opens every door," she whispered.

His answering grip was close and strong. But he said nothing while the last triumphant lines were repeated.


"The gates of brass before Him burst,
The iron fetters yield."


The next verse was sung by two voices in harmony, very soft and hushed.


"He comes the broken heart to bind,
The bleeding soul to cure,
And with the treasures of His grace
To bless the humble poor."


Then came a pause, while through the quiet night there floated the sound of distant bells.

"Look!" said Piers suddenly.

And Avery, kneeling beside him, raised her eyes.

There, high above the trees, alone and splendid, there shone a great, quivering star.

His arm slid round her neck. "The Star of Hope, Avery," he whispered. "Yours--and mine."

She clung to him silently, with a closeness that was passionate.

And so the last verse, very clear and strong, came to them out of the night.


"Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
Thy welcome shall proclaim,
And Heaven's eternal arches ring
With Thy beloved Name.
And Heaven's eternal arches ring
With Thy beloved Name."


Avery leaned her head against her husband's shoulder. "I hear an angel singing," she said.

* * * * *

Ten minutes later, Gracie stood in the great hall with the red glow of the fire spreading all about her, her bright eyes surveying the master of the house who lay back in a low easy-chair with his wife kneeling beside him and Caesar the Dalmatian curled up with much complacence at his feet.

"How very comfy you look!" she remarked.

And, "We are comfy," said Piers, with a smile.


(THE END)
Ethel May Dell's Novel: Bars of Iron

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