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The Bars Of Iron - Prologue Post by :koalo Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2852

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The Bars Of Iron - Prologue

The Bars of Iron
By Ethel M. Dell
1916

I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO MY BROTHER REGINALD WITH MY LOVE

"He hath broken the gates of brass: And smitten
the bars of iron in sunder." Psalm cvii., 16.

"I saw heaven opened." Revelation xix., II.

 

PROLOGUE

"Fight? I'll fight you with pleasure, but I shall probably kill you if I do. Do you want to be killed?" Brief and contemptuous the question fell. The speaker was a mere lad. He could not have been more than nineteen. But he held himself with the superb British assurance that has its root in the British public school and which, once planted, in certain soils is wholly ineradicable.

The man he faced was considerably his superior in height and build. He also was British, but he had none of the other's careless ease of bearing. He stood like an angry bull, with glaring, bloodshot eyes.

He swore a terrific oath in answer to the scornful enquiry. "I'll break every bone in your body!" he vowed. "You little, sneering bantam, I'll smash your face in! I'll thrash you to a pulp!"

The other threw up his head and laughed. He was sublimely unafraid. But his dark eyes shone red as he flung back the challenge. "All right, you drunken bully! Try!" he said.

They stood in the garish light of a Queensland bar, surrounded by an eager, gaping crowd of farmers, boundary-riders, sheep-shearers, who had come down to this township on the coast on business or pleasure at the end of the shearing season.

None of them knew how the young Englishman came to be among them. He seemed to have entered the drinking-saloon without any very definite object in view, unless he had been spurred thither by a spirit of adventure. And having entered, a boyish interest in the motley crowd, which was evidently new to him, had induced him to remain. He had sat in a corner, keenly observant but wholly unobtrusive, for the greater part of an hour, till in fact the attention of the great bully now confronting him had by some ill-chance been turned in his direction.

The man was three parts drunk, and for some reason, not very comprehensible, he had chosen to resent the presence of this clean-limbed, clean-featured English lad. Possibly he recognized in him a type which for its very cleanness he abhorred. Possibly his sodden brain was stirred by an envy which the Colonials round him were powerless to excite. For he also was British-born. And he still bore traces, albeit they were not very apparent at that moment, of the breed from which he had sprung.

Whatever the cause of his animosity, he had given it full and ready vent. A few coarse expressions aimed in the direction of the young stranger had done their work. The boy had risen to go, with disgust written openly upon his face, and instantly the action had been seized upon by the older man as a cause for offence.

He had not found his victim slow to respond. In fact his challenge had been flung back with an alacrity that had somewhat astonished the bystanders and rendered interference a matter of some difficulty.

But one of them did at this juncture make his voice heard in a word of admonition to the half-tipsy aggressor.

"You had better mind what you do, Samson. There will be a row if that young chap gets hurt."

"Yes, he'd better get out of it," said one or two.

But the young chap in question turned on them with a flash of his white teeth. "Don't you worry yourselves!" he said. "If he wants to fight--let him!"

They muttered uneasily in answer. It was plain that Samson's bull-strength was no allegory to them. But the boy's confidence remained quite unimpaired. He faced his adversary with the lust of battle in his eyes.

"Come on, you slacker!" he said. "I like a good fight. Don't keep me waiting!"

The bystanders began to laugh, and the man they called Samson turned purple with rage. He flung round furiously. "There's a yard at the back," he cried. "We'll settle it there. I'll teach you to use your spurs on me, my young game-cock!"

"Come on then!" said the stranger. "P'r'aps I shall teach you something too! You'll probably be killed, as I said before; but if you'll take the risk I have no objection."

Again the onlookers raised a laugh. They pressed round to see the face of the English boy who was so supremely unafraid. It was a very handsome face, but it was not wholly English. The eyes were too dark and too passionate, the straight brows too black, the features too finely regular. The mouth was mobile, and wayward as a woman's, but the chin might have been modelled in stone--a fighting chin, aggressive, indomitable. There was something of the ancient Roman about the whole cast of his face which, combined with that high British bearing, made him undeniably remarkable. Those who looked at him once generally turned to look again.

One of the spectators--a burly Australian farmer--pushed forward from the throng and touched his arm. "Look here, my son!" he said in an undertone. "You've no business here, and no call to fight whatever. Clear out of it--quick! Savvy? I'll cover your tracks."

The boy drew himself up with a haughty movement. Plainly for the moment he resented the advice. But the next very suddenly he smiled.

"Thanks! Don't trouble! I can hold my own and a bit over. There's no great difficulty in downing a drunken brute like that."

"Don't you be too cock-sure!" the farmer warned him. "He's a heavy weight, and he's licked bigger men than you when he's been in just the state he's in now."

But the English boy only laughed, and turned to follow his adversary.

Every man present pressed after him. A well-sustained fight, though an event of no uncommon occurrence, was a form of entertainment that never failed to attract. They crowded out to the back premises in a body, unhindered by any in authority.

A dingy backyard behind the house furnished ground for the fray. Here the spectators gathered in a ring around an arc of light thrown by a stable-lamp over the door, and the man they called Samson proceeded with savage energy to strip to the waist.

The young stranger's face grew a shade more disdainful as he noted the action. He himself removed coat, waistcoat, and collar, all of which he handed to the farmer who had offered to assist him in making good his escape.

"Just look after these for a minute!" he said.

"You're a cool hand," said the other man admiringly. "I'll see you don't get bullied anyhow."

The young man nodded his thanks. He looked down at his hands and slowly clenched and opened them again.

"Oh, I shan't be bullied," he said, in a tone of grim conviction.

And then the fight began.

It was obvious from the outset that it could not be a very prolonged one. Samson attacked with furious zest. He evidently expected to find his opponent very speedily at his mercy, and he made no attempt to husband his strength. But his blows went wide. The English lad avoided them with an agility that kept him practically unscathed. Had he been a hard hitter, he might have got in several blows himself, but he only landed one or two. His face was set and white as a marble mask in which only the eyes lived--eyes that watched with darting intensity for the chance to close. And when that chance came he took it so suddenly and so unexpectedly that not one of the hard-breathing, silent crowd around him saw exactly how he gained his hold. One moment he was avoiding a smashing, right-handed blow; the next he had his adversary locked in a grip of iron, the while he bent and strained for the mastery.

From then onwards an element that was terrible became apparent in the conflict. From a simple fisticuff it developed into a deadly struggle between skilled strength and strength that was merely brutal. Silently, with heaving, convulsive movements, the two struggling figures swayed to and fro. One of Samson's arms was imprisoned in that unyielding clutch. The other rained blows upon his adversary's head and shoulders that produced no further effect than if they had been bestowed upon cast-iron.

The grip of the boy's arms only grew tighter and tighter with snake-like force, while a dreadful smile came into the young face and became stamped there, engraved in rigid lines. His lower lip was caught between his teeth, and a thin stream of blood ran from it over the smooth, clean-cut chin. It was the only sign he gave that he was putting forth the whole of his strength.

A murmur of surprise that had in it a note of uneasiness began to run through the ring of onlookers. They had seen many a fight before, but never a fight like this. Samson's face had gone from red to purple. His eyes had begun to start. Quite plainly he also was taken by surprise. Desperately, with a streaming forehead, he changed his tactics. He had no skill. Until that day he had relied upon superior strength and weight to bring him victorious through every casual fray; and it had never before failed him. But that merciless, suffocating hold compelled him to abandon offensive measures to effect his escape. He stopped his wild and futile hammering and with his one free hand he grasped the back of his opponent's neck.

The move was practically inevitable, but its effect was such as only one anticipated. That one was his adversary, who slowly bent under his weight as though overcome thereby, shifting his grip lower and lower till it almost looked as if he were about to collapse altogether. But just as the breaking-point seemed to be reached there came a change. He gathered himself together and with gigantic exertion began to straighten his bent muscles. Slowly but irresistibly he heaved his enemy upwards. There came a moment of desperate, confused struggle; and then, as the man lost his balance at last, he relaxed his grip quite suddenly, flinging him headlong over his shoulder.

It was a clean throw, contrived with masterly assurance, the result of deliberate and trained calculation. The bully pitched upon his head on the rough stones of the yard, and turned a complete somersault with the violence of his fall.

A shout of amazement went up from the spectators. This end of the struggle was totally unexpected.

The successful combatant remained standing with the sweat pouring from his face and the blood still running down his chin. He stretched out his arms with a slow, mechanical movement as if to test the condition of his muscles after the tremendous strain he had put upon them. Then, still as it were mechanically, he felt the torn collar-band of his shirt, with speculative fingers. Finally he whizzed round on the heels and stared at the huddled form of his fallen foe.

A shabby little man with thick, sandy eyebrows had gone to his assistance, but he lay quite motionless in a twisted, ungainly attitude. The flare of the lamp was reflected in his glassy, upturned eyes. Dumbly his conqueror stood staring down at him. He seemed to stand above them all in that his moment of dreadful victory.

He spoke at length, and through his voice there ran a curious tremor as of a man a little giddy, a little dazed by immense and appalling height.

"I thought I could do it!" he said. "I--thought I could!"

It was his moment of triumph, of irresistible elation. The devil in him had fought--and conquered.

It swayed him--and passed. He was left white to the lips and suddenly, terribly, afraid.

"What have I done to him?" he asked, and the tremor was gone from his voice; it was level, dead level. "I haven't killed him really, have I?"

No one answered him. They were crowding round the fallen man, stooping over him with awe-struck whispering, straightening the crumpled, inert limbs, trying to place the heavy frame in a natural posture.

The boy pressed forward to look, but abruptly his supporter caught him by the shoulder and pulled him back.

"No, no!" he said in a sharp undertone. "You're no good here. Get out of it! Put on your clothes and--go!"

He spoke urgently. The boy stared at him, suffering the compelling hand. All the fight had gone completely out of him. He was passive with the paralysis of a great horror.

The farmer helped him into his clothes, and himself removed the blood-stain from the lad's dazed face. "Don't be a fool!" he urged. "Pull yourself together and clear out! This thing was an accident. I'll engineer it."

"Accident!" The boy straightened himself sharply with the movement of one brought roughly to his senses. "I suppose the throw broke his neck," he said. "But it was no accident. I did it on purpose. I told him I should probably kill him, but he would have it." He turned and squarely faced the other. "I don't know what I ought to do," he said, speaking more collectedly. "But I'm certainly not going to bolt."

The farmer nodded with brief comprehension. He had the steady eyes of a man accustomed to the wide spaces of the earth. "That's all right," he said, and took him firmly by the arm. "You come with me. My name is Crowther. We'll have a talk outside. There's more room there. You've got to listen to reason. Come!"

He almost dragged the boy away with the words. No one intercepted or spoke a word to delay them. Together they passed back through the empty drinking-saloon--the boy with his colourless face and set lips, the man with his resolute, far-seeing eyes--and so into the dim roadway beyond.

They left the lights of the reeking bar behind. The spacious night closed in upon them.

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