Ethel M. Dell.

The Bars of Iron online

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From mother's help at the Vicarage to Lady Evesham of Rodding Abbey is a
considerable leap, and she will be scarcely human if it does not turn
her head."

But Mrs. Lorimer merely smiled and said no more. She knew how little
Avery was drawn by pomp and circumstance, but she would not vaunt her
knowledge before one so obviously incapable of understanding. In silence
she let the subject pass.

"And where is the honeymoon to be spent?" enquired Miss Whalley, who was
there to glean information and did not mean to go empty away.

But Mrs. Lorimer shook her head. "Even I don't know that. Piers had a
whim to go just where they fancied. They will call for letters at certain
post-offices on certain days; but he did not want to feel bound to stay
at any particular place. Where they are at the present moment or where
they will spend to-night, I have not the faintest idea. Nobody knows!"

"How extremely odd!" sniffed Miss Whalley. "But young Evesham always was
so ill-balanced and eccentric. Is it true that Dr. Tudor went to the
wedding this morning?"

"Quite true," said Mrs. Lorimer. "I thought it was so kind of him. He
arrived a little late. Avery did not know he was there until it was over.
But he came forward then and shook hands with them both and wished them
happiness. He and young Mr. Guyes, who supported Piers, were the only two
present besides the Eveshams' family solicitor from Wardenhurst and
ourselves. I gave the dear girl away," said Mrs. Lorimer with gentle
pride. "And my dear husband conducted the service so impressively."

"I am sure he would," said Miss Whalley. "But I think it was unfortunate
that so much secrecy was observed. People are so apt to talk
uncharitably. It was really most indiscreet."

Could she have heard the remark which Piers was making at that identical
moment to his bride, she would have understood one of the main reasons
for his indiscretion.

They were sitting in the deep, deep heart of a wood - an enchanted wood
that was heavy with the spring fragrance of the mountain-ash, - and Piers,
the while he peeled a stick with the deftness of boyhood, observed with
much complacence: "Well, we've done that old Whalley chatterbox out of a
treat anyway. Of all the old parish gossips, that woman is the worst. I
never pass her house without seeing her peer over her blind. She always
looks at me with a suspicious, disapproving eye. It's rather a shame, you
know," he wound up pathetically, "for she has only once in her life found
me out, and that was a dozen years ago."

Avery laughed a little. "I don't think she approves of any men except
the clergy."

"Oh yes, she clings like a leech to the skirts of the Church," said Piers
irreverently. "There are plenty of her sort about - wherever there are
parsons, in fact. Of course it's the parsons' fault. If they didn't
encourage 'em they wouldn't be there."

"I don't know that," said Avery, with a smile. "I think you're a little
hard on parsons."

"Do you? Well, I don't know many. The Reverend Stephen is enough for me.
I fight shy of all the rest."

"My dear, how very narrow of you!" said Avery.

He turned to her boyishly. "Don't tell me you want to be a female curate
like the Whalley! I couldn't bear it!"

"I haven't the smallest leaning in that direction," Avery assured him.
"But at the same time, one of my greatest friends is about to enter the
Church, and I do want you to meet and like him."

A sudden silence followed her words. Piers resumed the peeling of his
stick with minute attention. "I am sure to like him if you do," he
remarked, after a moment.

She touched his arm lightly. "Thank you, dear. He is an Australian, and
the very greatest-hearted man I ever met. He stood by me in a time of
great trouble. I don't know what I should have done without him. I hope
he won't feel hurt, but I haven't even told him of my marriage yet."

"We have been married just ten hours," observed Piers, still intent
upon his task.

She laughed again. "Yes, but it is ten days since we became engaged, and
I owe him a letter into the bargain. He wanted to arrange to meet me in
town one day; but he is still too busy to fix a date. He is studying
very hard."

"What's his name?" said Piers.

"Crowther - Edmund Crowther. He has been a farmer for years in
Queensland." Avery, paused a moment. "It was he who broke the news to me
of my husband's death," she said, in a low voice. "I told you about
that, Piers."

"You did," said Piers.

His tone was deliberately repressive, and a little quiver of
disappointment went through Avery. She became silent, and the magic
of the woods closed softly in upon them. Evening was drawing on, and
the long, golden rays of sunshine lay like a benediction over the
quiet earth.

The silence between them grew and expanded into something of a barrier.
From her seat on a fallen tree Avery gazed out before her. She could not
see Piers' face which was bent above the stick which he had begun to
whittle with his knife. He was sitting on the ground at her feet, and
only his black head was visible to her.

Suddenly, almost fiercely, he spoke. "I know Edmund Crowther."

Avery's eyes came down to him in astonishment. "You know him!"

"Yes, I know him." He worked furiously at his stick without looking up.
His words came in quick jerks, as if for some reason he wanted to get
them spoken without delay. "I met him years ago. He did me a good
turn - helped me out of a tight corner. A few weeks ago - when I was at
Monte Carlo with my grandfather - I met him again. He told me then that
he knew you. Of course it was a rum coincidence. Heaven only knows what
makes these things happen. You needn't write to him, I will."

He ceased to speak, and suddenly Avery saw that his hands were
trembling - trembling violently as the hands of a man with an ague. She
watched them silently, wondering at his agitation, till Piers, becoming
aware of her scrutiny, abruptly flung aside the stick upon which he had
been expending so much care and leaped to his feet with a laugh that
sounded oddly strained to her ears.

"Come along!" he said. "If we sit here talking like Darby and Joan much
longer, we shall forget that it's actually our wedding-day."

Avery looked up at him without rising, a queer sense of foreboding at
her heart. "Then Edmund Crowther is a friend of yours," she said. "A
close friend?"

He stood above her, and she saw a very strange look in his eyes - almost a
desperate look.

"Quite a close friend," he said in answer. "But he won't be if you waste
any more thought on him for many days to come. I want your thoughts all
for myself."

Again he laughed, holding out his hands to her with a gesture that
compelled rather than invited. She yielded to his insistence, but with
a curious, hurt feeling as of one repulsed. It was as if he had closed
a door in her face, not violently or in any sense rudely, yet with
such evident intention that she had almost heard the click of the key
in the lock.

Hand in hand they went through the enchanted wood; and for ever after,
the scent of mountain-ash blossom was to Avery a bitter-sweet memory of
that which should have been wholly sweet.

As for Piers, she did not know what was in his mind, though she was
aware for a time of a lack of spontaneity behind his tenderness which
disquieted her vaguely. She felt as if a shadow had fallen upon him,
veiling his inner soul from her sight.

Yet when they sat together in the magic quiet of the spring night in a
garden that had surely been planted for lovers the cloud lifted, and she
saw him again in all the ardour of his love for her. For he poured it
out to her there in the silence, eagerly, burningly, - the worship that
had opened to her the gate of that paradise which she had never more
hoped to tread.

She put her doubts and fears away from her, she answered to his call. He
had awaked the woman's heart in her, and she gave freely, impulsively,
not measuring her gift. If she could not offer him a girl's first
rapture, she could bestow that which was infinitely greater - the deep,
strong love of a woman who had suffered and knew how to endure.

They sat in the dewy garden till in the distant woods the nightingales
began their passion-steeped music, and then - because the ecstasy of the
night was almost more than she could bear - Avery softly freed herself
from her husband's arm and rose.

"Going?" he asked quickly.

He remained seated holding her hand fast locked in his. She looked down
into his upraised face, conscious that her own was in shadow and that she
need not try to hide the tears that had risen inexplicably to her eyes.

"Yes, dear," she answered, with an effort at lightness. "You haven't had
a smoke since dinner. I am going to leave you to have one now."

But he still held her, as if he could not let her go.

She bent to him after a moment with that sweet impulsiveness of hers that
so greatly charmed all who loved her. "What is it, Piers? Don't you want
me to go?"

He caught her other hand in his and held them both against his lips.

"Want you to go!" he muttered almost inarticulately; and then suddenly he
raised his face again to hers. "Avery - Avery, promise me - swear to
me - that, whatever happens, you will never leave me!"

"But, my dearest, haven't I already sworn - only today?" she said,
surprised by his vehemence and his request. "Of course I shall never
leave you. My place is by your side."

"I know! I know!" he said. "But it isn't enough. I want you to promise me
personally, so that - I shall always feel - quite sure of you. You see,
Avery," his words came with difficulty, his upturned face seemed to
beseech her, "I'm not - the sort of impossible, chivalrous knight that
Jeanie thinks me. I'm horribly bad. I sometimes think I've got a devil
inside me. And I've done things - I've done things - " His voice shook
suddenly; he ended abruptly, with heaving breath. "Before I ever met you,
I - wronged you."

He would have let her go then, but it was her hands that held. She
stooped lower to him, divinely tender, her love seeming to spread all
about him like wings, folding him in.

"My dear," she said softly, "whatever there is of bad in you, - remember,
the best is mine!"

He caught at the words. "The best - the best! You shall always have that,
Avery. But, my darling, - you understand - you do understand - how utterly
unworthy that best is of you? You must understand that before - before - "

Again his voice went into silence; but she saw his eyes glow suddenly,
hotly, in the gloom, and her heart gave a quick hard throb that caught
her breath and held it for the moment suspended, waiting.

He went on after a second, mastering himself with obvious effort. "What
I am trying to say is this. It's easier - or at least not impossible - to
forfeit what you've never had. But afterwards - afterwards - " His hands
closed tightly upon hers again; his voice sounded half-choked. "Avery,
I - couldn't let you go - afterwards," he said.

"But, my own Piers," she whispered, "haven't you said that there is no
reason - no earthly reason - "

He broke in upon her almost fiercely. "There is no reason - none
whatever - I swear it! You said yourself that the past was nothing to you.
You meant it, Avery. Say you meant it!"

"But of course I meant it!" she told him. "Only, Piers, there is no
secret chamber in my life that you may not enter. Perhaps some day, dear,
when you come to realize that I am older than Jeanie, you will open all
your doors to me!"

There was pleading in her voice, notwithstanding its note of banter; but
she did not stay to plead. With the whispered words she stooped and
softly kissed him. Then ere he could detain her longer she gently
released herself and was gone.

He saw her light figure flit ghost-like across the dim stretch of grass
and vanish into the shadows. And he started to his feet as if he would
follow or call her back. But he did neither. Be only stood swaying on his
feet with a face of straining impotence - as of a prisoner wrestling
vainly with his iron bars - until she had gone wholly from his sight. And
then with a stifled groan he dropped down again into his chair and
covered his face.

He had paid a heavy price to enter the garden of his desire; but
already he had begun to realize that the fruit he gathered there was
Dead Sea Fruit.



CHAPTER II

THAT WHICH IS HOLY


No bells had rung at the young Squire's wedding. It had been conducted
with a privacy which Miss Whalley described as "almost indecent." But
there was no privacy about his return, and Miss Whalley was shocked
afresh at the brazen heartlessness of it after his recent bereavement.
For Sir Piers and his wife motored home at the end of July through a
village decked with flags and bunting and under a triumphant arch that
made Piers' little two-seater seem absurdly insignificant; while the
bells in the church-tower clanged the noisiest welcome they could
compass, and Gracie - home for the holidays - mustered the school-children
to cheer their hardest as the happy couple passed the schoolhouse gate.

Avery would fain have stopped to greet the child, but Piers would not be
persuaded.

"No, no! To-morrow!" he said. "The honeymoon isn't over till after
to-night."

So they waved and were gone, at a speed which made Miss Whalley wonder
what the local police could be about.

Once past the lodge-gates and Marshall's half-grudging, half-pleased
smile of welcome, the speed was doubled. Piers went like the wind, till
Avery breathlessly cried to him to stop.

"You'll kill us both before we get there!" she protested. In answer to
which Piers moderated the pace, remarking as he did so, "But you would
like to die by my side, what?"

Victor was on the steps to receive them, Victor dancing with impatience
and delight. For his young master's prolonged honeymoon had represented
ten weeks of desolation to him.

Old David was also present, inconspicuous and dignified, waiting to pour
out tea for the travellers.

And Caesar the Dalmatian who had mourned with Victor for his absent deity
now leapt upon him in one great rush of ecstatic welcome that nearly bore
him backwards.

It was a riotous home-coming, for Piers was in boisterous spirits. They
had travelled far that day, but he was in a mood of such restless energy
that he seemed incapable of feeling fatigue.

Avery on her part was thoroughly weary, but she would not tell him so,
and they spent the whole evening in wandering about house and gardens,
discussing the advisability of various alterations and improvements. In
the end Piers awoke suddenly to the fact that she was looking utterly
exhausted, and with swift compunction piloted her to her room.

"What a fool I am!" he declared. "You must be dead beat. Why didn't you
say you wanted to rest?"

"I didn't, dear," she answered simply. "I wanted to be with you."

He caught her hand to his lips. "You are happy with me then?"

She uttered a little laugh that said more than words. "My own boy, you
give me all that the most exacting woman could possibly desire and then
ask me that!"

He laughed too, his arm close about her. "I would give you the world if I
had it. Avery, I hate to think we've come home - that the honeymoon is
over - and the old beastly burdens waiting to be shouldered - " He laid his
forehead against her neck with a gesture that made her fancy he did not
wish her to see his face for the moment. "P'r'aps I'm a heartless brute,
but I never missed the old chap all the time I was away," he whispered.
"It's like being dragged under the scourge again - just when the old scars
were beginning to heal - to come back to this empty barrack."

She slid a quick arm round his neck, all the woman's heart in her
responding to the cry from his.

"The place is full of him," Piers went on; "I meet him at every corner.
I see him in his old place on the settle in the hall, where he used to
wait for me, and - and row me every night for being late." He gave a
broken laugh. "Avery, if it weren't for you, I - I believe I should
shoot myself."

"Come and sit down!" said Avery gently. She drew him to a couch, and
they sat down locked together.

During all the ten weeks of their absence he had scarcely even mentioned
his grandfather. He had been gay and inconsequent, or fiercely passionate
in his devotion to her. But of his loss he had never spoken, and vaguely
she had known that he had shut it out of his life with that other grim
shadow that dwelt behind the locked door she might not open. She had not
deemed him heartless, but she had regretted that deliberate shirking of
his grief. She had known that sooner or later he would have to endure the
scourging of which he spoke and that it would not grow the lighter with
postponement.

And now as she held him against her heart, she was in a sense relieved
that it had come at last, thankful to be there with him while he stripped
himself of all subterfuge and faced his sorrow.

He could not speak much as he sat there clasped in her arms. One or two
attempts he made, and then broke down against her breast. But no words
were needed. Her arms were all he desired for consolation, and if they
waked in him the old wild remorse, he stifled it ere it could take full
possession.

Finally, when the first bitterness had passed, they sat and talked
together, and he found relief in telling her of the life he had lived in
close companionship with the old man.

"We quarrelled a dozen times," he said. "But somehow we could neither of
us keep it up. I don't know why. We were violent enough at times. There's
an Evesham devil somewhere in our ancestry, and he has a trick of
cropping up still in moments of excitement. You've met him more than
once. He's a formidable monster, what?"

"I am not afraid of him," said Avery, with her cheek against his
black head.

He gave a shaky laugh. "You'd fling a bucket of water over Satan himself!
I love you for not being afraid. But I don't know how you manage it, and
that's a fact. Darling, I'm a selfish brute to wear you out like this.
Send me away when you can't stand any more of me!"

"Would you go?" she said, softly stroking his cheek.

He caught her hand again and kissed it hotly, devouringly, in answer.
"But I mustn't wear you out," he said, a moment later, with an odd
wistfulness. "You mustn't let me, Avery."

She drew her hand gently away from the clinging of his lips. "No, I
won't let you," she said, in a tone he did not understand.

He clasped her to him. "It's because I worship you so," he whispered
passionately. "There is no one else in the world but you. I adore you! I
adore you!"

She closed her eyes from the fiery worship that looked forth from his.
"Piers," she said, "wait, dear, wait!"

"Why should I wait?" he demanded almost fiercely.

"Because I ask you. Because - just now - to be loved like that is more than
I can bear. Will you - can you - kiss me only, once, and go?"

He held her in his arms. He gazed long and burningly upon her. In
the end he stopped and with reverence he kissed her. "I am going,
Avery," he said.

She opened her eyes to him. "God bless you, my own Piers!" she murmured
softly, and laid her cheek for a moment against his sleeve ere he took
his arm away.

As for Piers, he went from her as if he feared to trespass, and her heart
smote her a little as she watched him go. But she would not call him
back. She went instead to one of the great bay windows and leaned against
the framework, gazing out. He was very good to her in all things, but
there were times when she felt solitude to be an absolute necessity. His
vitality, his fevered desire for her, wore upon her nerves. His attitude
towards her was not wholly natural. It held something of a menace to her
peace which disquieted her vaguely. She had a feeling that though she
knew herself to be all he wanted in the world, yet she did not succeed in
fully satisfying him. He seemed to be perpetually craving for something
further, as though somewhere deep within him there burned a fiery thirst
that nothing could ever slake. Her lightest touch seemed to awake it, and
there were moments when his unfettered passion made her afraid.

Not for worlds would she have had him know it. Her love for him was too
deep to let her shrink; and she knew that only by that love did she
maintain her ascendancy, appealing to his higher nature as only true love
can appeal. But the perpetual strain of it told upon her, and that night
she felt tired in body and soul.

The great bedroom behind her with its dark hangings and oak furniture
seemed dreary and unhome-like. She viewed the ancient and immense
four-poster with misgiving and wondered if Queen Elizabeth had ever
slept in it.

After a time she investigated Piers' room beyond, and found it less
imposing though curiously stiff and wholly lacking in ordinary
cheery comfort. Later she discovered the reason for this grim
severity of arrangement. No woman's touch had softened it for close
upon half a century.

She went back to her own room and dressed. Piers had wanted her to have a
maid, but she had refused until other changes should be made in the
establishment. There seemed so much to alter that she felt bewildered. A
household of elderly menservants presented a problem with which she knew
she would find it difficult to deal.

She put the matter gently before Piers that night, but he dismissed it
as trivial.

"You can't turn 'em off of course," he said. "But you can have a dozen
women to adjust the balance if you want 'em."

Avery did not, but she was too tired to argue the point. She let the
subject slide.

They dined together in the oak-panelled dining-room where Piers had so
often sat with his grandfather. The table seemed to stretch away
inimitably into shadows, and Avery felt like a Lilliputian. From the wall
directly facing her the last Lady Evesham smiled upon her - her baffling,
mirthless smile that seemed to cover naught but heartache. She found
herself looking up again and again to meet those eyes of mocking
comprehension; and the memory of what Lennox Tudor had once told her
recurred to her. This was Piers' Italian grandmother whose patrician
beauty had descended to him through her scapegrace son.

"Are you looking at that woman with the smile?" said Piers abruptly.

She turned to him. "You are so like her, Piers. But I wouldn't like you
to have a smile like that. There is something tragic behind it."

"We are a tragic family," said Piers sombrely. "As for her, she ruined
her own life and my grandfather's too. She might have been happy enough
with him if she had tried."

"Oh, Piers, I wonder!" Avery said, with a feeling that that smile
revealed more to her than to him.

"I say she might," Piers reiterated, with a touch of impatience. "He
thought the world of her, just as - just as - " he smiled at her
suddenly - "I do of you. He never knew that she wasn't satisfied until one
fine day she left him. She married again - afterwards, and then died. He
never got over it."

But still Avery had a vagrant feeling of pity for the woman who had been
Sir Beverley's bride. "I expect they never really understood each
other," she said.

Piers' dark eyes gleamed. "Do you know what I would have done if I had
been in his place?" he said. "I would have gone after her and brought her
back - even if I'd killed her afterwards."

His voice vibrated on a deep note of savagery. He poured out a glass of
wine with a hand that shook.

Avery said nothing, but through the silence she was conscious of the hard
throbbing of her heart. There was something implacable, something almost
cruel, about Piers at that moment. She felt as if he had bruised her
without knowing it.

And then in his sudden, bewildering way he left his chair and came to
her, stooped boyishly over her. "My darling, you're so awfully pale
to-night. Have some wine - to please me!"

She leaned her head back against his shoulder and closed her eyes. "I am
a little tired, dear; but I don't want any wine. I shall be all right in
the morning."

He laid his cheek against her forehead. "I want you to drink a toast with
me. Won't you?"

"We won't drink to each other," she protested, faintly smiling. "It's
too like drinking to ourselves."

"That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," he declared. "But we
won't toast ourselves. We'll drink to the future, Avery, and - " he
lowered his voice - "and all it contains. What?"

Her eyes opened quickly, but she did not move. "Why do you say that?"

"What?" he said again very softly.

She was silent.

He reached a hand for his own glass. "Drink with me, sweetheart!" he said



Online LibraryEthel M. DellThe Bars of Iron → online text (page 23 of 35)