Infomotions, Inc.The Bars of Iron / Dell, Ethel M. (Ethel May), 1881-1939



Author: Dell, Ethel M. (Ethel May), 1881-1939
Title: The Bars of Iron
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): avery; piers; crowther; jeanie; beverley; lorimer; miss whalley
Contributor(s): Halsey, Francis W. (Francis Whiting), 1851-1919 [Editor]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 154,050 words (average) Grade range: 5-8 (grade school) Readability score: 75 (easy)
Identifier: etext10509
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Title: The Bars of Iron

Author: Ethel May Dell

Release Date: December 20, 2003  [eBook #10509]

Language: English

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***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE BARS OF IRON***


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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


PART I

THE GATES OP BRASS


CHAPTER

       I.  A JUG OF WATER

      II.  CONCERNING FOOLS

     III.  DISCIPLINE

      IV.  THE MOTHER'S HELP

       V.  LIFE ON A CHAIN

      VI.  THE RACE

     VII.  A FRIEND IN NEED

    VIII.  A TALK BY THE FIRE

      IX.  THE TICKET OF LEAVE

       X.  SPORT

      XI.  THE STAR OF HOPE

     XII.  A PAIR OF GLOVES

    XIII.  THE VISION

     XIV.  A MAN'S CONFIDENCE

      XV.  THE SCHEME

     XVI.  THE WARNING

    XVII.  THE PLACE OF TORMENT

   XVIII.  HORNS AND HOOFS

     XIX.  THE DAY OF TROUBLE

      XX.  THE STRAIGHT TRUTH

     XXI.  THE ENCHANTED LAND

    XXII.  THE COMING OF A FRIEND

   XXIII.  A FRIEND'S COUNSEL

    XXIV.  THE PROMISE

     XXV.  DROSS

    XXVI.  SUBSTANCE

   XXVII.  SHADOW

  XXVIII.  THE EVESHAM DEVIL

    XXIX.  A WATCH IN THE NIGHT

     XXX.  THE CONFLICT

    XXXI.  THE RETURN

   XXXII.  THE DECISION

  XXXIII.  THE LAST DEBT

   XXXIV.  THE MESSAGE

    XXXV.  THE DARK HOUR

   XXXVI.  THE SUMMONS

  XXXVII.  "LA GRANDE PASSION"

 XXXVIII.  THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES


PART II

THE PLACE OF TORMENT


       I.  DEAD SEA FRUIT

      II.  THAT WHICH IS HOLY

     III.  THE FIRST GUEST

      IV.  THE PRISONER IN THE DUNGEON

       V.  THE SWORD FALLS

      VI.  THE MASK

     VII.  THE GATES OF HELL

    VIII.  A FRIEND IN NEED

      IX.  THE GREAT GULF

       X.  SANCTUARY

      XI.  THE FALLING NIGHT

     XII.  THE DREAM

    XIII.  THE HAND OF THE SCULPTOR


PART III

THE OPEN HEAVEN


       I.  THE VERDICT

      II.  THE TIDE COMES BACK

     III.  THE GAME

      IV.  THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

       V.  THE DESERT ROAD

      VI.  THE ENCOUNTER

     VII.  THE PLACE OF REPENTANCE

    VIII.  THE RELEASE OP THE PRISONER

      IX.  HOLY GROUND


EPILOGUE




The Bars of Iron




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.




PART I

THE GATES OF BRASS




CHAPTER I

A JUG OF WATER


It was certainly not Caesar's fault. Caesar was as well-meaning a
Dalmatian as ever scampered in the wake of a cantering horse. And if Mike
in his headlong Irish fashion chose to regard the scamper as a gross
personal insult, that was surely not a matter for which he could
reasonably be held responsible. And yet it was upon the luckless Caesar
that the wrath of the gods descended as a consequence of Mike's
wrong-headed deductions.

It began with a rush and a snarl from the Vicarage gate and it had
developed into a set and deadly battle almost before either of the
combatants had fully realized the other.

The rider drew rein, yelling furiously; but his yells were about as
effectual as the wail of an infant. Neither animal was so much as aware
of his existence in those moments of delirious warfare. They were locked
already in that silent, swaying grip which every fighting dog with any
knowledge of the great game seeks to establish, to break which mere
humans may put forth their utmost strength in vain.

The struggle was a desperate and a bloody one, and it speedily became
apparent to the rider that he would have to dismount if he intended to
put an end to it.

Fiercely he flung himself off his horse and threw the reins over the
Vicarage gate-post. Then, riding-crop in hand, he approached the swaying
fighting animals. It was like a ghastly wrestling-match. Both were on
their feet, struggling to and fro, each with jaws hard gripped upon the
other's neck, each silent save for his spasmodic efforts to breathe.

"Stop it, damn you!" shouted the rider, slashing at them with the zeal of
unrestrained fury. "Caesar, you infernal brute, stop it, will you? I'll
kill you if you don't!"

But Caesar was deaf to all threats and quite unconscious of the fact that
his master and not his enemy was responsible for the flail-like strokes
of the whirling lash. They shifted from beneath it instinctively, but
they fought deliriously on.

And at that the man with the whip completely lost his self-control. He
set to work to thrash and thrash the fighting animals till one or other
of them--or himself--should become exhausted.

It developed into a horrible competition organized and conducted by the
man's blind fury, and in what fashion it would have ended it would be
hard to say. But, luckily for all three, there came at length an
interruption. Someone--a woman--came swiftly out of the Vicarage garden
carrying a bedroom jug. She advanced without a pause upon the seething,
infuriated group.

"It's no good beating them," she said, in a voice which, though somewhat
hurried, was one of clear command. "Get out of the way, and be ready to
catch your dog when they come apart!"

The man glanced round for an instant, his face white with passion. "I'll
kill the brutes!" he declared.

"Indeed you won't," she returned promptly. "Stand away now or you will be
drenched!"

As she spoke she raised her jug above the struggling animals. Her face
also shone white in the wintry dusk, but her actions denoted unwavering
resolution.

"Now!" she said; and, since he would not move, she flung the icy water
without compunction over the dogs and him also.

"Damnation!" he cried violently. But she broke in upon him. "Quick!
Quick! Now's the time! Grab your dog! I'll catch Mike!"

The urgency of the order compelled compliance. Almost in spite of himself
he stooped to obey. And so it came to pass that five seconds later,
Caesar was being mercilessly thrashed by his enraged master, while the
real culprit was being dragged, cursing breathlessly, from the scene.

It was a brutal thrashing and wholly undeserved. Caesar, awaking to the
horror of it, howled his anguish; but no amount of protest on his part
made the smallest impression upon the wielder of the whip. It continued
to descend upon his writhing body with crashing force till he rolled upon
the ground in agony.

Even then the punishment would not have ceased, but for a second
interruption. It was the woman from the Vicarage garden again; but she
burst upon the scene this time with something of the effect of an
avalanche. She literally whirled between the man and his victim. She
caught his upraised arm.

"Oh, you brute!" she cried. "You brute!"

He stiffened in her hold. They stood face to face. Caesar crept whining
and shivering to the side of the road.

Slowly the man's arm fell to his side, still caught in that quivering
grasp. He spoke in a voice that struggled boyishly between resentment and
shame. "The dog's my own."

Her hold relaxed. "Even a dog has his rights," she said. "Give me that
whip, please!"

He looked at her oddly in the growing darkness. She was trembling as she
stood, but she held her ground.

"Please!" she repeated with resolution.

With an abrupt movement he put the weapon into her hand. "Are you going
to give me a taste?" he asked.

She uttered a queer little gasping laugh. "No. I--I'm not that sort.
But--it's horrible to see a man lose control of himself. And to thrash a
dog--like that!"

She turned sharply from him and went to the Dalmatian who crouched
quaking on the path. He wagged an ingratiating tail at her approach. It
was evident that in her hand the whip had no terrors for him. He crept
fawning to her feet.

She stooped over him, fondling his head. "Oh, poor boy! Poor boy!" she
said.

The dog's master came and stood beside her. "He'll be all right," he
said, in a tone of half-surly apology.

"I'm afraid Mike has bitten him," she said. "See!" displaying a long,
dark streak on Caesar's neck.

"He'll be all right," repeated Caesar's master. "I hope your dog is none
the worse."

"No, I don't think so," she said. "But don't you think we ought to
bathe this?"

"I'll take him home," he said. "They'll see to him at the stables."

She stood up, a slim, erect figure, the whip still firmly grasped in her
hand. "You won't thrash him any more, will you?" she said.

He gave a short laugh. "No, you have cooled me down quite effectually.
I'm much obliged to you for interfering. And I'm sorry I used language,
but as the circumstances were exceptional, I hope you will make
allowances."

His tone was boyish still, but all the resentment had gone out of it.
There was a touch of arrogance in his bearing which was obviously natural
to him, but his apology was none the less sincere.

The slim figure on the path made a slight movement of dismay. "But you
must be drenched to the skin!" she said. "I was forgetting. Won't you
come in and get dry?"

He hunched his shoulders expressively. "No, thanks. It was my own fault,
as you kindly omit to mention. I must be getting back to the Abbey. My
grandfather is expecting me. He fidgets if I'm late."

He raised a hand to his cap, and would have turned away, but she made a
swift gesture of surprise, which arrested him. "Oh, you are young Mr.
Evesham!--I beg your pardon--you are Mr. Evesham! I thought I must have
seen you before!"

He stopped with a laugh. "I am commonly called 'Master Piers' in this
neighbourhood. They won't let me grow up. Rather a shame, what? I'm
nearly twenty-five, and the head-keeper still refers to me in private as
'that dratted boy.'"

She laughed for the first time. Possibly he had angled for that laugh.
"Yes, it is a shame!" she agreed. "But then Sir Beverley is rather old,
isn't he? No doubt it's the comparison that does it."

"He isn't old," said Piers Evesham in sharp contradiction. "He's only
seventy-four. That's not old for an Evesham. He'll go for another twenty
years. There's a saying in our family that if we don't die violently, we
never die at all." He pulled himself up abruptly. "I've given you my name
and history. Won't you tell me yours?"

She hesitated momentarily. "I am only the mother's help at the Vicarage,"
she said then.

"By Jove! I don't envy you." He looked at her with frank interest
notwithstanding. "I suppose you do it for a living," he remarked.
"Personally, I'd sooner sweep a crossing than live in the same house with
that mouthing parson."

"Hush!" she said, but her lips smiled as she said it, a small smile that
would not be denied. "I must go in now. Here you are!" She gave him back
his whip. "Good-bye! Get home quick--and change!"

He turned half-reluctantly; then paused. "You might tell me your name
anyway," he said.

She had begun to move away, light-footed, swift as a bird. She
also paused.

"My name is Denys," she said.

He put his hand to his cap again. "Miss Denys?"

"No. Mrs. Denys. Good-bye!"

She was gone. He heard the light feet running up the wet gravel drive and
then the quick opening of a door. It closed again immediately, with
decision, and he stood alone in the wintry dusk.

Caesar crept to him and grovelled abjectly in the mud. The young man
stood motionless, staring at the Vicarage gates, a slight frown between
his brows. He was not tall, but he had the free pose of an athlete and
the bearing of a prince.

Suddenly he glanced down at his cringing companion and broke into a
laugh. "Get up, Caesar, you fool! And think yourself lucky that you've
got any sound bones left! You'd have been reduced to a jelly by this time
if I'd had my way."

He bent with careless good-nature, and patted the miscreant; then turned
towards his horse.

"Poor old Pompey! A shame to keep you standing! All that brute's fault."
He swung himself into the saddle. "By Jove, though, she's got some
pluck!" he said. "I like a woman with pluck!"

He touched his animal with the spur, and in a moment they were speeding
through the gathering dark at a brisk canter. Pompey was as anxious to
get home as was his master, and he needed no second urging. He scarcely
waited to get within the gates of the Park before he gathered himself
together and went like the wind. His rider lay forward in the saddle
and yelled encouragement like a wild Indian. Caesar raced behind them
like a hare.

The mad trio went like a flash past old Marshall the head-keeper who
stood gun on shoulder at the gate of his lodge and looked after them with
stern disapproval.

"Drat the boy! What's he want to ride hell-for-leather like that for?" he
grumbled. "He'll go and kill himself one of these days as his father did
before him."

It was just twenty-five years since Piers' father had been carried dead
into Marshall's cottage, and Marshall had stumped up the long avenue to
bear the news to Sir Beverley. Piers was about the same age now as that
other Piers had been, and Marshall had no mind to take part in a similar
tragedy. It had been a bitter task, that of telling Sir Beverley that his
only son was dead; but to have borne him ill tidings of his grandson
would have been infinitely harder. For Sir Beverley had never loved his
son through the whole of his brief, tempestuous life; but his grandson
was the very core of his existence, as everyone knew, despite his
strenuous efforts to disguise the fact.

No, emphatically Marshall had not the faintest desire to have to inform
the old man that harm had befallen Master Piers, and his frown deepened
as he trudged up his little garden and heard the yelling voice and
galloping hoofs grow faint in the distance.

"The boy is madder even than his father was," he muttered darkly. "Bad
stock! Bad stock!"

He shook his head over the words, and went within. He was the only man
left on the estate who could remember the beautiful young Italian bride
whom Sir Beverley had once upon a time brought to reign there. It had
been a short, short reign, and no one spoke of it now,--least of all the
old, bent man who ruled like a feudal lord at Rodding Abbey, and of whom
even the redoubtable Marshall himself stood in awe.

But Marshall remembered her well, and it was upon that dazzling memory
that his thoughts dwelt when he gave utterance to his mysterious verdict.
For was not Master Piers the living image of her? Had he not the same
imperial bearing and regal turn of the head? Did not the Evesham blood
run the hotter in his veins for that passionate Southern strain that
mingled with it?

Marshall sometimes wondered how Sir Beverley with his harsh intolerance
brooked the living likeness of the boy to the woman in whose bitter
memory he hated all women. It was scarcely possible that he blinded
himself to it. It was too vividly apparent for that. "A perpetual
eyesore," Marshall termed it in private. But then there was no accounting
for the ways of folk in high places. Marshall did not pretend to
understand them. He was, in his own grumpy fashion, sincerely attached to
his master, and he never presumed to criticize his doings. He only
wondered at them.

As for Master Piers, he had been an unmitigated nuisance to him
personally ever since he had learned to walk alone. Marshall had always
disapproved of him, and he hated Victor, the French valet, who had
brought him up from his cradle. Yet deep in his surly old heart there
lurked a certain grudging affection for him notwithstanding. The boy
had a winning way with him, and but for his hatred of Victor, who was
soft and womanish, but extremely tenacious, Marshall would have liked
to have had a hand in his upbringing. As it was, he could only look on
from afar and condemn the vagaries of "that dratted boy," prophesying
disaster whenever he saw him and hoping that Sir Beverley might not
live to see it. Certainly it seemed as if Piers bore a charmed life,
for, like his father before him, he risked it practically every day.
With sublime self-confidence, he laughed at caution, ever choosing the
shortest cut, whatever it might entail; and it was remarkably seldom
that he came to grief.

As he clattered into the stable-yard on that dark November evening,
his face was sparkling with excitement as though he had drunk strong
wine. The animal he rode was covered with foam, and danced a springy
war-dance on the stones. Caesar trotted in behind them with tail erect
and a large smile of satisfaction on his spotty face despite the gory
streak upon his neck.

"Confound it! I'm late!" said Piers, throwing his leg over his horse's
neck. "It's all that brute's fault. Look at him grinning! Better wash him
one of you! He can't come in in that state." He slipped to the ground and
stamped his sodden feet. "I'm not much better off myself. What a beastly
night, to be sure!"

"Yes, you're wet, sir!" remarked the groom at Pompey's head. "Had a
tumble, sir?"

"No. Had a jug of water thrown over me," laughed Piers. "Caesar will tell
you all about it. He's been sniggering all the way home." He snapped his
fingers in the dog's complacent face. "By Jove!" he said to him, "I
couldn't grin like that if I'd had the thrashing you've had. And I
couldn't kiss the hand that did it either. You're a gentleman, Caesar,
and I humbly apologize. Look after him, Phipps! He's been a bit mauled.
Good-night! Good-night, Pompey lad! You've carried me well." He patted
the horse's foam-flecked neck, and turned away.

As he left the stable-yard, he was whistling light-heartedly, and Phipps
glanced at a colleague with a slight flicker of one eyelid.

"Wonder who chucked that jug of water!" he said.



CHAPTER II

CONCERNING FOOLS


In the huge, oak-panelled hall of the Abbey, Sir Beverley Evesham
sat alone.

A splendid fire of logs blazed before him on the open hearth, and the
light from a great chandelier beat mercilessly down upon him. His hair
was thick still and silvery white. He had the shoulders of a strong man,
albeit they were slightly bowed. His face, clean-shaven, aristocratic,
was the colour of old ivory. The thin lips were quite bloodless. They had
a downward, bitter curve, as though they often sneered at life. The eyes
were keen as a bird's, stone-grey under overhanging black brows.

He held a newspaper in one bony hand, but he was not apparently reading,
for his eyes were fixed. The shining suits of armour standing like
sentinels on each side of the fireplace were not more rigid than he.

There came a slight sound from the other end of the hall, and instantly
and very sharply Sir Beverley turned his head.

"Piers!"

Cheerily Piers' voice made answer. He shut the door behind him and came
forward as he spoke. "Here I am, sir! I'm sorry I'm late. You shouldn't
have waited. You never ought to wait. I'm never in at the right time."

"Confound you, why aren't you then?" burst forth Sir Beverley. "It's easy
to say you're sorry, isn't it?"

"Not always," said Piers.

He came to the old man, bent down over him, slid a boyish arm around
the bent shoulders. "Don't be waxy!" he coaxed. "I couldn't help it
this time."

"Get away, do!" said Sir Beverley, jerking himself irritably from him. "I
detest being pawed about, as you very well know. In Heaven's name, have
your tea, if you want it! I shan't touch any. It's past my time."

"Oh, rot!" said Piers. "If you don't, I shan't."

"Yes, you will." Sir Beverley pointed an imperious hand towards a table
on the other side of the fire. "Go and get it and don't be a fool!"

"I'm not a fool," said Piers.

"Yes, you are--a damn fool!" Sir Beverley returned to his newspaper with
the words. "And you'll never be anything else!" he growled into the
silence that succeeded them.

Piers clattered the tea-things and said nothing. There was no resentment
visible upon his sensitive, olive face, however. He looked perfectly
contented. He turned round after a few seconds with a cup of steaming tea
in his hand. He crossed the hearth and set it on the table at Sir
Beverley's elbow.

"That's just as you like it, sir," he urged. "Have it--just to
please me!"

"Take it away!" said Sir Beverley, without raising his eyes.

"It's only ten minutes late after all," said Piers, with all meekness. "I
wish you hadn't waited, though it was jolly decent of you. You weren't
anxious of course? You know I always turn up some time."

"Anxious!" echoed Sir Beverley. "About a cub like you! You flatter
yourself, my good Piers."

Piers laughed a little and stooped over the blaze. Sir Beverley read on
for a few moments, then very suddenly and not without violence crumpled
his paper and flung it on the ground.

"Of all the infernal, ridiculous twaddle!" he exclaimed. "Now what the
devil have you done to yourself? Been taking a water-jump?"

Piers turned round. "No, sir. It's nothing. I shouldn't have come in in
this state, only it was late, and I thought I'd better report myself."

"Nothing!" repeated Sir Beverley. "Why, you're drenched to the skin! Go
and change! Go and change! Don't stop to argue! Do you hear me, sir? Go
and change!"

He shouted the last words, and Piers flung round on his heel with a hint
of impatience.

"And behave yourself!" Sir Beverley threw after him. "If you think I'll
stand any impertinence from you, you were never more mistaken in your
life. Be off with you, you cheeky young hound! Don't let me see you again
till you're fit to be seen!"

Piers departed without a backward look. His lips were slightly compressed
as he went up the stairs, but before he reached his own room they were
softly whistling.

Victor, the valet, who was busily employed in laying out his evening
clothes, received him with hands upraised in horror.

_"Ah, mais, Monsieur Pierre_, how you are wet!"

"Yes, I want a bath," said Piers. "Get it quick! I must be down again in
ten minutes. So scurry, Victor, my lad!"

Victor was a cheery little rotundity of five-and-fifty. He had had the
care of Piers ever since the first fortnight of that young man's
existence, and he worshipped him with a whole-hearted devotion that was
in its way sublime. In his eyes Piers could do no wrong. He was in fact
dearer to him than his own flesh and blood.

He prepared the bath with deft celerity, and hastened back to assist in
removing his young master's boots. He exclaimed dramatically upon their
soaked condition, but Piers was in too great a hurry to give any details
regarding the cause of his plight. He whirled into the bathroom at
express speed, and was out again almost before Victor had had time to
collect his drenched garments.

Ten minutes after his departure he returned to the hall, the gay
whistle still on his lips, and trod a careless measure to its tune as
he advanced.

Sir Beverley got up stiffly from his knees on the hearth-rug and turned a
scowling face. "Well, are you decent now?"

"Quite," said Piers. He smiled as he said it, a boyish disarming smile.
"Have you had your tea, sir? Oh, I say what a brick you are! I didn't
expect that."

His eyes, travelling downwards, had caught sight of a cup pushed close to
the blaze, and a plate of crumpets beside it.

"Or deserve it," said Sir Beverley grimly.

Piers turned impulsively and took him by the shoulders. "You're a dear
old chap!" he said. "Thanks awfully!"

Against its will the hard old mouth relaxed. "There, boy, there! What an
infant you are! Sit down and have it for goodness' sake! It'll be
dinner-time before you've done."

"You've had yours?" said Piers.

"Oh, yes--yes!" Irritation made itself heard again in Sir Beverley's
voice; he freed himself from his grandson's hold, though not urgently.
"I'm not so keen on your precious tea," he said, seating himself again.
"It's only young milksops like you that have made it fashionable. When I
was young--"

"Hullo!" broke in Piers. He had picked up the cup of tea and was sniffing
it suspiciously. "You've been doctoring this!" he said.

"You drink it!" ordered Sir Beverley peremptorily. "I'm not going to
have you laid up with rheumatic fever if I know it. Drink it, Piers! Do
you hear?"

Piers looked for a moment as if he were on the verge of rebellion, then
abruptly he raised the cup to his lips and drained it. He set it down
with a shudder of distaste.

"You might have let me have it separately," he remarked. "Tea and brandy
don't blend well. I shall sleep like a hog after this. Besides, I
shouldn't have had rheumatic fever. It's not my way. Anything in the
paper to-night?"

"Yes," said Sir Beverley disgustedly. "There's that prize-fight
business."

"What's that?" Piers looked up with quick interest.

"Surely you saw it!" returned Sir Beverley. "That fellow
Adderley--killed his man in a wrestling-match. A good many people said
it was done by a foul."

"Adderley!" repeated Piers. "I know him. He gave me some quite useful
tips once. What happened? It's the first I've heard of it."

"Well, he's a murderer," said Sir Beverley. "And he deserves to be
hanged. He killed his man,--whether by a foul or not I can't say; but
anyway he meant to kill him. It's obvious on the face of it. But they
chose to bring it in manslaughter, and he's only got five years; while
some brainless fool must needs write an article a column and a half long
to protest against the disgraceful practice of permitting wrestling or
boxing matches, which are a survival of the Dark Ages and a perpetual
menace to our civilization! A survival of your grandmother! A nice set of
nincompoops the race will develop into if such fools as that get their
way! We're soft enough as it is, Heaven knows. Why couldn't they hang the
scoundrel as he deserved? That's the surest way of putting an end to
savagery. But to stop the sport altogether! It would be tomfoolery!"

Piers picked up the paper from the floor and smoothed it out. He
proceeded to study it with drawn brows, and Sir Beverley sat and
watched him with that in his stone-grey eyes which no one was ever
allowed to see.

"Eat your crumpets, boy!" he said at last.

"What?" Piers glanced up momentarily. "Oh, all right, sir, in a minute.
This is rather an interesting case, what? You see, Adderley was a
friend of mine."

"When did you meet him?" demanded Sir Beverley.

"I knew him in my school-days. He spent a whole term in the
neighbourhood. It was just before I left for my year of travel. I got to
know him rather well. He gave me several hints on wrestling."

"Did he teach you how to break your opponent's neck?" asked Sir
Beverley drily.

Piers made a slight, scarcely perceptible movement of one hand. It
clenched upon the paper he held. "They were--worth knowing," he said,
with his eyes upon the sheet. "But I should have thought he was too old a
hand himself to get into trouble."

Sir Beverley grunted. Piers read on. At the end of a lengthy pause he
laid the paper aside. "I'm beastly rude," he remarked. "Have a crumpet!"

"Eat 'em yourself!" said Sir Beverley. "I hate 'em!"

Piers picked up the plate and began to eat. He stared at the blaze as he
did so, obviously lost in thought.

"Don't dream!" said Sir Beverley sharply.

He turned his eyes upon his grandfather's face--those soft Italian eyes
of his so suggestive of hidden fire. "I wasn't--dreaming," he said
slowly. "I wonder why you think Adderley ought to be hanged."

"Because he's a murderer," snapped Sir Beverley.

"Yes; but--" said Piers, and became silent as though he were following
out some train of thought.

"Go on, boy! Finish!" commanded Sir Beverley. "I detest a sentence left
in the middle."

"I was only thinking," said Piers deliberately, "that hanging in my
opinion is much the easier sentence of the two. I should ask to be hanged
if I were Adderley."

"Would you indeed?" Sir Beverley sounded supremely contemptuous.

But Piers did not seem to notice. "Besides, there are so many
murderers in the world," he said, "though it's only the few who get
punished. I'm sorry for the few myself. Its damned bad luck, human
nature being what it is."

"You don't know what you're talking about," said Sir Beverley.

"All right; let's talk about something else," said Piers. "Caesar had a
glorious mill with that Irish terrier brute at the Vicarage this
afternoon. I couldn't separate 'em, so I just joined in. We'd have been
at it now if we had been left to our own devices." He broke into his
sudden boyish laugh. "But a kind lady came out of the Vicarage garden and
flung the contents of a bedroom jug over the three of us. Rather plucky
of her, what? I'm afraid I wasn't over-complimentary at the moment, but
I've had time since to appreciate her tact and presence of mind. I'm
going over to thank her to-morrow."

"Who was it?" growled Sir Beverley suspiciously. "Not that little white
owl, Mrs. Lorimer?"

"Mrs. Lorimer! Great Scott, no! She'd have squealed and run to the
Reverend Stephen for protection. No, this was a woman, not an owl. Her
name is Denys--Mrs. Denys she was careful to inform me. They've started a
mother's help at the Vicarage. None too soon I should say. Who wouldn't
be a mother's help in that establishment?"

Sir Beverley uttered a dry laugh. "Daresay she knows how to feather her
own nest. Most of 'em do."

"She knows how to keep her head in an emergency, anyhow," remarked Piers.

"Feline instinct," jeered Sir Beverley.

Piers looked across with a laugh in his dark eyes. "And feline pluck,
sir," he maintained.

Sir Beverley scowled at him. He could never brook an argument. "Oh, get
away, Piers!" he said. "You talk like a fool."

Piers turned his whole attention to devouring crumpets, and there fell a
lengthy silence. He rose finally to set down his empty plate and help
himself to some more tea.

"That stuff is poisonous by now," said Sir Beverley.

"It won't poison me," said Piers.

He drank it, and returned to the hearth-rug. "I suppose I may smoke?" he
said, with a touch of restraint.

Sir Beverley was lying back in his chair, gazing straight up at him.
Suddenly he reached out a trembling hand.

"You're a good boy, Piers," he said. "You may do any damn thing you
like."

Piers' eyes kindled in swift response. He gripped the extended
hand. "You're a brick, sir!" he said. "Look here! Come along to
the billiard-room and have a hundred up! It'll give you an
appetite for dinner."

He hoisted the old man out of his chair before he could begin to protest.
They stood together before the great fire, and Sir Beverley straightened
his stiff limbs. He was half a head taller than his grandson.

"What a fellow it is!" he said half laughing. "Why can't you sit still
and be quiet? Don't you want to read the paper? I've done with it."

"So have I," said Piers. He swept it up with one hand as he spoke and
tossed it recklessly on to the blaze. "Come along, sir! We haven't
much time."

"Now what did you do that for?" demanded Sir Beverley, pausing. "Do you
want to set the house on fire? What did you do it for, Piers?"

"Because I was a fool," said Piers with sudden, curious vehemence. "A
damn fool sir, if you want to know. But it's done now. Let it burn!"

The paper flared fiercely and crumbled to ashes. Sir Beverley suffered
himself to be drawn away.

"You're a queer fellow, Piers," he said. "But, taking 'em altogether, I
should say there are a good many bigger fools in the world than you."

"Thank you, sir," said Piers.



CHAPTER III

DISCIPLINE


"Mrs. Denys, may I come in?" Jeanie Lorimer's small, delicate face peeped
round the door. "I've brought my French exercise to do," she said
half-apologetically. "I thought perhaps you wouldn't mind."

"Of course come in, dear child! I like to have you." The mother's help
paused in her rapid stitching to look up with a smile at the pretty,
brown-haired child. "Come close to the light!" she said. "I hope it isn't
a very long one; is it?"

"It is--rather," Jeanie sighed a sharp, involuntary sigh. "I ought to
have done it sooner, but I was busy with the little ones. Is that
Gracie's frock you're mending? What an awful tear!" She came and stood by
Mrs. Denys's side, speaking in a low, rather monotonous voice. A heavy
strand of her hair fell over the work as she bent to look; she tossed it
back with another sigh. "Gracie is such a tomboy," she said. "It's a
pity, isn't it?"

"My dear, you're tired," said Mrs. Denys gently. She put a motherly arm
about the slim body that leaned against her, looking up into the pale
young face with eyes of kindly criticism.

"A little tired," said Jeanie.

"I shouldn't do that exercise to-night if I were you," said Mrs. Denys.
"You will find it easier in the morning. Lie down on the sofa here and
have a little rest till supper time!"

"Oh no, I mustn't," said Jeanie. "Father will never let any of us go to
bed till the day's work is done."

"But surely, when you're really tired--" began Mrs. Denys.

But Jeanie shook her head. "No; thank you very much, I must do it. Olive
did hers long ago."

"Where is Olive?" asked Mrs. Denys.

"She's reading a story-book downstairs. We may always read when we've
finished our lessons." Again came that short, unconscious sigh. Jeanie
went to the table and sat down. "Mother is rather upset to-night," she
said, as she turned the leaves of her book. "Ronald and Julian have been
smoking, and she is so afraid that Father will find out. I hope he
won't--for her sake. But if they don't eat any supper, he is sure to
notice. He flogged Julian two nights running the last time because he
told a lie about it."

A quick remark rose to her listener's lips, but it was suppressed
unuttered. Mrs. Denys began to stitch very rapidly with her face bent
over her work. It was a very charming face, with level grey eyes, wide
apart, and a mouth of great sweetness. There was a fugitive dimple on one
side of it that gave her a girlish appearance when she smiled. But she
was not a girl. There was about her an air of quiet confidence as of one
who knew something of the world and its ways. She was young still, and it
was yet in her to be ardent; but she had none of the giddy restlessness
of youth. Avery Denys was a woman who had left her girlhood wholly behind
her. Her enthusiasms and her impulses were kindled at a steadier flame
than the flickering torch of youth. There was no romance left in her
life, but yet was she without bitterness. She had known suffering and
faced it unblanching. The only mark it had left upon her was that air of
womanly knowledge that clothed her like a garment even in her lightest
moods. Of a quick understanding and yet quicker sympathy, she had
learned to hold her emotions in check, and the natural gaiety of her hid
much that was too sacred to be carelessly displayed. She had a ready
sense of humour that had buoyed her up through many a storm, and the
brave heart behind it never flinched from disaster. As her father had
said of her in the long-ago days of happiness and prosperity, she took
her hedges straight.

For several minutes after Jeanie's weary little confidence, she worked
in silence; then suddenly, with needle poised, she looked across at
the child.

Jeanie's head was bent over her exercise-book. Her hair lay in a heavy
mass all about her shoulders. There was a worried frown between her
brows. Slowly her hand travelled across the page, paused, wrote a word or
two, paused again.

Suddenly from the room above them there came the shrill shriek of a
violin. It wailed itself into silence, and then broke forth again in a
series of long drawn-out whines. Jeanie sighed.

Avery laid down her work with quiet decision, and went to her side. "What
is worrying you, dear?" she asked gently. "I'm not a great French
scholar, but I think I may be able to help."

"Thank you," said Jeanie, in her voice of tired courtesy. "You mustn't
help me. No one must."

"I can find the words you don't know in the dictionary," said Avery.

"No, thank you," said Jeanie. "Father doesn't like us to have help of
any kind."

There were deep shadows about the eyes she raised to Avery's face, but
they smiled quite bravely, with all unconscious wistfulness.

Avery laid a tender hand upon the brown head and drew it to rest against
her. "Poor little thing!" she said compassionately.

"But I'm not little really, you know," said Jeanie, closing her eyes for
a few stolen moments. "I'm thirteen in March. And they're all younger
than me except Ronnie and Julian."

Avery bent with a swift, maternal movement and kissed the blue-veined
forehead. Jeanie opened her eyes in slight surprise. Quite plainly she
was not accustomed to sudden caresses.

"I'm glad we've got you, Mrs. Denys," she said, with her quiet air of
childish dignity. "You are a great help to us."

She turned back to her French exercise with the words, and Avery, after a
moment's thought, turned to the door. She heard again the child's sigh of
weariness as she closed it behind her.

The wails of the violin were very audible in the passage outside. She
shivered at the atrocious sounds. From a further distance there came the
screams of an indignant baby and the strident shouts of two small boys
who were racing to and fro in an uncarpeted room at the top of the house.
But after that one shiver Avery Denys had no further attention to bestow
upon any of these things. She went with her quick, light tread down to
the square hall which gave a suggestion of comfort to the Vicarage which
not one of its rooms endorsed.

Without an instant's hesitation she knocked upon the first door she came
to. A voice within gave her permission to enter, and she did so.

The Reverend Stephen Lorimer turned from his writing-table with a face of
dignified severity to receive her, but at sight of her his expression
changed somewhat.

"Ah, Mrs. Denys! You, is it? Pray come in!" he said urbanely. "Is there
any way in which I can be of service to you?"

His eyes were dark and very small, so small that they nearly disappeared
when he smiled. But for this slight defect, Mr. Lorimer would have been a
handsome man. He rose as Avery approached and placed a chair for her with
elaborate courtesy.

"Thank you," she said. "I only ran in for a moment--just to tell you
that little Jeanie is so tired to-night. She has had no time for her
lessons all the afternoon because she has been helping with the little
ones in the nursery. She insists upon doing her French exercise, but I am
sure you would not wish her to do it if you knew how worn out the child
is. May I tell her to leave it for to-night?"

She spoke quickly and very earnestly, with clear eyes raised to Mr.
Lorimer's face. She watched his smile fade and his eyes reappear as she
made her appeal.

He did not reply to it for some seconds, and a sharp doubt went through
her. She raised her brows in mute interrogation.

"Yes, my dear Mrs. Denys," he said, in response to her unspoken query, "I
see that you appreciate the fact that there are at least two points of
view to every proposition. You tell me that Jeanie was occupied in the
nursery during that period of the day which should legitimately have been
set aside for the assimilation of learning. I presume her presence there
was voluntary?"

"Oh, quite." There was a hint of sharpness in Avery's rejoinder. "She
went out of the goodness of her heart because Nurse had been up
practically all night with Baby and needed a rest and I was obliged to go
into Wardenhurst for Mrs. Lorimer. So Jeanie took charge of Bertie and
David, and Gracie and Pat went with me."

Mr. Lorimer waved a protesting hand. "Pray spare yourself and me all
these details, Mrs. Denys! I am glad to know that Jeanne has been useful
to you, but at the same time she has no right to offer duty upon the
altar of kindness. You will acknowledge that to obey is better than
sacrifice. As a matter of principle, I fear I cannot remit any of her
task, and I trust that on the next occasion she will remember to set
duty first."

A hot flush had risen in Avery's face and her eyes sparkled, but she
restrained herself. There was no indignation in her voice as she said:
"Mr. Lorimer, believe me, that child will never shirk her duty. She is
far too conscientious. It is really for the sake of her health that I
came to beg you to let her off that French exercise. I am sure she is not
strong. Perhaps I did wrong to let her be in the nursery this afternoon,
though I scarcely know how else we could have managed. But that is my
fault, not hers. I take full responsibility for that."

Mr. Lorimer began to smile again. "That is very generous of you," he
said. "But, as a matter of justice, I doubt if the whole burden of it
should fall to your share. You presumably were unaware that Jeanne's
afternoon should have been devoted to her studies. She cannot plead a
like ignorance. Therefore, while dismissing the petition, I hold you
absolved from any blame in the matter. Pray do not distress yourself
any further!"

"I certainly thought it was a half-holiday," Avery admitted. "But I am
distressed--very greatly distressed--on the child's account. She is not
fit for work to-night."

Mr. Lorimer made an airy gesture expressive of semi-humorous regret.
"Discipline, my dear Mrs. Denys, must be maintained at all costs--even
among the members of your charming sex. As a matter of fact, I am waiting
to administer punishment to one of my sons at the present moment for an
act of disobedience."

He glanced towards the writing-table on which lay a cane, and again the
quick blood mounted in Avery's face.

"Oh, don't you think you are a little hard on your children?" she said;
and then impulsively, "No; forgive me! I ought not to put it like that.
But do you find it answers to be so strict? Does it make them any more
obedient?"

He raised his shoulders slightly; his eyes gleamed momentarily ere they
vanished into his smile. He shook his head at her with tolerant irony. "I
fear your heart runs away with you, Mrs. Denys, and I must not suffer
myself to listen to you. I have my duty--my very distinct duty--to
perform, and I must not shirk it. As to the results, they are in other
Hands than mine."

There came a low knock at the door as he finished speaking, and he turned
at once to answer it.

"Come in!"

The door opened, and a very small, very nervous boy crept round it. A
quick exclamation rose to Avery's lips before she could suppress it. Mr.
Lorimer looked at her interrogatively.

"I was only surprised to see Pat," she explained. "He has been with
me all the afternoon. I hardly thought he could have had time to get
into trouble."

"Come here, Patrick!" said Mr. Lorimer.

Patrick advanced. He looked neither at Avery nor his father, but kept his
eyes rigidly downcast. His freckled face had a half-frightened,
half-sullen expression. He halted before Mr. Lorimer who took him by the
shoulder, and turned him round towards Avery.

"Tell Mrs. Denys what you did!" he said.

Pat shot a single glance upwards, and made laconic reply. "I undid Mike."

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Avery in great distress. "I'm afraid that was
my fault."

"Yours, Mrs. Denys?" Mr. Lorimer's eyes became visible as two brilliant
pin-points turned searchingly upon her face.

"Yes, mine!" she reiterated. "Mike was whining on his chain, and I said I
thought it was cruel to keep a dog tied up. I suppose I ought to have
kept my thoughts to myself," she said with a pathetic little smile. "Do
please forgive us both this time!"

Mr. Lorimer ignored the appeal. "And do you know what happened in
consequence of his being liberated?" he asked.

"Yes, I do." Ruefully she made answer. "He fought Mr. Evesham's dog and I
helped to pull him off."

"You, Mrs. Denys!"

"Yes, I." She nodded. "There wasn't much damage done, anyhow to Mike. I
am very, very sorry, Mr. Lorimer. But really Pat is not to blame for
this. Won't you--please--"

She stopped, for very decidedly Mr. Lorimer interrupted her. "I am afraid
I cannot agree with you, Mrs. Denys. You may have spoken unadvisedly, but
Patrick was aware that in releasing the dog he was acting in direct
opposition to my orders. Therefore he must bear his own punishment. I
must beg that for the future you will endeavour to be a little more
discreet in your observations. Patrick, open the door for Mrs. Denys!"

It was a definite dismissal--perhaps the most definite that Avery had
ever had in her life. A fury of resentment possessed her, but feeling her
self-control to be tottering, she dared not give it vent. She turned in
quivering silence and departed.

As she went out of the room, she perceived that Pat had begun to cry.



CHAPTER IV

THE MOTHER'S HELP


"It's always the same," moaned Mrs. Lorimer. "My poor children! They're
never out of trouble." Avery stood still. She had fled to the
drawing-room to recover herself, only to find the lady of the house lying
in tears upon the sofa there. Mrs. Lorimer was very small and pathetic.
She had lost all her health long before in the bearing and nurturing of
her children. Once upon a time she must have possessed the delicate
prettiness that characterized her eldest daughter Jeanie, but it had
faded long since. She was worn out now, a tired, drab little woman, with
no strength left to stand against adversity. The only consolation in her
life was her love for her husband. Him she worshipped, not wholly
blindly, but with a devotion that never faltered. A kind word from him
was capable of exalting her to a state of rapture that was only
out-matched by the despair engendered by his displeasure. There was so
much of sorrow mingled with her love for her children that they could
scarcely have been regarded as a joy. In fact Avery often thought to
herself how much happier she would have been without them.

"Do sit down, Mrs. Denys!" she begged nervously, as Avery remained
motionless in the middle of the room. "Stay with me for a little, won't
you? I can never bear to be alone when any of the children are being
punished. I sometimes think Pat is the worst of all. He is so highly
strung, and he loses his head. And Stephen doesn't quite understand
him, and he is so terribly severe when they rebel. And did you know
that Ronald and Julian had been smoking again on the way back from
school? They look so dreadfully ill, both of them. I know their father
will find out."

Mrs. Lorimer's whispered words went into soft weeping. She hid her face
in the cushion.

A curious little spasm went through Avery, and for a few mad seconds she
wanted to burst into heartless laughter. She conquered the impulse with a
desperate effort though it left her feeling slightly hysterical.

She moved across to the forlorn little woman and stooped over her.

"Don't cry, dear Mrs. Lorimer!" she urged. "It doesn't do any
good. Perhaps Ronald and Julian are better by now. Shall we go
upstairs and see?"

The principle was a wrong one and she knew it, but for the life of her
she could not have resisted the temptation at that moment. She had an
unholy desire to get the better of the Reverend Stephen which would not
be denied.

Mrs. Lorimer checked her tears. "You're very kind," she murmured shakily.

She dried her eyes and sat up. "Do you think it would be wrong to give
them a spoonful of brandy?" she asked wistfully.

But Avery's principles were proof against this at least. "Yes, I do," she
said. "But we can manage quite well without it. Let us go, shall we, and
see what can be done?"

"I'm afraid I'm very wicked," sighed Mrs. Lorimer. "I'm very thankful to
have you with us, dear. I don't know what I should do without you."

Avery's pretty mouth took an unfamiliar curve of grimness for a moment,
but she banished it at once. She slipped a sustaining hand through Mrs.
Lorimer's arm.

"Thank you for saying so, though, you know, I've only been with you a
fortnight, and I don't feel that I have done very much to deserve such
high praise."

"I don't think time has much to do with friendship," said Mrs. Lorimer,
looking at her with genuine affection in her faded blue eyes. "Do you
know I became engaged to my husband before I had known him a fortnight?"

But this was a subject upon which Avery found it difficult to express any
sympathy, and she gently changed it. "You are looking very tired. Don't
you think you could lie down for a little in your bedroom before supper?"

"I must see the poor boys first," protested Mrs. Lorimer.

"Yes, of course. We will go straight up, shall we?"

She led her to the door with the words, and they went out together into
the hall. As they emerged, a sudden burst of stormy crying came from the
study. Pat was literally howling at the top of his voice.

His mother stopped and wrung her hands. "Oh, what is to be done? He
always cries like that. He used to as a baby--the only one of them who
did. Mrs. Denys, what shall I do? I don't think I can bear it."

Avery drew her on towards the stairs. "My dear, come away!" she said
practically. "You can't do anything. Interference will only make matters
worse. Let us go right up to the boys' room! Pat is sure to come up
directly."

They went to the boys' room. It was a large attic in which the three
elder boys slept. Ronald and Julian, aged fifteen and fourteen
respectively, were both lying prostrate on their beds.

Julian uttered a forced laugh at the sight of his mother's face. "My dear
Mater, for Heaven's sake don't come fussing round here! We've been
smoking some filthy cigars--little beastly Brown dared us to--and there's
been the devil to pay. I can't get up. My tummy won't let me."

"Oh, Julian, why do you do it?" said Mrs. Lorimer, in great distress.
"You know what your father said the last time."

She bent over him. Julian was her favourite of them all. But he turned
his face sharply to avoid her kiss.

"Don't, Mater! I don't feel up to it. I can't jaw either. I believe those
dashed cigars were poisoned. Hullo, Ronald, are you quieting down yet?"

"Shut up!" growled Ronald.

His brother laughed again sardonically. "Stick to it, my hearty! There's
a swishing in store for us. The mater always gives the show away."

"Julian!" It was Avery's voice; she spoke with quick decision. "You've
got exactly an hour--you and Ronald--to pull yourselves together. Don't
lie here any longer! Get up and go out! Go for a hard walk! No, of course
you don't feel like it. But it will do you good. You want to get that
horrible stuff out of your lungs. Quick! Go now--while you can!"

"But I can't!" declared Julian.

"Yes, you can,--you must! You too, Ronald! Where are your coats? Pop them
on and make a dash for it! You'll come back better. Perhaps you will get
out of the swishing after all."

Julian turned his head and looked at her by the light of the flaring,
unshaded gas-jet. "By Jove!" he said. "You're rather a brick, Mrs.
Denys."

"Don't stop to talk!" she commanded. "Just get up and do as I say. Go
down the back stairs, mind! I'll let you in again in time to get ready
for supper."

Julian turned to his brother. "What do you say to it, Ron?"

"Can't be done," groaned Ronald.

"Oh yes, it can." Sheer determination sounded in Avery's response. "Get
up, both of you! If it makes you ill, it can't be helped. You will
neither of you get any better lying here. Come, Ronald!" She went to him
briskly. "Get up! I'll help you. There! That's the way. Splendid! Now
keep it up! don't let yourself go again! You will feel quite different
when you get out into the open air."

By words and actions she urged them, Mrs. Lorimer standing pathetically
by, till finally, fired by her energy, the two miscreants actually
managed to make their escape without mishap.

She ran downstairs to see them go, returning in time to receive the
wailing Pat who had been sent to bed in a state verging on hysterics.
Neither she nor his mother could calm him for some time, and when at
length he was somewhat comforted one of the younger boys fell down in an
adjacent room and began to cry lustily.

Avery went to the rescue, earnestly entreating Mrs. Lorimer to go down to
her room and rest. She was able to soothe the sufferer and leave him to
the care of the nurse, and she then followed Mrs. Lorimer whom she found
bathing her eyes and trying not to cry.

So piteous a spectacle was she that Avery found further formality an
absolute impossibility. She put her arm round the little woman and begged
her not to fret.

"No, I know it's wrong," whispered Mrs. Lorimer, yielding like a child
to the kindly support. "But I can't help it sometimes. You see, I'm not
very strong--just now." She hesitated and glanced at Avery with a
guilty air. "I--I haven't told him yet," she said in a lower whisper
still. "Of course I shall have to soon; but--I'm afraid you will think
me very deceitful--I like to choose a favourable time, when the
children are not worrying him quite so much. I don't want to--to vex
him more than I need."

"My dear!" Avery said compassionately. And she added as she had added to
the daughter half an hour before, "Poor little thing!"

Mrs. Lorimer gave a feeble laugh, lifting her face. "You are a sweet
girl, Avery. I may call you that? I do hope the work won't be too much
for you. You mustn't let me lean on you too hard."

"You shall lean just as hard as you like," Avery said, and, bending,
kissed the tired face. "I am here to be a help to you, you know. Yes, do
call me Avery! I'm quite alone in the world, and it makes it feel like
home. Now you really must lie down till supper. And you are not to worry
about anything. I am sure the boys will come back much better. There! Is
that comfortable?"

"Quite, dear, thank you. You mustn't think about me any more. Good-bye!
Thank you for all your goodness to me!" Mrs. Lorimer clung to her hand
for a moment. "I was always prejudiced against mothers' helps before,"
she said ingenuously. "But I find you an immense comfort--an immense
comfort. You will try and stay, won't you, if you possibly can?"

"Yes," Avery promised. "I will certainly stay--if it rests with me."

Her lips were very firmly closed as she went out of the room and her grey
eyes extremely bright. It had been a strenuous half-hour.



CHAPTER V

LIFE ON A CHAIN


"Oh, I say, are you going out?" said Piers. "I was just coming to
call on you."

"On me?" Avery looked at him with brows raised in surprised
interrogation.

He made her a graceful bow, nearly sweeping the path outside the Vicarage
gate with his cap. "Even so, madam! On you! But as I perceive you are not
at home to callers, may I be permitted to turn and walk beside you?"

As he suited the action to the words, it seemed superfluous to grant the
permission, and Avery did not do so.

"I am only going to run quickly down to the post," she said, with a
glance at some letters she carried.

He might have offered to post them for her, but such a course did not
apparently occur to him. Instead he said: "I'll race you if you like."

Avery refrained from smiling, conscious of a gay glance flung in her
direction.

"I see you prefer to walk circumspectly," said Piers. "Well, I can do
that too. How is Mike? Why isn't he with you?"

"Mike is quite well, thank you," said Avery. "And he is kept chained up."

"What an infernal shame!" burst from Piers. "I'd sooner shoot a dog than
keep him on a chain."

"So would I!" said Avery impulsively.

The words were out before she could check them. It was a subject upon
which she found it impossible to maintain her reticence.

Piers grinned triumphantly and thrust out a boyish hand. "Shake!" he
said. "We are in sympathy!"

But Avery only shook her head at him, refusing to be drawn.
"People--plenty of nice people--have no idea of the utter cruelty of it,"
she said. "They think that if a dog has never known liberty, he is
incapable of desiring it. They don't know, they don't realize, the
bitterness of life on a chain."

"Don't know and don't care!" declared Piers. "They deserve to be chained
up themselves. One day on a chain would teach your nice people quite a
lot. But no one cultivates feeling in this valley of dry bones. It isn't
the thing nowadays. Let a dog whine his heart out on a chain! Who cares?
There's no room for sentimental scruples of that sort. Can't you see the
Reverend Stephen smile at the bare idea of extending a little of his
precious Christian pity to a dog?" He broke off with a laugh that rang
defiantly. "Now it's your turn!" he said.

"My turn?" Avery glanced at his dark, handsome face with a touch of
curiosity.

He met her eyes with his own as if he would beat them back. "Aren't you
generous enough to remind me that but for your timely interference I
should have beaten my own dog to death only yesterday? You were almost
ready to flog me for it at the time."

"Oh, that!" Avery said, looking away again. "Yes, of course I might
remind you of that if I wanted to be personal; but, you see,--I don't."

"Why not!" said Piers stubbornly. "You were personal enough yesterday."

The dimple, for which Avery was certainly not responsible, appeared
suddenly near her mouth. "I am afraid I lost my temper yesterday," she
said.

"How wrong of you!" said Piers. "I hope you confessed to the
Reverend Stephen."

She glanced at him again and became grave. "No, I didn't confess to
anyone. But I think it's a pity ever to lose one's temper. It involves a
waste of power."

"Does it?" said Piers.

"Yes." She nodded with conviction. "We need all the strength we can
muster for other things. How is your dog to-day?"

Piers ignored the question. "What other things?" he demanded.

She hesitated.

"Go on!" said Piers imperiously.

Avery complied half-reluctantly. "I meant--mainly--the burdens of life.
We can't afford to weaken ourselves by any loss of self-control. The man
who keeps his temper is immeasurably stronger than the man who loses it."

Piers was frowning; his dark eyes looked almost black. Suddenly he turned
upon her. "Mrs. Denys, I have a strong suspicion that your temper is a
sweet one. If so, you're no judge of these things. Why didn't you leather
me with my own whip yesterday? You had me at your mercy."

Avery smiled. Plainly he was set upon a personal encounter, and she could
not avoid it. "Well, frankly, Mr. Evesham," she said, "I was never nearer
to striking anyone in my life."

"Then why did you forbear? You weren't afraid to souse me with
cold water."

"Oh no," she said. "I wasn't afraid."

"I believe you were," maintained Piers. "You're afraid to speak your mind
to me now anyway."

She laughed a little. "No, I'm not. I really can't explain myself to you.
I think you forget that we are practically strangers."

"You talk as if I had been guilty of familiarity," said Piers.

"No, no! I didn't mean that," Avery coloured suddenly, and the soft glow
made her wonderfully fair to see. "You know quite well I didn't mean
it," she said.

"It's good of you to say so," said Piers. "But I really didn't know. I
thought you had decided that I was a suitable subject for snubbing. I'm
not a bit. I'm so accustomed to it that I don't care a--" he paused with
a glance of quizzical daring, and, as she managed to look severe, amended
the sentence--"that I am practically indifferent to it. Mrs. Denys, I
wish you had struck me yesterday."

"Really?" said Avery.

"Yes, really. I should then have had the pleasure of forgiving you.
It's a pleasure I don't often get. You see, I'm usually the one that's
in the wrong."

She looked at him then with quick interest; she could not help it. But
the dark eyes triumphed over her so shamelessly that she veiled it on
the instant.

Piers laughed. "Mrs. Denys, may I ask a directly personal question?"

"I don't know why you should," said Avery.

They were nearing the pillar-box at the end of the Vicarage lane, and she
was firmly determined that at that box their ways should separate.

"I know you think I'm bold and bad," said Piers. "Some kind friend has
probably told you so. But I'm not. I've been brought up badly, that's
all. I think you might bear with me. I'm quite willing to be bullied."
There was actual pathos in the declaration.

Again the fleeting dimple hovered near Avery's mouth. "Please don't take
my opinion for granted in that way!" she said. "I have hardly had time to
form one yet."

"Then I may ask my question?" said Piers.

She turned steady grey eyes upon him. "Yes; you may."

Piers' face was perfectly serious. "Are you really married?" he asked.

The level brows went up a little. "I have been a widow for six years,"
said Avery very quietly.

He stared at her in surprise unfeigned. "Six years!"

She replied in the same quiet voice. "I lost my husband when I was
twenty-two."

"Great Heavens above!" ejaculated Piers. "But you're not--not--I say,
forgive me, I must say it--you can't be as old as that!"

"I am twenty-nine," said Avery faintly smiling.

They had reached the letter-box. She dropped in her letters one by one.
Piers stood confounded, looking on.

Suddenly he spoke. "And you've been doing this mothers'-helping business
for six years?"

"Oh no!" she said.

She turned round from the box and faced him. The red winter sunset glowed
softly upon her. Her grey eyes looked straight into it.

"No!" she said again. "I had my little girl to take care of for the first
six months. You see, she was born blind, soon after her father's death,
and she needed all the care I could give her."

Piers made a sharp movement--a gesture that was almost passionate; but he
said nothing.

Avery withdrew her eyes from the sunset, and looked at him. "She died,"
she said, "and that left me with nothing to do. I have no near
relations. So I just had to set to work to find something to occupy me.
I went into a children's hospital for training, and spent some years
there. Then when that came to an end, I took a holiday; but I found I
wanted children. So I cast about me, and finally answered Mr. Lorimer's
advertisement and came here." She began to smile. "At least I have
plenty of children now."

"Oh, I say!" broke in Piers. "What a perfectly horrible life you've had!
You don't mean to say you're happy, what?"

Avery laughed. "I'm much too busy to think about it. And now I really
must run back. I've promised to take charge of the babies this afternoon.
Good-bye!" She held out her hand to him with frank friendliness, as if
she divined the sympathy he did not utter.

He gripped it hard for a moment. "Thanks awfully for being so decent as
to tell me!" he said, looking back at her with eyes as frank as her own.
"I'm going on down to the home farm. Good-bye!"

He raised his cap, and abruptly strode away. And in the moment of his
going Avery found she liked him better than she had liked him
throughout the interview, for she knew quite well that he went only in
deference to her wish.

She turned to retrace her steps, feeling puzzled. There was something
curiously attractive about the young man's personality, something that
appealed to her, yet that she felt disposed to resist. That air of the
ancient Roman was wonderfully compelling, too compelling for her taste,
but then his boyishness counteracted it to a very great degree. There was
a hint of sweetness running through his arrogance against which she was
not proof. Audacious he might be, but it was a winning species of
audacity that probably no woman could condemn. She thought to herself as
she returned to her charges that she had never seen a face so faultlessly
patrician and yet so vividly alive. And following that thought came
another that dwelt longer in her mind. Deprived of its animation, it
would not have been a happy face.

Avery wondered why.



CHAPTER VI

THE RACE


"Hooray! No more horrid sums for a whole month!" Gracie Lorimer's
arithmetic-book soared to the ceiling and came down with a bang while
Gracie herself pivoted, not ungracefully, on her toes till sheer
giddiness and exhaustion put an end to her rhapsody. Then she staggered
to Avery who was darning the family stockings by the window and flung
ecstatic arms about her neck.

"Dear Mrs. Denys, aren't you glad it's holidays?" she gasped. "We'll give
you such a lovely time!"

"I'm sure you will, dear," said Avery. "But do mind the needle!"

She kissed the brilliant childish face that was pressed to hers. She and
Gracie were close friends. Gracie was eleven, and the prettiest madcap of
them all. It was a perpetual marvel to Avery that the child managed to be
so happy, for she was continually in trouble. But she seemed to possess a
cheery knack of throwing off adversity. She was essentially gay of heart.

"Do put away those stupid old stockings and come out with us!" she
begged, still hanging over Avery. "Don't you hate darning? I do. We had
to do our own before you came. I was very naughty one day last summer. I
went out and played in the garden instead of mending my stockings, and
Father found out." Gracie cast up her eyes dramatically. "He sent me in
to do them, and went off to one of his old parish parties; and I just
sneaked out as soon as his back was turned and went on with the game. But
there was no luck that day. He came back to fetch something and caught
me. And then--just imagine!" Again Gracie was dramatic, though this time
unconsciously. "He sent me to bed and--what do you think? When he came
home to tea, he--whipped me!"

Avery threaded her needle with care. She said nothing.

"I think it was rather a shame," went on Gracie unconcernedly. "Because
he never whips Jeanie or Olive. But then, he can make them cry without,
and he can't make me. I 'spect that's what made him do it, don't you?"

"I don't know, dear," said Avery rather shortly.

Gracie peered round into her face. "Mrs. Denys, you don't like Father, do
you?" she said.

"My dear, that's not a nice question to ask," said Avery, with her eyes
on her work.

"I don't know why not," said Gracie. "I don't like him myself, and he
knows I don't. He'd whip me again if he got the chance, but I'm too jolly
careful now. I was pleased that you got Ronnie and Julian off the other
day. He never suspected, did he? I thought I should have burst during
prayers. It was so funny."

"My dear!" protested Avery.

"Yes, I know," said Gracie. "But you aren't really shocked, dear, kind
Mrs. Denys! You know you aren't. I can see your sweet little dimple.
No, I can't! Yes, I can! I do love your dimple. It goes in and out
like the sun."

Avery leaned back abruptly in her chair. "Oh, foolish one!" she said, and
gathered the child to her with a warmth to which the ardent Gracie was
swift to respond.

"And you are coming out with us, aren't you? Because it's so lovely and
cold. I want to go up on that big hill in Rodding Park, and run and run
and run till I just can't run any longer. Ronnie and Julian are coming
too. And Jeanie and Olive and Pat. We ought to begin and collect holly
for the church decorations. You'll be able to help this year, won't you?
Miss Whalley always bosses things. Have you met Miss Whalley yet? She's
quite the funniest person in Rodding. She was the daughter of the last
Vicar, and she has never forgotten it. So odd of her! As if there were
anything in it! I often wish I weren't a parson's daughter. I'd much
rather belong to someone who had to go up to town every day. There would
be much more fun for everybody then."

Avery was laying her mending together. She supposed she ought to check
the child's chatter, but felt too much in sympathy with her to do so. "I
really don't know if I ought to come," she said. "But it is certainly too
fine an afternoon for you to waste indoors. Where are the boys?"

"Oh, they're messing about somewhere in the garden. You see, they've got
to keep out of sight or Father will set them to work to roll the lawn. He
always does that sort of thing. He calls it 'turning our youthful
energies to good account.'" Very suddenly and wickedly Grade mimicked the
pastoral tones. "But the boys call it 'nigger-driving,'" she added, "and
I think the boys are right. When I'm grown up, I'll never, never, never
make my children do horrid things like that. They shall have--oh, such a
good time!"

There was unconscious pathos in the declaration. Avery looked at the
bright face very tenderly.

"I wonder what you'll do with them when they're naughty, Gracie," she
said.

"I shall never whip them," said Gracie decidedly. "I think whipping is a
horrid punishment. It makes you hate everybody. I think I shan't punish
them at all, Mrs. Denys. I shall just tell them how wrong they've been,
and that they are never to do it again. And I'm sure they won't," she
added, with confidence. "They'll love me too much."

She slipped her arm round Avery's waist as she rose. "Do you know I would
dreadfully like to call you Aunt Avery?" she said. "I said so to Jeanie,
and Jeanie wants to too. Do you mind?"

"Mind!" said Avery. "I shall love it."

"Oh, thank you--awfully!" Grade kissed her fervently. "I'll run and tell
Jeanie. She will be pleased."

She skipped from the room, and Avery went to prepare for the walk. "Poor
little souls!" she murmured to herself. "How I wish they were mine!"

They mustered only five when they started--the three girls, Pat, and
Avery herself; but ere they had reached the end of the lane the two elder
boys leapt the Vicarage wall with a whoop of triumph and joined them. The
party became at once uproariously gay. Everyone talked at the same time,
even Jeanie becoming animated. Avery rejoiced to see the pretty face
flushed and merry. She had begun to feel twinges of anxiety about Jeanie
lately. But she was able to banish them at least for to-day, for Jeanie
ran and chattered with the rest. In fact, Olive was the only one who
showed any disposition to walk sedately. It had to be remembered that
Olive was the clever one of the family. She more closely resembled her
father than any of the others, and Avery firmly believed her to be the
only member of the family that Mr. Lorimer really loved. She was a
cold-hearted, sarcastic child, extremely self-contained, giving nothing
and receiving nothing in return. It was impossible to become intimate
with her. Avery had given up the attempt almost at the outset, realizing
that it was not in Olive's nature to be intimate with anyone. They were
always exceedingly polite to each other, but beyond that their
acquaintance made no progress. Olive lived in a world of books, and the
practical side of life scarcely touched her, and most certainly never
appealed to her sympathy. "She will be her father over again," Mrs.
Lorimer would declare, with pathetic pride. "So dignified, so handsome,
and so clever!"

And Avery agreed, not without reserve, that she certainly resembled him
to a marked degree.

She was by far the most sober member of the party that entered Rodding
Park that afternoon. Avery, inspired by the merriment around her, was in
a frankly frivolous mood. She was fast friends with the two elder boys,
who had voted her a brick on the night that she had intervened to
deliver them from the just retribution for their misdeeds. They had
conceived an immense admiration for her which placed her in a highly
privileged position.

"If Mrs. Denys says so, it is so," was Ronald's fiat, and she knew that
such influence as he possessed with his brothers and sisters was always
at her disposal.

She liked Ronald. The boy was a gentleman. Though slow, he was solid; and
she suspected that he possessed more depth of character than the more
brilliant Julian. Julian was crafty; there was no denying it. She was
sure that he would get on in the world. But of Ronald's future she was
not so sure. It seemed to her that he might plod on for ever without
reaching his goal. He kept near her throughout that riotous scamper
through the bare, wind-swept Park, making it plain that he regarded
himself as her lieutenant whether she required his services or not. As a
matter of fact, she did not require them, but she was glad to have him
there and she keenly appreciated the gentlemanly consideration with which
he helped her over every stile.

They reached the high hill of Gracie's desire, and rapidly climbed it.
The sun had passed over to the far west and had already begun to dip ere
they reached the summit.

"Now we'll all stand in a row and race down," announced Gracie, when
they reached the top. "Aunt Avery will start us. We'll run as far as that
big oak-tree on the edge of the wood. Now line up, everybody!"

"I'm not going to do anything so silly," said Olive decidedly. "Mrs.
Denys and I will follow quietly."

"Oh no!" laughed Avery. "You can do the starting, my dear, and I will
race with the others."

Olive looked at her, faintly contemptuous. "Oh, of course if you prefer
it--" she said.

"I do indeed!" Avery assured her. "But I think the two big boys and I
ought to be handicapped. Jeanie and Gracie and Pat must go ten paces
in front."

"I am bigger than Gracie and Pat," said Jeanie. "I think I ought to
go midway."

"Of course," agreed Ronald. "And, Aunt Avery, you must go with her. You
can't start level with Julian and me."

Avery laughed at the amendment and fell in with it. They adjusted
themselves for the trial of speed, while Olive stationed herself on a
mole-hill to give the signal.

The valley below them was in deep shadow. The last of the sunlight lay
upon the hilltop. It shone dazzlingly in Avery's eyes as the race began.

There had been a sprinkling of snow the day before, and the grass was
crisp and rough. She felt it crush under her feet with a keen sense of
enjoyment. Instinctively she put all her buoyant strength into the run.
She left Jeanie behind, overtook and passed the two younger children, and
raced like a hare down the slope. Keenly the wind whistled past her, and
she rejoiced to feel its clean purity rush into her lungs. She was for
the moment absurdly, rapturously happy,--a child amongst children.

The sun went out of sight, and the darkness of the valley swallowed her.
She sped on, fleet-footed, flushed and laughing, moving as if on wings.

She neared the dark line of wood, and saw the stark, outstretched
branches of the oak that was her goal. In the same instant she caught
sight of a man's figure standing beneath it, apparently waiting for her.

He had evidently just come out of the wood. He carried a gun on his
shoulder, but the freedom of his pose was so striking that she likened
him on the instant to a Roman gladiator.

She could not stop herself at once though she checked her speed, and when
she finally managed to come to a stand, she was close to him.

He stepped forward to meet her with a royal air of welcome. "How nice of
you to come and call on me!" he said.

His dark eyes shone mischievously as they greeted her, and she was too
flushed and dishevelled to stand upon ceremony. Pantingly she threw back
her gay reply.

"This is the children's happy hunting ground, not mine, I suppose, if the
truth were told, we are trespassing."

He made her his sweeping bow. "There is not a corner of this estate that
is not utterly and for ever at your service."

He turned as the two elder boys came racing up, and she saw the
half-mocking light go out of his eyes as they glanced up the hill.
"Hullo!" he said. "There's one of them come to grief."

Sharply she turned also. Pat and Gracie were having a spirited race down
the lower slope of the hill. Olive had begun to descend from the top with
becoming dignity. And midway, poor Jeanie crouched in a forlorn little
heap with her hands tightly covering her face.

"The child's hurt!" exclaimed Avery.

She started to run back, but in a moment Piers sprang past her, crying,
"All right. Don't run! Take it easy!"

He himself went like the wind. She watched him with subconscious
admiration. He was so superbly lithe and strong.

She saw him reach Jeanie and kneel down beside her. There was no
hesitation about him. He was evidently deeply concerned. He slipped a
persuasive arm about the child's huddled form.

When Avery reached them, Jeanie's head in its blue woollen cap was
pillowed against him and she was telling him sobbingly of her trouble.

"I--I caught my foot. I don't know--how I did it. It twisted right
round--and oh, it does hurt, I--I--I can't help--being silly!"

"All right, kiddie, all right!" said Piers. "It was one of those
confounded rabbit-holes. There! You'll be better in a minute. Got a
handkerchief, what? Oh, never mind! Take mine!"

He pulled it out and dried her eyes as tenderly as if he had been a
woman; then raised his head abruptly and spoke to Avery.

"I expect it's a sprain. I'd better get her boot off and see, what?"

"No, we had better take her home first," said Avery with quick decision.

"All right," said Piers at once. "I'll carry her. I daresay she isn't
very heavy. I say, little girl, you mustn't cry." He patted her shoulder
kindly. "It hurts horribly, I know. These things always do. But you're
going to show me how plucky you can be. Women are always braver than men,
aren't they, Mrs. Denys?"

Thus admonished, Jeanie lifted her face and made a valiant effort to
regain her self-command. But she clasped her two hands very tightly upon
Piers' arm so that he could not move to lift her.

"I'll be brave in a minute," she promised him tremulously. "You won't
mind waiting--just a minute?"

"Two, if you like," said Piers.

Avery was stooping over the injured foot. Jeanie was propped sideways,
half-lying against Piers' knee.

"Don't touch it, please, Aunt Avery!" she whispered.

The other children had drawn round in an interested group. "It looks like
a fracture to me," observed Olive in her precise voice.

Piers flashed her a withering glance. "Mighty lot you know about it!" he
retorted rudely.

Pat sniggered. He was not fond of his second sister. But his mirth was
checked by the impulsive Gracie who pushed him aside with a brief,
"Don't be a pig!"

Olive retired into the background with her nose in the air, looking so
absurdly like her father that a gleam of humour shot through even Piers'
sternness. He suppressed it and turned to the two elder boys.

"Which of you is to be trusted to carry a loaded gun?"

"I am," said Julian.

"No--Ronald," said Avery very firmly.

Julian stuck out his tongue at her, and was instantly pummeled therefor
by the zealous Gracie.

"Ronald," said Piers. "Mind how you pick it up, and don't point it at
anyone! Carry it on your shoulder! That's the way. Go slow with it! Now
you walk in front and take it down to the lodge!"

He issued his orders with the air of a commanding-officer, and having
issued them turned again with renewed gentleness to the child who lay
against his arm.

"Now, little girl, shall we make a move? I'm afraid postponing it won't
make it any better. I'll carry you awfully carefully."

"Thank you," whispered Jeanie.

He stooped over her. "Put your arm round my neck! That'll be a help. Mrs.
Denys, can you steady her foot while I get up?"

Avery bent to do so. He moved with infinite care; but even so the strain
upon the foot was inevitable. Jeanie gave a sharp cry, and sank helpless
in his arms.

He began to speak encouragingly but broke off in the middle, feeling the
child's head lie limp upon his shoulder.

"Afraid it's serious," he said to Avery. "We will get her down to the
lodge and send for a doctor."

"By Jove! She's fainted!" remarked Julian. "It's a jolly bad sprain."

"It's not a sprain at all," said Olive loftily.

And much as she would have liked to disagree, Avery knew that she
was right.



CHAPTER VII

A FRIEND IN NEED


Mrs. Marshall at the lodge was a hard-featured old woman whose god was
cleanliness. Perhaps it was hardly to be expected of her that she should
throw open her door to the whole party. Piers, with his limp burden, and
Avery she had to admit, but after the latter's entrance she sternly
blocked the way.

"There's no room for any more," she declared with finality. "You'd best
run along home."

And with that she shut the door upon them and followed her unwelcome
visitors into her spotless parlour.

"What's the matter with the young lady?" she enquired sourly.

Avery answered her in her quick, friendly way. "She has had a fall, poor
little thing, and hurt her foot--I'm afraid, badly. It's so good of you
to let us bring her in here. Won't you spread a cloth to keep her boots
off your clean chintz?"

The suggestion was what Piers described later as "a lucky hit." It melted
old Mrs. Marshall on the instant. She hastened to comply with it, and saw
Jeanie laid down upon her sofa with comparative resignation.

"She do look mortal bad, to be sure," she remarked.

"Can't you find some brandy?" said Piers.

"I think she will come to, now," Avery said. "Yes, look! Her eyes
are opening."

She was right. Jeanie's eyes opened very wide and fixed themselves
enquiringly upon Piers' face. There was something in them, a species of
dumb appeal, that went straight to his heart. He moved impulsively, and
knelt beside her.

Jeanie's hand came confidingly forth to him. "I did try to be brave," she
whispered.

Piers' hand closed instantly and warmly upon hers. "That's all right,
little girl," he said kindly. "Pain pretty bad, eh?"

"Yes," murmured Jeanie.

"Ah, well, don't move!" he said. "We'll get your boot off and then you'll
feel better."

"Oh, don't trouble, please!" said Jeanie politely.

She held his hand very tightly, and he divined that the prospect of the
boot's removal caused her considerable apprehension.

He looked round to consult Avery on the subject, but found that she had
slipped out of the room. He heard her in the porch speaking to the
children, and in a few seconds she was back again.

"Don't let us keep you!" she said to Piers. "I can stay with Jeanie now.
I have sent the children home, all but Ronald and Julian who have gone to
fetch Dr. Tudor."

Piers looked at Jeanie, and Jeanie looked at Piers. Her hand was still
fast locked in his.

"Shall I go?" said Piers.

Jeanie's blue eyes were very wistful. "I would like you to stay," she
said shyly, "if you don't mind."

"If Mrs. Denys doesn't mind?" suggested Piers.

To which Avery responded. "Thank you. Please stay!"

She said it for Jeanie's sake, since it was evident that the child was
sustaining herself on the man's strength, but the look Piers flashed her
made her a little doubtful as to the wisdom of her action. She realized
that it might not be easy to keep him at arm's length after this.

Piers turned back to Jeanie. "Very well, I'll stay," he said, "anyhow
till Tudor comes along. Let's see! You're the eldest girl, aren't you? I
ought to know you by name, but somehow my memory won't run to it."

He could not as a matter of fact remember that he had ever spoken to any
of the young Lorimers before, though by sight he was well acquainted
with them.

Jeanie, in whose eyes he had ever shone as a knight of romance, murmured
courteously that no one ever remembered them all by name.

"Well, I shall remember you anyhow," said Piers. "Queenie is it?"

"No,--Jeanie."

"I shall call you Queenie," he said. "It sounds more imposing. Now won't
you let me just slit off that boot? I can do it without hurting you."

"Slit it!" said Jeanie, shocked.

"We shan't get it off without," said Piers. "What do you think about it,
Mrs. Denys?"

"I will unfasten the lace first," Avery said.

This she proceeded to do while Piers occupied Jeanie's attention with a
success which a less dominant personality could scarcely have achieved.

But when it came to removing the boot he went to Avery's assistance. It
was no easy matter but they accomplished it between them, Piers
ruthlessly cutting the leather away from the injured ankle which by that
time was badly swollen. They propped it on a cushion, and made her as
comfortable as circumstances would allow.

"Can't that old woman make you some tea?" Piers said then, beginning to
chafe at the prospect of an indefinite period of inaction.

"I think she is boiling her kettle now," Avery answered.

Piers grunted. He fidgeted to the window and back, and then, finding
Jeanie's eyes still mutely watching him, he pulled up a chair to her side
and took the slender hand again into his own.

Avery turned her attention to coaxing the fire to burn, and presently
went out to Mrs. Marshall in her kitchen to offer her services there. She
was graciously permitted to cut some bread and butter while the old woman
prepared a tray.

"I suppose it was Master Piers' fault," the latter remarked with
severity. "He's always up to some mischief or other."

Avery hastened to assure her that upon this occasion Piers was absolutely
blameless and had been of the utmost assistance to them.

"I'm very glad to hear it," said Mrs. Marshall. "He's a feckless young
gentleman, and I often think as he's like to bring the old master's hairs
with sorrow to the grave. Sir Beverley do set such store by him, always
did from the day he brought him back from his dead mother in Paris, along
with that French valet who carried him like as if he'd been a parcel of
goods. He's been brought up by men from his cradle, miss, and it hasn't
done him any good. But there! Sir Beverley is that set against all
womenkind there's no moving him."

Mrs. Marshall was beginning to expand--a mark of high favour which she
bestowed only upon the few.

Avery listened with respect, comfortably aware that by this simple means
she was creating a good impression. She was anxious to win the old dame
to a benevolent frame of mind if possible, since to be thrown upon
unwilling hospitality was the last thing she desired.

It was characteristic of her that she achieved her purpose. When she
returned to the parlour in Mrs. Marshall's wake, she had completely won
her hostess's heart, a fact which Piers remarked on the instant.

"There's magic in you," he said to Avery, as she gave him his cup of
tea.

"I prefer to call it common sense," she answered.

She turned her attention at once to Jeanie, coaxing her to drink the tea
though her utmost persuasion could not induce her to eat anything. She
was evidently suffering a good deal of pain, but she begged them not to
trouble about her. "Please have your tea, Aunt Avery! I shall be quite
all right."

"Yes, Aunt Avery must certainly have some tea," said Piers with
determination, and he refused to touch his own until she had done so.

It was a relief to all three of them when the doctor's dogcart was heard
on the drive. Avery rose at once and went to receive him.

Piers stretched a kindly arm behind the cushion that supported Jeanie's
head. "Do you really want me to stay with you, little girl?" he asked.

Jeanie was very white, but she looked at him bravely. "Do you
mind?" she said.

His dark eyes smiled encouragement. "No, of course I don't mind if I can
be of any use to you. Tudor will probably want to kick me out, but if you
have the smallest desire to keep me, I'll stay."

"You are kind," said Jeanie very earnestly. "I think it will help me to
be brave if I may hold your hand. You have such a strong hand."

"It is entirely at your service," said Piers.

He turned in his chair at the doctor's entrance, without rising. His
attitude was decidedly dogged. He looked as if he anticipated a struggle.

Dr. Tudor came in behind Avery. He was a man of forty, curt of speech and
short of temper, with eyes that gleamed shrewdly behind gold pince-nez.
He gave Piers a look that was conspicuously lacking in cordiality.

"Hullo!" he said. "You here!"

"Yes, I'm here," said Piers.

The doctor's eyes passed him and went straight to the white face of the
child on the sofa. He advanced and bent over her.

"So you've had an accident, eh?" he said.

"Yes," whispered Jeanie, pressing a little closer to Piers.

"What happened?"

"I think it was a rabbit-hole," said Jeanie not very lucidly.

"Caught your foot and fell, I suppose?" said the doctor. "Was that all?
Did you do any walking after it?"

"Oh no!" said Jeanie, with a shudder. "Mr. Evesham carried me."

"I see." He was holding her wrist between his fingers. Very suddenly he
looked at Piers again. "I can't have you here," he said.

"Can't you?" said Piers. He threw back his head with an aggressive
movement, but said no more.

"Please let him stay!" said Jeanie beseechingly.

The doctor frowned.

In a low voice Avery intervened. "I told him he might--for the
child's sake."

Dr. Tudor turned his hawk eyes upon her. "Who are you, may I ask?"

Piers' free hand clenched, and a sudden hot flush rose to his forehead.
But Avery made answer before he could speak.

"I am the mother's help at the Vicarage. My name is Denys--Mrs. Denys.
And Jeanie is in my care. Now, will you look at the injury?"

She smiled a little as she said it, but the decision of her speech was
past disputing. Dr. Tudor regarded her piercingly for a moment or two,
then without a word turned aside.

The tension went out of Piers' attitude; he held Jeanie comfortingly
close.

At the end of a brief examination the doctor spoke. "Yes. A simple
fracture. I can soon put that to rights. You can help me, Mrs. Denys."

He went to work at once, giving occasional curt directions to Avery,
while Jeanie clung convulsively to Piers, her face buried in his coat,
and fought for self-control.

It was a very plucky fight, for the ordeal was a severe one; and when it
was over the poor child broke down completely in spite of all her efforts
and wept upon Piers' shoulder. He soothed and consoled her with the
utmost kindness. It had been something of an ordeal for him also, and
with relief he turned his attention to comforting her.

She soon grew calmer and apologized humbly for her weakness. "I don't
think I could have borne it without you," she told him, with
tremulous sincerity. "But I'm so dreadfully sorry to have given you
all this trouble."

"That's all right," Piers assured her. "I'm glad you found me of use."

He dried her tears for the second time that afternoon, and then, with a
somewhat obvious effort at civility, addressed the doctor.

"I suppose it will be all right to move her now? Can we take her home in
the landaulette?"

Curtly the doctor made answer. "Very well indeed, I should say, if we
lift her carefully and keep the foot straight. I'll drive you to the
Abbey if you like. I'm going up to see your grandfather."

"I don't know why you should," said Piers quickly. "There's nothing the
matter with him."

Dr. Tudor made no reply. "Are you coming?" he asked.

"No, thanks." There was latent triumph in Piers' response. "If you are
going up, you can give the order for the landaulette, and tell my
grandfather I am staying to see Miss Lorimer safely home."

Dr. Tudor grunted and turned away, frowning.

"Well, so long!" he said to Jeanie. "I'll look in on my way back, and
lend a hand with moving you. But you will be all right now if you do as
you're told."

"Thank you," said Jeanie meekly.

He went out with Avery, and the door closed behind them.

Jeanie stole a glance at Piers who was looking decidedly grim.

"Yes," he said in answer. "I detest him, and he knows it."

Jeanie looked a little startled. "Oh, do you?" she said.

"Don't you?" said Piers.

"I--I really don't know. Isn't it--isn't it wrong to detest anyone!"
faltered Jeanie.

"Wrong!" said Piers. He frowned momentarily, then as suddenly he smiled.
He bent very abruptly and kissed her on the forehead. "Yes, of course
it's wrong," he said, "for the people who keep consciences."

"Oh, but--" Jeanie remonstrated, and then something in his face stopped
her. She flushed and murmured in confusion, "Thank you for!--for
kissing me!"

"Don't mention it!" said Piers, with a laugh.

"I should like to kiss you if I may," said Jeanie. "You have been so
very kind."

He bent his face to hers and received the kiss. "You're a nice little
girl," he said, and there was an odd note of feeling in the words for all
their lightness that made Jeanie aware that in some fashion he was moved.

"I don't think he is quite--quite happy, do you?" she said to Avery that
night when the worst of her troubles were over, and she was safely back
at the Vicarage.

And Avery answered thoughtfully, "Perhaps--not quite."



CHAPTER VIII

A TALK BY THE FIRE


The Reverend Stephen Lorimer was writing his sermon for the last Sunday
in Advent. His theme was eternal punishment and one which he considered
worthy of his utmost eloquence. There was nothing mythical or allegorical
in that subject in the opinion of the Reverend Stephen. He believed in it
most firmly, and the belief afforded him the keenest satisfaction. It was
a nerve-shaking sermon. Had it been of a secular nature, it might almost
have been described as inhuman, so obviously was it designed to render
his hearers afraid to go home in the dark. But since it was not secular,
it took the form of a fine piece of inspiration which, from Mr. Lorimer's
point of view at least, could scarcely fail to make the most stubborn
heart in his congregation tremble. He pictured himself delivering his
splendid rhetoric with a grand and noble severity as impressive as the
words he had to utter, reading appreciation--possibly unwilling
appreciation--and dawning uneasiness on the upturned faces of his
listeners.

Mr. Lorimer did not love his flock; his religion did not take that
form. And the flock very naturally as a whole had scant affection for
Mr. Lorimer. The flock knew, or shrewdly suspected, that his eloquence
was mere sound--not always even musical--and as a consequence its
power was somewhat thrown away. His command of words was practically
limitless, but words could not carry him to the hearts of his
congregation, and he had no other means at his disposal. For this of
course he blamed the congregation, which certainly had no right to wink
and snigger when he passed.

This Advent sermon however was a masterpiece, and as Mr. Lorimer lovingly
fingered the pages of his manuscript he told himself that it could not
fail to make an impression upon the most hardened sinner.

A low knock at the door disturbed these pleasant thoughts and he frowned.
There was an unwritten law at the Vicarage that save for the most urgent
of reasons he should never be interrupted at this hour.

Softly the door opened. Humbly his wife peeped in.

"Are you very busy, Stephen?"

His frown melted away. Here at least was one whose appreciation was never
lacking. "Well, my dear Adelaide, I think I may truthfully say that the
stress of my business is fairly over. You may come in."

She crept in, mouse-like, and a distant burst of music wafted in with
her, causing her to turn and quickly close the door.

"Have you finished your sermon, dear? Can we have a little talk?" she
asked him nervously.

He stretched out a large white hand to her without rising. "Yes. I do not
think much remains to be said. We have as it were regarded the matter
from every point of view. I do not think there will be many consciences
unaroused when I have enunciated my final warning."

"You have such a striking delivery," murmured Mrs. Lorimer, clasping the
firm white hand between both her own.

Mr. Lorimer's eyes vanished in an unctuous smile. "Thou idle
flatterer!" he said.

"No, indeed, dear," his wife protested. "I think you are always
impressive, especially at the end of your sermons. That pause you make
before you turn your face to the altar--it seems to me so effective--so,
if one may say it, dramatic."

"To what request is this the prelude?" enquired Mr. Lorimer, emerging
from his smile.

She laughed a little nervous laugh. Her thin face was flushed. "Shall we
sit by the fire, Stephen, as we used to that first happy winter--do you
remember?--after we were married?"

"Dear me!" said Mr. Lorimer. "This sounds like a plunge into sentiment."

Nevertheless he rose with a tolerant twinkle and seated himself in the
large easy-chair before the fire. It was the only really comfortable
chair in the room. He kept it for his moments of reflection.

Mrs. Lorimer sat down at his feet on the fender-curb, her tiny hand still
clinging to his. "This is a real treat," she said, laying her head
against his knee with a gesture oddly girlish. "It isn't often, is it,
that we have it all to ourselves?"

"What is it you have to say to me?" he enquired.

She drew his hand down gently over her shoulder, and held it against her
cheek. There fell a brief silence, then she said with a slight effort:
"Your idea of a mother's help has worked wonderfully, Stephen. As you
know, I was averse to it at first but I am so glad you insisted. Dear
Avery is a greater comfort to me than I can possibly tell you."

"Avery!" repeated the Reverend Stephen, with brows elevated. "I presume
you are talking of Mrs. Denys?"

"Yes, dear. I call her Avery. I feel her to be almost one of ourselves."
There was just a hint of apology in Mrs. Lorimer's voice. "She has
been--and is--so very kind to me," she said. "I really don't know what
the children and I would do without her."

"I am glad to hear she is kind," said Mr. Lorimer, with a touch
of acidity.

"My dearest, she is quite our equal in position," murmured Mrs. Lorimer.

"That may be, my dear Adelaide." The acidity developed into a note of
displeasure. "In a sense doubtless we are all equal. But in spite of
that, extremes of intimacy are often inadvisable. I do not think you are
altogether discreet in making a bosom friend of a woman in Mrs. Denys's
position. A very good woman, I grant you. But familiarity with her is
altogether unsuitable. From my own experience of her I am convinced that
she would very soon presume upon it."

He paused. Mrs. Lorimer said nothing. She was sitting motionless with her
soft eyes on the fire.

Mr. Lorimer looked down at the brown head at his knee with growing
severity. "You will, therefore, Adelaide, in deference to my wish--if for
no other reason--discontinue this use of Mrs. Denys's Christian name."

Mrs. Lorimer's lips moved, but they said nothing.

"Adelaide!" He spoke with cold surprise.

Instantly her fingers tightened upon his with a grip that was almost
passionate. She raised her head, and looked up at him with earnest,
pleading eyes. "I am sorry, Stephen--dear Stephen--but I have already
given my friendship to--to Mrs. Denys. She has been--she is--like a
sister to me. So you see, I can't possibly take it away again. You would
not wish it if you knew."

"If I knew!" repeated Mr. Lorimer, in a peculiar tone.

She turned her face from him again, but he leaned slowly forward in his
chair and taking her chin between his finger and thumb turned it
deliberately back again.

She shrank a little, but she did not resist him. He looked searchingly
into her eyes. The lids flickered nervously under his gaze, but he did
not relax his scrutiny.

"Well?" he said.

Her lips quivered. She said nothing.

But her silence was enough. He released her abruptly and dropped back in
his chair without another word.

She sank down trembling against his knee, and there followed a most
painful pause. Through the stillness there crept again the faint
strains of distant music. Someone was playing the Soldiers' March out
of _Faust_ on the old cracked schoolroom piano, which was rising nobly
to the occasion.

Mr. Lorimer moved at length and turned his head. "Who is that playing?"

"Piers Evesham," whispered Mrs. Lorimer. She was weeping softly and dared
not stir lest he should discover the fact.

There was a deep, vertical line between Mr. Lorimer's brows. "And what
may Piers Evesham be doing here?" he enquired.

"He comes often--to see Jeanie," murmured his wife deprecatingly.

He laughed unpleasantly. "A vast honour for Jeanie!"

Two tears fell from Mrs. Lorimer's eyes. She began to feel furtively for
her handkerchief.

"And Dr. Lennox Tudor,"--he pronounced the name with elaborate care,--"he
comes--often--for the same reason, I presume?"

"He--he came to see me yesterday," faltered Mrs. Lorimer.

"Indeed!" The word was as water dropped from an icicle.

She dabbed her eyes and bravely turned and faced him. "Stephen dear, I am
very sorry. I didn't want to vex you unnecessarily. I hoped against
hope--" She broke off, and knelt up before him, clasping his hand tightly
against her breast. "Stephen--dearest, you said--when our firstborn
came--that he was--God's gift."

"Well?" Again that one, uncompromising word. The vertical line deepened
between her husband's brows. His eyes looked coldly back at her.

Mrs. Lorimer caught her breath on a little sob. "Will not this little
one--be just as much so?" she whispered.

He began to draw his hand away from her. "My dear Adelaide, we will not
be foolishly sentimental. What must be, must. I am afraid I must ask you
to run away now as I have yet to put the finishing touches to my sermon.
Perhaps you will kindly request young Evesham on my behalf to make a
little less noise."

He deliberately put her from him, and prepared to rise. But Mrs. Lorimer
suddenly and very unexpectedly rose first. She stood before him, slightly
bending, her hands on his broad shoulders.

"Will you kiss me, Stephen?" she said.

He lifted a grim, reluctant face. She stooped, slipping her arms about
his neck. "My own dear husband!" she whispered.

He endured her embrace for a couple of seconds; then, "That will do,
Adelaide," he said with decision. "You must not let yourself get
emotional. Dear me! It is getting late. I am afraid I really must ask you
to leave me."

Her arms fell. She drew back, dispirited. "Forgive me,--oh, forgive me!"
she murmured miserably.

He turned back to his writing-table, still frowning. "I was not aware
that I had anything to forgive," he said. "But if you think so,--" he
shrugged his shoulders, beginning already to turn the pages of his
masterpiece--"my forgiveness is yours. I wonder if you would care to
divert your thoughts from what I am sure you will admit to be a purely
selfish channel by listening to a portion of this Advent sermon."

"What is it about?" asked Mrs. Lorimer, hesitating.

"My theme," said the Reverend Stephen, "is the awful doom that awaits
the unrepentant sinner."

There was a moment's silence, and then Mrs. Lorimer did an extraordinary
thing. She turned from him and walked to the door.

"Thank you very much, Stephen," she said, and she spoke with decision
albeit her voice was not wholly steady. "But I don't feel that that kind
of diversion would do me much good. I think I shall run up to the nursery
and see Baby Phil have his bath."

She was gone; but so noiselessly that Mr. Lorimer, turning in his chair
to rebuke her frivolity, found himself addressing the closed door.

He turned back again with a heavy sigh. There seemed to be some
disturbing element at work. Time had been when she had deemed it her
dearest privilege to sit and listen to his sermons. He could not
understand her refusal of an offer that ought to have delighted her. He
hoped that her heart was not becoming hardened.

Could he have seen her ascending the stairs at that moment with the tears
running down her face, he might have realized that that fear at least was
groundless.



CHAPTER IX

THE TICKET OF LEAVE


Seated at the schoolroom piano, Piers was thoroughly in his element. He
had a marvellous gift for making music, and his audience listened
spell-bound. His own love for it amounted to a passion, inherited, so it
was said, from his Italian grandmother. He threw his whole soul into the
instrument under his hands, and played as one inspired.

Jeanie, from her sofa, drank in the music with shining eyes. She had
never heard anything to compare with it before, and it stirred her to
the depths.

It stirred Avery also, but in a different way. The personality of the
player forced itself upon her with a curious insistence, and she had an
odd feeling that he did it by deliberate intention. Every chord he struck
seemed to speak to her directly, compelling her attention, dominating her
will. He was playing to her alone, and, though she chose to ignore the
fact, she was none the less aware of it. By his music he enthralled her,
making her see the things he saw, making her feel the fiery unrest that
throbbed in every beat of his heart.

Gracie, standing beside him, watching with fascinated eyes the strong
hands that charmed from the old piano such music as probably it had never
before uttered, was enthralled also, but only in a superficial sense. She
was keenly interested in the play of his fingers, which seemed to her
quite wonderful, as indeed it was.

He took no more notice of her admiring gaze than if she had been a fly,
pouring out his magic flood of music with eyes fixed straight before him
and lips that were sometimes hard and sometimes tender. He might have
been a man in a trance.

And then very suddenly the spell was broken. For no apparent reason, he
fell headlong from his heights and burst into a merry little jig that set
Gracie dancing like an elf.

He became aware of her then, threw her a laugh, quickened to a mad
tarantella that nearly whirled her off her feet, finally ended with a
crashing chord, and whizzed round on the music-stool in time to catch her
as she fell gasping against him.

"What a featherweight you are!" he laughed. "You'll dance the Thames on
fire some day. Giddy, what?"

Gracie lay in his arms in a collapsed condition. "You--you made me do
it!" she panted.

"To be sure!" said Piers. "I'm a wizard. Didn't you know? I can make
anybody do anything." There was a ring of triumph in his voice.

Jeanie drew a deep breath and nodded from her sofa. "It's called
hyp--hyp--Aunt Avery, what is the word?"

"Aunt Avery doesn't know," said Piers. "And why Aunt Avery, I wonder?
You'll be calling me Uncle Piers next."

Both children laughed. "I have a special name for you," Jeanie said.

But Piers was not attending. He cast a daring glance across the room at
Avery who was darning stockings under the lamp.

"Do they call you Aunt Avery because you are so old?" he enquired, as
Avery did not respond to it.

She smiled a little. "I expect so," she said.

"Oh no!" said Jeanie politely. "Only because we are children and she is
grown up."

Piers, with Gracie still lounging comfortably on his knee, bowed to her.
"I thank your majesty. I appeal to you as queen of this establishment; am
I--as a grown-up--entitled to drop the title of Aunt when addressing the
gracious lady in question?"

Again he glanced towards Avery, but she did not raise her eyes. She
worked on, still with that faint, enigmatical smile about her lips.

Jeanie looked slightly dubious. "I don't think you could ever call her
Aunt, could you?" she said.

Piers turned upon the music-stool, and with one of Gracie's fingers began
to pick out an impromptu tune that somehow had a saucy ring.

"I like that," said Gracie, enchanted.

He laughed. "Yes, it's pretty, isn't it? It's--Avery without the Aunt."

He began to elaborate the tune, accompanying it with his left hand, to
Gracie's huge delight, "Here we come into a minor key," he said, speaking
obviously and exclusively to Gracie; "this is Avery when she is cross and
inclined to be down on a fellow. And here we begin to get a little
excited and breathless; this is Avery in a tantrum, getting angrier and
angrier every moment." He hammered out his impertinent little melody with
fevered energy, protest from Gracie notwithstanding. "No, you've never
seen her in a tantrum of course. Thank your lucky stars you haven't! It's
an awful sight, take my word for it! She calls you a brute and nearly
knocks you down with a horsewhip." The music became very descriptive at
this point; then gradually returned to the original refrain, somewhat
amplified and embellished. "This is Avery in her everyday mood--sweet and
kind and reasonable,--the Avery we all know and love--with just a hint
of what the French call _'diablerie'_ to make her--_tout-a-fait
adorable_."

He cast his eyes up at the ceiling, and then, releasing Gracie's hand,
brought his impromptu to a close with a few soft chords.

"Here endeth the Avery Symphony!" he declared, swinging round again on
the music-stool. "I could show you another Avery, but she is not on view
to everybody. It's quite possible that she has never seen herself yet."

He got up with the words, tweaked Gracie's hair, caressed Jeanie's, and
strolled across to the fire beside which Avery sat with her work.

"It's awfully kind of you to tolerate me like this," he said.

"Isn't it?" said Avery, without raising her eyes.

He looked down at her, an odd gleam in his own that came and went like a
leaping flame.

"You suffer fools gladly, don't you?" he said, a queer inflection that
was half a challenge in his voice.

She frowned very slightly above her stocking. "Not particularly," she
said.

"You bear with them then?" Piers tone was insistent.

She paused as though considering her reply. "I generally try to avoid
them," she said finally.

"You keep aloof--and darn stockings," suggested Piers.

"And listen to your music," said Avery.

"Do you like my music?" He shot the question at her imperiously.

Avery nodded.

"Really? You do really?" There was boyish eagerness about him now. He
leaned towards her, his brown face aglow.

She nodded again. "Do you ever--write music?"

"No," said Piers.

"Why not?"

He answered with a curious touch of bitterness. "No one would understand
it if I did."

"But what a mistake!" she said.

"Is it? Why?" His voice sounded stubborn.

She looked suddenly straight up at him and spoke with impulsive warmth.
"Because it is quite beside the point. It wouldn't matter to anyone but
yourself whether people understood it or not. Of course popularity is
pleasant. Everyone likes it. But do you suppose the really big people
think at all about the world's opinion when they are at work? They just
give of their best because nothing less would satisfy them, but they
don't do it because they want to be appreciated by the crowd. Genius
always gets above the crowd. It's only those who can't rise above their
critics who really care what the critics say."

She stopped. Her face was flushed, her eyes kindling; but she lowered
them very suddenly and returned to her work. For the fitful gleam in
Piers' eyes had leaped in response to a blaze so hot, so ardent, that she
could not meet it unflinching.

She was oddly grateful to him when he passed her brief confusion by as
though he had not seen it. "So I'm a genius, am I?" he said, and laughed
a careless laugh. "Are you listening, Queen of my heart? Aunt Avery says
I'm a genius."

He moved to Jeanie's sofa, and sat down on the edge of it. Her hand stole
instantly into his.

"Yes, of course," she said, in her soft, tired voice. "That's what I
meant when I was trying to remember that other word--the word that
begins 'hyp.'"

"Hypnotism," said Avery very quietly.

Piers laughed again. "It's a word you don't understand, my Queen of all
good fairies. It's only the naughty fairies--the will-o'-the-wisps and
the hobgoblins--that know anything about it. It's a wicked spell
concocted by the King of Evil himself, and it's only under that spell
that his prisoners ever see the light. It's the one ticket of leave from
the dungeons, and they must either use it or die in the dark."

Jeanie was listening with a puzzled frown, but Gracie's imagination was
instantly fired.

"Do go on!" she said eagerly. "I know what a ticket of leave is. Nurse's
uncle had one. It means you have to go back after a certain time,
doesn't it?"

"Exactly," said Piers grimly. "When the ticket expires."

"But I don't see," began Jeanie. Her face was flushed and a little
distressed. "How can hypnotism be like--like a ticket of leave?"

"I told you you wouldn't understand," said Piers. "You see you've got to
realize what hypnotism is before you can know what it's like. It's really
the art of imposing one's will upon someone else's, of making that other
person see things as you want them to see them--not as they really are.
It's the power of deception carried to a superlative degree. And when
that power is exhausted, the ticket may be said to have expired--and the
prisoner returns to the dungeon. Sometimes he takes the other person with
him. Sometimes he goes alone."

He stopped abruptly as a hand rapped smartly on the door.

Avery looked up again from her work. "Come in!" she said.

"It's the doctor!" whispered Gracie to Piers. "Bother him!"

Piers laughed with his lower lip between his teeth, and Lennox Tudor
opened the door and paused upon the threshold.

Avery rose to receive him, but his look passed her almost instantly and
rested frowningly upon Piers.

"Enter the Lord High Executioner!" said Piers flippantly. "Well? Who is
the latest victim? And what have you come here for?"

The doctor came in. He shook hands with Avery, and turned at once to
Piers.

"I have come to see my patient," he said aggressively.

"Have you?" said Piers. "So have I." He stood up, squaring his broad
shoulders. "And I'm coming again--by special invitation." His dark eyes
flung a gibe with the words.

"Good-bye, Mr. Evesham!" said Avery somewhat pointedly.

He turned sharply, and took her extended hand with elaborate courtesy.

"Good-bye,--Mrs. Denys!" he said.

"I'll come down and see you off," cried Gracie, attaching herself to
his free arm.

"Ah! Wait a bit!" said Piers. "I haven't said good-bye to the Queen of
the fairies yet."

He dropped upon one knee by Jeanie's sofa. Her arm slid round his neck.

"When will you come again?" she whispered.

"When do you hold your next court?" he whispered back.

She smiled, her pale face close to his. "I love to see you--always," she
said. "Come just any time!"

"Shall I?" said Piers.

He was looking straight into the tired, blue eyes, and his own were soft
with a tenderness that must have charmed any child to utter confidence.
She lifted her lips to his. "As often as ever you can," she murmured.

He kissed her. "I will. Good-night, my Queen!"

"Good-night," she answered softly, "dear Sir Galahad!"

Avery had a glimpse of Piers' face as he went away, and she wondered
momentarily at the look it wore.



CHAPTER X

SPORT


It was the day before Christmas Eve, and Avery had been shopping.

She and Mrs. Lorimer were preparing a Christmas Tree for the children, a
secret to which only Jeanie had been admitted. The tree itself was
already procured and hidden away in a corner of the fruit cupboard--to
which special sanctum Mrs. Lorimer and Avery alone had access. But the
numerous gifts and ornaments which they had been manufacturing for weeks
were safely stored in a corner of Avery's own room. It was to complete
this store that Avery had been down into Rodding that afternoon, and she
was returning laden and somewhat wearied.

The red light of a cloudy winter sunset lay behind her. Ahead of her, now
veiled, now splendidly revealed, there hung a marvellous, glimmering
star. A little weight of sadness was dragging at her heart, but she would
not give it place or so much as acknowledge its presence. She hummed a
carol as she went, stepping lightly through the muddy fields.

The frost had given place to an unseasonable warmth, and there had been
some heavy rain earlier in the day. It was threatening to rain again. In
fact, as she mounted her second stile, the first drops of what promised
to be a sharp shower began to fall. She cast a hasty glance around for
shelter, and spied some twenty yards away against the hedge a hut which
had probably been erected for the use of some shepherd. Swiftly she made
for it, reaching it just as the shower became a downpour.

There was neither door nor window to the place, but an ancient shutter
which had evidently done duty for the former was lodged against the wall
immediately inside.

She had to stoop to enter, and but for the pelting rain she might have
hesitated to do so; for the darkness within was complete. But once in,
she turned her face back to the dying light of the sunset and saw that
the rain would not last.

At the same moment she heard a curious sound behind her, a panting,
coughing sound as of some creature in distress, and something stirred in
the furthest corner. Sharply she turned, and out of the darkness two wild
green eyes glared up at her.

Avery's heart gave a great jerk. Instinctively she drew back. Her first
impulse was to turn and flee, but something--something which at the
moment she could not define--prompted her to remain. The frantic terror
of those eyes appealed to that in her which was greater than her own
personal fear.

She paused therefore, and in the pause there came to her ears a swelling
tumult that arose from the ridge of an eminence a couple of fields away.
Right well Avery knew that sound. In the far-off days of her early
girlhood it had quickened her pulses many a time. It was enough even now
to set every nerve throbbing with a tense excitement.

She turned her face once more to the open, and as she did so she heard
again in the hut behind her that agonized sound, half-cough, half-whine,
of an animal exhausted and in the extremity of mortal fear.

It was enough for Avery. She grasped the situation on the instant, and
on the instant she acted. She felt as if a helpless and tortured being
had cried to her for deliverance, and all that was great in her
responded to the cry.

She seized the crazy shutter that was propped against the wall, put forth
her strength, and lifted it out into the open. It was no easy matter to
set it securely against the low doorway. She wondered afterwards how she
did it; at the time she tore her gloves to ribbons with the exertion, but
yet was scarcely aware of making any.

When the pack swept across the grass in a single yelling, heaving mass,
she was ready. She leaned against the improvised door with arms
outstretched and resolutely faced the swarming, piebald multitude.

In a moment the hounds were upon her. She was waist-deep in them. They
leapt almost to her shoulders in their madness, smothering her with mud
and slobber. For a second or two the red eyes and gaping jaws made even
Avery's brave heart quail. But she stood her ground, ordering them back
with breathless insistence. They must have thought her a maniac, she
reflected afterwards. At the time she fully expected to be torn in
pieces, and was actually surprised when they suddenly parted and swept
round the hut, encircling it with deep-mouthed baying.

The huntsman, arriving on the scene, found her white-faced but still
determined, still firmly propping the shutter in place with the weight of
her body. He called the hounds to order with hoarse oaths and furious
crackings of the whip, and as he did so the rest of the field began to
arrive, a laughing, trampling crowd of sportsmen who dropped into
staring, astounded silence as they reached the scene.

And then the huntsman addressed Avery with sardonic affability.

"P'r'aps now, miss, you'd be good enough to step aside and let the 'ounds
attend to business."

But Avery, with eyes that blazed in her pale face, made scathing answer.

"You shan't kill the poor brute like a rat in a trap. He deserves better
than that. You had your chance of killing in the open, and you failed. It
isn't sport to kill in the dark."

"We'll soon have 'im out," said the huntsman grimly.

She shook her head. Her hands, in the ripped gloves, were clenched and
quivering.

The huntsman slashed and swore at one of the hounds to relieve his
feelings, and looked for inspiration to the growing crowd of riders.

One of them, the M.F.H., Colonel Rose of Wardenhurst, pushed his horse
forward. He raised his hat with extreme courtliness.

"Madam," he said, "while appreciating your courage, allow me to point out
that that fox is now the legal property of the Hunt, and you have no
right whatever to deprive us of it."

His daughter Ina, a slim girl of twenty, was at his elbow. She jogged it
impatiently. "He'll remain our property whether we kill or not, Dad. Let
him live to run again!"

"What?" cried a voice in the rear. "Let a woman interfere? Great Heavens
above, Barchard! Have you gone mad?"

Barchard the huntsman glanced round uneasily as an old man on a powerful
white horse forced his way to the front. His grey eyes glowered down at
Avery as though he would slay her. The trampling hoofs came within a yard
of her. But if he thought to make her desert her post by that means, he
was mistaken. She stood there, actually waiting to be hustled by the
fretting animal, and yielding not an inch.

"Stand aside!" thundered Sir Beverley. "Confound you! Stand aside!"

But Avery never stirred. She faced him panting but unflinching. The foam
of his hunter splashed her, the mud from the stamping hoofs struck
upwards on her face; but still she stood to defend the defenceless thing
behind her.

She often wondered afterwards what Sir Beverley would have done had he
been left to settle the matter in his own way. She was horribly afraid,
but she certainly would never have yielded to aught but brute force.

But at this juncture there came a sudden diversion. Another voice made
itself heard in furious protest. Another horse was spurred forward; and
Piers, white to the lips, with eyes of awful flame, leaned from his
saddle and with his left hand caught Sir Beverley's bridle, dragging his
animal back.

What he said Avery did not hear; it was spoken under his breath. But she
saw a terrible look flash like an evil spirit into Sir Beverley's face.
She saw his right arm go up, and heard his riding-crop descend with a
sound like a pistol-shot upon Piers' shoulders.

It was a horrible sight and one which she was never to forget. Both
horses began to leap madly, the one Sir Beverley rode finally rearing and
being pulled down again by Piers who hung on to the bridle like grim
death, his head bent, his shoulders wholly exposed to those crashing
merciless blows.

They reeled away at length through the crowd, which scattered in dismay
to let them pass, but for many seconds it seemed to Avery that the
awful struggle went on in the dusk as Piers dragged his grandfather
from the spot.

A great weakness had begun to assail her. Her knees were quivering under
her. She wondered what the next move would be, and felt utterly powerless
to put forth any further effort. And then she heard Ina Rose's clear
young voice.

"Barchard, take the hounds back to kennels! I'm sure we've all had enough
for one day."

"Hear, hear!" said a man in the crowd.

And Ina laughed. "Thank you, Dick! Come along, Dad! Leave the horrid old
fox alone! Don't you think we ought to go and separate Sir Beverley and
Piers? What an old pepper-pot he is!"

"Piers isn't much better," remarked the man she had called Dick. His
proper appellation was Richard Guyes, but his friends never stood on
ceremony with him.

The girl laughed again inconsequently. She was spoken of by some as the
spoilt beauty of the county. "Oh, Piers is stuffed tight with gunpowder
as everybody knows. He explodes at a touch. Get along, Barchard! What are
you waiting for? I told you to take the hounds home."

Barchard looked at the Colonel.

"I suppose you'd better," the latter said. He threw a glance of
displeasure at Avery. "It's a most unheard of affair altogether, but I
admit there's not much to be said for a kill in cold blood. Yes, take
'em home!"

Barchard made a savage cut at two of the hounds who were scratching and
whimpering at a tiny chink in the boarding, and with surly threats
collected the pack and moved off.

The rest of the field melted away into the deepening dusk. Ina and Dick
Guyes were among the last to go. They moved off side by side.

"It'll be the laugh of the county," the man said, "but, egad, I like
her pluck."

And in answer the girl laughed again, a careless, merry laugh. "Yes, I
wonder who she is. A friend of Piers' apparently. Did you see what a
stiff fury he was in?"

"It was a fairly stiff flogging," remarked Guyes. "Ye gods! I wonder how
he stood it."

"Oh, Piers can stand anything," said Ina unconcernedly. "He's as strong
as an ox."

The voices dwindled and died in the distance. The dusk deepened. A sense
of utter forlornness, utter weariness, came upon Avery. The struggle was
over, and she had emerged triumphant; but it did not seem to matter. She
could think only of those awful blows raining down upon the defenceless
shoulders of the boy who had championed her. And, leaning there in the
drizzling wet, she covered her face with her hands and wept.



CHAPTER XI

THE STAR OF HOPE


There came the swift drumming of galloping hoofs, the check and pause of
a leap, and then close at hand the thud of those same hoofs landing on
the near side of the hedge. The rider slithered to the ground, patted the
animal's neck, and turned forthwith towards the hut. Avery heard nought
of his coming. She was crying like a weak, unnerved woman, draggled and
mud-spattered, unspeakably distressed. It was so seldom that she gave way
that perhaps the failure of her self-control was the more absolute when
it came. She had been tried beyond her strength. Body and mind were alike
exhausted.

But when strong arms suddenly encircled her and she found herself drawn
close to a man's breast, quick and instinctive came the impulse to
resist. She drew back from him with a sharp exclamation.

"It's only me," said Piers. "Surely you don't mind me!"

It was naively expressed, so naively that she assayed to laugh in the
midst of her woe. "Oh, how you startled me!" was all she found to say.

"But surely you knew I was coming back!" he said.

The dogged note was in his voice. It embarrassed her subtly. Seeing his
face through the deepening gloom, it seemed to her to be set in stern,
unyielding lines.

She collected her scattered forces, and gently put his arms away from
her. "It was very kind of you, Mr. Evesham," she said. "But please
remember that I'm not Jeanie!"

He made an impulsive movement of impatience. "I never pretended you
were," he said gruffly. "But you were crying, weren't you? Why were
you crying?"

His tone was almost aggressive. He seemed to be angry, but whether with
her, himself, or a third person, Avery could not determine.

She decided that the situation demanded firmness, and proceeded to treat
it accordingly.

"I was very foolish to cry," she said. "I have quite recovered now, so
please forget it! It was very kind of you to take my part a little while
ago--especially as you couldn't have been really in sympathy with me.
Thank you very much!"

Again he made that gesture of imperious impatience. "Oh, don't be so
beastly formal! I can't stand it. If it had been any other man
threatening you, I believe I should have killed him!"

He spoke with concentrated passion, but Avery was resolved not to be
tragic. She was striving to get back to wholesome commonplace.

"What a good thing it wasn't!" she said. "I shouldn't have cared to have
been responsible for that. I had quite enough to answer for as it was. I
hope you will make peace with your grandfather as soon as possible."

Piers laughed a savage laugh. "He broke his whip over me. Do you think
I'm going to make peace with him for that?"

"Oh, Piers!" she exclaimed in distress.

It was out before she could check it--that involuntary use of his
Christian name for which it seemed to her afterwards he had been
deliberately lying in wait.

He did not take immediate advantage of her slip, but she knew that he
noticed it, registered it as it were for future reference.

"No," he said moodily, after a pause. "I don't think the debt is on my
side this time. He had the satisfaction of flogging me with the whole
Hunt looking on." There was sullen resentment in his tone, and then very
suddenly to Avery's amazement he began to laugh. "It was worth it anyway,
so we won't cavil about the price. How much longer are you going to
bottle up that unfortunate brute? Don't you think it's time he went home
to his wife?"

Avery moved away from the shutter against which she had stood so long. "I
couldn't let him be killed," she said. "You won't understand, of course.
But I simply couldn't."

"Why shouldn't I understand?" said Piers. "You threw that in my teeth
before. I don't know why."

His tone baffled her. She could not tell whether he spoke in jest or
earnest. She refrained from answering him, and in the silence that
followed he lifted the shutter away from the hut entrance and looked
inside. Avery's basket of purchases lay at his feet. He picked it up.
"Come along! He's crouched up in the corner, and his eyes look as if he
thought all the devils in hell were after him. Odd as it may seem to you,
I can understand his feelings--and yours. Let's go, and leave him to
escape in peace!"

He took her arm as naturally as though he had a right, and led her
away. Her basket was in his other hand in which he carried his
riding-whip also. He whistled over his shoulder to his horse who
followed him like a dog.

The rain was gradually ceasing, but the clouds had wholly closed upon the
sunset. Avery did not want to walk in silence, but somehow she could not
help it. His hold upon her arm was as light as a feather, but she could
not help that either for the moment. She walked as one beneath a spell.

And before them the clouds slowly parted, and again there shone that
single, magic star, dazzingly pure against the darkness.

"Do you see that?" said Piers suddenly.

She assented almost under her breath.

For a moment she was conscious of the tightening of his hand at her
elbow. "It's the Star of Hope, Avery," he whispered. "Yours--and mine."
He stopped with the words. "Don't say anything!" he said hurriedly.
"Pretend you didn't hear, if--if you wish you hadn't. Goodbye!"

He thrust her basket into her hand, and turned from her.

A moment he stood as if to give her the opportunity of detaining him
if she so desired, and then as she made no sign he went to his horse
who waited a couple of yards away, mounted, and without word or salute
rode away.

Avery drew a deep, deep breath and walked on. There was a curious
sensation at her heart--almost a trapped feeling--such as she had never
before experienced. Again deeply she drew her breath, as if to rid
herself of some oppression. Life was difficult--life was difficult!

But presently, as she walked, the sense of oppression lessened. She
even faintly smiled to herself. What an odd, passionate youth he was!
It was impossible to be angry with him; better far not to take him
seriously at all.

She recalled old Mrs. Marshall's dour remarks concerning him;--"brought
up by men from his cradle," brought up, moreover, by that terrible old
Sir Beverley on the one hand and an irresponsible French valet on the
other. She caught herself wishing that she had had the upbringing of him,
and smiled again. There was a great deal of sweetness in his nature; of
that she was sure, and because of it she found she could forgive his
waywardness, reflecting that he had probably been mismanaged from his
earliest infancy.

At this point she reached the high-road, and heard the wheels of a
dog-cart behind her. She recognized the quick, hard trot of the doctor's
cob, and paused at the side of the road to let him pass. But the doctor's
eyes behind their glasses were keen as a hawk's. He recognized her, the
deepening dusk notwithstanding, while he was still some yards from her,
and pulled in his horse to a walk.

"Jump up!" he said. "I'm going your way."

He reached down a hand to her, and Avery mounted beside him. "How lucky
for me!" she said.

"Tired, eh?" he questioned.

She laughed a little. "Oh no, not really. But it's nice to get a lift.
Were you coming to see Jeanie?"

"Yes," said Tudor briefly.

She glanced at him, caught by something in his tone. "Dr. Tudor," she
said, after a moment's hesitation, "are you--altogether--satisfied
about her?"

Tudor was looking at his horse's ears; for some reason he was holding the
animal in to a walk. "I am quite satisfied with regard to the fracture,"
he said. "She will soon be on her legs again."

His words were deliberately wary. Avery felt a little tremor of
apprehension go through her.

"I'm afraid you don't consider her very strong," she said uneasily.

He did not at once reply. She had a feeling that he was debating within
himself as to the advisability of replying at all. And then quite
suddenly he turned his head and spoke. "Mrs. Denys, you are accustomed to
hearing other people's burdens, so I may as well tell you the truth. I
can't say--because I don't know--if there is anything radically wrong
with that little girl; but she has no stamina whatever. If she had to
contend with anything serious, things would go very badly with her. In
any case--" he paused.

"Yes?" said Avery.

Tudor had become wary again. "Perhaps I have said enough," he said.

"I don't know why you should hesitate to speak quite openly," she
rejoined steadily. "As you say, I am a bearer of burdens. And I don't
think I am easily frightened."

"I am sure you are not," he said. "If I may be allowed to say so, I think
you are essentially a woman to be relied on. If I did not think so, I
certainly should not have spoken as I have done."

"Then will you tell me what it is that you fear for her?" Avery said.

He was looking straight at her through the gloom, but she could not see
his eyes behind their glasses. "Well," he said somewhat brusquely at
length, "to be quite honest, I fear--mind you, I only fear--some trouble,
possibly merely some delicacy, of the lungs. Without a careful
examination I cannot speak definitely. But I think there is little room
for doubt that the tendency is there."

"I see," Avery said. She was silent a moment; then, "You have not
considered it advisable to say this to her father?" she said.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Would it make any difference?"

Avery was silent.

He went on with gathering force. "I went to him once, Mrs. Denys,--once
only--about his wife's health. I told him in plain language that she
needed every care, every consideration, that without these she would
probably lose all her grip on life and become a confirmed invalid with
shattered nerves. I was very explicit. I told him the straight,
unvarnished truth. I didn't like my job, but I felt it must be done. And
he--good man--laughed in my face, begged me to croak no more, and assured
me that he was fully capable of managing all his affairs, including his
wife and family, in his own way. He was touring in Switzerland when the
last child was born."

"Hound!" said Avery, in a low voice.

Tudor uttered a brief laugh, and abruptly quitted the subject. "That
little girl needs very careful watching, Mrs. Denys. She should never be
allowed to overtire herself, mentally or physically. And if she should
develop any untoward symptom, for Heaven's sake don't hesitate to send
for me! I shan't blame you for being too careful."

"I understand," Avery said.

He flicked his horse's ears, and the animal broke into a trot.

When Tudor spoke again, it was upon a totally different matter. His voice
was slightly aggressive as he said: "That Evesham boy seems to be for
ever turning up at the Vicarage now. He's an ill-mannered cub. I wonder
you encourage him."

"Do I encourage him?" Avery asked.

He made a movement of irritation. "He would scarcely be such a constant
visitor if you didn't."

Avery smiled faintly and not very humorously in the darkness. "It is
Jeanie he comes to see," she observed.

"Oh, obviously." Tudor's retort was so ironical as to be almost rude.

She received it in silence, and after a moment he made a half-grudging
amendment.

"He never showed any interest in Jeanie before, you know. I don't think
she is the sole attraction."

"No?" said Avery.

Her response was perfectly courteous, but so vague that it sounded to
Lennox Tudor as if she were thinking of something else. He clenched his
hand hard upon the handle of his whip.

"People tolerate him for the sake of his position," he said bitterly.
"But to my mind he is insufferable. His father was a scapegrace, as
everyone knows. His mother was a circus girl. And his grandmother--an
Italian--was divorced by Sir Beverley before they had been married
two years."

"Oh!" Avery emerged from her vagueness and turned towards him. "Lady
Evesham was Italian, was she? That accounts for his appearance, doesn't
it? That air of the old Roman patrician about him; you must have
noticed it?"

"He's handsome enough," admitted Tudor.

"Oh, very handsome," said Avery. "I should say that for that type his
face was almost faultless. I wondered where he got it from. Sir Beverley
is patrician too, but in a different way." She stopped to bow to a tall,
gaunt lady at the side of the road. "That is Miss Whalley. Didn't you see
her? I expect she has just come from the Vicarage. She was going to
discuss the scheme for the Christmas decorations with the Vicar."

"She's good at scheming," growled Tudor.

Avery became silent again. At the Vicarage gates however very suddenly
and sweetly she spoke. "Dr. Tudor, forgive me,--but isn't it rather a
pity to let oneself get intolerant? It does spoil life so."

He looked at her. "There's not much in my life that could spoil," he
said gloomily.

She laughed a little, but not derisively. "But there's always something,
isn't there? Have you no sense of humour?"

He pulled up at the Vicarage gates. "I have a sense of the ridiculous,"
he said bluntly. "And I detest it in the person of Miss Whalley."

"I believe you detest a good many people," Avery said, as she descended.

He laughed himself at that. "But I am capable of appreciating the few,"
he said. "Mind the step! And don't trouble to wait for me! I've got to
tie this animal up."

He stopped to do so, and Avery opened the gate and walked slowly
up the path.

At the porch she paused to await him, and turned her face for a moment to
the darkening sky. But the Star of Hope was veiled.



CHAPTER XII

A PAIR OF GLOVES


"Piers! Where the devil are you, Piers?"

There was loud exasperation in the query as Sir Beverley halted in the
doorway of his grandson's bedroom.

There was a moment's pause; then Victor the valet came quickly forward.

"But, _Monsieur Pierre_, he bathe himself," he explained, with beady eyes
running over the gaunt old figure in the entrance.

Sir Beverley growled at him inarticulately and turned away.

A moment later he was beating a rousing tattoo on the bathroom-door.
"Piers! Let me in! Do you hear? Let me in!"

The vigorous splashing within came to a sudden stop. "That you, sir?"
called Piers.

"Of course it's me!" shouted back Sir Beverley, shaking the door
with fierce impatience. "Damn it, let me in! I'll force the door if
you don't."

"No, don't, sir; don't! I'm coming!"

There came the sound of a splashing leap, and bare feet raced across the
bathroom floor. The door was wrenched from Sir Beverley's grasp, and
flung open. Piers, quite naked, stood back and bowed him in with
elaborate ceremony.

Sir Beverley entered and glared at him.

Piers shut the door and took a flying jump back into the bath. The room
was dense with steam.

"You don't mind if I go on with my wash, do you?" he said. "I shall be
late for dinner if I don't."

"What in thunder do you want to boil yourself like this for?" demanded
Sir Beverley.

Piers, seated with his hands clasped round his knees, looked up with the
smile of an infant. "It suits my constitution, sir," he said. "I freeze
myself in the morning and boil myself at night--always. By that means I
am rendered impervious to all atmospheric changes of temperature."

"You're a fool, Piers," said Sir Beverley.

Piers laughed, a gay, indifferent laugh. "That all?" he said lightly.

"No, it isn't all." Sir Beverley's voice had a curious forced ring,
almost as if he were stern in spite of himself. "I came to ask--and I
mean to know--" He broke off. "What the devil have you done to your
shoulders?"

Piers' hands unlocked as if at the touch of a spring. He slipped down
backwards into the bath and lay with the water lapping round his black
head. His eyes, black also, and very straight and resolute, looked up at
Sir Beverley.

"Look here, sir; if there's anything you want to know I'll tell you after
dinner. I thought--possibly--you'd come to shake hands, or I shouldn't
have been in such a hurry to let you in. As it is,--"

"Confound you, Piers!" broke in Sir Beverley. "Don't preach to me! Sit up
again! Do you hear? Sit up, and let me look at you!"

But Piers made no movement to comply. "No, sir; thanks all the same. I
don't want to be looked at. Do you mind going now? I'm going to splash."

His tone was deliberately jaunty, but it held undoubted determination.
He kept his eyes unswervingly on his grandfather's face.

Sir Beverley stood his ground, however, his black brows fiercely drawn.
"Get up, Piers!" he ordered, his tone no longer blustering, but curtly
peremptory. "Get up, do you hear?" he added with a gleam of humour. "You
may as well give in at once, you young mule. You'll have to in the end."

"Shall I?" said Piers.

And then suddenly his own sense of humour was kindled again, and he
uttered his boyish laugh.

"We won't quarrel about it, what?" he said, and stretched a wet hand
upwards. "Let's consider the incident closed! There's nothing whatever to
be fashed about."

Sir Beverley's thin lips twitched a little. He pulled at the hand, and
slowly Piers yielded. The water dripped from his shoulders. They gleamed
in the strong light like a piece of faultless statuary, godlike, superbly
strong. But it was upon no splendour of form that Sir Beverley's
attention was focussed.

He spoke after a moment, an odd note of contrition in his voice. "I
didn't mean to mark you like that, boy. It was your own doing of course.
You shouldn't have interfered with me. Still--"

"Oh, rats!" said Piers, beginning to splash. "What's a whacking more or
less when you're used to 'em?"

His dark eyes laughed their impudent dismissal to the old man. It was
very evident that he desired to put an end to the matter, and after a
moment Sir Beverley grunted and withdrew.

He had not asked what he wanted to know; somehow it had not been
possible. He had desired to put his question in a whirl of righteous
indignation, but in some fashion Piers had disarmed him and it had
remained unuttered.

The very sight of the straight, young figure had quenched the fire of
his wrath. Confound the boy! Did he think he could insult him as he had
insulted him only that afternoon and then twist him round his little
finger? He would have it out with him presently. He would have the truth
and no compromise, if he had to wring it out of him. He would--Again the
vision of those strong young shoulders, with red stripes crossing their
gleaming white surface, rose before Sir Beverley. He swore a strangled
oath. No, he hadn't meant to punish the boy to that extent, his infernal
impudence notwithstanding. It wasn't the first time he had thrashed him,
and, egad, it mightn't be the last. But he hadn't meant to administer
quite such a punishment as that. It was decent of the young rascal not to
sulk after it, though he wasn't altogether sure that he approved of the
light fashion with which Piers had elected to treat the whole episode. It
looked as if he had not wholly taken to heart the lesson Sir Beverley had
intended to convey, and if that were the case--again Sir Beverley swore
deep in his soul--he was fully equal to repeating it, ay, and again
repeating it, until the youngster came to heel. He never had endured any
nonsense from Piers, and, by Gad, he never would!

With these reflections he stumped downstairs, and seated himself on the
black, oaken settle in the hall to await the boy's advent.

The fire blazed cheerily, flinging ruddy gleams upon the shining suits of
armour, roaring up the chimney in a sheet of flame. Sir Beverley sat
facing the stairs, the grim lines hardened to implacability about his
mouth, his eyes fixed in a stare that had in it something brutal. He was
seeing again that slim, straight figure of womanhood standing in his
path, with arms outstretched, and white, determined face upraised,
barring the way.

"Curse her!" he growled. "Curse 'em all!"

The vision grew before his gaze of hate; and now she was no longer
standing between him and a mere, defenceless animal. But there, on his
own stairs, erect and fearless, she withstood him, while behind her,
descending with a laugh on his lips and worship in his eyes, came Piers.

The stone-grey eyes became suffused; for a few, whirling moments of
bewilderment and fury, they saw all things red. Then, gradually, the mist
cleared, and the old man dropped back in a lounging posture with an ugly
sound in his throat that was like a snarl. Doubtless that was her game;
doubtless--doubtless! He had always known that a day would come when
something of the kind would happen. Piers was young, wealthy,
handsome,--a catch for any woman; but--fiercely he swore it--he should
fall a prey to no schemer. When he married--as marry eventually he
must--he should make an alliance of which any man might be proud. The
Evesham blood should mix with none but the highest. In Piers he would see
the father's false step counteracted. He thanked Heaven that he had never
been able to detect in the boy any trace of the piece of cheap prettiness
that had given him birth. He might have been his own son, son of the
woman who had been the rapture and the ruin of his life. There were times
when Sir Beverley almost wished he had been, albeit in the bitterness of
his soul he had never had any love for the child she had borne him.

He had never wanted to love Piers either, but somehow the matter had not
rested with him. From the arms of Victor, Piers had always yearned to his
grandfather, wailing lustily till he found himself held to the hard old
heart that had nought but harshness and intolerance for all the world
beside. He had as it were taken that unwilling heart by storm, claiming
it as his right before he was out of his cradle. And later the attachment
between them had grown and thriven, for Piers had never relinquished the
ground he had won in babyhood. By sheer arrogance of possession he had
held his own till the impetuous ardour of his affection and the utter
fearlessness on which it was founded had made of him the cherished idol
of the heart which had tried to shut him out. Sir Beverley gloried in the
boy though he still flattered himself that no one suspected the fact, and
still believed that his rule was a rule of stern discipline under which
Piers might chafe but against which he would never openly revolt.

He could not remember a single occasion upon which he had not been able
to master Piers, possibly after a fierce struggle but always with
absolute completeness in the end. And there was so much of sweetness in
the youngster's nature that, unruly though he might be, he never nurtured
a grievance. He would fight for his own way to the last of his strength,
but when beaten he always yielded with a good grace. To his grandfather
alone he could submit without any visible wound to his pride. Who could
help glorying in a boy like that?

David the butler, a man of infinite respectability, came softly into the
hall and approached his master.

"Are you ready for dinner, Sir Beverley?"

"No," snapped Sir Beverley. "Can't you see Master Piers isn't here?"

"Very good, sir," murmured David, and retired decorously, fading into
the background without the faintest sound, while Caesar the Dalmatian
who had entered with him lay sedately down in well-bred silence at Sir
Beverley's feet.

There fell a pause, while Sir Beverley's eyes returned to the wide oak
staircase, watching it ceaselessly, with vulture-like intentness. Then
after the passage of minutes, there came the sound of feet that literally
scampered along the corridor above, and in a moment, with meteor-like
suddenness, Piers flashed into view.

He seemed to descend the stairs without touching them, and was greeted
at the foot by Caesar, who leapt to meet him with wide-mouthed delight.

"Hullo, you scamp, hullo!" laughed Piers, responding to the dog's
caresses with a careless hand. "Out of the way with you! I'm late."

"As usual," observed Sir Beverley, leaning slowly forward, still with his
eyes unblinkingly fixed upon his grandson's merry face. "Come here, boy!"

Piers came to him unabashed.

Sir Beverley got heavily to his feet and took him by the shoulder. "Who
is that woman, Piers?" he said, regarding him piercingly.

Piers' forehead was instantly drawn by a quick frown. He stood passive,
but there was a suggestion of resistance about him notwithstanding.

"Whom do you mean, sir?" he said. "What woman?"

"You know very well who I mean," snarled Sir Beverley. "Come, I'll have
none of your damn' nonsense. Never have stood it and never will. Who was
that white-faced cat that got in my way this afternoon and helped you to
a thrashing? Eh, Piers? Who was she, I say? Who was she?"

Piers made a sharp involuntary movement of the hands, and as swiftly
restrained himself. He looked his grandfather full in the face.

"Ask me after dinner, sir," he said, speaking with something of an
effort, "and I'll tell you all I know."

"You'll tell me now!" declared Sir Beverley, shaking the shoulder he
gripped with savage impatience.

But Piers put up a quick hand and stopped him. "No, sir, not now. Come
and dine first! I've no mind to go dinnerless to bed. Come, sir, don't
badger me!" He smiled suddenly and very winningly into the stern grey
eyes. "There's all the evening before us, and I shan't shirk."

He drew the bony old hand away from his shoulder, and pulled it
through his arm.

"I suppose you think you're irresistible," grumbled Sir Beverley. "I
don't know why I put up with you; on my soul, I don't, you impudent
young dog!"

Piers laughed. "Let's do one thing at a time anyway, and I'm ravenous for
dinner. So must you be. Come along! Let's trot in and have it!"

He had his way. Sir Beverley went with him, though half against his will.
They entered the dining-room still linked together, and a woman's face
smiled down upon them from a picture-frame on the wall with a smile
half-sad, half-mocking--such a smile as even at that moment curved Piers'
lips, belying the reckless gaiety of his eyes.

They dined in complete amicability. Piers had plenty to say at all times,
and he showed himself completely at his ease. He was the only person in
the world who ever was so in Sir Beverley's presence. He even now and
then succeeded in provoking a sardonic laugh from his grandfather. His
own laughter was boyishly spontaneous.

But at the end of the meal, when wine was placed upon the table, he
suddenly ceased his careless chatter, and leaned forward with his dark
eyes full upon Sir Beverley's face.

"Now, sir, you want to know the name of the girl who wasn't afraid of you
this afternoon, I mentioned her to you once before. Her name is Avery
Denys. She is a widow; and she calls herself the mother's help at the
Vicarage."

He gave his information with absolute steadiness. His voice was
wholly free from emotion of any sort, but it rang a trifle stern, and
his mouth--that sensitive, clean-cut mouth of his--had the grimness
of an iron resolution about it. Sir Beverley looked at him frowningly
over his wine.

"The woman who threw a pail of water over you once, eh?" he said, after
a moment. "I suppose she has become a very special friend in
consequence."

"I doubt if she would call herself so," said Piers.

The old man's mouth took a bitter, downward curve. "You see, you're
rather young," he observed.

Piers' eyes fell away from his abruptly. "Yes, I know," he said, in a
tone that seemed to hide more than it expressed.

Sir Beverley continued to stare at him, but he did not lift his eyes
again. They were fixed steadily upon the ruby light that shone in the
wine in front of him.

The silence lengthened and became oppressive. Sir Beverley still watched
Piers' intent face. His lips moved soundlessly, while behind his silence
the storm of his wrath gathered.

What did the boy mean by treating him like this? Did he think he would
endure to be set aside thus deliberately as one whose words had no
weight? Did he think--confound him!--did he think that he had reached
his dotage?

A sudden oath escaped him; he banged a furious fist upon the table. He
would make himself heard at least.

In the same instant quite unexpectedly Piers leaped to his feet with
uplifted hand. "What's that?"

"What do you mean?" thundered Sir Beverley.

Piers' hand descended, gripping his arm. "That, sir, that! Don't
you hear?"

Voice and gesture compelled. Sir Beverley stopped dead, arrested in full
career by his grandson's insistence, and listened with pent breath, as
Piers was listening.

For a moment or two he heard nothing, then, close outside the window,
there arose the sound of children's voices. They were singing a hymn, but
not in the customary untuneful yell of the village school. The voices
were clear and sweet and true, and the words came distinct and pure to
the two men standing at the table.

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

Piers' hand tightened all-unconsciously upon Sir Beverley's arm. His face
was very white. In his eyes there shone a curious hunger--such a look as
might have gleamed in the eyes of the prisoners behind the gates.

Again came the words, triumphantly repeated:

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

And an odd sound that was almost a sob broke from Piers.

Sir Beverley looked at him sharply; but in the same moment he drew
back, relinquishing his hold, and stepped lightly across the room to
the window.

There was a decided pause before the next verse. Piers stood with his
face to the blind, making no movement. At last, tentatively, like the
song of a very shy angel, a single boy's voice took up the melody.

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

Sir Beverley sat down again at the table. Half mechanically his eyes
turned to the pictured face on the wall, the face that smiled so
enigmatically. Not once in a year did his eyes turn that way. To-night he
regarded it with half-ironical interest. He had no pity to spare for
broken hearts. He did not believe in them. No man could have endured more
than he had had to endure. He had been dragged through hell itself. But
it had hardened, not broken his heart. Save in one respect he knew that
he could never be made to suffer any more. Save for that charred
remnant, there was nothing left for the flame to consume.

And so through all the bitter years he had borne that smiling face upon
his wall, cynically indifferent to the beauty which had been the rapture
and the agony of his life,--a man released from the place of his torment
because his capacity for suffering was almost gone.

Again there were two children's voices singing, and that of the shy angel
gathered confidence. With a species of scoffing humour Sir Beverley's
stony eyes travelled to the window. They rested upon his boy standing
there with bent head--a mute, waiting figure with a curious touch of
pathos in its pose. Sir Beverley's sudden frown drew his forehead. What
ailed the youngster? Why did he stand as if the whole world were resting
on his shoulders?

He made an impatient movement. "For Heaven's sake," he said testily,
"tell those squalling children to go!"

Piers did not stir. "In a moment, sir!" he said.

And so, clear through the night air, the last verse came unhindered
to an end.

"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."

Piers threw up his head with a sudden, spasmodic movement as of a
drowning man. And then without pause he snatched up the blind and flung
the window wide.

"Hi, you kiddies! Where are you? Don't run away! Gracie, is that you?"

There was a brief silence, then chirpily came the answer. "Pat did the
solo; but he's gone. He would have gone sooner--when we saw your shadow
on the blind--only I held him so that he couldn't."

Piers broke into a laugh. "Well, come in now you are here! You're not
afraid anyhow, what?"

"Oh no!" laughed Gracie. "I'm not a bit afraid. But I'm supposed to be in
bed; and if Father finds out I'm not--" She paused with her customary
sense of the dramatic.

"Well?" laughed Piers. "What'll happen then?"

"I shall cop it," said Gracie elegantly.

Nevertheless she came to him, and stood on the grass outside the window.
The lamplight from within shone on her upturned face with its saucy,
confiding smile. Her head was uncovered and gleamed golden in the
radiance. She was wearing a very ancient fur cloak belonging to her
mother, and she glowed like a rose in the sombre drapery.

Piers stooped to her with hands invitingly outstretched. "Come along,
Pixie! We shan't eat you, and I'll take you home on my shoulder
afterwards and see you don't get copped."

She uttered a delighted little laugh, and went upwards into his hold like
a scrap of floating thistledown.

He lifted her high in his arms, crossed the room with her, and set her
down before the old man who still sat at the table, sardonically
watching. "Miss Gracie Lorimer!" he said.

"Hullo, child!" growled Sir Beverley.

Gracie looked at him with sparkling, adventurous eyes. As she had told
Piers, she was not a bit afraid. After the briefest pause she held out
her hand with charming _insouciance_.

"How do you do?" she said.

Sir Beverley slowly took the hand, and pulled her towards him, gazing at
her from under his black brows with a piercing scrutiny that would have
terrified a more timid child.

Timidity however was not one of Gracie's weaknesses. She gave him a
friendly smile, and waited without the smallest sign of uneasiness for
him to speak.

"What have you come here for?" he demanded gruffly at length.

"I'll tell you," said Gracie readily. She went close to him, confidingly
close, looking straight into the formidable grey eyes. "You see, it was
my idea. Pat didn't want to come, but I made him."

"Forward young minx!" commented Sir Beverley.

Gracie laughed at the compliment.

Piers, smoking his cigarette behind her, stood ready to take her part,
but quite obviously she was fully equal to the occasion.

"Yes, I know," she agreed, with disarming amiability. "But it wouldn't
have mattered a bit if you hadn't found out who it was. You won't tell
anyone, will you?"

"Why not?" demanded Sir Beverley.

Gracie pulled down her red lips, and cast up her dancing eyes. "There'd
be such a scandal," she said.

Piers broke into an involuntary laugh, and Sir Beverley's thin lips
twitched in a reluctant smile.

"You're a saucy little baggage!" he observed. "Well, get on! Let's hear
what you've come for! Cadging money, I'll be bound."

Gracie nodded in eager confirmation of this suggestion. "That's just it!"
she said. "And that's where the scandal would come in if you told. You
see, poor children can go round squalling carols to their hearts' content
for pennies, but children like us who want pennies just as much haven't
any way of getting them. We mayn't carry hand-bags, or open
carriage-doors, or turn cart-wheels, or--or do anything to earn a living.
It's hard luck, you know."

"Beastly shame!" said Piers.

Sir Beverley scowled at him. "You needn't stick your oar in. Go and
shut the window, do you hear? Now, child, let's have the truth, so far
as any female is capable of speaking it! You've come here for pennies,
you say. Don't you know that's a form of begging? And begging is
breaking the law."

"I often do that," said Grade, quite undismayed. "So would you, if you
were me. I expect you did too when you were young."

"I!" Sir Beverley uttered a harsh laugh, and released the child's hand.
"So you break the law, do you?" he said. "How often?"

Gracie's laugh followed his like a silvery echo. "I shan't tell you 'cos
you're a magistrate. But we weren't really begging, Pat and I. At least
it wasn't for ourselves."

"Oh, of course not!" said Sir Beverley.

She looked at him with her clear eyes, unconscious of irony. "No. We
wanted to buy a pair of gloves for someone for Christmas. And nice
gloves cost such a lot, don't they? And we hadn't got more than
tenpence-halfpenny among us. So I said I'd think of a plan to get more.
And--that was the plan," ended Grade, with her sweetest smile.

"I see," said Sir Beverley, with his eyes still fixed immovably upon her.
"And what made you come here?"

"Oh, we came here just because of Piers," said Grade, without hesitation.
"You see, he's a great friend of ours."

"Is he?" said Sir Beverley. "And so you think you'll get what you can out
of him, eh?"

"Sir!" said Piers sharply.

"Be quiet, Piers!" ordered his grandfather testily. "Who spoke to you?
Well, madam, continue! How much do you consider him good for?"

Piers pulled a coin impetuously from his pocket and slapped it down on
the table in front of Grade. "There you are, Pixie!" he said. "I'm good
for that."

Gracie stared at the coin with widening eyes, not offering to touch it.

"Oh, Piers!" she said, with a long indrawn breath. "It's a whole
sovereign! Oh no!"

He laughed a reckless laugh, while over her head his eyes challenged his
grandfather's. "That's all right, Piccaninny," he said lightly. "Put it
in your pocket! And I'll come round with the car to-morrow and run you
into Wardenhurst to buy those gloves."

But Gracie shook her head. "Gloves don't cost all that," she said
practically. "And besides, you won't have any left for yourself. Fancy
giving away a whole sovereign at a time!" She addressed Sir Beverley. "It
seems almost a tempting of Providence, doesn't it!"

"The deed of a fool!" said Sir Beverley.

But Piers, with a sudden hardening of the jaw, stooped over Gracie. "Take
it!" he said. "I wish it."

She looked up at him. "No, Piers; I mustn't really. It's ever so nice of
you." She rubbed her golden head against his shoulder caressingly.
"Please don't be cross! I do thank you--awfully. But I don't want it.
Really, I don't."

"Rot!" said Piers. "Do as I tell you! Take it!"

Gracie turned to Sir Beverley. "I can't, can I? Tell him I can't!"

But Piers was not to be thwarted. With a sudden dive he seized the coin
and without ceremony swept Gracie's hair from her shoulders and dropped
it down the back of her neck.

"There!" he said, slipping his hands over her arms and holding her while
she squealed and writhed. "It's quite beyond reach. You can't in decency
return it now. It's no good wriggling. You won't get it up again unless
you stand on your head."

"You're horrid--horrid!" protested Gracie; but she reached back and
kissed him notwithstanding. "Thank you ever so much. I hope I shan't lose
it. But I don't know what I shall do with it all. It's quite dreadful to
think of. Please don't be cross with him!" she said to Sir Beverley.
"It's--awfully--kind."

Sir Beverley smiled sardonically. "And whom are the gloves for? Some
other kind youth?"

"Oh no!" she laughed. "Only Aunt Avery. She tore hers all to bits this
afternoon. I expect it was over a dog fight or something, but she
wouldn't tell us what. They were nice gloves too. She isn't a bit rich,
but she always wears nice gloves."

"Being a woman!" growled Sir Beverley.

"Don't you like women?" asked Gracie sympathetically. "I like men best
too as a rule. But Aunt Avery is so very sweet. No one could help loving
her, could they, Piers?"

"Have an orange!" said Piers, pulling the dish towards him.

"Oh, thank you, I mustn't stop," Gracie turned to Sir Beverley and lifted
her bright face. "Good-bye! Thank you for being so kind."

There was no irony in her thanks, and even he could scarcely refuse the
friendly offer of her lips. He stooped and grimly received her farewell
salute on his cheek.

Piers loaded her with as many oranges as she could carry, and they
finally departed through the great hall which Gracie surveyed with eyes
of reverent admiration.

"It's as big as a church," she said, in an awed whisper.

Sir Beverley followed them to the front-door, and saw them out into the
night. Gracie waved an ardent farewell from her perch on Piers' shoulder,
and he heard the merry childish laugh more than once after they had
passed from sight.

The night air was chilly, and he turned inwards at length with an
inarticulate growl, and shut the door.

Heavily he tramped across to the old carved settle before the fire, and
dropped down upon it, his whole bearing expressive of utter weariness.

David came in with stealthy footfall and softly replenished the fire.

"Shall I bring the coffee, Sir Beverley?" he asked him.

"No," said Sir Beverley. "I'll ring."

And David effaced himself without sound.

Half an hour passed, and Sir Beverley still sat there motionless as a
statue, with thin lips drawn in a single bitter line, and eyes that gazed
aloofly at the fire. The silence was intense. The hall seemed desolate
as a vault. Over in a corner a grandfather's clock ticked the seconds
away--slowly, monotonously, as though very weary of its task.

Suddenly in the distance there came a faint sound, the opening of a door;
and a breath of night-air, pure and cold, blew in across the stillness.
In a moment there followed a light, elastic step, and Piers came into
view at the other end of the hall. He moved swiftly as though he trod
air. His head was thrown back, his face rapt and intent as though he saw
a vision. He did not see the lonely figure sitting there before the
hearth, but turned aside ere he neared it and entered an unlighted room,
shutting himself gently in.

Again the silence descended, but only for a few seconds. Then softly it
was dispelled, as through it there stole the tender, passionate-sweet
harmonies of a Chopin nocturne.

At the first note Sir Beverley started, almost winced as at the sudden
piercing of a nerve. Then as the music continued, he leaned rigidly back
again and became as still as before.

Very softly the music thrilled through the silence. It might have come
from somewhere very far away. There was something almost unearthly about
it, a depth and a mystery that seemed to spread as it were invisible
wings, filling the place with dim echoes of the Divine.

It died away at last into a silence like the hush of prayer. And then the
still figure of the old man before the fire became suddenly vitalized. He
sat up abruptly and seized with impatience a small hand-bell from the
table beside him.

David made his discreet appearance with the coffee almost at the
first tinkle.

"Coffee!" his master flung at him. "And fetch Master Piers!"

David set down the tray at his master's elbow, and turned to obey the
second behest. But the door of the drawing-room opened ere he reached
it, and Piers came out. His dark eyes were shining. He whistled softly
as he came.

David stood respectfully on one side, and Piers passed him like a man in
a dream. He came to his grandfather, and threw himself on to the settle
by his side in silence.

"Well?" said Sir Beverley. "You took that chattering monkey back,
I suppose?"

Piers started and seemed to awake. "Oh yes, I got her safely home. We had
to dodge the Reverend Stephen. But it was all right. She and the boy got
in without being caught."

He stirred his coffee thoughtfully, and fell silent again.

"You'd better go to bed," said Sir Beverley abruptly.

Piers looked up, meeting the hard grey eyes with the memory of his dream
still lingering in his own.

Slowly the dream melted. He began to smile. "I think I'd better," he
said. "I'm infernally sleepy, and it's getting late." He drank off his
coffee and rose. "You must be pretty tired yourself, sir," he remarked.
"Time you trotted to bed too."

He moved round to the back of the settle and paused, looking down at the
thick white hair with a curious expression of hesitancy in his eyes.

"Oh, go on! Go on!" said Sir Beverley irritably. "What are you
waiting for?"

Piers stooped impulsively in response, his hand on the old man's
shoulder, and kissed him on the forehead.

"Good-night, sir!" he said softly.

The action was purely boyish. It pleaded for tolerance. Sir Beverley
jerked his head impatiently, but he did not repulse him.

"There! Be off with you!" he said. "Go to bed and behave yourself!
Good-night, you scamp! Good-night!"

And Piers went from him lightfooted, a smile upon his lips. He knew that
his tacit overture for peace had been accepted for the time at least.



CHAPTER XIII

THE VISION


It was growing very dark in the little church, almost too dark to see the
carving of the choir-stalls, and Avery gave a short sigh of weariness.

She had so nearly finished her task that she had sent the children in to
prepare for tea, declaring that she would follow them in five minutes,
and then just at the last a whole mass of ivy and holly, upon which the
boys had been at work, had slipped and strewn the chancel-floor. She was
the only one left in the church, and it behooved her to remove the
litter. It had been a hard day, and she was frankly tired of the very
sight and smell of the evergreens.

There was no help for it, however. The chancel must be made tidy before
she could go, and she went to the cupboard under the belfry for the
dustpan and brush which the sexton's wife kept there. She found a candle
also, and thus armed she returned to the scene of her labours at the
other end of the dim little church. She tried to put her customary energy
into the task, but it would not rise to the occasion, and after a few
strenuous seconds she paused to rest.

It was very still and peaceful, and she was glad of the solitude. All day
long she had felt the need of it; and all day long it had been denied
her. She had been decorating under Miss Whalley's superintendence, and
the task had been no light one. Save for the fact that she had gone in
Mrs. Lorimer's stead, she had scarcely undertaken it. For Miss Whalley
was as exacting as though the church were her own private property. She
deferred to the Vicar alone, and he was more than willing to leave the
matter in her hands. "My capable assistant" was his pet name for this
formidable member of his flock, and very conscientiously did Miss Whalley
maintain her calling. She would have preferred to direct Mrs. Lorimer
rather than the mother's help, but since the latter had firmly determined
to take the former's place, she had accepted her with condescension and
allotted to her all the hardest work.

Avery had laboured uncomplainingly in her quiet, methodical fashion, but
now that the stress was over and Miss Whalley safely installed in the
Vicarage drawing-room for tea, she found it impossible not to relax
somewhat, and to make the most of those few exquisite moments of
sanctuary.

She was very far from expecting any invasion of her solitude, and when
after a moment or two she went on with her sweeping she had no suspicion
of another presence in the dark building. She had set herself resolutely
to finish her task, and so energetic was she that she heard no sound of
feet along the aisle behind her.

Some unaccountable impulse induced her to pause at length and still
kneeling, brush in hand, to throw a backward glance along the nave. Then
it was that she saw a man's figure standing on the chancel-steps, and so
unexpected was the apparition that her weary nerves leapt with violence
out of all proportion to the event, and she sprang to her feet with a
startled cry that echoed weirdly through the empty place. Then with a
rush of self-ridicule she recognized Piers Evesham. "Oh, it is you!" she
said. "How stupid of me!"

He came straight to her with an air of determination that would brook no
opposition and took the brush out of her hand. "That's not your job," he
said. "You go and sit down!"

She stared at him in silence, trying to still the wild agitation that his
unlooked-for coming had raised in her. He was wearing a heavy motor-coat,
but he divested himself of this, and without further parley bent himself
to the task of which he had deprived her.

Avery sat down somewhat limply on the pulpit-stairs and watched him. He
was very thorough and far brisker than she could have been. In a very few
minutes the litter was all collected, and Piers turned round and looked
back at her across the dim chancel.

"Feeling better?" he said.

She did not answer him. "What made you come in like that?" she asked.

He replied to the question with absolute simplicity. "I've just brought
Gracie home again. She asked me to tea in the schoolroom, but you weren't
there, and they said I should find you here, so I came to fetch you."

He moved slowly across and stood before her, looking down into her tired
eyes with an odd species of relentlessness in his own.

"It's an infernal shame that you should work so hard!" he said, with
sudden resentment. "You're looking fagged to death."

Avery smiled a little. "I like hard work," she said.

"Not such as this!" said Piers. "It isn't fit for you. Why can't the lazy
hound do it himself?"

Her smile passed. "Hush, Piers!" she said. "Not here!"

He glanced towards the altar, and she thought a shade of reverence came
into his face for a moment. But he turned to her again immediately with
his flashing, boyish smile.

"Well, it isn't good for you to overwork, you know, Avery. I hate to
think of it. And you have no one to take care of you and see you don't."

Avery got up slowly. Her own face was severe in the candlelight, but
before she could speak he went lightly on.

"Would you like me to play you something before we go? Or are you too
tired to blow? It's rather a shame to suggest it. But it's such a grand
opportunity."

Avery turned at once to the organ with a feeling of relief. As usual she
found it very hard to rebuke him as he deserved.

"Yes, I will blow for you," she said. "But it must be something short,
for we ought to be going."

She sat down and began to blow.

Piers took his place at once at the organ. It was characteristic of him
that he never paused for inspiration. His fingers moved over the keys as
it were by instinct, and in a few moments Avery forgot that she was tired
and dispirited with the bearing of many burdens, forgot all the problems
and difficulties of life, forgot even her charges at the Vicarage and the
waiting schoolroom tea, and sat wrapt as it were in a golden mist of
delight, watching the slow spreading of a dawn such as she had never seen
even in her dreams. What he played she knew not, and yet the music was
not wholly unfamiliar to her. It waked within her soul harmonies that
vibrated in throbbing response. He spoke to her in a language that she
knew. And as the magic moments passed, the wonderful dawn so grew and
deepened that it seemed to her that all pain, all sorrow, had fallen
utterly away, and she stood on the threshold of a new world.

Wider and wider spread the glory. There came to her an overwhelming sense
of greatness about to be revealed. She became strung to a pitch of
expectancy that was almost anguish, while the music swelled and swelled
like the distant coming of a vast procession as yet unseen. She stood as
it were on a mountain-top before the closed gates of heaven, waiting for
the moment of revelation.

It came. Just when she felt that she could bear no more, just when the
wild beating of her heart seemed as if it would choke her, the music
changed, became suddenly all-conquering, a paean of triumph, and the
gates swung back before her eager eyes.

In spirit she entered the Holy Place, and the same hand that had admitted
her lifted for her the last great Veil. For one moment of unutterable
rapture such as no poor palpitating mortal body could endure for long,
the vision was her own. She saw Heaven opened....

And then the Veil descended, and the Gates closed. She came down from the
mountain-top, leaving the golden dawn very far behind her. She opened her
eyes in darkness and silence.

Someone was bending over her. She felt warm hands about her own. She
heard a voice, sudden and imploring, close to her.

"Avery! Avery darling! For God's sake, dear, speak to me! What is it?
Are you ill?"

"Ill!" she said, bewildered.

His hands gripped hers impetuously. "You gave me such a fright," he said.
"I thought you'd fainted. Did you faint?"

"Of course not!" she said slowly. "I never faint. Why did you stop
playing?"

"I didn't," said Piers. "At least, you stopped first."

"Oh, did I forget to blow?" she said. "I'm sorry."

She knew that she ought not to suffer that close clasp of his, but
somehow for the moment she was powerless to resist it. She sat quite
still, gazing out before her with a curious sense of powerlessness.

"You're tired out," said Piers softly. "It was a shame to keep you here.
I'm awfully sorry, dear."

She stirred at that, beginning to seek for freedom. "Don't, Piers!" she
said. "It--it isn't right of you. It isn't fair."

He knelt swiftly down before her. His voice came quick and passionate in
answer. "It can't be wrong to love you," he said. "And you will never be
any the worse for my love. Let me love you, Avery! Let me love you!"

The words rushed out tempestuously. His forehead was bowed upon her
hands. He became silent, and through the silence she heard his breathing,
hard and difficult,--the breathing of a man who faces stupendous odds.

With an effort she summoned her strength. Yet she could not speak harshly
to him, for her heart went out in pity. "No, you mustn't, Piers," she
said. "You mustn't indeed. I am years older than you are, and it is
utterly unsuitable. You must forget it. You must indeed. There! Let us be
friends! I like you well enough for that."

He uttered a laugh that sounded as though it covered a groan. "Yes,
you're awfully good to me," he said. "But you're not--in one
sense--anything approaching my age, and pray Heaven you never will be!"

He raised his head and looked at her. "And you're not angry with me?" he
said, half wistfully.

No, she was not angry. She could not even pretend to be. "But please be
sensible!" she begged. "I know it was partly my fault. If I hadn't been
so tired, it wouldn't have happened."

He got to his feet, still holding her hands. "No; you're not to blame
yourself," he said. "What has happened was bound to happen, right from
the very beginning. But I'm sorry if it has upset you. There is no reason
why it should that I can see. You are better now?"

He helped her gently to rise. They stood face to face in the dim
candlelight, and his eyes looked into hers with such friendly concern
that again she had it not in her heart to be other than kind.

"I am quite well," she assured him. "Please forget my foolishness! Tell
me what it was you played just now!"

"That last thing?" he said. "Surely you know that! It was Handel's
_Largo_."

She started. "Of course! I remember now! But--I've never heard it played
like that before."

A very strange smile crossed his face. "No one but you would have
understood," he said. "I wanted you to hear it--like that."

She withdrew her hands from his. Something in his words sent a curious
feeling that was almost dread through her heart.

"I don't--quite--know what you mean," she said.

"Don't you?" said Piers, and in his voice there rang a note of
recklessness. "It's a difficult thing to put into words, isn't it? I just
wanted you to see the Open Heaven as I have seen it--and as I shall never
see it again."

"Piers!" she said.

He answered her almost fiercely. "No, you won't understand. Of course you
can't understand. You will never stand hammering at the bars, breaking
your heart in the dark. Wasn't that the sort of picture our kindly parson
drew for us on Sunday? It's a pretty theme--the tortures of the damned!"

"My dear Piers!" Avery spoke quickly and vehemently. "Surely you have too
much sense to take such a discourse as that seriously! I longed to tell
the children not to listen. It is wicked--wicked--to try to spread
spiritual terror in people's hearts, and to call it the teaching of
religion. It is no more like religion than a penny-terrible is like life.
It is a cruel and fantastic distortion of the truth."

She paused. Piers was listening to her with that odd hunger in his eyes
that had looked out of them the night before.

"You don't believe in hell then?" he said quietly, after a moment.

"As a place of future torment--no!" she said. "The only real hell is here
on earth--here in our hearts when we fall away from God. Hell is the
state of sin and all that goes with it--the fiery hell of the spirit. It
is here and now. How could it be otherwise? Can you imagine a God of Love
devising hideous tortures hereafter, for the punishment of the pigmies
who had offended Him? Tortures that were never to do them any good, but
just to keep them in misery for ever and ever? It is unthinkable--it's
almost ludicrous. What is the good of suffering except to purify? That we
can understand and thank God for. But the other--oh, the other is sheer
imagery, more mythical than Jonah and the whale. It just doesn't go."
Again she paused, then very frankly held out her hand to him. "But I like
your picture of the Open Heaven, Piers," she said. "Show it me again some
day--when I'm not as tired and stupid as I am to-day."

He bent over her hand with a gesture that betrayed the foreign blood in
him, and his lips, hot and passionate, pressed her cold fingers. He did
not utter a word. Only when he stood up again he looked at her with eyes
that burned with the deep fires of manhood, and suddenly all-unbidden
the woman's heart in her quivered in response. She bent her head and
turned away.



CHAPTER XIV

A MAN'S CONFIDENCE


"Aren't you going to kiss Aunt Avery under the mistletoe?" asked Gracie.

"No," said Piers. "Aunt Avery may kiss me if she likes." He looked at
Avery with his sudden, boyish laugh. "But I know she doesn't like, so
that's an end of the matter."

"How do you know?" persisted Gracie. "She's very fond of kissing. And
anyone may kiss under the mistletoe."

"That quite does away with the charm of it in my opinion," declared
Piers. "I don't appreciate things when you can get 'em cheap."

He moved over to Jeanie's sofa and sat down on the edge. Her soft eyes
smiled a welcome, the little thin hand slipped into his.

"I've been wishing for you all day long," she said.

He leaned towards her. "Have you, my fairy queen? Well, I'm here at
last."

Avery, from the head of the schoolroom table, looked across at them with
a feeling of fulness at her heart. She never liked Piers so well as when
she saw him in company with her little favourite. His gentleness and
chivalry made of him a very perfect knight.

"Yes," said Jeanie, giving his hand a little squeeze. "We're going to
have our Christmas Tree to-night, and Dr. Tudor is coming. You don't like
him, I know. But he's really quite a nice man."

She spoke the last words pleadingly, in response to a slight frown
between Piers' brows.

"Oh, is he?" said Piers, without enthusiasm.

"He's been very kind," said Jeanie in a tone of apology.

"He'd better be anything else--to you!" said Piers, with a smile that was
somewhat grim.

Jeanie's fingers caressed his again propitiatingly. "Do let's all be nice
to each other just for to-night!" she said.

Piers' smile became tender again. "As your gracious majesty decrees!" he
said. "Where is the ceremony to be held?"

"Up in the nursery. We've had the little ones in here all day, while
Mother and Nurse have been getting it ready. I haven't seen it yet."

"Can't we creep up when no one's looking and have a private view?"
suggested Piers.

Jeanie beamed at the idea. "I would like to, for I've been in the secret
from the very beginning. But you must finish your tea first. We'll go
when the crackers begin."

As the pulling of crackers was the signal for every child at the table to
make as much noise as possible, it was not difficult to effect their
retreat without exciting general attention. Avery alone noted their
departure and smiled at Jeanie's flushed face as the child nodded
farewell to her over Piers' shoulder.

"You do carry me so beautifully," Jeanie confided to him as he mounted
the stairs to the top of the house. "I love the feel of your arms. They
are so strong and kind. You're sure I'm not too heavy?"

"I could carry a dozen of you," said Piers.

They found the nursery brilliantly lighted and lavishly adorned with
festoons of coloured paper.

"Aunt Avery and I did most of that," said Jeanie proudly.

Piers bore her round the room, admiring every detail, finally depositing
her in a big arm-chair close to the tall screen that hid the Christmas
Tree. Jeanie's leg was mending rapidly, and gave her little trouble now.
She lay back contentedly, with shining eyes upon her cavalier.

"It was very nice of you to be so kind to Gracie last night," she said.
"She told me all about it to-day. Of course she ought not to have done
it. I hope--I hope Sir Beverley wasn't angry about it."

Piers laughed a little. "Oh no! He got over it. Was Gracie scared?"

"Not really. She said she thought he wasn't quite pleased with you. I do
hope he didn't think it was your fault."

"My shoulders are fairly broad," said Piers.

"Yes, but it wouldn't be right," maintained Jeanie. "I think I ought to
write to him and explain."

"No, no!" said Piers. "You leave the old chap alone. He
understands--quite as much as he wants to understand."

There was a note of bitterness in his voice which Jeanie was quick to
discern. She reached up a sympathetic hand to his. "Dear Sir Galahad!"
she said softly.

Piers looked down at her for a few moments in silence. And then, very
suddenly, moved by the utter devotion that looked back at him from her
eyes, he went down on his knees beside her and held her to his heart.

"It's a beast of a world, Jeanie," he said.

"Is it?" whispered Jeanie, with his hand pressed tight against her cheek.

There was silence between them for a little space; then she lifted her
face to his, to murmur in a motherly tone, "I expect you're tired."

"Tired!" said Piers with gloomy vehemence. "Yes, I am tired--sick to
death of everything. I'm like a dog on a chain. I can see what I want,
but it's always just out of my reach."

Jeanie's hand came up and softly stroked his face. "I wish I could get
it for you," she said.

"Bless you, sweetheart!" said Piers. "You don't so much as know what it
is, do you?"

"Yes, I do," said Jeanie. She leaned her head back against his shoulder,
looking up into his face with all her child's soul shining in her eyes.
"It's--Aunt Avery; isn't it?"

"How did you know?" said Piers.

"I don't know," said Jeanie. "It just--came to me--that day in the
schoolroom when you talked about the ticket of leave. You were unhappy
that day, weren't you?"

"Yes," said Piers. He added after a moment, "You see, I'm not good
enough for her."

"Not good enough!" Jeanie's face became incredulous and a little
distressed. "I'm sure--she--doesn't think that," she said.

"She doesn't know me properly," said Piers. "Nor do you. If you did,
you'd be shocked,--you'd be horrified."

He spoke recklessly, almost defiantly; but Jeanie only stretched up a
thin arm and wound it about his neck. "Never!" she told him softly.
"No, never!"

He held her to him; but he would not be silenced. "I assure you, I'm no
saint," he said. "I feel more like a devil sometimes. I've done bad
things, Jeanie, I can't tell you how bad. It would only hurt you."

The words ran out impulsively. His breathing came quick and short; his
hold was tense. In that moment the child's pure spirit recognized that
the image had crumbled in her shrine, but the brave heart of her did
not flinch. Very tenderly she veiled the ruin. The element of worship
had vanished in that single instant of revelation; but her love
remained, and it shone out to him like a beacon as he knelt there in
abasement by her side.

"But you're sorry," she whispered. "You would undo the bad things if
you could."

"God knows I would!" he said.

"Perhaps He will undo them for you," she murmured softly. "Have you
asked Him?"

"There are some things that can't be undone," groaned Piers. "It would be
too big a job even for Him."

"Nothing is that," said Jeanie with conviction. "If we are sorry and if
we pray, some day He will undo all the bad we've ever done."

"I haven't prayed for six years," said Piers. "Things went wrong with me.
I felt as if I were under a curse. And I gave it up."

"Oh, Piers!" she said, holding him closer. "How miserable you must
have been!"

"I've been in hell!" he said with bitter vehemence. "And the gates tight
shut! Not that I was ever very great in the spiritual lines," he added
more calmly. "But I used to think God took a friendly interest in my
affairs till--till I went down into hell and the gates shut on me; and
then--" he spoke grimly--"I knew He didn't care a rap."

"But, dear, He does care!" said Jeanie very earnestly.

"He doesn't!" said Piers moodily. "He can't!"

"Piers, He does!" She raised her head and looked him straight in the
eyes. "Everyone feels like that sometimes," she said. "But Aunt Avery
says it's only because we are too little to understand. Won't you begin
and pray again? It does make a difference even though we can't see it."

"I can't," said Piers. And then with swift compunction he kissed her
face of disappointment. "Never mind, my queen! Don't you bother your
little head about me! I shall rub along all right even if I don't come
out on top."

"But I want you to be happy," said Jeanie. "I wish I could help you,
Piers,--dear Piers."

"You do help me," said Piers.

There came the sound of voices on the stairs, and he got up.

Jeanie looked up at him wistfully. "I shall try," she said. "I shall
try--hard."

He patted her head and turned away.

Mr. Lorimer and Miss Whalley entered the room. The former raised his
brows momentarily at the sight of Piers, but he greeted him with much
geniality.

"I am quite delighted to welcome you to the children's Christmas party,"
he declared, with Piers' hand held impressively in his. "And how is your
grandfather, my dear lad?"

Piers contracted instinctively. "He is quite well, thanks," he said. "I
haven't come to stay. I only looked in for a moment."

He glanced towards Miss Whalley whom he had never met before. The Vicar
smilingly introduced him. "This is the Squire's grandson and heir, Miss
Whalley. Doubtless you know him by sight as well as by repute--the
keenest sportsman in the county, eh, my young friend?" His eyes
disappeared with the words as if pulled inwards by a string.

"I don't know," said Piers, becoming extremely blunt and British. "I'm
certainly keen, but so are dozens of others." He bowed to Miss Whalley
with stiff courtesy. "Pleased to meet you," he said formally.

Miss Whalley acknowledged the compliment with a severe air of
incredulity. She had never approved of Piers since a certain Sunday
morning ten years before when she had caught him shooting at the
choir-boys with a catapult, during the litany, over the top of the
squire's large square pew.

She had reported the crime to the Vicar, and the Vicar had lodged a
formal complaint with Sir Beverley, who had soundly caned the delinquent
in his presence, and given him half a sovereign as soon as the clerical
back had been turned for taking the punishment like a man.

But in Miss Whalley's eyes Piers had from that moment ceased to be
regarded as one of the elect, and his curt reception of the good Vicar's
patronage did not further elevate him in her esteem. She made as brief a
response to the introduction as politeness demanded, and crossed the room
to Jeanie.

"I must be off," said Piers. "I've stayed longer than I intended
already."

"Pray do not hurry!" urged Mr. Lorimer. "The festivities are but just
beginning."

But Piers was insistent, and even Jeanie's wistful eyes could not detain
him. He waved her a careless farewell, and extricated himself as quickly
as possible from surroundings that had become uncongenial.

Descending the stairs somewhat precipitately, he nearly ran into Avery
ascending with a troop of children, and stopped to say good-bye.

"You're not going!" cried Gracie, with keen disappointment.

"Yes, I am. I can't stop. It's later than I thought. See you to-morrow!"
said Piers.

He held Avery's hand again in his, and for one fleeting second his eyes
looked into hers. Then lightly he pressed her fingers and passed on
without further words.

On the first landing he encountered Mrs. Lorimer. She smiled upon him
kindly. "Oh, Piers, is it you?" she said. "Have you been having tea in
the schoolroom?"

He admitted that he had.

"And must you really go?" she said. "I'm sorry for that. Come again,
won't you?"

Her tone was full of gentle friendliness, and Piers was touched. "It's
awfully good of you to ask me," he said.

"I like to see you here," she answered simply. "And I am so grateful to
you for your kindness to my little Jeanie."

"Oh, please don't!" said Piers. "I assure you it's quite the other way
round. I shall certainly come again since you are good enough to ask me."

He smiled with boyish gallantry into the wistful, faded face, carried her
fingers lightly to his lips, and passed on.

"Such a nice boy!" Mrs. Lorimer murmured to herself as she went up to
the nursery.

"Poor little soul!" was Piers' inward comment as he ran down to the hall.

Here he paused, finding himself face to face with Lennox Tudor who was
taking off his coat preparatory to ascending.

The doctor nodded to him without cordiality. Neither of them ever
pretended to take any pleasure in the other's society.

"Are you just going?" he asked. "Your grandfather is wanting you."

"Who says so?" said Piers aggressively.

"I say so." Curtly Tudor made answer, meeting Piers' quick frown with one
equally decided.

Piers stood still in front of him. "Have you just come from the Abbey?"
he demanded.

"I have." Tudor's tone was non-committal. He stood facing Piers,
waiting to pass.

"What are you always going there for?" burst forth Piers, with heat. "He
doesn't want you--never follows your advice, and does excellently well
without it."

"Really!" said Tudor. He uttered a short, sarcastic laugh, albeit his
thick brows met closely above his glasses. "Well, you ought to
know--being such a devoted and attentive grandson."

Piers' hands clenched at the words. He looked suddenly dangerous. "What
in thunder do you mean?" he demanded.

Tudor was nothing loth to enlighten him. He was plainly angry himself.
"I mean," he said, "if you must have it, that the time you spend
philandering here would be better employed in looking after the old man,
who has spent a good deal over you and gets precious little interest out
of the investment."

"Confound you!" exclaimed Piers violently. "Who the devil are you to talk
to me like this? Do you think I'm going to put up with it, what? If so,
you're damned well mistaken. You leave me alone--and my grandfather too;
do you hear? If you don't--" He broke off, breathing short and hard.

But Tudor remained unimpressed. He looked at Piers as one might
look at an animal raging behind bars. "Well?" he said. "Pray
finish! If I don't--"

Piers' face was very pale. His eyes blazed out of it, red and
threatening. "If you don't--I'll murder you!" he said.

And at that he stopped short and suddenly wheeled round as he caught the
swish of a dress on the stairs. He looked up into Avery's face as she
came swiftly down, and the blood rose in a deep, dark wave to his
forehead. He made no attempt to cover or excuse his passionate outburst,
which it was perfectly obvious she must have heard. He merely made way
for her, his hands still hard clenched, his eyes immovably upon her.

Avery passed him with scarcely a glance, but her voice as she addressed
Lennox Tudor sounded a trifle austere. "I heard you speaking," she said,
"and ran down to fetch you upstairs. Will you come up at once, please?
The ceremony is just beginning."

Tudor held out a steady hand, "Very kind of you, Mrs. Denys," he said.
"Will you lead the way?" And then for a moment he turned from her to
Piers. "If you have anything further to say to me, Evesham, I shall be
quite ready to give you a hearing on a more suitable occasion."

"I have nothing further to say," said Piers, still with his eyes
upon Avery.

She would not look at him. With deliberate intention, she ignored his
look. "Come, doctor!" she said.

They mounted the stairs together, Piers still standing motionless, still
mutely watching. There was no temper nor anger in his face. Simply he
stood and waited. And, as if that silent gaze drew her, even against her
will, suddenly at the top she turned. Her own sweet smile flashed into
her face. She threw a friendly glance down to him.

"Good-night, Mr. Evesham!" she called softly. "A happy Christmas to you!"

And as if that were what he had been waiting for, Piers bowed very low in
answer and at once turned away.

His face as he went out into the night wore a very curious expression. It
was not grim, nor ashamed, nor triumphant, and yet there was in it a
suggestion of all three moods.

He reached his car, standing as he had left it in the deserted lane, and
stooped to start the engine. Then, as it throbbed in answer, he
straightened himself, and very suddenly he laughed. But it was not a
happy laugh; and in a moment more he shot away into the dark as though
pursued by fiends. If he had gained his end, if he had in any fashion
achieved his desire, it was plain that it did not give him any great
satisfaction. He went like a fury through the night.



CHAPTER XV

THE SCHEME


"Look here, boy!" Very suddenly, almost fiercely, Sir Beverley addressed
his grandson that evening as they sat together over dessert. "I've had
enough of this infernal English climate. I'm going away."

Piers was peeling a walnut. He did not raise his eyes or make the
faintest sign of surprise. Steadily his fingers continued their task. His
lips hardened a little, that was all.

"Do you hear?" rapped out Sir Beverley.

Piers bent his head. "What about the hunting?" he said.

"Damn the hunting!" growled Sir Beverley.

Piers was silent a moment. Then: "I suggested it to you myself, didn't
I?" he said deliberately, "six weeks ago. And you wouldn't hear of it."

"Confound your impertinence!" began Sir Beverley. But abruptly Piers
raised his eyes, and he stopped. "What do you mean?" he said, in a
calmer tone.

Very steadily Piers met his look. "That's a question I should like to
ask, sir," he said. "Why do you want to go abroad? Aren't you well?"

"I am perfectly well," declared Sir Beverley, who furiously resented any
enquiry as to his health. "Can't a man take it into his head that he'd
like a change from this beastly damp hole of a country without being at
death's door, I should like to know?"

"You generally have a reason for what you do, sir," observed Piers.

"Of course I have a reason," flung back Sir Beverley.

A faint smile touched the corners of Piers' mouth. "But I am not to know
what it is, what?" he asked.

Sir Beverley glared at him. There were times when he was possessed by an
uneasy suspicion that the boy was growing up into a manhood that
threatened to overthrow his control. He had a feeling that Piers'
submission to his authority had become a matter of choice rather than of
necessity. He had inherited his Italian grandmother's fortune,
moreover,--a sore point with Sir Beverley who would have repudiated every
penny had it been left at his disposal--and was therefore independent.

"I've given you a reason. What more do you want?" he growled.

Piers looked straight at him for a few seconds longer; then broke into
his sudden boyish laugh. "All right, sir. When shall we start?" he said.

Sir Beverley stared. "What the devil are you laughing at?" he demanded.

Piers had returned to the peeling of his walnut. "Nothing, sir," he
said airily. "At least, nothing more important than your reason for
going abroad."

"Damn your impudence!" said Sir Beverley, and then for some reason he too
began to smile. "That's settled then. We'll go to Monte Carlo, eh, Piers?
You'll like that."

"Do you think I am to be trusted at Monte Carlo?" said Piers.

"I let you go round the world by yourself while you were still an infant,
so I almost think I can trust you at Monte Carlo under my own eye,"
returned Sir Beverley.

Piers was silent. The smile had left his lips. He frowned slightly
over his task.

"Well?" said Sir Beverley, suddenly and sharply.

"Well, sir?" Piers raised his brows without looking up.

The old man brought down an impatient fist on the table. "Why can't you
say what you think?" he demanded angrily. "You sit there with your mouth
shut as if--as if--" His eyes went suddenly to the woman's face on the
wall with the red lips that smiled half-sadly, half-mockingly, and the
eyes that perpetually followed him but never smiled at all. "Confound
you, Piers!" he said. "I sometimes think that voyage round the world did
you more harm than good."

"Why, sir?" said Piers quickly.

Sir Beverley's look left the smiling, baffling face upon the wall and
sought his grandson's. "You were so mad to be off the bearing-rein,
weren't you?" he said. "So keen to feel your own feet? I thought it would
make a man of you, but I was a fool to do it. I'd better have kept you on
the rein after all."

"I should have run away if you had," said Piers. He poured himself
out a glass of wine and raised it to his lips. He looked at Sir Beverley
above it with a smile half-sad, half-mocking, and eyes that veiled his
soul. "I should have gone to the devil if you had, sir," he said,
"and--probably--I shouldn't have come back." He drank slowly, his eyes
still upon Sir Beverley's face.

When he set the glass down again he was openly laughing. "Besides, you
horsewhipped me for something or other, do you remember? It hurts to be
horsewhipped at nineteen."

Sir Beverley growled at him inarticulately.

"Yes, I know," said Piers, "But it doesn't affect me so much now. I'm
past the sensitive age." He ate his walnut, drained his glass, and rose.

"You--puppy!" said Sir Beverley, looking up at him.

Piers came to his side. He suddenly knelt down and pulled the old man's
arm round his shoulders. "I say, I'm going to enjoy that trip," he said
boyishly. "Let's get away before the New Year!"

Sir Beverley suffered the action with no further protest than a frown.
"You weren't so mighty anxious when I first suggested it," he grumbled.

Piers laughed. "Can't a man change his mind? I'm keen enough now."

"What do you want to go for?" Sir Beverley looked at him suspiciously.

But Piers' frank return of his look told him nothing. "I love the South
as you know," he said.

"Damn it, yes!" said Sir Beverley irritably. He could never endure any
mention of the Southern blood in Piers.

"And--" Piers' brown fingers grew suddenly tight upon the bony hand he
had drawn over his shoulder--"I like going away with you."

"Oh, stow it, Piers!" growled Sir Beverley.

"The truth, sir!" protested Piers, with eyes that suddenly danced. "It
does me good to be with you. It keeps me young."

"Young!" ejaculated Sir Beverley. "You--infant!"

Piers broke into a laugh. He looked a mere boy when he gave himself up to
merriment. "And it'll do you good too," he said, "to get away from that
beastly doctor who is always hanging around. I long to give him the boot
whenever I see him."

"You don't like each other, eh?" Sir Beverley's smile was sardonic.

"We loathe and detest each other," said Piers. All the boyishness went
out of his face with the words; he looked suddenly grim, and in that
moment the likeness between them was very marked. "I presume this change
of air scheme was his suggestion," he said abruptly.

"And if it was?" said Sir Beverley.

Piers threw back his head and laughed again through clenched teeth. "For
which piece of consideration he has my sincere gratitude," he said. He
pressed his grandfather's hand again and rose. "So it's to be Monte
Carlo, is it? Well, the sooner the better for me. I'll tell Victor to
look up the trains. We can't get away to-morrow or the next day. But we
ought to be able to manage the day after."

He strolled across to the fire, and stood there with his back to the
room, whistling below his breath.

Sir Beverley regarded him frowningly. There was no denying the fact, he
did not understand Piers. He had expected a strenuous opposition to his
scheme. He had been prepared to do battle with the boy. But Piers had
refused the conflict. What was the fellow's game, he asked himself? Why
this prompt compliance with his wishes? He was not to be deceived into
the belief that he wanted to go. The attraction was too great for that.
Unless indeed--he looked across at the bent black head in sudden
doubt--was it possible that the boy had met with a check in the least
likely direction of all? Could it be that the woman's plans did not
include him after all?

No! No! That was out of the question. He knew women. A hard laugh rose to
his lips. If she had put a check upon Piers' advances it was not with the
ultimate purpose of stopping him. She knew what she was about too well
for that, confound her!

He stared at Piers who had wheeled suddenly from the fire at the sound of
the laugh. "Well?" he said irritably. "Well? What's the matter now?"

The eyes that countered his were hard, with just a hint of defiance. "You
laughed, sir," said Piers curtly.

"Well, what of it?" threw back Sir Beverley. "You're deuced suspicious. I
wasn't laughing at you."

"I know that," said Piers. He spoke deliberately, as one choosing his
words. His face was stern. "I don't want to know the joke if it's
private. But I should like to know how long you want to be away."

"How long? How the devil can I tell?" growled Sir Beverley. "Till I've
had enough of it, I suppose."

"Does it depend on that only?" said Piers.

Sir Beverley pushed back his chair with fierce impatience. "Oh, leave me
alone, boy, do! I'll let you know when it's time to come home again."

Piers came towards him. He halted with the light from the lamp full on
his resolute face. "If you are going to wait on Tudor's convenience," he
said, "you'll wait--longer than I shall."

"What the devil do you mean?" thundered Sir Beverley.

But again Piers turned aside from open conflict. He put a quiet hand
through his grandfather's arm.

"Come along, sir! We'll smoke in the hall," he said. "I think you
understand me. If you don't--" he paused and smiled his sudden, winning
smile into the old man's wrathful eyes--"I'll explain more fully when the
time comes."

"Confound you, Piers!" was Sir Beverley's only answer.

Yet he left the room with the boy's arm linked in his. And the woman's
face on the wall smiled behind them--the smile of a witch, mysterious,
derisive, aloof, yet touched with that same magic with which Piers had
learned even in his infancy to charm away the evil spirit that lurked in
his grandfather's soul.



CHAPTER XVI

THE WARNING


"Going away to-morrow, are you?" said Ina Rose, in her cool young voice.
"I hope you'll enjoy it."

"Thanks!" said Piers. "No doubt I shall."

He spoke with his eyes on the dainty lace fan he had taken from her.

Ina frankly studied his face. She had always found Piers Evesham
interesting.

"I should be wild if I were in your place," she remarked, after a moment.

He shrugged his shoulders, and his brown face slightly smiled. "Because
of the hunting?" he said, and turned his eyes upon her fresh, girlish
face. "But there's always next year, what?"

"Good gracious!" said Ina. "You talk as if you were older than your
grandfather. It wouldn't comfort me in the least to think of next
season's hunting. And I don't believe it does you either. You are only
putting it on."

"All right!" said Piers. His eyes dwelt upon her with a species of
mocking homage that yet in a fashion subtly flattered. He always knew how
to please Ina Rose, though not always did he take the trouble. "Let us
say--for the sake of argument--that I am quite inconsolable. It doesn't
matter to anyone, does it?"

"I don't know why you should say that," said Ina. "It ought to
matter--anyhow to your grandfather. Why don't you make him go by
himself?"

Piers laughed a careless laugh, still boldly watching her. "That wouldn't
be very dutiful of me, would it?" he said.

"I suppose you're not afraid of him?" said Ina, who knew not the meaning
of the word.

"Why should you suppose that?" said Piers.

She met his look in momentary surprise. "To judge by the way you behaved
the other day, I should say you were not."

Piers frowned. "Which day?"

Ina explained without embarrassment. "The day that girl held up the whole
Hunt in Holland's meadow. My word, Piers, how furious the old man was!
Does he often behave like that?"

Piers still frowned. His fingers were working restlessly at the ivory
sticks of her fan. "If you mean, does he often thrash me with a
horsewhip, no, he doesn't," he said shortly. "And he wouldn't have done
it then if I'd had a hand to spare. I'm glad you enjoyed the spectacle.
Hope you were all edified."

"You needn't be waxy," said Ina calmly. "I assure you, you never showed
to greater advantage. I hope your lady friend was duly grateful to her
deliverer. I rather liked her pluck, Piers. Who is she?"

There was a sudden crack between Piers' fingers. He looked down hastily,
and in a moment displayed three broken ivory fan-sticks to the girl
beside him. "I'm horribly sorry, Ina," he said.

Ina looked at the damage, and from it to his face of contrition. "You did
it on purpose," she said.

"I did not," said Piers.

"You're very rude," she rejoined.

"No, I'm not," he protested. "I'm sorry. I hope you didn't value it for
any particular reason. I'll send you another from Paris."

She spurned the broken thing with a careless gesture. "Not you! You'd be
afraid to."

Piers' brows went up. "Afraid?"

"Of your grandfather," she said, with a derisive smile. "If he caught you
sending anything to me--or to the lady of the meadow--" she paused
eloquently.

Piers looked grim. "Of course I shall send you a fan if you'll
accept it."

"How nice of you!" said Ina. "Wouldn't you like to send something for
her in the same parcel? I'll deliver it for you--if you'll tell me the
lady's address."

Her eyes sparkled mischievously as she made the suggestion. Piers frowned
yet a moment longer, then laughed back with abrupt friendliness.

"Thanks awfully! But I won't trouble you. It's decent of you not to be
angry over this. I'll get you a ripping one to make up."

Ina nodded. "That'll be quite amusing. Everyone will think that you're
really in earnest at last. Poor Dick will be furious when he knows."

"You'll probably console him pretty soon," returned Piers.

"Think so?" Ina's eyes narrowed a little; she looked at Piers
speculatively. "That's what you want to believe, is it?"

"I? Of course not!" Piers laughed again. "I never wished any girl
engaged yet."

"Save one," suggested Ina, and an odd little gleam hovered behind
her lashes with the words. "Why won't you tell me her name? You
might as well."

"Why?" said Piers.

"I shall find it out in any case," she assured him. "I know already that
she dwells under the Vicar's virtuous roof, and that the worthy Dr. Tudor
finds it necessary to drop in every day. I suppose she is the
nurse-cook-housekeeper of that establishment."

"I say, how clever of you!" said Piers.

The girl laughed carelessly. "Isn't it? I've studied her in church--and
you too, my cavalier. I don't believe you have ever attended so regularly
before, have you? Did she ever tell you her age?"

"Never," said Piers.

"I wonder," said Ina coolly. And then rather suddenly she rose. "Piers,
if I'm a prying cat, you're a hard-mouthed mule! There! Why can't you
admit that you're in love with her?"

Piers faced her with no sign of surprise. "Why don't you tell me that
you're in love with Guyes?" he said.

"Because it wouldn't be true!" She flung back her answer with a laugh
that sounded unaccountably bitter. "I have yet to meet the man who is
worth the trouble."

"Oh, really!" said Piers. "Don't flatter us more than you need! I'm sorry
for Guyes myself. If he weren't so keen on you, it's my belief you'd like
him better."

"Oh no, I shouldn't!" Ina spoke with a touch of scorn. "I shouldn't like
him either less or more, whatever he did. I couldn't. But of course he's
extremely eligible, isn't he?"

"Does that count with you?" said Piers curiously.

She looked at him. "It doesn't with you of course?" she said.

"Not in the least," he returned with emphasis.

She laughed again, and pushed the remnants of her fan with her foot. "It
wouldn't. You're so charmingly young and romantic. Well, mind the doctor
doesn't cut you out in your absence! He would be a much more suitable
_parti_ for her, you know, both as to age and station. Shall we go back
to the ball-room now? I am engaged to Dick for the next dance. I mustn't
cut him in his own house."

It was an annual affair but quite informal--this Boxing Night dance at
the Guyes'. Dick himself called it a survival of his schoolboy days, and
it was always referred to in the neighbourhood as "Dick's Christmas
party." He and his mother would no more have dreamed of discontinuing the
festivity than of foregoing their Christmas dinner, and the Roses of
Wardenhurst were invariably invited and as invariably attended it. Piers
was not so constant a guest. Dick had thrown him an open invitation on
the hunting-field a day or two before, and Piers, having nothing better
to do, had decided to present himself.

He liked dancing, and was easily the best dancer among the men. He also
liked Ina Rose, or at least she had always thought so, till that night.
They were friends of the hunting-field rather than of the drawing-room,
but they always drifted together wherever they met. Sir Beverley had
never troubled himself about the intimacy. The girl belonged to the
county, and if not quite the brilliant match for Piers that he would have
chosen, she came at least of good old English stock. He knew and liked
her father, and he would not have made any very strenuous opposition to
an alliance between the two. The girl was well bred and heiress to the
Colonel's estate. She would have added considerably to Piers' importance
as a landowner, and she knew already how to hold up her head in society.
Also, she led a wholesome, outdoor existence, and was not the sort of
girl to play with a man's honour.

No, on the whole Sir Beverley had no serious objection to the prospect of
a marriage between them, save that he had no desire to see Piers married
for another five years at feast. But Ina could very well afford to wait
five years for such a prize as Piers. Meanwhile, if they cared to get
engaged--it would keep the boy out of mischief, and there would be no
harm in it.

So had run Sir Beverley's thoughts prior to the appearance of the
mother's help at the Vicarage. But she--the woman with the resolute mouth
and grey, steadfast eyes--had upset all his calculations. It had not
needed Lennox Tudor's hint to put him on his guard. He had known whither
the boy's wayward fancy was tending before that. The scene in the
hunting-field had been sufficient revelation for him, and had lent
strength to his arm and fury to his indignation.

Piers' decision to spend his last night in England at a dance had been a
surprise to him, but then the boy had puzzled him a good many times of
late. He had even asked himself once or twice if it had been his
deliberate intention to do so. But since it was absolutely certain that
the schemer at the Vicarage would not be present at Dick Guyes' party,
Sir Beverley did not see any urgent necessity for keeping his grandson at
his side. He even hoped that Piers would enjoy himself though he deemed
him a fool to go.

And, to judge from appearances, Piers was enjoying himself. Having parted
from Ina, he claimed for his partner his hostess,--a pretty, graceful
woman who danced under protest, but so exquisitely that he would hardly
be persuaded to give her up when the dance was over.

He scarcely left the ball-room for the rest of the evening, and when the
party broke up he was among the last to leave. Dick ingenuously thanked
him for helping to make the affair a success. He was not feeling
particularly happy himself, since Ina had consistently snubbed him
throughout; but he did not hold Piers in any way responsible for her
attitude. Dick's outlook on life was supremely simple. He never attempted
to comprehend the ways of women, being serenely content to regard them as
beyond his comprehension. He hoped and believed that one day Ina would be
kind to him, but he was quite prepared to wait an indefinite time for
that day to dawn. He took all rebuffs with resignation, and could
generally muster a smile soon after.

He smiled tranquilly upon Piers at parting and congratulated him upon the
prospect of missing the worst of the winter. To which Piers threw back a
laugh as he drove away in his little two-seater, coupled with the
careless assurance that he meant to make the most of his time, whatever
the weather.

"Lucky dog!" said Guyes, as he watched him disappear down the drive.

But if he had seen the expression that succeeded Piers' laugh, he might
have suppressed the remark. For Piers' face, as he raced alone through
the darkness, was the set, grim face of a man who carries a deadly
purpose in his soul. He had laughed and danced throughout the evening,
but in his first moment of solitude the devil he had kept at bay had
entered into full possession.

To the rush and throb of his engine, he heard over and over the gibing,
malicious words of a girl's sore heart: "Mind the doctor doesn't cut you
out in your absence!"

Obviously then this affair was the common talk of the neighbourhood since
news of it had even penetrated to Wardenhurst. People were openly
watching the rivalry between Lennox Tudor and himself, watching and
speculating as to the result. And he, about to be ignominiously removed
from the conflict by his grandfather, at Tudor's suggestion, had become
the laughing-stock of the place. Piers' teeth nearly met in his lower
lip. Let them laugh! And let them chatter! He would give them ample food
for amusement and gossip before he left.

He had yielded to his grandfather's desire because instinct had told him
that his absence just at that stage of his wooing would be more
beneficial than his presence. He was shrewd enough to realize that the
hot blood in him was driving him too fast, urging him to a pace which
might irreparably damage his cause. For that reason alone, he was ready
to curb his fierce impetuosity. But to leave a free field for Lennox
Tudor was not a part of his plan. He had scarcely begun to regard the man
in the light of a serious rival, although fully aware of the fact that
Tudor was doing his utmost to remove him from his path. But if Ina
thought him so, he had probably underestimated the danger.

He had always detested Tudor very thoroughly. Piers never did anything by
halves, and the doctor's undisguised criticism of him never failed to
arouse his fiercest resentment. That Tudor disliked him in return was a
fact that could scarcely escape the notice of the most careless observer.
The two were plainly antipathetic, and were scarcely civil to one another
even in public.

But that night Piers' antagonism flared to a deadly hatred. The
smouldering fire had leaped to a fierce blaze. Two nights before he had
smothered it with the exultant conviction that Tudor's chances with Avery
were practically non-existent. He had known with absolute certainty that
he was not the type of man to attract her. But to-night his mood had
changed. Whether Tudor's chances had improved or not, he scarcely stopped
to question, but that other people regarded them as possibly greater than
his own was a fact that sent the mad blood to his head. He tore back
through the winter night like a man possessed, with Ina Rose's scoffing
warning beating a devil's tattoo in his brain.



CHAPTER XVII

THE PLACE OF TORMENT


The surgery-bell pealed imperiously, and Tudor looked up from his book.
It was his custom to read far into the night, for he was a poor sleeper
and preferred a cosy fireside to his bed. But that night he was even
later than usual. Glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece, he saw that
it was a quarter to two. With a shrug of the shoulders expressive rather
of weariness than indifference, he rose to answer the bell.

It pealed again before he reached the door, and the doctor frowned. He
was never very tolerant of impatience. He unfastened the bolts without
haste. The case might be urgent, but a steady hand and cool nerve were
usually even more essential than speed in his opinion. He opened the door
therefore with a certain deliberation, and faced the sharp night air with
grim resignation. "Well? Who is it? Come in!"

He expected to see some village messenger, and the sight of Piers,
stern-faced, with the fur collar of his motor-coat turned up to his ears,
was a complete surprise.

"Hullo!" he said, staring at him. "Anything wrong?"

Piers stared back with eyes of burning hostility. "I want a word with
you," he announced curtly. "Will you come out, or shall I come in?"

"You'd better come in," said Tudor, suppressing a shiver, "unless I'm
wanted up at the Abbey."

"You're not," said Piers.

He stepped into the passage, and impetuously stripped off his heavy
coat. Tudor shut the door, and turned round. He surveyed his visitor's
evening-dress with a touch of contempt. He himself was clad in an
ancient smoking-jacket, much frayed at the cuffs; and his
carpet-slippers were so trodden down at the heel that he could only just
manage to shuffle along in them.

"Go into the consulting-room!" he said. "There's a light there."

Piers strode in, and waited for him. Seen by the light of the gas that
burned there, his face was pale and set in lines of iron determination.
His eyes shone out of it like the eyes of an infuriated wild beast.

"Do you know what I've come for?" he said, as Tudor shambled into the
room.

Tudor looked him over briefly and comprehensively. "No, I don't," he
said. "I hoped I'd seen the last of you."

His words were as brief as his look. It was obvious that he had no
intention of wasting time in mere courtesy.

Piers' lips tightened at his tone. He looked full and straight at the
baffling glasses that hid the other man's contemptuous eyes.

"I've come for a reckoning with you," he said.

"Really?" said Tudor. He glanced again at the clock. "Rather an unusual
hour, isn't it?"

Piers passed the question by. He was chafing on his feet like a caged
animal. Abruptly he came to the point.

"I told you the other day that I wouldn't put up with any interference
from you. I didn't know then how far your interference had gone. I do
know now. This scheme to get me out of the country was of your
contrivance."

Fiercely he flung the words. He was quivering with passionate
indignation. But the effect on Tudor was scarcely perceptible. He only
looked a little colder, a little more satirical, than was his wont.

"Well?" he said. "What of it?"

Piers showed his teeth momentarily. His hands were hard gripped behind
him, as though he restrained himself by main force from open violence.

"You don't deny it?" he said.

"Why should I?" Tudor's thin lips displayed a faint sneer. "I certainly
advised your grandfather to go away, and I think the advice was sound."

"It was--from your point of view." A tremor of fierce humour ran through
Piers' speech. "But plans--even clever ones--don't always turn out as
they should. This one for instance--what do you think you are going to
gain by it?"

"What do you mean?" Tudor stood by the table facing Piers, his attitude
one of supreme indifference. He seemed scarcely to feel the stormy
atmosphere that pulsated almost visibly around the younger man. His eyes
behind their glasses were cold and shrewd, wholly emotionless.

Piers paused an instant to grip his self-control the harder, for every
word he uttered seemed to make his hold the more precarious.

"I'll tell you what I mean," he said, his voice low and savagely
distinct. "I mean that what you've done--all this sneaking and scheming
to get me out of your way--isn't going to serve your purpose. I mean that
you shall swear to me here and now to give up the game during my absence,
or take the consequences. It is entirely due to you that I am going,
but--by Heaven--you shall reap no advantage from it!"

His voice rose a little, and the menace of it became more apparent. He
bent slightly towards the man he threatened. His eyes blazed red and
dangerous. Tudor stood his ground, but it was impossible any longer to
ignore Piers' open fury. It was like the blast of a hurricane hurled
full against him. He made a slight gesture of remonstrance.

"My good fellow, all this excitement is utterly uncalled for. The advice
I gave your grandfather would, I am convinced, have been given by any
other medical man in the country. If you are not satisfied with it, you
had better get him to have another opinion. As to taking advantage of
your absence, I really don't know what you mean, and I think if you are
wise you won't stop to explain. It's getting late and if you don't value
your night's rest, I can't do without mine. Also, I think when the
morning comes, you'll be ashamed of this foolery."

He spoke with studied coldness. He knew the value of a firm front when
facing odds. But he did not know the fiery soul of the man before him,
or realize that contempt poured upon outraged pride is as spirit poured
upon flame.

He saw the devil in Piers' eyes too late to change his tactics. Almost in
the same moment the last shred of Piers' self-control vanished like smoke
in a gale. He uttered a fearful oath and sprang upon Tudor like an animal
freed from a leash.

The struggle that followed was furious if brief. Tudor's temper, once
thoroughly roused, was as fierce as any man's, and though his knowledge
of the science of fighting was wholly elementary, he made a desperate
resistance. It lasted for possibly thirty seconds, and then he found
himself flung violently backwards across the table and pinned there, with
Piers' hands gripping his throat, and Piers' eyes, grim and murderous,
glaring down into his own.

"Be still!" ordered Piers, his voice no more than a whisper. "Or I'll
kill you--by Heaven, I will!"

Tudor was utterly powerless in that relentless grip. His heart was
pumping with great hammer-strokes; his breathing came laboured between
those merciless hands. His own hands were closed upon the iron wrists,
but their hold was weakening moment by moment, he knew their grasp to be
wholly ineffectual. He obeyed the order because he lacked the strength to
do otherwise.

Piers slowly slackened his grip. "Now," he said, speaking between lips
that scarcely seemed to move, "you will make me that promise."

"What--promise?" Gaspingly Tudor uttered the question, yet something of
the habitual sneer which he always kept for Piers distorted his mouth as
he spoke. He was not an easy man to beat, despite his physical
limitations.

Sternly and implacably Piers answered him. "You will swear--by all you
hold sacred--to take no advantage whatever of me while I am away. You had
a special purpose in view when you planned to get me out of the way. You
will swear to give up that purpose, till I come back."

"I?" said Tudor.

Just the one word flung upwards at his conqueror, but carrying with it a
defiance so complete that even Piers was for the moment taken by
surprise! Then, the devil urging him, he tightened his grip again.
"Either that," he said, "or--"

He left the sentence unfinished. His hands completed the threat. He had
passed the bounds of civilization, and his savagery whirled him like a
fiery torrent through the gaping jaws of hell. The maddening flames were
all around him, the shrieking of demons was in his ears, driving him on
to destruction. He went, blinded by passion, goaded by the intolerable
stabs of jealousy. In those moments he was conscious of nothing save a
wild delirium of anger against the man who, beaten, yet resisted him, yet
threw him his disdainful refusal to surrender even in the face of
overwhelming defeat.

But the brief respite had given Tudor a transient renewal of strength.
Ere that terrible grip could wholly lock again, he made another frantic
effort to free himself. Spasmodic as it was, and wholly unconsidered, yet
it had the advantage of being unexpected. Piers shifted his hold, and in
that instant Tudor found and gripped the edge of the table. Sharply, with
desperate strength, he dragged himself sideways, and before his adversary
could prevent it he was over the edge. He fell heavily, dragging Piers
with him, struck his head with violence against the table-leg, and
crumpled with the blow like an empty sack.

Piers found himself gripping a limp, inanimate object, and with a sudden
sense of overpowering horror he desisted. He stumbled up, staggering
slightly, and drew a long, hard breath. His heart was racing like a
runaway engine. All the blood in his body seemed to be concentrated
there. Almost mechanically he waited for it to slow down. And, as he
waited, the madness of that wild rush through hell fell away from him.
The demons that had driven him passed into distance. He was left standing
in a place of desolation, utterly and terribly alone.

       *       *       *       *       *

A trickle of cold water ran down Tudor's chin. He put up a hesitating,
groping hand, and opened his eyes.

He was lying in the arm-chair before the fire in which he had spent the
evening. The light danced before him in blurred flashes.

"Hullo!" he muttered thickly. "I've been asleep."

He remained passive for a few moments, trying, not very successfully, to
collect his scattered senses. Then, with an effort that seemed curiously
laboured, he slowly sat up. Instinctively, his eyes went to the clock
above him, but the hands of it seemed to be swinging round and round. He
stared at it bewildered.

But when he tried to rise and investigate the mystery, the whole room
began to spin, and he sank back with a feeling of intense sickness.

It was then that he became aware of another presence. Someone came from
behind him and, stooping, held a tumbler to his lips. He looked up
vaguely, and as in a dream he saw the face of Piers Evesham.

But it was Piers as he had never before seen him, white-lipped, unnerved,
shaking. The hand that held the glass trembled almost beyond control.

"What's the matter?" questioned Tudor in hazy wonder. "Have you been
boozing, or have I?"

And then, his perceptions growing stronger, he took the glass from the
quivering hand and slowly drank.

The draught steadied him. He looked up with more assurance, and saw
Piers, still with that deathly look on his face, leaning against the
mantelpiece for support.

"What on earth's the matter?" said Tudor sharply.

He felt for his glasses, found them dangling over his shoulder, and put
them on. One of them was cracked across, an illuminating fact which
accounted for much. He looked keenly at Piers for several quiet seconds.

At length with a shade of humour he spoke. "Here endeth the first lesson!
You'd make a better show if you had a drink also. I'm sorry there's only
one glass. You see, I wasn't expecting any friends to-night."

Piers started a little and straightened himself; but his face remained
bloodless, and there was a curiously stunned look in his eyes. He did not
attempt to utter a word.

Tudor drained his glass, sat a moment or two longer, then got up. There
were brandy and water on his writing-table. He poured out a stiff dose,
and turned to Piers with authority.

"Pull yourself together, Evesham! I should have thought you'd made a
big enough fool of yourself for one night. Drink this! Don't spill it
now! And don't sit down on the fire, for I don't feel equal to
pulling you off!"

His manner was briskly professional, the manner he usually reserved for
the hysterical portion of his patients. He was still feeling decidedly
shaky himself, but Piers' collapse was an admirable restorative. He stood
by, vigilant and resolute, while the brandy did its work.

Piers drank in silence, not looking at him. All the arrogance had gone
out of him. He looked broken and unmanned.

"Better?" asked Tudor at length.

He nodded mutely, and set down the glass.

Tudor surveyed him questioningly. "What happened to you?" he asked
finally.

"Nothing!" Piers found his voice at last, it was low and shamed. "Nothing
whatever! You--you--my God!--I thought you were dead, that's all."

"That all?" said Tudor. He put his hand up to his temple. There was a
fair-sized lump there already, and it was swelling rapidly.

Piers nodded again. The deathly pallor had gone from his face, but he
still avoided Tudor's eyes. He spoke again, below his breath, as if more
to himself than to Tudor.

"You looked so horribly like--like--a man I once--saw killed."

"If you are wise, you will go home to bed," said Tudor gruffly.

Piers flashed a swift look at him. He stood hesitating. "You're not
really hurt?" he questioned, after a moment.

"Thank you," said Tudor drily, "I am not."

He made no movement of reconciliation. Perhaps it was hardly to be
expected of him. Piers made none either. He turned away in silence.

The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the hour. Two o'clock! Tudor looked
at it with a wry smile. It had been a lively quarter of an hour.

The surgery-door banged upon Piers' departure. He heard his feet move
heavily to the gate, and the dull clang of the latter closing behind him.
Then, after a protracted pause, there came the sound of his motor.

As this throbbed away into distance Tudor smiled again grimly,
ironically. "Yes, you young ruffian," he said. "It's given your nerves a
nasty jolt, and serves you jolly well right! I never saw any fellow in
such a mortal funk before, and--from your somewhat rash remark--I gather
that it's not the first lesson after all. I wonder when--and how--you
killed that other man."

He was still speculating as he turned out the light and went to his room.



CHAPTER XVIII

HORNS AND HOOFS


It was the Reverend Stephen Lorimer's custom to have all letters that
arrived by the morning post placed beside his breakfast plate to be
sorted by him at the end of family prayers,--a custom which Gracie freely
criticized in the sanctuary of the schoolroom, and which her mother in
earlier days had gently and quite ineffectually tried to stop. It was
always a somewhat lengthy proceeding as it entailed a careful scrutiny of
each envelope, especially in the case of letters not addressed to the
Reverend Stephen. He was well acquainted with the handwriting of all his
wife's correspondents, and was generally ready with some shrewd guess as
to their motives for writing. They were usually submitted to him for
perusal as soon as she had read them herself, a habit formed by Mrs.
Lorimer when she discovered that he looked upon her correspondence as his
own property and deeply resented any inclination on her part to keep it
to herself.

Avery's arrival had brought an additional interest to the morning budget.
Her letters were invariably examined with bland curiosity and handed on
to her with comments appropriate to their appearance. Occasionally
envelopes with an Australian postmark reached her, and these always
excited especial notice. The brief spell of Avery's married life had been
spent in a corner of New South Wales. In the early part of their
acquaintance, Mr. Lorimer had sought to draw her out on the subject of
her experiences during this period, but he had found her reticent. And so
whenever a letter came addressed in the strong, masculine hand of her
Australian correspondent, some urbane remark was invariably made, while
his small daughter Gracie swelled with indignation at the further
end of the table.

"Two epistles for Mrs. Denys!" he announced, as he turned over the
morning's mail at the breakfast-table two days after Christmas. "Ah, I
thought our Australian friend would be calling attention to himself ere
the festive season had quite departed. He writes from Adelaide on this
occasion. That indicates a move if I mistake not. His usual
_pied-a-terre_ has been Brisbane hitherto, has it not?"

His little dark eyes interrogated Avery for a moment before they vanished
inwards with disconcerting completeness.

Avery stiffened instinctively. She was well aware that Mr. Lorimer did
not like her, but the fact held no disturbing element. To her mind the
dislike of the man was preferable to his favour and after all she saw but
little of him.

She went on therefore with her occupation of cutting bread and butter for
the children with no sign of annoyance save that slight, scarcely
perceptible stiffening of the neck which only Gracie saw.

"I hope you are kind to your faithful correspondent," smiled Mr. Lorimer,
still holding the letter between his finger and thumb. "He evidently
regards your friendship as a pearl of price, and doubtless he is
well-advised to do so."

Here he opened his eyes again, and sent a barbed glance at Avery's
unresponsive face.

"Friendship is a beautiful thing, is it not?" he said.

"It is," said Avery, deftly cutting her fifth slice.

The Reverend Stephen proceeded with clerical fervour to embellish his
subject, for no especial reason save the pleasure of listening to his own
eloquence--a pleasure which never palled. "It partakes of that divine
quality of charity so sadly lacking in many of us, and sheds golden beams
of sunshine in the humblest earthly home. It has been aptly called the
true earnest of eternity."

"Really!" said Avery.

"An exquisite thought, is it not?" said the Vicar. "Grace, my child, for
the one-and-twentieth time I must beg of you not to swing your legs when
sitting at table."

"I wasn't," said Gracie.

Her father's brows were elevated in surprise. His eyes as a consequence
were opened rather wider than usual, revealing an unmistakably
malignant gleam.

"That is not the way in which a Christian child should receive
admonition," he said. "If you were not swinging your legs, you were
fidgeting in a fashion which you very well know to be unmannerly. Do not
let me have to complain of your behaviour again!"

Gracie's cheeks were crimson, her violet eyes blazing with resentment;
and Avery, dreading an outburst, laid a gentle restraining hand upon her
shoulder for an instant.

The action was well-meant, but its results were unfortunate. Gracie
impulsively seized and kissed the hand with enthusiasm. "All right, Avery
dear," she said with pointed docility.

Mr. Lorimer's brows rose a little higher, but being momentarily at a loss
for a suitable comment he contented himself with a return to Avery's
correspondence.

"The other letter," he said, "bears the well-known crest of the Evesham
family. Ah, Mrs. Denys!" he shook his head at her. "Now, what does
that portend?"

"What is the crest?" asked Avery, briskly cutting another slice.

"The devil," said Gracie.

"My dear!" remonstrated Mrs. Lorimer, with a nervous glance towards
her husband.

The Reverend Stephen was smiling, but in a fashion she did not quite
like. He addressed Avery.

"The Evesham crest, Mrs. Denys, is a gentleman with horns and hoofs and
under him the one expressive word, _'Cave.'_ Excellent advice, is it not?
I think we should do well to follow it." He turned the envelope over, and
studied the address. "What a curious style of writing the young man has,
unrestrained to a degree! This looks as if it had been written in a
desperate mood. Mrs. Denys, Mrs. Denys, what have you been doing?"

He began to laugh, but stopped abruptly as Julian, who was seated near
him, with a sudden, clumsy movement, upset a stream of cocoa across the
breakfast-table. This created an instant diversion. Mr. Lorimer turned
upon him vindictively, and soundly smacked his head, Mrs. Lorimer covered
her face and wept, and Avery, with Gracie close behind, hurried to remedy
the disaster.

Ranald came to help her in his quiet, gentlemanly way, dabbing up the
thick brown stream with his table-napkin. Pat slipped round to his
mother and hugged her hard. And Olive, the only unmoved member of the
party, looked on with contemptuous eyes the while she continued her
breakfast. Jeanie still breakfasted upstairs in the schoolroom, and so
missed the _fracas_.

"The place is a pig-sty!" declared Mr. Lorimer, roused out of all
complacence and casting dainty phraseology to the winds. "And you,
sir,"--he addressed his second son,--"wholly unfit for civilized
society. Go upstairs, and--if you have any appetite left after this
disgusting exhibition--satisfy it in the nursery!"

Julian, crimson but wholly unashamed, flung up his head defiantly and
walked to the door.

"Stop!" commanded Mr. Lorimer, ere he reached it.

Julian stopped.

His father looked him up and down with gradually returning composure.
"You will not go to the nursery," he said. "You will go to the study and
there suffer the penalty for insolence."

"Stephen!" broke from Mrs. Lorimer in anguished protest.

"A beastly shame!" cried Gracie vehemently, flinging discretion to the
winds; she adored her brother Julian. "He never spoke a single word!"

"Go, Julian!" said Mr. Lorimer.

Julian went, banging the door vigorously behind him.

Then, amid an awful silence, the Vicar turned his scrutiny upon his
small daughter.

Gracie stood up under it with all the courage at her disposal, but she
was white to the lips before that dreadful gaze passed from her to Avery.

"Mrs. Denys," said Mr. Lorimer, in tones of icy courtesy, "will you
oblige me by taking that child upstairs, undressing her, and putting her
to bed? She will remain there until I come."

Avery, her task accomplished, turned and faced him. She was as white as
Gracie, but there was a steadfast light in her eyes that showed her
wholly unafraid.

"Mr. Lorimer," she said, "with your permission I will deal with
Gracie. She has done wrong, I know. By-and-bye, she will be sorry and
tell you so."

Mr. Lorimer smiled sarcastically. "An apology, my dear Mrs. Denys, does
not condone the offence. It is wholly against my principles to spare the
rod when it is so richly merited, and I shall not do so on this occasion.
Will you kindly do as I have requested?"

It was final, and Avery knew it. Mrs. Lorimer knew it also, and burst
into hysterical crying.

Avery turned swiftly. "Go upstairs, dear!" she said to Gracie, and Gracie
went like an arrow.

Mrs. Lorimer started to her feet. "Stephen! Stephen!" she cried
imploringly.

But her husband turned a deaf ear. With a contemptuous gesture he tossed
Avery's letters upon the table and stalked from the room.

Mrs. Lorimer uttered a wild cry of despair, and fell back fainting in
her chair.

For the next quarter of an hour Avery was fully occupied in restoring
her, again assisted by Ronald. When she came to herself, it was only to
shed anguished tears on Avery's shoulder and repeat over and over again
that she could not bear it, she could not bear it.

Avery was of the same opinion, but she did not say so. She strove
instead with the utmost tenderness to persuade her to drink some tea.
But even when she had succeeded in this, Mrs. Lorimer continued to be so
exhausted and upset that at last, growing uneasy, Avery despatched
Ronald for the doctor.

She sent Olive for the children's nurse and took counsel with her as to
getting her mistress back to bed. But Nurse instantly discouraged this
suggestion.

"For the Lord's sake, ma'am, don't take her upstairs!" she said. "The
master's up there with Miss Gracie, and he's whipping the poor lamb
something cruel. He made me undress her first."

"Oh, I cannot have that!" exclaimed Avery. "Stay here a minute, Nurse,
while I go up!"

She rushed upstairs in furious anger to the room in which the three
little girls slept. The door was locked, but the sounds within were
unmistakable. Gracie was plainly receiving severe punishment from her
irate parent. Her agonized crying tore Avery's heart.

She threw herself at the door and battered at it with her fists. "Mr.
Lorimer!" she called. "Mr. Lorimer, let me in!"

There was no response. Possibly she was not even heard, for the dreadful
crying continued and, mingled with it, the swish of the slender little
riding-switch which in the earlier, less harassed days of his married
life the Reverend Stephen had kept for the horse he rode, and which now
he kept for his children.

They were terrible moments for Avery that she spent outside that locked
door, listening impotently to a child's piteous cries for mercy from one
who knew it not. But they came to an end at last. Gracie's distress sank
into anguished sobs, and Avery knew that the punishment was over. Mr.
Lorimer had satisfied both his sense of duty and his malice.

She heard him speak in cold, cutting tones. "I have punished you more
severely than I had ever expected to find necessary, and I hope that the
lesson will be sufficient. But I warn you, Grace, most solemnly that I
shall watch your behaviour very closely for the future, and if I detect
in you the smallest indication of the insolence and defiance for which I
have inflicted this punishment upon you to-day I shall repeat the
punishment fourfold. No! Not another word!" as Gracie made some
inarticulate utterance. "Or you will compel me to repeat it to-night!"

And with that, he walked quietly to the door and unlocked it.

Avery had ceased to beat upon it; she met him white and stiff in
the doorway.

"I have just sent for the doctor," she said. "Mrs. Lorimer has been
taken ill."

She passed him at once with the words, not looking at him, for she could
not trust herself. Straight to Gracie, huddled on the floor in her
night-dress, she went, and lifted the child bodily to her bed.

Gracie clung to her, sobbing passionately. Mr. Lorimer lingered in
the doorway.

"Will you go, please?" said Avery, tight-lipped and rigid, the child
clasped to her throbbing heart.

It was a definite command, spoken in a tone that almost compelled
compliance, and Mr. Lorimer lingered no more.

Then for one long minute Avery sat and rocked the poor little tortured
body in her arms.

At length, through Gracie's sobs, she spoke. "Gracie darling, I'm going
to ask you to do something big for me."

"Yes?" sobbed Gracie, clinging tightly round her neck.

"Leave off crying!" Avery said. "Please leave off crying, darling, and be
your own brave self!"

"I can't," cried Gracie.

"But do try, darling!" Avery urged her softly. "Because, you see, I can't
leave you like this, and your poor little mother wants me so badly. She
is ill, Gracie, and I ought to go to her, but I can't while you are
crying so."

Thus adjured, Gracie made gallant efforts to check herself. But her
spirit was temporarily quite broken. She stood passively with the tears
running down her face while Avery hastily dressed her again and set her
rumpled hair to rights. Then again for a few seconds they held each other
very tightly.

"Bless you, my own brave darling!" Avery whispered.

To which Gracie made tearful reply: "Whatever should we do without you,
dear--dear Avery?"

"And you won't cry any more?" pleaded Avery, who was nearer to tears
herself than she dared have owned.

"No," said Gracie valiantly.

She began to dry her eyes with vigour--a hopeful sign; and after pressing
upon Avery another damp kiss was even able to muster a smile.

"Now you can do something to help me," said Avery. "Give yourself five
minutes--here's my watch to go by!" She slipped it off her own wrist and
on to Gracie's. "Then run up to the nursery and see after the children
while Nurse is downstairs! And drink a cup of milk, dearie! Mind you do,
for you've had nothing yet."

"I shall love to wear your watch," murmured Gracie, beginning to be
comforted.

"I know you'll take care of it," Avery said, with a loving hand on the
child's hair. "Now you'll be all right, will you? I can leave you without
worrying?"

Grade gave her face a final polish, and nodded. Spent and sore though she
was, her spirit was beginning to revive. "Is Mother really ill?" she
asked, as Avery turned to go.

"I don't know, dear. I'm rather anxious about her," said Avery.

"It's all Father's fault," said Gracie.

Avery was silent. She could not contradict the statement.

As she reached the door, Gracie spoke again, but more to herself than to
Avery. "I hope--when he dies--he'll go to hell and stay there for ever
and ever and ever!"

"Oh, Gracie!" Avery stopped, genuinely shocked. "How wrong!" she said.

Gracie nodded several times. "Yes, I know it's wrong, but I don't care.
And I hope he'll die to-morrow."

"Hush! Hush!" Avery said.

Whereat Gracie broke into a propitiatory smile. "The things I wish for
never happen," she said.

And Avery departed, wondering if this statement deserved to be treated in
the light of an amendment.



CHAPTER XIX

THE DAY OF TROUBLE


Lennox Tudor spent hours at the Vicarage that day in close attendance
upon Mrs. Lorimer in company with Avery who scarcely left her side.
Terrible hours they were, during which they battled strenuously to keep
the poor, quivering life in her weary body.

"There is no reason why she shouldn't pull round," Tudor assured Avery.

But yet throughout the day she hovered on the verge of collapse.

By night the worst danger was over, but intense weakness remained. She
lay white and still, taking notice of nothing. Only once, when Avery was
giving her nourishment, did she rouse herself to speak.

"Beg my husband not to be vexed with me!" she whispered. "Tell him there
won't be another little one after all! He'll be glad to know that."

And Avery, cut to the heart, promised to deliver the message.

A little later she stole away, leaving the children's nurse in charge,
and slipped up to the schoolroom for some tea. Tudor had gone to see
another patient, but had promised to return as soon as possible.

The children were all gathered round the table at which Olive very
capably presided. Gracie, looking wan and subdued, sat on the end of
Jeanie's sofa; but she sprang to meet Avery the moment she appeared.

Avery sat down, holding the child's hand in hers. She glanced round the
table as she did so.

"Where is Julian?"

"Upstairs," said Ronald briefly. "In disgrace."

Avery felt her heart contract with a sick sense of further trouble in the
air. "Has he been there all day?" she asked. Ronald nodded. "And another
flogging to-night if he doesn't apologize. He says he'll die first."

"So would I," breathed Gracie.

At this juncture the door swung open with stately precision, and Mr.
Lorimer entered. Everyone rose, according to established custom, with the
exceptions of Avery and Jeanie. Gracie's fingers tightened convulsively
upon Avery's hand, and she turned as white as the table-cloth.

Mr. Lorimer, however, looked over her head as if she did not exist, and
addressed Avery.

"Mrs. Denys, be so good as to spare me two minutes in the study!" he said
with extreme formality.

"Certainly," Avery made quiet reply. "I will come to you before I go back
to Mrs. Lorimer."

He raised his brows slightly, as if he had expected a more prompt
compliance with his request. And then his eyes fell upon Gracie, clinging
fast to Avery's hand.

"Grace," he said, in his clear, definite tones, "come here!"

The child gave a great start and shrank against Avery's shoulder. "Oh
no!" she whispered. "No!"

"Come here!" repeated Mr. Lorimer.

He extended his hand, but Gracie only shrank further away. She was
trembling violently, so violently that Avery felt impelled to pass a
sustaining arm around her.

"Come, my child!" said the Vicar, the majestic composure of his features
gradually yielding to a look of dawning severity.

"Go, dear!" whispered Avery.

"I don't want to," gasped Gracie.

"I shall not punish you," her father said, "unless I find you disobedient
or still unrepentant."

"Darling, go!" Avery urged softly into her ear. "It'll be all right now."

But Gracie, shaking from head to foot and scarcely able to stand, only
clung to her the faster, and in a moment she began agitatedly to cry.

Mr. Lorimer's hand fell to his side. "Still unrepentant, I fear," he
said.

Avery, with the child gathered closely to her, looked across at him with
wide, accusing eyes.

"She is frightened and upset," she said. "It is not fair to judge her in
this condition."

Mr. Lorimer's eyes gleamed back malignantly. He made her an icy bow. "In
that case, Mrs. Denys," he said, "she had better go to bed and stay there
until her condition has improved."

Avery compressed her lips tightly, and made no rejoinder.

The Reverend Stephen compressed his, and after a definite pause of most
unpleasant tension, he uttered a deep sigh and withdrew.

"I know he means to do it again!" sobbed Grade. "I know he does!"

"He shall not!" said Avery.

And with the words she put the child from her, rose, and with great
determination walked out of the room.

Mr. Lorimer had scarcely settled himself in what he called his "chair of
ease" in the study when her low knock reached him, and she entered. Her
grey eyes were no longer angry, but very resolute. She closed the door
softly, and came straight to the fire.

"Mr. Lorimer," she said, her voice pitched very low, "I want you to be
patient with me just for a minute. Will you?"

Mr. Lorimer sighed again. "I am yearning for the refreshment of a little
solitary meditation, Mrs. Denys," he said.

"I shall not keep you," Avery rejoined steadily. She stood before him,
very pale but wholly composed. "What I have to say can be said in a very
few seconds. First, with regard to Gracie; the child is so upset that I
think any further punishment would make her downright ill."

"Pooh, my dear Mrs. Denys!" said the Reverend Stephen.

Avery paused a moment. "Will you try to listen to me with an open
mind?" she said.

"I am listening," said Mr. Lorimer.

"I know she was naughty this morning," Avery continued. "I am not trying
to defend her behaviour. But her punishment was a very severe one, and it
has so terrified her that at present she can think of nothing else. Give
her time to be sorry! Please give her time!"

Mr. Lorimer glanced at the clock. "She has already had nine hours," he
observed. "I shall give her three more."

"And then?" said Avery.

His eyes travelled up to her troubled face. "And if by then," he said
deliberately, "she has not come to me to express her penitence, I shall
be reluctantly compelled to repeat the punishment."

"You will drive the child out of her senses if you do!" Avery exclaimed.

He shrugged his shoulders. "My dear Mrs. Denys, permit me to remind you
that I have had considerable experience in the upbringing of children."

"And they are all afraid of you," Avery said.

He smiled. "In my opinion a little wholesome awe is salutary. No, Mrs.
Denys, I cannot listen any further to your persuasion. In fact I fear
that in Grace's case I have so far erred on the side of laxness. She has
become very wild and uncontrolled, and--she must be tamed."

He closed his lips upon the word, and despair entered Avery's heart. She
gripped her self-control with all her might, realizing that the moment
she lost it, her strength would be gone.

With a great effort she turned from the subject. "I have a message for
you from Mrs. Lorimer," she said, after a moment, and proceeded to
deliver it in a low, steady voice, her eyes upon the fire.

The man in the chair heard it without the movement of a muscle of his
face. "I will endeavour to look in upon her presently," was all the
reply he made.

Avery turned to go, but he stopped her with a gesture.

"Mrs. Denys," he said smoothly, "you forget, I think, that I also had
something to say."

Avery paused. She had forgotten.

He turned his eyes deliberately up to hers, as he leaned back in his
chair. "I am sorry to have to tell you," he said, "that in consequence of
your unfortunate zeal in encouraging the children in insubordination, I
can no longer look upon you as in any sense a help in my household. I
therefore desire that you will take a month's notice from now. If I can
fill your place sooner, I shall dispense with your services earlier."

Calmly, dispassionately, he uttered the words. Avery stood quite still to
hear them. And through her like a stab there ran the thought of the poor
little woman upstairs. The pain of it was almost unbearable. She caught
her breath involuntarily.

But the next moment she was herself again. She bowed without a word, and
turned to go.

She had nearly reached the door ere she discovered that it stood open,
and that Lennox Tudor was on the threshold, more grimly strong than she
had ever before realized him to be.

He stood back for her to pass, holding the door for her without speaking.
And in silence Avery departed.



CHAPTER XX

THE STRAIGHT TRUTH


"Ah, my worthy physician, enter, enter!" was Mr. Lorimer's bland
greeting. "What news of the patient?"

Tudor tramped up to the hearth, looking very square and resolute. "I've
come from the schoolroom," he said, "where I went to take a look at
Jeanie. But I found Gracie required more of my attention than she did.
Are you absolutely mad, I wonder, to inflict corporal punishment upon a
highly-strung child like that? Let me tell you this! You'll turn her into
a senseless idiot if you persist! The child is nearly crazed with terror
as it is. I've told them to put her to bed, and I'm going up to give her
a soothing draught directly."

Mr. Lorimer rose with dignity. "You somewhat magnify your office,
doctor," he said.

"No, I don't!" said Tudor rudely. "I do what I must. And I warn you that
child is wrought up to a highly dangerous pitch of excitement. You don't
want her to have brain-fever, I suppose?"

"Pooh!" said Mr. Lorimer.

Tudor stamped a furious foot, and let himself go. He had no scruples
about losing his temper at that moment. He poured forth his indignation
in a perfect tornado of righteous anger.

"That's all you have to say, is it? You--a man of God, so-called--killing
your wife by inches and not caring a damn what suffering you cause! I
tell you, she has been at death's door all day, thanks to your infernal
behaviour. She may die yet, and you will be directly responsible. You've
crushed her systematically, body and soul. As to the children, if you
touch that little girl again--or any of 'em--I'll haul you before the
Bench for cruelty. Do you hear that?"

Mr. Lorimer, who had been waving a protesting hand throughout this
vigorous denunciation, here interposed a lofty: "Sir! You
forget yourself!"

"Not I!" flung back Tudor. "I know very well what I'm about. I spoke to
you once before about your wife, and you wouldn't listen. But--by
Heaven--you shall listen this time, and hear the straight truth for once.
Her life has been a perpetual martyrdom for years. You've tortured her
through the children as cruelly as any victim was ever tortured on the
rack. But it's got to stop now. I don't deal in empty threats. What I've
said I shall stick to. You may be the Vicar of the parish, but you're
under the same law as the poorest of 'em. And if anything more of this
kind happens, you shall feel the law. And a pretty scandal it'll make."

He paused a moment, but Mr. Lorimer stood in frozen silence; and almost
immediately he plunged on.

"Now as regards Mrs. Denys; I heard you give her notice just now. That
must be taken back--if she will consent to stay. For Mrs. Lorimer
literally can't do without her yet. Mrs. Lorimer will be an invalid for
some time to come, if not for good and all. And who is going to take
charge of the house if you kick out the only capable person it contains?
Who is going to look after your precious comfort, not to mention that of
your wife and children? I tell you Mrs. Denys is absolutely indispensable
to you all for the present. If you part with her, you part with every
shred of ease and domestic peace you have. And you will have to keep a
properly qualified nurse to look after your wife. And it isn't every
nurse that is a blessing in the home, I can assure you."

He stopped again; and finding Mr. Lorimer still somewhat dazed by this
sudden attack, he turned and began to pace the room to give him time
to recover.

There followed a prolonged silence. Then at last, with a deep sigh, the
Vicar dropped down again in his chair.

"My good, doctor," he said, "I am convinced that your motives are good
though your language be somewhat lacking in restraint. I am sorely
perplexed; let me admit it! Mrs. Denys is, I believe, a thoroughly
efficient housekeeper, but--" he paused impressively--"her presence is a
disturbing element with which I would gladly dispense. She is continually
inventing some pretext for presenting herself at the study-door.
Moreover, she is extremely injudicious with the children, and I am bound
to think of their spiritual welfare before their mere bodily needs."

He was evidently anxious to avoid an open rupture, so perhaps it was as
well that he did not see the look on Tudor's face as he listened to
this harangue.

"Why don't you pack them off to school?" said Tudor, sticking to the
point with commendable resolution. "Peace in the house is absolutely
essential to Mrs. Lorimer. All the elder ones would be better out of
it--with the exception of Jeanie."

"And why with the exception of Jeanie, may I ask?" There was a touch of
asperity in Mr. Lorimer's voice. He had been badly browbeaten, and--for
some reason--he had had to submit. But he was in no docile mood
thereafter.

Tudor heard the note of resentment in his tone, and came back to the
hearth. "I have been awaiting a suitable opportunity to talk to you about
Jeanie," he said.

"What next? What next?" said Mr. Lorimer fretfully.

Tudor proceeded to tell him, his tone deliberately unsympathetic. "She
needs most careful treatment, most vigilant watching. There is a weakness
of the lungs which might develop at any time. Mrs. Denys understands her
and can take care of her. But she is in no state to be entrusted to
strangers."

"Why was this not mentioned to me before?" said Mr. Lorimer querulously.
"Though the head of the house, I am always the last to be told of
anything of importance. I suppose you are sure of what you say?"

"Quite sure," said Tudor, "though I should be absolutely willing for you
to have another opinion at any time. As to not telling you, I have always
found it difficult to get you to listen, and, as a rule, I have no time
to waste on persuasion." He looked at the clock. "I ought to be going
now. You will consider what I have said about sending the other children
away to school? You'll find it's the only thing to do."

Mr. Lorimer sighed again with deep melancholy.

Tudor squared his shoulders aggressively. "And with your permission I'll
tell Mrs. Denys that you have reconsidered the matter and hope she will
remain for a time at least, if she can see her way to do so."

He paused very definitely for a reply to this. Mr. Lorimer's mouth was
drawn down at the corners, but he looked into the fire with the aloofness
of a mind not occupied with mundane things.

Tudor faced him and waited with grim resolution; but several seconds
passed ere his attitude seemed to become apparent to the abstracted
Vicar. Then with extreme deliberation his eyelids were raised.

"Excuse me, doctor! My thoughts were for the moment elsewhere. Yes, you
have my permission to tell her that. And--I agree with you. It seems
advisable to remove the elder children from her influence without delay.
I shall therefore take steps to do so."

Tudor nodded with a shrug of the shoulders. It did not matter to him in
what garb his advice was dressed, so long as it was followed.

"Very well," he said. "I am now going to settle Gracie, and I shall tell
her you have issued a free pardon all round, and no more will be said to
anyone. I was told one of the boys was in hot water too, but you can let
him off for once. You're much more likely to make him ashamed of himself
that way."

Mr. Lorimer resumed his contemplation of the fire without speaking.

Tudor turned to go. He was fairly satisfied that he had established peace
for the time being, and he was not ill-pleased with his success.

He told himself as he departed that he had discovered how to deal with
the Reverend Stephen. It had never occurred to him to attempt such
treatment before.

To Avery later he gave but few details of the interview, but she could
not fail to see his grim elation and smiled at it.

"I am to stay then, am I?" she said.

"If you will graciously consent to do so," said Tudor, with his
brief smile.

"I couldn't do anything else," she said.

"I'm glad of that," he said abruptly, "for my own sake."

And with that very suddenly he turned the subject.



CHAPTER XXI

THE ENCHANTED LAND


At ten o'clock that night, Avery went round to bid each child good-night.
She found Gracie sleeping peacefully with her bed pushed close to
Jeanie's. The latter was awake and whispered a greeting. On the other
side of the room Olive slept the sleep of the just. Avery did not pause
by her bed, but went straight to Jeanie, who held her hand for a little
and then gently begged her to go to bed herself.

"You must be so tired," she said.

Avery could not deny the fact. But she had arranged to sleep in Mrs.
Lorimer's room, so she could not look forward to a night without care.
She did not tell Jeanie this, however, but presently kissed her tenderly
and stole away.

She visited the younger boys, and found them all asleep; then slipped up
to the attic in which the elder lads slept.

She heard their voices as she reached the closed door. She knocked softly
therefore, and in a moment heard one of them leap to open it.

It was Ronald, clad in pyjamas but unfailingly courteous, who invited
her to enter.

"I knew it must be you, Mrs. Denys. Come in! Very pleased to see you.
Wait a second while I light a candle!"

He did so, and revealed Julian sitting up in bed with sullen defiance
writ large upon his face. But he smiled at sight of her, and patted the
side of his bed invitingly.

"Don't sit on the chair! It's untrustworthy. It's awfully decent of you
to look us up like this,--that is, if you haven't come to preach."

"I haven't," said Avery, accepting the invitation since she felt too
weary to stand.

Julian nodded approval. "That's right. I knew you were too much of a
brick. I'm awaiting my next swishing for upsetting my cup at breakfast in
your defence, so I hardly think I deserve any pi-jaw from you, do I?"

"Oh, I'm not at all pi, I assure you," Avery said. "And if it was done
for my sake, I'm quite grateful, though I wish you hadn't."

Julian grinned at her, and she proceeded.

"I don't think you need wait any longer for the swishing. Your father has
decided, I understand, not to carry the matter any further."

Julian opened his eyes wide. "What? You've been at him, have you?"

Avery smiled even while she sighed.

"Oh, I'm no good, Julian. I only make things worse when I interfere. No,
it's not due to me. But, all the same, I hope and believe the trouble has
blown over for the present. Do--do try and keep the peace in the future!"

Her weariness sounded in her voice; it quivered in spite of her.

Julian placed a quick, clammy hand on hers and squeezed it
affectionately.

"Anything to oblige!" he promised generously. "Here Ron! Shy over those
letters! She wants something to cheer her up."

"Letters!" Avery looked round sharply. "I had forgotten my
letters!" she said.

"Here they are!" Ronald came forward and placed them in her hand. "I
picked 'em up this morning, and then when you sent me off for the doc, I
forgot all about 'em. I'm sorry. I only came across them when I was
undressing, and you were busy in the mater's room, so I thought I'd keep
them safe till to-morrow. I hope they are not important," he added.

"I don't suppose so," said Avery; yet her heart jerked oddly as she
slipped them into her dress. "Thank you for taking care of them. I must
be going now. You are going to be good?"

She looked at Julian, who, still feeling generous, thrust a rough, boyish
arm about her neck and kissed her.

"You're a trump!" he said. "There! Good-night! I'll be as meek as Moses
in the morning."

It was a definite promise, and Avery felt relieved. She took leave of
Ronald more ceremoniously. His scrupulous politeness demanded it. And
then with feet that felt strangely light, considering her fatigue, she
ran softly down again to Mrs. Lorimer's room.

In the dressing-room adjoining, she opened and read her letters. One of
them--the one with the Australian stamp, characteristically brief but
kind--was to tell her that the writer, a friend of some standing, was
coming to England, and hoped to see her again ere long.

The other, bearing the sinister Evesham crest, lay on the table unopened
till she was undressed and ready to join Mrs. Lorimer. Then--for the
first time in all that weary day of turmoil--Avery stole a few moments
of luxury.

She sat down and opened Piers' letter.

It began impetuously, without preliminary. "I wonder whether you have any
idea what it costs to clear out without a word of farewell. Perhaps you
are even thinking that I've forgotten. Or perhaps it matters so little to
you that you haven't thought at all. I know you won't tell me, so it's
not much good speculating. But lest you should misunderstand in any way,
I want to explain that I haven't been fit to come near you since we
parted on Christmas Eve. You were angry with me then, weren't you? Avery
in a temper! Do you remember how it went? At least you meant to be, but
somehow you didn't get up the steam. You wished me a happy Christmas
instead, and I ought to have had one in consequence. But I didn't. I
played the giddy goat off and on all day long, and my grandfather--dear
old chap--thought what a merry infant I was. But--you've heard of the
worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched? The Reverend
Stephen has taken care of that. Do you remember his 'penny-terrible' of a
Sunday or two ago? You were very angry about it, Avery. I love you when
you're angry. And how he dilated on the gates of brass and the bars of
iron and the outer darkness etc, etc, till we all went home and shivered
in our beds! Well, that's the sort of place I spent my Christmas in, and
I wanted to come to you and Jeanie and be made happy, but--I couldn't. I
was too fast in prison. I felt too murderous. I hunted all the next day
to try and get more wholesome. But it was no good. I was seeing red all
the time. And at night something happened that touched me off like an
exploded train of gunpowder. Has Tudor told you about it yet? Doubtless
he will. I tried to murder him, and succeeded in cracking his eye-glass.
Banal, wasn't it? And I have an uneasy feeling that he came out top-dog
after all, confound him!

"Avery, whomever else you have no use for, I know you're not in love with
him, and in my saner moments I realize that you never could be. But I
wasn't sane just then. I love you so! I love you so! It's good to be able
to get it right out before you have time to stop me. For I worship you,
Avery, my darling! You don't realize it. How should you? You think it is
just the passing fancy of a boy. A boy--ye gods!

"I think of you hour by hour. You are always close in your own secret
place in my heart. I hold you in my arms when no one else is near. I
kiss your forehead, your eyes, your hair. No, not your lips, dear, even
in fancy. I have never in my maddest dreams kissed your lips. But I ache
and crave and long for them, though--till you give me leave--I dare not
even pretend that they are mine. Will you ever give me leave? You say No
now. Yet I think you will, Avery. I think you will. I have known ever
since that first moment when you held me back from flaying poor old
Caesar that I have met my Fate, and because I know it I'm trying--for
your sweet sake--to make myself a better man. It's beastly uphill work,
and that episode with Tudor has pulled me back. Confound him! By the way
though, it's done me good in one sense, for I find I don't detest him
quite so hideously as I did. The man has his points.

"And now Avery,--dear Avery, will you forgive me for writing all this? I
know you won't write to me, but I send my address in case! And I shall
watch every mail day after day, night after night, for the letter that
will never come.

"Pathetic picture, isn't it? Good-bye!

"PIERS.

"My love to the Queen of all good fairies, and tell Pixie that I hope the
gloves fitted."

Avery's lips parted in a smile; a soft flush overspread her face. That
costly gift from the children--she had guessed from the beginning
whence it came.

And then slowly, even with reverence, she folded the letter up, and rose.
Her smile became a little tremulous. It had been a day of many troubles,
and she was very tired. The boy's adoration was strangely sweet to her
wearied senses. She felt subtly softened and tender towards him.

No, it must not be! It could not be! He must forget her. She would write
to-morrow and tell him so. Yet for that one night the charm held her.
She viewed from afar an enchanted land--a land of sunshine and singing
birds--a land where it was always spring. It was a country she had seen
before, but only in her dreams. Her feet had never wandered there. The
path she had followed had not led to it. Perhaps it was all a mirage.
Perhaps there was no path.

Yet in her dreams she crossed the boundary, and entered the
forbidden land.



CHAPTER XXII

THE COMING OF A FRIEND


"Eternal sunshine!" said Piers, with a grimace at the deep, deep blue
of the slumbering water that stretched below him to the horizon. "And
at night eternal moonshine. Romantic but monotonous. I wonder if the
post is in."

He cast an irresolute glance up the path behind him, but decided to
remain where he was. He had looked so many times in vain.

There were a good many people in the hotel, but he was not feeling
sociable. The night before he had dropped a considerable sum at the
Casino, but it had not greatly interested him. Regretfully he had come to
the conclusion that gambling in that form did not attract him. The greedy
crowd that pushed and strove in the heated rooms, he regarded as
downright revolting. He himself had been robbed with astonishing audacity
by a lady with painted eyes who had snatched his only winnings before he
could reach them. It was a small episode, and he had let it pass, but it
had not rendered the tables more attractive. He had in fact left them in
utter disgust.

Altogether he was feeling decidedly out of tune with his surroundings
that morning, and the beauty of the scene irritated rather than soothed
him. In the garden a short distance from him, a voluble French party were
chattering with great animation and a good deal of cackling laughter. He
wondered what on earth they found to amuse them so persistently. He also
wondered if a swim in that faultless blue would do anything to improve
his temper, and decided with another wry grimace that it was hardly worth
while to try.

It was at this point that there fell a step on the winding path below him
that led down amongst shrubs to the sea. The top of a Panama hat caught
Piers' attention. He watched it idly as it ascended, speculating without
much interest as to the face beneath it. It mounted with the utmost
steadiness, neither hastening nor lingering. There was something about
its unvarying progress that struck Piers as British. His interest
increased at once. He suddenly discovered that he wanted someone British
to talk to, forgetting the fact that he had fled but ten minutes before
from the boring society of an Anglo-Indian colonel.

The man in the Panama came nearer. Piers from above began to have a
glimpse of a tweed coat and a strong brown hand that swung in time to the
steady stride. The path curved immediately below him, and the last few
yards of it led directly to the spot on which he stood. As the stranger
rounded the curve he came into full view.

He was a big man, broadly built and powerful. His whole personality was
suggestive of squareness. And yet to Piers' critical eyes he did not look
wholly British. His gait was that of a man accustomed to long hours in
the saddle. Under the turned-down Panama the square, determined chin
showed massively. It was a chin that obviously required constant shaving.

Quietly the man drew near. He did not see Piers under his lowered
hat-brim till he was within a few feet of him. Then, becoming suddenly
aware of him, he raised his eyes. A moment later, his hand went up in a
brief, friendly salute.

Piers' hand made instant response. "Splendid morning!" he began to
say--and stopped with the words half-uttered. The blood surged up to his
forehead in a great wave. "Good Heavens!" he said instead.

The other man paused. He did not look at Piers very narrowly, but merely
glanced towards him and then turned his eyes towards the wonderful,
far-stretching blue below them.

"Yes, splendid," he said quietly. "Worth remembering--a scene
like this."

His tone was absolutely impersonal. He stood beside Piers for a moment or
two, gazing forth into the infinite distance; then with a slight gesture
of leave-taking he turned as if to continue his progress.

In that instant, however, Piers recovered himself sufficiently to speak.
His face was still deeply flushed, but his voice was steady enough as he
turned fully and addressed the new-comer.

"Don't you know me? We have met before."

The other man stopped at once. He held out his hand. "Yes, of course I
know you--knew you the moment I set eyes on you. But I wasn't sure that
you would care to be recognized by me."

"What on earth do you take me for?" said Piers bluntly.

He gripped the hand hard, looking straight into the calm eyes with a
curious sense of being sustained thereby. "I believe," he said, with an
odd impulse of impetuosity, "that you are the one man in the world that I
couldn't be other than pleased to see."

The elder man smiled. "That's very kind of you," he said.

He had the slow speech of one accustomed to solitude. He kept Piers' hand
in his in a warm, firm grip. "I have often thought about you," he said.
"You know, I never heard your name."

"My name is Evesham," said Piers, with the quick, gracious manner
habitual to him. "Piers Evesham."

"Thank you. Mine is Edmund Crowther. Odd that we should meet like this!"

"A piece of luck I didn't expect!" said Piers boyishly. "Have you only
just arrived?"

"I came here last night from Marseilles." Crowther's eyes rested on the
smiling face with its proud, patrician features with the look of a man
examining a perfect bronze. "It's very kind of you to welcome me like
this," he said. "I was feeling a stranger in a strange land as I came up
that path."

"I've been watching you," said Piers. "I liked the business-like way you
tackled it. It was British."

Crowther smiled. "I suppose it has become second nature with me to put
business first," he said.

"Wish I could say the same," said Piers; and then, with his hand on
the other man's arm: "Come and have a drink! You are staying for some
time, I hope?"

"No, not for long," said Crowther. "It was yielding to temptation to come
here at all."

"Are you alone?" asked Piers.

"Quite alone."

"Then there's no occasion to hurry," said Piers. "You stay here for a
bit, and kill time with me."

"I never kill time," said Crowther deliberately. "It's too scarce a
commodity."

"It is when you're happy," said Piers.

Crowther looked at him with a question in his eyes that he did not put
into words, and in answer to which Piers laughed a reckless laugh.

They were walking side by side up the hotel-garden, and each successive
group of visitors that they passed turned to stare. For both men were in
a fashion remarkable. The massive strength of the elder with his square,
dogged face and purposeful stride; the lithe, muscular power of the
younger with his superb carriage and haughty nobility of feature, formed
a contrast as complete as it was arresting.

They ascended the steps that led up to the terrace, and here Piers
paused. "You sit down here while I go and order drinks! Here's a
comfortable seat, and here's an English paper!"

He thrust it into Crowther's hand and departed with a careless whistle on
his lips. But Crowther did not look at the paper. His eyes followed Piers
as long as he was in sight, and then with that look in them as of one who
watches from afar turned contemplatively towards the sea. After a little
he took his hat off and suffered the morning-breeze to blow across his
forehead. He had the serene brow of a child, though the hair above it was
broadly streaked with grey.

He was still sitting thus when there came the sound of jerky footsteps on
the terrace behind him and an irascible voice addressed him with scarcely
concealed impatience.

"Excuse me! I saw you talking to my grandson just now. Do you know where
the young fool is gone to?"

Crowther turned in his solid, imperturbable fashion, looked at the
speaker, and got to his feet.

"I can," he said, with a smile. "He has gone to procure drinks in my
honour. He and I are--old friends."

"Oh!" said Sir Beverley, and looked him up and down in a fashion which
another man might have found offensive. "And who may you be?"

"My name is Crowther," said the other with simplicity.

Sir Beverley grunted. "That doesn't tell me much. Never heard of
you before."

"I daresay not." Crowther was quite unmoved; there was even a hint of
humour in his tone. "Your grandson is probably a man of many friends."

"Why should you say that?" demanded Sir Beverley suspiciously.

"Won't you sit down?" said Crowther.

Sir Beverley hesitated a moment, then abruptly complied with the
suggestion. Crowther followed his example, and they faced one another
across the little table.

"I say it," said Crowther, "because that is the sort of lad I take
him to be."

Sir Beverley grunted again. "And when and where did you make his
acquaintance?" he enquired, with a stern, unsparing scrutiny of the calm
face opposite.

"We met in Australia," said Crowther. "It must be six years or more ago."

"Australia's a big place," observed Sir Beverley.

Crowther's slow smile appeared. "Yes, sir, it is. It's so mighty big that
it makes all the other places of the world seem small. Have you ever been
in Queensland--ever seen a sheep-farm?"

"No, I've never been in Queensland," snapped Sir Beverley. "But as to
sheep-farms, I've got one of my own."

"How many acres?" asked Crowther.

"Oh, don't ask me! Piers will tell you. Piers knows. Where the devil is
the boy? Why doesn't he come?"

"Here, sir, here!" cried Piers, coming up behind him. "I see you have
made the acquaintance of my friend. Crowther, let me present you to my
grandfather, Sir Beverley Evesham! I've just been to look for you," he
added to the latter. "But Victor told me you had gone out, and then I
spied you out of the window."

"I told you I was coming out, didn't I?" growled Sir Beverley. "So this
is a friend of yours, is it? How is it I've never heard of him before?"

"We lost sight of each other," explained Piers, pulling forward a chair
between them and dropping into it. "But that state of affairs is not
going to happen again. How long are you over for, Crowther?"

"Possibly a year, possibly more." Again Crowther's eyes were upon him,
critical but kindly.

"Going to spend your time in England?" asked Piers.

Crowther nodded. "Most of it, yes."

"Good!" said Piers with satisfaction. "We shall see plenty of you then."

"But I am going to be busy," said Crowther, with a smile.

"Of course you are. You can come down and teach me how to make the Home
Farm a success," laughed Piers.

"I shall be very pleased to try," said Crowther, "though," he turned
towards Sir Beverley, "I expect you, sir, know as much on that subject as
either of us."

Sir Beverley's eyes were upon him with searching directness. He seemed to
be trying to discover a reason for his boy's obvious pleasure in his
unexpected meeting with this man who must have been nearly twice his age.

"I've never done much in the farming line," he said briefly, in answer to
Crowther's observation. "It's been more of a pastime with me than
anything else. It's the same with Piers here. He's only putting in time
with it till the constituency falls vacant."

"I see," said Crowther, adding with his quiet smile: "There seems to be
plenty of time anyhow in the old country, whatever else she may be
short of."

Piers laughed as he lifted his glass. "Time for everything but work,
Crowther. She has developed beastly loose morals in her old age. Some day
there'll come a nasty bust up, and she may pull herself together and do
things again, or she may go to pieces. I wonder which."

"I don't," said Crowther.

"You don't?" Piers paused, glass in hand, looking at him expectantly.

"No, I don't." Crowther also raised his glass; he looked Piers straight
in the eyes. "Here's to the boys of England, Piers!" he said. "They'll
see to it that she comes through."

Sir Beverley also drank, but with a distasteful air. "You've a higher
opinion of the young fools than I have," he remarked.

"I've made a study of the breed, sir," said Crowther.

The conversation drifted to indifferent matters, but Piers' interest
remained keen. It seemed that all his vitality had reawakened at the
coming of this slow-speaking man who had looked so long upon the wide
spaces of the earth that his vision seemed scarcely adaptable to lesser
things. There was that in his personality that caught Piers' fancy
irresistibly. Perhaps it was his utter calmness, his unvarying, rock-like
strength. Perhaps it was just the good fellowship that looked out of the
steady eyes and sounded in every tone of the leisurely voice. Whatever
the cause, his presence had made a vast difference to Piers. His boredom
had completely vanished. He even forgot to wonder if there were a letter
lying waiting for him inside the hotel.

Crowther excused himself at length and rose to take his leave, whereupon
Sir Beverley very abruptly, and to his grandson's surprise and
gratification, invited him to dine with them that night. Piers at once
seconded the invitation, and Crowther without haste or hesitation
accepted it.

Then, square and purposeful, he went away.

"A white man!" murmured Piers half to himself.

"One who knows his own mind anyhow," remarked Sir Beverley drily.

He did not ask Piers for the history of their friendship, and Piers,
remembering this later, wondered a little at the omission.



CHAPTER XXIII

A FRIEND'S COUNSEL


When Piers went to dress that night he found two letters laid discreetly
upon his table, awaiting perusal.

Victor, busily engaged in laying out his clothes, cast a wicked eye back
over his shoulder as his young master pounced upon them, then with a
shrug resumed his task, smiling to himself the while.

Both letters were addressed in womanly handwriting, but Piers went
unerringly to the one he most desired to read. His hands shook a little
as he opened it, but he caught sight of his Christian name at the head of
it and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Dear Piers,"--so in clear, decided writing the message ran,--"I have
wondered many times if I ought to be angry as well as sorry over that
letter of yours. It was audacious, wasn't it? Only I know so well that
you did not mean to hurt me when you wrote it. But, Piers, what I said
before, you compel me to say again. This thing must stop. You say you are
not a boy, so I shall not treat you as such. But indeed you must take my
word for it when I tell you that I shall never marry again.

"I want to be quite honest with you, so you mustn't think that my two
years of married life were by any means idyllic. They were not. The man I
married was a failure, but I loved him, and because I loved him I
followed him to the world's end. We were engaged two years before we
married. My father disapproved; but when he died I was left lonely, so I
followed Eric, whom I had not seen for eighteen months, to Australia. We
were married in Sydney. He had work at that time in a shipping-office,
but he did not manage to keep it. I did not know why at first. I was
young, and I had always led a sheltered life. Then one night I found that
he had been drinking, and after that I understood--many things. I think I
know what you will say of him when you read this. It looks so crude
written. But, Piers, he was not a bad man. He had this one fatal
weakness, but he loved me, and he was good to me nearly always."

Piers' teeth closed suddenly and fiercely on his lower lip at this point;
but he read on grimly with no other sign of indignation.

"Do you remember how I took upon myself once to warn you against losing
your self-control?" The handwriting was not quite so steady here; the
letters looked hurried, as if some agitation had possessed the writer. "I
felt I had to do it, for I had seen a man's life completely wrecked
through it. I know he was one of the many that go under every day, but
the tragedy was so near me. I have never quite been able to shake off the
dreadful memories of it. He was to all outward appearance a strong-willed
man, but that habit was stronger, though he fought and fought against it.
When he failed, he seemed to lose everything,--self-respect,
self-control, strength of purpose,--everything. But when the demon left
him, he always repented so bitterly, so bitterly. I had a little money,
enough to live on. He used to urge me to leave him, to go back to
England, and live in peace. As if I could have done such a thing! And so
we struggled on, making a desperately hard fight for it, till one awful
night when he came home in raving delirium. I can't describe that to
you. I don't want you to know what it was like. I nursed him through it,
but it was terrible. He did not always know what he was doing. At times
he was violent."

A drop of blood suddenly ran down Piers' chin; he pulled out his
handkerchief sharply and wiped it away, still reading on.

"He got over it, but it broke him. He knew--we both knew--that things
were hopeless. We tried for a time to shut our eyes to the fact, but it
remained. And then one day very suddenly he roused himself and told me
that he had heard of a job up-country and was going to it. I could not
stop him. I could not even go with him. And so--for the first time since
our marriage--we parted. He promised to come back to me for the birth of
our child. But before that happened he was dead, killed in a drunken
brawl. It was just what I had always feared--the tragedy that overhung us
from the beginning. Piers, that's all. I've told it very badly. But I
felt you must know how my romance died; and how impossible it is that I
should ever have another. It didn't break my heart. It wasn't sudden
enough for that. And now that he is gone, I can see it is best. But the
manner of his going--that was the dreadful part. I told you about my baby
girl, how she was born blind, and how five years ago she died.

"So now you know my little tragic history from beginning to end. There is
no accounting for love. We follow our instincts, I suppose. But it leads
us sometimes along paths that we could never bear to travel twice. Is
there any pain, I wonder, like the pain of disillusionment, of seeing the
beloved idol lying in the dust? This is a selfish point of view, I know;
but I want you to realize that you have made a mistake. Dear Piers, I am
very, very sorry it has happened. No, not angry at all; somehow I can't
be angry. It's such a difficult world to live in, and there are so many
influences at work. But you must forget this wish of yours
indeed--indeed. I am too old, too experienced, too worldly-wise, too
prosaic for you in every way. You must marry a girl who has never loved
before. You must have the first and best of a woman's heart. You must
have 'The True Romance.'

"That, Piers, will always be the wish and prayer of

"Your loving friend,

"AVERY."

Piers' hands were steady enough now. There was something slow and
fatalistic in the way they folded the letter. He looked up from it at
length with dark eyes that gazed unwaveringly before him, as though they
saw a vision.

"You will be late, _Monsieur Pierre_," suggested Victor softly at
his elbow.

"What?" Piers turned those dreaming eyes upon him, and suddenly he
laughed and stretched his arms wide as one awaking. The steadfast look
went out of his eyes; they danced with gaiety. "Hullo, you old joker!
Well, let's dress then and be quick about it!"

During the process it flashed upon Piers that all mention of Tudor had
been avoided in the letter he had just read. He frowned momentarily at
the thought. Had she deliberately avoided the subject? And if so--but on
the instant his brow cleared again. No, she had written too frankly for
that. She had not mentioned the matter simply because she regarded it as
unimportant. The great question lay between herself and him alone. Of
that he was wholly certain. He smiled again at the thought. No, he was
not afraid of Tudor.

"_Monsieur_ is well pleased," murmured Victor, with a flash of his round
black eyes.

"Quite well pleased, _mon vieux!_" laughed back Piers

"_C'est bien_!" said Victor, regarding him with the indulgent smile that
he had bestowed upon him in babyhood. "And _Monsieur_ does not want his
other letter? But no--no!"

His voice was openly quizzical; he dodged a laughing backhander from
Piers with a neat gesture of apology. It had not escaped his notice
that the letter Piers had read had disappeared unobtrusively into an
inner pocket.

"Who's the other letter from?" said Piers, glancing at it perfunctorily.
"Oh, I know. No one of importance. She'll keep till after dinner."

Ina Rose would not have felt flattered had she heard the statement. The
fan Piers had promised to send her had duly arrived from Paris with a
brief--very brief--note from him, requesting her acceptance of it. She
had written in reply a letter which she had been at some pains to
compose, graciously accepting the gift and suggesting that an account of
any adventures that befell him would be received by her with interest.
She added that, a spell of frost having put an end to the hunting, life
at Wardenhurst had become extremely flat, and she had begun to envy Piers
in his exile. Her father was talking of going to Mentone for a few weeks,
and wanted her to accompany him. But she was not sure that she would care
for it. What did Piers think?

When Piers did eventually read the letter, he smiled at this point,--a
smile that was not altogether good to see. He was just going out to the
Casino with Crowther. The latter had gone to fetch a coat, and he had
occupied the few moments of waiting with Ina's letter.

He was still smiling over the open page when Crowther joined him; but he
folded the letter at once, and they went out together.

"Have you had any luck at the tables?" Crowther asked.

"None," said Piers. "At least I won, eventually, but Fate, in the form of
a powdered and bedizened female snatched the proceeds before I got the
chance. A bad omen, what?"

"I hope not," said Crowther.

There was a touch of savagery in Piers' laugh. "It won't happen again,
anyhow," he said.

They entered the Casino with its brilliant rooms and pushing crowds. The
place was thronged. As they entered, a woman with a face of evil beauty,
pressed close to Piers and spoke a word or two in French. But he looked
at her and through her with royal disdain, and so passed her by.

They made their way to the table at which Piers had tried his luck the
previous night, waited for and finally secured a place.

"You take it!" said Crowther. "I believe in your luck."

Piers laughed. He staked five francs on the figure five and lost, doubled
his stakes and lost again, trebled them and lost again.

"This is getting serious," said Crowther.

But still Piers laughed. "Damn it!" he said. "I will win to-night!"

"Try another figure!" said Crowther.

But Piers refused. He laid down twenty-five francs, and with that he won.
It was the turning-point. From that moment it seemed he could not do
wrong. Stake after stake he won, either with his own money, or
Crowther's; and finally left the table in triumph with full pockets.

A good many watched him enviously as he went. He refused to try his luck
elsewhere, but went arrogantly away with his hand through Crowther's arm.

"He'll come back to-morrow," observed a shrewd American. "And the next
day, and the next. He's just the sort that helps to keep this
establishment going. They'll pick him clean."

But he was wrong. Though elated by victory, Piers was not drawn by the
gambling vice. The thing amused him, but it did not greatly attract. He
was by no means dazzled by the spoils he carried away.

They went out to the gardens, and called for liqueurs. The woman who had
spoken to Piers yet hovered about the doors. She cursed him through her
painted lips as he passed, but he went by her like a prince, haughtily
aloof, contemptuously regardless.

They sat down in a comparatively quiet corner, whence they could watch
the ever-shifting picture without being disturbed. A very peculiar mood
possessed Piers. He was restless and uneasy in spite of his high spirits.
For no definite reason he wanted to keep on the move. In deference to
Crowther's wish, he controlled the desire, but it was an obvious effort.

He seemed to find difficulty also in attending to Crowther's quiet
remarks, and after a while Crowther ceased to make them. He finished his
liqueur and sat smoking with his eyes on the dark, sensitive face that
watched the passing crowd so indifferently, yet so persistently.

Piers noticed his silence at last, and looked at him enquiringly.
"Shall we go?"

Crowther leaned slowly towards him. The place was public, but their
privacy was complete.

"Piers," he said, "may I take the privilege of an old friend?"

"You may take anything you like so far as I am concerned," said Piers
impetuously.

Crowther smiled a little. "Thank you. Then I will go ahead. Are you
engaged to be married?"

"What?" said Piers. He looked momentarily startled; then laughed across
the table with a freedom that was wholly unaffected. "Am I engaged, did
you say? No, I'm not. But I'm going to be married for all that."

"Ah!" said Crowther. "I thought I knew the signs."

He rose with the words, and instantly Piers sprang up also. "Yes, let's
go! I can't breathe here. Come down to the shore for a breath of air, and
I'll tell you all about it!"

He linked his arm again in Crowther's, obviously glad to be gone; but
when they had left the glittering place behind them, he still talked
inconsequently about a thousand things till in his calm fashion Crowther
turned him back.

"I don't want you to tell me anything personal," he said, "save one
thing. This girl whom you hope to marry--I gather you are pretty
sure of her?"

Piers threw back his head with a gesture that defied the world. "I am
quite sure of her," he said; and a moment later, with impulsive
confidence: "She has just taken the trouble to write at length and tell
me why she can't have me."

"Ah?" Crowther's tone held curiosity as well as kindly sympathy. "A
sound reason?"

"No reason at all," flung back Piers, still with his face to the stars.
"She knows that as well as I do. I tell you, Crowther, I know the way to
that woman's heart, and I could find it blindfold. She is mine already."

"And doesn't know it?" suggested Crowther.

"Yes, she does in her heart of hearts,--or soon will. I shall send her a
post-card to-morrow and sum up the situation."

"On a post-card?"

Crowther sounded puzzled, and Piers broke into a laugh and descended to
earth.

"Yes, in one expressive word--'Rats!' No one else will understand it, but
she will."

"A little abrupt!" commented Crowther.

"Yes, I'm going to be abrupt now," said Piers with imperial confidence.
"I'm going to storm the position."

"And you are sure you will carry it?"

"Quite sure." Piers' voice held not the faintest shade of doubt.

"I hope you will, lad," said Crowther kindly. "And--that being the
case--may I say what I set out to say?"

"Oh, go ahead!" said Piers.

"It's only this," said Crowther, in his slow, quiet way. "Only a word of
advice, sonny, which I shouldn't give if I didn't know that your life's
happiness hangs on your taking it. You're young, but there's a locked
door in your past. Open that door just once before you marry the woman
you love, and show her what is behind it! It'll give her a shock maybe.
But it'll be better for you both in the end. Don't let there be any
locked doors between you and your wife! You're too young for that. And if
she's the right sort, it won't make a pin's difference to her love. Women
are like that, thank God!"

He spoke with the utmost earnestness. He was evidently keenly anxious to
gain his point. But his words went into utter silence. Ere they were
fully spoken Piers' hand was withdrawn from his arm. His careless,
swinging stride became a heavy, slackening tramp, and at last he halted
altogether. They stood side by side in silence with their faces to the
moon-silvered water. And there fell a long, long pause, as though the
whole world stopped and listened.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE PROMISE


After all, it was Crowther who broke that tragic silence; perhaps because
he could bear it no longer. The path on which they stood was deserted. He
laid a very steady hand upon Piers' shoulder with a compassionate glance
at the stony young face which a few minutes before had been so full of
abounding life.

"It comes hard to you, eh, lad?" he said.

Piers stirred, almost made as if he would toss the friendly hand away;
but in the end he suffered it, though he would not meet Crowther's eyes.

"You owe it to her," urged Crowther gently. "Tell her, lad! She's bound
to be up against it sooner or later if you don't."

"Yes," Piers said. "I know."

He spoke heavily; all the youth seemed to have gone out of him. After a
moment, as Crowther waited he turned with a gesture of hopelessness and
faced him. "I'm like a dog on a chain," he said. "I drag this way and
that, and eat my heart out for freedom. But it's all no use. I've got to
live and die on it." He clenched his hands in sudden passionate
rebellion. "But I'm damned if I'm going to tell anybody! It's hell enough
without that!"

Crowther's hand closed slowly and very steadily on his shoulder. "It's
just hell that I want to save you from, sonny," he said. "It may seem the
hardest part to you now, but if you shirk it you'll go further in still.
I know very well what I'm saying. And it's just because you're man enough
to feel this thing and not a brute beast to forget it, that it's hurt you
so infernally all these years. But it'll hurt you worse, lad, it'll wring
your very soul, if you keep it a secret between you and the woman you
love. It's a big temptation, but--if I know you--you're going to stand up
to it. She'll think the better of you for it in the end. But it'll be a
shadow over both your lives if you don't. And there are some things that
even a woman might find it hard to forgive."

He stopped. Piers' eyes were hard and fixed. He scarcely looked as if he
heard. From below them there arose the murmur of the moonlit sea. Close
at hand the trees in a garden stirred mysteriously as though they moved
in their sleep. But Piers made neither sound nor movement. He stood like
an image of stone.

Again the silence began to lengthen intolerably, to stretch out into a
desert of emptiness, to become fateful with a bitterness too poignant to
be uttered. Crowther said no more. He had had his say. He waited with
unswerving patience for the result.

Piers spoke at last, and there was a queer note of humour in his
voice,--humour that was tragic. "So I've got to go back again, have I?
Back to my valley of dry bones! There's no climbing the heights for me,
Crowther, never will be. Somehow or other, I am always tumbled back."

"You're wrong," Crowther said, with quiet decision. "It's the only way
out. Take it like a man, and you'll win through! Shirk it and--well,
sonny, no shirker ever yet got anything worth having out of life. You
know that as well as I do."

Piers straightened himself with a brief laugh. "Yes, I know that much.
But--I sometimes ask myself if I'm any better than a shirker. Life is
such a beastly farce so far as I am concerned. I never do anything.
There's never anything to do."

"Oh, rats!" said Crowther, and smiled. "There are not many fellows who do
half as much. If to-day is a fair sample of your life, I'm damned if it's
an easy one."

"I'm used to it," said Piers quickly. "You know, I'm awfully fond of my
grandfather--always have been. We suit each other marvellously well--in
some ways." He paused a moment, then, with an effort, "I never told him
either, Crowther. I never told a soul."

"No," Crowther said. "I don't see any reason that you should. But the
woman you marry--she is different. If you take her into your inner life
at all, she is bound to come upon it sooner or later. You must see it,
lad. You know it in your heart."

"And you think she will marry me when she knows I'm a--murderer?" Piers
uttered the word through clenched teeth. He had the haggard look of a man
who has endured long suffering.

There was deep compassion in Crowther's eyes as he watched him. "I don't
think--being a woman--she will put it in that way," he said, "not, that
is, if she loves you."

"How else could she put it?" demanded Piers harshly. "Is there any other
way of putting it? I killed the man intentionally. I told you so at the
time. The fellow who taught me the trick warned me that it would almost
certainly be fatal to a heavy man taken unawares. Why, he himself is now
doing five years' penal servitude for the very same thing. Oh, I'm not a
humbug, Crowther. I bolted from the consequences. You made me bolt. But
I've often wished to heaven since that I'd stayed and faced it out. It
would have been easier in the end, God knows."

"My dear fellow," Crowther said, "you will never convince me of that as
long as you live. There was nothing to gain by your staying and all to
lose. Consequences there were bound to be--and always are. But there was
no good purpose to be served by wrecking your life. You were only a boy,
and the luck was against you. I couldn't have stood by and seen you
dragged under."

Piers groaned. "I sometimes wish I was dead!" he said.

"My dear chap, what's the good of that?" Crowther slipped his hand from
his shoulder to his arm, and drew him quietly forward. "You've suffered
infernally, but it's made a man of you. Don't forget that! It's the
Sculptor and the Clay, lad. He knows how best to fashion a good thing. It
isn't for the clay to cry out."

"Is that your point of view?" Piers spoke with reckless bitterness. "It
isn't mine."

"You'll come to it," said Crowther gently.

They walked on for a space in silence, till turning they began to ascend
the winding path that led up to the hotel,--the path which Piers had
watched Crowther ascend that morning.

Side by side they mounted, till half-way up Crowther checked their
progress. "Piers," he said, "I'm grateful to you for enduring my
interference in this matter."

"Pshaw!" said Piers, "I owe you that much anyhow."

"You owe me nothing," said Crowther emphatically. "What I did for you, I
did for myself. I've rather a weakness--it's a very ordinary one too--for
trying to manage other people's concerns. And there's something so fine
about you that I can't bear to stand aside and see you mess up your own.
So, sonny,--for my satisfaction,--will you promise me not to take a wrong
turning over this?"

He spoke very earnestly, with a pleading that could not give offence.
Piers' face softened almost in spite of him. "You're an awfully good
chap," he said.

"Promise me, lad!" pleaded Crowther, still holding his arm in a friendly
grasp; then as Piers hesitated: "You know, I'm an older man than you
are. I can see further. You'll be making your own hell if you don't."

"But why should I promise?" said Piers uneasily.

"Because I know you will keep a promise--even against your own judgment."
Simply, with absolute conviction, Crowther made reply. "I shan't feel
happy about you--unless you promise."

Piers smiled a little, but the lines about his mouth were grim. "Oh, all
right," he said, after a moment, "I promise;--for I think you are right,
Crowther. I think too that I should probably have to tell her--whether I
wanted to or not. She's that sort--the sort that none but a skunk could
deceive. But--" his voice altered suddenly; he turned brooding eyes upon
the sleeping sea--"I wonder if she will forgive me," he said.
"I--wonder."

"Does she love you?" said Crowther.

Piers' eyes flashed round at him. "I can make her love me," he said.

"You are sure?"

"I am sure."

"Then, my son, she'll forgive you. And if you want to play a straight
game, tell her soon!" said Crowther.

And Piers, with all the light gone out of his eyes, answered soberly,
"I will."



CHAPTER XXV

DROSS


In the morning they hired horses and went towards the mountains. The day
was cloudless, but Sir Beverley would not be persuaded to accompany them.

"I'm not in the mood for exertion," he said to Piers. "Besides, I detest
hired animals, always did. I shall spend an intellectual morning
listening to the band."

"Hope you won't be bored, sir," said Piers.

"Your going or coming wouldn't affect that one way or another," responded
Sir Beverley.

Whereat Piers laughed and went his way.

He was curiously light-hearted again that morning. The soft Southern air
with its many perfumes exhilarated him like wine. The scent of the
orange-groves rose as incense to the sun.

The animal he rode danced a skittish side-step from time to time. It was
impossible to go with sober mien.

"It's a good land," said Crowther.

"Flowing with milk and honey," laughed Piers, with his eyes on the
olive-clothed slopes. "But there's no country like one's own, what?"

"No country like England, you mean," said Crowther.

"Of course I do, but I was too polite to say so."

"You needn't be polite to me," said Crowther with his slow smile. "And
England happens to be my country. I am as British--" he glanced at Piers'
dark face--"perhaps even a little more so--than you are."

"I plead guilty to an Italian grandmother," said Piers. "But you--I
thought you were Colonial."

"I am British born and bred," said Crowther.

"You?" Piers looked at him in surprise. "You don't belong to
Australia then?"

"Only by adoption. I was the son of an English parson. I was destined for
the Church myself for the first twenty years of my life." Crowther was
still smiling, but his eyes had left Piers; they scanned the horizon
contemplatively.

"Great Scott!" said Piers. "Lucky escape for you, what?"

"I didn't think so at the time," Crowther spoke thoughtfully, sitting
motionless in his saddle and gazing straight before him. "You see, I was
keen on the religious life. I was narrow in my views--I was astonishingly
narrow; but I was keen."

"Ye gods!" said Piers.

He looked at the square, strong figure incredulously. Somehow he could
not associate Crowther with any but a vigorous, outdoor existence.

"You would never have stuck to it," he said, after a moment. "You'd have
loathed the life."

"I don't think so," said Crowther, in his deliberate way, "though I admit
I probably shouldn't have expanded much. It wasn't easy to give it up at
the time."

"What made you do it?" asked Piers.

"Necessity. When my father died, my mother was left with a large family
and quite destitute. I was the eldest, and a sheep-farming uncle--a
brother of hers--offered me a wage sufficient to keep her going if I
would give up the Church and join him. I was already studying. I could
have pushed through on my own; but I couldn't have supported her. So I
had to go. That was the beginning of my Colonial life. It was
five-and-twenty years ago, and I've never been Home since."

He turned his horse quietly round to continue the ascent. The road was
steep. They went slowly side by side.

Crowther went on in a grave, detached way, as though he were telling the
story of another man's life. "I kicked hard at going, but I've lived to
be thankful that I went. I had to rough it, and it did me good. It was
just that I wanted. There's never much fun for a stranger in a strange
land, sonny, and it took me some time to shake down. In fact just for a
while I thought I couldn't stand it. The loneliness out there on those
acres and acres of grass-land was so awful; for I was city-bred. I'd
never been in the desert, never been out of the sound of church-bells."
He began to smile again. "I'd even got a sort of feeling that God wasn't
to be found outside civilization," he said. "I think we get
ultra-civilized in our ideas sometimes. And the emptiness was almost
overpowering. It was like being shut down behind bars of iron with
occasional glimpses of hell to enliven the monotony. That was when one
went to the townships, and saw life. They didn't tempt me at first. I
was too narrow even for that. But the loneliness went on eating and
eating into me till I got so desperate in the end I was ready to snatch
at any diversion." He paused a moment, and into his steady eyes there
came a shadow that made them very human. "I went to hell," he said. "I
waded up to the neck in mire. I gave myself up to it body and soul. I
wallowed. And all the while it revolted me, though it was so sickeningly
easy and attractive. I loathed myself, but I went on with it. It seemed
anyhow one degree better than that awful homesickness. And then one day,
right in the middle of it all, I had a sort of dream. Or perhaps it
wasn't any more a dream than Jacob had in the desert. But I felt as if
I'd been called, and I just had to get up and go. I expect most people
know the sensation, for after all the Kingdom of Heaven is within us;
but it made a bigger impression on me at the time than anything in my
experience. So I went back into the wilderness and waited. Old chap, I
didn't wait in vain."

He suddenly turned his head, and his eyes rested upon Piers with the
serenity of a man at peace with his own soul. "That's about all my
story," he said with simplicity. "I got the strength for the job, and so
carried it through. When my uncle died, I was left in command, and I've
stuck to it ever since. But I took a partner a few years back, and now
I've handed over the whole thing to him and I'm going Home at last to my
old mother."

"Going to settle in England?" asked Piers.

Crowther shook his head. "Not now, lad. I couldn't. There's too much to
be done. No; I'm going to fulfil my old ambitions if I can. I'm going to
get myself ordained. After that--"

He paused, for Piers had turned to stare at him in open amazement. "You!"
he ejaculated.

Crowther's smile came over his face like a spreading light. "You don't
think much of parsons, I gather, sonny," he said.

Piers broke into his sudden laugh. "Not as a tribe, I admit. I can't
stand any man who makes an ass of himself, whatever his profession. But
of course I don't mean to assert that all parsons answer to that
description. I've met a few I liked."

Crowther's smile developed into a laugh. "Then you, won't deprive me of
the pleasure of your friendship if I become one?"

"My dear chap," said Piers forcibly, "if you became the biggest
blackguard in creation, you would remain my friend."

It was regally spoken, but the speaker was plainly so unconscious of
arrogance that Crowther's hand came out to him and lay for a moment on
his arm. "I gathered that, sonny," he said gently.

Piers' eyes flashed sympathy. "And what are you going to do then? You say
you're not going to settle in England?"

"I am not," said Crowther, and again he was looking out ahead of him with
eyes that spanned the far distance. "No; I'm going back again to the old
haunts. There's a thundering lot to do there. It's more than a one-man
job. But, please God, I'll do what I can. I know I can do a little. It's
a hell of a place, sonny. You saw the outside edge of it yourself."

Piers nodded without speaking. It had been in a sense his baptism of
fire.

"It's the new chums I want to get hold of," Crowther said. "They get
drawn in so devilishly easily. They're like children, many of 'em, trying
to walk on quicksands. They're bound to go in, bound to go under, and a
big percentage never come up again. It's the children I want to help. I
hate to think of fresh, clean lives being thrown on to the dust-heap.
It's so futile,--such a crying waste."

"If anyone can do it, you can," said Piers.

"Ah! I wonder. It won't be easy, but I know their temptations so awfully
well. I've seen scores go under, I've been under myself. And that makes a
lot of difference."

"Life is infernally difficult for most of us," said Piers.

They rode in silence for awhile, and then he changed the subject.

It was not till they returned that Crowther announced his intention of
leaving on the following day.

"I've no time for slacking," he said. "I didn't come Home to slack. And
there's the mother waiting for me."

"Oh, man," Piers said suddenly, "how I wish I had a mother!"

And then half-ashamed, he turned and went in search of his grandfather.

Again that evening Crowther accepted Sir Beverley's invitation to dine at
their table. The old man seemed to regard Piers' friend with a kind of
suspicious interest. He asked few questions but he watched him narrowly.

"If you and the boy want to go to the Casino again, don't mind me!" he
said, at the end of dinner.

"We don't, sir," said Piers promptly. "Can't we sit out on the terrace
all together and smoke?"

"I don't go beyond the lounge," said Sir Beverley, with decision.

"All right, we'll sit in the lounge," said Piers.

His grandfather frowned at him. "Don't be a fool, Piers! Can't you see
you're not wanted?" He thrust out an abrupt hand to Crowther. "Good-night
to you! I shall probably retire before you come in."

"He is leaving first thing in the morning," said Piers.

Sir Beverley's frown was transferred to Crowther. He looked at him
piercingly. "Leaving, are you? Going to England, eh? I suppose we shall
meet again then?"

"I hope so," said Crowther.

Sir Beverley grunted. "Do you? Well, we shan't be moving yet. But--if
you care to look us up at Rodding Abbey when we do get back--you can;
eh, Piers?"

"I tell him, he must, sir," said Piers.

"You are very kind," said Crowther. "Good-bye sir! And thank you!"

He and Piers went out together, and walked to and fro in the garden above
the sea. The orchestra played fitfully in the hotel behind them, and now
and then there came the sounds of careless voices and wandering feet.
They themselves talked but little. Piers was in a dreamy mood, and his
companion was plainly deep in thought.

He spoke at length out of a long silence. "Did your grandfather say
Rodding Abbey just now?"

"Yes," said Piers, waking up.

"It's near a place called Wardenhurst?" pursued Crowther.

"Yes," said Piers again. "Ever been there?"

"No," Crowther spoke slowly, as though considering his words. "Someone I
know lives there, that's all."

"Someone you know?" Piers stood still. He looked at Crowther sharply
through the dimness.

"I don't suppose you have ever met her, lad," said Crowther quietly.
"From what I know of society in the old country you wouldn't move in the
same circle. But as I have promised myself to visit her, it seems better
to mention the fact."

"Why shouldn't you mention it? What is her name?" Piers spoke quickly, in
the imperious fashion habitual to him when not quite at his ease.

Crowther hesitated. He seemed to be debating some point with himself.

At length, "Her name," he said slowly, "is Denys."

Piers made a sudden movement that passed unexplained. There fell a few
moments of silence. Then, in a voice even more measured than
Crowther's, he spoke.

"As it happens, I have met her. Tell me what you know about her,--if you
don't mind."

Again Crowther hesitated.

"Go on," said Piers.

They were facing one another in the darkness. The end of Piers' cigar had
ceased to glow. He did not seem to be breathing. But in the tense moments
that followed his words there came to Crowther the hard, quick beating of
his heart like the thud of a racing engine far away.

Instinctively he put out a hand. "Piers, old chap,--" he said.

"Go on!" Piers said again.

He gripped both hand and wrist with nervous fingers, holding them almost
as though he would force from him the information he desired.

Crowther waited no longer, for he knew in that moment that he stood in
the presence of a soul in torment. "You'll have to know it," he said,
"though why these things happen, God alone knows. Sonny, she is the widow
of the man whose death you caused."

The words were spoken, and after them came silence--such a silence as
could be felt. Once the hands that gripped Crowther's seemed about to
slacken, and then in a moment they tightened again as the hands of a
drowning man clinging to a spar.

Crowther attempted nothing in the way of sympathy or consolation. He
merely stood ready. But it was evident that he did not need to be told
of the tragedy that had suddenly fallen upon Piers' life. His attitude
said as much.

Very, very slowly at last, as if not wholly sure of his balance, Piers
let him go. He took out his cigar with a mechanical movement and
looked at it; then abruptly returned it to his lips and drew it
fiercely back to life.

Then, through a cloud of smoke, he spoke. "Crowther, I made you a promise
yesterday."

"You did," said Crowther gravely.

Piers threw him a quick look. "Oh, you needn't be afraid," he said. "I'm
not going to cry off. It's not my way. But--I want you to make me a
promise in return."

"What is it, sonny?" There was just a hint of anxiety in Crowther's tone.

Piers made a reckless, half-defiant movement of the head. "It is that you
will never--whatever the circumstances--speak of this thing again to
anyone--not even to me."

"You think it necessary to ask that of me?" said Crowther.

"No, I don't!" Impulsively Piers made answer. "I believe I'm a cur to
ask it. But this thing has dogged me so persistently that I feel like an
animal being run to earth. For my peace of mind, Crowther;--because I'm a
coward if you like--give me your word on it!"

He laid a hand not wholly steady upon Crowther's shoulder, and impelled
him forward. His voice was low and agitated.

"Forgive me, old chap!" he urged. "And understand, if you can. It's all
you can do to help."

"My dear lad, of course I do!" Instant and reassuring came Crowther's
reply. "If you want my promise, you have it. The business is yours, not
mine. I shall never interfere."

"Thank you--thanks awfully!" Piers said.

He drew a great breath. His hand went through Crowther's arm.

"That gives me time to think," he said. "What an infernal tangle this
beastly world is! I suppose you think there's a reason for everything?"

"You've heard of gold being tried in the fire," said Crowther.

Piers broke into his sudden laugh. "I'm not gold, my dear chap, but the
tinniest dross that ever was made. Shall we go and have a drink, what?
This sort of thing always makes me thirsty."

It was characteristically abrupt. It ended the matter in a trice. They
went together to the hotel _buffet_, and there Piers quenched his thirst.
It was while there that Crowther became aware that his mood had wholly
changed. He laughed and joked with the bright-eyed French girl who waited
upon them, and seemed loth to depart. Silently, but with a growing
anxiety, Crowther watched him. There was certainly nothing forced about
his gaiety. It was wildly, recklessly spontaneous; but there was about it
a fevered quality that set Crowther almost instinctively on his guard.
He did not know, and he had no means of gauging, exactly how deeply the
iron had pierced. But that some sort of wound had been inflicted he could
not doubt. It might be merely a superficial one, but he feared that it
was something more than that. There was a queer, intangible species of
mockery in Piers' attitude, as though he set the whole world at defiance.

And yet he did not look like a man who had been stunned by an unexpected,
sledge-hammer blow of Fate. He was keenly, fiercely alive to his
surroundings. He seemed to be gibing rather at a blow that had glanced
aside. Uneasily Crowther wondered.

It was he who finally suggested a move. It was growing late.

"So it is!" said Piers. "You ought to be turning in if you really mean to
make an early start."

He stood still in the hall and held out his hand. "Good-night, old chap!
I'm not going up at present."

"You'd better," said Crowther.

"No, I can't. I couldn't possibly turn in yet." He thrust his hand upon
Crowther. "Good-night! I shall see you in the morning."

Crowther took the hand. The hall was deserted. They stood together under
a swinging lamp, and by its flaring light Crowther sought to read his
companion's face.

For a moment or two Piers refused to meet his look, then with sudden
stubbornness he raised his eyes and stared back. They shone as black and
hard as ebony.

"Good-night!" he said again.

Crowther's level brows were slightly drawn. His hand, square and strong,
closed upon Piers' and held it.

For a few seconds he did not speak; then: "I don't know that I feel like
turning in yet either, sonny," he said deliberately.

Piers made a swift movement of impatience. His eyes seemed to grow
brighter, more grimly hard.

"I'm afraid I must ask you to excuse me in any case," he said. "I'm going
up to see if my grandfather has all he wants."

It was defiantly spoken. He turned with the words, almost wresting his
hand free, and strode away towards the lift.

Reaching it, some sense of compunction seemed to touch him for he looked
back over his shoulder with an abrupt gesture of farewell.

Crowther made no answering sign. He stood gravely watching. But, as
the lift shot upwards, he turned aside and began squarely to ascend
the stairs.

When Piers came out of his room ten minutes later with a coat over his
arm he came face to face with him in the corridor. There was a certain
grimness apparent about Crowther also by that time. He offered no
explanation of his presence, although quite obviously he was waiting.

Piers stood still. There was a dangerous glitter in his eyes that came
and went. "Look here, Crowther!" he said. "It's no manner of use your
attempting this game with me. I'm going out, and--whether you like it or
not, I don't care a damn--I'm going alone."

"Where are you going?" said Crowther.

"To the Casino," Piers flung the words with a gleam of clenched teeth.

Crowther looked at him straight and hard. "What for?" he asked.

"What do people generally go for?" Piers prepared to move on as he
uttered the question.

But Crowther deliberately blocked his way. "No, Piers," he said quietly.
"You're not going to-night."

The blood rose in a great wave to Piers' forehead. His eyes shone
suddenly red. "Do you think you're going to stop me?" he said.

"For to-night, sonny--yes." Quite decidedly Crowther made reply.
"To-morrow you will be your own master. But to-night--well, you've had a
bit of a knock out; you're off your balance. Don't go to-night!"

He spoke with earnest appeal, but he still blocked the passage squarely,
stoutly, immovably.

The hot flush died out of Piers' face; he went slowly white. But the
blaze of wrath in his eyes leaped higher. For the moment he looked
scarcely sane.

"If you don't clear out of my path, I shall throw you!" he said, speaking
very quietly, but with a terrible distinctness that made misunderstanding
impossible.

Crowther, level-browed and determined, remained where he was. "I don't
think you will," he said.

"Don't you?" A faint smile of derision twisted Piers' lips. He gathered
up the coat he carried, and threw it across his shoulder.

Crowther watched him with eyes that never varied. "Piers!" he said.

"Well?" Piers looked at him, still with that slight, grim smile.

Crowther stood like a rock. "I will let you pass, sonny, if you can tell
me--on your word of honour as a gentleman--that the tables are all you
have in your mind."

Piers tossed back his head with the action of an angry beast. "What the
devil has that to do with you?"

"Everything," said Crowther.

He moved at last, quietly, massively, and took Piers by the shoulders.
"My son," he said, "I know where you are going. I've been there myself.
But in God's name, lad, don't--don't go! There are some stains that never
come out though one would give all one had to be rid of them."

"Let me go!" said Piers.

He was breathing quickly; his eyes gazed fiercely into the elder man's
face. He made no violent movement, but his whole body was tensely strung
to resist.

Crowther's hands tightened upon him. "Not to-night!" he said.

"Yes, now!" Something of electricity ran through Piers; there came as it
were the ripple of muscles contracting for a spring. Yet still he stood
motionless, menacing but inactive.

"I will not!" Sudden and hard Crowther's answer came; his hold became a
grip. By sheer unexpectedness of action, he forced Piers back against the
door behind him.

It gave inwards, and they stumbled into the darkness of the bedroom.

"You fool!" said Piers. "You fool!"

Yet he gave ground, scarcely resisting, and coming up against the bed sat
down upon it suddenly as if spent.

There fell a brief silence, a tense, hard-breathing pause. Then Piers
reached up and freed himself.

"Oh, go away, Crowther!" he said. "You're a kind old ass, but I don't
want you. And you needn't spend the night in the corridor either. See?
Just go to bed like a Christian and let me do the same!"

The struggle was over; so suddenly, so amazingly, that Crowther stood
dumbfounded. He had girded himself to wrestle with a giant, but there was
nothing formidable about the boy who sat on the edge of his bed and
laughed at him with easy ridicule.

"Why don't you switch on the light," he jeered, "and have a good look
round for the devil? He was here a minute ago. What? Don't you believe in
devils? That's heresy. All good parsons--" He got up suddenly and went to
the switch. In a second the room was flooded with light. He returned to
Crowther with the full flare on his face, and the only expression it wore
was one of careless friendliness. He held out his hand. "Good-night,
dear old fellow! Say your prayers and go to bed! And you needn't have any
more nightmares on my account. I'm going to turn in myself directly."

There was no mistaking his sincerity, or the completeness of his
surrender. Crowther could but take the extended hand, and, in silent
astonishment, treat the incident as closed.

He even wondered as he went away if he had not possibly exaggerated the
whole matter, though at the heart of him he knew that this was only what
Piers himself desired him to believe. He could not but feel convinced,
however, that the danger was past for the time at least. In his own
inimitable fashion Piers had succeeded in reassuring him. He was fully
satisfied that the boy would keep his word, for his faith in him was
absolute. But he felt the victory that was his to be a baffling one. He
had conquered merely because Piers of his own volition had ceased to
resist. He did not understand that sudden submission. Like Sir Beverley,
he was puzzled by it. There was about it a mysterious quality that eluded
his understanding. He would have given a good deal for a glimpse of the
motive that lay behind.

But he had to go without it. Piers was in no expansive mood. Perhaps he
might have found it difficult to explain himself even had he so desired.

Whatever the motive that had urged him, it urged him no longer, or it had
been diverted into a side-channel. For almost as soon as he was alone, he
threw himself down and scribbled a careless line to Ina Rose, advising
her to accompany her father to Mentone, and adding that he believed she
would not be bored there.

When he had despatched Victor with the letter, he flung his window wide
and leaned out of it with his eyes wide opened on the darkness, and on
his lips that smile that was not good to see.



CHAPTER XXVI

SUBSTANCE


It was a blustering spring day, and Avery, caught in a sudden storm of
driving sleet, stood up against the railings of the doctor's house,
sheltering as best she might. She was holding her umbrella well in the
teeth of the gale, and trying to protect an armful of purchases as well.

She was alone, Gracie, the black sheep, having been sent to school at the
close of the Christmas holidays, and Jeanie being confined to the house
with a severe cold. Olive, having become more and more her father's
constant companion, disdained shopping expeditions. The two elder boys
and Pat were all at a neighbouring school as weekly boarders, and though
she missed them Avery had it not in her heart to regret the arrangement.
The Vicarage might at times seem dreary, but it had become undeniably an
abode of peace.

Mrs. Lorimer was gradually recovering her strength, and Avery's care now
centred more upon Jeanie than her mother. Though the child had recovered
from her accident, she had not been really well all the winter, and the
cold spring seemed to tax her strength to the uttermost. Tudor still
dropped in at intervals, but he said little, and his manner did not
encourage Avery to question him. Privately she was growing anxious about
Jeanie, and she wished that he would be more communicative. He had
absolutely forbidden book-work, a fiat to which Mr. Lorimer had yielded
under protest.

"The child will grow up a positive dunce," he had declared.

To which Tudor had brusquely rejoined, "What of it?"

But his word was law so far as Jeanie was concerned, and Mr. Lorimer had
relinquished the point with the sigh of one submitting to the inevitable.
He did not like Lennox Tudor, but for some reason he always avoided an
open disagreement with him.

It was of Jeanie that Avery was thinking as she stood there huddled
against the railings while the sleet beat a fierce tattoo on her levelled
umbrella and streamed from it in rivers on to the ground. She even
debated with herself if it seemed advisable to turn and enter the
doctor's dwelling, and try to get him to speak frankly of the matter as
he had spoken once before.

She dismissed the idea, however, reflecting that he would most
probably be out, and she was on the point of collecting her forces to
make a rush for another sheltered spot further on when the front door
opened unexpectedly behind her, and Tudor himself came forth
bareheaded into the rain.

"What are you doing there, Mrs. Denys?" he said. "Why don't you
come inside?"

He opened the gate for her, and took her parcels without waiting for a
reply. And Avery, still with her umbrella poised against the blast,
smiled her thanks and passed in.

The hair grew far back on Tudor's forehead, it was in fact becoming
scanty on the top of his head; and the raindrops glistened upon it as he
entered behind Avery. He wiped them away, and then took off his glasses
and wiped them also.

"Come into the dining-room!" he said. "You are just in time to join
me at tea."

"You're very kind," Avery said. "But I ought to hurry back the moment the
rain lessens."

"It won't lessen yet," said Tudor. "Take off your mackintosh, won't you?
I expect your feet are wet. There's a fire to dry them by."

Certainly the storm showed no signs of abating. The sky was growing
darker every instant. Avery slipped the streaming mackintosh from her
shoulders and entered the room into which he had invited her.

The blaze on the hearth was cheering after the icy gale without. She went
to it, stretching her numbed hands to the warmth.

Tudor pushed forward a chair. "I believe you are chilled to the
bone," he said.

She laughed at that. "Oh no, indeed I am not! But it is a cold wind,
isn't it? Have you finished your work for to-day?"

Tudor foraged in a cupboard for an extra cup and saucer. "No. I've got to
go out again later. I've just come back from Miss Whalley's. She's got a
touch of jaundice."

"Oh, poor thing!" said Avery.

"Yes; poor thing!" echoed Tudor grimly. "She is very sorry for herself, I
can assure you; but as full of gossip as ever." He paused.

Avery, with her face to the fire, laughed a little. "Anything new?"

"Miss Whalley," said Tudor deliberately, "always gets hold of something
new. Never noticed that?"

"Wouldn't you like me to pour out?" suggested Avery.

"No. You keep your feet on the fender. Do you want to hear the latest
tittle-tattle--or not?"

There was a wary gleam behind Tudor's glasses; but Avery did not turn her
eyes from the fire. A curious little feeling of uneasiness possessed her,
a sensation that scarcely amounted to dread yet which quickened the
beating of her heart in a fashion that she found vaguely disconcerting.

"Don't tell me anything ugly!" she said gently, still not looking at
him.

Tudor uttered a short laugh. "There's nothing especially venomous about
it that I can see." He lifted the teapot and began to pour. "Have you
heard from young Evesham lately?"

The question was casually uttered; but Avery's hands made a slight
involuntary movement over the fire towards which she leaned.

"No," she said.

At the same moment the cup that Tudor was filling overflowed, and he
whispered something under his breath and set down the tea-pot.

Avery turned towards him instinctively, to see him dabbing the table with
his handkerchief.

"It's almost too dark to see what one is doing," he said.

"It is," she assented gravely, and turned back quietly to the fire, not
offering to assist. A soft veil of reserve seemed to have descended
upon her. She did not speak again until he had remedied the disaster
and brought her some tea. Then, with absolute composure, she raised her
eyes to his.

"You were going to tell me something about Piers Evesham," she said.

His eyes looked back into hers with a certain steeliness, as though they
sought to penetrate her reserve.

"I was," he said, after a moment, "though I don't suppose it will
interest you very greatly. I had it from Miss Whalley, but I was not told
the source of her information. Rumour says that the young man is engaged
to Miss Ina Rose of Wardenhurst."

"Oh, really?" said Avery. She took the cup he offered her with a hand
that was perfectly steady, though she was conscious of the fact that her
face was pale. "They are abroad, I think?"

"Yes, in the Riviera." Tudor's eyes fell away from hers abruptly. "At
least they have been. Someone said they were coming home." He stooped to
put wood on the fire, and there fell a silence.

Avery spoke after a moment. "No doubt he will be happier married."

"I wonder," said Tudor. "I should say myself that he has the sort of
temperament that is never satisfied. He's too restless for that. I don't
think Miss Ina Rose is greatly to be envied."

"Unless she loves him," said Avery. She spoke almost under her breath,
her eyes upon the fire. Tudor, standing beside her with his elbow on
the mantelpiece, was still conscious of that filmy veil of reserve
floating between them. It chafed him, but it was too intangible a thing
to tear aside.

He waited therefore in silence, watching her face, the tender lines of
her mouth, the sweet curves that in childhood must have made a perfect
picture of happiness.

She raised her eyes at length. "Dr. Tudor!"

And then she realized his scrutiny, and a soft flush rose and overspread
her pale face. She lifted her straight brows questioningly.

And all in a moment Tudor found himself speaking,--not of his own
volition, not the words he had meant to speak, but nervously,
stammeringly, giving utterance to the thoughts that suddenly welled over
from his soul. "I've been wanting to speak for ages. I couldn't get it
out. But it's no good keeping it in, is it? I don't get any nearer that
way. I don't want to vex you, make you feel uncomfortable. No one knows
better than I that I haven't much to offer. But I can give you a home
and--and all my love, if you will have it. It may seem a small thing to
you, but it's bigger than the calf-love of an infant like young Evesham.
I know he dared to let his fancy stray your way, and you see now what it
was worth. But mine--mine isn't fancy."

And there he stopped; for Avery had risen and was facing him in the
firelight with eyes of troubled entreaty.

"Oh, please," she said, "please don't go on!"

He stood upright with a jerk. The distress on her face restored his
normal self-command more quickly than any words. Half-mechanically he
reached out and took her tea-cup, setting it down on the mantelpiece
before her.

"Don't be upset!" he said. "I didn't mean to upset you. I shan't go on,
if it is against your wish."

"It is," said Avery. She spoke tremulously, locking her hands fast
together. "It must be my own fault," she said, "I'm dreadfully sorry. I
hoped you weren't--really in earnest."

He smiled at that with a touch of cynicism. "Did you think I was amusing
myself--or you? Sit down again, won't you? There is no occasion whatever
for you to be distressed. I assure you that you are in no way to blame."

"I am dreadfully sorry," Avery repeated.

"That's nice of you. I had scarcely dared to flatter myself that you
would be--glad. So you see, you have really nothing to reproach yourself
with. I am no worse off than I was before."

She put out her hand to him with a quick, confiding gesture. "You are
very kind to put it in that way. I value your friendship so much, so very
much. Yes, and I value your love too. It's not a small thing to me. Only,
you know--you know--" she faltered a little--"I've been married before,
and--though I loved my husband--my married life was a tragedy. Oh yes, he
loved me too. It wasn't that sort of misery. It was--it was drink."

"Poor girl!" said Tudor.

He spoke with unwonted gentleness, and he held her hand with the utmost
kindness. There was nothing of the rejected lover in his attitude. He
was man enough to give her his first sympathy.

Avery's lips were quivering. She went on with a visible effort. "He died
a violent death. He was killed in a quarrel with another man. I was told
it was an accident, but it didn't seem like that to me. And--it had an
effect on me. It made me hard--made me bitter."

"You, Avery!" Tudor's voice was gravely incredulous.

She turned her face to the fire, and he saw on her lashes the gleam of
tears. "I've never told anyone that; but it's the truth. It seemed to me
that life was cruel, mainly because of men's vices. And women were
created only to go under. It was a horrid sort of feeling to have, but it
has never wholly left me. I don't think I could ever face marriage a
second time."

"Oh yes, you could," said Tudor, quietly, "if you loved the man."

She shook her head. "I am too old to fall in love. I have somehow
missed the romance of life. I know what it is, but it will never come
to me now."

"And you won't marry without?" he said.

"No."

There fell a pause; then, still with the utmost quietness, he
relinquished her hand. "I think you are right," he said. "Marriage
without love on both sides is a ship without ballast. Yet, I can't help
thinking that you are mistaken in your idea that you have lost the
capacity for that form of love. You may know what it is. Most women do.
But I wonder if you have ever really felt it."

"Not to the full," Avery answered, her voice very low. "Then I was too
young. Mine was just a child's rapture and it was simply extinguished
when I came to know the kind of burden I had to bear. It all faded so
quickly, and the reality was so terribly grim. Now--now I look on the
world with experienced eyes. I am too old."

"You think experience destroys romance?" said Tudor.

She looked at him. "Don't you?"

"No," he said. "If it did, I do not think you would be afraid to marry
me. Don't think I am trying to persuade you! I am not. But are you sure
that in refusing me you are not sacrificing substance to shadow?"

"I don't quite understand you," she said.

He shrugged his shoulders slightly. "I can't be more explicit. No doubt
you will follow your own instincts. But allow me to say that I don't
think you are the sort of woman to go through life unmated; and though I
may not be romantic, I am sound. I think I could give you a certain
measure of happiness. But the choice is yours. I can only bow to your
decision."

There was a certain dignity in his speech that gave it weight. Avery
listened in silence, and into silence the words passed.

Several seconds slipped away, then without effort Tudor came back to
everyday things. "Sit down, won't you? Your tea is getting cold."

Avery sat down, and he handed it to her, and after a moment turned aside
to the table.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "I have just come back from the
Vicarage."

"Oh, have you?" Avery looked round quickly. "You went to see Jeanie?"

"Yes." Tudor spoke gravely. "I also saw the Vicar. I told him the child
must go away. That cough of hers is tearing her to pieces. She ought to
go to the South Coast. I told him so."

"Oh! What did he say?" Avery spoke with eagerness. She had been longing
to suggest that very proposal for some time past.

Tudor smiled into his cup. "He said it was a total impossibility. That
was the starting-point. At the finish it was practically decided that
you should take her away next week."

"I!" said Avery.

"Yes, you. Mrs. Lorimer will manage all right now. The nurse can look
after her and the little ones without assistance. And the second
girl--Olive isn't it?--can look after the Reverend Stephen. It's all
arranged in fact, unless it fails to meet with your approval, in which
case of course the whole business must be reconsidered."

"But of course I approve," Avery said. "I would do anything that lay in
my power. But I don't quite like the idea of leaving Mrs. Lorimer."

"She will be all right," Tudor asserted again. "She wouldn't be happy
away from her precious husband, and she would sooner have you looking
after Jeanie than anyone. She told me so."

"She always thinks of others first," said Avery.

"So does someone else I know," rejoined Tudor. "It's just a habit
some women have,--not always a good habit from some points of view.
We may regard it as settled then, may we? You really have no
objections to raise?"

"None," said Avery. "I think the idea is excellent. I have been feeling
troubled about Jeanie nearly all the winter. This last cold has worn her
out terribly."

Tudor nodded. "Yes."

He drank his tea thoughtfully, and then spoke again. "I sounded her this
afternoon. The left lung is not in a healthy condition. She will need all
the attention you can give her if she is going to throw off the mischief.
It has not gone very far at present, but--to be frank with you--I am very
far from satisfied that she can muster the strength." He got up and began
to pace the room. "I have not said this plainly to anyone else. I don't
want to frighten Mrs. Lorimer before I need. The poor soul has enough to
bear without this added. Possibly the change will work wonders. Possibly
she will pull round. Children have marvellous recuperative powers. But I
have seen this sort of thing a good many times before, and--" he came
back to the hearth--"it doesn't make me happy."

"I am glad you have told me," Avery said.

"I had to tell you. I believe you more than half suspected it." Tudor
spoke restlessly; his thoughts were evidently not of his companion at
that moment. "There are of course a good many points in her favour. She
is a good, obedient child with a placid temperament. And the summer is
before us. We shall have to work hard this summer, Mrs. Denys." He smiled
at her abruptly. "It is like building a sea-wall when the tide is out.
We've got to make it as strong as possible before the tide comes back."

"You may rely on me to do my very best," Avery said earnestly.

He nodded. "Thank you. I know I may. I always do. Hence my confidence in
you. May I give you some more tea?"

He quitted the subject as suddenly as he had embarked upon it. There was
something very friendly in his treatment of her. She knew with
unquestioning intuition that for the future he would keep strictly within
the bounds of friendship unless he had her permission to pass beyond
them. And it was this knowledge that emboldened her at parting to say,
with her hand in his: "You are very, very good to me. I would like to
thank you if I could."

He pressed her hand with the kindness of an old friend. "No, don't thank
me!" he said, smiling at her in a way that somehow went to her heart. "I
shall always be at your service. But I'd rather you took it as a matter
of course. I feel more comfortable that way."

Avery left him at length and trudged home through the mud with a curious
feeling of uncertainty in her soul. It was as though she had been
vouchsafed a far glimpse of destiny which had been too fleeting for her
comprehension.



CHAPTER XXVII

SHADOW


The preparations that must inevitably precede a departure for an
indefinite length of time kept Avery from dwelling overmuch on what had
passed on that gusty afternoon when she had taken shelter in the
doctor's house.

Whether or not she believed the rumour concerning Piers she scarcely
asked herself. For some reason into which she did not enter she was
firmly resolved to exclude him from her mind, and she welcomed the many
occupations that kept her thoughts engrossed. No word from him had
reached her since that daring letter written nearly three months
before, just after his departure. It seemed that he had accepted her
answer just as she had meant him to accept it, and that he had nothing
more to say. So at least she viewed the matter, not suffering any
inward question to arise.

She saw Lennox Tudor several times before the last day arrived. He did
not seek her out. It simply came about in the ordinary course of things.
He was plainly determined that neither in public nor private should there
be any secret sense of embarrassment between them. And for this also she
was grateful, liking him for his blunt consideration for her better than
she had ever liked him before.

It was on the evening of the day preceding her departure with Jeanie that
she ran down in the dusk to the post at the end of the lane with a
letter. Her Australian friend had written to propose a visit, and she had
been obliged to put him off.

There was a bitter wind blowing, but she hastened along hatless, with a
cloak thrown round her shoulders. Past the church with its sheltering
yew-trees she ran, intent only upon executing her errand in as short a
time as possible.

Her hair blew loose about her face, and before she reached her goal she
was ashamed of her untidiness, but it was not worth while to return for a
hat, and she pressed on with a girl's impetuosity, hoping that she would
meet no one.

The hope was not to be fulfilled. She reached the box and deposited her
letter therein, but as she turned from doing so, there came the fall of a
horse's hoofs along the road at the end of the lane.

She caught the sound, and was pierced by a sudden, quite unaccountable
suspicion. Swiftly she gathered her cloak more securely about her, and
hastened away.

Instantly it seemed to her that the hoof-beats quickened. The lane was
steep, and she realized in a moment that if the rider turned up in her
wake, she must very speedily be overtaken. She slackened her pace
therefore, and walked on more quietly, straining her ears to listen, not
venturing to look back.

Round the corner came the advancing animal at a brisk trot. She had
known in her heart that it would be so. She had known from the first
moment of hearing those hoof-beats, that Fate, strong and relentless,
was on her track.

How she had known it she could not have said, but the wild clamour of her
heart stifled any reasoning that she might have tried to form. Her breath
came and went like the breath of a hunted creature. She could not hurry
because of the trembling of her knees. Every instinct was urging her to
flee, but she lacked the strength. She drew instead nearer to the wall,
hoping against hope that in the gathering darkness he would pass her by.

Nearer and nearer came the hammering hoofs. She could hear the horse's
sharp breathing, the creak of leather. And then suddenly she found she
could go no further. She stopped and leaned against the wall.

She saw the animal pulled suddenly in, and knew that she was caught. With
a great effort she lifted a smiling face, and simulated surprise.

"You! How do you do?"

"You knew it was me," said Piers rather curtly.

He dropped from the saddle with the easy grace that always marked his
movements, and came to her, leaving the animal free.

"Why were you running away from me?" he said. "Did you want to cut me?"

He must have felt the trembling of her hand, for all in a moment his
manner changed. His fingers closed upon hers with warm assurance. He
suddenly laughed into her face.

"Don't answer either of those questions!" he said. "Didn't you expect
to see me? We came home yesterday, thank the gods! I'm deadly sick of
being away."

"Haven't you enjoyed yourself?" Avery managed to ask.

He laughed again somewhat grimly. "I wasn't out for enjoyment. I've
been--amusing myself more or less. But that's not the same thing, is it?
I should have drowned myself if I'd stayed out there much longer."

"Don't talk nonsense!" said Avery.

She spoke with a touch of sharpness. Her agitation had passed leaving her
vexed with herself and with him.

He received the admonition with a grimace. "Have you heard about my
engagement yet?" he enquired irrelevantly, after a moment.

Avery looked at him very steadily through the falling dusk. She had a
feeling that he was trying to hoodwink her by some means not wholly
praiseworthy.

"Are you engaged?" she asked him, point-blank.

He made a careless gesture. "Everybody says so."

"Are you engaged?" Avery repeated with resolution.

She freed her hand as she uttered the question the second time. She was
standing up very straight against the churchyard wall sternly determined
to check all trifling.

Piers straightened himself also. From the pride of his attitude she
thought that he was about to take offence, but his voice held none as he
made reply.

"I am not."

She felt as if some constriction at her heart, of which till that moment
she had scarcely been aware, had suddenly slackened. She drew a long,
deep breath.

"Sorry, what?" suggested Piers.

He began to tap a careless tattoo with his whip on the toe of his boot.
He did not appear to be regarding her very closely. Yet she did not feel
at her ease. That sudden sense as of strain relaxed had left her
curiously unsteady.

She ignored his question and asked another. "Why is everybody saying that
you are engaged?"

He lifted his shoulders. "Because everybody is more or less of a
gossiping fool, I should say. Still," he threw up his head with a laugh,
"notions of that sort have their uses. My grandfather for instance is
firmly of the opinion that I have come home to be married. I didn't
undeceive him."

"You let him believe--what wasn't true?" said Avery slowly.

He looked straight at her, with his head flung back. "I did. It suited my
purpose. I wanted to get home. He thought it was because the Roses had
returned to Wardenhurst. I let him think so. It certainly was deadly
without them."

It was then that Avery turned and began quietly to walk on up the hill.
He linked his arm in Pompey's bridle, and walked beside her.

She spoke after a few moments with something of constraint. "And how have
you been--amusing yourself?"

"I?" Carelessly he made reply. "I have been playing around with Ina Rose
chiefly--to save us both from boredom."

There sounded a faint jeering note behind the carelessness of his voice.
Avery quickened her pace almost unconsciously.

"It's all right," said Piers. "There's been no damage done."

"You don't know that," said Avery, without looking at him.

"Yes, I do. She'll marry Dick Guyes. I told her she would the night
before they left, and she didn't say she wouldn't. He's a much better
chap than I am, you know," said Piers, with an odd touch of sincerity.
"And he's head over ears in love with her into the bargain."

"Are you trying to excuse yourself?" said Avery.

He laughed. "What for? For not marrying Ina Rose? I assure you I never
meant to marry her."

"For trifling with her." Avery's voice was hard, but he affected not
to notice.

"A game's a game," he said lightly.

Avery stopped very suddenly and faced round upon him. "That sort of
game," she said, and her voice throbbed with the intensity of her
indignation, "is monstrous--is contemptible--a game that none but
blackguards ever stoop to play!"

Piers stood still. "Great Scott!" he said softly.

Avery swept on. Once roused, she was ruthless in her arraignment.

"Men--some men--find it amusing to go through life breaking women's
hearts just for the sport of the thing. They regard it as a pastime, in
the same light as fox-hunting or cards or racing. And when the game is
over, they laugh among themselves and say what fools women are. And so
they may be, and so they are, many of them. But is it honourable, is it
manly, to take advantage of their weakness? I never thought you were that
sort. I thought you were at least honest."

"Did you?" said Piers.

He was holding himself very straight and stiff, just as he had held
himself on that day in the winter when she had so indignantly intervened
to save his dog from his ungovernable fury. But he did not seem to resent
her attack, and in spite of herself Avery's own resentment began to wane.
She suddenly remembered that her very protest was an admission of
intimacy of which he would not scruple to avail himself if it suited his
purpose, and with this thought in her mind she paused in confusion.

"Won't you finish?" said Piers.

She turned to leave him. "That's all I have to say."

He put out a restraining hand. "Then may I say something?"

The request was so humbly uttered that she could not refuse it. She
remained where she was.

"I should like you to know," said Piers, "that I have never given
Miss Rose or any other girl with whom I have flirted the faintest
shadow of a reason for believing that I was in earnest. That is the
truth--on my honour."

"I wonder if--they--would say the same," said Avery.

He shrugged his shoulders. "No one ever before accused me of being a
lady-killer. As to your other charge against me, it was not I who
deceived my grandfather. It was he who deceived himself."

"Isn't that a distinction without a difference?" said Avery, in a
low voice.

She was beginning to wish that she had not spoken with such vehemence.
After all, what were his delinquencies to her? She almost expected him to
ask the question; but he did not.

"Do you mind explaining?" he said.

With an effort she made response. "You can't say it was honourable to let
your grandfather come home in the belief that you wanted to become
engaged to Miss Rose."

"Have I said so?" said Piers.

Avery paused. She had a sudden feeling of uncertainty as if he had kicked
away a foothold upon which she had rashly attempted to rest.

"You admit that it was not?" she said.

He smiled a little. "I admit that it was not strictly honest, but I
didn't see much harm in it. In any case it was high time we came home,
and it gave him the impetus to move."

"And when are you going to tell him the truth?" said Avery.

Piers was silent.

Looking at him through the dusk, she was aware of a change in his
demeanour, though as to its nature she was slightly doubtful.

"And if I don't tell him?" said Piers at length.

"You will," she said quickly.

"I don't know why I should." Piers' voice was dogged. "He'll know fast
enough--when she gets engaged to Guyes."

"Know that you have played a double game," said Avery.

"Well?" he said. "And if he does?"

"I think you will be sorry--then," she said.

Somehow she could not be angry any longer. He had accepted her rebuke in
so docile a spirit. She did not wholly understand his attitude. Yet it
softened her.

"Why should I be sorry?" said Piers.

She answered him quickly and impulsively. "Because it isn't your nature
to deceive. You are too honest at heart to do it and be happy."

"Happy!" said Piers, an odd note of emotion in his voice. "Do you suppose
I'm ever that--or ever likely to be?"

She recoiled a little from the suppressed vehemence of his tone, but
almost instantly he put out his hand again to her with a gesture of
boyish persuasion.

"Don't rag me, Avery! I've had a filthy time lately. And when I saw you
cut and run at sight of me--I just couldn't stand it. I've been wanting
to answer your letter, but I couldn't."

"But why should you?" Avery broke in gently. "My letter was the answer
to yours."

She gave him her hand, because she could not help it.

He held it in a hungry clasp. "I know--I know," he said rather
incoherently. "It--it was very decent of you not to be angry. I believe I
let myself go rather--what? Thanks awfully for being so sweet about it!"

"My dear boy," Avery said, "you thank me for nothing! The matter is past.
Don't let us re-open it!"

She spoke with unconscious appeal. His hand squeezed hers in instant
response. "All right. We won't. And look here,--if you want me to tell my
grandfather that he has been building his castle in the air,--it'll mean
a row of course, but--I'll do it."

"Will you?" said Avery.

He nodded. "Yes--as you wish it. And may I come to tea with Jeanie
to-morrow?"

His dark eyes smiled suddenly into hers as he dropped her hand. She had a
momentary feeling of uncertainty as she met them--a sense of doubt that
disquieted her strangely. It was as if he had softly closed a door
against her somewhere in his soul.

With a curious embarrassment she answered him. "Jeanie has not been well
all the winter. Dr. Tudor has ordered a change, and we are going--she and
I--to Stanbury Cliffs to-morrow."

"Are you though?" He opened his eyes. "Just you and she, eh? What a
cosy party!"

"The other children will probably join us for the Easter holidays," Avery
said. "It's a nice place, they say. Do you know it?"

"I should think I do. Victor and I used to go there regularly when I was
a kid. It was there I learnt to swim."

"Who is Victor?" asked Avery, beginning to walk on up the hill.

"Victor? Oh, he's my French nurse--the best chap who ever walked. We are
great pals," laughed Piers. "And so you're off to-morrow, are you? Hope
you'll have a good time. Give my love to the kiddie! She isn't really
ill, what?"

"Dr. Tudor is not satisfied about her," Avery said.

"Oh, Tudor!" Piers spoke with instant disparagement. "I don't suppose
he's any good. What does he say anyway?"

"He is afraid of lung trouble," Avery said. "But we hope the change is
going to do wonders for her. Do you know, I think I must run in now? I
have several little jobs still to get through this evening."

Piers stopped at once. "Good-bye!" he said. "I'm glad I saw you. Take
care of yourself, Avery! And the next time you see me coming--don't
run away!"

He set his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle.
Pompey immediately began to execute an elaborate dance in the roadway,
rendering further conversation out of the question. Piers waved his cap
in careless adieu, and turned the animal round. In another moment he was
tearing down the lane at a gallop, and Avery was left looking after him
still with that curious sense of doubt lying cold at her heart.

The sight of a black, clerical figure emerging from the churchyard caused
her to turn swiftly and pursue her way to the Vicarage gate. But the
sounds of those galloping hoofs still wrought within her as she went.
They beat upon her spirit with a sense of swift-moving Destiny.



CHAPTER XXVIII

THE EVESHAM DEVIL


"Confound the boy!" said Sir Beverley.

He rose up from the black oak settle in the hall with a jerky movement of
irritation, and tramped to the front-door.

It had been one of those strange soft days that sometimes come in the
midst of blustering March storms, and though the sun had long gone down
the warmth still lingered. It might have been an evening in May.

He opened the great door with an impatient hand. What on earth was the
boy doing? Had he gone love-making to Wardenhurst? A grim smile touched
the old man's grim lips as this thought occurred to him. That he was not
wasting his time nearer home he was fairly convinced; for only that
morning he had heard from Lennox Tudor that the mother's help at the
Vicarage, over whom in the winter Piers had been inclined to make a fool
of himself, had taken one of the children away for a change. It seemed
more than probable by this time that Piers' wandering fancy had wholly
ceased to stray in her direction, but the news of her absence had caused
Sir Beverley undoubted satisfaction. He hoped his boy would not encounter
that impertinent, scheming woman again until he was safely engaged to Ina
Rose. That this engagement was imminent Sir Beverley was fully convinced.
His only wonder was that it had not taken place sooner. The two had been
thrown together almost daily during the sojourn of Colonel Rose and his
daughter at Mentone, and they had always seemed to enjoy each other's
society. Of course Sir Beverley did not like the girl. He actively
disliked the whole female species. But she belonged to the county, and
she seemed moreover to be a normal healthy young woman who would be the
mother of normal healthy children. And this was the sort of wife Piers
wanted. For Piers--drat the boy!--was not normal. He inherited a good
deal of his Italian grandmother's temperament as well as her beauty. And
life was not likely to be a very easy matter for him in consequence.

But an ordinary young English wife of his own rank would be a step in
the right direction. So reasoned Sir Beverley, who had taken that fatal
step in the wrong one in his youth and had never recovered the ground
thus lost.

Standing there at the open door, he dwelt upon his boy's future with a
kind of grim pleasure that was not unmixed with heartache. He and his
wife would have to go and live at the Dower House of course. No feminine
truck at the Abbey for him! But the lad should continue to manage the
estate with him. That would bring them in contact every day. He couldn't
do without that much. The evenings would be lonely enough. He pictured
the long silent dinners with a weary frown. How infernally lonely the
Abbey could be!

The steady tick of the clock in the corner forced itself upon his notice.
He swore at it under his breath, and went out upon the steps.

At the same instant a view-halloo from the dark avenue greeted him, and
in spite of himself his face softened.

"Hullo, you rascal!" he shouted back. "What the devil are you up to?"

Piers came running up, light-footed and alert. "I've been unlucky,"
he explained. "Had two punctures. I left the car at the garage and
came on as quickly as I could. I say, I'm awfully sorry. I've been
with Dick Guyes."

Sir Beverley growled inarticulately, and turned inwards. So he had not
been to the Roses' after all!

"Get along with you!" he said. "And dress as fast as you can!"

And Piers bounded past him and went up the stairs in three great leaps.
He seemed to have grown younger during the few days that had elapsed
since their return, more ardent, more keenly alive. The English spring
seemed to exhilarate him; but for the first time Sir Beverley began to
have his doubts as to the reason for his evident pleasure in returning.
What on earth had he been to see Guyes for? Guyes of all people--who was
well-known as one of Miss Ina's most devoted adorers!

It was evident that the news he desired to hear would not be imparted to
him that night, and Sir Beverley considered himself somewhat aggrieved in
consequence. He was decidedly short with Piers when he reappeared--a fact
which in no way disturbed his grandson's equanimity. He talked cheery
commonplaces throughout dinner without effort, regardless of Sir
Beverley's discouraging attitude, and it was not till dessert was placed
upon the table that he allowed his conversational energies to flag.

Then indeed, as David finally and ceremoniously withdrew, did he suddenly
seem to awake to the fact that conversation was no longer a vital
necessity, and forthwith dropped into an abrupt, uncompromising silence.

It lasted for a space of minutes during which neither of them stirred or
uttered a syllable, becoming at length ominous as the electric stillness
before the storm.

They came through it characteristically, Sir Beverley staring fixedly
before him under the frown that was seldom wholly absent from his face;
Piers, steady-eyed and intent, keenly watching the futile agonies of a
night-moth among the candles. There was about him a massive, statuesque
look in vivid contrast to the pulsing vitality of a few minutes before.

It was Sir Beverley who broke the silence at last with a species of
inarticulate snarl peculiarly his own. Piers' dark eyes were instantly
upon him, but he said nothing, merely waiting for the words to which this
sound was the preface.

Sir Beverley's brow was thunderous. He looked back at Piers with a
piercing grim regard.

"Well?" he said. "What fool idea have you got in your brain now? I
suppose I've got to hear it sooner or later."

It was not a conciliatory speech, yet Piers received it with no visible
resentment. "I don't know that I want to say anything very special," he
said, after a moment's thought.

"Oh, don't you?" growled Sir Beverley. "Then what are you thinking about?
Tell me that!"

Piers leaned back in his chair. "I was thinking about Dick Guyes," he
said. "He is dining at the Roses' to-night."

"Oh!" said Sir Beverley shortly.

A faint smile came at the corners of Piers' mouth. "He wants to propose
to Ina for about the hundred and ninetieth time," he said, "but doesn't
know if he can screw himself up to it. I told him not to be such a shy
ass. She is only waiting for him to speak."

"Eh?" said Sir Beverley.

A queer little dancing gleam leaped up in Piers' eyes--the gleam that
had invariably heralded some piece of especial devilry in the days of
his boyhood.

"I told him she was his for the asking, sir," he said coolly, "and
promised not to flirt with her any more till they were safely married."

"Damn you!" exclaimed Sir Beverley violently and without warning.

He had a glass of wine in front of him, and with the words his fingers
gripped the stem. In another second he would have hurled the liquid full
in Piers' face; but Piers was too quick for him. Quick as lightning, his
own hand shot out across the corner of the table and grasped the old
man's wrist.

"No, sir! No!" he said sternly.

They glared into each other's eyes, and Sir Beverley uttered a
furious oath; but after the first instinctive effort to free himself
he did no more.

At the end of possibly thirty seconds Piers took his hand away. He pushed
back his chair in the same movement and rose.

"Shall we talk in the library?" he said. "This room is hot."

Sir Beverley raised the wine-glass to his lips with a hand that shook,
and drained it deliberately.

"Yes," he said then, "We will--talk in the library."

He got up with an agility that he seldom displayed, and turned to the
door. As he went he glanced up suddenly at the softly mocking face on the
wall, and a sharp spasm contracted his harsh features. But he scarcely
paused. Without further words he left the room; and Piers followed, light
of tread, behind him.

The study windows stood wide open to the night. Piers crossed the room
and quietly closed them. Then, without haste and without hesitation, he
came to the table and stopped before it.

"I never intended to marry Ina Rose," he said. "I was only amusing
myself--and her."

"The devil you were!" ejaculated Sir Beverley.

Piers went on with the utmost steadiness. "We are not in the least
suited to one another, and we have the sense to realize it. The next time
Guyes asks her, I believe she will have him."

"Sense!" roared Sir Beverley. "Do you dare to talk to me of sense,
you--you blind fool? Mighty lot of sense you can boast of! And what the
devil does it matter whether you suit one another--as you call it--or
not, so long as you keep the whip-hand? You'll tell me next that you're
not--in love with her, I suppose?"

The bitterness of the last words seemed to shake him from head to foot.
He looked at Piers with the memory of a past torment in his eyes. And
because of it Piers turned away his own.

"It's quite true, sir," he said, in a low voice. "I am not--in love with
her. I never have been."

Sir Beverley's fist crashed down upon the table. "Love!" he thundered.
"Love! Do you want to make me sick? I tell you, sir, I would sooner see
you in your coffin than married to a woman with whom you imagined
yourself in love. Oh, I know what you have in your mind. I've known for a
long time. You're caught in the toils of that stiff-necked, scheming Judy
at the Vicarage, who--"

"Sir!" blazed forth Piers.

He leaned across the table with a face gone suddenly white, and struck
his own fist upon the polished oak with a passionate force that compelled
attention.

Sir Beverley ceased his tirade in momentary astonishment. Such violence
from Piers was unusual.

Instantly Piers went on speaking, his voice quick and low, quivering with
the agitation that he had no time to subdue. "I won't hear another word
on that subject! You hear me, sir? Not one word! It is sacred, and as
such I will have it treated."

But the check upon Sir Beverley was but brief, and the flame of his
anger burned all the more fiercely in consequence of it. He broke in upon
those few desperate words of Piers' with redoubled fury.

"You will have this, and you won't have that! Confound you! What the
devil do you mean? Are you master in this house, or am I?"

"I am master where my own actions are concerned," threw back Piers. "And
what I do--what I decide to do--is my affair alone."

Swiftly he uttered the words. His breathing came quick and short as the
breathing of a man hard pressed. He seemed to be holding back every
straining nerve with a blind force that was physical rather than mental.

He drew himself suddenly erect as he spoke. He had flung down the
gauntlet of his independence at last, and with clenched hands he waited
for the answer to his challenge.

It came upon him like a whirlwind. Sir Beverley uttered an oath that fell
with the violence of a blow, and after it a tornado of furious speech
against which it was futile to attempt to raise any protest. He could
only stand as it were at bay, like an animal protecting its own,
fiery-veined, quivering, yet holding back from the spring.

Not for any insult to himself would he quit that attitude. He was
striving desperately to keep his self-control. He had been within an ace
of losing it, as the blood that oozed over his closed fist testified;
but, for the sake of that manhood which he was seeking to assert, he made
a Titanic effort to command himself.

And Sir Beverley, feeling the dumb strength that opposed him, resenting
the forbearance with which he was confronted, infuriated by the
unexpected force of the boy's resistance, turned with a snarl to seize
and desecrate that which he had been warned was holy.

"As for this designing woman, I tell you, she is not for you,--not, that
is, in any honourable sense. If you choose to make a fool of her, that's
your affair. I suppose you'll sow the usual crop of wild oats before
you've done. But as to marrying her--"

"By God, sir!" broke in Piers passionately. "Do you imagine that I
propose to do anything else?"

The words came from him like a cry wrung from a man in torture, and as he
uttered them the last of his self-control slipped from his grasp. With a
face gone suddenly devilish, he strode round the table and stood before
his grandfather, furiously threatening.

"I have warned you!" he said, and his voice was low, sunk almost to a
whisper. "You can say what you like of me. I'm used to it. But--if you
speak evil of her--I'll treat you as I would any other blackguard who
dared to insult her. And now that we are on the subject, I will tell you
this. If I do not marry this woman whom I love--I swear that I will
never marry at all! That is my final word!"

He hurled the last sentence in Sir Beverley's face, and with it he would
have swung round upon his heel; but something in that face detained him.

Sir Beverley's eyes were shining with an icy, intolerable sparkle. His
thin lips were drawn in the dreadful semblance of a smile. He was
half-a-head taller than Piers, and he seemed to tower above him in that
moment of conflict.

"Wait a minute!" he said. "Wait a minute!"

His right hand was feeling along the leathern surface of the
writing-table, but neither his eyes nor Piers' followed the movement.
They held each other in a fixed, unalterable glare.

There followed several moments of complete and terrible silence--a
silence more fraught with violence than any speech.

Then, with a slight jerk, Sir Beverley leaned towards Piers. "So," he
said, "you defy me, do you?"

His voice was as grim as his look. A sudden, odd sense of fear went
through Piers. Sharply the thought ran through his mind that the same
Evesham devil possessed them both. It was as if he had caught a glimpse
of the monster gibing at his elbow, goading him, goading them, both.

He made a sharp, involuntary movement; he almost flinched from those
pitiless, stony eyes.

"Ha!" Sir Beverley uttered a brief and very bitter laugh. "You've begun
to think better of it, eh?"

"No, sir." Curtly Piers made answer, speaking because he must. "I meant
what I said, and I shall stick to it. But it wasn't for the sake of
defying you that I said it. I have a better reason than that."

He was still quivering with anger, yet because of that gibing devil at
his elbow he strove to speak temperately, strove to hold back the raging
flood of fierce resentment that threatened to overwhelm him.

As for Sir Beverley, he had never attempted to control himself in moments
such as these, and he did not attempt to do so now. Before Piers' words
were fairly uttered, he had raised his right hand and in it a stout,
two-foot ruler that he had taken from the writing-table.

"Take that then, you young dog!" he shouted, and struck Piers furiously,
as he stood. "And that! And that!"

The third blow never fell. It was caught in mid-air by Piers who, with
eyes that literally flamed in his white face, sprang straight at his
grandfather, and closed with him.

There was a brief--a very brief--struggle, then a gasping oath from Sir
Beverley as the ruler was torn from his grasp. The next moment he was
free and tottering blindly. Piers, with an awful smile, swung the weapon
back as if he would strike him down with it. Then, as Sir Beverley
clutched instinctively at the nearest chair for support, he flung
savagely round on his heel, altering his purpose. There followed the loud
crack of rending wood as he broke the ruler passionately across his knee,
putting forth all his strength, and the clatter of the falling fragments
as he hurled them violently from him.

And then in a silence more dreadful than any speech, he strode to the
door and went out, crashing it furiously shut behind him.

Sir Beverley, grown piteously feeble, sank down in the chair, and
remained there huddled and gasping for many dragging minutes.



CHAPTER XXIX

A WATCH IN THE NIGHT


He came at last out of what had almost been a stupor of inertia, sat
slowly up, turned his brooding eyes upon the door through which Piers had
passed. A tremor of anger crossed his face, and was gone. A grim smile
took its place. He still panted spasmodically; but he found his voice.

"Egad!" he said. "The fellow's as strong as a young bear. He's
hugged--all the wind--out of my vitals."

He struggled to his feet, straightening his knees with difficulty, one
hand pressed hard to his labouring heart.

"Egad!" he gasped again. "He's getting out of hand--the cub! But he'll
come to heel,--he'll come to heel! I know the rascal!"

He stumbled to the bell and rang it.

David appeared with a promptitude that seemed to indicate a certain
uneasiness.

"Coffee!" growled his master. "And liqueur!"

David departed at as high a rate of speed as decorum would permit.

During his absence Sir Beverley set himself rigidly to recover his normal
demeanour. The encounter had shaken him, shaken him badly; but he was not
the man to yield to physical weakness. He fought it with angry
determination.

Before David's reappearance he had succeeded in controlling his gasping
breath, though the hand with which he helped himself shook very
perceptibly.

There were two cups on the tray. David lingered.

"You can go," said Sir Beverley.

David cocked one eyebrow in deferential enquiry. "Master Piers in the
garden, sir?" he ventured. "Shall I find him?"

"No!" snapped Sir Beverley.

"Very good, sir." David turned regretfully to the door. "Shall I keep the
coffee hot, Sir Beverley?" he asked, as he reached it, with what was
almost a pleading note in his voice.

Sir Beverley's frown became as menacing as a thunder-cloud. "No!"
he shouted.

David nodded in melancholy submission and withdrew.

Sir Beverley sat down heavily in his chair and slowly drank his coffee.
Finally he put aside the empty cup and sat staring at the closed door,
his brows drawn heavily together.

How had the young beggar dared to defy him so? He must have been getting
out of hand for some time by imperceptible degrees. He had always vowed
to himself that he would not spoil the boy. Had that resolution of his
become gradually relaxed? His frown grew heavier. He had never before
contemplated the possibility that Piers might some day become an
individual force utterly beyond his control.

His eye fell upon a fragment of the broken ruler lying under the table
and again grimly he smiled.

"Confound the scamp! He's got some muscle," he murmured.

Again his look went to the door. Why didn't the young fool come back and
apologize? How much longer did he mean to keep him waiting?

The minutes dragged away, and the silence of emptiness gathered and
brooded in the great room and about the master of the house who sat
within it, with bent head, waiting.

It was close upon ten o'clock when at length he rose and irritably
rang the bell.

"See if you can find Master Piers!" he said to David. "He can't be far
away. Look in the drawing-room! Look in the garden! Tell him I want him!"

David withdrew upon the errand, and again the oppressive silence drew
close. For a long interval Sir Beverley sat quite motionless, still
staring at the door as though he expected Piers to enter at any moment.
But when at length it opened, it was only to admit David once more.

"I'm sorry to say I can't find Master Piers anywhere in the house or
garden, Sir Beverley," he said, looking straight before him and blinking
vacantly at the lamp. "I'm inclined to believe, sir, that he must have
gone into the park."

Sir Beverley snarled inarticulately and dismissed him.

During the hour that followed, he did not move from his chair, and
scarcely changed his position. But at last, as the stable-clock was
tolling eleven, he rose stiffly and walked to the window. It was
fastened; he dragged at the catch with impatient fingers.

His face was haggard and grey as he finally thrust up the sash, and
leaned out with his hands on the sill.

The night was very still all about him. It might have been a night in
June. Only very far away a faint breeze was stirring, whispering
furtively in the bare boughs of the elm trees that bordered the park.
Overhead the stars shone dimly behind a floating veil of mist, and
from the garden sleeping at his feet there arose a faint, fugitive
scent of violets.

The old man's face contracted as at some sudden sense of pain as that
scent reached his nostrils. His mouth twitched with a curious tremor,
and he covered it with his hand as though he feared some silent
watcher in that sleeping world might see and mock his weakness. That
violet-bed beneath the window had been planted fifty years before at
the whim of a woman.

"We must have a great many violets," she had said. "They are sweeter than
all the roses in the world. Next year I must have handfuls and handfuls
of sweetness."

And the next year the violets had bloomed in the chosen corner, but her
hands had not gathered them. And they had offered their magic ever since,
year after year--even as they offered it tonight--to a heart that was too
old and too broken to care.

Fifty years before, Sir Beverley had stood at that same window waiting
and listening in the spring twilight for the beloved footfall of the
woman who was never again to enter his house. They had had a
disagreement, he had spoken harshly, he had been foolishly, absurdly
jealous; for her wonderful beauty, her quick, foreign charm drew all the
world. But, returning from a long ride that had lasted all day, he had
entered with the desire to make amends, to win her sweet and gracious
forgiveness. She had forgiven him before. She had laughed with a sweet,
elusive mockery and passed the matter by as of no importance. It had
seemed a foregone conclusion that she would forgive him again, would
reassure him, and set his mind at rest. But he had come back to an empty
house--every door gaping wide and the beloved presence gone.

So he had waited for her, expecting her every moment, refusing to believe
the truth that nevertheless had forced itself upon him at the last. So
now he waited for her grandson--the boy with her beauty, her quick and
generous charm, her passionate, emotional nature--to come back to him.
And yet again he waited in vain.

Piers had gone forth in fierce anger, driven by that devil that had
descended to him through generations of stiff-necked ancestors; and for
the first time in all his hot young life he had not returned repentant.

"I treated him like a dog, egad," murmured Sir Beverley into the
shielding hand. "But he'll come back. He always comes back, the scamp."

But the minutes crawled by, the night-wind rustled and passed; and still
Piers did not come.

It was hard on midnight when Sir Beverley suddenly raised both hands to
his mouth and sent a shrill, peculiar whistle through them across the
quiet garden. It had been his special call for Piers in his childhood.
Even as he sent it out into the darkness, he seemed to see the sturdy,
eager little figure that had never failed to answer that summons with
delight racing headlong towards him over the dim, dewy lawn.

But to-night it brought no answer though he repeated it again and yet
again; and as twelve o'clock struck heavily upon the stillness he turned
from the window and groaned aloud. The boy had gone, gone for good, as he
might have known he would go. He had driven him forth with blows and
bitter words, and it was out of his power to bring him back again.

Slowly he crossed the room and rang the bell. He was very cold, and he
shivered as he moved.

It was Victor who answered the summons, Victor with round, vindictive
eyes that openly accused him for a moment, and then softened inexplicably
and looked elsewhere.

"You ask me for _Monsieur Pierre_?" he said, spreading out his hands,
"_Mais--_"

"I didn't ask for anything," growled Sir Beverley. "I rang the bell to
tell you and all the other fools to lock up and go to bed."

"But--me!" ejaculated Victor, rolling his eyes upwards in astonishment.

"Yes, you! Where's the sense of your sitting up? Master Piers knows how
to undress himself by this time, I suppose?"

Sir Beverley scowled at him aggressively, but Victor did not even see the
scowl. Like a hen with one chick, and that gone astray, he could think of
naught beside.

"_Mais Monsieur Pierre_ is not here! Where then is _Monsieur Pierre?_" he
questioned in distress.

"How the devil should I know?" snarled Sir Beverley. "Stop your chatter
and be off with you! Shut the window first, and then go and tell David to
lock up! I shan't want anything more to-night."

Victor shrugged his shoulders in mute protest, and went to the window.
Here he paused, looking forth with eyes of eager searching till recalled
to his duty by a growl of impatience from his master. Then with a
celerity remarkable in one of his years and rotundity, he quickly popped
in his head and closed the window.

"Leave the blind!" ordered Sir Beverley. "And the catch too! There! Now
go! _Allez-vous-en!_? Don't let me see you again to-night!"

Victor threw a single shrewd glance at the drawn face, and trotted with a
woman's nimbleness to the door. Here he paused, executed a stiff bow;
then wheeled and departed. The door closed noiselessly behind him, and
again Sir Beverley was left alone.

He dragged a chair to the window, and sat down to watch.

Doubtless the boy would return when he had walked off his indignation. He
would be sure to see the light in the study, and he would come to him for
admittance. He himself would receive him with a gruff word or two of
admonition and the whole affair should be dismissed. Grimly he pictured
the scene to himself as, ignoring the anxiety that was growing within
him, he settled himself to his lonely vigil.

Slowly the night dragged on. A couple of owls were hooting to one another
across the garden, and far away a dog barked at intervals. Old Sir
Beverley never stirred in his chair. His limbs were rigid, his eyes fixed
and watchful. But his face was grey--grey and stricken and incredibly
old. He had the look of a man who carried a burden too heavy to be borne.

One after another he heard the hours strike, but his position never
altered, his eyes never varied, his face remained as though carved in
granite--a graven image of despair. Unspeakable weariness was in his
pose, and yet he did not relax or yield a hair's breadth to the body's
importunity. He suffered too bitterly in the spirit that night to be
aware of physical necessity.

Slowly the long hours passed. The night began to wane. A faint grey
glimmer, scarcely perceptible, came down from a mist-veiled sky. The wind
that had sunk to stillness came softly back and wandered to and fro as
though to rouse the sleeping world. Behind the mist the stars went out,
and from the rookery in the park a hoarse voice suddenly proclaimed the
coming day.

The grey light grew. In the garden ghostly shapes arose, phantoms of the
dawn that gradually resolved into familiar forms of tree and shrub. From
the rookery there swelled a din of many raucous voices. The dog in the
distance began to bark again with feverish zest, and from the stables
came Caesar's cheery answering yell.

The mist drifted away from the face of the sky. A brightness was growing
there. Stiffly, painfully, Sir Beverley struggled up from his chair,
stood steadying himself--a figure tragic and forlorn--with his hands
against the wood of the window-frame, then with a groaning effort thrust
up the sash.

Violets! Violets! The haunting scent of them rose to greet him. The air
was full of their magic fragrance. For a second he was aware of it; he
almost winced. And then in a moment he had forgotten. He stood there
motionless--a desolate old man, bowed and shrunken and grey--staring
blindly out before him, unconscious of all things save the despair that
had settled in his heart.

The night had passed and his boy had not returned.



CHAPTER XXX

THE CONFLICT


Stanbury Cliffs was no more than a little fishing-town at the foot of the
sandy cliff--a sheltered nest of a place in which the sound of the waves
was heard all day long, but which no bitter wind could reach. The peace
of it was balm to Avery's spirit. She revelled in its quiet.

Jeanie loved it too. She delighted in the freedom and the warmth, and
almost from the day of their arrival her health began to improve.

They had their quarters in what was little more than a two-storey
cottage belonging to one of the fishermen, and there was only a tiny
garden bright with marigolds between them and the shore. Day after day
they went through the little wicket gate down a slope of loose sand to
the golden beach where they spent the sunny hours in perfect happiness.
The waves that came into the bay were never very rough, though they
sometimes heard them raging outside with a fury that filled the whole
world with its roaring. Jeanie called it "the desired haven," and
confided to Avery that she was happier than she had ever been in her
life before.

Avery was happy too, but with a difference; for she knew in her secret
heart that the days of her tranquillity were numbered. She knew with a
woman's sure instinct that the interval of peace would be but brief,
that with or without her will she must soon be drawn back again into
the storm and stress of life. And knowing it, she waited, strengthening
her defences day by day, counting each day as a respite while she
devoted herself to the child and rejoiced to see the change so quickly
wrought in her. Tudor's simile of the building of a sea-wall often
recurred to her. She told herself that the foundation thereof should be
as secure as human care could make it, so that when the tide came back
it should stand the strain.

The Vicar would have been shocked beyond words by the life of complete
indulgence led by his small daughter. She breakfasted in bed every day,
served by Avery who was firm as to the amount of nourishment taken but
comfortably lax on all other points. When the meal was over, Avery
generally went marketing while Jeanie dressed, and they then went to the
shore. If there were no marketing to be done, Avery would go down to the
beach alone and wait for her there. There was a sheltered corner that
they both loved where, protected by towering rocks, they spent many a
happy hour. It was just out of reach of the sea, exposed to the sun and
sheltered from the wind--an ideal spot; and here they brought letters,
books, or needlework, and were busy or idle according to their moods.

Jeanie was often idle. She used to lie in the soft sand and dream, with
her eyes on the far horizon; but of what she dreamed she said no word
even to Avery. But she was always happy. Her smile was always ready, the
lines of her mouth were always set in perfect content. She seemed to have
all she desired at all times. They did not often stray from the shore,
for she was easily tired; but they used to roam along it and search the
crevices of the scattered rocks which held all manner of treasures. They
spent the time in complete accord. It was too good to last, Avery told
herself. The way had become too easy.

It was on a morning about a week after their arrival that she went down
at an early hour to their favourite haunt. There had been rain in the
night, and a brisk west wind was blowing; but she knew that in that
sheltered spot they would be protected, and Jeanie was pledged to join
her there as soon as she was ready. The tide was coming in, and the sun
shone amidst scudding white clouds. It was a morning on which to be happy
for no other reason than lightness of heart; and Avery, with her work-bag
on her arm, sang softly to herself as she went.

As usual she met no one. It was a secluded part of the shore. The little
town was out of sight on the other side of a rocky promontory, and the
place was lonely to desolation.

But Avery did not feel the loneliness. She had had a letter only that
morning from Crowther, the friend of those far-off Australian days, and
he expressed a hope of being able to pay her a flying visit at Stanbury
Cliffs before settling down to work in grim earnest for the
accomplishment of his life's desire. She would have welcomed Edmund
Crowther at any time. He was the sort of friend whose coming could never
bring anything but delight.

She wondered as she walked along which day he would choose. She was
rather glad that he had not fixed a definite date. It was good to feel
that any day might bring him.

Nearing her destination she became aware of light feet running on the
firm sand behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, but the sun shone
full in her eyes, and she only managed to discern vaguely a man's figure
drawing near. He could not be pursuing her, she decided, and resumed her
walk and her thoughts of Crowther--the friend who had stood by her at a
time when she had been practically friendless.

But the running feet came nearer and nearer. She suddenly realized that
they meant to overtake her, and with the knowledge the old quick dread
pierced her heart. She wheeled abruptly round and stood still.

He was there, not a dozen yards from her. He hailed her as she turned.

She clenched her hands with sudden determination and went to meet him.

"Piers!" she said, and in her voice reproach and severity were
oddly mingled.

But Piers was unabashed. He ran swiftly up to her, and caught her
hands into his with an impetuous rush of words. "Here you are at last!
I've been waiting for you for hours. But I was in the water when you
first appeared, and I hadn't any towels, or I should have caught you
up before."

He was laughing as he spoke, but it seemed to Avery that there was
something not quite normal about him. His black hair lay in a wet plaster
on his forehead, and below it his eyes glittered oddly, as if he were
putting some force upon himself.

"How in the world did you get here?" she said.

He laughed again between his teeth. "I tell you, I've been here for
hours. I came last night. But I couldn't knock you up at two in the
morning. So I had to wait. How are you and Jeanie getting on?"

Avery gravely withdrew her hands, and turned to pursue her way towards
her rocky resting-place. "Jeanie is better," she said, in a voice that
did not encourage any further solicitude on either Jeanie's behalf or
her own.

Piers marched beside her, a certain doggedness in his gait. The laughter
had died out of his face. He looked pale and stern, and fully as
determined as she.

"Why didn't you tell us to expect you?" Avery asked at last.

"Were you not expecting me?" he returned, and his voice had the sharpness
of a challenge.

She looked at him steadily for a moment or two, meeting eyes that flung
back her scrutiny with grim defiance.

"Of course I was not expecting you," she said.

"And yet you were not--altogether--surprised to see me," he rejoined, a
faint jeering echo in his voice.

Avery walked on till she reached her sheltered corner. Then she laid her
work-bag down in the accustomed place, and very resolutely turned and
faced him.

"Tell me why you have come!" she said.

He gazed at her for a moment fiercely from under his black brows; then
suddenly and disconcertingly he seized her by the wrists.

"I'll tell you," he said, speaking rapidly, with feverish utterance.
"I've come because--before Heaven--I can't keep away. Avery, listen to
me! Yes, you must listen. I've come because I must, because you are all
the world to me and I want you unutterably. I don't believe--I can't
believe--that I am nothing to you. You can't with honesty tell me so. I
love you with all my soul, with all there is of me, good and bad.
Avery--Avery, say you love me too!"

Just for an instant the arrogance went out of his voice, and it sank to
pleading. But Avery stood mute before him, very pale, desperately calm.
She made not the faintest attempt to free herself, but her hands were
hard clenched. There was nothing passive in her attitude.

He was aware of strong resistance, but it only goaded him to further
effort. He lifted the clenched hands and held them tight against his
heart.

"You needn't try to cast me off," he said, "for I simply won't go. I know
you care. You wouldn't have taken the trouble to write that letter if you
didn't. And so listen! I've come now to marry you. We can go up to town
to-day,--Jeanie too, if you like. And to-morrow--to-morrow we will be
married by special licence. I've thought it all out. You can't refuse. I
have money of my own--plenty of money. And you belong to me already.
It's no good trying to deny it any more. You are my mate--my mate; and I
won't try to live without you any longer!"

Wildly the words rushed out, spending themselves as it were upon utter
silence. Avery's hands were no longer clenched. They lay open against his
breast, and the mad beating of his heart thrilled through and through her
as she stood.

He bent towards her eagerly, passionately. His hands reached out to clasp
her; yet he paused. "Avery! Avery!" he whispered very urgently.

Her eyes were raised to his, grey and steady and fearless. Not by the
smallest gesture did she seek to escape him. She suffered the hands upon
her shoulders. She suffered the fiery passion of his gaze.

Only at last very clearly, very resolutely, she spoke. "Piers--no!"

His face was close to hers, glowing and vital and tensely determined. "I
say 'Yes,'" he said, with brief decision.

Avery was silent. His hands were drawing her, and still she did not
resist; but in those moments of silent inactivity she was stronger than
he. Her personality was at grips with his, and if she gained no ground at
least she held her own.

"Avery!" he said suddenly and sharply. "What's the matter with you? Why
don't you speak?"

"I am waiting," she said.

"Waiting!" he echoed. "Waiting for what?"

"Waiting for you to come to yourself, Piers," she made steadfast answer.

He laughed at that, a quick, insolent laugh. "Do you think I don't know
what I'm doing, then?"

"I am quite sure," she answered, "that when you know, you will be more
ashamed than any honourable man should ever have reason to be."

He winced at the words. She saw the hot blood surge in a great wave to
his forehead, and she quailed inwardly though outwardly she made no sign.
His grip was growing every instant more compelling. She knew that he was
bracing himself for one great effort that should batter down the strength
that withstood him. His lips were so close to hers that she could feel
his breath, quick and hot, upon her face. And still she made no struggle
for freedom, knowing instinctively that the instant her self-control
yielded, the battle was lost.

Slowly the burning flush died away under her eyes. His face changed, grew
subtly harder, less passionate. "So," he said, with an odd quietness,
"I'm not to kiss you. It would be dishonourable, what?"

She made unflinching reply. "It would be despicable and you know it--to
kiss any woman against her will."

"Would it be against your will?" he asked.

"Yes, it would." Firmly she answered him, yet a quiver of agitation went
through her. She felt her resolution begin to waver.

But in that moment something in Piers seemed to give way also. He cried
out to her as if in sudden, intolerable pain. "Avery! Avery! Are you made
of stone? Can't you see that this is life or death to me?"

She answered him instantly; it was almost as if she had been waiting for
that cry of his. "Yes, but you must get the better of it. You can if you
will. It is unworthy of you. You are trying to take what is not yours.
You have made a mistake, and you are wronging yourself and me."

"What?" he exclaimed. "You don't love me then!"

He flung his arms wide upon the words, with a gesture of the most utter
despair, and turned from her. A moment he stood swaying, as if bereft of
all his strength; and then with abrupt effort he began to move away. He
stumbled blindly, heavily, as he went, and the crying of the wheeling
sea-gulls came plaintively through a silence that could be felt.

But ere that silence paralysed her, Avery spoke, raising her voice, for
the urgency was great.

"Piers, stop!"

He stopped instantly, but he did not turn, merely stood tensely waiting.

She collected herself and went after him. She laid a hand that trembled
on his arm.

"Don't leave me like this!" she said.

Slowly he turned his head and looked at her, and the misery of that look
went straight to her heart. All the woman's compassion in her throbbed up
to the surface. She found herself speaking with a tenderness which a
moment before no power on earth would have drawn from her.

"Piers, something is wrong; something has happened. Won't you tell me
what it is?"

"I can't," he said.

His lower lip quivered unexpectedly and she saw his teeth bite savagely
upon it. "I'd better go," he said.

But her hand still held his arm. "No; wait!" she said. "You can't go like
this. Piers, what is the matter with you? Tell me!"

He hesitated. She saw that his self-control was tottering. Abruptly at
length he spoke. "I can't. I'm not master of myself. I--I--" He broke off
short and became silent.

"I knew you weren't," she said, and then, acting upon an impulse which
she knew instinctively that she would never regret, she gave him her
other hand also. "Let us forget all this!" she said.

It was generously spoken, so generously that it could not fail to take
effect. He looked at her in momentary surprise, began to speak, stopped,
and with a choked, unintelligible utterance took her two hands with the
utmost reverence into his own, and bowed his forehead upon them. The
utter abandonment of the action revealed to her in that moment how
completely he had made her the dominating influence of his life.

"Shall we sit down and talk?" she said gently.

She could not be other than gentle with him. The appeal of his
weakness was greater than any display of strength. She could not but
respond to it.

He set her free and dropped down heavily upon a rock, leaning his head in
his hands.

She waited a few moments beside him; then, as he remained silent, she
bent towards him.

"Piers, what is it?"

With a sharp movement he straightened himself, and turned his face
to the sea.

"I'm a fool," he said, speaking with an odd, unsteady vehemence. "Fact
is, I've been out all night on this beastly shore. I've walked miles. And
I suppose I'm tired."

He made the confession with a shamefaced laugh, still looking away to
the horizon.

"All night!" Avery repeated in astonishment. "But, Piers!"

He nodded several times, emphatically. "And those infernal sea-birds have
been squawking along with those thrice-accursed crows ever since
day-break. I'd like to wring their ugly necks, every jack one of 'em!"

Avery laughed in spite of herself. "We all feel peevish sometimes," she
said, as one of the offenders sailed over-head with a melancholy cry.
"But haven't you had any breakfast? You must be starving."

"I am!" said Piers. "I feel like a wolf. But you needn't be afraid to sit
down. I shan't gobble you up this time."

She heard the boyish appeal in his voice and almost unconsciously she
yielded to it. She sat down on the rock beside him, but he instantly
slipped from it and stretched himself in a dog-like attitude at her feet.

His chin was propped in his hands, his face turned to the white sand on
which he lay. She looked down at his black head with more than compassion
in her eyes. It was horribly difficult to snub this boy-lover of hers.

She sat and waited silently for him to speak.

He dropped one hand at length and began to dig his brown fingers into the
powdery sand with irritable energy; but a minute or more passed before
very grumpily he spoke.

"I've had a row with my grandfather. We both of us behaved like wild
beasts. In the end, he thought he was going to give me a caning, and that
was more than I could stand. I smashed his ruler for him and bolted. I
should have struck him with it if I hadn't. And after that, I cleared out
and came here. And I'm not going back."

So with blunt defiance he made the announcement, and as he did so, it
came to Avery suddenly and quite convincingly that she had been the
cause of the quarrel. A shock of dismay went through her. She had not
anticipated this. She felt that the suspicion must be verified or
refuted at once.

"Piers," she said quickly, "why did you quarrel with your grandfather?
Was it because of your affair with Miss Rose?"

"I never had an affair with Miss Rose," said Piers rather sullenly. He
dug up a small stone, and flung it with vindictive force at the face of
the cliff. "Ask her, if you don't believe me!"

He paused a moment, then went on in a dogged note: "I told him--of a
certain intention of mine. He tackled me about it first, was absolutely
intolerable. I just couldn't hold myself in. And then somehow we got
violent. It was his fault. Anyway, he began it."

"You haven't told me--yet--what you quarrelled about," said Avery, with a
sinking heart.

He shrugged his shoulders without looking at her. "It doesn't matter,
does it?"

She made answer with a certain firmness. "Yes, I think it does."

"Well, then,"--abruptly he raised himself and faced round, his dark eyes
raised to hers,--"I told him, Avery, that if I couldn't marry the woman I
loved, I would never marry at all."

There was no sullenness about him now, only steadfast purpose. He looked
her full in the face as he said it, and she quivered a little before the
mastery of his look.

He laid a hand upon her knee as she sat above him in sore perplexity.
"Would you have me do anything else?" he said.

She answered him with a conscious effort. "I want you to love--and
marry--the right woman."

He uttered a queer, unsteady laugh and leaned his head against her. "Oh,
my dear," he said, "there is no other woman but you in all the world."

Something fiery that was almost like a dart of pain went through Avery at
his words. She moved instinctively, but it was not in shrinking. After a
moment she laid her hand upon his.

"Piers," she said, "I can't bear hurting you."

"You wouldn't hurt a fly," said Piers.

She smiled faintly. "Not if I could help it. But that doesn't prove that
I am fond of flies. And now, Piers, I am going to ask a very big thing of
you. I wonder if you will do it."

"I wonder," said Piers.

He had not moved at her touch, yet she felt his fingers close tensely
as they lay upon her knee, and she guessed that he was still striving to
control the inner tumult that had so nearly overwhelmed him a few
minutes before.

"I know it is a big thing," she said. "Yet--for my sake if you like--I
want you to do it."

"I will do anything for your sake," he made passionate answer.

"Thank you," she said gently. "Then, Piers, I want you--please--to go
back to Sir Beverley at once, and make it up."

He withdrew his hand sharply from hers, and sat up, turning his back upon
her. "No!" he said harshly. "No!"

"Please, Piers!" she said very earnestly.

He locked his arms round his knees and sat in silence, staring moodily
out to sea.

"Please, Piers!" she said again, and lightly touched his shoulder with
her fingers.

He hunched the shoulder away from her with a gesture of boyish
impatience, and then abruptly, as if realizing what he had done, he
turned back to her, caught the hand, and pressed it to his lips.

"I'm a brute, dear. Forgive me! Of course--if you wish it--I'll go back.
But as to making it up, well--" he gulped once or twice--"it doesn't rest
only with me, you know."

"Oh, Piers," she said, "you are all he has. He couldn't be hard to you!"

Piers smiled a wry smile, and said nothing.

"Besides," she went on gently, "there is really nothing for you to
quarrel about,--that is, if I am the cause of the trouble. It is
perfectly natural that your grandfather should wish you to make a
suitable marriage, perfectly natural that he should not want you to run
after the wrong woman. You can tell him, Piers, that I absolutely see his
point of view, but that so far as I am concerned, he need not be
anxious. It is not my intention to marry again."

"All right," said Piers.

He gave her hand a little shake and released it. For a second--only a
second--she caught a sparkle in his eyes that seemed to her almost like
a gleam of mockery. And then with characteristic suddenness he sprang
to his feet.

"Well, I'd better be going," he said in a voice that was perfectly normal
and free from agitation. "I can't stop to see the kiddie this time. I'm
glad she's going on all right. I wonder when you'll be back again."

"Not at present, I think," said Avery, trying not to be disconcerted by
his abruptness.

He looked down at her whimsically. "You're a good sort, Avery," he said.
"I won't be so violent next time."

"There mustn't be a next time," she said quickly. "Please Piers, that
must be quite understood!"

"All right," he said again. "I understand."

And with that very suddenly he left her, so suddenly that she sat
motionless on her rock and stared after him, not believing that he was
really taking his leave.

He did not turn his head, however, and very soon he passed round the
jutting headland, and was gone from her sight. Only when that
happened did she draw a long, long breath and realize how much of her
strength had been spent to gain what after all appeared to be but a
very barren victory.



CHAPTER XXXI

THE RETURN


"_Ah! C'est Monsieur Pierre enfin!_" Eagerly Victor greeted the
appearance of his young master. He looked as if he would have liked to
embrace him.

Piers' attitude, however, did not encourage any display of tenderness.
He flung himself gloomily down into a chair and regarded the man with
sombre eyes.

"Where's Sir Beverley?" he said.

Victor spread forth expressive hands. _"Mais_, Sir Beverley, he sit up
all the night attending you, _mon petit monsieur. Et moi_, I sit up also.
_Mais Monsieur Pierre! Monsieur Pierre!"_

He began to shake his head at Piers in fond reproof, but Piers paid no
attention.

"Sat up all night, what?" he said. "Then where is he now? In bed?"

There was a deep line between his black brows; all the gaiety and sparkle
had gone from his eyes. He looked tired out.

It was close upon the luncheon-hour, and he had tramped up from the
station. There were refreshments in front of him, but he bluntly refused
to touch them.

"Why can't you speak, man?" he said irritably. "Tell me where he is!"

"He has gone for his ride as usual," Victor said, speaking through pursed
lips. "But he is very, very feeble to-day, _Monsieur Pierre_. We beg him
not to go. But what would you? He is the master. We could not stop him.
But he sit in his saddle--like this."

Victor's gesture descriptive of the bent, stricken figure that had ridden
forth that morning was painfully true to life.

Piers sprang to his feet. "And he isn't back yet? Where on earth can he
be? Which way did he go?"

Victor raised his shoulders. "He go down the drive--as always. _Apres
cela, je ne sais pas._"

"Confusion!" ejaculated Piers, and was gone.

He had returned by a short cut across the park, but now he tore down
the long avenue, running like a trained athlete, head up and elbows in,
possessed by the single purpose of reaching the lodge in as brief a
time as possible. They would know at the lodge which way his
grandfather had gone.

He found Marshall just turning in at his gate for the midday meal, and
hailed him without ceremony.

The old man stopped and surveyed him with sour disapproval. The news of
Piers' abrupt disappearance on the previous night had spread.

No, Marshall could give him no news as to the master's whereabouts; he
had been out all the morning.

"Well, find Mrs. Marshall!" ordered Piers impatiently. "She'll know
something. She must have opened the gate."

Mrs. Marshall, summoned by a surly yell from her husband, stood in the
door-way, thin-lipped and austere, and announced briefly that Sir
Beverley had gone down towards the Vicarage; she didn't know no more
than that.

It was enough for Piers. He was gone again like a bird on the wing. The
couple at the lodge looked after him with a species of unwilling
admiration. His very arrogance fed their pride in him, disapprove
though they might of his wild, foreign ways. Whatever the mixture in
his veins, the old master's blood ran there, and they would always be
loyal to that.

That run to the Vicarage taxed even Piers' powers. The steep hill at the
end made him aware that his strength had its limits, and he was forced to
pause for breath when he reached the top. He leaned against the Vicarage
gate-post with the memory of that winter evening in his mind when Avery
had come swift-footed to the rescue, and had cooled his fury with a
bucket of cold water.

A step in the garden made him straighten himself abruptly. He turned to
see a tall, black-coated figure emerge. The Reverend Stephen Lorimer came
up with dignity and greeted him.

"Were you about to enter my humble abode?" he enquired.

"Is my grandfather here?" asked Piers.

Mr. Lorimer smiled benignly. He liked to imagine himself upon terms of
intimacy with Sir Beverley though the latter did very little to
justify the idea.

"Well, no," he said, "I have not had the pleasure of seeing him here
to-day. Did he express the intention of paying me a visit?"

"No, sir, no!" said Piers impatiently. "I only thought it possible,
that's all. Good-bye!"

He swung round and departed, leaving the worthy Vicar looking after him
with a shrewd and not over-friendly smile at the corners of his eyes.

Beyond the Vicarage the road wound round again to the park, and Piers
followed it. It led to a gate that opened upon a riding which was a
favourite stretch for a gallop with both Sir Beverley and himself.
Through this he passed, no longer running, but striding over the springy,
turf between the budding beech saplings at a pace that soon took him into
the heart of the woodland.

Pressing on, he came at length to a cross-riding, and here on boggy
ground he discovered recent hoof-marks. There were a good many of them,
and he was puzzled for a time as to the direction they had taken. The
animal seemed to have wandered to and fro. But he found a continuous
track at length and followed it.

It led to an old summer-house perched on a slope that overlooked the
scene of Jeanie's accident in the winter. A cold wind drove down upon him
as he ascended. The sky was grey with scurrying clouds. The bare downs
looked indescribably desolate.

Piers hastened along with set teeth. The dread he would not acknowledge
hung like a numbing weight upon him. Somehow, inexplicably, he knew that
he was nearing the end of his quest.

The long moan of the wind was the only sound to be heard. It seemed to
fill the world. No voice of bird or beast came from near or far. He
seemed to travel through a vast emptiness--the only living thing astir.

He reached the thatched summer-house at last, noted with a curious
detachment that it was beginning to look dilapidated, wondered if he
would find it after all deserted, and the next moment was nearly
overwhelmed by a huge grey body that hurled itself upon him from the
interior of the little arbour.

It was Caesar the great Dalmatian who greeted him thus effusively, and
Piers realized in an instant that the dog had some news to impart. He
pushed him aside with a brief word of welcome and entered the
ivy-grown place.

"Hullo!" gasped a voice with painful utterance. "Hullo!"

And in a moment he discerned Sir Beverley crouched in a corner,
grey-faced, his riding-whip still clutched in his hand.

Impetuously he went to him, stooped above him. "What on earth has
happened, sir? You haven't been thrown?" he queried anxiously.

"Thrown! I!" Sir Beverley's voice cracked derisively. "No! I got off--to
have a look at the place,--and the brute jibbed--and gave me the slip."

The words came with difficult jerks, his breathing was short and
laboured. Piers, bending over him, saw a spasm of pain contract the grey
face that nevertheless looked so indomitably into his.

"He'll go back to stables," growled Sir Beverley. "It's a way colts
have--when they've had their fling. What have you come back for, eh?
Thought I couldn't do without you?"

There was a stony glint in his eyes as he asked the question. His thin
lips curved sardonically.

Piers, still with anxiety lying cold at his heart, had no place left for
resentment. He made swift and winning answer. "I've been a brute, sir.
I've come back to ask your forgiveness."

The sardonic lips parted. "Instead of--a hiding--eh?" gasped Sir
Beverley.

Piers drew back momentarily; but the grey, drawn face compelled his
pity. He stifled his wrath unborn. "I'll take that first, sir," he
said steadily.

Sir Beverley's frown deepened, but his breathing was growing less
oppressed. He suddenly collected his energies and spoke with his usual
irascibility.

"Oh, don't try any of your damned heroics on me, sir! Apologize like a
gentleman--if you can! If not--if not--" He broke off panting, his lips
still forming words that he lacked the strength to utter.

Piers sat down beside him on the crazy bench. "I will do anything you
wish, sir," he said. "I'm horribly sorry for the way I've treated you.
I'm ready to make any amends in my power."

"Oh, get away!" growled out Sir Beverley. But with the words his hand
came gropingly forth and fastened in a hard grip on Piers' arm. "You
talk like a Sunday-school book," he said. "What the devil did you do
it for, eh?"

It was roughly spoken, but Piers was quick to recognize the spirit behind
the words. He clapped his own hand upon his grandfather's, and was
shocked afresh at its icy coldness.

"I say, do let's go" he said. "We can't talk here. It's downright madness
to sit in this draughty hole. Come along, sir!" He thrust a vigorous arm
about the old man and hoisted him to his feet.

"Oh, you're mighty strong!" gasped Sir Beverley. "Strong enough--to kick
over--the traces, eh?"

"Never again, sir," said Piers with decision.

Whereat Sir Beverley looked at him searchingly, and gibed no more.

They went out together on to the open wind-swept hillside, Piers still
strongly supporting him, for he stumbled painfully. It was a difficult
progress for them both, and haste was altogether out of the question.

Sir Beverley revived somewhat as they went, but more than once he had to
pause to get his breath. His weakness was a revelation to Piers though he
sought to reassure himself with the reflection that it was the natural
outcome of his night's vigil; and moment by moment his compunction grew.

They were no more than a mile from the Abbey, but it took them the
greater part of two hours to accomplish the distance, and at the end
of it Sir Beverley was hanging upon Piers in a state that bordered
upon collapse.

His animal had just returned riderless, and considerable consternation
prevailed. Victor, who was on the watch, rushed to meet them with
characteristic nimbleness, and he and Piers between them carried Sir
Beverley in, and laid him down before the great hall fire.

But though so exhausted as to be scarcely conscious, he still clung fast
to Piers, not suffering him to stir from side; and there Piers remained,
chafing the cold hands administering brandy, while Victor, invaluable in
an emergency, procured pillows, blankets, hot-water bottles, everything
that his fertile brain could suggest to restore the failing strength.

Again, though slowly, Sir Beverley rallied, recovered his faculties, came
back to full understanding. "Had anything to eat?" he rapped out so
suddenly that Piers, kneeling beside him, jumped with astonishment.

"I, sir? No, I'm not hungry," he said. "You're feeling better, what? Can
I get you something?"

"Oh, don't be a damn' fool!" said Sir Beverley. "Tell 'em to fetch
some lunch!"

It was the turning-point. From that moment he began to recover in a
fashion that amazed Piers, cast aside blankets and pillows, sternly
forbade Piers to summon the doctor, and sat up before the fire with a
grim refusal to be coddled any longer.

They lunched together in the warmth of the blazing logs, and Sir Beverley
became so normal in his attitude that Piers began at last to feel
reassured.

He did not broach the matter that lay between them, knowing well that his
grandfather's temperament was not such as to leave it long in abeyance;
and they smoked together in peace after the meal as though the strife of
the previous evening had never been.

But the memory of it overhung them both, and finally at the end of a
lengthy silence Sir Beverley turned his stone-grey eyes upon his grandson
and spoke.

"Well? What have you to say for yourself?"

Piers came out of a reverie and looked up with a faint rueful smile.
"Nothing, sir," he said.

"Nothing? What do you mean by that?" Sir Beverley's voice was sharp. "You
go away like a raving lunatic, and stay away all night, and then come
back with nothing to say. What have you been up to? Tell me that!"

Piers leaned slowly forward, took up the poker and gently pushed it
into the fire. "She won't have me," he said, with his eyes upon the
leaping flames.

"What?" exclaimed Sir Beverley. "You've been after that hussy again?"

Piers' brows drew together in a thick, ominous line; but he merely nodded
and said, "Yes."

"The devil you have!" ejaculated Sir Beverley. "And she refused you?"

"She did." Again very softly Piers poked at the blazing logs, his eyes
fixed and intent. "It served me right--in a way," he said, speaking
meditatively, almost as if to himself. "I was a hound--to ask her.
But--somehow--I was driven. However," he drove the poker in a little
further, "it's all the same now as she's refused me. That's why," he
turned his eyes suddenly upon Sir Beverley, "there's nothing to be said."

There was no defiance in his look, but it held something of a baffling
quality. It was almost as if in some fashion he were conscious of relief.

Sir Beverley stared at him, angry and incredulous. "Refused you! What the
devil for? Wanted my consent, I suppose? Thought I held the
purse-strings, eh?"

"Oh no," said Piers, again faintly smiling, "she didn't care a damn about
that. She knows I am not dependent upon you. But--she has no use for me,
that's all."

"No use for you!" Sir Beverley's voice rose. "What the--what the devil
does she want then, I should like to know?"

"She doesn't want anyone," said Piers. "At least she thinks she doesn't.
You see, she's been married before."

There was a species of irony in his voice that yet was without
bitterness. He turned back to his aimless stirring of the fire, and there
fell a silence between them.

But Sir Beverley's eyes were fixed upon his grandson's face in a close,
unsparing scrutiny. "So you thought you might as well come back," he
said at last.

"She made me," said Piers, without looking round.

"Made you!"

Again Piers nodded. "I was to tell you from her that she quite
understands your attitude; but that you needn't be anxious, as she has no
intention of marrying again."

"Confound her impudence!" ejaculated Sir Beverley.

"Oh no!" Piers' voice sounded too tired to be indignant. "I don't think
you can accuse her of that. There has never been any flirtation between
us. It wasn't her fault. I--made a fool of myself. It just happened in
the ordinary course of things."

He ceased to speak, laid down the poker without sound, and sat with
clasped hands, staring blindly before him.

Again there fell a silence. The clock in the corner ticked on with
melancholy regularity, the logs hissed and spluttered viciously; but
the two men sat in utter stillness, both bowed as if beneath a
pressing burden.

One of them moved at last, stretched out a bony, trembling hand, laid it
on the other's shoulder.

"Piers boy," Sir Beverley said, with slow articulation, "believe me,
there's not a woman on this earth worth grizzling about. They're liars
and impostors, every one."

Piers started a little, then with a very boyish movement, he laid his
cheek against the old bent fingers. "My dear sir," he said, "but you're a
woman-hater!"

"I know," said Sir Beverley, still in that heavy, fateful fashion. "And I
have reason. I tell you, boy,--and I know,--you would be better off in
your coffin than linked to a woman you seriously cared for. It's hell on
earth--hell on earth!"

"Or paradise," muttered Piers.

"A fool's paradise, boy; a paradise that turns to dust and ashes." Sir
Beverley's voice quivered suddenly. He withdrew his hand to fumble in an
inner pocket. In a moment he stretched it forth again with a key lying
on the palm.

"Take that!" he said. "Open that bureau thing behind you! Look in the
left-hand drawer! There's something there for you to see."

Piers obeyed him. There was that in Sir Beverley's manner that silenced
all questioning. He pulled out the drawer and looked in. It contained one
thing only--a revolver.

Sir Beverley went on speaking, calmly, dispassionately, wholly
impersonally. "It's loaded--has been loaded for fifty years. But I never
used it. And that not because my own particular hell wasn't hot enough,
but just because I wouldn't have it said that I'd ever loved any
she-devil enough to let her be my ruin. There were times enough when I
nearly did it. I've sat all night with the thing in my hand. But I hung
on for that reason, till at last the fire burnt out, and I didn't care.
Every woman is the same to me now. I know now--and you've got to know it
too--that woman is only fit to be the servant, not the mistress, of
man,--and a damn treacherous servant at that. She was made for man's
use, and if he is fool enough to let her get the upper hand, then Heaven
help him, for he certainly won't be in a position to help himself!"

He stopped abruptly, and in the silence Piers shut and relocked
the drawer. He dropped the key into his own pocket, and came back
to the fire.

Sir Beverley looked up at him with something of an effort. "Boy," he
said, "you've got to marry some day, I know. You've got to have
children. But--you're young, you know. There's plenty of time before
you. You might wait a bit--just a bit--till I'm out of the way. I won't
keep you long; and I won't beat you often either--if you'll condescend
to stay with me."

He smiled with the words, his own grim ironical smile; but the pathos of
it cut straight to Piers' heart. He went down on his knees beside the old
man and thrust his arm about the shrunken shoulders.

"I'll never leave you again, sir," he vowed earnestly. "I've been a
heartless brute, and I'm most infernally sorry. As to marrying,
well--there's no more question of that for me. I couldn't marry Ina Rose.
You understand that?"

"Never liked the chit," growled Sir Beverley. "Only thought she'd answer
your purpose better than some. For you've got to get an heir, boy;
remember that! You're the only Evesham left."

"Oh, damn!" said Piers very wearily. "What does it matter?"

Sir Beverley looked at him from under his thick brows piercingly but
without condemnation. "It's up to you, Piers," he said.

"Is it?" said Piers, with a groan. "Well, let's leave it at that for the
present! Sure you've forgiven me?"

Sir Beverley's grim face relaxed again. He put his arm round Piers and
held him hard for a moment.

Then: "Oh, drat it, Piers!" he said testily. "Get away, do! And behave
yourself for the future!"

Whereat Piers laughed, a short, unsteady laugh, and went back to
his chair.



CHAPTER XXXII

THE DECISION


"The matter is settled," said the Reverend Stephen Lorimer, in the tones
of icy decision with which his wife was but too tragically familiar. "I
engaged Mrs. Denys to be a help to you, not exclusively to Jeanie. The
child is quite well enough to return home, and I do not feel myself
justified in incurring any further expense now that her health is quite
sufficiently restored."

"But the children were all counting on going to Stanbury Cliffs for the
Easter holidays," protested Mrs. Lorimer almost tearfully. "We cannot
disappoint them, Stephen!" Mr. Lorimer's lips closed very firmly for a
few seconds. Then, "The change home will be quite sufficient for them,"
he said. "I have given the matter my full consideration, my dear
Adelaide, and no argument of yours will now move me. Mrs. Denys and
Jeanie have been away for a month, and they must now return. It is your
turn for a change, and as soon as Eastertide is over I intend to take you
away with me for ten days or so and leave Mrs. Denys in charge of--the
bear-garden, as I fear it but too truly resembles. You are quite unfit
for the noise and racket of the holidays. And I myself have been feeling
lately the need of a little--shall I call it recreation?" Mr. Lorimer
smiled self-indulgently over the term. He liked to play with words. "I
presume you have no vital objection to accompanying me?"

"Oh, of course not. I should like it above all things," Mrs. Lorimer
hastened to assure him, "if it were not for Jeanie. I don't like the
thought of bringing her home just when her visit is beginning to do her
so much good."

"She cannot remain away for ever," said Mr. Lorimer. "Moreover, her
delicacy must have been considerably exaggerated, or such a sudden
improvement could scarcely have taken place. At all events, so it appears
to me. She must therefore return home and spend the holidays in wholesome
amusements with the other children; and when they are over, I really must
turn my serious attention to her education which has been so sadly
neglected since Christmas. Mrs. Denys is doubtless a very excellent woman
in her way, but she is not, I fear, one to whom I could safely entrust
the intellectual development of a child of Jeanie's age." He paused,
looking up with complacent enquiry at his wife's troubled face. "And now
what scruples are stirring in the mind of my spouse?" he asked, with
playful affection.

Mrs. Lorimer did not smile in answer. Her worried little face only
drew into more anxious lines. "Stephen," she said, "I do wish you
would consult Dr. Tudor before you quite decide to have Jeanie home
at present."

The Vicar's mouth turned down, and he looked for a moment so extremely
unpleasant that Mrs. Lorimer quailed. Then, "My dear," he said
deliberately, "when I decide upon a specific course of action, I carry it
through invariably. If I were not convinced that what I am about to do
were right, I should not do it. Pray let me hear no more upon the
subject! And remember, Adelaide, it is my express command that you do not
approach Dr. Tudor in this matter. He is a most interfering person, and
would welcome any excuse to obtain a footing in this house again. But now
that I have at length succeeded in shaking him off, I intend to keep him
at a distance for the future. And he is not to be called in--understand
this very clearly, if you please--except in a case of extreme urgency.
This is a distinct order, Adelaide, and I shall be severely displeased if
you fail to observe it. And now," he resumed his lighter manner again as
he rose from his chair, "I must hie me to the parish room where my good
Miss Whalley is awaiting me."

He stretched forth a firm, kind hand and patted his wife's shoulder.

"We must see what we can do to bring a little colour into those pale
cheeks," he said. "A fortnight in the Cornish Riviera perhaps. Or we
might take a peep at Shakespeare's country. But we shall see, we
shall see! I will write to Mrs. Denys and acquaint her with my
decision this evening."

He was gone, leaving Mrs. Lorimer to pace up and down his study in futile
distress of mind. Only that morning a letter from Avery had reached her,
telling her of Jeanie's continued progress, and urging her to come and
take her place for a little while. It was such a change as her tired soul
craved, but she had not dared to tell her husband so. And now, it seemed,
Jeanie's good time also was to be terminated.

There was no doubt about it. Rodding did not suit the child. She was
never well at home. The Vicarage was shut in by trees, a damp, unhealthy
place. And Dr. Tudor had told her in plain terms that Jeanie lacked the
strength to make any headway there. She was like a wilting plant in that
atmosphere. She could not thrive in it. Dry warmth was what she needed,
and it had made all the difference to her. Avery's letter had been full
of hope. She referred to Dr. Tudor's simile of the building of a
sea-wall. "We are strengthening it every day," she wrote. "In a few more
weeks it ought to be proof against any ordinary tide."

A few more weeks! Mrs. Lorimer wrung her hands. Stephen did not know,
did not realize; and she was powerless to convince him. Avery would not
convince him either. He tolerated only Avery because she was so useful.

She knew exactly the sort of letter he would write, desiring their
return; and Avery, for all her quiet strength, would have to submit. Oh,
it was cruel--cruel!

The tears were coursing down her cheeks when the door opened unexpectedly
and Olive entered. She paused at sight of her mother, looking at her with
just the Vicar's air of chill enquiry.

"Is anything the matter?" she asked.

Mrs. Lorimer turned hastily to the window and began to dry her eyes.

Olive went to a bookshelf and stood before it. After a moment she took
out a book and deliberately turned we leaves. Her attitude was plainly
repressive.

Finally she returned the book to the shelf and turned. "Why are you
crying, Mother?"

Mrs. Lorimer leaned her head against the window-frame with a heavy sigh.
"I am very miserable, Olive," she said, a catch in her voice.

"No one need be that," observed Olive. "Father says that misery is a sign
of mental weakness."

Mrs. Lorimer was silent.

"Don't you think you had better leave off crying and find something to
do?" suggested her daughter in her cool, young voice.

Still Mrs. Lorimer neither moved nor spoke.

Olive came a step nearer. There was obvious distaste on her face. "I
wish you would try to be a little brighter--for Father's sake," she
said. "I don't think you treat him very kindly."

It was evident that she spoke from a sense of duty. Mrs. Lorimer
straightened herself with another weary sigh.

"Run along, my dear!" she said. "I am sure you are busy."

Olive turned, half-vexed and half-relieved, and walked to the door. Her
mother watched her wistfully. It was in her mind to call her back, fold
her in her arms, and appeal for sympathy. But the severity of the child's
pose was too suggestive of the Vicar's unbending attitude towards
feminine weakness, and she restrained the impulse, knowing that she would
appeal in vain. There was infinitely more comfort to be found in the
society of Baby Phil, and, smiling wanly at the thought, she went up to
the nursery in search of it.



CHAPTER XXXIII

THE LAST DEBT


There was no combating the Vicar's decision. Avery realized that fact
from the outset even before Mrs. Lorimer's agitated note upon the subject
reached her. The fiat had gone forth, and submission was the only course.

Jeanie received the news without a murmur. "I don't mind really," she
said. "It's very nice here, but then it's nice at home too when you are
there. And then there is Piers too."

Yes, there was Piers,--another consideration that filled Avery with
uneasiness. No word from Piers had reached her since that early morning
on the shore, but his silence did not reassure her. She had half expected
a boyish letter of apology, some friendly reassurance, some word at least
of his return to Rodding Abbey. But she had heard nothing. She did not so
much as know if he had returned or not.

Neither had she heard from her friend Edmund Crowther. With a sense of
keen disappointment she wrote to his home in the North to tell him of the
change in her plans. She could not ask him to the Vicarage, and it seemed
that she might not meet him after all.

She also sent a hurried note to Lennox Tudor, but they had only three
days in which to terminate their visit, and she received no reply. Later,
she heard that Tudor had been away for those days and did not open the
note until the actual day of their return.

The other children were expected home from school during the week before
Easter, and Mr. Lorimer desired that Avery should be at the Vicarage to
prepare for them. So, early in the week, they returned.

It seemed that Spring had come at last. The hedges were all bursting into
tenderest green, and all the world looked young.

"The primroses will be out in the Park woods," said Jeanie. "We will go
and gather heaps and heaps."

"Are you allowed to go wherever you like there?" asked Avery, thinking
of the game.

"Oh no," said Jeanie thoughtfully. "But we always do. Mr. Marshall chases
us sometimes, but we always get away."

She smiled at the thought, and Avery frankly rejoiced to see her
enthusiasm for the wicked game of trespassing in the Squire's preserves.
She did not know that the amusement had been strictly prohibited by the
Vicar, and it did not occur to Jeanie to tell her. None of the children
had ever paid any attention to the prohibition. There were some rules
that no one could keep.

The return of the rest of the family kept the days that succeeded their
return extremely lively. Jeanie was in higher spirits than Avery had
ever seen her. She seemed more childish, more eager for fun, as though
some of the zest of life had got into her veins at last. Her mother
ascribed the change to Avery's influence, and was pathetic in her
gratitude, though Avery disclaimed all credit declaring that the sea-air
had wrought the wonder.

When Lennox Tudor saw her, he looked at Avery with an odd smile behind
his glasses. "You've built the wall," he said.

They had met by the churchyard gate, and Jeanie and Pat were having a
hopping race down the hill. Avery looked after them with a touch of
wistfulness. "But I wish she could have been away longer."

Tudor frowned. "Yes. Why on earth not? The Reverend Stephen again, I
suppose. I wish I had had your letter sooner, though as a matter of fact
I'm not in favour just now, and my interference would probably weigh in
the wrong balance. Keep the child out as much as possible! It's the only
way. She has made good progress. There is no reason at present why she
should go back again."

No, there was no reason; yet Avery's heart misgave her. She wished she
might have had longer for the building of that wall. Good Friday was more
or less a day of penance in the Vicar's family. It began with lengthy
prayers in the dining-room, so lengthy that Avery feared that Mrs.
Lorimer would faint ere they came to an end. Then after a rigorously
silent breakfast the children were assembled in the study to be
questioned upon the Church Catechism--a species of discipline peculiarly
abhorrent to them all by reason of the Vicar's sarcastic comments upon
their ignorance.

At the end of this dreary exercise they were dismissed to prepare for
church where there followed a service which Avery regarded as downright
revolting. It consisted mainly of prayers--as many prayers as the Vicar
could get in, rendered in an emotionless monotone with small regard for
sense and none whatever for feeling. The whole thing was drab and
unattractive to the utmost limit, and Avery rose at length from her
knees with a feeling of having been deliberately cheated of a thing she
valued. She left the church in an unwonted spirit of exasperation, which
lasted throughout the midday meal, which was as oppressively silent as
breakfast had been.

The open relief with which the children trooped away to the schoolroom
found a warm echo in her heart. She even almost smiled in sympathy when
Julian breathed a deep thanksgiving that that show was over for one
more year.

Neither Piers nor his grandfather had been in the church, and their
absence did not surprise her. She did not feel that she herself could
ever face such a service again. The memory of Piers at the organ came to
her as she dressed to accompany the children upon their primrosing
expedition, and a sudden passionate longing followed it to hear that
music again. She was feeling starved in her soul that day.

But when they reached the green solitudes of the park woodlands the
bitterness began to pass away. It was all so beautiful; the mossy riding
up which they turned was so springy underfoot, and the singing of a
thousand birds made endless music whichever way they wandered.

"It's better than church, isn't it?" said Jeanie softly, pressing close
to her. And Avery smiled in answer. It was balm to the spirit.

The Squire's preserves were enclosed in wire netting, and over this they
climbed into their primrose paradise. Several partridges rose from the
children's feet, and whirred noisily away, to the huge delight of the
boys but to Avery's considerable dismay. However, Marshall was evidently
not within earshot, and they settled down to the serious business of
filling their baskets for the church decorations without interference.

The primroses grew thickly in a wonderful carpet that spread in all
directions, sloping down to a glade where gurgled a brown stream. Down
this glade Avery directed her party, keeping a somewhat anxious eye upon
Gracie and the three boys who were in the wildest spirits after the
severe strain of the morning. She and Jeanie picked rapidly and
methodically. Olive had decided not to accompany the expedition. She did
not care for primrosing, she told Avery, and her father had promised to
read the Testament in Greek with her later in the afternoon, an
intellectual exercise which she plainly regarded as extremely
meritorious.

Her absence troubled no one; in fact Julian, having over-heard her
excuse, remarked rudely that if she was going to put on side, they were
better off without her; and Avery secretly agreed with him.

So in cheery accord they went their careless way through the preserves,
scaring the birds and filling their baskets with great industry. They had
reached the end of the glade and were contemplating fording the brook
when like a bolt from the blue discovery came upon them. A sound, like
the blare of an angry bull, assailed them--a furious inarticulate sound
that speedily resolved into words.

"What the devil are you mischievous brats doing there?"

The whole party jumped violently at the suddenness of the attack. Avery's
heart gave a most unpleasant jerk. She knew that voice.

Swiftly she turned in the direction whence it came, and saw again the
huge white horse of the trampling hoofs that had once before been urged
against her.

He was stamping and fretting on the other side of the stream, the banks
of which were so steep as almost to form a chasm, and from his back the
terrible old Squire hurled the vials of his wrath.

Ronald drew near to Avery, while Jeanie slipped a nervous hand into hers.
Julian, however, turned a defiant face. "It's all right. He can't get at
us," he said audibly.

At which remark Gracie laughed a little hysterically, and Pat made
a grimace.

Perhaps it was this last that chiefly infuriated the Squire, for he
literally bellowed with rage, snatched his animal back with a merciless
hand, and then with whip and spur set him full at the stream.

It was a dangerous leap, for the ground on both banks was yielding and
slippery. Avery stood transfixed to watch the result.

The horse made a great effort to obey his master's behests. It almost
seemed as if he were furious too, Avery thought, as he pounded forward to
clear the obstacle. His leap was superb, clearing the stream by a good
six feet, but as he landed among the primroses disaster overtook him. It
must have been a rabbit-hole, Avery reflected later; for he blundered as
he touched the ground, plunged forward, and fell headlong.

There followed a few moments of sickening confusion during which the
horrified spectators had time to realize that Sir Beverley was pinned
under the kicking animal; then with a savage effort the great brute
rolled over and struggled to his feet.

With a promptitude that spoke well for his nerve, Julian sprang forward
and caught the dangling bridle. The creature tried to jib back upon his
prostrate master, but he dragged him forward and held him fast.

Old Sir Beverley lay prone on the ground, in an awful stillness, with his
white face turned to the sky. His eyes were fast shut, his arms flung
wide, one hand still grasping the whip which he had wielded so fiercely a
few seconds before.

"Is he dead?" whispered Jeanie, clinging close to Avery.

Avery gently released herself and moved forward. "No, dear, no! He--he is
only stunned."

She knelt beside Sir Beverley, overcoming a horrible sensation of
sickness as she did so. The whole catastrophe had been of so sudden and
so violent a nature that she felt almost stunned herself.

She slipped an arm under the old man's head, and it hung upon her like a
leaden weight.

"Oh, Avery, how dreadful!" exclaimed Gracie, aghast.

"Take my handkerchief!" said Avery quickly. "Run down and soak it in the
stream! Mind how you go! It's very steep."

Gracie went like the wind.

Avery began with fingers that shook in spite of her utmost resolution,
to try to loosen Sir Beverley's collar.

"Let me!" said Ronald, gently.

She glanced up gratefully and relinquished the task to him. Ronald was
neat in all his ways.

The return of Gracie with the wet handkerchief gave her something to do,
and she tenderly moistened the stark, white face. But the children's
fears were crowding thick in her own heart. That awful inertness looked
so terribly like death.

And then suddenly the grim lips parted and a quivering sigh passed
through them.

The next moment abruptly the grey eyes opened and gazed full at Avery
with a wide, glassy stare.

"What the--what the--" stammered Sir Beverley, and broke off with a
hard gasp.

Avery sought to raise him higher, but his weight was too much for her
even with Ronald assisting.

"Find my--flask!" jerked out Sir Beverley, with panting breath.

Ronald began to search in his pockets and finally drew it forth. He
opened it and gave it to Avery who held it to the twitching lips.

Sir Beverley drank and closed his eyes. "I shall be--better soon," he
said, in a choked whisper.

Avery waited, supporting him as strongly as she could, listening to the
short laboured breathing with deep foreboding.

"Couldn't I run down to the Abbey for help?" suggested Julian, who had
succeeded at length in tying the chafing animal to a tree.

Avery considered. "I don't know. How far is it?"

"Not more than a mile. P'r'aps I should find Piers there. I'm sure I'd
better go," the boy urged, with his eyes on the deathly face.

And after a moment Avery agreed with him. "Yes, I think perhaps you'd
better. Gracie and Pat might go for Dr. Tudor meanwhile. I do hope you
will find Piers. Tell him to bring two men, and something that they can
carry him on. Jeanie dear, you run home to your mother and tell her how
it is that we shall be late for tea. You won't startle her, I know."

They fell in with her desires at once. There was not one of them who
would not have done anything for her. And so they scattered, departing
upon their several missions, leaving Ronald only to share her vigil by
the old Squire's side.

For a long time after their departure, there was no change in Sir
Beverley's state. He lay propped against Avery's arm and Ronald's knee
breathing quickly, with painful effort, through his parted lips. He kept
his eyes closed, but they knew that he was conscious by the heavy frown
that drew his forehead. Once Avery offered him more brandy, but he
refused it impatiently, and she desisted.

The deathly pallor had, however, begun to give place to a more natural
hue, and as the minutes passed his breathing gradually grew less
distressed. Once more his eyes opened, and he stared into Avery's face.

"Help me--to sit up!" he commanded.

They did their best, he struggling with piteously feeble efforts to
help himself. Finally he managed to drag himself to a leaning position
on one elbow, though for several seconds thereafter his gasping was
terrible to hear.

Avery saw his lips move several times before any sound came from them. At
length, "Send--that boy--away!" he gasped out.

Avery and Ronald looked at each other, and the boy got to his feet with
an undecided air.

"Do you hear? Go!" rapped out Sir Beverley.

"Shall I, Avery?" whispered Ronald.

She nodded. "Yes, just a little way! I'll call you if I want you."

And half-reluctantly Ronald obeyed.

"Has he gone?" asked Sir Beverley.

"Yes." Avery remained on her knees beside him. He looked as if he might
collapse at any moment.

For awhile he lay struggling for breath with his face towards the ground;
then very suddenly his strength seemed to return. He raised his head and
regarded her piercingly.

"You," he said curtly, "are the young woman who refused to marry my
grandson."

The words were so totally unexpected that Avery literally gasped with
astonishment. To be taken to task on this subject was an ordeal for which
she was wholly unprepared.

"Well?" he said irritably. "That is so, I believe? You did refuse to
marry him?"

"Yes," Avery admitted, feeling the hot colour flood her face under the
merciless scrutiny of the stone-grey eyes.

"But--but--"

"Well?" he said again, still more irritably. "But what?"

"Oh, need we discuss it?" she said appealingly. "I would so much
rather not."

"I desire to discuss it," said Sir Beverley autocratically. "I desire
to know--what objection you have to my grandson. Many women, let me
tell you, of far higher social standing than yourself would jump at
such a chance. But you--you take upon yourself to refuse it. I desire
to know why."

He spoke with a stubbornness that overbore all bodily weakness. He would
be a tyrant to his last breath.

But Avery could not bring herself to answer him. She felt as if he were
trying to force his way into a place which regarded as peculiarly sacred,
from which in some fashion she owed it to Piers as well as to herself to
bar him out.

"I am sorry," she said gently after a moment, "but I am afraid that is
just what I can't tell you."

She saw Sir Beverley's chin thrust out at just the indomitable angle with
which Piers had made her familiar, and she realized that he had no
intention of abandoning his point.

"You told him, I suppose?" he demanded gruffly.

A faint sense of amusement arose within her, her anxiety notwithstanding.
It struck her as ludicrous that she should be browbeaten on this point.

She made answer with more assurance. "I told him that the idea was
unsuitable, out of the question, that he ought to marry a girl of his own
age and station--not a middle-aged widow like me."

"Pshaw!" exclaimed Sir Beverley impatiently. "You belong to the same
generation, don't you? What more do you want?"

If he had slapped her face, Avery would scarcely have felt more amazed,
She gazed at him in silence, wondering if she could have heard aright.

Sir Beverley frowned upon her fiercely, the iron will of him scorning and
surmounting his physical weakness.

"You've got nothing against the boy, I suppose?" he pursued, with the
evident determination to get at the truth despite all opposition. "He has
never given you any cause for complaint? He's behaved himself like a
gentleman, hey?"

"Oh, of course, of course!" Avery said in distress. "It's not that!"

Sir Beverley frowned still more heavily. "Then--what the devil is it?"
he demanded. "Don't you like him well enough? Aren't you--in love with
him?" His lips curled ironically over the words; they sounded
inexpressibly bitter.

Avery's eyes fell before his pitiless stare. She began with fingers that
trembled to pluck the primroses that grew in a large tuft close to her,
saying no word.

"Well?" said Sir Beverley, with growing impatience.

She kept her eyes lowered, for she felt she could not meet his look as
she made reluctant answer. "No, it is not either. In fact, if I were a
girl--I had not been married before--I think I should say Yes.
But--but--" she paused, searching for words, striving to restrain a
rising agitation, "as it is, I don't think it would be quite fair to him.
I don't know if I could make him happy. I am not young enough, fresh
enough, gay enough. I can't offer him a girl's first love, and that is
what he ought to have. I so want him to have the best. I so want him to
be happy."

The words were out with a rush, almost before she was aware of uttering
them, and suddenly her eyes were full of tears, tears that caught her off
her guard, so that she had neither time nor strength to check them. She
turned quickly from him, fighting for self-control.

Sir Beverley uttered a grunt that might have denoted either surprise or
disgust, and there followed a silence that she found peculiarly
difficult to bear.

"So," he said at last, in a tone that was strictly devoid of feeling,
"you care for him too much to marry him? Is that it?"

It sounded preposterous, but she was still too near tears for any sense
of humour to penetrate her distress. She felt as if he had remorselessly
wrested from her and dragged to light a treasure upon which she herself
had scarcely dared to look. She continued feverishly to pluck the pale
flowers that grew all about them, her eyes fixed upon her task.

With a growling effort, Sir Beverley raised himself, thrust forward a
quivering hand and gripped hers.

Startled, she turned towards him, meeting not hostility but a certain
grim kindliness in the hard old eyes.

"Will you honour me with your attention for a moment?" he asked, with
ironical courtesy.

"I am attending," she answered meekly.

"Then," he said, dropping all pretence at courtesy without further
ceremony, "permit me to say that if you don't marry my grandson, you'll
be a bigger fool than I take you for. And in my opinion, a sober-minded
woman like you who will see to his comfort and be faithful to him is more
likely to make him happy than any of your headlong, flighty girls."

He stopped; but he did not relinquish his hold upon her. There was
to Avery something oddly pathetic in the close grasp of those
unsteady fingers. It was as if they made an appeal which he would
have scorned to utter.

"You really wish me to marry him?" she said.

He snarled at her like a surly dog. "Wish it? I! Good Heavens above, if
I had my way I'd never let him marry at all! But unfortunately
circumstances demand it; and the boy himself--the boy himself, well--"
his voice softened imperceptibly, rasped on a note of tenderness, "he
wants looking after; he's young, you know. He'll be all alone very
soon, and--it isn't considered good for a man to live alone--not a young
man anyway."

He broke off, still looking hard at Avery from under his drawn white
brows as if daring her to dispute the matter.

But she said nothing, and after a moment he resumed more equably: "That's
all I have to say on the subject. I wish you to understand that for the
boy's sake--and for other considerations--I have withdrawn my opposition.
You can marry him--as soon as you like."

He sank down again on his elbow, and she saw a look of exhaustion on his
face. His head drooped forward on his chest, and, watching him, she
realized that he was an old, old man and very tired of life.

Suddenly he jerked his head up again and met her pitying eyes.

"I'm done, yes," he said grimly, as if in response to her unspoken
thought. "But I've paid my debts--all of 'em, including this last." His
voice began to fail, but he forced it on, speaking spasmodically, with
increasing difficulty. "You sent my boy back to me--the other
day--against his will. Now I--make you a present of him--in return.
There's good stuff in the lad,--nothing shabby about him. If you care for
him at all--you ought to be able to hold him--make him happy.
Anyway--anyway--you might try!"

The appeal in the last words, whispered though they were, was
undisguised; and swiftly, impulsively, almost before she knew what she
was doing, Avery responded to it.

"Oh, I will try!" she said very earnestly. "I will indeed!"

He looked at her fixedly for a moment with eyes of deep searching that
she never forgot, and then his head dropped forward heavily.

"You--have--said it!" he said, and sank unconscious upon the ground.



CHAPTER XXXIV

THE MESSAGE


"My good Mrs. Denys, it is quite fruitless for you to argue the matter.
Nothing you can say can alter the fact that you took the children
trespassing in the Rodding Park preserves against my most stringent
commands, and this deplorable accident to the Squire is the direct
outcome of the most flagrant insubordination. I have borne a good deal
from you, but this I cannot overlook. You will therefore take a month's
notice from to-day, and as it is quite impossible for me to reconsider
my decision in this respect it would be wasted effort on your part to
lodge any appeal against it. As for the children, I shall deal with them
in my own way."

The Vicar's thin lips closed upon the words with the severity of an
irrevocable resolution. Avery heard him with a sense of wild rebellion at
her heart to which she knew she must not give rein. She stood before him,
a defenceless culprit brought up for punishment.

It was difficult to be dignified under such circumstances, but she
did her best.

"I am extremely sorry that I took the children into the preserves," she
said. "But I accept the full responsibility for having done so. They were
not greatly to blame in the matter."

"Upon that point," observed Mr. Lorimer, "I am the best judge. The
children will be punished as severely as I deem necessary. Meantime, you
quite understand, do you not, that your duties here must terminate a
month from now? I am only sorry that I allowed myself to be persuaded to
reconsider my decision on the last occasion. For more than one reason I
think it is to be regretted. However,--" he completed the sentence with a
heavy sigh and said no more.

It was evident that he desired to close the interview, yet Avery
lingered. She could not go with the children's fate still in the balance.

He looked at her interrogatively with raised brows.

"You will not surely punish the children very severely?" she said.

He waved a hand of cool dismissal. "I shall do whatever seems to me right
and advisable," he said.

It came to Avery that interference on this subject would do more harm
than good, and she turned to go. At the door his voice arrested her.
"This day month then, Mrs. Denys!"

She bent her head in silent acquiescence, and went out.

In the passage Gracie awaited her and wound eager arms about her.

"Was he very horrid to you, Avery darling? What did he say?"

Avery went with her to the schoolroom where the other offenders were
assembled. It seemed to her almost cruel to attempt to suppress the
truth, but their reception of it went to her heart. Jeanie--the placid,
sweet-tempered Jeanie--wept tears of such anguished distress that she
feared she would make herself ill. Gracie was too angry to weep. She
wanted to go straight to the study and beard the lion in his den, and
only Avery's most strenuous opposition restrained her. And into the midst
of their tribulation came Mrs. Lorimer to mingle her tears with theirs.

"What I shall do without you, Avery, I can't think," was the burden of
her lament.

Avery couldn't think either, for she knew better even than Mrs. Lorimer
herself how much the latter had come to lean upon her.

She had to turn her energies to comforting her disconsolate companions,
but this task was still unaccomplished when the door opened and the Vicar
stalked in upon them.

He observed his wife's presence with cold displeasure, and at once
proceeded to dismiss her.

"I desire your presence in the study for a few moments, Adelaide. Perhaps
you will be kind enough to precede me thither."

He held the door open for her with elaborate ceremony, and Mrs. Lorimer
had no choice but to obey. She departed with a scared effort to check her
tears under the stern disapproval of his look.

He closed the door upon her and advanced to the table, gazing round upon
them with judicial severity.

"I am here," he announced, "to pass sentence."

Jeanie, crying softly in her corner, made desperate attempts to
control herself under the awful look that was at this point
concentrated upon her.

After a pause the Vicar proceeded, with a spiteful glance at Avery. "It
is my intention to impose a holiday-task of sufficient magnitude to keep
you all out of mischief during the rest of the holidays. You will
therefore commit to memory various different portions of Milton's
_Paradise Lost_ which I shall select, and which must be repeated to me in
their entirety without mistake on my return from my own hard-earned
holiday. And let me give you all fair warning," he raised his voice and
looked round again, regarding poor Jeanie with marked austerity, "that if
any one of you is not word-perfect in his or her task by the day of my
return--boy or girl I care not, the offence is the same--he or she will
receive a sound caning and the task will be returned."

Thus he delivered himself, and turned to go; but paused at the door to
add, "Also, Mrs. Denys, will you be good enough to remember that it is
against my express command that either you or any of the children should
enter any part of Rodding Park during my absence. I desire that to be
clearly understood."

"It is understood," said Avery in a low voice.

"That is well," said the Reverend Stephen, and walked majestically
from the room.

A few seconds of awed silence followed his departure; then to Avery's
horror Gracie snatched off one of her shoes and flung it violently at the
door that he had closed behind him. Luckily for Gracie, her father was at
the foot of the stairs before this episode took place and beyond earshot
also of the furious storm of tears that followed it, with which even
Avery found it difficult to cope.

It had been a tragic day throughout, and she was thankful when at length
it drew to a close.

But when night came at last, and she lay down in the darkness, she found
herself much too full of thought for sleep. Till then, she had not had
time to review the day's happenings, but they crowded upon her as she
lay, driving away all possibility of repose.

What was she going to do? Over and over again she asked herself the
question, bringing herself as it were each time to contemplate afresh the
obstacle that had arisen in her path. Had she really promised to marry
Piers? The Squire evidently thought she had. The memory of those last
words of his came back to her again and again. He had been very much in
earnest, very anxious to provide for his boy's future, desperately afraid
of leaving him alone. How would he view his impetuous action, she
wondered, on the morrow? Had he not even now possibly begun to repent?
Would he really desire her to take him literally?

And Piers,--what of Piers? A sudden, warm thrill ran through her. She
glowed from head to foot. She had not seen Piers since that morning by
the sea. She had a feeling that he was purposely avoiding her, and yet
deep in the secret heart of her she knew that what she had rejected over
and over again was still irrevocably her own. He would come back to her.
She knew he would come back. And again that strange warmth filled her
veins. The memory of him just then was like a burst of sunshine after a
day of storm.

He had not been at home when Julian had taken the news of the Squire's
accident to the Abbey, and only menservants had come to the rescue. She
had accompanied them part of the way back, but Tudor had overtaken them
in the drive, and she and the boys had turned back. Sir Beverley had been
exhausted and but half-conscious, and he had not uttered another word to
her. She wished Dr. Tudor had looked in on his way home, and then
wondered if the Squire's condition were such as to necessitate his
spending the night at the Abbey. He had once told her that Sir Beverley
suffered from a weakness of the heart which might develop seriously at
any time; but though himself fully aware of the fact, the old man had
never permitted Piers to be told. She had deemed it unfair to Piers, but
it was no matter for interference. A great longing to know what was
happening possessed her. Surely--surely Mr. Lorimer would send up in the
morning to enquire!

Her thoughts took another turn. She had been given definite notice to go.
In her efforts to console Mrs. Lorimer, and the children, she had
scarcely herself realized all that it would imply. She began to picture
the parting, and a quiver of pain went through her. How they had all
grown about her heart! How would she bear to say good-bye to her little
delicate Jeanie? And how would the child fare without her? She hardly
dared to think.

And then again that blinding ray of sunshine burst riotously through her
clouds. If the impossible happened, if she ever married Piers--for the
first time she deliberately faced and contemplated the thought--would she
not be at least within reach if trouble came? A little thrill of spiteful
humour ran through her at this point. She was quite sure that under such
circumstances she would not be refused admittance to the Vicar's home. As
Piers' wife, its doors would always be open to her.

As Piers' wife! She found herself repeating the words, repeating and
repeating them till their strangeness began to give place to a certain
familiarity. Was it after all true, as he had once so vehemently
asserted, that they were meant for each other, belonged to each other,
that the fate of each was bound in that of the other? What if she were a
woman grown? What if her years outnumbered his? Had he not waked in her
such music as her soul had never known before? Had he not opened for her
the gates of the forbidden land? And was there after all, any actual
reason that she should refuse to enter? That land where the sun shone
always and the flowers bloomed without fading! That land where it was
always spring!

There came in her soul a sudden swift ecstasy that was like the singing
of many birds in the dawning, thrilling her through and through. She rose
from her bed as though in answer to a call, and went to her open window.

There before her, silver against the darkness, there shone a single star.
The throbbing splendour of it seemed to pierce her. She held her breath
as one waiting for a message.

And, as she stood waiting, through her heart, softly, triumphantly, the
message came, spoken in the voice she had come to hear through all
other voices.

"It is the Star of Hope, Avery; yours--and mine."

But even as she watched with all her spirit a-quiver with the wonder of
it, the vision passed; the star was veiled.



CHAPTER XXXV

THE DARK HOUR


Avery was very early at the church on the following morning, and had
begun the work of decorating even before Miss Whalley appeared on the
scene. It was a day of showers and fleeting gleams of sunshine, and the
interior of the little building flashed from gloom to brilliance, and
from brilliance back to gloom with fitful frequency.

Daffodils and primroses were littered all around Avery, and a certain
subdued pleasure was hers as she decked the place with the spring
flowers. She was quite alone, for by the Vicar's inflexible decree all
the elder children, with the exception of Olive, were confined to the
schoolroom for the morning with their respective tasks.

The magnitude of these tasks had struck dismay to Avery's heart. She did
not privately believe that any one of them could ever be accomplished in
the prescribed time. But the day of reckoning was not yet, and she put it
resolutely from her mind. It was useless to forestall trouble, and her
own burden of toil that day demanded all her energies.

The advent of Miss Whalley, thin and acid, put an end to all enjoyment
thereof. She bestowed a cool greeting upon Avery, and came at once to her
side to criticize her decoration of the font. Miss Whalley always assumed
the direction of affairs on these occasions, and she regarded Avery's
assistance in the place of Mrs. Lorimer's weak efforts in something of
the light of an intrusion.

Avery stood and listened to her suggestions with grave forbearance. She
never disputed anything with Miss Whalley, which may have been in part
the reason for the latter's somewhat suspicious attitude towards her.

They were still standing before the font while Miss Whalley unfolded her
scheme when there came the sound of feet in the porch, and Lennox Tudor
put his head in.

His eyes fell at once upon Avery. He hesitated a moment then entered.

She turned eagerly to meet him. "Oh, how is the Squire this morning? Have
you been up to the Abbey yet?"

"The Squire!" echoed Miss Whalley. "Is he ill? I was not aware of it."

Avery's eyes were fixed on Tudor's face, and all in a moment she realized
that he had been up all night.

He did not seem to notice Miss Whalley, but spoke to Avery, and to her
alone. "I have just come back from the Abbey. The Squire died about an
hour ago."

"The Squire!" said Miss Whalley again, in staccato tones.

Avery said nothing, but she turned suddenly white, so white that Tudor
was moved to compunction.

"I shouldn't have blurted it out like that. Sit down! The poor old chap
never rallied really. He had a little talk with Piers half-an-hour or so
before he went. But it was only the last flicker of the candle. We
couldn't save him."

He bent down over her. "Don't look like that! It wasn't your fault. It
was bound to come. I've foreseen it for some little time. I told him it
was madness to go out riding as he did; but he wouldn't listen to me.
Avery, I say! Avery!" His voice sank to an undertone.

She forced her stiff lips to smile faintly in answer to the concern it
held. With an effort she commanded herself.

"What of Piers?" she said.

He stood up again with a sharp gesture, and turned from her to answer
Miss Whalley's eager questions.

"Surely it is very sudden!" the latter was saying. "How did it happen?
Will there be an inquest?"

"There will not," said Tudor curtly. "I have been attending the Squire,
for some time, and I knew that sooner or later this would happen. The
Vicar is not here?" He turned to Avery. "I promised to look in on him on
my way back. Shall I find him at the Vicarage?"

He was gone almost before she could answer, and Avery was left on the
seat by the door, staring before her with a wildly throbbing heart, still
asking herself with a curious insistence, "What of Piers? What of Piers?"

Miss Whalley surveyed her with marked disapproval. She considered it
great presumption on Avery's part to be upset by such a matter, and her
attitude said as much as she walked with a stately air down the church
and commenced her own self-appointed task of decorating the pulpit.

Avery did not stir for several seconds; and when she did it was to go to
the open door and stand there looking out into the spring sunshine. She
felt strangely incapable of grasping what had happened. She could not
realize that that dominant personality that had striven with her only
yesterday--only yesterday--had passed utterly away in a few hours. It
seemed incredible, beyond the bounds of possibility. Again and again Sir
Beverley's speech and look returned to her. How emphatic he had been,
how resolutely determined to attain his end! He had discharged his
obligation, as he had said. He had paid his last debt. And in the
payment of it he had laid upon her a burden which she had felt compelled
to accept.

Would it prove too much for her, she wondered? Had she yet again taken a
false step that could never be retraced? Again the thought of Piers went
through her, piercing her like a sword. Piers alone! Piers in trouble!
She wished that Dr. Tudor had answered her question even though she
regretted having asked it. How would he bear his solitude, she wondered
with an aching heart; and a sudden great longing arose within her to go
and comfort him, as she alone possessed the power to comfort. All
selfish considerations departed with the thought. She realized
poignantly all that Sir Beverley had visualized when he had told her
that very soon his boy would be all alone. She knew fully why he had
pressed upon her the task of helping Piers through his dark hour. He had
known--as she also knew--how sore would be his need of help. And as
this came home to her, her strength--that strength which was the patient
building of all the years of her womanhood--came back to her, and she
felt renewed and unafraid.

She returned to her work with a steadfastness of purpose that even
Miss Whalley viewed with distant admiration; working throughout the
morning while the minute bell tolled overhead, rendering honour to the
departed Squire.

When she left at length to return to the Vicarage for the midday meal,
her portion was done.

But it was not till night came again that she found time to write the few
brief words that she had been revolving in her mind all day long.

"DEAR PIERS,

"I am thinking of you constantly, and longing to help you in your
trouble. Let me know if there is anything whatever that I can do, and I
shall be ready at any time.

"With love from Avery."

Her face glowed softly over the writing of the note. She slipped out and
posted it before she went to bed.

He would get it in the morning, and he would be comforted. For he would
understand. She was sure that he would understand.

Of herself all through that second wakeful night she did not think at
all, and so no doubts rose to torment her. She lay in a species of tired
wonder. She was keeping her promise to the dead man, and in the keeping
of it there was peace.

The great square Abbey pew at the top of the church was empty
throughout Easter Sunday. A heavy gloom reigned at the Vicarage. Avery
and the children were in dire disgrace, and Mrs. Lorimer, spent most of
the day in tears. She could not agree with the Vicar that they were
directly responsible for the Squire's death. Dr. Tudor had been very
emphatic in assuring them that what had happened had been the
inevitable outcome of a disease of long standing. But this assurance
did not in any way modify the Vicar's attitude, and he decided that the
five children should spend their time in solitary confinement until
after the day fixed for the funeral.

This was to be Easter Tuesday, and he himself had arranged to depart the
day after--an event to which the entire household, with the single
exception of Olive, looked forward with the greatest eagerness.

No message came from Piers that night, and Avery wondered a little, but
without uneasiness. He must have so very much to think of and do at such
a time, she reflected. He would scarcely even have begun to feel the
dreadful loneliness.

But when the next day passed, and still no answer came, a vague anxiety
awoke within her. Surely her message had reached him! Surely he must have
read it! The Piers she knew would have dashed off some species of reply
at once. How was it he delayed?

The day of the funeral came, and the Easter flowers were all taken away.
The Vicarage blinds were drawn, the bell tolled again, and Jeanie,
weighed down with a dreadful sense of wickedness, lay face downwards on
the schoolroom sofa and wept and wept.

Avery was very anxious about her. The disgrace and punishment of the
past few days had told upon her. She was sick with trouble and
depression, and Avery could find no means of comforting her. She had
meant herself to slip out and to go to the funeral for Piers' sake, but
she felt she could not leave the child. So she sat with her in the
darkened room, listening to her broken sobbing, aware that in the
solitude of her room Gracie was crying too, and longing passionately to
gather together all five of the luckless offenders and deliver them from
their land of bondage.

But there was to be no deliverance that day, nor any lightening of the
burden. The funeral over, the Vicar returned and sent for each child
separately to the study for prayer and admonition. Jeanie was the last to
face this ordeal and before it was half over Avery was sent for also to
find her lying on the study sofa in a dead faint.

Avery's indignation was intense, but she could not give it vent. Even the
Vicar was a little anxious, and when Avery's efforts succeeded at length
in restoring her, he reprimanded Jeanie severely and reduced her once
more to tears of uncontrollable distress.

The long, dreary day came to an end at last, and the thought of a happier
morrow comforted them all. But Avery, though she slept that night, was
troubled by a dream that came to her over and over again throughout the
long hours. She seemed to see Piers, as he had once described himself, a
prisoner behind bars; and ever as she looked upon him he strove with
gigantic efforts that were wholly vain, to force the bars asunder and
come to her. She could not help him, could not even hear his voice. But
the agony of his eyes haunted her--haunted her. She awoke at last in
anguish of spirit, and slept no more.



CHAPTER XXXVI

THE SUMMONS


With the morning came a general feeling of relief. The Vicar was almost
jocose, and Mrs. Lorimer made timid attempts to be mirthful though the
parting with her children sorely tried her fortitude.

The boys' spirits were subdued, but they burst forth uproariously as soon
as the station-cab was well outside the gate. Ronald and Julian cheered
themselves hoarse, and Pat scuttled off to the back of the house to
release Mike from his chain to participate in the great rejoicing.

There was no disguising the fact that everyone was pleased--everyone
except Olive who went away to her father's study which had been left
in her especial charge, and locked herself in for a morning of
undisturbed reading.

Avery could not feel joyful. The thought of Piers was still with her
continually. She had heard so little of him--merely that he had followed
his grandfather to the grave supported by the old family solicitor from
Wardenhurst, Lennox Tudor, and a miscellaneous throng of neighbours; that
he had borne himself without faltering, and had gone back to his solitude
with no visible sign of suffering. Only indirectly had she heard this,
and she yearned to know more.

She knew that like herself he was practically devoid of relatives,--the
last of his race,--a figure of splendid isolation that would appeal to
many. She knew that as a wealthy and unmarried baronet, he would be
greatly sought after and courted; made much of by the whole county, and
half London as well. He was so handsome, so romantic, so altogether
eligible in every way. Was it for this that he had left that note of
hers unanswered? Did he think that now that his horizon had widened the
nearer haven was hardly worth attaining? Above all, if he decided to
take that which she had so spontaneously offered, would it satisfy him?
Would he be content therewith? Had she not done better to have waited
till he came again to ask of her that which she had till the day of his
bereavement withheld?

It was useless to torture herself with such questionings. Because of her
promise to the dead, she had acted, and she could now but await the
result of her action. If he never answered,--well, she would understand.

So passed yet another day of silence.

She was busy with the household accounts that night which Mrs. Lorimer in
her woe had left in some confusion, and they kept her occupied till long
after the children had gone to bed, so late indeed that the servants also
had retired and she was left alone in the dining-room to wrestle with her
difficulties.

She found it next to impossible to straighten out the muddle, and she
came at length reluctantly to the conclusion that it was beyond her
powers. Wondering what the Reverend Stephen would have said to such a
crime, she abstracted a few shillings from her own purse and fraudulently
made up the deficit that had vexed Mrs. Lorimer's soul.

"I can write and tell her now that it has come right," she murmured to
herself, as she rose from the table.

It was close upon eleven o'clock. The house was shuttered and silent. The
stillness was intense; when suddenly, as she was in the act of lighting a
candle, the electric bell pinged through the quiet of the night.

She started and listened. The thought of Piers sprang instinctively to
her mind. Could it be he? But surely even Piers would not come to her at
this hour! It must be some parishioner in need of help.

She turned to answer the summons, but ere she reached the hall it was
repeated twice, with nervous insistence. She hastened to withdraw the
bolts and open the door.

At once a voice accosted her, and a sharp pang of disappointment or
anxiety, she knew not which, went through her.

"Mrs. Denys, is she here?" it said. "May I speak with her?"

It was the unmistakable speech of a Frenchman. By the light of the
hall-lamp, Avery saw the plump, anxious face and little pointed moustache
of the speaker. He entered uninvited and stood before her.

"Ah! But you are Mrs. Denys!" he exclaimed with relief. "_Madame_, I beg
that you will pardon me! I am come to you in distress the most profound.
You will listen to me, yes?"

He regarded her with quick black eyes that both confided and besought.
Avery's heart was beating in great throbs, she felt strangely breathless
and uncertain of herself.

"Where do you come from?" she said. "Who are you?"

But she knew the answer before it came. "I am Victor, _madame_,--Victor
Lagarde. I am the valet of _Monsieur Pierre_ almost since he was born. He
calls me his _bonne_!" A brief smile touched his worried countenance and
was gone. "And now I am come to you, _madame_,--not by his desire. _Mais
non_, he does not know even that I am here. But because he is in great,
great misery, and I cannot console him. I have not the power. And he is
all alone--all alone. And I fear--I fear--" He broke off with eloquent
hands outspread. Avery saw the tears standing in his eyes.

She closed the door softly. "What is it?" she said. "Tell me what
you fear!"

He looked at her, mastering his emotion with difficulty.
"_Madame, Monsieur Pierre_ has sentiments the most profound. He
feel--_passionnement_. He try to hide his sentiments from me. But me--I
know. He sit alone in the great hall and look--and look. He sleep--never
at all. He will not even go to bed. And in the great hall is an
_escritoire_, and in it a drawer." Victor's voice sank mysteriously.
"To-night--when he think he is alone--he open that drawer, and I see
inside. It hold a revolver, _madame_. And he look at it, touch it, and
then shake his head. But I am so afraid--so afraid. So--_enfin_--in my
trouble I come to you. You have the influence with him, is it not so? You
have--the power to console. _Madame--chere madame_--will you not come
and speak with him for five little minutes? Just to encourage him,
_madame_, in his sadness; for he is all alone!"

The tears ran down Victor's troubled face as he made his earnest appeal.
He mopped them openly, making no secret of his distress which was too
pathetic to be ludicrous.

Avery looked at him in dismay. She knew not what to say or do; and even
as she stood irresolute the hall-clock struck eleven through the silence
of the house.

Victor watched her anxiously. "_Madame_ is married," he insinuated. "She
can please herself, no? And _Monsieur Pierre_--"

"Wait a minute, please!" she interrupted gently. "I want to think."

She went to the unlatched door and stood with her face to the night. She
felt as if a call had come to her, but somehow--for no selfish
reason--she hesitated to answer. Some unknown influence held her back.

Victor came softly up and stood close to her. "_Madame_," he said in a
whisper, "I tell you a secret--I, Victor, who have known _Monsieur
Pierre_ from his infancy. He loves you, _madame_. He loves you much.
_C'est la grande passion_ which comes only once in a life--only once."

The low words went through her, seeming to sink into her very heart. She
made a slight, involuntary gesture as of wincing. There was something in
them that was almost more than she could bear.

She stood motionless with the chill night air blowing in upon her, trying
to collect her thoughts, trying to bring herself to face and consider the
matter before she made her decision. But it was useless. Those last words
had awaked within her a greater force than she could control. From the
moment of their utterance she was driven irresistibly, the decision was
no longer her own.

Piers was alone. Piers loved her--wanted her. His soul cried to hers
through the darkness. She saw him again as in her dream wrestling with
those cruel iron bars, striving with vain agony to reach her. And all
doubt went from her like a cloud.

She turned to Victor with grey eyes shining and resolute. "Let us
go!" she said.

She took a cloak from a peg in the hall, lowered the light, took the key
from the lock, and passed out into the dark.

Victor followed her closely, softly latching the door behind him. He had
known from the outset that the English _madame_ would not be able to
resist his appeal. Was not _Monsieur Pierre_ as handsome and as desirable
as though he had been a prince of the blood? He walked a pace behind her,
saying no word, fully satisfied with the success of his mission.

Avery went with swift unerring feet; yet it seemed to her afterwards as
if she had moved in a dream, for only the vaguest impression of that
journey through the night remained with her. It was dark, but the
darkness did not hinder her. She went as if drawn irresistibly--even
against her will. At the back of her mind hovered the consciousness that
she was doing a rash thing, but the woman's heart in it was too deeply
stirred to care for minor considerations. The picture of Piers in his
lonely hall hung ever before her, drawing her on.

He had not sent for her. She knew now that he would not send. Yet she
went to him on winged feet. For she knew that his need of her was great.

There was no star in the sky and the night wind moaned in the trees as
they went up the long chestnut avenue to the Abbey. The loneliness was
great. It folded them in on every hand. It seemed to hang like a pall
about the great dim building massed against the sky, as though the whole
place lay beneath a spell of mourning.

Emerging from the deep shadow of the trees, she paused for the first time
in uncertainty. Victor pressed forward instantly to her side.

"We will enter by the library, _madame_. See, I will show you the way.
From there to the great hall, it is only a few steps. And you will find
him there. I leave you alone to find him."

He led her across a dew-drenched lawn and up a flight of steps to the
door of a conservatory which gave inwards at his touch.

Obedient to his gesture, Avery entered. Her heart was beating hard and
fast. She was conscious of a wild misgiving which had not assailed her
during all the journey thither. What if he did not want her after all?
What if her coming were unwelcome?

Silently Victor piloted her, and she could not choose but follow, though
she felt sick with the sudden apprehension that had sprung to life as she
left the sleeping world outside. She seemed to be leaving her freedom,
all she valued, behind her as she entered this shadowy prison. And all
for what? Her quivering heart could find no answer.

There was a heavy scent of hothouse flowers in the air. She almost
gasped for breath in the exotic fragrance of the unseen blossoms. A
strong impulse possessed her to turn and flee by the way she had come.

"_Madame!_" It was Victor's voice, low and entreating. He had opened an
inner door, and stood waiting for her.

Had he seen her wavering resolution, she wondered? Was he trying to
hasten her ere it should wholly evaporate--to close the way of escape
ere she could avail herself of it? Or was he anxious solely on Piers'
account--lest after all she might arrive too late?

She could not determine, but the urgency of his whisper moved her. She
passed him and entered the room beyond.

It was dimly lighted by a single shaded electric lamp that illumined a
writing-table. She saw that it was the ancient library of the Abbey, a
wonderful apartment which she knew to contain an almost priceless
collection of old parchments. It was lined with bookshelves and had the
musty smell inseparable from aged bindings.

Victor motioned her silently to a door at the further end, but before
either of them could reach it there came a sudden footfall on the other
side, the handle turned sharply, and it opened.

"Ah!" exclaimed Victor, and fell back as one caught red-handed in a
crime.

Avery stood quite motionless with her heart beating up against her
throat, and a tragic sense of trespass overwhelming her. She could not
find a single word to say, so sudden and so terrible was the ordeal. She
could only wait in silence.

Piers stood still as one transfixed, with eyes that blazed sleepless out
of a drawn, pale face; then at length with a single snap of the fingers
imperiously he dismissed Victor by the still open door.

It closed discreetly upon the Frenchman's exit, and then only did Piers
move forward; he came to Avery, drew her to a chair, knelt mutely down
before her, and bowed his head upon her lap.



CHAPTER XXXVII

"LA GRANDE PASSION"


She spoke to him at last, half-frightened by his silence, yet by his
attitude wholly reassured. For he wanted her still, of that no doubt
remained. His hands were clasped behind her. He could have held her in
his arms; but he did not. He only knelt there at her feet in utter
silence, his black head pillowed on her hands.

"Piers!" she said. "Piers! Let me help you!"

He groaned in answer, and she felt a great shiver run through him. She
knew intuitively that he was battling for self-control and dared not for
the moment show his face.

"You--can't," he said at last.

"But I think I can," she urged gently. "It isn't so very long ago that
you wanted me."

"I was an infernal blackguard to tell you so!" he made answer.

And then suddenly his arms tightened about her, and he held her fast.
"That you--you, Avery,--should come to me--like this!" he said.

She freed one of her hands and laid it on his bent head. "Shall I tell
you what made me come, Piers?"

He shook his head in silence, but there was passion in the holding
of his arms.

For a space he continued to hold her so, speaking no word, and through
his silence there came to her the quick, fierce beat of his heart. Then
at length very suddenly, almost with violence, he flung his arms wide
and started to his feet.

"Avery," he said, "you were a saint to come to me like this. I shan't
forget it ever. But there's nothing--nothing you can do, except leave me
to my own devices. It's only just at first, you know, that the loneliness
seems so--awful." His voice shook unexpectedly; he swung round away from
her and walked to the end of the room.

He came back almost immediately and stood before her. "Victor was a
criminal fool to bring you here. He meant well though. He always does.
That note of yours--I ought to have answered it. I was just coming in
here to do so. I shouldn't have kept you waiting so long, but
somehow--somehow--" Again, in spite of him, his voice quivered. He turned
sharply and walked to the fireplace, leaned his arms upon it, and stood
so, his back to her, his head bent.

"It was so awfully good of you," he went on after a moment. "You always
have been--awfully good. My grandfather realized that, you know. I think
he told you so, didn't he? He wasn't really sorry that I wouldn't marry
Ina Rose. By the way, she is engaged to Dick Guyes already, so there was
not much damage done in that direction. I told you it was nothing but a
game, didn't I? You didn't quite believe me, what?"

It came to her that he was talking to gain time, that he was trying to
muster strength to give the lie to the passion that had throbbed in the
holding of his arms, that for some reason he deemed it incumbent upon him
to mask his feelings and hide from her the misery that had driven Victor
in search of her.

She rose quietly and moved across the room till she stood beside him.
"Piers," she said, "tell me what is wrong!"

He stiffened at her approach, straightened himself, faced her.
"Avery," he said, "do you know, dear, it would be better if you went
straight back again? I hate to say it. It was so dear of you,
so--so--great of you to come. But--no, there's nothing wrong,--nothing
that is, that hasn't been wrong for ages. Fact is, I'm not fit to
speak to you, never have been; far less make love to you. And I was a
cur and a brute to do it. I've had a bit of a shake-up lately. It's
made me feel my responsibilities, see things as they are. I've got an
awful lot to see to just now. I'm going to work mighty hard. I mustn't
think of--other things."

He stopped. He was looking at her, looking at her, with the red fire of
passion kindling in his eyes, a gleam so fierce and so insistent that she
was forced to lower her own. It was as if his soul cried out to her all
that he restrained his lips from uttering.

He saw her instinctive avoidance of his gaze, and turned away from her,
leaning again upon the mantelpiece as if spent.

"I can't help it, Avery. I'm so dog-tired, and I can't sleep. I'm
horribly sorry, but I'm nothing but a brute-beast to-night.
Really--really--you had better go."

There was desperation in his voice. He bowed his head upon his arms, and
she saw that his hands were clenched.

But she could not leave him so. That inner urging that had impelled her
thither warned her to remain, even against her own judgment, even against
her will. The memory of Victor's fears came back to her. She could not
turn and go.

"My dear boy," she said, speaking very gently, "do you think I don't know
that you are miserable, lonely, wretched? That is why I am here!"

"God knows how lonely!" he whispered.

Her heart stirred within her at the desolation of the words. "Nearly all
of us go through it some time," she said gently. "And if there isn't a
friend to stand by, it's very hard to bear. That is the part I want to
play--if you will let me. Won't you treat me as a friend?"

But Piers neither moved nor spoke. With his head still upon his arms he
stood silent.

She drew nearer to him. "Piers, I think I understand. I think you are a
little afraid of going too far, of--of--" her voice faltered a little in
spite of her--"of hurting my feelings. Is that it? Because,--my
dear,--you needn't be afraid any longer. If you really think I can make
you happy, I am willing--quite willing--to try."

The words were spoken, and with them she offered all she had, freely,
generously, with a quick love that was greater possibly than even she
realized.

She was standing close to him waiting for him to turn and clasp her in
his arms, as he had so nearly clasped her once against her will. But
seconds passed and he did not move, and a cold foreboding began to knock
at her heart lest after all--lest after all--his love for her had waned.

He stirred at last, just as she was on the point of turning from him,
stretched out a groping hand that found and drew her to his side. But
still he did not look at her or so much as raise his head.

He spoke after a moment in a choked voice that seemed to be wrung from
him by sheer physical torture. "Avery, don't--don't tempt me.
I--daren't!"

The anguish of the words went through her, banishing all thought of
anything else. Very suddenly she knew that he was fighting a desperate
battle for her sake, that he was striving with all the strength that was
in him to set her happiness before his own. And something that was
greater than pity entered into her with the knowledge, something so great
as to be all-possessing, compelling her to instant action.

She slipped her arm about his bent shoulders with a gesture of infinite
tenderness. "Piers--dear boy, what is it?" she said softly. "Is there
some trouble in your past--something you can't bear to speak of?
Remember, I am not a girl, I may understand--some things--better than
you think."

She felt his hold upon her tighten almost convulsively, but for a while
he made no answer.

Then at length slowly he raised his head and looked at her. "Do
you--really--think the past matters?" he said.

She met his eyes with their misery and their longing, and a tremor of
uncertainty went through her.

"Tell me, Avery!" he insisted. "If you felt yourself able to get away
from old burdens, and if--if there was no earthly reason why they should
hamper your future--" He broke off, and again his arm tightened. "It's
damnable that they should!" he muttered savagely.

"My dear, I don't know how to answer you," she said. "Are--you afraid to
be open with me? Do you think I shouldn't understand?"

His eyes fell abruptly. "I am quite sure," he said, "that it would be
easier for me to give you up." And with that he suddenly set her free and
stood up before her straight and stiff. "Let me see you home!" he said.

They faced one another in the dimness, and Avery marked afresh the
weariness of his face. He looked like a man who had come through many
days and nights of suffering.

He glanced up as she did not speak. "Shall we go?" he said.

But Avery stood hesitating, asking herself if this could indeed be the
end, if the impulse that had drawn her thither had been after all a
mistaken one, or if even yet it might not carry her further than she had
ever thought to go.

He turned towards the conservatory door by which she had entered, and
quietly opened it. A soft wind blew through to her, laden with the scent
of the wet earth and a thousand opening buds. It seemed to carry the
promise of eternal hope on unseen wings straight to her heart.

Slowly she followed him across the room, reached him, passed through into
the scented darkness. A few steps more and she would have been in the
open air, but she was uncertain of the way. The place was too dim for her
to see it. She paused for him to guide her.

The door closed behind her; she heard it softly swing on its hinges, and
then came his light footfall close to her.

"Straight on!" he said, and his voice sounded oddly cold and constrained.
"There are three steps at the end. Be careful how you go! Perhaps you
would rather wait while I fetch a light."

His tone hurt her subtly, wounding her more deeply than she had realized
that he had it in his power to wound.

She moved forward blindly with a strangled sensation at her throat and a
rush of hot tears in her eyes. She had never dreamed that Piers--the
warm-hearted, the eager--had it in him to treat her so.

The instinct to escape awoke within her. She quickened her steps and
reached the further door. Before her lay the open night, immense and
quiet and very dark. She pressed forward, hoping he would not follow,
longing only for solitude and silence.

But in her agitation she forgot his warning, forgot to tread warily, and
missed her footing on the steps. She slipped with a sharp exclamation and
went down, catching vainly at the door-post to save herself.

Piers exclaimed also, and sprang forward. His arms were about her before
she reached the ground. He lifted her bodily ere she could recover her
balance; and suddenly she knew that with the touch of her the fire of his
passion had burst into scorching flame--knew herself powerless--a woman
in the hold of her captor.

For he held her so fast that she gasped for breath, and with her head
pressed back against his shoulder, he kissed her on the lips, fiercely,
violently, hungrily--kissed her eyes, her hair, and again her lips,
sealing them closely with his own, making protest impossible. Neither
could she resist him, for he held her gathered up against his heart,
bearing her whole weight with a strength that mocked her weakness,
compelling her to lie at his mercy while the wild storm of his passion
swept on its way.

She was as one caught in the molten stream of a volcano, and
carried by the fiery current that seethed all about her, consuming
her with its heat.

Once when his lips left hers she tried to whisper his name, to call him
back from his madness; but her voice was gone. She could only gasp and
gasp till with an odd, half-savage laugh he silenced her again with those
burning kisses that made her feel that he had stormed his way to the last
and inner sanctuary of her soul, depriving her even of the right to
dispute his overwhelming possession.

Later it seemed to her that she must have been near to fainting, for
though she knew that he bore her inwards from the open door she could not
so much as raise a hand in protest. She was utterly spent and almost
beyond caring, so complete had been his conquest. When he set her on her
feet she tottered, clinging to him nervelessly for support.

He kept his arm about her, but his hold was no longer insistent. She was
aware of his passion still; it seemed to play around her like a lambent
flame; but the first fierce flare was past. He spoke to her at last in a
voice that was low but not without the arrogance of the conqueror.

"Are you very angry with me, I wonder?"

She did not answer him, for still she could not.

He went on, a vein of recklessness running through his speech. "It won't
make any difference if you are. Do you understand? I've tried to let you
go, but I can't. I must have you or die."

He paused a moment, and it seemed as if the tornado of his passion were
sweeping back again; but, curiously, he checked it.

"That's how it is with me, Avery," he said. "The fates have played a
ghastly joke on me, but you are mine in spite of it. You came to tell me
so; didn't you?"

Was there a note of pleading in his voice? She fancied so; but still she
could not speak in answer. She leaned against him with every pulse
throbbing. She dared not turn her face to his.

"Are you afraid of me, Avery?" he said, and this time surely she heard a
faint echo of that boyish humour that had first won her. "Because it's
all right, dear," he told her softly. "I've got myself in hand now. You
know, I couldn't hold you in my arms just then and not--not kiss you. You
don't hate me for it, do you? You--understand?"

Yes, she understood. Yet she felt as if he had raised a barrier between
them which nothing could ever take away. She tried to ignore it, but
could not. The glaring fact that he had not cared how much or how little
she had desired those savage kisses of his had begun already to torment
her, and she knew that she would carry the scorching memory of those
moments with her for the rest of her life.

She drew herself slowly from him. "I am going now," she said.

He put out a hand that trembled and laid it on her shoulder. "If I will
let you go, Avery!" he said, and she was again aware of the leaping of
the flame that had scarcely died down but a moment before.

She straightened herself and resolutely faced him. "I am going,
Piers," she said.

His hand tightened sharply. He caught his breath for a few tense seconds.
Then very slowly his hold relaxed; his hand fell. "You will let me see
you back," he said, and she knew by his voice that he was putting strong
force upon himself.

She turned. "No. I will go alone."

He did not move. "Please, Avery!" he said.

Her heart gave a quick throb at the low-spoken words. She paused almost
involuntarily, realizing with a great rush of thankfulness that he would
not stir a step to follow unless she gave him leave.

For an instant she stood irresolute. Then: "Come if you wish!" she said.

She heard him move, and herself passed on, descending the steps into the
dewy garden with again that odd feeling of unreality, almost as if she
walked in a dream.

He came behind her, silent as a shadow, and not till she deliberately
waited for him did he overtake and walk beside her.

No words passed between them as they went. They seemed to move through a
world of shadows,--a spell-bound, waiting world. And gradually, as if a
soothing hand had been laid upon her, Avery felt the wild tumult at her
heart subside. She remembered that he had refrained himself almost at her
first word, and slowly her confidence came back. He had appealed to her
to understand, and she could not let his appeal go wholly unanswered.

As they passed at length through the gate that led into the Vicarage
lane, she spoke. "Piers, I am not angry."

"Aren't you?" he said, and by the eager relief of his voice she knew that
her silence had been hard to bear.

She put out a hand to him as they walked. "But, Piers, that--is not the
way to make me love you."

"I know--I know," he said quickly; and then haltingly: "I've been--so
beastly lonely, Avery. Make allowances for me--forgive me!"

He had not taken her hand; she slipped it into his. "I do," she said
simply. She felt his fingers close tensely, but in a moment they opened
again and set her free.

He did not utter another word, merely walked on beside her till they
reached the Vicarage gate. She thought he would have left her there, but
he did not. They went up the drive together to the porch.

From his kennel at the side of the house Mike barked a sharp challenge
that turned into an unmistakable note of welcome as they drew near. Avery
silenced him with a reassuring word.

She found the key, and in the darkness of the porch she began to fumble
for the lock.

Piers stooped. "Let me!"

She gave him the key, and as she stood up again she noted the brightness
of the fanlight over the floor. She thought that she had lowered the
light at leaving; she had certainly intended to do so.

Very softly Piers opened the door. It swung noiselessly back upon its
hinges, and the full light smote upon them.

In the same instant a slim, white figure came calmly forward through the
hall and stopped beneath the lamp.

Olive Lorimer, pale, severe, with fixed, accusing eyes, stood
confronting them.

"Mrs. Denys!" she said, in accents of frozen surprise.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES


The encounter was so amazing, so utterly unlooked for, that Avery had a
moment of downright consternation. The child's whole air and expression
were so exactly reminiscent of her father that she almost felt as if she
stood before the Vicar himself--a culprit caught in a guilty act.

She looked at Olive without words, and Olive looked straight back at her
with that withering look of the righteous condemning the ungodly which so
often regarded a dumb but rebellious congregation through the Vicar's
stern eyes.

Piers, however, was not fashioned upon timid lines, and he stepped into
the hall without the faintest sign of embarrassment.

"Hullo, little girl!" he said. "Why aren't you in bed?"

The accusing eyes turned upon him. Olive seemed to swell with
indignation. "I was in bed long ago," she made answer, still in those
frozen tones. "May I ask what you are doing here, Mr. Evesham?"

"I?" said Piers jauntily. "Now what do you suppose?"

"I cannot imagine," the child said.

"Not really?" said Piers. "Well, perhaps when you are a little older
your imagination will develop. In the meantime, if you are a wise
little girl, you will run back to bed and leave your elders to settle
their own affairs."

Olive drew herself up with dignity. "It is not my intention to go so
long as you are in the house," she said with great distinctness.

"Indeed!" said Piers. "And why not?"

He spoke with the utmost quietness, but Avery caught the faintest tremor
in his voice that warned her that Olive was treading dangerous ground.

She hastened to intervene. "But of course you are going now," she said to
him. "It is bedtime for us all. Good-night! And thank you for walking
home with me!"

Her own tone was perfectly normal. She turned to him with outstretched
hand, but he put it gently aside.

"One minute!" he said. "I should like an answer to my question first. Why
are you so determined to see me out of the house?"

He looked straight at Olive as he spoke, no longer careless of mien, but
implacable as granite.

Olive, however, was wholly undismayed. She was the only one of the
Vicar's children who had never had cause to feel a twinge of fear. "You
had better ask yourself that question," she said, in her cool young
treble. "You probably know the answer better than I do."

Piers' expression changed. For a single instant he looked furious, but he
mastered himself almost immediately. "It's a lucky thing for you that you
are not my little girl," he observed grimly. "If you were, you should
have the slapping of your life to-night. As it is,--well, you have asked
me for an explanation of my presence here, and you shall have one. I am
here in the capacity of escort to Mrs. Denys. Have you any fault to find
with that?"

Olive returned his look steadily with her cold grey eyes while she
considered his words. She seemed momentarily at a loss for an answer, but
Piers' first remarks were scarcely of a character to secure goodwill or
allay suspicion. She rapidly made up her mind.

"I shall tell Miss Whalley in the morning," she said. "My father said I
was to go to her if anything went wrong." She added, with a malevolent
glance towards Avery, "I suppose you know that Mrs. Denys is under notice
to leave at the end of her month?"

Piers glanced at Avery too--a glance of swift interrogation. She nodded
very slightly in answer.

He looked again at Olive with eyes that gleamed in a fashion that few
could have met without quailing.

"Is she indeed?" he said. "I venture to predict that she will leave
before then. If you are anxious to impart news to Miss Whalley, you may
tell her also that Mrs. Denys is going to be my wife, and that the
marriage will take place--" he looked at Avery again and all the hardness
went out of his face--"just as soon as she will permit."

Dead silence followed the announcement. Avery's face was pale, but there
was a faint smile at her lips. She met Piers' look without a tremor. She
even drew slightly nearer to him; and he, instantly responding, slipped a
swift hand through her arm.

Olive, sternly judicial, stood regarding them in silence, for perhaps a
score of seconds. And then, still undismayed, she withdrew her forces in
good order from the field.

"In that case," she said, with the air of one closing a discussion,
"there is nothing further to be said. I suppose Mrs. Denys wishes to
be Lady Evesham. My father told me she was an adventuress. I see he
was right."

She went away with this parting shot, stepping high and holding her
head poised loftily--an absurd parody of the Vicar in his most
clerical moments.

Avery gave a little hysterical gasp of laughter as she passed out of
sight.

Piers' arm was about her in a moment. He held her against his heart.
"What a charming child, what?" he murmured.

She hid her face on his shoulder. "I think myself she was in the right,"
she said, still half laughing. "Piers, you must go."

"In a moment. Let me hear from your own dear lips first that you are
not--not angry?" He spoke the words softly into her ear. There was only
tenderness in the holding of his arms.

"I am not," she whispered back.

"Nor sorry?" urged Piers.

She turned her face a little towards him. "No, dear, not a bit
sorry; glad!"

He held her more closely but with reverence. "Avery, you don't--love
me, do you?"

"Of course I do!" she said.

"There can't be any 'of course' about it," he declared almost fiercely.
"I've been a positive brute to you. Avery--Avery, I'll never be a brute
to you again."

And there he stopped, for her arms were suddenly about his neck, her lips
raised in utter surrender to his.

"Oh, Piers," she said in a voice that thrilled him through and through,
"do you think I would have less of your love--even if it hurts me? It is
the greatest thing that has ever come into my life."

He held her head between his hands and looked into her eyes of perfect
trust. "Avery! Avery!" he said.

"I mean it!" she told him earnestly. "I have been drawing nearer to you
all the while--in spite of myself--though I tried so hard to hold back.
Piers, my past life is a dream, and this--this is the awaking. You asked
me--a long while ago--if the past mattered. I couldn't answer you then. I
was still half-asleep. But now--now you have worked the miracle--my heart
is awake, dear, and I will answer you. The past is nothing to you or me.
It matters--not--one--jot!"

Her words throbbed into the silence of his kiss. He held her long and
closely. Once--twice--he tried to speak to her and failed. In the end he
gave himself up mutely to the rapture of her arms. But his own wild
passion had sunk below the surface. He sought no more than she offered.

"Say good-bye to me now!" she whispered at length; and he kissed her
again closely, lingeringly, and let her go.

She stood in the doorway as he passed into the night, and his last sight
of her was thus, silhouetted against the darkness, a tall, gracious
figure, bending forward to discern him in the dimness.

He went back to his lonely home, back to the echoing emptiness, the
listening dark. He entered again the great hall where Sir Beverley had
been wont to sit and wait for him.

Victor was on the watch. He glided apologetically forward with shining,
observant eyes upon his young master's weary face.

"_Monsieur Pierre_!" he said insinuatingly.

Piers looked at him heavily. "Well?"

"I have put some refreshment for you in the dining-room. It is
more--more comfortable," said Victor, gently indicating the open
door. "Will you not--when you have eaten--go to bed, _mon cher, et
peut-etre dormir_?"

Very wistfully the little man proffered his suggestion. His eyes followed
Piers' movements with the dumb worship of an animal.

"Oh yes, I'll go to bed," said Piers.

He turned towards the dining-room and entered. There was no elation in
his step; rather he walked as a man who carries a heavy burden, and
Victor marked the fact with eyes of keen anxiety.

He followed him in and poured out a glass of wine, setting it before him
with a professional adroitness that did not conceal his solicitude.

Piers picked up the glass almost mechanically, and in doing so caught
sight of some letters lying on the table.

"Oh, damn!" he said wearily. "How many more?"

There were bundles of them on the study writing-table. They poured in by
every post.

Victor groaned commiseratingly. "I will take them away, yes?" he
suggested. "You will read them in the morning--when you have slept."

"Yes, take 'em away!" said Piers. "Stay a minute! What's that top one?
I'll look at that."

He took up the envelope. It was addressed in a man's square, firm writing
to "Piers Evesham, Esq., Rodding Abbey."

"Someone who doesn't know," murmured Piers, and slit it open with a sense
of relief. Some of the letters of condolence that he had received had
been as salt rubbed into a wound.

He took out the letter and glanced at the signature: "Edmund Crowther!"

Suddenly a veil seemed to be drawn across his eyes. He looked up with a
sharp, startled movement, and through a floating mist he saw his
grandmother's baffling smile from the canvas on the wall. The blood was
singing in his ears. He clenched his hands involuntarily. Crowther! He
had forgotten Crowther! And Crowther knew--how much?

But he had Crowther's promise of secrecy, so--after all--what had he to
fear? Nothing--nothing! Yet he felt as if a devil were laughing somewhere
in the room. They had caught him, they had caught him, there at the very
gates of deliverance. They were dragging him back to his place of
torment. He could hear the clanking of the chains which he had so nearly
burst asunder, could feel them coiling cold about his heart. For he also
was bound by a promise, the keeping of which meant utter destruction to
all he held good in life.

And not that alone. It meant the rending in pieces of that which was
holy, the trampling into the earth of that sacred gift which had only
now been bestowed upon him. It meant the breaking of a woman's
heart--that of the only woman in the world, the woman he worshipped, body
and soul, the woman who in spite of herself had come to love him also.

He flung up his arms with a wild gesture. The torment was more than he
could bear.

"No!" he cried. "No!" And it was as if he cried out of the midst of a
burning, fiery furnace. "I'm damned--I'm damned if I will!"

_"Monsieur Pierre! Monsieur Pierre!"_ It was Victor's voice beside him,
full of anxious remonstrance.

He looked round with dazed eyes. His arms fell to his sides. "All right,
my good Victor; I'm not mad," he said. "Don't be scared! Did you ever
hear of a chap called Damocles? He's an ancestor of mine, and history has
a funny fashion of repeating itself. But there'll be a difference this
time all the same. He couldn't eat his dinner for fear of a naked sword
falling on his head. But I'm going to eat mine--whatever happens; and
enjoy it too."

He raised his glass aloft with a reckless laugh. His eyes sought those of
the woman on the wall with a sparkle of bitter humour. He made her a
brief, defiant bow.

"And you, madam, may look on--and smile!" he said.

He drank the wine without tasting it and swung round to depart. And
again, as he went, it seemed to him that somewhere near at hand--possibly
in his own soul--a devil laughed and gibed.

Yet when he lay down at length, he slept for many hours in dreamless,
absolute repose--as a voyager who after long buffeting with wind and tide
has come at last into the quiet haven of his desire.




PART II

THE PLACE OF TORMENT




CHAPTER I

DEAD SEA FRUIT


"I doubt if the County will call," said Miss Whalley, "unless the fact
that Sir Piers is to stand for the division weighs with them. And Colonel
Rose's patronage may prove an added inducement. He probably knows that
the young man has simply married this Mrs. Denys out of pique, since his
own charming daughter would have none of him. I must say that personally
I am not surprised that Miss Rose should prefer marriage with a man of
such sterling worth as Mr. Guyes. Sir Piers may be extremely handsome and
fascinating; but no man with those eyes could possibly make a good
husband. I hear it is to be a very grand affair indeed, dear Mrs.
Lorimer,--far preferable in my opinion to the hole-in-a-corner sort of
ceremony that took place this morning."

"They both of them wished it to be as quiet as possible," murmured Mrs.
Lorimer. "She being a widow and he--poor lad!--in such deep mourning."

"Indecent haste, I call it," pronounced Miss Whalley severely, "with the
earth still fresh on his poor dear grandfather's grave! A May wedding
too! Most unsuitable!"

"He said he was so lonely," pleaded Mrs. Lorimer gently. "And after all
it was what his grandfather wished,--so he told me."

Miss Whalley gave a high-bred species of snort. "My dear Mrs. Lorimer,
that young man would tell you anything. Why, his grandfather was an
inveterate woman-hater, as all the world knows."

"I know," agreed Mrs. Lorimer. "That was really what made it so
remarkable. I assure you, Miss Whalley,--Piers came to me only last night
and told me with tears in his eyes--that just at the last poor Sir
Beverley said to him: 'I believe you've pitched on the right woman after
all, lad. Anyway, she cares for you--more than ordinary. Marry her as
quick as you can--and my blessing on you both!' They were almost the last
words he spoke," said Mrs. Lorimer, wiping her own eyes. "I thought it
was so dear of Piers to tell me."

"No doubt," sniffed Miss Whalley. "He is naturally anxious to secure
your goodwill. But I wonder very much what point of view the dear Vicar
takes of the matter. If I mistake not, he took Mrs. Denys's measure some
time ago."

"Did he?" said Mrs. Lorimer vaguely.

Miss Whalley looked annoyed. The Vicar's wife obviously lacked sufficient
backbone to quarrel on the subject. She was wont to say that she detested
invertebrate women.

"I think the Vicar was not altogether surprised," Mrs. Lorimer went on,
in her gentle, conversational way. "You see, Piers had been somewhat
assiduous for some time. I myself, however, did not fancy that dear Avery
wished to encourage him."

"Pooh!" said Miss Whalley. "It was the chance of her life."

A faint flush rose in Mrs. Lorimer's face. "She is a dear girl," she
said. "I don't know what I shall do without her."

"The children are getting older now," said Miss Whalley. "Jeanie ought to
be able to take her place to a very great extent."

"My little Jeanie is not strong," murmured Mrs. Lorimer. "She does what
she can, but her lessons tire her so. She never has much energy left,
poor child. She has not managed to finish her holiday-task yet, and it
occupies all her spare time. I told the Vicar that I really did not think
she was equal to it. But--" the sentence went into a heavy sigh, and
further words failed.

"The Vicar is always very judicious with his children," observed
Miss Whalley.

"He does not err on the side of mercy," said his wife pathetically. "And
he does not seem to realize that Jeanie lacks the vitality of the
others,--though how they ever got through their tasks I can't imagine. It
must have been dear Avery's doing. She is a genius with children. They
all managed it but poor Jeanie. How ever we shall get on without her I
cannot think."

"But she was under notice to go, I am told," observed Miss Whalley.

"Yes,--yes, I know. But I had hoped that the Vicar might relent. You see,
she has been invaluable to us in so many ways. However, I hope when she
comes back that we shall see a great deal of her. She is so good to the
children and they adore her."

"I doubt if she will have much time to bestow upon them if the County
really do decide to accept her," remarked Miss Whalley. "You forget that
she is now Lady Evesham, my dear Mrs. Lorimer, and little likely to
remember old friends now that she has attained the summit of her
ambition."

"I don't think Avery would forget us if she became a royal princess,"
said Mrs. Lorimer, with a confidence that Miss Whalley found peculiarly
irritating.

"Ah well, we shall see, we shall see!" she said. "I for one shall be
extremely surprised if she elects to remain on the same intimate footing.
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
persuasively.

She suffered him to put it to her lips and drank submissively. But in a
moment she put up a restraining hand. "You finish it!" she said, and
pushed it gently towards him.

He took it and held it high. The light gleamed crimson in the wine; it
glowed like liquid fire. A moment he held it so, then without a word he
carried it to his lips and drained it.

A second later there came the sound of splintering glass, and Avery,
turning in her chair, discovered that he had flung it over his shoulder.

She gazed at him in amazement astonished by his action. "Piers!"

But something in his face checked her. "No one will ever drink out of
that glass again," he said. "Are you ready? Shall we go in the garden for
a breath of air?"

She went with him, but on the terrace outside he stopped impulsively.
"Avery darling, I don't mean to be a selfish beast; but I've got to prowl
for a bit. Would you rather go to bed?"

His arm was round her; she leaned against him half-laughing. "Do you
know, dear, that bedroom frightens me with its magnificence! Don't prowl
too long!"

He bent to her swiftly. "Avery! Do you want me?"

"Just to scare away the bogies," she made answer, with a lightness that
scarcely veiled a deeper feeling. "And when you've done that--quite
thoroughly--perhaps--" She stopped.

"Perhaps--" whispered Piers.

"Perhaps I'll tell you a secret," she said still lightly. "By the way,
dear, I found a letter from Mr. Crowther waiting for me. I put it in your
room for you to read. He writes so kindly. Wouldn't you like him to be
our first visitor?"

There was a moment's silence before Piers made answer.

"To be sure," he said then. "We mustn't forget Crowther. You wrote and
told him everything, I suppose?"

"Yes, everything. He seems very fond of you, Piers. But you must read his
letter. It concerns you quite as much as it does me. There! I am going.
Good-bye! Come up soon!"

She patted his shoulder and turned away. Somehow it had not been easy to
speak of Crowther. She had known that in doing so she had introduced an
unwelcome subject. But Crowther was too great a friend to ignore. She
felt that she had treated him somewhat casually already; for it was only
the previous week that she had written to tell him of her marriage.

Crowther was in town, studying hard for an examination, and she felt
convinced that he would be willing to pay them a visit. She also knew
that for some reason Piers was reluctant to ask him, but she felt that
that fact ought not to influence her. For she owed a debt of gratitude to
Crowther which she could never forget.

But all thought of Crowther faded from her mind when she found herself
once more in that eerie, tapestry-hung bedroom. The place had been
lighted with candles, but they only seemed to emphasize the gloom. She
wondered how often the last Lady Evesham--the warm-blooded, passionate
Italian woman with her love of the sun and all things beautiful--had
stood as she stood now and shuddered at the dreary splendour of her
surroundings. How homesick she must have been, Avery thought to herself,
as she undressed in the flickering candle-light! How her soul must have
yearned for the glittering Southern life she had left!

She thought of Sir Beverley. He must have been very like Piers in his
youth, less fierce, less intense, but in many ways practically the same,
giving much and demanding even more, restless and exacting, but withal so
lovable, so hard to resist, so infinitely dear. All her love for Piers
throbbed suddenly up to the surface. How good he was to her! What would
life be without him? She reproached herself for ingratitude and
discontent. Life was a beautiful thing if only she would have it so.

She knelt down at length by the deep cushioned window-seat and began to
pray. The night was dim and quiet, and as she prayed she gradually
forgot the shadows behind her and seemed to lose herself in the
immensity of its peace. She realized as never before that by her love
she must prevail. It was the one weapon, unfailing and invincible, that
alone would serve her, when she could rely upon no other. She knew that
he had felt its influence, that there were times when he did instinctive
reverence to it, as to that which is holy. She knew moreover that there
was that within him that answered to it as it were involuntarily--a
fiery essence in which his passion had no part which dwelt deep down in
his turbulent heart--a germ of greatness which she knew might blossom
into Love Immortal.

He was young, he was young. He wanted life, all he could get of it. And
he left the higher things because as yet he was undeveloped. He had not
felt that hunger of the spirit which only that which is spiritual can
satisfy. It would come. She was sure it would come. She was watching for
it day by day. His wings were still untried. He did not want to soar. But
by-and-bye the heights would begin to draw him. And then--then they would
soar together. But till that day dawned, her love must be the guardian of
them both.

There came a slight sound in the room behind her. She turned
swiftly. "Piers!"

He was close to her. As she started to her feet his arms enclosed her. He
looked down into her eyes, holding her fast pressed to him.

"I didn't mean to disturb you," he said. "But--when I saw you were
praying--I had to come in. I wanted so awfully to know--if you would get
an answer."

"But, Piers!" she protested.

He kissed her lips. "Don't be angry, Avery! I'm not scoffing. I don't
know enough about God to scoff at Him. Tell me! Do you ever get an
answer, or are you content to go jogging on like the rest of the
world without?"

She made an effort to free herself. "Do you know, Piers, I can't talk to
you about--holy things--when you are holding me like this."

He looked stubborn. "I don't know what you mean by holy things. I'm not a
believer. At least I don't believe in prayer. I can get all I want
without it."

"I wonder!" Avery said.

She was still trying to disengage herself, but as he held her with
evident determination she desisted.

There followed a silence during which her grey eyes met his black ones
steadily, fearlessly, resolutely. Then in a whisper Piers spoke, his lips
still close to hers. "Tell me what you were praying for, sweetheart!"

She smiled a little. "No, dear, not now! It's nothing that's in your
power to give me. Shall we sit on the window-seat and talk?"

But Piers was loath to let her go from his arms. He knelt beside her as
she sat, still holding her.

She put her arm round his neck. "Do you remember your Star of Hope?" she
asked him softly.

"I remember," said Piers, but he did not turn his eyes to the night sky;
they still dwelt upon her.

Avery's face was toward the window. The drapery fell loosely away from
her throat. He stooped forward suddenly and pressed his hot lips upon her
soft white flesh.

A little tremor went through her at his touch; she kept her face
turned from him.

"Have you really got all you want?" she asked after a moment. "Is there
nothing at all left to hope for?"

"Didn't we drink to the future only to-night?" he said.

His arms were drawing her, but still she kept her face turned away. "Did
you mean anything by that?" she asked. "Were you--were you thinking of
anything special?"

He did not at once answer her. He waited till with an odd reluctance she
turned her face towards him. Then, "I was thinking of you," he said.

Her heart gave a quick throb. "Of me?" she questioned below her breath.

"Of you," he said again. "For myself, I have got all I can ever hope for.
But you--you would be awfully happy, wouldn't you, if--"

"If--" murmured Avery.

He stooped again to kiss her white bosom. "And it would be a bond between
us," he said, as if continuing some remark he had not uttered.

She turned more fully to him. "Do we need that?" she said.

"We might--some day," he answered, in a tone that somehow made it
impossible for her to protest. "Anyhow, my darling, I knew,--I guessed.
And I'm awfully glad--for your sake."

She bent towards him. "Not for your own?" she whispered pleadingly.

He laid his head suddenly down upon her knees with a sound that was
almost a groan.

"Piers!" she said in distress.

He was silent for a space, then slowly raised himself. She had a sense
of shock at sight of his face. It looked haggard and grey, as if a
withering hand had touched him and shorn away his youth.

"Avery,--oh, Avery," he said, "I wish I were a better man!"

It was a cry wrung from his soul--the hungry cry which she had longed to
hear, and it sent a great joy through her even though it wrung her own
soul also.

She bent to him swiftly. "Dearest, we all feel that sometimes. And I
think it is the Hand of God upon us, opening our eyes."

He did not answer or make any response to her words. Only as he clasped
her to him, she heard him sigh. And she knew that, strive as he might to
silence that soul-craving with earthly things, it would beat on
unsatisfied through all. She came nearer to understanding him that night
that ever before.



CHAPTER III

THE FIRST GUEST


"I am greatly honoured to be your first guest," said Crowther.

"The honour is ours to get you," Avery declared. She sat on the terrace
whither she had conducted him, and smiled at him across the tea-table
with eyes of shining friendship.

Crowther smiled back, thinking to himself how pleasant a picture she
made. She was dressed in white, and her face was flushed and happy, even
girlish in its animation. There was a ring of laughter in her voice when
she talked that was very good to hear. She had herself just brought him
from the station in Piers' little two-seater, and her obvious pleasure at
meeting him still hung about her, making her very fair to see.

"Piers is so busy just now," she told him. "He sent all sorts of
messages. He had to go over to Wardenhurst to see Colonel Rose. The M.P.
for this division retired at the end of the Session, and Piers is to
stand for the constituency. They talk of having the election in October."

"Will he get in?" asked Crowther, still watching her with friendly
appreciation in his eyes.

"Oh, I don't know. I expect so. He gets most things that he sets his
heart on. His grandfather--you knew Sir Beverley?--was so anxious that he
should enter Parliament."

"Yes, I knew Sir Beverley," said Crowther. "He thought the world
of Piers."

"And Piers of him," said Avery.

"Ah! Was it a great blow to him when the old man died?"

"A very great blow," she answered soberly. "That was the main reason for
our marrying so suddenly. The poor boy was so lonely I couldn't bear to
think of him by himself in this great house."

"He was very lucky to get you," said Crowther gravely.

She smiled. "I was lucky too. Don't you think so? I never in my wildest
dreams pictured such a home as this for myself."

A great magnolia climbed the house behind her with creamy flowers that
shed their lemon fragrance all about them. Crowther compared her in his
own mind to the wonderful blossoms. She was so sweet, so pure, yet also
in a fashion so splendid.

"I think it is a very suitable setting for you, Lady Evesham!" he said.

She made a quick, impulsive movement towards him. "Do call me
Avery!" she said.

"Thank you," he answered, with a smile. "It certainly seems more natural.
How long have you been in this home of yours, may I ask?"

"Only a fortnight," she said, laughing. "Our honeymoon took ten weeks.
Piers wanted to make it ten years; but the harvest was coming on, and I
knew he ought to come back and see what was happening. And then Mr.
Ferrars resigned his seat, and it became imperative. But isn't it a
beautiful place?" she ended. "I felt overwhelmed by the magnificence of
it at first, but I am getting used to it now."

"A glorious place," agreed Crowther. "Piers must be very proud of it.
Have you begun to have many visitors yet?"

She shook her head. "No, not many. Nearly all the big people have gone
to Scotland. Piers says they will come later, but I shall not mind them
so much then. I shall feel less like an interloper by that time."

"I don't know why you should feel like that," said Crowther. Avery
smiled. "Well, all the little people think that I set out to catch Piers
for his money and his title."

"Does what the little people think have any weight with you?"
asked Crowther.

She flushed faintly under the kindly directness of his gaze. "Not really,
I suppose. But one can't quite shake off the feeling of it. There is the
Vicar for instance. He has never liked me. He congratulates me almost
every time we meet."

"Evidently a cad," commented Crowther in his quiet way.

Avery laughed a little. She had always liked this man's plain speech. "He
is not the only one," she said.

"But you have friends--real friends--also?" he questioned.

"Oh yes; indeed! The Vicarage children and their mother are the greatest
friends I have." Avery spoke with warmth. "The children are having tea
down in one of the cornfields now. We must go and see them presently. You
are fond of children, I know."

"I sort of love them," said Crowther with his slow, kind smile. "Ah,
Piers, my lad, are you trying to steal a march on us? Did you think I
didn't know?"

He spoke without raising his voice. Avery turned sharply to see her
husband standing on the steps of a room above them. One glimpse she had
of Piers' face ere he descended and joined them, and an odd feeling of
dismay smote her. For that one fleeting moment there seemed, to be
something of the cornered beast in his aspect.

But as he came straight down to Crowther and wrung his hand, his dark
face was smiling a welcome. He was in riding-dress, and looked very
handsome and young.

"How did you know it was I? Awfully pleased to see you! Sorry I couldn't
get back sooner. I've been riding like the devil. Avery explained, did
she?" He threw himself into a chair, and tossed an envelope into her lap.
"An invitation to Ina Rose's wedding on the twenty-third. That's the week
after next. They are sorry they can't manage to call before, hope you'll
understand and go. I said you should do both."

"Thank you, Piers." Avery laid the envelope aside unopened. She did not
feel that he was being very cordial to Crowther. "I am not sure that I
shall go."

"Oh yes, you will," he rejoined quickly. "You must. It's an order, see?"
His dark eyes laughed at her, but there was more than a tinge of
imperiousness in his manner. "Well, Crowther, how are you? Getting ready
to scatter the Philistines? Don't give me milk, Avery! You know I hate it
at this time of day."

She looked at him in surprise. He had never used that impatient tone
to her before. "I didn't know," she observed simply, as she handed
him his cup.

"Well, you know now," he rejoined with an irritable frown. "Hurry up,
Crowther! I want you to come and see the crops."

Avery was literally amazed by his manner. He had never been so frankly
and unjustifiably rude to her before. She came to the conclusion that
something had happened at the Roses' to annoy him; but that he should
visit his annoyance upon her was a wholly new experience.

He drank his tea, talking hard to Crowther the while, and finally sprang
to his feet as if in a ferment to be gone.

"Won't Lady Evesham come too?" asked Crowther, as he rose.

Avery rose also. "Yes, I have promised the children to join them in the
cornfield," she said.

Piers said nothing; but she had a very distinct impression that he would
have preferred her to remain behind. The wonder crossed her mind if he
were jealous because he could no longer have her exclusively to himself.

They walked down through the park to the farm. It was a splendid August
evening. The reaping was still in progress, and the whirr of the machine
rose slumbrous through the stillness. But of the Vicarage children there
was at first no sign.

Avery searched for them in surprise. She had sent a picnic basket down to
the farm earlier in the afternoon, and she had expected to find them
enjoying the contents thereof in a shady corner. But for a time she
searched in vain.

"They must have gone home," said Piers.

But she did not believe they would have left without seeing her, and she
went to the farm to make enquiries.

Here she heard that the picnic-party had taken place and that the basket
had been brought back by one of the men, but for some reason the children
had evidently gone home early, for they had not been seen since.

Avery wanted to run to the Vicarage and ascertain if all were well, but
Piers vetoed this.

"It's too hot," he said. "And you'll only come in for some row with the
Reverend Stephen. I won't have you go, Avery. Stay with us!"

His tone was peremptory, and Avery realized that his assumption of
authority was intentional. A rebellious spirit awoke within her, but she
checked it. Something had gone wrong, she was sure. He would tell her
presently what it was.

She yielded therefore to his desire and remained with them. They spent a
considerable time in the neighbourhood of the farm, in all of which
Crowther took a keen interest. Avery tried to be interested too, but
Piers' behaviour troubled and perplexed her. He seemed to be all on edge,
and more than once his manner to Crowther also verged upon abruptness.

They were leaving the farm to turn homeward when there came to Avery the
sound of flying feet along the lane outside. She went to the gate, and
beheld Gracie, her face crimson with heat, racing towards her.

Avery moved to meet her, surprised by her sudden appearance. She was
still more surprised when Gracie reached her, flung tempestuous arms
about her, and broke into stormy crying on her breast.

"My dear! My dear! What has happened?" Avery asked in distress.

But Gracie was for the moment quite beyond speech. She hung upon Avery,
crying as if her heart would break.

Piers came swiftly down the path. "Why, Pixie, what's the matter?" he
said.

He put his hand on her shoulder, drawing her gently to lean against
himself, for in her paroxysm of weeping she had thrown herself upon Avery
with childish unrestraint.

"Who's been bullying you, Pixie?" he said.

"Nobody! Nobody!" sobbed Gracie. She transferred herself to his arms
almost mechanically, so overwhelming was her woe. "Oh, it's dreadful!
It's dreadful!" she cried.

He patted her soothingly, his cheek against her fair hair. "Well, what is
it, kiddie? Let's hear! One of the youngsters in trouble, what? Not
Jeanie, I say?"

"No, no, no! It's--Mike." The name came out with a great burst of tears.

"Mike!" Piers looked at Avery, mystified for the moment. "Ah, to be sure!
The dog! Well, what's happened to him? He isn't dead, what?"

"He is! He is!" sobbed Gracie. "He--he has been killed--by--by his
own chain!"

"What!" said Piers again.

Gaspingly she told him the tragic tale. "Father always will have him kept
on the chain, and--and--"

"An infernally cruel thing to do!" broke indignantly from Piers.

"Yes, we--we all said so. And we tried to give him little outings
sometimes to--to make up. But to-day--somehow--we forgot him, and--and he
must have seen us go, and jumped the wall after us. Pat and I went back
afterwards to fetch him, and found him--found him--oh, Piers!" She cried
out in sudden agony and said no more.

"Choked?" said Piers. "Choked with his own chain, poor devil!" He looked
up again at Avery with something unfathomable in his eyes. "Oh, don't cry
so, child!" he said. "A chained creature is happier dead--a thousand
times happier!"

He spoke passionately, so passionately that Gracie's wild grief was
stayed. She lifted her face, all streaming with tears. "Do you think
so really?"

"Of course I think so," he said. "Life on a chain is misery unspeakable.
No one with any heart could condemn a dog to that! It's the refinement of
cruelty. Don't wish the poor beast back again! Be thankful he's gone!"

The vehemence of his speech was such that it carried conviction even to
Gracie's torn heart. She looked up at him with something of wonder and of
awe. "If only--he hadn't suffered so!" she whispered.

He put his hand on her forehead and smoothed back the clustering hair.
"You poor kid!" he said pityingly. "You've suffered much more than he did
at the end. But it's over. Don't fret! Don't fret!"

Gracie lifted trembling lips to be kissed. He was drying her eyes with
his own handkerchief as tenderly as any woman. He stooped and kissed her.
"Look here! I'll walk home with you," he said. "Avery, you go back with
Crowther! I shan't be late."

Avery turned at once. The sight of Piers soothing the little girl's
distress had comforted her subtly. She felt that his mood had softened.

"Won't you go too?" said Crowther, as she joined him. "Please don't stay
on my account! I am used to being alone, and I can find my own way back."

"Oh no!" she said. "I had better come with you. I shan't be wanted now."

They started to walk back among the shocks of corn; but they had not gone
many yards when Gracie came running after them, reached them, flung her
arms about Avery.

"Good-bye, darling Avery!" she said.

Avery held her close. She was sobbing still, but the first wild anguish
of her grief was past.

"Good-bye, darling!" Avery whispered, after a moment.

Grade's arms tightened. "You think like Piers does?" she murmured. "You
think poor Mikey is happier now?"

Avery paused an instant. The memory of Piers' look as he had uttered the
words: "Choked with his own chain, poor devil!" seemed to grip her heart.
Then: "Yes, dearie," she said softly. "I think as Piers does. I am
glad--for poor Mikey's sake--that his troubles are over."

"Then I'll try and be glad too," sobbed poor Gracie. "But it's very, very
difficult. Pat and I loved him so, and he--he loved us."

"My dear, that love won't die," Avery said gently.

"The gift immortal," said Crowther. "The only thing that counts."

She looked round at him quickly, but his eyes were gazing straight into
the sunset--steadfast eyes that saw to the very heart of things.

"And Life in Death," he added quietly.



CHAPTER IV

THE PRISONER IN THE DUNGEON


Avery was already dressed when she heard Piers enter his room and say a
word to Victor. She stood by her window waiting. It was growing late, but
she felt sure he would come to her.

She heard Victor bustling about in his resilient fashion, and again
Piers' voice, somewhat curt and peremptory, reached her through the
closed door. He was evidently dressing at full speed. She was conscious
of a sense of disappointment, though she kept it at bay, reminding
herself that they must not keep their guest waiting.

But presently, close upon the dinner-hour, she went herself to the door
of her husband's room and knocked.

His voice answered her immediately, but it still held that unwonted
quality of irritation in it. "Oh, Avery, I can't let you in. I'm sorry.
Victor's here."

Something--a small, indignant spirit--sprang up within her in response.
"Send Victor away!" she said. "I want to come in."

"I shall be late if I do," he made answer. "I'm horribly late as it is."

But for once Avery's habitual docility was in abeyance. "Send Victor
away!" she reiterated.

She heard Piers utter an impatient word, and then in a moment or two he
raised his voice again. "Come in then! What is it?"

She opened the door with an odd unaccustomed feeling of trepidation.

He was standing in his shirt-sleeves brushing his hair vigorously at the
table. His back was towards her, but the glass reflected his face, and
she saw that his brows were drawn into a single hard black line. His lips
were tightly compressed. He looked undeniably formidable.

"Don't you want me, Piers?" she asked, pausing in the doorway.

His eyes flashed up to hers in the glass, glowing with the smouldering
fire, oddly fitful, oddly persistent. "Come in!" he said, without
turning. "What is it?"

She went forward to him. "Did you go to the Vicarage?" she asked. "Are
they in great trouble?"

She thought she saw relief in his face at her words. "Oh yes," he said.
"Mrs. Lorimer crying as usual, Jeanie trying to comfort her. I did my
best to hearten them up but you know what they are. I say, sit down!"

"No, I am going," she answered gently. "Did you get on all right this
afternoon?"

"Oh yes," he said again. "By the way, we must get a wedding-present for
Ina Rose and another for Guyes. You'll come to the wedding, Avery?"

"If you wish it, dear," she said quietly.

He threw down his brushes and turned fully to her. "Avery darling, I'm
sorry I was bearish this afternoon. You won't punish me for it?"

"Punish you, my own Piers!" she said.

"Because I can't stand it," he said recklessly. "There are certain forms
of torture that drive a man crazy. Bear with me--all you can!"

His quick pleading touched her, went straight to her heart. She put her
hands on his shoulders, lifting her face for his kiss. "It's all right,
dear," she said.

"Is it?" he said. "Is it?" He took her face between his hands, gazing
down at her with eyes of passionate craving. "Say you love me!" he urged
her suddenly. "Say it!"

Her heart sank within her. She made a movement as if to withdraw herself;
but he caught her fiercely to him, his hot lips sought and held her own.
She felt as if a flame encompassed her, scorching her, consuming her.

"Say you love me!" he whispered again between those fiery kisses.
"Avery, I must have your soul as well. Do more than bear with me! Want
me--want me!"

There was more than passion in the words. They came to her like a cry of
torment. She braced herself to meet his need, realizing it to be greater
than she knew.

"Piers! Piers!" she said. "I am altogether yours. I love you. Don't
you know it?"

He drew a deep, quivering breath. "Yes--yes, I do know it," he said.
"But--but--Avery, I would go through hell for you. You are my religion,
my life, my all. I am not that to you. If--if I were dragged down, you
wouldn't follow me in."

His intensity shocked her, but she would not have him know it. She
sought to calm his agitation though she possessed no key thereto. "My
dear," she said, "you are talking wildly. You don't know what you are to
me, and I can't even begin to tell you. But surely--by now--you can take
me on trust."

He made a curious sound that was half-laugh, half-groan. "You don't know
yourself, Avery," he said.

"But you don't doubt my love, Piers," she protested very earnestly. "You
know that it would never fail you."

"Your love is like the moonlight, Avery," he answered. "It is all
whiteness and purity. But mine--mine is red like the fire that is
under the earth. And though sometimes it scorches you, it never quite
reaches you. You stoop to me, but you can't lift me. You are too far
above. And the moonlight doesn't always reach to the prisoner in the
dungeon either."

"All the same dear, don't be afraid that it will ever fail you!" she
said.

He kissed her again, hotly, lingeringly, and let her go. "Perhaps I shall
remind you of that one day," he said.

All through dinner his spirits were recklessly high. He talked
incessantly, playing the host with a brilliant ease that betrayed no sign
of strain. He did not seem to have a care in the world, and Avery
marvelled at his versatility.

She herself felt weary and strangely sick at heart. Those few words of
his had been a bitter revelation to her. She knew now what was wanting
between them. He desired passion from her rather than love. He had no use
for spiritual things. And she,--she knew that she shrank inwardly
whenever she encountered that fierce, untamed desire of his. It fettered
her spirit, it hung upon her like an overpowering weight. She could not
satisfy his wild Southern nature. He crushed her love with the very
fierceness of his possession and ever cried to her for more. He seemed
insatiable. Even though she gave him all she had, he still hungered,
still strove feverishly to possess himself of something further.

She felt worn out, body and soul, and she could not hide it. She was
unspeakably glad when at length the meal was over and she was able to
leave the table.

Crowther opened the door for her, looking at her with eyes of kindly
criticism.

"You look tired," he said. "I hope you don't sit up late."

She smiled at him. "Oh no! We will make Piers play to us presently, and
then I will say good-night."

"Then we mustn't keep you waiting long," he said. "So Piers is a
musician, is he? I didn't know."

"You had better go to bed, Avery; it's late," said Piers abruptly. "I
can't play to-night. The spirit doesn't move me." He rose from the table
with a careless laugh. "Say good-night to her, Crowther, and let her go!
We will smoke in the garden."

There was finality in his tone, its lightness notwithstanding. Again
there came to Avery the impulse to rebel, and again instinctively she
caught it back. She held out her hand to Crowther.

"I am dismissed then," she said. "Good-night!"

His smile answered hers. He looked regretful, but very kindly. "I am glad
to see Piers takes care of you," he said.

She laughed a little drearily as she went away, making no other response.

Crowther turned back to the table with its shaded candles and gleaming
wine. He saw that Piers' glass was practically untouched.

Piers himself was searching a cabinet for cigars. He found what he
sought, and turned round with the box in his hand.

"I don't know what you generally smoke," he said. "Will you try one of
these? It's a hot night. We may as well have coffee in the garden."

He seemed possessed with a spirit of restlessness, just as he had been on
that night at the Casino in the spring. Crowther, massive and
self-contained, observed him silently.

They went out on to the terrace, and drank their coffee in the dewy
stillness. But even there Piers could not sit still. He prowled to and
fro eternally, till Crowther set down his cup and joined him, pushing a
quiet hand through his arm.

"It's a lovely place you've got here, sonny," he said; "a regular garden
of Paradise. I almost envy you."

"Oh, you needn't do that. There's a serpent in every Eden," said Piers,
with a mirthless laugh.

He did not seek to keep Crowther at arm's length, but neither did he
seem inclined for any closer intimacy. His attitude neither invited nor
repelled confidence. Yet Crowther knew intuitively that his very
indifference was in itself a barrier that might well prove
insurmountable.

He walked in silence while Piers talked intermittently of various
impersonal matters, drifting at length into silence himself.

In the western wing of the house a light burned at an upper window, and
Crowther, still quietly observant, noted how at each turn Piers' eyes
went to that light as though drawn by some magnetic force.

Gently at length he spoke. "She doesn't look altogether robust, sonny."

Piers started sharply as if something had pricked him. "What? Avery do
you mean? No, she isn't over and above strong--just now."

He uttered the last two words as if reluctantly, yet as if some measure
of pride impelled him.

Crowther's hand pressed his arm, in mute sympathy. "You are right to
take care of her," he said simply. "And Piers, my lad, I want to tell you
how glad I was to know that you were able to win her after all. I somehow
felt you would."

It was his first attempt to pass that intangible barrier, and it failed.
Piers disregarded the words as if they had not reached him.

"I don't know if I shall let her stay here through the winter," he said.
"I am not sure that the place suits her. It's damp, you know; good
hunting and so on, but a bit depressing in bad weather. Besides I'd
rather have her under a town doctor. The new heir arrives in March," he
said, with a slight laugh that struck Crowther as unconsciously pathetic.

"I'm very pleased to hear it, sonny," said Crowther. "May he be
the first of many! What does Avery think about it? I'll warrant
she's pleased?"

"Oh yes, she's pleased enough."

"And you, lad?"

"Oh yes, I'm pleased too," said Piers, but his tone lacked complete
satisfaction and he added after a moment, "I'd rather have had her to
myself a bit longer. I'm a selfish brute, you know, Crowther. I want all
I can get--and even that's hardly enough to keep me from starvation."

There was a note of banter in his voice, but there was something else as
well that touched Crowther's kindly heart.

"I don't think Avery is the sort of woman to sacrifice her husband to her
children," he said. "You will always come first, sonny,--if I know her."

"I couldn't endure anything else," said Piers, with sudden fire. "She is
the mainspring of my life."

"And you of hers," said Crowther.

Piers stopped dead in his walk and faced him. "No,--no, I'm not!" he
said, speaking quickly, unrestrainedly. "I'm a good deal to her, but I'm
not that. She gives, but she never offers. If I went off on a journey
round the world to-morrow, she'd see me go quite cheerfully, and she'd
wait serenely till I came back again. She'd never fret. Above all, she'd
never dream of coming to look for me."

The passionate utterance went into a sound that resembled a laugh, but it
was a sound of such bitterness that Crowther was strongly moved.

He put his hand on Piers' shoulder and gave it an admonitory shake. "My
dear lad, don't be a fool!" he said, with slow force. "You're consuming
your own happiness--and hers too. You can't measure a woman's feelings
like that. They are immeasurable. You can't even begin to fathom a
woman's restraint--a woman's reserve. How can she offer when you are
always demanding? As to her love, it is probably as infinitely great, as
infinitely deep, as infinitely selfless, as yours is passionate, and
fierce and insatiable. There are big possibilities in you, Piers; but
you're not letting 'em grow. It would have done you good to have been
kept waiting ten years or more. You're spoilt; that's what's the matter
with you. You got your heart's desire too easily. You think this world is
your own damn playground. And it isn't. Understand? You're put here to
work, not play; to develop yourself, not batten on other people. You won
her like a man in the face of desperate odds. You paid a heavy price for
her. But even so, you don't deserve to keep her if you forget that she
has paid too. By Heaven, Piers, she must have loved you a mighty lot to
have done it!"

He paused, for Piers had made a sharp, involuntary movement as of a man
in intolerable pain. He almost wrenched himself from Crowther's hand, and
walked to the low wall of the terrace. Here he stood for many seconds
quite motionless, gazing down over the quiet garden.

Finally he swung round, and looked at Crowther. "Yes," he said, in an odd
tone as of one repeating something learned by heart. "I've got to
remember that, haven't I? Thanks for--reminding me!" He stopped, seemed
to collect himself, moved slowly forward. "You're a good chap, Crowther,"
he said. "I wonder you've never got married yourself, what?"

Crowther waited for him quietly, in his eyes that look of the man who has
gazed for long over the wide spaces of the earth.

"I never married, sonny," he said, "because I had nothing to offer to the
woman I cared for, and so--she never knew."

"By gad, old chap, I'm sorry," said Piers impulsively.

Crowther held out a steady hand. "I'm happy enough," he said simply.
"I've got--all I want."

"All?" echoed Piers incredulously.

Crowther was smiling. He lifted his face to the night sky. "Yes,--thank
God,--all!" he said.



CHAPTER V

THE SWORD FALLS


As Miss Whalley had predicted, Ina Rose's wedding was a very grand affair
indeed. Everyone who was anyone attended it, and a good many besides. It
took place in the midst of a spell of sultry weather, during which the
sun shone day after day with brazen strength and the heat was intense.

It was the sort of weather Piers revelled in. It suited his tropical
nature. But it affected Avery very differently. All her customary energy
wilted before it, and yet she was strangely restless also. A great
reluctance to attend the wedding possessed her, wherefore she could not
have said. But for some reason Piers was determined that she should go.
He was even somewhat tyrannical on the subject, and rather than have a
discussion Avery had yielded the point. For Piers was oddly difficult in
those days. Crowther's visit, which had barely run into forty-eight
hours, seemed to have had a disquieting effect upon him. There had
developed a curious, new-born mastery in his attitude towards her, which
she sometimes found it hard to endure. She missed the chivalry of the
early days. She missed the sweetness of his boyish adoration.

She did not understand him, but she knew that he was not happy. He never
took her into his confidence, never alluded by word or sign to the change
which he must have realized that she could not fail to notice. And Avery
on her part made no further effort to open the door that was so
strenuously locked against her. With an aching heart she gave herself to
the weary task of waiting, convinced that sooner or later the nature of
the barrier which he so stubbornly ignored would be revealed to her. But
it was impossible to extend her full confidence to him. Moreover, he
seemed to shrink from all intimate subjects. Instinctively and wholly
involuntarily she withdrew into herself, meeting reserve with reserve.
Since he had become master rather than lover, she yielded him obedience,
and she hid away her love, not deliberately or intentionally, but rather
with the impulse to protect from outrage that which was holy. He was not
asking love of her just then.

She saw but little of him during the day. He was busy on the estate, busy
with the coming election, busy with a hundred and one matters that
evidently occupied his thoughts very fully. The heat seemed to imbue him
with inexhaustible energy. He never seemed tired after the most strenuous
exertion. He never slacked for a moment or seemed to have a moment to
spare till the day was done. He was generally late for meals, and always
raced through them at a speed that Avery was powerless to emulate.

He was late on the day of Ina Rose's wedding, so late that Avery, who had
dressed in good time and was lying on the sofa in her room, began to
wonder if he had after all abandoned the idea of going. But she presently
heard him race into his own room, and immediately there came the active
patter of Victor's feet as he waited upon him.

She lay still, listening, wishing that the wedding were over, morbidly
dreading the heat and crush and excitement which she knew awaited her and
to which she felt utterly unequal.

A quarter of an hour passed, then impetuously, without preliminary, her
door opened and Piers stood on the threshold. He had the light behind
him, for Avery had lowered the blinds, and so seeing him she was
conscious of a sudden thrill of admiration. For he stood before her like
a prince. She had never seen him look more handsome, more patrician, more
tragically like that woman in the picture-frame downstairs who smiled so
perpetually upon them both.

He came to her with his light, athletic tread, stooped, and lifted her
bodily in his arms. He held her a moment before he set her on her feet,
and then in his hot, fierce way he kissed her.

"You beautiful ghost!" he said.

She leaned against him, breathing rather hard. "I wish--I wish we needn't
go," she said.

"Why?" said Piers.

He held her to him, gazing down at her with his eyes of fiery possession
that always made her close her own.

"Because--because it's so hot," she said quiveringly. "There will be no
one I know there. And I--and I--"

"That's just why you are going," he broke in. "Don't you know it will be
your introduction to the County? You've got to find your footing, Avery.
I'm not going to have my wife overlooked by anyone."

"Oh, my dear," she said, with a faint laugh, "I don't care two straws
about the County. They've seen me once already, most of them,--in a ditch
and covered with mud. If they want to renew the acquaintance they can
come and call."

He kissed her again with lips that crushed her own. "We won't stay longer
than we can help," he said. "You ought to go out more, you know. It isn't
good for you to stay in this gloomy old vault all day. We will really get
to work and make it more habitable presently. But I've got such a lot on
hand just now."

"I know," she said quietly. "Please don't bother about me! Lunch is
waiting for us. Shall we go?"

He gave her a quick, keen look, as if he suspected her of trying to
elude him; but he let her go without a word.

They descended to lunch, and later went forth into the blazing sunshine
where the car awaited them. Avery sank back into the corner and closed
her eyes. Her head was aching violently. The sense of reluctance that had
possessed her for so long amounted almost to a premonition of evil.

"Avery!" Her husband's voice, curt, imperious, with just a tinge of
anxiety broke in upon her. "Are you feeling faint or anything?"

She looked at him. He was watching her with a frown between his eyes.

"No, I am not faint," she said. "The heat makes my head ache,
that's all."

"You ought to see a doctor," he said restlessly. "But not that ass,
Tudor. We'll go up to town to-morrow. Avery," his voice softened
suddenly, "I'm sorry I dragged you here if you didn't want to come."

She put out her hand to him instantly. It was the old Piers who had
spoken, Piers the boy-lover who had won her heart so irresistibly, so
completely.

He held the hand tightly, and she thought his face quivered a little as
he said: "I don't mean to be a tyrant, dear. But somehow--somehow, you
know--I can't always help it. A man with a raging thirst will
take--anything he can get."

His eyes were still upon her, and her heart quickened to compassion at
their look. They seemed to cry to her for mercy out of a depth of
suffering that she could not bear to contemplate.

She leaned swiftly towards him. "Piers,--my dear--what is it? What is
it?" she said, under her breath.

But in that instant the look vanished. The old fierce flare of passion
blazed forth upon her, held her burningly, till finally she drew back
before it in mute protest. "So you will forgive me," he said, in a tone
that seemed to contain something of a jeering quality. "We are all human,
what? You're looking better now. Egad, Avery, you're splendid!"

Her heart died within her. She turned her face away, as one ashamed.

The church at Wardenhurst was thronged with a chattering crowd of guests.
Piers and Avery arrived late, so late that they had some difficulty in
finding seats. Tudor, who was present and looking grimly disgusted with
himself, spied them at length, and gave up his place to Avery.

The bride entered almost immediately afterwards, young, lovely, with the
air of a queen passing through her subjects. Dick Guyes at the altar was
shaking with nervousness, but Ina was supremely self-possessed. She even
sent a smile of casual greeting to Piers as she went.

She maintained her attitude of complete _sang-froid_ throughout the
service, and Piers watched her critically with that secret smile at the
corners of his lips which was not good to see.

He did not seem aware of anyone else in the church till the service was
over, and the strains of the Wedding March were crashing through the
building. Then very suddenly he turned and looked at his wife--with that
in his dark eyes that thrilled her to the soul.

A man's voice accosted him somewhat abruptly. "Are you Sir Piers Evesham?
I'm the best man. They want you to sign the register."

Piers started as one rudely awakened from an entrancing dream. An
impatient exclamation rose to his lips which he suppressed rather badly.
He surveyed the man who addressed him with a touch of hauteur.

Avery surveyed him also, and as not very favourably impressed. He was a
small man with thick sandy eyebrows and shifty uncertain eyes. He looked
hard at Piers in answer to the latter's haughty regard, and Avery became
aware of a sudden sharp change in his demeanour as he did so. He opened
his eyes and stared in blank astonishment.

"Hullo!" he ejaculated softly. "You!"

"What do you mean?" demanded Piers.

It was a challenge, albeit spoken in an undertone. He stood like a man
transfixed as he uttered it. There came to Avery a quick hot impulse to
intervene, to protect him from some hidden danger, she knew not what,
that had risen like a serpent in his path. But before she could take any
action, the critical moment was passed. Piers had recovered himself.

He stepped forward. "All right. I will come," he said.

She watched him move away in the direction of the vestry with that free,
proud gait of his, and a great coldness came down upon her, wrapping her
round, penetrating to her very soul. Who was that man with the shifty
eyes? Why had he stared at Piers so? Above all, why had Piers stood with
that stiff immobility of shock as though he had been stabbed in the back?

A voice spoke close to her. "Lady Evesham, come and wait by the door!
There is more air there."

She turned her head mechanically, and looked at Lennox Tudor with eyes
that saw not. There was a singing in her ears that made the crashing
chords of the organ sound confused and jumbled.

His hand closed firmly, sustainingly, upon her elbow.

"Come with me!" he said.

She went with him blindly, unconscious of the curious eyes that
watched her go.

He led her quietly down the church and into the porch. The air from
outside, albeit hot and sultry, was less oppressive than within. She drew
great breaths of relief as it reached her. The icy grip at her heart
seemed to relax.

Tudor watched her narrowly. "What madness brought you here?" he said
presently, as she turned at last and mustered a smile of thanks.

She countered the question. "I might ask you the same," she said.

His eyes contracted behind the shielding glasses. "So you might," he said
briefly. "Well,--I came on the chance of meeting you."

"Of meeting me!" She looked at him in surprise.

He nodded. "Just so. I want a word with you; but it can't be said here.
Give me an opportunity later if you can!"

His hand fell away from her elbow, he drew back. The bridal procession
was coming down the church.

Ina was flushed and laughing. Dick Guyes still obviously nervous, but,
also obviously, supremely happy. They went by Avery into a perfect storm
of rose-leaves that awaited them from the crowd outside. Yet for one
moment the eyes of the bride rested upon Avery, meeting hers almost as if
they would ask her a question. And behind her--immediately behind
her--came Piers.

His eyes also found Avery, and in an instant with a haughty disregard of
Tudor, he had swept her forward with him, his arm thrust imperially
through hers. They also weathered the storm of rose-leaves, and as they
went Avery heard him laugh,--the laugh of the man who fights with his
back to the wall.

They were among the first to offer congratulations to the bride and
bridegroom, and again Avery was aware of the girl's eyes searching hers.

"I haven't forgotten you," she said, as they shook hands. "I knew you
would be Lady Evesham sooner or later after that day when you kept the
whole Hunt at bay."

Avery felt herself flush. There seemed to her to be a covert insinuation
in the remark. "I was very grateful to you for taking my part," she said.

"It was rather generous certainly," agreed the bride coolly. "Dick, do
get off my train! You're horribly clumsy to-day."

The bridegroom hastened to remove himself to a respectful distance, while
Ina turned her pretty cheek to Piers. "You may salute the bride," she
said graciously. "It's the only opportunity you will ever have."

Piers kissed the cheek as airily as it was proffered, his dark eyes
openly mocking. "Good luck to you, Ina!" he said lightly. "I wish you the
first and best of all that's most worth having."

Her red lips curled in answer. "You are superlatively kind," she said.

Other guests came crowding round with congratulations, and they moved on.

Piers knew everyone there, and presented one after another to his wife
till she felt absolutely bewildered. He did not present the best man, who
to her relief seemed disposed to keep out of their way. She wondered
greatly if anything had passed between him and Piers, though by the
latter at least the incident seemed to be wholly forgotten. He was in his
gayest, most sparkling mood, and she could not fail to see that he was
very popular whichever way he turned. People kept claiming his attention,
and though he tried to remain near her he was drawn away at last by the
bridegroom himself.

Avery looked round her then for a quiet corner where Tudor might
find her if he so desired, but while she was searching she came upon
Tudor himself.

He joined her immediately, with evident relief. "For Heaven's sake, let
us get away from this gibbering crowd!" he said. "They are like a horde
of painted monkeys. Come alone to the library! I don't think there are
many people there."

Avery accompanied him, equally thankful to escape. They found the
library deserted, and Tudor made her sit down by the window in the most
comfortable chair the room contained.

"You look about as fit for this sort of show as Mrs. Lorimer," he
observed drily. "She had the sense to stay away."

"I couldn't," Avery said.

"For goodness' sake," he exclaimed roughly, "don't let that young ruffian
tyrannize over you! You will never know any peace if you do."

Avery smiled a little and was silent.

"Why are you so painfully thin?" he pursued relentlessly. "What's
the matter with you? When I saw you in church just now I had a
positive shock."

She put out her hand to him. "I am quite all right," she assured him,
still faintly smiling. "I should have sent for you if I hadn't been."

"It's high time you sent for me now," said Tudor.

He looked at her searchingly through his glasses, holding her hand firmly
clasped in his.

"Are you happy?" he asked her suddenly.

She started at the question, started and flushed. "Why--why do you ask me
that?" she said in confusion.

"Because you don't look it," he said plainly. "No, don't be vexed with
me! I speak as a friend--a friend who desires your happiness more than
anything else on earth. And do you know, I think I should see a doctor
pretty soon if I were you. If you don't, you will probably regret it. Get
Piers to take you up to town! Maxwell Wyndham is about the best man I
know. Go to him!"

"Thank you," Avery said. "Perhaps I will."

It was at this point that a sudden uproarious laugh sounded from
below the window near which they sat, Avery looked round startled,
and Tudor frowned.

"It's that little brute of a best man--drunk as a lord. He's some sort
of cousin of Guyes', just home from Australia; and the sooner he goes
back the better for the community at large, I should say."

"Piers knows him!" broke almost involuntarily from Avery.

And with that swiftly she turned her head to listen, for the man outside
had evidently gathered to himself an audience at the entrance of a tent
that had been erected for refreshments, and was declaiming at the top of
his voice.

"Eric Denys was the name of the man. He was a chum of mine. Samson we
used to call him. This Evesham fellow killed him in the first round. I've
never forgotten it. I recognized him the minute I set eyes on him, though
it's years ago now. And he recognized me! I wish you'd seen his face."
Again came the uncontrolled, ribald laughter. "A bully sort of squire,
eh? I suppose he's a justice of the peace now, a law-giver, eh? Damn
funny, I call it!"

Tudor was on his feet. He looked at Avery, but she sat like a statue,
making no sign.

Another man was speaking in a lower tone, as though he were trying to
restrain the first; but his efforts were plainly useless, for the best
man had more to say.

"Oh, I can tell you a Queensland crowd is no joke. He'd have been
manhandled if he hadn't bolted. Mistaken? Not I! Could anyone mistake a
face like that? Go and ask the man himself, if you don't believe me!
You'll find he won't deny it!"

"Shall we go?" suggested Tudor brusquely.

Avery made a slight movement, wholly mechanical; but she did not turn her
head. Her whole attitude was one of tense listening.

"I think I'll go in any case," said Tudor, after a moment. "That fellow
will make an exhibition of himself if someone doesn't interfere."

He went to the door, but before he reached it Avery turned in her chair
and spoke.

"He has gone inside for another drink. You had better let him have it."

There was that in her voice that he had never heard before. He stopped
short, looking back at her.

"Let him have it!" she reiterated. "Let him soak himself with it! You
won't quiet him any other way."

Even as she spoke, that horrible, half-intoxicated laugh came to
them, insulting the beauty of the summer afternoon. Avery shivered
from head to foot.

"Don't go!" she said. "Please!"

She rose as Tudor came back, rose and faced him, her face like death.

"I think I must go home," she said. "Will you find the car? No, I am not
ill. I--" She paused, seemed to grope for words, stopped, and suddenly a
bewildered look came into her face. Her eyes dilated. She gave a sharp
gasp. Tudor caught her as she fell.



CHAPTER VI

THE MASK


The bride and bridegroom departed amid a storm of rice and good wishes,
Ina's face still wearing that slightly contemptuous smile to the last.
Piers, in the foremost of the crowd, threw a handful straight into her
lap as the car started, but only he and Dick Guyes saw her gather it up
with sudden energy and fling it back in his face.

Piers dropped off the step laughing. "Ye gods! What fun for Dick
Guyes!" he said.

A hand grasped his shoulder, and he turned and saw Lennox Tudor.

"Hullo!" he said, sharply freeing himself.

"I want a word with you," said Tudor briefly.

A wary look came into Piers' face on the instant. He looked at Tudor with
the measuring eye of a fencer.

"What about?" he asked.

"I can't tell you here. Will you walk back with me? Lady Evesham has
already gone in the car."

Piers' black brows went up, "Why was that? Wasn't she well?"

"No," said Tudor curtly.

"But she will send the car back," said Piers, stubbornly refusing to
betray himself.

"No, she won't. I told her we would walk."

"The devil you did!" said Piers.

He turned his back on Tudor, and went into the house.

But Tudor was undaunted. In a battle of wills, he was fully a match for
Piers. He kept close behind.

Eventually, Piers turned upon him. "Look here! I'll give you five minutes
in the library. I'm not going to walk three miles with you in this
blazing heat. It would be damned unhealthy for us both. Moreover, I've
promised to spend the evening with Colonel Rose."

It was the utmost he could hope for, and Tudor had the sense to accept
what he could get. He followed him to the library in silence.

They found it empty, and Tudor quietly turned the key.

"What's that for?" demanded Piers sharply.

"Because I don't want to be disturbed," returned Tudor.

He moved forward into the middle of the room and faced Piers.

"I have an unpleasant piece of news for you," he said, in a grim,
emotionless voice. "That cousin of Guyes'--you have met him before, I
think? He claims to know something of your past, and he has been
talking--somewhat freely."

"What has he been saying?" said Piers.

He stood up before Tudor with the arrogance of a man who mocks defeat,
but there was a gleam of desperation in his eyes--something of the
cornered animal in his very nonchalance.

A queer touch of pity moved Tudor from his attitude of cold informer.
There was an undercurrent of something that was almost sympathy in his
voice as he made reply.

"The fellow was more or less drunk, but I am afraid he was rather
circumstantial. He recognized in you a man who had killed some chum of
his years ago, in Queensland."

"Well?" said Piers.

Just the one word, uttered like a command! Tudor's softer impulse passed.

"He was bawling it out at the top of his voice. A good many people must
have heard him. I was in this room with Lady Evesham. We heard also."

"Well?" Piers said again.

He spoke without stirring an eyelid, and again, involuntarily, Tudor was
moved, this time with a species of unwilling admiration. The fellow was
no coward at least.

He went on steadily. "It was impossible not to hear what the beast said.
He mentioned names also,--your name and the name of the man whom he
alleged you had killed. Lady Evesham heard it. We both heard it."

He paused. Piers had not moved. His face was like a mask in its
composure, but it was a dreadful mask. Tudor had a feeling that it hid
unutterable things.

"What was the man's name?" Piers asked, after a moment.

"Denys--Eric Denys."

Piers nodded, as one verifying a piece of information. His next question
came with hauteur and studied indifference.

"Lady Evesham heard, you say? Did she pay any attention to these maudlin
revelations?"

"She fainted," said Tudor shortly.

"Oh? And what happened then?"

It was maddeningly cold-blooded; but it was the mask that spoke. Tudor
recognized that.

"I brought her round," he made answer. "No one else was present. She
begged me to let her go home alone. I did so."

"She also asked you to make full explanation to me?" came in measured
tones from Piers.

"She did." Tudor paused a moment as though he found some difficulty in
forming his next words. But he went on almost at once with resolution.
"She said to me at parting: 'I must be alone. I must think. Beg Piers to
understand! Beg him not to see me again to-day! I will talk to him in
the morning!' I promised to deliver the message exactly as she gave it."

"Thank you," said Piers. He turned with the words, moved away to the
window, and looked forth at the now deserted marquee.

Tudor stood mutely waiting; he felt as if it had been laid upon
him to wait.

Suddenly Piers jerked his head round and glanced at the chair in which
Avery had been sitting, then abruptly turned himself and looked at Tudor.

"What were you--and my wife--doing in here?" he said.

Tudor frowned impatiently at the question. "Oh, don't be a fool,
Evesham!" he said with vehemence.

"I'm not a fool." Piers left the window with the gait of a prowling
animal; he stood again face to face with the other man. But though his
features were still mask-like, his eyes shone through the mask; and they
were eyes of leaping flame. "Oh, I am no fool, I assure you," he said,
and in his voice there sounded a deep vibration that was almost like a
snarl. "I know you too well by this time to be hoodwinked. You would come
between us if you could."

"You lie!" said Tudor.

He did not raise his voice or speak in haste. His vehemence had departed.
He simply made the statement as if it had been a wholly impersonal one.

Piers' hands clenched, but they remained at his sides. He looked at Tudor
hard, as if he did not understand him.

After a moment Tudor spoke again. "I am no friend of yours, and I never
shall be. But I am the friend of your wife, and--whether you like it or
not--I shall remain so. For that reason, whatever I do will be in your
interests as well as hers. I have not the smallest intention or desire to
come between you. And if you use your wits you will see that I couldn't
if I tried. Your marriage with her tied my hands."

"What proof have I of that?" said Piers, his voice low and fierce.

Tudor made a slight gesture of disgust. "I am dealing with facts, not
proofs," he said. "You know as well as I do that though you obtained her
love on false pretences, still you obtained it. Whether you will keep it
or not remains to be seen, but she is not the sort of woman to solace
herself with anyone else. If you lose it, it will be because you failed
to guard your own property--not because anyone deprived you of it."

"Damnation!" exclaimed Piers furiously, and with the word the storm of
his anger broke like a fiery torrent, sweeping all before it, "are you
taking me to task, you--you--for this accursed trick of Fate? How was I
to know that this infernal little sot would turn up here? Why, I don't so
much as know the fellow's name! I had forgotten his very existence! Where
the devil is he? Let me find him, and break every bone in his body!" He
whirled round to the door, but in a moment was back again. "Tudor! Damn
you! Where's the key?"

"In my pocket," said Tudor quietly. "And, Piers, before you go--since I
am your ally in spite of myself--let me warn you to keep your head!
There's no sense in murdering another man. It won't improve your case.
There's no sense in running amok. Sit down for Heaven's sake, and review
the situation quietly!"

The calm words took effect. Piers stopped, arrested in spite of himself
by the other's steady insistence. He looked at Tudor with half-sullen
respect dawning behind his ungoverned fury.

"Listen!" Tudor said. "The fellow has gone. I packed him off myself. It
was a piece of sheer ill-luck that brought him home in time for this
show. He starts for America _en route_ for Australia in less than a week,
and it is utterly unlikely that either you or any of your friends will
see or hear anything more of him. Guyes himself is by no means keen on
him and only had him as best man because a friend failed him at the last
minute. If you behave rationally the whole affair will probably pass off
of itself. Everyone knows the fellow was intoxicated, and no one is
likely to pay any lasting attention to what he said. Treat the matter as
unworthy of notice, and you will very possibly hear no more of it! But if
you kick up a row, you will simply court disaster. I am an older man than
you are. Take my word for it,--I know what I am talking about."

Piers listened in silence. The heat had gone from his face, but his eyes
still gleamed with a restless fire.

Tudor watched him keenly. Not by his own choice would he have ranged
himself on Piers' side, but circumstances having placed him there he was
oddly anxious to effect his deliverance. He was fighting heavy odds, and
he knew it, but there was a fighting strain in his nature also. He
relished the odds.

"For Heaven's sake don't be a fool and give the whole show away!" he
urged. "You have no enemies. No one will want to take the matter up if
you will only let it lie. No one wants to believe evil of you. Possibly
no one will."

"Except yourself!" said Piers, with a smile that showed his set teeth.

"Quite so." Tudor also smiled, a grim brief smile. "But then I happen to
know you better than most. You gave yourself away so far as I am
concerned that night in the winter. I knew then that once upon a time in
your career--you had--killed a man."

"And you didn't tell Avery!" The words shot out unexpectedly. Piers was
plainly astonished.

"I'm not a woman!" said Tudor contemptuously. "That affair was
between us two."

"Great Scott!" said Piers.

"At the same time," Tudor continued sternly, "if I had known what I know
now, I would have told her everything sooner than let her ruin her
happiness by marrying you."

Piers made a sharp gesture that passed unexplained. He had made no
attempt at self-defence; he made none then. Perhaps his pride kicked at
the idea; perhaps in the face of Tudor's shrewd grip of the situation it
did not seem worth while.

He held out his hand. "May I have that key?"

Tudor gave it to him. He was still watching narrowly, but Piers' face
told him nothing. The mask had been replaced, and the man behind it was
securely hidden from scrutiny. Tudor would have given much to have rent
it aside, and have read the thoughts and intentions it covered. But he
knew that he was powerless. He knew that he was deliberately barred out.

Piers went to the door and fitted the key into the lock. His actions were
all grimly deliberate. The volcanic fires which Tudor had seen raging but
a few seconds before had sunk very far below the surface. Whatever was
happening in the torture-chamber where his soul agonized, it was certain
that no human being--save possibly one--would ever witness it. What he
suffered he would suffer in proud aloofness and silence. It was only the
effect of that suffering that could ever be made apparent, when the soul
came forth again, blackened and shrivelled from the furnace.

Yet ere he left Tudor, some impulse moved him to look back.

He met Tudor's gaze with brooding eyes which nevertheless held a faint
warmth like the dim reflection of a light below the horizon.

"I am obliged to you," he said, and was gone before Tudor could
speak again.



CHAPTER VII

THE GATES OF HELL


Up and down, up and down, in a fever of restlessness, Avery walked. She
felt trapped. The gloomy, tapestried room seemed to close her in like a
prison. The whole world seemed to have turned into a monstrous place of
punishment. One thing only was needed to complete the anguish of her
spirit, and that was the presence of her husband.

She could not picture the meeting with him. Body and soul recoiled from
the thought. It would not be till the morning; that was her sole comfort.
By the morning this fiery suffering would have somewhat abated. She would
be calmer, more able to face him and hear his defence--if defence there
could be. Somehow she never questioned the truth of the story. She knew
that Tudor had not questioned it either. She knew moreover that had it
been untrue, Piers would have been with her long ago in vehement
indignation and wrath.

No, the thing was true. He was the man who had wrecked her life at its
beginning, and now--now he had wrecked it again. He was the man whose
hands were stained with her husband's blood. He had done the deed in one
of those wild tempests of anger with which she was so familiar. He had
done the deed, possibly unintentionally, but certainly with murderous
impulse; and then deliberately cynically, he had covered it up, and gone
his arrogant way.

He had met her, he had desired her; with a few, quickly-stifled qualms
he had won her, trusting to luck that his sin would never find him out.
And so he had made her his own, his property, his prisoner, the slave of
his pleasure. She was bound for ever to her husband's murderer.

Again body and soul shrank in quivering horror from the thought, and a
wild revolt awoke within her. She could not bear it. She must break free.
The bare memory of his passion sickened her. For the first time in her
life hatred, fiery, intense, kindled within her. The thought of his touch
filled her with a loathing unutterable. He had become horrible to her, a
thing unclean, abominable, whose very proximity was pollution. She felt
as if the blood on his hands had stained her also--the blood of the man
she had once loved. For a space she became like a woman demented. The
thing was too abhorrent to be endured.

And then by slow degrees her brain began to clear again. She grew a
little calmer. Monstrous though he was, he was still human. He was, in a
fashion, at her mercy. He had sinned, but it was in her hands that his
punishment lay.

She was stronger than he. She had always known it. But she must keep her
strength. She must not waste it in futile resentment. She would need it
all. He had entered her kingdom by subtlety; but she would drive him
forth in the strength of a righteous indignation. To suffer him to remain
was unthinkable. It would be to share his guilt.

Her thoughts tried to wander into the future, but she called them
resolutely back. The future would provide for itself. Her immediate duty
was all she now needed to face. When that dreaded interview was over,
when she had shut him out finally and completely then it would be time
enough to consider that. Probably some arrangement would have to be made
by which they would meet occasionally, but as husband and wife--never,
never more.

It was growing late. The dinner-gong had sounded, but she would not go
down. She rang for Victor, and told him to bring her something on a tray.
It did not matter what.

He looked at her with keen little eyes of solicitude, and swiftly obeyed
her desire. He then asked her if the dinner were to be kept for _Monsieur
Pierre_, who had not yet returned. She did not know what to say, but lest
he should wonder at her ignorance of Piers' doings, she answered in the
negative, and Victor withdrew.

Then, again lest comment should be made, she forced herself to eat and
drink, though the food nauseated her. A feeling of sick suspense was
growing upon her, a strange, foreboding fear that hung leaden about her
heart. What was Piers doing all this time? What effect had that message,
delivered by Tudor, had upon him? Why had he not returned?

Time passed. The evening waned and became night. A full moon rose red and
wonderful out of a bank of inky cloud, lighting the darkness with an
oddly tropical effect. The night was tropical, breathless, terribly
still. It seemed as if a storm must be upon its way.

She began to undress at last there in the moonlight. The heat was too
intense to veil the windows, and she would not light the candles lest
bats or moths should be attracted. At another time the eerieness of the
shadowy room would have played upon her nerves, but to-night she was not
even aware of it. The shadows within were too dark, too sinister.

A great weariness had come upon her. She ached for rest. Her body felt
leaden, and her brain like a burnt-out furnace. The very capacity for
thought seemed to have left her. Only the horror of the day loomed
gigantic whichever way she turned, blotting out all beside. Prayer was an
impossibility to her. She felt lost in a wilderness of doubt, forsaken
and wandering, and terribly alone.

If she could rest, if she could sleep, she thought that strength might
return to her--the strength to grapple with and overthrow the evil that
had entered into and tainted her whole life. But till sleep should come
to her, she was impotent. She was heavy and numb with fatigue.

She lay down at length with a vague sense of physical relief beneath her
crushing weight of trouble. How unutterably weary she was! How tired--how
tired of life!

Time passed. The moon rose higher, filling the room with its weird cold
light. Avery lay asleep.

Exhaustion had done for her what no effort of will could have
accomplished, closing her eyes, drawing a soft veil of oblivion across
her misery.

But it was only a temporary lull. The senses were too alert, too fevered,
for true repose. That blessed interval of unconsciousness was all too
short. After a brief, brief respite she began to dream.

And in her dream she saw a man being tortured in a burning, fiery
furnace, imprisoned behind bars of iron, writhing, wrestling, agonizing,
to be free. She saw the flames leaping all around him, and in the flames
were demon-faces that laughed and gibed and jested. She saw his hands all
blistered in the heat, reaching out to her, straining through those cruel
bars, beseeching her vainly for deliverance. And presently, gazing with a
sick horror that compelled, she saw his face....

With a gasping cry she awoke, started up with every nerve stretched and
quivering, her heart pounding as if it would choke her. It was a
dream--it was a dream! She whispered it to herself over and over again,
striving to control those awful palpitations. Surely it was all a dream!

Stay! What was that? A sound in the room beyond--a movement--a step! She
sprang up, obeying blind impulse, sped softly to the intervening door,
with hands that trembled shot the bolt. Then, like a hunted creature,
almost distracted by the panic of her dream, she slipped back to the
gloomy four-poster, and cowered down again.

Lying there, crouched and quivering, she began to count those hammering
heart-beats, and wondered wildly if the man on the other side of the door
could hear them also. She was sure that he had been there, sure that he
had been on the point of entering when she had shot the bolt.

He would not enter now, she whispered to her quaking heart. She would not
have to meet him before the morning. And by then she would be strong. It
was only her weariness that made her so weak to-night!

She grew calmer. She began to chide herself for her senseless panic--she
the bearer of other people's burdens, who prided herself upon her steady
nerve and calmness of purpose. She had never been hysterical in her life
before. Surely she could muster self-control now, when her need of it was
so urgent, so imperative.

And then, just as a certain measure of composure had returned to her,
something happened. Someone passed down the passage outside her room and
paused at the outer door. Her heart stood still, but again desperately
she steadied herself. That door was bolted also.

Yes, it was bolted, but there was a hand upon it,--a hand that felt
softly for the lock, found the key outside, softly turned it.

Then indeed panic came upon Avery. Lying there, tense and listening, she
heard the quiet step return along the passage and enter her husband's
room, heard that door also close and lock, and knew herself a prisoner.

"Avery!"

Every pulse leapt, every nerve shrank. She started up, wide-eyed,
desperate.

"I will talk to you in the morning, Piers," she said, steadying her voice
with difficulty. "Not now! Not now!"

"Open this door!" he said.

There was dear command in his voice, and with it the old magnetic force
reached her, quick, insistent, vital. She threw a wild look round, but
only the dazzling moonlight met her eyes. There was no escape for
her--no escape.

She turned her face to the door behind which he stood. "Piers, please,
not to-night!" she said beseechingly.

"Open the door!" he repeated inexorably.

Again that force reached her. It was like an electric current suddenly
injected into her veins. Her whole body quivered in response. Almost
before she knew it, she had started to obey.

And then horror seized her--a dread unutterable. She stopped.

"Piers, will you promise--"

"I promise nothing," he said, in the same clear, imperious voice, "except
to force this door unless you open it within five seconds."

She stood in the moonlight, trembling, unnerved. He did not sound like a
man bereft of reason. And yet--and yet--something in his voice appalled
her. Her strength was utterly gone. She was just a weak, terrified woman.

"Avery," his voice came to her again, short and stern, "I don't wish to
threaten you; but it will be better for us both if I don't have to force
the door."

She forced herself to speak though her tongue felt stiff and dry. "I
can't let you in now," she said. "I will hear what you have to say in
the morning."

He made no reply. There was an instant of dead silence. Then there came a
sudden, hideous shock against the panel of the door. The socket of the
bolt gave with the strain, but did not wholly yield. Avery shrank back
trembling against the shadowy four-poster. She felt as if a raging animal
were trying to force an entrance.

Again came that awful shock. The wood splintered and rent, socket and
bolt were torn free; the door burst inwards.

There came a brief, fiendish laugh, and Piers broke in upon her.

He recovered himself with a sharp effort, and stood breathing heavily,
looking at her. The moonlight was full upon him, showing him deadly pale,
and in his eyes there shone the red glare of hell.

"Did you really think--a locked door--would keep me out?" he said,
speaking with an odd jerkiness, with lips that twitched.

She drew herself together with an instinctive effort at self-control. "I
thought you would respect my wish," she said, her voice very low.

"Did you?" said Piers. "Then why did you lock the door?"

He swung it closed behind him and came to her.

"Listen to me, Avery!" he said. "You are not your own any longer--to give
or to take away. You are mine."

She faced him with all the strength she could muster, but she could not
meet those awful eyes that mocked her, that devoured her.

"Piers," she said, almost under her breath, "remember,--what happens
to-night we shall neither of us ever forget. Don't make me hate you!"

"Haven't you begun to hate me then?" he demanded. "Would you have locked
that door against me if you hadn't?"

She heard the rising passion in his voice, and her heart fainted within
her. Yet still desperately she strove for strength.

"I don't want to do anything violent or unconsidered. I must have time to
think. Piers, you have me at your mercy. Be merciful!"

He made a sharp movement. "Are you going to be merciful to me?" he said.

She hesitated. There was something brutal in the question, yet it
pierced her. She knew that he had divined all that had been passing
within her during that evening of misery. She did not answer him, for she
could not.

"Listen!" he said again. "What has happened has happened by sheer
ill-luck. The past is nothing to you. You have said so yourself. The
future shall not be sacrificed to it. If you will give me your solemn
promise to put this thing behind you, to behave as if it had never been,
I will respect your wishes, I will do my utmost to help you to forget.
But if you refuse--" He stopped.

"If I refuse--" she repeated faintly.

He made again that curious gesture that was almost one of helplessness.
"Don't ask for mercy!" he said.

In the silence that followed there came to her the certain knowledge that
he was suffering, that he was in an inferno of torment that goaded him
into fierce savagery against her, like a mad animal that will wreak its
madness first upon the being most beloved. It was out of his torment that
he did this thing. She saw him again agonizing in the flames.

If he had had patience then, that divine pity of hers might have come to
help them both; but he read into her silence the abhorrence which a
little earlier had possessed her soul; and the maddening pain of it drove
him beyond all bounds.

He seized her suddenly and savagely between his hands. "Are you any the
less my wife," he said, speaking between his teeth, "because you have
found out what manner of man I am?"

She resisted him, swiftly, instinctively, her hands against his breast,
pressing him back. "I may be your wife," she said gaspingly. "I am
not--your slave."

He laughed a fiendish laugh. Her resistance fired him. He caught her
fiercely to him. He covered her face, her throat, her arms, her hands,
with kisses that burned her through and through, seeming to sear her
very soul.

He crushed her in a grip that bruised her, that suffocated her. He
pressed his lips, hot with passion, to hers.

"And now!" he said. "And now!"

She lay in his arms spent and quivering and helpless. The cruel triumph
of his voice silenced all appeal.

He went on deeply, speaking with his lips so close that she felt his
breath scorch through her like the breath of a fiery furnace.

"You are bound to me for better--for worse, and nothing will ever set
you free. Do you understand? If you will not be my wife, you shall
be--my slave."

Quiveringly, through lips that would scarcely move she spoke at last. "I
shall never forgive you."

"I shall never ask your forgiveness," he said.

So the gates of hell closed upon Avery also. She went down into the
unknown depths. And in an agony of shame she learned the bitterest lesson
of her life.



CHAPTER VIII

A FRIEND IN NEED


"Why, Avery dear, is it you? Come in!" Mrs. Lorimer looked up with a
smile of eager welcome on her little pinched face and went forward almost
at a run to greet her.

The brown holland smock upon which she had been at work fell to the
ground. It was Avery who, after a close embrace, stooped to pick it up.

"Who is this for? Baby Phil? You must let me lend a hand," she said.

"Ah, my dear, I do miss you," said Mrs. Lorimer wistfully. "The village
girl who comes in to help is no good at all at needlework, and you know
how busy Nurse always is. Jeanie does her best, and is a great help in
many ways. But she is but a child. However," she caught herself up, "I
mustn't start grumbling the moment you enter the house. Tell me about
yourself, dear! You are looking very pale. Does the heat try you?"

"A little," Avery admitted.

She was spreading out the small garment on her knee, looking at it
critically, with eyes downcast. She certainly was pale that morning. The
only colour in her face seemed concentrated in her lips.

Mrs. Lorimer looked at her uneasily. There was something not quite normal
about her, she felt. She had never seen Avery look so statuesque. She
missed the quick sweetness of her smile, the brightness and animation of
her glance.

"It is very dear of you to come and see me," she said gently, after a
moment. "Did you walk all the way? I hope it hasn't been too much for
you."

"No," Avery said. "It did me good."

She was on the verge of saying something further, but the words did not
come.

She continued to smooth out the little smock with minute care, while Mrs.
Lorimer watched her anxiously.

"Is all well, dear?" she ventured at last.

Avery raised her brows slightly, but her eyes remained downcast. "I went
to the wedding yesterday," she said, after a momentary pause.

"Oh, did you, dear? Stephen went, but I stayed at home. Did you see him?"

"Only from a distance," said Avery.

"It was a very magnificent affair, he tells me." Mrs. Lorimer was
becoming a little nervous. She had begun to be conscious of something
tragic in the atmosphere. "And did you enjoy it, dear? Or was the heat
too great?"

"It was hot," Avery said.

Again she seemed to be about to say something more, and again she failed
to do so. Her lips closed.

Mrs. Lorimer remained silent also for several seconds. Then softly she
rose, went to Avery, put her arms about her.

"My darling!" she said fondly.

That was all. No further questioning, no anxious probing, simply her love
poured out in fullest measure upon the altar of friendship! And it moved
Avery instantly and overwhelmingly, shattering her reserve, sweeping away
the stony ramparts of her pride.

She turned and hid her face upon Mrs. Lorimer's breast in an anguish of
tears.

It lasted for several minutes, that paroxysm of weeping. It was the pent
misery of hours finding vent at last. All she had suffered, all the
humiliation, the bitterness of desecrated love, the utter despair of her
soul, was in those tears. They shook her being to the depths. They seemed
to tear her heart asunder.

At last in broken whispers she began to speak. Still with those scalding
tears falling between her words, she imparted the whole miserable story;
she bared her fallen pride. There was no other person in the world to
whom she could thus have revealed that inner agony, that lacerating
shame. But Mrs. Lorimer, the despised, the downtrodden, was as an angel
from heaven that day. A new strength was hers, born of her friend's utter
need. She held her up, she sustained, her, through that the darkest hour
of her life, with a courage and a steadfastness of which no one had ever
deemed her capable.

When Avery whispered at length, "I can never, never go back to him!" her
answer was prompt.

"My dear, you must. It will be hard, God knows. But He will give you
strength. Oh Avery, don't act for yourself, dear! Let Him show the way!"

"If He will!" sobbed Avery, with her burning face hidden against her
friend's heart.

"He will, dearest, He will," Mrs. Lorimer asserted with conviction. "He
is much nearer to us in trouble than most of us ever realize. Only let
Him take the helm; He will steer you through the storm."

"I feel too wicked," whispered Avery, "too--overwhelmed with evil."

"My dear, feelings are nothing," said the Vicar's wife, with a decision
that would have shocked the Reverend Stephen unspeakably. "We can't help
our feelings, but we can put ourselves in the way of receiving help. Oh,
don't you think He often lets us miss our footing just because He wants
us to lean on Him?"

"I don't know," Avery said hopelessly. "But I think it will kill me to
go back. Even if--if I pretended to forgive him--I couldn't possibly
endure to--to go on as if nothing had happened. Eric--my first
husband--will always stand between us now."

"Dear, are you sure that what you heard was not an exaggeration?" Mrs.
Lorimer asked gently.

"Oh yes, I am sure." There was utter hopelessness in Avery's reply. "I
have always known that there was something in his past, some cloud of
which he would never speak openly. But I never dreamed--never guessed--"
She broke off with a sharp shudder. "Besides, he has offered no
explanation, no excuse, no denial. He lets me believe the worst, and he
doesn't care. He is utterly callous--utterly brutal. That is how I know
that the worst is true." She rose abruptly, as if inaction had become
torture to her. "Oh, I must leave him!" she cried out wildly. "I am
nothing to him. My feelings are less than nothing. He doesn't really want
me. Any woman could fill my place with him equally well!"

"Hush!" Mrs. Lorimer said. She went to Avery and held her tightly, as if
she would herself do battle with the evil within. "You are not to say
that, Avery. You are not to think it. It is utterly untrue. Suffering may
have goaded him into brutality, but he is not wicked at heart. And, my
dear, he is in your hands now--to make or to mar. He worships you
blindly, and if his worship has become an unholy thing, it is because the
thought of losing you has driven him nearly distracted. You can win it
back--if you will."

"I don't want to win it back!" Avery said. She suffered the arms about
her, but she stood rigid in their embrace, unyielding, unresponding. "His
love is horrible to me! I abhor it!"

"Avery! Your husband!"

"He is a murderer!" Avery cried passionately. "He would murder me too
if--if he could bring himself to do without me! He hates me in his soul."

"Avery, hush! You are distraught. You don't know what you are saying."
Mrs. Lorimer drew her back to her chair with tender insistence. "Sit
down, darling! And try--do try--to be quiet for a little! You are worn
out. I don't think you can have had any sleep."

"Sleep!" Avery almost laughed, and then again those burning, blinding
tears rushed to her eyes. "Oh, you don't know what I've been through!"
she sobbed. "You don't know! You don't know!"

"God knows, darling," whispered Mrs. Lorimer.

Minutes later, when Avery was lying back exhausted, no longer sobbing,
only dumbly weeping, there came a gentle knock at the door.

Mrs. Lorimer went to it quickly, and met her eldest daughter upon the
point of entering. Jeanie looked up at her enquiringly.

"Is anyone here?"

"Yes, dear. Avery is here. She isn't very well this morning. Run and
fetch her a glass of milk!"

Jeanie hastened away. Mrs. Lorimer returned to Avery.

"My darling," she said, "do you know I think I can see a way to help
you?"

Avery's eyes were closed. She put out a trembling hand. "You are very
good to me."

"I wonder how often I have had reason to say that to you," said Mrs.
Lorimer softly. "Listen, darling! You must go back. Yes, Avery, you must!
You must! But--you shall take my little Jeanie with you."

Avery's eyes opened. Mrs. Lorimer was looking at her with tears in her
own.

"I know I may trust her to you," she said. "But oh, you will take care
of her! Remember how precious she is--and how fragile!"

"But, my dear--you couldn't spare her!" Avery said.

"Yes, I can,--I will!" Mrs. Lorimer hastily rubbed her eyes and smiled--a
resolute smile. "You may have her, dear. I know she will be happy with
you. And Piers is so fond of her too. She will be a comfort to you--to
you both, please God. She comforts everyone--my little Jeanie. It seems
to be her _role_ in life. Ah, here she comes! You shall tell her, dear.
It will come better from you."

"May I come in?" said Jeanie at the door.

Her mother went to admit her. Avery sat up, and pushed her chair back
against the window-curtain.

Jeanie entered, a glass of milk in one hand and a plate in the other.
"Good morning, dear Avery!" she said, in her gentle, rather tired voice.
"I've brought you a hot cake too--straight out of the oven. It smells
quite good." She came to Avery's side, and stood within the circle of her
arm; but she did not kiss her or look into her piteous, tearstained face.
"I hope you like currants," she said. "Baby Phil calls them flies. Have
you seen Baby Phil lately? He has just cut another tooth. He likes
everybody to look at it."

"I must see it presently," Avery said, with an effort.

She drank the milk, and broke the cake, still holding Jeanie pressed
to her side.

Jeanie, gravely practical, held the plate. "I saw Piers ride by a little
while ago," she remarked. "He was on Pompey. But he was going so fast he
didn't see me. He always rides fast, doesn't he? But I think Pompey likes
it, don't you?"

"I don't know." There was an odd frozen note in Avery's voice. "He has to
go--whether he likes it or not."

"But he is very fond of Piers," said Jeanie. "And so is Caesar." She gave
a little sigh. "Poor Mikey! Do you remember how angry he used to be when
Caesar ran by?"

Avery suppressed a shiver. Vivid as a picture flung on a screen, there
rose in her brain the memory of that winter evening when Piers and Mike
and Caesar had all striven together for the mastery. Again she seemed
to hear those savage, pitiless blows. She might have known! She might
have known!

Sharply she wrenched herself back to the present. "Jeanie darling," she
said, "your mother says that you may come and stay at the Abbey for a
little while. Do you--would you--like to come?"

Her voice was unconsciously wistful. Jeanie turned for the first time and
looked at her.

"Oh, Avery!" she said. "Stay with you and Piers?"

Her eyes were shining. She slid a gentle arm round Avery's neck.

"You would like to?" Avery asked, faintly smiling.

"I would love to," said Jeanie earnestly. She looked across at her
mother. "Shall you be able to manage, dear?" she asked in her
grown-up way.

Mrs. Lorimer stifled a sigh. "Oh yes, Jeanie dear. I shall do all right.
Gracie will help with the little ones, you know."

Jeanie smiled at that. "I think I will go and talk to Gracie," she said,
quietly releasing herself from Avery's arm.

But at the door she paused. "I hope Father won't mind," she said. "But he
did say I wasn't to have any more treats till my Easter holiday-task was
finished."

"I will make that all right, dear," said Mrs. Lorimer.

"Thank you," said Jeanie. "Of course I can take it with me. I expect I
shall get more time for learning it at the Abbey. You might tell him
that, don't you think?"

"I will tell him, darling," said Mrs. Lorimer.

And Jeanie smiled and went her way.



CHAPTER IX

THE GREAT GULF


"Hullo!" said Piers. "Has the Queen of all good fairies come to call?"

He strode across the garden with that high, arrogant air of his as of one
who challenges the world, and threw himself into the vacant chair by the
tea-table at which his wife sat.

The blaze of colour that overspread her pale face at his coming faded
as rapidly as it rose. She glanced at him momentarily, under
fluttering lids.

"Jeanie has come to stay," she said, her voice very low.

His arm was already round Jeanie who had risen to meet him. He pulled her
down upon his knee.

"That is very gracious of her," he said. "Good Heavens, child! You are as
light as a feather! Why don't you eat more?"

"I am never hungry," explained Jeanie. She kissed him and then drew
herself gently from him, sitting down by his side with innate dignity.
"Have you been riding all day?" she asked. "Isn't Pompey tired?"

"Caesar and Pompey are both dead beat," said Piers. "And I--" he looked
deliberately at Avery, "--am as fresh as when I started."

Again, as it were in response to that look, her eyelids fluttered; but
she did not raise them. Again the colour started and died in her cheeks.

"Have you had anything to eat?" she asked.

"Nothing," said Piers.

He took the cup she offered him, and drained it. There was a fitful gleam
in his dark eyes as of a red, smouldering fire.

But Jeanie's soft voice intervening dispelled it. "How very hungry you
must be!" she said in a motherly tone. "Will bread and butter and cake be
enough for you?"

"Quite enough," said Piers. "Like you, Jeanie, I am not hungry." He
handed back his cup to be filled again. "But I have a lively
thirst," he said.

"It has been so hot to-day," observed Avery.

"It is never too hot for me," he rejoined. "Hullo! Who's that?"

He was staring towards the house under frowning brows. A figure had just
emerged upon the terrace.

"Dr. Tudor!" said Jeanie.

Again Piers' eyes turned upon his wife. He looked at her with a
sombre scrutiny. After a moment she lifted her own and resolutely
returned the look.

"Won't you go and meet him?" she said.

He rose abruptly, and strode away.

Avery's eyes followed him, watching narrowly as the two men met. Lennox
Tudor, she saw, offered his hand, and after the briefest pause, Piers
took it. They came back slowly side by side.

Again, unobtrusively, Jeanie rose. Tudor caught sight of her almost
before he saw Avery.

"Hullo!" he said. "What are you doing here?"

Jeanie explained with her customary old-fashioned air of responsibility:
"I have come to take care of Avery, as she isn't very well."

Tudor's eyes passed instantly and very swiftly to Avery's face. He bent
slightly over the hand she gave him.

"A good idea!" he said brusquely. "I hope you will take care of
each other."

He joined them at the tea-table, and talked of indifferent things. Piers
talked also with that species of almost fierce gaiety with which Avery
had become so well acquainted of late. She was relieved that there was no
trace of hostility apparent in his manner.

But, notwithstanding this fact, she received a shock of surprise when at
the end of a quarter of an hour he got up with a careless: "Come along,
my queen! We'll see if Pompey has got the supper he deserves."

Even Tudor looked momentarily astonished, but as he watched Piers saunter
away with his arm round Jeanie's thin shoulders his expression changed.
He turned to her abruptly. "How are you feeling to-day?" he enquired. "I
had to come in and ask."

"It was very kind of you," she answered.

He smiled in his rather grim fashion. "I came more for my own
satisfaction than for yours," he observed. "You are better, are you?"

She smiled also. "There is nothing the matter with me, you know."

He gave her a shrewd look through his glasses. "No," he said. "I know."

He said no more at all about her health, nor did he touch upon any other
intimate subject, but she had a very distinct impression that he did not
cease to observe her closely throughout their desultory conversation. She
even tried to divert his attention, but she knew she did not succeed.

He remained with her until they saw Piers and Jeanie returning, and then
somewhat suddenly he took his leave. He joined the two on the lawn, sent
Jeanie back to her, and walked away himself with his host.

What passed between them she did not know and could not even conjecture,
for she did not see Piers again till they met in the hall before dinner.
Jeanie was with her, looking delicately pretty in her white muslin frock,
and it was to her that Piers addressed himself.

"Come here, my queen! I want to look at you."

She went to him readily enough. He took her by the shoulders.

"Are you made of air, I wonder? I should be ashamed of you, Jeanie, if
you belonged to me."

Jeanie looked up into the handsome, olive face with eyes that smiled
love upon him. "I expect it's partly because you are so big and
strong," she said.

"No, it isn't," said Piers. "It's because you're so small and weak. Avery
will have to take you away to the sea again, what? You'd like that."

"And you too!" said Jeanie.

"I? Oh no, you wouldn't want me. Would you, Avery?"

He deliberately addressed her for the first time that day. Over the
child's head his eyes flashed their mocking message. She felt as if he
had struck her across the face.

"Would you?" he repeated, with arrogant insistence.

She tried to turn the question aside. "Well, as we are not going--"

"But you are going," he said. "You and Jeanie. How soon can you start?
To-morrow?"

Avery looked at him in astonishment. "Are you in earnest?"

"Of course I'm in earnest," he said, with a frown that was oddly boyish.
"You had better go to Stanbury Cliffs. It suited you all right in the
spring. Fix it up with Mrs. Lorimer first thing in the morning, and go
down in the afternoon!"

He spoke impatiently. Opposition or delay always set him chafing.

Jeanie looked at him with wonder in her eyes. "But you, Piers!" she
said. "What will you do?"

"I? Oh, I shall be busy," he said. "I've got a lot on hand just now.
Besides," again the gibing note was in his voice, "you'll get along much
better without me. Avery says so."

"She didn't!" exclaimed Jeanie, with a sudden rare touch of indignation.

"All right. She didn't," laughed Piers. "My mistake!" He flicked the
child's cheek teasingly, and then abruptly stooped and kissed it. "Don't
be angry, Queen of the fairies! It isn't worth it."

She slipped her arm round his neck on the instant. "I'm not, dear Piers.
I'm not angry. But we shouldn't want to go away and leave you alone. We
shouldn't really."

He laughed again, carelessly, without effort. "No, but you'd get on all
right without me. You and Avery are such pals. What do you say to it,
Avery? Isn't it a good idea?"

"I think perhaps it is," she said slowly, her voice very low.

He straightened himself, and looked at her, and again that vivid, painful
blush covered her face and neck as though a flame had scorched her. She
did not meet his eyes.

"Very well then. It's settled," he said jauntily. "Now let's go and have
some dinner!"

He kept up his light attitude throughout the meal, save that once he
raised his wine-glass mockingly to the woman on the wall. But his mood
was elusive. Avery felt it. It was as if he played a juggling game on the
edge of the pit of destruction, and she watched him with a leaden heart.

She rose from the table earlier than usual, for the atmosphere of the
dining-room oppressed her almost unbearably. It was a night of heavy
stillness.

"You ought to go to bed, dear," she said to Jeanie.

"Oh, must I?" said Jeanie wistfully. "I never sleep much on these hot
nights. One can't breath so well lying down."

Avery looked at her with quick anxiety, but she had turned to Piers and
was leaning against him with a gentle coaxing air.

"Please, dear Piers, would it tire you to play to us?" she begged.

He looked down at her for a moment as if he would refuse; then very
gently he laid his hand on her head, pressing back the heavy, clustering
hair from her forehead to look into her soft eyes.

"What do you want me to play?" he said.

She made a wide gesture of the hands and let them fall. "Something big,"
she said. "Something to take to bed with us and give us happy dreams."

His lips--those mobile, sensitive lips--curved in a smile that made Avery
avert her eyes with a sudden hot pang. He released Jeanie, and turned
away to the door.

"I'll see what I can do," he said. "You had better go into the
garden--you and Avery."

They went, though Jeanie looked as if she would have preferred to
accompany him to the music-room. It was little cooler on the terrace than
in the house. The heat brooded over all, dense, black, threatening.

"I hope it will rain soon," said Jeanie, drawing her chair close
to Avery's.

"There will be a storm when it does," Avery said.

"I like storms, don't you?" said Jeanie.

Avery shook her head. "No, dear."

She was listening in tense expectancy, waiting with a dread that was
almost insupportable for the music that Piers was about to make. They
were close to the open French window of the music-room, but there was no
light within. Piers was evidently sitting there silent in the darkness.
Her pulses were beating violently. Why did he sit so still? Why was
there no sound?

A flash of lightning quivered above the tree-tops and was gone. Jeanie
drew in her breath, saying no word. Avery shrank and closed her eyes. She
could hear her heart beating audibly, like the throbbing of a distant
drum. The suspense was terrible.

There came from far away the growl and mutter of the rising storm. The
leaves of the garden began to tremble. And then, ere that roll of
distant thunder had died away, another sound came through the
darkness--a sound that was almost terrifying in its suddenness, and the
grand piano began to speak.

What music it uttered, Avery knew not. It was such as she had never heard
before. It was unearthly, it was devilish, a fiendish chorus that was
like the laughter of a thousand demons--a pandemonium that shocked her
unutterably.

Just as once he had drawn aside for her the veil that shrouded the Holy
Place, so now he rent open the gates of hell and showed her the horrors
of the prison-house, forcing her to look upon them, forcing her to
understand.

She clung to Jeanie's hand in nightmare fear. The anguish of the
revelation was almost unendurable. She felt as if he had caught her
quivering soul and was thrusting it into an inferno from which it could
never rise again. Through and above that awful laughter she seemed to
hear the crackling of the flames, to feel the blistering heat that had
consumed so many, to see the red glare of the furnace gaping wide
before her.

She cried out without knowing it, and covered her face. "O God," she
prayed wildly, "save us from this! Save us! Save us!"

The man at the piano could not have heard her cry. Of that she was
certain. But their souls were in more subtle communion than any
established by bodily word or touch. He must have known, have fathomed
her anguish. For quite suddenly, as if a restraining hand had been
laid upon him, he checked that dread torrent of sound. A few bitter
chords, a few stray notes that somehow spoke to her of a spirit
escaped and wandering alone and naked in a desert of indescribable
emptiness, and then silence--a crushing, fearful silence like the
ashes of a burnt-out fire.

"And in hell he lift up his eyes." ... Why did those words flash
through her brain as though a voice had uttered them? She bowed her head
lower, lower, barely conscious of Jeanie's enfolding arms. She was as one
in the presence of a vision, hearing words that were spoken to her alone.

"And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments...."

She waited quivering. Surely there was more to come. She listened for it
even while she shrank in every nerve.

It came at length slowly, heavily, like a death-sentence uttered within
her. "Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which
would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that
would come from thence."

The words were spoken, the vision passed. Avery sat huddled in her chair
as one stricken to the earth, rapt in a trance of dread foreboding from
which Jeanie was powerless to rouse her.

The lightning flashed again, and the thunder crashed above them like the
clanging of brazen gates. From the room behind them came the sound of a
man's laugh, but it was a laugh that chilled her to the soul.

Again there came the sound of the piano,--a tremendous chord, then a
slow-swelling volume of harmony, a muffled burst of music like the coming
of a great procession still far away.

Avery sprang upright as one galvanized into action by an electric force.
"I cannot bear it!" she cried aloud, "I cannot bear it!"

She almost thrust Jeanie from her. "Oh, go, child, go! Tell him--tell
him--" Her voice broke, went into a gasping utterance more painful than
speech, finally dropped into hysterical sobbing.

Jeanie sprang into the dark room with a cry of, "Piers, oh, Piers!"--and
the music stopped, went out utterly as flame extinguished in water.

"What's the matter?" said Piers.

His voice sounded oddly defiant, almost savage. But Jeanie was too
precipitate to notice it.

"Oh, please, will you go to Avery?" she begged breathlessly. "I think she
is frightened at the storm."

Piers left the piano with a single, lithe movement that carried him to
the window in a second. He passed Jeanie and was out on the terrace
almost in one bound.

He discerned Avery on the instant, as she discerned him. A vivid flash of
lightning lit them both, lit the whole scene, turned the night into
sudden, glaring day. Before the thunder crashed above them he had caught
her to him. They stood locked in the darkness while the great
reverberations rolled over their heads, and as he held her he felt the
wild beating of her heart against his own.

She had not resisted him, she did not resist him. She even convulsively
clung to him. But her whole body was tense against his, tense and
quivering like a stretched wire.

As the last of the thunder died, she raised her head and spoke.

"Piers, haven't you tortured me enough?"

He did not speak in answer. Only she heard his breath indrawn sharply as
though he checked some headlong word or impulse.

She stifled a great sob that took her unawares, and even as she did so
she felt his arms slacken. He set her free.

"There is nothing to be afraid of," he said. "Better come indoors before
the rain begins."

They went within, Jeanie pressing close to Avery in tender solicitude.

They turned on the lights, but throughout the frightful storm that
followed, Piers leaned against the window-frame sombrely watching.

Avery sat on a sofa with Jeanie, her throbbing head leaning against the
cushions, her eyes closed.

Nearly half an hour passed thus, then the storm rolled sullenly away; and
at last Piers turned.

As though his look pierced her, Avery's eyes opened. She looked back at
him, white as death, waiting for him to speak.

"Hadn't you better send Jeanie to bed?" he said.

Jeanie rose obediently. "Good-night, dear Avery."

Avery sat up. Her hand was pressed hard upon her heart. "I am coming with
you," she said.

Piers crossed the room to the door. He held it open for them.

Jeanie lifted her face for his kiss. An unaccustomed shyness seemed to
have descended upon her. "Good-night," she whispered.

He bent to her. "Good-night, Jeanie!"

Her arms were round his neck in a moment. "Piers, thank you for your
music, but--but--"

"Good-night, dear!" said Piers again gently, but with obvious decision.

"Good-night!" said Jeanie at once.

She would have passed out instantly, but Avery paused, detaining her.

Her eyes were raised steadily to her husband's face. "I will say
good-night, too," she said. "I am spending the night with Jeanie. She is
not used to sleeping alone, and--the storm may come back."

She was white to the lips as she said it. She looked as if she
would faint.

"Oh, but--" began Jeanie, "I don't mind really. I--"

With a brief, imperious gesture Piers silenced her for the second
time. He looked over her head, straight into Avery's eyes for a long,
long second.

Then: "So be it!" he said, and with ironical ceremony he bowed her out.



CHAPTER X

SANCTUARY


"Hullo, sonny! You!"

Edmund Crowther turned from his littered writing-table, and rose to greet
his visitor with a ready smile of welcome.

"Hullo!" said Piers. "How are you getting on? I was in town and thought
I'd look you up. By Jove, though, you're busy! I'd better not stay."

"Sit down!" said Crowther.

He took him by the shoulders with kindly force and made him sit in his
easy-chair. "I'm never too busy to be pleased to see you, Piers," he
said.

"Very decent of you," said Piers.

He spoke with a short laugh, but his dark eyes roved round restlessly.
There was no pleasure in his look.

The light from Crowther's unshaded lamp flared full upon him. In his
faultless evening dress he looked every inch an aristocrat. That air of
the old-Roman patrician was very strong upon him that night. But there
was something behind it that Crowther was quick to note, something that
reminded him vividly of an evening months before when he had fought hand
to hand with the Evesham devil and had with difficulty prevailed.

He pushed his work to one side and foraged in his cupboard for drinks.

Piers watched him with an odd, half-scoffing smile about his lips. "Do
you never drink when you are by yourself?" he asked.

"Not when I'm working," said Crowther.

"I see! Work is sacred, what?"

Crowther looked at him. The mockery of the tone had been scarcely veiled;
but there was no consciousness of the fact in Crowther's quiet reply.
"Yes; just that, sonny."

Piers laughed again, a bitter, gibing laugh. "I suppose it's more to you
than your own soul--or anyone else's," he said.

Crowther paused in the act of pouring out. "Now what do you mean?" he
said.

His eyes, direct and level, looked full at Piers. They held no anger, no
indignation, only calm enquiry.

Piers faced the look with open mockery. "I mean, my good friend," he
said, "that if I asked you to chuck it all and go round the world with
me--you'd see me damned first."

Crowther's eyes dropped gravely to the job in hand. "Say when!" he said.

Piers made a restless movement. "Oh, that's enough! Strong drink is not
my weakness. Why don't you answer my question?"

"I didn't know you asked one," said Crowther.

He set the tumbler in front of Piers and began to help himself.

Piers watched him for a couple of seconds longer, then leapt impulsively
to his feet. "Oh, I'm going!" he said. "I was a fool to come!"

Crowther set down the decanter and straightened himself. He did not seem
to move quickly, but he was at the door before Piers reached it.

He stood massively before him, blocking the way. "You've behaved
foolishly a good many times in your life, my lad," he said. "But I
shouldn't call you a fool. Why do you want me to go round the world with
you? Tell me that!"

His tone was mild, but there was a certain grimness about him
notwithstanding. He looked at Piers with a faint smile in his eyes that
had in it a quality of resolution that made itself felt. Piers stood
still before him, half-chafing, half-subdued.

"Tell me!" Crowther said again.

"Oh, what's the good?" With a defiance that was oddly boyish Piers flung
the question. "I see I've applied in the wrong quarter. Let me go!"

"I will not," Crowther said. Deliberately he raised a hand and pointed to
the chair from which Piers had just sprung. "Sit down again, sonny, and
we'll talk."

Piers swung round with an impatient gesture and went to the window. He
threw it wide, and the distant roar of traffic filled the quiet room like
the breaking of the sea.

After a distinct pause Crowther followed him. They stood together gazing
out over the dim wilderness of many roofs and chimneys to where the crude
glare of an advertisement lit up the night sky.

Piers was absolutely motionless, but there was a species of violence in
his very stillness, as of a trapped animal preparing to make a wild rush
for freedom. His attitude was feverishly tense.

Suddenly and very quietly Crowther's hand came forth and linked itself in
his arm. "What is it, lad?" he said.

Piers made a jerky movement as if to avoid the touch, but the hand closed
slowly and steadily upon him. He turned abruptly and met Crowther's eyes.

"Crowther," he said, "I've behaved like a cur. I--broke that promise I
made to you."

He ground out the words savagely, between clenched teeth. Yet his look
was defiant still. He held himself as a man defying shame.

Crowther's eyes never varied. They looked straight back with a wide
kindliness greater than compassion, wholly devoid of reproach.

"All right, Piers," he said simply.

Piers stared at him for a moment as one in blank amazement, then very
strangely his face altered. The hardness went from it like a mask
suddenly rent away. He made an inarticulate sound and turned from the
open window.

A second later he was sunk in Crowther's chair with his head in his
hands, sobbing convulsively, painfully, uncontrollably, in an agony that
tore like a living thing at the very foundations of his being.

A smaller man than Crowther might have been at a loss to deal with such
distress, but Crowther was ready. He had seen men in extremities of
suffering before. He knew how to ease a crushing burden. He sat down on
the arm of the chair and thrust a strong hand over Piers' shoulder,
saying no word.

Minutes passed ere by sheer violence that bitter anguish wore itself out
at last. There came a long, piteous silence, then Piers' hand feeling
blindly upwards. Crowther's grip encompassed it like a band of iron, but
still for a space no word was spoken.

Then haltingly Piers found his voice. "I'm sorry--beastly sorry--to have
made such an ass of myself. You're jolly decent to me, Crowther."

To which Crowther made reply with a tenderness as simple as his own soul.
"You're just a son to me, lad."

"A precious poor specimen!" muttered Piers.

He remained bowed for a while longer, then lifted at length a face of
awful whiteness and leaned back upon Crowther's arm, still fast holding
to his hand.

"You know, you're such an awfully good chap," he said, "that one gets
into the way of taking you for granted. But I won't encroach on your
goodness much longer. You're busy, what?" He smiled a quivering smile,
and glanced momentarily towards the littered table.

"It will keep," said Crowther quietly.

"No, it won't. Life isn't long enough. On my soul, do you know it's like
coming into sanctuary to enter a place like this? I feel as if I'd shut
my own particular devil on the other side of the door. But he'll wait for
me all right. We shan't lose each other on that account."

He uttered a laugh that testified more to the utter weariness of his soul
than its bitterness.

"Where are you staying?" said Crowther.

"At Marchmont's. At least I've got a room there. I haven't any definite
plans at present."

"Unless you go round the world with me," said Crowther.

Piers' eyes travelled upwards sharply. "No, old chap. I didn't mean it. I
wouldn't have you if you'd come. It was only a try-on, that."

"Some try-ons fit," said Crowther gravely. He turned towards the table,
and reached for the drink he had prepared for Piers. "Look here, sonny!
Have a drink!"

Piers drank in silence, Crowther steadily watching.

"You would have to be back by March," he said presently.

"What?" said Piers.

It was like a protest, the involuntary startled outcry of the patient
under the probe. Crowther's hand grasped his more closely. "I'll go with
you on that understanding, Piers," he said. "You'll be wanted then."

Piers groaned. "If it hadn't been for--that," he said, "I'd have ended
the whole business with a bullet before now."

"No, you wouldn't," said Crowther quietly. "You don't know yourself, boy,
when you talk like that. You've given up Parliament for the present?"

"For good," said Piers. He paused, as if bracing himself for a great
effort. "I went to Colonel Rose yesterday and told him I must withdraw.
He had heard the rumours of course, but he advised me to hold on. I told
him--I told him--" Piers stopped and swallowed hard, then forced himself
on,--"I told him there was truth in it, and then--he let me go."

There fell a painful silence, broken by Crowther. "How did this rumour
get about?"

"Oh, that was at Ina Rose's wedding." Piers' words came more freely now,
as if the obstruction were passed. "A cousin of Guyes', the bridegroom,
was there. He came from Queensland, had been present that night when I
fought and killed Denys, and he recognized me. Then--he got tight and
told everybody who would listen. It was rotten luck, but it had to
happen." He paused momentarily; then: "I wasn't enjoying myself,
Crowther, before it happened," he said.

"I saw that, sonny." Crowther's arm pressed his shoulder in sympathy.
It was characteristic of the man to display understanding rather than
pity. He stood ever on the same level with his friends, however low
that level might be.

Again Piers looked at him as if puzzled by his attitude. "You've done
me a lot of good," he said abruptly. "You've made me see myself as you
don't see me, dear old fellow, and never would. Well, I'm going.
Thanks awfully!"

He made as if he would rise, but Crowther restrained him. "No, lad. I'm
not parting with you for to-night. We'll send round for your traps. I'll
put you up."

"What? No, no, you can't! I shall be all right. Don't worry about me!"

Piers began to make impulsive resistance, but Crowther's hold only
tightened.

"I'm not parting with you to-night," he reiterated firmly. "And look
here, boy! You've come to me for help, and, to the best of my ability,
I'll help you. But first,--are you sure you are justified in leaving
home? Are you sure you are not wanted?"

"Wanted! I!" Piers looked at him from under eye-lids that quivered a
little. "Yes," he said, after a moment, with a deliberation that sounded
tragically final. "I am quite sure of that, Crowther."

Crowther asked no more. He patted Piers' shoulder gently and rose.

"Very well," he said. "I'll take that six months' trip round the world
with you."

"But you can't!" protested Piers. "I never seriously thought you could! I
only came to you because--" he halted, and a slow, deep flush mounted to
his forehead--"because you've saved me before," he said. "And I was
so--so horribly near--the edge of the pit this time."

He spoke with an odd boyishness, and Crowther's lips relaxed in a smile
that had in it something of a maternal quality. "So long as I can help
you, you can count on me," he said.

"You're the only man in the world who can help me," Piers said
impulsively. "At least--" he smiled himself--"I couldn't take it from
anyone else. But I'm not taking this from you, Crowther. You've got your
own pet job on hand, and I'm not going to hinder it."

Crowther was setting his writing-table in order. He did not speak for
a few seconds. Then: "I am a man under authority, sonny," he said. "My
own pet job, as you call it, doesn't count if it isn't what's wanted
of me. It has waited twenty-five years; it'll keep--easy--for another
six months."

Piers got up. "I'm a selfish brute if I let you," he said, irresolutely.

"You can't help yourself, my son." Crowther turned calm eyes upon him.
"And now just sit down here and write a line home to say what you are
going to do!"

He had cleared a space upon the table; he pulled forward a chair.

"Oh, I can't! I can't!" said Piers quickly.

But Crowther's hand was on his shoulder. He pressed him down. "Do it,
lad! It's got to be done," he said.

And with a docility that sat curiously upon him, Piers submitted. He
leaned his head on his hand, and wrote.



CHAPTER XI

THE FALLING NIGHT


"You ought to rest, you know," said Tudor. "This sort of thing is
downright madness for you."

They were walking together in the February twilight along the long, dark
avenue of chestnuts that led to Rodding Abbey. Avery moved with lagging
feet that she strove vainly to force to briskness.

"I don't think I do too much," she said. "It isn't good for me to be
idle. It makes me--it makes me mope."

The involuntary falter in the words spoke more eloquently than the words
themselves, but she went on after a moment with that same forced
briskness to which she was trying to compel her dragging limbs. "I only
ran down to the Vicarage after lunch because it is Jeanie's birthday. It
is no distance across the Park. It seemed absurd to go in state."

"You are not wise," said Tudor in a tone that silenced all argument.

Avery gave a little sigh and turned from the subject. "I thought Jeanie
looking very fragile. Mrs. Lorimer has promised that she may come to me
again just as soon as I am able to have her."

"Ah! Jeanie is a comfort to you?" said Tudor.

To which she answered with a catch in her breath, "The greatest comfort."

They reached the great grey house and entered. A letter lay on the table
by the door. Avery took it up with a sharp shiver.

"Prom Piers?" asked Tudor abruptly.

She bent her head. "He writes--every week."

"When is he coming home?" He uttered the question with a directness that
sounded almost brutal, but Avery caught the note of anxiety behind it and
understood.

She opened the letter in silence, and read it by the waning light of the
open door. The crackling of the fire behind her was the only sound
within. Without, the wind moaned desolately through the bare trees. It
was going to rain.

Slowly Avery raised her head at last and gazed out into the
gathering dark.

"Come inside!" said Tudor peremptorily.

His hand closed upon her arm, he almost compelled her. "How painfully
thin you are!" he said, as she yielded. "Are you starving yourself of
food as well as rest?"

Again she did not answer him. Her eyes were fixed, unseeing. They
focused their gaze upon the fire as he led her to it. She sat down in
the chair he placed for her and then very suddenly she began to shiver
as if with an ague.

"Don't!" said Tudor sharply.

He bent over her, his hands upon her shoulders, holding her.

She controlled herself, and leaned back. "Do sit down, doctor! I'm afraid
I'm very rude--very forgetful. Will you ring for tea? Piers is in town.
He writes very kindly, very--very considerately. He is only just back
from Egypt--he and Mr. Crowther. The last letter was from Cairo. Would
you--do you care to see what he says?"

She offered him the letter with the words, and after the faintest
hesitation Tudor took it.

"I have come back to be near you." So without preliminary the letter ran.
"You will not want me, I know, but still--I am here. For Heaven's sake,
take care of yourself, and have anything under the sun that you need.
Your husband, Piers."

It only covered the first page. Tudor turned the sheet frowningly and
replaced it in its envelope.

"He always writes like that," said Avery. "Every week--all through the
winter--just a sentence or two. I haven't written at all to him though
I've tried--till I couldn't try any more."

She spoke with a weariness so utter that it seemed to swamp all feeling.
Tudor turned his frowning regard upon her. His eyes behind their glasses
intently searched her face.

"How does he get news of you?" he asked abruptly.

"Through Mrs. Lorimer. She writes to him regularly, I believe,--either
she or Jeanie. I suppose--presently--"

Avery stopped, her eyes upon the fire, her hands tightly clasped
before her.

"Presently?" said Tudor.

She turned her head slightly, without moving her eyes. "Presently there
will have to be some--mutual arrangement made. But I can't see my way
yet. I can't consider the future at all. I feel as if night were falling.
Perhaps--for me--there is no future."

"May I take your pulse?" said Tudor.

She gave him her hand in the same tired fashion. He took it gravely,
feeling her pulse, his eyes upon her face.

"Have you no relations of your own?" he asked her suddenly.

She shook her head. "No one near. My parents were both only children."

"And no friends?" he said.

"Only Mrs. Lorimer. I lost sight of people when I married. And then--"
Avery halted momentarily "after my baby girl died, for a long time I
didn't seem to care for making new friends."

"Ah!" said Tudor, his tone unwontedly gentle. "You will soon have another
child to care for now."

She made a slight gesture as of protest. "Do you know I can't picture
it? I do not feel that it will be so. I believe one of us--or
both--will die."

She spoke calmly, so calmly that even Tudor, with all his experience, was
momentarily shocked. "Avery!" he said sharply. "You are morbid!"

She looked at him then with her tired eyes. "Am I?" she said. "I really
don't feel particularly sad--only worn out. When anyone has been
burnt--badly burnt--it destroys the nerve tissues, doesn't it? They don't
suffer after that has happened. I think that is my case."

"You will suffer," said Tudor.

He spoke brutally; he wanted to rouse her from her lethargy, to pierce
somehow that dreadful calm.

But he failed; she only faintly smiled.

"I can bear bodily suffering," she said, "particularly if it leads to
freedom and peace."

He got up as if it were he who had been pierced. "You won't die!" he said
harshly. "I won't let you die!"

Her eyes went back to the fire, as if attracted thereto irresistibly.
"Most of me died last August," she said in a low voice.

"You are wrong!" He stood over her almost threateningly. "When you hold
your child in your arms you will see how wrong. Tell me, when is your
husband coming back to you?"

That reached her. She looked up at him with a quick hunted look.
"Never!" she said.

He looked back at her mercilessly. "Never is a long time, Lady Evesham.
Do you think he will be kept at arm's length when you are through your
trouble? Do you think--whatever his sins--that he has no claim upon
you? Mind, I don't like him. I never did and I never shall. But you--you
are sworn to him."

He had never spoken so to her before. She flinched as if he had struck
her with a whip. She put her hands over her face, saying no word.

He stood for a few moments stern, implacable, looking down at her. Then
very suddenly his attitude changed. His face softened. He stooped and
touched her shoulder.

"Avery!" His voice was low and vehement; he spoke into her ear. "When you
first kicked him out, I was mean enough to feel glad. But I soon
saw--that he took all that is vital in you with him. Avery,--my
dear,--for God's sake--have him back!"

She did not speak or move, save for a spasmodic shuddering that shook her
whole frame.

He bent lower. "Avery, I say, can't you--for the baby's sake--anyway
consider it?"

She flung out her hands with a cry. "The child is cursed! The child will
die!" There was terrible conviction in the words. She lifted a tortured
face. "Oh, don't you see," she said piteously, "how impossible it is for
me? Don't--don't say any more!"

"I won't," said Tudor.

He took the outflung hands and held them closely, restrainingly,
soothingly.

"I won't," he said again. "Forgive me for saying so much! Poor girl!
Poor girl!"

His lips quivered a little as he said it, but his hold was full of
sustaining strength. She grew gradually calmer, and finally submitted to
the gentle pressure with which he laid her back in her chair.

"You are always so very good to me," she said presently. "I sometimes
wonder how I ever came to--to--" She stopped herself abruptly.

"To refuse me?" said Tudor quietly. "I always knew why, Lady Evesham. It
was because you loved another man. It has been the case for as long as I
have known you."

He turned from her with the words wholly without emotion and took up his
stand on the hearth-rug.

"Now may I talk to you about your health?" he said professionally.

She leaned forward slowly. "Dr. Tudor, first will you make me a promise?"

He smiled a little. "I don't think so. I never do make promises."

"Just this once!" she pleaded anxiously. "Because it means a great
deal to me."

"Well?" said Tudor.

"It is only--" she paused a moment, breathing quickly--"only that you
will not--whatever the circumstances--let Piers be sent for."

"I can't promise that," said Tudor at once.

She clasped her hands beseechingly. "You must--please--you must!"

He shook his head. "I can't. I will undertake that he shall not come to
you against your will. I can't do more than that."

"Do you suppose you could keep him out?" Avery said, a note of quivering
bitterness in her voice.

"I am quite sure I can," Tudor answered steadily. "Don't trouble
yourself on that head! I swear that, unless you ask for him, he shall
not come to you."

She shivered again and dropped back in her chair. "I shall never do
that--never--never--so long as I am myself!"

"Your wishes--whatever they are--shall be obeyed," Tudor promised
gravely.

And with that gently but very resolutely he changed the subject.



CHAPTER XII

THE DREAM


How many times had he paced up and down the terrace? Piers could not have
said. He had been there for hours, years, half a lifetime,
waiting--waiting eternally for the summons that never came.

Could it have been only that morning that Mrs. Lorimer's urgent telegram
had reached him? Only that morning that he had parted from Crowther for
the first time in six months? It seemed aeons ago. And yet here he was in
the cold grey dusk, still waiting to be called to his wife's side.

The night was fast approaching--a bitter, cheerless night with a driving
wind that seemed to promise snow. It was growing darker every moment.
Only her window shone like a beacon in the gloom. How long would he have
to wait? How long? How long?

He had brought a doctor with him in obedience to Mrs. Lorimer's message,
transmitting Tudor's desire. Tudor was not satisfied. He wanted Maxwell
Wyndham, the great surgeon--a man still comparatively young in years but
high in his profession--a man in whose presence--so it was said--no
patient ever died. That of course was an exaggeration--some hysterical
woman's tribute to his genius. But genius he undoubtedly possessed and
that of a very high order.

If anyone could save her, it would be Maxwell Wyndham. So Piers told
himself each time he turned in his endless pacing and looked at that
lighted window. Tudor believed in him. And--yes, he believed in him also.
There had been something in the great man's attitude, something of
arrogant self-assurance that had inspired him with confidence almost
against his will. He had watched him saunter up the stairs with his hands
thrust into his pockets and an air of limitless leisure pervading his
every movement, and he had been exasperated by the man's deliberation and
subtly comforted at the same time. He was thankful that he had been able
to secure him.

Ah, what was that? A cry in the night! The weird, haunting screech of an
owl! He ridiculed himself for the sudden wild thumping of his heart. But
would they never call him? This suspense was tearing at the very roots of
his being.

Away in the distance a dog was barking, fitfully, peevishly--the bark of
a chained animal. Piers stopped in his walk and cursed the man who had
chained him. Then--as though driven by an invisible goad--he pressed on,
walking resolutely with his back turned upon the lighted window, forcing
himself to pace the whole length of the terrace.

He had nearly reached the further end when a sudden fragrance swept
across his path--pure, intoxicating, exquisitely sweet. Violets! The
violets that grew in the great bed under the study-window! The violets
that Sir Beverley's bride had planted fifty years ago!

The thought of his grandfather went through him like a stab through the
heart. He clenched his hands and held his breath while the spasm passed.
Never since the night Victor had summoned Avery to comfort him, had he
felt so sick a longing for the old man's presence. For a few lingering
seconds it was almost more than he could bear. Then he turned about and
faced the chill night-wind and that lighted window, and the anguish of
his vigil drove out all other griefs. How long had he yet to wait? How
long? How long?

There came a low call behind him on the terrace. He wheeled, strangling a
startled exclamation in his throat. A man's figure--a broad, powerful
figure--lounged towards him. He seemed to be wearing carpet slippers, for
he made no sound. It was Maxwell Wyndham, and Piers' heart ceased to
beat. He stood as if turned to stone. All the blood in his body seemed to
be singing in his ears. His head was burning, the rest of him cold--cold
as ice. He would have moved to meet the advancing figure, but he could
not stir. He could only stop and listen to that maddening tarantella
beating out in his fevered brain.

"I say, you know--" the voice came to him out of an immensity of space,
as though uttered from another world--"it's a bit too chilly for this
sort of thing. Why didn't you put on an overcoat?"

A man's hand, strong and purposeful, closed upon his arm and impelled him
towards the house.

Piers went like an automaton, but he could not utter a word. His mouth
felt parched, his tongue powerless.

Avery! Avery! The woman he had wronged--the woman he worshipped so
madly--for whom his whole being mental and physical craved desperately,
yearning, unceasingly,--without whom he lived in a torture that was never
dormant! Avery! Avery! Was she lying dead behind that lighted window? If
so, if so, those six months of torment had been in vain. He would end his
misery swiftly and finally before it turned his brain.

Maxwell Wyndham was guiding him towards the conservatory where a dim
light shone. It was like an altar-flame in the darkness--that place where
first their lips had met. The memory of that night went through him like
a sword-thrust. Oh, Avery! Oh, Avery!

"Now look here," said Maxwell Wyndham, in his steady, emotionless voice;
"you're wanted upstairs, but you can't go unless you are absolutely sure
of yourself."

Wanted! His senses leapt to the word. Instinctively he pulled himself
together, collecting all his strength. He spoke, and found to his
surprise that speech was not difficult.

"She has asked for me?"

"Yes; but," Wyndham's tone was impressive, "I warn you, she is not
altogether herself. And--she is very desperately ill."

"The child?" questioned Piers.

"The child never breathed." Curt and cold came the answer. "I have had to
concentrate all my energies upon saving the mother's life, and--to be
open with you--I don't think I have succeeded. There is still a chance,
but--" He left the sentence unfinished.

They had reached the conservatory, and, entering, it was Piers who led
the way. His face, as they emerged into the library, was deathly, but he
was absolute master of himself.

"I believe there is a meal in the dining-room," he said. "Will you help
yourself while I go up?"

"No," said Wyndham briefly. "I am coming up with you."

He kept a hand upon Piers' arm all the way up the stairs, deliberately
restraining him, curbing the fevered impetuosity that urged him with a
grim insistence that would not yield an inch to any chafing for freedom.

He gave utterance to no further injunctions, but his manner was eloquent
of the urgent need for self-repression. When Piers entered his wife's
room, that room which he had not entered since the night of Ina's
wedding, his tread was catlike in its caution, and all the eagerness was
gone from his face.

Then only did the doctor's hand fall from him, so that he
advanced alone.

She was lying on one side of the great four-poster, straight and
motionless as a recumbent figure on a tomb. Her head was in deep shadow.
He could see her face only in vaguest outline.

Softly he approached, and Mrs. Lorimer, rising silently from a chair
by the bedside, made room for him. He sat down, sinking as it were
into a great abyss of silence, listening tensely, but hearing not so
much as a breath.

The doctor took up his stand at the foot of the bed. In the adjoining
room sat Lennox Tudor, watching ceaselessly, expectantly, it seemed to
Piers. Behind him moved a nurse, noiselessly intent upon polishing
something that flashed like silver every time it caught his eye.

Suddenly out of the silence there came a voice. "If I go down to
hell,--Thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning--the wings
of the morning--" There came a pause, the difficult pause of
uncertainty--"the wings of the morning--" murmured the voice again.

Piers leaned upon the pillow. "Avery!" he said.

She turned as if some magic moved her. Her hands came out to him,
piteously weak and trembling. "Piers,--my darling!" she said.

He gathered the poor nerveless hands into a tight clasp, kissing them
passionately. He forgot the silent watcher at the foot of the bed, forgot
little Mrs. Lorimer hovering in the shadows, and Tudor waiting with the
nurse behind him. They all slipped into nothingness, and Avery--his
wife--alone remained in a world that was very dark.

Her voice came to him in a weak whisper. "Oh, Piers, I've
been--wanting you so!"

"My own darling!" he whispered back. "I will never leave you again!"

"Oh yes, you will!" she answered drearily. "You always say that, but you
are always gone in the morning. It's only a dream--only a dream!"

He slipped his arms beneath her and drew her to his breast. "It is not a
dream, Avery," he told her very earnestly. "I am here in the flesh. I am
holding you."

"I know," she said. "It's always so."

The weary conviction of her tone smote cold to his heart. He gathered her
closer still. He pressed his lips to her forehead.

"Avery, can't you feel me?" he said.

Her head sank against his shoulder. "Yes--yes," she said. "But you have
always done that."

"Done what, darling?"

"Imposed your will on mine--made me feel you." Her voice quivered; she
began to cry a little, weakly, like a tired child. "Do you remember--what
you said--about--about--the ticket of leave?" she said. "You leave your
dungeon--my poor Piers. But you have to go back again--when the leave has
expired. And I--I am left alone."

The tears were running down her face. He wiped them tenderly away.

"My dearest, if you want me--if you need me,--I will stay," he said.

"But you can't," she said hopelessly. "Even to-night--even to-night--I
thought you were never coming. And I went at last to look for you--behind
your iron bars. But, oh, Piers, the agony of it! And I couldn't reach you
after all, though I tried so hard--so hard."

"Never mind, my darling!" he whispered. "We are together now."

"But we shan't be when the morning comes," sobbed Avery. "I know it is
all a dream. It's happened so many, many times."

He clasped her closer, hushing her with tender words, vowing he would
never leave her, while the Shadow of Death gathered closer about them,
threatening every instant to come between.

She grew calmer at last, and presently sank into a state of
semi-consciousness lying against his breast.

Time passed. Piers did not know how it went. With his wife clasped in his
arms he sat and waited, waited--for the falling of a deeper night or the
coming of the day--he knew not which. His brain felt like a stopped
watch; it did not seem to be working at all. Even the power to suffer
seemed to have left him. He felt curiously indifferent, strangely
submissive to circumstances,--like a man scourged into the numbness of
exhaustion. He knew at the back of his mind that as soon as his vitality
reasserted itself the agony would return. The respite could not last, but
while it lasted he knew no pain. Like one in a state of coma, he was not
even aware of thought.

It might have been hours later, or possibly only minutes, that
Maxwell Wyndham came round to his side and bent over him, a quiet
hand on his shoulder.

"You had better lay her down," he said. "She won't wake now."

"What?" said Piers sharply.

The words had stabbed him back to understanding in a second. He glared at
the doctor with eyes half-savage, half-frightened.

"No, no!" said Wyndham gently. "I don't mean that. She is asleep. She is
breathing. But she will rest better if you lay her down."

The absolute calmness with which he spoke took effect upon Piers. He
yielded, albeit not very willingly, to the mandate.

They laid her down upon the pillow between them, and then for many
seconds Wyndham stood, closely watching, almost painfully intent. Piers
waited dumbly, afraid to move, afraid to speak.

The doctor turned to him at last. "What about that meal you spoke of?
Shall we go down and get it?"

Piers stared at him. "I am not leaving her," he said in a quick whisper.

Wyndham's hand was on his shoulder again--a steady, compelling hand. "Oh
yes, you are. I want to talk to you," he said. "She is sleeping
naturally, and she won't wake for some time. Come!"

There was nothing peremptory about him, yet he gained his end. Piers
rose. He hung for a moment over the bed, gazing hungrily downwards upon
the shadowy, motionless form, then in silence turned.

Tudor had risen. He met them in the doorway, and between him and the
London doctor a few words passed. Then the latter pushed his hand through
Piers' arm, and drew him away.

They descended the wide oak stairs together and entered the dining-room.
Piers moved like a man dazed. His companion went straight to the table
and poured out a drink, which he immediately held out to Piers, looking
at him with eyes that were green and very shrewd.

"I think we shall save her," he said.

Piers drank in great gulps, and came to himself. "I say, I'm beastly
rude!" he said, with sudden boyishness. "For goodness' sake, help
yourself! Sit down, won't you?"

Maxwell Wyndham seated himself with characteristic deliberation of
movement. He had fiery red hair that shone brazenly in the lamplight.

"I can't eat by myself, Sir Piers," he remarked, after a moment. "And it
isn't particularly good for you to drink without eating either, in your
present frame of mind."

Piers sat down, his attitude one of intense weariness. "You really think
she'll pull through?" he said.

"I think so," Wyndham answered. "But it won't be a walk over. She will be
ill for a long time."

"I'll take her away somewhere," said Piers. "A quiet time at the sea
will soon pick her up."

Maxwell Wyndham said nothing.

Piers glanced at him with quick impatience. "Don't you advise that?"

The green eyes countered his like the turn of a swordblade. "Certainly
quiet is essential," said Wyndham enigmatically.

Piers made a chafing movement. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," very calmly came the answer, "that if you really value your
wife's welfare, you will let someone else take her away."

It was a straight thrust, and it went home. Piers flinched sharply. But
in a moment he had recovered himself. He was on guard. He looked at
Wyndham with haughty enquiry.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because her peace of mind depends upon it." Wyndham's answer came with
brutal directness. "You will find, when this phase of extreme weakness
is past, that your presence is not desired. She may try to hide it from
you. That depends upon the kind of woman she is. But the fact will
remain--does remain--that for some reason best known to yourself, she
shrinks from you. I am not speaking rashly without knowledge. When a
woman is in agony she can't help showing her soul. I saw your wife's
soul to-day."

Piers was white to the lips. He sat rigid, no longer looking at the
doctor, but staring beyond him fixedly at a woman's face on the wall that
smiled and softly mocked.

"What did she say to you?" he said, after a moment.

"She said," curtly Wyndham made reply,--"it was at a time when she
could hardly speak at all--'Even if I ask for my husband, don't
send--don't send!'"

"Yet you fetched me!" Piers' eyes came swiftly back to him; they shone
with a fierce glint.

But Wyndham was undismayed. "I fetched you to save her life," he said.
"There was nothing else to be done. She was in delirium, and nothing else
would calm her."

"And she wanted me!" said Piers. "She begged me to stay with her!"

"I know. It was a passing phase. When her brain is normal, she will have
forgotten."

Piers sprang to his feet with sudden violence. "But--damn it--she is my
wife!" he cried out fiercely.

Maxwell Wyndham leaned across the table. "She is your wife--yes," he
said. "But isn't that a reason for considering her to the very utmost?
Have you always done that, I wonder? No, don't answer! I've no right to
ask. Only--you know, doctors are the only men in the world who know just
what women have to put up with, and the knowledge isn't exactly
exhilarating. Give her a month or two to get over this! You won't be
sorry afterwards."

It was kindly spoken, so kindly that the flare of anger died out of Piers
on the instant, and the sweetness dormant in him--that latent sweetness
that had won Avery's heart--came swiftly to the surface.

He threw himself down again, looking into the alert, green eyes with
an oddly rueful smile. "All right, doctor!" he said. "I shan't go to
her if she doesn't want me. But I've got to make sure she doesn't,
haven't I? What?"

There was a wholly unconscious note of pathos in the last word that sent
the doctor's mouth up at one corner in a smile that was more pitying than
humorous. "I should certainly do that," he said. "But I'm afraid you'll
find I've told you the beastly truth."

"For which I am obliged to you," said Piers, with a bow.



CHAPTER XIII

THE HAND OF THE SCULPTOR


During the week that followed, no second summons came to Piers from his
wife's room. He hung about the house, aimless, sick at heart, with hope
sinking ever lower within him like a fire dying for lack of
replenishment.

He could neither sleep nor eat, and Victor watched him with piteous
though unspoken solicitude. Victor knew the wild, undisciplined
temperament of the boy he had cherished from his cradle, and he lived in
hourly dread of some sudden passionate outburst of rebellion, some
desperate act that should lead to irremediable disaster. He had not
forgotten that locked drawer in the old master's bureau or the quick
release it contained, and he never left Piers long alone in its vicinity.

But he need not have been afraid. Piers' thoughts never strayed in that
direction. If his six months in Crowther's society had brought him no
other comfort, they had at least infused in him a saner outlook and
steadier balance. Very little had ever passed between them on the subject
of the tragedy that had thrown them together. After the first bitter
outpouring of his soul, Piers had withdrawn himself with so obvious a
desire for privacy that Crowther had never attempted to cross the
boundary thus clearly defined. But his influence had made itself felt
notwithstanding. It would have been impossible to have lived with the man
for so long without imbibing some of that essential greatness of soul
that was his main characteristic, and Piers was ever swift to feel the
effect of atmosphere. He had come to look upon Crowther with a reverence
that in a fashion affected his daily life. That which Crowther regarded
as unworthy, he tossed aside himself without consideration. Crowther had
not despised him at his worst, and he was determined that he would show
himself to be not despicable. He was moreover under a solemn promise to
return to Crowther when he found himself at liberty, and in very
gratitude to the man he meant to keep that promise.

But, albeit he was braced for endurance, the long hours of waiting were
very hard to bear. His sole comfort lay in the fact that Avery was making
gradual progress in the right direction. It was a slow and difficult
recovery, as Maxwell Wyndham had foretold, but it was continuous. Tudor
assured him of this every day with a curt kindliness that had grown on
him of late. It was his own fashion of showing a wholly involuntary
sympathy of which he was secretly half-ashamed, and which he well knew
Piers would have brooked in no other form. It established an odd sort of
truce between them of which each was aware the while he sternly ignored
it. They could never be friends. It was fundamentally impossible, but at
least they had, if only temporarily, ceased to be enemies.

Little Mrs. Lorimer's sympathy was also of a half-ashamed type. She did
not want to be sorry for Piers, but she could not wholly restrain her
pity. The look in his eyes haunted her. Curiously it made her think of
some splendid animal created for liberty, and fretting its heart out in
utter, hopeless misery on a chain.

She longed with all her motherly heart to comfort him, and by the irony
of circumstance it fell to her to deal the final blow to what was left of
his hope. She wondered afterwards how she ever brought herself to the
task, but it was in reality so forced upon her that she could not evade
it. Avery, lying awake during the first hours of a still night, heard her
husband's feet pacing up and down the terrace, and the mischief was done.
She was thrown into painful agitation and wholly lost her sleep in
consequence. When Mrs. Lorimer arrived about noon on the following day,
she found her alarmingly weak, and the nurse in evident perplexity.

"I am sure there is something worrying her," the latter said to Mrs.
Lorimer. "I can't think what it is."

But directly Mrs. Lorimer was alone with Avery, the trouble came out. For
she reached out fevered hands to her, saying, "Why, oh, why did you
persuade me to come back here? I knew he would come if I did!"

Again the emergency impelled Mrs. Lorimer to a display of common-sense
with which few would have credited her.

"Oh, do you mean Piers, dear?" she said. "But surely you are not afraid
of him! He has been here all the time--ever since you were so ill."

"And I begged you not to send!" groaned Avery.

"My dear," said Mrs. Lorimer very gently, "it was his right to be here."

"Then that night--that night--" gasped Avery, "he really did come to
me--that night after the baby was born."

"My darling, you begged for him so piteously," said Mrs. Lorimer
apologetically.

Avery's lip quivered. "That was just what I feared--what I wanted to make
impossible," she said. "When one is suffering, one forgets so."

"But surely it was the cry of your heart, darling," urged Mrs. Lorimer
tremulously. "And do you know--poor lad--he looks so ill, so miserable."

But Avery's face was turned away. "I can't help it," she said. "I
can't--possibly--see him again. I feel as if--as if there were a curse
upon us both, and that is why the baby died. Oh yes, morbid, I know;
perhaps wrong. But--I have been steeped in sin. I must be free for a
time. I can't face him yet. I haven't the strength."

"Dearest, he will never force himself upon you," said Mrs. Lorimer.

Avery's eyes went instinctively to the door that led into the room that
Piers had occupied after his marriage. The broken bolt had been removed,
but not replaced. A great shudder went through her. She covered her face
with her hands.

"Oh, beg him--beg him to go away," she sobbed, "till I am strong enough
to go myself!"

Argument was useless. Mrs. Lorimer abandoned it with the wisdom born of
close friendship. Instead, she clasped Avery tenderly to her and gave
herself to the task of calming her distress.

And when that was somewhat accomplished, she left her to go sadly in
search of Piers.

She found him sitting on the terrace with the morning-paper beside him
and Caesar pressed close to his legs, his great mottled head resting on
his master's knee.

He was not reading. So much Mrs. Lorimer perceived before with a sharp
turn of the head he discovered her. He was on his feet in a moment, and
she saw his boyish smile for an instant, only for an instant, as he came
to meet her. She noted with a pang how gaunt he looked and how deep were
the shadows about his eyes. Then he had reached her, and was holding both
her hands almost before she realized it.

"I say, you're awfully good to come up every day like this," he said. "I
can't think how you make the time. Splendid sun to-day, what? It's like a
day in summer, if you can get out of the wind. Come and bask with me!"

He drew her along the terrace to his sheltered corner, and made her sit
down, spreading his newspaper on the stone seat for her accommodation.
Her heart went out to him as he performed that small chivalrous act. She
could not help it. And suddenly the task before her seemed so monstrous
that she felt she could not fulfil it. The tears rushed to her eyes.

"What's the matter?" said Piers gently. He sat down beside her, and
slipped an encouraging hand through her arm. "Was it something you came
out to say? Don't mind me! You don't, do you?"

His voice was softly persuasive. He leaned towards her, his dark
eyes searching her face. Mrs. Lorimer felt as if she were about to
hurt a child.

She blew her nose, dried her eyes, and took the brown hand very tightly
between her own. "My dear, I'm so sorry for you--so sorry for you
both!" she said.

A curious little glint came and went in the eyes that watched her. Piers'
fingers closed slowly upon hers.

"I've got to clear out, what?" he said.

She nodded mutely; she could not say it.

He was silent awhile; then: "All right," he said. "I'll go this
afternoon."

His voice was dead level, wholly emotionless, but for a few seconds his
grip taxed her endurance to the utmost. Then, abruptly, it relaxed.

He bent his black head and kissed the nervous little hands that were
clasped upon his own.

"Don't you fret now!" he said, with an odd kindness that was to her more
pathetic than any appeal for sympathy. "You've got enough burdens of your
own to bear without shouldering ours. How is Jeanie?"

Mrs. Lorimer choked down a sob. "She isn't a bit well. She has a cold and
such a racking cough. I'm keeping her in bed."

"I'm awfully sorry," said Piers steadily. "Give her my love! And look
here, when Avery is well enough, let them go away together, will you? It
will do them both good."

"It's dear of you to think of it," said Mrs. Lorimer wistfully. "Yes, it
did do Jeanie good in the autumn. But Avery--"

"It will do Avery good too," he said. "She can take that cottage at
Stanbury Cliffs for the whole summer if she likes. Tell her to! And look
here! Will you take her a message from me?"

"A written message?" asked Mrs. Lorimer.

He pulled out a pocket-book. "Six words," he said. He scrawled them, tore
out the leaf and gave it to her, holding it up before her eyes that she
might read it.

"Good-bye till you send for me. Piers."

"That's all," he said. "Thanks awfully. She'll understand that. And
now--I say, you're not going to cry any more, are you?" He shook his head
at her with a laugh in his eyes. "You really mustn't. You're much too
tender-hearted. I say, it was a pity about the baby, what? I thought the
baby might have made a difference. But it'll be all the same presently.
She's wanting me really. I've known that ever since that night--you
know--ever since I held her in my arms."

He spoke with absolute simplicity. She had never liked him better than at
that moment. His boyishness had utterly disarmed her, and not till later
did she realize how completely he had masked his soul therewith.

She parted with him with a full heart, and had a strictly private little
cry on his account ere she returned to Avery. Poor lad! Poor lad! And
when he wasn't smiling, he did look so ill!

The same thought struck Crowther a few hours later as Piers sat with him
in his room, and devoted himself with considerable adroitness to making
his fire burn through as quickly as possible, the while he briefly
informed him that his wife was considered practically out of danger and
had no further use for him for the present.

Crowther's heart sank at the news though he gave no sign of dismay.

"What do you think of doing, sonny?" he asked, after a moment.

"I? Why, what is there for me to do?" Piers glanced round momentarily.
"I wonder what you'd do, Crowther," he said, with a smile that was
scarcely gay.

Crowther came to his side, and stood there massively, while he filled his
pipe. "Piers," he said, "I presume she knows all there is to know of that
bad business?"

Piers rammed the poker a little deeper into the fire and said nothing.

But Crowther had broken through the barricade of silence at last, and
would not be denied.

"Does she know, Piers?" he insisted. "Did you ever tell her how the
thing came to pass? Does she know that the quarrel was forced upon
you--that you took heavy odds--that you did not of your own free will
avoid the consequences? Does she know that you loved her before you knew
who she was?"

He paused, but Piers remained stubbornly silent, still prodding at the
red coals.

He bent a little, taking him by the shoulder. "Piers, answer me!"

Again Piers' eyes glanced upwards. His face was hard. "Oh, get away,
Crowther!" he growled. "What's the good?" And then in his winning way
he gripped Crowther's hand hard. "No, I never told her anything," he
said. "And I made it impossible for her to ask. I couldn't urge
extenuating circumstances because there weren't any. Moreover, it
wouldn't have made a ha'porth's difference if I had. So shunt the
subject like a good fellow! She must take me at my worst--at my worst,
do you hear?--or not at all."

"But, my dear lad, you owe it to her," began Crowther gravely.

Piers cut him short with a recklessness that scarcely veiled the pain in
his soul. "No, I don't! I don't owe her anything. She doesn't think any
worse of me than I am. She knows me jolly well,--better than you do, most
worthy padre-elect. If she ever forgives me, it won't be because she
thinks I've been punished enough, but just because she is my mate,--and
she loves me." His voice sank upon the words.

"And you are going to wait for that?" said Crowther.

Piers nodded. He dropped the poker with a careless clatter and stretched
his arms high above his head. "You once said something to me about the
Hand of the Sculptor," he said. "Well, if He wants to do any shaping so
far as I am concerned, now is His time. I am willing to be shaped."

"What do you mean?" asked Crowther.

Piers' eyes were half-closed, and there was a drawn look about the lids
as of a man in pain. "I mean, my good Crowther," he said, "that the mire
and clay have ceased to attract me. My house is empty--swept and
garnished,--but it is not open to devils at present. You want to know my
plans. I haven't any. I am waiting to be taken in hand."

He spoke with a faint smile that moved Crowther to deep compassion. "You
will have to be patient a long while, maybe, sonny," he said.

"I can be patient," said Piers. He shifted his position slightly,
clasping his hands behind his head, so that his face was in shadow. "You
think that is not much like me, Crowther," he said. "But I can wait for a
thing if I feel I shall get it in the end. I have felt that--ever since
the night after I went down there. She was so desperately ill. She wanted
me--just to hold her in my arms." His voice quivered suddenly. He stopped
for a few seconds, then went on in a lower tone. "She wasn't--quite
herself at the time--or she would never have asked for me. But it made a
difference to me all the same. It made me see that possibly--just
possibly--there is a reason for things,--that even misery and iron
may have their uses--that there may be something behind it
all--what?--Something Divine."

He stopped altogether, and pushed his chair further still into shadow.

Crowther was smoking. He did not speak for several seconds, but smoked on
with eyes fixed straight before him as though they scanned a far-distant
horizon. At length: "I rather think the shaping has begun, sonny," he
said. "You don't believe in prayer now?"

"No, I don't," said Piers.

Crowther's eyes came down to him. "Can't you pray without believing?" he
said slowly.

Piers made a restless movement. "What should I pray for?"

Crowther was smiling slightly--the smile of a man who has begun to see,
albeit afar off, the fulfilment of a beloved project.

"Do you know, old chap," he said, "I expect I seem a fool to you; but
it's the fools who confound the wise, isn't it? I believe a thundering
lot in prayer. But I didn't always. I prayed without believing for a long
time first."

"That seems to me like offering an insult to God," said Piers.

"I don't think He views it in that light," said Crowther, "any more than
He blames a blind man for feeling his way. The great thing is to do
it--to get started. You're wanting a big thing in life. Well,--ask for
it! Don't be afraid of asking! It's what you're meant to do."

He drew a long whiff from his pipe and puffed it slowly forth.

There fell a deep silence between them. Piers sat in absolute stillness,
gazing downwards into the fire with eyes still half-closed.

Suddenly he jerked back his head. "It's a bit of a farce, what?" he said.
"But I'll do it on your recommendation, I'll give it a six months' trial,
and see what comes of it. That's a fair test anyhow. Something ought to
turn up in another six months."

He got to his feet with a laugh, and stood in front of Crowther with a
species of challenge in his eyes. He looked as if he expected rebuke, and
were prepared to meet it with arrogance.

But Crowther uttered neither reproach nor admonition. He met the look
with the utmost kindliness--the most complete understanding.

"Something will turn up, lad," he said, with steady conviction. "But
not--probably--in the way you expect."

Piers' face showed a momentary surprise. "How on earth do you
know?" he said.

"I do know," Crowther made steadfast reply; but he offered no explanation
for his confidence.

Piers thrust out an impulsive hand. "You may be right and you may not;
but you've been a brick to me, old fellow," he said, a note of deep
feeling in his voice,--"several kinds of a brick, and I'm not likely to
forget it. If you ever get into the Church, you'll be known as the parson
who doesn't preach, and it'll be a reputation to be proud of."

Crowther's answering grip was the grip of a giant. There was a great
tenderness in the far-seeing grey eyes as he made reply. "It would be
rank presumption on my part to preach to you, lad. You are made of
infinitely finer stuff than I."

"Oh, rats!" exclaimed Piers in genuine astonishment.

But the elder man shook his head with a smile. "No; facts, Piers!" he
said. "There are greater possibilities in you than I could ever
attain to."

"Possibilities for evil then," said Piers, with a very bitter laugh.

Crowther looked him straight in the eyes. "And possibilities for good, my
son," he said. "They grow together, thank God."




PART III

THE OPEN HEAVEN




CHAPTER I

THE VERDICT


"It's much better than learning by heart," said Jeanie, with her tired
little smile. "Somehow, you know, I can't learn by heart--at least not
long things. Father says it is because my brain is deficient. But Mother
says hers is just the same, so I don't mind so much."

"My dear, it will take you hours to read through all this," said
Avery, surveying with dismay the task which the Vicar had set his
small daughter.

"Yes," said Jeanie. "I am to devote three hours of every day to it. I had
to promise I would." She gave a short sigh. "It's very good for me, you
know," she said.

"Is it?" said Avery. She smoothed back the brown hair lovingly. "You
mustn't overwork, Jeanie darling," she said.

"I can't help it," said Jeanie quietly. "You see, I promised."

That she would keep her promise, whatever the cost, was evidently a
foregone conclusion; and Avery could say nothing against it.

She left the child to work therefore, and wandered down herself to
the shore.

It was June. A soft breeze came over the sea, salt and pure, with the
life-giving quality of the great spaces. She breathed it deeply,
thankfully, conscious of returning strength.

She and Jeanie had arrived only the week before, and she was sure their
visit was going to do wonders for them both. Her own convalescence had
been a protracted one, but she told herself as she walked along the beach
towards the smiling, evening sea that she was already stronger than her
companion. The old lassitude was evidently very heavy upon Jeanie. The
smallest exertion seemed to tax her energies to the utmost. She had never
shaken off her cough, and it seemed to wear her out.

Avery had spoken to Lennox Tudor about her more than once, but he never
discussed the subject willingly. He was never summoned to the Vicarage
now, and, when they chanced to meet, the Vicar invariably reserved for
him the iciest greeting that courtesy would permit. Tudor had defeated
him once on his own ground, and he was not the man to forget it. So
poor Jeanie's ailments were given none but home treatment to alleviate
them, and it seemed to Avery that her strength had dwindled almost
perceptibly of late.

She pondered the matter as she strolled along the shore, debating with
herself if she would indeed take a step that she had been contemplating
for some time, and, now that Jeanie was in her care, take her up to town
and obtain Maxwell Wyndham's opinion with regard to her. It was a project
she had mentioned to no one, and she hesitated a good deal over putting
it into practice. That Mrs. Lorimer would readily countenance such an act
she well knew, but she was also aware that it would be regarded as a
piece of rank presumption by the child's father which might easily be
punished by the final withdrawal of Jeanie from her care. That was a
contingency which she hardly desired to risk. Jeanie had become so
infinitely precious to her in those days.

Unconsciously her feet had turned towards their old haunt. She found
herself halting by the low square rock on which Piers once had sat and
cursed the sea-birds in bitterness of spirit. Often as she had visited
the spot since, she had never done so without the memory of that spring
morning flashing unbidden through her brain. It went through her now like
a sharp dart of physical pain; the boyish figure, the ardent eyes, the
black hair plastered wet on the wide, patrician brow. Her heart
contracted. She seemed to hear again the eager, wooing words.

He never wrote to her now. She believed he was in town, probably amusing
himself as he had amused himself at Monte Carlo, passing the time in a
round of gaieties, careless flirtations, possibly deeper intrigues.
Crowther had probably kept him straight through the winter, but she did
not believe that Crowther's influence would be lasting. There was a sting
in the very thought of Crowther. She was sure now that he had always
known the bitter secret that Piers had kept from her. It had been the
bond between them. Piers had obviously feared betrayal, but Crowther had
not deemed it his business to betray him. He had suffered the deception
to continue. She recognized that his position had been a difficult one;
but it did not soften her heart towards him. Her heart had grown hard
towards all men of late. She sometimes thought that but for Jeanie it
would have atrophied altogether. There were so few things nowadays that
seemed to touch her. She could not even regret her lost baby. But yet the
memory of Piers sitting on that rock at her feet pierced her oddly;
Piers, the passionate, the adoring, the hot-blooded; Piers the
invincible; Piers the prince!

She turned from the spot with a wrung feeling of heart-break. She
wished--how she wished--that she had died!

In that moment she realized that she was no longer alone. A man's figure,
thick-set and lounging, was sauntering towards her along the sand. He
seemed to move with extreme leisureliness, yet his approach was but a
matter of seconds. His hands were in his pockets, his hat rammed down
over his eyes.

There seemed to her to be something vaguely familiar about him, though
wherein it lay she could not have told. She stood and awaited him with
the certainty that he was coming with the express purpose of joining her.
She knew him; she was sure she knew him, though who he was she had not
the faintest idea.

He reached her, lifted his cap, and the sun glinted on a head of fiery
red hair. "I thought I was not mistaken, Lady Evesham," he said.

She recognized him with an odd leap of the pulses, and in a moment held
out her hand. "Dr. Wyndham!" she said. "How amazing!"

"Why amazing?" said Wyndham. He held her hand for a second while his
green eyes scanned her face. When he dropped it she felt that he had made
a full and exhaustive inspection, and she was strangely disconcerted, as
if in some fashion he had gained an unfair advantage over her.

"Amazing that you should be here," she explained, with a flush of
embarrassment.

"Oh, not in the least, I assure you," he said. "I am staying at Brethaven
for a couple of days with my wife's people. It's only ten miles away, you
know. And I bicycled over here on the chance of seeing you."

"But how did you know I was here?" she asked.

"From your husband. I told him I was coming in this direction, and he
suggested that I should come over and look you up." Very casually he made
reply, and he could not have been aware of the flood of colour his words
sent to her face, for he continued in the same cool fashion as he
strolled by her side. "I was afraid you might consider it an unpardonable
liberty, but he assured me you wouldn't. So--" the green eyes smiled upon
her imperturbably--"as I am naturally interested in your welfare, I took
my courage in both hands and, at the risk of being considered
unprofessional,--I came."

It was unexpected, but it was disarming. Avery found herself smiling
in answer.

"I am very pleased to see you," she said. "But your coming just at this
time is rather amazing all the same, for I was thinking of you, wishing I
could see you, only a few minutes ago."

"What can I do for you?" said Maxwell Wyndham.

She hesitated a little before the direct question; then as simply as he
had asked she answered, laying the matter before him without reservation.

He listened in his shrewd, comprehending way, asking one or two
questions, but making no comments.

"There need be no difficulty about it," he said, when she ended. "You say
the child is tractable. Keep her in bed to-morrow, and say a medical
friend of yours is coming over to see if he can do anything for her
cough! Then if you'll ask me to lunch--I'll do the rest."

He smiled as he ended, and thrust out his hand.

"I'll be going now. I left my bicycle in the village and hope to find it
still there. Now remember, Lady Evesham, my visit to-morrow is to be of a
strictly unprofessional character. You didn't send for me, so I shall
assume the privilege of coming as a friend. Is that understood?"

He spoke with smiling assurance, and seeing that he meant to gain his
point she yielded it.

Not till he was gone did she come to ponder the errand that had brought
him thither.

She went back to Jeanie, and found her with aching eyes fixed resolutely
on her book. Yes, she was a little tired, but she would rather go on,
thank you. Oh no, she did not mind staying in bed to-morrow to please
Avery, and she was sure she would like Avery's doctor though she didn't
expect he would manage to stop the cough. She would have to do her task
though all the same; dear Avery mustn't mind. You see, she had promised.
But she would certainly stay in bed if Avery wished.

And then came the tired sigh, and then that racking, cruel cough that
seemed to rend her whole frame. No, she would not finish for another hour
yet. Really she must go on.

The brown head dropped on to the little bony hands, and Jeanie was
immersed once more in her task.

More than once in the night Avery awoke to hear that tearing, breathless
cough in the room next to hers. It was no new thing, but in view of the
coming ordeal it filled her with misgiving.

When she rose herself in the morning she felt weighed down with anxious
foreboding.

Yet, when Maxwell Wyndham arrived in his sauntering, informal fashion at
about noon, she was able to meet him with courage. There was something
electric about his personality that seemed almost unconsciously to impart
strength to the downhearted. He had drawn her back from the very Door of
Death, and her confidence in him was absolute.

They lunched alone together, and talked of many things. More than once,
wholly incidentally, he mentioned her husband. She gathered that he did
not know of their bitter estrangement. He talked of the polo-craze, with
which it seemed Piers was badly bitten, and commented on his splendid
horsemanship.

"Yes, he is a wonderful athlete," Avery said.

She wondered if he deemed her unresponsive, but decided that he set her
coldness down to anxiety; for he finished his luncheon without lingering
and declared himself ready for the business in hand.

He became in fact strictly business-like from that moment, and throughout
the examination that followed she had not the faintest notion as to what
was passing in his mind. To Jeanie he was curtly kind, but to herself he
was as utterly uncommunicative as if he had been a total stranger.

The examination was a protracted one, and more painful than Avery had
thought possible. It taxed poor Jeanie's powers of endurance to the
uttermost, and long before it was finished she was weeping from sheer
exhaustion. He was absolutely patient with her, but he insisted upon
carrying the matter through, remaining when it was at last over until she
had somewhat recovered from the ordeal.

To Avery the suspense was well-nigh unbearable; but she dared not show
the impatience that consumed her. She had a feeling that in some fashion
the great doctor was depending upon her self-control, her strength of
mind; and she was determined that he should not find her wanting.

Yet, when she at length preceded him downstairs and into the little
sitting-room she wondered if the hammering of her heart reached him, so
tremendous were its strokes. They seemed to her to be beating out a
death-knell in her soul.

"You will tell me the simple truth, I know," she said, and waited,
straining to catch his words above the clamour.

He answered her instantly with the utmost quietness, the utmost kindness.

"Lady Evesham, your own heart has already told you the truth."

She put out a quick hand, and he took it and held it firmly,
sustainingly, while he went on.

"There is nothing whatever to be done. Give her rest, that's all;
absolute rest. She looks as if she has been worked beyond her strength.
Is that so?"

Avery nodded mutely.

"It must stop," he said. "She is in a very precarious state, and any
exertion, mental or physical, is bound to hasten the end--which cannot,
in any case, be very far off."

He released Avery's hand and walked to the window, where he stood gazing
out to sea with drawn brows.

"The disease is of a good many months' standing," he said. "It has taken
very firm hold. Such a child as that should have been sheltered and
cosseted, shielded from every hardship. Even then--very possibly--this
would have developed. No one can say for certain."

"Can you advise--nothing?" said Avery in a voice that sounded oddly dull
and emotionless even to herself.

"Nothing," said Maxwell Wyndham. "No medical science can help in a case
like this. Give her everything she wants, and give her rest! That is all
you can do for her now."

Avery came and stood beside him. The blow had fallen, but she had
scarcely begun to feel its effects. There was so much to be
thought of first.

"Please be quite open with me!" she said. "Tell me how long you think she
will live!"

He turned slightly and looked at her. "I can tell you what I think,
Lady Evesham," he said. "But, remember, that does not bring the end
any nearer."

"I know," she said.

She looked straight back at him with eyes unflinching, and after a
moment's thought he spoke.

"I think that--given every care--she may live through the summer, but I
do not consider it likely."

Avery's face was very pale, but still she did not flinch. "Will she
suffer?" she asked.

He raised his brows at the question. "My dear lady, she has suffered
already far more than you have any idea of. One lung is practically gone,
wholly useless. The other is rapidly going the same way. She has probably
suffered for a year or more, first lassitude, then shortness of breath,
and pretty often actual pain. Hasn't she complained of these things?"

"She is a child who never complains," Avery said. "But both her mother
and I thought she was wasting."

"She is mere skin and bone," he said. "Now--about her people, Lady
Evesham; who is going to tell them? You or I?"

She hesitated. "But I could hardly ask you to do that," she said.

"You may command me in any way," he answered. "If I may presume to
advise, I should say that the best course would be for me to go to
Rodding, see the doctor there, and get him to take me to the Vicarage."

"Oh, but they mustn't take her from me!" Avery said. "Let her mother come
here! She can't--she mustn't--go back home!"

"Exactly what I was going to say," he returned, in his quiet practical
fashion. "To take her back there would be madness. But look here, Lady
Evesham, you must have a nurse."

"Oh, not yet!" said Avery. "I am quite strong now. I am used to nursing.
I have--no other call upon me. Let me do this!"

"None?" he said.

His tone re-called her. She coloured burningly. "My husband--would
understand," she said, with difficulty.

He passed the matter by. "Will you promise to send me a message if you
find night-nursing a necessity?"

She hesitated.

He frowned. "Lady Evesham, you must promise me this in fairness to the
child as well as to yourself. Also, you will give me your word that you
will never under any circumstances sleep with her."

She saw that he would have his way, and she yielded both points rather
than fight a battle which instinct warned her she could not win.

"Then I will be going," he said.

He turned back into the room, and again she was aware of his green eyes
surveying her closely, critically. But he made no reference whatever to
her health, and inwardly she blessed him for his forbearance.

She did not know that as he rode away, he grimly remarked to himself:
"The best tonics generally taste the bitterest, and she'll drink this one
to the dregs, poor girl! But it'll help her in the end."



CHAPTER II

THE TIDE COMES BACK


"Give her everything she wants!" How often in the days that followed were
those words in Avery's mind! She strove to fulfil them to the uttermost,
but Jeanie seemed to want so little. The only trouble in her existence
just then was her holiday-task, and that she steadily refused to
relinquish unless her father gave her leave.

A few days after Maxwell Wyndham's departure there came an agonized
letter from Mrs. Lorimer. Olive had just developed scarlet fever, and as
they could not afford a nurse she was nursing her herself. She entreated
Avery to send her daily news of Jeanie and to telegraph at once should
she become worse. She added in a pathetic postscript that her husband
found it difficult to believe that Jeanie could be as ill as the great
doctor had represented, and she feared he was a little vexed that Maxwell
Wyndham's opinion had been obtained.

It was exactly what Avery had expected of him. She wrote a soothing
letter to Mrs. Lorimer, promising to keep her informed of Jeanie's
condition, promising to lavish every care upon the child, and begging
her to persuade Mr. Lorimer to remit the task which had become so
heavy a burden.

The reply to this did not come at once, and Avery had repeated the
request twice very urgently and was contemplating addressing a protest
to the Reverend Stephen in person when another agitated epistle arrived
from Mrs. Lorimer. Her husband had decided to run down to them for a
night and judge of Jeanie's state for himself.

Avery received the news with dismay which, however, she was careful to
conceal. Jeanie heard of the impending visit with as much perturbation as
her tranquil nature would allow, and during the day that intervened
before his arrival gave herself more sedulously than ever to her task.
She had an unhappy premonition that he would desire to examine her upon
what she had read, and she was guiltily aware that her memory had not
retained very much of it.

So for the whole of one day she strove to study, till she was so
completely tired out that Avery actually took the book from her at last
and declared that she should not worry herself any more about it. Jeanie
yielded submissively, but a wakeful night followed, and in the morning
she looked so wan that Avery wanted to keep her in bed.

On this point, however, Jeanie was less docile than usual. "He will think
I am shamming," she protested. "He never likes us to lie in bed unless we
are really ill."

So, since she was evidently anxious to get up, Avery permitted it, though
she marked her obvious languor with a sinking heart.

The Vicar arrived at about noon, and Avery saw at a glance that he was in
no kindly mood.

"Dear me, what is all this fuss?" he said to Jeanie. "You look to me
considerably rosier than I have seen you for a long time."

Jeanie was indeed flushed with nervous excitement, and Avery thought she
had never seen her eyes so unnaturally bright. She endured her father's
hand under her chin with evident discomfort, and the Vicar's face was
somewhat severe when he finally released her.

"I am afraid you are getting a little fanciful, my child," he said
gravely. "I know that our kind friend, Lady Evesham--" his eyes twinkled
ironically and seemed to slip inwards--"has always been inclined to
indulge your whims. Now how do you occupy your time?"

"I read," faltered Jeanie.

"And sew, I presume," said the Vicar, who prided himself upon bringing up
his daughter to be useful.

"A little," said Jeanie.

He opened his eyes upon her again with that suggestion of severity in his
regard which Jeanie so plainly dreaded. "But you have done none since you
have been here? Jeanie, my child, I detect in you the seeds of idleness.
If your time were more fully occupied, you would find your general health
would considerably improve. Now, do you rise early and go for a bathe
before breakfast?"

"No," said Jeanie, with a little shiver.

He shook his head at her. "Then let us institute the habit at once! I
cannot have you becoming slack just because you are away from home. If
this indolence continue, I shall be compelled to have you back under my
own eye. I clearly see that the self-indulgent life you lead here is
having disastrous results. You will bathe with me to-morrow at
seven-thirty, after which we will have half an hour of physical exercise.
Then after a wholesome breakfast you will feel renewed and ready for the
day's work."

Avery, when this programme was laid before her, looked at him in
incredulous amazement.

"But surely Dr. Wyndham explained to you the serious condition she is
in!" she exclaimed.

Mr. Lorimer smiled his own superior smile. "He explained his point of
view most thoroughly, my dear Lady Evesham." He always pronounced her
name and title with satirical emphasis. "But that--very curious as it may
appear to you--does not prevent my holding a very strong opinion of my
own. And it chances to be in direct opposition to that expressed by Dr.
Maxwell Wyndham. I know my own child,--her faults and her tendencies. She
has been allowed to become extremely lax with regard to her daily duties,
and this laxness is in my opinion the root of the evil. I shall therefore
take my own measures to correct it, and if they are in any way resisted
or neglected I shall at once remove the child from your care. I trust I
have made myself quite explicit."

He had. But Avery's indignation could not be contained.

"You will kill her if you persist!" she said. "Even as it is--even as it
is--her days are numbered."

"The days of all of us are numbered," said the Reverend Stephen. "And it
behoves us to make the very utmost of each one of them. I cannot allow
my child's character to be ruined on account of a physical weakness
which a little judicious discipline will speedily overcome. The spirit
must triumph over the flesh, Lady Evesham. A hard rule for worldlings, I
grant you, but one which must be observed by all who would enter the
Kingdom of Heaven."

Argument was futile. Avery realized it at the outset. He would have his
way, whatever the cost, and no warning or entreaty would move him. For
the rest of that day she had to stand by in impotent anguish, and watch
Jeanie's martyrdom. During the afternoon he sat alone with her,
conducting the intellectual examination which Jeanie had so dreaded,
reprimanding, criticizing, scoffing at her ignorance. In the evening he
took her for what he called a stroll upon which Avery was not allowed to
accompany them. Mr. Lorimer playfully remarking that he wished to give
his young daughter the benefit of his individual attention during the
period of his brief sojourn with them.

They returned from their expedition at eight. Avery was walking to and
fro by the gate in a ferment of anxiety. They came by the cliff-road,
and she went eagerly to meet them.

Jeanie was hanging on her father's arm with a face of deathly whiteness,
and looked on the verge of collapse.

The Reverend Stephen was serenely satisfied with himself, laughed gently
at his child's dragging progress, and assured Avery that a little
wholesome fatigue was a good thing at the end of the day.

Jeanie said nothing. She seemed to be speechless with exhaustion, almost
incapable of standing alone.

Mr. Lorimer recommended a cold bath, a brisk rub-down, and supper.

"After which," he said impressively, "I shall hope to conduct a few
prayers before we retire to rest."

"That will be impossible, I am afraid," Avery rejoined. "Jeanie is
overtired and must go at once to bed."

She spoke with quiet decision, but inwardly she was quivering with fierce
anger. She longed passionately to have the child to herself, to comfort
and care for her and ease away the troubles of the day.

But Mr. Lorimer at once asserted his authority. "Jeanie will certainly
join us at supper," he said. "Run along, my child, and prepare for the
meal at once!"

Jeanie went up the stairs like an old woman, stumbling at every step.

Avery followed her, chafing but impotent.

At the top of the stairs Jeanie began to cough. She turned into her own
room with blind, staggering movements and sank down beside the bed.

The coughing was spasmodic and convulsive. It shook her whole frame. In
the end there came a dreadful tearing sound, and she caught her
handkerchief to her mouth.

Avery knelt beside her, supporting her. She saw the white linen turn
suddenly scarlet, and she called sharply to Mr. Lorimer to come to them.

He came, and between them they got her on to the bed.

"This is most unfortunate," said Mr. Lorimer. "Pray how did it happen?"

And then Avery's pent fury blazed suddenly forth upon him. "It is your
doing!" she said. "You--and you alone--are responsible for this!"

He looked at her malignantly. "Pshaw, my dear Lady Evesham! You are
hysterical!" he said.

Avery was bending over the bed. "Go!" she said, without looking up. "Go
quickly, and fetch a doctor!"

And, very curiously, Mr. Lorimer obeyed her.



CHAPTER III

THE GAME


Jeanie rallied. As though to comfort Avery's distress, she came back for
a little space; but no one--not even her father--could doubt any longer
that the poor little mortal life had nearly run out.

"My intervention has come too late, alas!" said Mr. Lorimer.

Which remark was received by Avery in bitter silence.

She had no further fear of being deprived of the child. It was quite out
of the question to think of moving her, and she knew that Jeanie was hers
for as long as the frail cord of her earthly existence lasted.

She was thankful that the advent of a nurse made it impossible for the
Vicar to remain, and she parted from him with almost open relief.

"We must bow to the Supreme Will," he said, with his heavy sigh.

And again Avery was silent.

"I fear you are rebellious," he said with severity.

"Good-bye!" said Avery.

Her heart bled more for Mrs. Lorimer than for herself just then. She knew
by instinct that she would not be allowed to come to her child.

The nurse was middle-aged and kindly, and both she and Jeanie liked her
from the outset. She took the night duty, and the day was Avery's, a
division that pleased them all.

Mr. Lorimer had demurred about having a nurse at all, but Avery had
swept the objection aside. Jeanie was in her care, and she would provide
all she needed. Mr. Lorimer had conceded the point as gracefully as
possible, for it seemed that for once his will could not be regarded as
paramount. Of course, as he openly reflected, Lady Evesham was very much
in their debt, and it was but natural that she should welcome this
opportunity to repay somewhat of their past kindness to her.

So, for the first time in her life, little Jeanie was surrounded with all
that she could desire; and very slowly, like a broken flower coaxed back
to life, she revived again.

It could scarcely be regarded in the light of an improvement. It was
just a fluctuation that deceived neither Avery nor the nurse; but to the
former those days were infinitely precious. She clung to them hour by
hour, refusing to look ahead to the desolation that was surely coming,
cherishing her darling with a passion of devotion that excluded all
other griefs.

The long summer days slipped away. June passed like a dream. Jeanie lay
in the tiny garden with her face to the sea, gazing forth with eyes that
were often heavy and wistful but always ready to smile upon Avery. The
holiday-task was put away, not because Mr. Lorimer had remitted it, but
because Avery--with rare despotism--had insisted upon removing it from
her patient's reach.

"Not till you are better, darling," she said. "That is your biggest duty
now, just to get back all the strength you can."

And Jeanie had smiled her wistful, dreamy smile, and submitted.

Avery sometimes wondered if she knew of the great Change that was drawing
so rapidly near. If so, it had no terrors for her; and she thanked God
that the Vicar was not at hand to terrify the child. The journey from
Rodding to Stanbury Cliffs was not an easy one by rail, and parish
matters were fortunately claiming his attention very fully just then. As
he himself had remarked more than once, he was not the man to permit mere
personal matters to interfere with Duty, and many a weak soul depended
upon his ministrations.

So Jeanie was left entirely to Avery's motherly care while the golden
days slipped by.

With July came heat, intense, oppressive, airless; and Jeanie flagged
again. A copper-coloured mist rose every morning over the sea, blotting
out the sky-line, veiling the passing ships. Strange voices called
through the fog, sirens hooted to one another persistently.

"They are like people who have lost each other," Jeanie said once, and
the simile haunted Avery's imagination.

And then one sunny day a pleasure-steamer passed quite near the shore
with a band on board. They were playing _The Little Grey Home in the
West_, and very oddly Jeanie's eyes filled with sudden tears.

Avery did not take any notice for a few moments, but as the strains
died-away over the glassy water, she leaned towards the child.

"My darling, what is it?" she whispered tenderly.

Jeanie's hand found its way into hers. "Oh, don't you ever want Piers?"
she murmured wistfully. "I do!"

It was the first time she had spoken his name to Avery since they had
left him alone nearly a year before, and almost as soon as she had
uttered it she made swift apology.

"Please forgive me, dear Avery! It just slipped out."

"My dear!" Avery said, and kissed her.

There fell a long silence between them. Avery's eyes were on the thick
heat-haze that obscured the sky-line. In her brain there sounded again
those words that Maxwell Wyndham had spoken so short a time before. "Give
her everything she wants! It's all you can do for her now."

But behind those words was something that shrank and quivered like a
frightened child. Could she give her this one thing? Could she?
Could she?

It would mean the tearing open of a wound that was scarcely closed. It
would mean a calling to life of a bitterness that was hardly past. It
would mean--it would mean--

"Avery darling!" Softly Jeanie's voice broke through her agitated
thoughts.

Avery turned and looked at her,--the frail, sweet face with its shining
eyes of love.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," whispered Jeanie. "Don't think any more
about it!"

"Do you want him so dreadfully?" Avery said.

Jeanie's eyes were full of tears again. She tried to answer, but her lips
quivered. She turned her face aside, and was silent.

The day waxed hotter, became almost insupportable. In the afternoon
Jeanie was attacked by breathlessness and coughing, both painful to
witness. She could find no rest or comfort, and Avery was in momentary
dread of a return of the hemorrhage.

It did not return, but when evening came at length and with it the
blessed coolness of approaching night, Jeanie was so exhausted as to be
unable to speak above a whisper. She lay white and still, scarcely
conscious, only her difficult breathing testifying to the fluttering life
that had ebbed so low.

The nurse's face was very grave as she came on duty, but after an
interval of steady watching, during which the wind blew in with
rising freshness from the sea, she turned to Avery, saying, "I think
she will revive."

Avery nodded and slipped away.

There was not much time left. She ran all the way to the post-office and
scribbled a message there with trembling fingers.

"Jeanie wants you. Will you come? Avery."

She sent the message to Rodding Abbey. She knew they would forward it
from there.

Passing out again into the road, a sudden sense of sickness swept over
her. What had she done? What uncontrolled force would that telegram
unfetter? Would he come to her like a whirlwind and sweep her back into
his own tempestuous life? Would he break her will once more to his? Would
he drag her once more through the hell of his passion, kindle afresh for
her the flame that had consumed her happiness?

She dared not face the possibility. She felt as if an iron hand had
closed upon her, drawing her surely, irresistibly, back towards those
gates of brass through which she had escaped into the desert. That fiery
torture would be infinitely harder to bear now, and she knew that the
fieriest point of it all would be the desperate, aching longing to know
again the love that had shone and burnt itself out in the blast-furnace
of his sin. He had loved her once; she was sure he had loved her. But
that love had died with his boyhood, and it could never rise again. He
had trodden it underfoot and her own throbbing heart with it. He had
destroyed that which she had always believed to be indestructible.

She never wanted to see him again. She would have given all she had to
have avoided the meeting. Her whole being recoiled from the thought of
it. And yet--and yet--she saw again the black head laid against her knee,
and heard the low, half-rueful words: "Oh, my dear, there is no other
woman but you in all the world!"

The vision went with her all through the night. She could not escape it.

In the morning she rose with a sense of being haunted, and a terrible
weariness that hung upon her like a chain.

The day was cooler. Jeanie was better. She had had a nice sleep, the
nurse said. But there could be no question of allowing her to leave her
bed that day.

"You are looking so tired," the nurse said, in her kind way to Avery. "I
am not wanting to go off duty till this afternoon. So won't you go and
sit down somewhere on the rocks? Please do!"

She was so anxious to gain her point that Avery yielded. She felt too
feverishly restless to be a suitable companion for Jeanie just then. She
went down to her favourite corner to watch the tide come in. But she
could not be still. She paced the shore like a caged creature seeking a
way of escape, dreading each turn lest it should bring her face to face
with the man she had summoned.

The tide came in and drove her up the beach. She went back not
unwillingly, for the suspense had become insupportable.

Had he come? But surely not! She was convinced he would have followed her
to the shore if he had.

She entered the tiny hall. It was square, and served them as a
sitting-room. Coming in from the glare without, she was momentarily
dazzled. And then all suddenly her eyes lighted upon an unaccustomed
object, and her heart ceased to beat. A man's tweed cap lay carelessly
tossed upon the back of a chair!

She stood quite still, feeling her senses reel, knowing herself to be on
the verge of fainting, and clinging with all her strength to her
tottering self-control.

Gradually she recovered, felt her heart begin to beat again and the
deadly faintness pass. There was a telegram on the table. She took it up,
found it addressed to herself, opened it with fumbling fingers.

"Tell Jeanie I am coming to-day. Piers."

It had arrived an hour before, and she was conscious of a vague sense of
thankfulness that she had been spared that hour of awful certainty.

A door opened at the top of the stairs. A voice spoke. "I'll come back,
my queen. But I've got to pay my respects, you know, to the mistress of
the establishment, or she'll be cross. Do you remember the Avery
symphony? We'll have it presently."

A light step followed the voice. Already he was on the stairs. He came
bounding down to her like an eager boy. For one wild moment she thought
he was going to throw his arms about her. But he stopped himself before
he reached her.

"I say, how ill you look!" he said.

That was all the greeting he uttered, and in the same moment she saw that
the black hair above his forehead was powdered with white. It sent such a
shock through her as no word or action of his could have caused.

She stood for a moment gazing at him in stiff inaction. Then, still
stiffly, she held out her hand. But she could not utter a word. She felt
as if she were going to burst into tears.

He took the hand. His dark eyes interrogated her, but they told her
nothing. "It's all right," he said rapidly. "I'm Jeanie's visitor. I
shan't forget it. It was decent of you to send. I say, you--you are not
really ill, what?"

No, she was not ill. She heard herself telling him so in a voice she did
not know. And all the while she felt as if her heart were bleeding,
bleeding to death.

He let her hand go, and straightened himself with the old free arrogance
of movement. "May I have something to eat?" he said. "Your message only
got to me this morning. I was at breakfast, and I had to leave it to
catch the train. So I've had practically nothing."

That moved her to activity. She led the way into the little parlour
where luncheon had been laid. He sat down at the table, and she waited
upon him, almost in silence, yet no longer with embarrassment.

"Aren't you going to join me?" he said.

She sat down also, and took a minute helping of cold chicken.

"I say, you're not going to eat all that!" ejaculated Piers.

She had to laugh a little, though still with that horrified sense of
tragedy at her heart.

He laughed too his careless boyish laugh, and in a moment all the
electricity of the past few moments had gone out of the atmosphere. He
leaned forward unexpectedly and transferred a wing of chicken from his
plate to hers.

"Look here, Avery! You must eat. It's absurd. So fire away like a
sensible woman!"

There was no tenderness in his tone, but, oddly, she thrilled to its
imperiousness, conscious of the old magnetism compelling her. She began
to eat in silence.

Piers ate too in his usual quick fashion, glancing at her once or twice
but making no further comment.

"Tell me about Jeanie!" he said, finally. "What has brought her to this?
Can't we do anything--take her to Switzerland or somewhere?"

Avery shook her head. "Can't you see?" she said, in a low voice.

He frowned upon her abruptly. "I see lots," he said enigmatically. "It's
quite hopeless, what? Wyndham told me as much. But--I don't believe in
hopeless things."

Avery looked at him, mystified by his tone. "She is dying," she said.

"I don't believe in death either," said Piers, in the tone of one who
challenged the world. "And now look here, Avery! Let's make the best of
things for the kiddie's sake! She's had a rotten time all her days. Let's
give her a decent send-off, what? Let's give her the time of her life
before she goes!"

He got up suddenly from his chair and went to the open window.

Avery turned her head to watch him, but for some reason she could
not speak.

He went on vehemently, his face turned from her. "In Heaven's name don't
let's be sorry! It's such a big thing to go out happy. Let's play the
game! I know you can; you were always plucky. Let's give her everything
she wants and some over! What, Avery, what? I'm not asking for myself."

She did not know exactly what he was asking, but she did not dare to tell
him so. She sat quite silent, feeling her heart quicken, striving
desperately to be calm.

He flung round suddenly, and came to her. "Will you do it?" he said.

She raised her eyes to his. She was white to the lips.

He made one of his quick, half-foreign gestures. "Don't!" he said
harshly. "You make me feel such a brute. Can't you trust me--can't you
pretend to trust me--for Jeanie's sake?" His hand closed fiercely on the
back of her chair. He bent towards her. "It's only a hollow bargain.
You'll hate it of course. Do you suppose I shall enjoy it any better? Do
you suppose I would ask it of you for any reason but this?"

Something in his face or voice pierced her. She felt again that dreadful
pain at her heart, as if the blood were draining from it with every beat.

"I don't know what to say to you, Piers," she said at last.

He bit his lip in sheer impatience, but the next moment he controlled
himself. "I'm asking a difficult thing of you," he said, forcing his
voice to a quiet level. "It isn't particularly easy for me either;
perhaps in a sense, it's even harder. But you must have known when you
sent for me that something of the kind was inevitable. What you didn't
know--possibly--was that Jeanie is grieving badly over our estrangement.
She wants to draw us together again. Will you suffer it? Will you play
the game with me? It won't be for long."

His eyes looked straight into hers, but they held only a great darkness
in which no flicker of light burned. Avery felt as if the gulf between
them had widened to a measureless abyss. Once she could have read him
like an open book; but now she had not the vaguest clue to his feelings
or his motives. He had as it were withdrawn beyond her ken.

"Is it to be only make-believe?" she asked at last.

"Just that," he said, but she thought his voice rang hard as he said it.

An odd little tremor went through her. She put her hand up to her throat.
"Piers, I don't know--I am afraid--" She broke off in agitation.

He leaned towards her. "Don't be afraid!" he said. "There is
nothing so damning as fear. Shall we go up to her now? I promised I
wouldn't be long."

She rose. He was still standing close to her, so close that she felt the
warmth of his body, heard the sharp indrawing of his breath.

For one sick second she thought he would snatch her to him; but the
second passed and he had not moved.

"Shall we go?" he said again. "And I say, can you put me up? I don't care
where I sleep. Any sort of shakedown will do. That sofa--" he glanced
towards the one by the window upon which Jeanie had been wont to lie.

"If you like," Avery said.

She felt that the power to refuse him had left her. He would do as he
thought fit.

They went upstairs together, and she saw Jeanie's face light up as they
entered. Piers was behind. Coming forward, he slipped a confident hand
through Avery's arm. She felt his fingers close upon her warningly,
checking her slight start; and she knew with an odd mixture of relief and
dismay that this was the beginning of the game. She forced herself to
smile in answer, and she knew that she succeeded; but it was one of the
greatest efforts of her life.



CHAPTER IV

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN


For a week after Piers' arrival, Jeanie was better, so much better that
she was able to be carried downstairs and into the garden where she loved
to lie. There was a piano in the sitting-room, and Piers would sit at it
by the hour together, playing anything she desired. She loved his music,
would listen entranced for any length of time while he led her through a
world of delight that she had never explored before. It soothed her
restlessness, comforted her in weariness, made her forget her pain. And
then the summer weather broke. There came a spell of rainy days that made
the garden impossible, and immediately Jeanie's strength began to wane.
It went from her very gradually. She suffered but little, save when her
breathing or her cough troubled her. But it was evident to them all that
her little craft was putting out to sea at last.

Piers went steadfastly on with the _role_ he had assigned to himself. He
never by word or look reminded Avery of the compact between them. He
merely took her support for granted, and--probably in consequence of
this--it never failed him.

The nurse declared him to be invaluable. He always had a salutary effect
upon her patient. For even more than at the sight of Avery did Jeanie
brighten at his coming, and she was always happy alone with him. It even
occurred to Avery sometimes that her presence was scarcely needed, so
completely were they at one in understanding and sympathy.

One evening, entering the room unexpectedly, she found Piers on his knees
beside the bed. He rose instantly and made way for her in a fashion she
could not ignore; but, though Jeanie greeted her with evident pleasure,
it was obvious that for the moment she was not needed, and an odd little
pang went through her with the knowledge.

Piers left the room almost immediately, and in a few moments they heard
him at the piano downstairs.

"May I have the door open?" whispered Jeanie.

Avery opened it, and drawing up a chair sat down with her work at
the bedside.

And then, slowly rolling forth, there came that wonderful music with
which he had thrilled her soul at the very beginning of his courtship.

Wordless, magnificent, the great anthem swelled through the falling dusk,
and like a vision the unutterable arose and possessed her soul. Her eyes
began to behold the Land that is very far off.

And then, throbbing through the wonder of that vision, she heard the
coming of the vast procession. It was like a dream, and yet it was wholly
real. As yet lost in distance, veiled in mystery, she heard the tread of
the coming host.

Her hands were fast gripped together; she forgot all beside. It was as if
the eyes of her soul had been opened, and she looked upon the Infinite. A
voice at her side began to speak, or was it the voice of her own heart?
It was only a whisper, but every word of it pierced her consciousness.
She listened with parted lips.

"I saw Heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat upon him
was called Faithful and True ... His Eyes were as a flame of fire and on
His Head were many crowns.... And He was clothed with a vesture dipped in
blood.... And the armies which were in Heaven followed Him upon white
horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.... And He treadeth the
wine-press.... He treadeth the wine-press...."

The voice paused. Avery was listening with bated breath for more. But it
did not come at once. Only the Veil began to lift, so that she saw the
Opening Gates and the Glory behind them.

Then, and not till then, the dream-voice spoke again. "Surely--surely He
hath borne our griefs, and carried--our sorrows.... And the Lord hath
laid on Him--the iniquity of us all." The music crashed into
wonder-chords such as Avery had never heard before, swelled to a climax
that reached the Divine, held her quivering as it were upon wings in a
space that was more transcendent than the highest mountain-top;--then
softly, strangely, died....

"That is Heaven," whispered the voice by her side. "Oh, Avery, won't it
be nice when we are all there together?"

But Avery sat as one in a trance, rapt and still. She felt as if the
spirit had been charmed out of her body, and she did not want to return.

A little thin hand slid into hers and clasped it close, recalling her.
"Wasn't it beautiful?" said Jeanie. "He said he would make me see the
Kingdom of Heaven. You saw it too, dear Avery, didn't you?"

Yes, Avery had seen it too. She still felt as if the earth were very far
below them both.

Jeanie's voice had grown husky, but she still spoke in a tremulous
whisper. "Did you see the Open Gates, dear Avery? He says they are never
shut. And anyone who can reach them will be let in,--it doesn't matter
who. Do you know, I think Piers is different from what he used to be? I
think he is learning to love God."

Absolutely simple words! Why did they send such a rush of
feeling--tumultuous, indescribable feeling--through Avery? Was this the
explanation? Was this how it came to pass that he treated her with that
aloof reverence day by day? Was he indeed learning the supreme lesson to
worship God with love?

She sat for a while longer with Jeanie, till, finding her drowsy, she
slipped downstairs.

Piers was sitting in the hall, deep in a newspaper. He rose at her
coming with an abruptness suggestive of surprise, and stood waiting for
her to speak.

But curiously the only words that she could utter were of a trivial
nature. She had come to him indeed, drawn by a power irresistible, but
the moment she found herself actually in his presence she felt
tongue-tied, helpless.

"Don't you want a light?" she said nervously. "I am sure you can't
see to read."

He stood silent for a moment, and the old tormenting doubt began to rise
within her. Would he think she desired to make an overture? Would he take
for granted that because his magnetism had drawn her he could do with her
as he would?

And then very quietly he spoke, and she experienced an odd revulsion of
feeling that was almost disappointment.

"Have you been reading the papers lately?"

She had not. Jeanie occupied all her waking thoughts.

He glanced down at the sheet he held. "There is going to be a bust-up on
the Continent," he said, and there was that in his tone--a grim
elation--which puzzled her at the moment. "The mightiest bust-up the
world has ever known. We're in for it, Avery; in for the very deuce of a
row." His voice vibrated suddenly. He stopped as though to check some
headlong force that threatened to carry him away.

Avery stood still, feeling a sick horror of impending disaster at her
heart. "What can you mean?" she said.

He leaned his hands upon the table facing her, and she saw in his eyes
the primitive, savage joy of battle. "I mean war," he said. "Oh, it's
horrible; yes, of course it's horrible. But it'll bring us to our senses.
It'll make men of us yet."

She shrank from his look. "Piers! Not--not a European war!"

He straightened himself slowly. "Yes," he said. "It will be that.
But there's nothing to be scared about. It'll be the salvation of
the Empire."

"Piers!" she gasped again through white lips. "But modern warfare! Modern
weapons! It's Germany of course?"

"Yes, Germany." He stretched up his arms with a wide gesture and let them
fall. "Germany who is going to cut out all the rot of party politics and
bind us together as one man! Germany who is going to avert civil war and
teach us to love our neighbours! Nothing short of this would have saved
us. We've been a mere horde of chattering monkeys lately. Now--all thanks
to Germany!--we're going to be men!"

"Or murderers!" said Avery.

The word broke from her involuntarily, she scarcely knew that she had
uttered it until she saw his face. Then in a flash she saw what she had
done, for he had the sudden tragic look of a man who has received his
death-wound.

He made her a curious stiff bow as if he bent himself with difficulty.
His face at that moment was whiter than hers, but his eyes glowed red
with a deep anger.

"I shall remember that," he said, "when I go to fight for my country."

With the words he turned to the door. But she cried after him, dismayed,
incoherent.

"Oh Piers, you know--you know--I didn't mean that!"

He did not pause or look back. "Nevertheless you said it," he rejoined
in a tone that made her feel as if he had flung an icy shower of water in
her face; and the next moment she heard his quick tread on the garden
path and realized that he was gone.

It was useless to attempt to follow him. Her knees were trembling under
her. Moreover, she knew that she must return to Jeanie. White-lipped,
quivering, she moved to the stairs.

He had utterly misunderstood her; she had but voiced the horrified
thought that must have risen in the minds of thousands when first brought
face to face with that world-wide tragedy. But he had read a personal
meaning into her words. He had deemed her deliberately cruel, ungenerous,
bitter. That he could thus misunderstand her set her heart bleeding
afresh. Oh, they were better apart! How was it possible that there could
ever be any confidence, any intimacy, between them again?

Tears, scalding, blinding tears ran suddenly down her face. She bowed her
head in her hands, leaning upon the banisters....

A voice called to her from above, and she started. What was she doing,
weeping here in selfish misery, when Jeanie--Swiftly she commanded
herself and mounted the stairs. The nurse met her at the top.

"The little one isn't so well," she said. "I thought she was asleep, but
I am afraid she is unconscious."

"Oh, nurse, and I left her!"

There was a sound of such heart-break in Avery's voice that the nurse's
grave face softened in sympathy.

"My dear, you couldn't have done anything," she said. "It is just the
weakness before the end, and we can do nothing to avert it. What about
her mother? Can she come?"

Avery shook her head in despair. "Not for a week."

"Ah!" the nurse said; and that was all. But Avery knew in that moment
that only a few hours more remained ere little Jeanie Lorimer passed
through the Open Gates.

She would not go to bed that night though the child lay wholly
unconscious of her. She knew that she could not sleep.

She did not see Piers again till late. The nurse slipped down to tell him
of Jeanie's condition, and he came up, white and sternly composed, and
stood for many minutes watching the slender, quick-breathing figure that
lay propped among pillows, close to the open window.

Avery could not look at his face during those minutes; she dared not. But
when he turned away at length he bent and spoke to her.

"Are you going to stay here?"

"Yes," she whispered.

He made no attempt to dissuade her. All he said was, "May I wait in your
room? I shall be within call there."

"Of course," she answered.

"And you will call me if there is any change?"

"Of course," she said again.

He nodded briefly and left her.

Then began the long, long night-watch. It was raining, and the night was
very dark. The slow, deep roar of the sea rose solemnly and filled the
quiet room. The tide was coming in. They could hear the water shoaling
along the beach.

How often Avery had listened to it and loved the sound! To-night it
filled her soul with awe, as the Voice of Many Waters.

Slowly the night wore on, and ever that sound increased in volume,
swelling, intensifying, like the coming of a mighty host as yet far off.
The rain pattered awhile and ceased. The sea-breeze blew in, salt and
pure. It stirred the brown tendrils of hair on Jeanie's forehead, and
eddied softly through the room.

The nurse sat working beside a hooded lamp that threw her grave, strong
face into high relief, but only accentuated the shadows in the rest of
the room. Avery sat close to the bed, not praying, scarcely thinking,
waiting only for the opening of the Gates. And in that hour she
longed,--oh, how passionately!--that when they opened she also might be
permitted to pass through.

It was in the darkest hour of the night that the tide began to turn. She
looked almost instinctively for a change but none came. Jeanie stirred
not, save when the nurse stooped over her to give her nourishment, and
each time she took less and less.

The tide receded. The night began to pass. There came a faint greyness
before the window. The breeze freshened.

And very suddenly the breathing to which Avery had listened all the night
paused, ceased for a second or two, then broke into the sharp sigh of one
awaking from sleep.

She rose quickly, and the nurse looked up. Jeanie's eyes dark, unearthly,
unafraid, were opened wide.

She gazed at Avery for a moment as if slightly puzzled. Then, in a faint
whisper: "Has Piers said good-night?" she asked.

"No, darling. But he is waiting to. I will call him," Avery said.

"Quickly!" whispered the nurse, as she passed her.

Swiftly, noiselessly, Avery went to her own room. But some premonition of
her coming must have reached him; for he met her on the threshold.

His eyes questioned hers for a moment, and then together they turned back
to Jeanie's room. No words passed between them. None were needed.

Jeanie's face was turned towards the door. Her eyes looked beyond Avery
and smiled a welcome to Piers. He came to her, knelt beside her.

"Dear Sir Galahad!" she said.

He shook his head. "No, Jeanie, no!"

She was panting. He slipped his arm under the pillow to support her. She
turned her face to his.

"Oh, Piers," she breathed, "I do--so--want you--to be happy."

"I am happy, sweetheart," he said.

But Jeanie's vision was stronger in that moment than it had ever been
before, and she was not deceived. "You are not happy, dear Piers," she
said. "Avery is not happy either."

Piers turned slightly. "Come here, Avery!" he said.

The old imperious note was in his voice, yet with a difference. He
stretched his free hand up to her, drawing her down to his side, and as
she knelt also he passed his arm about her, pressing her to him.

Jeanie's eyes were upon them both, dying eyes that shone with a mystic
glory. They saw the steadfast resolution in Piers' face as he held his
wife against his heart. They saw the quivering hesitation with which
she yielded.

"You're not happy--yet," she whispered. "But you will be happy."

Thereafter she seemed to slip away from them for a space, losing touch as
it were, yet still not beyond their reach. Once or twice she seemed to be
trying to pray, but they could not catch her words.

The dawn-light grew stronger before the window. The sound of the waves
had sunk to a low murmuring. From where she knelt Avery could see the
far, dim line of sea. Piers' arm was still about her. She felt as though
they two were kneeling apart before an Altar invisible, waiting to receive
a blessing.

Jeanie's breathing was growing less hurried. She seemed already beyond
all earthly suffering. Yet her eyes also watched that far dim sky-line as
though they waited for a sign.

Slowly the light deepened, the shadows began to lift. Piers' eyes were
fixed unswervingly upon the child's quiet face. The light of the coming
Dawn was reflected there. The great Change was very near at hand.

Far away to the left there grew and spread a wondrous brightness. The sky
seemed to recede, turned from grey to misty blue. A veil of cloud that
had hidden the stars all through the night dissolved softly into shreds
of gold, and across the sea with a diamond splendour there shot the first
great ray of sunlight.

It was then that Jeanie seemed to awake, to rise as it were from the
depths of reverie. Her eyes widened, grew intense; then suddenly
they smiled.

She sought to raise herself, and never knew that it was by Piers'
strength alone that she was lifted. She gave a gasp that was almost a
cry, but it was gladness not pain that it expressed.

For a few panting moments she gazed out as one rapt in delight, gazing
from a mountain-peak upon a wider view than earthly eyes could compass.

Then eagerly she turned to Piers. "I saw Heaven opened ..." she said,
and in her low voice there throbbed a rapture that could not be
uttered in words.

She would have said more, but something stopped her. She made a
gesture as though she would clasp him round the neck, failed, and sank
down in his arms.

He held her closely to him, and so holding her, felt the last quivering
breath slip from the little tired body....



CHAPTER V

THE DESERT ROAD


"That is just where you make a mistake, my good Crowther. You're an
awfully shrewd chap in some ways, but you understand women just about as
thoroughly as I understand theology."

Piers clasped his hands behind his head, and regarded his friend
affectionately.

"Do you think so?" said Crowther a little drily.

Piers laughed. "Now I've trodden on your pet corn. Bear up, old chap!
It'll soon be better."

Crowther's own face relaxed, but he did not look satisfied. "I'm not
happy about you, my son," he said. "I think you've missed a big
opportunity."

"You think wrong," said Piers, unmoved. "I couldn't possibly have stayed
another hour. I was in a false position. So--poor girl!--was she. We
buried the hatchet for the kiddie's sake, but it wasn't buried very deep.
I did my best, and I think she did hers. But--even that last night--we
kicked against it. There was no sense in pretending any longer. The game
was up. So--I came away."

He uttered the last words nonchalantly; but if Crowther's knowledge of
women was limited, he knew his own species very thoroughly, and he was
not deceived.

"You didn't see her at all after the little girl died?" he asked.

"Not at all," said Piers. "I came away by the first train I could
catch."

"And left her to her trouble!" Crowther's wide brow was a little drawn.
There was even a hint of sternness in his steady eyes.

"Just so," said Piers. "I left her to mourn in peace."

"Didn't you so much as write a line of explanation?" Crowther's voice was
troubled, but it held the old kindliness, the old human sympathy.

Piers shook his head, and stared upwards at the ceiling. "Really there
was nothing to explain," he said. "She knows me--so awfully well."

"I wonder," said Crowther.

The dark eyes flashed him a derisive glance. "Better than you do,
dear old man, though, I admit, I've let you into a few of my most
gruesome corners. I couldn't have done it if I hadn't trusted you.
You realize that?"

Crowther looked him straight in the face. "That being so, my son," he
said, "you needn't be so damned lighthearted for my benefit."

A gleam of haughty surprise drove the smile out of Piers' eyes. He
straightened himself sharply. "On my soul, Crowther--" he began; then
stopped and leaned back again in his chair. "Oh, all right. I forgot. You
say any silly rot you like to me."

"And now and then the truth also," said Crowther.

Piers' eyes fenced with his, albeit a faint smile hovered about the
corners of his mouth. "I really am not such a humbug as you are pleased
to imagine," he said, after a moment with an oddly boyish touch of pride.
"I'm feeling lighthearted, and that's a fact."

"Then you are about the only man in England today who is,"
responded Crowther.

"That may be," carelessly Piers made answer. "Nearly everyone is more or
less scared. I'm not. It's going to be a mighty struggle--a Titanic
struggle--but we shall come out on top."

"At a frightful cost," Crowther said.

Piers leapt to his feet. "We shan't shirk it on that account. See here,
Crowther! I'll tell you something--if you'll swear to keep it dark!"

Crowther looked up at the eager, glowing face and a very tender look came
into his own. "Well, Piers?" he said.

Piers caught him suddenly by the shoulders. "Crowther, Crowther, old
chap, congratulate me! I took--the King's shilling--to-day!"

"Ah!" Crowther said.

He gripped Piers' arms tightly, feeling the vitality of him pulse in
every sinew, every tense nerve. And before his mental sight there rose
the dread vision of war--the insatiable--striding like a devouring
monster over a whole continent. With awful clearness he saw the fields
of slain...

His eyes came back to Piers, splendid in the fire of his youth, flushed
already with the grim joy of the coming conflict. He got up slowly, still
looking into the handsome, olive face with its patrician features and
arrogant self-confidence. And a cold hand seemed to close upon his heart.

"Oh, boy!" he said.

Piers frowned upon him, still half-laughing. "What? Are we down-hearted?
Buck up, man! Congratulate me! I was one of the first."

But congratulation stuck in Crowther's throat. "I wish this had
come--twenty years ago!" was all he found to say.

"Thank Heaven it didn't!" ejaculated Piers. "Why, don't you see it's
the one thing for me--about the only stroke of real luck I've ever had
in my life?"

"And your wife doesn't know?" said Crowther.

"She does not. And I won't have her told. Mind that!" Piers' voice was
suddenly determined. "She knows I shan't keep out of it, and that's
enough. If she wants me--which she won't--she can get at me through
Victor or one of them. But that won't happen. Don't you worry yourself as
to that, my good Crowther! I know jolly well what I'm doing. Don't you
see it's the chance of my life? Do you think I'm going to miss it, what?"

"I think you're going to break her heart," Crowther said gravely.

"That's because you don't understand," Piers made steady reply. "Nothing
will alter so long as I stay. But this war is going to alter everything.
We shall none of us come out of it as we went in. When I come
back--things will be different."

He spoke sombrely. The boyish ardour had gone out of him. Something of
fatefulness, something of solemn realization, of steadfast fortitude, had
taken its place.

"I tell you, Crowther," he said, "I am not doing this thing without
weighing the cost. But--I haven't much to lose, and I've all to gain.
Even if it doesn't do--what I hope, it'll steady me down, it'll make a
man of me--and not--a murderer."

His voice sank on the last word. He freed himself from Crowther's hold
and turned away.

Once more he opened the window to the roar of London's life; and so
standing, with his back to Crowther, he spoke again jerkily, with obvious
effort. "Do you remember telling me that something would turn up?
Well,--it has. I'm waiting to see what will come of it. But--if it's any
satisfaction to you to know it--I've got clear of my own particular hell
at last. I haven't got very far, mind, and it's a beastly desert road I'm
on. But I know it'll lead somewhere; so I shall stick to it now."

He paused a moment; then flung round and faced Crowther with a certain
air of triumph.

"Meantime, old chap, don't you worry yourself about either of us! My
wife will go to her friend Mrs. Lorimer till I come home again. Then
possibly, with any luck, she'll come to me."

He smiled with the words and came back to the table. "May I have a
drink?" he said.

Crowther poured one out for him in silence. Somehow he could not
speak. There was something about Piers that stirred him too deeply for
speech just then. He lifted his own glass with no more than a gesture
of goodwill.

"I say, don't be so awfully jolly about it!" laughed Piers. "I tell you
it's going to end all right. Life is like that."

His voice was light, but it held an appeal to which Crowther could not
fail to respond.

"God bless you, my son!" he said. "Life is such a mighty big thing that
even what we call failure doesn't count in the long run. You'll win
through somehow."

"And perhaps a little over, what?" laughed Piers. "Who knows?"

"Who knows?" Crowther echoed, with a smile.

But he could not shake free from the chill foreboding that had descended
upon him, and when Piers had gone he stood for a long time before his
open window, wrestling with the dark phantom, trying to reason away a
dread which he knew to be beyond all reasoning.

And all through the night that followed, those words of Piers' pursued
him, marring his rest: "It's a beastly desert road I'm on, but I know
it'll lead somewhere." And the high courage of his bearing! The royal
confidence of his smile!

Ah, God! Those boys of the Empire, going forth so gallantly to the
sacrifice!



CHAPTER VI

THE ENCOUNTER


Piers was right. When Avery left Stanbury Cliffs she went back to her
old life at Rodding Vicarage.

Local gossip regarding her estrangement from her husband had practically
exhausted itself some time before, and in any case it would have been
swamped by the fevered anxiety that possessed the whole country during
those momentous days.

She slipped back into her old niche almost as if she had never left it.
Mrs. Lorimer was ill with grief and overwork. It seemed only natural that
Avery should take up the burden of her care. Even the Vicar could say
nothing against it.

Avery sometimes wondered if Jeanie's death had pierced the armour of his
self-complacence at any point. If it had, it was not perceptible; but she
did fancy now and then that she detected in him a shade more of
consideration for his wife than he had been wont to display. He
condescended to bestow upon her a little more of his kindly patronage,
and he was certainly less severe in his dealings with the children.

Of the blank in Mrs. Lorimer's life only Avery had any conception, for
she shared it with her during every hour of the day. Perhaps her own
burden weighed more heavily upon her than ever before at that time, for
the anxiety she suffered was sometimes more than she could bear. For
Piers had gone from her without a word. Straight from Jeanie's
death-bed he had gone, without a single word of explanation or farewell.
That she had wounded him deeply, albeit inadvertently, on that last day
she knew; but with his arm closely clasping her by Jeanie's bedside she
had dared to hope that he had forgiven the wound. Now she felt that it
was otherwise. He had gone from her in bitterness of soul, and the
barrier between them was such that she could not call him back. More and
more the conviction grew upon her that those moments of tenderness had
been no more than a part of the game he had summoned her to play for
Jeanie's sake. He had called it a hollow bargain. He had declared that
for no other reason would he have proposed it to her. And now that the
farce was over, he had withdrawn from it. He had said that he had not
found it easy. He had called it mere pretence. And now she had begun to
think that he meant their separation to be final. If he had uttered one
word of farewell, if he had but sent her a line later, she knew that she
would have responded in some measure even though the gulf between them
remained unbridged. But his utter silence was unassailable. The
conviction grew upon her that he no longer desired to bridge the gulf.
He meant to accept their estrangement as inevitable. He had left her,
and he did not wish to return.

Through the long weary watches of many nights Avery pondered his
attitude, and sought in vain for any other explanation. She came at
last to believe that the fierce flame of his passion had wholly burnt
itself out, consuming all the love he had ever known; and that only
ashes remained.

So she could not call him back, and for a time she even shrank from
asking news of him. Then one day she met Victor sorrowfully exercising
Caesar along the confines of the Park, and stopped him when with a
melancholy salute he would have passed her by.

His eyes brightened a little at her action, but he volunteered no
information and she decided later that he had obeyed orders in adopting
this attitude. With an effort she questioned him. How was it he was not
with his master?

He spread out his hands in mournful protest. _Mais Monsieur Pierre_ had
not required his services _depuis longtemps._ He was become very
independent. But yes, he was engaged upon war work. In the Army? But yes
again. Did not _Madame_ know? And then he became vague and sentimental,
bemoaning his own age and consequent inactivity, and finally went away
with brimming eyes and the dubiously expressed hope that _le bon Dieu_
would fight on the right side.

It was all wholly unsatisfactory, and Avery yearned to know more. But the
pain of investigating further held her back. If that growing conviction
of hers were indeed the truth, she shrank morbidly from seeming to make
any advance. No one seemed to know definitely what had become of Piers.
She could not bring herself to apply to outsiders for information, and
there was no one to take up her case and make enquiries on her behalf.
Lennox Tudor had volunteered for service in the Medical Corps and had
been accepted. She did not so much as know where he was, though he was
declared by Miss Whalley, who knew most things, to be on Salisbury Plain.
She sometimes wondered with wry humour if Miss Whalley could have
enlightened her as to her husband's whereabouts; but that lady's attitude
towards her was invariably expressive of such icy disapproval that she
never ventured to put the wonder into words.

And then one afternoon of brilliant autumn she was shopping with Gracie
in Wardenhurst, and came face to face with Ina Guyes.

Dick Guyes had gone into the Artillery, and Ina had returned to her
father's house. She and Avery had not met since Ina's wedding day more
than a year before; but their recognition was mutual and instant.

There was a moment of hesitation on both sides, a difficult moment of
intangible reluctance; then Avery held out her hand.

"How do you do?" she said.

Ina took the hand perfunctorily between her fingers and at once
relinquished it. She was looking remarkably handsome, Avery thought; but
her smile was not conspicuously amiable, and her eyes held something that
was very nearly akin to condemnation.

"Quite well, thanks," she said, with her off-hand air of arrogance which
had become much more marked since her marriage. "You all right?"

Avery felt herself grow reticent and chilly as she made reply. The girl's
eyes of scornful enquiry made her stiffen instinctively. She was prepared
to bow and pass on, but for some reason Ina was minded to linger.

"Has Piers come down yet?" she asked abruptly. "I saw him in town two
nights ago. I've been up there for a day or two with Dick, but he has
rejoined now. It's been embarkation leave. They're off directly."

Off! Avery's heart gave a single hard throb and stood still. She looked
at Ina wordlessly. The shop in which they stood suddenly lost all form
and sound. It seemed to float round her in nebulous billows.

"Good gracious!" said Ina. "Don't look like that! What's up? Aren't you
well? Here, sit down! Or better still, come outside!"

She gripped Avery's arm in a tense, insistent grasp and piloted her
to the door.

Avery went, hardly knowing what she did. Ina turned commandingly
to Gracie.

"Look here, child! You stay and collect the parcels! I'm going to
take Lady Evesham a little way in the car. We'll come back for you in
a few minutes."

She had her own way, as she had always had it on every occasion, save
one, throughout her life.

When Avery felt her heart begin to beat again, she was lying back in a
closed car with Ina seated beside her, very upright, extremely alert.

"Don't speak!" the latter said, as their eyes met. "I'll tell you all I
know. Dick and I have been stopping at Marchmont's for the last five
days, and one night Piers walked in. Of course we made him join us. He
was very thin, but looked quite tough and sunburnt. He is rather
magnificent in khaki--like a prince masquerading. I think he talked
without ceasing during the whole evening, but he didn't say a single word
that I can remember. He expects to go almost any day now. He is in a
regiment of Lancers, but I couldn't get any particulars out of him. He
didn't choose to be communicative, so of course I left him alone. He is
turning white about the temples; did you know?"

Avery braced herself to answer the blunt question. There was something
merciless about Ina's straight regard. It pierced her; but oddly she felt
no resentment, only a curious sensation of compassionate sympathy.

"Yes, I saw him--some weeks ago," she said.

"You have not decided to separate then? Everyone said you had."

Ina's tone was brutally direct, yet still, strangely, Avery felt no
indignation.

"We have not been--friends--for the last year," she said.

"Ah! I thought not. And why? Just because of that story about your first
husband's death that Dick's hateful cousin spread about on our
wedding-day?"

Ina looked at her with searching, challenging eyes, and Avery felt
suddenly as if she were the younger and weaker of the two.

"Was it because of that?" Ina insisted.

"Yes," she admitted.

"And you let such a thing as that come between you and--and--Piers!"
There was incredulous amazement in Ina's voice. "You actually had
the--the--the presumption!" Coherent words suddenly seemed to fail her,
but she went on regardless, not caring how they came. "A man like
Piers,--a--a--Triton like that,--such a being as is only turned out once
in--in a dozen centuries! Oh, fool! Fool!" She clenched her hands, and
beat them impotently upon her lap. "What did it matter what he'd done? He
was yours. He worshipped you. And the worship of a man like Piers must
be--must be--" She broke off, one hand caught convulsively to her throat;
then swallowed hard and rushed on. "You sent him away, did you? You
wouldn't live with him any longer? My God! Piers!" Again her throat
worked spasmodically, and she controlled it with fierce effort. "He won't
stay true to you of course," she said, more quietly. "You don't expect
that, do you? You can't care--since you wouldn't stick to him. You've
practically forced him into the mire. I sometimes think that one virtuous
woman can do more harm in the world than a dozen of the other sort.
You've embittered him for life. You've made him suffer horribly. I expect
you've suffered too. I hope you have! But your sorrows are not to be
compared with his. He has red blood in his veins, but you're too
attenuated with goodness to know what real suffering means. You had the
whole world in your grasp and you threw it away for a whim, just because
you were too small, too contemptibly mean, to understand. You thought you
loved him, I daresay. Well, you didn't. Love is a very different thing.
Love never casts away. But of course you can't understand that. You are
one of those women who keep down all the blinds lest the sunshine should
fade their souls. You don't know even the beginnings of Love!"

Passionately she uttered the words, but in a voice pitched so low that
Avery only just caught them. And having uttered them almost in the same
breath, she took up the speaking-tube and addressed the chauffeur.

Avery sat quite still and silent. She felt as if she had been attacked
and completely routed by a creature considerably smaller, but infinitely
more virile, more valiant, than herself.

Ina did not speak to her again for several minutes. She threw herself
back against the cushion with an oddly petulant gesture, and leaned there
staring moodily out.

Then, as they neared their starting-point, she sat up and spoke again
with a species of bored indifference. "Of course it's no affair of mine.
I don't care two straws how you treat him. But surely you'll try and give
him some sort of send-off? I wouldn't let even Dick go without that."

Even Dick! There was a world of revelation in those words. Avery's heart
stirred again in pity, and still her indignation slumbered.

They reached the shop before which Gracie was waiting for them,
and stopped.

"Good-bye!" Avery said gently.

"Oh, good-bye!" Ina looked at her with eyes half closed. "I won't get out
if you don't mind. I must be getting back."

She did not offer her hand, but she did not refuse it when very quietly
Avery offered her own. It was not a warm hand-clasp on either side, but
neither was it unfriendly.

As she drove away, Ina leaned forward and bowed with an artificial smile
on her lips. And Avery saw that she was very pale.



CHAPTER VII

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.



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.



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.



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