The Bars of Iron
By Ethel M. Dell
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.
THE GATES OP BRASS
I. A JUG OF WATER
II. CONCERNING FOOLS
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
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
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
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
XI. THE FALLING NIGHT
XII. THE DREAM
XIII. THE HAND OF THE SCULPTOR
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
The Bars of Iron
"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.
THE GATES OF BRASS
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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?"
"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.