He answered her almost fiercely. “No, you won’t understand. Of course you can’t understand. You will never stand hammering at the bars, breaking your heart in the dark. Wasn’t that the sort of picture our kindly parson drew for us on Sunday? It’s a pretty theme—the tortures of the damned!”
“My dear Piers!” Avery spoke quickly and vehemently. “Surely you have too much sense to take such a discourse as that seriously! I longed to tell the children not to listen. It is wicked—wicked—to try to spread spiritual terror in people’s hearts, and to call it the teaching of religion. It is no more like religion than a penny-terrible is like life. It is a cruel and fantastic distortion of the truth.”
She paused. Piers was listening to her with that odd hunger in his eyes that had looked out of them the night before.
“You don’t believe in hell then?” he said quietly, after a moment.
“As a place of future torment—no!” she said. “The only real hell is here on earth—here in our hearts when we fall away from God. Hell is the state of sin and all that goes with it—the fiery hell of the spirit. It is here and now. How could it be otherwise? Can you imagine a God of Love devising hideous tortures hereafter, for the punishment of the pigmies who had offended Him? Tortures that were never to do them any good, but just to keep them in misery for ever and ever? It is unthinkable—it’s almost ludicrous. What is the good of suffering except to purify? That we can understand and thank God for. But the other—oh, the other is sheer imagery, more mythical than Jonah and the whale. It just doesn’t go.” Again she paused, then very frankly held out her hand to him. “But I like your picture of the Open Heaven, Piers,” she said. “Show it me again some day—when I’m not as tired and stupid as I am to-day.”
He bent over her hand with a gesture that betrayed the foreign blood in him, and his lips, hot and passionate, pressed her cold fingers. He did not utter a word. Only when he stood up again he looked at her with eyes that burned with the deep fires of manhood, and suddenly all-unbidden the woman’s heart in her quivered in response. She bent her head and turned away.
A MAN’S CONFIDENCE
“Aren’t you going to kiss Aunt Avery under the mistletoe?” asked Gracie.
“No,” said Piers. “Aunt Avery may kiss me if she likes.” He looked at Avery with his sudden, boyish laugh. “But I know she doesn’t like, so that’s an end of the matter.”
“How do you know?” persisted Gracie. “She’s very fond of kissing. And anyone may kiss under the mistletoe.”
“That quite does away with the charm of it in my opinion,” declared Piers. “I don’t appreciate things when you can get ’em cheap.”
He moved over to Jeanie’s sofa and sat down on the edge. Her soft eyes smiled a welcome, the little thin hand slipped into his.