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   Chapter 1 No.1

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 17899

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Padre, when you died, you left a message for me. You asked me to go on writing, if I were in trouble, just as I used to write when you were on earth. I used to "confess," and you used to advise. Also you used to scold. How you used to scold! I am going to do now what you asked, in that message.

I shall never forget how you packed me off to school at Brighton, and Brian to Westward Ho! the year father died and left us to you-the most troublesome legacy a poor bachelor parson ever had! I'd made up my mind to hate England. Brian couldn't hate anything or anybody: dreamers don't know how to hate: and I wanted to hate you for sending us there. I wanted to be hated and misunderstood. I disguised myself as a Leprechaun and sulked; but it didn't work where you were concerned. You understood me as no one else ever could-or will, I believe. You taught me something about life, and to see that people are much the same all over the world, if you "take them by the heart."

You took me by the heart, and you held me by it, from the time I was twelve till the time when you gave your life for your country. Ten years! When I tell them over now, as a nun tells the beads of her rosary, I realize what good years they were, and how their goodness-with such goodness as I had in me to face them-came through you.

Even after you died, you seemed to be near, with encouragement and advice. Remembering how pleased you were, when I decided to train as a nurse, added later to the sense of your nearness, because I felt you would rejoice when I was able to be of real use. It was only after you went that my work began to count, but I was sure you knew. I could hear your voice say, "Good girl! Hurrah for you!" when I got the gold medal for nursing the contagious cases; your dear old Irish voice, as it used to say the same words when I brought you my school prizes.

Perhaps I was "a good girl." Anyhow, I was a good nurse. Not that I deserved much credit! Brian was fighting, and in danger day and night. You were gone; and I was glad to be a soldier in my way, with never a minute to think of myself. Besides, somehow I wasn't one bit afraid. I loved the work. But, Padre mio, I am not a good girl now. I'm a wicked girl, wickeder than you or I ever dreamed it was in me to be, at my worst. Yet if your spirit should appear as I write, to warn me that I'm sinning an unpardonable sin, I should go on sinning it.

For one thing, it's for Brian, twin brother of my body, twin brother of my heart. For another thing, it's too late to turn back. There's a door that has slammed shut behind me.

* * *

Now, I'll begin and tell you everything exactly as it happened. Many a "confession-letter" I've begun in just these words, but never one like this. I don't deserve that it should bring me the heartease which used to come. But the thought of you is my star in darkness. Brian is the last person to whom I can speak, because above all things I want him to be happy. On earth there is no one else. Beyond the earth there is-you.

When Brian was wounded, they expected him to die, and he was asking for me. The telegram came one day when we had all been rather overworked in the hospital, and I was feeling ready to drop. I must only have imagined my tiredness though, for when I heard about Brian I grew suddenly strong as steel. I was given leave, and disinfected, and purified as thoroughly as Esther when she was being made worthy of Ahasuerus. Then I dashed off to catch the first train going north.

St. Raphael was our railway station, but I hadn't seen the place since I took up work in the H?pital des épidémies. That was many months before; and meanwhile a training-school for American aviators had been started at St. Raphael. News of its progress had drifted to our ears, but of course the men weren't allowed to come within a mile of us: we were too contagious. They had sent presents, though-presents of money, and one grand gift had burst upon us from a young millionaire whose father's name is known everywhere. He sent a cheque for a sum so big that we nurses were nearly knocked down by the size of it. With it was enclosed a request that the money should be used to put wire-nettings in all windows and doors, and to build a roofed loggia for convalescents. If there were anything left over, we might buy deck-chairs and air-pillows. Of course it was easy for any one to know that we needed all these things. Our lack was notorious. We sent a much disinfected, carbolic-smelling round robin of thanks to "James W. Beckett, Junior," son of the western railway king.

As I drove to the gare of St. Raphael, I thought of the kind boys who had helped our poor poilus, and especially of James Beckett. Whether he were still at the aviation camp, or had finished his training and gone to the front, I didn't know: but I wafted a blessing to our benefactor. I little dreamed then of the unforgivable injury I was fated to do him! You see, Padre, I use the word "fated." That's because I've turned coward. I try to pretend that fate has been too strong for me. But down deep I know you were right when you said, "Our characters carve our fate."

It was a long journey from the south to the north, where Brian was, for in war-days trains do what they like and what nobody else likes. I travelled for three days and nights, and when I came to my journey's end, instead of Brian being dead as I'd seen him in a hundred hideous dreams, the doctors held out hope that he might live. They told me this to give me courage, before they broke the news that he would be blind. I suppose they thought I'd be so thankful to keep my brother at any price, that I should hardly feel the shock. But I wasn't thankful. I wasn't! The price seemed too big. I judged Brian by myself-Brian, who so worshipped beauty that I used to call him "Phidias!" I was sure he would rather have gone out of this world whose face he'd loved, than stay in it without eyes for its radiant smile. But there I made a great mistake. Brian was magnificent. Perhaps you would have known what to expect of him better than I knew.

Where you are, you will understand why he did not despair. I couldn't understand then, and I scarcely can now, though living with my blind Brian is teaching me lessons I feel unworthy to learn. It was he who comforted me, not I him. He said that all the beauty of earth was his already, and nothing could take it away. He wouldn't let it be taken away! He said that sight was first given to all created creatures in the form of a desire to see, desire so intense that with the developing faculty of sight, animals developed eyes for its concentration. He reminded me how in dreams, and even in thoughts-if they're vivid enough-we see as distinctly with our brains as with our eyes. He said he meant to make a wonderful world for himself with this vision of the brain and soul. He intended to develop the power, so that he would gain more than he had lost, and I must help him.

Of course I promised to help all I could; but there was death in my heart. I remembered our gorgeous holiday together before the war, tramping through France, Brian painting those lovely "impressions" of his, which made him money and something like fame. And oh, I remembered not only that such happy holidays were over, but that soon there would be no more money for our bare living!

We were always so poor, that church mice were plutocrats compared to us. At least they need pay no rent, and have to buy no clothes! I'm sure, if the truth were known, the money Father left for our education and bringing up was gone before we began to support ourselves, though you never let us guess we were living on you. As I sat and listened to Brian talk of our future, my very bones seemed to melt. The only thing I've been trained to do well is to nurse. I wasn't a bad nurse when the war began. I'm an excellent nurse now. But it's Brian's nurse I must be. I saw that, in the first hour after the news was broken, and our two lives broken with it. I saw that, with me unable to earn a penny, and Brian's occupation gone with his sight, we were about as helpless as a pair of sparrows with their wings clipped.

If Brian in his secret soul had any such thoughts, perhaps he had faith to believe that not a sparrow can fall, unless its fall is appointed by God. Anyhow, he said never a word about ways and means, except to mention cheerfully that he had "heaps of pay saved up," nearly thirty pounds. Of course I answered that I was rich, too. But I didn't go into details. I was afraid even Brian's optimism might be dashed if I did. Padre, my worldly wealth consisted of five French bank notes of a hundred francs each, and a few horrible little extra scraps of war-paper and copper.

The hospital where Brian lay was near the front, in the remains of a town the British had won back from the Germans. I called the place Crucifix Corner: but God knows w

e are all at Crucifix Corner now! I lodged in a hotel that had been half knocked down by a bomb, and patched up for occupation. As soon as Brian was able to be moved, the doctor wanted him to go to Paris to an American brain specialist who had lately come over and made astonishing cures. Brian's blindness was due to paralysis of the optic nerve; but this American-Cuyler-had performed spine and brain operations which had restored sight in two similar cases. There might be a hundredth chance for my brother.

Of course I said it would be possible to take Brian to Paris. I'd have made it possible if I'd had to sell my hair to do it; and you know my curly black mop of hair was always my pet vanity. Brian being a soldier, he could have the operation free, if Doctor Cuyler considered it wise to operate; but-as our man warned me-there were ninety-nine chances to one against success: and at all events there would be a lot of expenses in the immediate future.

I sent in my resignation to the dear H?pital des épidémies, explaining my reasons: and presently Brian and I set out for Paris by easy stages. The cap was put on the climax for me by remembering how he and I had walked over that very ground three years before, in the sunshine of life and summer. Brian too thought of the past, but not in bitterness. I hid my anguish from him, but it gnawed the heart of me with the teeth of a rat. I couldn't see what Brian had ever done to deserve such a fate as his, and I began to feel wicked, wicked. It seemed that destiny had built up a high prison wall in front of my brother and me, and I had a wild impulse to kick and claw at it, though I knew I couldn't pull it down.

When we arrived in Paris, Doctor Cuyler saw us at once; but his opinion added another pile of flinty black blocks to the prison wall. He thought that there would be no hope from an operation. If there were any hope at all (he couldn't say there was) it lay in waiting, resting, and building up Brian's shattered health. After months of perfect peace, it was just on the cards that sight might come back of itself, suddenly and unexpectedly, in a moment. We were advised to live in the country, and Doctor Cuyler suggested that it would be well for my brother to have surroundings with agreeable occupation for the mind. If he were a musician he must have a piano. There ought to be a garden for him to walk in and even work in. Motoring, with the slight vibration of a good car, would be particularly beneficial a little later on. I suppose we must have looked to Doctor Cuyler like millionaires, for he didn't appear to dream that there could be the slightest difficulty in carrying out his programme.

I sat listening with the calm mien of one to whom money comes as air comes to the lungs; but behind my face the wildest thoughts were raging. You've sometimes seen a row of tall motionless pines, the calmest, stateliest things on earth, screening with their branches the mad white rush of a cataract. My brain felt like such a screened cataract.

Except for his blindness, by this time Brian was too well for a hospital. We were at the small, cheap hotel on "la rive gauche" where we'd stayed and been happy three years ago, before starting on our holiday trip. When we came back after the interview with Doctor Cuyler, Brian was looking done up, and I persuaded him to lie down and rest. No one else could have slept, after so heavy a blow of disappointment, without a drug, but Brian is a law unto himself. He said if I would sit by him and read, he'd feel at peace, and would drop off into a doze. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and I hadn't glanced yet at the newspaper we had bought in the morning. I took it up, to please Brian with the rustling of the pages, not expecting to concentrate upon a line but instantly my eyes were caught by a name I knew.

"Tragic Romance of Millionaire's Family," I read. "James W. Beckett brings his wife to France and Reads Newspaper Notice of Only Son's Death."

This was the double-line, big-lettered heading of a half column on the front page; and it brought to my mind a picture. I saw a group of nurses gazing over each other's shoulders at a blue cheque. It was a cheque for six thousand francs, signed in a clear, strong hand, "James W. Beckett, Junior."

So he was dead, that generous boy, to whom our hearts had gone out in gratitude! It could not be very long since he had finished his training at St. Raphael and begun work at the front. What a waste of splendid material it seemed, that he should have been swept away so soon!

I read on, and from my own misery I had an extra pang to spare for James Beckett, Senior, and his wife.

Someone had contrived to tear a fragmentary interview from the "bereaved railway magnate," as he was called in the potted phrase of the journalist. Apparently the poor, trapped man had been too soft-hearted or too dazed with grief to put up a forceful resistance, and the reporter had been quick to seize his advantage.

He had learned that Mr. and Mrs. James W. Beckett, Senior, had nearly died of homesickness for their son. They had thought of "running across to surprise Jimmy." And then a letter had come from him saying that in a fortnight his training would be over. He was to be granted eight days' leave, which he didn't particularly want, since he couldn't spend it with them; and immediately after he would go to the front.

"We made up our minds that Jimmy should spend that leave of his with us," the old man had said. "We got our papers in a hurry and engaged cabins on the first boat that was sailing. Unluckily there wasn't one for nearly a week, but we did the best we could. When everything was fixed up, I wired Jimmy to meet us at the Ritz, in Paris. We had a little breeze with a U-boat, and we ran into some bad weather which made my wife pretty sick, but nothing mattered to us except the delay, we were so crazy to see the boy. At Bordeaux a letter from him was waiting. It told how he was just as crazy to see us, but we'd only have twenty-four hours together, as his leave and orders for the front had both been advanced. The delay at sea had cost a day, and that seemed like hard lines, as we should reach Paris with no more than time to wish the lad God-speed. But in the train, when we came to look at the date, we saw that we'd miscalculated. Unless Jimmy'd been able to get extra leave we'd miss him altogether. His mother said that would be too bad to be true. We hoped and prayed to find him at the Ritz. Instead, we found news that he had fallen in his first battle."

The interviewer went on, upon his own account, to praise "Jimmy" Beckett. He described him as a young man of twenty-seven, "of singularly engaging manner and handsome appearance; a graduate with high honours from Harvard, an all-round sportsman and popular with a large circle of friends, but fortunately leaving neither a wife nor a fiancée behind him in America." The newly qualified aviator had, indeed, fallen in his first battle: but according to the writer it had been a battle of astonishing glory for a beginner. Single-handed he had engaged four enemy machines, man?uvring his own little Nieuport in a way to excite the highest admiration and even surprise in all spectators. Two out of the four German 'planes he had brought down over the French lines; and was in chase of the third, flying low above the German trenches, when two new Fokkers appeared on the scene and attacked him. His plane crashed to earth in flames, and a short time after, prisoners had brought news of his death.

"Mr. and Mrs. James W. Beckett will have the sympathy of all Europe as well as their native land, in these tragic circumstances," the journalist ended his story with a final flourish. "If such grief could be assuaged, pride in the gallant death of their gallant son might be a panacea."

"As if you could make pride into a balm for broken hearts!" I said to myself in scorn of this flowery eloquence. For a few minutes I forgot my own plight to pity these people whom I had never seen. The Paris Daily Messenger slid off my lap on to the floor, and dropped with the back page up. When I had glanced toward the bed, and seen that Brian still slept, my eyes fell on the paper again. The top part of the last page is always devoted to military snapshots, and a face smiled up at me from it-a face I had seen once and never forgotten.

My heart gave a jump, Padre, because the one tiny, abbreviated dream-romance of my life came from the original of that photograph. Although the man I knew (if people can know each other in a day's acquaintance) had been en civile, and this one was in aviator's uniform, I was sure they were the same. And even before I'd snatched up the paper to read what was printed under the picture, something-the wonderful inner Something that's never wrong-told me I was looking at a portrait of Jimmy Beckett.

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