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   Chapter 2 No.2

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 16988

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


I never mentioned my one-day romance to anybody. Only very silly, sentimental girls would put such an episode into words, and flatter themselves by calling it a romance. But now that you and Jimmy Beckett have both given your lives for the great cause, and are in the same mysterious Beyond while I'm still down here at Crucifix Corner, I can tell you the story. If you and he meet, it may make it easier for him to forgive me the thing I have done.

When Brian and I were having that great summer holiday of ours, the year before the war-one day we were in a delicious village near a cathedral town on the Belgian border. A piece of luck had fallen in our way, like a ripe apple tumbling off a tree. A rich Parisian and his wife came motoring along, and stopped out of sheer curiosity to look at a picture Brian was painting, under a white umbrella near the roadside. I was not with him. I think I must have been in the garden of our quaint old hotel by the canal side, writing letters-probably one to you; but the couple took such a fancy to Brian's "impression," that they offered to buy it. The bargain was struck, there and then. Two days later arrived a telegram from Paris asking for another picture to "match" the first at the same price. I advised Brian to choose out two or three sketches for the people to select from, and carry them to Paris himself, rather than trust the post. He went; and it was on the one day of his absence that my romance happened.

Ours was a friendly little hotel, with a darling landlady, who was almost as much interested in Brian and me as if she'd been our foster-mother. The morning after Brian left, she came waddling out to the adorable, earwiggy, rose-covered summer-house that I'd annexed as a private sitting room. "Mademoiselle," she breathlessly announced, "there is a young millionaire of a monsieur Anglais or Américain just arrived. What a pity he should be wasted because Monsieur your brother has gone! I am sure if he could but see one of the exquisite pictures he would wish to buy all!"

"How do you know that the monsieur is a millionaire, and what makes you think he would care about pictures?" I enquired.

"I know he is a millionaire because he has come in one of those grand automobiles which only millionaires ever have. And I think he cares for pictures because the first thing he did when he came into the hall was to stare at the old prints on the wall. He praised the two best which the real artists always praise, and complimented me on owning them" the dear creature explained. "Besides, he is in this neighbourhood expressly to see the cathedral; and monsieur your brother has made a most beautiful sketch of the cathedral. It is now in his portfolio. Is there nothing we can do? I have already induced the monsieur to drink a glass of milk while I have come to consult Mademoiselle."

I thought hard for a minute, because it would be grand if I could say when Brian came back, "I have sold your cathedral for you." But I might have saved myself brain fag. Madame Mounet had settled everything in her head, and was merely playing me, like a foolish fish.

"What I have thought of is this," she said. "I told the monsieur that he could see something better than my prints if he would give himself the pain of waiting till I could fetch the key of a room where an artist-client of ours has a marvellous exhibition. There is no such room yet, but there can be, and the exhibition can be, too, if Mademoiselle will make haste to pin her brother's pictures to the walls of the yellow salon. With a hammer and a few tacks-voilà the thing is done. What does Mademoiselle say?"

Mademoiselle said "Yes-yes!" to her part of the programme. But what of the millionaire monsieur? Would he not balk? Would he not refuse to be bothered?

Madame was absolutely confident that he would not do these disappointing things. She was so confident that I vaguely suspected she had something up her sleeve: but time pressed, and instead of Sherlock Holmesing I darted to my work. Afterward she confessed, with pride rather than repentance. She described graphically how the face of the monsieur had fallen when she asked him to look at an exhibition of pictures; how he had begun to make an excuse that he must be off at once to the cathedral; and how she had ventured to cut him short by remarking, "Mademoiselle the sister of the artist, she who will show the work, ah, it is a jeune fille of the most romantic beauty!" On hearing this, the monsieur had said no more about the cathedral, but had ordered the glass of milk.

In fifteen minutes the exhibition (consisting of six sketches!) was ready in the showroom of the hotel, the yellow salon which had been occupied as a bedchamber one night by the Empress Eugénie, and was always kept locked except on gala occasions. I, not knowing how I had been over-praised to the audience, was also ready, quivering with the haste I had made in pinning up the pictures and opening the musty, close room to the air. Then came in a young man.

As I write, Padre, I am back again in that salon jaune, and he is walking in at the door, pausing a second on the threshold at sight of me. I will give you the little play in one act. We smile. The hero of the comedy-drama has a rather big mouth, and such white teeth that his smile, in his brown face, is a lightning-flash at dusk. It is a thin face with two dimples that make lines when he laughs. His eyes are gray and long, with the eagle-look that knows far spaces; deep-set eyes under straight black brows, drawn low. His lashes are black, too, but his short crinkly hair is brown. He has a good square forehead, and a high nose like an Indian's. He is tall, and has one of those lean, lanky loose-jointed figures that crack tennis-players and polo men have. I like him at once, and I think he likes me, for his eyes light up; and just for an instant there's a feeling as if we looked through clear windows into each other's souls. It is almost frightening, that effect!

I begin to talk, to shake off an odd embarrassment.

"Madame Mounet tells me you want to see my brother's pictures," I say. "Here are a few sketches. He has taken all the rest worth looking at to Paris."

"It's good of you to let me come in," the hero of the play answers. Instantly I know he's not English. He has one of those nice American voices, with a slight drawl, that somehow sound extraordinarily frank. I don't speculate about his name. I don't stop to wonder who he is. I think only of what he is. I forget that Madame has exploited him as a millionaire. I don't care whether or not he buys a picture. I want nothing, except the pleasure of talking with him, and seeing how he looks at me.

I mumble some polite nonsense in return for his. He gazes at Brian's water-colours and admires them. Then he turns from the pictures to me. We discuss the sketches and the scenes they represent. "Oh, have you been there?" "Why, I was at that place a week ago!" "How odd!" "We must have missed each other by a day." And we drift into gossip about ourselves. Still we don't come to the subject of names. Names seem to be of no importance. They belong to the world of conventions.

We talk and talk-mostly of France, and our travels, and pictures and books we love; but our eyes speak of other things. I feel that his are saying, "You are beautiful!" Mine answer, "I'm glad you think that. Why do you seem so different to me from other people?" Then suddenly, there's a look too long between us. "I wish my brother were here to explain his pictures!" I cry; though I don't wish it at all. It is only that I must break the silence.

This brings us back to the business in hand. He says, "May I really buy one of these sketches?"

"Are you sure you want to?" I laugh.

"Sure!" he answers. And I never heard that word sound so nice, even in my own dear Ireland.

He chooses the cathedral-which he hasn't visited yet. Do I know the price my brother has decided on? With that question I discover that he has Madame Mounet's version of our name. Brian and I have laughed dozens of laughs at her way of pronouncing O'Malley. "Ommalee" we are for her, and "Mees Ommalee" she has made me for her millionaire. For fun, I don't correct him. Let him find out for himself who we really are! I say that my brother hasn't fixed a price; but would six hundred francs seem very high? The man considers it ridiculously low. He refuses to pay less than twice that s

um. Even so, he argues he will be cheating us, and getting me into hot water when my brother comes. We almost quarrel, and at last the hero has his way. He strikes me as one who is used to that!

When the matter is settled, an odd look passes over his face. I wonder if he has changed his mind, and doesn't know how to tell me his trouble. Something is worrying him; that is clear. Just as I'm ready to make things easy, with a question, he laughs.

"I'm going to take you into my confidence," he says, "and tell you a story-about myself. In Paris, before I started on this tour, a friend of mine gave a man's dinner for me. He and the other chaps were chaffing because-oh, because of a silly argument we got into about-life in general, and mine in particular. On the strength of it my chum bet me a thing he knew I wanted, that I couldn't go through my trip under an assumed name. I bet I could, and would. I bet a thing I want to keep. That's the silly situation. I hate not telling you my real name, and signing a cheque for your brother. But I've stuck it out for four weeks, and the bet has only two more to run. I'm calling myself Jim Wyndham. It's only my surname I've dropped for the bet. The rest is mine. May I pay for the picture in cash-and may I come back here, or wherever you are on the fifteenth day from now, and introduce myself properly? Or-you've only to speak the word, and I'll throw over the whole footling business this minute, and--"

I cut in, to say that I won't speak the word, and he mustn't throw the business over. It is quite amusing I tell him, and I hope he'll win his bet. As for the picture-he may pay as he chooses. But about the proper introduction-Heaven knows where I shall be in a fortnight. My brother loves to make up his mind the night beforehand, where to go next. We are a pair of tramps.

"You don't do your tramping on foot?"

"Indeed we do! We haven't seen a railway station since our first day out from Paris. We stop one day in a place we don't care for: three in a place we like: a week or more in a place we love."

"Then at that rate you won't have got far in fifteen days. I know the direction you've come from by what you've told me, and your brother's sketches. You wouldn't be here on the border of Belgium if you didn't mean to cross the frontier."

"Oh, we shall cross it, of course. But where we shall go when we get across is another question."

"I'll find the answer, and I'll find you," he flings at me with a smile of defiance.

"Why should you give yourself trouble?"

"To-see some more of your brother's pictures," he says gravely. I know that he wishes to see me, not the pictures, and he knows that I know; but I let it go at that.

When the sketch has been wrapped up between cardboards, and the twelve hundred francs placed carelessly on a table, there seems no reason why Mr. Jim Wyndham shouldn't start for the cathedral. But he suddenly decides that the way of wisdom is to eat first, and begs me to lunch with him. "Do, please," he begs, "just to show you're not offended with my false pretences."

I yearn to say yes, and don't see why I shouldn't; so I do. We have déjeuner together in the summer-house where Brian and I always eat. We chat about a million things. We linger over our coffee, and I smoke two or three of his gold-tipped Egyptians. When we suppose an hour has gone by, at most, behold, it is half-past four! I tell him he must start: he will be too late for the cathedral at its best. He says, "Hang the cathedral!" and refuses to stir unless I promise to dine with him when he comes back.

"You mean in a fortnight?" I ask. "Probably we shan't be here."

"I mean this evening."

"But-you're not coming back! You're going another way. You told me--"

"Ah, that was before we were friends. Of course I'm coming back. I'd like to stay to-morrow, and--"

"You certainly must not! I won't dine with you to-night if you do."

"Will you if I don't?"

"Perhaps."

"Then I'll order the dinner before I start for the cathedral. I want it to be a perfect one."

"But-I've said only perhaps."

"Don't you want to pour a little honest gold into poor old Madame Mounet's pocket?"

"Ye-es."

"If so, you mustn't chase away her customers."

"For her sake, the dinner is a bargain!"

"Not the least bit for my sake?"

"Oh, but yes! I've enjoyed our talk. And you've been so nice about my brother's pictures."

So it is settled. I put on my prettiest dress, white muslin, with some fresh red roses Madame Mounet brings me; and the dinner-table in the summer-house is a picture, with pink Chinese lanterns, pink-shaded candles, and pink geraniums. Madame won't decorate with roses because she explains, roses anywhere except on my toilette, "spoil the unique effect of Mademoiselle."

The little inn on the canal-side buzzes with excitement. Not within the memory of man or woman has there been so important a client as Mr. Jim Wyndham. Most motoring millionaires dash by in a cloud of dust to the cathedral town, where a smart modern hotel has been run up to cater for tourists. This magnificent Monsieur Américain engages the "suite of the Empress Eugénie," as it grandly advertises itself, for his own use and that of his chauffeur, merely to bathe in, and rest in, though they are not to stay the night. And the dinner ordered will enable Madame to show what she can do, a chance she rarely gets from cheeseparing customers, like Brian and me, and others of our ilk.

I am determined not to betray my childish eagerness by being first at the rendezvous. I keep to my hot room, until I spy a tall young figure of a man in evening dress striding toward the arbour. To see this sight, I have to be at my window; but I hide behind a white curtain and a screen of wistaria and roses. I count sixty before I go down. I walk slowly. I stop and examine flowers in the garden. I could catch a wonderful gold butterfly, but perhaps it is as happy as I am. I wouldn't take its life for anything on earth! As I watch it flutter away, my host comes out of the arbour to meet me.

We pass two exquisite hours in each other's company. I recall each subject on which we touch and even the words we speak, as if all were written in a journal. The air is so clear and still that we can hear the famous chimes of the cathedral clock, far away, in the town that is a bank of blue haze on the horizon. At half-past nine I begin to tell my host that he must go, but he does not obey till after ten. Then at last he takes my hand for good-bye-no, au revoir: he will not say good-bye! "In two weeks," he repeats, "we shall meet again. I shall have won my bet, and I shall bring you the thing I win."

"I won't take it!" I laugh.

"Wait till you see it, before you make sure."

"I'm not even sure yet of seeing you," I remind him.

"You may be sure if I'm alive. I shall scour the country for miles around to find you. I shall succeed-unless I'm dead."

All this time he had been holding my hand, while I have pretended to be unconscious of the fact. Suddenly I seem to remember, and reluctantly he lets my fingers slip through his.

We bid each other adieu in the arbour. I do not go to "see him off," and I keep the picture of Jim Wyndham under the roof of roses, in the moon-and candle-light.

Just so I have kept it for more than three years; for we never met again. And now that I've seen the photograph of Jimmy Beckett, I know that we never shall meet.

Why he did not find us when the fortnight of his bet was over I can't imagine. It seems that, if he tried, he must have come upon our tracks, for we travelled scarcely more than twenty miles in the two weeks. Perhaps he changed his mind, and did not try. Perhaps he feared that my "romantic beauty" might lose its romance, when seen for the second time. Something like this must be the explanation; and I confess to you, Padre, that the failure of the prince to keep our tryst was the biggest disappointment and the sharpest humiliation of my life. It took most of the conceit out of me, and since then I've never been vain of my alleged "looks" or "charm" for more than two minutes on end. I've invariably said to myself, "Remember Jim Wyndham, and how he didn't think you worth the bother of coming back to see."

Now you know why I can't describe the effect upon my mind of learning that Jim Wyndham, the hero of my one-day romance, and Jimmy Beckett, the dead American aviator, were one.

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