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   Chapter 3 No.3

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 8968

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There could be no chance of mistake. The photograph was a very good likeness.

For a while I sat quite still with the newspaper in my hands, living over the day in the shabby old garden. I felt like a mourner, bereaved of a loved one, for in a way-a schoolgirl way, perhaps-I had loved my prince of the arbour. And always since our day together, I'd compared other men with him, to their disadvantage. No one else ever captured my imagination as he captured it in those few hours.

For a moment that little bit of Long Ago pushed itself between me and Now. I was grieving for my dead romance, instead of for Brian's broken life: but quickly I woke up. Things were as bad as ever again, and even worse, because of their contrast with the past I'd conjured up. Grief for the death of Jimmy Beckett mingled with grief for Brian, and anxieties about money, in the dull, sickly way that unconnected troubles tangle themselves together in nightmare dreams.

I'm not telling you how I suffered, as an excuse for what I did, dear Padre. I'm only explaining how one thing led to another.

It was in thinking of Jim Wyndham, and what might have happened between us if he'd come back to me as he promised, that the awful idea developed in my head. The thought wasn't born full-grown and armoured, like Minerva when she sprang from the brain of Jupiter. It began like this:

"If I'd been engaged to him, I might have gone to his parents now. I should have comforted them by talking about their son, and they could have comforted me. Perhaps they would have adopted us as their children. We need never have been lonely and poor. Jim would have wished us to live with his father and mother, for all our sakes."

When the thought had gone as far as this, it suddenly leaped to an enormous height, as if a devil in me had been doing the mango trick.

I heard myself thinking, "Why don't you go to see Mr. and Mrs. Beckett, and tell them you were engaged to marry their only son? The paper said he left no fiancée or wife in America. You can easily make them believe your story. Nobody can prove that it isn't true, and out of evil good will come for everyone."

Flames seemed to rush through my head with a loud noise, like the Tongues of Fire in the Upper Room. My whole body was in a blaze. Each nerve was a separate red-hot wire.

I rose to my feet, but I made no sound. Instinct reminded me that I mustn't wake Brian, but I could breathe better, think better standing, I felt.

"They are millionaires, the Becketts-millionaires!" a voice was repeating in my brain. They wouldn't let Brian or you want for anything. They'd be glad if you went to them. You could make them happy. You could tell them things they'd love to hear-and some would be true things. You were in the hospital close to St. Raphael for months, while Jimmy Beckett was in the training camp. Who's to say you didn't meet? If you'd been engaged to him since that day years ago, you certainly would have met. No rules could have kept you apart. Go to them-go to them-or if you're afraid, write a note, and ask if they'll receive you. If they refuse, no harm will have been done."

Maybe, even then, if I'd stopped to tell myself what a wicked, cruel plan it was, I should have given it up. But it seemed a burning inspiration, and I knew that I must act upon it at once or never.

I subsided into my chair again, and softly, very softly, hitched it closer to the table which pretended to be a writing-desk. Inside a blotting-pad were a few sheets of hotel stationery and envelopes. My stylographic pen glided noiselessly over the paper. Now and then I glanced over my shoulder at Brian, and he was still fast asleep, looking more like an angel than a man. You know my nickname for him was always "Saint" because of his beautiful pure face, and the far-away look in his eyes. Being a soldier has merely bronzed him a little. It hasn't carved any hard lines. Being blind has made the far-away things he used to see come near, so that he walks in the midst of them.

I wrote quickly and with a dreadful kind of ease, not hesitating or crossing out a single word.

"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Beckett," I began (because I meant to address my letter to both). "I've just heard that you have come over from America, only in time to learn of your great loss. Is it an intrusion to tell you that your loss is mine too? I dearly loved your son. I met him nearly four years ago, when my brother and I were travelling in F

rance and Belgium. Our meeting was the romance of my life. I hardly dare to think he told you about it. But a few months ago I took up nursing at the H?pital des épidemies, near St. Raphael. As you know, he was there training. He sent us a cheque for our sufferers; and what was fated to happen did happen. We met again. We loved each other. We were engaged. He may have written to you, or he may have waited till he could tell you by word of mouth.

"I am in Paris, as you will see by this address. My soldier brother has lost his sight. I brought him here in the hope of a cure by your great American specialist Dr. Cuyler, but he tells me an operation would be useless. They say that one sorrow blunts another. I do not find it so. My heart is almost breaking. May I call upon you? To see his father and mother would be a comfort to me. But if it would be otherwise for you, please say 'no.' I will try to understand.

"Yours in deepest sympathy,

"Mary O'Malley."

As I finished, Brian waked from his nap, so I was able to leave him and run downstairs to send off the letter by hand.

When it had gone, I felt somewhat as I've felt when near a man to whom an an?sthetic is being given. The fumes of ether have an odd effect on me. They turn me into a "don't care" sort of person without conscience and without fear. No wonder some nations give soldiers a dash of ether in their drink, when they have to go "over the top!" I could go, and feel no sense of danger, even though my reason knew that it existed.

So it was while I waited for the messenger from our mean little hotel to come back from the magnificent Ritz. Would he suddenly dash my sinful hopes by saying, "Pas de réponse, Mademoiselle"; or would he bring me a letter from Father and Mother Beckett? If he brought such a letter, would it invite me to call and be inspected, or would it suggest that I kindly go to the devil?

I was tremendously keyed up; and yet-curiously I didn't care which of these things happened. It was rather as if I were in a theatre, watching an act of a play that might end in one of several ways, neither one of which would really matter.

I read aloud to Brian. My voice sounded sweet and well modulated, I thought; but quite like that of a stranger. I was reading some moving details of a vast battle, which-ordinarily-would have stirred me to the heart. But they made no impression on my brain. I forgot the words as they left my lips. Dimly I wondered if there were a curse falling upon me already: if I were doomed to lose all sense of grief or joy, as the man in the old story lost his shadow when he sold it to Satan.

A long time passed. I stopped reading. Brian seemed inclined for the first time since his misfortune to talk over ways and means, and how we were to arrange our future. I shirked the discussion. Things would adjust themselves, I said evasively. I had some vague plans. Perhaps they would soon materialize. Even by to-morrow--

When I had got as far as that, tap, tap, came the long expected knock at the door. I sprang up. Suddenly the ether-like carelessness was gone. My life-my very soul-was at stake. I could hardly utter the little word "Entrez!" my throat was so tight, so dry.

The very young youth who opened the door was not the one I had sent to the Ritz. But I had no time to wonder why not, when he announced: "Un monsieur et une dame, en bas, demandent à voir Mademoiselle."

My head whirled. Could it be?-but, surely no! They would not have come to see me. Yet whom did I know in Paris? Who had learned that we were at this hotel? Had the monsieur and the dame given their name? No, they had not. They had said that Mademoiselle would understand. They were in the salon.

I heard myself reply that I would descend tout de suite. I heard myself tell Brian that I should not be long away. I saw my face in the glass, deathly pale in its frame of dark hair, the eyes immense, with the pupils dilating over the blue, as an inky pool might drown a border of violets and blot out their colour. Even my lips were white. I was glad I had on a black dress-glad in a bad, deceitful way; though for a moment after learning who Jimmy Beckett was, I had felt a true thrill of loyal satisfaction because I was in mourning for my lost romance.

I went slowly down the four flights of stairs. I could not have gone fast without falling. I opened the door of the stuffy salon, and saw-the dearest couple the wide world could hold.

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