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   Chapter 4 No.4

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 14573

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


They sat together, an old-fashioned pair, on an old-fashioned sofa, facing the door. The thing I'd thought impossible had happened. The father and mother of Jim Beckett had come to me.

For some reason, they seemed as much surprised at sight of me as I at sight of them. We gazed at each other for an instant, all three without moving. Then the old man (he was old, not middle-aged, as most fathers are nowadays) got to his feet. He took a step toward me, holding out his hand. His eyes searched mine; and, dimmed by years and sorrow as they were, there was in them still a reminder of the unforgotten, eagle-gaze. From him the son had inherited his high nose and square forehead. Had he lived, some day Jim's face might have been chopped by Time's hatchet into just such a rugged brown mask of old-manliness. Some day, Jim's thick and smooth brown hair might have turned into such a snow-covered thatch, like the roof of a cottage on a Christmas card.

The old lady was thin and flat of line, like a bas-relief that had come alive and lost its background. She had in her forget-me-not blue eyes the look of a child who has never been allowed to grow up; and I knew at once that she was one of those women kept by their menfolk on a high shelf, like a fragile flower in a silver vase. She, too, rose as I entered, but sank down again on the sofa with a little gesture at the same time welcoming and helpless.

"My daughter, no wonder he loved you!" said the old man. "Now we see you, we understand, don't we, Jenny?" Holding my hand, he turned and led me toward his wife, looking at me first, then at her. "We had to come. We're going to love you, for yourself-and for him."

Speaking, his face had a faintly perceptible quiver of strained nerves or old age, like a sigh of wind ruffling the calm surface of water. I felt how he fought to hide his emotion, and the answering thrill of it shot up through my arm, as our hands touched. My heart beat wildly, and the queer thought came that, if we were in the dark, it would send out pulsing lights from my body like the internal lamp of a firefly.

He called me his "daughter!" As I heard that word of love, which I had stolen, I realized the full shame and abomination of the thing I had done. My impulse was to cry out the truth. But it was only an impulse, such an impulse as lures one to jump from a height. I caught myself back from yielding, as I would have caught myself back from the precipice, lest in another moment I should lie crushed in a dark gulf. I waved before my eyes the flag of Brian's need, and my bad courage came back.

I let Mr. Beckett lead me to the sofa. I let his hand on my shoulder gently press me to sit down by his wife, who had not spoken yet. Her blue eyes, fixed with piteous earnestness on mine, were like those of a timid animal, when it is making up its mind whether to trust and "take to" a human stranger who offers advances. I seemed to see her thinking-thinking not so much with her brain as with her heart, as you used to say Brian thought. I saw her ideas move as if they'd been the works of a watch ticking under glass. I knew that she wasn't clever enough to read my mind, but I felt that she was more dangerous, perhaps, than a person of critical intelligence. Being one of those always-was, always-will-be women-wife-women, mother-women she might by instinct see the badness of my heart as I was reading the simple goodness of hers.

Her longing to know the soul of me pierced to it like a fine crystal spear; and the pathos of this bereaved mother and father, who had so generously answered my call, brought tears to my eyes. I had not winced away from her blue searchlights, but tears gathered and suddenly poured over my cheeks. Perhaps it was the tragedy of my own situation more than hers which touched me, for I was pitying as much as hating myself. Still the tears were true tears; and I suppose nothing I could have said or done would have appealed to Jim Beckett's mother as they appealed.

"Oh! you loved him!" she quavered, as if that were the one question for which she had sought the answer. And the next thing I knew we were crying in each other's arms, the little frail woman and the cruel girl who was deceiving her. But, Padre, the cruel girl was suffering almost as she deserved to suffer. She had loved Jim Wyndham, and never will she love another man.

"There, there!" Mr. Beckett was soothing us, patting our shoulders and our heads. "That's right, cry together, but don't grudge Jim to the cause, either of you. I don't! I'm proud he went the way he did. It was a grand wayand a grand cause. We've got to remember how many other hearts in the world are aching as ours ache. We're not alone. I guess that helps a little. And Jenny, this poor child has a double sorrow to bear. Think of what she wrote about her brother, who's lost his sight."

The little old lady sat up, and with a clean, lavender-scented handkerchief wiped first my eyes and then her own.

"I know-I know," she said. "But the child will let us try to comfort her-unless she has a father and mother of her own?"

"My father and mother died when I was a little girl," I answered. "I've only my brother in the world."

"You have us," they both exclaimed in the same breath: and though they bore as much physical likeness to one another as a delicate mountain-ash tree bears to the rocky mountain on which it grows, suddenly the two faces were so lit with the same beautiful inward light, that there was a striking resemblance between them. It was the kind of resemblance to be seen only on the faces of a pair who have loved each other, and thought the same thoughts long year after long year. The light was so warm, so pure and bright, that I felt as if a fire had been lit for me in the cold dark room. I didn't deserve to warm my hands in its glow; but I forgot my falseness for a moment, and let whatever was good in me flow out in gratitude.

I couldn't speak. I could only look, and kiss the old lady's tiny hand-ungloved to hold mine, and hung with loose rings of rich, ancient fashion such as children love to be shown in mother's jewel-box. In return, she kissed me on both cheeks, and the old man smoothed my hair, heavily.

"Why yes, that's settled then, you belong to us," he said. "It's just as if Jimmy'd left you to us in his will. In his last letter the boy told his mother and me that when we met we'd get a pleasant surprise. We-silly old folks!-never thought of a love story. We supposed Jim was booked for promotion, or a new job with some sort of honour attached to it. And yet we might have guessed, if we'd had our wits about us, for we did know that Jimmy'd fallen in love at first sight with a girl in France, before the war broke out."

"He told you that!" I almost gasped. Then he had fallen in love, and hadn't gone away forgetting, as I'd thought! Or was it some other girl who had won him at first sight? This was what I said to myself: and something that was not myself added, "Now, if you don't lose your head, you will find out in a minute all you've been puzzling over for nearly four years."

"He told his mother," Mr. Beckett said. "Afterwards she told me. Jim wouldn't have minded. He knew well enough she always tells me everything

, and he didn't ask her to keep any secret."

"It was when I was sort of cross one night, because he didn't pay enough attention to a nice girl I'd invited, hoping to please him," Mrs. Beckett confessed. "He'd just come back from Europe, and I enquired if the French girls were so handsome, they'd spoiled him for our home beauties. I let him see that his father and I wanted him to marry young, and give us a daughter we could love. Then he answered-I remember as if 'twas yesterday!-'Mother, you wouldn't want her unless I could love her too, would you?' 'Why no,' I answered. 'But you would love her!' He didn't speak for a minute. He was holding my hand, counting my rings-these ones you see-like he always loved to do from a child. When he'd counted them all, he looked up and said, 'It wasn't a French girl spoiled me for the others. I'm not sure, but I think she was Irish. I lost her, like a fool, trying to win a silly bet.' Those were his very words. I know, because they struck me so I teased him to explain. After a while he did."

"Oh, do tell me what he said!" I begged.

At that minute Jim was alive for us all three. We were living with him in the past. I think none of us saw the little stuffy room where we sat. Only our bodies were there, like the empty, amber shells of locusts when the locusts have freed themselves and vanished. I was in a rose arbour, on a day of late June, in a garden by a canal that led to Belgium. The Becketts were in their house across the sea.

"Why," his mother hesitated, "it was quite a story. But when he found you again he must have told you it all."

"Ah, but do tell me what he told you!"

"Well, it began with a landlady in a hotel wanting him to see a picture. The artist was away, but his sister was there. That was you, my dear."

"Yes, it was I. My poor Brian painted such beautiful things before--"

"We know they were beautiful, because we've seen the picture," Father Beckett broke in. "But go on, Mother. We'll tell about the picture by and by. She'll like to hear. But the rest first!"

The little old lady obeyed, and went on. "Jimmy said he was taken to a room, and there stood the most wonderful girl he'd ever seen in his life-his 'dream come alive.' That's how he described her. And there was more. Father, I never told you this part. But maybe Miss-Miss--"

"Will you call me 'Mary'?" I asked.

"Maybe 'Mary' would like to hear. Of course I never forgot one word. No mother could forget! And now I see he described you just right. When you hear, you'll know it was love made his talk about you poetry-like. Jimmy never talked that way to me of any one, before or since."

Padre, I am going to write down the things he said of me, because it is exquisite to know that he thought them. He said, I had eyes "like sapphires fallen among dark grasses." And my hair was so heavy and thick that, if I pulled out the pins, it would fall around me "in a black avalanche."

Ah, the joy and the pain of hearing these words like an echo of music I had nearly missed! There's no language for what I felt. But you will understand.

He had told his mother about our day together. He said, he kept falling deeper in love every minute, and it was all he could do not to exclaim, "Girl, I simply must marry you!" He dared not say that lest I should refuse, and there would be an end of everything. So he tried as hard as he could to make me like him, and remember him till he should come back, in two weeks. He thought that was the best way; and he would have let his bet slide if he hadn't imagined that a little mystery might make him more interesting in my eyes. Believing that we had met again, Mrs. Beckett supposed that he had explained this to me. But of course it was all new, and when she came to the reason why Jim Wyndham had never come back, I thought for a moment I should faint. He was taken ill in Paris, three days after we parted, with typhoid fever; and though it was never a desperate case-owing to his strong constitution-he was delirious for weeks. Two months passed before he was well enough to look for me, and by that time all trace of us was lost. Brian and I had gone to England long before. Jim's friend-the one with whom he had the bet-wired to the Becketts that he was ill, but not dangerously, and they weren't to come over to France. It was only when he reached home that they knew how serious the trouble had been.

While I was listening, learning that Jim had really loved me, and searched for me, it seemed that I had a right to him after all: that I was an honest girl, hearing news of her own man, from his own people. It was only when Mr. Beckett began to draw me out, with a quite pathetic shyness, on the subject of our worldly resources that I was brought up short again, against the dark wall of my deceit. It should have been exquisite, it was heartbreaking, to see how he feared to hurt my feelings with some offer of help from his abundance. "Hurt my feelings!" And it was with the sole intention of "working" them for money that I'd written to the Becketts.

That looks horrible in black and white, doesn't it, Padre? But I won't try to hide my motives behind a dainty screen, from your eyes or mine. I had wanted and meant to get as much as I could for Brian and myself out of Jim Beckett's father and mother. And now, when I was on the way to obtain my object, more easily than I had expected-now, when I saw the kind of people they were-now, when I knew that to Jim Wyndham I had been an ideal, "his dream come true." I saw my own face as in a mirror. It was like the sly, mean face of a serpent disguised as a woman.

I remember once saying to you, Padre, when you had read aloud "The Idylls of the King" to Brian and me as children, that Vivien was the worst cad I ever heard of since the beginning of the world! I haven't changed my mind about her since, except that I give her second place. I am in the first.

I suppose, when I first pictured the Becketts (if I stopped to picture them at all) I imagined they would be an ordinary American millionaire and millionairess, bow-fronted, self-important creatures; the old man with a diamond stud like a headlight, the old lady afraid to take cold if she left off an extra row of pearls. In our desperate state, anything seemed fair in love or war with such hard, worth-their-weight-in-gold people. But I ought to have known that a man like Jim Beckett couldn't have such parents! I ought to have known they wouldn't be in the common class of millionaires of any country; and that whatever their type they would be unique.

Well, I hadn't known. Their kindness, their dear humanness, their simplicity, overwhelmed me as the gifts of shields and bracelets from the Roman warriors overwhelmed treacherous Tarpeia. And when they began delicately begging me to be their adopted daughter-the very thing I'd prayed for to the devil!-I felt a hundred times wickeder than if Jim hadn't set me on a high pedestal, where they wished to keep me with their money, their love, as offerings.

Whether I should have broken down and confessed everything, or brazened it out in spite of all if I'd been left alone to decide, I shall never know. For just then the door opened, and Brian came into the room.

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