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   Chapter 8 No.8

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13277

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


There were so many things to see by the way, and so many thoughts to think about them, that Father Beckett and Brian decided on an all night stop at Bar-le-Duc. The town hadn't had an air raid for weeks, and it looked a port of peace. As well imagine enemy aeroplanes over the barley-sugar house of the witch in the enchanted forest, as over this comfortable home of jam-makers!

"Jim always asked for currant jam of Bar-le-Duc on his birthdays, ever since he was a little, little boy," Mrs. Beckett remembered aloud. "And even when he was grown up! But then, he wouldn't wait for birthdays. He wanted it every day for breakfast; and for tea at those grand New York hotels, where I wouldn't go without him, any sooner than in a lion's den. Oh, it will be nice to stay at Bar-le-Duc! If there's been a jam factory blown up, we'll help build it again, to please Jim."

Father Beckett was shrewdly of opinion that the jam factories could take care of themselves, which rather disappointed his wife. She was vaguely disappointed too, in Bar-le-Duc. I think she expected to smell a ravishing fragrance of Jim's favourite confiture as we entered the town. It had been a tiring day for her, with all our stops and sightseeing, and she had less appetite for history than for jam. We had passed through lovely country since Chalons, decorated with beautiful tall trees, high box hedges, and distant, rolling downs golden with grain and sunlight. Also, whenever our road drew near the railway, we'd caught exciting glimpses of long trains "camouflaged" in blurry greens and blues, to hide themselves from aeroplanes. Nevertheless, Mother Beckett had begun to droop. Her blue eyes hardly brightened to interest when Brian said we were in the famous region of the Meuse, part of the Austrian Empire in Charlemagne's day: that somewhere hereabout Wittekind, the enslaved Saxon, used to work "on the land," not dreaming of the kingly house of Capet he was to found for France, and that Bar-le-Duc itself would be our starting-point for Verdun, after Nancy and the "Lorraine Front."

For her Bar-le-Duc had always represented jam, endless jam, loved by Jim, and talk of the dukes of Bar brought no thrill to Jim's mother. She cared more to see the two largest elms in France of which Jim had written, than any ruins of ducal dwellings or tombs of Lorraine princes, or even the house where Charles-Edouard the Pretender lived for years.

Fortunately there was a decent hotel, vaguely open in the upper town on the hill, with a view over the small tributary river Ornain, on which the capital city of the Meuse is built. One saw the Rhine-Marne Canal, too, and the picturesque roofs of old fifteenth-century houses, huddled together in lower Bar-le-Duc, shut in among the vine-draped valleys of Champagne.

As we left the car and went into the hotel (I lingering behind to help Brian) I noticed another car behind us. It was more like a taxi-cab than a brave, free-born automobile, but it had evidently come a long way, as it was covered with dust, and from its rather ramshackle roof waved a Red Cross flag.

In the good days before the war I should have thought it the most natural thing on earth if a procession of twenty motors had trailed us. But war has put an end to joy-rides. Besides, since the outskirts of Paris, we had been in the zone de guerre, constantly stopped and stared at by sentinels. The only cars we passed, going east or west, were occupied by officers, or crowded with poilus, therefore the shabby little taxi became of almost startling interest. I looked back, and saw that it was slowing down close behind our imposing auto, from which a few small pieces of luggage for the night were being removed.

The Red Cross travellers were evidently impatient. They did not wait for our chauffeur to drive away. The conductor of the car jumped down and opened the door of his nondescript vehicle. I made out, under a thick coat of dust, that he wore khaki of some sort, and a cap of military shape which might be anything from British to Belgian. He gave a hand to a woman in the car-a woman in nurse's dress. A thick veil covered her face, but her figure was girlish. I noticed that she was extremely small and slim in her long, dust-dimmed blue cloak: a mere doll of a creature.

The man's back was turned toward me as he aided the nurse; but suddenly he flung a glance over his shoulder, and stared straight at me, as if he had expected to find me there.

He was rather short, and too squarely built for his age, which might be twenty-eight or thirty at most; but his great dark eyes were splendid, so gorgeously bright and significant that they held mine for a second or two. This vexed me, and I turned away with as haughty an air as could be put on at an instant's notice.

The hotel had no private sitting rooms, but the landlord offered Mr. Beckett for our use a small salle de lecture, adjoing he salon public. There were folding doors between, for a wonder with a lock that worked. By the time we'd bathed, and dressed again, it was the hour for dinner, and Mr. Beckett suggested dining in our own "parlour," as he called it.

The landlord himself brought a menu, which Mother Beckett accepted indifferently up to the entremets "omelette au rhum." This she wished changed for something-anything-made with Jim's favourite jam. "He would want us to eat it at Bar-le-Duc," she said, with her air of taking Jim's nearness and interest in our smallest acts for granted.

So "omelette à la confiture de groseilles" was ordered; and just as we had come to the end of it and our meal, some one began to play the piano in the public drawing room next door. At the first touch, I recognized a master hand. The air was from Puccini's "La Tosca"-third act, and a moment later a man's voice caught it up-a voice of velvet, a voice of the heart-an Italian voice.

We all stopped eating as if we'd been struck by a spell. We hardly breathed. The music had in it the honey of a million flowers distilled into a crystal cup. It was so sweet that it hurt-hurt horribly and deliciously, as only Italian music can hurt. Other men sing with their brains, with their souls, but Italians sing with their blood, their veins, the core of their hearts. They are their songs, as larks are.

The voice brought Jim to me, and snatched him away again. It set him far off at a hopeless distance, across steep purple chasms of dreamland. It dragged my heart out, and then poured it full, full of an unknown elixir of life and love, which was mine, yet out of reach forever. It showed me my past hopes and future sorrows floating on

the current of my own blood like ships of a secret argosy sailing through the night to some unknown goal. So now, when I have told you what it did to me, you will know that voice was like no voice I ever heard, except Caruso's. It was like his-astonishingly like; and hardly had the last note of "Mario's" song of love and death dropped into silence when the singer began anew with one of Caruso's own Neapolitan folk-songs, "Mama Mia."

I had forgotten Mother and Father Beckett-even Brian-everyone except my lost Jim Wyndham and myself. But suddenly a touch on my hand made me start. The little old lady's, small, cool fingers were on mine, "My daughter, what do the words mean?" she asked. "What is that boy saying to his mama?" Her eyes were blue lakes of unshed tears, for the thought of her son knocked at her heart.

"It isn't a boy who sings, dear," I said. "It's supposed to be a young man who tries to tell his mother all about his love, but it is too big for any words he can find. He says she must remember how she felt herself when she was in love, and then she will understand what's in his heart."

"Oh, it's wonderful!" she whispered. "How young it sounds! Can it be a man singing? It seems too beautiful for anything but a gramophone!"

We broke out laughing, and the little lady blushed in shame. "I mean, it's like one of the great singers they make records of," she explained. "There, he's stopped. Oh, James, don't let him go! We must hear him again. Couldn't you go next door and thank him? Couldn't you beg him to sing some more?"

An Englishman would sooner have died a painful death then obey; but, unabashed, the American husband flung wide open the folding doors.

At the piano sat the short, square-built young man of the Red Cross taxi. Leaning with both elbows on the instrument stood the doll-like figure of his companion, the girl in nurse's dress. His back and her profile were turned our way, but at the sound of the opening door he wheeled on the stool, and both stared at Mr. Beckett. Also they stared past him at me. Why at me, and not the others, I could never have guessed then.

Our little room was lit by red-shaded candles on the table, while the salon adjoining blazed with electricity. As the doors opened, it was like the effect of a flashlight for a photograph. I saw that the man and the girl resembled each other in feature; nevertheless, there was a striking difference between the two. It wasn't only that he was squarely built, with a short throat, and a head shaped like Caruso's, whereas she was slight, with a small, high-held head on a slender neck. The chief difference lay in expression. The man-who now looked younger than I had thought-had a dark, laughing face, gay and defiant as a Neapolitan street boy. It might be evil, it might be good. The girl, who could be no more than twenty, was sullen in her beauty as a thundercloud.

The singer jumped up, and took a few steps forward, while the girl stood still and gloomed.

"I hope I didn't disturb you?" The question was asked of Mr. Beckett, and thrown lightly as a shuttlecock over the old man's head to us in the next room. It was asked in English, with a curiously winning accent, neither Italian nor Irish, but suggesting both.

"Disturbed!" Father Beckett explained that his errand was to beg for more music. "It's like being at the opera!" was the best compliment he had to give.

The young man smiled as if a light had been turned on behind his eyes and his brilliant white teeth. "Delighted!" he said. "I can't sing properly nowadays-shell shock. I suppose I never shall again. But I do my best."

He sat down once more at the piano, and without asking his audience to choose, began in a low voice an old, sweet, entirely banal and utterly heartbreaking ballad of Tosti's, with words by Christina Rossetti:

"When I am dead, my dearest,

Sing no sad songs for me,

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree.

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet,

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

Sing on as if in pain.

And dreaming through the twilight

That does not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

And haply may forget."

The words were of no great depth or worth, and the music was too intentionally heart-wringing to be sincerely fine, yet sung by that man's voice, the piano softly touched by his hands, the poor old song took my self-control and shivered it like thin glass. Tears burst from Mrs. Beckett's eyes, and she hid her face on my shoulder, sobbing beneath her breath: "Oh, Jim-Jim!"

When the singer had finished he looked at her, not in surprise, but thoughtfully. "Perhaps I oughtn't to have sung that stuff, Mr. Beckett," he said. "But your son liked it at St. Raphael. We knew each other there, very well."

As he spoke his eyes turned to me, deliberately, with meaning. There was a gentle, charming smile on his southern face, but I knew, as if he had told me in so many words, that my secret was his.

Involuntarily I glanced at the girl. She had not moved. She stood as before, her elbows on the piano, her small face propped between her hands. But she, too, was looking at me. She had no expression whatever. Her eyes told as little as two shut windows with blinds drawn down. The fancy flashed through me that a judge might look thus waiting to hear the verdict of the jury in a murder case.

"These two have followed us on purpose to denounce me," I thought. Yet it seemed a stupidly melodramatic conclusion, like the climax of a chapter in an old-fashioned, sentimental story. Besides, the man-evidently the leader-had not at all the face of Nemesis. He looked a merry, happy-go-lucky Italian, only a little subdued at the moment by the pathos of his own nightingale voice and the memory of Jim Beckett. I was bewildered. My reason did not know what to make of him. But my instinct warned me of danger.

Mother Beckett dried her eyes with one of her dainty handkerchiefs which always smell like lavender and grass pinks-her leitmotif in perfume. "You knew our Jim?" she exclaimed, choking back tears. "Why, then, perhaps you and Mary-Miss O'Malley--"

What would have happened if she had finished her sentence I shall never know, for just then came a crash as if the house were falling. Window-glass shivered. The hotel shook as though in an earthquake. Out went the electric light, leaving only our candles aglow under red shades.

Bar-le-Duc was in for an air raid.

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