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   Chapter 9 No.9

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 7981

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


For a moment we thought the house had been struck by a bomb, and were astonished that it stood. In the uproar of explosions and crashings and jinglings, the small silence of our room-with its gay chrysanthemums and shaded candles-was like that of a sheltered oasis in a desert storm.

Not one of us uttered a sound. Father Beckett took his wife in his arms, and held her tight, her face hidden in his coat. Brian had not even got up from his chair by the table. He'd lighted a cigarette, and continued to smoke calmly, a half-smile on his face, as if the bombardment carried him back to life in the trenches. But the beautiful sightless eyes searched for what they could not see: and I knew that I was in his thoughts. I would have gone to him, after the first petrifying instant of surprise, but the singing-man stopped me. "Are you afraid?" I heard his voice close to my ear. Perhaps he shouted. But in the din it was as if he whispered.

"No!" I flung back. "Had you not better go and take care of your sister?"

He laughed. "My sister! Look at her! Does she need taking care of?"

The girl had come from the suddenly darkened salon into our room. As he spoke, she walked to the table, helped herself to a cigarette from Brian's silver case which lay open, and asked its owner for a light. It struck me that she did not realize his blindness.

Certainly the young woman did not "need taking care of." Nor did I! Deliberately I turned my back upon the man; but he snatched at the end of a scarf I wore. "No one's looking," he said. "Take this-for your own sake." And he thrust into a little outside pocket of my dress a folded bit of paper. Then he let me go, stepping back to prevent my returning the note.

For a second I hesitated, not knowing which of two evils to choose; but the woman who hesitates is inevitably lost. Before I could make up my mind, the door opened and the landlord appeared, apologizing for the raid as if it had been an accident of his kitchen. We must have no fear. All danger was over. The avion-only one!-had been chased out of our neighbourhood. The noise we heard now was merely shrapnel fired by anti-aircraft guns. We would not be disturbed again, that he'd guarantee from his experience!

Mrs. Beckett emerged from her husband's coat. Mr. Beckett laughed, and patting his wife's shoulder, complimented her courage. "I'm not sure we haven't behaved pretty well for our first air raid," he said. "The rest of you were fine! But I suppose even you ladies have seen some of these shows before? As for you, Brian, my boy, you're a soldier. What we've been through must seem a summer shower to you. And you, sir"-he turned to the singing-man-"I think you mentioned you'd had shell shock--"

"Yes," the other answered quickly. "It cost me my voice."

"Cost you your voice?" Father Beckett echoed. "If it was better than it is now, why, it must have been a marvel! We're ignorant in the music line, my wife and I, so if we ought to know who you are--"

The young man laughed. "Oh, don't be afraid of hurting my feelings! If you were an Italian, or a Britisher-but an American! I sang in New York only part of last winter, and then I-came over here, like everyone else. My name is Julian O'Farrell, but my mother was an Italian of Naples, once a prima donna. She wished me to make my professional début as Giulio di Napoli."

The name appeared to mean nothing for the Becketts, but instantly I knew who the man was, if little about him. I remembered reading of the sensation he created in London the summer that Brian and I tramped through France and Belgium. The next I heard was that he had "gone back" to Italy. I had of course supposed him to be an Italian. But now he boasted-or confessed-that he was an Irishman. Why, then, had he left England for Italy when the war broke out? Why had he been singing in New York after Italy joined the Allies? Above all, what had happened since, to put him on my track, with a Red Cross flag and a ta

xi-cab?

These questions asked themselves in my head, while I could have counted "One-two-three." Meantime, Brian had spoken to the girl, and she had answered shortly, in words I could not hear, but with a sullen, doubtful look, like a small trapped creature that snaps at a friendly hand. The landlord was helping a white-faced waiter to clear a place on the table for a tray of coffee and liqueurs; and outside the noise of shrapnel had died in the distance. The air-raid incident was closed. What next?

"You'll both have coffee with us, won't you, Signor di Napoli-or Mr. O'Farrell? Or should I say Lieutenant or Captain?" Father Beckett was urging. "You were a friend of our son's, and my wife and I--"

"Plain Mister O'Farrell it is," the other broke in. "Thanks, it would be a pleasure to stay, but it's best to refuse, I'm sure, for my sister's sake. You see by her dress what her work has been, and she's on leave because she's tired out. She faints easily-and what with the air raid-maybe you'll let us pay our respects before you leave to-morrow? Then we'll tell you all you want to know. Anyhow, we may be going on for some time in your direction. I saw by a Paris paper a few days ago you were making a tour of the Fronts, beginning at the Lorraine end."

His eyes were on me as he spoke, bright with imp-like malice. He looked so like a mischievous schoolboy that it was hard to take him seriously. Yet everything warned me to do so, and his allusion to the Paris newspapers explained much. For the second time a reporter had caught Father Beckett, and got out of him the statement that "My dead son's fiancée, Miss Mary O'Malley, who's been nursing in a 'contagious' hospital near St. Raphael, will be with us: and her brother."

So that was how the man had heard about me, and for some reason found it worth while to follow, waving the sword of Damocles! His note burned my pocket. And I burned to know what it said. No doubt it would explain why he did not cut off my head at once, and have it over!

"I think," he was going on, "that the sooner I can get this poor little girl" (a tap on his sister's shoulder) "to her room and to bed the better it will be."

Any one apparently less likely to faint, or less in need of rest, than the "poor little girl" indicated, it would be difficult to find, I thought: but the kindly Becketts were the last creatures to be critical. They sympathized, and changed their invitation from after-dinner coffee to breakfast at nine. This was accepted by O'Farrell for himself and his sister, and taking the girl's arm, the ex-singer swept her off in a dramatic exit.

When they had gone, it was Brian who asked me if I had known them in the south; and because no incentive could make me lie to Brian, I promptly answered "No." As I spoke, it occurred to me that now, if ever, was the moment when I might still succeed in spoking the wheel of Mr. and Miss O'Farrell before that wheel had time to crush me. I could throw doubt upon their good faith. I could hint that, if they had really been doing Red Cross or other work at St. Raphael, I should certainly have heard of them. But I held my peace-partly through qualms of conscience, partly through fear. Unless the man had proofs to bring of his bona fides where Jim Beckett was concerned, he would scarcely have followed us to claim acquaintance with the parents and confound the alleged fiancée. That he had followed us on purpose I was sure. Not for a second did I believe that the arrival of the taxi-cab in our wake was a coincidence!

We drank our coffee, talking of the raid and of the O'Farrells, and-as always-of Jim. Then Father Beckett noticed that his wife was pale. "She looks as if she needed bed a good sight more than that little girl did," he said in the simple, homely way I've learned to love.

Presently we had all bidden each other good-night, even Brian and I. Then-in my own room-I was free to take that folded bit of paper from my pocket.

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