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   Chapter 10 No.10

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13495

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

To my surprise, there were only three lines, scribbled in pencil.

"Come to the salon for a talk when the rest of your party have gone to bed. I'll be waiting, and won't keep you long."

"Impudent brute!" I said out aloud. But a moment later I had decided to keep the appointment and learn the worst. Needs must, when the devil drives!-if you're in the power of the devil. I was. And, alas! through my fault, so was Brian. After going so far, I could not afford to be thrown back without a struggle; and I went downstairs prepared to fight.

It was not yet late; only a few minutes after ten o'clock; and though the Becketts and Brian were on the road to sleep, the hotel was awake, and even lively in its wakefulness. The door of the public salon stood open, and the electric light had come on again. At the table, in the centre of the room, sat Mr. Julian O'Farrell, alias Giulio di Napoli, conspicuously interested in an illustrated paper. He jumped up at sight of me, and smiled a brilliant smile of welcome, but did not speak. A sudden, obstinate determination seized me to thwart him, if he meant to force the first move upon me. I bowed coolly, as one acknowledges the existence of an hotel acquaintance, and passing to the other end of the long table, picked up a Je Sais Tout of a date two years before the war.

I did not sit down, but assumed the air of hovering for a moment on my way elsewhere. This man?uvre kept the enemy on his feet; and as the cheap but stately clock on the mantel ticked out second after second, I felt nervously inclined to laugh, despite the seriousness of my situation. I bit my lip hard to frighten away a smile that would have spoilt everything. "If it goes on like this for an hour," I said to myself, "I won't open my mouth!"

Into the midst of this vow broke an explosion of laughter that made me start as if it announced a new bombardment. I looked up involuntarily, and met the dark Italian eyes sparkling with fun. "I beg your pardon!" the man gurgled. "I was wondering which is older, your Je Sais Tout or my Illustration? Mine's the Christmas number of 1909."

"Yours has the advantage in age," I replied, without a smile. "Mine goes back only to 1912."

"Ah! I'm glad to score that one point," he said, still laughing. "Dear Miss O'Malley, won't you please sit down? I'm a lazy fellow, and I'm so tired of standing! Now, don't begin by being cross with me because I call you 'dear.' If you realized what I've done for you, and what I'm ready to do, you'd say I'd earned that right, to begin with!"

"I don't understand you at all, or why you should claim any right," I hedged. But I sat down, and he sank so heavily into an ancient, plush-covered chair that a spray of dust flew up from the cushions.

"I'm afraid I'm rather too fat!" he apologized. "But I always lose flesh motoring, so you'll see a change for the better, I hope-in a week or two. I expect our lines will be cast in the same places for some time to come-if you're as wise as-as you are pretty. If not, I'm afraid you and Mr. O'Malley won't be long with our party. I say, you are gorgeous when you're in a rage! But why fly into a fury? You told me you didn't understand things. I'm doing my best to explain."

"Then your best is very bad," I said.

"Sorry! I'll begin another way. Listen! I'm going to be perfectly frank. Why not? We're birds of a feather. And the pot can't call the kettle black. Maybe my similes are a bit mixed, but you'll excuse that, as we're both Irish. Why, my being Irish-and Italian-is an explanation of me in itself, if you'd take the trouble to study it. But look here! I don't want you to take any trouble. I don't want to give you any trouble. Now do you begin to see light?"

"No!" I threw at him.

"I don't believe you, dear girl. You malign your own wits. You pay yourself worse compliments than I'd let any one else do! But I promised not to keep you long. And if I break my promise it will be your fault-because you're not reasonable. You're the pot and I'm the kettle, because we're both tarred with the same brush. By the way, are pots and kettles blacked with tar? They look it. But that's a detail. My sister and I are just as dead broke and down and out as you and your brother are. I mean, as you were, and as you may be again, if you make mistakes."

"I'd rather not bring my brother into this discussion," I said. "He's too far above it-and us. You can do as you choose about your sister."

"I can make her do as I choose," he amended. "That's where my scheme came in, and where it still holds good. When I read the news of Pa and Ma Beckett arriving in Paris, it jumped into my head like a-like a--"

"Toad," I supplied the simile.

"I was leaving it to you," said he. "I thought you ought to know, for by a wonderful coincidence which should draw us together, the same great idea must have occurred to you-in the same way, and on the same day. I bet you the first hundred francs I get out of old Beckett that it was so!"

"Mr. O'Farrell, you're a Beast!" I cried.

"And you're a Beauty. So there we are, cast for opposite parts in the same play. Queer how it works out! Looks like the hand of Providence. Don't say what you want to say, or I shall be afraid you've been badly brought up. North of Ireland, I understand. We're South. Dierdre's a Sinn Feiner. You needn't expect mercy from her, unless I keep her down with a strong hand-the Hidden Hand. She hates you Northerners about ten times worse than she hates the Huns. Now you look as if you thought her name wasn't Dierdre! It is, because she took it. She takes a lot of things, when I've showed her how. For instance, photographs. She has several snapshots of Jim Beckett and me together. I have some of him and her. They're pretty strong cards (I don't mean a pun!) if we decide to use them. Don't you agree?"

"I neither agree nor disagree," I said, "for I understand you no better now than when you began."

"You're like Mr. Justice What's-his-name, who's so innocent he never heard of the race course. Well, I must adapt myself to your child-like intelligence! I'll go back a bit to an earlier chapter in my career, the way novels and cinemas do, after they've given the public a good, bright opening. It was true, what I said about my voice. I've lost everything but my middle register. I had a fortune in my throat. At present I've got nothing but a warble fit for a small drawing room-and that, only by careful management. I knew months ago I could never sing again in opera. I was coining money in New York, and would be now-if they hadn't dug me out as a slacker-an embusqué-whatever you like to call it. I was a conscientious objector: that is, my conviction was it would be s

inful to risk a bullet in a chest full of music, like mine-a treasure-chest. But the fools didn't see it in that light. They made America too hot to hold either Giulio di Napoli or Julian O'Farrell. I'm no coward-I swear to you I'm not, my dear girl! You've only to look me square in the face to see I'm not. I'm full of fire. But ever since I was a boy I've lived for my voice, and you can't die for your voice, like you can for your country. It goes-pop!-with you. I managed to convince the doctors that my heart was too jumpy for the trenches. I see digitalis in your eye, Miss Trained Nurse! It wasn't. It was strophantis. But they would set me to driving a motor ambulance-cold-hearted brutes! I got too near the front line one day-or rather the front line got too near me, and a shell hit my ambulance. The next thing I knew I was in hospital, and the first thing I thought of was my voice. A frog would have disowned it. I hoped for a while it might come right; but they sent me to St. Raphael for a sun cure, and-it didn't work. That was last spring. I'm as well as I ever was, except in my throat, and there the specialists say I need never expect to be better. I'd change with your brother, Miss O'Malley. My God, I would. If I could lose my eyes and have my voice again-my voice!"

His flippancy broke down on those words, with one sincere and tragic note that touched me through my contempt. Watching, he saw this, and catching at self-control, he caught also at the straw of sympathy within his reach.

"I wanted to die for a while," he went on. "But youth is strong, even when you're down on your luck-down at the deepest. My sister came to St. Raphael to be with me. It may seem queer to you, but I'm her idol. She's lost everything else-or rather she thinks she has, which is much the same-everything that made her life worth living. She wanted to be a singer. Her voice wasn't strong enough. She wanted to be an actress. She knew how to act, but-she couldn't, Heaven knows why. She's got temperament enough, but she couldn't let herself out. You see what she's like! She failed in America, where she'd followed me against our mother's will. Mother died while we were there. Another blow! And a man Dierdre's been half engaged to was killed in Belgium. She didn't love him, but he was made of money. It would have been a big match! She took to nursing only after I was called up. You know in France a girl doesn't need much experience to get into a hospital. But poor little Dare wasn't more of a success at nursing than on the stage. Not enough self-confidence-too sensitive. People think she's always in the sulks-and so she is, these days. I'd been trying for six months' sick leave, and just got it when I read that stuff in the paper about Beckett being killed, and his parents hearing the news the day they arrived. It struck me like drama: things do. I was born dramatic-took it from my mother. The thought came to me, how dead easy 'twould be for some girl to pretend she'd been engaged to Beckett, and win her wily way to the hearts and pockets of the old birds. Next I thought: Why not Dierdre? And there wasn't any reason why not! I told her it would be good practice in acting. (She hasn't quite given up hope of the stage yet.) We started for Paris on the job; and then I read in a later copy of the same paper about the smart young lady who'd stepped in ahead of us. If old Beckett hadn't been bursting with pride in the heroic girl who'd got a medal for nursing infectious cases in a hospital near St. Raphael, I'd have given up the game for a bad job. I'd have taken it for granted that Jim and the fiancée had met before we met him at St. Raphael. But when the paper said they'd made acquaintance there, and gave your name and all, I knew you were on the same trail with us. You'd walked in ahead, that was the only difference. And we had the snapshots. We could call witnesses to swear that no nurse from your hospital had come near St. Raphael, and to swear that none of the chaps in the aviation school had ever come near them. Dierdre hadn't been keen at first, but once she was in, she didn't want to fail again; especially for a North of Ireland girl like you. She was ready to go on. But the newspaper gushed a good deal over your looks, you remember. My curiosity was roused. I was-sort of obsessed by the thought of you. I decided to see what your head was like to look at before chopping it off. And anyhow, you'd already started on your jaunt. Through a rich chap I knew in New York, who's over here helping the Red Cross, I got leave to carry supplies to the evacuated towns, provided I could find my own car. Well, I found it-such as it is. All I ask of it is not to break down till the Becketts have learned to love me as their dear, dead son's best friend. As for Dare-what she was to the dear dead son depends on you."

"Depends on me?" I repeated.

"Depends on you. Dare's not a good Sunday-school girl, but she's good to her brother-as good as you are to yours, in her way. She'll do what I want. But the question is Will you?"

For a moment I did not speak. Then I asked, "What do you want?"

"Only a very little thing," he said. "To live and let live, that's all. Don't you try to queer my pitch, and I won't queer yours."

"What is your pitch?" I asked.

He laughed. "You're very non-committal, aren't you? But I like your pluck. You've never once admitted by word or look that you're caught. All the same, you know you are. You can't hurt me, and I can hurt you. Your word wouldn't stand against my proofs, if you put up a fight. You'd go down-and your brother with you. Oh, I don't think he's in it! The minute I saw his face I was sure he wasn't; and I guessed from yours that what you'd done was mostly or all for him. Now, dear Miss O'Malley, you know where you are with me. Isn't that enough for you? Can't you just be wise and promise to let me alone on my 'pitch,' whatever it is?"

"I won't have Mr. and Mrs. Beckett made fools of in any way."

He burst out laughing. "That's good-from you! I give you leave to watch over their interests, if you let me take care of mine. Is it a bargain?"

I did not answer. I was thinking-thinking furiously, when the landlord came to the door to put out the lights.

O'Farrell sprang to his feet. "We're ready to go. We can leave the room free, can't we, Miss O'Malley?" he said in French.

Somehow, I found myself getting up, and fading out of the room as if I'd been hypnotized. I walked straight to the foot of the stairs, then turned at bay to deliver some ultimatum-I scarcely knew what. But O'Farrell had cleverly accomplished a vanishing act, and there was nothing left for me to do save go to my own room.

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