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   Chapter 11 No.11

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 18971

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Thinking things over in the night, I decided to wait until after breakfast before making up my mind to anything irrevocable. Breakfast being the appointed rendezvous, O'Farrell would then lay his cards on the table. If he slipped some up his sleeve, I must make it my business to spot the trick and its meaning for the Becketts.

As I offered this sop to my conscience, I could almost hear O'Farrell saying, with one of his young laughs, "That's right. Set a thief to catch a thief!"

At ten o'clock we were to start for Nancy via Commercy, so there would be little time to reflect, and to act on top of reflection; but my strait being desperate, I resolved to trust to luck; and to be first on the field of battle, I knocked at Brian's door at half-past eight.

He was already dressed, and to look at his neat cravat and smoothly brushed hair no one would have guessed that his toilet had been made by a blind man. We had not yet exchanged opinions of the O'Farrell family, and I had come early to get his impressions. They were always as accurate and quickly built up as his sketches; but since he has been blind, he seems almost clairvoyant.

"What do you think of those two?" I asked. "Or rather, what do you think of the man? I know you have to judge by voices; and as the girl hardly opened her mouth you can't--"

"Queer thing-and I don't quite understand it myself," said Brian; "but I see Miss O'Farrell more clearly than her brother."

He generally speaks of "seeing people," quite as a matter of course. It used to give me a sharp pain at my heart; but I begin to take his way for granted now. "There's something about O'Farrell that eludes me-slips away like quicksilver. One is charmed with his voice and his good looks--"

"Brian! Who told you he was good-looking?" I broke in.

Brian laughed. "I told myself! His manner-so sure of his power to please-belongs to good looks. Besides, I've never known a tenor with any such quality of voice who hadn't magnificent eyes. Why they should go together is a mystery-but they do. Am I right about this chap?"

"Yes, you're right," I admitted. "But go on. I'm more interested in him than in his sister."

"Are you? I've imagined her the more interesting-the more repaying-of the two. I see O'Farrell, not a bad fellow, but-not sure. I don't believe he's even sure of himself, whether he wants to be straight or crooked. How he turns out will depend-on circumstances, or perhaps on some woman. If he travels with us, he'll be a pleasant companion, there's no doubt. But--"


"Well, we must always keep in mind that he's an actor. We mustn't take too seriously anything he says or does. And you, Molly-you must be more careful than the rest."

"I! But I told you I'd never met him at St. Raphael. I never set eyes on him till last night."

"I know. Yet I felt, when he 'set eyes' on you-oh, I don't know how to express what I felt! Only-if it had happened on the stage, there'd have been music for it in the orchestra."

"Brian, how strange you are!" I almost gasped. "Ought we to let the man and his sister go on with us, if that's their aim? Their Red Cross flag may be camouflage, you know! Very likely they're adventurers, after the Beckett's money. We could advise Father and Mother Beck--"

"Let's follow a famous example, and 'wait and see'-if only for the girl's sake."

"Oh, you think so well of her!"

"Not well, exactly," Brian hesitated. "I don't know what to think of her yet. But-I think about her. I feel her, as I feel electricity before a thunderstorm bursts."

"A thunderstorm expresses her!" I laughed. "I thought of that myself. She's sullen-brooding, dark as a cloud. Yet the tiniest thing! One could almost break her in two."

"I held out my hand for good-night," Brian said. "She had to give hers, though I'm sure for some reason she didn't want to. It was small and-crushable, like a child's; and hot, as if she had fever."

"She didn't want to take yours, because we're North of Ireland and she's a fierce Sinn Feiner," I explained. Luckily Brian did not ask how I'd picked up this piece of information! He was delighted with it, and chuckled. "So she's a Sinn Feiner! She's very pretty, isn't she?"

"In a cross-patch way. She looks ready to bite at a touch."

"Poor child! Life must have gone hard with her. She's probably got a grouch, as the American boys over here say. We must try and do something to soften her down, and make her see things through rosier spectacles, if she and her brother join on to our party for a while."


"You don't like her, Molly?"

"Oh, I've hardly thought of her, dear. But you seem to have made up for that."

"Thunderstorms make you think about them. They electrify the atmosphere. I see this girl so distinctly somehow: little, white thing; big, gloomy eyes like storms in deep woods, and thin eyelids-you know, that transparent, flower-petal kind, where you fancy you see the iris looking through, like spirit eyes, always awake while the body's eyes sleep; and-and lots of dark hair without much colour-hair like smoke. I see her a suppressed volcano-but not extinct."

"The day may come when we'll wish she were extinct. But really you've described her better than I could, though I stared quite a lot last night. Come along, dear. It's six minutes to nine. Let's trot down to breakfast."

We trotted; but early as I'd meant to be, and early as we were, the O'Farrells and the Becketts were before us. How long they had been together I don't know, but they must have finished their first instalment of talk about Jim, for already they had got on to the subject of plans.

"Well, it will be noble of you to help us with supplies. The promise we've got from our American Red Cross man in Paris is limited," O'Farrell was saying in his voice to charm a statue off its pedestal, as we came in. He sprang to shut the door for us, and gave me the look of a cherubic fox, as much as to say, "You see where we've got to! But it's all for the good cause. There's more than one person not as black as he's painted!"

"Molly's watch must be slow," said Brian. "She thought it was only six minutes to nine."

"She's right. But it seems the big clock in the hall outside our door is fast," explained Father Beckett. "We heard it strike nine, so we hurried down. The same thing happened with Mr. and Miss O'Farrell."

Another glance at me from the brilliant eyes! "Smart trick, eh?" they telegraphed. I had to turn away, or I should have laughed. Surely never before, on stage or in story-to say nothing of real life-was the villain and blackmailer a mischievous, schoolboy imp, who made his victims giggle at the very antics which caught them in his toils! But, come to think of it, I am a villain, and next door to a blackmailer! Yet I always see myself (unless I stop to reflect on my sins) as a girl like other girls, even better-natured and more agreeable and intelligent than most. Perhaps, after all, villains don't run in types!

I soon learned that Father and Mother Beckett were rejoicing in the acquisition of Jim's two friends as travelling companions. The celebrated snapshots were among the cards O'Farrell had kept up his sleeve. No doubt he'd waited to make sure of my attitude (though he appeared to take it for granted) before deciding what use to make of his best trumps. Seeing that I let slip my one and only chance of a denunciation-scene, he flung away his also, with an air of dashing chivalry which his sister and I alone were in a position to appreciate. For me it had been a case of "speak now, or forever after hold your peace." For him, a decision was not irrevocable, as he could denounce me later, and plead that I had been spared at first, through kindness of heart. But I did not stop to consider that detail. I saw the man and myself as accomplices, on an equal footing, each having given quarter to the other. As for the girl, I still thought of her hardly at all, in spite of Brian's words. She was an unknown quantity, which I would waste no time in studying, while the situation that opened bade me sharpen my wits.

In the five or ten minutes before we joined them the Becketts had consented-or offered-to help finance the Red Cross crusade. To achieve this was worthy of the Irish-Italian's talents. But the little dining room was littered with samples of the travellers' goods: clothing for repatriated refugees, hospital supplies; papier-maché splints, and even legs; shoes, stockings, medicines; soup-tablets, and chocolates. The O'Farrells might be doing evil, but good would apparently come from it for many. I could hardly advise the Becketts against giving money, even though I suspected that most of it would stick to O'Farrell's fingers-even though I knew that the hope of it consoled Signor Giulio di Napoli for leaving me in my safe niche. Yes, that was his consolation, I realized. And-there might be something more which I did not yet foresee. Still, being no better than he was, I was coward enough to hold my peace.

This was the situation when we set out for Nancy, our big car running slowly, in order not to outpace the rickety Red Cross cab. We were not allowed by the military authorities to enter Toul, so our way took us through delightful old Commercy, birthplace of Madeleines. Of course the town had things to make it famous, long before the day of the shell-shaped cakelets which all true sons and daughters of France ador

e. Somebody founded it in the ninth century, when the bishops of Metz were the great overlords of its lords. It was a serious little city then, and Benedictine monks had a convent there in the Middle Ages. The fun began only with the building of the chateau, and the coming of the Polish Stanislas, the best loved and last Duke of Lorraine. He used to divide his years between Nancy, Lunéville, and Commercy; and once upon a time, in the third of these chateaux, the chef had a chère amie named Madeleine. There was to be a fête, and the lover of Madeleine was racking his tired brain to invent some new dainty for it. "I have thought of something which can make you famous," announced the young woman, who was a budding genius as a cook. "But, mon cher, it is my secret. Even to you I will not give it for nothing. I will sell it at a price."

The chef feigned indifference; but each moment counted. The Duke always paid in praise and gold for a successful new dish, especially a cake, for he was fond of sweets. When Madeleine boasted that her "inspiration" took the form of a cake, the man could resist no longer. The price asked was marriage-no less, and paid in advance! But it turned out not excessive. The feather-light, shell-shaped cakes were the success of the feast; and when Duke Stanislas heard their history, he insisted that they should be named Madeleines-"after their mother."

Even in war days, "Madeleines de Commercy" is the first cry which greets the traveller entering town. Jim, it seems, had a charming habit of sending to his mother at home a specimen of the cake, or confiture, or bonbon, for which each place he visited abroad was famed. These things used to reach her in jars or boxes adorned with the coat-of-arms and photographs of the city concerned-a procession of surprises: and I think as she bought Madeleines of Commercy she moistened them with a few tears.

* * *

I expected to find Nancy beautiful, since for so long it was the capital of proud Lorraine, but I hadn't guessed how beautiful or individual. Now I shall always in future see the details of each splendid square and park by shutting my eyes and calling the vision to come-as Brian does.

We drove straight to the door of a fascinating, old-fashioned hotel in the most celebrated square of all, the Place Stanislas; but we didn't go in. We couldn't stolidly turn our backs upon the magic picture, lit by a sudden radiance of sunshine, for in another moment the fairy-like effect might fade. Yes, "fairy-like" is the word; and as our two cars drew up-like Dignity and Impudence-I had the feeling that we'd arrived in the capital of fairyland to visit the king and queen.

It was I who described the scene to Brian: the eighteenth-century perfection of the buildings, each one harmoniously proportioned to suit the others; the town hall, with its wonderful clock; the palace; the theatre, and the rest of the happy architectural family reared by Duke Stanislas; each with its roof-decoration of carved stone vases, and graceful statues miraculously missed so far by German bombs; the lace-like filigree of wrought iron and gold on flag-hung balconies or gates; the gilded Arch of Triumph leading into the garden of the Place Carrière-a gorgeous glitter of decoration which won for Nancy her alias, "City of Golden Doors," and now has to be "camouflaged" for enemy aeroplanes. It was I who made the list of stage properties, but it was Brian who filled the stage with actors and actresses, in their proper parts.

He called upon the bronze statue of Stanislas to come down from its high pedestal, and appear before us in flesh, happy to be Duke of Lorraine, after all the dethronings and abdications in Poland; a most respectable-looking monarch despite his adventures and disguises of the past. We saw him in a powdered perruque, on his way to the ducal palace, after some religious ceremony that had attracted crowds of loyal Catholic Lorrainers: beside him, his good wife of bourgeoise soul but romantic name, Catherine Opalinska, a comfortable woman, too large for the fashionable robe à paniers; with the pair, their daughter Marie, proud of the fate foretold by a fortune-teller, that she should be queen of France; the Royal family, and the aristocrats of their northern court; the smart Polish officers in uniform; the pretty, coquettish women, and dark-faced musicians of Hungary; the Swedish philosophers, the long-haired Italian artists; and above all, the beautiful Marquise de Boufflers-rival of the Queen-with her little dogs and black pages; all these "belonged" to the sunlit picture, where our modern figures seemed out of place and time. The noble square, with its vast stretch of gray stone pavement-worn satin-smooth-its carved gray fa?ades of palaces, picked out with gold, and its vista of copper beeches rose-red against a sky of pearl, had been designed as a sober background for the colour and fantastic fashion of the eighteenth century, whereas we and others like us but added an extra sober note.

I noticed, as Brian sketched us his little picture of the past, that Dierdre O'Farrell gazed at him, as if at some legendary knight in whose reality she did not believe. It was the first time I had seen any change in the sullen face, but it was a change to interest rather than sympathy. She had the air of saying in her mind: "You look more like a St. George, stepped down from a stained-glass window, than an ordinary man of to-day. You seem to think about everyone else before yourself, and to see a lot more with your blind eyes than we see. You pretend to be happy, too, as if you wanted to set everybody a good example. But it's all a pose-a pose! I shall study you till I find you out, a trickster like the rest of us."

I felt a sudden stab of dislike for the girl, for daring to put Brian on a level with herself-and me. I wanted to punish her somehow, wanted to make the little wretch pay for her impertinent suspicions. I pushed past her brusquely to stand between her and Brian. "Let's go into the hotel," I said. "It's more important just now to see what our rooms are like than to play with the ghosts of dukes."

As if the slighted ghosts protested, there came a loud, reproachful wail out of space. Everyone started, and stared in all directions. Then the soberly clad, modern inhabitants of Nancy glanced skyward as they crossed the square of Stanislas. Nobody hurried, yet nobody stopped. Men, women, and children pursued their way at the same leisurely pace as before, except that their chins were raised. I realized then that the ghostly wail was the warning cry of a siren: "Take cover! Enemy aeroplanes sighted!" But there was the monotony of boredom in the voice, and in the air with which passers-by received the news.

"Oh, lord, here I go again!" the weary siren sighed.

"Third time to-day, mon Dieu!" grumbled a very old man to a very blasé porter, who dutifully shot out of the hotel to rescue our luggage, if not us, from possible though improbable danger. We let him haul in our bags, but remained glued to the pavement, utterly absorbed and fascinated, waiting for the show to begin.

We had not long to wait! For an instant the pearl-pale zenith shone serenely void. Then, heralded by a droning noise as of giant bees, and a vicious spitting of shrapnel, high overhead sailed a wide-winged black bird, chased by four other birds bigger, because nearer earth. They soared, circling closer, closer-two mounting high, two flying low, and so passed westward, while the sky was spattered with shrapnel-long, white streaks falling slow and straight, like tail-feathers of a shot eagle.

There was scant time to speak, or even draw an excited breath after the birds had disappeared, because they were back again, hovering so high that they were changed to insects.

We ought to have scuttled into the hotel, but somehow we didn't move, although people in the square seemed suddenly to realize the wisdom of prudence. Some vanished into doorways, others walked faster-though not one of those haughty Lorrainers would condescend to run. Forgetful of ourselves, I was admiring their pride, when an angry voice made me jump.

"You pretend that everything you do, good or bad, is for your brother's sake, yet you let him risk his life-a blind man!-out here in the street with bombs and shrapnel dropping every instant!"

It was Dierdre O'Farrell who spoke, and we glared into each other's eyes like two Kilkenny cats-or a surprised Kilkenny cat and a spitfire Kilkenny kitten.

A moment before, I had been longing to strike at her. Now it was she who struck at me; and it was too much, that it should be in defence of my own brother! The primitive fishwife within me rose to the surface. "Mind your own business!" I rudely flung at her: and slipping my arm under Brian's, in a voice of curdled cream begged him to come with me indoors.

The others followed, and about three seconds later a bomb fell in front of the hotel. It was a "dud," and did not explode, but it made a hole in the pavement and sent a jet of splintered stone into the air.

Perhaps the girl had saved us from death, or at least from disfiguring wounds, but I was in no mood to thank her for that. I was glad I had been a fishwife, and I thought Brian lacked his usual discernment in attributing hidden qualities to such a person as Dierdre O'Farrell.

"Something's bound to break, if we don't part soon!" I told myself.

* * *

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