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   Chapter 12 No.12

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13318

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Nancy is one of "Jim's towns," as Mother and Father Beckett say. When, with Brian's help, they began mapping out their route, they decided to "give something worth while" to the place, and to all the ruined region round about, when they had learned what form would be best for their donation to take. Some friend in Paris gave them a letter to the Préfet, and we had not been in Nancy an hour when he and his wife called.

I'd never met a real, live préfet. The word sounded stiff and official. When Mother Beckett tremulously asked me to act as interpreter, I dimly expected to meet two polite automata, as little human as creatures of flesh and blood can be. Instead, I saw a perfectly delightful pair of Parisians, with the warm, kind manner one thinks of as southern. They were frankly pleased that a millionaire's purse promised to open for Nancy. Monsieur le Préfet offered himself to the Becketts as guide on a sightseeing expedition next day, and Madame, the Préfet's wife, proposed to exhibit her two thousand children, old and young, refugees housed in what once had been barracks. "The Germans pretend to believe they are barracks still, full of soldiers, as an excuse for bombs," she said. "But you shall see! And if you wish-if you have time-we will take you to see also what the Boches have done to some of our other towns-ah, but beautiful towns, of an importance! Lunéville, and Gerbévillers, and more-many more. You should know what they are like before you go on to the Grande Couronne, where Nancy was saved in 1914."

Of course the Becketts "wished." Of course they had time. "Molly, tell Mr. and Mrs. Préfet we've got more time than anything else!" said the old man eagerly. "Oh, and I guess we've got a little money, too, enough to spread around among those other places, as well as here. This is going to be something like what Jim would want at last!"

When the Préfet and his wife rose to go, they invited not only the Becketts but Brian and me to dine at their house that night. Mother Beckett, on the point of accepting for us all, hesitated. The hesitation had to be explained: and the explanation was-the O'Farrells. I had hoped we might be spared them, but it was not to be. Our host and hostess, hearing of the travellers of the Red Cross, insisted that they must come, too. Mrs. Beckett was sure they would both be charmed, but as it turned out, she was only half right. Mr. O'Farrell was charmed. His sister had a headache, and intended to spend the evening in her room.

Padre, if I wrote stories, I should like to write one with that préfet and his whole family for the heroes and heroines of it!

There is a small son. There are five daughters, each prettier than the others, the youngest a tiny filette, the eldest twenty at most; and the mother in looks an elder sister. When the war broke out they were living in Paris, the father in some high political post: but he was by ancestry a man of Lorraine, and his first thought was to help defend the home of his forbears. The Meurthe-et-Moselle, with Nancy as its centre and capital, was a terrible danger zone, with the sword of the enemy pointed at its heart, but the lover of Lorraine asked to become préfet in place of a man about to leave, and his family rallied round him. There at Nancy, they have been ever since those days, through all the bombardments by Big Berthas and Taubes. When houses and hotels were being blown to bits by naval guns, thirty-five kilometres away, the daily life of the family went on as if in peace. As a man, the Préfet longed to send his wife and children far away. As a servant of France he thought best to let them stop, to "set an example of calmness." And if they had been bidden to go, they would still have stayed.

The Préfet's house is one of the eighteenth-century palaces of the Place Stanislas; and in the story I'd like to write, I should put a description of their drawing room, and the scene after dinner that night.

Imagine a background of decorative walls, adorned with magnificent portraits (one of the best is Stanislas, and better still is Louis XVI, a proud baby in the arms of a handsome mother); imagine beautiful Louis XV chairs, tables, and sofas scattered about, with the light of prism-hung chandeliers glinting on old brocades and tapestries: flowers everywhere, in Chinese bowls and tall vases; against this background a group of lovely girls multiplied by many mirrors into a large company; be-medalled officers in pale blue uniforms, handing coffee to the ladies, or taking from silver dishes carried by children the delicious macaroons which are to Nancy what Madeleines are to Commercy. Imagine long windows opening into a garden: rosy lamplight streaming out, silver moonlight streaming in; music; the wonderful voice of a man (Julian O'Farrell) singing the "Marseillaise," the "Star-Spangled Banner," and "Tipperary." Then into the midst of this breaking the tiresome whine of the siren.

"What? A fourth time to-day?" cries somebody. "These creatures will wear out their welcome if they're not careful!"

A laugh follows, to drown the bark of shrapnel, and a general shrugging of the shoulders. But suddenly comes a cry that la petite-the baby daughter of the house, sitting up in our honour-has run into the garden.

The elder girls are not afraid for themselves, the great bombardments have given them a quiet contempt of mere Taubes. But for the little sister!-that is different. Instantly it seems that all the bombs Germany has ever made may be falling like iron rain on that curly head out there among the autumn lilies. Everybody rushes to the rescue: and there is the child, sweet as a cherub and cool as a cucumber, in the din. She stands on the lawn, chin in air, baby thumb on baby nose for the Taube caught in a silver web of searchlights.

"Sale oiseau!" her defiant cry shrills up. "Just like you, to come on my grown-up evening! But you shan't spoil it. No, sister, I don't want to go in. I came out to say good-night to the chickens and rabbits, and tell them not to be afraid."

Behind the lilies and late roses and laurels is quite a menagerie of domestic animals, housed among growing potatoes, beans, and tomatoes. C'est la guerre! But rabbits and chickens are robbed of their consolation; the baby is bundled into the house; and, once she is safe-safe as any one can be safe in bombarded Nancy!-nobody thinks about the air raid. Que voulez-vous? If one thought about these things, smiles a blonde girl in white, they might really get upon one's nerves, and that would never do!

"It is this moonlight," she explains. "They will be back again once or twic

e to-night, perhaps. But the streets will be as full as ever of poilus en permission, walking with their sweethearts, in spite of the hateful things!"

* * *

One makes one's adieux early in war times; but the moonlight was so wonderful on that Taube-ridden night that Brian said he felt it like a cool silver shower on his eyelids. "I believe I'm developing night-eyes!" he laughed to me, as we walked ahead of the Becketts and Julian O'Farrell, on our way across the gleaming square to our hotel. "Surely there won't be another raid for an hour or two? Let's take a walk. Let's go into the old town, and try to see some ghosts."

"Yes, let's!" I echoed.

I said good-night sweetly to the Becketts and stiffly to O'Farrell. Brian was equally cordial to all three, and I feared that O'Farrell might be encouraged to offer his company. But his self-assurance stopped short of that. He went meekly into the darkened hotel with the old couple, and I turned away triumphant, with my arm in Brian's.

The clock of the Town Hall struck ten, chimed, waited for the church clock to approve and confirm, then repeated all that it had said and sung a minute before.

We were going to look for ghosts of kings and dukes and queens; and like ghosts ourselves, we stepped from moonlit shores into pools of shadow, and back to moonlit shores again; past the golden Arch of Triumph, which Stanislas built in honour of his daughter's marriage with Louis XV; through the Carrière, where the tops of tall copper-beeches caught the light with dull red gleams, like the glow of a carbuncle; past the sleeping palace of Stanislas, into the old "nursery garden" of the Pepinière, to the sombre Porte de la Craffe whose two huge, pointed towers and great wall guard the old town of Duke René II.

There we stopped, because of all places this dark corner was the place for Nancy's noblest ghost to walk, René the Romantic, friend of Americo Vespucius when Americo needed friends; René the painter, whose pictures still adorn old churches of Provence, where he was once a captive: René, whose memory never dies in Nancy, though his body died 500 years ago.

What if he should rise from his tomb in the church of the Cordeliers, or come down off his little bronze horse in the Place St. Epvre as ghosts may by moonlight, to walk with his fair wife Isabella through the huddled streets of the old town, gazing at the wreckage made by the greatest war of history? What would he think of civilization, he who held his dukedom against the star warrior of the century, Charles the Bold? War was lawless enough in his day. When avenging a chancellor's murder, the Nancians hanged 100 Burgundian officers on a church tower for the besiegers outside the city wall to see. But the "noble Gauls" whom Julius C?sar called "knights of chivalry," would have drawn the line then at showering bombs from the bay on women and children. We fancied, Brian and I, that after a walk round Nancy René and Isabella would retire, sadder and wiser ghosts, content to have finished their lives in gentler times than ours. Back into the shadows might they fade, to sleep again, and take up their old dream where the noise of twentieth-century shrapnel had snapped its thread. Their best dream must be, we thought, of their battle of Nancy: Charles the Bold on his black war-horse, surrounded by Burgundian barons in armour, shouting, and waving their banners with standards of ivory and gold; Charles of the dark locks, and brilliant eyes which all men feared and some women loved; Charles laughing with joy in the chance of open battle at last, utterly confident of its end, because the young duke-once his prisoner-had reinforced a small army with mercenaries, Swiss and Alsatians. At most René had 15,000 soldiers, and Charles believed his equal band of Burgundians worth ten times the paid northerners, as man to man.

From the church tower where Charles's men had hung-where St. Epvre stands now-René could see the enemy troops assembling, headed by the Duke of Burgundy, in his glittering helmet adorned with its device of an open-jawed lion. He could even see the gorgeous tent whose tapestried magnificence spies had reported (a magnificence owned by Nancy's museum in our day!), and there seemed to his eyes no end to the defile of spears, of strange engines for scaling walls, and glittering battle-axes. One last prayer, a blessing by the pale priest, and young René's own turn to lead had come-a slight adversary for great Charles, but with a heart as bold! The trumpet blast of La Rivière, sounding the charge of Lorraine, went to his head like wine. He laughed when Herter's mountain men began to sing "Le taureau d'Uri" and "La vache d'Unterwald," to remind the proud Burgundian of his defeats at Granson and Morat. Then came the crash of armour against armour, blade against blade, and the day ended for Nancy according to René's prayers. The southerners fled and died; and two days later, René was gazing down at the drowned body of Charles the Bold, dragged out of a pond. Yes, a good dream for ghosts of the chivalrous age to retire into, and shut the door! But for us, in our throbbing flesh and blood, this present was worth suffering in for the glory of the future.

There were other ghosts to meet in Nancy's old town of narrow streets where moonlight trickled in a narrow rill. Old, old ghosts, far older than the town as we saw it: Odebric of the eleventh century, who owned the strongest castle in France and the most beautiful wife, and fought the bishops of Metz and Treves together, because they did not approve of the lady; Henri VI of England riding through the walled city with his bride, Marguerite, by his side: ghostly funeral processions of dead dukes, whose strange, Oriental obsequies were famed throughout the world; younger and more splendid ghosts: Louis XIII and Richelieu entering in triumph when France had fought and won Lorraine, only to give it back by bargaining later; ghosts of stout German generals who, in 1871, had "bled the town white"; but greater than all ghosts, the noble reality of Foch and Castlenau, who saved Nancy in 1914, on the heights of La Grande Couronne.

As we walked back to the new town, dazed a little by our deep plunge into the centuries, I heard my name called from across the street. "Miss O'Malley-wait, please! It's Julian O'Farrell. Have you seen my sister?"

Brian and I stopped short, and O'Farrell joined us, panting and out of breath. "She's not with you?" he exclaimed. "I hoped she would be. I've been searching everywhere-she wasn't in the hotel when I got home, and it's close to midnight."

* * *

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