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   Chapter 13 No.13

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 25364

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


I felt unsympathetic, and wouldn't have cared if Miss Dierdre O'Farrell had flown off on a broomstick, or been kidnapped by a German aviator. My heart, however, was sure that nothing had happened and I suspected that her brother had trumped up an excuse to join us. It vexed me that Brian should show concern. If only he knew how the girl had looked at him a few hours ago!

"Couldn't they tell you in the hotel at what time she went out?" he enquired.

But no! According to O'Farrell, his sister had not been seen. He had found her door unlocked, the room empty, and her hat and coat missing. "She told me she was going to bed," he added. "But the bed hasn't been disturbed."

"Nor need you be, I think," said I. "Perhaps your sister wants to frighten you. Children love that sort of thing. It draws attention to themselves. And sometimes they don't outgrow the fancy."

"Especially Suffragettes and Sinn Feiners," O'Farrell played up to me, unoffended. "Still, as a brother of one, I'm bound to search, if it takes all night. A sister's a sister. And mine is quite a valuable asset." He tossed me this hint with a Puck-like air of a private understanding established between us. Yes, "Puck-like" describes him: a Puck at the same time merry and malicious, never to be counted upon!

"I feel that Miss O'Farrell went out to take a walk because she was restless, and perhaps not very happy," Brian reproached us both. "Something may have happened-remember we're in the war zone."

"No one in Nancy's likely to forget that!" said I, dully resenting his defence of the enemy. "Brushing bombs out of their back hair every ten minutes or so! And listen-don't you hear big guns booming now, along the front? The German lines are only sixteen kilometres from here."

Brian didn't answer. His brain was pursuing Dierdre O'Farrell, groping after her through the night. "If she went out before that air raid, while we were at the Préfet's," he suggested, "she may have had to take refuge somewhere-she may have been hurt--"

"By Jove!" Puck broke in. "It scares me when you say that. You're a-a sort-of prophet, you know! I must find out what hospitals there are--"

"We'll go with you to the hotel," Brian promised. "They'll know there about the hospitals. And if the Préfet's still up, he'll phone for us officially, I'm sure."

"It's you who are the practical one, after all!" cried O'Farrell. And I guessed from a sudden uprush of Irish accent that his anxiety had grown sincere.

We hurried home; Brian seeming almost to guide us, for without his instinct for the right way we would twice have taken a wrong turning. As we came into the Place Stanislas, still a pale oasis of moonlight, I saw standing in front of the hotel two figures, black as if cut out of velvet. One, that of a man, was singularly tall and thin, as a Mephistopheles of the stage. The other was that of a woman in a long cloak, small and slight as a child of fourteen. Dierdre O'Farrell, of course! It could be no one else. But who was the man? A dim impression that the figure was vaguely familiar, or had been familiar long ago, teased my brain. But surely I could never have seen it before.

"Hurrah! There she is!" cried O'Farrell, "alive and on her pins!"

At the sound of his voice, the velvet silhouettes stirred. They had turned to look at us, and a glint of moonlight made the two faces white and blank as masks. O'Farrell waved his hand, and I was obliged to quicken my steps to keep pace with Brian: "I suppose she got lost-serve her right!-and the beanpole has escorted her home," grumbled Puck; but as he spoke, the beanpole in question hurriedly made a gesture of salute, and stalked away with enormous strides. In an instant he was engulfed by a shadow-wave and his companion was left to meet us alone. I thought it would be like her to whisk into the hotel and vanish before we could arrive, but she did not. She stood still, with a fierce little air of defiance; and as we came near I saw that under the thrown-back cloak her left arm was in a white sling.

Her brother saw it also. "Hullo, what have you been up to?" he wanted to know. "You've given us the scare of our lives!"

"Thank you," the girl said. "Please speak for yourself!"

"He may speak for us, too," Brian assured her. "We thought of the air raid. And even now, I don't feel as if we'd been wrong. Your voice sounds as if you were in pain. You've been hurt!"

"It's nothing at all," she answered shortly, but her tone softened slightly for Brian. Even she had her human side, it seemed. "A window splintered near where I was, and I got a few bits of glass in my arm. They're out now-every one. A doctor came, and looked after me. You see, Jule!" and she nodded her head at the sling. "Now I'm going in to bed. Good-night!"

"Wait, and let my sister help you," Brian proposed. "She's a splendid nurse. I know she'll be delighted."

"Sweet of her!" sneered the girl. "But I'm a trained nurse, too, and I can take care of myself. It's only my left arm that's hurt, and a scratch at that. I don't need any help from any one."

"Was that man we saw the doctor who put you in your sling?" asked "Jule," in the blunt way brothers have of catching up their sisters.

"Yes, he was," she grudged.

"Why did he run away? Didn't he want to be thanked?"

"He did not. Besides--"

"Besides-what?"

"He particularly didn't wish to meet-one of our party. Now, I shan't say a word more about him. So you needn't ask questions. I'm tired. I want to go to bed."

With this ultimatum, she bolted into the hotel, leaving the three of us speechless for a few seconds. I suppose each was wondering, "Am I the one the doctor didn't want to meet?" Then I remembered my impression of having known that tall, thin figure long ago, and I was seized with certainty that the mysterious person had fled from me. At all events, I was sure Miss O'Farrell wished me to think so by way of being as aggravating as she possibly could.

"Well, I'm blessed!" Puck exploded.

"Are you?" I doubted. And I couldn't resist adding, "I thought your sister always did what you wanted?"

"In the end she does," he upheld his point. "But-just lately-she's bewitched! Some saint is needed to remove the ban."

I thought the saint was only too near her hand! Whether that hand would scratch or strike I couldn't guess; but one gesture was as dangerous as the other.

What with thinking of my own horridness and other people's, wondering about the shadow-man, and being roused by the usual early morning air raid, bed didn't mother me with its wonted calming influence. Excitement was a tonic for the next day, however; and a bath and coffee braced me for an expedition with the Préfet's wife and daughters, and the Becketts. They took us over the two huge casernes, turned into homes of refuge for two thousand people from the invaded towns and villages of Lorraine: old couples, young women (of course the young men are fighting), and children. We saw the skilled embroiderers embroidering, and the unskilled making sandbags for the trenches; we saw the schools; and the big girls at work upon trousseaux for their future, or happily cooking in the kitchens. We saw the gardens where the refugees tended their own growing fruit and vegetables. We saw the church-once a gymnasium-and an immense cinema theatre, decorated by the ladies of Nancy, with the Préfet's wife and daughters at their head. On the way home we dropped into the biggest of Nancy's beautiful shops, to behold the work of last night's bombs. The whole skylight-roof had been smashed at dawn; but the glass had been swept away, and pretty girls were selling pretty hats and frocks as if nothing had happened-except that the wind of heaven was blowing their hair across their smiling eyes.

After luncheon at which Dierdre O'Farrell didn't appear, the Préfet took us to the streets which had suffered most from the big gun bombardment-fine old houses destroyed with a completeness of which the wickedest aeroplane bombs are incapable. "Any minute they may begin again," the Préfet said. "But sufficient for the day! We suffered so much in a few hours three years ago, that nothing which has happened to us since has counted. Nancy was saved for us, to have and hold. Wounded she might be, and we also. But she was saved. We could bear the rest."

We made him tell us about those "few hours" of suffering: and this was the story. It was on the 7th of September, 1914, when the fate of Nancy hung in the balance. An immense horde of Germans came pouring along the Seille, crossing the river by four bridges: Chambley, Moncel, Brin, and Bioncourt. Everyone knew that the order was to take Nancy at any price, and open the town for the Kaiser to march in, triumphant, as did Louis XIII of France centuries ago. William was said to be waiting with 10,000 men of the Prussian Guard, in the wood of Morel, ready for his moment. Furiously the Germans worked to place their huge cannon on the hills of Doncourt, Bourthecourt, and Rozebois. Villages burned like card houses. Church bells tolled as their towers rocked and fell. Forests blazed, and a rain of bombs poured over the country from clouds of flame and smoke. Amance was lost, and with it hope also; for beyond, the road lay open for a rush on Nancy, seemingly past the power of man to defend. Still, man did defend! If the French could hold out against ten times their number for a few hours, there was one chance in a thousand that reinforcements might arrive. After Velaine fell next day, and the defile between the two mountain-hills of Amance swarmed with yelling Uhlans, the French still held. They did not hope, but they fought. How they fought! And at the breaking point, as if by miracle, appeared the reinforcing tirailleurs.

"This," said the Préfet, "was only one episode in the greatest battle ever fought for Nancy, but it was the episode in which the town was saved.

"You know," he went on, "that Lorrainers have been ardent Catholics for centuries. In the Church of Bon-Secours there's a virgin which the people credit with miraculous power. Many soldiers in the worst of the fighting were sure of victory, because the virgin had promised that never should Nancy be taken again by any enemy whatever."

It was late when we came back to the hotel, and while I was translating the Becketts' gratitude into French for the Préfet, the O'Farrells arrived from another direction. The brother looked pleased to see us; the sister looked distressed. I fancied that she had been forced or persuaded to point out the scene of last night's adventure, and was returning chastened from the visit. To introduce her to the Préfet was like introducing a dog as it strains at the leash, but Puck performed the rite, and explained her sling.

"Hurt in the air raid?" the Préfet echoed. "I hope, Mademoiselle, that you went to a good doctor. That he--"

"The doctor came to her on the spot," replied Puck, in his perfect French. "It seems you have doctors at Nancy who walk the streets, when there's a raid, wandering about to pick up jobs, and refusing payment."

The Préfet laughed. "Can it be," he exclaimed, "that Mademoiselle has been treated by the Wandering Jew? Oh, not the original character, but an extraordinary fellow who has earned that name in our neighbourhood since the war."

"Was that what he called himself?" O'Farrell turned to Dierdre. I guessed that Puck's public revelations were vengeance upon her for unanswered questions.

"He called himself nothing at all," the girl replied.

"Ah," said the Préfet, "then he was the Wandering Jew! Let me see-I think you are planning to go to Gerbéviller and Lunéville and Vitrimont to-morrow. Most likely you'll meet him at one of those places. And when you hear his story, you'll understand why he haunts the neighbourhood like a beneficent spirit."

"But must we wait to hear the story? Please tell us now," I pleaded. "I'm so curious!"

This was true. I burned with curiosity. Also, fatty degeneration of the heart prompted me to annoy Dierdre O'Farrell. To spite me, she had refused to talk of the doctor. I was determined to hear all about him to spite her. You see to what a low level I have fallen, dear Padre!

The Préfet said that if we would go home with him and have tea in the garden (German aeroplanes permitting) he would tell us the tale of the Wandering Jew. We all accepted, save Dierdre, who began to stammer an excuse; but a look from her brother nipped it in the bud. He certainly has an influence over the girl, against which she struggles only at her strongest. To-day she looked pale and weak

, and he could do what he liked with her.

He liked to make her take tea at the Préfet's, doubtless because he'd have felt bound to escort the invalid to her room, had she insisted on going there!

The story of the Wandering Jew would be a strange one, anywhere and anyhow. But it's more than strange to me, because it is linked with my past life. Still, I won't tell it from my point of view. I'll begin with the Préfet's version.

The "Wandering Jew" really is a Jew, of the best and most intellectual type. His name is Paul Herter. His father was a man of Metz, who had brought to German Lorraine a wife from Lunéville. Paul is thirty-five now, so you see he wasn't born when the Metz part of Lorraine became German. His parents-French at heart-taught him secretly to love France, and hate German domination. As he grew up, Paul's ambition was to be a great surgeon. He wished to study, not in Germany, but in Paris and London. These hopes, however, were of the "stuff that dreams are made of," for when the father died, the boy had to work at anything he could get for a bare livelihood. It wasn't till he was over twenty-five that he'd scraped together money for the first step toward his career. He went to Paris: studied and starved; then to London. It was there I met him, but that bit of the story fits in later. He was thought well of at "Bart's," and everybody who knew him was surprised when suddenly he married one of the younger nurses, an English girl, and vanished with her from London. Presently the pair appeared in Metz, at the mother's house. Herter seemed sad and discouraged, uncertain of his future, and just at this time, through German Lorraine ran rumours of war "to begin when the harvests should be over." Paul and his mother took counsel. Both were French at heart. They determined to leave all they had in the world at Metz, rather than Paul should be called up to serve Prussia. The three contrived to cross the frontier. Paul offered himself to the Foreign Legion; his wife volunteered to nurse in a military hospital at Nancy; and Madame Herter, mère took refuge in her girlhood's home at Lunéville, where her old father still lived.

Then came the rush of the Huns across the frontier. Paul's wife was killed by a Zeppelin bomb which wrecked her hospital. At Lunéville the mother and grandfather perished in their own house, burned to the ground by order of the Bavarian colonel, Von Fosbender.

Paul Herter had not been in love with his wife. There was a mystery about the marriage, but her fate filled him with rage and horror. His mother he had adored, and the news of her martyrdom came near to driving him insane. In the madness of grief he vowed vengeance against all Bavarians who might fall into his hands.

He was fighting then in the Legion; but shortly after he was gravely wounded. His left foot had to be amputated; and from serving France as a soldier, he began to serve as a surgeon. He developed astonishing skill in throat and chest operations, succeeding in some which older and more experienced men refused to attempt. Months passed, and into his busy life had never come the wished-for chance of vengeance; but all who knew him knew that Herter's hatred of Bavarians was an obsession. He was not one who would forget; and when a lot of seriously wounded Bavarians came into the field-hospital where he was at work, the two young doctors under him looked one another in the eyes. Even the stretcher-bearers had heard of Herter's vow, but there was nothing to do save to bring in the stream of wounded, and trust the calm instinct of the surgeon to control the hot blood of the man. Still, the air was electric with suspense, and heavy with dread of some vague tragedy: disgrace for the hospital, ruin for Herter.

But the Jewish surgeon (he wasn't called "the Wandering Jew" in those days) caught the telepathic message of fear, and laughed grimly at what men were thinking of him. "You need not be afraid," he said to his assistants. "These canaille are sacred for me. They do not count as Bavarians."

Nevertheless, the young doctors would have tended the wounded prisoners themselves, leaving Herter to care for his countrymen alone. But one of the Bavarians was beyond their skill: a young lieutenant. His wound was precisely "Herter's specialty"-a bullet lodged in the heart, if he was to be saved, Herter alone could save him. Would Herter operate? He had only to say the case was hopeless, and refuse to waste upon it time needed for others.

Perhaps he knew what suspicion would dog him through life if he gave this verdict. At all events, he chose to operate. "Bring me the brute," he growled: and reluctantly the brute was brought-a very youthful brute, with a face of such angelic charm that even Herter was struck by it. He had steeled himself to get through a hateful job; but for him-like most men of his race-beauty held a strong appeal. Suddenly he wished to save the boy with the fair curly hair and arched dark brows. Here was a German-a Bavarian-who could have no vileness in him yet!

The surgeon got ready his instruments for the operation, which must be done quickly, if at all. The boy was unconscious, but every moment or two he broke out in convulsive delirium, giving answers to questions like a man talking in sleep. "Hilda! Hilda!" he cried again and again. "My Hilda, do not ask me that. Thou wouldst not love me if I told thee! Thou wouldst hate me forever!"

"What have you done that Hilda should hate you?" Paul enquired, as he waited for the an?sthetic. Ether was running short. The wounded had to take their turn that day.

"Lunéville! Lunéville!" shrieked the Bavarian.

Everyone heard the cry. The two young doctors, knowing Herter's history, turned sick. This was worse than their worst fears! But they could do nothing. To speak, to try to act, would be to insult the surgeon. They saw that he was ghastly pale. "What happened at Lunéville?" he went on.

"Here is the ether," a voice spoke in haste. But Paul heard only the Bavarian.

"Oh, God, the old woman! Her face at the window. I can't forget. Hilda-she wouldn't come out. It wasn't my fault. The Colonel's orders. An old man, too. We saw them in the fire. We had to pass on. Hilda, forgive!"

"Was it a corner house of the Rue Princesse Marie?" asked Herter.

"Yes-yes, a corner house," groaned the boy of the beautiful face.

Herter gave a sign to the man who had brought the ether. A moment more, and the ravings of the Bavarian were silenced. The operation began.

The others had their hands full of their own work, yet with a kind of agonized clairvoyance they were conscious of all that Herter did. The same thought was in the minds of both young doctors. They exchanged impressions afterward. "He'll cut the boy's heart out and tread it underfoot!"

But never had the Jewish surgeon from Metz performed a major operation with more coolness or more perfect skill. Had he chosen to let his wrist tremble at the critical second, revenge would easily have been his. But awaiting the instant between one beat of the heart and another, he seized the shred of shrapnel lodged there, and closed up the throbbing breast. The boy would live. He had not only spared, but saved, the life of one who was perhaps his mother's murderer.

During the whole day he worked on untiringly and-it seemed-unmoved. Then, at the end of the last operation, he dropped as if he had been shot through the brain.

This was the beginning of a long, peculiar illness which no doctor who attended him could satisfactorily diagnose. He was constantly delirious, repeating the words of the Bavarian: "Hilda-Hilda!-the corner house-Rue Princesse Marie-Lunéville!" and it was feared that, if he recovered, he would be insane. After many weeks, however, he came slowly back to himself-a changed self, but a sane self. Always odd in his appearance-very tall and dark and thin-he had wasted to a walking skeleton, and his black hair had turned snow-white. He had lost his self-confidence, and dreaded to take up work again lest he should fail in some delicate operation. Long leave was granted, and he was advised by doctors who were his friends to go south, to sunshine and peace. But Herter insisted that the one hope for ultimate cure was to stay in Lorraine. He took up his quarters in what was left of a house near the ruin of his mother's old home, in Lunéville, but he was never there for long at a time. He was provided with a pass to go and come as he liked, being greatly respected and pitied at headquarters; and wherever there was an air raid, there speedily and mysteriously appeared Paul Herter among the victims.

His artificial foot did not prevent his riding a motor-bicycle, and on this he arrived, no matter at what hour of night or day, at any town within fifty miles of Lunéville, when enemy airmen had been at work. He gave his services unpaid to poor and rich alike; and owing to the dearth of doctors not mobilized, the towns concerned welcomed him thankfully. All the surgeon's serene confidence in himself returned in these emergencies, and he was doing invaluable work. People were grateful, but the man's ways and looks were so strange, his restlessness so tragic, that they dubbed him "le Juif Errant."

Now, Padre, I have come to the right place to bring in my part of this story.

While I was training at "Bart's," I met a doctor named Paul Herter. Some of the girls used to call him the "German Jew" but we all knew that his Germanness was only an accident of fate, through a war before he was born, and that he was passionately French at heart. He was clever-a genius-but moody and queer, and striking to look at. He would have been ugly but for a pair of beautiful brown eyes, wistful sometimes as a dog's. One of our nurses was in love with him, but he used to keep out of her way when he could. He was said not to care for women, and I was a little flattered that a man so well thought of "at the top" should take notice of me. When I look back on myself, I seem to have been very young then!

Dr. Herter used to meet me, as if by accident, when I was off duty, and we went for long walks, talking French together; I enjoyed that! Besides, there was nothing the man didn't know. He was a kind of encyclop?dia of all the great musicians and artists of the world since the Middle Ages; and was so much older than I, that I didn't think about his falling in love. I knew I was pretty, and that beauty of all sorts was a cult with him. I supposed that he liked looking at me-and that his fancy would end there. But it didn't. There came a dreadful day when he accused me of encouraging him purposely, of leading him on to believe that I cared. This was a real shock. I was sorry-sorry! But he said such horrid things that I was hurt and angry, too. I said horrid things in my turn. This scene happened in the street. I asked him to leave me, and he did at once, without looking back. I can see him now, striding off in the twilight! No wonder the tall black silhouette in the Place Stanislas looked familiar. But the man is thinner now, and walks with a slight limp.

The next thing I heard of him after our break was that he'd married Nurse Norman (the one who was in love with him) and that they'd left England. Whether he'd married the girl in a rage against me, or because he was sorry for her (she'd just then fallen into deep disgrace, through giving a patient the wrong medicine), I didn't know. I can't say I didn't care, for I often thought of the man and wondered what had become of him, though I don't remember ever writing about him to you. He was but indirectly concerned with my life, and maybe it was in the back of my mind that I might get a scolding from you if I told you the tale.

The moment the name of "Paul Herter" was mentioned in that pleasant garden at Nancy, the whole episode of those old days at "Bart's" came back, and I guessed why the tall figure had darted away from Dierdre O'Farrell as we came in sight. He must have offered to see the girl safely home, after dressing her wound (probably at some chemist's), and she had told him about her fellow-travellers. Naturally my name sent him flying like a shot from a seventy-five! But I can't help hoping we may meet by accident. There's a halo round the man's head for me since I've heard that tragic story. Before, he was only a queer genius. Now, he's a hero. Will he turn away, I wonder, if I walk up to him and hold out my hand?

I am longing, for a double reason, to see Vitrimont and Gerbéviller and Lunéville, since I've learned that at one of those places Paul Herter may appear.

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