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   Chapter 15 No.15

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13487

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Dierdre O'Farrell and I were sitting side by side, our backs to the door, so it was only as we turned that Herter could have recognized us. He had no scruple in showing that I was the last person he wished to meet. One look was enough for him! His pale face-changed and aged since London-flushed a dark and violent red. Backing out into the hall he banged the door.

My ears tingled as if they had been boxed. I suppose I've been rather spoiled by men. Anyhow, not one ever before ran away at sight of me, as if I were Medusa. I'd been hoping that Doctor Paul and I might meet and make friends, so this was a blow: and it hurt a little that Dierdre O'Farrell should see me thus snubbed. I glanced at her; and her faint smile told that she understood.

S?ur Julie was bewildered for a second, but recovered herself to explain that Doctor Herter was eccentric and shy of strangers. He came often from Lunéville to Gerbéviller to tend the poor, refusing payment, and was so good at heart that we must forgive his odd ways.

"Spurlos versnubt!" I heard Puck chuckling to himself; so he, too, was in the secret of the situation. I half expected him to pretend ingenuousness, and spring the tale of Dierdre's adventure with Herter on the company. But he preserved a discreet reticence, more for his own sake than mine or his sister's, of course. He's as lazy as he is impish, except when there's some special object to gain, and probably he wished to avoid the bother of explanations. As for Brian, his extreme sensitiveness is better than studied tact. I'm sure he felt magnetically that Dierdre O'Farrell shrank from a reference to her part in the night air raid. But his silence puzzled her, and I saw her studying him-more curiously than gratefully, I thought.

We had heard the end of S?ur Julie's story, and had no further excuse to keep her tied to the duties of hostess. When the Becketts had left something for the poor of the hospice, we bade the heroine of Gerbéviller farewell, and started out to regain our automobiles, Julian O'Farrell suddenly appearing at my side.

"Don't make an excuse that you must walk with your brother," he said. "He's all right with Dierdre; perhaps just as happy as with you! One does want a change from the best of sisters now and then."

"Mrs. Beckett--" I began.

"Mrs. Beckett is discussing with Mr. Beckett what they can do for Gerbéviller, and they'll ask your advice when they want it. No use worrying. They've boodle enough for all their charities, and for the shorn lambs, too."

"Do you call yourself a shorn lamb?" I sniffed.

"Certainly. Don't I look it? Good heavens, girl, you needn't basilisk me so, to see if I do! You glare as if I were some kind of abnormal beast eating with its eyes, or winking with its mouth."

"You do wink with your mouth," I said.

You mean I lie? All romantic natures embroider truth. I have a romantic nature. It's growing more romantic every minute since I met you. I started this adventure for what I could get out of it. I'm going on to the end, bitter or sweet, for les beaux yeux of Mary O'Malley. I don't grudge you the Becketts' blessing, but I don't know why it shouldn't be bestowed on us both, with Dierdre and Brian in the background throwing flowers. You didn't love Jim Beckett, for the very good reason that you never met him: so, if you owe no more debts than those you owe his memory, you're luckier than--"

It was not I who cut his words short, though I was on the point of breaking in. Perhaps I should have flung at him the truth about Jim Beckett if something had not happened to snatch my thoughts from O'Farrell and his impudence. We had just passed the quarter of the town saved by S?ur Julie, when out from the gaping doorway of a ruined house stepped Paul Herter.

He came straight to me, ignoring my companion.

"I was waiting for you," he said. "Will you walk on a little way with me? There are things I should like to speak about."

All the hurt anger I had felt was gone like the shadow of a flitting cloud. "Oh, yes!" I exclaimed. "I shall be very, very glad."

Whether O'Farrell had the grace to drop behind, or whether I pushed ahead I don't know, but next moment Doctor Herter and I were pacing along, side by side, keeping well ahead of the others, in spite of his limp.

"I thought I never wanted to see you again, Mary O'Malley," he said; "but that glimpse I had, in the hospice, showed me my mistake. I couldn't stand it to be so near and let you go out of my life without a word-not after seeing your face."

"It makes me happy to hear that," I answered. "I was disappointed when you avoided me the other night, and-hurt to-day when you slammed the door."

"How did you know I avoided you? The girl promised to hold her tongue."

"She kept her promise. She was pleased to keep it, because she dislikes me. But I heard your name next day and understood. I-I heard other things, too. If you wouldn't be angry, I should like to tell you how I--"

"Don't tell me."

"I won't then. But I feel very strongly. And you will let me tell you how grieved I should have been, if-if that slammed door had been the end between us."

"The end between us was long ago."

"Not in my thoughts, for I never meant to hurt you. I never stopped being your friend, in spite of all the unkind, unjust things you said to me. I'm proud now that I had your friendship once, even if I haven't it now."

"You had everything there was in me-except friendship. Now, of that everything, only ashes are left. The fires have burnt out. You've heard what I suppose they call my story, so you know why. If those fires weren't dead, I shouldn't have dared trust myself to risk this talk with you. As it is-I let your eyes call me back. Not that they called consciously. It was the past that called--"

"They would have called consciously if you'd given them time!" I ventured to smile at him, with a look that asked for kindness. He did not smile back, but he did not frown. His deep-set eyes, in their hollow sockets, gazed at me as if they were memorizing each feature.

"You're lovelier than ever, Mary," he said. "There's something different about your face. You've suffered."

"My brother is blind."

"Ah! There's more than that."

"Yes."

"You loved the son of these rich people the girl told me about? She says you didn't love him, but she's wrong-isn't she?"

"She's wrong. She knows about things I've done, but nothing about what I think or feel. I did love Jim Beckett, Doctor Paul. You don't mind being called by the old name? I've learned how it hurts to love."

"That will do you no harm, Mary. I can speak with you about such things now, for the spirit of a dead woman stands between

us. I didn't love her when she was alive. But if I hadn't married her and brought her to France she'd be living now. She died through me-and for me. I think of her with immense tenderness and-a kind of loyalty; a fierce loyalty. I don't know if you understand."

"Indeed I do! I almost envy her that brave death."

"We won't talk of her any more now," Herter said with a sigh. "I've a feeling she wouldn't like us to discuss her, together. She used to be-jealous of you, poor girl! There are other things I wanted to say. The first-but you've guessed it already!-is this: the minute I looked into your face, there in the hospice, I forgave you the pain you made me suffer. In the first shock of meeting your eyes, I didn't realize that I'd forgiven. It wasn't till I'd slammed the door that I knew."

I didn't repeat that I had not purposely done anything which needed forgiveness. I only looked at him with all the kindness and pity in my heart, and waited until he should go on.

"The second thing I wanted to say is, that just the one look told me you weren't happy and gay as you used to be. When I'd shut the door, I could still see you clearly, as if I had the power to look through the wood. I said to myself, that girl's eyes have got the sadness of the whole world in them. They seem as if they were begging for help, and didn't know where on earth it was coming from. Was that a true impression? I waited to ask you this, even more than to see you again."

"It is true," I confessed. "There's only this difference between my feelings and your impression of them. I know there's no help on earth for me. Such help as there is, I get from another place. Do you remember how I used to talk about the dear Padre who was our guardian-my brother's and mine-and how I told him nearly everything good and bad that I thought or did? Well, he went to the front as a chaplain and he has been killed. But I go on writing him letters, exactly as if he could give me advice and comfort, or scold me in the old way."

"What about your brother? The girl-Miss O'Farrell she called herself, I think-said he was with you on this journey. And to-day I recognized him at S?ur Julie's, from his likeness to you. I shouldn't have guessed he was blind. He has a beautiful face. Do you get no comfort from him?"

"Much comfort from his presence and love," I said. "But I try to keep him happy. I don't bother him with my troubles. I won't even let him talk of them. They're taboo."

"I wish I could help you!" Herter exclaimed.

"Your wish is a help."

"Ah, but I'd like to give more than that! I'm going away-that's the third thing I wanted to tell you. A little while ago I was glad to be going (so far as it's in me, nowadays, to be glad of anything) because I-I've been given a sort of-mission. Since we've had this talk, I'd put off going if I could. But I can't. Is your brother's case past cure?"

"It's not absolutely hopeless. Doctor Paul, this is a confidence! It's to try and cure him that I'm with the Becketts. He doesn't know-and I can't explain more to you. But a specialist in Paris ordered Brian a life in the open air, and as much pleasure and interest as possible. You see, it's the optic nerve that was paralyzed in a strange way by shell shock. Some day Brian's sight may-just possibly may-come back all of a sudden."

"Ah, that's interesting. I'm not an oculist, but I know one or two of the best men, who have made great reputations since this war. Who was your specialist in Paris?"

I told him.

"A good man," he pronounced, "but I have a friend who is better. I'll write you a letter to him. You can send it if you choose. That's one service I can do for you, Mary. It may prove a big one. But I wish there were something else-something for you, yourself. Maybe there will be one day. Who can tell? If that day comes, I shan't be found wanting or forgetful."

"It's worth a lot to have met you and had this talk," I said. "It's been like a warm fire to cold hands. I do hope, dear Doctor Paul, that you're not going on a dangerous mission?"

He laughed-the quaint laugh I remembered, like a crackling of dry brushwood. "No more danger for me in it than there is for a bit of toasted cheese in a rat-trap."

"What a queer comparison!" I said. "It sounds as if you were going to be a bait to deceive a rat."

"Multiply the singular into the plural, and your quick wit has deciphered my parable."

"I'm afraid my wit doesn't deserve the compliment. I can't imagine what your mission really is. Unless--"

"Unless-what? No! Don't let us go any further. Because I mustn't tell you more, even if you should happen to guess. I've told you almost too much already. But confidence for confidence. You gave me one. Consider that I've confided something to you in return. There's just a millionth chance that my mission-whatever it is-may make me of use to you. Give me an address that will find you always, and then-I must be going. I have to return to the hospice and see some patients. No need to write the directions. Better not, in fact. I shall have no difficulty in remembering anything that concerns you, even the most complicated address."

"It's not complicated," I laughed; and gave him the name of the Paris bankers in whose care the Becketts allow Brian and me to have letters sent-Morgan Harjes.

He repeated the address after me, and then stopped, holding out his hand. "That's all," he said abruptly. "I shall be glad, whatever happens, that I waited, and had this talk with you. Good-bye."

"Good-bye-and good luck in the mission," I echoed.

He pressed my hand so hard that it hurt, and with one last look turned away. He did not go far, however, but stopped on his way back to ask Dierdre O'Farrell about her arm. She and Brian (Puck had joined the Becketts) were only a few paces behind me, and pausing involuntarily I heard what was said. It was easy to see that Dierdre wished me to hear her part.

"My arm is going on very well," she informed her benefactor. "I thank you again for your kindness in attending to it. But I don't think it was kind to order me to keep a secret, and then give it away yourself. You made me seem an-ungracious pig and a fool. I shouldn't mind that, if it did you good, in return for the good you've done me. But since it was for nothing--"

"I apologize," Herter broke in. "I meant what I said then. But a power outside myself was too strong for me. Maybe it will be the same for you some day. Meanwhile, don't make the mistake I made: don't do other people an injustice."

Leaving Dierdre at bay between anger and amazement, he stared with professional eagerness into Brian's sightless eyes, and stalked off toward the hospice.

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