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   Chapter 17 No.17

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 23489

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Father Beckett must have suffered dark hours of reaction after seeing those soldier-sons of American fathers, if there had been time to think. But we flashed back to Nancy in haste, for a late dinner and adieux to our friends. Brian and I snatched the story of our day's adventure from his mouth for Mother Beckett; and luckily he was too tired to give her a new version. I heard in the morning that he had slept through an air raid!

I, too, was tired, and for the same reason: but I could not sleep. Waking dreams marched through my mind-dreams of Jim as he must have looked in khaki, dreams which made an air raid more or less seem unimportant. As the clocks of Nancy told the hours, I was in a mood for the first time since Gerbéviller to puzzle out the meaning of Paul Herter's parable.

What had he meant by saying that his mission would be no more dangerous than a rat-trap for a bit of toasted cheese?

I had exclaimed, "That sounds as if you were to bait the trap!" but he had not encouraged me to guess. And there had been so much else to think of, just then! His offer of introductions to specialists for Brian had appealed to me more than a vague suggestion of service to myself "some day."

But now, through the darkness of night, a ray like a searchlight struck clear upon his cryptic hint.

Somehow, Herter hoped to get across the frontier into Germany! His question, whether I had loved Jim Beckett, was not an idle one. He had not asked it through mere curiosity, or because he was jealous of the dead. His idea was that, if I had deeply cared for Jim, I should be glad to know how he had died, and where his body lay. Germany was the one place where the mystery could be solved. I realized suddenly that Doctor Paul expected "some day" to be in a position to solve it.

"He's going into Germany as a spy," I said to myself. "He's a man of German Lorraine. German is his native language. Legally he's a German subject. He'll only have to pretend that he was caught by accident in France when the war broke out-and that at last he has escaped. All that may be easy if there are no spies to give him away-to tell what he's been doing in France since 1914. The trouble will be when he wants to come back."

I wished that I could have seen the man again, to have bidden him a better farewell, to have told him I'd pray for his success. But now it was too late. Already he must have set off on his "mission," and we were to start in the morning for Verdun.

The thought of Verdun alone was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the night, to say nothing of air raids and speculations about Doctor Paul. It seemed almost too strange to be true that we were to see Verdun-Verdun, where month after month beat the heart of the world.

The O'Farrells had not got permission for Verdun, nor for Rheims, where we of the great gray car were going next. Still more than our glimpse of the trenches were these two places "extra special." The brother and sister were to start with us from Nancy, but we (the Becketts, Brian, and I) were to part from them at Bar-le-Duc, where we would be met by an officer from Verdun. Two days later, we were to meet again at Paris, and continue-as Puck impudently put it-"our r?le of ministering angels," along the Noyon front and beyond.

This programme was settled when-through influence at Nancy-Father Beckett's passes for four had been extended to Verdun and Rheims. I breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of two more days without the O'Farrells; and all that's Irish in me trusted to luck that "something might happen" to part us forever. Why not? The Red Cross taxi might break down (it looked ready to shake to pieces any minute!). Dierdre might be taken ill (no marble statue could be paler!). Or the pair might be arrested by the military police as dangerous spies. (Really, I wouldn't "put it past" them!). But my secret hopes were rudely jangled with my first sight of Brian on the Verdun morning.

"Molly, I hope you won't mind," he said, "but I've promised O'Farrell to go with them and meet you in Paris to-morrow night. I've already spoken to Mr. Beckett and he approves."

"This comes of my being ten minutes late!" I almost-not quite-cried aloud. I'd hardly closed my eyes all night, but had fallen into a doze at dawn and overslept myself. Meanwhile the O'Farrell faction had got in its deadly work!

I was angry and disgusted, yet-as usual where that devil of a Puck was concerned-I had the impulse to laugh. It was as if he'd put his finger to his nose and chuckled in impish glee: "You hope to get rid of us, do you, you minx? Well, I'll show you!" But I should be playing his game if I lost my temper.

"Why do the O'Farrells want you to go with them?" I "camouflaged" my rage.

"It's Julian who wants me," explained the dear boy. (Oh, it had come to Christian names!) "It seems Miss O'Farrell has taken it into her head that none of us likes her, and that we've arranged this way to get rid of them both-letting them down easily and making some excuse not to start again together from Paris. O'Farrell thought if I'd offer to go with them and sit in the back of the car while he drove I could persuade her--"

"Well, I don't envy any one the task of persuading that girl to believe a thing she doesn't wish to believe," I exploded. "My private opinion is, though, that her brother's sister needs no persuading. The two of them want to show me that they have power--"

Brian broke in with a laugh. "My child, you see things through a magnifying glass! Is your blind brother a prize worth squabbling over? I can be of use to the Becketts, it's true, when we travel without a military escort, or with one young officer who knows more about seventy-fives than about the romance of history. I can tell them what I've read and what I've seen. But at Verdun you'll be in the society of generals; and at Rheims of as many dignitaries as haven't been bombarded out of town. The Becketts don't need me. Perhaps Miss O'Farrell does."

"Perhaps!" I repeated.

Brian can see twice as much as those who have eyes, but he would not see my sarcasm. Just then, however, Mrs. Beckett joined us in the hall of the hotel, where we stood ready to start-all having breakfasted in our own rooms. She guessed from my face that I was not pleased with Brian's plan.

"My dear, I'd go myself with poor little Dierdre O'Farrell instead of Brian!" she said. "Verdun isn't one of Jim's towns. Rheims is-but I'd have sacrificed it. There can't be much left there to see. Only-two whole days! Father and I haven't been parted so long in our lives since we were married. I thought yesterday, when you were away in those trenches, what a coward I'd been not to insist on going, and what if I never saw Father again! I hope you don't think I'm too selfish!"

Poor darling, selfish to travel in her own car with her own husband! I just gave her a look to show what I felt; but after that I could no longer object to parting with Brian. Puck had got his way, and I could see by the light in his annoyingly beautiful eyes how exquisitely he enjoyed the situation. Brian and Brian's kitbag were transferred to the Red Cross taxi, there and then, to save delay for us and the officer who would meet us, in case the wretched car should get a panne, en route to Bar-le-Duc. As a matter of fact, that is what happened; or at all events when our big, reliable motor purred with us into Bar-le-Duc, the O'Farrells were nowhere to be seen.

Our officer-another lieutenant-had arrived in a little Ford; and as we were invited to lunch in the citadel of Verdun we could not wait. I felt sure the demon Puck had managed to be late on purpose, so that my Verdun day might be spoiled by anxiety for Brian. Thus he would kill two birds with one stone: show how little I gained by the enemy's absence, and punish me for not letting him make love!

The road to Verdun was a wonderful prelude. After three years' Titanic battling, how could there be a road at all? I had had vague visions of an earthly turmoil, a wilderness of shell-holes where once had gleamed rich meadows and vineyards, with little villages set jewel-like among them, and the visions were true. But through the war-worn desert always the road unrolled-the brave white road. Heaven alone could tell the deeds of valour which had achieved the impossible, making and remaking that road! It should have some great poem all to itself, I thought; a poem called "The Road to Verdun." And the poem should be set to music. I could almost hear the lilt of the verses as our car slipped through the tangle of motor camions and gun-carriages on the way thither. As for the music, I could really hear that without flight of fancy: a deep, rolling undertone of heavy wheels, of jolting guns, of pulsing engines, like a million beating hearts; and out of its muffled bass rising the lighter music of men's voices: soldiers singing; soldiers going to the front, who shouted gaily to soldiers going to repose; soldiers laughing; soldier-music that no hardship or suffering could subdue.

We had seen such processions before, but none so endless as this, going both ways, as far as the eye could reach. We had seen no such tremendous parks of artillery and aviation by the roadside, no such store of shells for big guns and little guns, no such pyramids of grenades for trenches and aeroplanes. We were engulfed in war, swallowed up in war. It was thrilling beyond words.

But all the road flashed bright with thrills. There was a thrill at "le Bois de Regrets," forest of dark regret for the Prussians of 1792, where the French turned them back-the forest which Goethe saw: a thrill more keen for the pointing sign, "Metz, 47 kilomètres," which reminded us that less than thirty miles separated us from the great German stronghold, yet-"on ne passera pas!" And the deepest thrill of all at the words of our guide: "Voilà la porte de Verdun! Nous y sommes."

Turning off the road, we stopped our car and the little Ford to look up and worship. There it rose before us, ancient pile of gray stones, altar of history and triumph, Verodunum of Rome, city of warlike, almost royal bishops and rich burghers: town of treaties, sacked by Barbarians; owned and given up by Germans; seized by Prussians when the French had spiked their guns in 1870; and now forever a monument to the immortal manhood of France!

Perhaps it was the mist in my eyes, but at first sight Verdun did not look ruined, as I saw it towering up to its citadel in massive strength and stern dignity. The old houses on the slope stood shoulder to shoulder and back to back, like massed men fighting their last stand. It was only when we had started on again, and passing through the gate had slipped into the sorrowful intimacy of the streets, that Verdun let us see her glorious rags and scars.

You would think that one devastated town would be much like another to look at save for size. But no! I am learning that each has some arresting claim of its own to sacred remembrance. Nancy has had big buildings knocked down like card houses by occasional bombardment of great guns. Sermaize, Gerbéviller, Vitrimont and twenty other places we have seen were thoroughly looted by the Germans and then burned, street by street. But Verdun has been bombarded every day for weeks and months and years. The town is a royal skeleton, erect and on its feet, its jewelled sceptre damaged, but still grasped in a fleshless hand. The Germans have never got near enough to steal!

"You see," said the smart young captain who had come out to meet us at the gate and take us to the citadel, "you see, nothing has been touched in these houses since the owners had to go.

When they return from their places of refuge far away, they will find everything as they left it-that is, as the Boche guns have left it."

Only too easy was it to see! In some of the streets whole rows of houses had had their fronts torn off. The rooms within were like stage-settings for some tragic play. Sheets and blankets trailed from beds where sleepers had waked in fright. Doors of wardrobes gaped to show dresses dangling forlornly, like Bluebeard's murdered brides. Dinner-tables were set out for meals never to be finished, save by rats. Family portraits of comfortable old faces smiling under broken glass hung awry on pink or blue papered walls. Half-made shirts and petticoats were still caught by the needle in broken sewing-machines. Dropped books and baskets of knitting lay on bright carpets snowed under by fallen plaster. Vases of dead flowers stood on mantelpieces, ghostly stems and shrivelled brown leaves reflected in gilt-framed mirrors. I could hardly bear to look! It was like being shown by a hard-hearted surgeon the beating of a brain through the sawed hole in a man's skull. If one could have crawled through the crust of lava at Pompeii, a year after the eruption, one might have felt somewhat as at Verdun now!

On a broken terrace, once a beloved evening promenade, our two cars paused. We got out and gazed down, down over the River Meuse, from a high vantage-point where a few months ago, we should have been blown to bits, in five minutes. Our two officers pointed out in the misty autumn landscape spots where some of the fiercest and most famous fights had been. How the names they rattled off brought back anxious nights and mornings when our first and only thoughts had been the communiqués! "Desperate battle on the Meuse." "Splendid stand at Douaumont." "New attack on Morthomme." But nothing we saw helped out our imaginings. There was just a vast stretch of desolation where vinelands once had poured their perfume to the sun. The forts protecting Verdun were as invisible as fairyland, I said. "As invisible as hell!" one of our guides amended. And then to me, in a low voice unheard by pale and trembling Mother Beckett, he added, "If Nature did not work to make ugly things invisible, we could not let you come here, Mademoiselle. See how high the grass has grown in the plain down there! In summer it is full of poppies, red as the blood that feeds their roots. And it is only the grasses and the poppies that hide the bones of men we've never yet put underground. Nature has been one of our chief sextons, here at Verdun. I wish you could have seen the poppies a few months ago, mixed with blue marguerites and cornflowers-that we call 'bluets.' We used to say that our dead were lying in state under the tricolour flag of France. But I have made you sad, Mademoiselle. Je regrette! We must take you quickly to the citadel. Our general will not let you be sad there."

We turned from the view over the Meuse and walked away in silence. I thought I had never heard so loud, so thunderously echoing, a silence in my life.

Oh, no, it was not sad in the citadel! It was, on the contrary, very gay, of a gaiety so gallant and so pathetic that it brought a lump to the throat when there should have been a laugh on the lips. But the lump had to be swallowed, or our hosts' feelings would be hurt. They didn't want watery-eyed, full-throated guests at a luncheon worthy of bright smiles and keen appetites!

* * *

The first thing that happened to Mother Beckett and me in the famous fortress was to be shown into a room decorated as a ladies' boudoir. All had been done, we were told almost timidly, in our honour, even the frescoes on the walls, painted in record time by a young lieutenant, who was an artist; and the officers hoped that they had forgotten nothing we might need. We could both have cried, if we hadn't feared to spoil our eyes and redden our noses! But even if we'd not been strong enough to stifle our tears, there was everything at hand to repair their ravages. And all this in a place where the Revolution had sent fourteen lovely ladies to the guillotine for servilely begging the King of Prussia to spare Verdun.

The lieutenant who met us at Bar-le-Duc had rushed there in advance of us, in order to shop with frantic haste. A long list must have been compiled after "mature deliberation"-as they say in courts-martial-otherwise any normal young man would have missed out something. In the tiny, subterranean room (not much larger than a cell) a stick of incense burned. The cot-bed of some hospitable captain or major disguised itself as a couch, under a brand-new silk table-cover with the price-mark still attached, and several small sofa cushions, also ticketed. A deal table had been painted green and spread with a lace-edged tea-cloth, on which were proudly displayed a galaxy of fittings from a dressing-bag, the best, no doubt, that poor bombarded Bar-le-Duc could produce in war time. There were ivory-backed hair and clothes brushes; a comb; bottles filled with white face-wash and perfume; a manicure-set, with pink salve and nail-powder; a tray decked out with every size of hairpin; a cushion bristling with pins of many-coloured heads; boxes of rouge, a hare's-foot to put it on with; face-powder in several tints; swan's-down puffs; black pencils for the eyebrows and blue for the eyelids; sweet-smelling soap-a dazzling and heavily fragrant collection.

"Oh, my dear, what did they think of us?" gasped Mother Beckett. "What a shame the poor lambs should have wasted all their money and trouble!"

"It mustn't be wasted!" said I. "Think how disappointed they'd be if they came in here afterward and found we hadn't touched a thing!"

"But--" she protested.

"You wouldn't hurt the feelings of the saviours of France? I'm going to make us both up! And there's no time to waste. They've given us fifteen minutes' grace before lunch. For the honour of womanhood we mustn't be late!"

I sat her down in the only chair. I dusted her pure little face with pearl-powder and the faintest soup?on of rouge. I rubbed on her sweet lips just the suspicion of pink, liked by an elderly grande dame fran?aise, who has not yet "abdicated." I then made myself up more seriously: a blue shadow on the lids, a raven touch on the lashes; a flick of the hare's-foot under my eyes and on my ear-tips: an extra coat of pink and a brilliant (most injurious!) varnish on the nails. Then, with a dash of Rose Ambrée for my companion's blouse and Nuits d'Orient for mine, we sallied forth scented like a harem, to do honour to our hosts.

Luncheon was in a vast cavern of a vaulted banqueting-hall, in the deepest heart of that citadel, where for eleven years Napoleon kept his weary English prisoners. Electric lights showed us a table adorned with fresh flowers (where they'd come from was a miracle, but soon we were to see other miracles still more miraculous), French, British, and American flags, and pyramids of fruit. The Rose Ambrée and Nuits d'Orient filled the whole vast salle, and pleased the officers, I was sure. They bowed and smiled and paid us compliments, their many medals glittered in the light, and their uniforms were resplendent against the cold background of the walls. I wished that, instead of one girl, I had been a dozen! But I did my best and so did Mother Beckett, who brightened into a charming second youth, the youth of a happy mother surrounded by a band of sons.

The lumps that had been in our throats had to be choked sternly down, for not to do justice to that meal would be worse than leaving the rouge and powder boxes unopened! The menu need not have put a palace to shame. In the citadel of Verdun it seemed as if it must have been evolved by rubbing Aladdin's lamp, and I said so as I read it over:

Hu?tres d'Ostende

Bisque d'écrevisses

Sanglier r?ti

Purée de Pommes de Terre

Soufflée de Chocolat

Fruits

Bonbons

"Oh, we've never been hungry at Verdun, even when things were at their liveliest," said the officer sitting next to me. "Providence provided for us in a strange way. I will tell you how. Before the civil population went away, or expected to go, there was talk of a long siege. The shopkeepers thought they would be intelligent and sent to Paris for all sorts of food. Oh, not only the grocers and butchers! Everyone. You would have laughed to see the jewellers showing hams in their windows instead of diamonds and pearls and gold purses, and the piles of preserved meat and fruit tins at the perfumers! The confectioners ordered stores of sugar and the wine merchants restocked their cellars. Then things began to happen. Houses were bombed, and people hustled out in a hurry. You have seen some of those houses! The place was getting too hot; and the order came for evacuation. Not much could be taken away. Transport was difficult in those days! All the good food had to be left behind, and we thought it would be a pity to waste it. Our chief bought the lot at a reasonable price-merchants were thankful to sell. So you see we did not need Aladdin's lamp."

"I don't quite see!" I confessed. "Because, that's a long time ago, and these oysters of Ostende--"

"Never saw Ostende!" he laughed. "They are a big bluff! We always have them when"-he bowed-"we entertain distinguished guests. The Germans used to print in their papers that we at Verdun could not hold out long, because we were eating rats. So we took to cutting a dash with our menus. We do not go into particulars and say that our oysters have kept themselves fresh in tins!"

"But the wild boar?" I persisted. "Does one tin wild boar?"

"One does not! One goes out and shoots it. Ma foi, it's a good adventure when the German guns are not asleep! The fruit? Ah, that is easy! It comes as the air we breathe. And for our bonbons, the famous sugared almonds of Verdun were not all destroyed when the factory blew up."

With this he handed me a dish of the delicious things. "The story is," he said, "that a certain Abbess brought the secret of making these almonds to Verdun. We have to thank Henry of Navarre for her. He had a pleasant way, when he wished to be rid of an old love with a compliment, of turning her into an Abbess. That time he made a lucky stroke for us."

At the end of luncheon we all drank healths, and nearly everyone made a speech except Mrs. Beckett. She only nodded and smiled, looking so ideal a little mother that she must have made even the highest officers homesick for their mamans.

Then we were led through a mysterious network of narrow passages and vaulted rooms, all lit with electric lamps, and striking cold and cellary. We saw the big hospital, not very busy just then, and the clean, empty operating theatre, and gnome-caverns where munitions were stored in vast, black pyramids. When there was nothing left to see in the citadel, our hosts asked if we would like to pay a visit to the trenches-old trenches which had once defended Thiaumont.

"I don't think my wife had better--" Mr. Beckett began; but the little old lady cut him short. "Yes, Father, I just had better! To-day, being among all these splendid brave soldiers has shown me that I'm weak-a spoiled child. I felt yesterday I'd been a coward. Now I know it! And I'm going to see those trenches."

I believe it was partly the powder and lip salve that made her so desperate!

Her husband yielded, meek as a lamb. Big men like Mr. Beckett always do to little women like Mrs. Beckett. But she bore it well. And when at last we bade good-bye to our glorious hosts, she said to me, "Molly, you tell them in French, that now I've met them I understand why the Germans could never pass!"

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