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   Chapter 19 No.19

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 17034

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Of course nothing did happen in Paris to break up the party. I might have known that nothing would. Nothing happened at all, except that I received a letter from Doctor Herter with the promised introduction to an oculist just now at the Front, and that I realized, after three days' absence, how Brian is improving. He has less the air of a beautiful soul, whose incarnation in a body is a mere accident, and more the look of a happy, handsome young man, with a certain spiritual radiance which makes him remarkable and somehow "disturbing," as the French say. If anything could stop the rats gnawing my conscience, it would be this blessed change. Brian is getting back health and strength. When I think what a short time ago it is that his life hung in the balance, this seems a miracle. I'm afraid I am glad-glad that I did the thing which has given him his chance. Besides, I love the Becketts. So does Brian. And they love us. It's difficult to remember that I've stolen their love. Surely, they're happier with us than they could have been without us? Brian's scheme for their visits to the liberated towns is doing good to them and to hundreds-even thousands-of people whom they intend to help.

All this is sophistry, no doubt, but oh, it's beguiling sophistry! It's so perfectly disguised that I seldom recognize it except at night when I lie awake, and it sits on my bed, without its becoming mask.

Being the Becketts' adviser-in-chief, and having his lungs full of ozone every day should be enough to account for Brian's improvement. Yet-well, I can't help thinking that he takes a lot more trouble than he need for Dierdre O'Farrell. Oh, not that he's in love! Such an idea is ridiculous, but he's interested and sorry for the girl, because she goes about with a chip on her shoulder, defying the world to knock it off. He won't admit that it's the fault of her outlook on the world, and that the poor old world isn't to blame at all.

What if he knew the truth about that brother and sister? Naturally I can't tell him, of all people on earth, and they take advantage of my handicap. They've used their time well, in my absence, when they had Brian to themselves. He had his doubts of Julian, but the creature has sung himself into my blind brother's heart. From what I hear, the three have spent most of their time at the piano in the private salon which the Becketts invited the O'Farrells to engage.

Now, as I write, we are making our headquarters in Compiègne, sleeping there, and sightseeing by day on what they call the "Noyon Front."

After Rheims and before Noyon we stopped three days in Paris instead of one, as we'd planned, for Mother Beckett was tired. She wouldn't confess it, but "Father" thought she looked pale. Strange if she had not, after such experiences and emotions! Sometimes, when I study the delicate old face, with blue hollows under kind, sweet eyes, I ask myself: "Will she be able to get through the task she's set herself?" But she is so quietly brave, not only in fatigue, but in danger, that I answer my own question: "Yes, she will do it somehow, on the reserve force that kept her up when Jim died."

The road from Paris, past Senlis, to Compiègne, was even more thrilling than the road to Nancy and beyond, for this was the way the Germans took in September, 1914, when they thought the capital was theirs to have and hold: "la route de l'Allemagne" it used to be called, but never will French lips give it that name again.

Just at first, running out of the city in early morning, things looked much the same as when starting for Nancy: the unnatural quiet of streets once crammed with busy traffic for feeding gay Paris; military motors of all sorts and sizes, instead of milk wagons and cartloads of colourful fruits; women working instead of men; children on their way to school, sedately talking of "papa au Front," instead of playing games. But outside the suburbs the real thrills began.

There were the toy-like fortifications of which Paris was proud in the 'fifties; there was the black tangle of barbed wire, and the trace of trenches (a mere depression on the earth's surface, as if a serpent had laid its heavy length on a great, green velvet cushion) with which Paris had hoped to delay the German wave. Only a little way on, we shot through the sleepy-looking village of Bourget where Napoleon stopped a few hours after Waterloo, rather than enter Paris by daylight; and Brian had a story of the place. A French soldier, a friend of his (nearly everyone he meets is Brian's friend!) who was born there, told him that on each anniversary the ghost of the "Little Corporal" appears, travel-stained and worn, on the road leading to Bourget. For many years his custom was to show himself for a second to some seeing eye, then vanish like a mirage of the desert. But since 1914 his way is different. He does not confine his visit to the hamlet of sad memories. He walks the country side, his hands behind him, his head bent as of old; or he rides a horse that is slightly lame, inspecting with thoughtful gaze the frenzied industries of war, war such as he-the war-genius-never saw in his visions of the future: the immense aerodromes, the bomb sheds, the wireless stations and observation towers, the giant "saucisses" resting under green canvas, ready to rise at dawn; and all the other astounding features of the landscape so peaceful in his day.

Even now parts of it are peaceful, often the very spots marked by history, where it seems as if each tree should be decorated by a Croix de Guerre. For instance, there was the place-a junction of roads-where the Uhlans with a glitter of helmets came proudly galloping toward Paris, and to their blank amazement and rage had to turn back. As we halted to take in the scene, it was mysterious as dreamland in the morning mist. Nothing moved save two teams of cream-coloured oxen, their moon-white sides dazzling behind a silver veil. The pale road stretched before us so straight and far that it seemed to descend from the sky like a waterfall. Only the trees had a martial look, like tall, dark soldiers drawn up in line for parade.

It was not till we plunged into forest depths that I said to myself: "We must be coming near Senlis!" For the very name "Senlis" fills the mind with forest pictures. No wonder, since it lies walled away from the outer world-like the Sleeping Beauty-by woods, and woods, and woods: the forests of Hallette, Chantilly, and Ermenonville, each as full of history as it is now of aromatic scents, and used to be of wild boars for kings to kill!

I think the best of the forest pictures has Henri de Navarre for its principal figure. Brian and I turned over the pages of our memory for the Becketts, who listened like children to fairy tales-or as we listened when you used to embroider history for us in those evening causeries in the dear old "den," Padre.

I dug up the story about Henri at twenty-one, married more than a year to beautiful, lively Marguerite de Valois, and enduring lazily the despotism of his mother-in-law. There in the old palace of the Louvre, he loitered the time away, practically a prisoner until the only friend he had with courage to speak out (Agrippa d'Aubigny) gave him a lecture. Agrippa lashed his master with the words "coward" and "sluggard," letting his faithful servants work for his interests while he remained the slave of a "wicked old witch." The Béarnais had been biding his time-"crouching to spring": but that slap in the face set him on fire. He could no longer wait for the right moment. He decided to make the first moment the right one. His quick brain mapped out a plan of escape in which the sole flaw was that he must leave behind his brilliant bride. With eight or ten of his greatest, most loyal gentlemen, he arranged to hunt in the forest of Senlis; and he had shown himself so biddable, so boyish, that at first even Catherine de Medicis did not suspect him. It was only when the party had set forth that the plot burst like a bomb, in Catherine's own boudoir, where she sat with her favourite son, vile Henri III of France.

Fervacques, one of the plotters, had stopped in Paris, feigning illness. The plan had been concocted in his rooms, and he but waited for Navarre's back to be turned to betray him. Marguerite laughed when she heard (perhaps she was in the secret), but Catherine said evil words, of which she knew a great many-especially in Italian. Orders were given for the gates of P

aris to be shut (gates that in those days barred the road along which we now motored), but they were too late. Navarre and his hunters had passed through. Agrippa d'Aubigny was not among them. His part had been to watch the happenings of the Court, and join Navarre later in his own kingdom, but that hope was broken. Disguised as a mignon of Henri III, he slipped out of Paris on a fast horse, tore after the Béarnais and his equerries, and caught the cavalcade in the forest. "Thou art betrayed!" he cried.

"But not captured!" laughed Navarre.

In haste they substituted a new plot for the old. The young king was to pretend ignorance of the betrayal. He installed himself accordingly in the best lodgings of Senlis, talking loudly about hunting prospects, arranged to see a performance by travelling actors, and sent such a message back to Catherine and Henri that they believed Fervacques had fooled them.

By the time they'd waked to the truth, Navarre had ridden safely out of Senlis with his friends, bound for the kingdom on the Spanish border. Even then he was a man of big ambitions; so maybe he said to himself, looking back at Senlis: "I shall travel this road again, as king of France, to enter Paris in triumph." Anyhow, he was grateful to Senlis for saving him, and stayed there often, as Henri Quatre, flirting with pretty ladies, and inviting them to become abbesses when he tired of them.

Lots of things have happened in Senlis, because it's on the road to Paris, and for centuries has been getting into someone's way. Why, if it hadn't been for Senlis, William the Conqueror might never have conquered! You see, before William's day, Count Bernard of Senlis (who boasted himself a forty-second grandson or something of Charlemagne) quarrelled with King Louis IV of France. To spite him, Bernard adopted the baby son of William Longsword, Duke of Normandy, killed in battle; for Normandy was a "thorn in the eye" of France. Thanks to Bernard's help Normandy gained in riches and importance. By the time William, son of Robert the Devil and Arlette of Falaise, appeared on the scene, the dukedom was a power in the world, and William was able to dare his great enterprise.

But that was only one incident. Senlis was already an old, old town, and as much entitled to call itself a capital of France as was Paris. Not for nothing had the Gallo-Romans given it walls twenty feet high and thirteen feet thick! They could not have builded better had they meant to attract posterity's attention, and win for their strong city the admiration of kings. Clovis was the first king who fancied it, and settled there. But not a king who followed, till after the day of Henri Quatre, failed to live in the castle which Clovis began. Henry V of England married Bonny Kate in the chateau; Charles VIII of France and Maximilian of Austria signed a treaty within its walls; Francis I finished Notre-Dame of Senlis. The Duke of Bedford fought Joan of Arc there, and she was helped by the Maréchal Rais, no other than Bluebeard; so "Sister Anne" must have gazed out from some neighbouring tower for the "cloud of dust in the distance." Somewhere in the vast encircling forests the Babes in the Wood were buried by the birds, while the wicked uncle reigned in their father's place at Senlis. In 1814 Prussian, Russian, and British soldiers marched through the town on their tramp to Paris. Cossacks and Highlanders were the "strangest sight" Senlis had ever seen, though it had seen many; but a hundred years later it was to see a stranger one yet.

If ever a place looked made for peace, that place is Senlis, on its bright little river Nonette-child of the Oise-and in its lovely valley. That was what I said as we slowed down on the outskirts: but ah, how the thought of peace broke as we drove along the "kings' highway"-the broad Rue de la République! In an instant the drama of September 2nd-eve of the Marne battle-sprang to our eyes and knocked at our hearts. We could smell the smoke, and see the flames, and hear the shots, the cries of grief and rage, the far-off thunder of bridges blown up by the retreating French army. Suddenly we knew how the people of Senlis had suffered that day, and-strangely, horribly-how the Germans had felt.

Senlis hadn't realized-wouldn't let itself realize-even during bombardment, what its fate might be. It had been spared, as an open town, in 1870; and since then, through long, prosperous years of peace a comfortable conviction had grown that only pleasant things could happen. Why, it was the place of pleasure, reaping a harvest of fame and money from its adventurous past! Tourists came from all the world over to put up at the H?tel du Grand Cerf, once the hunting lodge of kings. They came to loiter in narrow old streets whose very names were echoes of history; to study the ruins of the Roman arena and the ancient walls; to hunt in the forest, as royal men and ladies had hunted when stags and wild boar had been plentiful as foxes and rabbits; or to motor from one neighbouring chateau to another. Surely even Germans could not doom such a town to destruction. To be sure, some people did fly when a rabble of refugees from Compiègne poured past, hurrying south; and others fled from the bombardment when big guns, fired from Lucien Bonaparte's old village of Chamant, struck the cathedral. But many stayed for duty's sake, or because they believed obstinately that to their bit of the ?le-de-France no tragedy could come.

They didn't know yet that Von Kluck and his men were drunk with victory, and that flaming towns were for the German army bonfires of triumph. They didn't know that the Kaiser's dinner was ordered in Paris for a certain date, and that at all costs Paris must be cowed to a speedy peace, lest the dinner be delayed. "Frightfulness" was the word of command, and famous old Senlis was to serve as a lesson to Paris.

But somehow the German master of Senlis's heart weakened when the crucial moment came. He was at the H?tel du Grand Cerf, where a dinner was being prepared by scared servants for thirty German officers. The order was about to be signed when suddenly a curé, small and pale, but lion-brave, entered the room. How he got in no one knew! Surprise held the general tongue-tied for three seconds; and a French curé is capable of much eloquence in three seconds.

He gambled-if a curé may gamble!-on the chance of his man being Catholic-and he won. That is why (so they told us in the same room three years later) Senlis was struck with many sore wounds, but not exterminated; that is why only the Maire and a few citizens were murdered instead of all; that is why in some quarters of Senlis the people who have come back can still dream that nothing happened to their dear haunt of peace on September 2, 1914.

Even if Senlis had fallen utterly, before the Germans turned in their tracks, Paris would not have been "cowed." As it was, Paris and all France were roused to a redoubled fury of resistance by the fate of the Senlis "hostages." So these men did not die in vain.

The scars of Senlis are still unhealed. Whole streets are blackened heaps of ruin, and there are things that "make you see red," as Father Beckett growled. But the thing which left the clearest picture in my brain was a sight sweet as well as sad: a charming little chateau, ruined by fire, yet pathetically lovely in martyrdom; the green trellis still ornamenting its stained fa?ade, a few autumn roses peeping with childlike curiosity into gaping window-eyes; a silent old gardener raking the one patch of lawn buried under blackened tiles and tumbled bricks. The man's figure was bent, yet I felt that there was hope as well as loyalty in his work. "They will come back home some day," was the expression of that faithful back.

In the exquisite beauty of the forest beyond Senlis there was still-for me-this note of hope. "Where beauty is, sadness cannot dwell for ever!" As we rushed along in the big car, the delicate gray trunks of clustering trees seemed to whirl round and round before our eyes, as in a votive dance of young priestesses. We saw bands of German prisoners toiling gnome-like in dim glades, but they didn't make us sad again. Au contraire! We found poetical justice in the thought that they, the cruel destroyers of trees, must chop wood and pile faggots from dawn to dusk.

So we came to Compiègne, where the French army has its headquarters in one of the most famous chateaux in the world.

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