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   Chapter 20 No.20

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 14696

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It took a mere glance (even if we hadn't known beforehand) to see that noble Compiègne craved no Beckett charity, no American adoption.

True, German officers lived for twelve riotous days in the palace, in 1914, selecting for home use many of its treasures, and German "non-coms." filled vans with rare antiques from the richest mansions; still, they had no time, or else no inclination, to disfigure the town. The most sensational souvenir of those days before the Marne battle is a couple of broken bridges across the Oise and Aisne, blown up by the French in the hour of their retreat. But that strange sight didn't break on our eyes as we entered Compiègne. We seemed to have been transported by white magic from mystic forest depths to be plumped down suddenly in a city square, in front of a large, classical palace. It's only the genie of motoring who can arrange these startling contrasts!

If we took Brian's advice, and "played" that our autos were old-fashioned coaches; if we looked through, instead of at, the dozen military cars lined up at the palace gates; if we changed a few details of the soldiers' uniforms, the gray chateau need not have been Army Headquarters in our fancy. For us, the Germans might cease from troubling and the war-weary be at rest, while we skipped back to any century we fancied.

Of course, Louis XV, son-in-law of our old friend Stanislas of Lorraine, built the chateau; and Napoleon the Great added a wing in honour of his second bride, Marie Louise. But why be hampered by details like that? Charles V built a castle at this old Roman Compendium, on the very spot where all those centuries later Louis XV erected his Grecian fa?ades; and Henri of Navarre often came there, in his day. One of Henri's best romances he owed to Compiègne; and while we were having what was meant to be a hurried luncheon, Mother Beckett made Brian tell the story. You know Brian came to Compiègne before the war and painted in the palace park, where Napoleon I and Napoleon III used to give their fêtes-champêtres; and he says that the picture is clear as ever "behind his eyes."

Once upon a time, Henri was staying in the chateau, very bored because weather had spoiled the hunting. Suddenly appeared the "handsomest young man of Prance," the Duc de Bellegarde, Henri's equerry, who had been away on an adventure of love. Somehow, he'd contrived to meet Gabrielle d'Estrées, almost a child, but of dazzling beauty. She hid him for three days, and then, alas, a treacherous maid threatened to tell Gabrielle's father. Bellegarde had to be smuggled out of the family castle-a rope and a high window. The tale amused Henri; and the girl's portrait fired him. He couldn't forget; and later, having finished some business at Senlis (part of which concerned a lady) he laid a plan to cut Bellegarde out. When the Equerry begged leave from Compiègne to visit Gabrielle again, Henri consented, on condition that he might be the duke's companion.

Bellegarde had to agree; and Henri fell in love at sight with the golden hair, blue eyes, and rose-and-white skin of "Gaby." She preferred Bellegarde to the long-nosed king; but the Béarnais was never one to take "no" for an answer. He went from Compiègne again and again to the forbidden castle, in peril of his life from Guise and the League. After a wild adventure, in disguise as a peasant with a bundle of straw on his head, his daring captured the girl's fancy. She was his; and he was hers, writing sonnets to "Charmante Gabrielle," making Marguerite furious by giving to the new love his wife's own Abbey of St. Corneille, at Compiègne. (One can still see its ruins!)

I said we meant to eat quickly and go for an afternoon of sightseeing-for early to-morrow (I'm writing late at night) we're due at Noyon. But Brian remembered so many bits about Compiègne, that by tacit consent we lingered and listened. When he was here last, he did a sketch of Henri and Gabrielle hunting in the forest; "Gaby" pearl-fair in green satin, embroidered with silver; on her head the famous hat of velvet-like red taffetas, which cost Henri two hundred crowns. Perhaps she carried in her hand one of the handkerchiefs for which she paid what other women pay for dresses; but Brian's sketches are too "impressionist" to show handkerchiefs! Anyhow, her hand was in the king's, for that was her way of riding with her gray-clad lover; though when she went alone she rode boldly astride. Poor Henri couldn't say nay to the becoming green satin and red hat, though he was hard up in those days. After paying a bill of Gaby's, he asked his valet how many shirts and handkerchiefs he had. "A dozen shirts, torn," was the answer. "Handkerchiefs, five."

On the walls of the room where we ate hung beautiful old engravings of Napoleon I in his daily life at the Chateau of Compiègne. Napoleon receiving honoured guests in the vast Galerie des Fêtes, with its polished floor and long line of immense windows; Napoleon and his bride in the Salon des Dames d'Honneur, among the ladies of Marie Louise; Napoleon listening wistfully-thinking maybe of lost Joséphine-to a damsel at the harp, in the Salon de Musique; Marie Louise smirking against a background of teinture chinoise; Napoleon observing a tapestry battle of stags in the Salle des Cerfs; Napoleon on the magnificent terrasse giving a garden party; Napoleon walking with his generals along the Avenue des Beaux Monts, in the park. But these pictures rather teased than pleased us, because in war days only the army enters palace or park.

Brian was luckier than the rest of us! He had been through the chateau and forgotten nothing. Best of all he had liked the bedchamber of Marie Antoinette, said to be haunted by her ghost, in hunting dress with a large hat and drooping plume. The Empress Eugénie, it seemed, had loved this room, and often entered it alone to dream of the past. Little could she have guessed then how near she would come to some such end as that fatal queen, second in beauty only to herself.

Even if Julian O'Farrell's significant glance hadn't called my attention to his sister, I should have noticed how Dierdre lost her sulky look in listening to Brian.

"He has something to say to me about those two when he gets a chance, and he wants me to know it now," I thought. But I pretended to be absorbed in stories of the Second Empire. For we sat on and on at the table, putting off our visit to the ancient timbered houses and the monument of Jeanne d'Arc, and all the other things which called us away from those hotel windows. It seemed as if the heart of Compiègne, past and present, were hidden just behind that gray fa?ade of the palace across the square!

Of course, Jeanne was the "star" heroine of Compiègne, where she fought so bravely and was taken prisoner, and sold to the English by John of Luxembourg at a very cheap price. But, you know, she is the heroine of such lots of other places we have seen or will see, that we let her image fade for us behind the brilliant visions of Compiègne's pleasures.

As a rule, old history has the lure of romance in it, and makes modern history seem dull in contrast. But such a gorgeous novel could be written about Second Empire days of Compiègne (if only there were a Dumas to write it) that I do think this town is an exception.

Even "T

he Queen's Necklace" couldn't be more exciting than a story of Eugénie, with that "divinest beauty of all ages," the Castiglione, as her rival! I don't know how Dumas would begin it, but I would have the first scene at a house party of Louis Napoleon's, in the palace at Compiègne, after he had revived the old custom of the Royal Hunt: Napoleon, already falling in love, but hesitating, anxious to see how the Spanish girl would bear herself among the aristocratic charmers of the Court, whether she could hold her own as a huntress, as in a ballroom. I'd show her making a sensation by her horsemanship and beauty. Then I'd take her through the years, till the dazzling Florentine came to trouble her peace, the adored, yet disappointed divinity who cried, "If my mother had brought me to France instead of marrying me to Castiglione, an Italian, not a Spaniard, would have shared the throne with Napoleon, and there would have been no Franco-Prussian War!"

What a brilliant background Compiègne of those days would make for that pair, the beautiful young Empress and the more beautiful Countess!-Compiègne when the palace was crowded with the flower of Europe, when great princes and brave soldiers romped through children's games with lovely ladies, if rain spoiled the hunting; when Highland nobles brought their pipers, and everyone danced the wildest reels, if there were time to spare from private theatricals and tableaux vivants! I think I would make my story end, though, not there, but far away; the Castiglione lying dead, with youth and beauty gone, dressed by her last request in a certain gown she had worn on a certain night at Compiègne, never to be forgotten.

When at last we did go out to walk and see the wonderful timbered houses and the blown-up bridges, what I had expected to happen did happen: Julian O'Farrell contrived to separate me from the others.

"Haven't I been clever?" he asked, with his smile of a naughty child.

"So far as I know of you," I answered, "you are always clever."

"That's the first compliment you've ever paid me! Thanks all the same, though I'd be the opposite of clever if I thought you wanted me to be flattered. You're clever, too, so of course you know what I mean as well as I know myself. Perhaps you thought I was being clever on the sly. But I'm above that. Haven't I always showed you my cards, trumps and joker and all?"

"You've shown me how the knave can take a trick!"

He laughed. "History repeating itself! The Queen of Hearts, you remember-and the Knave of-Spades, wasn't it? I wish it were diamonds instead: but maybe his spade will dig up a few sparklers in the end. I've got a splendid plan brewing. But that isn't what I want to talk about just now. In fact, I don't want to talk about it-yet! You're not going to admit that you see the results of my cleverness, or that you'd understand them if you did see. So I'll just wave them under your darling nose."

It would have been absurd to say: "How dare you call my nose a darling?" so I said nothing at all.

"You saw it was a plot, getting Brian to go to Paris with us," he went on. "I saw that you saw it. But I wasn't sure and I'm not sure now, if you realized its design, as the villain of the piece would remark."

"You ought to know what he'd remark."

"I do, dear villainess! I was going to say, 'Sister Villainess,' but I wouldn't have you for a sister at any price. I've cast you for a different part. You may have imagined that Dare and I were just grabbing your brother to spite you, and show what we could do with him."

"I did imagine that!"

"Wrong! Guess again. Or no-you needn't. We may be interrupted any minute. To save time I'll explain my bag of tricks. Dare wasn't in on that hand of mine."

"Indeed?"

"You don't believe me? That shows you're no judge of character. Dare adores her Jule, and what he wants her to do she does; but I told you she was no actress. She can't act much better off the stage than on. I wouldn't trust her to create the part of the White Cat, let alone that of Wily Vivien. She gets along all right if she can just keep still and sulk and act the Stormy Petrel. I should have pulled her through on those lines if she'd been obliged to play Jim Beckett's broken-hearted fiancée. But to do the siren with your brother-no, she wouldn't be equal to that, even to please me: couldn't get it across the footlights. I had to win her to Brian as well as win Brian to me. I hope you don't mind my calling him by his Christian name? He says I may."

"Why did you want to win Miss O'Farrell to my brother?"

"You don't know? You'll have to go down a place lower in this class! She couldn't make Brian really like her, unless she liked him. At first-though I knew better-she stuck it out that Brian was only a kind of decoy duck for you with the Becketts--"

"Oh!"

"Please don't look at me as if you were biting a lemon. I didn't think so. And Dare doesn't now."

"How sweet of her!"

"She's turning sweet. That's partly what I was after. I wormed myself into your brother's affections, to entice him to Paris. I wanted Dare to learn that her instinct about him was right; her instinct was always defending him against what she thought was her reason and common sense. Now, she sees that he's genuine, and she's secretly letting herself go-admiring him and wondering at him to make up for her injustice."

"Are you telling all this to disarm me?"

"Not exactly. I'm telling you because I was sure you'd find out soon what's going on, and because I thought an open policy best. As it is, you can't say I haven't played fair from the word go."

"I wish," I cried out, "that the word was 'go'!"

"You're not very kind, my dear."

"Why should I be kind?"

"Because I'm the stick of your rocket. You can't soar without me. And because I love you such a lot."

"You!"

"Yes, I, me, Julian O'Farrell: Giulio di Napoli. Haven't I sacrificed my prospects and my sister's prospects rather than throw you to the lions? Didn't I waste those perfectly good snapshots? Didn't I sit tight, protecting you silently, letting you have all I'd expected to have for myself and Dare?"

I gasped. To speak was beyond my powers just then.

"I know what you'd like to say," Julian explained me to myself. "You'd love to say: 'The d-d cheek of the man! It's rich!' Well, it is rich. And I mean to be rich to match. That's in my plan. And so are you in it. Practically you are the plan. To carry it out calmly, without ructions and feathers flying, I put your brother and my sister in the way of falling in love. Dare didn't want to join the Beckett party and didn't want to stay with it. Now, she does want to stay. Brian distrusted me and was intrigued by Dare. Now, he gives me the benefit of the doubt. And he has no doubts of her-- That's a beautiful timbered house, isn't it, Mr. Beckett? Yes, I was just telling Miss O'Malley that this place seems to me the best one we've visited yet. I shall never forget it, or the circumstances of seeing it, shall you, Miss O'Malley? Don't you think, sir, she might let me call her 'Mary,' now we all know each other so well? I'm 'Julian' to her brother and he's 'Brian' to me."

"I certainly do think she might," said Father Beckett, with that slow, pleasant smile which Jim inherited from him.

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