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   Chapter 25 No.25

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 10108

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Little did I think, Padre, to write you from Soissons! When last I spoke to you about it, we were gazing through field-glasses at the single tower of the cathedral, pointing out of purple shadows toward the evening star of hope. Then we lost ourselves in the Ravin de Bitry, and arrived thankfully at Compiègne two hours later than we had planned. We expected to have part of a day at Soissons, but-I told you of the dreadful flies in that ravine of death, and how Mother Beckett was stung on the throat. The next day she had a headache, but took aspirin, and pronounced herself well enough for the trip to Soissons. Father Beckett let her go, because he's in the habit of letting her do whatever she wants to do, fancying (and she fancies it, too) that he is master. You see, we thought it was only a fatigue-headache. Foolishly, we didn't connect it with the sting, for Julian O'Farrell was bitten, too, and didn't complain at all.

Well, we set out for Soissons yesterday morning (I write again at night) leaving all our luggage at the hotel in Compiègne. It was quite a safe and uneventful run, for the Germans stopped shelling Soissons temporarily some time ago, when they were obliged to devote their whole attention to other places. The road was good, and the day a dream of Indian summer, when war seemed more than ever out of place in such a world. If Mother Beckett looked ill, we didn't notice, because she wore her dust-veil. The same officer was with us who'd been our guide last time, and we felt like friends, as he explained, with those vivid gestures Frenchmen have, just how the Germans in September, 1914, marched from Laon upon Soissons-marched fast, singing, yelling, wild to take a city so important that the world would be impressed. Why, it would be-they thought-as if the whole ?le-de-France were in their grasp! The next step would be to Paris, goal of all Germanic invasions since Attila.

It's an engaging habit of Mother Beckett's to punctuate exciting stories like this with little soft sighs of sympathy: but the graphic war descriptions given by our lieutenant left her cold. Even when we came into the town, and began to go round it in the car, she was heavily silent, not an exclamation! And we ought to have realized that this was strange, because Soissons nowadays is a sight to strike the heart a hammer-blow.

Of course the place isn't older than Rheims. It's of the same time and the same significance. But its face looks older in ruin-such features as haven't been battered out of shape. There's the wonderful St. Jean-des-Vignes, which should have interested the little lady, because the great namesake of her family St. Thomas à Beckett, lived there, when it was one of Soissons' four famous abbeys. There's the church of St. Léger, and the grand old gates of St. Médard, to say nothing of the cathedral itself. And then there's the history, which goes back to the Suessiones who owned twelve towns, and had a king whose power carried across the sea, all the way to Britain. If Mother Beckett doesn't know much about history, she loves being in the midst of it, and hearing talk of it. But when our Frenchman told us a story of her latest favourite, King Clovis, she had the air of being asleep behind her thick blue veil. It was quite a good story, too, about a gold vase and a bishop. The gold vase had been stolen in the sack of the churches, after the battle of Soissons, when Roman rule was ended in France. St. Remi begged Clovis to give the vase back. But the booty was being divided, and the soldier who had the vase refused to surrender it to a mere monarch. "You'll get what your luck brings you, like the rest of us!" said he, striking the vase so hard with his battle-axe that it was dented, and its beauty spoiled. Clovis swallowed the insult, that being the day of soldiers, not of kings: but he didn't forget; and he kept watch upon the man. A year later, to the day, the excuse he'd waited for came. The soldier's armour was dirty, on review; Clovis had the right as a general to reproach and punish him, so snatching the man's battle-axe, the king crushed in the soldier's head. "I do to you with the same weapon what you did to the gold vase at Soissons!" he said.

It wasn't until we had seen everything, and had spent over an hour looking at the martyred cathedral, from every point of view, inside and out, that Mother Beckett confessed her suffering. "Oh, Molly!" she gasped, leaning on my arm, "I'm so glad there's only one tower, and not two! That is, I'm glad, as it was always like that."

"Why," I exclaimed, "how odd of you, dearest! I know it's considered one of the best cathedrals in France, though it isn't a museum of sculpture, like Rheims. But the single tower worries me, it looks so unfinished. I'm not glad there's only one!"

"You would be if you felt like I do," she moaned. "If there was another tower, we'd have to spend double time looking at it, and in five minutes more I should have to faint! Oh no, I've stood everything so far, not to disappoint any on

e, but I couldn't see another tower!"

With that, she did faint, or nearly, then came to herself, and apologized for bothering us! Father Beckett hardly spoke, but his face was gray-white with fear, and he held the fragile creature in his arms as if she were his last link with the life of this world.

We got her back into the car; and the man who had shown us the cathedral said that there was an hotel within five minutes' motoring distance. It was not first rate, he explained, but officers messed there and occasionally wives and mothers of officers stayed there. He thought we might be taken in and made fairly comfortable; and to be sure we didn't miss the house, he rode on the step of the car, to show us the way.

It was a sad way, for we had to pass hillocks of plaster and stone which had once been streets, but we had eyes only for Mother Beckett's face, Father Beckett and I: and even Brian seemed to look at her. Sirius, too, for he would not go into the Red Cross taxi with the others! Brian, whom in most things the dog obeys with a pathetic eagerness, couldn't get him to do that: and when I said, "Oh, his eyes are tragic. He thinks you're going to send him away, never to see you again!" Brian didn't insist. So the dog sat squeezed in among us, knowing perfectly well that we were anxious about the little lady who patted him so often, and unpatriotically saved him lumps of sugar. He licked her small fingers, clasped by her husband, and attracting Mother Beckett's attention perhaps kept her from fainting again.

Well, we got to the hotel, which was really more of a pension than an hotel, and Madame Bornier, the elderly woman in deep mourning who was la patronne, was kind and helpful. Her best room had been made ready for the wife of an officer just coming out of hospital, but there would be time to prepare another. Our dear invalid was carried upstairs in her husband's arms, and I put her to bed while a doctor was sent for. Of course, we had no permission to spend a night at Soissons, but I began to foresee that we should have to stay unless we were turned out by the military authorities.

When the doctor came-a médecin major fetched from a hospital by our officer-guide-he said that Madame was suffering from malarial symptoms; she must have been poisoned. So then of course we remembered the sting on her throat. He examined it, looked rather grave, and warned Father Beckett that Madame sa femme would not be able to travel that day. She had a high temperature, and at best must have a day or two of repose, with no food save a little boiled milk.

Soissons seemed the last place in France to hope for milk of any description, but the doctor promised it from the hospital if it couldn't be got elsewhere, and added with pride that Soissons was not without resources. "When the Germans came three years ago," he said, "most of the inhabitants had fled, taking what they could carry. Only seven hundred souls were left, out of fifteen thousand, but many have come back: we have more than two thousand now, and some of them behaved like heroes and heroines. Oh yes, we may almost say that life goes on normally! You shall have all the milk you need for Madame."

When she had taken some medicine, and smiled at him, Father Beckett left his wife in my care, and rushed off to arrange about permission to stop. The médecin major and our officer-guide were useful. After telephoning from the military hospital to headquarters, everything was arranged; and we were authorized to remain in Soissons, at our own risk and peril. Madame Bornier prepared rooms for us all; but there weren't enough to go round, so Brian and Julian O'Farrell were put together, and Dierdre and I! She, by the way, is in bed at this moment, whether asleep or not I don't know; but if not she is pretending. Her lashes are very long, and she looks prettier than I ever saw her look before. But that may be because I like her better. I told you, that after what she did for Brian I could never dislike that girl again: but there has been another incident since then, about which I will tell you to-morrow. You know, I'm not easily tired, but this is our second night at Soissons. I sat up all last night with Mother Beckett, and oh, how glad I was, Padre, that Fate had forced me to train as a nurse! I've been glad-thankful-ever since the war: but this is the first time my gladness has been so personal. Brian's illness was in hospital. I could do nothing for him. But you can hardly think what it has meant to me, to know that I've been of real use to this dear woman, that I've been able to spare her suffering. Before, I had no right to her love. I'd stolen it. Now, maybe I am beginning to earn a little of the affection which she and Father Beckett give me.

I was all "keyed up" when I began to write to you to-night, Padre; but I was supposed to spend my three hours "off" in sleep. One hour is gone. Even if I can't sleep, I shall pass the other two trying to rest, in my narrow bed, which is close to Dierdre's.

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