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   Chapter 26 No.26

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 20079

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


This is the next day. Mother Beckett is better, and I've been praised by the médecin major for my nursing. We've got our luggage from Compiègne, and may be here for days. We shall miss the pleasure of travelling to Amiens with the war correspondents, who must go without us, and we women will get no glimpse of the British front!

Now I'm going to tell you about the incident which has made me almost love Dierdre O'Farrell-a miracle, it would have seemed two weeks ago, when my best mental pet name for her was "little cat!"

When I wrote last night, I mentioned that the room Mother Beckett has in this little hotel had been intended for the wife of a French officer coming out of hospital. Another room was prepared for that lady, and it happened to be the one next door to Mother Beckett's. Through the thin partition wall I heard voices, a man's and a woman's, talking in French. I couldn't make out the words-in fact, I tried not to!-but the woman's tones were soft and sweet as the coo of a dove. I pictured her beautiful and young, and I was sure from her way of speaking that she adored her husband. The two come into my story presently, but I think it should begin with a walk that Brian and Dierdre (and Sirius, of course) took together.

With me shut up in Mother Beckett's room, my blind brother and Julian O'Farrell's sister were thrown more closely together even than before. I'm sure Julian saw to that, eliminating himself as he couldn't do when travelling all three in the Red Cross taxi! Perhaps Dierdre and Brian had never been alone in each other's company so long; and Brian found the chance he'd wished for, to get at the real girl, behind her sulky "camouflage."

He has repeated the whole conversation to me, because he wanted me to know Dierdre as he has learned to know her; and I shall write everything down as I remember it, though the words mayn't be precisely right. Never was there any one like Brian for drawing out confidences from shut-up souls (except you, Padre!) if he chooses to open his own soul, for that end; and apparently he thought it worth while in the case of Dierdre. He began by telling her things about himself-his old hopes and ambitions and the change in them since his blindness. He confessed to the girl (as he confessed to me long ago) how at first he wished desperately to die, because life without eyesight wasn't life. He has so loved colour, and beauty, and success in his work had been so close, that he felt he couldn't endure blindness.

"I came near being a coward," he said. "A man who puts an end to his life because he's afraid to face it is a coward. So I tried to see if I could readjust the balance. I fell back on my imagination-and it saved me. Imagination was always my best friend! It took me by the hand and led me into a garden-a secret sort of garden that belongs to the blind, and to no one else. It's the place where the spirits of colour and the spirits of flowers live-the spirit of music, too-and all sorts of beautiful strange things which people who've never been blind can't see-or even hear. They're not 'things,' exactly. They're more like the reality behind the things: God's thoughts of things as they should be, before He created them; artists' thoughts of their pictures; musicians' thoughts of their compositions-all better than the things resulting from the thoughts. Nothing in the outside world is as wonderful as what grows in that garden! I couldn't go on being unhappy there. Nobody could-once he'd found the way in."

"It must be hard finding the way in!" Dierdre said.

"It is at first-alone, without help. That's why, if I can, I want to help my fellow blind men to get there."

"Only men? Not women, too?"

"I've never met a blind woman. Probably I never shall."

"You're talking to one this minute! When I'm with you, I always feel as if I were blind, and you could see."

"You're unjust to yourself."

"No, but I'm unjust to you-I mean, I have been. I must tell you before we go on, because you're too kind, too generous. I'm blind about lots of things, but I do see that, now. I see how good you are. I used to think you were too good to be true-that you must be a poseur. I was always waiting for the time when you'd give yourself away-when you'd show yourself on the same level with my brother and me."

"But I am on the same level."

"Don't say it! I don't feel that horrid, bitter wish now. I'm glad you're higher than we are. It makes me better to look up to the place where you are. But I wish I could get nearer."

"You are very near. We're friends, aren't we? You don't really mind because I'm from the North and you from the South, and because we don't quite agree about politics?"

"I'd forgotten about politics between you and me! But there are other distances. Do take me into your garden. You say it belongs only to blind people; but if I am blind-with a different kind of blindness, and worse-can't I get there with you? I need such a garden, dreadfully. I'm so disappointed in life."

"Tell me how you're unhappy, and how you've been disappointed," said Brian. "Then perhaps we can find the right flowers to cure you, in the garden."

So she told him what Julian had told me: about trying to get on the stage, and not succeeding, and realizing that she couldn't act; feeling that there was no vocation, no place for her anywhere. To comfort the girl, Brian opened the gate of his garden of the blind, and gave her its secrets, as he has given them to me. He explained to her his trick of "seeing across far spaces," with the eyes of his mind, and heart: saying aloud, to himself, names of glorious places-"Athens-Rome-Venice," and going there in the airship of imagination; calling up visions of rose-sunset light on the yellowing marble of the Acropolis, or moonlight in the Pincian gardens, with great umbrella-pines like blots of ink on steel, or the opal colours shimmering deep down, under the surface of the Grand Canal. He made Dierdre understand his way of "listening to a landscape," knowing by the voice of the wind what trees it touched; the buzz of olive leaves bunched like hives of silver bees against the blue; the sea-murmur of pines; the skeleton swish of palms; the gay, dancing rustle of poplars. And he showed her how he gathered beauty and colour from words, which made pictures in his brain.

"I never thought of all these things when I could see pictures with my eyes-and paint them with my hands," he said. And perhaps he gave a sigh for the past, which touched Dierdre's heart as the wind, in his fancy, touched the trees. "Couldn't you use your old knowledge, and learn to paint without seeing?" she asked. "You might have a line for the horizon, and with someone to mix your colours under your directions-someone who'd tell you where to find the reds, where the greens, and so on, someone to warn you if you went wrong. You might make wonderful effects."

"I've thought of that," said Brian. "I've hoped-it might be. Sometime, when this trip is over, I may ask my sister's help--"

"Oh, your sister's!" Dierdre broke in. "But she may marry. Or she may go back to nursing again. I wish I could help you. It would make me happy. It would be helping myself, more than you! And we could begin soon. I could buy you paints from a list you'd give me. If we succeeded, you could surprise your sister and the Becketts. It would be splendid."

Brian agreed that it would be splendid, but he said that his sister must be "in" it, too. He wouldn't have secrets from her, even for the pleasure of a surprise.

"She won't let me help you," Dierdre said. "She'll want to do everything for you herself."

Brian assured the girl that she was mistaken about his sister. "She's mistaken about you, too," he added. "You'll see! Molly'll be grateful to you for inventing such a plan for me. She'll want you to be the one to carry it out."

No argument of his could convince the girl, however. They came back to the hotel at last, after a walk by the river, closer friends than before, but Dierdre depressed, if no longer sulky. She seemed in a strange, tense mood, as though there were more she wished to say-if she dared.

Dusk was falling (this was evening of the day we arrived, you must realize, Padre) and Brian admitted that he was tired. He'd taken no such walk since he came out of hospital, weeks and weeks ago.

"Let's go and sit in the salon, to rest a few minutes and finish our talk," he proposed. "We're almost sure to have the room to ourselves."

But for once Brian's intuition was at fault. There were two persons in the little salon, a lady writing letters at a desk by the window, and a French officer who had drawn the one easy chair in the room in front of a small wood fire. This fire had evidently not existed long, as the room was cold, with the grim, damp chill of a place seldom occupied or opened to the air.

As Dierdre led Brian in, the lady at the desk glanced up at the newcomers, and the officer in the big chair turned his head. The woman was young and very remarkable looking, with the pearl-pale skin of a true Parisian, large dark eyes under clearly sketched black brows, and masses of prematurely white hair.

For a second, Dierdre thought this beautiful hair must be blonde, as the woman could not be more than twenty-eight; but the light from the window fell full upon the silver ripples, blanching them to dazzling whiteness.

"What a lovely creature," the girl thought. "What can have happened to turn her hair white?"

As for the man, Dierdre took an instant dislike to him, for his selfishness. His face was burned a deep, ruddy brown, and his eyes, lit by the red glow of the fire, were bright with a black, bead-like brightness. They stared so directly, so unblinkingly at Brian, that Dierdre was vexed. She was his chosen friend, his confidante, his champion now! Not even Sirius could be more fiercely devoted than she, who had to atone for her past injustice. She was angry that blind Brian should be t

hus coldly stared at, and that a man in better health than he should calmly sprawl in the best chair, screening the fire.

By this time, Padre, you will have learned enough about Dierdre O'Farrell to know what her temper is! She forgot that a stranger might not realize Brian's blindness at first sight in a room where the dusk was creeping in, and she spoke sharply, in her almost perfect French.

"There's quite a nice fire," she said, "and I should have thought there was room for everybody to enjoy it, but it seems there's only enough for one! We'd better try the salle à manger, instead, I suppose."

Brian, puzzled, paused at the door, his hand on Sirius's head, Dierdre standing in front of them both like a ruffled sparrow.

The French officer straightened up in his chair with an astonished look, but did not rise. It was the woman by the window (Dierdre had not connected her with the man by the fire) who sprang to her feet. "Mademoiselle," she said quietly, in a voice of exquisite sweetness, "my husband would be the first one in the world to move, and give his place to others, if he had known that he was monopolizing the fire. But he did not know. It was I who placed him there. Those eyes of his which look so bright are made of crystal. He lost his sight at the Chemin des Dames."

As she spoke, choking on the last words, the woman with white hair crossed the room swiftly, and caught the hand of her husband, which was stretched out as if groping for hers. He stumbled to his feet, and she stood defending him like a gentle creature of the woods at bay.

Perhaps at no other moment of her life would Dierdre O'Farrell have been struck with such poignant repentance. That she, who had just been shown the secret, inner heart of one blind man, should deliberately wound another, seemed more than she could bear, and live.

Brian remained silent, partly because he was still confused, and partly to give Dierdre the chance to speak, which he felt instinctively she would wish to seize.

She took a step forward, then stopped, with a sob, shamed tears stinging her eyes. "Will you forgive me?" she begged. "I would rather have died than hurt a blind man, or-or any one who loves a blind man. Lately I've been finding out how sacred blindness is. I ought to have guessed, Madame, that you were with him-that you were his wife. I ought to have known that only a great grief could have turned your wonderful hair white-you, so young--"

"Her hair white!" cried the blind officer. "No, I'll not believe it. Suzanne, tell this lady she's mistaken. I remember, in some lights, it was the palest gold, almost silver-your beautiful hair that I fell in love with--"

His voice broke. No one answered. There fell a dead silence, and Dierdre had time to realize what she had done. She had been cruel as the grave! She had accused a helpless blind man of selfishness; and not content with that, on top of all she had given away the secret that a brave woman's love had hidden.

"Suzanne-you don't speak!"

"Oh!" the trembling woman tried to laugh. "Of course, Mademoiselle is mistaken. That goes without saying."

"Yes-I-of course," Dierdre echoed. "It was the light-deceived me."

"And now," said the blind man slowly, "you are trying to deceive me-you are both trying! Suzanne, why did you keep it from me that your hair had turned white with grief? Didn't you know I'd love you more, for such a proof of love for me?"

"Indeed, I-oh, you mustn't think--" she began to stammer. "I loved your dear eyes as you loved my hair. But I love it twice as much now. I--"

He cut her short. "I don't think. I know. Chérie, you need have had no fear. I shall worship you after this."

"She could never have been so lovely before. Her hair is like spun glass," Dierdre tried to atone. "People would turn to look at her in the street. Monsieur le Capitaine, you should be proud of such a beautiful wife."

"I am," the man answered, "proud of her beauty, more proud of her heart."

"But it is I who am proud!" the woman caught him up. "He has lost his dear eyes that all women admired, yet he has won honours such as few men have. What does it matter about my poor hair? You can see by the ribbons on his breast, Mademoiselle, what he is-what he has done for his country. You also, Monsieur, you see--"

"I don't see, Madame, because I, too, am blind," said Brian. "But I feel-I feel that your husband has won something which means more than his eyes, more than all his honours and decorations: a great love."

"You are blind!" exclaimed the Frenchwoman. "I should never have guessed. Ah, Madame, it is I who must now ask your pardon! I called you 'Mademoiselle.' Already I had forgiven you what you said in error. But I did not understand, or the forgiveness would have been easier. Your first thought was for your husband-your blind husband-just as my thought always is and will be for mine! You wanted him to have a place by the fire. Your temper was in arms, not for yourself, but for him-his comfort. How well I understand now! Madame, you and I have the same cross laid upon us. But it's a cross of honour. It is le croix de guerre!"

"I wish I had a right to it!" Dierdre broke out. "I haven't, because he is not my husband. He doesn't care for me-except maybe, as a friend. But to atone to him for injustice, to punish myself for hurting you, I'll confess something. I'd marry him to-morrow, blind as he is-perhaps because he is blind!-and be happy and proud all my life-if he would have me. Only,-I know he won't."

"My child! I care too much for you," Brian answered, after an instant of astonished silence, "far too much to take you at your word. Some men might-but not I! Monsieur le Capitaine here, and Madame, were husband and wife before their trouble came. That is different--"

"No!" cried the woman whose name was Suzanne. "It is not different. My husband's the one man on earth for me. If we were not married-if he had lost his legs and arms as well as his eyes, I'd still want to be his wife-want it more than a kingdom."

"You hear, Monsieur," her husband said, laughing a little, and holding her close, with that perfect independence of onlookers which the French have when they're thoroughly in love.

"I hear, Madame," said Brian. "But you, Monsieur le Capitaine-you would not have accepted the sacrifice--"

"I'm not sure I could have resisted," the Frenchman smiled.

"You love her!-that is why," Dierdre said. "My friend-doesn't love me. He never could. I'm not worthy. No one good could love me. If he knew the worst of me, he'd not even be my friend. And I suppose, after this, he won't be. If, by and by, I'm not ashamed of myself for what I've said, he'll be ashamed for me, because--"

"Don't!" Brian stopped her. "You know I mustn't let myself love you, Dierdre. And you don't really love me. It's only pity and some kind of repentance-for nothing at all-that you feel. But we'll be greater friends than ever. I understand just why you spoke, and it's going to help me a lot-like a strong tonic. You must have known it would. And if Monsieur and Madame have forgiven us--"

"Us? What have you done? If they've forgiven me--"

"They have, indeed, forgiven," said the blind Frenchman. "They even thank you. If possible you've drawn them closer together than before."

Brian searched for Dierdre's hand, and found it. "Let us go now, and leave them," he whispered.

So they went away, and Brian softly shut the door of the little salon.

"I did mean every word I said!" the girl blurted out, turning upon him in the hall. "But-I shouldn't have dared say it if I hadn't been sure you didn't care. And even if you did care-or could-your sister wouldn't let you. She knows me exactly as I am."

"She shall know you as you are-my true and brave little friend!" Brian said.

He can find his way about wonderfully, even in a house with which he is merely making acquaintance: besides, Sirius was with him. But he felt an immense tenderness for Dierdre after that desperate confession. He didn't wish the girl to fancy that he could get on without her just then, or that he thought she had any reason for running away from him. He asked if she would take him to his room, so that he might rest there, alone, remembering an exquisite moment of his life.

"It's wonderful to feel that for a beautiful girl like you-blind as I am, I am a man!" he said. "Thank you with all my heart-for everything."

"Who told you I was beautiful?" Dierdre flung the question at him.

"My sister Mary told me," Brian answered. "Besides-I felt it. A man does feel such things-perhaps all the more if he is blind."

"Your sister Mary?" the girl echoed. "She doesn't think I'm beautiful. Or if she does, it's against her will."

"It won't be, after this."

"Why not? You won't tell her--"

"I'll tell her to love you, and-to help me not to!"

It was just then they came to Brian's door, and Dierdre fled, Sirius staring after her in dignified surprise.

But Dierdre herself came to me at once, and told me everything, with a kind of proud defiance.

"I do love your brother," she boasted. "I would marry him if he'd have me. I don't care what you think of me, or what you say!"

"Why, I love you for loving him," I threw back at her. "That's what I think of you-and that's what I say."

I was sincere, Padre. Yet I don't see how they can ever marry, even if Brian should learn to love the girl enough. Neither one has a penny-and-Brian is blind. Who can tell if he will ever get his sight again? I wish Dierdre hadn't come into our lives in just the way she did come! I wish she weren't Julian O'Farrell's sister! I hope she won't be pricked by that queer conscience of hers to tell Brian any secrets which concern me as well as Julian and herself. And I hope-whatever happens!-that I shan't be mean enough to be jealous. But-with such a new, exciting "friendship" for Brian's prop, it seems as if, for me-Othello's occupation would be gone!

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