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   Chapter 27 No.27

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 21298

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


We're at Amiens, where we came by way of Montdidier and Moreuil; and nearly two weeks have dragged or slipped away since I wrote last. Meanwhile a thousand things have happened. But I'll begin at the beginning and write on till I am called by Mother Beckett.

We stopped at Soissons three more days after I told you about Dierdre and Brian, and Captain Devot and his wife. Not only did they forgive Dierdre-those two-but they took her to their hearts, perhaps more for Brian's sake than her own. I was introduced to them, and they were kind to me, too. Of the blind man I have a beautiful souvenir. I must tell you about it, Padre!

The evening before we left Soissons (when the doctor had pronounced Mother Beckett well enough for a short journey) I had an hour in the stuffy little salon with Dierdre and Brian and the Devots. We sat round the fire-plenty of room for us all, in a close circle-and Captain Devot began to talk about his last battle on the Chemin des Dames. Suddenly he realized that the story was more than his wife could bear-for it was in that battle he lost his eyes! How he realized what she was enduring, I don't know, for she didn't speak, or even sigh, and Brian sat between them; so he couldn't have known she was trembling. It must have been some electric current of sympathy between the husband and wife, I suppose-a magnetic flash to which a blind man would be more sensitive than others. Anyhow, he suddenly stopped speaking of the fight, and told us instead about a dream he had the night before the battle-a dream where he saw the ladies for whom "The Ladies' Way" was made, go riding by, along the "Chemin des Dames."

"In silks and satins the ladies went

Where the breezes sighed and the poplars bent,

Taking the air of a Sunday morn

Midst the red of poppies and gold of corn-

Flowery ladies in gold brocades,

With negro pages and serving maids,

In scarlet coach or in gilt sedan,

With brooch and buckle and flounce and fan,

Patch and powder and trailing scent,

Under the trees the ladies went,

Lovely ladies that gleamed and glowed,

As they took the air of the Ladies' Road."

That verse came from Punch, not from Captain Devot. I happen to remember it because it struck my fancy when I read it, and added to the romance of the road made for Louis XV's daughters-daughters of France, where now so many sons of France have died for France! But the ladies of Captain Devot's dream were like that, travelling with a gorgeous cavalcade, and as they rode, they were listening to a song about the old Abbey of Vauclair on the plateau of the Craonne. When they came to a place where the poppies clustered thickest, the three princesses insisted on stopping-Princess Adelaide, Princess Sophia, Princess Victoire. They wished to gather the flowers to take with them to the Chateau de Bove, where they were going to visit their dame d'honneur, Madame de Narbonne, but their guards argued that already it was growing late: they had better hurry on. At this the girls laughed silvery laughter. What did time matter to them? This was their road, made and paved for their pleasure! They would not be hurried along it. No indeed; to show that time as well as the road was theirs, to do with as they liked, they would get down and make a chain of poppies long enough to stretch across the whole plateau before it dipped to the valley of the Aillette!

So, in Captain Devot's dream, the princesses descended, and they and all their pretty ladies began weaving a chain of poppies. As they wove, the flower-chain fell from their little white fingers and trailed along the ground in a crimson line. The sun dropped toward the west, and thunder began to roll: still they worked on! Their gentlemen-in-charge begged them to start again, and at last they rose up petulantly to go; but they had stayed too late. The storm burst. Lightning flashed; thunder roared; rain fell in torrents; and-strange to see-the poppy petals melted, so that the long chain of flowers turned to a liquid stream, red as a river of blood. The princesses were frightened and began to cry. Their tears fell into the crimson flood. Captain Devot, who seemed in his dream to be one of the ladies' attendants, jumped from his horse to pick up the princesses' tears, which turned into little, rattling stones as they fell. With that, he waked. The princesses were gone-"all but Victoire," he said, smiling, "she shall stay with us! The thunder was the thunder of German guns. The poppies were there-and the blood was there. So also were the stones that had been the princesses' tears. They lie all along the Chemin des Dames to this day. I gathered some for my wife, and if you like she will give a few to you, ladies-souvenirs of the Ladies' Way!"

Of course we did like; so Dierdre and I each have a small, glistening gray stone, with a faint splash of red upon it. I would not sell mine for a pearl!

* * *

Father Beckett proposed to take his wife back to Paris; but while she rested after the fever, industriously she built up another plan. You remember, Padre, my telling you that the Becketts were negotiating for a chateau, before they arrived in France to visit their son? When they heard that Jim had fallen, they no longer cared to live in this chateau (which was to let, furnished), nevertheless, they felt bound in honour to stick to their bargain. Well, at Soissons, Mother Beckett had it "borne in upon her" that Jim would wish his father and mother to stay at the old house he had loved and coveted for himself.

"I can't go back across the sea and settle down at home while this war goes on!" she said. "Home just wouldn't be home. It's too far away from Jim. I don't mean from his body," she went on. "His body isn't Jim, I know! I've thought that out, and made myself realize the truth of it. But it's Jim's spirit I'm talking about, Father. I guess his soul-Jim himself-won't care to be flitting back and forth, crossing the ocean to visit us, while his friends are fighting in France and Belgium, to save the world. I know my boy well enough to be sure he's too strong to change much just because he is what some folks call 'dead'; and he'd like us to be near. Paris won't do for me. No city would. I'd be too restless there. Do, do let's go and live till the end of the war in Jim's chateau! That's what he's wanting. I feel it every minute."

I was in the room when she made this appeal to her husband, and I longed to put into their hearts the thought Jack Curtis had put into mine. But, of course, I dared not. It would have been cruel. Jack Curtis had nothing to go upon except his impression-the same impression I myself have at times, of Jim's vital presence in the midst of life. I have it often, though never quite so strongly as that night in Paris, when he would not let me kill myself.

It wasn't difficult to make Father Beckett consent to the new plan. He told me afterward that his own great wish was to find Jim's grave, when the end of the war would make search possible. Beckett interests were being safeguarded in America. They would not suffer much from his absence. Besides, business no longer seemed vitally important to him as of old. Money mattered little now that Jim was gone.

He would have abandoned his visit to the British front, since Mother Beckett could not have the glimpse half promised by the authorities. But she would not let him give it up. "Molly" would take good care of her. When she could move, we would all go to Amiens. There she and I could be safely left for a few days, while Brian and Father Beckett were at the front. As for Julian O'Farrell and Dierdre, at first it appeared as if the little lady had left them out of her calculations. But I might have known-knowing her-that she wouldn't do that for long.

She believed implicitly in their Red Cross mission, which, ever since the little car joined the big one, has been constantly aided with Beckett money and Beckett influence. Julian would, she supposed, wish to "carry on his good work," when our trip came to an end. But as he had no permission for the British front (he hadn't cared to make himself conspicuous to the British authorities by asking for it!) he and Dierdre might like to keep us two women company at Amiens. By the time we wanted to leave, Mother Beckett confidently expected "Jim's chateau" to be ready for occupation, and Dierdre must visit "us" there indefinitely, while her brother dutifully continued distributing supplies to hospitals and refugees. ("Us," according to Mother Beckett, meant Brian and me, Father Beckett and herself, for we now constituted the "family"!) Telegrams had given the Paris house-letting agency carte blanche for hasty preparations at the Chateau d'Andelle, where several old servants had been kept on as caretakers: and being a spoiled American millionairess, the little lady was confident that a week would see the house aired, warmed, staffed, and altogether habitable.

"You wouldn't object to having that poor little girl stay with us, would you, dear?" Mother Beckett asked me, patting my hand when she had revealed her ideas concerning the O'Farrells.

"Oh, no," I answered, looking straight into her inquiring eyes, and trying not to change colour. "But you shouldn't speak as if I had any right--"

"You have every right!" she cut me short. "Aren't you our daughter?"

"I love you and Father Beckett enough to be your daughter," I said. "But that gives me no right--"

"It does. Your love for us, and ours for you. I don't believe we could have lived through our sorrow if it hadn't been for you and Brian. He saved our reason by showing us what Jim would want us to do for the good of others. And he taught us what we couldn't seem to realize fully, through religion, that death doesn't count. Now, since I've been ill, I guess you've saved my life. And much as I want to see Jim, I want even more to live for Father. He needs me-and we both need you and Brian. You two belong to us, just as if you'd been given to us by Jim. We want to do what's best for you both. I thought, for Brian, it would be good perhaps to have Dierdre--"

"Perhaps," I murmured, when she paused.

"You're not sure? I wasn't at first. I mean, I wasn't sure she was good enough. But since the night when she threw herself in front of him to keep off the dog, I saw she cared. Maybe she didn't know it herself till then. But she's known ever since. You've only to see the way she looks at him. And she's growing more and more of a woman-Brian's influence, and the influence of her love-such a great influence, dear! It might be for

his happiness, if--"

"I don't think Brian would marry Dierdre or any girl, unless his sight came back," I said. "He's often told me he wouldn't marry."

"Was that before he went to Paris with the O'Farrells? Things have been rather different since then-and a good deal different since the night we met Jack Curtis with Sirius."

"I know," I admitted. "But if Brian wanted to change his mind about marrying, he couldn't. Neither he nor Dierdre O'Farrell have a penny--"

"Brian's got as much as we have," the dear woman assured me.

"Do you think he'd take your money to marry on? No, dearest! Brian's very unworldly. So far, he hasn't worried about finances for the present. The future is different. If he doesn't get back his sight--"

"But he will-he must!" she urged. "That great specialist you saw in Paris gave him hope. And then there's the other one that your doctor friend recommended--."

"He's somewhere at the front. We can't get at him now."

"We'll get at him later," Mother Beckett persisted. "In the meantime-let's give those two hearts the chance to draw together, if it's best for them."

I could not go on objecting. One can't, for long, when that little angel of a woman wants a thing-she who never wants anything for herself, only for others! But I thought Fate might step between Brian and Dierdre-Fate, in the shape of Puck. I wasn't at all sure that Julian O'Farrell could be contented to leave his sister and continue his own wanderings. The Red Cross taxi had in truth been only a means to an end. I didn't fancy that his devotion to duty would carry him far from the Chateau d'Andelle while Dierdre was comfortably installed in it. Unless he were invited to embusquer himself there, in our society, I expected a crash. Which shows how little I knew my Julian!

When the plan was officially suggested to him, he agreed as if with enthusiasm. It was only when he'd consented to Dierdre's visit at the chateau on the other side of the Somme, and promised to drop in now and then himself on his way somewhere else, that he allowed himself a second thought. To attract attention to it, he started, ran his hand through his hair, and stopped in the middle of a sentence. "I am heaven's own fool!" he exclaimed.

Of course Father Beckett wanted to know why. (This was two days before we started for Amiens.) Julian "registered reluctance." Father Beckett persisted, and drew forth the information that Julian might have to cut short his career as a ministering Red Cross angel. "If it hadn't been for you," he said, "my funds and my supplies would have run short before this. You've helped me carry on. But I'm getting pretty close to the bone again now, I'm afraid. A bit closer and I shall have to settle down and give music lessons. That's all I'm fit for in future! And Dierdre wouldn't want me to set up housekeeping alone. While I'm on this Red Cross job it's all right, but--"

Of course Father Beckett broke in to say that there was no question of not carrying on. Money should be forthcoming for supplies as long as Julian felt inclined to drive the Red Cross taxi from one scene of desolation and distress to another. Holidays must be frequent, and all spent at the Chateau d'Andelle. Let the future decide itself!

So matters were settled-on the surface. Julian was ready to pose before an admiring audience as the self-sacrificing hero, giving all his time and energy to a noble cause. Only his sister and I knew that he was the villain of the piece, and for different reasons neither of us could explain the mistake about his r?le. He was sure of us both; impudently, aggravatingly, yet (I can't help it, Padre!) amusingly sure of me. He tried to "isolate" me, as if I'd been a microbe while we were still at Soissons, and again just after Father Beckett and Brian went away from Amiens in the big gray car. There was something, something very special that he wished to say to me, I could tell by his eyes. But I contrived to thwart him. I never left Mother Beckett for a moment!

The first day at Amiens it was easy to keep out of his way altogether, for I was nurse as well as friend, and my dear little invalid was worn out after the journey from Soissons. She asked nothing better than to stop in her room. The next day, however, exciting news acted upon her like a tonic. The Amiens address had been wired to Paris, and in addition to a mass of letters (mostly for Father Beckett) there was a telegram from the Chateau d'Andelle, despatched by an agency messenger, who had been sent to Normandy. All was going well. The house would be ready on the date named. Two large boxes from the Ritz had safely arrived by grande vitesse.

"Darling Jimmy's own things!" Mother Beckett explained to me. "Do you remember my telling you we'd brought over to France the treasures out of his den at home?"

I did remember. (Do I ever forget anything she says about Jim?)

"They were to be a surprise for him when he came to see us," his mother went on, tears misting the blueness of her eyes. "Not furniture, you know, but just the little things he loved best in his rooms: some he had when he was a child, and others when he was growing up-and the picture your brother painted. When we heard-the news-and knew we shouldn't see our boy again in this world, I couldn't bear to open the boxes-though I was longing to cry over his dear treasures. They've been stored at the Ritz ever since. But the first thing I asked Father to do when we decided the other day to live in Jim's chateau, after all-was to wire for the boxes to be sent there. I didn't suppose they'd arrive so soon-in war time. Dear me, I can hardly wait to start, now! I feel as strong as a girl."

To prove this-or because she was restless-she begged to be taken out in a cab to see the town, especially the cathedral, which Brian had told her was the largest in Europe except St. Peter's in Rome, St. Sophia in Constantinople, and something in Cologne which she didn't want to remember! Julian O'Farrell and his sister must go with us, of course. It wouldn't be kind to leave them to do their sightseeing alone. Besides, Julian was so good-natured, and said such funny things it would be pleasant to have his society.

This arrangement made it difficult for me to glue myself to Mother Beckett's side. Now and then she insisted upon getting out of the cab to try her strength, and Dierdre would obediently have taken her in tow, in order to hand me over to "Jule," if I hadn't been mulishly obstinate. I quite enjoyed man?uvring to use my dear little invalid as a sort of standing barrage against enemy attacks, and even though Brian and I were parted for the first time since his blindness, I felt almost absurdly cheerful. It was so good to know that Mother Beckett was out of danger, and that it was I who had helped to drag her out! Besides, after all the stricken towns that have saddened our eyes, it was enlivening to be in one (as Mother Beckett said at Compiègne) with "whole houses." In contrast, good St. Firmin's ancient city looks almost as gay as Paris. Our hotel with its pleasant garden and the fine shops-(where it seems you can still buy every fascinating thing from newest jewellery and oldest curiosities, to Amiens' special "roc" chocolates)-the long, arboured boulevards, the cobbled streets, the quaint blue and pink houses of the suburbs, and the poplar-lined walk by the Somme, all, all have the friendliest air! Despite the crowds of soldiers in khaki and horizon blue who fill the streets and cafés, the place seems outside war. Even the stacked sandbags walling the west front and the side portals of the grandest cathedral in France suggest comfortable security rather than fear. The jackdaws and pigeons that used to be at home in the carvings, camp contentedly among the bags, or walk in the neglected grass where sleep the dead of long ago. I didn't want to remember just then, or let any one else remember, that twenty miles away were the trenches and thousands of the dead of to-day!

Never can Amiens have been such a kaleidoscope of colourful animation since Henri II of France and Edward VI of England signed the treaty of peace here, with trains of diplomatists and soldiers of church and state and dignified rejoicings!

It wasn't until we were inside the cathedral that I forgot my man?uverings. The soft, rich light gave such a bizarre effect to the sandbags protecting the famous choir carvings, that I was all eyes for a moment: and during that moment Julian must have signed to his sister to decoy Mother Beckett away from me. When I hauled my soul down from the soaring arches as one strikes a flag, there was Puck at my side and there were Mother Beckett and Dierdre disappearing behind sandbag-hillocks, in the direction of the celebrated Cherub.

"I suppose you want me jolly well to understand," said Puck, smiling, "that even if your brother Brian and my sister Dare are fools over each other, you won't be fooled into forgiving a poor, broken-voiced Pierrot?"

"I've nothing to forgive you for, personally," I said. "Only--"

"Only, you don't want to be friends?"

"No, I don't want to be friends," I echoed. "Why can't you be content with being treated decently before people, instead of following me about, trying always to bring upon yourself--"

"A lamp might ask that question of a moth."

I laughed. "You're less like a moth than any creature I ever met!"

"You don't believe I'm sincere."

"Do moths specialize in sincerity in the insect world?"

"Yes," Puck said, more gravely than usual. "Come to think of it, that's just what they do. They risk their lives for the light they love. I 'follow you about,' as you put it, because I love you and want to persuade you that we're birds of a feather, made for each other by nature and fate and our mutual behaviour. We belong together in life."

"Do you really believe you can blackmail me into a partnership?" I turned at bay. "You must have seen that I wanted to keep out of your way--"

"Oh, I saw all right. You thought that I thought Amiens would be my great chance, and you made up your mind it shouldn't be if you could help it. Well, you won't be able to help it much longer, because I've got something you want, and you can't get it except through me."

"I doubt very much that I could want anything you have," I said.

"Give your imagination wings."

"You are always teasing me to guess things I don't care to guess!"

"Here comes Dierdre back with Mrs. Beckett so I won't worry you to guess. I've got a message from the Wandering Jew. Do you want it, or don't you?"

* * *

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