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   Chapter 28 No.28

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 16928

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


If Julian had suddenly popped down an apple on the top of my head, à la Gessler and the son of William Tell, and thereupon proceeded to shoot it off, I could have been no more amazed. For once he outflanked me, caught me completely off my guard! I saw by the impish gleam in his eye how delighted he was with himself.

"Yes or no, please; quick!" he fired the next volley as I stood speechless.

"Yes!" I gasped. "I do want the message-if it's for me. But why should he send word through you?"

"He didn't. I caught it as I might catch a homing carrier-pigeon. You know, my motto is 'All's fair in love and war.' In my case, both exist-your fault! Besides, what I did was for your good."

"What did you do-what did you dare to do?"

"Dare!" Puck mimicked my foolish fury. "'Dare' is such a melodramatic word from you to me. I can't tell you now what I did, or the message-no time. But I'm in as much of a hurry as you are. When can I see you alone?"

I hesitated, because it would be like him to cheat me with some trick, and chuckle at my rage. I couldn't see how a message from Paul Herter for me had reached Julian O'Farrell, unless he'd intercepted a letter. It seemed far more likely that Puck was romancing, yet I felt in my bones and heart and solar plexus that he wasn't! I simply had to know-and in a flurry, before Mother Beckett and Dierdre were upon us, I said, "This afternoon, at three, when Mrs. Beckett is having her nap. I'll meet you in the garden of the hotel."

Though I dash along with this story of mine, Padre, as if I went straight on describing the scene between Julian and me from beginning to end, without a break, it isn't really so. I've been interrupted more than once, and may be again; but I shall tell you everything that's happened since we came to Amiens, as if I wrote consecutively. You can understand better in that way, and help me with your strength and love, through your understanding, as I feel you do help, whenever I make you my confessions. Since I've begun to write you, as in old days when you were in the flesh, I've felt your advice come to me in electric flashes. I'm sure I don't just imagine this. It's real, dear Padre, and makes all the difference to me that a rope flung out over dark waters would make to a drowning man.

At three o'clock I was in the garden. It was cold, but I didn't care. Besides, I was too excited to feel the chill. I wanted to be out of doors because there would be people about, and no chance for Julian to try and kiss my hand-no vulgar temptation for me to box his ears!

He was already waiting, strolling up and down, smoking a cigarette which he threw away at sight of me. Evidently he'd decided on this occasion not to be frivolous!

I selected a seat safely commanded by many windows. "Now!" I said, sitting down close to one end of the bench.

Julian took the other end, but sat gazing straight at me without a word. There was an odd expression on his face. I didn't know how to read it, or to guess what was to come. But there was nothing Puckish about the enemy at that moment. He looked nervous-almost as if he were afraid. I thought of something you told me when I was quite small, Padre: how the Romans of old used to send packets of good news bound with laurel, or of bad news, tied with the plumes of ravens. I stared into Julian O'Farrell's stare, and wished that he'd stuck a green leaf or a black feather in his buttonhole to prepare my mind.

"Yes-now!" he echoed at last, as if he'd suddenly waked up to my challenge. "Well, a man blew into this hotel last night-a lame Frenchman with a face like a boiled ghost. I was writing an important telegram (I'll tell you about that later), when I heard this person ask the concierge if a Miss Mary O'Malley was staying in the house. That made me open my eyes-because he was of the lower bourgeois class, and hadn't the air of being-so to speak-in your set. It seemed as if 'twas up to me to tackle him; so I did. I introduced myself as a friend of Miss O'Malley's, travelling with her party. I explained that Miss O'Malley was taking care of an old lady who'd been ill and was tired after a long journey. I asked if he'd like to give a message. He said he would. But first he began to explain who he was: an Alsatian by birth, named Muller, corporal in an infantry regiment; been a prisoner in Germany, I forget how long-taken wounded; leg amputated; and fitted with artificial limb in a Boche hospital; just exchanged for a grand blessé Boche, and repatriated; been in Paris on important business, apparently with the War Office-sounded more exciting than he looked! After I'd prodded the chap tactfully, he came back to the subject of the message: asked me if I knew Doctor Paul Herter. I said I did know him. Herter mended up my sister after an air raid. I inquired politely where Herter was, but Muller evaded that question. He led me to suppose he'd seen Herter in Paris; but putting two and two together, I got a different idea-altogether different."

Julian paused on those words, and tried piercingly to read my thoughts. But I made my face expressionless as the front of a shut-up house, with "to let unfurnished" over the door.

"I expect you've guessed what my idea was, and I bet you know for a fact whether I was on the right track," he ventured.

"The only thing so far which I know for a fact," I said, "is that you had no right to talk to the man at all. You should have sent for me at once."

"You couldn't have come if I had. Dierdre had told me about five minutes before that you were putting Mrs. Beckett to bed, and giving her a massage treatment with a rub-down of alcohol."

"Why didn't you ask the man to wait?"

"I did ask him if he could wait, and he said he couldn't. He'd stopped at Amiens on purpose to deliver his message, and he had to catch a train on to Allonville, to where it seems his people have migrated."

"You asked him that because you hoped he couldn't wait-and if he could, you'd have found some reason for not letting me meet him. You thought you saw a way of getting a new hold over me!"

"Some such dramatic idea may have flitted through my head. I've often warned you, I am dramatic! I enjoy dramatizing life for myself and others! But honestly, he couldn't wait for you to finish with Mrs. Beckett. I know too well how devoted you are to think you'd have left the old lady before you'd soothed her off to sleep."

"Where is the message?" I snatched Julian back to the point.

"In my brain at present."

"You destroyed the letter?"

"There wasn't a letter. Oh, make grappling hooks of your lovely eyes if you like! You can't drag anything out of me that doesn't exist. Herter's message to you was verbal for safety. That was one thing set me thinking the men hadn't met in Paris. Muller admitted going to a bank to get your address. The people there didn't want to give it, but when he explained that it was important, and mentioned where he was going, they saw that he might have time to meet you at Amiens on his way home. So they told him where you were. Now, there's no good your being cross with me. What's done is done, and can't be undone. I acted for the best-my best; and in my opinion for your best. Listen! Here's the message, word for word. You'll see that a few hours' delay for me to think it over could make no difference to any one concerned. Paul Herter, from somewhere-but maybe not 'somewhere in France'-sends you a verbal greeting, because it was more sure of reaching you-not coming to grief en route. He reminds you that he asked for an address in case he had something of interest to communicate. He hoped to find the grave of a man you loved. Instead, he thinks he has found that there is no grave-that the man is above ground and well. He isn't sure yet whether he may be deceived by a likeness of names. But he's sure enough to say: 'Hope.' If he's right about the man, you may get further news almost any minute by way of Switzerland or somewhere neutral. That's all. Yet it's enough to show you what danger you're in. If Herter hadn't been practically certain, he wouldn't have sent any message. He'd have waited. Evidently you made him believe that you loved Jim Beckett, so he wanted to prepare your mind by degrees. I suppose he imagined a shock of joy might be dangerous. Well, you ought to thank Herter just the same for sparing you a worse sort of shock. And I thank him, too, for it gives me

a great chance-the chance to save you. Mary, the time's come for you and me to fade off the Beckett scene-together."

I listened without interrupting him once: at first, because I was stunned, and a thousand thoughts beat dully against my brain without finding their way in, as gulls beat their wings against the lamp of a lighthouse; at last, because I wished to hear Julian O'Farrell to the very end before I answered. I fancied that in answering I could better marshal my own thoughts.

He misunderstood my silence-I expected him to do that, but I cared not at all-so, when he had paused and still I said nothing, he went on: "Of course I-for the best of reasons-know you didn't love Jim Beckett, and couldn't love him."

Hearing those words of his, suddenly I knew just what I wanted to say. I'd been like an amateur actress wild with stage fright, who'd forgotten her part till the right cue came. "There you're mistaken," I contradicted him. "I did love Jim Beckett."

Julian gave an excited, brutal laugh. "Tell that to the Marines, my child, not to yours truly! You never set eyes on Jim Beckett. He never went near your hospital. You never came near the training-camp. You seem to have forgotten that I was on the spot."

"I met him before the war," I said.

"What's that?" Julian didn't know whether to believe me or not, but his forehead flushed to the black line of his low-growing hair.

"I never told you, because there was no need to tell," I went on. "But it's true. I fell in love with Jim Beckett then, and-he cared for me."

For the first time I realized that Julian O'Farrell's "love" wasn't all pretence. His flush died, and left him pale with that sick, greenish-olive pallor which men of Latin blood have when they're near fainting. He opened his lips, but did not speak, because, I think, he could not. If I'd wanted revenge for what he made me suffer when he first thrust himself into my life, I had it then; but to my own surprise I felt no pleasure in striking him. Instead I felt vaguely sorry, though very distant from his plans and interests.

"You-you weren't engaged to Beckett, anyhow. I'm sure you weren't, or you'd have had nothing to worry about when Dierdre and I turned up," he faced me down.

"No, we weren't engaged," I admitted. "I-was just as much of a fraud as you meant Dierdre to be with Father and Mother Beckett. I've no excuse-except that it was for Brian's sake. But that's no excuse really, and Brian would despise me if he knew."

"There you are!" Julian burst out, with a relieved sigh, a more natural colour creeping back to his face. "If Jim Beckett let you go before the war without asking you to marry him, I'm afraid his love couldn't have been very deep-not deep enough to make him forgive you after all this time for deceiving his old father and mother the way you have. My God, no! In spite of your beauty, he'd have no mercy on you!"

"That's what I think," I said. "My having met him, and his loving me a little, makes what I've done more shameful than if I'd never met him at all."

"Then you see why you must get away as quick as you can!" urged Julian, his eyes lighting as he drew nearer to me on the garden bench. "Oh, wait, don't speak yet! Let me explain my plan. There's time still. You're thinking of Brian before yourself, maybe. But he's safe. The Becketts adore him. They say he 'saved their reason.' He makes the mysticism they're always groping for seem real as their daily bread. He puts local colour into the fourth dimension for them! They can never do without Brian again. All that's needed is for him to propose to Dierdre. I know-you think he won't, no matter how he feels. But he'll have missed her while he's away. She's a missable little thing to any one who likes her, and she can tempt him to speak out in spite of himself when he gets back. I'll see to it that she does. The Becketts will be enchanted. The old lady's a born match-maker. We can announce our engagement at the same time. While they think Jim's dead, they won't grudge your being happy with another man, especially with me. They're fond of me! And you're young. Your life's before you. They're too generous to stand in your way. They look on you as a daughter, and Brian as a son. They'll give each of you a handsome wedding present, and I don't doubt they'll ask Brian to live with them, or near them, if he's to be blind all his life. He'll have everything you wanted to win for him. Even when they get into communication with Jim, and find out the truth about you, why I bet anything they'll hide it from Brian to keep him happy! Meanwhile you and I will be in Paris, safely married. An offer came to me yesterday from Jean De Letzski-forwarded on. He's getting old. He wants me to take on some of his pupils, under his direction. I telegraphed back my acceptance. That's the wire I was sending when Herter's man turned up last night. There was a question last summer of my getting this chance with De Letzski, but I hardly dared hope. It's a great stroke of luck! In the end I shall stand in De Letzski's shoes, and be a rich man-almost as rich as if I'd kept my place as star tenor in opera. Even at the beginning you and I won't be poor. I count on a wedding gift from the Becketts to you of ten thousand dollars at least. The one way to save our reputations is to marry or die brilliantly. We choose the former. We can take a fine apartment. We'll entertain the most interesting set in Paris. With your looks and charm, and what's left of my voice, we--"

"Oh, stop!" I plunged into the torrent of his talk. "You are making me-sick. Do you really believe I'd accept money from Jim Beckett's parents, and-marry you?"

He stared, round-eyed and hurt, like a misunderstood child. "But," he blundered on, "don't you see it's the only thing you can do-anyhow, to marry me? If you won't accept money, why it's a pity and a waste, but I want you enough to snap you up without a franc. You must marry me, dear. Think what I gave up for you!"

I burst out laughing. "What you gave up for me!"

"Yes. Have you forgotten already? If I hadn't fallen in love with you at first sight, and sacrificed myself and Dierdre for your good, wouldn't my sister have been in your place now, and you and your brother Lord knows where-in prison as impostors, perhaps?"

"According to you, my place isn't a very enviable one at present," I said. "But I'd rather be in prison for life than married to you. What a vision-what a couple!"

"Oh, I know having you for my wife would be a good deal like going to heaven in a strong mustard plaster; but I'd stand the smart for the sake of the bliss. If you won't marry me and if you won't take money from the Becketts, what will become of you? That's what I want to know! You can't stay on with them. You daren't risk going to their Chateau d'Andelle, as things are turning out. Herter's certainly in Germany-ideal man for a spy! If he runs across Jim Beckett, as he's trying to do, he'll move heaven and earth to help him escape. He must have influence, and secret ways of working things. He may have got at Jim before this for all we can tell. Muller let it leak out that he left Herter-somewhere-a week ago. A lot can happen in a week-to a Wandering Jew. The ground's trembling under your feet. You'll have to skip without Brian, without money, without--"

"I shall not stir," I said. "I can't leave Mrs. Beckett, I won't leave her! The only way I can atone even a little bit, is to stop and take care of her while she needs me, no matter what happens. When she finds out, she won't want me any longer. Then I'll go. But not before."

We glared at each other like two fencers through the veil of falling dusk. Suddenly I sprang up from the bench, remembering that, at least, I could escape from Julian, if not from the sword of Damocles. But he caught my dress, and held me fast.

"What if I tell the old birds the whole story up to date?" he blustered. "I can, you know."

"You can. Please give me fair warning if you're going to-that's all I ask. I'll try to prepare Mrs. Beckett's mind to bear the shock. She's not very strong, but--"

"If I don't tell, it won't be because of her. It will be for you-always, everything, for you! But I haven't decided yet. I don't know what I shall do yet. I must think. You'll have to make the best of that compromise unless you change your mind."

"I shall not change my mind," I said.

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