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   Chapter 31 No.31

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 19206

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Five days later.

I did talk to Brian, Padre, and he said, better wait and give the letter from Switzerland a fair chance to arrive, before telling Father Beckett about Doctor Paul's messenger at Amiens.

Now I have had a letter, but not from Switzerland. I shall fold it up between the pages of this book of my confessions. I believe you will read it, Padre.

It came to-day. It explains itself. The envelope, postmarked Paris, was addressed to me in typewriting. If Mother Beckett had not had a slight relapse from working too hard in the den, I might perhaps have been gone before the letter came. Then it would have had to be forwarded. It's better that I stayed. You will see why. But-oh, Padre, Padre!


"Miss O'Malley,

"Once I met a lady whose name, as I understood it, was not unlike yours now, given me by Doctor Paul Herter. I cannot think that you and she are one. That lady, I'd swear, would be incapable of-let me say, placing herself in a false position.

"Though you will not recognize my handwriting, I've said enough for you to guess that James Wyndham Beckett is your correspondent. I have had the address typed because, for my parents' sake and to spare them distress, it seems that you and I must reach some understanding before I venture to let them know that I'm alive.

"If you are worthy to be called 'friend' by such a man as Paul Herter, you will wish to atone for certain conduct, by carrying out the request I make now. I must trust you to do so. But first let me relieve my mind of any fear for yourself. I have not contradicted the story you told Herter about our engagement. What I shall say to my parents when I meet them, as I hope soon to do, depends upon circumstances. Till you and I have had a private conversation, you will oblige me by letting things remain as they are. I have strong reasons for this wish. One of them-the only one I need explain now, is that it will seem natural to them I should write to my fiancée-a young, strong girl able to bear the shock of a great surprise-asking her to break the news gently and tactfully to my father and mother. I do ask you to do this. How to do it I must leave to you. But when you've told my parents that I'm alive, that I've escaped, that I'm in Paris with Herter, that as soon as my official business of reporting myself is finished, I'll get leave, you may put into their hands the following pages of this letter. They will not think it strange that the girl I am engaged to should keep the first part for her own eyes. Thus, without your being compromised, they will learn my adventures without having to wait until I come. But there's just room enough left on this first sheet to reiterate that, when Herter found me, and gave me the somewhat disconcerting news of my engagement to his friend, a Miss O'Malley travelling with my parents, I-simply listened. Rather than excite his suspicions I did not even yield to curiosity, and try to draw out a description. I could not be sure then that I should ever see you, or my people, for escape was difficult and there were more chances against than for my getting out of Germany alive. Now, in all human certainty I shall arrive at the Chateau d'Andelle (I got the address at the bank), and you owe it to me to remain on the spot till we can thrash out our affair together. I will begin on a new sheet the story of the last few months since my capture. You must forgive me if it bores you. In reality it is for my parents, when you have prepared their minds, and I don't think it will bore them....

"We came a bad cropper. I was thrown clear of the machine, but knew nothing until I waked up, feeling like a bag of broken bones. It was night, and I saw a huge fountain of red flame and a lot of dark figures like silhouettes moving between it and me. That brought me out of my stupor. I knew my plane must have taken fire as it crashed down, and I was pretty sure the silhouettes were Germans. I looked around for my observer, and called to him in a low voice, hoping the Bosch wouldn't hear, over the noise of the fire. Nobody answered. Later I found out that the poor chap had been caught under the car. I pray he died before the flames reached him!

"As I got my wits back, I planned to try and hide myself under some bushes I could see not far off, till the coast was clear; but I couldn't move. I seemed to be thoroughly smashed up, and began to think it was the end of things ici-bas for me. After a while I must have fainted. By and by I had a dream of jolting along through a blazing desert, on the back of a lame camel. It was rather fierce, that jolting! It shook me out of my faint, and when I opened my eyes it was to find myself on a stretcher carried by fellows in German gray. They took me to a field hospital, and I guessed by the look of things that it was close to the first lines. It made me sick to think how near I must be to our own front-yet so far!

"Well, I won't be long-winded about what happened next. I can go into details when we meet. It turned out that I had a leg, an arm, and some ribs smashed. The Bosch surgeon wasn't half bad, as Bosches go, but he was a bit brusque. I heard him say right out to the an?sthetist, it seemed a pity to waste good ether on me, as there wasn't one chance in five to save my life. Still, I'd be an experiment! Before I went off under the stuff I told them who I was, for I'd heard they were sometimes fairly decent to enemy aviators, and I hoped to get a message through to my people. I was feeling as stupid as an owl, but I did think I saw a change come over the men's faces when they heard my name. Later, putting two and two together, I concluded that Germany was just the kind of business nation to know all about the dear old Governor. I might have realized that, out of sheer spite against the United States for bursting into the war, they'd enjoy letting a man of James Beckett Senior's importance go on believing his son was dead. I bet they put my name over the grave of my poor, burned pal, Hank Lee! It would be the thoroughgoing sort of thing they do, when they make up their minds to create an impression.

"I didn't die, though! Spite for spite, I got well. But it took some time. One of my lungs had been damaged a bit by a broken rib, and the doctors prescribed an open-air cure, after I'd begun to crawl again. I was put with a lot of T. B.'s, if you know what that means, in a camp hospital. Not far off was a huge 'camouflaged' aerodrome and a village of hangars. I heard that flying men were being trained there. I used to think I'd give my head to get to the place, but I never hoped to do it-till Herter came.

"Now I will tell you how he came-which I can freely do, as we are both safe in Paris, having come from somewhere near Compiègne. One of the first things Herter said about you was that you must have guessed where he was going, and more or less for what purpose. For that purpose he was the ideal man: a Lorrainer of Germanized Lorraine; German his native tongue-(though he hates it)-and clever as Machiavelli. He "escaped" from France into Germany, told a tale about killing a French sentry and creeping across No Man's Land at night, in order to get to the German lines. It was a big risk, but Herter is as brave and resourceful a man as I ever met. He got the Bosches to believe that he was badly ill in Paris when the war broke out and couldn't slip away, otherwise he'd have sprung to do his loyal duty to the Fatherland. He persuaded them that his lot being cast in France for the time, he'd resolved to serve Germany by spying, until he could somehow bolt across the frontier. He spun a specious tale about pretending to the French to have French sympathies, and winning the confidence of high-up men, by serving as a surgeon on several fronts. To prove his German patriotism he had notes to show, realistically made on thin silk paper, and hidden inside the lining of his coat.

"Herter's mission in Boschland isn't my business or yours; but I'm allowed to say that it was concerned with aeroplanes. There was something he had to find out, and he has found it out, or he wouldn't be back on this side of the lines. Because he hoped to be among German flying-men, he hinted to you that he might be able to do you some service. It occurred to him that he might learn where my grave was and let you know. Nothing further was in his thoughts then-or until he happened to draw out a piece of unexpected information in a roundabout way.

"His trick of getting across to the flying-men was smart, like all his tricks. The valuable (?) notes he'd brought into Germany mostly concerned new French and American inventions in that line. That was his 'speciality.' And when he had handed the notes over with explanations, he continued his programme by asking for a job as surgeon in a field hospital. (You see, he hoped to get back to France before the worthlessness of his notes was discovered.) When he'd proved his qualifications, he got his job like a shot. They were only too glad of his services. Pretending to have been in American training-camps, it was easy to bring up my name in a casual way. Laughing that rather sinister laugh of his, which you will remember, Herter told a couple of flying chaps he had promised a girl to find Jim Beckett's grave. One of the fellows laughed too, and made a remark which set Herter thinking. Later, he was able to refer to the subject again, and learned enough to suspect that there was something fishy about the Bosch announcement of my death and burial. He tells me that, at this

point, he was able to send you a verbal message by a consumptive prisoner about to be repatriated. Whether you got that message or not who knows?

"His idea was to send another (in a way he won't explain even to me) when he'd picked up further news. But as things turned out, there was no time. Besides, it wasn't necessary. It looked hopeful that we might be our own carrier pigeons, or else-cease to exist.

"What happened was that Herter heard I was alive and in a hospital not far behind the lines. Just at this time he had got hold of the very secret he'd come to seek. The sooner he could make a dash for home the better: but if possible, he wished to take me with him. He had the impression that to do so would please his friend Miss O'Malley! How it was to be worked he didn't see until an odd sort of American bombing machine fell, between an aerodrome it had attempted to destroy, and Herter's hospital. They knew it was American, only because of its two occupants, both killed. The machine was considerably smashed up, but experts found traces of something amazingly novel, which they couldn't understand. Herter was called to the scene, because he had pretended to be up in the latest American flying 'stunts.' The minute he saw the wreckage an inspiration jumped into his head.

"He confessed himself puzzled by the mysterious details, thought them important, and said: 'It seems to me this resembles the engine and wings of the James Beckett invention I heard so much about. But I didn't know it was far enough ahead yet to be in use. A pity the inventor was killed. He might have come in handy.

"Well, they put those words in their pipes and smoked them-knowing, of course, that I was very much alive and almost within a stone's throw.

"I had always pretended not to understand German: thought ignorance of the language might serve my plans some day or other. The chap they sent to fetch me dropped a few words to a doctor in my hearing. And so, though I wasn't told where I was being taken or why I was to go, I'd about caught on to the fact that I was supposed to have invented the plans for a new bombing biplane. That made me wonder if a friend was at work under the rose: and I was ready for anything when I got to the scene of the smash.

"Fortunately, none of the Bosches on the spot could speak English fluently, and I appeared more of a fool at French than German. Herter-entirely trusted by his German pals-was told off to talk English with me; and a flash of his eye said, here was the friend! It was only a flash, and I couldn't be sure, but it put me on the qui vive. I noticed that in asking me the question he was told to ask, he emphasized certain words which needed no emphasis, and spoke them slowly, with a look that made me determine to fix each one in my mind. This I did, and putting them together when I got the chance, I made out, 'I want to get you home. Say you invented this model, and could put the thing in working trim.'

"That was a big order! If I said it and could keep my word, would it be a patriotic job to present the enemy with a perfectly good machine, of a new make, in the place of a wreck they didn't understand? This was my first thought. But the second reminded me of a sentence I'd constructed with some of the emphasized words; 'I want to get you home.' How did he expect to get me home-if not by air?

"With that I caught a glimpse of the plan, as one sometimes catches sight of the earth through a break in massed clouds when flying. If the man meant to help me, I would help him. If he turned out a fraud, the Germans shouldn't profit by his treachery I'd stop that game at the last moment, if I died for it!

"You will know nothing about the new and curious bombing biplane of super-speed invented by Leroy Harman of Galbraith, Texas. But Father knows as much as any one not an expert in aeronautics can know. When the Government wouldn't believe in Harman, Father financed him by my advice. I left home for France before the trial machine that was to convince officialdom had come into being; and I didn't even know whether it had made good. But the minute I saw what lay on the ground, surrounded by a ring of Germans, I said to myself; 'Good old Leroy!'

"I'd seen so much of his plans that they remained printed on my brain, and I could-if I would-set that biplane on its wings again almost as easily as if I had invented it.

"Odd that the Bosches and I both trusted Herter, seeing he must be false to one side or other! But he's that sort of man. And I always take a tip from my own instinct before listening to my reason. Maybe that's why I didn't do badly in my brief career as a flier. Anyhow, I played up to Herter; and I got the job of superintending the reconstruction of poor Harman's damaged machine. It was a lovely job for a prisoner, though they watched me as a German cat would watch an Allied mouse. Herter was nearly always on the spot, however, for he'd made himself responsible for me. Also, he'd offered to pump me about what was best in the air world on my side of the water: how many aeroplanes of different sorts America could turn out in six months, etc. We contrived a cypher on diagrams I made. It was a clever one, but the credit was Herter's.

"The Bosches were waiting impatiently for my work to be done, in order to try out the machine, and if satisfactory, spawn a brood of their own on the same model. I was equally impatient. I hoped to fly off with the biplane before they had time to copy it!

"A wounded Ace of theirs, Anton Hupfer, was for ever hanging round. He was to take up the 'plane when it was ready. But Herter industriously chummed with him, and not for nothing. To Herter was due the 'discovery' of the inventor; and as he boasted experience in flying, he asked the privilege of being Hupfer's companion on the trial trip.

"The success of this trip would depend even more on the machine's worth as a bomber than on her speed and climbing qualities. It was, therefore, to be undertaken at night, with a full complement of real bombs to drop upon headquarters at Compiègne. Herter had suggested this. Daylight wouldn't have suited for a start.

"An hour before the appointed time he dashed in upon Hupfer to confide that a sudden suspicion concerning me was troubling him. He had noticed a queer expression on my face as I gave the engine a last look over! If I had done some obscure damage to this so new type of machine, the mechanics might not detect its nature. Herter didn't wish to harm me, if his suspicion was unfounded, he explained, but he proposed a drastic proof of my good faith. I was to be hauled out of bed, and hurried without warning to look at the biplane in her hangar. The mechanics were to be sent outside, there to wait for a signal to open the doors: this to avoid gossip if I was honest after all. Hupfer was to spring it on me that he'd decided to take me up instead of Herter. My face was to be watched as this news was flung at me. If I showed the slightest trace of uneasiness, it would be a sign that I had played a trick and feared to fall its victim. In that case the 'third degree' was to be applied until I owned up, and could be haled away for punishment.

"There was just time to carry out this programme, and Hupfer fell for it. Herter had put me wise beforehand, and I knew what to expect. His real plan was to stand behind Hupfer, the Bosch Ace, and bash him on the head with a spanner, while his (Hupfer's) whole attention was fixed on me. We would then undress the fellow. I would take his clothes, and we'd put him into mine. Hupfer's body (stunned, not dead, we hoped) we would lay behind a pile of petrol tins. I acting as pilot, would trust to my disguise and the darkness of night not to be spotted when the two mechanics threw open the hangar doors.

"Everything happened as we'd arranged, without a hitch-again, all credit to Herter! When we'd hidden the limp Ace, trussed up in my prison rig, Herter yelled to the waiting men, in a good imitation of Hupfer's voice. We ran smoothly out of the hangar, and were given a fine send off. How soon the Bosches found out how they'd been spoofed, I don't know. It couldn't have been long though, as my prison guard was in attendance. The great thing was, we went up in grand style. Otherwise-but we needn't now think of the 'otherwise'!

"Our next danger lay in taking the wrong direction, getting farther back in Boschland instead of over the frontier. I kept my wits, fortunately, so that turned out all right. Still, there remained the chance of being shot down by the French, and blown with our own bombs into kingdom come. But, by good luck it was a clear night. No excuse for getting lost! And when I was sure we were well over the French lines, I planed down to alight in a field.

"The alert was out for us, of course, and a fierce barrage put up, but I flew high till I was ready for a dive. We'd hardly landed, when the poilus swarmed like bees, but that was what we wanted. You must imagine the scene that followed, till I can tell you by word of mouth!

"I shall have made my report, and have been given leave to start for a visit to my family by to-morrow I hope.

"Yours till the end,


"Yours till the end!" Rather a smart, cynical way of winding up those "exhibition pages" was it not, Padre? The secret translation of that signature is: "Yours, you brute, till I can get rid of you with least damage to my parents' susceptibilities!"

I shall obey, and wait for the interview. It's like waiting to be shot at dawn!

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