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   Chapter 32 No.32

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 13269

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

I persuaded Brian to tell Father Beckett. I wasn't worthy. But the dear old man came straight to me, transfigured, to make me go with him to his wife, even before he had finished reading the letter.

"You must come," he said-and when Father Beckett says "must," in a certain tone, one does. It's then that the resemblance, more in expression than feature, between him and his son shines out like a light. "It will save mother the trouble of asking for you," he went on, dragging me joyously with him, his arm round my waist. "She'd do that, first thing, sure! Why, do you suppose we forget Jim's as much to you as to us? Haven't you shown us that, every day since we met?"

What answer could I give? I gave none.

Mother Beckett had been lying down for the afternoon nap which by my orders she takes every day. She'd just waked, and was sitting up on the lounge, when her husband softly opened the door to peep in. The only light was firelight, leaping in an open grate.

"Come in, come in!" she greeted us in her silver tinkle of a voice. "Oh, you didn't disturb me. I was awake. I thought I'd ring for tea. But I didn't after all. I'd had such a beautiful dream, I hated to come out of it."

"I bet it was a dream about Jim!" said Father Beckett. He drew me into the room, and the little lady pulled me down beside her on the wide, cushiony lounge. Her husband's special arm-chair was close by, but he didn't subside into it as usual at this cosy hour of the afternoon. Instead, he knelt stiffly down on one knee, and took the tiny, ringed hand held out to him. "You wouldn't think a dream beautiful, unless Jim was in it!"

"Yes I would, if you were in it, dear," she reproached him. "Or Molly. But Jim was in this dream. I saw him as plainly as I see you both. He walked in at the door, the way he used to do at home, saying: 'Hello, Mother, I've been looking for you everywhere!' You know, Father how you and Jimmy used to feel injured if you called me and I couldn't be found in a minute. In this dream though, we didn't seem to be back home. I wasn't sure where we were: only-I was sure--" She stopped, with a catch in her voice. But Father Beckett took up the sentence where she let it drop. "Sure of Jim?"

"Yes. He was so real!"

"Well then, Mother darling, I guess the dream ought not to have been back home, but here, in this very house. For here's where Jim will come."

"Oh, I do feel that!" she agreed, trying to "camouflage" a tear with a smile. "Jim's with me all the time."

"Not yet," said Father Beckett, with a stolid gentleness. "Not yet. Not the real Jim. But he'll come."

"You mean, when Molly and I've finished putting out all his treasures in the den, just as he'd like to see them?"

"He might come before you get the den ready. He might come-any day now-even to-morrow." The gnarled brown hand smoothed the small, shrivelled white one with nervous strokes and passes.

"Father!" she sat up suddenly, straight and rigid among her cushions. "You've heard-you're trying to break something to me. Tell me right out. Jim's alive!"

She snatched her hand free, and bending forward, flung both arms round the old man's neck before he could answer. I sprang up to give them room. I thought they had forgotten me. But no. Out came Father Beckett's big hand to snatch my dress.

"This child got the news-a letter," he explained. "The boy was afraid of the shock for us. He thought she--"

"A shock of joy-why, that gives life-not death!" sobbed and laughed Mother Beckett. "But it was right to let Molly know first. She's more to him than we are now. Oh, Father-Father-our Jim's alive-alive! I think in my soul I knew it all the time. I never felt he was gone. He must have sent me thoughts. Dear ones, I want to pray. I want to thank God-now, this instant, before I hear more-before I read the letter. We three together-on our knees!"

Padre, when I was on my knees, with the thin little arm of Jim's mother thrilling my shoulder, my face hidden in the cushions, I could only say: "God, forgive!" and echo the thanksgiving of those two loving hearts. I didn't pray not to be punished. I almost want to be punished-since Brian is safe, and my punishment can't spoil his future.

* * *

The patriotic Becketts have given up the big gray car, now they've settled down at the Chateau d'Andelle: and our one-legged soldier-chauffeur has departed, to conduct a military motor. For the moment there's only the O'Farrell Red Cross taxi, not yet gone about its legitimate business; so it was Julian who took Father Beckett to the far-off railway station, to meet Jim Beckett the next day but one-Julian-of all people on earth!

Father Beckett begged me to be of the party, and Mother Beckett-too frail still for so long and cold a drive-piled up her persuasions. But I was firm. I didn't like going to meet trains, I said. It was prosaic. I was allowed to stop at home, therefore, with my dear little lady: the last time, I told myself, that she would ever love and "mother" me. Once Jim and I had settled our affairs in that "interview" I was ordered to wait for, I should be the black sheep, turned out of the fold.

There was just one reason why I'd have liked to be in the car to bring Jim back from the station. Knowing Julian-Puck, I was convinced that despite Father Beckett's presence he'd contrive a chance to thrust some entering wedge of mischief into Jim Beckett's head. Not that it was needed! If he'd read the first pages of Jim's letter-the secret pages-he would have known that. But the night the great news came to the chateau, he whispered into my ear: "You seem to be taking things easy. Sure you won't change your mind and bolt with me?-or do you count on your invincible charm, "über alles"?

I didn't even answer. I merely looked. Perhaps he took it for a defiant look, though Heaven knows it wasn't. I was past defiance. In any case, such as the look was, it shut him up. And after that the brooding storm behind his eyes made me wonder (when I'd time to think of it) what coup he was meditating. There would never be a chance like the chance at the station before Jim had met me. Julian was sharp enough, dramatic enough to see that. I pictured him somehow corralling Jim for an instant, while Father Beckett carried on a conversation of signs with a worried porteuse. Julian would be able to do in an instant as much damage to a character as most men could do in an hour!

A little added disgust for me on Jim's part, however, what could it matter? I tried to argue. When a thing is already black, can it be painted blacker?

Still, I was foolish eno

ugh to wish that our good old one-legged soldier might have stayed to bring Jim home.

* * *

Mother Beckett would have compelled me to be with her at the open door to meet "our darling boy," but that I could not bear. It would be as trying for him as for me, and I had to spare him the ordeal at any price.

"Don't make me do that," I begged, with real tears in my voice. "I-I've set my heart on seeing Jim for the first time alone. He wants it too-I know he does."

She gazed at me for some long seconds, with the clear blue eyes which seemed-though only seemed!-to read my soul. In reality she saw quite another soul than mine. The darling crystallizes to radiant beauty all souls of those she loves, as objects are crystallized by frost, or by sparkling salt in a salt mine.

"Well, you must have a good and loving reason, I'm sure. And probably your love has taught you to know better than I can, what Jim would want you to do," she said. "It shall be just as you wish, dear. Only you must grant one little favour in return to please me. You are to wait for Jim in the den. When his Father and I have hugged and kissed him a few times, and made certain he's not one of my dreams, we'll lead him up to that door, and leave him outside. It shall be my hand that shuts the door when he's gone in. And I shan't tell him one word about the den. It shall be a surprise. But he won't notice a thing until-until you and he have been together for a while, I guess-not even the hobby-horse! He'll see nothing except you, Molly-you!"

I implored-I argued-in vain. The making of the den had been her inspiration. It was monstrous that I should have to greet her son there. The pleasure of the den-surprise would be for ever spoilt for Jim. But I couldn't explain that to his mother. I had to yield at last, tongue-tied and miserable beyond words.

I haven't described the den to you, Padre. I will do it now, in the pause, the hush, before the storm.

It's a quaint room, with a little round tower in each of the two front corners. One of these Mother Beckett has turned into a refuge for broken-down toys, all Jim's early favourites, which he'd never let her throw away: the famous spotted hobby-horse starred in the centre of the stage: oh, but a noble, red-nostrilled beast, whose eternal prance has something of the endless dignity of the Laoco?n! The second tower is a miniature library, whose shelves are crowded with the pet books of Jim's boyhood-queer books, some of them, for a child to choose: "Byron," "Letters of Pliny," Plutarch's "Lives," Gibbon's "Rome," "Morte d'Arthur," Maeterlinck's "Life of the Bee," Kingsland's "Scientific Idealism," with several quite learned volumes of astronomy and geology, side by side with Gulliver and all kinds of travel and story-books which we have most of us adored. It was I who had the task of sorting and arranging this motley collection, and I can hardly tell you, Padre, how I loved doing it!

The room isn't large, so the ten or twelve pictures on the walls are not lost in a desert of bare spaces. These pictures, the toys, the books, tennis-rackets, golf-clubs and two lovely old Persian prayer-rugs are all of Jim's treasures brought to France. He must have been a boy of individual, independent nature, for it seems he disliked the idea of killing things for pleasure, and was never a hunter or even a fisherman. Consequently, there are no monster fish under glass, or rare birds or butterflies, or stuffed animals. He must have loved wild creatures though, for five of the beloved pictures are masterly oil-paintings by well-known artists, of lions and tigers and stags, chez eux, happy and at home, not being hunted, or standing agonized at bay. Oh, getting this den in order has taught me more about the real Jim than a girl can learn about a man in ordinary acquaintance in a year! But then I had a wonderful foundation to begin building upon: that day in the rose-arbour-the red-rose day of my life.

Well, when the car was expected back from the station, bringing Jim home to his mother, I went by her command to the den. Even that was better than having to meet him in the presence of those two dear souls who trusted and loved me only second to him. And yet everything in the den which had meant something in Jim's life, seemed to cry out at me, as I shut the door and stood alone with them-and my pounding heart-to wait.

I didn't know how to make the time pass. I was too restless to sit down. I wouldn't let myself look out of the window to see the car come along the drive. I dared not walk up and down like the caged thing I was, lest the floor should creak, for the tower-room-the den-is over the entrance-hall. I felt like a hunted animal-I, the one creature to whom Jim Beckett deliberately meant to be cruel! I, in this room which was a tribute to his kindness of heart, his faithfulness, his loyalty! But why should it not be so? I had no right to call upon these qualities of his.

The horn of the little Red Cross taxi! It must be turning in at the gate. How well I knew its gay, conceited tootle! An eighth of a mile, and the car would reach the house. Even the poor worn-out taxi couldn't be five minutes doing that!...

If I ran to the window between the towers I could see! No, I wouldn't; I couldn't. I should scream-or faint-or do something else idiotic, if I saw Jim Beckett getting out of the car, and his mother flying to meet him. I had never felt like this in my whole life-not in any suspense, not in any danger.

Instinctively I walked as far from the window as I could. I sought sanctuary under Brian's cathedral picture-the picture that had introduced me to Jim. Yes, sanctuary I sought, for in that room my brother's work was my one excuse to intrude!

By this time the car must have arrived. The front door must have flown open in welcome. Now Mother Beckett must be crying tears of joy in the arms of her son, Father Beckett gazing at the blessed sight, speechless with ecstasy!

What should I be doing at this moment, if I had yielded to their wish and stopped downstairs with them? Just how far would Jim have gone in keeping up the tragic farce? Would he have kissed me? Would he--?

The vision was so blazing bright that I covered my eyes to shut it out. Not that I hated it. Oh no, I loved it too well!

So, for a while, I stood, my hands pressed over my eyes, my ears strained to catch distant sounds-yet wishing not to hear. Suddenly, close by, there came the click of a latch. My hands dropped like broken clock weights. I opened my eyes. Jim Beckett was in the room, and the door was shut.

* * *

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