BY C. N. & A. M. WILLIAMSON
"The Lightning Conductor Discovers America," "Lady Betty Across the Water," "Set in Silver," Etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, Page & Company
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY C. N. & A. M. WILLIAMSON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY THE FRANK A. MUNSEY COMPANY
TO ALL SOLDIERS WHO HAVE FOUGHT OR FIGHT FOR EVERYMAN'S LAND AND EVERYMAN'S RIGHT; AND TO THOSE WHO LOVE FRANCE
Padre, when you died, you left a message for me. You asked me to go on writing, if I were in trouble, just as I used to write when you were on earth. I used to "confess," and you used to advise. Also you used to scold. How you used to scold! I am going to do now what you asked, in that message.
I shall never forget how you packed me off to school at Brighton, and Brian to Westward Ho! the year father died and left us to you—the most troublesome legacy a poor bachelor parson ever had! I'd made up my mind to hate England. Brian couldn't hate anything or anybody: dreamers don't know how to hate: and I wanted to hate you for sending us there. I wanted to be hated and misunderstood. I disguised myself as a Leprechaun and sulked; but it didn't work where you were concerned. You understood me as no one else ever could—or will, I believe. You taught me something about life, and to see that people are much the same all over the world, if you "take them by the heart."
You took me by the heart, and you held me by it, from the time I was twelve till the time when you gave your life for your country. Ten years! When I tell them over now, as a nun tells the beads of her rosary, I realize what good years they were, and how their goodness—with such goodness as I had in me to face them—came through you.
Even after you died, you seemed to be near, with encouragement and advice. Remembering how pleased you were, when I decided to train as a nurse, added later to the sense of your nearness, because I felt you would rejoice when I was able to be of real use. It was only after you went that my work began to count, but I was sure you knew. I could hear your voice say, "Good girl! Hurrah for you!" when I got the gold medal for nursing the contagious cases; your dear old Irish voice, as it used to say the same words when I brought you my school prizes.
Perhaps I was "a good girl." Anyhow, I was a good nurse. Not that I deserved much credit! Brian was fighting, and in danger day and night. You were gone; and I was glad to be a soldier in my way, with never a minute to think of myself. Besides, somehow I wasn't one bit afraid. I loved the work. But, Padre mio, I am not a good girl now. I'm a wicked girl, wickeder than you or I ever dreamed it was in me to be, at my worst. Yet if your spirit should appear as I write, to warn me that I'm sinning an unpardonable sin, I should go on sinning it.
For one thing, it's for Brian, twin brother of my body, twin brother of my heart. For another thing, it's too late to turn back. There's a door that has slammed shut behind me.
* * * * *
Now, I'll begin and tell you everything exactly as it happened. Many a "confession-letter" I've begun in just these words, but never one like this. I don't deserve that it should bring me the heartease which used to come. But the thought of you is my star in darkness. Brian is the last person to whom I can speak, because above all things I want him to be happy. On earth there is no one else. Beyond the earth there is—you.
When Brian was wounded, they expected him to die, and he was asking for me. The telegram came one day when we had all been rather overworked in the hospital, and I was feeling ready to drop. I must only have imagined my tiredness though, for when I heard about Brian I grew suddenly strong as steel. I was given leave, and disinfected, and purified as thoroughly as Esther when she was being made worthy of Ahasuerus. Then I dashed off to catch the first train going north.
St. Raphael was our railway station, but I hadn't seen the place since I took up work in the Hopital des Epidemies. That was many months before; and meanwhile a training-school for American aviators had been started at St. Raphael. News of its progress had drifted to our ears, but of course the men weren't allowed to come within a mile of us: we were too contagious. They had sent presents, though—presents of money, and one grand gift had burst upon us from a young millionaire whose father's name is known everywhere. He sent a cheque for a sum so big that we nurses were nearly knocked down by the size of it. With it was enclosed a request that the money should be used to put wire-nettings in all windows and doors, and to build a roofed loggia for convalescents. If there were anything left over, we might buy deck-chairs and air-pillows. Of course it was easy for any one to know that we needed all these things. Our lack was notorious. We sent a much disinfected, carbolic-smelling round robin of thanks to "James W. Beckett, Junior," son of the western railway king.
As I drove to the gare of St. Raphael, I thought of the kind boys who had helped our poor poilus, and especially of James Beckett. Whether he were still at the aviation camp, or had finished his training and gone to the front, I didn't know: but I wafted a blessing to our benefactor. I little dreamed then of the unforgivable injury I was fated to do him! You see, Padre, I use the word "fated." That's because I've turned coward. I try to pretend that fate has been too strong for me. But down deep I know you were right when you said, "Our characters carve our fate."
It was a long journey from the south to the north, where Brian was, for in war-days trains do what they like and what nobody else likes. I travelled for three days and nights, and when I came to my journey's end, instead of Brian being dead as I'd seen him in a hundred hideous dreams, the doctors held out hope that he might live. They told me this to give me courage, before they broke the news that he would be blind. I suppose they thought I'd be so thankful to keep my brother at any price, that I should hardly feel the shock. But I wasn't thankful. I wasn't! The price seemed too big. I judged Brian by myself—Brian, who so worshipped beauty that I used to call him "Phidias!" I was sure he would rather have gone out of this world whose face he'd loved, than stay in it without eyes for its radiant smile. But there I made a great mistake. Brian was magnificent. Perhaps you would have known what to expect of him better than I knew.
Where you are, you will understand why he did not despair. I couldn't understand then, and I scarcely can now, though living with my blind Brian is teaching me lessons I feel unworthy to learn. It was he who comforted me, not I him. He said that all the beauty of earth was his already, and nothing could take it away. He wouldn't let it be taken away! He said that sight was first given to all created creatures in the form of a desire to see, desire so intense that with the developing faculty of sight, animals developed eyes for its concentration. He reminded me how in dreams, and even in thoughts—if they're vivid enough—we see as distinctly with our brains as with our eyes. He said he meant to make a wonderful world for himself with this vision of the brain and soul. He intended to develop the power, so that he would gain more than he had lost, and I must help him.
Of course I promised to help all I could; but there was death in my heart. I remembered our gorgeous holiday together before the war, tramping through France, Brian painting those lovely "impressions" of his, which made him money and something like fame. And oh, I remembered not only that such happy holidays were over, but that soon there would be no more money for our bare living!
We were always so poor, that church mice were plutocrats compared to us. At least they need pay no rent, and have to buy no clothes! I'm sure, if the truth were known, the money Father left for our education and bringing up was gone before we began to support ourselves, though you never let us guess we were living on you. As I sat and listened to Brian talk of our future, my very bones seemed to melt. The only thing I've been trained to do well is to nurse. I wasn't a bad nurse when the war began. I'm an excellent nurse now. But it's Brian's nurse I must be. I saw that, in the first hour after the news was broken, and our two lives broken with it. I saw that, with me unable to earn a penny, and Brian's occupation gone with his sight, we were about as helpless as a pair of sparrows with their wings clipped.
If Brian in his secret soul had any such thoughts, perhaps he had faith to believe that not a sparrow can fall, unless its fall is appointed by God. Anyhow, he said never a word about ways and means, except to mention cheerfully that he had "heaps of pay saved up," nearly thirty pounds. Of course I answered that I was rich, too. But I didn't go into details. I was afraid even Brian's optimism might be dashed if I did. Padre, my worldly wealth consisted of five French bank notes of a hundred francs each, and a few horrible little extra scraps of war-paper and copper.
The hospital where Brian lay was near the front, in the remains of a town the British had won back from the Germans. I called the place Crucifix Corner: but God knows we are all at Crucifix Corner now! I lodged in a hotel that had been half knocked down by a bomb, and patched up for occupation. As soon as Brian was able to be moved, the doctor wanted him to go to Paris to an American brain specialist who had lately come over and made astonishing cures. Brian's blindness was due to paralysis of the optic nerve; but this American—Cuyler—had performed spine and brain operations which had restored sight in two similar cases. There might be a hundredth chance for my brother.
Of course I said it would be possible to take Brian to Paris. I'd have made it possible if I'd had to sell my hair to do it; and you know my curly black mop of hair was always my pet vanity. Brian being a soldier, he could have the operation free, if Doctor Cuyler considered it wise to operate; but—as our man warned me—there were ninety-nine chances to one against success: and at all events there would be a lot of expenses in the immediate future.
I sent in my resignation to the dear Hopital des Epidemies, explaining my reasons: and presently Brian and I set out for Paris by easy stages. The cap was put on the climax for me by remembering how he and I had walked over that very ground three years before, in the sunshine of life and summer. Brian too thought of the past, but not in bitterness. I hid my anguish from him, but it gnawed the heart of me with the teeth of a rat. I couldn't see what Brian had ever done to deserve such a fate as his, and I began to feel wicked, wicked. It seemed that destiny had built up a high prison wall in front of my brother and me, and I had a wild impulse to kick and claw at it, though I knew I couldn't pull it down.
When we arrived in Paris, Doctor Cuyler saw us at once; but his opinion added another pile of flinty black blocks to the prison wall. He thought that there would be no hope from an operation. If there were any hope at all (he couldn't say there was) it lay in waiting, resting, and building up Brian's shattered health. After months of perfect peace, it was just on the cards that sight might come back of itself, suddenly and unexpectedly, in a moment. We were advised to live in the country, and Doctor Cuyler suggested that it would be well for my brother to have surroundings with agreeable occupation for the mind. If he were a musician he must have a piano. There ought to be a garden for him to walk in and even work in. Motoring, with the slight vibration of a good car, would be particularly beneficial a little later on. I suppose we must have looked to Doctor Cuyler like millionaires, for he didn't appear to dream that there could be the slightest difficulty in carrying out his programme.
I sat listening with the calm mien of one to whom money comes as air comes to the lungs; but behind my face the wildest thoughts were raging. You've sometimes seen a row of tall motionless pines, the calmest, stateliest things on earth, screening with their branches the mad white rush of a cataract. My brain felt like such a screened cataract.
Except for his blindness, by this time Brian was too well for a hospital. We were at the small, cheap hotel on "la rive gauche" where we'd stayed and been happy three years ago, before starting on our holiday trip. When we came back after the interview with Doctor Cuyler, Brian was looking done up, and I persuaded him to lie down and rest. No one else could have slept, after so heavy a blow of disappointment, without a drug, but Brian is a law unto himself. He said if I would sit by him and read, he'd feel at peace, and would drop off into a doze. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and I hadn't glanced yet at the newspaper we had bought in the morning. I took it up, to please Brian with the rustling of the pages, not expecting to concentrate upon a line but instantly my eyes were caught by a name I knew.
"Tragic Romance of Millionaire's Family," I read. "James W. Beckett brings his wife to France and Reads Newspaper Notice of Only Son's Death."
This was the double-line, big-lettered heading of a half column on the front page; and it brought to my mind a picture. I saw a group of nurses gazing over each other's shoulders at a blue cheque. It was a cheque for six thousand francs, signed in a clear, strong hand, "James W. Beckett, Junior."
So he was dead, that generous boy, to whom our hearts had gone out in gratitude! It could not be very long since he had finished his training at St. Raphael and begun work at the front. What a waste of splendid material it seemed, that he should have been swept away so soon!
I read on, and from my own misery I had an extra pang to spare for James Beckett, Senior, and his wife.
Someone had contrived to tear a fragmentary interview from the "bereaved railway magnate," as he was called in the potted phrase of the journalist. Apparently the poor, trapped man had been too soft-hearted or too dazed with grief to put up a forceful resistance, and the reporter had been quick to seize his advantage.
He had learned that Mr. and Mrs. James W. Beckett, Senior, had nearly died of homesickness for their son. They had thought of "running across to surprise Jimmy." And then a letter had come from him saying that in a fortnight his training would be over. He was to be granted eight days' leave, which he didn't particularly want, since he couldn't spend it with them; and immediately after he would go to the front.
"We made up our minds that Jimmy should spend that leave of his with us," the old man had said. "We got our papers in a hurry and engaged cabins on the first boat that was sailing. Unluckily there wasn't one for nearly a week, but we did the best we could. When everything was fixed up, I wired Jimmy to meet us at the Ritz, in Paris. We had a little breeze with a U-boat, and we ran into some bad weather which made my wife pretty sick, but nothing mattered to us except the delay, we were so crazy to see the boy. At Bordeaux a letter from him was waiting. It told how he was just as crazy to see us, but we'd only have twenty-four hours together, as his leave and orders for the front had both been advanced. The delay at sea had cost a day, and that seemed like hard lines, as we should reach Paris with no more than time to wish the lad God-speed. But in the train, when we came to look at the date, we saw that we'd miscalculated. Unless Jimmy'd been able to get extra leave we'd miss him altogether. His mother said that would be too bad to be true. We hoped and prayed to find him at the Ritz. Instead, we found news that he had fallen in his first battle."
The interviewer went on, upon his own account, to praise "Jimmy" Beckett. He described him as a young man of twenty-seven, "of singularly engaging manner and handsome appearance; a graduate with high honours from Harvard, an all-round sportsman and popular with a large circle of friends, but fortunately leaving neither a wife nor a fiancee behind him in America." The newly qualified aviator had, indeed, fallen in his first battle: but according to the writer it had been a battle of astonishing glory for a beginner. Single-handed he had engaged four enemy machines, manoeuvring his own little Nieuport in a way to excite the highest admiration and even surprise in all spectators. Two out of the four German 'planes he had brought down over the French lines; and was in chase of the third, flying low above the German trenches, when two new Fokkers appeared on the scene and attacked him. His plane crashed to earth in flames, and a short time after, prisoners had brought news of his death.
"Mr. and Mrs. James W. Beckett will have the sympathy of all Europe as well as their native land, in these tragic circumstances," the journalist ended his story with a final flourish. "If such grief could be assuaged, pride in the gallant death of their gallant son might be a panacea."
"As if you could make pride into a balm for broken hearts!" I said to myself in scorn of this flowery eloquence. For a few minutes I forgot my own plight to pity these people whom I had never seen. The Paris Daily Messenger slid off my lap on to the floor, and dropped with the back page up. When I had glanced toward the bed, and seen that Brian still slept, my eyes fell on the paper again. The top part of the last page is always devoted to military snapshots, and a face smiled up at me from it—a face I had seen once and never forgotten.
My heart gave a jump, Padre, because the one tiny, abbreviated dream-romance of my life came from the original of that photograph. Although the man I knew (if people can know each other in a day's acquaintance) had been en civile, and this one was in aviator's uniform, I was sure they were the same. And even before I'd snatched up the paper to read what was printed under the picture, something—the wonderful inner Something that's never wrong—told me I was looking at a portrait of Jimmy Beckett.
I never mentioned my one-day romance to anybody. Only very silly, sentimental girls would put such an episode into words, and flatter themselves by calling it a romance. But now that you and Jimmy Beckett have both given your lives for the great cause, and are in the same mysterious Beyond while I'm still down here at Crucifix Corner, I can tell you the story. If you and he meet, it may make it easier for him to forgive me the thing I have done.
When Brian and I were having that great summer holiday of ours, the year before the war—one day we were in a delicious village near a cathedral town on the Belgian border. A piece of luck had fallen in our way, like a ripe apple tumbling off a tree. A rich Parisian and his wife came motoring along, and stopped out of sheer curiosity to look at a picture Brian was painting, under a white umbrella near the roadside. I was not with him. I think I must have been in the garden of our quaint old hotel by the canal side, writing letters—probably one to you; but the couple took such a fancy to Brian's "impression," that they offered to buy it. The bargain was struck, there and then. Two days later arrived a telegram from Paris asking for another picture to "match" the first at the same price. I advised Brian to choose out two or three sketches for the people to select from, and carry them to Paris himself, rather than trust the post. He went; and it was on the one day of his absence that my romance happened.
Ours was a friendly little hotel, with a darling landlady, who was almost as much interested in Brian and me as if she'd been our foster-mother. The morning after Brian left, she came waddling out to the adorable, earwiggy, rose-covered summer-house that I'd annexed as a private sitting room. "Mademoiselle," she breathlessly announced, "there is a young millionaire of a monsieur Anglais or Americain just arrived. What a pity he should be wasted because Monsieur your brother has gone! I am sure if he could but see one of the exquisite pictures he would wish to buy all!"
"How do you know that the monsieur is a millionaire, and what makes you think he would care about pictures?" I enquired.
"I know he is a millionaire because he has come in one of those grand automobiles which only millionaires ever have. And I think he cares for pictures because the first thing he did when he came into the hall was to stare at the old prints on the wall. He praised the two best which the real artists always praise, and complimented me on owning them" the dear creature explained. "Besides, he is in this neighbourhood expressly to see the cathedral; and monsieur your brother has made a most beautiful sketch of the cathedral. It is now in his portfolio. Is there nothing we can do? I have already induced the monsieur to drink a glass of milk while I have come to consult Mademoiselle."
I thought hard for a minute, because it would be grand if I could say when Brian came back, "I have sold your cathedral for you." But I might have saved myself brain fag. Madame Mounet had settled everything in her head, and was merely playing me, like a foolish fish.
"What I have thought of is this," she said. "I told the monsieur that he could see something better than my prints if he would give himself the pain of waiting till I could fetch the key of a room where an artist-client of ours has a marvellous exhibition. There is no such room yet, but there can be, and the exhibition can be, too, if Mademoiselle will make haste to pin her brother's pictures to the walls of the yellow salon. With a hammer and a few tacks—voila the thing is done. What does Mademoiselle say?"
Mademoiselle said "Yes—yes!" to her part of the programme. But what of the millionaire monsieur? Would he not balk? Would he not refuse to be bothered?
Madame was absolutely confident that he would not do these disappointing things. She was so confident that I vaguely suspected she had something up her sleeve: but time pressed, and instead of Sherlock Holmesing I darted to my work. Afterward she confessed, with pride rather than repentance. She described graphically how the face of the monsieur had fallen when she asked him to look at an exhibition of pictures; how he had begun to make an excuse that he must be off at once to the cathedral; and how she had ventured to cut him short by remarking, "Mademoiselle the sister of the artist, she who will show the work, ah, it is a jeune fille of the most romantic beauty!" On hearing this, the monsieur had said no more about the cathedral, but had ordered the glass of milk.
In fifteen minutes the exhibition (consisting of six sketches!) was ready in the showroom of the hotel, the yellow salon which had been occupied as a bedchamber one night by the Empress Eugenie, and was always kept locked except on gala occasions. I, not knowing how I had been over-praised to the audience, was also ready, quivering with the haste I had made in pinning up the pictures and opening the musty, close room to the air. Then came in a young man.
As I write, Padre, I am back again in that salon jaune, and he is walking in at the door, pausing a second on the threshold at sight of me. I will give you the little play in one act. We smile. The hero of the comedy-drama has a rather big mouth, and such white teeth that his smile, in his brown face, is a lightning-flash at dusk. It is a thin face with two dimples that make lines when he laughs. His eyes are gray and long, with the eagle-look that knows far spaces; deep-set eyes under straight black brows, drawn low. His lashes are black, too, but his short crinkly hair is brown. He has a good square forehead, and a high nose like an Indian's. He is tall, and has one of those lean, lanky loose-jointed figures that crack tennis-players and polo men have. I like him at once, and I think he likes me, for his eyes light up; and just for an instant there's a feeling as if we looked through clear windows into each other's souls. It is almost frightening, that effect!
I begin to talk, to shake off an odd embarrassment.
"Madame Mounet tells me you want to see my brother's pictures," I say. "Here are a few sketches. He has taken all the rest worth looking at to Paris."
"It's good of you to let me come in," the hero of the play answers. Instantly I know he's not English. He has one of those nice American voices, with a slight drawl, that somehow sound extraordinarily frank. I don't speculate about his name. I don't stop to wonder who he is. I think only of what he is. I forget that Madame has exploited him as a millionaire. I don't care whether or not he buys a picture. I want nothing, except the pleasure of talking with him, and seeing how he looks at me.
I mumble some polite nonsense in return for his. He gazes at Brian's water-colours and admires them. Then he turns from the pictures to me. We discuss the sketches and the scenes they represent. "Oh, have you been there?" "Why, I was at that place a week ago!" "How odd!" "We must have missed each other by a day." And we drift into gossip about ourselves. Still we don't come to the subject of names. Names seem to be of no importance. They belong to the world of conventions.
We talk and talk—mostly of France, and our travels, and pictures and books we love; but our eyes speak of other things. I feel that his are saying, "You are beautiful!" Mine answer, "I'm glad you think that. Why do you seem so different to me from other people?" Then suddenly, there's a look too long between us. "I wish my brother were here to explain his pictures!" I cry; though I don't wish it at all. It is only that I must break the silence.
This brings us back to the business in hand. He says, "May I really buy one of these sketches?"
"Are you sure you want to?" I laugh.
"Sure!" he answers. And I never heard that word sound so nice, even in my own dear Ireland.
He chooses the cathedral—which he hasn't visited yet. Do I know the price my brother has decided on? With that question I discover that he has Madame Mounet's version of our name. Brian and I have laughed dozens of laughs at her way of pronouncing O'Malley. "Ommalee" we are for her, and "Mees Ommalee" she has made me for her millionaire. For fun, I don't correct him. Let him find out for himself who we really are! I say that my brother hasn't fixed a price; but would six hundred francs seem very high? The man considers it ridiculously low. He refuses to pay less than twice that sum. Even so, he argues he will be cheating us, and getting me into hot water when my brother comes. We almost quarrel, and at last the hero has his way. He strikes me as one who is used to that!
When the matter is settled, an odd look passes over his face. I wonder if he has changed his mind, and doesn't know how to tell me his trouble. Something is worrying him; that is clear. Just as I'm ready to make things easy, with a question, he laughs.
"I'm going to take you into my confidence," he says, "and tell you a story—about myself. In Paris, before I started on this tour, a friend of mine gave a man's dinner for me. He and the other chaps were chaffing because—oh, because of a silly argument we got into about—life in general, and mine in particular. On the strength of it my chum bet me a thing he knew I wanted, that I couldn't go through my trip under an assumed name. I bet I could, and would. I bet a thing I want to keep. That's the silly situation. I hate not telling you my real name, and signing a cheque for your brother. But I've stuck it out for four weeks, and the bet has only two more to run. I'm calling myself Jim Wyndham. It's only my surname I've dropped for the bet. The rest is mine. May I pay for the picture in cash—and may I come back here, or wherever you are on the fifteenth day from now, and introduce myself properly? Or—you've only to speak the word, and I'll throw over the whole footling business this minute, and——"
I cut in, to say that I won't speak the word, and he mustn't throw the business over. It is quite amusing I tell him, and I hope he'll win his bet. As for the picture—he may pay as he chooses. But about the proper introduction—Heaven knows where I shall be in a fortnight. My brother loves to make up his mind the night beforehand, where to go next. We are a pair of tramps.
"You don't do your tramping on foot?"
"Indeed we do! We haven't seen a railway station since our first day out from Paris. We stop one day in a place we don't care for: three in a place we like: a week or more in a place we love."
"Then at that rate you won't have got far in fifteen days. I know the direction you've come from by what you've told me, and your brother's sketches. You wouldn't be here on the border of Belgium if you didn't mean to cross the frontier."
"Oh, we shall cross it, of course. But where we shall go when we get across is another question."
"I'll find the answer, and I'll find you," he flings at me with a smile of defiance.
"Why should you give yourself trouble?"
"To—see some more of your brother's pictures," he says gravely. I know that he wishes to see me, not the pictures, and he knows that I know; but I let it go at that.
When the sketch has been wrapped up between cardboards, and the twelve hundred francs placed carelessly on a table, there seems no reason why Mr. Jim Wyndham shouldn't start for the cathedral. But he suddenly decides that the way of wisdom is to eat first, and begs me to lunch with him. "Do, please," he begs, "just to show you're not offended with my false pretences."
I yearn to say yes, and don't see why I shouldn't; so I do. We have dejeuner together in the summer-house where Brian and I always eat. We chat about a million things. We linger over our coffee, and I smoke two or three of his gold-tipped Egyptians. When we suppose an hour has gone by, at most, behold, it is half-past four! I tell him he must start: he will be too late for the cathedral at its best. He says, "Hang the cathedral!" and refuses to stir unless I promise to dine with him when he comes back.
"You mean in a fortnight?" I ask. "Probably we shan't be here."
"I mean this evening."
"But—you're not coming back! You're going another way. You told me——"
"Ah, that was before we were friends. Of course I'm coming back. I'd like to stay to-morrow, and——"
"You certainly must not! I won't dine with you to-night if you do."
"Will you if I don't?"
"Then I'll order the dinner before I start for the cathedral. I want it to be a perfect one."
"But—I've said only perhaps."
"Don't you want to pour a little honest gold into poor old Madame Mounet's pocket?"
"If so, you mustn't chase away her customers."
"For her sake, the dinner is a bargain!"
"Not the least bit for my sake?"
"Oh, but yes! I've enjoyed our talk. And you've been so nice about my brother's pictures."
So it is settled. I put on my prettiest dress, white muslin, with some fresh red roses Madame Mounet brings me; and the dinner-table in the summer-house is a picture, with pink Chinese lanterns, pink-shaded candles, and pink geraniums. Madame won't decorate with roses because she explains, roses anywhere except on my toilette, "spoil the unique effect of Mademoiselle."
The little inn on the canal-side buzzes with excitement. Not within the memory of man or woman has there been so important a client as Mr. Jim Wyndham. Most motoring millionaires dash by in a cloud of dust to the cathedral town, where a smart modern hotel has been run up to cater for tourists. This magnificent Monsieur Americain engages the "suite of the Empress Eugenie," as it grandly advertises itself, for his own use and that of his chauffeur, merely to bathe in, and rest in, though they are not to stay the night. And the dinner ordered will enable Madame to show what she can do, a chance she rarely gets from cheeseparing customers, like Brian and me, and others of our ilk.
I am determined not to betray my childish eagerness by being first at the rendezvous. I keep to my hot room, until I spy a tall young figure of a man in evening dress striding toward the arbour. To see this sight, I have to be at my window; but I hide behind a white curtain and a screen of wistaria and roses. I count sixty before I go down. I walk slowly. I stop and examine flowers in the garden. I could catch a wonderful gold butterfly, but perhaps it is as happy as I am. I wouldn't take its life for anything on earth! As I watch it flutter away, my host comes out of the arbour to meet me.
We pass two exquisite hours in each other's company. I recall each subject on which we touch and even the words we speak, as if all were written in a journal. The air is so clear and still that we can hear the famous chimes of the cathedral clock, far away, in the town that is a bank of blue haze on the horizon. At half-past nine I begin to tell my host that he must go, but he does not obey till after ten. Then at last he takes my hand for good-bye—no, au revoir: he will not say good-bye! "In two weeks," he repeats, "we shall meet again. I shall have won my bet, and I shall bring you the thing I win."
"I won't take it!" I laugh.
"Wait till you see it, before you make sure."
"I'm not even sure yet of seeing you," I remind him.
"You may be sure if I'm alive. I shall scour the country for miles around to find you. I shall succeed—unless I'm dead."
All this time he had been holding my hand, while I have pretended to be unconscious of the fact. Suddenly I seem to remember, and reluctantly he lets my fingers slip through his.
We bid each other adieu in the arbour. I do not go to "see him off," and I keep the picture of Jim Wyndham under the roof of roses, in the moon-and candle-light.
Just so I have kept it for more than three years; for we never met again. And now that I've seen the photograph of Jimmy Beckett, I know that we never shall meet.
Why he did not find us when the fortnight of his bet was over I can't imagine. It seems that, if he tried, he must have come upon our tracks, for we travelled scarcely more than twenty miles in the two weeks. Perhaps he changed his mind, and did not try. Perhaps he feared that my "romantic beauty" might lose its romance, when seen for the second time. Something like this must be the explanation; and I confess to you, Padre, that the failure of the prince to keep our tryst was the biggest disappointment and the sharpest humiliation of my life. It took most of the conceit out of me, and since then I've never been vain of my alleged "looks" or "charm" for more than two minutes on end. I've invariably said to myself, "Remember Jim Wyndham, and how he didn't think you worth the bother of coming back to see."
Now you know why I can't describe the effect upon my mind of learning that Jim Wyndham, the hero of my one-day romance, and Jimmy Beckett, the dead American aviator, were one.
There could be no chance of mistake. The photograph was a very good likeness.
For a while I sat quite still with the newspaper in my hands, living over the day in the shabby old garden. I felt like a mourner, bereaved of a loved one, for in a way—a schoolgirl way, perhaps—I had loved my prince of the arbour. And always since our day together, I'd compared other men with him, to their disadvantage. No one else ever captured my imagination as he captured it in those few hours.
For a moment that little bit of Long Ago pushed itself between me and Now. I was grieving for my dead romance, instead of for Brian's broken life: but quickly I woke up. Things were as bad as ever again, and even worse, because of their contrast with the past I'd conjured up. Grief for the death of Jimmy Beckett mingled with grief for Brian, and anxieties about money, in the dull, sickly way that unconnected troubles tangle themselves together in nightmare dreams.
I'm not telling you how I suffered, as an excuse for what I did, dear Padre. I'm only explaining how one thing led to another.
It was in thinking of Jim Wyndham, and what might have happened between us if he'd come back to me as he promised, that the awful idea developed in my head. The thought wasn't born full-grown and armoured, like Minerva when she sprang from the brain of Jupiter. It began like this:
"If I'd been engaged to him, I might have gone to his parents now. I should have comforted them by talking about their son, and they could have comforted me. Perhaps they would have adopted us as their children. We need never have been lonely and poor. Jim would have wished us to live with his father and mother, for all our sakes."
When the thought had gone as far as this, it suddenly leaped to an enormous height, as if a devil in me had been doing the mango trick.
I heard myself thinking, "Why don't you go to see Mr. and Mrs. Beckett, and tell them you were engaged to marry their only son? The paper said he left no fiancee or wife in America. You can easily make them believe your story. Nobody can prove that it isn't true, and out of evil good will come for everyone."
Flames seemed to rush through my head with a loud noise, like the Tongues of Fire in the Upper Room. My whole body was in a blaze. Each nerve was a separate red-hot wire.
I rose to my feet, but I made no sound. Instinct reminded me that I mustn't wake Brian, but I could breathe better, think better standing, I felt.
"They are millionaires, the Becketts—millionaires!" a voice was repeating in my brain. "They wouldn't let Brian or you want for anything. They'd be glad if you went to them. You could make them happy. You could tell them things they'd love to hear—and some would be true things. You were in the hospital close to St. Raphael for months, while Jimmy Beckett was in the training camp. Who's to say you didn't meet? If you'd been engaged to him since that day years ago, you certainly would have met. No rules could have kept you apart. Go to them—go to them—or if you're afraid, write a note, and ask if they'll receive you. If they refuse, no harm will have been done."
Maybe, even then, if I'd stopped to tell myself what a wicked, cruel plan it was, I should have given it up. But it seemed a burning inspiration, and I knew that I must act upon it at once or never.
I subsided into my chair again, and softly, very softly, hitched it closer to the table which pretended to be a writing-desk. Inside a blotting-pad were a few sheets of hotel stationery and envelopes. My stylographic pen glided noiselessly over the paper. Now and then I glanced over my shoulder at Brian, and he was still fast asleep, looking more like an angel than a man. You know my nickname for him was always "Saint" because of his beautiful pure face, and the far-away look in his eyes. Being a soldier has merely bronzed him a little. It hasn't carved any hard lines. Being blind has made the far-away things he used to see come near, so that he walks in the midst of them.
I wrote quickly and with a dreadful kind of ease, not hesitating or crossing out a single word.
"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Beckett," I began (because I meant to address my letter to both). "I've just heard that you have come over from America, only in time to learn of your great loss. Is it an intrusion to tell you that your loss is mine too? I dearly loved your son. I met him nearly four years ago, when my brother and I were travelling in France and Belgium. Our meeting was the romance of my life. I hardly dare to think he told you about it. But a few months ago I took up nursing at the Hopital des Epidemies, near St. Raphael. As you know, he was there training. He sent us a cheque for our sufferers; and what was fated to happen did happen. We met again. We loved each other. We were engaged. He may have written to you, or he may have waited till he could tell you by word of mouth.
"I am in Paris, as you will see by this address. My soldier brother has lost his sight. I brought him here in the hope of a cure by your great American specialist Dr. Cuyler, but he tells me an operation would be useless. They say that one sorrow blunts another. I do not find it so. My heart is almost breaking. May I call upon you? To see his father and mother would be a comfort to me. But if it would be otherwise for you, please say 'no.' I will try to understand.
"Yours in deepest sympathy,
As I finished, Brian waked from his nap, so I was able to leave him and run downstairs to send off the letter by hand.
When it had gone, I felt somewhat as I've felt when near a man to whom an anaesthetic is being given. The fumes of ether have an odd effect on me. They turn me into a "don't care" sort of person without conscience and without fear. No wonder some nations give soldiers a dash of ether in their drink, when they have to go "over the top!" I could go, and feel no sense of danger, even though my reason knew that it existed.
So it was while I waited for the messenger from our mean little hotel to come back from the magnificent Ritz. Would he suddenly dash my sinful hopes by saying, "Pas de reponse, Mademoiselle"; or would he bring me a letter from Father and Mother Beckett? If he brought such a letter, would it invite me to call and be inspected, or would it suggest that I kindly go to the devil?
I was tremendously keyed up; and yet—curiously I didn't care which of these things happened. It was rather as if I were in a theatre, watching an act of a play that might end in one of several ways, neither one of which would really matter.
I read aloud to Brian. My voice sounded sweet and well modulated, I thought; but quite like that of a stranger. I was reading some moving details of a vast battle, which—ordinarily—would have stirred me to the heart. But they made no impression on my brain. I forgot the words as they left my lips. Dimly I wondered if there were a curse falling upon me already: if I were doomed to lose all sense of grief or joy, as the man in the old story lost his shadow when he sold it to Satan.
A long time passed. I stopped reading. Brian seemed inclined for the first time since his misfortune to talk over ways and means, and how we were to arrange our future. I shirked the discussion. Things would adjust themselves, I said evasively. I had some vague plans. Perhaps they would soon materialize. Even by to-morrow——
When I had got as far as that, tap, tap, came the long expected knock at the door. I sprang up. Suddenly the ether-like carelessness was gone. My life—my very soul—was at stake. I could hardly utter the little word "Entrez!" my throat was so tight, so dry.
The very young youth who opened the door was not the one I had sent to the Ritz. But I had no time to wonder why not, when he announced: "Un monsieur et une dame, en bas, demandent a voir Mademoiselle."
My head whirled. Could it be?—but, surely no! They would not have come to see me. Yet whom did I know in Paris? Who had learned that we were at this hotel? Had the monsieur and the dame given their name? No, they had not. They had said that Mademoiselle would understand. They were in the salon.
I heard myself reply that I would descend tout de suite. I heard myself tell Brian that I should not be long away. I saw my face in the glass, deathly pale in its frame of dark hair, the eyes immense, with the pupils dilating over the blue, as an inky pool might drown a border of violets and blot out their colour. Even my lips were white. I was glad I had on a black dress—glad in a bad, deceitful way; though for a moment after learning who Jimmy Beckett was, I had felt a true thrill of loyal satisfaction because I was in mourning for my lost romance.
I went slowly down the four flights of stairs. I could not have gone fast without falling. I opened the door of the stuffy salon, and saw—the dearest couple the wide world could hold.
They sat together, an old-fashioned pair, on an old-fashioned sofa, facing the door. The thing I'd thought impossible had happened. The father and mother of Jim Beckett had come to me.
For some reason, they seemed as much surprised at sight of me as I at sight of them. We gazed at each other for an instant, all three without moving. Then the old man (he was old, not middle-aged, as most fathers are nowadays) got to his feet. He took a step toward me, holding out his hand. His eyes searched mine; and, dimmed by years and sorrow as they were, there was in them still a reminder of the unforgotten, eagle-gaze. From him the son had inherited his high nose and square forehead. Had he lived, some day Jim's face might have been chopped by Time's hatchet into just such a rugged brown mask of old-manliness. Some day, Jim's thick and smooth brown hair might have turned into such a snow-covered thatch, like the roof of a cottage on a Christmas card.
The old lady was thin and flat of line, like a bas-relief that had come alive and lost its background. She had in her forget-me-not blue eyes the look of a child who has never been allowed to grow up; and I knew at once that she was one of those women kept by their menfolk on a high shelf, like a fragile flower in a silver vase. She, too, rose as I entered, but sank down again on the sofa with a little gesture at the same time welcoming and helpless.
"My daughter, no wonder he loved you!" said the old man. "Now we see you, we understand, don't we, Jenny?" Holding my hand, he turned and led me toward his wife, looking at me first, then at her. "We had to come. We're going to love you, for yourself—and for him."
Speaking, his face had a faintly perceptible quiver of strained nerves or old age, like a sigh of wind ruffling the calm surface of water. I felt how he fought to hide his emotion, and the answering thrill of it shot up through my arm, as our hands touched. My heart beat wildly, and the queer thought came that, if we were in the dark, it would send out pulsing lights from my body like the internal lamp of a firefly.
He called me his "daughter!" As I heard that word of love, which I had stolen, I realized the full shame and abomination of the thing I had done. My impulse was to cry out the truth. But it was only an impulse, such an impulse as lures one to jump from a height. I caught myself back from yielding, as I would have caught myself back from the precipice, lest in another moment I should lie crushed in a dark gulf. I waved before my eyes the flag of Brian's need, and my bad courage came back.
I let Mr. Beckett lead me to the sofa. I let his hand on my shoulder gently press me to sit down by his wife, who had not spoken yet. Her blue eyes, fixed with piteous earnestness on mine, were like those of a timid animal, when it is making up its mind whether to trust and "take to" a human stranger who offers advances. I seemed to see her thinking—thinking not so much with her brain as with her heart, as you used to say Brian thought. I saw her ideas move as if they'd been the works of a watch ticking under glass. I knew that she wasn't clever enough to read my mind, but I felt that she was more dangerous, perhaps, than a person of critical intelligence. Being one of those always-was, always-will-be women—wife-women, mother-women she might by instinct see the badness of my heart as I was reading the simple goodness of hers.
Her longing to know the soul of me pierced to it like a fine crystal spear; and the pathos of this bereaved mother and father, who had so generously answered my call, brought tears to my eyes. I had not winced away from her blue searchlights, but tears gathered and suddenly poured over my cheeks. Perhaps it was the tragedy of my own situation more than hers which touched me, for I was pitying as much as hating myself. Still the tears were true tears; and I suppose nothing I could have said or done would have appealed to Jim Beckett's mother as they appealed.
"Oh! you loved him!" she quavered, as if that were the one question for which she had sought the answer. And the next thing I knew we were crying in each other's arms, the little frail woman and the cruel girl who was deceiving her. But, Padre, the cruel girl was suffering almost as she deserved to suffer. She had loved Jim Wyndham, and never will she love another man.
"There, there!" Mr. Beckett was soothing us, patting our shoulders and our heads. "That's right, cry together, but don't grudge Jim to the cause, either of you. I don't! I'm proud he went the way he did. It was a grand wayand a grand cause. We've got to remember how many other hearts in the world are aching as ours ache. We're not alone. I guess that helps a little. And Jenny, this poor child has a double sorrow to bear. Think of what she wrote about her brother, who's lost his sight."
The little old lady sat up, and with a clean, lavender-scented handkerchief wiped first my eyes and then her own.
"I know—I know," she said. "But the child will let us try to comfort her—unless she has a father and mother of her own?"
"My father and mother died when I was a little girl," I answered. "I've only my brother in the world."
"You have us," they both exclaimed in the same breath: and though they bore as much physical likeness to one another as a delicate mountain-ash tree bears to the rocky mountain on which it grows, suddenly the two faces were so lit with the same beautiful inward light, that there was a striking resemblance between them. It was the kind of resemblance to be seen only on the faces of a pair who have loved each other, and thought the same thoughts long year after long year. The light was so warm, so pure and bright, that I felt as if a fire had been lit for me in the cold dark room. I didn't deserve to warm my hands in its glow; but I forgot my falseness for a moment, and let whatever was good in me flow out in gratitude.
I couldn't speak. I could only look, and kiss the old lady's tiny hand—ungloved to hold mine, and hung with loose rings of rich, ancient fashion such as children love to be shown in mother's jewel-box. In return, she kissed me on both cheeks, and the old man smoothed my hair, heavily.
"Why yes, that's settled then, you belong to us," he said. "It's just as if Jimmy'd left you to us in his will. In his last letter the boy told his mother and me that when we met we'd get a pleasant surprise. We—silly old folks!—never thought of a love story. We supposed Jim was booked for promotion, or a new job with some sort of honour attached to it. And yet we might have guessed, if we'd had our wits about us, for we did know that Jimmy'd fallen in love at first sight with a girl in France, before the war broke out."
"He told you that!" I almost gasped. Then he had fallen in love, and hadn't gone away forgetting, as I'd thought! Or was it some other girl who had won him at first sight? This was what I said to myself: and something that was not myself added, "Now, if you don't lose your head, you will find out in a minute all you've been puzzling over for nearly four years."
"He told his mother," Mr. Beckett said. "Afterwards she told me. Jim wouldn't have minded. He knew well enough she always tells me everything, and he didn't ask her to keep any secret."
"It was when I was sort of cross one night, because he didn't pay enough attention to a nice girl I'd invited, hoping to please him," Mrs. Beckett confessed. "He'd just come back from Europe, and I enquired if the French girls were so handsome, they'd spoiled him for our home beauties. I let him see that his father and I wanted him to marry young, and give us a daughter we could love. Then he answered—I remember as if 'twas yesterday!—'Mother, you wouldn't want her unless I could love her too, would you?' 'Why no,' I answered. 'But you would love her!' He didn't speak for a minute. He was holding my hand, counting my rings—these ones you see—like he always loved to do from a child. When he'd counted them all, he looked up and said, 'It wasn't a French girl spoiled me for the others. I'm not sure, but I think she was Irish. I lost her, like a fool, trying to win a silly bet.' Those were his very words. I know, because they struck me so I teased him to explain. After a while he did."
"Oh, do tell me what he said!" I begged.
At that minute Jim was alive for us all three. We were living with him in the past. I think none of us saw the little stuffy room where we sat. Only our bodies were there, like the empty, amber shells of locusts when the locusts have freed themselves and vanished. I was in a rose arbour, on a day of late June, in a garden by a canal that led to Belgium. The Becketts were in their house across the sea.
"Why," his mother hesitated, "it was quite a story. But when he found you again he must have told you it all."
"Ah, but do tell me what he told you!"
"Well, it began with a landlady in a hotel wanting him to see a picture. The artist was away, but his sister was there. That was you, my dear."
"Yes, it was I. My poor Brian painted such beautiful things before——"
"We know they were beautiful, because we've seen the picture," Father Beckett broke in. "But go on, Mother. We'll tell about the picture by and by. She'll like to hear. But the rest first!"
The little old lady obeyed, and went on. "Jimmy said he was taken to a room, and there stood the most wonderful girl he'd ever seen in his life—his 'dream come alive.' That's how he described her. And there was more. Father, I never told you this part. But maybe Miss—Miss——"
"Will you call me 'Mary'?" I asked.
"Maybe 'Mary' would like to hear. Of course I never forgot one word. No mother could forget! And now I see he described you just right. When you hear, you'll know it was love made his talk about you poetry-like. Jimmy never talked that way to me of any one, before or since."
Padre, I am going to write down the things he said of me, because it is exquisite to know that he thought them. He said, I had eyes "like sapphires fallen among dark grasses." And my hair was so heavy and thick that, if I pulled out the pins, it would fall around me "in a black avalanche."
Ah, the joy and the pain of hearing these words like an echo of music I had nearly missed! There's no language for what I felt. But you will understand.
He had told his mother about our day together. He said, he kept falling deeper in love every minute, and it was all he could do not to exclaim, "Girl, I simply must marry you!" He dared not say that lest I should refuse, and there would be an end of everything. So he tried as hard as he could to make me like him, and remember him till he should come back, in two weeks. He thought that was the best way; and he would have let his bet slide if he hadn't imagined that a little mystery might make him more interesting in my eyes. Believing that we had met again, Mrs. Beckett supposed that he had explained this to me. But of course it was all new, and when she came to the reason why Jim Wyndham had never come back, I thought for a moment I should faint. He was taken ill in Paris, three days after we parted, with typhoid fever; and though it was never a desperate case—owing to his strong constitution—he was delirious for weeks. Two months passed before he was well enough to look for me, and by that time all trace of us was lost. Brian and I had gone to England long before. Jim's friend—the one with whom he had the bet—wired to the Becketts that he was ill, but not dangerously, and they weren't to come over to France. It was only when he reached home that they knew how serious the trouble had been.
While I was listening, learning that Jim had really loved me, and searched for me, it seemed that I had a right to him after all: that I was an honest girl, hearing news of her own man, from his own people. It was only when Mr. Beckett began to draw me out, with a quite pathetic shyness, on the subject of our worldly resources that I was brought up short again, against the dark wall of my deceit. It should have been exquisite, it was heartbreaking, to see how he feared to hurt my feelings with some offer of help from his abundance. "Hurt my feelings!" And it was with the sole intention of "working" them for money that I'd written to the Becketts.
That looks horrible in black and white, doesn't it, Padre? But I won't try to hide my motives behind a dainty screen, from your eyes or mine. I had wanted and meant to get as much as I could for Brian and myself out of Jim Beckett's father and mother. And now, when I was on the way to obtain my object, more easily than I had expected—now, when I saw the kind of people they were—now, when I knew that to Jim Wyndham I had been an ideal, "his dream come true." I saw my own face as in a mirror. It was like the sly, mean face of a serpent disguised as a woman.
I remember once saying to you, Padre, when you had read aloud "The Idylls of the King" to Brian and me as children, that Vivien was the worst cad I ever heard of since the beginning of the world! I haven't changed my mind about her since, except that I give her second place. I am in the first.
I suppose, when I first pictured the Becketts (if I stopped to picture them at all) I imagined they would be an ordinary American millionaire and millionairess, bow-fronted, self-important creatures; the old man with a diamond stud like a headlight, the old lady afraid to take cold if she left off an extra row of pearls. In our desperate state, anything seemed fair in love or war with such hard, worth-their-weight-in-gold people. But I ought to have known that a man like Jim Beckett couldn't have such parents! I ought to have known they wouldn't be in the common class of millionaires of any country; and that whatever their type they would be unique.
Well, I hadn't known. Their kindness, their dear humanness, their simplicity, overwhelmed me as the gifts of shields and bracelets from the Roman warriors overwhelmed treacherous Tarpeia. And when they began delicately begging me to be their adopted daughter—the very thing I'd prayed for to the devil!—I felt a hundred times wickeder than if Jim hadn't set me on a high pedestal, where they wished to keep me with their money, their love, as offerings.
Whether I should have broken down and confessed everything, or brazened it out in spite of all if I'd been left alone to decide, I shall never know. For just then the door opened, and Brian came into the room.
Why Brian's coming should make all the difference may puzzle you, Padre, but I'll explain.
Ours is an amateurish hotel, especially since the war. Any one who happens to have the time or inclination runs it: or if no one has time it runs itself. Consequently mistakes are made. But what can you expect for eight francs a day, with pension?
I said that a very young youth brought up the news of the Becketts' arrival. He'd merely announced that "un monsieur et une dame" had called. Apparently they had given no names, no cards. But in truth there were cards, which had been mislaid, or in other words left upon the desk in the bureau, with the numbers of both our rooms scrawled on them in pencil. Nobody was there at the time, but when the concierge came back (he is a sort of unofficial understudy for the mobilized manager) he saw the cards and sent them upstairs. They were taken to Brian and the names read aloud to him. He supposed, from vague information supplied by the garcon (it was a garcon this time) that I wished him to come and join me in the salon with my guests. He hated the thought of meeting strangers (the name "Beckett" meant nothing to him), but if he were wanted by his sister, he never yet left her in the lurch.
He and I both knew the house with our eyes shut, before the war; and now that Brian is blind, he practises in the most reckless way going about by himself. He refused to be led to the salon: he came unaided and unerring: and I thought when he appeared at the door, I'd never seen him look so beautiful. He is beautiful you know! Now that his physical eyesight is gone, and he's developing that mysterious "inner sight" of which he talks, there's no other adjective which truly expresses him. He stood there for a minute with his hand on the door-knob, with all the light in the room (there wasn't much) shining straight into his face. It couldn't help doing that, as the one window is nearly opposite the door; but really it does seem sometimes that light seeks Brian's face, as the "spot light" in theatres follows the hero or heroine of a play.
There was an asking smile on his lips, and—by accident, of course—his dear blind eyes looked straight at Mrs. Beckett. We are enough alike, we twins, for any one to know at a glance that we're brother and sister, so the Becketts would have known, of course, even if I hadn't cried out in surprise, "Brian!"
They took it for granted that Brian would have heard all about their son Jim; so, touched by the pathos of his blindness—the lonely pathos (for a blind man is as lonely as a daylight moon!) Mrs. Beckett almost ran to him and took his hand.
"We're the Becketts, with your sister," she said. "Jimmy's father and mother. I expect you didn't meet him when they were getting engaged to each other at St. Raphael. But he loved your picture that he bought just before the war. He used to say, if only you'd signed it, his whole life might have been different. That was when he'd lost Mary, you see—and he'd got hold of her name quite wrong. He thought it was Ommalee, and we never knew a word about the engagement, or her real name or anything, till the letter came to us at our hotel to-day. Then we hurried around here, as quick as we could; and she promised to be our adopted daughter. That means you will have to be our adopted son!"
I think Mrs. Beckett is too shy to like talking much at ordinary times. She would rather let her big husband talk, and listen admiringly to him. But this wasn't an ordinary time. To see Brian stand at the door, wistful and alone, gave her a pain in her heart, so she rushed to him, and poured out all these kind words, which left him dazed.
"You are very good to me," he answered, too thoughtful of others' feelings, as always, to blurt out—as most people would—"I don't understand. Who are you, please?" Instead, his sightless but beautiful eyes seemed to search the room, and he said, "Molly, you're here, aren't you?"
Now perhaps you begin to understand why his coming, and Mrs. Beckett's greeting of him, stopped me from telling the truth—if I would have told it. I'm not sure if I would, in any case, Padre; but as it was I could not. The question seemed settled. To have told the Becketts that I was an adventuress—a repentant adventuress—and let them go out of my life without Brian ever knowing they'd come into it was one thing. To explain, to accuse myself before Brian, to make him despise the only person he had to depend on, and so to spoil the world for him, was another thing.
I accepted the fate I'd summoned like the genie of a lamp. "Yes, Brian, I'm here," I answered. And I went to him, and took possession of the hand Mrs. Beckett had left free. "I never told you about my romance. It was so short. And—and one doesn't put the most sacred things in letters. I loved a man, and he loved me. We met in France before the war, and lost each other.
"Afterward he came back to fight. A few days ago he fell—just at the time when his parents had hurried over from America to see him. I—I couldn't resist writing them a letter, though they were strangers to me. I——"
"That's not a word I like to hear on your lips—'strangers'," Mr. Beckett broke in, "even though you're speaking of the past. We're all one family now. You don't mind my saying that, Brian, or taking it for granted you'll consent—or calling you Brian, do you?"
"Mind!" echoed Brian, with his sweet, young smile. "How could I mind? It's like something in a story. It's a sad story—because the hero's gone out of it—no, he hasn't gone, really! It only seems so, before you stop to think. I've learned enough about death to learn that. And I can tell by both your voices you'll be friends worth having."
"Oh, you are a dear boy!" exclaimed Mrs. Beckett. "God is good to give you and your sister to us in our dark hour. I feel as if Jimmy were here with us. I do believe he is! I know he'd like me to tell you what he did with your picture, and what we've done with it since, his father and I."
Brian must have felt that it would be good for us all to talk of the pictures, just then, not of this "Jimmy" who was still a mystery to him. He caught up the subject and said that he didn't understand. What picture was it of which they spoke? He generally signed his initials, but they'd mentioned that this was unsigned——
"Don't you remember," I explained, "the sketch I sold for you to Mr. Wyndham when we were tramping through France? You told me when you came back from Paris that it wasn't quite finished. You'd meant to put on a few more touches—and your signature. Well, 'Wyndham' was only the middle name. I never told you much about that day. I was half ashamed, because it was the day when my romance began and—broke. I hoped it might begin again sometime, but—but—you shall hear the whole story soon. Only—not now."
Even as I promised him, I promised myself to tell him nothing. I might have to lie in deeds to Brian. I wouldn't lie in words. Mrs. Beckett might give him her version of her son's romance—some day. Just at the moment she was relating, almost happily, the story of the picture: and it was for me, too.
Jim had had a beautiful frame made for Brian's cathedral sketch, and it had been hung in the best place—over his desk—in the special sanctum where the things he loved most were put. In starting for Europe his father and mother had planned to stop only a short time in a Paris hotel. They had meant to take a house, where Jim could join them whenever he got a few days' leave: and as a surprise for him they had brought over his favourite treasures from the "den." Among these was the unsigned picture painted by the brother of The Girl. They had even chosen the house, a small but charming old chateau to which Jim had taken a fancy. It was rather close to the war zone in these days, but that had not struck them as an obstacle. They were not afraid. They had wired, before sailing, to a Paris agent, telling him to engage the chateau if it was still to let furnished. On arriving the answer awaited them: the place was theirs.
"We thought it would be such a joy to Jim," Mrs. Beckett said. "He fell in love with that chateau before he came down with typhoid. I'll show you a snapshot he took of it. He used to say he'd give anything to live there. And crossing on the ship we talked every day of how we'd make a 'den' for him, full of his own things, and never breathe a word till he opened the door of the room. We're in honour bound to take the house now, whether or not we use it—without Jim. I don't know what we shall do, I'm sure! All I know is, I feel as if it would kill me to turn round and go home with our broken hearts."
"We've got new obligations right here, Jenny. You mustn't forget that," said Mr. Beckett. "Remember we've just adopted a daughter—and a son, too. We must consult them about our movements."
"Oh, I hadn't forgotten!" the old lady cried. "They—they'll help us to decide, of course. But just now I can't make myself feel as if one thing was any better than another. If only we could think of something Jim would have liked us to do! Something—patriotic—for France."
"Mary has seen Jim since we saw him, dear. Perhaps from talk they had she'll have a suggestion to make."
"Oh no!" I cried. "I've no suggestion."
"And you, Brian?" the old man persisted.
Quickly I answered for my brother. "They never met! Brian couldn't know what—Jim would have liked you to do."
"It's true, I can't know," said Brian. "But a thought has come into my head. Shall I tell it to you?"
"Yes!" the Becketts answered in a breath. They gazed at him as if they fancied him inspired by their son's spirit. No wonder, perhaps! Brian has an inspired look.
"Are you very rich?" he asked bluntly, as a child puts questions which grown-ups veil.
"We're rich in money," answered the old man. "But I guess I never quite realized till now, when we lost Jimmy, how poor you can be, when you're only rich in what the world can give."
"I suppose you'll want to put up the finest monument for your son that money can buy," Brian went on, as though he had wandered from his subject. But I—knowing him, and his slow, dreamy way of getting to his goal—knew that he was not astray. He was following some star which we hadn't yet seen.
"We've had no time to think of a monument," said Mr. Beckett, with a choke in his voice. "Of course we would wish it, if it could be done. But Jim lies on German soil. We can't mark the place——"
"It doesn't much matter—to him—where his body lies," Brian went on. "He is not in German soil, or in No Man's Land. Wouldn't he like to have a monument in Everyman's Land?"
"What do you mean?" breathed the little old lady. She realized now that blind Brian wasn't speaking idly.
"Well, you see, France and Belgium together will be Everyman's Land after the war, won't they?" Brian said.
"Every man who wants the world's true peace has fought in France and Belgium, if he could fight. Every man who has fought, and every man who wished to fight but couldn't, will want to see those lands that have been martyred and burned, when they have risen like the Phoenix out of their own ashes. That's why I call France and Belgium Everyman's Land. You say your Jim spent some of his happiest days there, and now he's given his life for the land he loved. Wouldn't you feel as if he went with you, if you made a pilgrimage from town to town he knew in their days of beauty—if you travelled and studied some scheme for helping to make each one beautiful again after the war? If you did this in his name and his honour, could he have a better memorial?"
"I guess God has let Jim speak through your lips, and tell us his wish," said Mr. Beckett. "What do you think, Jenny?"
"I think what you think," she echoed. "It's right the word should come to us from the brother of Jim's love."
That is the story, Padre, as far as it has gone. No sign from you, no look in your eyes, could show me myself in a meaner light than shines from the mirror of my conscience. If Jim hadn't loved me, it would be less shameful to trade on the trust of these kind people. I see that clearly! And I see how hateful it is to make Brian an innocent partner in the fraud.
I'm taking advantage of one man who is dead, and another who is blind. And it is as though I were "betting on a certainty," because there's nobody alive who can come forward to tell the Becketts or Brian what I am. I'm safe, brutally safe!
You'll see from what I have written how Brian turned the scales. The plan he proposed developed in the Becketts' minds with a quickness that could happen only with Americans—and millionaires. Father Beckett sees and does things on the grand scale. Perhaps that's the secret of his success. He was a miner once, he has told Brian and me. Mrs. Beckett was a district school teacher in the Far West, where his fortune began. They married while he was still a poor man. But that's by the way! I want to tell you now of his present, not of his past: and the working out of our future from Brian's suggestion. Ten minutes after the planting of the seed a tree had grown up, and was putting forth leaves and blossoms. Soon there will be fruit. And it will come into existence ripe! I suppose Americans are like that. They manage their affairs with mental intensive culture.
The Becketts are prepared to love me for Jim's sake; but Brian they worship as a supernatural being. Mr. Beckett says he's saved them from themselves, and given them an incentive to live. It was only yesterday that they answered my S. O. S. call. Now, the immediate future is settled, for the four of us; settled for us together.
Father Beckett is asking leave to travel en automobile through the liberated lands. In each town and village Jim's parents will decide on some work of charity or reconstruction in his memory, above all in places he knew and loved. They can identify these by the letters he wrote home from France before the war. His mother has kept every one. Through a presentiment of his death, or because she couldn't part from them, she has brought along a budget of Jim's letters from America. She carries them about in a little morocco hand-bag, as other women carry their jewels.
The thought of Brian's plan is for the two old people like an infusion of blood in emptied veins. They say that they would never have thought of it themselves, and if they had, they would not have ventured to attempt it alone, ignorant of French as they are. But this is their generous way of making us feel indispensable! They tell us we are needed to "see them through"; that without our help and advice they would be lost. Every word of kindness is a new stab for me. Shall I grow callous as time goes on, and accept everything as though I really were what they call me—their "daughter"? Or—I begin to think of another alternative. I'll turn to it if I grow desperate.
The bright spot in my darkness is the joyful change in the Becketts. They feel that they've regained their son; that Jim will be with them on their journey, and that they've a rendezvous with him at "his chateau," when they reach the journey's end. They owe this happiness not to me, but to Brian. As for him, he has the air of calm content that used to enfold him when he packed his easel and knapsack for a tramp. Blindness isn't blindness for Brian. It's only another kind of sight.
"I shan't see the wreck and misery you others will have to see," he says. "Horrors don't exist any more for my eyes. I shall see the country in all its beauty as it was before the war. And who knows but I shall find my dog?" (Brian lost the most wonderful dog in the world when he was wounded.) He is always hoping to find it again!
He doesn't feel that he accepts charity from the Becketts. He believes, with a kind of modest pride, that we're really indispensable. Afterward—when the tour is over—he thinks that "some other scheme will open." I think so too. The Becketts will propose it, to keep us with them. They will urge and argue, little dreaming how I drew them, with a grappling-hook resolve to become a barnacle on their ship!
To-morrow we move to the Ritz. The Becketts insist. They want us near them for "consultations"! This morning the formal request was made to the French authorities, and sent to headquarters. On the fourth day the answer will come, and there's little doubt it will be "yes."
Can I bear to go on deceiving Jim Beckett's father and mother, or—shall I take the other alternative? I must decide to-night.
* * * * *
Since I wrote that last sentence I have been out, alone—to decide. Padre, it was in my mind never to come back.
I walked a long, long way, to the Champs-Elysees. I was very tired, and I sat down—almost dropped down—on a seat under the high canopy of chestnut trees. I could not think, but I had a sense of expectation as if I were waiting for somebody who would tell me what to do. Paris in the autumn twilight was a dream of beauty. Suddenly the dream seemed to open, and draw me in. Some one far away, whom I had known and loved, was dreaming me! What I should decide about the future, depended no longer on myself, but upon the dreamer. I didn't know who he was; but I knew I should learn by and by. It was he who would come walking along the road of his own dream, and take the vacant place by me on the seat.
Being in the dream, I didn't belong to the wonderful, war-time Paris which was rushing and roaring around me. Military motors, and huge camions and ambulances were tearing up and down, over the gray-satin surface of asphalt which used to be sacred to private autos and gay little taxis bound for theatres and operas and balls. For every girl, or woman, or child, who passed, there were at least ten soldiers: French soldiers in bleu horizon, Serbians in gray, Britishers and a sprinkling of Americans in khaki. There was an undertone of music—a tune in the making—in the tramp, tramp, of the soldiers' feet, the rumble and whirr of the cars-of-war, the voices of women, the laughing cries of children.
I thought how simple it would be, to spring up and throw myself under one of the huge, rushing camions: how easily the thing might be taken for an accident if I stage-managed it well. The Becketts would be angels to Brian when I was gone! But the dreamer of the dream would not let me stir hand or foot. He put a spell of stillness upon me; he shut me up in a transparent crystal box, while outside all the world moved about its own affairs.
The mauve light of Paris nights filtered up from the gleaming asphalt, as if through a roof of clouded glass over a subterranean ballroom lit with blue and purple lanterns. Street lamps, darkly shaded for air-raids, trailed their white lights downward, long and straight, like first-communion veils. Distant trees and shrubs and statues began to retreat into the dusk, as if withdrawing from the sight of fevered human-folk to rest. Violet shadows rose in a tide, and poured through the gold-green tunnel of chestnut trees, as sea-water pours into a cave. And the shadow-sea had a voice like the whisper of waves. It said, "The dream is Jim Wyndham's dream." I felt him near me—still in the dream. The one I had waited for had come.
I was free to move. The transparent box was broken.
* * * * *
What the meaning of my impression was I don't know. But it must have a meaning, it was so strong and real. It has made me change my mind about—the other alternative. I want to live, and find my way back into that dream.
Padre, you were right. My greatest comfort, as of old, is in turning to you.
I think you had a glimpse of the future when you left me that last message: "Write to me, in the old way, just as if I were alive and had gone on a long journey."
When I lock my door, and get out this journal, it seems as if a second door—a door in the wall—opened, to show you smiling the good smile which made your face different from any other. I don't deserve the smile. Did I ever deserve it? Yet you gave it even when I was at my worst. Now it seems to say, "In spite of all, I won't turn my back on you. I haven't given you up."
When I first began to write in this book (the purple-covered journal which was your last present to me), I meant just to relieve my heart by putting on paper, as if for you, the story of my wickedness. Now the story is told, I can't stop. I can't shut the door in the wall! I shall go on, and on. I shall tell you all that happens, all I feel, and see, and think. That must have been what you meant me to do.
When Brian and I were away from home a million years ago, before the war, we wrote you every day, if only a few paragraphs, and posted our letters at the end of a week. You said those letters were your "magic carpet," on which you travelled with us. Poor Padre, you'd no time nor money for other travelling! You never saw France, till the war called you. And after a few bleak months, that other great call came. I shall write to you about France, and about myself, as I should have written if you were back at home.
First—about myself! A few pages ago I said that there was no one alive who could prove me a liar, to the Becketts or Brian: that I was "safe—brutally safe." Well, I was mistaken. I am not safe. But I will go back to our start.
Everyone warned the Becketts that they would get no automobile, no essence, and no chauffeur. Yet they got all three, as magically as Cinderella got her coach and four. The French authorities played fairy godmother, and waved a wand. Why not, when in return so much was to be done for France?
The wand gave a permit for the whole front (counting in the American front!) from Lorraine to Flanders. It produced a big gray car, and a French soldier to drive it. The soldier has only one leg: but he can do more with that one than most men with two. Thus we set forth on the journey Brian planned, the Becketts so grateful—poor darlings—for our company, that it was hard to realize that I didn't belong.
It was a queer thought that we should be taking the road to Germany—we, of all people: yet every road that leads east from Paris leads to Germany. And it was a wonderful thought, that we should be going to the Marne.
Surely generations must pass before that name can be heard, even by children, without a thrill! We said it over and over in the car: "The Marne—the Marne! We shall see the Marne, this autumn of 1917."
Meanwhile the road was a dream-road. It had the unnatural quietness of dreams. In days of peace it would have been choked with country carts bringing food to fill the wide-open mouth of Paris. Now, the way to the capital was silent and empty, save for gray military motors and lumbering army camions. The cheap bowling alleys and jerry-built restaurants of the suburbs seemed under a spell of sleep. There were no men anywhere, except the very old, and boys of the "class" of next year. Women swept out the gloomy shops: women drove omnibuses: women hawked the morning papers. Outside Paris we were stopped by soldiers, appearing from sentry-boxes: our papers were scanned; almost reluctantly we were allowed to pass on, to the Secret Region of Crucifix Corner, which spying eyes must not see—the region of aeroplane hangars, endless hangars, lost among trees, and melting dimly into a dim horizon, their low, rounded roofs "camouflaged" in a confusion of splodged colours.
There was so much to see—so much which was abnormal, and belonged to war—that we might have passed without glancing at a line of blue water, parallel with our road at a little distance, had not Brian said, "Have we come in sight of the Ourcq? We ought to be near it now. Don't you know, the men of the Marne say the men of the Ourcq did more than they to save Paris?"
The Becketts had hardly heard of the Ourcq. As for me, I'd forgotten that part in the drama of September, 1914. I knew that there was an Ourcq—a canal, or a river, or both, with a bit of Paris sticking to its banks: knew it vaguely, as one knows and forgets that one's friends' faces have profiles. But Brian's words brought back the whole story to my mind in a flash. I remembered how Von Kluck was trapped like a rat, in the couloir of the Ourcq, by the genius of Gallieni, and the glorious cooeperation of General Manoury and the dear British "contemptibles" under General French.
It was a desperate adventure that—to try and take the Germans in the flank; and Gallieni's advisers told him there were not soldiers enough in his command to do it. "Then we'll do it with sailors!" he said. "But," urged an admiral, "my sailors are not trained to march."
"They will march without being trained," said the defender of the capital. "I've been in China and Madagascar, I know what sailors can do on land."
"Even so, there will not be enough men," answered the pessimists.
"We'll fill the gaps with the police," said the general, inspired perhaps by Sainte-Genevieve.
So the deed was dared; and in a panic at sight of the mysteriously arriving troops, Von Kluck retreated from the Ourcq to the Aisne. It was when he heard how the trick had been played and won by sheer bravado, that he cried out in rage, "How could I count on such a coup? Not another military governor in a hundred would have risked throwing his whole force sixty kilometres from its base. How should I guess what a dare-devil fool Gallieni would turn out? But if Trochu, in '70, had been the same kind of a fool, we should never have got Paris!"
Half the ghosts in history seemed to haunt this Route de Strasbourg, and to meet us as we passed. You know how you see the characters in a moving-picture play, and behind them the "fade ins" that show their life history, visions that change on the screen like patterns in a kaleidoscope? So on this meadow-bordered road, peaceful in the autumn sunlight, we saw with our minds' eyes the soldiers of 1914: behind them the soldiers of 1870: farther in the background Napoleon the Great with his men: and fading into the distance, processions of kings who had marched along the Marne, since the day Sainte-Genevieve ordered the gates of Paris to be shut in the face of Attila.
Such a gay, gold-sequined blue-green ribbon of a river it looked! Almost impudent in gaiety, as if it wished to forget and be happy. But souls and rivers never really forget. When they know what the Marne knows, they are gay only on the surface!
It was at Meaux where we had our first close meeting with the Marne: Meaux, the city nearest Paris "on the Marne front," where the Germans came: and even after three years you can still see on the left bank of the river traces of trench—shallow, pathetic holes dug in wild haste. We might have missed them, we creatures with mere eyes, if Brian hadn't asked, "Can't you see the trenches?" Then we saw them, of course, half lost under rank grass, like dents in a green velvet cushion made by a sleeper who has long ago waked and walked away.
From a distance the glistening gray roofs of Meaux were like a vast crowd of dark-winged doves; but as we ran into the town it opened out into dignified importance, able to live up to its thousand years of history. There was no work for the Becketts there, we thought, for the Germans had time to do little material harm to Meaux in 1914: and at first sight there seemed to be no need of alms. But Jim had loved Meaux. His mother took from her blue morocco bag his letter describing the place, mentioning how he had met the bishop through a French friend.
"Do you think," she asked me timidly, "we might call on the bishop? Who knows but he remembers our Jimmy?"
"He's a famous bishop," said Brian. "I've heard poilus from Meaux tell stories of how the Germans were forced to respect him, he was so brave and fine. He took the children of the town under his protection, and no harm came to one of them. There were postcard photographs going round early in the war, of the bishop surrounded by boys and girls—like a benevolent Pied Piper. It's kindness he's famous for, as well as courage, so I'm sure we may call."
Near the beautiful old cathedral we passed a priest, and asked him where to find the bishop's house. "You need not go so far; here he comes," was the answer. We looked over our shoulders, almost guiltily, and there indeed he was. He had been in the cathedral with two French officers, and in another instant the trio would have turned a corner. Our look and the priest's gesture told the bishop that we were speaking of him. He paused, and Mr. Beckett jumped out of the stopped car, agile as a boy in his excitement.
"Oh, I forgot, I can't talk French! Mary, you must see me through!" he pleaded.
I hurried to the rescue, and together we walked up to the bishop. Off came Mr. Beckett's hat; and both officers saluted us. One was a general, the other a colonel.
If I'd had time to rehearse, I might have done myself some credit. As it was, I stammered out some sort of explanation and introduced Jim's father.
"I remember young Monsieur Beckett," the bishop said. "He was not one to be forgotten! Besides, he was generous to Meaux. He left a noble present for our poor. And now, you say, he has given his life for France? What is there I can do to prove our gratitude? You have come to Meaux because of his letters? Wait a few minutes, till these brave messieurs have gone, and I myself will show you the cathedral. Oh, you need not fear! It will be a pleasure."
He was as good as his word, and better. Not only did he show the splendid Gothic cathedral, pride of the "fair Ile-de-France," but the bishop's house as well. Bossuet had lived there, the most famous bishop Meaux had in the past. It was dramatic to enter his study, guided by the most famous bishop of the present; to see in such company the room where Bossuet penned his denunciation of the Protestants, and then the long avenue of yews where he used to walk in search of inspiration. We saw his tomb, too—in the cathedral (yes, I believe Brian saw it more clearly than we!), one of those grand tombs they gave prelates in the days of Louis XIV: and when the Becketts had followed Jim's example in generosity, we bade adieu to the—oh, ever so much kindlier heir of the great controversialist. I'm afraid, to tell the truth, the little old lady cared more to know that her Jim's favourite cheese—Brie—was made in Meaux, than anything else in the town's history. Nevertheless, she listened with a charmed air to Brian's story of Meaux's great romance—as she listens to all Brian's stories. It was you, Padre, who told it to Brian, and to me, one winter night when we'd been reading about Gaston, de Foix, "Gaston le Bel." Our talk of his exploits brought us to Meaux, at the time of the Jacquerie, in the twelfth century. The common people had revolted against the nobles who oppressed them, and all the Ile-de-France—adorable name!—seethed with civil war. In Meaux was the Duchess of Orleans, with three hundred great ladies, most of them beautiful and young. The peasants besieged the Duchess there, and she and her lovely companions were put to sore straits, when suddenly arrived brave Gaston to save them. I don't quite know why he took the trouble to come so far, from his hill-castle near the Spanish frontier, but most likely he loved one of the shut-up ladies. Or perhaps it was simply for love of all womanhood, since Gaston was so chivalrous that Froissart said, "I never saw one like him of personage, nor of so fair form, nor so well made."