FICTION

INVITATION

WILL R. BIRD May 1 1933
FICTION

INVITATION

WILL R. BIRD May 1 1933

INVITATION

FICTION

WILL R. BIRD

VILLERS AGNY was exhilarating. Martin had been there often in the old days, but now it was strange and unfamiliar. He wished, as he came to the first houses, that he had one of the boys with him, one who had been there. It would be wonderful to share his impressions.

There were children playing on the street, men on a bench in front of an estaminet, two gendarmes on bicycles. Martin went on slowly, and saw' the door plate, “Peter Higgins. All at once his heart began to pound, and his lips were dry.

He was on the flagged walk before he realized that there might be an embarrassing situation, and then it was too late. One of the little boys on the street darted in before him, shouting in a mixture of French and English, and Nanette stood in the doorway.

Martin removed his hat, and still she did not recognize him. She had lost her slenderness, but her beauty remained, provocative, alluring, definite; the same dark eyes and hair, and dimples.

“Don’t you remember me—Martin Drever. Tenth Machine Gun Company?”

Instantly her hand was holding his, tight and warm, and she erred out in her eager way :

“Oh, you’ve changed! Captain Martin Drever! The Victoria Cross : She called: “Peter; oh, Peter ! Come and

meet him. She was ecstatical now, still clinging to Martin.

A chair scraped on the brick flooring of a porch at the rear, and a man who had been smoking there came through the passageway. He was a thick-shouldered fellow with a heavy, stolid face.

“n'" o know yer,” he said. “ 'Ave a seat. The wife’s talkea • >ut yer dozens of times, Yer the V.C. un?”

“Wh} yes.” Martin blushed. “I got the decoration at the Amiens show.”

“Yer was jumped into a Sam Browne; ‘promoted on the field,’ they calls it?”

“Yes, they did give me a commission that way,” agreed Martin. “But to be frank, that’s all history now. I wasn't cut out for soldiering and I’ve never had anything to do with army stuff since.”

“I’m so glad, so glad!” Nanette was rushing back and forth, glancing at Martin and smiling in a flushed, feverish way. “I’ve told Peter about you many times.”

She spread a clean napkin at one end of the table and carried in a bowl of soup.

“We’ve had our dinner,” she apologized, “but there's plenty of everything.” She was hurrying in a hysterical way as if she had great expectations. Martin glanced at her husband. The fellow was smoking again, his big face expressionless. He seemed indifferent as a bear on a chain.

“When did you come to France?” Nanette asked questions in a torrent. Was he alone? Had he come by bus? How did he know where to find her? Was she much changed?

Peter Higgins stood as Martin started to reply.

“I got to ’op back to work,” he said in his heavy wray. “See you later.”

NANETTE kept watching from the window until her husband was well along the village street, then she turned swiftly.

“Did you really come to see me?” she asked.

“Why, yes,” Martin said, and then he went hot and cold in turn. “But, you know', just to look up . .

His words trailed off Nanette was looking at him in the same eager way as in those days long gone when he had discovered that she was half-English, a discard from Calais.

It was the wrav she had looked at him that had made him remember Villers Agny, made him want to see her again. When they had told him at the crossroads estaminet that she was married to an English gardener, much of his interest had returned.

“I thought you'd remember me.” she gushed. 'Tve always remembered you.”

“It’s nice to know' that,” said Martin politely. He was glad she had seated herself at the other end of the table. “But I don’t remember that I was more friendly with you than Larkin, the chap from the aerodrome. He used to take you in the car. Remember?”

“Oh, yes,” said Nanette without animation, “but he was just a corporal. I’d forgotten his name."

“Just a . . . Well, I was only a sergeant until August.”

“An officer,” she corrected, flooding again with animation. “The famous V.C. I remember the ceremony in the Grande Place at Arras. I’m so glad you have come to me. ’’

“But,” said Martin helplessly, “you—you’re—”

“Listen.” Nanette had suddenly crouched forward on the table, her hands to her breast. “I must tell you. Peter is jealous. He's crazy jealous.”

Martin started so that his hand jiggled his coffee.

“But I’m going on.” he said quickly. “I won’t give him any reason.”

He had sensed it. Peter’s heavy features had been too sombre, his eyes too watchful. Martin felt ridiculously afraid,

“But you must stop for this evening,” said Nanette, and her lips trembled. He suddenly remembered that it w'as an old trick of hers and that it had gained her many favors, nevertheless he felt cruel. “You’ll have to stay to supper.”

Martin hated a scene, and he knew there would be one unless he promised. Still, Peter’s eyes . , ,

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“Peter would be terrible if you didn’t come to supper,” said Nanette with new alarm. “He’d take on about it.”

“All right,” said Martin weakly. “I’ll be here. But I’ll go walking this afternoon and have a look about the village. Where does he work?”

“At the Crossroads Cemetery, the comer on the Arras Road. Why?” Nanette had risen.

“Because I’ll let him see me, and he’ll know I’m not flirting with you,” explained Martin. He tried to carry on a conversation, but Nanette’s eyes were too greedy, too absorbed. Her mind, he knew was seething with some plan. ‘1 must go,” he said abruptly.

Nanette said nothing but watched him go as if she were ready to go with him.

OUTSIDE, in a cart lane, Martin drew a deep breath and looked about him. “I’m a fool,” he muttered. It seemed incredible that he could have got such a fright over nothing. Instead of having an enjoyable talk over old times and comrades with Nanette, he had been alarmed by Peter’s attitude. It was as if the man had anticipated his coming, was grimly prepared for the climax.

Walking slowly, Martin tried to recall his three months at Villers Agny. What had he ever done to make Nanette act in such a way? He had been kind to her and nothing more, had watched passively her violent love affairs with others of his unit who were not so discreet. What was her game?

He came to the cemetery. Three men were working about the graves and he saw Peter. The man looked larger, more hostile in his overalls, but he beckoned and Martin went in.

“This ’ere’s ’im,” announced Peter to his fellows. “Captain Drever, Tenth Machine Guns.” He jerked a thick thumb toward them. "This is Barlot an’ Jim Weller.” Then he resumed his spading.

Barlot, a short, fat man, stood and gazed admiringly.

“I’ve read abaht yer,” he said. “Ow yer got forward dahn at that spot in the Amiens show wiv yer machine gun an’ put aht the blinkin’ mob. ’Arf a regiment of Jerries, it syes in wot I read. Bli’ me, yer don’t look like the ’eroes in pitchoor books.”

“I’m not,” said Martin, flushing. “I just had a bit of luck, that’s all. Any of the boys with me would have done—”

“That’s the wye wiv all of them,” interposed Weller, a tall, bony man. “Pve seen the Guards V.C. officer. ’E were on a bus, but I ’ad a fair look at ’im, an’ they sye ’e’s modestlike abaht it, syes ’e didn’t do nothin’,”

For an hour they clung to Martin, following him about the grounds. They asked countless questions. How many Jerries had he killed? Did the gun get hot? Did he see any Jerry officers? How near did the first wave get? Did the king pin his Cross on? And. grinning, they saluted him in an awkward way as he left them.

Peter had not asked a question. He had listened to the others at times, pausing with his big foot on the haft of his spade, but he had not shown friendliness.

MARTIN had never felt more horribly alone and afraid than during his second meal at Peter’s table. Nanette was babbling like a child, excitedly telling of all the preparations she had made for the evening. There were seven gardeners’ wives in the vicinity and she had invited them all, as well as the mayor of Villers Agny, who spoke English. There were to be no games or dancing, she said. “They’ll all want to see you and to hear you talk.”

Peter said nothing. He ate with the intentness of a hungry man and his face was expressionless, but his heavy-lidded eyes were watching, watching, sending tiny shivers up and down Martin’s spine. Martin

was so conscious of that scrutiny that his inward writhings grew vocal.

“But I can’t stay,” he protested. “Really,

I shouldn’t have come back for supper. There’s a chap waiting for me in Arras, and the last bus goes at eight. I’m awfully glad to have seen you two, but I can’t stay.”

“Oh, Martin!” There was a half-sob in Nanette’s cry. "You must. I’ve asked them all, and . . . You can’t go.”

Martin, hot and cold in turn, glanced at Peter. The man had leaned back and was picking his teeth, his features immobile. But his eyes were chilling, deadly, threatening. They drove Martin into a panic.

“I must go,” he reiterated. “I told that chap I’d be back for supper, and not later than the last bus. I’d liked to have stayed, but, you see, I’ve only got a short time over here and—”

“She’s invited the lot,” said Peter, speaking for the first time and harshly. “They’re cornin’.”

His voice sent shivers through Martin. The man’s insane jealousy was permeating his tone, was livid on his face when he spoke, glowered from those terrible eyes.

“I’ve a bunch of photographs at the hotel,” said Martin, struggling with his panic. “If it would help any I’ll send you a few with my autograph.”

“Oh, Martin,” cried Nanette, “pictures are no good. I want them to see you really and to hear you, right here in my house.” She had got to her feet and now she came and stood by his chair. “Please, please, be a good boy and stay with us,” she begged.

He turned so that he could watch her, and saw that so desperate was Nanette she would easily do some fanatical thing like throwing herself on his shoulder.

In an instant he was out of his chair and backed away from her. His knees were shaky and he could not keep a tremor out of his voice.

“If there is a telephone in Agny I might call the hotel,” he began. It was but an excuse to escape the house. Once outside, out of sight, they would not see him again, never.

“After hours,” said Peter more harshly than before, and he, too, got to his feet. “Come and ’ave a smoke in the garden afore you go.”

It was not an invitation but a stem command, and Martin went. Peter's face had become as inflexible as a challenge.

"THEY WALKED between rows of poled 1 beans, and the man’s nearness was like the danger of an unknown fuse. At the end of the row they stopped, and Peter planted himself in the path as a barrier. He jerked his pipe from his mouth and spoke in grim throatiness.

“Look ’ere, Mister Drever,” he grated. “Yer stayin’. Put that dahn in yer book right now. Becoz yer a blinkin’ V.C., she’s talked ’er ’ead off abaht knowin’ yer in war time. It’s wot she’s ’ad to ’old ’er ’ead up wiv the rest of them that mykes aht wot they were at ’ome. An’ now yer ’ere, yer blinkin’ well goin’ to stop an’ do the grand. An’ if yer don’t talk up to all of them an’ tell ’ow yer knowed Nanette, an’ tried to myke love to ’er, I’ll bash yer fice in proper, so ’elpme.”

The menace of his dark bulk in the dusk almost thrust Martin backward.

“All right, all right,” he said hurriedly. “I’ll stay.” He was clammy with cold perspiration.

“An’ another thing,” Peter spat into the beans. “I wants yer to act a bit lovin’. Pinch ’er a bit when the others is lookin’ an kiss her when yer leavin’. D’ye 'ear me?”

"Yes,” said Martin huskily. “I will.” Halfway to the house Peter paused again as if he were thinking deeply.

“Once ain’t much,” he rumbled throatily. “Kiss her twice.”

“I—oh—why, yes,” assented Martin. And they went in.