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   Chapter 1 ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 15182

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The restaurant of the Hotel St. Ives seems, as I look back on it, an odd spot to have served as stage wings for a melodrama, pure and simple. Yet a melodrama did begin there. No other word fits the case. The inns of the Middle Ages, which, I believe, reeked with trap-doors and cutthroats, pistols and poisoned daggers, offered nothing weirder than my experience, with its first scene set beneath this roof. The food there is superperfect, every luxury surrounds you, millionaires and traveling princes are your fellow-guests. Still, sooner than pass another night there, I would sleep airily in Central Park, and if I had a friend seeking New York quarters, I would guide him toward some other place.

It was pure chance that sent me to the St. Ives for the night before my steamer sailed. Closing the doors of my apartment the previous week and bidding good-bye to the servants who maintained me there in bachelor state and comfort, I had accompanied my friend Dick Forrest on a farewell yacht cruise from which I returned to find the first two hotels of my seeking packed from cellar to roof. But the third had a free room, and I took it without the ghost of a presentiment. What would or would not have happened if I had not taken it is a thing I like to speculate on.

To begin with, I should in due course have joined an ambulance section somewhere in France. I should not have gone hobbling on crutches for a painful three months or more. I should not have in my possession four shell fragments, carefully extracted by a French surgeon from my fortunately hard head. Nor should I have lived through the dreadful moment when that British officer at Gibraltar held up those papers, neatly folded and sealed and bound with bright, inappropriately cheerful red tape, and with an icy eye demanded an explanation beyond human power to afford.

All this would have been spared me. But, on the other hand, I could not now look back to that dinner on the Turin-Paris rapide. I should never have seen that little, ruined French village, with guns booming in the distance and the nearer sound of water running through tall reeds and over green stones and between great mossy trees. Indeed, my life would now be, comparatively speaking, a cheerless desert, because I should never have met the most beautiful-Well, all clouds have silver linings; some have golden ones with rainbow edges. No; I am not sorry I stopped at the St. Ives; not in the least!

At any rate, there I was at eight o'clock of a Wednesday evening in a restaurant full of the usual lights and buzz and glitter, among women in soft-hued gowns, and men in their hideous substitute for the same. Across the table sat my one-time guardian, dear old Peter Dunstan,-Dunny to me since the night when I first came to him, a very tearful, lonesome, small boy whose loneliness went away forever with his welcoming hug,-just arrived from home in Washington to eat a farewell dinner with me and to impress upon me for the hundredth time that I had better not go.

"It's a wild-goose chase," he snapped, attacking his entree savagely. Heaven knows it was to prove so, even wilder than his dreams could paint; but if there were geese in it, myself included, there was also to be a swan.

"You don't really mean that, Dunny," I said firmly, continuing my dinner. It was a good dinner; we had consulted over each item from cocktails to liqueurs, and we are both distinctly fussy about food.

"I do mean it!" insisted my guardian. Dunny has the biggest heart in the world, with a cayenne layer over it, and this layer is always thickest when I am bound for distant parts. "I mean every word of it, I tell you, Dev." Dev, like Dunny, is a misnomer; my name is Devereux-Devereux Bayne. "Don't you risk your bones enough with the confounded games you play? What's the use of hunting shells and shrapnel like a hero in a movie reel? We're not in this war yet, though we soon will be, praise the Lord! And till we are, I believe in neutrality-upon my soul I do."

"Here's news, then!" I exclaimed. "I never heard of it before. Well, your new life begins too late, Dunny. You brought me up the other way. The modern system, you know, makes the parent or guardian responsible for the child. So thank yourself for my unneutral nature and for the war medals I'm going to win!"

Muttering something about impertinence, he veered to another tack.

"If you must do it," he croaked, "why sail for Naples instead of for Bordeaux? The Mediterranean is full of those pirate fellows. You read the papers-the headlines anyway; you know it as well as I. It's suicide, no less! Those Huns sank the San Pietro last week. I say, young man, are you listening? Do you hear what I'm telling you?"

It was true that my gaze had wandered near the close of his harangue. I like to look at my guardian; the fine old chap, with his height and straightness, his bright blue eyes and proud silver head, is a sight for sore eyes, as they say. But just then I had glimpsed something that was even better worth seeing. I am not impressionable, but I must confess that I was impressed by this girl.

She sat far down the room from me. Only her back was visible and a somewhat blurred side-view reflected in the mirror on the wall. Even so much was, however, more than welcome, including as it did a smooth white neck, a small shell-like ear, and a mass of warm, crinkly, red-brown hair. She wore a rose-colored gown, I noticed, cut low, with a string of pearls; and her sole escort was a staid, elderly, precise being, rather of the trusted family-lawyer type.

"I haven't missed a word, Dunny," I assured my vis-a-vis. "I was just wondering if Huns and pirates had quite a neutral sound. You know I have to go via Rome to spend a week with Jack Herriott. He has been pestering me for a good two years-ever since he's been secretary there."

Grumbling unintelligible things, my guardian sampled his Chablis; and I, crumbling bread, lazily wishing I could get a front view of the girl in rose-color, filled the pause by rambling on.

"Duty calls me," I declared. "You see, I was born in France. Shabby treatment on my parents' part I've always thought it; if they had hurried home before the event I might have been President and declared war here instead of hunting one across the seas. In that case, Dunny, I should have heeded your plea and stayed; but since I'm ineligible for chief executive, why linger on this side?"

He scowled blackly.

"I'll tell you what it is, my boy," he accused, with lifted forefinger. "You like to pose-that's what is the matter with you! You like to act stolid, matter-of-fact, correct; you want to sit in your ambulance and smoke cigarettes indifferently and raise your eyebrows superciliously when shrapnel bursts round. And it's all very well now; it looks picturesque; it looks good form, very. But how old are you, eh, Dev? Twenty-eight is it? Twenty-nine?"

"You should know-none better-that I am thirty," I responded. "Haven't you remembered each anniversary since I was five, beginning with a hobby-horse and working up through knives and rifles and ponies to the latest thing in cars?"

Dunny lowered his accusing finger and tapped it on the cloth.

"Thirty," he repeated fatefully. "All right, Dev. Strong and fit as an ox, and a crack polo-player and a fair shot and boxer and not bad with boats and cars and horses and pretty well off, too. So when you look bored, it's picturesque; but wait! Wait ten years, till you take on flesh, and the doctor puts you on diet, and you stop hunting chances

to kill yourself, but play golf like me. Then, my boy, when you look stolid you won't be romantic. You'll be stodgy, my boy. That's what you'll be!"

Of all words in the dictionary there is surely none worse than this one. The suggestions of stodginess are appalling, including, even at best, hints of overweight, general uninterestingness, and a disposition to sit at home in smoking-jacket and slippers after one's evening meal. As my guardian suggested, my first youth was over. I held up both my hands in token that I asked for grace.

"Kamerad!" I begged pathetically. "Come, Dunny, let's be sociable. After all, you know, it's my last evening; and if you call me such names, you will be sorry when I am gone. By the way, speaking of Huns-it was you, the neutral, who mentioned them,-does it strike you there are quite a few of them on the staff of this hotel? I hope they won't poison me. Look at the head waiter, look at half the waiters round, and see that blond-haired, blue-eyed menial. Do you think he saw his first daylight in these United States?"

The menial in question was a uniformed bellboy winding in and out among tables and paging some elusive guest. As he approached, his chant grew plainer.

"Mr. Bayne," he was droning. "Room four hundred and three."

I raised a hand in summons, and he paused beside my seat.

"Telephone call for you, sir," he informed me.

With a word to my guardian, I pushed my chair back and crossed the room. But at the door I found my path barred by the maitre d'hotel, who, at the sight of my progress, had sprung forward, like an arrow from a bow.

"Excuse me, sir. You're not leaving, are you?" The man was actually breathing hard. Deferential as his bearing was, I saw no cause for the inquiry, and with some amusement and more annoyance, I wondered if he suspected me of slipping out to evade my bill.

"No," I said, staring him up and down; "I'm not!" I passed down the hall to the entrance of the telephone booths. Glancing back, I could see him still standing there gazing after me; his face, I thought, wore a relieved expression as he saw whither I was bound.

The queer incident left my mind as I secluded myself, got my connection, and heard across the wire the indignant accents of Dick Forrest, my former college chum. Upon leaving his yacht that morning, I had promised him a certain power of attorney-Dick is a lawyer and is called a good one, though I can never quite credit it-and he now demanded in unjudicial heat why it had not been sent round.

"Good heavens, man," I cut in remorsefully, "I forgot it! The thing is in my room now. Where are you? That's all right. You'll have it by messenger within ten minutes." Hastily rehooking the receiver, I bolted from my booth.

In the restaurant door against a background of paneled walls the maitre d'hotel still stood, as if watching for my return. I sprang into an elevator just about to start its ascent, and saw his mouth fall open and his feet bring him several quick steps forward.

"The man is crazy," I told myself with conviction as I shot up four stories in as many seconds and was deposited in my hall.

There was no one at the desk where the floor clerk usually kept vigil, gossiping affably with such employees as passed. The place seemed deserted; no doubt all the guests were downstairs. Treading lightly on the thick carpet, I went down the hall to Room four hundred and three, and found the door ajar and a light visible inside.

My bed, I supposed, was being turned down. I swung the door open, and halted in my tracks. With his back to me, bent over a wide-open trunk that I had left locked, was a man.

Stepping inside, I closed the door quietly, meanwhile scrutinizing my unconscious visitor from head to foot. He wore no hotel insignia-was neither porter, waiter, nor valet.

"Well, how about it? Anything there suit you?" I inquired affably, with my back against the door.

Exclaiming gutturally, he whisked about and faced me where I stood quite prepared for a rough-and-tumble. Instead of a typical housebreaker of fiction, I saw a pale, rabbit-like, decent-appearing little soul. He was neatly dressed; he seemed unarmed save for a great ring of assorted keys; and his manner was as propitiatory and mild-eyed as that of any mouse. There must be some mistake. He was some sober mechanic, not a robber. But on the other hand, he looked ready to faint with fright.

"Mein Gott!" he murmured in a sort of fishlike gasp.

This illuminating remark was my first clue.

"Ah! Mein Herr is German?" I inquired, not stirring from my place.

The demand wrought an instant change in him-he drew himself up, perhaps to five feet five.

"Vat you got against the Germans?" he asked me, almost with menace. It was the voice of a fanatic intoning "Die Wacht am Rhein"-of a zealot speaking for the whole embattled Vaterland.

The situation was becoming farcical.

"Nothing in the world, I assure you," I replied. "They are a simple, kindly people. They are musical. They have given the world Schiller, Goethe, the famous Kultur, and a new conception of the possibilities of war. But I think they should have kept out of Belgium, and I feel the same way about my room-and don't you try to pull a pistol or I may feel more strongly still."

"I ain't got no pistol, nein," declared my visitor, sulkily. His resentment had already left him; he had shrunk back to five feet three.

"Well, I have, but I'll worry along without it," I remarked, with a glance at the nearest bag. As targets, I don't regard my fellow-creatures with great enthusiasm and, moreover, I could easily have made two of this mousy champion of a warlike race. Illogically, I was feeling that to bully him was sheer brutality. Besides this, my dinner was not being improved by the delay.

"Look here," I said amiably, "I can't see that you've taken anything. Speak up lively now; I'll give you just one chance. If you care to tell me how you got through a locked door and what you were after, I'll let you go. I'm off to the firing line, and it may bring me luck!"

Hope glimmered in his eyes. In broken English, with a childlike ingenuousness of demeanor, he informed me that he was a first-class locksmith-first-glass he called it-who had been sent by the management to open a reluctant trunk. He had entered my room, I was led to infer, by a mistake.

"I go now, ja?" he concluded, as postscript to the likely tale.

"The devil you do! Do you take me for an utter fool?" I asked, excusably nettled, and stepping to the telephone, I took the receiver from its hook.

"Give me the manager's office, please," I requested, watching my visitor. "Is this the manager? This is Mr. Bayne speaking, Room four hundred and three. I've found a man investigating my trunk-a foreigner, a German." An exclamation from the manager, and from the listening telephone-girl a shriek! "Yes; I have him. Yes; of course I can hold him. Send up your house detective and be quick! My dinner is spoiling-"

The receiver dropped from my hand and clattered against the wall. The little German, suddenly galvanized, had leaped away from the trunk, not toward me and the door beyond me, but toward the electric switch. His fingers found and turned it, plunging the room into the darkness of the grave. Taken unaware, I barred his path to the hall, only to hear him fling up the window across the room. Against the faint square of light thus revealed, I saw him hang poised a moment. Then with a desperate noise, a moan of mixed resolve and terror, he disappeared.

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