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   Chapter 2 DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 13025

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Standing there staring after him, I felt like a murderer of the deepest dye. It is one thing to hand over to the police their natural prey, a thief taken red-handed, but quite another, and a much more harrowing one, to have him slip through your fingers, precipitate himself into mid-air, and drop four stories to the pavement, scattering his brains far and wide. There was not a vestige of hope for the poor wretch.

Unnerved, I groped to the window and peered downward for his remains. My first glance proved my regrets to be superfluous. Beneath my window, which, owing to the crowded condition of the hotel, opened on a side street, a fire-escape descended jaggedly; and upon it, just out of arm's reach, my recent guest clung and wobbled, struggling with an attack of natural vertigo before proceeding toward the earth.

By this time my rage was such that I would have followed that little thief almost anywhere. It was not the dizziness of the yawning void that stayed me. I should have climbed the Matterhorn with all cheerfulness to catch him at the top. But sundry visions of the figure I would cut, the crowd that might gather, and the probable ragging in the morning papers, were too much for me, and I sorrowfully admitted that the game was not worth the price.

The little man's nerves, meanwhile, seemed to be steadying. Feeling each step, he began cautiously to work his way down. To my wrath he even looked up at me and indulged in a grimace-but his triumph was ill-timed, for at that very instant I beheld, strolling along the street below, humming and swinging his night-stick, as leisurely, complacent, and stalwart a representative of the law as one could wish to see.

"Hi, there! Officer!" I shouted lustily. My hail, if not my words, reached him; he glanced up, saw the figure on the ladder, and was seized instantaneously with the spirit of the chase.

Yelling something reassuring, the gist of which escaped me, he constituted himself a reception committee of one and started for the ladder's foot. But our doughty Teuton was a resourceful person. Roused to the urgency of his plight, he looked wildly up at me, down at the officer, and, hastily pushing up the nearest window, hoisted himself across its sill, and again took refuge in the St. Ives Hotel.

With a bellow of rage, the policeman dashed toward the porte-cochere, while I ducked back into the room, rapidly revolving my chances of cutting off the man's retreat below. If the system of numbering was the same on every floor, my thief must, of course, emerge from Room 303. But this similarity was problematical, and to invade apartments at random, disturbing women at their opera toilets and maybe even waking babies, was too desperate a shift to try.

It reminded me to wait with what patience I could summon for the house detective. And where was he, by the way? I had turned in my alarm a good five minutes before.

In an unenviable humor I stumbled across the room, tripping and barking my shins over various malignant hassocks, tables, and chairs. Finding the switch at last, I flooded the room with light, and saw myself in the mirror, with tie and coat askew.

"Now," I muttered, straightening them viciously, "we'll see what he took away." But the trunk seemed undisturbed when I examined it, and my various bags and suitcases were securely locked. I had found Forrest's power of attorney and was storing it in my pocket when voices rose outside.

A group of four was approaching, comprised of a spruce, dress-coated manager; a short thick-set, broad-faced man who was doubtless the long-overdue detective; a professional-appearing gentleman with a black bag, obviously the house-physician; and the policeman that I had summoned from his stroll below. The latter, in an excited brogue, was recounting his late vision of the thief, "hangin' between hivin and earth, no less," while the detective scornfully accused him of having been asleep or jingled, on the ground of my late telephone to the effect that I was holding the man.

The manager, as was natural, took the initiative, bustling past me into my room and peering eagerly around.

"I needn't say, Mr. Bayne," he orated fluently, "how sorry I am that this has happened-especially beneath our roof. It is our first case, I assure you, of anything so regrettable. If it gets into the papers it won't do us any good. Now the important thing is to take the fellow out by the rear without courting notice. Why, where is he?" he asked hopefully. "Surely he isn't gone?"

"Sure, and didn't I tell ye? 'Tis without eyes ye think me!" The policeman was resentful, and so, to tell the truth, was I. The whole maddening affair seemed bent on turning to farce at every angle; the doctor, as a final straw, had just offered sotto voce to mix me a soothing draft!

"Gone! Of course he's gone, man!" I exclaimed with some natural temper. "Did you expect him to sit here waiting all this time? What on earth have you been doing-reading the papers-playing bridge? A dozen thieves could have escaped since I telephoned downstairs!"

"But you said," he murmured, apparently dazed, "that you could hold him." A tactless remark, which failed to assuage my wrath!

"So I could," I responded savagely. "But I didn't expect him to turn into a conjuring trick, which is what he did. He went out that window head foremost, down the ladder, and into the room below. Let's be after him-though we stand as much chance of catching him as we do of finding the King of England!" and I turned toward the doorway, where the manager, the doctor and the detective were massed.

The manager put his hand upon my arm. I looked down at it with raised eyebrows, and he took it away.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, adopting a manner of appeal, "but if you'll reflect for a moment you'll see how it is, I know. People don't care for houses where burglars fly in and out of windows; it makes them nervous; you wouldn't believe how easily a hotel can get a bad name and lose its clientele. Besides, from what you tell me, the fellow must be well away by this time. You'd do me a favor-a big one-by dropping the matter here."

"Well, I won't!" I snapped indignantly. "I'll see it through-or start something still livelier. Are you coming down with me to investigate the room beneath us or do you want me to ring up police headquarters and find out why?"

In the hall the policeman looked at me across the intervening heads and dropped one slow, approving eyelid. "If th

e gintleman says so-" he remarked in heavy tones fraught with meaning, and fixed a cold, blue, appraising gaze on the detective, who thereupon yielded with unexpectedly good grace.

"Aw, what's eating you?" was his amiable demand. "Sure, we was going right down there anyhow-soon's we found out how the land lay up here."

The five of us took the elevator to the lower floor. An unfriendly atmosphere surrounded me. I was held a hotel wrecker without reason. We found the corridor empty, the floor desk abandoned-a state of things rather strikingly the duplicate of that reigning overhead-and in due course paused before Room 303, where the manager, figuratively speaking, washed his hands of the affair.

"Here is the room, Mr. Bayne, for which you ask." If I would persist in my nefarious course, added his tone.

The detective, obeying the hypnotic eye of the policeman, knocked. There was silence. The bluecoat, my one ally, was crouching for a spring. Then light steps crossed the room, and the door was opened. There stood a girl,-a most attractive girl, the girl that I had seen downstairs. Straight and slender, spiritedly gracious in bearing, with gray eyes questioning us from beneath lashes of crinkly black, she was a radiant figure as she stood facing us, with a coat of bright-blue velvet thrown over her rosy gown.

"Beg pardon, miss," said the policeman, brightly, "this gintleman's been robbed."

As her eyebrows went up a fraction, I could have murdered him, for how else could she read his statement save that I took her for the thief?

"I am very sorry," I explained, bowing formally, "to disturb you. We are hunting a thief who took French leave by my fire-escape. I must have been mistaken-I thought that he dodged in again by this window. You have not seen or heard anything of him, of course?"

"No, I haven't. But then, I just this instant came up from dinner," she replied. Her low, contralto tones, quite impersonal, were yet delightful; I could have stood there talking burglars with her till dawn. "Do you wish to come in and make sure that he is not in hiding?" With a half smile for which I didn't blame her, she moved a step aside.

"Certainly not!" I said firmly, ignoring a nudge from the policeman. "He left before you came-there was ample time. It is not of the least consequence, anyhow. Again I beg your pardon." As she inclined her head, I bowed, and closed the door.

"I trust Mr. Bayne, that you are satisfied at last." This was the St. Ives manager, and I did not like his tone.

"I am satisfied of several things," I retorted sharply, "but before I share them with you, will you kindly tell me your name?"

"My name is Ritter," he said with dignity. "I confess I fail to see what bearing-"

"Call it curiosity," I interrupted. "Doctor, favor me with yours."

The doctor peered at me over his glasses, hesitated, and then revealed his patronym. It was Swanburger, he informed me.

"But, my dear sir, what on earth-"

"Merely," said I, with conviction, "that this isn't an Allies' night. It is Deutschland uber Alles; the stars are fighting for the Teuton race. Now, let's hear how you were christened," I added, turning to the house detective, who looked even less sunny than before if that could be.

"See here, whatcher giving us?" snarled that somewhat unpolished worthy. "My name's Zeitfeld; but I was born in this country, don't you forget it, same as you."

"A great American personality," I remarked dreamily, "has declared that in the hyphenate lies the chief menace to the United States. And what's your name?" I asked the representative of law and order. "Is it Schmidt?"

"No, sir," he responded, grinning; "it's O'Reilly, sorr."

"Thank heaven for that! You've saved my reason," I assured him as I leaned against the wall and scanned the Germanic hordes.

"Mr. Ritter," said I, addressing that gentleman coldly, "when I am next in New York I don't think I shall stop with you. The atmosphere here is too hectic; you answer calls for help too slowly-calls, at least, in which a guest indiscreetly tells you that he has caught a German thief. It looks extremely queer, gentlemen. And there are some other points as well-"

But there I paused. I lacked the necessary conviction. After all I was the average citizen, with the average incredulity of the far-fetched, the melodramatic, the absurd. To connect the head waiter's panic at my departure with the episode in my room, to declare that the floor clerks had been called from their posts for a set purpose, and the halls deliberately cleared for the thief, were flights of fancy that were beyond me. The more fool I!

By the time I saw the last of the adventure I began that night-it was all written in the nth power, and introduced in more or less important roles the most charming girl in the world, the most spectacular hero of France, the cleverest secret-service agent in the pay of the fatherland, and I sometimes ruefully suspected, the biggest imbecile of the United States in the person of myself-I knew better than to call any idea impossible simply because it might sound wild. But at the moment my education was in its initial stages, and turning with a shrug from three scowling faces, I led my friendly bluecoat a little aside.

"I've no more time to-night to spend thief-catching, Officer," I told him. I had just recalled my dinner, now utterly ruined, and Dunny, probably at this instant cracking walnuts as fiercely as if each one were the kaiser's head. "But I'm an amateur in these affairs, and you are a master. Before I go, as man to man, what the dickens do you make of this?"

Flattered, he looked profound.

"I'm thinking, sorr," he gave judgment, "ye had the rights of it. Seein' as how th' thafe is German, ye'll not set eyes on him more-for divil a wan here but's of that counthry, and they stick together something fierce!"

"Well," I admitted, "our thoughts run parallel. Here is something to drink confusion to them all. And, O'Reilly, I am glad I'm going to sail to-morrow. I'd rather live on a sea full of submarines than in this hotel, wouldn't you?"

Touching his forehead, he assented, and wished me good-night and a good journey; part of his hope went unfulfilled, by the way. That ocean voyage of mine was to take rank, in part at least, as a first-class nightmare. The Central powers could scarcely have improved on it by torpedoing us in mid-ocean or by speeding us upon our trip with a cargo of clock-work bombs.

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