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   Chapter 3 ON THE RE D’ITALIA

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 14206

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The sailing of the Re d'Italia was scheduled for 3 P.M. promptly, but being well acquainted with the ways of steamers at most times, above all in these piping times of war, it was not until an hour later than I left the St. Ives, where the manager, by the way, did not appear to bid me farewell.

The thermometer had been falling, and the day was crisp and snappy, with a light powdering of snow underfoot and a blue tang and sparkle in the air. Dunny accompanied me in the taxicab, but was less talkative than usual. Indeed, he spoke only two or three times between the hotel and the pier.

"I say, Dev," was his first contribution to the conversation, "d' you remember it was at a dock that you and I first met? It was night, blacker than Tophet, and raining, and you came ashore wet as a rag. You were the lonesomest, chilliest, most forlorn little tike I ever saw; but, by the eternal, you were trying not to cry!"

"Lonesome? I rather think so!" I echoed with conviction. "Wynne and his wife brought me over; he played poker all the way, and she read novels in her berth. And I heard every one say that I was an orphan, and it was very, very sad. Well, I was never lonely after that, Dunny." My hand met his half-way.

The next time that he broke silence was upon the ferry, when he urged on me a fat wallet stuffed with plutocratic-looking notes.

"In case anything should happen," ran his muttered explanation. I have never needed Dunny's money,-his affection is another matter,-but he can spare it, and this time I took it because I saw he wanted me to.

As we approached the Jersey City piers, he seemed to shrink and grow tired, to take on a good ten years beyond his hale and hearty age. With every glance I stole at him a lump in my throat grew bigger, and in the end, bending forward, I laid a hand on his knee.

"Look here, Dunny," I demanded, not looking at him, "do you mean half of what you were saying last evening-or the hundredth part? After all, there'll be a chance to fight here before we're many months older. If you just say the word, old fellow, I'll be with you to-night-and hang the trip!"

But Dunny, though he wrung my hand gratefully and choked and glared out of the window, would hear of no such arrangement, repudiated it, indeed, with scorn.

"No, my boy," he declared. "I don't say it for a minute. I like your going. I wouldn't give a tinker's dam for you, whatever that is, if you didn't want to do something for those fellows over there. I won't even say to be careful, for you can't if you do your duty-only, don't you be too all-fired foolhardy, even for war medals, Dev."

"Oh, I was born to be hanged, not shot," I assured him, almost prophetically. "I'll take care of myself, and I'll write you now and then-"

"No, you won't!" he snorted, with a skepticism amply justified by the past. "And if you did, I shouldn't answer; I hate letters, always did. But you cable me once a fortnight to let me know you're living-and send an extra cable if you want anything on earth!"

The taxi, which had been crawling, came to a final halt, and a hungry horde, falling on my impedimenta, lowered them from the driver's seat.

"No, I'll not come on board, Dev," said my guardian. "I-I couldn't stand it. Good-by, my dear boy."

We clasped hands again; then I felt his arm resting on my shoulder, and flung both of mine about him in an old-time, boyish hug.

"Au revoir, Dunny. Back next year," I shouted cheerily as the driver threw in his clutch and the car glided on its way.

Preceded by various porters, I threaded my way at a snail's pace through the dense crowd of waiting passengers, swarthy-faced sons of Italy, apparently bound for the steerage. The great gray bulk of the Re d'Italia loomed before me, floating proudly at her stern the green, white, and red flag blazoned with the Savoyard shield.

"Wave while they let you," I apostrophized it, saluting. "When we get outside the three-mile limit and stop courting notice, you'll not fly long."

At the gang-plank I was halted, and I produced my passport and exhibited the vise of his excellency, the Italian consul-general in New York. I strolled aboard, was assigned to Cabin D, and informed by my steward that there were in all but five first-class passengers, a piece of news that left me calm. Stodgy I may be,-it was odd how that term of Dunny's rankled,-but I confess that I find chance traveling acquaintances boring and avoid them when I can. Unlike most of my countrymen, I suppose I am not gregarious, though I dine and week-end punctiliously, send flowers and leave cards at decorous intervals, and know people all the way from New York to Tokio.

My carefully limited baggage looked lonely in my cabin; I missed the paraphernalia with which one usually begins a trip. Also, as I rummaged through two bags to find the cap I wanted, I longed for Peters, my faithful man, who could be backed to produce any desired thing at a moment's notice. When bound for Flanders or the Vosges, however, one must be a Spartan. I found what I sought at last and went on deck.

The scene, though cheerful, was not lacking in wartime features: A row of life-boats hung invitingly ready; a gun, highly dramatic in appearance, was mounted astern, with every air of meaning business should the kaiser meddle with us en route. Down below, the Italians, talking, gesticulating, showing their white teeth in flashing, boyish smiles, were being herded docilely on board, while at intervals one or another of the few promenade-deck passengers appeared.

The first of these, a shrewd-faced, nervous little man, borrowed an unneeded match of me and remarked that it was cold weather for spring. The next, a good-looking young foreigner,-a reservist, I surmised, recalled to the Italian colors in this hour of his country's need,-rather harrowed my feelings by coming on board with a family party, gray-haired father, anxious mother, slim bride-like wife, and two brothers or cousins, all making pathetic pretense at good cheer. Soon after came a third man, dark, quiet, watchful-looking, and personable enough, although his shoes were a little too gleamingly polished, his watch and chain a little too luminously golden, the color scheme of his hose and tie selected with almost too much care.

"This," I reflected resignedly, "is going to be a ghastly trip. By Jove, here comes another! Now where have I seen her before?"

The new arrival, as indicated by the pronoun, was a woman; though why one should tempt Providence by traveling on this route at this juncture, I found it hard to guess. Standing with her back to me, enveloped in a coat of sealskin with a broad collar of darker fur, well gloved, smartly shod, crowned by a fur hat with a gold cockade, she made a delightful picture as she rummaged in a bag which reposed upon a steamer-chair, and which, thus opened, revealed a profusion of gold mountings, bottles and brushes, hand-chased and initialed in an opulent way.

There was a haunting familiarity about her. She teased my memory as I strolled up the deck. Then, s

napping the bag shut, she turned and straightened, and I recognized the girl to whose door my thief-chase had led me at the St. Ives.

It seemed rather a coincidence my meeting her again.

"I shouldn't mind talking to you on this trip," I reflected, mollified. "The mischief of it is you'll notice me about as much as you notice the ship's stokers. You're not the sort to scrape acquaintance, or else I miss my shot!"

I did not miss it. So much was instantly proved. As I passed her, on the mere chance that she might elect to acknowledge our encounter, I let my gaze impersonally meet hers. She started slightly. Evidently she remembered. But she turned toward the nearest door without a bow.

The dark, too-well-groomed man was emerging as she advanced. Instead of moving back, he blocked her path, looking-was it appraisingly, expectantly?-into her eyes. There was a pause while she waited rather haughtily for passage; then he effaced himself, and she disappeared.

Striking a match viciously, I lit a cigarette and strolled forward. Either the fellow had fancied that he knew her or he had behaved in a confoundedly impertinent way. The latter hypothesis seemed, on the whole, the more likely, and I felt a lively desire to drop him over the rail.

"But I don't know what a girl of your looks expects, I'm sure," I grumbled, "setting off on your travels with no chaperon and no companion and no maid! Where are your father and mother? Where are your brothers? Where's the old friend of the family who dined with you last night? If chaps who have no right to walk the same earth with you get insolent, who is going to teach them their place, and who is going to take care of you if a U-boat pops out of the sea? Oh, well, never mind. It isn't any of my business. But just the same if you need my services, I think I'll tackle the job."

Time was passing; night had fallen. Consulting my watch, I found that it was seven o'clock. I had been aboard more than two hours. An afternoon sailing, quotha! At this rate we would be lucky if we got off by dawn.

The dinner gong, a welcome diversion, summoned us below to lights and warmth. At one table the young Italian entertained his relatives, and at another the captain, a short, swart-faced, taciturn being, had grouped his officers and various officials of the steamship company at a farewell feast. The little sharp-faced passenger was throned elsewhere in lonely splendor, but when I selected a fourth table, he jumped up, crossed over and installed himself as my vis-a-vis. Passing me the salt, which I did not require, he supplied with it some personal data of which I felt no greater need. His name was McGuntrie, he announced; he was sales agent for the famous Phillipson Rifles and was being dispatched to secure a gigantic contract on the other side.

"And if inside six months you don't see three hundred thousand Italian soldiers carrying Phillipson's best," he informed me, "I'll take a back seat and let young Jim Furman, who thinks I'm a has-been and he's the one white hope, begin to draw my pay. You can't beat those rifles. When the boys get to carrying them, old Francis Joseph's ghost'll weep. Pity, ain't it, we didn't get on board by noon?" he digressed sociably. "I could've found something to do ashore the four hours I've been twiddling my thumbs here, and I guess you could too. Hardest, though, on our friends the newspaper boys. Did you know they were out there waiting to take a flashlight film? Fact. They do it nowadays every time a big liner leaves. Then if we sink, all they have to do is run it, with 'Doomed Ship Leaving New York Harbor' underneath."

To his shocked surprise I laughed at the information. My appetite was unimpaired as I pursued my meal. Trains in which others ride may telescope and steamers may take one's acquaintances to watery graves, but to normal people the chance of any catastrophe overtaking them personally must always seem gratifyingly far-fetched and vague.

"Think it's funny, do you?" my new friend reproached me. "Well, I don't; and neither did the folks who had cabins taken and who threw them up last week when they heard how the San Pietro went down on this same route. We're five plumb idiots-that's what we are-five crazy lunatics! I'd never have come a step, not with wild horses dragging me if it hadn't been for Jim Furman being pretty near popeyed, looking for a chance to cut me out and sail. We've got fifteen hundred reservists downstairs, and a cargo of contraband. What do you know about that as a prize for a submarine?"

"Well," I said vaingloriously. "I can swim."

My eyes were wandering, for the girl in the fur coat had entered, with the dark, watchful-eyed man-was it pure coincidence?-close behind. The steward ushered her to a table; the man followed at her heels. I dare say I glared. I know my muscles stiffened. The fellow was going to speak to her. What in blazes did he mean by stalking her in this way?

"Excuse me," he was saying, "but haven't we met before?"

The girl straightened into rigidness, looking him over. Her manner was haughty, her ruddy head poised stiffly, as she answered in a cold tone:


He was watching her keenly.

"My name's John Van Blarcom," he persisted.

Again she gave him that sweeping glance.

"You are mistaken," she said indifferently. "I have not seen you before."

He nodded curtly.

"My mistake," he admitted. "I thought I knew you," and turning from her, he sat down at the one table still unoccupied.

"So his name's Van Blarcom," whispered my ubiquitous neighbor. "And the Italian chap over there is Pietro Ricci. The steward told me so. And the captain's name is Cecchi; get it? And I know your name, too, Mr. Bayne," he added with a grin. "The steward didn't know what was taking you over, but I guess I've got your number all right. Say, ain't you a flying man or else one of the American-Ambulance boys?"

I mustered the feeble parry that I had stopped being a boy of any sort some time ago. Then lest he wring from me my age, birthplace, and the amount of my income tax, I made an end of my meal.

On deck again I wondered at my irritation, my sense of restlessness. The little salesman was not responsible, though he had fretted me like a buzzing fly. It was rather that I had taken an intense dislike to the man calling himself Van Blarcom; that the girl, despite her haughtiness, had somehow given me an impression of uneasiness-of fear almost-as she saw him approach and heard him speak; and above all, that I should have liked to flay alive the person or persons who had let her sail unaccompanied for a zone which at this moment was the danger point of the seas.

My matter-of-fact, conservatively ordered life had been given a crazy twist at the St. Ives. As an aftermath of that episode I was probably scenting mysteries where there were none. Nevertheless, I wondered-though I called myself a fool for it-if any more queer things would happen before this ship on which we five bold voyagers were confined should reach the other side.

They did.

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