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   Chapter 4 “EXTRA”

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 11747

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Toward nine o'clock to my relief it became obvious that the Re d'Italia was really going to sail at last. The first and second whistles, sounding raucously, sent the company officials and the family of the young officer of reserves ashore. The plank was lowered; between the ship and the looming pier a thread of black water appeared and grew; a flash and an explosion indicated that the possibly doomed liner had been filmed according to schedule. "Evviva l'Italia!" yelled the returning braves in the steerage-a very decent set of fellows, it struck me, to leave so cheerfully their vocations of teamster, waiter, fruit vender, and the like, and go, unforced, to wear the gray-green coats of Italy, the short feathers of the mountain climbers, the bersagliere's bunch of plumes, and to stand against their hereditary foes the Austrians, up in the snowy Alps.

The details of departure were an old tale to me. As we swung farther and farther out, I turned to a newspaper, a twentieth extra probably, which I had heard a newsboy crying along the dock a little earlier, and had bribed a steward to secure. Moon and stars were lacking to-night, but the deck lights were good reading-lamps. Moving up the rail to one of them, I investigated the world's affairs.

From the first sheet the usual staring headlines leaped at me. There were the inevitable peace rumor, the double denial, the eternal bulletin of a trench taken here, a hill recaptured there. A sensational rumor was exploited to the effect that Franz von Blenheim, one of the star secret agents of the German Empire, was at present incognito at Washington, having spent the past month in putting his finger in the Mexican pie much to our disadvantage. On the last column of the page was the photograph of a distinguished-looking young man in uniform, with an announcement that promised some interest, I thought.

"War Scandal Bursts in France," "Scion of Oldest Noblesse Implicated," "Duke Mysteriously Missing," I read in the diminishing degrees of the scare-head type. Then came the picture, with a mien attractively debonair, a pleasantly smiling mouth, and a sympathetic pair of eyes, and in due course, the tale. I clutched at the flapping ends of the paper and read on:

Of all the scandals to which the present war has given birth, none has stirred France more profoundly than that implicating Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier, Count of Druyes, Marquis of Beuil and Santenay, and Duke of Raincy-la-Tour. This young nobleman, head of a family that has played its part in French history since the days of the Northmen and the crusaders, bears in his veins the bluest blood of the old regime, and numbers among his ancestors no fewer than seven marshals and five constables of France.

A noted figure not only by his birth, his wealth, and his various historic chateaux, but also by his sporting proclivities, his daring automobile racing, his marvelous fencing, and his spectacular hunting trips, the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour has long been in addition an amateur aviator of considerable fame, and it was to the French Flying Corps that he was attached when hostilities began. Here he distinguished himself from the first by his coolness, his extraordinary resource, and his utter contempt for danger, and became one of the idols of the French army and a proverb for success and audacity, besides attaining to the rank of lieutenant, gaining, after his famous night flight across Mulhausen for bomb-dropping purposes, the affectionate sobriquet of the Firefly of France, and winning in rapid succession the military Medal, the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, and the Cross of War with palms.

According to rumor, the duke was lately intrusted with a mission of exceptional peril, involving a flight into hostile territory and the capture of certain photographs of defenses much needed for the plans of the supreme command. With his wonted brilliancy, he is said to have accomplished the errand and to have returned in safety as far as the French lines. Here, however, we enter the realm of conjecture. The duke has disappeared; the plans he bore have never reached the generalissimo; and rumor persistently declares that at some point upon his return journey he was intercepted by German agents and induced by bribes or coercion to deliver up his spoils. By one version he was later captured and summarily executed by the French; while his friends, denying this, pin their hopes to his death at the hands of the enemy, as offering the best outcome of the unsavory event.

The family of the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour has been noted in the past for its pronouncedly Royalist tendencies, the attitude of his father and grandfather toward the republic having been hostile in the extreme. It is believed that this fact may have its significance in the present episode. The occurrence is of special interest to the United States in view of the recent (Continued on Page Three)

Before proceeding, I glanced at the pictured face. The Duke of Raincy-la-tour looked back at me with cool, clear eyes, smiling half aloofly, a little scornfully, as in the presence of danger the true Frenchman is apt to smile.

"I don't think, Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier," I reflected, "that you ever talked to the Germans except with bombs. They probably got you, poor chap, and you're lying buried somewhere while the gossips make a holiday of the fact that you don't come home. Confound 'current rumors' anyhow, and yellow papers too!"

"I beg your pardon," said a low contralto voice.

The girl in the fur coat was standing at my shoulder. I turned, lifting my cap, wondering what under heaven she could want. I was not much pleased to tell the truth; a goddess shouldn't step from her pedestal to chat with strangers. Then suddenly I recognized a distinct oddness in her air.

"Would you lend me your paper," she was asking, "

for just a moment? I haven't seen one since morning; the evening editions were not out when I came on board."

Her manner was proud, spirited, gracious; she even smiled; but she was frightened. I could read it in her slight pallor, in the quickening of her breath.

My extra! What was there in the day's news that could upset her? I was nonplussed, but of course I at once extended the sheet.

"Certainly!" I replied politely. "Pray keep it." Lifting my cap a second time, I turned to go.

Her fingers touched my arm.

"Wait! Please wait!" she was urging. There was a half-imperious, half-appealing note in her hushed voice.

I stared.

"I'm afraid," I said blankly, "that I don't quite-"

"Some one may suspect. Some one may come," urged this most astonishing young woman. "Don't you see that-that I'm trusting you to help me? Won't you stay?"

Wondering if I by any chance looked as stunned as I felt, I bowed formally, faced about, and waited, both arms on the rail. My ideas as to my companion had been revolutionized in sixty seconds. I had believed her a girl with whom I might have grown up, a girl whose brother and cousins I had probably known at college, a girl that I might have met at a friend's dinner or at the opera or on a country-club porch if I had had my luck with me. Now what was I to think her-an escaped lunatic or something more accountable and therefore worse? If I detest anything, it is the unconventional, the stagy, the mysterious. Setting my teeth, I resolved to wait until she concluded her researches; after that, politely but firmly, I would depart.

And then, beside me, the paper rustled. I heard a little gasp, a tiny low-drawn sigh. Stealing a glance down, I saw the girl's face shining whitely in the deck light. Her black lashes fringed her cheeks as her head bent backward; her eyes were as dark as the water we were slipping through. I had no idea of speaking, and yet I did speak.

"I am afraid," I heard myself saying, "that you have had bad news."

She was struggling for self-control, but her voice wavered.

"Yes," she agreed; "I am afraid I have."

"If there is anything I can do-" I was correct, but reluctant. How I would bless her if she would go away!

But obviously she did not intend to. Quite the contrary!

"There is something," she was murmuring, "that would help me very much."

There, I had done it! I was an ass of the common or garden variety, who first resolved to keep out of a queer business and then, because a girl looked bothered, plunged into it up to my ears. I succeeded in hiding my feelings, in looking wooden.

"Please tell me," I responded, "what it is."

"But-I can't explain it." Her gloved hands tightened on the railing. "And if I ask without explaining, it will seem so-so strange."

"Doubtless," I reflected grimly. But I had to see the thing through now. "That doesn't matter at all," I assured her civilly through clenched teeth.

She came closer-so close that her fur coat brushed me, and her breath touched my cheek; her eyes, like gray stars now that they were less anxious, went to my head a little, I suppose. Oh, yes, she was lovely. Of course that was a factor. If she had been past her first youth and skimpy as to hair, and dowdy, I don't pretend that I should ever have mixed myself up in the preposterous coil.

"This paper," she whispered, holding out the sheet, "has something in it. It is not about me; it is not even true. But if it stays aboard the ship,-if some one sees it, it may make trouble. Oh, you see how it sounds; I knew you would think me mad!"

"Not in the least." What an absurd rigmarole she was uttering! Yet such was the spell of her eyes, her voice, her nearness that I merely felt like saying, "Tell me some more."

"I can't destroy it myself," she went on anxiously. "He-they-mustn't see me do anything that might lead them to-to guess. But no one will think of you, nobody will be watching you; so by and by will you weight the paper with something heavy and drop it across the rail?"

My head was whirling, but a graven image might have envied me my impassivity. I bowed. "I shall be delighted," I announced banally, "to do as you say."

Her face flushed to a warm wild-rose tint as she heard me promise it, and her red lips, parting, took on a tremulous smile.

"Thank you," she murmured in frank gratitude. "I thought-I knew you would help me!" Then she was gone.

My trance broken I woke to hear myself softly swearing. I consigned myself to my proper home, an asylum; I wished the girl at Timbuktu, Kamchatka, Land's End-anywhere except on this ship. As I had told the agent of the Phillipson Rifles, I am no boy. One can scarcely knock about the world for thirty years without gaining some of its wisdom; and of all the appropriate truisms I spared myself not one.

Resentfully I reminded myself that mysteries were suspicious, that honest people seldom had need of secrecy, that idiots who, like me, consented to act blindfold would probably repent their blindness in sackcloth and ashes before long. But what use were these sage reflections? I had given my word to her. I was in for the consequences, however unpleasant they proved.

Without further mental parley I went down to my cabin, where I routed out from among my traps a bronze paper-weight as heavy as lead. Wrapping the mysterious sheet about it, I brought the package back on deck. There was not a soul in sight; it was a propitious hour.

To right and to left the coast lights were slipping past, making golden paths on the black water as our tug pulled us out to sea. The reservists down below were singing "Va fuori, o stranier!" I dropped my package overboard, watched it vanish, and turned to behold the sphinx-like Van Blarcom, sprung up as if by magic, regarding me placidly from the shelter of the smoking-room door.

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