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   Chapter 5 MR. VAN BLARCOM. U. S. A.

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 11491

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


For a trip that had begun with such rich promise of the unusual, my voyage on the Re d'Italia proved a gratifying anticlimax during its first few days. The weather was bad. We plowed forward monotonously, flagless, running between dark-gray water and a lowering, leaden sky. Screws throbbed, timbers creaked, and dishes crashed as the Gulf Stream took us, and great waves reared themselves round us like myriads of threatening Alps.

After that first night the girl kept discreetly to her stateroom. I was relieved; but I thought of her a good deal. I had little else to do. Pacing a drunken deck and smoking, I wove unsatisfactory theories, asking myself what was her need of secrecy, what the item she wanted hidden, what the errand that had made her sail on the vessel a week after the spectacular torpedoing of a sister-ship? Did she know this Van Blarcom or did she merely dread any notice? And above all, who was the man and had he been watching when I tossed that wretched extra across the rail?

I saw something of him, of course, as time went on. Naturally we four bold spirits, the ubiquitous McGuntrie, Van Blarcom, the young reservist Pietro Ricci,-a very good sort of fellow,-and I were herded together beyond escape. Also, a foursome at bridge seemed divinely indicated by our number, and to avert a sheer paralysis of ennui we formed the habit of winning each other's money at that game.

As we played I studied Van Blarcom, but without results. It was ruffling; I should have absorbed in so much intercourse a fairly definite impression of his personality, profession, and social grade. But he was baffling; reticent, but self-assured, authoritative even, and, in a quiet way, watchful. He smoked a good cigar, mixed a good drink, seemed used to travel, but produced a coarse-grained effect, made grammatical errors, and on the whole was a person from whom, once ashore, I should flee.

At six o'clock on the seventh night out our voyage entered its second lap; all the electric lights were simultaneously extinguished as we entered the danger zone. We made a sketchy toilet by means of tapers, groped like wandering ghosts down a dim corridor, and dined by the faint rays of candles thrust into bottles and placed at intervals along the festive board. I went on deck afterward to find the ship plunging through blackness on forced draft, with port-holes shrouded and with not even a riding-light. If not in Davy Jones's locker by that time, we should reach Gibraltar the next evening; afterward we should head for Naples, a two days' trip.

The following morning found our stormy weather over. The sea through which we were speeding had a magic color, the dark, rich, Mediterranean blue. Ascending late, I saw gulls flying round us and seaweed drifting by, and Mr. McGuntrie in a state of nerves, with a life belt about him, walking wildly to and fro.

"Well, Mr. Bayne," he greeted me, "never again for mine! If I ever see the end of this trip,-if you call it a trip; I call it merry hades,-believe me, I'll sell something hereafter that I can sell on land. I'm a crackerjack of a salesman, if I do say it myself. Once I got started talking I could get a man down below to buy a hot toddy and a set of flannels-and I wish I'd gone down there and done it before I ever saw this boat."

Unmoved, I leaned on the railing and watched the blue swells break. McGuntrie took a turn or two. In the ship's library he had discovered a manual entitled "How to Swim," and he was now attempting between laments to memorize its salient points.

"The first essay is best made in water of not less than fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and not more than four feet in depth," he gabbled, and then broke off to gaze at the sea about us, chilly in temperature, and countless fathoms deep. "Oh, what's the use? What the blue blazes does it matter?" he cried hysterically. "I tell you that U-boat that sank the San Pietro is laying for us. In about an hour you'll see a periscope bob up out there. Then we'll send out an S.O.S., and the next thing you know we'll sink with all on board."

We had as yet escaped this doom when toward six o'clock we approached Gibraltar, running beneath a crimson sunset and between misty purple shores. On one hand lay Africa, on the other the Moorish country, both shrouded in a soft haze and edged with snowy foam. Down below the soldiers of Italy were singing. A merchantman of belligerent nationality, our ship proudly flew its flag again. Indeed, had it failed to do so, the British patrol-boats would long since have known the reason why.

It was growing dark when I turned to find Van Blarcom at my elbow.

"I didn't see you," I commented rather shortly. I don't like people to creep up beside me like cats.

"No," he responded. "I've been waiting quite a while. I didn't want to disturb you, but the fact is I'd like a word with you, Mr. Bayne."

I eyed him with curiosity. He was inscrutable, this quiet, alert, efficient-looking man. Take, for instance, his present manner, half self-assured, half respectfully apologetic-what grade in life did it fit?

"Well, here I am," I said briefly as I struck a match.

"I've thought it over a good bit," he went on, apparently in self-justification. "I don't know how you will take it, but I'll chance it just the same. If I don't give you a hint, you don't get a square deal. That's my attitude. Did you ever hear of Franz von Blenheim, Mr. Bayne?"

"Eh?" The question seemed distinctly irrelevant-and yet where had I heard that name, not very long ago?

"The German secret-service agent. The best in the world, they say." A sort of reluctant admiration showed in Van Blarcom's face. "There isn't any one that can get him; he does what h

e wants, goes where he likes-the United States, England, France, Russia-and always gets away safe. You'd think he was a conjurer to read what he does sometimes. A whole country will be looking for him, and he takes some one else's passport, puts on a disguise, and good-by-he's gone! That's Franz von Blenheim. No; that's just an outline of him. And on pretty good authority, he's in Washington now."

Mr. Van Blarcom, I reflected, was surely coming out of his shell; this was quite a monologue with which he was favoring me. It was dark now; our lights were flaring. Being in a friendly port's shelter, we burned electricity to-night.

"You seem to know a whole lot about this fellow," I remarked idly in the pause.

"Yes, I do." He smiled a trifle grimly. "In fact, I once came near getting him; it would have made my fortune, too. But he slipped through my fingers at the last minute, and if I ever-You see, I'm in the secret-service myself, Mr. Bayne."

I turned to stare at him.

"The United States service?" I asked.

"Yes."

I nodded. All that had puzzled me was fairly clear in this new light. Not at all the type of the star agents, those marvelous beings who figure so romantically in fiction and on the boards, he was yet, I fancied, a good example of the ruck of his profession, those who did the every-day detective work which in such a business must be done. But-Franz von Blenheim? What was my association with the name? Then I recalled that in the extra I had read as we left harbor there had been some account of the man's activities in Mexico.

"What I wanted to say was this," Van Blarcom continued in his usual manner-the manner that I now recognized to be a subtler form of the policeman's, respectful to those he held for law-abiding, alert and watchful to detect gentry of any other kind. "This line we're traveling on now is one the spies use quite a bit. They used to go to London straight or else to Bordeaux and Paris; but the English and French got a pretty strict watch going, and now it's easier for them to slip into France through Italy, by Modane. They sail for Naples mostly, do you see? And-you won't repeat this?-it's fairly sure that when Franz von Blenheim sends his government a report of what he's done in Mexico against us, he'll send it by an agent who travels on this line and lands in Italy and then slips into Germany by way of Switzerland."

We were drifting slowly into the harbor of Gibraltar, the rock looming over us through the blackness, a gigantic mountain, a mass of tiered and serried lights. Search-lights, too, shot out like swords, focused on us, and swept us as we crept forward between dimly visible, anchored craft. The throbbing of our engines ceased. A launch chugged toward us, bringing the officers of the port. I watched, pleased with the scene, and rather taken with my companion's discourse. It was not unlike a dime novel of my youth.

"Do you mean you've been sent on this line to watch for one of Blenheim's agents?" I inquired.

"No. I'm sent for some work on the other side-and I'm not telling you what it is, either," he rejoined. "What I meant was that a man has to be careful, traveling on these ships. They watch close. They have to. Haven't you noticed that whenever two or three of us get to talking, a steward comes snooping round? Well, I suppose you wouldn't, it not being your business; but I have. We're watched all the time; and if we're wise, we'll mind our step. Take you, for instance. You're a good American, eh? And yet some spy might fool you with a cute story and get your help and maybe play you for a sucker on the other side. I saw that happen once. It was a nice young chap, and a pretty girl fooled him-got him into a peck of trouble. What you want to remember is that good spies never seem like spies."

If I looked as I felt just then, the search-light that swept me must have startled him. I could feel my face flushing, my hands clenching as I caught his drift. I swung round.

"What's this about?" I demanded sharply. But I knew.

"Well," said the secret-service man discreetly, "I saw something pretty funny the first night out, Mr. Bayne. It was safe enough with me; I can tell a gentleman from a spy; but if an officer had seen it, the thing wouldn't have been a joke. Suppose we put it this way. There's a person on board I think I know. I haven't got the goods, I'll own, but I don't often make mistakes. My advice to you, sir, is to steer clear of strangers. And if I were you, I-"

"That'll do, thanks!" I cut him short. "I can take care of myself. I don't say your motives are bad,-you may think this is a favor,-but I call it a confounded piece of meddling, and I'll trouble you to let it end."

He looked hurt and indignant.

"Now, look here," he remonstrated, "what have I done but give you a friendly hint not to get in bad? But maybe I was too vague about it; you just listen to a few facts. I'll tell you who that young lady is and who her people are and what she wants on the other side-"

"No, you won't!" I declared. My voice sounded savage. I was recalling how she had begged the extra of me, and how it had contained a full account of Franz von Blenheim, the kaiser's man. "The young lady's name and affairs are no concern of mine. If you know anything you can keep it to yourself."

As we glared at each other like two hostile catamounts, a steward relieved the tension by running toward us down the deck.

"Signori, un momento, per piacere!" he called as he came. The British officers were on board, he forthwith informed us, and were demanding, in accordance with the martial law now reigning at Gibraltar, a sight of each passenger and his passport before the ship should proceed.

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