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   Chapter 6 THUMBSCREWS

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 10401

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The salon of conversation, as the mirrored, gilded, and highly varnished apartment was grandiloquently termed, had been the very spot chosen for our presumably not very terrible ordeal. Things were well under way. At the desk in the corner one officer was jotting down notes as to the clearance papers and the cargo; while at a table in the foreground sat his comrade, in a lieutenant's uniform, with the captain of the Re d'Italia at his right, swart-faced and silent, and the list of the passengers lying before the pair.

As I entered a few moments behind Van Blarcom, I perceived that the interrogation had already run a partial course. Pietro Ricci, the reservist, had, no doubt, emerged with flying colors and now stood against the wall beside the doughty agent of the Phillipson Rifles, who had apparently satisfied his inquisitor, too. Near the door a group of stewards had clustered to watch with interest; and as I stood waiting, the girl in furs came in.

I put myself a hypothetical query.

"If a girl," I thought, "materializes from the void, asks an incriminating favor, and vanishes, does that put one on bowing terms with her when one meets her again?" Evidently it did, for she smiled brightly and graciously and bent her ruddy head. But she was pale, I noticed critically; there was apprehension in her eyes. Wasn't it odd that the prospect of a few simple questions from an officer should disconcert her when she had possessed the courage, or the foolhardiness, to sail on this line at this time?

Really I could not deny that all I had seen of her was most suspicious. For aught I knew, the secret-service man might be absolutely right. I had treated him outrageously. I owed him an apology, doubtless. But I still felt furious with him, and when she looked anxiously at those officers, I felt furious with them too.

Van Blarcom, his brief questioning ended, was turning from the table. As he passed, I made a point of smiling companionably at the girl.

"Now for the rack, the cord, and the thumbscrews," I murmured to her, making way.

The lieutenant was a tall, lean, muscular young man with a shrewd tanned face in which his eyes showed oddly blue, and he half rose, civilly enough, as the girl advanced.

"Please sit down," he said with a strong English accent. "I'll have to see your passport if you will be so good." She took it from the bag she carried, and he glanced at it perfunctorily.

"Your name is Esme Falconer?"

"Yes," she replied.

It was the name of the little Stuart princess, the daughter of Charles the First, whose quaint, coiffed, blue-gowned portrait hangs in a dark, gloomy gallery at Rome. I was subconsciously aware that I liked it despite its strangeness, the while I wondered more actively if that Paul Pry of a Van Blarcom had imparted to the ship's authorities the suspicions he had shared with me.

"You are an American, Miss Falconer? You were born in the States? You are going to Italy-and then home again?" The questions came in a reassuringly mechanical fashion; the man was doing his duty, nothing more.

"I may go also to France." Her voice was steady, but I saw that she had clenched her hands beneath the table.

I glanced at Van Blarcom, to find him listening intently, his neck thrust forward, his eyes almost protruding in his eagerness not to miss a word. But there was to be nothing more.

"That is satisfactory, Miss Falconer," announced the Englishman; with a little sigh of relief, she stood back against the wall.

"If you please," said the officer to me in another tone.

As I came forward, his eyes ran over me from head to foot. So did Captain Cecchi's; but I hardly noticed; these uniforms, these formalities, these war precautions, were like a dash of comic opera. I was not taking them seriously in the least. The Britisher gestured me toward a seat, but it seemed superfluous for so brief an interview, and I remained standing with my hands resting on a chair.

"I'll have your passport!" There was something curt in his manner. "Ah! And your name is-?"

"My name is Devereux Bayne."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty."

"Where do you live?"

"In New York and Washington." If he could be laconic, so could I.

"You were born in America?"

"No. I was born in Paris." By this time questions and answers were like the pop of rifle-shots.

"That was a long way from home. Lucky you chose the country of one of our Allies." Was this sarcasm or would-be humor? It had an unpleasant ring.

"Glad you like it," I responded, with a cold stare, "but I didn't pick it."

"Well, if you weren't born in the States, are you an American citizen?" he imperturbably pursued.

"If you'll consult my passport, you'll see that I am."

"Did either your father or your mother have any German blood?"

I could hear a slight rustle back of me among the passengers, none of whom, it was plain, had been subjected to such cross-questioning. I was growing restive, but I couldn't tell him it was not his business; of course it was.

"No; they didn't," I briefly replied.

"About your destination now." He was making notes of all my answers. "You are going to Italy, and then-"

"To Fra

nce."

"Roundabout trip, rather. The Bordeaux route is safer just now and quicker, too. Why not have gone that way? And how long are you planning to stop over on this side?"

"It depends upon circumstances." What on earth ailed the fellow? He was as annoying as a mosquito or a gnat.

"I beg your pardon, but your plans seem rather at loose ends, don't they? What are you crossing for?"

"To drive an ambulance!" I answered as curtly as the words could be said.

I saw his face soften and humanize at the information. For once I had made a satisfactory response, it seemed. But on the heels of my answer there rose the voice of Mr. McGuntrie, sensational, accusing, pitched almost at a shriek.

"Look here, lieutenant," he was crying, "don't you let that fellow fool you. I asked him the first night out if he was an ambulance boy, and he denied it to me, up and down. I thought all along he was too smart, hooting like he did at submarines. Guess he knew one would pick him up all right if the rest of us did sink."

"How about that, Mr. Bayne?" asked the Englishman, his uncordial self once more.

It was maddening. One would have thought them all in league to prove me an atrocious criminal.

"Simply this," I replied with the iciness of restrained fury, "that this gentleman has been the steamer's pest ever since the night we sailed. If I had answered his questions, every one, down to the ship's cat, would have shared his knowledge within the hour. I did not deny anything; I simply did not assent. You are an officer in authority; I am answering you, though I protest strongly at your manner; but I don't tell my affairs to prying strangers because we are cooped up on the same boat."

"H'm. If I were you I would keep my temper." He regarded me thoughtfully, and then with rapier-like rapidity shot two questions at my head. "I say, Mr. Bayne, you're positive about your parents not having German blood, are you? And you are quite sure you were born in Paris, not in-well, Prussia, suppose we say?"

"What the-" I opportunely remembered the presence of Miss Esme Falconer. "What do you mean?" I substituted less sulphurously, but with a glare.

He bent forward, tapping his forefinger against the desk, and his eyes were like gimlets boring into mine.

"I mean," he enlightened me, his voice very hard of a sudden, "that a German agent is due to sail on this line, about this time, with certain papers, and that from one or two indications I'm not at all sure you are not the man."

With sudden perspicacity, I realized that he took me for an emissary of the great Blenheim. Exasperation overwhelmed me; would these farcical complications never cease?

"Good heavens, man," I exclaimed with conviction, "you are crazy! Look at me! Use your common-sense! What on earth is there about me to suggest a spy?"

"In a good spy there never is anything suggestive."

By Jove, that was the very thing the secret-service man had said!

"You admit you were born abroad. You claim to be bound for France, but you sail for Italy. And you are rather a soldier's type, tall, well set-up, good military carriage. You'd make quite a showing in a field uniform, I should say."

"In a fiddlestick!" I snapped, weary of the situation. "So would you-so would our friend the Italian reservist there. I'm an average American, free, white, and twenty-one, with strong pro-Ally sympathies and a passport in perfect shape. This is all nonsense, but of course there is something back of it. What has been your real reason for deviling me ever since I entered this room?"

The lieutenant was studying my face.

"Mr. Bayne," he said slowly, "do you care to tell me the nature of the package you threw across the rail the first night out?"

I heard a gasp from the group behind me, a squeal of joy from McGuntrie, a quick, low-drawn breath that surely came from the girl. Preternaturally cool, I thought rapidly.

"What's that you say? Package?" I repeated, trying to gain time.

"Yes, package!" said the Englishman, sharply. "And we'll dispense with pretense, please. These are war-times, and from common prudence the Allies keep an eye on all passengers who choose to sail instead of staying at home as we prefer they should. Captain Cecchi here reports to me that one of his stewards saw you drop a small weighted object overboard. He has asked me to interrogate you, instead of doing it himself, so that you may have the chance to defend yourself in English, which he doesn't speak."

"E vero. It ees the truth," confirmed the captain of the Re d'Italia-the one remark, by the way, that he ever addressed to me.

"Well?" It was the Englishman's cold voice. "We are waiting, Mr. Bayne! What was this object you were so anxious to dispose of? A message from some confederate, too compromising to keep?"

Heretofore I had carefully avoided looking at Miss Falconer, but at this point, turning my head a trifle, I gave her a casual glance. Her eyes had blackened as they had done that night on the deck; her face had paled, and her breath was coming fast. But as I looked, her gaze fell, and her lashes wavered; and I knew that whatever came she did not mean to speak.

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