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   Chapter 7 THE TIGHTENING WEB

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 7069

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


I did not, of course, want her to. I was no "Injun giver," and having once pledged my word to help her, I was prepared to keep it till all was blue or any other final shade. Still, it was not to be denied that my position looked incriminating. She might be as honest as the daylight,-I believed she was; I had to or else abandon her,-but she had managed to plunge me into a confounded mess.

Naturally I was exasperated at the net results of my piece of gallantry. I didn't care to be suspected; I wasn't anxious to have to lie. All the same, a plausible explanation, offered without delay, appeared essential. I should have wanted as much myself had I been guarding Gibraltar port.

"Well, Mr. Bayne?"

"Well!" I retorted coolly. "I was just wondering if I should answer. This is an infernal outrage, you know. You don't really think I'm a spy. What you are doing is to give me a third degree on general principles. If you'll excuse my saying so I think you ought to have more sense!"

"Oh, of course we ought to take you on trust," he agreed sardonically. "But we can't I'm afraid. The fact is, we have had an experience or two to shake our faith. The last time this steamer stopped here we caught a pair of spies who didn't look the part any more than you do; and since then we have rather stopped taking appearances as guarantees."

"All right, then," I responded. "I'll stretch a point since it is war-time. I give you my word that I threw overboard a small bronze paper-weight that was cluttering up my traps. There was nothing surreptitious about it; the whole steamer might have seen me. Do you care to take the responsibility of having me shot for that?"

"And I want to say, sir, that the gentleman is giving it to you straight." An unexpected voice addressed the lieutenant at my back. "I was standing at the door behind him that night, though he didn't know it, and I can take my oath that what he says is gospel truth."

My unlooked-for champion was Mr. John Van Blarcom. I stared at him, at a loss to know why, on the heels of our row on deck and my rejection of his friendly warning, he should perjure himself for me in so obliging a fashion. He had, I was aware, been too far off that night to know whether I had thrown away a paper-weight or a sand-bag. Moreover, the object had been swathed beyond recognition in the extra that was primarily responsible for all this fuss. "He is sorry for me," I decided. "He thinks the girl has made a fool of me." Instead of experiencing gratitude, I felt more galled and wrathful than before.

"Is that so? How close were you?" the lieutenant asked alertly. "About ten feet? You are quite sure? Well-it's all right, I suppose, then," he admitted in a very grudging tone.

"No, it isn't," I declared tartly. I was by no means satisfied with so half-hearted a vindication; nor did I care to owe my immunity to a patronizing lie on Mr. Van Blarcom's part. "You have accused me of spying. Do you think I'll let it go at that? I insist that you have my baggage brought up here and that you search it and search me."

The face of the Englishman really relaxed for once.

"That's a good idea. And it's what any honest man would want, Mr. Bayne," he approved. "Since you demand it-certainly, we'll do it," and he glanced at the captain, who promptly ordered two stewards to fetch my traps from below.

Things move rapidly on shipboard. My traveling impedimenta appeared in the salon almost before I could have uttered the potent name of Jack Robinson, had I cared

to try. With cold aloofness I offered my keys, and the head steward knelt to officiate, while the crowd gaped and the second English officer abandoned his corner and his papers, standing forth to watch with the lieutenant and the captain, thus forming an intent and highly interested committee of three.

The investigation began, very thorough, slightly harrowing. I had not realized the embarrassing detail of such a search. An extended store of collars suitable for different occasions; neat and glossy piles of shirts, both dress and plain; black silk hose mountain high, and neckties as numerous as the sea sands. Noting the rapt attention that McGuntrie in particular gave to these disclosures, I felt that to deserve so inhuman a punishment my crime must have been black indeed. Shoes on their trees; articles of silk underwear; brushes, combs, gloves, cards, boxes of cigarettes, an extra flask; some light literature. And so on and so on, ad nauseam, till I grew dully apathetic, and roused only to praise Allah when we left the boxes for the trunk.

Hardened by this time, I brazenly endured the exhibition of my pajamas, not turning a hair when they were held up and shaken out before the attentive crowd. In a similar spirit I bore the examination of my coats and trousers, the rummaging of my vests, the investigation of my hats. "Courage!" I told myself. "Nothing in the world is endless." Indeed, the last garment was now being lifted, revealing nothing beneath it save a leather wallet carefully tied.

"Just look through that, will you?" I requested with chilling sarcasm. "Otherwise you may get to thinking later that I had a note for the kaiser there. In point of fact, those are simply some letters of introduction that I am taking to-" I broke off abruptly. "Good Lord deliver us!" I blankly exclaimed. "What's that?"

The lieutenant, complying with my request, had unbound the wallet and was flirting out its contents in fan-like fashion like a hand of cards. I saw the imposing army of letters presented me by Dunny, who knows everybody, headed by one to his old friend, the American ambassador to France. So far, so good. But beneath them, with a sickening sense of being in a bad dream, I beheld a thin sheaf of papers, neatly folded, bound with red tape and sealed with bright red wax,-an object which, to my certain knowledge, had no more business among my belongings than the knives and plates that the conjurer snatches from the surrounding atmosphere, or the hen which he evolves, clucking, from an erstwhile empty sleeve.

Standing there with the impersonal calm of utter helplessness, I watched the Britisher break the seal and unfold the sheets. They were thin and they were many and they were covered with closely jotted hieroglyphics, row upon row. But the sphinx-like quality of the contents afforded me no gleam of hope. If they had proclaimed as much in the plainest English printing, I could have been no surer that they were the papers of Franz von Blenheim; nor, as I learned a good while afterward, was I mistaken in the belief.

I was vaguely aware that the spectators were being ordered from the salon. Captain Cecchi's eyes were dark stilettos; the gaze of the Englishman was like a narrow flash of blue steel. He was going to say something. I waited apathetically. Then the words came, falling like icicles in the deadness of the hush.

"If you wish, sir," he stated, "to explain why you are traveling with cipher papers, Captain Cecchi and I will hear what you have to say."

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