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   Chapter 8 WHAT A THIEF CAN DO

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 10534

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

In sheer desperation I achieved a ghastly levity of demeanor.

"Please don't shoot me yet," I managed to request. "And if I sit down and think for a moment, don't take it for a confession. Any innocent man would be shocked dumb temporarily if his traps gave up such loot."

I sat down in dizzy fashion, my judges watching me. Through my mind, in a mad phantasmagoria, danced the series of events that had begun in the St. Ives restaurant and was ending so dramatically in the salon of this ship. Or perhaps the end had not yet arrived, I thought ironically. By a slight effort of imagination I could conjure up a scene of the sort rendered familiar by countless movie dramas-a lowering fortress wall, myself standing against it, scornfully waving away a bandage, and drawn up before me a highly efficient firing-squad.

To all intents and purposes I was a spy, caught red-handed; but with due respect for circumstantial evidence, I did not mean to remain one long. That part of it was too absurd. There must be a dozen ways out of it. Come! The fact that so strange an experience had befallen me in a New York hotel on the eve of my sailing could not be pure coincidence. There lay the clue to the mystery. Let me work it out.

And then, as my wits began groping, comprehension came to me-a sudden comprehension that left me stunned and dazed: The open trunk, the thief, the descent by the fire-escape, the girl's calm denial, turning us from the suspected floor. Yes, the girl! Heavens, what a blind dolt I had been! No wonder that Van Blarcom had felt moved to say a helping word for me, as for a congenital idiot not responsible for his acts!

"When you are ready-" the lieutenant was remarking. I pulled myself together as hastily as I could.

"First," I began, with all the resolution I could muster, "I want to say that I am as much at a loss as you are about this thing. I never set eyes upon those papers until this evening. Why, man alive, I insisted on the search! I asked you to examine the wallet! Do you think I did all that to establish my own guilt?"

"We'll keep to the point, please." His very politeness was ill omened. "The papers were in your baggage. Can you explain how they came there?"

"I am going to try," I answered coolly. "To begin with, I can vouch for it that they were not there two weeks ago when my man packed the trunk. That I can swear to, for I glanced through the letters before handing him the wallet; and when he had finished packing I locked the trunk and went yachting for five days."

"And your luggage? Did it go with you?" queried the Englishman.

"No; it didn't. It remained in the baggage-room of my apartment house; but when I landed and found hotel quarters, I had it sent to me at the St. Ives."

"So you stayed there!" He was eyeing me with ever-growing disfavor. "You didn't know, of course, that it was a nest of agents, a sort of rendezvous for hyphenates, and that the last spy we caught on this line had made it his headquarters in New York?"

"I did not," I replied stiffly. "But I can believe the worst of it. Now, here's what befell me there." I recounted my adventure briefly, beginning with the summons from restaurant to telephone.

It was strange how, as I talked, each detail fell into its place, how each little circumstance, formerly so mystifying, grew clear. The alarm of the maitre d'hotel over my sudden departure, his relief when I entered the booths, his corresponding horror when, emerging, I took the elevator for my room, puzzled me no longer. The deserted halls, the flight of the little German intruder, the determined lack of interest of the hotel management, were merely links in the chain.

I told a straight, unvarnished story with one exception. When I came to the point I couldn't bring in Miss Esme Falconer's name. I said non-committally that a lady had occupied the room where the thief took refuge; and I left it to be inferred that I had never seen her before or since.

The lieutenant heard my tale out with impassivity. "Is that all, Mr. Bayne?" he asked shortly, as I paused.

"Yes," I lied doggedly. "And if you want more, I call you insatiable. I've told you enough to satisfy any man's appetite for the abnormal, haven't I?"

"Your defense, then," he summed it up, "is that under the protection of a German management a German agent entered your room, opened your trunk, concealed these papers in it, and repacked it. You believe that, eh?"

It sounded wild enough, I acknowledged gloomily as I sat staring at the carpet with my elbows on my knees.

"You've been a pretty fool, a pretty fool, a pretty fool!" the refrain sang itself unceasingly in my ears. I was disgusted with the episode, more disgusted yet with my own role. Why was I lying, why making myself by my present silence as well as by my former density the flagrant confederate of a clever spy?

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Oh, what's the use?" I muttered. "No, of course I don't believe it, and you won't either if you are sane. It is too ridiculous. I might as well suggest that if the thief hadn't been gone when they arrived, the manager and the detective would have shanghaied me, or the house doctor drugged me with a hypodermic till the fellow could get away. L

et's end all this! I'm ready to go ashore if you want to take me. In your place I know I should laugh at such a story; and I think that on general principles I should order the man who told it shot."

"Not necessarily, Mr. Bayne," was the cool response of the Englishman. "The trouble with you neutrals is that you laugh too much at German spies. We warn you sometimes, and then you grin and say that it's hysteria. But by and by you'll change your minds, as we did, and know the German secret service for what it is-the most competent thing, the most widely spread, and pretty much the most dangerous, that the world has to fight to-day."

"You don't mean," I inquired blankly, "that you believe me?"

It looks odd enough as I set it down. Ordinarily I expect my word to be accepted; but then, as a general thing I don't suddenly discover that I have been chaperoning a set of German code-dispatches across the seas.

"I mean," he corrected with truly British phlegm, "that I can't say positively your story is untrue. Here's the case: Some one-probably Franz von Blenheim-wants to send these papers home by way of Italy and Switzerland. Your hotel manager tells him you are going to sail for Naples; you are an American on your way to help the Allies; it's ten to one that nobody will suspect you and that your baggage will go through untouched. What does he do? He has the papers slipped into your wallet. Then he sends a cable to some friend in Naples about a sick aunt, or candles, or soap. And the friend translates the cable by a private code and reads that you are coming and that he is to shadow you and learn where you are stopping and loot your trunk the first night you spend ashore!"

"I don't grasp," I commented dazedly; "why they should weave such circles. Why not let one of their own agents bring over the papers?"

The lieutenant smiled a faint, cold, wintry smile.

"Spies," he informed me, "always think they are watched, and generally they're not wrong in thinking so. If they can send their documents by an innocent person, they had better. For my part, I call it a very clever scheme."

"I believe I am dreaming," I muttered. "Somebody ought to pinch me. You found those infernal things nestling among my coats and hose and trousers-and you don't think I put them there?"

"I didn't say that," he denied as unresponsively as a brazen Vishnu. "I simply say that I wouldn't care to order you shot as things stand now. But you'll remember that I have only your word that all this happened or that you are really an American or even that this passport is yours and that your name is-ah-Devereux Bayne. We'll have to know quite a bit more before we call this thing settled. How are you going to satisfy his Majesty the King?"

I plucked up spirit.

"Well," I suggested, "how will this suit you? I'll go down to my stateroom and stop there until we land in Italy; and, if you like, just to be on the safe side with such a desperado as I am, you can put a guard outside my door. But first, you'll send a sheaf of marconigrams for me in both directions. You're welcome to read them, of course, before they go. Then when we get to Naples, my friend, Mr. Herriott, will meet the steamer. He is second secretary at the United States embassy, and his identification will be sufficient, I suppose. Anyhow, if it isn't, I dare say the ambassador will say a word for me. I have known him for years, though not so well."

"That would be quite sufficient as to identification." He stressed the last word significantly, and I thanked heaven for Dunny and the forces which I knew that rather important old personage could set to work.

"Also," I continued coolly, "there will be various cablegrams from United States officials awaiting us, which will convince you, I hope, that I am not likely to be a spy. There will be a statement from the friend who dined with me at the St. Ives. There will be the declaration of the policeman who saw the German climb down the fire-escape and bolt into the room beneath." "And hang the expense!" I added inwardly, computing cable rates, but assuming a lordly indifference to them which only a multimillionaire could really feel.

The Englishman and the captain consulted a moment. Then the former spoke:

"That will be satisfactory, sir, to Captain Cecchi and to me. Write out your cables, if you please. They shall be sent. And I say, Mr. Bayne,-I hope you drive that ambulance. I'm not stationed here to be a partizan, but you've stood up to us like a man."

An hour later as I finished my solitary dinner, the electric lights flickered and died, and the engines began their throb. Under cover of the darkness we were slipping out of Gibraltar. I leaned my arms on the table and scanned the remains of my feast by the light of my one sad candle, not thinking of what I saw, or of the various calls for help I had been dispatching, or of the sailor grimly mounting guard outside my door. I was remembering a girl, a girl with ruddy hair and a wild-rose flush and great, gray, starry eyes, a girl that by all the rules of the game I should have handed over to those who represented the countries she was duping, a girl that I had found I had to shield when I came face to face with the issue.

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