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   Chapter 9 THE BLACK BUTTERFLIES

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 12910

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The Turin-Paris express-the most direct, the Italians call it-was too popular by half to suit the taste of morose beings who wished for solitude. With great trouble and pains I had ferreted out a single vacant compartment; but as four o'clock sounded and the whistle blew for departure, a belated traveler joined me-worse still, an acquaintance who could not be quite ignored.

The unwelcome intruder was Mr. John Van Blarcom, my late fellow-voyager, and he accepted the encounter with a better grace than I.

"Why, hello!" he greeted me cheerfully. "Going through to France? Glad to see you-but you're about the last man that I was looking for. I got the idea somehow you were planning to stop a while in Rome."

I returned his nod with a curtness I was at no pains to dissemble. Then I reproached myself, for it was undeniable that on the Re d'Italia he had more than once stood my friend. He had offered me a timely warning, which I had flouted; he had obligingly confirmed my statement in my grueling third degree. Yet despite this, or because of it, I didn't like him; nor did I like his patronizing, complacent manner, which seemed fairly to shriek at me, "I told you so!"

"Changed my plans," I acknowledged with a lack of cordiality that failed to ruffle him. He had hung up his overcoat and installed himself facing me, and was now making preparations for lighting a fat cigar.

"Well," he commented, with a chuckle of raillery, after this operation, "the last time I saw you you were in a pretty tight corner, eh? You can't say it was my fault, either; I'd have put you wise if you'd listened. But you weren't taking any-you knew better than I did-and you strafed me, as the Dutchies say, to the kaiser's taste."

"Good advice seldom gets much thanks, I believe," was my grumpy comment, which he unexpectedly chose to accept as an apology and with a large, fine, generous gesture to blow away.

"That's all right," he declared. "I'm not holding it against you. We've all got to learn. Next time you won't be so easy caught, I guess. It makes a man do some thinking when he gets a dose like you did; and those chaps at Gibraltar certainly gave you a rough deal!"

"On the contrary," I differed shortly,-I wasn't hunting sympathy,-"considering all the circumstances, I think they were extremely fair."

"Not to shoot you on sight? Well, maybe." He was grinning. "But I guess you weren't hunting for a chance to spend two days cooped up in a cabin that measured six feet by five."

"It had advantages. One of them was solitude," I responded dryly. "And it was less unpleasant than being relegated to a six-by-three grave. See here, I don't enjoy this subject! Suppose we drop it. The fact is, I've never understood why you came to my rescue on that occasion, you didn't owe me any civility, you know, and you had to-well-we'll say draw on your imagination when you claimed you saw what I threw overboard that night."

"Sure, I lied like a trooper," he admitted placidly. "Glad to do it. You didn't break any bones when you strafed me, and anyhow, I felt sorry for you. It always goes against me to see a fellow being played!"

Thanks to my determined coolness, the conversation lapsed. I buried myself in the Paris "Herald," but found I could not read. Simmering with wrath, I lived again the ill-starred voyage his words recalled to me, breathed the close smothering air of the cabin that had held me prisoner, tasted the knowledge that I was watched like any thief. An armed sailor had stood outside my door by day and by night; and a dozen times I had longed to fling open that frail partition, seize the man by the collar, and hurl him far away.

Glancing out at the landscape, I saw that Turin lay back of us and that our track was winding through dark chestnut forests toward the heights. Confound Van Blarcom's reminiscences and the thoughts they had set stirring! In ambush behind my paper I gloomily relived the past.

Our ship, following sealed instructions, had changed her course at Gibraltar, conveying us by way of the Spanish coast to Genoa instead of Naples. From my port-hole I had gazed glumly on blue skies and bright, blue waters, purple hills, and white-walled cities, and fishing boats with patched, gaudy sails and dark-complexioned crews. Then Genoa rose from the sea, tier after tier of pink and green and orange houses and shimmering groves of olive trees; and I was summoned to the salon, to face the captain of the port, the chief of the police of the city, and their bedizened suites.

Surrounded by plumes and swords and gold lace, I maintained my innocence and heard Jack Herriott, on his opportune arrival, pour forth in weird, but fluent, Italian an account of me that must have surrounded me in the eyes of all present with a golden halo, and that firmly established me in their minds as the probable next President of the United States. Thanks to these exaggerations and to various confirmatory cablegrams-Dunny had plainly set the wires humming on receiving my S.O.S.,-I found myself a free man, at price of putting my signature to a statement of it all. I shook the hand of the ever non-committal Captain Cecchi, and left the ship. And an hour after good old Jack was gazing at me in wrath unconcealed as I informed him that I was in the mood for neither gadding, nor social intercourse, and had made up my mind to proceed immediately to duty at the Front.

"You've been seasick; that's what ails you," he said, diagnosing my condition. "Oh, I don't expect you to admit it-no man ever did that. But you wait and see how you feel when we've had a few meals at the Grand Hotel in Rome!"

This culinary bait leaving me cold, he lost his temper, expressed a hope that the Germans would blow my ambulance to smithereens, and assured me that the next time I brought the Huns' papers across the ocean I might extricate myself without his assistance from what might ensue. However, though he has a bark, Jack possesses no bite worth mentioning. He even saw me off when I left by the north-bound train.

Leaning moodily forward, I looked again from the window and wished I might hurry the creaking, grinding revolution of the wheels. We were climbing higher and higher among the mountains. The chestnuts, growing scanter, were replaced by dark firs and pines. Streams came winding down like icy crystal threads; the little rivers we crossed looked blue and glacial; pale-pink roses an

d mountain flowers showed themselves as we approached the peaks. A polite official, entering, examined our papers; and with snow surrounding us and cold clear air blowing in at the window, we left Bardonnecchia, the last of the frontier towns.

I was speeding toward France; but where was the girl of the Re d'Italia? To what dubious rendezvous, what haunt of spies, had she hurried, once ashore? The thought of her stung my vanity almost beyond endurance. She had pleaded with me that night, swayed against me trustingly, appealed to me as to a chivalrous gentleman and, having competently pulled the wool over my eyes, had laughed at me in her sleeve.

I had held myself a canny fellow, not an easy prey to adventurers; a fairly decent one, too, who didn't lie to a king's officer or help treasonable plots. Yet had I not done just those things by my silence on the steamer? And for what reason? Upon my soul I didn't know, unless because she had gray eyes.

"Hang it all!" I exclaimed, flinging my unlucky paper into a corner, and becoming aware too late that Van Blarcom was observing me with a grin.

"I've got the black butterflies, as the French say," I explained savagely. "This mountain travel is maddening; one might as well be a snail."

"Sure, a slow train's tiresome," agreed Van Blarcom. "Specially if you're not feeling overpleased with life anyway," he added, with a knowing smile.

An angry answer rose to my lips, but the Mont Cenis tunnel opportunely enveloped us, and in the dark half-hour transit that followed I regained my self-control. It was not worth while, I decided, to quarrel with the fellow, to break his head or to give him the chance of breaking mine. After all, I thought low-spiritedly, what right had I to look down on him? We were pot and kettle, indistinguishably black. It was true that he had perjured himself upon the liner; but so, in spirit if not in words, had I!

Thus reflecting, I saw the train emerge from the tunnel, felt it jar to a standstill in the station of Modane, and, in obedience to staccato French outcries on the platform, alighted in the frontier town. Followed by Van Blarcom and preceded by our porters, I strolled in leisurely fashion towards the customs shed. The air was clear, chilly, invigorating; snowy peaks were thick and near. And the scene was picturesque, dotted as it was with mounted bayonets and blue territorial uniforms-reminders that boundary lines were no longer jests and that strangers might not enter France unchallenged in time of war.

Van Blarcom's elbow at this juncture nudged me sharply.

"Say, Mr. Bayne," he was whispering, "look over there, will you? What do you know about that?"

I looked indifferently. Then blank dismay took possession of me. Across the shed, just visible between rows of trunks piled mountain high, stood Miss Esme Falconer, as usual only too well worth seeing from fur hat to modish shoe.

"Ain't that the limit," commented the grinning Van Blarcom; "us three turning up again, all together like this? Well, I guess she won't have to call a policeman to stop you talking to her. You know enough this time to steer pretty clear of her. Isn't that so?"

But I had wheeled upon him; the coincidence was too striking!

"Look here!" I demanded, "are you following that young lady? Is that your business on this side?"

"No!" he denied disgustedly, retreating a step. "Never saw her from the time we docked till this minute; never wanted to see her! Anyhow, what's the glare for? Suppose I was?"

"It's rather strange, you'll admit." I was regarding him fixedly. "You seemed to have a good deal of information about her on the ship. Yet when that affair occurred at Gibraltar, you were as dumb as an oyster. Why didn't you tell the captain and the English officers the things you knew?"

"Well, I had my reasons," he replied defiantly. "And at that, I don't see as you've got anything on me, Mr. Bayne. You're no fool. You put two and two together quick enough to know darned well who planted those papers in your baggage; so if you thought it needed telling, why didn't you tell it yourself?"

"I don't know who put them there," I denied hastily, "except that he was a pale little runt of a German, pretending to be a thief, who will wish he had died young if I ever see him again."

An inspector had just passed my traps through with bored indifference. I turned a huffy back on Van Blarcom and went to stand in line before a door which harbored, I was told, a special commission for the examination of passports and the admission of travelers into France.

Reaching the inner room in due course, I saluted three uniformed men who sat round an unimposing wooden table, exhibited the vise that Jack Herriott had secured for me at Genoa, and was welcomed to the land. Then I stepped forth on the platform, retrieved my porter and my baggage, and placed myself near the door to wait until the girl should come.

I must have been a grim sort of sentinel as I stood there watching. I knew what I had to do, but I detested it with all my heart. There was one thing to be said for this Miss Falconer-she had courage. She was pressing on to French soil without lingering a day in Italy, though she must be aware that by so swift a move she was risking suspicion, discovery, death.

As moment after moment dragged past, I grew uneasy. Would she come out at all? Could she win past those trained, keen-eyed men? The more I thought of it, the more desperate seemed the game she was playing. This little Alpine town, high among the peaks, surrounded by pines and snow, had been a setting for tragedies since the war began. These territorials with their muskets were not mere supers, either. But no! She was emerging; she was starting toward the rapide. There, no doubt, a reserved compartment was awaiting her, and once inside its shelter, she would not appear again.

I drew a deep breath in which resolve and distaste were mingled. She had crossed the frontier, but she was not in Paris yet. I couldn't shirk the thing twice, knowing as I did her charm, her beauty, her air of proud, spirited graciousness-all the tools that equipped her. I couldn't, if I was ever again to hold my head before a Frenchman, let her pass on, so daring and dangerous and resourceful, to do her work in France.

As she approached, I stepped in front of her, lifting my hat.

"This is a great surprise, Miss Falconer," said I.

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