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   Chapter 10 DINNER FOR TWO

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 15098

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


I was prepared for fear, for distress, for pleading as I confronted Miss Falconer; the one thing I hadn't expected was that she should seem pleased at the meeting, but she did. She flushed a little, smiled brightly, and held out her gloved hand to me.

"Why, Mr. Bayne! I am so glad!" she exclaimed in frankly cordial tones.

The crass coolness of her tactics, with its implied rating of my intelligence, was the very bracer I needed for a most unpleasant task. I accepted her hand, bowed over it formally, and released it. Then I spoke with the most impersonal courtesy in the world.

"And I," I declared coolly, "am delighted, I assure you. It is great luck meeting you like this; and I will not let you slip away. I suppose that when we board the train they will serve us a meal of some sort. Won't you give me the pleasure of having you for my guest?"

The brightness had left her face as she sensed my attitude. She drew back, regarding me in a rebuffed, bewildered way.

"Thank you, no. I am not hungry."

By Jove, but she was an actress! I should have sworn I had hurt her if I hadn't known the truth.

"Don't say that!" I protested. "Of course it is unconventional to dine with a stranger; but then so is almost everything that is happening to you and me. Think of those lord high executioners in there round the table. See this platform with its guards and bayonets and guns. And then remember our odd experiences on the Re d'Italia. Won't you risk one more informality and come and dine?"

She hesitated a moment, watching me steadily; then, with proud reluctance, she walked beside me toward the train.

"You helped me once," she said, her eyes averted now, "and I haven't forgotten. I don't understand at all,-but I shall do as you say."

The passengers were being herded aboard by eager, bustling officials. I saw my baggage and the girl's installed, disposed of the porters, and guided my companion to the wagon restaurant. The horn was sounding as we entered, and at six-thirty promptly, just as I put Miss Falconer in her chair, we pulled out of the snowy station of Modane.

As I studied the menu, the girl sat with lowered lashes, all things about her, from her darkened eyes and high head to her pallor, proclaiming her feeling of offense, her sense of hurt. She knew her game, I admitted, and she had first-class weapons. Though she could not weaken my resolution, she made my beginning hard.

"We are going to have a discouraging meal," I gossiped procrastinatingly. "But, since we are in France, it will be a little less horrible than the usual dining-car. The wine is probably hopeless; I suggest Evian or Vichy. These radishes look promising. Will you have some?"

"No. I am not hungry," she repeated briefly. "Won't you please tell me what you have to say?"

Though I didn't in the least want them, I ate a few of the radishes just to show that I was not abashed by her haughty, reproachful air. Other passengers were strolling in. Here was Mr. John Van Blarcom, who, at the sight of Miss Falconer and myself to all appearances cozily established for a tete-a-tete meal, stopped in his tracks and fastened on me the hard, appraising scrutiny that a policeman might turn on a hitherto respectable acquaintance discovered in converse with some notorious crook. For an instant he seemed disposed to buttonhole me and remonstrate. Then he shrugged his stocky shoulders, the gesture indicating that one can't save a fool from his folly, and established himself at a near-by table, from which coign of vantage he kept us under steady watch.

Given such an audience, my outward mien must be impeccable.

"There is something," I admitted cautiously, "that I want to say to you. But I wish you would eat something first. People are watching us," I added beneath my breath as the soup appeared.

She took a sip under protest, and then replaced her spoon and sat with fingers twisting her gloves and eyes fixed smolderingly on mine. I shifted furtively in my seat. This was a charming experience. I was being, from my point of view, almost quixotically generous; yet with one glance she could make me feel like a bully and a brute.

"I am sure," I stumbled, fumbling desperately with my serviette, "that you came over without realizing what war conditions are. Strangers aren't wanted just now. Travel is dangerous for women. You may think me all kinds of a presumptuous idiot,-I shan't blame you,-but I am going to urge you most strongly to go home."

Whatever she had looked for, obviously it was not that.

"Mr. Bayne," she exclaimed, regarding me wonderingly, "what do you mean?"

"Just this, Miss Falconer," I answered with almost Teutonic ruthlessness. Confound it! I couldn't sit here forever bullying her; sheer desperation lent me strength. "The Espagne sails from Bordeaux on Saturday, I see by the Herald, and if I were you, I should most certainly be on board. In fact, if you lose the chance, I am sure you'll regret it later. The French police authorities are-er-very inquisitive about foreigners; and if you stop in France in these anxious times, I think it likely that they may-well-"

She drew a quick, hard breath as I trailed off into silence. Her eyes, darkened, horrified, were gazing full into mine.

"You wouldn't tell them about me! You couldn't be so cruel!" The words came almost fiercely, yet with a sound like a stifled sob.

By its sheer preposterousness the speech left me dumb a moment, and then gave me back the self-possession I had been clutching at throughout the meal. For the first time since entering I sat erect and squared my shoulders. I even confronted her with a rather glittering smile.

"I am very sorry," I said, with a cool stare, "if I appear so; but I am consideration itself compared with the people you would meet in Paris, say. That's the very point I'm making-that you can't travel now in comfort. I'm simply trying to spare you future contretemps, Miss Falconer; such as I had on the Re d'Italia, you may recall."

She leaned impulsively across the table.

"Oh, Mr. Bayne, I knew it! You are angry about that wretched extra, and you have a right to be. Of course you thought it cowardly of me-yes, and ungrateful-to stand there without a word and let those officers question you. Mr. Bayne, if the worst had come to the worst, I should have spoken, I should, indeed; but I had to wait. I had to give myself every chance. It meant so much, so much! You had nothing to hide from them. You were certain to win through. And then, you seemed so undisturbed, so unruffled, so able to take care of yourself; I knew you were not afraid. It was different with me. If they began to suspect, if they learned who I was, I could never have entered France. This route through Italy was my one hope! I am so sorry. But still-"

Hitherto she had been appealing; but now she defied frankly. That tint of hers, like nothing but a wild rose, drove away her pallor; her gray eyes flamed.

"But still," she flashed at me, "you won't inform on me just for that? I asked you to help me; you were free to refuse-and you agreed! Because it inconvenienced you a little, are you going to turn police agent?" Her red lips twisted proudly, scornfully. "I don't believe it, Mr. Bayne!"

I laughed shortly. She was indeed an artist.

"I wasn't thinking of that particular episode-" I began.

"But you did resent it. I saw it when you first joined me. And I was so glad to see you-to have the chance of thanking you!" she broke in, smoldering still.

"No, I didn't resent it. I didn't even blame you. If I blamed any one, Miss Falconer, it would certainly be myself. I've concluded I ought not to go about without a keeper. My gullibility must have amused you tremendously." I laughed.

"I never thought you gullible," she denied, suddenly wistful. "I thought you very generous and very chivalrous, Mr. Bayne."

This was carrying mockery too far.

"I am afraid," I said meaningly, "that the authorities at Gibraltar would take a less flattering view. For instance, if those Englishmen learned that I had refrained from telling them of our meeting at the St. Ives, I should hear from them, I fancy."

Again her eyes were widening. What attractive eyes she had!

"The St. Ives?" she repeated wonderingly. "Why should that interest them? What do you mean?" Then, suddenly, she bent forward, propped her elbows on the table, and amazed me with a slow, astonished, comprehending smile. "I see!" she murmured, studying me intently. "You thought that I screened the man who hid those papers, that I crossed the ocean on-similar business, perhaps even that on this side I was to take the documents from your trunk?"

"Naturally," I rejoined stiffly. "And I congratulate you. It was a brilliant piece of work; though, as its victim, I fail to see it in the rosiest light."

"I understand," she went on, still smiling faintly. "You thought I was-well-Look over yonder."

Her glance, seeking the opposite wall unostentatiously, directed my attention to a black-lettered, conspicuously posted sign:

BE SILENT! BE MISTRUSTFUL! THE EARS OF THE ENEMY ARE LISTENING!

Thus it shouted its warning, like the thousands of its kind that are scattered about the trains, the boats, the railroad stations, and all the public places of France.

"You thought I was the ears of the enemy, didn't you?" the girl was asking. "You thought I was a German agent. I might have guessed! Well, in that case it was kind of you not to hand me over to the Modane gendarmes. I ought to thank you. But I wasn't so suspicious when they searched your trunk and found the papers-I simply felt that they must be crazy to think you could be a spy."

I achieved a shrug of my shoulders, a polite air of incredulity; but, to tell the truth, I was a little less skeptical than I appeared. There was something in her manner that by no means suggested pretense. And she had said a true word about the occurrences on the Re d'Italia. If appearances meant facts, I myself had been proved guilty up to the hilt.

"Mr. Bayne," she was saying soberly, "I should like you to believe me-please! I am an American, and I have had cause lately to hate the Germans; all my bonds are with our own country and with France. There is some one very dear to me to whom this war has worked a cruel injustice. I have come to try to help that person; and for certain reasons-I can't explain them-I had to come in secret or not at all. But I have done nothing wrong, nothing dishonorable. And so"-again her eyes challenged me-"I shall not sail from Bordeaux on the Espagne on Saturday; and you shall choose for yourself whether you will speak of me to the French police."

It was not much of an argument, regarded dispassionately; yet it shook me. With sudden craftiness I resolved to trap her if I could.

"I ought to tell them on the mere chance that they would send you home," I grumbled irritably. "You have no business here, you know, helping people and being suspected and pursued and outrageously annoyed by fools like me. Yes, and by other fools-and worse," I added with feigned sulphurousness, indicated Van Blarcom. "Miss Falconer, would you mind glancing at the third man on the right-the dark man who is staring at us-and telling me whether or not you ever saw him before you sailed?"

"I am sure I never did," she declared, knitting puzzled brows; "and yet on the Re d'Italia he insisted that we had met. It frightened me a little. I wondered whether or not he suspected something. And every time I see him he watches me in that same way."

I was thawing, despite myself.

"There's one other thing," I ventured, "if you won't think me too impertinent: Did you ever hear of a man named Franz von Blenheim?"

"No," she said blankly; "I never did. Who is he?"

No birds out of that covert! If this was acting it was marvelous; there had not been the slightest flicker of confusion in her face.

"Oh, he isn't anybody of importance-just a man," I evaded. "Look here, Miss Falconer, you'll have to forgive me if you can. You shall stay in Paris, and I'll be as silent as the grave concerning you; but I'd like to do more than that. Won't you let me come and call? Really, you know, I'm not such a duffer as you have cause to think me. After we got acquainted you might be willing to trust me with this business, whatever it is. And then, if it's not too desperate, I have friends who could be of help to you." Such was the sop I threw to conscience, the bargain I struck between sober reason and the instinct that made me trust her against all odds. My theories must have been moonshine. Everything was all right, probably. But for the sake of prudence I ought to keep track of her. Besides, I wanted to.

Gratitude and consternation, a most becoming mixture, were in her eyes. She drew back a little.

"Oh, thank you, but that's impossible," she said uncertainly. "I have friends, too; but they can't help me. Nobody can."

"Well," I admitted sadly, "I know the rudiments of manners. I can recognize a conge, but consider me a persistent boor. Come, Miss Falconer, why mayn't I call? Because we are strangers? If that's it, you can assure yourself at the embassy that I am perfectly respectable; and you see I don't eat with my knife or tuck my napkin under my chin or spill my soup."

Again that warm flush.

"Mr. Bayne!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Did I need an introduction to speak to you on the ship, to ask unreasonable favors of you, to make people think you a spy? If you are going to imagine such absurd things, I shall have to-"

"To consent? I hoped you might see it that way."

"Of course," she pondered aloud, "I may find good news waiting. If I do, it will change everything. I could see you once, at least, and let you know. I really owe you that, I think, when you've been so kind to me."

"Yes," I agreed bitterly, with a pang of conscience, "I've been very kind-particularly to-night!"

"Well, perhaps to-night you were just a little difficult." She was smiling, but I didn't mind; I rather liked her mockery now. "Still, even when you thought the worst of me, Mr. Bayne, you kept my secret. And-do you really wish to come to see me?"

"I most emphatically do."

She drew a card from her beaded bag, rummaged vainly for a pencil, ended by accepting mine, and scribbled a brief address.

"Then," she commanded, handing me the bit of pasteboard, "come to this number at noon to-morrow and ask for me. And now, since I'm not to go to prison, Mr. Bayne, I believe I am hungry. This is war bread, I suppose; but it tastes delicious. And isn't the saltless butter nice?"

"And here are the chicken and the salad arriving!" I exclaimed hopefully. "And there never was a French cook yet, however unspeakable otherwise, who failed at those."

What had come to pass I could not have told; but we were eating celestial viands, and my black butterflies having fled away, a swarm of their gorgeous-tinted kindred were fluttering radiantly over Miss Esme Falconer's plate and mine.

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