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   Chapter 11 IN THE RUE ST.-DOMINIQUE

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 13261

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Arriving in Paris at the highly inconvenient hour of 8 A.M., our rapide deposited its breakfastless and grumpy passengers on the platform of the Gare de Lyon, washed its hands of us with the final formality of collecting our tickets, and turned us forth into a gray, foggy morning to seek the food and shelter adapted to our purses and tastes. Every one, of course, emerged from seclusion only at the ultimate moment; and, far from holding any lengthy conversation with Miss Falconer, I was lucky to stumble upon her in the vestibule, help her descend, find a taxi for her at the exit, and see her smile back at me where I stood hatless as she drove away.

While I waited for my own cab I found myself beside Mr. John Van Blarcom, who eyed me with mingled hostility and pity, as if I were a cross between a lunatic and a thief. I returned his stare coolly; indeed, I found it braced me. Left to myself, I had experienced a creeping doubt as to the girl's activities and my own intelligence; but as soon as this fellow glared at me, all my confidence returned.

"Well, Mr. Bayne," he remarked sardonically, breaking the silence, "I suppose you're worrying for fear I'll give you another piece of good advice. Don't you fret! From now on you can hang yourself any way you want to. I'd as soon talk to a man in a padded cell and a strait-jacket. Only don't blame me when the gendarmes come for you next week."

"Oh, go to the devil!" I retorted curtly. It was a relief; I had been wanting to say it ever since we had first met. His jaw shot out menacingly, and for an instant he squared off from me with the look of the professional boxer; but, rather to my disappointment, he thought better of it and turned a contemptuous back.

Upon leaving Genoa I had reserved a room at the Ritz by telegraph. I drove there now, and refreshed myself with a bath and breakfast, casting about me meanwhile for some mode of occupying the hours till noon. There were various tasks, I knew, that should have claimed me; a visit to the police to secure a carte de sejour, the presentation of my credentials as an ambulance-driver, a polite notification to friends that I had arrived. These things should have been my duty and pleasure, but somehow they were uninviting. Nothing appealed to me, I realized with sudden enlightenment, except a certain appointment that I had already made.

I went out, to find that the fog was lifting and spring was in the air. Since my dinner the previous night I had felt an odd exhilaration, a pleasure quickened by the staccato sparkle of the French tongue against my ears, the pale-blue uniforms, and gay French faces glimpsed as the train had stopped at various lighted stations. Saluting Napoleon's statue, I strolled up the rue de la Paix, took a table on a cafe pavement, and, ordering a glass of something fizzy for the form of it, sat content and happy, watching the whole gigantic pageant of Paris in war-time defile before my eyes.

The Cook's tourists and their like, bane of the past, had disappeared; but all nationalities that the world holds seemed to be about. At the next table two Russian officers, with high cheek-bones and wide-set eyes, were drinking, chatting together in their purring, unintelligible tongue. Beyond them a party of Englishmen in khaki, cool-mannered, clear of gaze, were talking in low tones of the spring offensive. The uniforms of France swarmed round me in all their variety, and close at hand a general, gorgeous in red and blue and gold, sat with his hand resting affectionately on the knee of a lad in the horizon blue of a simple poilu, who was so like him that I guessed them at a glance for father and son.

A cab drew up before me, and a Belgian officer with crutches was helped out by the cafe starter, who himself limped slightly and wore two medals on his breast. First one troop and then another defiled across the Place l'Opera: a company of infantry with bayonets mounted, a picturesque regiment of Moroccans, turbaned, of magnificently impassive bearing, sitting their horses like images of bronze. Men of the Flying Corps, in dark blue with wings on their sleeves, strolled past me; and once, roused by exclamations and pointing fingers, I looked up to see a monoplane, light and graceful as a darting bird, skimming above our heads.

Even the faces had a different look, the voices a different ring. It was another country from that of the days of peace. Superb and dauntless, tried by the most searing of fires and not found wanting, France was standing girt with her shining armor, barring the invader from her cities, her villages, her homes.

Deep in my heart-too deep to be talked of often-there had lain always a tenderness for this heroic France. "A man's other country," some wise person had christened it; and so it was for me, since by a chance I had been born here, and since here my father and then my mother had died. I was glad I had run the gauntlet and had reached Paris to do my part in a mighty work. An ambulance drove heavily past me, and with a thrill I wondered how soon I should bend over such a steering wheel, within sound of the great guns.

Leaving the cafe at last, I beckoned a taxi and settled myself on its cushions for a drive. Each new vista that greeted me was enchanting. The pavements, the river, the buildings, the stately bridges,-all held the same soft, silvery tint of pale French gray. In the Place de la Concorde the fountains played as always, but-heart-warming change-the Strasburg statue, symbol of the lost Lorraine and Alsace, no longer drooped under wreaths of mourning, but sat crowned and garlanded with triumphant flowers.

Like diminishing flies, the same eternal swarm of cabs and motors filled the long vista of the Champs-Elysees between the green branches of the chestnut trees. At the end loomed the Arc de Triomphe, beneath which the hordes of the kaiser, in their first madness of conquest, had sworn to march. Farther on, in the Bois, along the shady paths and about the lakes, the French still walked in safety, because on the frontier their soldiers had cried to the Teutons the famous watchword, "You do not pass!" Noon was approaching, and at the Porte Maillot I consulted Miss Falconer's card.

"Number 630, rue St.-Dominique," I bade the driver, the address falling comfortably on my ears. I knew the neighborhood. Deep in the Faubourg St.-Germain, it was a stronghold of the old noblesse, suggesting eminent respectability, ancient and honorable customs, and family connections of a highly desirable kind. It would be a point in Miss Falconer's favor if I found her c

onventionally established-a decided point. Along most lines I was in the dark concerning her, but to one dictum I dared to hold: no girl of twenty-two or thereabouts, more than ordinarily attractive, ought to be traveling unchaperoned about this wicked world.

I felt very cheerful, very contented, as my taxi bore me into old Paris. The ancient streets, had a decided lure and charm. Now we passed a quaint church, now a dim and winding alley, now a house with mansard windows or a portal of carved stone. On all sides were buildings that in the old days had been the hotels of famous gentry, this one sheltering a Montmorency, that one a Clisson or Soubise. It was just the setting for a romance by Dumas. And, with a chuckle, I felt myself in sudden sympathy with that writer's heroes, none of whom had, it seemed to me, been enmeshed in a mystery more baffling or involved than mine.

"They've got nothing on my affair," I decided, "with their masks and poisoned drinks and swords. For a fellow who leads a cut-and-dried existence generally, I've been having quite a lively time. And now, to cap the climax, I'm going to call on a girl about whom I know just one thing-her name. By Jove, it's exactly like a story! I've got the data. If I had any gray matter I could probably work out the facts.

"Take the St. Ives business. It's plain enough that some one wished those papers on me, intending to unwish them in short order once we got across. The logical suspect, judging by appearances, was Miss Falconer. The little German went out through her room; she was the one person I saw both at the hotel and on the Re d'Italia; and she acted in a suspicious manner that first night aboard the ship. But she says she didn't do it, and probably she didn't; it seemed infernally odd, all along, for her to be a spy.

"Still, if she is innocent, who can be responsible? And if that affair didn't bring her over here, what the dickens did? Something mysterious, something dangerous, something that the French police wouldn't appreciate, but that her conscience sanctions-that is all she deigns to say. And why on earth did she ask me to destroy that extra? I thought it was because she was Franz von Blenheim's agent and the paper had an account of him that might have served as a clue to her. She says, though, that she never heard of him. And I may be all kinds of a fool, but it sounded straight.

"Then, there's Van Blarcom, hang him! He seemed to take a fancy to me. He warned me about the girl, but he kept a still tongue to Captain Cecchi and the rest. He lied deliberately, for no earthly reason, to shield me in that interrogation; yet when those papers materialized in my trunk, though he must have thought just what I thought as to Miss Falconer's share in it, he didn't breathe a word. He claimed that he had met her. She said she had never seen him. And then-rather strong for a coincidence-we all three met again on the express. What is he doing on this side? Shadowing her? Nonsense? And yet he seemed almighty keen about her-Oh, hang it! I'm no Sherlock Holmes!"

The taxi pausing at this juncture, I willingly abandoned my attempt at sleuthing and got out in the highest spirits compatible with a strictly correct mien. I dismissed my driver. If asked to remain to dejeuner, I should certainly do so. Then, with feelings of natural interest, I gazed at the house before which I stood.

In the outward seeming, at least, it was all that the most fastidious could have required; a gem of Renaissance architecture in its turrets, its quaint, scrolled windows, and the carving of its stone facade. Age and romance breathed from every inch of it. For not less than four hundred years it had watched the changing life of Paris; and even to a lay person like myself a glance proclaimed it one of those ancestral hotels, the pride of noble French families, about which many romantic stories cling.

At another time it would have charmed me hugely, but to-day, as I stood gazing, somehow, my spirits fell. Was it the almost sepulchral silence of the place, the careful drawing of every shutter, the fact that the grilled gateway leading to the court of honor was locked? I did not know; I don't know yet; but I had an odd, eerie feeling. It seemed like a place of waiting, of watching, and of gloom.

This was unreasonable; it was even down-right ridiculous. I began to think that late events were throwing me off my base. "It's a house like any other, and a jolly fine old one!" I assured myself, approaching the grilled entrance and producing one of my cards.

An entirely modern electric button was installed there, beneath a now merely ornamental knocker in grotesque gargoyle form. I pressed it, peering through the iron latticework at the stately court. The answer was prompt. Down the steps of the hotel came a white-headed majordomo, gorgeously arrayed, and so pictorial that he might have been a family retainer stepping from the pages of an old tale.

There was something queer about him, I thought, as he crossed the courtyard; just as there was about the house, I appended doggedly, with growing belief. His air was tremulous, his step slow, his gaze far-off and anxious.

"For Miss Falconer, who waits for me," I announced in French, offering him my card through the grille.

He bowed to me with the deference of a Latin, the grand manner of an ambassador; but he made no motion to let me in.

"Mademoiselle," he replied, "sends all her excuses, all her regrets to monsieur, but she leaves Paris within the hour and, therefore may not receive."

I had feared it for a good sixty seconds. None the less, it was a blow to me. My suspicions, never more than half laid, promptly raised their heads again.

"Have the kindness," I requested, with a calm air of command that I had known to prove hypnotic, "to convey my card to mademoiselle, and to say that I beg of her, before her departure, one little instant of speech."

But the old fellow's faded blue eyes were gazing past me, hopelessly sad, supremely mournful. What the deuce ailed him? I wondered angrily. The thing was almost weird. Of a sudden, with irritation, yet with dread, too, I felt myself on the threshold of a house of tragedy. The man might, from the look of him, have been watching some loved young master's bier.

"Mademoiselle regrets greatly," he intoned, "but she may not receive. Mademoiselle sends this letter to monsieur that he may understand." He passed me, through the locked grille, a slender missive; then he saluted me once more and, still staring before him with that fixed, uncanny look, withdrew.

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