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   Chapter 12 THE GRAY CAR

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 11863

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


I was divided between exasperation and pity. The old fellow was in a bad way; I felt sorry for him. Dunny had an ancient butler, a household institution, who had presided over our destinies since my childhood and would, I fancied, look something like this if he should hear that I was dead. But in heaven's name, what was wrong here, and was nothing in the world clear and aboveboard any longer? On the chance that the letter might enlighten me I tore open the envelope and read with mixed feelings the following note:

DEAR Mr. BAYNE:

The news that I found waiting for me was not good, as I had hoped. It was bad, very bad-as bad as news can be. I must leave Paris at once, and I can see no one, talk to no one, before I go. Please believe that I am sorry, and that I shall never forget the kindness you showed me on the ship.

Sincerely yours,

ESME FALCONER.

That was all. Well, the episode was ended-ended, moreover, with a good deal of cavalierness. She had treated me like a meddlesome, pertinacious idiot who had insisted on calling and had to be taught his place. This was a Christian country where the formalities of life prevailed; I could not-unless escorted and countenanced by gendarmes-seize upon a club and batter down that grille.

I was resentful, wrathful, in the very deuce of a humor. Black gloom settled over me. I admitted that Van Blarcom had been right. I recalled the girl's vague explanations as we sat over our dinner; her denials, unbolstered save by my willingness to accept them; all the chain of incriminating circumstances that I had pondered over in the cab. Her charm and the mystery that enveloped her had thrilled and stirred me; she had seen it. To gain a few hours' leeway she had once again duped me; and this hotel, with its deceptive air of family and respectability, was a blind, a rendezvous, another such setting for intrigue as the St. Ives.

Her work might be already accomplished. Perhaps she had left Paris. I told myself with some savageness that I did not know and did not care. From the first my presence in this luridly adventurous galley had been incongruous; I would get back with all despatch to the Ritz and the orderly world it typified.

I had gone perhaps twenty feet when a grating noise attracted me. Glancing back across my shoulder, I saw that the old majordomo was unlocking and setting wide the gate. The hum of a self-starter reached me faintly, and a moment later there rolled slowly forth a dark-blue touring-car of luxurious aspect, driven by a chauffeur whose coat and cap and goggles gave him rather the appearance of a leather brownie, and bearing in the tonneau Miss Falconer, elaborately coated and veiled.

She was turning to the right, not the left; she would not pass me. I stood transfixed, watching from my post against the wall. As the car crept by the old majordomo, he saluted, and she spoke to him, bending forward for a moment to rest her fingers on his sleeve.

"Be of courage, Marcel, my friend! All will be well if le bon Dieu wills it," I heard her say. Then to the chauffeur she added: "En avant, Georges! Vite, a Bleau!" The motor snorted as the car gained speed, and they were gone.

The ancient Marcel, reentering, locked the grille behind him. I was left alone, more astounded than before. The girl's kind speech to the old servant, her gentle tones, her womanly gesture, had been bewildering. Despite all the accusing features her case offered, I should have said just then, as I watched Miss Esme Falconer, that she was nothing more or less than a superlatively nice girl.

"Honk! Honk! Honk!"

I swung round, startled. A moment earlier the length and breadth of the street had stretched before me, empty; yet now I saw, sprung apparently out of nowhere, a long, lean, gray car, low-built like a racer, carrying four masked and goggled men. Steadily gaining speed as it came, it bore down upon me and, after grazing me with its running-board and nearly deafening me with the powerful blast of its horn, flew on down the street and vanished in Miss Falconer's wake.

Trying to clarify my emotions, I stared after this Juggernaut. Was it merely the sudden appearance of the thing, its look, so lean and snake-like and somber-colored, and the muffled air of its occupants that had struck me as sinister when it went flashing by? I wasn't sure, but I had formed the impression that these men were following Miss Falconer. A patently foolish idea! And yet, and yet-

My experiences at the St. Ives and on the Re d'Italia had contributed to my education. I could no longer deny that melodrama, however unwelcome, did sometimes intrude itself into the most unlikely lives. The girl was bound somewhere on a secret purpose. Could these four men be her accomplices? Were they going too?

"A Bleau!"

Those had been her words to the chauffeur; for Bleau, then, she was bound. But where did such a place exist? I had never heard of it; and yet I possessed, I flattered myself, through the medium of motor-touring, a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the map of France.

The affair was becoming a veritable nightmare. It seemed incredible that a few minutes earlier I had resolved to wash my hands of it all. If the girl had a disloyal mission, it was my plain duty to intercept her. I could not denounce her to the police. I didn't analyze the why and wherefore of my inability to take this step; I simply knew and accepted it. If I interfered with what she was doing, I must interfere quietly, alone.

Ordinarily I have as much imagination as a turnip, but now I indulged in a sudden and surprising flight of fancy. Might it be, I found myself wondering, that the men in the gray care were not Miss Falconer's accomplices, but her pursuers? In that case, high as was her courage, keen as were her wits,-I found myself thinking of them with a sort of pride,-she was laboring under a handicap of which she cou

ld not dream.

Again, where had that long, lean, pursuing streak sprung from? Could it have lurked somewhere in the neighborhood, spying on the hotel that Miss Falconer had just left, waiting for her to emerge? I was aware of my absurdity, but I couldn't put an end to it; with each instant that went by my uneasiness seemed to grow. So I yielded, not without qualms as to whether the quarter would take me for a gibbering idiot. Grimly and doggedly I stalked the length of the rue St.-Dominique, and the stately houses on both sides seemed to scorn me, their shutters to eye me pityingly, as I peered to right and left for the possible cache of the car.

And within four hundred feet I found it. Against all reason and probability, there it was. At my left there opened unostentatiously one of those short, dark, neglected blind alleys so common in the older part of Paris, with the houses meeting over it and forming an arched roof. Running back twenty feet or so, it ended in a blank wall of stone; and, amid the dust and debris that covered its rough paving, I distinctly made out the tracks of tires, with between them, freshly spilt, a tiny, gleaming pool of oil.

At this psychological moment a taxicab came meandering up the street. It was unoccupied, but its red flag was turned down. The driver shook his head vigorously as I signaled him.

"I go to my dejeuner, Monsieur!" he explained.

"On the contrary," said I fiercely, "you go to the tourist bureau of Monsieur Cook in the Place de l'Opera, at the greatest speed the sergents de ville allow!"

I must have mesmerized him, for he took me there obediently, casting hunted glances back at me from time to time when the traffic momentarily halted us, as if fearing to find that I was leveling a pistol at his head.

It being noon, the office of the tourist bureau was almost deserted, a single, bored-looking, young French clerk keeping vigil behind the travelers' counter. With the sociable instinct of his nation he brightened up at my appearance.

"I want," I announced, "to ask about trains to Bleau."

For a moment he looked blank; then he smiled in understanding.

"Monsieur is without doubt an artist," he declared.

I was not, decidedly; but the words had been an affirmation and not a question. It seemed clear that for some cryptic reason I ought to have been an artist. Accordingly, I thought it best to bow.

He seemed childishly pleased with his acumen.

"Monsieur will understand," he explained, "that before the war we sold tickets to many artists, who, like monsieur, desired to paint the old mill on the stream near Bleau. It has appeared at the Salon many times, that mill! Also, we have furnished tickets to archaeologists who desired to see the ruins of the antique chapel, a veritable gem! But monsieur has not an archaeologist's aspect. Therefore, monsieur is an artist."

"Perfectly," I agreed.

"As to the trains," he continued contentedly, "there is but one a day. It departs at two and a half hours, upon the Le Moreau route. Monsieur will be wise to secure, before leaving Paris, a safe-conduct from the prefecture; for the village is, as one might say, on the edge of the zone of war. With such a permit monsieur will find his visit charming; regrettable incidents will not occur; undesirable conjectures about monsieur's identity will not be roused. I should strongly advise that monsieur provide himself with such a credential, though it is not, perhaps, absolutely de rigueur."

Back in my room at the Ritz, I consulted my watch. It was a quarter of two; certainly time had marched apace. Should I, like a sensible man, descend to the restaurant and enjoy a sample of the justly famous cuisine of the hotel? Or should I throw all reason overboard and post off on-what was it Dunny had called my mission-a wild-goose chase?

I glanced at myself in the mirror and shook a disapproving head. "You're no knight-errant," I told my impassive image. "You're too correct, too indifferent-looking altogether. Better not get beyond your depth!" I decided for luncheon, followed by a leisurely knotting of the threads of my Parisian acquaintance. Then, as if some malign hypnotist had projected it before me, I saw again a vision of that flashing, lean, gray car.

"I'm hanged if I don't have a shot at this thing!"

The words seemed to pop out of my mouth entirely of their own accord. By no conscious agency of my own, I found myself madly hurling collars, handkerchiefs, toilet articles, whatever I seemed likeliest to need in a brief journey, into a bag. Lastly I realized that I was standing, hat in hand, overcoat across my arm, considering my revolver, and wondering whether taking it with me would be too stagy and absurd.

"No more so than all the rest of it," I decided, shrugging. Dropping the thing into my pocket, I made for the ascenseur.

"I shan't be back to-night," I informed the hall porter woodenly. "Or perhaps to-morrow night. But, of course, I'm keeping my room."

With his wish for a charming trip to speed me, I left the Ritz, and luckily no vision was vouchsafed me of the condition in which I should return: Two crutches, a bandaged head, an utterly disreputable aspect; my bedraggled state equaled-and this I would maintain with swords and pistols if necessary-that of any poilu of them all.

As I drove toward the station, various headlines stared at me from the kiosks. "Franz von Blenheim Rumored on Way to France," ran one of them. Hang Franz. I had had enough of him to last the rest of my life. "Duke of Raincy-la-Tour Still Missing," proclaimed another. I knew something about him, too; but what? Ah, to be sure, he was the Firefly of France, the hero of the Flying Corps, the young nobleman of whose suspected treason I had read in that extra on the ship. In that damned extra, I amended, with natural feeling. For it was like Rome; everything seemed to lead its way.

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