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   Chapter 13 AT THE THREE KINGS

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 12349

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"What's the best hotel in the place?" I inquired somewhat dubiously. The man in the blouse, who had performed the three functions of opening my compartment-door, carrying my bag to the gate, and relieving me of my ticket, achieved a thoroughly Gallic shrug.

"Monsieur," said he, "what shall I tell you? The best hotel, the worst hotel-these are one. There is only the Hotel des Trois Rois in the town of Bleau. Let monsieur proceed by the street of the Three Kings and he will reach it. Formerly there was an omnibus, but now the horses are taken. And if they remained, who could drive them with all the men at the war?"

Carrying my bag and feeling none too amiable, I set off along the indicated route. In Paris, rushing from the rue St.-Dominique to Cook's office, from that office to the hotel, from the hotel to the gare, I had been a sort of whirling dervish with no time for sober thought. My trip of four hours on a slow, stuffy, crowded train had, however, afforded me ample leisure; and I had spent the time in grimly envisaging the possibilities that, I decided, were most likely to befall.

First and foremost disagreeable; that the men in the gray automobile were helping Miss Falconer in some nefarious business. In this case, it would be up to me to fight the gentlemen single-handed, rescue the girl, and escort her back to Paris, all without scandal. Easier said than done!

Second possibility: that Miss falconer, pausing at Bleau only en route, might already have departed, and that I would be left with my journey for my pains.

Third: that the gray car had no connection with her; that she had some entirely blameless errand. I hoped so, I was sure. If this proved true, I was bound to stand branded as a meddling, officious idiot, one who, in defiance of the most elementary social rules, persisted in trailing her against her will. Vastly pleasant, indeed!

Fuming, I shifted my bag from one hand to the other and walked faster. Night was falling, but it was not yet really dark, and I formed a clear enough notion of the village as I traversed it. It was one of the hundreds of its kind which make an artists' paradise of France. Entirely unmodernized, it was the more picturesque for that. If I tripped sometimes on the roughly paved street I could console myself with the knowledge that these cobbles, like the odd, jutting houses rising on both sides of them, were at least three hundred years old. Green woods, clear against a background of rosy sunset, ran up to the very borders of the town. I passed a little, gray old church. I crossed a quaint bridge built over a winding stream lined with dwellings and broken by mossy washing-stones. It was all very peaceful, very simple, and very rustic. Without second sight I could not possibly have visioned the grim little drama for which it was to serve as setting.

A blue sign with gilded letters beckoned me, and I paused to read it. The Touring Club of France recommended to the passing stranger the Hotel of the Three Kings. Here I was, then. From the street a dark, arched, stone passage of distinctly moyen-age flavor led me into a courtyard paved with great square cobbles, round the four sides of which were built the walls of the inn. Winding, somewhat crazy-looking, stone staircases ran up to the galleries from which the bedroom doors informally opened; vines, as yet leafless, wreathed the gray walls and framed the shuttered windows; before me I glimpsed a kitchen with a magnificent oaken ceiling and a medieval fireplace in which a fire roared redly; and at my right yawned what had doubtless been a stable once upon a time, but with the advent of the motor, had become a primitive garage.

I took the liberty of peering inside. Eureka! There, resting comfortably from its day's labors, stood a dark-blue automobile. If this was not the motor that had brought Miss Falconer from the rue St.-Dominique, it was its twin.

"You'll notice it's alone, though," I told myself. "Where's the gray car?"

My mood was grumpy in the extreme. The inn was charming, but I knew from sad experience that no place combines all attractions, and that a spot so picturesque as this would probably lack running water and electric light.

"Bonsoir, Monsieur!"

A buxom, smiling, bare-armed woman had emerged from the kitchen door. She was plainly the hostess. I set down my bag and removed my hat.

"Madame," I responded, "I wish you a good evening. I desire a room for the night in the Hotel of the Three Kings."

"To accommodate monsieur," she assured me warmly, "will be a pleasure. Monsieur is an artist without doubt?"

I wanted to say "Et tu, Brute!" but I didn't. When one came to think of it, I had no very good reason to advance for having appeared at Bleau. It wasn't the sort of place into which one would drop from the skies by pure chance, either. I was lucky to find a ready-made explanation.

"But assuredly," said I.

She disappeared into the kitchen, returned immediately with a candle, and led me up the stone staircase on the left of the courtyard, talking volubly all the while.

"We have had many artists here," she declared; "many friends of monsieur, doubtless. Since monsieur is of that fine profession, his room will be but four francs daily; his dinner, three francs; his little breakfast, a franc alone."

"Madame," I responded, "it is plain that the high cost of living, which terrorizes my country, does not exist at Bleau."

Equally plain, I thought pessimistically, was the explanation. My saddest forebodings were realized; if the name of the hotel meant anything and three kings ever tarried here, that conjunction of sovereigns had put up with housing of a distinctly primitive sort. My room was clean, I acknowledged thankfully, but that was all I could say for it. I eyed the bowl and pitcher gloomily, the hard-looking bed, the tiny square of carpeting in the center of the stone floor.

"Your house, Madame," I suggested craftily, with a view to reconnoissance, "is, of course, full?"

She heaved a sigh.

"It is war-time, Monsieur," she lamented. "None travel now. Yet why should I mourn, since I make enough to keep

me till the war is ended and my man comes home? There are those who eat here daily at the noon hour-the cure, the mayor, the mayor's secretary, sometimes the notary of the town, as well. And to-night I have two guests, monsieur and the young lady-the nurse who goes to the hospital at Carrefonds with the great new remedy for burns and scars. Au revoir, Monsieur. In one little moment I will send the hot water, and in half an hour monsieur shall dine."

I closed the door behind her and flung down my bag, fuming. So Miss Falconer was a nurse, carrying a panacea to the wounded, doubtless a specimen of the sensational new remedy just recognized by the medical authorities, of which the one newspaper I had glanced through in Paris had been full. The masquerade was too preposterous to gain an instant's credence. It gave me, as the French say, furiously to think; it resolved all doubts.

I felt inexplicably angry, then preternaturally cool and competent. For the first time since the Modane episode I was my clear-sighted self. I had been trying futilely to blindfold my eyes, to explain the inexplicable, to be unaware of the obvious. Now with a sort of grim relief I looked the facts in the face.

My hot water appearing, I made a sketchy toilet, and then descended to the courtyard where I lounged and smoked. My state of mind was peculiar. As I struck a match I noticed with a queer pride that my hand was steady. With a cold, almost sardonic clarity, I thought of Miss Falconer. First a prosperous tourist, next a dweller in an aristocratic French mansion, then a nurse. She equaled, I told myself, certain heroines of our Sunday supplements, queens of the smugglers, moving spirits of the diamond ring.

Upstairs in the right-hand gallery a door opened. A light footstep sounded on the winding stairs. The critical moment was upon me; she was coming. I threw away my cigarette and advanced.

She was playing her part, I saw, with due regard for detail. Now that her furs were off she stood forth in the white costume, the flowing head-dress, the red cross-all the panoply of the infirmiere. She came half-way down the stairs before perceiving me; then, with a low exclamation, grasping the balustrade, she stood still.

I didn't even pretend surprise. What was the use of it?

"Good-evening, Miss Falconer," was all I said.

It seemed a long time before she answered. Rigid, uncompromising, she faced me; and I read storm signals in the deep flush of her cheeks, the gray flash of her eyes, the stiffness of her white-draped head.

"Oh, Lord!" I groaned to myself in cold compassion, "she means to bluff it! Can't she see that the game's played out?"

"This is very strange, Mr. Bayne," she was saying idly. "I understood that you were to drive an ambulance at the Front."

How young, how lovely, how glowing she looked as she stood there in her snowy dress. I found myself wondering impersonally what had led her to these devious paths.

"So I am," I responded with accentuated coolness. "My time is valuable; it was a sacrifice to come to Bleau; but I had no choice. What's wrong, Miss Falconer? You don't object to my presence surely? If you go on freezing me like this, I shall think there's something about my turning up here that worries you-upon my soul I shall!"

She should by rights have been trembling, but her eyes blazed at me disdainfully. I felt almost like a caitiff, whatever that may be.

"It doesn't worry me," she denied, with the same crisp iciness, "but it does surprise me. Will you tell me, please, what you are doing here?"

Should I return, "And you?" in a voice of obvious meaning? Should I take a leaf from the book of my hostess and say: "I'm a bit of an artist. I've sketched all over Europe, and I've come to have a go at the old mill that so many fellows try?" Such a claim would just match the assumption of her costume. But no.

"The fact is," I said serenely, "I came straight from the rue St. Dominique to keep the appointment you forgot."

The announcement, it was plain, exasperated her, for slightly, but undeniably, she stamped one arched, slender, attractively shod foot.

"Mr. Bayne," she demanded, "are you a secret-service agent?"

"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, startled. "No!"

"Then I'm sorry. That would have been a better reason for following me than-than the only one there is," she swept on stormily. "You knew I didn't wish to see any one at present. I said so in the note I left. Yet you spied on me and you tracked me deliberately, when I had trusted you with my address. It's outrageous of you. You ought to be ashamed of doing it, Mr. Bayne."

A stunned realization burst on me of the line that she was taking, the position into which, willy-nilly, she was crowding me. I had trailed her here, she assumed, to thrust my company on her; and, upon the surface, I had to own that my behavior really had that air. If I had followed her with equal brazenness along Fifth Avenue, I should have had a chance to explain my conduct to the first police officer who noticed it, later to an indignant magistrate. But, heavens and earth! She knew why I had come. And knowing, how did she dare defy me? I retained just sufficient presence of mind to stare back impassively and to mumble with feeble sarcasm:

"I'm very sorry you think so."

She came down a step.

"Are you?" she asked imperiously. "Then-will you prove it? Will you go back to Paris by to-night's train?"

I had recovered myself.

"There isn't any train to-night," I protested, civil, but adamant. "And-I'm sorry, but if there was I wouldn't take it-not until I've accomplished what I came to do!"

The girl seemed to concentrate all the world's disdain in the look that measured me, running from my head to my unoffending feet, from my feet back to my head.

"Most men would go, Mr. Bayne," she flung at me, her red lips scornful. "But then, most men wouldn't have come, of course. And all you will accomplish is to make me dine up here in this-this wretched, stuffy room." Before I could lift a hand in protest, she had turned, mounted the stairs again, and vanished. The door-shall I own it?-slammed.

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