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   Chapter 14 THE PLOT THICKENS

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 14568

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Presently, summoned by the hostess, I went to my lonely meal in a mood that nobody on earth had cause to envy me. One thing was certain: Should it ever be disclosed that Miss Esme Falconer was not a spy, I should lack courage to go on living. Remembering the coolly brazen line I had taken and the assumptions she had drawn from it, I could think of no desert wide enough to hide my confusion, no pit sufficiently deep to shelter my utterly crestfallen head.

In any case, I had not managed my attack at all triumphantly. From the first skirmish the adversary had retired with all the honors on her side. Carrying the matter with a high hand, she had dazed me into brief inaction, and then, as I gave signs of rally, had retreated in what to say the least was a highly strategic way. Well, let her go for the moment! She could scarcely escape me. I would see the thing through, I told myself with growing stubbornness; but I didn't feel that the doing of a civic duty was what it is cracked up to be. Not at all!

I felt the need of a cocktail with a kick to it. But I did not get one. However, the cabbage soup was eatable, if primitive; and, in fact, no part of the dinner could be called distinctly bad.

Having finished my coffee, I went outside feeling more cheerful. It was dark now. A lantern swinging from the entrance cast flickering darts of light about the courtyard, the rough paving-stones, the odd old galleries and stairs. Upstairs a candle shone through the window of Miss Falconer's room. In the kitchen by the great chimney place I could see a leather-clad chauffeur eating, the same fellow that had driven the blue car from the rue St.-Dominique; and while I watched, madame emerged, bearing the girl's dinner tray, which with much groaning and panting she carried up the winding stairs.

It was foolish of Miss Falconer, I thought, to insist on this comedy. She might better have dined with me, heard what I had to say, and yielded with a good grace. However, let her have her dinner in peace and solitude, I resolved magnanimously. The moon had come out, the stars too; I would take a stroll and mature my plans.

Lighting a cigarette, I lounged into the street and addressed myself forthwith to an unhurried tour of Bleau. I was gone perhaps an hour, not a very lengthy interval, but one in which a variety of things can occur, as I was to learn. My walk led me outside the village, down a water path between trees, and even to the famous mill, which was charming. Had I been of the fraternity of artists, as I had claimed, I should have asked no better fate than to come there with canvas and brushes and immortalize the quiet beauty of the scene.

A rustic bridge invited me, and I stood and smoked upon it, listening to the ripple of the half-golden, half-shadowy water, watching the revolutions of the green old wheel. I had laid out my plan of action. On my return to the inn I would insist on an interview with Miss Falconer, and would tell her that either she must return with me to Paris or that the police of Bleau-I supposed it had police-must take a hand.

My metamorphosis into a hero of adventure, racing about the country, visiting places I had never heard of, coolly assuming the control of international spy plots, brutally determining to kidnap women if necessary, was astounding to say the least. That dinner in the St. Ives restaurant rose before me, and I heard again Dunny's charge that I was growing stodgy with advancing years. Suppose he should see me now, involved in these insane developments? He might call me various unflattering things, but not stodgy-not with truth. I chuckled half-heartedly, my last chuckle, by the by, for a long time. Unknown to me and unsuspected, the darker, more deadly side of the adventure was steadily drawing near.

When I entered the courtyard of the Three Kings, the door of the garage stood open, and the first object my eyes met within it was the pursuing gray car. I stared at the thing, transfixed. In the march of events I had forgotten it. I was still gaping at it when madame came hurrying forth.

"I have been watching," she informed me, "for monsieur's return. Friends of his arrived here soon after he left the house."

"The deuce they did!" I thought, dumb-founded. I judged prudence advisable.

"They have names, these friends?" I inquired warily.

"Without doubt, Monsieur," she agreed, "but they did not offer them; and who am I to ask questions of the officers of France? They are bound on a mission, plainly. In time of war those so engaged talk little. They have eaten, and they have gone to their rooms, off the gallery to the west. And the fourth of their party-he alone wears no uniform; he is doubtless of monsieur's land-asked of me a description of my guests, and exclaimed in great delight, saying that monsieur was his old friend, whom he had hoped to find here and with whom he must have speech the very moment that monsieur should return. I know no more."

It was enough.

"He's mistaken," I said shortly. For the moment I really thought that this must be the case.

Her broad, good-natured face was all astonishment.

"But, Monsieur," she burst forth, "he even told me, this gentleman, that such might be monsieur's reply! And in that event he commanded me to beg monsieur to walk upstairs, since he had a thing of importance to reveal to monsieur-one best said behind closed doors!"

I stared at her, my head humming like a top. Then, scrutinizingly, I looked about the court. The light in Miss Falconer's room had been extinguished. Did that have some significance? Was she lying perdue because these people had come? In the rooms opening from the west gallery above the street entrance I could see moving shadows. The gray car had arrived, and it bore three officers of France for passengers. What could this mean?

Of course, whoever had left the message had mistaken me for a confederate. I could not know any of the new arrivals; it was equally impossible that they could know me. None the less, with a slight, unaccustomed thrill of excitement, I resolved to accept the invitation as if in absolute good faith. It was a first-class chance to get inside those rooms, to use my eyes, to sound this affair a little, to learn whether these men were the girl's pursuers. As army officers they could scarcely be her accomplices. Would they forestall me by arresting her, by taking her back to Paris? It was astonishing how distasteful I found the idea of that.

I told madame that I thought I knew, now, who the gentlemen were. I climbed the west staircase with determination and knocked on the door of the first room that had a light. A voice from within, vaguely familiar, bade me enter, I did so immediately and closed the door.

Through an inner entrance I saw three men grouped about a table in the next room, all smoking cigarettes, all clad in horizon blue. They glanced up at me for a moment, and then, politely, they looked away. But a fourth man, who had stood beside them, came striding out to meet me, and I confronted Mr. John Van Blarcom face to face.

Officers fresh from the trenches have told me that one can lose through sheer accustomedness all horror at the grim sights of warfare, all consciousness of ear-spli

tting noises, all interest in gas and shrapnel and bursting shells. In the same way one can lose all capacity for astonishment, I suppose. I don't think I manifested much surprise at this unexpected meeting; and I heard myself remarking quite coolly that there had been a mistake, that I had been told downstairs that a friend of mine was here.

"That's right, Mr. Bayne," cut in Van Blarcom shortly. "I've been a friend of yours clear through, and I'm acting as one now. Just a minute, sir, please!"

He had shut the door between ourselves and the officers, and now he was drawing the shutters close. Coming back into the room, he seated himself, and motioned me toward a chair, which I didn't take. His authoritative manner was, I must say, not unimpressive. And he knew how to arrange a rather crude stage-setting; the room, with all air and sound excluded, seemed tense and breathless; the one dim candle on the table lent a certain solemnity to the scene.

"Look here, Mr. Bayne," he began bluffly, "last time you spoke to me you told me to-Well, we'll let bygones by bygones; I guess you remember what you said. You don't like me, and I'm not wasting any love on you; as far as you're personally concerned, I'd just as soon see you hang! But I've got to think of the United States. I'm in the service, and it doesn't do her any good to have her citizens get in bad with France."

Standing there, gazing at him with an air of bored inquiry, behind my mask of indifference I racked my brain. What did he want of me? What did he want of Miss Falconer? What was he doing in this military galley? Hopeless queries, without the key to the puzzle!

"Well?" I said.

"I don't ask you," he went on crisply, "what you're doing here-"

"You had better not!" I snapped. "What tomfoolery is this? Do you think you are a police officer heckling a crook? And why should you ask me such a question any more than I should ask you?"

He grinned meaningly.

"Well," he commented, "there might be reasons. I'm here on business, with papers in order, and three French officers to answer for me; but you're a kind of a funny person to make a bee-line for a place like Bleau. An inn like this doesn't seem your style, somehow. I'd say the Ritz was more your type. And while we're at it, did you go to the Paris Prefecture this morning, like all foreigners are told to, and show your passport, and get your police card? Have you got it with you? If you have you stepped pretty lively, considering you left Paris by three o'clock."

"If any one in authority asks me that," I said, "I'll answer him. I certainly don't propose to answer you." My arms were folded; I looked haughtily indifferent; but it was pure bluff. The only paper I had with me was my passport. What the dickens could I do if he turned nasty along such lines.

"As I was saying," he resumed, unruffled, "I'm not asking you why you're here-because I know. I've got to hand it to you that you're a dead-game sport. Most men's hair would have turned white at Gibraltar after the fuss you had. And here you are again-in the ring for all you're worth!"

"I suppose you mean something," I said wearily, "but it's too subtle and cryptic. Please use words of one syllable."

He nodded tolerantly. Leaning back, thumbs in his waistcoat-pockets, swelling visibly, he was an offensive picture of self-satisfaction and content.

"You can't get away with it, Mr. Bayne," he declared impressively. "You've taken on too much; I'm giving it to you straight. You can do a lot with money and good clothes, and being born a gentleman and acting like one, and having friends to help you; but you can't buck the French Government and the French army and the French police. In a little affair of this sort you wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Even your ambassador would turn you down cold. He wouldn't dare do anything else. This is the last call for dinner in the dining-car, for you. Last time I wanted to tell you the facts of the case you wouldn't listen. Will you listen now?"

I considered.

"Yes," I said, "I'll listen. Go ahead!"

He foundered for a moment, and then plunged in boldly.

"About this young lady who's brought you and me to Bleau. Oh, you needn't lift your eyebrows, much as to say, 'What young lady?' You know she's here, and I know it; and she knows I've come and has put her light out and is shaking in her shoes over there. I can swear to that. Well, I want to tell you I never started out to get her; I just stumbled across her on the steamer by a fluke. But I kept my eyes open and I saw a lot of things; and when I got to Paris to-day I told them at the Prefecture. You can see what they thought of the business by my being here. I wasn't keen to come. I've got my own work to do. But they want me to identify her; and they've sent three officers with me-not policemen, you'll notice, because this is an army matter, and before we make an end of it we'll be in the army zone."

I don't know just what he saw in my eyes; but it seemed to bother him. He fidgeted a little; as he approached the crucial point, his gaze evaded mine.

"Now, then, we'll come down to brass tacks, Mr. Bayne," said he. "I don't know what kind of story the girl told you; but I know it wasn't the truth or you wouldn't be here. That's sure. She's a German agent; she's come to get the Germans some papers that they want about as bad as anything under heaven. There's one man who tried the job already. He got killed for his pains; but he hid the papers before he died, and she knows where; and she's on her way to get them and carry the business through. I don't say she hasn't plenty of courage. Why, she's gone up against the whole of France; but I guess you're not very anxious to be mixed up in this underhand, spying sort of matter, eh?"

My hands were doubling themselves with automatic vigor. I wanted-consumedly-to knock the fellow down. However, I controlled myself.

"What's your offer?" I asked.

"It's this." He was obviously relieved, positively swelling in his tolerant, good-humored patronage. "I said once before I was sorry for you, and that still goes; we won't be hard on you if we have got the whip-hand, Mr. Bayne. You just stay in your room to-morrow until she's gone and we're gone, and you needn't be afraid your name will ever figure in this thing. I've made it all right with my friends in the next room. They know a pretty girl can fool a man sometimes, and they've got a soft spot for Americans, like all the Frenchies here. Take it from me, you'd better draw out quietly, instead of being arrested, tried, shot, or imprisoned maybe-or being sent home with an unproved charge hanging over you, and having all your friends fight shy of you as a suspected pro-German. Isn't that so?"

"You certainly," I agreed, "draw a most uninviting picture. I'll have to consider this, Mr. Van Blarcom, if you'll give me time?"

"Sure!" with his hearty response. "Take as long as you like to think it over; I know how you'll decide. You don't belong in a thing like this anyhow; you never did. It's bound to end in a nasty mess for all concerned. There's a train goes to Paris to-morrow morning at eleven. You just take it, sir, and forget this business, and you'll thank me all your life."

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