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The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 12841

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Upon descending to the courtyard, I took a seat on a bench beneath a vine-covered trellis. To stop here for a time, smoking, would seem a natural proceeding, and while I held such a post of recognizance nothing overt could transpire in the environs without my taking note of the fact. Enough had developed already, though, heaven was witness! I lit a cigarette and prepared for a resume.

Like a sleuth noting salient points, I glanced round the rectangular court. At my right, off the gallery, was Miss Falconer's room shrouded in darkness; at the left, up another flight of stairs, my own uninviting domain. The quarters of Van Blarcom and his uniformed friends opened from the gallery above the street passage, facing the main portion of the inn which sheltered the kitchen and salle a manger. Such was the simple, homely stage-setting. What of the play?

Bleau, I now felt tolerably sure, was merely a mile-stone on the route of Miss Falconer. Next morning, at sunrise probably, she would resume her journey for parts unknown. Would they arrest her before she left the inn or merely follow her? The latter, doubtless, since they asserted that she was on her way to get the papers that they wanted for France.

Upstairs in the room where Van Blarcom and I had held our conference the shutters had been reopened. There was just one light to be seen, a glowing point, which was obviously the tip of a cigar. If I was keeping vigil below, from above he returned the compliment; nor did he mean that I should hold any secret colloquy with the girl that night. I swore softly, but earnestly. Considering his rather decent attitude, his efforts from the very first to enlighten me as to the dangers I was running, it was odd that my detestation of the man was so thoroughly ingrained and so profound.

The mystery of the gray car had been solved with a vengeance. Instead of being freighted with accomplices, as I had at first thought possible, it had carried the representatives of justice, in the persons of three officers and my secret-service friend. A queer conjunction, that; but then, my ignorance of French methods was abysmal. Perhaps this was the usual mode of doing things in time of war.

Van Blarcom's explanation, though it made me furious, had brought conviction. There was a certain grim appositeness about it all. The night in New York, the events of the steamer, the unsatisfactory character of the girl's actions, all fitted neatly into the plan; and the mere personnel of the pursuing party was sufficient assurance, for French officers, as I well knew, were neither liars nor fools. Neither, I patriotically assumed, were the men of my country's secret-service, however humble their part as cogs in that great machinery, or however distasteful Mr. Van Blarcom, personally, might be to me. And finally, I could not deny that women, clever, well-born, and beautiful, had served as spies a thousand times in the world's history, urged to it by some sense of duty, some tie of blood.

Yes, that was it, I told myself in sudden pity, recalling how Miss Falconer had stood on the steps in her nurse's costume, straight and slender, her gray eyes full of fire, her face glowing like a rose. Perhaps she was of the enemy's country. Perhaps those she loved, those who made up her life, had set her feet in this path that she was treading. If she was a spy,-Lord! How the mere word hurt one!-it wasn't for ignoble motives; it wasn't for pay.

I came impulsively to the conclusion that there was just one course for my taking: to see her and to beg, bully, or wheedle from her the unvarnished truth. Then, if it was as I feared, she should go back to Paris if I had to carry her; she should accompany me to Bordeaux, and on the first steamer she should sail from France. Yes; and the army should have its papers, for she should tell me where they were hidden. Her work should end; but these men upstairs should not track her and trap her and drag her off to prison, perhaps to death.

There was danger in the plan, even if I should accomplish it. I should get myself into trouble, dark and deep. Well, if I had to languish behind bars for a while I could survive it. But she might not. As I thought of this I knew that I had made up my mind irrevocably.

It was a problem, nevertheless, to arrange an interview, with Van Blarcom sitting at his window, watching me like a lynx. I couldn't go up the stairs and batter on her door till she opened it; apart from the reception she would give me it would simply amount to making a present of my intentions to the men across the way. Yet who knew how long they would keep up their surveillance? Till I retired, probably! "I'd give something to choke you and be done with it!" was the benediction I wafted toward the sentinel above.

I was owning myself at my wit's end when a ray of hope was vouchsafed me. The kitchen door opened and let out a leather-clad figure which strode across the courtyard, lantern in hand, and let itself into the garage. Despite the dimness, I recognized Miss Falconer's chauffeur, the man she had addressed as Georges when they left the rue St. Dominique. The very link I needed, provided I could get into communication with him in some unostentatious way.

I rose, stretched myself lazily, and began to pace the court. Perhaps a dozen times I crossed and recrossed it, each turn taking me past the garage and affording me a brief glance within. The chauffeur, coat flung aside, sleeves rolled up, was hard at work overhauling his engine, with an obvious view to efficiency upon the morrow. Up at the window I could see the glowing cigar-tip move now to this side, now to that. Not for an instant was Van Blarcom allowing me to escape from sight.

After taking one more turn I halted, yawned audibly for the sentry's benefit, and seated myself once more, this time on a bench by the door of the garage. Van Blarcom's cigar became stationary again. The chauffeur, who had satisfied himself as to the engine and was now passing critical fingers over the gashes in the tires, looked up at me casually and then resumed his work. Kneeling there, his tools about him, he was plainly visible in the light of the smoky lantern. He was a young man, twenty-three or-four perhaps, strongly built and obviously of French-peasant stock, with honest blue eyes and a face not unduly intelligent, but thoroughly frank and open in th

e cast. The actors in my drama, I had to own, were puzzling. This lad looked no more fitted than Miss Falconer for a treacherous role.

How theatrical it all was! And yet it had its zest. I confess I experienced a certain thrill, entirely new to me, as I bent forward with my arms on my knees and my head lowered to hide my face.

"Attention, Georges!" I muttered beneath my breath.

The chauffeur started, knocking a tool from the running-board beside him. His eyes, half-startled, half-fierce, fixed themselves on me; his hand went toward his pocket in a most significant way. In a minute he would be shooting me, I reflected grimly. And upstairs the very stillness of Van Blarcom shrieked suspicion; he could not have helped hearing the clatter that the falling tool had made.

"Don't be a fool," I muttered, low, but sharply. "I know where you and mademoiselle come from; I know she is upstairs now; if I wished you any harm I could have had the mayor and the gendarmes here an hour ago! Keep your head-we are being watched. Have a good look at me first if you feel you want to. Then take your hand off that revolver and pretend to go to work."

Throwing my head back, I began blowing clouds of smoke, wondering every instant whether a bullet would whiz through my brain. I could feel Georges' gaze upon me; I knew it was a critical moment. But as his kind are quick, shrewd judges of caste and character, I had my hopes.

They were justified; for presently I heard him draw a breath of relief. His hand came out of his pocket.

"Pardon, Monsieur," he whispered, and began a vigorous pretense of polishing the car.

Again I leaned forward to hide the fact that my lips were moving.

"When you speak to me, keep your head bent as I do."

"Monsieur, yes."

"Now listen. Men of the French army are here, with powers from the police. They accuse mademoiselle of serious things, of acts of treason, of being on her way to secure papers for the foes of France. They are watching. To-morrow, if she departs, they mean to follow and to arrest her when they have gained proof of what she is hunting."

"Mon Dieu, Monsieur! What shall I do?"

There was appeal in his voice. Convinced of my good faith, he was quite simply shifting the business to my shoulders-the French peasant trusting the man he ranked as of his master's class. And oddly enough I found myself responding as if to a trusted person. I smoked a little, wondering whether Van Blarcom could catch the faint mutter of our voices. Then I gave my orders in the same muffled tones:

"You will tell the servants that you wish to sleep here to-night, to watch the car. You will stay here very quietly until it is nearly dawn. Then you will creep to mademoiselle's door and whisper what I have told you and say that I beg her to meet me before those others have awakened at five o'clock in-"

Pondering a rendezvous, I hesitated. The room where I had dined, with its stone floor, its beamed ceiling, and dark panels, came first to my mind. I fancied, though, that some outdoor spot might be safer. I remembered opportunely that a passage led past this room, and that at its end I had glimpsed a little garden behind the inn.

"In the garden," I finished, and risked one straight look at him. "I can trust you, Georges?"

The young man's throat seemed to close.

"Monsieur le duc was my foster-brother, Monsieur," he whispered. "I would die for him."

Who the deuce monsieur le duc might be I did not tarry to discover. I had done all I could; the future was on the knees of the gods. Having smoked one more cigarette for the sake of verisimilitude, I rose, stretched myself ostentatiously, and crossed the courtyard to the stairs, where madame was descending. She had, she informed me, been preparing my bed.

"And I wish monsieur good repose," she ended volubly. "Hitherto, no Zeppelins have come to Bleau to disturb our dreams. Though, alas, who knows what they will do, now that we have lost our most gallant hero? Monsieur has heard of the Firefly of France, he who is missing?"

That name again! Odd how it seemed to pursue me.

"I believe I shall meet that fellow sometime if he's living," I reflected as I climbed the stairs.

In my room, my candle lighted, I resigned myself to a ghastly night. I don't like discomfort, though I can put up with it when I must. The bed looked as hard as nails; the bowl made cleanliness a duty, not a pleasure. And to think that I might have been sleeping in comfort at the Ritz!

Tossing from side to side, pounding a cast-iron pillow, I dozed through uneasy intervals, and woke with groans and starts. I could not rid myself of the sense of something ominous hanging over me. The gray car ramped through my dreams; so did Van Blarcom; and between sleeping and waking, I pictured my coming interview with the girl, her probable terror, the force and menaces I should have to use, our hurried flight.

At length I fell into a heavy, exhausted slumber, from which, toward morning I fancied, I sat up suddenly with the dazed impression of some sound echoing in my ears. Springing out of bed, I groped my way to the window. The galleries lay peaceful and empty in the moonlight, and down in the courtyard there was not the slightest sign of life.

I went back to bed in a state of jangled nerves. Again I dozed, and a dim light was creeping through the window when I woke. I looked out again.

"Hello!" I muttered, for though the hotel seemed wrapped in slumber, the door of the garage now stood ajar. Was it possible that Miss Falconer had stolen a march on me, that the automobile could have left the premises without my being roused? It was only four o'clock, but all wish for sleep had left me. I decided to investigate without any more ado.

I made the best toilet that cold water and a cracked mirror permitted, longing the while for a bath, for a breakfast tray, for a hundred civilized things. Taking my hat and coat, I went quietly down the staircase. The garage door beckoned me, and all unprepared, I walked into the tragedy of the affair.

In the dim place there were signs of a desperate struggle. The rugs and cushions of Miss Falconer's automobile were scattered far and wide. The gray car had vanished; and in the center of the floor was Georges, the chauffeur, lying on his back with arms extended, staring up at the ceiling with wide, unseeing blue eyes.

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