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   Chapter 16 “I MUST GO ON”

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 14129

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Kneeling by the young man's side, I felt for his pulse; but the moment that my fingers touched his cold wrist I knew the truth. There flashed into my mind queerly, as things do at grim moments, an often-heard expression about rigor mortis setting in. With this poor fellow it had not started, but he was dead for all that. The most skilful surgeon in Europe could not have helped him now.

I never doubted that it was murder. The confusion of the garage was proof of it; and the instrument, once I looked about me, was not far to seek. Divided between rage, horror, and pity, I saw a sort of sharp stiletto suitable for use as a penknife or letter opener, which, after doing its work, had been cast upon the floor.

I remained on my knees beside the lad, smitten with a keen remorse. I knew no good of him; I had even suspected him; but he had an honest face. Why had I not kept watch all night? The instructions I had given, the plan I had thought so clever, might be responsible for the killing; it must have been some echo of the struggle that had roused me when I had wakened and glanced out and gone placidly back to sleep.

Had Van Blarcom caught our whispered colloquy, or surmised it? Helped by his precious colleagues, he must have taken Georges unprepared, throttled him to prevent his shouting, and ended his frantic struggles with one swift, ruthless blow. But why? What sort of soldiers could these be who wore the uniform of a brave, chivalrous country and yet did murder? What sort of mission were they bound upon that for no visible gain or motive they risked desperate work like this?

And the girl upstairs? The thought was like a knife thrust; it brought me to my feet, my heart pounding, my forehead cold and wet. I told myself that she must be safe, that wholesale killing could not be the aim of these wretches, that the gray automobile was not what our one-cent sheets in their tales of gunmen like to call a "murder car." But what did I know about it? I was in a funk, a funk of the bluest variety. In that one age-long moment I learned what sheer fright meant.

Without knowing how I got there, I found myself in the gallery. The doors that lined it were rickety and worm-eaten; I stared weakly at them. A mere twist of practised fingers, and they could be forced open by any one who cared to try. I thought I heard a faint breathing inside the girl's room, but I was not sure; I was too rattled. Very guardedly I knocked and got no answer. Then, in utter panic, I knocked louder, at risk of disturbing the whole house.

"Georges, c'est vous?" It was the drowsiest of murmurs, but few things have been so welcome to me in all my life.

"Yes, Mademoiselle." Though my knees were wobbling under me I summoned presence of mind to impersonate the poor huddled mass of flesh in the garage.

"Attendez donc!"

I could hear her stirring; she believed I had come with some summons, with some news. Well, it was imperative that I should see her. I waited obediently until the door swung open and revealed her in a loose robe of blue, with her hair in a ruddy mass about her shoulders and the sleep still lingering in her eyes.

"Mr. Bayne!"

Such was my relief at finding my fears uncalled for that I could have danced a breakdown on that crazy gallery, snapping my fingers in castanet fashion above my head. I had forgotten entirely the strained terms of our parting; but she remembered. A bright wave of scarlet ran over her face, her neck, her forehead. She gasped, clutched her robe about her, would have shut the door if I had not foreseen the strategic movement and inserted a foot in the diminishing crack, just in time.

"I beg your pardon," I began hastily. "I am really extremely sorry. But something has occurred that forces me to speak to you."

"There can be nothing that forces you to come here-nothing!" Her lips were trembling; her voice wavered; the apparent shamelessness of my behavior was driving her to the verge of tears. "Is there no place where I am safe from you? Mr. Bayne, how can you? I shan't listen to a single word while you keep your foot in the door!"

"And I can't take it away until you listen," I protested. "It is perfectly obvious that if I did, you would shut me out. But you can see for yourself that I'm not trying to force an entrance-and I wish that you would speak lower; if we waken anybody, there will be the mischief to pay."

My voice, I suppose, had an impatient note that was reassuring, or perhaps I looked encouragingly respectable, viewed at closer range. At any rate, she spoke less angrily, though she still stood erect and haughty.

"Well, what is it?" she asked, barring the opening with one slender arm.

"May I ask if you have had a message from me, Miss Falconer?"

"A message? Certainly not!" There was renewed suspicion in her voice.

"H'm." Then they had intercepted the man before he reached her. "I'm going to ask you to dress as quickly and quietly as possible and come downstairs. Don't stop in the court, and don't go near the garage, I beg of you. Just walk on past the salle a manger to the garden, and wait for me."

I expected exclamations, questions, indignant protests, anything but the sudden white calm that fell on her at my request.

"You mean," she whispered, "that something dreadful has happened. Is it about the-the men who came last night?"

"Yes. But please don't worry," I urged with false heartiness. "I'll explain when you come down." To cut the discussion short, I turned to go.

Once her door had closed, however, I halted at the staircase, retraced my steps, and, without hesitation, circled the gallery to the rooms of Mr. John Van Blarcom and his friends. I had had enough of uncertainties; henceforth I meant to deal with facts. It was barely possible that I was unjustly anathematizing these gentlemen, that, while they were peacefully sleeping, thieves had broken in below.

Two knocks, the first rather tentative, the second brisker, netting no response, I deliberately tried the knob and felt the door promptly yield to me; then, with equal deliberation, I dropped my hand into my pocket where my revolver lay. If some one sprang at me and tried to crack my head or stab me,-stabbing was popular hereabouts,-I was in a state of armed preparedness. But when I stepped inside I found an empty room, a bed in which no one had slept.

Grown brazen, I strode across to the inner door and opened it. More emptiness greeted me; the four men had plainly taken French leave in their gray car. It was strange that the hum of their departure had not roused me; they must, before starting the motor, have pushed their automobile from the courtyard and out of ear-shot down the street.

For a moment I stood in the deserted room, reflecting swiftly. The situation was desperate; in another hour the inn would be stirring, and Miss Falconer, I felt sure, could not afford to be found here when that came to pass. Murder investigations are searching things. All strangers beneath this roof would be interrogated na

rrowly. If any one had a secret,-and she certainly had several,-the chances were heavy that it would be dragged to light.

For some reason this prospect was unspeakably frightful to me. Under its spur I hatched the craziest scheme that man ever thought of, and took steps which, as I look back at them, seem almost beyond belief. I must get Miss Falconer off for Paris, I determined. And since it was possible that the villagers would see us leaving, she must appear to go, as she had come, with her chauffeur.

I descended, forthwith, to the garage where the murdered man was lying, shook out and folded the rugs that had been scattered in the struggle, picked up the cushions, and replaced them in the car. Then, borrowing a ruse from the enemy, I set the door wide open, and, puffing and panting, pushed the blue automobile into the courtyard, through the passage, and a considerable distance down the street.

What comes next, I ask no one to credit. Retrospectively, I myself have doubted it. It lives in my memory as a grisly nightmare rather than as a fact. To be brief, I returned to the scene of the crime, shut out any possible audience by closing the door, and disrobed hastily. Then I removed the leather costume of the victim, donned it, laced on his boots, which by good fortune were loose instead of tight, and, picking up his visored cap from the floor where it had fallen, stood forth to all seeming as genuine a member of the proletariate as ever wore goggles and held a wheel.

By this time my teeth were clenched as if in the throes of lockjaw. Had I paused to think for a single instant, all my nerve would have oozed away. But I had no time to spend on thought; I had to work on, to save Miss Falconer. The whole ghoulish business would be futile if the inn servants found the body. The mere flight of all the guests would certainly stir suspicion; let the murder transpire as well, and at once we should be pursued.

The garage, from the looks of it, was not often put to service. A dusty spot, festooned with cobwebs, it cried to the skies for brooms and mops. In the background, apparently undisturbed since the days of the First Empire, a great pile of straw mixed with junk of various kinds lay against the wall; and most reluctantly, my every fiber shrieking protest, I saw what use I might make of this debris-if I could.

"Go for it!" I told myself inexorably, but miserably. "It's not a question of liking it, you know. You've got to do it." Grimly I wrapped my discarded clothes about the poor chap's body, dragged it to the straw, and covered it from head to foot. By this action, I surmised, I was rendering myself a probable accessory and a certain suspect; but the one thing I really cared about was my last glimpse of that patient face.

"Sorry, old man," was all the apology I could muster. "And if I ever get a chance at the people who did it, you can count on me!"

With a sigh of complete exhaustion, I rose and looked about. All signs of the crime had been obliterated from the garage. "I must be crazy!" I thought, as the enormity of the thing rushed on me. "I wonder why I did it? And I wonder whether I can forget it some day-maybe after twenty years?"

As I opened the door to the garden the dim light was growing clearer. I was late; the girl, coated and hatted, ready for flitting, was already at the rendezvous. At sight of me in my leather togs she started backward; then, resolutely controlled, she drew herself up and faced me silently, her hands clutching at her furs, her lips a little apart.

"Won't you sit down?" I began lamely, indicating an iron bench. It was all so different from the interview I had planned last night! "I want to speak to you about your chauffeur, Miss Falconer. This morning I found him hurt-very badly hurt-"

She drove straight through my pretense.

"Not dead? Oh, Mr. Bayne, not dead?"

"Yes," I said gently. "He had been dead some time. I would have liked to take my chances with him; but I came too late. No, please!" She had moved forward, and I was barring her passage. "You mustn't go. You can't help him, and you wouldn't like the sight."

How black her eyes were in her white face!

"I don't understand," she faltered. "You mean that he was murdered? But who would have killed Georges?"

"The men who came last night-if you can call them men. At least, appearances point that way," I said.

"The men in the gray car?" She swayed a little. "But why?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that." My tone was grim; there were so many things about this matter that I couldn't tell.

Her eyes flashed for an instant.

"But how cowardly, how cruel! He never hurt anyone; he was just like a good watchdog, the truest, most faithful soul! If they killed him they did it for some deliberate purpose. And when I think that I brought him here-oh, oh, Mr. Bayne-"

"Yes," I broke in hastily; "I should like to see them boil in oil or fry on gridirons or something of the sort, myself. But this is very serious; we must keep calm, Miss Falconer. And I know you are going to help me. You have such splendid self-control."

Though there were sobs in her throat, she pressed her hands to her lips and stifled them. Only her pallor and her wet lashes showed the horror and grief she felt. I wanted desperately to comfort her, but there was no time for it; and besides, who ever heard of a leather-coated comforter in a kitchen garden at 5 A.M.?

"What I wanted to speak about," I went on rapidly, "was our plans. This may prove a rather nasty mess, I'm sorry to say. The French police, you know, are-well, they're capable and very thorough; and since you are here at the scene of a murder in an infirmiere's costume, they will never rest till they have seen your papers, learned your errand, asked you a hundred things. Unless your replies are absolutely satisfactory, the whole business will be-er-awkward for you. That is why I put on these togs. Yes, I know it is ghastly," I owned as she shuddered. "And that is why I want to beg you, very seriously indeed, to let me drive you back to Paris and put you under your friends' protection. After that, of course, I'll return here to see the thing through and give my testimony about it all."

It was not going to be so simple, the course I had outlined airily. When I visioned myself explaining to a French commissaire why I had come to Bleau at all; why I had set up a false claim to be an artist,-for that circumstance was sure to leak out and look darkly incriminating,-and what had inspired me to take a murdered man's clothes and conceal his body, I can't pretend that I felt much zest. Still, if the police and the girl came together, worse would follow, I was certain; and it seemed like a real catastrophe when she slowly shook her head.

"I can't," she murmured. "Oh, it's kind of you, and I'm sorry; but I can't go back to Paris-not yet, Mr. Bayne. You won't understand, of course, but I left there to-to accomplish something. And since poor Georges can't help me now, I must go on-alone."

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