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   Chapter 17 I BURN MY BRIDGES

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 9439

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

If I live to be a hundred, and it is not improbable since I am healthy, I shall never forget that little garden at the inn at Bleau. It was a vegetable garden too, which is not in itself romantic. I recall vaguely that there were beds all about us, which in due course would doubtless sprout into rows of pale green objects-peas and artichokes, or beans and cabbages maybe; I don't know, I am sure. But then, there was the stream running just outside the wall of masonry; there was the sky, flushing with that faint, very delicate, very lovely pink that an early spring morning brings in France; there was the quaint building, wrapped up in slumber, beside us; and in the air a silent, fragrant dimness, the promise of the dawn.

And then there was the girl. I suppose that was the main thing. Not that I felt sentimental. I should have scouted the notion. If I meant to fall in love,-which, I should have said, I had no idea of doing,-I would certainly not begin the process in this unheard-of spot. No; it was simply that the whole business of caring for Miss Esme Falconer had suddenly devolved upon my shoulders; and that instead of my feeling bored, or annoyed, or exasperated at the prospect, my spirits rose inexplicably to face the need.

Here, if ever, was the time for the questions I had planned last evening. But I didn't ask them; I knew I should never ask them. In those few long unforgetable moments when I stood in the gallery and wondered whether she were living, my point of view had altered. I was through with suspecting her; I was prepared to laugh at evidence, however damning. As for the men in the gray car and their detailed accusations, I didn't give-well, a loud outcry in the infernal regions for them. I knew the standards of the land they served, and I had seen their work this morning. If they were French officers, I would do France a service by going after them with a gun.

The girl had sunk down on the ancient bench beside me. Her eyes, wide and distressed, yet resolute, went to my heart. Not a figure, I thought again, for this atmosphere of intrigue and secrecy and danger. Rather a girl, beautiful, brilliant, spirited, to be shielded from every jostle of existence; the sort of girl whom men hold it a test of manhood to protect from even the most passing discomfiture!

But time was moving apace. We must settle on something in short order. I spoke in the most matter-of-fact tones that I could summon, not, heaven knows, out of a feeling of levity concerning what had happened, but to try to lighten the grim business a degree or so and keep us sane.

"I think, Miss Falconer," I began, standing before her, "that we have got to thrash this matter out at last. You think I've behaved unspeakably, trailing you everywhere, and I don't deny I have, according to your point of view. But the fact is, I didn't follow you to annoy you; I'm a half-way decent fellow. You have simply got to trust me until I've seen you through this tangle. After that, if you like you need never look at me again."

Her troubled eyes rested on me, half bewildered.

"Why, I'd forgotten all that," she murmured. "I do trust you, Mr. Bayne. Of course I must have misunderstood you to some way last evening, and I'm afraid I was disagreeable."

"Naturally. You had to be. Now, if that's all right and I'm forgiven, may I ask a question? About those men who arrived last night and apparently killed your chauffeur-can you guess who they are?"

"Yes," she faltered, looking down at the pebbled walk. "They must have been sent by the Government or the army or the police. If the French knew what I was doing, they wouldn't understand my motives. I've been afraid from the first that they would learn."

Another of my precious theories was going up in smoke. Not seeing why a set of bonafide officers should gratuitously murder a chauffeur, I had been wondering whether the quartet might not be impostors, tricked out in uniforms to which they had no claim. Still, of course, I couldn't judge. If she would only confide in me! I was fairly aching to help her; yet how could I, in this blindfold way?

"I don't wish to be impertinent," I ventured at length, meekly, "and I give you my word I'm not trying to find out anything you don't want me to. Only, assuming I've got some sense,-in case you care to be so amiable,-I'd like to put it at your service. Do you think you could give me just a vague outline of your plans?"

She looked at me in a piteous, uncertain manner. I braced myself for a "No." Then, suddenly, she seemed to decide to trust me-in sheer desperate loneliness, I dare say.

"I am going," she whispered, "to a village in the war zone-where there is a chateau. The

re are things in it-some papers; at least I believe there are. It is just a chance, just a forlorn hope; but it means all the world to certain people. I have to act in secret till I have succeeded, and then every one in France, every one on earth may know all that I have done!"

If I had not burned my bridges, this announcement might have worried me; it was too vague, and what little I grasped tallied startlingly with Van Blarcom's rigmarole. However, having bowed allegiance, I didn't blink an eyelid.

"Yes," I said encouragingly. "Is it very far?"

Her eyes went past me anxiously, watching the inn and its blank windows, as she fumbled in her coat and brought forth a motor map.

"Take it," she breathed, thrusting it toward me. "Look at it. Do you see? The route in red!"

As I realized the astounding thing I choked down an exclamation. There, beneath my finger, lay the village of Bleau, a tiny dot; and from it, straight into the war zone, the traced line ran through Le Moreau and Croix-le-Valois and St. Remilly; ran to-what was the name? I spelled it out: P-r-e-z-e-l-a-y.

Though it was early in the game to be a wet blanket, I found myself gasping.

"But," I protested weakly, "you can't do that! It's in the war country; it's forbidden territory. One has to have safe-conducts, laissez-passers, all sorts of documents to get into that part of France."

"I didn't come unprepared," she answered stubbornly. "Before I started I knew just what I should need. I can get as far as the hospital at Carrefonds; and Carrefonds is beyond Prezelay, ten miles nearer to the Front!"

"But-" The monosyllable was distinctly tactless.

She straightened, challenging me with brave, defiant eyes.

"I know," she flashed. "You mean it looks suspicious. Well, it does; and if I told you everything, it would look more suspicious still. You shouldn't have followed me; when they learn that we both spent the night here they will think you are my-my accomplice. The best advice I can give you, Mr. Bayne, is to go away."

"Perhaps we had better," I agreed stolidly. I had deserved the outburst. "Shall we be off at once, before the servants come downstairs?"

She drew back, her eyes widening.

"We?" she repeated.

"Naturally!" I replied, with some temper. "I must have disgusted you last night. What sort of a miserable, spineless, cowardly, caddish travesty of a man do you take me for, to think I would let you go alone?"

"Please don't joke," she urged. "It simply isn't possible. You would get into trouble with the French Government, and-"

"Do you know," I grinned, "it is rather exhilarating to snap one's fingers at governments? Just see what success I made of it with Great Britain and Italy, on the ship!"

"You don't realize what you are laughing at," she pleaded. "It is dangerous."

"I won't disgrace you. I seldom tremble visibly, Miss Falconer, though I often shake inside."

Her great gray eyes were glowing mistily.

"Mr. Bayne, this is splendid of you. I-I shall go on more bravely because you have been so kind. But I won't let you make such a sacrifice or mix in a thing that others may think disloyal, treacherous. You know how it looks. Why, on the steamer and on the way up to France and even last evening-you see I've guessed now why you followed me-you didn't trust me yourself."

"I know it," I confessed humbly. "I can't believe I was such an idiot. Somebody ought to perform a surgical operation on my brain. I apologize; I'm down in the dust; I feel like groveling. Won't you forgive me? I promise you won't have to do it twice."

This time it was she who said: "But-" and paused uncertainly. I could see she was wavering, and I massed my horse, foot, and dragoons for the attack.

"You'll please consider me," I proclaimed firmly, "to be a tyrant. I am so much bigger than you are that you can't possibly drive me off. I don't mean to interfere or to ask questions, or to bother you. But I vow I'm coming with you if I cling to the running-board!"

Her lashes fluttered as she racked her brains for new protests.

"The car is a French make," she urged,-"which you couldn't drive-"

"I can drive any car with four wheels!" I exclaimed vaingloriously. "It's kismet, Miss Falconer; it's the hand of Providence, no less. Now, we'll leave these notes in the salle a manger to pay for our lodging, which would have been dear at twopence, and be off, if you please, for Prezelay."

She had yielded. We were standing side by side in the silence of the morning, the dimness fading round us, the air taking a golden tinge. My surroundings were plebeian; my costume was comic; yet I felt oddly uplifted.

"Jolly old garden, isn't it?" said I.

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