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   Chapter 18 IN THE HIGH GEAR

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 11348

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


To pass straight from a humdrum, comfortable, conventionally ordered life into a career of insane adventure is a step that is radical; but it can be exhilarating, and I proved the fact that day. To dwell on present danger was to forget the past hour in the garage, which I had to forget or begin gibbering. Once committed to the adventure and away from the scene of the murder, I found a positive relief in facing the madness of the affair.

While the girl sat silent and listless, blotted against the cushions, rousing from her thoughts only to indicate the turns of the road, I had time for cogitation; and I began to feel like a man who has drunk freely of champagne. Hitherto I had been a law-abiding citizen. Now I had kicked over the traces. Like the distinguished fraternity that includes Raffles and Arsene Lupin, I should be "wanted" by the police, those good-natured, deferential beings so given to saluting and grinning, with whom, save for occasional episodes not unconnected with the speed laws,-Dunny says libelously that my progress in an automobile resembles a fabulous monster with a flying car for the head, a cloud of smoke and gasoline for the body, and a cohort of incensed motor-cycle men for the tail,-I had lived on the most cordial terms.

I was not certain whether they would accuse me of murder or espionage. There were pegs enough, undeniably, on which to hang either charge. Myself, I rather inclined to the latter; the case was so clear, so detailed! My rush from Paris to Bleau,-in order, no doubt, that I might at an unostentatious spot join forces with my confederate, Miss Falconer, whom I had been meeting at intervals ever since we left New York in company,-my behavior there, and the fashion in which we were vanishing should suffice to doom me as a spy.

When the French began tracing my movements, when they joined my present activities to the fact that only by the skin of my teeth had I escaped a charge of bringing German papers into Italy, there would be the devil to pay. I acknowledged it; then-really, this brand-new, unfounded, cast-iron trust of mine in Miss Falconer was changing me beyond recognition-I recalled the old recipe for the preparation of Welsh rabbit, and light-heartedly challenged the authorities to "catch me first." I had a disguise; if I bore any superior earmarks my leather coat obliterated them; and I could drive; even Dario Resta could not have sniffed at my technic. Better still, my French, learned even before my English, would not betray me. As nurse and as mecanicien, we stood a fair chance in our masquerade.

I might have to pay my shot, but I was enjoying it. This was a good world through which we were speeding; life was in the high gear to-day. The car purred beneath us like a splendid, harnessed tiger; the spring air was fresh and fragrant, the country charming, with here a forest, there a valley, farther off the tiled, colored roofs of some little town. Our road, like a white ribbon, wound itself out endlessly between stone walls or brown fields. In my content I forgot food and such prosaic details till I noticed that the girl looked pale.

"I say," I exclaimed remorsefully: "we've been omitting rolls and coffee! I'm going to get you some at the first town we pass."

"We are coming to a town now, to Le Moreau." She was looking anxious.

"Yes? I'm afraid I don't place it exactly. Ought I to?"

"It is the first town in the war zone. And-and our road passes through it."

"Oh!" I was enlightened. "Then they will probably ask to see our papers at the octroi?"

"Yes."

The car was eating up the smooth white road; I could see the little octroi building at the town boundary-line, and a group of gendarmes in readiness close by. It was a critical moment. Miss Falconer, I recalled, had said she could get through to Carrefonds; but glittering generalities were not likely to convince these sentries; one needed safe-conducts, passes, identity cards, and such concrete aids. She couldn't give a reasonable account of herself, I felt quite certain; and even if she did, how was she to account for me?

As I brought the car to a standstill, my conscience clamored, and my costume seemed to shriek incongruity from every seam. In this dilemma I trusted to sheer blind luck-a rather thrilling business. As a gray-headed sergeant stepped forward to welcome us, I looked him unfalteringly in the eye, though I wondered if he would not say:

"Monsieur, kindly remove that childish travesty with which you are trying to impose on justice. We know all about you. Your name is Devereux Bayne. You are a German agent and intriguer; you have smuggled papers; you have murdered a man and concealed his body. Unless you can give a satisfactory explanation of all your actions since leaving New York, your last hour has arrived!"

What he really said was:

"Mademoiselle's papers?" He spoke quite amiably, a catlike pretense, no doubt.

Miss Falconer was no longer looking anxious. Her hands were steady; she was even smiling as she produced two neat little packets that, on being unfolded, proved to have all the air of permits, laissez-passers, and police cards. Two nondescript photographs, which might have represented almost any one, adorned them, and of these our sergeant made a perfunctory survey.

"Mademoiselle's name," he recited in a high singsong, "is Marie Le Clair. She is a nurse, on her way to the hospital at Carrefonds. And this is Jacques Carton, who is her chauffeur?"

A singularly stupid person, on the whole, he must have thought me, hardly fit to be trusted with so superb a car. My mouth, I fancy, was wide open; I can't swear that

I wasn't pop-eyed. This last development had complete addled me. Marie Le Clair! Jacques Carton! Who were they?

"I wish," I remarked into the air as we drove on, "that some one would pinch me-hard."

She smiled faintly. Now it was over, she looked a little tremulous.

"Oh, no," she answered, "we were not dreaming. Poor Georges! I wish we were!"

Such was the incredible beginning of our adventure. And as it began, so it continued. We breakfasted at Le Moreau. Miss Falconer ate in the dining-room of the small hotel; I sought the kitchen and, warmed by our late success, I did not shrink from playing my role. Then we resumed our journey, and though we showed our papers twenty times at least as the control grew stricter, they were never challenged. I rubbed my eyes sometimes. Surely I should wake up presently! We couldn't be here in the forbidden region, in the war zone, plunging deeper every instant, in peril of our lives.

Yet the proof was thick about us. In the towns we passed we saw troops alight from the trains and enter them; we saw farewells and reunions, the latter sometimes tearful, but the former invariably brave. We saw depots where trucks and ambulances and commissary carts were filled, and canteens and soup kitchens where soldiers were being fed. At Croix-le-Valois we saw the air turn black with the smoke of the munition factories that were working day and night. At St. Remilly above the towers of the old chateau we saw the Red Cross flying, and on the terraces the reclining figures of wounded men. It seemed impossible that sight-seers and pleasure-seekers had thronged along this road so lately. The signs of the Touring Club of France, posted at intervals, were survivals of an era that was now utterly gone.

With the coming of afternoon, the country grew still more beautiful. Orchards were thick about us, though the trees were leafless now. The little thatched cottages had odd fungi sprouting from their roofs like rosy mushrooms; the trees and streams had a silvery shimmer, like a Corot fairy-land.

Then, set like sign-posts of desolation in this loveliness, came the ravaged villages. We were on the soil where in the first month of the war the Germans had trod as conquerors, and where, step by step, the French had driven them back. We passed Cormizy, burnt to the ground to celebrate its taking; Le Remy, where the heroic mayor had died, transfixed by twenty bayonets; Bar-Villers, a group of ruined houses about a mourning, shattered church. It was the region where the Hun triumph had spoken aloud, unbridled. Miss Falconer sat white and silent as we drove through it; my hands tightened on the wheel.

We had lunched at Tolbiac, late and abominably. Then, leaving the highway, we had taken a country road. Two punctures befell us; once our carburetor betrayed the trust we placed in it. By the time these deficiencies were remedied I had collected dust and grease enough to look my part.

It had been, by and large, a singularly speechless day, which my spasmodic efforts at entertainment had failed to cheer. The girl tried to respond, but her eyes were strained, eager, shadowed; her answers came at random. My talk, I suppose, teased her ears like the troublesome buzzing of a fly.

"She is thinking," I decided at last, "about those papers. Lord, if she doesn't find them she is going to take it hard!"

I left her in peace after that and drove the faster. Luck was with us! At the end of our journey everything would be all right.

As evening settled down on us the road grew increasingly lonely. Woods of oak-trees were about us, their trunks mossy, their branches lacing; on our left was a narrow river thick with rushes and smooth green stones. So rutty was the earth that our wheels sank into it and our engine labored. There was a charming sylvan look about the scenery; we seemed to be alone in the universe: I could not recall when we had last seen a peasant or passed a hut.

Suddenly I realized that there was a sound in the distance, not continuous, but steadily recurrent, a faint booming, I thought.

"What's that noise off yonder?" I asked, with one ear cocked toward the east.

Miss Falconer roused herself.

"It is the cannonading," she answered. "We have come a long way, Mr. Bayne. In two hours-in less than that-we could drive to the Front. And see!"

The dark was coming fast; a crimson sunset was reddening the river. A little below us on the opposite bank, I saw what had been a village once upon a time. But some agency of destruction had done its work there; blackened spaces and heaped stones and the shells of dwellings rose tier on tier among trees that seemed trying to hide them; only on the crest of the bank, overlooking the wreck like a gloomy sentinel, one building loomed intact, a dark, scarred, frowning castle with medieval walls and towers. I stared at the scene of desolation.

"The Germans again!" I said.

"Yes," the girl assented, gazing across the water. "They came here at the beginning of the war. They burned the houses and the huts and the little church with the image of the Virgin and the tomb of the old constable-all Prezelay except the chateau; and they only left that standing to give their officers a home."

With an automatic action of feet and fingers, I stopped the car. Here was the town that she had shown me on the map that morning when we sat like a pair of whispering conspirators in the garden of the Three Kings. The obstacles which had seemed so great had melted away before us. This ruined village, this heap of stones cross the river, was our goal, the key to our mystery, the last scene of our drama-Prezelay.

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