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   Chapter 19 THE CASTLE AT PREZELAY

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 12500

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


In the midst of my triumph, which was as intense as if I myself, instead of pure luck, had engineered our journey, I became aware of a tiny qualm as I sat gazing across the stream. Perhaps the gathering night affected me, or the air, which was growing chilly, or the remnants of the village, which were cheerless, to say the least. But that castle, perched so darkly on its crag, with a strip of blood-red sky framing it, was at the heart of my feeling. If it had been a nice, worldly-looking, well-kept chateau, with poplared walks and a formal garden, I should have welcomed it with open arms; but it wasn't, decidedly! It was the threatening age-blackened sort of place that inevitably suggests Fulc of Anjou, strongholds on the Loire, marauding barons, and the good old days with their concomitants of rapine and robbery and death.

It was picturesque, but it was intensely gloomy; the proper spot for a catastrophe rather than a happy denouement. I was not impressionable, of course; but now that I thought of it, our jaunt had been going with a smoothness almost ominous. Could one expect such clock-like regularity to run forever without a break?

Take the utter disappearance of the gray car, for instance. That had seemed to me reassuring; but was it? Those four men had cared enough about Miss Falconer's movements to involve themselves in a murder. Why, then, should they have given up the chase in so mysterious a way?

And the girl herself! When I looked at her I felt horribly worried. She was shivering through her furs; yet it was not with the cold, I felt quite sure. With her hands clasped, she sat staring at that confounded castle with a look of actual hunger. She cared too much about this thing; she couldn't stand a great deal more.

Well, she wouldn't have to, I concluded, my brief misgivings fading. We were out of the woods; another hour would see the business closed. As for the men in the car, they were victims of their guilty consciences, were no doubt in full flight or hiding somewhere in terror of the law.

At any rate, there was no point in my sitting here like a graven image; so I roused myself and wrapped the rugs closer about the girl.

"I'm to drive to the chateau?" I inquired with recovered cheerfulness. I had to repeat the words before they broke her trance.

"Yes," she answered. Suddenly, impulsively, she turned toward me, her face almost feverish, her eyes astonishingly large and bright. "I haven't told you much," she acknowledged tremulously; "but you won't think that I don't trust you. It is only that I couldn't talk of it and keep my courage; and I must keep it a little longer-until we know the truth."

"That's quite all right, Miss Falconer." I was switching on the lamps. Then I extinguished them; their clear acetylene glare seemed almost weirdly out of place. "We can muddle along without any lights. Not much traffic here," I muttered. I had a feeling, anyhow, that unostentatiousness of approach might not be bad.

There was intense silence about us; not even a breeze was stirring. A thin crescent moon was out, silvering the river and the trees. The road was atrocious; on one dark stretch the car, rocking into a rut, jolted us viciously and brought my teeth together on the tip of my tongue.

"Sorry," I gasped, between humiliation and pain.

With the silence and the dimness, we were like ghosts, the car like a phantom. An old stone bridge seemed to beckon us, and we crossed to the other side. There, at Miss Falconer's gesture, I drew the automobile off the road at the edge of the town, halted it beneath some trees, and helped her to alight. We started up the hill together without a word.

Two ghosts! More and more, as we climbed through the wreck and desolation, that was what we seemed. The road was choked with stones between which the grass was sprouting; there was nothing left of the little church save a single pointed shaft. We climbed rapidly, the girl always gazing up at the castle with that same feverish eagerness. She had forgotten, I think, that I was there.

At last we were coming to the hilltop and the chateau. Rather breathless, I studied its looming walls, its turrets, its three round towers. It looked dark and inexplicably menacing, but I had recovered my form and could defy it. When we halted at a great iron-studded oak gate and Miss Falconer pulled the bell-rope, I was astonished. It had not occurred to me that the castle would be more inhabited than the town.

Nor was it, apparently; for no one answered its summons, though I could hear the bell jingling faintly somewhere within. Miss Falconer rang a second time, then a third; her face shone white in the moonlight; she was growing anxious.

"Did you think," I ventured finally, "that there was some one here?"

"Yes; Marie-Jeanne," she answered, listening intently. Then she roused herself. "I mean the gardienne. She never left, not even when the Germans came. They made her cook for them; she said she had been born in the keeper's lodge, and her grandfather before her, and that she would rather die at Prezelay than go to any other place. But of course she may have walked down the river for the evening. Her son's wife is at Santierre, two miles off. She may be there."

"That's it," I agreed hastily, the more hastily because I doubted. "She's sitting over a fire, toasting her toes, and gossiping and having a cup of tea, or whatever people like that use for an equivalent in these parts." I suppressed the unwelcome thought that a woman living here alone ran a first-rate chance of getting her throat cut by strolling vagrants. "Shall we have to wait until she comes back?" I asked. "Then let's sit down. I choose this stone!"

On my last word, however, something surprising happened. Miss Falconer, in her impatience, put a hand on the bolt of the gate, shook it, and raised it, and, lo and behold! the oak frame swung open. Before I quite realized the situation, we were inside, in a square courtyard, with the gardienne's lodge at the right of us, impenetrably barred and shuttered, and before us the portal of the castle, surmounted with quaint stone carvings of men in armor riding prancing steeds. The court, as revealed by the moonlight,

was intact, but neglected. Weeds were sprouting between the square blocks of stone that paved it, and in the center a wide circular space, charred and blackened, showed where the German sentries had built their fires. It was not cheerful, nor was it homey. I scarcely blamed Marie-Jeanne for flitting. The faint sound of the cannonading had begun again in the distance, but otherwise the place was as silent as a tomb.

"It seems strange!" Miss Falconer murmured, looking about in puzzled fashion. "Why in the world should she have left the gate open in this careless way? Of course there is nothing here for thieves; the Germans saw to that; but still, as keeper-Oh, well, it doesn't matter. It saves us from waiting till she comes home."

As I followed her toward the castle entrance, she opened the bag she carried, and produced a candle, which I hastened to take and light. I nearly said, "The latest thing in the housebreaking line, madame, is electric torches, not tapers;" but I decided not to. After all, perhaps we were housebreakers. How could I tell?

Hot candle wax splashed my fingers and scorched them, but I scarcely noticed. My sense of high-gear adventure had reached its zenith now. There was something thrilling, something stimulating in this stealthy night entrance into a deserted castle. It was an experience, at all events; there was no concierge to stump before one through dim passages and up winding staircases; no flood of dates and names and anecdotes poured inexorably into one's bored ears to insure a douceur when the tour of the chateau should be done.

The door-faithless Marie-Jeanne!-opened as readily as the outer gate. We were entering. I glimpsed in a dim vista a superb Gothic hall of magnificent architecture and most imposing proportions, arched and carved and stretching off with apparent endlessness into the gloom. Holding up my light, I scanned the place with growing interest. It had not been demolished, but neither had it been spared. The furniture was gone, save for a few scattered chairs and a table; the walls were defaced with cartoons and scrawled inscriptions; the floor was stained, and littered with empty bottles and broken plates. From the chimney-place-a medieval-art jewel topped with carved and colored enamels-pieces had been hacked away by some deliberately destructive hand. I glanced at Miss Falconer, whose eyes had been following mine.

"They tore down the tapestries," she said beneath her breath. "They slashed the old portraits with their swords and broke the windows and took away the statues and candlesticks and plate. They cut up the furniture and had it used for fire-wood; and the German captain and his officers had a feast here and drank to the fall of Paris and ordered their soldiers to burn the village to the ground. Oh, I don't like the place any more; too much has happened. And-and I don't like Marie-Jeanne's not being here, Mr. Bayne. I feel as if there were something wrong about it. I believe I am a little-just a little afraid!"

"Come, now, you don't expect me to believe that, do you?" I countered promptly. "Because I won't. Why, it's your pluck that has kept me up all day. Just the same, on general principles, I'll take a look round if you'll allow me. Here's a chair, and if you will rest a minute, I'll guarantee to find out."

The chair I mentioned was standing near the chimney, and as I spoke I walked over to it and started to spin it round. It resisted me heavily; I bent over it, lifting my candle. Then I uttered an exclamation, stood petrified, and stared.

In the chair, concealed from us until now by the high carved back of wood, was something which at first looked like a huddled mass of garments, but which on closer scrutiny resolved itself into a woman in a striped dress, an apron, and a pair of heavy shoes. There was a cut on her cheek, a bruise on her forehead. Locks of graying hair straggled from beneath her disarranged white cap, and she glared at me from a lean, sallow face with a pair of terrified eyes.

She must be dead, I thought. No living woman could sit so still and stare so wildly. The scene in the inn garage rushed back upon me, and I must say that my blood turned cold. But she was alive, I saw now; she was certainly breathing. And an instant later I realized why she stayed so immobile; she was bound hand and foot to the chair she sat in, and a colored handkerchief, her own doubtless, had been twisted across her mouth to form a gag.

"I think," I head myself saying, "that we have been maligning Marie-Jeanne."

A choked, frightened cry from Miss Falconer made me wheel about sharply, to find her staring not a me, but at the further wall. Prepared now for anything under heaven, I followed her gaze. Above us, circling the whole hall, there ran a gallery from which at a distance of some fifteen feet from where we stood a wide stone staircase descended; and half-way down this, as motionless as statues, as indistinct as shadows, I saw four men in the uniform of officers of France.

For an uncanny moment I wondered whether they were specters. For a stupid one, I thought they might be people whom the girl had come here to meet. Still, if they were, she wouldn't be looking at them in this paralyzed fashion. I could not see them plainly,-but they must be the men from Bleau.

"Well, Mr. Bayne," the foremost was asking, "did you think we had deserted you? Not a bit of it! We came on ahead and rang up the old woman there and commandeered her keys. We've been killing time here for a good half hour, waiting for you. You must have had tire trouble. And you don't seem very pleased to see us now that you've come-eh, what?"

At Bleau the previous night, I was recalling dazedly, there had been only three men wearing the horizon blue. Who was this fourth figure, who knew my name and spoke such colloquial English? I raised my candle as high as possible and scanned him. Then I stood transfixed.

"Van Blarcom!" I gasped. "And in a uniform, by all that's holy!"

He grinned.

"No. You haven't got that quite right," he told me. "What's the use keeping up the game now that we're here, all friends together? My name isn't Van Blarcom. It's Franz von Blenheim, Mr. Bayne."

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