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The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 11349

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The words of Franz von Blenheim seemed to fill the hall and reecho from the walls and arches, deafening me, leaving me stunned as if by an earthquake or by a flash of lightning from clear skies. Yet I never though of doubting them. Comatose as my state was, slowly as my brain was working, I recognized vaguely how many features of the mystery, both past and present, these words explained.

It was odd, but never once had it occurred to me that Van Blarcom might be a German. He himself, I began to realize, had taken care of that. With considerable acumen he had filled every one of our brief interviews with vigorous denunciations of somebody else, dark hints as to intrigues that surrounded me and might enmesh me, and solemn warnings and prudent counsels, which had brilliantly served his turn. He had kept me so busy suspecting Miss Falconer-at the thought I could have beaten my head against the wall in token of my abject shame-that my doubts had never glanced in his direction; a most humiliating confession, since I couldn't deny, reviewing the past in this new light, that circumstances had afforded me every opportunity to guess the truth.

There was no time, however, for dwelling on my deficiencies. The next half hour would be an uncommonly lively one, I felt quite sure. I might call the thing bizarre, fantastic; I might dub it an extravaganza; the fact remained that I was shut up in this lonely spot with four entirely able-bodied Germans and must match wits with them over some affair that apparently was of international consequence; for if it had been a twopenny business, Herr von Blenheim, the star agent of the kaiser, would never have thought it worth his pains.

With all my fighting spirit rising to meet the odds against us, I cast a speculative eye over the Teutons, who had now dissolved their group. Van Blarcom himself-Blenheim, rather-descended in a leisurely fashion while one of his friends, remaining on the staircase, fixed me with a look of intentness almost ominous and the other two placed themselves as if casually before the door. They were stalwart, well set-up men, I acknowledged as I surveyed them. Though not bad at what our French friends call la boxe, I was outnumbered. It was obviously a case of strategy-but of what sort?

A much defaced table, flanked with a few battered chairs, stood near me, and with a premonition that I should want two hands presently, I set my candle there. Then I drew a chair forward and turned to the girl with outward coolness.

"Please sit down, Miss Falconer," I invited. I wanted time.

She inclined her head and obeyed me very quietly. She was not afraid; I saw it with a rush of pride. As she sat erect, her head thrown back, on gloved hand resting on the table, she was a picture of spirit and steadiness and courage. If I had needed strength I should have found it in the fact that her eyes, oddly darkened as always when her errand was threatened did not rest on our captors, but turned toward me.

"We'll all sit down," Franz von Blenheim agreed most amiably. It evidently amused him to retain the late Mr. Van Blarcom's dialect and air. "We can fix this business up in no time; so why not be sociable?" He strolled to a chair and sank into it and motioned me to do the same.

"Thanks," I returned, not complying. "If you don't mind, I'd like first to untie that woman. I confess to a queer sort of prejudice against seeing women bound and gagged. In fact I feel so strongly on the subject that it might spoil our whole conference for me." I took a step toward the shadowy figure of Marie-Jeanne.

Blenheim did not move, but his eyes seemed to narrow and darken.

"Just leave her alone for the present. She is too fond of shrieking-might interrupt our argument," he declared. "And see here, Mr. Bayne," he added, warned by my manner, "I want to call your attention to the gentleman on the stairs, my friend Schwartzmann. He's a crack shot, none better, and he has got you covered. Hadn't you better sit down and have a friendly chat?"

Though the stairs were dim, I could see something glittering in the hand of the person mentioned, who was impersonating for the evening a dashing young captain of the general staff. My fingers strayed toward my pocket and my own revolver. Then I pried them away, temporarily, and took a provisional seat.

"That's sensible," Franz von Blenheim approved me blandly. "Now, Miss Falconer, you know what I'm here for, isn't that so? Just hand me those papers and you'll be as free as air. I'll take myself off; you'll never see me again probably. That's a fair bargain, isn't it? What do you say?"

I was sitting close to the girl, so close that her soft furs brushed me and I could feel the flutter of her breath against my cheek. At Blenheim's proposition I glanced at her. She was measuring him steadily. Then she looked at me, and her eyes seemed to hold some message that I could not read.

"Perhaps, Miss Falconer," I interposed, "you have not quite grasped the situation." I was sparring for time; she wanted to convey something to me, I was sure. "It is rather complicated. This gentleman has turned out to be a well-known agent of the kaiser. He was traveling on the Re d'Italia, I gather, on a forged passport, and had helped himself to my baggage as the most convenient way of smuggling some papers to the other side."

He grinned assentingly.

"You owe me one for that," he owned. "You see, it was my second trip on that line, and I thought they might have me spotted; I had a lot of things to carry home,-reports, information, confidential letters, and I concluded they would be safer with a nice, innocent

young man like you. It didn't work, as things went. It was just a little too clever. But if you hadn't mixed yourself up with this young lady, and tossed packages overboard for her under the noses of the stewards, and got yourself suspected and your baggage searched, I should have turned the trick!"

His share in the tangled episode on board the steamer was unfolding. I understood now why he had sprung to my rescue in the salon when I was accused. Naturally he had not wanted my traps searched, considering what was in them.

"As you say, you were a little too clever," I agreed.

His eyes glinted viciously.

"Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk," he retorted; "and besides, the papers you are going to hand me to-night will even up the score. It was a piece of luck, my running across Miss Falconer on the liner. Of course the minute I heard her name I knew what she was crossing for." The dickens he did! "All I had to do was to follow her, and by the time we reached Bleau I had guessed enough to come ahead of her. But I'll admit, Mr. Bayne, now it's all over, it made me nervous to have you popping up at every turn! I began to think that you suspected me-that you were trailing me. If you had, you know, I shouldn't have stood a chance on earth. You could have said a word to the first gendarme you met and had me laid by the heels and ended it. That was why I kept warning you off. But I needn't have worried. You drank in everything I told you as innocent as a babe!"

If he wanted revenge for my last remark, he had it. I looked at the girl beside me, so watchfully composed and fearless, then at the fixed, terrified glare of the motionless Marie-Jeanne. With a little rudimentary intelligence on my part this situation would have been spared us.

"Yes," I acknowledged bitterly; "I did."

"Except for that," he grinned, "it went like clockwork. There wasn't even enough danger in the thing to give it spice. Do you know, there isn't a capital in Europe where I can't get disguises, money, passports within twelve hours if I want them. Oh, you have a bit to learn about us, you people on the other side! I've crossed the ocean four times since the war started; I've been in London, Rome, Paris, Petrograd-pretty much everywhere. I'm getting homesick, though. The laissez-passer I've picked up, or forged, no matter which, takes me straight through to the Front; and I've got friends even in the trenches. Before the Frenchies know it I'll be across no-man's-land and inside the German lines!"

For a moment, as I listened, I was dangerously near admiring him. He was certainly exaggerating; but it couldn't all be brag. The life of this spy of the first water, of international fame, must be rather marvelous; to defy one's enemies with success, to journey calmly through their capitals, to stroll undetected among their agents of justice-were not things any fool could do. He carried his life in his hand, this Franz von Blenheim. He had courage; he even had genius along his special lines. His impersonation on the liner, shrewd, slangy, coarse-grained, patronizing, had been a triumph. Then, suddenly, I remembered a murdered boy beside whom I had knelt that morning, and my brief flicker of homage died.

"You think I can't do it, eh?" He had misinterpreted my expression. "Well, let me tell you I did just a year ago and got over without a scratch. To get across no-man's-land you have to play dead, as you Yankees put it; you lie flat on the ground and pull yourself forward a foot at a time and keep your eye on the search-lights so that when they come your way you can drop on your face and lie like a corpse until they move on. It's not pleasant, of course; but in this game we take our chances. And now I think I'll be claiming my winnings if you please."

I straightened in my chair, recognizing a crisis. With his last phrase he had shed the bearing of Mr. John Van Blarcom, and from the disguise all in an instant there emerged the Prussian, insolent, overbearing, fixing us with a look of challenge, and addressing us with crisp command. No; the kaiser's agent was not a figure of romance or of adventure. He was a force as able, as ruthless, as cruel as the land he served.

"Miss Falconer," he demanded briefly, "where are those papers? I am not to be played with, I assure you. If you think I am, just recall this morning, and your chauffeur. We didn't kill him for the pleasure of it; he had his chance as you have. But when we went for our car he was there in the garage, sleeping; he seemed to think we had designs on him, and tried to rouse the inn."

"Do you call that an excuse for a murder?" I exclaimed. "You cold-blooded villain!"

"I don't make excuses." His voice was hard and arrogant. "I am calling the matter to your notice as a kind warning, Mr. Bayne. You said a little while ago that to see a woman gagged and bound distressed you. Well, unless I have those papers within five minutes, you will see something worse than that!"

At the moment what I saw was red. There was something beating in my throat, choking me; I knew neither myself nor the primitive impulses I felt.

"If you lay a finger on Miss Falconer," I heard myself saying slowly, "I swear I'll kill you."

Then through the crimson mist that enveloped me I saw Blenheim laugh.

"Come, Mr. Bayne," he taunted me, "remember our friend Schwartzmann. This is your business, Miss Falconer, I take it. What are you going to do?"

The girl flung her head back, and her eyes blazed as she answered him.

"You can torture me," she said scornfully. "You can kill me. But I will never give you the papers; you may be sure of that."

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