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   Chapter 21 IN THE DARK

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 12660

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

I thought of a number of things in the ensuing thirty seconds, but they all narrowed down swiftly to a mere thankfulness that I had been born. Suppose I hadn't; or suppose I had not happened to stop at the St. Ives Hotel and sail on the Re d'Italia; or that I had remained in Rome with Jack Herriott instead of hurrying on to Paris; or had let my quest of the girl end in the rue St.-Dominique instead of trailing her to Bleau. If one of these links had been omitted, the chain of circumstance would have been broken, and Miss Falconer would have sat here confronting these four men alone.

It was extremely hard for me to believe that the scene was genuine. The dark hall, the one wavering, flickering candle lighting only the immediate area of our conference, the bound woman in the chair, the watchful attitude of our captors. Mr. Schwartzmann's ready weapon-all were the sort of thing that does not happen to people in our prosaic day and age. It was like an old-time romantic drama; I felt inadequate, cast for the hero. I might have been Francois Villon, or some such Sothern-like incarnation, for all the civilized resources that I could summon. There were no bells here to be rung for servants, no telephones to be utilized, no police station round the corner from which to commandeer prompt aid.

The most alarming feature of the affair, however, was the manner of Franz von Blenheim, which was not so much melodramatic as businesslike and hard. At Miss Falconer's defiance he looked her up and down quite coolly. Then, turning in his seat, he began giving orders to his men.

"Schwartzmann," ran the first of these, "I want you to watch this gentleman. He will probably make some movement presently; if he does, you are to fire, and not to miss. And you"-he turned to the men by the door-"pile some wood in the chimney-place and light it. There are some sticks over yonder,-but if you don't find enough, break up a chair. Then when you get a good blaze, heat me one of the fire-irons. Heat it red-hot. And be quick! We are wasting time!"

The color was leaving the girl's cheeks, but she sat even straighter, prouder. As for me, for one instant I experienced a blessed relief. I had been right; it was all impossible. One didn't talk seriously of red-hot irons.

"You must think you are King John," I laughed. "But you're overplaying. Don't worry, Miss Falconer; he won't touch you. There are things that men don't do."

He looked at me, not angrily, not in resentment, but in pure contempt; and I remembered. There were people, hundreds of them, in the burning villages of Belgium, in the ravaged lands of northern France, who had once felt the same assurance that certain things couldn't be done and had learned that they could. I glanced at the men who were piling wood on the hearth, at their sullen blue eyes, their air of rather stupid arrogance. I had walked, it seemed, into a nightmare; but then, so had the world.

"This isn't a tea party, Mr. Bayne," said Franz von Blenheim. "It is war. Those papers belong to my government and they are going back. I shall stop at nothing, nothing on earth, to get them; so if you have any influence with this young lady, you had better use it now."

"I am not afraid." The girl's voice was unshaken, bless her. "I said you could kill me-and I meant it. But I will not tell."

"And I will not kill you, Miss Falconer." The German's tones were level, and his eyes, as they dwelt steadily on her, were as hard and cold as steel. "I don't want you dead; I want you living, with a tongue and using it; and you will use it. You talk bravely, but you have no conception-how should you have?-of physical pain. When that iron is red-hot, if you have not spoken, I shall hold it to your arm and press it-"

"Damn you!" The cry was wrenched out of me. "Not while I am here!"

"You will be here, Mr. Bayne, just so long as it suits me." A sort of cold ferocity was growing in Blenheim's tones. "And you have yourself to thank for your position, let me remind you; you would thrust yourself in. I don't know what you are doing in the business-a ridiculous mountebank in a leather cap and coat! It's a way you Yankees have, meddling in things that don't concern you. You seem to think that you have special rights under Providence, that you own everything in the universe, even to the high seas. Well, we'll settle with your country for its munitions and its notes and its driveling talk about atrocities a little later, when we have finished up the Allies. And I'll deal with you to-night if you dare to lift a hand."

There seemed only one answer possible, and my muscles were stiffening for it when suddenly Miss Falconer's handkerchief, a mere wisp of linen which she had been clenching between her fingers, dropped to the floor. With a purely automatic movement, I bent to recover it for her; she leaned down to receive it. Her pale face and lovely dilated eyes were close to me for a fleeting second, and though her lips did not move, I seemed to catch the merest breath, the faintest gossamer whisper that said:

"The stairs!"

Blenheim's gaze, full of suspicion, was upon us as we straightened, but he could not possibly have heard anything; I had barely heard myself. I racked my brains. The stairs! But the man Schwartzmann was guarding them with his revolver. I couldn't imagine what she meant; and then suddenly I knew.

Throughout the entire scene, whenever I had glanced at her, I had noticed the steady way in which her look met mine and then turned aside. It had seemed almost like a signal or a message she was trying to give me. And which way had her eyes always gone? Why, down the hall!

I looked in that direction and felt my heart leap up exultantly. Perhaps twenty feet from us, just where the radius of the candle-light merged off into the darkness, I glimpsed what seemed the merest ghost of a circular stone staircase, carved and sculptured cunningly, like lacy foam. Up into the dusk it wound, to the gallery, and to a door. Behold our objective! I wasted no precious time in pondering the whys and the wherefores. At any rate, once inside with the bolts shot we could count on a breathing-space.

I cast a final glance at Blenheim where he lolled across the table, and at the shadowy menacing figure of the armed sentinel on

the stairs. The men at the hearth had piled their wood and were bending forward to light it.

"Be ready, please!" I said to the girl, aloud.

As I spoke I bent forward, seized the table by its legs, and raised it, and concentrated all the wrath, resentment and detestation that had boiled in me for half an hour into the force with which I dashed it forward against Blenheim's face. He grunted profoundly as it struck him. Toppling over with a crash, he rolled upon the floor. The candle, falling, extinguished itself promptly, and we were left standing in a hall as black as ink.

Simultaneously with the blow I had struck there came a spit of flame from the staircase, a sharp crack, and as I ducked hastily a bullet spurted past me, within three inches of my head. Miss Falconer was beside me. Together we retreated, while a second shot, which this time went wide, struck the wall beyond us and proved that Schwartzmann, though handicapped, was not giving up the fight.

So far things had gone better than I had dared to think was possible. Now, however, they took a sudden and most unwelcome turn. One of the men by the chimney-place must have wasted no time in leaping for me; for at this instant, quite without warning, he catapulted on me through the darkness with the force of a battering-ram.

The table, which I still held clutched with a view to emergencies, broke the force of his onslaught. He reeled, stumbled, and collapsed on his knees. However, he was lacking neither in Teutonic efficiency nor in resource. Putting out a prompt hand, he seized my ankle and jerked my foot from under me; the table dropped from my grasp with a splintering uproar, and I fell.

Before I could recover myself my enemy had rolled on top of me, and I felt his fingers at my throat as he clamored in German for a light. He was a heavy man; his bulk was paralyzing; but I stiffened every muscle. With a mighty heave I turned half over, rose on my elbow, and delivered a blow at what, I fondly hoped, might prove the point of his chin.

Dark as it was, I had made no miscalculation. He dropped on me once again, but this time as an inert mass. Burrowing out from under him, I sprang to my feet aglow with triumph-and found myself in the clutch of the second gentleman from the chimney-place, who apparently had come hotfoot to his comrade's aid.

I was fairly caught. His arms went round me like steel girders, pinioning mine to my sides before I knew what he was about. In sheer desperation I summoned all the strength I possessed and a little more. Ah! I had wrenched my right arm loose; now we should see! I raised it and managed, despite the close quarters at which we were contending, to plant a series of crashing blows on my adversary's face.

The fellow, I must say, bore up pluckily beneath the punishment. He hung on. There would be a light in a moment, he was doubtless thinking, and when once that came to pass, it would be all over with me. But at my fifth blow he wavered groggily, and at my sixth, endurance failed him. He groaned softly. Then his grasp relaxed, and he collapsed quietly on the floor.

Throughout the swift march of these events we had heard nothing of Herr von Blenheim, a fact from which I deduced with thankfulness that he was temporarily stunned. Unluckily, he now recovered. As I stood victorious, but breathless, my cap lost in the scuffle and my coat torn, I heard him stirring, and an instant later he pulled himself to his feet and flashed on an electric torch.

By its weird beam I saw that Miss Falconer was close beside me. Good heavens! Why, I though in anguish, wasn't she already upstairs? But I knew only too well; she wouldn't desert her champion. It was probably too late now. Blenheim, much congested as to countenance, seemed on the point of springing; his battered aids were struggling up in menacing, if unsteady, fashion; and Mr. Schwartzmann, at length provided with the light he wanted, was aiming at me with ominous deliberation from his coign of vantage above.

However, we were at the circular staircase. Again I caught up the table and held it before us as a shield while we climbed upward, side by side. In the distance my friend Schwartzmann was hopefully potting at us. A bullet, with a sharp ping, embedded itself in the thick wood in harmless fashion; another struck the shaft beside me, splintering its stone. We were at the last turn-but our pursuers were climbing also. I bent forward and let them have the table, hurling it with all possible force.

As it catapulted down upon them it knocked Blenheim off his balance, and he in his unforeseen descent swept the others from their feet. A swearing, groaning mass, a conglomeration of helplessly waving arms and legs, they rolled downward. Victory! I was about to join Miss Falconer in the doorway when there came a final flash from the opposite staircase, and I felt a stinging sensation across my forehead and a spurt of blood into my eyes.

The pain of the slight wound promptly altered my intentions. Instead of leaving the gallery, I sprang forward to the balustrade. Whipping my revolver out at last, I aimed deliberately and fired; whereupon I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Schwartzmann rock, struggle, apparently regain his equilibrium, and then suddenly crumple up and pitch headlong down the stairs.

Below, Blenheim and his friend were extricating themselves from that blessed table. I passed through the door and thrust it shut and shot the bolts. We were safe for the present. I could not see Miss Falconer, nor did she speak to me; but her hand groped for my arm and rested there, and I covered it with one of mine.

Then, as we stood contentedly drawing breath, we heard steps mounting the staircase. Some one struck a vicious blow against the heavy door. Blenheim's voice, hoarse and muffled, reached us through the panels.

"Can you hear me there?" it asked.

If tones could kill! I summoned breath enough to answer with cheerful coolness.

"Every syllable," I responded. "What did you wish to say?"

"Just this." He was panting, either with exhaustion or fury, and there were slow, labored pauses between his words. "I will give you half an hour, exactly, to come out-with the papers. After that we will break the door down. And then you can say your prayers."

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