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   Chapter 22 THE GUEST OF PREZELAY

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 11358

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The sanctuary into which we had stumbled was as black as Erebus save for one dimly grayish patch, which, I surmised, meant a window. When those heavy feet had clumped down the staircase, silence enveloped us again, beatific silence. Instantly I banished the late Mr. Van Blarcom from my consciousness. With a good stout door between us what importance had his threats?

The truth was that my blood was singing through my veins and my spirits were soaring. I would gladly have stood there forever, triumphant in the dark, with Miss Falconer's soft, warm fingers trembling a little, but lying in contented, almost cosy, fashion under mine. Had there ever been such a girl, at once so sweet and so daring? To think how she had waited for me all through that battle below!

A little breathless murmur came to me through the darkness.

"Oh, Mr. Bayne! You were so wonderful! How am I ever going to thank you?" was what it said.

"You needn't. Let me thank you for letting me in on it!" I exulted happily. "I give you my word, I haven't enjoyed anything so much in years. It was all a hallucination, of course; but it was jolly while it lasted. I was only worried every instant for fear the hall and the men would vanish, like an Arabian Nights' palace or the Great Horn Spoon or Aladdin's jinn!"

Very gently she withdrew her fingers, and my mood toppled ludicrously. Why had I been rejoicing? We were in the deuce of a mess! So far I had simply won a half hour's respite to be followed by the deluge; for if Blenheim had been ruthless before, what were his probable intentions now?

"We have lost our candle in the fracas," I muttered lamely.

"It doesn't matter. I have another," she answered in a soft, unsteady voice.

As she coaxed the light into being, I made a rapid survey. We were in a room of gray stone, of no great size and quite bare of furnishing, save for a few stone benches built into alcoves in the wall. The bareness of the scene emphasized our lack of resources. As a sole ray of hope, I perceived a possible line of retreat if things should grow too warm for us, a door facing the one by which we had come in.

With all the excitement, I had forgotten Mr. Schwartzmann's bullet, which, I have no doubt, had left me a gory spectacle. At any rate, I frightened Miss Falconer when the candle-light revealed me. In an instant she was bending over me, forcing me gently down upon a particularly cold, hard bench.

"They shot you!" she was exclaiming. Her voice was low, but it held an astonishing protective fierceness. "They-they dared to hurt you! Oh, why didn't you tell me? Is it very bad?"

"No! no!" I protested, dabbing futilely at my forehead. "It isn't of the least importance. I assure you it is only a scratch. In fact," I groaned, "nobody could hurt my head; it is too solid. It must be ivory. If I had had a vestige of intelligence, an iota of it, the palest glimmer, I should have known from the beginning exactly who these fellows were!"

She was sitting beside me now, bending forward, all consoling eagerness.

"That is ridiculous!" she declared. "How could you guess?"

"Easily enough," I murmured. "I had all the clues at Gibraltar. Why, yesterday, on my way to your house in the rue St.-Dominique, I went over the whole case in the taxi, and still I didn't see. I let the fellow confide in me on the ship and warn me on the train and give me a final solemn ultimatum at the inn last night and come on here to frighten you and threaten you-when just a word to the police would have settled him forever. By George, I can't believe it! I should take a prize at an idiot show."

She laughed unsteadily.

"I don't see that," she answered. "Why should you have suspected him when even the authorities didn't guess? You are not a detective. You are a-a very brave, generous gentleman, who trusted a girl against all the evidence and helped her and protected her and risked your life for hers. Isn't that enough? And about their frightening me downstairs-they didn't. You see, Mr. Bayne-you were there."

A wisp of red-brown hair had come loose across her forehead. Her face, flushed and royally grateful, was smiling into mine. Till that moment I had never dreamed that eyes could be so dazzling. I thrust my hands deep into my pockets; I felt they were safer so.

"What is it?" she faltered, a little startled, as I rose.

"Nothing-now," I replied firmly. "I'll tell you later, to-morrow maybe, when we have seen this thing through. And in the meantime, whatever happens, I don't want you to give a thought to it. The German doesn't live who can get the better of me-not after what you have said."

The situation suddenly presented itself in rosy colors. I saw how strong the door was, what a lot of breaking it would take. And if they did force a way in, then I could try some sharp-shooting. But Miss Falconer was getting up slowly.

"Now the papers, Mr. Bayne," said she.

To be sure, the papers! I had temporarily forgotten them.

"They can't be here," I said blankly, gazing about the room.

"No, not here. In there." She motioned toward the inner door. "This is the old suite of the lords of Prezelay. We are in the room of the guards, where the armed retainers used to lie all night before the fire, watching. Then comes the antechamber and then the room of the squires and then the bedchamber of the lord." Her voice had fallen now as if she thought that the walls were listening. "In the lord's room there is a secret hiding-place behind a panel; and if the papers are at Prezelay, they will be there."

I took the candle from her, turned to the door, and opened it.

"I hope they are," I said

. "Let us go and see."

The antechamber, the room of the squires, the bedchamber of the lord. Such terms were fascinating; they called up before me a whole picture of feudal life. Thanks to the attentions of the Germans, the rooms were mere empty shells, however, though they must have been rather splendid when decked out with furniture and portraits and tapestries before the war.

Our steps echoed on the stone as we traversed the antechamber, a quaint round place, lined with bull's-eye windows and presided over by the statues of four armed men. Another door gave us entrance to the quarter of the squires. We started across it, but in the center of the floor I stopped. In all the other rooms of the castle dust had lain thick, but there was none here. Elsewhere the windows had been closed and the air heavy and musty, but here the soft night breeze was drifting in. On a table, in odd conjunction, stood the remains of a meal, a roll of bandages, and a half-burned candle; and finally, against the wall lay a bed of a sort, a mattress piled with tumbled sheets.

Were these Marie-Jeanne's quarters? I did not know, but I doubted. I turned to the girl.

"Miss Falconer," I said, attempting naturalness, "will you go back to the guard-room and wait there a few minutes, please? I think-that is, it seems just possible that some one is hiding in yonder. I'd prefer to investigate alone if you don't mind."

I broke off, suddenly aware of the look she was casting round her. It did not mean fear; it could mean nothing but an incredulous, dawning hope. These signs of occupancy suggested to her something so wonderful, so desirable that she simply dared not credit them; she was dreading that they might slip through her fingers and fade away! I made a valiant effort at understanding.

"Perhaps," I said, "you're expecting some one. Did you think that a-a friend of yours might have arrived here before we came?" She did not glance at me, but she bent her head, assenting. All her attention was focused raptly on that bed beside the wall.

"Yes," she whispered; "a long time before us. A month ago at least." Her eyes had begun to shine. "Oh, I don't dare to believe it; I've hardly dared to hope for it. But if it is true, I am going to be happier than I ever thought I could be again."

She made a swift movement toward the door, but I forestalled her. Whatever that room held, I must have a look at it before she went. I flung the door open, blocked her passage, and stopped in my tracks, for the best of reasons. A young man was sitting on a battered oak chest beneath a window, facing me, and in his right hand, propped on his knees, there glittered a revolver that was pointed straight at my heart.

I stood petrified, measuring him. He was lightly built and slender. He had a manner as glittering as his weapon, and a pair of remarkably cool and clear gray eyes. His picturesqueness seemed wasted on mere flesh and blood it was so perfect. Coatless, but wearing a shirt of the finest linen, he looked like some old French duelist and ought, I felt, to be gazing at me, rapier in hand, from a gilt-framed canvas on the wall.

In the brief pause before he spoke I gathered some further data. He was a sick man and he had recently been wounded; at present he was keeping up by sheer courage, not by strength. His lips were pressed in a straight line, his eyes were shadowed, and his pallor was ghastly. Finally, he was wearing his left arm in a sling across his breast.

"Monsieur," he now enunciated clearly, "will raise both hands and keep them lifted. Monsieur sees, doubtless, that I am in no state for a wrestling-match. For that very reason he must take all pains not to forget himself-for should he stir, however slightly, I grieve to say that I must shoot."

The casualness of his tones made Blenheim's menaces seem childish and futile. I had not the slightest doubt that he would keep his word. Yet, without any reason whatever, I liked him and I had no fear of him; I did not feel for a single instant that Miss Falconer was in danger; she was as safe with him, I knew instinctively, as she was with me.

I opened my lips to parley, but found myself interrupted. A cry came from behind me, a low, utterly rapturous cry. I was thrust aside, and saw the girl spring past me. An instant later she was by the stranger, kneeling, with her arms about him and her bright head against his cheek.

"Jean! Dear Jean!" she was crying between tears and laughter. "We thought you were dead! We thought you were never coming back to Raincy-la-Tour!"

It seemed to me that some one had struck my head a stunning blow. For an interval I stood dazed; then, painfully, my brain stirred. Things went dancing across it like sharp, stabbing little flames, guesses, memories, scraps of talk I had heard, items I had read; but they were scattered, without cohesion; like will-o'-the-wisps, they could not be seized.

There was a young man, a noble of France, who had been a hero. I had read of him in a certain extra, as my steamer left New York. He had disappeared. Certain papers had vanished with him. He had been suspected, because it was known that the Germans wanted those special documents. All the world, I thought dully, seemed to be hunting papers; the French, the Germans, Miss Falconer, and I.

Once more I looked at the man on the chest. He had dropped his pistol and was clasping the girl to him, soothing her, stroking her hair. My brain began to work more rapidly. The little flashes of light seemed to run together, to crystallize into a whole. I knew.

Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier, the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour, the Firefly of France.

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