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   Chapter 23 THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 14404

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


He was very weak indeed; it seemed a miracle that, at the sounds below, he had found strength to drag himself from his bed and crawl inch by inch to the room of the secret panel to mount guard there; and no sooner had he soothed Miss Falconer than he collapsed in a sort of swoon. We laid him on the chest, and I fetched a pillow for his head and stripped off my coat and spread it over him. I took out my pocket-flask, too, and forced a few drops between his teeth. In short I tried to play the game.

When his eyes opened, however, my endurance had reached its limits. With a muttered excuse,-not that I flattered myself they wanted me to stay!-I left them and stumbled into the room of the squires, taking refuge in the grateful dark. I don't know how long I sat there, elbows on knees, hands propping my head; but it was a ghastly vigil. In this round, unlike the battle in the hall, I had not been victor. Instead, I had taken the count.

I knew now, of course, that I was in love with Esme Falconer. Judging from the violence of the sensation, I must have loved her for quite a while. Probably it had begun that night in the St. Ives restaurant; for when before had I watched any girl with such special, ecstatic, almost proprietary rapture? Yes, that was why, ever since, I had been cutting such crazy capers. From first to last they were the natural thing, the prerogative of a man in my state of mind or heart.

Many threads of the affair still remained to be unraveled. I didn't know what the duke was doing here, what he had been about for a month past, how the girl, far off in America, had guessed his whereabouts and his need; nor did I care. His mere existence was enough-that and Esme's love for him. All my interest in my Chinese puzzle had come to a wretched end.

"Confound him!" I thought savagely. "We could have spared him perfectly. What business has he turning up at the eleventh hour? He didn't cross the ocean with her. He didn't suspect her unforgivably. He didn't help her, and disguise himself as a chauffeur for her, and wing Schwartzmann, and bruise up the other chaps and send them rolling in a heap. This is my adventure. He must have had a hundred. Why couldn't he stick to his high-flying and dazzling and let me alone?"

The murmur of voices drifted from the lord's bedchamber. I could guess what they had to say to each other, Miss Falconer and her duke. The Firefly of France! Even I, a benighted foreigner, knew the things that title stood for: heroism, in a land where every soldier was a hero; praise and medals and glory; thirty conquered aeroplanes-a record over which his ancestors, those old marshals and constables lying effigied on their tombs of marble with their feet resting on carved lions, must nod their heads with pride.

"Mr. Bayne!"

It was Miss Falconer's voice. I rose reluctantly and obeyed the summons. The Firefly was sitting propped on the chest, white, but steadier, while Esme still knelt beside him, holding his hand in hers.

"I have been telling Jean, Mr. Bayne, how you have helped us." The radiance of her face, the lilt of her voice, stabbed me with a jealous pang. I wanted to see her happy, Heaven knew, but not quite in this manner. "And he wants to thank you for all that you have done."

The Duke of Raincy-la-Tour spoke to me in English that was correct, but quaintly formal, of a decided charm.

"Monsieur," he said, "I offer you my gratitude. And if you will touch the hand of one concerning whom, I fear, very evil things are believed-"

I forced a smile and a hearty pressure.

"I'll risk it," I assured him. "The chain of evidence against you seemed far-fetched to say the least. They pointed out accusingly that your father and your grandfather had been royalists, and that therefore-"

He made a gesture.

"May their souls find repose! Monsieur, it is true that they were. But if they lived to-day, my father and grandfather, they would not be traitors. They would wear, like me, the uniform of France."

He smiled, and I knew once for all that I could never hate him; that mere envy and a shame of it were the worst that I could feel. Everything about him won me, his simplicity, his fine pride, his clearness of eye and voice, his look of a swift, polished sword blade. I had never seen a man like him. The Duchess of Raincy-la-Tour would be a lucky woman; so much was plain.

I found a seat on the window ledge, the girl remained kneeling by him, and he told us his story, always in that quaint, formal speech. As it went on it absorbed me. I even forgot those clasped hands for an occasional instant. In every detail, in every quiet sentence, there was some note that brought before me the Firefly's achievements, the marauding airships he had climbed into the air to meet, the foes he had swooped from the blue to conquer, his darts into the land of his enemies where there was a price upon his head.

The story had to do with a night when he had left the French lines behind him. His commander had been quite frank. The mission meant his probable death. He was to wear a German uniform; to land inside the lines of the kaiser, to conceal his plane, if luck favored him, among the trees in the grounds of the old chateau of Ranceville; to get what knowledge and sketch what plans he could of defenses against which the French attacks had hitherto broken vainly, and to bring them home.

All had gone well at first. His gallant little plane had winged its way into the unknown like a darting swallow; he had landed safely; and after he had walked for hours with the Germans about him and death beside him, he had gained his spoils. It was as he rose for the return flight that the alarm was given. He got away; but he had five hostile aircraft after him. Could he hope to elude them and to land safely at the French lines?

It was in that hour, while the night lingered and the stars still shone and the cannon of the two armies challenged each other steadily, that the Firefly of France fought his greatest battle in the air. Since his whole aim was escape, it was bloodless; he had to trust to skill and cunning; he dared manoeuvers that appalled others, dropped plummet-like, looped dizzily, soared to the sheerest heights. He had been wounded. The framework of his plane was damaged. Still he gained on his foes and won through to the lines of France.

"But I might not land there," he explained. "The Germans followed. A mist had closed about us, hiding us from my friends below. I heard only my propeller; and that, by now, sounded faint to me, for I was weakening; one shot had hit my shoulder and another had wounded my left arm."

The girl swayed closer against him, watching him with eyes of worship. Well, I didn't wonder, though it cut me to the heart. Even a fairy prince could have been no worthier of her than this Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier; of that at least, I told myself dourly, I must be glad.

"As I raced on," said the duke, "there came a certain thought to me. We had traveled far; we were in the country near Prezelay, my cousin's house. The village, I knew, was ruined, but the chateau stood; and if I could reach it, old Marie-Jeanne would help me

. You comprehend, my weakness was growing. I knew I had little more time."

The shrouding mist had aided him to lose those pursuing vultures. The last of them fell off, baffled,-or afraid to go deeper into France. Now he emerged again into the clear air and the starlight. The land beneath him was a scudding blur, with a dark-green mass in its center, the forest of La Fay.

And then, suddenly, he knew he must land if he were not to lose consciousness and hurtle down blindly; and with set teeth and sweat beading his forehead, he began the descent. At the end his strength failed him. The plane crashed among the trees. "But Saint Denis, who helps all Frenchmen, helped me,"-he smiled-"and I was thrown clear."

From that thicket where his machine lay hidden it was a mile to Prezelay. He dragged himself over this distance, sometimes on his hands and knees. Soon after dawn Marie-Jeanne, answering a discordant ringing, found a man lying outside the gate and babbling deliriously, her master's cousin, in a blood-soaked uniform, holding out a bundle of papers, and begging her by the soul of her mother to put them in the castle's secret hiding-place.

She did it. Then she coaxed the wounded man to the rooms opening from the gallery and tended him day and night through the weeks of fever that ensued. From his ravings she learned that he was in danger and feared pursuers; and with the peasant's instinct for caution, she had not dared to send for help.

"It was yesterday," the duke told us, "that my mind came back. I knew then what must be thought of me, what must be said of me, all over France." He was leaning on the wall now, exhausted and white, but dauntless. "No matter for that-I have the papers. You recall the hiding-place?"

He smiled as he asked the question, and Miss Falconer smiled back at him. Getting to her feet, she ran her fingers across the oak panel over his head, where for centuries a huntsman had been riding across a forest glade and blowing his horn. The bundle of his hunting-knife protruded just a little; and as the girl pressed it, the panel glided silently open, revealing a space, square and dark and cobwebby.

Something was lying there, a thin, wafer-like packet of papers, the papers for which the Firefly of France had shed his blood. She held them up in triumph. But the duke was still smiling faintly. He thrust one hand into his shirt and drew out a duplicate package, which he raised for us to see.

"Behold!" he said. "They are copies. All that I sketched that night near Ranceville, all that I wrote-I did not once, but twice. These I carried openly, to be found if I were captured. But those you hold went hidden in the sole of my boot, which was hollowed for them, so that if I were taken and then escaped, they might go too!"

I had read of such devices, I remembered vaguely. There was a story of a young French captain who had tried the trick in Champagne and succeeded with it, a rather famous exploit. Then I thought of something else. I got up slowly.

"You have two sets of papers?" I repeated.

"As you see, Monsieur."

"Then I'll take one of them," said I.

Miss Falconer was looking at me in a puzzled fashion. As for the duke, his brows drew together; his figure straightened; the cool glint grew in his eyes.

"Monsieur," he stated somewhat icily, "such things as these are not souvenirs. When they leave my possession they will go to the supreme command."

"Certainly," I agreed, unruffled. "That will do admirably for the first package; but about the second-no doubt Miss Falconer told you that we have German guests downstairs? Perhaps she forgot to mention the leader's name, though. It is Franz von Blenheim. And I don't care to have him break down the door and burst in on us, on her specially; I would rather, all things considered, interview him in the hall."

The Firefly's face had altered at the name of the secret agent; he was now regarding me with intentness, but without a frown. As for Miss Falconer, the trouble in her eyes was growing. I should have to be careful. Accordingly I summoned a debonair manner as I went on.

"If you'll allow me," I said, "I will take the papers down to him. He won't know that they are copies; he will snatch at them, glad of the chance. And since he is in a hurry, he probably won't stop to parley. He will simply be off at top speed, and leave us safe.

"Of course, that is the one unpleasant feature of the affair, his going." At this point I glanced in a casual manner at the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour. "It seems a pity to let him walk off scot-free, to plan more trouble for France; but that is past praying for. I could hardly hope to stop him, except by a miracle. If there is one, I'll be on hand."

Would the duke guess the hope with which I was going downstairs, I wondered. I thought he did, for his eyes flashed slightly, and he stirred a little on the chest.

"Such a miracle, Monsieur," he remarked, "would serve France greatly. As a good son of the Church, I will pray for it with all my heart!"

"I hope to come back," I went on, "and rejoin you. But if I shouldn't for any reason,"-with careful vagueness,-"you must stay here, barricaded, till they are gone. Then Miss Falconer can drive her car to the nearest town and bring back help for you. You see, it will be entirely simple, either way."

The girl, very white now, took a swift step toward me.

"Simple?" she cried. "They will kill you! They hate you, Mr. Bayne, and they are four to one. You mustn't go."

But the duke's hand was on her arm.

"My dear," he said, "he has reason. This friend of yours, I perceive, is a gallant gentleman. Believe me, if I had strength to stand, he would not go alone."

He held out the papers to me, and I took them. Then we clasped hands, the Firefly and I.

"Bonne chance, Monsieur," he bade me with the pressure.

"Good luck and good-bye," I answered. "Miss Falconer, will you come to the door?"

She took up the candle and came forward to light me, and we went in silence through the room of the squires and through the ante-chamber and into the room of the guards. She walked close beside me; her eyes shone wet; her lips trembled. There were things I would have given the world to say, but I suppressed them. To the very end, I had resolved, I would play fair. We were at the outer door.

"Good-by, Miss Falconer," I said, halting. "You mustn't worry; everything is going to turn out splendidly, I am sure. Only, now that we have the papers, it ends our little adventure, doesn't it? So before I go I want to thank you for our day together. It has been wonderful. There never was another like it. I shall always be thankful for it, no matter what I have to pay."

I stopped abruptly, realizing that this was not cricket. To make up, I put out my hand quite coolly; but she grasped it in both of hers and held it in a soft, warm clasp.

"I shall never forget," she whispered. "Come back to us, Mr. Bayne!"

For a moment I looked at her in the light of the candle, at her lovely face, at the ruddy hair framing it, at the tears heavy on her lashes. Then I drew the bolt and went out and heard her fasten the door.

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