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   Chapter 24 THE OBUS

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 17550

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

I stood in the gallery for an instant, indulging in a reconnoissance. The hall was now illuminated by an electric torch and three guttering candles; at the foot of the staircase lay the table which had done such yeoman's service, split in two. As for the besiegers, they were gathered near the chimney-place in a worse-for-wear group, one nursing a nosebleed; another feeling gingerly of a loose tooth; Blenheim himself frankly raging, and decorated with a broad cut across his forehead and a cheek that was rapidly taking on assorted shades of blue, green, and black; and the redoubtable Mr. Schwartzmann, worst off of all, lying in a heap, groaning at intervals, but apparently quite unaware of what was going on.

My abrupt sally seemed transfixing. I might have been Medusa. I had a welcome minute in which to contemplate the victims of my prowess and to exult unchristianly in their scars. Then the tableau dissolved, the three men sprang up, and I took action. As I emerged I had drawn out a handkerchief and I now proceeded to raise and wave it.

"Well, Herr von Blenheim, I have come to parley with you," I announced, "white flag and all."

He tried to look as if he had expected me, though it was obvious that he hadn't. To give verisimilitude to the pretense, he even pulled out his watch.

"I thought you would. You had just two minutes' grace," he commented, watching me narrowly. "Suppose you come down. You have brought the papers, I hope-for your own sake?"

"Oh, yes!" I assured him with all possible blandness. "I have brought them. What else was there to do? You had us in the palm of your hand. That door is old and worm-eaten; you could have crumpled it up like paper. When we thought the situation over we saw its hopelessness at once; so here I am."

"That is sensible," he agreed curtly, though I could see that he was puzzled. Casting a baffled glance beyond me, he scanned the gallery door. It by no means merited my description, being heavy, solid, almost immovable in aspect. "Well, let's have the papers!" he said, with suspicion in his tone.

I descended in a deliberate manner, casting alert eyes about me, for, to use an expressive idiom, I was not doing this for my health. On the contrary I had two very definite purposes; the first, which I could probably compass, was to save Miss Falconer from further intercourse with Blenheim and to conceal the presence of the wounded, helpless Firefly from his enemies; the second, surprisingly modest, was to make the four Germans prisoners and hand them over in triumph to the gendarmes of the nearest town, Santierre.

I was perfectly aware of the absurdity of this ambition. I lacked the ghost of an idea of how to set about the thing. But the general craziness of events had unhinged me. I was forming the habit of trusting to pure luck and vogue la galere! I can't swear that I hadn't visions of conquering all my adversaries in some miraculous single-handed fashion, disarming them, and, as a final sweet touch of revenge, tying them up in chairs, to keep Marie-Jeanne company and meditate on the turns of fate.

"Here they are," I said, obligingly offering the package. "We found them nestling behind a panel-old family hiding place, you know. I can't vouch for their contents, not being an expert, but Miss Falconer was satisfied. How about it, now you look at them? Do they seem all right?"

Not paying the slightest attention to my conversational efforts, Blenheim had snatched the papers, torn them hungrily open, and run them through. He was bristling with suspicion; but he evidently knew his business. It did not take him long to conclude that he really had his spoils.

Folding them up carefully, he thrust them into his coat and stored them, displaying, however, less triumph than I had thought he would. The truth was that he looked preoccupied, and I wondered why. For the first time in all the hair-trigger situations that I had seen him face I sensed a strain in him.

"So much for that. Now, Mr. Bayne, what do you think we mean to do to you?" he asked.

"I don't know, I am sure," I answered rather absently; I was weighing the relative merits of jiu-jitsu and my five remaining revolver-shots. "Is there anything sufficiently lingering? Let me suggest boiling oil; or I understand that roasting over a slow fire is considered tasty. Either of those methods would appeal to you, wouldn't it?"

"I don't deny it!" Blenheim answered in a tone that was convincing. "You haven't endeared yourself to us, my friend, in the last hour. But we can't spare you yet; our plans for the evening are lively ones and they include you. I told you, didn't I, that we were going to no man's-land via the trenches, when we finished this affair?"

"You told me many interesting things. I've forgotten some of the details." I was aware of a thrill of excitement. The man was worried; so much was sure.

"You will recall them presently, or if you don't, I'll refresh your memory. The fact is, Mr. Bayne, you have put a pretty spoke in our wheel. It stands this way: our papers are made out for a party of four officers, and you have eliminated Schwartzmann. Don't you owe us some amends for that? You like disguises, I gather from your costume. What do you say to putting on a new one, a pale-blue uniform, and seeing us through the lines?"

He looked, while uttering this wild pleasantry, about as humorous as King Attila. Could he possibly be in earnest? After all, perhaps he was! War rules were cast-iron things; if his pass called for four men, four he must have or rouse suspicion; and it was certain that Herr Schwartzmann would do no gadding to-night or for many nights to come. That shot of mine from the gallery had upset Blenheim's plans very neatly. I stared at him, fascinated.

"Well?" said he. "Do you understand?"

"I understand," I exclaimed indignantly, "that this is too much! It is, really. I was getting hardened; I could stand a mere impossibility or two and not blink; but this! It is beyond the bounds. I shall begin to see green snakes presently or writhing sea-serpents-"

"No," Blenheim cut me short savagely, "you are underestimating. Unless you oblige us what you will see is the hereafter, Mr. Bayne!"

Yes, he meant it. His very fierceness, eloquent of frazzled nerves, was proof conclusive. With another thrill, triumphant this time, I recognized my chance. His campaign, instead of going according to specifications, had been interfered with; his position was dangerous; he had no time to lose; for all he knew, at any point along the road his masquerade might have been suspected, the authorities notified, vengeance put on his track. In desperation he meant to risk my denouncing him, use me till he reached the Front trenches and his friends there, and then, no doubt, get rid of me. What he couldn't guess was that I would have turned the earth upside down to make this opportunity that he was offering me on a silver tray.

"Oh, I'll oblige you," I assured him with what must have seemed insane cheerfulness. "I'll oblige you, Her von Blenheim, with all the pleasure in the world. If you really want me, that is. If my presence won't make you nervous. Aren't you afraid, for instance, that I might be tempted to share my knowledge of your name and your profession with the first French soldiers we meet?"

"As to that, we will take our chances." Blenheim's face was adamant, though my suggestion had produced a not entirely enlivening effect on his two friends. "You see, Mr. Bayne, in this business the risks will be mostly yours. There will be no flights of stairs to dart up and no tables to over turn and no candles to extinguish; you will sit in the tonneau with a man beside you, a very watchful man, and a pistol against your side. You don't want to die, do you? I thought not, since you surrendered those papers. Well, then, you'll be wise not to say a word or stir a muscle. And now we are in a hurry. Will you make your toilet, please?"

It was the bizarre curtain scene of what I had called an extravaganza. Blenheim's confederates, taking no special pains for gentleness, stripped off the outer garments of the prostrate Schwartzmann, who moaned and groaned throughout the process, though he never opened his eyes. Blenheim urged haste upon us; he was getting more fidgety every instant; he bit his lip, drummed with his fingers, kept an ear cocked, as if expecting to hear pursuers at the door. Still, he neglected no precautions. He demanded my revolver. I surrendered it amiably, and then doffed my chauffeur's outfit and took, from a social standpoint, a gratifying step upward, donning one by one the insignia of France.

The fit was not perfect by any means. Schwartzmann was a giant, a mountai

n. My feet swished aloud groggily in his burnished putties; his garments hung round me in ample, rather than graceful, folds. However, the loose cape of horizon blue resembled charity in covering defects. As a dummy, sitting motionless in the rear of the automobile, my captors felt that I would pass.

By this time I was enchanted with the plans I was concocting. I might look like an opera-bouffe hero,-no doubt I did,-but my hour would come. Meanwhile events were marching. My transformation being complete, Blenheim gave a curt order in German, the candles were blown out, and lighted only by the torch, we turned toward the door. There was an inarticulate cry from Schwartzmann, just conscious enough, poor beggar, to grasp the fact of his abandonment in the strategic retreat his friends were beating. Then we were out in the courtyard, beneath the stars.

Down the hill, sheltered behind the stones of a ruined house, the gray car was waiting, and Blenheim climbed into the driver's seat, meanwhile giving brief directions. There was no noise, no flurry; the affair, I must say, went with an efficiency in keeping with the proudest Prussian traditions. I was installed in the tonneau, and I was hardly seated before the motor hummed into life, and we jolted into the moonlit road.

For perhaps the hundredth time I asked myself if I was dreaming; if this person in a French disguise, speeding through the night with a blue-clad German beside him,-a German suffering, by the way, from a headache, the last stages of a nosebleed, and a pronounced dislike for me as the agency responsible for his ailments,-was really Devereux Bayne. But the air was cold on my face; a revolver pressed my side; I saw three set, hard profiles. It was not a dream; it was a dash for safety. And it was engineered by anxious, desperate men.

Blenheim, hunched over the steering wheel, had settled to his business. Certainly his nerve was going; the mania for escape had caught him; he took startling chances on his curves and turns. Still, he knew the country, it seemed. We drove on, fast and furiously, by lanes, by mere paths set among thickets, by narrow brushwood roads. Sometimes we skirted the river, which shone silver in the moonlight, lined with rushes. Again, we could see nothing but a roof of trees overhead.

We emerged into a wider road, and I became award of various noises; a booming, clear and regular; the sound of voices; the rumbling of many wheels. We must be nearing the Front; we were rejoining the main highroad. My guess was proved correct at the next turning, where a sentry barred our path.

The sight of his honest French face was like a tonic to me. In some welcome way it seemed to hearten me for my task. The pistol of my friend in the tonneau bored through his cape into my side; I sat very quiet. If I did this four, five, perhaps six times, they might think me cowed and relax their vigilance. Their suspicions would be lulled by my tractability and their contempt. Then my hour would strike.

Satisfied with the safe-conducts, the sentry gestured us forward, and his figure slipped out of my vision as the gray car purred on. The man beside me chuckled.

"Behold this Yankee! He is as good as gold, my captain. He sits like a mouse," he announced in his own tongue.

"He'll be wise," Blenheim announced, "to go on doing so." The threat was in English for my benefit and came from between his teeth.

In front of us the noise was growing. With our next turn we entered the highroad, taking our place in a long rumbling line of ambulances and supply-carts and laboring camions, or trucks. We glimpsed faces, heard voices all about us. The change from solitude to this unbroken procession was bewildering. But we did not long remain a part of it; we turned again into narrower lanes.

The control was growing stricter. Four separate times we were halted, and always I sat hunched in my corner as impassive as a stone. The more deeply we penetrated toward the Front, the more uneasy grew my companions. Each time that a sentry halted us they waited in more anxiety for his verdict. The man beside me, it was true, still menaced me with his pistol point; but the gesture had grown perfunctory. He did not think I would attempt anything. He believed now that I was afraid.

Our road crossed a hilltop, and I saw beneath us a valley, streaked at intervals with blinding signal-flashes of red and green. In my ears the thunder of the guns was growing steadily. When we were stopped again, the sentry warned us. The road we were traveling, he said, had been intermittently under fire for two days.

It looked, indeed, as if devils had used it for a playground; the trees were mere blackened stumps; the fields on each side stretched burnt and bare. And then came the climax: something passed us,-high above our heads, I fancy, though its frightful winds seemed brushing us,-a ghost of the night, an aerial demon, a shrieking thing that made the man beside me cringe and shudder. It was new to me, but I could not mistake it. It was what the French call an obus, a word that in some subtle manner seems more menacing and dreadful than our own term of shell.

As we sped on I leaned against the cushions, outwardly quiet. Inwardly, I was gathering myself together for my attempt. I had not thought I would first approach the Front this way; but it was a good way, I had a good object. At the next stop, whatever it was, I meant to make the venture. I did not doubt I should succeed in it. But I could not hope to keep my life.

Another obus hurtled over us and shrieked away into the distance; and again the man beside me flinched, but I did not. I was thinking, with odd lucidity, of many things, among them Dunny and his old house in Washington, into which I should never again let myself with my latch-key, sure of a welcome at any hour of the day or night. My guardian's gray head rose before me. My heart tightened. The finest, straightest old chap who ever took a forlorn little tike in out of the wet, and petted him, and frolicked with him, and filled his stocking all the year round, and made his holidays things of rapture, and taught him how to ride and shoot and fish and swim and cut his losses and do pretty much everything that makes life worth living-that was Dunny.

"This will be a hard jolt for the old chap," I thought, "but he'll say that I played the game."

And Esme Falconer, my own brave, lovely Esme! "She has come down the staircase now," I told myself. "She has untied Marie-Jeanne. She has gone out and started the car." What would she think of my disappearance? Well, she wouldn't misjudge me, I felt sure; and neither would Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier. He would know that I was acting as, in my place, he would have acted, that I didn't mean to let Franz von Blenheim defy France and go off untouched.

The whole world seemed mysteriously to have narrowed to one girl, Esme. How I had lived before I saw her; how, having seen her, I could ever have lived without her,-I didn't know. But the sound of grinding brakes roused me. We were slowing up in obedience to a signal from a canvas-covered, half-demolished shelter filled with men in blue uniforms; we were coming to a standstill. Blenheim leaned out, and for a moment I saw his face in the beam of light from the sentry's lantern. It looked thin and set. He was giving beneath the strain.

"Behold my comrade!" He thrust our papers into the hands of the sentry. "And make haste, for the love of heaven! We are waited for la-bas."

I cast a quick glance at my body-guard, whose anxious eyes were on the sentinel. His pistol still lay against my side, but his thoughts were far away. It was the moment. With the rapidity of lightning I knocked his arm up, caught his wrist, and clung to it, calling out simultaneously in a voice of crisp command.

"My friends," I cried in French, "I order you to arrest these persons! They are agents of the kaiser! They are German spies!"

The pistol, clutched between us, exploded harmlessly into the air. I head shouts, saw men running toward us. Then I caught sight of Blenheim's face, dark and oddly contorted; he had turned and was leveling his revolver at me, resting one knee on the driver's seat as he took deliberate aim.

"I say," I cried again, struggling for the weapon, "that this is Franz von Blenheim, that these are men of the kaiser, spying, in disguise-"

It seemed to me that some one caught Blenheim's arm from behind just as he fired; but I was not certain. For suddenly that same whistling shriek sounded over us, nearer this time, more ominous; the earth seemed to rock and then to end in a mighty shock and cataclysm. Blackness enveloped me, and I dropped into a bottomless pit.

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