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   Chapter 26 AN UNEXPECTED VISIT

The Firefly of France By Marion Polk Angellotti Characters: 16554

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


I don't know what they thought of me, probably that I was crazy. For a good minute, a long sixty seconds, I simply stood and stared. The duke's blue uniform, his wife's black-gowned figure, and the white, radiant blur that was Miss Falconer revolved about me in spinning, starry circles. I gasped, put out a hand, fortunately encountered Dunny's shoulder, and, leaning heavily on that perplexed person, at last got back my intelligence and my breath.

"Won't you shake hands with me, Mr. Bayne?" smiled the Duchess of Raincy-la-Tour.

I was virtually sane again.

"I do hope," I said, "that you will forgive me. Not that I see the slightest reason why you should, I am sure. Life is too short to wipe out such a bad impression. I know how you'll remember me all your days; as an idiot with a head done up in layers of toweling, wobbling on two crutches and gaping at you like a fish."

But the duchess was still holding my hand in both of hers and smiling up at me from a pair of great, dark, tender eyes, the loveliest pair of eyes in the world, bar one. No, bar none, to be quite fair. The Firefly's wife, most people would have said, was more beautiful than her sister; but then, beauty is what pleases you, as some wise man remarked long ago.

"I don't believe, Mr. Bayne," she was saying gently, "that I shall ever remember you in any unpleasant way. You see, I know about those bandages, and I know why you need those crutches. Even if you were vain, you wouldn't mind the things I think of you-not at all."

I lack any clear recollection of the quarter of an hour that followed. I know that we talked and laughed and were very friendly and very cheerful, and that Dunny's eyes, as they studied me, began to hold a gleam of intelligence, as if he were guessing something about the reasons for my former black despondency. I recall that the duke's hand was on my shoulder, and that-odd how one's attitude can change!-I liked to feel it. We were going to be great friends, tremendous pals, I suspected. And every time I looked at the duchess she seemed lovelier, more gracious; she was the very wife I would have chosen for such a corking chap.

This, however, was by the way. None of it really mattered. While I paid compliments and supplied details as to my convalescence and answered Dunny's chaffing, I saw only one member of the party, the girl in white. She was rather silent; she gave me only fugitive glances. But she wasn't engaged, at least not to the Firefly. Hurrah!

What an agonizing, heart-rending, utterly unnecessary experience I had endured, now that I thought of it! I had jumped to conclusions with the agility of a kangaroo. He had kissed her; she had allowed it. Did that prove that he was her fiance? He might have been anything-her cousin or an old friend of her childhood, or her sister's husband's nephew. But brother-in-law was best of all, not too remote or yet too close. In that relationship, I decided, he was ideal.

By this time I was wondering how long we were to stand here exchanging ideas and persiflage, an animated group of five. The duke and duchess were charming, but I had had enough of them; I could have spared even good old Dunny; what I wanted, and wanted frantically, was a tete-a-tete; just Esme Falconer and myself. When I saw two automobiles, packed imposingly with uniformed figures, speed up the drive to the chateau, hope stirred in me. With suppressed joy,-I trust it was suppressed,-I heard the duke exclaim that this was General Le Cazeau, due to visit the hospital with his staff and greet the wounded and bestow on certain lucky beings the reward of their valor in the shape of medals of war. Obviously, it would have been inexcusable for the master and mistress of Raincy-la-Tour to ignore a visitor so distinguished. I made no protest whatever as they turned to go.

"But, Miss Falconer," I implored fervently, "you won't desert me, will you? Pity a poor blesse that no general cares two straws to see!"

She smiled, an omen that encouraged me to send Dunny a look of meaning; but my guardian, bless him, had grasped the situation; he was already gone.

Down by the water among the trees there was a marble bench, and with one accord we turned our steps that way. I emphasized my game leg shamelessly; I positively flourished my crutches. My battle scars, I guessed from the girl's kind eyes, appealed to her compassion, and as soon as I suspected this I thanked my stars for that German shell.

"Isn't there anything," she said as we sat down, "that you want to ask me? I think I should be curious if I were you. After all we have done together there isn't much beyond my name that you know of me, and you knew that in Jersey City the night the Re d'Italia sailed."

I shook my head.

"There is just one thing I wanted to know," I answered cryptically, "and I learned that when your brother-in-law presented me to his wife. Still, there is nothing on earth you can tell me that I shan't be glad to listen to. Say the multiplication table if you like, or recite cook-book recipes. Anything-if you'll only stay!"

Little golden flickers of sunshine came stealing through the branches, dancing, as the girl talked, on her gown and in her hair. I looked more than I listened. I had been starved for a sight of her. And my eyes must have told my thoughts; for a flush crept into her cheeks, and her lashes fluttered, and she looked not at me, but across the swan-dotted lake toward the towers of Raincy-la-Tour.

After all there was little that I had not guessed already; but each detail held its magic, because it was she who spoke. If she had said "I like oranges and lemons," the statement would have held me spellbound. I sat raptly gazing while she told me of herself and her sister Enid; of their life, after the death of their parents, with an aunt whose home was in Pittsburgh, of their travels; and of a winter at Nice, four years ago, when the blue of the skies and seas and the whiteness of the sands and the green of the palms had all seemed created to frame the meeting and the love affair of Enid Falconer and the young nobleman who was now known to the world as the Firefly of France.

Their marriage had proved an ideal one, as happy as it was brilliant. Esme, thereafter had spent half her time in Europe with her sister, half in America with her aunt, who was growing old. Then had come the war. At first it had covered the duke with laurels. But a certain dark day had brought a cable from the duchess, telling of his disappearance and the suspicion that surrounded it; and Esme, despite her aunt's entreaties, had promptly taken passage on the next ship that sailed.

"I had meant to go within a month, as a Red Cross nurse," she told me. "I had my passport, and I had taken a course. Well, I came on to New York and spent the night there. Aunt Alice telegraphed to her lawyer, the dearest, primmest old fellow, and he dined with me, protesting all the time against my sailing. I saw you in the St. Ives restaurant. Did you see us?"

"Let me think." I pretended to rack my brains. "I believe I do recall something, in a hazy sort of way. You had on a rose-colored gown that was distinctly wonderful, and when we tracked the German to the door of your room, you were wearing an evening coat, bright blue. But the main thing was your hair!" Here I became lyric. "An oak-leaf in the sunlight, Miss Falconer! Threads of gold!"

But she ignored me, very properly, and shifted the scene from hotel to steamer, where Franz von Blenheim, in the guise of Van Blarcom, had given her a fright. As she exhibited her passport at the gang-plank, he had read her name across her shoulder; then he had claimed acquaintance with her, a claim that she knew was false.

"And he wasn't impertinent. That was the worst of it," she faltered. "He did it-well-accusingly. I had known all along that any one who knew of Jean's marriage would recognize my name. And Jean was suspected, and the French are strict; if they were warned, they would not let me enter France; they would think I had come spying. I was afraid. Then, after dinner, I went on deck and found you standing by the railing reading that paper with its staring headlines about Jean."

"Of course!" I exclaimed

. At last I fathomed that puzzling episode. "You thought the paper might speak of the duke's marriage, that it might mention your sister's name. In that case, if it stayed on board, it might be seen by the captain or by an officer, and they would guess who you were and warn the authorities when we got to shore."

"Yes. That was why I borrowed it. And I was right, I discovered; just at the end the account said that Jean had married an American, a Miss Enid Falconer, four years ago. Then I asked you to throw it overboard, Mr. Bayne; and you were wonderful. You must have thought I was mad, but you didn't flutter an eyelid or even smile. I have never forgotten-and I've never forgiven myself either. When I think of how the steward saw you and told the captain, and of how they searched your baggage that dreadful day-"

"It didn't matter a brass farden!" I hastened to assure her, for she had paused and was gazing at me, large-eyed and pale. "Don't think of that any more. Suppose we skip to Paris! Blenheim followed you there, hoping he was on the scent of the vanished papers; and when you arrived at the rue St.-Dominique, there was still no news of the duke."

"No news," she mourned; "not a word. And Enid was ill and hopeless; from the very first she had felt sure that Jean was dead. But I wouldn't admit it. I said we must try to find him. All the way over in the steamer I had been making a sort of plan.

"You see, one of the papers had described how the French had found Jean's airship lying in the forest of La Fay, as if he had abandoned it from choice. That was considered proof of his treason; but of course I knew that it wasn't. I remembered that the Marquis of Prezelay, Jean's cousin, had a castle on the forest outskirts; I had been to visit it with Jean and Enid. I wondered if he might be there.

"The more I thought of it, the likelier it seemed. If he had been wounded and had wanted to hide his papers, he would have remembered the castle and the secret panel in the wall. Even if he were-dead, which I wouldn't believe, it would clear his name if I found the proof of it. So I told Enid I would go to Prezelay."

I was resting my arms on my knees and groaning softly.

"Oh, Lord, oh, Lord!" I murmured, wishing I could stop my ears. When I thought of that brave venture of the girl's and its perils and what had nearly come of it I found myself shuddering; and yet I was growing prouder of her with every word.

"What comes next," she confessed, "is terrible. I can hardly believe it. As I look back, it seems to me that we were all a little mad. To get through the war zone to Prezelay I had to have certain papers; and I got them from an American girl, an old friend of Enid's and of mine, Marie Le Clair. The morning I arrived in Paris she came to say good-bye to Enid. She was acting as a Red Cross nurse, and they were sending her to the hospital at Carrefonds to take the first consignment of the great new remedy for burns and scars. Carrefonds is very near Prezelay. It all came to me in a moment. I told her how matters stood and how Enid was dying little by little, just for lack of any sure knowledge. She gave me the papers she had for herself and her chauffeur, Jacques Carton, and I used them for myself and for Georges, Jean's foster-brother, who was at home from the Front on leave and was staying in his old room at the house."

"Great Caesar's ghost!" I sputtered. "You didn't-you don't mean to say that-Why, good heavens, didn't you know-?"

Then I petered off into silence; words were too weak for my emotions. She had seen the risk of course, and so had the girl who had helped her; but with the incredible bravery of women, they had acted with open eyes.

"Yes," she faltered; "I told you I felt mad, looking back at it. But Marie is safe now; Jean has worked for her, and his relatives and friends have helped, and the minister of war. It was the only way. Under my own name I could never have got leave to enter the war zone while Jean was missing and suspected-What is the matter, Mr. Bayne?" For once more I had groaned aloud.

"Simply," I cried stormily, "that I can't bear thinking of it! The idea of your taking risks, of your daring the police and the Germans-you who oughtn't to know what the word danger means! I tell you I can't stand it. Wasn't there some man to do it for you? Well, it's over now; and in the future-See here, Miss Falconer, I can't wait any longer. There is something I've got to say."

But I was not to say it yet, for, behold! just as my tongue was loosened, I became aware of a most distinguished galaxy approaching us round the lake. All save one of its members-Dunny, to be exact-were in uniform; and the personage in the lead, walking between my guardian and the duke of Raincy-la-Tour, was truly dazzling, being arrayed in a blue coat and spectacularly red trousers and wearing as a finishing touch a red cap freely braided with gold. Miss Falconer had risen.

"Why," she exclaimed, "it is General Le Cazeau!"

"Then confound General Le Cazeau!" was my inhospitably cry.

He was, I saw when he drew close, a person of stately dignity, as indeed the hero who had saved Merlancourt and broken that last furious, desperate, senseless onslaught of the Boches ought by rights to be. Perhaps his splendor made me nervous. At any rate, my conscience smote me. I remembered with sudden panic all my manifold transgressions, beginning with the hour when I had chucked reason overboard and had deliberately concealed a murdered man's body beneath a heap of straw.

"I believe," I gasped, "that this is an informal court martial. Nobody could do the things I have done and be allowed to live. Still, I don't see why they cured me if they were going to hang or shoot me."

I struggled up with the help of my crutches and stood waiting my doom.

The group had paused before us, and presentations followed, throughout which the master of ceremonies was the Firefly of France. Then the gray-headed general fixed me with a keen, stern gaze rather like an eagle's.

"Your affair, Monsieur, has been of an irregularity," he said.

As with kaleidoscopic swiftness the details of my "affair" passed through my memory, it was only by an effort that I restrained an indecorous shout. He was correct. I could call to mind no single feature that had been "regular," from the thief who was not a thief and had flown out of my window like a conjurer, to the fight in Prezelay castle where I had vanquished four husky Germans, mostly by the aid of a wooden table, of all implements on earth.

"It is too true, Monsieur le General," I assented promptly. My humility seemed to soften him; he relaxed; he even approached a smile.

"Of an irregularity," he repeated. "But also it was of a gallantry. With a boldness and a resource and a scorn for danger that, permit me to say, mark your compatriots, you have unmasked and handed over to us one of our most dangerous foes. For such service as you have rendered France is never ungrateful. And, moreover, there have been friends to plead your cause and to plead it well."

As he ended he cast a glance at the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour and one at Dunny, whereupon I was enlightened as to the purpose of my guardian's three trips to Paris the preceding week. I believe I have said before that Dunny knows every one, everywhere; in fact, I have always felt that should circumstances conspire to make me temporarily adopt a life of crime, he could manage to pull such wires as would reinstate me in the public eye. But the general was stepping close to me.

"Monsieur," he was saying, "we are now allies, my country and the great nation of which you are a son. Very soon your troops are coming. You will fight on our soil, beneath your own banner. But your first blood was shed for France, your first wounds borne for her, Monsieur; and in gratitude she offers you this medal of her brave."

He was pinning something to my coat, a bronze-colored, cross-shaped something, a decoration that swung proudly from a ribbon of red and green. I knew it well; I had seen it on the breasts of generals, captains, simple poilus, all the picked flower of the French nation. With a thrill I looked down upon it. It was the Cross of War.

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