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Title: The Firefly of France
Author: Angellotti, Marion Polk, 1894-1979
Language: English
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THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE

by Marion Polk Angellotti



TO

THE MEMORY OF

THE HEROIC GUYNEMER

"THE ACE OF THE ACES"


     PREPARER'S NOTE

     This text was prepared from a 1918 edition,
     published by The Century Co., New York.



THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE



CHAPTER I

ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS

The restaurant of the Hotel St. Ives seems, as I look back on it, an odd
spot to have served as stage wings for a melodrama, pure and simple. Yet
a melodrama did begin there. No other word fits the case. The inns
of the Middle Ages, which, I believe, reeked with trap-doors and
cutthroats, pistols and poisoned daggers, offered nothing weirder than
my experience, with its first scene set beneath this roof. The food
there is superperfect, every luxury surrounds you, millionaires and
traveling princes are your fellow-guests. Still, sooner than pass
another night there, I would sleep airily in Central Park, and if I had
a friend seeking New York quarters, I would guide him toward some other
place.

It was pure chance that sent me to the St. Ives for the night before my
steamer sailed. Closing the doors of my apartment the previous week and
bidding good-bye to the servants who maintained me there in bachelor
state and comfort, I had accompanied my friend Dick Forrest on a
farewell yacht cruise from which I returned to find the first two hotels
of my seeking packed from cellar to roof. But the third had a free room,
and I took it without the ghost of a presentiment. What would or would
not have happened if I had not taken it is a thing I like to speculate
on.

To begin with, I should in due course have joined an ambulance section
somewhere in France. I should not have gone hobbling on crutches for a
painful three months or more. I should not have in my possession
four shell fragments, carefully extracted by a French surgeon from my
fortunately hard head. Nor should I have lived through the dreadful
moment when that British officer at Gibraltar held up those papers,
neatly folded and sealed and bound with bright, inappropriately cheerful
red tape, and with an icy eye demanded an explanation beyond human power
to afford.

All this would have been spared me. But, on the other hand, I could not
now look back to that dinner on the Turin-Paris _rapide_. I should never
have seen that little, ruined French village, with guns booming in the
distance and the nearer sound of water running through tall reeds and
over green stones and between great mossy trees. Indeed, my life would
now be, comparatively speaking, a cheerless desert, because I should
never have met the most beautiful--Well, all clouds have silver linings;
some have golden ones with rainbow edges. No; I am not sorry I stopped
at the St. Ives; not in the least!

At any rate, there I was at eight o'clock of a Wednesday evening in a
restaurant full of the usual lights and buzz and glitter, among women
in soft-hued gowns, and men in their hideous substitute for the
same. Across the table sat my one-time guardian, dear old Peter
Dunstan,--Dunny to me since the night when I first came to him, a very
tearful, lonesome, small boy whose loneliness went away forever with his
welcoming hug,--just arrived from home in Washington to eat a farewell
dinner with me and to impress upon me for the hundredth time that I had
better not go.

"It's a wild-goose chase," he snapped, attacking his entree savagely.
Heaven knows it was to prove so, even wilder than his dreams could
paint; but if there were geese in it, myself included, there was also to
be a swan.

"You don't really mean that, Dunny," I said firmly, continuing my
dinner. It was a good dinner; we had consulted over each item from
cocktails to liqueurs, and we are both distinctly fussy about food.

"I do mean it!" insisted my guardian. Dunny has the biggest heart in the
world, with a cayenne layer over it, and this layer is always thickest
when I am bound for distant parts. "I mean every word of it, I tell
you, Dev." Dev, like Dunny, is a misnomer; my name is Devereux--Devereux
Bayne. "Don't you risk your bones enough with the confounded games you
play? What's the use of hunting shells and shrapnel like a hero in a
movie reel? We're not in this war yet, though we soon will be, praise
the Lord! And till we are, I believe in neutrality--upon my soul I do."

"Here's news, then!" I exclaimed. "I never heard of it before. Well,
your new life begins too late, Dunny. You brought me up the other way.
The modern system, you know, makes the parent or guardian responsible
for the child. So thank yourself for my unneutral nature and for the war
medals I'm going to win!"

Muttering something about impertinence, he veered to another tack.

"If you must do it," he croaked, "why sail for Naples instead of for
Bordeaux? The Mediterranean is full of those pirate fellows. You
read the papers--the headlines anyway; you know it as well as I. It's
suicide, no less! Those Huns sank the _San Pietro_ last week. I say,
young man, are you listening? Do you hear what I'm telling you?"

It was true that my gaze had wandered near the close of his harangue.
I like to look at my guardian; the fine old chap, with his height and
straightness, his bright blue eyes and proud silver head, is a sight for
sore eyes, as they say. But just then I had glimpsed something that was
even better worth seeing. I am not impressionable, but I must confess
that I was impressed by this girl.

She sat far down the room from me. Only her back was visible and a
somewhat blurred side-view reflected in the mirror on the wall. Even so
much was, however, more than welcome, including as it did a smooth white
neck, a small shell-like ear, and a mass of warm, crinkly, red-brown
hair. She wore a rose-colored gown, I noticed, cut low, with a string of
pearls; and her sole escort was a staid, elderly, precise being, rather
of the trusted family-lawyer type.

"I haven't missed a word, Dunny," I assured my vis-a-vis. "I was just
wondering if Huns and pirates had quite a neutral sound. You know I have
to go via Rome to spend a week with Jack Herriott. He has been pestering
me for a good two years--ever since he's been secretary there."

Grumbling unintelligible things, my guardian sampled his Chablis; and I,
crumbling bread, lazily wishing I could get a front view of the girl in
rose-color, filled the pause by rambling on.

"Duty calls me," I declared. "You see, I was born in France. Shabby
treatment on my parents' part I've always thought it; if they had
hurried home before the event I might have been President and declared
war here instead of hunting one across the seas. In that case, Dunny,
I should have heeded your plea and stayed; but since I'm ineligible for
chief executive, why linger on this side?"

He scowled blackly.

"I'll tell you what it is, my boy," he accused, with lifted forefinger.
"You like to pose--that's what is the matter with you! You like to act
stolid, matter-of-fact, correct; you want to sit in your ambulance and
smoke cigarettes indifferently and raise your eyebrows superciliously
when shrapnel bursts round. And it's all very well now; it looks
picturesque; it looks good form, very. But how old are you, eh, Dev?
Twenty-eight is it? Twenty-nine?"

"You should know--none better--that I am thirty," I responded. "Haven't
you remembered each anniversary since I was five, beginning with a
hobby-horse and working up through knives and rifles and ponies to the
latest thing in cars?"

Dunny lowered his accusing finger and tapped it on the cloth.

"Thirty," he repeated fatefully. "All right, Dev. Strong and fit as an
ox, and a crack polo-player and a fair shot and boxer and not bad with
boats and cars and horses and pretty well off, too. So when you look
bored, it's picturesque; but wait! Wait ten years, till you take on
flesh, and the doctor puts you on diet, and you stop hunting chances to
kill yourself, but play golf like me. Then, my boy, when you look stolid
you won't be romantic. You'll be stodgy, my boy. That's what you'll be!"

Of all words in the dictionary there is surely none worse than this one.
The suggestions of stodginess are appalling, including, even at best,
hints of overweight, general uninterestingness, and a disposition to sit
at home in smoking-jacket and slippers after one's evening meal. As my
guardian suggested, my first youth was over. I held up both my hands in
token that I asked for grace.

"_Kamerad_!" I begged pathetically. "Come, Dunny, let's be sociable.
After all, you know, it's my last evening; and if you call me such
names, you will be sorry when I am gone. By the way, speaking of
Huns--it was you, the neutral, who mentioned them,--does it strike you
there are quite a few of them on the staff of this hotel? I hope they
won't poison me. Look at the head waiter, look at half the waiters
round, and see that blond-haired, blue-eyed menial. Do you think he saw
his first daylight in these United States?"

The menial in question was a uniformed bellboy winding in and out among
tables and paging some elusive guest. As he approached, his chant grew
plainer.

"Mr. Bayne," he was droning. "Room four hundred and three."

I raised a hand in summons, and he paused beside my seat.

"Telephone call for you, sir," he informed me.

With a word to my guardian, I pushed my chair back and crossed the room.
But at the door I found my path barred by the _maitre d'hotel_, who, at
the sight of my progress, had sprung forward, like an arrow from a bow.

"Excuse me, sir. You're not leaving, are you?" The man was actually
breathing hard. Deferential as his bearing was, I saw no cause for the
inquiry, and with some amusement and more annoyance, I wondered if he
suspected me of slipping out to evade my bill.

"No," I said, staring him up and down; "I'm not!" I passed down the hall
to the entrance of the telephone booths. Glancing back, I could see
him still standing there gazing after me; his face, I thought, wore a
relieved expression as he saw whither I was bound.

The queer incident left my mind as I secluded myself, got my connection,
and heard across the wire the indignant accents of Dick Forrest, my
former college chum. Upon leaving his yacht that morning, I had promised
him a certain power of attorney--Dick is a lawyer and is called a
good one, though I can never quite credit it--and he now demanded in
unjudicial heat why it had not been sent round.

"Good heavens, man," I cut in remorsefully, "I forgot it! The thing
is in my room now. Where are you? That's all right. You'll have it by
messenger within ten minutes." Hastily rehooking the receiver, I bolted
from my booth.

In the restaurant door against a background of paneled walls the _maitre
d'hotel_ still stood, as if watching for my return. I sprang into an
elevator just about to start its ascent, and saw his mouth fall open and
his feet bring him several quick steps forward.

"The man is crazy," I told myself with conviction as I shot up four
stories in as many seconds and was deposited in my hall.

There was no one at the desk where the floor clerk usually kept vigil,
gossiping affably with such employees as passed. The place seemed
deserted; no doubt all the guests were downstairs. Treading lightly on
the thick carpet, I went down the hall to Room four hundred and three,
and found the door ajar and a light visible inside.

My bed, I supposed, was being turned down. I swung the door open, and
halted in my tracks. With his back to me, bent over a wide-open trunk
that I had left locked, was a man.

Stepping inside, I closed the door quietly, meanwhile scrutinizing my
unconscious visitor from head to foot. He wore no hotel insignia--was
neither porter, waiter, nor valet.

"Well, how about it? Anything there suit you?" I inquired affably, with
my back against the door.

Exclaiming gutturally, he whisked about and faced me where I stood quite
prepared for a rough-and-tumble. Instead of a typical housebreaker of
fiction, I saw a pale, rabbit-like, decent-appearing little soul. He
was neatly dressed; he seemed unarmed save for a great ring of assorted
keys; and his manner was as propitiatory and mild-eyed as that of any
mouse. There must be some mistake. He was some sober mechanic, not a
robber. But on the other hand, he looked ready to faint with fright.

"_Mein Gott_!" he murmured in a sort of fishlike gasp.

This illuminating remark was my first clue.

"Ah! _Mein Herr_ is German?" I inquired, not stirring from my place.

The demand wrought an instant change in him--he drew himself up, perhaps
to five feet five.

"Vat you got against the Germans?" he asked me, almost with menace. It
was the voice of a fanatic intoning "Die Wacht am Rhein"--of a zealot
speaking for the whole embattled _Vaterland_.

The situation was becoming farcical.

"Nothing in the world, I assure you," I replied. "They are a simple,
kindly people. They are musical. They have given the world Schiller,
Goethe, the famous _Kultur_, and a new conception of the possibilities
of war. But I think they should have kept out of Belgium, and I feel the
same way about my room--and don't you try to pull a pistol or I may feel
more strongly still."

"I ain't got no pistol, _nein_," declared my visitor, sulkily. His
resentment had already left him; he had shrunk back to five feet three.

"Well, I have, but I'll worry along without it," I remarked, with
a glance at the nearest bag. As targets, I don't regard my
fellow-creatures with great enthusiasm and, moreover, I could easily
have made two of this mousy champion of a warlike race. Illogically,
I was feeling that to bully him was sheer brutality. Besides this, my
dinner was not being improved by the delay.

"Look here," I said amiably, "I can't see that you've taken anything.
Speak up lively now; I'll give you just one chance. If you care to tell
me how you got through a locked door and what you were after, I'll let
you go. I'm off to the firing line, and it may bring me luck!"

Hope glimmered in his eyes. In broken English, with a childlike
ingenuousness of demeanor, he informed me that he was a first-class
locksmith--first-glass he called it--who had been sent by the management
to open a reluctant trunk. He had entered my room, I was led to infer,
by a mistake.

"I go now, _ja_?" he concluded, as postscript to the likely tale.

"The devil you do! Do you take me for an utter fool?" I asked, excusably
nettled, and stepping to the telephone, I took the receiver from its
hook.

"Give me the manager's office, please," I requested, watching my
visitor. "Is this the manager? This is Mr. Bayne speaking, Room four
hundred and three. I've found a man investigating my trunk--a foreigner,
a German." An exclamation from the manager, and from the listening
telephone-girl a shriek! "Yes; I have him. Yes; of course I can hold
him. Send up your house detective and be quick! My dinner is spoiling--"

The receiver dropped from my hand and clattered against the wall. The
little German, suddenly galvanized, had leaped away from the trunk, not
toward me and the door beyond me, but toward the electric switch. His
fingers found and turned it, plunging the room into the darkness of the
grave. Taken unaware, I barred his path to the hall, only to hear him
fling up the window across the room. Against the faint square of light
thus revealed, I saw him hang poised a moment. Then with a desperate
noise, a moan of mixed resolve and terror, he disappeared.



CHAPTER II

DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES

Standing there staring after him, I felt like a murderer of the deepest
dye. It is one thing to hand over to the police their natural prey, a
thief taken red-handed, but quite another, and a much more harrowing
one, to have him slip through your fingers, precipitate himself into
mid-air, and drop four stories to the pavement, scattering his brains
far and wide. There was not a vestige of hope for the poor wretch.

Unnerved, I groped to the window and peered downward for his remains.
My first glance proved my regrets to be superfluous. Beneath my window,
which, owing to the crowded condition of the hotel, opened on a side
street, a fire-escape descended jaggedly; and upon it, just out of arm's
reach, my recent guest clung and wobbled, struggling with an attack of
natural vertigo before proceeding toward the earth.

By this time my rage was such that I would have followed that little
thief almost anywhere. It was not the dizziness of the yawning void that
stayed me. I should have climbed the Matterhorn with all cheerfulness to
catch him at the top. But sundry visions of the figure I would cut, the
crowd that might gather, and the probable ragging in the morning papers,
were too much for me, and I sorrowfully admitted that the game was not
worth the price.

The little man's nerves, meanwhile, seemed to be steadying. Feeling
each step, he began cautiously to work his way down. To my wrath he
even looked up at me and indulged in a grimace--but his triumph was
ill-timed, for at that very instant I beheld, strolling along the street
below, humming and swinging his night-stick, as leisurely, complacent,
and stalwart a representative of the law as one could wish to see.

"Hi, there! Officer!" I shouted lustily. My hail, if not my words,
reached him; he glanced up, saw the figure on the ladder, and was seized
instantaneously with the spirit of the chase.

Yelling something reassuring, the gist of which escaped me, he
constituted himself a reception committee of one and started for the
ladder's foot. But our doughty Teuton was a resourceful person. Roused
to the urgency of his plight, he looked wildly up at me, down at the
officer, and, hastily pushing up the nearest window, hoisted himself
across its sill, and again took refuge in the St. Ives Hotel.

With a bellow of rage, the policeman dashed toward the porte-cochere,
while I ducked back into the room, rapidly revolving my chances of
cutting off the man's retreat below. If the system of numbering was the
same on every floor, my thief must, of course, emerge from Room 303. But
this similarity was problematical, and to invade apartments at random,
disturbing women at their opera toilets and maybe even waking babies,
was too desperate a shift to try.

It reminded me to wait with what patience I could summon for the house
detective. And where was he, by the way? I had turned in my alarm a good
five minutes before.

In an unenviable humor I stumbled across the room, tripping and barking
my shins over various malignant hassocks, tables, and chairs. Finding
the switch at last, I flooded the room with light, and saw myself in the
mirror, with tie and coat askew.

"Now," I muttered, straightening them viciously, "we'll see what he
took away." But the trunk seemed undisturbed when I examined it, and my
various bags and suitcases were securely locked. I had found Forrest's
power of attorney and was storing it in my pocket when voices rose
outside.

A group of four was approaching, comprised of a spruce, dress-coated
manager; a short thick-set, broad-faced man who was doubtless the
long-overdue detective; a professional-appearing gentleman with a
black bag, obviously the house-physician; and the policeman that I had
summoned from his stroll below. The latter, in an excited brogue, was
recounting his late vision of the thief, "hangin' between hivin and
earth, no less," while the detective scornfully accused him of having
been asleep or jingled, on the ground of my late telephone to the effect
that I was holding the man.

The manager, as was natural, took the initiative, bustling past me into
my room and peering eagerly around.

"I needn't say, Mr. Bayne," he orated fluently, "how sorry I am that
this has happened--especially beneath our roof. It is our first case,
I assure you, of anything so regrettable. If it gets into the papers it
won't do us any good. Now the important thing is to take the fellow
out by the rear without courting notice. Why, where is he?" he asked
hopefully. "Surely he isn't gone?"

"Sure, and didn't I tell ye? 'Tis without eyes ye think me!" The
policeman was resentful, and so, to tell the truth, was I. The whole
maddening affair seemed bent on turning to farce at every angle; the
doctor, as a final straw, had just offered _sotto voce_ to mix me a
soothing draft!

"Gone! Of course he's gone, man!" I exclaimed with some natural temper.
"Did you expect him to sit here waiting all this time? What on earth
have you been doing--reading the papers--playing bridge? A dozen thieves
could have escaped since I telephoned downstairs!"

"But you said," he murmured, apparently dazed, "that you could hold
him." A tactless remark, which failed to assuage my wrath!

"So I could," I responded savagely. "But I didn't expect him to turn
into a conjuring trick, which is what he did. He went out that window
head foremost, down the ladder, and into the room below. Let's be after
him--though we stand as much chance of catching him as we do of finding
the King of England!" and I turned toward the doorway, where the
manager, the doctor and the detective were massed.

The manager put his hand upon my arm. I looked down at it with raised
eyebrows, and he took it away.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, adopting a manner of appeal, "but if you'll
reflect for a moment you'll see how it is, I know. People don't care for
houses where burglars fly in and out of windows; it makes them nervous;
you wouldn't believe how easily a hotel can get a bad name and lose its
clientele. Besides, from what you tell me, the fellow must be well away
by this time. You'd do me a favor--a big one--by dropping the matter
here."

"Well, I won't!" I snapped indignantly. "I'll see it through--or start
something still livelier. Are you coming down with me to investigate
the room beneath us or do you want me to ring up police headquarters and
find out why?"

In the hall the policeman looked at me across the intervening heads
and dropped one slow, approving eyelid. "If the gintleman says so--" he
remarked in heavy tones fraught with meaning, and fixed a cold,
blue, appraising gaze on the detective, who thereupon yielded with
unexpectedly good grace.

"Aw, what's eating you?" was his amiable demand. "Sure, we was going
right down there anyhow--soon's we found out how the land lay up here."

The five of us took the elevator to the lower floor. An unfriendly
atmosphere surrounded me. I was held a hotel wrecker without reason. We
found the corridor empty, the floor desk abandoned--a state of things
rather strikingly the duplicate of that reigning overhead--and in due
course paused before Room 303, where the manager, figuratively speaking,
washed his hands of the affair.

"Here is the room, Mr. Bayne, for which you ask." If I would persist in
my nefarious course, added his tone.

The detective, obeying the hypnotic eye of the policeman, knocked. There
was silence. The bluecoat, my one ally, was crouching for a spring. Then
light steps crossed the room, and the door was opened. There stood a
girl,--a most attractive girl, the girl that I had seen downstairs.
Straight and slender, spiritedly gracious in bearing, with gray eyes
questioning us from beneath lashes of crinkly black, she was a radiant
figure as she stood facing us, with a coat of bright-blue velvet thrown
over her rosy gown.

"Beg pardon, miss," said the policeman, brightly, "this gintleman's been
robbed."

As her eyebrows went up a fraction, I could have murdered him, for how
else could she read his statement save that I took her for the thief?

"I am very sorry," I explained, bowing formally, "to disturb you. We
are hunting a thief who took French leave by my fire-escape. I must have
been mistaken--I thought that he dodged in again by this window. You
have not seen or heard anything of him, of course?"

"No, I haven't. But then, I just this instant came up from dinner,"
she replied. Her low, contralto tones, quite impersonal, were yet
delightful; I could have stood there talking burglars with her till
dawn. "Do you wish to come in and make sure that he is not in hiding?"
With a half smile for which I didn't blame her, she moved a step aside.

"Certainly not!" I said firmly, ignoring a nudge from the policeman.
"He left before you came--there was ample time. It is not of the least
consequence, anyhow. Again I beg your pardon." As she inclined her head,
I bowed, and closed the door.

"I trust Mr. Bayne, that you are satisfied at last." This was the St.
Ives manager, and I did not like his tone.

"I am satisfied of several things," I retorted sharply, "but before I
share them with you, will you kindly tell me your name?"

"My name is Ritter," he said with dignity. "I confess I fail to see what
bearing--"

"Call it curiosity," I interrupted. "Doctor, favor me with yours."

The doctor peered at me over his glasses, hesitated, and then revealed
his patronym. It was Swanburger, he informed me.

"But, my dear sir, what on earth--"

"Merely," said I, with conviction, "that this isn't an Allies' night. It
is _Deutschland uber Alles_; the stars are fighting for the Teuton race.
Now, let's hear how you were christened," I added, turning to the house
detective, who looked even less sunny than before if that could be.

"See here, whatcher giving us?" snarled that somewhat unpolished worthy.
"My name's Zeitfeld; but I was born in this country, don't you forget
it, same as you."

"A great American personality," I remarked dreamily, "has declared that
in the hyphenate lies the chief menace to the United States. And
what's your name?" I asked the representative of law and order. "Is it
Schmidt?"

"No, sir," he responded, grinning; "it's O'Reilly, sorr."

"Thank heaven for that! You've saved my reason," I assured him as I
leaned against the wall and scanned the Germanic hordes.

"Mr. Ritter," said I, addressing that gentleman coldly, "when I am next
in New York I don't think I shall stop with you. The atmosphere here is
too hectic; you answer calls for help too slowly--calls, at least, in
which a guest indiscreetly tells you that he has caught a German thief.
It looks extremely queer, gentlemen. And there are some other points as
well--"

But there I paused. I lacked the necessary conviction. After all I was
the average citizen, with the average incredulity of the far-fetched,
the melodramatic, the absurd. To connect the head waiter's panic at my
departure with the episode in my room, to declare that the floor clerks
had been called from their posts for a set purpose, and the halls
deliberately cleared for the thief, were flights of fancy that were
beyond me. The more fool I!

By the time I saw the last of the adventure I began that night--it was
all written in the nth power, and introduced in more or less important
roles the most charming girl in the world, the most spectacular hero of
France, the cleverest secret-service agent in the pay of the fatherland,
and I sometimes ruefully suspected, the biggest imbecile of the United
States in the person of myself--I knew better than to call any idea
impossible simply because it might sound wild. But at the moment my
education was in its initial stages, and turning with a shrug from three
scowling faces, I led my friendly bluecoat a little aside.

"I've no more time to-night to spend thief-catching, Officer," I told
him. I had just recalled my dinner, now utterly ruined, and Dunny,
probably at this instant cracking walnuts as fiercely as if each one
were the kaiser's head. "But I'm an amateur in these affairs, and you
are a master. Before I go, as man to man, what the dickens do you make
of this?"

Flattered, he looked profound.

"I'm thinking, sorr," he gave judgment, "ye had the rights of it. Seein'
as how th' thafe is German, ye'll not set eyes on him more--for divil
a wan here but's of that counthry, and they stick together something
fierce!"

"Well," I admitted, "our thoughts run parallel. Here is something to
drink confusion to them all. And, O'Reilly, I am glad I'm going to sail
to-morrow. I'd rather live on a sea full of submarines than in this
hotel, wouldn't you?"

Touching his forehead, he assented, and wished me good-night and a
good journey; part of his hope went unfulfilled, by the way. That ocean
voyage of mine was to take rank, in part at least, as a first-class
nightmare. The Central powers could scarcely have improved on it by
torpedoing us in mid-ocean or by speeding us upon our trip with a cargo
of clock-work bombs.



CHAPTER III

ON THE RE D'ITALIA

The sailing of the _Re d'Italia_ was scheduled for 3 P.M. promptly, but
being well acquainted with the ways of steamers at most times, above all
in these piping times of war, it was not until an hour later than I left
the St. Ives, where the manager, by the way, did not appear to bid me
farewell.

The thermometer had been falling, and the day was crisp and snappy, with
a light powdering of snow underfoot and a blue tang and sparkle in the
air. Dunny accompanied me in the taxicab, but was less talkative than
usual. Indeed, he spoke only two or three times between the hotel and
the pier.

"I say, Dev," was his first contribution to the conversation,
"d' you remember it was at a dock that you and I first met? It was
night, blacker than Tophet, and raining, and you came ashore wet as a
rag. You were the lonesomest, chilliest, most forlorn little tike I ever
saw; but, by the eternal, you were trying not to cry!"

"Lonesome? I rather think so!" I echoed with conviction. "Wynne and his
wife brought me over; he played poker all the way, and she read novels
in her berth. And I heard every one say that I was an orphan, and it was
very, very sad. Well, I was never lonely after that, Dunny." My hand met
his half-way.

The next time that he broke silence was upon the ferry, when he urged on
me a fat wallet stuffed with plutocratic-looking notes.

"In case anything should happen," ran his muttered explanation. I have
never needed Dunny's money,--his affection is another matter,--but he
can spare it, and this time I took it because I saw he wanted me to.

As we approached the Jersey City piers, he seemed to shrink and grow
tired, to take on a good ten years beyond his hale and hearty age. With
every glance I stole at him a lump in my throat grew bigger, and in the
end, bending forward, I laid a hand on his knee.

"Look here, Dunny," I demanded, not looking at him, "do you mean half
of what you were saying last evening--or the hundredth part? After all,
there'll be a chance to fight here before we're many months older. If
you just say the word, old fellow, I'll be with you to-night--and hang
the trip!"

But Dunny, though he wrung my hand gratefully and choked and glared out
of the window, would hear of no such arrangement, repudiated it, indeed,
with scorn.

"No, my boy," he declared. "I don't say it for a minute. I like your
going. I wouldn't give a tinker's dam for you, whatever that is, if you
didn't want to do something for those fellows over there. I won't even
say to be careful, for you can't if you do your duty--only, don't you be
too all-fired foolhardy, even for war medals, Dev."

"Oh, I was born to be hanged, not shot," I assured him, almost
prophetically. "I'll take care of myself, and I'll write you now and
then--"

"No, you won't!" he snorted, with a skepticism amply justified by the
past. "And if you did, I shouldn't answer; I hate letters, always did.
But you cable me once a fortnight to let me know you're living--and send
an extra cable if you want anything on earth!"

The taxi, which had been crawling, came to a final halt, and a hungry
horde, falling on my impedimenta, lowered them from the driver's seat.

"No, I'll not come on board, Dev," said my guardian. "I--I couldn't
stand it. Good-by, my dear boy."

We clasped hands again; then I felt his arm resting on my shoulder, and
flung both of mine about him in an old-time, boyish hug.

"_Au revoir_, Dunny. Back next year," I shouted cheerily as the driver
threw in his clutch and the car glided on its way.

Preceded by various porters, I threaded my way at a snail's pace through
the dense crowd of waiting passengers, swarthy-faced sons of Italy,
apparently bound for the steerage. The great gray bulk of the _Re
d'Italia_ loomed before me, floating proudly at her stern the green,
white, and red flag blazoned with the Savoyard shield.

"Wave while they let you," I apostrophized it, saluting. "When we get
outside the three-mile limit and stop courting notice, you'll not fly
long."

At the gang-plank I was halted, and I produced my passport and exhibited
the _vise_ of his excellency, the Italian consul-general in New York.
I strolled aboard, was assigned to Cabin D, and informed by my steward
that there were in all but five first-class passengers, a piece of news
that left me calm. Stodgy I may be,--it was odd how that term of Dunny's
rankled,--but I confess that I find chance traveling acquaintances
boring and avoid them when I can. Unlike most of my countrymen, I
suppose I am not gregarious, though I dine and week-end punctiliously,
send flowers and leave cards at decorous intervals, and know people all
the way from New York to Tokio.

My carefully limited baggage looked lonely in my cabin; I missed the
paraphernalia with which one usually begins a trip. Also, as I rummaged
through two bags to find the cap I wanted, I longed for Peters, my
faithful man, who could be backed to produce any desired thing at a
moment's notice. When bound for Flanders or the Vosges, however, one
must be a Spartan. I found what I sought at last and went on deck.

The scene, though cheerful, was not lacking in wartime features: A
row of life-boats hung invitingly ready; a gun, highly dramatic in
appearance, was mounted astern, with every air of meaning business
should the kaiser meddle with us en route. Down below, the Italians,
talking, gesticulating, showing their white teeth in flashing, boyish
smiles, were being herded docilely on board, while at intervals one or
another of the few promenade-deck passengers appeared.

The first of these, a shrewd-faced, nervous little man, borrowed an
unneeded match of me and remarked that it was cold weather for spring.
The next, a good-looking young foreigner,--a reservist, I surmised,
recalled to the Italian colors in this hour of his country's
need,--rather harrowed my feelings by coming on board with a family
party, gray-haired father, anxious mother, slim bride-like wife, and two
brothers or cousins, all making pathetic pretense at good cheer. Soon
after came a third man, dark, quiet, watchful-looking, and personable
enough, although his shoes were a little too gleamingly polished, his
watch and chain a little too luminously golden, the color scheme of his
hose and tie selected with almost too much care.

"This," I reflected resignedly, "is going to be a ghastly trip. By Jove,
here comes another! Now where have I seen her before?"

The new arrival, as indicated by the pronoun, was a woman; though why
one should tempt Providence by traveling on this route at this juncture,
I found it hard to guess. Standing with her back to me, enveloped in a
coat of sealskin with a broad collar of darker fur, well gloved, smartly
shod, crowned by a fur hat with a gold cockade, she made a delightful
picture as she rummaged in a bag which reposed upon a steamer-chair, and
which, thus opened, revealed a profusion of gold mountings, bottles and
brushes, hand-chased and initialed in an opulent way.

There was a haunting familiarity about her. She teased my memory as
I strolled up the deck. Then, snapping the bag shut, she turned and
straightened, and I recognized the girl to whose door my thief-chase had
led me at the St. Ives.

It seemed rather a coincidence my meeting her again.

"I shouldn't mind talking to you on this trip," I reflected, mollified.
"The mischief of it is you'll notice me about as much as you notice the
ship's stokers. You're not the sort to scrape acquaintance, or else I
miss my shot!"

I did not miss it. So much was instantly proved. As I passed her, on the
mere chance that she might elect to acknowledge our encounter, I let
my gaze impersonally meet hers. She started slightly. Evidently she
remembered. But she turned toward the nearest door without a bow.

The dark, too-well-groomed man was emerging as she advanced. Instead
of moving back, he blocked her path, looking--was it appraisingly,
expectantly?--into her eyes. There was a pause while she waited rather
haughtily for passage; then he effaced himself, and she disappeared.

Striking a match viciously, I lit a cigarette and strolled forward.
Either the fellow had fancied that he knew her or he had behaved in
a confoundedly impertinent way. The latter hypothesis seemed, on the
whole, the more likely, and I felt a lively desire to drop him over the
rail.

"But I don't know what a girl of your looks expects, I'm sure," I
grumbled, "setting off on your travels with no chaperon and no companion
and no maid! Where are your father and mother? Where are your brothers?
Where's the old friend of the family who dined with you last night? If
chaps who have no right to walk the same earth with you get insolent,
who is going to teach them their place, and who is going to take care of
you if a U-boat pops out of the sea? Oh, well, never mind. It isn't any
of my business. But just the same if you need my services, I think I'll
tackle the job."

Time was passing; night had fallen. Consulting my watch, I found that it
was seven o'clock. I had been aboard more than two hours. An afternoon
sailing, quotha! At this rate we would be lucky if we got off by dawn.

The dinner gong, a welcome diversion, summoned us below to lights and
warmth. At one table the young Italian entertained his relatives, and at
another the captain, a short, swart-faced, taciturn being, had grouped
his officers and various officials of the steamship company at a
farewell feast. The little sharp-faced passenger was throned elsewhere
in lonely splendor, but when I selected a fourth table, he jumped up,
crossed over and installed himself as my vis-a-vis. Passing me the salt,
which I did not require, he supplied with it some personal data of which
I felt no greater need. His name was McGuntrie, he announced; he was
sales agent for the famous Phillipson Rifles and was being dispatched to
secure a gigantic contract on the other side.

"And if inside six months you don't see three hundred thousand Italian
soldiers carrying Phillipson's best," he informed me, "I'll take a back
seat and let young Jim Furman, who thinks I'm a has-been and he's the
one white hope, begin to draw my pay. You can't beat those rifles. When
the boys get to carrying them, old Francis Joseph's ghost'll weep. Pity,
ain't it, we didn't get on board by noon?" he digressed sociably. "I
could've found something to do ashore the four hours I've been twiddling
my thumbs here, and I guess you could too. Hardest, though, on our
friends the newspaper boys. Did you know they were out there waiting to
take a flashlight film? Fact. They do it nowadays every time a big liner
leaves. Then if we sink, all they have to do is run it, with 'Doomed
Ship Leaving New York Harbor' underneath."

To his shocked surprise I laughed at the information. My appetite
was unimpaired as I pursued my meal. Trains in which others ride may
telescope and steamers may take one's acquaintances to watery graves,
but to normal people the chance of any catastrophe overtaking them
personally must always seem gratifyingly far-fetched and vague.

"Think it's funny, do you?" my new friend reproached me. "Well, I don't;
and neither did the folks who had cabins taken and who threw them up
last week when they heard how the _San Pietro_ went down on this same
route. We're five plumb idiots--that's what we are--five crazy lunatics!
I'd never have come a step, not with wild horses dragging me if it
hadn't been for Jim Furman being pretty near popeyed, looking for a
chance to cut me out and sail. We've got fifteen hundred reservists
downstairs, and a cargo of contraband. What do you know about that as a
prize for a submarine?"

"Well," I said vaingloriously. "I can swim."

My eyes were wandering, for the girl in the fur coat had entered, with
the dark, watchful-eyed man--was it pure coincidence?--close behind. The
steward ushered her to a table; the man followed at her heels. I dare
say I glared. I know my muscles stiffened. The fellow was going to speak
to her. What in blazes did he mean by stalking her in this way?

"Excuse me," he was saying, "but haven't we met before?"

The girl straightened into rigidness, looking him over. Her manner was
haughty, her ruddy head poised stiffly, as she answered in a cold tone:

"No."

He was watching her keenly.

"My name's John Van Blarcom," he persisted.

Again she gave him that sweeping glance.

"You are mistaken," she said indifferently. "I have not seen you
before."

He nodded curtly.

"My mistake," he admitted. "I thought I knew you," and turning from her,
he sat down at the one table still unoccupied.

"So his name's Van Blarcom," whispered my ubiquitous neighbor. "And the
Italian chap over there is Pietro Ricci. The steward told me so. And the
captain's name is Cecchi; get it? And I know your name, too, Mr. Bayne,"
he added with a grin. "The steward didn't know what was taking you over,
but I guess I've got your number all right. Say, ain't you a flying man
or else one of the American-Ambulance boys?"

I mustered the feeble parry that I had stopped being a boy of any sort
some time ago. Then lest he wring from me my age, birthplace, and the
amount of my income tax, I made an end of my meal.

On deck again I wondered at my irritation, my sense of restlessness.
The little salesman was not responsible, though he had fretted me like
a buzzing fly. It was rather that I had taken an intense dislike to the
man calling himself Van Blarcom; that the girl, despite her haughtiness,
had somehow given me an impression of uneasiness--of fear almost--as she
saw him approach and heard him speak; and above all, that I should
have liked to flay alive the person or persons who had let her sail
unaccompanied for a zone which at this moment was the danger point of
the seas.

My matter-of-fact, conservatively ordered life had been given a crazy
twist at the St. Ives. As an aftermath of that episode I was
probably scenting mysteries where there were none. Nevertheless, I
wondered--though I called myself a fool for it--if any more queer
things would happen before this ship on which we five bold voyagers were
confined should reach the other side.

They did.



CHAPTER IV

"EXTRA"

Toward nine o'clock to my relief it became obvious that the _Re
d'Italia_ was really going to sail at last. The first and second
whistles, sounding raucously, sent the company officials and the family
of the young officer of reserves ashore. The plank was lowered; between
the ship and the looming pier a thread of black water appeared and grew;
a flash and an explosion indicated that the possibly doomed liner had
been filmed according to schedule. "_Evviva l'Italia_!" yelled the
returning braves in the steerage--a very decent set of fellows, it
struck me, to leave so cheerfully their vocations of teamster, waiter,
fruit vender, and the like, and go, unforced, to wear the gray-green
coats of Italy, the short feathers of the mountain climbers, the
bersagliere's bunch of plumes, and to stand against their hereditary
foes the Austrians, up in the snowy Alps.

The details of departure were an old tale to me. As we swung farther and
farther out, I turned to a newspaper, a twentieth extra probably, which
I had heard a newsboy crying along the dock a little earlier, and had
bribed a steward to secure. Moon and stars were lacking to-night, but
the deck lights were good reading-lamps. Moving up the rail to one of
them, I investigated the world's affairs.

From the first sheet the usual staring headlines leaped at me. There
were the inevitable peace rumor, the double denial, the eternal bulletin
of a trench taken here, a hill recaptured there. A sensational rumor was
exploited to the effect that Franz von Blenheim, one of the star secret
agents of the German Empire, was at present incognito at Washington,
having spent the past month in putting his finger in the Mexican
pie much to our disadvantage. On the last column of the page was the
photograph of a distinguished-looking young man in uniform, with an
announcement that promised some interest, I thought.

"War Scandal Bursts in France," "Scion of Oldest Noblesse Implicated,"
"Duke Mysteriously Missing," I read in the diminishing degrees of
the scare-head type. Then came the picture, with a mien attractively
debonair, a pleasantly smiling mouth, and a sympathetic pair of eyes,
and in due course, the tale. I clutched at the flapping ends of the
paper and read on:


Of all the scandals to which the present war has given birth, none
has stirred France more profoundly than that implicating
Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier, Count of Druyes, Marquis of Beuil and
Santenay, and Duke of Raincy-la-Tour. This young nobleman, head of a
family that has played its part in French history since the days of the
Northmen and the crusaders, bears in his veins the bluest blood of the
old regime, and numbers among his ancestors no fewer than seven marshals
and five constables of France.

A noted figure not only by his birth, his wealth, and his various
historic chateaux, but also by his sporting proclivities, his daring
automobile racing, his marvelous fencing, and his spectacular hunting
trips, the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour has long been in addition an amateur
aviator of considerable fame, and it was to the French Flying Corps that
he was attached when hostilities began. Here he distinguished himself
from the first by his coolness, his extraordinary resource, and his
utter contempt for danger, and became one of the idols of the French
army and a proverb for success and audacity, besides attaining to
the rank of lieutenant, gaining, after his famous night flight across
Mulhausen for bomb-dropping purposes, the affectionate sobriquet of the
Firefly of France, and winning in rapid succession the military Medal,
the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, and the Cross of War with palms.

According to rumor, the duke was lately intrusted with a mission of
exceptional peril, involving a flight into hostile territory and the
capture of certain photographs of defenses much needed for the plans
of the supreme command. With his wonted brilliancy, he is said to have
accomplished the errand and to have returned in safety as far as the
French lines. Here, however, we enter the realm of conjecture. The duke
has disappeared; the plans he bore have never reached the generalissimo;
and rumor persistently declares that at some point upon his return
journey he was intercepted by German agents and induced by bribes or
coercion to deliver up his spoils. By one version he was later captured
and summarily executed by the French; while his friends, denying this,
pin their hopes to his death at the hands of the enemy, as offering the
best outcome of the unsavory event.

The family of the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour has been noted in the past for
its pronouncedly Royalist tendencies, the attitude of his father and
grandfather toward the republic having been hostile in the extreme.
It is believed that this fact may have its significance in the present
episode. The occurrence is of special interest to the United States in
view of the recent (Continued on Page Three)


Before proceeding, I glanced at the pictured face. The Duke of
Raincy-la-tour looked back at me with cool, clear eyes, smiling half
aloofly, a little scornfully, as in the presence of danger the true
Frenchman is apt to smile.

"I don't think, Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier," I reflected, "that you ever
talked to the Germans except with bombs. They probably got you, poor
chap, and you're lying buried somewhere while the gossips make a holiday
of the fact that you don't come home. Confound 'current rumors' anyhow,
and yellow papers too!"

"I beg your pardon," said a low contralto voice.

The girl in the fur coat was standing at my shoulder. I turned, lifting
my cap, wondering what under heaven she could want. I was not much
pleased to tell the truth; a goddess shouldn't step from her pedestal
to chat with strangers. Then suddenly I recognized a distinct oddness in
her air.

"Would you lend me your paper," she was asking, "for just a moment? I
haven't seen one since morning; the evening editions were not out when I
came on board."

Her manner was proud, spirited, gracious; she even smiled; but she was
frightened. I could read it in her slight pallor, in the quickening of
her breath.

My extra! What was there in the day's news that could upset her? I was
nonplussed, but of course I at once extended the sheet.

"Certainly!" I replied politely. "Pray keep it." Lifting my cap a second
time, I turned to go.

Her fingers touched my arm.

"Wait! Please wait!" she was urging. There was a half-imperious,
half-appealing note in her hushed voice.

I stared.

"I'm afraid," I said blankly, "that I don't quite--"

"Some one may suspect. Some one may come," urged this most astonishing
young woman. "Don't you see that--that I'm trusting you to help me?
Won't you stay?"

Wondering if I by any chance looked as stunned as I felt, I bowed
formally, faced about, and waited, both arms on the rail. My ideas as
to my companion had been revolutionized in sixty seconds. I had believed
her a girl with whom I might have grown up, a girl whose brother and
cousins I had probably known at college, a girl that I might have met
at a friend's dinner or at the opera or on a country-club porch if I had
had my luck with me. Now what was I to think her--an escaped lunatic or
something more accountable and therefore worse? If I detest anything,
it is the unconventional, the stagy, the mysterious. Setting my teeth,
I resolved to wait until she concluded her researches; after that,
politely but firmly, I would depart.

And then, beside me, the paper rustled. I heard a little gasp, a tiny
low-drawn sigh. Stealing a glance down, I saw the girl's face shining
whitely in the deck light. Her black lashes fringed her cheeks as her
head bent backward; her eyes were as dark as the water we were slipping
through. I had no idea of speaking, and yet I did speak.

"I am afraid," I heard myself saying, "that you have had bad news."

She was struggling for self-control, but her voice wavered.

"Yes," she agreed; "I am afraid I have."

"If there is anything I can do--" I was correct, but reluctant. How I
would bless her if she would go away!

But obviously she did not intend to. Quite the contrary!

"There is something," she was murmuring, "that would help me very much."

There, I had done it! I was an ass of the common or garden variety, who
first resolved to keep out of a queer business and then, because a girl
looked bothered, plunged into it up to my ears. I succeeded in hiding my
feelings, in looking wooden.

"Please tell me," I responded, "what it is."

"But--I can't explain it." Her gloved hands tightened on the railing.
"And if I ask without explaining, it will seem so--so strange."

"Doubtless," I reflected grimly. But I had to see the thing through now.
"That doesn't matter at all," I assured her civilly through clenched
teeth.

She came closer--so close that her fur coat brushed me, and her breath
touched my cheek; her eyes, like gray stars now that they were less
anxious, went to my head a little, I suppose. Oh, yes, she was lovely.
Of course that was a factor. If she had been past her first youth and
skimpy as to hair, and dowdy, I don't pretend that I should ever have
mixed myself up in the preposterous coil.

"This paper," she whispered, holding out the sheet, "has something in
it. It is not about me; it is not even true. But if it stays aboard
the ship,--if some one sees it, it may make trouble. Oh, you see how it
sounds; I knew you would think me mad!"

"Not in the least." What an absurd rigmarole she was uttering! Yet such
was the spell of her eyes, her voice, her nearness that I merely felt
like saying, "Tell me some more."

"I can't destroy it myself," she went on anxiously. "He--they--mustn't
see me do anything that might lead them to--to guess. But no one will
think of you, nobody will be watching you; so by and by will you weight
the paper with something heavy and drop it across the rail?"

My head was whirling, but a graven image might have envied me my
impassivity. I bowed. "I shall be delighted," I announced banally, "to
do as you say."

Her face flushed to a warm wild-rose tint as she heard me promise it,
and her red lips, parting, took on a tremulous smile.

"Thank you," she murmured in frank gratitude. "I thought--I knew you
would help me!" Then she was gone.

My trance broken I woke to hear myself softly swearing. I consigned
myself to my proper home, an asylum; I wished the girl at Timbuktu,
Kamchatka, Land's End--anywhere except on this ship. As I had told the
agent of the Phillipson Rifles, I am no boy. One can scarcely knock
about the world for thirty years without gaining some of its wisdom; and
of all the appropriate truisms I spared myself not one.

Resentfully I reminded myself that mysteries were suspicious, that
honest people seldom had need of secrecy, that idiots who, like me,
consented to act blindfold would probably repent their blindness
in sackcloth and ashes before long. But what use were these sage
reflections? I had given my word to her. I was in for the consequences,
however unpleasant they proved.

Without further mental parley I went down to my cabin, where I routed
out from among my traps a bronze paper-weight as heavy as lead. Wrapping
the mysterious sheet about it, I brought the package back on deck. There
was not a soul in sight; it was a propitious hour.

To right and to left the coast lights were slipping past, making golden
paths on the black water as our tug pulled us out to sea. The reservists
down below were singing "_Va fuori, o stranier_!" I dropped my package
overboard, watched it vanish, and turned to behold the sphinx-like
Van Blarcom, sprung up as if by magic, regarding me placidly from the
shelter of the smoking-room door.



CHAPTER V

MR. VAN BLARCOM. U. S. A.

For a trip that had begun with such rich promise of the unusual, my
voyage on the _Re d'Italia_ proved a gratifying anticlimax during its
first few days. The weather was bad. We plowed forward monotonously,
flagless, running between dark-gray water and a lowering, leaden sky.
Screws throbbed, timbers creaked, and dishes crashed as the Gulf Stream
took us, and great waves reared themselves round us like myriads of
threatening Alps.

After that first night the girl kept discreetly to her stateroom. I was
relieved; but I thought of her a good deal. I had little else to do.
Pacing a drunken deck and smoking, I wove unsatisfactory theories,
asking myself what was her need of secrecy, what the item she wanted
hidden, what the errand that had made her sail on the vessel a week
after the spectacular torpedoing of a sister-ship? Did she know this Van
Blarcom or did she merely dread any notice? And above all, who was the
man and had he been watching when I tossed that wretched extra across
the rail?

I saw something of him, of course, as time went on. Naturally we four
bold spirits, the ubiquitous McGuntrie, Van Blarcom, the young reservist
Pietro Ricci,--a very good sort of fellow,--and I were herded together
beyond escape. Also, a foursome at bridge seemed divinely indicated by
our number, and to avert a sheer paralysis of ennui we formed the habit
of winning each other's money at that game.

As we played I studied Van Blarcom, but without results. It was
ruffling; I should have absorbed in so much intercourse a fairly
definite impression of his personality, profession, and social grade.
But he was baffling; reticent, but self-assured, authoritative even,
and, in a quiet way, watchful. He smoked a good cigar, mixed a good
drink, seemed used to travel, but produced a coarse-grained effect,
made grammatical errors, and on the whole was a person from whom, once
ashore, I should flee.

At six o'clock on the seventh night out our voyage entered its second
lap; all the electric lights were simultaneously extinguished as we
entered the danger zone. We made a sketchy toilet by means of tapers,
groped like wandering ghosts down a dim corridor, and dined by the faint
rays of candles thrust into bottles and placed at intervals along
the festive board. I went on deck afterward to find the ship plunging
through blackness on forced draft, with port-holes shrouded and with
not even a riding-light. If not in Davy Jones's locker by that time, we
should reach Gibraltar the next evening; afterward we should head for
Naples, a two days' trip.

The following morning found our stormy weather over. The sea through
which we were speeding had a magic color, the dark, rich, Mediterranean
blue. Ascending late, I saw gulls flying round us and seaweed drifting
by, and Mr. McGuntrie in a state of nerves, with a life belt about him,
walking wildly to and fro.

"Well, Mr. Bayne," he greeted me, "never again for mine! If I ever
see the end of this trip,--if you call it a trip; I call it merry
hades,--believe me, I'll sell something hereafter that I can sell on
land. I'm a crackerjack of a salesman, if I do say it myself. Once I got
started talking I could get a man down below to buy a hot toddy and a
set of flannels--and I wish I'd gone down there and done it before I
ever saw this boat."

Unmoved, I leaned on the railing and watched the blue swells break.
McGuntrie took a turn or two. In the ship's library he had discovered a
manual entitled "How to Swim," and he was now attempting between laments
to memorize its salient points.

"The first essay is best made in water of not less than fifty degrees
Fahrenheit, and not more than four feet in depth," he gabbled, and
then broke off to gaze at the sea about us, chilly in temperature, and
countless fathoms deep. "Oh, what's the use? What the blue blazes does
it matter?" he cried hysterically. "I tell you that U-boat that sank the
_San Pietro_ is laying for us. In about an hour you'll see a periscope
bob up out there. Then we'll send out an S.O.S., and the next thing you
know we'll sink with all on board."

We had as yet escaped this doom when toward six o'clock we approached
Gibraltar, running beneath a crimson sunset and between misty purple
shores. On one hand lay Africa, on the other the Moorish country,
both shrouded in a soft haze and edged with snowy foam. Down below
the soldiers of Italy were singing. A merchantman of belligerent
nationality, our ship proudly flew its flag again. Indeed, had it failed
to do so, the British patrol-boats would long since have known the
reason why.

It was growing dark when I turned to find Van Blarcom at my elbow.

"I didn't see you," I commented rather shortly. I don't like people to
creep up beside me like cats.

"No," he responded. "I've been waiting quite a while. I didn't want to
disturb you, but the fact is I'd like a word with you, Mr. Bayne."

I eyed him with curiosity. He was inscrutable, this quiet, alert,
efficient-looking man. Take, for instance, his present manner, half
self-assured, half respectfully apologetic--what grade in life did it
fit?

"Well, here I am," I said briefly as I struck a match.

"I've thought it over a good bit," he went on, apparently in
self-justification. "I don't know how you will take it, but I'll chance
it just the same. If I don't give you a hint, you don't get a square
deal. That's my attitude. Did you ever hear of Franz von Blenheim, Mr.
Bayne?"

"Eh?" The question seemed distinctly irrelevant--and yet where had I
heard that name, not very long ago?

"The German secret-service agent. The best in the world, they say." A
sort of reluctant admiration showed in Van Blarcom's face. "There
isn't any one that can get him; he does what he wants, goes where he
likes--the United States, England, France, Russia--and always gets away
safe. You'd think he was a conjurer to read what he does sometimes.
A whole country will be looking for him, and he takes some one else's
passport, puts on a disguise, and good-by--he's gone! That's Franz
von Blenheim. No; that's just an outline of him. And on pretty good
authority, he's in Washington now."

Mr. Van Blarcom, I reflected, was surely coming out of his shell; this
was quite a monologue with which he was favoring me. It was dark now;
our lights were flaring. Being in a friendly port's shelter, we burned
electricity to-night.

"You seem to know a whole lot about this fellow," I remarked idly in the
pause.

"Yes, I do." He smiled a trifle grimly. "In fact, I once came near
getting him; it would have made my fortune, too. But he slipped through
my fingers at the last minute, and if I ever--You see, I'm in the
secret-service myself, Mr. Bayne."

I turned to stare at him.

"The United States service?" I asked.

"Yes."

I nodded. All that had puzzled me was fairly clear in this new light.
Not at all the type of the star agents, those marvelous beings who
figure so romantically in fiction and on the boards, he was yet, I
fancied, a good example of the ruck of his profession, those who did
the every-day detective work which in such a business must be done.
But--Franz von Blenheim? What was my association with the name? Then I
recalled that in the extra I had read as we left harbor there had been
some account of the man's activities in Mexico.

"What I wanted to say was this," Van Blarcom continued in his usual
manner--the manner that I now recognized to be a subtler form of the
policeman's, respectful to those he held for law-abiding, alert and
watchful to detect gentry of any other kind. "This line we're traveling
on now is one the spies use quite a bit. They used to go to London
straight or else to Bordeaux and Paris; but the English and French got
a pretty strict watch going, and now it's easier for them to slip into
France through Italy, by Modane. They sail for Naples mostly, do you
see? And--you won't repeat this?--it's fairly sure that when Franz
von Blenheim sends his government a report of what he's done in Mexico
against us, he'll send it by an agent who travels on this line and lands
in Italy and then slips into Germany by way of Switzerland."

We were drifting slowly into the harbor of Gibraltar, the rock looming
over us through the blackness, a gigantic mountain, a mass of tiered and
serried lights. Search-lights, too, shot out like swords, focused on us,
and swept us as we crept forward between dimly visible, anchored
craft. The throbbing of our engines ceased. A launch chugged toward us,
bringing the officers of the port. I watched, pleased with the scene,
and rather taken with my companion's discourse. It was not unlike a dime
novel of my youth.

"Do you mean you've been sent on this line to watch for one of
Blenheim's agents?" I inquired.

"No. I'm sent for some work on the other side--and I'm not telling you
what it is, either," he rejoined. "What I meant was that a man has to
be careful, traveling on these ships. They watch close. They have to.
Haven't you noticed that whenever two or three of us get to talking, a
steward comes snooping round? Well, I suppose you wouldn't, it not being
your business; but I have. We're watched all the time; and if we're
wise, we'll mind our step. Take you, for instance. You're a good
American, eh? And yet some spy might fool you with a cute story and get
your help and maybe play you for a sucker on the other side. I saw that
happen once. It was a nice young chap, and a pretty girl fooled him--got
him into a peck of trouble. What you want to remember is that good spies
never seem like spies."

If I looked as I felt just then, the search-light that swept me must
have startled him. I could feel my face flushing, my hands clenching as
I caught his drift. I swung round.

"What's this about?" I demanded sharply. But I knew.

"Well," said the secret-service man discreetly, "I saw something pretty
funny the first night out, Mr. Bayne. It was safe enough with me; I can
tell a gentleman from a spy; but if an officer had seen it, the thing
wouldn't have been a joke. Suppose we put it this way. There's a person
on board I think I know. I haven't got the goods, I'll own, but I
don't often make mistakes. My advice to you, sir, is to steer clear of
strangers. And if I were you, I--"

"That'll do, thanks!" I cut him short. "I can take care of myself. I
don't say your motives are bad,--you may think this is a favor,--but I
call it a confounded piece of meddling, and I'll trouble you to let it
end."

He looked hurt and indignant.

"Now, look here," he remonstrated, "what have I done but give you a
friendly hint not to get in bad? But maybe I was too vague about it; you
just listen to a few facts. I'll tell you who that young lady is and who
her people are and what she wants on the other side--"

"No, you won't!" I declared. My voice sounded savage. I was recalling
how she had begged the extra of me, and how it had contained a full
account of Franz von Blenheim, the kaiser's man. "The young lady's name
and affairs are no concern of mine. If you know anything you can keep it
to yourself."

As we glared at each other like two hostile catamounts, a steward
relieved the tension by running toward us down the deck.

"_Signori, un momento, per piacere_!" he called as he came. The British
officers were on board, he forthwith informed us, and were demanding,
in accordance with the martial law now reigning at Gibraltar, a sight of
each passenger and his passport before the ship should proceed.



CHAPTER VI

THUMBSCREWS

The salon of conversation, as the mirrored, gilded, and highly varnished
apartment was grandiloquently termed, had been the very spot chosen for
our presumably not very terrible ordeal. Things were well under way.
At the desk in the corner one officer was jotting down notes as to the
clearance papers and the cargo; while at a table in the foreground sat
his comrade, in a lieutenant's uniform, with the captain of the _Re
d'Italia_ at his right, swart-faced and silent, and the list of the
passengers lying before the pair.

As I entered a few moments behind Van Blarcom, I perceived that the
interrogation had already run a partial course. Pietro Ricci, the
reservist, had, no doubt, emerged with flying colors and now stood
against the wall beside the doughty agent of the Phillipson Rifles, who
had apparently satisfied his inquisitor, too. Near the door a group of
stewards had clustered to watch with interest; and as I stood waiting,
the girl in furs came in.

I put myself a hypothetical query.

"If a girl," I thought, "materializes from the void, asks an
incriminating favor, and vanishes, does that put one on bowing terms
with her when one meets her again?" Evidently it did, for she smiled
brightly and graciously and bent her ruddy head. But she was pale, I
noticed critically; there was apprehension in her eyes. Wasn't it odd
that the prospect of a few simple questions from an officer should
disconcert her when she had possessed the courage, or the foolhardiness,
to sail on this line at this time?

Really I could not deny that all I had seen of her was most suspicious.
For aught I knew, the secret-service man might be absolutely right. I
had treated him outrageously. I owed him an apology, doubtless. But
I still felt furious with him, and when she looked anxiously at those
officers, I felt furious with them too.

Van Blarcom, his brief questioning ended, was turning from the table. As
he passed, I made a point of smiling companionably at the girl.

"Now for the rack, the cord, and the thumbscrews," I murmured to her,
making way.

The lieutenant was a tall, lean, muscular young man with a shrewd tanned
face in which his eyes showed oddly blue, and he half rose, civilly
enough, as the girl advanced.

"Please sit down," he said with a strong English accent. "I'll have to
see your passport if you will be so good." She took it from the bag she
carried, and he glanced at it perfunctorily.

"Your name is Esme Falconer?"

"Yes," she replied.

It was the name of the little Stuart princess, the daughter of Charles
the First, whose quaint, coiffed, blue-gowned portrait hangs in a dark,
gloomy gallery at Rome. I was subconsciously aware that I liked it
despite its strangeness, the while I wondered more actively if that
Paul Pry of a Van Blarcom had imparted to the ship's authorities the
suspicions he had shared with me.

"You are an American, Miss Falconer? You were born in the States?
You are going to Italy--and then home again?" The questions came in a
reassuringly mechanical fashion; the man was doing his duty, nothing
more.

"I may go also to France." Her voice was steady, but I saw that she had
clenched her hands beneath the table.

I glanced at Van Blarcom, to find him listening intently, his neck
thrust forward, his eyes almost protruding in his eagerness not to miss
a word. But there was to be nothing more.

"That is satisfactory, Miss Falconer," announced the Englishman; with a
little sigh of relief, she stood back against the wall.

"If you please," said the officer to me in another tone.

As I came forward, his eyes ran over me from head to foot. So
did Captain Cecchi's; but I hardly noticed; these uniforms, these
formalities, these war precautions, were like a dash of comic opera. I
was not taking them seriously in the least. The Britisher gestured me
toward a seat, but it seemed superfluous for so brief an interview, and
I remained standing with my hands resting on a chair.

"I'll have your passport!" There was something curt in his manner. "Ah!
And your name is--?"

"My name is Devereux Bayne."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty."

"Where do you live?"

"In New York and Washington." If he could be laconic, so could I.

"You were born in America?"

"No. I was born in Paris." By this time questions and answers were like
the pop of rifle-shots.

"That was a long way from home. Lucky you chose the country of one of
our Allies." Was this sarcasm or would-be humor? It had an unpleasant
ring.

"Glad you like it," I responded, with a cold stare, "but I didn't pick
it."

"Well, if you weren't born in the States, are you an American citizen?"
he imperturbably pursued.

"If you'll consult my passport, you'll see that I am."

"Did either your father or your mother have any German blood?"

I could hear a slight rustle back of me among the passengers, none of
whom, it was plain, had been subjected to such cross-questioning. I was
growing restive, but I couldn't tell him it was not his business; of
course it was.

"No; they didn't," I briefly replied.

"About your destination now." He was making notes of all my answers.
"You are going to Italy, and then--"

"To France."

"Roundabout trip, rather. The Bordeaux route is safer just now and
quicker, too. Why not have gone that way? And how long are you planning
to stop over on this side?"

"It depends upon circumstances." What on earth ailed the fellow? He was
as annoying as a mosquito or a gnat.

"I beg your pardon, but your plans seem rather at loose ends, don't
they? What are you crossing for?"

"To drive an ambulance!" I answered as curtly as the words could be
said.

I saw his face soften and humanize at the information. For once I had
made a satisfactory response, it seemed. But on the heels of my answer
there rose the voice of Mr. McGuntrie, sensational, accusing, pitched
almost at a shriek.

"Look here, lieutenant," he was crying, "don't you let that fellow fool
you. I asked him the first night out if he was an ambulance boy, and
he denied it to me, up and down. I thought all along he was too smart,
hooting like he did at submarines. Guess he knew one would pick him up
all right if the rest of us did sink."

"How about that, Mr. Bayne?" asked the Englishman, his uncordial self
once more.

It was maddening. One would have thought them all in league to prove me
an atrocious criminal.

"Simply this," I replied with the iciness of restrained fury, "that this
gentleman has been the steamer's pest ever since the night we sailed. If
I had answered his questions, every one, down to the ship's cat, would
have shared his knowledge within the hour. I did not deny anything; I
simply did not assent. You are an officer in authority; I am answering
you, though I protest strongly at your manner; but I don't tell my
affairs to prying strangers because we are cooped up on the same boat."

"H'm. If I were you I would keep my temper." He regarded me
thoughtfully, and then with rapier-like rapidity shot two questions
at my head. "I say, Mr. Bayne, you're positive about your parents not
having German blood, are you? And you are quite sure you were born in
Paris, not in--well, Prussia, suppose we say?"

"What the--" I opportunely remembered the presence of Miss Esme
Falconer. "What do you mean?" I substituted less sulphurously, but with
a glare.

He bent forward, tapping his forefinger against the desk, and his eyes
were like gimlets boring into mine.

"I mean," he enlightened me, his voice very hard of a sudden, "that a
German agent is due to sail on this line, about this time, with certain
papers, and that from one or two indications I'm not at all sure you are
not the man."

With sudden perspicacity, I realized that he took me for an emissary of
the great Blenheim. Exasperation overwhelmed me; would these farcical
complications never cease?

"Good heavens, man," I exclaimed with conviction, "you are crazy! Look
at me! Use your common-sense! What on earth is there about me to suggest
a spy?"

"In a good spy there never is anything suggestive."

By Jove, that was the very thing the secret-service man had said!

"You admit you were born abroad. You claim to be bound for France, but
you sail for Italy. And you are rather a soldier's type, tall, well
set-up, good military carriage. You'd make quite a showing in a field
uniform, I should say."

"In a fiddlestick!" I snapped, weary of the situation. "So would you--so
would our friend the Italian reservist there. I'm an average American,
free, white, and twenty-one, with strong pro-Ally sympathies and a
passport in perfect shape. This is all nonsense, but of course there
is something back of it. What has been your real reason for deviling me
ever since I entered this room?"

The lieutenant was studying my face.

"Mr. Bayne," he said slowly, "do you care to tell me the nature of the
package you threw across the rail the first night out?"

I heard a gasp from the group behind me, a squeal of joy from
McGuntrie, a quick, low-drawn breath that surely came from the girl.
Preternaturally cool, I thought rapidly.

"What's that you say? Package?" I repeated, trying to gain time.

"Yes, package!" said the Englishman, sharply. "And we'll dispense with
pretense, please. These are war-times, and from common prudence the
Allies keep an eye on all passengers who choose to sail instead of
staying at home as we prefer they should. Captain Cecchi here reports
to me that one of his stewards saw you drop a small weighted object
overboard. He has asked me to interrogate you, instead of doing it
himself, so that you may have the chance to defend yourself in English,
which he doesn't speak."

"_E vero_. It ees the truth," confirmed the captain of the _Re
d'Italia_--the one remark, by the way, that he ever addressed to me.

"Well?" It was the Englishman's cold voice. "We are waiting, Mr. Bayne!
What was this object you were so anxious to dispose of? A message from
some confederate, too compromising to keep?"

Heretofore I had carefully avoided looking at Miss Falconer, but at this
point, turning my head a trifle, I gave her a casual glance. Her eyes
had blackened as they had done that night on the deck; her face had
paled, and her breath was coming fast. But as I looked, her gaze fell,
and her lashes wavered; and I knew that whatever came she did not mean
to speak.



CHAPTER VII

THE TIGHTENING WEB

I did not, of course, want her to. I was no "Injun giver," and having
once pledged my word to help her, I was prepared to keep it till all was
blue or any other final shade. Still, it was not to be denied that
my position looked incriminating. She might be as honest as the
daylight,--I believed she was; I had to or else abandon her,--but she
had managed to plunge me into a confounded mess.

Naturally I was exasperated at the net results of my piece of gallantry.
I didn't care to be suspected; I wasn't anxious to have to lie. All
the same, a plausible explanation, offered without delay, appeared
essential. I should have wanted as much myself had I been guarding
Gibraltar port.

"Well, Mr. Bayne?"

"Well!" I retorted coolly. "I was just wondering if I should answer.
This is an infernal outrage, you know. You don't really think I'm a spy.
What you are doing is to give me a third degree on general principles.
If you'll excuse my saying so I think you ought to have more sense!"

"Oh, of course we ought to take you on trust," he agreed sardonically.
"But we can't I'm afraid. The fact is, we have had an experience or two
to shake our faith. The last time this steamer stopped here we caught a
pair of spies who didn't look the part any more than you do; and since
then we have rather stopped taking appearances as guarantees."

"All right, then," I responded. "I'll stretch a point since it is
war-time. I give you my word that I threw overboard a small bronze
paper-weight that was cluttering up my traps. There was nothing
surreptitious about it; the whole steamer might have seen me. Do you
care to take the responsibility of having me shot for that?"

"And I want to say, sir, that the gentleman is giving it to you
straight." An unexpected voice addressed the lieutenant at my back. "I
was standing at the door behind him that night, though he didn't know
it, and I can take my oath that what he says is gospel truth."

My unlooked-for champion was Mr. John Van Blarcom. I stared at him, at
a loss to know why, on the heels of our row on deck and my rejection of
his friendly warning, he should perjure himself for me in so obliging
a fashion. He had, I was aware, been too far off that night to know
whether I had thrown away a paper-weight or a sand-bag. Moreover,
the object had been swathed beyond recognition in the extra that
was primarily responsible for all this fuss. "He is sorry for me,"
I decided. "He thinks the girl has made a fool of me." Instead of
experiencing gratitude, I felt more galled and wrathful than before.

"Is that so? How close were you?" the lieutenant asked alertly. "About
ten feet? You are quite sure? Well--it's all right, I suppose, then," he
admitted in a very grudging tone.

"No, it isn't," I declared tartly. I was by no means satisfied with
so half-hearted a vindication; nor did I care to owe my immunity to
a patronizing lie on Mr. Van Blarcom's part. "You have accused me of
spying. Do you think I'll let it go at that? I insist that you have my
baggage brought up here and that you search it and search me."

The face of the Englishman really relaxed for once.

"That's a good idea. And it's what any honest man would want, Mr.
Bayne," he approved. "Since you demand it--certainly, we'll do it," and
he glanced at the captain, who promptly ordered two stewards to fetch my
traps from below.

Things move rapidly on shipboard. My traveling impedimenta appeared in
the salon almost before I could have uttered the potent name of Jack
Robinson, had I cared to try. With cold aloofness I offered my keys,
and the head steward knelt to officiate, while the crowd gaped and the
second English officer abandoned his corner and his papers, standing
forth to watch with the lieutenant and the captain, thus forming an
intent and highly interested committee of three.

The investigation began, very thorough, slightly harrowing. I had not
realized the embarrassing detail of such a search. An extended store
of collars suitable for different occasions; neat and glossy piles
of shirts, both dress and plain; black silk hose mountain high, and
neckties as numerous as the sea sands. Noting the rapt attention that
McGuntrie in particular gave to these disclosures, I felt that to
deserve so inhuman a punishment my crime must have been black indeed.
Shoes on their trees; articles of silk underwear; brushes, combs,
gloves, cards, boxes of cigarettes, an extra flask; some light
literature. And so on and so on, ad nauseam, till I grew dully
apathetic, and roused only to praise Allah when we left the boxes for
the trunk.

Hardened by this time, I brazenly endured the exhibition of my pajamas,
not turning a hair when they were held up and shaken out before the
attentive crowd. In a similar spirit I bore the examination of my coats
and trousers, the rummaging of my vests, the investigation of my hats.
"Courage!" I told myself. "Nothing in the world is endless." Indeed, the
last garment was now being lifted, revealing nothing beneath it save a
leather wallet carefully tied.

"Just look through that, will you?" I requested with chilling sarcasm.
"Otherwise you may get to thinking later that I had a note for the
kaiser there. In point of fact, those are simply some letters of
introduction that I am taking to--" I broke off abruptly. "Good Lord
deliver us!" I blankly exclaimed. "What's that?"

The lieutenant, complying with my request, had unbound the wallet and
was flirting out its contents in fan-like fashion like a hand of cards.
I saw the imposing army of letters presented me by Dunny, who knows
everybody, headed by one to his old friend, the American ambassador to
France. So far, so good. But beneath them, with a sickening sense of
being in a bad dream, I beheld a thin sheaf of papers, neatly folded,
bound with red tape and sealed with bright red wax,--an object which, to
my certain knowledge, had no more business among my belongings than
the knives and plates that the conjurer snatches from the surrounding
atmosphere, or the hen which he evolves, clucking, from an erstwhile
empty sleeve.

Standing there with the impersonal calm of utter helplessness, I watched
the Britisher break the seal and unfold the sheets. They were thin and
they were many and they were covered with closely jotted hieroglyphics,
row upon row. But the sphinx-like quality of the contents afforded me
no gleam of hope. If they had proclaimed as much in the plainest English
printing, I could have been no surer that they were the papers of Franz
von Blenheim; nor, as I learned a good while afterward, was I mistaken
in the belief.

I was vaguely aware that the spectators were being ordered from the
salon. Captain Cecchi's eyes were dark stilettos; the gaze of the
Englishman was like a narrow flash of blue steel. He was going to say
something. I waited apathetically. Then the words came, falling like
icicles in the deadness of the hush.

"If you wish, sir," he stated, "to explain why you are traveling with
cipher papers, Captain Cecchi and I will hear what you have to say."



CHAPTER VIII

WHAT A THIEF CAN DO

In sheer desperation I achieved a ghastly levity of demeanor.

"Please don't shoot me yet," I managed to request. "And if I sit down
and think for a moment, don't take it for a confession. Any innocent man
would be shocked dumb temporarily if his traps gave up such loot."

I sat down in dizzy fashion, my judges watching me. Through my mind, in
a mad phantasmagoria, danced the series of events that had begun in the
St. Ives restaurant and was ending so dramatically in the salon of this
ship. Or perhaps the end had not yet arrived, I thought ironically. By
a slight effort of imagination I could conjure up a scene of the sort
rendered familiar by countless movie dramas--a lowering fortress wall,
myself standing against it, scornfully waving away a bandage, and drawn
up before me a highly efficient firing-squad.

To all intents and purposes I was a spy, caught red-handed; but with due
respect for circumstantial evidence, I did not mean to remain one long.
That part of it was too absurd. There must be a dozen ways out of it.
Come! The fact that so strange an experience had befallen me in a New
York hotel on the eve of my sailing could not be pure coincidence. There
lay the clue to the mystery. Let me work it out.

And then, as my wits began groping, comprehension came to me--a sudden
comprehension that left me stunned and dazed: The open trunk, the thief,
the descent by the fire-escape, the girl's calm denial, turning us from
the suspected floor. Yes, the girl! Heavens, what a blind dolt I had
been! No wonder that Van Blarcom had felt moved to say a helping word
for me, as for a congenital idiot not responsible for his acts!

"When you are ready--" the lieutenant was remarking. I pulled myself
together as hastily as I could.

"First," I began, with all the resolution I could muster, "I want to
say that I am as much at a loss as you are about this thing. I never set
eyes upon those papers until this evening. Why, man alive, I insisted
on the search! I asked you to examine the wallet! Do you think I did all
that to establish my own guilt?"

"We'll keep to the point, please." His very politeness was ill omened.
"The papers were in your baggage. Can you explain how they came there?"

"I am going to try," I answered coolly. "To begin with, I can vouch for
it that they were not there two weeks ago when my man packed the trunk.
That I can swear to, for I glanced through the letters before handing
him the wallet; and when he had finished packing I locked the trunk and
went yachting for five days."

"And your luggage? Did it go with you?" queried the Englishman.

"No; it didn't. It remained in the baggage-room of my apartment house;
but when I landed and found hotel quarters, I had it sent to me at the
St. Ives."

"So you stayed there!" He was eyeing me with ever-growing disfavor.
"You didn't know, of course, that it was a nest of agents, a sort of
rendezvous for hyphenates, and that the last spy we caught on this line
had made it his headquarters in New York?"

"I did not," I replied stiffly. "But I can believe the worst of it.
Now, here's what befell me there." I recounted my adventure briefly,
beginning with the summons from restaurant to telephone.

It was strange how, as I talked, each detail fell into its place, how
each little circumstance, formerly so mystifying, grew clear. The alarm
of the _maitre d'hotel_ over my sudden departure, his relief when I
entered the booths, his corresponding horror when, emerging, I took
the elevator for my room, puzzled me no longer. The deserted halls, the
flight of the little German intruder, the determined lack of interest of
the hotel management, were merely links in the chain.

I told a straight, unvarnished story with one exception. When I came
to the point I couldn't bring in Miss Esme Falconer's name. I said
non-committally that a lady had occupied the room where the thief took
refuge; and I left it to be inferred that I had never seen her before or
since.

The lieutenant heard my tale out with impassivity. "Is that all, Mr.
Bayne?" he asked shortly, as I paused.

"Yes," I lied doggedly. "And if you want more, I call you insatiable.
I've told you enough to satisfy any man's appetite for the abnormal,
haven't I?"

"Your defense, then," he summed it up, "is that under the protection of
a German management a German agent entered your room, opened your trunk,
concealed these papers in it, and repacked it. You believe that, eh?"

It sounded wild enough, I acknowledged gloomily as I sat staring at the
carpet with my elbows on my knees.

"You've been a pretty fool, a pretty fool, a pretty fool!" the refrain
sang itself unceasingly in my ears. I was disgusted with the episode,
more disgusted yet with my own role. Why was I lying, why making myself
by my present silence as well as by my former density the flagrant
confederate of a clever spy?

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Oh, what's the use?" I muttered. "No, of course I don't believe it, and
you won't either if you are sane. It is too ridiculous. I might as
well suggest that if the thief hadn't been gone when they arrived, the
manager and the detective would have shanghaied me, or the house doctor
drugged me with a hypodermic till the fellow could get away. Let's end
all this! I'm ready to go ashore if you want to take me. In your place
I know I should laugh at such a story; and I think that on general
principles I should order the man who told it shot."

"Not necessarily, Mr. Bayne," was the cool response of the Englishman.
"The trouble with you neutrals is that you laugh too much at German
spies. We warn you sometimes, and then you grin and say that it's
hysteria. But by and by you'll change your minds, as we did, and know
the German secret service for what it is--the most competent thing, the
most widely spread, and pretty much the most dangerous, that the world
has to fight to-day."

"You don't mean," I inquired blankly, "that you believe me?"

It looks odd enough as I set it down. Ordinarily I expect my word to be
accepted; but then, as a general thing I don't suddenly discover that I
have been chaperoning a set of German code-dispatches across the seas.

"I mean," he corrected with truly British phlegm, "that I can't say
positively your story is untrue. Here's the case: Some one--probably
Franz von Blenheim--wants to send these papers home by way of Italy
and Switzerland. Your hotel manager tells him you are going to sail for
Naples; you are an American on your way to help the Allies; it's ten to
one that nobody will suspect you and that your baggage will go through
untouched. What does he do? He has the papers slipped into your wallet.
Then he sends a cable to some friend in Naples about a sick aunt, or
candles, or soap. And the friend translates the cable by a private code
and reads that you are coming and that he is to shadow you and learn
where you are stopping and loot your trunk the first night you spend
ashore!"

"I don't grasp," I commented dazedly; "why they should weave such
circles. Why not let one of their own agents bring over the papers?"

The lieutenant smiled a faint, cold, wintry smile.

"Spies," he informed me, "always think they are watched, and generally
they're not wrong in thinking so. If they can send their documents by an
innocent person, they had better. For my part, I call it a very clever
scheme."

"I believe I am dreaming," I muttered. "Somebody ought to pinch me.
You found those infernal things nestling among my coats and hose and
trousers--and you don't think I put them there?"

"I didn't say that," he denied as unresponsively as a brazen Vishnu. "I
simply say that I wouldn't care to order you shot as things stand now.
But you'll remember that I have only your word that all this happened or
that you are really an American or even that this passport is yours and
that your name is--ah--Devereux Bayne. We'll have to know quite a bit
more before we call this thing settled. How are you going to satisfy his
Majesty the King?"

I plucked up spirit.

"Well," I suggested, "how will this suit you? I'll go down to my
stateroom and stop there until we land in Italy; and, if you like, just
to be on the safe side with such a desperado as I am, you can put a
guard outside my door. But first, you'll send a sheaf of marconigrams
for me in both directions. You're welcome to read them, of course,
before they go. Then when we get to Naples, my friend, Mr. Herriott,
will meet the steamer. He is second secretary at the United States
embassy, and his identification will be sufficient, I suppose. Anyhow,
if it isn't, I dare say the ambassador will say a word for me. I have
known him for years, though not so well."

"That would be quite sufficient as to identification." He stressed the
last word significantly, and I thanked heaven for Dunny and the forces
which I knew that rather important old personage could set to work.

"Also," I continued coolly, "there will be various cablegrams from
United States officials awaiting us, which will convince you, I hope,
that I am not likely to be a spy. There will be a statement from the
friend who dined with me at the St. Ives. There will be the declaration
of the policeman who saw the German climb down the fire-escape and
bolt into the room beneath." "And hang the expense!" I added inwardly,
computing cable rates, but assuming a lordly indifference to them which
only a multimillionaire could really feel.

The Englishman and the captain consulted a moment. Then the former
spoke:

"That will be satisfactory, sir, to Captain Cecchi and to me. Write out
your cables, if you please. They shall be sent. And I say, Mr. Bayne,--I
hope you drive that ambulance. I'm not stationed here to be a partizan,
but you've stood up to us like a man."

An hour later as I finished my solitary dinner, the electric lights
flickered and died, and the engines began their throb. Under cover of
the darkness we were slipping out of Gibraltar. I leaned my arms on the
table and scanned the remains of my feast by the light of my one sad
candle, not thinking of what I saw, or of the various calls for help I
had been dispatching, or of the sailor grimly mounting guard outside my
door. I was remembering a girl, a girl with ruddy hair and a wild-rose
flush and great, gray, starry eyes, a girl that by all the rules of the
game I should have handed over to those who represented the countries
she was duping, a girl that I had found I had to shield when I came face
to face with the issue.



CHAPTER IX

THE BLACK BUTTERFLIES

The Turin-Paris express--the most direct, the Italians call it--was
too popular by half to suit the taste of morose beings who wished for
solitude. With great trouble and pains I had ferreted out a single
vacant compartment; but as four o'clock sounded and the whistle blew for
departure, a belated traveler joined me--worse still, an acquaintance
who could not be quite ignored.

The unwelcome intruder was Mr. John Van Blarcom, my late fellow-voyager,
and he accepted the encounter with a better grace than I.

"Why, hello!" he greeted me cheerfully. "Going through to France? Glad
to see you--but you're about the last man that I was looking for. I got
the idea somehow you were planning to stop a while in Rome."

I returned his nod with a curtness I was at no pains to dissemble. Then
I reproached myself, for it was undeniable that on the _Re d'Italia_ he
had more than once stood my friend. He had offered me a timely warning,
which I had flouted; he had obligingly confirmed my statement in my
grueling third degree. Yet despite this, or because of it, I didn't like
him; nor did I like his patronizing, complacent manner, which seemed
fairly to shriek at me, "I told you so!"

"Changed my plans," I acknowledged with a lack of cordiality that failed
to ruffle him. He had hung up his overcoat and installed himself facing
me, and was now making preparations for lighting a fat cigar.

"Well," he commented, with a chuckle of raillery, after this operation,
"the last time I saw you you were in a pretty tight corner, eh? You
can't say it was my fault, either; I'd have put you wise if you'd
listened. But you weren't taking any--you knew better than I did--and
you strafed me, as the Dutchies say, to the kaiser's taste."

"Good advice seldom gets much thanks, I believe," was my grumpy comment,
which he unexpectedly chose to accept as an apology and with a large,
fine, generous gesture to blow away.

"That's all right," he declared. "I'm not holding it against you. We've
all got to learn. Next time you won't be so easy caught, I guess. It
makes a man do some thinking when he gets a dose like you did; and those
chaps at Gibraltar certainly gave you a rough deal!"

"On the contrary," I differed shortly,--I wasn't hunting
sympathy,--"considering all the circumstances, I think they were
extremely fair."

"Not to shoot you on sight? Well, maybe." He was grinning. "But I guess
you weren't hunting for a chance to spend two days cooped up in a cabin
that measured six feet by five."

"It had advantages. One of them was solitude," I responded dryly. "And
it was less unpleasant than being relegated to a six-by-three grave. See
here, I don't enjoy this subject! Suppose we drop it. The fact is, I've
never understood why you came to my rescue on that occasion, you didn't
owe me any civility, you know, and you had to--well--we'll say draw on
your imagination when you claimed you saw what I threw overboard that
night."

"Sure, I lied like a trooper," he admitted placidly. "Glad to do it. You
didn't break any bones when you strafed me, and anyhow, I felt sorry for
you. It always goes against me to see a fellow being played!"

Thanks to my determined coolness, the conversation lapsed. I buried
myself in the Paris "Herald," but found I could not read. Simmering with
wrath, I lived again the ill-starred voyage his words recalled to
me, breathed the close smothering air of the cabin that had held me
prisoner, tasted the knowledge that I was watched like any thief. An
armed sailor had stood outside my door by day and by night; and a dozen
times I had longed to fling open that frail partition, seize the man by
the collar, and hurl him far away.

Glancing out at the landscape, I saw that Turin lay back of us and that
our track was winding through dark chestnut forests toward the heights.
Confound Van Blarcom's reminiscences and the thoughts they had set
stirring! In ambush behind my paper I gloomily relived the past.

Our ship, following sealed instructions, had changed her course at
Gibraltar, conveying us by way of the Spanish coast to Genoa instead of
Naples. From my port-hole I had gazed glumly on blue skies and bright,
blue waters, purple hills, and white-walled cities, and fishing boats
with patched, gaudy sails and dark-complexioned crews. Then Genoa rose
from the sea, tier after tier of pink and green and orange houses and
shimmering groves of olive trees; and I was summoned to the salon, to
face the captain of the port, the chief of the police of the city, and
their bedizened suites.

Surrounded by plumes and swords and gold lace, I maintained my innocence
and heard Jack Herriott, on his opportune arrival, pour forth in weird,
but fluent, Italian an account of me that must have surrounded me in the
eyes of all present with a golden halo, and that firmly established
me in their minds as the probable next President of the United
States. Thanks to these exaggerations and to various confirmatory
cablegrams--Dunny had plainly set the wires humming on receiving my
S.O.S.,--I found myself a free man, at price of putting my signature
to a statement of it all. I shook the hand of the ever non-committal
Captain Cecchi, and left the ship. And an hour after good old Jack was
gazing at me in wrath unconcealed as I informed him that I was in the
mood for neither gadding, nor social intercourse, and had made up my
mind to proceed immediately to duty at the Front.

"You've been seasick; that's what ails you," he said, diagnosing my
condition. "Oh, I don't expect you to admit it--no man ever did that.
But you wait and see how you feel when we've had a few meals at the
Grand Hotel in Rome!"

This culinary bait leaving me cold, he lost his temper, expressed a hope
that the Germans would blow my ambulance to smithereens, and assured me
that the next time I brought the Huns' papers across the ocean I might
extricate myself without his assistance from what might ensue. However,
though he has a bark, Jack possesses no bite worth mentioning. He even
saw me off when I left by the north-bound train.

Leaning moodily forward, I looked again from the window and wished I
might hurry the creaking, grinding revolution of the wheels. We were
climbing higher and higher among the mountains. The chestnuts, growing
scanter, were replaced by dark firs and pines. Streams came winding down
like icy crystal threads; the little rivers we crossed looked blue and
glacial; pale-pink roses and mountain flowers showed themselves as we
approached the peaks. A polite official, entering, examined our papers;
and with snow surrounding us and cold clear air blowing in at the
window, we left Bardonnecchia, the last of the frontier towns.

I was speeding toward France; but where was the girl of the _Re
d'Italia_? To what dubious rendezvous, what haunt of spies, had she
hurried, once ashore? The thought of her stung my vanity almost beyond
endurance. She had pleaded with me that night, swayed against me
trustingly, appealed to me as to a chivalrous gentleman and, having
competently pulled the wool over my eyes, had laughed at me in her
sleeve.

I had held myself a canny fellow, not an easy prey to adventurers;
a fairly decent one, too, who didn't lie to a king's officer or help
treasonable plots. Yet had I not done just those things by my silence
on the steamer? And for what reason? Upon my soul I didn't know, unless
because she had gray eyes.

"Hang it all!" I exclaimed, flinging my unlucky paper into a corner, and
becoming aware too late that Van Blarcom was observing me with a grin.

"I've got the black butterflies, as the French say," I explained
savagely. "This mountain travel is maddening; one might as well be a
snail."

"Sure, a slow train's tiresome," agreed Van Blarcom. "Specially if
you're not feeling overpleased with life anyway," he added, with a
knowing smile.

An angry answer rose to my lips, but the Mont Cenis tunnel opportunely
enveloped us, and in the dark half-hour transit that followed I regained
my self-control. It was not worth while, I decided, to quarrel with the
fellow, to break his head or to give him the chance of breaking mine.
After all, I thought low-spiritedly, what right had I to look down on
him? We were pot and kettle, indistinguishably black. It was true that
he had perjured himself upon the liner; but so, in spirit if not in
words, had I!

Thus reflecting, I saw the train emerge from the tunnel, felt it jar
to a standstill in the station of Modane, and, in obedience to staccato
French outcries on the platform, alighted in the frontier town. Followed
by Van Blarcom and preceded by our porters, I strolled in leisurely
fashion towards the customs shed. The air was clear, chilly,
invigorating; snowy peaks were thick and near. And the scene was
picturesque, dotted as it was with mounted bayonets and blue territorial
uniforms--reminders that boundary lines were no longer jests and that
strangers might not enter France unchallenged in time of war.

Van Blarcom's elbow at this juncture nudged me sharply.

"Say, Mr. Bayne," he was whispering, "look over there, will you? What do
you know about that?"

I looked indifferently. Then blank dismay took possession of me. Across
the shed, just visible between rows of trunks piled mountain high, stood
Miss Esme Falconer, as usual only too well worth seeing from fur hat to
modish shoe.

"Ain't that the limit," commented the grinning Van Blarcom; "us three
turning up again, all together like this? Well, I guess she won't have
to call a policeman to stop you talking to her. You know enough this
time to steer pretty clear of her. Isn't that so?"

But I had wheeled upon him; the coincidence was too striking!

"Look here!" I demanded, "are you following that young lady? Is that
your business on this side?"

"No!" he denied disgustedly, retreating a step. "Never saw her from the
time we docked till this minute; never wanted to see her! Anyhow, what's
the glare for? Suppose I was?"

"It's rather strange, you'll admit." I was regarding him fixedly. "You
seemed to have a good deal of information about her on the ship. Yet
when that affair occurred at Gibraltar, you were as dumb as an oyster.
Why didn't you tell the captain and the English officers the things you
knew?"

"Well, I had my reasons," he replied defiantly. "And at that, I don't
see as you've got anything on me, Mr. Bayne. You're no fool. You put
two and two together quick enough to know darned well who planted those
papers in your baggage; so if you thought it needed telling, why didn't
you tell it yourself?"

"I don't know who put them there," I denied hastily, "except that he was
a pale little runt of a German, pretending to be a thief, who will wish
he had died young if I ever see him again."

An inspector had just passed my traps through with bored indifference.
I turned a huffy back on Van Blarcom and went to stand in line before
a door which harbored, I was told, a special commission for the
examination of passports and the admission of travelers into France.

Reaching the inner room in due course, I saluted three uniformed men
who sat round an unimposing wooden table, exhibited the _vise_ that Jack
Herriott had secured for me at Genoa, and was welcomed to the land. Then
I stepped forth on the platform, retrieved my porter and my baggage, and
placed myself near the door to wait until the girl should come.

I must have been a grim sort of sentinel as I stood there watching. I
knew what I had to do, but I detested it with all my heart. There was
one thing to be said for this Miss Falconer--she had courage. She was
pressing on to French soil without lingering a day in Italy, though
she must be aware that by so swift a move she was risking suspicion,
discovery, death.

As moment after moment dragged past, I grew uneasy. Would she come out
at all? Could she win past those trained, keen-eyed men? The more I
thought of it, the more desperate seemed the game she was playing. This
little Alpine town, high among the peaks, surrounded by pines and snow,
had been a setting for tragedies since the war began. These territorials
with their muskets were not mere supers, either. But no! She was
emerging; she was starting toward the _rapide_. There, no doubt, a
reserved compartment was awaiting her, and once inside its shelter, she
would not appear again.

I drew a deep breath in which resolve and distaste were mingled. She had
crossed the frontier, but she was not in Paris yet. I couldn't shirk the
thing twice, knowing as I did her charm, her beauty, her air of proud,
spirited graciousness--all the tools that equipped her. I couldn't, if
I was ever again to hold my head before a Frenchman, let her pass on, so
daring and dangerous and resourceful, to do her work in France.

As she approached, I stepped in front of her, lifting my hat.

"This is a great surprise, Miss Falconer," said I.



CHAPTER X

DINNER FOR TWO

I was prepared for fear, for distress, for pleading as I confronted
Miss Falconer; the one thing I hadn't expected was that she should
seem pleased at the meeting, but she did. She flushed a little, smiled
brightly, and held out her gloved hand to me.

"Why, Mr. Bayne! I am so glad!" she exclaimed in frankly cordial tones.

The crass coolness of her tactics, with its implied rating of my
intelligence, was the very bracer I needed for a most unpleasant task. I
accepted her hand, bowed over it formally, and released it. Then I spoke
with the most impersonal courtesy in the world.

"And I," I declared coolly, "am delighted, I assure you. It is great
luck meeting you like this; and I will not let you slip away. I suppose
that when we board the train they will serve us a meal of some sort.
Won't you give me the pleasure of having you for my guest?"

The brightness had left her face as she sensed my attitude. She drew
back, regarding me in a rebuffed, bewildered way.

"Thank you, no. I am not hungry."

By Jove, but she was an actress! I should have sworn I had hurt her if I
hadn't known the truth.

"Don't say that!" I protested. "Of course it is unconventional to dine
with a stranger; but then so is almost everything that is happening to
you and me. Think of those lord high executioners in there round the
table. See this platform with its guards and bayonets and guns. And then
remember our odd experiences on the _Re d'Italia_. Won't you risk one
more informality and come and dine?"

She hesitated a moment, watching me steadily; then, with proud
reluctance, she walked beside me toward the train.

"You helped me once," she said, her eyes averted now, "and I haven't
forgotten. I don't understand at all,--but I shall do as you say."

The passengers were being herded aboard by eager, bustling officials.
I saw my baggage and the girl's installed, disposed of the porters, and
guided my companion to the _wagon_ restaurant. The horn was sounding as
we entered, and at six-thirty promptly, just as I put Miss Falconer in
her chair, we pulled out of the snowy station of Modane.

As I studied the menu, the girl sat with lowered lashes, all things
about her, from her darkened eyes and high head to her pallor,
proclaiming her feeling of offense, her sense of hurt. She knew her
game, I admitted, and she had first-class weapons. Though she could not
weaken my resolution, she made my beginning hard.

"We are going to have a discouraging meal," I gossiped
procrastinatingly. "But, since we are in France, it will be a little
less horrible than the usual dining-car. The wine is probably hopeless;
I suggest Evian or Vichy. These radishes look promising. Will you have
some?"

"No. I am not hungry," she repeated briefly. "Won't you please tell me
what you have to say?"

Though I didn't in the least want them, I ate a few of the radishes just
to show that I was not abashed by her haughty, reproachful air. Other
passengers were strolling in. Here was Mr. John Van Blarcom, who, at the
sight of Miss Falconer and myself to all appearances cozily established
for a tete-a-tete meal, stopped in his tracks and fastened on me the
hard, appraising scrutiny that a policeman might turn on a hitherto
respectable acquaintance discovered in converse with some notorious
crook. For an instant he seemed disposed to buttonhole me and
remonstrate. Then he shrugged his stocky shoulders, the gesture
indicating that one can't save a fool from his folly, and established
himself at a near-by table, from which coign of vantage he kept us under
steady watch.

Given such an audience, my outward mien must be impeccable.

"There is something," I admitted cautiously, "that I want to say to you.
But I wish you would eat something first. People are watching us," I
added beneath my breath as the soup appeared.

She took a sip under protest, and then replaced her spoon and sat with
fingers twisting her gloves and eyes fixed smolderingly on mine. I
shifted furtively in my seat. This was a charming experience. I was
being, from my point of view, almost quixotically generous; yet with one
glance she could make me feel like a bully and a brute.

"I am sure," I stumbled, fumbling desperately with my serviette, "that
you came over without realizing what war conditions are. Strangers
aren't wanted just now. Travel is dangerous for women. You may think me
all kinds of a presumptuous idiot,--I shan't blame you,--but I am going
to urge you most strongly to go home."

Whatever she had looked for, obviously it was not that.

"Mr. Bayne," she exclaimed, regarding me wonderingly, "what do you
mean?"

"Just this, Miss Falconer," I answered with almost Teutonic
ruthlessness. Confound it! I couldn't sit here forever bullying her;
sheer desperation lent me strength. "The _Espagne_ sails from Bordeaux
on Saturday, I see by the Herald, and if I were you, I should most
certainly be on board. In fact, if you lose the chance, I am sure you'll
regret it later. The French police authorities are--er--very inquisitive
about foreigners; and if you stop in France in these anxious times, I
think it likely that they may--well--"

She drew a quick, hard breath as I trailed off into silence. Her eyes,
darkened, horrified, were gazing full into mine.

"You wouldn't tell them about me! You couldn't be so cruel!" The words
came almost fiercely, yet with a sound like a stifled sob.

By its sheer preposterousness the speech left me dumb a moment, and then
gave me back the self-possession I had been clutching at throughout
the meal. For the first time since entering I sat erect and squared my
shoulders. I even confronted her with a rather glittering smile.

"I am very sorry," I said, with a cool stare, "if I appear so; but I am
consideration itself compared with the people you would meet in Paris,
say. That's the very point I'm making--that you can't travel now
in comfort. I'm simply trying to spare you future contretemps, Miss
Falconer; such as I had on the _Re d'Italia_, you may recall."

She leaned impulsively across the table.

"Oh, Mr. Bayne, I knew it! You are angry about that wretched extra, and
you have a right to be. Of course you thought it cowardly of me--yes,
and ungrateful--to stand there without a word and let those officers
question you. Mr. Bayne, if the worst had come to the worst, I should
have spoken, I should, indeed; but I had to wait. I had to give myself
every chance. It meant so much, so much! You had nothing to hide
from them. You were certain to win through. And then, you seemed so
undisturbed, so unruffled, so able to take care of yourself; I knew you
were not afraid. It was different with me. If they began to suspect, if
they learned who I was, I could never have entered France. This route
through Italy was my one hope! I am so sorry. But still--"

Hitherto she had been appealing; but now she defied frankly. That tint
of hers, like nothing but a wild rose, drove away her pallor; her gray
eyes flamed.

"But still," she flashed at me, "you won't inform on me just for that?
I asked you to help me; you were free to refuse--and you agreed! Because
it inconvenienced you a little, are you going to turn police agent?" Her
red lips twisted proudly, scornfully. "I don't believe it, Mr. Bayne!"

I laughed shortly. She was indeed an artist.

"I wasn't thinking of that particular episode--" I began.

"But you did resent it. I saw it when you first joined me. And I was
so glad to see you--to have the chance of thanking you!" she broke in,
smoldering still.

"No, I didn't resent it. I didn't even blame you. If I blamed any one,
Miss Falconer, it would certainly be myself. I've concluded I ought
not to go about without a keeper. My gullibility must have amused you
tremendously." I laughed.

"I never thought you gullible," she denied, suddenly wistful. "I thought
you very generous and very chivalrous, Mr. Bayne."

This was carrying mockery too far.

"I am afraid," I said meaningly, "that the authorities at Gibraltar
would take a less flattering view. For instance, if those Englishmen
learned that I had refrained from telling them of our meeting at the St.
Ives, I should hear from them, I fancy."

Again her eyes were widening. What attractive eyes she had!

"The St. Ives?" she repeated wonderingly. "Why should that interest
them? What do you mean?" Then, suddenly, she bent forward, propped
her elbows on the table, and amazed me with a slow, astonished,
comprehending smile. "I see!" she murmured, studying me intently. "You
thought that I screened the man who hid those papers, that I crossed the
ocean on--similar business, perhaps even that on this side I was to take
the documents from your trunk?"

"Naturally," I rejoined stiffly. "And I congratulate you. It was a
brilliant piece of work; though, as its victim, I fail to see it in the
rosiest light."

"I understand," she went on, still smiling faintly. "You thought I
was--well--Look over yonder."

Her glance, seeking the opposite wall unostentatiously, directed my
attention to a black-lettered, conspicuously posted sign:


BE SILENT!

BE MISTRUSTFUL!

THE EARS OF THE ENEMY ARE LISTENING!


Thus it shouted its warning, like the thousands of its kind that are
scattered about the trains, the boats, the railroad stations, and all
the public places of France.

"You thought I was the ears of the enemy, didn't you?" the girl was
asking. "You thought I was a German agent. I might have guessed! Well,
in that case it was kind of you not to hand me over to the Modane
gendarmes. I ought to thank you. But I wasn't so suspicious when they
searched your trunk and found the papers--I simply felt that they must
be crazy to think you could be a spy."

I achieved a shrug of my shoulders, a polite air of incredulity; but, to
tell the truth, I was a little less skeptical than I appeared. There was
something in her manner that by no means suggested pretense. And she
had said a true word about the occurrences on the _Re d'Italia_. If
appearances meant facts, I myself had been proved guilty up to the hilt.

"Mr. Bayne," she was saying soberly, "I should like you to believe
me--please! I am an American, and I have had cause lately to hate the
Germans; all my bonds are with our own country and with France. There is
some one very dear to me to whom this war has worked a cruel injustice.
I have come to try to help that person; and for certain reasons--I can't
explain them--I had to come in secret or not at all. But I have done
nothing wrong, nothing dishonorable. And so"--again her eyes challenged
me--"I shall not sail from Bordeaux on the _Espagne_ on Saturday; and
you shall choose for yourself whether you will speak of me to the French
police."

It was not much of an argument, regarded dispassionately; yet it shook
me. With sudden craftiness I resolved to trap her if I could.

"I ought to tell them on the mere chance that they would send you home,"
I grumbled irritably. "You have no business here, you know, helping
people and being suspected and pursued and outrageously annoyed by
fools like me. Yes, and by other fools--and worse," I added with feigned
sulphurousness, indicated Van Blarcom. "Miss Falconer, would you mind
glancing at the third man on the right--the dark man who is staring at
us--and telling me whether or not you ever saw him before you sailed?"

"I am sure I never did," she declared, knitting puzzled brows; "and yet
on the _Re d'Italia_ he insisted that we had met. It frightened me a
little. I wondered whether or not he suspected something. And every time
I see him he watches me in that same way."

I was thawing, despite myself.

"There's one other thing," I ventured, "if you won't think me too
impertinent: Did you ever hear of a man named Franz von Blenheim?"

"No," she said blankly; "I never did. Who is he?"

No birds out of that covert! If this was acting it was marvelous; there
had not been the slightest flicker of confusion in her face.

"Oh, he isn't anybody of importance--just a man," I evaded. "Look here,
Miss Falconer, you'll have to forgive me if you can. You shall stay in
Paris, and I'll be as silent as the grave concerning you; but I'd like
to do more than that. Won't you let me come and call? Really, you
know, I'm not such a duffer as you have cause to think me. After we got
acquainted you might be willing to trust me with this business, whatever
it is. And then, if it's not too desperate, I have friends who could be
of help to you." Such was the sop I threw to conscience, the bargain
I struck between sober reason and the instinct that made me trust her
against all odds. My theories must have been moonshine. Everything was
all right, probably. But for the sake of prudence I ought to keep track
of her. Besides, I wanted to.

Gratitude and consternation, a most becoming mixture, were in her eyes.
She drew back a little.

"Oh, thank you, but that's impossible," she said uncertainly. "I have
friends, too; but they can't help me. Nobody can."

"Well," I admitted sadly, "I know the rudiments of manners. I can
recognize a conge, but consider me a persistent boor. Come, Miss
Falconer, why mayn't I call? Because we are strangers? If that's it, you
can assure yourself at the embassy that I am perfectly respectable; and
you see I don't eat with my knife or tuck my napkin under my chin or
spill my soup."

Again that warm flush.

"Mr. Bayne!" she exclaimed indignantly. "Did I need an introduction to
speak to you on the ship, to ask unreasonable favors of you, to make
people think you a spy? If you are going to imagine such absurd things,
I shall have to--"

"To consent? I hoped you might see it that way."

"Of course," she pondered aloud, "I may find good news waiting. If I do,
it will change everything. I could see you once, at least, and let you
know. I really owe you that, I think, when you've been so kind to me."

"Yes," I agreed bitterly, with a pang of conscience, "I've been very
kind--particularly to-night!"

"Well, perhaps to-night you were just a little difficult." She was
smiling, but I didn't mind; I rather liked her mockery now. "Still, even
when you thought the worst of me, Mr. Bayne, you kept my secret. And--do
you really wish to come to see me?"

"I most emphatically do."

She drew a card from her beaded bag, rummaged vainly for a pencil, ended
by accepting mine, and scribbled a brief address.

"Then," she commanded, handing me the bit of pasteboard, "come to this
number at noon to-morrow and ask for me. And now, since I'm not to go to
prison, Mr. Bayne, I believe I am hungry. This is war bread, I suppose;
but it tastes delicious. And isn't the saltless butter nice?"

"And here are the chicken and the salad arriving!" I exclaimed
hopefully. "And there never was a French cook yet, however unspeakable
otherwise, who failed at those."

What had come to pass I could not have told; but we were eating
celestial viands, and my black butterflies having fled away, a swarm of
their gorgeous-tinted kindred were fluttering radiantly over Miss Esme
Falconer's plate and mine.



CHAPTER XI

IN THE RUE ST.-DOMINIQUE

Arriving in Paris at the highly inconvenient hour of 8 A.M., our
_rapide_ deposited its breakfastless and grumpy passengers on the
platform of the Gare de Lyon, washed its hands of us with the final
formality of collecting our tickets, and turned us forth into a gray,
foggy morning to seek the food and shelter adapted to our purses
and tastes. Every one, of course, emerged from seclusion only at the
ultimate moment; and, far from holding any lengthy conversation with
Miss Falconer, I was lucky to stumble upon her in the vestibule, help
her descend, find a taxi for her at the exit, and see her smile back at
me where I stood hatless as she drove away.

While I waited for my own cab I found myself beside Mr. John Van
Blarcom, who eyed me with mingled hostility and pity, as if I were
a cross between a lunatic and a thief. I returned his stare coolly;
indeed, I found it braced me. Left to myself, I had experienced a
creeping doubt as to the girl's activities and my own intelligence; but
as soon as this fellow glared at me, all my confidence returned.

"Well, Mr. Bayne," he remarked sardonically, breaking the silence, "I
suppose you're worrying for fear I'll give you another piece of good
advice. Don't you fret! From now on you can hang yourself any way you
want to. I'd as soon talk to a man in a padded cell and a strait-jacket.
Only don't blame me when the gendarmes come for you next week."

"Oh, go to the devil!" I retorted curtly. It was a relief; I had
been wanting to say it ever since we had first met. His jaw shot out
menacingly, and for an instant he squared off from me with the look of
the professional boxer; but, rather to my disappointment, he thought
better of it and turned a contemptuous back.

Upon leaving Genoa I had reserved a room at the Ritz by telegraph. I
drove there now, and refreshed myself with a bath and breakfast, casting
about me meanwhile for some mode of occupying the hours till noon. There
were various tasks, I knew, that should have claimed me; a visit to the
police to secure a _carte de sejour_, the presentation of my credentials
as an ambulance-driver, a polite notification to friends that I had
arrived. These things should have been my duty and pleasure, but somehow
they were uninviting. Nothing appealed to me, I realized with sudden
enlightenment, except a certain appointment that I had already made.

I went out, to find that the fog was lifting and spring was in the air.
Since my dinner the previous night I had felt an odd exhilaration, a
pleasure quickened by the staccato sparkle of the French tongue against
my ears, the pale-blue uniforms, and gay French faces glimpsed as the
train had stopped at various lighted stations. Saluting Napoleon's
statue, I strolled up the rue de la Paix, took a table on a cafe
pavement, and, ordering a glass of something fizzy for the form of it,
sat content and happy, watching the whole gigantic pageant of Paris in
war-time defile before my eyes.

The Cook's tourists and their like, bane of the past, had disappeared;
but all nationalities that the world holds seemed to be about. At the
next table two Russian officers, with high cheek-bones and wide-set
eyes, were drinking, chatting together in their purring, unintelligible
tongue. Beyond them a party of Englishmen in khaki, cool-mannered, clear
of gaze, were talking in low tones of the spring offensive. The uniforms
of France swarmed round me in all their variety, and close at hand a
general, gorgeous in red and blue and gold, sat with his hand resting
affectionately on the knee of a lad in the horizon blue of a simple
poilu, who was so like him that I guessed them at a glance for father
and son.

A cab drew up before me, and a Belgian officer with crutches was helped
out by the cafe starter, who himself limped slightly and wore two medals
on his breast. First one troop and then another defiled across the Place
l'Opera: a company of infantry with bayonets mounted, a picturesque
regiment of Moroccans, turbaned, of magnificently impassive bearing,
sitting their horses like images of bronze. Men of the Flying Corps,
in dark blue with wings on their sleeves, strolled past me; and once,
roused by exclamations and pointing fingers, I looked up to see a
monoplane, light and graceful as a darting bird, skimming above our
heads.

Even the faces had a different look, the voices a different ring. It was
another country from that of the days of peace. Superb and dauntless,
tried by the most searing of fires and not found wanting, France was
standing girt with her shining armor, barring the invader from her
cities, her villages, her homes.

Deep in my heart--too deep to be talked of often--there had lain always
a tenderness for this heroic France. "A man's other country," some wise
person had christened it; and so it was for me, since by a chance I had
been born here, and since here my father and then my mother had died. I
was glad I had run the gauntlet and had reached Paris to do my part in
a mighty work. An ambulance drove heavily past me, and with a thrill I
wondered how soon I should bend over such a steering wheel, within sound
of the great guns.

Leaving the cafe at last, I beckoned a taxi and settled myself on its
cushions for a drive. Each new vista that greeted me was enchanting. The
pavements, the river, the buildings, the stately bridges,--all held the
same soft, silvery tint of pale French gray. In the Place de la Concorde
the fountains played as always, but--heart-warming change--the Strasburg
statue, symbol of the lost Lorraine and Alsace, no longer drooped under
wreaths of mourning, but sat crowned and garlanded with triumphant
flowers.

Like diminishing flies, the same eternal swarm of cabs and motors filled
the long vista of the Champs-Elysees between the green branches of the
chestnut trees. At the end loomed the Arc de Triomphe, beneath which the
hordes of the kaiser, in their first madness of conquest, had sworn
to march. Farther on, in the Bois, along the shady paths and about the
lakes, the French still walked in safety, because on the frontier their
soldiers had cried to the Teutons the famous watchword, "You do not
pass!" Noon was approaching, and at the Porte Maillot I consulted Miss
Falconer's card.

"Number 630, rue St.-Dominique," I bade the driver, the address falling
comfortably on my ears. I knew the neighborhood. Deep in the Faubourg
St.-Germain, it was a stronghold of the old noblesse, suggesting eminent
respectability, ancient and honorable customs, and family connections of
a highly desirable kind. It would be a point in Miss Falconer's favor
if I found her conventionally established--a decided point. Along most
lines I was in the dark concerning her, but to one dictum I dared
to hold: no girl of twenty-two or thereabouts, more than ordinarily
attractive, ought to be traveling unchaperoned about this wicked world.

I felt very cheerful, very contented, as my taxi bore me into old Paris.
The ancient streets, had a decided lure and charm. Now we passed a
quaint church, now a dim and winding alley, now a house with mansard
windows or a portal of carved stone. On all sides were buildings that in
the old days had been the _hotels_ of famous gentry, this one sheltering
a Montmorency, that one a Clisson or Soubise. It was just the setting
for a romance by Dumas. And, with a chuckle, I felt myself in sudden
sympathy with that writer's heroes, none of whom had, it seemed to me,
been enmeshed in a mystery more baffling or involved than mine.

"They've got nothing on my affair," I decided, "with their masks and
poisoned drinks and swords. For a fellow who leads a cut-and-dried
existence generally, I've been having quite a lively time. And now, to
cap the climax, I'm going to call on a girl about whom I know just one
thing--her name. By Jove, it's exactly like a story! I've got the data.
If I had any gray matter I could probably work out the facts.

"Take the St. Ives business. It's plain enough that some one wished
those papers on me, intending to unwish them in short order once we got
across. The logical suspect, judging by appearances, was Miss Falconer.
The little German went out through her room; she was the one person
I saw both at the hotel and on the _Re d'Italia_; and she acted in a
suspicious manner that first night aboard the ship. But she says she
didn't do it, and probably she didn't; it seemed infernally odd, all
along, for her to be a spy.

"Still, if she is innocent, who can be responsible? And if that affair
didn't bring her over here, what the dickens did? Something mysterious,
something dangerous, something that the French police wouldn't
appreciate, but that her conscience sanctions--that is all she deigns to
say. And why on earth did she ask me to destroy that extra? I thought
it was because she was Franz von Blenheim's agent and the paper had
an account of him that might have served as a clue to her. She says,
though, that she never heard of him. And I may be all kinds of a fool,
but it sounded straight.

"Then, there's Van Blarcom, hang him! He seemed to take a fancy to
me. He warned me about the girl, but he kept a still tongue to Captain
Cecchi and the rest. He lied deliberately, for no earthly reason, to
shield me in that interrogation; yet when those papers materialized in
my trunk, though he must have thought just what I thought as to Miss
Falconer's share in it, he didn't breathe a word. He claimed that he had
met her. She said she had never seen him. And then--rather strong for a
coincidence--we all three met again on the express. What is he doing
on this side? Shadowing her? Nonsense? And yet he seemed almighty keen
about her--Oh, hang it! I'm no Sherlock Holmes!"

The taxi pausing at this juncture, I willingly abandoned my attempt at
sleuthing and got out in the highest spirits compatible with a strictly
correct mien. I dismissed my driver. If asked to remain to _dejeuner_, I
should certainly do so. Then, with feelings of natural interest, I gazed
at the house before which I stood.

In the outward seeming, at least, it was all that the most fastidious
could have required; a gem of Renaissance architecture in its turrets,
its quaint, scrolled windows, and the carving of its stone facade.
Age and romance breathed from every inch of it. For not less than four
hundred years it had watched the changing life of Paris; and even to
a lay person like myself a glance proclaimed it one of those ancestral
_hotels_, the pride of noble French families, about which many romantic
stories cling.

At another time it would have charmed me hugely, but to-day, as I stood
gazing, somehow, my spirits fell. Was it the almost sepulchral silence
of the place, the careful drawing of every shutter, the fact that the
grilled gateway leading to the court of honor was locked? I did not
know; I don't know yet; but I had an odd, eerie feeling. It seemed like
a place of waiting, of watching, and of gloom.

This was unreasonable; it was even down-right ridiculous. I began to
think that late events were throwing me off my base. "It's a house like
any other, and a jolly fine old one!" I assured myself, approaching the
grilled entrance and producing one of my cards.

An entirely modern electric button was installed there, beneath a now
merely ornamental knocker in grotesque gargoyle form. I pressed it,
peering through the iron latticework at the stately court. The answer
was prompt. Down the steps of the hotel came a white-headed majordomo,
gorgeously arrayed, and so pictorial that he might have been a family
retainer stepping from the pages of an old tale.

There was something queer about him, I thought, as he crossed the
courtyard; just as there was about the house, I appended doggedly, with
growing belief. His air was tremulous, his step slow, his gaze far-off
and anxious.

"For Miss Falconer, who waits for me," I announced in French, offering
him my card through the grille.

He bowed to me with the deference of a Latin, the grand manner of an
ambassador; but he made no motion to let me in.

"Mademoiselle," he replied, "sends all her excuses, all her regrets to
monsieur, but she leaves Paris within the hour and, therefore may not
receive."

I had feared it for a good sixty seconds. None the less, it was a blow
to me. My suspicions, never more than half laid, promptly raised their
heads again.

"Have the kindness," I requested, with a calm air of command that I had
known to prove hypnotic, "to convey my card to mademoiselle, and to say
that I beg of her, before her departure, one little instant of speech."

But the old fellow's faded blue eyes were gazing past me, hopelessly
sad, supremely mournful. What the deuce ailed him? I wondered angrily.
The thing was almost weird. Of a sudden, with irritation, yet with
dread, too, I felt myself on the threshold of a house of tragedy. The
man might, from the look of him, have been watching some loved young
master's bier.

"Mademoiselle regrets greatly," he intoned, "but she may not receive.
Mademoiselle sends this letter to monsieur that he may understand." He
passed me, through the locked grille, a slender missive; then he saluted
me once more and, still staring before him with that fixed, uncanny
look, withdrew.



CHAPTER XII

THE GRAY CAR

I was divided between exasperation and pity. The old fellow was in a
bad way; I felt sorry for him. Dunny had an ancient butler, a household
institution, who had presided over our destinies since my childhood and
would, I fancied, look something like this if he should hear that I was
dead. But in heaven's name, what was wrong here, and was nothing in the
world clear and aboveboard any longer? On the chance that the letter
might enlighten me I tore open the envelope and read with mixed feelings
the following note:


DEAR Mr. BAYNE:

The news that I found waiting for me was not good, as I had hoped. It
was bad, very bad--as bad as news can be. I must leave Paris at once,
and I can see no one, talk to no one, before I go. Please believe that
I am sorry, and that I shall never forget the kindness you showed me on
the ship.

Sincerely yours,

ESME FALCONER.


That was all. Well, the episode was ended--ended, moreover, with a good
deal of cavalierness. She had treated me like a meddlesome, pertinacious
idiot who had insisted on calling and had to be taught his place. This
was a Christian country where the formalities of life prevailed; I could
not--unless escorted and countenanced by gendarmes--seize upon a club
and batter down that grille.

I was resentful, wrathful, in the very deuce of a humor. Black gloom
settled over me. I admitted that Van Blarcom had been right. I recalled
the girl's vague explanations as we sat over our dinner; her denials,
unbolstered save by my willingness to accept them; all the chain of
incriminating circumstances that I had pondered over in the cab. Her
charm and the mystery that enveloped her had thrilled and stirred me;
she had seen it. To gain a few hours' leeway she had once again duped
me; and this hotel, with its deceptive air of family and respectability,
was a blind, a rendezvous, another such setting for intrigue as the St.
Ives.

Her work might be already accomplished. Perhaps she had left Paris. I
told myself with some savageness that I did not know and did not care.
From the first my presence in this luridly adventurous galley had been
incongruous; I would get back with all despatch to the Ritz and the
orderly world it typified.

I had gone perhaps twenty feet when a grating noise attracted me.
Glancing back across my shoulder, I saw that the old majordomo was
unlocking and setting wide the gate. The hum of a self-starter reached
me faintly, and a moment later there rolled slowly forth a dark-blue
touring-car of luxurious aspect, driven by a chauffeur whose coat and
cap and goggles gave him rather the appearance of a leather brownie, and
bearing in the tonneau Miss Falconer, elaborately coated and veiled.

She was turning to the right, not the left; she would not pass me. I
stood transfixed, watching from my post against the wall. As the car
crept by the old majordomo, he saluted, and she spoke to him, bending
forward for a moment to rest her fingers on his sleeve.

"Be of courage, Marcel, my friend! All will be well if _le bon Dieu_
wills it," I heard her say. Then to the chauffeur she added: "_En avant,
Georges! Vite, a_ Bleau!" The motor snorted as the car gained speed, and
they were gone.

The ancient Marcel, reentering, locked the grille behind him. I was left
alone, more astounded than before. The girl's kind speech to the old
servant, her gentle tones, her womanly gesture, had been bewildering.
Despite all the accusing features her case offered, I should have said
just then, as I watched Miss Esme Falconer, that she was nothing more or
less than a superlatively nice girl.

"Honk! Honk! Honk!"

I swung round, startled. A moment earlier the length and breadth of the
street had stretched before me, empty; yet now I saw, sprung apparently
out of nowhere, a long, lean, gray car, low-built like a racer, carrying
four masked and goggled men. Steadily gaining speed as it came, it bore
down upon me and, after grazing me with its running-board and nearly
deafening me with the powerful blast of its horn, flew on down the
street and vanished in Miss Falconer's wake.

Trying to clarify my emotions, I stared after this Juggernaut. Was
it merely the sudden appearance of the thing, its look, so lean and
snake-like and somber-colored, and the muffled air of its occupants that
had struck me as sinister when it went flashing by? I wasn't sure, but I
had formed the impression that these men were following Miss Falconer. A
patently foolish idea! And yet, and yet--

My experiences at the St. Ives and on the _Re d'Italia_ had contributed
to my education. I could no longer deny that melodrama, however
unwelcome, did sometimes intrude itself into the most unlikely lives.
The girl was bound somewhere on a secret purpose. Could these four men
be her accomplices? Were they going too?

"_A_ Bleau!"

Those had been her words to the chauffeur; for Bleau, then, she was
bound. But where did such a place exist? I had never heard of it;
and yet I possessed, I flattered myself, through the medium of
motor-touring, a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the map of France.

The affair was becoming a veritable nightmare. It seemed incredible that
a few minutes earlier I had resolved to wash my hands of it all. If the
girl had a disloyal mission, it was my plain duty to intercept her.
I could not denounce her to the police. I didn't analyze the why and
wherefore of my inability to take this step; I simply knew and accepted
it. If I interfered with what she was doing, I must interfere quietly,
alone.

Ordinarily I have as much imagination as a turnip, but now I indulged
in a sudden and surprising flight of fancy. Might it be, I found myself
wondering, that the men in the gray care were not Miss Falconer's
accomplices, but her pursuers? In that case, high as was her courage,
keen as were her wits,--I found myself thinking of them with a sort of
pride,--she was laboring under a handicap of which she could not dream.

Again, where had that long, lean, pursuing streak sprung from? Could it
have lurked somewhere in the neighborhood, spying on the hotel that Miss
Falconer had just left, waiting for her to emerge? I was aware of my
absurdity, but I couldn't put an end to it; with each instant that went
by my uneasiness seemed to grow. So I yielded, not without qualms as
to whether the quarter would take me for a gibbering idiot. Grimly and
doggedly I stalked the length of the rue St.-Dominique, and the stately
houses on both sides seemed to scorn me, their shutters to eye me
pityingly, as I peered to right and left for the possible cache of the
car.

And within four hundred feet I found it. Against all reason and
probability, there it was. At my left there opened unostentatiously one
of those short, dark, neglected blind alleys so common in the older part
of Paris, with the houses meeting over it and forming an arched roof.
Running back twenty feet or so, it ended in a blank wall of stone; and,
amid the dust and debris that covered its rough paving, I distinctly
made out the tracks of tires, with between them, freshly spilt, a tiny,
gleaming pool of oil.

At this psychological moment a taxicab came meandering up the street. It
was unoccupied, but its red flag was turned down. The driver shook his
head vigorously as I signaled him.

"I go to my _dejeuner_, Monsieur!" he explained.

"On the contrary," said I fiercely, "you go to the tourist bureau
of Monsieur Cook in the Place de l'Opera, at the greatest speed the
_sergents de ville_ allow!"

I must have mesmerized him, for he took me there obediently, casting
hunted glances back at me from time to time when the traffic momentarily
halted us, as if fearing to find that I was leveling a pistol at his
head.

It being noon, the office of the tourist bureau was almost deserted,
a single, bored-looking, young French clerk keeping vigil behind
the travelers' counter. With the sociable instinct of his nation he
brightened up at my appearance.

"I want," I announced, "to ask about trains to Bleau."

For a moment he looked blank; then he smiled in understanding.

"Monsieur is without doubt an artist," he declared.

I was not, decidedly; but the words had been an affirmation and not a
question. It seemed clear that for some cryptic reason I ought to have
been an artist. Accordingly, I thought it best to bow.

He seemed childishly pleased with his acumen.

"Monsieur will understand," he explained, "that before the war we sold
tickets to many artists, who, like monsieur, desired to paint the old
mill on the stream near Bleau. It has appeared at the Salon many times,
that mill! Also, we have furnished tickets to archaeologists who desired
to see the ruins of the antique chapel, a veritable gem! But monsieur
has not an archaeologist's aspect. Therefore, monsieur is an artist."

"Perfectly," I agreed.

"As to the trains," he continued contentedly, "there is but one a day.
It departs at two and a half hours, upon the Le Moreau route. Monsieur
will be wise to secure, before leaving Paris, a safe-conduct from the
_prefecture_; for the village is, as one might say, on the edge of the
zone of war. With such a permit monsieur will find his visit charming;
regrettable incidents will not occur; undesirable conjectures about
monsieur's identity will not be roused. I should strongly advise that
monsieur provide himself with such a credential, though it is not,
perhaps, absolutely _de rigueur_."

Back in my room at the Ritz, I consulted my watch. It was a quarter of
two; certainly time had marched apace. Should I, like a sensible man,
descend to the restaurant and enjoy a sample of the justly famous
cuisine of the hotel? Or should I throw all reason overboard and post
off on--what was it Dunny had called my mission--a wild-goose chase?

I glanced at myself in the mirror and shook a disapproving head. "You're
no knight-errant," I told my impassive image. "You're too correct, too
indifferent-looking altogether. Better not get beyond your depth!" I
decided for luncheon, followed by a leisurely knotting of the threads
of my Parisian acquaintance. Then, as if some malign hypnotist had
projected it before me, I saw again a vision of that flashing, lean,
gray car.

"I'm hanged if I don't have a shot at this thing!"

The words seemed to pop out of my mouth entirely of their own accord.
By no conscious agency of my own, I found myself madly hurling collars,
handkerchiefs, toilet articles, whatever I seemed likeliest to need in a
brief journey, into a bag. Lastly I realized that I was standing, hat
in hand, overcoat across my arm, considering my revolver, and wondering
whether taking it with me would be too stagy and absurd.

"No more so than all the rest of it," I decided, shrugging. Dropping the
thing into my pocket, I made for the _ascenseur_.

"I shan't be back to-night," I informed the hall porter woodenly. "Or
perhaps to-morrow night. But, of course, I'm keeping my room."

With his wish for a charming trip to speed me, I left the Ritz, and
luckily no vision was vouchsafed me of the condition in which I should
return: Two crutches, a bandaged head, an utterly disreputable aspect;
my bedraggled state equaled--and this I would maintain with swords and
pistols if necessary--that of any poilu of them all.

As I drove toward the station, various headlines stared at me from the
kiosks. "Franz von Blenheim Rumored on Way to France," ran one of them.
Hang Franz. I had had enough of him to last the rest of my life. "Duke
of Raincy-la-Tour Still Missing," proclaimed another. I knew something
about him, too; but what? Ah, to be sure, he was the Firefly of France,
the hero of the Flying Corps, the young nobleman of whose suspected
treason I had read in that extra on the ship. In that damned extra, I
amended, with natural feeling. For it was like Rome; everything seemed
to lead its way.



CHAPTER XIII

AT THE THREE KINGS

"What's the best hotel in the place?" I inquired somewhat dubiously. The
man in the blouse, who had performed the three functions of opening my
compartment-door, carrying my bag to the gate, and relieving me of my
ticket, achieved a thoroughly Gallic shrug.

"Monsieur," said he, "what shall I tell you? The best hotel, the worst
hotel--these are one. There is only the Hotel des Trois Rois in the town
of Bleau. Let monsieur proceed by the street of the Three Kings and he
will reach it. Formerly there was an omnibus, but now the horses are
taken. And if they remained, who could drive them with all the men at
the war?"

Carrying my bag and feeling none too amiable, I set off along the
indicated route. In Paris, rushing from the rue St.-Dominique to Cook's
office, from that office to the hotel, from the hotel to the _gare_, I
had been a sort of whirling dervish with no time for sober thought.
My trip of four hours on a slow, stuffy, crowded train had, however,
afforded me ample leisure; and I had spent the time in grimly envisaging
the possibilities that, I decided, were most likely to befall.

First and foremost disagreeable; that the men in the gray automobile
were helping Miss Falconer in some nefarious business. In this case, it
would be up to me to fight the gentlemen single-handed, rescue the girl,
and escort her back to Paris, all without scandal. Easier said than
done!

Second possibility: that Miss falconer, pausing at Bleau only en route,
might already have departed, and that I would be left with my journey
for my pains.

Third: that the gray car had no connection with her; that she had some
entirely blameless errand. I hoped so, I was sure. If this proved true,
I was bound to stand branded as a meddling, officious idiot, one who, in
defiance of the most elementary social rules, persisted in trailing her
against her will. Vastly pleasant, indeed!

Fuming, I shifted my bag from one hand to the other and walked faster.
Night was falling, but it was not yet really dark, and I formed a
clear enough notion of the village as I traversed it. It was one of the
hundreds of its kind which make an artists' paradise of France. Entirely
unmodernized, it was the more picturesque for that. If I tripped
sometimes on the roughly paved street I could console myself with the
knowledge that these cobbles, like the odd, jutting houses rising on
both sides of them, were at least three hundred years old. Green woods,
clear against a background of rosy sunset, ran up to the very borders of
the town. I passed a little, gray old church. I crossed a quaint bridge
built over a winding stream lined with dwellings and broken by mossy
washing-stones. It was all very peaceful, very simple, and very rustic.
Without second sight I could not possibly have visioned the grim little
drama for which it was to serve as setting.

A blue sign with gilded letters beckoned me, and I paused to read it.
The Touring Club of France recommended to the passing stranger the Hotel
of the Three Kings. Here I was, then. From the street a dark, arched,
stone passage of distinctly _moyen-age_ flavor led me into a courtyard
paved with great square cobbles, round the four sides of which were
built the walls of the inn. Winding, somewhat crazy-looking, stone
staircases ran up to the galleries from which the bedroom doors
informally opened; vines, as yet leafless, wreathed the gray walls and
framed the shuttered windows; before me I glimpsed a kitchen with a
magnificent oaken ceiling and a medieval fireplace in which a fire
roared redly; and at my right yawned what had doubtless been a stable
once upon a time, but with the advent of the motor, had become a
primitive garage.

I took the liberty of peering inside. Eureka! There, resting comfortably
from its day's labors, stood a dark-blue automobile. If this was not the
motor that had brought Miss Falconer from the rue St.-Dominique, it was
its twin.

"You'll notice it's alone, though," I told myself. "Where's the gray
car?"

My mood was grumpy in the extreme. The inn was charming, but I knew from
sad experience that no place combines all attractions, and that a spot
so picturesque as this would probably lack running water and electric
light.

"_Bonsoir, Monsieur!_"

A buxom, smiling, bare-armed woman had emerged from the kitchen door.
She was plainly the hostess. I set down my bag and removed my hat.

"Madame," I responded, "I wish you a good evening. I desire a room for
the night in the Hotel of the Three Kings."

"To accommodate monsieur," she assured me warmly, "will be a pleasure.
Monsieur is an artist without doubt?"

I wanted to say "_Et tu, Brute!_" but I didn't. When one came to think
of it, I had no very good reason to advance for having appeared at
Bleau. It wasn't the sort of place into which one would drop from
the skies by pure chance, either. I was lucky to find a ready-made
explanation.

"But assuredly," said I.

She disappeared into the kitchen, returned immediately with a candle,
and led me up the stone staircase on the left of the courtyard, talking
volubly all the while.

"We have had many artists here," she declared; "many friends of
monsieur, doubtless. Since monsieur is of that fine profession, his
room will be but four francs daily; his dinner, three francs; his little
breakfast, a franc alone."

"Madame," I responded, "it is plain that the high cost of living, which
terrorizes my country, does not exist at Bleau."

Equally plain, I thought pessimistically, was the explanation. My
saddest forebodings were realized; if the name of the hotel meant
anything and three kings ever tarried here, that conjunction of
sovereigns had put up with housing of a distinctly primitive sort. My
room was clean, I acknowledged thankfully, but that was all I could say
for it. I eyed the bowl and pitcher gloomily, the hard-looking bed, the
tiny square of carpeting in the center of the stone floor.

"Your house, Madame," I suggested craftily, with a view to
reconnoissance, "is, of course, full?"

She heaved a sigh.

"It is war-time, Monsieur," she lamented. "None travel now. Yet why
should I mourn, since I make enough to keep me till the war is ended
and my man comes home? There are those who eat here daily at the noon
hour--the cure, the mayor, the mayor's secretary, sometimes the notary
of the town, as well. And to-night I have two guests, monsieur and the
young lady--the nurse who goes to the hospital at Carrefonds with the
great new remedy for burns and scars. _Au revoir, Monsieur_. In one
little moment I will send the hot water, and in half an hour monsieur
shall dine."

I closed the door behind her and flung down my bag, fuming. So Miss
Falconer was a nurse, carrying a panacea to the wounded, doubtless a
specimen of the sensational new remedy just recognized by the medical
authorities, of which the one newspaper I had glanced through in Paris
had been full. The masquerade was too preposterous to gain an instant's
credence. It gave me, as the French say, furiously to think; it resolved
all doubts.

I felt inexplicably angry, then preternaturally cool and competent. For
the first time since the Modane episode I was my clear-sighted self.
I had been trying futilely to blindfold my eyes, to explain the
inexplicable, to be unaware of the obvious. Now with a sort of grim
relief I looked the facts in the face.

My hot water appearing, I made a sketchy toilet, and then descended to
the courtyard where I lounged and smoked. My state of mind was peculiar.
As I struck a match I noticed with a queer pride that my hand was
steady. With a cold, almost sardonic clarity, I thought of Miss
Falconer. First a prosperous tourist, next a dweller in an aristocratic
French mansion, then a nurse. She equaled, I told myself, certain
heroines of our Sunday supplements, queens of the smugglers, moving
spirits of the diamond ring.

Upstairs in the right-hand gallery a door opened. A light footstep
sounded on the winding stairs. The critical moment was upon me; she was
coming. I threw away my cigarette and advanced.

She was playing her part, I saw, with due regard for detail. Now that
her furs were off she stood forth in the white costume, the flowing
head-dress, the red cross--all the panoply of the _infirmiere_. She
came half-way down the stairs before perceiving me; then, with a low
exclamation, grasping the balustrade, she stood still.

I didn't even pretend surprise. What was the use of it?

"Good-evening, Miss Falconer," was all I said.

It seemed a long time before she answered. Rigid, uncompromising, she
faced me; and I read storm signals in the deep flush of her cheeks, the
gray flash of her eyes, the stiffness of her white-draped head.

"Oh, Lord!" I groaned to myself in cold compassion, "she means to bluff
it! Can't she see that the game's played out?"

"This is very strange, Mr. Bayne," she was saying idly. "I understood
that you were to drive an ambulance at the Front."

How young, how lovely, how glowing she looked as she stood there in her
snowy dress. I found myself wondering impersonally what had led her to
these devious paths.

"So I am," I responded with accentuated coolness. "My time is valuable;
it was a sacrifice to come to Bleau; but I had no choice. What's wrong,
Miss Falconer? You don't object to my presence surely? If you go on
freezing me like this, I shall think there's something about my turning
up here that worries you--upon my soul I shall!"

She should by rights have been trembling, but her eyes blazed at me
disdainfully. I felt almost like a caitiff, whatever that may be.

"It doesn't worry me," she denied, with the same crisp iciness, "but it
does surprise me. Will you tell me, please, what you are doing here?"

Should I return, "And you?" in a voice of obvious meaning? Should I take
a leaf from the book of my hostess and say: "I'm a bit of an artist.
I've sketched all over Europe, and I've come to have a go at the old
mill that so many fellows try?" Such a claim would just match the
assumption of her costume. But no.

"The fact is," I said serenely, "I came straight from the rue
St. Dominique to keep the appointment you forgot."

The announcement, it was plain, exasperated her, for slightly, but
undeniably, she stamped one arched, slender, attractively shod foot.

"Mr. Bayne," she demanded, "are you a secret-service agent?"

"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, startled. "No!"

"Then I'm sorry. That would have been a better reason for following me
than--than the only one there is," she swept on stormily. "You knew I
didn't wish to see any one at present. I said so in the note I left. Yet
you spied on me and you tracked me deliberately, when I had trusted
you with my address. It's outrageous of you. You ought to be ashamed of
doing it, Mr. Bayne."

A stunned realization burst on me of the line that she was taking, the
position into which, willy-nilly, she was crowding me. I had trailed her
here, she assumed, to thrust my company on her; and, upon the surface,
I had to own that my behavior really had that air. If I had followed her
with equal brazenness along Fifth Avenue, I should have had a chance to
explain my conduct to the first police officer who noticed it, later
to an indignant magistrate. But, heavens and earth! She knew why I had
come. And knowing, how did she dare defy me? I retained just sufficient
presence of mind to stare back impassively and to mumble with feeble
sarcasm:

"I'm very sorry you think so."

She came down a step.

"Are you?" she asked imperiously. "Then--will you prove it? Will you go
back to Paris by to-night's train?"

I had recovered myself.

"There isn't any train to-night," I protested, civil, but adamant.
"And--I'm sorry, but if there was I wouldn't take it--not until I've
accomplished what I came to do!"

The girl seemed to concentrate all the world's disdain in the look that
measured me, running from my head to my unoffending feet, from my feet
back to my head.

"Most men would go, Mr. Bayne," she flung at me, her red lips scornful.
"But then, most men wouldn't have come, of course. And all you will
accomplish is to make me dine up here in this--this wretched, stuffy
room." Before I could lift a hand in protest, she had turned, mounted
the stairs again, and vanished. The door--shall I own it?--slammed.



CHAPTER XIV

THE PLOT THICKENS

Presently, summoned by the hostess, I went to my lonely meal in a mood
that nobody on earth had cause to envy me. One thing was certain: Should
it ever be disclosed that Miss Esme Falconer was not a spy, I should
lack courage to go on living. Remembering the coolly brazen line I had
taken and the assumptions she had drawn from it, I could think of no
desert wide enough to hide my confusion, no pit sufficiently deep to
shelter my utterly crestfallen head.

In any case, I had not managed my attack at all triumphantly. From the
first skirmish the adversary had retired with all the honors on her
side. Carrying the matter with a high hand, she had dazed me into brief
inaction, and then, as I gave signs of rally, had retreated in what
to say the least was a highly strategic way. Well, let her go for the
moment! She could scarcely escape me. I would see the thing through, I
told myself with growing stubbornness; but I didn't feel that the doing
of a civic duty was what it is cracked up to be. Not at all!

I felt the need of a cocktail with a kick to it. But I did not get one.
However, the cabbage soup was eatable, if primitive; and, in fact, no
part of the dinner could be called distinctly bad.

Having finished my coffee, I went outside feeling more cheerful. It was
dark now. A lantern swinging from the entrance cast flickering darts
of light about the courtyard, the rough paving-stones, the odd old
galleries and stairs. Upstairs a candle shone through the window of Miss
Falconer's room. In the kitchen by the great chimney place I could see a
leather-clad chauffeur eating, the same fellow that had driven the blue
car from the rue St.-Dominique; and while I watched, madame emerged,
bearing the girl's dinner tray, which with much groaning and panting she
carried up the winding stairs.

It was foolish of Miss Falconer, I thought, to insist on this comedy.
She might better have dined with me, heard what I had to say, and
yielded with a good grace. However, let her have her dinner in peace
and solitude, I resolved magnanimously. The moon had come out, the stars
too; I would take a stroll and mature my plans.

Lighting a cigarette, I lounged into the street and addressed myself
forthwith to an unhurried tour of Bleau. I was gone perhaps an hour, not
a very lengthy interval, but one in which a variety of things can occur,
as I was to learn. My walk led me outside the village, down a water path
between trees, and even to the famous mill, which was charming. Had I
been of the fraternity of artists, as I had claimed, I should have
asked no better fate than to come there with canvas and brushes and
immortalize the quiet beauty of the scene.

A rustic bridge invited me, and I stood and smoked upon it, listening
to the ripple of the half-golden, half-shadowy water, watching the
revolutions of the green old wheel. I had laid out my plan of action. On
my return to the inn I would insist on an interview with Miss Falconer,
and would tell her that either she must return with me to Paris or that
the police of Bleau--I supposed it had police--must take a hand.

My metamorphosis into a hero of adventure, racing about the country,
visiting places I had never heard of, coolly assuming the control
of international spy plots, brutally determining to kidnap women if
necessary, was astounding to say the least. That dinner in the St. Ives
restaurant rose before me, and I heard again Dunny's charge that I
was growing stodgy with advancing years. Suppose he should see me
now, involved in these insane developments? He might call me various
unflattering things, but not stodgy--not with truth. I chuckled
half-heartedly, my last chuckle, by the by, for a long time. Unknown to
me and unsuspected, the darker, more deadly side of the adventure was
steadily drawing near.

When I entered the courtyard of the Three Kings, the door of the garage
stood open, and the first object my eyes met within it was the pursuing
gray car. I stared at the thing, transfixed. In the march of events I
had forgotten it. I was still gaping at it when madame came hurrying
forth.

"I have been watching," she informed me, "for monsieur's return. Friends
of his arrived here soon after he left the house."

"The deuce they did!" I thought, dumb-founded. I judged prudence
advisable.

"They have names, these friends?" I inquired warily.

"Without doubt, Monsieur," she agreed, "but they did not offer them; and
who am I to ask questions of the officers of France? They are bound on a
mission, plainly. In time of war those so engaged talk little. They have
eaten, and they have gone to their rooms, off the gallery to the
west. And the fourth of their party--he alone wears no uniform; he is
doubtless of monsieur's land--asked of me a description of my guests,
and exclaimed in great delight, saying that monsieur was his old friend,
whom he had hoped to find here and with whom he must have speech the
very moment that monsieur should return. I know no more."

It was enough.

"He's mistaken," I said shortly. For the moment I really thought that
this must be the case.

Her broad, good-natured face was all astonishment.

"But, Monsieur," she burst forth, "he even told me, this gentleman, that
such might be monsieur's reply! And in that event he commanded me to beg
monsieur to walk upstairs, since he had a thing of importance to reveal
to monsieur--one best said behind closed doors!"

I stared at her, my head humming like a top. Then, scrutinizingly,
I looked about the court. The light in Miss Falconer's room had been
extinguished. Did that have some significance? Was she lying perdue
because these people had come? In the rooms opening from the west
gallery above the street entrance I could see moving shadows. The gray
car had arrived, and it bore three officers of France for passengers.
What could this mean?

Of course, whoever had left the message had mistaken me for a
confederate. I could not know any of the new arrivals; it was equally
impossible that they could know me. None the less, with a slight,
unaccustomed thrill of excitement, I resolved to accept the invitation
as if in absolute good faith. It was a first-class chance to get inside
those rooms, to use my eyes, to sound this affair a little, to learn
whether these men were the girl's pursuers. As army officers they could
scarcely be her accomplices. Would they forestall me by arresting her,
by taking her back to Paris? It was astonishing how distasteful I found
the idea of that.

I told madame that I thought I knew, now, who the gentlemen were. I
climbed the west staircase with determination and knocked on the door of
the first room that had a light. A voice from within, vaguely familiar,
bade me enter, I did so immediately and closed the door.

Through an inner entrance I saw three men grouped about a table in
the next room, all smoking cigarettes, all clad in horizon blue. They
glanced up at me for a moment, and then, politely, they looked away. But
a fourth man, who had stood beside them, came striding out to meet me,
and I confronted Mr. John Van Blarcom face to face.

Officers fresh from the trenches have told me that one can lose through
sheer accustomedness all horror at the grim sights of warfare, all
consciousness of ear-splitting noises, all interest in gas and shrapnel
and bursting shells. In the same way one can lose all capacity for
astonishment, I suppose. I don't think I manifested much surprise at
this unexpected meeting; and I heard myself remarking quite coolly that
there had been a mistake, that I had been told downstairs that a friend
of mine was here.

"That's right, Mr. Bayne," cut in Van Blarcom shortly. "I've been a
friend of yours clear through, and I'm acting as one now. Just a minute,
sir, please!"

He had shut the door between ourselves and the officers, and now he
was drawing the shutters close. Coming back into the room, he seated
himself, and motioned me toward a chair, which I didn't take. His
authoritative manner was, I must say, not unimpressive. And he knew
how to arrange a rather crude stage-setting; the room, with all air and
sound excluded, seemed tense and breathless; the one dim candle on the
table lent a certain solemnity to the scene.

"Look here, Mr. Bayne," he began bluffly, "last time you spoke to me
you told me to--Well, we'll let bygones by bygones; I guess you remember
what you said. You don't like me, and I'm not wasting any love on you;
as far as you're personally concerned, I'd just as soon see you hang!
But I've got to think of the United States. I'm in the service, and it
doesn't do her any good to have her citizens get in bad with France."

Standing there, gazing at him with an air of bored inquiry, behind my
mask of indifference I racked my brain. What did he want of me? What
did he want of Miss Falconer? What was he doing in this military galley?
Hopeless queries, without the key to the puzzle!

"Well?" I said.

"I don't ask you," he went on crisply, "what you're doing here--"

"You had better not!" I snapped. "What tomfoolery is this? Do you think
you are a police officer heckling a crook? And why should you ask me
such a question any more than I should ask you?"

He grinned meaningly.

"Well," he commented, "there might be reasons. I'm here on business,
with papers in order, and three French officers to answer for me; but
you're a kind of a funny person to make a bee-line for a place like
Bleau. An inn like this doesn't seem your style, somehow. I'd say the
Ritz was more your type. And while we're at it, did you go to the Paris
_Prefecture_ this morning, like all foreigners are told to, and show
your passport, and get your police card? Have you got it with you? If
you have you stepped pretty lively, considering you left Paris by three
o'clock."

"If any one in authority asks me that," I said, "I'll answer him. I
certainly don't propose to answer you." My arms were folded; I looked
haughtily indifferent; but it was pure bluff. The only paper I had with
me was my passport. What the dickens could I do if he turned nasty along
such lines.

"As I was saying," he resumed, unruffled, "I'm not asking you why you're
here--because I know. I've got to hand it to you that you're a dead-game
sport. Most men's hair would have turned white at Gibraltar after the
fuss you had. And here you are again--in the ring for all you're worth!"

"I suppose you mean something," I said wearily, "but it's too subtle and
cryptic. Please use words of one syllable."

He nodded tolerantly. Leaning back, thumbs in his waistcoat-pockets,
swelling visibly, he was an offensive picture of self-satisfaction and
content.

"You can't get away with it, Mr. Bayne," he declared impressively.
"You've taken on too much; I'm giving it to you straight. You can do a
lot with money and good clothes, and being born a gentleman and acting
like one, and having friends to help you; but you can't buck the French
Government and the French army and the French police. In a little affair
of this sort you wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Even your ambassador
would turn you down cold. He wouldn't dare do anything else. This is the
last call for dinner in the dining-car, for you. Last time I wanted
to tell you the facts of the case you wouldn't listen. Will you listen
now?"

I considered.

"Yes," I said, "I'll listen. Go ahead!"

He foundered for a moment, and then plunged in boldly.

"About this young lady who's brought you and me to Bleau. Oh, you
needn't lift your eyebrows, much as to say, 'What young lady?' You know
she's here, and I know it; and she knows I've come and has put her light
out and is shaking in her shoes over there. I can swear to that. Well, I
want to tell you I never started out to get her; I just stumbled across
her on the steamer by a fluke. But I kept my eyes open and I saw a
lot of things; and when I got to Paris to-day I told them at the
_Prefecture_. You can see what they thought of the business by my being
here. I wasn't keen to come. I've got my own work to do. But they
want me to identify her; and they've sent three officers with me--not
policemen, you'll notice, because this is an army matter, and before we
make an end of it we'll be in the army zone."

I don't know just what he saw in my eyes; but it seemed to bother him.
He fidgeted a little; as he approached the crucial point, his gaze
evaded mine.

"Now, then, we'll come down to brass tacks, Mr. Bayne," said he. "I
don't know what kind of story the girl told you; but I know it wasn't
the truth or you wouldn't be here. That's sure. She's a German agent;
she's come to get the Germans some papers that they want about as bad as
anything under heaven. There's one man who tried the job already. He
got killed for his pains; but he hid the papers before he died, and she
knows where; and she's on her way to get them and carry the business
through. I don't say she hasn't plenty of courage. Why, she's gone up
against the whole of France; but I guess you're not very anxious to be
mixed up in this underhand, spying sort of matter, eh?"

My hands were doubling themselves with automatic vigor. I
wanted--consumedly--to knock the fellow down. However, I controlled
myself.

"What's your offer?" I asked.

"It's this." He was obviously relieved, positively swelling in his
tolerant, good-humored patronage. "I said once before I was sorry for
you, and that still goes; we won't be hard on you if we have got the
whip-hand, Mr. Bayne. You just stay in your room to-morrow until she's
gone and we're gone, and you needn't be afraid your name will ever
figure in this thing. I've made it all right with my friends in the next
room. They know a pretty girl can fool a man sometimes, and they've got
a soft spot for Americans, like all the Frenchies here. Take it from me,
you'd better draw out quietly, instead of being arrested, tried, shot,
or imprisoned maybe--or being sent home with an unproved charge hanging
over you, and having all your friends fight shy of you as a suspected
pro-German. Isn't that so?"

"You certainly," I agreed, "draw a most uninviting picture. I'll have to
consider this, Mr. Van Blarcom, if you'll give me time?"

"Sure!" with his hearty response. "Take as long as you like to think it
over; I know how you'll decide. You don't belong in a thing like
this anyhow; you never did. It's bound to end in a nasty mess for all
concerned. There's a train goes to Paris to-morrow morning at eleven.
You just take it, sir, and forget this business, and you'll thank me all
your life."



CHAPTER XV

GEORGES THE CHAUFFEUR

Upon descending to the courtyard, I took a seat on a bench beneath a
vine-covered trellis. To stop here for a time, smoking, would seem a
natural proceeding, and while I held such a post of recognizance nothing
overt could transpire in the environs without my taking note of the
fact. Enough had developed already, though, heaven was witness! I lit a
cigarette and prepared for a resume.

Like a sleuth noting salient points, I glanced round the rectangular
court. At my right, off the gallery, was Miss Falconer's room shrouded
in darkness; at the left, up another flight of stairs, my own uninviting
domain. The quarters of Van Blarcom and his uniformed friends opened
from the gallery above the street passage, facing the main portion of
the inn which sheltered the kitchen and _salle a manger_. Such was the
simple, homely stage-setting. What of the play?

Bleau, I now felt tolerably sure, was merely a mile-stone on the route
of Miss Falconer. Next morning, at sunrise probably, she would resume
her journey for parts unknown. Would they arrest her before she left
the inn or merely follow her? The latter, doubtless, since they asserted
that she was on her way to get the papers that they wanted for France.

Upstairs in the room where Van Blarcom and I had held our conference
the shutters had been reopened. There was just one light to be seen, a
glowing point, which was obviously the tip of a cigar. If I was keeping
vigil below, from above he returned the compliment; nor did he mean
that I should hold any secret colloquy with the girl that night. I
swore softly, but earnestly. Considering his rather decent attitude,
his efforts from the very first to enlighten me as to the dangers I was
running, it was odd that my detestation of the man was so thoroughly
ingrained and so profound.

The mystery of the gray car had been solved with a vengeance. Instead of
being freighted with accomplices, as I had at first thought possible,
it had carried the representatives of justice, in the persons of three
officers and my secret-service friend. A queer conjunction, that; but
then, my ignorance of French methods was abysmal. Perhaps this was the
usual mode of doing things in time of war.

Van Blarcom's explanation, though it made me furious, had brought
conviction. There was a certain grim appositeness about it all. The
night in New York, the events of the steamer, the unsatisfactory
character of the girl's actions, all fitted neatly into the plan; and
the mere personnel of the pursuing party was sufficient assurance, for
French officers, as I well knew, were neither liars nor fools. Neither,
I patriotically assumed, were the men of my country's secret-service,
however humble their part as cogs in that great machinery, or however
distasteful Mr. Van Blarcom, personally, might be to me. And finally, I
could not deny that women, clever, well-born, and beautiful, had served
as spies a thousand times in the world's history, urged to it by some
sense of duty, some tie of blood.

Yes, that was it, I told myself in sudden pity, recalling how Miss
Falconer had stood on the steps in her nurse's costume, straight and
slender, her gray eyes full of fire, her face glowing like a rose.
Perhaps she was of the enemy's country. Perhaps those she loved,
those who made up her life, had set her feet in this path that she
was treading. If she was a spy,--Lord! How the mere word hurt one!--it
wasn't for ignoble motives; it wasn't for pay.

I came impulsively to the conclusion that there was just one course
for my taking: to see her and to beg, bully, or wheedle from her the
unvarnished truth. Then, if it was as I feared, she should go back to
Paris if I had to carry her; she should accompany me to Bordeaux, and on
the first steamer she should sail from France. Yes; and the army should
have its papers, for she should tell me where they were hidden. Her work
should end; but these men upstairs should not track her and trap her and
drag her off to prison, perhaps to death.

There was danger in the plan, even if I should accomplish it. I should
get myself into trouble, dark and deep. Well, if I had to languish
behind bars for a while I could survive it. But she might not. As I
thought of this I knew that I had made up my mind irrevocably.

It was a problem, nevertheless, to arrange an interview, with Van
Blarcom sitting at his window, watching me like a lynx. I couldn't go
up the stairs and batter on her door till she opened it; apart from the
reception she would give me it would simply amount to making a present
of my intentions to the men across the way. Yet who knew how long they
would keep up their surveillance? Till I retired, probably! "I'd give
something to choke you and be done with it!" was the benediction I
wafted toward the sentinel above.

I was owning myself at my wit's end when a ray of hope was vouchsafed
me. The kitchen door opened and let out a leather-clad figure which
strode across the courtyard, lantern in hand, and let itself into the
garage. Despite the dimness, I recognized Miss Falconer's chauffeur, the
man she had addressed as Georges when they left the rue St. Dominique.
The very link I needed, provided I could get into communication with him
in some unostentatious way.

I rose, stretched myself lazily, and began to pace the court. Perhaps
a dozen times I crossed and recrossed it, each turn taking me past the
garage and affording me a brief glance within. The chauffeur, coat flung
aside, sleeves rolled up, was hard at work overhauling his engine, with
an obvious view to efficiency upon the morrow. Up at the window I could
see the glowing cigar-tip move now to this side, now to that. Not for an
instant was Van Blarcom allowing me to escape from sight.

After taking one more turn I halted, yawned audibly for the sentry's
benefit, and seated myself once more, this time on a bench by the
door of the garage. Van Blarcom's cigar became stationary again. The
chauffeur, who had satisfied himself as to the engine and was now
passing critical fingers over the gashes in the tires, looked up at me
casually and then resumed his work. Kneeling there, his tools about him,
he was plainly visible in the light of the smoky lantern. He was a
young man, twenty-three or-four perhaps, strongly built and obviously
of French-peasant stock, with honest blue eyes and a face not unduly
intelligent, but thoroughly frank and open in the cast. The actors in my
drama, I had to own, were puzzling. This lad looked no more fitted than
Miss Falconer for a treacherous role.

How theatrical it all was! And yet it had its zest. I confess I
experienced a certain thrill, entirely new to me, as I bent forward with
my arms on my knees and my head lowered to hide my face.

"_Attention, Georges!_" I muttered beneath my breath.

The chauffeur started, knocking a tool from the running-board beside
him. His eyes, half-startled, half-fierce, fixed themselves on me; his
hand went toward his pocket in a most significant way. In a minute
he would be shooting me, I reflected grimly. And upstairs the very
stillness of Van Blarcom shrieked suspicion; he could not have helped
hearing the clatter that the falling tool had made.

"Don't be a fool," I muttered, low, but sharply. "I know where you and
mademoiselle come from; I know she is upstairs now; if I wished you any
harm I could have had the mayor and the gendarmes here an hour ago! Keep
your head--we are being watched. Have a good look at me first if you
feel you want to. Then take your hand off that revolver and pretend to
go to work."

Throwing my head back, I began blowing clouds of smoke, wondering every
instant whether a bullet would whiz through my brain. I could feel
Georges' gaze upon me; I knew it was a critical moment. But as his kind
are quick, shrewd judges of caste and character, I had my hopes.

They were justified; for presently I heard him draw a breath of relief.
His hand came out of his pocket.

"Pardon, Monsieur," he whispered, and began a vigorous pretense of
polishing the car.

Again I leaned forward to hide the fact that my lips were moving.

"When you speak to me, keep your head bent as I do."

"Monsieur, yes."

"Now listen. Men of the French army are here, with powers from the
police. They accuse mademoiselle of serious things, of acts of treason,
of being on her way to secure papers for the foes of France. They are
watching. To-morrow, if she departs, they mean to follow and to arrest
her when they have gained proof of what she is hunting."

"_Mon Dieu, Monsieur!_ What shall I do?"

There was appeal in his voice. Convinced of my good faith, he was
quite simply shifting the business to my shoulders--the French peasant
trusting the man he ranked as of his master's class. And oddly enough
I found myself responding as if to a trusted person. I smoked a little,
wondering whether Van Blarcom could catch the faint mutter of our
voices. Then I gave my orders in the same muffled tones:

"You will tell the servants that you wish to sleep here to-night, to
watch the car. You will stay here very quietly until it is nearly dawn.
Then you will creep to mademoiselle's door and whisper what I have told
you and say that I beg her to meet me before those others have awakened
at five o'clock in--"

Pondering a rendezvous, I hesitated. The room where I had dined, with
its stone floor, its beamed ceiling, and dark panels, came first to
my mind. I fancied, though, that some outdoor spot might be safer. I
remembered opportunely that a passage led past this room, and that at
its end I had glimpsed a little garden behind the inn.

"In the garden," I finished, and risked one straight look at him. "I can
trust you, Georges?"

The young man's throat seemed to close.

"_Monsieur le duc_ was my foster-brother, _Monsieur_," he whispered. "I
would die for him."

Who the deuce _monsieur le duc_ might be I did not tarry to discover.
I had done all I could; the future was on the knees of the gods. Having
smoked one more cigarette for the sake of verisimilitude, I rose,
stretched myself ostentatiously, and crossed the courtyard to the
stairs, where madame was descending. She had, she informed me, been
preparing my bed.

"And I wish monsieur good repose," she ended volubly. "Hitherto, no
Zeppelins have come to Bleau to disturb our dreams. Though, alas, who
knows what they will do, now that we have lost our most gallant hero?
Monsieur has heard of the Firefly of France, he who is missing?"

That name again! Odd how it seemed to pursue me.

"I believe I shall meet that fellow sometime if he's living," I
reflected as I climbed the stairs.

In my room, my candle lighted, I resigned myself to a ghastly night. I
don't like discomfort, though I can put up with it when I must. The
bed looked as hard as nails; the bowl made cleanliness a duty, not a
pleasure. And to think that I might have been sleeping in comfort at the
Ritz!

Tossing from side to side, pounding a cast-iron pillow, I dozed through
uneasy intervals, and woke with groans and starts. I could not rid
myself of the sense of something ominous hanging over me. The gray car
ramped through my dreams; so did Van Blarcom; and between sleeping
and waking, I pictured my coming interview with the girl, her probable
terror, the force and menaces I should have to use, our hurried flight.

At length I fell into a heavy, exhausted slumber, from which, toward
morning I fancied, I sat up suddenly with the dazed impression of some
sound echoing in my ears. Springing out of bed, I groped my way to the
window. The galleries lay peaceful and empty in the moonlight, and down
in the courtyard there was not the slightest sign of life.

I went back to bed in a state of jangled nerves. Again I dozed, and
a dim light was creeping through the window when I woke. I looked out
again.

"Hello!" I muttered, for though the hotel seemed wrapped in slumber, the
door of the garage now stood ajar. Was it possible that Miss Falconer
had stolen a march on me, that the automobile could have left the
premises without my being roused? It was only four o'clock, but all wish
for sleep had left me. I decided to investigate without any more ado.

I made the best toilet that cold water and a cracked mirror permitted,
longing the while for a bath, for a breakfast tray, for a hundred
civilized things. Taking my hat and coat, I went quietly down the
staircase. The garage door beckoned me, and all unprepared, I walked
into the tragedy of the affair.

In the dim place there were signs of a desperate struggle. The rugs and
cushions of Miss Falconer's automobile were scattered far and wide. The
gray car had vanished; and in the center of the floor was Georges,
the chauffeur, lying on his back with arms extended, staring up at the
ceiling with wide, unseeing blue eyes.



CHAPTER XVI

"I MUST GO ON"

Kneeling by the young man's side, I felt for his pulse; but the moment
that my fingers touched his cold wrist I knew the truth. There flashed
into my mind queerly, as things do at grim moments, an often-heard
expression about rigor mortis setting in. With this poor fellow it had
not started, but he was dead for all that. The most skilful surgeon in
Europe could not have helped him now.

I never doubted that it was murder. The confusion of the garage was
proof of it; and the instrument, once I looked about me, was not far
to seek. Divided between rage, horror, and pity, I saw a sort of sharp
stiletto suitable for use as a penknife or letter opener, which, after
doing its work, had been cast upon the floor.

I remained on my knees beside the lad, smitten with a keen remorse.
I knew no good of him; I had even suspected him; but he had an honest
face. Why had I not kept watch all night? The instructions I had given,
the plan I had thought so clever, might be responsible for the killing;
it must have been some echo of the struggle that had roused me when I
had wakened and glanced out and gone placidly back to sleep.

Had Van Blarcom caught our whispered colloquy, or surmised it? Helped
by his precious colleagues, he must have taken Georges unprepared,
throttled him to prevent his shouting, and ended his frantic struggles
with one swift, ruthless blow. But why? What sort of soldiers could
these be who wore the uniform of a brave, chivalrous country and yet did
murder? What sort of mission were they bound upon that for no visible
gain or motive they risked desperate work like this?

And the girl upstairs? The thought was like a knife thrust; it brought
me to my feet, my heart pounding, my forehead cold and wet. I told
myself that she must be safe, that wholesale killing could not be
the aim of these wretches, that the gray automobile was not what our
one-cent sheets in their tales of gunmen like to call a "murder car."
But what did I know about it? I was in a funk, a funk of the bluest
variety. In that one age-long moment I learned what sheer fright meant.

Without knowing how I got there, I found myself in the gallery. The
doors that lined it were rickety and worm-eaten; I stared weakly at
them. A mere twist of practised fingers, and they could be forced open
by any one who cared to try. I thought I heard a faint breathing inside
the girl's room, but I was not sure; I was too rattled. Very guardedly
I knocked and got no answer. Then, in utter panic, I knocked louder, at
risk of disturbing the whole house.

"Georges, _c'est vous_?" It was the drowsiest of murmurs, but few things
have been so welcome to me in all my life.

"Yes, Mademoiselle." Though my knees were wobbling under me I summoned
presence of mind to impersonate the poor huddled mass of flesh in the
garage.

"_Attendez donc!_"

I could hear her stirring; she believed I had come with some summons,
with some news. Well, it was imperative that I should see her. I waited
obediently until the door swung open and revealed her in a loose robe
of blue, with her hair in a ruddy mass about her shoulders and the sleep
still lingering in her eyes.

"Mr. Bayne!"

Such was my relief at finding my fears uncalled for that I could
have danced a breakdown on that crazy gallery, snapping my fingers in
castanet fashion above my head. I had forgotten entirely the strained
terms of our parting; but she remembered. A bright wave of scarlet ran
over her face, her neck, her forehead. She gasped, clutched her robe
about her, would have shut the door if I had not foreseen the strategic
movement and inserted a foot in the diminishing crack, just in time.

"I beg your pardon," I began hastily. "I am really extremely sorry. But
something has occurred that forces me to speak to you."

"There can be nothing that forces you to come here--nothing!" Her lips
were trembling; her voice wavered; the apparent shamelessness of my
behavior was driving her to the verge of tears. "Is there no place where
I am safe from you? Mr. Bayne, how can you? I shan't listen to a single
word while you keep your foot in the door!"

"And I can't take it away until you listen," I protested. "It is
perfectly obvious that if I did, you would shut me out. But you can see
for yourself that I'm not trying to force an entrance--and I wish that
you would speak lower; if we waken anybody, there will be the mischief
to pay."

My voice, I suppose, had an impatient note that was reassuring, or
perhaps I looked encouragingly respectable, viewed at closer range.
At any rate, she spoke less angrily, though she still stood erect and
haughty.

"Well, what is it?" she asked, barring the opening with one slender arm.

"May I ask if you have had a message from me, Miss Falconer?"

"A message? Certainly not!" There was renewed suspicion in her voice.

"H'm." Then they had intercepted the man before he reached her. "I'm
going to ask you to dress as quickly and quietly as possible and come
downstairs. Don't stop in the court, and don't go near the garage, I beg
of you. Just walk on past the _salle a manger_ to the garden, and wait
for me."

I expected exclamations, questions, indignant protests, anything but the
sudden white calm that fell on her at my request.

"You mean," she whispered, "that something dreadful has happened. Is it
about the--the men who came last night?"

"Yes. But please don't worry," I urged with false heartiness. "I'll
explain when you come down." To cut the discussion short, I turned to
go.

Once her door had closed, however, I halted at the staircase, retraced
my steps, and, without hesitation, circled the gallery to the rooms of
Mr. John Van Blarcom and his friends. I had had enough of uncertainties;
henceforth I meant to deal with facts. It was barely possible that I
was unjustly anathematizing these gentlemen, that, while they were
peacefully sleeping, thieves had broken in below.

Two knocks, the first rather tentative, the second brisker, netting no
response, I deliberately tried the knob and felt the door promptly yield
to me; then, with equal deliberation, I dropped my hand into my pocket
where my revolver lay. If some one sprang at me and tried to crack my
head or stab me,--stabbing was popular hereabouts,--I was in a state of
armed preparedness. But when I stepped inside I found an empty room, a
bed in which no one had slept.

Grown brazen, I strode across to the inner door and opened it. More
emptiness greeted me; the four men had plainly taken French leave in
their gray car. It was strange that the hum of their departure had
not roused me; they must, before starting the motor, have pushed their
automobile from the courtyard and out of ear-shot down the street.

For a moment I stood in the deserted room, reflecting swiftly. The
situation was desperate; in another hour the inn would be stirring, and
Miss Falconer, I felt sure, could not afford to be found here when that
came to pass. Murder investigations are searching things. All strangers
beneath this roof would be interrogated narrowly. If any one had a
secret,--and she certainly had several,--the chances were heavy that it
would be dragged to light.

For some reason this prospect was unspeakably frightful to me. Under its
spur I hatched the craziest scheme that man ever thought of, and took
steps which, as I look back at them, seem almost beyond belief. I must
get Miss Falconer off for Paris, I determined. And since it was possible
that the villagers would see us leaving, she must appear to go, as she
had come, with her chauffeur.

I descended, forthwith, to the garage where the murdered man was lying,
shook out and folded the rugs that had been scattered in the struggle,
picked up the cushions, and replaced them in the car. Then, borrowing a
ruse from the enemy, I set the door wide open, and, puffing and panting,
pushed the blue automobile into the courtyard, through the passage, and
a considerable distance down the street.

What comes next, I ask no one to credit. Retrospectively, I myself have
doubted it. It lives in my memory as a grisly nightmare rather than as
a fact. To be brief, I returned to the scene of the crime, shut out
any possible audience by closing the door, and disrobed hastily. Then
I removed the leather costume of the victim, donned it, laced on his
boots, which by good fortune were loose instead of tight, and, picking
up his visored cap from the floor where it had fallen, stood forth to
all seeming as genuine a member of the proletariate as ever wore goggles
and held a wheel.

By this time my teeth were clenched as if in the throes of lockjaw. Had
I paused to think for a single instant, all my nerve would have oozed
away. But I had no time to spend on thought; I had to work on, to save
Miss Falconer. The whole ghoulish business would be futile if the
inn servants found the body. The mere flight of all the guests would
certainly stir suspicion; let the murder transpire as well, and at once
we should be pursued.

The garage, from the looks of it, was not often put to service. A dusty
spot, festooned with cobwebs, it cried to the skies for brooms and mops.
In the background, apparently undisturbed since the days of the First
Empire, a great pile of straw mixed with junk of various kinds lay
against the wall; and most reluctantly, my every fiber shrieking
protest, I saw what use I might make of this debris--if I could.

"Go for it!" I told myself inexorably, but miserably. "It's not a
question of liking it, you know. You've got to do it." Grimly I wrapped
my discarded clothes about the poor chap's body, dragged it to the
straw, and covered it from head to foot. By this action, I surmised, I
was rendering myself a probable accessory and a certain suspect; but the
one thing I really cared about was my last glimpse of that patient face.

"Sorry, old man," was all the apology I could muster. "And if I ever get
a chance at the people who did it, you can count on me!"

With a sigh of complete exhaustion, I rose and looked about. All signs
of the crime had been obliterated from the garage. "I must be crazy!" I
thought, as the enormity of the thing rushed on me. "I wonder why I did
it? And I wonder whether I can forget it some day--maybe after twenty
years?"

As I opened the door to the garden the dim light was growing clearer. I
was late; the girl, coated and hatted, ready for flitting, was already
at the rendezvous. At sight of me in my leather togs she started
backward; then, resolutely controlled, she drew herself up and faced me
silently, her hands clutching at her furs, her lips a little apart.

"Won't you sit down?" I began lamely, indicating an iron bench. It was
all so different from the interview I had planned last night! "I want to
speak to you about your chauffeur, Miss Falconer. This morning I found
him hurt--very badly hurt--"

She drove straight through my pretense.

"Not dead? Oh, Mr. Bayne, not dead?"

"Yes," I said gently. "He had been dead some time. I would have liked
to take my chances with him; but I came too late. No, please!" She had
moved forward, and I was barring her passage. "You mustn't go. You can't
help him, and you wouldn't like the sight."

How black her eyes were in her white face!

"I don't understand," she faltered. "You mean that he was murdered? But
who would have killed Georges?"

"The men who came last night--if you can call them men. At least,
appearances point that way," I said.

"The men in the gray car?" She swayed a little. "But why?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that." My tone was grim; there were so many
things about this matter that I couldn't tell.

Her eyes flashed for an instant.

"But how cowardly, how cruel! He never hurt anyone; he was just like a
good watchdog, the truest, most faithful soul! If they killed him they
did it for some deliberate purpose. And when I think that I brought him
here--oh, oh, Mr. Bayne--"

"Yes," I broke in hastily; "I should like to see them boil in oil or fry
on gridirons or something of the sort, myself. But this is very serious;
we must keep calm, Miss Falconer. And I know you are going to help me.
You have such splendid self-control."

Though there were sobs in her throat, she pressed her hands to her lips
and stifled them. Only her pallor and her wet lashes showed the horror
and grief she felt. I wanted desperately to comfort her, but there
was no time for it; and besides, who ever heard of a leather-coated
comforter in a kitchen garden at 5 A.M.?

"What I wanted to speak about," I went on rapidly, "was our plans. This
may prove a rather nasty mess, I'm sorry to say. The French police, you
know, are--well, they're capable and very thorough; and since you are
here at the scene of a murder in an _infirmiere's_ costume, they will
never rest till they have seen your papers, learned your errand, asked
you a hundred things. Unless your replies are absolutely satisfactory,
the whole business will be--er--awkward for you. That is why I put on
these togs. Yes, I know it is ghastly," I owned as she shuddered. "And
that is why I want to beg you, very seriously indeed, to let me drive
you back to Paris and put you under your friends' protection. After
that, of course, I'll return here to see the thing through and give my
testimony about it all."

It was not going to be so simple, the course I had outlined airily. When
I visioned myself explaining to a French _commissaire_ why I had come to
Bleau at all; why I had set up a false claim to be an artist,--for that
circumstance was sure to leak out and look darkly incriminating,--and
what had inspired me to take a murdered man's clothes and conceal his
body, I can't pretend that I felt much zest. Still, if the police and
the girl came together, worse would follow, I was certain; and it seemed
like a real catastrophe when she slowly shook her head.

"I can't," she murmured. "Oh, it's kind of you, and I'm sorry; but I
can't go back to Paris--not yet, Mr. Bayne. You won't understand, of
course, but I left there to--to accomplish something. And since poor
Georges can't help me now, I must go on--alone."



CHAPTER XVII

I BURN MY BRIDGES

If I live to be a hundred, and it is not improbable since I am healthy,
I shall never forget that little garden at the inn at Bleau. It was a
vegetable garden too, which is not in itself romantic. I recall vaguely
that there were beds all about us, which in due course would doubtless
sprout into rows of pale green objects--peas and artichokes, or beans
and cabbages maybe; I don't know, I am sure. But then, there was the
stream running just outside the wall of masonry; there was the sky,
flushing with that faint, very delicate, very lovely pink that an early
spring morning brings in France; there was the quaint building, wrapped
up in slumber, beside us; and in the air a silent, fragrant dimness, the
promise of the dawn.

And then there was the girl. I suppose that was the main thing. Not that
I felt sentimental. I should have scouted the notion. If I meant to fall
in love,--which, I should have said, I had no idea of doing,--I would
certainly not begin the process in this unheard-of spot. No; it was
simply that the whole business of caring for Miss Esme Falconer had
suddenly devolved upon my shoulders; and that instead of my feeling
bored, or annoyed, or exasperated at the prospect, my spirits rose
inexplicably to face the need.

Here, if ever, was the time for the questions I had planned last
evening. But I didn't ask them; I knew I should never ask them. In those
few long unforgetable moments when I stood in the gallery and wondered
whether she were living, my point of view had altered. I was through
with suspecting her; I was prepared to laugh at evidence, however
damning. As for the men in the gray car and their detailed accusations,
I didn't give--well, a loud outcry in the infernal regions for them. I
knew the standards of the land they served, and I had seen their work
this morning. If they were French officers, I would do France a service
by going after them with a gun.

The girl had sunk down on the ancient bench beside me. Her eyes, wide
and distressed, yet resolute, went to my heart. Not a figure, I thought
again, for this atmosphere of intrigue and secrecy and danger. Rather a
girl, beautiful, brilliant, spirited, to be shielded from every jostle
of existence; the sort of girl whom men hold it a test of manhood to
protect from even the most passing discomfiture!

But time was moving apace. We must settle on something in short order. I
spoke in the most matter-of-fact tones that I could summon, not, heaven
knows, out of a feeling of levity concerning what had happened, but to
try to lighten the grim business a degree or so and keep us sane.

"I think, Miss Falconer," I began, standing before her, "that we
have got to thrash this matter out at last. You think I've behaved
unspeakably, trailing you everywhere, and I don't deny I have, according
to your point of view. But the fact is, I didn't follow you to annoy
you; I'm a half-way decent fellow. You have simply got to trust me until
I've seen you through this tangle. After that, if you like you need
never look at me again."

Her troubled eyes rested on me, half bewildered.

"Why, I'd forgotten all that," she murmured. "I do trust you, Mr. Bayne.
Of course I must have misunderstood you to some way last evening, and
I'm afraid I was disagreeable."

"Naturally. You had to be. Now, if that's all right and I'm forgiven,
may I ask a question? About those men who arrived last night and
apparently killed your chauffeur--can you guess who they are?"

"Yes," she faltered, looking down at the pebbled walk. "They must have
been sent by the Government or the army or the police. If the French
knew what I was doing, they wouldn't understand my motives. I've been
afraid from the first that they would learn."

Another of my precious theories was going up in smoke. Not seeing why a
set of bonafide officers should gratuitously murder a chauffeur, I had
been wondering whether the quartet might not be impostors, tricked out
in uniforms to which they had no claim. Still, of course, I couldn't
judge. If she would only confide in me! I was fairly aching to help her;
yet how could I, in this blindfold way?

"I don't wish to be impertinent," I ventured at length, meekly, "and I
give you my word I'm not trying to find out anything you don't want
me to. Only, assuming I've got some sense,--in case you care to be so
amiable,--I'd like to put it at your service. Do you think you could
give me just a vague outline of your plans?"

She looked at me in a piteous, uncertain manner. I braced myself for
a "No." Then, suddenly, she seemed to decide to trust me--in sheer
desperate loneliness, I dare say.

"I am going," she whispered, "to a village in the war zone--where there
is a chateau. There are things in it--some papers; at least I believe
there are. It is just a chance, just a forlorn hope; but it means
all the world to certain people. I have to act in secret till I have
succeeded, and then every one in France, every one on earth may know all
that I have done!"

If I had not burned my bridges, this announcement might have worried me;
it was too vague, and what little I grasped tallied startlingly with Van
Blarcom's rigmarole. However, having bowed allegiance, I didn't blink an
eyelid.

"Yes," I said encouragingly. "Is it very far?"

Her eyes went past me anxiously, watching the inn and its blank windows,
as she fumbled in her coat and brought forth a motor map.

"Take it," she breathed, thrusting it toward me. "Look at it. Do you
see? The route in red!"

As I realized the astounding thing I choked down an exclamation. There,
beneath my finger, lay the village of Bleau, a tiny dot; and from it,
straight into the war zone, the traced line ran through Le Moreau and
Croix-le-Valois and St. Remilly; ran to--what was the name? I spelled it
out: P-r-e-z-e-l-a-y.

Though it was early in the game to be a wet blanket, I found myself
gasping.

"But," I protested weakly, "you can't do that! It's in the war
country; it's forbidden territory. One has to have safe-conducts,
_laissez-passers_, all sorts of documents to get into that part of
France."

"I didn't come unprepared," she answered stubbornly. "Before I started
I knew just what I should need. I can get as far as the hospital at
Carrefonds; and Carrefonds is beyond Prezelay, ten miles nearer to the
Front!"

"But--" The monosyllable was distinctly tactless.

She straightened, challenging me with brave, defiant eyes.

"I know," she flashed. "You mean it looks suspicious. Well, it does;
and if I told you everything, it would look more suspicious still. You
shouldn't have followed me; when they learn that we both spent the night
here they will think you are my--my accomplice. The best advice I can
give you, Mr. Bayne, is to go away."

"Perhaps we had better," I agreed stolidly. I had deserved the outburst.
"Shall we be off at once, before the servants come downstairs?"

She drew back, her eyes widening.

"We?" she repeated.

"Naturally!" I replied, with some temper. "I _must_ have disgusted
you last night. What sort of a miserable, spineless, cowardly, caddish
travesty of a man do you take me for, to think I would let you go
alone?"

"Please don't joke," she urged. "It simply isn't possible. You would get
into trouble with the French Government, and--"

"Do you know," I grinned, "it is rather exhilarating to snap one's
fingers at governments? Just see what success I made of it with Great
Britain and Italy, on the ship!"

"You don't realize what you are laughing at," she pleaded. "It is
dangerous."

"I won't disgrace you. I seldom tremble visibly, Miss Falconer, though I
often shake inside."

Her great gray eyes were glowing mistily.

"Mr. Bayne, this is splendid of you. I--I shall go on more bravely
because you have been so kind. But I won't let you make such a sacrifice
or mix in a thing that others may think disloyal, treacherous. You know
how it looks. Why, on the steamer and on the way up to France and even
last evening--you see I've guessed now why you followed me--you didn't
trust me yourself."

"I know it," I confessed humbly. "I can't believe I was such an idiot.
Somebody ought to perform a surgical operation on my brain. I apologize;
I'm down in the dust; I feel like groveling. Won't you forgive me? I
promise you won't have to do it twice."

This time it was she who said: "But--" and paused uncertainly. I could
see she was wavering, and I massed my horse, foot, and dragoons for the
attack.

"You'll please consider me," I proclaimed firmly, "to be a tyrant. I
am so much bigger than you are that you can't possibly drive me off. I
don't mean to interfere or to ask questions, or to bother you. But I vow
I'm coming with you if I cling to the running-board!"

Her lashes fluttered as she racked her brains for new protests.

"The car is a French make," she urged,--"which you couldn't drive--"

"I can drive any car with four wheels!" I exclaimed vaingloriously.
"It's kismet, Miss Falconer; it's the hand of Providence, no less. Now,
we'll leave these notes in the _salle a manger_ to pay for our lodging,
which would have been dear at twopence, and be off, if you please, for
Prezelay."

She had yielded. We were standing side by side in the silence of the
morning, the dimness fading round us, the air taking a golden tinge.
My surroundings were plebeian; my costume was comic; yet I felt oddly
uplifted.

"Jolly old garden, isn't it?" said I.



CHAPTER XVIII

IN THE HIGH GEAR

To pass straight from a humdrum, comfortable, conventionally ordered
life into a career of insane adventure is a step that is radical; but it
can be exhilarating, and I proved the fact that day. To dwell on present
danger was to forget the past hour in the garage, which I had to forget
or begin gibbering. Once committed to the adventure and away from the
scene of the murder, I found a positive relief in facing the madness of
the affair.

While the girl sat silent and listless, blotted against the cushions,
rousing from her thoughts only to indicate the turns of the road, I had
time for cogitation; and I began to feel like a man who has drunk freely
of champagne. Hitherto I had been a law-abiding citizen. Now I had
kicked over the traces. Like the distinguished fraternity that includes
Raffles and Arsene Lupin, I should be "wanted" by the police, those
good-natured, deferential beings so given to saluting and grinning,
with whom, save for occasional episodes not unconnected with the speed
laws,--Dunny says libelously that my progress in an automobile resembles
a fabulous monster with a flying car for the head, a cloud of smoke and
gasoline for the body, and a cohort of incensed motor-cycle men for the
tail,--I had lived on the most cordial terms.

I was not certain whether they would accuse me of murder or espionage.
There were pegs enough, undeniably, on which to hang either charge.
Myself, I rather inclined to the latter; the case was so clear, so
detailed! My rush from Paris to Bleau,--in order, no doubt, that I
might at an unostentatious spot join forces with my confederate, Miss
Falconer, whom I had been meeting at intervals ever since we left New
York in company,--my behavior there, and the fashion in which we were
vanishing should suffice to doom me as a spy.

When the French began tracing my movements, when they joined my present
activities to the fact that only by the skin of my teeth had I escaped a
charge of bringing German papers into Italy, there would be the devil
to pay. I acknowledged it; then--really, this brand-new, unfounded,
cast-iron trust of mine in Miss Falconer was changing me beyond
recognition--I recalled the old recipe for the preparation of Welsh
rabbit, and light-heartedly challenged the authorities to "catch me
first." I had a disguise; if I bore any superior earmarks my leather
coat obliterated them; and I could drive; even Dario Resta could not
have sniffed at my technic. Better still, my French, learned even before
my English, would not betray me. As nurse and as _mecanicien_, we stood
a fair chance in our masquerade.

I might have to pay my shot, but I was enjoying it. This was a good
world through which we were speeding; life was in the high gear to-day.
The car purred beneath us like a splendid, harnessed tiger; the spring
air was fresh and fragrant, the country charming, with here a forest,
there a valley, farther off the tiled, colored roofs of some little
town. Our road, like a white ribbon, wound itself out endlessly between
stone walls or brown fields. In my content I forgot food and such
prosaic details till I noticed that the girl looked pale.

"I say," I exclaimed remorsefully: "we've been omitting rolls and
coffee! I'm going to get you some at the first town we pass."

"We are coming to a town now, to Le Moreau." She was looking anxious.

"Yes? I'm afraid I don't place it exactly. Ought I to?"

"It is the first town in the war zone. And--and our road passes through
it."

"Oh!" I was enlightened. "Then they will probably ask to see our papers
at the _octroi_?"

"Yes."

The car was eating up the smooth white road; I could see the little
_octroi_ building at the town boundary-line, and a group of gendarmes in
readiness close by. It was a critical moment. Miss Falconer, I
recalled, had said she could get through to Carrefonds; but glittering
generalities were not likely to convince these sentries; one needed
safe-conducts, passes, identity cards, and such concrete aids. She
couldn't give a reasonable account of herself, I felt quite certain; and
even if she did, how was she to account for me?

As I brought the car to a standstill, my conscience clamored, and my
costume seemed to shriek incongruity from every seam. In this dilemma
I trusted to sheer blind luck--a rather thrilling business. As a
gray-headed sergeant stepped forward to welcome us, I looked him
unfalteringly in the eye, though I wondered if he would not say:

"Monsieur, kindly remove that childish travesty with which you are
trying to impose on justice. We know all about you. Your name is
Devereux Bayne. You are a German agent and intriguer; you have smuggled
papers; you have murdered a man and concealed his body. Unless you can
give a satisfactory explanation of all your actions since leaving New
York, your last hour has arrived!"

What he really said was:

"Mademoiselle's papers?" He spoke quite amiably, a catlike pretense, no
doubt.

Miss Falconer was no longer looking anxious. Her hands were steady; she
was even smiling as she produced two neat little packets that, on being
unfolded, proved to have all the air of permits, _laissez-passers_, and
police cards. Two nondescript photographs, which might have represented
almost any one, adorned them, and of these our sergeant made a
perfunctory survey.

"Mademoiselle's name," he recited in a high singsong, "is Marie Le
Clair. She is a nurse, on her way to the hospital at Carrefonds. And
this is Jacques Carton, who is her chauffeur?"

A singularly stupid person, on the whole, he must have thought me,
hardly fit to be trusted with so superb a car. My mouth, I fancy, was
wide open; I can't swear that I wasn't pop-eyed. This last development
had complete addled me. Marie Le Clair! Jacques Carton! Who were they?

"I wish," I remarked into the air as we drove on, "that some one would
pinch me--hard."

She smiled faintly. Now it was over, she looked a little tremulous.

"Oh, no," she answered, "we were not dreaming. Poor Georges! I wish we
were!"

Such was the incredible beginning of our adventure. And as it began,
so it continued. We breakfasted at Le Moreau. Miss Falconer ate in the
dining-room of the small hotel; I sought the kitchen and, warmed by our
late success, I did not shrink from playing my role. Then we resumed our
journey, and though we showed our papers twenty times at least as the
control grew stricter, they were never challenged. I rubbed my eyes
sometimes. Surely I should wake up presently! We couldn't be here in
the forbidden region, in the war zone, plunging deeper every instant, in
peril of our lives.

Yet the proof was thick about us. In the towns we passed we saw troops
alight from the trains and enter them; we saw farewells and reunions,
the latter sometimes tearful, but the former invariably brave. We saw
_depots_ where trucks and ambulances and commissary carts were filled,
and canteens and soup kitchens where soldiers were being fed. At
Croix-le-Valois we saw the air turn black with the smoke of the munition
factories that were working day and night. At St. Remilly above the
towers of the old chateau we saw the Red Cross flying, and on the
terraces the reclining figures of wounded men. It seemed impossible that
sight-seers and pleasure-seekers had thronged along this road so lately.
The signs of the Touring Club of France, posted at intervals, were
survivals of an era that was now utterly gone.

With the coming of afternoon, the country grew still more beautiful.
Orchards were thick about us, though the trees were leafless now. The
little thatched cottages had odd fungi sprouting from their roofs like
rosy mushrooms; the trees and streams had a silvery shimmer, like a
Corot fairy-land.

Then, set like sign-posts of desolation in this loveliness, came the
ravaged villages. We were on the soil where in the first month of the
war the Germans had trod as conquerors, and where, step by step, the
French had driven them back. We passed Cormizy, burnt to the ground
to celebrate its taking; Le Remy, where the heroic mayor had died,
transfixed by twenty bayonets; Bar-Villers, a group of ruined houses
about a mourning, shattered church. It was the region where the Hun
triumph had spoken aloud, unbridled. Miss Falconer sat white and silent
as we drove through it; my hands tightened on the wheel.

We had lunched at Tolbiac, late and abominably. Then, leaving the
highway, we had taken a country road. Two punctures befell us; once
our carburetor betrayed the trust we placed in it. By the time these
deficiencies were remedied I had collected dust and grease enough to
look my part.

It had been, by and large, a singularly speechless day, which my
spasmodic efforts at entertainment had failed to cheer. The girl tried
to respond, but her eyes were strained, eager, shadowed; her answers
came at random. My talk, I suppose, teased her ears like the troublesome
buzzing of a fly.

"She is thinking," I decided at last, "about those papers. Lord, if she
doesn't find them she is going to take it hard!"

I left her in peace after that and drove the faster. Luck was with us!
At the end of our journey everything would be all right.

As evening settled down on us the road grew increasingly lonely. Woods
of oak-trees were about us, their trunks mossy, their branches lacing;
on our left was a narrow river thick with rushes and smooth green
stones. So rutty was the earth that our wheels sank into it and our
engine labored. There was a charming sylvan look about the scenery; we
seemed to be alone in the universe: I could not recall when we had last
seen a peasant or passed a hut.

Suddenly I realized that there was a sound in the distance, not
continuous, but steadily recurrent, a faint booming, I thought.

"What's that noise off yonder?" I asked, with one ear cocked toward the
east.

Miss Falconer roused herself.

"It is the cannonading," she answered. "We have come a long way, Mr.
Bayne. In two hours--in less than that--we could drive to the Front. And
see!"

The dark was coming fast; a crimson sunset was reddening the river. A
little below us on the opposite bank, I saw what had been a village once
upon a time. But some agency of destruction had done its work there;
blackened spaces and heaped stones and the shells of dwellings rose tier
on tier among trees that seemed trying to hide them; only on the crest
of the bank, overlooking the wreck like a gloomy sentinel, one building
loomed intact, a dark, scarred, frowning castle with medieval walls and
towers. I stared at the scene of desolation.

"The Germans again!" I said.

"Yes," the girl assented, gazing across the water. "They came here at
the beginning of the war. They burned the houses and the huts and the
little church with the image of the Virgin and the tomb of the old
constable--all Prezelay except the chateau; and they only left that
standing to give their officers a home."

With an automatic action of feet and fingers, I stopped the car. Here
was the town that she had shown me on the map that morning when we sat
like a pair of whispering conspirators in the garden of the Three Kings.
The obstacles which had seemed so great had melted away before us. This
ruined village, this heap of stones cross the river, was our goal, the
key to our mystery, the last scene of our drama--Prezelay.



CHAPTER XIX

THE CASTLE AT PREZELAY

In the midst of my triumph, which was as intense as if I myself, instead
of pure luck, had engineered our journey, I became aware of a tiny qualm
as I sat gazing across the stream. Perhaps the gathering night affected
me, or the air, which was growing chilly, or the remnants of the
village, which were cheerless, to say the least. But that castle,
perched so darkly on its crag, with a strip of blood-red sky framing it,
was at the heart of my feeling. If it had been a nice, worldly-looking,
well-kept chateau, with poplared walks and a formal garden, I should
have welcomed it with open arms; but it wasn't, decidedly! It was the
threatening age-blackened sort of place that inevitably suggests Fulc of
Anjou, strongholds on the Loire, marauding barons, and the good old days
with their concomitants of rapine and robbery and death.

It was picturesque, but it was intensely gloomy; the proper spot for a
catastrophe rather than a happy denouement. I was not impressionable,
of course; but now that I thought of it, our jaunt had been going with
a smoothness almost ominous. Could one expect such clock-like regularity
to run forever without a break?

Take the utter disappearance of the gray car, for instance. That had
seemed to me reassuring; but was it? Those four men had cared enough
about Miss Falconer's movements to involve themselves in a murder. Why,
then, should they have given up the chase in so mysterious a way?

And the girl herself! When I looked at her I felt horribly worried. She
was shivering through her furs; yet it was not with the cold, I felt
quite sure. With her hands clasped, she sat staring at that confounded
castle with a look of actual hunger. She cared too much about this
thing; she couldn't stand a great deal more.

Well, she wouldn't have to, I concluded, my brief misgivings fading. We
were out of the woods; another hour would see the business closed. As
for the men in the car, they were victims of their guilty consciences,
were no doubt in full flight or hiding somewhere in terror of the law.

At any rate, there was no point in my sitting here like a graven image;
so I roused myself and wrapped the rugs closer about the girl.

"I'm to drive to the chateau?" I inquired with recovered cheerfulness. I
had to repeat the words before they broke her trance.

"Yes," she answered. Suddenly, impulsively, she turned toward me,
her face almost feverish, her eyes astonishingly large and bright. "I
haven't told you much," she acknowledged tremulously; "but you won't
think that I don't trust you. It is only that I couldn't talk of it and
keep my courage; and I must keep it a little longer--until we know the
truth."

"That's quite all right, Miss Falconer." I was switching on the lamps.
Then I extinguished them; their clear acetylene glare seemed almost
weirdly out of place. "We can muddle along without any lights. Not
much traffic here," I muttered. I had a feeling, anyhow, that
unostentatiousness of approach might not be bad.

There was intense silence about us; not even a breeze was stirring. A
thin crescent moon was out, silvering the river and the trees. The road
was atrocious; on one dark stretch the car, rocking into a rut, jolted
us viciously and brought my teeth together on the tip of my tongue.

"Sorry," I gasped, between humiliation and pain.

With the silence and the dimness, we were like ghosts, the car like a
phantom. An old stone bridge seemed to beckon us, and we crossed to the
other side. There, at Miss Falconer's gesture, I drew the automobile
off the road at the edge of the town, halted it beneath some trees, and
helped her to alight. We started up the hill together without a word.

Two ghosts! More and more, as we climbed through the wreck and
desolation, that was what we seemed. The road was choked with stones
between which the grass was sprouting; there was nothing left of the
little church save a single pointed shaft. We climbed rapidly, the girl
always gazing up at the castle with that same feverish eagerness. She
had forgotten, I think, that I was there.

At last we were coming to the hilltop and the chateau. Rather
breathless, I studied its looming walls, its turrets, its three round
towers. It looked dark and inexplicably menacing, but I had recovered my
form and could defy it. When we halted at a great iron-studded oak gate
and Miss Falconer pulled the bell-rope, I was astonished. It had not
occurred to me that the castle would be more inhabited than the town.

Nor was it, apparently; for no one answered its summons, though I could
hear the bell jingling faintly somewhere within. Miss Falconer rang a
second time, then a third; her face shone white in the moonlight; she
was growing anxious.

"Did you think," I ventured finally, "that there was some one here?"

"Yes; Marie-Jeanne," she answered, listening intently. Then she roused
herself. "I mean the _gardienne_. She never left, not even when the
Germans came. They made her cook for them; she said she had been born in
the keeper's lodge, and her grandfather before her, and that she would
rather die at Prezelay than go to any other place. But of course she
may have walked down the river for the evening. Her son's wife is at
Santierre, two miles off. She may be there."

"That's it," I agreed hastily, the more hastily because I doubted.
"She's sitting over a fire, toasting her toes, and gossiping and having
a cup of tea, or whatever people like that use for an equivalent in
these parts." I suppressed the unwelcome thought that a woman living
here alone ran a first-rate chance of getting her throat cut by
strolling vagrants. "Shall we have to wait until she comes back?" I
asked. "Then let's sit down. I choose this stone!"

On my last word, however, something surprising happened. Miss Falconer,
in her impatience, put a hand on the bolt of the gate, shook it, and
raised it, and, lo and behold! the oak frame swung open. Before I quite
realized the situation, we were inside, in a square courtyard, with
the _gardienne's_ lodge at the right of us, impenetrably barred and
shuttered, and before us the portal of the castle, surmounted with
quaint stone carvings of men in armor riding prancing steeds. The court,
as revealed by the moonlight, was intact, but neglected. Weeds were
sprouting between the square blocks of stone that paved it, and in the
center a wide circular space, charred and blackened, showed where the
German sentries had built their fires. It was not cheerful, nor was it
homey. I scarcely blamed Marie-Jeanne for flitting. The faint sound of
the cannonading had begun again in the distance, but otherwise the place
was as silent as a tomb.

"It seems strange!" Miss Falconer murmured, looking about in puzzled
fashion. "Why in the world should she have left the gate open in this
careless way? Of course there is nothing here for thieves; the Germans
saw to that; but still, as keeper--Oh, well, it doesn't matter. It saves
us from waiting till she comes home."

As I followed her toward the castle entrance, she opened the bag she
carried, and produced a candle, which I hastened to take and light. I
nearly said, "The latest thing in the housebreaking line, madame, is
electric torches, not tapers;" but I decided not to. After all, perhaps
we were housebreakers. How could I tell?

Hot candle wax splashed my fingers and scorched them, but I scarcely
noticed. My sense of high-gear adventure had reached its zenith now.
There was something thrilling, something stimulating in this stealthy
night entrance into a deserted castle. It was an experience, at all
events; there was no _concierge_ to stump before one through dim
passages and up winding staircases; no flood of dates and names and
anecdotes poured inexorably into one's bored ears to insure a _douceur_
when the tour of the chateau should be done.

The door--faithless Marie-Jeanne!--opened as readily as the outer gate.
We were entering. I glimpsed in a dim vista a superb Gothic hall of
magnificent architecture and most imposing proportions, arched and
carved and stretching off with apparent endlessness into the gloom.
Holding up my light, I scanned the place with growing interest. It had
not been demolished, but neither had it been spared. The furniture
was gone, save for a few scattered chairs and a table; the walls were
defaced with cartoons and scrawled inscriptions; the floor was
stained, and littered with empty bottles and broken plates. From the
chimney-place--a medieval-art jewel topped with carved and colored
enamels--pieces had been hacked away by some deliberately destructive
hand. I glanced at Miss Falconer, whose eyes had been following mine.

"They tore down the tapestries," she said beneath her breath. "They
slashed the old portraits with their swords and broke the windows
and took away the statues and candlesticks and plate. They cut up the
furniture and had it used for fire-wood; and the German captain and his
officers had a feast here and drank to the fall of Paris and ordered
their soldiers to burn the village to the ground. Oh, I don't like
the place any more; too much has happened. And--and I don't like
Marie-Jeanne's not being here, Mr. Bayne. I feel as if there were
something wrong about it. I believe I am a little--just a little
afraid!"

"Come, now, you don't expect me to believe that, do you?" I countered
promptly. "Because I won't. Why, it's your pluck that has kept me up
all day. Just the same, on general principles, I'll take a look round
if you'll allow me. Here's a chair, and if you will rest a minute, I'll
guarantee to find out."

The chair I mentioned was standing near the chimney, and as I spoke I
walked over to it and started to spin it round. It resisted me heavily;
I bent over it, lifting my candle. Then I uttered an exclamation, stood
petrified, and stared.

In the chair, concealed from us until now by the high carved back
of wood, was something which at first looked like a huddled mass of
garments, but which on closer scrutiny resolved itself into a woman in
a striped dress, an apron, and a pair of heavy shoes. There was a cut
on her cheek, a bruise on her forehead. Locks of graying hair straggled
from beneath her disarranged white cap, and she glared at me from a
lean, sallow face with a pair of terrified eyes.

She must be dead, I thought. No living woman could sit so still and
stare so wildly. The scene in the inn garage rushed back upon me, and
I must say that my blood turned cold. But she was alive, I saw now; she
was certainly breathing. And an instant later I realized why she stayed
so immobile; she was bound hand and foot to the chair she sat in, and
a colored handkerchief, her own doubtless, had been twisted across her
mouth to form a gag.

"I think," I head myself saying, "that we have been maligning
Marie-Jeanne."

A choked, frightened cry from Miss Falconer made me wheel about sharply,
to find her staring not a me, but at the further wall. Prepared now for
anything under heaven, I followed her gaze. Above us, circling the whole
hall, there ran a gallery from which at a distance of some fifteen feet
from where we stood a wide stone staircase descended; and half-way down
this, as motionless as statues, as indistinct as shadows, I saw four men
in the uniform of officers of France.

For an uncanny moment I wondered whether they were specters. For a
stupid one, I thought they might be people whom the girl had come here
to meet. Still, if they were, she wouldn't be looking at them in this
paralyzed fashion. I could not see them plainly,--but they must be the
men from Bleau.

"Well, Mr. Bayne," the foremost was asking, "did you think we had
deserted you? Not a bit of it! We came on ahead and rang up the old
woman there and commandeered her keys. We've been killing time here for
a good half hour, waiting for you. You must have had tire trouble. And
you don't seem very pleased to see us now that you've come--eh, what?"

At Bleau the previous night, I was recalling dazedly, there had been
only three men wearing the horizon blue. Who was this fourth figure, who
knew my name and spoke such colloquial English? I raised my candle as
high as possible and scanned him. Then I stood transfixed.

"Van Blarcom!" I gasped. "And in a uniform, by all that's holy!"

He grinned.

"No. You haven't got that quite right," he told me. "What's the use
keeping up the game now that we're here, all friends together? My name
isn't Van Blarcom. It's Franz von Blenheim, Mr. Bayne."



CHAPTER XX

INTRODUCING HERR FRANZ VON BLENHEIM

The words of Franz von Blenheim seemed to fill the hall and reecho
from the walls and arches, deafening me, leaving me stunned as if by
an earthquake or by a flash of lightning from clear skies. Yet I never
though of doubting them. Comatose as my state was, slowly as my brain
was working, I recognized vaguely how many features of the mystery, both
past and present, these words explained.

It was odd, but never once had it occurred to me that Van Blarcom might
be a German. He himself, I began to realize, had taken care of that.
With considerable acumen he had filled every one of our brief interviews
with vigorous denunciations of somebody else, dark hints as to intrigues
that surrounded me and might enmesh me, and solemn warnings and prudent
counsels, which had brilliantly served his turn. He had kept me so busy
suspecting Miss Falconer--at the thought I could have beaten my head
against the wall in token of my abject shame--that my doubts had
never glanced in his direction; a most humiliating confession, since I
couldn't deny, reviewing the past in this new light, that circumstances
had afforded me every opportunity to guess the truth.

There was no time, however, for dwelling on my deficiencies. The next
half hour would be an uncommonly lively one, I felt quite sure. I might
call the thing bizarre, fantastic; I might dub it an extravaganza; the
fact remained that I was shut up in this lonely spot with four entirely
able-bodied Germans and must match wits with them over some affair
that apparently was of international consequence; for if it had been
a twopenny business, Herr von Blenheim, the star agent of the kaiser,
would never have thought it worth his pains.

With all my fighting spirit rising to meet the odds against us, I cast a
speculative eye over the Teutons, who had now dissolved their group.
Van Blarcom himself--Blenheim, rather--descended in a leisurely fashion
while one of his friends, remaining on the staircase, fixed me with a
look of intentness almost ominous and the other two placed themselves
as if casually before the door. They were stalwart, well set-up men,
I acknowledged as I surveyed them. Though not bad at what our French
friends call _la boxe_, I was outnumbered. It was obviously a case of
strategy--but of what sort?

A much defaced table, flanked with a few battered chairs, stood near me,
and with a premonition that I should want two hands presently, I set my
candle there. Then I drew a chair forward and turned to the girl with
outward coolness.

"Please sit down, Miss Falconer," I invited. I wanted time.

She inclined her head and obeyed me very quietly. She was not afraid; I
saw it with a rush of pride. As she sat erect, her head thrown back,
on gloved hand resting on the table, she was a picture of spirit and
steadiness and courage. If I had needed strength I should have found it
in the fact that her eyes, oddly darkened as always when her errand was
threatened did not rest on our captors, but turned toward me.

"We'll all sit down," Franz von Blenheim agreed most amiably. It
evidently amused him to retain the late Mr. Van Blarcom's dialect and
air. "We can fix this business up in no time; so why not be sociable?"
He strolled to a chair and sank into it and motioned me to do the same.

"Thanks," I returned, not complying. "If you don't mind, I'd like first
to untie that woman. I confess to a queer sort of prejudice against
seeing women bound and gagged. In fact I feel so strongly on the subject
that it might spoil our whole conference for me." I took a step toward
the shadowy figure of Marie-Jeanne.

Blenheim did not move, but his eyes seemed to narrow and darken.

"Just leave her alone for the present. She is too fond of
shrieking--might interrupt our argument," he declared. "And see
here, Mr. Bayne," he added, warned by my manner, "I want to call your
attention to the gentleman on the stairs, my friend Schwartzmann. He's
a crack shot, none better, and he has got you covered. Hadn't you better
sit down and have a friendly chat?"

Though the stairs were dim, I could see something glittering in the hand
of the person mentioned, who was impersonating for the evening a dashing
young captain of the general staff. My fingers strayed toward my pocket
and my own revolver. Then I pried them away, temporarily, and took a
provisional seat.

"That's sensible," Franz von Blenheim approved me blandly. "Now, Miss
Falconer, you know what I'm here for, isn't that so? Just hand me those
papers and you'll be as free as air. I'll take myself off; you'll never
see me again probably. That's a fair bargain, isn't it? What do you
say?"

I was sitting close to the girl, so close that her soft furs brushed
me and I could feel the flutter of her breath against my cheek. At
Blenheim's proposition I glanced at her. She was measuring him steadily.
Then she looked at me, and her eyes seemed to hold some message that I
could not read.

"Perhaps, Miss Falconer," I interposed, "you have not quite grasped the
situation." I was sparring for time; she wanted to convey something to
me, I was sure. "It is rather complicated. This gentleman has turned
out to be a well-known agent of the kaiser. He was traveling on the _Re
d'Italia_, I gather, on a forged passport, and had helped himself to my
baggage as the most convenient way of smuggling some papers to the other
side."

He grinned assentingly.

"You owe me one for that," he owned. "You see, it was my second trip
on that line, and I thought they might have me spotted; I had a lot of
things to carry home,--reports, information, confidential letters, and I
concluded they would be safer with a nice, innocent young man like you.
It didn't work, as things went. It was just a little too clever. But if
you hadn't mixed yourself up with this young lady, and tossed packages
overboard for her under the noses of the stewards, and got yourself
suspected and your baggage searched, I should have turned the trick!"

His share in the tangled episode on board the steamer was unfolding. I
understood now why he had sprung to my rescue in the salon when I was
accused. Naturally he had not wanted my traps searched, considering what
was in them.

"As you say, you were a little too clever," I agreed.

His eyes glinted viciously.

"Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk," he retorted; "and besides,
the papers you are going to hand me to-night will even up the score. It
was a piece of luck, my running across Miss Falconer on the liner. Of
course the minute I heard her name I knew what she was crossing for."
The dickens he did! "All I had to do was to follow her, and by the time
we reached Bleau I had guessed enough to come ahead of her. But I'll
admit, Mr. Bayne, now it's all over, it made me nervous to have you
popping up at every turn! I began to think that you suspected me--that
you were trailing me. If you had, you know, I shouldn't have stood a
chance on earth. You could have said a word to the first gendarme you
met and had me laid by the heels and ended it. That was why I kept
warning you off. But I needn't have worried. You drank in everything I
told you as innocent as a babe!"

If he wanted revenge for my last remark, he had it. I looked at the
girl beside me, so watchfully composed and fearless, then at the
fixed, terrified glare of the motionless Marie-Jeanne. With a little
rudimentary intelligence on my part this situation would have been
spared us.

"Yes," I acknowledged bitterly; "I did."

"Except for that," he grinned, "it went like clockwork. There wasn't
even enough danger in the thing to give it spice. Do you know, there
isn't a capital in Europe where I can't get disguises, money, passports
within twelve hours if I want them. Oh, you have a bit to learn about
us, you people on the other side! I've crossed the ocean four
times since the war started; I've been in London, Rome, Paris,
Petrograd--pretty much everywhere. I'm getting homesick, though. The
_laissez-passer_ I've picked up, or forged, no matter which, takes
me straight through to the Front; and I've got friends even in the
trenches. Before the Frenchies know it I'll be across no-man's-land and
inside the German lines!"

For a moment, as I listened, I was dangerously near admiring him. He was
certainly exaggerating; but it couldn't all be brag. The life of this
spy of the first water, of international fame, must be rather marvelous;
to defy one's enemies with success, to journey calmly through their
capitals, to stroll undetected among their agents of justice--were not
things any fool could do. He carried his life in his hand, this Franz
von Blenheim. He had courage; he even had genius along his special
lines. His impersonation on the liner, shrewd, slangy, coarse-grained,
patronizing, had been a triumph. Then, suddenly, I remembered a murdered
boy beside whom I had knelt that morning, and my brief flicker of homage
died.

"You think I can't do it, eh?" He had misinterpreted my expression.
"Well, let me tell you I did just a year ago and got over without a
scratch. To get across no-man's-land you have to play dead, as you
Yankees put it; you lie flat on the ground and pull yourself forward a
foot at a time and keep your eye on the search-lights so that when they
come your way you can drop on your face and lie like a corpse until
they move on. It's not pleasant, of course; but in this game we take our
chances. And now I think I'll be claiming my winnings if you please."

I straightened in my chair, recognizing a crisis. With his last phrase
he had shed the bearing of Mr. John Van Blarcom, and from the disguise
all in an instant there emerged the Prussian, insolent, overbearing,
fixing us with a look of challenge, and addressing us with crisp
command. No; the kaiser's agent was not a figure of romance or of
adventure. He was a force as able, as ruthless, as cruel as the land he
served.

"Miss Falconer," he demanded briefly, "where are those papers? I am not
to be played with, I assure you. If you think I am, just recall this
morning, and your chauffeur. We didn't kill him for the pleasure of it;
he had his chance as you have. But when we went for our car he was there
in the garage, sleeping; he seemed to think we had designs on him, and
tried to rouse the inn."

"Do you call that an excuse for a murder?" I exclaimed. "You
cold-blooded villain!"

"I don't make excuses." His voice was hard and arrogant. "I am calling
the matter to your notice as a kind warning, Mr. Bayne. You said a
little while ago that to see a woman gagged and bound distressed you.
Well, unless I have those papers within five minutes, you will see
something worse than that!"

At the moment what I saw was red. There was something beating in my
throat, choking me; I knew neither myself nor the primitive impulses I
felt.

"If you lay a finger on Miss Falconer," I heard myself saying slowly, "I
swear I'll kill you."

Then through the crimson mist that enveloped me I saw Blenheim laugh.

"Come, Mr. Bayne," he taunted me, "remember our friend Schwartzmann.
This is your business, Miss Falconer, I take it. What are you going to
do?"

The girl flung her head back, and her eyes blazed as she answered him.

"You can torture me," she said scornfully. "You can kill me. But I will
never give you the papers; you may be sure of that."



CHAPTER XXI

IN THE DARK

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."



CHAPTER XXII

THE GUEST OF PREZELAY

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.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE

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.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE OBUS

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
mountain. 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.



CHAPTER XXV

AT RAINCY-LA-TOUR

When I opened my eyes it was with a peculiarly reluctant feeling, for
my eyelids were so heavy that they seemed to weigh a ton. My head was
unspeakably groggy, and I had quite lost my memory. I couldn't,
if suddenly interrogated, have replied with one intelligent bit of
information about myself, not even with my name.

Flat on my back I was lying, gazing up at what, surprisingly, seemed to
be a ceiling festooned with garlands of roses and painted with ladies
and cavaliers, idling about a stretch of greensward, decidedly in
the Watteau style. Where was I? What had happened to make me feel so
helpless? It reminded me of an episode of my childhood, a day when my
pony had fallen and rolled upon me, and I had been carried home with two
crushed ribs and a broken arm.

Coming out at that time from the influence of the ether, I had found
Dunny at my bedside. If only he were here now! I looked round. Why,
there he was, sitting in a brocaded chair by the window, his dear old
silver head thrown back, dozing beyond a doubt.

To see him gave me a warm, comforted, homelike feeling. Nor did it
surprise me, but my surroundings did. The room, a veritable Louis Quinze
jewel in its paneling, carving, and gilding, might have come direct
from Versailles by parcel post; my bed was garlanded and curtained in
rose-color. Where I had gone to sleep last night I couldn't remember;
but it hadn't, I was obstinately sure, been here.

What ailed me, anyhow? I began a series of cautious experiments,
designed to discover the trouble. My arms were weak and of a strange,
flabby limpness, but they moved. So did my left leg; but when I came to
the right one I was baffled. It wouldn't stir; it was heavily encased in
something. Good heavens! now I knew! It was in a plaster cast.

The shock of the discovery taught me something further, namely, that my
head was liable to excruciating little throbs of pain. I raised a hand
to it. My forehead was swathed in bandages, like a turbaned Turk's.
Oh, to be sure, in the castle at Prezelay, as we were retreating up the
staircase, Schwartzmann had fired at me; but, then, hadn't that been a
pin prick, the merest scratch?

The name Prezelay served as a key to solve the puzzle. The whole
fantastic, incredible chain of happenings came back to me in a rush;
the gray car, the inn, the murder, the night in the castle,
Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier.

"Dunny!" I heard myself quavering in a voice utterly unlike my own.

The figure in the chair started up and hurried toward me, and then
Dunny's hands were holding my hands, his eyes looking into mine.

"There, Dev, there! Take it easy," the familiar voice was soothing me.
"Hold on to me, my boy, You are safe now. You're all right!"

My safety, however, seemed of small importance for the time being.

"Dunny," I implored, "listen! You have got to find out for me about a
girl. How am I to tell you, though? If I start the story, you'll think
I'm raving."

"I know all about it, Dev," my guardian reassured me. "I've seen Miss
Falconer. She's absolutely safe."

If that were so, I could relax, and I did with fervent thankfulness. Not
for long, however; my brain had begun to work.

"See here! I want to know who has been playing football with me," was my
next demand, which Dunny answered obligingly, if with a slightly dubious
face.

"That French doctor, nice young chap, said you weren't to talk," he
muttered, "but if I were in your place I'd want to know a few things
myself. It was this way, Dev. A fragment of a shell struck you--"

"A fragment!" I raised weak eyebrows. "I know better. Twenty shells at
least, and whole!"

"--and didn't strike your Teuton friends," he charged on, suddenly
purple of visage. "It was a true German shell, my boy, the devil looking
after his own. The man in the seat with you was cut up a bit; the other
two were thrown clear of the motor. If you hadn't already given the
alarm, they would probably have got off scot-free. As it was, the French
held a drumhead court martial a little later, and all three of the
fellows--well, you can fill in the rest."

I was silent for a minute while a picture rose before me: a dank, gray
dawn; a firing-squad, and Franz von Blenheim's dark, grim face. No
doubt he had died bravely; but I could not pity him; I had too clear a
recollection of the hall at Prezelay.

"As for you," Dunny was continuing, "you seem to have puzzled
them finely. There you were in a French uniform, at your last gasp
apparently, and with an American passport, that you seem to have clung
to through thick and thin, inside your coat. They took a chance on you,
though, because you had made them a present of the Franz von
Blenheim; and by the next day, thanks to Miss Falconer and the Duke of
Raincy-la-Tour, you were being looked for all over France.

"So that's how it stands. You're at Raincy-la-Tour now, at the duke's
chateau. The place has been a hospital ever since the war began. Only
you're not with the other wounded. You are--well--a rather special
patient in the pavilion across the lake; and you're by way of being a
hero. The day I landed, the first paper I saw shrieked at me how you had
tracked the kaiser's star agent and outwitted him and handed him over to
justice."

"The deuce it did!" I exclaimed. "You must have been puffed up with
pride."

My guardian's jaw set itself rigidly. "I was too busy," was his grim
answer. "You see, the end of the statement said there was no hope that
you could survive. And when I got here I found you with fever, delirium,
one leg shot up, four bits of shell in your head, a fine case of brain
concussion. That was nearly three weeks ago, and it seems more like
three years!"

An idea, at this point, made me fix a searching gaze on him.

"By the way," I asked accusingly, "how did you happen to arrive so
opportunely on this side? It seemed as natural as possible to find
you settled here waiting for my eyes to open; but on second thoughts I
suppose you didn't fly?"

He looked extraordinarily embarrassed.

"Why," he growled at length, "I had business. I got a cablegram soon
after you left New York. The thing was confoundedly inconvenient, but I
had no choice about it."

"Dunny," I said weakly, but sternly, "you didn't bring me up to tell
whoppers, not bare-faced ones like that, anyhow, that wouldn't deceive
the veriest child. What earthly business could you have over here in
war-time? Own up, now, and take your medicine like a man."

His guilty air was sufficient answer.

"Well, Dev," he acknowledged, "it was your cable. That Gibraltar mess
was a nasty one, and I didn't like its looks. I'm getting old, and
you're all I've got; so I took a passport and caught the _Rochambeau_.
Not, of course, that I doubted your ability to take care of yourself, my
boy--"

"Didn't you? You might have," I admitted with some ruefulness, "if
you had known I was bucking both the Allied governments and the picked
talent of the Central powers. It was too much. I was riding for a fall,
and I got it. But I don't mind saying, Dunny, I'm infernally glad you
came."

He wiped his eyes.

"Well, you go to sleep now," he counseled gruffly. "You've got to get
well in a hurry; there's work for you to do! All sorts of things have
been happening since that _obus_ knocked you out. Just a week ago, for
instance, the President went before Congress and--"

"What's that you say? Not war?"

"Yes, war, young man! We're in it at last, up to our necks; in it with
men and ships and munitions and foodstuffs and everything else we
have to help with, praise the Lord! You'll fight beneath the Stars and
Stripes, instead of under the Tricolor. I say, Dev, that's positively
the last word I'll utter. You've got to rest!"

In a weak, quavering fashion, but with sincere enthusiasm, I tried to
celebrate by singing a few bars of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and a
little of the "Marseillaise." Dunny was right, however; the conversation
had exhausted me. In the midst of my patriotic demonstration I fell
asleep.

My convalescence was a marvel, I learned from young Dr. Raimbault, the
surgeon from the chateau who came to see me every day. According to
him, I was a patient in a hundred, in a thousand; he never wearied
of admiring my constitution, which he described by the various French
equivalents of "as hard as nails." Not a set-back attended the course of
my recovery. First, I sat propped up in bed; then I attained the dignity
of an arm-chair; later, slowly and painfully, I began to drag myself
about the room. But the day on which my physician's rapture burst all
bounds was the great one when I crawled from the pavilion, gained a
bench beneath the trees, and sat enthroned, glaring at my crutches. They
were detestable implements; I longed to smash them. And they would, the
doctor airily informed me, be my portion for three months.

To feel grumpy in such surroundings was certainly black ingratitude.
It was an idyllic place. My pavilion was a sort of Trianon, a Marie
Antoinette bower, all flowers and gold. Fresh green woods grew about
it; a lake stretched before it; swans dotted the water where trees
were mirrored, and there were marble steps and balustrades. Across this
glittering expanse rose Raincy-la-Tour, proud and stately, with its
formal gardens and its fountains and its Versailles-like front. In
the afternoons I could see the wounded soldiers walking there or being
pushed to and fro in wheel-chairs; legless and armless, some of them;
wreckage of the mighty battle-fields; timely reminders, poor heroic
fellows, that there were people in the world a great deal worse off than
I.

Yet, instead of being thankful, I was profoundly wretched. I moped and
sulked; I fell each day into a deeper, more consistent gloom. I tried
grimly to regain my strength, with a view to seeking other quarters.
While I stayed here I was the guest of the Firefly of France; and though
I admired him,--I should have been a cad, a quitter, a poor loser,
everything I had ever held anathema in days gone by, not to do
so,--still I couldn't feel toward him as a man should feel toward his
host; not in the least!

On three separate occasions Dunny motored up to Paris, bringing back
as the fruits of his first excursion my baggage from the Ritz. I was
clothed again, in my right mind; except for my swathed head, I looked
highly civilized. The day when I had raced hither and yon, and fought an
unbelievable battle in a dark hall, and insanely masqueraded first in
a leather coat, then in a pale-blue uniform, seemed dim and far-off
indeed.

"It was a nice hashish dream," I told my mirrored image. "But it wasn't
real, my lad, for a moment; such things don't happen to folks like you.
You're not the romantic type; you don't look like some one in an
old picture; you haven't brought down thirty German aeroplanes or
thereabouts, and won every war medal the French can give and the name of
Ace. No; you look like a--a correct bulldog; and winning an occasional
polo cup is about your limit. Even if it hadn't been settled before you
met her, you wouldn't have stood a chance."

There were times when I prayed never to see Esme Falconer again. There
were other times when I knew I would drag myself round the world--yes,
on my crutches!--if at the end of the journey I could see her for an
instant, a long way off. I could see that my despondency was driving
Dunny to distraction. He evolved the theory that I was going into a
decline.

Then came the afternoon that made history. I was sitting at my window.
The trees seemed specially green, the sky specially blue, the lake
specially bright. I was feeling stronger and was glumly planning a move
to Paris when I saw an automobile speed up the poplared walk toward
Raincy-la-Tour.

Rip-snorting and chugging, the thing executed a curve before the
chateau, and then, hugging the side of the lake, advanced, obviously
toward my humble abode. My heart seemed to turn a somersault. I should
have known that car if I had met it in Bagdad. It was a long blue motor,
polished to the last notch, deeply cushioned, luxurious, poignantly
familiar, the car, in short, that I had pursued to Bleau, and that
later, in flat defiance of President Poincare or the Generalissimo
of France, or whoever makes army rules and regulations, I had guided
through the war zone to the castle of Prezelay.

As the chauffeur halted it near the pavilion, it disgorged three
occupants, one of who, a young officer, slender of form and gracefully
alert of movement, wore the dark-blue uniform of the French Flying
Corps. I knew him only too well. It was Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier.
But the glance I gave him was most cursory; my attention was focused
hungrily on the two ladies in the tonneau. They had risen and were
divesting themselves in leisurely fashion of a most complicated
arrangement of motor coats and veils.

From these swathing disguises there first emerged, as if from a
chrysalis, a black-clad, distinguished-looking young woman whom I had
never seen before. However, it was the second figure, the one in the
rosy veils and the tan mantle, that was exciting me. Off came her
wrappings, and I saw a girl in a white gown and a flowered hat--the
loveliest girl on earth.

I did not stand on the order of my going. I rocked perilously, and
my crutches made a furious clatter, but I was outside in a truly
infinitesimal space of time. Yes; there they were, chatting with Dunny,
who had hurried to meet them. And at sight of me the Firefly of France
ran forward with hands extended, greeting me as if I were his oldest
friend, his brother, his dearest comrade in arms.

I took his hands and I pressed them with what show of warmth I could
summon. It was as peasant as a bit of torture, but it had to be gone
through. Then I stared past him toward the ladies, who were coming up
with Dunny; and except for that girl in white, I saw nothing in all the
world.

"Monsieur," the duke was saying, "I pay you my first visit. Only my
weakness has prevented me from sooner welcoming to Raincy-la-Tour so
honored a guest."

He turned to the lady who stood beside Miss Falconer, a slender,
dark-eyed, gracious young woman wearing a simple black gown and a black
hat and a string of pearls.

"Here is another," said the Firefly, "who has come to welcome you. Oh,
yes, Monsieur, you must know, and you must count henceforth as your
friends in any need, even to the death, all those who bear the name of
Raincy-la-Tour. Permit that I present you to my wife, who is of your
country."

"Jean's wife is my sister, Mr. Bayne," Miss Falconer said.



CHAPTER XXVI

AN UNEXPECTED VISIT

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.



CHAPTER XXVII

A THUNDERBOLT OF WAR

The great moment had arrived. General Le Cazeau and his staff were
on their way back to Paris. The duke and duchess were at the chateau
talking with the _blesses_; for the second time Dunny had tactfully
disappeared. The approach of evening had spurred my faltering courage.
As the first rosiness of sunset touched the skies beyond Raincy-la-Tour
and lay across the water, I sat at the side of the only girl in the
world and poured out my plea.

"It isn't fair, you know," I mourned. "I've only a few minutes. I
shouldn't wonder if we heard your car honking for you in half an
hour. To make a girl like you look at a man like me would take days of
eloquence, and, besides, who would think of marrying any one with his
head bound up Turkish fashion as mine is now?"

She laughed, and at the silvery sound of it I plucked up a hint of
courage; for surely, I thought, she wasn't cruel enough to make game
of me as she turned me down. Still, I couldn't really hope. She was too
wonderful, and my courtship had been too inadequate. Despondent, arms on
my knees, I harped upon the same string.

"I've never had a chance to show you," I lamented, "that I am civilized;
that I know how to take care of you and put cushions behind you and
slide footstools under your feet, and--er--all that. We've been too busy
eluding Germans and racing through forbidden zones and rescuing papers
from behind secret panels, for me to wait on you. Good heavens! To think
how I've done my duty by a hundred girls I shouldn't know from Eve if
they happened along this moment! And I've never even sent you a box of
_marrons glaces_ or flowers."

She shot a fleeting glance at me.

"No," she agreed, "you haven't! If you don't mind my saying so, I
think they would have been out of place. At Bleau, for instance, and at
Prezelay I hadn't much time for eating bonbons; but after all you did me
one or two more practical services, Mr. Bayne."

"Nothing," I maintained, my gloom unabated, "that amounted to a row of
pins. Though I might have shone, I'll admit; I can see that, looking
back. The opportunity was there, but the man was lacking. I might have
been a real movie hero, cool, resourceful, dependable, clear-sighted, a
tower of strength; and what I did was to muddle things up hopelessly
and waste time in suspecting you and seize every opportunity of trusting
people who positively spread their guilt before my eyes."

"I don't know." She was looking at the lake, not at me, and she was
smiling. "There were one or two little matters that have slipped your
mind, perhaps. Take the very first night we met, when you tracked your
thief to my room and wouldn't let the hotel people come in to search it.
Don't you think, on the whole, that you were rather kind?"

"I couldn't have driven them in," I declared stubbornly, "with a
pitchfork. I couldn't have persuaded them to make a search if I had
prayed them on my bended knees. Their one idea was to help the fellow
in what the best criminal circles call a getaway; and when I think how I
must have been wool-gathering, not to guess--"

"Well, even so,"--Miss Falconer was still smiling--"weren't you very
nice on the steamer? About the extra, I mean. And at Gibraltar, too,
when they asked you what you had thrown overboard--do you remember how
you kept silent and never even glanced my way?"

"No," I groaned, "I don't; but I remember our trip to Paris. I remember
marching you into the wagon-restaurant like a hand-cuffed criminal, and
sitting you down at a table, and bullying you like a Russian czar. I
gave you three days to leave France. Have you forgotten? I haven't. The
one thing I omitted--and I don't see how I missed it--was to call the
gendarmes there at Modane and denounce you to them. It's more than kind
of you to glide over my imbecilities; I appreciate it. But when I
think of that evening I want a nice, deep, dark dungeon, somewhere
underground, to hide."

"I think," she murmured consolingly, "that you made amends to me later."
Her face was averted, but I could see a distracting dimple in her
cheek. "You mustn't forget that I haven't been perfect, either. When
you followed me to Bleau, and I came down the stairs and saw you, I
misunderstood the situation entirely and was as unpleasant as I could
be."

"Naturally," I acquiesced with dark meaning. "How could you have
understood it? How could any human being have fathomed the mental
processes that sent me there? I only wonder that instead of giving
me what-for, you didn't murder me. Any United States jury would have
acquitted you with the highest praise."

She turned upon me, flushed and spirited.

"Mr. Bayne, you are incorrigible! Why will you insist on belittling
everything that you have done? I suppose you will claim next that you
didn't risk imprisonment or death every minute of a whole day, just to
help me, and that at Prezelay you didn't fight like a--a--yes, like a
paladin!--to save me from being tortured by Herr von Blenheim and his
men!"

I started up and then sank back.

"As a special favor," I begged her, "would you mind not mentioning that
last phase of the affair? When you do, I go berserker; I'm a crazy
man, seeing red; I'm honestly not responsible. It was when our friend
Blenheim developed those plans of his that I swore in my soul I'd get
him; and I thank the Lord that I did and that he'll never trouble you or
any other woman again.

"Still, Miss Falconer, what does all that amount to? Any man would have
helped you, wouldn't he? A nice sort of fellow I should have been to
do any less! Whereas for a girl like you I ought to have accomplished
miracles. I ought to have made the sun stop moving, or got you the stars
to play with, or whisked the moon out of the skies."

She was laughing again.

"Dear me!" she exclaimed. "What fervor! Can this be my Mr. Bayne, the
Mr. Bayne of our adventure, who never turned a hair no matter what mad
things happened, and who was always so correct and conventional and so
immaculately dressed, and so--"

"Stodgy! Say it!" I cried with utter recklessness. "I know I was; Dunny
told me so that evening at the St. Ives. Have as many cracks at me as
you like. I was getting fat; I was beginning to think that the most
important thing in the universe was dinner. Well, I'm not stodgy any
longer, Esme Falconer; you've reformed me. But of all the men in all the
ages who were ever desperately, consumedly, imbecilely in love--"

In the distance two figures were strolling toward the blue car, the duke
and the duchess. When they reached it, the Firefly cast a glance in our
direction and sounded a warning, most unwelcome honk upon the horn. They
were going, stony-hearted creatures that they were! They were taking
Esme back to Paris. At the thought I abandoned my last pretense at
self-command.

"Esme, dearest," I implored, "do you think you could put up with
me? Could you marry me when I've done my part over here--or even
sooner--right away? A dozen better men may love you, but mine is a
special brand of love--unique, incomparable! Are you going to have
me--or shall I jump into the lake?"

The sunset light was in her hair and in the gray, starry eyes she turned
to me--those eyes that, because their lashes were so long and crinkled
so maddeningly, were only half revealed. Her lips curved in a fleeting
smile.

"Oh, you dear, blind, silly man! Do you think any girl could help loving
you--after all that has happened to you and me?" she whispered.

Then I caught her to me; and despite my crutches and my bandaged head
and that atrocious horn in the distance honking the signal for our
parting, I was the happiest being in France--or in the world.

"I knew all along it was a dream, and it is! Such things don't really
happen. No such luck!" I cried.





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