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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
"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."
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."
"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.