In the dim place there were signs of a desperate struggle. The rugs and cushions of Miss Falconer's automobile were scattered far and wide. The gray car had vanished; and in the center of the floor was Georges, the chauffeur, lying on his back with arms extended, staring up at the ceiling with wide, unseeing blue eyes.
"I MUST GO ON"
Kneeling by the young man's side, I felt for his pulse; but the moment that my fingers touched his cold wrist I knew the truth. There flashed into my mind queerly, as things do at grim moments, an often-heard expression about rigor mortis setting in. With this poor fellow it had not started, but he was dead for all that. The most skilful surgeon in Europe could not have helped him now.
I never doubted that it was murder. The confusion of the garage was proof of it; and the instrument, once I looked about me, was not far to seek. Divided between rage, horror, and pity, I saw a sort of sharp stiletto suitable for use as a penknife or letter opener, which, after doing its work, had been cast upon the floor.
I remained on my knees beside the lad, smitten with a keen remorse. I knew no good of him; I had even suspected him; but he had an honest face. Why had I not kept watch all night? The instructions I had given, the plan I had thought so clever, might be responsible for the killing; it must have been some echo of the struggle that had roused me when I had wakened and glanced out and gone placidly back to sleep.
Had Van Blarcom caught our whispered colloquy, or surmised it? Helped by his precious colleagues, he must have taken Georges unprepared, throttled him to prevent his shouting, and ended his frantic struggles with one swift, ruthless blow. But why? What sort of soldiers could these be who wore the uniform of a brave, chivalrous country and yet did murder? What sort of mission were they bound upon that for no visible gain or motive they risked desperate work like this?
And the girl upstairs? The thought was like a knife thrust; it brought me to my feet, my heart pounding, my forehead cold and wet. I told myself that she must be safe, that wholesale killing could not be the aim of these wretches, that the gray automobile was not what our one-cent sheets in their tales of gunmen like to call a "murder car." But what did I know about it? I was in a funk, a funk of the bluest variety. In that one age-long moment I learned what sheer fright meant.
Without knowing how I got there, I found myself in the gallery. The doors that lined it were rickety and worm-eaten; I stared weakly at them. A mere twist of practised fingers, and they could be forced open by any one who cared to try. I thought I heard a faint breathing inside the girl's room, but I was not sure; I was too rattled. Very guardedly I knocked and got no answer. Then, in utter panic, I knocked louder, at risk of disturbing the whole house.
"Georges, c'est vous?" It was the drowsiest of murmurs, but few things have been so welcome to me in all my life.
"Yes, Mademoiselle." Though my knees were wobbling under me I summoned presence of mind to impersonate the poor huddled mass of flesh in the garage.
I could hear her stirring; she believed I had come with some summons, with some news. Well, it was imperative that I should see her. I waited obediently until the door swung open and revealed her in a loose robe of blue, with her hair in a ruddy mass about her shoulders and the sleep still lingering in her eyes.
Such was my relief at finding my fears uncalled for that I could have danced a breakdown on that crazy gallery, snapping my fingers in castanet fashion above my head. I had forgotten entirely the strained terms of our parting; but she remembered. A bright wave of scarlet ran over her face, her neck, her forehead. She gasped, clutched her robe about her, would have shut the door if I had not foreseen the strategic movement and inserted a foot in the diminishing crack, just in time.
"I beg your pardon," I began hastily. "I am really extremely sorry. But something has occurred that forces me to speak to you."
"There can be nothing that forces you to come here—nothing!" Her lips were trembling; her voice wavered; the apparent shamelessness of my behavior was driving her to the verge of tears. "Is there no place where I am safe from you? Mr. Bayne, how can you? I shan't listen to a single word while you keep your foot in the door!"
"And I can't take it away until you listen," I protested. "It is perfectly obvious that if I did, you would shut me out. But you can see for yourself that I'm not trying to force an entrance—and I wish that you would speak lower; if we waken anybody, there will be the mischief to pay."
My voice, I suppose, had an impatient note that was reassuring, or perhaps I looked encouragingly respectable, viewed at closer range. At any rate, she spoke less angrily, though she still stood erect and haughty.
"Well, what is it?" she asked, barring the opening with one slender arm.
"May I ask if you have had a message from me, Miss Falconer?"
"A message? Certainly not!" There was renewed suspicion in her voice.
"H'm." Then they had intercepted the man before he reached her. "I'm going to ask you to dress as quickly and quietly as possible and come downstairs. Don't stop in the court, and don't go near the garage, I beg of you. Just walk on past the salle a manger to the garden, and wait for me."
I expected exclamations, questions, indignant protests, anything but the sudden white calm that fell on her at my request.
"You mean," she whispered, "that something dreadful has happened. Is it about the—the men who came last night?"
"Yes. But please don't worry," I urged with false heartiness. "I'll explain when you come down." To cut the discussion short, I turned to go.
Once her door had closed, however, I halted at the staircase, retraced my steps, and, without hesitation, circled the gallery to the rooms of Mr. John Van Blarcom and his friends. I had had enough of uncertainties; henceforth I meant to deal with facts. It was barely possible that I was unjustly anathematizing these gentlemen, that, while they were peacefully sleeping, thieves had broken in below.
Two knocks, the first rather tentative, the second brisker, netting no response, I deliberately tried the knob and felt the door promptly yield to me; then, with equal deliberation, I dropped my hand into my pocket where my revolver lay. If some one sprang at me and tried to crack my head or stab me,—stabbing was popular hereabouts,—I was in a state of armed preparedness. But when I stepped inside I found an empty room, a bed in which no one had slept.
Grown brazen, I strode across to the inner door and opened it. More emptiness greeted me; the four men had plainly taken French leave in their gray car. It was strange that the hum of their departure had not roused me; they must, before starting the motor, have pushed their automobile from the courtyard and out of ear-shot down the street.
For a moment I stood in the deserted room, reflecting swiftly. The situation was desperate; in another hour the inn would be stirring, and Miss Falconer, I felt sure, could not afford to be found here when that came to pass. Murder investigations are searching things. All strangers beneath this roof would be interrogated narrowly. If any one had a secret,—and she certainly had several,—the chances were heavy that it would be dragged to light.
For some reason this prospect was unspeakably frightful to me. Under its spur I hatched the craziest scheme that man ever thought of, and took steps which, as I look back at them, seem almost beyond belief. I must get Miss Falconer off for Paris, I determined. And since it was possible that the villagers would see us leaving, she must appear to go, as she had come, with her chauffeur.
I descended, forthwith, to the garage where the murdered man was lying, shook out and folded the rugs that had been scattered in the struggle, picked up the cushions, and replaced them in the car. Then, borrowing a ruse from the enemy, I set the door wide open, and, puffing and panting, pushed the blue automobile into the courtyard, through the passage, and a considerable distance down the street.
What comes next, I ask no one to credit. Retrospectively, I myself have doubted it. It lives in my memory as a grisly nightmare rather than as a fact. To be brief, I returned to the scene of the crime, shut out any possible audience by closing the door, and disrobed hastily. Then I removed the leather costume of the victim, donned it, laced on his boots, which by good fortune were loose instead of tight, and, picking up his visored cap from the floor where it had fallen, stood forth to all seeming as genuine a member of the proletariate as ever wore goggles and held a wheel.
By this time my teeth were clenched as if in the throes of lockjaw. Had I paused to think for a single instant, all my nerve would have oozed away. But I had no time to spend on thought; I had to work on, to save Miss Falconer. The whole ghoulish business would be futile if the inn servants found the body. The mere flight of all the guests would certainly stir suspicion; let the murder transpire as well, and at once we should be pursued.
The garage, from the looks of it, was not often put to service. A dusty spot, festooned with cobwebs, it cried to the skies for brooms and mops. In the background, apparently undisturbed since the days of the First Empire, a great pile of straw mixed with junk of various kinds lay against the wall; and most reluctantly, my every fiber shrieking protest, I saw what use I might make of this debris—if I could.
"Go for it!" I told myself inexorably, but miserably. "It's not a question of liking it, you know. You've got to do it." Grimly I wrapped my discarded clothes about the poor chap's body, dragged it to the straw, and covered it from head to foot. By this action, I surmised, I was rendering myself a probable accessory and a certain suspect; but the one thing I really cared about was my last glimpse of that patient face.
"Sorry, old man," was all the apology I could muster. "And if I ever get a chance at the people who did it, you can count on me!"
With a sigh of complete exhaustion, I rose and looked about. All signs of the crime had been obliterated from the garage. "I must be crazy!" I thought, as the enormity of the thing rushed on me. "I wonder why I did it? And I wonder whether I can forget it some day—maybe after twenty years?"
As I opened the door to the garden the dim light was growing clearer. I was late; the girl, coated and hatted, ready for flitting, was already at the rendezvous. At sight of me in my leather togs she started backward; then, resolutely controlled, she drew herself up and faced me silently, her hands clutching at her furs, her lips a little apart.
"Won't you sit down?" I began lamely, indicating an iron bench. It was all so different from the interview I had planned last night! "I want to speak to you about your chauffeur, Miss Falconer. This morning I found him hurt—very badly hurt—"
She drove straight through my pretense.
"Not dead? Oh, Mr. Bayne, not dead?"
"Yes," I said gently. "He had been dead some time. I would have liked to take my chances with him; but I came too late. No, please!" She had moved forward, and I was barring her passage. "You mustn't go. You can't help him, and you wouldn't like the sight."
How black her eyes were in her white face!
"I don't understand," she faltered. "You mean that he was murdered? But who would have killed Georges?"
"The men who came last night—if you can call them men. At least, appearances point that way," I said.
"The men in the gray car?" She swayed a little. "But why?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that." My tone was grim; there were so many things about this matter that I couldn't tell.
Her eyes flashed for an instant.
"But how cowardly, how cruel! He never hurt anyone; he was just like a good watchdog, the truest, most faithful soul! If they killed him they did it for some deliberate purpose. And when I think that I brought him here—oh, oh, Mr. Bayne—"
"Yes," I broke in hastily; "I should like to see them boil in oil or fry on gridirons or something of the sort, myself. But this is very serious; we must keep calm, Miss Falconer. And I know you are going to help me. You have such splendid self-control."
Though there were sobs in her throat, she pressed her hands to her lips and stifled them. Only her pallor and her wet lashes showed the horror and grief she felt. I wanted desperately to comfort her, but there was no time for it; and besides, who ever heard of a leather-coated comforter in a kitchen garden at 5 A.M.?
"What I wanted to speak about," I went on rapidly, "was our plans. This may prove a rather nasty mess, I'm sorry to say. The French police, you know, are—well, they're capable and very thorough; and since you are here at the scene of a murder in an infirmiere's costume, they will never rest till they have seen your papers, learned your errand, asked you a hundred things. Unless your replies are absolutely satisfactory, the whole business will be—er—awkward for you. That is why I put on these togs. Yes, I know it is ghastly," I owned as she shuddered. "And that is why I want to beg you, very seriously indeed, to let me drive you back to Paris and put you under your friends' protection. After that, of course, I'll return here to see the thing through and give my testimony about it all."
It was not going to be so simple, the course I had outlined airily. When I visioned myself explaining to a French commissaire why I had come to Bleau at all; why I had set up a false claim to be an artist,—for that circumstance was sure to leak out and look darkly incriminating,—and what had inspired me to take a murdered man's clothes and conceal his body, I can't pretend that I felt much zest. Still, if the police and the girl came together, worse would follow, I was certain; and it seemed like a real catastrophe when she slowly shook her head.
"I can't," she murmured. "Oh, it's kind of you, and I'm sorry; but I can't go back to Paris—not yet, Mr. Bayne. You won't understand, of course, but I left there to—to accomplish something. And since poor Georges can't help me now, I must go on—alone."
I BURN MY BRIDGES
If I live to be a hundred, and it is not improbable since I am healthy, I shall never forget that little garden at the inn at Bleau. It was a vegetable garden too, which is not in itself romantic. I recall vaguely that there were beds all about us, which in due course would doubtless sprout into rows of pale green objects—peas and artichokes, or beans and cabbages maybe; I don't know, I am sure. But then, there was the stream running just outside the wall of masonry; there was the sky, flushing with that faint, very delicate, very lovely pink that an early spring morning brings in France; there was the quaint building, wrapped up in slumber, beside us; and in the air a silent, fragrant dimness, the promise of the dawn.
And then there was the girl. I suppose that was the main thing. Not that I felt sentimental. I should have scouted the notion. If I meant to fall in love,—which, I should have said, I had no idea of doing,—I would certainly not begin the process in this unheard-of spot. No; it was simply that the whole business of caring for Miss Esme Falconer had suddenly devolved upon my shoulders; and that instead of my feeling bored, or annoyed, or exasperated at the prospect, my spirits rose inexplicably to face the need.
Here, if ever, was the time for the questions I had planned last evening. But I didn't ask them; I knew I should never ask them. In those few long unforgetable moments when I stood in the gallery and wondered whether she were living, my point of view had altered. I was through with suspecting her; I was prepared to laugh at evidence, however damning. As for the men in the gray car and their detailed accusations, I didn't give—well, a loud outcry in the infernal regions for them. I knew the standards of the land they served, and I had seen their work this morning. If they were French officers, I would do France a service by going after them with a gun.
The girl had sunk down on the ancient bench beside me. Her eyes, wide and distressed, yet resolute, went to my heart. Not a figure, I thought again, for this atmosphere of intrigue and secrecy and danger. Rather a girl, beautiful, brilliant, spirited, to be shielded from every jostle of existence; the sort of girl whom men hold it a test of manhood to protect from even the most passing discomfiture!
But time was moving apace. We must settle on something in short order. I spoke in the most matter-of-fact tones that I could summon, not, heaven knows, out of a feeling of levity concerning what had happened, but to try to lighten the grim business a degree or so and keep us sane.
"I think, Miss Falconer," I began, standing before her, "that we have got to thrash this matter out at last. You think I've behaved unspeakably, trailing you everywhere, and I don't deny I have, according to your point of view. But the fact is, I didn't follow you to annoy you; I'm a half-way decent fellow. You have simply got to trust me until I've seen you through this tangle. After that, if you like you need never look at me again."
Her troubled eyes rested on me, half bewildered.
"Why, I'd forgotten all that," she murmured. "I do trust you, Mr. Bayne. Of course I must have misunderstood you to some way last evening, and I'm afraid I was disagreeable."
"Naturally. You had to be. Now, if that's all right and I'm forgiven, may I ask a question? About those men who arrived last night and apparently killed your chauffeur—can you guess who they are?"
"Yes," she faltered, looking down at the pebbled walk. "They must have been sent by the Government or the army or the police. If the French knew what I was doing, they wouldn't understand my motives. I've been afraid from the first that they would learn."
Another of my precious theories was going up in smoke. Not seeing why a set of bonafide officers should gratuitously murder a chauffeur, I had been wondering whether the quartet might not be impostors, tricked out in uniforms to which they had no claim. Still, of course, I couldn't judge. If she would only confide in me! I was fairly aching to help her; yet how could I, in this blindfold way?
"I don't wish to be impertinent," I ventured at length, meekly, "and I give you my word I'm not trying to find out anything you don't want me to. Only, assuming I've got some sense,—in case you care to be so amiable,—I'd like to put it at your service. Do you think you could give me just a vague outline of your plans?"
She looked at me in a piteous, uncertain manner. I braced myself for a "No." Then, suddenly, she seemed to decide to trust me—in sheer desperate loneliness, I dare say.
"I am going," she whispered, "to a village in the war zone—where there is a chateau. There are things in it—some papers; at least I believe there are. It is just a chance, just a forlorn hope; but it means all the world to certain people. I have to act in secret till I have succeeded, and then every one in France, every one on earth may know all that I have done!"
If I had not burned my bridges, this announcement might have worried me; it was too vague, and what little I grasped tallied startlingly with Van Blarcom's rigmarole. However, having bowed allegiance, I didn't blink an eyelid.
"Yes," I said encouragingly. "Is it very far?"
Her eyes went past me anxiously, watching the inn and its blank windows, as she fumbled in her coat and brought forth a motor map.
"Take it," she breathed, thrusting it toward me. "Look at it. Do you see? The route in red!"
As I realized the astounding thing I choked down an exclamation. There, beneath my finger, lay the village of Bleau, a tiny dot; and from it, straight into the war zone, the traced line ran through Le Moreau and Croix-le-Valois and St. Remilly; ran to—what was the name? I spelled it out: P-r-e-z-e-l-a-y.
Though it was early in the game to be a wet blanket, I found myself gasping.
"But," I protested weakly, "you can't do that! It's in the war country; it's forbidden territory. One has to have safe-conducts, laissez-passers, all sorts of documents to get into that part of France."
"I didn't come unprepared," she answered stubbornly. "Before I started I knew just what I should need. I can get as far as the hospital at Carrefonds; and Carrefonds is beyond Prezelay, ten miles nearer to the Front!"
"But—" The monosyllable was distinctly tactless.
She straightened, challenging me with brave, defiant eyes.
"I know," she flashed. "You mean it looks suspicious. Well, it does; and if I told you everything, it would look more suspicious still. You shouldn't have followed me; when they learn that we both spent the night here they will think you are my—my accomplice. The best advice I can give you, Mr. Bayne, is to go away."
"Perhaps we had better," I agreed stolidly. I had deserved the outburst. "Shall we be off at once, before the servants come downstairs?"
She drew back, her eyes widening.
"We?" she repeated.
"Naturally!" I replied, with some temper. "I must have disgusted you last night. What sort of a miserable, spineless, cowardly, caddish travesty of a man do you take me for, to think I would let you go alone?"
"Please don't joke," she urged. "It simply isn't possible. You would get into trouble with the French Government, and—"
"Do you know," I grinned, "it is rather exhilarating to snap one's fingers at governments? Just see what success I made of it with Great Britain and Italy, on the ship!"
"You don't realize what you are laughing at," she pleaded. "It is dangerous."
"I won't disgrace you. I seldom tremble visibly, Miss Falconer, though I often shake inside."
Her great gray eyes were glowing mistily.
"Mr. Bayne, this is splendid of you. I—I shall go on more bravely because you have been so kind. But I won't let you make such a sacrifice or mix in a thing that others may think disloyal, treacherous. You know how it looks. Why, on the steamer and on the way up to France and even last evening—you see I've guessed now why you followed me—you didn't trust me yourself."
"I know it," I confessed humbly. "I can't believe I was such an idiot. Somebody ought to perform a surgical operation on my brain. I apologize; I'm down in the dust; I feel like groveling. Won't you forgive me? I promise you won't have to do it twice."
This time it was she who said: "But—" and paused uncertainly. I could see she was wavering, and I massed my horse, foot, and dragoons for the attack.
"You'll please consider me," I proclaimed firmly, "to be a tyrant. I am so much bigger than you are that you can't possibly drive me off. I don't mean to interfere or to ask questions, or to bother you. But I vow I'm coming with you if I cling to the running-board!"
Her lashes fluttered as she racked her brains for new protests.
"The car is a French make," she urged,—"which you couldn't drive—"
"I can drive any car with four wheels!" I exclaimed vaingloriously. "It's kismet, Miss Falconer; it's the hand of Providence, no less. Now, we'll leave these notes in the salle a manger to pay for our lodging, which would have been dear at twopence, and be off, if you please, for Prezelay."
She had yielded. We were standing side by side in the silence of the morning, the dimness fading round us, the air taking a golden tinge. My surroundings were plebeian; my costume was comic; yet I felt oddly uplifted.
"Jolly old garden, isn't it?" said I.
IN THE HIGH GEAR
To pass straight from a humdrum, comfortable, conventionally ordered life into a career of insane adventure is a step that is radical; but it can be exhilarating, and I proved the fact that day. To dwell on present danger was to forget the past hour in the garage, which I had to forget or begin gibbering. Once committed to the adventure and away from the scene of the murder, I found a positive relief in facing the madness of the affair.
While the girl sat silent and listless, blotted against the cushions, rousing from her thoughts only to indicate the turns of the road, I had time for cogitation; and I began to feel like a man who has drunk freely of champagne. Hitherto I had been a law-abiding citizen. Now I had kicked over the traces. Like the distinguished fraternity that includes Raffles and Arsene Lupin, I should be "wanted" by the police, those good-natured, deferential beings so given to saluting and grinning, with whom, save for occasional episodes not unconnected with the speed laws,—Dunny says libelously that my progress in an automobile resembles a fabulous monster with a flying car for the head, a cloud of smoke and gasoline for the body, and a cohort of incensed motor-cycle men for the tail,—I had lived on the most cordial terms.
I was not certain whether they would accuse me of murder or espionage. There were pegs enough, undeniably, on which to hang either charge. Myself, I rather inclined to the latter; the case was so clear, so detailed! My rush from Paris to Bleau,—in order, no doubt, that I might at an unostentatious spot join forces with my confederate, Miss Falconer, whom I had been meeting at intervals ever since we left New York in company,—my behavior there, and the fashion in which we were vanishing should suffice to doom me as a spy.
When the French began tracing my movements, when they joined my present activities to the fact that only by the skin of my teeth had I escaped a charge of bringing German papers into Italy, there would be the devil to pay. I acknowledged it; then—really, this brand-new, unfounded, cast-iron trust of mine in Miss Falconer was changing me beyond recognition—I recalled the old recipe for the preparation of Welsh rabbit, and light-heartedly challenged the authorities to "catch me first." I had a disguise; if I bore any superior earmarks my leather coat obliterated them; and I could drive; even Dario Resta could not have sniffed at my technic. Better still, my French, learned even before my English, would not betray me. As nurse and as mecanicien, we stood a fair chance in our masquerade.
I might have to pay my shot, but I was enjoying it. This was a good world through which we were speeding; life was in the high gear to-day. The car purred beneath us like a splendid, harnessed tiger; the spring air was fresh and fragrant, the country charming, with here a forest, there a valley, farther off the tiled, colored roofs of some little town. Our road, like a white ribbon, wound itself out endlessly between stone walls or brown fields. In my content I forgot food and such prosaic details till I noticed that the girl looked pale.
"I say," I exclaimed remorsefully: "we've been omitting rolls and coffee! I'm going to get you some at the first town we pass."
"We are coming to a town now, to Le Moreau." She was looking anxious.
"Yes? I'm afraid I don't place it exactly. Ought I to?"
"It is the first town in the war zone. And—and our road passes through it."
"Oh!" I was enlightened. "Then they will probably ask to see our papers at the octroi?"
The car was eating up the smooth white road; I could see the little octroi building at the town boundary-line, and a group of gendarmes in readiness close by. It was a critical moment. Miss Falconer, I recalled, had said she could get through to Carrefonds; but glittering generalities were not likely to convince these sentries; one needed safe-conducts, passes, identity cards, and such concrete aids. She couldn't give a reasonable account of herself, I felt quite certain; and even if she did, how was she to account for me?
As I brought the car to a standstill, my conscience clamored, and my costume seemed to shriek incongruity from every seam. In this dilemma I trusted to sheer blind luck—a rather thrilling business. As a gray-headed sergeant stepped forward to welcome us, I looked him unfalteringly in the eye, though I wondered if he would not say:
"Monsieur, kindly remove that childish travesty with which you are trying to impose on justice. We know all about you. Your name is Devereux Bayne. You are a German agent and intriguer; you have smuggled papers; you have murdered a man and concealed his body. Unless you can give a satisfactory explanation of all your actions since leaving New York, your last hour has arrived!"
What he really said was:
"Mademoiselle's papers?" He spoke quite amiably, a catlike pretense, no doubt.
Miss Falconer was no longer looking anxious. Her hands were steady; she was even smiling as she produced two neat little packets that, on being unfolded, proved to have all the air of permits, laissez-passers, and police cards. Two nondescript photographs, which might have represented almost any one, adorned them, and of these our sergeant made a perfunctory survey.
"Mademoiselle's name," he recited in a high singsong, "is Marie Le Clair. She is a nurse, on her way to the hospital at Carrefonds. And this is Jacques Carton, who is her chauffeur?"
A singularly stupid person, on the whole, he must have thought me, hardly fit to be trusted with so superb a car. My mouth, I fancy, was wide open; I can't swear that I wasn't pop-eyed. This last development had complete addled me. Marie Le Clair! Jacques Carton! Who were they?
"I wish," I remarked into the air as we drove on, "that some one would pinch me—hard."
She smiled faintly. Now it was over, she looked a little tremulous.
"Oh, no," she answered, "we were not dreaming. Poor Georges! I wish we were!"
Such was the incredible beginning of our adventure. And as it began, so it continued. We breakfasted at Le Moreau. Miss Falconer ate in the dining-room of the small hotel; I sought the kitchen and, warmed by our late success, I did not shrink from playing my role. Then we resumed our journey, and though we showed our papers twenty times at least as the control grew stricter, they were never challenged. I rubbed my eyes sometimes. Surely I should wake up presently! We couldn't be here in the forbidden region, in the war zone, plunging deeper every instant, in peril of our lives.
Yet the proof was thick about us. In the towns we passed we saw troops alight from the trains and enter them; we saw farewells and reunions, the latter sometimes tearful, but the former invariably brave. We saw depots where trucks and ambulances and commissary carts were filled, and canteens and soup kitchens where soldiers were being fed. At Croix-le-Valois we saw the air turn black with the smoke of the munition factories that were working day and night. At St. Remilly above the towers of the old chateau we saw the Red Cross flying, and on the terraces the reclining figures of wounded men. It seemed impossible that sight-seers and pleasure-seekers had thronged along this road so lately. The signs of the Touring Club of France, posted at intervals, were survivals of an era that was now utterly gone.
With the coming of afternoon, the country grew still more beautiful. Orchards were thick about us, though the trees were leafless now. The little thatched cottages had odd fungi sprouting from their roofs like rosy mushrooms; the trees and streams had a silvery shimmer, like a Corot fairy-land.
Then, set like sign-posts of desolation in this loveliness, came the ravaged villages. We were on the soil where in the first month of the war the Germans had trod as conquerors, and where, step by step, the French had driven them back. We passed Cormizy, burnt to the ground to celebrate its taking; Le Remy, where the heroic mayor had died, transfixed by twenty bayonets; Bar-Villers, a group of ruined houses about a mourning, shattered church. It was the region where the Hun triumph had spoken aloud, unbridled. Miss Falconer sat white and silent as we drove through it; my hands tightened on the wheel.
We had lunched at Tolbiac, late and abominably. Then, leaving the highway, we had taken a country road. Two punctures befell us; once our carburetor betrayed the trust we placed in it. By the time these deficiencies were remedied I had collected dust and grease enough to look my part.
It had been, by and large, a singularly speechless day, which my spasmodic efforts at entertainment had failed to cheer. The girl tried to respond, but her eyes were strained, eager, shadowed; her answers came at random. My talk, I suppose, teased her ears like the troublesome buzzing of a fly.
"She is thinking," I decided at last, "about those papers. Lord, if she doesn't find them she is going to take it hard!"
I left her in peace after that and drove the faster. Luck was with us! At the end of our journey everything would be all right.
As evening settled down on us the road grew increasingly lonely. Woods of oak-trees were about us, their trunks mossy, their branches lacing; on our left was a narrow river thick with rushes and smooth green stones. So rutty was the earth that our wheels sank into it and our engine labored. There was a charming sylvan look about the scenery; we seemed to be alone in the universe: I could not recall when we had last seen a peasant or passed a hut.
Suddenly I realized that there was a sound in the distance, not continuous, but steadily recurrent, a faint booming, I thought.
"What's that noise off yonder?" I asked, with one ear cocked toward the east.
Miss Falconer roused herself.
"It is the cannonading," she answered. "We have come a long way, Mr. Bayne. In two hours—in less than that—we could drive to the Front. And see!"
The dark was coming fast; a crimson sunset was reddening the river. A little below us on the opposite bank, I saw what had been a village once upon a time. But some agency of destruction had done its work there; blackened spaces and heaped stones and the shells of dwellings rose tier on tier among trees that seemed trying to hide them; only on the crest of the bank, overlooking the wreck like a gloomy sentinel, one building loomed intact, a dark, scarred, frowning castle with medieval walls and towers. I stared at the scene of desolation.
"The Germans again!" I said.
"Yes," the girl assented, gazing across the water. "They came here at the beginning of the war. They burned the houses and the huts and the little church with the image of the Virgin and the tomb of the old constable—all Prezelay except the chateau; and they only left that standing to give their officers a home."
With an automatic action of feet and fingers, I stopped the car. Here was the town that she had shown me on the map that morning when we sat like a pair of whispering conspirators in the garden of the Three Kings. The obstacles which had seemed so great had melted away before us. This ruined village, this heap of stones cross the river, was our goal, the key to our mystery, the last scene of our drama—Prezelay.
THE CASTLE AT PREZELAY
In the midst of my triumph, which was as intense as if I myself, instead of pure luck, had engineered our journey, I became aware of a tiny qualm as I sat gazing across the stream. Perhaps the gathering night affected me, or the air, which was growing chilly, or the remnants of the village, which were cheerless, to say the least. But that castle, perched so darkly on its crag, with a strip of blood-red sky framing it, was at the heart of my feeling. If it had been a nice, worldly-looking, well-kept chateau, with poplared walks and a formal garden, I should have welcomed it with open arms; but it wasn't, decidedly! It was the threatening age-blackened sort of place that inevitably suggests Fulc of Anjou, strongholds on the Loire, marauding barons, and the good old days with their concomitants of rapine and robbery and death.
It was picturesque, but it was intensely gloomy; the proper spot for a catastrophe rather than a happy denouement. I was not impressionable, of course; but now that I thought of it, our jaunt had been going with a smoothness almost ominous. Could one expect such clock-like regularity to run forever without a break?
Take the utter disappearance of the gray car, for instance. That had seemed to me reassuring; but was it? Those four men had cared enough about Miss Falconer's movements to involve themselves in a murder. Why, then, should they have given up the chase in so mysterious a way?
And the girl herself! When I looked at her I felt horribly worried. She was shivering through her furs; yet it was not with the cold, I felt quite sure. With her hands clasped, she sat staring at that confounded castle with a look of actual hunger. She cared too much about this thing; she couldn't stand a great deal more.
Well, she wouldn't have to, I concluded, my brief misgivings fading. We were out of the woods; another hour would see the business closed. As for the men in the car, they were victims of their guilty consciences, were no doubt in full flight or hiding somewhere in terror of the law.
At any rate, there was no point in my sitting here like a graven image; so I roused myself and wrapped the rugs closer about the girl.
"I'm to drive to the chateau?" I inquired with recovered cheerfulness. I had to repeat the words before they broke her trance.
"Yes," she answered. Suddenly, impulsively, she turned toward me, her face almost feverish, her eyes astonishingly large and bright. "I haven't told you much," she acknowledged tremulously; "but you won't think that I don't trust you. It is only that I couldn't talk of it and keep my courage; and I must keep it a little longer—until we know the truth."
"That's quite all right, Miss Falconer." I was switching on the lamps. Then I extinguished them; their clear acetylene glare seemed almost weirdly out of place. "We can muddle along without any lights. Not much traffic here," I muttered. I had a feeling, anyhow, that unostentatiousness of approach might not be bad.
There was intense silence about us; not even a breeze was stirring. A thin crescent moon was out, silvering the river and the trees. The road was atrocious; on one dark stretch the car, rocking into a rut, jolted us viciously and brought my teeth together on the tip of my tongue.
"Sorry," I gasped, between humiliation and pain.
With the silence and the dimness, we were like ghosts, the car like a phantom. An old stone bridge seemed to beckon us, and we crossed to the other side. There, at Miss Falconer's gesture, I drew the automobile off the road at the edge of the town, halted it beneath some trees, and helped her to alight. We started up the hill together without a word.
Two ghosts! More and more, as we climbed through the wreck and desolation, that was what we seemed. The road was choked with stones between which the grass was sprouting; there was nothing left of the little church save a single pointed shaft. We climbed rapidly, the girl always gazing up at the castle with that same feverish eagerness. She had forgotten, I think, that I was there.
At last we were coming to the hilltop and the chateau. Rather breathless, I studied its looming walls, its turrets, its three round towers. It looked dark and inexplicably menacing, but I had recovered my form and could defy it. When we halted at a great iron-studded oak gate and Miss Falconer pulled the bell-rope, I was astonished. It had not occurred to me that the castle would be more inhabited than the town.
Nor was it, apparently; for no one answered its summons, though I could hear the bell jingling faintly somewhere within. Miss Falconer rang a second time, then a third; her face shone white in the moonlight; she was growing anxious.
"Did you think," I ventured finally, "that there was some one here?"
"Yes; Marie-Jeanne," she answered, listening intently. Then she roused herself. "I mean the gardienne. She never left, not even when the Germans came. They made her cook for them; she said she had been born in the keeper's lodge, and her grandfather before her, and that she would rather die at Prezelay than go to any other place. But of course she may have walked down the river for the evening. Her son's wife is at Santierre, two miles off. She may be there."
"That's it," I agreed hastily, the more hastily because I doubted. "She's sitting over a fire, toasting her toes, and gossiping and having a cup of tea, or whatever people like that use for an equivalent in these parts." I suppressed the unwelcome thought that a woman living here alone ran a first-rate chance of getting her throat cut by strolling vagrants. "Shall we have to wait until she comes back?" I asked. "Then let's sit down. I choose this stone!"
On my last word, however, something surprising happened. Miss Falconer, in her impatience, put a hand on the bolt of the gate, shook it, and raised it, and, lo and behold! the oak frame swung open. Before I quite realized the situation, we were inside, in a square courtyard, with the gardienne's lodge at the right of us, impenetrably barred and shuttered, and before us the portal of the castle, surmounted with quaint stone carvings of men in armor riding prancing steeds. The court, as revealed by the moonlight, was intact, but neglected. Weeds were sprouting between the square blocks of stone that paved it, and in the center a wide circular space, charred and blackened, showed where the German sentries had built their fires. It was not cheerful, nor was it homey. I scarcely blamed Marie-Jeanne for flitting. The faint sound of the cannonading had begun again in the distance, but otherwise the place was as silent as a tomb.
"It seems strange!" Miss Falconer murmured, looking about in puzzled fashion. "Why in the world should she have left the gate open in this careless way? Of course there is nothing here for thieves; the Germans saw to that; but still, as keeper—Oh, well, it doesn't matter. It saves us from waiting till she comes home."
As I followed her toward the castle entrance, she opened the bag she carried, and produced a candle, which I hastened to take and light. I nearly said, "The latest thing in the housebreaking line, madame, is electric torches, not tapers;" but I decided not to. After all, perhaps we were housebreakers. How could I tell?
Hot candle wax splashed my fingers and scorched them, but I scarcely noticed. My sense of high-gear adventure had reached its zenith now. There was something thrilling, something stimulating in this stealthy night entrance into a deserted castle. It was an experience, at all events; there was no concierge to stump before one through dim passages and up winding staircases; no flood of dates and names and anecdotes poured inexorably into one's bored ears to insure a douceur when the tour of the chateau should be done.
The door—faithless Marie-Jeanne!—opened as readily as the outer gate. We were entering. I glimpsed in a dim vista a superb Gothic hall of magnificent architecture and most imposing proportions, arched and carved and stretching off with apparent endlessness into the gloom. Holding up my light, I scanned the place with growing interest. It had not been demolished, but neither had it been spared. The furniture was gone, save for a few scattered chairs and a table; the walls were defaced with cartoons and scrawled inscriptions; the floor was stained, and littered with empty bottles and broken plates. From the chimney-place—a medieval-art jewel topped with carved and colored enamels—pieces had been hacked away by some deliberately destructive hand. I glanced at Miss Falconer, whose eyes had been following mine.
"They tore down the tapestries," she said beneath her breath. "They slashed the old portraits with their swords and broke the windows and took away the statues and candlesticks and plate. They cut up the furniture and had it used for fire-wood; and the German captain and his officers had a feast here and drank to the fall of Paris and ordered their soldiers to burn the village to the ground. Oh, I don't like the place any more; too much has happened. And—and I don't like Marie-Jeanne's not being here, Mr. Bayne. I feel as if there were something wrong about it. I believe I am a little—just a little afraid!"
"Come, now, you don't expect me to believe that, do you?" I countered promptly. "Because I won't. Why, it's your pluck that has kept me up all day. Just the same, on general principles, I'll take a look round if you'll allow me. Here's a chair, and if you will rest a minute, I'll guarantee to find out."
The chair I mentioned was standing near the chimney, and as I spoke I walked over to it and started to spin it round. It resisted me heavily; I bent over it, lifting my candle. Then I uttered an exclamation, stood petrified, and stared.
In the chair, concealed from us until now by the high carved back of wood, was something which at first looked like a huddled mass of garments, but which on closer scrutiny resolved itself into a woman in a striped dress, an apron, and a pair of heavy shoes. There was a cut on her cheek, a bruise on her forehead. Locks of graying hair straggled from beneath her disarranged white cap, and she glared at me from a lean, sallow face with a pair of terrified eyes.
She must be dead, I thought. No living woman could sit so still and stare so wildly. The scene in the inn garage rushed back upon me, and I must say that my blood turned cold. But she was alive, I saw now; she was certainly breathing. And an instant later I realized why she stayed so immobile; she was bound hand and foot to the chair she sat in, and a colored handkerchief, her own doubtless, had been twisted across her mouth to form a gag.
"I think," I head myself saying, "that we have been maligning Marie-Jeanne."
A choked, frightened cry from Miss Falconer made me wheel about sharply, to find her staring not a me, but at the further wall. Prepared now for anything under heaven, I followed her gaze. Above us, circling the whole hall, there ran a gallery from which at a distance of some fifteen feet from where we stood a wide stone staircase descended; and half-way down this, as motionless as statues, as indistinct as shadows, I saw four men in the uniform of officers of France.
For an uncanny moment I wondered whether they were specters. For a stupid one, I thought they might be people whom the girl had come here to meet. Still, if they were, she wouldn't be looking at them in this paralyzed fashion. I could not see them plainly,—but they must be the men from Bleau.
"Well, Mr. Bayne," the foremost was asking, "did you think we had deserted you? Not a bit of it! We came on ahead and rang up the old woman there and commandeered her keys. We've been killing time here for a good half hour, waiting for you. You must have had tire trouble. And you don't seem very pleased to see us now that you've come—eh, what?"
At Bleau the previous night, I was recalling dazedly, there had been only three men wearing the horizon blue. Who was this fourth figure, who knew my name and spoke such colloquial English? I raised my candle as high as possible and scanned him. Then I stood transfixed.
"Van Blarcom!" I gasped. "And in a uniform, by all that's holy!"
"No. You haven't got that quite right," he told me. "What's the use keeping up the game now that we're here, all friends together? My name isn't Van Blarcom. It's Franz von Blenheim, Mr. Bayne."
INTRODUCING HERR FRANZ VON BLENHEIM
The words of Franz von Blenheim seemed to fill the hall and reecho from the walls and arches, deafening me, leaving me stunned as if by an earthquake or by a flash of lightning from clear skies. Yet I never though of doubting them. Comatose as my state was, slowly as my brain was working, I recognized vaguely how many features of the mystery, both past and present, these words explained.
It was odd, but never once had it occurred to me that Van Blarcom might be a German. He himself, I began to realize, had taken care of that. With considerable acumen he had filled every one of our brief interviews with vigorous denunciations of somebody else, dark hints as to intrigues that surrounded me and might enmesh me, and solemn warnings and prudent counsels, which had brilliantly served his turn. He had kept me so busy suspecting Miss Falconer—at the thought I could have beaten my head against the wall in token of my abject shame—that my doubts had never glanced in his direction; a most humiliating confession, since I couldn't deny, reviewing the past in this new light, that circumstances had afforded me every opportunity to guess the truth.
There was no time, however, for dwelling on my deficiencies. The next half hour would be an uncommonly lively one, I felt quite sure. I might call the thing bizarre, fantastic; I might dub it an extravaganza; the fact remained that I was shut up in this lonely spot with four entirely able-bodied Germans and must match wits with them over some affair that apparently was of international consequence; for if it had been a twopenny business, Herr von Blenheim, the star agent of the kaiser, would never have thought it worth his pains.
With all my fighting spirit rising to meet the odds against us, I cast a speculative eye over the Teutons, who had now dissolved their group. Van Blarcom himself—Blenheim, rather—descended in a leisurely fashion while one of his friends, remaining on the staircase, fixed me with a look of intentness almost ominous and the other two placed themselves as if casually before the door. They were stalwart, well set-up men, I acknowledged as I surveyed them. Though not bad at what our French friends call la boxe, I was outnumbered. It was obviously a case of strategy—but of what sort?
A much defaced table, flanked with a few battered chairs, stood near me, and with a premonition that I should want two hands presently, I set my candle there. Then I drew a chair forward and turned to the girl with outward coolness.
"Please sit down, Miss Falconer," I invited. I wanted time.
She inclined her head and obeyed me very quietly. She was not afraid; I saw it with a rush of pride. As she sat erect, her head thrown back, on gloved hand resting on the table, she was a picture of spirit and steadiness and courage. If I had needed strength I should have found it in the fact that her eyes, oddly darkened as always when her errand was threatened did not rest on our captors, but turned toward me.
"We'll all sit down," Franz von Blenheim agreed most amiably. It evidently amused him to retain the late Mr. Van Blarcom's dialect and air. "We can fix this business up in no time; so why not be sociable?" He strolled to a chair and sank into it and motioned me to do the same.
"Thanks," I returned, not complying. "If you don't mind, I'd like first to untie that woman. I confess to a queer sort of prejudice against seeing women bound and gagged. In fact I feel so strongly on the subject that it might spoil our whole conference for me." I took a step toward the shadowy figure of Marie-Jeanne.
Blenheim did not move, but his eyes seemed to narrow and darken.
"Just leave her alone for the present. She is too fond of shrieking—might interrupt our argument," he declared. "And see here, Mr. Bayne," he added, warned by my manner, "I want to call your attention to the gentleman on the stairs, my friend Schwartzmann. He's a crack shot, none better, and he has got you covered. Hadn't you better sit down and have a friendly chat?"
Though the stairs were dim, I could see something glittering in the hand of the person mentioned, who was impersonating for the evening a dashing young captain of the general staff. My fingers strayed toward my pocket and my own revolver. Then I pried them away, temporarily, and took a provisional seat.
"That's sensible," Franz von Blenheim approved me blandly. "Now, Miss Falconer, you know what I'm here for, isn't that so? Just hand me those papers and you'll be as free as air. I'll take myself off; you'll never see me again probably. That's a fair bargain, isn't it? What do you say?"
I was sitting close to the girl, so close that her soft furs brushed me and I could feel the flutter of her breath against my cheek. At Blenheim's proposition I glanced at her. She was measuring him steadily. Then she looked at me, and her eyes seemed to hold some message that I could not read.
"Perhaps, Miss Falconer," I interposed, "you have not quite grasped the situation." I was sparring for time; she wanted to convey something to me, I was sure. "It is rather complicated. This gentleman has turned out to be a well-known agent of the kaiser. He was traveling on the Re d'Italia, I gather, on a forged passport, and had helped himself to my baggage as the most convenient way of smuggling some papers to the other side."
He grinned assentingly.
"You owe me one for that," he owned. "You see, it was my second trip on that line, and I thought they might have me spotted; I had a lot of things to carry home,—reports, information, confidential letters, and I concluded they would be safer with a nice, innocent young man like you. It didn't work, as things went. It was just a little too clever. But if you hadn't mixed yourself up with this young lady, and tossed packages overboard for her under the noses of the stewards, and got yourself suspected and your baggage searched, I should have turned the trick!"
His share in the tangled episode on board the steamer was unfolding. I understood now why he had sprung to my rescue in the salon when I was accused. Naturally he had not wanted my traps searched, considering what was in them.
"As you say, you were a little too clever," I agreed.
His eyes glinted viciously.
"Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk," he retorted; "and besides, the papers you are going to hand me to-night will even up the score. It was a piece of luck, my running across Miss Falconer on the liner. Of course the minute I heard her name I knew what she was crossing for." The dickens he did! "All I had to do was to follow her, and by the time we reached Bleau I had guessed enough to come ahead of her. But I'll admit, Mr. Bayne, now it's all over, it made me nervous to have you popping up at every turn! I began to think that you suspected me—that you were trailing me. If you had, you know, I shouldn't have stood a chance on earth. You could have said a word to the first gendarme you met and had me laid by the heels and ended it. That was why I kept warning you off. But I needn't have worried. You drank in everything I told you as innocent as a babe!"
If he wanted revenge for my last remark, he had it. I looked at the girl beside me, so watchfully composed and fearless, then at the fixed, terrified glare of the motionless Marie-Jeanne. With a little rudimentary intelligence on my part this situation would have been spared us.
"Yes," I acknowledged bitterly; "I did."
"Except for that," he grinned, "it went like clockwork. There wasn't even enough danger in the thing to give it spice. Do you know, there isn't a capital in Europe where I can't get disguises, money, passports within twelve hours if I want them. Oh, you have a bit to learn about us, you people on the other side! I've crossed the ocean four times since the war started; I've been in London, Rome, Paris, Petrograd—pretty much everywhere. I'm getting homesick, though. The laissez-passer I've picked up, or forged, no matter which, takes me straight through to the Front; and I've got friends even in the trenches. Before the Frenchies know it I'll be across no-man's-land and inside the German lines!"
For a moment, as I listened, I was dangerously near admiring him. He was certainly exaggerating; but it couldn't all be brag. The life of this spy of the first water, of international fame, must be rather marvelous; to defy one's enemies with success, to journey calmly through their capitals, to stroll undetected among their agents of justice—were not things any fool could do. He carried his life in his hand, this Franz von Blenheim. He had courage; he even had genius along his special lines. His impersonation on the liner, shrewd, slangy, coarse-grained, patronizing, had been a triumph. Then, suddenly, I remembered a murdered boy beside whom I had knelt that morning, and my brief flicker of homage died.
"You think I can't do it, eh?" He had misinterpreted my expression. "Well, let me tell you I did just a year ago and got over without a scratch. To get across no-man's-land you have to play dead, as you Yankees put it; you lie flat on the ground and pull yourself forward a foot at a time and keep your eye on the search-lights so that when they come your way you can drop on your face and lie like a corpse until they move on. It's not pleasant, of course; but in this game we take our chances. And now I think I'll be claiming my winnings if you please."
I straightened in my chair, recognizing a crisis. With his last phrase he had shed the bearing of Mr. John Van Blarcom, and from the disguise all in an instant there emerged the Prussian, insolent, overbearing, fixing us with a look of challenge, and addressing us with crisp command. No; the kaiser's agent was not a figure of romance or of adventure. He was a force as able, as ruthless, as cruel as the land he served.
"Miss Falconer," he demanded briefly, "where are those papers? I am not to be played with, I assure you. If you think I am, just recall this morning, and your chauffeur. We didn't kill him for the pleasure of it; he had his chance as you have. But when we went for our car he was there in the garage, sleeping; he seemed to think we had designs on him, and tried to rouse the inn."
"Do you call that an excuse for a murder?" I exclaimed. "You cold-blooded villain!"
"I don't make excuses." His voice was hard and arrogant. "I am calling the matter to your notice as a kind warning, Mr. Bayne. You said a little while ago that to see a woman gagged and bound distressed you. Well, unless I have those papers within five minutes, you will see something worse than that!"
At the moment what I saw was red. There was something beating in my throat, choking me; I knew neither myself nor the primitive impulses I felt.
"If you lay a finger on Miss Falconer," I heard myself saying slowly, "I swear I'll kill you."
Then through the crimson mist that enveloped me I saw Blenheim laugh.
"Come, Mr. Bayne," he taunted me, "remember our friend Schwartzmann. This is your business, Miss Falconer, I take it. What are you going to do?"
The girl flung her head back, and her eyes blazed as she answered him.
"You can torture me," she said scornfully. "You can kill me. But I will never give you the papers; you may be sure of that."
IN THE DARK
I thought of a number of things in the ensuing thirty seconds, but they all narrowed down swiftly to a mere thankfulness that I had been born. Suppose I hadn't; or suppose I had not happened to stop at the St. Ives Hotel and sail on the Re d'Italia; or that I had remained in Rome with Jack Herriott instead of hurrying on to Paris; or had let my quest of the girl end in the rue St.-Dominique instead of trailing her to Bleau. If one of these links had been omitted, the chain of circumstance would have been broken, and Miss Falconer would have sat here confronting these four men alone.
It was extremely hard for me to believe that the scene was genuine. The dark hall, the one wavering, flickering candle lighting only the immediate area of our conference, the bound woman in the chair, the watchful attitude of our captors. Mr. Schwartzmann's ready weapon—all were the sort of thing that does not happen to people in our prosaic day and age. It was like an old-time romantic drama; I felt inadequate, cast for the hero. I might have been Francois Villon, or some such Sothern-like incarnation, for all the civilized resources that I could summon. There were no bells here to be rung for servants, no telephones to be utilized, no police station round the corner from which to commandeer prompt aid.
The most alarming feature of the affair, however, was the manner of Franz von Blenheim, which was not so much melodramatic as businesslike and hard. At Miss Falconer's defiance he looked her up and down quite coolly. Then, turning in his seat, he began giving orders to his men.
"Schwartzmann," ran the first of these, "I want you to watch this gentleman. He will probably make some movement presently; if he does, you are to fire, and not to miss. And you"—he turned to the men by the door—"pile some wood in the chimney-place and light it. There are some sticks over yonder,—but if you don't find enough, break up a chair. Then when you get a good blaze, heat me one of the fire-irons. Heat it red-hot. And be quick! We are wasting time!"
The color was leaving the girl's cheeks, but she sat even straighter, prouder. As for me, for one instant I experienced a blessed relief. I had been right; it was all impossible. One didn't talk seriously of red-hot irons.
"You must think you are King John," I laughed. "But you're overplaying. Don't worry, Miss Falconer; he won't touch you. There are things that men don't do."
He looked at me, not angrily, not in resentment, but in pure contempt; and I remembered. There were people, hundreds of them, in the burning villages of Belgium, in the ravaged lands of northern France, who had once felt the same assurance that certain things couldn't be done and had learned that they could. I glanced at the men who were piling wood on the hearth, at their sullen blue eyes, their air of rather stupid arrogance. I had walked, it seemed, into a nightmare; but then, so had the world.
"This isn't a tea party, Mr. Bayne," said Franz von Blenheim. "It is war. Those papers belong to my government and they are going back. I shall stop at nothing, nothing on earth, to get them; so if you have any influence with this young lady, you had better use it now."
"I am not afraid." The girl's voice was unshaken, bless her. "I said you could kill me—and I meant it. But I will not tell."
"And I will not kill you, Miss Falconer." The German's tones were level, and his eyes, as they dwelt steadily on her, were as hard and cold as steel. "I don't want you dead; I want you living, with a tongue and using it; and you will use it. You talk bravely, but you have no conception—how should you have?—of physical pain. When that iron is red-hot, if you have not spoken, I shall hold it to your arm and press it—"
"Damn you!" The cry was wrenched out of me. "Not while I am here!"
"You will be here, Mr. Bayne, just so long as it suits me." A sort of cold ferocity was growing in Blenheim's tones. "And you have yourself to thank for your position, let me remind you; you would thrust yourself in. I don't know what you are doing in the business—a ridiculous mountebank in a leather cap and coat! It's a way you Yankees have, meddling in things that don't concern you. You seem to think that you have special rights under Providence, that you own everything in the universe, even to the high seas. Well, we'll settle with your country for its munitions and its notes and its driveling talk about atrocities a little later, when we have finished up the Allies. And I'll deal with you to-night if you dare to lift a hand."
There seemed only one answer possible, and my muscles were stiffening for it when suddenly Miss Falconer's handkerchief, a mere wisp of linen which she had been clenching between her fingers, dropped to the floor. With a purely automatic movement, I bent to recover it for her; she leaned down to receive it. Her pale face and lovely dilated eyes were close to me for a fleeting second, and though her lips did not move, I seemed to catch the merest breath, the faintest gossamer whisper that said:
Blenheim's gaze, full of suspicion, was upon us as we straightened, but he could not possibly have heard anything; I had barely heard myself. I racked my brains. The stairs! But the man Schwartzmann was guarding them with his revolver. I couldn't imagine what she meant; and then suddenly I knew.
Throughout the entire scene, whenever I had glanced at her, I had noticed the steady way in which her look met mine and then turned aside. It had seemed almost like a signal or a message she was trying to give me. And which way had her eyes always gone? Why, down the hall!
I looked in that direction and felt my heart leap up exultantly. Perhaps twenty feet from us, just where the radius of the candle-light merged off into the darkness, I glimpsed what seemed the merest ghost of a circular stone staircase, carved and sculptured cunningly, like lacy foam. Up into the dusk it wound, to the gallery, and to a door. Behold our objective! I wasted no precious time in pondering the whys and the wherefores. At any rate, once inside with the bolts shot we could count on a breathing-space.
I cast a final glance at Blenheim where he lolled across the table, and at the shadowy menacing figure of the armed sentinel on the stairs. The men at the hearth had piled their wood and were bending forward to light it.
"Be ready, please!" I said to the girl, aloud.
As I spoke I bent forward, seized the table by its legs, and raised it, and concentrated all the wrath, resentment and detestation that had boiled in me for half an hour into the force with which I dashed it forward against Blenheim's face. He grunted profoundly as it struck him. Toppling over with a crash, he rolled upon the floor. The candle, falling, extinguished itself promptly, and we were left standing in a hall as black as ink.
Simultaneously with the blow I had struck there came a spit of flame from the staircase, a sharp crack, and as I ducked hastily a bullet spurted past me, within three inches of my head. Miss Falconer was beside me. Together we retreated, while a second shot, which this time went wide, struck the wall beyond us and proved that Schwartzmann, though handicapped, was not giving up the fight.
So far things had gone better than I had dared to think was possible. Now, however, they took a sudden and most unwelcome turn. One of the men by the chimney-place must have wasted no time in leaping for me; for at this instant, quite without warning, he catapulted on me through the darkness with the force of a battering-ram.
The table, which I still held clutched with a view to emergencies, broke the force of his onslaught. He reeled, stumbled, and collapsed on his knees. However, he was lacking neither in Teutonic efficiency nor in resource. Putting out a prompt hand, he seized my ankle and jerked my foot from under me; the table dropped from my grasp with a splintering uproar, and I fell.
Before I could recover myself my enemy had rolled on top of me, and I felt his fingers at my throat as he clamored in German for a light. He was a heavy man; his bulk was paralyzing; but I stiffened every muscle. With a mighty heave I turned half over, rose on my elbow, and delivered a blow at what, I fondly hoped, might prove the point of his chin.
Dark as it was, I had made no miscalculation. He dropped on me once again, but this time as an inert mass. Burrowing out from under him, I sprang to my feet aglow with triumph—and found myself in the clutch of the second gentleman from the chimney-place, who apparently had come hotfoot to his comrade's aid.
I was fairly caught. His arms went round me like steel girders, pinioning mine to my sides before I knew what he was about. In sheer desperation I summoned all the strength I possessed and a little more. Ah! I had wrenched my right arm loose; now we should see! I raised it and managed, despite the close quarters at which we were contending, to plant a series of crashing blows on my adversary's face.
The fellow, I must say, bore up pluckily beneath the punishment. He hung on. There would be a light in a moment, he was doubtless thinking, and when once that came to pass, it would be all over with me. But at my fifth blow he wavered groggily, and at my sixth, endurance failed him. He groaned softly. Then his grasp relaxed, and he collapsed quietly on the floor.
Throughout the swift march of these events we had heard nothing of Herr von Blenheim, a fact from which I deduced with thankfulness that he was temporarily stunned. Unluckily, he now recovered. As I stood victorious, but breathless, my cap lost in the scuffle and my coat torn, I heard him stirring, and an instant later he pulled himself to his feet and flashed on an electric torch.
By its weird beam I saw that Miss Falconer was close beside me. Good heavens! Why, I though in anguish, wasn't she already upstairs? But I knew only too well; she wouldn't desert her champion. It was probably too late now. Blenheim, much congested as to countenance, seemed on the point of springing; his battered aids were struggling up in menacing, if unsteady, fashion; and Mr. Schwartzmann, at length provided with the light he wanted, was aiming at me with ominous deliberation from his coign of vantage above.
However, we were at the circular staircase. Again I caught up the table and held it before us as a shield while we climbed upward, side by side. In the distance my friend Schwartzmann was hopefully potting at us. A bullet, with a sharp ping, embedded itself in the thick wood in harmless fashion; another struck the shaft beside me, splintering its stone. We were at the last turn—but our pursuers were climbing also. I bent forward and let them have the table, hurling it with all possible force.
As it catapulted down upon them it knocked Blenheim off his balance, and he in his unforeseen descent swept the others from their feet. A swearing, groaning mass, a conglomeration of helplessly waving arms and legs, they rolled downward. Victory! I was about to join Miss Falconer in the doorway when there came a final flash from the opposite staircase, and I felt a stinging sensation across my forehead and a spurt of blood into my eyes.
The pain of the slight wound promptly altered my intentions. Instead of leaving the gallery, I sprang forward to the balustrade. Whipping my revolver out at last, I aimed deliberately and fired; whereupon I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Schwartzmann rock, struggle, apparently regain his equilibrium, and then suddenly crumple up and pitch headlong down the stairs.
Below, Blenheim and his friend were extricating themselves from that blessed table. I passed through the door and thrust it shut and shot the bolts. We were safe for the present. I could not see Miss Falconer, nor did she speak to me; but her hand groped for my arm and rested there, and I covered it with one of mine.
Then, as we stood contentedly drawing breath, we heard steps mounting the staircase. Some one struck a vicious blow against the heavy door. Blenheim's voice, hoarse and muffled, reached us through the panels.
"Can you hear me there?" it asked.
If tones could kill! I summoned breath enough to answer with cheerful coolness.
"Every syllable," I responded. "What did you wish to say?"
"Just this." He was panting, either with exhaustion or fury, and there were slow, labored pauses between his words. "I will give you half an hour, exactly, to come out—with the papers. After that we will break the door down. And then you can say your prayers."
THE GUEST OF PREZELAY
The sanctuary into which we had stumbled was as black as Erebus save for one dimly grayish patch, which, I surmised, meant a window. When those heavy feet had clumped down the staircase, silence enveloped us again, beatific silence. Instantly I banished the late Mr. Van Blarcom from my consciousness. With a good stout door between us what importance had his threats?
The truth was that my blood was singing through my veins and my spirits were soaring. I would gladly have stood there forever, triumphant in the dark, with Miss Falconer's soft, warm fingers trembling a little, but lying in contented, almost cosy, fashion under mine. Had there ever been such a girl, at once so sweet and so daring? To think how she had waited for me all through that battle below!
A little breathless murmur came to me through the darkness.
"Oh, Mr. Bayne! You were so wonderful! How am I ever going to thank you?" was what it said.
"You needn't. Let me thank you for letting me in on it!" I exulted happily. "I give you my word, I haven't enjoyed anything so much in years. It was all a hallucination, of course; but it was jolly while it lasted. I was only worried every instant for fear the hall and the men would vanish, like an Arabian Nights' palace or the Great Horn Spoon or Aladdin's jinn!"
Very gently she withdrew her fingers, and my mood toppled ludicrously. Why had I been rejoicing? We were in the deuce of a mess! So far I had simply won a half hour's respite to be followed by the deluge; for if Blenheim had been ruthless before, what were his probable intentions now?
"We have lost our candle in the fracas," I muttered lamely.
"It doesn't matter. I have another," she answered in a soft, unsteady voice.
As she coaxed the light into being, I made a rapid survey. We were in a room of gray stone, of no great size and quite bare of furnishing, save for a few stone benches built into alcoves in the wall. The bareness of the scene emphasized our lack of resources. As a sole ray of hope, I perceived a possible line of retreat if things should grow too warm for us, a door facing the one by which we had come in.
With all the excitement, I had forgotten Mr. Schwartzmann's bullet, which, I have no doubt, had left me a gory spectacle. At any rate, I frightened Miss Falconer when the candle-light revealed me. In an instant she was bending over me, forcing me gently down upon a particularly cold, hard bench.
"They shot you!" she was exclaiming. Her voice was low, but it held an astonishing protective fierceness. "They—they dared to hurt you! Oh, why didn't you tell me? Is it very bad?"
"No! no!" I protested, dabbing futilely at my forehead. "It isn't of the least importance. I assure you it is only a scratch. In fact," I groaned, "nobody could hurt my head; it is too solid. It must be ivory. If I had had a vestige of intelligence, an iota of it, the palest glimmer, I should have known from the beginning exactly who these fellows were!"
She was sitting beside me now, bending forward, all consoling eagerness.
"That is ridiculous!" she declared. "How could you guess?"
"Easily enough," I murmured. "I had all the clues at Gibraltar. Why, yesterday, on my way to your house in the rue St.-Dominique, I went over the whole case in the taxi, and still I didn't see. I let the fellow confide in me on the ship and warn me on the train and give me a final solemn ultimatum at the inn last night and come on here to frighten you and threaten you—when just a word to the police would have settled him forever. By George, I can't believe it! I should take a prize at an idiot show."
She laughed unsteadily.
"I don't see that," she answered. "Why should you have suspected him when even the authorities didn't guess? You are not a detective. You are a—a very brave, generous gentleman, who trusted a girl against all the evidence and helped her and protected her and risked your life for hers. Isn't that enough? And about their frightening me downstairs—they didn't. You see, Mr. Bayne—you were there."
A wisp of red-brown hair had come loose across her forehead. Her face, flushed and royally grateful, was smiling into mine. Till that moment I had never dreamed that eyes could be so dazzling. I thrust my hands deep into my pockets; I felt they were safer so.
"What is it?" she faltered, a little startled, as I rose.
"Nothing—now," I replied firmly. "I'll tell you later, to-morrow maybe, when we have seen this thing through. And in the meantime, whatever happens, I don't want you to give a thought to it. The German doesn't live who can get the better of me—not after what you have said."
The situation suddenly presented itself in rosy colors. I saw how strong the door was, what a lot of breaking it would take. And if they did force a way in, then I could try some sharp-shooting. But Miss Falconer was getting up slowly.
"Now the papers, Mr. Bayne," said she.
To be sure, the papers! I had temporarily forgotten them.
"They can't be here," I said blankly, gazing about the room.
"No, not here. In there." She motioned toward the inner door. "This is the old suite of the lords of Prezelay. We are in the room of the guards, where the armed retainers used to lie all night before the fire, watching. Then comes the antechamber and then the room of the squires and then the bedchamber of the lord." Her voice had fallen now as if she thought that the walls were listening. "In the lord's room there is a secret hiding-place behind a panel; and if the papers are at Prezelay, they will be there."
I took the candle from her, turned to the door, and opened it.
"I hope they are," I said. "Let us go and see."
The antechamber, the room of the squires, the bedchamber of the lord. Such terms were fascinating; they called up before me a whole picture of feudal life. Thanks to the attentions of the Germans, the rooms were mere empty shells, however, though they must have been rather splendid when decked out with furniture and portraits and tapestries before the war.
Our steps echoed on the stone as we traversed the antechamber, a quaint round place, lined with bull's-eye windows and presided over by the statues of four armed men. Another door gave us entrance to the quarter of the squires. We started across it, but in the center of the floor I stopped. In all the other rooms of the castle dust had lain thick, but there was none here. Elsewhere the windows had been closed and the air heavy and musty, but here the soft night breeze was drifting in. On a table, in odd conjunction, stood the remains of a meal, a roll of bandages, and a half-burned candle; and finally, against the wall lay a bed of a sort, a mattress piled with tumbled sheets.
Were these Marie-Jeanne's quarters? I did not know, but I doubted. I turned to the girl.
"Miss Falconer," I said, attempting naturalness, "will you go back to the guard-room and wait there a few minutes, please? I think—that is, it seems just possible that some one is hiding in yonder. I'd prefer to investigate alone if you don't mind."
I broke off, suddenly aware of the look she was casting round her. It did not mean fear; it could mean nothing but an incredulous, dawning hope. These signs of occupancy suggested to her something so wonderful, so desirable that she simply dared not credit them; she was dreading that they might slip through her fingers and fade away! I made a valiant effort at understanding.
"Perhaps," I said, "you're expecting some one. Did you think that a—a friend of yours might have arrived here before we came?" She did not glance at me, but she bent her head, assenting. All her attention was focused raptly on that bed beside the wall.
"Yes," she whispered; "a long time before us. A month ago at least." Her eyes had begun to shine. "Oh, I don't dare to believe it; I've hardly dared to hope for it. But if it is true, I am going to be happier than I ever thought I could be again."
She made a swift movement toward the door, but I forestalled her. Whatever that room held, I must have a look at it before she went. I flung the door open, blocked her passage, and stopped in my tracks, for the best of reasons. A young man was sitting on a battered oak chest beneath a window, facing me, and in his right hand, propped on his knees, there glittered a revolver that was pointed straight at my heart.
I stood petrified, measuring him. He was lightly built and slender. He had a manner as glittering as his weapon, and a pair of remarkably cool and clear gray eyes. His picturesqueness seemed wasted on mere flesh and blood it was so perfect. Coatless, but wearing a shirt of the finest linen, he looked like some old French duelist and ought, I felt, to be gazing at me, rapier in hand, from a gilt-framed canvas on the wall.
In the brief pause before he spoke I gathered some further data. He was a sick man and he had recently been wounded; at present he was keeping up by sheer courage, not by strength. His lips were pressed in a straight line, his eyes were shadowed, and his pallor was ghastly. Finally, he was wearing his left arm in a sling across his breast.
"Monsieur," he now enunciated clearly, "will raise both hands and keep them lifted. Monsieur sees, doubtless, that I am in no state for a wrestling-match. For that very reason he must take all pains not to forget himself—for should he stir, however slightly, I grieve to say that I must shoot."
The casualness of his tones made Blenheim's menaces seem childish and futile. I had not the slightest doubt that he would keep his word. Yet, without any reason whatever, I liked him and I had no fear of him; I did not feel for a single instant that Miss Falconer was in danger; she was as safe with him, I knew instinctively, as she was with me.
I opened my lips to parley, but found myself interrupted. A cry came from behind me, a low, utterly rapturous cry. I was thrust aside, and saw the girl spring past me. An instant later she was by the stranger, kneeling, with her arms about him and her bright head against his cheek.
"Jean! Dear Jean!" she was crying between tears and laughter. "We thought you were dead! We thought you were never coming back to Raincy-la-Tour!"
It seemed to me that some one had struck my head a stunning blow. For an interval I stood dazed; then, painfully, my brain stirred. Things went dancing across it like sharp, stabbing little flames, guesses, memories, scraps of talk I had heard, items I had read; but they were scattered, without cohesion; like will-o'-the-wisps, they could not be seized.
There was a young man, a noble of France, who had been a hero. I had read of him in a certain extra, as my steamer left New York. He had disappeared. Certain papers had vanished with him. He had been suspected, because it was known that the Germans wanted those special documents. All the world, I thought dully, seemed to be hunting papers; the French, the Germans, Miss Falconer, and I.
Once more I looked at the man on the chest. He had dropped his pistol and was clasping the girl to him, soothing her, stroking her hair. My brain began to work more rapidly. The little flashes of light seemed to run together, to crystallize into a whole. I knew.
Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier, the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour, the Firefly of France.
THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE
He was very weak indeed; it seemed a miracle that, at the sounds below, he had found strength to drag himself from his bed and crawl inch by inch to the room of the secret panel to mount guard there; and no sooner had he soothed Miss Falconer than he collapsed in a sort of swoon. We laid him on the chest, and I fetched a pillow for his head and stripped off my coat and spread it over him. I took out my pocket-flask, too, and forced a few drops between his teeth. In short I tried to play the game.
When his eyes opened, however, my endurance had reached its limits. With a muttered excuse,—not that I flattered myself they wanted me to stay!—I left them and stumbled into the room of the squires, taking refuge in the grateful dark. I don't know how long I sat there, elbows on knees, hands propping my head; but it was a ghastly vigil. In this round, unlike the battle in the hall, I had not been victor. Instead, I had taken the count.
I knew now, of course, that I was in love with Esme Falconer. Judging from the violence of the sensation, I must have loved her for quite a while. Probably it had begun that night in the St. Ives restaurant; for when before had I watched any girl with such special, ecstatic, almost proprietary rapture? Yes, that was why, ever since, I had been cutting such crazy capers. From first to last they were the natural thing, the prerogative of a man in my state of mind or heart.
Many threads of the affair still remained to be unraveled. I didn't know what the duke was doing here, what he had been about for a month past, how the girl, far off in America, had guessed his whereabouts and his need; nor did I care. His mere existence was enough—that and Esme's love for him. All my interest in my Chinese puzzle had come to a wretched end.
"Confound him!" I thought savagely. "We could have spared him perfectly. What business has he turning up at the eleventh hour? He didn't cross the ocean with her. He didn't suspect her unforgivably. He didn't help her, and disguise himself as a chauffeur for her, and wing Schwartzmann, and bruise up the other chaps and send them rolling in a heap. This is my adventure. He must have had a hundred. Why couldn't he stick to his high-flying and dazzling and let me alone?"
The murmur of voices drifted from the lord's bedchamber. I could guess what they had to say to each other, Miss Falconer and her duke. The Firefly of France! Even I, a benighted foreigner, knew the things that title stood for: heroism, in a land where every soldier was a hero; praise and medals and glory; thirty conquered aeroplanes—a record over which his ancestors, those old marshals and constables lying effigied on their tombs of marble with their feet resting on carved lions, must nod their heads with pride.
It was Miss Falconer's voice. I rose reluctantly and obeyed the summons. The Firefly was sitting propped on the chest, white, but steadier, while Esme still knelt beside him, holding his hand in hers.
"I have been telling Jean, Mr. Bayne, how you have helped us." The radiance of her face, the lilt of her voice, stabbed me with a jealous pang. I wanted to see her happy, Heaven knew, but not quite in this manner. "And he wants to thank you for all that you have done."
The Duke of Raincy-la-Tour spoke to me in English that was correct, but quaintly formal, of a decided charm.
"Monsieur," he said, "I offer you my gratitude. And if you will touch the hand of one concerning whom, I fear, very evil things are believed—"
I forced a smile and a hearty pressure.
"I'll risk it," I assured him. "The chain of evidence against you seemed far-fetched to say the least. They pointed out accusingly that your father and your grandfather had been royalists, and that therefore—"
He made a gesture.
"May their souls find repose! Monsieur, it is true that they were. But if they lived to-day, my father and grandfather, they would not be traitors. They would wear, like me, the uniform of France."
He smiled, and I knew once for all that I could never hate him; that mere envy and a shame of it were the worst that I could feel. Everything about him won me, his simplicity, his fine pride, his clearness of eye and voice, his look of a swift, polished sword blade. I had never seen a man like him. The Duchess of Raincy-la-Tour would be a lucky woman; so much was plain.
I found a seat on the window ledge, the girl remained kneeling by him, and he told us his story, always in that quaint, formal speech. As it went on it absorbed me. I even forgot those clasped hands for an occasional instant. In every detail, in every quiet sentence, there was some note that brought before me the Firefly's achievements, the marauding airships he had climbed into the air to meet, the foes he had swooped from the blue to conquer, his darts into the land of his enemies where there was a price upon his head.
The story had to do with a night when he had left the French lines behind him. His commander had been quite frank. The mission meant his probable death. He was to wear a German uniform; to land inside the lines of the kaiser, to conceal his plane, if luck favored him, among the trees in the grounds of the old chateau of Ranceville; to get what knowledge and sketch what plans he could of defenses against which the French attacks had hitherto broken vainly, and to bring them home.
All had gone well at first. His gallant little plane had winged its way into the unknown like a darting swallow; he had landed safely; and after he had walked for hours with the Germans about him and death beside him, he had gained his spoils. It was as he rose for the return flight that the alarm was given. He got away; but he had five hostile aircraft after him. Could he hope to elude them and to land safely at the French lines?
It was in that hour, while the night lingered and the stars still shone and the cannon of the two armies challenged each other steadily, that the Firefly of France fought his greatest battle in the air. Since his whole aim was escape, it was bloodless; he had to trust to skill and cunning; he dared manoeuvers that appalled others, dropped plummet-like, looped dizzily, soared to the sheerest heights. He had been wounded. The framework of his plane was damaged. Still he gained on his foes and won through to the lines of France.
"But I might not land there," he explained. "The Germans followed. A mist had closed about us, hiding us from my friends below. I heard only my propeller; and that, by now, sounded faint to me, for I was weakening; one shot had hit my shoulder and another had wounded my left arm."
The girl swayed closer against him, watching him with eyes of worship. Well, I didn't wonder, though it cut me to the heart. Even a fairy prince could have been no worthier of her than this Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier; of that at least, I told myself dourly, I must be glad.
"As I raced on," said the duke, "there came a certain thought to me. We had traveled far; we were in the country near Prezelay, my cousin's house. The village, I knew, was ruined, but the chateau stood; and if I could reach it, old Marie-Jeanne would help me. You comprehend, my weakness was growing. I knew I had little more time."
The shrouding mist had aided him to lose those pursuing vultures. The last of them fell off, baffled,—or afraid to go deeper into France. Now he emerged again into the clear air and the starlight. The land beneath him was a scudding blur, with a dark-green mass in its center, the forest of La Fay.
And then, suddenly, he knew he must land if he were not to lose consciousness and hurtle down blindly; and with set teeth and sweat beading his forehead, he began the descent. At the end his strength failed him. The plane crashed among the trees. "But Saint Denis, who helps all Frenchmen, helped me,"—he smiled—"and I was thrown clear."
From that thicket where his machine lay hidden it was a mile to Prezelay. He dragged himself over this distance, sometimes on his hands and knees. Soon after dawn Marie-Jeanne, answering a discordant ringing, found a man lying outside the gate and babbling deliriously, her master's cousin, in a blood-soaked uniform, holding out a bundle of papers, and begging her by the soul of her mother to put them in the castle's secret hiding-place.
She did it. Then she coaxed the wounded man to the rooms opening from the gallery and tended him day and night through the weeks of fever that ensued. From his ravings she learned that he was in danger and feared pursuers; and with the peasant's instinct for caution, she had not dared to send for help.
"It was yesterday," the duke told us, "that my mind came back. I knew then what must be thought of me, what must be said of me, all over France." He was leaning on the wall now, exhausted and white, but dauntless. "No matter for that—I have the papers. You recall the hiding-place?"
He smiled as he asked the question, and Miss Falconer smiled back at him. Getting to her feet, she ran her fingers across the oak panel over his head, where for centuries a huntsman had been riding across a forest glade and blowing his horn. The bundle of his hunting-knife protruded just a little; and as the girl pressed it, the panel glided silently open, revealing a space, square and dark and cobwebby.
Something was lying there, a thin, wafer-like packet of papers, the papers for which the Firefly of France had shed his blood. She held them up in triumph. But the duke was still smiling faintly. He thrust one hand into his shirt and drew out a duplicate package, which he raised for us to see.
"Behold!" he said. "They are copies. All that I sketched that night near Ranceville, all that I wrote—I did not once, but twice. These I carried openly, to be found if I were captured. But those you hold went hidden in the sole of my boot, which was hollowed for them, so that if I were taken and then escaped, they might go too!"
I had read of such devices, I remembered vaguely. There was a story of a young French captain who had tried the trick in Champagne and succeeded with it, a rather famous exploit. Then I thought of something else. I got up slowly.
"You have two sets of papers?" I repeated.
"As you see, Monsieur."
"Then I'll take one of them," said I.
Miss Falconer was looking at me in a puzzled fashion. As for the duke, his brows drew together; his figure straightened; the cool glint grew in his eyes.
"Monsieur," he stated somewhat icily, "such things as these are not souvenirs. When they leave my possession they will go to the supreme command."
"Certainly," I agreed, unruffled. "That will do admirably for the first package; but about the second—no doubt Miss Falconer told you that we have German guests downstairs? Perhaps she forgot to mention the leader's name, though. It is Franz von Blenheim. And I don't care to have him break down the door and burst in on us, on her specially; I would rather, all things considered, interview him in the hall."