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The Firefly Of France
by Marion Polk Angellotti
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The Firefly's face had altered at the name of the secret agent; he was now regarding me with intentness, but without a frown. As for Miss Falconer, the trouble in her eyes was growing. I should have to be careful. Accordingly I summoned a debonair manner as I went on.

"If you'll allow me," I said, "I will take the papers down to him. He won't know that they are copies; he will snatch at them, glad of the chance. And since he is in a hurry, he probably won't stop to parley. He will simply be off at top speed, and leave us safe.

"Of course, that is the one unpleasant feature of the affair, his going." At this point I glanced in a casual manner at the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour. "It seems a pity to let him walk off scot-free, to plan more trouble for France; but that is past praying for. I could hardly hope to stop him, except by a miracle. If there is one, I'll be on hand."

Would the duke guess the hope with which I was going downstairs, I wondered. I thought he did, for his eyes flashed slightly, and he stirred a little on the chest.

"Such a miracle, Monsieur," he remarked, "would serve France greatly. As a good son of the Church, I will pray for it with all my heart!"

"I hope to come back," I went on, "and rejoin you. But if I shouldn't for any reason,"—with careful vagueness,—"you must stay here, barricaded, till they are gone. Then Miss Falconer can drive her car to the nearest town and bring back help for you. You see, it will be entirely simple, either way."

The girl, very white now, took a swift step toward me.

"Simple?" she cried. "They will kill you! They hate you, Mr. Bayne, and they are four to one. You mustn't go."

But the duke's hand was on her arm.

"My dear," he said, "he has reason. This friend of yours, I perceive, is a gallant gentleman. Believe me, if I had strength to stand, he would not go alone."

He held out the papers to me, and I took them. Then we clasped hands, the Firefly and I.

"Bonne chance, Monsieur," he bade me with the pressure.

"Good luck and good-bye," I answered. "Miss Falconer, will you come to the door?"

She took up the candle and came forward to light me, and we went in silence through the room of the squires and through the ante-chamber and into the room of the guards. She walked close beside me; her eyes shone wet; her lips trembled. There were things I would have given the world to say, but I suppressed them. To the very end, I had resolved, I would play fair. We were at the outer door.

"Good-by, Miss Falconer," I said, halting. "You mustn't worry; everything is going to turn out splendidly, I am sure. Only, now that we have the papers, it ends our little adventure, doesn't it? So before I go I want to thank you for our day together. It has been wonderful. There never was another like it. I shall always be thankful for it, no matter what I have to pay."

I stopped abruptly, realizing that this was not cricket. To make up, I put out my hand quite coolly; but she grasped it in both of hers and held it in a soft, warm clasp.

"I shall never forget," she whispered. "Come back to us, Mr. Bayne!"

For a moment I looked at her in the light of the candle, at her lovely face, at the ruddy hair framing it, at the tears heavy on her lashes. Then I drew the bolt and went out and heard her fasten the door.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE OBUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fit was not perfect by any means. Schwartzmann was a giant, a mountain. My feet swished aloud groggily in his burnished putties; his garments hung round me in ample, rather than graceful, folds. However, the loose cape of horizon blue resembled charity in covering defects. As a dummy, sitting motionless in the rear of the automobile, my captors felt that I would pass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER XXV

AT RAINCY-LA-TOUR

When I opened my eyes it was with a peculiarly reluctant feeling, for my eyelids were so heavy that they seemed to weigh a ton. My head was unspeakably groggy, and I had quite lost my memory. I couldn't, if suddenly interrogated, have replied with one intelligent bit of information about myself, not even with my name.

Flat on my back I was lying, gazing up at what, surprisingly, seemed to be a ceiling festooned with garlands of roses and painted with ladies and cavaliers, idling about a stretch of greensward, decidedly in the Watteau style. Where was I? What had happened to make me feel so helpless? It reminded me of an episode of my childhood, a day when my pony had fallen and rolled upon me, and I had been carried home with two crushed ribs and a broken arm.

Coming out at that time from the influence of the ether, I had found Dunny at my bedside. If only he were here now! I looked round. Why, there he was, sitting in a brocaded chair by the window, his dear old silver head thrown back, dozing beyond a doubt.

To see him gave me a warm, comforted, homelike feeling. Nor did it surprise me, but my surroundings did. The room, a veritable Louis Quinze jewel in its paneling, carving, and gilding, might have come direct from Versailles by parcel post; my bed was garlanded and curtained in rose-color. Where I had gone to sleep last night I couldn't remember; but it hadn't, I was obstinately sure, been here.

What ailed me, anyhow? I began a series of cautious experiments, designed to discover the trouble. My arms were weak and of a strange, flabby limpness, but they moved. So did my left leg; but when I came to the right one I was baffled. It wouldn't stir; it was heavily encased in something. Good heavens! now I knew! It was in a plaster cast.

The shock of the discovery taught me something further, namely, that my head was liable to excruciating little throbs of pain. I raised a hand to it. My forehead was swathed in bandages, like a turbaned Turk's. Oh, to be sure, in the castle at Prezelay, as we were retreating up the staircase, Schwartzmann had fired at me; but, then, hadn't that been a pin prick, the merest scratch?

The name Prezelay served as a key to solve the puzzle. The whole fantastic, incredible chain of happenings came back to me in a rush; the gray car, the inn, the murder, the night in the castle, Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier.

"Dunny!" I heard myself quavering in a voice utterly unlike my own.

The figure in the chair started up and hurried toward me, and then Dunny's hands were holding my hands, his eyes looking into mine.

"There, Dev, there! Take it easy," the familiar voice was soothing me. "Hold on to me, my boy, You are safe now. You're all right!"

My safety, however, seemed of small importance for the time being.

"Dunny," I implored, "listen! You have got to find out for me about a girl. How am I to tell you, though? If I start the story, you'll think I'm raving."

"I know all about it, Dev," my guardian reassured me. "I've seen Miss Falconer. She's absolutely safe."

If that were so, I could relax, and I did with fervent thankfulness. Not for long, however; my brain had begun to work.

"See here! I want to know who has been playing football with me," was my next demand, which Dunny answered obligingly, if with a slightly dubious face.

"That French doctor, nice young chap, said you weren't to talk," he muttered, "but if I were in your place I'd want to know a few things myself. It was this way, Dev. A fragment of a shell struck you—"

"A fragment!" I raised weak eyebrows. "I know better. Twenty shells at least, and whole!"

"—and didn't strike your Teuton friends," he charged on, suddenly purple of visage. "It was a true German shell, my boy, the devil looking after his own. The man in the seat with you was cut up a bit; the other two were thrown clear of the motor. If you hadn't already given the alarm, they would probably have got off scot-free. As it was, the French held a drumhead court martial a little later, and all three of the fellows—well, you can fill in the rest."

I was silent for a minute while a picture rose before me: a dank, gray dawn; a firing-squad, and Franz von Blenheim's dark, grim face. No doubt he had died bravely; but I could not pity him; I had too clear a recollection of the hall at Prezelay.

"As for you," Dunny was continuing, "you seem to have puzzled them finely. There you were in a French uniform, at your last gasp apparently, and with an American passport, that you seem to have clung to through thick and thin, inside your coat. They took a chance on you, though, because you had made them a present of the Franz von Blenheim; and by the next day, thanks to Miss Falconer and the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour, you were being looked for all over France.

"So that's how it stands. You're at Raincy-la-Tour now, at the duke's chateau. The place has been a hospital ever since the war began. Only you're not with the other wounded. You are—well—a rather special patient in the pavilion across the lake; and you're by way of being a hero. The day I landed, the first paper I saw shrieked at me how you had tracked the kaiser's star agent and outwitted him and handed him over to justice."

"The deuce it did!" I exclaimed. "You must have been puffed up with pride."

My guardian's jaw set itself rigidly. "I was too busy," was his grim answer. "You see, the end of the statement said there was no hope that you could survive. And when I got here I found you with fever, delirium, one leg shot up, four bits of shell in your head, a fine case of brain concussion. That was nearly three weeks ago, and it seems more like three years!"

An idea, at this point, made me fix a searching gaze on him.

"By the way," I asked accusingly, "how did you happen to arrive so opportunely on this side? It seemed as natural as possible to find you settled here waiting for my eyes to open; but on second thoughts I suppose you didn't fly?"

He looked extraordinarily embarrassed.

"Why," he growled at length, "I had business. I got a cablegram soon after you left New York. The thing was confoundedly inconvenient, but I had no choice about it."

"Dunny," I said weakly, but sternly, "you didn't bring me up to tell whoppers, not bare-faced ones like that, anyhow, that wouldn't deceive the veriest child. What earthly business could you have over here in war-time? Own up, now, and take your medicine like a man."

His guilty air was sufficient answer.

"Well, Dev," he acknowledged, "it was your cable. That Gibraltar mess was a nasty one, and I didn't like its looks. I'm getting old, and you're all I've got; so I took a passport and caught the Rochambeau. Not, of course, that I doubted your ability to take care of yourself, my boy—"

"Didn't you? You might have," I admitted with some ruefulness, "if you had known I was bucking both the Allied governments and the picked talent of the Central powers. It was too much. I was riding for a fall, and I got it. But I don't mind saying, Dunny, I'm infernally glad you came."

He wiped his eyes.

"Well, you go to sleep now," he counseled gruffly. "You've got to get well in a hurry; there's work for you to do! All sorts of things have been happening since that obus knocked you out. Just a week ago, for instance, the President went before Congress and—"

"What's that you say? Not war?"

"Yes, war, young man! We're in it at last, up to our necks; in it with men and ships and munitions and foodstuffs and everything else we have to help with, praise the Lord! You'll fight beneath the Stars and Stripes, instead of under the Tricolor. I say, Dev, that's positively the last word I'll utter. You've got to rest!"

In a weak, quavering fashion, but with sincere enthusiasm, I tried to celebrate by singing a few bars of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and a little of the "Marseillaise." Dunny was right, however; the conversation had exhausted me. In the midst of my patriotic demonstration I fell asleep.

My convalescence was a marvel, I learned from young Dr. Raimbault, the surgeon from the chateau who came to see me every day. According to him, I was a patient in a hundred, in a thousand; he never wearied of admiring my constitution, which he described by the various French equivalents of "as hard as nails." Not a set-back attended the course of my recovery. First, I sat propped up in bed; then I attained the dignity of an arm-chair; later, slowly and painfully, I began to drag myself about the room. But the day on which my physician's rapture burst all bounds was the great one when I crawled from the pavilion, gained a bench beneath the trees, and sat enthroned, glaring at my crutches. They were detestable implements; I longed to smash them. And they would, the doctor airily informed me, be my portion for three months.

To feel grumpy in such surroundings was certainly black ingratitude. It was an idyllic place. My pavilion was a sort of Trianon, a Marie Antoinette bower, all flowers and gold. Fresh green woods grew about it; a lake stretched before it; swans dotted the water where trees were mirrored, and there were marble steps and balustrades. Across this glittering expanse rose Raincy-la-Tour, proud and stately, with its formal gardens and its fountains and its Versailles-like front. In the afternoons I could see the wounded soldiers walking there or being pushed to and fro in wheel-chairs; legless and armless, some of them; wreckage of the mighty battle-fields; timely reminders, poor heroic fellows, that there were people in the world a great deal worse off than I.

Yet, instead of being thankful, I was profoundly wretched. I moped and sulked; I fell each day into a deeper, more consistent gloom. I tried grimly to regain my strength, with a view to seeking other quarters. While I stayed here I was the guest of the Firefly of France; and though I admired him,—I should have been a cad, a quitter, a poor loser, everything I had ever held anathema in days gone by, not to do so,—still I couldn't feel toward him as a man should feel toward his host; not in the least!

On three separate occasions Dunny motored up to Paris, bringing back as the fruits of his first excursion my baggage from the Ritz. I was clothed again, in my right mind; except for my swathed head, I looked highly civilized. The day when I had raced hither and yon, and fought an unbelievable battle in a dark hall, and insanely masqueraded first in a leather coat, then in a pale-blue uniform, seemed dim and far-off indeed.

"It was a nice hashish dream," I told my mirrored image. "But it wasn't real, my lad, for a moment; such things don't happen to folks like you. You're not the romantic type; you don't look like some one in an old picture; you haven't brought down thirty German aeroplanes or thereabouts, and won every war medal the French can give and the name of Ace. No; you look like a—a correct bulldog; and winning an occasional polo cup is about your limit. Even if it hadn't been settled before you met her, you wouldn't have stood a chance."

There were times when I prayed never to see Esme Falconer again. There were other times when I knew I would drag myself round the world—yes, on my crutches!—if at the end of the journey I could see her for an instant, a long way off. I could see that my despondency was driving Dunny to distraction. He evolved the theory that I was going into a decline.

Then came the afternoon that made history. I was sitting at my window. The trees seemed specially green, the sky specially blue, the lake specially bright. I was feeling stronger and was glumly planning a move to Paris when I saw an automobile speed up the poplared walk toward Raincy-la-Tour.

Rip-snorting and chugging, the thing executed a curve before the chateau, and then, hugging the side of the lake, advanced, obviously toward my humble abode. My heart seemed to turn a somersault. I should have known that car if I had met it in Bagdad. It was a long blue motor, polished to the last notch, deeply cushioned, luxurious, poignantly familiar, the car, in short, that I had pursued to Bleau, and that later, in flat defiance of President Poincare or the Generalissimo of France, or whoever makes army rules and regulations, I had guided through the war zone to the castle of Prezelay.

As the chauffeur halted it near the pavilion, it disgorged three occupants, one of who, a young officer, slender of form and gracefully alert of movement, wore the dark-blue uniform of the French Flying Corps. I knew him only too well. It was Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier. But the glance I gave him was most cursory; my attention was focused hungrily on the two ladies in the tonneau. They had risen and were divesting themselves in leisurely fashion of a most complicated arrangement of motor coats and veils.

From these swathing disguises there first emerged, as if from a chrysalis, a black-clad, distinguished-looking young woman whom I had never seen before. However, it was the second figure, the one in the rosy veils and the tan mantle, that was exciting me. Off came her wrappings, and I saw a girl in a white gown and a flowered hat—the loveliest girl on earth.

I did not stand on the order of my going. I rocked perilously, and my crutches made a furious clatter, but I was outside in a truly infinitesimal space of time. Yes; there they were, chatting with Dunny, who had hurried to meet them. And at sight of me the Firefly of France ran forward with hands extended, greeting me as if I were his oldest friend, his brother, his dearest comrade in arms.

I took his hands and I pressed them with what show of warmth I could summon. It was as peasant as a bit of torture, but it had to be gone through. Then I stared past him toward the ladies, who were coming up with Dunny; and except for that girl in white, I saw nothing in all the world.

"Monsieur," the duke was saying, "I pay you my first visit. Only my weakness has prevented me from sooner welcoming to Raincy-la-Tour so honored a guest."

He turned to the lady who stood beside Miss Falconer, a slender, dark-eyed, gracious young woman wearing a simple black gown and a black hat and a string of pearls.

"Here is another," said the Firefly, "who has come to welcome you. Oh, yes, Monsieur, you must know, and you must count henceforth as your friends in any need, even to the death, all those who bear the name of Raincy-la-Tour. Permit that I present you to my wife, who is of your country."

"Jean's wife is my sister, Mr. Bayne," Miss Falconer said.



CHAPTER XXVI

AN UNEXPECTED VISIT

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

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

I was virtually sane again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER XXVII

A THUNDERBOLT OF WAR

The great moment had arrived. General Le Cazeau and his staff were on their way back to Paris. The duke and duchess were at the chateau talking with the blesses; for the second time Dunny had tactfully disappeared. The approach of evening had spurred my faltering courage. As the first rosiness of sunset touched the skies beyond Raincy-la-Tour and lay across the water, I sat at the side of the only girl in the world and poured out my plea.

"It isn't fair, you know," I mourned. "I've only a few minutes. I shouldn't wonder if we heard your car honking for you in half an hour. To make a girl like you look at a man like me would take days of eloquence, and, besides, who would think of marrying any one with his head bound up Turkish fashion as mine is now?"

She laughed, and at the silvery sound of it I plucked up a hint of courage; for surely, I thought, she wasn't cruel enough to make game of me as she turned me down. Still, I couldn't really hope. She was too wonderful, and my courtship had been too inadequate. Despondent, arms on my knees, I harped upon the same string.

"I've never had a chance to show you," I lamented, "that I am civilized; that I know how to take care of you and put cushions behind you and slide footstools under your feet, and—er—all that. We've been too busy eluding Germans and racing through forbidden zones and rescuing papers from behind secret panels, for me to wait on you. Good heavens! To think how I've done my duty by a hundred girls I shouldn't know from Eve if they happened along this moment! And I've never even sent you a box of marrons glaces or flowers."

She shot a fleeting glance at me.

"No," she agreed, "you haven't! If you don't mind my saying so, I think they would have been out of place. At Bleau, for instance, and at Prezelay I hadn't much time for eating bonbons; but after all you did me one or two more practical services, Mr. Bayne."

"Nothing," I maintained, my gloom unabated, "that amounted to a row of pins. Though I might have shone, I'll admit; I can see that, looking back. The opportunity was there, but the man was lacking. I might have been a real movie hero, cool, resourceful, dependable, clear-sighted, a tower of strength; and what I did was to muddle things up hopelessly and waste time in suspecting you and seize every opportunity of trusting people who positively spread their guilt before my eyes."

"I don't know." She was looking at the lake, not at me, and she was smiling. "There were one or two little matters that have slipped your mind, perhaps. Take the very first night we met, when you tracked your thief to my room and wouldn't let the hotel people come in to search it. Don't you think, on the whole, that you were rather kind?"

"I couldn't have driven them in," I declared stubbornly, "with a pitchfork. I couldn't have persuaded them to make a search if I had prayed them on my bended knees. Their one idea was to help the fellow in what the best criminal circles call a getaway; and when I think how I must have been wool-gathering, not to guess—"

"Well, even so,"—Miss Falconer was still smiling—"weren't you very nice on the steamer? About the extra, I mean. And at Gibraltar, too, when they asked you what you had thrown overboard—do you remember how you kept silent and never even glanced my way?"

"No," I groaned, "I don't; but I remember our trip to Paris. I remember marching you into the wagon-restaurant like a hand-cuffed criminal, and sitting you down at a table, and bullying you like a Russian czar. I gave you three days to leave France. Have you forgotten? I haven't. The one thing I omitted—and I don't see how I missed it—was to call the gendarmes there at Modane and denounce you to them. It's more than kind of you to glide over my imbecilities; I appreciate it. But when I think of that evening I want a nice, deep, dark dungeon, somewhere underground, to hide."

"I think," she murmured consolingly, "that you made amends to me later." Her face was averted, but I could see a distracting dimple in her cheek. "You mustn't forget that I haven't been perfect, either. When you followed me to Bleau, and I came down the stairs and saw you, I misunderstood the situation entirely and was as unpleasant as I could be."

"Naturally," I acquiesced with dark meaning. "How could you have understood it? How could any human being have fathomed the mental processes that sent me there? I only wonder that instead of giving me what-for, you didn't murder me. Any United States jury would have acquitted you with the highest praise."

She turned upon me, flushed and spirited.

"Mr. Bayne, you are incorrigible! Why will you insist on belittling everything that you have done? I suppose you will claim next that you didn't risk imprisonment or death every minute of a whole day, just to help me, and that at Prezelay you didn't fight like a—a—yes, like a paladin!—to save me from being tortured by Herr von Blenheim and his men!"

I started up and then sank back.

"As a special favor," I begged her, "would you mind not mentioning that last phase of the affair? When you do, I go berserker; I'm a crazy man, seeing red; I'm honestly not responsible. It was when our friend Blenheim developed those plans of his that I swore in my soul I'd get him; and I thank the Lord that I did and that he'll never trouble you or any other woman again.

"Still, Miss Falconer, what does all that amount to? Any man would have helped you, wouldn't he? A nice sort of fellow I should have been to do any less! Whereas for a girl like you I ought to have accomplished miracles. I ought to have made the sun stop moving, or got you the stars to play with, or whisked the moon out of the skies."

She was laughing again.

"Dear me!" she exclaimed. "What fervor! Can this be my Mr. Bayne, the Mr. Bayne of our adventure, who never turned a hair no matter what mad things happened, and who was always so correct and conventional and so immaculately dressed, and so—"

"Stodgy! Say it!" I cried with utter recklessness. "I know I was; Dunny told me so that evening at the St. Ives. Have as many cracks at me as you like. I was getting fat; I was beginning to think that the most important thing in the universe was dinner. Well, I'm not stodgy any longer, Esme Falconer; you've reformed me. But of all the men in all the ages who were ever desperately, consumedly, imbecilely in love—"

In the distance two figures were strolling toward the blue car, the duke and the duchess. When they reached it, the Firefly cast a glance in our direction and sounded a warning, most unwelcome honk upon the horn. They were going, stony-hearted creatures that they were! They were taking Esme back to Paris. At the thought I abandoned my last pretense at self-command.

"Esme, dearest," I implored, "do you think you could put up with me? Could you marry me when I've done my part over here—or even sooner—right away? A dozen better men may love you, but mine is a special brand of love—unique, incomparable! Are you going to have me—or shall I jump into the lake?"

The sunset light was in her hair and in the gray, starry eyes she turned to me—those eyes that, because their lashes were so long and crinkled so maddeningly, were only half revealed. Her lips curved in a fleeting smile.

"Oh, you dear, blind, silly man! Do you think any girl could help loving you—after all that has happened to you and me?" she whispered.

Then I caught her to me; and despite my crutches and my bandaged head and that atrocious horn in the distance honking the signal for our parting, I was the happiest being in France—or in the world.

"I knew all along it was a dream, and it is! Such things don't really happen. No such luck!" I cried.

THE END

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