THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE
by Marion Polk Angellotti
THE MEMORY OF
THE HEROIC GUYNEMER
"THE ACE OF THE ACES"
This text was prepared from a 1918 edition, published by The Century Co., New York.
THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE
ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS
The restaurant of the Hotel St. Ives seems, as I look back on it, an odd spot to have served as stage wings for a melodrama, pure and simple. Yet a melodrama did begin there. No other word fits the case. The inns of the Middle Ages, which, I believe, reeked with trap-doors and cutthroats, pistols and poisoned daggers, offered nothing weirder than my experience, with its first scene set beneath this roof. The food there is superperfect, every luxury surrounds you, millionaires and traveling princes are your fellow-guests. Still, sooner than pass another night there, I would sleep airily in Central Park, and if I had a friend seeking New York quarters, I would guide him toward some other place.
It was pure chance that sent me to the St. Ives for the night before my steamer sailed. Closing the doors of my apartment the previous week and bidding good-bye to the servants who maintained me there in bachelor state and comfort, I had accompanied my friend Dick Forrest on a farewell yacht cruise from which I returned to find the first two hotels of my seeking packed from cellar to roof. But the third had a free room, and I took it without the ghost of a presentiment. What would or would not have happened if I had not taken it is a thing I like to speculate on.
To begin with, I should in due course have joined an ambulance section somewhere in France. I should not have gone hobbling on crutches for a painful three months or more. I should not have in my possession four shell fragments, carefully extracted by a French surgeon from my fortunately hard head. Nor should I have lived through the dreadful moment when that British officer at Gibraltar held up those papers, neatly folded and sealed and bound with bright, inappropriately cheerful red tape, and with an icy eye demanded an explanation beyond human power to afford.
All this would have been spared me. But, on the other hand, I could not now look back to that dinner on the Turin-Paris rapide. I should never have seen that little, ruined French village, with guns booming in the distance and the nearer sound of water running through tall reeds and over green stones and between great mossy trees. Indeed, my life would now be, comparatively speaking, a cheerless desert, because I should never have met the most beautiful—Well, all clouds have silver linings; some have golden ones with rainbow edges. No; I am not sorry I stopped at the St. Ives; not in the least!
At any rate, there I was at eight o'clock of a Wednesday evening in a restaurant full of the usual lights and buzz and glitter, among women in soft-hued gowns, and men in their hideous substitute for the same. Across the table sat my one-time guardian, dear old Peter Dunstan,—Dunny to me since the night when I first came to him, a very tearful, lonesome, small boy whose loneliness went away forever with his welcoming hug,—just arrived from home in Washington to eat a farewell dinner with me and to impress upon me for the hundredth time that I had better not go.
"It's a wild-goose chase," he snapped, attacking his entree savagely. Heaven knows it was to prove so, even wilder than his dreams could paint; but if there were geese in it, myself included, there was also to be a swan.
"You don't really mean that, Dunny," I said firmly, continuing my dinner. It was a good dinner; we had consulted over each item from cocktails to liqueurs, and we are both distinctly fussy about food.
"I do mean it!" insisted my guardian. Dunny has the biggest heart in the world, with a cayenne layer over it, and this layer is always thickest when I am bound for distant parts. "I mean every word of it, I tell you, Dev." Dev, like Dunny, is a misnomer; my name is Devereux—Devereux Bayne. "Don't you risk your bones enough with the confounded games you play? What's the use of hunting shells and shrapnel like a hero in a movie reel? We're not in this war yet, though we soon will be, praise the Lord! And till we are, I believe in neutrality—upon my soul I do."
"Here's news, then!" I exclaimed. "I never heard of it before. Well, your new life begins too late, Dunny. You brought me up the other way. The modern system, you know, makes the parent or guardian responsible for the child. So thank yourself for my unneutral nature and for the war medals I'm going to win!"
Muttering something about impertinence, he veered to another tack.
"If you must do it," he croaked, "why sail for Naples instead of for Bordeaux? The Mediterranean is full of those pirate fellows. You read the papers—the headlines anyway; you know it as well as I. It's suicide, no less! Those Huns sank the San Pietro last week. I say, young man, are you listening? Do you hear what I'm telling you?"
It was true that my gaze had wandered near the close of his harangue. I like to look at my guardian; the fine old chap, with his height and straightness, his bright blue eyes and proud silver head, is a sight for sore eyes, as they say. But just then I had glimpsed something that was even better worth seeing. I am not impressionable, but I must confess that I was impressed by this girl.
She sat far down the room from me. Only her back was visible and a somewhat blurred side-view reflected in the mirror on the wall. Even so much was, however, more than welcome, including as it did a smooth white neck, a small shell-like ear, and a mass of warm, crinkly, red-brown hair. She wore a rose-colored gown, I noticed, cut low, with a string of pearls; and her sole escort was a staid, elderly, precise being, rather of the trusted family-lawyer type.
"I haven't missed a word, Dunny," I assured my vis-a-vis. "I was just wondering if Huns and pirates had quite a neutral sound. You know I have to go via Rome to spend a week with Jack Herriott. He has been pestering me for a good two years—ever since he's been secretary there."
Grumbling unintelligible things, my guardian sampled his Chablis; and I, crumbling bread, lazily wishing I could get a front view of the girl in rose-color, filled the pause by rambling on.
"Duty calls me," I declared. "You see, I was born in France. Shabby treatment on my parents' part I've always thought it; if they had hurried home before the event I might have been President and declared war here instead of hunting one across the seas. In that case, Dunny, I should have heeded your plea and stayed; but since I'm ineligible for chief executive, why linger on this side?"
He scowled blackly.
"I'll tell you what it is, my boy," he accused, with lifted forefinger. "You like to pose—that's what is the matter with you! You like to act stolid, matter-of-fact, correct; you want to sit in your ambulance and smoke cigarettes indifferently and raise your eyebrows superciliously when shrapnel bursts round. And it's all very well now; it looks picturesque; it looks good form, very. But how old are you, eh, Dev? Twenty-eight is it? Twenty-nine?"
"You should know—none better—that I am thirty," I responded. "Haven't you remembered each anniversary since I was five, beginning with a hobby-horse and working up through knives and rifles and ponies to the latest thing in cars?"
Dunny lowered his accusing finger and tapped it on the cloth.
"Thirty," he repeated fatefully. "All right, Dev. Strong and fit as an ox, and a crack polo-player and a fair shot and boxer and not bad with boats and cars and horses and pretty well off, too. So when you look bored, it's picturesque; but wait! Wait ten years, till you take on flesh, and the doctor puts you on diet, and you stop hunting chances to kill yourself, but play golf like me. Then, my boy, when you look stolid you won't be romantic. You'll be stodgy, my boy. That's what you'll be!"
Of all words in the dictionary there is surely none worse than this one. The suggestions of stodginess are appalling, including, even at best, hints of overweight, general uninterestingness, and a disposition to sit at home in smoking-jacket and slippers after one's evening meal. As my guardian suggested, my first youth was over. I held up both my hands in token that I asked for grace.
"Kamerad!" I begged pathetically. "Come, Dunny, let's be sociable. After all, you know, it's my last evening; and if you call me such names, you will be sorry when I am gone. By the way, speaking of Huns—it was you, the neutral, who mentioned them,—does it strike you there are quite a few of them on the staff of this hotel? I hope they won't poison me. Look at the head waiter, look at half the waiters round, and see that blond-haired, blue-eyed menial. Do you think he saw his first daylight in these United States?"
The menial in question was a uniformed bellboy winding in and out among tables and paging some elusive guest. As he approached, his chant grew plainer.
"Mr. Bayne," he was droning. "Room four hundred and three."
I raised a hand in summons, and he paused beside my seat.
"Telephone call for you, sir," he informed me.
With a word to my guardian, I pushed my chair back and crossed the room. But at the door I found my path barred by the maitre d'hotel, who, at the sight of my progress, had sprung forward, like an arrow from a bow.
"Excuse me, sir. You're not leaving, are you?" The man was actually breathing hard. Deferential as his bearing was, I saw no cause for the inquiry, and with some amusement and more annoyance, I wondered if he suspected me of slipping out to evade my bill.
"No," I said, staring him up and down; "I'm not!" I passed down the hall to the entrance of the telephone booths. Glancing back, I could see him still standing there gazing after me; his face, I thought, wore a relieved expression as he saw whither I was bound.
The queer incident left my mind as I secluded myself, got my connection, and heard across the wire the indignant accents of Dick Forrest, my former college chum. Upon leaving his yacht that morning, I had promised him a certain power of attorney—Dick is a lawyer and is called a good one, though I can never quite credit it—and he now demanded in unjudicial heat why it had not been sent round.
"Good heavens, man," I cut in remorsefully, "I forgot it! The thing is in my room now. Where are you? That's all right. You'll have it by messenger within ten minutes." Hastily rehooking the receiver, I bolted from my booth.
In the restaurant door against a background of paneled walls the maitre d'hotel still stood, as if watching for my return. I sprang into an elevator just about to start its ascent, and saw his mouth fall open and his feet bring him several quick steps forward.
"The man is crazy," I told myself with conviction as I shot up four stories in as many seconds and was deposited in my hall.
There was no one at the desk where the floor clerk usually kept vigil, gossiping affably with such employees as passed. The place seemed deserted; no doubt all the guests were downstairs. Treading lightly on the thick carpet, I went down the hall to Room four hundred and three, and found the door ajar and a light visible inside.
My bed, I supposed, was being turned down. I swung the door open, and halted in my tracks. With his back to me, bent over a wide-open trunk that I had left locked, was a man.
Stepping inside, I closed the door quietly, meanwhile scrutinizing my unconscious visitor from head to foot. He wore no hotel insignia—was neither porter, waiter, nor valet.
"Well, how about it? Anything there suit you?" I inquired affably, with my back against the door.
Exclaiming gutturally, he whisked about and faced me where I stood quite prepared for a rough-and-tumble. Instead of a typical housebreaker of fiction, I saw a pale, rabbit-like, decent-appearing little soul. He was neatly dressed; he seemed unarmed save for a great ring of assorted keys; and his manner was as propitiatory and mild-eyed as that of any mouse. There must be some mistake. He was some sober mechanic, not a robber. But on the other hand, he looked ready to faint with fright.
"Mein Gott!" he murmured in a sort of fishlike gasp.
This illuminating remark was my first clue.
"Ah! Mein Herr is German?" I inquired, not stirring from my place.
The demand wrought an instant change in him—he drew himself up, perhaps to five feet five.
"Vat you got against the Germans?" he asked me, almost with menace. It was the voice of a fanatic intoning "Die Wacht am Rhein"—of a zealot speaking for the whole embattled Vaterland.
The situation was becoming farcical.
"Nothing in the world, I assure you," I replied. "They are a simple, kindly people. They are musical. They have given the world Schiller, Goethe, the famous Kultur, and a new conception of the possibilities of war. But I think they should have kept out of Belgium, and I feel the same way about my room—and don't you try to pull a pistol or I may feel more strongly still."
"I ain't got no pistol, nein," declared my visitor, sulkily. His resentment had already left him; he had shrunk back to five feet three.
"Well, I have, but I'll worry along without it," I remarked, with a glance at the nearest bag. As targets, I don't regard my fellow-creatures with great enthusiasm and, moreover, I could easily have made two of this mousy champion of a warlike race. Illogically, I was feeling that to bully him was sheer brutality. Besides this, my dinner was not being improved by the delay.
"Look here," I said amiably, "I can't see that you've taken anything. Speak up lively now; I'll give you just one chance. If you care to tell me how you got through a locked door and what you were after, I'll let you go. I'm off to the firing line, and it may bring me luck!"
Hope glimmered in his eyes. In broken English, with a childlike ingenuousness of demeanor, he informed me that he was a first-class locksmith—first-glass he called it—who had been sent by the management to open a reluctant trunk. He had entered my room, I was led to infer, by a mistake.
"I go now, ja?" he concluded, as postscript to the likely tale.
"The devil you do! Do you take me for an utter fool?" I asked, excusably nettled, and stepping to the telephone, I took the receiver from its hook.
"Give me the manager's office, please," I requested, watching my visitor. "Is this the manager? This is Mr. Bayne speaking, Room four hundred and three. I've found a man investigating my trunk—a foreigner, a German." An exclamation from the manager, and from the listening telephone-girl a shriek! "Yes; I have him. Yes; of course I can hold him. Send up your house detective and be quick! My dinner is spoiling—"
The receiver dropped from my hand and clattered against the wall. The little German, suddenly galvanized, had leaped away from the trunk, not toward me and the door beyond me, but toward the electric switch. His fingers found and turned it, plunging the room into the darkness of the grave. Taken unaware, I barred his path to the hall, only to hear him fling up the window across the room. Against the faint square of light thus revealed, I saw him hang poised a moment. Then with a desperate noise, a moan of mixed resolve and terror, he disappeared.
DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES
Standing there staring after him, I felt like a murderer of the deepest dye. It is one thing to hand over to the police their natural prey, a thief taken red-handed, but quite another, and a much more harrowing one, to have him slip through your fingers, precipitate himself into mid-air, and drop four stories to the pavement, scattering his brains far and wide. There was not a vestige of hope for the poor wretch.
Unnerved, I groped to the window and peered downward for his remains. My first glance proved my regrets to be superfluous. Beneath my window, which, owing to the crowded condition of the hotel, opened on a side street, a fire-escape descended jaggedly; and upon it, just out of arm's reach, my recent guest clung and wobbled, struggling with an attack of natural vertigo before proceeding toward the earth.
By this time my rage was such that I would have followed that little thief almost anywhere. It was not the dizziness of the yawning void that stayed me. I should have climbed the Matterhorn with all cheerfulness to catch him at the top. But sundry visions of the figure I would cut, the crowd that might gather, and the probable ragging in the morning papers, were too much for me, and I sorrowfully admitted that the game was not worth the price.
The little man's nerves, meanwhile, seemed to be steadying. Feeling each step, he began cautiously to work his way down. To my wrath he even looked up at me and indulged in a grimace—but his triumph was ill-timed, for at that very instant I beheld, strolling along the street below, humming and swinging his night-stick, as leisurely, complacent, and stalwart a representative of the law as one could wish to see.
"Hi, there! Officer!" I shouted lustily. My hail, if not my words, reached him; he glanced up, saw the figure on the ladder, and was seized instantaneously with the spirit of the chase.
Yelling something reassuring, the gist of which escaped me, he constituted himself a reception committee of one and started for the ladder's foot. But our doughty Teuton was a resourceful person. Roused to the urgency of his plight, he looked wildly up at me, down at the officer, and, hastily pushing up the nearest window, hoisted himself across its sill, and again took refuge in the St. Ives Hotel.
With a bellow of rage, the policeman dashed toward the porte-cochere, while I ducked back into the room, rapidly revolving my chances of cutting off the man's retreat below. If the system of numbering was the same on every floor, my thief must, of course, emerge from Room 303. But this similarity was problematical, and to invade apartments at random, disturbing women at their opera toilets and maybe even waking babies, was too desperate a shift to try.
It reminded me to wait with what patience I could summon for the house detective. And where was he, by the way? I had turned in my alarm a good five minutes before.
In an unenviable humor I stumbled across the room, tripping and barking my shins over various malignant hassocks, tables, and chairs. Finding the switch at last, I flooded the room with light, and saw myself in the mirror, with tie and coat askew.
"Now," I muttered, straightening them viciously, "we'll see what he took away." But the trunk seemed undisturbed when I examined it, and my various bags and suitcases were securely locked. I had found Forrest's power of attorney and was storing it in my pocket when voices rose outside.
A group of four was approaching, comprised of a spruce, dress-coated manager; a short thick-set, broad-faced man who was doubtless the long-overdue detective; a professional-appearing gentleman with a black bag, obviously the house-physician; and the policeman that I had summoned from his stroll below. The latter, in an excited brogue, was recounting his late vision of the thief, "hangin' between hivin and earth, no less," while the detective scornfully accused him of having been asleep or jingled, on the ground of my late telephone to the effect that I was holding the man.
The manager, as was natural, took the initiative, bustling past me into my room and peering eagerly around.
"I needn't say, Mr. Bayne," he orated fluently, "how sorry I am that this has happened—especially beneath our roof. It is our first case, I assure you, of anything so regrettable. If it gets into the papers it won't do us any good. Now the important thing is to take the fellow out by the rear without courting notice. Why, where is he?" he asked hopefully. "Surely he isn't gone?"
"Sure, and didn't I tell ye? 'Tis without eyes ye think me!" The policeman was resentful, and so, to tell the truth, was I. The whole maddening affair seemed bent on turning to farce at every angle; the doctor, as a final straw, had just offered sotto voce to mix me a soothing draft!
"Gone! Of course he's gone, man!" I exclaimed with some natural temper. "Did you expect him to sit here waiting all this time? What on earth have you been doing—reading the papers—playing bridge? A dozen thieves could have escaped since I telephoned downstairs!"
"But you said," he murmured, apparently dazed, "that you could hold him." A tactless remark, which failed to assuage my wrath!
"So I could," I responded savagely. "But I didn't expect him to turn into a conjuring trick, which is what he did. He went out that window head foremost, down the ladder, and into the room below. Let's be after him—though we stand as much chance of catching him as we do of finding the King of England!" and I turned toward the doorway, where the manager, the doctor and the detective were massed.
The manager put his hand upon my arm. I looked down at it with raised eyebrows, and he took it away.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, adopting a manner of appeal, "but if you'll reflect for a moment you'll see how it is, I know. People don't care for houses where burglars fly in and out of windows; it makes them nervous; you wouldn't believe how easily a hotel can get a bad name and lose its clientele. Besides, from what you tell me, the fellow must be well away by this time. You'd do me a favor—a big one—by dropping the matter here."
"Well, I won't!" I snapped indignantly. "I'll see it through—or start something still livelier. Are you coming down with me to investigate the room beneath us or do you want me to ring up police headquarters and find out why?"
In the hall the policeman looked at me across the intervening heads and dropped one slow, approving eyelid. "If the gintleman says so—" he remarked in heavy tones fraught with meaning, and fixed a cold, blue, appraising gaze on the detective, who thereupon yielded with unexpectedly good grace.
"Aw, what's eating you?" was his amiable demand. "Sure, we was going right down there anyhow—soon's we found out how the land lay up here."
The five of us took the elevator to the lower floor. An unfriendly atmosphere surrounded me. I was held a hotel wrecker without reason. We found the corridor empty, the floor desk abandoned—a state of things rather strikingly the duplicate of that reigning overhead—and in due course paused before Room 303, where the manager, figuratively speaking, washed his hands of the affair.
"Here is the room, Mr. Bayne, for which you ask." If I would persist in my nefarious course, added his tone.
The detective, obeying the hypnotic eye of the policeman, knocked. There was silence. The bluecoat, my one ally, was crouching for a spring. Then light steps crossed the room, and the door was opened. There stood a girl,—a most attractive girl, the girl that I had seen downstairs. Straight and slender, spiritedly gracious in bearing, with gray eyes questioning us from beneath lashes of crinkly black, she was a radiant figure as she stood facing us, with a coat of bright-blue velvet thrown over her rosy gown.
"Beg pardon, miss," said the policeman, brightly, "this gintleman's been robbed."
As her eyebrows went up a fraction, I could have murdered him, for how else could she read his statement save that I took her for the thief?
"I am very sorry," I explained, bowing formally, "to disturb you. We are hunting a thief who took French leave by my fire-escape. I must have been mistaken—I thought that he dodged in again by this window. You have not seen or heard anything of him, of course?"
"No, I haven't. But then, I just this instant came up from dinner," she replied. Her low, contralto tones, quite impersonal, were yet delightful; I could have stood there talking burglars with her till dawn. "Do you wish to come in and make sure that he is not in hiding?" With a half smile for which I didn't blame her, she moved a step aside.
"Certainly not!" I said firmly, ignoring a nudge from the policeman. "He left before you came—there was ample time. It is not of the least consequence, anyhow. Again I beg your pardon." As she inclined her head, I bowed, and closed the door.
"I trust Mr. Bayne, that you are satisfied at last." This was the St. Ives manager, and I did not like his tone.
"I am satisfied of several things," I retorted sharply, "but before I share them with you, will you kindly tell me your name?"
"My name is Ritter," he said with dignity. "I confess I fail to see what bearing—"
"Call it curiosity," I interrupted. "Doctor, favor me with yours."
The doctor peered at me over his glasses, hesitated, and then revealed his patronym. It was Swanburger, he informed me.
"But, my dear sir, what on earth—"
"Merely," said I, with conviction, "that this isn't an Allies' night. It is Deutschland uber Alles; the stars are fighting for the Teuton race. Now, let's hear how you were christened," I added, turning to the house detective, who looked even less sunny than before if that could be.
"See here, whatcher giving us?" snarled that somewhat unpolished worthy. "My name's Zeitfeld; but I was born in this country, don't you forget it, same as you."
"A great American personality," I remarked dreamily, "has declared that in the hyphenate lies the chief menace to the United States. And what's your name?" I asked the representative of law and order. "Is it Schmidt?"
"No, sir," he responded, grinning; "it's O'Reilly, sorr."
"Thank heaven for that! You've saved my reason," I assured him as I leaned against the wall and scanned the Germanic hordes.
"Mr. Ritter," said I, addressing that gentleman coldly, "when I am next in New York I don't think I shall stop with you. The atmosphere here is too hectic; you answer calls for help too slowly—calls, at least, in which a guest indiscreetly tells you that he has caught a German thief. It looks extremely queer, gentlemen. And there are some other points as well—"
But there I paused. I lacked the necessary conviction. After all I was the average citizen, with the average incredulity of the far-fetched, the melodramatic, the absurd. To connect the head waiter's panic at my departure with the episode in my room, to declare that the floor clerks had been called from their posts for a set purpose, and the halls deliberately cleared for the thief, were flights of fancy that were beyond me. The more fool I!
By the time I saw the last of the adventure I began that night—it was all written in the nth power, and introduced in more or less important roles the most charming girl in the world, the most spectacular hero of France, the cleverest secret-service agent in the pay of the fatherland, and I sometimes ruefully suspected, the biggest imbecile of the United States in the person of myself—I knew better than to call any idea impossible simply because it might sound wild. But at the moment my education was in its initial stages, and turning with a shrug from three scowling faces, I led my friendly bluecoat a little aside.
"I've no more time to-night to spend thief-catching, Officer," I told him. I had just recalled my dinner, now utterly ruined, and Dunny, probably at this instant cracking walnuts as fiercely as if each one were the kaiser's head. "But I'm an amateur in these affairs, and you are a master. Before I go, as man to man, what the dickens do you make of this?"
Flattered, he looked profound.
"I'm thinking, sorr," he gave judgment, "ye had the rights of it. Seein' as how th' thafe is German, ye'll not set eyes on him more—for divil a wan here but's of that counthry, and they stick together something fierce!"
"Well," I admitted, "our thoughts run parallel. Here is something to drink confusion to them all. And, O'Reilly, I am glad I'm going to sail to-morrow. I'd rather live on a sea full of submarines than in this hotel, wouldn't you?"
Touching his forehead, he assented, and wished me good-night and a good journey; part of his hope went unfulfilled, by the way. That ocean voyage of mine was to take rank, in part at least, as a first-class nightmare. The Central powers could scarcely have improved on it by torpedoing us in mid-ocean or by speeding us upon our trip with a cargo of clock-work bombs.
ON THE RE D'ITALIA
The sailing of the Re d'Italia was scheduled for 3 P.M. promptly, but being well acquainted with the ways of steamers at most times, above all in these piping times of war, it was not until an hour later than I left the St. Ives, where the manager, by the way, did not appear to bid me farewell.
The thermometer had been falling, and the day was crisp and snappy, with a light powdering of snow underfoot and a blue tang and sparkle in the air. Dunny accompanied me in the taxicab, but was less talkative than usual. Indeed, he spoke only two or three times between the hotel and the pier.
"I say, Dev," was his first contribution to the conversation, "d' you remember it was at a dock that you and I first met? It was night, blacker than Tophet, and raining, and you came ashore wet as a rag. You were the lonesomest, chilliest, most forlorn little tike I ever saw; but, by the eternal, you were trying not to cry!"
"Lonesome? I rather think so!" I echoed with conviction. "Wynne and his wife brought me over; he played poker all the way, and she read novels in her berth. And I heard every one say that I was an orphan, and it was very, very sad. Well, I was never lonely after that, Dunny." My hand met his half-way.
The next time that he broke silence was upon the ferry, when he urged on me a fat wallet stuffed with plutocratic-looking notes.
"In case anything should happen," ran his muttered explanation. I have never needed Dunny's money,—his affection is another matter,—but he can spare it, and this time I took it because I saw he wanted me to.
As we approached the Jersey City piers, he seemed to shrink and grow tired, to take on a good ten years beyond his hale and hearty age. With every glance I stole at him a lump in my throat grew bigger, and in the end, bending forward, I laid a hand on his knee.
"Look here, Dunny," I demanded, not looking at him, "do you mean half of what you were saying last evening—or the hundredth part? After all, there'll be a chance to fight here before we're many months older. If you just say the word, old fellow, I'll be with you to-night—and hang the trip!"
But Dunny, though he wrung my hand gratefully and choked and glared out of the window, would hear of no such arrangement, repudiated it, indeed, with scorn.
"No, my boy," he declared. "I don't say it for a minute. I like your going. I wouldn't give a tinker's dam for you, whatever that is, if you didn't want to do something for those fellows over there. I won't even say to be careful, for you can't if you do your duty—only, don't you be too all-fired foolhardy, even for war medals, Dev."
"Oh, I was born to be hanged, not shot," I assured him, almost prophetically. "I'll take care of myself, and I'll write you now and then—"
"No, you won't!" he snorted, with a skepticism amply justified by the past. "And if you did, I shouldn't answer; I hate letters, always did. But you cable me once a fortnight to let me know you're living—and send an extra cable if you want anything on earth!"
The taxi, which had been crawling, came to a final halt, and a hungry horde, falling on my impedimenta, lowered them from the driver's seat.
"No, I'll not come on board, Dev," said my guardian. "I—I couldn't stand it. Good-by, my dear boy."
We clasped hands again; then I felt his arm resting on my shoulder, and flung both of mine about him in an old-time, boyish hug.
"Au revoir, Dunny. Back next year," I shouted cheerily as the driver threw in his clutch and the car glided on its way.
Preceded by various porters, I threaded my way at a snail's pace through the dense crowd of waiting passengers, swarthy-faced sons of Italy, apparently bound for the steerage. The great gray bulk of the Re d'Italia loomed before me, floating proudly at her stern the green, white, and red flag blazoned with the Savoyard shield.
"Wave while they let you," I apostrophized it, saluting. "When we get outside the three-mile limit and stop courting notice, you'll not fly long."
At the gang-plank I was halted, and I produced my passport and exhibited the vise of his excellency, the Italian consul-general in New York. I strolled aboard, was assigned to Cabin D, and informed by my steward that there were in all but five first-class passengers, a piece of news that left me calm. Stodgy I may be,—it was odd how that term of Dunny's rankled,—but I confess that I find chance traveling acquaintances boring and avoid them when I can. Unlike most of my countrymen, I suppose I am not gregarious, though I dine and week-end punctiliously, send flowers and leave cards at decorous intervals, and know people all the way from New York to Tokio.
My carefully limited baggage looked lonely in my cabin; I missed the paraphernalia with which one usually begins a trip. Also, as I rummaged through two bags to find the cap I wanted, I longed for Peters, my faithful man, who could be backed to produce any desired thing at a moment's notice. When bound for Flanders or the Vosges, however, one must be a Spartan. I found what I sought at last and went on deck.
The scene, though cheerful, was not lacking in wartime features: A row of life-boats hung invitingly ready; a gun, highly dramatic in appearance, was mounted astern, with every air of meaning business should the kaiser meddle with us en route. Down below, the Italians, talking, gesticulating, showing their white teeth in flashing, boyish smiles, were being herded docilely on board, while at intervals one or another of the few promenade-deck passengers appeared.
The first of these, a shrewd-faced, nervous little man, borrowed an unneeded match of me and remarked that it was cold weather for spring. The next, a good-looking young foreigner,—a reservist, I surmised, recalled to the Italian colors in this hour of his country's need,—rather harrowed my feelings by coming on board with a family party, gray-haired father, anxious mother, slim bride-like wife, and two brothers or cousins, all making pathetic pretense at good cheer. Soon after came a third man, dark, quiet, watchful-looking, and personable enough, although his shoes were a little too gleamingly polished, his watch and chain a little too luminously golden, the color scheme of his hose and tie selected with almost too much care.
"This," I reflected resignedly, "is going to be a ghastly trip. By Jove, here comes another! Now where have I seen her before?"
The new arrival, as indicated by the pronoun, was a woman; though why one should tempt Providence by traveling on this route at this juncture, I found it hard to guess. Standing with her back to me, enveloped in a coat of sealskin with a broad collar of darker fur, well gloved, smartly shod, crowned by a fur hat with a gold cockade, she made a delightful picture as she rummaged in a bag which reposed upon a steamer-chair, and which, thus opened, revealed a profusion of gold mountings, bottles and brushes, hand-chased and initialed in an opulent way.
There was a haunting familiarity about her. She teased my memory as I strolled up the deck. Then, snapping the bag shut, she turned and straightened, and I recognized the girl to whose door my thief-chase had led me at the St. Ives.
It seemed rather a coincidence my meeting her again.
"I shouldn't mind talking to you on this trip," I reflected, mollified. "The mischief of it is you'll notice me about as much as you notice the ship's stokers. You're not the sort to scrape acquaintance, or else I miss my shot!"
I did not miss it. So much was instantly proved. As I passed her, on the mere chance that she might elect to acknowledge our encounter, I let my gaze impersonally meet hers. She started slightly. Evidently she remembered. But she turned toward the nearest door without a bow.
The dark, too-well-groomed man was emerging as she advanced. Instead of moving back, he blocked her path, looking—was it appraisingly, expectantly?—into her eyes. There was a pause while she waited rather haughtily for passage; then he effaced himself, and she disappeared.
Striking a match viciously, I lit a cigarette and strolled forward. Either the fellow had fancied that he knew her or he had behaved in a confoundedly impertinent way. The latter hypothesis seemed, on the whole, the more likely, and I felt a lively desire to drop him over the rail.
"But I don't know what a girl of your looks expects, I'm sure," I grumbled, "setting off on your travels with no chaperon and no companion and no maid! Where are your father and mother? Where are your brothers? Where's the old friend of the family who dined with you last night? If chaps who have no right to walk the same earth with you get insolent, who is going to teach them their place, and who is going to take care of you if a U-boat pops out of the sea? Oh, well, never mind. It isn't any of my business. But just the same if you need my services, I think I'll tackle the job."
Time was passing; night had fallen. Consulting my watch, I found that it was seven o'clock. I had been aboard more than two hours. An afternoon sailing, quotha! At this rate we would be lucky if we got off by dawn.
The dinner gong, a welcome diversion, summoned us below to lights and warmth. At one table the young Italian entertained his relatives, and at another the captain, a short, swart-faced, taciturn being, had grouped his officers and various officials of the steamship company at a farewell feast. The little sharp-faced passenger was throned elsewhere in lonely splendor, but when I selected a fourth table, he jumped up, crossed over and installed himself as my vis-a-vis. Passing me the salt, which I did not require, he supplied with it some personal data of which I felt no greater need. His name was McGuntrie, he announced; he was sales agent for the famous Phillipson Rifles and was being dispatched to secure a gigantic contract on the other side.
"And if inside six months you don't see three hundred thousand Italian soldiers carrying Phillipson's best," he informed me, "I'll take a back seat and let young Jim Furman, who thinks I'm a has-been and he's the one white hope, begin to draw my pay. You can't beat those rifles. When the boys get to carrying them, old Francis Joseph's ghost'll weep. Pity, ain't it, we didn't get on board by noon?" he digressed sociably. "I could've found something to do ashore the four hours I've been twiddling my thumbs here, and I guess you could too. Hardest, though, on our friends the newspaper boys. Did you know they were out there waiting to take a flashlight film? Fact. They do it nowadays every time a big liner leaves. Then if we sink, all they have to do is run it, with 'Doomed Ship Leaving New York Harbor' underneath."
To his shocked surprise I laughed at the information. My appetite was unimpaired as I pursued my meal. Trains in which others ride may telescope and steamers may take one's acquaintances to watery graves, but to normal people the chance of any catastrophe overtaking them personally must always seem gratifyingly far-fetched and vague.
"Think it's funny, do you?" my new friend reproached me. "Well, I don't; and neither did the folks who had cabins taken and who threw them up last week when they heard how the San Pietro went down on this same route. We're five plumb idiots—that's what we are—five crazy lunatics! I'd never have come a step, not with wild horses dragging me if it hadn't been for Jim Furman being pretty near popeyed, looking for a chance to cut me out and sail. We've got fifteen hundred reservists downstairs, and a cargo of contraband. What do you know about that as a prize for a submarine?"
"Well," I said vaingloriously. "I can swim."
My eyes were wandering, for the girl in the fur coat had entered, with the dark, watchful-eyed man—was it pure coincidence?—close behind. The steward ushered her to a table; the man followed at her heels. I dare say I glared. I know my muscles stiffened. The fellow was going to speak to her. What in blazes did he mean by stalking her in this way?
"Excuse me," he was saying, "but haven't we met before?"
The girl straightened into rigidness, looking him over. Her manner was haughty, her ruddy head poised stiffly, as she answered in a cold tone:
He was watching her keenly.
"My name's John Van Blarcom," he persisted.
Again she gave him that sweeping glance.
"You are mistaken," she said indifferently. "I have not seen you before."
He nodded curtly.
"My mistake," he admitted. "I thought I knew you," and turning from her, he sat down at the one table still unoccupied.
"So his name's Van Blarcom," whispered my ubiquitous neighbor. "And the Italian chap over there is Pietro Ricci. The steward told me so. And the captain's name is Cecchi; get it? And I know your name, too, Mr. Bayne," he added with a grin. "The steward didn't know what was taking you over, but I guess I've got your number all right. Say, ain't you a flying man or else one of the American-Ambulance boys?"
I mustered the feeble parry that I had stopped being a boy of any sort some time ago. Then lest he wring from me my age, birthplace, and the amount of my income tax, I made an end of my meal.
On deck again I wondered at my irritation, my sense of restlessness. The little salesman was not responsible, though he had fretted me like a buzzing fly. It was rather that I had taken an intense dislike to the man calling himself Van Blarcom; that the girl, despite her haughtiness, had somehow given me an impression of uneasiness—of fear almost—as she saw him approach and heard him speak; and above all, that I should have liked to flay alive the person or persons who had let her sail unaccompanied for a zone which at this moment was the danger point of the seas.
My matter-of-fact, conservatively ordered life had been given a crazy twist at the St. Ives. As an aftermath of that episode I was probably scenting mysteries where there were none. Nevertheless, I wondered—though I called myself a fool for it—if any more queer things would happen before this ship on which we five bold voyagers were confined should reach the other side.
Toward nine o'clock to my relief it became obvious that the Re d'Italia was really going to sail at last. The first and second whistles, sounding raucously, sent the company officials and the family of the young officer of reserves ashore. The plank was lowered; between the ship and the looming pier a thread of black water appeared and grew; a flash and an explosion indicated that the possibly doomed liner had been filmed according to schedule. "Evviva l'Italia!" yelled the returning braves in the steerage—a very decent set of fellows, it struck me, to leave so cheerfully their vocations of teamster, waiter, fruit vender, and the like, and go, unforced, to wear the gray-green coats of Italy, the short feathers of the mountain climbers, the bersagliere's bunch of plumes, and to stand against their hereditary foes the Austrians, up in the snowy Alps.
The details of departure were an old tale to me. As we swung farther and farther out, I turned to a newspaper, a twentieth extra probably, which I had heard a newsboy crying along the dock a little earlier, and had bribed a steward to secure. Moon and stars were lacking to-night, but the deck lights were good reading-lamps. Moving up the rail to one of them, I investigated the world's affairs.
From the first sheet the usual staring headlines leaped at me. There were the inevitable peace rumor, the double denial, the eternal bulletin of a trench taken here, a hill recaptured there. A sensational rumor was exploited to the effect that Franz von Blenheim, one of the star secret agents of the German Empire, was at present incognito at Washington, having spent the past month in putting his finger in the Mexican pie much to our disadvantage. On the last column of the page was the photograph of a distinguished-looking young man in uniform, with an announcement that promised some interest, I thought.
"War Scandal Bursts in France," "Scion of Oldest Noblesse Implicated," "Duke Mysteriously Missing," I read in the diminishing degrees of the scare-head type. Then came the picture, with a mien attractively debonair, a pleasantly smiling mouth, and a sympathetic pair of eyes, and in due course, the tale. I clutched at the flapping ends of the paper and read on:
Of all the scandals to which the present war has given birth, none has stirred France more profoundly than that implicating Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier, Count of Druyes, Marquis of Beuil and Santenay, and Duke of Raincy-la-Tour. This young nobleman, head of a family that has played its part in French history since the days of the Northmen and the crusaders, bears in his veins the bluest blood of the old regime, and numbers among his ancestors no fewer than seven marshals and five constables of France.
A noted figure not only by his birth, his wealth, and his various historic chateaux, but also by his sporting proclivities, his daring automobile racing, his marvelous fencing, and his spectacular hunting trips, the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour has long been in addition an amateur aviator of considerable fame, and it was to the French Flying Corps that he was attached when hostilities began. Here he distinguished himself from the first by his coolness, his extraordinary resource, and his utter contempt for danger, and became one of the idols of the French army and a proverb for success and audacity, besides attaining to the rank of lieutenant, gaining, after his famous night flight across Mulhausen for bomb-dropping purposes, the affectionate sobriquet of the Firefly of France, and winning in rapid succession the military Medal, the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, and the Cross of War with palms.
According to rumor, the duke was lately intrusted with a mission of exceptional peril, involving a flight into hostile territory and the capture of certain photographs of defenses much needed for the plans of the supreme command. With his wonted brilliancy, he is said to have accomplished the errand and to have returned in safety as far as the French lines. Here, however, we enter the realm of conjecture. The duke has disappeared; the plans he bore have never reached the generalissimo; and rumor persistently declares that at some point upon his return journey he was intercepted by German agents and induced by bribes or coercion to deliver up his spoils. By one version he was later captured and summarily executed by the French; while his friends, denying this, pin their hopes to his death at the hands of the enemy, as offering the best outcome of the unsavory event.
The family of the Duke of Raincy-la-Tour has been noted in the past for its pronouncedly Royalist tendencies, the attitude of his father and grandfather toward the republic having been hostile in the extreme. It is believed that this fact may have its significance in the present episode. The occurrence is of special interest to the United States in view of the recent (Continued on Page Three)
Before proceeding, I glanced at the pictured face. The Duke of Raincy-la-tour looked back at me with cool, clear eyes, smiling half aloofly, a little scornfully, as in the presence of danger the true Frenchman is apt to smile.
"I don't think, Jean-Herve-Marie-Olivier," I reflected, "that you ever talked to the Germans except with bombs. They probably got you, poor chap, and you're lying buried somewhere while the gossips make a holiday of the fact that you don't come home. Confound 'current rumors' anyhow, and yellow papers too!"
"I beg your pardon," said a low contralto voice.
The girl in the fur coat was standing at my shoulder. I turned, lifting my cap, wondering what under heaven she could want. I was not much pleased to tell the truth; a goddess shouldn't step from her pedestal to chat with strangers. Then suddenly I recognized a distinct oddness in her air.
"Would you lend me your paper," she was asking, "for just a moment? I haven't seen one since morning; the evening editions were not out when I came on board."
Her manner was proud, spirited, gracious; she even smiled; but she was frightened. I could read it in her slight pallor, in the quickening of her breath.
My extra! What was there in the day's news that could upset her? I was nonplussed, but of course I at once extended the sheet.
"Certainly!" I replied politely. "Pray keep it." Lifting my cap a second time, I turned to go.
Her fingers touched my arm.
"Wait! Please wait!" she was urging. There was a half-imperious, half-appealing note in her hushed voice.
"I'm afraid," I said blankly, "that I don't quite—"
"Some one may suspect. Some one may come," urged this most astonishing young woman. "Don't you see that—that I'm trusting you to help me? Won't you stay?"
Wondering if I by any chance looked as stunned as I felt, I bowed formally, faced about, and waited, both arms on the rail. My ideas as to my companion had been revolutionized in sixty seconds. I had believed her a girl with whom I might have grown up, a girl whose brother and cousins I had probably known at college, a girl that I might have met at a friend's dinner or at the opera or on a country-club porch if I had had my luck with me. Now what was I to think her—an escaped lunatic or something more accountable and therefore worse? If I detest anything, it is the unconventional, the stagy, the mysterious. Setting my teeth, I resolved to wait until she concluded her researches; after that, politely but firmly, I would depart.
And then, beside me, the paper rustled. I heard a little gasp, a tiny low-drawn sigh. Stealing a glance down, I saw the girl's face shining whitely in the deck light. Her black lashes fringed her cheeks as her head bent backward; her eyes were as dark as the water we were slipping through. I had no idea of speaking, and yet I did speak.
"I am afraid," I heard myself saying, "that you have had bad news."
She was struggling for self-control, but her voice wavered.
"Yes," she agreed; "I am afraid I have."
"If there is anything I can do—" I was correct, but reluctant. How I would bless her if she would go away!
But obviously she did not intend to. Quite the contrary!
"There is something," she was murmuring, "that would help me very much."
There, I had done it! I was an ass of the common or garden variety, who first resolved to keep out of a queer business and then, because a girl looked bothered, plunged into it up to my ears. I succeeded in hiding my feelings, in looking wooden.
"Please tell me," I responded, "what it is."
"But—I can't explain it." Her gloved hands tightened on the railing. "And if I ask without explaining, it will seem so—so strange."
"Doubtless," I reflected grimly. But I had to see the thing through now. "That doesn't matter at all," I assured her civilly through clenched teeth.
She came closer—so close that her fur coat brushed me, and her breath touched my cheek; her eyes, like gray stars now that they were less anxious, went to my head a little, I suppose. Oh, yes, she was lovely. Of course that was a factor. If she had been past her first youth and skimpy as to hair, and dowdy, I don't pretend that I should ever have mixed myself up in the preposterous coil.
"This paper," she whispered, holding out the sheet, "has something in it. It is not about me; it is not even true. But if it stays aboard the ship,—if some one sees it, it may make trouble. Oh, you see how it sounds; I knew you would think me mad!"
"Not in the least." What an absurd rigmarole she was uttering! Yet such was the spell of her eyes, her voice, her nearness that I merely felt like saying, "Tell me some more."
"I can't destroy it myself," she went on anxiously. "He—they—mustn't see me do anything that might lead them to—to guess. But no one will think of you, nobody will be watching you; so by and by will you weight the paper with something heavy and drop it across the rail?"
My head was whirling, but a graven image might have envied me my impassivity. I bowed. "I shall be delighted," I announced banally, "to do as you say."
Her face flushed to a warm wild-rose tint as she heard me promise it, and her red lips, parting, took on a tremulous smile.
"Thank you," she murmured in frank gratitude. "I thought—I knew you would help me!" Then she was gone.
My trance broken I woke to hear myself softly swearing. I consigned myself to my proper home, an asylum; I wished the girl at Timbuktu, Kamchatka, Land's End—anywhere except on this ship. As I had told the agent of the Phillipson Rifles, I am no boy. One can scarcely knock about the world for thirty years without gaining some of its wisdom; and of all the appropriate truisms I spared myself not one.
Resentfully I reminded myself that mysteries were suspicious, that honest people seldom had need of secrecy, that idiots who, like me, consented to act blindfold would probably repent their blindness in sackcloth and ashes before long. But what use were these sage reflections? I had given my word to her. I was in for the consequences, however unpleasant they proved.
Without further mental parley I went down to my cabin, where I routed out from among my traps a bronze paper-weight as heavy as lead. Wrapping the mysterious sheet about it, I brought the package back on deck. There was not a soul in sight; it was a propitious hour.
To right and to left the coast lights were slipping past, making golden paths on the black water as our tug pulled us out to sea. The reservists down below were singing "Va fuori, o stranier!" I dropped my package overboard, watched it vanish, and turned to behold the sphinx-like Van Blarcom, sprung up as if by magic, regarding me placidly from the shelter of the smoking-room door.
MR. VAN BLARCOM. U. S. A.
For a trip that had begun with such rich promise of the unusual, my voyage on the Re d'Italia proved a gratifying anticlimax during its first few days. The weather was bad. We plowed forward monotonously, flagless, running between dark-gray water and a lowering, leaden sky. Screws throbbed, timbers creaked, and dishes crashed as the Gulf Stream took us, and great waves reared themselves round us like myriads of threatening Alps.
After that first night the girl kept discreetly to her stateroom. I was relieved; but I thought of her a good deal. I had little else to do. Pacing a drunken deck and smoking, I wove unsatisfactory theories, asking myself what was her need of secrecy, what the item she wanted hidden, what the errand that had made her sail on the vessel a week after the spectacular torpedoing of a sister-ship? Did she know this Van Blarcom or did she merely dread any notice? And above all, who was the man and had he been watching when I tossed that wretched extra across the rail?
I saw something of him, of course, as time went on. Naturally we four bold spirits, the ubiquitous McGuntrie, Van Blarcom, the young reservist Pietro Ricci,—a very good sort of fellow,—and I were herded together beyond escape. Also, a foursome at bridge seemed divinely indicated by our number, and to avert a sheer paralysis of ennui we formed the habit of winning each other's money at that game.
As we played I studied Van Blarcom, but without results. It was ruffling; I should have absorbed in so much intercourse a fairly definite impression of his personality, profession, and social grade. But he was baffling; reticent, but self-assured, authoritative even, and, in a quiet way, watchful. He smoked a good cigar, mixed a good drink, seemed used to travel, but produced a coarse-grained effect, made grammatical errors, and on the whole was a person from whom, once ashore, I should flee.
At six o'clock on the seventh night out our voyage entered its second lap; all the electric lights were simultaneously extinguished as we entered the danger zone. We made a sketchy toilet by means of tapers, groped like wandering ghosts down a dim corridor, and dined by the faint rays of candles thrust into bottles and placed at intervals along the festive board. I went on deck afterward to find the ship plunging through blackness on forced draft, with port-holes shrouded and with not even a riding-light. If not in Davy Jones's locker by that time, we should reach Gibraltar the next evening; afterward we should head for Naples, a two days' trip.
The following morning found our stormy weather over. The sea through which we were speeding had a magic color, the dark, rich, Mediterranean blue. Ascending late, I saw gulls flying round us and seaweed drifting by, and Mr. McGuntrie in a state of nerves, with a life belt about him, walking wildly to and fro.
"Well, Mr. Bayne," he greeted me, "never again for mine! If I ever see the end of this trip,—if you call it a trip; I call it merry hades,—believe me, I'll sell something hereafter that I can sell on land. I'm a crackerjack of a salesman, if I do say it myself. Once I got started talking I could get a man down below to buy a hot toddy and a set of flannels—and I wish I'd gone down there and done it before I ever saw this boat."
Unmoved, I leaned on the railing and watched the blue swells break. McGuntrie took a turn or two. In the ship's library he had discovered a manual entitled "How to Swim," and he was now attempting between laments to memorize its salient points.
"The first essay is best made in water of not less than fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and not more than four feet in depth," he gabbled, and then broke off to gaze at the sea about us, chilly in temperature, and countless fathoms deep. "Oh, what's the use? What the blue blazes does it matter?" he cried hysterically. "I tell you that U-boat that sank the San Pietro is laying for us. In about an hour you'll see a periscope bob up out there. Then we'll send out an S.O.S., and the next thing you know we'll sink with all on board."
We had as yet escaped this doom when toward six o'clock we approached Gibraltar, running beneath a crimson sunset and between misty purple shores. On one hand lay Africa, on the other the Moorish country, both shrouded in a soft haze and edged with snowy foam. Down below the soldiers of Italy were singing. A merchantman of belligerent nationality, our ship proudly flew its flag again. Indeed, had it failed to do so, the British patrol-boats would long since have known the reason why.
It was growing dark when I turned to find Van Blarcom at my elbow.
"I didn't see you," I commented rather shortly. I don't like people to creep up beside me like cats.
"No," he responded. "I've been waiting quite a while. I didn't want to disturb you, but the fact is I'd like a word with you, Mr. Bayne."
I eyed him with curiosity. He was inscrutable, this quiet, alert, efficient-looking man. Take, for instance, his present manner, half self-assured, half respectfully apologetic—what grade in life did it fit?
"Well, here I am," I said briefly as I struck a match.
"I've thought it over a good bit," he went on, apparently in self-justification. "I don't know how you will take it, but I'll chance it just the same. If I don't give you a hint, you don't get a square deal. That's my attitude. Did you ever hear of Franz von Blenheim, Mr. Bayne?"
"Eh?" The question seemed distinctly irrelevant—and yet where had I heard that name, not very long ago?
"The German secret-service agent. The best in the world, they say." A sort of reluctant admiration showed in Van Blarcom's face. "There isn't any one that can get him; he does what he wants, goes where he likes—the United States, England, France, Russia—and always gets away safe. You'd think he was a conjurer to read what he does sometimes. A whole country will be looking for him, and he takes some one else's passport, puts on a disguise, and good-by—he's gone! That's Franz von Blenheim. No; that's just an outline of him. And on pretty good authority, he's in Washington now."
Mr. Van Blarcom, I reflected, was surely coming out of his shell; this was quite a monologue with which he was favoring me. It was dark now; our lights were flaring. Being in a friendly port's shelter, we burned electricity to-night.
"You seem to know a whole lot about this fellow," I remarked idly in the pause.
"Yes, I do." He smiled a trifle grimly. "In fact, I once came near getting him; it would have made my fortune, too. But he slipped through my fingers at the last minute, and if I ever—You see, I'm in the secret-service myself, Mr. Bayne."
I turned to stare at him.
"The United States service?" I asked.
I nodded. All that had puzzled me was fairly clear in this new light. Not at all the type of the star agents, those marvelous beings who figure so romantically in fiction and on the boards, he was yet, I fancied, a good example of the ruck of his profession, those who did the every-day detective work which in such a business must be done. But—Franz von Blenheim? What was my association with the name? Then I recalled that in the extra I had read as we left harbor there had been some account of the man's activities in Mexico.
"What I wanted to say was this," Van Blarcom continued in his usual manner—the manner that I now recognized to be a subtler form of the policeman's, respectful to those he held for law-abiding, alert and watchful to detect gentry of any other kind. "This line we're traveling on now is one the spies use quite a bit. They used to go to London straight or else to Bordeaux and Paris; but the English and French got a pretty strict watch going, and now it's easier for them to slip into France through Italy, by Modane. They sail for Naples mostly, do you see? And—you won't repeat this?—it's fairly sure that when Franz von Blenheim sends his government a report of what he's done in Mexico against us, he'll send it by an agent who travels on this line and lands in Italy and then slips into Germany by way of Switzerland."
We were drifting slowly into the harbor of Gibraltar, the rock looming over us through the blackness, a gigantic mountain, a mass of tiered and serried lights. Search-lights, too, shot out like swords, focused on us, and swept us as we crept forward between dimly visible, anchored craft. The throbbing of our engines ceased. A launch chugged toward us, bringing the officers of the port. I watched, pleased with the scene, and rather taken with my companion's discourse. It was not unlike a dime novel of my youth.
"Do you mean you've been sent on this line to watch for one of Blenheim's agents?" I inquired.
"No. I'm sent for some work on the other side—and I'm not telling you what it is, either," he rejoined. "What I meant was that a man has to be careful, traveling on these ships. They watch close. They have to. Haven't you noticed that whenever two or three of us get to talking, a steward comes snooping round? Well, I suppose you wouldn't, it not being your business; but I have. We're watched all the time; and if we're wise, we'll mind our step. Take you, for instance. You're a good American, eh? And yet some spy might fool you with a cute story and get your help and maybe play you for a sucker on the other side. I saw that happen once. It was a nice young chap, and a pretty girl fooled him—got him into a peck of trouble. What you want to remember is that good spies never seem like spies."
If I looked as I felt just then, the search-light that swept me must have startled him. I could feel my face flushing, my hands clenching as I caught his drift. I swung round.
"What's this about?" I demanded sharply. But I knew.
"Well," said the secret-service man discreetly, "I saw something pretty funny the first night out, Mr. Bayne. It was safe enough with me; I can tell a gentleman from a spy; but if an officer had seen it, the thing wouldn't have been a joke. Suppose we put it this way. There's a person on board I think I know. I haven't got the goods, I'll own, but I don't often make mistakes. My advice to you, sir, is to steer clear of strangers. And if I were you, I—"
"That'll do, thanks!" I cut him short. "I can take care of myself. I don't say your motives are bad,—you may think this is a favor,—but I call it a confounded piece of meddling, and I'll trouble you to let it end."
He looked hurt and indignant.
"Now, look here," he remonstrated, "what have I done but give you a friendly hint not to get in bad? But maybe I was too vague about it; you just listen to a few facts. I'll tell you who that young lady is and who her people are and what she wants on the other side—"
"No, you won't!" I declared. My voice sounded savage. I was recalling how she had begged the extra of me, and how it had contained a full account of Franz von Blenheim, the kaiser's man. "The young lady's name and affairs are no concern of mine. If you know anything you can keep it to yourself."
As we glared at each other like two hostile catamounts, a steward relieved the tension by running toward us down the deck.
"Signori, un momento, per piacere!" he called as he came. The British officers were on board, he forthwith informed us, and were demanding, in accordance with the martial law now reigning at Gibraltar, a sight of each passenger and his passport before the ship should proceed.
The salon of conversation, as the mirrored, gilded, and highly varnished apartment was grandiloquently termed, had been the very spot chosen for our presumably not very terrible ordeal. Things were well under way. At the desk in the corner one officer was jotting down notes as to the clearance papers and the cargo; while at a table in the foreground sat his comrade, in a lieutenant's uniform, with the captain of the Re d'Italia at his right, swart-faced and silent, and the list of the passengers lying before the pair.
As I entered a few moments behind Van Blarcom, I perceived that the interrogation had already run a partial course. Pietro Ricci, the reservist, had, no doubt, emerged with flying colors and now stood against the wall beside the doughty agent of the Phillipson Rifles, who had apparently satisfied his inquisitor, too. Near the door a group of stewards had clustered to watch with interest; and as I stood waiting, the girl in furs came in.
I put myself a hypothetical query.
"If a girl," I thought, "materializes from the void, asks an incriminating favor, and vanishes, does that put one on bowing terms with her when one meets her again?" Evidently it did, for she smiled brightly and graciously and bent her ruddy head. But she was pale, I noticed critically; there was apprehension in her eyes. Wasn't it odd that the prospect of a few simple questions from an officer should disconcert her when she had possessed the courage, or the foolhardiness, to sail on this line at this time?
Really I could not deny that all I had seen of her was most suspicious. For aught I knew, the secret-service man might be absolutely right. I had treated him outrageously. I owed him an apology, doubtless. But I still felt furious with him, and when she looked anxiously at those officers, I felt furious with them too.
Van Blarcom, his brief questioning ended, was turning from the table. As he passed, I made a point of smiling companionably at the girl.
"Now for the rack, the cord, and the thumbscrews," I murmured to her, making way.
The lieutenant was a tall, lean, muscular young man with a shrewd tanned face in which his eyes showed oddly blue, and he half rose, civilly enough, as the girl advanced.
"Please sit down," he said with a strong English accent. "I'll have to see your passport if you will be so good." She took it from the bag she carried, and he glanced at it perfunctorily.
"Your name is Esme Falconer?"
"Yes," she replied.
It was the name of the little Stuart princess, the daughter of Charles the First, whose quaint, coiffed, blue-gowned portrait hangs in a dark, gloomy gallery at Rome. I was subconsciously aware that I liked it despite its strangeness, the while I wondered more actively if that Paul Pry of a Van Blarcom had imparted to the ship's authorities the suspicions he had shared with me.
"You are an American, Miss Falconer? You were born in the States? You are going to Italy—and then home again?" The questions came in a reassuringly mechanical fashion; the man was doing his duty, nothing more.
"I may go also to France." Her voice was steady, but I saw that she had clenched her hands beneath the table.
I glanced at Van Blarcom, to find him listening intently, his neck thrust forward, his eyes almost protruding in his eagerness not to miss a word. But there was to be nothing more.
"That is satisfactory, Miss Falconer," announced the Englishman; with a little sigh of relief, she stood back against the wall.
"If you please," said the officer to me in another tone.
As I came forward, his eyes ran over me from head to foot. So did Captain Cecchi's; but I hardly noticed; these uniforms, these formalities, these war precautions, were like a dash of comic opera. I was not taking them seriously in the least. The Britisher gestured me toward a seat, but it seemed superfluous for so brief an interview, and I remained standing with my hands resting on a chair.
"I'll have your passport!" There was something curt in his manner. "Ah! And your name is—?"
"My name is Devereux Bayne."
"How old are you?"
"Where do you live?"
"In New York and Washington." If he could be laconic, so could I.
"You were born in America?"
"No. I was born in Paris." By this time questions and answers were like the pop of rifle-shots.
"That was a long way from home. Lucky you chose the country of one of our Allies." Was this sarcasm or would-be humor? It had an unpleasant ring.
"Glad you like it," I responded, with a cold stare, "but I didn't pick it."
"Well, if you weren't born in the States, are you an American citizen?" he imperturbably pursued.
"If you'll consult my passport, you'll see that I am."
"Did either your father or your mother have any German blood?"
I could hear a slight rustle back of me among the passengers, none of whom, it was plain, had been subjected to such cross-questioning. I was growing restive, but I couldn't tell him it was not his business; of course it was.
"No; they didn't," I briefly replied.
"About your destination now." He was making notes of all my answers. "You are going to Italy, and then—"
"Roundabout trip, rather. The Bordeaux route is safer just now and quicker, too. Why not have gone that way? And how long are you planning to stop over on this side?"
"It depends upon circumstances." What on earth ailed the fellow? He was as annoying as a mosquito or a gnat.
"I beg your pardon, but your plans seem rather at loose ends, don't they? What are you crossing for?"
"To drive an ambulance!" I answered as curtly as the words could be said.
I saw his face soften and humanize at the information. For once I had made a satisfactory response, it seemed. But on the heels of my answer there rose the voice of Mr. McGuntrie, sensational, accusing, pitched almost at a shriek.
"Look here, lieutenant," he was crying, "don't you let that fellow fool you. I asked him the first night out if he was an ambulance boy, and he denied it to me, up and down. I thought all along he was too smart, hooting like he did at submarines. Guess he knew one would pick him up all right if the rest of us did sink."
"How about that, Mr. Bayne?" asked the Englishman, his uncordial self once more.
It was maddening. One would have thought them all in league to prove me an atrocious criminal.
"Simply this," I replied with the iciness of restrained fury, "that this gentleman has been the steamer's pest ever since the night we sailed. If I had answered his questions, every one, down to the ship's cat, would have shared his knowledge within the hour. I did not deny anything; I simply did not assent. You are an officer in authority; I am answering you, though I protest strongly at your manner; but I don't tell my affairs to prying strangers because we are cooped up on the same boat."
"H'm. If I were you I would keep my temper." He regarded me thoughtfully, and then with rapier-like rapidity shot two questions at my head. "I say, Mr. Bayne, you're positive about your parents not having German blood, are you? And you are quite sure you were born in Paris, not in—well, Prussia, suppose we say?"
"What the—" I opportunely remembered the presence of Miss Esme Falconer. "What do you mean?" I substituted less sulphurously, but with a glare.
He bent forward, tapping his forefinger against the desk, and his eyes were like gimlets boring into mine.
"I mean," he enlightened me, his voice very hard of a sudden, "that a German agent is due to sail on this line, about this time, with certain papers, and that from one or two indications I'm not at all sure you are not the man."
With sudden perspicacity, I realized that he took me for an emissary of the great Blenheim. Exasperation overwhelmed me; would these farcical complications never cease?
"Good heavens, man," I exclaimed with conviction, "you are crazy! Look at me! Use your common-sense! What on earth is there about me to suggest a spy?"
"In a good spy there never is anything suggestive."
By Jove, that was the very thing the secret-service man had said!
"You admit you were born abroad. You claim to be bound for France, but you sail for Italy. And you are rather a soldier's type, tall, well set-up, good military carriage. You'd make quite a showing in a field uniform, I should say."
"In a fiddlestick!" I snapped, weary of the situation. "So would you—so would our friend the Italian reservist there. I'm an average American, free, white, and twenty-one, with strong pro-Ally sympathies and a passport in perfect shape. This is all nonsense, but of course there is something back of it. What has been your real reason for deviling me ever since I entered this room?"
The lieutenant was studying my face.
"Mr. Bayne," he said slowly, "do you care to tell me the nature of the package you threw across the rail the first night out?"
I heard a gasp from the group behind me, a squeal of joy from McGuntrie, a quick, low-drawn breath that surely came from the girl. Preternaturally cool, I thought rapidly.
"What's that you say? Package?" I repeated, trying to gain time.
"Yes, package!" said the Englishman, sharply. "And we'll dispense with pretense, please. These are war-times, and from common prudence the Allies keep an eye on all passengers who choose to sail instead of staying at home as we prefer they should. Captain Cecchi here reports to me that one of his stewards saw you drop a small weighted object overboard. He has asked me to interrogate you, instead of doing it himself, so that you may have the chance to defend yourself in English, which he doesn't speak."
"E vero. It ees the truth," confirmed the captain of the Re d'Italia—the one remark, by the way, that he ever addressed to me.
"Well?" It was the Englishman's cold voice. "We are waiting, Mr. Bayne! What was this object you were so anxious to dispose of? A message from some confederate, too compromising to keep?"
Heretofore I had carefully avoided looking at Miss Falconer, but at this point, turning my head a trifle, I gave her a casual glance. Her eyes had blackened as they had done that night on the deck; her face had paled, and her breath was coming fast. But as I looked, her gaze fell, and her lashes wavered; and I knew that whatever came she did not mean to speak.
THE TIGHTENING WEB
I did not, of course, want her to. I was no "Injun giver," and having once pledged my word to help her, I was prepared to keep it till all was blue or any other final shade. Still, it was not to be denied that my position looked incriminating. She might be as honest as the daylight,—I believed she was; I had to or else abandon her,—but she had managed to plunge me into a confounded mess.
Naturally I was exasperated at the net results of my piece of gallantry. I didn't care to be suspected; I wasn't anxious to have to lie. All the same, a plausible explanation, offered without delay, appeared essential. I should have wanted as much myself had I been guarding Gibraltar port.
"Well, Mr. Bayne?"
"Well!" I retorted coolly. "I was just wondering if I should answer. This is an infernal outrage, you know. You don't really think I'm a spy. What you are doing is to give me a third degree on general principles. If you'll excuse my saying so I think you ought to have more sense!"
"Oh, of course we ought to take you on trust," he agreed sardonically. "But we can't I'm afraid. The fact is, we have had an experience or two to shake our faith. The last time this steamer stopped here we caught a pair of spies who didn't look the part any more than you do; and since then we have rather stopped taking appearances as guarantees."
"All right, then," I responded. "I'll stretch a point since it is war-time. I give you my word that I threw overboard a small bronze paper-weight that was cluttering up my traps. There was nothing surreptitious about it; the whole steamer might have seen me. Do you care to take the responsibility of having me shot for that?"
"And I want to say, sir, that the gentleman is giving it to you straight." An unexpected voice addressed the lieutenant at my back. "I was standing at the door behind him that night, though he didn't know it, and I can take my oath that what he says is gospel truth."
My unlooked-for champion was Mr. John Van Blarcom. I stared at him, at a loss to know why, on the heels of our row on deck and my rejection of his friendly warning, he should perjure himself for me in so obliging a fashion. He had, I was aware, been too far off that night to know whether I had thrown away a paper-weight or a sand-bag. Moreover, the object had been swathed beyond recognition in the extra that was primarily responsible for all this fuss. "He is sorry for me," I decided. "He thinks the girl has made a fool of me." Instead of experiencing gratitude, I felt more galled and wrathful than before.
"Is that so? How close were you?" the lieutenant asked alertly. "About ten feet? You are quite sure? Well—it's all right, I suppose, then," he admitted in a very grudging tone.
"No, it isn't," I declared tartly. I was by no means satisfied with so half-hearted a vindication; nor did I care to owe my immunity to a patronizing lie on Mr. Van Blarcom's part. "You have accused me of spying. Do you think I'll let it go at that? I insist that you have my baggage brought up here and that you search it and search me."
The face of the Englishman really relaxed for once.
"That's a good idea. And it's what any honest man would want, Mr. Bayne," he approved. "Since you demand it—certainly, we'll do it," and he glanced at the captain, who promptly ordered two stewards to fetch my traps from below.
Things move rapidly on shipboard. My traveling impedimenta appeared in the salon almost before I could have uttered the potent name of Jack Robinson, had I cared to try. With cold aloofness I offered my keys, and the head steward knelt to officiate, while the crowd gaped and the second English officer abandoned his corner and his papers, standing forth to watch with the lieutenant and the captain, thus forming an intent and highly interested committee of three.
The investigation began, very thorough, slightly harrowing. I had not realized the embarrassing detail of such a search. An extended store of collars suitable for different occasions; neat and glossy piles of shirts, both dress and plain; black silk hose mountain high, and neckties as numerous as the sea sands. Noting the rapt attention that McGuntrie in particular gave to these disclosures, I felt that to deserve so inhuman a punishment my crime must have been black indeed. Shoes on their trees; articles of silk underwear; brushes, combs, gloves, cards, boxes of cigarettes, an extra flask; some light literature. And so on and so on, ad nauseam, till I grew dully apathetic, and roused only to praise Allah when we left the boxes for the trunk.
Hardened by this time, I brazenly endured the exhibition of my pajamas, not turning a hair when they were held up and shaken out before the attentive crowd. In a similar spirit I bore the examination of my coats and trousers, the rummaging of my vests, the investigation of my hats. "Courage!" I told myself. "Nothing in the world is endless." Indeed, the last garment was now being lifted, revealing nothing beneath it save a leather wallet carefully tied.
"Just look through that, will you?" I requested with chilling sarcasm. "Otherwise you may get to thinking later that I had a note for the kaiser there. In point of fact, those are simply some letters of introduction that I am taking to—" I broke off abruptly. "Good Lord deliver us!" I blankly exclaimed. "What's that?"
The lieutenant, complying with my request, had unbound the wallet and was flirting out its contents in fan-like fashion like a hand of cards. I saw the imposing army of letters presented me by Dunny, who knows everybody, headed by one to his old friend, the American ambassador to France. So far, so good. But beneath them, with a sickening sense of being in a bad dream, I beheld a thin sheaf of papers, neatly folded, bound with red tape and sealed with bright red wax,—an object which, to my certain knowledge, had no more business among my belongings than the knives and plates that the conjurer snatches from the surrounding atmosphere, or the hen which he evolves, clucking, from an erstwhile empty sleeve.
Standing there with the impersonal calm of utter helplessness, I watched the Britisher break the seal and unfold the sheets. They were thin and they were many and they were covered with closely jotted hieroglyphics, row upon row. But the sphinx-like quality of the contents afforded me no gleam of hope. If they had proclaimed as much in the plainest English printing, I could have been no surer that they were the papers of Franz von Blenheim; nor, as I learned a good while afterward, was I mistaken in the belief.
I was vaguely aware that the spectators were being ordered from the salon. Captain Cecchi's eyes were dark stilettos; the gaze of the Englishman was like a narrow flash of blue steel. He was going to say something. I waited apathetically. Then the words came, falling like icicles in the deadness of the hush.
"If you wish, sir," he stated, "to explain why you are traveling with cipher papers, Captain Cecchi and I will hear what you have to say."
WHAT A THIEF CAN DO
In sheer desperation I achieved a ghastly levity of demeanor.
"Please don't shoot me yet," I managed to request. "And if I sit down and think for a moment, don't take it for a confession. Any innocent man would be shocked dumb temporarily if his traps gave up such loot."
I sat down in dizzy fashion, my judges watching me. Through my mind, in a mad phantasmagoria, danced the series of events that had begun in the St. Ives restaurant and was ending so dramatically in the salon of this ship. Or perhaps the end had not yet arrived, I thought ironically. By a slight effort of imagination I could conjure up a scene of the sort rendered familiar by countless movie dramas—a lowering fortress wall, myself standing against it, scornfully waving away a bandage, and drawn up before me a highly efficient firing-squad.
To all intents and purposes I was a spy, caught red-handed; but with due respect for circumstantial evidence, I did not mean to remain one long. That part of it was too absurd. There must be a dozen ways out of it. Come! The fact that so strange an experience had befallen me in a New York hotel on the eve of my sailing could not be pure coincidence. There lay the clue to the mystery. Let me work it out.
And then, as my wits began groping, comprehension came to me—a sudden comprehension that left me stunned and dazed: The open trunk, the thief, the descent by the fire-escape, the girl's calm denial, turning us from the suspected floor. Yes, the girl! Heavens, what a blind dolt I had been! No wonder that Van Blarcom had felt moved to say a helping word for me, as for a congenital idiot not responsible for his acts!
"When you are ready—" the lieutenant was remarking. I pulled myself together as hastily as I could.
"First," I began, with all the resolution I could muster, "I want to say that I am as much at a loss as you are about this thing. I never set eyes upon those papers until this evening. Why, man alive, I insisted on the search! I asked you to examine the wallet! Do you think I did all that to establish my own guilt?"
"We'll keep to the point, please." His very politeness was ill omened. "The papers were in your baggage. Can you explain how they came there?"
"I am going to try," I answered coolly. "To begin with, I can vouch for it that they were not there two weeks ago when my man packed the trunk. That I can swear to, for I glanced through the letters before handing him the wallet; and when he had finished packing I locked the trunk and went yachting for five days."
"And your luggage? Did it go with you?" queried the Englishman.
"No; it didn't. It remained in the baggage-room of my apartment house; but when I landed and found hotel quarters, I had it sent to me at the St. Ives."
"So you stayed there!" He was eyeing me with ever-growing disfavor. "You didn't know, of course, that it was a nest of agents, a sort of rendezvous for hyphenates, and that the last spy we caught on this line had made it his headquarters in New York?"
"I did not," I replied stiffly. "But I can believe the worst of it. Now, here's what befell me there." I recounted my adventure briefly, beginning with the summons from restaurant to telephone.
It was strange how, as I talked, each detail fell into its place, how each little circumstance, formerly so mystifying, grew clear. The alarm of the maitre d'hotel over my sudden departure, his relief when I entered the booths, his corresponding horror when, emerging, I took the elevator for my room, puzzled me no longer. The deserted halls, the flight of the little German intruder, the determined lack of interest of the hotel management, were merely links in the chain.
I told a straight, unvarnished story with one exception. When I came to the point I couldn't bring in Miss Esme Falconer's name. I said non-committally that a lady had occupied the room where the thief took refuge; and I left it to be inferred that I had never seen her before or since.
The lieutenant heard my tale out with impassivity. "Is that all, Mr. Bayne?" he asked shortly, as I paused.
"Yes," I lied doggedly. "And if you want more, I call you insatiable. I've told you enough to satisfy any man's appetite for the abnormal, haven't I?"
"Your defense, then," he summed it up, "is that under the protection of a German management a German agent entered your room, opened your trunk, concealed these papers in it, and repacked it. You believe that, eh?"
It sounded wild enough, I acknowledged gloomily as I sat staring at the carpet with my elbows on my knees.
"You've been a pretty fool, a pretty fool, a pretty fool!" the refrain sang itself unceasingly in my ears. I was disgusted with the episode, more disgusted yet with my own role. Why was I lying, why making myself by my present silence as well as by my former density the flagrant confederate of a clever spy?