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THE FIREFLY OF FRANCE
by Marion Polk Angellotti
TO 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.
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