Bibi - His Mark/Chapter 6
IT was when Bibi returned from the cashier's desk with the dinner check that he overheard the tail end of a remark which the professor was flinging carelessly to the curling smoke of his cigarette. Quite still he stood, tense, listening, cursing the lilt of the Brazilian tango that brushed in from the palm-screened orchestra with lascivious violins.
But he caught a few words, a strange, guttural, jaw-breaking name; too, the lawyer's sighing rejoinder:
"To be sure. But only an apache could turn the trick. And we—why, we are driveling, sentimental, pap-fed humanitarians like our English allies. We'd throw up our hands in horror at the very idea. We are what our friend the waiter calls dirty bourgeois."
With which remarks they passed out of the restaurant, out of Bibi's life, leaving nothing behind them except a generous tip, the memory of an aristocratic German name, and yet another sharpening in the apache's heart of that class consciousness which is akin to patriotism—and, by reverse English, causing Judge Moses C. Mandelson, when Bibi entered his office early the next morning accompanied by Fitzgerald, to break into enthusiastic speech.
"Good!" he said. "You'll make a splendid soldier." Then anxiously, remembering the other's unflinching lie that he had been discharged from his regiment for physical disabilities: "Sure you're all right—in good enough shape?"
"Must have been Tim Sully's food," mused Mandelson. "Good old Tim! Why"—fervently—"he made a new man of you; a clean, upstanding man, a soldier of France! I must tell him. He'll be just as pleased as I!" And, after more in the same vein, he shook hands with Bibi l'Tueur and wished him Godspeed.
Fitzgerald, too, was happy. He saw the apache safely on board the French liner bound for Bordeaux.
"Faith, an' I knew it before ever the judge did!" he cried exultantly. "Ye're a little runt of a villain—but ye're a pathriot! Here"—as Bibi made a gesture—don't ye dare kiss me!"
"Kiss you, you fat pig of a gendarme?" snarled Bibi in regrettable gutter-French. "I'd ram six inches of steel down your swollen gizzard if I had half a chance!"
And with these parting words he returned to his own land.
Bibi found that the war had made several changes in the Paris as he knew it. The quartier was more quiet, more sober, more tolerant of bourgeois and policemen. Too, new heroes had come to the front, not only on the boulevards, but even in his own quartier.
Forgotten were Eloi l'Michet and Anatol' Chapin and le p'tit homme a Théreè. The new heroes bore simpler names: Joffre, Pétain, Nivelle.
The old woman who had her stall in a postern of the Rue de Turbigo, and who used to give him handfuls of crisp, golden-brown potatoes free of charge, told him the startling news, winding up with:
"Even you are forgotten, my little one. You! Bibi l'Tueur!"
"Oh, well—" He shrugged his shoulders. Then he asked:
"And the police—have they forgotten, too?"
"What, my lamb?"
"The little affair—you know, just before I left—that knife of mine found in the body of a bourgeois—"
"They have not asked about you in the quartier for over six months. It seems that you are free to go where you please."
"Ah, yes," echoed Bibi, "to go where I please!" And, like a gallant apache, he kissed the old woman's shriveled cheek and turned away from the Rue de Turbigo, crossed the bridge, and, not far from the Place de la Republique, entered a gray, pompous building that loomed to the sky in a confused mass of baroque towers and spires.
It was there that, over twelve years earlier, he had been mustered into the "convict" regiment. The same torn battle-flags decorated the anteroom of battalion headquarters. The same short-spoken, spectacled, retired non-commissioned officer asked him his name and business; and when he was ushered into the presence of the commanding officer, he saw in him his old colonel—the one who had faced him on the yellow, sun-baked Algerian drill-ground and had told him that he did not want him, that the regiment, the army, France did not want him.
Colonel Deschanel-Mauret looked up from the mass of papers that littered the desk and—
"Bibi—Bibi Laripette!" Recognition was mutual and instantaneous. "You—you—" he spluttered. Then, harshly, controlling himself: "What do you want?"
The other snarled a laconic reply:
"A chance to fight."
"I kicked you cut of the army once."
"Bien. Kick me back again."
"Because—as a patriot—"
"That's a lie. Tell me the real reason!"
Bibi considered. Then he spoke—just one name—the guttural German name he had overheard in the Silver Glen two weeks earlier:
That was as far as he got. For, immediately the colonel rose with a bellow.
"Von Baschwitz?" he demanded thickly, the purple veins on his temples standing out like ropes. "And what have you to do with him?"
"I know that—"
"Oh—you know! And how do you know? Only we, at headquarters, know his name, and you are not one of us. I tell you what you are! You are a traitor, a spy, and—by God!—you're as poor a spy as you were a soldier! Did Von Baschwitz send you? And whom are you trying to double-cross—him or us—you—" And before Bibi, utterly taken aback, had a chance to defend himself, to explain, the colonel had pushed the desk-button and given rapid orders to the file of infantrymen who came on a run.
Two minutes later, bound hand and foot, he was stretched out on a uncomfortable-enough couch in an inner office, facing a tall, elderly man in civilian clothes, with a square, angular jaw, a supercilious upsweep of iron-gay mustache, thin, sardonic lips that subtended a Quixotic nose, and immense, luminous, greenish-brown eyes—eyes which were not altogether French, not altogether European, and by which hangs part of this tale.
Suavely, smilingly, he introduced himself as Captain Daniélou.
You have heard of my name, I suppose," he added. "I am Daniélou of the Intelligence Service."
"I have never heard your name in my life," came the choked reply, "and I hope to God I'll never hear it again, you dirty, misbegotten, spindle-shanked specimen of a cursed cooking-stove!"
The other smiled imperturbably.
"You haven't? And yet Colonel Deschanel-Mauret told me that you—ahem—" He coughed, wrinkled his forehead in thought, studied the apache from head to foot as he might some exotic and loathsome beetle, and then shook his head.
"Can't make it out," he went on, half to himself. "You don't seem like a—you certainly don't look like a—"
"Like a what?" demanded Bibi.
"Like a German spy."
"I am not, bourgeois!"
"But the colonel—"
Bibi cut in with several detailed and gory wishes as to what he hoped might happen to the colonel in this life and the one to come, the other meanwhile lighting a cigar and leaning back in his chair, waiting till the flow of bad language should have exhausted itself.
"Tell me," he asked, when the apache stopped for sheer lack of breath, "what did you say to the colonel?"
"I told him I wanted to enlist. He asked me why—and I said because Von Baschwitz—"
"Full stop!" came the terse command. "What have you to do with"—he lowered his voice—"Von Baschwitz?"
And Bibi, deciding that for some unknown reason he was in a tight corner, repressed his emotions and spoke the simple truth: How, waiting on two French officials in a New York restaurant, he had overheard part of their conversation; how one had said that Von Baschwitz's death would be of greater value to France than the destruction of three German divisions; how the other had rejoined that it would take an apache to turn the trick, and how he, on the spur of the moment—"to show these dirty bourgeois what a son of the quartier, a man like himself, can do!"—had made up his mind to—
"To do what?" asked Captain Daniélou, while Bibi grinned instead of replying.
"I understand," went on the intelligence officer after a pause. "Tell me—the men whom you overheard—what did they look like?"
Followed a correct, vituperative, and unflattering portrayal that caused Daniélou to burst out laughing.
"You speak the truth!" he said. "Maître Toussaint Leblanc and Professor Assolant! You described them to a T. Of course, they had no business to blab. But—well—perhaps it's for the best."
Then, bending down and untying the bonds that held Bibi hand and foot, and looking upon him with something like affection in his greenish-brown, un-European eyes, he asked:
"Can you do it?"
"Try me," he said.
"How will you do it?"
The answer was magnificent in its ruthless, sprawling brutality:
"Back in the Rue de Turbigo they call me Bibi the Killer, and I—ah—I deserve the name."
"But the Germans—"
"That for the Germans!" snapping his grimy fingers. "I have bled the citizens and tickled the blue-clad ribs of the gendarmes with steel and bullet." Or, to give the untranslatable original: "J'ai cassé la gueule à tous les gens qu'a d'la galtouze, et pis après j'ai chatouillè les jesses des sergots avec une étendue d'acier, mon boug'—"
"But—you have been in jail?"
"To be sure. These dirty beasts of the police pinched me, once, twice—perhaps three times. But," he added, with naive triumph, "never for murder! Ah! I got away with it—always! And I doubt that the boche will be more clever than the Paris police!"
"So do I!" agreed Captain Daniélou heartily. Then he lowered his voice to a confidential purr.
"You mean it?" he asked.
"Yes." The man was utterly sincere. "I told you. I want to show those bourgeois what an apache can do."
"Patriotism," suggested the other.
"Patriotism?" echoed Bibi. "No! Je m'en fous—I mock myself of it! What have I to do with your fat pig of a monopolist government? It is—ah"—a strange expression eddied up in his bold eyes, oddly changing what was brutal and ignoble to something almost heroic, almost beautiful—"it is the quartier, Eloi l'Michet, and Pierre l'Rongeur, and all the others. My own people. They kill out there, in Picardy, hein? And why, then, should not I kill, too? I, who am Bibi l'Tueur! Put me in a uniform," he begged. "Give me a chance to slip across the trenches!"
"That chance you must make yourself. You may have to pass the lines as a deserter."
"Because"—and Daniélou's words reminded Bibi of what he had overheard the lawyer say in the Silver Glen, "we are French and, like our British allies, rum animals. Animals that hurt themselves and the decent, great cause they fight for through some damned, sentimental, silly, humanitarian prejudice!"
"I mean that, should your superior officer get an inkling of your intention, he—why—he'd have you court-martialed. You can kill with rifle and machine-gun and airplane. But the other, the single killing—deliberate, intentional, cold-blooded—the killing of one man, away from the battle-line, though his death would save the lives of thousands of our men, will always be condemned as murder!"
"But—why are you willing that I should try?" asked Bibi suspiciously. "You are French, and a bourgeois. Not an apache, like myself."
A curling glimmer, like moonrays on forged steel, came into the captain's eyes.
Because," he replied, "though my father was French, my mother was an Arab, a desert woman from the black felt tents. Thus, perhaps, I can see through your eyes—a little—"
He was silent. Then, in a dry, matter-of-fact voice:
How are you going to prove to me that you have succeeded, in case you do succeed? You'll find it impossible to bring the man back a prisoner. Nor, if you kill him—"
Bibi twisted his lips in an ugly smile.
"I'll prove it all right, citizen," he replied. "Don't you bother on that score!"