THE HOLE IN THE FLOOR

Even as the young Italian spoke, there came a knock at the door. With a
little cry of fear, Petite Jeanne threw a small Persian rug over her
treasured god; then, as if prepared to hold her ground against all
comers, she clenched her small fists and turned to face the door.

Noting this, Angelo approached the door with silent footsteps, opened it
a crack and demanded in a hoarse whisper:

“Who’s there?”

“Only I, your friend, Swen,” came in a large round voice.

“Swen Swenson! The Swedish night hawk!” Angelo shouted, throwing the
door wide and extending both hands in greeting: “Who could be more
welcome at a time like this?”

“What time?”

The youth who asked this question as he entered was a near giant in
stature. His head was crowned with a shock of yellow hair. His cheeks
were as rosy as a country child’s. His blue eyes were wide and smiling.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Angelo with a flourish, “allow me to
present the big Swede who will write the music for our immortal
masterpiece!

“Perhaps—” His eyes circled the room. “Perhaps you believe that the
Scandinavians are not musicians. You are mistaken. Only recall Jenny
Lind and Ole Bull and Eduard Grieg!

“But here—” He stood on tiptoe to touch that shock of yellow hair. “Here
shall rest the richest crown of all!”

“It may be so,” grumbled Swen, as a broad grin belied his assumed ill
humor. “But if you don’t explain I’ll crown you with a chair.”

“Patience!” The young Italian held out a hand. “All must be done in
proper form. One moment. I shall light the fire. The kettle shall
simmer. Before the fire all will be confessed. And after this we shall
lay the plot, and what a plot it will be!”

Removing a heavy wire screen, Angelo dropped on his knees before a broad
fireplace. A match flickered and a yellow flame appeared. As if by
magic, the place that a moment before had seemed a theatre became an
artist’s retreat glowing with light and warmth. At the right of the
fireplace, where real flames went roaring skyward, was a broad wooden
seat. Here, amid many bright pillows, Petite Jeanne and Florence were
soon enthroned. The young host and his companions threw themselves upon
thick rugs before the fire.

The lights were put out. The yellow glow of flames playing upon Angelo’s
dark face transformed him seemingly into quite another being.

“See!” Florence whispered. “He is like a god in ancient bronze.”

“But not so ancient as this.” With fingers that trembled Petite Jeanne
placed the gypsy god on the very border of the flames.

The transformation that followed instantly was startling. Florence
jumped from her place. The big, blonde musician sprang backward. Angelo
stared with wide eyes. As for Dan Baker, he stared at the thing with the
fascination of a child.

And Jeanne? She merely smiled. Many times, at the back of hedges in the
dead of night, or hidden away in some black forest, she had seen this
thing, had witnessed the transformation of something that appeared all
metal into a being that seemed alive with savage, fantastic grandeur:
the gypsy God of Fire.

Even as they stared, voiceless, intent, motionless, a sound startled
them all—the rattling of a windowpane in the skylight several feet above
their heads.

Instantly all eyes were on that window. Everyone there knew that it was
a silent, star-lit night.

“It rattled!” Jeanne whispered.

“And there is no wind!” Florence answered low.

As they looked, a mellow glow overspread the window.

“Who—What is it?” Jeanne’s eyes were staring.

“That?” Angelo laughed a low laugh. “That is only the gleam of Lindbergh
Light, the airplane beacon.”

“But does it always rattle the window?”

“Light? Never!”

“But this,” the young Italian added quickly, “this is nothing. Come! We
are wasting time. To-night, by this fire, we shall lay the groundwork
for such a light opera as has never been known before. You, Swen,” he
turned to the big blonde, “you are to write the music. I shall write the
play. And these, our friends, are to be the stars.”

“Beautiful dream!” Petite Jeanne murmured.

“A dream for a night. A reality forever!” The Italian youth flung his
arms wide in the characteristic gesture that the little French girl
loved to see.

“See!” he exclaimed as the fire died down to the orange glow of a
sunset. “The ugly little god smiles. It is an omen of good.”

They looked, and indeed the curious thing from the heart of the earth or
from some distant planet (who could tell which?) seemed to smile.

But again Petite Jeanne shuddered; for, at that precise moment the
window sash rattled again, this time with an unmistakable bang.

“Come,” urged Angelo, “snap out of it. It’s only the wind. We’ll make a
beginning.”

“Wait. Wait but one little minute!” the French girl pleaded. She pressed
her hand over her throbbing heart.

“Now,” she murmured as she sank back among the cushions, “it is over.”

“Behold, then!” Angelo began in the grand manner. “You, Petite Jeanne,
are, just as you were in France, a refugee. No mother; no father; only a
dancing bear. The gypsies, good gypsies, the best in all France, have
befriended you. From village to village you have danced your way across
France. All France has come to know and love you.

“But now—” He paused for emphasis. “This is where our play shall begin,
just here. Now your bear seems at the point of death. He lies in the
shadows, out of sight. But the gypsies, gathered about the camp fire
that burns before the gaily painted wagons, are conscious of his
presence. They, too, are sad. Sad because they love you and your
ponderous dancing companion; sad, as well, because no longer the coins
will jingle at your feet when the dance of the bear is ended.

“The light of the fire dispels the dark shadows of night for but a short
distance. At the edge of those shadows, unobserved by those about the
camp fire, sits an old man. His hair is long. It curls at the ends. His
battered hat is drawn low over a mellow, kindly face.

“That man—” He turned suddenly toward Dan Baker. “That man is no other
than yourself, Dan. You, too, are a wanderer. Down the road a short
distance is a small tent. Close by are two burros. You are an old time
prospector. All over America, with pick and pan, you have wandered.

“Some one has told you that there is gold to be found in the hills of
France. And here you are.”

“Here I am,” Dan Baker echoed.

“You have found no gold. You have found something better—a beautiful
young lady in distress.”

The color in Petite Jeanne’s cheek deepened.

“The gypsies have given up hope. For them the bear is as good as dead.”

“But you—” He turned again to Jeanne. “You have not despaired. For, is
there not still the Dance of Fire? Is not the gypsy God of Fire close
beside you? And have not this dance and this god worked miracles in the
past?”

The young Italian paused to prod the fire. As it blazed up the face of
the gypsy god was illumined in a strange manner. His lips appeared to
part. He seemed about to speak. Yet no sound was heard.

“See!” cried Petite Jeanne. “He approves! We shall succeed! Truly this
is my luckee day!”

Once more Angelo held up a hand for silence. “So there,” he began again,
“by the gypsy camp fire, with all your dark-faced companions gathered
about you, and with the God of Fire smiling at you from the very heart
of the flames, you dance the gypsy Dance of Fire.”

As if this were a cue, the little girl, half French, half gypsy, sprang
to her feet and before the curious god, gleaming there at the edge of
the flame, danced her weird dance as it had never been danced before.

“Bravo! Bravo!” shouted Swen.

“Bravo! Bravo!” they all echoed. “The play will be a great success even
if there is nothing more than this.”

“There will be more—much more!” Angelo shouted joyously.

“As you dance,” he began again a moment later, when Petite Jeanne had
settled back among her cushions, “an aged gypsy woman creeps from the
shadows to whisper a word in the ear of the chief of the tribe. Word is
passed round the circle. A great sadness falls over all. The Dance of
Fire has failed. The dancing bear will dance no more. He is dead.

“At a glance the dancer learns all. The dance ended, she flings herself
before the fire in an attitude of grief.

“Silence; the golden moon; the campfire; the bright painted wagons; and
sorrow, such deep sorrow as only a gypsy knows.

“And then a curious thing happens. An old man, whose gray hair hangs
down to his shoulders, comes dancing into the golden circle of light. As
he enters the circle he exclaims:

“‘Why be sad? See! I am sent by the Fire God to fill the place of Tico,
the bear. I shall be this beautiful one’s dancing partner.’

“The gypsies are surprised and, for the moment, amused. They ridicule
him in true gypsy fashion.

“As he dances on and on, however, silence steals over the camp. They
begin to realize that he is a marvelous dancer.

“He begins the gypsy dance to the harvest moon. Petite Jeanne springs to
her feet and joins him. Her face is wreathed in smiles. She believes the
God of Fire truly has sent this one to be her partner; else how could he
dance so divinely?

“As they dance on about the fire, they are joined by others, many
beautiful gypsy maidens, dressed in colorful gypsy fashion. This is our
chorus. They will appear often, but this will be the beginning.”

Angelo paused for breath. The room went strangely silent. The fire had
burned low. Still the God of Fire appeared to smile.

“When the dance is over,” he took up the thread of the story once more,
“the mysterious dancer binds the bargain by presenting the chief with a
double eagle, twenty dollars in gold. Then he vanishes into the shadows.

“Instantly it is murmured that this is some very rich American in
disguise. For, as you must know, the French think all Americans are
rich. And here, with the gypsies speculating in regard to the future,
and Petite Jeanne gazing raptly at the gypsy god who has brought her
such good fortune—

“See!” The young Italian prodded the fire vigorously. “See? He smiles!
He approves!”

But this time Jeanne did not see, for once more the window above them
had rattled. And this time, as the beacon cast its glow upon the glass,
there appeared a shadow, the shadow of a man, the man who had without
doubt been looking down upon them and upon the smiling gypsy god.

Both light and shadow were gone in an instant. Not, however, until the
keen eyes of the little French girl had identified the one who had cast
that shadow.

“At such a time and such a place!” she whispered to herself, as a
shudder ran through her slight form. To her companions she said not a
word.

“That’s as far as we go to-night.” Angelo rose from his place by the
fire and dropped limply into a chair. Gone was the fire in his dark
eyes. His spell of inspiration at an end, he desired only rest and
peace.

“Miss Florence,” he passed a hand across his face, “the water in the
kettle is steaming. Will you honor us by making tea? There’s black tea
in the green can on the mantel and a lemon yonder on the table.”

Florence hastened to do her bit toward making the evening a complete
success.

“I move we meet again to-morrow night. And here’s to success!” exclaimed
Swen, holding his cup high as tea was poured.

“Second the motion!” There was a suspicious huskiness in Dan Baker’s
tone. “Think of stirring hopes like these in an old man’s breast! Been
twenty years since I dreamed of doing big time in a great city. And now
I dream once more. We will succeed.”

“We must!” Angelo agreed fervently. “We must!

“Friends,” his tone took on its former vigor, “you see me here very
comfortable indeed. Rugs, chairs, a fireplace, a stage—all very snug.
All these were purchased with money received for one act plays written
for the radio. That contract is ended; the money is nearly gone. Two
more months and unless some fresh triumph comes along these,” he spread
his arms wide, “all these must leave me.”

“But they will not.” Petite Jeanne gripped his arm impulsively. “They
shall not. We will help you keep them. Yes! Yes! And you shall have much
more that is truly beautiful. You shall see!”

Many times, as they journeyed homeward that night, Petite Jeanne cast
apprehensive glances over her shoulder. More than once, as some object
appeared to move in the darkness, she felt a great fear gripping at her
heart, and had it not been for the presence of her staunch companion she
would doubtless have gone fleeing into the night.

The cause of her fear, the gypsy god, was safely tucked away under her
arm. This did not allay her fear. It only served to increase it, for had
she not seen the shadow cast upon Angelo’s windowpane? And had she not
recognized that shadow as belonging to the very gypsy who had pursued
her in the darkness of that very morning?

“It is very strange about this gypsy god,” she said to Florence, as with
a sigh of relief she sank into the depths of her own easy chair in their
own little room. “One does not understand it at all. This god has been
in the possession of the gypsy tribe of Bihari, my gypsy stepfather. As
chief of the tribe he has watched over it for many years. Bihari is not
in America. If he were I should know. Good news travels far in the wide
world of the gypsies.

“And if he is not here, why is the God of Fire in this land? There can
be but one answer. The tribe of Bihari would never part with so
priceless a possession. It has been stolen and sent to America.”

“And then lost in the express.”

“You are quite right.”

“But who would steal it?”

“Who can say? Perhaps a gypsy who hates Bihari. There are many such.
Perhaps only some sight-seeing Americans. There are some who would steal
the Arch of Triumph in Paris as a souvenir if they could.”

“But is it so wonderful?” Florence’s tone was cold. Petite Jeanne had
placed the strange object of their discussion upon the mantel. There,
far from the glow of a fire, the thing seemed hideous, smoke-blackened,
dead.

“Who can tell all?” Petite Jeanne’s voice trailed off into a weary
silence.

When she spoke again it was as with the lips of a philosopher:

“Who can know all? The gypsies believe that the fire dance and this god
give them strength and courage, that their sick are healed, that by
these their fortunes are mended. There are those who have been to many
schools and who should know much more than the poor, wandering gypsies,
but they believe in even stranger things.

“I only know that this god, this God of Fire, is very old and that I
believe in his power because I was taught to do so as a child.

“But the gypsies of America desire this god!”

She sprang suddenly to her feet and began pacing the floor.

“Why,” exclaimed Florence, “they can’t even know it is here!”

“One of them does. He saw it smiling in the fire to-night. I saw his
shadow on the windowpane. He will tell others.”

“You saw him?”

“It could have been none other. I recognized him instantly. His coat,
his curious hat, his profile, were all visible.

“But we must guard this god well. We must keep him in hiding.” She went
to the door and locked it. “I must have him for our opera.”

“But you could have a model made of clay. You could use that on the
stage. No one would know. Few stage properties are real.”

“No! No!” The little French girl held up hands in protest. “Never! I
will dance only before the true God of Fire.”

“Then,” said Florence calmly, “you will run a great risk. Some of the
gypsies will attend the play. They are fond of drama. This one you saw
will see the god. He will have it at any cost.”

“It may be so,” said the little French girl, dropping into a chair and
folding her slender hands. “But truly, my friend, there is no other
course.”

“Well!” Florence sprang to her feet. “Since we are to have his
Reverence, or his Highness—or how do you speak of a god?—we must find
him a safe resting place. Where can we hide him?”

A careful scrutiny of their narrow quarters revealed no safe hiding
place.

“Your trunk? My dresser drawer? Under the mattress?” Petite Jeanne
sighed. “May as well set him up here in the middle of the floor.” She
placed the figure on the polished pine floor.

“But see!” Florence leaped forward. “Some one has cut a hole in the
floor. I wonder why?”

“Some dark secret’s hidden there,” the little French girl whispered.

Florence had spoken the truth. In the very center of the floor three
boards had been cut through twice. The pieces between the cuts, each
some ten inches long, had been rudely pried up by the aid of some
instrument. Something had undoubtedly been done; then the boards had
been pounded back in place.

“Here!” exclaimed Florence, reaching for a heavy iron poker that stood
by the fireplace. “Let’s have a look.”

Her first attempts to pry up the boards were unsuccessful. The poker
slipped, then bent. When Petite Jeanne supplemented her labors with a
broken case knife their labors were rewarded. The short length of board
sprang from its place.

Eagerly they pressed forward to look, and bumped their heads together
doing so. Then they dropped back in their places with a merry laugh.

The hidden secret was no secret at all. The house, being a very old one,
had been erected before the coming of electric lights. When installing
the lights the electricians had found it necessary to open the floors of
the upper rooms in order that they might install lights for the lower
floors.

“Oh!” Florence sighed. “What a disappointment!”

“No!” cried Petite Jeanne. “See what we have found!”

“Found! What have we found?” Florence stared.

“We have found a safe place of hiding for my ancient friend, the God of
Fire. How sweet! We have only to lift the boards, lower him to the laths
below, batten down the hatch once more, and there you have him as snug
as a diamond in a new setting.”

“You’re keen!” Florence put out a hand to pat her friend’s blonde head.
“Now we can sleep in peace.”

And so they did, awakening at a late hour to a world of sunshine and
high hopes. Nor is there reason to believe that his Highness objected in
the least to the darkness of his place among the beams and plaster.

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