THE MARBLE FALCON

The auctioneer, a large, bald man with a warming smile, climbed to the
platform and announced the terms of the sale. “Goods,” he explained,
“are sold as is. No complaints will be listened to. A deposit will be
required with each purchase.”

“Ja! We know,” jeered one future purchaser. “If ve get hooked ve don’t
kick. You get our money. It iss good money. So you don’t kick. All iss
sveet and lovely. Ja!”

The crowd laughed. The auctioneer laughed with them. And well he could
afford to, for it was he who always had the last laugh.

“Remember,” Weston, the ruddy-cheeked German, whispered in Merry’s ear,
“seventy-five is union price.”

“I remember.” Merry turned her smiling eyes upon his. Those eyes had
done much for her in the past. If she particularly wished a package,
these, her friends of the “union,” refused to bid, and she bought it at
her own price. The “union” was a union only in name. It was composed of
a group of regular buyers who, meeting here and elsewhere, had
themselves united in a bond of friendship.

This day, however, the union found itself greatly outnumbered by casual
customers who on occasion bid high, and returned home later to curse the
spirit of chance that for the moment had held them under its spell.

“Three packages!” shouted the auctioneer. “Three! How much apiece? How
much for each one?”

“Quarter.”

“Half dollar.”

“Who goes seventy-five?”

“Seventy-five.”

“Dollar.”

“And a quarter.”

“Whew!” exclaimed Merry. “Watch them climb! Seventy-five is union price.
How can we buy to-day?”

“Oh, but I still have money,” insisted Jeanne. “We must buy. I will pay.
This is my luckee day.”

“There’s no luck if you break union rules. Wait.”

They did wait. Half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half the sale went
on. Merry bought two damaged lamps and a broken chair. These went for a
song. But packages! How they soared!

Merry took to bidding union price at the very start. “Seventy-five!” she
shouted again and again, but each time the throng behind went far above
her.

“Pipe down!” Weston shouted back at them. “Give the little girl a
chance!”

Not a chance did they give her.

So the day wore on. The pile behind the counter had dwindled very low
when two modest sized packages, one with a foreign label on it, were put
up.

“See!” hissed Jeanne in sudden excitement. “That one came from France.
There are French words on the label. We must have it!”

“Sh! Be still!” Merry squeezed her hand.

Weston bid a quarter. Fisheim, a second member of the union, went to
half a dollar.

“Seventy-five!” screamed Merry.

“Seventy-five, and sold!” shouted the auctioneer.

Merry thanked him with her laughing Irish eyes. She understood it all.
She had been saving him breath by bidding high at the start. Now she was
repaid.

“Di—did we get them?” the little French girl demanded breathlessly.

“We did. And now we go to the window. We must pay there. The sale will
be over in ten minutes. Ten more, and we’ll march away with our precious
parcels from the big grab-bag. Tad will come for the lamps and the chair
to-morrow.”

“Mine’s heavy.” Jeanne gave a little skip of joy as they entered the
elevator twenty minutes later.

“So’s mine.” Merry’s tone did not echo her companion’s enthusiasm.
“Don’t expect too much, you know. Blessed is he who expecteth nothing,
for he shall not be disappointed! That’s not in the Bible, but it should
have been.

“Your package may be full of old books and mine loaded with bricks. Old
books come often enough, and I’ve seen broken bricks in a package, too.”

“Bricks!” Jeanne voiced her amazement. “Why would anyone send broken
bricks by express?”

“They wouldn’t. But, you see, these packages are sent in from express
offices everywhere. Not all of the agents are honest. If an agent is
about to send in a nice mantel clock, slightly damaged, what’s to hinder
his taking it out and replacing it with broken bricks? No one will be
the wiser. If you or I buy the package, we get hooked, that’s all.”

“Bricks!” Jeanne said in disgust. “But then, mine is not full of bricks.
This is my luckee day!”

“Here!” Merry pulled her into the shadow of a stairway. “We’ll unwrap
them here. No one will see us.”

If Petite Jeanne’s hands trembled as she tore away the paper wrappings
with the strange foreign labels, her whole body trembled and she
appeared about to sink to the ground as she took one look at that which
was within.

She lifted the object half way out of its box, stared at it with bulging
eyes as she murmured something like “Fire God.” Then, crowding the thing
back as if it were alive and about to jump at her, she crammed paper
down upon it and hastily glanced about her to see if any stranger might
have observed her action. Seeing no one, she heaved a sigh of relief.

“Look!” Merry’s tone was joyous. “A bird! A bird carved from marble!”

“It’s a falcon.” Jeanne studied it critically. “A marble falcon. And how
well it is done! You know falcons are like eagles and hawks, only they
may be tamed and taught to hunt for you. There are many of them in
Europe and England. The gypsies are very fond of them. Gypsies are not
allowed to hunt in the forest preserves. But their birds. Oh, la, la!
That is another matter.

“But what a pity!” she exclaimed. “His beak is broken!”

“Sure!” laughed Merry. “What do you expect for three greasy quarters? If
he were whole, he’d be worth a whole double golden eagle.

“Perhaps the beak is here.” She began feeling about in the excelsior
wrappings. “Yes, yes, here it is! How very fortunate! Now we shall see
him all together again. Tad will fix that.

“We will not sell him, for all that,” she continued solemnly. “He shall
be my very own. See! He is looking toward the clouds. He has a broken
beak, yet he can look skyward. He shall be my inspiration. When all
seems dark; when our money is spent and no one comes to our poor little
shop to buy, then I shall look at my marble falcon and say:

“‘You are brave. Your beak is broken; yet you look toward the clouds.’”

“How wonderful!” Jeanne murmured. “Would that I, too, possessed a marble
falcon with a broken beak.”

“But what did _you_ find?” Merry put out a hand for Jeanne’s package.

“No, no!” The little French girl’s cheeks paled as she drew back! “Not
here! I will show you. But please, not here.”

Petite Jeanne was strangely silent as they rattled homeward on an
elevated train. Her actions, too, were strange. The mysterious package
with its question-provoking foreign labels lay beside her on the seat.
Once, as she appeared to waken from a trance-like state, she put out a
hand to push the package far from her.

“As if it contained some hidden peril,” Merry told herself.

The next moment, as if afraid some one would take it from her, the
little French girl was holding the package close to her side.

When they had gained the seclusion of her own small room, all was
changed. She became vastly excited. Throwing off her wraps, she pulled
down the shades, threw on a table lamp that gave forth a curious red
glow; then, tearing the package open, she drew forth a curious figure
done in some metal that resembled bronze. A bust it was, the head and
shoulders of a man. And such a man! Such a long, twisted nose! Such
protruding eyes! Such a leer as overspread his features!

“Oh!” exclaimed Merry. “How terrible!”

“Do you think so?” Petite Jeanne spoke as one in a trance.

She set the bronze figure in the light of the red lamp. There it
appeared to take on the glow of fire, the popping eyes gleaming
wickedly.

Petite Jeanne did not seem to mind this. She stood and stared at the
thing until a look of dreamy rapture overspread her face. Then she
spoke:

“This is the gypsy God of Fire. How often in hidden places, beside
hedges and in the heart of dark forests I have danced before him the
gypsy fire dance, the dance that brings health and happiness! How often
I have longed to possess him! And now he is mine! Mine, for I have
bought him. Bought him for three tiny quarters.

“Oh, my friend!” She threw her arms about the astonished Merry. “Truly
you are my friend. See! See what you have brought me. The gypsy God of
Fire.”

“But I don’t understand,” said Merry.

“No. And perhaps you never will,” the little French girl whispered. “It
is a very deep enchantment.”

At that she led her friend on tiptoe to the door and kissed her
good-bye.

“What a very strange girl!” Merry murmured as she made her way down the
stairs. “And yet I like her. I—I love her. I truly do.”

It was with a light tread that Petite Jeanne’s nimble feet carried her
up the seven flights of stairs leading to the studio of a young
playwright named Angelo. It appeared incredible that this young Italian
who tried to write plays and had known no success, and a white-haired
wanderer who had danced his way from one small city to another across
the country, could accomplish great things in mending her fortune and in
setting her once more before the gleaming footlights of some great
theatre. Yet so perfect was her faith in this, her lucky day, that
nothing seemed too much to expect, even from so humble a beginning. For,
you see, Petite Jeanne believed in miracles, in angels, fairies,
goblins, ghosts and all the rest. She was French. And French people, you
must know, are that way. For you surely have read how the great Joan of
Arc, as a child, often spent many hours watching the fairies play
beneath her favorite tree.

“It must be a terribly dingy place,” Florence Huyler, her companion and
bodyguard, said in a low tone as they approached the final landing.
“This is a fearfully old building and we are right beneath the eaves.”

She was right. They were beneath the eaves. She was mistaken, too; more
mistaken than she could have guessed. The place they entered was large,
but not dingy. It was far from that. Besides being an ambitious young
writer, Angelo was an artist. He had taken this barn-like attic and had
created here a small paradise.

Having attended a sale at which the stage settings of a defunct play
were being sold, he had bid in at an astonishingly low sum all the
pieces he desired. The result was surprising. While one end of his attic
studio contained the accustomed desk and chair of a writer, the other
end was equipped as a stage.

And what a charming stage it was! Angelo was a genius. With a brush and
bright colors he had transformed the dingiest of drops, wings and stage
furniture into a vision of life and beauty.

“Oh! Oh!” cried Jeanne as she entered the room. “Once more I am on the
stage!”

With one wild fling she went floating like a golden butterfly across the
narrow stage.

Catching the spirit of the moment, the aged actor, who had been sitting
in the corner, sprang to his feet and joined her in an impromptu dance
that was as unique as it was charming.

“Bravo! Bravo!” Angelo shouted, quite beside himself with joy. “That
dance alone would make any play. But there shall be others. Many
others.”

“And this,” exclaimed Petite Jeanne, breaking in upon his ecstasy to
spring into a corner and return with something in her hand, “this is the
gypsy dance to the God of Fire!”

Depositing some object on the floor, she deftly manipulated the lights
and threw a single yellow gleam upon it.

“A gypsy god!” Florence murmured. There was a touch of awe in her voice,
as, indeed, there might well be. This god was endowed with power to
frighten and subdue. There was about his features something that was at
the same time ugly and fascinating. In the yellow light he appeared to
glow with hidden fire.

As the little French girl began to weave and sway through the snake-like
motions of the gypsy fire dance, a silence fell as upon a first night
when the curtain rises on a scene of extraordinary beauty.

Even in this humble setting the scene was gripping. Long after the girl
had finished the dance and thrown herself upon the stage floor to lie
there, head resting upon one bent elbow, as silent as the gypsy god, the
hush still hung over the room.

No one spoke until the quaint words of this mysterious child of France
rose once more like a tiny wisp of smoke from the center of the stage.

“This is the gypsy Fire God,” she chanted. “Years and years ago, many,
many centuries before we were born, strange men and women with dark and
burning eyes danced their fire dance in his honor, beneath the palm
trees of India.

“This is the God of Fire. Other gods may come and go, but he must live
on forever. He will not perish. None can destroy him. Fallen from some
planet where fires burn eternal, he alone holds the secret of fire. Let
him perish and all fire on earth will cease. Matches will not light.
Wood and fire will not burn. The earth will grow cold, cold, cold!” She
shuddered. And those who listened shuddered.

“The very fire at the center of the earth will burn low and go out. Then
the earth will be covered with ice and snow. All living things must
perish.

“He will not be destroyed!” She threw her arms out as if to protect this
god of fiery enchantment.

Again there was silence.

“She does not believe that.” Florence voiced her skepticism.

“Who knows?” Angelo’s voice was tense. “And after all, it doesn’t
matter. The thing is perfect. Can’t you see? It is perfect!” He sprang
excitedly to his feet. “This shall be our first scene. The curtain shall
rise just here and about this God of Fire we shall weave our play. And
it shall be called ‘The Gypsy God of Fire.’”

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