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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 8752

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Durkin folded the printed pages of the newspaper with no outward sign of excitement. Then he took out his money, quietly, and counted it, with meditative and pursed-up lips.

His eyes fell on a paltry handful of silver, with the dulled gold of one worn napoleon showing from its midst. He remembered, suddenly, that it was the third time he had counted that ever-lightening handful since partaking of his frugal coffee and rolls that morning. So he dropped the coins back into his pocket, dolefully, one by one, and took the deep breath of a man schooling himself to face the unfaceable.

Then he looked about the room, almost vacuously, as though the old-fashioned wooden bed and the faded curtains and the blank walls might hold some oracular answer to the riddle that lay before him. Then he went to the open window, and looked out, almost as vacuously, over the unbroken blue distance of the Mediterranean, trembling into soft ribbons of silver where the wind rippled its surface, yellowing into a fluid gold towards the path of the lowering sun, deepening, again, into a brooding turquoise along the flat rim of the sea to the southward where the twin tranquilities of sky and water met.

It was the same unaltering Mediterranean, the same expanse of eternal sapphire that he had watched from the same Riviera window, day in and day out, with the same vague but unceasing terror of life and the same forlorn sense of helplessness before currents of destiny that week by week seemed to grow too strong for him. He turned away from the soft, exotic loveliness of the sea and sky before him, with a little gesture of impatience. The movement was strangely like that of a feverish invalid turning from the ache of an opened shutter.

Durkin took up the newspaper once more, and unfolded it with listlessly febrile fingers. It was the Paris edition of "The Herald," four days old. Still again, and quite mechanically now, he read the familiar advertisement. It was the same message, word for word, that had first caught his eye as he had sipped his coffee in the little palm-grown garden of the Hotel Bristol, in Gibraltar, nearly three weeks before. "Presence of James L. Durkin, electrical expert, essential at office of Stephens & Streeter, patent solicitors, etc., Empire Building, New York City, before contracts can be culminated. Urgent."

Only, at the first reading of those pregnant words, all the even and hopeless monotony, all the dull and barren plane of life had suddenly erupted into one towering and consuming passion for activity, for return to his old world with its gentle anaesthesia of ever-widening plans and its obliterating and absolving years of honest labor.

He would never forget that moment, no matter into what ways or moods life might lead him. The rhythmic pound and beat of a company of British infantry, swarthy and strange-looking in their neutral-tinted khaki, marched briskly by on the hard stone road, momentarily filling the garden quietnesses with a tumult of noise. A bugle had sounded from one of the fortified galleries high above him, had sounded clearly out across the huddled little town at the foot of the Rock, challenging, uncompromising, thrillingly penetrating, as the paper had fluttered and shaken in his fingers. He had accepted it, in that first moment of unreasoning emotionalism, as an auspicious omen, as the call of his own higher life across the engulfing abysses of the past. He had forgotten, for the time being, just where and what he was.

But that grim truth had been forced on him, bitterly, bafflingly, after he had climbed the narrow streets of that town which always seemed to him a patchwork of nationalities, a polyglot mosaic of outlandish tongues, climbed up through alien-looking lanes and courts, past Moorish bazaars and Turkish lace-stores and English tobacco-shops, in final and frenzied search of the American Consul.

He had found the Consulate, at last, on what seemed a back street of the Spanish quarter, a gloomy and shabby room or two, with the faded American flags over the doorway clutched in the carven claws of a still more faded eagle. And he had waited for two patient hours, enduring the suspicious scowls of a lean and hawk-like Spanish housekeeper, to discover, at the end, that the American Consul had been riding at hounds, with the garrison Hunt Club. And when th

e Consul, having duly chased a stunted little Spanish fox all the way from Legnia to Algeciras, returned to his official quarters, in English riding-breeches and irradiating good spirits, Durkin had seen his new-blown hopes wither in the blossom. The Consul greatly regretted that his visitor had been kept waiting, but infinitely greater was his regret that an official position like his own gave him such limited opportunity for forwarding impatient electrical inventors to their native shores. No doubt the case was imminent; he was glad his visitor felt so confident about the outcome of his invention; he had known a man at home who went in for that sort of thing-had fitted up the lights for his own country house on the Sound; but he himself had never dreamed such a thing as a transmitting camera, that could telegraph a picture all the way from Gibraltar to New York, for instance, was even a possibility!… The Department, by the way, was going to have a cruiser drop in at Mogador, to look into the looting of the Methodist Missionary stores at Fruga. There was a remote chance that this cruiser might call at the Rock, on the homeward journey. But it was problematical.… And that had been the end of it all, the ignominious end. And still again the despairing Durkin was being confronted and challenged and mocked by this call to him from half way round the world. It maddened and sickened him, the very thought of his helplessness, so Aeschylean in its torturing complications, so ironic in its refinement of cruelty. It stung him into a spirit of blind revolt. It was unfair, too utterly unfair, he told himself, as he paced the faded carpet of his cheap hotel-room, and the mild Riviera sunlight crept in through the window-square and the serenely soft and alluring sea-air drifted in between the open shutters.

It meant that a new and purposeful path had been blazed through the tangled complexities of life for him, yet he could make no move to take advantage of it. It meant that the door of his delivery had been swung wide, with its mockery of open and honest sunlight, and yet his feet were to remain fettered in that underworld gloom he had grown to hate. He must still stay an unwilling prisoner in this garden of studied indolence, this playground of invalids and gamblers; he must still dawdle idly about these glittering, stagnating squares, fringing a crowd of meaningless foreigners, skulking half-fed and poorly housed about this opulent showplace of the world that set its appeasing theatricalities into motion only at the touch of ready gold.

Durkin remembered, at that moment, that he was woefully hungry. He also remembered, more gratefully, that the young Chicagoan, the lonely and loquacious youth he had met the day before in the café of the "Terrasse," had asked him to take dinner with him, to view the splendor of "Ciro's" and a keeper of the vestiaire in scarlet breeches and silk stockings. Afterwards they were to go to the little bon-bon play-house up by the more pretentious bon-bon Casino. He was to watch the antics of a band of actors toying with some mimic fate, flippantly, to the sound of music, when his own destiny swung trembling on the last silken thread of tortured suspense! Yet it was better than moping alone, he told himself. He hated loneliness. And until the last few weeks he had scarcely known the meaning of the word! There had always been that other hand for which to reach, that other shoulder on which to lean! And suddenly, at the sting of the memories that surged over him, he went to the window that opened on its world of sea and sunlight, and looked out. His hands clutched the sill, and his unhappy eyes were intent and inquiring, as they swept the world before him in a slow and comprehensive gaze.

"Wherever you wait, wherever you are, in all this wide world, Frank, come here, to me, now, now, for I want you, need you!"

His lips scarcely murmured the vague invocation; it was more an inarticulate wish phrasing itself somewhere in the background of his clouded brain.

But as he awoke to the tumult of his emotions, to the intensity of his attitude, whilst he stood there projecting that vague call out into space, he turned abruptly away, with the abashment of a reticent man detected in an act of theatricality, and flung out of the room, down into the crowded streets of Monte Carlo.

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