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   Chapter 2 THE AZURE COAST

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 15157

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


As Durkin and the young Chicagoan once more stepped out of the brilliantly lighted theatre, into the balmy night air, a seductive mingling of perfumes and music and murmuring voices blew in their hot faces, like a cooling wave. Durkin was wondering, a little wearily, just when he could be alone again.

A group of gay and laughing women, with their aphrodisiac rustle of silk and flutter of lace, floated carelessly past.

"Who are they?" asked the youth.

Durkin half-envied him his illusions and his ingenuousness of outlook; he was treading a veritable amphitheatre of orderly disordered passions with the gentle objective stare of a child looking for bright-colored flowers on a battleground. Durkin wondered if, after all, it was not the result of his mere quest of color, of his studying art in Paris for a year or two.

"I wonder who and what they are?" impersonally reiterated the younger man, as his gaze still followed the passing group to where it drifted and scattered through the lamp-strewn garden, like a cluster of golden butterflies.

"Those are the slaves who sand the arena!" retorted Durkin, studying the softly waving palms, and leaving the other a little in doubt as to the meaning of his figure.

The younger man sighed; he was beginning to feel, doubtless, from what different standpoints they looked out on life.

"Oh, well, you can say what you like, but this is the centre of the world, to my way of thinking!"

"The centre of-putrescence!" ejaculated Durkin. The younger man began to laugh, with conciliatory good-nature, as he glanced appreciatively back at the sweetmeat stateliness of the Casino front. But into the older man's mind crept the impression that they were merely passing, in going from crowded theatre to open garden and street, from one playhouse to another. It all seemed to him, indeed, nothing more than a transition of theatricalities. For that outer play-world which lay along Monaco's three short miles of marble stairway and villa and hillside garden appeared to him, in his mood of settled dejection, as artificial and unnatural and unrelated as the life which he had just seen pictured across the footlights of the over-pretty and meringue-like little theatre.

"Well, Monte Carlo's good enough for me, all right, all right!" persisted the young Chicagoan, as they made their way down the lamp-hung Promenade. And he laughed with a sort of luxurious contentment, holding out his cigarette-case as he did so.

The older man, catching a light from the proffered match, said nothing in reply. Something in the other's betrayingly boyish laugh grated on his nerves, though he paused, punctiliously, beside his chance-found companion, while together they gazed down at the twinkling lights of the bay, where the soft and violet Mediterranean lay under a soft and violet sky, and the boatlamps were languidly swaying dots of white and red, and the Promontory stood outlined in electric globes, like a woman's breast threaded with pearls, the young art-student expressed it, and the perennial, ever-cloying perfumes floated up from square and thicket and garden.

There was an eternal menace about it, Durkin concluded. There was something subversive and undermining and unnerving in its very atmosphere. It gave him the impression of being always under glass. It made him ache for the sting and bite of a New England north-easter. It screened and shut off the actualities and perpetuities of life as completely as the drop and wings of a playhouse might. Its sense of casual and careless calm, too, seemed to him only the rest of a spinning top. Its unrelated continuities of appeal, its incessant coquetries of attire, its panoramic beauty of mountain and cape and sea-front, its parade of corporeal and egotistic pleasures, its primordial and undisguised appeal to the carnival spirit, its frank, exotic festivity, its volatile and almost too vital atmosphere, and, above all, its glowing and over-odorous gardens and flowerbeds, its overcrowded and grimly Dionysian Promenade, its murmurous and alluring restaurants on steep little boulevards-it was all a blind, Durkin argued with himself, to drape and smother the cynical misery of the place. Underneath all its flaunting and waving softnesses life ran grim and hard-as grim and hard as the solid rock that lay so close beneath its jonquils and violets and its masking verdure of mimosa and orange and palm.

He hated it, he told himself in his tragic and newborn austerity of spirit, as any right-minded and clean-living man should hate paper roses or painted faces. Every foot of it, that night, seemed a muffled and mediate insult to intelligence. The too open and illicit invitation of its confectionery-like halls, the insipidly emphatic pretentiousness of the Casino itself-Durkin could never quite decide whether it reminded him of a hurriedly finished exposition building or of a child's birthday cake duly iced and bedecked-the tinsel glory, the hackneyed magnificence, of its legitimatized and ever-orderly gaming dens, the eternal claws of greed beneath the voluptuous velvet of indolence-it all combined to fill his soul with a sense of hot revolt, as had so often before happened during the past long and lonely days, when he had looked up at the soft green of olive and eucalyptus and then down at the intense turquoise curve of the harbor fringed with white foam.

Always, at such times, he had marveled that man could turn one of earth's most beautiful gardens into one of crime's most crowded haunts. The ironic injustice of it embittered him; it left him floundering in a sea of moral indecision at a time when he most needed some forlorn belief in the beneficence of natural law. It outraged his incongruously persistent demand for fair play, just as the sight of the jauntily clad gunners shooting down pigeons on that tranquil and Edenic little grass-plot at the foot of the Promontory had done.

For underneath all the natural beauty of Monaco Durkin had been continuously haunted by the sense of something unclean and leprous and corroding. Under its rouge and roses, at every turn, he found the insidious taint.

And more than ever, tonight, he had a sense of witnessing Destiny stalking through those soft gardens, of Tragedy skulking about its regal stairways.

For it was there, in the midst of those unassisting and enervating surroundings, he dimly felt, that he himself was to choose one of two strangely divergent paths. Yet he knew, in a way, that his decision had already been forced upon him, that the dice had been cast and counted. He had been trying to sweep back the rising sea with a broom; he had been trying to fight down that tangled and tortuous past which still claimed him as its own. And now all that remained for him was to slip quietly and unprotestingly into the current which clawed and gnawed at his feet. He had been tried too long; the test, from the first, had been too crucial. He might, in time, even find some solacing thought in the fitness between the act and its environment-here he could fling himself into an obliterating Niagara, not of falling waters, but of falling men and women. Yes, it was a stage all prepared and set for the mean and sordid and ever recurring tragedy of which he was to be the puppet. For close about him seethed and boiled, as in no other place in the world, all the darker and more despicable passions of humanity. He inwardly recalled the types with which his stage was embellished; the fellow puppets of that gilded and arrogant and idle world, the cu

rled and perfumed princes, the waxed and watching boulevardiers side by side with virginal and unconscious American girls, pallid and impoverished grand dukes in the wake of painted but wary Parisians, stiff-mustached and mysterious Austrian counts lowering at doughty and indignant Englishwomen; bejeweled beys and pashas brushing elbows with unperturbed New England school-teachers astray from Cook's; monocled thieves and gamblers and princelings, jaded tourists and skulking parasites-and always the disillusioned and waiting women.

"That play got on your nerves, didn't it?" suddenly asked the lazy, half-careless voice at his side. Durkin and the young Chicagoan were in the musky-smelling Promenade by this time, and up past the stands at the sea-front the breath of the Mediterranean blew in their faces, fresh, salty, virile.

"This whole place gets on my nerves!" said Durkin testily. Yes, he told himself, he was sick of it, sick of the monotony, of the idleness, of the sullen malevolence of it all. It was gay only to the eyes; and to him it would never seem gay again.

"Oh, that comes of not speaking the language, you know!" maintained the other stoutly, and, at the same time, comprehensively.

He was still very young, Durkin remembered. He had toyed with art for two winters in Paris, so scene by scene he had been able to translate the little drama that had appeared so farcical and Frenchy to his older countryman in exile.

Durkin's lip curled a little.

"No-it comes of knowing life!" he answered, with a touch of impatience. He felt the gulf that separated their two oddly diverse lives-the one the youth eager to dip into experience, the other a fugitive from a many-sided past that still shadowed and menaced him. He listened with only half an ear as the Chicagoan expounded some glib and ancient principle about the fairy tale being even truer than truth itself.

"Why," he continued argumentatively, "everything that happened in that play might happen here, tonight, to you or me!"

"Rubbish!" ejaculated Durkin, brusquely, remembering how lonely he must indeed have been thus to attach himself to this youth of the studios. But he added, as a matter of form: "You think, then, that life today is as romantic as it once was?"

"Mon Dieu!" cried the other. "Look at Monte Carlo here! Of course it is. It's more crowded, more rapid; it holds more romance. We didn't put it all off, you know, with doublet and hose!"

"No, of course not," answered Durkin absently. Life, at that moment, was confronting him so grimly, so flat and sterile and uncompromising in its secret exactions, that he had no heart to theorize about it.

"And a thing isn't romantic just because it's moss-grown!" continued the child of the studios, warming to his subject. "It's romantic when we've emotionalized it, when we've felt it, when it's hit home with us, as it were!"

"If it doesn't hit too hard!" qualified the older man.

"For instance," maintained the young Chicagoan, once more proffering his cigarette-case to Durkin, "for instance, take that big Mercedes touring-car with the canopy top, coming down through the crowd there. You'll agree, at first sight, that such things mean good-bye to the mounted knight, to chivalry, and all that romantic old horseman business."

"I suppose so."

"But, don't you see, the horse and armor was only a frame, an accidental setting, for the romance itself! It's up to date and practical and sordid and commonplace, you'd say, that puffing thing with a gasoline engine hidden away in its bowels. It's what we call machinery. But, supposing, now, instead of holding Monsieur le Duc Somebody, or Milord So-and-So, or Signor Comte Somebody-Else, with his wife or his mistress-I say, supposing it held-well, my young sister Alice, whom I left so sedately contented at Brighton! Supposing it held my young sister, running away with an Indian rajah!"

"And you would call that romance?"

"Exactly!"

Durkin turned and looked at the approaching car.

"While, as a matter of fact," he continued, with his exasperatingly smooth smile, "it seems to be holding a very much overdressed young lady, presumably from the Folies-Bergère or the Olympia."

The younger man, looking back from his place beside him, turned to listen, confronted by the sudden excited comments of a middle-aged woman, obviously Parisian, on the arm of a lean and solemn man with dyed and waxed mustachios.

"You're quite wrong," cried the young Chicagoan, excitedly. "It's young Lady Boxspur-the new English beauty. See, they're crowding out to get a glimpse of her!"

"Who's Lady Boxspur?" asked Durkin, hanging stolidly back. He had seen quite enough of Riviera beauty on parade.

"She's simply ripping. I got a glimpse of her this afternoon in front of the Terrasse, after she'd first motored over from Nice with old Szapary!" He lowered his voice, more confidentially. "This Frenchman here has just been telling his wife that she's the loveliest woman on the Riviera today. Come on!"

Durkin stood indifferently, under the white glare of the electric lamp, watching the younger man push through to the centre of the roadway. The slowly-moving touring-car, hemmed in by the languid midnight movement of the street, came to a full stop almost before where he stood. It shuddered and panted there, leviathan-like, and Durkin saw the sea breeze sway back the canopy drapery.

He followed the direction of the excited young Chicagoan's gaze, smilingly, now, and with a singularly disengaged mind.

He saw the woman's clear profile outlined against the floating purple curtain, the quiet and shadowy eyes of violet, the glint of the chestnut hair that showed through the back-thrust folds of the white silk automobile veil swathing the small head, and the nervous, bird-like movement of the head itself.

He did not move; there was no involuntary, galvanic reaction; no sudden gasp and flame of wonder. He simply held his cigarette still poised in his fingers, half-way to his lips, with the minutest relaxing of the smile that still hovered about them, while a dull and ashen grayness crept into his face, second by waiting second.

It was not until his eyes met hers that he took three wavering and undecided steps toward her.

With a silent movement-more of warning than of fright, he afterward told himself-she pressed her gloved fingers to her lips. What her intent eyes meant to say to him, in that wordless, telepathic message, Durkin could not guess; all thought was beyond him. But in a moment or two the roadway cleared, the car shook and plunged forward, the floating curtains fluttered and trailed behind.

Durkin turned blindly, and pushed and ran and dodged through the languidly amazed promenaders, following after that sudden and bewildering vision, as after his last hope in life. But the fine, white, limestone Riviera dust from the fading car's tire-heels, and the burnt gases from its engines, were all the road held for him, as it undulated off into hillside quietnesses.

He heard the young Chicagoan calling after him, breathless and anxious. But he ran on until he came to a side street, shadowed with garden walls and villas and greenery. Slipping into this, he immured himself in the midnight silences, to be alone with the contending forces that tore at him.

If his companion was right, and such things as this made up Romance, then, after all, the drama of life had lost none of its bewilderment. For the woman he had seen between the floating purple curtains was his own wife.

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