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   Chapter 3 THE SHADOWING PAST

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 11142

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Durkin's first tangible feeling was a passion to lose and submerge himself in the muffling midnight silences, the silences of those outwardly quiet gardens at heart so old in sin and pain.

He felt the necessity for some sudden and sweeping readjustment, and his cry for solitude was like that of the child wounded in spirit, or that of the wild animal sorely hurt in body. Before he could face life again, he felt, he had to build up about him the sustaining fabric of some new and factitious faith.

But as intelligence slowly emerged from the mist and chaos of utter bewilderment, as reason crept haltingly back to her seat, his first blind and indeterminate rage fell away from him. His first black and blinding clouds of suspicion slowly subsided before practical and orderly question and cross-question. Thought adjusted itself to its new environment. Painfully, yet cautiously, he directed his ceaseless artillery of interrogation toward the outer and darker walls of uncertainty still so blankly confronting him.

It was not that he had been consumed by any direct sense of loss, of deprivation. It was not that he had feared open and immediate treachery. If a rage had burned through him, at the sudden and startling sight of his own wife thus secretly masquerading in an unknown r?le, it was far from being a rage or mere jealousy and distrust.

They had, in other days, each passed through questionable and perilous experiences. Both together and alone they had adventured unwillingly along many of the more dubious channels of life. They had surrendered to temptation; they had sown and reaped and suffered, and become weary of it. They had struggled slowly yet stoically up towards respectability; they had fought for fair-dealing; they had entered a compact to stand by each other through that long and bitter effort to be tardily honest and autumnally aboveboard.

What now so disturbed and disheartened him was the sudden sense of something impending, the vague apprehension of some momentous and far-reaching intrigue which he could not even foreshadow. And it was framing itself into being at a time when he had most prayed for their untrammelled freedom, when he had most looked for their ultimate emancipation from the claws of that too usurious past.

But, above all, what had brought about the sudden change? Why had no inkling of it crept to his ears? Why was she, the passionate pleader for the decencies of life whom he had last watched so patiently and heroically imparting the mastery of the pianoforte to seven little English children in a squalid Paris pension, now lapsing back into the old and fiercely abjured avenue of irresponsibility? Why had she weakened and surrendered, when he himself, the oldtime weakling of the two, had clung so desperately to the narrow path of rectitude? And what was the meaning and the direction of it all? And what would it lead to? But why, above all, had she kept silent, and given him no warning?

Durkin looked up and listened to the soft rustling of the palm branches. The bray of a distant band saddened him with an unfathomable sense of homesickness. Through an air that seemed heavy with languid tropicality, and the waiting richness of life, he caught the belated glimmer of lights and the throb and murmur of string music. It carried in to him what seemed the essential and alluring note of all the existence he had once known and lived. Yet day by day he had fought back that sirenic call. It had not always been an open victory-the weight of all the past lay too heavily upon him for that-but for her sake he had at least vacillated and hesitated and temporized, waiting and looking for that final strength which would come with her first wistful note of warning, or with her belated return to his side.

Yet here was Opportunity lying close and thick about him; here Chance had laid the board for its most tempting game. In that way, as the young Chicagoan had said, they stood in the centre of the world. But he had turned away from those clustering temptations, he had left unbroken his veneer of honorable life, for her sake-while she herself had surrendered, unmistakably, irrevocably, whatever strange form the surrender might even at that moment be taking.

All he could do, now, was to wait until morning. There would surely be some message, some hint, some key to the mystery. While everything remained so maddeningly enigmatic, he raked through the tangled past in search of some casual seed of explanation for that still undeciphered present.

He recalled, period by period, and scene by scene, his kaleidoscopic past career, his first fatal blunder as a Grand Trunk telegraph operator, when one slip of the wrist brought a gravel train head-on into an Odd Fellows' Excursion special, his summary dismissal from the railroad, and his unhappy flight to New York, his passionate struggle to work his way up once more, his hunger for money and even a few weeks of leisure, that his long dreamed of photo-telegraphy apparatus might be perfected and duly patented, his consequent fall from grace in the Postal-Union offices, through holding up a trivial racing-return or two until he and his outside confederate had been able to make their illicit wagers, then his official ostracism, and his wandering street-cat life, when, at last, the humbling and compelling pinch of poverty had turned him to "overhead guerrilla" work and the dangers and vicissitudes of a poolroom key-operator. He recalled his chance meeting with MacNutt, the wire-tapper, and their partnership

of privateer forces in that strange campaign against Penfield, the alert and opulent poolroom king, who had seemed always able to defy the efforts and offices of a combative and equally alert district-attorney.

Most vividly and minutely of all, he reviewed his first meeting with Frances Candler, and the bewilderment that had filled him when he discovered her to be an intimate and yet a reluctant associate with MacNutt in his work-a bewilderment which lasted until he himself grew to realize how easy was the downward trend when once the first false step had been made.

He brought back to mind their strange adventures and perils and escapes together, day by day and week by week, their early interest that had ripened into affection, their innate hatred of that underground life, which eventually flowered into open revolt and flight, their impetuous marriage, their precipitate journey from the shores of America.

Then came to him what seemed the bitterest memories of all. It was the thought of that first too fragile happiness which slowly but implacably merged into discontent, still hidden and tacit, but none the less evident. That interregnum of peace had been a Tantalus-like taste of a draught which he all along knew was to be denied him. Yet, point by point, he recalled their first quiet and hopeful weeks in England, when their old ways of life seemed as far away as the America they had left behind, when they still had unbounded faith in themselves and in the future. Just how or where fell the first corroding touch he could never tell. But in each of them there had grown up a secret unrest-it was, he knew, the hounds of habit whimpering from their kennels. "No one was ever reformed," he had once confided to Frances, "by simply being turned out to grass!" So it was then that they had tried to drug their first rising doubts with the tumult of incessant travel and change. His wife had lured him to secluded places, she had struggled to interest him in a language or two, she had planned quixotic courses of reading-as though a man such as he might be remolded by a few months of modern authors!-and carried him off to centres of gaiety-as though the beat of Hungarian bands and outlandish dances could drive that inmost fever out of his blood!

He endured Aix-les-Bains and its rheumatics, with their bridge-whist and late dinners and incongruous dissipations, for a fortnight. Then they fled to the huddled little hotels and pensions of the narrow and dark wooded valley of Karlsbad, under skies which Frank declared to be bluer than the blue of forget-me-nots, where, amid Brahmins from India and royalty from Austria and audacious young duchesses from Paris and students from Petersburg and Berlin, and undecipherable strangers from all the remotest corners of the globe, it seemed to Durkin they were at last alone. He confided this feeling to his wife, one tranquil morning after they had drunk their Sprudel from long-handled cups, at the spring where the comely, rubber-garmented native girls caught and doled out the biting hot spray of the geyser. They were seated at the remoter end of the glass-covered Promenade, and a band was playing. Something in the music, for once, had saddened and dispirited Frank.

"Alone?" she had retorted. "Who is ever alone?"

"Well, our wires are down, for a little while, anyway!" laughed Durkin, as he sipped the hot salt water from the china cup. It reminded him, he had said, of all his past sins in epitome. Frank sighed wearily, and did not speak for a minute or two.

"But, after all," she said at last, in a meditative calmness of voice, "there are always some sort of ghostly wires connecting us with one another, holding us in touch with what we have been and done, with our past, and with our ancestors, with all our forsaken sins and misdoings. No, Jim, I don't believe we are ever alone. There are always sounds and hints, little broken messages and whispers, creeping in to us along those hidden circuits. We call them Intuitions, and sometimes we speak of them as Character, and sometimes as Heredity, and weakness of will-but they are there, just the same!"

The confession of that mood was a costly one, for before the week was out they had, in some way, wearied of the sight of that daily procession of nephritics and neurotics, and were off again, like a pair of homeless swallows, to the Rhine salmon and the Black Forest venison of Baden. From there they fled to the mountain air of St. Moritz, where they were frozen out and driven back to Paris-but always spending freely and thinking little of the vague tomorrow. Durkin, indeed, recognized that taint of improvidence in his veins. He was a spendthrift; he had none of the temperamental foresight and frugality of his wife, who reminded him, from time to time, and with ever-increasing anxiety, of their ever-melting letter of credit. But, on the other hand, she stood ready to sacrifice everything, in order to build some new wall of interest about him, that she might immure him from his past. She still planned and schemed to shield him, not so much from the world, as from himself. Yet he had seen, almost from the first, that their pursuit of contentment was born of their common and ever-increasing terror of the future. Each left unuttered the actual emptiness and desolation of life, yet each nursed the bitter sting of it. Day by day he had put on a bold face, because he had long since learned how poignantly miserable his own misery could make her. And, above all things, he hated to see her unhappy.

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