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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 12384

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Under the softly-waving palms of that midnight garden, Durkin relived their feverish past, month by remembered month, until they found the need of money staring them in the face. He reviewed each increasing dilemma, until, eventually, he had left her in her squalid Paris pension with her music pupils and the last eighty francs, while he clutched at the passing straw of an exporting house clerkship in Marseilles. The exporting house, which was under American guidance, had flickered and gone out ignominiously, and week by desperate week each new promise of honest work seemed to wither into a chimera at his feverish touch. He had been told of a demand for electrical experts at Tangier, and had promptly worked his passage to that outlandish sea-port on a Belgian coasting-steamer, only to find a week's employment installing a burglar-alarm system in the ware-house of a Liverpool shipping company. In Gibraltar, a week or two longer, he had been able to supply his immediate wants through assisting in the reconstruction of a moving-picture machine, untimely wrecked on the outskirts of Fez by Moorish fanatics who had believed it to be the invention of the Evil One.

It was at Gibraltar, too, that his first mocking hopes for some renewal of life had come to him, along with the vague hint that his transmitting camera had at last been recognized, and perhaps even marketed. But escape from that little seaport had been as difficult as escape from gaol. He had finally effected a hazardous and ever-memorable migration from Algeciras to Cimiez, but only by acting as chauffeur for a help-abandoned, gout-ridden, and irritable-minded ex-ambassador to Persia, together with a scrupulously inattentive trained nurse, who, apparently, preferred diamonds to a uniform, and smuggled incredible quantities of hand-made lace under the tonneau seat-cushions. And then he had found himself at Monte Carlo, still waiting for word from Paris, fighting against a grim new temptation which, vampire-like, had grown stronger and stronger as its victim daily had grown weaker and weaker.

For along the sea-front, one indolent and golden afternoon, he had learned that an American yacht in the harbor was sending ashore for a practical electrician, since a defective generator had left its cabins of glimmering white and gold in sudden darkness. Durkin, after a brief talk with the second officer, had been taken aboard the tender and hurried out to where the lightless steamer rocked and swung at her anchor chain in the intense turquoise bay. He had hoped, at first, that he was approaching his ship of deliverance, that luck was favoring the luckless and at last the means of his escape were at hand. So he asked, with outward unconcern, just what the yacht's course was. They were bound for Messina, the second officer had replied, and from there they went on to Corfu for a couple of weeks, and then on to Ragusa.

He went on board and looked over the armature core. It was of the slotted drum type, he at once perceived, built up of laminations of soft steel painted to break up eddy currents, and as he tested the soft amber mica insulation about the commutators of hard-rolled copper, he knew that the defective generator could be repaired in three-quarters of an hour. But certain scraps of talk that came to his ears amid the clink of glasses, from one of the shadowy saloons, had stung into vague activity his old, irrepressible hunger for the companionship of his own kind, his own race.

It was uncommonly pleasant, he had told himself as he had caught the first drone of the lowered, confidential voices, to hear the old home talk, and even broken snatches of old home interests. As he explored the ship and minutely examined automatic circuit-breaker and switchboard and fuse, he even made it a point to see that his explorations took him into the pantry-like cabin next to the saloon from which these droning voices drifted. As he gave apparently studious and unbroken attention to a stretch of defective wiring, he was in fact making casual mental note of the familiar tones of the distant voices, listening impersonally and dreamily to each question and answer and suggestion that passed between that quietly talking group. One of the talkers, he soon found, was a Supreme Court judge on his vacation, equable and deliberative in his occasional query or view or criticism; another was apparently a secret agent from the office of the New York district-attorney, still another two were either Scotland Yard men or members of some continental detective bureau-this Durkin assumed from their broad-voweled English voices and their seemingly intimate knowledge of European criminal procedure. The fifth man he could in no way place. But it was this man who interrupted the others, and, apparently taking a slip of paper from some inside pocket or some well-closed wallet, read aloud a list which, he first explained, had been secured from some undesignated safe on the night of a certain raid.

"Three hundred and twenty shares of National Bank of Commerce," read the voice methodically, the reader checking off each item, obviously, as he went along. "One certificate of forty-seven shares of United States Steel Preferred; two certificates of one hundred shares each of Erie Railroad First Preferred; eighteen personal cheques, with names and amounts and banks attached; seven I. O. U.'s, with amounts and dates and initials."

"Probably worthless, from our point of view!" interposed a voice.

The dreaminess suddenly went out of Durkin's eyes, as he listened.

"Postal-Union Telegraph bonds, valued at $102,345," went on the reading voice, and again the interrupting critic remarked: "Which, you see, we may regard as very significant, since it both obviously and inferably demonstrates that the telegraph company and the poolrooms are compelled to stand together!"

Durkin followed the list, with inclined head and uplifted hands, forgetting even his simulation of work, until the end was reached.

"In all, you see, one quarter of a million dollars in negotiable securities, if we are to rely on this memorandum, which, as I stated before, ought to be authent

ic, for it was taken from the Penfield safe the night of the first raid."

Durkin started, as though the circuit with which his fingers absently toyed had suddenly become a live wire.

"Penfield!" The word sent a little thrill through his body. Penfield-the very name was a challenging trumpet to him. But again he bent and listened to the drone of the nearby voices.

"And Keenan, you say, is in Genoa?" asked one of the Englishmen.

"If he's not there now he will be during the week," answered the American.

"You're sure of that?"

"All I know is that our Milan man secured duplicates of his cables. Three of them were in cipher, but he was able to make reasonably sure of the Genoa trip!"

"It would be rather hard to get at him, there!"

"But if he strikes north, as you say, and goes first to Liverpool, and gets home by the back door, as it were, by taking a steamer to Quebec or Montreal--"

"That's a mere blind!"

"But why say that?"

"Because he's too wise to stride British territory, before he unloads. It's not a mere matter of stopping the transfer of this stock, or whether or not all of it is negotiable. What we want is tangible and incriminating evidence. The signatures of those cheques are--"

That was the last word that came to Durkin's ears, for at that moment a steward, with a tray of glasses, hurried into the pantry. His suspicious eye saw nothing beyond a busy electrician replacing a switchboard. But before the intruding steward had departed the second officer was at Durkin's elbow, overlooking his labors, and no further word or hint came to the ears of the listener.

But he had heard enough. The flame had been applied to the dry acreage of his too arid and idle existence. He had remained passive too long. It was change that brought chance. And even though that change meant descent, it would, after all, be only the momentary dip that preceded the upward flight again. And as he gazed thoughtfully landward, where Monte Carlo lay vivid and glowing under the sheltering Alpes-Maritimes, like a golden lizard sunning itself on a shelf of gray rock, he felt within him a more kindly and comprehensive feeling for that flower-strewn arena of vast hazards. It was, after all, the great chances of life that made existence endurable. Its only anodyne lay in effort and feverish struggle. And his chance for work had come!

Half an hour later he was rowed ashore, with a good Havana cigar between his teeth and three good English sovereigns in his pocket. As he made his way up to his hotel he could feel some inner part of him still struggling and shrinking back from the enticing avenue of activity which his new knowledge was opening up before him.

He smiled, now, a little grimly, as he sat under the rustling palms and thought of those old, unnecessary scruples. He had been holding himself to a compact which no longer existed. And, all along, he had been regarding himself as the weakling, the vacillator, when it was he who had held out the longest! He had even, in those earlier hesitating moments, consolingly recalled to his mind how Monsieur Blanc's modestly denominated Société Anonyme des Bains de Mer et Cercle des étrangers made it a point to proffer a railway ticket to any impending wreck, such as himself, who might drift like a stain across its roads of merriment, or leave a telltale blot upon one of its perennially beautiful and ever-odorous flower-beds. But now, as he reviewed those past weeks of hesitation and inward struggle, a sense of relapse crept over him. As he recalled the picture of the clear-cut profile between the floating purple curtains, a vague indifference as to the final outcome of things took possession of him.

He almost exulted in the meaning of the strange meeting, which, one hour before, had seemed to bring the universe crashing down about his head. Then, as his plans and thoughts took more definite shape, his earlier recklessness merged into an almost pleasurable sense of relief and release, of freedom after confinement. He felt incongruously grateful for the lash that had awakened him to even illicit activity; life, under the passion for accomplishment, under the zest for risk and responsibility, seemed to take on its older and deeper meaning once more. It was, he told himself, as if the foreign tongue which he had so wearily heard on every side of him, for so long, had suddenly translated itself into intelligibility, or as if the text beneath the pictures in those ubiquitous illustrated papers from Paris, which he had studied so blankly and so blindly, had suddenly become as plain as his own English to him.

But his moment of exaltation, his mood of careless emancipation, was a brief one. He was no longer alone in life. His bitterness of heart had blinded him to obligations. He had not yet fathomed the mystery of Frank's appearance. He had not yet even made sure of her relapse. Above all, he had not put forth a hand to help her in what might be an inexplicable extremity. The morning could still bring some word from her. He himself would spend the day in search of her. He would have to proceed guardedly, but he would leave no stone unturned. It was not, he told himself, that he was giving fate one last chance to treat more kindly with him. It was, rather, that all his natural being wanted and reached out for this woman who had first taught him the meaning and purpose of life.… His mind went back, suddenly, to one afternoon, months before, at Abbazia, when they had come up from sea-bathing in the Adriatic. He had leaned down over her, to help her up the Angiolina bath steps, wet and slippery with sea-water. The mingled gold and chestnut of her thick hair was dank and sodden with brine, the wistful face that she turned up to him was pinched and colorless and blue about the lips. She seemed, of a sudden, as she leaned heavily on his arm, a presaging apparition out of the dim future, an adumbration of her own body grown frail and old, looking up to him for help, calling forlornly to him for solace. And in that impressionable moment his heart had gone out to her, in a burst of pity that seemed deeper and stronger than love itself.

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