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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 20114

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Durkin waited until, muffled and far away, the throb and drone of an orchestra floated up to him. This was followed, scatteringly, by the bells of the different tables d'h?te. They, too, sounded thin and remote, drifting up through the soft, warm air that had always seemed so exotic to him, so redolent of foreign-odored flowers, so burdened with alien-smelling tobacco smoke, of unfamiliar sea scents incongruously shot through with even the fumes of an unknown and indescribable cookery.

While that genial shrill and tinkle of many bells meant refreshment and most gregarious frivolity for the chattering, loitering, laughing and ever-spectacular groups so far below him-and how he hated their outlandish gibberish and their arrogant European aloofness!-it meant for him hard work, and hard work of a somewhat perilous and stimulating nature.

For, as the last of the demurely noisy groups made their way through the deepening twilight to the different hotels and cafés that already spangled the hillsides with scattering clusters of light, Durkin coolly removed his shoes, twisted and knotted his two bath towels into a stout rope, securely tied back his heavy French window-shutter of wood with one of his sheets, and having attached his improvised rope to the base of the shutters, swung himself deftly out. On the return swing he caught the cast-iron water-pipe that scaled the wall from window tier to window tier. Down this jointed pipe he went, gorilla-like, segment by segment, until he reached what he knew to be the hotel's third floor. Here he rested for a moment or two against the wall, feeling inwardly grateful that a Mediterranean climate still made possible Monaco's primitive outside plumbing-to the initiated, he inwardly remarked, such things had always their unlooked-for advantages. He also felt both relieved and grateful to see that the two windows between him and his destination had been left shuttered against the heat of the afternoon sun. The third window he could see, was not thus barricaded, although, as he had expected, the sash itself was securely locked.

Once convinced of this, he dropped down, stealthily, and lay full length on the balcony flooring, with his ear close against the casement woodwork, listening. Reasonably satisfied, he rose to his knees, and took from his vest pocket a small diamond ring. Holding this firmly between his thumb and forefinger, he described a semi-circle on the heavy window-glass. He listened again, intently. Then he took a small cold-chisel from still another pocket, and having cut away the putty at the base of the semicircle, smote the face of the glass one sharp little tap.

It cracked neatly, along the line of the circling diamond-scratch, so that, with the help of a suction cap made from the back of a kid glove, he was able to draw out the loosened segment of glass. Then he waited and listened still again. As he thrust in through the little opening a cautiously exploring hand the casual act seemed to take on the dignity of a long-considered ritual. It was a ceremonial moment to him, he felt, for it marked his transit, across some narrow moral divide, from lonely ascent to lonely decline.

The impression stayed with him only a second. He turned back to his work, with a reckless little up-thrust of each resolute shoulder. His searching fingers found the old-fashioned window lever, of hammered brass, and on this he pressed down and back, quietly. A moment later the sash swung slowly out, and he was inside the room, closing the shutters and then the window after him.

He stood there, in the dark quietness, for what must have been a full minute. Then he took from his pocket a box of wax matches. He had purchased them for the purpose, from the frugal old woman who month by month and season by season carried on her quiet trade at the foot of the Casino steps, catching, as it were, the tiny drippings from the flaring tapers in that Temple of Gold. And day after day, one turn of the roulette wheel took and gave more money than all her years of frugal trade might amass!

Taking one of the vestas, he struck a light, and holding it above his head, carefully examined the room, from side to side. Then he tiptoed to a door, which stood ajar. This, he saw by a second match, was a sleeping-room; and the two rooms, obviously, made up the suite. A door, securely locked, opened from the sleeping-room into the outer hallway. The door which opened from the larger room was likewise locked, but to make assurance doubly sure Durkin slid a second inside bolt, for already his quick eye had caught the gleam of its polished brass, just below the door-knob of the ordinary mortised lock. Then, groping his way to the little switchboard, he touched a button, and the room was flooded with light. He first looked about, carefully but quickly, and then glanced at his watch. He had at least two hours in which to do his work. Any time after that Pobloff might return. And by midnight at least the Prince's valet would be back from Nice, to begin packing his master's boxes.

He slipped into the bedroom, and took from the bed a blanket and comforter. These he draped above the hall door, to muffle any chance sound. Then he turned to the northeast corner of the room, where stood what seemed to be a dressing cabinet, with little shelves and a plate-glass mirror above it. The lower part of it was covered by a polished rosewood door.

One sharp twist and pry with his cold-chisel forced this flimsy outer door away from its lock. Beneath it, thus lightly masked, stood the more formidable safe door itself. Durkin drew in a sharp breath of relief as he looked at it with critical eyes. It was not quite the sort of thing he had expected. If it had been a combination lock he had intended to tear away the woodwork covering it, pad the floor with the bed mattress, and then pry it over on its face, to chisel away the cement that he knew would lie under its vulnerable sheet-iron bottom. But it was an ordinary, old-fashioned lock and key "Mennlicher," Durkin at the first glance had seen-the sort of strong box which a Third avenue cigar seller, at home, would scarcely care to keep on his premises. Yet this was the deposit vault for which hotel guests, such as Prince Ignace Slevenski Pobloff, paid ten francs a day extra.

The sound of footsteps passing down the hallway caused the intruder to draw back and listen. He turned quickly, waited, and came to a quick, new decision. Before doing so, however, he re-examined the room more critically.

This Prince Ignace Slevenski Pobloff was, obviously, a man of taste. He was also a man of means-and Durkin wondered if in that fact alone lay the reason why a certain young Belgian adventuress had followed him from Tangier to Algeciras, and from Algeciras to Gibraltar, and from Gibraltar still on to the Riviera. She had, at any rate, not followed a scentless quarry. He was not the mere curled and perfumed impostor so common to that little principality of shams. Even the garrulous young Chicagoan, from whom Durkin had secured his first Casino tickets, was able to vouch for the fact that Pobloff was a true boyard. He was also something or other in the imperial diplomatic service-just what it was Durkin could not at the moment remember.

But he nursed his own personal convictions as to the moral stability of this true boyard. He had quietly witnessed, at Algeciras, the Prince's adroit card "riffling" in the sun-parlors of The Reina Cristina, when the gouty ex-ambassador to Persia had parted company with many cumbersome dollars. Durkin's only course, in that time of adversity and humility, had been one of silence. But he had inwardly and adventurously resolved, if ever Fate should bring him and the Prince together under circumstances more untrammelled, he would not let pass a chance to balance up that ledger of princely venality. For here indeed was an adversary, Durkin very well knew, who was worthy of any man's steel.

So the intruder, opening and closing drawers as he went, glanced quickly but appreciatively at the highly emblazoned cards lying on the little red-leather-covered writing-table, at the litter of papers bearing the red and blue and gold of the triple-crowned double eagle, at the solid gold seal, at the row of splendid and regal-looking women in silver photograph holders, above the reading-desk, and a decanter or two of cut-glass. In one of the drawers of this desk he found an ivory-handled revolver, a toy-like thirty-two caliber hammerless, of English make. Durkin glanced at it curiously, noticed that each chamber held its cartridge, turned it over in his hand, replaced it in the drawer, and after a moment's thought, took it out once more and slipped it into his hip pocket. Then his rapidly roving eye took in the sable top-coat flung carelessly across the foot of the bed, the neat little heelless Tunisian slippers beneath it, the glistening, military-looking boots, each carefully nursing its English shoe-tree, a highly embroidered smoking-cap, an ivory-handled shaving-set in its stamped morocco case, one razor for each day of the week, and the silver-mounted toilet bottles, so heavily chased.

Having, apparently, made careful mental note of the rooms, Durkin once more turned back to the switchboard, and prying loose the fluted molding that concealed the lighting-wires, he scraped away the insulating tissue and severed the thread of copper with a sweep or two of his narrow file. He felt safer, in that enforced darkness, for the work which lay before him.

The black gloom was punctuated by the occasional flare of a match, and the silence broken now and then, as he worked before the safe, by the metallic click and scrape of steel against steel, and by the muffled rasp and whine of his file against the wax-covered key which from time to time he fitted into the unyielding safe lock. As he filed and tested and refiled, with infinite care and patience, his preoccupied mind ranged vaguely along the channel of thought

which the events of the last half-hour had opened up before him. He wondered why it was that Fortune should so favor those who stood the least in need of her smile. For four nights during the last seven, he knew, the Prince had won, and won heavily, both in the Casino and in the Club Privé. Yet, on the other hand, there was the little Bulgarian princess with rooms just across the corridor from his own, and the rightful possessor of the plain little diamond with which he had just cut his way into this more sumptuous chamber. For a week past now, down at the Casino, she had been losing steadily, as of course the vast and undirected majority always must lose. Even her solitaire earrings had been taken to Nice and pawned, Durkin knew. Three days before that, too, her maid-and who is ever anybody on the Riviera without a maid?-had been reluctantly and woefully discharged. At the Trente et Quarante table, as well, Durkin had watched the last thousand-franc note of the Princess wither away. "And this, my dear, will mean another three months with my sweet old palsied Duc de la Houspignolle," she had laughingly yet bitterly exclaimed, in excellent English, to the impassive young Oxford man who was then dogging her heels. She was a wit, and she had a beautiful hand, even though she was no better than the rest of Monte Carlo, ruminated the safe-breaker easily, as he squinted, under the flare of a match, at the ward indentations in his wax-covered key-flange.

His thoughts went back, as he worked, to the timely yet unexpected scene at the stair-head, two hours before. There he had helped a slim young femme de chambre support the Princess to her room, that royal lady having done her best to drown her ill fortune in absinthe and American high-balls-which, he knew, was ever an impossible combination. She had collapsed at the head of the stairs, and as he had helped lift her he had first caught sight of the solitaire diamond on the limp and slender finger. This reactionary mood, in the face of the earlier more tragical hours of that day of wearing anxieties, was almost one of facetiousness. He seemed to revel in the memory of what, in time, he knew, would be humiliating to him. It was a puny little diamond ring, of but three or four carats' weight, he mused, and yet with it had come the actual, if not the moral, turn in the tide of all his restless activities. It marked the moment when life seemed to fall back to its older and darker areas; it was the first diminutive milestone on his new road of adventure. But he would return the ring, of that he stoutly reassured himself, for he still nursed his ironic sense of justice in the smaller things. Yes, he would return the ring, he repeated, with his ever-recurring inapposite scrupulosity, for the young Princess was a lady of fortune under an unlucky star, like himself.

Durkin smiled a little, over his wax-covered key, as he still filed and fitted and listened. Then he gave vent to an almost inaudible "Ah!" for the bit of the key made the complete circuit, at last, and the wards of the lock clicked back into place.

He swung open the heavy iron door, cautiously, listened for a moment, and then struck another match.

That Pobloff might have the bank-notes with him was a contingency; that he would carry about with him two thousand napoleons was an absurdity. And Durkin knew the money had not been deposited-to ascertain that had been part of his day's work. The Prince, of course, was a prodigal and free-handed gentleman-how much of his winnings had already leaked through his careless fingers it was impossible to surmise. Durkin even resented the thought of that extravagance-as though it were a personal and obvious injustice to himself. If it was all the fruit of blind chance, if it came thus unearned and accidental, why should he not have his share of it? Already Monte Carlo had taught him the mad necessity for money. But now, of all times, it was necessary for him. One-half, one-quarter, of the sum which this careless-eyed Slavic aristocrat had carried so jauntily away from the Trente et Quarante table would endow him with the means to come into his own once more. It was essential that he secure his sinews of war, even before he could continue his search for Frank, or rescue her from the dangers that beset her, if she still wished for rescue. If he regretted the underground and underhand steps through which that money could alone come into his possession, he consoled his still protesting conscience with the claim that it was, after all, only a battle of wit against disinterested wit. For, self-delusively, he was beginning once more to regard all organized society and its ways as a mere inquisitorial process which the adventurous could ignore and the keen-witted could circumvent. Warfare, such as his, must be a law unto itself!

Then he gave all his attention to the work before him, as he lifted from the safe, first a small steel despatch box, neatly initialed in gold, "I. S. P.," and then a packet of blue-tinted envelopes, held together by two rubber bands, and written on, here and there, in a language which the intruder assumed to be Russian. Next came a japanned-tin box, which proved to hold nothing but a file of quite unintelligible, Seidlitz-powder-colored papers, and then what seemed, to Durkin's exploring fingers, to be a few small morocco cases. The question flashed through his mind: What if, after all, the money he was looking for was not to be found! He struck still another match, with impatient hands. His first fever of audacity had burned itself out, and some indefinite cold reaction of disdain and disgust was setting in. Stooping low, he peered into the safe once more.

Then he gave a little sigh of relief. For there, behind a row of books that looked like small ledgers or journals, he caught sight of a stout leather bag, tied with a corded silk rope. He dropped the burned-out end of the match, and, thrusting in an arm, lifted out the bag. As he placed it on the floor the muffled click of metal smote on his ear. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, with a sense of relief. He had risked too much to go away empty-handed.

He tore at the carefully knotted cord, first with his fingers and then with his teeth. It was not so heavy as he had hoped it might be. On more collected second thoughts, indeed, it was woefully light. But the knot defied his efforts. He took out a second match, and was on the point of striking it.

Instead of doing so, he stood suddenly erect, and then backed noiselessly into the remotest corner of the room. For a key had been thrust into the lock of the anteroom door, and already the handle was being slowly turned back.

Durkin's breath quickened and shortened, and his hand swung back to his hip pocket. Then he waited, with his revolver in his hand.

He counted and weighed his chances, quickly, one by one, as he stood there, in the black silence. He caught the diffused glimmer of the reflected light from the outer room as the door opened and closed, sharply. But the momentary half-light did not give him a glimpse of who or what was before him, for in a second all was blackness again. His first uneasy thought was that it was a very artful move. He and that Other were alone there, in the utter darkness. Neither, now, would have the advantage. He had been a fool to leave one of the doors without its double lock, of some sort. He had once been told that it was always through the more trivial contingency that the criminal was ultimately trapped.

He strained his ears, and listened. He could hear nothing. Yet he was positive that he could feel some approaching presence. It may have been a minute vibration of flooring; it may have been through the operation of some occult sixth sense. But he was sure of that mysterious Other, coming closer and closer to him.

Suddenly something seemed to stir and move in the darkness. He crouched, with every nerve and muscle ready, and a moment later he would have relieved the tension with some sort of cry, had he not realized that it was the wooden Swiss clock above the cabinet, beginning to strike the hour.

The sound came to an end, and Durkin was assuring himself that it could now be neither Pobloff nor the valet, when a second sound sent a tingle of apprehension through his frame.

It was the blue spurt of a match that suddenly cut the blackness before him. The fool-he was striking a light!

Durkin crouched lower, and watched the flame as it grew on the darkness. The direct glare of it made him blink a little, but he swung his revolver barrel just above it, and a little to the right. He was more confident now, and quite collected. However it all turned out, it could not be much worse than starving to death, unknown and alone in some public square of Monaco.

As the tiny luminous circle flowered into wider flame the match was held higher. Durkin could see the rose-like glow between the phalanges of the fingers shielding the light. Then, of a sudden, a face grew out of the blackness, a white face shadowed by a plumed hat. It was a woman's face. Durkin lowered his revolver, slowly, inch by inch.

It was his wife who stood there in the darkness, not six paces away from him.

"You!" he gasped involuntarily, incredibly. Sheer wonder survived his instinctive recoil. It was the bolt, striking twice in the same spot.

The two white faces looked at each other, gaped at each other, insanely. He could see her breath come and go, shortly, and the deathly pallor of her face, and the relaxed lower jaw that had fallen a little away from the drooping upper lip. But she neither moved nor spoke. The match burned to her finger-ends, and fell to the floor. Darkness enveloped them again.

"You!" he repeatedly vacuously. The blackness and the silence seemed to blanket and smother him, like something tangible to the touch. He took three steps toward where she still stood motionless, and in an agonized whisper cried out to her:

"My God, Frank, what is it?"

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