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   Chapter 6 THE WOMAN SPEAKS

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 15636

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Ssssh!" said the woman under her breath, as she clutched Durkin's arm.

He shook her hand off, impatiently, although the act seemed at cross-purposes with his own will.

"But you-here!" he still gasped.

"Oh, Jim!" she half-moaned, inadequately. Yet an aura of calmness seemed to surround her. So great was his own excitement that the words burst from him of their own will, apparently, and sounded like the utterance of a voice not his own.

"What's it mean! How'd you get here?"

He could hear her shuddering, indrawn sigh.

"What, in the name of heaven, do you want in here? Why don't you speak?"

There was a moment of unbroken silence. For the first time it seemed to come home to him that this woman who confronted him was his own wife, in the flesh and blood.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded at last.

He responded, even in his mood of hot antagonism, to some note of ever-sustained appeal about her. Even through the black gloom that blanketed and blinded him some phantasmal and sub-conscious medium, like the imaginary circuit of a multiplex telegraph system, seemed to carry to his mind some secondary message, some thought that she herself had not uttered. She, too, was suffering, but she had not shown it, for such was her way, he remembered. A wave of sympathy obliterated his resentment. He caught her in his arms, hungrily, and kissed her abandonedly. He noticed that her skin was cold and moist.

"Oh, Jim," she murmured again, weakly.

"It's so long, isn't it?"

Then she added, with a little catch of the breath, as though even that momentary embrace were a joy too costly to be countenanced, "Turn on the lights, quick!"

"I can't," he told her. "I've cut the wires."

He felt at her blindly, through the muffling blackness. She was shaking a little now, on his arm. It bewildered him to think how his hunger for her could still obliterate all consciousness of time and place.

"Why didn't you write?" she pleaded pitifully.

"I did write-a dozen times. Then I telegraphed!"

"Not a word came!" she cried.

"Then I wrote twice to London!"

"And those never came. Oh, everything was against me!" she moaned.

"But how did you get here?" he still demanded.

She did not answer his question. Instead, she asked him: "Where did you send the Paris letters?"

"To 11 bis avenue Beaucourt."

She groaned a little, impatiently.

"That was foolish-I wrote you that I was leaving there-that I had to go!"

"Not a line reached me!"

He heard her little gasp of despair before she spoke.

"I was put out of there," she went on, hurriedly and evenly, yet with a vibrata of passion in her crowded utterance. "There wasn't a penny left-the pupils I had gave up their lessons. What they had heard or found out I don't know. Then I got a tiny room in the rue de Sèvres. I sold my last thing, then our wedding ring, even, to get it."

"And then what?"

"I still waited-I thought you would know, or find out, and that in some way or other I should still hear from you. I would have gone to the police, or advertised, but I knew it wouldn't be safe."

Once more the embittering consciousness of some dark coalition of forces against them swept over him. Fate, at every step, had frustrated them.

"I advertised twice, in the Herald?"

"Where would I see the Herald?"

"But you must have known I was trying to find you-that I was doing everything possible!"

"I knew nothing," she answered, in her poignantly emotionless voice. And the thought swept through Durkin that something within her had withered and died during those last grim weeks of suffering.

"But here-how did you get here-and what's this Lady Boxspur business?" he still insisted.

"Yes, yes," she almost moaned, "if you'll only wait I'll tell you. But is it safe to stay here? Have you thought where we are?"

"Yes; it's safe, quite safe, for an hour yet."

"Why didn't you send me money, or help me?" she asked, in her dead and unhappy monotone.

"I did, eighty francs, all I had. I hadn't a penny left. I didn't know the damned language. I prowled about like a cat in a strange garret, but I tried everything, from the American consul at Nice to a Herald correspondent at San Remo. Then I got word of a consumptive young writer from New York, at Mentone-but he died the day I was to meet him. Then I heard of the new Marconi station up the coast, and worked at wireless for two weeks, and made twenty dollars, before they sacked me for not being able to send a message out to a Messina fruit-steamer, in Italian. Then I chanced on the job of doctoring up a generator on an American yacht down here in the bay."

"Yes, yes-I know how hard it is!"

"But listen! When I was on board at work I overheard a Supreme Court judge and a special agent from the Central Office in New York and two English detectives talking over the loss of certain securities. And those securities belong to Richard Penfield!"

He knew that she had started, at the sound of that name.

"Penfield!" she gasped. "What of him?"

"When the district-attorney's men raided Penfield's New York gambling club, one of Penfield's new men got away with all his papers. They had been withdrawn from the Fifth Avenue Safe Deposit Company, for they were mostly cheques and negotiable securities, worth about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But beyond all their face value, they constituted prima facie evidence against the gambler."

"But what's all this to us, now?"

"They were smuggled to New Jersey. There the Jersey City chief of police took action, and this agent of Penfield's carried the documents across the North River and up to Stamford. From there he got back to New York again, by night, where he met a second agent, who had secured passage on the Slavonia for Naples. The first man is MacNutt."

"MacNutt!" ejaculated the listening woman.

"Yes, MacNutt! He compromised with Penfield and swung in with him when the district-attorney started pounding at them both. The second man is a lawyer named Keenan, who was disbarred for conspiracy in the Brayton divorce case. Keenan and his papers are due at Genoa on Friday. I found some of this out on board the yacht. I thought it over-and it was the only way open for me. I couldn't stand out against it all, any longer. I thought I could make the plunge, without your ever knowing it-and perhaps get enough to keep you out of any more messes like this!"

"You had given me up?" she cried, reprovingly.

"No-no-no-I'd only given up waiting for chances to find you. My God, don't you suppose I knew you needed me!"

"It would have been too late!" she said, in her dead voice. "It's too late, already!"

"Then you don't care?" he demanded, almost brokenly.

"I'll never complain, or whine, again!" she answered with dreary listlessness.

"Then why are you in this room?"

"I mean that I've given up myself. I'm in it, now, as deep as you! I couldn't fight it back any longer-it had to come!"

"But why, and how! Why don't you explain?"

He could feel her groping away from him in the darkness.

"Wait," she whispered.

"But why should I wait?" he demanded.

"Listen! That second room door is still unlocked, and there's danger enough here, without inviting it."

He groped after her into the bedroom. He could hear the gentle scrape of the key and the muffled sound of the lock as she turned it, followed by the cautious slide of the brass bolt, lower on the door. He waited for her, standing at the foot of the bed. He could hear her sigh of weariness as she sat down on the edge of the disordered mattress. Then, remembering that he had cut the wires of only the larger room, he felt his way to the button at the head of the bed. He snapped the current open and instantly the blinding white

light flooded the chamber.

"Is it safe here, any longer?" she asked restlessly, pausing a moment to accustom her eyes to the light, and then gazing up at him with an impersonal studiousness of stare that seemed to wall and bar her off from him. Still again he was oppressed by some sense of alienation, of looming tragedy between them. She, too, must have known some shadow of that feeling, for he saw the look of troubled concern, of unspoken pity, that crept over her face; and he turned away brusquely.

She spoke his name, quietly; and his gaze coasted round to her again. She watched him with wide and hungry eyes.

Her breast heaved, at his silence, but all she said was: "Is it safe, Jim?"

"Yes, it's perfectly safe. So tell me what you have to say. It doesn't mean any greater risk. We would only have to come back again-for I've work to do in this room yet!"

The return of the light seemed to give a new cast of practicality to his thoughts.

"What sort of work?" his wife was asking him.

"Seventeen hundred napoleons in gold to find," he answered grimly.

"Oh, it's not that, not that!" she said, starting up. "It's the papers, the Gibraltar papers!"

"Papers?" he repeated wonderingly.

"Yes, the imperial specifications. Pobloff's a paid agent in the French secret service. They say he was the man who secured Kitchener's Afghanistan frontier plans, and in some way or other had a good deal to do with the Curzon resignation."

"Ah, I thought there was something behind our boyard!"

"A year ago last March he was arrested in Jamaica, by the British authorities, for securing secret photographs of the Port Royal fortifications. They court-martialed one of the non-commissioned officers for helping him get an admission to the fortress, but the officer shot himself, and Pobloff had the plates spirited away, so the case fell through. Now he's got duplicates of every Upper Gallery and every new fortification of the Rock at Gibraltar."

"But why waste time over these things?"

"Pobloff got them through an English officer's wife. She was weak-and worse-she lost her head over him. I can't tell you more now. But there is an order for five hundred pounds waiting for me at the British Embassy, in Rome, from the Foreign Office, if I secure those papers!"

"That's twenty-five hundred dollars?"

"Yes, almost."

"And I was on the point of crawling away with a few napoleons!" said Durkin in a whisper. He began to succumb to the intoxication of this rapidity of movement which life was once more taking on. He was speed-mad, like a motorist on a white and lonely road. Yet an ever-recurring dismay and distrust of the end kept coming to him.

"But how did you come to find all this out? What happened after the rue de Sèvres?"

"Oh, it was all easy and natural enough, if I could only put it into words. After a few days, when I was hungry and sick, I went to one of the English hotels. I would have taken anything, even a servant's work, I believe."

He cursed himself to think that it was through him that she had come to such things.

"But I was lucky," she went on, hurriedly. "One afternoon I stumbled on a weeping lady's maid, on the verge of hysterics, who found enough confidence in me, in time, to tell me that her mistress had gone mad in her room and was clawing down the wallpaper and talking about killing herself. It was true enough, in a way, I soon found out, for it was an English noblewoman who had fought with her husband two weeks before in London, and had run away to Paris. What she had dipped into, and gone through, and suffered, I could only guess; but I know this: that that afternoon she had drunk half a pint of raw alcohol when the frightened maid had locked her in the bath-room. So I pushed in and took charge. First I wired to the woman's husband, Lord Boxspur, who sent me money, at once, and an order to bring her home as quietly as possible. He met us at Calais. It was a terrible ordeal for me, all through, for she tried to jump overboard, in the Channel, and was so insane, so hopelessly insane, that a week after we reached London she was committed to some sort of private asylum."

"And then?" asked Durkin.

"Then Boxspur thought that possibly I knew too much for his personal comfort. I rather think he looked on me as dangerous. He put me off and put me off, until I was glad to snatch at a position in a next-of-kin agency. But in a fortnight or two I was even more glad to leave it. Then I went back to Lord Boxspur, who this time sent me helter-skelter back to Paris, to bribe a blackmailing newspaper woman from giving the details of his wife's misfortunes to the Continental correspondent of a London weekly. But even when that was done, and I had been duly paid for my work, I was only secure for a few weeks, at the outside. All along I kept writing for you, frantically. So, when things began to get hopeless again, I went to the British Embassy. I had to lie, terribly, I'm afraid, before I could get an audience, first with an under secretary, and then with the ambassador himself. He said that he regretted he could do nothing for me, at least, officially. He looked at my clothes, and laughed a little, and said that of course, in cases of absolute destitution he sometimes felt compelled to come to the help of his fellow-countrymen. I told him that I knew the world, and was willing to undertake work of any sort. He answered that such cases were usually looked after at the consulate, and advised me to go there. But I didn't give him up, at once. I told him I was resourceful, and experienced, and might undertake even minor official tasks for him, until I had heard from my husband. Then he hesitated a little, and asked me if I knew the Continent well, and if I was averse to traveling alone. Then he called somebody up on his telephone, and in a few minutes came out and shook his head doubtfully, and advised me to apply at the consulate. Instead of that, I went not to the English, but to the American consul first. He told me that in five weeks a sea-captain friend of his was sailing from Havre to New York, and that it might not be impossible to have me carried along."

"That's what they always say!"

"It was the best he could do. Then I went to the British consul. He spoke about references, which left me blank; and tried to pump me, which left me frightened. But he could do nothing, he told me, except in the way of a personal donation, and that, he assumed, was out of the question. So I went back to the Embassy once more. I don't know why, but this time, for some reason or other, the ambassador believed in me. He gave me a week's trial as a sort of second deputy private secretary, indexing three-year-old correspondence and copying Roumanian agricultural reports. Then he put me on ordinance-report work. Then something happened-I can't go into details now-to arouse my suspicions. I rummaged through the storage closet in my temporary office and looped his telephone wire with twenty feet of number twelve wire from a broken electric fan, and an unused transmitter. Then, scrap by scrap, I picked up my first inklings of what was at that moment worrying the Foreign Office and the people at the Embassy as well. It was the capture of the Gibraltar specifications by Prince Slevenski Pobloff. When a Foreign Office secret agent telephoned in that Pobloff had been seen in Nice, I fought against the temptation for half a day, then I went straight to the ambassador and told him what I knew, but not how I came to know it. He gave me two hundred francs and a ticket to Monte Carlo, with a letter to deliver in Rome, if by any chance I should succeed."

"That would give us the show we want! That would give us a chance!"

She did not understand him. "A chance for what?"

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