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   Chapter 7 OUR FRIEND THE ENEMY

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 11995

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Durkin was pacing up and down the small room in his stockinged feet, looking at her, from time to time, with a detached, but ever studiously alert glance. Then he came to a stop, and confronted her. The memory of the night before, in the Promenade, with the sudden glimpse of her profile against the floating automobile curtain, came back to his mind, with a stab of pain.

"But what has all this to do with Lady Boxspur?" he suddenly demanded, wondering how long he should be able to have faith in that inner, unshaken integrity of hers which had passed through so many trials and survived so many calamities. But she hurried on, as though unconscious of both his tone and his attitude.

"That has more to do with the next-of-kin agency. I left it out, of course, but if you must know it now, and here, I can tell you in a word or two."

"One naturally wants to know when one's wife ascends into the aristocracy!"

"And a Mercedes touring car as well! But, oh, Jim, surely you and I don't need to go back to all that sort of thing, at this stage of the game," she retorted wearily. She felt wounded, weighed down with a perverse sense of injury at his treatment, of injustice at his coldness, even in the face of the incongruous circumstances under which they had met.

But she went on speaking, resolutely, as though to purge her soul, for all time, of explanation and excuse.

"That next-of-kin agency was a dingy little office up two dingy stairs in Chancery Lane. For a few days their work seemed bearable enough, though it hurt me to see that all their income was being squeezed out of miserably poor people-always the miserably poor, the submerged souls with romantic dreams of impending good fortune, which, of course, always just escaped them. That, I could endure. But when I found that the agency was branching out, and was actually trying to present me for inspection as a titled heiress, in sore need of a secret and immediate marriage, I revolted, at once. Then they calmly proposed that I embark for America, as some sort of bogus countess-and while they were still talking and debating over what mild and strictly limited extravagances they would stand for, and just what expenses they would allow, I bolted! But their scheming and plotting had given me the hint, for I knew, if the worst came to the worst, I would not be altogether under the thumb of Lord Boxspur. So when I came South from Paris I simply assumed the title-it simplified so many things. It both gave me opportunities and protected me. If, to gain my ends and to reconnoitre my territory, I became the occasional guest-remember, Jim, the most discreet and guarded guest!-of Count Anton Szapary-who carried a hundred thousand crowns away from the Vienna Jockey Club a month or two ago-you must simply try to make the end justify the means. I was still trying to get in touch with you. One of his automobiles was always politely placed at my disposal. It was a chance, well, scarcely to be missed. For, you see, it was my intention to meet His Highness, the Prince Ignace Slevenski Pobloff, under slightly different circumstances than would prevail if he and his valet should quietly step through that door at the present moment!"

She laughed, a little bitterly, with a reckless shrug of the shoulders. Durkin, nettled by the sound of tragedy in her voice, did not like the sound of that laugh. Then, as he looked at her more critically, he saw that she was white and worn and tired. But it was the words over which she had laughed which sent him abruptly hurrying into the next room with a lighted match, to read the hour from the little Swiss clock above the cabinet.

"If we're after anything here we've got to get it!" he said, with conscious roughness. "It's later than I thought."

"Very well," she answered, quietly enough.

Then she turned to him, as he waited with his hand on the bedroom light-button, before switching it off.

"You need never be afraid that I will bother you with any more of my hesitations, and scruples, and half-timid qualms, as I once did. All that is over and done with. I feel, now, that we're both in this sort of work from necessity, and not by accident. It has gripped and engulfed us, now, for good."

He raised a hand to stop her, stung to the quick by the misery and bitterness of her voice, still asking himself if it was not only the bitter cry of love for some neglectful love's reply. But she swept on, abandonedly.

"There's no use quibbling and fighting against it. We've got to keep at it, and wring out of it what we can, and always go back to it, and bend to it, and still keep at it, to the bitter end!"

"Frank, you mustn't say this!" he cried.

"But it's truth, pure truth. We're only going to live once. If we can't be happy without doing the things we ought not to do-then we'll simply have to be criminals. But I want my share of the joy of living-I want my happiness! I want you! I lost you once, and almost forever, by hoping it could be the other way-but it's too late!"

"Frank!" he pleaded.

"I want you to see where we are," she said, with slow and terrible solemnity. "If I am to be saved from it, now, or ever again, you must do it-you-you!"

She drew herself together, with a little shiver.

"Come," she said, "we've got our work to do!"

He looked at her white face for one moment, in silence, bewildered, and then he snapped shut the button.

"We had better look through the safe at once," she went on apathetically. Something in her tone, if not her words themselves, as she had spoken, sent a wave of what was more than startled misery through her husband. He once more felt, although he felt it vaguely, the note of impending tragedy which she was so premonitarily sounding. It brought to him a dim and hurried vision of that far-off but inevitable catastrophe which lay, somewhere, at the end of the road they were traveling. Their only hope and solace, it seemed to him, must thereafter lie in feverish

and sustained activity. They must lose themselves in the dash and whirl of daring moments. And it was not from pleasure or from choice, now; it was to live. They must act or perish; they must plot and counterplot, or be submerged. Yet he would do what he could to save himself, as she, in turn, must do what she could for herself-if they came to the end of their rope.

A minute later they were bending together over the contents of the dismantled safe. He was striking matches. By this time they were both on their knees.

"You run through these papers, while I see what can be done with the despatch box," he whispered to her. Then he put the little package of vestas between them, so they might work by their own light. From time to time the soft spurt of the lighting match broke the silence, as Frank hurriedly ran her eye over the different packets, and as hurriedly flung them back into the safe.

It was a relief to Durkin to think that he at least had someone beside him who could read French. Busy as he was, he incongruously recalled to his mind how he once used to study the little printed announcements in his hotel rooms, wondering, ruefully, if the delphic text meant that lights and fires were extra, and if baths must be paid for, and vainly trying to discover what his last basket of wood might cost.

Yes, he told himself, he was a hunter out of his domain. He would always feel intimidated and insecure in this land of aliens and unknowns. He even sympathetically wondered who it was that had said: "Foreigners are fools!" Then a sudden, irrational, inconsequential sense of gratitude took possession of him, as he felt and heard the woman at work so close beside him. There was a feeling of companionship about it that made the double risk worth while.

"There's nothing here!" Frank was saying, under her breath.

"Then it must be the box!" he told her.

Durkin knew it was already too late to file and fit a skeleton key. His first impulse was to bury the box under a muffling pile of bedding and send a bullet or two through the lock. But his wandering eye caught sight of a Morocco sheath-knife above them on the wall, and a moment later he had the point of it under the steel-bound lid, and as he pried it flew open with a snap.

He waited, listening, and lighting matches, while Frank went through the papers, with nervous and agile fingers, mumbling the inscriptions as she hurriedly read and cast them away from her.

"I thought so!" she said at last, crisply.

The packet held half a dozen blueprints, together with some twelve or fourteen sheets of plans and specifications, on tinted "flimsy." Durkin noticed they were drawn up in red and black ink, and that at the bottom of each document were paragraphs of finely-penned, scholarly-looking writing. One glance was enough for them both.

Frank refolded them and caught them together with a rubber band. Then she thrust them into the bosom of her dress. Both rose to their feet, for both were filled with the selfsame sudden passion to get into the open once more.

"That must go back, now!" whispered Frank, for Durkin was stooping down again, over the leather bag that held the napoleons.

"Thank heaven," he answered gratefully, "it's not that!"

"Not yet!" she whispered back, bitterly, as she heard the chink and rattle of metal in the darkness. But some day it might be.

Then she heard another sound, which caused her to catch quickly at Durkin's arm. It was the sound of a key turning in the lock, followed by an impatient little French oath, and the weight of a man's body against the resisting door. Then the oath was repeated, and a second key was turned, this time in the nearer door.

"It's Pobloff!" she whispered.

She had felt the almost galvanic, precautionary response of Durkin's body; now she could hear his whispered ejaculation as he clutched at her and thrust her back.

"You must get away, quick, whatever happens," he said hurriedly. There was a second tremor and rattle of the door; it might come in at any moment.

"Don't think of me," she whispered. "It's you!"

"But, my God, how'll you get out of this?" he demanded, in a quick whisper. He was trying to force her back into the little anteroom.

"No, no; don't!" she answered him. "I can manage it-more easily than you!"

"But how?"

He was still crowding and elbowing her back, as though mere retreat meant more assured safety.

"No, no!" she expostulated, under her breath. "I can shift for myself. It's you-you must get away!"

She was forcing the packet from her bosom into his hands.

"Take care of these, quick! Now here's the window ready. Oh, Jim, get away while you've got the chance!"

"I can't do it!" he protested.

"You must, I tell you. I wouldn't lie to you! On my honor, I promise you I'll come out of this room, unharmed and free! But quick, or we'll both lose!"

Even in that moment of peril the thought that she was still ready to face this much for him filled his shaken body with a glow that was more keenly exhilarating than wine itself. There was no time for words or demonstration: the action carried its own eloquence.

He was already halfway through the opened window, but he turned back.

"Do you care, then?" he panted.

He could hear the quick catch of her breath.

"Good or bad, I love you, Jim! You know that! Now, hurry, oh, hurry!"

He caught her hand in his-that was all there was time for-while with his free hand Durkin thrust the packet down into his pocket.

"If it turns out wrong-I mean if anything should happen to me, go straight to the Embassy with them, in Rome. Good-bye!"

"Ah, then you do expect danger!" he retorted, already back at the window again.

"No-no!" she whispered, resolutely, barring his ingress. "Hurry! Good-bye!"

"Good-bye," he whispered, as he slipped down on his hands and knees and crawled along the balcony, like a cat, through the darkness.

Then the woman closed the window, and waited.

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