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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 14602

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Frances Durkin, as she turned back into the darkness of the room, desperately schooled herself to calmness. She warned herself that, above all, she must remain clear-headed and collected, and act coolly and decisively, when the moment for action arrived.

But as the seconds slipped by, and the silence remained unbroken, a shred of forlorn hope came back to her. Each moment meant more assured safety to her husband-he, at least, was getting away unscathed and unsuspected. And that left her almost satisfied.

She still waited and listened. Perhaps, after all, the Prince had taken his departure. Perhaps he had gone back to the portier's office, for explanations. Perhaps it had not even been Pobloff-merely a drunken stranger, mistaken in his room number, or servants with a message or with linen.

She groped softly across the room, until she came to the door. She found it draped and covered with a heavy blanket. Holding this back, she slipped under it, and peered through the keyhole into the illuminated hallway. There seemed to be nobody outside.

"It is a rule of the game, I believe, never to shoot the rabbit until it is on the run!"

The words, spoken in excellent English, and barbed with a touch of angry cynicism, smote on her startled ears like an Alpine thunderclap.

She emerged from under the blanket, slowly, ignominiously, ashamed of even her Peeping-Tom abandonment of dignity.

As she did so she saw herself being looked at with keen but placid eyes. The owner of the eyes in one hand held a lighted bedroom lamp. In his other hand he held a flat, short-barreled pocket revolver, of burnished gun-metal, and she could see the lamplight glimmer along its side as it menaced her.

She did not gasp-nor did she shrink away, for with her the situation was not so novel as her antagonist might have imagined. Indeed, as she gazed back at him, motionless, she saw the look of increasing wonder which crept, almost involuntarily, over his white, lean, Slavic-looking face.

Frances Durkin knew it was Pobloff. He was tall, exceptionally tall, and she noticed that he carried off his faultlessness of attire with that stiff but tranquil hauteur which seems to come only with a military training. The forehead was high and white and prominent, with oddly marked depressions, now thrown into shadow by the lamp light, above and behind the highly-arched eyebrows, on each extremity of the frontal bone. The nose was long and narrow-bridged, and the face itself was unusually long and narrow, and now quite colorless. This gave a darker hue to the thin mustache and the trim imperial, through which she caught a glint of white teeth, in what seemed half a smile and half a snarl. The hair was parted almost in the centre, a little to the right, and but for the pebbled shadows about the sunken, yet still bright eyes, he would be called a youthful-looking man. She understood why women would always speak of him as a handsome man.

"I am sorry, but I was compelled to force the bolt," he said, slowly, with his enigmatic smile.

She still looked at him in silence, from under lowered brows. Her fingers were locking and unlocking nervously.

"And to what do I owe this visit?" he demanded mockingly. He was quite close to her by this time.

She took a step backward. She could even smell brandy on his breath.

"Your English is admirable!" she answered, as mockingly.

"As your energy!" he retorted, taking a step nearer the still open door. Then he looked about the room, slowly and comprehensively. On his face, in the strong sidelight, she could see mirrored each fresh discovery, as step by step he covered the course of the completed invasion. She followed his gaze, which now rested on the rifled safe.

A little oath, in Russian, suddenly escaped his lips.

Then he turned and strode into the anteroom, and she could hear him making fast and locking the outer hall door. Then he withdrew the key, and came back to her.

"I must still regard you, of course, as my guest," he said slowly, with his easy menace.

"You Europeans always give us lessons in the older virtues!" she retorted, as mockingly as before, in her soft contralto.

He looked at her, for a moment, in puzzled wonder. Then he held the lamp closer to her face. He nursed no illusions about women. Frances Durkin knew that for years now he had made them his tools and his accomplices, never his dictators and masters. But as he looked into the pale face, with the shadowy, almost luminous violet eyes, and the soft droop of the full red lips, and the still girlish tenderness of line about the brow and chin, and then at the betraying fulness of throat and bosom, the mockery died out of his smile.

It was supplanted by a look more ominously purposeful, more grimly determined.

"What, madam, did you come here for?" he demanded.

She shrugged an apparently careless shoulder.

"His Highness, the Prince Ignace Slevenski Pobloff, has always been the recipient of much flattering attention!" She found it still safest to mock him.

"We have had enough of this! What is it? Money? Or jewelry?"

She spurned the leather bag on the floor with the toe of her shoe. He could hear the clink and rattle of the napoleons that followed the movement. He started suddenly forward and bent over the broken despatch box. His long white fingers were running dexterously through the once orderly little packets.

"Or something more important?" he went on, as he came to the end of his stock.

Then he gave a little half-cry, half-gasp; and from the look on his face the woman saw that he realized what was missing. He peered at her, with alert and narrow eyes, for a full minute of unbroken silence. Then, with a little movement of finality, he turned away and put down the lamp.

"I regret it, but I must ask you for this-this document, without equivocation and without delay."

She opened her lips to speak, but he cut in before any sound fell from them.

"Let there be no misunderstanding between us. I know precisely what you have taken; and it will be in my hands before you ever leave this room!"

She had a sense of destiny shaping itself before her, while she stood a helpless and disinterested spectator of the vague but implacable transformation which, in the end, must in one way or the other so vitally concern her.

"I have nothing," she answered simply.

He waved her protest aside.

"Madam, have you thought, or do you now know, what the cost of this will be to you?"

He was towering over her now. She was wondering whether or not there was a ghost of a chance for her to snatch at his pistol.

"I can pay only what I owe," she maintained evasively.

He looked at her, and then at the locked door. His face took on a sudden and crafty change. The rage and anger ebbed out of him. He placed the lamp on the dressing-table of polished rosewood. Then his lean, white fingers meditatively adjusted his tie, and even more meditatively stroked at the narrow black imperial, before he spoke again.

"What greater crown may one hope for, in any activity of life, than a beautiful woman?" he asked quietly.

There was a moment of unbroken silence.

For the first time a touch of fear came to her shadowy eyes, and they were veiled by a momenta

ry look of furtiveness.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, madam, simply that you will now remain with me!"

"That is absurd!"

She noticed, for the first time, that he had put away his revolver.

"It is not absurd; it is essential. Permit me. In my native country we have a secret order which I need not name. If the secrets of this order came to be known by an individual not already a member, one of two things happened. He either became a member of the order, or he became a man who-who could impart no information!"

"And that means--?"

"It means, practically, that from this hour you are, either willing or unwilling, a partner in my activities, as you now are in my possession of certain papers. Pardon me. The penalty may seem heavy, but the case, you will understand, is exceptional. Also, the nature of your visit, and the thoroughness of your preparations"-he swept the dismantled room with his grim but mocking glance-"have already convinced me that the partnership will not be an impossible one."

"But I repeat, this is theatrical, and absurd. You cannot possibly keep me a-a prisoner here, forever!"

He looked at her, and suddenly she shrank back from his glance, white to the lips.

"You will not be a prisoner!"

"I am quite aware of that!"

"You will not be a prisoner, for then you would not be a partner. The coalition between us must be as silent as it is essential. But first, permit me!"

She still shrank back from his touch, consumed with a new and unlooked-for fear of him. And all the while she was telling herself that she must remain calm, and make no mistake.

The remembrance came to her, as she stood there, of how she had once thought it possible to approach him in a more indirect and adroit fashion, as the wayward and life-loving Lady Boxspur. She shuddered a little, as she recalled that foolish mistake, and pictured the perils into which it might have led her. She could detect more clearly now the odor of brandy on his quickening breath. His face, death-like in its pallor, flashed before and above her like a semaphoric sign of imminent danger. Action of some sort, however obvious, was necessary.

"I want a drink," she gasped, with a movement toward the cabinet.

He turned and caught up the heavy glass brandy-decanter, emitting a nervous and irresponsible laugh.

In one hand he held the decanter, in the other the half-filled tumbler. That, at least, implied an appreciable space of time before those hands could be freed. In that, she felt, lay her hope.

Quicker than thought she darted to the door over which still swung the shrouding blanket. She knew the key had already been turned in the lock, from the outside; the only thing between her and the freedom of the open hall was one small bolt shaft.

But before she could open the door Pobloff, with a little grunt of startled rage, was upon her. She fought and scratched like a cat. The blanket tumbled down and curtained them, the plumed hat fell from the woman's disheveled head, a chair was overturned. But he was too strong and too quick for her. With one lithe arm he pinioned her two hands close down to her sides, crushing the very breath out of her body. With his other he beat off the muffling blanket, and dragged her away from the door. Then he shook her, passionately, and held her off from him, and glared at her.

One year earlier in her career she knew she would surely have fainted from terror and exhaustion. Even as it was, she seemed about to school herself for some relieving and final surrender to the inevitable, only, her vacantly staring eyes, looking past him, by accident caught sight of a little movement which brought her drooping courage into life again.

For she had seen the window-shutter slowly widen, and then a cautious hand appear on the ledge. She watched the shutter swing in, further and further, and then the stealthy figure, with its padded feet, emerge out of the darkness into the half-lighted room. She could even see the pallor of the intruder's face, and his quick movement of warning that reminded her of the part she must play.

"I give up!" she gasped, in simulated surrender, falling and drooping with all her weight in Pobloff's arms.

He caught her and held her, bewildered, triumphant.

"You mean it?" he cried, searching her face.

"Yes, I mean it!" she murmured. Then she shuddered a little, involuntarily, for she had seen Durkin catch up one of his shoes, hammer-like, where it protruded from the side pocket of his coat-and she knew only too well how he would make use of it.

As Pobloff bent over her, unwarned, unsuspecting, almost wondering for what she was waiting with such confidently closed eyes, Durkin crossed the carpeted floor. It was then that the woman flung up her own arms and encircled the stooping Russian in a fierce and passionate grasp. He laughed a little, deep in his throat. She told herself that she was at least imprisoning his hands.

Durkin's blow caught the bending figure just at the base of the skull, behind the ear. The impact whipped the head back, and sent the relaxing body forward and down. It struck the floor, and lay there, huddled, face down. The woman scrambled to her feet, breathing hard.

"Close the shutters!" said Durkin quickly.

Then he turned the unconscious man over on his back. Then he caught up a couple of towels and securely tied, first the inert wrists and then the feet. Quickly knotting a third towel, he wedged and drilled a sharp knuckle joint into the flesh of the colorless cheek, between the upper and lower incisors. When the jaw had opened he thrust the knot into the gaping mouth, securely tying the ends of the towel at the back of the neck.

"Have you everything?" whispered Frank, who had once more pinned on the plumed hat, and was already listening at the panel of the hall door. There was no time to be lost in talk.

"Yes, I think so."

"Your baggage?"

"My baggage will have to be left, but, God knows, there's little enough of it!"

He wiped his forehead, and looked down at the bound figure, already showing signs of returning consciousness. They heard laughter, and the sound of footsteps passing down the hall without.

Durkin stood beside his wife, and they listened together behind the closed door.

"Not for a minute-not yet," he whispered. Then he looked at her curiously.

"I wonder if you know just what a close call that was!"

"Yes, I know," she said, with her ear against the panel.

He peered back at the figure, and took a deep breath.

"And this is only an intermission-this is only an overture, to what we may have to face! Now's our chance. For the love of heaven, let's get out of here. We've got hard work ahead of us, at Genoa-and we've got only till Friday to get there!"

He did not notice her look, her momentary look of mingled reproof and weariness and disdain.

"Now, quick!" she merely said, as she flung the door open and stepped out into the hall. Luckily, it was empty, from end to end.

Durkin, with assumed nonchalance, walked quietly away. She waited to turn the key in the door, and withdrew it from the lock. Then she followed her husband down the corridor, and a minute or two later rejoined him in the fragrant and balmy midnight air of Monaco.

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