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   Chapter 9 THE LARK IN THE RUINS

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 11177

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was not until Frances Durkin and her husband were installed in an empty first-class compartment, twining and curling and speeding on their way to Genoa, that even a comparative sense of safety came to them. It was Durkin's suggestion that it might not be amiss for them to give the impression of being a newly-married couple, on their honeymoon journey; and, to this end, he had half-filled the compartment with daffodils and jonquils, with carnations and violets and roses, purchased with one turn of the hand from a midnight flower-vender, on his way down from the hills for any early morning traffic that might offer.

So as they sped toward the Italian frontier, in the white and mellow Mediterranean moonlight, threading their way between the tranquil violet sea bejeweled with guardian lights and the steep and silent slopes of the huddled mountains, they lounged back on their hired train-pillows, self-immured, and unperturbed, and quietly contented with themselves and their surroundings. At least, so it seemed to the eyes of each scrutinizing guard and official, who, after one sharp glance at the flower-filled compartment and the crooning young English lovers, passed on with a laugh and a shrug or two.

Yet, at heart, Durkin and Frank were anything but happy. As they sped on, and his wife pointed out to him that the selfsame road they were taking between confining rock and sea was the same narrow passage, so time-worn and war-scarred, once taken by Greeks and Ligurians, Romans and Saracens, it seemed to Durkin that his first fine estimate of the life of war and adventure had been a false one. His old besetting doubts and scruples began to awake. It was true that the life they had plunged into would have its dash and whirl. But it would be the dash of a moment, and the whirl of a second. Then, as it always must be, there would come the long interval of flight and concealment, the wearying stretch of inactivity. He felt, as he gazed out the car window and saw town and village and hamlet left behind them, that the same wave of excitement that cast him up would forever in turn drag him down-and it all resulted, he told himself, in his passing distemper of fatigue and anxiety, in a little further abrasion, in a little sterner denudation of their tortured souls!

It was at Ventimiglia that the capostazione himself appeared at the door of their compartment, accompanied by a uniformed official. The two fugitives, with their hearts in their mouths, leaned back on their cushions with assumed unconcern, cooing and chattering hand in hand among their flowers, while a volley of quick and angry questions, in Italian, was flung in at them from the opened compartment door. To this they paid not the slightest attention, for several moments. Frank turned to her interrogators, smiled at them gently and impersonally, and then shook her head impatiently, with an outthrust of the hands which was meant to convey to them that each and every word they uttered was quite incomprehensible to her.

The capostazione, who, by this time, had pushed into their compartment, was heatedly demanding either their passports or their tickets.

Frank, who had buried her face raptly in her armful of jonquils, looked up at him with gentle exasperation.

"We are English," she said blankly. "English! We can't understand!" And she returned to her flowers and her husband once more.

The two uniformed intruders conferred for a moment, while the conduttore, on the platform outside, naturally enough expostulated over the delay of the train.

"These fools-these aren't the two!" Frank heard the capostazione declare, in Italian, under his breath, as they swung down on the station platform. Then the shrill little thin-noted engine-whistle sounded, the wheels began to turn, and they were once more speeding through the white moonlight, deeper and deeper into Italy.

"I wonder," said Frank, after a long silence, "how often we shall be able to do this sort of thing? I wonder how long luck-mere luck, will be with us?"

"Is it luck?" asked her husband. She was still leaning back on his shoulder, with her hand clasping his. Accompanying her consciousness of escape came a new lightness of spirit. There seemed to come over her, too, a new sense of gratitude for the nearness of this sentient and mysterious life, of this living and breathing man, that could both command and satisfy some even more mysterious emotional hunger in her own heart.

"Yes," she answered, as she laughed a little, almost contentedly; "we're like the glass snake. We seem to break off at the point where we're caught, and escape, and go on again as before. I was only wondering how many times a glass snake can leave its tail in its enemy's teeth, and still grow another one!"

And although she laughed again Durkin knew how thinly that covering of facetiousness spread over her actual sobriety of character. It was like a solitary drop of oil on quiet water-there was not much of it, but what there was must always be on the surface.

In fact, her mood changed even as he looked down at her, troubled by the shadow of utter weariness that rested on her colorless face.

"What would we do, Jim," she asked, after a second long and unbroken silence, "what would we do if this thing ever brought us face to face with MacNutt again?"

"But why should we cross that bridge before we come to it?" was Durkin's answer.

She seemed unable, however, to bar back from her mind some disturbing and unwelcome vision of that meeting. She felt, in a way, that she possessed one

faculty which the rapid and impetuous nature of her husband could not claim. It was almost a weakness in him, she told herself, the subsidiary indiscretion of a fecund and grimly resourceful mind. Like a river in flood, it had its strange and incongruous back currents, born of its very oneness of too hurrying purpose. It considered too deeply the imminent and not the remoter and seemingly more trivial contingency.

"But can't you see, Jim, that the further we follow this up the closer and closer it's bringing us to MacNutt?"

"MacNutt is ancient history to us now! We're over and done with him, for all time!"

"You are wrong there, Jim. You misjudge the situation, and you misjudge the man. That is one fact we have to face, one hard fact; MacNutt is not over and done with us!"

"But haven't you made a sort of myth of him? Isn't he only a fable to us now? And haven't we got real facts to face?"

"Ah," she said protestingly, "there is just the trouble. You always refuse to look this fact in the face!"

"Well, what are the facts?" he asked conciliatingly, coercing his attention, and demanding of himself what allowance he must make for that morbid perversion of view which came of a too fatigued body and mind.

"The facts are these," she began, with a solemnity of tone that startled him into keener attentiveness. "You found me in MacNutt's office when he was planning and plotting and preparing for the biggest wire-tapping coup in all his career. You were dragged into that plot against your will, almost, just as I had been. But MacNutt gave us our parts, and we worked together there. Then-then you made love to me-don't deny it, Jim, for, after all, it was the happiest part of all my life!-and we both saw how wrong we were, and we both wanted to fight for our freedom. So I followed you when you revolted against MacNutt and his leadership."

"No, Frank, it was you who led-if it hadn't been for you there would never have been any revolt!" he broke in.

"We fought together, then, tooth and nail, and in the end we surrendered everything but our own liberty-just to start over with free hands. But it wasn't our mere escape to freedom that maddened MacNutt; it was the thought that we had beaten him at his own game, that we had stalked him while he was so busy stalking Penfield. Then he trapped us, for a moment, and it was sheer good luck that he didn't kill me that afternoon in his dismantled operating-room, before Doogan and his men attacked the house. But, as you know, he kept after us, and he cornered you again, and you would have killed him, in turn, if I hadn't saved you from the sin of it, and the disgrace of it. Then we thought we were safe, just because the world was big and wide; because we had made our escape to Europe we thought that we were out of his circuit, that we were beyond his key-call-but here we are being led and dragged back to him, through Keenan. But now, just because there is still an ocean between us, you begin to believe that he has given up every thought of getting even!"

"Well, isn't it about time he did? We've beaten him twice, at his own game, and I see no reason why we shouldn't do it again!"

"But how often can we be the glass snake? I mean, how many times can we afford to leave something behind, and break away, and hope to grow whole and sound again? And when will MacNutt get us where we can't break away? I tell you, Jim, you don't know this man as I know him! You haven't understood yet what a cruelly designing and artful and vindictive and long-waiting enemy he can be. You haven't seen him break and crush people, as I once did. It's the memory of that makes me so afraid of him!"

"There's just the trouble, Frank," cried Durkin. "The man has terrified and intimidated you, until you think he is the only enemy you have. I don't deny he isn't dangerous, but so is Pobloff, and so is Doogan, for that matter, and this man Keenan as well!"

"But they would never crush and smash you, as MacNutt will, if the chance comes!" she persisted passionately. "You don't see and understand it, because you are so close to it and so deep in it. It's like traveling along this little Riviera railway. It's so crooked and tunneled and close under the mountains that even though we went up and down it, for a year, from Nice to Nervi, we could never say that we had seen the Riviera!"

Durkin looked out at the terraced hills, at the undulating fields and the heaped masses of blue mountains under the white Italian moonlight, and did not speak for several seconds.

He had always carried, while with her, the vague but sustained sense of being shielded. Until then her hand had always seemed to guard him, impersonally, as the hand of a busy seeker guards and shelters a candle. Now, for some mysterious reason, he felt her brooding guardianship to be something less passive, to be something more immediate and personal. He knew-and he knew it with a full appreciation of the irony that lurked in the situation-that her very timorousness was now endowing him with a new and reckless courage. So he took her hand, gratefully, before he spoke again.

"Well, whatever happens, we are now in this, not from choice, as you said before, but from necessity. If it has dangers, Frank, we must face them."

"It is nothing but danger!"

"Then we must grin and bear it. But as I said, I see no reason why we should cross our bridges before we come to them. And we'll soon have a bridge to cross, and a hard one."

"What bridge?"

"I mean Keenan, and everything that will happen in Genoa!"

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