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   Chapter 10 THE TIGHTENING COIL

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 8795

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Henry Keenan, of New York, had leisurely finished his cigar, and had as leisurely glanced through all the three-day-old London papers. He had even puzzled, for another half-hour, over the pages of a Tribuna. Then, after gazing in an idle and listless manner about the empty and uninviting hotel reading-room, he decided that it was time for him to go up to his room. He made his leisurely way to the lift, ascended to the fourth floor, stepped out, and drew his room-key from his pocket, as he walked down the hall, in the same idle and listless manner.

As he turned the corner the listlessness went from his face, and a change came in his languid yet ever-restless and covert eyes.

For a young woman was standing before his door, trying to fit a key to the lock. This, he decided as he paused three paces from her and studied her back, she was doing quite openly, with no slightest sense of secrecy. She wore a plumed hat, and a dark cloth tailor-made suit that was unmistakably English. She still struggled with the key, unconscious of his presence. His tread on the thick carpet had been light; he had intended to catch her, beyond equivocation, in the act. But now something about the lines of her stooping figure caused Henry Keenan to remove his hat, respectfully, before speaking to her.

"Could I assist you, madam?" he asked, close to her side by this time.

She turned, with a start, though her loss of self-possession lasted but a moment. But as she turned her startled eyes to him Keenan's last doubt as to whether or not it was a mere mistake withered away from his mind. He knew, from the hot flush that mounted to her cheeks and from the mellow contralto of her carefully modulated English voice, that she belonged to that vaguely denominated yet rigidly delimited type that would always be called a woman of breeding.

"If you please," she said shortly, stepping back from the door.

He bent over the key which she had left still in the lock.

As he did so he glanced at the number which the key, protruding from the lock, bore stamped on its flat brass bow. The number was Thirty-seven, while the number which stood before his eyes on the door was Forty-one.

Under ordinary circumstances the apparent accident would never have given him a second thought. But all that day he had been oppressed by a sense of hidden yet continual espionage. This feeling had followed him from the moment he had landed in Genoa. He had tried to argue it down, inwardly protesting that such must be merely the obsession of all fugitives. And now, even to find an unknown and innocent-appearing young woman trying to force an entrance into his room aroused all his latent cautiousness. Yet a moment later he felt ashamed of his suspicions.

"Why, this is room Forty-one," she cried, over his shoulder. He withdrew the key and looked at it with a show of surprise.

"And your key, I see, is Thirty-seven," he explained.

She was laughing now, a little, through her confusion. It was a very pleasant laugh, he thought. She looked a frank and companionable woman, with her love for the merriment of life touched with a sort of autumnal and wistful sobriety that in no way estranged it from a sense of youth. But, above all, she was a beautiful woman, thought the listless and lonely man. He looked at her again. It was his suspicion of being spied upon, he felt, that had first blinded him to the charm of her appearance.

"It was the second turn in the corridor that threw me out," she explained. He found himself walking with her to her door.

She had thought to find some touch of the Boweryite about him, some outcropping of the half-submerged bunco-steerer. Instead of that, both his look and his tone carried some tinge of quiet yet dominant gentility, reminding her, as she had so often been taught before, that the criminal is not a type in himself, that only fanciful and far-stretched generalizations could detach him as a species, or immure and mark him off from the rest of his kind.

She glanced at him still again, at the seemingly melancholic and contemplative face, that strangely reminded her of Dürer's portrait of himself. As she did so there was carried to her memory, and imprinted on it, the picture of a wistful and lonely man, his countenance touched, for all its open Irish smile, with some wordless sorrow, some pensive isolation of soul, lean and

gaunt with some undefined hunger, a little furtive and covert with some half-concealed restlessness.

"Aren't you an American?" he was asking, almost hopefully, it seemed to her.

"Oh, no," she answered, with her sober, slow smile. "I'm an Englishwoman!"

He shook his head, whimsically.

"Indeed, I'm sorry for that!" said the Celt.

She joined in his laugh.

"But I've lived abroad so much!" she added.

"Then you must know Italy pretty well, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes; I've traveled here, winter after winter."

She picked out a card from her pocket-book, on which was inscribed, in Spencerian definiteness of black and white, "Miss Barbara Allen." It had been the card of Lady Boxspur's eminently respectable maid-and Frances Durkin had saved it for just such a contingency.

He read the name, slowly, and then placed the card in his vest pocket. If he noticed her smile, he gave no sign of it.

"And you like Genoa? I mean, is there anything to like in this place?" he asked companionably. "I'll be hanged if I've seen anything but a few million mementoes of Christopher Columbus!"

"There's the Palazzo Bianco, and the Palazzo Rosso, and, of course, there's the Campo Santo!"

"But who cares for graveyards?"

"All Europe is a graveyard, of its past!" she answered lightly. "That was what I thought you Americans always came to see!"

He laughed a little, in turn, and she both liked him better for it and found it easier to go on. She felt, from his silences, that no great span of his life had been spent in talking with women. And she was glad of it.

"I like the Riggi," she added pregnantly.

"The Riggi-what's that, please?"

"That's the restaurant up on the hill." She hesitated and turned back, before unlocking her door. "It's charming!"

He was on the point, she knew, of making the plunge and asking if they might not see the Riggi together, when something in her glance, some precautionary chilliness of look, checked him. For she had seen that even now things might advance too hurriedly. It would be wiser, and in the long run it would pay, she warned herself, to draw in-for as she still lingered and chatted with him she more and more felt that she was face to face with a resourceful and strong-willed opponent. She noticed, through all the outward Celtic gentleness, the grim and passionate mouth, the keenness of the shifty yet penetrating hazel-gray eyes, the touch of almost bull-dog tenaciousness about the loose-jointed, high-shouldered figure, and, above all, the audacity of the careless Irish-American smile. That smile, she felt, trailed like a flippant and fluttering tail to the kite of his racial solemnity and stubbornness of purpose, enabling it to rise higher even while seeming to weigh it down.

"And you always travel alone?" he finally asked, shaking off the last of his reserve.

"Oh, I'm a bit of a globe-trotter-that's what you'd call me on your side of the ocean, isn't it? You see, I go about Southern Europe picking up things for a London art firm!"

"And where do you go next?"

"Oh, perhaps to Milan, perhaps to Naples; it may even be to Rome, or it might turn out to be Syracuse or Taormina. With me, everything depends, first on the weather, and, next, on what instructions are sent on."

She inwardly marveled at the glibness and spontaneity with which the words fell from her tongue. She even took a sort of secret joy in the dramatic values which that scene of play-acting presented to her.

"And do you ever go to New York?"

"Yes, such a thing might happen, any time."

It was as well, she told herself, to leave the way well paved.

"That's the city for you!" he declared, with a commending shake of the head.

Of the truth of that fact Frances Durkin was only too well aware; but this was a conviction to which she did not give utterance.

As they stood chatting together in the deserted hallway, a man, turning the corner, brushed by them. He merely gave them one casual glance of inquiry, and then looked away, apparently at the room-numbers on the lintels.

The young woman chanced to be tapping half-carelessly, half-nervously, with her key on the panel of her door. It meant nothing to her comrade, but to the passing man it resolved itself into an intelligible and coherent message. For it was in Morse, and to his trained and adept ear it read: "This-is-Keenan-keep-away!"

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