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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 16865

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

There flashed through Frances Durkin's mind, in the momentary silence that fell over that strange company, the consciousness that the triangle was completed; that there, in one room, through a fortuitousness that seemed to her more factitious than actual, stood the three contending and opposing forces. The thought came and went like a flash, for it was not a time for meditation, but for hurried and desperate action. The sense of something vast and ominous seemed to hang over the darkness, where, for a second or two, the silence of absolute surprise reigned.

The last-comer, too, seemed to feel this sense of something impending, for a moment later his voice rang out, clear and unhesitating, with a touch of challenge in it.

"Miss Allen, are you here? And is anything wrong?"

"Stand where you are!" the voice of the woman answered, through the darkness, firm and clear. "Yes. I am here. But there is another person in this room. He is a man who means harm, I believe, to both of us!"

"Ah!" said the voice near the door.

The woman was speaking again, her voice high and nervous, from the continued suspense of that darkness and silence combined, a dual mystery from which any bolt might strike.

"Above all things," she warned him, "you must watch that door!"

Her straining ears heard a quiet click-click; she had learned of old the meaning of that pregnant sound. It was the trigger of a revolver being cocked.

"All right-I'm ready," said the man at the door, grimly. Then he laughed, perhaps a little uneasily. "But why are we all in darkness this way?"

"The wires have been cut-that is a part of his plan!"

Keenan took a step into the room and addressed the black emptiness before him.

"Will the gentleman speak up and explain?"

No answer came out of the darkness. Frank knew, by this time, that Keenan would make no move to desert her.

"Have you a lamp, or a light of any kind, Miss Allen?" was the next curt, businesslike question.

"Oh, be careful, sir!" she warned him, now in blind and unreasoning terror.

"Have you a light?" repeated Keenan authoritatively.

"I have only an alcohol lamp; it gives scarcely any light-it is for boiling a teapot!"

"Then light it, please!"

"Oh, I dare not!" she cried, for now she was possessed of the unreasoning fear that one step in any direction would bring her in contact with death itself.

"Light it, please!" commanded Keenan. "Nothing will happen. I have in my hand here, where I stand, a thirty-eight calibre revolver, loaded and cocked. If there is one movement from the gentleman you speak of, I will empty it into him!"

Both Keenan and Frank started, and peered through the blackness. For a careless and half-derisive, half-contemptuous laugh sounded through the room. Pobloff, obviously, had never moved from where he stood.

Frank slowly groped to the wall of her room, and felt with blind and exploring hands until she came to her bureau. Then sounded the clink of nickel as the lamp was withdrawn from its case and the dry rattle of German safety-matches. Then the listeners heard the quick scrape and flash of the match against the side of the little paper box, and the puff of the wavering blue flame as the match-end came in contact with the alcohol.

After all, it was good to have a light! Incongruously it flashed through her mind, as wayward thoughts and ideas would at such moments, how relieved primitive man amid his primitive night must have been at the blessed gift of the first fire.

The wavering blue flame widened and heightened. In a moment the inky room was pallidly suffused with its trembling half-light. Outside, through the night, sounded muffled street noises, and the boom and hiss and spurt of fireworks.

The two peering faces turned slowly, until their range of vision had swept the entire room. Then they paused, for motionless against the west wall, between the closet door and the corner, stood Pobloff. His arms were folded, and he was laughing a little.

Frank drew nearer Keenan, instinctively, wondering what the next movement would be.

It was Pobloff's voice that first broke the silence.

"This woman lies," he said, in his suavely scoffing baritone. "This woman--"

"Why don't you say something-why don't you do something!" cried Frank, hysterically, turning to Keenan.

"Ring the bell!" commanded Keenan.

"It's useless-the wires are cut," she panted. She could see that, above and beyond all his craftiness, his latent Irish fighting-blood was aroused.

"Then, by God, I'll put him out myself. If there's any fight between him and me "-he turned on Pobloff-"we won't drag a woman into it!"

The tall, gaunt Russian against the wall was no longer laughing.

"Pardon me," he said, advancing a step. "This woman has in her possession a packet of papers-of personal and private papers, which concern neither you nor her!"

"But what if it does concern me?" demanded Keenan.

"The gentleman is talking nonsense," said Pobloff, unperturbed. Yet he leaned forward and studied him more closely, through the half-light, studied him as the deliberating terrier might study the captured rat that had dared to bite back at him. "This woman, I repeat, has certain papers about her!"

"And what of that?" cried Keenan blindly. Frank saw, to her joy, that he was misled.

"Simply this: that if the lady I speak of hands those papers to me, here, the matter is closed, for all time!"

"And if she doesn't?"

"Then she will do so later!"

A grunt of sheer rage broke from Keenan's lips. But he checked it, suddenly, and wheeled on the woman.

"Give him the package," he ordered. She hesitated, for at the moment the thought of Keenan's trust had passed from her mind.

"Do as I say," he repeated curtly.

Frank, remembering, drew the yellow manila envelope from her bosom, and with out-stretched arm handed it to Pobloff.

The Russian took it in silence. Then with a few quick strides he advanced to the alcohol lamp. As he did so both Keenan and Frank noticed for the first time the blunt little gun-metal revolver he held in his right hand.

"Again you will pardon me," said Pobloff, with his ever-scoffing courtliness. "A mere glance will be necessary, to make sure that we are not-mistaken!"

He tore open the envelope with one long forefinger, and stooped to draw forth the contents.

It was then that Keenan sprang at him. Frank at the moment, was marveling at the unbroken continuity of evidence linking her with her uncomprehending opponent.

The sudden leap and cry of Keenan sent a tingle of apprehension up and down her body. She asked herself, vaguely, if all the rest of her life was to be made up of this brawling and fighting in unlighted chambers of horror; if, now that they were in the more turgid currents for which they had longed, there were to come no moments of peace amid all their tumult and struggling.

Then she drew in her breath with a little gasp, for she saw Pobloff, with a quick writhe of his thin body, free his imprisoned right arm, and strike with the metal butt of his revolver.

He struck twice, three times, and the sound of the metal on the unprotected head was sickening to the listening woman. She staggered to the closet door as the man fell to the floor, stunned.

"Jim! Oh, Jim, quick!-he's killing him!-I tell you he's killing him!"

Durkin said "'Ssssh!" under his breath, and waited.

For in the dim half-light they could see that the Russian had ripped open Keenan's coat and vest, and from a double-buttoned pocket on the inside of the inner garment was drawing out a yellow manila envelope, the fellow to that which had already been thrust into his hands. It was then that Durkin sprang forward.

Pobloff saw him advance. He had only time to reverse his hold on the little gun-metal revolver and fire two shots.

The first shot went wide, tearing deep into the plastered wall. The second cut through the flap of his assailant's coat-pocket, just over the left hip, scattering little flecks of woollen cloth about. But there was no time for a third shot.

It seemed brutal to Frank, but she allowed herself time for neither thought nor scruples. All she remembered was that it was necessary-though once again she asked herself if all her life, from that day on, was to be made up of brawling and fighting.

For Durkin had brought down on the half-turned head the up-p

oised bedroom chair with all his force. Pobloff, with a little inarticulate cry that was almost a grunt, buckled and pitched forward.

"That settles you!" the stooping man said, heartlessly, as he watched him relax and half roll on his side.

Frank watched him, too, but with no sense of triumph or success, with no emotion but slowly awakening disgust, against which she found it useless to struggle. She watched him with a sense of detachment and aloofness, as if looking down on him from a great height, while he tore upon the manila envelope and gave vent to a little cry of satisfaction. They at last possessed the Penfield securities. Then she went over and replenished the waning flame in the alcohol lamp.

"We've got to get away from here now," said Durkin quickly. "And the sooner the better!"

She looked about her, a little helplessly. Then she glanced at Keenan. "See, he's coming to!"

"Are you ready?" Durkin demanded sharply.

"Yes," she answered, in her dead and resigned voice, as she took up her hat and coat. "But where are we going?"

"I'll tell you on the way down. Only you must get what you want, and hurry!"

"But is it safe now?" she demurred, "and for you?"

He thought for a moment, with his hand on the doorknob. Then he turned back.

"You'd better keep this, then, until I find what we have to face, outside here!"

He passed into her hand the manila envelope, and stepped out into the hall.

A moment later she had secreted the packet, along with Pobloff's revolver, which she picked up from the floor. Then she ran to the door, and locked it. She would fight like a hornet, now, she inwardly vowed, for what she held.

Then she caught her breath, behind the locked door, for the sounds that crept in from the hallway told her that her fear had not been groundless.

She heard Durkin's little choked cry of pain and surprise, for he had been seized, she knew, and pinned back against the door. It was Pobloff's men, she told herself. They had him by the throat, she knew by the sound of the guttural oaths which they were trying to choke back. She could hear the kick and scrape of feet, the movement of his writhing and twisting body against the door, as on a sounding-board. She surmised that they had his arms held, otherwise he would surely have used his revolver. She was conscious of a sort of wild joy at the thought that he could not, for they were going through him, from the quieted sounds, pocket by pocket, and she knew he would have shot them if he could.

"There's nothing here!" said a voice in French. Frank, listening so close to them, could hear the three men breathe and pant.

"Then the woman has it!" answered the other voice, likewise in French.

"Shut up! She'll get on!" And Frank could hear them tear and haul at Durkin as they dragged him down the hall-just where, she could not distinguish.

She ran over to Keenan and shook him roughly. He looked at her a little stupidly, but did not seem able to respond to her entreaties.

"Quick!" she whispered, "or it will be too late!"

She flung her pitcher of water in his face and over his head, and poured brandy from her little leather-covered pocket-flask down his throat.

That seemed to revive him, for he sat up on the carpeted floor, mumblingly, and glowered at her. Then he remembered; and as she bathed his bruised head with a wet towel he caught at her hand foolishly.

"Have we lost them?" he asked huskily, childishly.

"No, they are here! See, intact, and safe. But you must take them back. Neither of us can go through that hall with them!"

"Why not?"

"We're watched-we're prisoners here!"

"Then what'll we do?" he asked weakly, for he was not yet himself.

"You must take them, and get out of this room. There is only one way!"

"What is it?"

"You see this rope. It's meant for a fire-escape. You must let yourself down by it. You'll find yourself in a court, filled with empty barrels. That leads into a bake-shop-you can see the oven lights and smell the bread. Give the man ten lira, and he's sure to let you pass. Can you do it? Do you understand?"

"Yes," he said, still a little bewildered. "But where will I meet you?"

She pondered a moment.

"In Trieste, a week from tomorrow. But can you manage the rope?"

He laughed a little. "I ought to! I've been through a poolroom raid or two, over home!"

"In Trieste then, a week from morrow!"

She handed him her brandy-flask.

"You may need it," she explained. He was on his feet by this time, struggling to pull himself together.

"But you can't face that alone," he remonstrated, with a thumb-jerk toward the hall. "I won't see you touched by those damned rats!"

"'Ssssh!" she warned him. "They can't do anything to me now, except search me for those papers!"

"But even that!"

"I'll wait until I see you're safely down, then I'll run for the stairs. They've shut off all the lights outside, in this wing, but if they in any way attempt to ill-treat me, before I get to the main corridor, I'll scream for help!"

"But even to search you"-began Keenan again.

"Yes, I know!" she answered evenly. "It's not pleasant. But I'll face it"-she turned her eyes full upon him-"for you!"

They listened for a moment together at the opened window. The red lights were still burning here and there about the city in the streets below, and the carnival-like cries and noises still filled the air.

And she watched him anxiously as he and his packet of documents went down the dangling hemp rope, reached the stone paving of the little court, and disappeared in the square of light framed by the bake-shop window.

Then she turned back into the room, startled by a weak and wavering groan from Pobloff. She went to him, and tried to lift him up on the bed, but he was too heavy for her overtaxed strength. She wondered, as she slipped a pillow under his head, why she should be afraid of him in that comatose and helpless state-why even his white and passive face looked so vindictive and sinister in the dim light of the room.

But as he moved a little she started back, and caught up what things she could fling into her Gladstone bag, and put out the light, and groped her way across the room once more.

Then she flung open the door and stepped out into the hall, with a feeling that her heart was in her mouth, choking her.

She ceased running as she came to the bend in the hall, for she heard the sound of voices, and the light grew stronger. She would have dodged back, but it was too late.

Then she saw that it was Durkin, beside three jabbering and gesticulating Guardie di Pubblica Sicurezza.

"Oh, there you are!" said his equable and tranquil voice, as he removed his hat.

She did not speak, accepting silence as safer.

"I brought these gentlemen, for someone told me there was a drunken Englishman in the halls, annoying you, and I was afraid we might miss our train!"

She looked at the gendarmes and then on to the excited servants at their heels, in bewilderment. She was to escape, then, in safety!

"Explain to these gentlemen just what it was," she heard the warningly suave voice of her husband saying to her, "while I hurry down and order the carriage!"

She was nervous and excited and incoherent, yet as they followed at her side down the broad marble staircase she made them understand dimly that their protection was now unnecessary. No, she had not been insulted; not directly. But she had been affronted. It was nothing-only the shock of seeing a drunken quarrel; it had alarmed and upset her. She paused, caught at the balustrade, then wavered a little; and three solicitous arms in dark cloth and metal buttons were thrust out to support her. She thanked them, in her soft contralto, gratefully. The drive through the open air, she assured them, would restore her completely.

But all the while she was thinking how needlessly and blindly and foolishly she had surrendered and lost a fortune. Her path of escape had been an open one.

* * * * * *

"Won't they find out, and everything be known, before we can get to the station?" she asked, as the fresh night air fanned her throbbing face and brow.

"Of course they will!" said Durkin. "But we're not going to the station. We're going to the waterfront, and from there out to our steamer!"

"For where?" she asked.

"I scarcely know-but anywhere away from Genoa!"

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