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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 18404

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Frances Durkin's memory of that hurried flight from Genoa always remained with her a confusion of incongruous and quickly changing pictures. She had a recollection of stepping from her cab into a crowded sailors' café chantant, of pushing past chairs and tables and hurrying out through a side door, of a high wind tearing at her hair and hat, as she and Durkin still hurried down narrow, stone-paved streets, of catching the smell of salt water and the musky odor of shipping, of a sharp altercation with an obdurate customs officer in blue uniform and tall peaked cap, who stubbornly barred their way with a bare and glittering bayonet against her husband's breast, while she glibly and perseveringly lied to him, first in French, and then in English, and then in Italian.

She remembered her sense of escape when he at last reluctantly allowed them to pass, while they stumbled over railway tracks, and the rough stones of the quay pavement, and the bundles of merchandise lying scattered about them. Then she heard the impatient lapping of water, and the outside roar of the waves, and saw the harbor lights twinkling and dancing, and caught sight of the three great white shafts of light that fingered so inquisitively and restlessly along the shipping and the city front and the widening bay, as three great gloomy Italian men-of-war played and swung their electric searchlights across the night.

Then came a brief and passionate scene with a harbor ferryman, who scorned the idea of taking his boat out in such a sea, who eloquently waved his arms and told of accidents and deaths and disasters already befallen the bay that night, who flung down his cap and danced on it, in an ecstasy of passionate argumentation. She had a memory of Durkin almost as excited as the dancing harbor orator himself, raging up and down the quay with a handful of Italian paper money between his fingers, until the boatman relented. Then came a memory of tossing up and down in a black and windy sea, of creeping under a great shadow stippled with yellow lights, of grating and pounding against a ship's ladder, of an officer in rubber boots running down to her assistance, of more blinking lights, and then of the quiet and grateful privacy of her own cabin, smelling of white-lead paint and disinfectants.

She slept that night, long and heavily, and it was not until the next morning when the sun was high and they were well down the coast, that she learned they were on board the British coasting steamer Laminian, of the Gallaway & Papyani Line. They were to skirt the entire coast of Italy, stopping at Naples and then at Bari, and then make their way up the Adriatic to Trieste. These stops, Durkin had found, would be brief, and the danger would be small, for the Laminian was primarily known as a freighter, carrying out blue-stone and salt fish, and on her return cruise picking up miscellaneous cargoes of fruit. So her passenger list, which included, outside of Frank and Durkin, only a consumptive Welsh school-teacher and a broken-down clergyman from Birmingham, who kept always to his cabin, was in danger of no over-close scrutiny, either from the Neapolitan Guardie Municipali on the one hand, or from any private agents of Keenan and Penfield on the other.

Even one short day of unbroken idleness, indeed, seemed to make life over for both Frank and Durkin. Steeping themselves in that comfortable sense of security, they drew natural and easy breath once more. They knew it was but a momentary truce, an interregnum of indolence; but it was all they asked for. They could no longer nurse any illusions as to the trend of their way or the endlessness of their quest. They must now always keep moving. They might alter the manner of their progression, they might change their stroke, but the continuity of effort on their part could no more be broken than could that of a swimmer at sea. They must keep on, or go down.

So, in the meantime, they plucked the day, with a touch of wistfulness born of their very distrust of the morrow.

The glimmering sapphire seas were almost motionless, the days and nights were without wind, and the equable, balmy air was like that of an American mid-summer, so that all of the day and much of the night they spent on deck, where the Welsh schoolmaster eyed them covertly, as a honeymoon couple engulfed in the selfish contentment of their own great happiness. It reminded Frank of earlier and older days, for, with the dropping away of his professional preoccupations, Durkin seemed to relapse into some more intimate and personal relationship with her. It was the first time since their flight from America, she felt, that his affection had borne out the promise of its earlier ardor. And it taught her two things. One was that her woman's natural hunger for love was not so dead as she had at times imagined. The other was that Durkin, during the last months, had drifted much further away from her than she had dreamed. It stung her into a passionate and remorseful self-promise to keep closer to him, to make herself always essential to him, to turn and bend as he might bend and turn, but always to be with him. It would lead her downward and still further downward, she told herself. But she caught solace from some blind belief that all women, through some vague operation of their affectional powers, could invade the darkest mires of life, if only it were done for love, and carry away no stain. In fact, what would be a blemish in time would almost prove a thing of joy and pride. And in the meantime she was glad enough to be as happy as she was, and to be near Durkin. It was not the happiness she had once looked for, but it sufficed.

They caught sight of a corner of Corsica, and on the following night could see the glow of the iron-smelting fires on Elba, and the twinkle of the island shore-lights. From the bridge, too, through one of the officers' glasses, Frank could see, far inland across the Pontine Marshes, the gilded dome of St. Peter's, glimmering in the pellucid morning sunlight.

She called Durkin, and pointed it out to him.

"See, it's Rome!" she cried, with strangely mingled feelings. "It's St. Peter's!"

"I wish it was the Statue of Liberty and New York," he said, moodily.

She realized, then, that he was not quite so happy as he had pretended to be. And she herself, from that hour forward, shared in his secret unrest. For as time slipped away and her eye followed the heightening line of the Apennines, she knew that tranquil Tyrrhenian Sea would not long be left to her.

It was evening when they rounded the terraced vineyards of Ischia. A low red moon shone above the belching pinnacle of Vesuvius. Frank and Durkin leaned over the rail together, as they drifted slowly up the bay, the most beautiful bay in all the world, with its twilight sounds of shipping, its rattle of anchor chains, its far-off cries and echoes, and its watery, pungent Southern odors.

They watched the ship's officer put ashore to obtain pratique, and the yellow flag come down, and heard the signal-bells of the engine-room, as the officer returned, with a great cigar in one corner of his bearded mouth.

There was nothing amiss. There were neither Carabinieri nor Guardie di Pubblica Sicurezza to come on board with papers and cross-questions. Before the break of day their discharged cargo would be in the lighters and they would be steaming southward for the Straits of Messina.

That night, on the deserted deck, at anchor between the city and the sea, they watched the glimmering lights of Naples, rising tier after tier from the Immacolatella Nuova and its ship lamps to the Palazzo di Capodimonte and its near-by Osservatorio. And when the lights of the city thinned out and the crowning haze of gold melted from its hillsides, with the advancing night, Frank and Durkin sat back in their steamer-chairs and looked up at the stars, talking of Home, and of the future.

Yet the beauty of that balmy and tranquil night seemed to bring little peace of mind to Durkin. There were reasons, of late, when moments of meditation were not always moments of contentment to him. His wife had noticed that ever-increasing trouble of soul, and although she said nothing of it, she had watched him narrowly and not altogether despondently. For she knew that whatever the tumult or contest that might be taking place within the high-walled arena of his own Ego, it was a clash of forces of which she must remain merely a spectator. So she went below, leaving him in that hour of passive yet troubled thought, to stare up at the tranquil southern stars, as he meditated on life, and the meaning of life, and what lay beyond it all. She knew men and the world too well to look for any sudden and sweeping reorganization of Durkin's disturbed and restless mind. But she nursed the secret hope that out of that spiritual ferment would come some ultimate clearness of vision.

It was late when he called her up on deck again, ostensibly to catch a glimpse of Vesuvius breaking and bursting into flame, above Barra and Portici. She knew, however, that slumbering and subterranean fires other than Vesuvius had erupt

ed into light and life. She could see it by the new misery on his moonlit face, as she sat beside him. Yet she sat there in silence; there was so little that she could say.

"Do you know, you've changed, Frank, these last few months!" he at last essayed.

"Haven't there been reasons enough for it?" she asked, making no effort to conceal the bitterness of her tone.

"You're not happy, are you?"

"Are you?" she asked, in turn.

"Who can be happy, and think?"

She waited, passively, for him to go on again.

"You said you didn't much care what happened, so long as it kept us together, and left us satisfied."

"Isn't that enough?" she broke in, hotly, yet thrilling with the thought that he was about to tear away the mockery behind which she had tried to mask herself.

"No, it isn't enough! And now we're out of the dust of it, these last few days, I can see that it never can be enough. I've just been wondering where it leads to, and what it amounts to. I've had a feeling, for days, now, that there's something between us. What is it?"

"Ourselves!" she answered, at last.

"Exactly! And that is what makes me think you're wrong when you cry that you'll stoop every time I stoop. Every single crime that seems to be bringing us together is only keeping us apart. It's making you hate yourself, and because of that, hate me as well!"

"I couldn't do that!" she protested, catching at his hands.

"But I can see it with my own eyes, whether you want to or not. It can't be helped. It's beginning to frighten me, this very willingness of yours to do the things we oughtn't to. Why, I'd be happier, even, if you did them under protest!"

"But what is the difference, if I still do them?"

"It would show me that you weren't as bad as I am-that you hadn't altogether given up."

"I couldn't altogether give up, and live!" she cried, with sudden passion.

"But you told me as much, that night in Monte Carlo?"

"I didn't mean it. I was tired out that night; I was embittered, and insane, if you like! I want to be good! No woman wants sin and wrongdoing! But, O Jim, can't you see, it's you, you, I want, before everything else!"

He smote the palms of his hands together, in a little gesture of impotent misery.

"That's just it-you tried to make me save myself for my own sake,-and it couldn't be done. It was a failure. And now you're trying to make me save myself for your sake--"

"It's not your salvation I want-it's you!"

"But it's only through being honest that I can hold and keep you; can't you see that? If I can't trust myself, I can't possibly trust you!"

"Couldn't we try-once more?" Her voice was little more than a whisper.

He looked up at the soft and velvet stars that peered down so voluptuously from a soft and velvet sky. He looked at them for many moments, before he spoke again.

"If I got back to my work again, my right and honest work, I could be honest!" he declared, vehemently.

"But we are going back," she assuaged.

"Yes, but see what we have to go through, first!"

"I know," she admitted, unhappily. "But even then, we could say that it was to be for the last time."

"As we said before-and failed!"

"But this time we needn't fail. Think what it will mean if you have your work on your transmitting camera waiting for you-months and years of hard and honest work-work that you love, work that will lead to bigger things, and give you the time, yes, and the money, you need to perfect your amplifier. But outside of that, even to have your work-surely that's enough!"

"I'd have to have you, as well!" he said, out of the silence that had fallen upon them.

"You always will, Jim, you know that!"

"But I'm afraid of myself! I'm afraid of my moods-I'm afraid of my own distrust. I have a feeling that it may hurt you, sometime, almost beyond forgiveness!"

"I'll try to understand!" she murmured. And again silence fell over them.

"I'm afraid of making promises," he said, half whimsically, half weakly, after many minutes of thought.

"I don't want you to promise-only try!" she pleaded, swept by a wave of gratitude that seemed to fling her more intimately than ever before into her husband's arms. Yet it was a wave, and nothing more. For it receded as it came, leaving her, a moment later, chilled and apprehensive before their over-troubled future. With a little muffled cry of emotion, almost animal-like in its inarticulate intensity, she turned to her husband, and strained him in her arms, in her human and unhappy and unsatisfied arms.

"Oh, love me!" she pleaded, brokenly. "Love me! Love me-for I need it!"

They seemed strangely nearer to each other, after that night, and the peacefulness of their cruise to Bari remained uninterrupted. And once clear of that port Durkin's nervousness somewhat lightened, for he had figured out that they would be able to connect with one of the Cunard liners at Trieste. From there, if only they escaped attention and detection in the harbor, they would be turning homeward in two days.

One thing, and one thing only, lay between Frank and her husband: She had not yet found courage to tell him of the loss of the Penfield papers. And the more she thought of it, the more she dreaded it, teased and mocked by the very irony of the situation, disquieted and humiliated at the memory of her own pleadings for honesty while she herself was so far astray from the paths she was pointing out.

That sacrifice of scrupulosity on the altar of expediency, trivial as it was, was the heritage of her past life, she told herself. And she felt, vaguely, that in some form or another it would be paid for, and dearly paid for, as she had paid for everything.

It was only as they steamed into the harbor of Trieste, in the teeth of a bora and a high-running sea, that this woman who longed to be altogether honest allowed herself any fleeting moment of self-pity. For as she gazed up at the bald and sterile hills behind that clean and wind-swept Austrian city, she remembered they had been thus denuded that their timbers might make a foundation for Venice. She felt, in that passing mood, that her own life had been denuded, that all its softening and shrouding beauties had been cut out and carried away, that from now on she was to be torn by winds and scorched by open suns-while the best of her slept submerged, beyond the reach of her unhappy hands.

But Durkin, at her side, through the driving spray and rain, pointed out to her the huge rolling bulk and the red funnels of the Cunarder.

"Thank heaven!" he said, with a sigh of relief, "we'll be in time to catch her!"

The Laminian dropped anchor to the windward of the liner, and as dusk settled down over the harbor Frank took a wordless pleasure in studying the shadowy hulk which was to carry her back to America, to her old life and her old associations. But she was wondering how she should tell him of the loss of the Penfield securities. It was true that the very crimes that should have bound them together were keeping them apart!

Suddenly she ran to the companionway and called down to her husband.

"Look!" she said, under her breath, as he came to the rail, "they're talking with their wireless!"

She pointed to the masthead of the Cunarder, where, through the twilight, she could "spell" the spark, signal by signal and letter by letter, as the current broke from the head of the installation wires to the hollow metal mast, from which ran the taut-strung wires connecting, in turn, with the operating office just aft and above the engine-rooms.

"Listen," she said, for in the lull of the wind they could hear the short, crisp spit of the spark as it spelt out its mysterious messages.

Durkin caught her arm, and listened, intently, watching the little appearing and disappearing green spark, spelling off the words with narrowing eyes.

"They're talking with the station up on the mainland. Do you hear what it is? Can't you make it out?"

It was, of course, the Continental, and not the Morse, code, and it was not quite the same as stooping over and listening to the crisp, incisive pulsations of a "sounder." But Frank heard and saw and pieced together enough of the message to clutch, in turn, at Durkin's arm, and wait with quickened breath for the answering spark-play.


There was a silence of a minute or two, and then the mysterious Hertzian voice lisped out once more.

"Description-not-forwarded-by-Embassy-man-and-wife-are wanted- for robbery-at-Monte-Carlo-also-at-Genoa-name-Durgin-or- Durkin."

The listening man and woman looked at each other, and still waited.

"Oh, this is luck!" said the listener, fervently, as he drew a deep breath. "This is luck!"

"Listen, they're answering again!" cried Frank.

"Why-not-confer-with-Trieste-authorities-will-you-please- telephone-our-agents-to-send-out-tender-to take-off-Admiral- Stuart."

Then came the silence again.

"Yes," sounded the minute electric tongue from the mountain-top, so many miles away. "Good-night!"

"Good-night!" replied the articulate mass of heaving steel, swinging at her anchor chains.

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