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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 9564

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"What are we to do?" asked Frances Durkin, turning from the masthead to her husband's studious face.

"We've got to jump at our chance, and get on board the Slavonia over there!"

"In the face of those messages?"

"It's the messages that simplify things for us. All we now have to do is to get on board in such a manner that the ship's officers will have no suspicions. They mustn't dream of linking us with the runaway couple who are being looked for. That means that we must not, in the first place, appear together, and, in the second, of course, that we must travel and appear as utter strangers!"

"But supposing Keenan himself is on board that steamer?" parried Frank.

"It is obvious that he isn't, for then it would be quite unnecessary to send out any such messages by wireless."

"But supposing it's Pobloff?"

"Didn't you say that Pobloff would never follow us out of Europe?"

"But even if it's Keenan?" she persisted.

"Then you must remember that you are Miss Allen, at your old trade of picking up little art relics for wealthy families in England and America. You will have yourself rowed directly over to the Slavonia's landing ladder-you can see it there, not two hundred feet away-and go on board and secure a stateroom from the purser. The clearing papers can be attended to later. I'll have the Laminian dingey take me ashore, somewhere down near Barcola, if it can possibly be done in this wind. Then I'll come out to the Slavonia later, having, you see, just arrived on the train from Venice!"

She shook her head doubtfully. An inapposite and irrational dread of seeing him return to the dangers of land took possession of her. She knew it would be impossible for her to put this untimely feeling into words, so that he would see and understand it; and, such being the case, she argued with him stubbornly to alter his plan, and to allow her to be the one to go ashore, while he went immediately to the liner.

He consented to this at last, a little reluctantly, but the thought that he was safely installed in his cabin, as she made her way shoreward through the dusk, in the pitching and dripping little dingey, consoled her for the sense of loneliness and desertion which her position brought to her. The wind had increased, by this time, and the rain was coming down in slanting and stinging sheets. But her spirit did not fail her.

From the water-front, deserted and rain-swept, she called a passing street carriage, and drove to the Hotel Bristol. There she sent the driver to ask if any luggage had arrived from Venice for Miss Allen. None had arrived, and Miss Allen, naturally, appeared in great perturbation before the sympathetic but helpless hotel manager. She next inquired if it was possible to ascertain when the Cunard steamer sailed.

"The Slavonia, madam, leaves the harbor at daybreak!"

"At daybreak! Then I must go on board tonight, at once!"

"I fear it is impossible, madam. The bora is blowing, as you see, and the harbor is empty!"

"But I must get on board!" she cried, and this time her dismay and despair were not mere dissimulation.

The landlord shrugged his shoulders, while Frank, calling out a peremptory order, in Italian, to her driver, left him at the curb looking after her through the driving rain, in bewilderment.

She went first to the steamship offices. They were closed. Then she sought out the Cunard tender-it was lightless and deserted. Then she hurried to the water-front, driving up and down along that lonely stretch of deserted quays, back and forth, coaxing, wheedling, trying to bribe indifferent and placid-eyed boatmen to row her out to her steamer. It was useless. It could not be done. It was not worth while to risk either their boats or their lives, even in the face of the fifty, one hundred, two hundred lira which she flaunted in their unperturbed faces.

Grating and rocking against the quayside, above the heads of the group about her, she caught sight of a white-painted steam launch, with a high-standing bow, and on it a uniformed officer, smoking in the rain.

She approached him without hesitation. Could he, in any way, carry her out to her steamer? She pointed to where the lights of the Slavonia shone and glimmered through the gray darkness. They looked indescribably warm and homelike to her peering eyes.

The officer looked her up and down in stolid Austrian amazement, trying to catch a glimpse of her face through her wet and flattened traveling veil. Could he take her out to her steamer? No; he was afraid not. Yes, it was true he had steam up, and that his crew were aboard, but this was the official patrol of the Captain of the Port-it was not to carry passengers-it was solely for the imperial service of the Austrian Government.

She pleaded with him, weeping. He was sorry, but the Captain of the Port would permit no such irregularity.

"Where is the Captain of the Port, then?" she demanded.

The officer puffed his cigar slowly, and looked her up and down once more. He was in his office in the Administration Building-but the officer's shrug and smile told her that it was, in his eyes, no easy thing to secure admission to the Captain of the Port. The very phrase, "the Captain of the Port," that had been bandied back and forth for the last few minutes, became odious to her; it seemed to designate the title of some august and supernatural and tyrannous power who held her life and death in his hands.

She turned on her heel and drove at once to the Administration Building. Here, at the entrance, she was confronted by a uniformed sentry, who, after questioning her, passed her on to still another uniformed personage, who called an orderly, and sent that somewhat bewildered messenger and his charge to the anteroom of the Captain of the Port's private secretary. Frank had a sense of hurrying down long and jail-like corridors, of ascending stairs and passing sentries, of questionings and consultations, of at last being ushered into a softly-lighted, softly-carpeted room, where a white-bearded, benignant-browed official sat in a swivel-chair before a high walnut desk.

He shook his head mournfully as he listened to her story. But she did not give up. She even amazed him a little by the sheer impetuosity of her speech.

"Is there much at stake, signorina?" he asked, at last, as she paused for breath.

"A man's soul is at stake!" was the answering cry that rang through the quiet room.

The Captain of the Port smiled a little cynically, scarcely understanding.

Yet something almost fatherly about his sad and wistful face steeled her to still further persistence, and she afterward remembered, always a little shamefaced, that she had wept and clung to his arm and wept still again, before she melted and bent him from his official determination. She saw, through blurred and misty eyes, his hand go out and touch an electric button at his side. She saw him write three lines on a sheet of paper, an attendant appear, and heard an order briefly and succinctly given. She had gained her end.

The Captain of the Port rose as she turned to go from the room.

"Good night, and also good-bye, signorina!" he said quietly, with his stately, old-world bow.

She paused at the door, wordlessly demeaned, momentarily ashamed of herself. She felt, in some way, how miserable and low and self-seeking she stood beneath him, how high and firm he stood above her, with his calm and disinterested kindliness.

She turned back to him once more.

"Good-bye," she said inadequately, in her tearful and tremulous contralto. "Good-bye, and thank you, again and again!"

He bowed from where he stood in the center of his quiet and sheltered office, seeming, to her, a strangely old-time and courtly figure, a proud yet unpretentious student of life at peace with his own soul. The years would come and go, the years that would so age and wear and torture her, but he would reign on in that quiet office unchanged, contented, still at peace with himself and all his world. "Good-bye," she said for the third time, from the doorway.

Then she hurried down to her waiting carriage and raced for the quay. There she took an almost malicious delight in the bustle and perturbation to which her return gave sudden rise. The sleepy and sullen crew were stirred out, signals were clanged, ropes were cast off; and down in her little narrow cabin, securely shut off from the driving spray, she could feel and hear the boat lurch and pound through the waves. Then came shrill calls of the whistle above, the sound of gruff voices, the rasp and scrape of heaving woodwork against woodwork, the grind of the ladder against the boat-fenders, the cry of the officer telling her to hurry.

She walked up the Slavonia's ladder steadily, demurely, for under the lights of the promenade deck she could see the clustering, inquisitive heads, where a dozen crowding passengers tried to ascertain just who could be coming aboard with such ceremony.

Leaning over the rail, with a cigar in his mouth, she caught sight of her husband. As she passed him, at the head of the ladder, he spoke one short sentence to her, under his breath.

It was a commonplace enough little sentence, but as the purport of it filtered through her tired mind it stung her into both a new wariness of attitude and thought and a new gratefulness of heart.

For as she passed him, without one betraying emotion or one glance aside, he had whispered to her, under his breath:

"Keenan is here, on board. Be careful!"

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