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   Chapter 16 BROKEN INSULATION

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 7994

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The Slavonia was well down the Adriatic before Keenan was seen on deck. Both Frank and Durkin, by that time, had met in secret more than once, and had talked over their predicament and decided on a plan of action.

"Whatever you do," Durkin warned her, "don't let Keenan suspect who I am! Don't let him get a glimpse of you with me. My part now has got to be what you'd call 'armed neutrality.' If anything unforeseen turns up-and that can only be at Palermo or Gibraltar-I'll be watching near by to come to your help in some way-but, whatever you do, don't let Keenan suspect this!"

"You mean that we mustn't even look at each other?" she cried, in mock dismay.

"Precisely," he continued.

"What if an officer should introduce you to me?" She laughed a little.

The untimeliness of her laughter disturbed him. More and more often, during the last few weeks, he had beheld the signs of some callousing and hardening process going on within her.

"Oh, in that case," he answered, "you'll find me very glum and uncongenial. You'll probably be only too glad to leave me alone!"

She nodded her head in meditative assent. Her problem was a difficult one.

"Jim," she said suddenly, "why should we play this waiting and retreating game during the next two weeks? Here we have Keenan on board, with nothing to interfere with our operations. Why can't we work a little harder to win his confidence?"

"We?" asked the other.

"Well, why couldn't I? All along, during those days in Genoa, I had the feeling that he would have believed in me, if some little outside accident had only confirmed his faith in me. We can't tell, of course, just what he found out after that Pobloff affair, or just how he interpreted it, or whether he is as much in the dark as ever. If that is the case, we may stand just where we were before with Keenan!"

"But I thought you wanted to get away from this sort of thing?"

"I do-when the time comes," she evaded, tortured by the thought that she had withheld anything from him. "I do-but are we to let Keenan go, when we have him so close to us?"

"Then go ahead and both capture and captivate him!" said Durkin, with a voice that was gruff only because it was indifferent. Still again he was oppressed by the feeling that she was passing beyond his power.

"But see, Jim-I'm getting so old and ugly!" And again she laughed, with her own show of indifference, though her husband knew, by the wistfulness of her face, that she was struggling to hold back some deeper and stronger current of feeling. So he thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and refused to meet her eyes for a second time.

"I don't see why we should be afraid of either Palermo or Gibraltar," Durkin went on at last, with a half-impatient business-is-business glance about him. "Keenan is alone in this. He has no agents over here, that we know of, and he daren't put anything in the hands of the authorities. He's a runaway, a fugitive with the district-attorney's office after him, and he has to move just as quietly as we do. Mark my words, where he will make his first move, and do anything he's going to do, will be in New York!"

"Then why can't I prepare the ground for the New York situation, whatever it may be?" she demanded.

"You mean by standing pat with Keenan?"

"Precisely."

"Then how will you begin?"

"By sending him a note at once, telling him how I slipped away from Genoa to Venice, and asking him the meaning of the Pobloff attack-in other words, by appearing so actively suspicious of him that he'll forget to be suspicious of me."

"And what do you imagine he will answer?"

"I think he will send me back word to say absolutely nothing about the Genoa episode-he may even claim that it's quite beyond his comprehension. That will give us a chance to meet more naturally, and then we can talk things over more minutely, at our leisure."

Durkin wheeled on her, half-angrily. Through all their career, he had remained strangely unschool

ed to any such concession as this. It was an affront to his dormant and masculine spirit of guardianship; it seemed a blow in the teeth of his nurturing instinct, an overriding of his prerogatives of a man and a husband.

"While you're making love to him on the bridge-deck, on moonlight nights!" he flung back at her, bitterly.

"Do you think I could?" she murmured, with a ghost of a sigh.

Durkin emitted a little impatient oath.

"Don't swear, Jim!" she reproved him.

The vague prescience that some day he should lose her, that in some time yet to be she should pass beyond his reach and control, still again filtered through his consciousness, like a dark and corroding seepage. He caught her by the arm roughly, and looked into her face, for one silent and scrutinizing minute.

"Do you care?" she asked, and it seemed to him there was a tremor of happiness in her tone.

"I hate this part of the business!" he cried, with still another oath.

"Oh, do you care?" she reiterated, as her arms crept about him valiantly, yet a little timidly.

He surrendered, against his will, to the gentle artillery of her tears. They startled and unmanned him for a little, they came so unexpectedly, for as he crushed her in his sudden responding embrace, the impulse, at that time and in that place, seemed the incongruous outcropping of some deeply submerged stratum of feeling.

"If you do care, Jim, why do you never tell me so?" she demanded of him, in gentle reproof. He then noticed, for the first time, the hungry and unsatisfied look that brooded over her face. He confessed to himself unhappily that something about him was altered.

"This cursed business knocks that sort of thing out of you," he expiated, discomforted at the thought that a feeling so long disregarded could grip him so keenly. And all the while he was torn by the misery of two contending impressions; one, the dim, subliminal foreboding that she was ordained for worthier and cleaner hands than his, the other, that this upheaval of the emotions still had the power to shake and bewilder and leave him so wordlessly unhappy. It was the ever-recurring incongruity, the repeated syncretism, which made him vaguely afraid of himself and of the future. Then, as he looked down into her face once more, and studied the shadowy violet eyes, and the low brow, and the short-lipped mobile mouth so laden with impulse, and the soft line of the chin and throat so eloquent of weakness and yielding, a second and stronger wave of feeling surged through him.

"I love you, Frank; I tell you I do love you!" he cried, with a voice that did not seem his own. And as she lay back in his arms, weak and surrendering, with the heavy lashes closed over the shadowy eyes, he stooped and kissed her on her red, melancholy mouth.

Yet as he did so the act seemed to take on the touch of something solemn and valedictory, though he fought back the impression with his still reiterated cry of "I love you!"

"Then why are you unkind to me?" she asked, more calmly now.

"Oh, can't you see I want you-all of you?" he cried.

"Then why do you leave me where so much must be given to other things, to hateful things?" she asked, with her mild and melancholy eyes still on his face.

"God knows, I've wanted you out of it, often enough!" he avowed, desolately. And she made no effort to alleviate his suffering.

"Then why not take me out of it, and keep me out of it?" she demanded, with a cold directness that brought him wheeling about on her.

He suddenly caught her by the shoulders, and held her away from him, at arms' length. She thought, at first, that it was a gesture of repudiation; but she soon saw her mistake. "I swear to God," he was saying to her, with a grim tremor of determination in his voice as he spoke, "I swear to God, once we are out of this affair, it will be the last!"

"It will be the last!" repeated the woman, broodingly, but her words were not so much a declaration as a prayer.

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