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   Chapter 17 THE TANGLED SKEIN

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 13328

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was the Slavonia's last night at sea. In another twelve hours the pilot would be aboard, Quarantine would be passed, the engines would be slowed down, and the great steamer would be lying at her berth in the North River, discharging her little world of life into the scattered corners of a waiting continent. Already, on the green baize bulletin-board in the companionway the purser had posted the customary notice to the effect that the steamer's operator was now in connection with New York City, and that wireless messages might be received for all points in Europe and America.

There was a chill in the air, and to Frances Durkin, sitting beside Keenan on the promenade deck, there seemed something restless and phantasmal and ghostlike in the thin, North Atlantic sunlight, after the mellow and opulent gold of the Mediterranean calms. It seemed to her to be a presage of the restless movement and tumult which she felt to be before her.

She had not been altogether amiss in her predictions of what the past fortnight would bring forth. She had erred a little, she felt, in her estimate of Keenan's character; yet she had not been mistaken in the course of action which he was to pursue.

For, from the beginning, after the constraint of their first meeting on board had passed away, he had shown her a direct and open friendliness which now and then even gave rise to a vague and uneasy suspicion in her own mind. This friendliness had brought with it an easier exchange of confidences, then a seeming intimacy and good-fellowship which, at times, made it less difficult for Frank to lose herself in her r?le.

Keenan, one starlit night under the shadow of a lifeboat amidships, had even acknowledged to her the dubiousness of the mission that had taken him abroad. Later, he had outlined to her what his life had been, telling her of his struggles when a penniless student of the City law school, of his early and unsavory criminal-court efforts, and his unhappy plunge into the morasses of Eighth-ward politics, of his campaign against the "Dave Kelly" gang, and the death of his political career which came with that opposition, of his swinging round to the tides of the times and taking up with bucket-shop work, of his "shark" lawyer practices and his police-court legal trickeries, of his gradual identification with the poolroom interests and his first gleaning of gambling-house lore, of his drifting deeper and deeper into this life of unearned increment, of his fight with the Bar Association, which was taken and lost before the Judiciary Committee of Congress, and of his final offer of retainer from Penfield, and private and expert services after the second raid on that gambler's Saratoga house. Frank could understand why he said little of the purpose that took him to Europe. Although she waited anxiously for any word he might let fall on that subject, she respected his natural reticence in the matter. He was a criminal, low and debased enough, it was true; but he was a criminal of such apparent largeness of mind and such openness of spirit that his very life of crime, to the listening woman, seemed to take on the dignity of a Nietzsche-like abrogation of all civic and social ties.

Yet, in all his talk, he was open and frank enough in his confession of attitude. He had seen too much of criminal life to have many illusions or to make many mistakes about it. He openly admitted that the end of all careers of crime was disaster-if not open and objective, at least hidden and subjective. He had no love for it all. But when once, through accident or necessity, in the game, he protested, there was but one line of procedure, and that was to bring to illicit activity that continuous intelligence which marked the conduct of those who stood ready to combat it. Society, he declared, owed its safety to the fact that the criminal class, as a rule, was made up of its least intelligent members. When criminality went allied with a shrewd mind and a sound judgment-and a smile curled about Keenan's melancholy Celtic mouth as he spoke-it became transplanted, practically, to the sphere and calling of high finance.

But if the defier of the Establish Rule preferred the simpler order of things, he continued, his one hope lay in the power of making use of his fellow-criminals, by applying to the unorganized smaller fry of his profession some particular far-seeing policy and some deliberate purpose, and through doing so standing remote and immune, as all centres of generalship should stand.

This, he went on to explain, was precisely what Penfield had done, with his art palaces and his European jaunts and his doling out of political patronage and his prolonged defiance of all the police powers of a great and active city. He had organized and executed with Napoleonic comprehensiveness; he had fattened on the daily tribute of less imaginative subordinates in sin. And now he was fortified behind his own gold. He was being harassed and hounded for the moment-but the emotional wave of reform that was calling for his downfall would break and pass, and leave him as secure as ever.

"Now, my belief is," Keenan told the listening woman, "that if you find you cannot possibly be the Napoleon of the campaign, it is well worth while to be the Ney. I mean that it has paid me to attach myself to a man who is bigger than I am, instead of going through all the dangers and meannesses and hardships of a petty independent operator. It pays me in two ways. I get the money, and I get the security."

"Then you believe this man Penfield will never be punished?"

He thought over the question for a moment or two.

"No, I don't think he ever will. He stands for something that is as active and enduring in our American life as are the powers arrayed against him. You see, the district-attorney's office represents the centripetal force of society. Penfield stands for the centrifugal force. They fight and battle against one another, and first one seems to gain, and then the other, and all the while the fight between the two, the struggle between the legal and the illegal, makes up the balance of everyday life."

"You mean that we're all gamblers, at heart?"

"I mean that every Broadway must have its Bowery, that the world can only be so good-if you try to make it better, it breaks out in a new place-and the master criminal is a man who takes advantage of this nervous leakage. We call him the Occasional Offender-and he's the most dangerous man in all society. In other words, the passion, as you say, for gambling, is implanted in all of us; the thought of some vast hazard, of some lucky stroke

of fate, is in your head as often as it is in mine. You tell me you are a hard-working art collector, making a decent living by gadding about Europe picking up knick-knacks. Now, suppose I came to you with a proposal like this: Suppose I told you that without any greater personal discomfort, without any greater danger or any harder work, you might, say, join forces with me and at one play of the game haul in fifty thousand dollars from men who no more deserve this money than we do, I'll warrant that you'd think over it pretty seriously."

The woman at his side laughed a little, and then gave a significantly careless shrug of her small shoulders.

"Who wouldn't?" she said, and their eyes met questioningly, in the uncertain light.

"Women, as a rule, are timid," he said at last. "They usually prefer the slower and safer road."

"Sometimes they get tired of it. Then, too, it isn't always safe just because it's slow!"

It seemed to give him the opening for which he had been waiting. He looked at her with undisguised yet calculating admiration.

"I'll wager you would never be afraid of a thing, if you once got into it, or wanted to get into it!" he cried.

She laughed again, a self-confident and reassuring little laugh.

"I've been through too many things," she admitted simply, "to talk about being thin-skinned!"

"I knew as much!"

"Why do you say that?"

"I could see it from the first. You've got courage, and you're shrewd, and you know the world-and you've got what's worth all the rest put together. I mean that you're a fine-looking woman, and you've never let the fact spoil you!"

There was no mistaking the pregnancy of the glance and question which she next directed toward him.

"Then why couldn't you take me in with you?" she asked, with a quiet-toned solemnity.

She had the sensations of a skater on treacherously thin ice, as she watched the slow, cautious scrutiny of his unbetraying face. But now, for some reason, she knew neither fear nor hesitation.

"And what if we did?" he parried temporizingly.

"Well, what if we did?-men and women have worked together before this!"

Even in the dim light that surrounded them she could notice the color go out of his intent and puzzled face. From that moment, in some mysterious way, she lost the last shred of sympathy for his abject and isolated figure, and yet she was the one, she knew, who had been most unworthy.

"And do you understand what it would imply-what it would mean?" he asked slowly and with significant emphasis.

She could not repress her primal woman's instinct of revolt from the thoughts which his quiet interrogation sent at her, like an arrow. But she struggled to keep down the little shudder which woke and stirred within her. He had done nothing more than respond to her tacit challenge. But she feared him, more and more. Until then she had advanced discreetly and guardedly, and as she had advanced and taken her new position he had as guardedly fallen back and held his own. It had been a strange and silent campaign, and all along it had filled Frank with a sense of stalking and counter-stalking. Now they were plunging into the naked and primordial conflict of man against woman, without reservations and without indirections-and it left her with a vague fear of some impending helplessness and isolation. She had a sudden prompting to delay or evade that final step, to temporize and wait for some yet undefined reinforcements.

"And you realize what it means?" he repeated.

"Yes," she said in her soft contralto. A feeling of revulsion that was almost nausea was consuming her. This, then, she told herself, was the bitter and humiliating price she must pay for her tainted triumph.

"And would you accept and agree to the conditions-the only conditions?" he demanded, in a voice now hatefully tremulous with some rising and controlling emotion. She had the feeling, as she listened, that she was a naked slave girl, being jested over and bidden for on the auction block of some barbaric king. She felt that it was time to end the mockery; she no longer even pitied him.

"Listen!" she suddenly cried, "they are beginning to send the wireless!"

They listened side by side, to the brisk kick and spurt and crackle of the fluid spark leaping between the two brass knobs in the little operating-room just above where they sat. They could hear it distinctly, above the drone of the wind and the throb of the engines and the quiet evening noises of the orderly ship-spitting and cluttering out into space. To the impatient man it was nothing more than the ripple of unintelligent and unrelated sounds.

To the wide-eyed and listening woman it was a decorous and coherent march of dots and dashes, carrying with it thought and meaning and system. And as each word fluttered off on its restless Hertzian wings, like a flock of hurrying carrier-pigeons through the night, the woman listened and translated and read, word by word.

"Then we go it together-you and I-for all it's worth!" Keenan was saying, with his face near hers and his hand on her motionless arm.

"Listen," she said sharply. "It-it sounds like a bag of lightning getting loose, doesn't it?"

For the message which was leaping from the lonely and dipping ship to the receiving wires at the Highland Heights Station was one that she intended to read, word by word.

It was a simple enough message, but as it translated itself into intelligible coherence it sent a creeping thrill of conflicting fear and triumph through her. For the words which sped across space from key to installation-pole read:

"Woman-named-Allen-will-bring-papers-to-P-Field's-downtown- house-I-will-wait-word-from-you-at-Philadelphia-advise-me- of-situation-there-and-wire-D-in-time-Kerrigan."

It was only then that she was conscious of the theatricalities from which she had emerged, of the man so close beside her, still waiting for her play-acting word of decision. It was only then, too, that she fully understood the adroitness, the smooth and supple alertness, of her ever-wary and watchful companion.

But she rose to the situation without a visible sign of flinching. Taking one deep breath, as though it were a final and comprehensive gulp of unmenaced life, she turned to him, and gazed quietly and steadily into his questioning eyes.

"Yes, if you say it, I'm with you now, whether it's for good or bad!"

"And this is final!" he demanded. "If you begin, you'll stick to it!"

"To the bitter end!" she answered grimly. And there was something so unemotionally decisive in her tone that he no longer hesitated, no longer doubted her.

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