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   Chapter 18 THE SEVERED KNOT

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 15096

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was in the gray of the early morning, as the Slavonia steamed from the Upper Bay into the North River and the serrated skyline of Manhattan bit into the thin rind of sunrise to the east, that Durkin and Frank came suddenly together in a deserted companionway. She had been praying for one hour more, and then all would be set right.

"I want to see you!" he said sharply.

She looked about to make sure they were unobserved.

"I know it-but I daren't run the risk-now!"

"Why not now? What has changed?" he demanded.

"I tell you we can't, Jim! We might be seen here, any minute!"

"What difference should that make?"

"It makes every difference!"

"By heaven, I've got to see you!" For the first time she realized the force of the dull rage that burned within him. "I want to know what's before us, and how we're going to act!"

"I tell you, Jim, I can't talk to you here!"

"You mean you don't care to!" he flashed out.

"Can't you trust me?" she pleaded.

"Trust you? What has trust to do in a business like ours?"

"It is your business-until you put an end to it!" And her voice shook with the repressed bitterness of her spirit. "I tried to see you quietly, last night, but you had gone to your cabin. I have a feeling that we're under the eye of every steward on this ship-I know we are being watched, all the time. And if you were seen here with me, it would only drag you in, and make it harder to straighten out, in the end. Can't you see what's going on?"

"Yes, I have been seeing what's going on-and I'm sick of it!"

"Oh, not that, Jim!" she cried, in a little muffled wail. "You know it would never be that!"

His one dominating feeling was that which grew out of the stinging consciousness that she wanted to escape him, that the moment had come when she could make an effort to evade him. But he was only paying the penalty! He had sowed, he told himself, and it was only natural that in time he should reap! Already he was losing her! Already, it might be, he had lost her!

"Won't you be reasonable?" she was saying, and her voice sounded faint and far away. "I've got to see this through now, and one little false move would spoil everything! I must land by myself. I'll write you, at the Bartholdi, when and where to meet me!"

The noise of approaching footsteps sounded down the carpeted passageway. He had caught her by the arm, but now he released his grip and turned away.

"Quick," she whispered, "here's somebody coming!"

She was struggling with the ends of her veil, and Durkin was aimlessly pacing away from her, when the hurrying steward brushed by them. A moment later he returned, followed by a second steward, but by this time Durkin had made his way to the upper deck, and was looking with quiescent rage at the quays and walls and skyscrapers of New York.

Before the steamer wore into the wharf Frank had seen Keenan and a last few words had passed between them. She sternly schooled herself to calmness, for she felt her great moment had come.

At his request that her first mission be to deliver a sealed packet at the office of Richard Penfield, in the lower West Side, she evinced neither surprise nor displeasure. It was all in the day's work, she protested, as Keenan talked on, giving her more definite instructions and still again impressing on her the need for secrecy.

She took the sealed package without emotion-the little package for which she had worked so hard and lost so much and waited so long-and as apathetically secreted it. Equally without emotion she passed Durkin, standing at the foot of the gangway. Something in his face, however, warned her of the grim mood that burned within him. She pitied him, not for his suffering, but for his blindness.

"Don't follow me!" she muttered, between her teeth, as she swept unbetrayingly by him, and hurriedly made her way out past the customs barrier. It was not until she had reached the closed carriage Keenan's steward had already ordered for her that she realized how apparently cursory and precipitate had been that hurried word of warning. But there was time for neither explanation nor display of emotion. It could all be made clear and put right, later.

She heard the nervous trample of hoofs on the wooden flooring, the battle of truck-wheels, the muffled sound of calling voices, and she leaned back in the gloomy cab and closed her eyes with a great sense of escape, with a sense of relief tinged with triumph.

As she did so the door of her turning cab was opened, and the sudden square of light was blocked by a massive form. She gave a startled little cry as the figure swung itself up into the seat beside her. Then the curtained door swung shut, with a slam. It seemed like the snap of a steel trap.

"Hello, there, Frank!-I've been looking out for you!" said the intruder, with a taunt of mockery in his easy laugh.

It was MacNutt. She gaped at him stupidly, with an inarticulate throaty gasp, half of protest, half of bewilderment.

"You see, I know you, Frank, and Keenan doesn't!" And again she felt the sting of his scoffing laughter.

She looked at the subdolous, pale-green eyes, with their predatory restlessness, at the square-blocked, flaccid jaw, and the beefy, animal-like massiveness of the strong neck, at the huge form odorous of gin and cigar smoke, and the great, hairy hands marked with their purplish veinings. It seemed like a ghost out of some long-past and only half-remembered life. It came back to her with all the hideousness of a momentarily forgotten nightmare, made newly hideous by the sanities of ordered design and open daylight in which it intruded. And her heart sank and hope burned out of her.

"You! How dare you come here?" she demanded, with a show of hot defiance.

He looked at her collectedly and studiously, with an approving little side-shake of the bull-dog, pugnacious-looking head.

"You're the same fine looker!" was all he said, with an appreciative clucking of the throat. Oh, how she hated him, and everything for which he stood!

By this time they had threaded their way out of the tangled traffic of West street, and were rumbling cityward through the narrower streets of Greenwich village.

Frank's first intelligible feeling was one of gratitude at the thought that Durkin had escaped the trap into which she herself had fallen. That did not leave the situation quite so hopeless. Her second feeling was one of fear that he might be following her, then one that he might not, that he would not be near her in the coming moment of need-for she knew that now of all times MacNutt held her in the hollow of his hand-that now, as never before, he would frustrate and crush and obliterate her. There were old transgressions to be paid for; there were old scores to be wiped out. Keenan and his Penfield wealth were nothing to her now-she was no longer plotting for the future, but shrinking away from her dark and toppling present, that seemed about to buckle like a falling wall and crush her as it fell. Month after month, in Europe, she had known visions of some such meeting as this, through nightmare and troubled sleep. And now it was upon her.

MacNutt seemed to follow her line of flashing thought, for he emitted a short bark of a laugh and said: "It's pretty small, this world, isn't it? I guessed that we'd be meetin' again before I'd swung round the circle!"

"Where are we going?" she demanded, trying to lash her disordered and straggling thoughts into coherence.

"We're goin' to the ne

atest and completest poolroom in all Manhattan!"

"Poolroom?" she cried.

"Yes, my dear; I mean that we're drivin' to Penfield's brand-new downtown house, where, as somewhat of a hiker in the past, you'll see things done in a mighty whole-souled and princely fashion!"

"But why should I go there? And why with you?"

"Oh, I'm on Penfield's list, just at present, kind o' helpin' to soothe some of the city police out o' their reform tantrums. And you've got about a quarter of a million of Penfield's securities on you-so I thought I'd kind o' keep an eye on you-this time!"

Her first impulse was to throw herself headlong from the cab door. But this, she warned herself, would be both useless and dangerous. Through the curtained window she could see that they were now in the more populous districts of the city, and that the speed at which they were careering down the empty car-tracks was causing early morning foot-passengers to stop and turn and gaze after them in wonder. It was now, or never, she told herself, with a sudden deeper breath of determination.

With a quick motion of her hand she flung open the door, and leaning out, called shrilly for the driver to stop. He went on unheeding, as though he had not heard her cry.

She felt MacNutt's fierce pull at her leaning shoulder, but she struggled away from him, and repeated her cry. A street boy or two ran after the carriage, adding to the din. She was tearing and fighting in MacNutt's futile grasp by this time, calling desperately as she fought him back. As the cab swerved about an obstructing delivery-wagon a patrolman sprang at the horses' heads, was jerked from his feet, and was carried along with the careering horse. But in the end he brought them to a stop. Before he could reach the cab door a crowd had collected.

A hansom dashed up as the now infuriated officer brushed and elbowed the crowd aside. Above the surging heads, in that hansom, Frank could see the familiar figure, as it leaped to the ground and dove through the closing gap of humanity, after the officer.

It was Durkin; and now, in a sudden passion of blind fear for him she sprang from the cab-step and tried to beat him back with her naked hands, foolishly, uselessly, for she knew that if once together MacNutt and he would fall on one another and fight it out to the end.

The patrolman caught her back, roughly, and held her.

"What's all this, anyway?" It surprised him a little, as he held her, to find that the woman was not inebriate.

"I want this woman!" cried Durkin, and at the sound of his voice MacNutt leaned forward from the shadows of the half-closed carriage, and the eyes of the two men met, in one pregnant and contending stare.

A flash of inspiration came to the trembling woman.

"I will give everything up to him, officer, if he'll only not make a scene!" She was fumbling at a package in the bosom of her dress.

"He can have his stuff, every bit of it-if he'll let it go at that!"

Durkin caught his cue as he saw the color of one corner of the sealed yellow manila envelope.

"Stand back there!" howled the officer to the crowding circle. "And you, shut up!" he added to MacNutt, now horrible to look upon with suppressed rage.

"This woman lifted a package of mine, officer," said Durkin quickly. "If it's intact, why, let her go!"

His fingers closed, talon-like, on the manila envelope. He flashed the unbroken red seal at the officer, with a little laugh of triumph. That laugh seemed to madden MacNutt, as he made a second ineffectual effort to break into that tense and rapid cross-fire of talk.

"And you don't want to lay a charge?" the policeman demanded, as he angrily elbowed back the ever intruding circle.

"Let 'em go!" said Durkin, backing toward his cab.

"But what's the papers, and what t'ell does she want with 'em?" interrogated the officer.

"Correspondence!" said Durkin easily, almost lightheartedly. "Kind of personal stuff. They're-he's drunk, anyway!" For stumbling angrily out of the cab, MacNutt was crying that it was all a pack of lies, that they were a quarter of a million in money and that the officer should arrest Durkin on the spot, or he'd have him "broke."

"And then you'll chew me up an' spit me out, won't you, you blue-gilled Irish bull-dog?" jeered the irate officer, already out of temper with the unruly crowd jostling about him.

"I say arrest that man!" screamed the claret-faced MacNutt.

"And I say I'll run you in, and run you in mighty quick, if you don't get rid o' them jim-jams pretty soon!"

"By God, I'll take it out of you for this, when my turn comes!" raved MacNutt, turning, purplish gray of face, on the deprecating Durkin. "I'll take it out of you, by God!"

"There-there! He's simply drunk, officer; and the woman has squared herself. I don't want to press any charge. But you'd better take his name!"

"Drunk, am I? You'll be drunk when I finish with you. You won't have a name, you'll have a number, when I'm through with you!" repeated the infuriated MacNutt.

"Look here, the two o' you!" suddenly exclaimed the outraged arm of the law, "you climb into that hack and clear out o' here, as quick as you can, or I'll run you both in!"

MacNutt still expostulated, still begged for a private audience in the street-corner saloon, still threatened and pleaded and protested.

The exasperated officer turned to the cab-driver, as he slung the street loafers from him to right and left.

"Here, you get these fares o' yours out o' this-get them away mighty quick, or I'll have you soaked for breakin' the speed ord'nance!"

Then he turned quickly, for the frightened woman had emitted a sharp scream, as her bull-necked companion, with the vigor of a new and desperate resolution, bodily caught her up and thrust her into the gloom of the half-curtained carriage.

"Oh, Jim, Jim, don't let him take me!" she cried mysteriously to the man she had just robbed. But the man she had just robbed looked at her with what seemed indifferent eyes, and said nothing.

"Don't you know where he's taking me? Can't you see? It's to Penfield's!" she cried, through her weakening struggles.

A new and strange paralysis of all his emotions seemed to have crept over Durkin, as he watched the cab door slammed shut and the horses go plunging and curveting out through the crowd.

"You'd better get away as quiet as you can!" said the policeman, in an undertone, for Durkin had slipped a ten-dollar bill into his unprotesting fingers. "You'd better slide, for if the colonel happens along I can't do much to help you out!"

Then, with his hand on Durkin's cab door he said, with unfeigned bewilderment: "Say, what's the game of your actress friend, anyway?"

Durkin turned away in disgust, without answering. She was no longer his friend; she was his enemy, his betrayer! He had lived by the sword, and by the sword he should die! He had triumphed through crime, and through crime he was being undone! He had led her into the paths of duplicity; he had taught her wrong-doing and dishonor; and with the very tools he had put in her hand she had cut her way out to liberty, and turned and defeated him!

Then he remembered the scene on the Slavonia, and her passionate cry for him, for his love. In the wake of this came the memory of still earlier scenes and still more passionate cries for what he had so scantily given her.

Then suddenly he smote his knees with his clenched fists, and said aloud:

"It can't be true! It can't be true!"

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