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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 9092

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It was a thick and heavy night, with a drizzle of fine rain blanketing the city. Every now and then a lonely carriage spluttered along the oily and pool-strewn pavement of the cross-street. Every now and then, too, the rush and clang of the Broadway cars echoed down the canyon of rain-swept silence.

Durkin waited until the lights of the cigar-store went out. Then he once more circled the block, keeping to the shadows. As he passed the darkened cigar-store for the second time his foot, as though by accident, came sharply in contact with the refracting-prismed manhole cover which had sounded so hopefully hollow to his previous tread. As he had half-suspected, it was loose.

He stooped quickly, to turn up his trousers. As he did so three exploring fingers worked their way under the ledge of the unsecured circle of iron and glass.

It came away without resistance. He looked about him cautiously, without straightening up; then by its shoulder-strap he carefully lowered his leather tool-bag into the passage below, and as guardedly let himself down after it.

He waited and listened for a minute or two, before replacing the cover above him. From the river, in the distance, he could hear the booming and tooting of the steam craft through the fog. A hurrying car rumbled and echoed past on the Broadway tracks. Two drunken wanderers went singing westward in the drizzling rain. Then everything was silence again.

Durkin replaced the covering, noiselessly, and feeling to right and left with his outstretched hands, crept inward through the narrow tunnel in which he found himself. His fingers came in touch with the chilly surface of a steel-faced door. It sounded heavy and unyielding to his tentative tap, and his left hand was already reaching back for the tool-bag which hung by its strap over his shoulder when his questioning right hand, pushing forward, discovered that the door was unlocked, and swung easily outward without resistance.

He felt and fondled the heavy bolts, thoughtfully, puzzled why it should be so, until he remembered seeing the half-dozen pieces of anthracite lying about the manhole on the sidewalk above. That, he told himself, possibly explained it. Some careless wagon-driver, delivering his load, had left the place unlocked.

But before he crept into the wider and higher passage before him he paused to take out the revolver which he carried in his hip pocket, to unlimber it, and carefully feel over the chambered cylinder, to make sure every cartridge-head stood there, in place. This done, he replaced it, not at his hip, but loose and free, in the righthand pocket of his coat. Then he once more began feeling his way along the smooth cement floor. He was enveloped in a darkness as absolute as though he had been shrouded in black velvet-even the glimmer of the refracted street lamps did not penetrate further than the doorway of the first tunnel. There was a smell of dampness in the air, as of mouldy plaster. It was the smell of underground places. Durkin hated it.

He had to feel his way about the entire circle of that second narrow chamber before he came to where the inner doorway stood. It, too, was unlocked, and for the first time some sense of betrayal, some intimidation of being trapped, some latent suspicion of artfully concealed duplicity, flashed through his questioning mind.

He listened, and was greeted by nothing but silence.

Then he swung the door softly and slowly open. As he did so he leaped back, and to one side, with his right hand in his coat pocket. For there suddenly smote on his ears the sharp clang and tinkle of metal.

He stood there, crouched, for a waiting minute, and then he laughed aloud, for he knew it was only the sound of some piece of falling iron, striking on the cement. To make sure of it, he groped about the floor, and stumbled on the little bar of steel that had fallen. Yet why it had been there, leaning against the door, he could not comprehend. Was it there by accident? Or had it been meant as a signal? It showed him one thing, however; its echoing fall had demonstrated to him that the room he had entered was both higher and larger than the one he had left. It might be nothing more than a furnace-room, yet he told himself that he must be on his guard, that from now on his perils began.

Then he wondered why he should feel this premonitory sense, and in what lay the dividing line, and where lay the difference.

Yet as he stood there, with his back against the wall, he felt something dormant and de

ep-seated stirring within him. It was not a sense of danger; it arose from no outward and tangible manifestations. But somewhere, and persistently, at the root of his being, he heard that subliminal and submerged voice which could be neither silenced nor understood.

He took three groping paces forward, as if to put distance between himself and this foundationless emotion which some part of him seemed struggling to defy. But for the second time he stood stockstill, weighed down by the feeling of some presence, oppressed by the sense of something vaguely hanging over him. He felt, as Frank had once said, how like a half-articulate key, at the end of an impoverished circuit, consciousness really was; how the spirit so often, in this only half-intelligible life of theirs, flutters feebly with hints and suggestions to which it could never give open and unequivocal utterance. Even language, and language the most artful and finished, was, after all, merely a sort of clumsy Morse-its unwieldy dots and dashes left many a mood of the soul unknown and inarticulate.

As he stood there, in doubt, questioning himself and that vague but disturbing something which stood before him, he decided to put a summary end to the matter. Fumbling in his pocket, and disregarding any risk which the movement might entail, he caught up a match and struck it.

As he shaded the flame and threw it before him, his straining eyes caught only the glimmer of burnished metal-a guard-rail of some description-and the dark and ponderous mass of what seemed a deposit vault.

The match burned down, and dropped from his upthrust fingers. He decided to grope to the rail, and feel along the metal until he reached some point of greater safety. He extended his fingers before him, as a blind man might, and took one shuffling step forward.

Then a thought came to him, with the suddenness and the shock of an electric current, as a radiating tingle of nerves, followed by a strangely sickening sense of hollowness about the chest, swept through his body. Could it be Frank herself in danger, and wanting him?

More than once, in the past, he had felt that mysterious medium, more fluid and unfathomable than electricity itself, carry its vague but vital message in to him. He had felt that call of Soul to Soul, across space, along channels less tangible than Hertzian waves themselves, yet bearing its broken message, which later events had authenticated and still later cross-questioning had doubly verified.

He had felt, at such moments, that there were ghostly and phantasmal wires connecting mind with mind; that across these telepathic wires one anxious spirit could in some way hold dim converse with the other; that the Soul itself had its elusive "wireless," and forever carried and gave out and received its countless messages-if only the fellow-Soul had learned to await the signal and disentangle the dark and runic Code. Yes, he told himself, as he stood there, thoughtfully, as though bound to the spot by some Power not himself,-yes, consciousness was like that little glass tube which electricians called a coherer, and all his vague impressions and mental-gropings were those disorderly, minute fragments of nickel and silver which only leaped into continuity and order under the shock and impact of those fleet and foreign electric waves, which floated from some sister consciousness aching with its undelivered messages. And the woman who had so often called to him across space and silence, in the past, was now sounding the mystic key across those ghostly wires. But what the messages was, or from what quarter it came, he could not tell.

He stood there tortured and puzzled, torn by fear, thrilled and stirred through every fiber of his anxious body. This was followed by a sense of terror, sub-conscious and wordless and irrational, the kind of terror that comes to a child in unknown places, in the dead of some unknown night.

"For the love of God, what is it?" his dry lips demanded, speaking aloud into the emptiness about him.

He waited, almost as if expecting some answering voice, as distinct and tangible as his own. But nothing broke the black silence that blanketed him in from the rest of all the world and all its living things. The sweat of agony came out on his face; his body hung forward, relaxed and expectant.

"What is it you want to say?" he repeated, in a hoarse and muffled scream, no longer able to endure that silent and nameless Something which surrounded him. "What is it you want to say?"

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