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   Chapter 24 THE GHOSTS OF THOUGHT

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 15071

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


In the ensuing silence, as the unbroken seconds dragged themselves on, Durkin called himself a fool, and, struggling bitterly with that indeterminate uneasiness which possessed him, pulled himself together for some immediate and decisive action.

He could waste no more time, he told himself, in foolish spiritualistic seances with his own shadow. He had too much before him, and too short a time in which to do it. His troubles, when he came to face them, would be realities, and not a train of vapid and morbid self-vaporings.

He advanced further into the darkness of the room, slowly, with his hands outstretched before him. He would feel for the friendly support and guidance of the metal railing, and then grope his way onward. For as yet he had only carried the enemy's outposts. Then, for a second time, and for no outward reason, he came to a dead halt. He felt as if some elusive influence, some unnamable force, was holding and barring him back. Again he struck a match, recklessly, and again he saw nothing but the burnished metal railing and the dark mass of the vault.

It was with almost a touch of exasperation that he stood there in his tracks, and slowly, methodically, thoroughly, surveyed the four quarters of the lightless room in which he found himself. He scrutinized the heavy, enmuffling gloom with straining eyes, first in one direction and then in another.

There was nothing to be seen, and not a sound reached his ears. He had been in the room perhaps not three minutes, yet it seemed to him as many hours. Then he peered about him still again, wondering, for the first time, by what psychological accident his eyes turned in one particular direction, slightly above and before him, to the right of the direction in which he was advancing.

To rid himself of this new idea, and to decentralize the illusion, he shifted his position. But still his gaze, almost against his will, turned back toward the former point, as though the blanketing blackness held some core, some discernible central point, toward which he was compelled to look, as the magnetic needle is compelled to swing toward the North. Surrendering to this impulse, he gaped through the darkness at it, with a little oath of impatience.

As he did so he began to feel stir at the base of his spine a tiny tremor of apprehension. This tremor seemed suddenly to explode into a mounting shudder of fear, flashing and leaping through his body until the very hair of his head was stirred and moved with it.

The next moment the startled body responded to clamoring volition, and he turned and fled blindly back into the outer passageway, with a ludicrous and half-articulate little howl of terror.

For growing out of the utter blackness he had seen two vague points of light, two luminous spots, side by side, taking on, as he faced them, all the mysteries of all the primeval night which man ever faced. He felt like a hunter, in some jungled midnight, a midnight breathless and soundless, who looks before him, and slowly discerns two glowing and motionless balls of fire-who can see nothing else, in all his world-but from those two phosphorescent points of light knows that he is being watched and stalked and hunted by some padded Hunger lurking behind them.

In the unbroken and absolute silence which seemed to mock at his foolish and stampeding fears, an immediate reaction of spirit set it. He felt almost glad for this material target against which to fling his terrors, for this precipitation of apprehension into something tangible.

He groped through his bag, hurriedly yet cautiously, for his little sperm-oil lantern. Then he took up the revolver that lay loosely in his coat pocket. A moment later a thin little shaft of light danced and fingered about the inner room.

He could, at first, see nothing but the line of burnished copper stretching across his path and flashing the light back in his eyes. Behind this, a moment later, he made out the dark and gloomy mass of the black safe. Then he looked deeper, with what was still again a flutter of enigmatical fear about his heart, for that twin and ghostlike glow which had filled him with such precipitate terror.

But there was no longer anything to be seen. He played his interrogative finger of light up and down, and it was a full minute before his slowly-adjusting sight penetrated to the remoter and higher area of the surrounding walls.

It was then, and not till then, that he discovered the fact that the wall on his right opened and receded, some five feet above the floor-level, into a dimly-outlined alcove. As he looked closer he made out that this alcove had, obviously, been filled by the upper portion of a heavy iron staircase, leading to the floor above. The entire lower half of this stairway, where once it must have obtruded into the vault chamber, had been cut away. It was on the remaining upper portion of this dismantled stairway that his pencil of light played nervously and his gaze was closely riveted.

For there, above his natural line of vision, half-hidden back in the heavy shadows, his startled eyes made out a huddled and shadowy figure. It was a woman's figure, in black, and motionless. It was bound hand and foot to the iron stair-stanchions.

He did not notice, in that first frenzied glance, the white band that cut across the lower part of her face, so colorless was her skin. But as he looked for the second time, he emitted a sudden cry, half-pity, half-anger, for slowly and thinly it filtered into his consciousness just what and who that watching figure was.

And then, and then only, did he speak. And when he did so he repeated his earlier cry.

"My God, Frank, what is it?"

There was no response, no answering movement or gesture. He called to her again, but still absolute silence confronted him.

As he crept closer to her, step by step, he saw and understood.

The two luminous eyes, burning through the dark, had been his wife's. She had been imprisoned and tied there; but bound and muffled as she was, the strength of her desire, the supremacy of will, had created its new and mysterious wire of communication. Some passion of want, some sheer intensity of feeling, had found and used its warning semaphore. She had spoken to him, without sound or movement. Yet for what?

Yet for what? That was the thought that seemed to dance back and forth across the foreground of his busy brain. That was what he wondered and demanded of himself as he clambered and struggled and panted up the wall into the narrow and dusty alcove, and cut away the sodden gag between her aching jaws. The tender flesh was indented and livid, where the tightened band had pressed in under the cheek-bones. The salivated throat was swollen, and speechless. The tongue protruded pitifully, helpless in its momentary paralysis.

"Oh, he'll smart for this! By heaven, he'll smart for this!" declared Durkin, as he stooped and cut away the straps that bound her ankles to the obdurate iron, and severed the bands that bruised and held her white wrists. Even then she could not speak, though she smiled a little, faintly and forlornly and gratefully. She struggled to say one word, but it resolved itself into a cacophonous and inarticulate mumble, half-infantile, half-imbecile.

"Oh, he'll pay for this!" repeated the raging man, as he lowered her, limp and inert, to the floor below and leaped down beside her. She sank back with a happy but husky gasp of weakness, for the benumbed muscles refused to obe

y, and the cramped and stiffened limbs were unable to support her.

All she could do was to hold her husband's hand in her own, in a grateful yet passionate grip. She must have been imprisoned there, he surmised, at least an hour, perhaps two hours, perhaps even longer.

He started up, in search for water. It might be, he felt, that a lead water-pipe ran somewhere about them. He would cut it without compunction.

He took two steps across the room, when an audible and terrified note of warning broke from her swollen lips. He darted back to her, in wonder, searching her straining face with his little shaft of lantern light.

She did not speak; but he followed her eyes. They were on the burnished copper railing refracting the thin light that danced back and forth across that dungeon-like chamber. He questioned her fixed gaze, but still he did not understand her. She caught his hand, and retained it fiercely. He thought, from her pallor, that she was on the point of fainting, and he would have placed her full length on the hard cement, but she struggled against it, and still kept her hold on his hand.

Then she took the tiny lantern from his fingers, and bending low, tapped with it on the cement. Durkin, listening closely, knew she was sounding the telegrapher's double "I"-the call for attention, implying a message over the wire.

Slowly he spelt out the words as she gave them to him in Morse, irregular and wavering, but still decipherable.

"The-railing-is-charged!"

"Charged?" he repeated, as the last word shaped itself in his questioning brain.

He took the lantern from her hand, and swung the shaft of light on the glimmering copper. From there he looked back at her face once more.

Then, in one illuminating flash of comprehension, it was all clear to him. With a stare of blank wonder he saw and understood, and fell back appalled at the demoniacal ingenuity of it all.

"I see! I see!" he repeated, vacuously, almost.

Then, to make sure of what he had been told, he crossed the room and picked up the bar of steel that had fallen at his feet as he first entered the door. This bar he let fall so that one end would rest on the metal vault-covering and the other on the rail of copper.

There was a report, a sudden leap of flame, and the continued hissing fury of the short-circuited current, until the bar, heated to incandescence, twisted and writhed where it lay like a thing of life. He drew a deep breath, and watched it.

That was the danger he had so closely skirted? That was the fate which he had escaped!

He stood gazing at the insidious yet implacable agent of death, spluttering its tongue of flame at him like an angry snake; and, as he looked, his face was beaded with sweat, and seemed ashen in color.

Then a sense of the dangers still surrounding them returned to his mind. He shook himself together, and, making a circuit of the room, found the switch and turned off the current. As he did so he gave a little muffled cry of gratitude, for across the rear corner of the room ran two leaden water-pipes. Into one of these he cut and drilled with his pocket-knife, ruthlessly, without a moment's hesitation. He was suddenly rewarded by a thin jet of water spraying him in the face. He caught his hat full of it, and carried it to Frank, who drank from it, feverishly and deeply. It not only brought her strength back to her; but, after it, she could speak a little, though huskily, and with considerable pain.

"Can you walk?"

She signalled, yes.

"We've got to get out of here, at once!"

He could see that she understood.

"Can you come now?" he asked.

She nodded her head, and he helped her to her feet. Together, the one leaning heavily on the other's arm, they paced up and down the already flooded floor, until power came back to her aching limbs, and steadiness to her tired nerves.

"It would be better not to go together. I'll help you out and give you fifty yards' start. If anything should happen, remember that I'm behind you, and that, after this, I'm ready to shoot, and shoot without a quaver."

Again she nodded her head.

"But listen. When you get up through the sidewalk grating, keep steadily on for two blocks, toward the west. Then turn north for half a block, and go into the family entrance at Kieffer's. If nothing happens, I'll join you there. If anything does occur to keep me back, give them to understand that you've missed the last train for your home in East Orange; put this five-dollar bill down and ask for a front room on the second floor. From there you must watch for me. If it's anything dangerous I'll signal you in passing."

By this time he had led her down the narrow, tunnel-like passageway and was helping her up into the rain-swept street.

"Whatever happens, remember that I'm behind you!" he repeated.

Their struggles, as he assisted her up through the narrow opening, were ungainly and ludicrous; yet, incongruously enough, there came to him a fleeting sense of joy in even that accidental and impersonal contact of her hand with his.

Then he braced himself against the narrow brick walls where he stood, appearing a strange and grotesque and bodiless head above the level of the street.

Thus peering out, he watched her as she beat her way down the wind-swept sidewalk. Already, through the drifting midnight rain, the outline of her figure was losing its distinctness. He was reaching down for his wet and sodden hat, to follow her, when something happened that left him transfixed, a motionless and bodiless head on which startled horror had suddenly fallen.

For out of the quiet and shadowy south side of the street, where it had been silently patrolling under lowered speed, swerved and darted a wine-colored, surrey-built touring car with a cape top. Durkin recognized it at a glance; it was Penfield's huge machine. Its movement, as it swung in toward the startled woman, seemed like the swoop of a hawk. It appeared to stop only for a moment, but in that moment two men leaped from the wide-swung tonneau door. When they clambered into it once more Durkin saw that Frank was between them. And one of the men was MacNutt, and the other Keenan.

He heard the one sharp scream that reverberated down the empty street, followed by the fading pulsations of the departing car, when with an oath of fury, he was already working his arms up through the narrow manhole. As he did so he heard a second, hoarser cry, succeeded by the heavy tramp of hurrying feet, and then a peremptory challenge.

Turning sharply, he caught sight of a patrolling roundsman, bearing down on him from the corner of Broadway; and he saw that the officer was drawing his revolver as he charged across the wet pavement.

It was already too late to free himself. With an instinctive movement of the hands he caught up the manhole cover, shield-like. As he did so he saw the glimmer of the polished steel and heard the repeated challenge. But he neither paused nor hesitated. He let his knees break under him, and as he fell he saw to it that the rim of the manhole dropped into its waiting circular groove. Then he heard the sound of a shot, of a second and a third, from the policeman's pistol. But as he secured the cover with its chainlock, and dropped down into the tunnel below, the reports seemed thin and muffled and far away to Durkin.

A moment later, however, he heard the ominous and vibrant echo of the officer's night-stick, on the asphalt, frenziedly rapping for assistance.

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