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   Chapter 28 THE HUMAN ELEMENT

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 15168

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was slowly, almost reluctantly, that Durkin returned to full and clear-thoughted consciousness. Even before he had opened his eyes he realized that he was in a hurrying carriage, for he could feel every sway and jolt of the thinly cushioned seat. He could also hear the beat of the falling rain on the hood-leather, and on the glass of the door beside him, as he lay back in the damp odors of wet and sodden upholstery.

Then he half-opened his eyes, slowly, and saw that it was MacNutt beside him.

The discovery neither moved nor startled him; he merely let the heavy lids fall over his tired eyes once more, and lay there, without a movement or a sign.

Tatter by tatter he pieced together the history of the past few hours, and as memory came tardily back to him he knew, in a dim and shadowy way, that he would soon need every alertness of mind and body which he could summon to his help. But still he waited, passive and unbetraying, fighting against a weakness born of great pain and fatigue.

He was keenly conscious of the cab's abrupt stopping, of the passing of money between MacNutt and the lean and dripping night-hawk holding the reins, of being half-carried and half-dragged, in the great, bear-like grasp of his captor, across the wet sidewalk, to the foot of a flight of brownstone steps. These steps were wide and ponderous, and led up to an equally wide and ponderous-looking doorway crowned with ornamental figures of marble on a sandstone background. These carven figures, wet and glistening in the light of the street-lamps, stood out incongruously gloomy and ghostly, like the high relief on a sarcophagus.

Instead of mounting the steps, however, MacNutt hauled his captive limply in under their shadow, to the basement door opening off the stone-flagged area. There, after fumbling with his keys for a moment or two, he quietly unlocked the heavy outer grating of twisted ironwork and then the inner door of oak. Durkin made a mental note of the fact that both of these doors were in turn locked after them.

The two then made their way through the darkness down what must have been a long passage. Its floor was padded with carpet, and some fugitive and indefinable odor seemed to suggest to the prisoner an atmosphere of well-being, of a house both carefully furnished and scrupulously managed.

MacNutt softly opened a door on the right, and, after listening for a cautious moment or two, as softly entered the room into which this door led. And still again a key was turned and withdrawn from the lock.

Even with his eyes closed Durkin, as he lay there husbanding his strength, was conscious of the sudden light that flooded the room. Covertly opening that eye which remained in the heavy shadow, separating the lashes by little more than the width of a hair, he could make out a large room, upholstered and carpeted in green, with green-shaded electroliers above two billiard tables that stood ghastly and bier-like beneath their blanketing covers of white cotton. Against the walls stood massive, elephantine club chairs of green fumed oak, and it was into one of these that MacNutt had dropped the inert and unresponding Durkin. At the far end of the room the stealthy observer could make out what was assuredly the entrance to an electric elevator. In fact, as he looked closer he could see the two mother-of-pearl buttons which controlled the apparatus; for it was plain that this elevator was one of those automatic lifts not uncommon in city residences of the more palatial order.

Then, as he quietly but busily speculated on the significance of this discovery, Durkin suddenly caught sight of a triple crescent carved on the arm of the chair against which he leaned. And as he made out that familiar device he knew that he was in Penfield's uptown house once used as his residence and later as his private clubrooms.

At this discovery his alert but well-veiled glance went back to MacNutt. He saw his captor fling off his wet and draggled raincoat and then shake the water from a dripping hat-brim. This he seemed to do without haste and without emotion.

Durkin next saw his enemy gaze about the entire circle of the room scrutinizingly, the subdolous green eyes coming to a rest only when they fell on his own relaxed figure.

"And this is where the music starts!" muttered MacNutt aloud, as he strode toward Durkin.

Even before he had uttered that half-articulate little sentence his captive was possessed by a sudden conviction of approaching climax. He knew, somewhere deep in the tangled roots of consciousness, that either he or the other must go down that night, that one was destined to win and that the other was destined to lose, that the ancient fight was about to be settled, and settled for all time.

In that agonized and hurried and yet lucid-thoughted summing up of ultimate values Durkin realized that it would be useless to resist what was immediately before him. He was too shaken and weak for any crude battle of brute strength against brute strength. With his wounded hand, which even then sent throbbing spears of pain from finger-tip to shoulder, and with his bruised and weary and stiffened body, he knew that any test of strength in the muscular and ape-like arms of MacNutt was out of the question. So he lay back, weak and unresisting, every now and then emitting from his half-opened lips a little moan of pain.

But behind the torn and battered ramparts of the seemingly comatose body his vigilant mind paced and watched and kept keenly awake. As he felt the great hands pad and feel about his body, and the searching fingers go through his clothes, pocket after pocket, some sentinel intelligence seemed to watch and burn and glow like a coal deep within the ashes of all his outer fatigue. He waited quiescent, as he felt the heated, animal-like breath on his face, as the ruthlessly exploring hands tore open his vest, as they ripped away the inner pocket which had been so carefully sewn together at the top, as they drew out the tied and carefully sealed packet of papers for which he had been searching.

More than once Durkin thought that if ever those documents, for which he had endured and suffered and lost so much, were again wrested from him, it would be only after some moment of transcendent conflict, after some momentous battle of life's forlornest last reserves. Yet now, impassively and ignominiously, he was surrendering them to the conqueror, supinely, meanly, without even the solace of some supreme if vain resistance! He listened to MacNutt's gloating little "Ah!" of triumph without a sign or movement. But, even then, in that moment of seeming frustration, Durkin's subterranean yet terrible pertinaciousness, his unparaded bull-dog indefatigability, glowed and burned at its brightest. They were not yet in their last ditch.

"That's one part of it!" muttered MacNutt, as he stowed away the packet and rebuttoned his coat.

It was a shadowed and lupine eye which Durkin cautiously opened as he felt more than heard MacNutt's quick footsteps on the carpeted floor. Covertly, and without moving, he saw the other man walk to the elevator, saw the play of his finger on the mother-of-pearl button, saw the automatic door noiseless slide away, and the descended and waiting cage locked on a level with the floor. He saw MacNutt step inside, and the finger again play on one of a row of five pearl buttons set in the polished wood of the cage-wall, and the elevator noiselessly ascend.

The moment it went up Durkin was on his feet.

He first ran t

o the two doors at the opposite end of the billiard-room. They were both securely locked; and they were his only means of escape. Then he hurriedly circled the two huge tables, in search of some implement of defense. But the denuded room offered nothing.

Then he dashed to the elevator shaft. As he had surmised, it was an automatic electric lift, operating from the cellar below to the top of the house. The cage, so far as he could make out, now stood opposite the third floor. The controlling apparatus, the motor into which the power wires led, was, of course, in the cellar beneath him. It would be easy enough to twist one of the billiard-table covers into a rope, and drop down to the shaft-bottom, twelve feet below. There he could tie a bit of string to the emergency switch, watch the first movement of the descending cage, and shut off the current at the right moment. That would mean that the descending cage, robbed of its power, would hang a dead weight in its steel channel, the safety brake would automatically apply itself, and anybody within the cage would remain locked and imprisoned there, halfway between floors, helpless to descend or ascend, hemmed in by the four blank walls of the shift.

He decided not even to waste time on twisting up a table-cover. He would hang by his right hand, and drop to the bottom. But a sudden glint and flutter of light reminded him of his danger. The cage was descending.

It was only a matter of seconds before MacNutt stepped once more from the cage into the billiard-room, yet as he did so he saw nothing but the still limp and relaxed form of Durkin, huddled back in his huge chair, emitting from between his half-parted lips an occasional weak groan of pain.

A gloating and half-demoniacal chuckle broke from the newcomer's lips. In one hand he carried a decanter of brandy, in the other a seltzer siphon. Durkin could hear the gurgle and ripple of the liquid into the glass; a moment later he knew that MacNutt was bending over him.

"Here, you, wake up out o' that!" he said, with still another chuckle of ominous glee.

He shook the relaxed figure roughly.

"Get awake, there! This is too good-this is something you can't afford to miss, you damned welcher!"

He poured the scalding liquor down the other's throat. Some of it spilled and ran into the hollow of his neck; some of it dribbled on his limp collar and his coat lapels. But Durkin took what he could, and was glad of it. The pain of his wounded arm was very acute.

"Kind o' recalls our first meetin', eh?" demanded MacNutt, as he watched the other slowly open his wondering eyes. "Kind o' remind you of the day I loosened you up with brandy and seltzer, that first time I had to drag and coax you into this dirty business?"

And again his captor laughed, wickedly, mirthlessly.

"Go on, take some more! I'm goin' to give you enough to light you all to glory!" he gloated. And still he poured the liquor down the unresisting man's throat.

He dragged the other to his feet.

"Come on now, quick! There's a little scene waitin' for you upstairs-something that'll kind o' soothe and console you for gettin' so done up!"

They were in the elevator by this time, mounting noiselessly upward. Durkin could feel the fire of the brandy soar up to his brain and sing through his veins. MacNutt supported him as they stepped from the elevator cage into a darkened room. On the far side of this room, from between two heavy portières, a gash of light cut into the otherwise unbroken gloom.

A sound of voices floated out to them and MacNutt tightened his grip on the other's arm, as they stood and listened, for it was Frances Durkin and Keenan talking together, hurriedly, impetuously, earnestly.

"But does it make any difference what I have been, or who I am?" the woman's voice was asking. "I did my part; I did my work for you. Now you ought to give me a chance!"

Still holding the other back, MacNutt circled sidewise, until they came into the line of vision with the unsuspecting pair in the other room. Keenan, they could see, held one heavy hand on the woman's shoulder, intimately; and she, in turn, looked up into his face, in an attitude as open and intimate.

"You know, now, what I have known before you!" whispered MacNutt, into the ear of the tortured Durkin.

"You lie!" murmured Durkin's lips, but no sound came from them, for his staring eyes were still on the scene before him.

"Listen then, you fool!" was all his tempter whispered back. And they stood together, listening.

"But I am giving you a chance," Keenan next replied, and his long, melancholy Celtic face was white and colorless with emotion. "I'm giving you the only chance that life holds for both of us!"

"I know it!" said the woman.

Keenan's arms went out to her, and she did not draw back. Instead, she reached up her own seemingly wearied and surrendering arms, without a word, and held him there in her obliterating embrace. He swayed a little, where he stood, and for a moment neither moved nor spoke.

MacNutt, narrowly watching the shadowy face of Durkin, saw pictured on that pallid and changing countenance fear and revolt, one momentary touch of despairing doubt, and then a mounting and all-consuming passion of blind rage.

In that drunken rage seemed to culminate all his misgivings, his suspicions, his apparent betrayals of the past. He trembled and shook like a man in a vertigo; the fingers of his upraised right hand opened and closed spasmodically; his flaccid lips fell apart, vacuously, insanely.

"I'll kill her!" he ejaculated under his breath. MacNutt knew that his moment had come.

Without a spoken word he caught his revolver up from his coat pocket. Then he thrust it, craftily, into the other man's hand.

The insane fingers closed on the handle of it, the glaring and expressionless eye peered along the steadying barrel. MacNutt held his breath, and waited. It must be soon, he knew, before the moment of madness had burnt itself out.

The woman under the white light of the electrolier drew back from Keenan, with her eyes still on his face, so that her head and shoulders stood out, a target of black against the white fore-ground. Then she drew one hand quickly across her forehead, and, wheeling slowly, let her puzzled glance sweep the entire circle of the room, until once more her eyes rested upon the expectant eyes of Keenan.

Durkin, through all his rage, shut his teeth on a sudden sob. It was all over. It was the end.

A change suddenly swept across the woman's face, a light of exaltation leaped into her dilated pupils, and her hand went up to her heart.

Was it some small sound or movement that she had heard, or was it some minute vibration of floor that she had felt?

"Jim, it's you!" she shrilled out suddenly, into the heavy silence, in a tense and high soprano, with a voice not like her own.

"Jim, where are you?" she called passionately, as she beat Keenan impotently back with her naked hands. "Help me, quick! Can't you see I need you? Can't you see this is killing me?"

Keenan fell back before her, aghast.

"You fool, you weak fool!" she shrieked at him madly. "Do you think I meant that? Do you dream I could respect or care for an animal like you! Do you imagine I would endure the touch of your hands, if it wasn't to save me till this? Do you dream--?"

She stopped suddenly, for with one sweep of his advancing arm Durkin tore the heavy portière from its curtain-rings, and he stood before them, in the flat white light of the electrics.

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