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Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 10826

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Frances waited for her husband, walking slowly up and down under the row of pallid city maples. She preferred the open light of the Square to the gloom of the street that cut like a canyon between the towering office-buildings on either side of it. There was a touch of autumn in the air, and a black frost of the night before had left the sidewalks carpeted with the mottled roans and yellows and russets of the fallen leaves.

Summer was over and gone. And all life, in some way, seemed to have aged with the ageing of the year. There was something mournful, to the ears of the waiting woman, in the very rustle of the dry leaves under her feet, as she paced the Square. The sight of the half-stripped tree-branches, here and there, depressed her idle mind with the thought of skeletons. The smell of the dying leaves made her heart heavy. They seemed to be whispering of Death, crying out to her at the mutability of all things that lived and breathed. And she had so wanted always to live and exult in living; she had so trembled at the thought of these creeping changes and the insidious passing away of youth and all it meant to her! "I hate autumn, most awfully," she had confessed to her husband that morning, dolefully.

She went on, passing from under the shadow of the trees, grateful for the reassuring thin sunshine of the late afternoon, that touched the roofs and the tree-tops with gilt, and bathed the more towering office-buildings in a brazen glory of light, and left the street-dust swimming in a vapor of pale gold. The city noises seemed muffled and quiescent. A sense of fulfillment, of pensive maturity, of tranquillity after tumult, lay over even the urban world before her. She scarcely knew why or how it was, but it left her melancholy, lonely, homesick for things she could not name.

The waiting woman looked up, and saw her husband. Suddenly, with one deep breath, all the emptiness of life was a thing, if not of the past, at least of the background of consciousness.

He was quite close to her by this time, and as she stood there, waiting, she swept him with her quick and searching gaze. He appeared before her, in that fleeting moment of impersonal vision, strangely objective, as completely and acutely visualized as though she had looked upon him for the first time.

Something in his face wrung her heart, foolishly, something in the wordless, Rembrandt-like poignancy with which it stood out, through the cold autumn sunlight of the late afternoon, in its mortal isolation of soul, its sense of being detached and denied the companionship of its kind. He looked old and tired. He, too, was voyaging towards some melancholy autumnal maturity, some sorrowful denudation of youth, that left him pitiful to her impotently aching heart. He, too, stood in want of some greater love than even she could ever bring to him, as surely as she still cried out for the solace of some companionship, not closer than his, but of a different fiber. She had found herself, of late, vaguely hungering for some influence less autumnal, less vesper-like, to hold and wall her back from those grayer hours of retrospection which crept into her life. Yet this was a secret she had kept always locked in her own holy of holies. For even in the face of that indeterminate feeling, it still stabbed her like a knife to think of any thought or life coming between her and her husband.

She hurried to him, with her habitual little throaty cry, and caught his arm in hers. The gesture was almost a passionate one.

"Jim, you're working too hard!" she said, as they went on again, arm in arm.

He studied her upturned face. The pale oval under the great heavy crown of glinting chestnut seemed paler than usual, the violet eyes seemed more shadowy. There clung to her a puzzling and unfamiliar sense of fragility.

"What is it?" he asked, coming to a stop.

"I'm worried about you!" she cried. "This is the fourth, almost the fifth month, you've shut yourself up with that transmitter!"

"But it's work!" he answered, unmoved.

"Yes, I know, but work without a holiday, without rest--"

"But think what it's going to be to us! All I've got to do now is to get my selenium cell simplified enough for commercial purposes! And another month will do it!"

"But eight months ago you said that!"

"There's nothing left to stick us now. Once I get this cell the way I want it, we'll start manufacturing, for all we're worth. In less than six months we'll be filling contracts here in America. Two months later we'll be introducing into seven different countries in Europe a fully protected and patented transmitting camera as far ahead of the old-fashioned photophone as a Bell telephone is ahead of a tin speaking-tube."

"I know, Jim; but you must be more careful! You must, in some way, stop working so hard!"

"Who could help it, at this sort of work?" he protested, contentedly. She felt that he, too, had stumbled upon that timeless and mysterious paradox of existence, that incongruous law which ordains that as one surrenders and relinquishes and gives, so one shall live the richer and deeper.

"I tell you, Frank," her husband was saying, "the more I know of electricity the more I bow down before it, in wonder, the prouder I am to be mixed up in its mysteries! Just think of what it's come to be, this thing we call Electricity, since the day primitive man fir

st rubbed a piece of amber and beheld the puny miracle of magnetic attraction! Why, today it harnesses tides and waterfalls, and tames and orders force, and leaves power docile and patient, swinging meek and ready from a bit of metal thread! It lightens cities, at a turn of the wrist; it hurls your voice half way round the world, it guides sailors and measures and weighs the stars; it threads empires together with its humming wires; it's the shuttle that's woven all civilization into one compact fabric! It's the light of our night-time, and the civilizer of our world. It explodes mines, and heals sickness. It creeps as silent as death through a thousand miles of sea, and yet it's the very tongue of our world! It prints and carves and beautifies; it rises to the most stupendous tasks, and then it stoops to the most delicate work!"

"And it lets me ring you up, my beloved own, and hear your voice, your living voice!" Even beyond her laughter he could catch the rapt note as she spoke. He responded to that note by catching at her gloved hand, and keeping it in his gratefully.

"Yes, but it does even more than annihilate space and turn wheels and despatch trains. Think what it's doing with wireless alone! And that is only the beginning! Why, the whole world is alive and athrob with energy, with stored-up power aching to be used-and some day it will be electricity that will teach all nature how to work and toil for man! As yet we don't even know what it is! It's formless, to us, bodiless, invisible, imponderable! It's still unknown-as unknown as God!-and almost as mysterious!"

"Oh!" she reproved.

"I've sometimes wondered if those lightning flashes and those terrifying things that used to fill the temples in the Eleusinian Mysteries didn't simply mean that those old priests of Apollo knew more about electric currents than we imagine."

"And even Jove's bolts were only electricity, weren't they?" she assented. "So you're right, in a way-their god and their power were electricity! Perhaps it was electricity Prometheus stole!"

"No, it's older than Prometheus, it's older than Adam, it's mixed up in some way with the very origin of life itself! It's the most mysterious thing in the world-and the most beautiful!" he concluded, with solemn conviction.

They walked on in silence for a moment or two. A dead leaf fell and drifted between them. The afternoon deepened into twilight.

"O, Jim, not the most beautiful!" said Frank, suddenly, thrilled and shaken with some wayward passion of gratitude, as acute as it was unheralded.

He looked down at her, puzzled.

"Oh, I'm glad, Jim; glad!" she cried, irrelevantly.

"Glad for what?"

"For this-for you-for everything!"

His face clouded a little, for a moment, with the shadow of the past that could and would not be altogether past.

"I thought we'd decided to let that-stay closed?" he said. There was a note of reproof in his voice.

"Do you know what I think is the most beautiful thing in all the world, Jim?" she went on, as irrelevantly as before, but holding his arm still more tightly entangled in hers. "I think it's Redemption!"


"Yes-I think there's nothing ever done, or made, or written of, or sung of by poets, more beautiful than a soul, a poor, unhappy human soul, coming into its own once more! Oh, I don't believe I can ever make you feel it as I feel it-but I don't believe there's an adventure or a movement in all life more beautiful than the rehabilitation-that's the only word I can use!-of a man's heart, or a woman's! Think of it, Jim!-what can be lovelier than the restoration of sanity and beauty and meaning to a suffering and tortured life? Health after sickness is lovely, and so is healing after disease, and quietness after unrest, and peace after struggle. But that, Jim, is only for the body. It's only for something of a day or two, or a year or two. When a soul is redeemed, it's something that leaves you face to face with-with Eternity!"

Again he studied her rapt and mournful eyes, at sea, wondering to what new turn the sacrificial instinct of her sex was leading her.

"What has made you think of all this?" he demanded of her, a little unhappily, a little afraid of the old wounds that were healing so slowly. "Why should you remind me of how hard it is, and how little I've been able to do?"

She was silent for several minutes again, as they walked on, slowly, under the spectral autumn trees, with the rustling dead leaves at their feet. She found it hard to answer him.

"'The saints are only the sinners who kept on trying!'" she quoted to him, for the second time in their lives. Then she came to a full stop.

"Oh, Jim, I need you so much, now!" she cried out, at last, pitifully, and still again he could not bridge the abyss that lay between one thought and another.

"Need me?"

"Yes, need you!"

Again a dead leaf fluttered and drifted between them.

"What is it?" he asked, more gently.

She put her hand on his shoulder, and when she spoke her voice was little more than a whisper.

And he, the man who had spoken of trivial mysteries, bowed before that supremest mystery which broods and centres in the thought of motherhood.

"We'll have to be good now-terribly good!" she wailed. And she tried to laugh up at him, with a touch of her old bravery, in a futile effort to make light of her tears.


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