Suddenly she ran to the companionway and called down to her husband.
"Look!" she said, under her breath, as he came to the rail, "they're talking with their wireless!"
She pointed to the masthead of the Cunarder, where, through the twilight, she could "spell" the spark, signal by signal and letter by letter, as the current broke from the head of the installation wires to the hollow metal mast, from which ran the taut-strung wires connecting, in turn, with the operating office just aft and above the engine-rooms.
"Listen," she said, for in the lull of the wind they could hear the short, crisp spit of the spark as it spelt out its mysterious messages.
Durkin caught her arm, and listened, intently, watching the little appearing and disappearing green spark, spelling off the words with narrowing eyes.
"They're talking with the station up on the mainland. Do you hear what it is? Can't you make it out?"
It was, of course, the Continental, and not the Morse, code, and it was not quite the same as stooping over and listening to the crisp, incisive pulsations of a "sounder." But Frank heard and saw and pieced together enough of the message to clutch, in turn, at Durkin's arm, and wait with quickened breath for the answering spark-play.
There was a silence of a minute or two, and then the mysterious Hertzian voice lisped out once more.
"Description—not—forwarded—by—Embassy—man—and—wife—are wanted— for robbery—at—Monte—Carlo—also—at—Genoa—name—Durgin—or— Durkin."
The listening man and woman looked at each other, and still waited.
"Oh, this is luck!" said the listener, fervently, as he drew a deep breath. "This is luck!"
"Listen, they're answering again!" cried Frank.
"Why—not—confer—with—Trieste—authorities—will—you—please— telephone—our—agents—to—send—out—tender—to take—off—Admiral— Stuart."
Then came the silence again.
"Yes," sounded the minute electric tongue from the mountain-top, so many miles away. "Good—night!"
"Good—night!" replied the articulate mass of heaving steel, swinging at her anchor chains.
"What are we to do?" asked Frances Durkin, turning from the masthead to her husband's studious face.
"We've got to jump at our chance, and get on board the Slavonia over there!"
"In the face of those messages?"
"It's the messages that simplify things for us. All we now have to do is to get on board in such a manner that the ship's officers will have no suspicions. They mustn't dream of linking us with the runaway couple who are being looked for. That means that we must not, in the first place, appear together, and, in the second, of course, that we must travel and appear as utter strangers!"
"But supposing Keenan himself is on board that steamer?" parried Frank.
"It is obvious that he isn't, for then it would be quite unnecessary to send out any such messages by wireless."
"But supposing it's Pobloff?"
"Didn't you say that Pobloff would never follow us out of Europe?"
"But even if it's Keenan?" she persisted.
"Then you must remember that you are Miss Allen, at your old trade of picking up little art relics for wealthy families in England and America. You will have yourself rowed directly over to the Slavonia's landing ladder—you can see it there, not two hundred feet away—and go on board and secure a stateroom from the purser. The clearing papers can be attended to later. I'll have the Laminian dingey take me ashore, somewhere down near Barcola, if it can possibly be done in this wind. Then I'll come out to the Slavonia later, having, you see, just arrived on the train from Venice!"
She shook her head doubtfully. An inapposite and irrational dread of seeing him return to the dangers of land took possession of her. She knew it would be impossible for her to put this untimely feeling into words, so that he would see and understand it; and, such being the case, she argued with him stubbornly to alter his plan, and to allow her to be the one to go ashore, while he went immediately to the liner.
He consented to this at last, a little reluctantly, but the thought that he was safely installed in his cabin, as she made her way shoreward through the dusk, in the pitching and dripping little dingey, consoled her for the sense of loneliness and desertion which her position brought to her. The wind had increased, by this time, and the rain was coming down in slanting and stinging sheets. But her spirit did not fail her.
From the water-front, deserted and rain-swept, she called a passing street carriage, and drove to the Hotel Bristol. There she sent the driver to ask if any luggage had arrived from Venice for Miss Allen. None had arrived, and Miss Allen, naturally, appeared in great perturbation before the sympathetic but helpless hotel manager. She next inquired if it was possible to ascertain when the Cunard steamer sailed.
"The Slavonia, madam, leaves the harbor at daybreak!"
"At daybreak! Then I must go on board tonight, at once!"
"I fear it is impossible, madam. The bora is blowing, as you see, and the harbor is empty!"
"But I must get on board!" she cried, and this time her dismay and despair were not mere dissimulation.
The landlord shrugged his shoulders, while Frank, calling out a peremptory order, in Italian, to her driver, left him at the curb looking after her through the driving rain, in bewilderment.
She went first to the steamship offices. They were closed. Then she sought out the Cunard tender—it was lightless and deserted. Then she hurried to the water-front, driving up and down along that lonely stretch of deserted quays, back and forth, coaxing, wheedling, trying to bribe indifferent and placid-eyed boatmen to row her out to her steamer. It was useless. It could not be done. It was not worth while to risk either their boats or their lives, even in the face of the fifty, one hundred, two hundred lira which she flaunted in their unperturbed faces.
Grating and rocking against the quayside, above the heads of the group about her, she caught sight of a white-painted steam launch, with a high-standing bow, and on it a uniformed officer, smoking in the rain.
She approached him without hesitation. Could he, in any way, carry her out to her steamer? She pointed to where the lights of the Slavonia shone and glimmered through the gray darkness. They looked indescribably warm and homelike to her peering eyes.
The officer looked her up and down in stolid Austrian amazement, trying to catch a glimpse of her face through her wet and flattened traveling veil. Could he take her out to her steamer? No; he was afraid not. Yes, it was true he had steam up, and that his crew were aboard, but this was the official patrol of the Captain of the Port—it was not to carry passengers—it was solely for the imperial service of the Austrian Government.
She pleaded with him, weeping. He was sorry, but the Captain of the Port would permit no such irregularity.
"Where is the Captain of the Port, then?" she demanded.
The officer puffed his cigar slowly, and looked her up and down once more. He was in his office in the Administration Building—but the officer's shrug and smile told her that it was, in his eyes, no easy thing to secure admission to the Captain of the Port. The very phrase, "the Captain of the Port," that had been bandied back and forth for the last few minutes, became odious to her; it seemed to designate the title of some august and supernatural and tyrannous power who held her life and death in his hands.
She turned on her heel and drove at once to the Administration Building. Here, at the entrance, she was confronted by a uniformed sentry, who, after questioning her, passed her on to still another uniformed personage, who called an orderly, and sent that somewhat bewildered messenger and his charge to the anteroom of the Captain of the Port's private secretary. Frank had a sense of hurrying down long and jail-like corridors, of ascending stairs and passing sentries, of questionings and consultations, of at last being ushered into a softly-lighted, softly-carpeted room, where a white-bearded, benignant-browed official sat in a swivel-chair before a high walnut desk.
He shook his head mournfully as he listened to her story. But she did not give up. She even amazed him a little by the sheer impetuosity of her speech.
"Is there much at stake, signorina?" he asked, at last, as she paused for breath.
"A man's soul is at stake!" was the answering cry that rang through the quiet room.
The Captain of the Port smiled a little cynically, scarcely understanding.
Yet something almost fatherly about his sad and wistful face steeled her to still further persistence, and she afterward remembered, always a little shamefaced, that she had wept and clung to his arm and wept still again, before she melted and bent him from his official determination. She saw, through blurred and misty eyes, his hand go out and touch an electric button at his side. She saw him write three lines on a sheet of paper, an attendant appear, and heard an order briefly and succinctly given. She had gained her end.
The Captain of the Port rose as she turned to go from the room.
"Good night, and also good-bye, signorina!" he said quietly, with his stately, old-world bow.
She paused at the door, wordlessly demeaned, momentarily ashamed of herself. She felt, in some way, how miserable and low and self-seeking she stood beneath him, how high and firm he stood above her, with his calm and disinterested kindliness.
She turned back to him once more.
"Good-bye," she said inadequately, in her tearful and tremulous contralto. "Good-bye, and thank you, again and again!"
He bowed from where he stood in the center of his quiet and sheltered office, seeming, to her, a strangely old-time and courtly figure, a proud yet unpretentious student of life at peace with his own soul. The years would come and go, the years that would so age and wear and torture her, but he would reign on in that quiet office unchanged, contented, still at peace with himself and all his world. "Good-bye," she said for the third time, from the doorway.
Then she hurried down to her waiting carriage and raced for the quay. There she took an almost malicious delight in the bustle and perturbation to which her return gave sudden rise. The sleepy and sullen crew were stirred out, signals were clanged, ropes were cast off; and down in her little narrow cabin, securely shut off from the driving spray, she could feel and hear the boat lurch and pound through the waves. Then came shrill calls of the whistle above, the sound of gruff voices, the rasp and scrape of heaving woodwork against woodwork, the grind of the ladder against the boat-fenders, the cry of the officer telling her to hurry.
She walked up the Slavonia's ladder steadily, demurely, for under the lights of the promenade deck she could see the clustering, inquisitive heads, where a dozen crowding passengers tried to ascertain just who could be coming aboard with such ceremony.
Leaning over the rail, with a cigar in his mouth, she caught sight of her husband. As she passed him, at the head of the ladder, he spoke one short sentence to her, under his breath.
It was a commonplace enough little sentence, but as the purport of it filtered through her tired mind it stung her into both a new wariness of attitude and thought and a new gratefulness of heart.
For as she passed him, without one betraying emotion or one glance aside, he had whispered to her, under his breath:
"Keenan is here, on board. Be careful!"
The Slavonia was well down the Adriatic before Keenan was seen on deck. Both Frank and Durkin, by that time, had met in secret more than once, and had talked over their predicament and decided on a plan of action.
"Whatever you do," Durkin warned her, "don't let Keenan suspect who I am! Don't let him get a glimpse of you with me. My part now has got to be what you'd call 'armed neutrality.' If anything unforeseen turns up—and that can only be at Palermo or Gibraltar—I'll be watching near by to come to your help in some way—but, whatever you do, don't let Keenan suspect this!"
"You mean that we mustn't even look at each other?" she cried, in mock dismay.
"Precisely," he continued.
"What if an officer should introduce you to me?" She laughed a little.
The untimeliness of her laughter disturbed him. More and more often, during the last few weeks, he had beheld the signs of some callousing and hardening process going on within her.
"Oh, in that case," he answered, "you'll find me very glum and uncongenial. You'll probably be only too glad to leave me alone!"
She nodded her head in meditative assent. Her problem was a difficult one.
"Jim," she said suddenly, "why should we play this waiting and retreating game during the next two weeks? Here we have Keenan on board, with nothing to interfere with our operations. Why can't we work a little harder to win his confidence?"
"We?" asked the other.
"Well, why couldn't I? All along, during those days in Genoa, I had the feeling that he would have believed in me, if some little outside accident had only confirmed his faith in me. We can't tell, of course, just what he found out after that Pobloff affair, or just how he interpreted it, or whether he is as much in the dark as ever. If that is the case, we may stand just where we were before with Keenan!"
"But I thought you wanted to get away from this sort of thing?"
"I do—when the time comes," she evaded, tortured by the thought that she had withheld anything from him. "I do—but are we to let Keenan go, when we have him so close to us?"
"Then go ahead and both capture and captivate him!" said Durkin, with a voice that was gruff only because it was indifferent. Still again he was oppressed by the feeling that she was passing beyond his power.
"But see, Jim—I'm getting so old and ugly!" And again she laughed, with her own show of indifference, though her husband knew, by the wistfulness of her face, that she was struggling to hold back some deeper and stronger current of feeling. So he thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and refused to meet her eyes for a second time.
"I don't see why we should be afraid of either Palermo or Gibraltar," Durkin went on at last, with a half-impatient business-is-business glance about him. "Keenan is alone in this. He has no agents over here, that we know of, and he daren't put anything in the hands of the authorities. He's a runaway, a fugitive with the district-attorney's office after him, and he has to move just as quietly as we do. Mark my words, where he will make his first move, and do anything he's going to do, will be in New York!"
"Then why can't I prepare the ground for the New York situation, whatever it may be?" she demanded.
"You mean by standing pat with Keenan?"
"Then how will you begin?"
"By sending him a note at once, telling him how I slipped away from Genoa to Venice, and asking him the meaning of the Pobloff attack—in other words, by appearing so actively suspicious of him that he'll forget to be suspicious of me."
"And what do you imagine he will answer?"
"I think he will send me back word to say absolutely nothing about the Genoa episode—he may even claim that it's quite beyond his comprehension. That will give us a chance to meet more naturally, and then we can talk things over more minutely, at our leisure."
Durkin wheeled on her, half-angrily. Through all their career, he had remained strangely unschooled to any such concession as this. It was an affront to his dormant and masculine spirit of guardianship; it seemed a blow in the teeth of his nurturing instinct, an overriding of his prerogatives of a man and a husband.
"While you're making love to him on the bridge-deck, on moonlight nights!" he flung back at her, bitterly.
"Do you think I could?" she murmured, with a ghost of a sigh.
Durkin emitted a little impatient oath.
"Don't swear, Jim!" she reproved him.
The vague prescience that some day he should lose her, that in some time yet to be she should pass beyond his reach and control, still again filtered through his consciousness, like a dark and corroding seepage. He caught her by the arm roughly, and looked into her face, for one silent and scrutinizing minute.
"Do you care?" she asked, and it seemed to him there was a tremor of happiness in her tone.
"I hate this part of the business!" he cried, with still another oath.
"Oh, do you care?" she reiterated, as her arms crept about him valiantly, yet a little timidly.
He surrendered, against his will, to the gentle artillery of her tears. They startled and unmanned him for a little, they came so unexpectedly, for as he crushed her in his sudden responding embrace, the impulse, at that time and in that place, seemed the incongruous outcropping of some deeply submerged stratum of feeling.
"If you do care, Jim, why do you never tell me so?" she demanded of him, in gentle reproof. He then noticed, for the first time, the hungry and unsatisfied look that brooded over her face. He confessed to himself unhappily that something about him was altered.
"This cursed business knocks that sort of thing out of you," he expiated, discomforted at the thought that a feeling so long disregarded could grip him so keenly. And all the while he was torn by the misery of two contending impressions; one, the dim, subliminal foreboding that she was ordained for worthier and cleaner hands than his, the other, that this upheaval of the emotions still had the power to shake and bewilder and leave him so wordlessly unhappy. It was the ever-recurring incongruity, the repeated syncretism, which made him vaguely afraid of himself and of the future. Then, as he looked down into her face once more, and studied the shadowy violet eyes, and the low brow, and the short-lipped mobile mouth so laden with impulse, and the soft line of the chin and throat so eloquent of weakness and yielding, a second and stronger wave of feeling surged through him.
"I love you, Frank; I tell you I do love you!" he cried, with a voice that did not seem his own. And as she lay back in his arms, weak and surrendering, with the heavy lashes closed over the shadowy eyes, he stooped and kissed her on her red, melancholy mouth.
Yet as he did so the act seemed to take on the touch of something solemn and valedictory, though he fought back the impression with his still reiterated cry of "I love you!"
"Then why are you unkind to me?" she asked, more calmly now.
"Oh, can't you see I want you—all of you?" he cried.
"Then why do you leave me where so much must be given to other things, to hateful things?" she asked, with her mild and melancholy eyes still on his face.
"God knows, I've wanted you out of it, often enough!" he avowed, desolately. And she made no effort to alleviate his suffering.
"Then why not take me out of it, and keep me out of it?" she demanded, with a cold directness that brought him wheeling about on her.
He suddenly caught her by the shoulders, and held her away from him, at arms' length. She thought, at first, that it was a gesture of repudiation; but she soon saw her mistake. "I swear to God," he was saying to her, with a grim tremor of determination in his voice as he spoke, "I swear to God, once we are out of this affair, it will be the last!"
"It will be the last!" repeated the woman, broodingly, but her words were not so much a declaration as a prayer.
THE TANGLED SKEIN
It was the Slavonia's last night at sea. In another twelve hours the pilot would be aboard, Quarantine would be passed, the engines would be slowed down, and the great steamer would be lying at her berth in the North River, discharging her little world of life into the scattered corners of a waiting continent. Already, on the green baize bulletin-board in the companionway the purser had posted the customary notice to the effect that the steamer's operator was now in connection with New York City, and that wireless messages might be received for all points in Europe and America.
There was a chill in the air, and to Frances Durkin, sitting beside Keenan on the promenade deck, there seemed something restless and phantasmal and ghostlike in the thin, North Atlantic sunlight, after the mellow and opulent gold of the Mediterranean calms. It seemed to her to be a presage of the restless movement and tumult which she felt to be before her.
She had not been altogether amiss in her predictions of what the past fortnight would bring forth. She had erred a little, she felt, in her estimate of Keenan's character; yet she had not been mistaken in the course of action which he was to pursue.
For, from the beginning, after the constraint of their first meeting on board had passed away, he had shown her a direct and open friendliness which now and then even gave rise to a vague and uneasy suspicion in her own mind. This friendliness had brought with it an easier exchange of confidences, then a seeming intimacy and good-fellowship which, at times, made it less difficult for Frank to lose herself in her role.
Keenan, one starlit night under the shadow of a lifeboat amidships, had even acknowledged to her the dubiousness of the mission that had taken him abroad. Later, he had outlined to her what his life had been, telling her of his struggles when a penniless student of the City law school, of his early and unsavory criminal-court efforts, and his unhappy plunge into the morasses of Eighth-ward politics, of his campaign against the "Dave Kelly" gang, and the death of his political career which came with that opposition, of his swinging round to the tides of the times and taking up with bucket-shop work, of his "shark" lawyer practices and his police-court legal trickeries, of his gradual identification with the poolroom interests and his first gleaning of gambling-house lore, of his drifting deeper and deeper into this life of unearned increment, of his fight with the Bar Association, which was taken and lost before the Judiciary Committee of Congress, and of his final offer of retainer from Penfield, and private and expert services after the second raid on that gambler's Saratoga house. Frank could understand why he said little of the purpose that took him to Europe. Although she waited anxiously for any word he might let fall on that subject, she respected his natural reticence in the matter. He was a criminal, low and debased enough, it was true; but he was a criminal of such apparent largeness of mind and such openness of spirit that his very life of crime, to the listening woman, seemed to take on the dignity of a Nietzsche-like abrogation of all civic and social ties.
Yet, in all his talk, he was open and frank enough in his confession of attitude. He had seen too much of criminal life to have many illusions or to make many mistakes about it. He openly admitted that the end of all careers of crime was disaster—if not open and objective, at least hidden and subjective. He had no love for it all. But when once, through accident or necessity, in the game, he protested, there was but one line of procedure, and that was to bring to illicit activity that continuous intelligence which marked the conduct of those who stood ready to combat it. Society, he declared, owed its safety to the fact that the criminal class, as a rule, was made up of its least intelligent members. When criminality went allied with a shrewd mind and a sound judgment—and a smile curled about Keenan's melancholy Celtic mouth as he spoke—it became transplanted, practically, to the sphere and calling of high finance.
But if the defier of the Establish Rule preferred the simpler order of things, he continued, his one hope lay in the power of making use of his fellow-criminals, by applying to the unorganized smaller fry of his profession some particular far-seeing policy and some deliberate purpose, and through doing so standing remote and immune, as all centres of generalship should stand.
This, he went on to explain, was precisely what Penfield had done, with his art palaces and his European jaunts and his doling out of political patronage and his prolonged defiance of all the police powers of a great and active city. He had organized and executed with Napoleonic comprehensiveness; he had fattened on the daily tribute of less imaginative subordinates in sin. And now he was fortified behind his own gold. He was being harassed and hounded for the moment—but the emotional wave of reform that was calling for his downfall would break and pass, and leave him as secure as ever.
"Now, my belief is," Keenan told the listening woman, "that if you find you cannot possibly be the Napoleon of the campaign, it is well worth while to be the Ney. I mean that it has paid me to attach myself to a man who is bigger than I am, instead of going through all the dangers and meannesses and hardships of a petty independent operator. It pays me in two ways. I get the money, and I get the security."
"Then you believe this man Penfield will never be punished?"
He thought over the question for a moment or two.
"No, I don't think he ever will. He stands for something that is as active and enduring in our American life as are the powers arrayed against him. You see, the district-attorney's office represents the centripetal force of society. Penfield stands for the centrifugal force. They fight and battle against one another, and first one seems to gain, and then the other, and all the while the fight between the two, the struggle between the legal and the illegal, makes up the balance of everyday life."
"You mean that we're all gamblers, at heart?"
"I mean that every Broadway must have its Bowery, that the world can only be so good—if you try to make it better, it breaks out in a new place—and the master criminal is a man who takes advantage of this nervous leakage. We call him the Occasional Offender—and he's the most dangerous man in all society. In other words, the passion, as you say, for gambling, is implanted in all of us; the thought of some vast hazard, of some lucky stroke of fate, is in your head as often as it is in mine. You tell me you are a hard-working art collector, making a decent living by gadding about Europe picking up knick-knacks. Now, suppose I came to you with a proposal like this: Suppose I told you that without any greater personal discomfort, without any greater danger or any harder work, you might, say, join forces with me and at one play of the game haul in fifty thousand dollars from men who no more deserve this money than we do, I'll warrant that you'd think over it pretty seriously."
The woman at his side laughed a little, and then gave a significantly careless shrug of her small shoulders.
"Who wouldn't?" she said, and their eyes met questioningly, in the uncertain light.
"Women, as a rule, are timid," he said at last. "They usually prefer the slower and safer road."
"Sometimes they get tired of it. Then, too, it isn't always safe just because it's slow!"
It seemed to give him the opening for which he had been waiting. He looked at her with undisguised yet calculating admiration.
"I'll wager you would never be afraid of a thing, if you once got into it, or wanted to get into it!" he cried.
She laughed again, a self-confident and reassuring little laugh.
"I've been through too many things," she admitted simply, "to talk about being thin-skinned!"
"I knew as much!"
"Why do you say that?"
"I could see it from the first. You've got courage, and you're shrewd, and you know the world—and you've got what's worth all the rest put together. I mean that you're a fine-looking woman, and you've never let the fact spoil you!"
There was no mistaking the pregnancy of the glance and question which she next directed toward him.
"Then why couldn't you take me in with you?" she asked, with a quiet-toned solemnity.
She had the sensations of a skater on treacherously thin ice, as she watched the slow, cautious scrutiny of his unbetraying face. But now, for some reason, she knew neither fear nor hesitation.
"And what if we did?" he parried temporizingly.
"Well, what if we did?—men and women have worked together before this!"
Even in the dim light that surrounded them she could notice the color go out of his intent and puzzled face. From that moment, in some mysterious way, she lost the last shred of sympathy for his abject and isolated figure, and yet she was the one, she knew, who had been most unworthy.
"And do you understand what it would imply—what it would mean?" he asked slowly and with significant emphasis.
She could not repress her primal woman's instinct of revolt from the thoughts which his quiet interrogation sent at her, like an arrow. But she struggled to keep down the little shudder which woke and stirred within her. He had done nothing more than respond to her tacit challenge. But she feared him, more and more. Until then she had advanced discreetly and guardedly, and as she had advanced and taken her new position he had as guardedly fallen back and held his own. It had been a strange and silent campaign, and all along it had filled Frank with a sense of stalking and counter-stalking. Now they were plunging into the naked and primordial conflict of man against woman, without reservations and without indirections—and it left her with a vague fear of some impending helplessness and isolation. She had a sudden prompting to delay or evade that final step, to temporize and wait for some yet undefined reinforcements.
"And you realize what it means?" he repeated.
"Yes," she said in her soft contralto. A feeling of revulsion that was almost nausea was consuming her. This, then, she told herself, was the bitter and humiliating price she must pay for her tainted triumph.
"And would you accept and agree to the conditions—the only conditions?" he demanded, in a voice now hatefully tremulous with some rising and controlling emotion. She had the feeling, as she listened, that she was a naked slave girl, being jested over and bidden for on the auction block of some barbaric king. She felt that it was time to end the mockery; she no longer even pitied him.
"Listen!" she suddenly cried, "they are beginning to send the wireless!"
They listened side by side, to the brisk kick and spurt and crackle of the fluid spark leaping between the two brass knobs in the little operating-room just above where they sat. They could hear it distinctly, above the drone of the wind and the throb of the engines and the quiet evening noises of the orderly ship—spitting and cluttering out into space. To the impatient man it was nothing more than the ripple of unintelligent and unrelated sounds.
To the wide-eyed and listening woman it was a decorous and coherent march of dots and dashes, carrying with it thought and meaning and system. And as each word fluttered off on its restless Hertzian wings, like a flock of hurrying carrier-pigeons through the night, the woman listened and translated and read, word by word.
"Then we go it together—you and I—for all it's worth!" Keenan was saying, with his face near hers and his hand on her motionless arm.
"Listen," she said sharply. "It—it sounds like a bag of lightning getting loose, doesn't it?"
For the message which was leaping from the lonely and dipping ship to the receiving wires at the Highland Heights Station was one that she intended to read, word by word.
It was a simple enough message, but as it translated itself into intelligible coherence it sent a creeping thrill of conflicting fear and triumph through her. For the words which sped across space from key to installation-pole read:
"Woman—named—Allen—will—bring—papers—to—P—Field's—downtown— house—I—will—wait—word—from—you—at—Philadelphia—advise—me— of—situation—there—and—wire—D—in—time—Kerrigan."
It was only then that she was conscious of the theatricalities from which she had emerged, of the man so close beside her, still waiting for her play-acting word of decision. It was only then, too, that she fully understood the adroitness, the smooth and supple alertness, of her ever-wary and watchful companion.
But she rose to the situation without a visible sign of flinching. Taking one deep breath, as though it were a final and comprehensive gulp of unmenaced life, she turned to him, and gazed quietly and steadily into his questioning eyes.
"Yes, if you say it, I'm with you now, whether it's for good or bad!"
"And this is final!" he demanded. "If you begin, you'll stick to it!"
"To the bitter end!" she answered grimly. And there was something so unemotionally decisive in her tone that he no longer hesitated, no longer doubted her.
THE SEVERED KNOT
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 neatest 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!"
THE ULTIMATE OUTCAST
Any passion so neutral and negative as jealousy soon burned itself out in an actively positive brain like Durkin's. And it left, as so often had happened with him, manifold gray ash-heaps of regret for past misdeeds. It also brought with it the customary revulsion of feeling, and a prowling hunger for some amendatory activity. Yet with that hunger came a new and disturbing sense of fear. He was realizing, almost too late, the predicament into which he and Frank had stumbled, the danger into which he had passively permitted his wife to drift.
It was not until after two hours of fierce and troubled thought, however, that Durkin left the Bartholdi, and taking a hansom, drove down that man-crowded crevasse where lower Broadway flaunted its Semitic signboards to the world, directly to the Criminal Courts building in Centre street.
Once there, he made his way to the office of the district-attorney. As he thoughtfully waited for admission into that democratized court of last appeal there passed through his mind the dangers and the chances that lay before him. The situation had its menaces, both obvious and unforeseen, but the more he thought it over the more he realized that the emergency called for action, at once decisive and immediate. He had already bungled and hesitated and misjudged. Blind feeling had warped his judgment. Until then he had blocked out his path of action only crudely; there had been little time for the weighing of consequences and the anticipation of contingencies. He had acted quickly and blindly. He had both succeeded and been defeated.
Still again the actual peril hanging over his wife came home to him. In the dust and tumult of battle, and in the black depths of the jealous vapors that had so blinded and sickened him, he had for the moment forgotten just what she meant to him, just how handicapped and helpless he stood without her.
If the thought of their separation touched him, because of more emotional reasons, it was already too early in his mood of reaction to admit it to his own shamefaced inner self. Yet he felt, now, that through it all she was true gold. It was only when the tie stood most strained and tortured that the sense of its actual strength came home to him.
As these thoughts and feelings swept disjointedly through his busy head word was sent out to him that he might see the district-attorney.
The office he stepped into was curtain-draped and carpeted, and hung with framed portraits, and strewn with heavy and comfortable-looking leather arm-chairs. Durkin had expected it to look like an iron-grilled precinct police-station, and he was a little startled by the sense of luxury and well-being pervading the place.
Tilted momentarily back in a leather chair, behind a high-backed hardwood desk, the visitor caught a glimpse of one of those nervously alert, youngish-old figures which always seemed to him so typically American.
The man behind the high-backed desk paused in his task of checking a list of typewritten names, and motioned Durkin to a seat. The visitor could see that he was with an official who would countenance no profligate waste of time. So he plunged straight into the heart of his subject.
"This office is at present carrying on a campaign against Richard Penfield, the poolroom operator and gambler."
The district-attorney put down his paper.
"This office is carrying on a campaign against every lawbreaker brought to its attention," he corrected, succinctly. Then he caught up another type-written sheet. "How much have you lost?" he asked over his shoulder.
"I'm not a gambler," retorted Durkin as crisply. His earlier timidity had faded away, and more and more he felt the relish of this adventure with the powers that were opposing him.
"I suppose not—but how much were your losses?"
"I've lost nothing!" Durkin was growing impatient of this curtly condescending tone. It was the ponderosity of officialdom, he felt, grown playful, in the face of a passing triviality.
The district-attorney turned over the card which had been brought in to him, with a deprecating uplift of the eyebrows.
"Most of the people who come here to talk about Penfield and his friends come to tell me how much they've lost." He leaned back, and sent a little cloud of cigarette smoke ceilingward. "And, of course, it's part of this office's duty to keep a fool and his money together—as long as possible. What is it I can do for you?"
"I want your help to get a woman out of Penfield's new downtown house!"
"She is—well, she is a very near friend of mine! She's being held a prisoner there!"
"By the police?"
"No, by certain of Penfield's men."
"MacNutt, the wire tapper, is one of them!"
"And you would like us to get after MacNutt?"
"Yes, I would!"
"On the charge of wire tapping?"
"That should be one of them!"
"Then I can only refer you to the decision of the Court of Appeals in the McCord case, and the Appellate Division's reversal of the 'green-goods' conviction of 1900! In other words, sir, there is no law under which a wire tapper can be prosecuted."
"But it's not a conviction I want, as much as the woman. I want to save her."
"Is she a respectable woman?"
Durkin felt that his look was answer enough.
"Is she a frequenter of poolrooms?"
Durkin hesitated, this time, and weighed his answer.
"I don't think so."
"She's not a frequenter?"
"Some rather nice women are, you know, at times!"
"She may have been, once, I suppose, but I know not recently."
"Ah! I see! And what do you want us to do?"
"I want your help to get her out of there, today, before any harm comes to her."
"What sort of harm?"
Durkin found it hard to put his fears and feelings into satisfactory words. He was on dangerous seas, but he made his way doggedly on, between the Charybdis of reticence and the Scylla of plain-spoken suggestion.
"I see—in other words, you want the police to raid Penfield's downtown gambling establishment before two o'clock this afternoon, and release from that establishment a young lady who drove there, and probably not for the first time, in an open cab in the open daylight, because certain ties which you do not care to explain bind you to the young lady in question?"
The brief and brusque finality of tone in the other man warned Durkin that he had made no headway, and he caught up the other's half-mocking and tacit challenge.
"For which, I think, this office will be adequately repaid, by being brought into touch with information which will help out its previous action against Penfield!"
"Who will give us this?"
Durkin looked at his cross-examiner, nettled and impatient.
"But will you?"
"Yes, on the condition I have implied!"
"In other words, you stand ready to bribe us into a doubtful and hazardous movement against the strongest gambler in all New York, on the expectation of an adequate bribe! This office, sir, accepts no bribes!"
"I would not call it bribery!"
"Then how would you describe it?"
"Oh, I might be tempted to call it—well, cooeperation!"
Some tinge of scorn in his words nettled the officer of the law.
"It all amounts to the same thing, I presume. Now, let me tell you something. Even though you came to me today with a drayful of crooked faro layouts and doctored-up roulette wheels from Penfield's house, it would be practically impossible, at this peculiar juncture of municipal administration, to take in my men and carry out a raid over Captain Kuttrell's head!"
"Ah, I see! You regard Penfield as immune!"
"Penfield is not immune!" said the public prosecutor. The oldish-young face was very flushed and angry by this time. "Don't misunderstand me. As a recognized and respected citizen, you always have the right to call on the officers of the law, to secure protection and punishment of crime. But this must be sought through the natural and legitimate channels."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean go to the police."
"But to lay a charge with the police would be impracticable, in this case."
"Why would it?"
"Simply because it wouldn't get at Penfield, and it would only lead to—to embarrassing publicity!"
"Exactly so! And you may be sure, young man, that Penfield is quite aware of that fact. To be candid, it is just such things as this that allow him to be operating today. If you start the wheels, you must stand the racket!"
"Then you allow a notorious gambler to break every law of the land and say you can give me no help whatever in balking what amounts to a criminal abduction?"
The swivel-chair creaked peremptorily, as the public prosecutor turned sharply back to his desk.
"You'd better try the police!" he bit out impatiently.
Durkin strode to the door. He was halfway through it, when he was called sharply back.
"Don't carry away the impression, young man, that we're not fighting this man Penfield as hard as we can!"
"It looks like it!" mocked the man in the doorway.
"One moment—we have been after this man Penfield, and his kind, and we're still after them. But we don't pretend to accomplish miracles. This city is made up of mere human beings, and human beings still have the failing of breaking out, morally, now in one place, now in another. We can compress and segregate those infectious blots, but until you can show us the open sore we can't put on the salve. If you are convinced you are the object of some criminal activity, and are willing to hold nothing back, I can detail two plain-clothes men from my own office to go with you and help you out."
Durkin laughed, a little recklessly, a little scoffingly. Two plain-clothes men to capture a steel-bound fortress!
"Don't trouble them. They might make Penfield mad—they might get themselves talked about—and there's no use, you know, making a mess of one's mayoralty chances!"
And he was through the door indignantly, and as indignantly out, before the district-attorney could so much as flick the ash off his cigarette-end.
But after doing so, he touched an electric button, and it was at once answered by an athletic-looking clerk with all the earmarks of the collegian about him.
"Tell Barney to follow that man who just went out. Tell him to keep him under his eye, closely, and report to me tonight! Hurry these papers back to the Fire Commissioner. Then get that window up, and let the Mott Street Merchants' Protective Association in!"
Durkin, in the meantime, hurried uptown in his hansom, consumed with a feeling of resentment, torn by a fury of blind revolt against all organized society, against all law and authority and order. Still once more it seemed that some dark coalition of forces silently confronted and combated him at every turn. The consciousness that he must now fight, not only alone, but in the face of this unjust coalition brought with it a desperate and almost intoxicating sense of audacity. If the law itself was against him, he would take fate into his own hands, and go to his own ends, in his own way. If the machinery of justice ground so loosely and so blindly, there remained no reason why he himself, however recklessly he went his way, should not in the end disregard its engines and evade its ever-impending cogs.
He would show them! He would teach them that red-tape and officialism could only blunder blindly on at the heels of his elusive and lightfooted wariness. If they were bound to hold him down and delegitimatize him and keep him a pariah and a revolter against order, he would show them what he, alone, could do in his own behalf.
And as he drove hurriedly through the crowded city streets, still lashing himself into a fury of resentment against organized society; he formulated his plan of action, and mentally took up, point by point, each new move and what it might mean. As he pictured, in his mind, each anticipated phase of the struggle he felt come over him, for the second time, a sort of blind and irrational fury, the fury of a rat in a corner, fighting for its life and the life of its mate.
THE SPIDER AND THE FLY
"And here's where we two hang out!" It was MacNutt who spoke.
Frances Durkin was neither protesting nor struggling when he drew up in front of what she knew to be Penfield's lower gambling club. It stood in that half-squalidly residential and half-heartedly commercial district, lying south of Washington Square, a little to the west of Broadway's great artery of traffic. A decorous and unbetraying door, bearing only the modest sign, "The Neptune Club," and a narrow stairway leading to an equally decorous and uncompromising hall, gave no hint, to the uninitiated, of what the great gloomy walls of the building might hold.
But on one side of the narrow door she could make out an incongruously ornate and showy cigarstore; on the other, an equally unlooked-for woman's hair-dressing and manicuring parlor.
In the one, indeed, you might sedately purchase a perfecto, and take your peaceful departure, never dreaming of how closely you had skirted the walls of the busiest poolroom south of all Twenty-third street. In the other you might have your hair quietly shampooed and Marcelled and dressed, and return to your waiting automobile, utterly oblivious of the fact that within thirty feet of you fortunes were being still staked and lost and won and again swept away at one turn of a wheel, or one stroke of a chalk on a red-lined blackboard.
It was through the hair-dressing parlor that MacNutt led the dazed and unprotesting Frank, pinning her to his side by the great arm that was, seemingly, so carelessly linked through hers. He gave a curt nod to the capped and aproned attendant, who touched a button on her desk, without so much as a word of challenge or inquiry. The machine-like precision with which each advance was watched and guarded, disheartened the imprisoned woman.
"I'm boss here for a while, and I'm goin' to clean out the building, so that you can have this little picnic all to your lonely!" remarked MacNutt, as he pushed her on.
A door to the rear of the second parlor swung open, and as she was led through it she noticed that it was sheathed with heavy steel plating. Still another door, which opened as promptly to MacNutt's signal, was armored with steel, and it was not until this door had closed behind them that her guardian released the cruel grip on her arm. Then he chuckled a little, gutturally, deep in his pendent and flaccid throat.
"We're up to date, you see, doin' business in a regular armor-clad office!"
Frank looked about her, with widening eyes. MacNutt laughed again, at the sense of surprise which he read on her face.
It was obviously a poolroom, but it was unlike anything she had ever before seen. It was heavily carpeted, and, for a place of its character, richly furnished. The walls were windowless, the light being shed down from twelve heavily ornamented electroliers, each containing a cluster of thirty lamps. These walls, which were upholstered with green burlap, bordered at the bottom with a rich frieze of lacquered and embossed papier-mache, were divided into panels, and dotted here and there with little canvases and etchings. On the east end of the room hung one especially large canvas, crowned with a green-shaded row of electric lamps.
MacNutt, with a chuckle of pride, touched a button near the door, and the huge canvas and Bouguereau-looking group of bathing women painted upon it disappeared from view, disclosing to Frank's startled eyes a bulletin blackboard, such as is used in almost every poolroom, for the chalking up of entries and the announcement of jockeys and weights and odds.
MacNutt pressed a second button, and the twelve electric fans of burnished brass hummed and sang and droned, and filled the room with a stir of air.
"A little diff'rent, my dear, from the way they did business when you and me were pikers, up in the West Forties, eh?"
Frank remained silent, as the bathing women, with a methodic click of the mechanism, once more dropped down through the slit in the picture frame, and hid the red-lined bulletin board from view.
"Gamblers, like us, always were weak on art," gibed MacNutt. "There's Dick Penfield, spendin' a hundred thousand a year on pictures an' vases an' rugs, and Sam Brucklin makin' his Saratoga joint more like a second Salon than a first-class bucket-shop, and Larry Wintefield, who knows more about a genuine Daghestan than you or me knows about a Morse sounder, and Al MacAdam, who can't buy chinaware fast enough! As for me, I must say I have a weakness for a first-class nood!" The woman beside him shuddered. "That's all right—but I guess a heap o' these painters would be quittin' the profession if it wasn't for folks of our callin'!"
Frank's roving but unresponding eyes were taking in the huge mahogany table, in the centre of the room, the empty, high-backed chairs clustered around it, the countless small round tables, covered with green cloth, which flanked the walls, and the familiar Penfield symbol, of three interlaced crescents, which she saw stamped or embossed on everything.
He went to one of the five cherry-wood desks which were strewn about the room, and still again touched a button.
"Blondie," he said to the capped and aproned attendant who answered the call from the hair-dressing parlors, "I want you to meet this lady friend of mine! Miss Frances Candler, this is Miss Blondie Bonnell, late of Wintefield's Saratoga Sanitarium for sick purses, and still later of MacAdam's Mott Street branch! Now, Blondie, like a good girl, run along and get the lady something to drink!"
This proffered refreshment the outraged lady in question silently refused, staring tight-lipped at the walls about her. But MacNutt, on this score, made ample amends, for having gulped down one ominously generous glass of the fiery liquid, he poured another, and still another, into the cavern of his pendulous throat, with repeated grateful smacks of the thick and purplish lips.
"Now, I'm goin' to show you round a bit, just to make it plain to you, before business begins for the day. I want you to see that you're not shut up in any quarter-inch cedar bandbox!"
He took her familiarly by the arm and led her to a door which, like the others, was covered with a plating of steel, and heavily locked and barred.
"Necessity, you see, is still the mother of invention," he said, as his finger played on the electric signal and released the obstructing door. "If we're goin' to do poolroom work, nowadays, we've got to do it big and comprehensive, same as Morgan or Rockefeller would do their line o' business. You've got to lay out the stage, nowadays, to carry on the show, or something'll swallow you up. Why, when we worked our last wire-tapping scheme with a hobo from St. Louis, who was rotten with money, we escorted him, on two hours' notice, into as neat a lookin' Postal-Union branch office as you'd care to see, with half a dozen fake keys a-goin' and twenty actors and supers helpin' to carry off the act. That's the up-to-date way o' doin' it! That's how a man like Penfield makes this kind o' graftin' respectable and aboveboard and just about as honest as bein' down in the Cotton Exchange!"
He was leading her down a narrow hallway, four feet wide, with unbroken walls on either side of them. At the end of this still another armored door led into a medium-sized room, as bald and uninviting as a dentist's waiting-room. Here he led her to two horizontal slits in the wall and told her to look down.
She did so, and found herself peering below, out into the well-stocked cigar-store, with a clear view of the entrance.
"That's the conning-tower of this here little floating fortress," chuckled MacNutt, at her shoulder. "This place you're in is steel-lined, and it would take three hours o' chisel and sledge work for anybody, from Eggers up to Braugham himself, to get inside, even though he did find us out, and even though he did escape the sulphuric bottles between the bricks. Each one o' these little slits is in line with a nice gilded cigar sign on the shop side of the wall. So no one down there, you see, knows who's eyin' them. We don't need any lookout, hangin' round the street-front and tippin' us off. Our man down below sizes up everyone who comes into that shop. If he's all right, the button's touched, and the white light flashes, and he gets through. If he's not, the cigar clerk rings another button, just under his counter, and we know what to do. If it's a case o' raid, our lookout flashes the red light through each o' the four rooms, with one push of the button, and then our second man throws back the switch and puts out every light in the buildin'. Then with another button push, the locks of every door are thrown shut, and they're four inches thick, most of them, and of good oak and steel. If the electricity should give out, here, you see, are the hand bolts, which can be run out at any time. Then we've got a little mercerized steel office, which you won't see, where our cashier and our sheet-writers work!"
Frank said nothing, but her still roving eyes took in each detail, bit by bit, as she warned and schooled herself to note and remember each door and room and passage.
"And now, in case you may be lookin' for it without my help, I'm goin' to take you down and show you the way out. We go through this little passage, and then we take up this steel trapdoor. It's heavy, you see! Then we go down this nice little grill-work iron ladder—don't pull back, I've got you!—and then we open this next very fine steel door—so; and here we are in what you'd call the safety-deposit vaults. It's a mighty handsome-lookin' safe, all laid in Portland cement, as you can see, but we're not goin' to tarry lookin' into that just now."
He was already feeling his way ahead of her, and she was still desperately struggling to impress each detail on her distracted mind.
"You see, if we want to get out, we go through this hall, and follow this little passageway, one end openin' up right under the sidewalk, in the refractin' glass manhole. Leading to the back, here, is a second passage, all barred, the same as the others. So, if our front is shut off, and they're hot on our trail, we shut everything after us as we go, and then open this neat little steel trapdoor, and find ourselves smellin' fresh air and five lines full of washin' from that Dago tenement just above us!"
"And why are you showing me all this?" demanded Frank.
He looked at her out of his pale-green furtive eyes, and locked the door with a vindictive snap of the bolts.
"I'll tell you why, my gay young welcher, for we may as well understand one another, from the start. Now that Penfield's shut up his Newport place and is coolin' his heels up in Montreal for a few months, I'm runnin' this nickel-plated ranch myself. And I've got a few old scores to wipe out—some old scores between that enterprisin' husband o' yours an' myself!"
"What has he ever done to you? Why, should you want to punish him?" argued Frank, helplessly.
"I'm not goin' to punish him!" declared MacNutt, with a little laugh. "That's just where the damned fine poetic justice of the thing comes in. He's goin' to punish himself!"
THE PIT OF DESPAIR
Frances Durkin looked at the jeering man before her, studiously, belligerently.
"What do you mean by saying he'll punish himself?" she demanded.
She seemed like a woman who had just awakened. Her earlier comatose expression had altogether passed away. There was life, now, in every line of her body.
"I mean that Durkin's got his quarter of a million in securities, all right, all right, but, by God, I've got you! And I mean that he's goin' to, that he's got to, make a choice between them and you. So we'll just wait and find out which he loves best, his beau or his dough!" And he laughed harshly at the feeble witticism, as he added, in his guttural undertone: "And I guess we get the worth of our money, whichever way it goes!"
Frank's impression was that he was half drunk, that he was mumbling vaguely of revenges which grew up and died in their utterance. Her look of open scorn stung him into a sudden tremor of anger.
"Oh, don't think I'm spoutin' wind! If Durkin's the man you think he is, and I hope he is, he'll be tryin' to nose his way into this place before midnight tonight!"
"And he will," cried Frank, exultantly, "and with the whole precinct police force behind him!"
"He daren't!" retorted MacNutt. "He daren't get within a hundred yards of the Central Office, and he daren't show his nose inside a precinct station-house! And that's not all, either. There's no captain on this side of New York who's goin' to buck against the whole Tammany machine an' poke into this Penfield business. If that young man with the butterfly necktie over on Centre street thinks he can keep us movin', he's got to do a heap less talkin' and a heap more convictin' before he can put our lights out! That air is good enough for politics—but it's never goin' to break this here Penfield combination! Oh, no, Jimmie Durkin knows how the land lays. He's one o' your bold and brainy kind, who likes to shut himself up in a garret for a week, and make maps of what he's goin' to do, an' how he's goin' to do it, and then trip off by his lonely and do his huntin' in the dark! And he's goin' to try to get in here, before midnight, tonight, and what's more, he's goin' to find it uncommonly easy to do!"
"You mean you'll entice him and trap him here?"
"No, I won't lay a finger on him. You'll do the enticin', and he'll do the trappin'! I won't even be round to see—till afterward!"
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean we're holdin' open house tonight," mocked MacNutt, "and that Durkin will maybe drop in!"
"And then what will it be?"
"Come this way, my beauty, and I'll show you. First thing, though, just notice this fact. We're not goin' to make it too hard and discouragin' for Durkin. This trap-door will be left unlocked. Also, that front manhole will be left kind of temptingly open, with a few chunks o' loose coal lyin' round it, so that even a Mercer street roundsman couldn't help fallin' into it! Oh, yes, he'll find it easy enough!"
Frank followed him without a word, as he made his way through the low and narrow steel-lined tunnel leading to the vault-room.
"Now, my dear, I guess this is the only way he'll be able to get at you, unless he comes in a flyin' machine, and the first place he'll nose through will be this room. So, bein' old at the business, he's sure to try a crack at our safe. At least, he'll go gropin' around for a while. Not an invitin'-lookin' piece o' furniture, I grant you, but that's neither here nor there. It's not the safe that'll be detainin' Durkin, or any other housebreaker who tries to get gay on these premises. If you look hard, maybe you'll be able to see what's a damned sight more interestin'!"
Frank looked, but she saw nothing beyond the great vault and the burnished copper guard-rail that surrounded it, like the fender about a marine engine.
"You don't notice anything strikin'?" he interrogated wickedly.
She did not.
He emitted a guttural little growl of a laugh, and stepped over to a half-hidden switchboard, high up on the wall. He threw the lever out and down, and the kiss of the meeting metals sounded in a short and malevolent spit of greenish light.
"Are you on?" taunted MacNutt.
Frank's slowly comprehending eyes were riveted on the burnished copper railing, on which, only a moment before, her careless fingers had rested. There was no sign, no alteration in the shining surface of that polished metal. But she knew that a change, terrible and malignant, had taken place. It was no longer a mild and innocent guard-rail. It was now an instrument of destruction, an unbuoyed channel of death. She stood staring at it, with fixed and horrified eyes, until it wavered before her, a glimmering and meandering rivulet of refracted light.
"Are you on?" reiterated the watching man.
The wave of pallor that swept over her face seemed to change her eyes from violet to black, although, for a moment, their gaze remained as veiled and abstracted as a sleep-walker's. Then a movement from her companion lashed and restored her to lucidity of thought. For, from where it leaned against the wall, MacNutt had caught up a heavy door-sheathing of pressed steel. It was painted a Burgundy red, to match the upholstery of the upper room where it had once done service, and on the higher of the two panels was embossed the Penfield triple crescent.
This great sheet of painted steel MacNutt held above his head, as a hesitating waiter might hold a gigantic tray. Then he stepped toward the shimmering guard-rail, and stood in front of it.
"Now, this luxurious-lookin' rear-admiral's rail-fence is at present connected with a tapped power circuit, or a light circuit, I don't know which. All I know is that it's carryin' about a twenty-eight-hundred alternatin' current. And just to show that it's good and ready to eat up anything that tries monkeyin' round it, watch this!"
He raised the Burgundy-red door-sheathing vertically above his head, and stepping quickly back, let it descend, so that as it fell it would strike the metal of the sunken vault-top and the copper guardrail as well.
The very sound of that blow, as it descended, was swallowed up in the sudden, blinding, lightning-like flash, in the hiss and roar of the pale-green flame, as the sheet of steel, tortured into sudden incandescence, bridged and writhed and twisted, warping and collapsing like a leaf of writing-paper on the coals of an open fire. A sickening smell of burning paint, mingling with the subtler gaseous odors of the corroding metal, filled the little dungeon.
"Don't! That's enough!" gasped the woman, groping back toward the support of the wall.
MacNutt shut off the current, and kicked the charred door-sheathing, already fading from incandescence into ashen ruin, with his foot. The smell of burning leather filled the room, and he laughed a little, turning on the woman a face crowned with a look of Belial-like triumph, with dark and sunken circles about the vindictive, deep-set eyes.
Once, in an evening paper, she had pored over the picture of an electrocution at Sing Sing, a haunting and horrible scene, with the dangling wires reaching down to the prisoner, strapped and bound in his chair, the applied sponges at the base of the spine, the buckled thongs about the helpless ankles, the grim and waiting gaol officials, the boyish-looking reporters, with watches in their hands, the bald and ugly chamber, and in the background the dim figure of Retributive Justice, with uplifted arm, where an implacable finger was about to touch the fatal button. Time and time again that vision had brought terror to her midnight dreams, and had left her weak and panting, catching at her startled husband with feverish and passionate hands and holding him and drawing him close to her, as though that momentary guardianship could protect him from some far and undefined danger.
"Oh, Mack," she burst out hysterically, over-wrought by the scene before her, "for the love of God, don't make him die this way! Give him a fighting chance! Give him a show! Do what you like with me, but don't blot him out, like a dog, without a word of warning!"
"It's not my doin'!" broke in her tormentor.
"It's inhuman—it's fiendish!" she went on. "I can't stand the thought of it!"
MacNutt laughed his mirthless laugh once more.
"Oh, I guess you'll stand it!"
"But I can't!" she moaned.
"Oh, yes; you'll stand it, and you'll see it, too! You'll be right here, where you can take the whole show in, this time! It won't be a case o' foolin' the old man, like it was last time!"
"I will be here?" she gasped.
"You'll be right on the spot—and you'll see the whole performance!"
She drew her hands down, shudderingly, over her averted face, as though to shut something even from her imagination.
"And do you know what'll be the end of it all?" MacNutt went on, in his frenzied mockery. "It'll all end in a little paragraph or two in the Morning Journal, to the effect that some unknown safecracksman or other accidentally came in contact with a live wire, and was shocked to death in the very act of breaking into a pious and unoffendin' cigar-store vault! And you'll be the only one who'll know anything different, and I guess you won't do much squealin' about it!"
She wheeled, as though about to spring on him.
"I will! I will, although I wither between gaol walls for it—although I die for it! I'm no weak and foolish woman! I've known life bald to the bone; I've fought and schemed and plotted and twisted all my days almost, and I can die doing it! And if you kill this man, if you murder him—for it is murder!—if you bring this dog's death on him, I will make you pay for it, in one way or another—I'll make you mourn it, David MacNutt, as you've made me mourn the first day I ever saw your face!"
She was in a blind and unreasoning passion of vituperative malevolence by this time, her face drawn and withered with fear, her eyes luminous, in the dungeon-like half-lights, with the inner fire of her hate.
"Keep cool, my dear, keep cool!" mocked MacNutt, without a trace of trepidation at all her vague threats. "Durkin's not dead yet!"
She caught madly at the slender thread of hope which swung from his mockery.
"No! No, he's not dead yet, and he'll die hard! He's no fool—you've found that out in the past! He will give you a fight before he goes, in some way, for he's fought you and beaten you from the first—and he'll beat you again—I know he'll beat you again!"
Her voice broke and merged into a paroxysm of sobbing, and MacNutt looked at her bent and shaken figure with meditative coldness.
"He may have beaten me, once, long ago—but he'll never do it again. He won't even go out fightin'! He'll go with his head hangin' and his nose down, like a sneak! And you'll see him go, for you'll be tied there, with a gag in your pretty red mouth, and you'll neither move nor speak. And there'll be no light, unless he gets so reckless as to strike a match. But when the light does come, my dear, it'll be a flash o' blue flame, with a smell o' something burnin'!"
The woman covered her face with her hands, and swayed back and forth where she stood.
Then MacNutt held back his guttural laugh, suddenly, for she had fallen forward on her face, in a dead faint.
THE ENTERING WEDGE
It was at least four o'clock in the afternoon—as the janitor of the building later reported to the police—when a Postal-Union lineman, carrying a well-worn case of tools, made his way up through the halls and stairways of one of those many Italian apartment houses just south of Washington Square and west of Broadway.