This lineman worked on the roof, apparently, for some twenty minutes. Then he came down again, chatted for a while with the janitor in the basement, and giving him a cigar, borrowed an eight-foot step-ladder, for the purpose of scaling some twelve feet of brick wall, where the adjoining office building towered its additional story above the apartment-house roof.
If the janitor had been less averse to mounting his five flights of stairway, or less indifferent as to the nature of the work which took the busy telegraph official up to his roof, he might, that afternoon, have witnessed both a delicate and an interesting electrical operation.
For once up on the second roof, and sure that he was under no immediate observation, the lineman in question carefully unpacked his bag of tools. His first efforts were directed toward the steel transom which covered the trapdoor opening out on the roof. This, he discovered with a grunt of disappointment, resisted even his short, curved steel lever, pointed at one end, like a gigantic tack-drawer. Restoring this lever to the bottom of his leather tool-bag, he made his way to the southeast corner of the building, where a tangle of insulated wires, issuing from the roof beneath his feet, merged into one compact cable, which, in turn, entered and was protected by a heavy lead pipe, leading, obviously, to the street below, and thence to the cable galleries of Broadway itself.
It took him but a minute or two to cut away a section of this protecting pipe. In doing so, he exposed to view the many wires making up an astonishingly substantial cable, for so meager an office building. He then turned back to his tool-case and lifted therefrom, first a Bunnell sounder, and then a Wheatstone bridge, of the post-office pattern, a coil of KK wire, a pair of lineman's pliers, and a handful or two of other tools. Still remaining in the bottom of his bag might have been found two small rubber bags filled with nitroglycerine, a cake of yellow soap, a brace and bit, a half-dozen diamond-pointed drills, a box of timers, and a coil fuse, three tempered-steel chisels, a tiny sperm-oil lantern and the steel "jimmy" which had already been tested against the obdurate transom.
Then, skilfully relaxing the metallic cable strands, he as carefully graduated his current and attached his sounder, first to one wire and then to another. Each time that the little Bunnell sounder was galvanized into articulate life he bent his ear and listened to the busy cluttering of the dots and dashes, as the reports of races, as the weights and names of jockeys, and lists of entries and statements of odds and conditions went speeding into the busy keys of the big poolroom below, where men and women waited with white and straining faces, and sorrowed and rejoiced as the ever-fluctuant goddess of chance brought them ill luck or success.
But Durkin paid little attention to these flying messages winging cityward from race-tracks so many miles away. What he was in search of was the private wire leading from Penfield's own office, whereon instructions and information were secretly hurried about the city to his dozen and one fellow-operators. It was from this wire that Durkin hoped, without "bleeding" the circuit, to catch some thread of fact which might make the task before him more lucid and direct.
He worked for an hour, connecting and disconnecting, testing and listening and testing still again, before the right wire fell under his thumb. Then he listened intently, with a little start, for he knew he was reading an operator whose bluff, heavy, staccato "send" was as familiar to his long-practiced ear as a well-known face would be to his watching eyes.
It was MacNutt himself who was "sending." His first intercepted message was an order, to some confederate unknown, to have a carriage call for him at eight. That, Durkin told himself, was worth knowing. His second despatch was a warning to a certain "Al" Mackenzie not to fail to meet Penfield in Albany, Sunday, at midnight. The third message was brief, and seemed to be an answer to a question which had escaped the interloper.
"Yes, got her here, and here she stays. Things will happen tonight."
"Ah!" ejaculated Durkin, as he wiped his moist forehead, while the running dots and dashes resolved themselves into the two intelligible sentences.
Then he looked about him, at the leaden sky, at the roofs and walls and windows of the crowded and careless city, as a sabreur about to enter the arena might look about him on life for perhaps the last time.
"Yes," he said, with a meditative stare at the transom before him, "things will happen tonight."
THE WAKING CIRCUIT
It was a thick and heavy night, with a drizzle of fine rain blanketing the city. Every now and then a lonely carriage spluttered along the oily and pool-strewn pavement of the cross-street. Every now and then, too, the rush and clang of the Broadway cars echoed down the canyon of rain-swept silence.
Durkin waited until the lights of the cigar-store went out. Then he once more circled the block, keeping to the shadows. As he passed the darkened cigar-store for the second time his foot, as though by accident, came sharply in contact with the refracting-prismed manhole cover which had sounded so hopefully hollow to his previous tread. As he had half-suspected, it was loose.
He stooped quickly, to turn up his trousers. As he did so three exploring fingers worked their way under the ledge of the unsecured circle of iron and glass.
It came away without resistance. He looked about him cautiously, without straightening up; then by its shoulder-strap he carefully lowered his leather tool-bag into the passage below, and as guardedly let himself down after it.
He waited and listened for a minute or two, before replacing the cover above him. From the river, in the distance, he could hear the booming and tooting of the steam craft through the fog. A hurrying car rumbled and echoed past on the Broadway tracks. Two drunken wanderers went singing westward in the drizzling rain. Then everything was silence again.
Durkin replaced the covering, noiselessly, and feeling to right and left with his outstretched hands, crept inward through the narrow tunnel in which he found himself. His fingers came in touch with the chilly surface of a steel-faced door. It sounded heavy and unyielding to his tentative tap, and his left hand was already reaching back for the tool-bag which hung by its strap over his shoulder when his questioning right hand, pushing forward, discovered that the door was unlocked, and swung easily outward without resistance.
He felt and fondled the heavy bolts, thoughtfully, puzzled why it should be so, until he remembered seeing the half-dozen pieces of anthracite lying about the manhole on the sidewalk above. That, he told himself, possibly explained it. Some careless wagon-driver, delivering his load, had left the place unlocked.
But before he crept into the wider and higher passage before him he paused to take out the revolver which he carried in his hip pocket, to unlimber it, and carefully feel over the chambered cylinder, to make sure every cartridge-head stood there, in place. This done, he replaced it, not at his hip, but loose and free, in the righthand pocket of his coat. Then he once more began feeling his way along the smooth cement floor. He was enveloped in a darkness as absolute as though he had been shrouded in black velvet—even the glimmer of the refracted street lamps did not penetrate further than the doorway of the first tunnel. There was a smell of dampness in the air, as of mouldy plaster. It was the smell of underground places. Durkin hated it.
He had to feel his way about the entire circle of that second narrow chamber before he came to where the inner doorway stood. It, too, was unlocked, and for the first time some sense of betrayal, some intimidation of being trapped, some latent suspicion of artfully concealed duplicity, flashed through his questioning mind.
He listened, and was greeted by nothing but silence.
Then he swung the door softly and slowly open. As he did so he leaped back, and to one side, with his right hand in his coat pocket. For there suddenly smote on his ears the sharp clang and tinkle of metal.
He stood there, crouched, for a waiting minute, and then he laughed aloud, for he knew it was only the sound of some piece of falling iron, striking on the cement. To make sure of it, he groped about the floor, and stumbled on the little bar of steel that had fallen. Yet why it had been there, leaning against the door, he could not comprehend. Was it there by accident? Or had it been meant as a signal? It showed him one thing, however; its echoing fall had demonstrated to him that the room he had entered was both higher and larger than the one he had left. It might be nothing more than a furnace-room, yet he told himself that he must be on his guard, that from now on his perils began.
Then he wondered why he should feel this premonitory sense, and in what lay the dividing line, and where lay the difference.
Yet as he stood there, with his back against the wall, he felt something dormant and deep-seated stirring within him. It was not a sense of danger; it arose from no outward and tangible manifestations. But somewhere, and persistently, at the root of his being, he heard that subliminal and submerged voice which could be neither silenced nor understood.
He took three groping paces forward, as if to put distance between himself and this foundationless emotion which some part of him seemed struggling to defy. But for the second time he stood stockstill, weighed down by the feeling of some presence, oppressed by the sense of something vaguely hanging over him. He felt, as Frank had once said, how like a half-articulate key, at the end of an impoverished circuit, consciousness really was; how the spirit so often, in this only half-intelligible life of theirs, flutters feebly with hints and suggestions to which it could never give open and unequivocal utterance. Even language, and language the most artful and finished, was, after all, merely a sort of clumsy Morse—its unwieldy dots and dashes left many a mood of the soul unknown and inarticulate.
As he stood there, in doubt, questioning himself and that vague but disturbing something which stood before him, he decided to put a summary end to the matter. Fumbling in his pocket, and disregarding any risk which the movement might entail, he caught up a match and struck it.
As he shaded the flame and threw it before him, his straining eyes caught only the glimmer of burnished metal—a guard-rail of some description—and the dark and ponderous mass of what seemed a deposit vault.
The match burned down, and dropped from his upthrust fingers. He decided to grope to the rail, and feel along the metal until he reached some point of greater safety. He extended his fingers before him, as a blind man might, and took one shuffling step forward.
Then a thought came to him, with the suddenness and the shock of an electric current, as a radiating tingle of nerves, followed by a strangely sickening sense of hollowness about the chest, swept through his body. Could it be Frank herself in danger, and wanting him?
More than once, in the past, he had felt that mysterious medium, more fluid and unfathomable than electricity itself, carry its vague but vital message in to him. He had felt that call of Soul to Soul, across space, along channels less tangible than Hertzian waves themselves, yet bearing its broken message, which later events had authenticated and still later cross-questioning had doubly verified.
He had felt, at such moments, that there were ghostly and phantasmal wires connecting mind with mind; that across these telepathic wires one anxious spirit could in some way hold dim converse with the other; that the Soul itself had its elusive "wireless," and forever carried and gave out and received its countless messages—if only the fellow-Soul had learned to await the signal and disentangle the dark and runic Code. Yes, he told himself, as he stood there, thoughtfully, as though bound to the spot by some Power not himself,—yes, consciousness was like that little glass tube which electricians called a coherer, and all his vague impressions and mental-gropings were those disorderly, minute fragments of nickel and silver which only leaped into continuity and order under the shock and impact of those fleet and foreign electric waves, which floated from some sister consciousness aching with its undelivered messages. And the woman who had so often called to him across space and silence, in the past, was now sounding the mystic key across those ghostly wires. But what the messages was, or from what quarter it came, he could not tell.
He stood there tortured and puzzled, torn by fear, thrilled and stirred through every fiber of his anxious body. This was followed by a sense of terror, sub-conscious and wordless and irrational, the kind of terror that comes to a child in unknown places, in the dead of some unknown night.
"For the love of God, what is it?" his dry lips demanded, speaking aloud into the emptiness about him.
He waited, almost as if expecting some answering voice, as distinct and tangible as his own. But nothing broke the black silence that blanketed him in from the rest of all the world and all its living things. The sweat of agony came out on his face; his body hung forward, relaxed and expectant.
"What is it you want to say?" he repeated, in a hoarse and muffled scream, no longer able to endure that silent and nameless Something which surrounded him. "What is it you want to say?"
THE GHOSTS OF THOUGHT
In the ensuing silence, as the unbroken seconds dragged themselves on, Durkin called himself a fool, and, struggling bitterly with that indeterminate uneasiness which possessed him, pulled himself together for some immediate and decisive action.
He could waste no more time, he told himself, in foolish spiritualistic seances with his own shadow. He had too much before him, and too short a time in which to do it. His troubles, when he came to face them, would be realities, and not a train of vapid and morbid self-vaporings.
He advanced further into the darkness of the room, slowly, with his hands outstretched before him. He would feel for the friendly support and guidance of the metal railing, and then grope his way onward. For as yet he had only carried the enemy's outposts. Then, for a second time, and for no outward reason, he came to a dead halt. He felt as if some elusive influence, some unnamable force, was holding and barring him back. Again he struck a match, recklessly, and again he saw nothing but the burnished metal railing and the dark mass of the vault.
It was with almost a touch of exasperation that he stood there in his tracks, and slowly, methodically, thoroughly, surveyed the four quarters of the lightless room in which he found himself. He scrutinized the heavy, enmuffling gloom with straining eyes, first in one direction and then in another.
There was nothing to be seen, and not a sound reached his ears. He had been in the room perhaps not three minutes, yet it seemed to him as many hours. Then he peered about him still again, wondering, for the first time, by what psychological accident his eyes turned in one particular direction, slightly above and before him, to the right of the direction in which he was advancing.
To rid himself of this new idea, and to decentralize the illusion, he shifted his position. But still his gaze, almost against his will, turned back toward the former point, as though the blanketing blackness held some core, some discernible central point, toward which he was compelled to look, as the magnetic needle is compelled to swing toward the North. Surrendering to this impulse, he gaped through the darkness at it, with a little oath of impatience.
As he did so he began to feel stir at the base of his spine a tiny tremor of apprehension. This tremor seemed suddenly to explode into a mounting shudder of fear, flashing and leaping through his body until the very hair of his head was stirred and moved with it.
The next moment the startled body responded to clamoring volition, and he turned and fled blindly back into the outer passageway, with a ludicrous and half-articulate little howl of terror.
For growing out of the utter blackness he had seen two vague points of light, two luminous spots, side by side, taking on, as he faced them, all the mysteries of all the primeval night which man ever faced. He felt like a hunter, in some jungled midnight, a midnight breathless and soundless, who looks before him, and slowly discerns two glowing and motionless balls of fire—who can see nothing else, in all his world—but from those two phosphorescent points of light knows that he is being watched and stalked and hunted by some padded Hunger lurking behind them.
In the unbroken and absolute silence which seemed to mock at his foolish and stampeding fears, an immediate reaction of spirit set it. He felt almost glad for this material target against which to fling his terrors, for this precipitation of apprehension into something tangible.
He groped through his bag, hurriedly yet cautiously, for his little sperm-oil lantern. Then he took up the revolver that lay loosely in his coat pocket. A moment later a thin little shaft of light danced and fingered about the inner room.
He could, at first, see nothing but the line of burnished copper stretching across his path and flashing the light back in his eyes. Behind this, a moment later, he made out the dark and gloomy mass of the black safe. Then he looked deeper, with what was still again a flutter of enigmatical fear about his heart, for that twin and ghostlike glow which had filled him with such precipitate terror.
But there was no longer anything to be seen. He played his interrogative finger of light up and down, and it was a full minute before his slowly-adjusting sight penetrated to the remoter and higher area of the surrounding walls.
It was then, and not till then, that he discovered the fact that the wall on his right opened and receded, some five feet above the floor-level, into a dimly-outlined alcove. As he looked closer he made out that this alcove had, obviously, been filled by the upper portion of a heavy iron staircase, leading to the floor above. The entire lower half of this stairway, where once it must have obtruded into the vault chamber, had been cut away. It was on the remaining upper portion of this dismantled stairway that his pencil of light played nervously and his gaze was closely riveted.
For there, above his natural line of vision, half-hidden back in the heavy shadows, his startled eyes made out a huddled and shadowy figure. It was a woman's figure, in black, and motionless. It was bound hand and foot to the iron stair-stanchions.
He did not notice, in that first frenzied glance, the white band that cut across the lower part of her face, so colorless was her skin. But as he looked for the second time, he emitted a sudden cry, half-pity, half-anger, for slowly and thinly it filtered into his consciousness just what and who that watching figure was.
And then, and then only, did he speak. And when he did so he repeated his earlier cry.
"My God, Frank, what is it?"
There was no response, no answering movement or gesture. He called to her again, but still absolute silence confronted him.
As he crept closer to her, step by step, he saw and understood.
The two luminous eyes, burning through the dark, had been his wife's. She had been imprisoned and tied there; but bound and muffled as she was, the strength of her desire, the supremacy of will, had created its new and mysterious wire of communication. Some passion of want, some sheer intensity of feeling, had found and used its warning semaphore. She had spoken to him, without sound or movement. Yet for what?
Yet for what? That was the thought that seemed to dance back and forth across the foreground of his busy brain. That was what he wondered and demanded of himself as he clambered and struggled and panted up the wall into the narrow and dusty alcove, and cut away the sodden gag between her aching jaws. The tender flesh was indented and livid, where the tightened band had pressed in under the cheek-bones. The salivated throat was swollen, and speechless. The tongue protruded pitifully, helpless in its momentary paralysis.
"Oh, he'll smart for this! By heaven, he'll smart for this!" declared Durkin, as he stooped and cut away the straps that bound her ankles to the obdurate iron, and severed the bands that bruised and held her white wrists. Even then she could not speak, though she smiled a little, faintly and forlornly and gratefully. She struggled to say one word, but it resolved itself into a cacophonous and inarticulate mumble, half-infantile, half-imbecile.
"Oh, he'll pay for this!" repeated the raging man, as he lowered her, limp and inert, to the floor below and leaped down beside her. She sank back with a happy but husky gasp of weakness, for the benumbed muscles refused to obey, and the cramped and stiffened limbs were unable to support her.
All she could do was to hold her husband's hand in her own, in a grateful yet passionate grip. She must have been imprisoned there, he surmised, at least an hour, perhaps two hours, perhaps even longer.
He started up, in search for water. It might be, he felt, that a lead water-pipe ran somewhere about them. He would cut it without compunction.
He took two steps across the room, when an audible and terrified note of warning broke from her swollen lips. He darted back to her, in wonder, searching her straining face with his little shaft of lantern light.
She did not speak; but he followed her eyes. They were on the burnished copper railing refracting the thin light that danced back and forth across that dungeon-like chamber. He questioned her fixed gaze, but still he did not understand her. She caught his hand, and retained it fiercely. He thought, from her pallor, that she was on the point of fainting, and he would have placed her full length on the hard cement, but she struggled against it, and still kept her hold on his hand.
Then she took the tiny lantern from his fingers, and bending low, tapped with it on the cement. Durkin, listening closely, knew she was sounding the telegrapher's double "I"—the call for attention, implying a message over the wire.
Slowly he spelt out the words as she gave them to him in Morse, irregular and wavering, but still decipherable.
"Charged?" he repeated, as the last word shaped itself in his questioning brain.
He took the lantern from her hand, and swung the shaft of light on the glimmering copper. From there he looked back at her face once more.
Then, in one illuminating flash of comprehension, it was all clear to him. With a stare of blank wonder he saw and understood, and fell back appalled at the demoniacal ingenuity of it all.
"I see! I see!" he repeated, vacuously, almost.
Then, to make sure of what he had been told, he crossed the room and picked up the bar of steel that had fallen at his feet as he first entered the door. This bar he let fall so that one end would rest on the metal vault-covering and the other on the rail of copper.
There was a report, a sudden leap of flame, and the continued hissing fury of the short-circuited current, until the bar, heated to incandescence, twisted and writhed where it lay like a thing of life. He drew a deep breath, and watched it.
That was the danger he had so closely skirted? That was the fate which he had escaped!
He stood gazing at the insidious yet implacable agent of death, spluttering its tongue of flame at him like an angry snake; and, as he looked, his face was beaded with sweat, and seemed ashen in color.
Then a sense of the dangers still surrounding them returned to his mind. He shook himself together, and, making a circuit of the room, found the switch and turned off the current. As he did so he gave a little muffled cry of gratitude, for across the rear corner of the room ran two leaden water-pipes. Into one of these he cut and drilled with his pocket-knife, ruthlessly, without a moment's hesitation. He was suddenly rewarded by a thin jet of water spraying him in the face. He caught his hat full of it, and carried it to Frank, who drank from it, feverishly and deeply. It not only brought her strength back to her; but, after it, she could speak a little, though huskily, and with considerable pain.
"Can you walk?"
She signalled, yes.
"We've got to get out of here, at once!"
He could see that she understood.
"Can you come now?" he asked.
She nodded her head, and he helped her to her feet. Together, the one leaning heavily on the other's arm, they paced up and down the already flooded floor, until power came back to her aching limbs, and steadiness to her tired nerves.
"It would be better not to go together. I'll help you out and give you fifty yards' start. If anything should happen, remember that I'm behind you, and that, after this, I'm ready to shoot, and shoot without a quaver."
Again she nodded her head.
"But listen. When you get up through the sidewalk grating, keep steadily on for two blocks, toward the west. Then turn north for half a block, and go into the family entrance at Kieffer's. If nothing happens, I'll join you there. If anything does occur to keep me back, give them to understand that you've missed the last train for your home in East Orange; put this five-dollar bill down and ask for a front room on the second floor. From there you must watch for me. If it's anything dangerous I'll signal you in passing."
By this time he had led her down the narrow, tunnel-like passageway and was helping her up into the rain-swept street.
"Whatever happens, remember that I'm behind you!" he repeated.
Their struggles, as he assisted her up through the narrow opening, were ungainly and ludicrous; yet, incongruously enough, there came to him a fleeting sense of joy in even that accidental and impersonal contact of her hand with his.
Then he braced himself against the narrow brick walls where he stood, appearing a strange and grotesque and bodiless head above the level of the street.
Thus peering out, he watched her as she beat her way down the wind-swept sidewalk. Already, through the drifting midnight rain, the outline of her figure was losing its distinctness. He was reaching down for his wet and sodden hat, to follow her, when something happened that left him transfixed, a motionless and bodiless head on which startled horror had suddenly fallen.
For out of the quiet and shadowy south side of the street, where it had been silently patrolling under lowered speed, swerved and darted a wine-colored, surrey-built touring car with a cape top. Durkin recognized it at a glance; it was Penfield's huge machine. Its movement, as it swung in toward the startled woman, seemed like the swoop of a hawk. It appeared to stop only for a moment, but in that moment two men leaped from the wide-swung tonneau door. When they clambered into it once more Durkin saw that Frank was between them. And one of the men was MacNutt, and the other Keenan.
He heard the one sharp scream that reverberated down the empty street, followed by the fading pulsations of the departing car, when with an oath of fury, he was already working his arms up through the narrow manhole. As he did so he heard a second, hoarser cry, succeeded by the heavy tramp of hurrying feet, and then a peremptory challenge.
Turning sharply, he caught sight of a patrolling roundsman, bearing down on him from the corner of Broadway; and he saw that the officer was drawing his revolver as he charged across the wet pavement.
It was already too late to free himself. With an instinctive movement of the hands he caught up the manhole cover, shield-like. As he did so he saw the glimmer of the polished steel and heard the repeated challenge. But he neither paused nor hesitated. He let his knees break under him, and as he fell he saw to it that the rim of the manhole dropped into its waiting circular groove. Then he heard the sound of a shot, of a second and a third, from the policeman's pistol. But as he secured the cover with its chainlock, and dropped down into the tunnel below, the reports seemed thin and muffled and far away to Durkin.
A moment later, however, he heard the ominous and vibrant echo of the officer's night-stick, on the asphalt, frenziedly rapping for assistance.
THE RULING PASSION
Beyond that first involuntary little cry of terror Frances Durkin uttered no sound, as she found herself in the hooded tonneau, wedged in between MacNutt and Keenan. That first outcry, indeed, had been unwilled and automatic, the last reactionary movement of an overtried and exhausted body.
A wave of care-free passivity now seemed to inundate her. She made no attempt to struggle; she nursed no sense of open resentment against her captors. The battery of her vital forces was depleted and depolarized. She experienced only a faintly poignant sense of disappointment, of indeterminate pique, as she realized that she was no longer a free agent. Leaning back in the cushioned gloom, inert, impassive, with her eyes half-closed, she seemed to be drifting through an eddying veil of gray. The voices so close beside her sounded thin and far off. An impression of unreality clung to her, an impression that she was floating through an empty and rain-swept world from which all life and warmth had withered.
"It's not her I want—it's Durkin!" MacNutt was saying, with an oath, as they swung around the corner into the blinking and serried lights of Eighth avenue. "It's that damned groundhog I'm goin' to dig out yet!"
"Well, you can't go back there after him!" protested Keenan.
"Can't I? Well, I'm goin' back, and I'm goin' to get that man, and I'm goin' to fry him in his own juices!"
He pushed the woman's inert weight away from him, and leaned out from under the cape, with a sharp word or two to Penfield's chauffeur. Then he suddenly whistled and waved his arm.
"What are you doing that for?" Keenan demanded of him.
Keenan had caught the drooping figure, and was making an effort to support it. His face, for some unknown reason, was almost as colorless as the face that lay so passively against his rain-soaked shoulder.
"I'm goin' back!" declared MacNutt.
"Is it worth while—now?" demurred the other.
"I'm goin' to get my hooks on Durkin, even if I have to wade through every raidin' gang in the precinct!"
"And then what?" deprecated Keenan.
"Then I'll meet you at Penfield's house, uptown, and the show will come to a finish!"
"And what am I expected to do?" demanded Keenan, impatiently. For the approaching four-wheeler had come to a standstill beside them, and MacNutt was already out in the rain.
"You take care o' that!" he pointed a contemptuous finger toward the motionless woman, "and mighty good care!"
"But how's all this going to help us out?"
"I'll show you, when the time comes. Here's the key for Penfield's house. You'll find it nice and quiet and secluded there, and if I do bring Durkin back with me, by heaven, you'll have the privilege o' seein' a lurid end to this uncommonly lurid game!"
He tossed the key into the tonneau. Keenan picked it up in silence.
They heard the clatter of the horses' hoofs on the wet asphalt, the sharp closing of the cab door, the rattle of the wheel-tires across the steel car-tracks, and he was gone. A moment later they were dipping up the avenue between two long rows of undulating lights, with the rain drifting in on their faces.
Then Keenan turned and looked down at the woman beside him. During several minutes of unbroken silence Frank nursed the dim consciousness of his keen and scrutinizing glance. But her mind seemed encaged in a body that was already dead; she had neither the will nor the power to look up at him.
Then, with no warning word or gesture, he stooped down and kissed her on her heavy red mouth.
At any other time, she knew, she would have fought against that tainting touch; every drop of red blood in her body would have risen to combat it. But now she neither repulsed it nor responded to it. She seemed submerged and smothered in a tide of terrible indifference. She even found herself weighing the meaning of that affront to all that was not ignoble in her.
She even caught at it, with an inward gasp of enlightenment. It meant more than she had at first seen. It brought a new scene to the shifting drama; it meant a new turn to the hurrying game. It meant that if she only waited, and could be wise and wary and calculating, she still might hug to her breast some tattered hope for the impending end.
She knew that Keenan was still watching her; she knew that he was, in some manner, being torn between contending feelings, that some obliterating impulse was falling between him and that grim concert of forces of which he was a member. It was the shadow of passion falling across the paths of duty—it was the play and the problem as old as the world.
And what was she, then? That was the question she asked herself, with a little sobbing gasp—what was she, trading thus, even in thought, on her bruised and wearied body? What had she fallen to, what was it that had deadened all that was softer and better and purer within her, that she could thus see slip away from her the last solace and dignity of her womanhood?
There, she told herself bitterly, lay the degradation and the ultimate danger of the life she had led. It was there that the grimmer tragedy came into her career. The surrender of ever greater and greater hostages to expediency, the retreat to ever meaner and meaner instruments of activity, the gradual induration of heart and soul, the desperate and ever more desperate search for self-deceiving extenuations, for self-blinding condonement, for pitiful and distorting self-propitiation—in these lay the inward corruption, more implacably and more terribly tragic than any outward blow! She had once deluded herself with the thought that a life of crime might lose at least half of its evil by losing all of its grossness. She had even consoled herself with the thought that it was the offender against life who saw deepest into life. It was but natural, she had always argued with herself, that the thwarted consciousness, that the erring and suffering heart, should yield deeper insight into the dark and complicated ranges of spiritual truth than could the soul forever untried and unshaken. The tempted and troubled heart, from its lonely towers of unhappiness, must ever see further into the meaning of things than could those comfortably normal and healthy souls who suffered little because they ventured little. She had ventured much, and she had lost much. She had thought to hold some inmost self aloof and immune. She had dreamed that some inward irreproachability of thought, some light-hearted tact of open conduct, might leave still untainted that deeper core of thought and feeling which she had long thought of as conscience, while some deceiving and sophistical transmutation of values whispered to her adroitly that in some way all good might be bad, and that all bad might in some way be good.
But that, she now knew, was a mockery. She was the sum of all that she had thought and acted. She was a disillusioned and degraded and unscrupulous woman, steeped in enormities so dark that it appalled and sickened her even to recall them. She was only the empty and corroded shell of a woman, all that once aspired and lived and hoped in her eaten away by the acid currents of that underground world into which she had fallen.
Yet rather than it should end in that slow and mean and sordid inner tragedy of the spirit, she told herself fiercely, she would fling open her last arsenal of passion and come to her end in some ironic blaze of glory that would at least lend sinister radiance to a timelessly base and sorry eclipse. So she lay back in Keenan's clasp quiescently, unresistingly, but watchfully. For she knew that the end, whatever it might be, was not far away.
THE CROWN OF IRON
Durkin's first feeling, as he scrambled to his feet and half-stumbled, half-groped his way along the narrow, tunnel-like passage, was an untimely and impotent and almost delirious passion to get out into the open and fight—fight to the last, if need be, for all that narrowing life still held for him. This feeling was followed by a quick sense of frustration as he realized his momentary helplessness and how comprehensive and relentless seemed the machinery of intrigue opposing him.
Yet, he told himself with that lightning-like rapidity of thought which came to him at such moments of peril, however intricate and vast the machinery, however carefully planned the line of impending campaign, the human element would be an essential part of it. And his last forlorn hope, his final fighting chance, lay in the fact that wherever the human element entered there also entered weakness and passion and the possibility of accident.
What now remained to him, he warned himself as he hurriedly locked and barred the two steel doors which shut off the first and second passageway, was to think quickly and act decisively. Somewhere, at some unforeseen moment, his chance might still come to him.
As for himself, he felt that he was safe enough, for the time being. The officer who had detected him in the manhole would be sure to follow up a case so temptingly suspicious. The police, in turn, could take open advantage of an intrusion so obviously unauthorized and ominous as his own, and find in it ample excuse for investigating a quarter which for many months must have been under suspicion. But, under any circumstances, well guarded as that poolroom fortress stood, its resistance could be only a matter of time, and of strictly limited time, once the reserves were on the scene.
Durkin's first thought, accordingly, was of the roof, for, so far as he knew, all escape from the ground floor was even then cut off. Yet the first door leading from the vault chamber he found to be steel-bound and securely locked. He surmised, with a gasp of consternation, that the doors above him would be equally well secured. He remembered that Penfield never did things by halves, and he felt that his only escape lay in that upward flight.
So he saw that it was to be a grim race in demolition; that while he was to gnaw and eat his way upward through steel and brick, like a starving rat boring its passage up through the chambers of a huge granary, his pursuers would be pounding and battering at the lower doors in just as frenzied pursuit.
He no longer hesitated, but moved with that clear-thoughted rapidity of action which often came to him in his moments of half-delirium. Turning to his tool-bag and scooping out his bar of soap, he kneaded together enough of the nitroglycerine from one of the stout rubber bags to make a mixture of the consistency of liquid honey. This he quickly but carefully worked into the crack of the obstructing door. Then he attached his detonator, and shortened and lighted his fuse, scuttling back to the momentary shelter of the outer passage, making sure to be beyond the deadly "feathered radius" of the nitro.
There he waited behind the steel-bound door for the coming detonation. The sound of it smote him like a blow on the chest, followed by a rush of air and a sudden feeling of nausea.
But he did not wait. He groped his way in, relocked the passage door and crawled on all fours through the smoke and heavy, malodorous gases.
The remnants of the blasted door hung, like a tattered pennon, on one twisted hinge, and his way now lay clear to the ladder of grilled ironwork leading to the floor above. But here the steel trapdoor again barred his progress. One sharp twist and wrench with his steel lever, however, tore the bolt-head from its setting, and in another half-minute he was standing on the closed door above, shutting out the noxious smoke from the basement.
Between him and the stairway stood still another fortified door, heavier than the others. He did not stop to knead his paste, for already he could hear the crash of glass and the sound of sledges on the door at the rear of the cigar-shop. Catching up a strand of what he knew to be the most explosive of all guncottons—it was cellulose-hexanitrate—he worked it gently into the open keyhole and again scuttled back to safety as the fuse burnt down.
He could feel the building shake with the tremor of the detonation, shake and quiver like a ship pounded by strong head seas. A remote window splintered and crashed to the floor, sucked in by the atmospheric inrush following the explosion-vacuum. He noticed, too, as he mounted the narrow stairs before him, that he was bleeding at the nose. But this, he told himself, was no time for resting. For at the head of the second stairway still another sheet of armored steel blocked his passage, and still again the hurried, hollow detonation shook the building. The ache in his head, behind and above the eyes, became almost unbearable; his stomach revolted at the poisonous gases through which he was groping. But he did not stop.
As he twisted and pried with his steel lever at the lock of the trapdoor that stood between him and the open air of the housetop, he could already hear the telltale splintering of wood and sharp orders and muffled cries and the approaching, quick tramping of feet. He fought at the lock like a madman, for by this time the trampling feet were mounting the upper stairs, and doors were being battered and wrenched from their hinges. He had at least made their work easy for them; he had torn open the heart of Penfield's stronghold; he had blazed a path for those officers of the law who had bowed before the inaccessibility of the building he had disrupted single-handed!
"Good!" he cried, in his frenzied delight. "Give it to them good! Wreck 'em, once for all; put 'em out of business!"
Then he gave a sudden relieving "Ah!"—for the sullen wood had surrendered its bolts, and the door swung open to his upward push. The night wind, cold and damp and clean, swept his hot and grimy face as he pulled himself up through the opening.
Even as he did so he heard the gathering sounds below him growing clearer and clearer. He squatted low in the darkness, and with a furtive eye ever on the dismantled trapdoor, groped his way, gorilla-like, closer and closer to the wall against which he knew the janitor's ladder to be still leaning.
Then he dropped flat on his face, and wormed his way toward the nearest chimney, not twelve feet from him, for a wet helmet had emerged from the trap opening. A moment later a lantern was flashing and playing about the rainy roof.
"We've got 'em! Quick, Lanigan; we've got 'em!" cried the helmeted head exultantly, from the trapdoor, to someone below.
The next moment Durkin, prone on his face, heard the crack of a revolver and the impact of the ball as it ricochetted from the roof-tin, not a yard from his feet.
He no longer tried to conceal himself, but, rolling and tumbling toward the eave-cornice, let himself over, and hung and clung there by his hands, while a second ball whistled over him.
He felt desperately along the flat brick surface, with his kicking feet, wondering if he had misjudged his direction, sick with a fear that he might be dangling over an open abyss. He shifted the weight of his body along the cornice ledge, still pawing and feeling, feverishly and ridiculously, with his gyrating limbs. Then a joy of relief swept through him. The ladder was there, and his feet were already on its second step.
As he ran, cat-like, across the lower apartment-house roof, he knew that he stood in full range of his pursuers above, and he knew that by this time they were already crowding out to the cornice-ledge. There was no time for thought. He did not pause to look back at them, to weigh either the problem or the possible consequences in his mind; he only remembered that that afternoon he had noticed five crowded lines of washing swinging in multi-colored disarray at the back of that many-familied hive of life. He hesitated only once, at the sheer edge of the roof, to make sure, in the uncertain half-light, that he was above those crowded lines.
"Let him have it—there he goes!" cried a voice above, and at that too warning note his hesitation took wing.
Durkin leaped out into space, straddling the first line of sodden clothes as he fell. Even in that brief flight the thought came to his mind that it would have been infinitely better for him if the falling rain had not weighted and flattened those sagging lines of washing. Then he remembered, more gratefully, that it was probably only because of the rain that they still swung there.
As his weight came on the first line it snapped under the blow, as did the second, which he clutched with his hands, and the third, which he doubled over, limply, and the fourth, which cut up under his arm-pit. But as he went downward he carried that ever-growing avalanche of cotton and woolen and linen with him, so that when his sprawling figure smote the stone court it fell muffled and hidden in a web of tangled garments.
THE STRAITS OF CHANCE
How his flight ended Durkin never clearly remembered. He had a dim and uneasy memory of the lapse of time, either great or little, the confused recollection of waking to his senses and fighting his way free from a smothering weight of wet and clinging clothes. As he struggled to his feet a stab of pain shot through his left hand, and up through his forearm. It was so keen and penetrating that he surmised, in his blank and unreasoning haste, that he must have torn a chord or broken a bone in his wrist. But on a matter like that, he felt, he could now waste no time.
If he had, indeed, been unconscious, he concluded, it had been but momentary. For as he groped about in search of his hat, dazed and bruised, he found himself still alone and unmolested. Creeping through the apartment-house cellar, and out past the door of the snoring and still undisturbed janitor, he crouched for a waiting moment or two behind an overloaded garbage-can, in the area.
Hearing nothing, he staggered up the narrow stairs to the level of the sidewalk, wet and ragged and disheveled, blackened and soiled and begrimed. The street seemed deserted.
He felt sick and faint and shaken, but he would not give up. He half-stumbled, half-staggered along, splashing through little pools of rain held in depressions of the stone sidewalk, supporting himself on anything that offered, hoping, if this were indeed the end, that he might crawl away into some dark and secluded corner of the city, to hide the humiliating ignominy of it all.
In front of a Chinese laundry window he saw that he could go no further. His first impulse was to creep inside, and make an effort to bribe his way to secrecy, although he knew that within another quarter of an hour the tightening cordon of the police would entirely surround the block.
As he swayed there, hesitating, he heard the thunder of hoofs and the rumble of wheel-tires on the soggy asphalt. His first apprehensive thought was that it would prove to be a patrol-wagon, with police reserves from some neighboring precinct. But as he blinked through the darkness he made out a high-platformed Metropolitan Milk Company's delivery-wagon swinging down toward him.
He staggered, with a slow and heavy wading motion, out to the centre of the street, a strange and spectral figure, with outstretched arms, uttering a sharp and halting cry or two.
The driver pulled up, thirty long and dreary feet past him.
"What in hell d'you want?" he demanded irately, raising his whip to start his team once more, as he caught a clearer view of the seemingly drunken figure.
"I'll give you a fiver," said Durkin thickly, "if you'll gi' me a lift!"
He held the money in his hand, as he stumbled and panted to the wagon-step. That put an end to all argument.
"Climb in, then—quick!" cried the big driver, as he caught his passenger by a tattered coat sleeve and helped him up into the high-perched seat.
"But for the love o' God, who's been doin' things to you?" he went on, in amazement, as he saw the bruised and bleeding and ash-colored face.
"They threw me out o' their damned dope shop!" cried Durkin, with an only half-simulated thickness of utterance, as he jerked a shaking thumb toward the lights of the Chinese laundry. "And I guess—I'm—I'm a bit knocked out!"
For he felt very weak and faint and weary, though the cold rain and the open night air beat on his upturned face with a sting that was gratefully refreshing.
"They certainly did make a mess o' you!" chortled the unmoved driver, as they rumbled westward and took the corner with a skid of the great wheels that struck fire from even the wet car-tracks. He tucked the bill down in his oil-coat pocket.
"Feelin' sick, ain't you?"
"Where d'you want to go?" he asked more feelingly.
"Where d'you go?" parried Durkin.
"Hoboken Ferry, for th' Lackawanna Number Eight!"
"Then that'll do me," answered the other weakly.
He leaned back in his high and rocking seat, grasping the back rail with his right hand. He felt as if the waves of a troubled and tumultuous sea were throwing him up, broken and torn, on some island of possible safety. He felt dizzy, as though he were being tossed and plunged forward to some narrow bar of impending release and rest. He did not ask of himself just what seas boomed and thundered on the opposing side of that narrow stretch of promised security. He knew that they were there, and he knew that the time would soon come when he must face and feel them about him. He had once demanded rest; but he knew that there now could be no rest for him, until the end. He might hide for a day or two, like a hunted animal with its hurt, but the hounds of destiny would soon be at his heels again. All he asked, he told himself, was his man's due right of momentary relapse, his breathing spell of quietness. He was already too stained and scarred with life to look for the staidly upholstered sanctuaries, the padded seclusions of simple and honest wayfarers. He was broken and undone, but his day would come again.
He looked at his limp and trailing left hand. To his consternation, he saw that it dripped blood. He tried to push back his coat sleeve, but the pain was more than he could endure. So with his right hand he lifted the helpless arm up before his eyes, as though it were something not his own flesh and blood, and for the first time saw the splinter of bone that protruded from the torn flesh, just below the wrist-joint.
He felt for his handkerchief, dizzily, and tried to bandage the wound. This he never accomplished, for with a sudden little gasp he fainted away, and fell prone across the oil-skinned lap of the big driver.
That astounded person drew up in alarm at the side entrance of a street-corner saloon. He was on the point of repeating his sturdy call for help, when a four-wheeler swung in beside his wagon-step, and delivered itself of a square-shouldered, heavy-jawed figure, muffled to the ears in a rain-coat. The newcomer took in the situation with a rapid and comprehensive glance of relief.
"So there he is, at last!" he said, as he came forward and caught up the relaxed and still unconscious figure.
"Where'd you get a license for buttin' in on this?" expostulated the surprised driver.
"Buttin' in?" cried the man in the raincoat, as he lifted the limp figure in his great, gorilla-like arms. "This isn't buttin' in—this is takin' care o' my own friends!"
"Friend o' yours, then, is he?" queried the weakening driver.
"A friend o' mine!" cried the other angrily, for his man was already safely in the cab. "You damned can-slinger, d'you suppose I'm wastin' cab-fare doin' church rescue work? Of course he's a friend o' mine.
"And not only that," he added, under his breath, as he swung up into the cab and gave the driver the number of Penfield's uptown house, "and not only that—he's a friend o' mine who's worth just a little over a quarter of a million to me!"
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
It was slowly, almost reluctantly, that Durkin returned to full and clear-thoughted consciousness. Even before he had opened his eyes he realized that he was in a hurrying carriage, for he could feel every sway and jolt of the thinly cushioned seat. He could also hear the beat of the falling rain on the hood-leather, and on the glass of the door beside him, as he lay back in the damp odors of wet and sodden upholstery.
Then he half-opened his eyes, slowly, and saw that it was MacNutt beside him.
The discovery neither moved nor startled him; he merely let the heavy lids fall over his tired eyes once more, and lay there, without a movement or a sign.
Tatter by tatter he pieced together the history of the past few hours, and as memory came tardily back to him he knew, in a dim and shadowy way, that he would soon need every alertness of mind and body which he could summon to his help. But still he waited, passive and unbetraying, fighting against a weakness born of great pain and fatigue.
He was keenly conscious of the cab's abrupt stopping, of the passing of money between MacNutt and the lean and dripping night-hawk holding the reins, of being half-carried and half-dragged, in the great, bear-like grasp of his captor, across the wet sidewalk, to the foot of a flight of brownstone steps. These steps were wide and ponderous, and led up to an equally wide and ponderous-looking doorway crowned with ornamental figures of marble on a sandstone background. These carven figures, wet and glistening in the light of the street-lamps, stood out incongruously gloomy and ghostly, like the high relief on a sarcophagus.
Instead of mounting the steps, however, MacNutt hauled his captive limply in under their shadow, to the basement door opening off the stone-flagged area. There, after fumbling with his keys for a moment or two, he quietly unlocked the heavy outer grating of twisted ironwork and then the inner door of oak. Durkin made a mental note of the fact that both of these doors were in turn locked after them.
The two then made their way through the darkness down what must have been a long passage. Its floor was padded with carpet, and some fugitive and indefinable odor seemed to suggest to the prisoner an atmosphere of well-being, of a house both carefully furnished and scrupulously managed.
MacNutt softly opened a door on the right, and, after listening for a cautious moment or two, as softly entered the room into which this door led. And still again a key was turned and withdrawn from the lock.
Even with his eyes closed Durkin, as he lay there husbanding his strength, was conscious of the sudden light that flooded the room. Covertly opening that eye which remained in the heavy shadow, separating the lashes by little more than the width of a hair, he could make out a large room, upholstered and carpeted in green, with green-shaded electroliers above two billiard tables that stood ghastly and bier-like beneath their blanketing covers of white cotton. Against the walls stood massive, elephantine club chairs of green fumed oak, and it was into one of these that MacNutt had dropped the inert and unresponding Durkin. At the far end of the room the stealthy observer could make out what was assuredly the entrance to an electric elevator. In fact, as he looked closer he could see the two mother-of-pearl buttons which controlled the apparatus; for it was plain that this elevator was one of those automatic lifts not uncommon in city residences of the more palatial order.
Then, as he quietly but busily speculated on the significance of this discovery, Durkin suddenly caught sight of a triple crescent carved on the arm of the chair against which he leaned. And as he made out that familiar device he knew that he was in Penfield's uptown house once used as his residence and later as his private clubrooms.
At this discovery his alert but well-veiled glance went back to MacNutt. He saw his captor fling off his wet and draggled raincoat and then shake the water from a dripping hat-brim. This he seemed to do without haste and without emotion.
Durkin next saw his enemy gaze about the entire circle of the room scrutinizingly, the subdolous green eyes coming to a rest only when they fell on his own relaxed figure.
"And this is where the music starts!" muttered MacNutt aloud, as he strode toward Durkin.
Even before he had uttered that half-articulate little sentence his captive was possessed by a sudden conviction of approaching climax. He knew, somewhere deep in the tangled roots of consciousness, that either he or the other must go down that night, that one was destined to win and that the other was destined to lose, that the ancient fight was about to be settled, and settled for all time.
In that agonized and hurried and yet lucid-thoughted summing up of ultimate values Durkin realized that it would be useless to resist what was immediately before him. He was too shaken and weak for any crude battle of brute strength against brute strength. With his wounded hand, which even then sent throbbing spears of pain from finger-tip to shoulder, and with his bruised and weary and stiffened body, he knew that any test of strength in the muscular and ape-like arms of MacNutt was out of the question. So he lay back, weak and unresisting, every now and then emitting from his half-opened lips a little moan of pain.
But behind the torn and battered ramparts of the seemingly comatose body his vigilant mind paced and watched and kept keenly awake. As he felt the great hands pad and feel about his body, and the searching fingers go through his clothes, pocket after pocket, some sentinel intelligence seemed to watch and burn and glow like a coal deep within the ashes of all his outer fatigue. He waited quiescent, as he felt the heated, animal-like breath on his face, as the ruthlessly exploring hands tore open his vest, as they ripped away the inner pocket which had been so carefully sewn together at the top, as they drew out the tied and carefully sealed packet of papers for which he had been searching.
More than once Durkin thought that if ever those documents, for which he had endured and suffered and lost so much, were again wrested from him, it would be only after some moment of transcendent conflict, after some momentous battle of life's forlornest last reserves. Yet now, impassively and ignominiously, he was surrendering them to the conqueror, supinely, meanly, without even the solace of some supreme if vain resistance! He listened to MacNutt's gloating little "Ah!" of triumph without a sign or movement. But, even then, in that moment of seeming frustration, Durkin's subterranean yet terrible pertinaciousness, his unparaded bull-dog indefatigability, glowed and burned at its brightest. They were not yet in their last ditch.
"That's one part of it!" muttered MacNutt, as he stowed away the packet and rebuttoned his coat.
It was a shadowed and lupine eye which Durkin cautiously opened as he felt more than heard MacNutt's quick footsteps on the carpeted floor. Covertly, and without moving, he saw the other man walk to the elevator, saw the play of his finger on the mother-of-pearl button, saw the automatic door noiseless slide away, and the descended and waiting cage locked on a level with the floor. He saw MacNutt step inside, and the finger again play on one of a row of five pearl buttons set in the polished wood of the cage-wall, and the elevator noiselessly ascend.
The moment it went up Durkin was on his feet.
He first ran to the two doors at the opposite end of the billiard-room. They were both securely locked; and they were his only means of escape. Then he hurriedly circled the two huge tables, in search of some implement of defense. But the denuded room offered nothing.
Then he dashed to the elevator shaft. As he had surmised, it was an automatic electric lift, operating from the cellar below to the top of the house. The cage, so far as he could make out, now stood opposite the third floor. The controlling apparatus, the motor into which the power wires led, was, of course, in the cellar beneath him. It would be easy enough to twist one of the billiard-table covers into a rope, and drop down to the shaft-bottom, twelve feet below. There he could tie a bit of string to the emergency switch, watch the first movement of the descending cage, and shut off the current at the right moment. That would mean that the descending cage, robbed of its power, would hang a dead weight in its steel channel, the safety brake would automatically apply itself, and anybody within the cage would remain locked and imprisoned there, halfway between floors, helpless to descend or ascend, hemmed in by the four blank walls of the shift.
He decided not even to waste time on twisting up a table-cover. He would hang by his right hand, and drop to the bottom. But a sudden glint and flutter of light reminded him of his danger. The cage was descending.
It was only a matter of seconds before MacNutt stepped once more from the cage into the billiard-room, yet as he did so he saw nothing but the still limp and relaxed form of Durkin, huddled back in his huge chair, emitting from between his half-parted lips an occasional weak groan of pain.
A gloating and half-demoniacal chuckle broke from the newcomer's lips. In one hand he carried a decanter of brandy, in the other a seltzer siphon. Durkin could hear the gurgle and ripple of the liquid into the glass; a moment later he knew that MacNutt was bending over him.
"Here, you, wake up out o' that!" he said, with still another chuckle of ominous glee.
He shook the relaxed figure roughly.
"Get awake, there! This is too good—this is something you can't afford to miss, you damned welcher!"
He poured the scalding liquor down the other's throat. Some of it spilled and ran into the hollow of his neck; some of it dribbled on his limp collar and his coat lapels. But Durkin took what he could, and was glad of it. The pain of his wounded arm was very acute.
"Kind o' recalls our first meetin', eh?" demanded MacNutt, as he watched the other slowly open his wondering eyes. "Kind o' remind you of the day I loosened you up with brandy and seltzer, that first time I had to drag and coax you into this dirty business?"
And again his captor laughed, wickedly, mirthlessly.
"Go on, take some more! I'm goin' to give you enough to light you all to glory!" he gloated. And still he poured the liquor down the unresisting man's throat.
He dragged the other to his feet.
"Come on now, quick! There's a little scene waitin' for you upstairs—something that'll kind o' soothe and console you for gettin' so done up!"
They were in the elevator by this time, mounting noiselessly upward. Durkin could feel the fire of the brandy soar up to his brain and sing through his veins. MacNutt supported him as they stepped from the elevator cage into a darkened room. On the far side of this room, from between two heavy portieres, a gash of light cut into the otherwise unbroken gloom.
A sound of voices floated out to them and MacNutt tightened his grip on the other's arm, as they stood and listened, for it was Frances Durkin and Keenan talking together, hurriedly, impetuously, earnestly.
"But does it make any difference what I have been, or who I am?" the woman's voice was asking. "I did my part; I did my work for you. Now you ought to give me a chance!"
Still holding the other back, MacNutt circled sidewise, until they came into the line of vision with the unsuspecting pair in the other room. Keenan, they could see, held one heavy hand on the woman's shoulder, intimately; and she, in turn, looked up into his face, in an attitude as open and intimate.
"You know, now, what I have known before you!" whispered MacNutt, into the ear of the tortured Durkin.
"You lie!" murmured Durkin's lips, but no sound came from them, for his staring eyes were still on the scene before him.
"Listen then, you fool!" was all his tempter whispered back. And they stood together, listening.
"But I am giving you a chance," Keenan next replied, and his long, melancholy Celtic face was white and colorless with emotion. "I'm giving you the only chance that life holds for both of us!"
"I know it!" said the woman.
Keenan's arms went out to her, and she did not draw back. Instead, she reached up her own seemingly wearied and surrendering arms, without a word, and held him there in her obliterating embrace. He swayed a little, where he stood, and for a moment neither moved nor spoke.
MacNutt, narrowly watching the shadowy face of Durkin, saw pictured on that pallid and changing countenance fear and revolt, one momentary touch of despairing doubt, and then a mounting and all-consuming passion of blind rage.
In that drunken rage seemed to culminate all his misgivings, his suspicions, his apparent betrayals of the past. He trembled and shook like a man in a vertigo; the fingers of his upraised right hand opened and closed spasmodically; his flaccid lips fell apart, vacuously, insanely.
"I'll kill her!" he ejaculated under his breath. MacNutt knew that his moment had come.
Without a spoken word he caught his revolver up from his coat pocket. Then he thrust it, craftily, into the other man's hand.
The insane fingers closed on the handle of it, the glaring and expressionless eye peered along the steadying barrel. MacNutt held his breath, and waited. It must be soon, he knew, before the moment of madness had burnt itself out.
The woman under the white light of the electrolier drew back from Keenan, with her eyes still on his face, so that her head and shoulders stood out, a target of black against the white fore-ground. Then she drew one hand quickly across her forehead, and, wheeling slowly, let her puzzled glance sweep the entire circle of the room, until once more her eyes rested upon the expectant eyes of Keenan.
Durkin, through all his rage, shut his teeth on a sudden sob. It was all over. It was the end.
A change suddenly swept across the woman's face, a light of exaltation leaped into her dilated pupils, and her hand went up to her heart.
Was it some small sound or movement that she had heard, or was it some minute vibration of floor that she had felt?
"Jim, it's you!" she shrilled out suddenly, into the heavy silence, in a tense and high soprano, with a voice not like her own.
"Jim, where are you?" she called passionately, as she beat Keenan impotently back with her naked hands. "Help me, quick! Can't you see I need you? Can't you see this is killing me?"
Keenan fell back before her, aghast.
"You fool, you weak fool!" she shrieked at him madly. "Do you think I meant that? Do you dream I could respect or care for an animal like you! Do you imagine I would endure the touch of your hands, if it wasn't to save me till this? Do you dream——?"
She stopped suddenly, for with one sweep of his advancing arm Durkin tore the heavy portiere from its curtain-rings, and he stood before them, in the flat white light of the electrics.
THE LAST DITCH
Durkin advanced into the room quickly, the revolver in his right hand. It was a short-barreled bull-dog gun of heavy caliber, ugly and menacing as it swung from his out-thrust wrist, held low, with the right elbow pressed close in to his side. In the doorway stood MacNutt. His eyes were staring, his bullock head thrown back, bewildered at the sudden change that one sweep of an arm had brought to the scene.
As Durkin edged craftily round, with his back to the side wall, so that his eye commanded the silent trio before him, Frank made a movement to draw away from Keenan, who stood grotesquely petrified, his lean jaw fallen, the melancholy Celtic face touched more with wonder than with fear.
"Don't move!" commanded her husband, as he saw the motion. "Stay where you are!"
She looked at him, as bewildered as the others.
"That man, you'll find, is armed."
"You lie—you fool!"
"That man, I say, is armed!"
Keenan laughed, scoffingly.
"Take his revolver from him!" commanded Durkin.
A momentary hesitation held her back.
"Take it, I say! And, by God, if he so much as moves a finger, I'll blow the top of his head off!"
The woman confronted Keenan once more, but he fell back a step or two.
"There's no need of that," he broke in angrily. "If you want the gun, I'll give it to you!"
And as he spoke his arm swung down and back to his hip pocket.
"Stop that!" cried Durkin sharply, as he saw the movement. "Keep those hands up, or, by heaven, I'll let you have it!"
His arm, by this time, was tense and rigidly out-stretched, and his steady pistol-barrel pointed just between the other man's ludicrously blinking eyes. In the silence that followed the woman reached back, and without further hesitation drew the revolver from the motionless man's pocket.
It was a formidable, long-barreled "Colt," which, with one sharp motion of the fingers, she promptly unlimbered, exposing the breech. In each cylinder chamber, she saw, lay a loaded cartridge. Once assured of this, she snapped shut the breech and balanced the gun in the purposeful embrace of her fingers.
"Now what?" she asked, with her eyes turned to her husband. But the triumph suddenly died out of her face.
She was only in time to hear Durkin's sharp cry of anger, and to see his quick spring through the wide door-way, as the guard-door of the elevator closed and the cage shot up into space.
"We've missed him!" he gasped, with a cry of rage, as he ran to the door through which MacNutt, in that moment of excitement, had disappeared.
Frank kept her eyes on Keenan. She, too, began to feel the sense of some vast finality in their moves and actions that night.
Keenan laughed. It was a dry and joyless laugh, but it was discouraging.
"What's on the floor above?" demanded Durkin, wheeling on him.
"The floor above," slowly responded the other, "is Richard Penfield's private offices, where his safe is, and where your friend, no doubt, is now depositing his valuables, behind a burglar-proof time-lock!"
"Oh, that's it, is it!" cried Durkin. He turned to the woman sharply.
"Frank, quick! Leave Keenan to me!"
"Yes!" she answered, with coerced attention.
"MacNutt must not get out of this house! We must stop him before he gets down this shaft. You go down by the stairs, quick, to the lowest basement. You'll find the motor operating the elevator. What you must do is to get to the switch, and shut off the power before this car can get past us! Quick!"
He still faced Keenan, but his eye followed her to the door.
"If he does come, kill him; shoot him down, I say, like a dog—or he'll kill you!"
He could hear, through those silent hallways, the muffled rustling of her skirts and the sound of her flying feet on the waxed and polished wood. Then the silence suddenly became oppressive.
It was the unseen foe that he was afraid of, the undiscerned force that he feared. His uneasy and alert mind struggled to grasp the problem of how and where MacNutt would strike, if strike he did, out of the darkness of that silent and deserted house.
Durkin decided that above all things he must render impossible the descent of the elevator cage. But for a moment he could think of no bar that might be flung across the path of that complex and almost irresistible machinery, once awakened into its full power. Then the solution of the riddle came to him.
Still menacing the silent Keenan with his revolver, he flung over, with one quick and reckless push of his foot, the heavy mahogany table that stood in the centre of the room.
Then he turned to Keenan.
"Push that table out into the elevator shaft!" he ordered. The other man did not move. And time was precious; every second was precious!
Durkin repeated his command.
"Furniture-moving is not my vocation!" answered Keenan, folding his arms.
As Durkin sprang forward, there was no mistaking his meaning.
"I'll count ten," he said, white-lipped. "Unless the table goes out, you go out!" And he began counting, silently, numeral by numeral.
"Well, if you insist!" said Keenan, with a shrug.
Even as Keenan, at the menace of his reiterated command to hurry, threw open the guard door, Durkin was wondering, in his feverish activity of mind, just how soon MacNutt's next move would come, and just how and where he would strike.
The answer to that question came more quickly than he had expected. And it came grimly, and in a manner most unlooked for.
For even as the reluctant Keenan stooped over the heavy table, not ten feet from the shaft, the elevator cage descended. It flashed by the open door without stopping on its hurried course. But as it winged past that square of open light a revolver shot rang out and reechoed through the room.
Durkin, peering across the curling smoke, saw Keenan pitch forward on his hands, struggle and thrash to his feet once more, like a wounded rabbit. Then he fell again, prone on his face, close beside the shaft door. There he lay, breathing in little gurgles.
Durkin, with little beads of sweat on his pallid face, realized what it meant. That flying shot had been intended for him. MacNutt, in that desperate and hurried and unreasoning last chance, had delivered his blow, but had been mistaken in his man!
This knowledge flashed through his mind with the rapidity of a kinetoscope plate, and a moment later was obliterated by still another hurrying impression. For, through the deserted house rang two short and terrified screams, high-pitched and piercing. They were a woman's screams, and he knew they could come from no one but Frank.
He turned and hurled himself down the stairway, without even waiting to recover the revolver that had fallen a minute before from his startled fingers. He was conscious only of flinging the weight of his sliding body on the flume-like surface of the smooth balustrade, with his feet clattering on the polished steps as he went. He turned and dashed on to the head of the next stairway, and in the same manner flung himself to the floor beneath, and then to the next, and the next, until he was in the gloom of the basement itself.
Breathless and panting, he groped his way through the darkness, to where a glimmer of light came from what he hurriedly took to be the engine-room.
There, as he darted through the narrow doorway, into the circle of dim light from the one tinted globe in the lowered elevator cage, a strange sight met his eyes. It shocked and flung him into a second or two of blank indecision, of volitionless and thoughtless inactivity. For one moment of ominous calm it smote and held him there, before the sudden blind, cyclonic rush of brain and body which the vision gave rise to.
For at the door of the open cage MacNutt and Frank fought and struggled and panted together. The man was inside, on the bottom of the cage, the woman was outside it. Her huddled but still resisting body was locked and jammed halfway across the narrow door. One of her opponent's great, ape-like strangling arms was about her neck. But the fingers at the end of it were caught between her strong white carnivorous teeth; and they became stained with blood as, in her frenzy, she fought and bit and struggled, with the blind fury of some final despair. Her revolver she had been unable to use; it lay out of her reach, behind them on the floor of the cage.
MacNutt, as he strained and tore at her resisting body, was fighting and edging his way with her back into the cage, to where that waiting revolver lay. He himself was already well within the narrow opening, sprawled out red and disheveled and Titanesque on the cage floor. But she was resisting him, inch by inch, fighting desperately, like a cornered cat, for her very life, yet knowing there could be only one end to that uneven conflict.
Durkin, after one comprehending glance, followed his first animal impulse of offense, and descended on MacNutt, beating at the prone, bull-like head, with its claret-colored bald spot, across which ran one livid scratch. He pounded on the clustered fingers of the gorilla-like hand, crushing and bruising them against the gilded iron grill-work, through which was interwoven the Penfield triple crescent.
The clutching arms relaxed, but only for a moment. In that moment, however, Durkin had stooped and with the one hand that remained with him to use, struggled to tear Frank away from the deadly clutch. This he would surely have done had not MacNutt seen his chance, and with his free hand suddenly caught at the wounded wrist that hung stained and limp at his enemy's side. That sudden, savage torture of the lacerated flesh was more than the weak and exhausted body of Durkin could endure. He emitted one little involuntary cry; then every protesting nerve and sinew capitulated, a white light seemed to flash and burn at the base of his very brain, and then go out. He fell fainting on the hard maple floor.
For a moment or two, like a defeated prize-fighter, he panted and struggled, ludicrously yet pathetically, to rise to his feet, but the effort was futile.
It was as he found himself ebbing down through some soft and feathery emptiness that he seemed to hear a pitiful and imploring voice call thinly out, "Mack!" Still fainter he seemed to hear it, "Mack! Come up! I'm dying!" He remembered, lazily, that it sounded like the distant voice of Keenan—but where was Keenan?
Then he seemed to hear the purr and murmur of distant machinery, followed by a gentle puff of sound and what he hazily dreamed was the smell of powder smoke. Then he remembered no more.
* * * * * *
Just how or at what juncture he lost consciousness he could never clearly remember. But his first tangible impression was the knowledge that his wife was once more pouring brandy down his throat and imploring him to hurry. Then the sound of muffled blows echoed from above.
"Quick, Jim, oh, quick, or it will be too late. No, not that way. We can't go by the front—that's cut off. By the back—this way—I've got everything open!"
"But what's the noise?" asked Durkin weakly.
"That's the police, with a fireman's axe, breaking in the front door. But, see, it's not too late! These steps take us up to the back court, and this iron gate opens on a lane that runs from the supply department of the hotel there, right through to the open street!"
He shambled after her, white and tottering.
"Quick, Jim, quick!" she reiterated, as she supported him through the low gate, and kept her arm in his as they passed down the dark lane, with its homely smells of early cookery and baking bread. Only one passion possessed them—the blind and persistent and unreasoning passion for escape, for freedom.
"But MacNutt—where's MacNutt?" demanded Durkin, coming to a stop.
"No—no—quick!" gasped Frank, tugging at his arm.
"I tell you I've got to have it out with that man!" protested the pitiably dazed but dogged combatant at her side.
"You can't, Jim!"
"But I've got to!"
"You can't—you can't," she moaned, "for he's dead!"
A sudden sickening fear crept through his aching bones, seeming to leave them fluid, like wax.
"You—you did it?" he asked unsteadily. The face he gazed into looked aged and worn and pallid in the dim half-light of the breaking morning. A sudden great pity for her tore at his heart.
"No," she cried fiercely. "No—not me!"
But she was still tugging insanely at his obdurate arm. "I tell you, Jim, you must hurry, or it will be too late!"
"Thank God!" he gasped, scarcely hearing her pleadings.
They were skirting three early delivery-wagons, waiting to unload at the supply door of the hotel. A boy passing in the street beyond was shrilly whistling "Tammany."
"Tell me—now!" demanded Durkin.
"When you fainted MacNutt reached back for the revolver. He would have shot you, only Keenan called for him. He cried down the shaft that he was dying. He—he must have pushed the button as he fell. MacNutt was still on the floor of the cage, leaning out to take aim at us. Then the steel of the shaft-door and the steel of the elevator cage as it went up came to—oh—I can't tell you now!"
Durkin came to a stop, swaying against her.
"You mean the cage worked automatically, that it went up, with MacNutt still leaning out?"
"Yes!" gasped the woman brokenly; and Durkin felt the shiver of the tortured body on which he leaned.
He was silent as they swung into the open street. His exhausted and uncooerdinating brain was idly busy with some vague impression of the poignant irony of that end, of how that uncomprehending yet ineluctable power with which this man had toyed and played and sinned had, at the ultimate moment, established its authority and exacted its right.
He pulled himself up with a fluttering gasp, weak, sick, overcome, and was wordlessly grateful for the sustaining arm at his side.
For, once in the open, they were walking eastward, without a sense, momentarily, of either direction or destination.
Above the valley of the mist-hung street a thin and yellow light showed where morning was coming on, tardily, thickly. The boy whistling "Tammany" passed out of hearing.
"Thank God! oh, thank God!" Frank suddenly sobbed out, tossed and exalted on a wave of blind gratitude.
"God?" moaned the defeated and unhappy man at her side, dragging painfully on with his bruised and bitter body. "What has God to do with all this—or with us?"
She could not answer. She saw only a wide and gloomy vista of tangled crime and offense, stretching back into the past, as the tumbled and huddled waves of a sea run out to its crowding skyline. But it was the sea that had delivered them.
Broken, frustrated and defeated, hunted and homeless, without consolation for her Yesterday or respect for her Today, she looked up at the slowly wakening morning with a feeling that seemed to fuse and blend into the fiercest of joy.
Then the momentary exaltation died out of her weary body. They had life—but life was not enough! A sense of something within her falling and crumbling away, a silence of dark questioning and indecision, took possession of her.
Then out of her misery she cried still again, passionately, persistently, as she clutched and clung to him, her mate for whom and with him she was once destined to be a wanderer over the face of the earth:
"There must be a God! I tell you, there must be a God. He has let us escape!"
The man looked at her, questioningly.
"Don't you understand? This is the last?"
"Yes—yes, the last! You said it would be never again, if once you escaped from this!"
He had forgotten. But the woman at his side, holding him up, had remembered.
"Come!" she said. And they went on again.
ONE YEAR LATER—AN EPILOGUE
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 first 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!"