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By Arthur Stringer
THE discharged prisoner hung back, blinking out at the strong sunlight. When the way at last seemed clear, he thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and sauntered carelessly toward Sixth avenue. At the comer, a crowd of idlers watched two men on a scaffolding, cleaning the stone of Jefferson Market with a sand-blast. It was not until he had shuffled his way in on one side of this crowd, and edged circuitously out on the other that he felt at ease with the world. It was like dipping into a stream; it seemed to wash away something scarlet and flaming. A touch of the familiar bravado came back to his boyish face; each insouciant shoulder took on its old line of reckless amiability.
He crossed Sixth avenue with quicker steps, and pushed his way into a saloon on the comer of Tenth street, vaguely wondering what the next turn of life's wheel would bring to him. But, at heart, he was still sick and shaken and weak. He called for a beer, and, between gulps of it, swallowed down slices of pickled beets and the last of the free-lunch bread and crackers. Seeing the bartender eying him angrily, he laughed, conciliatingly, and put down his last nickel for another beer.
It was not until then that he noticed the stranger beside him, looking at him pointedly. He was corpulent, and friendly enough of face, but for the blocked squareness of the flaccid jaw and the indefinite pale-green glint to the deep-set, predatory eyes. He was floridly dressed, with a heavy, chased-gold band oh one fat finger, and a small, diamond stud in his shirt-front. There was, too, something beefily animal-like in his confident, massive neck, and the discharged prisoner returned his half-quizzical gaze of inspection with a glare unmistakably belligerent. The stranger merely smiled, and leaned amiably against the bar.
"What'll you have, Durkin?" he asked, easily.
The other still glared at him in silence.
"Climb down, my boy; climb down, and have something with me!"
"Who're you, anyway?" demanded Durkin, coldly.
"Oh, I was just watchin' you over yonder!" The stout man jerked his head vaguely toward Jefferson Market, and turned to the bartender. "Give us some brandy, Terry, and a plate o' hot beans and sandwiches. Yes, I was kind o' lookin' on over there; you're up against it, aren't you?"
"How d'you mean?" asked the young man, hungrily eying the leg of ham, from which the bartender was shaving dolefully thin slices.
"Here, brace up on a swig of Terry's nose-paint; then we can talk easier. Hold on, though; let's get comfortable!"
He ordered the lunch over to a little round table in the corner. Durkin could already feel the liquor singing through his veins; and he decided to get some hot beans inside him before trying to break away.
"Now, first thing, do you want a cinch on a good job?"
"Maybe," said Durkin, through a mouthful of beans. "Doing what?"
"Same old thing—operating, of course."
Durkin hated to fall out with the stranger while that plate of steaming beans stood still unconsumed; so, he parried for time.
"I'm kind o' sick of operating," he mumbled, washing a mouthful of his lunch down with a glass of brandy. "My arm's giving out."
"Well, I want a man, and I want him quick. You're not very well fixed, maybe?"
"Oh, I'm broke, all right!" laughed the other, weakly, surrendering to some clutching tide of alcoholic recklessness.
"Well, you're a fool to go broke in the teeth of a cinch like this. But first thing, how'd you ever get pinched by Doogan? Here, take a drink—hot stuff, eh? Now, how'd you get pulled that fool way?"
"Oh, I'd been living like a street-cat for a week," said Durkin, wiping his mouth, "and a friend of mine showed me a wire back of his roof, and advanced me five dollars to short-circuit it. Doogan's men caught me at it, and Doogan tried to make me out an ord'nary overhead guerrilla." And, through a mouthful of hot beans, he cursed his captor roundly.
"But you saw he didn't appear against you?"
"Yes, and that's more'n I can get onto," he answered, puzzled by the stranger's quiet smile.
"Say, Durkin, you didn't think it was your good looks got you off, did you?" The younger man looked at him out of half-angry eyes, but the stranger only continued to chuckle in his throat. "I fixed Doogan for you," he went on, easily. "You're the sort of man I wanted—I saw that, first thing; and a friend o' mine kind o' dropped in and saw Doogan!"
The younger man gazed at him in dreamy wonder, trying to grope through the veil of unreality that seemed falling about him. Then, he listened, with suddenly alert eyes, as the stranger, to make sure of his man, tapped with a knife on the edge of his plate. Durkin read the Morse easily—"Don't talk so loud"—and wagged his head childishly over the little message, under the keen eyes of the stranger.
"Where'd you work, before you went with the Postal Union?"
"Up in the woods," laughed the other, as he rambled. "I was a despatcher for the Grand Truk at Komoko, where the tunnel trains cut off west for Chicago; and they work their men like dogs. Some way or other, I sent an Oddfellows' excursion head on into a gravel-train—saw it twenty minutes before they touched, and wired in my resign."
"But how'd you come to leave the Postal Union?"
A momentary slyness crept into his eyes, but he laughed weakly, and reached out for another drink; the older man shook his head, and held back the bottle.
"Oh, that's another dose of my luck! They black-listed me, damn em!
The other held up a warning finger. "Not so loud! Go on."
"Of course, I went into the P. U. carrying a fly, so I got along all right. But I kind o' wanted to see a little life, and had telegrapher's paralysis coming on, and got sick of the grind. So, when some of the Aqueduct races were going through on a repeater next to me, to Reedy's pool-rooms, I just reached over and held up one side of the repeater. Then, say third horse won, I got over to the window, and took out my handkerchief three times. Then, a friend of mine 'phoned to our man, and when he'd had time to get his money up I sent the result through. But they got onto the dodge, and soaked me!" Then, he added, regretfully, "I'd have made a clear five hundred, if they'd given me another day's chance!"
"Well, I guess maybe you can even up with us." The younger man looked at the other narrowly, unsteady of eye, but still suspicious. Good grafts, he knew, had to be sought for long and arduously on this earth. "I guess I'd rather get something decent," he grumbled, pushing away his bean-plate, but still waiting, with some anxiety, for the other to explain.
"We all would, maybe; but a dead sure thing's good enough, now and then."
"But where's all the money, in this cinch?" demanded Durkin.
"I can't tell you that here, but I'm no piker! Get in a cab with me, and then I'll lay everything out as we drive up to the house. But here, have a smoke!" he added, as he got up and hurried out to the door. Durkin had never dreamed that tobacco—even pure, Havana tobacco—could be so suave and mellow and fragrant.
"Now, you asked me about the money in this deal," the older man began, when he had slammed to the cab-door, and they went rumbling toward Fifth avenue. "Well, it's right here, see!" And, as he spoke, he drew a roll of bills from his pocket. Durkin could see that it was made up of many fifties and one-hundreds. He wondered, dazedly, how many thousands it held; it seemed, of a sudden, to put a new and sobering complexion on things.
"Now, if you want to swing in with us, here's what you get a week." The stranger pulled out four crisp fifty-dollar bills, and placed them in the other's bewildered fingers. "And, if our coup goes through, you get your ten-percent. rake off—and that ought to run you up from five to seven thousand dollars, easy!"
Durkin's fingers closed more tightly on his bills, and he drew in his breath, sharply.
"Who are you, anyway?" he asked, slowly.
"Me? Oh, I'm kind of an outsider operator, same as yourself!" He looked at Durkin, steadily, for a moment, and then, seeming satisfied, suddenly changed his tone. "Did you ever hear of Penfield, the big pool-room man? Well, I've been a plunger at Penfield's now for two months—long enough to see that he's as crooked as they make them. I'm going to give him a dose of his own medicine, and hit that gilt-edged gambler for a slice of his genteel bank-roll—and a good, generous slice, too!"
"But what's—er—your special line of business? How're you going to get at Penfield, I mean?"
"Ever hear of the Miami outfit?" asked the other.
"That cut in and hit the Montreal pool-rooms for eighty thousand?—well, I guess I have—a little!" He looked at the other man, in wonder. Then, it all seemed to dawn on him, in one illuminating, almost bewildering flash.
"You—you're not MacNutt?" he cried, reading his answer almost as he spoke. Half a year before, the Postal Union offices had been full of talk of the Miami Outfit and MacNutt, buzzing with meager news of the audacity and cool insolence of Miami's "lightning-slingers," who, when they saw they had worked their game to a finish, cut in with their, "We've got your dough, now you can go to—" as they made for cover and ultimate liberty ten minutes before their hillside cave was raided, and nothing more than a packing-case holding three dozen Brumley dry batteries, a bunch of "KK" and a couple of Crosby long-distance telephones were found.
Durkin looked at the other man once more, almost admiringly, indeterminately tempted, swayed against his will, in some way, by the splendor of a vast and unknown hazard.
"You're pretty confidential," he said, slowly, looking the other up and down. "What's to stop me squealing on you and the whole gang?"
MacNutt smiled, gently, and stroked his scrawny beard, touched here and there with gray. "What good would all that do you?" he asked.
"You are a cool cuss!" ejaculated the other.
"Oh, I guess I know men; and I sized you up, first thing, in the courtroom. You're the make of man I want, and—well, if you don't come out of this quite a few thousand to the good, it's all your own fault!"
Durkin whistled softly, and looked out at the flashing carriages as they threaded their way up the crowded Avenue. "Well, I guess I'm game enough!" he said, hesitatingly, still trying to sweep from his brain the teasing mental cobweb that it was nothing more than a vivid nightmare. "I guess I'm your man," he repeated, as they turned off the Avenue, and drew up in front of a house with a brown-stone front, much like other private houses in New York's upper Thirties. They jumped out, and went quickly up the broad, stone steps.
"So you're with us, all right?" asked MacNutt, as his finger played oddly on the electric button beside the door.
"Yes, I'm with you," assented Durkin, stoutly, "to the finish!"
It was a full minute before the door opened, and the unlooked-for wait in some way keyed the younger man's curiosity up to the snapping point. As the door swung back, he had the startled vision of a young woman, dressed in sober black, looking half-timidly out at them with her hand still on the knob. As he noticed the wealth of her waving, chestnut hair, and the poise of the head, and the quiet calmness of the eyes, that appeared almost a violet-blue in contrast to the soft pallor of her face, Durkin felt that they had made a mistake in the house number. But, seeing MacNutt step quickly inside, he himself awkwardly took off his hat, and, under the spell of her quiet, almost pensive, smile, he decided that she could be little more than a mere girl, until he noticed the womanly fullness of her breast and hips and what seemed a languid weariness about the eyes themselves. He also noted the sudden telepathic glance that passed between MacNutt and the woman, a questioning flash on her part, an answering flash on the other's. Then she turned to Durkin, with her quiet, carelessly winning smile, and held out her hand, and his heart thumped and pounded more drunkenly than it had with all MacNutt's brandy and seltzer. Then, he heard MacNutt speaking, quickly and evenly.
"This is Mr. Jim Durkin; Durkin, this is Miss Mame Candler. You two're going to have lots o' trouble together, so I guess you'd better get acquainted right here—might as well make it Mame and Jim—you're going to see a mighty good deal of each other!"
"All right, Jim," said the woman, girlishly, in a mellow, English contralto voice; then, she laughed, and Durkin flushed hot and cold as he felt her shaking hands with him once more. Strangely sobered, he stumbled over rugs and polished floors after them, up two flights of stairs, listening, still dazed, to MacNutt's hurried questions and the woman's low answers, which sounded thin and far away to him.
A man named Mackenzie, Durkin gathered from their talk, had been probing about the subway for half a day, and had just strung a wire on which much seemed to depend. They stopped before a heavy, oak-paneled door, on which MacNutt played a six-stroked tattoo. A key turned, and the next moment a middle-aged man in the cap and blue suit of a Consolidated Gas Company inspector, thrust his head cautiously through the opening. The sweat was running down his oily, dirt-smeared face; a look of relief spread over his features at the sight of the others.
The room into which Durkin stepped had once been a sewing-room. In one comer still stood a sewing-machine, in the shadow, incongruously enough, of a large safe with combination lock. Next to this stood a stout work-table, on which was a box relay and a Bunnell sounder. Around the latter were clustered a galvanometer, a 1-2 duplex set, a condenser, and a Wheatstone bridge of the post-office pattern, while about the floor lay coils of copper wire, a pair of lineman's pliers, and a number of scattered tools. Durkin's trained eye saw that the condenser had been in use, to reduce the current from a tapped electric-light wire; while the next moment, his glance fell on a complete wire-tapping outfit, snugly packed away in an innocent-enough looking suit-case. Then, he turned to the two men and the woman, as they bent anxiously over the littered table, where Mackenzie was once more struggling with his instrument, talking quickly and tensely as he tested and worked and listened.
"Great Scott, Mack, it's easy enough for you to talk, but it was fool's luck, pure fool's luck, I ever got this wire up! First, I had forty feet o' water-pipe, then eighty feet o' brick-wall, then over fifty feet o' cornice, and about twice as much eave-trough, hangin' on all the time by my eye-lashes, and dog-sick waitin' to be pinched with the goods on! Hold on there—what's this?"
The sounder had given out a tremulous little quaver; then a feeble click or two; then was silent once more. "Lost it again!" said Mackenzie, under his breath.
"Let me look over that relay a minute!" broke in Durkin. It was the type of box-relay usually used by linemen, with a Morse key attached to the base-board, and he ran his eye over it quickly. Then, with a deft movement or two he released the binding of the armature lever screws, and, the next moment, the instrument felt the pulse of life, and spoke out clearly and distinctly.
"Listen!" he cried, gleefully, holding up a finger. "That's Corcoran, the old slob! He's sending through the New Orleans returns!" And he chuckled as he listened with inclined ear. "That's Corcoran—same old slob as ever!"
The four silent figures leaned a little closer over the clicking instrument of insensate brass—leaned, intent and motionless, with quickened breathing, and strangely altering faces.
"We've got 'em at last!" said MacNutt, quietly, mopping his face and pacing the little room with feverish steps.
"Yes, we've got 'em!" echoed Mackenzie.
Durkin could feel the woman's breath playing on his neck, and he turned to her, and could see by her quick breath and dilated pupils that she, too, had been reading the wire. And again he wondered, as he looked at her, how she ever came to such a place. To Durkin—who had heard of women bookies and touts in his day—she seemed so soft, so flowerlike, in her pale womanhood, that she still remained to him one of the mysteries of a mysterious day.
The woman saw the impetuous warmth in his eyes as he gazed up at her, and quickly looked away. "No goo-gooing there, you folks!" broke in MacNutt, brusquely. Then, he turned quickly to the other man. "Now, Mack, we've got to get a move on! Get some of that grime off, and your clothes on—quick!" He turned back to the other two at the operating-table.
"I've certainly got a couple o' good-lookers in you two, all right, all right!" he said, Durkin thought, half-mockingly. "But I want you to get groomed up, Durkin—rigged out complete—before trouble begins, for you're going to move among some kind o' swell people. You two've got to put on a lot of face, to carry this thing through. Remember, I want you to do the swell restaurants, and drive round a good deal, and haunt the Avenue a bit, and drop in at Penfield's lower house whenever you get word from me. You'd better do the theatres now and then, too—I want you to be seen, remember—but always together! It may be kind o' hard, not bein' able to pick your friend, Durkin; but Mame knows the ropes, and she'll explain things as you go along."
He turned back, once more, from the doorway.
"Now, remember, don't answer that 'phone unless Mack or me gives the three-four ring! If she rings all night don't answer; and 'Battery Park,' mind, means trouble. When you're tipped off with that get the stuff in the safe, if you can, before you break away. That's all, I guess, for now!" And he joined the man called Mack in the hall, and together they hurried down-stairs, and let themselves out, leaving Durkin and his quiet-eyed colleague alone.
He sat and looked at her, dazed, bewildered, still teased by the veil of unreality which seemed to sway between him and the world about him. It seemed to him as though he were watching a hurrying, shifting drama from a distance—watching it as he used to watch the Broadway performances from his cramped little gallery seat.
"Am I awake?" he asked, weakly. Then, he laughed recklessly, and turned to her once more, abstractedly rubbing his stubbled chin, and remembering, to his sudden shame, that he had gone unshaved for half a week.
"Yes, it's all very real!" laughed the woman herself, now unrestrainedly; and, for the first time, he noticed her white, regular teeth, as she hurried about, straightening up the belittered room.
During his narrow and busy life Durkin had known few women; never before had he known a woman like this one, with whom destiny had so strangely ordained he should talk and drive, work and plot. He looked once more at her thick, tumbled chestnut hair, at the soft pallor of her oval cheek, and the well-gowned figure, as she stooped over a condenser—wondering within himself how it would all end, and what was the meaning of it.
"Well, this certainly does beat me!" he said, at last, slowly, yet contentedly enough.
The young woman looked at him; and he caught a second glimpse of her wistfully pensive smile, while his heart thumped, in spite of himself. He reached out a hesitating hand, as though to touch her.
"What is it?" she asked, in her mellow English contralto.
"I don't exactly know," he answered, with his hand before his eyes. "I wish you'd tell me!"
She came and sat down in a chair before him, pushing back her tumbled hair with one hand, seeming to be measuring him with her intent gaze. She appeared in some way satisfied with him; it seemed almost as if she had taken his face between her two hands, and read it, feature by feature.
"I hardly know where to begin," she hesitated. "I mean, I don't know how much they've explained to you already. Indeed, there's a great deal I don't understand myself. But, of course, you know we have tapped Penfield's private wire. And, of course, you know why. He gets all the race returns at the club-house, and then sends them on by private 'phone to his other two pool-rooms. He has to do it that way, now that New York is not so open."
Durkin knew all this, but he waited, for the sake of hearing her voice, and watching the play of her features.
"Every track report, you know, comes into New York by way of the race department of the Postal Union, on lower Broadway. There, messenger-boys hurry about with the reports to the different wire-operators, who wire the returns to the company's different subscribers. Penfield, of course, is really one of them, though it's not generally known."
"But what have you and I to do with all this?" he broke in.
"Quite enough! You see, there's a delay of nearly fifteen minutes, naturally, in getting a result to the pool-rooms. That gives us our chance; so, we hold up the message here, 'phone it at once over to MacNutt's rooms, three doors from Penfield's, and, when he has had time to drop in and place his money, we send through our intercepted message."
"Then Penfield has no idea who or what MacNutt is?"
"He knows him only as a real-estate agent with a passion for plunging a great deal of money, and—and—" The girl shrugged a rounded shoulder, and did not finish.
"And you—?" Durkin hesitated, in turn.
"Both you and I shall have to drop in, on certain days, and do what we can at Penfield's lower house, while Mackenzie is doing the Madison-avenue place. We've been going there, on and off, for weeks now, getting ready for—for this!"
"Then MacNutt's been working on this scheme for a long time?"
"Yes; this house has been rented by the month, furnished, simply because it stood in about the right place. We've even dropped a few hundred dollars, altogether, in Penfield's different places. But, in the end, the three of us are to hit Penfield together, on a ragged field, when there's a chance for heavy odds. But, of course, we can do it only once!"
"And then what?" asked Durkin. Again the girl shrugged a shoulder.
"Penfield's patrons are all wealthy men," she went on. "A book of a hundred thousand is common enough; sometimes it goes up to two or three hundred thousand. So, you see, it all depends on our odds. MacNutt himself hopes to make at least a hundred thousand; but then he has worked and brooded over it all so long, I don't think he sees things clearly, now!"
"He seems sharp enough to leave you and me here, though, to take all the risk in a raid," protested Durkin.
"Yes," she assented, wearily, "we take the risk; he supplies the money."
"How did you ever get mixed up with—with—in this sort of thing?" Durkin demanded, turning to her, suddenly. The eyes of the two met, for a moment, and the girl at last looked away.
"How did you?" she asked, quietly enough. She was strangely unlike any woman "bookie" he had ever before seen.
"Oh, me! I'm different!" he cried. For some subtle reason she went pale, and then flushed hot again.
"You're—you're not MacNutt's wife?" he asked her, almost hopelessly.
She moved her head from side to side, slowly, in dissent, and got up and went to the window, where she gazed out over the house-tops at the paling afternoon. "No, I'm not his wife," she said, in her quiet contralto.
"Then why won't you tell me how you got mixed up in this sort of thing?"
"It's all so silly and commonplace," she said, without turning to look at him.
"Yes?" he said, and waited.
"It began two years ago, when I answered an advertisement from London. I came to be a governess in a New York family. At the end of my first week here, my mistress suspected me unjustly of—I can't explain it all to you here; but she said I was too good-loking to be a governess, and discharged me without even a reference. I was penniless in two weeks, and, when I was almost starving, I was glad enough to become the secretary of an investment company, with an office in Wall street. The police raided the office—it turned out to be nothing but a swindling scheme; and then—oh, I don't know—I just drifted from one thing to another until I was the English heiress in a matrimonial bureau, and the stenographer in a turf bureau; and then, at last, I met MacNutt!"
"And then what?" Durkin's careless shoulders were very upright.
"Oh, first it was a women's get-rich-quick concern in Chicago; then, a turf-investment office in St. Louis; then, a matrimonial bureau of our own, until the police put a stop to it because of the post-office people; then, it was chasing the circuit for a season; and, finally, this wire-tapping plan!" She looked at him, weary-eyed, smilingly hopeless.
"I—I send home money, regularly," she went on, more quietly. "They think I'm a governess here; and I daren't let them know. So, you see, I've been nothing but cowardly—and—and wicked, from the first!"
"And is that all?" demanded Durkin.
"Yes," she answered, wearily, "I think that's all."
"But you're too—too good for all this!" he cried, impetuously. "Why don't you break away from it?"
"I'm going to, some day! I've always waited, though, and everything has dragged on and on and on, and I've been half-afraid of MacNutt—you know, he never forgives a person—and half-afraid of myself. But some day——"
"I know what it's like!" cried Durkin, drawn toward her, strangely nearer to her in some intangible way. She read the sudden look on his face, and blushed under it, almost girlishly, once more.
"I want to rest, and be quiet, and live decently, away from the world, somewhere," «she said, dreamily, as though speaking only to herself.
"So do I!" said the man at her side, gazing with her out at the gathering twilight of the city, and lapsing into silence once more.
More than once, during the feverish kaleidoscopic days that followed, Durkin found himself drawing aside to ask if, after all, he were not living some restless dream in which all things hung tenuous and insubstantial. The fine linen and luxury of life were so new to him that in itself it half-intoxicated; yet, outside the mere ventral pleasures of existence, with its good dinners in quiet cafés of gold and glass and muffling carpets, its visits to rustling, dimly-lighted theatres, its drives about the open city, its ever-mingled odors of Havana and cut-flowers—there was the keener and more penetrating happiness of listening to the soft, English voice of a bewilderingly beautiful woman. Durkin found work to be done, it is true—rigorous and exacting, work, when the appointed days for holding up Penfield's despatches came around. But the danger of it all, for some reason, never entered his mind, as he sat over his instrument, reading off the horses to the woman at his side, who, in turn, repeated them over the 'phones, in cipher, to MacNutt and Mackenzie; and then, when the time-allowance had elapsed, cutting in once more and sending on the intercepted despatches, even imitating to a nicety the slip-shod, erratic volubility of Corcoran's "blind send."
Only once did a disturbing incident tend to ruffle the quiet waters of Durkin's strange contentment. It was one afternoon when Mackenzie had been sent in to make a report, and had noticed certain things to which he did not take kindly, Durkin thought.
"I'm not saying anything," he blurted out, when they were alone, "but don't let that woman make a fool of you!"
"You shut up about that woman!" retorted Durkin, hotly.
"You damned lobster, you!" the other cried, with some wordless disgust on his face. "Don*t you know that woman's been——?"
But here the entrance of the girl herself put a stop to his speech. Yet, troubled in spirit as that currish insinuation left him, Durkin breathed no word to the girl herself of what had taken place, imperiously as she demanded to know what Mackenzie had been saying.
On the following day, as MacNutt had arranged, the two paid their first visit to Penfield's lower house, from which Durkin carried away confused memories of a square-jawed door-keeper—who passed him, readily enough, at a word from the girl; of well-dressed men and over-dressed women crowded about a smoky, gas-lit room, one side of which was taken up with a black-board on which attendants were feverishly chalking down entries, jockeys, weights and odds, while on the other side of the room opened the receiving- and paying-tellers' little windows, through which now and then he saw hurrying clerks; of bettors excitedly filling in slips which disappeared with their money through the mysterious pigeon-hole in the wall; of the excited comments as the announcer called the facts of the races, crying dramatically when the horses were at the post, when they were off, when one horse led, and when another; when the winner passed under the wire; of the long, wearing wait while the jockeys were weighing in, and of the posting of the official returns, while the lucky ones gathered jubilantly at the window for their money, and the unlucky dropped forlornly away, or lingered for still another plunge.
Durkin found it hard, during each of these brief visits, to get used to the new order of things. Such light-fingered handling of what, to his eyes, seemed fortunes, unstrung and bewildered him; the loss of even a hundred dollars on a horse in some way depressed him for the day. Mame picked her winners, however, with studious and deliberate skill, and, though they bet freely, it was not often that their losses, in the end, were heavy.
It was one night after a lucky plunge on a 20-to-1 horse had brought him in an unexpected fortune of eighteen hundred dollars that Durkin, driving up Fifth avenue through the waning afternoon of the early Winter with Mame at his side, allowed his thoughts to wander back to his thin and empty existence as a Postal Union operator. As he gazed out on the carriages and the women and the lights, and felt the warmth of the girl at his side, he wondered how he had ever endured that old, colorless life.
With a sudden, impetuous motion he caught up her hand, where it lay idly in her lap, and held it close. She tried to draw it away, but could not.
"Everything seems so different, Mame, since I've known you!" he said, huskily.
"It's different with me, too!" she all but whispered, looking away. Her face, in the waning light, against the gloom of the green-lined hansom, looked pale, almost flowerlike.
"Mame!" he cried, softly, in a voice that started her breathing quickly, "Mame, won't you—won't you marry me?"
She looked at him out of what seemed frightened eyes, with a strange, half-startled light on her pale face.
"I love you, Mame, more than I can tell!" he went on, impetuously. "You could walk over me, and I'd be happy!"
"Oh, you don't know me, you don't know me!" she cried. "You don't know what I've been!" And some agony of mind seemed to wrench her whole body.
"I don't care what you've been—I know what you are! You're the girl I'd give my life for! Good Lord, look at me; ain't I bad enough, myself? I love you, Mame; isn't that enough?"
She let him catch her up to his shoulder and hold her there, with her wet cheek against his; she even said nothing when he bent and kissed her on the mouth, though her very lips grew colorless.
"I do love you!" she sighed, weakly. "I do love you! I do!" and she clung to him, childishly, shaken with a sob or two, happy, yet vaguely troubled.
"Then why can't we get away from here, somewhere, and be happy?"
"There's MacNutt!" she cried, remembering, opening her drooping eyes to grim life again. "He'd—he'd—" She did not finish.
"What's he to us?" Durkin demanded. "I only wish, by heavens, I had my hands on a few of his thousands!"
The girl looked up, quickly, with the flash of some new thought shadowed on her white face.
"Why shouldn't we?" she cried, half bitterly. "We've gone through enough for him!"
"Yes," hesitated Durkin, "why shouldn't we?"
"Then we could go away," she was saying, dreamily, "away to England, even! I wonder if you would like England? I wonder if you would?"
"I'd like anyplace, where you were!"
"He's always been a welcher with the people he uses. He'll be a welcher with us!"
She turned to Durkin with a sudden determination. "Would you risk it, with me?"
"I'd risk anything for you!" he said, taking her hand once more.
"We've a right to our happiness," she argued, passionately. "We've our life—all our life, almost—before us! And I've loved you, Jim," she confessed, toying with a button on his sleeve, "from that first day MacNutt brought you up!"
For all the calm precision with which Mabel Candler had planned out a line of prompt action with Durkin, she was shaking and nervous and unstrung as she leaned over the sounder, breathlessly waiting for the rest of the day's returns to come through on Penfield's wire.
Durkin, with two thousand dollars of his own and an additional eight hundred from her, had already plunged his limit at Penfield's lower house, on the strength of her tip over the 'phone. There was still to be one final hazard, with all he held; and at five o'clock they were to meet at Hartley's restaurant, and from there escape to a new world of freedom and contentment. But the fear of MacNutt still hung over her, as she waited—fear for certain other things besides their secret revolt on the very eve of their chief's gigantic coup. For she knew what MacNutt could be when he was crossed. So, she leaned and waited and listened with parted lips, wishing it was all over with, torn by a thousand fears.
Then, to her sudden terror, Mackenzie called her up sharply.
"Is that you, Mame?" he cried, excitedly.
"Yes; what is it, Mack?" she answered, calmly enough, but with quaking knees.
"Doogan's men are watching me here—they've got onto something or other. Cut this wire loose from outside, and get your 'phone out of sight. And, for heaven's sake, don't cut in on Penfield's wire. I've just tipped off MacNutt—he's off his dip, about it all. Look out for yourself, old girl!" he added, in a different tone of voice.
She rang off, and vowed passionately within herself that she would look out for herself. Catching up a pair of pliers, she cut the telephone wire from the open window, leaving two hundred feet of it to dangle over the little back house-courts. Then, she ran to the door and locked and bolted it, listening all the while for the wire to speak out to her.
A minute later, MacNutt himself rang up, and asked for Durkin.
"What're you doing there?" he demanded, with a startled oath, as he heard her voice. She tried to stammer out an excuse. There was a moment's pause; the man all but hissed one ugly word over the wire to the listening woman. Mackenzie had been hinting to him of certain things; now, he knew.
He did not wait even to replace his receiver. While she still stood there, white and dazed, he was in a hansom, rattling and swaying nearer her, block by block. He let himself in with his own pass-key, and raced up the long stair, his face drawn, and a dull, claret tinge. He found the door closed and bolted; he could hear nothing from within but the muffled clicking of the sounder as it ticked out the later New Orleans returns. No answer came to his knocking. He seized an old-fashioned walnut arm-chair from the next room, and forced it with all his weight against the oak panels. They splintered and broke, and, under the second blow, fell in, leaving only the heavier cross-pieces intact.
Quite motionless, waiting over the sounder, bent the woman, as though she had neither seen nor heard. "White Legs—Yukon Girl—Lord Selwyn," those alone were the words which the clicking brass seemed to brand on her very brain. In three seconds, she stood before the telephone, at the other end of which she knew Durkin to be waiting. But she saw the flash of something in the hand of the man who leaned through the broken panel, and paused, motionless, with a little, inarticulate cry.
"Touch that 'phone, you welcher, and I'll plug you!" the man was screaming at her. His face was now bluish purple, and horrible to look at.
"I've got to do it' Mack!" she pleaded, raising one hand to her face. He called her many foul names, and deliberately trained his pistol on her breast.
"Mack, you wouldn't shoot me, after—after everything? Oh, Mack, I've got to send this through! I've got to!" she wailed.
"Stop!" he gasped; and she knew there was no hope.
"You wouldn't shoot me, Mack?" she whined again, with the cunning of the cornered animal; for, even as she spoke, the hand that hovered about her face shot out and caught up the receiver. Her other hand flashed to the bell-lever, and the sharp tinkle of the bell rang through the room. Her eyes were on MacNutt; she saw the finger compress on the trigger, even as her hand first went up.
"Jim!" she called, sharply, with an agony of despair in that one quick word. She repeated the call, but a reverberation that shook shreds of plaster from the ceiling drowned her voice. The receiver fell, and swung at full length. The smoke lifted slowly, curling softly toward the open window.
MacNutt gazed, stupefied, at the huddled figure on the floor. How long he looked he scarcely knew, but he was startled from his stupor by the sound of blows on the street-door. Flinging his revolver into the room, he stumbled down the heavily carpeted stairs, slunk out a back door, and, sprawling over the court-fence, fell into a yard strewn with empty boxes. Seeing a near-by door, he opened it, and found himself in a noisy auction-room filled with bidders. Pushing hurriedly through them, he stepped out into the street, unnoticed.
When the wounded woman had made sure that she was alone—she had been afraid to move where she lay, fearing a second shot—with a little groan or two she tried to rise to her knees. But this, she found, was beyond her strength. The left sleeve of her waist, she also saw, was wet and sodden with blood. Already, she could hear footsteps below, and again and again she told herself that she must be ready when Durkin came, that he, at least, must not be trapped. She, as a mere pool-room stenographer, had little to fear from the law. But as she tried, with her teeth and her free arm, to tear a strip from her white underskirt, the movement, for all her tight-lipped determination, was too much for her. She had a faint memory of hearing footsteps swarming about her, and then of ebbing and pulsing down through endless depths of what seemed to her eider-downed emptiness.
When she came to, one of Doogan's men was leaning over her, with a pocket-flask of brandy in his hand. She looked at him, bewildered, and from him to the other four men who stood about her; and then it all came back to her.
She closed her eyes again, vaguely wondering if some teasing, indeterminate mishap, which she could not quite remember, had yet come about. At first, she could not grasp it, as she lay there moaning with pain; and then it, too, came to her, in a flash. It was Durkin. He was coming back; and they were waiting there, waiting to trap him. Again, she told herself that she must keep her head, and be cool. She looked at the five men in the room; three of them, she knew, were plain-clothes men from the Central Office, the other two were Doogan's agents. If Durkin came while they were still there—and now he could not be long!—they would let him in, and say nothing, and there they would have him, like a rat in a trap.
She grew hysterical, and cried out to them that she was dying, yet, waiting all the time for the sound of Durkin's step, trying to think how she might save him. At last, to her sudden joy, she remembered that he was to bring from her rooms with him her own hand-bag, filled with a few things which she had gathered up to take away with her. He would surely carry that bag in with him when he came; that was her salvation.
She fell to shrieking again that she was dying, demanding shrilly why her doctor had not come. Through her cries, her alert ears heard the sound of voices at the street-door. It was Durkin, at last; he had spoken a word or two with the two plain-clothes men, who, she knew, would readily enough let him pass.
"Doctor!" she screamed, as she heard his steps on the stair. "Doctor! I'm dying, doctor! Are you never coming?"
She wondered, in her agony, if he would be fool enough not to understand. Would he be fool enough?
Doogan's agents and the three plain-clothes men gathered about her silently, as they saw the intruder hurry in and drop on his knee beside the woman. "Is it you, doctor?" she wailed, shaking with an on-coming chill.
Durkin, in his dilemma, did not dare to look away from her face. He was blindly trying to grope his way toward what it all meant. The others stood above him, listening, waiting for the least word.
He bent lower, and tried to read the dumb agony in the woman's face. Then, out of the chaos and the disorder of the chattering of her teeth seemed to come a hint, a whisper. She was sounding the double "I" of the operator—she was trying to tell him something. He bent still closer, and fumbled artfully with the sleeve, wet and sodden with her warm blood.
He read her signal, as she lay there with chattering teeth: "All up! Get away, quick! These are police! Meet you in London—two months—Hotel Cecil—hurry!"
He looked up at the men above him, with a sudden towering, drunken madness of relief, a madness which they took for sudden rage.
"You fools, you," he called at them, "you fools, this woman's dying! Here, you, quick—compress this artery with your thumb—hard, so! You, you—oh, I don't care who you are—telephone for my instruments—Dr. Hodgson, No. 29 West Thirtieth!"—luckily, he remembered Mame's throat doctor—"and get me a sheet off one of the beds, quick!"
He tossed his hat into the hall, and jerked off his cuffs, almost believing in it himself.
"Water—where'll I get a water-tap?" he asked, feverishly, running to the door. Outside the room, he suddenly caught up his hat. Then, he turned and bolted noiselessly up a pair of back stairs, and gained the roof. There he crept, cat-like, across half-a-dozen houses, slipped down a fire escape, and gave a startled Irish house-maid a five-dollar bill to let him pass through her mistress's apartment.
As he turned hurriedly into Madison avenue, toward the Grand Central station, he heard the clang of a bell, and saw an ambulance clatter down the street. And then he repeated something in his mind, to make sure of it: "London—two months—Hotel Cecil."
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1950, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 72 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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