The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XII. The Unknown
It will now become necessary to glance in passing at the personal characteristics of Professor Eldridge. This man was in about his fortieth year, tall, spare, keenly intellectual in countenance, cold, possessed of an absolute reliance on the powers of science, beyond which his mental processes did not stray. His manner was distinguished by a stiff unbending formality; his expression by a glacial coldness of steel-gray eyes and a straight-line compression of thin lips; his dress by a precise and unvarying formalism, and his speech by a curious polysyllabic stiffness.
This latter idiosyncrasy would, in another, have seemed either priggish or facetiously intended. With Professor Eldridge it was merely a natural method of speech. Thus, arriving once at the stroke of the dinner hour, he replied to compliments on his punctuality by remarking:
"I have always considered punctuality a virtue when one is invited to partake of gratuitous nourishment."
Withal, his scientific attainments were not only undoubted, but so considerable as to have won for him against many odds the reputation of a great scientist. His specialty, if such it might be called, was scientific diagnosis. The exactness of scientific laws was so admirably duplicated by the exactitudes of his mind that he seemed able, by a bloodless and mechanical sympathy, to penetrate to the most obscure causes of the strangest events. It might be added that practically his only social ties were those with the Warfords, and that the only woman with whom he ever entered into conversation was Helen.
At sight of him Percy Darrow's lounging gait became accentuated to exaggeration.
"Hello, Prof!" he drawled. "On the job, I see. Good morning, Doctor," he greeted Knox. "What do you make of it?"
"I make of it that the Atlas Building will shortly be without tenants," replied the doctor; "me, for one."
Eldridge surveyed Darrow coldly through the glittering toric lenses of his glasses.
"The cause of these extraordinary phenomena is self-evident," he stated.
"You mean their nature, not their cause," replied Darrow. "In nature, they refer back to the interference with etheric and molecular vibrations. That," he added, "is a fact that every boy in the grammar-school physics class has figured out for himself. The cause is a different matter."
"I stand corrected," said Eldridge. "Such lapses in accuracy of statement are not usual with me, but may be considered as concomitant with unusual circumstances."
"Right-o!" agreed Darrow cheerfully. "Well, what about the causes?"
"That I will determine when I am satisfied that all the elements of the problem are in my hands."
"Right-o!" repeated Darrow. "Well, I'll bet you a new hat I'll land the cause before you do. Be a sport!"
"I never indulge in wagers," replied Eldridge.
"Well," said Darrow to Jack and Hallowell, "come on!"
Without waiting to see if he was followed, the young man again plunged into the black and clinging darkness.
"Get hold of my coat," his voice came to the others. "We're going to climb."
Accordingly they climbed, in silence, up many flights of stairs, through the cloying darkness. At last Darrow halted, turned sharp to the left, fumbled for a door, and entered a room.
"Simmons?" he said.
"Here!" came a voice.
"I thought you'd be on the job," said Darrow, with satisfaction. "How's your instrument? Going, eh? We are in the wireless offices," he told the others. "Sit down, if you can find chairs. We'll wait until the sun is shining brightly, love, before we really try to get down to business. In the meantime--"
"In the meantime--" repeated both Jack and Hallowell, in a breath. "Go on, my son," conceded the latter. "I bet we have the same idea."
"Well, I was going to say that I'm not in the grammar-school physics class, and I want to know what you meant by your remark to Eldridge," said Jack.
"That's my trouble," said Hallowell.
"It's simple enough," began Darrow. "We have had, first, a failure of all electricity; second, a failure of all sound; third, a failure of all light. The logical mind would therefore examine these things to see what they have in common. The answer simply jumps at you: Vibration. Electricity and light are vibrations in ether; sound is vibration in air or some solid. Therefore, whatever could absolutely stop vibration would necessarily stop electricity, light and sound."
"But," objected Jack, "if vibration were absolutely stopped, why wouldn't they all three be blotted out at once?"
"Because," explained Darrow, "the vibrations making these three phenomena are different in character. Sound is made by horizontal waves, for example, while electricity and light are made by transverse waves. Furthermore, the waves producing electricity and light differ in length. Now, it is conceivable that a condition which would interfere with horizontal waves would not interfere with transverse waves; or that a condition which would absolutely deaden waves two hundred and seventy ten-millionths of an inch long would have absolutely no effect on those one hundred and fifty-five ten-millionths of an inch long. Am I clear?"
"Sure!" came the voices of his audience.
"That much Eldridge and any other man trained in elementary science already knows. It is no secret."
"It hasn't been published," observed Hallowell grimly.
"Well, go to it! The task of the independent investigator, of which we are some, is now to discover, first, what are those conditions, and, second, what causes them. With the exception of Mr. Hallowell, we all know what this guiding power is."
"Don't get it," growled Simmons.
"Now, look here, Simmons, you are very loyal to McCarthy, for whatever reason, but your loyalty is misplaced. For one thing, your man has disappeared, and will not return. That last message scared him out. For another thing, we're going to need you in our campaign, the worst way."
"I'm from Copenhagen; you got to show me," said Simmons.
Darrow laughed softly.
"We'll show you, all right," said he. He sketched briefly for Hallowell's benefit the reasoning already followed out, and which it is therefore unnecessary to repeat here. "So now," he concluded, "we will consider this hypothesis: that these phenomena are caused by one man in control of a force capable of deadening vibrations in ether and solids within certain definite limits."
"Why do you limit it?" cried Hallowell.
"Because we have had but one manifestation at a time. If this Unknown were out really to frighten--which seems to be his intention--it would be much more effective to visit us with absolute darkness and absolute silence combined. That would be really terrifying. He has not done so. Therefore, I conclude that his power is limited in applicability."
"Isn't that a little doubtful?" spoke up Jack.
"Of course," said Darrow cheerfully. "That's where we're going to win out on this sporting proposition with our dear Brother Eldridge. He won't accept any hypothesis unless it is absolutely copper-riveted. We will."
"I think you underestimate Eldridge," spoke up Hallowell. "He's the only original think-tank in a village of horse troughs."
"I don't underestimate him one bit," countered Darrow; "but we have a head start on him with our reasoning; that's all. He's absolutely sure to come to the conclusions I have just detailed, only he'll get there a little more slowly. That's why I want you in on this thing, Hallowell."
"We'll publish everything up to date and cut the ground from under him."
"What's your special grouch on Eldridge, anyway?" asked Jack.
"I like to worry him," replied Percy Darrow non-committally.
At this moment the darkness disappeared as though some one had turned a switch. The reporter, the operator and the scientist's young assistant moved involuntarily as though dodging, and blinked. Darrow shaded his eyes with one hand and proceeded as though nothing had happened.
"Here are the exclusive points of your story," he said to Hallowell, handing him a sheaf of yellow wireless forms. "I got them in McCarthy's office. They are messages from the unknown wielder of the mysterious power to his enemy, the political boss. There will be plenty who will conclude these messages to be the result of fanaticism, after the fact; that is to say, they will conclude some wireless amateur has taken advantage of natural phenomena and, by claiming himself the author of them, has attempted to use them against his enemy. Of course, the answer to that is that if the Unknown--let's call him Monsieur X--did not cause these strange things, he at least knew enough about them to predict them accurately."
"You just leave that to me," hummed Hallowell under his breath. The reporter had been glancing over the wireless forms, and his eyes were shining with delight.
"Here is the last one," said Darrow, producing a crumpled yellow paper from his pocket. "I went back after it."
"That bluffed him out," said Darrow, "and I don't blame him. Now, Simmons," said he, turning to the operator, who had sat in utter silence, "how about it? Are you with us, or against us?"
"How do you mean?" demanded Simmons.
"This," said Darrow sharply. "The time has passed for concealment. Every message through the ether must now reach the public. We must send messages back. The case is out of private hands; it has become important to the people. Will you agree on your honor faithfully to transmit?" He leaned forward, his indolent frame startlingly tense. "Are you afraid of McCarthy?"
"He's been good to me--it's a family matter," muttered the operator.
"Well--" Darrow arose, crossed to the operator, and whispered to him for a moment. "You see the seriousness--you are an intelligent man."
The operator turned pale.
"I hadn't thought of that," he muttered. "I hadn't thought of that. Of course I'm with you."
"I thought you would be," drawled Percy Darrow slowly. "If you hadn't decided to be, I'd have had another man put in your place. Hadn't thought of that, either, had you?"
"No, sir," replied Simmons.
"Well, I prefer you. It's no job for a quitter, and I believe you'll stick."
"I'll stick," repeated Simmons.
"Well, to work," said Darrow, lighting the cigarette he had been playing with. "Send this out, and see if you can reach Monsieur X.
"'M,'" he dictated slowly. "'Do you get this?' Repeat that until you get a reply."
Without comment the operator turned to his key. The long ripping crashes of the wireless sender followed the movements of his fingers.
"I get his 'I--I,'" he said, after a moment. "It's almighty faint."
"Good!" said Darrow. "Give him this:
"He merely answers 'I--I,'" observed the operator.
"By the way," asked Darrow, "what is your shift, anyhow? Weren't you on at night when this thing began?"
"I'm still on at night; but Mr. McCarthy sent me a message, and asked me to stay on all this morning as a personal favor to him."
"I see. Then you're still on at night?"
"Well, tell Monsieur X that fact, put yourself at his disposal, and tell him he'd better get all his messages to you rather than to the other operators here."
"There's your story," said Darrow to Hallowell; "it's in those messages. The scientific aspect will probably be done by somebody for the evening papers. You better concentrate on Monsieur X's connection with McCarthy."
"Say, my friend," said Hallowell earnestly, "do you think I'm a reporter for the Scientific American or a newspaper?"
All three rose. The operator was busy crashing away at his Leyden jars.
"What next?" asked Jack.
"That depends on two things."
"Whether or not McCarthy takes the Celtic," interposed Hallowell quickly.
"And whether Monsieur X will be satisfied with his mere disappearance, if he does not take the Celtic," supplemented Darrow. "In any case, we've got to find him. He's unbalanced; he possesses an immense and disconcerting and a dangerous power; he is becoming possessed of a manie des grandeurs. You remember the phrasing of his last message? 'I am your lord and master, and my wrath shall be visited on you. Begone!' That is the language of exaltation. Exaltation is not far short of irresponsible raving."
"What possible clue--" began Jack Warford blankly.
"When a man is somewhere out in the ether there is no clue," replied Darrow.
"Then how on earth can you hope to find him?"
"By the exercise of pure reason," said Darrow calmly.