The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XV. The Master Speaks Again
Having thus detailed rather minutely the situation in which the city and the actors in its drama found themselves, it now becomes necessary to move the action forward to the point where the moneyed interests took a hand in the game.
That was brought about in somewhat more than fifty hours.
In the meantime the facts as to vibrations were published in all the papers; the despatches and the relations between McCarthy and Monsieur X exclusively in the Despatch--to that organ's vast satisfaction and credit; and the possibilities of tragedy in none. This latter fact was greatly to the credit of a maligned class of men. It is common belief that no cause is too sacred or no consequence too grave to give pause to the editorial rapacity for news. The present instance disproved that supposition. No journal, yellow or otherwise, contained a line of suggestion that anything beyond annoyance was to be feared from these queer manifestations.
The consequences on a mixed population like that of New York were very peculiar. The people naturally divided themselves into three classes. In the first were those who had received their warning from logic, friends, or the outside world; and who either promptly left town or, being unable to do so, lived in fear. In the second were all that numerous body who, neurasthenically unbalanced or near the overbalance, shut instinctively the eyes of their reason and glowed with a devastating and fanatical religious zeal. Among these, so exextraordinarily are we constituted, almost immediately grew up various sects, uniting only in the belief that the wrath of God was upon an iniquitous people.
By far the largest class of all, comprising the every-day busy bulk of the people, were those who accepted the thing at its face value, read its own papers, went about its business, and spared time to laugh at the absurdities or growl at the inconveniences of the phenomena. With true American adaptability, it speedily accustomed itself to both the expectation of, and the coping with, unusual conditions. It went forth about its daily affairs; it started for home a little early in order to get there in season; it eschewed subways and theaters; it learned to wait patiently, when one of the three blights struck its world, as a man waits patiently for a shower to pass.
This class, as has been said, was preponderantly in the majority, but its mass was being constantly diminished as a little knowledge of danger seeped into its substance. News of the possible catastrophe passed from mouth to mouth; a world outside, waiting aghast at such fatuity, began to get in its messages. Street corner alarmists talked to such as would listen. Thousands upon thousands left the city. Hundreds of thousands more, tied hard and fast by the strings of necessity, waited in an hourly growing dread.
The "sign" had been sent promptly at six o'clock, as promised. It proved Darrow's prediction by turning out to be a stoppage of the electrical systems. This time it lasted only half an hour-long enough to throw the traffic and transportation into confusion. It was followed at short intervals by demonstrations in light and sound; none was of long duration.
After the first few, their occurrence came freakishly, in flashes, as though the hidden antagonist delighted in confusing his immense audience. The messages he sent over the wireless in the Atlas Building grew more and more threatening and grandiose. They demanded invariably that McCarthy should be sought out and delivered up to a rather vaguely described vengeance; and threatened with dire calamities all the inhabitants of Manhattan if the Unknown's desires were not fulfilled. These threats grew more definite in character as time went on.
The effect of all this in the long run was, of course, confusion and instability. People laughed or cursed; but they also listened and reasoned. Gradually, throughout the city, dread was extending the blackness of its terror. A knowledge that would have caused a tremendous panic if it had been divulged suddenly now gave birth to a deep seated uneasiness.
Where the panic would have torn men up by the roots and flung them in terrorized mobs through the congested ways and out into the inhospitable country, the uneasiness of dread held them cowering at their accustomed tasks. They were afraid; but they had had time to think, and they realized what it would mean to leave their beloved or accustomed or necessary city, as the case might be. And it must be remembered that the definite knowledge of what might be feared was not yet disseminated among them.
But this attitude hurt business, and business struck back. The subways were practically deserted; the theaters empty; the accustomed careless life of the Great White Way thinned; the streams of life slackened. Furthermore, the intelligent criminal immediately discovered that ideal shields were being provided him gratis behind which to conduct his crimes. In the silence a man could blow out the side of a bank building with impunity, provided only he kept out of sight. In the darkness he could pilfer at will, with only the proviso that he forget not his gum shoes. The possibilities of night crime when electricity lacks have already been touched upon.
To meet unusual conditions the people individually and collectively rose to heights of forgotten ingenuity. The physical life of a city is so well established that the average city dweller grows out of the pioneer virtue of adaptability. Now once more these people were forced to meet new and untried conditions, to guard against new dangers, new opposing forces. In an incredibly short space of time they grew out of aimless panic. They learned to sit tight; to guard adequately their lives, their treasure, and even to a certain extent their time against undue loss.
In the meantime the moneyed powers had been prompt to act. They did not intend to stand idly while their pockets were being picked by untoward circumstances; nor did they intend to continue indefinitely the unusual expenditures necessary to guard themselves against even a greater loss. As there seemed to be two men to find, they employed the best of detectives to search for McCarthy; and professor Eldridge, as the greatest living expert, to hunt down the Unknown. Thus unexpectedly Eldridge found himself with definite backing in his strange duel with Darrow.
It is now desirable to place before the reader samples of the messages sent by Monsieur X and received in the wireless office of the Atlas Building, after which we can proceed once more to follow out the sequence of events.
That was one of the first. After a round dozen of similar import, there came this:
The last at present to which your attention is called came just before the events to be detailed: