The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XVII. Drawing the Net
The "zone of danger", as the Bulletin named it, was immediately the scene of swarming activities. Besides the expedition immediately despatched by the interests backing the investigation, several enterprising newspapers saw a fine chance for a big scoop, and sent out much-heralded parties of their own. The activities of these were well reported, you may be sure. Public interest was at once focused reassuringly on the chances of finding the annoying malefactor to-day or to-morrow; there no longer existed a doubt that he would be found. The weight of dread was lifted, and in the reaction people made light of the inconveniences and fun of the menacing messages that now came in by the dozen.
It was necessary to take extraordinary precautions against thieves and fire; the people took them. It was needful to slacken business in order that the congestion of the rush hour might not again prove tragic; business was slackened. People were willing to undergo many things, because, after all, they were but temporary. The madman of the Catskills would sooner or later be found; his pernicious activities brought to a conclusion. The country to be searched was tremendous, of course, but the search was thorough.
The public delivered itself joyously to a debauch of rumors and of "extras". The insistent alarms of danger, trickling in slowly from the outside world, dried up in the warmth of optimism. Only the more thoughtful, to a few of whom these warnings came, coupled them with Monsieur X's repeated threats, and walked uncertain and in humility.
Percy Darrow did not interest himself in the search, nor did he desert his post in the wireless office. There he did nothing whatever. Jack Warford stayed with him, but immensely bored, it must be confessed. Once he suggested that if Darrow had nothing for him to do that afternoon, he thought he would like to go out for a little exercise.
Darrow shook his head.
"You may go, if you want to, Jack," said he, "but if you do I'll have to get some one else. This isn't much of a job, but I may need you any moment."
"All right," agreed Jack cheerfully. "Only I wish you'd let a fellow know what to expect."
Darrow shook his head. The two now practically lived in the office. Neither had taken his clothes off for several days. They slept in their chairs or on the lounge. Darrow read the various messages from the Unknown, glanced over the newspapers, and dozed.
Thus there passed two days of the search. On the third day the intermittent phenomena and the messages suddenly ceased. This fact was hailed jubilantly by all the papers as indicating that at last the quarry had become alarmed by the near-coming search. From the contracted district still remaining to be combed over, nobody was permitted to depart; and so closely was the cordon drawn by so large a posse that it was physically impossible for any living being to slip by the line.
Thus even if Monsieur X, convinced that at last his discovery was imminent, should destroy his apparatus or attempt to move it and himself to a place of safety, he would find his escape cut off. Thousands of men were employed, and thousands more drafted in as volunteers to render this outcome assured.
It was an army deployed in an irregular circle and moving inward toward its center. Men of the highest executive ability commanded it, saw to its necessary deliberation, eliminated all possibility of a confusion through which any man could slip. The occasion was serious, and it was taken seriously.
Of the outcome no one in touch with the situation had a moment's doubt. The messages and the phenomena had continued to come from the danger zone. It was of course evident that they could not have been sent from any portion of the zone actually searched and occupied by the searchers. The remaining portion of the zone, from which they were still coming, had been completely surrounded. After that the manifestations had ceased. Therefore, Monsieur X must be within the beleaguered circle. To add to the probabilities, as Eldridge pointed out, the remaining district compassed the highest hills in the zone--a fact on all fours with his hypothesis.
On the appointed morning the army moved toward the center. Men beat the ground carefully, so close to one another that they could touch hands. As they closed in, the ranks became thicker. Animals of many kinds, confused as the ranks closed in on them, tried to break through the cordon and were killed. Captains held order in the front row, that the army might not become a crowd. Birds, alarmed by the shouting, rose and wheeled.
In the city immense crowds watched the bulletins sent momently from the very field itself by private wires strung hastily for the occasion. Enterprising journals had prepared huge rough maps, on which the contracting circle was indicated by red lines, constantly redrawn. It was discovery before a multitude. The imagination of the public, fired by its realization of this fact, stretched itself ahead of the distant beaters, bodying forth what they might find.
As the circle narrowed excitement grew. All business ceased. The streets were crowded; the windows of the buildings looking out on the numerous bulletin-boards were black with heads. Those who could not see demanded eagerly of those who could.
In the Atlas Building the wireless operator hung out of his window. Beside him was Jack Warford.
Darrow declined to join them. "You tell me," said he.
Jack therefore reported back over his shoulder the bulletins as they appeared. The crowds below read them, their faces upturned. One ran:
The crowd roared its appreciation and impatience. A long pause followed. Then came the next bulletin:
A puzzled angry murmur arose, confused and chopped, like cross currents in a tideway. Finally this was hung out:
A moment's astonished pause ensued. Then, over the vast multitude, its faces upturned in incredulous amazement; over the city lying sparkling in the noonday sun fell the pall of absolute darkness.
In the wireless office of the Atlas Building Percy Darrow laughed.