The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XIX. Percy Keeps Vigil
The morning of the third day after the failure of the search, and of the sixth since McCarthy's disappearance, had arrived. During that time Percy Darrow, apparently insensible to fatigue, had maintained an almost sleepless vigil. His meals Jack Warford brought in to him; he dozed in his chair or on the couch. Never did he appear to do anything.
The very persistent quietude of the man ended by making its impression. To all questions, however, Darrow returned but the one reply, delivered always in a voice full of raillery:
"I couldn't bear to miss a single step of Eldridge's masterly work."
About half past nine of the morning in question, through the door to the wireless office, always half opened, somebody looked hesitatingly into the room. Instantly Darrow and Jack were on their feet and in the hallway.
"Helen!" cried Jack.
"What is it? Anything happened?" demanded Darrow.
She surveyed them both amusedly.
"You certainly look like a frowzy tramp, Jack," she told her brother judiciously, "and you need sleep," she informed Darrow.
The young scientist bowed ironically, his long lashes drooping over his eyes in his accustomed lazy fashion as he realized that the occasion was not urgent. Helen turned directly to him.
"When are you going to stop this?" she demanded.
Darrow raised his eyebrows.
"You needn't look at me like that. You said you could lay your hands on Monsieur X at any moment; why don't you do it?"
"Eldridge is too amusing."
"Too amusing!" echoed the girl. "All you think of is yourself."
"Is it?" drawled Darrow.
"Have you been out in the city? Have you seen the people? Have you seen men out of work? Families leaving their homes? Panic spreading slowly but surely over a whole city?"
"Those pleasures have been denied me," said Darrow blandly.
The girl looked at him with bright angry eyes. Her cheeks were glowing, and her whole figure expressed a tense vibrant life in singular contrast to the apparent indolence of the men at whom she was talking.
"You are insufferable!" She fairly stamped her foot in vexation. "You are an egoist! You would play with the welfare of four million people to gratify your little personal desire for getting even!"
"Steady, sis!" warned Jack.
Darrow had straightened, and his indolent manner had fallen from him.
"I have said I would permit no harm to come to these people, and I mean it," said he.
"No harm!" cried Helen. "What do you call this--"
Darrow turned to the window looking out over the city.
"This!" he said. "Why, this isn't harm! There isn't a man out there who is not better off for what has happened to him. He has lost a little time, a little money, a little sleep, and he has been given a new point of view, a new manhood. As a city dweller he was becoming a mollusk, a creature that could not exist without its shell. The city transported him, warmed him, fed him, amused him, protected him. He had nothing to do with it in any way; he didn't even know how it was done. Deprived of his push-buttons, he was as helpless as a baby. Beyond the little stunt he did in his office or his store, and beyond the ability to cross a crowded street, he was no good. He not only didn't know how to do things, but he was rapidly losing, through disuse, the power to learn how to do things. The modern city dweller, bred, born, brought up on this island, is about as helpless and useless a man, considered as a four-square, self-reliant individual, as you can find on the broad expanse of the globe. I've got no use for a man who can't take care of himself, who's got to have somebody else to do it for him, whenever something to which he hasn't been accustomed rises up in front of him!"
His eye was fixed somberly on the city stretching away into the haze of the autumn day.
"You blame me for letting this thing run!" he went on. "Of course it tickles me to death to see Eldridge flounder; but that isn't all. This is the best thing that could happen to them out there! I'm just patriotic enough to wish them more of it. It's good medicine! At last every man jack of them is up against something he's got to decide for himself. The police are useless; the fire department is useless; the railroads and street-cars are crippled. If a man is going to take care of his life and property, he must do it himself. He's buying back his self-reliance. Self-reliance is a valuable property. He ought to pay something for it. Generally he has to pay war or insurrection or bloody riot. In the present instance he's getting off cheap."
He turned back from the open window. His eye traveled beyond Helen's trim figure down the empty hall. "Wait right here, Jack," he shot over his shoulder, and rushed along the hall and down the stairway before either the young man or his sister could recover from their astonishment.