The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XXI. In the Face of Eternity
Hell popped just as soon as the newspapers could get out their extras. Monsieur X had at last struck, and both interest and belief urged the managing editors at last to give publicity to all the theories, the facts, and the latest message from the fanatic Unknown.
The latter came about three o'clock:
Percy Darrow, reading this, said to Jack Warford, "It is time to act," and, accompanied by the younger man, quietly left the room.
The reader of imagination--and no other will read this tale--must figure to himself the island of Manhattan during the next two hours. The entire population, nearly, tried to leave it at once. When only the suburban dwellers, urged simply by the desire for a hot dinner, attempt to return home between five and six, the ways are congested enough. Now, stricken with the fear of death, the human cattle fought frantically to reach the inadequate exits of the great theater of tragedy.
There was fighting in the streets, and panic, and stark rumor, of course; and there was heroism, and coolness, and the taking of thought. To the little group of men in the top floor of the Atlas Building the roar of riot came up like the thunder of the orchestra before the rise of the curtain. Most of the people in the streets fled from a danger they did not understand. This little group in the wireless office realized clearly what still and frozen dissolution the rising of the curtain would disclose. They were not many; and they did not know what they were to do, if anything; but they had not run away.
Eldridge was there, looking somewhat flustered for the first time in his life, and four of the large committee that had employed him. Simmons sat calmly at his post, and of all the reporters Hallowell alone had stood by. He had faith in Darrow, and he knew that in the Despatch office a little handful of men stood in the shadow of death on the off chance of the biggest scoop since Noah's flood.
The four solid citizens looked at one another. The oldest turned to Eldridge.
"Then your opinion is that the city is doomed?"
"I can offer no other solution, sir," said the scientist. "It is at last evident that this man's power over ethereal vibrations extends to those forming heat-rays. If this is so, it follows that he can cut off all life by stopping all heat. If his threat is carried out, we can but look forward to a repetition on a large scale of the City Hall affair."
The aged financier now spoke to Simmons.
"And the last report from the searchers?" he asked formally.
"The search is being pushed, sir," replied the operator, "by twenty thousand men. There remain some fifty miles of country to go over, Mr. Lyons."
Lyons turned his shaggy head toward a younger, slim, keen-eyed man of fifty.
"And the city will, in your judgment, Mr. Perkins, take how long to empty?"
"Days--in the present confusion," said Perkins shortly. "We can move only a limited percentage. Thank God, most of our men are standing by. I think all our rolling stock is moving."
Lyons nodded twice.
"And you?" he asked the third of the party, a stout young man of thirty-eight or so.
"How many stations are on the job, Simmons?" asked this man.
"All but two, sir," replied the operator. "D and P don't answer. I guess they beat it."
"How do they report the bulletin men?"
"On the job," replied the wireless man.
The stout young man turned to Lyons.
"Well, sir," said he, "I don't know whether we or the hand of death will be called on to quiet them"--he paused for an instant with uplifted hand; the roar and crash and wail of the city-wide riot surged into the gap of his silence--"but if it is we," he went on, "our little arrangements are made. My men know what to do, and my men are on the job," he concluded proudly.
Lyons nodded again.
"We have all done our best," said he. "Now, gentlemen, I do not see how we can possibly accomplish anything more by remaining here. My automobile is in concealment in the old stable in the rear of 127. My yacht is standing off the Battery awaiting signal to come in. We have," he glanced at his watch, "over an hour before the threatened catastrophe."
He looked up expectantly. The men all glanced uneasily at one another, except Simmons, who stared at his batteries stolidly.
"Come, gentlemen," urged Lyons, after a moment. "There is really not much time to lose, for you know the yacht must steam beyond the danger zone."
"Beat it," spoke up Simmons, at last. "There ain't any good of you here. If anything comes in, I can handle it. It's just a case of send out orders to your bulletin men."
"I think I'd better stay," observed Paige, the stout young man, with an air of apology. "I know I'm not much use; but I've placed men, and they'll stick; and if this freeze-out proposition goes through--why, they're in it, and--"
"That's how I feel," broke in Perkins. "But you have done your full duty, Mr. Lyons, and you have no reason to stay. Let me get your car around to you--"
"Oh, I'm going to stay," said Lyons. "If you gentlemen feel it your duty, how much more is it mine! Professor Eldridge"--he bowed to the scientist--"you have done your best, which is more than any other mortal man could have done, I am sure; and you, sir--" he said to Hallowell.
Eldridge and Hallowell shook their heads.
"I have failed," said Eldridge.
"I am a reporter," said Hallowell.
"We are in the hands of God," announced Lyons with great solemnity, and folded his hands over his white waistcoat.
At that moment the door slowly swung open and Percy Darrow entered. He was smoking a cigarette, his hands were thrust deep in his trousers pockets; he was hatless, and his usually smooth hair was rumpled. A tiny wound showed just above the middle of his forehead, from which a thin stream of blood had run down to his eyebrows. He surveyed the room with a humorous twinkle shining behind his long lashes.
"Well, well, well, well!" he remarked in a cheerful tone of voice. "This is a nice, jolly, Quaker meeting! Why don't you get out and make a noise and celebrate, like your friends outside?"
"Thought you'd ducked," remarked Hallowell. The others said nothing, but looked a grave disapproval.
"No, I had to come back to see how Eldridge is getting on." He cast a glance at the scientist. "How goes it, old socks?" he inquired.
The man's manner, the tone of his voice, seemed as much out of place in this atmosphere of solemnity as a penny whistle in a death chamber. Darrow refused to notice the general attitude of disapproval, but planted himself in front of Eldridge.
"All in?" he challenged. "Or do you still cherish any delusions that you will get your man inside of"--he looked at his watch--"eleven minutes?"
A visible stir ran through the room at these words. "Eleven minutes!" murmured Lyons, and held his watch to his ear. "It has stopped," he said aloud. "It seems, gentlemen, that the only possible hope for us lies in the doubt as to whether or not this Unknown will carry out this threat."
"He's a first-rate hand to carry out threats," observed Darrow.
"We have done our best," said Lyons calmly. "Let us compose ourselves to meet everything--or nothing--as the fates may have decided."
"That's all right," agreed Darrow, with unabated cheerfulness. "But Eldridge and I had a little agreement, or bet. He bragged he'd get this Monsieur X before I did. I'd like to know how he feels about his end of it. Give it up?"
Eldridge looked at him rebukingly.
"I have failed," he acknowledged formally, "from lack of time to carry out my investigation."
"From lack of brains," said Darrow brutally, "as I believe you once said in private conversation about my old master, Doctor Schermerhorn. Those things are remembered. I am delighted to hand this back to you." He eyed Eldridge, the brilliant smile still curving his lips.
"Enough of this!" cried Lyons with authority. "This is unseemly in the face of eternity."
Darrow looked again at his watch.
"We have still six minutes, sir; and this is an affair of long standing, and on which I feel deeply. The score is settled," he said with entire respect. "I am now at your command. I had intended," he went on in a frivolous tone again, "to kick to you on my gas bill. It is too large. You, as responsible head, know it is. But somehow, you know, the presence here of you gentlemen has disarmed me. You don't need to be here; you all have the facilities to get away. Here you are! I guess you can charge a dollar and a quarter for gas if you want to." He looked from one to the other, while he carefully wiped back the blood that was flowing from the little wound in his forehead. "Eldridge acknowledges he has failed," he repeated.
"I fail to see how you have improved upon that failure," snapped Eldridge, stung.
"No?" queried Darrow. "I call Hallowell to witness that the game has been fair. We had an even start; the data have been open to both." He raised his voice a little. "Jack!" he called.
Immediately through the open door from the hall outside came Jack Warford, leading by the arm a strange and nondescript figure. It was that of a small, bent, old-looking man, dressed in a faded suit of brown. His hair was thin, and long, and white; his face sharp and lean. His gaze was fixed straight before him, so that every one in the room at the same instant caught the glare of his eyes.
They were fixed, those eyes, like an owl's; or, better, a wildcat's, as though they never winked. From the pupils, which were very small, the little light-colored lines radiated across very large blue irises. There was something baleful and compelling in their glare, so that even Hallowell, cool customer as he was, forgot immediately all about the man's littleness and shabbiness and bent figure, and was conscious only of the cruel, clever, watchful, unrelenting, hostile spirit. As Jack dragged him forward, the others could see that one foot shambled along the floor.
"Gentlemen," observed Darrow in his most casual tones, "let me present Monsieur X!"
Every one exclaimed at once. Above the hubbub came Lyons' voice, clear and commanding.
"The proof!" he thundered. "This is too serious a matter for buffoonery. The proof!"
Percy Darrow raised his hand. Through the roar of the maddened city the bell of the Metropolitan tower was beginning its chimes. By the third stroke the uproar had died almost away. The people were standing still, awaiting what might come.
The sweet-toned chimes ceased. There succeeded the pause. Then the great bell began to boom.
One--two--three--four--five--six came its spaced and measured strokes. The last reverberations sank away. Nothing happened. Percy Darrow let his hand fall.
"The proof," he repeated, "is that you are still here."
From the night outside rose a wild shriek of rejoicing, stupendous, overwhelming, passionate. Paige sprang across the room. "Release!" he shouted fairly in Simmons' ear. The spark crashed. And at a dozen places simultaneously bulletins flashed; at a dozen other points placarded balloons arose, on which the search-lights played; so that the people, hesitating in their flight in thankfulness over finding themselves still alive, raised their eyes and read:
At that a tumult arose, a tumult of rejoicing.
Darrow had sauntered to the window, and was looking out. From the great height of the Atlas Building he could see abroad over much of the city. Here and there, like glowing planets, hung the balloons.
"Clever idea," he observed. "I'm glad you thought of it."
Hallowell was on his feet, his eyes shining.
"I've got the only paper on the job!" he fairly shouted. "Darrow, as you love me, give me the story. Where was he? Where did you get him?"
Darrow turned from the window, and sardonically surveyed Eldridge.
"He was in the office next door," said he, after a moment.