The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter III. The Moving Finger Writes
The condition of affairs in the Atlas Building lasted long enough to carry the matter up to the experts in the employ of the companies; that is to say, until about three o'clock the following morning. Then, without reason, and all at once, the whole building from top to bottom was a blaze of incandescent light.
One of the men, stepping to the nearest telephone, unhooked the receiver. To his ear came the low busy hum of a live wire. Somebody touched a bell button, and the head janitor, running joyfully, two steps at a time, from his lair, cried out that his bell had rung.
The little group of workmen and experts nodded in a competent and satisfied manner, and began leisurely to pack their tools as though at the successful completion of a long and difficult job.
But every man jack of them knew perfectly well that the electrical apparatus of the building was now in exactly the same condition as it had been the evening before. No repair work had followed a futile investigation.
As the group moved toward the outer air, the head repair man quietly dropped behind. Surreptitiously he applied the slender cords of his pocket ammeter to the zinc and carbon of the dead batteries concerning whose freshness he and his assistant had argued. The delicate needle leaped forward, quivered like a snake's tongue, and hovered over a number.
"Fifteen," read the repair man; and then, after a moment: "Hell!"
The daily business, therefore, opened normally. The elevators shot from floor to floor; the telephones rang; the call-bells buzzed, and all was well. At six o'clock came the scrub-woman; at half past seven the office boys; at eight the clerks; a little later some of the heads; and precisely at nine Malachi McCarthy, as was his invariable habit.
As the bulky form of the political boss pushed around the leaves of the revolving door, the elevator starter glanced at his watch. This was not to determine if McCarthy was on time, but to see if the watch was right.
McCarthy had recovered his good humor. He threw a joke at the negro polishing the brass, and paused genially to exchange a word with the elevator starter.
"Worked until about three o'clock," the latter answered a question. "Got it fixed all right. No, they didn't say what was the matter. Something to do with the wires, I suppose."
"Most like," agreed McCarthy.
At this moment an elevator dropped from above and came to rest, like a swift bird alighting. The doors parted to let out a young man wearing the cap of the United Wireless.
"Good morning, Mr. McCarthy," this young man remarked in passing. "Aren't going into the sign-painting business, are you?" He laughed.
"What ye givin' us, Mike?" demanded McCarthy.
The young man wheeled to include the elevator starter in the joke.
"Air was full of dope most of last night from some merry little jester working a toy, home-made. He just kept repeating the same thing--something about 'McCarthy, at six o'clock you shall have a sign given unto you. It works,' over and over all night. Some new advertising dodge, I reckon. Didn't know but you were the McCarthy and were getting a present from some admiring constituent."
He threw back his head and laughed, but McCarthy's ready anger rose.
"Where did the stuff come from?"
"Out of the fresh air," replied the operator. "From most anywhere inside the zone of communication."
"Couldn't you tell who sent it?"
"No way. It wasn't signed. Come from quite a distance, though."
"How can you tell that?"
"You can tell by the way it sounds. Say, they ought to be a law about these amatoors cluttering up the air this way. Sometimes I got to pick my own dope out of a dozen or fifteen messages all ticking away in my headpiece at once."
"I know the crazy slob what sent 'em, all right, all right," growled McCarthy. "He's nutty for fair."
"Well, if he's nutty, I wish you'd hurry his little trip to Matteawan," complained the operator, turning away.
The boss went to his office, where he established himself behind his table-top desk. There all day he conducted a leisurely business of mysterious import, sitting where the cool autumn breeze from the river brought its refreshment. His desk top held no papers; the writing materials lay undisturbed. Sometimes the office contained half a dozen people. Sometimes it was quite empty, and McCarthy sat drumming his blunt fingers on the window-sill, chewing a cigar, and gazing out over the city he owned.
There were two other, inner, offices to McCarthy's establishment, in which sat a private secretary and an office boy. Occasionally McCarthy, with some especial visitor, retired to one of these for a more confidential conversation. The secretary seemed always very busy; the office boy was often in the street. At noon McCarthy took lunch at a small round table in the cafe below. When he reappeared at the elevator shaft, the elevator starter again verified his watch. Malachi McCarthy had but the one virtue of accuracy, and that had to do with matters of time. At five minutes of six he reached for his hat; at three minutes of six he boarded the elevator.
"Runs all right to-day, Sam," he remarked genially to the boy whom he had half throttled the evening before.
He stood for a moment in the entrance of the building, enjoying the sight of the crowds hurrying to their cars, the elevated, the subway, and the ferries. The clang and roar of the city pleased his senses, as a vessel vibrates to its master tone. McCarthy was feeling largely paternal as he stepped toward the corner, for to a great extent the destinies of these people were in his hands.
"Easy marks!" was his philanthropic expression of this sentiment.
At the corner he stopped for a car. He glanced up at the clock of the Metropolitan tower. The bronze hand pointed to the stroke of six. As he looked, the first note of the quarter chimes rang out. The car swung the corner and headed down the street. McCarthy stepped forward. The sweet chimes ceased their fourfold phrasing, and the great bell began its spaced and solemn booming.
One!--Two!--Three!--Four!--Five!--Six! McCarthy counted. At the recollection of a crazy message from the Unknown, he smiled. He stepped forward to hold up his hand at the car. Somewhat to his surprise the car had already stopped some twenty feet away.
McCarthy picked his way to the car.
"Wonder you wouldn't stop at a crossing," he growled, swinging aboard.
"Juice give out," explained the motorman.
McCarthy clambered aboard and sat down in a comfortably filled car. Up and down the perspective of the street could be seen other cars, also stalled. Ten minutes slipped by; then Malachi McCarthy grew impatient. With a muttered growl he rose, elbowed his way through the strap-hangers, and stepped to the street. A row of idle taxicabs stood in front of the Atlas Building. Into the first of these bounced McCarthy, throwing his address to the expectant chauffeur.
The man hopped down from his box, threw on the coil switch and ran to the front. He turned the engine over the compression, but no explosion followed. He repeated the effort a dozen times. Then, grasping the starting handle with a firmer grip, he "whirled" the engine--without result.
"What's the matter? Can't you make her go?" demanded McCarthy, thrusting his head from the door.
"Will you please listen, sir, and see if you hear a buzz when I turn her over?" requested the chauffeur.
"I don't hear nothing," was the verdict.
"I'm sorry, but you'll have to take another cab," then said the man. "My coil's gone back on me."
McCarthy impatiently descended, entered the next taxi in line, and repeated the same experience. By now the other chauffeurs, noticing the predicament of their brethren, were anxiously and perspiringly at work. Not an engine answered the call of the road! A passing truck driver, grinning from ear to ear, drove slowly down the line, dealing out the ancient jests rescued for the occasion from an oblivion to which the perfection of the automobile had consigned them.
McCarthy added his mite; he was beginning to feel himself the victim of a series of nagging impertinences, which he resented after his kind.
"If," said he, "your company would put out something on the street besides a bunch of retired grist-mills with clock dials hitched on to them, you might be able to give the public some service. I've got lots of time. Don't hurry through your afternoon exercise on my account. Just buy a lawn-mower and a chatelaine watch apiece--you'd do just as well."
By now every man had his battery box open, McCarthy left them, puzzling over the singular failure of the electrical apparatus, which is the nervous system of the modern automobile.
He turned into Fifth Avenue. An astonishing sight met his eyes.
The old days had returned. The center of the long roadway, down which ordinarily a long file of the purring monsters of gasoline creep and dash, shouldering aside the few hansoms and victorias remaining from a bygone age, now showed but a swinging slashing trot of horses.
Hansoms, hacks, broughams; up-raised whips, whirling in signal; the spat spat of horses' hoofs; all the obsolescent vehicles that ordinarily doze in hope along the stands of the side streets; it was a gay sight of the past raised again for the moment to reality by the same mysterious blight that had shadowed the Atlas Building the night before.
Along the curbs, where they had been handpushed under direction from the traffic squad, stood an unbroken line of automobiles. And the hood of each was raised for the eager tinkering of its chauffeur. Past them streamed the horses, and the faces of their drivers were illumined by broad grins.
McCarthy looked about him for a hansom. There was none unengaged. In fact, the boss soon determined that many others, like himself, were waiting for a chance at the first vacant one. Reluctantly he made up his mind to walk. He glanced up at the tower of the Metropolitan Building; then stared in astonishment. The hands of the great dial were still perpendicular--the hour indicated was still six o'clock!