The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter IV. Darkness and Panic
Probably the only men in the whole of New York who accepted promptly and unquestioningly the fact that the entire electrical apparatus of the city was paralyzed were those in the newspaper offices. These capable citizens, accustomed to quick adaptations to new environments and to wide reaches of the imagination, made two or three experiments, and accepted the inevitable.
Within ten minutes the Despatch had messenger boys on tap instead of bells, bicycles instead of telephones, and a variety of lamps and candles in place of electricity. Everybody else in town was speculating why in blazes this visitation had struck them. The Despatch was out after news.
Marsden, city editor, detailed three men to dig up expert opinion on why it had all happened.
"And if the scientific men haven't any other notions, ask 'em if it's anything to do with the earth passing through the tail of the comet," he told them.
The rest of the staff he turned out for stories of the effects. His imagination was struck by the contemplation of a modern civilized city deprived of its nerve system.
"Hunt up the little stuff," said he; "the big stuff will hunt you up--if you scatter."
After covering the usual police-station, theater and hotel assignments, he sent Hallowell to the bridge; Longman to the Grand Central; Kennedy, Warren and Thomas to the tubes, subways and ferries. The others he told to go out on the streets.
They saw a city of four million people stopped short on its way home to dinner! They saw a city, miles in extent, set back without preparation to a communication by messenger only! They saw a city, unprepared, blinking its way by the inadequate illuminations of a half-century gone by!
Hallowell found a packed mass of humanity at the bridge. Where ordinarily is a crush, even with incessant outgoing trains sucking away at the surplus, now was a panic--a panic the more terrible in that it was solid, sullen, inert, motionless. Women fainted, and stood unconscious, erect. Men sank slowly from sight, agonized, their faces contorted, but unheard in the dull roar of the crowd, and were seen no more. Around the edges people fought frantically to get out; and others, with the blind, unreasoning, home instinct, fought as hard to get in.
The police were unavailing. They could not penetrate to break the center. Across the bridge streamed a procession of bruised and battered humanity, escaped from or cast forth by the maelstrom. The daylight was fading, and within the sheds men could not see one another's faces.
Longman at the Grand Central observed a large and curious crowd that filled the building and packed the streets round about. They waited for their trains, and the twilight gathered. For ten minutes trains continued to enter the shed. This puzzled Longman until he remembered that gravity would bring in those this side of Harlem. None went out. The waiting throng was a hotbed for rumors. Longman collected much human-interest stuff, and was quite well satisfied with his story--until he saw what it had meant elsewhere.
For in the subways and tubes the stoppage of the trains had automatically discontinued the suction ventilation. The underground thousands, in mortal terror of the non-existent third-rail danger, groped their way painfully to the stations. With inconceivable swiftness the mephitic vapors gathered. Strong men staggered fainting into the streets. When revived they told dreadful tales of stumbling over windrows of bodies there below.
Through the gathering twilight of the streets, dusky and shadowy, flitted bat-like the criminals of the underworld. What they saw, that they took. Growing bolder, they progressed from pocket-picking to holdups, from holdups to looting. The police reserves were all out; they could do little. Favored by obscurity, the thieves plundered. It would have needed a solid cordon of officers to have protected adequately the retail district. Swiftly a guerrilla warfare sprang up. Bullets whistled. Anarchy raised its snaky locks and peered red-eyed through the darkened streets of the city.
Here and there fire broke out. Men on bicycles brought in the alarms; then, as twilight thickened, men on foot. Chief Croker promptly established lookouts in all the tall towers, as watchmen used a hundred years ago to watch the night.
And, up-town, Smith cursed the necessity of reading his evening paper by candle-light; and Mary, the cook, grumbled because she could not telephone the grocery for some forgotten ingredient; and Jones' dinner party was very hilarious over the joke on their host; and men swore and their wives worried because they had perforce to be very late to dinner.
At eight o'clock, two hours after the inception of the curious phenomena, the condition suddenly passed. The intimation came to the various parts of the city in different ways. Strangely enough, only gradually did the lights and transportation facilities resume their functions. Most of the dynamos were being inspected by puzzled experts. Here and there the blazing of a group of lights, the ringing of a bell, the response of a volt or ammeter to test, hinted to the masters of the lightnings that their rebellious steeds again answered the bit.
Within a half-hour the city's illuminations again reflected softly from the haze of the autumn sky; the clang of the merry trolley, the wail of the motor's siren again smote the air.
Malachi McCarthy, having caught a ride on a friendly dray, arrived home. At eight ten his telephone bell for the first time jangled its summons. McCarthy answered it.
"I'm Simmons, the wireless operator," the small voice told him. "Say! There's a lot of these fool messages in the air again. You know what they said last night about six o'clock, and what happened."
"Let's have 'em," growled McCarthy.
"Here she is: 'McCarthy, will you do as I tell you? Answer. Remember the sign at six o'clock.' It's signed 'M.'"
"Where did that come from?" asked the boss.
"Can't tell, but somewheres a long ways off."
"How do you know that?"
"By the sound."
"Might be anywhere."
"Can you get an answer back?"
"I think so. Can't tell whether my spark will reach that far. I can send out a call for 'M.'"
"Well, send this," said McCarthy. "'Go to hell.'"
On the evening of the phenomena afore mentioned, Percy Darrow had returned to his apartments, where he had dressed unusually early, and by daylight. This was because he had a dinner engagement up-town. It was an informal engagement for a family dinner at seven o'clock; but Percy had been requested by one of the members to come at about six. This was because the other members would presumably be dressing between six and seven.
The young man found a fire blazing on the hearth, although the evening was warm. A graceful girl sat looking into the flames. She did not rise as the scientist entered, but held out her hand with an air of engaging frankness.
"Sit down," she invited the guest. "This is a fearful and wonderful time to ask you to venture abroad in your dress clothes, but I wanted to see you most particularly before the rest of the family comes down."
"You are a singularly beautiful woman," observed Darrow in a detached manner, as he disposed his long form gracefully in the opposite armchair.
The girl looked at him sharply.
"That is intended as an excuse or explanation--not in the least as a compliment," Darrow went on.
"You would not be so obliging, if I were not--beautiful?" shot back the girl. "That is indeed not complimentary!"
"I should be exactly as obliging," amended Darrow lazily, "but I should not feel so generally satisfied and pleased and rewarded in advance. I should have more of a feeling of virtue, and less of one of pleasure."
"I see," said the girl, her brows still level. "Then I suppose you are not interested in what I might ask you as one human being to another!"
"Pardon me, Helen," interrupted Darrow, with unusual decision. "That is just what I am interested in--you as a human being, a delicious, beautiful, feminine, human being who could mean half the created universe to a lucky man."
"But not the whole--"
"No, not the whole," mused Darrow, relaxing to his old indolent attitude. "You see," he roused himself to explain, "I am a scientist, for instance. You could not be a scientist; you have not the training."
"Nor the brains," interposed Helen Warford, a trifle bitterly.
"Nor the kind of brains," amended Darrow. "I have enough of that sort myself," he added. He leaned forward, a hunger leaping in the depths of his brown eyes. "Helen," he pleaded, "can't you see how we need each other?"
But the girl shut both her eyes, and shook her head vigorously.
"Unless people can be everything to each other, they should be nothing--people like us," said she.
Darrow sighed and leaned back.
"I feel that way, but the devil of it is I can't think it," said he. Then after a pause: "What is it you want of me, Helen? I'm ready."
She sat up straight, and clasped her hands.
"It's Jack," said she.
"What's the matter with Jack?"
"Everything--and nothing. He's just out of college. This fall he must go to work. Father wants him to go into an office. Jack doesn't care much, and will drift into the office unless somebody stops him."
"Well?" said Darrow.
"An office will ruin him. He isn't in the least interested in the things they do in offices; and he's too high-spirited to settle down to a grind."
"He's like you in spirit, Helen," said Darrow. "What is he interested in?"
"He's interested in you."
"What!" cried Darrow. "Wish it were a family trait."
"He thinks you are wonderful, and he knows all about all your adventures and voyages with Doctor Schermerhorn. He admires the way you look and act and talk. I suspect him of trying to imitate you." Helen's eyes gleamed with amusement.
[Illustration: "Can't you see how we need each other?"]
Darrow smiled his slow and languid smile.
"The last time I saw Jack he stood six feet and weighed about one hundred and eight-five pounds," he pointed out.
"The imitation is funny," admitted Helen, "but based on genuine admiration."
"What do you want me to do with him?" drawled Darrow.
"I thought you could take him in with you; get him started at something scientific; something that would interest and absorb him, and something that would not leave all his real energies free for mischief."
Darrow leaned his head against the back of the chair and laughed softly. So long did his amusement continue that Helen at length brought him rather sharply to account.
"I was merely admiring," then exclaimed Darrow, "the delicious femininity of the proposal. It displays at once such really remarkable insight into the psychological needs of another human being, and such abysmal ignorance of the demands of what we are pleased to call science."
"You are the most superior and exasperating and conceited man I know!" cried Helen. "I am sorry I asked you. I'd like to know what there is so silly in my remarks!"
"Jack is physically very strong; he is most courageous; he has a good disposition, a gentleman's code, and an eager likable nature. I gather further that he does me the honor of admiring me personally. He has received a general, not a special, college education."
"Well!" challenged Helen.
"Barring the last, these are exactly the qualifications of a good bull-terrier."
"Oh!" cried the girl indignantly, and half rising. "You are insulting!"
"No," denied Darrow. "Not that--never to you, Helen, and you know it! I'm merely talking sense. Leaving aside the minor consideration that I am myself looking for employment, what use has a scientist for a bull-terrier? Jack has no aptitude for science; he has had none of the accurate training absolutely essential to science. He probably wouldn't be interested in science. At the moment he happens to admire me, and I'm mighty glad and proud that it is so. But that doesn't help. If I happened to be a saloon man, Jack would quite as cheerfully want to be a barkeeper. I'd do anything in the world to help Jack; but I'm not the man. You want to hunt up somebody that needs a good bull-terrier. Lots do."
"I hate such a cold-blooded way of going at things!" cried the girl. "You show no more interest in Jack than if--than if--"
Darrow smiled whimsically. "Indeed I do, Helen," he said quietly; "that is why I don't want to touch his life. Science would ruin him quicker than an office--in the long run. What he wants is a job of action--something out West--or in the construction of our great and good city. Now, if I had a political pull, instead of a scientific twist, I could land Jack in a minute. Why don't you try that?"
But Helen slowly shook her head.
"Father and McCarthy are enemies," she said simply. She arose with an air of weariness. "How dark it's getting!" she said, and pressed the electric button in the wall.
The light did not respond.
"That's queer," she remarked, and pulled the chain that controlled the reading light on the table. That, too, failed to illuminate. "Something must be wrong with those things at the meter--what do you call them?"
"Fuses," suggested Darrow.
"Yes, that's it. I'll ring and have Blake screw in another."
Darrow was staring at a small object he had taken from his pocket. It was the electric flash-light he habitually carried to light his way up the three dark flights at his lodgings.
"Let me call him for you," he suggested, rising.
"I'll ring," said Helen.
But Darrow was already in the hall.
"Blake!" he called down the basement stairway. "Bring lamps--or candles."
The man appeared on the word, carrying a lamp.
"I already had this, sir," he explained. "The lights went out some time ago."
"Did you look at the--fuses?" asked Helen.
"Well, telephone to the electric company at once. We must have light."
Percy Darrow had taken his place again in the armchair by the fire.
"It is useless," said he, quietly.
"Useless!" echoed Helen. "What do you mean?" Blake stood quietly at attention.
"You will find your telephone also out of order."
Helen darted from the room, only to return after a moment, laughing.
"You are a true wizard," she said. "Tell me, how did you know? What has happened?"
"A city," stated Percy didactically, "is like a mollusk; it depends largely for its life and health on the artificial shell it has constructed. Unless I am very much mistaken, this particular mollusk is going to get a chance to try life without its shell."
"I don't understand you," said Helen.
"You will," said Percy Darrow.
Mr. and Mrs. Warford descended soon after. They sat down to dinner by the light of the table candles only. Darrow hardly joined at all in the talk, but sat lost in a brown study, from which he only roused sufficiently to accept or refuse the dishes offered him. At about eight o'clock the telephone bell clicked a single stroke, as though the circuit had been closed. At the sound Darrow started, then reached swiftly into his pocket for his little flash-light. He gravely pressed the button of this; then abruptly rose.
"I must use your telephone," said he, without apology.
He was gone barely a minute; then returned to the table with a clouded brow. Almost immediately after the company had arisen from the board, he excused himself and left.
After he had assumed his coat, however, he returned for a final word with Helen.
"Where is Jack this evening?" he asked.
"Dining out with friends. Why?"
"Will you see him to-night?"
"I can if necessary."
"Do. Tell him to come down to my room as near eight o'clock to-morrow morning as he can. I've changed my mind."
"Oh!" cried Helen joyously. "Then you've concluded I'm right, after all?"
"No," said Darrow; "but if this thing carries out to its logical conclusion, I'm going to need a good bull-terrier pup!"