The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter IX. The Great Silence
Percy Darrow sat quite calmly, though a little hungrily, through the first of the two hours of the Great Silence. As it fell, he looked at his watch; then went on reading. Strangely terrified faces flitted by the open door of his little room. About seven o'clock Darrow, struck by a sudden idea, arose, walked down the corridor outside, and quite deliberately set to work to force the light door. As has been intimated, either by direct order of McCarthy or because of some vagueness of the orders, the young man had been confined, not in the jail proper, but in one of the living apartments of the wing.
Few realize how important a role sound plays in what might be called the defensives of our every-day life. Sight is important, to be sure, but it is more often corroborative than not; it is more often used to identify the source of the alarm that has been communicated through other channels. When we are told of the hero--or the villain--that he stood "with every sense alert", our mental picture, in spite of the phrasing, is that of a man listening intently for the first intimations of what may threaten.
So it is in prison. The warders can, of necessity, remain within actual view of but a few of the prisoners a small proportion of the time. But through those massive and silent corridors sound stands watch-dog for them. The minute scratch of a file, the vibrations attendant on the most cautious attempts against the stone structure, the most muffled footfall reports to the jailer that mischief is afoot. Instantly he is on the spot to corroborate by his other faculties the warnings of the watch-dog of the senses.
Now the watch-dog was asleep. Percy Darrow reflected that, were it not for the terror of these unexplainable hours, the prisoners within or their friends without could assail their confines boldly and formidably, even with dynamite, and none would be the wiser if only none happened to be within actual visual range of the operations. He himself quite coolly used the iron side piece to his bed as a battering-ram to break the locks of the door. Then he walked down the long corridor and out through the police station, bowing politely to the bewildered officers. The latter did not attempt to stop him.
The people in the streets were, for the most part, either standing stock-still, or moving slowly forward in a groping sort of fashion. Darrow, for the second time, noticed how analogous to the deprivation of sight was the total deprivation of hearing and feeling vibration.
Traffic was at a standstill. People's faces were bewildered, for the most part; though here and there one showed contorted with the hysteria of fright, or exalted with some other, probably religious, emotion. The same impression of ghostliness came to Darrow here as in the Atlas Building. Visual causes were not producing their wonted aural effect.
On the street corner a peanut vender's little whistle sent aloft bravely its jet of steam; the bells on a ragpicker's cart swung merrily back and forth on their strap; a big truck, whose driver was either undaunted or drunk, banged and clattered and rattled over the rough cobbles of a side street--but no sound came from any one of them.
This complete severance of one cause and effect was sufficient to discredit all natural laws. No other cause and effect was certain. Everywhere people were touching things to see if they were solid, or wet, or soft, or hard, as the case might be. Even Darrow felt, absurdly enough, that it would not be greatly serious to jump off the top of any building into the street.
Darrow swung confidently enough down the street. He was the only person, with the exception of the drunken truck driver, who moved forward at a natural and easy gait. The effect was startling. Darrow seemed to be the only real human being of the lot. All the rest were phantasmagoric.
But as he proceeded down-town the spell was beginning to break. People were communicating with one another by means of pencil and paper. Darrow was amused, on crossing the park, to see against the lighted windows on Newspaper Row the silhouetted forms of activity. Evidently, the newspaper men were already at work on this fresh story.
Near the corner of the park Darrow saw standing a policeman of his varied acquaintance. The scientist walked up to this man, who was standing in the typical vacant uncertainty, smiled agreeably, clapped him on the back, and shook his hand. The patrolman grasped Darrow's hand, but the look of groping uncertainty deepened on his face.
Darrow slipped his note-book from his pocket, and scribbled a few lines, which he showed to the officer. The latter read, inwardly digested for a moment, and smiled.
"Keep your hair on," ran Darrow's screed. "This will pass in a few minutes, and it won't hurt you, anyway. Don't look like all these other dubs."
He stood there companionably by the patrolman. They looked about them. All at once, with this touch of normal, unafraid, human companionship, the weird horror of the situation fell away. Darrow and his companion were seeing humanity disjointed from its accustomed habit, as one looks on a stage full of men hypnotized into belief of an absurdity.
Where the blotting out of electricity had been tragic, this, as soon as its utter harmlessness was realized, became comic. All about through the park men were meeting the situation according to the limited ideas developed by a crustacean life of absolute dependence on the shell of artificial environment. A considerable number of all sorts had fallen on their knees and were praying. One fat man in evening dress, with a silk hat and a large diamond stud showing between the lapels of a fur-lined coat, was particularly fervent. By force of habit Darrow remarked on this individual.
"I'll bet he hasn't been to church since he was a kid," he observed, of course inaudibly.
The policeman caught the direction of his look, however, and grinned with understanding.
Some stood frozen to one spot, their faces agonized, as a man would stand still were the earth likely to yawn anywhere. Darrow would have liked to reassure these, for their eyes expressed a frantic terror. One red-faced individual with white side-whiskers, looking exactly like the comic-paper caricatures of the trusts, had evidently refused to accept any arbitrary dictates of natural forces. Probably he had never accepted any dictates of any kind. He was going from one taxicab to another, trying to command a driver to take him somewhere, talking vehemently and authoritatively, his face getting more and more purple with anger. The taxicab drivers merely stared at him stupidly.
"That old boy's kept his nerve," Darrow remarked, of course inaudibly, to his companion. "But he'll die of apoplexy if he doesn't watch out."
Again the policeman caught the direction of Darrow's glance, and grinned in understanding. He reached his huge gloved hand for the young man's pencil and paper, on which he wrote the name of a man high in railroad circles, and grinned again with evident relish.
At this moment an entirely self-possessed young man swung across the street. He surveyed the two men sharply a moment, then approached, producing a sheaf of yellow paper as he did so.
"Professor Darrow?" he wrote.
The young man pointed to himself, then to the Despatch Building.
"Cause?" he wrote, and waved his hand.
Darrow shook his head.
Darrow shook his head again.
The reporter was about to add another question, when Darrow reached for the paper. It was thrust eagerly into his hand. Darrow consulted his watch.
"If," he wrote, "you will wait here four minutes, I'll give you an interview."
The reporter read this, and nodded.
"You're on!" he added to the written dialogue. Then he produced a cigarette, lighted it, and joined the other two men in their amused survey of the public's performances.
During the four minutes that ensued Darrow examined the reporter speculatively. Finally his eye lighted up with recollection.