Chapter 10 [Out of the Silence, by Erle Cox]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Out of the Silence (1947 edition) by Erle Cox (1873-1950).]

Chapter X

With his hands deep in his pockets and his chin on his chest, Alan paced slowly up and down the verandah of the homestead. He had abandoned his first idea of going at once to the shed because he wanted to think with his mind untroubled by the weird surroundings of the great vestibule. Obviously there were some means of passing that murderous blade. It would be easy for him to jump from the step above to the floor beneath, but the possibility of finding something as bad, or worse on landing, forced him to put the idea aside. He felt that each bar to his progress must be fairly overcome before he could safely press forward. In his mind’s eye he went over the surroundings for the key of the situation, and he could see only one way out. Whatever motive force there was behind the blade could not be inexhaustible. Doubtless it was a question of mechanics, and the only means he could see was to exhaust the power that drove the flying death until he could pass unharmed.

He went to his tool shed and fastened a pair of ploughshares together with a piece of fencing wire leaving a fair length of wire over that he bent roughly into a hook. Then he took his lamp and made his way down into the winding staircase. He had become familiar now with its echoings, and smiled to think of his racked nerves on his first descent. At length he reached the bottom of the first landing, and found the remnant of the crowbar he had left there the night before. This he carried with him, and, scarcely pausing to glance at the shadowed wall, he made his way to the great vestibule. Treading carefully, he stopped above the danger mark, and sitting down, he examined the step beneath. He found, as he had expected, that the cleft that allowed the passage of the blade terminated about an inch from the end of the step near the wire bars. Holding the crowbar carefully so that it was clear of the sweep of steel, he touched the edge of the step lightly beside the wires and the touch was answered instantly by the ringing whiz of the flying metal. Even prepared as he was, Alan flinched back from the blow and released the pressure. Then he took the ploughshares he had brought with him, and adjusted the hook so as to catch the bar of the step, and let the weight fall outside. It was a simple plan that would keep a continuous weight on the step that would be out of reach of the blade, and it acted to perfection. The moment the pressure came to the step the blade flashed outward. As Alan had surmised, it was fitted to an axle set in the wall, and instead of stopping as before after one slash when the pressure had been released, it continued flashing before him with ever increasing speed. Somewhere in the wall beside him he could hear the deep drone of machinery in motion. In a few seconds the speed was so intense that it appeared as if a dazzling quadrant of burnished metal had darted out of the wall. The whizzing as it cut through the air rose from a wail to a thin, high-pitched screech, and even after retreating upwards several steps to be out of reach of possible harm, Alan could feel the displaced air pressing against his face as if driven from a blast. With his lamp turned full on the spot, he watched the whirling, flying blade with grim satisfaction. Patience was an asset in the game he was playing, but he felt sure he had found a key to the barrier before him, and he was content to wait.

Presently his eyes strayed from the shimmering quadrant to the great doors that shed their soft splendour through the dim vestibule, wondering at the mystery they guarded, and from the doors they turned to the sculptured group in the centre. On this he turned the glare of the acetylene lamp. Of the three figures only one faced him, and this he scrutinised with bated breath. It was the life-size image of a man clad in a long robe that fell almost to his feet, and under the steady white rays every detail stood out with perfect distinctness. The body was bent forward slightly with both hands resting on a short staff, and the robe showed ragged and torn as if slipping from the shoulders of the gaunt frame that supported it, but it was the face that held the gaze of the watcher. It was the face of an old man, but in its intense drawn misery could be read the premature age of pain and overwhelming sorrow. Never had Alan realised such agony as stared back at him from the blank eyes under the scarred and lined forehead, but it seemed as if the stern, set lips were fighting back any feeling of weakness or surrender that seemed struggling to find expression. On the pedestal at the feet of the figure the light gleamed on a metal tablet, and on the tablet Alan recognised a repetition of the first group of characters he had seen at the head of the first stairway. “Evidently,” he thought, “the name of that monument of misfortune. Ye gods! what a face! A portrait, beyond doubt. I suppose I’ll find the other two figures are labelled with the remainder of these hieroglyphics upstairs at the entrance. I wish I could see them properly.” But there was no chance of a proper examination of the other two until he was able to gain the floor of the vestibule. Both were turned away from him, but he could see that one had an arm upraised and pointing directly at the gleaming splendour of the door in front of him.

The inaction of waiting with the goal in sight was exasperating beyond words, but while that screeching blade remained in motion he must possess his soul in patience. He wondered vaguely how many revolutions it was making each minute that passed. His situation was not very pleasant, sitting cramped on the step that seemed to grow harder as time went on, and, moreover, he realised with a slight shiver that the temperature of the great vestibule was very much below that of the atmosphere of the surface. At last his patience became exhausted, and he determined that rather than sit there in irritated watchfulness he would return to the surface and let that whizzing machinery wear itself out. Alan’s previous trips up the winding staircase had taught him that it was not a journey to be undertaken lightly, but to face the climb was better than fretting his patience with compulsory idleness. So off he set, and forced himself to prepare his dinner. Then he selected a book, and by sheer force of will concentrated his mind on it. It was about eleven in the morning when he had adjusted the weights and started the wheels, and he had decided that he would not return until four o’clock. It took a good deal of self-discipline to adhere to his determination. However, he succeeded, but it must be confessed that the author of “The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas” never had a less enthusiastic reader. At last! He flung the heavy volume on the table and hurried to the shaft; then downward. He had noticed in the morning that until he had half completed his ascent he could hear the sound of the flying blade. Now, on the way down he strained his ears to catch every sound. As he went lower and lower his heart beat faster, now and then he paused to listen, and then hope became conviction. Even when he had reached the lower landing and stood before the shadowy figure no sound broke the silence. He hurried onwards, quivering with excitement. As he stepped down into the lower stairway he saw in an instant that the blade had ceased its movement. He took his bar and carefully tested the danger step, but this time without result. His way was clear at last. Even so, he knew the risk of any relaxation in his precautions. He had gained too wholesome a respect for the abilities of the builders in the way of unpleasant surprises to have any illusions that there was nothing more to follow. Treading as delicately as a cat he went down the remaining steps.

At last he stood on the lower floor. The lamp showed up a wonderful pattern of mosaic that radiated from the sculptured group in the centre, so that he seemed to stand on a vast jewelled carpet. Everywhere the white light fell it was flashed back from a thousand gleaming multi-coloured points of light. It seemed sacrilege to set foot upon it, and Alan felt pleased that his rubber-shod shoes would not be likely to mar its beauty.

His first idea was to examine that strange ball of light that projected its rays through the landing above, and, walking carefully, a few steps brought him before it. The most minute scrutiny failed to show any attachment to the tripod. It looked like the lens from a lantern that had been carefully placed to throw its rays in the desired direction. For a long time he stared, hesitating to touch it. Holding his hand within an inch before it he found not the slightest trace of warmth. “Light without heat,” Alan murmured, bending over and gazing into the brilliant glare. He touched the lens with a tentative finger, expecting developments. Nothing happened. Then he boldly closed his hand over it, and without difficulty lifted it from its stand. He turned it over and over, sending its dazzling rays erratically round the vestibule. All he could discover was that behind the lens appeared to be a cavity containing something self-luminous, but whether liquid or gas he could not determine. Set deep in it was a tiny opaque human figure — the origin of that spectre that had caused Dundas his wild stampede. Alan chuckled when he realised the simplicity of the cause of the nerve-racking effect. “Cold; perfectly cold,” he muttered. “And yet how may centuries has it been spreading that light? What a thing! Why, the formula for making that light alone would stagger half the world. I wonder how the Standard Oil Company, for instance, would view the idea as a commercial rival. Or the electric lighting companies or the gas companies. No oil — no wires — no pipes — no nuffin, just light. Guess I could retire on this alone. Seems to me I’ll have to do some pretty solid thinking before I’m through with this business.” He replaced the lens carefully in its original position and turned to the centre of the vestibule, taking his stand beneath the group on the pedestal. From here he saw to the full the wonderful beauty of the place. It seemed with its exquisite soft lighting like a chapel in some cathedral. Each doorway was quite twenty feet in width, and extended almost to the roof. It was hard to believe that the light that filtered through was not the light of day.

He was now able to inspect the remaining figures at his leisure. They were both statues of men, and were doubtless from the same hand as the one he had examined from the stairway. One was represented seated in a high-backed chair, looking down at a strange instrument he held in his hand. His face was one that blended in a high degree both intellect and benevolence. The features were perfectly regular, and the slight smile that marked the corners of the lips took away any trace of hardness. “I should say,” reflected Alan, “that you were a jolly good sport in your time. Fifty if you were a day, and your heart was never older than fifteen. I should like to have had a smoke and a yarn with you, and that’s more than I would wish for with the imperial gentleman beside you. Humph! Now, he was never younger than fifty.” The other figure stood stiffly erect. His robe fell in straight folds to his feet. His whole attitude was one of overbearing arrogance and command. The right arm pointed rigidly before him in the superb gesture of one who has the right and the power to enforce obedience. The head was held high. It was not a cruel face, but it was haughty and pitiless, without one redeeming and softening feature, but at the same time there was nobility about it that conveyed the idea of unswerving devotion to ideals. As Alan expected, he found beneath each figure a repetition of the other inscriptions at the entrance. He looked up again at the tall, commanding figure above him.

“By jove!” he thought, “I’d not care to come before you for sentence, my friend; you look as if you’d give a man ten years hard for a plain drunk and disorderly. Shouldn’t be surprised if you had a finger in the building of this place, the nasty parts, at any rate.” He paused, and followed with his eyes the direction of the outstretched hand. “By Jove! Now I wonder — it does look as though he were ordering me to try that door first.” For a long time Alan looked round the vestibule thoughtfully. It was to him a matter of indifference which door he approached first. From where he stood there was nothing to choose between them. There appeared to be no reason for preference and yet, that commanding figure seemed to speak with a voice more eloquent than words. He looked from the door to the figure. “I may seem prejudiced, but I don’t like the look of you, my friend. If I try that door I may get a cracked skull or a broken neck or some other delicacy not in season. It looks too easy a solution of my choice. If you’ll pardon my discourtesy I think I’ll try the opposite one.” He turned, and, walking round the group, went slowly towards the opposite side of the vestibule. He trod carefully, feeling each step as he went. It was well for him that he had not relaxed his guard. He was within twelve feet of the door he was approaching, when, without a sound, just as his outstretched foot touched the pavement before him, a great section of it, fully ten feet wide and as long as the width of the door, swung over as if on an axis, disclosing a black gulf below, and then as swiftly returned to its place. It made absolutely no sound or jar in its movement, and the very silence added to the shock that Dundas felt at the narrowness of his escape. He had thrown himself back at the first movement, instinctively, but even then he was scarcely able to retain his balance. How he had escaped treading on the trap as he walked from the stairway in the first place he could not conceive. He could only have missed it by a few inches. He sat down and wiped his forehead while he recovered from the nervous jolt his latest experience of the peculiarities of the vestibule had given him, and while he considered his position he delivered himself aloud of his whole-souled opinion of the originators of the scheme. He leaned forward and scrutinised the pavement carefully, but, search as he would, he could discover no trace of the line along which it had opened. Then he pressed forwards with his hand until he felt it give again. He had one fleeting glimpse of the chasm below, and drew back more than satisfied with his experiment. “Lucky for me,” he murmured, “that it was adjusted so delicately; had it worked the least bit stiffly my exploring would have terminated somewhere in the dark. Whew! What a place!”

He sat up again and looked round. “Well, I’ll try the door his majesty commands me to, but I’ll do it on my hands and knees. I won’t be had that way again. The attitude may be ridiculous, but it’s tolerably safe — if anything is safe here.” He returned to the pedestal, and in a humble and lowly manner, testing each inch of the pavement before him, he approached the doors on the opposite side. He was so intent in his watch for a repetition of his former danger that he did not notice the progress he was making. His face was close to the floor, and his eyes were fixed on the glittering mosaic, when suddenly he started backward. He had heard no sound, but without the slightest warning a great brightness poured over him. It was as if the midday sun had blazed out suddenly from twilight. An involuntary cry of amazement escaped him. Of their own accord the doors had parted in the middle and swung wide open, flooding the vestibule with light, and disclosing what lay beyond.

Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 88-97

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