Chapter 12 [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 XII

It was a sorely perplexed man who faced the light of the following day. During the night the weather had broken, and long battalions of grey clouds trooped up from the south, and the first signs of the coming autumn were in the air. Alan stood staring over his vines through the soft drizzle of rain. There were questions he must decide then and there, and the principal one was, how far was he justified in keeping the secret of his discovery to himself. For the time being he put the legal aspect of the position in the background. The law of “Treasure Trove” could, and would, look after itself. It was his moral obligation to the world at large that troubled him. He knew that it would be impossible for him to keep the secret for an indefinite time, but the “when” and the “how” of the disclosure was the question. He felt that the wonders lying at his feet were not intended for the individual benefit of the discoverer. At last he came to the conclusion that he would at least make a complete investigation of the place before he came to a decision. This right was one that could not be gainsayed him. Then, again, came the question of his every-day affairs. Fortunately he had earned a reputation for hard-working solitude, and there were very few in the district who could claim to question his absence from Glen Cairn, and with these he felt that he must deal as the situation arose. There was Marian, of course, and it was with a feeling of dissatisfaction and self-condemnation that he thought how entirely the events of the last few days had effaced her from his mind, and how little she counted compared with his present absorbing interests.

Regardless of rain, he strode out across the vineyard, ploughing heavily through the soft, sticky soil. He scrutinised his crop carefully from end to end, making mental notes as to how long it would be before he must take in hand the work of sending the grapes to the winery, a work that meant a fortnight’s incessant toil and the necessity of undesirable strangers in the shape of pickers, about the homestead. In the end he decided that he could count on at least three clear weeks. It seemed an absurdity that he should trouble about the matter at all when he was the master of untold wealth, but at present he could not afford to court the inevitable inquiry that such an extraordinary proceeding would bring in its train.

With his troubles temporarily settled, he returned to the homestead, but before he descended into the shaft, he fixed a strong bolt on the inside of the door of the shed to prevent the possibility of surprise while he was engaged below. He took with him, too, a heavy ebony walking stick to replace the crowbar with which he tested his path.

Leaving his lamp on the last step, he made his way across the now lighted vestibule and through the great doorway. He decided to go right through to the end of the gallery where he had hitherto not penetrated, and then attempt the other doors. On the way, however, he came to the staircase leading to the balconies, and an exploration of these shut his eyes for a long time to his original intention. They were loaded like the main floor with the same bewildering array of beauty. Cases of jewelled ornaments of priceless value stood all about. Strange and wonderful fabrics glittered and shimmered under the blazing light, till his eyes ached and his brain reeled under the strain. It was in pausing to look over the balustrade at the sight below that his eyes alighted on that which quickened his curiosity. At the far end of the gallery behind a tall case he saw a low arched doorway. Only pausing sufficiently to rest the path before him he hurried to the spot. He paused some distance from the door, and looked it over suspiciously. It was not more than eight feet high and three feet wide. On its lintel again he found inscribed the three mystic groups of characters. The whole face of the door was filled by the figure of a man carved in high relief, whose attitude made him seem the guardian of the mysterious beyond. “Well, my friend,” said Dundas, “you look as if you were there to warn off trespassers, but I’m going to chance it.” He walked slowly forward, taking every precaution against surprise. He was within two paces of the figure when, without sound or warning, the door slid sideways into the thickness of the wall, opening up a corridor that led to the left.

“I wish,” said Alan, without moving further, “that this place were not so full of automatic machinery. It’s uncanny when the wretched things go off by themselves. Enough to give one the creeps. I seem to have arrived at the back door.” He advanced cautiously and peered into the passage. It curved away into an unknown distance, evidently the segment of a circle. It was quite empty, and was lighted from above by tiny clusters of globes. “Looks fairly safe,” he said, and, stepping carefully, he walked slowly down the passage. In a few minutes he saw ahead of him the break of another doorway, and when he reached it he found it similar to the one he had just left. Again, as he walked towards it, came the noiseless movement as it disappeared. From the distance he had walked Dundas estimated that here was the entrance to the adjoining gallery, and the first glance showed that he was right. He had become so used to the absolutely unexpected that by now he would have been surprised to come across anything normal, but the sight that met his eyes brought him to a breathless full stop. “I think I’ll pass this.” Even from where he stood he could see enough to tell him that to enter the new gallery would test his nerves to the uttermost. In shape and size it was identical with the one he had just left, but beyond that and the matter of lighting, they were as far apart as the Poles. In the one, beauty beyond conception, in the other horrors that were grim and revolting beyond the distorted images of a nightmare. Alan felt a sensation of physical sickness as his fascinated eyes took in the scene before him. It was as if the door had opened on a vast human slaughter-house. Everywhere his eyes fell they fell on severed limbs and tortured forms, arranged in attitudes grotesque and horrible. Instead of a wealth of beauty and encased art, his eyes encountered repulsive fragments of humanity. In the distance, at the far end, he could catch the glitter of steel and glass, and in the balconies above he could see cabinets whose contents sent shivers of repulsion through him. It was some time before his shrinking senses realised the meaning of the sight. To the trained eye it would have been at once apparent, but to Dundas, who had never before encountered such an exhibition, the shock at first deprived him of his reasoning powers. “It’s beastly, and it’s hideous, but I might have expected to find a biological section in this bazaar. My aunt! How would Dick Barry revel in this butcher’s shop. I suppose this would send his soul into drivelling ecstasies. I guess I’m not likely to find any traps here. There can be nothing about the place to keep off visitors that would be any worse than the place itself.” Muttering to himself, he stepped forward. “I might as well look round.”

A medical man would have found nothing in the gallery that would have repelled him, and would doubtless have found in the modelled horrors matters of intense interest; but to Alan, who was as unused as the average layman to coming into contact with vividly realistic representations of the internal economy of humanity, the experience was both grisly and disgusting. In spite, however, of his physical distaste of the investigation, he forced himself to go through with it. Modelled dissections of every conceivable and inconceivable kind were arrayed through the length of the gallery, and after a little while, even from his elementary knowledge of such matters, Dundas saw that the whole arrangement had been made in a carefully ordered system. He found that each model was accompanied by a cabinet, and the contents of the cabinets held him for uncounted minutes as he went through them. In each one in a special compartment he found a flat metal case fastened with an easily opened clasp. Each of the cases contained a single remarkable book — a book about eighteen inches long and twelve inches wide, that opened along its width, and not its length. Alan had given up guessing as futile, but the material from which the volumes were made caused him as much curiosity as their contents. The leaves were as thin as tissue, but perfectly opaque, and with a beautiful glossy surface. After a timid experimental attempt, he found that all the strength of his fingers was insufficient to tear or damage them in the slightest. They were not paper, certainly, and Dundas, after comparing them mentally with other material he knew of, put the question out of his mind with a shrug of his shoulders.

Their contents were as remarkable as the books themselves. Each opened page bore on one side a diagram, and on the other a closely printed array of characters, evidently an explanation of the diagram. All the illustrations bore on the model connected with the cabinet. They were done in colours, and even to the inexperienced eye showed exquisite care in every detail. Alan skimmed through gruesome volumes with wondering eyes, picking up here and there traces of the wonderful system with which the arrangement of the models and the illustrations had been made. The remainder of the contents of the cabinets was beyond his ken. He found flasks hermetically sealed full of fluids, coloured and colourless, and jars holding chemicals, some of which he recognised, and others the identity of which he could not even guess at. There were strange knives and stranger instruments, and arsenals of surgical weapons. His first squeamishness gave way to a lively, if somewhat morbid, curiosity as time went on. He stood for a long time lost in admiration before a series of life-sized human figures of colourless glass. In one the entire nervous system was shown in thin white lines. In another the whole circulatory system down to the tiny capillary vessels was traced in red and blue. He saw the human digestive arrangements completely shown in a third, and he told himself that if ever Doctor Richard Barry, his especial pal, gained entrance to that gallery, he foresaw that nothing short of dynamite would ever get him out again.

It was when he had arrived at the other end of the gallery in front of the great closed doors that he came on another mystery that racked his brains. Set fairly in the middle before the doors was a replica of the seated statue in the vestibule, and in front of it was a small circular table. The table was covered with a glass dome set in a rim of metal, and under the glass rested an instrument similar to the one the statue held in its hands. It was a circlet of metal, apparently made to fit the human head, and attached to it on either side were wires, the other ends of which were attached to a small cylindrical box some four inches in length and an inch in diameter. One end of the cylinder was metal-covered, the other was filled with some transparent substance that appeared to be a lens, and that was all he could make of the device after a long and careful examination. He attempted to raise the glass dome in order to inspect the instrument more closely, but it resisted his efforts. Whatever its use, simple as it appeared to be, Alan came to the conclusion that it must be of prime importance in the gallery, both from the position in which it was placed and from its association with the statue. As it was evidently not meant to be interfered with by inexperienced hands, Dundas desisted from his attempts. He felt that by tampering with the exhibits, a novice might do irreparable damage, and he left the solution of the problem to wiser heads.

Throughout his wanderings he had pursued the policy of touching nothing without replacing it exactly where he had found it, and in many instances he restrained his curiosity to handle unknown objects from fear of disastrous consequences. Afterwards he made his way to the balconies. His visit was short and somewhat startling. Science is no respecter of conventions, and Alan was still able to blush, and after a brief and breathless inspection of its astonishing exhibits he fled below to the milder atmosphere of diseased and dissected humanity. On the foot of the stairs he paused and addressed a figure of a gentleman who had discarded his skin and was dressed somewhat unattractively in his muscles.

“By gad, sir! If I had a maiden aunt, I’m blessed if I’d take her up there with me. It’s no place for innocence like mine.”

He paused a while, and then made his way to the great doors in search of an exit, but try as he would they defied every effort to open them, and after wasting an hour in fruitless search he wandered back to the rear doorway.

Standing in the curved corridor outside the entrance to the biological gallery, Alan paused some time to consider his position. Before him, in the direction in which he had come, the corridor curved away out of sight. Mentally reviewing his exploration up to date, he came to the conclusion that the six galleries all radiated from the central vestibule, and were connected at their further end by the passage he was then in, estimating the length of each gallery at two hundred feet, and the vestibule at sixty in diameter, it meant that the passage would form a circle of about four hundred and sixty feet in diameter or roughly fourteen hundred feet round. The calculation brought the magnitude of the subterranean building home to him with renewed force. Before going any further he paced slowly back to the entrance of the art gallery, and walked past it in order to find if the corridor was continued further in that direction. Sixty feet beyond he found himself faced by a blind wall that showed no sign of break or opening. Dundas looked the wall over, and accepted the situation philosophically. Evidently it was intended that he should continue on in the direction from which he had started. Then he retraced his steps past the medical gallery, prepared for further discoveries. As he expected, he came on a third entrance equi-distant from the other two, and exactly similar.

His past experience prepared him for what followed, though he relaxed none of his precautions against unpleasant surprises. As before the third door slid gently out of sight, leaving him free ingress to the gallery beyond. Alan stared into the new section, whistling softly. His capacity for astonishment was being dulled by surfeit. “Just so,” he said to himself, breaking off in the middle of a bar. “Art, biology, and now, if I’m not mistaken, this exhibition represents science, and I suppose I won’t be able to begin to understand a thousandth part of it. By Jove! What a joy for investigators, born and unborn, before they get to the bottom of this little lot.” He stood inside, looking round with uncomprehending eyes. For glitter and splendour the sight was almost equal to the art gallery. Everything round him gave evidence of the same systematic grouping he had observed before. There was a difference, though, that he did not observe for some time. The walls were furnished with shelves that almost covered them, and the shelves were closely packed with the flat metal cases that he had found in the biological gallery containing books. Without removing them he examined the cases, and found each marked with characters inlaid in enamel on its visible edge.

“Not much help to me,” he commented, looking over the mighty array. “And not much to anyone else, I’m afraid, unless there is a key somewhere, and even the ingenuity that was responsible for this can hardly have worked that out.” He turned to look over the shining array in front of him. “That’s a cock-eyed-looking spectroscope, anyhow — that is, if it is a spectroscope. Apparently this is the optical section. That may be a microscope, but what the deuce the picturesque-looking contraption beside it is I don’t know” — (a pause while he stared into a cabinet close by) — “Humph! Lenses, I should say; but what a collection. Now, what’s the meaning of this?” “This” was a highly-polished metal plate affixed to the cabinet. It bore, inlaid in white enamel, a number of dots in rows. There was a character inlaid in red opposite each row. There was one dot to start with, then two, and so on up to ten. Alan studied the plate for a few minutes, and then an idea came to him. “By Jove, this looks like a decimal system of numeration. The red characters are their figures from one to ten. The tenth line has two characters. The first the same as the one on top, and the second a new one.” Below, in bright blue inlay, were three characters together. Alan compared them with the red in the upper portion of the plate.

“If my idea is correct, and it looks like it, this cabinet is numbered eight hundred and thirty-two. Now, why numbered at all?” He looked around, and his eyes fell on the book shelves. “Of course! They have the reference library on the walls, and the marks on the books are numbers!” He had no pencil, but with his pocket-knife he scratched a copy of the numerals on the polished stick he carried and went to the book shelves. He was delighted to find that his surmise was correct, and that without difficulty he could read the mystic characters. Before long he came to those he sought. On ten successive metal cases he found the marks corresponding to eight hundred and thirty-two. The volumes he extracted from their cases were similar to those he had examined before in the adjoining gallery. As he had expected, each of the volumes he looked into were undoubtedly, from their illustrations, connected with the case of lenses. A closer examination of the objects around him showed that each was numbered, and from the numbers he proved his theory by finding the volumes that bore the number of each exhibit. In some instances a single model had as many as twenty volumes of reference — volumes of absorbing interest even to his untutored mind. Alan wandered through the bewildering array, bitterly bewailing his woeful ignorance of all but the most elementary ideas of science.

It was tantalising beyond words to know just enough to stimulate his curiosity to bursting point. There was one consolation, however. He was sure that no individual professor of physics or natural philosophy would be very much better off than he. The range of subjects was too wide for the brain of any one man to be familiar with. Chemistry, electricity, optics, geology, metallurgy, he recognised, but there were scores of other matters that were to him as Hebrew or Sanskrit would be to an infant. Alan summed the matter up, leaning over the balustrade of the balcony and looking down on the dazzling scene beneath. “It will take fifty commissions fifty blessed years to learn a fiftieth part of the blessed things. But what they do find out will be worth the work. This gallery will make the scientific world hum like swarming bees and by George, I’ll be here to hear it hum.” He paused reflectively. “Anyway, if I stay here till I grow grey, it’s a moral that I won’t be any wiser by myself.” He roused himself and looked at his watch. It was nearly three o’clock. He had been too absorbed to notice how the time went. He felt hungry, but his curiosity was stronger than his appetite, and he resolved to try the remaining three galleries that day.

He hurried from the gallery to the exit, and turned again down the corridor to the left. He felt so certain of finding the next door where he expected it that it caused no surprise when he arrived at it. There was a sub-conscious wonder as to the contents of the next gallery. “Art, medicine, science, and now —” He stepped towards the closed door. “Quite so,” he went on, as the door vanished into the wall. “Quite natural and proper. We have now arrived at the machinery section of the blessed exhibition, and of course, I know just about as much of machinery and engineering as I do about the other things. Alan, my son, you are beyond doubt a monument of blithering ignorance. Pshaw!” He passed through the doorway. It was an impressive sight under the white rays of the swinging lights, as they flashed on crank and shaft and wheel, and were reflected back from a forest of mechanical wonders. Some of the machines he judged were models, and others were the real thing, but as to their meaning or purpose his mind was a blank. There were intricate monsters and delicate exquisitely-wrought models side by side. The dislike of the ordinary mortal for interfering with unknown contrivances was strong upon him. A desire to see the wheels go round was curbed by the thoughts of unknown consequences. That the wheels would go round if properly treated he had no doubt, but as to his own ability to supply the proper treatment he had no illusions.

Alan took out his pipe, and smoked thoughtfully as he went down aisles and gangways. He peered curiously amongst cranks and levers, and speculated idly on the reasons for what he saw, admiring the wonderful workmanship and finish. One fact that he had noticed before was impressed on his mind with renewed force. Whatever metal work he came across was perfectly free from speck or tarnish. Every least part was as free from corrosion or rust as on the day (how immeasurably far back!) it left the hands of the craftsmen. It seemed as if these long-dead workmen had learned the secret of rendering their work imperishable. If the metal these great monsters were built of was for the most part steel, as he imagined, then it was a form of steel such as our world knew nothing of. Again, too, throughout all the galleries he had explored there was a total absence of dust. This, too, impressed him greatly It gave the whole wonderful place the air of having been daily swept and tended with scrupulous care. Wherever Dundas went this spotlessness brought with it a feeling he could not shake off of some ever-present but invisible caretaker. As he put it to himself, as he wandered through the galleries, he expected at each turn to find some uniformed attendant demanding that his stick should be left at the entrance, and offering to sell him a catalogue for sixpence.

Alan spent a long hour wandering through the maze of machinery, every minute of which went to convince him more forcibly than ever of his colossal ignorance of engineering. Finally, he decided that he would rack his brain no longer, and, if possible at least, take a glance at the other two galleries before ending his investigations for the day.

However, he was not destined to leave the gallery without an adventure, and it was one that gave him a practical illustration of the unwisdom of meddling with unknown forces. A few yards from the rear doorway, on his way to the corridor, he paused to look at a machine that had previously attracted his attention by its apparent simplicity. It consisted solely of a burnished shaft of metal protruding from a cylindrical casing, the whole being mounted on a plain, but apparently strong stand. On one side of the casing was a lever, terminated by an inviting-looking grip for the hand. There was nothing about it to show rhyme or reason for its being there, still less to show its possible utility in the scheme of things. It looked more like an unfinished portion of a machine than the completed article, and was certainly the least complex-looking in the gallery. Standing behind it, Alan’s hand fell unconsciously on the lever. He attempted to push it away from him, but it resisted the effort. Then he drew it towards him, only slightly — so slightly that he had reason to believe afterwards that he owed his life to the lightness of his touch. There was no sound from the machine itself, but in the corridor opposite the open door came a crash as of a bursting shell that echoed through the gallery like the crack of doom. For a moment the view was obscured by dust and smoke, and the concussion sent Dundas reeling backwards. When he had recovered from the shock the smoke cleared somewhat, and through the thinning mist showed havoc. The corridor and the doorway were partially blocked by masses of broken cement, torn down by the invisible force he had liberated, and the thickness of the wall showed a great irregular gaping hole, large enough to form a small room. Alan examined the damage with no small concern. His previous experience had taught him the adamantine strength of the material of the structure. “What power was this,” he wondered, “that could deal so terrible a blow?” The wall was torn and riven like so much clay, and he realised that he had again been very close to a fatal ending to his exploring. He scrambled out into the passage inwardly registering a vow that in future nothing would induce him to lay his hand on any contrivance without the absolute certainty that it would be harmless.

It took him a little while to recover from the effects of his adventure, and to decide that for the time being it was useless to attempt to clear the passage. Then he made his way along to where he knew the next door would be found. A few minutes later Dundas was standing in the entrance to the fifth gallery. His recent scare was completely forgotten, and the joy of discovery was in his heart. Gallery number five was a library. From end to end in splendid array it was filled with book shelves, all closely packed with metal cases similar to those he had examined before. The shelves stood about fifteen feet in height, and covered the whole floor space with the exception of the spaces left for access, and where room had been left at regular intervals for tables. The lighting was the same as in the other galleries, but so arranged that no shadows fell in any of the narrow gangways between the shelves. Alan walked from one end of the gallery to the other, whistling cheerfully. He tried the great doors leading to the vestibule in a perfunctory way, and, as he expected, they were immovable. One thing puzzled him. He could see no ladder nor any apparent means of gaining the higher shelves beyond his reach. It might have been an oversight, he thought, but if it were it would be the only oversight he had so far come upon. He approached the nearest book shelf and examined it closely. Equi-distant from the two ends, and about five feet from the floor, was a small metal disc set in the framework. On the disc were two small buttons, one red and the other white.

Alan looked at them thoughtfully for some time, then, summoning up his courage, he pressed the red one with tentative finger. Nothing happened. Then he tried the white. The instant his finger touched it the whole case subsided silently, but quickly, until the disc was on a level with the floor. The movement was so swift that he had no time to step back before the case had come to rest, but so perfect was the controlling mechanism that there was not the slightest jar when the motion stopped. “By Jove!” he muttered, “no need for ladders here. Ripping idea. There’s another disc in reach now. I’ll try it again.” Obedient to his touch, the case again subsided, and when it came to rest with the second disc on the floor level, he found that the top row of books was within easy reach. “Good business,” said Alan aloud, cheerfully. “Now it follows logically that the shelves will come up again, and if I’m not mistaken that is what the red button is for.” He stooped and put his theory to the test. In a moment the case rose in answer to the pressure of his finger to its original position, leaving him lost in admiration at the wonderful skill that had carried out the idea.

In spite of the temptation to examine the books, he curbed his curiosity. It was growing late, and he determined, if possible, to have a glimpse of the last gallery that day. Closing his ears to the siren call of the close-packed shelves, he paced slowly back to the corridor. At a rough estimate that gallery must have held a million books, and he smiled grimly at the thought of an attack against such odds, backed, as he well knew, by the fact of their being indecipherable. The thought of the latter fact brought forth a sigh of irritation. “All the care for nothing — all the work lost. What light on the dark places of the world’s knowledge lay buried there.” He put the thought from him impatiently. Perhaps after all there would be a key. Surely the vast intelligence that had planned it all had left some connecting link. The idea eased his mind, and he turned in the doorway with hopeful eyes on the array of silent witnesses.

Six o’clock. For a while he hesitated in the corridor. Then he made up his mind. At least he would take one look at the last gallery. Turning, he walked down the corridor, fully expecting to find the last entrance similar to the others, but his hopes were banished abruptly.

Round the curving corridor from the library door the passage terminated in an unexpected obstacle, a wall pierced with a doorway and a closed door. It was the door itself rather than the unexpected ending of the passage that brought an astonished ejaculation to his lips. The door was not large, but was set deep in the massive wall. It was made of metal of some kind, and on it was carved or moulded the figure of a man, and in the figure Dundas recognised the domineering presence of the statue in the vestibule. There was the same fierce relentless face staring into his, and the whole attitude of the figure standing with folded arms seemed to warn the explorer against further progress. On the lintel above again occurred the three sets of characters which he had come to regard nor only as the names of the figures in the vestibule, but also as a danger signal.

“Now, whatever in the name of all that’s wonderful is the meaning of this? From the look of it I should say that the last gallery will be the most interesting, and, if I’m not mistaken, the most exciting. But, my regal-looking friend” — here he nodded familiarly at the figure on the door — “I don’t propose to start asking you for admittance at this hour of the day. I’m too tired and hungry to tackle the riddles you are likely to ask, and I guess I’m likely to want all my wits about me when I do start. So if you’ll pardon my very brief visit I’ll leave you until the morning.”

Alan was not altogether disappointed. As he scrambled over the debris in front of the machinery gallery he told himself that he was more tired than he realised. The final climb up the winding stairway to the shed convinced him of this, and when he at last locked the door behind him and stood in the fading daylight he felt he had done a good day’s work.

How little and insignificant his house looked after what he had been through, and yet, he thought, if he chose to speak now, that home would become for the time being the centre of the whole world. The eyes of every nation would be turned on it, and its name and his would be on every tongue.

Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 103-121

[Editor: Added an exclamation mark after “books are numbers”. Changed “won’t by any wiser” to “won’t be any wiser”. Replaced a full stop with a comma after “through the galleries”. Added a full stop after “the statue in the vestibule”.]

Speak Your Mind