Chapter 14 [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 XIV

For a long time Alan lay face downwards, with his head resting on his arms to recover his scattered senses. That he had been the victim of a fiendish device he now realised, and the realisation that his panic was due to nothing but a trick did not serve to heighten his self-esteem. He told himself that he might have expected some such assault on his imagination. That it had been deliberately planned to break the nerve of the discoverer he felt sure, and, lying there, a nebulous idea came to his mind as to how it had worked. He felt very little consolation in the reflection that not one man in a thousand would have kept his head and his courage. “That’s twice I’ve been scared stiff by nothing in this dashed museum. What a beastly nightmare it was while it lasted. I suppose if I had not been in such an infernal hurry to get in I would have found a warning in that book in the library.” He sat up with a sigh, and looked round him. “Well, I’ll be hanged if there seems to be much to make such a fuss about. Good Lord! Are they real?”

Alan pulled himself to his feet slowly and stood staring down the gallery. The great room, large as it was, was slightly shorter than the others — probably by as much as the width of the ante-chamber. Its contents were few in number, but as Alan looked them over he found they lacked nothing in interest. The whole of the far end nearest the main doorway from the vestibule was occupied by what appeared to be a small temple built within the gallery. It was about thirty feet wide and sixty feet long. The architecture was somewhat Grecian in design. Two steps the whole width of the front led up to a portico supported by two pillars at either end, and the middle of the front was filled by a closed doorway. Fairly in the centre of the gallery, and about twenty feet from the steps of the portico, was set a heavily built chair with a low back, and it was so placed that anyone occupying it would be seated squarely facing the temple. It was neither the temple nor the chair that had drawn the startled question from Alan’s lips, and brought him to his feet.

The portico was occupied by three nude female figures. One stood leaning beside the doorway, with her arm outstretched, beckoning him forward. Another was reclining on the pavement near her feet, leaning on her elbow, with her other arm upraised. The third was seated on the step of the portico. One hand was clasped about her knee, while the forefinger of the other was pressed to her smiling lips with a gesture of mischievous mystery. Fascinated by their glorious beauty, Dundas walked slowly towards them. Each figure was the embodiment of perfect grace and loveliness, and the supreme craft that had moulded them had endowed them with all but life. What made the deception more perfect was the fact that the figures were tinted in such a manner that even when he stood close beside them he could scarcely realise that art, and not nature, had given them being. Alan looked from one smiling face to another. The spirit of mischief that animated the three found reflection in himself, and he raised his cap and bowed ceremoniously.

“Upon my word, girls, I don’t wonder at your fuss when you heard me coming. If you’d only sent me word, I’d have waited until you had completed your toilet, although it looks as if you had been locked out and your raiment locked in. A most embarrassing situation, I’ll admit.” He looked up at the door in front of him. Across the lintel was blazoned a word in half a dozen characters of burnished gold on the black background. “Now, can either of you tell me,” he asked, “whether that is the name of the cottage or the name of the owner? At the same time you might tell me how the deuce you managed to raise such an infernal (pardon the expression) row, and also which of you turned out the light? I don’t think it was a friendly action, though it speaks more for your modesty than your sense of humour.” His eyes roved round the gallery inquiringly. “I think, for my own peace of mind, I had better investigate those beastly noises first. Ah!” For the first time the peculiar appearance of the walls attracted his attention. There was no balcony here to detract from their height. They rose from floor to arched ceiling for forty feet unbroken. At the first glance they appeared to be covered with a vast perforated metal screen. Dundas walked up and down, and examined the screen closely. Then he gave vent to a long whistle. The perforations were circular and varied in size from a foot in diameter down to less than an inch. They were closely set, and occupied every visible inch of space. Through their whole arrangement there ran a carefully carried-out series of artistic designs. What caused the whistle of enlightenment from Dundas was the discovery that the perforations were really the larger ends of innumerable metal funnels or horns. “I’m afraid Edison wasn’t the first man to make a phonograph,” he muttered, “and if I’m not mistaken the originators of this exhibition have improved on it somewhat. Ye Gods! but they took a rise out of me with it. We’ll just experiment a little.” He walked back to the curtained entrance, and, standing on the threshold, smiled to think how his rushing blindly into that curtain in the dark had completed his panic.

The ante-chamber looked as beautiful and free from guile as when he first saw it from the corridor. With his eyes on the lights above, he took two steps on the polished pavement. As he did so the globes flashed upward into the ceiling, and he found himself in darkness, and with the darkness came a horrible howl from behind him. Even though he was prepared for it the sound sent a shiver through his body. Without waiting to hear more, he darted back into the gallery, and the comforting light blazed up again. “By Jove! I guess when I leave this place I’ll cross to the corridor with a record sprint. I should say that the D.T.’s are a maiden’s sigh compared with a spell in that infernal place.” He turned and walked back to the “temple.” First, he went right round it, but, save for the doorway in the portico, he saw no sign of an entrance. The only new light he gained on the subject was that it was built of metal, and was evidently of enormous strength. Obviously he must seek from the portico for admittance. Then there was the chair he had noticed standing so conspicuously before the steps. It was heavily built, with arms and a low back, but was perfectly plain. It had no legs, and was really more like a box furnished as a seat. Beyond the fact that it was made of metal and immovably fixed in the paved floor, there was nothing that looked either interesting or dangerous about it. It was for that very reason that Dundas declined the very obvious invitation to sit in it. Instead, he looked it over critically, and shook his head. “Not much, my friends. I don’t think I’ll take a chair just now. It may be quite harmless, but I have my doubts.” He returned to the portico, and seated himself beside the laughing statue on the first step.

“By Jove, Flossie, or is it Gertie? No, I think it must be Flossie. Pardon my familiarity, but you and your friends are just a little — well — you know. I’m not a stern moralist like MacArthur or Pook, for instance, but I’m sure Mrs. Grundy would not approve of you. She’d write letters to the papers about you. You are so lovely that she would call high heaven to witness that you have a demoralising tendency. I suppose the three of you know what’s inside this remarkable edifice and how to open the doors. I shouldn’t be surprised if you had the secret hidden about you somewhere.” He paused and looked the three figures over inquisitively. Then he went on. “Though I’m bound to admit I may be doing you all an injustice, for if you have the secret in your possession you must have swallowed it. May the devil admire me if you have any other means of concealing it.” He stood up and paced to and fro before the “temple,” reflecting on his next move. The idea of another weary search for the entrance to the last secret of the galleries was not one to consider with any relish. A thought of the book he had left in the library came to his mind, and he decided to examine it with a view to finding some solution to his last problem.

The journey to and from the library did not occupy much time. Alan crossed the ante-chamber, after carefully measuring the distance and direction with his eye, with one wild dash. His flight took only a few seconds, but brief as it was it was sufficient to fill the darkness with unholy noises.

Returned to the sixth gallery, Dundas seated himself on the steps of the portico, and searched the volume he had brought with him for light on the subject in hand. In the end he slammed the book shut with an exclamation of disgust on finding that the last definite information was that which opened the way to the ante-chamber. Remained only the chair. He examined it closely. It appeared to be solid and immovable and free from any signs of hidden trouble. The gorgeous pavement in mosaic that it was resting on gave no indication of pitfalls. Alan pressed it here and there with negative results. “Well,” he said to himself at length, “a chair is intended to be sat on, and I don’t suppose this is any exception. But — I suppose if I do sit on it the darned thing will play some dirty trick on me.” He looked round at the silent figures on the portico. The three seemed to be convulsed with suppressed mirth. He shook an admonitory finger at them. “You girls ought to be blushing for yourselves instead of laughing at me. Upon my word, you huzzies, I feel embarrassed every time I look at you. I’ll risk it, anyhow.” This last to the chair. He seated himself gingerly, his whole body on springs ready to fling himself clear in the event of trouble. He was agreeably surprised, if somewhat disappointed, that nothing unusual resulted. However, he wanted to think, and the chair was more comfortable than the steps, so he remained where he was. For ten minutes he sat with his chin resting on his hand deep in thought. Suddenly he started and looked round. Then he lapsed again into reverie, only to sit erect again with nervous expectation. He felt that some almost imperceptible change was taking place. Not a whisper of sound broke the intense silence of the vault-like gallery. And yet — it was uncanny. There was some subtle alteration. What it was he could not at first determine. For a moment he felt inclined to spring from the chair. The thought gave place to a resolution to stick to his seat at all hazards. Sounds might come, but now that he understood their origin they might be unpleasant, but at any rate they were harmless. Leaning back with every sense on the alert, he waited developments. It was the strange quality of the silence that surrounded him that puzzled him. There was something tense and strained that woke a memory. Then it flashed across his mind. Years ago he had stood, one of a horror-stricken crowd at a great fire, and saw human beings leap to death from the flames, and back to his brain came the memory of the hush that fell on the throng. A hush of expectation. The same feeling came upon him now. The strained silence was the silence of a waiting multitude listening for the coming of some great event. The air was pregnant with mystery and expectancy. Alan closed his eyes and gripped his chair with whitening knuckles. He felt that he was in the midst of a great silent concourse of humanity.

There came a rustle and a suppressed whispering wave. It was unreal, and yet terribly real. Suddenly he sat erect, quivering in spite of himself. It took every scrap of resolution he possessed to restrain his movements. From a great distance came the sound of voices chanting. The sound was so faint that at first he could only catch it in fragments. Gradually it grew in strength — nearer and nearer — a triumphal song from some great processional choir. He listened, lost in awe and wonder. Never had he heard anything more entrancingly beautiful as the magnificent torrent of sound that rose and swelled through the gallery. It filled the great building, as it filled his whole soul, to overflowing. Every earthly memory seemed swept from his mind. He sat motionless, intoxicated with the glory that thrilled him through and through. How long it lasted he could not tell. In regular cadence the mighty sound rose and then died away to silence as it had come. Something told Dundas there was more to follow. He realised now, without the slightest apprehension, that the lights of the gallery had slowly faded with the sound, leaving only a dim subdued glow. Then it came. One single perfect voice that broke the throbbing stillness in a wonder of glorious harmony. It told of life and love, and of death and war. It told of love splendid and passionate, of deeds that fired the blood to frenzy, and through it all was a note of terrible overwhelming sadness. The glow had faded completely. Dundas sat in utter darkness. The tears he had tried at first to restrain came to his eyes unchecked. It seemed as if the hands of the invisible singer had swept the chords of his very heart.

At last the glorious melody faded, and while the air still quivered with the dying notes, a soft light broke from within the portico. Dundas watched it unmoved. He was still too deeply under the spell of the music to heed. The light increased. It came from above and behind the figures, flinging their shadows in a dark splash across the pavement to his feet. Suddenly he pulled himself together with an exclamation. He noticed that the shadowed arms of two of the figures converged, and the hands met at a point in the pavement immediately in front of him. In a moment he was on his knees. Quickly pulling out his pocket knife, he tried the spot where the shadows converged. It was the centre of one of the mosaic designs. Instead of being diamond hard the place was as soft as putty. As he worked eagerly the shadow faded, and as imperceptibly as they had died away the lights of the gallery blazed up again.

It was not until long afterwards that Dundas learned that the mechanism within the chair was so delicately balanced that the warmth of the body of anyone occupying it would set it in motion. He would have felt more keenly excited, too, had he known, as he did later, that, though the music could be repeated, the mechanical adjustment was such that the shadows from the figures on the portico would not be thrown on the pavement a second time. Once, and once only, was the chance given to the discoverer to read the riddle of the “temple.”

He soon found that the spot he was able to cut out with his knife was not more than four inches in diameter, and on penetrating an inch the blade came into contact with metal. Less than fifteen minutes’ work cleared the whole of the soft cement away. The metal plate beneath felt loose as he worked, and by inserting the point of the knife along its edge he quickly raised it from its place. As he looked into the cavity beneath he gave a little exclamation of pleasure. It contained a small button protruding from the middle of a burnished saucer. Alan looked at the button, and from it to the portico. The three figures laughed back with provoking mirth. For a while he hesitated, his finger hovering indecisively over the button. What would it be, this end of his long search — this mystery that had been guarded so jealously? What could there be more wonderful than he had already found? Now at the supreme moment he lingered. At last he made up his mind. With his eyes fixed on the massive doorway, and his heart thumping against his ribs, he pressed his finger to the button. The touch was answered by a sonorous, deep-toned thunder as the mighty doors parted in the middle and disappeared slowly into the wall on either side, and when the booming echoes died away the path was open at last.

Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 137-146

[Editor: Changed “antechamber” to “ante-chamber”.]

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