Chapter 15 [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 XV

Dundas stood up and stepped towards the portico. Across the now-open doorway there hung a magnificent curtain that hid the interior from view. From lintel to step it hung in heavy shimmering lustrous folds of gorgeous colouring. Awed and expectant, he approached, then, with a hand that shook, he drew the veil aside and looked within. For a long time he stood motionless, a prey to a thousand surging emotions. Then, obeying an instinct he could not have explained, he bared his head, as, drawn by a resistless fascination, he crossed the threshold. His feet made no sound as they sank into a soft carpet. His eyes were blind to the exquisite wonder of his surroundings, where the roseate glow from the ceiling was shed on a scene of indescribable beauty. With fast-drawn breath and half-fearful steps he advanced to the middle of the temple, and there halted beside the one thing within it that held his gaze to the exclusion of all else. Midway from each end was placed a great crystal dome fully ten feet in diameter. It was set in a rim of dull gold that rose about twelve inches from the floor. Beneath the dome was a low couch of wondrous workmanship, and on the couch reclined the form of a woman.

Minute after minute passed while Alan stood staring down through the crystal at the figure before him, as motionless as the figure itself. The only sound that passed his lips were the words that came as though torn from his soul: “My God! My God! How wonderful!” Through his brain raged a mad tornado of thoughts. He did not dare to let his mind dwell on the idea that flashed through it as he stood. It was mad, incredible, fantastic, beyond the realms of the most insane imaginings. His mind had perforce accepted the reality of every other part of the discovery, but was stopped by the vista that lay before it now. Long ago he had arrived at the certainty that the origin of the galleries in point of time could not be counted in thousands of years, but in millions. He had accepted the idea of the preservation of matter, organic and inorganic, but this — “No! No! a thousand times No!” The words came from his dry lips in a hoarse whisper. Yet as he uttered them, the wild thrill of hope that went through his heart seemed to give the lie to the words. He pressed his hands wildly to his eyes as though to shut out and crush down the hopes and the longings that were struggling for expression. His arms dropped heavily to his sides, and he looked once more at the wondrous form before him. As he did so, the certainty that this was no work of the craft of man came upon him with stunning force. He knew beyond all shadow of doubt that the glorious being before him was indeed human, and had lived. For the rest he dared not think.

She was lying with her head pillowed on a large white cushion, that was almost hidden by the masses of deep gold hair that surrounded her face, and flowed downwards across her shoulder and bosom, and veiled almost to her knees the sapphire-coloured covering that was thrown across her body. Her arms, bare to the shoulder, lay straight beside her. Where the heavy waves of her hair parted on her shoulders Alan saw that she was clothed in a robe of palest blue, that came almost to her throat. The lapse of time had moulded the delicate fabrics that covered her to every line and contour of her form. But it was the face surrounded by its surging golden cloud that held his gaze entranced. It was not merely beautiful; it was lovely, with a loveliness that was not earthly. The dark shade of her straight, delicate brows, and the long lashes that rested on her cheeks, formed a strange and wonderful contrast to her gleaming hair. From her low, broad forehead to the smooth, polished curves of her chin and throat each feature was perfect and faultless. The hand of Venus herself might have fashioned the curves of the sweet alluring lips, and her wayward son might have wrought for years to place that sweet, shadowy smile upon them. It was a face that all the gods in Olympus might have held council over, to blend all their wisdom, mystery, majesty, and beauty, and mould them into the still countenance of the woman who lay enthroned beneath the crystal canopy. Yet the face seemed veiled, because the drooped lids hid the eyes that would light it into life. Over all was a pallor, but it was not that of death. There was a faint trace of pink on the smooth white cheeks, and a deeper tone on the soft, curving lips. It seemed like a spark of life that a touch might either extinguish for ever or build into an immortal flame.

As his eyes wandered over the noble lines of her recumbent figure, Alan noticed that her body was worthy of the head it bore. Extended full length as she lay with her head slightly raised, she seemed far taller than the average woman, but perfectly proportioned. The sleeveless robe she wore was fastened on each shoulder with a plain, knotted ribbon of the same pale blue shade. About neither the throat nor the marble-white arms was any trace of jewel or ornament. There was no need for art to enhance the perfection of nature. The deep sapphire gold-fringed cover that trailed its lustrous folds to the floor on each side of the couch covered her body but little higher than her waist, and on it rested beside her the slender, delicate hands, and Alan’s eyes, drinking in their white beauty, thought a man might well risk life and limb to press them to his lips but once.

It was long before he was able to rouse himself from the trance that had fallen upon him, to turn his attention to anything besides the figure before him, or to bring the tumult of his thoughts into orderly array. Even when, in a measure, he was able to control his mind to working conditions, and try to make a closer examination of his surroundings, he was drawn again and again from his work to stand transfixed before the glorious mystery beneath the crystal dome.

The dome itself was well worth attention. It appeared to be composed of the same remarkable substance as was the goblet in the art gallery that defied his efforts to destroy it. Its shape was that of a perfect hemisphere, and it was so fragile and delicate in appearance that it seemed as if the lightest touch would shatter it. Indeed so clear and limpid was it that it appeared as if a great bubble had floated down and settled on the gold rim that surrounded the couch. Inside the rim itself the pavement was uncarpeted, and the space showed an exquisite jewelled mosaic, more beautiful than any he had seen throughout his exploration.

Alan walked slowly round the dome, and on the opposite side from where he had first stood he found a short heavy lever that evidently controlled some mechanism attached to the rim. He refrained from touching it for a score of reasons that came to his mind. He also found in convenient positions four grips that had evidently been fitted for the purpose of lifting the dome from its setting.

When he was able to draw himself away from the enchanted spot he made a survey of the “temple,” for “temple” it would always be to him, and as his eyes roamed round it, he admitted that the setting was truly worthy of the jewel. The builders seemed to have lavished on its interior decoration and fittings every refinement of the wonderful art they possessed. It was quite sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, and its walls rose to a height of twenty feet, so that the dome itself occupied comparatively little space. It appeared as if the craftsmen had taken the interior of a pearl shell and the pearl itself as the keynote of their scheme. The walls were a glorious blending of pinks and blues, with panels of flashing iridescent opal, and the rosy glow from the myriad of clustered lights on walls and ceiling warmed the whole into palpitating life. About the great room were set chests and cabinets of wonderful workmanship, but all built to harmonise with the general scheme. The floor was covered with a thick soft carpet of pearly whiteness, through which was worked a delicate pattern in pink, from the very palest to the deepest coral. There were soft, inviting lounges and great deep chairs to tempt his weary limbs, but worn out as he was with the varied emotions of the day Dundas could find no ease but in restless wandering about the enchanted chamber, ever and again pausing to gaze once more into the crystal canopy.

On one wall close to the curtained doorway Alan found a cabinet that contained what appeared to be a switchboard covered with tiny keys set in glittering rows. As he wandered restlessly from spot to spot he discovered that only this one of the many cabinets set about the place was open for inspection, or in any way revealed its contents. He tried them one after another, but no pulling or coaxing of doors or twisting of handles would satisfy his curiosity. At length he came on a large square table set at the far end of the chamber from the doorway, and on it rested a massive metal chest decorated with a wonderful design of interlaced figures in high relief. He looked it over idly. Doubtless it was sealed like the rest. On the front of it near the top was a knob formed like a grotesque face. He reached forward and turned the knob tentatively. There was a sharp click, and the whole front fell forward, disclosing the interior.

Here, at last, was something definite, perhaps some clue to the mystery. Previous experience had taught Alan for what to look, and eagerly he drew forth the flat case that he knew contained a book. As his eyes fell on its cover he gave a low cry of excitement, for blazoned across it in red enamel was a replica of the characters he had seen on the lintel of the “temple.” With trembling hands he drew the volume from its case, and as he turned his excitement grew to a fever, for here it seemed as if his wildest dream would be realised. He turned from the book at last, and paced the chamber from end to end again and again, walking with wide, fixed eyes, like one drugged. Again he returned to the book, poring over each page with awed fascination. The first page showed the figure of the woman beneath the dome of crystal. Likeness, colour, and detail were perfect to the minutest point. Then came diagrams of the lever set in the rim, showing it moved from the perpendicular position to the horizontal. Then the figure again with the dome removed. The next picture showed two objects, one a flask filled with a vivid green fluid, and the other a curiously shaped syringe. A quick search through the chest revealed both of the pictured objects.

Alan handled them with delicate care and after replacing them returned his eyes to the book. The next leaf showed a picture of the right arm of the woman on the couch, and just above the elbow was drawn a circle, that was shown again enlarged on the opposite page, and with it was pictured a short, keen-bladed lancet. Again a picture of the arm with a long, deep incision laying bare the brachial artery. Then followed in exact and most minute detail the operation of injecting the green fluid from the flask. Then was shown an hour-glass, and as Alan came across each new object he checked it by its original in the chest. First the glass was shown, with its upper bulb full, and then the lower. Again there was pictured a flask, the contents of this one being of a deep ruby colour, and for the second time was shown an injection of the fluid into the artery. This second injection was followed by an elaborate and detailed closing of the incision and its subsequent dressing. A careful examination of the contents of the chest showed Alan that every article from flask to bandage was in duplicate, so great was the evident care to guard against accidents. The last page of all showed, wonder of wonders, the figure on the couch sitting up and looking with smiling eyes from the page And the eyes were a deep and wonderful grey.

At last Dundas closed the book. The story he read there was too plain for any doubt to exist in his mind as to its meaning. Here indeed was the key to all the hidden knowledge of the galleries, and the deep significance of it all weighed down on his soul like lead when he reflected on the terrible responsibility he had assumed in keeping the secret to himself. On him and him alone rested the burden of deciding what course to take now. He realised that there was another hitherto uncounted factor in the problem. Whatever course he took he must later answer for it to the unknown being who had through countless ages waited his coming. As he stood beside the crystal canopy with every pulse thrilling with a new and unknown emotion, he knew that for weal or woe his life was forever bound up with that of the woman before him. He was no longer captain of his soul. That and his whole existence was henceforth in the keeping of another.

Since he had set his foot across the threshold Alan had lost all count of time. Now he suddenly became aware of an overwhelming sense of weariness. In spite of it, however, he could not tear himself away from the regal loveliness of the figure before him. A fear came upon him that if he left her for an instant some harm might befall her, and it was only with difficulty that he reasoned himself into a saner frame of mind. Finally he decided that he could not bring himself to grapple with the problem in the present distracting surroundings, and that until he had rested he was unfitted to deal with so weighty a matter. With a lingering look at the still, glorious face, he turned resolutely away and passed through the curtain into the outer gallery. But it was a different man from the one who had entered the “temple” who now stood on the steps of the portico glancing round him with indifferent eyes.

It says much for his state of mind that Dundas walked through the pitch-black ante-chamber with even step, scarce heeding the demoniac raving that his presence caused. The sounds that a few hours before had driven him to unreasoning panic he heard unmoved. The hellish riot that surrounded him in the darkness only brought forth a grim smile of satisfaction. It would be a bold intruder, who, if he chanced to escape the pitfalls of the vestibule, would penetrate to the sixth gallery during his absence.

When he reached the surface at last he found with a detached feeling of surprise that it was black night, and on entering the homestead, the watch he had left behind him in the morning showed him that it wanted but a few minutes to midnight. He took a little food, forcing himself to eat from a sense of duty, and then turned towards his bedroom. As he passed the door leading to the verandah something white on the floor attracted his attention. Stooping he found that it was a letter, evidently put where he had found it by the man who had brought his stores from the township. Alan replaced on the table the lamp he was carrying, and tore open the envelope without glancing at the handwriting on it. The note it contained ran:—

“Dear Mr. Dundas, — Why this utter desertion of your friends? Mr. Bryce tells me that you are reading hard for some absurd examination (it must be absurd or it wouldn’t be an examination). He and Doris are having dinner with us on Sunday. I hope you will be able to join us, and, as this is only Wednesday, you will have ample time to think up some reasonable explanation. I told Doris I would be writing to you, and she asked me to tell you that you were a heartless wretch, and to be sure and spell it with a capital W., but I absolutely refused to convey so rude a message. Please come. — Yours sincerely, Marian Seymour.”

Alan read the note through to the end, and then let it slip unheeded through his fingers. There was a faint smile about the corners of his lips, as through his mind there flashed the memory of a certain night, was it a century ago, when he took counsel with a caterpillar. He had an answer to all his questions.

Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 147-156

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