Chapter 8 [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 VIII

For a little space Alan could scarcely believe the evidence of his eyes. With wildly beating heart and shaking hands he reached for his lamp, and without rising from his seat he turned its glare into the gloom beyond. Then he sat staring before him, big-eyed and wondering. What he saw was a bare circular apartment about twelve feet in diameter. Immediately inside the doorway was a small landing not more than 3 feet square, surrounded on two sides by a balustrade of the same familiar concrete about three feet high, while from the third side appeared a flight of steps that curved with the wall down into the darkness. Right before him near the low ceiling on the opposite wall his eyes were held by a tablet, on which stood out in bold relief three groups of characters, one below the other. The characters were evenly spaced, the top group having three, the middle four, and the lower one six. Moving his light slightly from side to side, Alan’s eyes rested on the doorway. “Well! May I be hanged, what’s become of the door?” for truly it had vanished. He had heard no sound as it opened, and within there was no trace of it. Then with a chuckle of pleasure he solved the mystery: there was a foot wide groove where it had been, and flashing his light to his feet he saw that it had slipped downwards into the thickness of the wall till its upper edge came exactly to a level with the floor.

Allowing for eighteen inches outside, a foot for the thickness of the door, and another eighteen inches inside Alan estimated the thickness of the wall to be about four feet, and four feet of such material as he knew it to be composed of meant practical indestructibility. In spite of his quivering excitement, Dundas held himself in hand. His previous experience had made him very wary, and the possibility of unpleasant results made him curb his impatience to investigate further. Without leaving his seat, he turned the light over every visible portion of the interior. Again the tablet with its bold inscription took his eye, and he studied the characters long and thoughtfully. “It might be an address of welcome,” he mused, “or, again, it might be a notice to keep off the grass. Looks like a mixture of Russian and Hebrew, with a dash of Persian. Anyway, it’s been dead a lot longer than any of the dead languages I’ve rubbed against, and methinks I’ll find no Rosetta stone lying about.” Then he turned his light to the winding staircase. “It would appear,” he went on, half to himself, “as if I’d found an entrance from the attic, and if I go downstairs I’ll come on the furnished apartments.” He half rose, but came to rest again in answer to a warning thought. “Alan, my son, it behoves you to move carefully, or you may find yourself in a nasty fix. The architects of this problematically desirable building were no second-raters.”

First he turned to the levers, and after carefully noting their position, he again commenced to work them. Watching the door carefully, and as nothing occurred he returned them to the combination that had gained him entrance. Then he went to his tool shed and procured a crowbar. Armed with this he returned to the doorway, and while standing outside he carefully tested the landing within for any hidden trap that might lead to trouble. He satisfied himself that all was secure, and then took up his lamp and stepped over the threshold. Standing on the landing he turned his light into the darkness below him, but all he could see was the stairway winding down into the blackness beyond the lamp’s rays. As the chamber was about twelve feet in diameter, and the stairway about three feet wide, it followed that there was a circular shaft about six feet across down the middle leading to goodness only knew where. Strain his eyes as he would, Dundas could only penetrate the darkness some twenty or thirty feet, where the light caught on the winding balustrade below. He returned to the outside of the shaft and picked up a small piece of clay, and, holding it well over, he let it drop, and listened intently. In the silence he heard the whiz of its passage through the air, but no sound of its fall. He straightened up, and looked about thoughtfully, and as he did so, the light falling on the balustrade drew his attention to a small but significant matter. He rubbed his finger carefully over its smooth surface, and then examined it under the lamp. “Not a trace. Not a particle of dust. And yet — countless centuries — good God! What does it all mean?” He broke off, murmuring disjointedly. One thing was clear to his mind. It would be madness to attempt to descend without ascertaining as far as possible the state of the air in the shaft.

Back to the homestead he hurried, and after rummaging in the drawer of his sideboard he found several fishing lines, then from its hook in the kitchen he took a hurricane lamp, and with these he returned to the shed. He lit the hurricane lamp and attached it to one of his lines, and, leaning over the balustrade, he lowered it slowly, using a short piece of wood with a groove in the end to keep the lamp in the centre of the shaft, and prevent it from striking against the balustrade in its descent. He played out his line carefully yard after yard, and watched the glow grow fainter and fainter as the depth increased.

At twenty yards his line ran out, and he attached another, and continued lowering. By hanging over and watching carefully he could follow the course of the lamp, but it was too far down for him to distinguish anything. Then the second line came to an end, another twenty yards, or one hundred and twenty feet in all. Once or twice the silence was broken by a dull echo when the lamp had touched the side somewhere below, and the sound came up magnified and uncanny. Alan added a third line to the others, and continued paying out as before. Half of the third line had run out, and it was only by straining his eyes that he could catch a faint speck of light in the depths. “Deuce take it all,” he thought. “It might be a thousand feet or more, and I’ve only one more line.” At the moment the line came slack in his hand, and out of the depths came a slow, whispering sound that told of contact somewhere below. “At last!” He looked at the remainder of the line in his hand, and judged its length. “A hundred and sixty feet at least. By Jove! What a trip to the bottom.” He plumbed carefully to make sure that the lamp had not caught, and that it was really on the bottom, and, having assured himself of this, he commenced to haul up. He was not long in satisfying himself of the purity of the air below, for the gleam of light from the lamp grew stronger as he drew it upwards, and when he finally retrieved it he found it burning as brightly as when he began to lower it. A careful examination of the bottom of the lamp showed that it was quite dry, and this was sufficient to indicate that whatever dangers the shaft held, foul air and water were not included. It was meagre information at the best, but still it was something.

He had already made up his mind as to his future movements, and his curiosity, now at fever heat, could no longer be restrained. In spite of unforeseen dangers, he would not have shared the honour of exploration, even with a friend, for a kingdom. Leaving his hurricane lamp on the landing and taking with him the acetylene lamp from his dogcart in one hand, and the crowbar in the other, he turned to the stairway and began to descend. His progress was slow, for with the bar he tested every step before putting his foot on it. In spite of his eagerness, or perhaps because of it, his heart was going a good deal faster than usual, but his head was perfectly clear, for he thoroughly realised the importance of keeping his wits about him.

At the first turn he lost sight of the doorway, and after that his world consisted of the winding path before him, and its dancing shadows. As he went lower and lower the echoes around him increased. Every sound was magnified and distorted out of all recognition. The clank of the iron bar on each step as he tried it rang and rolled up and down in deep metallic murmurings. The sound of the tread of his heavy boots was thrown from wall to wall until it seemed that in every step he was accompanied by an unseen multitude who thronged round him in the darkness. Even when he paused, awed in spite of himself, the winding gallery seemed full of mysterious uncanny whisperings. “My aunt! What a beast of a place — enough to make anyone funk,” he thought. But he sternly repressed his feelings and recommenced his descent.

All the way down the walls showed unchanging and unbroken. At first he had tried to calculate the distance he had gone, but there was nothing to guide his eye, and he soon lost all sense of his position. His slow progress seemed unending. The blackness from above seemed to weigh on him with a palpable force, and in spite of every endeavour to put aside the idea, the ghostly crowding footfalls about him seemed to grow in numbers. The clanking ring of the bar boomed and echoed off into the distance, and returned like the tolling of iron bells. It seemed hours since he had started on his journey, though he knew it could not be more than a few minutes. With his teeth clenched and his breath coming fast through his nostrils he forced himself to go on. In his heart he knew if he paused he would give away to panic and bolt for the surface. He felt a cold, clammy sweat break out on his forehead, and it seemed as if each hair on the back of his head lifted separately. Would he never reach the end of these damned steps, he wondered. Did this twisting, nerve-racking track wind downwards into a ghost-haunted eternity? “God Almighty!” The words were wrung from terror-parched lips as he paused on the last step. The iron bar clashed clamouring to the floor, then he turned and fled — fled with a shriek that echoed in a devil’s chorus. Upwards — upwards — anywhere. Oh, God! for the light of day. An animal instinct made him cling to the light he carried as he fled. After the first wild cry he made no sound. Afterwards he could recall no detail of his flight. Instinct lent him strength to scramble from the shaft at last. The glorious light of day partially calmed his semi-madness as he sped to the house. Once there he snatched his rifle from its rack, and jamming a cartridge home with his thumb, he ran back to the verandah, and stood looking towards the shed with the weapon at the ready, waiting for he knew not what to appear.

As he stood there, pale faced and with the perspiration rolling off him, he almost jumped a foot to hear a voice behind him. It was nothing more unusual than the driver of the storekeeper’s cart with supplies from Glen Cairn. Alan forced himself to calmness with an effort, and answered the man’s astonished stare with a smile. “Wild turkey,” he said. “Not exactly legal, you know,” he went on, glancing at the rifle. “But it’s hard to resist temptation.” Fortunately for Alan, the man was not gifted with any imagination; he accepted the story without question. “Gord’s truth, Mr. Dundas, when I seen you comin’ out of that shed I made sure you was snake-bit. Cripes, but you did leg it. Where’s the bird?” “Gone into the vines,” said Alan, setting down the rifle and glancing over his shoulder. Then he took delivery of his goods and gave the man an order for his next trip. The proximity of a fellow-creature was all that he wanted to restore his shaken equanimity, and by the time the driver was rattling down the track to the road he was almost himself again.

Alan went back to the house and poured himself out a nip of whisky with a hand that let the bottle rattle a tattoo on the edge of the glass. “Pretty state I’m in,” he murmured. “Dutch courage, too.” He gulped down the spirit and returned to the verandah to stare thoughtfully at the shed that held the mystery, and pieced together in his mind the events of his exploring trip.

“Now, was it just pure funk — or was it ——. No, by heaven! It was real. My eyes couldn’t have played tricks like that. And yet it’s slam dancing dementia on the face of it.” But dementia or not, he knew that as he had come to the last step on that infernal staircase; a step that had brought him on to a wide circular landing; just directly opposite to where he had stood was an opening in the floor of the landing, and from that opening came a brilliant stream of light that flung itself against the wall before him, and in the midst of the light showed up clear and distinct the shadow of a human figure with one threatening hand up-raised.

Alan knew he had not imagined this. Yet the sheer impossibility of, in the first place, light, and in the second place humanity, in such circumstances might well make him hesitant to accept the evidence of his senses. He glanced at the watch in his belt. It was just four o’clock. He snapped out the cartridge and returned the rifle to its rack. Then he went to his bedroom, and from a drawer in his dressing-table took a .32 automatic pistol and some cartridges, and slipped in a full clip. At the door he paused and returned again, and took off his heavy working boots, and substituted for them a pair of thick rubber-soled tennis shoes. He did not want the company of the ghostly army on his second trip. Then with the pistol in his hand he made his way once more to the shed. At the door he listened intently. Not a sound broke the stillness. He advanced and looked into the shaft. There he saw the acetylene lamp he had abandoned in his flight still burning brightly. Again he listened intently for a few moments, and then let himself down. Inside the massive doorway the hurricane lamp still glowed, lighting up the interior. He picked up the acetylene, and with his finger on the trigger of the automatic, he stepped inside, He leaned over the balustrade, and listened with strained senses. In the intense silence, he could only hear the deep drawing of his breath. Then, tight lipped and with tense nerves he turned to the stairway.

It took courage of no light order to force himself to those black whispering depths, where in spite of all his self-assurance, his shrinking flesh told him that any turn in the winding path might bring him face to face with something nameless, and beyond the ken of imaginations.

Down he went, this time faster than before, for he had now no need to test his path. In order to divert his mind he counted his steps as he went. He held the lamp so as to throw the light as far ahead as possible, and in his right hand he grasped the pistol ready for instant action. At the one hundred and fiftieth step he paused, and in a moment the whispering murmurs of his progress died away into aching silence. It was a stillness so intense that he could plainly hear the thumping of his heart. Then he pulled himself together and went on. One hundred and seventy-five — eighty — surely he must be near the end. Ten more steps and still the darkness ahead. Then his lamp flashed on a break in the descent, and showed his crowbar lying on the lower landing, and Alan braced himself for what he knew was coming. It was not until he stood on the final step, that he could be sure. Treading with feline stealth, and with every nerve alert, he went downward. Then he knew at last that his eyes had not deceived him. Both light and shadow were still there.

Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 70-79

[Editor: Changed “work them. watching” to “work them. Watching”.]

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