[Editor: This is a chapter from Out of the Silence (1947 edition) by Erle Cox (1873-1950).]
Dundas rose slowly to his feet, and then stood staring straight before him. After the first cry he made no sound, remaining rigid and motionless, so that he might have appeared to an onlooker as if turned to stone. He was standing on the threshold of a great gallery fully two hundred feet in length. It was ablaze with light from end to end, and at first his confused senses could grasp no detail from the glorious mass of form and colour that confronted him. Then, out of the chaos, came slow order. With faltering, half-fearful footsteps, he went forward, oppressed with a sense of awe he had never felt before. Inside the gallery he paused again, while the real meaning of what he saw impressed itself on his mind. “My God! How wonderful! Surely they have gathered here all the beautiful in the universe.” His low-whispered words echoed away in the weird silence. Turning slightly, he looked behind him. The light that poured through the open door seemed concentrated on the sculptured figure in the vestibule. With outstretched hand it seemed commanding him to go forward. The thought came to his mind that it was no effect of chance that had placed that figure where it stood. They who had fashioned the wonders around had surely set it there to speak their behest ages on countless ages after death had struck them into silence. Again Alan’s eyes turned to his immediate surroundings. He realised that the gallery he had entered was indeed a gallery of art. Everywhere his eyes fell they encountered some new and unexpected beauty.
From floor to gorgeously decorated arched ceiling the height was about forty feet. One of the first peculiarities of the gallery that struck Alan was the fact that the walls, instead of being parallel, were divergent, so that from a width of not more than twenty-five feet at the entrance, at the farther end they were quite double that distance apart. From the walls about halfway up sprang a wide balcony, which was self-supported, for no pillar broke the splendid vista. The whole floor space was taken up by tables and cabinets, arranged with gangways between them in order to give free access from every side, and each and all was the resting-place for some exquisite work of art. From the roof hung festoons and clusters of globes, each blazing with the same splendid white radiance that had flashed from the lens in the vestibule. Along the walls on every side stood statues, singly and in groups, bearing aloft jewelled vessels of exquisite design that radiated the same glorious light, and wherever it fell it was flashed back and forth from table and cabinet in a myriad splendid rays. It shone on vase and goblet, and flashed from burnished metal, and turned dull gold to glowing fire. It was reflected a thousand fold from the polished splendour of the walls of coloured marbles.
Alan stood as one in a dream scarce knowing where to rest his eyes. On every hand were objects of untold value, the very simplest of which would have been a prize for a national museum. Then he commenced to wander aimlessly, turning as a child would in a garden from flower to flower, as some fresh, strange beauty caught his eye. Even each table and cabinet seemed to have been chosen for its own special artistic merit. Every imaginable material seemed to have been pressed into service for their composition. His eyes alighted on hundreds of articles, the use or meaning of which he could not guess, but in one respect they were all alike — all were beautiful. Once he paused long before a slender pedestal bearing a statuette. It was the reclining figure of a woman carved from a single piece of delicate pink semi-transparent stone. One arm was thrown back behind her head, the other was held upwards towards him. So perfect was the workmanship that it seemed as if the half-parted lips smiled back at him in friendly greeting as he gazed in mute wonder. Alan shook his head and smiled back at her. “Little lady,” he said softly, “I wish you were as lively as you look. I’ll guarantee those dainty lips could satisfy my maddening curiosity if you could be a fairy Galatea to my Pygmalion. Whose wonderful hands shaped that exquisite form of yours? Whose hands placed you there to rack my brain with their riddles?” He turned away with a slight sigh.
A great flashing goblet on a table near by held his eye. It was perfectly plain and almost spherical, and looked like and was evidently meant to represent a bubble, for the stem it was set on was formed of tiny replicas of the bowl itself. In one light it was perfectly colourless, while in another it seemed to break into a mass of iridescent multi-coloured fire. He held it in his hand, wondering at its delicacy, for the bowl itself was no thicker than paper. It seemed to Alan that if it were filled for use it would break under its own weight. As he turned it over it slipped from his fingers. He gave a low cry of dismay as it fell, expecting to see it shivered into tiny fragments at his feet. Instead, to his astonishment, as it struck the floor it bounced slightly, giving out a clear musical jingle as it rolled away and came to rest against a cabinet near by. Alan picked it up. It showed neither flaw nor crack. Tentatively he tapped it against the metal edge of the table. Its clear, bell-like tone filled the gallery with music. Again he struck, harder this time, and without result. Emboldened, he brought it down again and again, until at last he struck with all his force, sending splendid clashing echoes round the vaulted roof, but the fragile vessel remained intact. He returned it to its place. “Glass,” he murmured, “and yet unbreakable as steel. Indeed, I doubt if any steel we know of would have stood such a hammering without fracture.”
Then he came on something he had been looking for. On a stand by itself was a blazing bowl of flowers, such flowers as he had never dreamed of. They were from man’s, and not nature’s, workshop, although he had to look a long time before he realised the fact. Set amongst the blossoms were tiny globes of light, and these, above all things, were what he wanted to examine. He found he could detach one without trouble. At the first glance he was sure that the light was the same as in the lens in the vestibule. Like it, the tiny globe was perfectly cold, but now he was able to determine that the light emanated from a self-luminous gas with which the globe was filled. Conjecture was useless. With so many hundred other matters that had come under his notice that day, it must remain a mystery, for the present at least.
As he wandered through the gallery with his brain almost dazed by the overwhelming flood of new impressions, he had lost all idea of time until he was overcome by a feeling of intense weariness. The fascination of the place held him in its grip so that he was loth to leave, but nature was too strong to be withstood. Slowly he returned to the great doorway. He had no idea what time he had spent in the gallery, but he knew he had not seen a thousandth part of its wonders. Even a cursory inspection, he knew, would take many days to complete. On his way out he paused a moment, with bent head, before the Imperial figure in the vestibule, doing mute homage instinctively. Then, with aching limbs, he started his weary climb to the surface. When he left the shed it came to him as a shock that night had fallen while he remained below, but until he reached the homestead and found the hour was nearly midnight he did not know how absorbed he had been in his exploration.
The spartan simplicity of his home contrasted oddly with the scene of beauty he had so lately left, and an amused smile played over his face as he thought of the astonishment of Bryce or any other visitor if he collected only a few of the things from the great gallery below and decorated his humble surroundings with them.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 98-102
[Editor: Changed “Its clear. bell-like tone” to “Its clear, bell-like tone”.]
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