[Editor: This is a chapter from Out of the Silence (1947 edition) by Erle Cox (1873-1950).]
Dundas was feeling “Monday morningish.” He over cooked his eggs and the bread he fried refused to crisp, and its doughiness and the extra annoyance of having let the water boil too long before making his tea started him on his day’s work with a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction with the world.
He knew he was shirking work, and owned up to himself. There was only one remedy, work itself. In his heart he felt that Marian could and would wait, and then he felt dissatisfied with himself that he could let it go at that. And so he turned to, and after a while his self-training asserted itself. By ten o’clock he had finished his walls, and when he came to make a start on the roof he had no room for thoughts foreign to the matter in hand.
At last it was finished. When he had fitted a heavy towerbolt to his shed next day, Alan felt he could go on with the real work, and discover what was to be discovered without endangering his secret. It was with a feeling of intense satisfaction that he started again with pick and shovel, after clearing away the planks with which he had covered the spot where he had first found the archway. As his work advanced, his delving showed that the opening was about three feet wide, and was evidently recessed for a considerable depth; how far he did not at once try to ascertain. His first object was to clear the entire doorway. In order to give himself plenty of room, he sank a shaft about four feet square, having one of its sides formed by the door-pierced wall. It was no easy task, for the iron shed seemed to absorb all the sun’s heat, while its doorway gave little light and less air. Indeed, it took him the whole day to sink seven feet, when, as he anticipated, his pick uncovered the foot of the entrance.
By six o’clock next morning he was making his first tentative strokes with his pick in the doorway he had uncovered. On either side was the hard smooth surface of the wall showing a clearly defined three by seven opening, filled with almost brickhard clay, and on this he set to work with a will. He commenced by breaking it down well in the upper half, and in less than an hour found his progress barred by some obstacle that defied both pick and crowbar, at a depth of about eighteen inches. By no means discouraged, for he expected such a development, he continued to clear away the clay with undiminished vigour, and soon found that his advance had been stopped by a smooth surface, which, until he had completed its clearance, he decided not to examine. By midday his task was completed, and, on returning to work after lunch, he brought with him one of the acetylene lamps from his dogcart, for the light from the shed door was insufficient to reveal the interior of the recess where his work had ceased. When the white clear light was flashed inwards, he was for a while at a loss as to the real nature of the obstacle. The discoloration from the clay and the lapse of ages had tinted the whole to a dull red, that made it appear as if the back were composed of the same rocklike cement as the walls. Kneeling in the archway Alan rubbed the surface with his moistened finger. In a moment the dry clay worked to a paste, and, as he continued rubbing, from the spot where he cleaned the clinging dust, there showed up the dull but unmistakable glow of bronzelike metal.
“I’ve been a navvy; now I might as well turn charwoman,” was his mental note on the situation. He armed himself with a scrubbing brush and a bucket of water, and by dint of much labour and splashing he thoroughly cleaned from every vestige of clay or grit the metal surface of the door, giving special attention to the corners. While he worked one fact was strongly forced on his mind. However long the metal had been in its place, the surface showed no sign of corrosion. From its absolutely unmarked smoothness it might to all appearances only have been erected a day. Although over and over again in breaking down the clay the point of his pick had come heavily against it, there was not even a scratch or dent left. Another point which puzzled him not a little was that the entire surface was perfectly blank, without knob or projection of any kind. When he had finished his scouring he took his lamp and made a minute examination of every inch of the door, and when he had completed it his sole gain in knowledge was that its fitting had been absolutely perfect. There was not room for even the point of a needle to penetrate between door and wall.
Alan went to the house, and returned with a box and a heavy driving hammer, with the fixed resolution of solving the problem confronting him before the day was out. Using the box as a seat in the bottom of the shaft, he reasoned the matter over as he resurveyed the blank and uninviting metal wall. Undoubtedly it was a door of sorts. Whoever put it there meant it as a means of ingress or egress. “Therefore,” he said aloud, “the darned thing must open somehow;” and he emphasised his remark by bringing the hammer down with a hearty bang on the metal. The result was rather disconcerting, for the door answered the stroke with the deep, hollow boom of a mighty bell that seemed to reverberate into unknown distances. “I won’t do that again,” said Alan to himself, dropping the hammer. “It’s almighty funereal, whatever causes it. But that blessed door — it might have hinges, or it might slide up, down, or sideways, and there isn’t a vestige of a sign to show which.” He shook his head, and stared long and thoughtfully. “Now,” he reflected, “the people who built this box of tricks were not fools.” He took up the hammer again, and, starting from the top right-hand corner, he tapped his way over its entire area, and in doing so he awoke a booming, metallic clamour that almost deafened him. No pressing or straining for hidden springs availed, and nightfall found him owning up to defeat.
After his evening meal he paced slowly about the shed, every now and again descending into the shaft to try the effect of some fresh idea as it occurred to him. At last, as the hour grew late, he decided on bed. Perhaps the morning would bring wisdom or guidance. He returned to the house, and commenced slowly to undress. Seated on the edge of the bed with one boot already unlaced, he suddenly straightened up in answer to a thought that flashed across his mind. “Now I wonder?” he said softly. “By Jove! I’ll try it now!” In a moment he had relighted his acetylene lamp, and hurried across to the shed, and scrambled over the loose clay into his shaft. Then, beginning on the step of the doorway, he commenced carefully to sound the cement of the recess. All over the step he worked, and up the left-hand side without detecting the slightest variation in sound. Was it to be another disappointment? He changed over to the right side. For the first two feet the sound of the clank remained unaltered — a little lower. Then, as the hammer fell, Alan drew a deep breath, and struck again. There was no mistaking it. The wall rang hollow beneath the blow. “Got it! By gad! Got it!” he almost shouted. He flashed the lamp to the spot, but even under the dazzling white glare he could detect no alteration in the appearance of the surface. There was no line or crevice to indicate a patching of the wall. Nevertheless, he knew for a certainty that in the wall was a covered recess of some kind.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 59-63
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