[Editor: This is a chapter from Out of the Silence (1947 edition) by Erle Cox (1873-1950).]
Standing rigid, with his breath coming in quick gasps, Alan took in every detail of his position. The landing he had come upon appeared to be an enlargement of the shaft. It was circular, and quite forty feet in diameter, with a low ceiling and with walls perfectly devoid of ornament. At first only one fact fixed his mind to the exclusion of all else. Straight before him on the opposite side of the landing was an opening in the floor leading to a lower apartment, and from this opening shone a brilliant, white, steady glow that flung a clearly defined arched light upon the wall in front of him, and this arched light framed the shadow of a motionless human figure. How long Dundas stood staring he did not know, but long as he stood the shadowed figure showed no sign of movement. With one arm upraised and distorted by the angle of the light, it stood out immense and threatening, as if to warn him away.
After minutes that seemed like hours Alan summoned up his courage. Hard as it was to go forward, he felt he could not go back without having solved the mystery of the light. Slowly, with infinite care to make no sound, he placed his lamp on the step behind him; then he stepped forward gingerly and went down on his hands and knees, keeping his eyes fixed on the shadow, and his pistol ready for instant use. Inch after inch he wriggled himself across the cold, hard floor, now and again pausing to listen. At length he came to the opening and drew himself forward cautiously, till by craning his neck he could peer over the edge to satisfy his burning curiosity. It was a long time before he moved again, although what he saw allayed his fears, his astonishment held him spellbound. A flight of steps led to another floor thirty feet below, to an apartment the size of which he could not determine. Just below him on the floor was a tripod that held what appeared to be a ball of white fire, from which emanated the light that streamed through the opening he was looking through. It was not a diffused light, but was projected as if from a powerful lens. For a little time Alan was at a loss to account for the shadow of the human figure on the wall, until he realised that it was projected directly from the source of light itself, and was beyond doubt thrown on the place where it could be seen from above, with the object of doing to investigators what it had done to Dundas. That the device had scared him badly Alan admitted ruefully, but he felt some consolation in knowing that there had been no witness to his stampede.
“By jove! whoever was responsible for that little game scored properly,” he thought with a grin. “If his spirit is anywhere in this locality it must have been tickled to see me foot it upstairs.” Gradually as he stared below another fact forced itself to his senses. Somewhere beyond the range of his vision was another source of light unaccounted for by the one below him. It was not strong, but diffused, and served to show what appeared to be a pattern on the pavement beneath. “Someone left the light burning,” he mused. “There ought to be a pretty bill. Great Scott! Fancy being landed with an account for several hundred thousand years’ light supply.” The idea tickled his fancy. “Wonder if I could be made responsible? What a pretty case to argue before the Full Court. Good Lord, though, it’s no wonder. The originators of this concern knew a few things, and didn’t want to leave the finding of them to chance. That light now, for instance — I guess I’m going to see things before this is over, provided” — he paused, turning things over in his mind. “Yes, provided I don’t stumble on any little prearranged contrivance to end my explorations.” He sat up and slipped the pistol into his belt, realising that by his wits alone could he guard himself against the dangers of the task before him. Then he walked over to where the crowbar had fallen, and, picking it up, he returned to the opening.
There was no need for his lamp, so he left it where he had set it down. He started down to the lower chamber, testing each step as before. The floor he had left was about six inches deep, and when he reached the fourth step he sat down and looked around him. The stairway he was on went down steeply against the wall, so that the first glance enabled him to take in the whole of his surroundings, and for a long time he sat motionless with his thoughts in a state of chaos. It seemed as though he had penetrated to a great circular vestibule, fully eighty feet in diameter, whose walls were broken at regular intervals by what appeared to be six wide, translucent doors. Four of these he could see plainly from where he sat, and his eyes wandered from one to another, drinking in a beauty that was beyond his dreams of the beautiful and wonderful. They appeared to be composed of stained glass, through which the light he had noticed streamed, filling the vestibule with its soft radiance. Even from where he sat the gorgeous figured designs on the panels opposite were perfectly distinct. He had very little artistic lore, but a strongly developed love for the beautiful, and he felt certain that nothing he had ever heard of could approach those translucent panels for sheer beauty of colour or design.
The soft glow filtering through showed the vestibule to be quite empty but for the tripod bearing the lens, whose beam of light cut into the semi-darkness like a sword of fire, and one other object the nature of which, until his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he could not make out. Gradually under his straining sight it took shape, and resolved itself into a sculptured group of three figures on a low pedestal that occupied the centre of the apartment. Close as they were to him, however, Alan could determine no details in the cathedral gloom. Another thing at the same time fixed his attention. He had noticed it before, but had been so occupied with other matters that its significance escaped him until now. The stairway he was on had no balustrade. Instead, from the roof above to each step, were fixed two thin bars of metal, hardly as thick as a lead pencil. They were sufficiently close together to prevent even a child from passing between them, but so slender as to be almost unnoticeable.
Dundas looked at them sourly and suspiciously. “Now what the deuce is the reason for that?” he thought. “Another infernal trick?” After a few minutes he touched one of them gingerly, half expecting a shock that would reward his curiosity; but found he could handle them with impunity. Emboldened by his immunity from trouble, he grasped one of them firmly and tried its strength. The result of the attempt took him by surprise, for in spite of its wirelike proportions it remained as rigid as a bar of inch steel against the utmost pressure he could exert. “So, my friends,” he muttered, “visitors are expected to go all the way down the steps, and not take any short cuts. Now, if I have learned anything about this blessed place, those wires were not put there out of considerations of safety. There’s a reason, and I doubt if it’s a pleasant one.” He stood up and recommenced his descent, sounding before him with his crowbar more carefully than ever. Two-thirds of the way were passed in safety, and he was beginning to think he had judged wrongly. Then he struck downwards with his bar at the tenth step from the bottom. As it touched the step something flashed for one fleeting second before his eyes, something that swished viciously so close to his face that it seemed almost to touch him. There was a loud clear twang of metal under immense tension, and a jarring blow on the bar he held that almost wrenched it from his grasp. Then something heavy clanked down the lower steps and came to rest on the pavement below. Dundas sprang backwards with a cry half anger and half surprise. What had happened? The bar in his hand felt lighter and shorter, and he held it up close to his eyes and examined it. Nearly a foot of its length had been severed by a clean, smooth cut that had gone through the metal as if it had been putty, and it was the severed end that had clattered down the steps. In a moment Alan realised how close he had been to death, and a cold chill went through him. “The devils,” he muttered savagely. “The devils!” He retreated upwards, got the acetylene lamp he had left behind him, and returned to the lower stairway. Moving with infinite caution he examined the wall above the danger point. The clear white rays showed what his eyes had missed in the gloom. It was the line of a narrow vertical cleft in the wall, and turning the light downward he saw a similar cleft along the step beneath him. He placed the light beside him, and then sat down. Then he leaned well backward out of reach of danger, and again pressed the crowbar to the step below. At the first slightest touch a great white blade flashed out and downward from the wall, severing the bar as before. The thought of what would have happened had the step been pressed by his foot brought a cold perspiration to his forehead. The fiendish ingenuity that had barred his way struck a cold fear to his heart. Alan knew that but for the precaution he had taken he must have met a terrible death, and his mutilated body would be lying there at the foot of the stairway in the gloomy silence. The shock to his nerves made thinking out of the question, and with shaking limbs and dazed senses he made his way upwards. Out into the dusk he went, and locked the door of the shed behind him. In his heart was a deep feeling of gratitude for his preservation.
That evening he prepared his meal in thoughtful silence. There was none of the cheerful whistling and singing that usually accompanied his last work of the day. When he had finished and set all in order, he sat down and commenced to write. He set out in clear detail every incident of his discovery, and every danger to be encountered so far as he had gone. It was far into the night when he had finished. Then he enclosed the many sheets in an envelope and wrote across it in clear, round hand: “If I am missing, the contents of this letter must be read before any search is made for me.” This he signed and dated. Then he placed the envelope in a conspicuous spot on the mantelpiece, so that it could not be possibly overlooked. “Now,” he thought, “if I do get bowled out, Bryce, or whoever comes to investigate, will run fewer risks.” Then, satisfied that he had insured others to a certain extent, if not himself, he went to his bed thoroughly tired out with his strenuous day.
But, tired as he was, the sleep he longed for refused to come at his bidding. The wonder of his discovery had gripped his mind so that, try as he would, he could not clear his brain of the questions that clamoured for an answer. The feeling of anger which he had at first felt at the deadly trap he had escaped had given way under a quieter reasoning with himself. Whatever mystery was hidden behind those great doors was surely worthy of the care taken to guard it. He realised that every difficulty that he had encountered so far was capable of solution, and that every obstacle was one which would bar effectually an unreasoning or unintelligent intruder, and that behind it all was the evident fact that everything had been planned to prevent the secret of the place from falling into the hands of anyone who was unfitted by lack of courage or mental training to estimate it at its proper value.
Alan smiled to himself when he realised how completely the events of the past few days had absorbed him. Glen Cairn may have been a thousand miles away for all the thought he gave it. The friends he knew had been completely forgotten. It seemed years since he had last seen Bryce, instead of just one week. The next day would be Sunday, and he knew that, instead of resting, nothing could tear him from the work in hand. He felt he should have gone to see Marian, but he determined that while the mystery remained unsolved he would be chained to the spot.
At last sleep came, deep and untroubled, and the sun had risen long before Dundas became conscious of the day.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 80-87
[Editor: Added a full stop after “then sat down”. Added a comma after “If I am missing”.]
Leave a Reply