Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 6: Treasure-Trove
Never before had either of them realized just what the meaning of forty-eight stories might be. For all their memories of this height were associated with smooth-sliding elevators that had whisked them up as though the tremendous height had been the merest trifle.
This night, however, what with the broken stairs, the debris-cumbered hallways, the lurking darkness which the torch could hardly hold back from swallowing them, they came to a clear understanding of the problem.
Every few minutes the flame burned low and Stern had to drop on more alcohol, holding the bottle high above the flame to avoid explosion.
Long before they had compassed the distance to the ground floor the girl lagged with weariness and shrank with nameless fears.
Each black doorway that yawned along their path seemed ominous with memories of life that had perished there, of death that now reigned all-supreme.
Each corner, every niche and crevice, breathed out the spirit of the past and of the mystic tragedy which in so brief a time had wiped the human race from earth, “as a mother wipes the milky lips of her child.”
And Stern, though he said little save to guide Beatrice and warn her of unusual difficulties, felt the somber magic of the place. No poet, he; only a man of hard and practical details. Yet he realized that, were he dowered with the faculty, here lay matter for an Epic of Death such as no Homer ever dreamed, no Virgil ever could have penned.
Now and then, along the corridors and down the stairways, they chanced on curious little piles of dust, scattered at random in fantastic shapes.
These for a few minutes puzzled Stern, till stooping, he stirred one with his hand. Something he saw there made him start back with a stifled exclamation.
“What is it?” cried the girl, startled. “Tell me!”
But he, realizing the nature of his discovery--for he had seen a human incisor tooth, gold-filled, there in the odd little heap--straightened up quickly and assumed to smile.
“It’s nothing, nothing at all!” he answered. “Come, we haven’t got any time to waste. If we’re going to provide ourselves with even a few necessaries before the alcohol’s all gone, we’ve got to be at work!”
And onward, downward, ever farther and farther, he led her through the dark maze of ruin, which did not even echo to their barefoot tread.
Like disheveled wraiths they passed, soundlessly, through eerie labyrinths and ways which might have served as types of Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man,” so utterly drear they stretched out in their ghostly desolation.
At length, after an eternal time of weariness and labor, they managed to make their way down into the ruins of the once famous and beautiful arcade which had formerly run from Madison Avenue to the square.
“Oh, how horrible!” gasped Beatrice, shrinking, as they clambered down the stairs and emerged into this scene of chaos, darkness, death.
Where long ago the arcade had stretched its path of light and life and beauty, of wealth and splendor, like an epitome of civilization all gathered in that constricted space, the little light disclosed stark horror.
Feeble as a will-o’-the-wisp in that enshrouding dark, the torch showed only hints of things--here a fallen pillar, there a shattered mass of wreckage where a huge section of the ceiling had fallen, yonder a gaping aperture left by the disintegration of a wall.
Through all this rubbish and confusion, over and through a score of the little dust-piles which Stern had so carefully avoided explaining to Beatrice, they climbed and waded, and with infinite pains slowly advanced.
“What we need is more light!” exclaimed the engineer presently. “We’ve got to have a bonfire here!”
And before long he had collected a considerable pile of wood, ripped from the door-ways and window-casings of the arcade. This he set fire to, in the middle of the floor.
Soon a dull, wavering glow began to paint itself upon the walls, and to fling the comrades’ shadows, huge and weird, in dancing mockery across the desolation.
Strangely enough, many of the large plate-glass windows lining the arcade still stood intact. They glittered with the uncanny reflections of the fire as the man and woman slowly made way down the passage.
“See,” exclaimed Stern, pointing. “See all these ruined shops? Probably almost everything is worthless. But there must be some things left that we can use.
“See the post-office, down there on the left? Think of the millions in real money, gold and silver, in all these safes here and all over the city--in the banks and vaults! Millions! Billions!
“Jewels, diamonds, wealth simply inconceivable! Yet now a good water supply, some bread, meat, coffee, salt, and so on, a couple of beds, a gun or two and some ordinary tools would outweigh them all!”
“Clothes, too,” the girl suggested. “Plain cotton cloth is worth ten million dollars an inch now.”
“Right,” answered Stern, gazing about him with wonder.
“And I offer a bushel of diamonds for a razor and a pair of scissors.” Grimly he smiled as he stroked his enormous beard.
“But come, this won’t do. There’ll be plenty of time to look around and discuss things in the morning. Just now we’ve got a definite errand. Let’s get busy!”
Thus began their search for a few prime necessities of life, there in that charnel-house of civilization, by the dull reflections of the firelight and the pallid torch glow.
Though they forced their way into ten or twelve of the arcade shops, they found no clothing, no blankets or fabric of any kind that would serve for coverings or to sleep upon. Everything at all in the nature of cloth had either sunk back into moldering annihilation or had at best grown far too fragile to be of the slightest service.
They found, however, a furrier’s shop, and this they entered eagerly.
From rusted metal hooks a few warped fragments of skins still hung, moth-eaten, riddled with holes, ready to crumble at the merest touch.