Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 18: The Supreme Question
Now that his course lay clear before him, the man felt an instant and a huge relief. Whatever the risks, the dangers, this adventuring was better than a mere inaction, besieged there in the tower by that ugly, misshapen horde.
First of all, as he had done on the first morning of the awakening, when he had left the girl asleep, he wrote a brief communication to forestall any possible alarm on her part. This, scrawled with charcoal on a piece of smooth hide, ran:
“Have had to go down to get water and lay of the land. Absolutely necessary. Don’t be afraid. Am between you and them, well armed. Will leave you both the rifle and the shotgun. Stay here, and have no fear. Will come back as soon as possible. ALLAN.”
He laid this primitive letter where, on awakening, she could not fail to see it. Then, making sure again that all the arms were fully charged, he put the rifle and the gun close beside his “note,” and saw to it that his revolvers lay loosely and conveniently in the holsters she had made for him.
One more reconnaissance he made at the front window. This done, he took the water-pail and set off quietly down the stairs. His feet were noiseless as a cat’s.
At every landing he stopped, listening intently. Down, ever down, story by story he crept.
To his chagrin--though he had half expected worse--he found that the boiler-explosion of the previous night had really made the way impassible, from the third story downward. These lowest flights of steps had been so badly broken, that now they gave no access to the arcade.
All that remained of them was a jumbled mass of wreckage, below the gaping hole in the third-floor hallway.
“That means,” said Stern to himself, “I’ve got to find another way down. And quick, too!”
He set about the task with a will. Exploration of several lateral corridors resulted in nothing; but at last good fortune led him to stairs that had remained comparatively uninjured. And down these he stole, pail in one hand, revolver ready in the other, listening, creeping, every sense alert.
He found himself, at length, in the shattered and dismembered wreckage of the once-famed “Marble Court.” Fallen now were the carved and gilded pillars; gone, save here or there for a fragment, the wondrous balustrade. One of the huge newel-posts at the bottom lay on the cracked floor of marble squares; the other, its metal chandelier still clinging to it, lolled drunkenly askew.
But Stern had neither time nor inclination to observe these woful changes. Instead, he pressed still forward, and, after a certain time of effort, found himself in the arcade once more.
Here the effects of the explosion were very marked. A ghastly hole opened into the subcellar below; masses of fallen ceiling blocked the way; and every pane of glass in the shop-fronts had shattered down. Smoke had blackened everything. Ashes and dirt, ad infinitum, completed the dreary picture, seen there by the still insufficient light of morning.