Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 28: The Pulverite
An hour passed. And now, under the circle of light cast by the hooded lamp upon the table, there in that bare, wrecked office-home of theirs, the Pulverite was coming to its birth.
Already at the bottom of the metal dish lay a thin yellow cloud, something that looked like London fog on a December morning. There, covered with the water, it gently swirled and curdled, with strange metallic glints and oily sheens, as Beatrice with a gold spoon stirred it at the engineer’s command.
From moment to moment he dropped in a minute quantity of glycerin, out of a glass test-tube, graduated to the hundredth of an ounce. Keenly, under the lamp-shine, he watched the final reaction; his face, very pale and set, reflected a little of the mental stress that bound him.
Along the table-edge before him, limp in its sling, his wounded arm lay useless. Yet with his left hand he controlled the sleeping giant in the dish. And as he dropped the glycerin, he counted.
“Ten, eleven, twelve--fifteen, sixteen--twenty! Now! Now pour the water off, quick! Quick!“
Splendidly the girl obeyed. The water ran, foaming strangely, out into a glass jar set to receive it. Her hands trembled not, nor did she hesitate. Only, a line formed between her brows; and her breath, half-held, came quickly through her lips.
His voice rang like a shot.
“Now, decant it through this funnel, into the vials!”
Again, using both hands for steadiness, she did his bidding.
And one by one as she filled the little flasks of chained death, the engineer stoppered them with his left hand.
When the last was done, Stern drew a tremendous sigh, and dashed the sweat from his forehead with a gesture of victory.
Into the residue in the dish he poured a little nitric acid.
“That’s got no kick left in it, now, anyhow,” said he relieved. “The HNO3 tames it, quick enough. But the bottles--take care--don’t tip one over, as you love your life!”
He stood up, slowly, and for a moment remained there, his face in the shadow of the lamp-shade, holding to the table-edge for support, with his left hand.
At him the girl looked.
“And now,” she began, “now--?”
The question had no time for completion. For even as she spoke, a swift little something flicked through the window, behind them.
It struck the opposite wall with a sharp crack! then fell slithering to the floor.
Outside, against the building, they heard another and another little shock; and all at once a second missile darted through the air.
This hit the lamp. Stern grabbed the shade and steadied it. Beatrice stooped and snatched up the thing from where it lay beside the table.
Only one glance Stern gave at it, as she held it up. A long reed stem he saw wrapped at its base with cotton fibers--a fish-bone point, firm-lashed--and on that point a dull red stain, a blotch of something dry and shiny.
“Blow-gun darts!” cried he. “Poisoned! They’ve seen the light--got our range! They’re up there in the tree-tops--shooting at us!”
With one puff, the light was gone. By the wrist he seized Beatrice. He dragged her toward the front wall, off to one side, out of range.
“The flasks of Pulverite! Suppose a dart should hit one?” exclaimed the girl.
“That’s so! Wait here--I’ll get them!”
But she was there beside him as, in the thick dark, he cautiously felt for the deadly things and found them with a hand that dared not tremble. And though here, there, the little venom-stings whis-s-shed over them and past them, to shatter on the rear wall, she helped him bear the vials, all nine of them, to a place of safety in the left-hand front corner where by no possibility could they be struck.
Together then, quietly as wraiths, they stole into the next room; and there, from a window not as yet attacked, they spied out at the dark tree-tops that lay in dense masses almost brushing the walls.
“See? See there?” whispered Stern in the girl’s ear. He pointed where, not ten yards away and below, a blacker shadow seemed to move along a hemlock branch. Forgotten now, his wounds. Forgotten his loss of blood, his fever and his weakness. The sight of that creeping stealthy attack nerved him with new vigor. And, even as the girl looked, Stern drew his revolver.