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Title: The night wire
Author: Arnold, H. F. (Henry Ferris)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The night wire" ***


By H. F. Arnold

“New York, September 30 CP FLASH

“Ambassador Holliwell died here today. The end came suddenly as the
ambassador was alone in his study....”

There’s something ungodly about these night wire jobs. You sit up here
on the top floor of a skyscraper and listen in to the whispers of a
civilization. New York, London, Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore--they’re
your next-door neighbors after the street lights go dim and the world
has gone to sleep.

Along in the quiet hours between 2 and 4, the receiving operators doze
over their sounders and the news comes in. Fires and disasters and
suicides. Murders, crowds, catastrophes. Sometimes an earthquake with
a casualty list as long as your arm. The night wire man takes it down
almost in his sleep, picking it off on his typewriter with one finger.

Once in a long time you prick up your ears and listen. You’ve heard of
someone you knew in Singapore, Halifax or Paris, long ago. Maybe
they’ve been promoted, but more probably they’ve been murdered or
drowned. Perhaps they just decided to quit and took some bizarre way
out. Made it interesting enough to get in the news.

But that doesn’t happen often. Most of the time you sit and doze and
tap, tap on your typewriter and wish you were home in bed.

Sometimes, though, queer things happen. One did the other night and I
haven’t got over it yet. I wish I could.

You see, I handle the night manager’s desk in a western seaport town;
what the name is, doesn’t matter.

There is, or rather was, only one night operator on my staff, a fellow
named John Morgan, about forty years of age, I should say, and a
sober, hard-working sort.

He was one of the best operators I ever knew, what is known as a
“double” man. That means he could handle two instruments at once and
type the stories on different typewriters at the same time. He was one
of the three men I ever knew who could do it consistently, hour after
hour, and never make a mistake.

Generally we used only one wire at night, but sometimes, when it was
late and the news was coming fast, the Chicago and Denver stations
would open a second wire and then Morgan would do his stuff. He was a
wizard, a mechanical automatic wizard which functioned marvelously but
was without imagination.

On the night of the sixteenth he complained of feeling tired. It was
the first and last time I had ever heard him say a word about himself,
and I had known him for three years.

It was at just 3 o’clock and we were running only one wire. I was
nodding over reports at my desk and not paying much attention to him
when he spoke.

“Jim,” he said, “does it feel close in here to you?”

“Why, no, John,” I answered, “but I’ll open a window if you like.”

“Never mind,” he said. “I reckon I’m just a little tired.”

That was all that was said and I went on working. Every ten minutes or
so I would walk over and take a pile of copy that had stacked up
neatly beside his typewriter as the messages were printed out in

It must have been twenty minutes after he spoke that I noticed he had
opened up the other wire and was using both typewriters. I thought it
was a little unusual, as there was nothing very “hot” coming in. On my
next trip I picked up the copy from both machines and took it back to
my desk to sort out the duplicates.

The first wire was running out the usual sort of stuff and I just
looked over it hurriedly. Then I turned to the second pile of copy. I
remember it particularly because the story was from a town I had never
heard of: “Xebico.” Here is the dispatch. I saved a duplicate of it
from our files:

    “Xebico Sept. 16 CP BULLETIN

    “The heaviest mist in the history of the city settled over the
    town at 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon. All traffic has stopped and
    the mist hangs like a pall over everything. Lights of ordinary
    intensity fail to pierce the fog, which is constantly growing

    “Scientists here are unable to agree as to the cause, and the
    local weather bureau states that the like has never occurred
    before in the history of the city.

    “At 7 p. m. last night municipal authorities--(more)”

That was all there was. Nothing out of the ordinary at a bureau
headquarters, but, as I say, I noticed the story because of the name
of the town.

It must have been fifteen minutes later that I went over for another
batch of copy. Morgan was slumped down in his chair and had switched
his green electric light shade so that the gleam missed his eyes and
hit only the top of the two typewriters.

Only the usual stuff was in the right hand pile, but the left hand
batch carried another story from “Xebico.” All press dispatches come
in “takes,” meaning that parts of many different stories are strung
along together, perhaps with but a few paragraphs of each coming
through at a time. This second story was marked “add fog.” Here is the

    “At 7 p. m. the fog had increased noticeably. All lights were now
    invisible and the town was shrouded in pitch darkness.

    “As a peculiarity of the phenomenon, the fog is accompanied by a
    sickly odor, comparable to nothing yet experienced here.”

Below that in customary press fashion was the hour, 3:27, and the
initials of the operator, JM.

There was only one other story in the pile from the second wire. Here
it is:

    “2nd add Xebico Fog

    “Accounts as to the origin of the mist differ greatly. Among the
    most unusual is that of the sexton of the local church, who groped
    his way to headquarters in a hysterical condition and declared
    that the fog originated in the village churchyard.

    “‘It was first visible in the shape of a soft gray blanket
    clinging to the earth above the graves,’ he stated. ‘Then it began
    to rise, higher and higher. A subterranean breeze seemed to blow
    it in billows, which split up and then joined together again.

    “‘Fog phantoms, writhing in anguish, twisted the mist into queer
    forms and figures. And then--in the very thick midst of the
    mass--something moved.

    “‘I turned and ran from the accursed spot. Behind me I heard
    screams coming from the houses bordering on the graveyard.’

    “Although the sexton’s story is generally discredited, a party has
    left to investigate. Immediately after telling his story, the
    sexton collapsed and is now in a local hospital, unconscious.”

Queer story, wasn’t it? Not that we aren’t used to it, for a lot of
unusual stories come in over the wire. But for some reason or other,
perhaps because it was so quiet that night, the report of the fog made
a great impression on me.

It was almost with dread that I went over to the waiting piles of
copy. Morgan did not move and the only sound in the room was the
tap-tap of the sounders. It was ominous, nerve-racking.

There was another story from Xebico in the pile of copy. I seized on
it anxiously.

    “New Lead Xebico Fog CP

    “The rescue party which went out at 11 p. m. to investigate a
    weird story of the origin of a fog which, since late yesterday,
    has shrouded the city in darkness, has failed to return. Another
    and larger party has been dispatched.

    “Meanwhile the fog has, if possible, grown heavier. It seeps
    through the cracks in the doors and fills the atmosphere with a
    terribly depressing odor of decay. It is oppressive, terrifying,
    bearing with it a subtle impression of things long dead.

    “Residents of the city have left their homes and gathered in the
    local church, where the priests are holding services of prayer.
    The scene is beyond description. Grown folk and children are alike
    terrified and many are almost beside themselves with fear.

    “Mid the wisps of vapor which partially veil the church
    auditorium, an old priest is praying for the welfare of his flock.
    The audience alternately wail and cross themselves.

    “From the outskirts of the city may be heard cries of unknown
    voices. They echo through the fog in queer uncadenced minor keys.
    The sounds resemble nothing so much as wind whistling through a
    gigantic tunnel. But the night is calm and there is no wind. The
    second rescue party--(more)”

I am a calm man and never in a dozen years spent with the wires have
been known to become excited, but despite myself I rose from my chair
and walked to the window.

Could I be mistaken, or far down in the canyons of the city beneath me
did I see a faint trace of fog? Pshaw! It was all imagination.

In the pressroom the click of the sounders seemed to have raised the
tempo of their tune. Morgan alone had not stirred from his chair. His
head sunk between his shoulders, he tapped the dispatches out on the
typewriters with one finger of each hand.

He looked asleep. Maybe he was--but no, endlessly, efficiently, the two
machines rattled off line after line, as relentless and effortless as
death itself. There was something about the monotonous movement of the
typewriter keys that fascinated me. I walked over and stood behind his
chair reading over his shoulder the type as it came into being, word
by word.

Ah, here was another:

    “Flash Xebico CP

    “There will be no more bulletins from this office. The impossible
    has happened. No messages have come into this room for twenty
    minutes. We are cut off from the outside and even the streets
    below us.

    “I will stay with the wire until the end.

    “It is the end, indeed. Since 4 p. m. yesterday the fog has hung
    over the city. Following reports from the sexton of the local
    church, two rescue parties were sent out to investigate conditions
    on the outskirts of the city. Neither party has ever returned nor
    was any word received from them. It is quite certain now that they
    will never return.

    “From my instrument I can gaze down on the city beneath me. From
    the position of this room on the thirteenth floor, nearly the
    entire city can be seen. Now I can see only a thick blanket of
    blackness where customarily are lights and life.

    “I fear greatly that the wailing cries heard constantly from the
    outskirts of the city are the death cries of the inhabitants. They
    are constantly increasing in volume and are approaching the center
    of the city.

    “The fog yet hangs over everything. If possible, it is even
    heavier than before. But the conditions have changed. Instead of
    an opaque, impenetrable wall of odorous vapor, now swirls and
    writhes a shapeless mass in contortions of almost human agony. Now
    and again the mass parts and I catch a brief glimpse of the
    streets below.

    “People are running to and fro, screaming in despair. A vast
    bedlam of sound flies up to my window, and above all is the
    immense whistling of unseen and unfelt winds.

    “The fog has again swept over the city and the whistling is coming
    closer and closer.

    “It is now directly beneath me.

    “God! An instant ago the mist opened and I caught a glimpse of the
    streets below.

    “The fog is not simply vapor--it lives. By the side of each
    moaning and weeping human is a companion figure, an aura of
    strange and varicolored hues. How the shapes cling! Each to a
    living thing!

    “The men and women are down. Flat on their faces. The fog figures
    caress them lovingly. They are kneeling beside them. They are--but
    I dare not tell it.

    “The prone and writhing bodies have been stripped of their
    clothing. They are being consumed--piecemeal.

    “A merciful wall of hot, steamy vapor has swept over the whole
    scene. I can see no more.

    “Beneath me the wall of vapor is changing colors. It seems to be
    lighted by internal fires. No, it isn’t. I have made a mistake.
    The colors are from above, reflections from the sky.

    “Look up! Look up! The whole sky is in flames. Colors as yet
    unseen by man or demon. The flames are moving, they have started
    to intermix, the colors rearrange themselves. They are so
    brilliant that my eyes burn, yet they are a long way off.

    “Now they have begun to swirl, to circle in and out, twisting in
    intricate designs and patterns. The lights are racing each with
    each, a kaleidoscope of unearthly brilliance.

    “I have made a discovery. There is nothing harmful in the lights.
    They radiate force and friendliness, almost cheeriness. But by
    their very strength, they hurt.

    “As I look they are swinging closer and closer, a million miles at
    each jump. Millions of miles with the speed of light. Aye, it is
    light, the quintessence of all light. Beneath it the fog melts
    into a jeweled mist, radiant, rainbow-colored of a thousand varied

    “I can see the streets. Why, they are filled with people! The
    lights are coming closer. They are all around me. I am enveloped.

The message stopped abruptly. The wire to Xebico was dead. Beneath my
eyes in the narrow circle of light from under the green lampshade, the
black printing no longer spun itself, letter by letter, across the

The room seemed filled with a solemn quiet, a silence vaguely
impressive. Powerful.

I looked down at Morgan. His hands had dropped nervelessly at his
sides while his body had hunched over peculiarly. I turned the
lampshade back, throwing the light squarely in his face. His eyes were
staring, fixed. Filled with a sudden foreboding, I stepped beside him
and called Chicago on the wire. After a second the sounder clicked its

Why? But there was something wrong. Chicago was reporting that Wire
Two had not been used throughout the evening.

“Morgan!” I shouted. “Morgan! Wake up, it isn’t true. Someone has been
hoaxing us. Why----” In my eagerness I grasped him by the shoulder. It
was only then that I understood.

The body was quite cold. Morgan had been dead for hours. Could it be
that his sensitized brain and automatic fingers had continued to
record impressions even after the end?

I shall never know, for I shall never again handle the night shift.
Search in a world atlas discloses no town of Xebico. Whatever it was
that killed John Morgan will forever remain a mystery.

[Transcriber’s Note: This story appeared in the September 1926 issue
of Weird Tales.]

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The night wire" ***

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