"Not a bit," she confessed. "My chief emotion is delight over not having to go to the de la Poers' tea tomorrow afternoon. Though I suppose we will miss them as time goes on."
"I don't know about that," Murray replied. "Life was getting pretty complicated and artificial—at least for me. There were so many things one had to do before one began living—you know, picking the proper friends and all that."
The girl nodded understandingly. "I know what you mean. My mother would throw a fit if she knew I were here talking to you right now. If I met you at a dance in Westchester it would be perfectly all right for me to stay out with you half the night and drink gin together, but meeting you in daylight on the street—oh, boy!"
"Well," Murray sighed, "that tripe is all through with now. What do you say we get back and see how the rest are getting along?"
They found them still in the midst of their argument.
"—evidently some substance so volatile that the mere contact with animal tissue causes a reaction that leaves nothing of either the element or the tissue," Ben was saying. "You note that these metal bands reproduce the muscles almost perfectly."
"Yes," the lawyer replied, "but they are too flexible to be any metal I know. I'm willing to grant your wider knowledge of chemistry, but it doesn't seem reasonable. All I can think of is that some outside agency has interfered. These joints, for instance—," he touched Ben's elbow, "—and what about the little rubber pads on your fingers and toes and the end of your nose?"
There was a universal motion on the part of the others to feel of their noses. It was as the lawyer had said—they were, like the fingers and toes, certainly very much like rubber—and movable!
"Don't know," said Ben. "Who did it, though? That's what boggles your scheme. Everybody's changed to metal and nobody left to make the changes you mention. However, let's go get the rest of your folks. I wonder if we ought to have weapons. You two wait here."
He clanked off with the lawyer to the taxi. A moment later, the tooting of the horn announced their return. The party consisted, beside Roberts himself, of his daughter, Ola Mae, a girl of sixteen, petulant over the fact that her high-heeled shoes were already breaking down under her weight; a Japanese servant named Yoshio; and Mrs. Roberts, one of those tall and billowy women of the earlier life who, to the irritation of the men, turned out to be the strongest of any of them. Fat, apparently, had no metallic equivalent, and her ample proportions now consisted of bands of metal that made her extraordinarily powerful.
With these additions the little group adjourned to Times Square to watch the billowing clouds of smoke rising above the ruins of the opera house.
"What next?" asked Gloria, seating herself on the curbstone.
"Look for more people," said Murray. "Surely we can't be the only frogs in the puddle."
"Why not?" put in Ben, argumentatively, with a swing of his arm toward the wreckage-strewn square. "You forget that this catastrophe has probably wiped out all the animal life of the world, and we seven owe our survival to some fortunate chance."
The Japanese touched him on the arm. "Perhaps sir can inform inquirer, in such case, what is curious avian object?" he said, pointing upward.
They heard the beat of wings as he spoke and looked up together to see, soaring fifty feet past their heads a strange parody of a bird, with four distinct wings, a long feathered tail, and bright intelligent eyes set in a dome-like head.
There was a moment of excited babbling.
"What is it?"
"Never saw anything like it before."
"Did the comet do that to chickens?" And then, as the strange creature disappeared among the forest of spires to the east, the voice of the lawyer, used to such tumults, asserted its mastery over the rest.
"I think," he said, "that whatever that bird is, the first thing to be done is find a headquarters of some kind and establish a mode of life."
"How about finding more people?" asked Gloria. "The more the merrier—and there may be some who don't know how nice castor oil is." She smiled a metallic smile.
"The fire—" began Ben.
"It would keep some people away."
They debated the point for several minutes, finally deciding that since those present had all come from the top floors or penthouses of tall buildings, the search should be confined to such localities. Each was to take a car—there were any number for the taking around Times Square—and cover a certain section of the city, rallying at sundown to the Times building, where Ola Mae and Murray, who could not drive, were to be left.
Roberts was the first one back, swinging a big Peugeot around with the skill of a racing driver. He had found no one, but had a curious tale. In the upper floors of the New Waldorf three of the big windows were smashed in, and in one corner of the room, amid a maze of chairs fantastically torn as though by a playful giant, a pile of soft cloths. In the midst of this pile, four big eggs reposed. He had picked up one of the eggs, and after weighing the advisability of bringing it with him, decided he had more important things to do. The owners of the nest did not appear.
As he emerged from the building, however, the quick motion of a shadow across the street caused him to look up in time to catch a glimpse of one of the four-winged birds they had seen before, and just as he was driving the car away, his ears were assailed by a torrent of screeches and "skrawks" from the homecomer. He did not look up until the shadow fell across him again when he perceived the bird was following close behind him, flying low, and apparently debating the advisability of attacking him.
Roberts waved his arms and shouted; it had not the slightest effect on the bird, which, now that it was closer, he perceived to move its hind wings only, holding its fore-wings out like those of an airplane. He wished he had a weapon of some kind; lacking one, he drew the car up to the curb and ran into a building. The bird alighted outside and began to peck the door in, but by the time it got through Roberts had climbed a maze of stairs, and though he could hear it screaming throatily behind him, it did not find him and eventually gave up the search.
The end of this remarkable tale was delivered to an enlarged audience. Gloria had arrived, bringing a chubby little man who announced himself as F. W. Stevens.
"The boy plunger?" queried Murray absent-mindedly, and realized from Gloria's gasp that he had said the wrong thing.
"Well, I operate in Wall Street," Stevens replied rather stiffly.