The engines of the motor boat slowed, gave a final chug, and stopped. " Brading Harbor," remarked our boy guide laconically, as he threw the anchor, and stepped to the stern to pull in the skiff that trailed after us. Before us lay the estuary of the Yar, its black water scarcely differentiated in color from the dark shores that rose above it. A huddle of buildings lifting on our left changed from blots of blackness into shadowy outlines, sprinkled here and there with light, as we rowed in. The lad pulled steadily, with but an occasional glance at the shore. The steady strokes of the oar slowed down, the blackness ahead seemed to rush towards us more swiftly, and the boat ran silently up on to the sand. I jumped out, the little anchor in my hand. We were at Brading Harbor.
Without a word, the boy pulled up the boat, dug the flukes of the anchor deep into the sand, and started off into the darkness.
" Come on, Tom," I said laughing. " This is an Arabian Night Expedition headed by one of the mutes of Haroun Al Raschid. Hustle up, or we'll be left behind." About three hundred yards from our landing-place our guide suddenly disappeared; we came abruptly on the corner of a small brick building, and rounded it to find him working on the padlock of a broad, low door,
" Bee's here," remarked the boy, flinging the door open as we came up.
We stepped just inside and paused. The scratch of a fusee, the clatter of a lifted lantern, and the low room sprung into light.
A weird sight met our eyes. On a shelf three great diving helmets, with shining cyclopean eyes of heavy glass, reflected back the lantern's flame, and showed barred side windows looking like caged ear-muffs. On the shelf below three pair of huge shoes, with leaden soles, seemed ready for some giant's foot, rather than for the use of man. As the light shifted, the armor on the wall came into view; copper breastplate and twilled overalls, hosepipe and coils of safety line; a veritable museum of diving paraphernalia.
Tom turned to the boy. " You'll have to show us very carefully how to run the safety line and the air pump, while you're down."
" I don't go down," said the boy. " Heart's wike loike. Niver go down."
Tom and I stared at each other in consternation. With one accord we turned to the boy again.
" Who is going down ? " I cried.
" Ayther of you thot loikes," responded the boy calmly.
" I'll be the one to go, Tom," I cried, " I've got to see it with my own eyes to write it up properly."
" Why can't we both go ? " exclaimed Tom eagerly. " I don't want to be out of this."
The boy broke in. " Needs two men oop on rope and poomp."
" Oh pshaw! " said Tom disgustedly, " I don't see why I shouldn't be in this. I tell you what we'll do," he went on, his face brightening, " you go down first, and then come up, and I'll go down after you."
" All right," I said. " It's a go."
The boy had stood motionless while our discussion had gone on.
" How'll you get the stuff down ?" I asked.
" Tike it on a barrow," he replied briefly, turning to bring a big wheelbarrow forward.
" Tike they two," he said, pointing to the two helmets on the right and the shoes below them. Tom and the lad took a helmet, and placed it on the barrow. I took a pair of shoes, and nearly dropped them. " Great Scott," I ejaculated, " they weigh a ton."
" Twinty pund," corrected the lad, without a smile. " You'll need it on bottom."
We loaded till the boy said " stop," then took our burden to the skiff, carried it out to the boat, returned for a second load, shipped that, locked the door, and came down to the shore through the still night. We had neither seen nor heard any one during our visit.
As we started out of Brading Harbor, Tom remarked, " I'll take the wheel, boy, I've got the course. Get the armor on Mr. Orrington."
Never did I experience such a strange toilet. The dress of tan twill, interlined with sheet rubber, and the copper breastplate were clumsy and awkward enough. The shoes, twenty pounds to each foot, were no winged sandals of Mercury, but the huge helmet was worst of all. I seemed to be prisoned in a narrow cell and, despite myself, I could not wholly keep from wondering what would happen, if the air pipe should break, or the rope snap. The big lens, the bull's-eye that was the window of the front of the helmet, was left open till I went down, and I took in the salt air in huge breaths through the orifice, expanding my chest to its full capacity, while the lad silently plied his wrench on the nuts that clamped the helmet water-tight. At length the suit was adjusted, and the safety line tied securely round my waist. Then the boy spoke.
" Up one, down two. That's all ye need."
He jerked the rope in my hand once, twice, and then started forward to take the wheel. We had been racing swiftly across, towards the lights of Portsmouth, as I made my diving toilet, but my thoughts, far swifter, had gone thousands of miles more. Suppose I never came up ? If I did not, would Dorothy ever know ? Had I made a mistake in not speaking before ? Unavailing regret tore at me. Yet stronger than any regret or any weakness was my determination to fulfil my mission. Here was the next step. I must see what lay below the waves. As I sat there, in my cumbrous raiment, I tried to analyze my sensations. No danger I had heretofore encountered had ever caused me anything but a pleasing excitement. Why should this have a disquieting effect upon me, when Tom was so eager to go. The answer came like a flash, in Lord Bacon's words, " He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune." I had neither as yet, but my whole heart was set on having them. My feeling was not cowardly fear. Rather, it was instinctive regret at taking the chance of going and leaving Dorothy behind. I breathed easier when I had worked that out, and gradually, as my mind quieted, the uneasiness gave away to a sense of eager expectation. The shore lights were growing brighter, and Tom, leaving his place at the bow, came down the boat towards my seat in the stern.
" We're almost there, old man," he remarked jubilantly. " The lad has the bearings. He'll put us over the exact spot, and then you can go overboard. It's a chance of a lifetime."
Just as he spoke, the lad turned. " Bee's there," he said, as he stopped the motor and threw out an anchor. The great coil of rope ran swiftly down for a considerable distance, and brought the boat up with a jerk. The boy came back towards us.
" Screw up t' bull's-eye now an' start t' poomp," he directed.
" Good luck, old man," said Tom, wringing my hand, as he started up the air pump.
" Same to you. I go with leaden steps," I remarked, waving my lead-soled shoe as I spoke.
Tom's hearty laugh was the last thing I heard. The bull's-eye shut, and I found myself breathing fast. To my surprise the air supply was ample, no trace of taint,—good, wholesome air. " Come," I said to myself. " This is not half bad." Aided by the boy, I clambered clumsily over the bow and went down the little ladder. As I entered the water, the weight of my suit went from me, I was borne up as if I were in swimming, but, as I sank slowly, I began to feel a strange earache, increasing in intensity till I thought I should cry out with the agony. My forehead above my eyes seemed clamped in a circlet of red hot iron, and the bells of a thousand church spires seemed ringing and reverberating through my head. I could see dimly the black water about me, and I gripped the metal case of the electric lamp that I held in my hand, till I feared it would crush into fragments. All of a sudden I touched bottom, and the pain ceased. The relief was so great that for a moment or two I stood motionless, luxuriating in the respite and, as I started to go on, I realized that a slight depression was the only unusual bodily feeling left. I turned the switch of my lamp and looked about me. Nothing but clean, white sand, nothing to show which way I should turn. " Straight ahead is the best course," I decided, and I started forward, my boots and dress, heavy and dragging on the surface as they were, of but the slightest inconvenience here. Fortunately for me, the tide was no serious hindrance, and I was to windward of the boat. Before moving I turned my lantern in every direction. One thing was sure. There was no huge hulking shadow, such as a warship lying on the bottom would make. My lamp but dimly outlined the lane of light on the sand along which I started forward. Now that I was about my work, and had safely reached the bottom, the strangeness of the situation began to wear off. I went ahead twenty measured steps, casting my light in every direction. No result. I paced back the same number to keep my position even. Turned to the right, and repeated the maneuver. Turned to the left, and did the same. No sign. Apparently the depths had remained untouched since the Royal George had been cleared from the harbor, back about 1840. Returned from my last trip, I turned off my lantern, to save its current, and stood in the darkness pondering. I did not want to go backward from the place where I was. Such a step would put me to leeward of the boat, and the lad had warned me against such a move, saying that it might be hard for me to make progress against the tide. There was nothing to be done save to try a further cast of fortune, so I pushed on twenty paces forward and started to count twenty more. Just as I was reaching the limit, the lantern gleam showed a shadow ahead of me. I hurried on till the object came into the full light. There, peacefully as if sleeping in his quiet bed at home, lay a midshipman in his blue uniform. He could not have been fifteen years of age. His golden hair, that a mother might often have kissed and caressed, swayed with the slight movement of the waters. His arm lay naturally beneath his head. As I knelt beside this childish victim of a dread mission, a wave of bitter rebellion passed over me. I cried out in very intensity of feeling. The sound reverberating through the helmet to my ears seemed a mighty roar, and, surprised into realization, I braced myself to my work and looked more closely. There was something strange about the uniform, something different from that on the youngsters I had seen about German harbors. I studied the form before me for a minute before I saw what it was. At last I placed it. The buttons, the brass buttons were gone. I looked more narrowly. Not a glint of metal showed. Rising, I passed on, and entered on a city of the dead beneath the waves. Officer and sailor, steward and electrician lay in quiet rest. They lay all around me, as if sleeping on a battlefield, ready for the struggle of the morning. I had paced many steps before I reached the end. A thousand men lay there. Not one had even a shadow of surprise, of premonition of death, upon his brow. All lay as if ready for the reveille, the reveille which would not sound for them. It seemed no thing of earth. Rather a scene from some unearthly vision where I, a disembodied spirit, walked among the forgotten shells of other souls. I wakened with a start, as I came sharp up against a mass which gave way at my approach. I flashed my lamp upon it, A heap of crockery, broken and shattered, met my eye. One plate in ornate gold showed the double eagle and below " Kaiserin Luisa." That heap of broken crockery and this city of the dead were all that remained of as fine a battleship, of as magnificent a result of human ingenuity and skill, as ever sailed the seas. I must not linger, though.
I had work enough to do, to find all I could of the reasons for the catastrophe, and give place to Tom before the dawn could come. Just beside me lay an officer. I could not tell his rank, for all insignia had disappeared. I stooped to look for metal, when suddenly I felt myself rising steadily. I was being drawn to the surface, though I had given no signal. Indignantly I jerked the rope twice again and again. The men above paid no heed to my commands, and I mounted steadily upwards.
As I rose the same pains attacked me as when I descended, but the space through which they endured seemed far shorter. In reality but a brief interval elapsed before I was clambering up the little ladder, to find myself in the full glare of a powerful search-light, while the boat started off at full speed. I had no time to look around till the boy helped me to loosen the bull's-eye in the front of my helmet. Then I surveyed the scene.
The boat was going at her top speed, while Tom ran her straight out towards the Isle of Wight. The search-light of a warship a mile or more away was playing constantly on us as we sped along, and I could see a spot of darkness, probably a launch, leaving her side and starting in our direction. As I gazed, I breathed in long breaths of fresh air. I felt as if I had never known how good air, just plain air, was, before.
" Take off Mr. Orrington's armor, boy' ordered Tom sharply. " You all right, Jim ? "
"Sure," I answered. "What are we in for?"
" I don't know yet," replied Tom, " but we'll know pretty soon. We can't get away in this old boat. We'll run as long as we can, though. Luckily they sent a launch, not a torpedo boat or a destroyer. The battleship landed us with their searchlight just a few minutes ago, and once they fixed it on us, I pulled you up. Get anything ? "
" Yes," I replied, and fell back into silence, while the lad valeted me out of my diving suit. The launch was coming swiftly. It seemed to be moving two feet to our one.
" It's going to be a pretty close shave," I remarked, as I stood beside Tom, who had given the wheel to the boy.
" Yes, but I'm going to head straight for Ryder, and trust to luck," he said. We were well towards the shores of the Isle as the launch came near enough to hail.
" Stop or we shoot," came hurtling at us.
" No go," said Tom resignedly, as he stopped the engine, " and there's the shore not five hundred yards away."
Just as he spoke, the light vanished. The searchlight had gone out; something must have happened to the current. We could hear the officer swear vigorously, as the launch came up.
Tom seized my arm. " To the dingy," he whispered. " Lad, if you keep your mouth shut, I'll straighten everything out," he murmured to the boy, as we scrambled to the stern.
" Roight, sor," said the boy briefly, as he sat phlegmatically beside the engine.
Tumbling into the dingy, I seized the oars and pulled swiftly towards the shore, as the launch came up on the opposite side. We could hear the hail as the officer came aboard, and his angry raging " Where are the other men ? "
" Don't know," answered the boy.
The officer ran to the stern.
" They have the boat, follow them," he cried, but just as the launch turned, we struck the shore, and before the panting sailors could reach us, were off the beach and sheltered in a deep doorway. We heard their steps running by, as we stood crouched against the wall, but we dared not venture out till we had heard them returning after a futile chase. Once they were by, we started off into the country at a brisk pace.
The morning was well on as we came into Seaview, whence we had planned to come back to Portsmouth. I had finished my story, and Tom had meditated on it for an hour, while we strode sturdily on. As we stopped by a wayside brook to freshen our toilet, he spoke. " No metal ? "
" Not a bit," I answered.
" Dorothy was right," said Tom. " The man who is trying to stop all war must have some terrific power which utterly destroys metal, causing it to change completely into some other form, and instantly disappear. How horrible to have that man at large. Jim, we've got to find him. That little middy you told me of would fire my purpose ten times over, if it were not ablaze already. There's one thing though, — do you suppose the British government knows what we know ? "
" I have very little doubt they do," I answered, " I fully believe that somebody had been there before us. Everything points that way; the closing of all diving operations by the authorities, the chase of our boat and their persistent effort to capture us."
" You must be right, Jim," said Tom soberly. " They wouldn't want any one to know any more about conditions than they could help. You can't tell what little thing will start the fire of war just now. I guess we'd better keep this to ourselves for the present."
" Right you are," I answered, as we walked into Seaview.
We reached our rooms without the slightest difficulty, and went to bed after a hearty breakfast. We were awakened about twelve by a knock at the door, and the call of a familiar voice. It was our friend Thompson, the manager. He closed the door carefully, as I admitted him. Then he turned and shook hands with me.
" Mr. Orrington," he said, " you're a great man, and a lucky one. J. Miggs and his boy came to see me this morning."
" Then they didn't keep them ? " I cried. " No," said Thompson laughing. " J. Miggs got out of prison, and his boy never got there. The lad waked up for once. The launch with all its crew went chasing you and, by the time they got back, the youngster was safe at the dock at Portsmouth, and the suits were stored. You'd better not see either of them though. They may be watched. If you'll give me the money, I'll pay him and it will be all right."
I paid the money, and we parted. The moment Thompson closed the door, I rushed into Tom's room.
" Get up," I said energetically. " J. Miggs and his boy are both free; I've left the money for them, and it's time now for us to get out immediately. This town is none too healthy a location for us, now that business is out of the way."
Tom's loquaciousness had a habit of utterly disappearing, when a new scientific conception entered his head. As we drove to the station, he stopped the cab at a bookseller's, dashed in, and returned with a package of books and papers. Once settled in the train, " Don't speak to me till I get through, if you don't mind," he said, " I've got something here I want to work out." He opened his new package, spread the books on the seat, and took up a block and his fountain pen, I scanned the titles of his books casually. " New Insulators for High Currents," " Control and Insulation of Radio-active Apparatus," " Yacht Construction," " Theory of Wood Working," " Caema, What It Has Done for Electricity," " Types of Sailing Vessels for the Past Twenty Years." " Queer mixture," I said to myself idly, and then I turned my attention to the scenery.
Tom was busy with his pocket rule, measuring and laying off diagrams, for three hours, until the outer edges of London began to appear. Looking up suddenly, he spoke, " Almost in, aren't we? Well, I'll put my work away, and we'll discuss our future plans for a few minutes."
As we rolled into Waterloo station, our discussion ended. " We'll go down somewhere on the Channel," said Tom, " set up the wave-measuring machine, and see what we can do with that. It's our best card, and we'll work there till Dorothy comes. We've got to hang round here till she arrives, anyway."
"We certainly have," said I, and my heart leaped exultantly at the thought of her coming.