Avon Fantasy Reader/Issue 10/Bimini
|First published in Weird Tales, January 1929; Reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #10 (1949).|
by Bassett Morgan
With rare imaginative power and beauty of vision, Bassett Morgan's story an arctic fountain of youth brings all the terror and fascination of the far polar plains—the eternal mystery of ice caps whose aurora is a symphony of color, whose white fields are garbed in peace, and whose atmosphere is the chilling breath of death. With such ingredients, "Bimini' is a weird tale par excellence.
Commander crayne interrupted the tale by a gesture of his hand.
"Do you mind, Captain Ek, if I call Lieutenant Murphy in and have him take down what you are telling me? I'd like to check up on a few historical dates."
The old man nodded assent.
"It's what I want. Shows you're takin' int'rest. I've told some of this to several people. They think I'm crazy like you do, only they never got as far as takin' notes."
"Captain Ek, this is my aide, Lieutenant Murphy. He was with me on the polar flight. He is taking the brunt of this trip and I don't mind telling you that I'd rather take a dozen trips like our northern one than meet the crowds and dodge this publicity.—Murphy, Captain Ek is telling of a trip he made north. Please make a note of places he mentions and data."
Lieutenant Murphy, was one of those Americans who "don't have to come from Ireland to be Irish." Stormy black lashes "set in with a smutty finger" hid twinkling blue eyes as he looked at Captain Ek, whose white hair and silvery beard were close-trimmed, whose leathery brown skin showed fine wrinkles, and whose general appearance gave the impression of a man prematurely white.
Commander Crayne, whose name still occupied newspaper headlines recounting columns of his achievement in circling the North Pole and remaining in its vicinity long enough to make valuable discoveries which no other polar explorer had done, sat near the window. His face was in shadow and did not reveal the incredulity of his mind at the tale Captain Ek had been telling. He had first been impatient. So many visitors had called during his trip south, and since he arrived in San Francisco, that Murphy had instituted himself door dragon to keep them away. But even Murphy relented toward Captain Ek. The old seaman's bearing was kindly and commanding. Then, too, he had given Murphy a brief outline of a proposition for Commander Crayne to consider.
"I was sayin'," continued Captain Ek, "that we left Fort Chipewyan in the early spring, 1789, and to make a long story short, got to the Arctic Sea. I've gone over that trail again but I can't get the waterlane we found. I left MacKenzie. We'd had some words, and anyway he was crazier to reach the Pacific then to go north."
"Murphy, you've got that date, 1789," Commander Crayne interpolated. "Remember Chicago wasn't born then; I'm not sure, but I don't believe even Fort Dearborn was in existence on the site of Chicago. Seventeen-eighty-nine," he mused. "George the Third was reigning in England. Arkwright was making his spinning-jenny and Watts working on his steam engine. Burns was busy with his poems. Lord Byron was a baby. The French Revolution was at its height. America as a nation was about twelve years old. And Captain Ek says he was on his way north."
"It's jake with me," commented Murphy; "he made a bigger noise than that when I was listening first."
For an hour or more, Commander Crayne listened to the account of Captain Ek, fascinated by a story that was interlocked with data and detail, yet fantastic beyond belief. Then the old man took a checkbook from his pocket and unscrewed the cap of a fountain pen.
"You don't believe this, young man," he said, "and I don't blame you none. But they's a sayin' in this country that money talks! What I told you for was to get you to take a trip north on my account. I want to git back to that big bowl in the earth. I can pay for the job and maybe make it worth your while. What will it take for flying-machines that'll be able to stay there a couple or three months if necessary?"
"Offhand, I couldn't tell you, Captain Ek. But I've great faith in a machine the English are making, and with a few improvements of my own, I think she'd do. It would cost a good deal."
"You'll go, then?" asked the old man.
"Certainly, if it can be managed."
Captain Ek filled out a check, tore it loose and handed it to Crayne, who looked at it, then slowly smiled, and returned it. "I'll put this in the bank," said the old man. "They'll let you know it's there for you to draw on. Now get busy, sir."
He rose and held out his hand, which Crayne grasped. He felt a spontaneous liking for Captain Ek, and a vast pity. There was no doubt the old fellow was mad, but his tale had held the young men deeply interested, and he had surprised them by his exact knowledge of polar conditions, his figures and dates, his nautical bearings and astronomical observations. Crayne, a stickler for detail and with a prodigious memory, found no flaw. The romantic stuff he discounted. That Caplain Ek claimed to have been a young man of twenty-one in 1789, and on his way north with MacKenzie via the Canadian northwest, he viewed as the wanderings of an aged man's mind.
He bade Captain Ek good-bye, and returned to sit on a corner of the table looking at Murphy.
"That check was drawn to my name, and for one and a half million dollars, on the First National Bank of San Francisco," Crayne said, then threw back his head and laughed. "For a bone-dry day, I have a dissipated feeling."
An hour later Commander Crayne was summoned to the telephone and heard a voice announce that the manager of the First National Bank was speaking. He informed Commander Crayne that Captain Christian Ek had placed one and a half million dollars to his credit, and the bank would honor drafts on sight, but requested three days' notice if the drafts were over thirty thousand cash.
Cralne's voice was husky as he thanked the manager and clicked the receiver on its hook.
"Bud," he said to Murphy. "it's true. Kick me, punch me, it'll be your last chance. Nobody is going to lay hands on me if I'm worth that much, after this minute."
"You gotta buy a plane, and get back here to enjoy it," said the unromantic Murphy. "How about sidesteppin' a lotta dinners and celebrations in our honor, and gettin' across after the plane? The sooner we find that bowl up north and the old man dips hisself in glory water, the sooner we come home and settle up. I owe a Post Street tailor for a pearl-gray suit."
Which was one reason the triumphal trip of Commander Crayne was suddenly canceled, and he and Lieutenant Murphy left for England, while Captain Ek's ship, a big auxiliary schooner, started her cruise through the Panama and via New York, where she received word from Crayne that he would be ready to proceed north in a fortnight.
Seven days later Crayne and Murphy watched Captain Ek's ship, the Aurora, dock, and went aboard her for ihe first time. It was not the build of the schooner, two hundred feet long by forty beam, her oak hull and double oak and pine planking, her thousand-horse-power engine, and canvas for her three masts, which interested Crayne so much as the charts and crude drawings spread on the cabin table. Over these he pored for a long time. Captain Ek had made many attempts to find the vast depression at the earth's northern tip where he said he had found the source of that beautiful and strange illumination known as the Aurora Borelais.
The two weeks stretched into three before the thousand-horse-power Birmingham airplane was stowed safely on the Aurora, and during that interval Murphy had gathered considerable gossip at clubs and gatherings, which he detailed to Crayne over a good-night cigar.
"Course, they smile at him some, but he's certainly got the dough and the oldest sea-captains along the docks admit that their gandfathers knew about him and his story. It's funny. He can't be real. They ain't nobody that old, and if they was, he couldn't be that spry. What's the name o' this here guy that went to Florida after a fountain of youth?"
"Ponce de Leon," Supplied Crayne. "The island he searched for was said to lie in the Bahama group, and was called Bimini."
"Well, this Captain Methusaleh that we've hooked up with must have been readin' about this here Bimini and never woke up."
Dodging bergs and floes along the Labrador coast and into the ice of Baffin Bay, Commander Crayne had leisure to read the notes made by Captain Ek—one page in his native Norwegian, the translation in quaint English on the opposite page—and again he marveled as observations taken on their trip corresponded. The Aurora was equipped with the latest inventions of science for "finding" ice.
A sonic depth-finder interested Murphy and a Swedish scientist, Bjornsen, deeply, but Crayne learned that Captain Ek had a weird instinct which acted more quickly than the instruments. He was standing with the captain in the bridge one moonlight night when suddenly, Captain Ek jerked the engine-room telegraph and jammed the wheel hard over. A few moments later Murphy rushed up and stood at the rail staring over the sea. It was several minutes before the gigantic ghostly mass of ice appeared faintly luminous against the stars.
"Lucky you felt her chill," yelped Murphy. "We heard the engine telegraph before that berg made a sign on the jigger."
"I need no such contraptions," said the old man to Crayne.
"I've noticed that, sir," Crayne answered, "but how do you get warning?"
"They tell me—the children of light."
Crayne was silent. Captain Ek had used that term in his story of the Sea of Light, beyond the magnetic pole. The cold air off the vast ice-cap of Greenland was crisp and electric. Crayne wondered if it affected the old man as the moon is said to affect animal life of the lower orders, and those whose wits are wandering. Even he began to feel the "wingedness" of his flesh in that electric-charged air of high latitudes.
It was under the great hills of Meteorite Island that Crayne realized that Captain Ek's story had a considerable foundation of truth, for the ship was hailed by Eskimos on shore with undoubted welcome.
At Cape York, kayaks darted about the Aurora and shouts of "Nalegak" greeted them. They hailed Captain Ek as a great chieftain. Landing, the party was escorted enthusiastically to the village and a feast provided in a large communal igloo. The laughing, chattering Eskimos were instantly interested in Murphy, who had brought a banjo and regaled them with jazz, but, missing the Captain, Crayne went in search of him and found him on a gray point of rock in the starlight, his arms outstretched while he repeated in a sonorous voice Norwegian words, as of pleading and passion.
He turned casually to Crayne. "They know I am coming, my friend; the Children of Light are here. And She, who is keeper of my soul, awaits me yonder."
Again Crayne kept silence. He felt the electric tingling of his skin and hair under fox furs, as if soft fingers caressed him. There was no wind stirring; it was a night of calm silence, and the black sea and the ghostly bergs were all that eye could see. Yet Crayne saw the pulsing of the aurora take strange forms, like radiant creatures of dream fantasy, with streaming gossamers of green and roseate light. They swung over the heavens and dimmed the stars, and swept closer to earth. They floated in a ring of splendor, as if dancing about a circle in the center of which he and the captain stood.
"A marvelous night," he murmured, his voice constricted and strange in his own ears. Captain Ek dropped a hand on Crayne's arm for silence, and immediately sounded music fragile as tinkling glass, or violin bows drawn over crystal goblets.
Again Captain Ek spoke in his sonorous voice, and it seemed to draw the sweeping, swirling creatures of light nearer, until the radiance was so dazzling that Crayne closed his eyes. He heard a sigh that was almost a moan, and opening his eyes again, he found that he stood alone outside the radiance, which enveloped Captain Ek like a flame. Then it was gone, and the night was bafflingly dark after the splendor which had flown like a wind-driven cloud due north.
Captain Ek walked without a word to the igloo, followed by Crayne, who was shaken by that baptism of light and the fantastic optical delusion it produced.
For two weeks there was constant work, hunting and providing caches of food, stocking the Aurora with fresh meat, and selecting native crews and dogs in case of emergency. Then, with decks almost awash and fuzzy with dogs and fur-clad natives, the Aurora headed between the bergs of Smith Sound and made for Grant Land. Bitter cold fought them with fangs and claws. There were cutting winds, blinding drifts, and ice, but miraculously the Aurora plowed through until she lay at last on the north shore of Grant Land, and it was time to unload the Birmingham plane which Crayne and Murphy had been getting in order for quick lightering.
She was to carry Captain Ek, Crayne, Murphy, Bjornsen, two mechanics and a Negro cook; and none except the commander and his aide knew the story told by Captain Ek. It was a new route to Crayne, and he had only the stars, the compass, and the captain's sketchy drawings to guide him. Yet, equipped with the last and best aids of science for protection and physical necessity, Crayne had no misgivings about the journey when they hopped off an ice-field with a comparatively smooth sweep and left the little Aurora and her crew, and the natives like motes on the vast frozen wilderness.
The Birmingham had a speed of four hundred miles an hour, with a hundred and ninety to make before she reached the magnetic pole. Head winds cut her speed amazingly, yet in the gray twilight that breathes between morning and evening stars, they crossed that dot of no man's land which is the magnetic north.
In the protected cabin cockpit of the Birmingham, with ear-tubes connecting them, Crayne called to Captain Ek and pointed below. But the old man's eyes gazed beyond.
"See!" he cried. "The Bowl! The Bowl!"
Far off against the stars, light shone. It was like the reflection of a fire, the glow from a volcano crater. And as if disturbed by some upheaval from earth's center, streamers of light puffed out and were blown in that gorgeous display that men call the northern lights. They pulsed over the bowl of night sky, and blew toward the Birmingham. Crayne felt his hair lifting his fur hood and his skin tingling as gossamers streamed toward the plane and circled it. Glancing at Murphy, he saw the boy's face weirdly illumined, and his eyes staring.
"If you see what I see, you're crazy," shouted Murphy, but although his lips were drawn from his strong white teeth, Murphy was not smiling. Commander Crayne was uneasy. It was enough that he saw those woman forms shaping from the mist, but when Murphy, matter-of-fact, hard-boiled youngster, saw them, Crayne could only marvel and control as best he might the flighty feeling of fear clutching him.
It was then that one of the mechanics reported water leaking from a cracked cylinder, and with a feeling of relief that he had an excuse other than his own apprehension, Crayne signaled to Murphy that they would land if possible to find fairly smooth grounding.
Murphy managed a smile instead of his grimace of tightly drawn lips, and the plane began to circle lower as Crayne made out a comparatively level stretch of frozen sea, but they were still traveling at top speed, and the wind that had harassed them was gone.
The Bowl of Light came nearer, uncomfortably nearer, a vast sea of pale flame which bubbled to the black rims of the depression and spurted what appeared to be like colored steam of many hues.
Crayne felt that he dared not attempt to fly over it with a leaking cylinder. Yet as Captain Ek realized they were lowering, he leaned near Crayne and bellowed in voice of rage, the first sign of temper be had shown on a voyage trying to the best-natured:
"Go on! Why do you halt now? See, they wait to welcome us, the Children of Light!"
Crayne howled the information about the cylinder, adding that he would later circle the Bowl, and finishing sternly: "I am commander, Captain Ek. Please remember."
The Birmingham circled lower until within five hundred yards, and Crayne saw that what appeared to be smooth ice was a crumpled, humped expanse, yet there was nothing to do but land cautiously. He nursed the big machine as best he could, felt her wheels bump, then heard an ominous crack, and she tilted and slid with one wing-tip touching. The propeller whirred more slowly, and stopped.
Murphy was out of the enclosed cockpit cabin immediately.
"Cracked axle as well," he shouted. "But that ain't what's got my goat. look at them lights! Do I see 'em, or am I just plain nuts?"
Captain Ek showed the muscular grace and strength of a boy as he dropped from the open cabin door, then ran over the snow.
"Children of the Light," he howled back at them, his arm pointing to the heavens. "Now do you believe the story I told you back there in San Francisco?"
"Not much children," growled Murphy. "Flappers maybe but nifty. Bathing-girl choruses ain't got a thing on them babies. And if you see 'em, then I ain't loco, Capt'n."
Crayne stared from beside the plane. Bjornson joined him, and the Negro came toward them lifting his fur-clad feet high and treading carefully as if he feared to startle the lowering radiance that swung about the sky and trailed light in wheels and whorls over the ice, and were indubitably shaping to the figures of women, nude except for their gossamers of pulsing hues.
Nearer, closer they came. Crayne saw rosy arms stretch out to join hands, and their fairy feet tripped over the frozen hummocks which glittered under the luminance like jewels. There was sound like ice tinkling in glass, rising to bell chime, and wind of unearthly sweet voices. It took sequence and rhythm and became song. And such song! It chilled and warmed. It was ice and fire contending, whipping blood to flame, pulsing over flesh through their furs, bathing them in exquisite rapturousness. It was as if stars danced and clashed together, the music of the spheres. Under that poignant and sensuous flood of light and sound, they stood dumb. Even the voluble Murphy was silent, and Crayne saw in his eyes the reflection of that light and on his face a weird unearthly expression.
He reached out to touch Murphy's arm, then clutched it. The boy did not move, seemed unaware of his touch.
Spellbound, they gazed, until rapture became painful, the heart-searing ache that is bred of unutterable beauty in those rare moments when flesh stems to drop away and the spirit free itself.
It was Captain Ek who broke the spell, to Crayne's infinite relief. With outstretched arms he ran toward the dancing circle, which parted and drew aside, and down silver luminance like a moon pathway from the flames of the Bowl walked a Titania of the North!
She seemed fashioned of ice tinted like human flesh, yet transparent. Her long fair hair swayed as on a gentle wind and swirled to her bare pink feet. Glittering light draped her from shoulder to ankle, blazing one moment like fabric sewn with diamonds, gleaming like fire the next. A smile of soaring sweetness moved her lips, and a glitter like fallen stars scattered where she moved.
They saw Captain Ek run forward to meet her, saw his uplifted arms and realized that he stood at her feet and his great height reached scarcely above her arched instep. They saw her head bend and a marvelous smile change her face; then she swept one arm and covered him with her glittering mantle, and the song of the dancers rose like a vast wind between the worlds, then gradually grew softer until it was again the chime of bells, the tinkle of ice. As it diminished, the radiant figure merged into the fringes of the pulsing aurora, and was swept away.
They stood mute and motionless. Crayne heard the Negro's teeth chattering like castanets, felt the piercing cold, and motioned him toward the cabin. Not a word was spoken as the men followed Mose. Crayne waited for Captain Ek, who had turned and came slowly, laboriously, toward the plane. He put out a hand to catch the old man, who was swaying on his feet. But he was amazed at the bitter cry that came:
"You have seen them. You have seen Her, who has waited for me this century or more. Now, for the love of your God, will you go forward? Grant me that one mercy, that I can bathe in the cold fire of that Light which vitalizes this puny earth, and join my Mate."
Crayne did not answer then. He got the old man into the cabin, and found the others still silent, except Murphy, who in low tones was hurrying the efforts of the badly shaken cook to serve hot soup and coffee.
Captain Ek lay on a narrow couch with closed eyes until Crayne touched him and proffered a steaming cup.
"Come, sir, you're cold as we all are. Drink this."
The old man opened eyes misted with dreams, stared about him, then shook his great body, and, reaching for the cup, swallowed it at a draft.
"How long," he cried, "how long will it be?"
"A day, Captain Ek," said Crayne quietly. "But I don't want to promise the impossible. I am as anxious as you to approach nearer that crater."
"You will fly over it. You will see the source of all life on this earth. You will land beside it where I can walk to the Bridge and bathe once more in the flame of life and death. Don't quibble now, Crayne. I have paid for this; paid as never man paid before. You will, if you have the guts, go back with such wealth that you can buy this earth. There in that Bowl is the stuff men call radium. I'm not asking you to believe that. You wouldn't believe. You didn't believe when I told you of the Bowl and the Children of Light. Now that you've seen them, I'll tell it all. These others have seen. They shall hear!
"I was born one hundred and sixty years ago," said the old man, "sea-born, on my father's fishing-boat in the North Sea.
"He had run away with my mother, the daughter of a wealthy thane, without time for a marriage ceremony; and because of her love for him she accepted his belief in the old gods of the Northland, Odin, Thor, and the reward of Valhalla. I was sixteen when we were wrecked off the north shores of Newfoundland when our vessel struck a berg in a fog. I saw the Valkyries carry the souls of my parents to that heaven of our belief. I heard the voice of my mother call down the wind, 'Go north.' I had seldom touched foot on shore, had never found a sweetheart, and in my great loneliness when a little French smack found and took me, half frozen, ashore, I had one purpose in life—to find the mother who had been the only loving sweetness I had known.
"No matter how, I had happened to fall in with explorers. Much of it I have forgotten. But it was with MacKenzie I made the first trip to the Arctic Sea through the Canadas."
Here Crayne interrupted the old man to say, "I have made inquiries and find Captain Ek's story of MacKenzie's outfitting at Fort Chipewyan is true. He started from there in 1789 for the Arctic. Here, also, Franklin outfitted for his two land journeys in 1820 and 1825. The name of Christian Ek is recorded on all three expeditions. Go on, Captain Ek."
"There was a girl at that wilderness fort, a young thing with fair hair, sweet as the wild flowers, straight and strong as a young pine, always laughing until we were leaving. Then I missed her and could not say farewell."
A shaking hand brushed across the old man's eyes as if to clear the mists, and he continued: "I found her among the members of our company, dressed in buckskins, like a boy, taking her share of the work, suffering the hardships, with never a complaint nor shirking a task. It was not until we reached the booming breakers of the Arctic Sea that any but me learned there was a woman with us. Then the beast that lives in all men broke forth. Not crueller is this North than human brutes. She, who had taken her place as courageously as they, was hunted, and I alone stood between her and the wolf pack to which they had changed. That fight was of one against many, of knives and fists, and I went down, but not before she was free, and I had seen the wraith of my mother flying under the stars, seen that dear Shade lift my sweetheart, and fly with her north.
"You will say it was a dream of the cold. But I say I saw the Valkyries, heard their cry, the ringing of steel in that music of the Shades. And as they swept away they beckoned me.
"Of that journey over the frozen North, the ice, the storms, the whirling snow, I have only the memory of their voices singing. You have heard that song which I followed. Sometimes they swept about me in Light, warmed my chilled heart, strengthened my limbs. And I came at last to the Bowl, bridged with the Rainbow Arch, and I believed it was Valhalla. There they danced, as you have seen them dance, and I saw the face of my Woman who awaited me on that Bridge of Light. I had started across when the voice of her who was my mother called me back. Instantly the air was filled with cries, urging me forward, and She who was so new a Shade stood with downcast eyes and would not draw me by their lovelight when my Mother called me back.
"Who hesitates on the Arch of Valhalla is doomed. I had known only two loves—mother-love and love for a mate that was as yet new and strange and maddening, that birth of love that is yet of the flesh and not winged with spirit. And in that struggle between Her who had given me physical birth and Her who nurtured the soul of me, I went down.
"I turned back to where my Mother shade waited, turned again to the sweet Shade on the Arch. My faltering feet fumbled. The fear of the flesh caught me, and I fell, not into the white flame that would have wafted me to those Shades of Valhalla, but into the lesser Light which cleanses flesh of vulnerability but does not transmute it to Spirit. And the Shade that was my Mother drew me to the rim of the Bowl, wrapped me in her arms, carried me over the ice-fields and left me lying on a sun-warmed valley far down the coast.
"Waking from sleep, I found friends in the Eskimos; and the Bowl and Bridge, the Shades of Mother and Mate, were like a dream. But in the southland to which I came in time, I learned the truth of that baptism of Light. I could not die. Years passed. One gift they had given me, for when I wakened my hand clutched a great lump of some substance that held strange gleams and power to revitalize flesh after exhaustion. I carried it with me as a symbol of that dream of mine. It never left my side, and when I had reached the three-score mark and it seemed as if death could not be far removed, I journeyed to my Mother's home in Norway. Life was kind to me. Prosperity smiled always, and yet I was lonely, and had come home. I who had never known a home save the little ship on the ocean waves, had sought my Mother's home to die.
"I was able to buy the old house and land. And there in a valley protected from the bitter winds by tall cliffs, I placed the stone I had brought from the Bowl of Light, as a monument for her I had lost, and for myself, when my time should come.
"But death had no gift for me, no power to free me from flesh. My hair, white from that hour near Valhalla, was the only sign of age. I reached a hundred years, the loneliest man on earth. Men I knew were dead. Their sons were old men, and still I lived, trying to fill the days, cursed with a Midas gift, for everything to which my hand turned brought gold.
"It was then I sought death, wooed it as I had never wooed the Maid, and found that I could not die. There, in my log, you will find the newspaper clippings of times when death killed better men and passed me by.
"Meanwhile, seeking it, I went to the valley in bitter winter cold stripped to an undergarment, and lay with my head on the snow that covered the fragment of the Bowl. Instead of the frozen corpse that morning should have found, I was like a youth, and I had dreamed of my Mother and Her. Their voices told me to carry the stone far away and with it enrich man—a strange message and one I was many years interpreting. But I did buy a ship and set sail, and followed the path of the setting sun. Gales that wrecked that ship and drowned my crew, tossed me to land, and always I wakened to start forth again with that dream of dear Shades urging me to make use of the fragment of the Bowl.
"But the night of the North goes on and I must make this story end. You would be as weary of an account of a century and a half of one man's life as I should be in telling it. It is enough to say that in time my stubborn brain did fathom that command, and when I met a scientist of my own land, I asked him to accompany me to my home. It lies on a fiord of the north coast of Norway, a bleak place, cold even in the brief summer, but my valley was like the southland. Orange trees I had planted, scented the sea-wind; flowers grew as they do in Italy. The country people looked on me as a man of evil and the valley as accursed."
As the old man halted and sighed, Bjornsen the scientist cleared his throat and spoke: "I found the valley as Captain Ek has stated, and found the reason. It was underlain with that substance which is described by the word pitchblende, and rich in radium."
Captain Ek nodded.
"Wealth? I had more than a man could need; then the valley yielded its treasure, vaster than South African diamond mines. That fragment of the Bowl of Light had worked ceaselessly. I was richer than Aladdin, and lonelier than hell. No whimpering naked soul yammering at the gates of the damned was so alone. If I made friends, I outlived them, and for me there was no earthly love. Then evil came. I wanted to die, tried to die. Poison affected me not at all, for I tried it. I endured the agony and lived. And in dreams the Shades warned me I must not die a coward. Yet I tried. A train in front of which I threw myself was derailed and passengers injured when they put on brakes. A speeding automobile before which I stepped was smashed, and I was uninjured.
"I had tried to reach the Bowl, not once but many times; but in vain. Then came the chance with Commander Crayne. The rest you know. And now, my friends, the Bowl is near and I have tried to expiate my sin of cowardice. The hour is near when I shall again set feet on the Rainbow Arch and know if I have attained to the merit required of those warrior souls who reach Valhalla."
He ceased to speak and lay back on the couch. There was a long silence in which the deep breathing of the others was the only audible sound. It was broken by Murphy.
"Pitchblende and radium." he looked at Professor Bjornsen. "No foolin'!" he whispered.
"The truth," said the professor, "so far as the valley is concerned."
"And you think he really did find a fountain of Youth?" asked Commander Crayne quietly, his eyes turning to the couch where Captain Ek lay apparently asleep, his bronzed skin fresh and youthful in spite of the deeply chiseled lines of life's nailed scrawl.
"If he's a hundred an' fifty, I ain't born," muttered Murphy. "Bimini, you said was the name of that place this here Ponce de Leon was after. Why didn't he come here instead of the West Indies?"
"You must remember, Murphy, that science has pretty well established the fact that the tropics, at one period of the earth's existence, covered the poles. Remains of mammoths and mastodons have frequently been found in polar regions, even preserved in the ice. But Ponce de Leon came to late for that. No doubt the vast majority of legends and fables had a foundation of fact, and were handed down from tribe to tribe by word of mouth before sign-writing was in its crudest beginning. I have taken time and trouble to corroborate the log, a diary which Captain Ek kept through the years. It is an invaluable account of the world's progress, and the books occupy shelves of one wall in his Norwegian home. He had graciously and generously willed them to me at his death. And I have faith enough in the truth of his strange story, that I have entailed them to my son and grandson, fearing that I shall not be alive to give them to the world."
"But pitchblende and radium?" said Murphy again. "If a guy broke off a chunk of that there Bimini Bowl stuff. he'd have a reg'lar diamond mine in his own back yard, huh?"
"Look here," the voice of Commander Crayne was stern. "I want no risks taken by any of this company. You are under orders to obey me implicitly on this cruise. I am not questioning Captain Ek's veracity, nor casting doubt upon his story, but I forbid any man to leave the vicinity of this plane, or the company of the rest of us for a single instant, until we again reach the Aurora at Grant's Land. Professor Bjornsen, you realize as I do, that Captain Ek must not be allowed to endanger his life up here. My orders were to bring him north. My own duty is to return this company sound and uninjured, and I propose to do that to the best of my ability."
The scientist nodded.
"Now boys," the commander's tone was lighter, "better get some sleep. We'll repair this plane, circle the Bowl if possible, then start south, every man of us? He emphasized his words by a thump of his fist on the tiny table.
A smile crossed the face of the sleeping patriarch toward whom their eyes had turned.
"Bimini," breathed Murphy. "An' radium. Boy, oh boy, with a chunk o' that, and a dip around the brim, a man could sit pretty!"
Wrapped in fur parkas, they lay tightly packed in the small cabin of the Birmingham, yet it was not sleep which held them motionless through nine hours of repose. Crayne had scarcely closed his eyes than, like a fairy echo of that music of the Shades they had heard, came again the sound of song, poignantly sweet, so high-pitched that their nerves vibrated to music too acute for the eardrums to register. The aurora played between earth and the stars, but to Crayne there was the sensation of satin-smooth arms cradling his head, holding his body to the breast of some sweetness indescribable. And song coaxed him away. He could not translate those faint, fragile meanings of the music, but he understood. Nor could he shake off their unfolding caresses. Troubled by warnings of the flesh, he tried to free himself, in vain.
It was the Negro who drew him back from an abyss, for a clutch on his arm and a powerful shake roused him when he had already opened the cabin door.
"Fo' Lord's sake, C'mander, shet dat do'. Whah you-all goin' in de col'?"
Crayne slumped back, heard the door click shut, and brushed his eyes with the rough fur sleeve of his coat. He blinked at Mose, whose eyes showed their rolling whites in the starlight shining through the thick glass plate of the port-holes. Then he looked about him. Captain Ek was still on the couch, Bjornsen and the mechanics were huddled together, but Murphy was missing.
"Mose, where's Bud?" cried Crayne, and the others stirred at his cry.
"He was gone when I woke up, C'mander. I was dreamin' dat de lights had me, an' dey was laughin' dey heads off an' dancin' around, when somethin' cold hit ma face; den de do' shet. I guess dat was when he went."
"Boys, wake up, Murphy's gone!" yelled Crayne. He was already wrapping himself securely in his furs and tying his hood. "We've got to get him. The boy's lost his head."
A quick glance showed Murphy's furs and gun-belt missing. Crayne did not wait for the others. He plunged from the cabin and was running over the snow, sure that they would follow, and as he ran he saw against that Light of the Bowl reflected like flame from a forest fire on the vast vault of sky, a small dark form.
Crayne called. The night was deathly still, the vast fringes of the aurora wavering thinly in gold and rose and emerald tints. His voice carried a long way, for he saw the running figure of Murphy throw up his arm as a sign he had heard, and plunge on.
Crayne followed, leaving the others far behind. He was aware of the increased radiance of the northern lights streaming from that crater of jagged upthrust brim which looked black on the snow. Running as he had never run before, he was past the first heart-breaking sob and gasp of breath and settling into firmer stride when he was aware of his body's warmth and realized that if he began to sweat it would mean frozen lungs, pneumonia and death. And the party were dependent on him for their return. Yet Murphy was close to the Light, a small black shape speeding, leaping, plunging on until it seemed to Crayne he might at any moment plunge over the top and down.
Already the glow of that strange cauldron was blinding. Crayne snatched goggles from a pocket of his coat and put them over his eyes. The eyeballs burned as if with snow blindness. The air was alive with the sound of rushing flame, hissing, spitting, whistling noises, and behind, the faint cries of the men who followed were lost in that sound from the Bowl. Crayne saw Murphy's pace slacken and heaved a sigh of relief as it was momentarily lost in the darkness of the crater foot, then apparent again as the boy climbed upward until his head was above the serrated edge. There he waited, and in one mad dash Crayne reached the crater foot and began to climb.
"Murphy, you fool, come back!" he shouted, and as if his voice had called the Nymphs of Light from their abiding place, the crimson steam from the Bowl shot to the stars and broke from a ruddy cloud into those woman forms that floated above, and they began their dance on the very brim of the crater.
Crayne reached Murphy's side, and clutched his arm. The boy's face was illumined by lurid light, his strong teeth flashing as he laughed joyously in the presence of that dreadful radiance.
"Maybe I'm dreamin'," he shouted "but I ain't the only one asleep. They come right in that cockpit, I tell you. Boy, oh boy! They had me outa that door before I knew it. An' now I'm here, I'm goin' over the top!"
"But, Bud, don't be a fool. They're not real. It's a trick of the eyes. It's electric-charged air and too much nonsense from Captain Ek."
"I don't care a damn what it is, an' women don't git my goat, but I'm goin' t' have a chunk o' wealth an' a swim in Bimini. An' nobody's goin' t' stop me now!"
Crayne clutched at Murphy, whose fists shot out, but the older, taller man swung his long arms from behind and pinioned Murphy's arms. Then began a struggle of desperation on the slope of the outer rim, and above danced the Children of Light, nearer and nearer, their song of joy changing to one of sorrow. Crayne was aware of Grief filling the world, aware that the curse of Babel was gone in that center of earth and that he understood their song of mourning over dissent among men.
As if the Light disclosed the workings of human minds to their eyes, the Nymphs sang of Love, pleading with these two humans to aspire to the spirit instead of lusting for wealth that would mock and betray.
Crayne realized a flash of shame as they read his own longing to possess such wealth, yet it was still controlled. His one desire was to save this boy from death, and Murphy was dragging him nearer and nearer that topmost brim. He realized the Children of Light kept at a distance. The visitation and wooing of the night was changed to aloofness as they darted to and fro, sweeping their gossamer drapes in maddening and dazzling glitter so close that it webbed the two struggling men like a gladiator's net, and in those veils they were helpless. Then came a rustling as of gigantic wings unfolding, and locked in each other's arms, powerless to move hand or foot, Crayne and Murphy stared at the swirling maelstrom of the Bowl and saw an arch curve upward, springing like a rainbow, and sweeping her gleaming robes about her came the royal figure they had seen on the silver path after their arrival.
A voice came, piercing and silverclear. It touched understanding, and without words they knew their punishment decreed. It was as if She commanded, "Give them the desire of the eyes, my Maidens."
Crayne felt the scream in his own throat but heard no sound as the Bowl brim crumbled beneath his feet and he fell with Murphy into an abyss of such terrific Light that sight was gone. He felt the lave and spray and caress of Light, piercing, dissolving flesh. They sank as in the sea and came up on tongues of crimson flame washed over the Bowl brim, at which both clutched spasmodically, then lay still, clutched in their combined grip, to stare at that rainbow arch which still quivered and pulsed over the Bowl.
They knew the others had arrived. They heard the clear sound of bell chime, the song of the spheres. They saw Captain Ek at the Bowl brim fighting the grasp of Bjornsen and the two mechanics, but he shook off their detaining hands as if they were the fingers of children. Then the queenly figure smiled and winged above the arch, remained poised between earth and stars, and from that circle of dancing Nymphs came a young figure, golden-haired, warm-tinted, straight and strong, with her eyes downcast. And up the gleaming Arch toward her Captain Ek went. They saw that his face was suddenly young, his body slender, and he wore the look of youth.
There was one moment he stood clear against the glory, then her arms lifted, enfolded him, and the Arch was one arc of a wheel that revolved slowly as man and maid descended into the white central flame, and whirled faster and faster until human endurance broke before that vast and dreadful radiance.
Yet Crayne was not unconscious. He realized that the Light was gone except for the stars and soft aurora and that he was being carried over the hummocks and stretched on the couch of the Birmingham cabin. He was wakened in time by the sound of hammering as the mechanics repaired the broken wheel-axle and leaking cylinder. He felt Murphy sit on the side of the couch and clutch his wrist, and when he opened his eyes, Murphy was grinning.
"We got it," he said, "an' we got it good. Little lump o' rock it looks like. And we went for a swim in Bimini. Boy, oh boy, I'm only waitin' to try out that there youthstuff back home! But"—his grin was sobered and his voice slightly hushed—"the old man got across. And Bjornsen's gone."
"Bjornsen?" cried Crayne, jerking upright.
"Yeah. Nobody thought of him goin'. The ol' captain shook 'im off like a terrier shakes a rat, an' went. An' the wheel began to turn, they said, an' Bjornsen ran out on one o' the spokes an' the dames caught him, an' he was gone. They's just the two mechs an' Mose, an' you an' me. An' the boat'll be ready in an hour or so. An' here's all we got to show for that dip into glory water."
Murphy rolled two objects that looked like fragments of black glass, flaked unevenly; and, touching them, Crayne felt a tingling as of a mild galvanic battery charge, which was not so much sensation to the fingers as of ceaselessly working energy of the mass.
"Mose decided they was black diamonds an' he's bin cuddlin' 'em considerable, an' it's a funny thing but his wool is white as ours and losing its marcel kink."
"White—ours?" asked Clayne.
Murphy snatched a tiny shaving mirror from the wall and thrust it into Crayne's hand; then pulled off his fur cap. The boy's young face was framed in snow-white curls. Crayne looked in the mirror and saw his own ruddy thatch was the color of ivory. His arms went out, his hand touched Murphy, and suddenly the boy had clutched him in a tight grasp of young arms.
"Maybe it's real, an' it's you an' me alone some day. We'd better keep, on speakin' terms." He tried to laugh, then suddenly dashed from the cabin.
In three hours the Birmingham was repaired and tested, and they set to work smoothing a stretch of ice where she could race for the take-off. In the galley cubby, Mose was singing jazz, and between preparations for a meal, darting to the mirror to stare at his white, straight hair. An excited but silent company took their last look at the reflection of that vast and awful source of the world's atomic energy, the light of which men call the Aurora Borealis.
Then the flight began, and with it an eery moaning of winds that blow between the worlds. They stood at salute, faces toward the Bowl, a gesture of honor and farewell to Captain Ek and Bjornsen.
Then came the fight with gales that howled, drove frozen snow like flails in a constant tattoo on the wings and body of the Birmingham, until she was tossed like a bird. The weary mechanics slept. Crayne was at the throttle. Mose crouched in a heap with the fragments of rock in his arms, his teeth chattering as he saw the strain on the faces of Crayne and Murphy.
Suddenly Crayne cried out, and Murphy leaped to his side.
"The stick's gone," he yelled above the fury of elemental cataclysms about them.
The end came suddenly—a downward plunge, a crash, then flames leaping. Crayne was on his feet in a moment. The cabin of the Birmingham had burst like an eggshell, and from it rolled Mose still clutching the rock, and Murphy. Of the others—the two sleeping mechanics—they had not sight or sound. Flame soared and roared, the black smoke streaked through the storm, and what had been a steel-thewed bird of flight was a roaring inferno, the heat of which must have brought merciful death to the poor wretches stunned by the crash.
Glowing framework was all that was left of her in but a few minutes. Crayne, Mose and Murphy faced the bitter blast without food, fire or shelter.
It was Crayne who roused the other two from stupefaction.
"We can't be far from the ship. We die if we hesitate. Let's go."
And buffeting the storm they went, three puny forms, without compass or star; went until Mose staggered from exhaustion and plunged on his face in the snow. Then without a word they lifted him, drew his arms over their shoulders and pressed on.
"But," said Crayne at the end of hours of torture, "it's true, I think. We were due to slip out when she crashed. We're due to go down now. Man can't live in this wind up here, and I'm not even tired. How about you?"
"Nope. Seems like it's right, boy. Bimini stuff, maybe. An' if that ain't a ship's mast-head light, I'm a liar. An' hear the dogs! We've come some distance, no rest, no grub, no anything. They was something in it. Bimini!"
Over the snow, dogs streaked with yelps and howls, and from a star of light hung low over the ice that had hemmed her in came men of the Aurora to meet them.
They had pulled the beard of death, seen visions, dreamed dreams. Yet when they met the men of their own race they were silent.
"Commander Crayne, Lieutenant Murphy and Mose the Negro cook were the only members of the Birmingham's crew to return from the ill-fated flight to the magnetic pole," was the news account flashed south by the Aurora's "sparks." "The plane crashed and burned. A particularly marvelous display of northern lights was followed by the worst storm recorded in these latitudes, in which the plane crashed."
A later report told of the loss of the Aurora off the Grand Banks:
"The schooner Aurora is sunk, the last of a series of disasters of this ill-starred cruise. In spite of berg-finding apparatus and modern appliances, the Aurora struck a low-lying berg which opened her from stem to stern. Her crew saved themselves in boats that were picked up by fishermen. Commander Crayne, Lieutenant Murphy and the Negro cook, Mose Johnson, were on the bridge when the boats pulled away from the doomed vessel, having refused to go in the boats although there was room. The government cruiser Mohawk was dispatched to the scene of the disaster in hope that the three men had somehow survived."
"After a miraculous escape, clinging for hours to a floating raft with bitterly cold seas washing over them, Commander Crayne, Lieutenant Murphy and Mose Johnson were picked up by the Mohawk, little the worse for their dreadful experiences. These three men of the Birmingham, lost near the magnetic pole, seemingly bear charmed lives. The only statement Commander Crayne made was that he wanted a month's quiet; then he would plan for another northern trip of discovery. The will of Captain Ek, lost in Crayne's flight, has left his vast fortune to charity with only two individual bequests. His books are willed to Professor Bjornsen, who perished with him, and they will revert to his son, also a professor of sciences in Christiania. The other bequest is that of his estate in Norway to Commander Crayne, where Crayne and Murphy will go immediately."
Reading the news accounts, Murphy crumpled the paper and looked at Crayne.
"Dare you to swim the Atlantic and try out that Bimini stuff? he said.
"Bud," replied Crayne, "standing in the Aurora's wheelroom with locked doors when she slipped from the berg and sank in God alone knows how many fathoms, and us three coming up, catching a spar and living for two days and nights in berg-cold water, is proof enough for me. Bimini. Perhaps we have dipped in hell!"
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) before 1964, and copyright was not renewed.
Works published in 1929 would have had to renew their copyright in either 1956 or 1957, i.e. at least 27 years after it was first published / registered but not later than 31 Decemberin the 28th year. As it was not renewed, it entered the public domain on 1 January 1958 .