Us and the Bottle Man/Chapter 5

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

CHAPTER V

 

From my desolate island refuge I salute the Intrepid Trio! Good sirs, what you tell me of the "Sea Monster" makes my flesh creep and my hair stir with terror. A murderous bad place I should call it, and not one to trifle with. Yet it might well be, as you think, that the sudden-appearing cavern is the mouth of a pirate cave fairly bursting with treasure, and only now exposed to the eyes of such daring adventurers as yourselves by a trick of the elements. Strange things there be above and below the waters of the world—which serves to remind me of a tale you might not scorn to hear. You may take it or leave it, as you will, but at least the penning of it will pass some of my hours of banishment in a pleasant fashion.

In the year of grace 18— (I shudder to think how long ago) I was a bold youth of perhaps the age of the valiant Christopher.

 

Here Jerry paused to give a muffled hoot at me. I chucked a hammock cushion at him, and he went on:

 
My father's house stood on a rambling street in an old waterside town, and from the windows of my room I could see the topmasts of sailing ships thrusting upward above gray roofs. Small marvel that my head should be filled with the ways of the sea and the wonder of it, or that I should spend long hours dreaming over books that told of adventures thereon. It was over such a book that I was poring one summer's evening as I sat in the library bow-window, The breeze from the harbor came in and stirred the curtains beside my head, and brought with it the last westering ripple of sunlight and a smell of climbing roses. The book had dropped from my hand and I was well-nigh drowsing, when I saw, as plain as day, the queerest figure possible clicking open our garden gate. He looked to be some sort of South American half-breed,—swart face under rough black hair, and striped blanket gathered over dirty white trousers. Now I had seen many a strange man disembark from ships, but never such a one as this, and when I saw that he was coming straight toward my window, I was half tempted to make an escape.

He leaned on the sill of the open casement with his dark face just below mine and began to pour out, in halting English, a tale which at first I had some trouble in understanding. The most that I made of it was that he, and he alone, knew the whereabouts of a city buried ages since under the sea and filled with treasure of an unbelievable description. But you may imagine that even the hint of such a thing was enough to set me all athrill, and I was not greatly surprised at myself when I found that I was following the queer, slinking figure down our bare little New England street.

He led me to a ship, an old brigantine heavy with age and barnacles and hung about with the sorriest gray rags of canvas that ever did duty for sails. No wonder that nine days out we lost our fore tops'l. But stay; I fear I go too fast! For you must know that I went aboard that brigantine, and once aboard I could not go ashore again, partly because the strange, ill-assorted crew detained me at every turn, and partly because the longing was so strong upon me to see the things I had read of so often. And that night found me still upon the vessel, nosing down to the harbor light, with the lamps of my father's house winking less and less brightly on the dim shore astern.

Well, sirs, it would weary you to tell much of that voyage, and besides, many's the time you yourselves must have weathered the Horn. For it was 'round Cape Stiff we went—no Panama Canal in those days—and I served a bitter apprenticeship on ice-coated yards, clutching numbly at battering sails frozen stiff as iron. It was Peru we were bound for,—Peru where the submarine city lay beneath uncounted fathoms waiting for us. The captain and I were the only ones Acuma, the half-breed, had taken into his confidence; all the others sailed on a blind errand, trusting to the skipper, who was a shrewd man and severe. And the brigantine wallowed around the Cape and toiled on and on up the coast, and every day Acuma grew more restless; every day he cast about the water with eyes that seemed to pierce to the very bottom of the Pacific.

One day of blue sky and little breeze, when we were pushing the brigantine with all sails set, Acuma flung himself at a bound to the quarterdeck, and a moment later the skipper shouted quick orders that the crew could not understand for the life of them. For to heave the ship to, just when we all had been whistling for enough breeze to give her something more than steerage way, seemed nothing short of insane. Acuma climbed to the maintop and looked at the coast of Peru with a telescope, and the captain took bearings with his instruments.

It was Acuma and I who went over the side in diving suits, for no others save the captain knew what we sought, as I have said. Down I went and down, with the weight of water crushing ever more strongly against me, till I stood upon the sea's floor. That in itself was quite wonderful enough—the green whiteness of the sand and the strange, multi-colored forest of weed and coral through which my searchlight bored a single, luminous pathway. But right ahead, looming and wavering, seen for an instant, lost again when a deep vibration stirred and swayed the water, shone the faintly golden shape of a great portal. Acuma I had lost sight of, but I had no need to ask him what lay before me. The wild pounding of my heart told me that I stood at the gateway of the city that had been covered a thousand thousand years ago by the unheeding sea. Leaning at an angle against the tide, I struggled forward till the great gate towered above me, its arch half lost in the green, swimming shadow of the water. But as I flashed my light up across its pillars, it answered with the shifting sparkle of gems crusted thick upon it.

I walked then, breathless, into a street paved with rough silver ingots, each one surely weighing a quintal, between tremulous shapes of buildings which pointed lustrous towers upward through fathoms of green water. It was many minutes before I dared enter one of those great silent halls. Dragging my heavy leaden-soled boots, I pushed through a shapely silver doorway, and a fish darted past me as I entered. Who could imagine the wonder of that vast room! The mosaic that covered the walls and ceilings was of gold and jewels, not porphyry and serpentine, such as delight the wondering visitor to Venice, but precious stones—rubies, sapphires, emeralds, amethysts as richly purple as grape clusters, topaz as clear and mellow as honey.

Behind a traceried grillwork lay heaped a mound of treasures such as no human eye will ever see again. I lifted a little tree fashioned all of gold,—each leaf wrought of the metal—and strung with jewelled fruits on which ruby-eyed golden birds fed. In despairing rapture I clutched after a neck ornament hung with pendulous pearls as large as plums. But as I reached for it, I felt that something was looking at me from the corner. Not Acuma; no human being was in sight. Peering out through the glass visor of my helmet, I saw fixed on me from low down beside the doorway two inky, moveless eyes as large as saucers. They were not human eyes, nor did they belong to any sea creature I had ever beheld or read of. They were round and fixed, pools of bottomless blackness, staring at me through two varas of clear, swaying water. I took an uncertain step backwards, and as I did so I felt something soft and heavy laid slowly and slimily upon my shoulder. . . .

Ah me, here is an interruption! A native child approaches, bearing as an offering a Lol Ipop (one of the native fruits). Just before he reaches me he falls face down, doubtless out of respect for my gray hairs, and, on arising, proffers me the Lol Ipop, now coated with sand. In this state I am expected to eat it, and, being in great awe and fear of the inhabitants, I proceed to do so, which incapacitates me for further epistolatory effort.

So, till I recover from the effects of my enforced meal, believe me your devoted correspondent,

The Bottle Man.

 

"Well, of all mean tricks!" Jerry said.

"It's worse than a continued story," I said. "Bother the horrid native child! Do you suppose that's really why he stopped?"

"Probably not; he knew it was the excitingest place to stop. What did I tell you about his being ancient? Now he says he has gray hairs, so that proves it."

"I should think he might," I said, "after such experiences. What do you think it could have been that stared at him?"

"An octopus, most likely," Jerry said. "They have goggly black eyes; I've read it."

"But he said he'd never seen such eyes on any sea beast he knew of, and he's read as much as you have; that's sure.

"That treasure! Oh, my eye!" Jerry sighed. "Do you suppose he brought home hunks of it?"

"Just the same hunks that we dig up on Wecanicut, I suppose," I said.

"You mean you think he's making up the whole yarn?" Jerry asked. "Well, even if he is, it's a mighty good one, and it might have happened to him, at that."

Greg looked up suddenly from beside me, and said:

"I think the thing what stared at him was a mer-person."

"My child," said Jerry, "I believe you're right."