We nodded, and prepared to visit the bottom a mile below the Rosa's keel. The preparation consisted merely in donning heavy, fleece-lined jumpers to protect us from the cold of the sunless depths.
Soberly we entered the ball to undergo whatever ordeal awaited us on the distant ocean floor. How comparative distance is! A mile walk in the country--it is nothing. A mile ascent in an airplane--a trifle. But a mile descent into pitch black, bone chilling depths of water--that is an immense distance!
Copper wire, on a separate drum, was connected from the engine switch to the copper thread that curled through the glass wall to my telegraphic key. We strapped the mouthpieces of the breathing tubes over our heads, and Browne started the slow turning of the compression pump.
The Professor snapped the searchlight on and off several times to see that it was in working shape. He raised his hand, I pressed the key, and the long descent began.
That plunge into the bottomless depths remains in my memory almost as clearly as the far more fantastic adventures that came to us later.
Smoothly, rapidly, the yellow-green of the surface water dimmed to olive. This in turn grew blacker and blacker. Then we were slipping down into pitch darkness--a big bubble lit by a meagre lamp and containing three fragile human beings that dared to trust the soft pulp of their bodies to the crushing weight of the deepest ocean.
The most impressive thing was the utter soundlessness of our descent. At first there had been a pulsing throb of the donkey engine transmitted to us by the sustaining cable. This died as we slid farther from the Rosa. At length it was hushed entirely, cushioned by the springy length of steel. There was no stir, no sound of any kind. As far as our senses could tell us, we were hanging motionless in the pressing, awesome blackness.
The Professor switched off our light and turned on the searchlight which he trained downward through the wall at as steep an angle as the flooring would permit. Even then the illusion of motionlessness was preserved. There was nothing in the water to mark our progress. We might have been floating in a back void of space.
Down and down we went, for an interminable length of time--till at length we reached the abysmal level where the sun never shone and the eyes of man had never gazed till now.
Words were made to describe familiar articles. I find now when I am faced with the necessity of portraying events and objects beyond the range of normal human experience that I cannot conjure up words to fit. I despair of trying to make you see what we saw, and feel what we felt.
But try to picture yourself in the glass ball with us: All is profound blackness save for a streak of white, dying about fifty feet away, which is the beam of our searchlight. Twenty feet below is a bare floor of flinty lava and broken shell. This is unrelieved by sea-weed of any kind, appearing like an imagined fragment of Martian or lunar landscape.
The ball sways idly to the push of some explicable submarine current. It is like being in a captive balloon, except that the connecting cable extends stiffly upward instead of downward.
There is a realization, an instinctive feel of awful pressure around you. Logic tells you how you are clamped about, but deeper than logic is the intuition that the glass walls are pressing in on themselves--at the point of collapse. Your ears, tingle with the feel of it: your head rings with it.
You are breathing in through your nose--thin, unsatisfying gulps of air that cause your lungs to labor at their task; and you are exhaling through, your mouth, with difficulty, into the barrel of the powerful pump. No bubbles arise from the tiny hole where the used air is forced into the water. The pressure is too enormous for that. Only a thin, milky line marks its escape from the sphere.
In a ghostly way you see Stanley turning the pump handle. With a handful of waste which he has borrowed from the Rosa's engine room, the Professor wipes from the section of wall through which the searchlight plays the moisture that constantly collects there. I sit with my hand near the key, peering downward and ahead like an engineer in a locomotive cab, ready to raise the shell or lower it as occasion warrants.
And always the suffocating awareness of pressure....
Strange and mystic journey as the tortured glass sphere floated over the bottom, following the slow drift of the Rosa far above!
The finger of light played along the tilted side of a wrecked tramp steamer. There was a crumpled gash in the bow. From this ragged hole suddenly appeared a great, serpentine form....
The Professor clutched at his camera, pointed it, and clenched his hands in a frenzy of disappointment. The serpent shape had disappeared back into the hull. A little later and we had drifted slowly past the wreck.
"Damn it!" the Professor snatched away his mouthpiece to exclaim: "If we could only stop."
The bottom changed character shortly after we had passed the hulk. We began to creep over low, gently rounded mounds.
These were so regular in form that they were puzzling. About fifty feet across and ten in altitude, they looked artificial in their symmetry--like great saucers set on the ocean floor bottom side up. They took on a dirty black hue as our light struck them, and glowed with a faint phosphorescence as they stretched away into the darkness.
A twelve-foot monstrosity, all toad-like head and eyes, swam into the light beam and bumped blindly against the glass ball. For an instant it goggled crazily at us. The Professor took its picture. It blundered away. As it reached the darkness beyond the beam it, too, showed phosphorescent. A belt of blue-white spots like the portholes of a liner extended down its ugly sides.
Along the bottom, between the curious mounds, writhed a wormlike thing. But it was too huge to be described as truly wormlike--it was eighteen or twenty feet long and a foot thick. It was blood red, almost blunt ended and patently without eyes.
I took my gaze off it for an instant. When I looked again it had disappeared. I blinked at this seeming miracle and then discovered a foot or so of its tail protruding from under the edge of one of the mounds. It was threshing furiously about.
It was at this instant that I suddenly found increased difficulty, and glanced at Stanley.
He had stopped pumping and was clutching at the Professor's arm with one hand while he pointed down with the other. The Professor motioned him toward the pump, and began to click pictures furiously with the camera pointed at the nearest mound.
Wondering at the urgency of Stanley's gesture and the frantic clicking of the camera shutter, I looked more closely at the curious, saucerlike hump.
Under closer inspection something remarkably like a huge, mud-colored eye was revealed! And as we drifted along, twenty feet away on the farther slope, another appeared!
Paralyzed, I stared at the edges of the thing. They were waving almost imperceptibly up and down, creeping!
The mounds were living creatures! Acres and acres of them lying lethargically on the bottom waiting for something to crawl within range of their monstrous edges!
Involuntarily I pressed the key to raise us. But we had gone only a few feet when the Professor called to me.
"Down again, Martin. I don't think these things will bother us unless we scrape against them. Anyway they can't hurt the shell."
I lowered the ball to our former twenty-foot level, and there we swung just over the monsters' backs.
The Professor had said that the giant inverted saucers would probably not bother us if we did not come in contact with them. It soon became apparent that, in a measure, he was right. The creatures either could not or would not lift their enormous bulks from the sea floor.
A gigantic wriggling thing, all grotesque fringe and tentacles, drifted down into the range of our light. Lower it floated until it hovered just above one of the larger mounds. The Professor got its portrait. At the same instant, as though it had heard the click of the shutter and been frightened by it, the thing dropped another foot--and touched the sloping back.
With the speed of light the inverted saucer became a cup. Like a clenching fist, the cup closed over one of the straggling tentacles.
There followed a tug of war that was all the more ghastly for its soundlessness. The hunted jerked spasmodically to get away from the hunter. So wild were its efforts that several times it raised the monster clear of the bottom for a foot or so. But the grim clutch could not be broken.
Closer and closer it was dragged. Then, after a supreme paroxysm, the tentacle parted and the prey escaped. The tentacle disappeared into the mass of the baffled hunter. It made no attempt to follow the fleeing creature. It slowly relaxed along the bottom and waited for its next meal.
The unearthly incident gave us fresh confidence, convincing us that the monsters did not move unless they were directly touched. Of course we could not foresee the fatal accident that was going to put us within reach of one of the giant saucers.
We thought for awhile that these great blobs of cold life were the largest creatures of the depths. It was soon made clear to us how mistaken that notion was!
For a time we gazed spellbound at the nightmare assortment of grotesqueries that gradually assembled around us, attracted no doubt by our light. The things were mainly sightless and of indescribable shape. Most of them were phosphorescent, and they avoided collisions in a way that suggested that they had some buried sense of light perception.
As time passed the Professor emptied his camera, refilled it several times and groaned that he had no more film. Twice as we drifted along I raised us to keep us clear of a gradual upward slope of the smooth floor.
Stanley removed his mouthpiece long enough to suggest that we go back to the surface: we had been submerged for nearly four hours now. But before we could reply a violent movement was felt.
The ball rocked and twirled so that we were forced to cling to the circular bench to avoid being thrown to the floor. It was as though a hurricane of wind had suddenly penetrated the unruffled depths.
"Earthquake?" called Stanley.
"Don't know," answered the Professor. He swung the searchlight in an arc and focussed it at length on something that appeared only as a field of blurred movement. He wiped the moisture from the wall before the lens, and there was revealed to us a sight that makes my heart pound even now when I recall it to memory.
Something vast and serpentine had ventured too near the bottom--and had been caught by the death traps there!
The creature was a writhing mass of gigantic coils. It was impossible even to guess at its length, but its girth was such that the mound-shaped monsters that had fastened to it could not entirely encircle it.
There it twined and knotted: a mighty serpent of the deepest ocean, snapping its awful length and threshing its powerful tail in an effort to dislodge the giant leeches that were flattened against it. And every time it touched the bottom in its blind frenzy, more of the teeming deathtraps attached themselves to it, crawling over their fellows in an effort to find unoccupied areas.
Soon the sea-serpent was a distorted, creeping mass. For one appalling instant its head came into our view....
It resembled the head of a crocodile, only it was ten times larger and covered with scale like the armor plate of a destroyer. The jaws, wide open and slashing with enormous, needle-shaped teeth at the huge parasites, were large enough to have held our glass sphere. One eye appeared. It was at least three feet across and of a shimmering amethyst color.
One of the deadly saucers wrapped itself around the great head. The entire mass of attackers and attacked settled slowly to the bottom.
But before it completely succumbed the beaten monster gave one last, convulsive flick of its tail....
"Good God!" cried Stanley, shrinking away from the pump and staring upward.
I followed his gaze with my own eyes.
In the faint reflected glow of the searchlight I could see row on row of large cups flattened against the top of the ball. As I watched these flattened still more and the big sphere quivered perceptibly.
In its death struggle the mighty serpent had flicked one of the huge leeches against us. It now clung there with blind tenacity, covering nearly two-thirds of our shell with the underside of its body.
I reached for the control key to send us to the surface.
"Don't!" snapped the Professor. "The weight--"
He needed to say no more. My hand recoiled as though the key had been red hot.
The three-quarter-inch cable above us was now sustaining, in addition to its own huge weight, our massive glass ball and the appalling tonnage of this grim blanket of flesh that encircled us. Could it further hold against the strain of lifting that combined tonnage through the press of the water? Almost certainly it could not!
There was nothing we could do but hang there and discover at first hand exactly what happened to things that were clamped in those mighty, living vises!
The Professor turned on the interior bulb. The result was ghastly. It showed every detail of the belly of the thing that gripped us.
Crowded over its entire under surface were gristly, flattened suckers. Now and then a convulsive ripple ran through its surface tissue and great ridges of flesh stood out. With each squeeze the glass shell quivered ominously as though the extreme limit of its pressure resisting power were being reached--and passed.
"A nice fix," remarked the Professor, his calm, dry voice acting like a tonic in that moment of fear. "If we try to go up, the cable would probably break. If we try to outlast the patience of this thing we might run out of air, or actually be staved in."
He paused thoughtfully.
"I suggest, though, that we follow the latter course for awhile at least. It would be just too bad if that cable broke, gentlemen!"
Stanley shuddered, and looked at the dirty white belly that pressed against the glass walls on all sides.
"I vote we stay here for a time."
"And I," was my addition.
I relieved Stanley at the pump. He and the Professor sat down on the bench. Casting frequent glances at the constricted blanket of flesh that covered us, we prepared to wait as composedly as we might for the thing to give up its effort to smash our shell.
The hour that followed was longer than any full day I have ever lived through. Had I not confirmed the passage of time by looking at my watch, I would have sworn that at least twenty hours had passed.
Every half-minute I gazed at that weaving pattern of cup-shaped suckers only five feet away, trying to see if they were relaxing in their pressure. I attempted to persuade myself that they were. But I knew I was only imagining it. Actually they were pressed as flat as ever, and the sphere still quivered at regular intervals as the heavy body squeezed in on itself. There was no sign that its blind, mindless patience was becoming exhausted.
There was little conversation during that interminable hour.
Stanley grinned wryly once and commented on the creature's disappointment if it actually succeeded in getting at us.
"We'd be scattered all over the surrounding half mile by the pressure of the water," he said. "There'd be nothing left for our pet to feed on but five-foot chunks of broken glass. Not a very satisfying meal."
"We might try to reason with the thing--point out how foolish it is to waste its time on us," I suggested, trying to appear as nonchalant as he was.
The Professor said nothing. He was coolly writing in his notebook, describing minutely the appearance of our abysmal captor.
Finally I chanced to look down through a section of wall not covered by our stubborn enemy. I wiped the moisture from the glass before the searchlight so that I could see more clearly.
The bottom seemed to be heaving up and down. I blinked my eyes and looked again. It was not an illusion. With a regular dip and rise we were approaching to within a few feet of the rocky floor and moving back up again. Also we were floating faster than at anytime previous. The bottom was bare again; we had left the crowding, ominous mounds.
I waved to the Professor. He snapped his notebook shut and stared at the uneasy ocean bottom.
"I've been hoping I was wrong," he said simply. "I thought I felt a wavy motion fifteen minutes ago, and it seemed to me to increase steadily."
The three of us stared at each other.
"You mean ..." began Stanley with a shudder.
"I mean that the Rosa, one mile above us, is having difficulties. A storm. Judging from our movement it must be a hurricane: the length of cable would cushion us from any average wave, and we are rising and falling at least fifteen feet."
"My God!" groaned Stanley. "The Rosa is already heeled with the weight of us. She could never weather a hurricane!"
The plight of the crew above our heads was as clear to us as though we had been aboard with them.
Should they cut the cable, figuring that the lives of the three of us were certainly not to be set against the thirty on the yacht?
Should they disconnect the electric control and try to haul us up regardless?