At length the low passageway ended, and I exclaimed aloud at what I saw.
I was looking down a long avenue of buildings, all three stories in height. There were large door and window apertures, but no doors nor window panes. In front of each house was a small square with--wonder of wonders!--a lawn of whitish yellow vegetation that resembled grass. In some of the lawns were set artistic fountains of carved rock.
I might have been looking down any prosperous earthly subdivision, save for the fact that the roofs of the houses were the earth itself, which the building walls, in addition to functioning as partitions, served to support. Also earthly subdivisions aren't usually illuminated with rosy light that comes softly roaring from jets set in the walls.
We were walking toward a more brightly lighted area that showed ahead of us. On the way we passed intersections where other, similar streets branched geometrically away to right and left. These were smaller than the one we were on, indicating that ours was Main Street in this bizarre submarine city.
Faces appeared at door and window openings to peer at me as we passed. And even in that jumbled moment I had time to realize that these folk could restrain curiosity better than we can atop the earth. There was no hub-bub, no running out to tag after the queerly dressed foreigner and shout humorous remarks at him.
We approached the bright spot I had noticed from afar. It was an open square, about a city block in area, in the center of which was a royal looking building covered with blazing fragments of crystal and so brilliantly resplendent with light that it seemed to glow at the heart of a pink fire.
I was led toward this and in through a wide doorway. As courteously as though I were a visiting king, I was conducted up a great staircase, down a corridor set with more of the sparkling crystals and into a huge, low room. There my escort bowed and left me.
Still feeling that I could not possibly be awake and seeing actual things, I glanced around.
In a corner was another of the mattresslike couches made of the thick, soft hide that seemed to be the principal fabric of the place. A few feet away was a table set with dishes of food in barbaric profusion. None of the viands looked familiar but all appealed to the appetite. The floor was strewn with soft skins, and comfortable, carved benches were scattered about.
I walked to the window and looked out. Underneath was a plot of the cream colored grass through which ran a tiny stream. This widened at intervals into clear pools beside which were set stone benches. A hundred yards away was the edge of the square, where the regular, three storied houses began.
While I was staring at this unearthly vista, still unable to think with any coherence. I heard my name called. I turned to face Stanley and the Professor.
Both were pale in the rose light, and Stanley limped with the pain of his bruised leg: but both had recovered from their partial suffocation as completely as had I.
"We thought perhaps you'd decided to swim back up to the Rosa and leave us to our fates," said Stanley after we had stopped pumping each other's arms and had seated ourselves.
"And I thought--well, I didn't think much of anything," I replied. "I was too busy straining my eyesight over the wonders of this city. Did you ever see anything like it?"
"We haven't seen it at all, save for a view from the windows," said Stanley. "All we know of the place is that a while ago we woke up in a room like this, only much smaller and less lavish. I wonder why you rate this distinction?"
I described the streets as I had seen them. (It is impossible for me to think of them as anything but streets; it would seem as though the rock roof over all would give the appearance of a series of tunnels; but I had always the impression of airiness and openness.) "Light and heat are furnished by natural gas," said the Professor when I remarked on the perfection of these two necessities. "That's what makes the low roaring noise--the thousands of burning jets. But the presence of gas here isn't as unusual as the presence of air. Where does that come from? Through wandering underground mazes, from some cave mouth in the Fiji Islands to the north? That would indicate that all the earth around here is honeycombed like a gigantic section of sponge. I wonder--"
"Have you any idea how we were rescued?" I interrupted, a little impatient of his abstract scientific ponderings.
"We have," said Stanley. "A woman told us. We woke up to find her nursing us--gorgeous looking thing--finest woman I've ever seen, and I've seen a good many--"
"She didn't exactly 'tell' us," remarked the Professor with his thin smile. Women were only interesting to him as biological studies. "She drew a diagram that explained it.
"That tunnel, Martin, was like the outer diving chamber of a submarine. We were hauled in on a big windlass--driven by gas turbines, I think. Once we were inside, a twenty-yard, counterbalanced wall of rock was lowered across the entrance. Then the water was drained out through a well, and into a subterranean body of water that extends under the entire city. And here we are."
We fell silent. Here we were. But what was going to happen to us among these friendly-seeming people; and how--if ever--we were going to get back to the earth's surface, were questions we could not even try to answer.
We ate of the appetizing food laid out on the long table. Shortly afterward we heard steps in the corridor outside the room.
A woman entered. She was ravishingly beautiful, tall, slender but symmetrically rounded. A soft leather robe slanted upward across her breast to a single shoulder fastening and ended just above her knees in a skirt arrangement. Around her head was a regal circlet of silvery gray metal with a flashing bit of crystal set in the center above her broad, low forehead.
She smiled at Stanley who looked dazzled and smiled eagerly back.
She pointed toward the door, signifying that we were to go with her. We did so; and were led down the great staircase and to a huge room that took up half the ground floor of the building. And here we met the nobility of the little kingdom--the upper class that governed the immaculate little city.
They were standing along the walls, leaving a lane down the center of the room--tall, finely modelled men and women dressed in the single garments of soft leather. There were people there with gray hair and wisdom wrinkled faces; but all were alike in being erect of body, firm of bearing and in splendid health.
They stopped talking as we entered the big room. Our gaze strayed ahead down the lane toward the further wall.
Here was a raised dais. On it was a gleaming crystal encrusted throne. And occupying it was the most queenly, exquisitely beautiful woman I had ever dreamed about.
Woman? She was just a girl in years in spite of her grave and royal air. Her eyes were deep violet. Her hair was black as ebony and gleaming with sudden glints of light. Her skin-- But she cannot be described. Only a great painter could give a hint of her glory. Too, I might truthfully be described as prejudiced about her perfections.
The Queen, for patently she was that, bowed graciously at us. It seemed to me--though I told myself that I was an imaginative fool--that her eyes rested longest on me, and had in them an expression not granted to the Professor or Stanley.
She spoke to us a melodious sentence or two, and waved her beautiful hand in which was a short ivory wand, evidently a scepter.
"She's probably giving us the keys to the city," whispered Stanley. He edged nearer the fair one who had conducted us. "I sincerely hope there's room here for us."
The open lane closed in on us. Men and women crowded about us speaking to us and smiling ruefully as they realized we could not understand. I noticed that, for some curious reason, they seemed fascinated by the color of my hair. Red-haired men were evidently scarce there.
At length the beauty who had so captured Stanley's fancy, and who seemed to have been appointed a sort of mentor for us, suggested in sign language that we might want to return to our quarters.
It was a welcome suggestion. We were done in by the experiences and emotions that had gripped us since leaving the Rosa such an incredibly few hours ago.
We went back to the second floor. I to my luxurious big apartment and Stanley and the Professor to their smaller but equally comfortable rooms.
A pleasant period slid by, every waking hour of which was filled with new experiences.
The city's name, we found, was Zyobor. It was a perfect little community. There were artisans and thinkers, artists and laborers--all alike in being physically perfect beyond belief and cultured as no race on top the ground is cultured.
As we began to learn the language, more exact details of the practical methods of existence were revealed to us.
The surrounding earth furnished them with building materials, metals and unlimited gas. The sea, so near us and yet so securely walled away, gave them food. Which warrants a more detailed description.
We were informed that the manlike, two-armed fishes were the servants of these people--domesticated animals, in a sense, only of an extremely high order of intelligence. They were directed by mental telepathy (Every man, woman and child in Zyobor was skilled at thought projection. They conversed constantly, from end to end of the city, by mental telepathy.) Protected in their spined shells, which they captured from the schools of porcupine fish that swarmed in Penguin Deep, they gathered sea vegetation from the higher levels and trapped sea creatures. These were brought into the subterranean chamber where our glass ball now reposed. Then the chamber was emptied of water and the food was borne to the city.
The vast army of mound-fish provided the bulk of the population's food, and also furnished the thick, pliant skin they used for clothing and drapes. They were cultivated as we cultivate cattle--an ominous herd, to be handled with care and approached by the fish-servants with due caution.
Thus, with all reasonable wants satisfied, with talent and brains to design beautiful surroundings, lighted and warmed by inexhaustible natural gas, these fortunate beings lived their sheltered lives in their rosy underground world.
At least I thought their lives were sheltered then. It was only later, when talking to the beautiful young Queen, that I learned of the dread menace that had begun to draw near to them just a short time before we were rescued....
My first impression, when we had entered the throne room that first day, that the Queen had regarded me more intently than she had Stanley or the Professor, had been right. It pleased her to treat me as an equal, and to give me more of her time than was granted to any other person in the city.
Every day, for a growing number of hours, we were together in her apartment. She personally instructed me in the language, and such was my desire to talk to this radiant being that I made an apt pupil.
Soon I had progressed enough to converse with her--in a stilted, incorrect way--on all but the most abstract of subjects. It was a fine language. I liked it, as I liked everything else about Zyobor. The upper earth seemed far away and well forgotten.
Her name, I found, was Aga. A beautiful name....
"How did your kingdom begin?" I asked her one day, while we were sitting beside one of the small pools in the gardens. We were close together. Now and then my shoulder touched hers, and she did not draw away.
"I know not," she replied. "It is older than any of our ancient records can say. I am the three hundred and eleventh of the present reigning line."
"And we are the first to enter thy realm from the upper world?"
"Thou art the first."
"There is no other entrance but the sea-way into which we were drawn?"
"There is no other entrance."
I was silent, trying to realize the finality of my residence here.
At the moment I didn't care much if I never got home!
"In the monarchies we know above," I said finally, avoiding her violet eyes, "it is not the custom for the queen--or king--to reign alone. A consort is chosen. Is it not so here? Has thou not, among thy nobles, some one thou hast destined--"
I stopped, feeling that if she dismissed me in anger and never spoke to me again the punishment would be just.
But she wasn't angry. A lovely tide of color stained her cheeks. Her lips parted, and she turned her head. For a long time she said nothing. Then she faced me, with a light in her eyes that sent the blood racing in my veins.
"I have not yet chosen," she murmured. "Mayhap soon I shall tell thee why."
She rose and hurried back toward the palace. But at the door she paused--and smiled at me in a way that had nothing whatever to do with queenship.
As the time sped by the three of us settled into the routine of the city as though we had never known of anything else.
The Professor spent most of his time down by the sea chamber where the food was dragged in by the intelligent servant-fish.
He was in a zoologist's paradise. Not a creature that came in there had ever been catalogued before. He wrote reams of notes on the parchment paper used by the citizens in recording their transactions. Particularly was he interested in the vast, lowly mound-fish.
One time, when I happened to be with him, the receding waters of the chamber disclosed the body of one of the odd herdsmen of these deep sea flocks. Then the Professor's elation knew no bounds. We hurried forward to look at it.
"It is a typical fish," puzzled the Professor when we had cut the body out of its usurped armor. "Cold blooded, adapted to the chill and pressure of the deeps. There are the gills I observed before ... yet it looks very human."
It surely did. There were the jointed arms, and the rudimentary hands. Its forehead was domed; and the brain, when dissected, proved much larger than the brain of a true fish. Also its bones were not those of a mammal, but the cartilagenous bones of a fish. It was not quite six feet long; just fitted the horny shell.
"But its intelligence!" fretted the Professor, glorying in his inability to classify this marvelous specimen. "No fish could ever attain such mental development. Evolution working backward from human to reptile and then fish--or a new freak of evolution whereby a fish on a short cut toward becoming human?" He sighed and gave it up. But more reams of notes were written.
"Why do you take them?" I asked. "No one but yourself will ever see them."
He looked at me with professorial absent-mindedness.
"I take them for the fun of it, principally. But perhaps, sometime, we may figure out a way of getting them up. My God! Wouldn't my learned brother scientists be set in an uproar!"
He bent to his observations and dissections again, cursing now and then at the distortion suffered by the specimens when they were released from the deep sea pressure and swelled and burst in the atmospheric pressure in the cave.
Stanley was engrossed in a different way. Since the moment he laid eyes on her, he had belonged to the stately woman who had first nursed him back to consciousness. Mayis was her name.
From shepherding the three of us around Zyobor and explaining its marvels to us, she had taken to exclusive tutorship of Stanley. And Stanley fairly ate it up.
"You, the notorious woman hater," I taunted him one time, "the wary bachelor--to fall at last. And for a woman of another world--almost of another planet! I'm amazed!"
"I don't know why you should be amazed," said he stiffly.
"You've been telling me ever since I was a kid that women were all useless, all alike--"
"I find I was mistaken," he interrupted. "They aren't all alike. There's only one Mayis. She is--different."
"What do you talk about all the time? You're with her constantly."
"I'm not with her any more than you're with the Queen," he shot back at me. "What do you find to talk about?"
That shut me up. He went to look for Mayis; and I wandered to the royal apartments in search of Aga.
In the first days of our friendship I had several times surprised in Aga's eyes a curious expression, one that seemed compounded of despair, horror and resignation.
I had seen that same expression in the eyes of the nobles of late, and in the faces of all the people I encountered in the streets--who, I mustn't forget to add here, never failed to treat me with a deference that was as intoxicating as it was inexplicable.
It was as though some terrible fate hovered over the populace, some dreadful doom about which nothing could be done. No one put into words any fears that might confirm that impression; but continually I got the idea that everybody there went about in a state of attempting to live normally and happily while life was still left--before some awful, wholesale death descended on them.
At last, from Aga, I learned the fateful reason.
But first--a confession that was hastened by the knowledge of the fate of the city--I learned from her something that changed all of life for me.
We were surrounded by the luxury of her private apartment. We sat on a low divan, side by side. I wanted, more than anything I had ever wanted before, to put my arms around her. But I dared not. One does not make love easily to a queen, the three hundred and eleventh of a proud line.
And then, as maids have done often in all countries, and, perhaps, on all planets, she took the initiative herself.