"Anyhow," she said later, "it is good to have both of you here with me. I am sorry indeed for you that you may never see your country again. But it is good fortune for me. I was so lonely."
"These damned crabs don't know me!" Ray Summers muttered. "They think I'll play around like a pet kitten, for the rest of my life! They'll get their eyes opened. We'll spend the winter on Palm Beach yet!"
"It seems to me that we're rather outnumbered." I said. "And it's rather more pleasant in here than outside."
"I'm going to get that rifle," Ray declared, "and give these big crabs a little respect for humanity!"
"Let's rest up a while first, anyhow," I urged.
Presently Mildred noticed how tired we were. She went into the third of the connected cylinders of blue crystal, was busy a few minutes and called us to the couches she had prepared there.
"You may sleep," she told us. "The Things never come here. And they said they would not harm you, if you did not try to go out."
We lay down on the silken beds. In a few minutes I was sleep. I awoke to feel a curious unease, a sense of impending catastrophe. Ray was bending over me, his face drawn with anxiety.
"Something's happened!" he whispered. "She's gone!"
I sat up, staring into the liquid blue vastness of the tall cylinder above us.
"Listen! What's that?"
A deep bell-note sounded out, brazen, clanging. Sonorous, throbbing, mighty, it rang through the cylindered rooms. Slowly it died; faded to silence with a last ringing pulse. Tense minutes of silence passed. Again it boomed out, throbbed, and died. After more long minutes there was yet a third.
Ray started; ran to the arched door. We looked out upon the dense forest of gold and crimson mushrooms that grew below the black cavern roof. Before us, across a few hundred yards of bare rocky beach, was the edge of the crystal lake with the city of blue cylinders upon its floor.
"God! What's that?" Ray gripped my arm crushingly.
A thin wailing scream came across the beach from the black lake. A piteous sound it was, plaintive, pleading. Higher and higher it rose, until it was a piercing silver note. Clear and sweet it was, but inexpressibly lonely, sorrowful, mournful. It sank slowly, died away. Again it rose and fell, and again.
"It's Mildred!" I gasped. "Didn't she say something about singing to the crabs?"
"Yes! I think she did. Well, if that's singing, it's wonderful! Had me feeling like I'd never see another human. But listen--"
Liquid, trilling notes were rising, pealing out in a queer, swift rhythm. It was happy, joyous, carefree. The rippling golden tones made me think of the caroling of birds on a spring morning. Swiftly it rose and fell, pure and clear as the tinkle of a mountain brook.
Mildred sang not words but notes of pure music.
The gay song died.
And the strong clear voice rose again with the force and challenge of bugle notes, with a swift marching time beating through it. It throbbed to a rhythm strange to me. It set my feet tingling to move; it set my heart to pulsing faster. It was a challenge to action, to battle.
Unconsciously obeying the suggestion of the song, Ray whispered, "Let's get over and see what's going on."
We leaped through the door and ran across four hundred yards of rocky beach to the edge of the lake. We stepped on a granite bluff a few yards above the water, to gaze upon as strange a sight as men ever saw.
The black water lay before us, a transparent crystal sheet. On its rocky bottom we could see the innumerable clusters of upright azure cylinders that were the city of the crabs. The blue cylinders seemed to bend and waver in the water.
A hundred yards away from us, over the dark water, was Mildred. She stood on a slender azure cylinder that came just to the surface. Tall, slender, superbly graceful, with only the scant bodice of green silken stuff about her, she looked like the statue of a goddess in white marble. Her head was thrown up, golden-brown hair fell behind her shoulders, and the pure notes of her song rang over the water.
Beyond her, all about her, were thousands upon thousands of the giant crabs, swimming at the surface of the water. Their green antenna rose above the water, a curious forest of luminous tentacles, flexing, wavering. Green coils moved and swung in time to the strange rhythm of her song.
The last note died. Her white arms fell in a gesture of finality. The thousands of twisting green antennae vanished below the water, and the giant red crabs swam swiftly back to the tall blue cylinders of their submerged city.
The white goddess turned and saw us.
Her voice rang out in a golden shout of welcome. With a clean dive she slipped into the water and came swimming swiftly toward us. Her slim white body glided through the crystal water as smoothly as a fish. Reaching the shore she sprang to her feet and ran to meet Ray.
"The Things come together when the giant bell rings, to listen to my song," she said. "They like my singing, as they liked mother's. But for that, they would not let us live. That is the reason they would not let us go."
"I like your singing, too," Ray informed her. "Though at first you made me cry. It was so lonely."
"The song was lonely because I have been lonely. Did you hear the glad song I sang because you have come?"
"Sure! Great stuff! Made me feel like a kid at Christmas!"
"Come," she said. "We will eat."
Like a child, she took Ray's hand again, smiling naively up at him as she led the way toward the three sapphire cylinders.
Back in the blue-vaulted dining room, Ray made Mildred sit with me at the little metal table while he served the little brown cakes and the dark-red soup and the fragrant amber drink. Mildred got up and brought a great metal bowl filled with tiny purple fruits that had a delicious, piquant tang.
Ray was deeply thoughtful as he ate. Suddenly he sat back and cried out: "I've got it!"
"Got what?" I demanded.
"I want that rifle! Mildred can find out where it is. Then, when she sings, the crabs will all come. I'll get the gun, while she is singing, and hide it. Then when it comes time to get out, she will sing while you and I are getting our packs up the cliff. I can cover them with the rifle while she gets up to us."
"Looks good enough," I agreed, "provided they all come to hear the singing."
He explained the plan at greater length to the girl. She assured him that the crabs all come when the bell-notes sound. She thought that she could make them return her furs, and find out where they had put the gun.
My feet were much better than they had been, and Mildred dressed them again with the yellow oil. Ray examined them, said that I should be able to walk as well as ever in a few days.
Considerable time went by. Since the crabs had taken our watches, we had no very accurate way of counting days; but I think we slept about a dozen times. Ray and Mildred spent a good deal of time together, and seemed not altogether to hate each other. By the end of the time my feet were quite well; I did not even lose a toe.
We went over our plans for escape in great detail. The crabs had confiscated our clothing. Mildred managed to secure the return of her furs, and, incidentally, while she was about it, learned where the rifle was.
Fortunately, perhaps realizing that it would be ruined by water, the crabs had not taken it to their submerged city. Being amphibious, they lived above water as easily as below, and much of their industrial equipment was above the surface. The great pumps which lifted the white phosphorescent liquid from the canals back to the cone above the ground were located beyond the great lake. I did not see the place, but Ray tells me that they had great engines and a wealth of strange and complex machinery there. It was at these pumps that they had left our rifle and instruments, as Mildred found when she was recovering her furs.
They had taken our food, and we prepared as much more as we could carry, arranged sacks for it, and made quilted garments for ourselves.
Then the three brazen notes clanged out, and Mildred ran across the beach and swam out to the blue cylinder to sing. Ray slipped hurriedly away, while the green forest of antennae was still growing up from the water about the girl.
I waited above the beach, enchanted by the haunting, wordless melody of the gongs. It seemed that only a few minutes had passed, though it may have been an hour or more, when Ray was by my side again. He flourished the rifle.
"I've got it! In good shape, too. Hasn't even been fired, though it looks like they have opened a box of cartridges, and cut open one or two. Maybe they didn't understand the outfit--or it may be such a primitive weapon that they aren't interested in it."
We hurried up to the building of blue cylinders and carefully hid the gun and ammunition, as well as a sun compass, a pair of prism binoculars, and a few other articles Ray had recovered.
In a few minutes Mildred, having seen Ray's return, finished her song and ran up to join us. We arranged our packs, and waited the next call of the throbbing brazen gong to make the attempt for freedom.
We slept twice again before the clang of the great gong. Ray and Mildred were always together; I could not see that they were at all impatient.
The bell note came, the awful brazen vibration of it ringing on the black cavern roof. It came when we were eating, in the liquid turquoise radiance of the lofty cylinder. We sprang out. Ray gave his last directions to Mildred.
"Give us time to get to the top of the cliff by the shining fall. Then swim ashore and run. They may not notice. And if they do, we give 'em a taste of lead!"
I was not very much surprised when he took the girl in his arms and put a burning kiss on her red lips. She gasped, but her struggles subsided very quickly; she clung to him as he freed her.
She paused a moment in the door, before she ran down across the beach. A radiant light of joy was burning in her great blue eyes, even though tears were glistening there.
Ray and I waited, to give time for the giant crabs that guarded the ladder to get away. In about ten more minutes the second brazen gong sounded, and presently the third. We gathered up the heavy packs of food. Ray took the rifle and I the binoculars, and we slipped out into the brilliant mushroom forest.
I stepped confidently out of the jungle into the clearing below the splendid opalescent fall of fire--and threw myself backward in trembling panic. A flaming crimson ray cut hissing into the towering mushrooms above my head.
Mildred's confidence that the crabs would all gather at the ringing of the gong had been mistaken. The two guards had been waiting at the foot of the ladder, their flaming heat-rays ready for use.
As I dived back into the jungle, I heard two quick reports of the rifle. I scrambled awkwardly to my feet, beneath the heavy pack. Ray stood alert beside me, the smoking rifle in his hand. The giant crabs had collapsed by the foot of the ladder, in grotesque and hideous metal-bound heaps of red shell and twisted limb. Blood was oozing from a ragged hole in the head of each.
"Glad they were here," Ray muttered. "I wanted to try the gun out on 'em. They're soft enough beneath the shell; the bullet tears 'em up inside. Let's get a move on!"
He sprang past the revolting carcasses. I followed, holding my nose against their nauseating, charnel-house odor. We scrambled up the metal ladder.
As we climbed, I could hear the haunting melody of Mildred's wordless song coming faint across the distance. Once I glanced back for a moment, and glimpsed her tiny white figure above the black water, with the thousands of green antennae rising in a luminous forest about her.
We reached the top of the cliff, where the opalescent river plunged down in the flaming fall. Ray chose convenient boulders for shelter and quickly we flung ourselves flat. Ray replaced the fired cartridges in the rifle and leveled it across the rock before him. I unslung the binoculars and focussed them.
"Watch 'em close," Ray muttered. "And tell me when to shoot."
The black lake lay below us, with the weird city of sapphire cylinders on its floor. I got the glasses upon Mildred's white form. Soon she dived from the turquoise pedestal, swam swiftly ashore and vanished in the vivid fungous jungle. The wavering green antennae vanished below the water; I watched the crabs swimming away. Some of them climbed out of the water and lumbered off in various directions.
In fifteen minutes the slender white form of Mildred appeared at the foot of the ladder. She sprang over the dead crabs and scrambled nimbly up. Soon she was halfway up the face of the cliff, and there had been no sign of discovery. My hopes ran high.
I was sweeping the whole plain with the binoculars, while Ray peered through the telescopic sights of the rifle. Suddenly I saw a giant crab pause as he lumbered along the edge of the black lake. He rose upright; his shining green antennae wavered. Then I saw him reaching with a knobbed claw for a slender silver tube slung to his harness.
"Quick! The one by the lake! To the right of that canal!"
I pointed quickly. Ray swung his gun about, aimed. A broad red beam flashed from the tube the thing carried, and fell upon the cliff. The report of Ray's rifle rang thunderously in my ears. The red ray was snapped off abruptly, and the giant crab rolled over into the black water of the lake. Half a dozen of the huge crabs were in sight. They all took alarm, probably having seen the flash of the red ray. They raised grotesque heads, twisted stalked eyes and waved green antennae. Some of them began to raise the metal tubes of the heat-ray.
"Let's get all there are in sight!" Ray muttered.
He began firing regularly, with deliberate precision. A few times he had to take two shots, but ordinarily one was enough to bring down a giant crab in a writhing red mass. Three times a red ray flashed out, once at the girl clambering up the ladder, twice at our position above the precipice. But the intense color of the ray announced its source, and Ray stopped each before it could be focussed to do damage.
I looked over at Mildred and saw that she was still climbing bravely, a little over a hundred feet below.
Then the great red crabs began to climb out of the water, heat-ray tubes grasped in their claws. Ray fired as fast as he could load and aim. Still he shot with deliberate care, and almost every shot was effective.
Intense, ruby-red rays flashed up from the lake shore. Twice, one of them beat scorchingly upon us for a moment. Once a rock beside us was fused and cracked with the heat. But Ray fired rapidly, and the rays winked out as fast as they were born.
He was powder-stained, black and grimy. The heat-ray had singed his clothing. He was dripping perspiration. The gun was so hot that he could hardly handle it. But still the angry bark of the rifle rang out, almost with a deliberate rhythm. Ray was a fine shot in his youth on his father's Arizona ranch, but his best shooting, I think, was done from above that cascade of liquid fire, at the hordes of monster scarlet crabs.
Mildred scrambled over the edge, unharmed. Her breast was heaving, but her face was bright with joy.
"You are wonderful!" she gasped to Ray.
We seized the packs and beat a hurried retreat. A crimson forest of the heat-rays flashed up behind us, and flamed upon the black walls and roof of the cavern until glistening lava became incandescent, cracked and fused.
We were below the line of the rays. Quickly we made the bend in the cavern and followed at a halting run up the path beside the shimmering river of opalescent light. Before us the torrent of fire fell in a magnificent flaming arc from the roof.
We rounded the pool of lambent milk of flame, passed the roaring torrent of coruscating liquid radiance and reached the ladder in the square, metal shaft. "If we can get to the top before they can get up here, we're safe," Ray said. "If we don't, this shaft will be a chimney of fire."
In the haste of desperation, we attacked the thousand-foot climb. I went first, Mildred below me, and Ray, with the rifle, in the rear. Our heavy packs were a terrible impediment, but we dared not attempt to go on without them. The metal rungs were four feet apart; it was no easy task to scramble from one to the next, again and again, for hundreds of times.
It must have taken us an hour to make it. We should have been caught long before we reached the top, but the giant crabs were slow in their lumbering movements. Despite their evident intelligence, they seemed to lack anything like our railways and automobiles.
The cold gray light of the polar sky came about us; a dull, purple-blue square grew larger above. I clambered over the last rung, flung myself across the top of the metal shaft. Looking down at the tiny fleck of white light so far below, I saw a bit of red move in it.
"A crab!" I shouted. "Hurry!"
Mildred was just below me. I took her pack and helped her over the edge.
Red flame flared up the shaft.
We reached over, seized Ray's arms and fairly jerked him out of the ruby ray.
The bitterly cold wind struck our hot, perspiring bodies as we scrambled down the rungs outside the square metal shaft. Mildred shivered in her thin attire.
"Out of the frying pan into the ice box!" Ray jested grimly as we dropped, to the frozen plain.