Quickly we tore open our packs. Ray and I snatched out clothing and wrapped up the trembling girl. In a few minutes we had her snugly dressed in the fur garments that had been Major Meriden's. Then we got into the quilted garments we had made for ourselves.
The intensely red heat-beam still flared up the shaft. Ray looked at it in satisfaction.
"They'll have it so hot they can't get up it for some time yet," he remarked hopefully.
We shouldered our packs and set out over the wilderness of snow, turning our backs upon the metal-bound lake of fire, with the tall cone of iridescent flame rising in its center.
The deep, purple-blue sky was clear, and, for a rarity, there was not much wind. I doubt that the temperature was twenty below. But it was a violent change from the warm cavern. Mildred was blue and shivering.
In two hours the metal rim below the great white cone had vanished behind the black ice-crags. We passed near the wreck of Major Meriden's plane and reached our last camp, where we had left the tent sledge, primus stove, and most of our instruments. The tent was still stretched, though banked with snow. We got Mildred inside, chafed her hands, and soon had her comfortable.
Then Ray went out and soon returned with a sealed tin of oil from the wrecked plane, with which he lit the primus stove. Soon the tent was warm. We melted snow and cooked thick red soup. After the girl had made a meal of the scalding soup, with the little golden cakes, she professed to be feeling as well as ever.
"We can fix our plane!" Ray said. "There's a perfectly good prop on Meriden's plane!"
We went back to the wreck, found the tools, and removed an undamaged propeller. This we packed on the sledge, with a good supply of fuel for the stove.
"I'm sure we're safe now, so far as the crab-things go," he said. "I don't fancy they'd get around very well in the snow."
In an hour we broke camp, and made ten miles of the distance back to the plane before we stopped. We were anxious about Mildred, but she seemed to stand the journey admirably; she is a marvelous physical specimen. She seemed running over with gay vivacity of spirit; she asked innumerable questions of the world which she had known only at second-hand from her mother's words.
The weather smiled on us during the march back to the plane as much as it had frowned on the terrible journey to the cone. We had an abundance of food and fuel, and we made it in eight easy stages. Once there was a light fall of snow, but the air was unusually warm and calm for the season.
We found the plane safe. It was the work of but a short time to remove the broken propeller and replace it with the one we had brought from the wrecked ship. We warmed and started the engine, broke the skids loose from the ice, turned the plane around, and took off safely from the tiny scrap of smooth ice.
Mildred seemed amazed and immensely delighted at the sensations of her first trip aloft.
A few hours later we were landing beside the Albatross, in the leaden blue sea beyond the ice barrier. Bluff Captain Harper greeted us in amazed delight as we climbed to the deck.
"You're just in time!" he said. "The relief expedition we landed came back a week ago. We had no idea you could still be alive, with only a week's provisions. We were sailing to-morrow. But tell us! What happened? Your passenger--"
"We just stopped to pick up my fiancee," Ray grinned. "Captain, may I present Miss Mildred Meriden? We'll be wanting you to marry us right away."
UNDER ARCTIC ICE.
By H.G. Winter
An Empty Room The house where the long trail started was one of gray walls, gray rooms and gray corridors, with carpets that muffled the feet which at intervals passed along them. It was a house of silence, brooding within the high fence that shut it and the grounds from a landscape torpid under the hot sun of summer, and across which occasionally drifted the lonely, mournful whistle of a train on a nearby railroad. Inside the house there was always a hush, a heavy quiet--restful to the brain.
But now a voice was raised, young, angry, impatient, in one of the gray-walled rooms.
"Yes, I rang for you. I want my bags packed. I'm leaving this minute!"
The face of the man who had entered showed surprise.
"Leaving, Mr. Torrance? Why?"
As if, knowing and therefore dreading what he would see, the attendant took the newspaper held outstretched to him and followed the pointing finger to a featured column. He scanned it: Deadline Passed for Missing Submarine Point Barrow, Aug. 17 (AP): Planes sent out to search for the missing polar submarine Peary have returned without clue to the mystery of is disappearance. The close search that has been conducted through the last two weeks, involving great risks to the pilots, has been fruitless, and authorities now hold out small hope for Captain Sallorsen, his crew and the several scientists who accompanied the daring expedition.
If the Peary, as is generally thought, is trapped beneath the ice floes or embedded in the deep silt of the polar sea-floor, her margin of safety has passed the deadline, it was pointed out to-day by her designers. Through special rectifiers aboard, her store of air can be kept capable of sustaining life for a theoretical period of thirty-one days. And exactly thirty-one days have now elapsed since last the Peary's radio was heard from a position 72 47' N, 162 22' W, some twelve hundred miles from the North Pole itself.
In official circles, hope was practically abandoned for the missing submarine, though attempts will continue to be made to locate her....
"I'm sorry, Mr. Torrance," said the attendant nervously. "This paper should--"
"Should never have reached me, eh? Through some slip of the people who censor my reading matter here, I read what I wasn't supposed to--that's what you mean?"
"It was thought better, Mr. Torrance, by the doctors, and--"
"Good God! Thought better! Through their sagacity, these doctors have probably condemned the men on this submarine to death! I haven't heard a word about the expedition; didn't even know the Peary was up there, much less missing!"
"Well, Mr. Torrance," the attendant stammered, more and more unsettled, "the doctors thought that--that any news about it would--well, upset you."
The young man laughed bitterly; "Bring on my old 'trouble,' I suppose. The doctors have been considerate, but I won't concern them any more. I'm through. I'm leaving for the north--right now. There's a bare chance I might still be in time."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Torrance, but you can't."
The attendant had retreated to the door. His eyes were nervous, his face pale.
"It's orders, Mr. Torrance. You've been under observation treatment, and the doctors left strict orders that you must stay."
The young man throbbed with dangerous anger. His hands clenched and unclenched. He burst out, in a last attempt at reason: "But don't you see, I've got to get to the Peary! It's the last hope for those men! The position she was last heard from is right where I--"
"You can't leave, Mr. Torrance! I'm sorry, but I'll have to call a guard!"
For a minute their eyes held. With an effort, the young man said more calmly: "I see. I see. I'm a prisoner. All right, leave me."
The attendant was more than willing. The young man heard the door's lock click. And then he lowered his head and pressed his hands hard into his face.
But a second later he was looking up again, at the single wide window which gave out on the lonely landscape over which sometimes came drifting the distant cry of a train's whistle.
Two months before, Kenneth Torrance had returned to the whaling submarine Narwhal, of which he was first torpooner, with a confused story of men who were half-seals that lived in mounds under the Arctic ice, who had captured him and--he found--had also captured the second torpooner, Chanley Beddoes. In breaking free from their mound-prison, Beddoes had killed one of the sealmen and had been himself slain minutes later by a killer whale, one of the fierce scavengers of the sea which the sealmen trapped for food even as the Narwhal sought them for oil. Ken Torrance alone came back.
Over their doubts, he had stuck to his story. Later, he had repeated it to officials of the Alaska Whaling Company, who worked the submarine and several surface ships. They in return had sent him to a private sanitarium in the State of Washington for a rest which they hoped would "iron out the kink" in his brain.
Here Ken had been for six weeks, while the exploring submarine Peary nosed her way northward toward the Pole. Here he had been, all unknowing, while the world hummed with reports of the Peary's disappearance in that far-off ever-shrouded sea of mystery.
She might, Ken knew, have struck a shaft of underwater ice, sending her to the bottom; some of her machinery might have cracked up, paralyzing her; the ice-fields under which she cruised might have shifted suddenly, crushing her ribs--of these perils the world knew as well as he. But the submarine's crew was prepared for them; the Peary was equipped with a circular saw for cutting up through the ice from beneath, and she carried sea-suits which would allow her men, if she were wrecked on the bottom, to leave her and get up on the ice and wait for the first searching plane.
Why, then, had not the planes which scoured the region found the survivors?
That was the mystery--but not to Ken Torrance. There was another peril, of which he alone knew. Not far from where the Peary's last radio report had come, a group of hollowed-out mounds lay on the sea-floor, swarming with brown-skinned, quick-swimming creatures. Sealmen, they were--men who, like the seals, had gone back to the sea. Months ago, Second Torpooner Chanley Beddoes had killed one of them. They were intelligent; they could remember; they were capable of hate and fear; they would be desirous of leveling the debt!
There, Ken felt sure, lay the reason for the Peary's baffling silence, for the non-appearance of her men.
There might still be time. No one of course would listen to him and believe, so he would have to go in search of the Peary and her crew himself.
Standing by the window, Kenneth Torrance quickly planned the several steps which would take him to the Arctic and its silent ice-coated sea.
And when, some two hours later, after a short warning rap on the door, the individual who served as Mr. Torrance's attendant entered his room, he was confronted, not by the gentleman whose dinner he carried, but by an empty room, a stripped bed, an open window, and a rope of sheets dangling from it toward the ground two stories beneath.
That was at seven o'clock in the evening.
The Crash At a few minutes before eight o'clock, Air Mail Pilot Steve Chapman was enjoying a quiet cigarette while waiting for the mechanics to warm up the five hundred horses of his mail plane satisfactorily. Halfway through, he heard, from behind, a quick patter of feet, and, turning, he observed a figure clad in flannel trousers and sweater. The cigarette dropped right out of his mouth as he cried: "Ken! Ken Torrance!"
"Thank God you're here!" said Kenneth Torrance. "I gambled on it. Steve, I've got to borrow your own personal plane."
"What?" gasped Steve Chapman. "What--what--?"
"Listen, Steve. I haven't been with the whaling company lately; been resting, down here--secluded. Didn't know that submarine, the Peary, was missing. I just learned. And I know damned well what's happened to it. I've got to get to it, quick is I can, and I've got to have a plane."
Steve Chapman said rather faintly: "But--where was the Peary when they last heard from her?"
"Some twelve hundred miles from the Pole."
"And you want to get there in a plane? From here?"
"Boy, you stand about one chance in twenty!"
"Have to take it. Time's precious, Steve. I've got to stop in at the Alaska Whaling Company's outpost at Point Christensen, then right on up. I can't even begin unless I have a plane. You've got to help me on my one chance of bringing the Peary's men out alive! You'll probably never see the plane again, Steve, but--"
"To hell with the plane, if you come through with yourself and those men," said the pilot. "All right, kid, I don't get it all, but I'm playing with you. You're taking my own ship."
He led Ken to a hangar wherein stood a trim five-passenger amphibian; and very soon that amphibian was roaring out her deep-throated song of power on the line, itching for the air, and Steve Chapman was shouting a few last words up to the muffled figure in the enclosed control cockpit.
"Fuel'll last around forty hours," he finished. "You'll find two hundred per, easy, and twenty-five hours should take you clear to Point Christensen. I put gun and maps in the right pocket; food in that flap behind you. Go to it, Ken!"
Ken Torrance gripped the hand outstretched to his and held it tight. He could say nothing, could only nod--this was a real friend. He gave the ship the gun.
Her mighty Diesel bellowed, lashed the air down and under; the amphibian spun her retractable wheels over the straight hard ground until they lifted lightly and tilted upward in a slow climb for altitude. With fiery streams from the exhaust lashing her flanks, she faded into the darkness to the north.
"Well," murmured Steve Chapman, "I've got her instalments left, anyway!" And he grinned and turned to the mail.
That night passed slowly by; and the next day; and all through night and day the steady roar of beating cylinders hung in Kenneth Torrance's ears. At last came Point Christensen and a descent; sleep and then quick, decisive action; and again the amphibian rose, heavily loaded now, and droned on toward the ice and the cold bleak skies of the far north. On, ever on, until Point Barrow, Alaska's northernmost spur, was left behind to the east, and the world was one of drifting ice on gray water. Muscles cramped, mind dulled by the everlasting roar, head aching and weary, Ken held the amphibian to her steady course, until a sudden wind shook her momentarily from it.
A rising wind. The skies were ugly. And then he remembered that the men at Point Christensen had warned him of a storm that was brewing. They'd told him that he was heading into disaster; and their surprised, rather fearful faces appeared before him again, as he had seen them just before taking off, after he had told them where he was going.
Of course they'd thought him crazy. He had brought the amphibian down in the little harbor off the whaling company's base, gone ashore and greeted his old friends. There was only a handful of men stationed there; the Narwhal was being overhauled in a shipyard at San Francisco, and it wasn't the season for surface whalers. They knew that he, Ken, had been put in a sanitarium; all of them had heard his wild story about sealmen. But he concocted a plausible yarn to account for his arrival, and they had fed him and given him a berth in the bunkhouse for the night.
For the night! Ken Torrance grinned as he recalled the scene. In the middle of the night he had risen, quickly awakened four of the sleeping men, and with his gun forced them to take a torpoon from the outpost's storehouse and put it inside the amphibian's passenger compartment.
It was robbery, and of course they'd thought him insane, but they didn't dare cross him. He had told them cheerfully he was going after the Peary, and that if they wanted the torpoon back they were to direct the searching planes to keep their eyes on the place where the submarine was last heard from....
Ken came back to the present abruptly as the plane lurched. The wind was getting nasty. At least he did not have much farther to go; an hour's flying time would take him to his goal, where he must descend into the water to continue his search. His search! Had it been, he wondered, a useless one from the start? Had the submarine's crew been killed before he'd even read of her disappearance? If the sealmen got them, would they destroy them immediately?
"I doubt it," Ken muttered to himself. "They'd be kept prisoners in one of those mounds, like I was. That is, if they haven't killed any of the creatures. It hangs on that!"
An hour's time, he had reckoned; but it was more than an hour. For soon the world was blotted out by a howling dervish of wind and driven snow that time and time again snatched the amphibian from Ken's control and hurled it high, or threw it down like a toy toward the inferno of sea and ice he knew lay beneath. He fought for altitude, for direction, pitched from side to side, tumbled forward and back, gaining a few hundred feet only to feel them plucked breathtakingly out from under him as the screaming wind played with him.
Now and again he snatched a glance at the torpoon behind. The gleaming, twelve-foot, cigar-shaped craft, with its directional rudders, propeller, vision-plate and nitro-shell gun lay safely secured in the passenger compartment, a familiar and reassuring sight to Ken, who, as first torpooner of the Narwhal, had worked one for years in the chase for killer whales. Soon, it seemed, he would have to depend on it for his life.
For all the Diesel's power, it was not enough to cope with the dead weight of ice which was forming over the plane's wings and fuselage. He could not keep the altimeter up. However he fought, Ken saw that finger drop down, down--up a trifle, quivering as the racked plane quivered--and then down and down some more.
He saw that the plane was doomed. He would have to abandon it--in the torpoon--if he could.
He was some thirty miles from his objective. The sea beneath would be half hidden under ragged, drifting floes. In fair weather he could have chosen a landing space of clear water, but now he could not choose. The altitude dial said that the water was three hundred feet beneath, and rapidly rising nearer.