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Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

De Profundis

H. de Vere Stacpoole

I.

The Vladivostock-Nagasaki cable was broken.

The Vladivostock-Nagasaki cable leaves Peter the Great Bay in six thousand feet of water and crosses the great ten-thousand-foot depth south of latitude 42° N.

The floor of the sea of Japan south of latitude 42° N. forms a vast saucer three hundred miles broad by four hundred miles long, or roughly, from the north of Matsu Shima to the latitude of Possiet Bay, the most southerly bay in Siberian territory.

It was at Hong Kong, where she was lying for repairs, that the President Girling, of the Franco-Danish Cable Company, received news of the break with orders to mend it. She was a fifteen-hundred-ton boat, new built from the yards of Stefansson and Meyerling, with geared turbine engines and everything about her of the latest from the last thing in sea valves to the last thing in grapnels—Breim's patent hold-fast all-steel grapnel, the invention of the chief cable engineer of the President Girling.

It was eleven o'clock in the morning when the message came on board, and Grondaal, the master of the ship, received it just as he was stepping on deck from the saloon companion-way. He came forward at once to find Breim, the chief cable engineer, who was busy over some job in the bows.

Forward of the bridge lay the electric testing room and forward of that the picking-up gear, consisting of a great drum round which the grapnel rope was wound like the line on a salmon reel, and the engine that rotated the drum. Red-painted buoys showed bright in the sunlight that flooded the deck, where coils of buoy rope were being overhauled with a view to discovering defects or chafings. Breim, a big, bearded man, was superintending this business when Captain Grondaal came along to him, bearing in his hand the cablegram just arrived from the head office of the company in Copenhagen.

"We'll have to put out to-night," said Grondaal. "Lucky the stores are all aboard."

Breim took the cablegram and read it over slowly. It gave the position of the break as ascertained by the electricians at Nagasaki; that is to say, the position as regards the length of the cable; the hydrographer of the President Girling would work out the sea position to within a mile.

"That's a good bit north of the great dip," said Breim. "Rotten bad coral bottom too, and fifteen hundred fathoms if it's a metre."

"There or thereabouts," said Grondaal. "You have everything ready?"

"Ay, ay," replied Breim. "I have everything ready."

They were men who did not waste words. Grondaal stood for a moment watching an incoming ship taking up her moorings, then he went aft to the electric testing room to warn the electricians, and Breim turned and went on directing Steffansson, the foreman of the cable hands.

Steffansson was a gigantic, white-haired man, an Icelander with fifty years of sea experience in the cod fisheries and cable service. He had worked for the Larssen Company of Copenhagen and for the Franco-Danish Company with whom he was now employed. He had captained a boat in the Icelandic fishing fleet and had put in a season at the Alaska canneries. One might say that he had always been a fisherman, for cable mending is three-fourths of cable work and nine-tenths of cable mending is fisherman's work.

Steffansson was the right hand of Breim, and the right hand of Steffansson was Andersen, the Dane who superintended the engine of the picking-up gear.

These three men formed a corporate body, one might say that they were the three parts of an intricate mechanism. In picking up a broken cable, when the great drum of the picking-up gear was rotating, Breim on the bow balks, Steffansson at the drum and Andersen with his hand on the lever of the engine, controlled the whole business just as the cells of a nervous ganglion control the most complicated muscular movements. A sign, a word, almost a thought of Breim's caught instantaneously by his assistants, was transmuted into tons of energy; the geared turbines of the main engines were under their control no less than the helm and the engine of the picking-up gear; a word from Steffansson to Grondaal on the bridge would cast the ship back or forward, head her to port or starboard, a sign to Andersen would rotate the great drum on which the grapnel rope was wound, paying out or hauling in.

They played with the cable once it was hooked, as a juggler plays with a ball, or a salmon-fisher with a salmon.

Breim, a well-to-do man with an instinct for sport, inherited from an English ancestor, often in his own mind compared the great picking-up drum to the reel on a fishing-rod. In principle it was, in fact, just the same. You could let out line or pull in, brake or release, and the engine worked by Andersen was better than any patent multiplier for hauling in the slack. The only difference was the size, a hook weighing a couple of hundred-weight instead of a few grains, and a wire-wove rope with a breaking strain of twenty tons instead of a twenty-thread line that a boy might snap.

Breim could have retired by this from the cable industry, and would have done so, no doubt, but for the element of sport in the business. He had caught shark with rod and line and he had once played a three-hundred-pound tuna for an hour and fifteen minutes before bringing it to gaff, but had you asked him which was the better sport, shark or cable, and had he truthfully replied, "cable" would have been the word.

The last of the men on shore leave were back by five in the afternoon, and as sunset was turning the sky behind China into the semblance of a vast stained-glass window, the President Girling unbuoyed.

Showing her stern to the rose-gold light of the west she slipped away from the anchorage, making less fuss over the business of departure than a trading junk. Then heading nor'-nor'-east, she passed, dissolving like a shadow in the twilight of the sea.

 

II

She passed the Pescadores in a rose and pearly dawn, and, pushing on up the Tung Hai Sea, entered the Sea of Japan by way of the Korea channel. From here it was a straight run to the spot against a head wind and a heavy sea.

The Sea of Japan is full of trickery. Nothing good could come from Sakhalin and the Kuriles, and a good deal of Sea of Japan weather comes from there, the great plains of Manchuria send their contingents of winds and storms, and Japan itself, though a bar to the Pacific swell, does not turn back hurricanes.

Grondaal knew this sea and its ways, and the heavy weather did not worry him. It is impossible to work cable in rough water, and the President Girling had often been held up for weeks on a job owing to the state of the sea; all the same the skipper was cheerful, prophesying that all this smother was the tail end of trouble, not the beginning of it, and he was right, for at daybreak on the morning that they reached the spot, the Sea of Japan lay flat as the table of a sapphire to the hard-cut horizon, flat as a dead calm can ever make the sea, from the skyline to the vague blue of the awful depths beneath the keel.

Even before sunrise, the ship was astir. With the first touch of light on the yellow funnel and the bridge canvas, the vibration of the propellers ceased. Breim on the after gratings was superintending the working of the Kelvin sounder that was paying out its lead from a bobbin carrying three miles of piano wire, whilst Steffansson stood beside him marking the depth.

Then the sewing-machine clatter of the sounder hauling in the lead filled the air.

The lead gave a depth of a mile and a quarter, and the tallow on it told that the bottom was rocky.

Then Breim went forward, and the work of putting out the first mark buoy was put in hand.

The buoy, with a mushroom anchor and over a mile and a quarter of rope, was dropped. Then the ship put away a mile to the east and dropped the second buoy. Both buoys carried lighted lamps in case of work not being over at dark.

Somewhere between these two buoys the cable would be found.

Breim had now taken command of the ship; standing on the bow balks, he gave his orders whilst the grapnel—Breim's patent all-steel, never-let-go grapnel—was bent on to the grapnel rope. This rope, with a nominal breaking strain of twenty tons, passed, after leaving the drum, under a dynamometer that registered every strain put upon it; it left the ship over a wheel in the bows between the knight-heads, just where in ordinary ships the bowsprit comes in.

When the clanking drum had ceased its revolutions and the grapnel had touched bottom, Breim raised his hand, the engine-room telegraph rang and the President Girling, going dead slow, began to make back along the course to the first mark buoy.

The grapnel, dragging along the sea floor in search of the cable, clutched at everything in its path, rock or coral, and every strain put upon it was registered on the great clock face of the dynamometer by the jumping indicator, which had a permanent point at two tons, that being the weight of the rope as weighed in sea water. It was now eight o'clock, and Grondaal, with the electricians and first officer, went down to breakfast, leaving Breim alone in his glory on the bow balks, and the third officer in charge of the bridge.

The saloon was a cheerful place, large, well decorated, a long table, capable of seating twenty, running down the middle. It was especially cheerful this morning, lit by the blazing sunlight, and Grondaal, at the head of the table, was in more than ordinary good spirits. He had prophesied good weather, and the brightness outside pleased him almost as much as though he had made it. They talked as they ate. Not a word about the sea. Anything but the sea. They talked of the new music-hall at Copenhagen, and the man who had built it and was likely to lose money over it; they talked of Jan Gudmundson's wife—Gudmundson was a past captain in the service, and how she spent his money and kept him in order so that he could not enter a beer hall without her apparition at the door waiting to lead him home. And then somehow—perhaps it was Jan Gudmundson's wife that suggested the subject—grapnels came on the tapis, and then, for a wonder and once in a way, a sea subject fell under discussion. Johansson, the first officer, started it.

"I've been twenty years at this business," said he, "and I've never yet seen the grapnel bring in a bit of wreck. Take the wrecks of a single year and multiply them by twenty and you will have what the last twenty years has laid on the sea floor. It ought to be paved with wrecks. Well, if they're there why don't they show up on the grapnel—give up a bit of themselves, eh?"

Grondaal went into a long argument to prove that a grapnel might go a dozen times over a wreck without detaching a plank or spar, and another to demonstrate that if it did it would be a hundred to one against it bringing its prey to the surface.

Hardmuth, the second electrician, a flaxen-bearded individual, a man with a round, innocent face and the clear, truthful eyes of a child, who had been listening to Grondaal with marked attention, now spoke up.

"I don't know anything about wrecks," said he, "but some years ago I saw the grapnel bring up something stranger than ship wreckage; it brought up a wheel."

"Steering?" asked Grondaal.

"No, the wheel of a vehicle, made of bronze."

"And where was that brought up, may I ask?"

"In the Red Sea."

Hardmuth was the ship's liar as well as second electrician; later on that day he was to have the fact borne in on him that Truth can be sometimes more fantastic than Invention.

 

III

The Nagasaki end of the cable was caught and buoyed by two o'clock that afternoon. At two-fifteen the hunt began for the Vladivostock end.

The weather had changed. With a steady barometer the temperature had risen, a damp, muggy blanket of heat had unrolled itself from the Manchurian plains and spread itself across the Sea of Japan. The line of the horizon had vanished in haze, the sun, with scarcely any diminution of brilliancy, had lost its sharpness, and the wind was as dead as though it had never been.

Breim, on the bow balks, was conducting operations with his coat off. Though everything was going splendidly he was out of temper on account of the heat, he was also anxious with the anxiety of a man who sees the possibility of pulling off a big coup. If they could only bring the Vladivostock end on board by, say, five o'clock, the whole job might be finished that day, and that would be a tremendous feather in the cap of Breim.

The grapnel had been lowered and the first grapple was half through when the pointer of the dynamometer, that had been indicating a strain of two tons and a quarter, rose suddenly with a flick to eight tons, held there for a moment and fell again to six.

Then it dashed up to ten tons, held there for five seconds or so, rose to fifteen and fell to seven, then rose to twelve and sank to five.

Steffansson, who rarely spoke, standing by the drum and watching these evolutions of the pointer, suddenly called out to Breim, asking him what was the matter.

Cable, once hooked, gives a slow and steady rise of strain, rock or weed tangling the grapnel may cause a sudden jump of the pointer, but when the grapnel frees itself the pointer always falls to normal.

It might have been supposed that the grapnel, dragging along the sea floor, was meeting and overcoming several obstacles in succession, but for the fact that the recessions were not to normal, but to six, seven and five tons successively.

"What's up?" cried Steffansson.

Breim made no reply. He had stopped the main engines and then put them to a few revolutions astern, taking all way off the ship. Then he bent and put his ear to the taut grapnel rope. He could always tell by the tune of the rope whether rock or cable was engaged by the grapnel. What he heard now was a new thing. A deep booming sound, like the beating of a gigantic heart at a vast distance. The rope might have been a stethoscope giving a vague hint of the beating heart of the world.

Breim straightened himself.

"Fish!" cried he to Steffansson. "We're on to a fish—look out."

"Fish!" cried Steffansson; "why, it's over a mile down!"

Breim did not seem to hear him.

"How much more rope is on the drum?" he cried.

"Not more than half a mile."

"Tell Johanssen to roust out another two mile of rope and bend it on," cried Breim. "Stand by at the engine, Andersen. Steffansson, see that the drum rope runs clear, no hitches."

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the grapnel rope went forward, making an acute angle with the water and showing a surging ripple. The mammoth fish, or whatever it was below, had started ahead.

"Pay out slowly," shouted Breim to Andersen, then, as the leisurely clank of the drum filled the air, he reached the deck in two jumps, crossed it, and ran up the bridge ladder to the bridge.

From here he had a view of the rope ahead and of the dynamometer. Here he had the main engines under immediate control, and from here he could give his orders to Andersen at the picking-up engine. Here he had as complete dominance of the mechanism and the situation as a tuna fisherman with his rod and reel.

But it was not sport he was after in these first moments, though the sportsman in him was furiously alive; it was rope-saving, primarily, for he knew that if the thing below was not played it would break; the rope, and a mile and a half of wire-wove grapnel rope, to say nothing of the grapnel, costs money.

Eased by the slow paying out of the drum, the strain on the rope was only fifteen tons, and this despite the fact that had you looked over the side you would have seen a ripple at the ship's stern. The ship was being towed, just as the tuna-launch is towed when the tuna is making its rush, held by taut line and bending rod. Only the rush of this mile-deep monster was slower in proportion to size.

Whatever the thing was that had taken the grapnel for hook, two facts stood out concerning it. It was vast in size and sluggish for its size.

These two facts, when he recognized them together, gave Breim what he afterwards described as a "turn of the heart."

 

IV

Just then Grondaal came on the bridge. The thing that was happening had caused no commotion on the ship. No one knew of it but the cable men on duty. Grondaal was as ignorant as the others, and when he stepped on the bridge it surprised him to find Breim there. Then he saw the grapnel rope strutting out into the water, and for a second he was under the impression that they were going astern, an impression destroyed at once by the fact that there was no vibration of the propellers, also by the fact that the drum was paying out rope.

"Why, what's all this?" asked the astonished Grondaal.

"We're under tow," said Breim.

"Tow! What's on the grapnel?"

"The Lord He knows," replied the other, "something alive down there. The great-grandfather of all whales—seems to me. Hi, there, Steffansson, slower with the drum; put more strain on him."

Steffansson obeyed, braking the drum, and the indicator of the dynamometer steadily rose to eighteen tons, to nineteen tons, to nineteen and a half.

"Less strain," cried Breim. The drum revolved slightly quicker, and the indicator stole down to seventeen tons.

"Keep it so," cried Breim.

"Well, I'm d—d!" said Grondaal.

Breim wiped his forehead with his shirt-sleeve.

"I'm feeling that way myself," said he; "there's nothing to be done but stick on or cut, and cut's impossible with all that rope out."

"Maybe it'll disentangle," said the other; "if it's a whale it will have got the grapnel in the jaws, and then turn like a log and get bound up in the rope—"

"It's no whale," said Breim; "what I'm afraid of most is a sudden jerk, and then that rope will go like a thread; you know these wire-wove ropes and how they mushroom out like an umbrella when broken and fly back and cut everything to pieces. Lord! Look at that fool of a cable hand, climbing on to the bow balks—get off there, get clear away from the rope; what d'you think you're doing there, anyhow; get aft behind the drum."

Grondaal looked at the compass card.

"We're being taken to Vladivostock," said he. "We'll get there, maybe, at this rate, by Christmas; cold place that time of year—have you got a fur coat?"

Breim bristled.

"Well, order out the axes to cut," said he; "you're master of the ship."

"Not I," said Grondaal. "The chief cable engineer is master while cable work's on. Do as you like."

"Then I'll stick to him till I bring him aboard or alongside," replied the other; "that I swear by the great hat of Krivikur. My grapnel's hooked him, and Breim's at the other end of the rope. I'll teach the lousy brute—cut!—I'd sooner cut my hand off."

He was working himself up into a rage. The heat, the delay, Grondaal's jest, and the knowledge that the thing below had calm command of the situation, condemning him either to lose rope by cutting, or time by following, all conspired to raise his temper; his voice rose, and he was bringing his palm down with a bang on the bridge-rail when, suddenly, the dynamometer fell with a flick to two tons.

"He's off," said Grondaal.

Breim shouted to Andersen, ordering him to reel in. The engine throbbed, the drum reversed its motion and the rope came in slack and dripping, only for a moment, and then the dynamometer drove up steadily to fourteen tons, whilst the head of the ship slightly altered its pointing and the needle of the compass card fluttered.

"He's altered his course—that's all," said Grondaal. "He's making now for Possiet Bay, seems to me. Can't you liven him up?"

Breim made no reply for a moment. He was thinking hard.

The nominal breaking strain of the rope was twenty tons, but he knew it would stand a strain much above that. The worst that could happen would be the breaking of the rope. He determined on more active measures.

Leaning over the bridge-rail he gave orders for all hands to clear back into the alley-ways; all, that is to say, with the exception of Steffansson and Andersen. He told Steffansson to keep as much as possible to the rear of the drum. Andersen would have to take his chance and trust to the God of Fishermen.

He ordered the paying out of the rope to cease. The strain rose instantly to nineteen tons. He ordered Andersen at the engine to reverse the drum two revolutions. The jigger of the dynamometer dashed up to twenty tons. The thing did not register above twenty tons, what the real strain was heaven only knows. Breim put it down at twenty-five. He gave the drum another revolution.

Instead of the gun-like report of a burst rope, which he half expected, came the "flick" of the dynamometer; the pointer had fallen to normal, and then risen to two tons.

One of two things had happened: the increased strain had torn the grapnel free, or the creature below had risen owing to the strain.

"Pick up!" cried Breim.

The drum roared, and the slack came in, fathom after rushing fathom.

"You've freed the grapnel," said Grondaal.

"'Pears so," said Breim. He was disappointed. The fisherman had been roused to full life in him. Of all the fishermen in the world it had been given to him alone to fight Leviathan, using a fifteen-hundred-ton ship for a rod and a forty-foot grapnel drum for a reel, and now the fish was off.

Then suddenly his heart jumped in him.

The slack, incoming rope tautened with a snap, the sea-water on it shot out in a rainbow shower of spray; Andersen, not waiting for orders, shut off the engine, and Steffansson on his own initiative kept the drum brake released. The rope, instead of breaking, rushed out.

Breim knew what was happening below. Over two hundred fathoms of rope had come in, that meant that the thing below had risen two hundred fathoms, and it was now either running at that depth or sinking.

He let the rope run for a few seconds and then, just as the fisherman puts the brake on the line, he put the brake on the drum. Instead of breaking the rope made a more acute angle with the sea, and a swirl of water stood around it. The thing had not sunk, it was running, maybe making four knots; the ship was making the same speed, less the fraction to be deducted by the very gradual paying out of rope, for the drum, by Breim's orders, was now less controlled by the brake.

Breim was working now entirely regardless of the dynamometer, working altogether by his fisherman sense. It was inspiration pure and simple.

He jockeyed the thing below with lifting strains and alternate releases, so that at the end of an hour he judged it to be only half a mile from the surface.

The thing that filled him with wonder, and at the same time with hope, was the slow movement of the creature as compared with its undoubted bulk. If its velocity had borne any proportion to its size, the rope would have snapped in the very first minute of the struggle.

By this time the whole ship was alive to what was going on. The officers and electricians were on the bridge and the crew crowded in the alley-ways. Hardmuth had rushed below for his camera to photograph the result, whenever it was attained. As for Breim, he was unconscious of the audience about him. The bridge might have been empty for all he knew or cared; his whole soul and mind were concentrated on the struggle and on that alone.

And yet it scarcely seemed a struggle, so destitute was the business of fuss or fury, just a long, dragging strain, the drum rotating, now to pick up a bit of slack, paying out now gradually, now ceasing to rotate.

Something had gone wrong with the dynamometer; unused to such strains and such usage, it had stuck, the pointer fixed at the maximum strain, even when slack was being hauled in.

 

V

Half an hour before sunset, Breim had brought his prey to within a quarter of a mile of the surface, at least so he judged.

There was more than a mile of rope out, and he estimated that the thing was three-quarters of a mile from the ship.

His calculations took into consideration the depth of the sea just there, all the slack he had hauled in, all the rope he had paid out, the angle of the rope with the sea surface—or, in other words, the length of the rope between the point where it left the bow and the point where it entered the water. The thing was only a quarter of a mile from the surface, but the fact remained that it wanted, now, only half an hour to sunset. The moon would not rise till after dark. It would be the pity of the world if the great Unseen were to break from the sea under cover of darkness. It might also be dangerous.

Hardmuth, with his camera ready, was even more excited on this point than Breim. Hardmuth, the ship's liar and jester, was an earnest photographer—you know what that means.

 

The lower limb of the sun was just touching the sea line when the great event occurred.

Due east of the ship, and a mile away on the starboard bow, the water broke.

"Look out?" cried Breim.

The words came from him unconsciously. A horn was rising from the sea, a dark column, pointed, living, but eyeless as a worm. It rose, steadily driven up by some vast force acting from below, and stood triumphant, like the horn of Eblis, a column a hundred feet high, bulbous at the base, black as ebony, and creamed about by the sea.

The sea seemed to boil at its base, and the rays of the setting sun shone full upon the prodigy, lighting that upon which no sun had ever shone before.

The effect on the minds of the gazers might have been gauged by the utter silence that fell on the ship.

Afterwards, and putting their experiences together, the ship's company found that the dominant, heart-freezing idea, common to every mind, had to do neither with the size nor the monstrous appearance of the thing, but with the fact that it was living.

There were some who fancied it half a mile high, others who saw it in more true proportion, but there was not one who escaped the bending of the mind produced by the thought, "It is alive!"—a thought made more insistent by the sluggishness of its manner of appearance and by its calm immobility when revealed.

The fo'c'sle hands felt that, but to the keen intelligence of Breim all sorts of other considerations came crowding.

He had literally raised the dead, for what he saw was something belonging to a world long extinct, and, though it was living in the biological sense, it was extinct in the historical. It was as though some magician had reinformed with life a man of the stone age or a labyrinthodon.

Again, these vast and slow movements, this present immobility, were parts of its death struggle. The pressures under which it had been born and under which it had lived were part of the conditions of its life. They had been removed and it must die. Nay, it must now be dying.

A sound suddenly broke the stillness of the bridge, it was the click of Hardmuth's camera. The photographer had been the first to release himself from the spell.

On the sound, and as though it had been a signal, the column inclined slightly and sank, like a sword slowly withdrawn.

The last rays of sunset showed a troubled sea just there, and then, in the dusk and the haze that followed the closing of the hot day, things began to occur. Sounds came over the sea, sounds like the washing of water on a distant beach, and now and again a gurgle, like the gurgle of a vast, submerging bottle.

But the men on board the President Girling had other things to attend to now.

Breim's voice came bellowing from the bridge. The grapnel rope was slack. The thing had evidently freed itself from the grapnel, even before rising from the sea, and now the roar of the rotating drum hauling in the slack shut out all other sounds from over there, but it could not shut out the odour that filled the windless air, a smell of beach and ooze with a tang in it recalling tropical river mud.

It took half an hour to get the rope in; the grapnel, when it came, was hauled under the light of an arc lamp and carefully examined. It showed nothing, nothing with the exception of what seemed a tag of black leather tangled at the base of one of the prongs. The rope connection was slightly chafed.

As Breim was examining it a report like a boom of thunder carne over the sea, and away over there in the half-darkness something white showed like a falling sheet of foam.

Grondaal on the bridge shouted to Breim.

"It's time to get out of here," cried he.

He had rung on the engines, and the ship, turning like a frightened thing, began to vibrate to the propellers going full speed. She had covered a mile on her new course when the sound came again, fainter this time.

They passed the light of the buoy marking the Nagasaki end of the cable, and left it spilling its amber on the water far astern.

Then, as speed was reduced, once again came the sound, faint and for the last time.

There were men on board who listened all night and watched under the light of the risen moon, but the sea had resumed its own, and, steaming close to the spot of the occurrence next morning, there was nothing to be seen, nothing but the sea surface oiling under the gentle swell away to the haze that proclaimed the birth of another hot day.

At eleven o'clock Hardmuth came out of the dark room, where he had been developing his marvellous plate.

He was as white as the foam that the propellers were kicking behind them.

He sat down on a life-buoy locker as though to take breath, and Breim, who was near by, ran to him, took the plate, and examined it, holding it up to the light.

It was the picture of a garden party at Copenhagen.

The wretched Hardmuth, disdaining kodaks and using his super-perfect single-plate camera, had employed a used plate.

It was said of Hardmuth that he never smiled or jested again—at least on board of the President Girling.

 

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