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originally from Everybody’s Magazine (1907-jan)
and collected in The haunters of the silences (1907)
IT was in Singapore chat big Jan Laurvik, the diver, heard about the lost pearls.
As he was passing the head of a mean-looking alley near the waterside, late one sweltering afternoon, he was halted by a sudden uproar of cries and curses. The noise came from a courtyard about twenty paces up the alley. It was a fight evidently, and Jan's blood responded with a sympathetic thrill. But the curses which he caught were all in Malay or Chinese, and he curbed his natural desire to rush in and help somebody. Though he knew both languages very well, he knew that he did not know, and never could know, the people who spoke those languages. Interference on the part of a stranger might be resented by both parties to the quarrel. He shrugged his great shoulders and walked on reluctantly.
Hardly three steps had he taken, however, when above the shrill cries a great voice shouted.
"Take that, you " it began, in English. And at that it ended, with a kind of choking.
Jan Laurvik wheeled round in a flash and ran curiously for the door of the courtyard, which stood half open. He was a Norwegian, but English was as a native tongue to him; and amid the jumble of races in the East he counted all of European speech his brothers. An Englishman was being killed in there, The quarrel was clearly his.
Six feet two in height, swift, and of huge strength, with yellow hair, so light as to be almost white, waving thickly over a face that was sunburnt to a high red, his blue eyes flaming with the delight of battle, Jan burst in upon the mob of fighters. Several bodies lay on the floor.
One dark-faced, low-browed fellow, a Lascar apparently, with his back to the wall and a bloody kreese in his hand, was putting up a savage fight against five or six assailants, who seemed to be Chinamen and Malays. The body of the Englishman whose voice Jan had heard lay in an ugly heap against the wall, its head far back and almost severed.
Jan's practised eye took in everything at a glance. The heavy stick he carried was, for a mêlée like this, a better weapon than knife or gun. With a great bellowing you he sprang upon the knot of fighters.
The result was almost instantaneous. The two newest rascals went down at his first two strokes. At the sound of that huge roar of his all had turned their eyes; and the man at bay, seizing his opportunity, had cut down two more of his foes with lightning slashes of his blade. The remaining two, scattering and ducking, had leaped for the door like rabbits. Jan wheeled, and sprang after them. But they were too quick for him. As he reached the head of the alley they darted into a narrow doorway across the street which led into a regular warren of low structures. Knowing it would be madness to follow, Jan turned back to the courtyard, curious to find out what it had all been about.
The silence was now startling. As he entered, there was no sound but the painful breathing of the Lascar, whom he found sitting with his back against the wall, close beside the body of the Englishman. He was desperately slashed. His eyes were half closed; and Jan saw that there was little chance of his recovery. Besides that of the Englishman, there were six bodies lying on the floor, all apparently quite lifeless. Jan saw that the place was a kind of drinking proprietor, a brutal-looking Chinaman, lay dead beside his jugs and bottles. Jan reached for jug of familiar appearance, poured out a cup of arrack and held it to the lips of the dying Lascar. At the first gulp of the potent spirit his eyes opened again. He swallowed it all eagerly, then straightened himself up, held out his hand in European fashion to Jan, and thanked him in Malayan.
"Who's that?" enquired Jan in the same tongue, pointing to the dead white man.
Grief and rage convulsed the fierce face of the wounded Lascar.
"He was my friend," he answered. "The sons of filthy mothers, they killed him!"
"Too bad!" said Jan sympathetically. "But you gave a pretty good account of yourselves, you two. I like a man that can fight like you were fighting when I came in. What can I do for you?"
"I'm dead, pretty soon now!" said the fellow indifferently. And from the blood that was soaking down his shirt and spreading on the floor about him, Jan saw that the words were true. Anxious, however, to do something to show his goodwill, he pulled out his big red handkerchief, and knelt to bandage a gaping slash straight across the man's left forearm, from which the bright arterial blood was jumping hotly. As he bent, the fellow's eyes lifted and looked over his shoulder.
"Look out!" he screamed. Before the words were fairly out of his mouth Jan had thrown himself violently to one side and sprung to his feet. He was just in time. The knife of one of the Chinamen whom he had supposed to be dead was sticking in the wall beside the Lascar's arm.
Jan stared at the bodies all, apparently, lifeless.
"That's the one did it," cried the Lascar excitedly, pointing to one whom Jan had struck on the head with his stick. "Put your knife into the son of a dog!"
But that was not the big Norseman's way. He wanted to assure himself. He went and bent over the limp-looking, sprawling shape, to examine it. As he did so the slant eyes opened upon his with a flash of such maniacal hate that he started back. He was just in time to save his eyes, for the Chinaman had clutched at them like lightning with his long nails.
Startled and furious at this novel attack, Jan reached for his knife. But before he could get his hand on it the Chinaman had leaped into the air like a wild-cat wound arms and legs about his body, and was struggling like a mad beast to set teeth into his throat. The attack was so miraculously swift, so disconcerting in its beast-like ferocity, that Jan felt a strange qualm that was almost akin to panic. Then a black rage swelled his muscles; and tearing the creature from him he dashed him down upon the floor, on the back of his neck, with a violence which left no need of pursuing the question further. Not till he had examined each of the bodies carefully, and tried them with his knife, did he turn again to the wounded Lascar leaning against the wall.
"Thank you, my friend!" he said simply.
"You're a good fighting man. You're like him," answered the Lascar feebly, nodding toward the dead Englishman. "Give me more arrack. I will tell you something. Hurry, for I go soon."
Jan brought him the liquor, and he gulped it. Then from a pouch within his knotted silk waistband he hurriedly produced a bit of paper which he unfolded with trembling fingers. Jan saw that it was a rough map sketched with India ink and marked with Malayan characters. The Lascar peered about him with fierce eyes already growing dim.
"Are you sure they are all gone?" he demanded.
"Certain!" answered Jan, highly interested.
"They'll try their best to kill you," went on the dying man. "Don't let them. If you let them get the pearls, I'll come back and haunt you"
"I won't let them kill me, and I won't let them get the pearls, if that's what it is that's made all the trouble. Don't worry about that," responded Jan confidently, reaching out his great hand for the paper, which was evidently so precious that men were giving up their lives for it.
The man handed it over with a groping gesture, though his savage black eyes were wide open.
"That'll show you where the wreck of the junk lies, in seven or eight fathoms of water, close inshore. The pearls are in the deck-house. He kept them. The steamer was on a reef, going to pieces, and we came up just as the boats, were putting off. We sunk them all, and got the pearls. And next night, in a storm, the junk was carried on to the rocks by a current we didn't know about. Only five of us got ashore for the sharks were around, and the "killers", that night. Him and me, we were the only ones knew enough to make that map."
Here the dying pirate for such he had declared himself sank forward with his face upon his knees. But with a mighty effort he sat up again and fixed Jan Laurvik with terrible eyes.
"Don't let the sons of a dog get them, or I will come back and choke you in your sleep," he gasped, suddenly pointing a lean finger straight at the Norseman's face. Then his black eyes opened wide, a strange red light blazed up in them for an instant and faded. With a sigh he toppled over, dead, his head resting on the dead Englishman's feet.
Jan Laurvik looked down upon the slack form with a sort of grim indulgence. "He was game, and he loved his comrade, though he was but a bloodthirsty pirate!" he muttered to himself.
With the paper; folded small and hidden in his great palm, he glanced again from the door to see if any of the routed were coming back. Satisfied on this point, he once more investigated the dead bodies on the floor, to assure himself that all were as dead as they appeared. Then he set himself to examine the precious paper, which held out to his imagination all sorts of fascinating possibilities. He knew that the swift boats carrying the proceeds of the pearl fisheries were always eagerly watched by the piratical junks infesting those waters, but carried an armament which secured them from all interference. In case of wreck however, the pirates' opportunity would come. Jan knew that the story he had just heard was no improbable one.
The map proved to be rough, but very intelligible. It indicated a stretch of the eastern coast of Java, which Jan recognized; but the spot where the junk had gone down was one to which passing ships always gave a wide berth. It was a place of treacherous anchorage, of abrupt, forbidding, uninhabited shore, and of violent currents that shifted erratically. So much the better, thought Jan, for his investigations, if only the pirate junk should prove to have been considerate enough to sink in water not too deep for a diver to work in. There would be so much the less danger of interruption.
Jan was on the point of hurrying away from the gruesome scene, which might at any moment become a scene of excitement and annoying investigation, when a new idea flashed into his mind. It was over this precious paper that all the trouble had been. The scoundrels who had fled would undoubtedly return as soon as they dared and would search for it. Finding it gone they would conclude that he had it and they would be hot on his trail. He had no fancy for the sleepless vigilance that this would entail upon him. He had no fancy for the heavy armed expedition which it would force him to organize for the pearl hunt. He saw his airy palaces toppling ignominiously to earth. He saw that all he was likely to get was a slit throat.
As he glanced about him for a way out of his dilemma his eyes fell on a bottle of India ink containing the fine-tipped brush with which these Orientals did their writing. His resourcefulness awoke to this chance. The moments were becoming very pearls themselves for preciousness but seizing the brush, he made a workable copy of the map on the back of a letter which he had in his pocket. Then he made a minute and very careful correction in the original, in such a manner as to indicate that the position of the wreck was in a deep fiord some fifty miles east of where it actually was. This done to his critical satisfaction, he returned the map to its hiding-place in the dead pirate's belt, and made all haste away. Not till he was back in the European quarter did he feel himself secure. Once among his fellow whites, where he was a man of known standing and reputed to be the best diver in the Archipelago, he knew that he would run no risk of being connected with a drinking brawl of Lascars and pirates. As for the dead Englishman, he knew the odds were that the Singapore police would know all about him.
Jan Laurvik had a little capital. But he needed a trusty partner with more. To his experienced wits his other needs were clear. There would have to be a very seaworthy little steamer, powerfully engined for service on that stormy coast, and armed to defend herself against prowling pirate junks. This small and fit craft would have to be manned by a crew equally fit, and at the same time as small as possible, for the reason that in a venture of this sort everyone concerned would of necessity come in for a share of the winnings. Moreover, the fewer there were to know, the fewer the chances of the secret leaking out; and Jan was even more in dread of the Dutch Government getting wind of it than he was of the pirates picking up his trail.
Up to a certain point, he had no difficulty in verifying the dead pirate's story. He had heard of the wreck of the Dutch steamer Viecht on a reef off the Celebes, and of the massacre of all the crew and passengers, except one small boatload, by pirates. This had happened about eight months ago. Discreet enquiry developed the fact that the Viecht had carried about $300,000 worth of pearls. The evidence was sufficiently convincing, and the prize was sufficiently alluring to make it worth his while to risk the adventure.
It was with a certain amount of Northern deliberation that Jan Laurvik thought these points all out, and made up his mind what to do. Then he acted promptly. First he cabled to Calcutta, to one Captain Jerry Parsons, to join him in Singapore without fail by the very next steamer. Then he set himself unobtrusively to the task of finding the craft he wanted and looking up the equipment for her.
Captain Jerry Parsons was a New Englander, from Portland, Maine. He had been whaler, gold-hunter, filibuster, copra-trader, general-in-chief to a small Central American republic, and sheep-farmer in the Australian bush. At present he was conducting a more or less regular trade in precious stones among the lesser Indian potentates. He loved gain much, but he loved adventure more.
When he received the cable from his good friend Jan Laurvik, he knew that both were beckoning to him. With light-hearted zest he betook himself to the steamship offices, found a P. and O. boat sailing on the morrow, and booked his passage. Throughout the journey he amused himself with trying to guess what Jan Laurvik was after, and, as it happened, almost the only thing he failed to think of was pearls.
When Captain Jerry reached Singapore Jan Laurvik told him the story of the dead pirate's map.
"Let's see the map!" said he, chewing hard on the butt of his unlighted Manila.
Jan passed his copy over. The New Englander inspected it carefully, in silence, for several minutes.
"'Tain't much of a map!" said he at length disparagingly. "You think the varmint was straight?"
"In his way, yes," answered Jan with conviction. "He had it in him to be straight in his way to a friend, which wouldn't hinder him cuttin' the throats of a thousand chaps he didn't take an interest in."
"When shall we start?" asked Captain Jerry. Now that his mind was quite made up he took out his matchbox and carefully lighted his cheroot.
The big Norseman's face lighted up with pleasure, and he reached out his hand. The grip was all, in the way of a bargain, that was needed between them.
"Why, tomorrow night!" he answered.
"Well," said the New Englander, "I'll draw some cash in the morning."
The boat which Jan had hired was a fast and sturdy sea-going tug, serviceable, but not designed for comfort. Jan had retained her engineer, a shrewd and close-mouthed Scotsman. Her sailing-master would be Captain Jerry. For crew he had chosen a wiry little Welshman and two lank leather-skinned Yankees. To these four, for whose honesty and loyalty he trusted to his own insight as a reader of men, he explained, partially, the nature of the undertaking, and agreed to give them, over and above their wages, a substantial percentage of whatever treasure he might succeed in recovering. He had made his selection wisely, and every man of the four laid hold of the opportunity with ardour.
The tug was swift enough to elude any of the junks infesting those waters, but the danger was that she might be taken by surprise at her anchorage while Laurvik was under water. He fitted her, therefore, with a Maxim gun on the roof of the deck-house, and armed the crew with repeating Winchesters.
Thus equipped, he felt ready for any perils that might confront him above the surface of the water. As to what might lurk below he felt somewhat less confident, as these he should have to face alone, and he remembered the ominous warning of his pirate friend, about the sharks and the "killers". For sharks Jan Lautvik had comparatively small concern; but for the "killers", those swift and implacable little whales who fear no living thing, he entertained the highest respect.
On the evening of the day after Captain Jerry's arrival, the tug Sarawak steamed quietly out of the harbour. As this was a customary thing for her to do, it excited no particular comment among the frequenters of the waterside. By the pirates' spies, who abounded in the city, it was not considered an event worth noting.
The journey, across the Straits, and down the treacherous Javan Sea, was so prosperous that Jan Laurvik, his blood steeped in Norse superstition, began to feel uneasy. The sea was like a millpond all the way, and they were sighted by no one likely to interfere or ask questions. Jan distrusted Fortune when she seemed to smile too blandly. But Captain Jerry comforted him with the assurance that there'd be trouble enough ahead; and strangely enough, this singular variety of comfort quite relieved Jan's depression.
The unusual calm made it easy to hold close inshore, when they reached that portion of the coast where they must keep watch for the landmarks indicated on the pirate's map. Every reef and surface-ledge boiled ceaselessly in the smooth swell, and by that clear green sea they were saved the trouble of tedious soundings. When they came exactly abreast of a low headland which they had been watching for some time, it suddenly opened out into the semblance of a two-humped camel crouching sidewise to the sea, exactly as it was represented in Jan's map. Just beyond was a narrow bay, and across the middle of its mouth, with a dangerous passage on either side, stretched the reef on which the pirate junk had gone down. At this hour of low water the reef was showing its teeth and snarling with surf. At high tide it would be hidden, and a perfect snare of ships. According to the map, the wreck lay in some eight fathoms of water, midway of the outer crescent of the reef. Behind the reef, where the latter might serve them as a partial shelter from the sweep of the seas if a north-easter should blow up, they found tolerable anchorage for the tug. For the preliminary soundings, and for the diving operations, of course, Jan planned to use the launch. And, in order to take utmost advantage of the phenomenal calm, which seemed determined to smooth away every obstacle for the adventurers, Jan got instantly to work. Within a half-hour of the Sarawak's anchoring he had the launch outside the reef with all his diving apparatus aboard, with Captain Jerry to manage the air-pump, and the Scottish engineer to run the motor.
Along the outer face of the reef, at a depth varying from eight to twelve fathoms, ran an irregular rocky shelf which dipped gradually seaward for several hundred yards, then dropped sheer to the ocean depths. In the warm water along this shelf swarmed a teeming life, of gay-coloured gigantic weeds and of strange fish that outdid the brightest weeds in brilliancy and unexpectedness of hue. Where the tropic sunlight filtered dimly down through the beryl tide it sank into a marvellous garden whose flowers, for the most part, were living and moving forms some monstrous, many terrifying, and almost all as grotesque in shape as they were radiant in colour. But in that insufficient, glimmering light, which was rather, to a human eye a vaguely translucent, greenish darkness, these colours were almost blotted out. It took eyes adapted to the depth and gloom to differentiate them clearly.
In the great deeps, also, beyond the edge of the shelf, thronged life in swimming, crawling, or moveless forms, of every imagined and many unimagined shapes, from creatures so tiny that a whole colony could dwell at ease in the eye of a cambric needle, to the titanic squid, or cuttlefish, with oval body fifty feet is length and arms like writhing constrictors reaching twenty or thirty feet further. It was a life of noiseless but terrific activity, of unrelenting and incessant death, in a darkness streaked fitfully with phosphorescent gleams from the bodies of the darting, writhing, or pouncing creatures that slew and were slain in the stupendous silence.
Down to these dwellers in the profound had come some mysterious message or exciting influence, no man knows what, from the prolonged calm on the surface. It affected individuals among various species, in such a way that they moved upward, into a twilight where they were aliens and intruders. Among those so stung with unrest were several of the gigantic, pallid cuttles. Far offshore, one of these monsters came up and sprawled upon the surface in the unfriendly sun, his dreadful arms curling and uncurling like snakes, till a great sperm-whale, of scarcely more than his own size, came by and fell upon him ravenously, and devoured him.
Another of the restless monsters, however, kept his restlessness within the bounds of discretion. Slowly rising, a vast and spectral horror as he came up into the green light, he reached the rim of the ledge. The growing light had already made him uneasy, and he wanted no more of it. Here on the ledge, where food, though novel in character, was unlimited in supply, was variety enough to content him. Gorging himself as he went with everything that swam within reach of his darting tentacles, he moved over the rocky floor till he came to the wreck of the junk.
To his huge unwinking eyes of crystal black, which caught every tiniest ray of light in their smooth, appalling deeps, the wreck looked strange enough to attract his attention at once. It was quite unlike any rock-form which he had ever seen. Rather cautiously he advanced a giant tentacle to investigate it. But at the touch of the unfamiliar and alien substance the tentacle recoiled in aversion. The pale monster backed away. But the wreck made no attempt to pounce upon him. It seemed to have no fight in it. Possibly, on closer investigation, it might prove to be good to eat; and he was hungry. In fact, he was always hungry, for the irresistible corrosives in his great stomach and he was newly all stomach were so swift in their action that whatever he swallowed was digested almost in the swallowing. Since coming upon the ledge he had clutched and devoured two small basking sharks, from six to eight feet long, and a sawfish fully ten feet long, who had not been on their guard against the approach of such a peril. Besides these substantial victims, countless small fry, of every kind, had been drawn deftly to the insatiable vortex of his maw. Nevertheless, his appetite was again crying out. He tried the wreck again, first carefully, then boldly, till the writhing tentacles, with their sensitive tips and suckers, had enveloped it from stem to stern and searched it inside and out. A few lurking fish and molluscs were snatched from the dark interior by those insinuating and inexorable feelers; and a toothsome harvest of anchored crustaceans was gathered from the hidden outfaces along beside the keel. But of the bodies of the pirates that had gone down in the sudden foundering there was nothing left bat bones, which the myriad scavengers of the sea had polished to the barren smoothness of ivory.
While the pallid monster was occupied in the investigation of the wreck those two great bulging black mirrors of his eyes were sleeplessly alert to everything that passed above or about them. Once a swordfish, about seven feet long, sailed carelessly though swiftly some ten feet overhead. Up darted a livid tentacle, and fixed upon it with the deadly sucking discs. In vain the splendid and ferocious fish lashed out in the effort to wrench itself free. In vain it strove to plunge downward and pierce the puffy monster with its sword. In a second or two more tentacles were wrapped about it. Then, all force crushed out of it, it was dragged down and crammed into the conquerors horrible mouth.
While its mouth was yet working with the satisfaction of this meal, the monster saw a graceful but massive black shape, nearly half as long as himself, swimming slowly between his eyes and the shining surface. At the sight a shudder of fear passed over him. Every waving tentacle shrank back and lay moveless, as if suddenly paralysed, and he flattened himself down as best he could beside the dark hulk of the wreck. Well he knew that dark shape was a whale and a whale was the one being he knew of which he had cause to fear. Against those rending jaws his cable-like tentacles and tearing beak were of no avail, his unarmoured body utterly defenceless.
The whale, however not a sperm, but one of a much smaller, though more savage species, the "killer" did not catch sight of the giant cuttlefish cringing below him. Intent on other game, he passed swiftly on. His presence, however, had for the moment destroyed the monster's appetite. Instead of continuing his search for food, he wanted a hiding-place. He could no longer be at ease for a moment there in the open.
Just behind the wreck the rock wall rose abruptly to the surface of the reef. Its base was hollowed into a series of low caves, where masses of softer rock had been eaten out from beneath a slanting stratum of more enduring material. The more spacious of these caves was immediately behind the wreck. It was exactly what the monster craved. He backed into it with alacrity, completely filling it with his spectral and swollen body. In the doorway the convex inky lenses of his eyes kept watch, moveless and all-seeing. And his ten pale-spotted tentacles, each thicker at the base than a man's thigh, lay outspread and hidden among the seaweeds, waiting for such victims as might come within reach of their lightning snap and coil.
The monster had no more than got himself fairly installed in his new quarters, when into the range of his awful eyes came a singular figure, descending slowly through the glimmering green directly over the wreck. It was not so long as the swordfish he had lately swallowed, but it was thick and massive-looking; and it was blunt at the ends, unlike any fish he had ever seen. Its eyes were enormous, round and bulging. From its head and from one of its curious round, thick fins, extended two slender antennæ straight up towards the surface, and so long that their extremities were beyond the monster's vision. It was indeed a strange-looking creature, but he felt sure that it would be very good to eat. In their concealment among the many-coloured seaweeds his tentacles thrilled with expectancy, and he waited, like some stupendous nightmare of a spider, to spring the moment the prey came within reach.
It chanced, however, that just as the strange creature, descending without any movement of its fins, did come within reach, there also appeared again, in the distance, the black form of the "killer" whale, swimming far overhead. The monster changed his plans instantly. His interest in the newcomer died out. He became intent on nothing but keeping himself inconspicuous. The newcomer, unconscious of the terror lying in wait so near him and of the dark form patrolling the upper green, alighted upon the wreck and groped his way lumberingly into the cabin, dragging those two slim antennæ behind him.
When Jan Laurvik, in his up-to-date and well-tested diving-suit, went down through the green twilight of the sea, he was doing what it was his profession to do, and he had few misgivings. He had confidence in his equipment, in his skill, and in his mate at the rope and the air-pump, Captain Jerry. For defence against any obtrusive shark or sawfish he carried a heavy, long-bladed two-edged knife, by far the most effective weapon in deep water. This knife he wore in a sheath at his waist, with a cord attached to the handle so that it could not get away from him. He carried also a tiny electric battery supplying a strong lamp on the front of his head-piece just above his eyes.
From his long experience in sounding and in locating wrecks, Jan Laurvik had acquired an accuracy that seemed almost like divination. His soundings, in this instance, had been particularly thorough, because he did not wish to waste any more time than necessary at the depth in which he would have to work. He was not surprised, therefore, when he found himself descending upon the wreck of a junk. Moreover, as it was not an old wreck, he concluded that it was the junk which he was looking for. The wreck had settled almost on an even keel; and as he was familiar with craft of her type, he had no difficulty in finding his way about.
It was in the narrow, closet-like structure which served as the junk's cabin that the pirate had said the pearls would be found. The door was open. Turning on his light, which struggled with the water and diffused a ghostly glow, he found himself confronted by a hideous little joss of red-and-gilt lacquer. He knew it was lacquer, and of the best, for nothing else, except gold itself, would have withstood the months of soaking in sea-water. Jan grinned to himself, there within his rubber and copper shell, at this evidence of pirate piety. Then it occurred to him that a man like the pirate captain would probably have turned his piety to practical use. What better guardian of the treasure than a god? Dragging the gaudy deity from his altar, he found the altar hollow. In that secure receptacle lay a series of packages done up with careful precision in wrappings of oiled silk. He knew the style of wrapping very well. For all his coolness his heart fell to thumping painfully at the sight of this vast wealth beneath his hand. Then he realized that the pressure of the water, and of the compressed air in his helmet, was beginning to tell upon him. In fierce but orderly haste he corded the packages about his middle and turned to leave the cabin. He would make another trip for the lacquer god, and for such other articles of value or vertu as the junk might contain.
Jan turned to leave the cabin. But in the doorway he started back with a shudder of dread and loathing. A slender, twisting thing, whitish in colour and minutely speckled with livid spots, reached in, and fastened upon his arm with soft-looking suckers which held like death.
Jan knew instantly what the pale, writhing thing was. Out flashed his knife. With a swift stroke he slashed off the detaining tip, where it had a thickness of perhaps two inches. The raw stump shrank back like a severed worm, and Jan, leaping clear of the doorway, signalled furiously to be hauled up. But at the same instant two more of the curling white things came reaching over the bulwarks and fastened upon him one upon his right arm, hampering him so that he was almost helpless, and the other upon his left leg just above the knee. He felt his signal promptly answered by a powerful tug on the rope. But he was anchored to the wreck as if he had grown to it.
Never before had Jan Laurvik felt the clutch of fear at his heart as he did at this moment. But not for an instant, in the horror, did he lose his presence of mind. He knew that in a pulling match with the giant devil-fish of the deeps his comrades in the boat far overhead would be nowhere. He had made a mistake in leaving the cabin. Frantically he signalled with his left hand, to "slack away" on the rope; and at the same time, though hampered by the grip on his right arm, he managed to slash off the end of the feeler that had fixed upon his leg. On the instant, whipping the knife over to his left, he cut his right arm clear, and sprang back into the doorway.
Jan's idea was that by keeping just inside the cabin door he could defend himself from being surrounded by the assault of the writhing things. He knew that in the open he would speedily be enfolded and crushed, and engulfed between the jaws of the monstrous squid. But in the narrow doorway the swift play of his blade would have some chance. He gained the doorway. He got fairly inside it, indeed. But as he entered he was horrified to see the thick stump, whose tip he had shorn off, dart in with him and fix itself, by its bigger and more irresistible suckers, upon the middle of his breast. With a shiver he sliced off the fatal discs, in one long sweep of his blade; then turned like a flash to sever a pallid tip which had fastened upon his helmet.
Jan was now thankful enough that he had got himself into the narrow doorway. Seemingly undisturbed by the slashings and slicings which some of them had received, the whole ten squirming horrors now darted at the doorway. Jan's knife swooped this way and that; but as fast as he severed one clutch two more would make good. The cut tentacles grew to be the more terrifying, because their suckers were so big, and they themselves were so thick and hard to cut. Presently no fewer than three of the diabolical things laid their loathsome hold upon his right leg, below the knee, and began to haul it out through the door. Jan slashed at them madly, but not altogether effectually, for at this moment another tentacle had laid grip upon his arm below the elbow. He had just time to shift the knife again to his left and catch the jamb of the door, when he felt his helmet almost jerked from his head. This grip he dared not interfere with, lest he should cut, at the same time, the air-tube that fed his lungs, and drown like a rat in a hole. All he could do was to hold on to the door-jamb, and carve away savagely at the tentacles which were within reach. If he could get free of those, he calculated that he could then reach the one which had fastened to his headpiece by throwing himself over on his back and so bringing it within range of his vision and his knife. At this moment, however, just as the pressure upon his neck was becoming intolerable, he felt his head suddenly released. One of the great sucking discs had crushed in the glass of the electric lamp and fastened upon the live wire. The sensation it experienced was evidently not pleasant, for it let go promptly, and secured a new hold upon Jan's left arm.
This hold left him almost helpless, because he could no longer wield the knife freely with either hand. He felt himself slowly being pulled out of the doorway by his right leg. Throwing himself partly backward, and partly behind the door, he gained a firmer brace and at the same time brought his knife again into better play. He would fight to the very last gasp, but he felt that the odds had now gone overwhelmingly against him. The fear of death itself was not heavy upon him. He had faced it too often, and too coolly, for that. But at the manner of this death that confronted him his very soul sickened with loathing. As he thought of it, his horror was not lessened by the sight which now greeted his view. A colossal, swollen, leprous-looking bulk, pallid and spotted, was mounting over the bulwark. Two great oval lenses of clear blackness, set close together, were in the front of the bulk, just over the spot where the tentacles started. These gigantic, appalling, expressionless eyes were fixed upon him. The monster was coming aboard to see what kind of creature it was that was giving him so much trouble.
Jan saw that the end of the fight was very near. The thought, however, did not unnerve him. Rather, it put new fire into his nerves and muscles. By a tremendous wrench he succeeded in reaching with the knife the tentacle that bound his right arm. This freedom was like a new lease of life to him. He made swift play with his blade, so savagely that he was able to drag himself back almost completely into the cabin before the writhing horrors again closed upon him. But meanwhile the monster's gigantic body had gained the deck Those two awful eyes were slowly drawing nearer; and below them he saw the viscid mouth opening and shutting in anticipation.
At this a kind of madness began to surge up in Jan Laurvik's overtaxed brain. His veins seemed to surge with fresh power, as if there were nothing too tremendous for him to accomplish. He was on the very point of stopping his resistance, plunging straight in among the arms, and burying his big blade in those unspeakable eyes. It would be a satisfaction, at least, to force them to change their expression. And then, well something might happen!
Before he could put this desperate scheme into execution, however, something did happen. Jan was aware of a sudden darkness overhead. The monster was evidently aware of it too, for every one of the twisting horrors suddenly shrank away, leaving Jan to lean up against the doorway, free. The next moment, a huge black shape descended perpendicularly upon the fleshy mountain of the monster's back, and a rush of water drove Jan backward into the cabin.
As the electric lamp had gone out when the glass was broken, Jan could see but dimly the awful battle of giants now going on- before him. So excited was he that he forgot his own new peril. The danger was now that in the struggle one or other of the battling bulks might well crush the cabin' flat, or entangle the air-tube and life-line. In either case Jan's finish would be swift; but in comparison with the loathsome death from which he had just been so miraculously saved, such an end seemed no very dreadful thing. He was altogether absorbed in watching the prowess of his avenging rescuer.
Skilled in deep-sea lore as he was, he knew the dark fury which had swooped down upon the devil-fish. It was a "killer" whale, or grampus, the most redoubtable and implacable fighter of all the kindreds of the sea. Jan saw its wide jaws shear off three mighty tentacles at once, close at the base. The others writhed up hideously and fastened upon him, but under the surging of his resistless muscles their tissues tore apart like snapped cables. Huge masses of the monster's ghastly flesh were bitten off, and thrown aside. Then, gaining a grip that took in the monster's head and the roots of the tentacles, the killer shook his prey as a bulldog might shake a fat sheep. The tentacles straightened out sharply. Jan saw that the fight was over; and that it was high time for him to remove from that too strenuous neighbourhood. He gave the signal vehemently, and was drawn up without attracting his dangerous rescuer's notice. When Captain Jerry hauled him in over the boatside, he fell in an unconscious heap.
When Jan came to himself he was in his bunk on the Sarawak. It was an utter physical and nervous exhaustion that had overcome him. His swoon had passed into a heavy sleep, and when he awoke he sat up with a start. Captain Jerry was at his side, bursting with suppressed curiosity; and the Scottish engineer was standing by the bunk.
"Waal, partner, you've delivered the, goods all right!" drawled Captain Jerry. "They're the stuff; not a doubt of it. But kind o' seemed to us up here you were having high jinks of one kind or another down there. What was it?"
"It was hell!" responded Jan with a shudder. Then he took hold of Captain Jerry's hand, and felt it as if to make sure it was real, or as if he needed the feel of honest human flesh again to bring him to his senses.
"Ugh!" he went on, swinging out of the bunk. "Let me get out into the sunlight again! Let me see the sky again! I'll tell you all about it by-an'-by, Jerry. But wait. Were all the packages on me, all right?"
"I reckon!" responded Captain Jerry. "There was six of 'em tied on to you. I reckon they're worth the three hundred an' fifty thousand all right!"
"Well, let's get away from this place quick as we can get steam up again!" said Jan. "There's more swag down there, I guess lots of it. But I wouldn't go down again, nor send another man down, for all the millions we've all of us ever heard tell of. Mr McWha, how soon can we be moving?"
"Ten meenutes, more or less!" replied the Scotsman.
"All right! When we're outside of this accursed bay, an' round the 'Camel' yonder, I'll tell you what it's like down there under that shiny green."