The Moon Pool
Chapter 11: The Flame-Tipped Shadows
Marakinoff nodded his head solemnly as Olaf finished.
“Da!” he said. “That which comes from here took them both--the woman and the child. Da! They came clasped within it and the stone shut upon them. But why it left the child behind I do not understand.”
“How do you know that?” I cried in amazement.
“Because I saw it,” answered Marakinoff simply. “Not only did I see it, but hardly had I time to make escape through the entrance before it passed whirling and murmuring and its bell sounds all joyous. Da! It was what you call the squeak close, that.”
“Wait a moment,” I said--stilling Larry with a gesture. “Do I understand you to say that you were within this place?”
Marakinoff actually beamed upon me.
“Da, Dr. Goodwin,” he said, “I went in when that which comes from it went out!”
I gaped at him, stricken dumb; into Larry’s bellicose attitude crept a suggestion of grudging respect; Olaf, trembling, watched silently.
“Dr. Goodwin and my impetuous young friend, you,” went on Marakinoff after a moment’s silence and I wondered vaguely why he did not include Huldricksson in his address--”it is time that we have an understanding. I have a proposal to make to you also. It is this; we are what you call a bad boat, and all of us are in it. Da! We need all hands, is it not so? Let us put together our knowledge and our brains and resources--and even a poonch of a mule is a resource,” he looked wickedly at O’Keefe, “and pull our boat into quiet waters again. After that--”
“All very well, Marakinoff,” interjected Larry, “but I don’t feel very safe in any boat with somebody capable of shooting me through the back.”
Marakinoff waved a deprecatory hand.
“It was natural that,” he said, “logical, da! Here is a very great secret, perhaps many secrets to my country invaluable--” He paused, shaken by some overpowering emotion; the veins in his forehead grew congested, the cold eyes blazed and the guttural voice harshened.
“I do not apologize and I do not explain,” rasped Marakinoff. “But I will tell you, da! Here is my country sweating blood in an experiment to liberate the world. And here are the other nations ringing us like wolves and waiting to spring at our throats at the least sign of weakness. And here are you, Lieutenant O’Keefe of the English wolves, and you Dr. Goodwin of the Yankee pack--and here in this place may be that will enable my country to win its war for the worker. What are the lives of you two and this sailor to that? Less than the flies I crush with my hand, less than midges in the sunbeam!”
He suddenly gripped himself.
“But that is not now the important thing,” he resumed, almost coldly. “Not that nor my shooting. Let us squarely the situation face. My proposal is so: that we join interests, and what you call see it through together; find our way through this place and those secrets learn of which I have spoken, if we can. And when that is done we will go our ways, to his own land each, to make use of them for our lands as each of us may. On my part, I offer my knowledge--and it is very valuable, Dr. Goodwin--and my training. You and Lieutenant O’Keefe do the same, and this man Olaf, what he can of his strength, for I do not think his usefulness lies in his brains, no.”
“In effect, Goodwin,” broke in Larry as I hesitated, “the professor’s proposition is this: he wants to know what’s going on here but he begins to realize it’s no one man’s job and besides we have the drop on him. We’re three to his one, and we have all his hardware and cutlery. But also we can do better with him than without him--just as he can do better with us than without us. It’s an even break--for a while. But once he gets that information he’s looking for, then look out. You and Olaf and I are the wolves and the flies and the midges again--and the strafing will be about due. Nevertheless, with three to one against him, if he can get away with it he deserves to. I’m for taking him up, if you are.”
There was almost a twinkle in Marakinoff’s eyes.
“It is not just as I would have put it, perhaps,” he said, “but in its skeleton he has right. Nor will I turn my hand against you while we are still in danger here. I pledge you my honor on this.”
“All right, Professor,” he grinned. “I believe you mean every word you say. Nevertheless, I’ll just keep the guns.”
Marakinoff bowed, imperturbably.
“And now,” he said, “I will tell you what I know. I found the secret of the door mechanism even as you did, Dr. Goodwin. But by carelessness, my condensers were broken. I was forced to wait while I sent for others--and the waiting might be for months. I took certain precautions, and on the first night of this full moon I hid myself within the vault of Chau-ta-leur.”
An involuntary thrill of admiration for the man went through me at the manifest heroism of this leap in the dark. I could see it reflected in Larry’s face.
“I hid in the vault,” continued Marakinoff, “and I saw that which comes from here come out. I waited--long hours. At last, when the moon was low, it returned--ecstatically--with a man, a native, in embrace enfolded. It passed through the door, and soon then the moon became low and the door closed.
“The next night more confidence was mine, yes. And after that which comes had gone, I looked through its open door. I said, ‘It will not return for three hours. While it is away, why shall I not into its home go through the door it has left open?’ So I went--even to here. I looked at the pillars of light and I tested the liquid of the Pool on which they fell. That liquid, Dr. Goodwin, is not water, and it is not any fluid known on earth.” He handed me a small vial, its neck held in a long thong.
“Take this,” he said, “and see.”
Wonderingly, I took the bottle; dipped it down into the Pool. The liquid was extraordinarily light; seemed, in fact, to give the vial buoyancy. I held it to the light. It was striated, streaked, as though little living, pulsing veins ran through it. And its blueness, even in the vial, held an intensity of luminousness.
“Radioactive,” said Marakinoff. “Some liquid that is intensely radioactive; but what it is I know not at all. Upon the living skin it acts like radium raised to the nth power and with an element most mysterious added. The solution with which I treated him,” he pointed to Huldricksson, “I had prepared before I came here, from certain information I had. It is largely salts of radium and its base is Loeb’s formula for the neutralization of radium and X-ray burns. Taking this man at once, before the degeneration had become really active, I could negative it. But after two hours I could have done nothing.”
He paused a moment.
“Next I studied the nature of these luminous walls. I concluded that whoever had made them, knew the secret of the Almighty’s manufacture of light from the ether itself! Colossal! Da! But the substance of these blocks confines an atomic--how would you say--atomic manipulation, a conscious arrangement of electrons, light-emitting and perhaps indefinitely so. These blocks are lamps in which oil and wick are electrons drawing light waves from ether itself! A Prometheus, indeed, this discoverer! I looked at my watch and that little guardian warned me that it was time to go. I went. That which comes forth returned--this time empty-handed.
“And the next night I did the same thing. Engrossed in research, I let the moments go by to the danger point, and scarcely was I replaced within the vault when the shining thing raced over the walls, and in its grip the woman and child.
“Then you came--and that is all. And now--what is it you know?”
Very briefly I went over my story. His eyes gleamed now and then, but he did not interrupt me.
“A great secret! A colossal secret!” he muttered, when I had ended. “We cannot leave it hidden.”
“The first thing to do is to try the door,” said Larry, matter of fact.
“There is no use, my young friend,” assured Marakinoff mildly.
“Nevertheless we’ll try,” said Larry. We retraced our way through the winding tunnel to the end, but soon even O’Keefe saw that any idea of moving the slab from within was hopeless. We returned to the Chamber of the Pool. The pillars of light were fainter, and we knew that the moon was sinking. On the world outside before long dawn would be breaking. I began to feel thirst--and the blue semblance of water within the silvery rim seemed to glint mockingly as my eyes rested on it.
“Da!” it was Marakinoff, reading my thoughts uncannily. “Da! We will be thirsty. And it will be very bad for him of us who loses control and drinks of that, my friend. Da!”
Larry threw back his shoulders as though shaking a burden from them.
“This place would give an angel of joy the willies,” he said. “I suggest that we look around and find something that will take us somewhere. You can bet the people that built it had more ways of getting in than that once-a-month family entrance. Doc, you and Olaf take the left wall; the professor and I will take the right.”
He loosened one of his automatics with a suggestive movement.
“After you, Professor,” he bowed, politely, to the Russian. We parted and set forth.
The chamber widened out from the portal in what seemed to be the arc of an immense circle. The shining walls held a perceptible curve, and from this curvature I estimated that the roof was fully three hundred feet above us.
The floor was of smooth, mosaic-fitted blocks of a faintly yellow tinge. They were not light-emitting like the blocks that formed the walls. The radiance from these latter, I noted, had the peculiar quality of thickening a few yards from its source, and it was this that produced the effect of misty, veiled distances. As we walked, the seven columns of rays streaming down from the crystalline globes high above us waned steadily; the glow within the chamber lost its prismatic shimmer and became an even grey tone somewhat like moonlight in a thin cloud.
Now before us, out from the wall, jutted a low terrace. It was all of a pearly rose-coloured stone, slender, graceful pillars of the same hue. The face of the terrace was about ten feet high, and all over it ran a bas-relief of what looked like short-trailing vines, surmounted by five stalks, on the tip of each of which was a flower.
We passed along the terrace. It turned in an abrupt curve. I heard a hail, and there, fifty feet away, at the curving end of a wall identical with that where we stood, were Larry and Marakinoff. Obviously the left side of the chamber was a duplicate of that we had explored. We joined. In front of us the columned barriers ran back a hundred feet, forming an alcove. The end of this alcove was another wall of the same rose stone, but upon it the design of vines was much heavier.
We took a step forward--there was a gasp of awe from the Norseman, a guttural exclamation from Marakinoff. For on, or rather within, the wall before us, a great oval began to glow, waxed almost to a flame and then shone steadily out as though from behind it a light was streaming through the stone itself!
And within the roseate oval two flame-tipped shadows appeared, stood for a moment, and then seemed to float out upon its surface. The shadows wavered; the tips of flame that nimbused them with flickering points of vermilion pulsed outward, drew back, darted forth again, and once more withdrew themselves--and as they did so the shadows thickened--and suddenly there before us stood two figures!
One was a girl--a girl whose great eyes were golden as the fabled lilies of Kwan-Yung that were born of the kiss of the sun upon the amber goddess the demons of Lao-Tz’e carved for him; whose softly curved lips were red as the royal coral, and whose golden-brown hair reached to her knees!
And the second was a gigantic frog--A woman frog, head helmeted with carapace of shell around which a fillet of brilliant yellow jewels shone; enormous round eyes of blue circled with a broad iris of green; monstrous body of banded orange and white girdled with strand upon strand of the flashing yellow gems; six feet high if an inch, and with one webbed paw of its short, powerfully muscled forelegs resting upon the white shoulder of the golden-eyed girl!
Moments must have passed as we stood in stark amazement, gazing at that incredible apparition. The two figures, although as real as any of those who stood beside me, unphantomlike as it is possible to be, had a distinct suggestion of--projection.
They were there before us--golden-eyed girl and grotesque frog-woman--complete in every line and curve; and still it was as though their bodies passed back through distances; as though, to try to express the wellnigh inexpressible, the two shapes we were looking upon were the end of an infinite number stretching in fine linked chain far away, of which the eyes saw only the nearest, while in the brain some faculty higher than sight recognized and registered the unseen others.
The gigantic eyes of the frog-woman took us all in--unwinkingly. Little glints of phosphorescence shone out within the metallic green of the outer iris ring. She stood upright, her great legs bowed; the monstrous slit of a mouth slightly open, revealing a row of white teeth sharp and pointed as lancets; the paw resting on the girl’s shoulder, half covering its silken surface, and from its five webbed digits long yellow claws of polished horn glistened against the delicate texture of the flesh.
But if the frog-woman regarded us all, not so did the maiden of the rosy wall. Her eyes were fastened upon Larry, drinking him in with extraordinary intentness. She was tall, far over the average of women, almost as tall, indeed, as O’Keefe himself; not more than twenty years old, if that, I thought. Abruptly she leaned forward, the golden eyes softened and grew tender; the red lips moved as though she were speaking.