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   Chapter 5 UNDER WATER

The Great War Syndicate By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 10915

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


When the Dipsey, the little submarine vessel which had started to make its way to the north pole under the ice of the arctic regions, had sunk out of sight under the waters, it carried a very quiet and earnestly observant party. Every one seemed anxious to know what would happen next, and all those whose duties would allow them to do so gathered under the great skylight in the upper deck, and gazed upward at the little glass bulb on the surface of the water, which they were towing by means of an electric wire; and every time a light was flashed into this bulb it seemed to them as if they were for an instant reunited to that vast open world outside of the ocean. When at last the glass globe was exploded, as a signal that the Dipsey had cut loose from all ties which connected her with the outer world, they saw through the water above them the flash and the sparks, and then all was darkness.

The interior of the submarine vessel was brightly lighted by electric lamps, and the souls of the people inside of her soon began to brighten under the influence of their work and the interest they took in their novel undertaking; there was, however, one exception-the soul of Mrs. Block did not brighten.

Mrs. Sarah Block was a peculiar person; she was her husband's second wife, and was about forty years of age. Her family were country people, farmers, and her life as a child was passed among folk as old-fashioned as if they had lived in the past century, and had brought their old-fashioned ideas with them into this. But Sarah did not wish to be old-fashioned. She sympathized with the social movements of the day; she believed in inventions and progress; she went to school and studied a great deal which her parents never heard of, and which she very promptly forgot. When she grew up she wore the widest hoop-skirts; she was one of the first to use an electric spinning-wheel; and when she took charge of her father's house, she it was who banished to the garret the old-fashioned sewing-machine, and the bicycles on which some of the older members of the family once used to ride. She tried to persuade her father to use a hot-air plough, and to give up the practice of keeping cows in an age when milk and butter were considered not only unnecessary, but injurious to human health. When she married Samuel Block, then a man of forty-five, she really thought she did so because he was a person of progressive ideas, but the truth was she married him because he loved her, and because he did it in an honest, old-fashioned way.

In her inner soul Sarah was just as old-fashioned as anybody-she had been born so, and she had never changed. Endeavor as she might to make herself believe that she was a woman of modern thought and feeling, her soul was truly in sympathy with the social fashions and customs in which she had been brought up; and those to which she was trying to educate herself were on the outside of her, never a part of her, but always the objects of her aspirations. These aspirations she believed to be principles. She tried to set her mind upon the unfolding revelations of the era, as young women in her grandfather's day used to try to set their minds upon Browning. When Sarah told Mr. Clewe that she was going on the Dipsey because she would not let her husband go by himself, she did so because she was ashamed to say that she was in such sympathy with the great scientific movements of the day that she thought it was her duty to associate herself with one of them; but while she thought she was lying in the line of high principle, she was in fact expressing the truthful affection of her old-fashioned nature-a nature she was always endeavoring to keep out of sight, but which from its dark corner ruled her life.

She had an old-fashioned temper, which delighted in censoriousness. The more interest she took in anything, the more alive was she to its defects. She tried to be a good member of her church, but she said sharp things of the congregation.

No electrical illumination could brighten the soul of Mrs. Block. She moved about the little vessel with a clouded countenance. She was impressed with the feeling that something was wrong, even now at the beginning, although of course she could not be expected to know what it was.

At the bows, and in various places at the sides of the vessel, and even in the bottom, were large plates of heavy glass, through which the inmates could look out into the water, and there streamed forward into the quiet depths of the ocean a great path of light, proceeding from a powerful searchlight in the bow. By this light any object in the water could be seen some time before reaching it; but to guard more thoroughly against the most dreaded obstacle they feared to meet-down-reaching masses of ice-a hydraulic thermometer, mounted on a little submarine vessel connected with the Dipsey by wires, preceded her a long distance ahead. Impelled and guided by the batteries of the larger vessel, this little thermometer-boat would send back instant tidings of any changes in temperature in the water occasioned by the proximity of ice. To prevent sinking too deep, a heavy lead, on which were several electric buttons, hung far below the Dipsey, ready at all times, day or night, to give notice if she came too near the reefs and sands of the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

The steward had just announced that the first meal on board the Dipsey was ready for the

officers' mess, when Mrs. Block suddenly rushed into the cabin.

"Look here, Sammy," she exclaimed; "I want you, or somebody who knows more than you do, to tell me how the people on this vessel are goin' to get air to breathe with. It has just struck me that when we have breathed up all the air that's inside, we will simply suffocate, just as if we were drowned outside a boat instead of inside; and for my part I can't see any difference, except in one case we keep dry and in the other we are wet."

"More than that, madam," said Mr. Gibbs, the Master Electrician, who, in fact, occupied the rank of first officer of the vessel; "if we are drowned outside in the open water we shall be food for fishes, whereas if we suffocate inside the vessel we shall only be food for reflection, if anybody ever finds us."

"You did not come out expectin' that, I hope?" said Mrs. Block. "I thought something would happen when we started, but I never supposed we would run short of air."

"Don't bother yourself about that, Sarah," said Sammy. "We'll have all the air we want; of course we would not start without thinkin' of that."

"I don't know," said Sarah. "It's very seldom that men start off anywhere without forgettin' somethin'."

"Let us take our seats, Mrs. Block," said Mr. Gibbs, "and I will set your mind at rest on the air point. There are a great many machines and mechanical arrangements on board here which of course you don't understand, but which I shall take great pleasure in explaining to you whenever you want to learn something about them. Among them are two great metal contrivances, outside the Dipsey and near her bows, which open into the water, and also communicate with the inside of her hull. These are called electric gills, and they separate air from the water around us in a manner somewhat resembling the way in which a fish's gills act. They continually send in air enough to supply us not only with all we need for breathing, but with enough to raise us to the surface of the water whenever we choose to produce it in sufficient quantities."

"I am glad to hear it," said Mrs. Block, "and I hope the machines will never get out of order. But I should think that sort of air, made fresh from the water, would be very damp. It's very different from the air we are used to, which is warmed by the sun and properly aired."

"Aired air seems funny to me," remarked Sammy.

There was fascination, not at all surprising, about the great glass lights in the Dipsey, and whenever a man was off duty he was pretty sure to be at one of these windows if he could get there. At first Mrs. Block was afraid to look out of any of them. It made her blood creep, she said, to stare out into all that solemn water. For the first two days, when she could get no one to talk to her, she passed most of her time sitting in the cabin, holding in one of her hands a dustbrush, and in the other a farmer's almanac. She did not use the brush, nor did she read the almanac, but they reminded her of home and the world which was real.

But when she did make up her mind to look out of the windows, she became greatly interested, especially at the bow, where she could gaze out into the water illuminated by the long lane of light thrown out by the search-light. Here she continually imagined she saw things, and sometimes greatly startled the men on lookout by her exclamations. Once she thought she saw a floating corpse, but fortunately it was Sammy who was by her when she proclaimed her discovery, and he did not believe in any such nonsense, suggesting that it might have been some sort of a fish. After that the idea of fish filled the mind of Mrs. Block, and she set herself to work to search in an encyclopaedia which was on board for descriptions of fishes which inhabited the depths of the arctic seas. To meet a whale, she thought, would be very bad, but then a whale is clumsy and soft; a sword-fish was what she most dreaded. A sword-fish running his sword through one of the glass windows, and perhaps coming in himself along with the water, sent a chill down her back every time she thought about it and talked about it.

"You needn't be afraid of sword-fishes," said Captain Jim Hubbell. "They don't fancy the cold water we are sailin' in; and as to whales, don't you know, madam, there ain't no more of 'em?"

"No more whales!" exclaimed Sarah. "I have heard about 'em all my life!"

"Oh, you can read and hear about 'em easy enough," replied Captain Jim, "but you nor nobody else will ever see none of 'em ag'in-at least, in this part of the world. Sperm-whales began gittin' scarce when I was a boy, and pretty soon there was nothin' left but bow-head or right whales, that tried to keep out of the way of human bein's by livin' far up North; but when they came to shootin' 'em with cannons which would carry three or four miles, the whale's day was up, and he got scarcer and scarcer, until he faded out altogether. There was a British vessel, the Barkright, that killed two bow-head whales in 1935, north of Melville Island, but since that time there hasn't been a whale seen in all the arctic waters. I have heard that said by sailors, and I have read about it. They have all been killed, and nothin' left of 'em but the skeletons that's in the museums."

Mrs. Block shuddered. "It would be terrible to meet a livin' one, and yet it is an awful thought to think that they are all dead and gone," said she.

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