- Author: Murray Leinster
Read book online «The Silver Menace by Murray Leinster (best books to read for beginners txt) 📕». Author - Murray Leinster
[Transcriber's Note: This etext produced from The Thrill Book, September 1, 1919 and September 15, 1919]
The yacht was plowing through the calm waters with a steady throbbing of the engines. The soft washing of the waves along the sides, the murmur of the wind through the light rigging aloft, and the occasional light footstep of the navigating officer on the bridge were the only sounds.
The long white vessel swept on through the night in silence. Here and there a light showed from some port-hole or window, but for the most part the whole boat was dark and silent. For once the yacht contained no merry party of guests to one-step on the wide decks and fill all the obscurer corners with accurately paired couples.
Alexander Morrison, millionaire steamship magnate, and his daughter Nita had the ship to themselves. They were sitting in two of the big wicker chairs on the after deck, and the glow of Morrison's cigar was the only light.
"Getting chilly, Nita," he remarked casually. "Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, indeed." Nita was silent for a moment, gazing off into the darkness. "It's nice," she said reflectively, "to be by one's self for a while. I'm glad you didn't invite a lot of people to come back with us."
Her father smiled.
"Judging by the way you behaved along the Riviera," he reminded her, "you didn't mind company. I never saw any one quite so run after as you were."
Nita shook her head.
"They were running after you, daddy," she said lightly. "I was just a means of approach."
Her father puffed on his cigar for a moment in silence.
"It is a disadvantage, having a millionaire for a father," he admitted. "It's hard to tell who is in love with you, and who is in love with your father's money."
"So the thing to do, I suppose," said Nita amusedly, "is just to fall in love with some one yourself, and pay no attention to his motives."
"Where do you get your notions?" asked her father. "That's cynicism. You haven't been practicing on that theory, have you?"
"Not I," said Nita with a little silvery laugh. "But you know, daddy, it isn't nice to feel like a money bag with a lot of people looking at you all the time, some of them enviously and some of them covetously, but none of them regarding you just like a human being."
"I don't see," declared her father, with real affection, "how any normal young man who looked at you could stop thinking about you long enough to think about your money."
"I rise and bow," said Nita mischievously. "May I return the compliment, substituting 'young woman' for 'young man'?"
"Don't try to fool your father," that gentleman said with a smile. He added with something of conscious pride: "I don't suppose there are two other men in America as homely as I am."
"Daddy!" protested Nita, laughing. "You're lovely to look at! I wouldn't have you look a bit different for worlds."
"Neither would I have myself look different," her father admitted cheerfully. "I've gotten used to myself this way. I like to look at myself this way. It's an acquired taste like olives, but once you learn to like me this way—why, there you are."
Nita laughed and was silent. Suddenly she began to look a little bit puzzled.
"Do you notice anything funny?" she asked in a moment or so. "Somehow, the boat doesn't seem to be traveling just right."
Her father listened. Only the usual sounds came to his ears. The washing of the waves along the sides, however, had a peculiar timbre. Then he noticed that the boat seemed to be checking a little in its speed. There was an odd, velvety quality in the checking, very much like the soft breaking effect felt when a motor boat runs into a patch of weed.
"Queer," said Morrison. "We'll ask the captain."
The two of them walked down the deck arm in arm until they came to the stair ladder leading up to the bridge. The gentle checking continued. The boat seemed to be gradually slowing up, though the engines throbbed on as before.
"What's the matter, captain?" asked Morrison.
His first mate answered:
"I've sent for the captain, sir. Our speed has fallen off three knots in the past five minutes."
The captain came hastily up on the bridge, buttoning up his coat as he came.
"What's the matter, Mr. Harrison?"
The first mate turned a worried face to him.
"Our speed has dropped off three knots in five minutes, sir, and seems to be still slackening. I thought it best to send for you."
The captain called up the engine room.
"All right down there?"
"Per-rhaps," came the answer in a thick Scotch burr. "Ah was aboot to ask ye the same mysel'. We're usin' twenty perr cent more steam for the same number of rrevolutions."
"We might have run into a big patch of seaweed," suggested the first mate.
"Unship the searchlight," said the captain crisply.
A seaman came up to the bridge. He had been sent back to look at the patent log.
"We're logging eight knots now, sir."
The first mate uttered an exclamation.
"That's six knots off what we were making ten minutes ago!"
No one spoke for a moment or so, while one or two seamen worked at the lashing of the cover on the searchlight.
"Do any of you smell anything?" asked Nita suddenly.
A faint but distinct odor came to their nostrils. It was the odor of slime and mud, with a tinge of musk. It was the scent of foul things from the water. It was a damp and humid smell, indistinctly musklike and disgusting.
"Like deep-sea mud," said one of the seamen to the other. "Like somethin' come up from Gawd knows what soundin'."
Nita gasped a little. The searchlight sputtered and then a long, white pencil of light shot out over the water. It wavered, and sank to a point just beside the bow of the boat. It showed—nothing.
The bow wave rose reluctantly and traveled but a little distance before it subsided into level sea. There were no waves. The water was calm as an inland lake.
"No seaweed there," said the captain sharply. "Look on the other side."
The searchlight swept across the deck and to the water on the other side. Nothing. The water seemed to be turgidly white, but that was all. It was not clear; it was rather muddy and almost milklike, as if a little finely divided chalk had been stirred in it. There was no disturbance of its placid surface. Only the reluctant bow wave surged away from the sharp prow of the yacht.
The seaman returned from a second trip to the patent log.
"We're logging five knots now, sir."
"Nine knots off," said the first mate with a white face. "We were making fourteen."
"We'll take a look all around," said the captain sharply.
The searchlight obediently swept the surface of the water. Every one on the bridge followed its exploring beam with anxious eyes. That musky, musty smell of things from unthinkable depths and the mysterious retardation of their vessel filled them with apprehension.
There was not one of them, from the ignorant seamen to the supereducated Morrison, who did not look fearfully where the light beam went.
The hand laid on the vessel—that in a calm sea had slowed from fourteen knots to five, despite the mighty engines within the hull—that force seemed of such malignant power that none of them would have been greatly surprised to see the huge bulk of some fabled Kraken rearing itself above the water, preparing to engulf the yacht with a sweep of some colossal tentacle.
The sea was calm. As far as the searchlight could light up its surface not a wave broke its calm placidity.
The seaman returned from his third visit to the patent log.
"Two knots, sir!"
The movement of the yacht became slower and slower as it gradually checked in its sweep through the water. The throbbing of the engines grew louder as they labored with increasing effort to master the mysterious Thing that was holding them back.
The boat was barely creeping now. It seemed to be struggling against some invisible force that gripped gently but relentlessly, some infinitely patient force that from the very patience of its operation was the more evidently inexorable.
The engines were working in panic-stricken tempo now. The chief engineer had given them all the steam they would take, and the propellers thrashed the water mightily, but the ship slowed, slowed.
At last it was still, while the engines seemed to be trying to rack themselves to pieces in their terrific attempt to drive the ship against the Thing that held it back.
The captain watched with a set face, then ordered the engines reversed. There was an instant's pause, and the propellers took up their thrashing of the water again. For a moment it seemed that they would have some effect. The yacht shivered and moved slightly backward, but then stopped again with the same soft gentleness.
The seamen inspected the water all around the ship with lanterns lowered to the water's edge. They found nothing. A sounding line was thrown overboard, and sank for two hundred fathoms without reaching bottom.
The searchlight played endlessly over the water, trying to find some turmoil that might indicate the presence of a monster whose tentacles had fastened upon the ship, but without result. The surface of the water was like glass.
Again and again the engines struggled mightily to move the ship. Again and again the propellers beat the water at the stern into froth and foam, but never did the yacht move by as much as an inch.
The sea was calm and placid. The stars looked down from the moonless sky and were reflected by the still surface of the water.
The yacht struggled like a living thing to break free from the mysterious force that held her fast, while all about her there hung that faintly disgusting odor of slime from the depths of the sea, an indistinctly musky odor as of something unclean.
At last the wireless began to crackle a frantic appeal for help, giving the details of what was happening on board the yacht. Hardly had the message finished when the yacht began to rock slightly, as from a faint ground swell.
"But, Theodore, old pet," said Davis amiably. "The fact that a plane won't loop the loop or make nose dives at ninety degrees doesn't make it hopeless as a battleplane."
He was affectionately expounding the good points of a monster seaplane drawn up in its hangar by the beach.
Davis wore the insignia of a flight commander of the aviation corps and the ribbons of half a dozen orders bestowed on him after the destruction of the Black Flyer, destroyed by Teddy Gerrod and himself some six months before.
Teddy Gerrod was in civilian clothes, but was earnestly, though cheerfully, disputing everything his friend said.
"A two-seater like the one we used six months ago," he pointed out, "could fly rings around this bus of yours, and with a decent shot at the machine gun could smash it in no time."
"Fly rings around it? Not noticeably," said Davis confidently. "Since our idea of platinum plating the cylinders everybody's doing it. Using picro gasoline, as you and I did, we get a hundred and eighty miles an hour from this 'bus' you're trying to disparage. And, furthermore, if you try to damage this particular ship with machine-gun bullets you're going to be disappointed."
"Precisely. I admit cheerfully that you may know a lot about physics and cold bombs and liquid gases and such things, but when it comes to flying machines—my dear chap, you simply aren't there."
"Perhaps not. But I'd rather dance around in a more lively fashion in a little two-seater."
"And privately," admitted Davis, "so would I. The next war we have I'm going to arrange for you to be my machine gunner."
"Delighted," said Gerrod. "But what would Evelyn say?"
He was referring to his wife. Davis waved his hand.
"Oh, she'd say there aren't going to be any more wars."
"That reminds me," said Gerrod. "We want you down for the next weekend. No other guests."
Davis nodded abstractedly. A messenger was coming over to the hangar at double time.
"Thanks. I'll be glad to come. Wonder what this chap wants?"
The messenger came up, saluted, and handed Davis a yellow slip. Davis tore it open and read:
Steam yacht Marisposita, Alexander Morrison of New York, owner, reports position 33°11'N 55°10'W, wants immediate assistance. Engines and hull perfect condition, not aground, no derelict or obstacle discoverable. Unable to move any direction. Sea calm. Only possible explanation has been