Chapter VI. Night on an Ocean Floor
 

"Over there, straight to the west," Ned said, pointing from the conning tower of the submarine, "is the coast of China, not far from seventy-five miles away."

"And there, to the north," Frank said, "lie the Taya Islands. The big fellow beyond is Hainan."

The sun was going down into the Gulf of Tong King like a ball of red fire, and the night was far from cool.

Jimmie declared he could hear the water hiss as the sun dipped its red rim under the waves. The boy now stood by Ned's side, looking over the wonderful scene.

"We've been somewhere near here before," he said. "You remember the time we came over to this side of the world and found a key to a treaty box? Well, we wasn't far from this spot at one time."

"Right you are," Frank replied. "Only we hope to find something more important than a key now. I hope they've had use for a cell key in connection with that mix-up at Mare Island Navy Yard."

"It was rotten to let that fellow get away!" Jimmie declared. "I just knew they would."

"We were all so astonished at the recovery of Lieutenant Scott," Ned observed, "that we overlooked a few things we ought to have kept in mind. Wasn't it glorious! Think of Scott coming out of it all right at last!"

"Well, he said he was a fixture on the coast until he found the man who came so near killing him," Frank said, in a moment, "and I hope he'll make good."

"Huh," Jimmie interrupted, "if you think that fellow is on the Pacific coast yet, you've got another think comin'. You remember the Diver left San Francisco just about the time we did."

"What has that to do with it?"

"Most nothin' at all, only he sailed in her."

"You're a wise little man!"

"And, what's more, we'll see the Diver come pluggin' along here before we get this job done," Jimmie went on. "That Captain Moore and his son are out for blood."

"But the Diver will require at least a couple of months to get here," urged Frank. "We can get away before that time."

"You don't know what the Moores will do," Ned said. "I rather agree with Jimmie, that we shall see something of the Diver before we leave this part of the world."

"I hope so," Frank said.

"Well, who's for the bottom of the sea?" demanded Jimmie. "I want to see what's down there before the Bogy Man gets me."

"I don't mind going down," Ned said. "Come on, we'll close the top hatch and drop to the bottom, then, if conditions are right, we'll enter the water closet, put on the diving suits, and take a walk on the floor of the big water."

"Suppose we all go," suggested Frank.

"Perhaps it may be well for two to remain aboard in order to help the others out, if necessary," Ned observed.

"All right," Frank said. "Catch a fish by the tail and bring him in for supper."

"To-morrow," Jimmie said, "you can take a run on the riparian rights an' chase whales."

"I'll wait and see whether you boys come out alive," laughed Frank. "I'm a little leary about mixing with the funny little fishes. Some of 'em may bite!"

After a thoroughly interesting voyage, the boys had at last reached the scene of their labors. It was now the 2oth of October. The Sea Lion had rode securely on the float, and Ned and his companions had spent most of the time during the journey under the great hood which covered the submarine, studying the mechanism and making themselves thoroughly familiar with the big machine.

Arriving off the Taya Islands, the float had been submerged by opening the sluiceways and filling the tanks with water. The Sea Lion behaved admirably when she came to the surface after cutting away from the companion of her voyage.

As there were no appliances for lifting the big float, she was now at the bottom of the sea for all time, unless broken away from the water- filled tanks by divers, in which case the upper works would come to the surface. It was with feelings of keen regret that the boys saw the great barge, as it might well be called, lying, deserted, on the ocean floor.

As has been shown by the conversation between the boys in the conning tower, Lieutenant Scott had fully recovered from the effects of the poisonous fumes he had inhaled in the submarine on the night of Ned's arrest at South Vallejo. Physicians stated at the time that his recovery was due to the fact that the conning tower hatch was open when the deadly gas was released. Ned, it was also stated, would have been dead in a few moments if the hatch had been closed.

Search had been made, both by the police and the naval detectives, for the author of the mischief, but he had not been found. It was believed that his purpose in reporting the result of his own deviltry to the chief of police was to secure the arrest of the boys on the Sea Lion and make off with her.

Ned did not say so, when discussing the matter with the officers, but he was satisfied that the Moores were at the bottom of the trouble. The Captain had resigned, and had been observed lounging about the wharf in New York where the Sea Lion lay, and had, it was afterwards learned, been seen in San Francisco on the day before the arrival of Lieutenant Scott and the Boy Scouts.

In reaching this conclusion Ned assigned envy as the prime motive on the part of the Captain and his son. They had expected to be assigned the duty of searching the ocean floor for the wreck of the mail steamer. In their great disappointment nothing was more probable than that they had resolved to hamper the efforts of their successful rivals in every way.

But there was still another view of the case which might be considered. The gold in the hull of the wrecked steamer would become the spoil of the first submarine to reach her.

With the double incentive, greed joined to a thirst for revenge, it would not be at all strange if the Moores had risked everything in their efforts to prevent the Sea Lion leaving the Navy Yard on her long trip. It was Ned's private opinion, too, that the son had been the one to sneak into the submarine and attack the Lieutenant with the poisonous gas.

Leaving Frank and Jack in the machine room, Ned and Jimmie entered the water chamber and closed the door, which, however, was provided with a plate glass panel of great thickness, so that light from the other room supplied plenty of illumination.

It was not designed to submerge the Sea Lion until the boys were all ready to step out. Four deep-sea suits hung on hooks in the water chamber, one for each of the boys.

These suits were not much different from those usually worn by deep- sea divers. They were of seamless rubber composition, braced across the breast with bars of steel in order to offset the great pressure of the lower levels and give the lungs plenty of room for expansion.

The helmets, which fitted on the neck of the suits, were lighter than those in ordinary use, but fully as strong. The cords attached to the helmets were very long, and the air-hose admitted of a range of at least three hundred feet.

By the side of each suit lay an electric searchlight of special construction and a long steel pole, shaped something like a crowbar, but very slender and strong. This latter for defense in case attack should be made by some monster of the deep.

"Say," Jimmie grinned, slipping on his suit, "these spring suits look to me like someone to button us up in the back."

"I don't see where you find buttons," replied Ned.

"Look here, then!"

The boy pointed to the screws designed to secure the helmets.

"You button me up, and I'll button you up," Ned laughed. "We've got to learn to do such things."

"I'll catch a shark an' get him to learn how," cried Jimmie. "I wonder how I would look in this suit walkin' down the Bowery. Gee! I bet the boys would jump out of their skins if they saw me comin'. They'd think their master had come to claim 'em!"

The boys worked industriously for a time, settling themselves in the rather clumsy suits, and then all was ready save putting on the heavy helmets. Jimmie pointed to a belt about the waist of his suit.

"What's that for?" he asked, pulling at a hook which was suspended from the steel circlet.

"That's to hang your searchlight on," was the reply. "There may come a time when you'll want both hands to operate that spike thing you've got to carry."

At last the helmets were adjusted, the cords and air-hose attached, and then Ned motioned to the boys, watching with grinning eyes through the plate glass panel, to turn on the air. The first sensation on receiving the air was one of exhilaration, but this soon passed off.

Ned saw, by looking through the immense goggles which Jimmie wore, that the lad was almost bursting with laughter, but he knew that this effect would soon pass away. He pushed a button, and signaled to Frank to fill the water tanks.

As the water chamber filled the boys felt a cold circle rise from their toes to their heads. They felt a sinking motion, and soon the mysterious life of the ocean became visible through the outer glass door of the water chamber.

The Sea Lion dropped evenly to the bottom. The supply of air was as perfect as it could well be. When the faint jar told Ned that the submarine was at last resting on the bed of the tropical sea he released a heavy bar which held the door, pushed it back against considerable pressure, and stepped out.

Jimmie followed, and Ned stopped long enough to point to the lines as a warning that they should not be allowed to become tangled, and struck off. It was early in the evening, and there was a moon, almost at the full.

The depth at that point was not great, scarcely more than sixty feet. The pressure of the water overhead made walking rather difficult, and the boys were strange to the lines they were drawing after them, but they made good progress until they came to the end of the air-hose.

It was not as dark under the waves as might have been expected. The light of the sun penetrates, ordinarily, to a depth of not far from forty feet, and the moon's rays on this night were very strong. It was not light enough for the boys to see objects around them, but there was a soft illumination above their heads not dissimilar to the faint haze of light which lies over a country landscape situated at no great distance from a city bright with electricity.

By using the searchlights, however, the boys were able to distinguish objects directly about them. They were on a level plain of pure white sand. Ages and ages ago this pavement laid so smoothly on the ocean floor had existed in the form of rocks.

Through countless years it had faced the assaults of the waves, until at last, in utter defeat, it had succumbed to the mighty force and dropped in fine grains to the lower levels of the world. It seemed to Ned that it had lain there for centuries, with never a storm to pile it into ridges or break its level surface into pits.

The scene about the boys was indescribably beautiful. The inhabitants of the sea rivaled the rainbow in brilliancy of coloring. There were more forms of life in sight than either of the boys had ever imagined in existence.

Queer-shaped sea creatures with long tails darted about the rubber- clad figures, and now and then an inquisitive fish with curious eyes poked its nose against the eye plates, as if intent on discovering what sort of creature it was that carried a sunrise in its head.

There were monster creatures in sight, too, and Jimmie jabbed at one of them and brought blood. This brought others, and in a short time the boys found themselves surrounded by a school of sharks.

Ned threw himself down on the sandy bottom and motioned to Jimmie to do likewise. This seemed to surprise the sharks, for they nosed around for only a moment longer. Seeing no opportunity of getting under their prospective dinners, they switched their tails angrily, like a cat in a temper, and swam off about their business, if they had any.

But Ned had little interest in the sea life about him. At another time, and under other conditions, he would have enjoyed the novelty of the scene to the fullest, but now he was anxiously watching for some indication of the presence of the wreck of the Cutaria.

He was as certain as it was possible to be that the Sea Lion had descended almost at the exact spot where the ill-fated vessel went down. The hull should be out there in the sand somewhere, and he lost no time in making his investigations.

But there was nothing on the smooth surface to show that any vessel had ever rested there. Away to the north, however, the boy finally saw what looked like an elevation.

His flashlight, however, would not throw its beams to the point of interest, and he decided to return to the Sea Lion, rest for the remainder of the night, and shift the submarine in the morning.

Motioning to his companion, therefore, he turned toward the door to the water chamber. They had proceeded only a few steps when something seemed to pass over their heads.

It was as if a heavy cloud had drifted over a summer sky, outlining its shape on the fields below for an instant and then passing on. Jimmie caught Ned's arm and pointed upward.

It was plain that the little fellow had caught sight of something his companion had missed, but of course he could not explain then and there what it was. Ned hastened his steps, and soon stood at the door of the water chamber, which had been left open.

As Jimmie pushed into the water-filled apartment by his side and Ned was about to close the door and expel the water from the chamber, as well as from the tanks of the submarine, something which flashed like polished steel hurtled through the water and struck the bottom just outside the doorway.

Ned stepped out and picked it up. It was a keen-edge knife, such as sailors carry. On the handle was a single initial--"D."

Ned knew what that meant. Through some strange agency, by means of some unaccountable assistance, the Diver had reached the scene of the proposed operations of the Sea Lion.

From this time on, it would be a battle of wits--perhaps worse!