The Ladies of the Lake

by Robert W. Chambers


Dawn awoke me, and I sat up in my blanket and aroused Brown. No birds were singing. It seemed unusual, and I spoke of it to Brown. Never have I witnessed such a still, strange daybreak. Mountains, woods, and water were curiously silent. There was not a sound to be heard, nothing stirred except the thin veil of vapour over the water, shreds of which were now parting from the shore and steaming slowly upward. 
          There was, it seemed to me, something slightly uncanny about this lake, even in repose. The water seemed as translucent as a dark crystal, and as motionless as the surface of a mirror. Nothing stirred its placid surface, not a ripple, not an insect, not a leaf floating. 
          Brown had lugged the pneumatic raft down to the shore where he was now pumping it full: I followed with the paddles, pole, and hydroscope.  When the raft had been pumped up and was afloat, we carried the reel of gossamer piano-wire aboard, followed it pushed off, and paddled quietly through the level cobwebs of mist toward the centre of the lake. From the shore I heard a gruesome noise. It originated under one of the row of tents of the heavy artillery. Medusa, snoring, was an awesome sound in that wilderness and solitude of dawn. 
          I was unscrewing the centre-plug from the raft and screwing into the empty socket the lens of the hydroscope and attaching the battery, while Brown started his sounding; and I was still busy when an exclamation from my companion started me: 
          “We’re breaking some records! Do you know it, Smith?” 
          “Where is the lead?” 
          “Three hundred fathoms and still running!”
          “Look at it yourself! It goes on unreeling: I’ve put the drag on. Hurry and adjust the hydroscope!” 
          I sighted the powerful instrument for two thousand feet, altering it from minute to minute as Brown excitedly announced the amazing depth of the lake. When he called out four thousand feet, I stared at him. 
          “There’s something wrong—” I began. 
          “There’s nothing wrong!” he interrupted. “Four thousand five hundred! Five thousand! Five thousand five hundred—” 
          “Are you squatting there and trying to tell me that this lake is over a mile deep!” 
          “Look for yourself !” he said in an unsteady voice. “Here is the tape! You can read, can’t you? Six thousand feet—and running evenly. Six thousand five hundred!... Seven thousand! Seven thousand five—” 
          “It can’t be!” I protested. 
          But it was true. Astounded, I continued to adjust the hydroscope to a range incredible, turning the screw to focus at a mile and a half, at two miles, at two and a quarter, a half, three-quarters, three miles, three miles and a quarter—click! 
          “Good Heavens!” he whispered. “This lake is three miles and a quarter deep!” 
          Mechanically I set the lachet, screwed the hood firm, drew out the black eye-mask, locked it, then, kneeling on the raft I rested my face in the mask, felt for the lever, and switched on the electric light. 
          Quicker than thought the solid lance of dazzling light plunged down through profundity, and the vast abyss of water was revealed along its pathway. Nothing moved in those tremendous depths except, nearly two miles below, a few spots of tinsel glittered and drifted like flakes of mica. 
          At first I scarcely noticed them, supposing them to be vast beds of silvery bottom sand glittering under the electric pencil of the hydroscope. But presently it occurred to me that these brilliant specks in motion were not on the botton— were a little less than two miles deep, and therefore suspended. 
          To be seen at all, at two miles’ depth, whatever they were they must have considerable bulk. 
          “Do you see anything?” demanded Brown. 
          “Some silvery specks at a depth of two miles.” 
          “What do they look like?” 
          “Are they in motion?” 
          “They seem to be.” 
          “Do they come any nearer?” 
          After a while I answered: 
          “One of the specks seems to be growing larger.... I believe it is in motion and is floating slowly upward.... It’s certainly getting bigger.... It’s getting longer.” 
          “Is it a fish?” 
          “It can’t be.” 
          “Why not?” 
          “It’s impossible. Fish don’t attain the size of whales in mountain ponds.” 
          There was a silence. After an interval I said: 
          “Brown, I don’t know what to make of that thing.” 
          “Is it coming any nearer?” 
          “What does it look like now?” 
          “It looks like a fish. But it can’t be. It looks like a tiny, silver minnow. But it can’t be. Why, if it resembles a minnow in size at this distance—what can be its actual dimensions?” 
          “Let me look,” he said. 
          Unwillingly I raised my head from the mask and yielded him my place. 
          A long silence followed. The western mountain-tops reddened under the rising sun; the sky grew faintly bluer. Yet, there was not a bird-note in that still place, not a flash of wings, nothing stirring. 
          Here and there along the lake shore I noticed unusual-looking trees—very odd-looking trees indeed, for their trunks seemed bleached and dead, and as though no bark covered them, yet every stark limb was covered with foliage— a thick foliage so dark in colour that it seemed black to me. 
          I glanced at my motionless companion where he knelt with his face in the mask, then I unslung my field-glasses and focussed them on the nearest of the curious trees. 
          At first I could not quite make out what I was looking at; then, to my astonishment, I saw that these stark, gray trees were indeed lifeless, and that
what I had mistaken for dark foliage were velvety clusters of bats hanging there asleep—thousands of them thickly infesting and clotting the dead branches with a sombre and horrid effect of foliage. 
          I don’t mind bats in ordinary numbers. But in such soft, motionless masses they slightly sickened me. There must have been literally tons of them hanging to the dead trees. 
          “This is pleasant,” I said. “Look at those bats, Brown.” 
          When Brown spoke without lifting his head, his voice was so shaken, so altered, that the mere sound of it scared me: 
          “Smith,” he said, “there is a fish in here, shaped exactly like a brook minnow. And I should judge, by the depth it is swimming in, that it is about as long as an ordinary Pullman car.” 
          His voice shook, but his words were calm to the point of commonplace. Which made the effect of his statement all the more terrific. 
          “A—a minnow—as big as a Pullman car?” I repeated, dazed. 
          “Larger, I think.... It looks to me through the hydroscope, at this distance, exactly like a tiny, silvery minnow. It’s half a mile down.... Swimming about.... I can see its eyes; they must be about ten feet in diameter. I can see its fins moving. And there are about a dozen others, much deeper, swimming around.... This is easily the most overwhelming contribution made to science since the discovery of the purple-spotted dingle-bock, Bukkus dinglii.... We’ve got to catch one of those gigantic fish!” 
          “How?” I gasped. “How are we going to catch a minnow as large as a sleeping car?” 
          “I don’t know, but we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to manage it, somehow.” “It would require a steel cable to hold such a fish and a donkey engine to reel him in! And what about a hook? And if we had hook, line, steamwinch, and everything else, what about bait?” 
          He knelt for some time longer, watching the fish, before he resigned the hydroscope to me. Then I watched it; but it came no nearer, seeming contented to swim about at the depth of a little more than half a mile. Deep under this fish I could see others glittering as they sailed or darted to and fro.  Presently I raised my head and sat thinking. The sun now gilded the water; a little breeze ruffled it here and there where dainty cat’s-paws played over the surface. 
          “What on earth do you suppose those gigantic fish feed on?” asked Brown under his breath. 
          I thought a moment longer, then it came to me in a flash of understanding, and I pointed at the dead trees.
          “Bats!” I muttered. “They feed on bats as other fish feed on the little, gauzy-winged flies which dance over ponds! You saw those bats flying over the pond last night, didn’t you? That explains the whole thing! Don’t you understand? Why, what we saw were these gigantic fish leaping like trout after the bats. It was their feeding time!” 
          I do not imagine that two more excited scientists ever existed than Brown and I. The joy of discovery transfigured us. Here we had discovered a lake in the Thunder Mountains which was the deepest lake in the world; and it was inhabited by a few gigantic fish of the minnow species, the existence of which, hitherto, had never even been dreamed of by science. 
          “Kitten,” I said, my voice broken by emotion, “which will you have named after you, the lake or the fish? Shall it be Lake Kitten Brown, or shall it be Minnius kittenii? Speak!” 
          “What about that old party whose name you said had already been given to the lake?” he asked piteously. 
          “Who? Mrs. Batt? Do you think I’d name such an important lake after her? Anyway, she has declined the honour.” 
          “Very well,” he said, “I’ll accept it. And the fish shall be known as Minnius Smithii!” 
          Too deeply moved to speak, we bent over and shook hands with each other. In that solemn and holy moment, surcharged with ecstatic emotion, a deep, distant reverberation came across the water to our ears. It was the heavy artillery, snoring. 
          Never can I forget that scene; sunshine glittering on the pond, the silent forests and towering peaks, the blue sky overhead, the dead trees where thousands of bats hung in nauseating clusters, thicker than the leaves in Valembrosa—and Kitten Brown and I, cross-legged upon our pneumatic raft, hands clasped in pledge of deathless devotion to science and a fraternity unending. 
          “And how about that girl?” he asked. 
          “What girl?” 
          “Angelica White?” 
          “Well,” said I, “what about her?” 
          “Does she go with the lake or with the fish?” 
          “What do you mean?” I asked coldly, withdrawing my hand from his clasp. “l mean, which of us gets the first chance to win her?” he said, blushing. “There’s no use denying that we both have been bowled over by her; is there?” 
          I pondered for several moments. 
          “She is an extremely intelligent girl,” I said, stalling. 
          “Yes, and then some.” 
          After a few minutes’ further thought, I said: 
          “Possibly I am in error, but at moments it has seemed to me that my marked attentions to Miss White are not wholly displeasing to her. I may be mistaken—” 
          “I think you are, Smith.” 
          “Because—well, because I seem to think so.” 
          I said coldly: 
          “Because she happened to faint away in your arms last night is no symptom that she prefers you. Is it?” 
          “Then why do you seem to think that tactful, delicate, and assiduous attentions on my part may prove not entirely unwelcome to this unusually intelligent—”
          “Miss White is not only a trained nurse, but she also is about to receive her diploma as a physician.” 
          “How do you know?” 
          “She told me.” 
          “When you were building the fire last night. Also, she informed me that she had relentlessly dedicated herself to a eugenic marriage.,’ 
          “When did she tell you that?” 
          “While you were bringing in a bucket of water from the lake last night. And furthermore, she told me that I was perfectly suited for a eugenic marriage.” 
          “When did she tell you that?” I demanded. 
          “When she had—fainted—in my arms.” 
          “How the devil did she come to say a thing like that?” 
          He became conspicuously red about the ears: 
          “Well, I had just told her that I had fallen in love with her—” 
          “Damn!” I said. And that’s all I said; and seizing a paddle I made furiously for shore. Behind me I heard the whirr of the piano wire as Brown started the electric reel. Later I heard him clamping the hood on the hydroscope; but I was too disgusted for any further words, and I dug away at the water with my paddle. 
          In various and weird stages of morning déshabillé the heavy artillery came down to the shore for morning ablutions, all a-row like a file of ducks. 
          They glared at me as I leaped ashore: 
          “I want my breakfast!” snapped Mrs. Batt. “Do you hear what I say, guide? And I don’t wish to be kept waiting for it either! I desire to get out of this place as soon as possible.” 
          “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I intend to stay here for some time.” 
          “What!” bawled the heavy artillery in booming unison. 
          But my temper had been sorely tried, and I was in a mood to tell the truth and make short work of it, too. 
          “Ladies,” I said, “I’ll not mince matters. Mr. Brown and I are not guides; we are scientists from Bronx Park, and we don’t know a bally thing about this wilderness we’re in!” 
          “Swindler!” shouted Mrs. Batt, in an enraged voice. “I knew very well that the United States Government would never have named that puddle of water after me!” 
          “Don’t worry, madam! I’ve named it after Mr. Brown. And the new species of gigantic fish which I discovered in this lake I have named after myself. As for leaving this spot until I have concluded my scientific study of these fish, I simply won’t. I intend to observe their habits and to capture one of them if it requires the remainder of my natural life to do so. I shall be sorry to detain you here during such a period, but it can’t be helped. And now you know what the situation is, and you are at liberty to think it over after you have washed your countenances in Lake Kitten Brown.” 
          Rage possessed the heavy artillery, and a fury indescribable seized them when they discovered that Indians had raided their half ton of feminine perquisites. I went up a tree. 
          When the tumult had calmed sufficiently for them to distinguish what I said, I made a speech to them. From the higher branches of a neighboring tree Kitten Brown applauded and cried, “Hear! Hear!” 
          “Ladies,” I said, “you know the worst, now. If you keep me up this tree and starve me to death it will be murder. Also, you don’t know enough to get out of these forests, but I can guide you back the way you came. I’ll do it if you cease your dangerous demonstrations and permit Mr. Brown and myself to remain here and study these giant fish for a week or two.” 
          They now seemed disposed to consider the idea. There was nothing else for them to do. So after an hour or two, Brown and I ventured to descend from our trees, and we went among them to placate them and ingratiate ourselves as best we might. 
          “Think,” I argued, “what a matchless opportunity for you to be among the first discoverers of a totally new and undescribed species of giant fish!  Think what a legacy it will be to leave such a record to posterity! Think how proud and happy your descendants will be to know that their ancestors assisted at the discovery of Minnius Smithii!” 
          “Why can’t they be named after me?” demanded Mrs. Batt. 
          “Because,” I explained patiently, “they have already been named after me!” 
          “Couldn’t something be named after me?” inquired that fearsome lady. 
          “The bats,” suggested Brown politely, “we could name a bat after you with pleasure—” 
          I thought for a moment she meant to swing on him. He thought so, too, and ducked. 
          “A bat!” she shouted. “Name a bat after me!” 
          “Many a celebrated scientist has been honoured by having his name conferred upon humbler fauna,” I explained. 
          But she remained dangerous, so I went and built the fire, and squatted there, frying bacon, while on the other side of the fire, sitting side by side, Kitten Brown and Angelica White gazed upon each other with enraptured eyes. It was slightly sickening—but let that pass. I was beginning to understand that science is a jealous mistress and that any contemplated infidelity of mine stood every chance of being squelched. No; evidently I had not been fashioned for the joys of legal domesticity. 
          Science, the wanton jade, had not yet finished her dance with me. Apparently my maxixe with her was to be external. Fides servanda est. 
          That afternoon the heavy artillery held a council of war, and evidently came to a conclusion to make the best of the situation, for toward sundown they accosted me with a request for the raft, explaining that they desired to picnic aboard and afterward row about the lake and indulge in song. 
          So Brown and I put aboard the craft a substantial cold supper; and the heavy artillery embarked, taking aboard a guitar to be worked by Miss Dingleheimer, and knitting for the others. 
          It was a lovely evening. Brown and I had been discussing a plan to dynamite the lake and stun the fish, that method appealing to us as the only possible way to secure a specimen of the stupendous minnows which inhabited the depths. 
          In fact, it was our only hope of possessing one of these creatures—fishing with a donkey engine, steel cable, and a hook baited with a bat being too uncertain and far more laborious and expensive. 
          I was still smoking my pipe, seated at the foot of the big pine-tree, watching the water turn from gold to pink: Brown sat higher up the slope, his arm around Angelica White. I carefully kept my back toward them. 
          On the lake the heavy artillery were revelling loudly, banqueting, singing, strumming the guitar, and trailing their hands overboard across the sunset-tinted water. 
          I was thinking of nothing in particular as I now remember, except that I noticed the bats beginning to flit over the lake; when Brown called to me from the slope above, asking whether it was perfectly safe for the heavy artillery to remain out so late. 
          “Why?” I demanded. 
          “Suppose,” he shouted, “that those fish should begin to jump and feed on the bats again?” 
          I had never thought of that. 
          I rose and hurried nervously down to the shore, and, making a megaphone of my hands, I shouted: 
          “Come in! It isn’t safe to remain out any longer!” 
          Scornful laughter from the artillery answered my appeal. 
          “You’d better come in!” I called. “You can’t tell what might happen if any of those fish should jump—” 
          “Mind your business!” retorted Mrs. Batt. “We’ve had enough of your prevarications—” 
          Then, suddenly, without the faintest shadow of warning, from the centre of the lake a vast geyser of water towered a hundred feet in the air. For one dreadful second I saw the raft hurled skyward, balanced on the crest of the stupendous fountain, spilling ladies, supper, guitars, and knitting in every direction. 
          Then a horrible thing occurred; fish after fish shot up out of the storm of water and foam, seizing, as they fell, ladies, luncheon, and knitting in mid-air, falling back with a crashing shock which seemed to rock the very mountains. “Help!” I screamed. And fainted dead away. 
          Is it necessary to proceed? Literature nods; Science shakes her head. No, nothing but literature lies beyond the ripples which splashed musically upon the shore, terminating forever the last vibration from that immeasurable catstrophe.
          Why should I go on? The newspapers of the nation have recorded the last scenes of the tragedy. 
          We know that tons of dynamite are being forwarded to that solitary lake. We know that it is the determination of the Government to rid the world of those gigantic minnows. 
          And yet, somehow, it seems to me as I sit writing here in my office, amid the verdure of Bronx Park, that the destruction of these enormous fish is a mistake. What more splendid sarcophagus could the ladies of the lake desire than these huge, silvery, itinerant and living tombs? 
          What reward more sumptuous could anybody wish for than to rest at last within the interior dimness of an absolutely new species of anything? For me, such a final repose as this would represent the highest pinnacle of sublimity, the uttermost zenith of mortal dignity. 
          So what more is there for me to say? 
          As for Angelica—but no matter. I hope she may be comparatively happy with Kitten Brown. Yet, as I have said before, handsome men never last.  But she should have thought of that in time. 
          I absolve myself of all responsibility. She had her chance.


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