THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
Louise spent the following morning surrounded by piles of dusty citation indices in a secluded corner of the University library. It was dry, disheartening work; checking each year's cumulative index under half a dozen headings; noting down the possibly interesting entries; checking the corresponding abstracts and rejecting the irrelevant. After three hours of steady labour, she had covered twenty years and found a mere handful of references that might be useful. Not even the absence of two of the most promising volumes from the shelves, however, could discourage her that morning: her heart felt like a springtime forest, full of blossoms and birdsong and new leaves unfurling in the sun.
"It must be your birthday or something," commented the girl on duty at the copying desk.
"Not exactly." Louise dimpled and blushed like a schoolgirl as she folded the copied articles and put them away.
"I don't know what it is about these old journals lately." Like most of the library staff, the clerk had grown quite familiar with Louise over the last couple of weeks. "Some of them haven't been off the shelves for years -- and now here I am copying them for the second time in a week."
"Really?" Louise's attention was caught.
"I'm sure I did that very article only the other day." The girl picked up one of the volumes. "I'm sure it was this book anyway, because it was kind of awkward, being so old and fragile. I wonder . . ." She opened a drawer and flicked through a pile of request forms. "Yes, here we are. Of course, it was that Dr. Barton."
Louise bent a little closer, trying to see the form. It was one of the yellow slips used by the general public, rather than the pink ones reserved for faculty members, but the address was hidden.
"He's an odd one," the girl added. "He comes in here quite a lot -- has been doing for months -- but he never so much as passes the time of day, just sits in a corner and jumps out of his skin if anyone comes up behind him." She caught herself abruptly. "You aren't working with him or something, are you, Miss Delamere? I don't want to speak out of turn."
"No," Louise said slowly. "I don't think I've ever met a Dr. Barton. Perhaps I should, though. You couldn't give me his address, could you?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Delamere. That's against the rules. I could point him out to you sometime, maybe, but that's as far as I can go."
"Fair enough." Louise smiled. "Thank you, Sadie. Don't worry about these: I'll reshelve them." She gathered up the books, balancing her notebook on top of the pile, and hurried back to the basement stack where she had found them. The place was deserted, a dimly lit maze of shelves, smelling faintly of mouldering paper and rather more strongly of floor-polish. Under a strip-light in one of the alcoves, she opened the volume to which Sadie had drawn her attention, holding the pages of the relevant article sideways to the light. As a librarian she deplored what she found, but as an amateur detective she nodded in satisfaction. Someone had filled in the photocopy request form, pressing heavily with a ball-point pen to be sure of marking all three carbon copies, with the form resting on the opened page. The impression was faint, but she could make out most of the address. She noted it down, then shelved the books in their proper places and hurried for the exit. It was nearly midday, and there was something else she wanted to check before she went on to the hospital.
"Louise! I wasn't expecting to see you today," Mr. Jennings greeted her, when she arrived at the City Library.
"It's all right, Richard. I'm not staying: there's something I have to find out for the Admiral."
"How is he?"
"Oh, much better -- he was almost back to normal by last night."
"I thought you didn't look too worried. In fact, now I come to think of it, you look positively radiant."
"Mr. Jennings!" Louise could not keep from smiling.
"I can see we're going to lose you, one way or another." He shook his head. "I don't know how we'll go on without you, but I've always thought you were wasted in this place: if your Admiral has a better use for your talents, I'll be happy for you."
"It hasn't come to that yet," Louise said quickly. "Now, if you'll excuse me."
It did not take her long to find what she wanted. There were several people named Barton on the library's membership list, but only two of them were Doctors, and of those, only one had an address that matched the one in her notebook. Dr. James Barton had several books out on loan: some of them, curiously, seemed to be general works on world history and science, but most were the very books of Greek mythology and obscure explorations with which she and the Admiral had begun their researches.
At ten o'clock in the morning, five hundred miles off the Pacific coast, an explosion ripped through the Seaview's control circuitry and sent her plunging to the seabed. There was nothing very unusual in that: the crew was used to operating the ship well beyond her design limits. On this occasion, however, there had been nothing to provoke the failure.
"It shouldn't have happened, sir," Chief Sharkey reported, looking up from the tangle of scorched and foam-splattered circuits in the Engine Room.
"I know it shouldn't have happened, Chief," retorted the Captain. "What I want to know is why it did happen."
"She was running beautifully, and it isn't like her to act up for no reason." Sharkey poked at the mess again, and shook his head. "I've never seen anything like this, Skipper -- and I thought I knew just about everything that could go wrong with this ship."
"I don't think even the Admiral would claim that much," said the Captain, with a faint smile. "All right, Chief -- get the repairs underway."
"It's going to take an hour or so at least, sir."
"Captain Crane," a voice came over the intercom. "Please come to the Control Room."
The Captain reached for a microphone. "I'll be right there. Carry on, Chief." He set off down the corridor at a half-run.
"Well, what is it, Sparks?" he demanded, coming to a halt by the Radio Shack.
"I'm not sure, sir." The radio officer handed him a slip of paper. "It's an urgent message from the Institute -- in the Admiral's personal code."
"I see." Crane relaxed a little. After the previous day's disquieting bulletin from the hospital, it was some relief to know that the Admiral was capable of sending messages. He studied the scrap of paper, deciphering the message.
"What's up, Lee?" Commander Chip Morton, Seaview's Exec, came up behind Crane.
Crane crumpled the paper in his hand. "Orders from the Admiral. Was the Flying Sub damaged at all?"
"Good. I'm going back to Santa Barbara for a day or two -- I'll leave as soon as we're off the bottom, if everything else is under control."
If Morton was at all startled by the sudden change of plan, he hid it well. "Aye, sir," he said promptly.
"I think he's all right," Crane said quietly.
"I hope so." Morton seemed to be only half joking when he added, a moment later, "He has to be. I don't know how much longer we can hold Seaview together without him."
Louise approached the Admiral a little warily, resolved despite the happiness that bubbled up inside her to take nothing for granted. He was so obviously delighted to see her, however, that her caution did not last long.
"I've missed you," he said. He had been lying down, but he pushed himself up to greet her. "I think you get more beautiful every time I see you."
"You look pretty good yourself." Louise dropped her satchel and bent down to help him with the pillows. He seemed much stronger than he had been even before Arroth's intrusion, alert, cheerful and so full of energy that it seemed unlikely he would be content to stay in bed for very much longer.
"So what have you found out?" he asked, when they were both comfortable.
"I tracked down a few more references to those artefacts, but that's a slow business. There's something else, though: I've got a name to try out on you today."
"Well? Who is it?"
"Barton -- Dr. James Barton."
"I was afraid of that," Nelson said grimly. "What about him?"
"Only that he seems to be on the same trail of references -- maybe a few days ahead of us. Who is he, Harry? Is he dangerous?"
"He calls himself a freelance archaeologist, but 'treasure-hunter' would be closer to the truth. We were supposed to be helping his so-called research in the Lost City: I'd rather not go into that right now, other than to say that he acted very strangely towards the end of the mission."
"It sounds as though you didn't like him very much," Louise observed.
"The feeling was entirely mutual. However, that's beside the point. Barton might have his own legitimate reasons for carrying on researching the background -- though I could wish he'd been a little more thorough in the first place. On the other hand, he could be working with Arroth, and that would be a dangerous combination. He's weak, and greedy, but he has enough standing in the scientific community to make all kinds of trouble."
"Some day, you're going to have to tell me what really happened down there," Louise said seriously.
"Some day -- but not now." He looked uneasy for a moment, and when he went on his tone was a little too casual. "I'm probably not the best person to tell that story, anyway: there are some odd gaps in what I remember about it. According to the doctors, that may clear up in time -- or it may not."
"All right: I'm not going to force it out of you. What are we going to do about Dr. Barton? I've got his home address: I could pay him a visit."
"That's a good idea -- but I don't want you going in without some kind of back-up. I can arrange that, but not immediately. Would you recognize Arroth if you came face to face with him?"
"I think so."
"Good. Now, about those artefacts. I gather from your notes that what you learned yesterday didn't shed much light on them -- except to suggest an explanation for their presence on that island in the first place."
"I'm afraid not. There's still a lot I can't seem to remember."
"Don't worry: I'm sure we'll find the key eventually." Nelson sighed. "But if Barton is working with Arroth -- and if the devices still exist and they want them -- we haven't much time to lose: we have to find them first."
"That's a lot of ifs."
"Only guesses -- but we can't afford to ignore the possibility. How much longer is that citation search going to take?"
"That depends if I get lucky. I've covered the first twenty-five years without finding anything definite: it could take another couple of days to get right up to date, and even then there's no guarantee."
"I could assign you someone to help -- but that would attract too much attention. I'd rather not blow your cover until it can't be avoided."
"Then I'd better get back to work."
"Much as I regret the loss of your company, I'm afraid you're right. Will you be working at the Library tomorrow?"
"It's Saturday: I could have worked, to make up for the days off, but I don't need to."
"Good. If you find anything important today, let me know: otherwise I hope to see you the same time tomorrow."
"Very well, Admiral." Louise would have liked to stay with him, but there was work to be done. "I'll do my best."
"I'm sure you will," he said softly, "and if your best isn't good enough, I don't know what would be." His grip tightened round her hand for a moment. "Take care. This is a dangerous business, and I don't want you to come to any harm."
It was late afternoon by the time Crane arrived in Santa Barbara: he had delayed his departure for more than an hour after Seaview lifted off the bottom, until he was sure that everything was back to normal.
"What's going on?" he asked the guard inside the anteroom.
"You'd better ask the Admiral, sir," the man responded.
"Is he all right?"
"He seems to be in great shape, but he's been expecting you for the last hour and a half: you'd better go on in."
"Well, what kept you?" the Admiral demanded as soon as Crane walked through the door.
"We had a little electrical trouble, sir." Crane grinned with relief. "It's good to see you so much better: after yesterday's bulletin we were a little worried."
"You may be even more worried when I tell you what really happened," Nelson said rather grimly.
"There's been shooting in here!" Crane strode over to the far wall. "These are bullet marks -- and I could swear they weren't here last time I came."
"Yes, there was some shooting. The guard didn't hit anything, and now he's as convinced as anyone else that he was shooting at shadows."
"You'd better tell me about it."
"I intend to -- if you'll sit down."
"Are you quite sure about this?" Crane asked, frowning, when he had heard the whole story of Arroth's visit. "I mean, we all had nightmares after what happened down there."
"I tell you it was no dream," Nelson said patiently. "There are some notes on the table: read them."
Crane found the half-dozen sheets of paper and spent a few minutes reading through them. "Who wrote this?" he enquired presently.
"A very remarkable lady." Nelson smiled. "What do you make of it?"
"It all fits with what we know," Crane admitted. "How much had you told her?"
"What is she? A clairvoyant? A telepath? An alien in disguise?"
"I don't think so -- but I'm sure these 'memories' are genuine."
"All right, Admiral," Crane said, resigned. "How can I help?"
"Attention all patrons! The library will close in ten minutes' time."
As the announcement came over the public address system, Louise raised her head and looked around. Acres of bare table-tops stretched across the deserted room: the big windows were full of the velvet blueness of night. She could hardly believe that she had been working on the citations for almost eight hours. Her shoulders ached, and now that her concentration was broken she felt a little light-headed with hunger and lack of sleep. She finished noting down one last reference, and decided that she had just time for a quick glance at the article before she had to leave.
The stack was illuminated only by dim safety lights at floor level: Louise found the alcove she wanted by counting the bays from the door, then switched on the strip-light. The book she wanted -- a small, battered volume with its leather spine hanging loose -- was in its place. She pulled it out and flicked through the yellowed pages, already preparing herself for another disappointment. When she found the article, the first word that caught her eye was her own name. She blinked and looked again, convinced she must be imagining things, but there it was, in a footnote on the first page.
"We are indebted to Mr. Louis Delamere, of Santa Barbara, for his kind permission to examine some of the items described here, which form part of his private collection."
Louise stared at the page, her hands trembling a little, mentally checking dates. The Louis Delamere of that time had been her great-grandfather -- and Great-Aunt Matty's father.
"Attention! Attention! The Library will close in two minutes."
Louise replaced the book on the shelf, switched off the light, and hurried for the exit. Less than twenty minutes later, to her mother's consternation, she was at the door of her parents' house.
"Louise, honey! You should have called us! Really, my girl, sometimes I worry about you. We've hardly heard from you in the last month, and now all of a sudden you turn up at this time of night."
"I'm sorry, Mother, but this is important," Louise excused herself. "I've been very busy lately." The house had hardly changed in twenty years: almost before she had stepped through the front door, she could feel the old confusions and frustrations beginning to surface.
"Too busy to bother with your own family? I wouldn't mind if you'd found yourself a nice boy, but I suppose you've been studying some old language nobody ever heard of." Agnes Delamere had been pretty once, in a plump, blonde, innocuous way, but the years had not been kind to her: at sixty, despite paint and dye and some plastic surgery her husband could ill afford, she looked like an old, disappointed woman.
"Mother, I'm a little old for boys." Louise doubted that the Admiral would come within her mother's definition of a "nice boy" -- even if she was ready to admit that they had that kind of relationship.
"And whose fault is that?"
"Mother, I didn't come here to get into that argument again."
"Louise! What does bring you here?" Her father appeared in the doorway of his den. White-haired and slightly stooped, he was nearly ten years older than his wife.
"Daddy!" Louise dropped her satchel to give him a hug. His bones felt old and frail: he had aged perceptibly since she had last seen him. Not for the first time, she regretted that her difficult relationship with her mother made it hard for her to spend more time with him.
"How's my beautiful daughter?" he asked, standing back to study her.
"I'm fine, Daddy. I came for some of Great-Aunt Matty's things -- in those old trunks I had to leave in the attic. Is it all right if I go up and have a look around?"
He gave her a startled look, but all he said was, "Go ahead. It's your stuff, after all, though I don't see what you want with it at this time of night."
"Have you eaten, dear?" Agnes called up the stairs after her daughter's rapidly retreating back.
"Not since breakfast," Louise responded absently.
"Really, child, you aren't fit to live on your own. I'll fix you something."
"Please don't go to any trouble, Mother."
Most of Great-Aunt Matty's possessions had been sold, under the terms of her will, to provide Louise with the money she needed for an independent start in life. A few items, however -- mostly old family mementos -- had been kept back. Among these things were three large, old-fashioned trunks. They were much too bulky for Louise's apartment: when she first inherited them, she had lifted the lids, glanced at the folded bales of old cloth and stacks of hand-written notebooks, and decided that they were not interesting. They had been in the attic of her parents' house, buried under a growing mound of other lumber, ever since. It took her half an hour to clear away the accumulated detritus of seventeen years: by the time she was done, the scents of her mother's cooking were drifting up from the ground floor. She took a deep breath, rubbed her dusty hands down the front of her skirt, and opened the largest of the three boxes. It proved to be full of clothes -- men's and women's garments from the turn of the century, carefully folded away with the dusty remnants of sprigs of lavender between the layers. The second trunk was mostly occupied by heavy brocade curtains; the notebooks at the bottom were full of recipes in her great-aunt's spidery handwriting.
The third trunk was an old-fashioned, metal-bound affair like a pirate's treasure chest. The key was in the lock, almost seized up after years of neglect: it turned with a squeal of protest. There were boxes inside, wooden or painted tin, each labelled in her great-grandfather's illegible scrawl. Seventeen years ago she had barely glanced at them: now she lifted them out, one by one, and carefully opened each one. There were shells, and pieces of coral, and arrowheads of flint and bone; there were smaller boxes full of coloured Indian beads, and carved wooden curios from savage lands. The largest box of all held eight lumpy bundles of cotton-wool, each of which contained a piece of verdigris-encrusted metal. She stared at them, as they lay in her lap, and touched them with cautious fingers. Memories stirred: battles where the combatants fought with sizzling beams of purple light; voices relayed through miles of stone corridors deep under the ocean bed.
When all the boxes were out, there was one thing left at the bottom of the trunk; a leather-bound notebook, so old that most of the binding fell to powder when she lifted it out. The ink had faded to a sepia only a couple of shades darker than the yellowed paper, but the copper-plate writing was still legible.
I write these lines, not in any hope of being believed by the world, but for a memorial of my dear wife now sadly deceased, and that my children and descendants may know their heritage.
In the latter part of the year of our Lord, 1800, in the course of a voyage among the South Sea Islands, I had the misfortune to be stranded, with two companions, on a tiny nameless islet, scarcely large enough to support even our small party. The only notable feature of this place was a round hill, some five hundred feet in height, and so regular in shape that it might have been a work of men's hands. Near to the summit of this hill, so well concealed among the rocks that we had been nearly a week in that desolate spot before we discovered it, there was an opening, just so high and wide as a doorway, though there was no door.
When we first discovered the opening, while we were seeking for a shelter from a storm of rain and wind, we had no light to investigate more than a few yards into the hill, but we saw enough to persuade us that there was a passage carved out, leading deep into the earth. The next day, we came back with what lanterns and lamp-oil we had, and determined to explore further. The passage ran almost straight, sloping a little down, for about a quarter of one mile, and then we came to a sudden turn, and the beginning of a stairway. The steps, cut out of solid rock, seemed to be of great age, and in places were almost crumbled away, but there was still passage for active men. When we had descended some two hundred steps, we found that the darkness was less thick than it had been, and as we went on the light grew, so that soon we had no more need of lanterns. This light seemed to come from no lamp like those we know, but from stones let into the wall that shone without heat.
There were near to a thousand steps in all, and then a long passage, so long that, had it not been for the strange light, we must have turned back. At last we came to a place where the passage opened out into a series of chambers, and then to a vast cavern. By our reckoning, we had come some five miles, and must have been well out under the seabed.
This cavern was a full mile from side to side, and fully half as high as its extent, and all as bright as daylight. The floor was somewhat hollowed out, so that the place where we entered was higher than what lay within, and we could see the city spread out before us. A city it was indeed, like no city that ever was under the sun, laid out in circles, one within another, with five great roads leading from the outside to the centre, and all deserted and silent, as if the place were one great tomb. So we came down from the outer rim, and followed the road, and entered into the first house we came to. We found it full of wonders, with strange devices of which we could not guess the use, but all was silent and without inhabitant. We passed on, and came to a greater house, or perhaps I should say palace, for it seemed too vast for any ordinary dwelling. Here there were bones, so brittle and dry that they crumbled to dust when we touched them, and whole skeletons lying as they must have fallen, and rich furnishings all mouldered away, but broken as if in a great struggle. Then we would have turned back, for the place seemed to us very terrible, but we were weary and sought a place to rest before we returned to the sunlight.
So we came to an inner hall, and there we found men and women lying on slabs of stone, no skeletons but full fleshly forms that seemed only to sleep. They seemed a comely people, though their features were not of any race or country we knew. One woman there was in particular, hardly more than a girl, with long hair almost black, who seemed to me more beautiful than any living woman that ever I saw. My companions would not enter the room, but a great desire came on me to see this lovely creature more closely. I drew near to the place where she lay, and laid my hand upon her dress, half fearing that she would turn to dust under my touch. Then, to my great joy, she stirred and drew breath, and opened her eyes: I remember that they were green like the sea. At first it seemed she was afraid to see me there, but I spoke softly to her, and though she did not understand the words it was plain she knew I meant her no harm. I raised her from her stony couch, and she looked around at the other sleepers, but they were not to be so easily waked: I know not by what chance this one young woman slept so lightly. She told me afterwards it was my love that woke her, but that I take to be a pleasing fancy on her part. Then she made us understand that we must be gone from that place before other, more evil things were awakened, and she led us forth of the house and through the city, and so to another passage.
It was not long before we knew that something followed us, but the girl sang some words in her own tongue, and we were not molested: and when we came upon the creature that guarded the passage, a fearsome many-headed beast that could have devoured our whole company, her singing turned it from harming us. So we came at last to another stair, and beyond that, having been more than three days in the journey, to an opening on an inhabited island.
We were six months in that place, before we could come by a ship to take us home, and in that time my lovely Luisha had learnt to speak our language as well as we who taught her. She had been a princess in that place, she told us, but of how it came to its end she would not speak, and never did to the day of her death, though she became my wife and lived happily with me for nearly forty years: only sometimes in her sleep she would cry out in her own tongue, so I guessed that, young as she was, she had seen some terrible things. I truly believe I did her no injury in taking her away from that dreadful place.
My wife died last winter, which is still a great grief to me: nor have I a daughter to recall her beauty, but only two fine sons who favour their father more than their mother. But my youngest grand-daughter has the same green eyes, and they tell me she dreams strange dreams.
"Louise! I've been calling you and calling you: I'm too old for these stairs. What are you up to?"
Louise looked up into her mother's exasperated face, trying to focus on the present again. She was dizzy with sudden understanding: it had been here, all along, the answer to what had haunted her all her life. There was so much, and it was stranger than anything she could ever have imagined.
"Louise! You aren't going to have one of your spells, are you?"
"Never again," Louise murmured. "Now I know what it was all about." Then she fainted, falling down and down through a vortex of memories.
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