THE WRONG ROAD!
Next day, our departure took place at a very early hour. There was no time for the least delay. According to my account, we had five days’ hard work to get back to the place where the galleries divided.
I can never tell all the sufferings we endured upon our return. My uncle bore them like a man who has been in the wrong—that is, with concentrated and suppressed anger; Hans, with all the resignation of his pacific character; and I—I confess that I did nothing but complain, and despair. I had no heart for this bad fortune.
But there was one consolation. Defeat at the outset would probably upset the whole journey!
As I had expected from the first, our supply of water gave completely out on our first day’s march. Our provision of liquids was reduced to our supply of Schiedam; but this horrible—nay, I will say it—this infernal liquor burnt the throat, and I could not even bear the sight of it. I found the temperature to be stifling. I was paralyzed with fatigue. More than once I was about to fall insensible to the ground. The whole party then halted, and the worthy Icelander and my excellent uncle did their best to console and comfort me. I could, however, plainly see that my uncle was contending painfully against the extreme fatigues of our journey, and the awful torture generated by the absence of water.
At length a time came when I ceased to recollect anything—when all was one awfull hideous, fantastic dream!
At last, on Tuesday, the seventh of the month of July, after crawling on our hands and knees for many hours, more dead than alive, we reached the point of junction between the galleries. I lay like a log, an inert mass of human flesh on the arid lava soil. It was then ten in the morning.
Hans and my uncle, leaning against the wall, tried to nibble away at some pieces of biscuit, while deep groans and sighs escaped from my scorched and swollen lips. Then I fell off into a kind of deep lethargy.
Presently I felt my uncle approach, and lift me up tenderly in his arms.
“Poor boy,” I heard him say in a tone of deep commiseration.
I was profoundly touched by these words, being by no means accustomed to signs of womanly weakness in the Professor. I caught his trembling hands in mine and gave them a gentle pressure. He allowed me to do so without resistance, looking at me kindly all the time. His eyes were wet with tears.
I then saw him take the gourd which he wore at his side. To my surprise, or rather to my stupefaction, he placed it to my lips.
“Drink, my boy,” he said.
Was it possible my ears had not deceived me? Was my uncle mad? I looked at him, with, I am sure, quite an idiotic expression. I could not believe him. I too much feared the counteraction of disappointment.
“Drink,” he said again.
Had I heard aright? Before, however, I could ask myself the question a second time, a mouthful of water cooled my parched lips and throat—one mouthful, but I do believe it brought me back to life.
I thanked my uncle by clasping my hands. My heart was too full to speak.
“Yes,” said he, “one mouthful of water, the very last—do you hear, my boy—the very last! I have taken care of it at the bottom of my bottle as the apple of my eye. Twenty times, a hundred times, I have resisted the fearful desire to drink it. But—no—no, Harry, I saved it for you.”
“My dear uncle,” I exclaimed, and the big tears rolled down my hot and feverish cheeks.
“Yes, my poor boy, I knew that when you reached this place, this crossroad in the earth, you would fall down half dead, and I saved my last drop of water in order to restore you.”
“Thanks,” I cried; “thanks from my heart.”
As little as my thirst was really quenched, I had nevertheless partially recovered my strength. The contracted muscles of my throat relaxed—and the inflammation of my lips in some measure subsided. At all events, I was able to speak.
“Well,” I said, “there can be no doubt now as to what we have to do. Water has utterly failed us; our journey is therefore at an end. Let us return.”
While I spoke thus, my uncle evidently avoided my face: he held down his head; his eyes were turned in every possible direction but the right one.
“Yes,” I continued, getting excited by my own words, “we must go back to Sneffels. May heaven give us strength to enable us once more to revisit the light of day. Would that we now stood on the summit of the crater.”
“Go back,” said my uncle, speaking to himself, “and must it be so?”
“Go back—yes, and without losing a single moment,” I vehemently cried.
For some moments there was silence under that dark and gloomy vault.
“So, my dear Harry,” said the Professor in a very singular tone of voice, “those few drops of water have not sufficed to restore your energy and courage.”
“Courage!” I cried.
“I see that you are quite as downcast as before—and still give way to discouragement and despair.”
What, then, was the man made of, and what other projects were entering his fertile and audacious brain!
“You are not discouraged, sir?”
“What! Give up just as we are on the verge of success?” he cried. “Never, never shall it be said that Professor Hardwigg retreated.”
“Then we must make up our minds to perish,” I cried with a helpless sigh.
“No, Harry, my boy, certainly not. Go, leave me, I am very far from desiring your death. Take Hans with you. I will go on alone.“
“You ask us to leave you?”
“Leave me, I say. I have undertaken this dangerous and perilous adventure. I will carry it to the end—or I will never return to the surface of Mother Earth. Go, Harry—once more I say to you—go!”
My uncle as he spoke was terribly excited. His voice, which before had been tender, almost womanly, became harsh and menacing. He appeared to be struggling with desperate energy against the impossible. I did not wish to abandon him at the bottom of that abyss, while, on the other hand, the instinct of preservation told me to fly.
Meanwhile, our guide was looking on with profound calmness and indifference. He appeared to be an unconcerned party, and yet he perfectly well knew what was going on between us. Our gestures sufficiently indicated the different roads each wished to follow—and which each tried to influence the other to undertake. But Hans appeared not to take the slightest interest in what was really a question of life and death for us all, but waited quite ready to obey the signal which should say go aloft, or to resume his desperate journey into the interior of the earth.
How then I wished with all my heart and soul that I could make him understand my words. My representations, my sighs and groans, the earnest accents in which I should have spoken would have convinced that cold, hard nature. Those fearful dangers and perils of which the stolid guide had no idea, I would have pointed them out to him—I would have, as it were, made him see and feel. Between us, we might have convinced the obstinate Professor. If the worst had come to the worst, we could have compelled him to return to the summit of Sneffels.
I quietly approached Hans. I caught his hand in mine. He never moved a muscle. I indicated to him the road to the top of the crater. He remained motionless. My panting form, my haggard countenance, must have indicated the extent of my sufferings. The Icelander gently shook his head and pointed to my uncle.
“Master,” he said.
The word is Icelandic as well as English.
“The master!” I cried, beside myself with fury—”madman! no—I tell you he is not the master of our lives; we must fly! we must drag him with us! do you hear me? Do you understand me, I say?”
I have already explained that I held Hans by the arm. I tried to make him rise from his seat. I struggled with him and tried to force him away. My uncle now interposed.
“My good Henry, be calm,” he said. “You will obtain nothing from my devoted follower; therefore, listen to what I have to say.”
I folded my arms, as well as I could, and looked my uncle full in the face.
“This wretched want of water,” he said, “is the sole obstacle to the success of my project. In the entire gallery, made of lava, schist, and coal, it is true we found not one liquid molecule. It is quite possible that we may be more fortunate in the western tunnel.”
My sole reply was to shake my head with an air of deep incredulity.
“Listen to me to the end,” said the Professor in his well-known lecturing voice. “While you lay yonder without life or motion, I undertook a reconnoitering journey into the conformation of this other gallery. I have discovered that it goes directly downwards into the bowels of the earth, and in a few hours will take us to the old granitic formation. In this we shall undoubtedly find innumerable springs. The nature of the rock makes this a mathematical certainty, and instinct agrees with logic to say that it is so. Now, this is the serious proposition which I have to make to you. When Christopher Columbus asked of his men three days to discover the land of promise, his men ill, terrified, and hopeless, yet gave him three days—and the New World was discovered. Now I, the Christopher Columbus of this subterranean region, only ask of you one more day. If, when that time is expired, I have not found the water of which we are in search, I swear to you, I will give up my mighty enterprise and return to the earth’s surface.”
Despite my irritation and despair, I knew how much it cost my uncle to make this proposition, and to hold such conciliatory language. Under the circumstances, what could I do but yield?
“Well,” I cried, “let it be as you wish, and may heaven reward your superhuman energy. But as, unless we discover water, our hours are numbered, let us lose no time, but go ahead.”