HEADLONG SPEED UPWARD THROUGH THE HORRORS OF DARKNESS
It might have been, as I guessed, about ten at night. The first of my senses which came into play after this last bout was that of hearing. All at once I could hear; and it was a real exercise of the sense of hearing. I could hear the silence in the gallery after the din which for hours had stunned me. At last these words of my uncle’s came to me like a vague murmuring:
“We are going up.”
“What do you mean?” I cried.
“Yes, we are going up—up!”
I stretched out my arm. I touched the wall, and drew back my hand bleeding. We were ascending with extreme rapidity.
“The torch! The torch!” cried the Professor.
Not without difficulty Hans succeeded in lighting the torch; and the flame, preserving its upward tendency, threw enough light to show us what kind of a place we were in.
“Just as I thought,” said the Professor “We are in a tunnel not four-and-twenty feet in diameter. The water had reached the bottom of the gulf. It is now rising to its level, and carrying us with it.”
“I cannot tell; but we must be ready for anything. We are mounting at a speed which seems to me of fourteen feet in a second, or ten miles an hour. At this rate we shall get on.”
“Yes, if nothing stops us; if this well has an aperture. But suppose it to be stopped. If the air is condensed by the pressure of this column of water we shall be crushed.”
“Axel,” replied the Professor with perfect coolness, “our situation is almost desperate; but there are some chances of deliverance, and it is these that I am considering. If at every instant we may perish, so at every instant we may be saved. Let us then be prepared to seize upon the smallest advantage.”
“But what shall we do now?”
“Recruit our strength by eating.”
At these words I fixed a haggard eye upon my uncle. That which I had been so unwilling to confess at last had to be told.
“Eat, did you say?”
“Yes, at once.”
The Professor added a few words in Danish, but Hans shook his head mournfully.
“What!” cried my uncle. “Have we lost our provisions?”
“Yes; here is all we have left; one bit of salt meat for the three.”
My uncle stared at me as if he could not understand.
“Well,” said I, “do you think we have any chance of being saved?”
My question was unanswered.
An hour passed away. I began to feel the pangs of a violent hunger. My companions were suffering too, and not one of us dared touch this wretched remnant of our goodly store.
But now we were mounting up with excessive speed. Sometimes the air would cut our breath short, as is experienced by aeronauts ascending too rapidly. But whilst they suffer from cold in proportion to their rise, we were beginning to feel a contrary effect. The heat was increasing in a manner to cause us the most fearful anxiety, and certainly the temperature was at this moment at the height of 100° Fahr.
What could be the meaning of such a change? Up to this time facts had supported the theories of Davy and of Liedenbrock; until now particular conditions of non-conducting rocks, electricity and magnetism, had tempered the laws of nature, giving us only a moderately warm climate, for the theory of a central fire remained in my estimation the only one that was true and explicable. Were we then turning back to where the phenomena of central heat ruled in all their rigour and would reduce the most refractory rocks to the state of a molten liquid? I feared this, and said to the Professor:
“If we are neither drowned, nor shattered to pieces, nor starved to death, there is still the chance that we may be burned alive and reduced to ashes.”
At this he shrugged his shoulders and returned to his thoughts.
Another hour passed, and, except some slight increase in the temperature, nothing new had happened.
“Come,” said he, “we must determine upon something.”
“Determine on what?” said I.
“Yes, we must recruit our strength by carefully rationing ourselves, and so prolong our existence by a few hours. But we shall be reduced to very great weakness at last.”
“And our last hour is not far off.”
“Well, if there is a chance of safety, if a moment for active exertion presents itself, where should we find the required strength if we allowed ourselves to be enfeebled by hunger?”
“Well, uncle, when this bit of meat has been devoured what shall we have left?”
“Nothing, Axel, nothing at all. But will it do you any more good to devour it with your eyes than with your teeth? Your reasoning has in it neither sense nor energy.”
“Then don’t you despair?” I cried irritably.
“No, certainly not,” was the Professor’s firm reply.
“What! do you think there is any chance of safety left?”
“Yes, I do; as long as the heart beats, as long as body and soul keep together, I cannot admit that any creature endowed with a will has need to despair of life.”
Resolute words these! The man who could speak so, under such circumstances, was of no ordinary type.
“Finally, what do you mean to do?” I asked.
“Eat what is left to the last crumb, and recruit our fading strength. This meal will be our last, perhaps: so let it be! But at any rate we shall once more be men, and not exhausted, empty bags.”
“Well, let us consume it then,” I cried.
My uncle took the piece of meat and the few biscuits which had escaped from the general destruction. He divided them into three equal portions and gave one to each. This made about a pound of nourishment for each. The Professor ate his greedily, with a kind of feverish rage. I ate without pleasure, almost with disgust; Hans quietly, moderately, masticating his small mouthfuls without any noise, and relishing them with the calmness of a man above all anxiety about the future. By diligent search he had found a flask of Hollands; he offered it to us each in turn, and this generous beverage cheered us up slightly.
“Forträfflig,” said Hans, drinking in his turn.
“Excellent,” replied my uncle.
A glimpse of hope had returned, although without cause. But our last meal was over, and it was now five in the morning.
Man is so constituted that health is a purely negative state. Hunger once satisfied, it is difficult for a man to imagine the horrors of starvation; they cannot be understood without being felt.
Therefore it was that after our long fast these few mouthfuls of meat and biscuit made us triumph over our past agonies.
But as soon as the meal was done, we each of us fell deep into thought. What was Hans thinking of—that man of the far West, but who seemed ruled by the fatalist doctrines of the East?
As for me, my thoughts were made up of remembrances, and they carried me up to the surface of the globe of which I ought never to have taken leave. The house in the Königstrasse, my poor dear Gräuben, that kind soul Martha, flitted like visions before my eyes, and in the dismal moanings which from time to time reached my ears I thought I could distinguish the roar of the traffic of the great cities upon earth.
My uncle still had his eye upon his work. Torch in hand, he tried to gather some idea of our situation from the observation of the strata. This calculation could, at best, be but a vague approximation; but a learned man is always a philosopher when he succeeds in remaining cool, and assuredly Professor Liedenbrock possessed this quality to a surprising degree.
I could hear him murmuring geological terms. I could understand them, and in spite of myself I felt interested in this last geological study.
“Eruptive granite,” he was saying. “We are still in the primitive period. But we are going up, up, higher still. Who can tell?”
Ah! who can tell? With his hand he was examining the perpendicular wall, and in a few more minutes he continued:
“This is gneiss! here is mica schist! Ah! presently we shall come to the transition period, and then—”
What did the Professor mean? Could he be trying to measure the thickness of the crust of the earth that lay between us and the world above? Had he any means of making this calculation? No, he had not the aneroid, and no guessing could supply its place.
Still the temperature kept rising, and I felt myself steeped in a broiling atmosphere. I could only compare it to the heat of a furnace at the moment when the molten metal is running into the mould. Gradually we had been obliged to throw aside our coats and waistcoats, the lightest covering became uncomfortable and even painful.
“Are we rising into a fiery furnace?” I cried at one moment when the heat was redoubling.
“No,” replied my uncle, “that is impossible—quite impossible!”
“Yet,” I answered, feeling the wall, “this well is burning hot.”
At the same moment, touching the water, I had to withdraw my hand in haste.
“The water is scalding,” I cried.
This time the Professor’s only answer was an angry gesture.
Then an unconquerable terror seized upon me, from which I could no longer get free. I felt that a catastrophe was approaching before which the boldest spirit must quail. A dim, vague notion laid hold of my mind, but which was fast hardening into certainty. I tried to repel it, but it would return. I dared not express it in plain terms. Yet a few involuntary observations confirmed me in my view. By the flickering light of the torch I could distinguish contortions in the granite beds; a phenomenon was unfolding in which electricity would play the principal part; then this unbearable heat, this boiling water! I consulted the compass.
The compass had lost its properties! it had ceased to act properly!