Ever since the commencement of our marvelous journey, I had experienced many surprises, had suffered from many illusions. I thought that I was case-hardened against all surprises and could neither see nor hear anything to amaze me again.
I was like a many who, having been round the world, finds himself wholly blasé and proof against the marvelous.
When, however, I saw these two letters, which had been engraven three hundred years before, I stood fixed in an attitude of mute surprise.
Not only was there the signature of the learned and enterprising alchemist written in the rock, but I held in my hand the very identical instrument with which he had laboriously engraved it.
It was impossible, without showing an amount of incredulity scarcely becoming a sane man, to deny the existence of the traveler, and the reality of that voyage which I believed all along to have been a myth—the mystification of some fertile brain.
While these reflections were passing through my mind, my uncle, the Professor, gave way to an access of feverish and poetical excitement.
“Wonderful and glorious genius, great Saknussemm”, he cried, “you have left no stone unturned, no resource omitted, to show to other mortals the way into the interior of our mighty globe, and your fellow creatures can find the trail left by your illustrious footsteps, three hundred years ago, at the bottom of these obscure subterranean abodes. You have been careful to secure for others the contemplation of these wonders and marvels of creation. Your name engraved at every important stage of your glorious journey leads the hopeful traveler direct to the great and mighty discovery to which you devoted such energy and courage. The audacious traveler, who shall follow your footsteps to the last, will doubtless find your initials engraved with your own hand upon the center of the earth. I will be that audacious traveler—I, too, will sign my name upon the very same spot, upon the central granite stone of this wondrous work of the Creator. But in justice to your devotion, to your courage, and to your being the first to indicate the road, let this cape, seen by you upon the shores of this sea discovered by you, be called, of all time, Cape Saknussemm.”
This is what I heard, and I began to be roused to the pitch of enthusiasm indicated by those words. A fierce excitement roused me. I forgot everything. The dangers of the voyage and the perils of the return journey were now as nothing!
What another man had done in ages past could, I felt, be done again; I was determined to do it myself, and now nothing that man had accomplished appeared to me impossible.
“Forward—forward,” I cried in a burst of genuine and hearty enthusiasm.
I had already started in the direction of the somber and gloomy gallery when the Professor stopped me; he, the man so rash and hasty, he, the man so easily roused to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, checked me, and asked me to be patient and show more calm.
“Let us return to our good friend, Hans,” he said; “we will then bring the raft down to this place.”
I must say that though I at once yielded to my uncle’s request, it was not without dissatisfaction, and I hastened along the rocks of that wonderful coast.
“Do you know, my dear uncle,” I said, as we walked along, “that we have been singularly helped by a concurrence of circumstances, right up to this very moment.”
“So you begin to see it, do you, Harry?” said the Professor with a smile.
“Doubtless,” I responded, “and strangely enough, even the tempest has been the means of putting us on the right road. Blessings on the tempest! It brought us safely back to the very spot from which fine weather would have driven us forever. Supposing we had succeeded in reaching the southern and distant shores of this extraordinary sea, what would have become of us? The name of Saknussemm would never have appeared to us, and at this moment we should have been cast away upon an inhospitable coast, probably without an outlet.”
“Yes, Harry, my boy, there is certainly something providential in that wandering at the mercy of wind and waves towards the south: we have come back exactly north; and what is better still, we fall upon this great discovery of Cape Saknussemm. I mean to say, that it is more than surprising; there is something in it which is far beyond my comprehension. The coincidence is unheard of, marvelous!”
“What matter! It is not our duty to explain facts, but to make the best possible use of them.”
“Doubtless, my boy; but if you will allow me—” said the really delighted Professor.
“Excuse me, sir, but I see exactly how it will be; we shall take the northern route; we shall pass under the northern regions of Europe, under Sweden, under Russia, under Siberia, and who knows where—instead of burying ourselves under the burning plains and deserts of Africa, or beneath the mighty waves of the ocean; and that is all, at this stage of our journey, that I care to know. Let us advance, and Heaven will be our guide!”
“Yes, Harry, you are right, quite right; all is for the best. Let us abandon this horizontal sea, which could never have led to anything satisfactory. We shall descend, descend, and everlastingly descend. Do you know, my dear boy, that to reach the interior of the earth we have only five thousand miles to travel!”
“Bah!” I cried, carried away by a burst of enthusiasm, “the distance is scarcely worth speaking about. The thing is to make a start.”
My wild, mad, and incoherent speeches continued until we rejoined our patient and phlegmatic guide. All was, we found, prepared for an immediate departure. There was not a single parcel but what was in its proper place. We all took up our posts on the raft, and the sail being hoisted, Hans received his directions, and guided the frail bark towards Cape Saknussemm, as we had definitely named it.
The wind was very unfavorable to a craft that was unable to sail close to the wind. It was constructed to go before the blast. We were continually reduced to pushing ourselves forward by means of poles. On several occasions the rocks ran far out into deep water and we were compelled to make a long round. At last, after three long and weary hours of navigation, that is to say, about six o’clock in the evening, we found a place at which we could land.
I jumped on shore first. In my present state of excitement and enthusiasm, I was always first. My uncle and the Icelander followed. The voyage from the port to this point of the sea had by no means calmed me. It had rather produced the opposite effect. I even proposed to burn our vessel, that is, to destroy our raft, in order to completely cut off our retreat. But my uncle sternly opposed this wild project. I began to think him particularly lukewarm and unenthusiastic.
“At any rate, my dear uncle,” I said, “let us start without delay.”
“Yes, my boy, I am quite as eager to do so as you can be. But, in the first place, let us examine this mysterious gallery, in order to find if we shall need to prepare and mend our ladders.”
My uncle now began to see to the efficiency of our Ruhmkorff coil, which would doubtless soon be needed; the raft, securely fastened to a rock, was left alone. Moreover, the opening into the new gallery was not twenty paces distant from the spot. Our little troop, with myself at the head, advanced.
The orifice, which was almost circular, presented a diameter of about five feet; the somber tunnel was cut in the living rock, and coated on the inside by the different material which had once passed through it in a state of fusion. The lower part was about level with the water, so that we were able to penetrate to the interior without difficulty.
We followed an almost horizontal direction; when, at the end of about a dozen paces, our further advance was checked by the interposition of an enormous block of granite rock.
“Accursed stone!” I cried furiously, on perceiving that we were stopped by what seemed an insurmountable obstacle.
In vain we looked to the right, in vain we looked to the left; in vain examined it above and below. There existed no passage, no sign of any other tunnel. I experienced the most bitter and painful disappointment. So enraged was I that I would not admit the reality of any obstacle. I stooped to my knees; I looked under the mass of stone. No hole, no interstice. I then looked above. The same barrier of granite! Hans, with the lamp, examined the sides of the tunnel in every direction.
But all in vain! It was necessary to renounce all hope of passing through.
I had seated myself upon the ground. My uncle walked angrily and hopelessly up and down. He was evidently desperate.
“But,” I cried, after some moments’ thought, “what about Arne Saknussemm?”
“You are right,” replied my uncle, “he can never have been checked by a lump of rock.”
“No—ten thousand times no,” I cried, with extreme vivacity. “This huge lump of rock, in consequence of some singular concussion, or process, one of those magnetic phenomena which have so often shaken the terrestrial crust, has in some unexpected way closed up the passage. Many and many years have passed away since the return of Saknussemm, and the fall of this huge block of granite. Is it not quite evident that this gallery was formerly the outlet for the pent-up lava in the interior of the earth, and that these eruptive matters then circulated freely? Look at these recent fissures in the granite roof; it is evidently formed of pieces of enormous stone, placed here as if by the hand of a giant, who had worked to make a strong and substantial arch. One day, after an unusually strong shock, the vast rock which stands in our way, and which was doubtless the key of a kind of arch, fell through to a level with the soil and has barred our further progress. We are right, then, in thinking that this is an unexpected obstacle, with which Saknussemm did not meet; and if we do not upset it in some way, we are unworthy of following in the footsteps of the great discoverer; and incapable of finding our way to the center of the earth!”
In this wild way I addressed my uncle. The zeal of the Professor, his earnest longing for success, had become part and parcel of my being. I wholly forgot the past; I utterly despised the future. Nothing existed for me upon the surface of this spheroid in the bosom of which I was engulfed, no towns, no country, no Hamburg, no Koenigstrasse, not even my poor Gretchen, who by this time would believe me utterly lost in the interior of the earth!
“Well,” cried my uncle, roused to enthusiasm by my words, “Let us go to work with pickaxes, with crowbars, with anything that comes to hand—but down with these terrible walls.”
“It is far too tough and too big to be destroyed by a pickax or crowbar,” I replied.
“As I said, it is useless to think of overcoming such a difficulty by means of ordinary tools.”
“What else but gunpowder, a subterranean mine? Let us blow up the obstacle that stands in our way.”
“Yes; all we have to do is to get rid of this paltry obstacle.”
“To work, Hans, to work!” cried the Professor.
The Icelander went back to the raft, and soon returned with a huge crowbar, with which he began to dig a hole in the rock, which was to serve as a mine. It was by no means a slight task. It was necessary for our purpose to make a cavity large enough to hold fifty pounds of fulminating gun cotton, the expansive power of which is four times as great as that of ordinary gunpowder.
I had now roused myself to an almost miraculous state of excitement. While Hans was at work, I actively assisted my uncle to prepare a long wick, made from damp gunpowder, the mass of which we finally enclosed in a bag of linen.
“We are bound to go through,” I cried, enthusiastically.
“We are bound to go through,” responded the Professor, tapping me on the back.
At midnight, our work as miners was completely finished; the charge of fulminating cotton was thrust into the hollow, and the match, which we had made of considerable length, was ready.
A spark was now sufficient to ignite this formidable engine, and to blow the rock to atoms!
“We will now rest until tomorrow.”
It was absolutely necessary to resign myself to my fate, and to consent to wait for the explosion for six weary hours!