Hunger, prolonged, is temporary madness! The brain is at work without its required food, and the most fantastic notions fill the mind. Hitherto I had never known what hunger really meant. I was likely to understand it now.
And yet, three months before I could tell my terrible story of starvation, as I thought it. As a boy I used to make frequent excursions in the neighborhood of the Professor’s house.
My uncle always acted on system, and he believed that, in addition to the day of rest and worship, there should be a day of recreation. In consequence, I was always free to do as I liked on a Wednesday.
Now, as I had a notion to combine the useful and the agreeable, my favorite pastime was birds’ nesting. I had one of the best collections of eggs in all the town. They were classified, and under glass cases.
There was a certain wood, which, by rising at early morn, and taking the cheap train, I could reach at eleven in the morning. Here I would botanize or geologize at my will. My uncle was always glad of specimens for his herbarium, and stones to examine. When I had filled my wallet, I proceeded to search for nests.
After about two hours of hard work, I, one day, sat down by a stream to eat my humble but copious lunch. How the remembrance of the spiced sausage, the wheaten loaf, and the beer, made my mouth water now! I would have given every prospect of worldly wealth for such a meal. But to my story.
While seated thus at my leisure, I looked up at the ruins of an old castle, at no great distance. It was the remains of an historical dwelling, ivy-clad, and now falling to pieces.
While looking, I saw two eagles circling about the summit of a lofty tower. I soon became satisfied that there was a nest. Now, in all my collection, I lacked eggs of the native eagle and the large owl.
My mind was made up. I would reach the summit of that tower, or perish in the attempt. I went nearer, and surveyed the ruins. The old staircase, years before, had fallen in. The outer walls were, however, intact. There was no chance that way, unless I looked to the ivy solely for support. This was, as I soon found out, futile.
There remained the chimney, which still went up to the top, and had once served to carry off the smoke from every story of the tower.
Up this I determined to venture. It was narrow, rough, and therefore the more easily climbed. I took off my coat and crept into the chimney. Looking up, I saw a small, light opening, proclaiming the summit of the chimney.
Up—up I went, for some time using my hands and knees, after the fashion of a chimney sweep. It was slow work, but, there being continual projections, the task was comparatively easy. In this way, I reached halfway. The chimney now became narrower. The atmosphere was close, and, at last, to end the matter, I stuck fast. I could ascend no higher.
There could be no doubt of this, and there remained no resource but to descend, and give up my glorious prey in despair. I yielded to fate and endeavored to descend. But I could not move. Some unseen and mysterious obstacle intervened and stopped me. In an instant the full horror of my situation seized me.
I was unable to move either way, and was doomed to a terrible and horrible death, that of starvation. In a boy’s mind, however, there is an extraordinary amount of elasticity and hope, and I began to think of all sorts of plans to escape my gloomy fate.
In the first place, I required no food just at present, having had an excellent meal, and was therefore allowed time for reflection. My first thought was to try and move the mortar with my hand. Had I possessed a knife, something might have been done, but that useful instrument I had left in my coat pocket.
I soon found that all efforts of this kind were vain and useless, and that all I could hope to do was to wriggle downwards.
But though I jerked and struggled, and strove to turn, it was all in vain. I could not move an inch, one way or the other. And time flew rapidly. My early rising probably contributed to the fact that I felt sleepy, and gradually gave way to the sensation of drowsiness.
I slept, and awoke in darkness, ravenously hungry.
Night had come, and still I could not move. I was tight bound, and did not succeed in changing my position an inch. I groaned aloud. Never since the days of my happy childhood, when it was a hardship to go from meal to meal without eating, had I really experienced hunger. The sensation was as novel as it was painful. I began now to lose my head and to scream and cry out in my agony. Something appeared, startled by my noise. It was a harmless lizard, but it appeared to me a loathsome reptile. Again I made the old ruins resound with my cries, and finally so exhausted myself that I fainted.
How long I lay in a kind of trance or sleep I cannot say, but when again I recovered consciousness it was day. How ill I felt, how hunger still gnawed at me, it would be hard to say. I was too weak to scream now, far too weak to struggle.
Suddenly I was startled by a roar.
“Are you there, Henry?” said the voice of my uncle; “are you there, my boy?”
I could only faintly respond, but I also made a desperate effort to turn. Some mortar fell. To this I owed my being discovered. When the search took place, it was easily seen that mortar and small pieces of stone had recently fallen from above. Hence my uncle’s cry.
“Be calm,” he cried, “if we pull down the whole ruin, you shall be saved.”
They were delicious words, but I had little hope.
Soon however, about a quarter of an hour later I heard a voice above me, at one of the upper fireplaces.
“Are you below or above?”
“Below,” was my reply.
In an instant a basket was lowered with milk, a biscuit, and an egg. My uncle was fearful to be too ready with his supply of food. I drank the milk first, for thirst had nearly deadened hunger. I then, much refreshed, ate my bread and hard egg.
They were now at work at the wall. I could hear a pickax. Wishing to escape all danger from this terrible weapon I made a desperate struggle, and the belt, which surrounded my waist and which had been hitched on a stone, gave way. I was free, and only escaped falling down by a rapid motion of my hands and knees.
In ten minutes more I was in my uncle’s arms, after being two days and nights in that horrible prison. My occasional delirium prevented me from counting time.
I was weeks recovering from that awful starvation adventure; and yet what was that to the hideous sufferings I now endured?
After dreaming for some time, and thinking of this and other matters, I once more looked around me. We were still ascending with fearful rapidity. Every now and then the air appeared to check our respiration as it does that of aëronauts when the ascension of the balloon is too rapid. But if they feel a degree of cold in proportion to the elevation they attain in the atmosphere, we experienced quite a contrary effect. The heat began to increase in a most threatening and exceptional manner. I cannot tell exactly the mean, but I think it must have reached one hundred twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit.
What was the meaning of this extraordinary change in the temperature? As far as we had hitherto gone, facts had proved the theories of Davy and of Lidenbrock to be correct. Until now, all the peculiar conditions of refractory rocks, of electricity, of magnetism, had modified the general laws of nature, and had created for us a moderate temperature; for the theory of the central fire, remained, in my eyes, the only explainable one.
Were we, then, going to reach a position in which these phenomena were to be carried out in all their rigor, and in which the heat would reduce the rocks to a state of fusion?
Such was my not unnatural fear, and I did not conceal the fact from my uncle. My way of doing so might be cold and heartless, but I could not help it.
“If we are not drowned, or smashed into pancakes, and if we do not die of starvation, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we must be burned alive.”
My uncle, in presence of this brusque attack, simply shrugged his shoulders, and resumed his reflections—whatever they might be.
An hour passed away, and except that there was a slight increase in the temperature no incident modified the situation.
My uncle at last, of his own accord, broke silence.
“Well, Henry, my boy,” he said, in a cheerful way, “we must make up our minds.”
“Make up our minds to what?” I asked, in considerable surprise.
“Well—to something. We must at whatever risk recruit our physical strength. If we make the fatal mistake of husbanding our little remnant of food, we may probably prolong our wretched existence a few hours—but we shall remain weak to the end.”
“Yes,” I growled, “to the end. That, however, will not keep us long waiting.”
“Well, only let a chance of safety present itself—only allow that a moment of action be necessary—where shall we find the means of action if we allow ourselves to be reduced to physical weakness by inanition?”
“When this piece of meat is devoured, Uncle, what hope will there remain unto us?”
“None, my dear Henry, none. But will it do you any good to devour it with your eyes? You appear to me to reason like one without will or decision, like a being without energy.”
“Then,” cried I, exasperated to a degree which is scarcely to be explained, “you do not mean to tell me—that you—that you—have not lost all hope.”
“Certainly not,” replied the Professor with consummate coolness.
“You mean to tell me, Uncle, that we shall get out of this monstrous subterranean shaft?”
“While there is life there is hope. I beg to assert, Henry, that as long as a man’s heart beats, as long as a man’s flesh quivers, I do not allow that a being gifted with thought and will can allow himself to despair.”
What a nerve! The man placed in a position like that we occupied must have been very brave to speak like this.
“Well,” I cried, “what do you mean to do?”
“Eat what remains of the food we have in our hands; let us swallow the last crumb. It will bel Heaven willing, our last repast. Well, never mind—instead of being exhausted skeletons, we shall be men.”
“True,” muttered I in a despairing tone, “let us take our fill.”
“We must,” replied my uncle, with a deep sigh, “call it what you will.”
My uncle took a piece of the meat that remained, and some crusts of biscuit which had escaped the wreck. He divided the whole into three parts.
Each had one pound of food to last him as long as he remained in the interior of the earth.
Each now acted in accordance with his own private character.
My uncle, the Professor, ate greedily, but evidently without appetite, eating simply from some mechanical motion. I put the food inside my lips, and hungry as I was, chewed my morsel without pleasure, and without satisfaction.
Hans, the guide, just as if he had been eider-down hunting, swallowed every mouthful, as though it were a usual affair. He looked like a man equally prepared to enjoy superfluity or total want.
Hans, in all probability, was no more used to starvation than ourselves, but his hardy Icelandic nature had prepared him for many sufferings. As long as he received his three rix-dollars every Saturday night, he was prepared for anything.
The fact was, Hans never troubled himself about much except his money. He had undertaken to serve a certain man at so much per week, and no matter what evils befell his employer or himself, he never found fault or grumbled, so long as his wages were duly paid.
Suddenly my uncle roused himself. He had seen a smile on the face of our guide. I could not make it out.
“What is the matter?” said my uncle.
“Schiedam,” said the guide, producing a bottle of this precious fluid.
We drank. My uncle and myself will own to our dying day that hence we derived strength to exist until the last bitter moment. That precious bottle of Hollands was in reality only half full; but, under the circumstances, it was nectar.
It took some minutes for myself and my uncle to form a decided opinion on the subject. The worthy Professor swallowed about half a pint and did not seem able to drink any more.
“Förtrafflig,” said Hans, swallowing nearly all that was left.
“Excellent—very good,” said my uncle, with as much gusto as if he had just left the steps of the club at Hamburg.
I had begun to feel as if there had been one gleam of hope. Now all thought of the future vanished!
We had consumed our last ounce of food, and it was five o’clock in the morning!