When I came to myself, I was stretched in half darkness, covered with thick coats and blankets. My uncle was watching over me, to discover the least sign of life. At my first sigh he took my hand; when I opened my eyes he uttered a cry of joy.
“He lives! he lives!” he cried.
“Yes, I am still alive,” I answered feebly.
“My dear nephew,” said my uncle, pressing me to his breast, “you are saved.”
I was deeply touched with the tenderness of his manner as he uttered these words, and still more with the care with which he watched over me. But such trials were wanted to bring out the Professor's tenderer qualities.
At this moment Hans came, he saw my hand in my uncle's, and I may safely say that there was joy in his countenance.
“God dag,” said he.
“How do you do, Hans? How are you? And now, uncle, tell me where we are at the present moment?”
“To-morrow, Axel, to-morrow. Now you are too faint and weak. I have bandaged your head with compresses which must not be disturbed. Sleep now, and to-morrow I will tell you all.”
“But do tell me what time it is, and what day.”
“It is Sunday, the 8th of August, and it is ten at night. You must ask me no more questions until the 10th.”
In truth I was very weak, and my eyes involuntarily closed. I wanted a good night's rest; and I therefore went off to sleep, with the knowledge that I had been four long days alone in the heart of the earth.
Next morning, on awakening, I looked round me. My couch, made up of all our travelling gear, was in a charming grotto, adorned with splendid stalactites, and the soil of which was a fine sand. It was half light. There was no torch, no lamp, yet certain mysterious glimpses of light came from without through a narrow opening in the grotto. I heard too a vague and indistinct noise, something like the murmuring of waves breaking upon a shingly shore, and at times I seemed to hear the whistling of wind.
I wondered whether I was awake, whether I dreaming, whether my brain, crazed by my fall, was not affected by imaginary noises. Yet neither eyes, nor ears could be so utterly deceived.
It is a ray of daylight, I thought, sliding in through this cleft in the rock! That is indeed the murmuring of waves! That is the rustling noise of wind. Am I quite mistaken, or have we returned to the surface of the earth? Has my uncle given up the expedition, or is it happily terminated?
I was asking myself these unanswerable questions when the Professor entered.
“Good morning, Axel,” he cried cheerily. “I feel sure you are better.”
“Yes, I am indeed,” said I, sitting up on my couch.
“You can hardly fail to be better, for you have slept quietly. Hans and I watched you by turns, and we have noticed you were evidently recovering.”
“Indeed, I do feel a great deal better, and I will give you a proof of that presently if you will let me have my breakfast.”
“You shall eat, lad. The fever has left you. Hans rubbed your wounds with some ointment or other of which the Icelanders keep the secret, and they have healed marvellously. Our hunter is a splendid fellow!”
Whilst he went on talking, my uncle prepared a few provisions, which I devoured eagerly, notwithstanding his advice to the contrary. All the while I was overwhelming him with questions which he answered readily.
I then learnt that my providential fall had brought me exactly to the extremity of an almost perpendicular shaft; and as I had landed in the midst of an accompanying torrent of stones, the least of which would have been enough to crush me, the conclusion was that a loose portion of the rock had come down with me. This frightful conveyance had thus carried me into the arms of my uncle, where I fell bruised, bleeding, and insensible.
“Truly it is wonderful that you have not been killed a hundred times over. But, for the love of God, don't let us ever separate again, or we many never see each other more.”
“Not separate! Is the journey not over, then?” I opened a pair of astonished eyes, which immediately called for the question:
“What is the matter, Axel?”
“I have a question to ask you. You say that I am safe and sound?”
“No doubt you are.”
“And all my limbs unbroken?”
“And my head?”
“Your head, except for a few bruises, is all right; and it is on your shoulders, where it ought to be.”
“Well, I am afraid my brain is affected.”
“Your mind affected!”
“Yes, I fear so. Are we again on the surface of the globe?”
“No, certainly not.”
“Then I must be mad; for don't I see the light of day, and don't I hear the wind blowing, and the sea breaking on the shore?”
“Ah! is that all?”
“Do tell me all about it.”
“I can't explain the inexplicable, but you will soon see and understand that geology has not yet learnt all it has to learn.”
“Then let us go,” I answered quickly.
“No, Axel; the open air might be bad for you.”
“Yes; the wind is rather strong. You must not expose yourself.”
“But I assure you I am perfectly well.”
“A little patience, my nephew. A relapse might get us into trouble, and we have no time to lose, for the voyage may be a long one.”
“Yes, rest to-day, and to-morrow we will set sail.”
“Set sail!”—and I almost leaped up.
What did it all mean? Had we a river, a lake, a sea to depend upon? Was there a ship at our disposal in some underground harbour?
My curiosity was highly excited, my uncle vainly tried to restrain me. When he saw that my impatience was doing me harm, he yielded.
I dressed in haste. For greater safety I wrapped myself in a blanket, and came out of the grotto.