Chapter 20




CHAPTER XX.

THE FIRST SIGNS OF DISTRESS

In fact, we had to ration ourselves. Our provision of water could notlast more than three days. I found that out for certain whensupper-time came. And, to our sorrow, we had little reason to expectto find a spring in these transition beds.

The whole of the next day the gallery opened before us its endlessarcades. We moved on almost without a word. Hans' silence seemed tobe infecting us.

The road was now not ascending, at least not perceptibly. Sometimes,even, it seemed to have a slight fall. But this tendency, which wasvery trifling, could not do anything to reassure the Professor; forthere was no change in the beds, and the transitional characteristicsbecame more and more decided.

The electric light was reflected in sparkling splendour from theschist, limestone, and old red sandstone of the walls. It might havebeen thought that we were passing through a section of Wales, ofwhich an ancient people gave its name to this system. Specimens ofmagnificent marbles clothed the walls, some of a greyish agatefantastically veined with white, others of rich crimson or yellowdashed with splotches of red; then came dark cherry-coloured marblesrelieved by the lighter tints of limestone.

The greater part of these bore impressions of primitive organisms.Creation had evidently advanced since the day before. Instead ofrudimentary trilobites, I noticed remains of a more perfect order ofbeings, amongst others ganoid fishes and some of those sauroids inwhich palaeontologists have discovered the earliest reptile forms.The Devonian seas were peopled by animals of these species, anddeposited them by thousands in the rocks of the newer formation.

It was evident that we were ascending that scale of animal life inwhich man fills the highest place. But Professor Liedenbrock seemednot to notice it.

He was awaiting one of two events, either the appearance of avertical well opening before his feet, down which our descent mightbe resumed, or that of some obstacle which should effectually turn usback on our own footsteps. But evening came and neither wish wasgratified.

On Friday, after a night during which I felt pangs of thirst, ourlittle troop again plunged into the winding passages of the gallery.

After ten hours' walking I observed a singular deadening of thereflection of our lamps from the side walls. The marble, the schist,the limestone, and the sandstone were giving way to a dark andlustreless lining. At one moment, the tunnel becoming very narrow, Ileaned against the wall.

When I removed my hand it was black. I looked nearer, and found wewere in a coal formation.

"A coal mine!" I cried.

"A mine without miners," my uncle replied.

"Who knows?" I asked.

"I know," the Professor pronounced decidedly, "I am certain that thisgallery driven through beds of coal was never pierced by the hand ofman. But whether it be the hand of nature or not does not matter.Supper time is come; let us sup."

Hans prepared some food. I scarcely ate, and I swallowed down the fewdrops of water rationed out to me. One flask half full was all we hadleft to slake the thirst of three men.

After their meal my two companions laid themselves down upon theirrugs, and found in sleep a solace for their fatigue. But I could notsleep, and I counted every hour until morning.

On Saturday, at six, we started afresh. In twenty minutes we reacheda vast open space; I then knew that the hand of man had not hollowedout this mine; the vaults would have been shored up, and, as it was,they seemed to be held up by a miracle of equilibrium.

This cavern was about a hundred feet wide and a hundred and fifty inheight. A large mass had been rent asunder by a subterraneandisturbance. Yielding to some vast power from below it had brokenasunder, leaving this great hollow into which human beings were nowpenetrating for the first time.

The whole history of the carboniferous period was written upon thesegloomy walls, and a geologist might with ease trace all its diversephases. The beds of coal were separated by strata of sandstone orcompact clays, and appeared crushed under the weight of overlyingstrata.

At the age of the world which preceded the secondary period, theearth was clothed with immense vegetable forms, the product of thedouble influence of tropical heat and constant moisture; a vapouryatmosphere surrounded the earth, still veiling the direct rays of thesun.

Thence arises the conclusion that the high temperature then existingwas due to some other source than the heat of the sun. Perhaps eventhe orb of day may not have been ready yet to play the splendid parthe now acts. There were no 'climates' as yet, and a torrid heat,equal from pole to equator, was spread over the whole surface of theglobe. Whence this heat? Was it from the interior of the earth?

Notwithstanding the theories of Professor Liedenbrock, a violent heatdid at that time brood within the body of the spheroid. Its actionwas felt to the very last coats of the terrestrial crust; the plants,unacquainted with the beneficent influences of the sun, yieldedneither flowers nor scent. But their roots drew vigorous life fromthe burning soil of the early days of this planet.

There were but few trees. Herbaceous plants alone existed. There weretall grasses, ferns, lycopods, besides sigillaria, asterophyllites,now scarce plants, but then the species might be counted by thousands.

The coal measures owe their origin to this period of profusevegetation. The yet elastic and yielding crust of the earth obeyedthe fluid forces beneath. Thence innumerable fissures anddepressions. The plants, sunk underneath the waters, formed bydegrees into vast accumulated masses.

Then came the chemical action of nature; in the depths of the seasthe vegetable accumulations first became peat; then, acted upon bygenerated gases and the heat of fermentation, they underwent aprocess of complete mineralization.

Thus were formed those immense coalfields, which nevertheless, arenot inexhaustible, and which three centuries at the presentaccelerated rate of consumption will exhaust unless the industrialworld will devise a remedy.

These reflections came into my mind whilst I was contemplating themineral wealth stored up in this portion of the globe. These nodoubt, I thought, will never be discovered; the working of such deepmines would involve too large an outlay, and where would be the useas long as coal is yet spread far and wide near the surface? Such asmy eyes behold these virgin stores, such they will be when this worldcomes to an end.

But still we marched on, and I alone was forgetting the length of theway by losing myself in the midst of geological contemplations. Thetemperature remained what it had been during our passage through thelava and schists. Only my sense of smell was forcibly affected by anodour of protocarburet of hydrogen. I immediately recognised in thisgallery the presence of a considerable quantity of the dangerous gascalled by miners firedamp, the explosion of which has oftenoccasioned such dreadful catastrophes.

Happily, our light was from Ruhmkorff's ingenious apparatus. Ifunfortunately we had explored this gallery with torches, a terribleexplosion would have put an end to travelling and travellers at onestroke.

This excursion through the coal mine lasted till night. My unclescarcely could restrain his impatience at the horizontal road. Thedarkness, always deep twenty yards before us, prevented us fromestimating the length of the gallery; and I was beginning to think itmust be endless, when suddenly at six o'clock a wall veryunexpectedly stood before us. Right or left, top or bottom, there wasno road farther; we were at the end of a blind alley. "Very well,it's all right!" cried my uncle, "now, at any rate, we shall knowwhat we are about. We are not in Saknussemm's road, and all we haveto do is to go back. Let us take a night's rest, and in three days weshall get to the fork in the road." "Yes," said I, "if we have anystrength left." "Why not?" "Because to-morrow we shall have nowater." "Nor courage either?" asked my uncle severely. I dared makeno answer.



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