Chapter 30




CHAPTER XXX.

A NEW MARE INTERNUM

At first I could hardly see anything. My eyes, unaccustomed to thelight, quickly closed. When I was able to reopen them, I stood morestupefied even than surprised.

"The sea!" I cried.

"Yes," my uncle replied, "the Liedenbrock Sea; and I don't supposeany other discoverer will ever dispute my claim to name it aftermyself as its first discoverer."

A vast sheet of water, the commencement of a lake or an ocean, spreadfar away beyond the range of the eye, reminding me forcibly of thatopen sea which drew from Xenophon's ten thousand Greeks, after theirlong retreat, the simultaneous cry, "Thalatta! thalatta!" the sea!the sea! The deeply indented shore was lined with a breadth of fineshining sand, softly lapped by the waves, and strewn with the smallshells which had been inhabited by the first of created beings. Thewaves broke on this shore with the hollow echoing murmur peculiar tovast inclosed spaces. A light foam flew over the waves before thebreath of a moderate breeze, and some of the spray fell upon my face.On this slightly inclining shore, about a hundred fathoms from thelimit of the waves, came down the foot of a huge wall of vast cliffs,which rose majestically to an enormous height. Some of these,dividing the beach with their sharp spurs, formed capes andpromontories, worn away by the ceaseless action of the surf. Fartheron the eye discerned their massive outline sharply defined againstthe hazy distant horizon.

It was quite an ocean, with the irregular shores of earth, but desertand frightfully wild in appearance.

If my eyes were able to range afar over this great sea, it wasbecause a peculiar light brought to view every detail of it. It wasnot the light of the sun, with his dazzling shafts of brightness andthe splendour of his rays; nor was it the pale and uncertain shimmerof the moonbeams, the dim reflection of a nobler body of light. No;the illuminating power of this light, its trembling diffusiveness,its bright, clear whiteness, and its low temperature, showed that itmust be of electric origin. It was like an aurora borealis, acontinuous cosmical phenomenon, filling a cavern of sufficient extentto contain an ocean.

The vault that spanned the space above, the sky, if it could becalled so, seemed composed of vast plains of cloud, shifting andvariable vapours, which by their condensation must at certain timesfall in torrents of rain. I should have thought that under sopowerful a pressure of the atmosphere there could be no evaporation;and yet, under a law unknown to me, there were broad tracts of vapoursuspended in the air. But then 'the weather was fine.' The play ofthe electric light produced singular effects upon the upper strata ofcloud. Deep shadows reposed upon their lower wreaths; and often,between two separated fields of cloud, there glided down a ray ofunspeakable lustre. But it was not solar light, and there was noheat. The general effect was sad, supremely melancholy. Instead ofthe shining firmament, spangled with its innumerable stars, shiningsingly or in clusters, I felt that all these subdued and shadedfights were ribbed in by vast walls of granite, which seemed tooverpower me with their weight, and that all this space, great as itwas, would not be enough for the march of the humblest of satellites.

Then I remembered the theory of an English captain, who likened theearth to a vast hollow sphere, in the interior of which the airbecame luminous because of the vast pressure that weighed upon it;while two stars, Pluto and Proserpine, rolled within upon the circuitof their mysterious orbits.

We were in reality shut up inside an immeasurable excavation. Itswidth could not be estimated, since the shore ran widening as far aseye could reach, nor could its length, for the dim horizon boundedthe new. As for its height, it must have been several leagues. Wherethis vault rested upon its granite base no eye could tell; but therewas a cloud hanging far above, the height of which we estimated at12,000 feet, a greater height than that of any terrestrial vapour,and no doubt due to the great density of the air.

The word cavern does not convey any idea of this immense space; wordsof human tongue are inadequate to describe the discoveries of him whoventures into the deep abysses of earth.

Besides I could not tell upon what geological theory to account forthe existence of such an excavation. Had the cooling of the globeproduced it? I knew of celebrated caverns from the descriptions oftravellers, but had never heard of any of such dimensions as this.

If the grotto of Guachara, in Colombia, visited by Humboldt, had notgiven up the whole of the secret of its depth to the philosopher, whoinvestigated it to the depth of 2,500 feet, it probably did notextend much farther. The immense mammoth cave in Kentucky is ofgigantic proportions, since its vaulted roof rises five hundred feet[1] above the level of an unfathomable lake and travellers haveexplored its ramifications to the extent of forty miles. But whatwere these cavities compared to that in which I stood with wonder andadmiration, with its sky of luminous vapours, its bursts of electriclight, and a vast sea filling its bed? My imagination fell powerlessbefore such immensity.

I gazed upon these wonders in silence. Words failed me to express myfeelings. I felt as if I was in some distant planet Uranus or Neptune- and in the presence of phenomena of which my terrestrial experiencegave me no cognisance. For such novel sensations, new words werewanted; and my imagination failed to supply them. I gazed, I thought,I admired, with a stupefaction mingled with a certain amount of fear.

The unforeseen nature of this spectacle brought back the colour to mycheeks. I was under a new course of treatment with the aid ofastonishment, and my convalescence was promoted by this novel systemof therapeutics; besides, the dense and breezy air invigorated me,supplying more oxygen to my lungs.

It will be easily conceived that after an imprisonment of forty sevendays in a narrow gallery it was the height of physical enjoyment tobreathe a moist air impregnated with saline particles.

[1] One hundred and twenty. (Trans.)

I was delighted to leave my dark grotto. My uncle, already familiarwith these wonders, had ceased to feel surprise.

"You feel strong enough to walk a little way now?" he asked.

"Yes, certainly; and nothing could be more delightful."

"Well, take my arm, Axel, and let us follow the windings of theshore."

I eagerly accepted, and we began to coast along this new sea. On theleft huge pyramids of rock, piled one upon another, produced aprodigious titanic effect. Down their sides flowed numberlesswaterfalls, which went on their way in brawling but pellucid streams.A few light vapours, leaping from rock to rock, denoted the place ofhot springs; and streams flowed softly down to the common basin,gliding down the gentle slopes with a softer murmur.

Amongst these streams I recognised our faithful travelling companion,the Hansbach, coming to lose its little volume quietly in the mightysea, just as if it had done nothing else since the beginning of theworld.

"We shall see it no more," I said, with a sigh.

"What matters," replied the philosopher, "whether this or anotherserves to guide us?"

I thought him rather ungrateful.

But at that moment my attention was drawn to an unexpected sight. Ata distance of five hundred paces, at the turn of a high promontory,appeared a high, tufted, dense forest. It was composed of trees ofmoderate height, formed like umbrellas, with exact geometricaloutlines. The currents of wind seemed to have had no effect upontheir shape, and in the midst of the windy blasts they stood unmovedand firm, just like a clump of petrified cedars.

I hastened forward. I could not give any name to these singularcreations. Were they some of the two hundred thousand species ofvegetables known hitherto, and did they claim a place of their own inthe lacustrine flora? No; when we arrived under their shade mysurprise turned into admiration. There stood before me productions ofearth, but of gigantic stature, which my uncle immediately named.

"It is only a forest of mushrooms," said he.

And he was right. Imagine the large development attained by theseplants, which prefer a warm, moist climate. I knew that the_Lycopodon giganteum_ attains, according to Bulliard, a circumferenceof eight or nine feet; but here were pale mushrooms, thirty to fortyfeet high, and crowned with a cap of equal diameter. There they stoodin thousands. No light could penetrate between their huge cones, andcomplete darkness reigned beneath those giants; they formedsettlements of domes placed in close array like the round, thatchedroofs of a central African city.

Yet I wanted to penetrate farther underneath, though a chill fellupon me as soon as I came under those cellular vaults. For half anhour we wandered from side to side in the damp shades, and it was acomfortable and pleasant change to arrive once more upon the seashore.

But the subterranean vegetation was not confined to these fungi.Farther on rose groups of tall trees of colourless foliage and easyto recognise. They were lowly shrubs of earth, here attaininggigantic size; lycopodiums, a hundred feet high; the huge sigillaria,found in our coal mines; tree ferns, as tall as our fir-trees innorthern latitudes; lepidodendra, with cylindrical forked stems,terminated by long leaves, and bristling with rough hairs like thoseof the cactus.

"Wonderful, magnificent, splendid!" cried my uncle. "Here is theentire flora of the second period of the world - the transitionperiod. These, humble garden plants with us, were tall trees in theearly ages. Look, Axel, and admire it all. Never had botanist such afeast as this!"

"You are right, my uncle. Providence seems to have preserved in thisimmense conservatory the antediluvian plants which the wisdom ofphilosophers has so sagaciously put together again."

"It is a conservatory, Axel; but is it not also a menagerie?"

"Surely not a menagerie!"

"Yes; no doubt of it. Look at that dust under your feet; see thebones scattered on the ground."

"So there are!" I cried; "bones of extinct animals."

I had rushed upon these remains, formed of indestructible phosphatesof lime, and without hesitation I named these monstrous bones, whichlay scattered about like decayed trunks of trees.

"Here is the lower jaw of a mastodon," [1] I said. "These are themolar teeth of the deinotherium; this femur must have belonged to thegreatest of those beasts, the megatherium. It certainly is amenagerie, for these remains were not brought here by a deluge. Theanimals to which they belonged roamed on the shores of thissubterranean sea, under the shade of those arborescent trees. Hereare entire skeletons. And yet I cannot understand the appearance ofthese quadrupeds in a granite cavern."

[1] These animals belonged to a late geological period, the Pliocene,just before the glacial epoch, and therefore could have no connectionwith the carboniferous vegetation. (Trans.)

"Why?"

"Because animal life existed upon the earth only in the secondaryperiod, when a sediment of soil had been deposited by the rivers, andtaken the place of the incandescent rocks of the primitive period."

"Well, Axel, there is a very simple answer to your objection thatthis soil is alluvial."

"What! at such a depth below the surface of the earth?"

"No doubt; and there is a geological explanation of the fact. At acertain period the earth consisted only of an elastic crust or bark,alternately acted on by forces from above or below, according to thelaws of attraction and gravitation. Probably there were subsidencesof the outer crust, when a portion of the sedimentary deposits wascarried down sudden openings."

"That may be," I replied; "but if there have been creatures nowextinct in these underground regions, why may not some of thosemonsters be now roaming through these gloomy forests, or hiddenbehind the steep crags?"

And as this unpleasant notion got hold of me, I surveyed with anxiousscrutiny the open spaces before me; but no living creature appearedupon the barren strand.

I felt rather tired, and went to sit down at the end of a promontory,at the foot of which the waves came and beat themselves into spray.Thence my eye could sweep every part of the bay; within its extremitya little harbour was formed between the pyramidal cliffs, where thestill waters slept untouched by the boisterous winds. A brig and twoor three schooners might have moored within it in safety. I almostfancied I should presently see some ship issue from it, full sail,and take to the open sea under the southern breeze.

But this illusion lasted a very short time. We were the only livingcreatures in this subterranean world. When the wind lulled, a deepersilence than that of the deserts fell upon the arid, naked rocks, andweighed upon the surface of the ocean. I then desired to pierce thedistant haze, and to rend asunder the mysterious curtain that hungacross the horizon. Anxious queries arose to my lips. Where did thatsea terminate? Where did it lead to? Should we ever know anythingabout its opposite shores?

My uncle made no doubt about it at all; I both desired and feared.

After spending an hour in the contemplation of this marvellousspectacle, we returned to the shore to regain the grotto, and I fellasleep in the midst of the strangest thoughts.



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