A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter VII

Scientific Theories and Scepticism

Thus far Melick had been reading the manuscript, but at this point he was interrupted by the announcement that dinner was ready. Upon this he stopped abruptly; for on board the Falcon dinner was the great event of the day, and in its presence even the manuscript had to be laid aside. Before long they were all seated around the dining-table in the sumptuous cabin, prepared to discuss the repast which had been served up by the genius of the French chef whom Lord Featherstone had brought with him.

Let us pause here for a moment to take a minuter survey of these four friends. In the first place, there was Lord Featherstone himself, young, handsome, languid, good-natured to a fault, with plenty of muscle if he chose to exert it, and plenty of brain if he chose to make use of it — a man who had become weary of the monotony of high life, and, like many of his order, was fond of seeking relief from the ennui of prosperity amid the excitements of the sea. Next to him was Dr. Congreve, a middle-aged man, with iron-gray hair, short beard and mustache, short nose, gray eyes, with spectacles, and stoutish body. Next came Noel Oxenden, late of Trinity College, Cambridge, a college friend of Featherstone’s — a tall man, with a refined and intellectual face and reserved manner. Finally, there was Otto Melick, a litterateur from London, about thirty years of age, with a wiry and muscular frame, and the restless manner of one who lives in a perpetual fidget.

For some time nothing was said; they partook of the repast in silence; but at length it became evident that they were thinking of the mysterious manuscript. Featherstone was the first to speak.

“A deuced queer sort of thing this, too,” said he, “this manuscript. I can’t quite make it out. Who ever dreamed of people living at the South Pole — and in a warm climate, too? Then it seems deuced odd, too, that we should pick up this copper cylinder with the manuscript. I hardly know what to think about it.”

Melick smiled. “Why, it isn’t much to see through,” said he.

“See through what?” said the doctor, hastily, pricking up his ears at this, and peering keenly at Melick through his spectacles.

“Why, the manuscript, of course.”

“Well,” said the doctor, “what is it that you see? What do you make out of it?”

“Why, anyone can see,” said Melick, “that it’s a transparent hoax, that’s all. You don’t mean to say, I hope, that you really regard it in any other light?”

“A transparent hoax!” repeated the doctor. “Will you please state why you regard it in that light?”

“Certainly,” said Melick. “Some fellow wanted to get up a sensation novel and introduce it to the world with a great flourish of trumpets, and so he has taken this way of going about it. You see, he has counted on its being picked up, and perhaps published. After this he would come forward and own the authorship.”

“And what good would that do?” asked the doctor, mildly. “He couldn’t prove the authorship, and he couldn’t get the copyright.”

“Oh, of course not; but he would gain notoriety, and that would give him a great sale for his next effort.”

The doctor smiled. “See here, Melick,” said he, “you’ve a very vivid imagination, my dear fellow; but come, let us discuss this for a little while in a common-sense way. Now how long should you suppose that this manuscript has been afloat?”

“Oh, a few months or so,” said Melick.

“A few months!” said the doctor. “A few years you mean. Why, man, there are successive layers of barnacles on that copper cylinder which show a submersion of at least three years, perhaps more.”

“By Jove! yes,” remarked Featherstone. “Your sensation novelist must have been a lunatic if he chose that way of publishing a book.”

“Then, again,” continued the doctor, “how did it get here?”

“Oh, easily enough,” answered Melick. “The ocean currents brought it.”

“The ocean currents!” repeated the doctor. “That’s a very vague expression. What do you mean? Of course it has been brought here by the ocean currents.”

“Why, if it were thrown off the coast of England it would be carried away, in the ordinary course of things, and might make the tour of the world.”

“The ocean currents,” said the doctor, “have undoubtedly brought this to us. Of that I shall have more to say presently — but just now, in reference to your notion of a sensation novelist, and an English origin, let me ask your opinion of the material on which it is written. Did you ever see anything like it before? Is it paper?”

“No,” said Melick; “it is evidently some vegetable substance. No doubt the writer has had it prepared for this very purpose, so as to make it look natural.”

“Do you know what is is?” asked the doctor.

“No.”

“Then I’ll tell you; it’s papyrus.”

“Papyrus?”

“Yes, actual papyrus. You can find but little of that in existence at the present day. It is only to be found here and there in museums. I know it perfectly well, however, and saw what it was at the first glance. Now, I hold that a sensation novelist would never have thought of papyrus. If he didn’t wish to use paper, he could have found a dozen other things. I don’t see how he could have found anyone able to prepare such a substance as this for writing. It must have come from a country where it is actually in use. Now, mark you, the papyrus-plant may still be found growing wild on the banks of the upper Nile, and also in Sicily, and it is made use of for ropes and other things of that sort. But as to making writing material out of it, that is hardly possible for the art is lost. The ancient process was very elaborate and this manuscript is written on leaves which resembled in a marvellous manner those of the Egyptian papyrus books. There are two rolls at Marseilles which I have seen and examined, and they are identical with this. Now these papyrus leaves indicate much mechanical skill, and have a professional look. They seem like the work of an experienced manufacturer.”

“I don’t see,” said Melick, obstinately, “why one shouldn’t get papyrus now and have it made up into writing material.”

“Oh, that’s out of the question,” said the doctor. “How could it ever enter into anyone’s head? How could your mere sensation-monger procure the raw material? That of itself would be a work of immense difficulty. How could he get it made up? That would be impossible. But, apart from this, just consider the strong internal evidence that there is as to the authenticity of the manuscript. Now, in the first place, there is the description of Desolation Island, which is perfectly accurate. But it is on his narrative beyond this that I lay chief stress. I can prove that the statements here are corroborated by those of Captain Ross in his account of that great voyage from which he returned not very long ago.”

The doctor, who had been talking with much enthusiasm, paused here to take breath, and then went on:

“I happen to know all about that voyage, for I read a full report of it just before we started, and you can see for yourselves whether this manuscript is credible or not.

“Captain James Clarke Ross was sent forth on his expedition in 1839. On January 1, 1841, he passed the antarctic circle in 178 degrees east longitude. On the 11th he discovered land in 70 degrees 41’ south latitude, 172 degrees 36’ east longitude. He found that the land was a continuous coast, trending southward, and rising to peaks of ten thousand feet in height, all covered with ice and snow. On the 12th he landed and took possession in the name of the Queen. After this he continued his course as far as 78 degrees 4’ south latitude, tracing a coast-line of six hundred miles. Observe, now how all this coincides with More’s narrative. Well, I now come to the crowning statement. In 77 degrees 32’ south latitude, 167 degrees east longitude, he came in sight of two enormous volcanoes over twelve thousand feet in height. One of these was in an active state of eruption. To this he gave the name of Mount Erebus. The other was quiet; it was of somewhat less height, and he gave it the name of Mount Terror. Mark, now, how wonderfully this resembles More’s account. Well, just here his progress was arrested by a barrier which presented a perpendicular wall of over a hundred and fifty feet in height, along which he coasted for some distance. On the following year he penetrated six miles farther south, namely, 78 degrees 11’ south latitude, 161 degrees 27’ west longitude. At this point he was again stopped by the impassable cliffs, which arose here like an eternal barrier, while beyond them he saw a long line of lofty mountains covered with ice and snow.”

“Did you hear the result of the American expedition?” asked Melick.

“Yes,” replied the doctor. “Wilkes pretends to have found a continent, but his account of it makes it quite evident to my mind that he saw nothing but ice. I believe that Wilkes’s antarctic continent will some day be penetrated by ships, which will sail for hundreds of miles farther south. All that is wanted is a favorable season. But mark the coincidence between Ross’s report and More’s manuscript. This must have been written at least three years ago, and the writer could not have known anything about Ross’s discoveries. Above all, he could not have thought of those two volcanoes unless he had seen them.”

“But these volcanoes mentioned by More are not the Erebus and Terror, are they?” said Lord Featherstone.

“Of course not; they are on the other side of the world.”

“The whole story,” said Melick, “may have been written by one of Ross’s men and thrown overboard. If I’d been on that expedition I should probably have written it to beguile the time.”

“Oh yes,” said the doctor; “and you would also have manufactured the papyrus and the copper cylinder on board to beguile the time.”

“I dare say the writer picked up that papyrus and the copper cylinder in China or Japan, and made use of it in this way.”

“Where do you make out the position of More’s volcanoes?” asked Featherstone.

“It is difficult to make it out accurately,” said the doctor. “More gives no data. In fact he had none to give. He couldn’t take any observations.”

“The fact is,” said Melick, “it’s not a sailor’s yarn at all. No sailor would ever express himself in that way. That’s what struck me from the first. It has the ring of a confounded sensation-monger all through.”

The doctor elevated his eyebrows, but took no notice of this.

“You see,” he continued, addressing himself to the others, “Desolation Island is in 50 degrees south latitude and 70 degrees east longitude. As I make out, More’s course led him over about ten degrees of longitude in a southwest course. That course depended altogether upon the ocean currents. Now there is a great antarctic drift-current, which flows round the Cape of Good Hope and divides there, one half flowing past the east coast of Africa and the other setting across the Indian Ocean. Then it unites with a current which flows round the south of Van Dieman’s Land, which also divides, and the southernmost current is supposed to cross the Pacific until it strikes Cape Horn, around which it flows, dividing as before. Now my theory is, that south of Desolation Island — I don’t know how far — there is a great current setting toward the South Pole, and running southwest through degrees of longitude 60, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, east of Greenwich; and finally sweeping on, it would reach More’s volcanoes at a point which I should judge to be about 80 degrees south latitude and 10 degrees west longitude. There it passes between the volcanoes and bursts through the vast mountain barrier by a subterranean way, which has been formed for it in past ages by some primeval convulsion of nature. After this it probably sweeps around the great South Polar ocean, and emerges at the opposite side, not far from the volcanoes Erebus and Terror.”

Here the doctor paused, and looked around with some self-complacency.

“Oh,” said Melick, “if you take that tone, you have us all at your mercy. I know no more about the geography of the antarctic circle than I do of the moon. I simply criticize from a literary point of view, and I don’t like his underground cavern with the stream running through it. It sounds like one of the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. Nor do I like his description; he evidently is writing for effect. Besides, his style is vicious; it is too stilted. Finally, he has recourse to the stale device of a sea-serpent.”

“A sea-serpent!” repeated the doctor. “Well, for my part I feel by no means inclined to sneer at a sea-serpent. Its existence cannot be proved, yet it cannot be pooh-poohed. Every schoolboy knows that the waters of the sea were once filled with monsters more tremendous than the greatest sea-serpent that has ever been imagined. The plesiosaurus, with its snakelike head, if it existed now, would be called a sea-serpent. Some of these so-called fossil animals may have their representatives still living in the remoter parts of the world. Think of the recently discovered ornithorhynchus of Australia!”

“If you please, I’d really much rather not,” said Melick with a gesture of despair. “I haven’t the honor of the gentleman’s acquaintance.”

“Well, what do you think of his notice of the sun, and the long light, and his low position on the horizon?”

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Melick. “Anyone who chose to get up this thing would of course read up about the polar day, and all that. Everyone knows that at the poles there is a six-months’ day, followed by a six-months’ night.”

“You are a determined sceptic,” said the doctor.

“How is it about the polar day?” asked Featherstone.

“Well,” said the doctor, “at the poles themselves there is one day of six months, during which the sun never sets, and one night of six months, during which he never rises. In the spaces between the polar circles the quantities of the continuous day and continuous night vary in accordance with the distance from the pole. At the north point of Nova Zembla, 75 degrees north latitude, there is uninterrupted light from May 1st to August 12th, and uninterrupted darkness from November 8th to February 9th. At the arctic circle at the summer solstice the day is twenty-four hours long. At the antarctic circle at the same time the night is twenty-four hours long.”

Upon this Melick filled the doctor’s wine-glass with a great deal of ceremony.

“After all those statistics,” he said, “you must feel rather dry. You should take a drink before venturing any further.”

The doctor made no reply, but raised the glass to his lips and swallowed the wine in an abstracted way.

“The thing that struck me most,” said Oxenden, “in all that has been read thus far, is the flatness of the South Pole, and the peculiar effect which this produces on the landscape.”

“I must say,” added Melick, “that the writer has got hold of a very good idea there, and has taken care to put it forward in a very prominent fashion.”

“What is the difference,” asked Oxenden, “between the two diameters of the earth, the polar and the equatorial? Is it known?”

“By Jove!” said Featherstone, “that’s the very question I was going to ask. I’ve always heard that the earth is flattened at the poles, but never knew how much. Is there any way by which people can find out?”

The doctor drew a long breath, and beamed upon the company with a benevolent smile.

“Oh yes,” said he; “I can answer that question, if you care to know and won’t feel bored.”

“Answer it, then, my dear fellow, by all means,” said Featherstone, in his most languid tone.

“There are two ways,” said the doctor, “by which the polar compression of the earth has been found out. One is by the measurement of arcs on the earth’s surface; the other is by experiments with pendulums or weights with regard to the earth’s gravity at different places. The former of these methods is, perhaps, the more satisfactory. Measurements of arcs have been made on a very extensive scale in different parts of the world — in England, France, Lapland, Peru, and India. Mr. Ivory, who devoted himself for years to an exhaustive examination of the subject, has deduced that the equatorial radius of the earth is over 3962 miles, and the polar radius over 3949 miles. This makes the depression at either pole upward of thirteen miles. A depression of over thirteen miles, as you must plainly see, should produce strange results in the scenery at the poles. Of course, if there are mountains, no difference would be noticed between this and any other part of the earth’s surface; but if there is water, why, we ought to expect some such state of things as More describes. The gravitation test has also been tried, with very nearly the same result. The surface of the earth at the equator, being farthest from the centre of gravity, indicates the least weight in bodies; but at the poles, where the surface is nearest the centre of gravity, there must be the greatest weight. It is found, in fact, that the weight of bodies increases in passing from the equator to the poles. By experiments made in this way the polar compression is ascertained to be the same as I have mentioned.”

“What effect would this have on the climate at the poles?” asked Oxenden.

“That’s a complicated question,” said the doctor. “In answer to that we must leave ascertained facts and trust to theories, unless, indeed, we accept as valid the statements of this remarkable manuscript. For my own part, I see no reason why it should not be as More says. Remember, this polar world is thirteen miles nearer to the centre of the earth. Whether this should affect the climate or not, depends upon the nature of the earth’s interior. That interior, according to the popular theory of the present day is a mass of fire. This theory affirms that the earth was once a red-hot mass, which has cooled down; but the cooling process has only taken place on the surface, leaving the interior still a molten mass of matter in a state of intense heat and combustion. At the poles the surface is thus thirteen miles nearer to these tremendous fires. Of course it may be supposed that the earth’s crust is of about equal thickness on all parts; yet still, even if this be so, thirteen miles ought to make some difference. Now at the North Pole there seem to be causes at work to counterbalance the effect of the internal heat, chiefly in the enormous accumulation of polar ice which probably hems it in on every side; and though many believe in an open polar sea of warm water at the North Pole, yet still the effect of vast ice-masses and of cold submarine currents must be to render the climate severe. But at the South Pole it is different. The observations of Ross and of More show us that there is a chain of mountains of immense height, which seem to encircle the pole. If this be so, and I see no reason to disbelieve it, then the ice of the outer seas must be kept away altogether from that strange inner sea of which More speaks. Ross saw the volcanoes Erebus and Terror; More saw two others. How many more there may be it is impossible to say; but all this shows that the effect of the earth’s internal fires is very manifest in that region, and More has penetrated to a secluded world, which lies apart by itself, free from the influence of ice-masses, left to feel the effect of the internal fires, and possessing what is virtually a tropical climate.”

“Well,” said Melick, “there is no theory however wild and fantastic, which some man of science will not be ready to support and to fortify by endless arguments, all of the most plausible kind. For my own part, I still believe More and his south polar world to be no more authentic than Sindbad the Sailor.”

But the others evidently sympathized with the doctor’s view, and regarded Melick as carrying his scepticism to an absurd excess.

“How large do you suppose this south polar ocean to be?” asked Featherstone.

“It is impossible to answer that question exactly,” said the doctor. “It may be, as More hints, a thousand miles in extent, or only five hundred, or two hundred. For my own part, however, I feel like taking More’s statements at their utmost value; and the idea that I have gathered from his narrative is that of a vast sea like the Mediterranean, surrounded by impassable mountains, by great and fertile countries, peopled with an immense variety of animals, with a fauna and flora quite unlike those of the rest of the world; and, above all, with great nations possessing a rare and unique civilization, and belonging to a race altogether different from any of the known races of men.”

“Well,” said Melick, “that at least is the idea which the writer of the manuscript tries to convey.”

By this time they had finished dinner.

“And now,” said Featherstone, “let’s have some more of the manuscript. Melick is tired of it, I dare say. I would relieve him, but I’m an infernally bad reader. Doctor, what do you say? Will you read the next instalment!”

“With all my heart,” said the doctor, briskly.

“Very well, then,” said Featherstone; “we will all be your attentive hearers.”

And now the doctor took up the manuscript and began to read.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/de_mille/james/strange/chapter7.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37