Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne

Chapter 36

The Bowels of the Comet

The whole night was spent in speculating, with gloomy forebodings, upon the chances of the future. The temperature of the hall, now entirely exposed to the outer air, was rapidly falling, and would quickly become unendurable. Far too intense was the cold to allow anyone to remain at the opening, and the moisture on the walls soon resolved itself into icicles. But the mountain was like the body of a dying man, that retains awhile a certain amount of heat at the heart after the extremities have become cold and dead. In the more interior galleries there was still a certain degree of warmth, and hither Servadac and his companions were glad enough to retreat.

Here they found the professor, who, startled by the sudden cold, had been fain to make a precipitate retreat from his observatory. Now would have been the opportunity to demand of the enthusiast whether he would like to prolong his residence indefinitely upon his little comet. It is very likely that he would have declared himself ready to put up with any amount of discomfort to be able to gratify his love of investigation; but all were far too disheartened and distressed to care to banter him upon the subject on which he was so sensitive.

Next morning, Servadac thus addressed his people. “My friends, except from cold, we have nothing to fear. Our provisions are ample — more than enough for the remaining period of our sojourn in this lone world of ours; our preserved meat is already cooked; we shall be able to dispense with all fuel for cooking purposes. All that we require is warmth — warmth for ourselves; let us secure that, and all may be well. Now, I do not entertain a doubt but that the warmth we require is resident in the bowels of this mountain on which we are living; to the depth of those bowels we must penetrate; there we shall obtain the warmth which is indispensable to our very existence.”

His tone, quite as much as his words, restored confidence to many of his people, who were already yielding to a feeling of despair. The count and the lieutenant fervently, but silently, grasped his hand.

“Nina,” said the captain, “you will not be afraid to go down to the lower depths of the mountain, will you?”

“Not if Pablo goes,” replied the child.

“Oh yes, of course, Pablo will go. You are not afraid to go, are you, Pablo?” he said, addressing the boy.

“Anywhere with you, your Excellency,” was the boy’s prompt reply.

And certain it was that no time must be lost in penetrating below the heart of the volcano; already the most protected of the many ramifications of Nina’s Hive were being pervaded by a cold that was insufferable. It was an acknowledged impossibility to get access to the crater by the exterior declivities of the mountain-side; they were far too steep and too slippery to afford a foothold. It must of necessity be entered from the interior.

Lieutenant Procope accordingly undertook the task of exploring all the galleries, and was soon able to report that he had discovered one which he had every reason to believe abutted upon the central funnel. His reason for coming to this conclusion was that the caloric emitted by the rising vapors of the hot lava seemed to be oozing, as it were, out of the tellurium, which had been demonstrated already to be a conductor of heat. Only succeed in piercing through this rock for seven or eight yards, and the lieutenant did not doubt that his way would be opened into the old lava-course, by following which he hoped descent would be easy.

Under the lieutenant’s direction the Russian sailors were immediately set to work. Their former experience had convinced them that spades and pick-axes were of no avail, and their sole resource was to proceed by blasting with gunpowder. However skillfully the operation might be carried on, it must necessarily occupy several days, and during that time the sufferings from cold must be very severe.

“If we fail in our object, and cannot get to the depths of the mountain, our little colony is doomed,” said Count Timascheff.

“That speech is not like yourself,” answered Servadac, smiling. “What has become of the faith which has hitherto carried you so bravely through all our difficulties?”

The count shook his head, as if in despair, and said, sadly, “The Hand that has hitherto been outstretched to help seems now to be withdrawn.”

“But only to test our powers of endurance,” rejoined the captain, earnestly. “Courage, my friend, courage! Something tells me that this cessation of the eruption is only partial; the internal fire is not all extinct. All is not over yet. It is too soon to give up; never despair!”

Lieutenant Procope quite concurred with the captain. Many causes, he knew, besides the interruption of the influence of the oxygen upon the mineral substances in Gallia’s interior, might account for the stoppage of the lava-flow in this one particular spot, and he considered it more than probable that a fresh outlet had been opened in some other part of the surface, and that the eruptive matter had been diverted into the new channel. But at present his business was to prosecute his labors so that a retreat might be immediately effected from their now untenable position.

Restless and agitated, Professor Rosette, if he took any interest in these discussions, certainly took no share in them. He had brought his telescope down from the observatory into the common hall, and there at frequent intervals, by night and by day, he would endeavor to continue his observations; but the intense cold perpetually compelled him to desist, or he would literally have been frozen to death. No sooner, however, did he find himself obliged to retreat from his study of the heavens, than he would begin overwhelming everybody about him with bitter complaints, pouring out his regrets that he had ever quitted his quarters at Formentera.

On the 4th of January, by persevering industry, the process of boring was completed, and the lieutenant could hear that fragments of the blasted rock, as the sailors cleared them away with their spades, were rolling into the funnel of the crater. He noticed, too, that they did not fall perpendicularly, but seemed to slide along, from which he inferred that the sides of the crater were sloping; he had therefore reason to hope that a descent would be found practicable.

Larger and larger grew the orifice; at length it would admit a man’s body, and Ben Zoof, carrying a torch, pushed himself through it, followed by the lieutenant and Servadac. Procope’s conjecture proved correct. On entering the crater, they found that the sides slanted at the angle of about 4 degrees; moreover, the eruption had evidently been of recent origin, dating probably only from the shock which had invested Gallia with a proportion of the atmosphere of the earth, and beneath the coating of ashes with which they were covered, there were various irregularities in the rock, not yet worn away by the action of the lava, and these afforded a tolerably safe footing.

“Rather a bad staircase!” said Ben Zoof, as they began to make their way down.

In about half an hour, proceeding in a southerly direction, they had descended nearly five hundred feet. From time to time they came upon large excavations that at first sight had all the appearance of galleries, but by waving his torch, Ben Zoof could always see their extreme limits, and it was evident that the lower strata of the mountain did not present the same system of ramification that rendered the Hive above so commodious a residence.

It was not a time to be fastidious; they must be satisfied with such accommodation as they could get, provided it was warm. Captain Servadac was only too glad to find that his hopes about the temperature were to a certain extent realized. The lower they went, the greater was the diminution in the cold, a diminution that was far more rapid than that which is experienced in making the descent of terrestrial mines. In this case it was a volcano, not a colliery, that was the object of exploration, and thankful enough they were to find that it had not become extinct. Although the lava, from some unknown cause, had ceased to rise in the crater, yet plainly it existed somewhere in an incandescent state, and was still transmitting considerable heat to inferior strata.

Lieutenant Procope had brought in his hand a mercurial thermometer, and Servadac carried an aneroid barometer, by means of which he could estimate the depth of their descent below the level of the Gallian Sea. When they were six hundred feet below the orifice the mercury registered a temperature of 6 degrees below zero.

“Six degrees!” said Servadac; “that will not suit us. At this low temperature we could not survive the winter. We must try deeper down. I only hope the ventilation will hold out.”

There was, however, nothing to fear on the score of ventilation. The great current of air that rushed into the aperture penetrated everywhere, and made respiration perfectly easy.

The descent was continued for about another three hundred feet, which brought the explorers to a total depth of nine hundred feet from their old quarters. Here the thermometer registered 12 degrees above zero — a temperature which, if only it were permanent, was all they wanted. There was no advantage in proceeding any further along the lava-course; they could already hear the dull rumblings that indicated that they were at no great distance from the central focus.

“Quite near enough for me!” exclaimed Ben Zoof. “Those who are chilly are welcome to go as much lower as they like. For my part, I shall be quite warm enough here.”

After throwing the gleams of torch-light in all directions, the explorers seated themselves on a jutting rock, and began to debate whether it was practicable for the colony to make an abode in these lower depths of the mountain. The prospect, it must be owned, was not inviting. The crater, it is true, widened out into a cavern sufficiently large, but here its accommodation ended. Above and below were a few ledges in the rock that would serve as receptacles for provisions; but, with the exception of a small recess that must be reserved for Nina, it was clear that henceforth they must all renounce the idea of having separate apartments. The single cave must be their dining-room, drawing-room, and dormitory, all in one. From living the life of rabbits in a warren, they were reduced to the existence of moles, with the difference that they could not, like them, forget their troubles in a long winter’s sleep.

The cavern, however, was quite capable of being lighted by means of lamps and lanterns. Among the stores were several barrels of oil and a considerable quantity of spirits of wine, which might be burned when required for cooking purposes. Moreover, it would be unnecessary for them to confine themselves entirely to the seclusion of their gloomy residence; well wrapped up, there would be nothing to prevent them making occasional excursions both to the Hive and to the sea-shore. A supply of fresh water would be constantly required; ice for this purpose must be perpetually carried in from the coast, and it would be necessary to arrange that everyone in turn should perform this office, as it would be no sinecure to clamber up the sides of the crater for 900 feet, and descend the same distance with a heavy burden.

But the emergency was great, and it was accordingly soon decided that the little colony should forthwith take up its quarters in the cave. After all, they said, they should hardly be much worse off than thousands who annually winter in Arctic regions. On board the whaling-vessels, and in the establishments of the Hudson’s Bay Company, such luxuries as separate cabins or sleeping-chambers are never thought of; one large apartment, well heated and ventilated, with as few corners as possible, is considered far more healthy; and on board ship the entire hold, and in forts a single floor, is appropriated to this purpose. The recollection of this fact served to reconcile them, in a great degree, to the change to which they felt it requisite to submit.

Having remounted the ascent, they made the result of their exploration known to the mass of the community, who received the tidings with a sense of relief, and cordially accepted the scheme of the migration.

The first step was to clear the cavern of its accumulation of ashes, and then the labor of removal commenced in earnest. Never was a task undertaken with greater zest. The fear of being to a certainty frozen to death if they remained where they were, was a stimulus that made everyone put forth all his energies. Beds, furniture, cooking utensils — first the stores of the Dobryna, then the cargo of the tartan — all were carried down with the greatest alacrity, and the diminished weight combined with the downhill route to make the labor proceed with incredible briskness.

Although Professor Rosette yielded to the pressure of circumstances, and allowed himself to be conducted to the lower regions, nothing would induce him to allow his telescope to be carried underground; and as it was undeniable that it would certainly be of no service deep down in the bowels of the mountain, it was allowed to remain undisturbed upon its tripod in the great hall of Nina’s Hive.

As for Isaac Hakkabut, his outcry was beyond description lamentable. Never, in the whole universe, had a merchant met with such reverses; never had such a pitiable series of losses befallen an unfortunate man. Regardless of the ridicule which his abject wretchedness excited, he howled on still, and kept up an unending wail; but meanwhile he kept a keen eye upon every article of his property, and amidst universal laughter insisted on having every item registered in an inventory as it was transferred to its appointed place of safety. Servadac considerately allowed the whole of the cargo to be deposited in a hollow apart by itself, over which the Jew was permitted to keep a watch as vigilant as he pleased.

By the 10th the removal was accomplished. Rescued, at all events, from the exposure to a perilous temperature of 60 degrees below zero, the community was installed in its new home. The large cave was lighted by the Dobryna’s lamps, while several lanterns, suspended at intervals along the acclivity that led to their deserted quarters above, gave a weird picturesqueness to the scene, that might vie with any of the graphic descriptions of the “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”

“How do you like this, Nina?” said Ben Zoof.

Va bene!“ replied the child. “We are only living in the cellars instead of upon the ground floor.”

“We will try and make ourselves comfortable,” said the orderly.

“Oh yes, we will be happy here,” rejoined the child; “it is nice and warm.”

Although they were as careful as they could to conceal their misgivings from the rest, Servadac and his two friends could not regard their present situation without distrust. When alone, they would frequently ask each other what would become of them all, if the volcanic heat should really be subsiding, or if some unexpected perturbation should retard the course of the comet, and compel them to an indefinitely prolonged residence in their grim abode. It was scarcely likely that the comet could supply the fuel of which ere long they would be in urgent need. Who could expect to find coal in the bowels of Gallia — coal, which is the residuum of ancient forests mineralized by the lapse of ages? Would not the lava-cinders exhumed from the extinct volcano be their last poor resource?

“Keep up your spirits, my friends,” said Servadac; “we have plenty of time before us at present. Let us hope that as fresh difficulties arise, fresh ways of escape will open. Never despair!”

“True,” said the count; “it is an old saying that ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ Besides, I should think it very unlikely that the internal heat will fail us now before the summer.”

The lieutenant declared that he entertained the same hope. As the reason of his opinion he alleged that the combustion of the eruptive matter was most probably of quite recent origin, because the comet before its collision with the earth had possessed no atmosphere, and that consequently no oxygen could have penetrated to its interior.

“Most likely you are right,” replied the count; “and so far from dreading a failure of the internal heat, I am not quite sure that we may not be exposed to a more terrible calamity still?”

“What?” asked Servadac.

“The calamity of the eruption breaking out suddenly again, and taking us by surprise.”

“Heavens!” cried the captain, “we will not think of that.”

“The outbreak may happen again,” said the lieutenant, calmly; “but it will be our fault, our own lack of vigilance, if we are taken by surprise.” And so the conversation dropped.

The 15th of January dawned; and the comet was 220,000,000 leagues from the sun.

Gallia had reached its aphelion.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24