would make to this terrific announcement. "Forut," said the guide tranquilly.
"Forward it is," answered my uncle, who was now in the seventh heaven of delight.
When we were quite ready, our watches indicated thirteen minutes past one!
THE REAL JOURNEY COMMENCES
OUR real journey commenced. Hitherto our courage and determination had overcome all difficulties. We were fatigued at times; and that was all. Now, unknown and fearful dangers were to be encountered.
I had not as yet ventured to take a glimpse down the horrible abyss into which in a few minutes more I was about to plunge. The fatal moment had, however, at last arrived. I had still the option of refusing or accepting a share in this foolish and audacious enterprise. But I was ashamed to show more fear than the eider-duck hunter. Hans seemed to accept the difficulties of the journey so tranquilly, with such calm indifference, with such perfect recklessness of all danger, that I actually blushed to appear less of a man than he! Had I been alone with my uncle, I should certainly have sat down and argued the point fully; but in the presence of the guide I held my tongue. I gave one moment to the thought of my charming cousin, and then I advanced to the mouth of the central shaft.
It measured about a hundred feet in diameter, which made about three hundred in circumference. I leaned over a rock which stood on its edge, and looked down. My hair stood on end, my teeth chattered, my limbs trembled, I seemed utterly to lose my center of gravity, while my head was in a sort of whirl, like that of a drunken man. There is nothing more powerful than this attraction towards an abyss. I was about to fall headlong into the gaping well, when I was drawn back by a firm and powerful hand. It was that of Hans. I had not taken lessons enough at the Freiser's-kirk of Copenhagen in the art of looking down from lofty eminences without blinking!
However, few as the minutes were during which I gazed down this tremendous and even wondrous shaft, I had a sufficient glimpse of it to give me some idea of its physical conformation. Its sides, which are almost as perpendicular as those of a well, presented numerous projections which doubtless would assist our descent.
It was a sort of wild and savage staircase, without bannister or fence. A rope fastened above, near the surface, would certainly support our weight and enable us to reach the bottom, but how, when we had arrived at its nethermost depth, were we to loosen it above? This was, I thought, a question of some importance.
My uncle, however, was, as usual prepared with expedients. He hit upon a very simple method of obviating this difficulty. He unrolled a cord about as thick as my thumb, and at least four hundred feet in length. He allowed about half of it to go down the pit and catch in a hitch over a great block of lava which stood on the edge of the precipice. This done, he threw the second half after the first.
Each of us could now descend by catching the two cords in one hand. When about two hundred feet below, all the explorer had to do was to let go one end and pull away at the other, when the cord would come falling at his feet. In order to go down farther, all that was necessary was to continue the same operation. Going down thus appeared to me easy enough, it was the coming up that now occupied my thoughts.
"Now," said my uncle, as soon as he had completed this important preparation, "let us see about the baggage. It must be divided into three separate parcels, and each of us must carry one on his back. I allude to the more important and fragile articles." My worthy and ingenious uncle did not appear to consider that we came under that denomination. "Hans," he continued, "you will take charge of the tools and some of the provisions; you, Harry, must take possession of another third of the provisions and of the arms. I will load myself with the rest of the eatables, and with the more delicate instruments."
"But," I exclaimed, "our clothes, this mass of cord and ladders—who Will undertake to carry them down?"
"They will go down of themselves."
"And how so?" I asked.
"You shall see." My uncle was not fond of half measures, nor did he like anything in the way of hesitation. Giving his orders to Hans, he had the whole of the non-fragile articles made up into one bundle; and the packet firmly and solidly fastened, was simply pitched over the edge of the gulf.
I heard the moaning of the suddenly displaced air, and the noise of falling stones. My uncle leaning over the abyss followed the descent of his luggage with a perfectly self-satisfied air, and did not rise until it had completely disappeared from sight. "Now then," he cried, "it is our turn."
I put it in good faith to any man of common sense—was it possible to hear this energetic cry without a shudder? The Professor fastened his ease of instruments on his back. Hans took charge of the tools, I of the arms. The descent then commenced in the following order: Hans went first, my uncle followed, and I went last. Our progress was made in profound silence—a silence only troubled by the fall of pieces of rock, which breaking from the jagged sides, fell with a roar into the depths below.
I allowed myself to slide, so to speak, holding frantically on the double cord with one hand and with the other keeping myself off the rocks by the assistance of my iron-shod pole. One idea was impressed upon my brain all the time. I feared that the upper support would fail me. The cord appeared to me far too fragile to bear the weight of three such persons as we were, with our luggage. I made as little use of it as possible, trusting to my own agility and doing miracles in the way of feats of dexterity and strength upon the projecting shelves and spurs of lava which my feet seemed to clutch as strongly as my hands.
The guide went first as I have said, and when one of the slippery and frail supports broke from under his feet he had recourse to his usual monosyllabic way of speaking. "Gif-akt——"
"Attention—look out," repeated my uncle.
In about half an hour we reached a kind of small terrace firmed by a fragment of rock projecting some distance from the sides of the shaft.