Hans now began to haul upon the cord on one side only, the other going as quietly upward as the other came down. It fell at last, bringing with it a shower of small stones, lava and dust, a disagreeable kind of rain or hail.
While we were seated on this extraordinary bench I ventured once more to look downwards. With a sigh I discovered that the bottom was still wholly invisible. Were we, then, going direct to the interior of the earth?
The performance with the cord recommenced, and a quarter of an hour later we had descended another two hundred feet.
I have very strong doubts if the most determined geologist would, during that descent have studied the nature of the different layers of earth around him. I did not trouble my head much about the matter; whether we were among the combustible carbon Silurian, or primitive soils, I neither knew nor cared to know.
Not so the inveterate Professor. He must have taken notes all the way down, for, at one of our halts, he began a brief lecture. "The farther we advance," said he, "the greater is my confidence in the result. The disposition of these volcana strata absolutely confirms the theories of Sir Humphrey Davy. We are still within the region of the primordial soil, the soil in which took place the chemical oxidation of metals becoming inflamed by coming in contact with air and water. I at once regret the old and now for ever exploded theory of a central fire. At all events, we shall soon know the truth."
Such was the conclusion to which he came. I was very far from being in humor to discuss the matter. I had something else to think of. My silence was taken for consent; and still we continued to go down.
At the expiration of three hours, we were, to all appearance, as far off as ever from the bottom of the well. When I looked upwards, however, I could see that the upper orifice was every minute decreasing in size. The sides of the shaft were getting closer and closer together, we were approaching the regions of eternal night!
And still we continued to descend! At length, I noticed that when pieces of stone were detached from the sides of this stupendous precipice, they were swallowed up with less noise than before. The final sound was sooner heard. We were approaching the bottom of the abyss!
As I had been very careful to keep account of all the changes of cord which took place, I was able to tell exactly what was the depth we had reached, as well as the time it had taken. We had shifted the rope twenty-eight times, each operation taking a quarter of an hour, which in all made seven hours. To this had to be added twenty-eight pauses; in all ten hours and a half. We had started at one, it was now, therefore, about eleven o'clock at night.
It does not require great knowledge of arithmetic to know that twenty-eight times two hundred feet makes five thousand six hundred feet in all (more than an English mile).
While I was making this mental calculation a voice broke the silence. It was the voice of Hans. "Halt!" he cried.
I checked myself very suddenly, just at the moment when I was about to kick my uncle on the head.
"We have reached the end of our journey," said the worthy Professor in a satisfied tone.
"What, the interior of the earth?" said I, slipping down to his side.
"No, you stupid fellow! but we have reached the bottom of the well."
"And I suppose there is no farther progress to be made?" I hopefully exclaimed.
"Oh, yes, I can dimly see a sort of tunnel, which turns off obliquely to the right. At all events, we must see about that to-morrow. Let us sup now, and seek slumber as best we may."
I thought it time, but made no observations on that point. I was fairly launched on a desperate course, and all I had to do was to go forward hopefully and trustingly.
It was not quite dark even now, the light filtering down in a most extraordinary manner. We opened the provision bag, ate a frugal supper, and each did his best to find a bed amid the pile of stones, dirt, and lava which had accumulated for ages at the bottom of the shaft. I happened to grope out the pile of ropes, ladders, and clothes which we had thrown down; and upon them I stretched myself. After such a day's labor, my rough bed seemed as soft as down!
For a while I lay in a sort of pleasant trance. Presently, after lying quietly for some minutes, I opened my eyes and looked upwards. As I did so I made out a brilliant little dot, at the extremity of this long, gigantic telescope.
It was a star without scintillating rays. According to my calculation, it must be in the constellation of the Little Bear. After this little bit of astronomical recreation, I dropped into a sound sleep.
WE CONTINUE OUR DESCENT
AT eight o'clock the next morning, a faint kind of dawn awoke us. The thousand and one prisms of the lava collected the light as it passed and brought it to us like a shower of sparks. We were able with ease to see objects around us.
"Well, Harry, my boy," cried the delighted Professor, rubbing his hands together, "what say you now? Did you ever pass a more tranquil night in our house in the König Strasse? No deafening sounds of cart-wheels, no cries of hawkers, no bad language from boatmen or watermen!"
"Well, uncle, we are quiet at the bottom of this well—but to me there is something terrible in this calm."
"Why," said the Professor, hotly, "one would say you were already beginning to be afraid. How will you get on presently? Do you know that as yet, we have not penetrated one inch into the bowels of the earth."
"What can you mean, sir?" was my bewildered and astonished reply.
"I mean to say that we have only just reached the soil of the island itself. This long vertical tube, which ends at the bottom of the crater of Sneffels, ceases here just about on a level with the sea."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Quite sure. Consult the barometer."
It was quite true that the mercury, after rising gradually in the instrument, as long as our descent