Such was the end of the New Year's Day so happily begun.
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 thither 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 he 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 pickaxes were of no avail, and their sole resource was to proceed by blasting with gun-powder. Howeverthe 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