The Sunless City/Chapter 10

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The Sunless City by James Edward Preston Muddock
Chapter X

The Waters of Fire

The sight that met Mr Flonatin's view as he gazed through the portholes, or eyes of his fish, was truly appalling and marvellous. As far as he could make out --- for the line of vision was necessarily circumscribed --- he was in an extensive chamber of circular form. From the surface of the water millions of blue stars were incessantly shooting up, while to roof and walls seemed to be burning with a pale blue flame.

The phenomenon was striking and wonderful. And at first Flin thought it was due to some electrical disturbance. But the needles of his compass did not indicate that any electrical waves were moving about. On the contrary, the needles were steady, which would not have been the case had the external atmosphere been overloaded with electricity. The phenomenon must therefore be sought for in some other cause --- and that cause Flin concluded was a chemical one. Consequently very great caution would have to be exercised, as the cavern might be filled with dangerous gaseous vapours, that, if inhaled, would be fatal to human life.

This was a contingency that he thought it probable --- when he set out on his journey --- that he might have to encounter. And he had therefore provided himself with a filter- respirator, the invention of an ingenious friend.

It was so constructed that it fitted closely over the mouth and nostrils, and was composed of layers of fine cotton wool between perforated plates of platinum. The external casing was of india-rubber, and was kept close to the face by means of steel springs. From this apparatus two india-rubber pipes led to the back of the neck, one on each side. They were there connected with a small tin case, that was half filled with water. On the top of this cylinder or case was a small bell-shaped funnel which admitted the air, that was drawn through the water, along the pipes, and through the cotton wool in a purified state, by the wearer at every respiration. The respirations were made by the nostrils, and the mouth was kept firmly closed. But when the breath was discharged, the mouth was opened, and the foul air was expelled through an escape valve which was opened by the force of the breath. By means of this clever invention a person was enabled to remain for a considerable time in the deadliest of atmospheres.

When Mr. Flonatin had adjusted the apparatus he got the remaining pigeon out of its wicker cage and proceeded to unscrew the door of the vessel very carefully; and having taken the precaution to tie one of the legs of the pigeon to some fine thread which he held, so the he might recover the bird again, he opened the door sufficiently to allow of the pigeon passing out. As soon as that was done Flin rushed to the porthole, having first secured the door again. He saw the pigeon fly for a few minutes in a confused sort of manner. It wheeled round and round two or three times, and suddenly fell into the water exactly as if it had been shot. It spread its wings out, beat the water, and soon was perfectly still. Flin drew it in by means of the string and found that it was dead. It had evidently been suffocated.

Much as he regretted the death of the poor bird, he felt that the experiment had been warranted, as it proved to him that he had deadly risks to contend with, and to be forewarned was to be forearmed. It would not do to remain where he was, and to understand the exact position of affairs it would be necessary to get out and make a survey. But he felt that the sooner he was clear of such a fatal region the better.

He again opened the door, and getting on the outside of the fish he closed the door behind him.

The sight was indeed startling. Small blue stars seemed to bubble up, as it were, in the water, and as soon as they reach the surface they burst into a blue flame, that shot up into the air and expired, leaving behind a flimsy haze of vapour.

Close to the vessel was a great mass of rock, that was worn into the shape of a bow by the action of the water. Into this bow the vessel had drifted, and save for the motion caused by the circling eddies, she remained stationary, though on the outside of the bow the river sped along like a millrace.

Flin was able to step on to this rock, and as it was full of indentations he managed to scramble up, though his legs and feet, which it will be remembered were without covering, suffered severely. But then enthusiasm burned strong in his breast again, and he did not feel much of the pain at that moment.

From his elevated position he observed that the cavern apparently stretched away to a limitless extent. It was like a huge chamber with a domed roof. The water was everywhere, but always flowing down with great force, and swirling with a savage roar round the rocky islets which everywhere dotted its surface.

The roof, the islets, the walls were all covered with what seemed like luminous vapour, of that kind which a common lucifer match makes if rubbed on anything in the dark. And as Flin noticed this he accounted for it by the theory that from the bottom of the lake or river streams of phosphuretted gas were continually rising, which burst into flame as soon as they reached the surface; and he hit upon the happy though paradoxical name for the place of "The Waters of Fire," for it really seemed as if the lake was emitting tongues of flame, which in truth it was. He felt that this wonder alone, to say nothing of those he had already witnessed, was well worth a journey into the bowels of the earth to see.

"But where was the outlet of this great stream?" he asked himself; "and how was he to reach it?" He was convinced that there must be a tremendous dip in the earth here, otherwise the current would not be so rapid.

As it was impossible from the nature of the place to extend his research, he deemed it to be the wisest course to get back into his vessel and endeavour to leave the spot where he had become embayed. So he returned on board, screwed down the door, and then set the paddle to work, and, by great exertion, succeeded in getting into the fairway of the stream, and the fish moved rapidly along.

By means of a small wheel near the eyes Flin was enabled to steer and keep a lookout at the same time. The navigation was most intricate, and as the motive power of the vessel was the current itself the helm was of little use; and several times the fish grated unpleasantly and dangerously against the rocky island.

It was a most exciting time, and the brave traveller felt that he held his life by a very insecure tenure. But, thanks to the substantial manner in which the fish had been built, the collisions with the rocks were not productive of any serious consequences, and as the water swirled rapidly round the rocks the swirl itself carried the vessel clear after she had bumped.

After two or three hours of this kind of work the obstacles were fewer, and at length the fish shot into a narrow tunnel. Here the water was perfectly smooth, but so great was the difference in the levels between this and the upper lake that it was like an inclined plane, and down this the vessel rushed as straight as an arrow. Flin managed to keep her in midstream, and watched at his look-out ports with breathless anxiety, not unmixed with alarm as to what the end of this wild career might be. He thought it was quite probable that he was being borne on towards a mighty maelstrom, and if that were the case all hope of ever seeing the upper world again would be gone.

It was an appalling thought, and if something like a shudder passed through Flin's frame at that moment it certainly was no evidence of weakness, for he was as brave as most men, and had faced dangers without flinching that would have turned some men's hair grey. But here that tremendous force of Nature --- water --- was tearing along through a narrow channel, and it was plain to the most common reason that it must ultimately discharge itself with a power that was beyond human comprehension.

Would the comparatively frail craft be able to with- stand this power? Upon that everything depended.

The current which flowed from the bottom of Lake Avernus had hitherto been the only motive power upon which he had to depend. By a natural law the water was seeking its level, and it was this very law of gravitation that had induced Flin to undertake the journey. He knew that if there was a current at the bottom of the lake it must flow inwards --- that is towards the centre of the earth, or the centre of gravitation. What was there at the centre? He was far below the earth's surface; down in the very heart of the primitive rocks, so that he could not now expect to come out in one of the known oceans. Did all the great waters flow to that common centre, and there, with a fury that almost made the heart stand still with awe to think of it, form a whirlpool of such stupendous magnitude that the human brain was incapable of grasping it? These were the thoughts that agitated the great traveller.

But this feeling of dejection soon passed away, and he took courage from the thought that fortune had so far favoured him.

So rapidly and smoothly did the vessel glide along with the swift-flowing current that there was very little motion. As an evidence of the tremendous fall there was it may be mentioned that the head of the fish was lower by fifteen degrees than the tail.

To better illustrate this Mr Flonatin thought of a very happy simile. He said that if you could take the huge sheet of smooth water which flows over the Horse Shoe Fall at Niagara, and cut it into long strips about six yards broad, then tack the strips on to each other, and stretch them out with a dip of 15 3/4, a correct representation of the stream down which the fish rushed would be obtained.

No change took place for some hours, and Flin was worn out with watching. The temperature of the vessel had sunk very considerably, and the cold caused him to tremble so much, owing to the absence of clothing, that he got one of his blankets and wrapped it round him.

The speed dial marked twenty-two and a half knots an hour, and the chronometers showed that it was six o'clock, New York time. It may be asked how did Flonatin ascertain the number of days he had been out as he could not see the sun? Well, at first sight this might seem a difficult thing to do, but with that fore-thought which characterised all his movements he had provided a little instrument for measuring the days. It consisted of a dial upon which were marked the hours, and round which a hand revolved, worked by complicated mechanism. When Flin commenced to descend into Avernus he set this hand exactly at twelve, New York time. Then every hour the hand had moved until it had ticked off twenty-four. That done, a number appeared on a disc which encircled the dial. This number was ONE, indicating one day had gone.

So each day was marked, and as nine now appeared on the disc --- it showed that Flin had been out nine days --- while the hand marked the sixth hour of the tenth day afternoon, that is, six o'clock at night.

His chemicals were lasting very well, as when he had been out of the vessel he had not used the air apparatus at all. He had also abundance of provisions yet. So on that score he had no fear. His only anxiety was about his vessel. As long as that was sound he was sanguine of prosecuting his explorations to a successful issue. But should she be wrecked by any untoward circumstance his mission would be ended, and his brother savants and the world would say that he had sacrificed his life in a foolhardy cause, for he was aware how unfortunately true it was that men were apt to sneer and call a person a fool who did not succeed in what he undertook, forgetting that non-success did not always imply a want of wisdom. On the contrary, wise men sometimes fail where fools succeed. This may often be seen in the lack-brain individuals who sit in high places, and shake their heads as if they were truly Solomons.

For instance, a youth with no brains but plenty of influence at Court will get on where a youth with more of brains but no influence will be neglected and passed over. Mr Flonatin knew that this was a glaring and crying shame in his own day, and he had repeatedly raised his voice against it, for he had seen genius and merit sitting in the gutter starving for the lack of a patron; while shallowness, sycophancy and hypocrisy prevailed. If the good man could only revisit the scenes of his earthly labours he would be shocked to observe that, with all our advancement, this state of things has not improved, and that honest merit has just as much difficulty in making itself heard now as ever it had.

Flin continued at his post for some time longer, but it was with the utmost difficulty he could keep his eyes open. To use a common phrase he was "dead beat," and he would have hailed with delight any place where he could have moored the vessel, so that he might have lain down in security. As it was he felt that it would be impossible to conquer the desire to sleep much longer, and that he would have to go to bed whatever the risks might be.

Since leaving "The Waters of Fire" the tunnel had been quite dark, save for the illumination of the electric lamps. But now he observed with astonishment that the walls were opening out, the river was getting broader, and a strange, weird, ghostly sort of light was spreading through the place. This was new matter for wonder, and for a time he forgot his weariness and exhaustion, and peered eagerly through his look-out windows for the cause of the phenomenon.

The light grew rapidly stronger. The fish rushed madly on. Then suddenly Flin uttered a cry of horror as he saw right before him, but at some distance, what appeared to be a huge cauldron, from which rose immense volumes of steam, that were illuminated by an intense bright light, while an awful roar, that is indescribable, almost deafened him.

"This, then, was the end of all his devotion to the cause he had so much at heart," he thought.

Before him was a tumbling, seething, boiling cauldron of gigantic proportions; a world, as it were, of water and fire. The two elements in contact, like too mighty giants, struggling for mastery, and in their struggles shaking the firm earth to its very foundations. On to this his vessel was rushing, and he was powerless to stay her course for one moment.

He would be boiled or roasted, it scarcely mattered which. It seemed certain he would be annihilated, and whether that was effected by fire or boiling was of no consequence. It was an awful and appalling ending to his ambitious dreams. He believed that his time had come, and with a cry of anguish he sank upon the floor of the vessel and buried his face in his blanket, expecting every moment to find the temperature of the fish rising, and himself baking like a joint of meat in an oven.