The Sunless City/Chapter 12

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The Sunless City by James Edward Preston Muddock
Chapter XII


An Electric Storm


Poor Flin Flon raised himself when he awoke from the recumbent position with extreme difficulty, and it cost him much pain to do so.

His whole body was so sore and his joints so stiff, owing to the tossing about he had had on his entrance to the Sea of Echoes, that he could scarcely move. Moreover, he had caught a violent cold in the head --- due no doubt to the loss of his clothes -- so that he did not by any means feel in very good spirits. But had the appliances been at hand he would have put his feet in mustard and water, and have well greased his nose with tallow, and then, wrapping his head in a flannel petticoat, have gone to bed again. But in the absence of any of these excellent, yet grandmotherly, remedies he did the next best thing, and that was to pull his woollen nightcap well down over his ears, and enveloping himself in a blanket, he managed to lower himself to the floor. That done, he produced a small spirit lamp from amongst his stores, together with a bottle of prime "Old Jamaica," and drawing some water from a cask which he had brought in case of emergency, he proceeded to brew a stiff glass of most excellent punch (he was famed for brewing punch), flavoured with just a soupcon of lemon juice. And having quaffed this with very great relish, he wisely went back to bed again.

The "Old Jamaica" had a very soothing and soporific effect, and Mr. Flonatin sunk into a healthful and pleasant slumber, from which he did not awake for four or five hours. By that time he felt so very much better that he got up and dressed himself; well, that is, he exchanged his night shirt for his "dress" shirt, and his toilet being thus completed, he partook of a capital breakfast. That over, he unscrewed the door of the vessel and looked out.

There was no observable change excepting a slight darkening in the electrical clouds. The tints had deepened, and the silver clouds had become a sort of dirty brown. Though Flin certainly noticed this, he did not attach any serious import to it, but on returning to the cabin he was rather surprised to find that the compass cards were spinning round in a very extraordinary manner, stopping suddenly, then going on again. And, happening to glance in his looking-glass, Flin was still further astonished to observe that his own silvery fringe of hair was standing out erect, each particular hair being stiff and straight.

"By Jove!" he cried, "these phenomena indicate some powerful electrical disturbance in the atmosphere."

He raised his hand to his head, and then noticed for the first time that a pale blue light was playing about the tips of his fingers.

Now to an unscientific mind these things would have appeared very startling, but Mr. Flonatin thoroughly understood the cause and the laws which governed them. The whole atmosphere was surcharged with electricity, and a storm was about to burst.

What took place is given in the great man's own words: ---

"The beautiful colours of the clouds gradually died, and with them the light, so that for the space of an hour a darkness that was horrible was over all things. It was truly an Egyptian night. But presently a silvery electrical radiance gleamed from the sea, and though this only partially dispelled the gloom, the effect was marvellous and beautiful. Inside the vessel every piece of exposed metal was illuminated with a blue flame, my own hair and extremities were also luminous, and when I wrote with the pencil it seemed to mark the paper like a lucifer match. In fact everything was actually immersed in the electrical fluid. Suddenly the clouds discharged one awful, blinding sheet of flame, that extended from horizon to horizon. And this was immediately followed by a burst of thunder that made me think the firm earth had been shattered into a million fragments. No known words could possibly convey anything like an adequate notion of that fearful peal. The vessel trembled as if she had received a violent blow. The surface of the water was agitated as if tons of small shot had been sprinkled over it from a gigantic sieve. Then the echoes of the peal were scarcely less terrible than the grand crash itself. These echoes came and faded with startling suddenness. They seemed to bound from peak to peak, and from crag to crag. To be one minute down in the gorges, the next amongst the pinnacles of rock, and then again afar off on the opposite side of the sea. The effect of these echoes was the most marvellous thing I ever experienced, and I feel that my pen is quite powerless to convey anything like a proper notion of the awfulness of the storm which raged for upwards of two hours. It seemed sometimes as if the whole region were literally bathed in fire. An electric spark would shoot up from the water, and in mid- air would be met by another spark from the clouds, and as the two came in collision they separated into thousands of little balls that darted about with astonishing rapidity. Then every now and then some prominent rock appeared to be suddenly illuminated, as if it had been saturated with spirits of wine and set on fire. This phenomenon would last for a minute of so, when there would be a tremendous explosion, and from the illuminated rock millions of sparks would shoot into the air, and all would be dark again. This was the most appalling sight that could possibly be imagined. Another extraordinary appearance was that a transparent cloud of fire --- or what seemed to be fire --- appeared as if by magic overhead. The colour of this cloud was sometimes red, at others mauve or blue. It would float along very quickly, while it seemed to come in collision with something, when it would burst with an awful roar, and a flash that was horrifying. Gradually the storm ceased, and a deathlike silence took the place of the roar and crashing that for two hours had fairly shook the solid rocks. This silence seemed to be due to some change in the atmosphere, which had caused it to lose its acoustic properties. Because up to this time the roar of the waterfalls had been almost deafening; but now not a sound, however faint, could be heard, and not a gleam of light could be seen. The silence was absolute. The darkness was palpable. I confess that I trembled with awe. I felt humbled into the very dust in the presence of such awful evidence of Nature's wonderful power. Here the pent-up electric forces had been disturbed, and the storm that followed made the most terrible of storms of the upper earth pale into insignificance by comparison. I have wondered whether I was not responsible in a measure for this storm which broke over the Sea of Echoes, as I have reason to think that the report of my gun when I fired at the turtle disturbed the electric currents, and caused the clouds to discharge their streams of the subtle fluid on to the earth below. This theory, however, may be incorrect, though I have faith in it myself."

"The noiseless silence --- and in using this somewhat tautological phrase I do so that a better idea may be gathered. Because even in the most solemn hours of night in the upper world some sounds may be detected, however faint, but here it was a region of death. The air was perfectly stagnant, and the sound waves had ceased to flow. There was not a motion in the water, not a motion in the vessel --- I say that the noiseless silence and the perfect darkness lasted for some time. I waited in dread suspense, for I did not know what might happen next. I thought that there might be one grand final crash, in which I and my puny vessel would be annihilated. But fortunately all danger had passed. Very gradually the darkness seemed to melt away, and a sort of phosphorescent glow spread over the surface of the water. The air was set in motion again. Sound awoke, and the roar of the waterfalls grew more and more distinct. The clouds became luminous, and the colours were even more beautiful than before. The storm had passed. I lived, and gazed upon the wondrous scene, over which an unseen yet warm and beautiful sun seemed to be shining, endowing the whole place with fairy-like glory. A strong breeze sprang up, and the sea was broken into short, chopping waves."

Mr. Flonatin was now determined to continue his journey, and after a very sumptuous meal, of which he stood very sadly in need, he set the interior of the fish in order, and opening the door he stepped outside on to the little platform over the tail, which formed the deck. He found that the temperature of the atmosphere had lowered very considerably since the storm, and the cold was not at all pleasant to him in the absence of proper clothing. This set him thinking upon his condition, and the necessity of devising some means of obtaining a suit of clothes, for he thought if he should come upon inhabitants his appearance was scarcely compatible with the laws of good society; and as a representative of a most enlightened nation, he was desirous of upholding that dignity and modesty which had ever been distinguishing traits in America's sons. After some reflection he hit upon a brilliant idea. He had ample stores of cotton and sewing materials, and like most bachelors he knew how to put on a button, and more than that he could sew, hem, fell, make tucks, put in gussets, back stitch, run, and do many other peculiarities of the expert needlewoman's art, and this too without breaking his needle every two minutes or pricking his fingers or putting the thread through his skin instead of the cloth upon which he was at work. In short he was an expert in the use of needle and thread, and I very much doubt if he could not --- had he been so disposed --- have made a lady's fancy ball costume or even a "duck of a bonnet." Well, his idea was that he should make some clothes. He had a spare red blanket, that would do capitally for a coat, while two or three excellent pairs of trousers might be constructed out of the sheets. Then came the question of shoes, and although he had never had any experience in the shoemaker's trade his ingenious brain was not at a loss. He had some leather on board amongst his stores, and out of this he could construct sandals. Having made up his mind on the subject, he thought it was better to carry the idea into effect at once, and so he moved his vessel over to the ledge of rocks and there moored her, and was very soon deeply absorbed in his tailoring operations. He cut the blanket into the shape of a coat, put in some sleeves, sewed on leather buttons, and the thing was done. He next tried his hand upon the lower garments, and succeeded capitally. It is true they were a little baggy and of Dutch pattern, but then they were comfortable, and Flin always studied comfort more than personal appearance. It is also true that the tout ensemble of his costume was a little bizarre, but he did not mind that, as it answered his requirements for the time being.

Having dressed himself in this "home-made" suit and fastened some leather sandals on his feet, he cast off the moorings, fixed a small American flag at the mast head, and hoisting the sail got under way, and was soon speeding along at the rate of fourteen knots an hour, for the morning air acted with great force upon the sail and the vessel was light.

For some distance Flin kept along the coast. There was no change at all in the general features of the place. The same gorges, the same roaring waterfalls, the same rocks, and the same sterility. A few trees or shrubs or even grass would have given the region the appearance of a veritable paradise, but after the storm Flin had witnessed he had no difficulty in accounting for the utter absence of vegetable life. The very hardiest of plants or trees must have been withered by the electric fluid which permeated every crevice, and even the solid rocks and depths of the sea. He pondered upon this, and his theory was --- arguing from the fact that the rocks were Plutonic --- that at some distant period of the world's history, so distant that he seemed to think it quite possible that millions of years had intervened between the then and now, this place had been one huge cavern of liquid fire. He expresses himself a very strong adherent to the belief that the whole world in remote ages was a burning globe. That gradually the extreme crust cooled, and the fires were confined to the centre, but, chafing at their imprisonment, they had struggled to burst their bonds, rending and shattering the crust in all directions, throwing up mountains, and carving out valleys. Then the waters descended and filled up the valleys, forming oceans. And these waters helped to still further cool the burning earth, and prepared the way for coming life. That the germs of all vegetable, if not animal, life (though he speaks very cautiously on the latter point) were washed down from the upper regions of space by the falling waters, --- that these germs, under the influence of heat, developed rapidly, and attained enormous growths, so that the whole of the external globe was one stupendous forest. But the fires which for ages had been accumulating their mighty powers rose again in rebellion, and, bursting their bonds, once more produced chaos. But this time the fire forces had to fight the water forces, and the latter succeeded in driving back the fires to the centre. Then the stupendous masses of vegetation sank down, and were destined in the course of time to form the coal measures, and the overwhelming waters left their traces even on the tops of the highest mountains. This was succeeded by ages of rest, during which the world was becoming clothed again with vegetation. And while continents were being upheaved by the action of the imprisoned gases, the great waters were washing other continents away, forming islands, and carving out great rivers. That gradually the fires had been driven farther and farther into the centre, and were now dying out altogether, and that only isolated patches of fire --- so to speak, such as that in "Pluto's Reception Hall" --- existed, and even these in time would become extinct. This was Flin Flon's theory, and the further he travelled through the bowels of the earth, the more convinced he became that he was right.

As he sailed along he took soundings repeatedly, but in no instance was he able to get the bottom, though sometimes he had five hundred fathoms of line out. But lowering the sail occasionally, and bringing the vessel to, he ascertained that a very strong current was flowing obliquely from the land, and he determined to follow the set of this current, for he felt sure it was his most reliable guide. By steering this course he soon ran out of sight of land, and continued so for some hours. Then other land loomed up ahead, and in time he made out a bold coast-line, but on approaching nearer he found it did not differ from that he had left behind. He ran in under some overhanging rocks, where he was enabled to moor for the night and get some rest. The next day he set sail at ten o'clock. He found that the current was now setting along this coast at a tremendous rate, and what with this and the sail the speed of the vessel was almost incredible. In six hours' time he found himself approaching a gigantic headland, and at right angles to this was another range of mountainous rocks. There was evidently an opening between the range and the headland, and as the water seemed very broken thereabouts, and the current was setting with the swiftness of a mill-race, Mr. Flonatin deemed it prudent to lower his sail, and, taking sufficient ballast on board, partly submerged the fish. This was accomplished, and the opening reached. The place was appallingly weird. On either side the burnt, black rocks rose up like perpendicular walls, not more than twenty-four yards apart. Far above their tops were lost in the electric clouds, which sent down a stream of red light, the effect of which can scarcely be described. But it seemed as if the rocks were dripping with blood, and that the vessel itself was moving through a sea of blood. Between these walls the tide rushed furiously, and the fish was borne on at a tremendous pace, the voyager feeling that new wonders were about to burst upon him.

Presently he found that he was approaching the base of what appeared a huge mountain, and as he drew near he saw a most tremendous opening, into which the river rushed. This opening was like the entrance to some of the mammoth caves of worship that are found in many parts of India and China. It was, in fact, a kind of colossal doorway, almost square in shape. He felt that this was the portal to another region. What that region might be he could form no possible conception. But go on he must. He could not turn back, for the tide was carrying him down at the rate of twenty-five knots an hour. There was one thing he saw very clearly, and that was that this was the outlet for the surplus waters of the sea that he had left behind. He got his electric lamps in order, and, having seen everything snug in the vessel, he waited in anxious suspense for the next revelation. In a few minutes the fish rushed into the tunnel, where all was profound darkness save for the gleam from the lamps.