The Sunless City/Chapter 2

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The Sunless City by James Edward Preston Muddock
Chapter II

Flin Flon's Fish


On the following morning all the papers published long accounts of the meeting of the Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions, and of Flin's strange proposal. Nearly every journal had a weighty editorial article on the subject. Some denounced the scheme as impracticable and the emanation of a madman's brain; while others were strongly in favour of it, and thought the plan quite feasible.

The excitement in New York City was intense. Flin Flon's lecture was the one topic of conversation. Everything else seemed to be forgotten. The startling theory advanced by the lecturer, and the boldness of his proposition, had broken upon the city with the suddenness of a thunderbolt. It is to be doubted if even a volcano in the centre of Broadway could have caused more astonishment. Everybody exclaimed to everybody else, ---

"Is it not wonderful?"

"How strange to be sure!"

"I wonder that it has never been thought of before."

All the papers published special editions in the afternoon, containing every scrap of information bearing upon the subject. It was a rich harvest for the penny-a-liners. With the indefatigable energy so characteristic of these gentlemen, they rushed about from one end of the city to the other; a few of the most zealous even neglecting their usual forenoon "nip," though it must be confessed that the few represented a very small minority indeed, as the greater number of these "gentlemen of the Press" made the occasion one for indulging in sundry other nips, over and above the usual matutinal dram; and it is highly probable that the news which was published for the information of the public was nearly all concocted in the liquor stores.

In Wall Street, and on the Exchange, the speculators, the hangers-on, the penniless stockbrokers, the gamblers in scrip and shares, seemed to quite forget their ordinary business and go mad upon the all-absorbing topic. Several daring and needy speculators offered to form a limited liability company, to be called the "Central World Exploration Company (Limited)," with a capital of twenty million dollars; and in the event of success attending Flin's adventure, and if inhabitants were discovered, the company were to take steps to open up commerce with them immediately. This proposal, however, did not meet with any very favourable reception, as the projectors were known to belong to that clique which fatten and batten upon the public, and take advantage of every excitement to float bubble companies, by which nobody profits but the promoters, and they make big fortunes. In fact, these very men would have undertaken to have formed a company to be called "The Lunar Steam Navigation Company," its object being to run a daily service of first-class, high-pressure steamers, carrying goods and passengers at cheap rates, from the earth to the moon. Nor would they have wanted shareholders, as fools and their money are soon parted; and persons are always to be found who are ready to subscribe to the most Quixotic expeditions that were ever planned.

However, in this instance, the "Central World Exploration Company, Limited," scheme did not meet with general approbation, although a few persons expressed their willingness to subscribe. But one enthusiastic and shrewd Yankee offered to risk three thousand dollars' worth of dry goods in the proposed vessel, and to commission Flin to dispose of them to the best advantage to the Central Earth dwellers, should he find any; while a benevolent and philanthropic old lady, who was well known for her piety and charity, undertook to supply Flin with fifty dollars' worth of suitable tracts for distribution. A celebrated firm of distillers offered him a very handsome commission if he would undertake to introduce their far-famed and noted Bourbon whisky to any people he might discover; while Professor Bolus, the universally known pill and ointment man, most generously agreed to allow the explorer fifty per cent. upon every box of pills or ointment he might dispose of. And "The Great Monopoly --- do all and buy up everything Company," intimated their willingness to appoint Mr Flonatin their chief agent in the centre of the earth, should he discover any people dwelling there.

If fact, these and similar liberal offers continued to flow in for some days, but it is almost needless to say that they were one and all firmly but respectfully declined.

During all the excitement, which continued for some weeks --- the papers taking every opportunity to keep the agitation up to boiling point --- Flin Flon was quietly superintending the construction of a curious vessel, the design of his own ingenious brain. One of the largest New York firms of engineers was carrying the work out. And so day by day, while the populace were growing more excited, and the journals teemed with letters on the subject pro and con., Flin's fish, as it was hereafter to be know, was rapidly nearing completion, and at the expiration of six weeks from the delivery of the address at the Society's meeting, the finishing touches were put to the strange vessel, and it was at last placed on view at Barnum's Museum, Mr Barnum having magnanimously consented to defray all the expenses of the construction of the vessel solely on condition that it should be exhibited in his museum for a certain time as soon as it was completed. An extra quarter dollar admission money was charged to the public during the time it was on view. But they would willingly have paid treble that amount for the privilege of seeing the wonderful vessel.

The shape of it was that of a huge pike, thirty-four and a-half feet long from the extreme end of the tail to the tip of the snout. The diameter was eight feet and a-half in the thickest part. The fish was constructed of small copper plates, beautifully joined together by countless numbers of minute rivets. In the interior was a casing of sheet-iron, and between this and the internal walls of the machine a space of a foot in width was left for the purposes that will be presently explained. In the exact centre of the fish was a crank made of highly- polished steel, which could be connected or disconnected at pleasure. And owing to an ingenious system of counterweights, the slightest manual labour would cause the crank to revolve freely. This crank communicated with a small pair of patent-float paddle wheels, so that the occupant of the machine could propel the vessel under water. The diameter of the wheels was three feet. The frames were composed of galvanised steel and the floats of mahogany, the edges being protected by brass plates.

The fish was so constructed that it would descend to any required depth head first. The centre of gravity could then be brought to the belly of the fish by moving a lever which acted upon a hydraulic pump, so that the vessel would float horizontally, and by means of the paddles could be driven along under water, at no matter what depth, the speed averaging from five to seven knots an hour.

It will be necessary to explain here that this alternation in positions from perpendicular to horizontal, and vice versa, was effected in a very ingenious manner by means of ballast, the ballast being water contained in the iron tubes that were placed between the outer skin of copper and the inner skin of sheet-iron. The water was acted upon by compressed air.

In the event of the voyager wishing to rise to the surface at any moment, he opened a valve and the compressed air would force the water out. The machine would then rise; while a suction-hose, worked by a small hand force-pump, gave the occupant the power of filling the ballast tubes again, thereby causing the fish to sink once more into the watery depths. In the head of the vessel were place two large eyes, constructed of thick plate-glass, protected by fine copper netting. Each eye was constructed to hold a small electric lamp. This lamp consisted of a piece of platinum wire, connected with a coil for producing currents of induced electricity of great intensity. The coil was of copper wire insulated by being covered with silk, and could be instantly connected with a very powerful voltaic battery. When the apparatus was in action the platinum became luminous, and produced a white and continued light that penetrated the most profound obscurity. These lamps, being very small, could also be carried by the traveller in a small leather case, which was hung around his neck, a miniature battery in this case being used.

The tail of the fish was so arranged that it could be used as a rudder, and was worked from the inside by means of a wheel placed in the head, thus enabling the traveller to keep a lookout and steer at the same time.

The internal arrangements were as near perfection as human skill and ingenuity could make them. In the tail was a small iron reservoir containing a combination of chemicals, which by a process of very slow decomposition evolved the properties of oxygen and hydrogen in such proportions as to keep up a constant supply of pure air inside the fish, while the carbonic acid gas was forced out by a complicated arrangement of pipes which communicated with the mouth of the monster, and were so constructed with trap valves that while allowing the bad air to escape they did not admit the water. It was estimated that this reservoir contained a sufficient amount of chemicals to last for two months. At the end of that time the vessel could be brought to the surface, and the reservoir refilled from a spare store. In the neck was a circular flooring, occupied by the voyager during the descent. When the fish was horizontal this formed a bulkhead, to which was attached a bunk that could be closed up or opened out at pleasure. The gills were represented by two oblong slits of strong plate glass, so that a clear lookout could be obtained. There were also two small windows in the tail.

The centre of the vessel was fitted up as a storeroom, laboratory and study. Here were compasses, a barometer, several thermometers, and a brass dial plate, in the middle of which was a delicately-poised hand. The plate was marked with a graduated scale, and the hand was connected with a strong spring. This again was enclosed in the tube, the mouth of which projected from the back of the fish. Inside of this was a balance which was depressed by the weight of water, so that the exact depth was accurately registered on the dial plate. There was also a somewhat similar plate for registering speed, and a peculiar clock for marking off the days. By closing a door at each end of the compartment it could be made perfectly water- tight, a measure rendered necessary by the possibility of an accident occurring to the head or tail. In the hinder part was a series of lockers to hold provisions sufficient to last for three months. In various parts of the inside there were also placed bottles of prepared phosphorus, which emitted a soft and pleasant light, so that the venturesome traveller was not altogether dependent upon his electric batteries. Each compartment was comfortably fitted with seats, the roof and sides being luxuriously cushioned and padded. There was also accommodation provided in the stern for a few birds and small animals.

During the time that this remarkable and ingenious vessel was on view, enormous crowds flocked to the museum to see it, and the astute Barnum netted vast sums of money; though it must be told, to his credit, that he generously placed one per cent. of the receipts at the disposal of Flin towards the expenses of the expedition.

A day or two before the time for Flin to take his departure, he and the other members of the Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions were entertained to a grand banquet by Mr Barnum, which was given at Astor House, in the Broadway, New York. With his usual liberality the genial showman sent a free ticket to each newspaper, and there was a very strong muster of Pressmen.

All the elite of New York society were there, and a gallery was fitted up at one end of the hall expressly for the accommodation of ladies. And such a galaxy of youth and beauty had seldom been brought together under one roof. It was jocosely remarked by a certain wag that the enterprising Barnum had taken care to send tickets to those ladies only who were noted for youth and superb beauty.

Perhaps this was true, for more lovely and enchanting creatures it would be difficult to imagine. The bright eyes, the bewitching smiles of the dainty mouths, the snowy necks, the well- formed arms, and heaving busts of those fair women, caused them to be the cynosure of all the male sex; while as for the diamonds that sparkled in the hair and on the necks of the lovely creatures, they produced an effect that is indescribable, though one of the reporters spoke of it ---

"As a scene of exquisite loveliness. It seemed as if the angels had gathered all the early dewdrops from the roses in Eden, and then scattered them with a lavish hand amongst this group of earth's fairest creatures; illuminating them with luculent rays of great purity, caught up from the jasper river that rolled its course through the peaceful plains of heaven, these rays produced a hundred prismatic hues, dazzling the beholder, and helped to complete a scene that mortals could gaze upon only once in a lifetime."

This was a little too flowery, but then it was pretty and peculiarly American. The guests numbered nearly a thousand.

Of course the toast of the evening was "The Health of Mr Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, and success to his bold undertaking."

Flin responded very briefly. His bashful and retiring disposition would not allow him to say much about himself. But he expressed the strongest hopes of the success of the undertaking, and said that he was determined to either succeed or perish.

This brought forth a storm of applause, and the ladies, dear creatures, waved their scented cambric handkerchiefs at the speaker. And one beautiful girl of about nineteen summers was heard to murmur, ---

"Wal, I guess that licks creation, it does. I should like to hug the old man, I should, God bless him!"

In her enthusiasm she drew a magnificent little bouquet that had reposed on her fair bosom from the front of her dress, and pressing the gorgeous flowers to her lips, she leant over the front of the gallery and gracefully cast the bouquet down to Flin.

The face of the great man was suffused with blushes as he stooped and picked up the flowers, pressed them to his lips, bowed low to the charming little lady, and then placed them in his buttonhole. This act was the signal for another burst of cheering that did not subside for some minutes.

When order had once more been restored, Mr. Barnum rose to his feet to give the toast of "The Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions."

He alluded in graceful terms to Flin Flon. He was a man of whom everyone ought to be proud, and he firmly believed that he would succeed in carrying the glorious stars and stripes into the very bowels of the earth. At anyrate, if the attempt failed, it would be another bright page added to the history of American enterprise. He felt that he could not sit down without taking the opportunity to contradict, in the strongest and most indignant terms, a scandalous report which had been published in some low English journals, that he (Mr. Barnum) had got up this affair as a money-making speculation, and that the whole thing, from beginning to end, was a swindle and a humbug. The idea was not his but Mr. Flonatin's, and though he had lent his museum for the purpose of exhibiting the wonderful vessel, the designs for which had had their birth in the giant brain of the originator of the expedition, he had done so purely in the public interest. He felt proud that Mr. Flonatin was a New York citizen, and he hoped that every gentleman of the Press then present would not fail to inform the Britishers, who were eating their hearts with envy and jealousy, because they had no Rocky Mountains and no strange tarn, that this bold scheme was originated by an American gentleman, and was worthy alike of him and American enterprise.

Mr. Barnum resumed his seat amidst a perfect hurricane of applause, even the ladies joining in the cheering, waving their fans, and clapping their hands in their excitement.

The banquet came to an end at last, as all things must; but it was with the greatest reluctance that the guests departed from that hall of beauty. In going into the streets it seemed like passing at one step from the realms of fantasy and fairy-land to the murky regions of a nether world.