The Sunless City/Chapter 4

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The Sunless City by James Edward Preston Muddock
Chapter IV


A Subterranean River


For two hours after leaving the surface Flin continued to descend until the dial plate registered five hundred fathoms. As he noted this he felt a little proud as he thought that he was probably the first living human being who had ever attained such a depth. His ingenious invention was evidently a success. The reservoir was working capitally, and there was a plentiful supply of good air, and the only inconvenience that was experienced was an unusual degree of heat, the thermometer marking 82 degrees Fahrenheit, although the weather on land was extremely cold. The fish continued to descend until one thousand fathoms were marked, then bottom was touched lightly, and Flin instantly shifted the ballast and brought the fish into horizontal position. From his lookout windows he could see that he was on a shelving ledge of rock, and so connecting the crank of his paddle-wheels, he gave a few turns, and the machine glided further out and commenced to sink again. Very slowly now, owing to the horizontal position. When another hundred fathoms had been added to the depth, the fish again lodged on a ledge of rock, and instead of shelving, Flin could observe that it was quite flat and about five yards broad. Everything was satisfactory inside; the birds and animals were quietly sleeping, and the only sound to be heard was a strange, low humming noise. One peculiarity Flin noticed was, that the compasses were quite useless and magnetic attraction had ceased. As he was very tired, and the hour was late, he determined to let the vessel lodge where it was for the night, and having seen that everything was in working order, he went to bed, and was very soon enjoying a sound sleep, in spite of the novelty of his position. In all human probability he was the first mortal who, in the full enjoyment of perfect health and strength, had ever quietly reposed beneath the water at a depth of nearly two miles.

The night passed and morning came. Of course the only knowledge that Flin had that it was morning, was by looking at his chronometer watch, the hands of which indicated the hour of nine.

"Bless my life," cried Flin as he sprang out of bed, and regaled himself with a pinch of his precious snuff, "bless my life, how late it is. I declare I must have overslept myself."

Then having carefully adjusted his smalls and buttoned up his old green coat, he proceeded to attend to the creature comforts of his compagnons de voyage, and having noticed the state of the thermometer, which had risen in the night to 86 degrees, he made an entry in his diary to the effect that he had passed a very comfortable night eleven hundred fathoms below the surface of Lake Avernus. This task being completed he breakfasted right royally on a bottle of superb claret, some hard-boiled eggs, which had been prepared the day before, a few delicate slices of delicious ham, and finished off with a choice cut from a magnificent boar's head stuffed with truffles.

The next task was to get the craft off the ledge of rock, where it had securely lodged all night. Flin first of all made a careful survey of the position, as far as he was able, from his lookout windows. The electric lamps in the eyes illuminated the water for some distance, and he was enabled to see that on the left of him, and close to the vessel, rose a sheer wall of rock. And when his eyes became accustomed to the strange light he was astonished to observe that this wall was literally covered with some living things that could scarcely be called animals or fish. They had large, flat, round heads, and from each side of the head protruded an enormous eye. These eyes looked like balls of silver stuck on pins, and the creature was enabled to move them about in all directions. The bodies of these strange animals or fish were like thin pieces of pipe, about six inches in length, the tails of which were firmly attached to the rock. These things kept waving about with an undulating motion, and with a regularity that was monotonous.

"Good gracious!" cried Flin enthusiastically as he observed the extraordinary creatures, "what would I not give if I could only procure a few specimens. They are evidently an entirely new species of water animal, for I have never seen anything like them before. "

Longings, however, were vain, and so with that philosophical resignation which was part of his character he sat down and carefully entered in his diary an exact description (of which the above is a copy) of the extraordinary appearance of the living creatures; and as they partook more of the nature of reptiles than fish, he at once, with becoming modesty, classified them under the head of Reptilia Flonatin.

The entry finished, the great little man took snuff with a very self-satisfied air, and shipping the crank he set to work to impel the vessel into deep water. This was easily effected, for she rested very lightly on the rock, and being off she commenced to gradually sink again.

The peculiar humming noise which Flin had noticed on the previous evening now increased until it became like the combined buzzing of thousands of bees. It affected the drums of the ears, and produced a partial deafness. When the dial plate had registered another twenty fathoms a new and strange motion was imparted to the vessel. She went up and down like a see-saw plank, then she rolled, then described a half circle, bobbed up and down like a float, and finally commenced to spin round and round.

"Hullo!" cried Flin, as he seized his note- book and proceeded to jot down notes of the phenomenon, "this is suction. I'm going somewhere now."

Presently the humming noise increased until it became a perfect roar. The head of the fish vessel kept dipping violently, so that Flin was compelled to keep his seat. But with heroic composure he took snuff and calmly waited, pen in hand, for what might follow. He had not long to wait. The head made a plunge, until the vessel was almost perpendicular, and the little man was thrown to the floor. He gathered himself up, however, not the least disconcerted, and had just time to gain his seat when the vessel commenced to spin round violently like a newly-caught cockchafer on a pin. And all this time it was still sinking, sinking rapidly, and the roar was terrific. Any other man similarly situated would at once have given himself up for lost; but Flin did nothing of the kind. He managed to secure his precious snuff-box in the breast pocket of his coat, and then he firmly grasped with both hands the little table at which he was sitting, and which fortunately was screwed to the deck.

"Dear me!" he cried, gasping for breath, as a slight pause occurred in the rotary motion; "this is really very unpleasant, but it proves my theory correct that the lake is drained by a subterranean river and I am coming to the mouth of it."

He had scarcely given utterance to the words when again the vessel spun round, even more rapidly than before, and the noise was absolutely deafening, and rendered more distressing by the screams of the alarmed birds and animals imprisoned in the vessel with Flin.

In about twenty minutes' time the circular motion gave place to violent tossing, which, however, was less disagreeable than the other.

"Confound it!" he exclaimed. "In the interests of the honourable Society it is my privilege to represent I am prepared to encounter a great deal, but I must certainly enter a protest against being whirled round at the rate of fifty revolutions per minute."

Scarcely had the words left his mouth than the vessel commenced to rotate again, and Flin had not even time to clutch his snuff-box, which had been lying on the table, before it went flying away into a corner of the compartment. This distressed the little man sorely. The precious relic and its still more precious contents were as dear to him almost as his own life. But there was no help for it. He had to cling to the table like a leach, and his baldness in this instance was not without its advantages, for if his head had been covered with hair the probabilities are that the hair would have been whirled off.

Quite suddenly the motion changed, and swift as an arrow the vessel took a plunge down, then made a rush forward, and it became evident now that she was being carried rapidly along by a powerful current that was flowing through a tunnel.

For a time Flin was quite exhausted, and so giddy that he could see nothing. But he soon

recovered, and his first thought was for his gold box. This regained, he inspected his live stock. He found them all trembling violently and suffering great agitation. The thermometer registered 90 degrees, and the barometer was flying backwards and forwards in a most mysterious manner from "set fair" to "stormy." The pressure on the dial plate indicated a depth of water of not more than six fathoms.

"Hurrah!" cried Flin, as he noted this. "I am in the centre of the channel, and not far below the surface of the water."

He went to his lookout and peered into the water, but his vessel seemed to be standing still, though he knew from the speed indicator inside that she was travelling at the rate of quite twenty knots an hour.

After four hours of this rate the speed was reduced to about ten, and the fish was perfectly steady. Nothing was to be seen but the walls of water, rendered greenish by the electrical glow from the fish's eyes. Flin occupied himself with carefully writing up his diary and examining his instruments. He felt very well satisfied, for so far success had attended his venture, and the theory he had advanced at the meeting had now become actual fact, and he was sailing beneath the surface of a subterranean river. Not a single thought troubled him as to the future. He could live in his strange abode for a month, and long before that time the end of the river must be reached; and if he should come out in the centre of the ocean he would be able to rise to the surface, and either make for the nearest shore or be picked up by some passing ship, so he reasoned. But his enthusiasm never deserted him for a moment. He longed to realize his dream and become the discoverer of an internal world. The belief was firmly rooted in his mind that all subterranean rivers must flow to the centre of the earth, and it was evident that the one in which he was now travelling had a considerable fall, as proved by the rapidity of the current. He was a least two and a half miles from the surface of Lake Avernus, and was still descending lower. At anyrate, return was impossible, and wherever this river liked to take him to he must go, even though it should be to the infernal regions themselves.

About six o'clock, no change having taken place, he sat down to dine. The dinner was quite a recherch‚ affair; boiled ham and delicious Indian pickles, boar's head and delicate French rolls and New Jersey butter, Catawba wine and calves'-foot jelly (specially prepared by an intimate lady friend), a morsel of Gruyere and a bottle of Moet.

Having fared thus sumptuously, Flin entered up his diary for the day, first noting that everything was going on all right. This task over he opened the escape valve for the foul air, and after that felt considerably refreshed, and, there being nothing more to do that night, he retired to rest.

He had slept about four hours when he was suddenly awakened by a violent shock, and for a moment the vessel seemed to be standing perfectly still, and there was a noise like the howling of a gale of wind through a long iron pipe. Flin sprang from his bunk. The vessel was trembling from head to tail, and the speed indicator was at "0." He realised the state of affairs in a minute. The fish had struck against a rock in mid channel. That this was the case was proved in a few minutes by the vessel swinging as the tide caught her and turned her violently round. Then with a dart and a plunge she rushed forward again, and the indicator registered twenty-two knots an hour.

Flin made a minute examination of the head of his fish, but could discover no damage beyond one of the electrical lamps in the eyes being displaced, but fortunately it was not broken.

"Confound it," he muttered, "that is a contingency I did not calculate upon, and a few such shocks would very soon bring my expedition to a premature close. It is no use meeting trouble halfway, though. I must hope for the best."

A very high rate of speed was now attained, and from a considerable depression at the head of the fish it was evident it was being carried down an inclined plane of water. Flin dressed himself hastily and took snuff thoughtfully.

"This is very awkward," he muttered, as he sat philosophically contemplating the indicator, which now marked thirty knots. "Exceedingly awkward," he continued. "We are evidently descending a rapid, and if anything should be in the way, well ---"

He had not time to finish the sentence for the fish suddenly assumed a perpendicular position, the bold explorer was sent head over heels, and found himself lying against the partition beneath a heterogeneous collection of articles which had not been secured.

He lost no time in picking himself up and hurrying to the dial plate, which marked twenty fathoms, while the indicator had stopped.

"That's a pretty considerable waterfall, I guess," he remarked, as he groped for his snuff-box.

Presently the fish commenced to rise again from the depth of water into which the momentum had carried it, and as it did so it assumed the horizontal once more. Flin seized the lever which acted upon the ballast pipe, for he was determined to rise to the surface. He pressed the handle and the fish rapidly rose, but no sooner had it reached the top than it commenced spinning again at a bewildering rate. It had been caught in the eddy. Now it dived down as the water fell upon it. Then it rose again, spun round, rolled terrifically, bumped against the rocks, darted from side to side, was one moment perpendicular, the next horizontal, and all that Flin could do was to cling tenaciously to the table and wait.

At length there was a shock, and all motion, excepting an undulating one, ceased, but the roar of the water was perfectly deafening.

Flin scrambled to his portholes and looked out. The fish was on the top of the water, and jammed in a sort of cove formed by a jutting rock. It was perfectly still there, but a few yards further away the water was perfectly white with foam, and rushing along at an incredible speed.

"It won't do to stick here," thought Flin, "and I must get out into the stream somehow."

But how? That was the question that suggested itself to him. There was but one way, and that was to open the door and push the vessel out by means of a pole which had fortunately been placed on board. But then there were two risks to be run. The first was that of foul air, and the second was the danger of the fish being carried by the eddy beneath the waterfall and swamped before the cap could be closed again.

However, to stick there was to perish miserably and ingloriously, without any chance of his papers reaching the upper world. So of the two evils he chose the lesser, and getting out his tools he proceeded to unscrew the cap, and that being done, he very cautiously opened it the smallest possible bit. The noise that greeted him was beyond all description. It was as if a thousand ponderous machines were working one against the other. At the same time a blast of icy air rushed in, and in a few minutes the thermometer fell to six below zero.

Flin closed the cap, and hurrying to his berth, wrapped himself in a blanket. This done, he

returned to the door and gradually opened it, experiencing no other effect in doing so but that of extreme cold.

The luminosity of the foaming water enabled him, when his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, to faintly discern surrounding objects, and he discovered that he was in a spacious chamber. Before leaving New York he had provided himself with a large quantity of magnesium wire, and he now hastened to procure some of this. As he lighted it a scene burst upon his view that rendered him dumb with amazement.

It was an enormous cavern with a vaulted roof, from which hung brilliantly white festoons of stalactite. Behind, at some distance, was an unbroken fall of water of a least a hundred and twenty feet, and it was over this that Flin's fish had come. Above and below were gigantic pillars of stalactite and stalagmite, and some of the rock was covered with carbonate of lime, in which were embedded myriads of crystals that sparkled and flashed in the light with an inconceivably beautiful effect.

It was truly a subterranean world. The entrances to mammoth caves could be observed on all sides. There were what appeared to be flowers, and trees, and creepers, but they were all stone. The little bay in which the fish had been caught was the entrance to a cavern, and about a foot from the side of the vessel was the floor. Having first taken the precaution to secure the vessel by means of ropes, he provided himself with a plentiful supply of magnesium wire, and some peculiar torches that had been specially prepared for him in New York. Thus equipped he stepped out of the fish, and stood dry footed in that strange cavern, nearly three miles beneath the surface of the lake.