The Sunless City/Chapter 9

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The Sunless City by James Edward Preston Muddock
Chapter IX

Flin Flon Suffers a Serious Loss.

It was scarcely matter for wonder that Flin Flon should give expression to his feelings of joy in a wild "Hurrah!" as he discovered, while crouching behind the rock, that the supposed monster was nothing more than his own vessel, the loss of which had caused him such intense anxiety.

It had drifted between two pillars, not wide enough apart to admit of the passage through, so that further progress was stopped. The electric lamp still burned in the eyes, and the motion of the light caused by the rocking of the vessel on the water was what had deceived Flin. The fortuitous circumstance of the vessel running between the pillars was one that caused Flin's heart to swell with gratitude. For to it he knew that he owed his life, and he almost wept tears of joy as he made the discovery. Not only was his life spared for the present, but he would be enabled to continue his explorations, by which he hoped to benefit the world in an immeasurable degree. He found that the fish was right in the centre of the stream, and some distance from where he stood. This was an unpleasant difficulty, as he was not a very good swimmer, and he had no doubt the depth of water was too great to permit him to wade out to his ark of safety. It was truly a dilemma. But with the boldness which never left him he determined to trust himself to the silent stream, and so divesting himself of his clothing, he sat down, first of all, on the edge of the rock, and then slipped into the water and struck out energetically. The current was very strong indeed, and Flin was carried past the pillars. He had not calculated on this, and he battled fiercely to swim against the stream. But he grew very red in the face and panted for breath, until he was in danger of sinking. Then he suddenly remembered, and was astonished that he had not thought of it before, that it would be better to turn round and get to the side, where he could scramble out and walk back again. He put this into practice, but not without considerable difficulty; and it was only after extraordinary exertion that he was enabled to effect a landing, and not then until he had fearfully lacerated his legs and body against the sharp points of rock at the side.

When he succeeded in getting out of the water, he was compelled to rest for a considerable time, for his strength was quite spent. Still he was not daunted, and having recovered he walked back, his naked feet suffering considerably. He got some distance above the spot where he had left his clothes, and then slipped into the water once more. He was more fortunate this time, and as he drifted down he was able to clutch the head of his fish, and by an almost superhuman effort to swing himself on board.

His feelings when he had accomplished this can be better imagined than described. Words would fail to convey anything like an adequate idea of his thankfulness.

His first care was to look to his animals, and it was with extreme sorrow that he found that only one rabbit and pigeon were left alive. He almost felt inclined to weep, but he knew that would do no good, and so he hastened to feed the survivors. That done, he snuffed freely; and this not only restored his drooping spirits, but brought back his strength, and he sat down to a very hearty supper, which he enjoyed immensely, consisting as it did of Staten Island preserved oysters, and very delicious they were (so Flin records), a slice of the truffle-stuffed boar's head, a portion of a pat‚ de foie gras, some delicate New Jersey biscuits, rendered palatable by being spread with real guava jelly. A half bottle of Catawba wine and a pint of Roederer's best brand, and a liqueur de cognac to aid digestion. After this light but elegant déjeuner Flin felt considerably refreshed, and being in puris naturalibus --- a state he hardly noticed while the pangs of hunger were keen; but now the cravings of the inner man being satisfied, he remembered that it was somewhat indecorous for a member of the Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions to remain long in such a condition, even though there were no other eyes to behold.

He would at once have proceeded to have made his toilet, but the fact was he had not another suit of clothes on board. Personal adornment being about the last this he ever though of, he had omitted to supply anything like a stock of clothing. He had two or three dress shirts in his trunk, but he would not have had these if it had not been for the thoughtfulness of his housekeeper, who told him that when he found the new people he was going to discover he might have to attend receptions, and perhaps State balls. But still a dress shirt was not a suit of clothes, though it was something towards it. Taking one of the shirts from his box, he noticed the beautiful gloss on the front, and the exquisite manner in which his housekeeper had crimped the frill, and he sighed as he thought what a pity it was to have to soil such excellent handiwork for no purpose. There was no help for it, however, so he adjusted the garment, and determined to make an effort to regain his clothes from the spot where he had left them.

To get his vessel from between the two pillars where it had got wedged was a work of time and immense difficulty, for as fast as Flin moved her a little the current drove her back again. But perseverance overcomes all things, and the savant conquered this obstacle, and his labours were rewarded at last by the fish swinging clear. He tried now to work the vessel up stream by means of the paddles, but the current was too strong; it carried him down rapidly, and he found it necessary to bestow all his attention on keeping her from being injured by coming in contact with the rocks, and so he had to abandon the paddles and take the tiller. He drifted farther and farther away, and it was with alarm and mortification that he saw that he would be unable to recover his clothes. This in itself was a great loss, for his costume of dress shirt only was scarcely one in which he could present himself before anything like civilised people with propriety, and he felt a little delicate about the matter. But this loss was nothing as compared with that of his beloved snuff- box. The clothes might be replaced, or substituted, but the box could not. He mourned as if it had been a child --- he had never had any children, so he scarcely knew what a loss of that nature would have been--but the fact of being compelled to leave his box behind cut him to the heart, and though he does not record it, it is inferred from his papers that he actually wept.

He steered the fish with admirable skill for nearly four hours, and then the pillars were fewer. The river broadened, the roof was lower, and in a little while he was once more in a tunnel and the surface of the water was quite free from obstacles. He now screwed up the door and examined his instruments. The speed dial indicated a rate of five knots an hour. The needle of the compass was very much deflected and very unsteady. The thermometer marked 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while his chronometers showed him that there was a difference in time between where he then was and New York of two hours three minutes four seconds. Having seen that his chemical apparatus was in working order, and that the electric lamps were burning properly, he prepared to sink his vessel. After having taken in sufficient ballast he descended no less than one hundred and fifty feet, or twenty-five fathoms, before he touched bottom. Here the vessel rested motionless, a circumstance that Flin was thankful for, as he felt that he could now sleep in security for some hours. And in a very short time he was locked in slumber and dreaming that he was reading a paper on his wonderful discoveries before an excited and enthusiastic audience in New York.

Flin enjoyed some hours of most refreshing sleep, and when he awoke he felt a buoyancy of spirit that was really delightful.

Having finished his toilet --- that is, combed his scant grey locks and adjusted his dress-shirt --- he examined his instruments and found that no change of importance had taken place excepting a considerable rise in the thermometer, which was accounted for by the air being so confined within the narrow limits of the fish vessel. This duty ended, and his diary written up, he made a hearty breakfast, and then proceeded to discharge the water ballast, so as to allow the vessel to rise to the surface of the stream.

As he floated along the tunnel narrowed considerably, and the strength of the current increased to six knots an hour. The walls and roof of the tunnel were stratified, but were dull and unrelieved by any of those jewel-like scintillations which had so astonished the traveller in the hall of pillars. The darkness was intense save for the light from the electric lamps.

Flin unscrewed the door so that the temperature of the vessel might be lowered, and as he did so and put his head out he quickly withdrew it again, for the air was rushing through the tunnel with the velocity of a hurricane. He was surprised to find that the fish was going through the water at a tremendous pace, acted upon by the pressure of the wind from behind.

Flin studied this phenomenon for some time, and concluded that the tunnel was a sort of air shaft, and the ultimately he would reach some open place where the atmosphere was warmer than that he was then travelling through, which was quite chilly and caused him to shiver.

His theory was that the extensive range of caverns through which he had passed had been at some time or other filled with water, after the volcanic fires had ceased their action. In fact they had been, as it were, a series of gigantic subterranean reservoirs. Then, as the water had accumulated by additions from the upper earth, it had commenced to wear a passage through the lower strata, the tunnel through which Flin was then travelling being the result of this action, and he did not doubt that the waters would presently spread out into either an open sea or another series of caverns.

The journey was continued for some hours without any change taking place. But at length the speed increased, the water became very turbulent, and the vessel tossed about a good deal. This circumstance caused Flin some uneasiness, for it was evident he was descending a rapid, and that the river was passing over a series of steps, as it were, and going farther down into the bowels of the earth. Flin deemed it prudent to screw up the door and sink the vessel to about three fathoms. This was done, and she was carried along smoothly though very rapidly. But presently she was brought up --- as sailors would say --- with a round turn. There was a tremendous shock that threw the voyager off his feet, disturbed all the instruments, and caused the fish to quiver for some moments.

"Bless my life, this is very extraordinary," mused Flin, as he picked himself up and hurried to the dial plate, which was at zero, indicating that there was no speed at all. In short the vessel had stopped. One of the electric lamps had been displaced by the force of the collision and had ceased to act. Flin lost no time in getting it in order again, and the vessel --- save for a slight wavy motion --- had become quite still he determine to rise to the surface and discover the cause of the sudden stoppage. He therefore commenced to discharge the ballast very slowly, so that the vessel might rise gradually. As it did so the undulating motion increased, and a muffled roar broke upon Flin's ears, that he could not account for. It was very far from a pleasant situation to be placed in, and he was powerless to do anything, his sphere of action being so very limited. He was subject to the mighty forces of Nature, and might be likened to a straw in the hands of a giant. How should he act? what could he do? To remain sunk in the depth of the stream was to die, and it would be better at all risks to rise to the surface and discover if possible his true position.

So he continued to discharge the ballast, and as the vessel rose the roar increased and, as he emerged from the waters, became deafening. It was as if a thousand blast furnaces were at work. The motion of the vessel was the same as it would have been had she been at anchor in a rough sea way. She would go half round, then come back again, then bob up and down, grate unpleasantly against the rocks, roll, pitch, and altogether cut such a series of capers as to both alarm and puzzle the traveller; for a while it was apparent that she was subject to the influence of some powerful current, she made no progress, but appeared to remain in the one place. He scrambled to the eyes of the fish and peered out, and as he did so such a sight met his gaze that he drew back suddenly, and clasping his hands together exclaimed, ---

"Good gracious! this is appalling and marvellous."