THE FIRST SIGNS OF DISTRESS
In fact, we had to ration ourselves. Our provision of water could not
last more than three days. I found that out for certain when
supper-time came. And, to our sorrow, we had little reason to expect
to find a spring in these transition beds.
The whole of the next day the gallery opened before us its endless
arcades. We moved on almost without a word. Hans' silence seemed to
be infecting us.
The road was now not ascending, at least not perceptibly. Sometimes,
even, it seemed to have a slight fall. But this tendency, which was
very trifling, could not do anything to reassure the Professor; for
there was no change in the beds, and the transitional characteristics
became more and more decided.
The electric light was reflected in sparkling splendour from the
schist, limestone, and old red sandstone of the walls. It might have
been thought that we were passing through a section of Wales, of
which an ancient people gave its name to this system. Specimens of
magnificent marbles clothed the walls, some of a greyish agate
fantastically veined with white, others of rich crimson or yellow
dashed with splotches of red; then came dark cherry-coloured marbles
relieved by the lighter tints of limestone.
The greater part of these bore impressions of primitive organisms.
Creation had evidently advanced since the day before. Instead of
rudimentary trilobites, I noticed remains of a more perfect order of
beings, amongst others ganoid fishes and some of those sauroids in
which palaeontologists have discovered the earliest reptile forms.
The Devonian seas were peopled by animals of these species, and
deposited them by thousands in the rocks of the newer formation.
It was evident that we were ascending that scale of animal life in
which man fills the highest place. But Professor Liedenbrock seemed
not to notice it.
He was awaiting one of two events, either the appearance of a
vertical well opening before his feet, down which our descent might
be resumed, or that of some obstacle which should effectually turn us
back on our own footsteps. But evening came and neither wish was
On Friday, after a night during which I felt pangs of thirst, our
little troop again plunged into the winding passages of the gallery.
After ten hours' walking I observed a singular deadening of the
reflection of our lamps from the side walls. The marble, the schist,
the limestone, and the sandstone were giving way to a dark and
lustreless lining. At one moment, the tunnel becoming very narrow, I
leaned against the wall.
When I removed my hand it was black. I looked nearer, and found we
were in a coal formation.
"A coal mine!" I cried.
"A mine without miners," my uncle replied.
"Who knows?" I asked.
"I know," the Professor pronounced decidedly, "I am certain that this
gallery driven through beds of coal was never pierced by the hand of
man. But whether it be the hand of nature or not does not matter.
Supper time is come; let us sup."
Hans prepared some food. I scarcely ate, and I swallowed down the few
drops of water rationed out to me. One flask half full was all we had
left to slake the thirst of three men.
After their meal my two companions laid themselves down upon their
rugs, and found in sleep a solace for their fatigue. But I could not
sleep, and I counted every hour until morning.
On Saturday, at six, we started afresh. In twenty minutes we reached
a vast open space; I then knew that the hand of man had not hollowed
out this mine; the vaults would have been shored up, and, as it was,
they seemed to be held up by a miracle of equilibrium.
This cavern was about a hundred feet wide and a hundred and fifty in
height. A large mass had been rent asunder by a subterranean
disturbance. Yielding to some vast power from below it had broken
asunder, leaving this great hollow into which human beings were now
penetrating for the first time.
The whole history of the carboniferous period was written upon these
gloomy walls, and a geologist might with ease trace all its diverse
phases. The beds of coal were separated by strata of sandstone or
compact clays, and appeared crushed under the weight of overlying
At the age of the world which preceded the secondary period, the
earth was clothed with immense vegetable forms, the product of the
double influence of tropical heat and constant moisture; a vapoury
atmosphere surrounded the earth, still veiling the direct rays of the
Thence arises the conclusion that the high temperature then existing
was due to some other source than the heat of the sun. Perhaps even
the orb of day may not have been ready yet to play the splendid part
he now acts. There were no 'climates' as yet, and a torrid heat,
equal from pole to equator, was spread over the whole surface of the
globe. Whence this heat? Was it from the interior of the earth?
Notwithstanding the theories of Professor Liedenbrock, a violent heat
did at that time brood within the body of the spheroid. Its action
was felt to the very last coats of the terrestrial crust; the plants,
unacquainted with the beneficent influences of the sun, yielded
neither flowers nor scent. But their roots drew vigorous life from
the burning soil of the early days of this planet.
There were but few trees. Herbaceous plants alone existed. There were
tall grasses, ferns, lycopods, besides sigillaria, asterophyllites,
now scarce plants, but then the species might be counted by thousands.
The coal measures owe their origin to this period of profuse
vegetation. The yet elastic and yielding crust of the earth obeyed
the fluid forces beneath. Thence innumerable fissures and
depressions. The plants, sunk underneath the waters, formed by
degrees into vast accumulated masses.
Then came the chemical action of nature; in the depths of the seas
the vegetable accumulations first became peat; then, acted upon by
generated gases and the heat of fermentation, they underwent a
process of complete mineralization.
Thus were formed those immense coalfields, which nevertheless, are
not inexhaustible, and which three centuries at the present
accelerated rate of consumption will exhaust unless the industrial
world will devise a remedy.
These reflections came into my mind whilst I was contemplating the
mineral wealth stored up in this portion of the globe. These no
doubt, I thought, will never be discovered; the working of such deep
mines would involve too large an outlay, and where would be the use
as long as coal is yet spread far and wide near the surface? Such as
my eyes behold these virgin stores, such they will be when this world
comes to an end.
But still we marched on, and I alone was forgetting the length of the
way by losing myself in the midst of geological contemplations. The
temperature remained what it had been during our passage through the
lava and schists. Only my sense of smell was forcibly affected by an
odour of protocarburet of hydrogen. I immediately recognised in this
gallery the presence of a considerable quantity of the dangerous gas
called by miners firedamp, the explosion of which has often
occasioned such dreadful catastrophes.
Happily, our light was from Ruhmkorff's ingenious apparatus. If
unfortunately we had explored this gallery with torches, a terrible
explosion would have put an end to travelling and travellers at one
This excursion through the coal mine lasted till night. My uncle
scarcely could restrain his impatience at the horizontal road. The
darkness, always deep twenty yards before us, prevented us from
estimating the length of the gallery; and I was beginning to think it
must be endless, when suddenly at six o'clock a wall very
unexpectedly stood before us. Right or left, top or bottom, there was
no road farther; we were at the end of a blind alley. "Very well,
it's all right!" cried my uncle, "now, at any rate, we shall know
what we are about. We are not in Saknussemm's road, and all we have
to do is to go back. Let us take a night's rest, and in three days we
shall get to the fork in the road." "Yes," said I, "if we have any
strength left." "Why not?" "Because to-morrow we shall have no
water." "Nor courage either?" asked my uncle severely. I dared make