THE GREAT EXPLOSION AND THE RUSH DOWN BELOW
The next day, Thursday, August 27, is a well-remembered date in our
subterranean journey. It never returns to my memory without sending
through me a shudder of horror and a palpitation of the heart. From
that hour we had no further occasion for the exercise of reason, or
judgment, or skill, or contrivance. We were henceforth to be hurled
along, the playthings of the fierce elements of the deep.
At six we were afoot. The moment drew near to clear a way by blasting
through the opposing mass of granite.
I begged for the honour of lighting the fuse. This duty done, I was
to join my companions on the raft, which had not yet been unloaded;
we should then push off as far as we could and avoid the dangers
arising from the explosion, the effects of which were not likely to
be confined to the rock itself.
The fuse was calculated to burn ten minutes before setting fire to
the mine. I therefore had sufficient time to get away to the raft.
I prepared to fulfil my task with some anxiety.
After a hasty meal, my uncle and the hunter embarked whilst I
remained on shore. I was supplied with a lighted lantern to set fire
to the fuse. "Now go," said my uncle, "and return immediately to us."
"Don't be uneasy," I replied. "I will not play by the way." I
immediately proceeded to the mouth of the tunnel. I opened my
lantern. I laid hold of the end of the match. The Professor stood,
chronometer in hand. "Ready?" he cried.
I instantly plunged the end of the fuse into the lantern. It
spluttered and flamed, and I ran at the top of my speed to the raft.
"Come on board quickly, and let us push off."
Hans, with a vigorous thrust, sent us from the shore. The raft shot
twenty fathoms out to sea.
It was a moment of intense excitement. The Professor was watching the
hand of the chronometer.
"Five minutes more!" he said. "Four! Three!"
My pulse beat half-seconds.
"Two! One! Down, granite rocks; down with you."
What took place at that moment? I believe I did not hear the dull
roar of the explosion. But the rocks suddenly assumed a new
arrangement: they rent asunder like a curtain. I saw a bottomless pit
open on the shore. The sea, lashed into sudden fury, rose up in an
enormous billow, on the ridge of which the unhappy raft was uplifted
bodily in the air with all its crew and cargo.
We all three fell down flat. In less than a second we were in deep,
unfathomable darkness. Then I felt as if not only myself but the raft
also had no support beneath. I thought it was sinking; but it was not
so. I wanted to speak to my uncle, but the roaring of the waves
prevented him from hearing even the sound of my voice.
In spite of darkness, noise, astonishment, and terror, I then
understood what had taken place.
On the other side of the blown-up rock was an abyss. The explosion
had caused a kind of earthquake in this fissured and abysmal region;
a great gulf had opened; and the sea, now changed into a torrent, was
hurrying us along into it.
I gave myself up for lost.
An hour passed away--two hours, perhaps--I cannot tell. We clutched
each other fast, to save ourselves from being thrown off the raft. We
felt violent shocks whenever we were borne heavily against the craggy
projections. Yet these shocks were not very frequent, from which I
concluded that the gully was widening. It was no doubt the same road
that Saknussemm had taken; but instead of walking peaceably down it,
as he had done, we were carrying a whole sea along with us.
These ideas, it will be understood, presented themselves to my mind
in a vague and undetermined form. I had difficulty in associating any
ideas together during this headlong race, which seemed like a
vertical descent. To judge by the air which was whistling past me and
made a whizzing in my ears, we were moving faster than the fastest
express trains. To light a torch under these' conditions would have
been impossible; and our last electric apparatus had been shattered
by the force of the explosion.
I was therefore much surprised to see a clear light shining near me.
It lighted up the calm and unmoved countenance of Hans. The skilful
huntsman had succeeded in lighting the lantern; and although it
flickered so much as to threaten to go out, it threw a fitful light
across the awful darkness.
I was right in my supposition. It was a wide gallery. The dim light
could not show us both its walls at once. The fall of the waters
which were carrying us away exceeded that of the swiftest rapids in
American rivers. Its surface seemed composed of a sheaf of arrows
hurled with inconceivable force; I cannot convey my impressions by a
better comparison. The raft, occasionally seized by an eddy, spun
round as it still flew along. When it approached the walls of the
gallery I threw on them the light of the lantern, and I could judge
somewhat of the velocity of our speed by noticing how the jagged
projections of the rocks spun into endless ribbons and bands, so that
we seemed confined within a network of shifting lines. I supposed we
were running at the rate of thirty leagues an hour.
My uncle and I gazed on each other with haggard eyes, clinging to the
stump of the mast, which had snapped asunder at the first shock of
our great catastrophe. We kept our backs to the wind, not to be
stifled by the rapidity of a movement which no human power could
Hours passed away. No change in our situation; but a discovery came
to complicate matters and make them worse.
In seeking to put our cargo into somewhat better order, I found that
the greater part of the articles embarked had disappeared at the
moment of the explosion, when the sea broke in upon us with such
violence. I wanted to know exactly what we had saved, and with the
lantern in my hand I began my examination. Of our instruments none
were saved but the compass and the chronometer; our stock of ropes
and ladders was reduced to the bit of cord rolled round the stump of
the mast! Not a spade, not a pickaxe, not a hammer was left us; and,
irreparable disaster! we had only one day's provisions left.
I searched every nook and corner, every crack and cranny in the raft.
There was nothing. Our provisions were reduced to one bit of salt
meat and a few biscuits.
I stared at our failing supplies stupidly. I refused to take in the
gravity of our loss. And yet what was the use of troubling myself. If
we had had provisions enough for months, how could we get out of the
abyss into which we were being hurled by an irresistible torrent? Why
should we fear the horrors of famine, when death was swooping down
upon us in a multitude of other forms? Would there be time left to
die of starvation?
Yet by an inexplicable play of the imagination I forgot my present
dangers, to contemplate the threatening future. Was there any chance
of escaping from the fury of this impetuous torrent, and of returning
to the surface of the globe? I could not form the slightest
conjecture how or when. But one chance in a thousand, or ten
thousand, is still a chance; whilst death from starvation would leave
us not the smallest hope in the world.
The thought came into my mind to declare the whole truth to my uncle,
to show him the dreadful straits to which we were reduced, and to
calculate how long we might yet expect to live. But I had the courage
to preserve silence. I wished to leave him cool and self-possessed.
At that moment the light from our lantern began to sink by little and
little, and then went out entirely. The wick had burnt itself out.
Black night reigned again; and there was no hope left of being able
to dissipate the palpable darkness. We had yet a torch left, but we
could not have kept it alight. Then, like a child, I closed my eyes
firmly, not to see the darkness.
After a considerable lapse of time our speed redoubled. I could
perceive it by the sharpness of the currents that blew past my face.
The descent became steeper. I believe we were no longer sliding, but
falling down. I had an impression that we were dropping vertically.
My uncle's hand, and the vigorous arm of Hans, held me fast.
Suddenly, after a space of time that I could not measure, I felt a
shock. The raft had not struck against any hard resistance, but had
suddenly been checked in its fall. A waterspout, an immense liquid
column, was beating upon the surface of the waters. I was
suffocating! I was drowning!
But this sudden flood was not of long duration. In a few seconds I
found myself in the air again, which I inhaled with all the force of
my lungs. My uncle and Hans were still holding me fast by the arms;
and the raft was still carrying us.