Chapter IV: We Start on the Journey
"You see, the whole island is composed of volcanoes," said the Professor, "and remark carefully that they all bear the name of Yocul. The word is Icelandic, and means a glacier. In most of the lofty mountains of that region the volcanic eruptions come forth from icebound caverns. Hence the name applied to every volcano on this extraordinary island."
"But what does this word Sneffels mean?"
To this question I expected no rational answer. I was mistaken.
"Follow my finger to the western coast of Iceland, there you see Reykjavik, its capital. Follow the direction of one of its innumerable fjords or arms of the sea, and what do you see below the sixty-fifth degree of latitude?"
"A peninsula—very like a thighbone in shape."
"And in the centre of it—?"
"Well, that's Sneffels."
I had nothing to say.
"That is Sneffels—a mountain about five thousand feet in height, one of the most remarkable in the whole island, and certainly doomed to be the most celebrated in the world, for through its crater we shall reach the centre of the earth."
"Impossible!" cried I, startled and shocked at the thought.
"Why impossible?" said Professor Hardwigg in his severest tones.
"Because its crater is choked with lava, by burning rocks—by infinite dangers."
"But if it be extinct?"
"That would make a difference."
"Of course it would. There are about three hundred volcanoes on the whole surface of the globe—but the greater number are extinct. Of these Sneffels is one. No eruption has occurred since 1219—in fact it has ceased to be a volcano at all."
After this what more could I say? Yes,—I thought of another objection.
"But what is all this about Scartaris and the kalends of July—?"
My uncle reflected deeply. Presently he gave forth the result of his reflections in a sententious tone. "What appears obscure to you, to me is light. This very phrase shows how particular Saknussemm is in his directions. The Sneffels mountain has many craters. He is careful therefore to point the exact one which is the highway into the Interior of the Earth. He lets us know, for this purpose, that about the end of the month of June, the shadow of Mount Scartaris falls upon the one crater. There can be no doubt about the matter."
My uncle had an answer for everything.
"I accept all your explanations" I said, "and Saknussemm is right. He found out the entrance to the bowels of the earth, he has indicated correctly, but that he or anyone else ever followed up the discovery is madness to suppose."
"Why so, young man?"
"All scientific teaching, theoretical and practical, shows it to be impossible."
"I care nothing for theories," retorted my uncle.
"But is it not well-known that heat increases one degree for every seventy feet you descend into the earth? Which gives a fine idea of the central heat. All the matters which compose the globe are in a state of incandescence; even gold, platinum, and the hardest rocks are in a state of fusion. What would become of us?"
"Don't be alarmed at the heat, my boy."
"Neither you nor anybody else know anything about the real state of the earth's interior. All modern experiments tend to explode the older theories. Were any such heat to exist, the upper crust of the earth would be shattered to atoms, and the world would be at an end."
A long, learned and not uninteresting discussion followed, which ended in this wise:
"I do not believe in the dangers and difficulties which you, Henry, seem to multiply; and the only way to learn, is like Arne Saknussemm, to go and see."
"Well," cried I, overcome at last, "let us go and see. Though how we can do that in the dark is another mystery."
"Fear nothing. We shall overcome these, and many other difficulties. Besides, as we approach the centre, I expect to find it luminous—"
"Nothing is impossible."
"And now that we have come to a thorough understanding, not a word to any living soul. Our success depends on secrecy and dispatch."
Thus ended our memorable conference, which roused a perfect fever in me. Leaving my uncle, I went forth like one possessed. Reaching the banks of the Elbe, I began to think. Was all I had heard really and truly possible? Was my uncle in his sober senses, and could the interior of the earth be reached? Was I the victim of a madman, or was he a discoverer of rare courage and grandeur of conception?
To a certain extent I was anxious to be off. I was afraid my enthusiasm would cool. I determined to pack up at once. At the end of an hour, however, on my way home, I found that my feelings had very much changed.
"I'm all abroad," I cried; "'tis a nightmare—I must have dreamed it."
At this moment I came face to face with Gretchen, whom I warmly embraced.
"So you have come to meet me," she said; "how good of you. But what is the matter?"
Well, it was no use mincing the matter, I told her all. She listened with awe, and for some minutes she could not speak.
"Well?" I at last said, rather anxiously.
"What a magnificent journey. If I were only a man! A journey worthy of the nephew of Professor Hardwigg. I should look upon it as an honor to accompany him."
"My dear Gretchen, I thought you would be the first to cry out against this mad enterprise."
"No; on the contrary, I glory in it. It is magnificent, splendid—an idea worthy of my father. Henry Lawson, I envy you."
This was, as it were, conclusive. The final blow of all.
When we entered the house we found my uncle surrounded by workmen and porters, who were packing up. He was pulling and hauling at a bell.
"Where have you been wasting your time? Your portmanteau is not packed—my papers are not in order—the precious tailor has not brought my clothes, nor my gaiters—the key of my carpet bag is gone!"
I looked at him stupefied. And still he tugged away at the bell.
"We are really off, then?" I said.
"Yes—of course, and yet you go out for a stroll, unfortunate boy!"
"And when do we go?"
"The day after tomorrow, at daybreak."
I heard no more; but darted off to my little bedchamber and locked myself in. There was no doubt about it now. My uncle had been hard at work all the afternoon. The garden was full of ropes, rope ladders, torches, gourds, iron clamps, crowbars, alpenstocks, and pickaxes—enough to load ten men.
I passed a terrible night. I was called early the next day to learn that the resolution of my uncle was unchanged and irrevocable. I also found my cousin and affianced wife as warm on the subject as was her father.
Next day, at five o'clock in the morning, the post chaise was at the door. Gretchen and the old cook received the keys of the house; and, scarcely pausing to wish anyone good-by, we started on our adventurous journey into the centre of the earth.