Chapter XLIII: Daylight at Last
When I opened my eyes I felt the hand of the guide clutching me firmly by the belt. With his other hand he supported my uncle. I was not grievously wounded, but bruised all over in the most remarkable manner.
After a moment I looked around, and found that I was lying down on the slope of a mountain not two yards from a yawning gulf into which I should have fallen had I made the slightest false step. Hans had saved me from death, while I rolled insensible on the flanks of the crater.
"Where are we?" dreamily asked my uncle, who literally appeared to be disgusted at having returned to earth.
The eider-down hunter simply shrugged his shoulders as a mark of total ignorance.
"In Iceland?" said I, not positively but interrogatively.
"Nej," said Hans.
"How do you mean?" cried the Professor; "no—what are your reasons?"
"Hans is wrong," said I, rising.
After all the innumerable surprises of this journey, a yet more singular one was reserved to us. I expected to see a cone covered by snow, by extensive and widespread glaciers, in the midst of the arid deserts of the extreme northern regions, beneath the full rays of a polar sky, beyond the highest latitudes.
But contrary to all our expectations, I, my uncle, and the Icelander, were cast upon the slope of a mountain calcined by the burning rays of a sun which was literally baking us with its fires.
I could not believe my eyes, but the actual heat which affected my body allowed me no chance of doubting. We came out of the crater half naked, and the radiant star from which we had asked nothing for two months, was good enough to be prodigal to us of light and warmth—a light and warmth we could easily have dispensed with.
When our eyes were accustomed to the light we had lost sight of so long, I used them to rectify the errors of my imagination. Whatever happened, we should have been at Spitsbergen, and I was in no humor to yield to anything but the most absolute proof.
After some delay, the Professor spoke.
"Hem!" he said, in a hesitating kind of way, "it really does not look like Iceland."
"But supposing it were the island of Jan Mayen?" I ventured to observe.
"Not in the least, my boy. This is not one of the volcanoes of the north, with its hills of granite and its crown of snow."
"Look, look, my boy," said the Professor, as dogmatically as usual.
Right above our heads, at a great height, opened the crater of a volcano from which escaped, from one quarter of an hour to the other, with a very loud explosion, a lofty jet of flame mingled with pumice stone, cinders, and lava. I could feel the convulsions of nature in the mountain, which breathed like a huge whale, throwing up from time to time fire and air through its enormous vents.
Below, and floating along a slope of considerable angularity, the stream of eruptive matter spread away to a depth which did not give the volcano a height of three hundred fathoms.
Its base disappeared in a perfect forest of green trees, among which I perceived olives, fig trees, and vines loaded with rich grapes.
Certainly this was not the ordinary aspect of the arctic regions. About that there could not be the slightest doubt.
When the eye was satisfied at its glimpse of this verdant expanse, it fell upon the waters of a lovely sea or beautiful lake, which made of this enchanted land an island of not many leagues in extent.
On the side of the rising sun was to be seen a little port, crowded with houses, and near which the boats and vessels of peculiar build were floating upon azure waves.
Beyond, groups of islands rose above the liquid plain, so numerous and close together as to resemble a vast beehive.
Towards the setting sun, some distant shores were to be made out on the edge of the horizon. Some presented the appearance of blue mountains of harmonious conformation; upon others, much more distant, there appeared a prodigiously lofty cone, above the summit of which hung dark and heavy clouds.
Towards the north, an immense expanse of water sparkled beneath the solar rays, occasionally allowing the extremity of a mast or the convexity of a sail bellying to the wind, to be seen.
The unexpected character of such a scene added a hundredfold to its marvelous beauties.
"Where can we be?" I asked, speaking in a low and solemn voice.
Hans shut his eyes with an air of indifference, and my uncle looked on without clearly understanding.
"Whatever this mountain may be," he said, at last, "I must confess it is rather warm. The explosions do not leave off, and I do not think it is worthwhile to have left the interior of a volcano and remain here to receive a huge piece of rock upon one's head. Let us carefully descend the mountain and discover the real state of the case. To confess the truth, I am dying of hunger and thirst."
Decidedly the Professor was no longer a truly reflective character. For myself, forgetting all my necessities, ignoring my fatigues and sufferings, I should have remained still for several hours longer—but it was necessary to follow my companions.
The slope of the volcano was very steep and slippery; we slid over piles of ashes, avoiding the streams of hot lava which glided about like fiery serpents. Still, while we were advancing, I spoke with extreme volubility, for my imagination was too full not to explode in words.
"We are in Asia!" I exclaimed; "we are on the coast of India, in the great Malay islands, in the centre of Oceania. We have crossed the one half of the globe to come out right at the antipodes of Europe!"
"But the compass!" exclaimed my uncle; "explain that to me!"
"Yes—the compass," I said with considerable hesitation. "I grant that is a difficulty. According to it, we have always been going northward."
"Then it lied."
"Hem—to say it lied is rather a harsh word," was my answer.
"Then we are at the North Pole—"
"The Pole—no—well—well I give it up," was my reply.
The plain truth was, that there was no explanation possible. I could make nothing of it.
And all the while we were approaching this beautiful verdure, hunger and thirst tormented me fearfully. Happily, after two long hours' march, a beautiful country spread out before us, covered by olives, pomegranates, and vines, which appeared to belong to anybody and everybody. In any event, in the state of destitution into which we had fallen, we were not in a mood to ponder too scrupulously.
What delight it was to press these delicious fruits to our lips, and to bite at grapes and pomegranates fresh from the vine.
Not far off, near some fresh and mossy grass, under the delicious shade of some trees, I discovered a spring of fresh water, in which we voluptuously laved our faces, hands, and feet.
While we were all giving way to the delights of new-found pleasures, a little child appeared between two tufted olive trees.
"Ah," cried I, "an inhabitant of this happy country."
The little fellow was poorly dressed, weak, and suffering, and appeared terribly alarmed at our appearance. Half-naked, with tangled, matted and ragged beards, we did look supremely ill-favored; and unless the country was a bandit land, we were not likely to alarm the inhabitants!
Just as the boy was about to take to his heels, Hans ran after him, and brought him back, despite his cries and kicks.
My uncle tried to look as gentle as possible, and then spoke in German.
"What is the name of this mountain, my friend?"
The child made no reply.
"Good," said my uncle, with a very positive air of conviction, "we are not in Germany."
He then made the same demand in English, of which language he was an excellent scholar.
The child shook its head and made no reply. I began to be considerably puzzled.
"Is he dumb?" cried the Professor, who was rather proud of his polyglot knowledge of languages, and made the same demand in French.
The boy only stared in his face.
"I must perforce try him in Italian," said my uncle, with a shrug.
"Dove noi siamo?"
"Yes, tell me where we are?" I added impatiently and eagerly.
Again the boy remained silent.
"My fine fellow, do you or do you not mean to speak?" cried my uncle, who began to get angry. He shook him, and spoke another dialect of the Italian language.
"Come si noma questa isola?"—"What is the name of this island?"
"Stromboli," replied the rickety little shepherd, dashing away from Hans and disappearing in the olive groves.
We thought little enough about him.
Stromboli! What effect on the imagination did these few words produce! We were in the centre of the Mediterranean, amidst the eastern archipelago of mythological memory, in the ancient Strongylos, where AEolus kept the wind and the tempest chained up. And those blue mountains, which rose towards the rising sun, were the mountains of Calabria.
And that mighty volcano which rose on the southern horizon was Etna, the fierce and celebrated Etna!
"Stromboli! Stromboli!" I repeated to myself.
My uncle played a regular accompaniment to my gestures and words. We were singing together like an ancient chorus.
Ah—what a journey—what a marvelous and extraordinary journey! Here we had entered the earth by one volcano, and we had come out by another. And this other was situated more than twelve hundred leagues from Sneffels from that drear country of Iceland cast away on the confines of the earth. The wondrous changes of this expedition had transported us to the most harmonious and beautiful of earthly lands. We had abandoned the region of eternal snows for that of infinite verdure, and had left over our heads the gray fog of the icy regions to come back to the azure sky of Sicily!
After a delicious repast of fruits and fresh water, we again continued our journey in order to reach the port of Stromboli. To say how we had reached the island would scarcely have been prudent. The superstitious character of the Italians would have been at work, and we should have been called demons vomited from the infernal regions. It was therefore necessary to pass for humble and unfortunate shipwrecked travelers. It was certainly less striking and romantic, but it was decidedly safer.
As we advanced, I could hear my worthy uncle muttering to himself:
"But the compass. The compass most certainly marked north. This is a fact I cannot explain in any way."
"Well, the fact is," said I, with an air of disdain, "we must not explain anything. It will be much more easy."
"I should like to see a professor of the Johanneum Institution who is unable to explain a cosmic phenomenon—it would indeed be strange."
And speaking thus, my uncle, half-naked, his leathern purse round his loins, and his spectacles upon his nose, became once more the terrible Professor of Mineralogy.
An hour after leaving the wood of olives, we reached the fort of San Vicenza, where Hans demanded the price of his thirteenth week of service. My uncle paid him, with very many warm shakes of the hand.
At that moment, if he did not indeed quite share our natural emotion, he allowed his feelings so far to give way as to indulge in an extraordinary expression for him.
With the tips of two fingers he gently pressed our hands and smiled.