TOWARD THE ETERNAL FIRES
I was born in Connecticut about thirty years ago. My name is David Innes. My
father was a wealthy mine owner. When I was nineteen he died. All his property
was to be mine when I had attained my majority--provided that I had devoted the
two years intervening in close application to the great business I was to
I did my best to fulfil the last wishes of my parent-- not because of the
inheritance, but because I loved and honored my father. For six months I toiled
in the mines and in the counting-rooms, for I wished to know every minute detail
of the business.
Then Perry interested me in his invention. He was an old fellow who had
devoted the better part of a long life to the perfection of a mechanical
subterranean prospector. As relaxation he studied paleontology. I looked over
his plans, listened to his arguments, inspected his working model--and then,
convinced, I advanced the funds necessary to construct a full-sized, practical
I shall not go into the details of its construction--it lies out there in the
desert now--about two miles from here. Tomorrow you may care to ride out and see
it. Roughly, it is a steel cylinder a hundred feet long, and jointed so that it
may turn and twist through solid rock if need be. At one end is a mighty
revolving drill operated by an engine which Perry said generated more power to
the cubic inch than any other engine did to the cubic foot. I remember that he
used to claim that that invention alone would make us fabulously wealthy--we
were going to make the whole thing public after the successful issue of our
first secret trial--but Perry never returned from that trial trip, and I only
after ten years.
I recall as it were but yesterday the night of that momentous occasion upon
which we were to test the practicality of that wondrous invention. It was near
midnight when we repaired to the lofty tower in which Perry had constructed his
"iron mole" as he was wont to call the thing. The great nose rested
upon the bare earth of the floor. We passed through the doors into the outer
jacket, secured them, and then passing on into the cabin, which contained the
controlling mechanism within the inner tube, switched on the electric lights.
Perry looked to his generator; to the great tanks that held the life-giving
chemicals with which he was to manufacture fresh air to replace that which we
consumed in breathing; to his instruments for recording temperatures, speed,
distance, and for examining the materials through which we were to pass.
He tested the steering device, and overlooked the mighty cogs which
transmitted its marvelous velocity to the giant drill at the nose of his strange
Our seats, into which we strapped ourselves, were so arranged upon transverse
bars that we would be upright whether the craft were ploughing her way downward
into the bowels of the earth, or running horizontally along some great seam of
coal, or rising vertically toward the surface again.
At length all was ready. Perry bowed his head in prayer. For a moment we were
silent, and then the old man's hand grasped the starting lever. There was a
frightful roaring beneath us--the giant frame trembled and vibrated--there was a
rush of sound as the loose earth passed up through the hollow space between the
inner and outer jackets to be deposited in our wake. We were off!
The noise was deafening. The sensation was frightful. For a full minute
neither of us could do aught but cling with the proverbial desperation of the
drowning man to the handrails of our swinging seats. Then Perry glanced at the
"Gad!" he cried, "it cannot be possible--quick! What does the
distance meter read?"
That and the speedometer were both on my side of the cabin, and as I turned
to take a reading from the former I could see Perry muttering.
"Ten degrees rise--it cannot be possible!" and then I saw him tug
frantically upon the steering wheel.
As I finally found the tiny needle in the dim light I translated Perry's
evident excitement, and my heart sank within me. But when I spoke I hid the fear
which haunted me. "It will be seven hundred feet, Perry," I said,
"by the time you can turn her into the horizontal."
"You'd better lend me a hand then, my boy," he replied, "for I
cannot budge her out of the vertical alone. God give that our combined strength
may be equal to the task, for else we are lost."
I wormed my way to the old man's side with never a doubt but that the great
wheel would yield on the instant to the power of my young and vigorous muscles.
Nor was my belief mere vanity, for always had my physique been the envy and
despair of my fellows. And for that very reason it had waxed even greater than
nature had intended, since my natural pride in my great strength had led me to
care for and develop my body and my muscles by every means within my power. What
with boxing, football, and baseball, I had been in training since childhood.
And so it was with the utmost confidence that I laid hold of the huge iron
rim; but though I threw every ounce of my strength into it, my best effort was
as unavailing as Perry's had been--the thing would not budge--the grim,
insensate, horrible thing that was holding us upon the straight road to death!
At length I gave up the useless struggle, and without a word returned to my
seat. There was no need for words--at least none that I could imagine, unless
Perry desired to pray. And I was quite sure that he would, for he never left an
opportunity neglected where he might sandwich in a prayer. He prayed when he
arose in the morning, he prayed before he ate, he prayed when he had finished
eating, and before he went to bed at night he prayed again. In between he often
found excuses to pray even when the provocation seemed far-fetched to my worldly
eyes--now that he was about to die I felt positive that I should witness a
perfect orgy of prayer--if one may allude with such a simile to so solemn an
But to my astonishment I discovered that with death staring him in the face
Abner Perry was transformed into a new being. From his lips there flowed--not
prayer--but a clear and limpid stream of undiluted profanity, and it was all
directed at that quietly stubborn piece of unyielding mechanism.
"I should think, Perry," I chided, "that a man of your
professed religiousness would rather be at his prayers than cursing in the
presence of imminent death."
"Death!" he cried. "Death is it that appalls you? That is
nothing by comparison with the loss the world must suffer. Why, David within
this iron cylinder we have demonstrated possibilities that science has scarce
dreamed. We have harnessed a new principle, and with it animated a piece of
steel with the power of ten thousand men. That two lives will be snuffed out is
nothing to the world calamity that entombs in the bowels of the earth the
discoveries that I have made and proved in the successful construction of the
thing that is now carrying us farther and farther toward the eternal central
I am frank to admit that for myself I was much more concerned with our own
immediate future than with any problematic loss which the world might be about
to suffer. The world was at least ignorant of its bereavement, while to me it
was a real and terrible actuality.
"What can we do?" I asked, hiding my perturbation beneath the mask
of a low and level voice.
"We may stop here, and die of asphyxiation when our atmosphere tanks are
empty," replied Perry, "or we may continue on with the slight hope
that we may later sufficiently deflect the prospector from the vertical to carry
us along the arc of a great circle which must eventually return us to the
surface. If we succeed in so doing before we reach the higher internal
temperature we may even yet survive. There would seem to me to be about one
chance in several million that we shall succeed--otherwise we shall die more
quickly but no more surely than as though we sat supinely waiting for the
torture of a slow and horrible death."
I glanced at the thermometer. It registered 110 degrees. While we were
talking the mighty iron mole had bored its way over a mile into the rock of the
"Let us continue on, then," I replied. "It should soon be over
at this rate. You never intimated that the speed of this thing would be so high,
Perry. Didn't you know it?"
"No," he answered. "I could not figure the speed exactly, for
I had no instrument for measuring the mighty power of my generator. I reasoned,
however, that we should make about five hundred yards an hour."
"And we are making seven miles an hour," I concluded for him, as I
sat with my eyes upon the distance meter. "How thick is the Earth's crust,
Perry?" I asked.
"There are almost as many conjectures as to that as there are
geologists," was his answer. "One estimates it thirty miles, because
the internal heat, increasing at the rate of about one degree to each sixty to
seventy feet depth, would be sufficient to fuse the most refractory substances
at that distance beneath the surface. Another finds that the phenomena of
precession and nutation require that the earth, if not entirely solid, must at
least have a shell not less than eight hundred to a thousand miles in thickness.
So there you are. You may take your choice."
"And if it should prove solid?" I asked.
"It will be all the same to us in the end, David," replied Perry.
"At the best our fuel will suffice to carry us but three or four days,
while our atmosphere cannot last to exceed three. Neither, then, is sufficient
to bear us in the safety through eight thousand miles of rock to the
"If the crust is of sufficient thickness we shall come to a final stop
between six and seven hundred miles beneath the earth's surface; but during the
last hundred and fifty miles of our journey we shall be corpses. Am I
correct?" I asked.
"Quite correct, David. Are you frightened?"
"I do not know. It all has come so suddenly that I scarce believe that
either of us realizes the real terrors of our position. I feel that I should be
reduced to panic; but yet I am not. I imagine that the shock has been so great
as to partially stun our sensibilities."
Again I turned to the thermometer. The mercury was rising with less rapidity.
It was now but 140 degrees, although we had penetrated to a depth of nearly four
miles. I told Perry, and he smiled.
"We have shattered one theory at least," was his only comment, and
then he returned to his self-assumed occupation of fluently cursing the steering
wheel. I once heard a pirate swear, but his best efforts would have seemed like
those of a tyro alongside of Perry's masterful and scientific imprecations.
Once more I tried my hand at the wheel, but I might as well have essayed to
swing the earth itself. At my suggestion Perry stopped the generator, and as we
came to rest I again threw all my strength into a supreme effort to move the
thing even a hair's breadth--but the results were as barren as when we had been
traveling at top speed.
I shook my head sadly, and motioned to the starting lever. Perry pulled it
toward him, and once again we were plunging downward toward eternity at the rate
of seven miles an hour. I sat with my eyes glued to the thermometer and the
distance meter. The mercury was rising very slowly now, though even at 145
degrees it was almost unbearable within the narrow confines of our metal prison.
About noon, or twelve hours after our start upon this unfortunate journey, we
had bored to a depth of eighty-four miles, at which point the mercury registered
153 degrees F.
Perry was becoming more hopeful, although upon what meager food he sustained
his optimism I could not conjecture. From cursing he had turned to singing--I
felt that the strain had at last affected his mind. For several hours we had not
spoken except as he asked me for the readings of the instruments from time to
time, and I announced them. My thoughts were filled with vain regrets. I
recalled numerous acts of my past life which I should have been glad to have had
a few more years to live down. There was the affair in the Latin Commons at
Andover when Calhoun and I had put gunpowder in the stove--and nearly killed one
of the masters. And then--but what was the use, I was about to die and atone for
all these things and several more. Already the heat was sufficient to give me a
foretaste of the hereafter. A few more degrees and I felt that I should lose
"What are the readings now, David?" Perry's voice broke in upon my
"Ninety miles and 153 degrees," I replied.
"Gad, but we've knocked that thirty-mile-crust theory into a cocked
hat!" he cried gleefully.
"Precious lot of good it will do us," I growled back.
"But my boy," he continued, "doesn't that temperature reading
mean anything to you? Why it hasn't gone up in six miles. Think of it,
"Yes, I'm thinking of it," I answered; "but what difference
will it make when our air supply is exhausted whether the temperature is 153
degrees or 153,000? We'll be just as dead, and no one will know the difference,
anyhow." But I must admit that for some unaccountable reason the stationary
temperature did renew my waning hope. What I hoped for I could not have
explained, nor did I try. The very fact, as Perry took pains to explain, of the
blasting of several very exact and learned scientific hypotheses made it
apparent that we could not know what lay before us within the bowels of the
earth, and so we might continue to hope for the best, at least until we were
dead--when hope would no longer be essential to our happiness. It was very good,
and logical reasoning, and so I embraced it.
At one hundred miles the temperature had DROPPED TO 152 1/2 DEGREES! When I
announced it Perry reached over and hugged me.
From then on until noon of the second day, it continued to drop until it
became as uncomfortably cold as it had been unbearably hot before. At the depth
of two hundred and forty miles our nostrils were assailed by almost overpowering
ammonia fumes, and the temperature had dropped to TEN BELOW ZERO! We suffered
nearly two hours of this intense and bitter cold, until at about two hundred and
forty-five miles from the surface of the earth we entered a stratum of solid
ice, when the mercury quickly rose to 32 degrees. During the next three hours we
passed through ten miles of ice, eventually emerging into another series of
ammonia-impregnated strata, where the mercury again fell to ten degrees below
Slowly it rose once more until we were convinced that at last we were nearing
the molten interior of the earth. At four hundred miles the temperature had
reached 153 degrees. Feverishly I watched the thermometer. Slowly it rose. Perry
had ceased singing and was at last praying.
Our hopes had received such a deathblow that the gradually increasing heat
seemed to our distorted imaginations much greater than it really was. For
another hour I saw that pitiless column of mercury rise and rise until at four
hundred and ten miles it stood at 153 degrees. Now it was that we began to hang
upon those readings in almost breathless anxiety.
One hundred and fifty-three degrees had been the maximum temperature above
the ice stratum. Would it stop at this point again, or would it continue its
merciless climb? We knew that there was no hope, and yet with the persistence of
life itself we continued to hope against practical certainty.
Already the air tanks were at low ebb--there was barely enough of the
precious gases to sustain us for another twelve hours. But would we be alive to
know or care? It seemed incredible.
At four hundred and twenty miles I took another reading.
"Perry!" I shouted. "Perry, man! She's going down! She's going
down! She's 152 degrees again."
"Gad!" he cried. "What can it mean? Can the earth be cold at
"I do not know, Perry," I answered; "but thank God, if I am to
die it shall not be by fire--that is all that I have feared. I can face the
thought of any death but that."
Down, down went the mercury until it stood as low as it had seven miles from
the surface of the earth, and then of a sudden the realization broke upon us
that death was very near. Perry was the first to discover it. I saw him fussing
with the valves that regulate the air supply. And at the same time I experienced
difficulty in breathing. My head felt dizzy--my limbs heavy.
I saw Perry crumple in his seat. He gave himself a shake and sat erect again.
Then he turned toward me.
"Good-bye, David," he said. "I guess this is the end,"
and then he smiled and closed his eyes.
"Good-bye, Perry, and good luck to you," I answered, smiling back
at him. But I fought off that awful lethargy. I was very young--I did not want
For an hour I battled against the cruelly enveloping death that surrounded me
upon all sides. At first I found that by climbing high into the framework above
me I could find more of the precious life-giving elements, and for a while these
sustained me. It must have been an hour after Perry had succumbed that I at last
came to the realization that I could no longer carry on this unequal struggle
against the inevitable.
With my last flickering ray of consciousness I turned mechanically toward the
distance meter. It stood at exactly five hundred miles from the earth's
surface--and then of a sudden the huge thing that bore us came to a stop. The
rattle of hurtling rock through the hollow jacket ceased. The wild racing of the
giant drill betokened that it was running loose in AIR--and then another truth
flashed upon me. The point of the prospector was ABOVE us. Slowly it dawned on
me that since passing through the ice strata it had been above. We had turned in
the ice and sped upward toward the earth's crust. Thank God! We were safe!
I put my nose to the intake pipe through which samples were to have been
taken during the passage of the prospector through the earth, and my fondest
hopes were realized--a flood of fresh air was pouring into the iron cabin. The
reaction left me in a state of collapse, and I lost consciousness.