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 no answer.
COMPASSION FUSES THE PROFESSOR'S HEART
Next day we started early. We had to hasten forward. It was a three days' march to the cross roads.
I will not speak of the sufferings we endured in our return. My uncle bore them with the angry impatience of a man obliged to own his weakness; Hans with the resignation of his passive nature; I, I confess, with complaints and expressions of despair. I had no spirit to oppose this ill fortune.
As I had foretold, the water failed entirely by the end of the first day's retrograde march. Our fluid aliment was now nothing but gin; but this infernal fluid burned my throat, and I could not even endure the sight of it. I found the temperature and the air stifling. Fatigue paralysed my limbs. More than once I dropped down motionless. Then there was a halt; and my uncle and the Icelander did their best to restore me. But I saw that the former was struggling painfully against excessive fatigue and the tortures of thirst.
At last, on Tuesday, July 8, we arrived on our hands and knees, and half dead, at the junction of the two roads. There I dropped like a lifeless lump, extended on the lava soil. It was ten in the morning.
Hans and my uncle, clinging to the wall, tried to nibble a few bits of biscuit. Long moans escaped from my swollen lips.
After some time my uncle approached me and raised me in his arms.
"Poor boy!" said he, in genuine tones of compassion.
I was touched with these words, not being accustomed to see the excitable Professor in a softened mood. I grasped his trembling hands in mine. He let me hold them and looked at me. His eyes were moistened.
Then I saw him take the flask that was hanging at his side. To my amazement he placed it on my lips.
"Drink!" said he.
Had I heard him? Was my uncle beside himself? I stared at, him stupidly, and felt as if I could not understand him.
"Drink!" he said again.
And raising his flask he emptied it every drop between my lips.
Oh! infinite pleasure! a slender sip of water came to moisten my burning mouth. It was but one sip but it was enough to recall my ebbing life.
I thanked my uncle with clasped hands.
"Yes," he said, "a draught of water; but it is the very last - you hear! - the last. I had kept it as a precious treasure at the bottom of my flask. Twenty times, nay, a hundred times, have I fought against a frightful impulse to drink it off. But no, Axel, I kept it for you."
"My dear uncle," I said, whilst hot tears trickled down my face.
"Yes, my poor boy, I knew that as soon as you arrived at these cross roads you would drop half dead, and I kept my last drop of water to reanimate you."
"Thank you, thank you," I said. Although my thirst was only partially quenched, yet some strength had returned. The muscles of my throat, until then contracted, now relaxed again; and the inflammation of my lips abated somewhat; and I was now able to speak. .
"Let us see," I said, "we have now but one thing to do. We have no water; we must go back."
While I spoke my uncle avoided looking at me; he hung his head down; his eyes avoided mine.
"We must return," I exclaimed vehemently; "we must go back on our way to Snæfell. May God give us strength to climb up the crater again!"
"Return!" said my uncle, as if he was rather answering himself than me.
"Yes, return, without the loss of a minute."
A long silence followed.
"So then, Axel," replied the Professor ironically, "you have found no courage or energy in these few drops of water?"
"I see you just as feeble-minded as you were before, and still expressing only despair!"
What sort of a man was this I had to do with, and what schemes was he now revolving in his fearless mind?
"What! you won't go back?"
"Should I renounce this expedition just when we have the fairest chance of success! Never!"
"Then must we resign ourselves to destruction?"
"No, Axel, no; go back.