Another hour passed, and, except some slight increase in the temperature, nothing new had happened.
"Come," said he, "we must determine upon something."
"Determine on what?" said I.
"Yes, we must recruit our strength by carefully rationing ourselves, and so prolong our existence by a few hours. But we shall be reduced to very great weakness at last."
"And our last hour is not far off."
"Well, if there is a chance of safety, if a moment for active exertion presents itself, where should we find the required strength if we allowed ourselves to be enfeebled by hunger?"
"Well, uncle, when this bit of meat has been devoured what shall we have left?"
"Nothing, Axel, nothing at all. But will it do you any more good to devour it with your eyes than with your teeth? Your reasoning has in it neither sense nor energy."
"Then don't you despair?" I cried irritably.
"No, certainly not," was the Professor's firm reply.
"What! do you think there is any chance of safety left?"
"Yes, I do; as long as the heart beats, as long as body and soul keep together, I cannot admit that any creature endowed with a will has need to despair of life."
Resolute words these! The man who could speak so, under such circumstances, was of no ordinary type.
"Finally, what do you mean to do?" I asked.
"Eat what is left to the last crumb, and recruit our fading strength. This meal will be our last, perhaps: so let it be! But at any rate we shall once more be men, and not exhausted, empty bags."
"Well, let us consume it then," I cried.
My uncle took the piece of meat and the few biscuits which had escaped from the general destruction. He divided them into three equal portions and gave one to each. This made about a pound of nourishment for each. The Professor ate his greedily, with a kind of feverish rage. I ate without pleasure, almost with disgust; Hans quietly, moderately, masticating his small mouthfuls without any noise, and relishing them with the calmness of a man above all anxiety about the future. By diligent search he had found a flask of Hollands; he offered it to us each in turn, and this generous beverage cheered us up slightly.
"_Forträfflig,_" said Hans, drinking in his turn.
"Excellent," replied my uncle.
A glimpse of hope had returned, although without cause. But our last meal was over, and it was now five in the morning.
Man is so constituted that health is a purely negative state. Hunger once satisfied, it is difficult for a man to imagine the horrors of starvation; they cannot be understood without being felt.
Therefore it was that after our long fast these few mouthfuls of meat and biscuit made us triumph over our past agonies.
But as soon as the meal was done, we each of us fell deep into thought. What was Hans thinking of - that man of the far West, but who seemed ruled by the fatalist doctrines of the East?
As for me, my thoughts were made up of remembrances, and they carried me up to the surface of the globe of which I ought never to have taken leave. The house in the Königstrasse, my poor dear Gräuben, that kind soul Martha, flitted like visions before my eyes, and in the dismal moanings which from time to time reached my ears I thought I could distinguish the roar of the traffic of the great cities upon earth.
My uncle still had his eye upon his work. Torch in hand, he tried to gather some idea of our situation from the observation of the strata. This calculation could, at best, be but a vague approximation; but a learned man is always a philosopher when he succeeds in remaining cool, and assuredly Professor Liedenbrock possessed this quality to a surprising degree.
I could hear him murmuring geological terms. I could understand them, and in spite of myself I felt interested in this last geological study.
"Eruptive granite," he was saying. "We are still in the primitive period. But we are going up, up, higher still. Who can tell?"
Ah! who can tell? With his hand he was examining the perpendicular wall, and in a few more minutes he continued:
"This is gneiss! here is mica schist! Ah! presently we shall come to the transition period, and then -"
What did the Professor mean? Could he be trying to measure the thickness of the crust of the earth that lay between us and the world above? Had he any means of making this calculation? No, he had not the aneroid, and no guessing could supply its place.