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
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 craft.
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
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 thermometer.
"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
"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
"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
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
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 fires."
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
"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 earth's crust.
"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
"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 antipodes."
"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
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
"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 consciousness.
"What are the readings now, David?" Perry's voice broke in
upon my somber reflections.
"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, son!"
"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
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 zero.
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 to die.
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.