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- The Great Stone of Sardis - 30/33 -
one of them considered his communications worth more than a brief paragraph.
In a week Mr. Gibbs would have finished his charts, his meteorological, his geological, and geographical reports, and a clear, succinct account of the expedition, written by Clewe himself from the statements of the party, would be ready for publication; and in the brilliantly lighted sky of discovery which now rested, one edge upon Sardis and the other upon the pole, there was but one single cloud, and this was Rovinski.
The ambitious and unscrupulous Pole had been the source of the greatest trouble and uneasiness since he had left Cape Tariff. While there he had found that he could not possibly get ashore, and so had kept quiet; but when on board the vessel which had been sent to them from St. John's, he had soon begun to talk to the crew, and there seemed to be but one way of preventing him from making known what had been done by the expedition before its promoters were ready for the disclosure, and this was to declare him a maniac, whose utterances were of no value whatever. He was put into close confinement, and it was freely reported that he had gone crazy while in the arctic regions, and that his mind had been filled with all sorts of insane notions regarding that part of the world.
It had been intended to put him in jail on a criminal charge, but this would not prevent him from talking; and so, when he arrived in New Jersey, he was sent to an insane asylum, the officers of which were not surprised to receive him, for, in their opinion, a wilder-looking maniac was not, to be found within the walls of the institution.
Early on the morning of the day before the world was to be electrified by the announcement of the discovery of the pole, a man named William Cunningham, employed in the Sardis Works, entered the large building which had been devoted to the manufacture of the automatic shell, but which had not been used of late and had been kept locked. Cunningham was the watchman, and had entered to make his usual morning rounds. He had scarcely closed the door behind him when, looking over towards the engines which still stood by the mouth of the shaft made by the automatic shell, he was amazed to see that the car which had been used by Roland Clewe in his descent was not hanging above them.
Utterly unable to understand this state of affairs, he ran to the mouth of the shaft. He found the great trap-door which had closed it thrown back, and the grating which had been made to cover the orifice after the car had descended in its place. The engines were not moving, and the chain on the windlass of one of them appeared not to have been disturbed, but on the other windlass one of the chains had been unwound. Cunningham was so astonished that he could not believe what he saw. He had been there the night before; everything had been in order, the shaft closed, and the trap-door locked. He leaned over the grating and looked down; he could see nothing but a black hole without any bottom. The man did not look long, for it made him dizzy. He turned and ran out of the house to call Mr. Bryce.
Ivan Rovinski was not perhaps a lunatic, but his unprincipled ambition had made him so disregard the principles of ordinary prudence when such principles stood in his way that it could not be said that he was at all times entirely sane. He understood thoroughly why he had been put in an asylum, and it enraged him to think that by this course his enemies had obtained a great advantage over him. No matter what he might say, it was only necessary to point to the fact that he was in a lunatic asylum, or that he had just come out of one, to make his utterances of no value.
But to remain in confinement did not suit him at all, and, after three days' residence in the institution in which he had been placed, he escaped and made his way to a piece of woods about two miles from Sardis, where, early that year, he had built himself a rude shelter, from which he might go forth at night and study, so far as he should be able, the operations in the Works of Roland Clewe. Having safely reached his retreat, he lost no time in sallying forth to spy out what was going on at Sardis.
He was cunning and wary, and a man of infinite resource. It was not long before he found out that the polar discovery had not been announced, but he also discovered from listening to the conversations of some of the workmen in the village, which he frequently visited in a guise very unlike his ordinary appearance, that something extraordinary had taken place in the Sardis Works, of which he had never heard. A great shaft had been sunk, the people said, by accident; Mr. Clewe had gone down it in a car, and it had taken him nearly three hours to get to the bottom. Nobody yet knew what he had discovered, but it was supposed to be something very wonderful.
The night after Rovinski heard this surprising news he was in the building which had contained the automatic shell. As active as a cat, he had entered by an upper window.
Rovinski spent the night in that building. He had with him a dark lantern, and he made the most thorough examination of the machinery at the mouth of the shaft. He was a man of great mechanical ability and an expert in applied electricity. He understood that machinery, with all its complicated arrangements and appliances, as well as if he had built it himself. In fact, while examining it, he thought of some very valuable improvements which might have been made in it. He knew that it was an apparatus for lowering the car to a great depth, and, climbing into the car, he examined everything it contained. Coming down, he noticed the grating, and he knew what it was for. He looked over the engines and calculated the strength of the chains on the windlasses. He took an impression of the lock of the trap-door, and when he went away in the very early hours of the morning he understood the apparatus which was intended to lower the car as well as any person who had managed it. He knew nothing about the shaft under the great door, but this he intended to investigate as thoroughly as he had investigated the machinery.
The next night he entered the building very soon after Cunningham had gone his rounds, and he immediately set to work to prepare for his descent into the shaft. He disconnected one of the engines, for he sneeringly said to himself that the other one was more than sufficient to lower and raise the car. He charged and arranged all the batteries and put in perfect working order the mechanism by which Clewe had established a connection between the car and the engines, using one of the chains as a conductor, so that he could himself check or start the engines if an emergency should render it necessary.
Then Rovinski, bounding around like a wild animal in a cage, took out a key he had brought with him, opened the trap-door, lifted it back, and gazed down. He could see a beautifully cut well, but that was all. But no matter how deep it was, he intended to go down to the bottom of it.
He started the engine and lowered the car to the ground. Then he looked up at a grating which hung above it and determined to make use of this protection. He could not lower it in the ordinary way after he had entered the car, but in fifteen minutes he had arranged a pulley and rope by which, after the car had gone below the surface, he could lower the grating to its place. He got in, started down into the dark hole, stopped the engine, lowered the grating, went down a little farther, and turned on the electric lights.
The descent of Rovinski was a succession of the wildest sensations of amazed delight. Stratum after stratum passed before his astonished eyes, and, when he had gone down low enough, he allowed himself the most extravagant expressions of ecstasy. His progress was not so regular and steady as that of Roland Clewe had been. He found that he had perfect control of the engine and car, and sometimes he went down rapidly, sometimes slowly, and frequently he stopped. As he continued to descend, his amazement at the wonderful depth of the shaft became greater and greater and his mind was totally unable to appreciate the situation. Still he was not frightened, and went on down.
At last Rovinski emerged into the cave of light. There he stopped, the car hanging some twenty or thirty feet above the bottom. He looked out, he saw the shell, he saw the vast expanse of lighted nothingness, he tried to imagine what it was that that mass of iron rested upon. If he had not seen it, he would have thought he had come out into the upper air of some bottomless cavern. But a great iron machine nearly twenty feet long could not rest upon air! He thought he might be dreaming; he sat up and shut his eyes; in a few minutes he would open them and see if he still saw the same incomprehensible things.
The downward passage of Rovinski had occupied a great deal more time than he had calculated for. He had stopped so much, and had been so careful to examine the walls of the shaft, that morning had now arrived in the upper world, and it was at this moment, as he sat with his eyes closed, that William Cunningham looked down into the mouth of the shaft.
Cunningham was an observing man, and that morning he had picked up a pin and stuck it in the lapel of his rough coat, but he had done this hastily and carelessly. The pin was of a recently invented kind, being of a light, elastic metal, with its head of steel. As Cunningham leaned forward the pin slipped out of his coat; it fell through one of the openings in the grating, and descended the shaft head downward.
For the first quarter of a mile the pin went swiftly in an absolutely perpendicular line, nearly at the middle of the shaft. For the next three-quarters of a mile it went down like a rifle-ball. For the next five miles it sped on as if it had been a planet revolving in space. Then, for eight miles, this pin, falling perpendicularly through a greater distance than any object on this earth had ever fallen perpendicularly, went downward with a velocity like that of light. Its head struck the top of the car, which was hanging motionless in the cave of light; it did not glance off, for its momentum was so great that it would glance from nothing. It passed through that steel roof; it passed through Rovinski's head, through his heart, down through the car, and into the great shell which lay below.
When Mr. Bryce and several workmen came running back with William Cunningham, they were as much surprised as he had been, and could form no theory to account for the disappearance of the car. It could not have slipped down accidentally and descended by its own weight, for the trap-door was open and the grating was in place. They sent in great haste for Mr. Clewe, and when he arrived he wasted no time in conjectures, but instantly ordered that the
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