Five Weeks in a Balloon
Strange Sounds.--A Night Attack.--Kennedy and Joe in the Tree.--Two Shots.--”Help! help!”--Reply in French.--The Morning.--The Missionary.--The Plan of Rescue.
The night came on very dark. The doctor had not been able to reconnoitre the country. He had made fast to a very tall tree, from which he could distinguish only a confused mass through the gloom.
As usual, he took the nine-o’clock watch, and at midnight Dick relieved him.
“Keep a sharp lookout, Dick!” was the doctor’s good-night injunction.
“Is there any thing new on the carpet?”
“No; but I thought that I heard vague sounds below us, and, as I don’t exactly know where the wind has carried us to, even an excess of caution would do no harm.”
“You’ve probably heard the cries of wild beasts.”
“No! the sounds seemed to me something altogether different from that; at all events, on the least alarm don’t fail to waken us.”
“I’ll do so, doctor; rest easy.”
After listening attentively for a moment or two longer, the doctor, hearing nothing more, threw himself on his blankets and went asleep.
The sky was covered with dense clouds, but not a breath of air was stirring; and the balloon, kept in its place by only a single anchor, experienced not the slightest oscillation.
Kennedy, leaning his elbow on the edge of the car, so as to keep an eye on the cylinder, which was actively at work, gazed out upon the calm obscurity; he eagerly scanned the horizon, and, as often happens to minds that are uneasy or possessed with preconceived notions, he fancied that he sometimes detected vague gleams of light in the distance.
At one moment he even thought that he saw them only two hundred paces away, quite distinctly, but it was a mere flash that was gone as quickly as it came, and he noticed nothing more. It was, no doubt, one of those luminous illusions that sometimes impress the eye in the midst of very profound darkness.
Kennedy was getting over his nervousness and falling into his wandering meditations again, when a sharp whistle pierced his ear.
Was that the cry of an animal or of a night-bird, or did it come from human lips?
Kennedy, perfectly comprehending the gravity of the situation, was on the point of waking his companions, but he reflected that, in any case, men or animals, the creatures that he had heard must be out of reach. So he merely saw that his weapons were all right, and then, with his night-glass, again plunged his gaze into space.
It was not long before he thought he could perceive below him vague forms that seemed to be gliding toward the tree, and then, by the aid of a ray of moonlight that shot like an electric flash between two masses of cloud, he distinctly made out a group of human figures moving in the shadow.
The adventure with the dog-faced baboons returned to his memory, and he placed his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.
The latter was awake in a moment.
“Silence!” said Dick. “Let us speak below our breath.”
“Has any thing happened?”
“Yes, let us waken Joe.”
The instant that Joe was aroused, Kennedy told him what he had seen.
“Those confounded monkeys again!” said Joe.
“Possibly, but we must be on our guard.”
“Joe and I,” said Kennedy, “will climb down the tree by the ladder.”
“And, in the meanwhile,” added the doctor, “I will take my measures so that we can ascend rapidly at a moment’s warning.”
“Let us go down, then!” said Joe.
“Don’t use your weapons, excepting at the last extremity! It would be a useless risk to make the natives aware of our presence in such a place as this.”
Dick and Joe replied with signs of assent, and then letting themselves slide noiselessly toward the tree, took their position in a fork among the strong branches where the anchor had caught.
For some moments they listened minutely and motionlessly among the foliage, and ere long Joe seized Kenedy’s hand as he heard a sort of rubbing sound against the bark of the tree.
“Don’t you hear that?” he whispered.
“Yes, and it’s coming nearer.”
“Suppose it should be a serpent? That hissing or whistling that you heard before--”
“No! there was something human in it.”
“I’d prefer the savages, for I have a horror of those snakes.”
“The noise is increasing,” said Kennedy, again, after a lapse of a few moments.
“Yes! something’s coming up toward us--climbing.”
“Keep watch on this side, and I’ll take care of the other.”
There they were, isolated at the top of one of the larger branches shooting out in the midst of one of those miniature forests called baobab-trees. The darkness, heightened by the density of the foliage, was profound; however, Joe, leaning over to Kennedy’s ear and pointing down the tree, whispered:
“The blacks! They’re climbing toward us.”
The two friends could even catch the sound of a few words uttered in the lowest possible tones.
Joe gently brought his rifle to his shoulder as he spoke.
“Wait!” said Kennedy.
Some of the natives had really climbed the baobab, and now they were seen rising on all sides, winding along the boughs like reptiles, and advancing slowly but surely, all the time plainly enough discernible, not merely to the eye but to the nostrils, by the horrible odors of the rancid grease with which they bedaub their bodies.
Ere long, two heads appeared to the gaze of Kennedy and Joe, on a level with the very branch to which they were clinging.
“Attention!” said Kennedy. “Fire!”
The double concussion resounded like a thunderbolt and died away into cries of rage and pain, and in a moment the whole horde had disappeared.
But, in the midst of these yells and howls, a strange, unexpected--nay what seemed an impossible--cry had been heard! A human voice had, distinctly, called aloud in the French language--
Kennedy and Joe, dumb with amazement, had regained the car immediately.
“Did you hear that?” the doctor asked them.
“Undoubtedly, that supernatural cry, ‘A moi! a moi!’ comes from a Frenchman in the hands of these barbarians!”
“A missionary, perhaps.”
“Poor wretch!” said Kennedy, “they’re assassinating him--making a martyr of him!”
The doctor then spoke, and it was impossible for him to conceal his emotions.
“There can be no doubt of it,” he said; “some unfortunate Frenchman has fallen into the hands of these savages. We must not leave this place without doing all in our power to save him. When he heard the sound of our guns, he recognized an unhoped-for assistance, a providential interposition. We shall not disappoint his last hope. Are such your views?”
“They are, doctor, and we are ready to obey you.”
“Let us, then, lay our heads together to devise some plan, and in the morning we’ll try to rescue him.”
“But how shall we drive off those abominable blacks?” asked Kennedy.
“It’s quite clear to me, from the way in which they made off, that they are unacquainted with fire-arms. We must, therefore, profit by their fears; but we shall await daylight before acting, and then we can form our plans of rescue according to circumstances.”