Five Weeks in a Balloon
The Jet of Light.--The Missionary.--The Rescue in a Ray of Electricity.--A Lazarist Priest.--But little Hope.--The Doctor’s Care.--A Life of Self-Denial.--Passing a Volcano.
Dr. Ferguson darted his powerful electric jet toward various points of space, and caused it to rest on a spot from which shouts of terror were heard. His companions fixed their gaze eagerly on the place.
The baobab, over which the balloon was hanging almost motionless, stood in the centre of a clearing, where, between fields of Indian-corn and sugar-cane, were seen some fifty low, conical huts, around which swarmed a numerous tribe.
A hundred feet below the balloon stood a large post, or stake, and at its foot lay a human being--a young man of thirty years or more, with long black hair, half naked, wasted and wan, bleeding, covered with wounds, his head bowed over upon his breast, as Christ’s was, when He hung upon the cross.
The hair, cut shorter on the top of his skull, still indicated the place of a half-effaced tonsure.
“A missionary! a priest!” exclaimed Joe.
“Poor, unfortunate man!” said Kennedy.
“We must save him, Dick!” responded the doctor; “we must save him!”
The crowd of blacks, when they saw the balloon over their heads, like a huge comet with a train of dazzling light, were seized with a terror that may be readily imagined. Upon hearing their cries, the prisoner raised his head. His eyes gleamed with sudden hope, and, without too thoroughly comprehending what was taking place, he stretched out his hands to his unexpected deliverers.
“He is alive!” exclaimed Ferguson. “God be praised! The savages have got a fine scare, and we shall save him! Are you ready, friends?”
“Ready, doctor, at the word.”
“Joe, shut off the cylinder!”
The doctor’s order was executed. An almost imperceptible breath of air impelled the balloon directly over the prisoner, at the same time that it gently lowered with the contraction of the gas. For about ten minutes it remained floating in the midst of luminous waves, for Ferguson continued to flash right down upon the throng his glowing sheaf of rays, which, here and there, marked out swift and vivid sheets of light. The tribe, under the influence of an indescribable terror, disappeared little by little in the huts, and there was complete solitude around the stake. The doctor had, therefore, been right in counting upon the fantastic appearance of the balloon throwing out rays, as vivid as the sun’s, through this intense gloom.
The car was approaching the ground; but a few of the savages, more audacious than the rest, guessing that their victim was about to escape from their clutches, came back with loud yells, and Kennedy seized his rifle. The doctor, however, besought him not to fire.
The priest, on his knees, for he had not the strength to stand erect, was not even fastened to the stake, his weakness rendering that precaution superfluous. At the instant when the car was close to the ground, the brawny Scot, laying aside his rifle, and seizing the priest around the waist, lifted him into the car, while, at the same moment, Joe tossed over the two hundred pounds of ballast.
The doctor had expected to ascend rapidly, but, contrary to his calculations, the balloon, after going up some three or four feet, remained there perfectly motionless.
“What holds us?” he asked, with an accent of terror.
Some of the savages were running toward them, uttering ferocious cries.
“Ah, ha!” said Joe, “one of those cursed blacks is hanging to the car!”
“Dick! Dick!” cried the doctor, “the water-tank!”
Kennedy caught his friend’s idea on the instant, and, snatching up with desperate strength one of the water-tanks weighing about one hundred pounds, he tossed it overboard. The balloon, thus suddenly lightened, made a leap of three hundred feet into the air, amid the howlings of the tribe whose prisoner thus escaped them in a blaze of dazzling light.
“Hurrah!” shouted the doctor’s comrades.
Suddenly, the balloon took a fresh leap, which carried it up to an elevation of a thousand feet.
“What’s that?” said Kennedy, who had nearly lost his balance.
“Oh! nothing; only that black villain leaving us!” replied the doctor, tranquilly, and Joe, leaning over, saw the savage that had clung to the car whirling over and over, with his arms outstretched in the air, and presently dashed to pieces on the ground. The doctor then separated his electric wires, and every thing was again buried in profound obscurity. It was now one o’clock in the morning.
The Frenchman, who had swooned away, at length opened his eyes.
“You are saved!” were the doctor’s first words.
“Saved!” he with a sad smile replied in English, “saved from a cruel death! My brethren, I thank you, but my days are numbered, nay, even my hours, and I have but little longer to live.”
With this, the missionary, again yielding to exhaustion, relapsed into his fainting-fit.
“He is dying!” said Kennedy.
“No,” replied the doctor, bending over him, “but he is very weak; so let us lay him under the awning.”
And they did gently deposit on their blankets that poor, wasted body, covered with scars and wounds, still bleeding where fire and steel had, in twenty places, left their agonizing marks. The doctor, taking an old handkerchief, quickly prepared a little lint, which he spread over the wounds, after having washed them. These rapid attentions were bestowed with the celerity and skill of a practised surgeon, and, when they were complete, the doctor, taking a cordial from his medicine-chest, poured a few drops upon his patient’s lips.
The latter feebly pressed his kind hands, and scarcely had the strength to say, “Thank you! thank you!”
The doctor comprehended that he must be left perfectly quiet; so he closed the folds of the awning and resumed the guidance of the balloon.
The latter, after taking into account the weight of the new passenger, had been lightened of one hundred and eighty pounds, and therefore kept aloft without the aid of the cylinder. At the first dawn of day, a current drove it gently toward the west-northwest. The doctor went in under the awning for a moment or two, to look at his still sleeping patient.
“May Heaven spare the life of our new companion! Have you any hope?” said the Scot.
“Yes, Dick, with care, in this pure, fresh atmosphere.”
“How that man has suffered!” said Joe, with feeling. “He did bolder things than we’ve done, in venturing all alone among those savage tribes!”
“That cannot be questioned,” assented the hunter.
During the entire day the doctor would not allow the sleep of his patient to be disturbed. It was really a long stupor, broken only by an occasional murmur of pain that continued to disquiet and agitate the doctor greatly.
Toward evening the balloon remained stationary in the midst of the gloom, and during the night, while Kennedy and Joe relieved each other in carefully tending the sick man, Ferguson kept watch over the safety of all.
By the morning of the next day, the balloon had moved, but very slightly, to the westward. The dawn came up pure and magnificent. The sick man was able to call his friends with a stronger voice. They raised the curtains of the awning, and he inhaled with delight the keen morning air.
“How do you feel to-day?” asked the doctor.