Five Weeks in a Balloon
Terrific Heat.--Hallucinations.--The Last Drops of Water.--Nights of Despair.--An Attempt at Suicide.--The Simoom.--The Oasis.--The Lion and Lioness.
The doctor’s first care, on the morrow, was to consult the barometer. He found that the mercury had scarcely undergone any perceptible depression.
“Nothing!” he murmured, “nothing!”
He got out of the car and scrutinized the weather; there was only the same heat, the same cloudless sky, the same merciless drought.
“Must we, then, give up to despair?” he exclaimed, in agony.
Joe did not open his lips. He was buried in his own thoughts, and planning the expedition he had proposed.
Kennedy got up, feeling very ill, and a prey to nervous agitation. He was suffering horribly with thirst, and his swollen tongue and lips could hardly articulate a syllable.
There still remained a few drops of water. Each of them knew this, and each was thinking of it, and felt himself drawn toward them; but neither of the three dared to take a step.
Those three men, friends and companions as they were, fixed their haggard eyes upon each other with an instinct of ferocious longing, which was most plainly revealed in the hardy Scot, whose vigorous constitution yielded the soonest to these unnatural privations.
Throughout the day he was delirious, pacing up and down, uttering hoarse cries, gnawing his clinched fists, and ready to open his veins and drink his own hot blood.
“Ah!” he cried, “land of thirst! Well might you be called the land of despair!”
At length he sank down in utter prostration, and his friends heard no other sound from him than the hissing of his breath between his parched and swollen lips.
Toward evening, Joe had his turn of delirium. The vast expanse of sand appeared to him an immense pond, full of clear and limpid water; and, more than once, he dashed himself upon the scorching waste to drink long draughts, and rose again with his mouth clogged with hot dust.
“Curses on it!” he yelled, in his madness, “it’s nothing but salt water!”
Then, while Ferguson and Kennedy lay there motionless, the resistless longing came over him to drain the last few drops of water that had been kept in reserve. The natural instinct proved too strong. He dragged himself toward the car, on his knees; he glared at the bottle containing the precious fluid; he gave one wild, eager glance, seized the treasured store, and bore it to his lips.
At that instant he heard a heart-rending cry close beside him--”Water! water!”
It was Kennedy, who had crawled up close to him, and was begging there, upon his knees, and weeping piteously.
Joe, himself in tears, gave the poor wretch the bottle, and Kennedy drained the last drop with savage haste.
“Thanks!” he murmured hoarsely, but Joe did not hear him, for both alike had dropped fainting on the sand.
What took place during that fearful night neither of them knew, but, on Tuesday morning, under those showers of heat which the sun poured down upon them, the unfortunate men felt their limbs gradually drying up, and when Joe attempted to rise he found it impossible.
He looked around him. In the car, the doctor, completely overwhelmed, sat with his arms folded on his breast, gazing with idiotic fixedness upon some imaginary point in space. Kennedy was frightful to behold. He was rolling his head from right to left like a wild beast in a cage.
All at once, his eyes rested on the butt of his rifle, which jutted above the rim of the car.
“Ah!” he screamed, raising himself with a superhuman effort.
Desperate, mad, he snatched at the weapon, and turned the barrel toward his mouth.
“Kennedy!” shouted Joe, throwing himself upon his friend.
“Let go! hands off!” moaned the Scot, in a hoarse, grating voice--and then the two struggled desperately for the rifle.
“Let go, or I’ll kill you!” repeated Kennedy. But Joe clung to him only the more fiercely, and they had been contending thus without the doctor seeing them for many seconds, when, suddenly the rifle went off. At the sound of its discharge, the doctor rose up erect, like a spectre, and glared around him.
But all at once his glance grew more animated; he extended his hand toward the horizon, and in a voice no longer human shrieked:
“There! there--off there!”
There was such fearful force in the cry that Kennedy and Joe released each other, and both looked where the doctor pointed.
The plain was agitated like the sea shaken by the fury of a tempest; billows of sand went tossing over each other amid blinding clouds of dust; an immense pillar was seen whirling toward them through the air from the southeast, with terrific velocity; the sun was disappearing behind an opaque veil of cloud whose enormous barrier extended clear to the horizon, while the grains of fine sand went gliding together with all the supple ease of liquid particles, and the rising dust-tide gained more and more with every second.
Ferguson’s eyes gleamed with a ray of energetic hope.
“The simoom!” he exclaimed.
“The simoom!” repeated Joe, without exactly knowing what it meant.
“So much the better!” said Kennedy, with the bitterness of despair. “So much the better--we shall die!”
“So much the better!” echoed the doctor, “for we shall live!” and, so saying, he began rapidly to throw out the sand that encumbered the car.
At length his companions understood him, and took their places at his side.
“And now, Joe,” said the doctor, “throw out some fifty pounds of your ore, there!”
Joe no longer hesitated, although he still felt a fleeting pang of regret. The balloon at once began to ascend.