Five Weeks in a Balloon
Dr. Ferguson’s Anxieties.--Persistent Movement southward.--A Cloud of Grasshoppers.--A View of Jenne.--A View of Sego.--Change of the Wind.--Joe’s Regrets.
The flow of the river was, at that point, divided by large islands into narrow branches, with a very rapid current. Upon one among them stood some shepherds’ huts, but it had become impossible to take an exact observation of them, because the speed of the balloon was constantly increasing. Unfortunately, it turned still more toward the south, and in a few moments crossed Lake Debo.
Dr. Ferguson, forcing the dilation of his aerial craft to the utmost, sought for other currents of air at different heights, but in vain; and he soon gave up the attempt, which was only augmenting the waste of gas by pressing it against the well-worn tissue of the balloon.
He made no remark, but he began to feel very anxious. This persistence of the wind to head him off toward the southern part of Africa was defeating his calculations, and he no longer knew upon whom or upon what to depend. Should he not reach the English or French territories, what was to become of him in the midst of the barbarous tribes that infest the coasts of Guinea? How should he there get to a ship to take him back to England? And the actual direction of the wind was driving him along to the kingdom of Dahomey, among the most savage races, and into the power of a ruler who was in the habit of sacrificing thousands of human victims at his public orgies. There he would be lost!
On the other hand, the balloon was visibly wearing out, and the doctor felt it failing him. However, as the weather was clearing up a little, he hoped that the cessation of the rain would bring about a change in the atmospheric currents.
It was therefore a disagreeable reminder of the actual situation when Joe said aloud:
“There! the rain’s going to pour down harder than ever; and this time it will be the deluge itself, if we’re to judge by yon cloud that’s coming up!”
“What! another cloud?” asked Ferguson.
“Yes, and a famous one,” replied Kennedy.
“I never saw the like of it,” added Joe.
“I breathe freely again!” said the doctor, laying down his spy-glass. “That’s not a cloud!”
“Not a cloud?” queried Joe, with surprise.
“No; it is a swarm.”
“A swarm of grasshoppers!”
“Myriads of grasshoppers, that are going to sweep over this country like a water-spout; and woe to it! for, should these insects alight, it will be laid waste.”
“That would be a sight worth beholding!”
“Wait a little, Joe. In ten minutes that cloud will have arrived where we are, and you can then judge by the aid of your own eyes.”
The doctor was right. The cloud, thick, opaque, and several miles in extent, came on with a deafening noise, casting its immense shadow over the fields. It was composed of numberless legions of that species of grasshopper called crickets. About a hundred paces from the balloon, they settled down upon a tract full of foliage and verdure. Fifteen minutes later, the mass resumed its flight, and our travellers could, even at a distance, see the trees and the bushes entirely stripped, and the fields as bare as though they had been swept with the scythe. One would have thought that a sudden winter had just descended upon the earth and struck the region with the most complete sterility.
“Well, Joe, what do you think of that?”
“Well, doctor, it’s very curious, but quite natural. What one grasshopper does on a small scale, thousands do on a grand scale.”
“It’s a terrible shower,” said the hunter; “more so than hail itself in the devastation it causes.”
“It is impossible to prevent it,” replied Ferguson. “Sometimes the inhabitants have had the idea to burn the forests, and even the standing crops, in order to arrest the progress of these insects; but the first ranks plunging into the flames would extinguish them beneath their mass, and the rest of the swarm would then pass irresistibly onward. Fortunately, in these regions, there is some sort of compensation for their ravages, since the natives gather these insects in great numbers and greedily eat them.”