Five Weeks in a Balloon
The Approaches to Senegal.--The Balloon sinks lower and lower.--They keep throwing out, throwing out.--The Marabout Al-Hadji.--Messrs. Pascal, Vincent, and Lambert.--A Rival of Mohammed.--The Difficult Mountains.--Kennedy’s Weapons.--One of Joe’s Manoeuvres.--A Halt over a Forest.
On the 27th of May, at nine o’clock in the morning, the country presented an entirely different aspect. The slopes, extending far away, changed to hills that gave evidence of mountains soon to follow. They would have to cross the chain which separates the basin of the Niger from the basin of the Senegal, and determines the course of the water-shed, whether to the Gulf of Guinea on the one hand, or to the bay of Cape Verde on the other.
As far as Senegal, this part of Africa is marked down as dangerous. Dr. Ferguson knew it through the recitals of his predecessors. They had suffered a thousand privations and been exposed to a thousand dangers in the midst of these barbarous negro tribes. It was this fatal climate that had devoured most of the companions of Mungo Park. Ferguson, therefore, was more than ever decided not to set foot in this inhospitable region.
But he had not enjoyed one moment of repose. The Victoria was descending very perceptibly, so much so that he had to throw overboard a number more of useless articles, especially when there was a mountain-top to pass. Things went on thus for more than one hundred and twenty miles; they were worn out with ascending and falling again; the balloon, like another rock of Sisyphus, kept continually sinking back toward the ground. The rotundity of the covering, which was now but little inflated, was collapsing already. It assumed an elongated shape, and the wind hollowed large cavities in the silken surface.
Kennedy could not help observing this.
“Is there a crack or a tear in the balloon?” he asked.
“No, but the gutta percha has evidently softened or melted in the heat, and the hydrogen is escaping through the silk.”
“How can we prevent that?”
“It is impossible. Let us lighten her. That is the only help. So let us throw out every thing we can spare.”
“But what shall it be?” said the hunter, looking at the car, which was already quite bare.
“Well, let us get rid of the awning, for its weight is quite considerable.”
Joe, who was interested in this order, climbed up on the circle which kept together the cordage of the network, and from that place easily managed to detach the heavy curtains of the awning and throw them overboard.
“There’s something that will gladden the hearts of a whole tribe of blacks,” said he; “there’s enough to dress a thousand of them, for they’re not very extravagant with cloth.”
The balloon had risen a little, but it soon became evident that it was again approaching the ground.
“Let us alight,” suggested Kennedy, “and see what can be done with the covering of the balloon.”
“I tell you, again, Dick, that we have no means of repairing it.”
“Then what shall we do?”
“We’ll have to sacrifice every thing not absolutely indispensable; I am anxious, at all hazards, to avoid a detention in these regions. The forests over the tops of which we are skimming are any thing but safe.”
“What! are there lions in them, or hyenas?” asked Joe, with an expression of sovereign contempt.
“Worse than that, my boy! There are men, and some of the most cruel, too, in all Africa.”
“How is that known?”
“By the statements of travellers who have been here before us. Then the French settlers, who occupy the colony of Senegal, necessarily have relations with the surrounding tribes. Under the administration of Colonel Faidherbe, reconnaissances have been pushed far up into the country. Officers such as Messrs. Pascal, Vincent, and Lambert, have brought back precious documents from their expeditions. They have explored these countries formed by the elbow of the Senegal in places where war and pillage have left nothing but ruins.”
“What, then, took place?”
“I will tell you. In 1854 a Marabout of the Senegalese Fouta, Al-Hadji by name, declaring himself to be inspired like Mohammed, stirred up all the tribes to war against the infidels--that is to say, against the Europeans. He carried destruction and desolation over the regions between the Senegal River and its tributary, the Fateme. Three hordes of fanatics led on by him scoured the country, sparing neither a village nor a hut in their pillaging, massacring career. He advanced in person on the town of Sego, which was a long time threatened. In 1857 he worked up farther to the northward, and invested the fortification of Medina, built by the French on the bank of the river. This stronghold was defended by Paul Holl, who, for several months, without provisions or ammunition, held out until Colonel Faidherbe came to his relief. Al-Hadji and his bands then repassed the Senegal, and reappeared in the Kaarta, continuing their rapine and murder.--Well, here below us is the very country in which he has found refuge with his hordes of banditti; and I assure you that it would not be a good thing to fall into his hands.”
“We shall not,” said Joe, “even if we have to throw overboard our clothes to save the Victoria.”
“We are not far from the river,” said the doctor, “but I foresee that our balloon will not be able to carry us beyond it.”
“Let us reach its banks, at all events,” said the Scot, “and that will be so much gained.”
“That is what we are trying to do,” rejoined Ferguson, “only that one thing makes me feel anxious.”
“What is that?”
“We shall have mountains to pass, and that will be difficult to do, since I cannot augment the ascensional force of the balloon, even with the greatest possible heat that I can produce.”
“Well, wait a bit,” said Kennedy, “and we shall see!”
“The poor Victoria!” sighed Joe; “I had got fond of her as the sailor does of his ship, and I’ll not give her up so easily. She may not be what she was at the start--granted; but we shouldn’t say a word against her. She has done us good service, and it would break my heart to desert her.”
“Be at your ease, Joe; if we leave her, it will be in spite of ourselves. She’ll serve us until she’s completely worn out, and I ask of her only twenty-four hours more!”
“Ah, she’s getting used up! She grows thinner and thinner,” said Joe, dolefully, while he eyed her. “Poor balloon!”
“Unless I am deceived,” said Kennedy, “there on the horizon are the mountains of which you were speaking, doctor.”
“Yes, there they are, indeed!” exclaimed the doctor, after having examined them through his spy-glass, “and they look very high. We shall have some trouble in crossing them.”
“Can we not avoid them?”