“See,” said Joe, “what comes of playing the sons of the moon without her leave! She came near serving us an ugly trick. But say, master, did you damage your credit as a physician?”
“Yes, indeed,” chimed in the sportsman. “What kind of a dignitary was this Sultan of Kazeh?”
“An old half-dead sot,” replied the doctor, “whose loss will not be very severely felt. But the moral of all this is that honors are fleeting, and we must not take too great a fancy to them.”
“So much the worse!” rejoined Joe. “I liked the thing—to be worshipped!—Play the god as you like! Why, what would any one ask more than that? By-theway, the moon did come up, too, and all red, as if she was in a rage.”
While the three friends went on chatting of this and other things, and Joe examined the luminary of night from an entirely novel point of view, the heavens became covered with heavy clouds to the northward, and the lowering masses assumed a most sinister and threatening look. Quite a smart breeze, found about three hundred feet from the earth, drove the balloon toward the north-northeast; and above it the blue vault was clear; but the atmosphere felt close and dull.
The aëronauts found themselves, at about eight in the evening, in thirty-two degrees forty minutes east longitude, and four degrees seventeen minutes latitude. The atmospheric currents, under the influence of a tempest not far off, were driving them at the rate of from thirty to thirty-five miles an hour; the undulating and fertile plains of Mfuto were passing swiftly beneath them. The spectacle was one worthy of admiration—and admire it they did.
“We are now right in the country of the Moon,” said Dr. Ferguson; “for it has retained the name that antiquity gave it, undoubtedly, because the moon has been worshipped there in all ages. It is, really, a superb country.”
“It would be hard to find more splendid vegetation.”
“If we found the like of it around London it would not be natural, but it would be very pleasant,” put in Joe. “Why is it that such savage countries get all these fine things?”
“And who knows,” said the doctor, “that this country may not, one day, become the centre of civilization? The races of the future may repair hither, when Europe shall have become exhausted in the effort to feed her inhabitants.”
“Do you think so, really?” asked Kennedy.
“Undoubtedly, my dear Dick. Just note the progress of events: consider the migrations of races, and you will arrive at the same conclusion assuredly. Asia was the first nurse of the world, was she not? For about four thousand years she travailed, she grew pregnant, she produced, and then, when stones began to cover the soil where the golden harvests sung by Homer had flourished, her children abandoned her exhausted and barren bosom. You next see them precipitating themselves upon young and vigorous Europe, which has nourished them for the last two thousand years. But already her fertility is beginning to die out; her productive powers are diminishing every day. Those new diseases that annually attack the products of the soil, those defective crops, those insufficient resources, are all signs of a vitality that is rapidly wearing out and of an approaching exhaustion. Thus, we already see the millions rushing to the luxuriant bosom of America, as a source of help, not inexhaustible indeed, but not yet exhausted. In its turn, that new continent will grow old; its virgin forests will fall before the axe of industry, and its soil will become weak through having too fully produced what had been demanded of it. Where two harvests bloomed every year, hardly one will be gathered from a soil completely drained of its strength. Then, Africa will be there to offer to new races the treasures that for centuries have been accumulating in her breast. Those climates now so fatal to strangers will be purified by cultivation and by drainage of the soil, and those scattered water supplies will be gathered into one common bed to form an artery of navigation. Then this country over which we are now passing, more fertile, richer, and fuller of vitality than the rest, will become some grand realm where more astonishing discoveries than steam and electricity will be brought to light.”
“Ah! sir,” said Joe, “I’d like to see all that.”
“You got up too early in the morning, my boy!”
“Besides,” said Kennedy, “that may prove to be a very dull period when industry will swallow up every thing for its own profit. By dint of inventing machinery, men will end in being eaten up by it! I have always fancied that the end of the earth will be when some enormous boiler, heated to three thousand millions of atmospheric pressure, shall explode and blow up our Globe!”
“And I add that the Americans,” said Joe, “will not have been the last to work at the machine!”
“In fact,” assented the doctor, “they are great boilermakers! But, without allowing ourselves to be carried away by such speculations, let us rest content with enjoying the beauties of this country of the Moon, since we have been permitted to see it.”
The sun, darting his last rays beneath the masses of heaped-up cloud, adorned with a crest of gold the slightest inequalities of the ground below; gigantic trees, arborescent bushes, mosses on the even surface—all had their share of this luminous effulgence. The soil, slightly undulating, here and there rose into little conical hills; there were no mountains visible on the horizon; immense brambly palisades, impenetrable hedges of thorny jungle, separated the clearings dotted with numerous villages, and immense euphorbiæ surrounded them with natural fortifications, interlacing their trunks with the coral-shaped branches of the shrubbery and undergrowth.
Ere long, the Malagazeri, the chief tributary of Lake Tanganayika, was seen winding between heavy thickets of verdure, offering an asylum to many water-courses that spring from the torrents formed in the season of freshets, or from ponds hollowed in the clayey soil. To observers looking from a height, it was a chain of waterfalls thrown across the whole western face of the country.
Animals with huge humps were feeding in the luxuriant prairies, and were half hidden, sometimes, in the tall grass; spreading forests in bloom redolent of spicy perfumes presented themselves to the gaze like immense bouquets; but, in these bouquets, lions, leopards, hyenas, and tigers, were then crouching for shelter from the last hot rays of the setting sun. From time to time, an elephant made the tall tops of the undergrowth sway to and fro, and you could hear the crackling of huge branches as his ponderous ivory tusks broke them in his way.
“What a sporting country!” exclaimed Dick, unable longer to restrain his enthusiasm; “why, a single ball fired at random into those forests would bring down game worthy of it. Suppose we try it once!”
“No, my dear Dick; the night is close at hand—a threatening night with a tempest in the background—and the storms are awful in this country, where the heated soil is like one vast electric battery.”
“You are right, sir,” said Joe, “the heat has got to be enough to choke one, and the breeze has died away. One can feel that something’s coming.”
“The atmosphere is saturated with electricity,” replied the doctor; “every living creature is sensible that this state of the air portends a struggle of the elements, and I confess that I never before was so full of the fluid myself.”
“Well, then,” suggested Dick, “would it not be advisable to alight?”
“On the contrary, Dick, I’d rather go up, only that I am afraid of being carried out of my course by these counter-currents contending in the atmosphere.”
“Have you any idea, then, of abandoning the route that we have followed since we left the coast?”
“If I can manage to do so,” replied the doctor, “I will turn more directly northward, by from seven to eight degrees; I shall then endeavor to ascend toward the presumed latitudes of the sources of the Nile; perhaps we may discover some traces of Captain Speke’s expedition or of M. de Heuglin’s caravan. Unless I am mistaken, we are at thirty-two degrees forty minutes east longitude, and I should like to ascend directly north of the equator.”
“Look there!” exclaimed Kennedy, suddenly, “see those hippopotami sliding out of the pools—those masses of blood-colored flesh—and those crocodiles snuffing the air aloud!”
The hippopotami on the surface of the pools.
“They’re choking!” ejaculated Joe. “Ah! what a fine way to travel this is; and how one can snap his fingers at all that vermin!—Doctor! Mr. Kennedy! see those packs of wild animals hurrying along close together. There are fully two hundred. Those are wolves.”
“No! Joe, not wolves, but wild dogs; a famous breed that does not hesitate to attack the lion himself. They are the worst customers a traveller could meet, for they would instantly tear him to pieces.”
“Well, it isn’t Joe that’ll undertake to muzzle them!” responded that amiable youth. “After all, though, if that’s the nature of the beast, we mustn’t be too hard on them for it!”
Silence gradually settled down under the influence of the impending storm: the thickened air actually seemed no longer adapted to the transmission of sound; the atmosphere appeared muffled, and, like a room hung with tapestry, lost all its sonorous reverberation. The “rover bird” so-called, the coroneted crane, the red and blue jays, the mocking-bird, the flycatcher, disappeared among the foliage of the immense trees, and all nature revealed symptoms of some approaching catastrophe.
At nine o’clock the Victoria hung motionless over Mséné, an extensive group of villages scarcely distinguishable in the gloom. Once in a while, the reflection of a wandering ray of light in the dull water disclosed a succession of ditches regularly arranged, and, by one last gleam, the eye could make out the calm and sombre forms of palm-trees, sycamores, and gigantic euphorbiæ.
“I am stifling!” said the Scot, inhaling, with all the power of his lungs, as much as possible of the rarefied air. “We are not moving an inch! Let us descend!”
“But the tempest!” said the doctor, with much uneasiness.
“If you are afraid of being carried away by the wind, it seems to me that there is no other course to pursue.”
“Perhaps the storm won’t burst to-night,” said Joe; “the clouds are very high.”
“That is just the thing that makes me hesitate about going beyond them; we should have to rise still higher, lose sight of the earth, and not know all night whether we were moving forward or not, or in what direction we were going.”
“Make up your mind, dear doctor, for time presses!”
“It’s a pity that the wind has fallen,” said Joe, again; “it would have carried us clear of the storm.”
“It is, indeed, a pity, my friends,” rejoined the doctor. “The clouds are dangerous for us; they contain opposing currents which might catch us in their eddies, and lightnings that might set on fire. Again, those perils avoided, the force of the tempest might hurl us to the ground, were we to cast our anchor in the tree-tops.”
“Then what shall we do?”
“Well, we must try to get the balloon into a medium zone of the atmosphere, and there keep her suspended between the perils of the heavens and those of the earth. We have enough water for the cylinder, and our two hundred pounds of ballast are untouched. In case of emergency I can use them.”
“We will keep watch with you,” said the hunter.
“No, my friends, put the provisions under shelter, and lie down; I will rouse you, if it becomes necessary.”
“But, master, wouldn’t you do well to take some rest yourself, as there’s no danger close on us just now?” insisted poor Joe.
“No, thank you, my good fellow, I prefer to keep awake. We are not moving, and should circumstances not change, we’ll find ourselves to-morrow in exactly the same place.”
“Good-night, then, sir!”
“Good-night, if you can only find it so!”
Kennedy and Joe stretched themselves out under their blankets, and the doctor remained alone in the immensity of space.
However, the huge dome of clouds visibly descended, and the darkness became profound. The black vault closed in upon the earth as if to crush it in its embrace.
All at once a violent, rapid, incisive flash of lightning pierced the gloom, and the rent it made had not closed ere a frightful clap of thunder shook the celestial depths.
“Up! up! turn out!” shouted Ferguson.
The two sleepers, aroused by the terrible concussion, were at the doctor’s orders in a moment.
“Shall we descend?” said Kennedy.
“No! the balloon could not stand it. Let us go up before those clouds dissolve in water, and the wind is let loose!” and, so saying, the doctor actively stirred up the flame of the cylinder, and turned it on the spirals of the serpentine siphon.
The tempests of the tropics develop with a rapidity equalled only by their violence. A second flash of lightning rent the darkness, and was followed by a score of others in quick succession. The sky was crossed and dotted, like the zebra’s hide, with electric sparks, which danced and flickered beneath the great drops of rain.
“We have delayed too long,” exclaimed the doctor; “we must now pass through a zone of fire, with our balloon filled as it is with inflammable gas!”
“But let us descend, then! let us descend!” urged Kennedy.
“The risk of being struck would be just about even, and we should soon be torn to pieces by the branches of the trees!”
“We are going up, doctor!”
“Quicker, quicker still!”
The Victoria in the midst of the tempest.
In this part of Africa, during the equatorial storms, it is not rare to count from thirty to thirty-five flashes of lightning per minute. The sky is literally on fire, and the crashes of thunder are continuous.
The wind burst forth with frightful violence in this burning atmosphere; it twisted the blazing clouds; one might have compared it to the breath of some gigantic bellows, fanning all this conflagration.
Dr. Ferguson kept his cylinder at full heat, and the balloon dilated and went up, while Kennedy, on his knees, held together the curtains of the awning. The balloon whirled round wildly enough to make their heads turn, and the aëronauts got some very alarming jolts, indeed, as their machine swung and swayed in all directions. Huge cavities would form in the silk of the balloon as the wind fiercely bent it in, and the stuff fairly cracked like a pistol as it flew back from the pressure. A sort of hail, preceded by a rumbling noise, hissed through the air and rattled on the covering of the Victoria. The latter, however, continued to ascend, while the lightning described tangents to the convexity of her circumference; but she bore on, right through the midst of the fire.
“God protect us!” said Dr. Ferguson, solemnly, “we are in His hands; He alone can save us—but let us be ready for every event, even for fire—our fall could not be very rapid.”
The doctor’s voice could scarcely be heard by his companions; but they could see his countenance calm as ever even amid the flashing of the lightnings; he was watching the phenomena of phosphorescence produced by the fires of St. Elmo, that were now skipping to and fro along the network of the balloon.
The latter whirled and swung, but steadily ascended, and, ere the hour was over, it had passed the stormy belt. The electric display was going on below it like a vast crown of artificial fireworks suspended from the car.
Then they enjoyed one of the grandest spectacles that Nature can offer to the gaze of man. Below them, the tempest; above them, the starry firmament, tranquil, mute, impassible, with the moon projecting her peaceful rays over these angry clouds.
Dr. Ferguson consulted the barometer; it announced twelve thousand feet of elevation. It was then eleven o’clock at night.
“Thank Heaven, all danger is past; all we have to do now, is, to keep ourselves at this height,” said the doctor.
“It was frightful!” remarked Kennedy.
“Oh!” said Joe, “it gives a little variety to the trip, and I’m not sorry to have seen a storm from a trifling distance up in the air. It’s a fine sight!”