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Chapter Sixteenth.

"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-the-way,
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 aeronauts 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 boiler-makers!
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 euphorbiae 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!"
"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
Msene, 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 euphorbiae.
"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!"
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 aeronauts 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!"