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Chapter Forty-Third.

"Had we not taken the precaution to lighten the balloon
yesterday evening, we should have been lost beyond
redemption," said the doctor, after a long silence.
"See what's gained by doing things at the right
time!" replied Joe. "One gets out of scrapes then, and
nothing is more natural."
"We are not out of danger yet," said the doctor.
"What do you still apprehend?" queried Kennedy.
"The balloon can't descend without your permission, and
even were it to do so--"
"Were it to do so, Dick? Look!"
They had just passed the borders of the forest, and
the three friends could see some thirty mounted men clad
in broad pantaloons and the floating bournouses. They were
armed, some with lances, and others with long muskets,
and they were following, on their quick, fiery little steeds,
the direction of the balloon, which was moving at only
moderate speed.
When they caught sight of the aeronauts, they uttered
savage cries, and brandished their weapons. Anger and
menace could be read upon their swarthy faces, made
more ferocious by thin but bristling beards. Meanwhile
they galloped along without difficulty over the low levels
and gentle declivities that lead down to the Senegal.
"It is, indeed, they!" said the doctor; "the cruel
Talabas! the ferocious marabouts of Al-Hadji! I would
rather find myself in the middle of the forest encircled by
wild beasts than fall into the hands of these banditti."
"They haven't a very obliging look!" assented Kennedy;
"and they are rough, stalwart fellows."
"Happily those brutes can't fly," remarked Joe; "and
that's something."
"See," said Ferguson, "those villages in ruins, those
huts burned down--that is their work! Where vast
stretches of cultivated land were once seen, they have
brought barrenness and devastation."
"At all events, however," interposed Kennedy, "they
can't overtake us; and, if we succeed in putting the river
between us and them, we are safe."
"Perfectly, Dick," replied Ferguson; "but we must
not fall to the ground!" and, as he said this, he glanced
at the barometer.
"In any case, Joe," added Kennedy, "it would do us
no harm to look to our fire-arms."
"No harm in the world, Mr. Dick! We are lucky
that we didn't scatter them along the road."
"My rifle!" said the sportsman. "I hope that I shall
never be separated from it!"
And so saying, Kennedy loaded the pet piece with the
greatest care, for he had plenty of powder and ball remaining.
"At what height are we?" he asked the doctor.
"About seven hundred and fifty feet; but we no longer
have the power of seeking favorable currents, either going
up or coming down. We are at the mercy of the balloon!"
"That is vexatious!" rejoined Kennedy. "The wind
is poor; but if we had come across a hurricane like some
of those we met before, these vile brigands would have
been out of sight long ago."
"The rascals follow us at their leisure," said Joe.
"They're only at a short gallop. Quite a nice little
"If we were within range," sighed the sportsman, "I
should amuse myself with dismounting a few of them."
"Exactly," said the doctor; "but then they would
have you within range also, and our balloon would offer
only too plain a target to the bullets from their long guns;
and, if they were to make a hole in it, I leave you to judge
what our situation would be!"
The pursuit of the Talabas continued all morning;
and by eleven o'clock the aeronauts had made scarcely
fifteen miles to the westward.
The doctor was anxiously watching for the least cloud
on the horizon. He feared, above all things, a change in
the atmosphere. Should he be thrown back toward the
Niger, what would become of him? Besides, he remarked
that the balloon tended to fall considerably. Since the
start, he had already lost more than three hundred feet,
and the Senegal must be about a dozen miles distant.
At his present rate of speed, he could count upon
travelling only three hours longer.
At this moment his attention was attracted by fresh
cries. The Talabas appeared to be much excited, and
were spurring their horses.
The doctor consulted his barometer, and at once discovered
the cause of these symptoms.
"Are we descending?" asked Kennedy.
"Yes!" replied the doctor.
"The mischief!" thought Joe
In the lapse of fifteen minutes the Victoria was only
one hundred and fifty feet above the ground; but the
wind was much stronger than before.
The Talabas checked their horses, and soon a volley
of musketry pealed out on the air.
"Too far, you fools!" bawled Joe. "I think it would
be well to keep those scamps at a distance."
And, as he spoke, he aimed at one of the horsemen
who was farthest to the front, and fired. The Talaba fell
headlong, and, his companions halting for a moment, the
balloon gained upon them.
"They are prudent!" said Kennedy.
"Because they think that they are certain to take us,"
replied the doctor; "and, they will succeed if we descend
much farther. We must, absolutely, get higher into the air."
"What can we throw out?" asked Joe.
"All that remains of our stock of pemmican; that will
be thirty pounds less weight to carry."
"Out it goes, sir!" said Joe, obeying orders.
The car, which was now almost touching the ground,
rose again, amid the cries of the Talabas; but, half an
hour later, the balloon was again falling rapidly, because
the gas was escaping through the pores of the covering.
Ere long the car was once more grazing the soil, and
Al-Hadji's black riders rushed toward it; but, as frequently
happens in like cases, the balloon had scarcely
touched the surface ere it rebounded, and only came down
again a mile away.
"So we shall not escape!" said Kennedy, between his teeth.
"Throw out our reserved store of brandy, Joe," cried
the doctor; "our instruments, and every thing that has
any weight, even to our last anchor, because go they must!"
Joe flung out the barometers and thermometers, but
all that amounted to little; and the balloon, which had
risen for an instant, fell again toward the ground.
The Talabas flew toward it, and at length were not
more than two hundred paces away.
"Throw out the two fowling-pieces!" shouted Ferguson.
"Not without discharging them, at least," responded
the sportsman; and four shots in quick succession struck
the thick of the advancing group of horsemen. Four
Talabas fell, amid the frantic howls and imprecations of
their comrades.
The Victoria ascended once more, and made some
enormous leaps, like a huge gum-elastic ball, bounding
and rebounding through the air. A strange sight it was
to see these unfortunate men endeavoring to escape by
those huge aerial strides, and seeming, like the giant
Antaeus, to receive fresh strength every time they touched
the earth. But this situation had to terminate. It was
now nearly noon; the Victoria was getting empty and
exhausted, and assuming a more and more elongated form
every instant. Its outer covering was becoming flaccid,
and floated loosely in the air, and the folds of the silk
rustled and grated on each other.
"Heaven abandons us!" said Kennedy; "we have to fall!"
Joe made no answer. He kept looking intently at his master.
"No!" said the latter; "we have more than one hundred
and fifty pounds yet to throw out."
"What can it be, then?" said Kennedy, thinking that
the doctor must be going mad.
"The car!" was his reply; "we can cling to the
network. There we can hang on in the meshes until we
reach the river. Quick! quick!"
And these daring men did not hesitate a moment to
avail themselves of this last desperate means of escape.
They clutched the network, as the doctor directed, and
Joe, holding on by one hand, with the other cut the cords
that suspended the car; and the latter dropped to the
ground just as the balloon was sinking for the last time.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" shouted the brave fellow exultingly,
as the Victoria, once more relieved, shot up again to a
height of three hundred feet.
The Talabas spurred their horses, which now came
tearing on at a furious gallop; but the balloon, falling in
with a much more favorable wind, shot ahead of them,
and was rapidly carried toward a hill that stretched across
the horizon to the westward. This was a circumstance
favorable to the aeronauts, because they could rise over
the hill, while Al-Hadji's horde had to diverge to the
northward in order to pass this obstacle.
The three friends still clung to the network. They
had been able to fasten it under their feet, where it had
formed a sort of swinging pocket.
Suddenly, after they had crossed the hill, the doctor
exclaimed: "The river! the river! the Senegal, my friends!"
And about two miles ahead of them, there was indeed
the river rolling along its broad mass of water, while the
farther bank, which was low and fertile, offered a sure
refuge, and a place favorable for a descent.
"Another quarter of an hour," said Ferguson, "and
we are saved!"
But it was not to happen thus; the empty balloon descended
slowly upon a tract almost entirely bare of vegetation. It
was made up of long slopes and stony plains, a
few bushes and some coarse grass, scorched by the sun.
The Victoria touched the ground several times, and
rose again, but her rebound was diminishing in height and
length. At the last one, it caught by the upper part of
the network in the lofty branches of a baobab, the only
tree that stood there, solitary and alone, in the midst of
the waste.
"It's all over," said Kennedy.
"And at a hundred paces only from the river!"
groaned Joe.
The three hapless aeronauts descended to the ground,
and the doctor drew his companions toward the Senegal.
At this point the river sent forth a prolonged roaring;
and when Ferguson reached its bank, he recognized the
falls of Gouina. But not a boat, not a living creature was
to be seen. With a breadth of two thousand feet, the
Senegal precipitates itself for a height of one hundred and
fifty, with a thundering reverberation. It ran, where they
saw it, from east to west, and the line of rocks that barred
its course extended from north to south. In the midst of
the falls, rocks of strange forms started up like huge
ante-diluvian animals, petrified there amid the waters.
The impossibility of crossing this gulf was self-evident,
and Kennedy could not restrain a gesture of despair.
But Dr. Ferguson, with an energetic accent of undaunted
daring, exclaimed--
"All is not over!"
"I knew it," said Joe, with that confidence in his master
which nothing could ever shake.
The sight of the dried-up grass had inspired the doctor
with a bold idea. It was the last chance of escape. He
led his friends quickly back to where they had left the
covering of the balloon.
"We have at least an hour's start of those banditti,"
said he; "let us lose no time, my friends; gather a quantity
of this dried grass; I want a hundred pounds of it, at least."
"For what purpose?" asked Kennedy, surprised.
"I have no more gas; well, I'll cross the river with hot air!"
"Ah, doctor," exclaimed Kennedy, "you are, indeed,
a great man!"
Joe and Kennedy at once went to work, and soon had
an immense pile of dried grass heaped up near the baobab.
In the mean time, the doctor had enlarged the orifice
of the balloon by cutting it open at the lower end. He
then was very careful to expel the last remnant of hydrogen
through the valve, after which he heaped up a quantity of
grass under the balloon, and set fire to it.
It takes but a little while to inflate a balloon with hot
air. A head of one hundred and eighty degrees is sufficient
to diminish the weight of the air it contains to the
extent of one-half, by rarefying it. Thus, the Victoria
quickly began to assume a more rounded form. There
was no lack of grass; the fire was kept in full blast by the
doctor's assiduous efforts, and the balloon grew fuller every
It was then a quarter to four o'clock.
At this moment the band of Talabas reappeared about
two miles to the northward, and the three friends could
hear their cries, and the clatter of their horses galloping
at full speed.
"In twenty minutes they will be here!" said Kennedy.
"More grass! more grass, Joe! In ten minutes we
shall have her full of hot air."
"Here it is, doctor!"
The Victoria was now two-thirds inflated.
"Come, my friends, let us take hold of the network, as
we did before."
"All right!" they answered together.
In about ten minutes a few jerking motions by the balloon
indicated that it was disposed to start again. The
Talabas were approaching. They were hardly five hundred
paces away.
"Hold on fast!" cried Ferguson.
"Have no fear, master--have no fear!"
And the doctor, with his foot pushed another heap of
grass upon the fire.
With this the balloon, now completely inflated by the
increased temperature, moved away, sweeping the branches
of the baobab in her flight.
"We're off!" shouted Joe.
A volley of musketry responded to his exclamation. A
bullet even ploughed his shoulder; but Kennedy, leaning
over, and discharging his rifle with one hand, brought
another of the enemy to the ground.
Cries of fury exceeding all description hailed the departure
of the balloon, which had at once ascended nearly
eight hundred feet. A swift current caught and swept it
along with the most alarming oscillations, while the
intrepid doctor and his friends saw the gulf of the
cataracts yawning below them.
Ten minutes later, and without having exchanged a
word, they descended gradually toward the other bank of
the river.
There, astonished, speechless, terrified, stood a group
of men clad in the French uniform. Judge of their amazement
when they saw the balloon rise from the right bank
of the river. They had well-nigh taken it for some celestial
phenomenon, but their officers, a lieutenant of marines
and a naval ensign, having seen mention made of Dr. Ferguson's
daring expedition, in the European papers, quickly
explained the real state of the case.
The balloon, losing its inflation little by little, settled
with the daring travellers still clinging to its network;
but it was doubtful whether it would reach the land. At
once some of the brave Frenchmen rushed into the water
and caught the three aeronauts in their arms just as the
Victoria fell at the distance of a few fathoms from the left
bank of the Senegal.
"Dr. Ferguson!" exclaimed the lieutenant.
"The same, sir," replied the doctor, quietly, "and his
two friends."
The Frenchmen escorted our travellers from the river,
while the balloon, half-empty, and borne away by a swift
current, sped on, to plunge, like a huge bubble, headlong
with the waters of the Senegal, into the cataracts of Gouina.
"The poor Victoria!" was Joe's farewell remark.
The doctor could not restrain a tear, and extending his
hands his two friends wrung them silently with that deep
emotion which requires no spoken words.