The night came on very dark. The doctor had not
been able to reconnoitre the country. He had made fast
to a very tall tree, from which he could distinguish only a
confused mass through the gloom.
As usual, he took the nine-o'clock watch, and at midnight
Dick relieved him.
"Keep a sharp lookout, Dick!" was the doctor's good-night injunction.
"Is there any thing new on the carpet?"
"No; but I thought that I heard vague sounds below
us, and, as I don't exactly know where the wind has
carried us to, even an excess of caution would do no harm."
"You've probably heard the cries of wild beasts."
"No! the sounds seemed to me something altogether
different from that; at all events, on the least alarm
don't fail to waken us."
"I'll do so, doctor; rest easy."
After listening attentively for a moment or two longer,
the doctor, hearing nothing more, threw himself on his
blankets and went asleep.
The sky was covered with dense clouds, but not a
breath of air was stirring; and the balloon, kept in
its place by only a single anchor, experienced not
the slightest oscillation.
Kennedy, leaning his elbow on the edge of the car, so
as to keep an eye on the cylinder, which was actively at
work, gazed out upon the calm obscurity; he eagerly
scanned the horizon, and, as often happens to minds that
are uneasy or possessed with preconceived notions, he
fancied that he sometimes detected vague gleams of light
in the distance.
At one moment he even thought that he saw them only
two hundred paces away, quite distinctly, but it was a
mere flash that was gone as quickly as it came, and he
noticed nothing more. It was, no doubt, one of those
luminous illusions that sometimes impress the eye in the
midst of very profound darkness.
Kennedy was getting over his nervousness and falling
into his wandering meditations again, when a sharp whistle
pierced his ear.
Was that the cry of an animal or of a night-bird, or
did it come from human lips?
Kennedy, perfectly comprehending the gravity of the
situation, was on the point of waking his companions, but
he reflected that, in any case, men or animals, the creatures
that he had heard must be out of reach. So he merely
saw that his weapons were all right, and then, with his
night-glass, again plunged his gaze into space.
It was not long before he thought he could perceive
below him vague forms that seemed to be gliding toward
the tree, and then, by the aid of a ray of moonlight that
shot like an electric flash between two masses of cloud, he
distinctly made out a group of human figures moving in
the shadow.
The adventure with the dog-faced baboons returned
to his memory, and he placed his hand on the doctor's
shoulder.
The latter was awake in a moment.
"Silence!" said Dick. "Let us speak below our breath."
"Has any thing happened?"
"Yes, let us waken Joe."
The instant that Joe was aroused, Kennedy told him
what he had seen.
"Those confounded monkeys again!" said Joe.
"Possibly, but we must be on our guard."
"Joe and I," said Kennedy, "will climb down the tree
by the ladder."
"And, in the meanwhile," added the doctor, "I will
take my measures so that we can ascend rapidly at a
moment's warning."
"Agreed!"
"Let us go down, then!" said Joe.
"Don't use your weapons, excepting at the last extremity!
It would be a useless risk to make the natives
aware of our presence in such a place as this."
Dick and Joe replied with signs of assent, and then
letting themselves slide noiselessly toward the tree, took
their position in a fork among the strong branches where
the anchor had caught.
For some moments they listened minutely and motionlessly
among the foliage, and ere long Joe seized Kenedy's hand
as he heard a sort of rubbing sound against the bark of
the tree.
"Don't you hear that?" he whispered.
"Yes, and it's coming nearer."
"Suppose it should be a serpent? That hissing or
whistling that you heard before--"
"No! there was something human in it."
"I'd prefer the savages, for I have a horror of those
snakes."
"The noise is increasing," said Kennedy, again, after
a lapse of a few moments.
"Yes! something's coming up toward us--climbing."
"Keep watch on this side, and I'll take care of the other."
"Very good!"
There they were, isolated at the top of one of the
larger branches shooting out in the midst of one of
those miniature forests called baobab-trees. The darkness,
heightened by the density of the foliage, was profound;
however, Joe, leaning over to Kennedy's ear and pointing
down the tree, whispered:
"The blacks! They're climbing toward us."
The two friends could even catch the sound of a few
words uttered in the lowest possible tones.
Joe gently brought his rifle to his shoulder as he spoke.
"Wait!" said Kennedy.
Some of the natives had really climbed the baobab,
and now they were seen rising on all sides, winding along
the boughs like reptiles, and advancing slowly but surely,
all the time plainly enough discernible, not merely to the
eye but to the nostrils, by the horrible odors of the rancid
grease with which they bedaub their bodies.
Ere long, two heads appeared to the gaze of Kennedy
and Joe, on a level with the very branch to which they
were clinging.
"Attention!" said Kennedy. "Fire!"
The double concussion resounded like a thunderbolt
and died away into cries of rage and pain, and in a
moment the whole horde had disappeared.
But, in the midst of these yells and howls, a strange,
unexpected--nay what seemed an impossible--cry had
been heard! A human voice had, distinctly, called aloud
in the French language--
"Help! help!"
Kennedy and Joe, dumb with amazement, had regained
the car immediately.
"Did you hear that?" the doctor asked them.
"Undoubtedly, that supernatural cry, 'A moi! a moi!'
comes from a Frenchman in the hands of these barbarians!"
"A traveller."
"A missionary, perhaps."
"Poor wretch!" said Kennedy, "they're assassinating
him--making a martyr of him!"
The doctor then spoke, and it was impossible for him
to conceal his emotions.
"There can be no doubt of it," he said; "some unfortunate
Frenchman has fallen into the hands of these
savages. We must not leave this place without doing all
in our power to save him. When he heard the sound of
our guns, he recognized an unhoped-for assistance, a
providential interposition. We shall not disappoint
his last hope. Are such your views?"
"They are, doctor, and we are ready to obey you."
"Let us, then, lay our heads together to devise some
plan, and in the morning we'll try to rescue him."
"But how shall we drive off those abominable blacks?"
asked Kennedy.
"It's quite clear to me, from the way in which they
made off, that they are unacquainted with fire-arms. We
must, therefore, profit by their fears; but we shall await
daylight before acting, and then we can form our plans of
rescue according to circumstances."
"The poor captive cannot be far off," said Joe, "because--"
"Help! help!" repeated the voice, but much more
feebly this time.
"The savage wretches!" exclaimed Joe, trembling
with indignation. "Suppose they should kill him
to-night!"
"Do you hear, doctor," resumed Kennedy, seizing the
doctor's hand. "Suppose they should kill him to-night!"
"It is not at all likely, my friends. These savage
tribes kill their captives in broad daylight; they must
have the sunshine."
"Now, if I were to take advantage of the darkness to
slip down to the poor fellow?" said Kennedy.
"And I'll go with you," said Joe, warmly.
"Pause, my friends--pause! The suggestion does
honor to your hearts and to your courage; but you would
expose us all to great peril, and do still greater harm to
the unfortunate man whom you wish to aid."
"Why so?" asked Kennedy. "These savages are
frightened and dispersed: they will not return."
"Dick, I implore you, heed what I say. I am acting
for the common good; and if by any accident you should
be taken by surprise, all would be lost."
"But, think of that poor wretch, hoping for aid, waiting
there, praying, calling aloud. Is no one to go to his
assistance? He must think that his senses deceived him;
that he heard nothing!"
"We can reassure him, on that score," said Dr. Ferguson
--and, standing erect, making a speaking-trumpet
of his hands, he shouted at the top of his voice, in French:
"Whoever you are, be of good cheer! Three friends are
watching over you."
A terrific howl from the savages responded to these
words--no doubt drowning the prisoner's reply.
"They are murdering him! they are murdering him!"
exclaimed Kennedy. "Our interference will have served
no other purpose than to hasten the hour of his doom.
We must act!"
"But how, Dick? What do you expect to do in the
midst of this darkness?"
"Oh, if it was only daylight!" sighed Joe.
"Well, and suppose it were daylight?" said the doctor,
in a singular tone.
"Nothing more simple, doctor," said Kennedy. "I'd
go down and scatter all these savage villains with powder
and ball!"
"And you, Joe, what would you do?"
"I, master? why, I'd act more prudently, maybe, by
telling the prisoner to make his escape in a certain
direction that we'd agree upon."
"And how would you get him to know that?"
"By means of this arrow that I caught flying the other
day. I'd tie a note to it, or I'd just call out to him in a
loud voice what you want him to do, because these black
fellows don't understand the language that you'd speak
in!"
"Your plans are impracticable, my dear friends. The
greatest difficulty would be for this poor fellow to escape
at all--even admitting that he should manage to elude
the vigilance of his captors. As for you, my dear Dick,
with determined daring, and profiting by their alarm at
our fire-arms, your project might possibly succeed; but,
were it to fail, you would be lost, and we should have two
persons to save instead of one. No! we must put ALL the
chances on OUR side, and go to work differently."
"But let us act at once!" said the hunter.
"Perhaps we may," said the doctor, throwing considerable
stress upon the words.
"Why, doctor, can you light up such darkness as this?"
"Who knows, Joe?"
"Ah! if you can do that, you're the greatest learned
man in the world!"
The doctor kept silent for a few moments; he was
thinking. His two companions looked at him with much
emotion, for they were greatly excited by the strangeness
of the situation. Ferguson at last resumed:
"Here is my plan: We have two hundred pounds of
ballast left, since the bags we brought with us are still
untouched. I'll suppose that this prisoner, who is evidently
exhausted by suffering, weighs as much as one of
us; there will still remain sixty pounds of ballast to throw
out, in case we should want to ascend suddenly."
"How do you expect to manage the balloon?" asked Kennedy.
"This is the idea, Dick: you will admit that if I can
get to the prisoner, and throw out a quantity of ballast,
equal to his weight, I shall have in nowise altered the
equilibrium of the balloon. But, then, if I want to get a
rapid ascension, so as to escape these savages, I must
employ means more energetic than the cylinder. Well,
then, in throwing out this overplus of ballast at a given
moment, I am certain to rise with great rapidity."
"That's plain enough."
"Yes; but there is one drawback: it consists in the fact that,
in order to descend after that, I should have to part with a
quantity of gas proportionate to the surplus ballast that I
had thrown out. Now, the gas is precious; but we must not
haggle over it when the life of a fellow-creature is at stake."
"You are right, sir; we must do every thing in our
power to save him."
"Let us work, then, and get these bags all arranged on
the rim of the car, so that they may be thrown overboard
at one movement."
"But this darkness?"
"It hides our preparations, and will be dispersed only
when they are finished. Take care to have all our weapons
close at hand. Perhaps we may have to fire; so we
have one shot in the rifle; four for the two muskets;
twelve in the two revolvers; or seventeen in all, which
might be fired in a quarter of a minute. But perhaps we
shall not have to resort to all this noisy work. Are you
ready?"
"We're ready," responded Joe.
The sacks were placed as requested, and the arms
were put in good order.
"Very good!" said the doctor. "Have an eye to
every thing. Joe will see to throwing out the ballast,
and Dick will carry off the prisoner; but let nothing be
done until I give the word. Joe will first detach the
anchor, and then quickly make his way back to the car."
Joe let himself slide down by the rope; and, in a few
moments, reappeared at his post; while the balloon, thus
liberated, hung almost motionless in the air.
In the mean time the doctor assured himself of the
presence of a sufficient quantity of gas in the mixing-tank
to feed the cylinder, if necessary, without there being any
need of resorting for some time to the Buntzen battery.
He then took out the two perfectly-isolated conducting-wires,
which served for the decomposition of the water, and,
searching in his travelling-sack, brought forth two pieces
of charcoal, cut down to a sharp point, and fixed one at
the end of each wire.
His two friends looked on, without knowing what he
was about, but they kept perfectly silent. When the doctor
had finished, he stood up erect in the car, and, taking
the two pieces of charcoal, one in each hand, drew their
points nearly together.
In a twinkling, an intense and dazzling light was
produced, with an insupportable glow between the two
pointed ends of charcoal, and a huge jet of electric
radiance literally broke the darkness of the night.
"Oh!" ejaculated the astonished friends.
"Not a word!" cautioned the doctor.

 

 

 

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