The distance made by the balloon during the preceding
day did not exceed ten miles, and, to keep it afloat,
one hundred and sixty-two cubic feet of gas had been
consumed.
On Saturday morning the doctor again gave the signal
for departure.
"The cylinder can work only six hours longer; and,
if in that time we shall not have found either a well or a
spring of water, God alone knows what will become of us!"
"Not much wind this morning, master," said Joe; "but
it will come up, perhaps," he added, suddenly remarking
the doctor's ill-concealed depression.
Vain hope! The atmosphere was in a dead calm--one
of those calms which hold vessels captive in tropical seas.
The heat had become intolerable; and the thermometer,
in the shade under the awning, indicated one hundred
and thirteen degrees.
Joe and Kennedy, reclining at full length near each
other, tried, if not in slumber, at least in torpor, to forget
their situation, for their forced inactivity gave them
periods of leisure far from pleasant. That man is to be
pitied the most who cannot wean himself from gloomy
reflections by actual work, or some practical pursuit. But
here there was nothing to look after, nothing to undertake,
and they had to submit to the situation, without
having it in their power to ameliorate it.
The pangs of thirst began to be severely felt; brandy,
far from appeasing this imperious necessity, augmented
it, and richly merited the name of "tiger's milk" applied
to it by the African natives. Scarcely two pints of water
remained, and that was heated. Each of the party devoured
the few precious drops with his gaze, yet neither
of them dared to moisten his lips with them. Two pints
of water in the midst of the desert!
Then it was that Dr. Ferguson, buried in meditation,
asked himself whether he had acted with prudence.
Would he not have done better to have kept the water
that he had decomposed in pure loss, in order to sustain
him in the air? He had gained a little distance, to be
sure; but was he any nearer to his journey's end? What
difference did sixty miles to the rear make in this region,
when there was no water to be had where they were?
The wind, should it rise, would blow there as it did here,
only less strongly at this point, if it came from the east.
But hope urged him onward. And yet those two gallons
of water, expended in vain, would have sufficed for nine
days' halt in the desert. And what changes might not
have occurred in nine days! Perhaps, too, while retaining
the water, he might have ascended by throwing out
ballast, at the cost merely of discharging some gas, when
he had again to descend. But the gas in his balloon was
his blood, his very life!
A thousand one such reflections whirled in succession
through his brain; and, resting his head between his
hands, he sat there for hours without raising it.
"We must make one final effort," he said, at last,
about ten o'clock in the morning. "We must endeavor,
just once more, to find an atmospheric current to bear us
away from here, and, to that end, must risk our last
resources."
Therefore, while his companions slept, the doctor raised
the hydrogen in the balloon to an elevated temperature,
and the huge globe, filling out by the dilation of the gas,
rose straight up in the perpendicular rays of the sun.
The doctor searched vainly for a breath of wind, from the
height of one hundred feet to that of five miles; his
starting-point remained fatally right below him, and absolute
calm seemed to reign, up to the extreme limits of the
breathing atmosphere.
At length the feeding-supply of water gave out; the
cylinder was extinguished for lack of gas; the Buntzen
battery ceased to work, and the balloon, shrinking together,
gently descended to the sand, in the very place
that the car had hollowed out there.
It was noon; and solar observations gave nineteen
degrees thirty-five minutes east longitude, and six degrees
fifty-one minutes north latitude, or nearly five hundred
miles from Lake Tchad, and more than four hundred miles
from the western coast of Africa.
On the balloon taking ground, Kennedy and Joe awoke
from their stupor.
"We have halted," said the Scot.
"We had to do so," replied the doctor, gravely.
His companions understood him. The level of the soil at
that point corresponded with the level of the sea, and,
consequently, the balloon remained in perfect equilibrium,
and absolutely motionless.
The weight of the three travellers was replaced with
an equivalent quantity of sand, and they got out of the
car. Each was absorbed in his own thoughts; and for
many hours neither of them spoke. Joe prepared their
evening meal, which consisted of biscuit and pemmican,
and was hardly tasted by either of the party. A mouthful
of scalding water from their little store completed this
gloomy repast.
During the night none of them kept awake; yet none
could be precisely said to have slept. On the morrow
there remained only half a pint of water, and this the
doctor put away, all three having resolved not to touch it
until the last extremity.
It was not long, however, before Joe exclaimed:
"I'm choking, and the heat is getting worse! I'm
not surprised at that, though," he added, consulting the
thermometer; "one hundred and forty degrees!"
"The sand scorches me," said the hunter, "as though
it had just come out of a furnace; and not a cloud in this
sky of fire. It's enough to drive one mad!"
"Let us not despair," responded the doctor. "In this
latitude these intense heats are invariably followed by
storms, and the latter come with the suddenness of lightning.
Notwithstanding this disheartening clearness of
the sky, great atmospheric changes may take place in less
than an hour."
"But," asked Kennedy, "is there any sign whatever
of that?"
"Well," replied the doctor, "I think that there is
some slight symptom of a fall in the barometer."
"May Heaven hearken to you, Samuel! for here we are
pinned to the ground, like a bird with broken wings."
"With this difference, however, my dear Dick, that
our wings are unhurt, and I hope that we shall be able to
use them again."
"Ah! wind! wind!" exclaimed Joe; "enough to
carry us to a stream or a well, and we'll be all right.
We have provisions enough, and, with water, we could
wait a month without suffering; but thirst is a cruel
thing!"
It was not thirst alone, but the unchanging sight of the
desert, that fatigued the mind. There was not a variation
in the surface of the soil, not a hillock of sand, not a
pebble, to relieve the gaze. This unbroken level discouraged
the beholder, and gave him that kind of malady
called the "desert-sickness." The impassible monotony
of the arid blue sky, and the vast yellow expanse of the
desert-sand, at length produced a sensation of terror. In
this inflamed atmosphere the heat appeared to vibrate
as it does above a blazing hearth, while the mind grew
desperate in contemplating the limitless calm, and could
see no reason why the thing should ever end, since immensity
is a species of eternity.
Thus, at last, our hapless travellers, deprived of water
in this torrid heat, began to feel symptoms of mental disorder.
Their eyes swelled in their sockets, and their gaze
became confused.
When night came on, the doctor determined to combat
this alarming tendency by rapid walking. His idea
was to pace the sandy plain for a few hours, not in search
of any thing, but simply for exercise.
"Come along!" he said to his companions; "believe
me, it will do you good."
"Out of the question!" said Kennedy; "I could not
walk a step."
"And I," said Joe, "would rather sleep!"
"But sleep, or even rest, would be dangerous to you,
my friends; you must react against this tendency to
stupor. Come with me!"
But the doctor could do nothing with them, and, therefore,
set off alone, amid the starry clearness of the night.
The first few steps he took were painful, for they were
the steps of an enfeebled man quite out of practice in
walking. However, he quickly saw that the exercise
would be beneficial to him, and pushed on several miles
to the westward. Once in rapid motion, he felt his spirits
greatly cheered, when, suddenly, a vertigo came over him;
he seemed to be poised on the edge of an abyss; his knees
bent under him; the vast solitude struck terror to his
heart; he found himself the minute mathematical point,
the centre of an infinite circumference, that is to say--a
nothing! The balloon had disappeared entirely in the
deepening gloom. The doctor, cool, impassible, reckless
explorer that he was, felt himself at last seized with a
nameless dread. He strove to retrace his steps, but in
vain. He called aloud. Not even an echo replied, and
his voice died out in the empty vastness of surrounding
space, like a pebble cast into a bottomless gulf; then,
down he sank, fainting, on the sand, alone, amid the eternal
silence of the desert.
At midnight he came to, in the arms of his faithful
follower, Joe. The latter, uneasy at his master's prolonged
absence, had set out after him, easily tracing him
by the clear imprint of his feet in the sand, and had found
him lying in a swoon.
"What has been the matter, sir?" was the first inquiry.
"Nothing, Joe, nothing! Only a touch of weakness,
that's all. It's over now."
"Oh! it won't amount to any thing, sir, I'm sure of
that; but get up on your feet, if you can. There! lean
upon me, and let us get back to the balloon."
And the doctor, leaning on Joe's arm, returned along
the track by which he had come.
"You were too bold, sir; it won't do to run such
risks. You might have been robbed," he added, laughing.
"But, sir, come now, let us talk seriously."
"Speak! I am listening to you."
"We must positively make up our minds to do something.
Our present situation cannot last more than a few
days longer, and if we get no wind, we are lost."
The doctor made no reply.
"Well, then, one of us must sacrifice himself for the
good of all, and it is most natural that it should fall to me
to do so."
"What have you to propose? What is your plan?"
"A very simple one! It is to take provisions enough,
and to walk right on until I come to some place, as I must
do, sooner or later. In the mean time, if Heaven sends
you a good wind, you need not wait, but can start again.
For my part, if I come to a village, I'll work my way
through with a few Arabic words that you can write for
me on a slip of paper, and I'll bring you help or lose my
hide. What do you think of my plan?"
"It is absolute folly, Joe, but worthy of your noble
heart. The thing is impossible. You will not leave us."
"But, sir, we must do something, and this plan can't
do you any harm, for, I say again, you need not wait;
and then, after all, I may succeed."
"No, Joe, no! We will not separate. That would
only be adding sorrow to trouble. It was written that
matters should be as they are; and it is very probably
written that it shall be quite otherwise by-and-by. Let
us wait, then, with resignation."
"So be it, master; but take notice of one thing: I
give you a day longer, and I'll not wait after that. To-day
is Sunday; we might say Monday, as it is one o'clock
in the morning, and if we don't get off by Tuesday, I'll
run the risk. I've made up my mind to that!"
The doctor made no answer, and in a few minutes they
got back to the car, where he took his place beside Kennedy,
who lay there plunged in silence so complete that
it could not be considered sleep.

 

 

 

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