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THE END OF THE VOYAGE
We had lost all control of the wild balloon. It was driven ahead of the wind like a shred of rags, the car trailing behind at a fearful angle, for many of the ropes were broken and all the others were twisted in a hopeless tangle. Nearly all our ballast had fallen into the angry sea beneath us an hour after the storm first caught us in its whirl.
I could hear the ocean roaring and swashing, where its gigantic waves toppled over each other below. The sound must have been tremendous, for the wind blew such a howling gale that neither Ford nor I could make each other hear what we shouted two feet away.
Our hats were gone; Ford’s face was haggard, whenever the lightning revealed him in the gloom. So intense was the darkness that I could not even see the vast bag above us. When a great flash illuminated the heavens, directly ahead, I noted the monster globe full of gas, silhouetted blackly against the glare, and knew it was slightly leaking. A small three-cornered dent was in its side already. I also observed that the sea was hardly more than fifty feet below, churning milk-white foam in its fury out of liquid ebon waves of mountainous size. The sky seemed like a solid bank of black. The darkness that followed the flash absorbed even Ford. Yet I knew that while he clung to the basket with his right hand, as I had done for above an hour, he was nevertheless attempting with his left to heave out the bag of provisions and the blankets. I helped him at this and we rose perceptibly.
Where we were it was absolutely impossible even to guess. That the balloon was driving ahead at more than sixty miles an hour we had long been convinced. This had been the state of affairs throughout the night. I had lost all confidence in Ford’s calculations at the end of the seventeenth hour out from Burma, for the twist which the storm had given us then threw out or broke every reliable instrument we had, leaving not so much as a compass. I was not an aeronaut like Ford, yet I knew we were doomed, unless some change should occur, and that quickly.
Ford, by the light of a flash, had seen a rope which was sawing open a seam in the silk, as it slashed and writhed in the tornado. When another blinding illumination came, I saw him climbing up in the ring to cut this rope away. The car tilted more than before; I fully expected to go hurtling out at every jerk. Suddenly two ropes, worn to a thread, on the ring, parted without the slightest warning. The car gave a lurch and all but turned bottom-side up. I heard a cry, as I swung out full length, suspended by my arms, and was even slightly struck on the foot, as Ford went plunging down. The balloon shot upward, relieved of his weight, and I was alone.
How long I clung there, swinging far out behind the wounded machine, is more than I would dare to say. My arms finally ached so intensely I could scarcely endure the pain. Dangling ropes beat me like knouts, for a time, and then wrapped and twisted about me like coils of a snake. Obviously these must have supported my weight at the last, for in a spell of dizziness and weakness I lost my grip and then was conscious only a second, when I thought, with the utmost unconcern, my end had come. Like a dummy on the tail of a kite, I dragged below the wreck of the car and was whirled thus unconsciously on, above the hungry sea.
It might have been hours, it might have been days after this last moment of despair, when my brain began again to work. I can only describe the sensations which followed as a species of dream. I thought I was dead; it seemed as if my soul, or something, was at perfect rest in a region of loveliness. Whereas I had been chilled through and through by the storm, I was warm now and filled with comfort. Music, which might have been the rustling of leaves or the songs of birds, made itself heard. I could not see for my eyes remained closed; but a sense of delicious odours pervaded my being; I seemed also to float, as if on the air.
At length I opened my eyes. The dream continuing on me still, I lay perfectly quiet, gazing aloft into a sky of matchless beauty. Doubtless I remained in this position for more than half an hour. Then a bright bird flitted across my range of vision, and brought me back to things of earth. I was still bound about by a piece of rope. Everything came back to me sharply,—Ford, my friend, the scientist and daring balloonist, our start, the storm, his hurtling down to death, my own desperation, and then oblivion.
I was whole and sound, apparently. Removing the rope and attempting to sit erect, I found myself floundering for a second, in the top of a tree. The branch I was on let me drop. I fell toward the earth, made a grab for a limb, which somewhat broke my fall, and landed plump on the ground, in the midst of a circle of extraordinary beings.