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- The Land of the Changing Sun - 1/29 -
The Land of the Changing Sun
WILL. N. HARBEN
The balloon seemed scarcely to move, though it was slowly sinking toward the ocean of white clouds which hung between it and the earth.
The two inmates of the car were insensible; their faces were bloodless, their cheeks sunken. They were both young and handsome. Harry Johnston, an American, was as dark and sallow as a Spaniard. Charles Thorndyke, an English gentleman, had yellow hair and mustache, blue eyes and a fine intellectual face. Both were tall, athletic in build and well-proportioned.
Johnston was the first to come to consciousness as the balloon sank into less rarefied atmosphere. He opened his eyes dreamily and looked curiously at the white face of his friend in his lap. Then he shook him and tried to call his name, but his lips made no sound. Drawing himself up a little with a hand on the edge of the basket, he reached for a water-jug and sprinkled Thorndyke's face. In a moment he was rewarded by seeing the eyes of the latter slowly open.
"Where are we?" asked Thorndyke in a whisper.
"I don't know;" Johnston answered, "getting nearer to the earth, for we can breathe more easily. I can't remember much after the professor fell from the car. My God, old man! I shall never forget the horror in the poor fellow's eyes as he clung to the rope down there and begged us to save him. I tried to get you to look, but you were dozing off. I attempted to draw him up, but the rope on the edge of the basket was tipping it, and both you and I came near following him. I tried to keep from seeing his horrible face as the rope began to slip through his fingers. I knew the instant he let go by our shooting upward."
"I came to myself and looked over when the basket tipped," replied the Englishman, "I thought I was going too, but I could not stir a muscle to prevent it. He said something desperately, but the wind blew it away and covered his face with his beard, so that I could not see the movement of his lips."
"It may have been some instructions to us about the management of the balloon."
"I think not--perhaps a good-bye, or a message to his wife and child. Poor fellow!"
"How long have we been out of our heads?" and Johnston looked over the side of the car.
"I have not the slightest idea. Days and nights may have passed since he fell."
"That is true. I remember coming to myself for an instant, and it seemed that we were being jerked along at the rate of a gunshot. My God, it was awful! It was as black as condensed midnight. I felt your warm body against me and was glad I was not alone. Then I went off again, but into a sort of nightmare. I thought I was in Hell, and that you were with me, and that Professor Helmholtz was Satan."
"Where can we be?" asked Thorndyke.
"I don't know; I can't tell what is beneath those clouds. It may be earth, sea or ocean; we were evidently whisked along in a storm while we were out of our heads. If we are above the ocean we are lost."
Thorndyke looked over the edge of the car long and attentively, then he exclaimed suddenly:
"I believe it is the ocean."
"What makes you think so?"
"It reflects the sunlight. It is too bright for land. When we got above the clouds at the start it looked darker below than it does now; we may be over the middle of the Atlantic."
"We are going down," said Johnston gloomily.
"That we are, and it means something serious."
Johnston made no answer. Half-an-hour went by. Thorndyke looked at the sun.
"If the professor had not dropped the compass, we could find our bearings," he sighed.
Johnston pointed upward. Thin clouds were floating above them. "We are almost down," he said, and as they looked over the sides of the car they saw the reflection of the sun on the bosom of the ocean, and, a moment later, they caught sight of the blue billows rising and falling.
"I see something that looks like an island," observed Thorndyke, looking in the direction toward which the balloon seemed to be drifting. "It is dark and is surrounded by light. It is far away, but we may reach it if we do not descend too rapidly."
"Throw out the last bag of sand," suggested the American, "we need it as little now as we ever shall."
Thorndyke cut the bag with his knife and watched the sand filter through the bottom of the basket and trail along in a graceful stream behind the balloon. The great flabby bag overhead steadied itself, rose slightly and drifted on toward the dark spot on the vast expanse of sunlit water. They could now clearly see that it was a small island, not more than a mile in circumference.
"How far is it?" asked Thorndyke.
"About two miles," answered the American laconically, "it is a chance for us, but a slim one."
The balloon gradually sank. For twenty minutes the car glided along not more than two hundred feet above the waves. The island was now quite near. It was a barren mound of stone, worn into gullies and sharp precipices by the action of the waves and rain. Hardly a tree or a shrub was in sight.
"It looks like the rocky crown of a great stone mountain hidden in the ocean," said the Englishman; "half a mile to the shore, a hundred feet to the water; at this rate of speed the wind would smash us against those rocks like a couple of bird's eggs dropped from the clouds. We must fall into the water and swim ashore. There is no use trying to save the balloon."
"We had better be about it, then," said Johnston, rising stiffly and holding to the ropes. "If we should go down in the water with the balloon we would get tangled in the ropes and get asphyxiated with the gas. We had better hang down under the basket and let go at exactly the same time."
The water was not more than forty feet beneath, and the island was getting nearer every instant. The two aeronauts swung over on opposite sides of the car and, face to face, hung by their hands beneath.
"I dread the plunge," muttered Thorndyke; "I feel as weak as a sick kitten; I am not sure that I can swim that distance, but the water looks still enough."
"I am played out too," grunted the American, red in the face; "but it looks like our only chance. Ugh! she made a big dip then. We'd better let go. I'll count three, and three is the signal. Now ready. One, two, three!"
Down shot the balloonists and up bounded the great liberated bag of gas; the basket and dangling ropes swung wildly from side to side. The aeronauts touched the water feet foremost at the same instant, and in half a minute they rose, not ten feet apart.
"Now for it," sputtered Johnston, shaking his bushy head like a swimming dog. "Look, the shore is not very far." Thorndyke was saving his wind, and said nothing, but accommodated his stroke to that of his companion, and thus they breasted the gently- rolling billows until finally, completely exhausted, they climbed up the shelving rocks and lay down in the warm sunshine.
"Not a very encouraging outlook," said Johnston, rising when his clothing was dry and climbing a slight elevation. "There is nothing in sight except a waste of stone. Let's go up to that point and look around."
The ascent was exceedingly trying, for the incline was steep and it was at times difficult to get a firm footing. But they were repaid for the exertion, for they had reached the highest point of the island and could see all over it. As far as their vision reached there was nothing beyond the little island except the glistening waves that reached out till they met the sky in all directions. High up in the clouds they saw the balloon, now steadily drifting with the wind toward the south.
"We might as well be dead and done with it," grumbled Thorndyke. "Ships are not apt to approach this isolated spot, and even if they did, how could we give a signal of distress?"
Johnston stroked his dark beard thoughtfully, then he pointed toward the shore.
"There are some driftwood and seaweed," he said; "with my sun- glass I can soon have a bonfire." He took a piece of punk from a waterproof box that he carried in his pocket and focussed the sun's rays on it. "Run down and bring me an armful of dry seaweed and wood," he added, intent on his work.
Thorndyke clambered down to the shore, and in a few minutes returned with an armful of fuel. Johnston was blowing his punk into a flame, and in a moment had a blazing fire.
"Good," approved the Englishman, rubbing his hands together over
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