Again, those perils avoided, the force of the tempest might hurl us to the ground, were we to cast our anchor in the tree-tops."
"Then what shall we do?"
"Well, we must try to get the balloon into a medium zone of the atmosphere, and there keep her suspended between the perils of the heavens and those of the earth. We have enough water for the cylinder, and our two hundred pounds of ballast are untouched. In case of emergency I can use them."
"We will keep watch with you," said the hunter.
"No, my friends, put the provisions under shelter, and lie down; I will rouse you, if it becomes necessary."
"But, master, wouldn't you do well to take some rest yourself, as there's no danger close on us just now?" insisted poor Joe.
"No, thank you, my good fellow, I prefer to keep awake. We are not moving, and should circumstances not change, we'll find ourselves to-morrow in exactly the same place."
"Good-night, then, sir!"
"Good-night, if you can only find it so!"
Kennedy and Joe stretched themselves out under their blankets, and the doctor remained alone in the immensity of space.
However, the huge dome of clouds visibly descended, and the darkness became profound. The black vault closed in upon the earth as if to crush it in its embrace.
All at once a violent, rapid, incisive flash of lightning pierced the gloom, and the rent it made had not closed ere a frightful clap of thunder shook the celestial depths.
"Up! up! turn out!" shouted Ferguson.
The two sleepers, aroused by the terrible concussion, were at the doctor's orders in a moment.
"Shall we descend?" said Kennedy.
"No! the balloon could not stand it. Let us go up before those clouds dissolve in water, and the wind is let loose!" and, so saying, the doctor actively stirred up the flame of the cylinder, and turned it on the spirals of the serpentine siphon.
The tempests of the tropics develop with a rapidity equalled only by their violence. A second flash of lightning rent the darkness, and was followed by a score of others in quick succession. The sky was crossed and dotted, like the zebra's hide, with electric sparks, which danced and flickered beneath the great drops of rain.
"We have delayed too long," exclaimed the doctor; "we must now pass through a zone of fire, with our balloon filled as it is with inflammable gas!"
"But let us descend, then! let us descend!" urged Kennedy.
"The risk of being struck would be just about even, and we should soon be torn to pieces by the branches of the trees!"
"We are going up, doctor!"
"Quicker, quicker still!"
In this part of Africa, during the equatorial storms, it is not rare to count from thirty to thirty-five flashes of lightning per minute. The sky is literally on fire, and the crashes of thunder are continuous.
The wind burst forth with frightful violence in this burning atmosphere; it twisted the blazing clouds; one might have compared it to the breath of some gigantic bellows, fanning all this conflagration.
Dr. Ferguson kept his cylinder at full heat, and the balloon dilated and went up, while Kennedy, on his knees, held together the curtains of the awning. The balloon whirled round wildly enough to make their heads turn, and the aeronauts got some very alarming jolts, indeed, as their machine swung and swayed in all directions. Huge cavities would form in the silk of the balloon as the wind fiercely bent it in, and the stuff fairly cracked like a pistol as it flew back from the pressure. A sort of hail, preceded by a rumbling noise, hissed through the air and rattled on the covering of the Victoria. The latter, however, continued to ascend, while the lightning described tangents to the convexity of her circumference; but she bore on, right through the midst of the fire.
"God protect us!" said Dr. Ferguson, solemnly, "we are in His hands; He alone can save us--but let us be ready for every event, even for fire--our fall could not be very rapid."
The doctor's voice could scarcely be heard by his companions; but they could see his countenance calm as ever even amid the flashing of the lightnings; he was watching the phenomena of phosphorescence produced by the fires of St.