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Chapter 1


PART 1 - DROPPED FROM THE CLOUDS


CHAPTER 1

"Are we rising again?" "No. On the contrary." "Are we descending?" "Worse
than that, captain! we are falling!" "For Heaven's sake heave out the
ballast!" "There! the last sack is empty!" "Does the balloon rise?" "No!"
"I hear a noise like the dashing of waves. The sea is below the car! It
cannot be more than 500 feet from us!" "Overboard with every weight!
...everything!"

Such were the loud and startling words which resounded through the air,
above the vast watery desert of the Pacific, about four o'clock in the
evening of the 23rd of March, 1865.

Few can possibly have forgotten the terrible storm from the northeast, in
the middle of the equinox of that year. The tempest raged without
intermission from the 18th to the 26th of March. Its ravages were terrible
in America, Europe, and Asia, covering a distance of eighteen hundred
miles, and extending obliquely to the equator from the thirty-fifth north
parallel to the fortieth south parallel. Towns were overthrown, forests
uprooted, coasts devastated by the mountains of water which were
precipitated on them, vessels cast on the shore, which the published
accounts numbered by hundreds, whole districts leveled by waterspouts which
destroyed everything they passed over, several thousand people crushed on
land or drowned at sea; such were the traces of its fury, left by this
devastating tempest. It surpassed in disasters those which so frightfully
ravaged Havana and Guadalupe, one on the 25th of October, 1810, the other
on the 26th of July, 1825.

But while so many catastrophes were taking place on land and at sea, a
drama not less exciting was being enacted in the agitated air.

In fact, a balloon, as a ball might be carried on the summit of a
waterspout, had been taken into the circling movement of a column of air
and had traversed space at the rate of ninety miles an hour, turning round
and round as if seized by some aerial maelstrom.

Beneath the lower point of the balloon swung a car, containing five
passengers, scarcely visible in the midst of the thick vapor mingled with
spray which hung over the surface of the ocean.

Whence, it may be asked, had come that plaything of the tempest? From
what part of the world did it rise? It surely could not have started during
the storm. But the storm had raged five days already, and the first
symptoms were manifested on the 18th. It cannot be doubted that the balloon
came from a great distance, for it could not have traveled less than two
thousand miles in twenty-four hours.

At any rate the passengers, destitute of all marks for their guidance,
could not have possessed the means of reckoning the route traversed since
their departure. It was a remarkable fact that, although in the very midst
of the furious tempest, they did not suffer from it. They were thrown about
and whirled round and round without feeling the rotation in the slightest
degree, or being sensible that they were removed from a horizontal
position.

Their eyes could not pierce through the thick mist which had gathered
beneath the car. Dark vapor was all around them. Such was the density of
the atmosphere that they could not be certain whether it was day or night.
No reflection of light, no sound from inhabited land, no roaring of the
ocean could have reached them, through the obscurity, while suspended in
those elevated zones. Their rapid descent alone had informed them of the
dangers which they ran from the waves. However, the balloon, lightened of
heavy articles, such as ammunition, arms, and provisions, had risen into
the higher layers of the atmosphere, to a height of 4,500 feet. The
voyagers, after having discovered that the sea extended beneath them, and
thinking the dangers above less dreadful than those below, did not hesitate
to throw overboard even their most useful articles, while they endeavored
to lose no more of that fluid, the life of their enterprise, which
sustained them above the abyss.

The night passed in the midst of alarms which would have been death to
less energetic souls. Again the day appeared and with it the tempest began
to moderate. From the beginning of that day, the 24th of March, it showed
symptoms of abating. At dawn, some of the lighter clouds had risen into the
more lofty regions of the air. In a few hours the wind had changed from a
hurricane to a fresh breeze, that is to say, the rate of the transit of the
atmospheric layers was diminished by half. It was still what sailors call
"a close-reefed topsail breeze," but the commotion in the elements had none
the less considerably diminished.

Towards eleven o'clock, the lower region of the air was sensibly clearer.
The atmosphere threw off that chilly dampness which is felt after the
passage of a great meteor. The storm did not seem to have gone farther to
the west. It appeared to have exhausted itself. Could it have passed away
in electric sheets, as is sometimes the case with regard to the typhoons of
the Indian Ocean?

But at the same time, it was also evident that the balloon was again
slowly descending with a regular movement. It appeared as if it were,
little by little, collapsing, and that its case was lengthening and
extending, passing from a spherical to an oval form. Towards midday the
balloon was hovering above the sea at a height of only 2,000 feet. It
contained 50,000 cubic feet of gas, and, thanks to its capacity, it could
maintain itself a long time in the air, although it should reach a great
altitude or might be thrown into a horizontal position.

Perceiving their danger, the passengers cast away the last articles which
still weighed down the car, the few provisions they had kept, everything,
even to their pocket-knives, and one of them, having hoisted himself on to
the circles which united the cords of the net, tried to secure more firmly
the lower point of the balloon.

It was, however, evident to the voyagers that the gas was failing, and
that the balloon could no longer be sustained in the higher regions. They
must infallibly perish!

There was not a continent, nor even an island, visible beneath them. The
watery expanse did not present a single speck of land, not a solid surface
upon which their anchor could hold.

It was the open sea, whose waves were still dashing with tremendous
violence! It was the ocean, without any visible limits, even for those
whose gaze, from their commanding position, extended over a radius of forty
miles. The vast liquid plain, lashed without mercy by the storm, appeared
as if covered with herds of furious chargers, whose white and disheveled
crests were streaming in the wind. No land was in sight, not a solitary
ship could be seen. It was necessary at any cost to arrest their downward
course, and to prevent the balloon from being engulfed in the waves. The
voyagers directed all their energies to this urgent work. But,
notwithstanding their efforts, the balloon still fell, and at the same time
shifted with the greatest rapidity, following the direction of the wind,
that is to say, from the northeast to the southwest.

Frightful indeed was the situation of these unfortunate men. They were
evidently no longer masters of the machine. All their attempts were
useless. The case of the balloon collapsed more and more. The gas escaped
without any possibility of retaining it. Their descent was visibly
accelerated, and soon after midday the car hung within 600 feet of the
ocean.

It was impossible to prevent the escape of gas, which rushed through a
large rent in the silk. By lightening the car of all the articles which it
contained, the passengers had been able to prolong their suspension in the
air for a few hours. But the inevitable catastrophe could only be retarded,
and if land did not appear before night, voyagers, car, and balloon must to
a certainty vanish beneath the waves.

They now resorted to the only remaining expedient. They were truly
dauntless men, who knew how to look death in the face. Not a single murmur
escaped from their lips. They were determined to struggle to the last
minute, to do anything to retard their fall. The car was only a sort of
willow basket, unable to float, and there was not the slightest possibility
of maintaining it on the surface of the sea.

Two more hours passed and the balloon was scarcely 400 feet above the
water.

At that moment a loud voice, the voice of a man whose heart was
inaccessible to fear, was heard. To this voice responded others not less
determined. "Is everything thrown out?" "No, here are still 2,000 dollars
in gold." A heavy bag immediately plunged into the sea. "Does the balloon
rise?" "A little, but it will not be long before it falls again." "What
still remains to be thrown out?" "Nothing." "Yes! the car!" "Let us catch
hold of the net, and into the sea with the car."

This was, in fact, the last and only mode of lightening the balloon. The
ropes which held the car were cut, and the balloon, after its fall, mounted
2,000 feet. The five voyagers had hoisted themselves into the net, and
clung to the meshes, gazing at the abyss.

The delicate sensibility of balloons is well known. It is sufficient to
throw out the lightest article to produce a difference in its vertical
position. The apparatus in the air is like a balance of mathematical
precision. It can be thus easily understood that when it is lightened of
any considerable weight its movement will be impetuous and sudden. So it
happened on this occasion. But after being suspended for an instant aloft,
the balloon began to redescend, the gas escaping by the rent which it was
impossible to repair.

The men had done all that men could do. No human efforts could save them
now.

They must trust to the mercy of Him who rules the elements.

At four o'clock the balloon was only 500 feet above the surface of the
water.

A loud barking was heard. A dog accompanied the voyagers, and was held
pressed close to his master in the meshes of the net.

"Top has seen something," cried one of the men. Then immediately a loud
voice shouted,--

"Land! land!" The balloon, which the wind still drove towards the
southwest, had since daybreak gone a considerable distance, which might be
reckoned by hundreds of miles, and a tolerably high land had, in fact,
appeared in that direction. But this land was still thirty miles off. It
would not take less than an hour to get to it, and then there was the
chance of falling to leeward.

An hour! Might not the balloon before that be emptied of all the fluid it
yet retained?

Such was the terrible question! The voyagers could distinctly see that
solid spot which they must reach at any cost. They were ignorant of what it
was, whether an island or a continent, for they did not know to what part
of the world the hurricane had driven them. But they must reach this land,
whether inhabited or desolate, whether hospitable or not.

It was evident that the balloon could no longer support itself! Several
times already had the crests of the enormous billows licked the bottom of
the net, making it still heavier, and the balloon only half rose, like a
bird with a wounded wing. Half an hour later the land was not more than a
mile off, but the balloon, exhausted, flabby, hanging in great folds, had
gas in its upper part alone. The voyagers, clinging to the net, were still
too heavy for it, and soon, half plunged into the sea, they were beaten by
the furious waves. The balloon-case bulged out again, and the wind, taking
it, drove it along like a vessel. Might it not possibly thus reach the
land?

But, when only two fathoms off, terrible cries resounded from four pairs
of lungs at once. The balloon, which had appeared as if it would never
again rise, suddenly made an unexpected bound, after having been struck by
a tremendous sea. As if it had been at that instant relieved of a new part
of its weight, it mounted to a height of 1,500 feet, and here it met a
current of wind, which instead of taking it directly to the coast, carried
it in a nearly parallel direction.

At last, two minutes later, it reproached obliquely, and finally fell
on a sandy beach, out of the reach of the waves.

The voyagers, aiding each other, managed to disengage themselves from the
meshes of the net. The balloon, relieved of their weight, was taken by the
wind, and like a wounded bird which revives for an instant, disappeared
into space.

But the car had contained five passengers, with a dog, and the balloon
only left four on the shore.

The missing person had evidently been swept off by the sea, which had
just struck the net, and it was owing to this circumstance that the
lightened balloon rose the last time, and then soon after reached the land.
Scarcely had the four castaways set foot on firm ground, than they all,
thinking of the absent one, simultaneously exclaimed, "Perhaps he will try
to swim to land! Let us save him! let us save him!"


Jules Verne