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Chapter 2


Those whom the hurricane had just thrown on this coast were neither
aeronauts by profession nor amateurs. They were prisoners of war whose
boldness had induced them to escape in this extraordinary manner.

A hundred times they had almost perished! A hundred times had they almost
fallen from their torn balloon into the depths of the ocean. But Heaven had
reserved them for a strange destiny, and after having, on the 20th of
March, escaped from Richmond, besieged by the troops of General Ulysses
Grant, they found themselves seven thousand miles from the capital of
Virginia, which was the principal stronghold of the South, during the
terrible War of Secession. Their aerial voyage had lasted five days.

The curious circumstances which led to the escape of the prisoners were
as follows:

That same year, in the month of February, 1865, in one of the coups de
main by which General Grant attempted, though in vain, to possess himself
of Richmond, several of his officers fell into the power of the enemy and
were detained in the town. One of the most distinguished was Captain Cyrus
Harding. He was a native of Massachusetts, a first-class engineer, to whom
the government had confided, during the war, the direction of the railways,
which were so important at that time. A true Northerner, thin, bony, lean,
about forty-five years of age; his close-cut hair and his beard, of which
he only kept a thick mustache, were already getting gray. He had one-of
those finely-developed heads which appear made to be struck on a medal,
piercing eyes, a serious mouth, the physiognomy of a clever man of the
military school. He was one of those engineers who began by handling the
hammer and pickaxe, like generals who first act as common soldiers. Besides
mental power, he also possessed great manual dexterity. His muscles
exhibited remarkable proofs of tenacity. A man of action as well as a man
of thought, all he did was without effort to one of his vigorous and
sanguine temperament. Learned, clear-headed, and practical, he fulfilled in
all emergencies those three conditions which united ought to insure human
success--activity of mind and body, impetuous wishes, and powerful will. He
might have taken for his motto that of William of Orange in the 17th
century: "I can undertake and persevere even without hope of success."
Cyrus Harding was courage personified. He had been in all the battles of
that war. After having begun as a volunteer at Illinois, under Ulysses
Grant, he fought at Paducah, Belmont, Pittsburg Landing, at the siege of
Corinth, Port Gibson, Black River, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, on the
Potomac, everywhere and valiantly, a soldier worthy of the general who
said, "I never count my dead!" And hundreds of times Captain Harding had
almost been among those who were not counted by the terrible Grant; but in
these combats where he never spared himself, fortune favored him till the
moment when he was wounded and taken prisoner on the field of battle near
Richmond. At the same time and on the same day another important personage
fell into the hands of the Southerners. This was no other than Gideon
Spilen, a reporter for the New York Herald, who had been ordered to follow
the changes of the war in the midst of the Northern armies.

Gideon Spilett was one of that race of indomitable English or American
chroniclers, like Stanley and others, who stop at nothing to obtain exact
information, and transmit it to their journal in the shortest possible
time. The newspapers of the Union, such as the New York Herald, are genuine
powers, and their reporters are men to be reckoned with. Gideon Spilett
ranked among the first of those reporters: a man of great merit, energetic,
prompt and ready for anything, full of ideas, having traveled over the
whole world, soldier and artist, enthusiastic in council, resolute in
action, caring neither for trouble, fatigue, nor danger, when in pursuit of
information, for himself first, and then for his journal, a perfect
treasury of knowledge on all sorts of curious subjects, of the unpublished,
of the unknown, and of the impossible. He was one of those intrepid
observers who write under fire, "reporting" among bullets, and to whom
every danger is welcome.

He also had been in all the battles, in the first rank, revolver in one
hand, note-book in the other; grape-shot never made his pencil tremble. He
did not fatigue the wires with incessant telegrams, like those who speak
when they have nothing to say, but each of his notes, short, decisive, and
clear, threw light on some important point. Besides, he was not wanting in
humor. It was he who, after the affair of the Black River, determined at
any cost to keep his place at the wicket of the telegraph office, and after
having announced to his journal the result of the battle, telegraphed for
two hours the first chapters of the Bible. It cost the New York Herald two
thousand dollars, but the New York Herald published the first intelligence.

Gideon Spilett was tall. He was rather more than forty years of age.
Light whiskers bordering on red surrounded his face. His eye was steady,
lively, rapid in its changes. It was the eye of a man accustomed to take in
at a glance all the details of a scene. Well built, he was inured to all
climates, like a bar of steel hardened in cold water.

For ten years Gideon Spilett had been the reporter of the New York
Herald, which he enriched by his letters and drawings, for he was as
skilful in the use of the pencil as of the pen. When be was captured, he
was in the act of making a description and sketch of the battle. The last
words in his note-book were these: "A Southern rifleman has just taken aim
at me, but--" The Southerner notwithstanding missed Gideon Spilett, who,
with his usual fortune, came out of this affair without a scratch.

Cyrus Harding and Gideon Spilett, who did not know each other except by
reputation, had both been carried to Richmond. The engineer's wounds
rapidly healed, and it was during his convalescence that he made
acquaintance with the reporter. The two men then learned to appreciate each
other. Soon their common aim had but one object, that of escaping,
rejoining Grant's army, and fighting together in the ranks of the Federals.

The two Americans had from the first determined to seize every chance;
but although they were allowed to wander at liberty in the town, Richmond
was so strictly guarded, that escape appeared impossible. In the meanwhile
Captain Harding was rejoined by a servant who was devoted to him in life
and in death. This intrepid fellow was a Negro born on the engineer's
estate, of a slave father and mother, but to whom Cyrus, who was an
Abolitionist from conviction and heart, had long since given his freedom.
The once slave, though free, would not leave his master. He would have died
for him. He was a man of about thirty, vigorous, active, clever,
intelligent, gentle, and calm, sometimes naive, always merry, obliging, and
honest. His name was Nebuchadnezzar, but he only answered to the familiar
abbreviation of Neb.

When Neb heard that his master had been made prisoner, he left
Massachusetts without hesitating an instant, arrived before Richmond, and
by dint of stratagem and shrewdness, after having risked his life twenty
times over, managed to penetrate into the besieged town. The pleasure of
Harding on seeing his servant, and the joy of Neb at finding his master,
can scarcely be described.

But though Neb had been able to make his way into Richmond, it was quite
another thing to get out again, for the Northern prisoners were very
strictly watched. Some extraordinary opportunity was needed to make the
attempt with any chance of success, and this opportunity not only did not
present itself, but was very difficult to find.

Meanwhile Grant continued his energetic operations. The victory of
Petersburg had been very dearly bought. His forces, united to those of
Butler, had as yet been unsuccessful before Richmond, and nothing gave the
prisoners any hope of a speedy deliverance.

The reporter, to whom his tedious captivity did not offer a single
incident worthy of note, could stand it no longer. His usually active mind
was occupied with one sole thought--how he might get out of Richmond at any
cost. Several times had he even made the attempt, but was stopped by some
insurmountable obstacle. However, the siege continued; and if the prisoners
were anxious to escape and join Grant's army, certain of the besieged were
no less anxious to join the Southern forces. Among them was one Jonathan
Forster, a determined Southerner. The truth was, that if the prisoners of
the Secessionists could not leave the town, neither could the Secessionists
themselves while the Northern army invested it. The Governor of Richmond
for a long time had been unable to communicate with General Lee, and he
very much wished to make known to him the situation of the town, so as to
hasten the march of the army to their relief. Thus Jonathan Forster
accordingly conceived the idea of rising in a balloon, so as to pass over
the besieging lines, and in that way reach the Secessionist camp.

The Governor authorized the attempt. A balloon was manufactured and
placed at the disposal of Forster, who was to be accompanied by five other
persons. They were furnished with arms in case they might have to defend
themselves when they alighted, and provisions in the event of their aerial
voyage being prolonged.

The departure of the balloon was fixed for the 18th of March. It should
be effected during the night, with a northwest wind of moderate force, and
the aeronauts calculated that they would reach General Lee's camp in a few

But this northwest wind was not a simple breeze. From the 18th it was
evident that it was changing to a hurricane. The tempest soon became such
that Forster's departure was deferred, for it was impossible to risk the
balloon and those whom it carried in the midst of the furious elements.

The balloon, inflated on the great square of Richmond, was ready to
depart on the first abatement of the wind, and, as may be supposed, the
impatience among the besieged to see the storm moderate was very great.

The 18th, the 19th of March passed without any alteration in the weather.
There was even great difficulty in keeping the balloon fastened to the
ground, as the squalls dashed it furiously about.

The night of the 19th passed, but the next morning the storm blew with
redoubled force. The departure of the balloon was impossible.

On that day the engineer, Cyrus Harding, was accosted in one of the
streets of Richmond by a person whom he did not in the least know. This was
a sailor named Pencroft, a man of about thirty-five or forty years of age,
strongly built, very sunburnt, and possessed of a pair of bright sparkling
eyes and a remarkably good physiognomy. Pencroft was an American from the
North, who had sailed all the ocean over, and who had gone through every
possible and almost impossible adventure that a being with two feet and no
wings would encounter. It is needless to say that he was a bold, dashing
fellow, ready to dare anything and was astonished at nothing. Pencroft at
the beginning of the year had gone to Richmond on business, with a young
boy of fifteen from New Jersey, son of a former captain, an orphan, whom he
loved as if he had been his own child. Not having been able to leave the
town before the first operations of the siege, he found himself shut up, to
his great disgust; but, not accustomed to succumb to difficulties, he
resolved to escape by some means or other. He knew the engineer-officer by
reputation; he knew with what impatience that determined man chafed under
his restraint. On this day he did not, therefore, hesitate to accost him,
saying, without circumlocution, "Have you had enough of Richmond, captain?"

The engineer looked fixedly at the man who spoke, and who added, in a low

"Captain Harding, will you try to escape?"

"When?" asked the engineer quickly, and it was evident that this question
was uttered without consideration, for he had not yet examined the stranger
who addressed him. But after having with a penetrating eye observed the
open face of the sailor, he was convinced that he had before him an honest

"Who are you?" he asked briefly.

Pencroft made himself known.

"Well," replied Harding, "and in what way do you propose to escape?"

"By that lazy balloon which is left there doing nothing, and which looks
to me as if it was waiting on purpose for us--"

There was no necessity for the sailor to finish his sentence. The
engineer understood him at once. He seized Pencroft by the arm, and dragged
him to his house. There the sailor developed his project, which was indeed
extremely simple. They risked nothing but their lives in its execution. The
hurricane was in all its violence, it is true, but so clever and daring an
engineer as Cyrus Harding knew perfectly well how to manage a balloon. Had
he himself been as well acquainted with the art of sailing in the air as he
was with the navigation of a ship, Pencroft would not have hesitated to set
out, of course taking his young friend Herbert with him; for, accustomed to
brave the fiercest tempests of the ocean, he was not to be hindered on
account of the hurricane.

Captain Harding had listened to the sailor without saying a word, but his
eyes shone with satisfaction. Here was the long-sought-for opportunity--he
was not a man to let it pass. The plan was feasible, though, it must be
confessed, dangerous in the extreme. In the night, in spite of their
guards, they might approach the balloon, slip into the car, and then cut
the cords which held it. There was no doubt that they might be killed, but
on the other hand they might succeed, and without this storm!--Without
this storm the balloon would have started already and the looked-for
opportunity would not have then presented itself.

"I am not alone!" said Harding at last.

"How many people do you wish to bring with you?" asked the sailor.

"Two; my friend Spilett, and my servant Neb."

"That will be three," replied Pencroft; "and with Herbert and me five.
But the balloon will hold six--"

"That will be enough, we will go," answered Harding in a firm voice.

This "we" included Spilett, for the reporter, as his friend well knew,
was not a man to draw back, and when the project was communicated to him he
approved of it unreservedly. What astonished him was, that so simple an
idea had not occurred to him before. As to Neb, he followed his master
wherever his master wished to go.

"This evening, then," said Pencroft, "we will all meet out there."

"This evening, at ten o'clock," replied Captain Harding; "and Heaven
grant that the storm does not abate before our departure.

Pencroft took leave of the two friends, and returned to his lodging,
where young Herbert Brown had remained. The courageous boy knew of the
sailor's plan, and it was not without anxiety that he awaited the result of
the proposal being made to the engineer. Thus five determined persons were
about to abandon themselves to the mercy of the tempestuous elements!

No! the storm did not abate, and neither Jonathan Forster nor his
companions dreamed of confronting it in that frail car.

It would be a terrible journey. The engineer only feared one thing; it
was that the balloon, held to the ground and dashed about by the wind,
would be torn into shreds. For several hours he roamed round the nearly-
deserted square, surveying the apparatus. Pencroft did the same on his
side, his hands in his pockets, yawning now and then like a man who did not
know how to kill the time, but really dreading, like his friend, either the
escape or destruction of the balloon. Evening arrived. The night was dark
in the extreme. Thick mists passed like clouds close to the ground. Rain
fell mingled with snow. it was very cold. A mist hung over Richmond. it
seemed as if the violent storm had produced a truce between the besiegers
and the besieged, and that the cannon were silenced by the louder
detonations of the storm. The streets of the town were deserted. It had not
even appeared necessary in that horrible weather to place a guard in the
square, in the midst of which plunged the balloon. Everything favored the
departure of the prisoners, but what might possibly be the termination of
the hazardous voyage they contemplated in the midst of the furious

"Dirty weather!" exclaimed Pencroft, fixing his hat firmly on his head
with a blow of his fist; "but pshaw, we shall succeed all the same!"

At half-past nine, Harding and his companions glided from different
directions into the square, which the gas-lamps, extinguished by the wind,
had left in total obscurity. Even the enormous balloon, almost beaten to
the ground, could not be seen. Independently of the sacks of ballast, to
which the cords of the net were fastened, the car was held by a strong
cable passed through a ring in the pavement. The five prisoners met by the
car. They had not been perceived, and such was the darkness that they could
not even see each other.

Without speaking a word, Harding, Spilett, Neb, and Herbert took their
places in the car, while Pencroft by the engineer's order detached
successively the bags of ballast. It was the work of a few minutes only,
and the sailor rejoined his companions.

The balloon was then only held by the cable, and the engineer had nothing
to do but to give the word.

At that moment a dog sprang with a bound into the car. It was Top, a
favorite of the engineer. The faithful creature, having broken his chain,
had followed his master. He, however, fearing that its additional weight
might impede their ascent, wished to send away the animal.

"One more will make but little difference, poor beast!" exclaimed
Pencroft, heaving out two bags of sand, and as he spoke letting go the
cable; the balloon ascending in an oblique direction, disappeared, after
having dashed the car against two chimneys, which it threw down as it swept
by them.

Then, indeed, the full rage of the hurricane was exhibited to the
voyagers. During the night the engineer could not dream of descending, and
when day broke, even a glimpse of the earth below was intercepted by fog.

Five days had passed when a partial clearing allowed them to see the wide
extending ocean beneath their feet, now lashed into the maddest fury by the

Our readers will recollect what befell these five daring individuals who
set out on their hazardous expedition in the balloon on the 20th of March.
Five days afterwards four of them were thrown on a desert coast, seven
thousand miles from their country! But one of their number was missing, the
man who was to be their guide, their leading spirit, the engineer, Captain
Harding! The instant they had recovered their feet, they all hurried to the
beach in the hopes of rendering him assistance.

Jules Verne