- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
"Are we rising again?"
"No! On the contrary! We're going down!"
"Worse than that, Mr. Cyrus! We're falling!"
"For God's sake, throw out the ballast!"
"There! The last sack is empty!"
"Is the balloon going up now?"
"I hear the splashing of waves!"
"The sea is under the basket!"
"It can't be more than five hundred feet below us!"
Then a powerful, booming voice cut through the air:
"Throw everything overboard! ... Everything! We are in God's hands!"
Those were the words that resounded in the sky over the vast watery desert of the Pacific about four o'clock in the evening of March 23, 1865.
No one can forget the terrible northeast storm that erupted during the equinox of that year. The barometer fell to 710 millimeters. It was a storm that lasted from March 18 to 26 with no letup. It ravaged America, Europe, and Asia over a broad zone of 1800 miles along a line intersecting the equator, from the 35th north parallel to the 40th south parallel. Towns were knocked flat, forests uprooted, and shores devastated by tidal waves. Weather bureaus counted hundreds of ships beached along the coast. Entire territories wereleveled by the waterspouts which pulverized everything in their path. Several thousand people were crushed on land or swallowed up by the sea. Such were the marks of fury this horrific storm left in its wake. It surpassed the disasters which had so frightfully ravaged Havana and Guadeloupe, one on October 25, 1810 and the other on July 26, 1825.
At this very moment when so many catastrophes were occurring on land and sea, a drama no less gripping was taking place in the stormy skies.
A balloon, carried like a ball at the top of a waterspout, was traveling through space with a velocity of 90 miles per hour, turning around as if it had been seized by an aerial whirlpool.
A basket swung back and forth below the balloon with five passengers inside, barely visible in the thick fog.
Where did this plaything of the terrible storm come from? From which point on the earth's surface did it arise? Evidently it could not have lifted off during the storm which had already lasted for five days, the first symptoms having been felt on the 18th. In the last 24 hours alone, the balloon had traveled more than 2000 miles.
The passengers had no way of knowing where they were because there were no points of reference. It was a curious fact that they had not suffered from the storm's violence. They were carried along, spinning round and round, without having any sense of this rotation or of their horizontal movement. Their eyes could not pierce the thick fog. Everything was obscured. They could not even say if it was day or night. No reflection of light, no noise, no bellowing of the ocean could reach them so long as they remained at higher altitudes. Their rapid descent alone alerted them to the dangers they faced.
Relieved of heavy objects such as munitions, arms, and provisions, the balloon now rose to a height of 4500 feet. Realizing that the dangers from above were less formidable than those from below, the passengers did not hesitate to throw overboard even the most useful objects as they tried to lose no more of this gas, the soul of their apparatus, which kept them above the abyss.
Night passed with anxieties that would have killed weaker people. From the beginning of March 24, the storm seemed to moderate. At dawn, the clouds rose higher in the sky, and after several hours, the waterspout broke up. The wind, no longer a hurricane, changed to a brisk breeze. It was still what sailors would call "a three-reef breeze," but it was nevertheless an improvement.
About eleven o'clock, the atmosphere became noticeably clearer and the air exuded a damp clarity that is seen and even felt after the passage of such strong weather disturbances. It did not appear that the storm had gone farther westward but had simply died out on its own, perhaps dispersed into electric strata after the breakup of its waterspout, as sometimes occurs with the typhoons of the Indian Ocean.
But it was again evident that the balloon was slowly but constantly falling. It was deflating little by little, and its envelope was elongating and distending, changing from a spherical shape to an oval.
About noon, the balloon hovered no more than 2000 feet above the sea. It contained 50,000 cubic feet of gas and, thanks to this capacity, it had been able to remain in the air for a long time. The passengers now threw overboard the last objects that still weighed them down, several provisions they had kept, everything, even the small knick-knacks in their pockets. Helping each other, they hoisted themselves onto the ring where the ropes were attached, all the while searching for solid ground below.
It was obvious that the passengers could not keep the balloon aloft much longer. Too much gas had escaped.
They were going to die!
There was no continent, not even an island, beneath them—no place to land, no firm surface they could touch down on. There was only an immense ocean whose waves still churned with incomparable violence. It was an ocean without visible limits, even though they could see over a radius of forty miles from their height. It was a liquid plain, battered by the storm without mercy. No land in sight, not even a ship.
They had to keep the balloon, at any price, from dropping into the waves. But, despite their best efforts, the balloon kept falling, sometimes rapidly, while being carried along by the wind from northeast to southwest.
It was a terrible situation for these unfortunate men. They were no longer masters of the balloon. Their efforts had no effect. The envelope of the balloon was stretching more and more. The gas continued to escape, and they could do nothing to keep it in. Their descent was now visibly accelerating and, at one o'clock in the afternoon, the balloon was no more than 600 feet above the ocean.
By throwing out everything in the basket, the passengers were able to keep it in the air for several more hours, but the inevitable catastrophe could not be avoided. If land did not appear before nightfall, the passengers, their basket, and the balloon would no doubt disappear beneath the waves.
They now executed the only maneuver still left to them. These were energetic men who knew how to look death square in the face. Not a single murmur escaped their lips. They would struggle to the last second and do everything they could to delay their fall. The basket was only a wicker box, not intended for floating, and there was no possibility of keeping it afloat on the surface of the sea.
At two o'clock the balloon was scarcely 400 feet above the waves.
At this moment, the voice of a man whose heart knew no fear was heard. Other voices, no less energetic, answered.
"Has everything been thrown out?"
"No! We still have ten thousand francs in gold!"
A weighty sack fell at once into the sea.
"Is the balloon rising now?"
"A little, but it won't be long before it falls again!"
"Is there anything left to throw out?"
"Yes! ... the basket!"
"Let's hang on to the ropes and drop the basket into the sea!"
It was the only way to make the balloon lighter. The cords which connected the basket to the ring were slashed, and the balloon rose to 2000 feet. The five passengers hoisted themselves onto the ropes above the ring and, holding on to the balloon's rigging, they looked down at the abyss below them. The aerostatic sensitivity of balloons is well known and throwing out the lightest objects suffices to induce an immediate vertical rise. The apparatus, floating in the air, behaves like a highly accurate set of scales. When a weight is removed, its displacement is significant and instantaneous. So it was on this occasion.
But after maintaining its equilibrium for an instant at a higher altitude, the balloon soon began to fall again. The gas was escaping through a tear that was impossible to repair.
The passengers had done all that they could do. No human means could save them now. They could no longer count on any help, save from God.
At four o'clock, the balloon was no more than 500 feet above the water.
A bark was heard. A dog accompanying the passengers hung on to the rigging near his master.
"Top has seen something!" shouted one of the passengers.
Then suddenly a strong voice shouted out:
The balloon, which the wind had been carrying toward the southwest, had covered hundreds of miles since dawn, and a rather elevated land mass had appeared on the horizon in that direction.
But the land was still more than 30 miles windward. More than a full hour was needed to reach it, assuming they did not deviate from their path. One hour! Wouldn't the balloon have lost all its gas before then?
This was the crucial question. The passengers could distinctly see this point of land that they had to reach at all costs. They did not know what it was, island or continent, because they were unaware of exactly where the storm had driven them. But they knew that they had to reach this land, inhabited or not, hospitable or not.
At four o'clock, it was obvious that the balloon could no longer stay aloft. It grazed the surface of the sea. Several times already the crests of enormous waves licked the bottom of the ropes making it still heavier. Like a bird with a wounded wing, the balloon could barely remain airborne.
A half hour later, land was only a mile away. But the balloon, now exhausted, flabby, distended, and creased with large wrinkles, had no more gas except in its uppermost canopy. The passengers, holding on to the rigging, were just too heavy for it. And soon, as it half immersed itself into the sea, they began to be battered by strong waves. The casing of the balloon made an air pocket which the wind pushed like a vessel. Perhaps they could reach the coast in this manner?
When they were only 1000 feet away, four men simultaneously cried out. The balloon, which seemed as though it would never rise again, made an unexpected bound after being struck by a large wave. As if it had lost another of its weights, it suddenly rose to a height of 1500 feet. It was swept up into a wind pocket which, instead of bringing it directly to the coast, forced it to move in an almost parallel direction. Finally, two minutes later, it approached the coast obliquely, then dropped down on the shore out of reach of the waves.
The passengers, helping one another, managed to untangle themselves from the balloon's rigging. The balloon, now relieved of their weight, lurched upward into the wind. And, like a wounded bird that revives for a moment, it soon disappeared into the sky.
Excerpted from The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne Copyright ©1997 by Jules Verne. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.