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WASHINGTON'S BIRTHDAY

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PROFESSOR FEATHERWIT TAKING NOTES.

from The Lost City





"To the house!" cried the professor, raising his voice to
overcome yonder sullen roar, which was now beginning to come
their way. "Trust all to the aeromotor, and 'twill be well with
us!"

The wiry little man of science himself fell to work with an
energy which told how serious he regarded the emergency, and,
acting under his lead, the brothers manfully played their part.

Just as had been done many times before this day, a queer-looking
machine was shoved out from the shed, gliding along the wooden
ways prepared for that express purpose, while Professor
Featherwit hurried aboard a few articles which past experience
warned him might prove of service in the hours to come, then
sharply cried to his nephews:

"Get aboard, lads! Time enough, yet none to spare in idle
motions. See! The storm is drifting our way in deadly earnest!"

And so it seemed, in good sooth.

Now fairly at its dread work of destruction, tearing up the rain
dampened dirt and playing with mighty boulders, tossing them here
and there, as a giant of olden tales might play with jackstones,
snapping off sturdy trees and whipping them to splinters even
while hurling them as a farmer sows his grain.

Just the one brief look at that aerial monster, then both lads
hung fast to the hand-rail of rope, while the professor put that
cunning machinery in motion, causing the air-ship to rise from
its ways with a sudden swooping movement, then soaring upward and
onward, in a fair curve, as graceful and steady as a bird on
wing.

All this took some little time, even while the trio were working
as men only can when dear life is at stake; but the
flying-machine was afloat and fairly off upon the most marvellous
journey mortals ever accomplished, and that ere yonder
death-balloon could cover half the distance between.

"Grand! Glorious! Magnificent!" fairly exploded the professor,
when he could risk a more comprehensive look, right hand tightly
gripping the polished lever through which he controlled that
admirable mechanism. "I have longed for just such an
opportunity, and now--the camera, Bruno! We must never neglect
to improve such a marvellous chance for--get out the camera,
lad!"

"Get out of the road, rather!" bluntly shouted Waldo, face
unusually pale, as he stared at yonder awful force in action. "Of
course I'm not scared, or anything like that, uncle Phaeton,
but--I want to rack out o' this just about the quickest the law
allows! Yes, I DO, now!"

"Wonderful! Marvellous! Incredible! That rara avis, an
exception to all exceptions!" declared the professor, more deeply
stirred than either of his nephews had ever seen him before. "A
genuine tornado which has no eastern drift; which heads as
directly as possible towards the northwest, and at the same
time--incredible!"

Only ears of his own caught these sentences in their entirety,
for now the storm was fairly bellowing in its might, formed of a
variety of sounds which baffles all description, but which, in
itself, was more than sufficient to chill the blood of even a
brave man. Yet, almost as though magnetised by that frightful
force, the professor was holding his air-ship steady, loitering
there in its direct path, rather than fleeing from what surely
would prove utter destruction to man and machine alike.

For a few moments Bruno withstood the temptation, but then leaned
far enough to grasp both hand and tiller, forcing them in the
requisite direction, causing the aeromotor to swing easily around
and dart away almost at right angles to the track of the tornado.

That roar was now as of a thousand heavily laden trains rumbling
over hollow bridges, and the professor could only nod his
approval when thus aroused from the dangerous fascination.
Another minute, and the air-ship was floating towards the rear of
the balloon-shaped cloud itself, each second granting the
passengers a varying view of the wonder.

True to the firm hand which set its machinery in motion, the
flying-machine maintained that gentle curve until it swung around
well to the rear of the cloud, where again Professor Featherwit
broke out in ecstatic praises of their marvellous good fortune.

" 'Tis worth a life's ransom, for never until now hath mortal
being been blessed with such a magnificent opportunity for taking
notes and drawing deductions which--"

The professor nimbly ducked his head to dodge a ragged splinter
of freshly torn wood which came whistling past, cast far away
from the tornado proper by those erratic winds. And at the same
instant the machine itself recoiled, shivering and creaking in
all its cunning joints under a gust of wind which seemed composed
of both ice and fire.

"Oh, I say!" gasped Waldo, when he could rally from the sudden
blow. "Turn the old thing the other way, uncle Phaeton, and
let's go look for--well, almost anything's better than this old
cyclone!"

"Tornado, lad," swiftly corrected the man of precision, leaning
far forward, and gazing enthralled upon the vision which fairly
thrilled his heart to its very centre. "Never again may we have
such another opportunity for making--"

They were now directly in the rear of the storm, and as the
air-ship headed across that track of destruction, it gave a
drunken stagger, casting down its inmates, from whose parching
lips burst cries of varying import.

"Air! I'm choking!" gasped Bruno, tearing open his shirt-collar
with a spasmodic motion.

"Hold me fast!" echoed Waldo, clinging desperately to the
life-line. "It's drawing me--into the--ah!"

Even the professor gave certain symptoms of alarm for that
moment, but then the danger seemed past as the ship darted fairly
across the storm-trail, hovering to the east of that aerial
phantom.

There was no difficulty in filling their lungs now, and once more
Professor Featherwit headed the flying-machine directly for the
balloon-shaped cloud, modulating its pace so as to maintain their
relative position fairly well.

"Take note how it progresses,--by fits and starts, as it were,"
observed Featherwit, now in his glory, eyes asparkle and muscles
aquiver, hair bristling as though full of electricity, face
glowing with almost painful interest, as those shifting scenes
were for ever imprinted upon his brain.

"Sort of a hop, step, and jump, and that's a fact," agreed Waldo,
now a bit more at his ease since that awful sense of suffocation
was lacking. "I thought all cyclones--"

"Tornado, my DEAR boy!" expostulated the professor.

"I thought they all went in holy hurry, like they were sent for
and had mighty little time in which to get there. But this
one,--see how it stops to dance a jig and bore holes in the
earth!"

"Another exception to the general rule, which is as you say,"
admitted the professor. "Different tornadoes have been timed as
moving from twelve to seventy miles an hour, one passing a given
point in half a score of seconds, at another time being
registered as fully half an hour in clearing a single section.

"Take the destructive storm at Mount Carmel, Illinois, in June of
'77. That made progress at the rate of thirty-four miles an
hour, yet its force was so mighty that it tore away the spire,
vane, and heavy gilded ball of the Methodist church, and kept it
in air over a distance of fifteen miles.

"Still later was the Texas tornado, doing its awful work at the
rate of more than sixty miles an hour; while that which swept
through Frankfort, Kansas, on May 17, 1896, was fully a half-hour
in crossing a half-mile stretch of bottom-land adjoining the
Vermillion River, pausing in its dizzy waltz upon a single spot
for long minutes at a time."

"Couldn't have been much left when it got through dancing, if
that storm was anything like this one," declared Waldo, shivering
a bit as he watched the awful destruction being wrought right
before their fascinated eyes.

Trees were twisted off and doubled up like blades of dry grass.
Mighty rocks were torn apart from the rugged hills, and huge
boulders were tossed into air as though composed of paper. And
over all ascended the horrid roar of ruin beyond description,
while from that misshapen balloon-cloud, with its flattened top,
the electric fluid shone and flashed, now in great sheets as of
flame, then in vicious spurts and darts as though innumerable
snakes of fire had been turned loose by the winds.

Still the aerial demon bored its almost sluggish course straight
towards the northwest, in this, as in all else, seemingly bent on
proving itself the exception to all exceptions as Professor
Featherwit declared.

The savant himself was now in his glory, holding the tiller
between arm and side, the better to manipulate his hand-camera,
with which he was taking repeated snap-shots for future
development and reference.

Truly, as he more than once declared, mortal man never had, nor
mortal man ever would have, such a glorious opportunity for
recording the varying phases of nature in travail as was now
vouchsafed themselves.

"Just think of it, lads!" he cried, almost beside himself with
enthusiasm. "This alone will be sufficient to carry our names
ringing through all time down the corridors of undying fame! This
alone would be more than enough to--Look pleasant, please!"

In spite of that awful vision so perilously close before them,
and the natural uncertainty which attended such a reckless
venture, Waldo could not repress a chuckle at that comical
conclusion, so frequently used towards himself when their uncle
was coaxing them to pose before his pet camera.

"Is it--surely this is not safe, uncle Phaeton?" ventured Bruno,
as another retrograde gust of air smote their apparently frail
conveyance with sudden force.

"Let's call it a day's work, and knock off," chimed in Waldo. "If
the blamed thing should take a notion to balk, and rear back
on its haunches, where'd we come out at?"

Professor Featherwit made an impatient gesture by way of answer.
Speech just then would have been worse than useless, for that
tremendous roaring, crashing, thundering of all sounds, seemed to
fall back and envelop the air-ship as with a pall.

A shower of sand and fine debris poured over and around them,
filling ears and mouths, and blinding eyes for the moment,
forcing the brothers closer to the floor of the aerostat, and
even compelling the eager professor to remit his taking of notes
for future generations.

Then, thin and reed-like, yet serving to pierce that temporary
obscurity and horrible jangle of outer sounds, came the voice of
their relative:

"Fear not, my children! The Lord is our shield, and so long as
he willeth, just so long shall we--Ha! didn't I tell ye so?"

For the blinding veil was torn away, and once again the trio of
adventurers might watch yonder grandly awesome march of
devastation.

"Heading direct for the Olympics!" declared Professor Featherwit,
digging the sand out of his eyes and striving to clean his
glasses without removing them, clinging to tiller and camera
through all. "What a grand and glorious guide 'twould be for
us!"

"If we could only hitch on--like a tin can to the tail of a dog!"
suggested Waldo, with boyish sarcasm. "Not any of that in mine,
thank you! I can wait. No such mighty rush. No,--SIR!"

There came no answer to his words, for just then that swooping
air-demon turned to vivid fire, lightning playing back and forth,
from side to side, in every conceivable direction, until in spite
of the broad daylight its glory pained those watching eyes.

"Did you ever witness the like!" awesomely cried Bruno, gazing
like one fascinated. "Who could or would ever believe all that,
even if tongue were able to portray its wondrous beauty?"

"What a place that would be for popping corn!" contributed Waldo,
practical or nothing, even under such peculiar circumstances. "If
I had to play poppy, though, I'd want a precious long handle
to the concern!"

More intensely interested than ever, Professor Featherwit plied
his shutter, taking shot after shot at yonder aerial phenomena,
feeling that future generations would surely rise up to call him
blessed when the results of his experiments were once fairly
spread before the world.

And hence it came to pass that still more thrilling experiences
came unto these daring navigators of space, and that almost
before one or the other of them could fairly realise that greater
danger really menaced both their air-ship and their lives.

Another whirly-gust of sand and other debris assailed the
flying-machine, and while sight was thus rendered almost useless
for the time being, the aerostat began to sway and reel from side
to side, shivering as though caught by an irresistible power, yet
against which it battled as though instinct with life and
brain-power.

Once again the adventurers found it difficult to breathe, while
an unseen power seemed pressing them to that floor as
though--Thank heaven!

Just as before, that cloud was swept away, and again air came to
fill those painfully oppressed lungs. Once again the trio
cleared their eyes and stared about, only to utter simultaneous
cries of alarm.

For, brief though that period of blindness had been, 'twas amply
sufficient to carry the aeromotor perilously near yonder
storm-centre, and though Professor Featherwit gripped hard his
tiller, trying all he knew to turn the air-ship for a safer
quarter,-'twas all in vain!

"Haste,--make haste, uncle Phaeton!" hoarsely panted Bruno,
leaning to aid the professor. "We will be sucked in and--hasten,
for life!"

"I can't,--we're already--in the--suction!"





Next: RIDING THE TORNADO.

Previous: NATURE IN TRAVAIL.



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