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RESCUED AND RESCUERS.

from The Lost City





Despite their very natural excitement, caused by this peril and
its
foiling, Professor Featherwit retained nearly all his customary
coolness and presence of mind.

Readily realising that after such a grim ordeal would almost
certainly come a powerful revulsion, his first aim was to swing
the stranger far enough away from the whirlpool to give him a
fair chance for life, in case he should fall, through dizziness
or physical collapse, from the end of the drag-rope.

This took but a few seconds, comparatively speaking, though,
doubtless, each moment seemed an age to the rescued stranger.
Then the professor slowed his ship, looking around in order to
determine upon the wisest route to take.

For one thing, it would be severe work to draw the stranger
bodily up and into the aerostat. For another, unless he should
grow weak, or suffer from vertigo, both time and labour would be
saved by taking him direct to the shore of this broad lake.

As soon as the rope was made fast, and the strain taken off their
muscles as well as their minds, Bruno flashed a look around,
naturally turning his eyes in the direction of the whirlpool.

Although less than a couple of minutes had elapsed since the man
was lifted off the circling drift, even thus quickly had the end
drawn nigh; for, even as he looked that way, Gillespie saw the
great trunk sucked into the hidden sink, the top rising with a
shiver clear out of the water as the butt lowered, a hollow,
rumbling sound coming to all ears as--

"Gone!" cried Bruno, in awed tones, as the whole drift vanished
from sight for ever.

"Sucked in by Jonah's whale, for ducats!" screamed Waldo,
excitedly. "Fetch on your blessed 'sour-us' of both the male and
female sect! Trot 'em to the fore, and if my little old suck
don't take the starch out of their backbones,--they DID have
backbones, didn't they, uncle Phaeton?"

Professor Featherwit frowned, and shook his head in silent
reproof. More nearly, perhaps, than either of the boys, he
realised what an awful peril this stranger had so narrowly
escaped. It was far too early to turn that escape into jest,
even for one naturally light of heart.

He leaned over the hand-rail, peering downward. He could see the
rescued man sitting firmly in the bend of the grapnel, one hand
tightly gripping the rope, its mate shading his eyes, as he
stared fixedly towards the whirling death-pool, from whose jaws
he had so miraculously been plucked.

There was naught of debility, either of body or of mind, to be
read in that figure, and with his fears on that particular point
set at rest, for the time being, Professor Featherwit called out,
distinctly:

"Is it all well with you, my good friend? Can you hold fast
until the shore is reached, think?"

"Heaven bless you,--yes!" came the reply, in half-choked tones.
"If I fail in giving thanks--"

"Never mention it, friend; it cost us nothing," cheerily
interrupted the professor, then adding, "Hold fast, please, and
we'll put on a wee bit more steam."

The flying-machine was now fairly headed for a strip of shore
which offered an excellent opportunity for making a safe landing,
and as that accelerated motion did not appear to materially
affect the stranger, it took but a few minutes to clear the lake.

"Stand ready to let go when we come low enough, please," warned
the professor, deftly managing his pet machine for that purpose.

The stranger easily landed, then watched the flying-machine with
painfully eager gaze, hands clasped almost as though in prayer.
A more remarkable sight than this half-naked shape, burned brown
by the sun, poorly protected by light skins, with sinew
fastenings, could scarcely be imagined; and there was something
close akin to tears in more eyes than one when he came running in
chase, arms outstretched, and voice wildly appealing:

"Oh, come back! Take me,--don't leave me,--for love of God and
humanity, don't leave me to this living death!"

Professor Featherwit called back a hasty assurance, and brought
the air-ship to a landing with greater haste than was exactly
prudent, all things considered; but who could keep cool blood and
unmoved heart, with yonder piteous object before their eyes?

When he saw that the flying-machine had fairly landed, and beheld
its inmates stepping forth upon the sands with friendly
salutations, the rescued stranger staggered, hands clasping his
temples for a moment of drunken reeling, then he fell forward
like one smitten by the hand of sudden death.

Professor Featherwit called out a few curt directions, which were
promptly obeyed by his nephews, and after a few minutes'
well-directed work consciousness was restored, and the stranger
feebly strove to give them thanks.

In vain these were set aside. He seemed like one half-insane
from joy, and none who saw and heard could think that all this
emotion arose from the simple rescue from the whirlpool. Nor did
it.

Wildly, far from coherently, the poor fellow spoke, yet something
of the awful truth was to be gleaned even from those broken,
disjointed sentences.

For ten years an exile in these horrible wilds. For ten years
not a single glimpse of white face or figure. For ten ages no
intelligible voice, save his own; and that, through long disuse,
had threatened to desert him!

"Ten years!" echoed Waldo, in amazement. "Why didn't you rack
out o' this, then? I know I would; even if the woods were full
of--'sour-us' and the like o' that! Yes, SIR!"

A low, husky laugh came through those heavily bearded lips, and
the stranger flung out his hands in a sweeping gesture, sunken
eyes glowing with an almost savage light as he spoke with more
coherence:

"Why is it, young gentleman? Why did I not leave, do you ask?
Look! All about you it stretches: a cell,--a death-cell, from
which escape is impossible! Here I have fought for what is ever
more precious than bare life: for liberty; but though ten awful
years have rolled by, here I remain, in worse than prison!
Escape? Ah, how often have I attempted to escape, only to fail,
because escape from these wilds is beyond the power of any person
not gifted with wings!"

"Ten years, you say, good friend? And all that time you have
lived here alone?" asked the professor, curiously.

"Ten years,--ten thousand years, I could almost swear, only for
keeping the record so carefully, so religiously. And--pitiful
Lord! How gladly would I have given my good right arm, just for
one faraway glimpse of civilisation! How often--but I am
wearying you, gentlemen, and you may--pray don't think that I am
crazy; you will not?"

Both the professor and Bruno assured him to the contrary, but
Waldo was less affected, and his curiosity could no longer be
kept within bounds. Gently tapping one hairy arm, he spoke:

"I say, friend, what were you doing out yonder in the big suck?
Didn't you know the fun was hardly equal to the risk, sir?"

"Easy, lad," reproved the professor; but with a a smile, which
strangely softened that haggard, weather-worn visage, the
stranger spoke:

"Nay, kind sir, do not check the young gentleman. If you could
only realise how sweet it is to my poor ears,--the sound of a
friendly voice! For so many weary years I have never heard one
word from human lips which I could understand or make answer to.
And now,--what is it you wish to know, my dear boy?"

"Well, since you've lived here so long, surely you hadn't ought
to get caught in such a nasty pickle; unless it was through
accident?"

"It was partly accidental. One that would have cost me dearly
had not you come to my aid so opportunely. And yet,--only for
one thing, I could scarcely have regretted vanishing for ever
down that suck!"

His voice choked, his head bowed, his hands came together in a
nervous grip, all betokening unusual agitation. Even Waldo was
just a bit awed, and the stranger was first to break that silence
with words.

"How did the mishap come about, is it, young gentleman?" he said,
a wan smile creeping into his face, and relaxing those tensely
drawn muscles once more. "While I was trying to replenish my
stock of provisions, and after this fashion, good friends.

"I was fishing from a small canoe, and as the bait was not taken
well, I must have fallen into a day dream, thinking of--no
matter, now. And during that dreaming, the breeze must have
blown me well out into the lake, for when I was roused up by a
sharp jerk at my line, I found myself near its middle, without
knowing just how I came there.

"I have no idea what sort of fish had taken my bait,--there are
many enormous ones in the lake,--but it proved far too powerful
for me to manage, and dragged the canoe swiftly through the
water, heading directly for the outlet, yonder."

"Why didn't you let it go free, then?"

"The line was fastened to the prow, and I could not loosen it in
time. I drew my knife,--one of flint, but keen enough to
serve,--only to have it jerked out of my hand and into the water.
Then, just as the fish must have plunged into the suck, I
abandoned my canoe, jumping overboard."

"That's just what I was wondering about," declared Waldo, with a
vigorous nod of his head. "Yet we found you--there?"

"Because I am a wretchedly poor swimmer. I managed to reach a
drift which had not yet fairly entered the whirl, but I could do
nothing more towards saving myself. Then--you can guess the
rest, gentlemen."

"And the canoe?" demanded Waldo, content only when all points
were made manifest.

"I saw it dragged down the centre of the suck," with an
involuntary shiver. "The fish must have plunged into the
underground river, whether willingly or not I can only surmise.
But all the while I was drifting yonder, around and around, with
each circuit drawing closer to the awful end, I could not help
picturing to myself how the canoe must have plunged down, and
down, and--burr-r-r!"

A shuddering shiver which was more eloquent than words; but Waldo
was not yet wholly content, finding an absorbing interest in that
particular subject.

"You call it a river: how do you know it's a river?"

"Of course, I can only guess at the facts, my dear boy," the
stranger made reply, smiling once more, and, with an almost timid
gesture, extending one hairy paw to lightly touch and gently
stroke the arm nearest him.

Bruno turned away abruptly, for that gesture, so simple in
itself, yet so full of pathos to one who bore in mind those long
years of solitary exile, brought a moisture to his big brown eyes
of which, boy-like, he felt ashamed.

Professor Featherwit likewise took note, and with greater
presence of mind came to the rescue, lightly resting a hand upon
the stranger's half-bare shoulder while addressing his words to
the youngster.

A tremulous sigh escaped those bearded lips, and their owner drew
closer to the wiry little aeronaut, plainly drawing great comfort
from that mere contact. And with like ease uncle Phaeton lifted
one of those hairy arms to rest it over his own shoulders,
speaking briskly the while.

"There is only one way of demonstrating the truth more clearly,
my youthful inquisitor, and that is by sending you on a voyage of
exploration. Are you willing to make the attempt, Waldo?"

"Not this evening; some other evening,--maybe!" drawing back a
bit, with a shake of his curly pate to match. "But, I say, uncle
Phaeton--"

"Allow me to complete my say, first, dear boy," with a bland
smile. "That is easily done, though, for it merely consists of
this: yonder sink, or whirlpool, is certainly the method this
lake has of relieving itself of all surplus water. Everything
points to a subterranean river which connects this lake with the
Pacific Ocean."

"Wonder how long I'd have to hold my breath to make the trip?"





Next: ANOTHER SURPRISE FOR THE PROFESSOR.

Previous: GRAPPLING A QUEER FISH.



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