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THE STORY OF A BROKEN LIFE.

from The Lost City





This was the idea that occurred to both uncle and nephews, but
they had seen and heard enough to excuse all that, and Professor
Featherwit spoke again, in mildly curious tones:

"Sorry I am unable to give you better tidings, my good friend,
but, so far as my knowledge extends, nothing has come to light of
recent years. And--if not a leading question--were those
passengers friends of your own?"

"Only--merely my--my wife and little daughter," came the totally
unexpected reply, followed by a forced laugh which sounded
anything but mirthful.

Uncle Phaeton, intensely chagrined, hastened to apologise for his
luckless break, but Cooper Edgecombe cut him short, asking that
the matter be let drop for the time being.

"I will talk; I feel that I must tell you all, or lose what few
wits I have left," he declared, huskily. "But not right now. It
is growing late. You must be hungry. I have no very extensive
larder, but with my little will go the gratitude of a man who--"

His voice choked, and he left the sentence unfinished, hurrying
away to prepare such a meal as his limited means would permit.

While Edgecombe was kindling a fire in one corner of the cavern,
opening a pile of ashes to extract the few carefully cherished
coals by means of which the wood was to be fired, uncle and one
nephew left the den to look after the flying-machine and
contents.

Bruno remained behind, in obedience to a hint from the professor,
lest the exile should dread desertion, after all.

"Take these in and open them, Waldo," said the professor,
selecting several cans from the stock in the locker. "Poor
fellow! 'Twill be like a foretaste of civilisation, just to see
and smell, much less taste, the fruit."

"Even if he has turned looney, eh, uncle Phaeton?"

"Careful, boy! I hardly think he is just that far gone; but,
even if so, what marvel? Think of all he must have suffered
during so many long, dreary years! and--his wife and child! I
wonder--I do wonder if he really killed--but that is incredible,
simply and utterly incredible! An Aztec--here--alive!"

"Dead, uncle Phaeton," corrected Waldo. "Killed the redskin, he
said, and I really reckon he meant it. Why not, pray?"

"But--an Aztec, boy!" exclaimed the bewildered savant, unable to
pass that point. "The tunic of quilted cotton, the escaupil!
The maquahuitl, with its blades of grass! The bow and arrows
which--all, all surely of Aztecan manufacture, yet seemingly
fresh and serviceable as though in use but a month ago! And the
race extinct for centuries!"

"Well, unless he's a howling liar from 'way up the crick, he
extincted one of 'em," cheerfully commented Waldo, bearing his
canned fruit to the cavern.

Professor Featherwit followed shortly after, finding the exile
busy preparing food, looking and acting far more naturally than
he had since his rescue from the whirlpool. And then, until the
evening meal was announced, uncle Phaeton hovered near those
amazing curiosities, now gazing like one in a waking dream, then
gingerly fingering each article in turn, as though hoping to find
a solution for his enigma through the sense of touch.

Taken all in all, that was far from a pleasant or enjoyable meal.
A sense of restraint rested upon each one of that little company,
and not one succeeded in fairly breaking it away, though each
tried in turn.

Despite the struggle made by the exile to hold all emotions well
under subjection, Cooper Edgecombe failed to hide his almost
childish delight at sight and taste of those canned goods, and it
did not require much urging on the part of his rescuers to ensure
his partaking freely.

But the cap-sheaf came when uncle Phaeton, true to his habit of
long years, after eating, produced pipe and pouch, the fragrant
tobacco catching the exile's nostrils and drawing a low,
tremulous cry from his lips.

No need to ask what was the matter, for that eager gaze, those
quivering fingers, were enough. And just as though this had been
his express purpose, the professor passed the pipe over, quietly
speaking:

"Perhaps you would like a little smoke after your supper, my good
friend? Oblige me by--"

"May I? Oh, sir, may I--really taste--oh, oh, oh!"

Bruno struck a match and steadied the pipe until the tobacco was
fairly ignited, then drew back and left the exile to himself for
the time being. And, as covert glances told them, never before
had their eyes rested upon mortal being so intensely happy as was
the long-lost aeronaut then and there.

At a sign from the professor, Bruno and Waldo silently arose and
left the cavern, bearing their guardian company to where the

air-ship was resting. And there they busied themselves with
making preparations for the night, which was just settling over
that portion of the earth.

Presently Cooper Edgecombe appeared, the empty pipe in hand, held
as one might caress an inestimable treasure, a dreamy, almost
blissful expression upon his sun-browned face.

"I thank you, sir, more than tongue can tell," he said, quietly,
as he restored the pipe to its owner. "If you could only realise
what I have suffered through this deprivation! I, an inveterate
smoker; yet suddenly deprived of it, and so kept for ten long
years! If I had had a pipe and tobacco, I believe--but enough."

"I can sympathise with you, at least in part, my friend. Will
you have another smoke, by the way?"

"No, no, not now; I feel blessed for the moment, and more might
be worse than none, after so long deprivation. And--may I talk
openly to you, dear, kind friends? May I tell you--am I selfish
in wishing to trouble you thus? Ten years, remember, and not a
soul to speak with!"

He laughed, but it was a sorry mirth; and not caring to trust his
tongue just then, uncle Phaeton nodded his head emphatically
while filling his pipe for himself. But Waldo never lacked for
words, and spoke out:

"That's all right, sir; we can listen as long as you can
chin-chin. Tell us all about--well, what's the matter with that
big Injun?"

"Quiet, Waldo. Say what best pleases you, my friend. You can be
sure of one thing,--sympathetic listeners, if nothing better."

With a curious shiver, as though afflicted with a sudden chill,
Edgecombe turned partly away, figure drawn rigidly erect, hands
tightly clasped behind his back. A brief silence, then he spoke
in tones of forced composure.

"A balloon was the best, in my day, and I was proud of my
profession, although even then I was dreaming of better
things--of something akin to this marvellous creation of yours,
sir," casting a fleeting glance at the air-ship, then at the face
of its builder, afterward resuming his former attitude.

"Let that pass, though. I wanted to tell you how I met with my
awful loss; how I came to be out here in this modern hell!

"I had a wife, a daughter, each of whom felt almost as powerful
an interest in aerostatics as I did myself. And one day--but,
wait!

"I had an enemy, too; one who had, years before, sought to win my
love for his own; in vain, the cur! And that day--we were out
here in Washington Territory, living in comparative solitude that
I might the better study out the theory I was slowly shaping in
my brain.

"The day was beautiful, but almost oppressively warm, and, as
they so frequently wished, I let my dear ones up in the balloon,
securely fastening it below. And then--God forgive me!--I went
back to town for something; I forget just what, now.

"A sudden storm came up. I hurried homeward; home to me was
wherever my dear ones chanced to be; but I was just too late!
That devil of all devils was ahead of me, and I saw him--merciful
God! I saw him--cut the ropes and let the balloon dart away upon
that awful gale!"

His voice choked, and for a few minutes silence reigned. Knowing
how vain must be any attempt to offer consolation, the trio of
air-voyagers said nothing, and presently Cooper Edgecombe spoke.

"I killed the demon. I nearly tore him limb from limb; I would
have done just that, only for those who came hurrying after me
from town, knowing that I might need help in bringing my balloon
to earth in safety. They dragged me away, but 'twas too late to
cheat my miserable vengeance. That hound was dead, but--my
darlings were gone, for ever!"

Another pause, then quieter, more coherent speech.

"God alone knows whither my wife and child were taken. The
general drift was in this direction, but how far they were
carried, or how long they may have lived, I can only guess;
enough that, despite all my inquiries, made far and wide in every
direction, I never heard aught of either balloon or passengers!

"After that, I had but one object in life: to follow along the
track of that storm, and either find my loved ones, or--or some
clew which should for ever solve my awful doubts! And for two
long years or more I fought to pierce these horrid
fastnesses,--all in vain. No mortal man could succeed, even when
urged on by such a motive as mine.

"Then I determined upon another course. I worked and slaved
until I could procure another balloon, as nearly like the one I
lost as might be constructed. Then I watched and waited for just
such another storm as the one upon whose wings my darlings were
borne away, meaning to take the same course, and so find--"

"Why, man, dear, you must have been insane!" impulsively cried
the professor, unable longer to control his tongue.

"Perhaps I was; little wonder if so," admitted Edgecombe, turning
that way, with a wan smile lighting up his visage. "I could no
longer reason. I could only act. I had but that one grim hope,
to eventually discover what time and exposure to the weather
might have left of my lost loves.

"Then, after so long waiting, the storm came, blowing in the same
direction as that other. I cut my balloon loose, and let it
drift. I looked and waited, hoping, longing, yet--failing! I was
wrecked, here in this wilderness. My balloon was carried away.
I failed to find--aught!"

Cooper Edgecombe turned towards the air-ship, with a sigh of
regret.

"If one had something like this then, I might have found
them,--even alive! But now--too late--eternally too late!"





Next: THE LOST CITY OF THE AZTECS.

Previous: ANOTHER SURPRISE FOR THE PROFESSOR.



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