ANOTHER SURPRISE FOR THE PROFESSOR.





The stranger laughed aloud at this, then seemed surprised that

aught of mirth could be awakened where grief and despair had so

long reigned supreme.



"You will come with me to--to my den, gentlemen?" he asked, still

nervous, and plainly loath to do aught which indicated a return

to his recent dreary method of living.



"Is the distance great?" asked Professor Featherwit, with a

glance towards the aeromotor, then flashing his gaze further, as

though to guard against possible harm coming to that valuable

piece of property.



More than ever to be guarded now, since the words spoken by this

exile. Better death in yonder mighty whirlpool than a half-score

years' imprisonment here!



Not so very far, he was assured, while it would be comparatively

easy to float the air-ship above the trees, there of no

extraordinary growth.



At the same time this assurance was given, the stranger could not

mask his uneasiness of mind, and it was really pitiful to see one

so strong in body and limb, so weak otherwise.



But uncle Phaeton was a fairly keen judge of human nature, and

possessed no small degree of tact. Divining the real cause of

that dread, he took the easiest method of allaying it, speaking

briskly as he moved across to the aerostat.



"Bear the gentleman company, my lads, while I manage the ship.

You will know what signals to make, and I can contrive the rest."



Again the recluse laughed, but now it was through pure joy, such

as he had not experienced for long years gone by. He was not to

be deserted by his rescuers from the whirlpool, and that was

comfort enough for the moment.



Thanks to that guidance, but little time was cut to waste,

Professor Featherwit taking the flying-machine away from the

shore of the lake, floating slowly above the tree-tops, guiding

his movements by those below, finally effecting a safe landing in

a miniature glade, at no great distance from the "den" alluded to

by their new-found friend.



"It will be perfectly safe here," the exile hastened to give

assurance, as that landing was made. "Then, too, this is the

only spot nigh at hand from which a hasty ascent could well be

made, even with such an admirable machine as yours. Ah, me!"

with a long breath which lacked but little of being a sigh, as he

keenly, eagerly examined the aerostat. "A marvel! Who would

have dared predict such another, only a dozen years ago? I

thought we had drawn very close to perfection while I was in the

profession, but this,--marvellous!"



Both words and manner gave the keen-witted professor a clew to

one mystery, and he quickly spoke:



"Then you were familiar with aerostatics, sir? Your name is--"



"Edgecombe,--Cooper Edgecombe."



"What?" with undisguised surprise in face as in voice.

"Professor Edgecombe, the celebrated balloonist who was lost so

long ago?"



"Ay! lost here in this thrice accursed wilderness!" passionately



cried the exile; then, as though abashed by his own outburst, he

turned away, pausing again only when at the entrance to his

dreary refuge of many years.



"Give the poor fellow his own way until he has had time to rally,

boys," muttered uncle Phaeton, in lowered tones, before following

that lead. "I can understand it better, now, and this is--still

is the terra incognita of which I have dreamed so long!"



That refuge proved to be a large, fairly dry cavern, the entrance

to which was admirably masked by vines and creepers, while the

stony soil just there retained no trace of footprints to tell

dangerous tales.



Mr. Edgecombe vanished, but not for long. Then, showing a

light, formed of fat and twisted wick in a hollowed bit of

hardwood, he begged his rescuers to enter.



No second invitation was needed, for even the professor felt a

powerful curiosity to learn what method had been followed by this

enforced exile; how he had managed to live for so many weary

years.



With only that smoky lamp to shed light around the place,

critical investigation was a matter of time and painstaking,

although a general idea of the cavern was readily formed.



High overhead arched the rocky roof, blackened by smoke, and

looking more gloomy than nature had intended. The side walls

were likewise irregular, now showing tiny niches and nooks, then

jutting out to form awkward points and elbows, which were but

partially disguised by such articles of wear and daily use as the

exile had collected during the years gone by, or since his

occupancy first began.



So much the professor took in with his initial glances, but then

he left Waldo and his brother to look more closely, himself

giving thought to the being whom they had so happily saved from

the whirlpool.



"Professor Edgecombe!" he again exclaimed, grasping those

roughened hands to press them cordially. "I ought to have

recognised you at sight, no doubt, since I have watched your

ascents time and time again."



The exile smiled faintly, shaking his head and giving another

sigh.



"Ah, me! 'twas vastly different, then. I only marvel that you

should give me credit when I lay claim to that name, so long--it

has long faded from the public's memory, sir."



But uncle Phaeton shook his head, decidedly.



"No, no, I assure you, my friend; far from it. Whenever the

topic is brought to the front; whenever aerostatics are

discussed, your name and fame are sure to play a prominent part.

And yet,--you disappeared so long ago, never being heard of

after--"



"After sailing away upon the storm for which I had waited and

prayed, for so many weary, heart-sick months!"



"So the rumour ran, but we all believed that must be an

exaggeration, and not for a long time was all hope abandoned.

Then, more hearts than one felt sore and sad at thoughts of your

untimely fate."



"A fate infinitely worse than ordinary death such as was credited

me," huskily muttered the exile. "Ten years,--and ever since I

have been here, helpless to extricate myself, doomed to a living

death, which none other can ever fully realise! Doomed to--to--"



His voice choked, and he turned away to hide his emotions.



Professor Featherwit thoroughly appreciated the interruption

which came through Waldo's lips just at that moment.



"Oh, I say,--uncle Phaeton!"



"What is it, lad? Don't meddle with what doesn't--"



"Looking can't hurt, can it? And to think people ever got along

with such things as these!"



Waldo was squared before sundry articles depending from the side

wall, and as the professor drew closer, he, too, displayed a

degree of interest which was really remarkable.



A gaily colored tunic of thickly quilted cotton was hanging

beside an oddly shaped war club, the heavier end of which was

armed with blades of stone which gleamed and sparkled even in

that dim light. And attached to this weapon was another, hardly

less curious: a knife formed of copper, with heft and blade all

from one piece of metal.



"Here is the rest of the outfit," said Edgecombe, holding forth a

bow and several feathered arrows with obsidian heads.



Professor Featherwit gave a low, eager cry as he handled the

various articles, both face and manner betraying intense delight,

which found partial vent in words a little later.



"Wonderful! Marvellous! Superb! I envy you, sir; I can't help

but envy your possession of so magnificent--and so

well-preserved, too! That is the marvel of marvels!"



"Well, to be sure, I haven't used them very much. The bow and

arrows I could manage fairly well, after busy practice. They

have saved me from more than one hungry night. But as for the

rest--"



"You might have worn the--Is it a ghost-dance shirt, though?"

hesitatingly asked Waldo, gingerly fingering the wadded tunic.



"Waldo, I'm ashamed of you, boy!" almost harshly reproved the

professor. "Ghost-dance shirt, indeed! And this one of the most

complete--the only perfectly preserved specimen of the ancient

Aztec--pray, my good friend, where did you discover them? Surely

there can be no burial mounds so far above the latitude where

that unfortunate race lived and died?"



Mr. Edgecombe shook his head, with a puzzled look, then made

reply:



"No, sir. I took these all from an Indian I was forced to kill

in order to save my own life. I never thought--You are ill,

sir?"



"Bless my soul!" ejaculated the professor, falling back a pace or

two, then sitting down with greater force than grace, all the

while gazing upon those weapons like one in a daze. "Found

them--Indian--killed him in order to--bless my soul!"



Then, with marvellous activity for one of his age, the professor

recovered his footing, mumbling something about tripping a heel,

then resumed his examination of the curiosities as though he had

care for naught beside.



Cooper Edgecombe turned away, and the professor improved the

opportunity by muttering to the brothers:



"Careful, lads. Give the poor fellow his own way in all things,

for he is--he surely must be--eh?"



Forefinger covertly tapped forehead, for there was no time

granted for further explanations. Edgecombe turned again,

speaking in hard, even strained tones:



"Fifteen years ago this month, on the 27th, to be exact, a

balloon with two passengers was carried away on a terrific gale

of wind which blew from the southeast. This happened in

Washington Territory. Can you tell me--has anything ever been

heard of either balloon or its inmates?"



Professor Featherwit shook his head in negation before saying:



"Not to my knowledge, though doubtless the prints of the day--"



Cooper Edgecombe shook both head and hand with strange

impatience.



"No, no. I know they were never heard from up to ten years ago,

but since then--I am a fool to even dream of such a thing, and

yet,--only for that faint hope I would have gone mad long ago!"



Indeed, he looked little less than insane as it was.





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