THE STORY OF A BROKEN LIFE.





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!"





THE STOLEN PLOW THE STORY OF CHRISTMAS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback