The Lost City by Herbert Ward
"Great guns!" The ejaculator tipped his straw hat off with his left
hand, let it roll upon the office floor, made a dab for a damp pocket
handkerchief in his right pistol pocket, and stared at the yellow paper
again. "Whew! I don't believe it!" he muttered. Then, aware that the
keen eyes of the three-and-a-half-foot messenger boy were upon him, as
if sizing him up for news, he stared at the telegram again, mumbled
"It's a fake! Great guns!" and rushed from the room.
The messenger boy looked after the editor's retreating form with a
knowing wink, as if the whole thing had been a special job put up by
himself, whistled "Annie Rooney," took up a tattered copy of "Famous
Quotations," laid it down again with an expression of mingled respect
and scepticism, characteristic of his kind, and then swaggered out of
the editorial sanctum.
"Well, Swift, what's up now?"
The editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet (Democratic) lifted his young,
alert face from the evening edition of his own journal to that of his
news editor. Interruptions were the expected thing in that stirring
Swift did not speak, but laid the telegram upon the desk, pulled out a
Victoria Regina, and chewed it nervously. The chief read the message
through once to himself, gave one glance at the face of his subordinate,
and then said:
"This is a repeat, is it not?"
"Yes sir. First news came three hours ago. I didn't believe it. Thought
it a fake. Half think so still. I wouldn't insert it, and wired for an
immediate reply. Here it is. It is too late for the five o'clock
edition. What shall I do?"
"Well, this is extraordinary!" conceded the chief. This admission
meant a great deal in that office, deluged with news from all parts of
the world, where it frequently happened that fourteen columns of
purchased and paid for telegraphic despatches were not considered
important enough to use, and were dropped in the waste-paper basket. The
chief pressed the button in his desk and asked the boy that appeared to
inform Mr. Ticks that he was wanted at once.
Mr. Stalls Ticks answered the summons promptly. He was a sallow, faded,
middle-aged man, dressed in a sere and faded Prince Albert coat, with
sallow and faded boots. In fact, the whole appearance of this invaluable
member of the Planet corps gave one the impression of the last minute
of autumn, when even the trunks of the trees, the stones of the hills,
the soil of the valleys look sere and yellow and faded and ready for a
winter's sleep. Mr. Ticks looked as if he were waiting for the trance
that never overcame him.
"I wish to know something of Russell, the capital of the new State of
Harrison, Mr. Ticks."
Mr. Ticks pulled out a yellow, faded, silk bandanna, wiped his
spectacles sadly, and with an over-aspirated tone asked:
Mr. Swift looked at him with mingled disgust and respect, and tapped his
foot impatiently on the bare floor.
"Let me see; it is situated?" proceeded the chief quietly.
"On the southeast shore of the Great Gopher lake." Mr. Ticks finished
the sentence mechanically.
"Ah! I remember. Its population?"
"Twenty-nine thousand five hundred and fifty-two. It increases at the
rate of thirty a day."
"Exactly so! It is—?"
"Just two years nine months and twelve days old."
"To be sure. Its property—?"
"Is one hundred and sixty-four million dollars, in round numbers."
"Of course. Its industries are—?"
"The usual pertaining to Western cities, I suppose. I confess ignorance
to concrete particulars. The reports have been singularly deficient in
this respect. I credit this entirely to its youth."
"Indeed! Its railroad facilities—?"
"The C. H. & S. F. is its great trunk line. Three branch lines have
their centre there—just built. Two roads are surveyed to shorten the
distance to Chicago and San Francisco respectively."
"Any other facts of interest, Mr. Ticks?" Mr. Ticks hesitated.
"Well—no—yes—no. In fact, there is nothing of special importance that
I—that is different from any other city—except—nothing, sir, that I
am willing to stake my professional reputation upon; you must excuse me,
"Is it in the cyclone area, Mr. Ticks?"
"No, sir. The centre of barometric depression is farther north. The
Buzzard mountains to the south deflect all such storm centres. Russell
will be singularly free from tornadoes."
The editor-in-chief looked somewhat nonplussed, and handed Mr. Ticks the
telegram, with the remark:
"What do you think of that?"
"I do not know, sir. I cannot give an opinion."
"I, Mr. Ticks, I for one believe this is true. I'll—I'll stake my
reputation on it!" said Swift decidedly. Mr. Ticks' exasperating caution
grated on the news editor and converted his scepticism into conviction.
"If it is," replied his chief, quietly, "you can start for the scene
to-night on the six thirty express. You did up the Charleston
earthquake. You were the first on the spot at Johnstown, and this
promises to be as bad—or as good."
Swift tried to look indifferent at this cumulation of trust. He had been
on the paper for five years; he had started in as night reporter, and
his own ability and quickness, united with a certain caution, one might
call it a news integrity, had raised him to his present position. The
Planet had the singular reputation of printing the truth. It rarely
was "taken in," with a false item. It aspired far beyond the local.
The Planet, under the able management of its chief and of Swift, had
become the mirror of the world. And, if at times it reflected important
news from a convex surface, it did no more and far less than the
majority of its contemporaries, who had no telegraphic facts to throw
away daily, and who, when hard pressed to it, manufactured a murder at
home or a war rumor abroad to help pad their lean columns.
"Let me see! It is five forty-five," continued the chief, consulting his
watch. "I will not detain you any longer, Mr. Ticks. We shall want a
column from you on Russell, to-night. And now, Swift,"—when Mr. Ticks
had faded out of the room,—"who's this correspondent signed D.?"
"It's Dubbs. You know him. Associated press man and special
correspondent. Never failed me. He's the only one there who knows our
The editor-in-chief did not change his expression, but his eyes had the
steady, stern look that showed easy determination. He quickly wrote a
few words on his pad and handed them to his favorite "sub."
"Take this to the cashier! Get to the elevated as fast as you can! Buy
what you need when you get time, and—go! I depend on you for the
fullest description to be had. If you do as well as you did on the
Conemaugh, I'll give you a raise on your return. Good luck to you."
It did not take Mr. Swift five minutes to rush to his den, slip on his
coat, snatch his hat from the floor, run downstairs, receive a fat roll
of bills from the phlegmatic cashier and bolt for the elevated train. In
twenty-five minutes he was at the central station, with two minutes to
spare. He nodded pleasantly to the gatekeeper and boarded the train as
nonchalantly as if he were going to his suburban boarding-house.
All of our readers will remember the curiosity, the speculation, the
horror, the apprehension, and the sympathy universally excited when, on
the tenth of September, it was learned from the morning papers that
Russell, the new capital of Harrison, was cut off from all
communication. Each morning sheet hinted darkly at the cause of this
unheard-of calamity. The Daily Braggart said there was no doubt that a
cyclone of gigantic proportions, followed by a water-spout, had swept
the city entirely away, and that its evening edition would print full
details of the "awful visitation," with pictures by their special
artists, now on the spot, illustrating the ruin.
Rut there was one piece of additional news about Russell that only the
Daily Planet gave. Let us quote, in order to be perfectly accurate.
The sheet is before us as we write:
"RUSSELL CUT OFF FROM ALL COMMUNICATION!
"The citizens of the State of Harrison are wild with
apprehension. As yet we cannot speculate on the nature of this
disaster. Up to this moment no one knows what it is. We will be
honest, and say we know no more than our neighbors. But this
much is assured: Not only is communication cut off within a
radius of twenty miles of the ill-fated city, but it is
impossible to re-establish it at present. There are forces at
work as yet uncatalogued by scientists. There is a definite
circle drawn about Russell, and to cross it means death. Two
men repairing the C. H. & S. F. tracks dropped, smitten by a
mysterious and invisible hand. The white mile post announced
that Russell was twenty miles from the spot where the corpses
of these brave fellows lay. What baneful miasma envelops this
broad area? What is the fate of the thousands within its
borders? Time will tell. Our reporters are on the spot. But as
we go to press we do not know."
Most people sniffed at this "dead line" as the wildest newspaper canard
of the lot. Many shook their heads. While those who had relatives or
friends or business connections in Russell tried to drown their horrible
suspense as best they could.
The Planet, it may be remembered, closed its leading editorial as
"We are a Democratic paper, and we had little love for this
baby State and its upstart capital, created solely to guarantee
a Republican majority at the next presidential election. But
when the news that an inscrutable fate had overtaken this
fraudulent State (we may be pardoned for saying that it seems
to us a sort of Divine retribution for political jobbery) party
feeling was washed away in that common compassion that all
Christians feel for their enemies in adversity."
Who could mistake the diction of the uncompromising but tender chief?
But it happened this time, as so often before, that the Planet's
information was true. Again that enterprising daily had made its "scoop"
on the other papers. Its elation was pardonable.
It is an indisputable fact that civilization as it progresses develops
in its advance new diseases and new catastrophes. Hay fever and la
grippe were not popular a hundred years ago. To breed a first-class
cyclone, cut down your trees and dry up your water supply. This has been
conscientiously attended to, and the natural consequences have
followed. Science can eliminate the simooms that strike Bombay and
Calcutta at such a day year after year, by simply flooding the desert of
Sahara. England can be more easily conquered by deflecting the Gulf
Stream a quarter of a point than by a thousand ironclads. Who knows but
that it would be less expensive to change her into a glacier than to
bombard her with hundred-ton guns?
More white people are killed by railroad accidents yearly in our highly
civilized land than were slaughtered by native braves in the palmy days
of the "Last of the Mohicans." It is a fact that our boasted
civilization, instead of affording surer protection, murders more men in
one way or another than barbarism, only in the present case the victims
are not eaten; the coffins are sumptuous; the processions decorous; the
mourners in good form; the burial service pregnant with hope, and
culture is not shocked. With us murder is committed by corporations, not
by paid assassins. That is the difference. The assassin fails in his
blows once in a while; the corporation never.
But where was Russell? What was the nature of the calamity? The
impenetrable fact that there was an actual, invisible dead line cast
about that territory, with Russell as its centre, became confirmed with
every report. It will be recalled that all the railroad tracks entering
the doomed city were twisted as if clawed by a maddened monster. It
presented a similar appearance to the South Carolina railroad on the day
of the Charleston earthquake. This gave rise again to the earthquake
theory. But why had not the shock been felt? No rumble had been heard.
Could an earthquake account for the deadly something that filled the
No intelligence came from Russell. The way must be forced to it.
Who forgets the relief expeditions started in wagons and on foot from
every point of the compass? These were invariably repelled on reaching
the dead line. We could understand the fetid miasma that made the Great
Dismal Swamp an unknowable country. We could comprehend the encroaching
dead line of the spreading yellow fever bacillus. But this fearful
death, that brooded silently, impenetrably, mysteriously and occultly
over a vast area once the garden of civilization, baffled all attempts
at explanation. Even birds were observed to vacate this tract. Only a
few sinister buzzards wheeled their flight, with straight, unflapping
wings, high above Russell, almost out of sight, as if they were the
embodied ghosts of Russell's unbaptized inhabitants.
What was that implacable power? Reporters and trackmen who steadily
scoffed at it were themselves attacked with violent heart-beats when
they crossed the invisible and fatal line. A convulsion of all the
members followed, as if in an epileptic fit,—insensibility and,
generally, death ensued. Many who were with difficulty rescued, and who
finally recovered, averred that they experienced an overcoming odor,
acid and penetrating, such as is peculiar to ozone when manufactured in
a chemical laboratory.
At the end of the fourth day of Russell's complete isolation a despair
settled upon the country. England was staggered by the uniqueness of
these phenomena. The French Academy of Sciences, after a prolonged
sitting, announced that they could suggest no solution. It is only too
well remembered that the newspaper bulletins were besieged in our own
cities, but these offered no further information or encouragement. Was
advanced civilization responsible for this disaster or not? That was the
burning question. Or was this a special visitation of God, a plague new
to the medical world, spontaneously generated, sporadic in its
appearance, and destined forever to be an obscurum per obscurius or
perhaps to spread with further undetermined horrors?
Thousands were now on the ground. They encompassed that section about as
Joshua did the city of Jericho, as the settlers did the Territory of
Oklahoma on the day of its opening, as the rabble do a house when a
murder has been committed.
On the evening of the fourth day from the time when the messenger boy
brought the first despatch to the office of the Daily Planet, its
chief, obviously nervous for the first time in his public life, received
the following cipher telegram, which cheered him wonderfully:
"On the spot. Situation desperate. Worse than described. Will
penetrate to Russell or die. Dead line still impassable. Trust
When Swift boarded the Western express he walked through, starting from
the last car, to see if any rival reporters happened to be there for the
same purpose. He scanned the backs of the heads of the passengers first,
and then looked keenly into each man's face as he passed. He had, in
common with all newspaper men, the detective instinct. Who knew what
eminent defaulter or renowned cracksman was fleeing the city in dark
disguise? However, he observed no familiar or suspicious character until
he entered the smoking car.
He did not go through, for, although a great smoker, he took no pleasure
in indulging in his favorite vice in the air of a democratic smoking
car. What fastidious smoker does? He was content to let his eyes wander
up and down the aisle. He was about to turn, when his gaze fell upon the
back of a dingy linen duster, which was surmounted by a large, faded,
black sombrero. The man under these garments had the upper part of his
face hidden beneath the broad flap of his hat, while the under part of
his face was entirely submerged in a large pamphlet. The man had the air
of extreme retirement. Something about the dinginess of the felt hat
seemed familiar to Swift. But, no; it could not be. To make sure, the
new editor of the Planet approached, and bent behind the man. The
gentleman was ignorant of the attention he attracted, and did not stir.
He seemed to be engrossed in one of Mr. Atkinson's incomprehensible
financial reports. Swift caught sight of the travellers face, started
back in amazement, and said:
"Excuse me, sir: is this seat engaged?" and without further ceremony sat
down beside the recondite stranger, who dropped his paper and stared at
Swift in return.
"Great Cęsar!" blurted out Swift. "How the D—epartment did you come
"On the five fifty-eight elevated," replied the man, imperturbably.
"I—I didn't know you were sent, too." Swift's heart burned within him
at the fancied slight.
"I wasn't," answered Mr. Statis Ticks, laconically and wearily.
"Where the dickens are you going, then?" asked Swift, warmly.
"To Russell, of course."
"How on earth did you get off?"
"I didn't, young man. I skipped." This exceptional occasion doubtless
accounted for the only bit of slang that was ever heard to fall from
those dry lips. "You see," proceeded Mr. Ticks drearily, "the
circumstance is a little unusual. I have read of nothing similar in the
casualty reports. I thought it best for my reputation to make my own
personal observations and figures on the spot."
"But your position?" asked Swift in surprise.
Mr. Statis Ticks raised his head proudly.
"If the Planet can get on without me, let it!"
"But your family?" continued Swift, somewhat dazed. Who had suspected
this animated reference library of such enterprise?
"I sent messenger number thirty-seven to them," he answered with a sigh,
as if he were bored by such trifles.
Then considering this topic exhausted, Mr. Ticks took out his notebook
and looked absently out of the window; now and then he jotted down a few
abstruse figures. He was engrossed in calculating the farm acreage
adjacent to the railroad track between New York and Albany.
When they drew nearer to the region of the catastrophe the papers gave
more lurid accounts of it. These were purchased and read with avidity by
those on board the flying express. Groups centred in the cars talked
only of one thing. Reporters now joined the train at each prominent
As the train approached the stricken territory it became crammed to
suffocation. It crept at a funeral pace. People fought at each station
for seats. The train split into sections on account of the added cars,
filled with mourners, with rescuers, with sight-seers, with villains.
Swift now took to himself a certain measure of authority. Was he not the
experienced representative of the greatest daily in America? But no one
noticed Mr. Statis Ticks, who silently blinked at the excited crowds and
then jotted down his estimates of them.
On the afternoon of the fourth day Swift bounded from the front platform
of the baggage car, the first to leave the train, and looked with a
professional eye about him. The scene that met his quick gaze was
unprecedented. Clamoring, gesticulating, shrieking, crying men and women
were rushing here and there in frenzy. Here was a group of women wailing
for their husbands, imprisoned or dead—and who knew which?—within that
awful circle. There a man looked, vacantly, with trembling lips, from
group to group, hunting for the wife snatched from him. Here was a rude
fellow peddling half a bushel of potatoes from a rickety farm wagon.
There a woman, hungry and desperate, was aimlessly dragging an orphan
child about. Yonder a confidence man was set upon and beaten by
infuriated victims. In the midst of a jostling, eager, credulous mob was
a man who fancied he had some real news to tell.
Now and then, as if by mutual consent, these people lifted up their
heads towards the Great Buzzard mountains, toward Russell, the city of
their despair, and clenched their fists and uttered an exasperated
groan. Agents of the Red Cross Society and of the Law and Order League
had already erected their tents, and were doing all they could to
restrain the lawlessness and relieve the discomforts of the mob. Swift
critically watched these seething thousands, who had come upon the spot
from motives of sorrow, curiosity, gain, and plunder, all miserable,
poorly housed and scantily fed. The reporter's inquisitiveness was well
ahead of his human sympathy up to this point.
Within these few days the border line about the afflicted city had
become an improvised camp, that extended for miles and miles. It was
enforced here by a railroad track, there by a village, until, having
completed the gigantic circle, it met again. Thousands were flowing in
each hour. They came from all points of the compass, like flocks of
angels and of devils. As yet the military was not at hand, and the
little law that existed was not of the gospel, but of brute force and
Swift, having sent off his dispatch at the improvised office, and having
forgotten his companion, whom he expected to be a nuisance on his hands,
retraced his steps and hurried to the dead line, where it impinged on
the railroad track. Here was the centre of the maddest rush. Here men
groaned and cursed and wept aloud. Swift pushed his way through until he
reached that portion of the track that defied further passage. A cord
had been stretched there to keep the crowds back. Upon showing his badge
he was received with respect.
"Take keer, boss," said the huge policeman, whose sole duty up to this
time had been to drive the spikes into the sleepers. "I tried it
yesterday. They just pulled me out. I got the d—d shakes yet." With a
grave smile Swift ducked under the rope and looked before him. The
solitary, motionless, blasted prairie stretched out, relieved only by
the outlines of the Buzzard mountains. Where once the tops of towers,
grain elevators and steeples were to be seen on the horizon, there was a
cloud. A dense, strange, ominous mist overhung the stricken city.
This cloud was of a yellowish color that recalled to Swift the dreadful
yellow day of '72. It reached nearly to the summit of the great Buzzard
mountain. Within five miles of the spot on which he stood this
phenomenon became more and more attenuated until it disappeared in dull
transparency. What did that cloud contain? What horrors did it hide? Of
what was its nature? What was the secret of its deadly influence? No
American catastrophe had impressed the reporter so much as the sight of
this veil, hiding the unattainable city. Curse this maledict, deadly
vapor! It paralyzed his inventiveness. It baffled his imagination. For
the first time in his reportorial career Swift was stunned and without
Now it was said that not a breath of air had stirred over the polluted
area since the morning of the loss of Russell.
As the news editor looked down the tracks he saw that the tracks, which
were torn up and twisted beneath him, within a hundred feet, disappeared
utterly from view. The wooden ties were blackened into charcoal in their
places, but the iron rails had evaporated. It was the same with the
telegraph wires. At a certain point they stopped and were gone. The
poles, tottering and scorched and bare, looked like a procession of
naked ghosts, undressed for livelier mockery. Before him the trees, the
shrubs, the grain, the grasses—in fine, all vegetation had been smitten
The face of the earth was black and crumbling. It looked as if the roots
of this unconscious vegetable life had been suddenly touched by volcanic
fires and had died from the ground up. There was not a vestige of life
as far as the eye could see. Had a fire swept the land? But no! No smoke
had been hitherto visible, unless this inexplicable cloud were smoke.
And yet, to Swift's practiced eye, there were evidences of a violent, a
sudden, a consuming heat. The men in line behind Swift stood
respectfully back while he observed this unique scene. He noticed a
white mile-post close at hand. It was inscribed, "Russell, 20 m."
"Only twenty miles to Russell! and no one there yet! What a field for
the news editor of the greatest paper in the land! The competitors were
keen. The chances were even, the honor great, and no favors asked. As he
stood for a moment, lost in thought over the apparent hopelessness of
the undertaking, and almost wishing he had not sent so confident a
telegram to his chief, he felt a hand upon his arm.
"I have found one," said a slow voice.
"Have you? What?" asked Swift, with careless interest. He recognized the
aspirated tones of Mr. Ticks.
"I have calculated this thing over. There are between six and seven
thousand on the spot. Five hundred reporters are here, and more expected
by every train. There is no food, no bed, no roof for us here. This
place has been completely done up. It is exhausted. To get facts we must
"Jove, you're right, old man!"
Mr. Ticks acknowledged the compliment with a slight motion of his hand.
"Yes, I have just purchased the only team to be had, for four hundred
Swift glanced enviously at his autumnal colleague, who had already
outdone him in enterprise.
"Cyclones and tornadoes in this part of the country," proceeded Mr.
Ticks sententiously, "travel to the northeast. We will go to the north.
If there are any remains they are to be found there," Mr. Ticks had, it
would seem, embraced the tornado theory.
"We will go immediately!" exclaimed Swift.
"Hold!" cried the man of figures quietly, "I wish to test this
phenomenon. Wait for me here!"
Before Swift could utter a protest or arrest his colleague's arm, the
philosopher started up the vacant track. No one dared to follow him. The
crowd were too much stunned at his audacity. Had they not dragged a
dozen adventurers back from the same mad enterprise? Men shuddered
before this unknown fate that stretched out its relentless arms so far
and no further. A cocked pistol would have been more comfortable.
But Mr. Ticks walked on slowly, unconsciously, as if in a revery. He put
his hands out as if to feel the air. He put his tongue out as if to
taste it. He had not gone forty feet when he was observed to tremble
violently. Those on the dead line united with Swift in shrieking "Come
back!" The experimenting member of the Planet staff only shook his
head. He was not twenty yards away when he stopped abruptly. He put his
hands to his head and heart, and struggled against the unseen force. It
beat upon him: but he steadied his legs the firmer and met the shock. It
smote at him, but he wearily smiled in return. He even made a motion as
if for his notebook. But such temerity was too much for the occult
fluid to suffer. It breathed upon him and felled him to the ground. As
he dropped he rested for a moment spasmodically upon one knee, and
peered into the air as if he were penetrating the secret of this baleful
agent. Then he fell back insensible.
Half an hour afterwards the newspaper man came to. Swift was bending
"We rushed you out. You'll pull through all right, old man," said his
"Did you note the symptoms?" asked Mr. Ticks feebly.
"Did you wire them?"
"No; I hadn't time. I——"
"Then do so!" He sank back exhausted.
"But how did you feel? How do you feel?" asked Swift anxiously.
"As mortal never felt before," replied Mr. Ticks solemnly. With these
words upon his lips he lapsed away again into unconsciousness.
That evening at a late hour Swift made his way to the
four-hundred-dollar team under whose protecting shelter he had ensconced
his patient with such poor comfort as was possible.
Mr. Ticks raised himself from the cushions upon one arm.
"Are you ready?" he said restlessly.
"For what?" asked Swift in astonishment.
"Not to-night surely?"
"Yes—immediately. Harness up! We must be at the extreme north of this
unclassified belt by to-morrow morning."
Empiria, the new county seat of the new county Dominion of the new State
of Harrison, was twenty miles away to the northward as the crow flies,
and at least thirty miles off by road. The horse that Mr. Ticks had the
forethought to purchase developed an unaccountable spavin, united with
an unmistakable case of the heaves: when the whip was applied it
furthermore exhibited an innate tendency to back. Mr. Swift drove
through the darkness of the night, picking out the road with that genius
for locality which the general and the reporter in the field share
alike. Barring mistakes, accidents, or further exhibitions of depravity
on the part of the equine department, they hoped to reach Empiria by
Mr. Ticks leaned back upon the jolting seat in unbroken silence. When
his colleague, who drove, hazarded a question, the only reply was a low
grunt. As sleep was out of the question in that wagon, behind that horse
and in those roads, was it pain or mighty thought or nebulous
calculation that oppressed the wise man of the Planet? At about two
o'clock in the morning Mr. Stalls Ticks broke his long reserve with the
"If it is, it is a unique case. The phenomenon is isolated."
"I hope you feel better now?" Swift had been anxious about his
colleague, and had interpreted his silence as evidence of physical
distress. Mr. Ticks gave an invisible shrug of his shoulders to express
the contempt he felt for his own anatomy in comparison with the
attainment of exact knowledge. Otherwise, heedless of the interruption,
"It is physically impossible that a low-pressured area could have had
its centre three or four hundred miles northwest of Russell."
"Indeed?" replied Swift, vaguely and unsympathetically.
"It must travel towards the centre of the low pressure."
"Of course," assented Swift, as he would to a lunatic. Evidently that
inexpressible shock had been too much for the middle-aged man.
"The Gopher lake on the north, and the Buzzard mountain on the south,
prevent the isothermal curve from being deflected toward the north."
"Really?" said Swift.
"It will be deflected to the south, young man," said Mr. Ticks,
severely. "The atmospheric equilibrium can suffer no centripetal
"Well, what then?" asked Swift, a little bored.
"There could be no gyrating motion of the atmosphere. There will be no
aerial contest. There could be no colder stratum above the warmer layer
coming from another direction. Both would flow from the south. There
could be no inversion of these conditions. My friend, Russell has
experienced no tornado or cyclone. And yet—" he added wistfully and
thoughtfully, "and yet—"
"Well, if there was no tornado, what the deuce are we going to
Empiria for?" demanded Swift. He forgot himself, and gave the
four-hundred-dollar horse a sharp cut with the whip, in consequence of
which the animal backed them so nearly toward the place from which they
started that the journey to Empiria was seriously lengthened. Mr. Ticks
did not notice this delay.
"—And yet?" he mused.
"What is the matter, then, if it isn't wind?" asked Swift, impatiently,
after he had persuaded his horse to defer the next attack of backing for
a mile or so. "Is there a new variety of atmospheric disturbance? If
so, it might strike us here!"
"Sir—no! This is not a common tornado. As to further theories, they are
not formulated as yet. No, this quadrant of the State of Harrison was
not subjected to such a violent disturbance. I am prepared to say that
there will be no evidences of a vortex wind in or near Empiria." Mr.
Ticks relapsed into further thought, nor could he be aroused until the
jaded horse brought the two jaded reporters into the open square of the
It was early, about five o'clock, but still there were evidences of
stirring and excitement. Upon the village common two or three large
tents were erected, and from out of these, scantily dressed men and
woman emerged. As these came into the cool, open air they lifted up
their faces to the south, searching the horizon and sky to see if there
was anything new in the smitten district. It was a motion as instinctive
as that of the Mahomedan toward Mecca when he prays. The appearance of
our two strangers excited no notice. Empiria was on a branch road,
difficult of access, but people had flocked in and the village had
become a city.
After a hard struggle, in which persistent ingenuity won, Swift obtained
a little corn for his horse, and a promise of breakfast for himself and
By six the populace was awake, bustling with feverish eagerness and
oppressed with dread and suspense. Swift questioned a hundred, climbed
to the tops of trees, advanced upon the mysterious dead line, and
retired baffled at every step.
As he thought of that vast enclosure, that was now an unapproachable
cemetery, his soul shuddered within him. Like a thousand beside him,
this man of nerve was baffled and overcome.
By nine o'clock, Swift had exhausted the spot, and was for pushing on to
the westward to complete the perplexing circle if necessary. Perhaps an
entrance might be forced elsewhere. He was sitting in his buggy with Mr.
Ticks, who was as uncommunicative as the dasher when he looked for the
hundredth time towards the Buzzard mountains. As he gazed he saw turkey
buzzards, of which there are thousands in that land, wheeling their
spiral flight above the afflicted territory. Swift looked at them as he
always did, wondering how they could fly so long without flapping their
wings, when suddenly he cried out:
"By Jove! I have it!" This startled Mr. Ticks.
"What? Have you new information? What has occurred?"
"No; but I have an idea—the idea—but I don't see how I could put it
through without time. I will go to Russell, or over Russell in a
The light of inspiration and sympathy flashed from one to the other.
"I congratulate you on the thought," said Mr. Ticks gravely. "I think I
can procure you one in a quarter of an hour."
Now, under no circumstances is a balloon an easy thing to obtain. Even
in a metropolis like New York or London it will take the cleverest
reporter at least eighteen minutes, if not a few seconds longer, to hunt
up a suitable means of ascension. It is not as simple a matter as one
may suppose, to "go up." Therefore, when Mr. Ticks, in a matter-of-fact
voice, asserted that he would procure the balloon in fifteen minutes,
Swift fetched a long low whistle. But not in the least disconcerted by
Swift's manner, Mr. Ticks slowly descended from the vehicle, and said:
"Just wait here until I come back, so that no time may be lost." He
strode towards one of the large tents on the common and disappeared
within its flaps. Had Mr. Ticks the formula for inflating a canvas tent
into a balloon? Who knew?
In a few minutes the statistician returned, bringing with him a tall,
cadaverous man, whose leanness was heightened by a long chin beard,
which descended upon his chest to the middle button of his coat. Having
a beard of this description, the gentleman had no need of a necktie, and
having no necktie, he, of course, dispensed with a collar.
"Professor Ariel, my friend Mr. Swift, who wishes to talk business." Mr.
Ticks performed the introduction in his blandest manner. The man who
seemed to see nothing had seen everything. It had taken the unpractical,
the scholar, the dreamer, the muser, to observe the broken remnants of a
county fair, and the advertisement of that aeronautic expedition,
conducted by the renowned Professor Ariel, who was to have made an
ascension at twelve o'clock that awful day, taking with him a couple to
be married in the seventh heavens and a Seventh-Day Baptist clergyman to
tie the knot. It was at ten in the morning that Russell was closed in,
and the balloon and the professor had been ignominiously forgotten.
"Where is your balloon, professor?" asked Swift, when he had learned
these preliminary details.
"Darn it all, in that barn there!" The professor spoke as if he had a
personal grievance against the barn.
"Are—were they to have paid you for your ascension?"
"Five hundred dollars, and I hain't seen a red, and I can't get out of
this infernal place."
"I suppose it is in good condition?" inquired the editor.
"You bet! It's new. Never been used. Cost twenty-five hundred dollars.
"How long would it take you to get her ready?"
"Three hours' pushing would do it, I suppose."
"We want to go up in that balloon, Professor Ariel," said Swift, after
deliberation. Mr. Ticks confirmed this demand with an affirmative
gesture of his sad head.
"Can't be done, sir. I wouldn't risk her in this crowd!"
The professor spoke decisively.
"Do you know who we are?"
The professor shook his head.
"We are here representing the Daily Planet, and it will be the biggest
advertisement you ever had."
The professor still shook his head doubtfully.
"If you were the President and all his angels I wouldn't risk it. A
counter-current might carry us over that cussed spot, and we'd all be
stiff before you could say Jinks."
Nothing daunted, Swift took the aeronaut by the arm, offered him a
cigar, and pointed towards the Buzzard mountains.
"That's just where we want to go. D'ye see those birds up there? If they
can stand it we can. This deadly what-you-call-it doesn't reach as high
The professor stared and then muttered to himself:
"Gee—mima! The feller's hit it right."
"Now, look here, professor! You're a famous man. Everybody knows you.
The Planet charters your balloon for five hundred dollars. Is it a
The professor's eyes glittered yellow, the color of greed.
"I couldn't think of it. I couldn't risk the danger. It's an unknown
country, now—no, I couldn't."
"Call it six hundred."
"That wouldn't pay me if she breaks."
"Eight hundred dollars!"
"Couldn't do it."
"Nine hundred dollars. I'm tired."
"Subtract eight and add a cipher, and I'm your man."
"Very well! Mr. Ticks is witness. I will give you five hundred when we
leave the ground, and the balance when we touch it again."
The two men shook hands over their bargain.
"Let me see," said Swift, glancing at his watch, "it is ten o'clock. We
will ascend at one."
"I will assist the professor in preparing his airship," said Mr. Ticks.
"By the way, how tall is your balloon, professor? What is her cognomen?"
"I call her High Tariff, mister. That's her name. You'll see it on
her. Wait till she gets her forty thousand cubic feet of gas in her, and
you'll see her height."
By twelve o'clock the multitude had got wind of the undertaking, and
were thronging towards the fenced enclosure, where the huge monster was
flapping with that inane motion that only a half-filled balloon can take
to itself. Rumors of the wildest description were afloat. By half-past
twelve the balloon was, to all appearance, full, and sandbags were being
put aboard. By one the crowd could hardly be kept back by self-sworn
marshals, and the balloon tugged at its warps as if it would burst its
bonds at the slightest provocation.
The High Tariff now awakened the utmost enthusiasm. Men came by tens
and hundreds to make offers for the risky trip.
"Blank it all, she's chartered, the High Tariff is," was the
aeronaut's invariable reply. "She don't belong to me this trip. Ask the
At ten minutes after one precisely Swift appeared upon the ground. He
had just sent off the following message to his paper:
"Start immediately for Russell by thousand dollar balloon."
He had sold his horse and team and had purchased provisions with the
proceeds. Five minutes after the sale the horse backed into the hotel
and smashed the buggy into Chinese joss-sticks.
Swift walked calmly to the car and ordered the provisions aboard.
"Have you a long ladder and grapnel?" he inquired.
"Two hundred and fifty feet each."
"Two hundred pounds."
"Are you ready, professor?" asked Swift, satisfied with his inspection.
"She's full to bustin'!" said the professor, looking uneasily at the
"Jump in, Mr. Ticks!" The crowd was almost beside itself at the boldness
of the undertaking. Men yelled and hooted encouragement as the venerable
and musty editor stepped into the car with a natural air. It took more
than this to embarrass Mr. Ticks.
"Now, professor!" As Swift spoke he handed the professor a draft on the
Planet for five hundred dollars. The professor hesitated no longer. He
snatched the check and bounded in. An assistant stood ready with an axe
to cut the ropes that held the impatient balloon. Swift then stepped in
leisurely. It was just twenty-nine minutes and a quarter past one
o'clock. The crowd shrieked as if their throats would burst. Swift
lifted his hat in acknowledgment.
"Never say die!"
"Come back and tell us all about it."
"If you see my husband tell him I'm waiting for him."
They cheered and yelled and cried and cheered again.
"Are you ready?" asked Swift, looking at his companions.
"Then let her go!"
A cut, a swirl, an indescribable motion, and shouts became to those in
the High Tariff whispers, men became ants, and they were gone.
"Look! For God's sake, look! What is it?"
Swift strained his eyes to the southward, toward the death-bound
territory. The malignant cloud that settled over plain and mountain
slope was broken on the Gopher lake. As soon as Swift had recovered from
the first bound of the balloon he had scanned the dark mist, and by the
borders of the lake he had found a rift. This rift indicated the spot
where the city of Russell should have been. As he spoke he clutched the
arm of his colleague, and pointed over the side of the rising car.
"I—I'm afraid I can't see what you mean," stammered Mr. Statis Ticks,
"my glasses are blurred."
The man of figures was really agitated. But Professor Ariel, like many
an adventurer, had more than his share of what one may politely call
sang-froid, but what is known in common North American as simple
"cheek." Besides, in some sections of the country, he might have been
called a profane man. With his hands on the safety valve, he looked and
"By ——. It's gone!"
"I see nothing—nothing but black streaks," said the elder member of the
Planet corps hurriedly. "Can't we stop, professor? Perhaps that isn't
the site of the unfortunate city!"
The professor, obedient to the suggestion, pulled the safety valve, and
the gas rushed out with a wheeze.
"You bet it is! That's the place! Didn't I land there before I struck
Empiria? Darned lucky for me they didn't take stock in the High
Tariff. I might have been—God knows what, now!"
Even as the three men looked, the cloud closed in upon the land.
Strangely enough, it shunned the surface of the water. The travellers
cast their eyes upon the sullen bosom of the Gopher lake. This body of
water glittered like the scales of a leaden serpent. It looked from that
great height poisonous and discontented. Swift gazed upon it intently.
"Why? Wouldn't they have you?" inquired Mr. Ticks, absent-mindedly of
the professor. "See! Haven't we struck another current?"
As he spoke the huge High Tariff swayed. A breath of chilly air smote
them. Then gently the balloon swung toward the Gopher lake—toward the
"Well, you see, the balloon was too old-fashioned for them," answered
the professor, still bent upon his grievance. "Now, if it had gone by
electricity that 'ud been another thing."
"How so?" asked Mr. Ticks, with polite interest.
"Well! Everything in that gol-darned town went by electricity. They had
electric cars, electric lights, electric shampooing, electric cigars,
electric sewing machines, electric elevators, electric table service in
the hotel; worst was, they had electric cabs. They kept quiet about some
of their notions. Folks did say they had their reasons. I didn't hear
nothing about all this electric tomfoolery till I struck the city."
"Ah!" interrupted Mr. Ticks, pricking up his ears. "I have heard about
those cabs, but I have had no reliable information that they were a
"They ain't!" answered the professor, rubbing his right arm with a wince
of memory. "Like a darn jack I took one for a spin. They go on three
wheels; one in front, two behind. The driver, he sits in front and
steers the shebang with the forward wheel. I hadn't gone two blocks when
I leaned out of the window and the current struck me in the arm like a
shot. You bet I yelled bloody murder and got out of that trap in two
shakes of a colt's tail."
"How does all that electrical system work otherwise?" asked Mr. Ticks
slowly, after some thought.
"Everybody perfectly wild over it. They won't allow a horse in town, nor
even a ton of coal. Electricity is the big thing of the future. They
fight electrical duels. Feller that stands the greatest number of
alternating volts gets the apology. I saw a dog-fight in the street
stopped by the Humane Society. A man would drop a wet sponge on the
dog's head, another on his back, and turn on the circuit. They generally
both dropped and never knew what struck 'em. Two dead dogs better than
one fight. But they kept it all dark enough. These were jest
experiments, they said. When they were done that they were going to have
an electrical exhibition and invite the hull world. Why, I heard they
were fool enough to put in a bill in the Legislature to have the name of
Russell changed to Electra. As if Russell wasn't good enough for them!"
Mr. Ticks mused over these facts. Why was it that his acquisitive mind
had not roamed over this field before? Perhaps because it was
acquisitive, not imaginative. He could only account for the
unpardonable omission on the ground that there were so many new
competing Western cities, each with its peculiar advantages: and that
there were so many strange electrical inventions new each day, that he
had overlooked Russell and its progressive hobby. Besides, was he not on
the staff of a Democratic paper, which would, perhaps, on the whole,
prefer to ignore the new Republican State and its flourishing capital.
"How was all this power produced if coal was excluded?" asked Mr. Ticks.
"Oh, windmills did that. A half a dozen huge windmills, with wings, each
as big as the High Tariff, were the first things you saw. They were
nearly three hundred feet high——"
"Good Heavens! Look, man! Look down there! Don't you see something in
the middle of the lake!" Swift pulled the professor over to his side of
the car, and pointed directly below the balloon.
They had now struck a dead calm and the High Tariff floated motionless
two thousand feet above the lake. Directly below them was something
resting upon the waters. It looked fixed and dead. A log? A wreck? A
raft? Slowly the outline took to itself the form of a boat.
"Have you a pair of glasses here?" asked Swift, all of a quiver.
The professor shoved one of Steward's field-glasses in his hand.
"There's a body in that boat!" cried Swift, after a prolonged
examination. "No—Great God! It's alive! It moves! It's a woman!"
The professor took a long look.
"I guess you're right. She's a female!"
"But she must be saved," insisted Swift. "We must save her."
"Yes, Professor Ariel," said Mr. Statis Ticks, sententiously and with
trembling dignity; "being a woman, she demands our attention, and,
besides, as a survivor she can give us the information and suggest the
figures we need."
"I'll do my best, gentlemen," said the professor, shaking, his head,
"but it's mighty ticklish business. Supposing we drift into the deadly
air. I don't know what that vapor means, but it evidently means the
'Sweet By and By.' Even the High Tariff wouldn't save us then!"
"Look here, professor," jerked out Swift, peremptorily, "it's got to be
done. Now dry up!"
"All right, it's a go. I can stand it if you can."
So the valve was opened cautiously, and the balloon with majestic
slowness, obedient to its master's hand, descended toward the Great
Gopher lake, and hovered over the cockle-shell upon its malignant
As the High Tariff approached the little boat, Mr. Ticks looked at it
"She's alive and unmarried," said the oracle, slowly.
"Why unmarried?" asked Swift, with a vague flutter of the heart. He had
watched the figure of the woman attentively with the spyglass. It was
rounded and supple. Masses of dark-brown hair hid her shoulders and
"Because," answered Mr. Ticks, "she is under eighteen. The statistics of
this section of the West show that no female over eighteen years of age
The balloon had now descended to within three hundred feet of the boat.
The girl in it did not stir. She lay with her head propped in the bow,
so stiffly and so still that to all appearance she was a dead woman. But
the three men agreed they had seen her move. Had her rescuers arrived
"Let down the ladder!" cried Swift. "I'll go down and pick her up!"
Ignorant how hard it is even for an experienced hand to climb up and
down a rope ladder swinging in space, he clambered over the side of the
"Hold, young fellow!" Professor Ariel spoke sharply. By this time they
were within two hundred feet of the water.
"Hold, I say!" yelled the professor in a rage, letting go the rope to
the safety-valve and at the same time, grabbing a sand-bag. "If you stir
out of this car I'll pitch ballast out and you'll never see your gal
Swift stopped short. The rope-ladder swayed like a double snake beneath
them. Its end was fifty feet above the boat, but, O horrors! It was also
nearly fifty feet to one side of the boat—no human power could reach
the lady from the ladder. A breath might blow the High Tariff even
At the same time the girl, doubtless aroused from her stupor by the
professor's loud call, opened her eyes slowly. Above her loomed a
gigantic monster. Was it a dream? Was this apparition a final terror
added to her awful experience, sent to crush out the last remnant of her
buoyant life and magnificent courage? She stared at the thing above her;
then opened her mouth and gave a scream, such as can only be the result
of full Western tracheal development.
"Oh! don't be frightened!" cried Swift quickly, "Don't! We've come to
save you!" He could not think of anything more to say; and it occurred
to him that he was a donkey to say anything.
But the professor, who had few delicate scruples, waved his hat and
"What's the matter with the High Tariff? She's all right!"
This yell, so frequently heard on Eastern land and sea, had penetrated
even to the Great Gopher lake, and it reassured the girl more than
anything else could have done.
She sat up weakly enough in the boat, and, after waving her hand, with
feminine instinct tried to coil her hair and otherwise prepare herself
as best she could to receive these angels from the clouds.
"Can you catch?" yelled the professor.
"Try me!" came back a voice undaunted, though enfeebled by long
The professor coiled a stout, light rope on his arm, shot out a few
thundering orders about safety-valves and ballast, and cautiously, but
with gymnastic quickness, descended the yielding rounds of the long
To the lady in the boat, to the passengers in the car it seemed hours
before the professor reached the last of the two hundred rounds. It
might have been forty seconds.
Swift called out to the young lady encouragingly:
"Hold out a little while longer and you'll be safe!"
"I'm all right now, since you have come." The young woman's trembling
voice seemed to lay an actual emphasis on "you" that Swift was selfish
enough to take to himself.
"How long have you been there?"
"Five days. I am nearly dead!"
"Poor, poor thing!" said Swift to himself. Tears of sympathy came into
his eyes. Even Mr. Ticks blinked.
"She's office editor on some Russell daily," said Mr. Ticks after
another long look through the field glasses.
"How do you know?" asked Swift in displeasure.
"She's got a stylograph behind her right ear and a yellow pad in her
lap; besides, there are some clippings at the bottom of the boat."
By this time Professor Ariel had reached the lower end of his ladder.
"Now, catch!" he cried, hurling the light rope with sure skill. It
whistled through the air and the end fell across the boat.
"Make fast to something, quick, now!"
As he spoke he felt a breath of air upon his face. The balloon careened
over slightly and righted itself. The High Tariff was slowly settling
to the water's surface. As quickly as he could the professor pulled the
boat toward him.
"You can't. It's anchored," cried the girl. She tugged at the rope with
the last strength of hope, and actually brought it up. The skiff yielded
to the professor's clutch. By this time the balloon was so low down that
the aeronaut's feet were nearly in the water.
"Throw out sand by the handful!" he ordered. This gentle lighting kept
her at the right elevation.
Now the professor touched the boat. He jumped in. "Don't talk!" he
cried, "hold out your arms instead!" He knotted the rope underneath her
arms and tied the other end firmly to the ladder.
"We've got to hurry. Now, Miss! you keep cool, and we'll save you all
right." It was a desperate chance.
"Now let go a couple of sandbags!" the order came up to Swift in the
Mr. Statis Ticks, with his hand upon the safety-valve, and hearing the
order, became, for the first time in his life, confused. He pulled the
safety-valve wide open, and the gas rushed furiously out. Even with the
two sandbags overboard and lightened of fifty pounds dead weight, the
balloon descended suddenly.
The professor saw the mistake at a glance. He yelled furiously:
"Good God! Close that valve or we're lost!"
But the mischief was already done.
"Heave it all out!" shrieked the professor, climbing up the ladder like
a cat. The car of the balloon grazed the side of the boat. Mr. Statis
Ticks, in such atonement as he could make for his awful error, reached
over his thin arms. The girl arose, tottering to her feet, and, with a
mighty effort, the gray, gaunt man lifted the heavy girl into the car.
That was the most humane, and, at the same time, the maddest thing he
could have done. Under the influence of the added weight the car struck
the boat, over-turned it, and then dragged in the water.
"Out with everything!" howled the professor.
The three looked around in despair. The girl had dropped limp upon the
floor, and the water was upon her. Above them was a cloud of the
darkness of night. Cirrhus clouds scudded here and there in confusion.
There was strange atmospheric howling in the distance, approaching
nearer and nearer. The water assumed that angry hue it takes to itself
before a desperate storm. The monstrous balloon writhed intelligently
above them. All the sandbags were now pitched out. The High Tariff
shook itself loose from the water. It rose. It fell. It rose again.
"Are we safe?" cried Swift, looking anxiously at the girl.
"Take off your coat and vest and shoes, everything, and chuck 'em over
like lightning, and we'll see," answered the professor, solemnly.
With wild energy the men threw out of the car everything that had a
semblance of weight. Aeronauts well know the difference that a few
ounces make to safety when the gas has been exhausted from their
balloon. Professor Ariel had cast everything overboard with maniacal
celerity, and now, clad only in his undershirt and trousers, was hacking
at the trailing ladder to cut that off. The balloon had risen some fifty
or a hundred feet. It now halted irresolute. Could it recover itself and
mount? or would it lose courage and fall, dragging its passengers to a
But far more fearful than the latter imminent danger was the sight of
the threatening sky. Not one of these imperilled people had ever seen
such whirling masses of mad, black, revengeful clouds. These centred
from all sides upon the site of the lost city. They rushed together and
formed eddies and funnels. They roared like live things. It was in one
of these smaller whirlwinds that the balloon was caught.
The massive folds of silk beat and writhed and tried to tear themselves
loose from the clutches of the elements. The four in the car clung to it
with terror, watching the mad-cap play of the wind.
"It's no use—I can't!" cried the professor with damp, white face,
throwing down his knife. "The wire is too strong. We must get to the
rigging, cut off the car, and God help us!"
The situation was indeed appalling. The ladder, for purposes of greater
stability, was made of wire woven over with manila. The sharp knife
could not cut that useless weight.
In this crisis the young lady recovered her equipoise. She began to take
off her shoes.
"It will help a little," she said. Then she began shyly to loose her
overskirt. But the whirlwind caught the car and nearly upset it. It
swirled and almost touched the ground.
"Up!" cried the professor. He caught the girl and tied her in
dexterously. Every man held himself in the ropes that bound the car to
the balloon as best he might. It was a fearful chance. The professor cut
a rope and made bowline chairs. Each sat in his noose and held on for
dear life. The professor, who never lost his coolness, worked as if he
had done this before. And indeed he had.
Swift had the presence of mind or the presence of heart to support the
young lady in this perilous moment.
Cut! cut! The car had been caught in a counter eddy, and was five
hundred feet or so in the air, but rapidly descending. Then the last
strand parted. Relieved of several hundred-weight, the balloon bounded
up. It was buffeted and whirled and tossed from cloud to cloud. The
maddened elements clutched at it. Balls of fire danced upon the ground
beneath, and darted here and there from cloud to cloud. As the professor
gave the last cut and the balloon soared aloft, there was a report as if
a thousand rounds of artillery were concentrated in one shot. There was
a dazzling streak of light. It smote the adventurers blind. It smote
them deaf. It stunned them into insensibility. Like limp corpses the
four sat as they were whirled on high, each clasping his arms
instinctively about the rope that held him.
It seemed as if death had overtaken them all and petrified them with its
"I have solved the problem." Mr. Ticks opened his eyes and gasped. "By
my faith, where are we?"
Far below were opaque blackness, storm and wind. Above, the blue,
infinite ether. The sun shone brilliantly. It warmed the balloon. It
expanded the gas. The High Tariff kept rising. The stillness was a
miracle. Beneath stretched the panorama of a stricken country. The
highest peaks of the Buzzard mountains were below the balloon. The storm
raged over the lake and the lost city like a mock storm, it was so
distant and so unimportant. Now and then there was a flash of yellow
light and a distant reverberation. The storm was fearful, but it was
only a small blot upon a fair landscape when viewed from such a height.
"Yes," mused Mr. Ticks aloud, pulling his energies together. "I know now
what it all means. I know the secret of Russell's unparalleled
As he spoke he reached out and shook the professor, then Swift; then he
touched the young lady with gentle deference. The three opened their
eyes, one after another.
"We're saved! Oh, what luck! We're saved!" cried Professor Ariel. Tears
of joy started from his eyes. "Say, mister," his devil-may-care manner
returning to him in the fulness of his ecstasy. "Say," punching Swift,
"you ain't got a chaw about you, have you?"
But Swift, lifting up his bewildered eyes, took in the glorious blue sky
and sun, then his gaze fell upon the horror from which they had
escaped. Mechanically he searched the pockets of his trousers. Out of
his pistol pocket he pulled a flask of brandy—all that survived to him
of his outfit for this ghastly journey. This he had forgotten, otherwise
it would have gone by the rail along with his pocketbook, to lighten the
"Not yet," he said, pushing aside the professor's longing hand, "the
The brandy, the warm sun and the prospect of safety roused the girl
considerably. Possibly Swifts supporting arm hastened her recuperation.
Swift passed the bottle to Mr. Ticks, who drank, and coughed, and drank
"It's St. Croix, vintage of forty-two," said Mr. Ticks, gratefully. The
professor got what he could. But Swift would not touch any. He was
experiencing a finer intoxication. His eyes met those of the girl, who
had been the unconscious cause of all their danger. She seemed to
perceive this, for she soon broke the profound silence by suggesting
with a blush:
"You needn't hold me so tight, sir. I'll try not to fall."
"Can you talk now?" asked Mr. Ticks of their lady companion.
This question deflected a possible embarrassment, but Swift, deeming it
safe to allow no risk, did not relax his hold of the girl.
"Are you a reporter?" he asked, with an unaccountable desire to keep the
conversation in his own hands. "This gentleman and myself are on the
Daily Planet, the other man is professor of the balloon."
"How did you know?" she answered with a first approach to a smile. "I
am, or at least I was, society reporter on the Russell Telegraph." The
last word started Mr. Ticks up again.
"You witnessed the destruction of Russell? Do you know that its cause is
the despair of the world? Do you know——"
"Oh, it was dreadful! dreadful! dreadful!" interrupted the girl with a
shudder. "I was out in my boat alone and saw it all!"
The lady hid her face. "I was so tired that morning I couldn't breathe.
It was oppressive. The air was over-charged so strangely. You touched an
iron post and a spark shot out and gave you a shock. I couldn't stay, so
I begged off and took my lunch and my work in my little skiff and rowed
two miles out and anchored and tried to write."
"Can you state for the Planet, Miss——?"
"Insula Magnet, that's my name, sir."
"Miss Magnet, can you state at what exact hour the catastrophe
The balloon had now come to a standstill, and floated quietly above the
lake and the doomed city. The four wriggled uncomfortably in the
improvised seats. The ropes cut them. The sun beat upon them hotly. They
were exhausted and hungry and parched.
"Can't we go down?" suggested Swift. His brain reeled at the great depth
below him. The person who lost his hold and fell would die before he
reached the earth. The first stage in the Strasburg cathedral is two
hundred and fifty feet high, and it is a terrible sight to look over its
stone balustrade. No one forgets his sensation when he leans over the
top of the Eiffel tower, a thousand feet from the asphalt pavement
below. Judge what it was to those inexperienced travellers to be over
ten thousand feet high, clinging like weather-beaten flies to these
"No, I wouldn't descend yet in this calm for as many dollars as we are
feet high. We're safe enough here. Look up, man! Look up! Shut your
eyes. That's best!"
But Mr. Ticks pugnaciously returned to his question. What was a little
matter of falling ten thousand feet or so? A fact startling and valuable
was at stake and at hand.
"It was just a quarter of ten," answered Miss Magnet, in a low,
horror-stricken tone. "I was writing. Suddenly a bitter vapor enveloped
everything. There was no wind, no sun, no clouds, only this dense,
strange atmosphere. It prostrated me. There were a number of boats near
me. These were all of the new patent. They were steel. I saw great balls
of fire dance from boat to boat. Then there came from the city a light
such as I never saw before. It flashed like an enormous meteor, like an
incandescent flame. It enveloped Russell. I was scorched even where I
was by the flash. I heard a hissing sound like water on melted iron. And
"And then?" persisted Mr. Ticks in a kind of rapture.
"And then I must have fainted away. When I came to there was no city,
only masses of blackness and—and—Oh, the boats! The people! They were
all gone! Not capsized—not drowning—but gone. There were no boats.
There were no people. There wasn't even a dead body to keep me company.
I, only I, was left, living and alone upon the hissing water.... When I
was able I rowed back. The shore looked horrible and ridged, as if
molten lead had been poured into it. When I came nearer an awful heat
and a deadly odor overcame me. I had barely strength to row back and
anchor again. Then the mist settled everywhere except where I was." The
girl stopped for a moment, breathless.
"I couldn't see anything. It was hot, and then it was cold. I tried to
eat my luncheon. I tried to get some sleep. I called and called for
help. I couldn't tell night from day. I can't say whether it was four or
five days. I said five. I must have been faint a good deal. The worst
thing was being alone. I expected to die. I got pretty weak.... Then I
saw the balloon." The girl bowed the face which she could not hide, and
sobbed at her own dreadful story.
Swift was greatly moved. "Miss Magnet," he said gently, putting her head
upon his shoulder. "I think you had better rest. You are tired out. This
is different, you know. You needn't when you get safely down." The girl
gave him a grateful glance and obeyed him quietly.
"How did she escape?" soliloquized Mr. Ticks, loud enough to be
"Oh, I don't know—don't ask me—unless it was that I was in a wooden
boat. All the rest on the lake go by storage battery and are made of
steel. Mine is the only old-fashioned boat, but I was always afraid.
Everybody laughed at me, but I did what I do at home. I cut off the legs
of a chair and fixed them in glass tumblers. I always sit in my office
on glass tumblers. My bed rests on glass tumblers, too. It's a
non-conductor, you know. I used to get shocked every day. Everybody got
shocked in Russell, but they pretended not to mind it."
"But, Miss Magnet, do you know what is the cause of Russell's fate? of
this deadly atmosphere beneath us?"
"N-no—unless—of course that can't be. I guess it's a visitation of
Providence—but I don't know for what." The girl stopped, awed at the
thoughts she had evoked.
"A visitation of Providence!" repeated Mr. Ticks, slowly. "Yes, she is
right. The sin of presumptuousness was visited upon that unhappy place."
"Do you mean to say"—Swift started up. Somehow he had forgotten
Russell, its mysterious fate, his mission, everything but the girl. He
had awaked to his duty. "Do you mean to say that the whole thing is due
"Hold on! Look below!" interrupted the professor.
They clung to the ropes and glued their gaze upon the sight so far
beneath them. The storm had magically cleared away. The sunlight now
pierced the whole landscape for the first time since the disaster. The
lost city, in black, shapeless ruins, lay directly beneath them.
"We will go down." The professor opened the safety-valve cautiously.
"The devil has been chased away by the storm," he said emphatically.
Indeed, the baleful vapor had gone. As they swiftly descended strange
sights met their eyes. They could still see everything microscopically
for a radius of twenty miles around. Black specks were rushing up the
stricken railroad tracks, along the roads, hurrying to the city of doom.
Linemen began to extend the wires; trackmen began laying new tracks.
Fully fifty thousand impatient men were madly plunging these twenty
miles from different points of the circumference, converging toward
Russell. The dead line had become a mysterious thing of the past. The
danger to life was over, and it became an unprecedented race to see who
would get first upon the spot.
"If this calm lasts, as I think it will, we will be on the ground two
hours ahead of the crowd."
Swift's eyes sparkled in reportorial ecstasy.
There was no time now nor inclination for words. In ten minutes the
High Tariff was within a few hundred feet of the doomed city. Buzzards
followed its descent curiously.
"My kingdom for a notebook!" cried Swift, in anguish.
"Take mine," said his companion, shyly, "and my stylo, too."
Swift would have been more moved by this attention had he not been
absorbed in the sight at his feet.
"Do you mean," he turned to Mr. Ticks, "that this is all the effect of
"Look sharp, now!" interrupted Professor Ariel. "Stand ready to be cut
down!" The Professor had manipulated the safety-valve so skilfully that
in another minute they grazed the serrated ground. They were not hurt.
One wide sweep of the professor's knife, and the High Tariff freed now
from all restraint, bounded away never to be seen again.
"I am sorry, Professor Ariel," said Swift, immediately, "that
circumstances compel me to postpone my part of the contract. But, as we
are responsible for your loss, I will guarantee that the Planet will
make it all right."
The professor did not answer. Absorbed, he followed the High Tariff in
its capricious departure with tender interest.
When the three turned and stared about them, they stood palsied by the
terrible sight before them: a sight never permitted to mortal view
before, and we pray that such be withheld from the gaze of our poor race
The wide-awake, the proud, the busy city of Russell had vanished.
Russell in its short and meteoric career had spent hundreds of thousands
of dollars on its tall, iron, fireproof blocks, its steel grain
elevators, its gilded capitol, its granite churches, its hundred
factories, its indestructible depots. Where were they? Where was the
"busy hum of men"? Not a girder, not a column, not a trace of the
complicated iron vertebrę of this metal city was left to mourn the
grandeur of its structures. Not a corpse, not even a bone remained to
tell the tale of the death agony.
Stricken as dumb as the lower brute creation, this one poor girl, the
sole survivor of thirty thousand hopeful citizens, bereft of home, of
friends, of employment, of hope, of everything in life but this hideous
memory, uttered a low cry and sank senseless. Swift laid her gently on
the parched, cracked ground; it was yet heated as if a conflagration had
passed over the place. Where but five days ago haughty, frowning, iron
blocks of stores, of hotels and exchanges stood, there were ragged
gullies and deep fissures and jagged ravines, shining in the sunlight
with a black, streaked crust. The sight was dreary and dead and deserted
as if our travellers had been suddenly dropped upon the surface of the
moon. The ground was riven as by some prehistoric upheaval. It looked as
if subterranean springs of molten steel lava had spurted from the ground
and had melted the unhappy city in their onward path and had carried it
down in liquid solution to the lake.
Mr. Statis Ticks picked up a piece of this plutonian slag and examined
"I didn't know that brick would melt like this," he said. Then again:
"Here is platinum fused with iron and another substance I do not know."
In a second or two he added:
"I see no remains of glass. It must have evaporated." He then took a few
steps. "It is lucky," he said meditatively; "if we had been landed a few
more feet to the left we should have been broiled to death. A part of
this lava is still in a liquid state."
The three men looked each other in the eye. Swift forgot the girl. The
professor forgot the balloon. Mr. Statis Ticks had forgotten his wife
and seven children; but this was no unusual circumstance. The aeronaut,
having less awe to the cubic inch in his make-up than his companions,
was the first to speak.
"What does this gol-darned thing mean, anyhow?"
"Hush!" said Swift, recoiling.
But Mr. Statis Ticks bared his head before the extinct city.
"It means," said the student, solemnly, "the presumptuous impiety of man
and the vengeance of Almighty God! It means," he added, slowly,
"incalculable volts of uncontrollable electricity acting and acted upon
by nascent oxygen and hydrogen. It means that Russell, the greatest
producer of the electro-motor power on the continent, has been smitten
by its servant. It means that man has outstripped his knowledge of this
mysterious fluid, and has ignorantly converted through millions of
inadequate conductors and faultily insulated wires the terrible, the
unfathomed power of electricity into light and heat and force; that
Russell was gradually becoming a gigantic storage battery, charged and
surcharged, until the time when its electrostatic capacity had been
criminally abused, the negative forces of the heavens concentrated over
the obnoxious territory, and a discharge unparalleled in electrical
experiments restored nature's equilibrium, and consumed in one
unspeakable spark Russell and its blind inhabitants."
"My God! Can this happen to Boston?" cried the professor, trembling.
"Or New York?" asked Swift.
"Or to Chicago?" added the girl, faintly. She had revived and was
looking about her in a ghastly way. "My mother used to live there."
This truly feminine view of a scientific subject passed unnoticed.
Mr. Ticks stood with his uncovered head yet bent before the annihilated
city. He spread his two hands out, palms to the ground, with a gesture
of indescribable significance, and made no reply.
Black, vitreous masses of melted conglomerate spread before them. Where
had stood the city, the sloping plain offered no obstruction to the
view. Russell, to the last splinter of iron or of wood, to the last chip
of brick or stone, to the last bone of the last corpse, was fused into a
terrible warning to the world by the rebellion of its own electricity.
"I guess none of 'em knew what struck 'em!" The professor hazarded this
humane suggestion, feeling that the oppressive silence should be broken
"The Kremmler chair was nothing to it," said Swift.
"You are right," answered Mr. Ticks, gravely. "That was the only boon.
So sudden and intense was the heat that men were ashes and the city was
molten before nerves could convey sensation to the brain. In the
fraction of a second, in the twinkling of a thought it was not, for God
The four breathed heavily. Again Mr. Ticks broke the silence. He laid
his hand paternally upon the young lady's shoulder.
"It is very fortunate, Miss Magnet, that you were the only thoroughly
insulated person in this whole territory. The wooden boat, the inverted
glasses saved you. You only had a normal amount of electricity in you.
You were a poor conductor, otherwise you would have evaporated through
the law of induction."
"I can't stand this any longer, or I'll be a fit candidate for an idiot
asylum!" blurted out the professor finally. "I am dying for a chaw."
He cast impatient glances at a trackless, desolated grade a mile away.
This grave of a great trunk line extended beyond their view.
The four had not stirred from where they had been dropped by the
balloon. To do so they would have had to pick their way cautiously.
Russell was like an extinct volcano. She was yet hot. But she did not
smoke, as one might have expected. There were no smouldering embers left
to produce smoke. Combustion had been instantaneous and complete.
But the travellers had no need to go sight-seeing. Everywhere was the
same blackened, cooling, ferruginous slag. To see one square yard was to
see the whole. The appalling thing about the effect was the cause.
Civilization, ever ready with revengeful thrusts, as if protesting
against the advance of science, had produced a new accident, a unique
Swift made an automatic motion for his watch.
"I must go," he said; "I must get my despatch to the Planet in time
for the evening edition. We will have a scoop on the whole world."
"I'm your man," said the professor. "We can foot it to the nearest
telegraph station in four hours."
"Ah, I forgot," said Swift. "That will lose me the four o'clock edition.
I'll have to hold the wire all night if I can get it. I'll wire such an
account as no other paper will ever get. There isn't a minute to lose!"
It was then that Mr. Statis Ticks, realizing, whether from calculation
or from sympathy, that Miss Magnet could make no such forced march, and
seeing that the girl only held herself together under the tension of the
great excitement, gallantly proposed to remain by her and join the rest
of the party that evening by the first team that could be chartered.
But the young lady unexpectedly refused the proposition. Her whole
nature shrank from spending another minute in that blasted spot. It was
therefore arranged, much to Mr. Ticks' disappointment (for he had hoped
to add to his copious stock of mental notes by further investigation on
the ground), that the girl should accompany them, as far as she was
able, down the railroad, away from the lost city.
After a drink of lake water they started off, Swift supporting Miss
Magnet on the one side and Mr. Ticks on the other, the professor
"Even the lake tastes of it," said Swift. "Ugh!"
"Pass a current of electricity through a tumbler of water and there will
be detected the same flavor, though not so strong," answered Mr. Ticks.
The party made two miles slowly. Despite all her Western courage and
energy, Insula Magnet tottered by the way. To divert her attention, Mr.
Ticks led her on to talk about the electrical wonders of the extinct
city. The girl enlarged in a sad way upon its many and its curious uses.
The baby carriages, she said, took their helpless occupants on an
unaided turn around a large oval track in the park. They went by storage
battery. One electrician could take the place of twenty nurses and
control the power. Once in a while a baby died suddenly. The doctors
invariably pronounced it a case of heart failure. Washing was now
entirely done by electrical apparatus, likewise ironing and cooking. The
great American problem of the "hired girl," Russell considered herself
to have solved.
An ingenious arrangement had been recently devised to have the
electricity supply the place of valet-de-chambre, but only a few had
used it. One or two thought it a hardship to be aroused from bed
whether one would or no, to be washed and summarily dressed by an
implacable power that performed its set tasks stolidly in spite of
anathemas and threats. Can a man abuse his electrical valet? Let him try
it if he dare.
The phonograph was in universal use. The Phonograph Daily was a
rival—one cannot call it sheet, rather wax cylinder—just started, and
the din made by those loquacious instruments was worse than the chatter
of monkeys in the cocoanut groves of New Guinea.
Electric heaters warmed the rooms. Electric paper lighted them with a
suffused and generous glow. No one used stairs. Electric elevators did
all the arduous house-climbing. No one made calls any more, for it was
an easy matter to ring your acquaintance up and see her in her
drawing-room while you talked to her. Women made an elaborate toilet for
such interviews. It was soon expected that conversation would be
entirely dispensed with, for with a sensitive galvanoscope attached to
the brain at a certain point, that was to be patented, the minutest
current of thought could be registered upon a cylinder.
Authors would only need to fix their attention upon the plot; the
delicate instrument would record it indelibly for their hearers'
The well-appointed electric coupé was always ready. There was no worry
about oats and spavin and glanders. Miss Magnet told of many other new
contrivances that electricity had now to perform. The development of
this power through the new dynamos made it possible for men in Russell
to dispense utterly with work. You went so far as to put five cents in
the slot at any one of a hundred street corners, and your shoes were
electrically polished to a patent leather shine. There was no more
night, for carbon and incandescent lamps had stabbed the night so that
any hovel was brighter than the average day. The girl stopped for breath
and sat down. She was exhausted. Swift cheered her tenderly. But Mr.
Ticks dryly remarked:
"Better a city without electricity than electricity without a city!"
The girl smiled at this heresy, and nodded her head emphatically in a
feeble way. She could hardly move.
It was at this stage that Mr. Ticks seemed overcome with uneasiness. He
got up and sat down again. He kicked the earth. He examined the charred
sleepers. He dug for the lost rails. Then he awoke from his occupation
with a sudden start as if rudely shaken from a dream. Swift was used to
his colleague's idiosyncrasies. Besides he did not now notice them. He
was otherwise occupied. But the professor could stand these performances
no longer, and with rude emphasis he burst forth:
"Dang it, man, if you've got anything on your darned mind, jerk it out,
if not—" Professor Ariel's manners had become decadent in proportion to
the time that had elapsed since he and the High Tariff had parted
"I—I—" interrupted Mr. Ticks, with a start. "The fact is, I cannot as
yet account for that deadly atmosphere that enveloped this section. What
was in it to kill? Its effect on me was unlike any other experience that
I can recall. It is my inconsolable regret that it is not classified in
"Did you know," asked Miss Magnet, suddenly, "that a new land
improvement company was started this spring for raising four crops a
year? All the farms for twenty miles around were bought up. They spent
over a million dollars in laying wires in the ground throughout the
whole country, on the theory that these voltaic currents applied to
grain and fruit and vegetables would excite such crops to quicker
verdure and maturity. The company said that it was an experiment on a
grand scale; but they were much laughed at. I said it was a dangerous
scheme, and nearly lost my position in consequence. I have heard,
though, that it was a great success."
During this recital Mr. Ticks' eyes glistened with excitement.
"Ah!" he said, "I am under a thousand obligations to you, young lady. Of
course I could not conceive of such a thing, not knowing the facts. It
is all plain now. The first discharge, enormous and deadly as it was,
was not enough. This network of wires attracted the surplus electricity.
The soil must be of such a quality as to convert this territory into an
enormous secondary battery. The subsoil must have acted as a monstrous
insulator. I shall subject it to a minute analysis. Are we on the verge
of a new electrical discovery? Was this deadly phenomenon a hitherto
unknown property of the electrical fluid? For to walk within the dead
line was like walking into a saturated Leyden jar. Its effect must have
also been to devitalize the oxygen and nitrogen of the atmosphere. The
victim was electrified and suffocated to death at the same instant. At
last I understand the complexity of my astonishing symptoms. The
vibratory storm that we so narrowly escaped was not due to barometric
depression, but came as a responsive consequence of this surcharged
area. When that wire ladder was finally cut off and fell; when it
reached a certain position; when one end touched the negative, the other
the positive pole, then the current became completed and this gigantic
battery was discharged. Had we not been rising at the rate of a hundred
feet a second we should have been fused after the fashion of the
inhabitants of this ghastly territory. The discharge once having taken
place, this country is again free to man and beast."
"Gosh!" was all that the subdued professor could say.
And now the four travellers lifted up their eyes, and saw before them on
the horizon black moving, indistinct masses, as if brobdignagian locusts
were swarming up the track. Here were the hosts of careworn men,
plunging impatiently toward the lost city for the news that the
unaccountable and malignant power had hitherto denied them. The four
needed courage to meet this unrestrained and desperate mob. Who were
these in the van? What pallid faces, what haggard eyes, what piteous
gestures! Alas, they were the mourners of the dead! Love had wrestled
its way ahead of plunder, and grief had outrun greed. In the front ranks
were women wailing and panting desperately to keep pace with unmanned
This woeful sight aroused Mr. Ticks. He raised his hands towards the
lost city after the manner of an inspired prophet, and there and then
uttered the following impassioned warning to humanity, which Swift took
down in shorthand in the borrowed notebook:
"Woe unto you that multiply currents you cannot control! Woe unto you
that net your country with the trap of sudden death! Woe unto you that
toss innocent men on broken wires; that surprise your victims in the
counting-house, the home, the street, with destructive bolts! Woe unto
you that undermine and overcast the land with a mysterious foe! Behold!
your dead shall rise in serried phalanx against you, and their mourners
shall rend you to pieces!"
The only burst of eloquence known to the biography of this prosaic man
subsided into apathetic silence. His hands dropped heavily at his sides.
He turned away from Russell and beheld its blackened site no more.
The throng was now upon them. Multitudes of wild faces asked questions
of the four. Who would answer these? Who could tell the terrible truth?
The professor paled and walked behind Swift. Mr. Ticks shrank at the
awful responsibility, and took refuge behind the professor. Swift halted
"Go," he said to the girl. "Go! Only a woman can."
And she went. She stepped out alone—a few paces, and stood quite still.
Instinctively the masses stopped before her. Eyes, sleepless with
weeping and waiting, riveted themselves upon eyes that were still
haunted with a portentous experience. The girl stretched out one hand in
mute appeal, and then burst into tears and sobbed:
"Don't! Don't look like that! Oh, you poor people! I am the only one!"
Awestruck and silently, men and women enveloped her and ministered unto
her. It was the advance guard of the Red Cross Society, led by Clara
Barton, that sheltered this derelict and messenger of woe.
Set upon by a thousand men, Mr. Ticks and the professor told what they
knew. Some cursed and doubted and pressed on. Some bowed their heads and
turned back. But Swift, who had recognized Dubbs driving two powerful
horses and unreeling two telegraph wires, one for the special use of
the Associated Press and the other for the Planet, accosted him, and
sent the most famous message known to the American newspaper world since
the close of the civil war.
It was a long message, and we can only give the more important
Russell is no more!
Thirty thousand people killed by one unparalleled electric
The gigantic spark fuses the whole city into one
indistinguishable molten slag.
Miraculous escape of one lady. The sole survivor.
Thrilling rescue by the Planet reporters in a special
The reporters complete the circuit and touch off an
over-charged storage battery with a circumference of one
hundred and fifty miles.
The territory that was impassable now open.
Fifty thousand people race toward the lost city.
Russell perished of her own electricity.
Civilization's new and formidable danger.
Three months later, on a secular evening, the upholstered pews of an
uptown church were filled with a fashionable audience. As the church
bells tolled eight the organ pealed forth the wedding march. It was
noticed with much comment that the vast audience-room was lighted with
gas, the new electric lights being dispensed with. The bride, Miss
Insula Magnet, had especially desired this.
When the solemn ceremony was ended, and when, amid the craning of necks,
the bride and groom were walking down the white-ribboned aisle, a
diversion happened that arrested the newly wedded couple. But this was
not construed into an ill-omen. A diminutive messenger boy, with a
super-experienced countenance, had met them half way to the vestibule,
and, with a saucy smile, held up an envelope to Mr. Swift's face.
"It's half an hour late. Wires burned out. Guess you'll read it now!"
Mr. Statis Ticks, who, although well and worthily married, officiated in
some unprecedented capacity as best man, gave Professor Ariel, one of
the ushers, an intelligent glance. The latter, being the happy possessor
of a new balloon (which he ingenuously called Reciprocity), supplied
to him by the always generous Planet, and fully elated by his present
position, answered with a broad wink. Mr. Swift, unconscious of the
thousands that were standing in their seats to look at him, and of the
general buzz of interest, tore open the colored envelope with
reportorial haste, and read as follows. It was cabled from his chief,
the proprietor of the Planet, now unavoidably detained in England:
"Congratulations. Advance of one thousand a year. Report after
two months' bliss. God bless you!"