The Lost City by Herbert Ward

I.

"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 office.

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:

"Yes, sir?"

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, sir."

"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 cipher."

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.


II.

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:

"EXTRAORDINARY CALAMITY!

"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 follows:

"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 air?

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 me.

"Swift"


III.

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 here?"

"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 city.

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 adroitness.

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 resource.

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 unto death.

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 move on."

"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 dollars."

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 over him.

"We rushed you out. You'll pull through all right, old man," said his colleague cheerily.

"Did you note the symptoms?" asked Mr. Ticks feebly.

"Yes."

"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.

"To start."

"Not to-night surely?"

"Yes—immediately. Harness up! We must be at the extreme north of this unclassified belt by to-morrow morning."


IV.

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 dawn.

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 following remark:

"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, he proceeded:

"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 disturbance."

"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 county seat.

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 companion.

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 balloon!"

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. Cash!"

"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 as that."

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 go?"

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."

"Impos-sible!"

"Seven!"

"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."

"Done!"

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 owners."

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."

"Anchor?"

"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 straining cable.

"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.

"Good luck!"

"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.


V.

"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 then ejaculated:

"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 fateful city.

"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 success."

"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 bosom.

As the High Tariff approached the little boat, Mr. Ticks looked at it eagerly.

"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 face.

"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 remains single."

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 too late?

"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 car.

"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 again!"

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 farther away.

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 shouted:

"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 suffering.

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 ladder.

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 car.

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.


VI.

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 certain death?

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 touch.

"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 disaster."

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 car.

"Not yet," he said, pushing aside the professor's longing hand, "the lady first!"

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 again.

"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 occurred?"

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 straining ropes!

"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 then—"

"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 overheard.

"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 to e—?"

"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 e——?"

"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 henceforth forever.

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 it attentively.

"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."


VII.

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 somehow.

"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 took it."

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 disaster.

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 stalking ahead.

"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' gratification.

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 company.

"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 my mind."

"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 men.

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 and trembled.

"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 headlines:

Russell is no more!

Thirty thousand people killed by one unparalleled electric discharge.

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 balloon.

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!"