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THREE MONTHS IN A BALLOON
Mr. Munchausen was not handsome, but the Imps liked him very much, he was so full of wonderful reminiscences, and was always willing to tell anybody that would listen, all about himself. To the Heavenly Twins he was the greatest hero that had ever lived. Napoleon Bonaparte, on Mr. Munchausen's own authority, was not half the warrior that he, the late Baron had been, nor was Cæsar in his palmiest days, one-quarter so wise or so brave. How old the Baron was no one ever knew, but he had certainly lived long enough to travel the world over, and stare every kind of death squarely in the face without flinching. He had fought Zulus, Indians, tigers, elephants — in fact, everything that fights, the Baron had encountered, and in every contest he had come out victorious. He was the only man the children had ever seen that had lost three legs in battle and then had recovered them after the fight was over; he was the only visitor to their house that had been lost in the African jungle and wandered about for three months without food or shelter, and best of all he was, on his own confession, the most truthful narrator of extraordinary tales living. The youngsters had to ask the Baron a question only, any one, it mattered not what it was — to start him off on a story of adventure, and as he called upon the Twins' father once a month regularly, the children were not long in getting together a collection of tales beside which the most exciting episodes in history paled into insignificant commonplaces.
"Uncle Munch," said the Twins one day, as they climbed up into the visitor's lap and disarranged his necktie, "was you ever up in a balloon?"
"Only once," said the Baron calmly. "But I had enough of it that time to last me for a lifetime."
"Was you in it for long?" queried the Twins, taking the Baron's watch out of his pocket and flinging it at Cerberus, who was barking outside of the window.
"Well, it seemed long enough," the Baron answered, putting his pocket-book in the inside pocket of his vest where the Twins could not reach it. "Three months off in the country sleeping all day long and playing tricks all night seems a very short time, but three months in a balloon and the constant centre of attack from every source is too long for comfort."
"Were you up in the air for three whole months?" asked the Twins, their eyes wide open with astonishment.
"All but two days," said the Baron. "For two of those days we rested in the top of a tree in India. The way of it was this: I was always, as you know, a great favourite with the Emperor Napoleon, of France, and when he found himself involved in a war with all Europe, he replied to one of his courtiers who warned him that his army was not in condition: 'Any army is prepared for war whose commander-in-chief numbers Baron Munchausen among his advisers. Let me have Munchausen at my right hand and I will fight the world.' So they sent for me and as I was not very busy I concluded to go and assist the French, although the allies and I were also very good friends. I reasoned it out this way: In this fight the allies are the stronger. They do not need me. Napoleon does. Fight for the weak, Munchausen, I said to myself, and so I went. Of course, when I reached Paris I went at once to the Emperor's palace and remained at his side until he took the field, after which I remained behind for a few days to put things to rights for the Imperial family. Unfortunately for the French, the King of Prussia heard of my delay in going to the front, and he sent word to his forces to intercept me on my way to join Napoleon at all hazards, and this they tried to do. When I was within ten miles of the Emperor's headquarters, I was stopped by the Prussians, and had it not been that I had provided myself with a balloon for just such an emergency, I should have been captured and confined in the King's palace at Berlin, until the war was over.
"Foreseeing all this, I had brought with me a large balloon packed away in a secret section of my trunk, and while my body-guard was fighting with the Prussian troops sent to capture me, I and my valet inflated the balloon, jumped into the car and were soon high up out of the enemy's reach. They fired several shots at us, and one of them would have pierced the balloon had I not, by a rare good shot, fired my own rifle at the bullet, and hitting it squarely in the middle, as is my custom, diverted it from its course, and so saved our lives.
"It had been my intention to sail directly over the heads of the attacking party and drop down into Napoleon's camp the next morning, but unfortunately for my calculations, a heavy wind came up in the night and the balloon was caught by a northerly blast, and blown into Africa, where, poised in the air directly over the desert of Sahara, we encountered a dead calm, which kept us stalled up for two miserable weeks."
"Why didn't you come down?" asked the Twins, "wasn't the elevator running?"
"We didn't dare," explained the Baron, ignoring the latter part of the question. "If we had we'd have wasted a great deal of our gas, and our condition would have been worse than ever. As I told you we were directly over the centre of the desert. There was no way of getting out of it except by long and wearisome marches over the hot, burning sands with the chances largely in favour of our never getting out alive. The only thing to do was to stay just where we were and wait for a favouring breeze. This we did, having to wait four mortal weeks before the air was stirred."
"You said two weeks a minute ago, Uncle Munch," said the Twins critically.
"Two? Hem! Well, yes it was two, now that I think of it. It's a natural mistake," said the Baron stroking his mustache a little nervously. "You see two weeks in a balloon over a vast desert of sand, with nothing to do but whistle for a breeze, is equal to four weeks anywhere else. That is, it seems so. Anyhow, two weeks or four, whichever it was, the breeze came finally, and along about midnight left us stranded again directly over an Arab encampment near Wady Halfa. It was a more perilous position really, than the first, because the moment the Arabs caught sight of us they began to make frantic efforts to get us down. At first we simply laughed them to scorn and made faces at them, because as far as we could see, we were safely out of reach. This enraged them and they apparently made up their minds to kill us if they could. At first their idea was to get us down alive and sell us as slaves, but our jeers changed all that, and what should they do but whip out a lot of guns and begin to pepper us.
"'I'll settle them in a minute,' I said to myself, and set about loading my own gun. Would you believe it, I found that my last bullet was the one with which I had saved the balloon from the Prussian shot?"
"Mercy, how careless of you, Uncle Munch!" said one of the Twins. "What did you do?"
"I threw out a bag of sand ballast so that the balloon would rise just out of range of their guns, and then, as their bullets got to their highest point and began to drop back, I reached out and caught them in a dipper. Rather neat idea, eh? With these I loaded my own rifle and shot every one of the hostile party with their own ammunition, and when the last of the attacking Arabs dropped I found there were enough bullets left to fill the empty sand bag again, so that the lost ballast was not missed. In fact, there were enough of them in weight to bring the balloon down so near to the earth that our anchor rope dangled directly over the encampment, so that my valet and I, without wasting any of our gas, could climb down and secure all the magnificent treasures in rugs and silks and rare jewels these robbers of the desert had managed to get together in the course of their depredations. When these were placed in the car another breeze came up, and for the rest of the time we drifted idly about in the heavens waiting for a convenient place to land. In this manner we were blown hither and yon for three months over land and sea, and finally we were wrecked upon a tall tree in India, whence we escaped by means of a convenient elephant that happened to come our way, upon which we rode triumphantly into Calcutta. The treasures we had secured from the Arabs, unfortunately, we had to leave behind us in the tree, where I suppose they still are. I hope some day to go back and find them."
Here Mr. Munchausen paused for a moment to catch his breath. Then he added with a sigh. "Of course, I went back to France immediately, but by the time I reached Paris the war was over, and the Emperor was in exile. I was too late to save him — though I think if he had lived some sixty or seventy years longer I should have managed to restore his throne, and Imperial splendour to him."
The Twins gazed into the fire in silence for a minute or two. Then one of them asked:
"But what did you live on all that time, Uncle Munch?"
"Eggs," said the Baron. "Eggs and occasionally fish. My servant had had the foresight when getting the balloon ready to include, among the things put into the car, a small coop in which were six pet chickens I owned, and without which I never went anywhere. These laid enough eggs every day to keep us alive. The fish we caught when our balloon stood over the sea, baiting our anchor with pieces of rubber gas pipe used to inflate the balloon, and which looked very much like worms."
"As their bullets got to their highest point and began to drop back, I reached out and caught them."
"But the chickens?" said the Twins. "What did they live on?"
The Baron blushed.
"I am sorry you asked that question," he said, his voice trembling somewhat. "But I'll answer it if you promise never to tell anyone. It was the only time in my life that I ever practised an intentional deception upon any living thing, and I have always regretted it, although our very lives depended upon it."
"What was it, Uncle Munch?" asked the Twins, awed to think that the old warrior had ever deceived anyone.
"I took the egg shells and ground them into powder, and fed them to the chickens. The poor creatures supposed it was corn-meal they were getting," confessed the Baron. "I know it was mean, but what could I do?"
"Nothing," said the Twins softly. "And we don't think it was so bad of you after all. Many another person would have kept them laying eggs until they starved, and then he'd have killed them and eaten them up. You let them live."
"That may be so," said the Baron, with a smile that showed how relieved his conscience was by the Twins' suggestion. "But I couldn't do that you know, because they were pets. I had been brought up from childhood with those chickens."
Then the Twins, jamming the Baron's hat down over his eyes, climbed down from his lap and went to their play, strongly of the opinion that, though a bold warrior, the Baron was a singularly kind, soft-hearted man after all.