It was a noble big balloon, and had wings and fans and all sorts of things, and wasn’t like any balloon you see in pictures. It was away out toward the edge of town, in a vacant lot, corner of Twelfth street; and there was a big crowd around it, making fun of it, and making fun of the man,—a lean pale feller with that soft kind of moonlight in his eyes, you know,—and they kept saying it wouldn’t go. It made him hot to hear them, and he would turn on them and shake his fist and say they was animals and blind, but some day they would find they had stood face to face with one of the men that lifts up nations and makes civilizations, and was too dull to know it; and right here on this spot their own children and grandchildren would build a monument to him that would outlast a thousand years, but his name would outlast the monument. And then the crowd would burst out in a laugh again, and yell at him, and ask him what was his name before he was married, and what he would take to not do it, and what was his sister’s cat’s grandmother’s name, and all the things that a crowd says when they’ve got hold of a feller that they see they can plague. Well, some things they said was funny,—yes, and mighty witty too, I ain’t denying that,—but all the same it warn’t fair nor brave, all them people pitching on one, and they so glib and sharp, and him without any gift of talk to answer back with. But, good land! what did he want to sass back for? You see, it couldn’t do him no good, and it was just nuts for them. They had him, you know. But that was his way. I reckon he couldn’t help it; he was made so, I judge. He was a good enough sort of cretur, and hadn’t no harm in him, and was just a genius, as the papers said, which wasn’t his fault. We can’t all be sound: we’ve got to be the way we’re made. As near as I can make out, geniuses think they know it all, and so they won’t take people’s advice, but always go their own way, which makes everybody forsake them and despise them, and that is perfectly natural. If they was humbler, and listened and tried to learn, it would be better for them.
The part the professor was in was like a boat, and was big and roomy, and had water-tight lockers around the inside to keep all sorts of things in, and a body could sit on them, and make beds on them, too. We went aboard, and there was twenty people there, snooping around and examining, and old Nat Parsons was there, too. The professor kept fussing around getting ready, and the people went ashore, drifting out one at a time, and old Nat he was the last. Of course it wouldn’t do to let him go out behind us. We mustn’t budge till he was gone, so we could be last ourselves.
But he was gone now, so it was time for us to follow. I heard a big shout, and turned around—the city was dropping from under us like a shot! It made me sick all through, I was so scared. Jim turned gray and couldn’t say a word, and Tom didn’t say nothing, but looked excited. The city went on dropping down, and down, and down; but we didn’t seem to be doing nothing but just hang in the air and stand still. The houses got smaller and smaller, and the city pulled itself together, closer and closer, and the men and wagons got to looking like ants and bugs crawling around, and the streets like threads and cracks; and then it all kind of melted together, and there wasn’t any city any more it was only a big scar on the earth, and it seemed to me a body could see up the river and down the river about a thousand miles, though of course it wasn’t so much. By and by the earth was a ball—just a round ball, of a dull color, with shiny stripes wriggling and winding around over it, which was rivers. The Widder Douglas always told me the earth was round like a ball, but I never took any stock in a lot of them superstitions o’ hers, and of course I paid no attention to that one, because I could see myself that the world was the shape of a plate, and flat. I used to go up on the hill, and take a look around and prove it for myself, because I reckon the best way to get a sure thing on a fact is to go and examine for yourself, and not take anybody’s say-so. But I had to give in now that the widder was right. That is, she was right as to the rest of the world, but she warn’t right about the part our village is in; that part is the shape of a plate, and flat, I take my oath!
The professor had been quiet all this time, as if he was asleep; but he broke loose now, and he was mighty bitter. He says something like this:
“Idiots! They said it wouldn’t go; and they wanted to examine it, and spy around and get the secret of it out of me. But I beat them. Nobody knows the secret but me. Nobody knows what makes it move but me; and it’s a new power—a new power, and a thousand times the strongest in the earth! Steam’s foolishness to it! They said I couldn’t go to Europe. To Europe! Why, there’s power aboard to last five years, and feed for three months. They are fools! What do they know about it? Yes, and they said my air-ship was flimsy. Why, she’s good for fifty years! I can sail the skies all my life if I want to, and steer where I please, though they laughed at that, and said I couldn’t. Couldn’t steer! Come here, boy; we’ll see. You press these buttons as I tell you.”
He made Tom steer the ship all about and every which way, and learnt him the whole thing in nearly no time; and Tom said it was perfectly easy. He made him fetch the ship down ’most to the earth, and had him spin her along so close to the Illinois prairies that a body could talk to the farmers, and hear everything they said perfectly plain; and he flung out printed bills to them that told about the balloon, and said it was going to Europe. Tom got so he could steer straight for a tree till he got nearly to it, and then dart up and skin right along over the top of it. Yes, and he showed Tom how to land her; and he done it first-rate, too, and set her down in the prairies as soft as wool. But the minute we started to skip out the professor says, “No, you don’t!” and shot her up in the air again. It was awful. I begun to beg, and so did Jim; but it only give his temper a rise, and he begun to rage around and look wild out of his eyes, and I was scared of him.
Well, then he got on to his troubles again, and mourned and grumbled about the way he was treated, and couldn’t seem to git over it, and especially people’s saying his ship was flimsy. He scoffed at that, and at their saying she warn’t simple and would be always getting out of order. Get out of order! That graveled him; he said that she couldn’t any more get out of order than the solar sister.
He got worse and worse, and I never see a person take on so. It give me the cold shivers to see him, and so it did Jim. By and by he got to yelling and screaming, and then he swore the world shouldn’t ever have his secret at all now, it had treated him so mean. He said he would sail his balloon around the globe just to show what he could do, and then he would sink it in the sea, and sink us all along with it, too. Well, it was the awfulest fix to be in, and here was night coming on!
He give us something to eat, and made us go to the other end of the boat, and he laid down on a locker, where he could boss all the works, and put his old pepper-box revolver under his head, and said if anybody come fooling around there trying to land her, he would kill him.
We set scrunched up together, and thought considerable, but didn’t say much—only just a word once in a while when a body had to say something or bust, we was so scared and worried. The night dragged along slow and lonesome. We was pretty low down, and the moonshine made everything soft and pretty, and the farmhouses looked snug and homeful, and we could hear the farm sounds, and wished we could be down there; but, laws! we just slipped along over them like a ghost, and never left a track.
Away in the night, when all the sounds was late sounds, and the air had a late feel, and a late smell, too—about a two-o’clock feel, as near as I could make out—Tom said the professor was so quiet this time he must be asleep, and we’d better—
“Better what?” I says in a whisper, and feeling sick all over, because I knowed what he was thinking about.
“Better slip back there and tie him, and land the ship,” he says.
I says: “No, sir! Don’ you budge, Tom Sawyer.”
And Jim—well, Jim was kind o’ gasping, he was so scared. He says:
“Oh, Mars Tom, don’t! Ef you teches him, we’s gone—we’s gone sho’! I ain’t gwine anear him, not for nothin’ in dis worl’. Mars Tom, he’s plumb crazy.”
Tom whispers and says—“That’s why we’ve got to do something. If he wasn’t crazy I wouldn’t give shucks to be anywhere but here; you couldn’t hire me to get out—now that I’ve got used to this balloon and over the scare of being cut loose from the solid ground—if he was in his right mind. But it’s no good politics, sailing around like this with a person that’s out of his head, and says he’s going round the world and then drown us all. We’ve got to do something, I tell you, and do it before he wakes up, too, or we mayn’t ever get another chance. Come!”
But it made us turn cold and creepy just to think of it, and we said we wouldn’t budge. So Tom was for slipping back there by himself to see if he couldn’t get at the steering-gear and land the ship. We begged and begged him not to, but it warn’t no use; so he got down on his hands and knees, and begun to crawl an inch at a time, we a-holding our breath and watching. After he got to the middle of the boat he crept slower than ever, and it did seem like years to me. But at last we see him get to the professor’s head, and sort of raise up soft and look a good spell in his face and listen. Then we see him begin to inch along again toward the professor’s feet where the steering-buttons was. Well, he got there all safe, and was reaching slow and steady toward the buttons, but he knocked down something that made a noise, and we see him slump down flat an’ soft in the bottom, and lay still. The professor stirred, and says, “What’s that?” But everybody kept dead still and quiet, and he begun to mutter and mumble and nestle, like a person that’s going to wake up, and I thought I was going to die, I was so worried and scared.
Then a cloud slid over the moon, and I ’most cried, I was so glad. She buried herself deeper and deeper into the cloud, and it got so dark we couldn’t see Tom. Then it began to sprinkle rain, and we could hear the professor fussing at his ropes and things and abusing the weather. We was afraid every minute he would touch Tom, and then we would be goners, and no help; but Tom was already on his way back, and when we felt his hands on our knees my breath stopped sudden, and my heart fell down ‘mongst my other works, because I couldn’t tell in the dark but it might be the professor! which I thought it was.
Dear! I was so glad to have him back that I was just as near happy as a person could be that was up in the air that way with a deranged man. You can’t land a balloon in the dark, and so I hoped it would keep on raining, for I didn’t want Tom to go meddling any more and make us so awful uncomfortable. Well, I got my wish. It drizzled and drizzled along the rest of the night, which wasn’t long, though it did seem so; and at daybreak it cleared, and the world looked mighty soft and gray and pretty, and the forests and fields so good to see again, and the horses and cattle standing sober and thinking. Next, the sun come ablazing up gay and splendid, and then we began to feel rusty and stretchy, and first we knowed we was all asleep.