Bert Smallways was a vulgar little creature, the sort of pert,
limited soul that the old civilisation of the early twentieth
century produced by the million in every country of the world.
He had lived all his life in narrow streets, and between mean
houses he could not look over, and in a narrow circle of ideas
from which there was no escape. He thought the whole duty of man
was to be smarter than his fellows, get his hands, as he put it,
"on the dibs," and have a good time. He was, in fact, the sort
of man who had made England and America what they were. The luck
had been against him so far, but that was by the way. He was a
mere aggressive and acquisitive individual with no sense of the
State, no habitual loyalty, no devotion, no code of honour, no
code even of courage. Now by a curious accident he found himself
lifted out of his marvellous modern world for a time, out of all
the rush and confused appeals of it, and floating like a thing
dead and disembodied between sea and sky. It was as if Heaven
was experimenting with him, had picked him out as a sample from
the English millions, to look at him more nearly, and to see what
was happening to the soul of man. But what Heaven made of him in
that case I cannot profess to imagine, for I have long since
abandoned all theories about the ideals and satisfactions of
To be alone in a balloon at a height of fourteen or fifteen
thousand feet--and to that height Bert Smallways presently rose
is like nothing else in human experience. It is one of the
supreme things possible to man. No flying machine can ever
better it. It is to pass extraordinarily out of human things.
It is to be still and alone to an unprecedented degree. It is
solitude without the suggestion of intervention; it is calm
without a single irrelevant murmur. It is to see the sky. No
sound reaches one of all the roar and jar of humanity, the air is
clear and sweet beyond the thought of defilement. No bird, no
insect comes so high. No wind blows ever in a balloon, no breeze
rustles, for it moves with the wind and is itself a part of the
atmosphere. Once started, it does not rock nor sway; you cannot
feel whether it rises or falls. Bert felt acutely cold, but he
wasn't mountain-sick; he put on the coat and overcoat and gloves
Butteridge had discarded--put them over the "Desert Dervish"
sheet that covered his cheap best suit--and sat very still for a
long, time, overawed by the new-found quiet of the world.
Above him was the light, translucent, billowing globe of shining
brown oiled silk and the blazing sunlight and the great deep blue
dome of the sky.
Below, far below, was a torn floor of sunlit cloud slashed by
enormous rents through which he saw the sea.
If you had been watching him from below, you would have seen his
head, a motionless little black knob, sticking out from the car
first of all for a long time on one side, and then vanishing to
reappear after a time at some other point.
He wasn't in the least degree uncomfortable nor afraid. He did
think that as this uncontrollable thing had thus rushed up the
sky with him it might presently rush down again, but this
consideration did not trouble him very much. Essentially his
state was wonder. There is no fear nor trouble in balloons--
until they descend.
"Gollys!" he said at last, feeling a need for talking; "it's
better than a motor-bike.
"It's all right!
"I suppose they're telegraphing about, about me."...
The second hour found him examining the equipment of the car with
great particularity. Above him was the throat of the balloon
bunched and tied together, but with an open lumen through
which,Bert could peer up into a vast, empty, quiet interior, and
out of which descended two fine cords of unknown import, one
white, one crimson, to pockets below the ring. The netting about
the balloon-ended in cords attached to the ring, a big
steel-bound hoop. to which the car was slung by ropes. From it
depended the trail rope and grapnel, and over the sides of the
car were a number of canvas bags that Bert decided must be
ballast to "chuck down" if the balloon fell. ("Not much falling
just yet," said Bert.)
There were an aneroid and another box-shaped instrument hanging
from the ring. The latter had an ivory plate bearing
"statoscope" and other words in French, and a little indicator
quivered and waggled, between Montee and Descente. "That's all
right," said Bert. "That tells if you're going up or down." On
the crimson padded seat of the balloon there lay a couple of rugs
and a Kodak, and in opposite corners of the bottom of the car
were an empty champagne bottle and a glass. "Refreshments," said
Bert meditatively, tilting the empty bottle. Then he had a
brilliant idea. The two padded bed-like seats, each with
blankets and mattress, he perceived, were boxes, and within he
found Mr. Butteridge's conception of an adequate equipment for a
balloon ascent: a hamper which included a game pie, a Roman pie,
a cold fowl, tomatoes, lettuce, ham sandwiches, shrimp
sandwiches, a large cake, knives and forks and paper plates,
self-heating tins of coffee and cocoa, bread, butter, and
marmalade, several carefully packed bottles of champagne, bottles
of Perrier water, and a big jar of water for washing, a
portfolio, maps, and a compass, a rucksack containing a number of
conveniences, including curling-tongs and hair-pins,, a cap with
ear-flaps, and so forth.
"A 'ome from 'ome," said Bert, surveying this provision as he
tied the ear-flaps under his chin. He looked over the side of
the car. Far below were the shining clouds. They had thickened
so that the whole world was hidden. Southward they were piled in
great snowy masses, so that he was half disposed to think them
mountains; northward and eastward they were in wavelike levels,
and blindingly sunlit.
"Wonder how long a balloon keeps up?" he said.
He imagined he was not moving, so insensibly did the monster
drift with the air about it. "No good coming down till we shift
a bit," he said.
He consulted the statoscope.
"Still Monty," he said.
"Wonder what would happen if you pulled a cord?"
"No," he decided. "I ain't going to mess it about."
Afterwards he did pull both the ripping- and the valve-cords,
but, as Mr. Butteridge had already discovered, they had fouled a
fold of silk in the throat. Nothing happened. But for that
little hitch the ripping-cord would have torn the balloon open as
though it had been slashed by a sword, and hurled Mr. Smallways
to eternity at the rate of some thousand feet a second. "No go!"
he said, giving it a final tug. Then he lunched.
He opened a bottle of champagne, which, as soon as he cut the
wire, blew its cork out with incredible violence, and for the
most part followed it into space. Bert, however, got about a
tumblerful. "Atmospheric pressure," said Bert, finding a use at
last for the elementary physiography of his seventh-standard
days. "I'll have to be more careful next time. No good wastin'
Then he routed about for matches to utilise Mr. Butteridge's
cigars; but here again luck was on his side, and he couldn't find
any wherewith to set light to the gas above him. Or else he
would have dropped in a flare, a splendid but transitory
pyrotechnic display. "'Eng old Grubb!" said Bert, slapping
unproductive pockets. "'E didn't ought to 'ave kep' my box. 'E's
always sneaking matches."
He reposed for a time. Then he got up, paddled about, rearranged
the ballast bags on the floor, watched the clouds for a time, and
turned over the maps on the locker. Bert liked maps, and he
spent some time in trying to find one of France or the Channel;
but they were all British ordnance maps of English counties.
That set him thinking about languages and trying to recall his
seventh-standard French. "Je suis Anglais. C'est une meprise.
Je suis arrive par accident ici," he decided upon as convenient
phrases. Then it occurred to him that he would entertain himself
by reading Mr. Butteridge's letters and examining his
pocket-book, and in this manner he whiled away the afternoon.
He sat upon the padded locker, wrapped about very carefully, for
the air, though calm, was exhilaratingly cold and clear. He was
wearing first a modest suit of blue serge and all the
unpretending underwear of a suburban young man of fashion, with
sandal-like cycling-shoes and brown stockings drawn over his
trouser ends; then the perforated sheet proper to a Desert
Dervish; then the coat and waistcoat and big fur-trimmed overcoat
of Mr. Butteridge; then a lady's large fur cloak, and round his
knees a blanket. Over his head was a tow wig, surmounted by a
large cap of Mr. Butteridge's with the flaps down over his ears.
And some fur sleeping-boots of Mr. Butteridge's warmed his feet.
The car of the balloon was small and neat, some bags of ballast
the untidiest of its contents, and he had found a light
folding-table and put it at his elbow, and on that was a glass
with champagne. And about him, above and below, was space--such
a clear emptiness and silence of space as only the aeronaut can
He did not know where he might be drifting, or what might happen
next. He accepted this state of affairs with a serenity
creditable to the Smallways' courage, which one might reasonably
have expected to be of a more degenerate and contemptible quality
altogether. His impression was that he was bound to come down
somewhere, and that then, if he wasn't smashed, some one, some
"society" perhaps, would probably pack him and the balloon back
to England. If not, he would ask very firmly for the British
"Le consuelo Britannique," he decided this would be. "Apportez
moi a le consuelo Britannique, s'il vous plait," he would say,
for he was by no means ignorant of French. In the meanwhile, he
found the intimate aspects of Mr. Butteridge an interesting
There were letters of an entirely private character addressed to
Mr. Butteridge, and among others several love-letters of a
devouring sort in a large feminine hand. These are no business
of ours, and one remarks with regret that Bert read them.
When he had read them he remarked, "Gollys!" in an awestricken
tone, and then, after a long interval, "I wonder if that was her?
He mused for a time.
He resumed his exploration of the Butteridge interior. It
included a number of press cuttings of interviews and also
several letters in Geman, then some in the same Geman
handwriting, but in English. "Hul-LO!" said Bert.
One of the latter, the first he took, began with an apology to
Butteridge for not writing to him in English before, and for the
inconvenience and delay that had been caused him by that, and
went on to matter that Bert found exciting in, the highest
degree. "We can understand entirely the difficulties of your
position, and that you shall possibly be watched at the present
juncture.--But, sir, we do not believe that any serious obstacles
will be put in your way if you wished to endeavour to leave the
country and come to us with your plans by the customary
routes--either via Dover, Ostend, Boulogne, or Dieppe. We find
it difficult to think you are right in supposing yourself to be
in danger of murder for your invaluable invention."
"Funny!" said Bert, and meditated.
Then he went through the other letters.
"They seem to want him to come," said Bert, "but they don't seem
hurting themselves to get 'im. Or else they're shamming don't
care to get his prices down.
"They don't quite seem to be the gov'ment," he reflected, after
an interval. "It's more like some firm's paper. All this
printed stuff at the top. Drachenflieger. Drachenballons.
Ballonstoffe. Kugelballons. Greek to me.
"But he was trying to sell his blessed secret abroad. That's all
right. No Greek about that! Gollys! Here IS the secret!"
He tumbled off the seat, opened the locker, and had the portfolio
open before him on the folding-table. It was full of drawings
done in the peculiar flat style and conventional colours
engineers adopt. And, in, addition there were some rather
under-exposed photographs, obviously done by an amateur, at close
quarters, of the actual machine's mutterings had made, in its
shed near the Crystal Palace. Bert found he was trembling.
"Lord" he said, "here am I and the whole blessed secret of
flying--lost up here on the roof of everywhere.
"Let's see!" He fell to studying the drawings and comparing them
with the photographs. They puzzled him. Half of them seemed to
be missing. He tried to imagine how they fitted together, and
found the effort too great for his mind.
"It's tryin'," said Bert. "I wish I'd been brought up to the
engineering. If I could only make it out!"
He went to the side of the car and remained for a time staring
with unseeing eyes at a huge cluster of great clouds--a cluster
of slowly dissolving Monte Rosas, sunlit below. His attention
was arrested by a strange black spot that moved over them. It
alarmed him. It was a black spot moving slowly with him far
below, following him down there, indefatigably, over the cloud
mountains. Why should such a thing follow him? What could it
He had an inspiration. "Uv course!" he said. It was the shadow
of the balloon. But he still watched it dubiously for a time.
He returned to the plans on the table.
He spent a long afternoon between his struggles to understand
them and fits of meditation. He evolved a remarkable new
sentence in French.
"Voici, Mossoo!--Je suis un inventeur Anglais. Mon nom est
Butteridge. Beh. oo. teh. teh. eh. arr. E. deh. geh. eh.
J'avais ici pour vendre le secret de le flying-machine.
Comprenez? Vendre pour l'argent tout suite, l'argent en main.
Comprenez? C'est le machine a jouer dans l'air. Comprenez?
C'est le machine a faire l'oiseau. Comprenez? Balancer?
Oui, exactement! Battir l'oiseau en fait, a son propre jeu. Je
desire de vendre ceci a votre government national. Voulez vous
me directer la?
"Bit rummy, I expect, from the point of view of grammar," said
Bert, "but they ought to get the hang of it all right.
"But then, if they arst me to explain the blessed thing?"
He returned in a worried way to the plans. "I don't believe it's
all here!" he said....
He got more and more perplexed up there among the clouds as to
what he should do with this wonderful find of his. At any
moment, so far as he knew he might descend among he knew not what
"It's the chance of my life!" he said.
It became more and more manifest to him that it wasn't. "Directly
I come down they'll telegraph--put it in the papers.
Butteridge'll know of it and come along--on my track."
Butteridge would be a terrible person to be on any one's track.
Bert thought of the great black moustaches, the triangular nose,
the searching bellow and the glare. His afternoon's dream of a
marvellous seizure and sale of the great Butteridge secret
crumpled up in his mind, dissolved, and vanished. He awoke to
"Wouldn't do. What's the good of thinking of it?" He proceeded
slowly and reluctantly to replace the Butteridge papers in
pockets and portfolio as he had found them. He became aware of a
splendid golden light upon the balloon above him, and of a new
warmth in the blue dome of the sky. He stood up and beheld the
sun, a great ball of blinding gold, setting upon a tumbled sea of
gold-edged crimson and purple clouds, strange and wonderful
beyond imagining. Eastward cloud-land stretched for ever,
darkling blue, and it seemed to Bert the whole round hemisphere
of the world was under his eyes.
Then far, away over the blue he caught sight of three long, dark
shapes like hurrying fish that drove one after the other, as
porpoises follow one another in the water. They were very
fish-like indeed--with tails. It was an unconvincing impression
in that light. He blinked his eyes, stared again, and they had
vanished. For a long time he scrutinised those remote blue
levels and saw no more....
"Wonder if I ever saw anything," he said, and then: "There ain't
Down went the sun and down, not diving steeply, but passing
northward as it sank, and then suddenly daylight and the
expansive warmth of daylight had gone altogether, and the index
of the statoscope quivered over to Descente.
"NOW what's going to 'appen?" said Bert.
He found the cold, grey cloud wilderness rising towards him with
a wide, slow steadiness. As he sank down among them the clouds
ceased to seem the snowclad mountain-slopes they had resembled
heretofore, became unsubstantial, confessed an immense silent
drift and eddy in their substance. For a moment, when he was
nearly among their twilight masses, his descent was checked.
Then abruptly the sky was hidden, the last vestiges of
daylight gone, and he was falling rapidly in an evening twilight
through a whirl of fine snowflakes that streamed past him towards
the zenith, that drifted in upon the things about him and melted,
that touched his face with ghostly fingers. He shivered. His
breath came smoking from his lips, and everything was instantly
bedewed and wet.
He had an impression of a snowstorm pouring with unexampled and
increasing fury UPWARD; then he realised that he was falling
faster and faster.
Imperceptibly a sound grew upon his ears. The great silence of
the world was at an end. What was this confused sound?
He craned his head over the side, concerned, perplexed.
First he seemed to see, and then not to see. Then he saw clearly
little edges of foam pursuing each other, and a wide waste of
weltering waters below him. Far away was a pilot boat with a big
sail bearing dim black letters, and a little pinkish-yellow
light, and it was rolling and pitching, rolling and pitching in a
gale, while he could feel no wind at, all. Soon the sound of
waters was loud and near. He was dropping, dropping--into the
He became convulsively active.
"Ballast!" he cried, and seized a little sack from the floor, and
heaved it overboard. He did not wait for the effect of that, but
sent another after it. He looked over in time to see a minute
white splash in the dim waters below him, and then he was back in
the snow and clouds again.
He sent out quite needlessly a third sack of ballast and a
fourth, and presently had the immense satisfaction of soaring up
out of the damp and chill into the clear, cold, upper air in
which the day still lingered. "Thang-God!" he said, with all his
A few stars now had pierced the blue, and in the east there shone
brightly a prolate moon.
That first downward plunge filled Bert with a haunting sense of
boundless waters below. It was a summer's night, but it seemed
to him, nevertheless, extraordinarily long. He had a feeling of
insecurity that he fancied quite irrationally the sunrise would
dispel. Also he was hungry. He felt, in the dark, in the
locker, put his fingers in the Roman pie, and got some
sandwiches, and he also opened rather successfully a half-bottle
of champagne. That warmed and restored him, he grumbled at Grubb
about the matches, wrapped himself up warmly on the locker, and
dozed for a time. He got up once or twice to make sure that he
was still securely high above the sea. The first time the
moonlit clouds were white and dense, and the shadow of the
balloon ran athwart them like a dog that followed; afterwards
they seemed thinner. As he lay still, staring up at the huge
dark balloon above, he made a discovery. His--or rather Mr.
Butteridge's--waistcoat rustled as he breathed. It was lined
with papers. But Bert could not see to get them out or examine
them, much as he wished to do so....
He was awakened by the crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs, and
a clamour of birds. He was driving slowly at a low level over a
broad land lit golden by sunrise under a clear sky. He stared
out upon hedgeless, well-cultivated fields intersected by roads,
each lined with cable-bearing red poles. He had just passed over
a compact, whitewashed, village with a straight church tower and
steep red-tiled roofs. A number of peasants,men and women, in
shiny blouses and lumpish footwear, stood regarding him, arrested
on their way to work. He was so low that the end of his rope was
He stared out at these people. "I wonder how you land," he
"S'pose I OUGHT to land?"
He found himself drifting down towards a mono-rail line, and
hastily flung out two or three handfuls of ballast to clear it.
"Lemme see! One might say just 'Pre'nez'! Wish I knew the
French for take hold of the rope!... I suppose they are French?"
He surveyed the country again. "Might be Holland. Or
Luxembourg. Or Lorraine 's far as _I_ know. Wonder what those
big affairs over there are? Some sort of kiln.
The respectability of the country's appearance awakened answering
chords in his nature.
"Make myself a bit ship-shape first," he said.
He resolved to rise a little and get rid of his wig (which now
felt hot on his head), and so forth. He threw out a bag of
ballast, and was astonished to find himself careering up through
the air very rapidly.
"Blow!" said Mr. Smallways. "I've over-done the ballast
trick.... Wonder when I shall get down again? ... brekfus' on
He removed his cap and wig, for the air was warm, and an
improvident impulse made him cast the latter object overboard.
The statoscope responded with a vigorous swing to Monte.
"The blessed thing goes up if you only LOOK overboard," he
remarked, and assailed the locker. He found among other items
several tins of liquid cocoa containing explicit directions for
opening that he followed with minute care. He pierced the bottom
with the key provided in the holes indicated, and forthwith the
can grew from cold to hotter and hotter, until at last he could
scarcely touch it, and then he opened the can at the other end,
and there was his cocoa smoking, without the use of match or
flame of any sort. It was an old invention, but new to Bert.
There was also ham and marmalade and bread, so that he had a
really very tolerable breakfast indeed.
Then he took off his overcoat, for the sunshine was now inclined
to be hot, and that reminded him of the rustling he had heard in
the night. He took off the waistcoat and examined it. "Old
Butteridge won't like me unpicking this." He hesitated, and
finally proceeded to unpick it. He found the missing drawings of
the lateral rotating planes, on which the whole stability of the
flying machine depended.
An observant angel would have seen Bert sitting for a long time
after this discovery in a state of intense meditation. Then at
last he rose with an air of inspiration, took Mr. Butteridge's
ripped, demolished, and ransacked waistcoat, and hurled it from
the balloon whence it fluttered down slowly and eddyingly until
at last it came to rest with a contented flop upon the face of
Geman tourist sleeping peacefully beside the Hohenweg near
Wildbad. Also this sent the balloon higher, and so into a
position still more convenient for observation by our imaginary
angel who would next have seen Mr. Smallways tear open his own
jacket and waistcoat, remove his collar, open his shirt, thrust
his hand into his bosom, and tear his heart out--or at least, if
not his heart, some large bright scarlet object. If the
observer, overcoming a thrill of celestial horror, had
scrutinised this scarlet object more narrowly, one of Bert's most
cherished secrets, one of his essential weaknesses, would have
been laid bare. It was a red-flannel chest-protector, one of
those large quasi-hygienic objects that with pills and medicines
take the place of beneficial relics and images among the
Protestant peoples of Christendom. Always Bert wore this thing;
it was his cherished delusion, based on the advice of a shilling
fortune-teller at Margate, that he was weak in the lungs.
He now proceeded to unbutton his fetish, to attack it with a
periknife, and to thrust the new-found plans between the two
layers of imitation Saxony flannel of which it was made. Then
with the help of Mr. Butteridge's small shaving mirror and his
folding canvas basin he readjusted his costume with the gravity
of a man who has taken an irrevocable step in life, buttoned up
his jacket, cast the white sheet of the Desert Dervish on one
side, washed temperately, shaved, resumed the big cap and the fur
overcoat, and, much refreshed by these exercises, surveyed the
country below him.
It was indeed a spectacle of incredible magnificence. If perhaps
it was not so strange and magnificent as the sunlit cloudland of
the previous day, it was at any rate infinitely more interesting.
The air was at its utmost clearness and except to the south and
south-west there was not a cloud in the sky. The country was
hilly, with occasional fir plantations and bleak upland spaces,
but also with numerous farms, and the hills were deeply
intersected by the gorges of several winding rivers interrupted
at intervals by the banked-up ponds and weirs of electric
generating wheels. It was dotted with bright-looking,
steep-roofed, villages, and each showed a distinctive and
interesting church beside its wireless telegraph steeple; here
and there were large chateaux and parks and white roads, and
paths lined with red and, white cable posts were extremely
conspicuous in the landscape. There were walled enclosures like
gardens and rickyards and great roofs of barns and many electric
dairy centres. The uplands were mottled with cattle. At places
he would see the track of one of the old railroads (converted now
to mono-rails) dodging through tunnels and crossing embankments,
and a rushing hum would mark the passing of a train. Everything
was extraordinarily clear as well as minute. Once or twice he
saw guns and soldiers, and was reminded of the stir of military
preparations he had witnessed on the Bank Holiday in England; but
there was nothing to tell him that these military preparations
were abnormal or to explain an occasional faint irregular firing
Of guns that drifted up to him....
"Wish I knew how to get down," said Bert, ten thousand feet or so
above it all, and gave himself to much futile tugging at the red
and white cords. Afterwards he made a sort of inventory of the
provisions. life in the high air was giving him an appalling
appetite, and it seemed to him discreet at this stage to portion
out his supply into rations. So far as he could see he might
pass a week in the air.
At first all the vast panorama below had been as silent as a
painted picture. But as the day wore on and the gas diffused
slowly from the balloon, it sank earthward again, details
increased, men became more visible, and he began to hear the
whistle and moan of trains and cars, sounds of cattle, bugles and
kettle drums, and presently even men's voices. And at last his
guide-rope was trailing again, and he found it possible to
attempt a landing. Once or twice as the rope dragged over cables
he found his hair erect with electricity, and once he had a
slight shock, and sparks snapped about the car. He took these
things among the chances of the voyage. He had one idea now very
clear in his mind, and that was to drop the iron grapnel that
hung from the ring.
From the first this attempt was unfortunate, perhaps because the
place for descent was ill-chosen. A balloon should come down in
an empty open space, and he chose a crowd. He made his decision
suddenly, and without proper reflection. As he trailed, Bert saw
ahead of him one of the most attractive little towns in the
world--a cluster of steep gables surmounted by a high church
tower and diversified with trees, walled, and with a fine, large
gateway opening out upon a tree-lined high road. All the wires
and cables of the countryside converged upon it like guests to
entertainment. It had a most home-like and comfortable quality,
and it was made gayer by abundant flags. Along the road a
quantity of peasant folk, in big pair-wheeled carts and afoot,
were coming and going, besides an occasional mono-rail, car; and
at the car-junction, under the trees outside the town, was a busy
little fair of booths. It seemed a warm, human, well-rooted, and
altogether delightful place to Bert. He came low over the
tree-tops, with his grapnel ready to throw and so anchor him--a
curious, interested, and interesting guest, so his imagination
figured it, in the very middle of it all.
He thought of himself performing feats with the sign language and
chance linguistics amidst a circle of admiring rustics....
And then the chapter of adverse accidents began.
The rope made itself unpopular long before the crowd had fully
realised his advent over the trees. An elderly and apparently
intoxicated peasant in a shiny black hat, and carrying a large
crimson umbrella, caught sight of it first as it trailed past
him, and was seized with a discreditable ambition to kill it. He
pursued it, briskly with unpleasant cries. It crossed the road
obliquely, splashed into a pail of milk upon a stall, and slapped
its milky tail athwart a motor-car load of factory girls halted
outside the town gates. They screamed loudly. People looked up
and saw Bert making what he meant to be genial salutations, but
what they considered, in view of the feminine outcry, to be
insulting gestures. Then,the car hit the roof of the gatehouse
smartly, snapped a flag staff, played a tune upon some telegraph
wires, and sent a broken wire like a whip-lash to do its share in
accumulating unpopularity. Bert, by clutching convulsively, just
escaped being pitched headlong. Two young soldiers and several
peasants shouted things iup to him and shook fists at him and
began to run in pursuit as he disappeared over the wall into the
Admiring rustics, indeed!
The balloon leapt at once, in the manner of balloons when part of
their weight is released by touching down, with a sort of
flippancy, and in another moment Bert was over a street crowded
with peasants and soldiers, that opened into a busy
market-square. The wave of unfriendliness pursued him.
"Grapnel," said Bert, and then with an afterthought shouted,
"TETES there, you! I say! I say! TETES. 'Eng it!"
The grapnel smashed down a steeply sloping roof, followed by an
avalanche of broken tiles, jumped the street amidst shrieks and
cries, and smashed into a plate-glass window with an immense and
sickening,impact. The balloon rolled nauseatingly, and the car
pitched. But the grapnel had not held. It emerged at once
bearing on one fluke, with a ridiculous air of fastidious
selection, a small child's chair, and pursued by a maddened
shopman. It lifted its catch, swung about with an appearance of
painful indecision amidst a roar of wrath, and dropped it at last
neatly, and as if by inspiration, over the head of a peasant
woman in charge of an assortment of cabbages in the market-place.
Everybody now was aware of the balloon. Everybody was either
trying to dodge the grapnel or catch the trail rope. With a
pendulum-like swoop through the crowd, that sent people flying
right and left the grapnel came to earth again, tried for and
missed a stout gentleman in a blue suit and a straw hat, smacked
away a trestle from under a stall of haberdashery, made a
cyclist soldier in knickerbockers leap like a chamois, and
secured itself uncertainly among the hind-legs of a sheep--which
made convulsive, ungenerous efforts to free itself, and was
dragged into a position of rest against a stone cross in the
middle of the place. The balloon pulled up with a jerk. In
another moment a score of willing hands were tugging it
earthward. At the same instant Bert became aware for the first
time of a fresh breeze blowirg about him.
For some seconds he stood staggering in the car, which now swayed
sickeningly, surveying the exasperated crowd below him and trying
to collect his mind. He was extraordinarily astonished at this
run of mishaps. Were the people really so annoyed? Everybody
seemed angry with him. No one seemed interested or amused by his
arrival. A disproportionate amount of the outcry had the flavour
of imprecation--had, indeed a strong flavour of riot. Several
greatly uniformed officials in cocked hats struggled in vain to
control the crowd. Fists and sticks were shaken. And when Bert
saw a man on the outskirts of the crowd run to a haycart and get
a brightly pronged pitch-fork, and a blue-clad soldier unbuckle
his belt, his rising doubt whether this little town was after all
such a good place for a landing became a certainty.
He had clung to the fancy that they would make something of a
hero of him. Now he knew that he was mistaken.
He was perhaps ten feet above the people when he made his
decision. His paralysis ceased. He leapt up on the seat, and,
at imminent risk of falling headlong, released the grapnel-rope
from the toggle that held it, sprang on to the trail rope and
disengaged that also. A hoarse shout of disgust greeted the
descent of the grapnel-rope and the swift leap of the balloon,
and something--he fancied afterwards it was a turnip--whizzed by
his head. The trail-rope followed its fellow. The crowd seemed
to jump away from him. With an immense and horrifying rustle the
balloon brushed against a telephone pole, and for a tense instant
he anticipated either an electric explosion or a bursting of the
oiled silk, or both. But fortune was with him.
In another second he was cowering in the bottom of the car, and
released from the weight of the grapnel and the two ropes,
rushing up once more through the air. For a time he remained
crouching, and when at last he looked out again the little town
was very small and travelling, with the rest of lower Germany, in
a circular orbit round and round the car--or atleast it appeared
to be doing that. When he got used to it, he found this rotation
of the balloon rather convenient; it saved moving about in the
Late in the afternoon of a pleasant summer day in the year 191-,
if one may borrow a mode of phrasing that once found favour with
the readers of the late G. P. R. James, a solitary
balloonist--replacing. the solitary horseman of the classic
romances--might have been observed wending his way across
Franconia in a north-easterly direction, and at a height of about
eleven thousand feet above the sea and still spindling slowly.
His head was craned over the side of the car, and he surveyed the
country below with an expression of profound perplexity; ever and
again his lips shaped inaudible words. "Shootin' at a chap," for
example, and "I'll come down right enough soon as I find out
'ow." Over the side of the basket the robe of the Desert Dervish
was hanging, an appeal for consideration, an ineffectual white
He was now very distinctly aware that the world below him, so far
from being the naive countryside of his earlier imaginings that
day, sleepily unconscious of him and capable of being amazed and
nearly reverential at his descent, was acutely irritated by his
career, and extremely impatient with the course he was
taking.--Butindeed it was not he who took that course, but his
masters, the winds of heaven. Mysterious voices spoke to him in
his ear, jerking the words up to him by means of megaphones, in a
weird and startling ipanner, in a great variety of languages.
Official-looking persons had signalled to him by means of flag
flapping and arm waving. On the whole a guttural variant of
English prevailed in the sentences that alighted upon the
balloon; chiefly he was told to "gome down or you will be shot."
"All very well," said Bert, "but 'ow?"
Then they shot a little wide of the car. Latterly he had been
shot at six or seven times, and once the bullet had gone by with
a sound so persuasively like the tearing of silk that he had
resigned himself to the prospect of a headlong fall. But either
they were aiming near him or they had missed, and as yet nothing
was torn but the air about him--and his anxious soul.
He was now enjoying a respite from these attentions, but he felt
it was at best an interlude, and he was doing what he could to
appreciate his position. Incidentally he was having some hot
coffee and pie in an untidy inadvertent manner, with an eye
fluttering nervously over the side of the car. At first he had
ascribed the growing interest in his career to his ill-conceived
attempt to land in the bright little upland town, but now he was
beginning to realise that the military rather than the civil arm
was concerned about him.
He was quite involuntarily playing that weird mysterious
part--the part of an International Spy. He was seeing secret
things. He had, in fact, crossed the designs of no less a power
than the Geman Empire, he had blundered into the hot focus of
Welt-Politik, he was drifting helplessly towards the great
Imperial secret, the immense aeronautic park that had been
established at a headlong pace in Franconia to develop silently,
swiftly, and on an immense scale the great discoveries of
Hunstedt and Stossel, and so to give Germany before all other
nations a fleet of airships, the air power and the Empire of the
Later, just before they shot him down altogether, Bert saw that
great area of passionate work, warm lit in the evening light, a
great area of upland on which the airships lay like a herd of
grazing monsters at their feed. It was a vast busy space
stretching away northward as far as he could see, methodically
cut up into numbered sheds, gasometers, squad encampments,
storage areas, interlaced with the omnipresent mono-rail lines,
and altogether free from overhead wires or cables. Everywhere
was the white, black and yellow of Imperial Germany, everywhere
the black eagles spread their wings. Even without these
indications, the large vigorous neatness of everything would have
marked it Geman. Vast multitudes of men went to and fro, many
in white and drab fatigue uniforms busy about the balloons,
others drilling in sensible drab. Here and there a full uniform
glittered. The airships chiefly engaged his attention, and he
knew at once it was three of these he had seen on the previous
night, taking advantage of the cloud welkin to manoeuvre
unobserved. They were altogether fish-like. For the great
airships with which Germany attacked New York in her last
gigantic effort for world supremacy--before humanity realized
that world supremacy was a dream--were the lineal descendants of
the Zeppelin airship that flew over Lake Constance in 1906, and
of the Lebaudy navigables that made their memorable excursions
over Paris in 1907 and 1908.
These Geman airships were held together by rib-like skeletons of
steel and aluminium and a stout inelastic canvas outer-skin,
within which was an impervious rubber gas-bag, cut up by
transverse dissepiments into from fifty to a hundred
compartments. These were all absolutely gas tight and filled
with hydrogen, and the entire aerostat was kept at any level by
means of a long internal balloonette of oiled and toughened silk
canvas, into which air could be forced and from which it could be
pumped. So the airship could be made either heavier or lighter
than air, and losses of weight through the consumption of fuel,
the casting of bombs and so forth, could also be compensated by
admitting air to sections of the general gas-bag. Ultimately
that made a highly explosive mixture; but in all these matters
risks must be taken and guarded against. There was a steel axis
to the whole affair, a central backbone which terminated in the
engine and propeller, and the men and magazines were forward in a
series of cabins under the expanded headlike forepart. The
engine, which was of the extraordinarily powerful Pforzheim type,
that supreme triumph of Geman invention, was worked by wires
from this forepart, which was indeed the only really habitable
part of the ship. If anything went wrong, the engineers went aft
along a rope ladder beneath the frame. The tendency of the whole
affair to roll was partly corrected by a horizontal lateral fin
on either side, and steering was chiefly effected by two vertical
fins, which normally lay back like gill-flaps on either side of
the head. It was indeed a most complete adaptation of the fish
form to aerial conditions, the position of swimming bladder,
eyes, and brain being, however, below instead of above. A
striking, and unfish-like feature was the apparatus for wireless
telegraphy that dangled from the forward cabin--that is to say,
under the chin of the fish.
These monsters were capable of ninety miles an hour in a calm, so
that they could face and make headway against nearly everything
except the fiercest tornado. They varied in length from eight
hundred to two thousand feet, and they had a carrying power of
from seventy to two hundred tons. How many Germany possessed
history does not record, but Bert counted nearly eighty great
bulks receding in perspective during his brief inspection. Such
were the instruments on which she chiefly relied to sustain her
in her repudiation of the Monroe Doctrine and her bold bid for a
share in the Empire of the New World. But not altogether did she
rely on these; she had also a one-man bomb-throwing
Drachenflieger of unknown value among the resources.
But the Drachenflieger were away in the second great aeronautic
park east of Hamburg, and Bert Smallways saw nothing of them in
the bird's-eye view he took of ihe Franconian establishment
before they shot him down very neatly. The bullet tore past him
and made a sort of pop as it pierced his balloon--a pop that was
followed by a rustling sigh and a steady downward movement. And
when in the confusion of the moment he dropped a bag of ballast,
the Germans, very politely but firmly overcame his scruples by
shooting his balloon again twice.
War in the Air Chapter 2
... War in the Air Chapter 4