The War in the Air – Day 22 of 115

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’ drink.”

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 experience.


  1. ScottS-M Identiconcomment_author_IP, $comment->comment_author); }else{echo $gravatar_link;}}*/ ?>

    ScottS-M wrote:

    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.

    I was surprised they weren’t using helium but then I remembered the Hindenberg burning in 1937. It turns out that scientists would have just started investigating helium when this book was written.

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