St. Ives (Stevenson and Quiller-Couch)/Chapter 33
"THE INCOMPLETE AËRONAUTS"
All this I took in at a glance; I dare say in three seconds or less. The hubbub beneath us dropped to a low, rumbling bass. Suddenly a woman's scream divided it—one high-pitched penetrating scream, followed by silence. And then as a pack of hounds will start into cry, voice after voice caught up the scream and reduplicated it until the whole enclosure rang with alarm.
"Hullo!" Byfield called to me: "what the deuce is happening now?" and ran to his side of the car. "Good Lord, it's Dalmahoy!"
It was. Beneath us, at the tail of a depending rope, that unhappy lunatic dangled between earth and sky. He had been the first to cut the tether; and, having severed it below his grasp, had held on while the others cut loose, taking even the asinine precaution to loop the end twice round his wrist. Of course the upward surge of the balloon had heaved him off his feet, and his muddled instinct did the rest. Clutching now with both hands, he was borne aloft like a lamb from the flock.
So we reasoned afterwards. "The grapnel!" gasped Byyfield; for Dalmahoy's rope was fastened beneath the floor of the car, and not to be reached by us. We fumbled to cast the grapnel loose, and shouted down together:
"For God's sake hold on! Catch the anchor when it comes! You'll break your neck if you drop!"
He swung into sight again beyond the edge of the floor, and uplifted a strained, white face.
We cast loose the grapnel, lowered it and jerked it towards him. He swung past it like a pendulum, caught it with one hand and missed; came flying back on the receding curve and missed again. At the third attempt he blundered right against it, and flung an arm over one of the flukes, next a leg, and in a trice we were hauling up, hand over hand.
We dragged him inboard. He was pale but undefeatedly voluble.
"Must apologise to you fellows, really. Dam silly, clumsy kind of thing to do; might have been awkward too. Thank you, Byfield my boy, I will: two fingers only—a harmless steadier."
He took the flask and was lifting it. But his jaw dropped and his hand hung arrested.
"He's going to faint," I cried. "The strain——"
"Strain on your grandmother, Ducie! What's that?"
He was staring past my shoulder, and on the instant I was aware of a voice—not the aëronaut's—speaking behind me and, as it were, out of the clouds,—
"I take ye to witness. Mister Byfield——"
Consider if you please. For six days I had been oscillating within a pretty complete circumference of alarms. It is small blame to me, I hope, that with my nerve on so nice a pivot I quivered and swung to this new apprehension like a needle in a compass box.
On the floor of the car, at my feet, lay a heap of plaid rugs and overcoats, from which, successively and painfully, there emerged first a hand clutching a rusty beaver hat, next a mildly indignant face in spectacles, and finally the rearward of a very small man in a seedy suit of black. He rose on his knees, his finger-tips resting on the floor, and contemplated the aëronaut over his glasses with a world of reproach.
"I take ye to witness, Mr. Byfield!"
Byfield mopped a perspiring brow.
"My dear sir," he stammered, "all a mistake—no fault of mine—explain presently"; then, as one catching at an inspiration, "Allow me to introduce you. Mr. Dalmahoy, Mr.——"
"My name is Sheepshanks," said the little man stiffly. "But you'll excuse me——"
Mr. Dalmahoy interrupted with a playful cat-call.
"Hear, hear! Silence! 'His name is Sheepshanks. On the Grampian Hills his father kept his flocks—a thousand sheep'—and, I make no doubt, shanks in proportion. Excuse you, Sheepshanks? My dear sir! At this altitude one shank was more than we had a right to expect; the plural multiplies the obligation." Keeping a tight hold on his hysteria, Dalmahoy steadied himself by a rope and bowed.
"And I, sir,"—as Mr. Sheepshanks' thoroughly bewildered gaze travelled around and met mine—"I, sir, am the Vicomte Anne de Kéroual de St. Yves, at your service. I haven't a notion how or why you come to be here; but you seem likely to be an acquisition. On my part," I continued, as there leapt into my mind the stanza I had vainly tried to recover in Mrs. McRankine's sitting-room, "I have the honour to refer you to the inimitable Roman Flaccus—
'Virtus, recludens immeritis mori
Coelum negata temptat iter via,
Coetusque vulgares et udam
Spernit humum f ugiente peima.*
—you have the Latin, sir?"
"Not a word." He subsided upon the pile of rugs and spread ont his hands in protest. "I tak' ye to witness, Mr. Byfield!"
"Then in a minute or so I will do myself the pleasure of construiing," said I, and turned to scan the earth we were leaving—I had not guessed how rapidly.
We contemplated it from the height of six hundred feet—or so Byfield asserted after consulting his barometer. He added that this was a mere nothing; the wonder was the balloon had risen at all with one-half of the total folly of Edinburgh clinging to the car. I passed the possible inaccuracy and certain ill-temper of this calculation. He had (he explained) made jettison of at least a hundredweight of sand ballast. I could only hope it had fallen on my cousin. To me, six hundred feet appeared a very respectable eminence. And the view was ravishing.
The Lunardi mounting through a stagnant calm in a line almost vertical, had pierced the morning mists, and now swam emancipated in a heaven of exquisite blue. Below us, by some trick of eyesight, the country had grown concave, its horizons curving up like the rim of a shallow bowl—a bowl heaped, in point of fact, with sea-fog, but to our eyes with a froth delicate and dazzling as a whipped syllabub of snow. Upon it the travelling shadow of the balloon became no shadow but a stain; an amethyst (you might call it) purged of all grosser properties than colour and lucency. At times thrilled by no perceptible wind, rather by the pulse of the sun's rays, the froth shook and parted; and then behold, deep in the crevasses, vignetted and shining, an acre or two of the earth of man's business and fret—tilled slopes of the Lothians, ships dotted on the Forth, the capital like a hive that some child had smoked—the ear of fancy could almost hear it buzzing.
I snatched the glass from Byfield, and brought it to focus upon one of these peepshow rifts: and lo! at the toot of the shaft, imaged, as it were, far down in aluminous well, a green hillside and three figures standing. A white speck fluttered; and fluttered until the rift closed again. Flora's handkerchief! Blessings on the brave hand that waved it!—at a moment when (as I have since heard and knew without need of hearing) her heart was down in her shoes, or, to speak accurately, in the milkmaid Janet's. Singular in many things, she was at one with the rest of her sex in its native and incurable distrust of man's inventions.
I am bound to say that my own faith in aërostatics was a plant—a sensitive plant—of extremely tender growth. Either I failed, a while back, in painting the emotions of my descent of the "Devil's Elbow," or the reader knows that I am a chicken-hearted fellow about a height. I make him a present of the admission. Set me on a plane superficies, and I will jog with all the insouciance of a rolling stone; toss me in air and, with the stone in the child's adage, I am in the hands of the devil. Even to the qualified instability of a sea-going ship I have ever committed myself with resignation rather than confidence.
But to my unspeakable relief the Lunardi floated upwards, and continued to float, almost without a tremor. Only by reading the barometer, or by casting scraps of paper overboard, could we tell that the machine moved at all. Now and again we revolved slowly: so Byfield's compass informed us, but for ourselves we had never guessed it. Of dizziness I felt no longer a symptom, for the sufficient reason that the provocatives were nowhere at hand. We were the only point in space, without possibility of comparison with another. We were made one with the clean silences receiving us; and speaking only for the Vicomte Anne de St. Yves, I dare assert that for five minutes a newly bathed infant had not been less conscious of original sin.
"But look here, you know"—it was Byfield at my elbow—"I'm a public character, by George; and this puts me in a devilish awkward position."
"So it does," I agreed. "You proclaimed yourself a solitary voyager; and here, to the naked eye, are four of us."
"And pray how can I help that? If, at the last moment, a couple of lunatics come rushing in——"
"They still leave Sheepshanks to be accounted for." Byfield began to irritate me. I turned to the stowaway, "Perhaps," said I, "Mr. Sheepshanks will explain."
"I paid in advance," Mr. Sheepshanks began, eager to seize the opening presented. "The fact is, I'm a married man."
"Already at two points you have the advantage of us. Proceed, sir!"
"You were good enough just now to give me your name, Mr.——"
"The Vicomte Anne de Kéroual de St. Yves."
"It is a somewhat difficult name to remember."
"If that be all, sir, within two minutes you shall have a memoria technica prepared for use during the voyage."
Mr, Sheepshanks harked back. "I am a married man, and—d'ye see?—Mrs. Sheepshanks, as you might say, has no sympathy with ballooning. She was a Guthrie of Dumfries."
"Which accounts for it, to be sure," said I.
"To me, sir, on the contrary, aërostatics have long been an alluring study. I might even, Mr.——, I might even, I say, term it the passion of my life." His mild eyes shone behind their glasses. "I remember Vincent Lunardi, sir. I was present in Heriot's Gardens when he made an ascension there in October '85. He came down at Cupar. The Society of Gentleman Golfers at Cupar presented him with an address; and at Edinburgh he was admitted Knight Companion of the Beggar's Benison, a social company, or (as I may say) crew, since defunct. A thin-faced man, sir. He wore a peculiar bonnet, if I may use the expression, very much cocked up behind. The shape became fashionable. He once pawned his watch with me, sir; that being my profession. I regret to say he redeemed it subsequently; otherwise I might have the pleasure of showing it to you. yes, the theory of ballooning has long been a passion with me. But in deference to Mrs. Sheepshanks I have abstained from the actual practice—until to-day. To tell you the truth, my wife believes me to be brushing off the cobwebs in the Kyles of Bute."
"Are there any cobwebs in the Kyles of Bute?" asked Dalmahoy, in a tone unnaturally calm.
"A figure of speech, sir—as one might say, holiday-keeping there. I paid Mr. Byfield five pounds in advance. I have his receipt. And the stipulation was that I should be concealed in the car and make the ascension with him alone."
"Are we then to take it, sir, that our company offends you?" I demanded.
He made haste to disclaim. "Not at all: decidedly not in the least. But the chances were for far less agreeable associates." I nodded. "And a bargain's a bargain," he wound up.
"So it is," said I, "Byfield, hand Mr. Sheepshanks back his five pounds."
"O, come now!" the aëronaut objected. "And who may you be to be ordering a man about?"
"I believe I have already answered that question twice in your hearing."
"Mosha the Viscount Thingamy de Something-or-other? I dare say!"
"Have you any objection?"
"Not the smallest. For all I care, yon are Robert Burns, or Napoleon Buonaparte, or anything from the Mother of the Gracchi to Balaam's Ass. But I knew you first as Mr. Ducie; and you may take it that I'm Mr. Don't see." He reached up a hand towards the valve-string.
"What are you proposing to do?"
"What?—back to the enclosure?"
"Scarcely that, seeing that we have struck a northerly current, and are travelling at the rate of thirty miles an hour, perhaps. That's Broad Law to the south of us, as I make it out."
"But why descend at all?"
"Because it sticks in my head that some one in the crowd called you by a name that wasn't Ducie; and by a title, for that matter, which didn't sound like "Viscount." I took it at the time for a constable's trick; but I begin to have my strong doubts."
The fellow was dangerous. I stooped nonchalantly, on pretence of picking up a plaid; for the air had turned bitterly cold of a sudden.
"Mr. Byfield, a word in your private ear, if you will."
"As you please," said he, dropping the valve-string.
We leaned together over the breastwork of the car. "If I mistake not," I said, speaking low, "the name was Champdivers."
"The gentleman who raised that foolish but infernally risky cry was my own cousin, the Viscount de St. Yves. I give you my word of honour to that." Observing that this staggered him, I added, mighty slyly, "I suppose it doesn't occur to you now that the whole affair was a game for a friendly wager?"
"No," he answered, brutally, "it doesn't. And what's more, it won't go down."
"In that respect," said I, with a sudden change of key, "it resembles your balloon. But I admire the obstinacy of your suspicions; since, as a matter of fact, I am Champdivers."
"Certainly not. I killed the man in fair duel."
"Ha!" He eyed me with sour distrust. "That is what you have to prove."
"Man alive, you don't expect me to demonstrate it up here, by the simple apparatus of ballooning!"
"There is no talk of 'up here,'" said he, and reached for the valve-string.
"Say 'down there' then. Down there it is no business of the accused to prove his innocence. By what I have heard of the law, English or Scotch, the boot is on the other leg. But I'll tell you what I can prove. I can prove, sir, that I have been a deal in your company of late; that I supped with you and Mr. Dalmahoy no longer ago than Wednesday. You may put it that we three are here together again by accident; that you never suspected me; that my invasion of your machine was a complete surprise to you, and, so far as you were concerned, wholly fortuitous. But ask yourself what any intelligent jury is likely to make of that cock-and-bull story." Mr. Byfield was visibly shaken. "Add to this," I proceeded, "that you have to explain Sheepshanks; to confess that you gulled the public by advertising a lonely ascension, and haranguing a befooled multitude to the same intent, when, all the time, you had a companion concealed in the car. 'A public character' you call yourself! My word, sir! there'll be no mistake about it this time."
I paused, took breath, and shook a finger at him:—
"Now just you listen to me, Mr. Byfield. Pull that string and a sadly discredited aëronaut descends upon the least charitable of worlds. Why, sir, in any case your game in Edinburgh is up. The public is dog-tired of you and your ascensions, as any observant child in to-day's crowd could have told you. The truth was there staring you in the face; and next time even your purblind vanity must recognise it. Consider; I offered you two hundred guineas for the convenience of your balloon. I now double that offer on condition that I become its owner during this trip, and that you manipulate it as I wish. Here are the notes; and out of the total you will refund five pounds to Mr. Sheepshanks."
Byfield's complexion had grown streaky as his balloon; and with colours not so very dissimilar. I had stabbed upon his vital self-conceit, and the man was really hurt.
"You must give me time," he stammered.
"By all means." I knew he was beaten. But only the poorness of my case excused me, and I had no affection for the weapons used. I turned with relief to the others. Dalmahoy was seated on the floor of the car, and helping Mr. Sheepshanks to unpack a carpet bag.
"This will be whiskey," the little pawnbroker announced: "three bottles. My wife said, 'Surely, Elshander, ye'll find whiskey where ye're gaun.' 'No doubt I will,' said I, 'but I'm not very confident of its quality; and it's a far step.' My itinerary, Mr. Dalmahoy, was planned from Greenock to the Kyles of Bute and back, and thence coastwise to Saltcoats and the land of Burns. I told her, if she had anything to communicate, to address her letter to the care of the postmaster, Ayr—ha, ha!" He broke off and gazed reproachfully into Dalmahoy's impassive face. "Ayr—air," he explained: "a little play upon words."
"Skye would have been better," suggested Dalmahoy, without moving an eyelid.
"Skye? Dear me—capital, capital! Only you see," he urged, "she wouldn't expect me to be in Skye."
A minute later he drew me aside. "Excellent company your friend is, sir; most gentlemanly manners; but at times, if I may say so, not very gleg."
My hands by this time were numb with cold. "We had been ascending steadily, and Byfield's English thermometer stood at thirteen degrees. I borrowed from the heap a thicker overcoat, in the pocket of which I was lucky enough to find a pair of furred gloves; and leaned over for another look below, still with a corner of my eye for the aëronaut, who stood biting his nails, as far from me as the car allowed.
The sea-fog had vanished, and the south of Scotland lay spread beneath us from sea to sea, like a map in monotint. Nay, yonder was England, with the Solway cleaving the coast—a broad, bright spearhead, slightly bent at the tip—and the fells of Cumberland beyond, mere hummocks on the horizon; all else flat as a board or as the bottom of a saucer. White threads of high-road connected town to town: the intervening hills had fallen down, and the towns, as if in fright, had shrunk into themselves, contracting their suburbs as a snail his horns. The old poet was right who said that Olympians had a delicate view. The lace-makers of Valenciennes might have had the tracing of those towns and high-roads; those knots of guipure and ligatures of finest réseau-work. And when I considered that what I looked down on—this, with its arteries and nodules of public traffic—was a nation; that each silent nodule held some thousands of men, each man moderately ready to die in defence of his shopboard and hen-roost; it came into my mind that my Emperor's emblem was the bee, and this Britain the spider's web, sure enough.
Byfield came across and stood at my elbow,
"Mr. Ducie, I have considered your offer, and accept it. It's a curst position——"
"For a public character," I put in affably.
"Don't, sir! I beg that you don't. Your words just now made me suffer a good deal; the more, that I perceive a part of them to be true. An aëronaut, sir, has ambition—how can he help it? The public, the newspapers feed it for a while; they fête, and flatter, and applaud him. But in its heart the public ranks him with the mountebank, and reserves the right to drop him when tired of his tricks. Is it wonderful that he forgets this sometimes? For in his own thoughts he is not a mountebank—no, by God, he is not!"
The man spoke with genuine passion. I held out my hand.
"Mr. Byfield, my words were brutal. I beg you will allow me to take them back."
He shook his head. "They were true, sir; partly true, that is."
"I am not so sure. A balloon, as you hint and I begin to discover, may alter the perspective of a man's ambitions. Here are the notes; and on the top of them I give you my word that you are not abetting a criminal. How long should the Lunardi be able to maintain itself in air?"
"I have never tried it; but I calculate on twenty hours—say twenty-four at a pinch."
"We will test it. The current, I see, is still north-east, or from that to north-by-east. And our height?"
He consulted the barometer. "Something under three miles."
Dalmahoy heard and whooped. "Hi! you fellows, come to lunch! Sandwiches, shortbread, and cleanest Glenlivet—Elshander's Feast:—
'Let old Timotheus yield the prize,
Or both divide the crown;
He raised a mortal to the skies——'
Sheepshanks provided the whiskey. Rise, Elshander—observe that you have no worlds left to conquer, and having shed the perfunctory tear, pass the corkscrew. Come along, Ducie; come my Dædalian boy; if you are not hungry, I am, and so is—Sheepshanks—What the dickens do you mean by consorting with a singular verb? Verbum cum nominativo—I should say, so are sheepshanks."
Byfield produced from one of the lockers a pork pie and a bottle of sherry (the viaticum in choice and assortment almost explained the man) and we sat down to the repast. Dalmahoy's tongue ran like a brook. He addressed Mr. Sheepshanks with light-hearted impartiality as Philip's royal son, as the Man of Ross, as the divine Clarinda. He elected him Professor of Marital Diplomacy to the University of Cramond. He passed the bottle and called on him for a toast, a song—"Oblige me. Sheepshanks, by making the welkin ring." Mr. Sheepshanks beamed, and gave us a sentiment instead. The little man was enjoying himself amazingly. "Fund of spirits your friend has, to be sure, sir, quite a fund."
Either my own spirits were running low or the bitter cold had congealed them. I was conscious of my thin ball suit, and moreover of a masterful desire of sleep. I felt no inclination for food, but drained half a tumblerful of the Sheepshanks whiskey, and crawled beneath the pile of plaids. Byfield considerately helped me to arrange them. He may or may not have caught some accent of uncertainty in my thanks; at any rate he thought fit to add the assurance, "You may trust me, Mr. Ducie." I saw that I could and began almost to like the fellow.
In this posture I dozed through the afternoon. In dreams I heard Dalmahoy and Sheepshanks lifting their voices in amœbaean song, and became languidly aware that they were growing uproarious. I heard Byfield expostulating, apparently in vain; for I awoke next to find that Sheepshanks had stumbled over me while illustrating, with an empty bottle, the motions of tossing the caber. "Old Hieland sports," explained Dalmahoy, wiping tears of vain laughter: "his mother's uncle was out in the Forty-five. Sorry to wake you, Ducie: below, my babe!" It did not occur to me to smoke danger in this tomfoolery. I turned over and dozed again.
It seemed but a minute later that a buzzing in my ears awoke me; with a stab of pain as though my temples were being split with a wedge. On the instant I heard my name cried aloud, and sat up; to find myself blinking in a broad flood of moonlight over against the agitated face of Dalmahoy.
"Byfield——"' I began.
Dalmahoy pointed. The aëronaut lay at my feet, collapsed like some monstrous marionette, with legs and arms a-splay. Across his legs, with head propped against a locker, reclined Sheepshanks, and gazed upwards with an approving smile. "Awkward business," explained Dalmahoy, between gasps. "Sheepshanks unmanageable; can't carry his liquor like a gentleman: thought it funny both of us pitch out ballast. Byfield lost his temper, worst thing in the world. One thing I pride myself, 'menable to reason. No holding Sheepshanks; Byfield got him down; too late: faint. Sheepshanks wants ring for 'shistance: pulls string: breaks. When the string breaks Lunardi won't fall—tha's the devil of it."
"With my tol-de-rol," Mr. Sheepshanks murmured. "Pretty—very pretty."
I cast a look aloft. The Lunardi was transformed: every inch of it frosted as with silver. All the ropes and cords ran with silver too, or liquid mercury. And in the midst of this sparkling cage, a little below the hoop, and five feet at least above reach, dangled the broken valve-string.
"Well," I said, "you have made a handsome mess of it. Pass me the broken end, and be good enough not to lose your head."
"I wish I could," he groaned, pressing it between his palms. "My dear sir, I'm not frightened, if that is your meaning."
I was, and horribly. But the thing had to be done. The reader will perhaps forgive me for touching shyly on the next two or three minutes, which still recur on the smallest provocation and play bogey with my dreams. To balance on the edge of night, quaking, gripping a frozen rope; to climb and feel the pit of one's stomach slipping like a bucket in a fathomless well—I suppose the intolerable pains in my head spurred me to the attempt—these and the urgent shortness of my breathing—much as a toothache will drive a man up to the dentist's chair. I knotted the broken ends of the valve-string and slid back into the car: then tugged the valve open, while with my disengaged arm I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It froze upon the coat-cuff.
In a minute or so the drumming in my ears grew less violent. Dalmahoy bent over the aëronaut, who was bleeding at the nose, and now began to breathe stertorously. Sheepshanks had fallen into placid slumber. I kept the valve open until we descended into a stratum of fog—from which, no doubt, the Lunardi had lately risen: the moisture collected here would account for its congelated coat of silver. By-and-bye, still without rising, we were quit of the fog, and the moon swept the hollow beneath us, rescuing solitary scraps and sheets of water and letting them slip again like imprehensible ghosts. Small fiery eyes opened and shut on us: cressets of flame on factory chimneys, more and more frequent. I studied the compass. Our course lay south by west. But our whereabouts? Dalmahoy, being appealed to, suggested Glasgow: and thenceforward I let him alone. Byfield snored on.
I pulled out my watch, which I had forgotten to wind; and found it run down. The hands stood at twenty minutes past four. Daylight, then, could not be far off. Eighteen hours—say twenty: and Byfield had guessed our rate at one time to be thirty miles an hour. Five hundred miles—
A line of silver ahead: a ribbon drawn taut across the night, clean-edged, broadening—the sea! In a minute or two I caught the murmur of the coast. "Five hundred miles," I began to reckon again, and a holy calm dawned on me as the Lunardi swept high over the fringing surf, and its voice faded back with the glimmer of a white-washed fishing haven.
I roused Dalmahoy and pointed. "The sea!"
"Looks like it. Which, I wonder?"
"The English Channel, man."
"I say—are you sure?"
"Eh?" exclaimed Byfield, waking up and coming forward with a stagger.
"The English Channel."
"The French fiddlestick," said he with equal promptness.
"O, have it as you please!" I retorted. It was not worth arguing with the man.
"What is the hour?"
I told him that my watch had run down. His had done the same. Dalmahoy did not carry one. We searched the still prostrate Sheepshanks: his had stopped at ten minutes to four. Byfield replaced it and underlined his disgust with a kick.
"A nice lot," he ejaculated. "I owe you my thanks, Mr. Ducie, all the same. It was touch and go with us, and my head's none the better for it."
"But I say," expostulated Dalmahoy. "France! This is getting past a joke."
"So you are really beginning to discover that, are you?"
Byfield stood, holding by a rope, and studied the darkness ahead. Beside him I hugged my conviction—hour after hour, it seemed: and still the dawn did not come.
He turned at length.
"I see a coast line to the south of us. This will be the Bristol Channel, and the balloon is sinking. Pitch out some ballast, if these idiots have left any."
I found a couple of sandbags and emptied them overboard. The coast, as a matter of fact, was close at hand. But the Lunardi rose in time to clear the cliff barrier by some hundreds of feet. A wild sea ran on it: of its surf, as of a grey and agonising face, we caught one glimpse as we hurled high and clear over the roar: and, a minute later, to our infinite dismay were actually skimming the surface of a black hillside. "Hold on!" screamed Byfield, and I had barely time to tighten my grip when—crash! the car struck the turf and pitched us together in a heap on the floor. Bump! the next blow shook us like peas in a bladder. I drew my legs up and waited for the third.
None came. The car gyrated madly and swung slowly back to equilibrium. We picked ourselves up, tossed rugs, coats, instruments, promiscuously overboard, and mounted again. The chine of the tall hill, our stumbling-block, fell back and was lost, and we swept forward into formless shadeow.
"Confound it!" said Byfield, "the land can't be uninhabited!"
It was, for aught we could see. Not a light showed anywhere; and to make things worse the moon had abandoned us. For one good hour we swept through chaos to the tuneless lamentations of Sheepshanks, who declared that his collar-bone was broken.
Then Dalmahoy flung a hand upwards. Night lay like a sack around and below us: but right aloft, at the zenith, day was trembling. Slowly established, it spread and descended upon us until it touched a distant verge of hills, and these, cut by the rim of the rising sun, flowed suddenly with streams of crimson.
"Over with the grapnel!" Byfield sprang to the valve-string and pulled; and the featureless earth rushed up towards us.
The sunlight through which we were falling had not touched it yet. It leaped on us, drenched in shadow, like some incalculable beast from its covert: a land shaggy with woods and coppices. Between the woods a desolate river glimmered. A colony of herons rose from the tree-tops beneath us and flew squawking for the farther shore.
"This won't do," said Byfield, and shut the escape. "We must win clear of these woods. Hullo!" Ahead of us the river widened abruptly into a shining estuary, populous with anchored shipping. Tall hills flanked it, and in the curve of the westernmost hill a grey town rose from the waterside: its terraces climbing tier upon tier, like seats in an amphitheatre; its chimneys lifting their smoke over against the dawn. The tiers curved away southward to a round castle and a spit of rock, oil which a brig under white canvas stood out for the line of the open sea.
We swept across the roadstead towards the town, trailing our grapnel as it were a hooked fish, a bare hundred feet above the water. Faces stared up at us from the ships' decks. The crew of one lowered a boat to pursue; we were half a mile away before it touched the water. Should we clear the town? At Byfield's orders we stripped out our overcoats and stood ready to lighten ship: but seeing that the deflected wind in the estuary was carrying us towards the suburbs and the harbour's mouth, he changed his mind.
"It is devil or deep sea," he announced. "We will try the grapnel. Look to it, Ducie, while I take the valve." He pressed a clasp-knife into my hand. "Cut, if I give the word."
We descended a few feet. We were skimming the ridge. The grapnel touched, and in the time it takes you to wink, had ploughed through a kitchen garden, uprooting a regiment of currant bushes; had leaped clear, and was caught in the eaves of a wooden outhouse, fetching us up with a dislocating shock. I heard a rending noise and picked myself up in time to see the building collapse like a house of cards and a pair of demented pigs emerge from the ruins and plunge across the garden beds. And with that I was pitched off my feet again as the hook caught in an iron chevaux-de-frise, and held fast.
"Hold tight!" shouted Byfield, as the car lurched and struggled, careening desperately. "Don't cut, man! What the devil!"
Our rope had tautened over the coping of a high stone wall; and the straining Lunardi—a very large and handsome blossom, bending on a very thin stalk—overhung the gravelled yard; and lo! from the centre of it stared up at us, rigid with amazement, the faces of a squad of British red-coats!
I believe that the first glimpse of that abhorred uniform brought my knife down upon the rope. In two seconds I had slashed through the strands, and the flaccid machine lifted and bore us from their ken. But I see their faces yet, as in basso relievo: round-eyed, open-mouthed; honest country faces, and boyish, every one; an awkward squad of recruits at drill, fronting a red-headed sergeant; the sergeant, with cane held horizontally across and behind his thighs, his face upturned with the rest, and "Irishman" on every feature of it. And so the vision fleeted, and Byfield's language claimed attention. The man took the whole vocabulary of British profanity at a rush, and swore himself to a standstill. As he paused for a second wind I struck in:
"Mr. Byfield, you open the wrong valve. We drift, as you say, towards—nay, over, the open sea. As master of this balloon I suggest that we descend within reasonable distance of the brig yonder; which, as I make out is backing her sails; which, again, can only mean that she observes us and is preparing to lower a boat."
He saw the sense of this, and turned to business, though with a snarl. As a gull from the cliff, the Lunardi slanted downwards, and passing the brig by less than a cable's length to leeward, soused into the sea.
I say "soused," for I confess that the shock belied the promise of our easy descent. The Lunardi floated: but it also drove before the wind. And as it dragged the car after it like a tilted pail, the four drenched and blinded aëronauts struggled through the spray and gripped the hoop, the netting—nay, dug their nails into the oiled silk. In its new element the balloon became inspired with a sudden infernal malice. It sank like a pillow if we tried to climb it: it rolled us over in the brine; it allowed us no moment for a backward glance. I spied a small cutter-rigged craft tacking towards us, a mile and more to leeward, and wondered if the captain of the brig had left our rescue to it. He had not. I heard a shout behind us; a rattle of oars as the bowmen shipped them; and a hand gripped my collar. So one by one we were plucked—uncommon specimens!—from the deep; rescued from what Mr. Sheepshanks, a minute later, as he sat down on a thwart and wiped his spectacles, justly termed "a predicament, sir, as disconcerting as any my experience supplies."