The Boy Scouts of the Air at Cape Peril/Chapter 11
HOW THE AIRBUG STARTED
After the boys had unloaded their minds of the Indian discovery and reviewed the shark episode half a dozen times or more, they began to grow restless. A vague apprehension about the fate of Hardy and Legs took possession of them, while the dismally howling wind furnished an unpleasant accompaniment to their thoughts. Cat beat a tattoo on the window-panes and gazed out moodily at the curling whitecaps. Jimmy sought Luke's company in the kitchen, but the mulatto with a sulky scowl emitted nothing but grunts, so the lad hunted up Turner.
"No news from Kitty Hawk yet," announced the latter, adding such encouragement as he was able to conjure up
After joining Cat once more in his gloomy occupation of staring at the high running surf and scurrying clouds, Jimmy suggested killing time by a nap. If there ever were a time when it was profitable to be dead to the world, this seemed the occasion; so upstairs bounded the two, after getting Turner's promise to wake them in case anything exciting turned up.
At six, they were down again, hurrying out to watch the mighty upheaval of the ocean. Breasting the wind, they scurried along the low sand hills above the beach. Now that the tide was approaching its maximum, the foaming breakers beat the shore with redoubled fury. The low stretch between Cape Peril and Seagulls' Nest was completely submerged, and the waves were washing over into Lake Herring. The spillway appeared in danger of demolition.
Excitement grew when the watchers saw in the far distance a big liner upreared on the summit of a great wave, only to disappear the next moment in the trough, and then mount into sight once more on another swell.
When the wind drove the boys indoors once more, they found dinner waiting to furnish a half-hour's diversion. The evening dragged by without news of yacht or flyers. By nine o'clock darkness had shrouded the ocean except where sections gleamed under the shafts of light that poured forth from the lighthouse of Cape Peril.
"Buffum's on the job," declared the Tarheel.
About eleven, the three watchers noted a perceptible lull in the blast and, amid the scudding clouds, stars peeped out here and there. The barometer was rising, as Turner noted.
"The storm must have turned tail at Hatteras as Buffum predicted," was his opinion, "and the worst is over. I was afraid we'd have one of those August blows that come once in a generation and lift a few house lids and rear-range the forestry, but it seems that's given us the go-by. How about bed?"
As it was evident that the speaker had no intention of turning in himself, the lads, fortified by their nap, firmly declined. They meant to see the thing out. Turner allowed himself to be persuaded. With blinds tight shut and a bright light burning, the room was filled with talk of Indians for half an hour longer. Then, aircraft bobbed up. After an hour and more of war-aeronautic talk, the Tarheel woke up to the very evident fact that, although the breakers kept up their uninterrupted boom against the beach, the main fury of the wind was well over, leaving in its wake a chain of rapidly succeeding flaws.
"Look here, boys," insisted the man, after his weather wisdom was sufficiently satisfied, "all danger of our doing the Noah's ark stunt is over. Hardy and Company are snug in bed and the yacht's in port. Off to bed with you."
"Say, just one more thing," pleaded Jimmy. "Before we go, tell us how people first got hold of the flying idea. Come across."
"Well, of all the—" yawned Turner and then conceded. "All right. I'll give you about ten minutes' dope on that, and then I'm sealed and soldered. Get me?"
Jimmy and Cat got him.
"As to the flying idea," proceeded the host, "I reckon dreams started it. There's no dream more common than the one in which you think you are flying or gliding through the air, and it's a pretty keen sensation."
Cat and Jimmy hastened to recount some of their own experiences in this line, but Turner, mindful of his time limit, was quick to cut them off.
"Then, when folks got to thinking about flying," he proceeded, "their idea was to get up to heaven without dying and turning to angels. The earliest nations in history have traditions and legends along this line. Of all the fancies, the imagination of the Indians took the cake. I mean the inhabitants of India, not the American Indians, misnamed by the first explorers under the impression their ships had struck the other side of the globe.
"One funny yarn was about a Brahmin, one of the Hindoo priests, who spied the god Indra's Wishing Cow wandering about on a meadow. The idea occurred to him that if he'd freeze tight to the cow's tail he'd get a lift up to their heaven on the top of the Himalayan mountains. So sure 'nuf, when the kindly cow had laid in her stock of hay and was ready to frisk back to heaven, the Brahmin, with a stranglehold on her tail, got in too, and saw the whole menagerie free. The next day, when the cow took a notion to slide down to earth again, she carried the passenger in the Pullman tail-car, and landed him safely on his native heath.
"Very proud of his feat, he told the neighbors and got the whole gang worked up for the same picnic, so he concocted a plan. 'Pals,' he said, 'I tell you how we'll all get a finger in the pie. I'll hang on to the cow's tail, and one of you can stretch out and clamp on to my feet, and the next one on to his feet, and the next on to his, and so down the line, and we'll all get a lift like the tail of a kite.' Well, that's what they did—I mean so far as the start was concerned. The Wishing Cow made her spring-off and carried a string of about twelve husky Brahmins hanging on to her elevator. But, en route, one of the lower Brahmins, craving some conversation, called out to the tail-holder, 'How tall did you say the god Indra's crown was?' And the top chump, who must have been a little soft in the attic, answered, 'Bout this tall,' and let loose the cow's tail so as to spread his hands and show the height of the crown. Very naturally, the whole train of passengers came down a-kiting on their last journey, hit the soil, and got pancaked."
This tale made something of a hit.
"The Greek and Roman mythologies," continued the entertainer, "are chock-full of yarns about flying gods and air-prowling beasts. The winged horse Pegasus had a steady job furnishing air rides to bucks who knew how to handle him, But a fellow named Bellerophon tried to get up to Olympus, the Greek heaven, on him; whereupon Jupiter sent a gadfly to pester the beast till he gave the ambitious rider a tumble. Used to be a ship in the English navy, by the way, called The Bellerophon, which the sailorboys proceeded to twist into The Bully Ruffian.
"Then, there was the god Mercury, who used to plane through the atmosphere with winged sandals and a feathered cap, carrying aerograms for his daddy, Jupiter. When he was off duty one day he invented the lyre—not the kind you are thinking of, but the l-y-r-e—the ancestor of the jews'-harp that we boys call the juice-harp."
"That's where quicksilver gets its name 'mercury,' after him, isn't it?" asked Jimmy.
"That's right, Solomon. Now we'll get down to the first account of a man trying to fly, in the Greek fables. It seems a chap named Daedalus broke out of a tower in which he'd been jugged by King Minos, but the tower was on an island, and the question was how to get away from the island without a boat. Then the bird idea struck him, so he got busy making wings for himself and his son Icarus. He tacked big feathers together with thread and stuck the little ones on with wax till the whole contraption had the curve of a bird's wing. His son, Ikey, seems to have been a mischievous little monkey who kept blowing the feathers around and meddling with the wax, and I suppose that's the reason he got what was coming to him later, as happens to all the sprightly kids in the pious story books.
"Well, when the old man had finished off his two pair of wings he hoisted his up and gave 'em a wave and found he could get a lift as easy as falling off a log. Then, he proceeded to put young Ikey wise. 'Now, Ike,' says he, 'no tail-spins or nose-dives, or loop-the-loops, but just straight business, and don't you fly too low or the damp sea air will take all the curl out of those Marcelle wave feathers, and, on the other hand, don't you get to rocketing too high or the sun will melt the wax.' In those benighted days, folks thought the sun was just a couple o' flights upstairs, and the higher you got, the hotter, which don't seem like such a fool conclusion after all.
"Well, to go back to our muttonhead, Ikey—what should he do but get to feeling his oats and forget all the advice his dad gave him? He started right off to skylarking; the wax melted and down flopped Ikey into the sea. No sharks in those waters, it seems, for the old man planed down, fished out all that was left of Ikey's ambitions and buried it, and then went on his way and made an eggshell landing in Sicily.
"It's the same old story with flyers learning these days. Most of the smash-ups in the early part of the war were caused by young smart Alecks thinking they knew it all on the first jump-off. Take that in and think it over good and hard. Even after you graduate at college, you have hardly begun your education."
"What's the use of starting, then?" demanded Cat.
Turner glanced sharply at the boy.
"Because if you don't and, unless you keep on plugging, you'll degenerate into a big, flabby, wop of a numskull. That what you're aiming for?"
"Naw," conceded Cat, "not all that."
"Well! Come back to common sense and stay there.
"Now to come down to modern times, there was a monk in Spain along about the fourteenth century who is said to have jumped from a tower with a parachute sort of contrivance and flown some distance. Then, in the seventeenth century, there was a locksmith who made a flying device. He began by jumping out of the first story window, like a disappointed lover I heard of once who tried to commit suicide that way."
"Ha! ha!" said Cat. "Some bold inventor he was. 'S'pose he jumped into a net, too."
"But, my dear Catboy, don't you know you can't put your foot on the top round of the ladder first thing? Every invention has been worked to a finish by a chain of people feeling their way in that direction, in some cases through hundreds of years. Every big bug you hear of in any line of invention is standing on the top of the brains of folks you don't see, some of them as dead as Caesar thousands of years.
"Well, anyway, the locksmith kept a-going till he tried the second story and then the third, and finally he was able to fly over houses and rivers, so they say. I wasn't there. So other people, on down through the centuries, kept juggling their brains, and projecting and projecting. At last, somebody in France invented the 'aeronautical fish' that attracted a lot of attention. This was a sort of balloon, shaped like a fish, and was propelled with wings, or fins, worked by cranks—not human ones. But the trouble with even the best of these devices was that they could operate only when the air was absolutely still, so of course they were of no practical service. It was evident, too, to more sensible men that the fish idea was off, so far as the air was concerned, but, if anything serviceable was to come, the machine would have to be modeled after a bird, which is going back to the Greeks, after all.
"Even the balloon idea doesn't go so far back," proceeded Turner. "It depended on the discovery of hydrogen gas about a hundred and fifty years ago. Then somebody thought of filling hogs' bladders and paper-bags with this stuff, to see if they would work. But neither did. The only thing they could raise with it was a soap-bubble. After a while two brothers named Montgolfier, paper-makers in France, hit on the idea of generating a gas from slightly-moistened straw and wool set to burning; and found that this gas would raise a silk bag when allowed to enter an opening in its bottom. The truth was, though, it wasn't a gas that did it, but just the hot air.
"Satisfied they could turn the trick, the brothers staged a free show and set Paris frog-eyed. After some improvements to the body of the balloon, the inventors attached a wicker-basket and, after some persuasion, induced a sheep, a rooster, and a duck to take a trip. This congenial trio rose aloft and then came down once more in safety."
"Bah-bah! Quack-quack! Cockadoodle-do!" Cat horseplayed.
"Dunno what sort of language they used," laughed the Tarheel, "but I hope it wasn't that rotten. Anyhow, when I studied French, I was surprised to find that French roosters don't talk like ours, but say 'Co-co-ri-co!—at least that's what the book gave. But when I got over on the other side, during the war, I couldn't tell a bit of difference between their barnyard clatter and the fowl conversation we hear this side.
"Well, to get back to the airships—from that time, everybody went balloon crazy. All sorts of improvements were made in the machine. The silk was varnished, the bag was covered with a net, and the apparatus was furnished with a valve, barometer and sand-ballast. Instead of the old dangerous way of filling them with hot air from a fire, hydrogen or coal gas was used. Then the parachute game began, with more than one broken neck and pancake landing, as we used to call a plane smash-up in France.
"Then, before the end of the eighteenth century, balloons began to be used in war to observe the enemy, same thing our sausage affairs are used for now. In addition to this, they were used by scientists to sample the upper atmosphere. One fellow got as high as 23,000 feet—over four miles. Our country too, has had fans do all sorts of daredevil stunts with balloons, flying from coast to coast and what not. Pretty lively fun till the airplane made it look just about as lively as croquet."
"I've been up in one," announced Cat, proudly, "because the old man bought some liberty bonds during the war and he let me have the lift in one of those army baskets he was entitled to for buying them."
"You've been up in pretty much everything," laughed Turner. "It's about time you were going down in a coal shaft to see what the other direction looks like. But you haven't been up to the moon yet, like Hans Phaal in that balloon trip that wild-eyed Edgar Allan Poe wrote about. Bunk, but pretty entertaining bunk. Then, too, he wrote a hoax about a balloon crossing the Atlantic that took in a lot of suckers when it came out in the New York Sun. He was quite a bird at slinging fake scientific bunco."
"Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore,'" put in Jimmy, rejoicing in his acquaintance with the author.
"'Nevermore' is right," assented Turner, "and this raven here is going to his downy, and you've got to, too, if I have to drum your hides to make you. Now for one more look at the sea."
As Jimmy and Cat stopped behind a moment to argue the question as to whether they would allow themselves to be driven to bed at the early hour of two, Turner sauntered to the door, opened it to a gust that sent papers whirling about the room, bounded out, and slammed it behind him. An instant later, there was a sharp exclamation. Both lads started up, rushed to the door under the impression that some wreck was battering on the coast, and, as the room light fell upon Turner's form the two could distinguish his hand pointing in the direction of the spectral lighthouse.
"Look, boys, look," he yelled. "The Cape Peril light is out."