The War in the Air
Chapter 1: Of Progress and the Smallways Family
“This here Progress,” said Mr. Tom Smallways, “it keeps on.”
“You’d hardly think it could keep on,” said Mr. Tom Smallways.
It was along before the War in the Air began that Mr. Smallways made this remark. He was sitting on the fence at the end of his garden and surveying the great Bun Hill gas-works with an eye that neither praised nor blamed. Above the clustering gasometers three unfamiliar shapes appeared, thin, wallowing bladders that flapped and rolled about, and grew bigger and bigger and rounder and rounder--balloons in course of inflation for the South of England Aero Club’s Saturday-afternoon ascent.
“They goes up every Saturday,” said his neighbour, Mr. Stringer, the milkman. “It’s only yestiday, so to speak, when all London turned out to see a balloon go over, and now every little place in the country has its weekly-outings--uppings, rather. It’s been the salvation of them gas companies.”
“Larst Satiday I got three barrer-loads of gravel off my petaters,” said Mr. Tom Smallways. “Three barrer-loads! What they dropped as ballase. Some of the plants was broke, and some was buried.”
“Ladies, they say, goes up!”
“I suppose we got to call ‘em ladies,” said Mr. Tom Smallways.
“Still, it ain’t hardly my idea of a lady--flying about in the air, and throwing gravel at people. It ain’t what I been accustomed to consider ladylike, whether or no.”
Mr. Stringer nodded his head approvingly, and for a time they continued to regard the swelling bulks with expressions that had changed from indifference to disapproval.
Mr. Tom Smallways was a green-grocer by trade and a gardener by disposition; his little wife Jessica saw to the shop, and Heaven had planned him for a peaceful world. Unfortunately Heaven had not planned a peaceful world for him. He lived in a world of obstinate and incessant change, and in parts where its operations were unsparingly conspicuous. Vicissitude was in the very soil he tilled; even his garden was upon a yearly tenancy, and overshadowed by a huge board that proclaimed it not so much a garden as an eligible building site. He was horticulture under notice to quit, the last patch of country in a district flooded by new and (other) things. He did his best to console himself, to imagine matters near the turn of the tide.
“You’d hardly think it could keep on,” he said.
Mr. Smallways’ aged father, could remember Bun Hill as an idyllic Kentish village. He had driven Sir Peter Bone until he was fifty and then he took to drink a little, and driving the station bus, which lasted him until he was seventy-eight. Then he retired. He sat by the fireside, a shrivelled, very, very old coachman, full charged with reminiscences, and ready for any careless stranger. He could tell you of the vanished estate of Sir Peter Bone, long since cut up for building, and how that magnate ruled the country-side when it was country-side, of shooting and hunting, and of caches along the high road, of how “where the gas-works is” was a cricket-field, and of the coming of the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was six miles away from Bun Hill, a great facade that glittered in the morning, and was a clear blue outline against the sky in the afternoon, and of a night, a source of gratuitous fireworks for all the population of Bun Hill. And then had come the railway, and then villas and villas, and then the gas-works and the water-works, and a great, ugly sea of workmen’s houses, and then drainage, and the water vanished out of the Otterbourne and left it a dreadful ditch, and then a second railway station, Bun Hill South, and more houses and more, more shops, more competition, plate-glass shops, a school-board, rates, omnibuses, tramcars--going right away into London itself--bicycles, motor-cars and then more motor-cars, a Carnegie library.
“You’d hardly think it could keep on,” said Mr. Tom Smallways, growing up among these marvels.
But it kept on. Even from the first the green-grocer’s shop which he had set up in one of the smallest of the old surviving village houses in the tail of the High Street had a submerged air, an air of hiding from something that was looking for it. When they had made up the pavement of the High Street, they levelled that up so that one had to go down three steps into the shop. Tom did his best to sell only his own excellent but limited range of produce; but Progress came shoving things into his window, French artichokes and aubergines, foreign apples--apples from the State of New York, apples from California, apples from Canada, apples from New Zealand, “pretty lookin’ fruit, but not what I should call English apples,” said Tom--bananas, unfamiliar nuts, grape fruits, mangoes.
The motor-cars that went by northward and southward grew more and more powerful and efficient, whizzed faster and smelt worse, there appeared great clangorous petrol trolleys delivering coal and parcels in the place of vanishing horse-vans, motor-omnibuses ousted the horse-omnibuses, even the Kentish strawberries going Londonward in the night took to machinery and clattered instead of creaking, and became affected in flavour by progress and petrol.
And then young Bert Smallways got a motor bicycle...
Bert, it is necessary to explain, was a progressive Smallways.
Nothing speaks more eloquently of the pitiless insistence of progress and expansion in our time than that it should get into the Smallways blood. But there was something advanced and enterprising about young Smallways before he was out of short frocks. He was lost for a whole day before he was five, and nearly drowned in the reservoir of the new water-works before he was seven. He had a real pistol taken away from him by a real policeman when he was ten. And he learnt to smoke, not with pipes and brown paper and cane as Tom had done, but with a penny packet of Boys of England American cigarettes. His language shocked his father before he was twelve, and by that age, what with touting for parcels at the station and selling the Bun Hill Weekly Express, he was making three shillings a week, or more, and spending it on Chips, Comic Cuts, Ally Sloper’s Half-holiday, cigarettes, and all the concomitants of a life of pleasure and enlightenment. All of this without hindrance to his literary studies, which carried him up to the seventh standard at an exceptionally early age. I mention these things so that you may have no doubt at all concerning the sort of stuff Bert had in him.
He was six years younger than Tom, and for a time there was an attempt to utilise him in the green-grocer’s shop when Tom at twenty-one married Jessica--who was thirty, and had saved a little money in service. But it was not Bert’s forte to be utilised. He hated digging, and when he was given a basket of stuff to deliver, a nomadic instinct arose irresistibly, it became his pack and he did not seem to care how heavy it was nor where he took it, so long as he did not take it to its destination. Glamour filled the world, and he strayed after it, basket and all. So Tom took his goods out himself, and sought employers for Bert who did not know of this strain of poetry in his nature. And Bert touched the fringe of a number of trades in succession--draper’s porter, chemist’s boy, doctor’s page, junior assistant gas-fitter, envelope addresser, milk-cart assistant, golf caddie, and at last helper in a bicycle shop. Here, apparently, he found the progressive quality his nature had craved. His employer was a pirate-souled young man named Grubb, with a black-smeared face by day, and a music-hall side in the evening, who dreamt of a patent lever chain; and it seemed to Bert that he was the perfect model of a gentleman of spirit. He hired out quite the dirtiest and unsafest bicycles in the whole south of England, and conducted the subsequent discussions with astonishing verve. Bert and he settled down very well together. Bert lived in, became almost a trick rider--he could ride bicycles for miles that would have come to pieces instantly under you or me--took to washing his face after business, and spent his surplus money upon remarkable ties and collars, cigarettes, and shorthand classes at the Bun Hill Institute.
He would go round to Tom at times, and look and talk so brilliantly that Tom and Jessie, who both had a natural tendency to be respectful to anybody or anything, looked up to him immensely.
“He’s a go-ahead chap, is Bert,” said Tom. “He knows a thing or two.”
“Let’s hope he don’t know too much,” said Jessica, who had a fine sense of limitations.
“It’s go-ahead Times,” said Tom. “Noo petaters, and English at that; we’ll be having ‘em in March if things go on as they do go. I never see such Times. See his tie last night?”
“It wasn’t suited to him, Tom. It was a gentleman’s tie. He wasn’t up to it--not the rest of him, It wasn’t becoming”...
Then presently Bert got a cyclist’s suit, cap, badge, and all; and to see him and Grubb going down to Brighton (and back)--heads down, handle-bars down, backbones curved--was a revelation in the possibilities of the Smallways blood.
Old Smallways would sit over the fire mumbling of the greatness of other days, of old Sir Peter, who drove his coach to Brighton and back in eight-and-twenty hours, of old Sir Peter’s white top-hats, of Lady Bone, who never set foot to ground except to walk in the garden, of the great, prize-fights at Crawley. He talked of pink and pig-skin breeches, of foxes at Ring’s Bottom, where now the County Council pauper lunatics were enclosed, of Lady Bone’s chintzes and crinolines. Nobody heeded him. The world had thrown up a new type of gentleman altogether--a gentleman of most ungentlemanly energy, a gentleman in dusty oilskins and motor goggles and a wonderful cap, a stink-making gentleman, a swift, high-class badger, who fled perpetually along high roads from the dust and stink he perpetually made. And his lady, as they were able to see her at Bun Hill, was a weather-bitten goddess, as free from refinement as a gipsy--not so much dressed as packed for transit at a high velocity.
So Bert grew up, filled with ideals of speed and enterprise, and became, so far as he became anything, a kind of bicycle engineer of the let’s-have-a-look-at-it and enamel chipping variety. Even a road-racer, geared to a hundred and twenty, failed to satisfy him, and for a time he pined in vain at twenty miles an hour along roads that were continually more dusty and more crowded with mechanical traffic. But at last his savings accumulated, and his chance came. The hire-purchase system bridged a financial gap, and one bright and memorable Sunday morning he wheeled his new possession through the shop into the road, got on to it with the advice and assistance of Grubb, and teuf-teuffed off into the haze of the traffic-tortured high road, to add himself as one more voluntary public danger to the amenities of the south of England.
“Orf to Brighton!” said old Smallways, regarding his youngest son from the sitting-room window over the green-grocer’s shop with something between pride and reprobation. “When I was ‘is age, I’d never been to London, never bin south of Crawley--never bin anywhere on my own where I couldn’t walk. And nobody didn’t go. Not unless they was gentry. Now every body’s orf everywhere; the whole dratted country sims flying to pieces. Wonder they all get back. Orf to Brighton indeed! Anybody want to buy ‘orses?”
“You can’t say I bin to Brighton, father,” said Tom.
“Nor don’t want to go,” said Jessica sharply; “creering about and spendin’ your money.”
For a time the possibilities of the motor-bicycle so occupied Bert’s mind that he remained regardless of the new direction in which the striving soul of man was finding exercise and refreshment. He failed to observe that the type of motor-car, like the type of bicycle, was settling-down and losing its adventurous quality. Indeed, it is as true as it is remarkable that Tom was the first to observe the new development. But his gardening made him attentive to the heavens, and the proximity of the Bun Hill gas-works and the Crystal Palace, from which ascents were continually being made, and presently the descent of ballast upon his potatoes, conspired to bear in upon his unwilling mind the fact that the Goddess of Change was turning her disturbing attention to the sky. The first great boom in aeronautics was beginning.
Grubb and Bert heard of it in a music-hall, then it was driven home to their minds by the cinematograph, then Bert’s imagination was stimulated by a sixpenny edition of that aeronautic classic, Mr. George Griffith’s “Clipper of the Clouds,” and so the thing really got hold of them.
At first the most obvious aspect was the multiplication of balloons. The sky of Bun Hill began to be infested by balloons. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons particularly you could scarcely look skyward for a quarter of an hour without discovering a balloon somewhere. And then one bright day Bert, motoring toward Croydon, was arrested by the insurgence of a huge, bolster-shaped monster from the Crystal Palace grounds, and obliged to dismount and watch it. It was like a bolster with a broken nose, and below it, and comparatively small, was a stiff framework bearing a man and an engine with a screw that whizzed round in front and a sort of canvas rudder behind. The framework had an air of dragging the reluctant gas-cylinder after it like a brisk little terrier towing a shy gas-distended elephant into society. The combined monster certainly travelled and steered. It went overhead perhaps a thousand feet up (Bert heard the engine), sailed away southward, vanished over the hills, reappeared a little blue outline far off in the east, going now very fast before a gentle south-west gale, returned above the Crystal Palace towers, circled round them, chose a position for descent, and sank down out of sight.
Bert sighed deeply, and turned to his motor-bicycle again.
And that was only the beginning of a succession of strange phenomena in the heavens--cylinders, cones, pear-shaped monsters, even at last a thing of aluminium that glittered wonderfully, and that Grubb, through some confusion of ideas about armour plates, was inclined to consider a war machine.
There followed actual flight.
This, however, was not an affair that was visible from Bun Hill; it was something that occurred in private grounds or other enclosed places and, under favourable conditions, and it was brought home to Grubb and Bert Smallways only by means of the magazine page of the half-penny newspapers or by cinematograph records. But it was brought home very insistently, and in those days if, ever one heard a man saying in a public place in a loud, reassuring, confident tone, “It’s bound to come,” the chances were ten to one he was talking of flying. And Bert got a box lid and wrote out in correct window-ticket style, and Grubb put in the window this inscription, “Aeroplanes made and repaired.” It quite upset Tom--it seemed taking one’s shop so lightly; but most of the neighbours, and all the sporting ones, approved of it as being very good indeed.
Everybody talked of flying, everybody repeated over and over again, “Bound to come,” and then you know it didn’t come. There was a hitch. They flew--that was all right; they flew in machines heavier than air. But they smashed. Sometimes they smashed the engine, sometimes they smashed the aeronaut, usually they smashed both. Machines that made flights of three or four miles and came down safely, went up the next time to headlong disaster. There seemed no possible trusting to them. The breeze upset them, the eddies near the ground upset them, a passing thought in the mind of the aeronaut upset them. Also they upset--simply.
“It’s this ‘stability’ does ‘em,” said Grubb, repeating his newspaper. “They pitch and they pitch, till they pitch themselves to pieces.”
Experiments fell away after two expectant years of this sort of success, the public and then the newspapers tired of the expensive photographic reproductions, the optimistic reports, the perpetual sequence of triumph and disaster and silence. Flying slumped, even ballooning fell away to some extent, though it remained a fairly popular sport, and continued to lift gravel from the wharf of the Bun Hill gas-works and drop it upon deserving people’s lawns and gardens. There were half a dozen reassuring years for Tom--at least so far as flying was concerned. But that was the great time of mono-rail development, and his anxiety was only diverted from the high heavens by the most urgent threats and symptoms of change in the lower sky.
There had been talk of mono-rails for several years. But the real mischief began when Brennan sprang his gyroscopic mono-rail car upon the Royal Society. It was the leading sensation of the 1907 soirees; that celebrated demonstration-room was all too small for its exhibition. Brave soldiers, leading Zionists, deserving novelists, noble ladies, congested the narrow passage and thrust distinguished elbows into ribs the world would not willingly let break, deeming themselves fortunate if they could see “just a little bit of the rail.” Inaudible, but convincing, the great inventor expounded his discovery, and sent his obedient little model of the trains of the future up gradients, round curves, and across a sagging wire. It ran along its single rail, on its single wheels, simple and sufficient; it stopped, reversed stood still, balancing perfectly. It maintained its astounding equilibrium amidst a thunder of applause. The audience dispersed at last, discussing how far they would enjoy crossing an abyss on a wire cable. “Suppose the gyroscope stopped!” Few of them anticipated a tithe of what the Brennan mono-rail would do for their railway securities and the face of the world.
In a few, years they realised better. In a little while no one thought anything of crossing an abyss on a wire, and the mono-rail was superseding the tram-lines, railways: and indeed every form of track for mechanical locomotion. Where land was cheap the rail ran along the ground, where it was dear the rail lifted up on iron standards and passed overhead; its swift, convenient cars went everywhere and did everything that had once been done along made tracks upon the ground.
When old Smallways died, Tom could think of nothing more striking to say of him than that, “When he was a boy, there wasn’t nothing higher than your chimbleys--there wasn’t a wire nor a cable in the sky!”
Old Smallways went to his grave under an intricate network of wires and cables, for Bun Hill became not only a sort of minor centre of power distribution--the Home Counties Power Distribution Company set up transformers and a generating station close beside the old gas-works--but, also a junction on the suburban mono-rail system. Moreover, every tradesman in the place, and indeed nearly every house, had its own telephone.
The mono-rail cable standard became a striking fact in urban landscape, for the most part stout iron erections rather like tapering trestles, and painted a bright bluish green. One, it happened, bestrode Tom’s house, which looked still more retiring and apologetic beneath its immensity; and another giant stood just inside the corner of his garden, which was still not built upon and unchanged, except for a couple of advertisement boards, one recommending a two-and-sixpenny watch, and one a nerve restorer. These, by the bye, were placed almost horizontally to catch the eye of the passing mono-rail passengers above, and so served admirably to roof over a tool-shed and a mushroom-shed for Tom. All day and all night the fast cars from Brighton and Hastings went murmuring by overhead long, broad, comfortable-looking cars, that were brightly lit after dusk. As they flew by at night, transient flares of light and a rumbling sound of passage, they kept up a perpetual summer lightning and thunderstorm in the street below.
Presently the English Channel was bridged--a series of great iron Eiffel Tower pillars carrying mono-rail cables at a height of a hundred and fifty feet above the water, except near the middle, where they rose higher to allow the passage of the London and Antwerp shipping and the Hamburg-America liners.
Then heavy motor-cars began to run about on only a couple of wheels, one behind the other, which for some reason upset Tom dreadfully, and made him gloomy for days after the first one passed the shop...
All this gyroscopic and mono-rail development naturally absorbed a vast amount of public attention, and there was also a huge excitement consequent upon the amazing gold discoveries off the coast of Anglesea made by a submarine prospector, Miss Patricia Giddy. She had taken her degree in geology and mineralogy in the University of London, and while working upon the auriferous rocks of North Wales, after a brief holiday spent in agitating for women’s suffrage, she had been struck by the possibility of these reefs cropping up again under the water. She had set herself to verify this supposition by the use of the submarine crawler invented by Doctor Alberto Cassini. By a happy mingling of reasoning and intuition peculiar to her sex she found gold at her first descent, and emerged after three hours’ submersion with about two hundredweight of ore containing gold in the unparalleled quantity of seventeen ounces to the ton. But the whole story of her submarine mining, intensely interesting as it is, must be told at some other time; suffice it now to remark simply that it was during the consequent great rise of prices, confidence, and enterprise that the revival of interest in flying occurred.
It is curious how that revival began. It was like the coming of a breeze on a quiet day; nothing started it, it came. People began to talk of flying with an air of never having for one moment dropped the subject. Pictures of flying and flying machines returned to the newspapers; articles and allusions increased and multiplied in the serious magazines. People asked in mono-rail trains, “When are we going to fly?” A new crop of inventors sprang up in a night or so like fungi. The Aero Club announced the project of a great Flying Exhibition in a large area of ground that the removal of slums in Whitechapel had rendered available.
The advancing wave soon produced a sympathetic ripple in the Bun Hill establishment. Grubb routed out his flying-machine model again, tried it in the yard behind the shop, got a kind of flight out of it, and broke seventeen panes of glass and nine flower-pots in the greenhouse that occupied the next yard but one.
And then, springing from nowhere, sustained one knew not how, came a persistent, disturbing rumour that the problem had been solved, that the secret was known. Bert met it one early-closing afternoon as he refreshed himself in an inn near Nutfield, whither his motor-bicycle had brought him. There smoked and meditated a person in khaki, an engineer, who presently took an interest in Bert’s machine. It was a sturdy piece of apparatus, and it had acquired a kind of documentary value in these quick-changing times; it was now nearly eight years old. Its points discussed, the soldier broke into a new topic with, “My next’s going to be an aeroplane, so far as I can see. I’ve had enough of roads and ways.”
“They TORK,” said Bert.
“They talk--and they do,” said the soldier.
“The thing’s coming--”
“It keeps ON coming,” said Bert; “I shall believe when I see it.”
“That won’t be long,” said the soldier.
The conversation seemed degenerating into an amiable wrangle of contradiction.
“I tell you they ARE flying,” the soldier insisted. “I see it myself.”
“We’ve all seen it,” said Bert.
“I don’t mean flap up and smash up; I mean real, safe, steady, controlled flying, against the wind, good and right.”
“You ain’t seen that!”
“I ‘AVE! Aldershot. They try to keep it a secret. They got it right enough. You bet--our War Office isn’t going to be caught napping this time.”
Bert’s incredulity was shaken. He asked questions--and the soldier expanded.
“I tell you they got nearly a square mile fenced in--a sort of valley. Fences of barbed wire ten feet high, and inside that they do things. Chaps about the camp--now and then we get a peep. It isn’t only us neither. There’s the Japanese; you bet they got it too--and the Germans!”
The soldier stood with his legs very wide apart, and filled his pipe thoughtfully. Bert sat on the low wall against which his motor-bicycle was leaning.
“Funny thing fighting’ll be,” he said.
“Flying’s going to break out,” said the soldier. “When it DOES come, when the curtain does go up, I tell you you’ll find every one on the stage--busy ... Such fighting, too! ... I suppose you don’t read the papers about this sort of thing?”
“I read ‘em a bit,” said Bert.
“Well, have you noticed what one might call the remarkable case of the disappearing inventor--the inventor who turns up in a blaze of publicity, fires off a few successful experiments, and vanishes?”
“Can’t say I ‘ave,” said Bert.
“Well, I ‘ave, anyhow. You get anybody come along who does anything striking in this line, and, you bet, he vanishes. Just goes off quietly out of sight. After a bit, you don’t hear anything more of ‘em at all. See? They disappear. Gone--no address. First--oh! it’s an old story now--there was those Wright Brothers out in America. They glided--they glided miles and miles. Finally they glided off stage. Why, it must be nineteen hundred and four, or five, THEY vanished! Then there was those people in Ireland--no, I forget their names. Everybody said they could fly. THEY went. They ain’t dead that I’ve heard tell; but you can’t say they’re alive. Not a feather of ‘em can you see. Then that chap who flew round Paris and upset in the Seine. De Booley, was it? I forget. That was a grand fly, in spite of the accident; but where’s he got to? The accident didn’t hurt him. Eh? ‘E‘s gone to cover.”
The soldier prepared to light his pipe.
“Looks like a secret society got hold of them,” said Bert.
“Secret society! NAW!”
The soldier lit his match, and drew. “Secret society,” he repeated, with his pipe between his teeth and the match flaring, in response to his words. “War Departments; that’s more like it.” He threw his match aside, and walked to his machine. “I tell you, sir,” he said, “there isn’t a big Power in Europe, OR Asia, OR America, OR Africa, that hasn’t got at least one or two flying machines hidden up its sleeve at the present time. Not one. Real, workable, flying machines. And the spying! The spying and manoeuvring to find out what the others have got. I tell you, sir, a foreigner, or, for the matter of that, an unaccredited native, can’t get within four miles of Lydd nowadays--not to mention our little circus at Aldershot, and the experimental camp in Galway. No!”
“Well,” said Bert, “I’d like to see one of them, anyhow. Jest to help believing. I’ll believe when I see, that I’ll promise you.”
“You’ll see ‘em, fast enough,” said the soldier, and led his machine out into the road.
He left Bert on his wall, grave and pensive, with his cap on the back of his head, and a cigarette smouldering in the corner of his mouth.
“If what he says is true,” said Bert, “me and Grubb, we been wasting our blessed old time. Besides incurring expense with that green-’ouse.”
It was while this mysterious talk with the soldier still stirred in Bert Smallways’ imagination that the most astounding incident in the whole of that dramatic chapter of human history, the coming of flying, occurred. People talk glibly enough of epoch-making events; this was an epoch-making event. It was the unanticipated and entirely successful flight of Mr. Alfred Butteridge from the Crystal Palace to Glasgow and back in a small businesslike-looking machine heavier than air--an entirely manageable and controllable machine that could fly as well as a pigeon.
It wasn’t, one felt, a fresh step forward in the matter so much as a giant stride, a leap. Mr. Butteridge remained in the air altogether for about nine hours, and during that time he flew with the ease and assurance of a bird. His machine was, however neither bird-like nor butterfly-like, nor had it the wide, lateral expansion of the ordinary aeroplane. The effect upon the observer was rather something in the nature of a bee or wasp. Parts of the apparatus were spinning very rapidly, and gave one a hazy effect of transparent wings; but parts, including two peculiarly curved “wing-cases”--if one may borrow a figure from the flying beetles--remained expanded stiffly. In the middle was a long rounded body like the body of a moth, and on this Mr. Butteridge could be seen sitting astride, much as a man bestrides a horse. The wasp-like resemblance was increased by the fact that the apparatus flew with a deep booming hum, exactly the sound made by a wasp at a windowpane.
Mr. Butteridge took the world by surprise. He was one of those gentlemen from nowhere Fate still succeeds in producing for the stimulation of mankind. He came, it was variously said, from Australia and America and the South of France. He was also described quite incorrectly as the son of a man who had amassed a comfortable fortune in the manufacture of gold nibs and the Butteridge fountain pens. But this was an entirely different strain of Butteridges. For some years, in spite of a loud voice, a large presence, an aggressive swagger, and an implacable manner, he had been an undistinguished member of most of the existing aeronautical associations. Then one day he wrote to all the London papers to announce that he had made arrangements for an ascent from the Crystal Palace of a machine that would demonstrate satisfactorily that the outstanding difficulties in the way of flying were finally solved. Few of the papers printed his letter, still fewer were the people who believed in his claim. No one was excited even when a fracas on the steps of a leading hotel in Piccadilly, in which he tried to horse-whip a prominent German musician upon some personal account, delayed his promised ascent. The quarrel was inadequately reported, and his name spelt variously Betteridge and Betridge. Until his flight indeed, he did not and could not contrive to exist in the public mind. There were scarcely thirty people on the look-out for him, in spite of all his clamour, when about six o’clock one summer morning the doors of the big shed in which he had been putting together his apparatus opened--it was near the big model of a megatherium in the Crystal Palace grounds--and his giant insect came droning out into a negligent and incredulous world.
But before he had made his second circuit of the Crystal Palace towers, Fame was lifting her trumpet, she drew a deep breath as the startled tramps who sleep on the seats of Trafalgar Square were roused by his buzz and awoke to discover him circling the Nelson column, and by the time he had got to Birmingham, which place he crossed about half-past ten, her deafening blast was echoing throughout the country. The despaired-of thing was done.
A man was flying securely and well.
Scotland was agape for his coming. Glasgow he reached by one o’clock, and it is related that scarcely a ship-yard or factory in that busy hive of industry resumed work before half-past two. The public mind was just sufficiently educated in the impossibility of flying to appreciate Mr. Butteridge at his proper value. He circled the University buildings, and dropped to within shouting distance of the crowds in West End Park and on the slope of Gilmorehill. The thing flew quite steadily at a pace of about three miles an hour, in a wide circle, making a deep hum that, would have drowned his full, rich voice completely had he not provided himself with a megaphone. He avoided churches, buildings, and mono-rail cables with consummate ease as he conversed.
“Me name’s Butteridge,” he shouted; “B-U-T-T-E-R-I-D-G-E.--Got it? Me mother was Scotch.”
And having assured himself that he had been understood, he rose amidst cheers and shouting and patriotic cries, and then flew up very swiftly and easily into the south-eastern sky, rising and falling with long, easy undulations in an extraordinarily wasp-like manner.
His return to London--he visited and hovered over Manchester and Liverpool and Oxford on his way, and spelt his name out to each place--was an occasion of unparalleled excitement. Every one was staring heavenward. More people were run over in the streets upon that one day, than in the previous three months, and a County Council steamboat, the Isaac Walton, collided with a pier of Westminster Bridge, and narrowly escaped disaster by running ashore--it was low water--on the mud on the south side. He returned to the Crystal Palace grounds, that classic starting-point of aeronautical adventure, about sunset, re-entered his shed without disaster, and had the doors locked immediately upon the photographers and journalists who been waiting his return.
“Look here, you chaps,” he said, as his assistant did so, “I’m tired to death, and saddle sore. I can’t give you a word of talk. I’m too--done. My name’s Butteridge. B-U-T-T-E-R-I-D-G-E. Get that right. I’m an Imperial Englishman. I’ll talk to you all to-morrow.”
Foggy snapshots still survive to record that incident. His assistant struggles in a sea of aggressive young men carrying note-books or upholding cameras and wearing bowler hats and enterprising ties. He himself towers up in the doorway, a big figure with a mouth--an eloquent cavity beneath a vast black moustache--distorted by his shout to these relentless agents of publicity. He towers there, the most famous man in the country.
Almost symbolically he holds and gesticulates with a megaphone in his left hand.
Tom and Bert Smallways both saw that return. They watched from the crest of Bun Hill, from which they had so often surveyed the pyrotechnics of the Crystal Palace. Bert was excited, Tom kept calm and lumpish, but neither of them realised how their own lives were to be invaded by the fruits of that beginning. “P’raps old Grubb’ll mind the shop a bit now,” he said, “and put his blessed model in the fire. Not that that can save us, if we don’t tide over with Steinhart’s account.”
Bert knew enough of things and the problem of aeronautics to realise that this gigantic imitation of a bee would, to use his own idiom, “give the newspapers fits.” The next day it was clear the fits had been given even as he said: their magazine pages were black with hasty photographs, their prose was convulsive, they foamed at the headline. The next day they were worse. Before the week was out they were not so much published as carried screaming into the street.
The dominant fact in the uproar was the exceptional personality of Mr. Butteridge, and the extraordinary terms he demanded for the secret of his machine.
For it was a secret and he kept it secret in the most elaborate fashion. He built his apparatus himself in the safe privacy of the great Crystal Palace sheds, with the assistance of inattentive workmen, and the day next following his flight he took it to pieces single handed, packed certain portions, and then secured unintelligent assistance in packing and dispersing the rest. Sealed packing-cases went north and east and west to various pantechnicons, and the engines were boxed with peculiar care. It became evident these precautions were not inadvisable in view of the violent demand for any sort of photograph or impressions of his machine. But Mr. Butteridge, having once made his demonstration, intended to keep his secret safe from any further risk of leakage. He faced the British public now with the question whether they wanted his secret or not; he was, he said perpetually, an “Imperial Englishman,” and his first wish and his last was to see his invention the privilege and monopoly of the Empire. Only--
It was there the difficulty began.
Mr. Butteridge, it became evident, was a man singularly free from any false modesty--indeed, from any modesty of any kind--singularly willing to see interviewers, answer questions upon any topic except aeronautics, volunteer opinions, criticisms, and autobiography, supply portraits and photographs of himself, and generally spread his personality across the terrestrial sky. The published portraits insisted primarily upon an immense black moustache, and secondarily upon a fierceness behind the moustache. The general impression upon the public was that Butteridge, was a small man. No one big, it was felt, could have so virulently aggressive an expression, though, as a matter of fact, Butteridge had a height of six feet two inches, and a weight altogether proportionate to that. Moreover, he had a love affair of large and unusual dimensions and irregular circumstances and the still largely decorous British public learnt with reluctance and alarm that a sympathetic treatment of this affair was inseparable from the exclusive acquisition of the priceless secret of aerial stability by the British Empire. The exact particulars of the similarity never came to light, but apparently the lady had, in a fit of high-minded inadvertence, had gone through the ceremony of marriage with, one quotes the unpublished discourse of Mr. Butteridge--”a white-livered skunk,” and this zoological aberration did in some legal and vexatious manner mar her social happiness. He wanted to talk about the business, to show the splendour of her nature in the light of its complications. It was really most embarrassing to a press that has always possessed a considerable turn for reticence, that wanted things personal indeed in the modern fashion. Yet not too personal. It was embarrassing, I say, to be inexorably confronted with Mr. Butteridge’s great heart, to see it laid open in relentlesss self-vivisection, and its pulsating dissepiments adorned with emphatic flag labels.
Confronted they were, and there was no getting away from it. He would make this appalling viscus beat and throb before the shrinking journalists--no uncle with a big watch and a little baby ever harped upon it so relentlessly; whatever evasion they attempted he set aside. He “gloried in his love,” he said, and compelled them to write it down.
“That’s of course a private affair, Mr. Butteridge,” they would object.
“The injustice, sorr, is public. I do not care either I am up against institutions or individuals. I do not care if I am up against the universal All. I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve, sorr--a noble woman--misunderstood. I intend to vindicate her, sorr, to the four winds of heaven!”
“I lurve England,” he used to say--”lurve England, but Puritanism, sorr, I abhor. It fills me with loathing. It raises my gorge. Take my own case.”
He insisted relentlessly upon his heart, and upon seeing proofs of the interview. If they had not done justice to his erotic bellowings and gesticulations, he stuck in, in a large inky scrawl, all and more than they had omitted.
It was a strangely embarrassing thing for British journalism. Never was there a more obvious or uninteresting affair; never had the world heard the story of erratic affection with less appetite or sympathy. On the other hand it was extremely curious about Mr. Butteridge’s invention. But when Mr. Butteridge could be deflected for a moment from the cause of the lady he championed, then he talked chiefly, and usually with tears of tenderness in his voice, about his mother and his childhood--his mother who crowned a complete encyclopedia of maternal virtue by being “largely Scotch.” She was not quite neat, but nearly so. “I owe everything in me to me mother,” he asserted--”everything. Eh!” and--”ask any man who’s done anything. You’ll hear the same story. All we have we owe to women. They are the species, sorr. Man is but a dream. He comes and goes. The woman’s soul leadeth us upward and on!”
He was always going on like that.
What in particular he wanted from the Government for his secret did not appear, nor what beyond a money payment could be expected from a modern state in such an affair. The general effect upon judicious observers, indeed, was not that he was treating for anything, but that he was using an unexampled opportunity to bellow and show off to an attentive world. Rumours of his real identity spread abroad. It was said that he had been the landlord of an ambiguous hotel in Cape Town, and had there given shelter to, and witnessed, the experiments and finally stolen the papers and plans of, an extremely shy and friendless young inventor named Palliser, who had come to South Africa from England in an advanced stage of consumption, and died there. This, at any rate, was the allegation of the more outspoken American press. But the proof or disproof of that never reached the public.
Mr. Butteridge also involved himself passionately in a tangle of disputes for the possession of a great number of valuable money prizes. Some of these had been offered so long ago as 1906 for successful mechanical flight. By the time of Mr. Butteridge’s success a really very considerable number of newspapers, tempted by the impunity of the pioneers in this direction, had pledged themselves to pay in some cases, quite overwhelming sums to the first person to fly from Manchester to Glasgow, from London to Manchester, one hundred miles, two hundred miles in England, and the like. Most had hedged a little with ambiguous conditions, and now offered resistance; one or two paid at once, and vehemently called attention to the fact; and Mr. Butteridge plunged into litigation with the more recalcitrant, while at the same time sustaining a vigorous agitation and canvass to induce the Government to purchase his invention.
One fact, however, remained permanent throughout all the developments of this affair behind Butteridge’s preposterous love interest, his politics and personality, and all his shouting and boasting, and that was that, so far as the mass of people knew, he was in sole possession of the secret of the practicable aeroplane in which, for all one could tell to the contrary, the key of the future empire of the world resided. And presently, to the great consternation of innumerable people, including among others Mr. Bert Smallways, it became apparent that whatever negotiations were in progress for the acquisition of this precious secret by the British Government were in danger of falling through. The London Daily Requiem first voiced the universal alarm, and published an interview under the terrific caption of, “Mr. Butteridge Speaks his Mind.”
Therein the inventor--if he was an inventor--poured out his heart.
“I came from the end of the earth,” he said, which rather seemed to confirm the Cape Town story, “bringing me Motherland the secret that would give her the empire of the world. And what do I get?” He paused. “I am sniffed at by elderly mandarins! ... And the woman I love is treated like a leper!”
“I am an Imperial Englishman,” he went on in a splendid outburst, subsequently written into the interview by his own hand; “but there there are limits to the human heart! There are younger nations--living nations! Nations that do not snore and gurgle helplessly in paroxysms of plethora upon beds of formality and red tape! There are nations that will not fling away the empire of earth in order to slight an unknown man and insult a noble woman whose boots they are not fitted to unlatch. There are nations not blinded to Science, not given over hand and foot to effete snobocracies and Degenerate Decadents. In short, mark my words--THERE ARE OTHER NATIONS!”
This speech it was that particularly impressed Bert Smallways. “If them Germans or them Americans get hold of this,” he said impressively to his brother, “the British Empire’s done. It’s U-P. The Union Jack, so to speak, won’t be worth the paper it’s written on, Tom.”
“I suppose you couldn’t lend us a hand this morning,” said Jessica, in his impressive pause. “Everybody in Bun Hill seems wanting early potatoes at once. Tom can’t carry half of them.”
“We’re living on a volcano,” said Bert, disregarding the suggestion. “At any moment war may come--such a war!”
He shook his head portentously.
“You’d better take this lot first, Tom,” said Jessica. She turned briskly on Bert. “Can you spare us a morning?” she asked.
“I dessay I can,” said Bert. “The shop’s very quiet s’morning. Though all this danger to the Empire worries me something frightful.”
“Work’ll take it off your mind,” said Jessica.
And presently he too was going out into a world of change and wonder, bowed beneath a load of potatoes and patriotic insecurity, that merged at last into a very definite irritation at the weight and want of style of the potatoes and a very clear conception of the entire detestableness of Jessica.