Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Up in a balloon

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I do not know how it is, or why it is, but I have always had an intense hankering to go up in a balloon. Naturally and constitutionally I have an aversion to great heights—to such an extent, indeed, that it is a perfect misery to me to have to look out of a third-floor window.

My sensations on getting up to any considerable height somewhat resemble those of the stout old lady in “Punch,” who will not approach the railings of the cliff at Brighton for fear of slipping through. No iron railing appears to me high enough or strong enough effectually to provide for my safety; and though I do not quite sympathise with, I can quite understand, those insane ideas which render it necessary to put an iron cage at the top of all our monuments.

I cannot reconcile these sensations with my long-standing wish to become an aeronaut but so it is. Somehow or other these elevated ideas of mine remained ungratified till a few days ago—whether from want of pluck, want of funds, or want of time, I do not feel bound to specify.

I cannot rest, my dear Charlie, till I have made you au fait of my doings on the eventful evening that I made my first ascent.

It is needless to enlarge upon the circumstances that led to my expedition; how I was down at Cremorne rather late one evening, and in a moment of excitement and claret rashly pledged myself to pay five guineas for the glorious opportunity of breaking my neck. I will not describe my waking thoughts next morning when my engagement of the previous evening slowly came across my mind. I resolved, however, to stick to my bargain, influenced partly by the certainty of being laughed at if I shirked it, and partly by the possibility of forfeiting my deposit of five guineas.

Selecting two of the most faithful from among my own familiar friends, I imparted my intentions to them, and we at once started in a four-wheel cab for Cremorne Gardens. It was fortunately (as I said with a sickly grin) a lovely evening, and there was neither wind nor rain to prevent our ascent. We at once went to the hotel in the gardens, ordered our dinner, and whilst that was preparing proceeded to inspect our friend the balloon.

She (I suppose “she” is the right thing to call a balloon, “he” does not sound right) was half lying, half sitting on the ground, like a very fat and very drunken old lady with her hair in a Brobdingnagian net, lolling her head about, and making ineffectual efforts to get up. She was undergoing the process of stuffing with gas from a six-inch pipe, and was swelling very visibly. We had a short conversation with the intrepid aëronaut, who was a lithe, intelligent little man of about thirty-five years of age. He told us that he had already made forty-one ascents, and had never been in the smallest difficulty. I cannot say that this re-assured me much, as my feeling was that, as he had made forty-one successful ascents already, and that all aëronauts were killed sooner or later, it must be getting near his time to have his little misfortune.

The remarks of my friends, however kindly they may have been meant, did not tend to raise my spirits, as they principally consisted of offers of service in case anything very tragical should occur.

I was becoming somewhat re-assured by the manner and conversation of the aëronaut as he bustled round his balloon—he seemed so thoroughly to know what he was about—when my cogitations were agreeably disturbed by the announcement of dinner.

To dinner we went, and a very merry little dinner we had, considering. Our window looked out upon the dancing platform, and in the orchestra a capital band was playing; the dinner and wine were good, the sun shone brightly, the green fresh branches of a tree partially shaded our window; the comic Irishman pattered from the orchestra his two comic costume songs, the tenor requested some young lady to “come into the garden” (Cremorne, I presume), and the soprano and contralto, of whom I will say no more than that their talents equalled their personal appearance, did their best to please us.

Whose spirits would not rise under such circumstances? Had I been a malefactor awaiting execution, I am convinced I should have made several cheery and facetious observations.

I had just lit my cigar, and was beginning to be as jolly under difficulties as Mark Tapley himself could have been, when bang went several small cannon, announcing the immediate departure of the balloon.

“Look sharp, old boy, you’ll be late!” cry my friends.

“There’s no fun till I come, as the man said, &c., &c.,” answer I gloomily; and having with a great command of my feelings ordered supper for three at eleven that evening, and told the waiter that “I would pay the bill when I returned,” got into my great coat, and with a gay and cheerful air sallied out into the garden.

There she was, but what a change! No longer the drunken old woman, but an upright, graceful, intelligent-looking creature, straining at her bands and longing to be off.

A considerable crowd was collected without the ropes, through whom I pushed, not without some feeling of dignity, as the man who was going up in the balloon.

I shook hands with my friends (who somewhat disturbed my nerve by most feelingly and unnecessarily taking an affectionate last farewell of me), and walked in as unconcerned a manner as I could command to the car. Car! Call this thing a car? why it’s a clothes’ basket! was my mental observation; but as the eyes of the Cremorne world were upon me I stepped in. My dignity was somewhat impaired by my hat being knocked off by the hoop above the car, upon which my friend the intrepid one was seated, separating the gas-pipe from the bottom of the balloon, and tying up the opening with his pocket-handkerchief.

I have a confused idea of several hurried preparations being made, shifting of ballast, &c. I remember wagging my hand in a general way towards the crowd, by way of taking leave of my friends, whom I need not say I was utterly unable to distinguish. The words “let go” were given: I clung to the sides of the clothes’ basket, and off we went.

I could detect no movement on the part of the balloon; the earth appeared to sink away rapidly from under our feet whilst we remained stationary. In a moment the gardens appeared but a small patch beneath and behind us, and by the time I had recovered my nerve sufficiently to look about me, we were some thousand feet above the world.

The scene was so glorious and so striking that involuntarily I jumped up in my basket, quite forgetting my nerves and my previous hatred of altitudes. My companion appeared to prefer his precarious position on the hoop, for there he remained till we prepared to descend.

I cannot pretend to describe the scene that was shortly laid out before us. London, the mighty London, lay stretched out at my feet like the contents of a child’s box of toy-houses. Right and left of us for miles and miles, or rather inches and inches, wound a streamlet called by pigmy mortals the Thames; nearly under our feet was the Crystal Palace; distances indeed seemed annihilated. King’s Cross and Euston Square stations appeared to be but a stone’s throw from Belgrave Square. I was roused from my contemplation of this magnificent scene by my friend above, who requested me to “throw out some of those bills.” I accordingly disseminated a vast amount of useful and entertaining knowledge in the shape of bundles of programmes of the amusements at Cremorne. “Rather heavy reading,” I said to myself as I threw them out, for they seemed to sink beneath us like sheets of lead. I found out later, however, that this was caused by the rapidity of our ascent. This was hard to realise, as it was impossible to detect the slightest movement. There was not a breath of air, though the wind was blowing freely; we moved so exactly with the current, that a lighted taper would have burnt as steadily as in the most carefully closed room.

Our course now lay over the Serpentine and Hyde Park towards the Marble Arch. As we reached the middle of the park the hum which rose from below increased into a dull sullen roar, like the distant voice of some mighty waterfall. Oaths and prayers, the wail of suffering and the merry laugh of careless men, seemed joined together in one vast cry to heaven. It was a solemn and an awful sound. What a lesson that short half-hour would teach most men. Let him look on that great city—the largest and proudest in the universe—how small, how insignificant it looks! What must he feel himself, one of the smallest and most insignificant atoms animating that tiny city. Ah me! the great ones of the earth are but miserable little pigmies after all!

In about a quarter of an hour after leaving the gardens we were nearly above Euston Square Station, the lines leading from which appeared like narrow white threads stretching across the country. We soon after passed over the New Cattle Market, in which I could distinguish a flock of Lilliputian sheep—from their apparent size the whole lot of them would have made but an indifferent meal.

We now began to think of descending, and my friend, deserting his hoop, came down to me in the car, and, untying the bottom of the balloon, began at intervals to permit the gas to escape. The rope which communicates with the valve passes through the interior of the balloon into the car, and a slight pull opens an aperture of about eighteen inches in diameter in the crown of the balloon, which closes with a snap when the cord is loosened. Through this aperture the gas escapes at the rate of some three or four hundred cubic feet per second.

The effect was instantaneous: the papers which before had sunk so rapidly, now soared above our heads like pigeons released from a trap. The objects beneath us grew rapidly more distinct, and my companion began anxiously to scan the earth for a convenient spot to land upon.

We already saw crowds of excited people rushing from every direction towards the point we appeared likely to make in our descent.

“Ah!” said the intrepid one, with a keen sense of former injuries; “you may run, but you’ll have to run a very long way if you wish to see me land to-night. You see, sir,” he continued, turning to me, “these people have no sense; the moment I touch the ground I am surrounded by a crowd of roughs, who break the fences and tread down the crops so much that I have often seven or eight pounds to pay for the damage they do.”

We accordingly let out ballast consisting of bags of fine sand, weighing some 14 lbs. each; in an instant we rose some thousand feet, but the gas that sustained us was getting contaminated with oxygen, and slowly and gradually we settled down again. We now let down a rope about 600 feet long with a small cross-bar of wood at the end, and also our grapnel fastened to a somewhat shorter rope,

Majestically we swooped towards the earth: first, our rope touched the ground, and a hundred yards further on our grapnel caught and held; the jerk was but slight, a few moments more and we touch the ground so gently that a glass of water would hardly have been spilt in my hand.

The balloon, like a bright and beautiful denizen of the air, disdaining the base material earth, tried to soar again into the heavens. Too late, my pretty bird, you are caught! Two or three sturdy labourers have hold of the line that hangs from the car—a few ineffectual struggles and she is a hopeless captive, the valve is opened, and all power of resistance is soon over. I step from the car, and in a few short minutes the beautiful life-like creature lies an inanimate shapeless mass on the earth.

I cannot conscientiously deny that I experienced some slight feeling of satisfaction at again setting foot on terra firma. Throughout the journey, however, I suffered from no giddiness, and after the first moment felt but little nervousness. The scene beneath me was too glorious, too unexpected, and too absorbing to leave room for any other feelings in my mind save those of surprise and delight. I experienced no oppression from the rarification of the atmosphere, although we had been, according to my companion, above a mile from the earth.

There is no use in describing the packing-up of the balloon—the noise, confusion, and squabbling for beer. My gallant little friend, however, was a host in himself, and in exactly an hour from the time we started the whole thing was packed up and on the shoulders of our numerous and willing assistants.

We found ourselves about six miles from London and close to a station on the Great Northern Railway.

My friends were anxiously awaiting my return at Cremorne, and round a merry supper-table, I gave them the history of my first experiences as An Aëronaut.