He stood up and looked over the side of the balloon, and saw nothing, just thick fog.
“We are passing through cloud, we should be clear soon, will you watch the barometer please. The figures on the left hand scale.”
“A little over fourteen.” He looked up at her, “Why is there a line by eighteen?”
“Because I have never flown above eighteen thousand feet. But I think I will today.”
“You have never been this high? Are you sure you know what you are doing?”
“Don’t worry, we are well below the maximum height people have reached before. We aren’t going somewhere completely unknown, but even if we do, the Resurgam has been built to fly high.” She paused, “But I intended to have another aeronaut as a companion when I attempted a high altitude flight, not a policeman and a madman.”
He looked down, “Eighteen.” He announced, she smiled and beckoned him to his feet.
The cloud thinned and parted. He gasped, the sky was blue, bluer that he had ever seen it, the light hurt his eyes as he looked out on a white surface, the clouds looked almost solid as they sailed over them.
“The Cloud Sea.” She spoke in awe. “Look at that Mr Policeman, few people have seen that sight.
Over the Cloud Sea
Henry Goddard looked round him, it was amazing, there was no sign of anything he recognised, the only human object was the balloon he was in, around him was the sky and clouds, clouds seen from above, unlike any clouds he had ever seen, like a frozen ocean – no wonder she had called it the Cloud Sea. He looked across at the aeronaut, she was checking her instruments and occasionally glancing over the side at the shadow of her balloon on the clouds beneath them. She was a small woman wearing a serviceable woollen coat, hat and gloves, in fact she would have passed without notice on a winter’s day in England. But here, it was as if she was in her element, her eyes flickered with a strange light, he felt there were only two people on the balloon, the mad Duke and himself, and Miss Sophia Stocks was another type of being, a Woman of the Sky.
She felt him looking at her, turned and smiled,
“Wonderful isn’t it?”
He shook his head, trying to clear it, she saw what he was doing.
“Are you feeling strange? Unable to concentrate? Tired?”
He didn’t reply, she nodded and continued.
“It’s all right, it’s the air. I forgot you had never been here before. The air is thin, now breathe slowly and deeply, you will feel better.”
He did so, then looked at her.
“Are you all right Miss?”
“Yes, I have been nearly this high before, I am more used to it.” She paused and grinned.
“My aunt says I have air in my blood.”
Mr Goddard looked puzzled.
“Oh, you know how old sailors are sometimes said to have salt water in their blood, which is why they cannot keep away from the sea. My aunt thinks it is the same for me, I have air in my blood and can only be happy in the sky. I think she is right, I felt it on my first flight, even though that one nearly killed me, now I spend my time on land thinking of how soon I can get back up here.”
She looked out over the alien scene, a slightly mad ecstasy in her eyes.
“Sorry Miss, but I am only eager to have my feet firmly on the ground again.”
“Forgive me, I sometimes forget there aren’t many people like me.” She glanced at the barometer, then at the compass in her hand, and finally her watch. “We seem to have settled at just under twenty thousand feet, I calculate that if we keep up this speed we will be over land again in twenty minutes. I will wait half an hour then bring us down. In an hour or two you will be on terra firma again. Now you can tell me what on earth you and him.” She gestured towards the unconscious Duke with her foot, “Are doing here.”
Henry Goddard shut his eyes and began, telling the story kept his mind off where he was – and the surprisingly frightening young woman in front of him.
“He became Duke in ’15 when his uncle was killed at Waterloo. He was totally unlike his predecessor and had no interest in his people, just treating his Duchy as a source of revenue to fund his pleasures. Well the Brunswickers stuck with him for a few years then kicked him out, since then he has been trying to find someone who will help him get his Duchy back.
He came to England early this year seeking help, there was none to be had, however he decided to stay here, as he is a distant relation of the King. We at Bow Street were put to watch him as soon as he arrived, to either find a reason to arrest, or expel, him. The King loathes him, thinks he is mad and wants him out of the country as soon as possible.”
“I can understand that.” Replied Sophia coldly.
“But he had to have a reason to throw him out, and for a while he did nothing wrong.”
“But Mrs Graham!”
“Stupid yes, but nothing he could be prosecuted for. Then there was a breakthrough, in part because of Mrs Graham. A newspaper wrote a long piece on him, and how dreadful it was that such a foreigner could make England his sanctuary. The Duke took them to court, the newspaper fought back, and managed to get the case heard by a jury. The result was the best we could hope for, the Duke lost and was ordered to pay the newspaper £5000. With a warrant against him, we thought he would try and run to France, the courts could declare him an outlaw so he could never return to this country. If he had taken his coach to Dover we would have let him go, and said good riddance.
This morning he slipped past the watchers at the hotel he was staying at, I hoped he had had decided to go to the continent, and we could forget him. So I searched his room, looking for a clue as to which port he was going to use, and found this.”
He felt in his pocket and handed Sophia a newspaper, an article was ringed. Glancing at it she saw it was about her and the attempt to carry mail by balloon.
“We knew of his interest in balloons so the Chief Magistrate ordered me to head down to Kent, escaping by steamer was one thing, interfering with the Mail was quite another. I am sorry I didn’t get him in time.”
“I see, I am sorry too, but we must make the best of a bad job.”
There was a movement at his feet, the Duke seemed to be regaining consciousness.
“Talking of bad jobs, there is a cord in that bag, tie him up please.”
He bent to obey her, in this strange world he knew she was in charge. With the Duke bound he rose and looked again over the side of the balloon. The cloud was thinning and below he saw something else. It was blue and green, with long parallel lines running across it. He tried to work out what it was, he looked across at Sophia, she laughed.
“It does look strange from up here. It’s the sea, the Water Sea.”
“But the lines?”
“I don’t know, waves perhaps.” She made a note in the book she carried attached to her waist. Then continued. “We aeronauts are always discovering something new. We are not like other explorers today, they just look for a river in Africa or a new island, and find that when they get there people have been living there for years, they are just the first Englishmen to reach that spot. But we are true explorers, more like the first sailors at the beginning of history. Launching a boat and not knowing what is in the waters. We are going where nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever gone before. Now look.”
She pointed down and handed him a telescope, looking over the side of the basket he saw a tiny white speck in the water, then he realised, it was a ship!
“Perhaps it is the man from the Post Office.”
She told Mr Goddard how she had seen the rider dash off, and that she assumed the race was still on.
“Pity it’s been ruined, all that effort for nothing.”
“Not at all, I still have the mail bag.” She pointed at it. “As soon as we land I will do what was planned, get it to the local officials and ask them to send it on to Paris. I have a letter from the French Post Office explaining what needs to be done.”
“That’s good”, he said, dropping to the bottom of the basket, he felt very tired. Alarmed Sophia bent over him. His lips were going blue.
“Too high for you Mr Policeman. We had better go lower.”
He saw her climb up the side of the basket, then reach for a line. She gave it a gentle tug. He thought he could hear her whistle, but it wasn’t her, it was the balloon. She spoke to it, like a mother to a child.
“Good girl, Resurgam, time to go down. You have done very well, next time perhaps we will fly higher, would you like to do that, go higher than any balloon before you.”
He was now certain that she wasn’t like other women, listening to the Woman of the Sky talk to her balloon, he passed out.
To be continued