Miss Sophia Stocks looked over the side of the gondola and took a deep breath, it was good to breathe easily again. She knew she could breathe in the thin air at twenty thousand feet, and almost certainly higher, but it was certainly easier at this height. She thought they must have crossed the French coast in cloud, now she was looking down on the rolling French countryside from about eight thousand feet, and heading slightly east of south. If she had been on her own, or even with two frightened Post Office officials, it would have been perfect. But instead she had been lumbered with two unwanted men.
She bent and checked the Bow Street Runner, a proper colour had returned to his face and he was breathing easily.
“Sleep on Mr Policeman.” She said gently, tucking the blanket round him, then she turned to the Duke. He was sleeping too, “Still alive then, pity. Anyway as soon as we land it’s prison for you. There is French mail in these bags, as well as British, and the French as just as protective of their mail as we are.”
She stood up again, she dropped a couple of handfuls of ballast to maintain their altitude then checked her map. There was a noise from her passengers, she looked down, Henry Goddard was awake and with a struggle got to his feet. He saw the land beneath them.
“How long was I asleep? And where are we?”
She looked at her watch, “You were insensible for nearly three hours, and we are over France.” She pointed to the north east.
“If I am right, and I think I am, Amiens lies about twenty miles that way. We are heading in the direction of Paris. If all goes well, and we keep on this course, in a couple of hours’ time I will look for somewhere to land.” She handed him a flask.
“Drink this, it will make you feel better.”
“He took a mouthful of the red liquid. It was very strong and very sweet.”
He coughed, passing it back to Miss Stocks, she wiped the neck of the flask and took a sip herself.
“Cherry brandy, we aeronauts all have our favourite drink, generally spirits, this is mine.”
“Thank you miss.”
He was silent and leant over the side, watching the countryside pass beneath them, it was incredibly peaceful.
Flying over France
It was an hour later that Sophia broke into his reverie.
“Time to go down, the sun will be setting in about an hour and there are woodlands on the horizon, I don’t want to fly in the dark, and landing in trees is a nightmare.”
“What can I do Miss,” He asked.
“Just keep out of my way.” She began, “No – check he is safe.” She pointed at the Duke.
She turned her back to strap her instruments in their case, as Henry Goddard bent over the recumbent man. He rolled the man over, and was hit in the face. He fell back, the Duke sprang to his feet.
“Arrest me would you. Lie there, don’t move.”
The Runner lay stunned, Sophia turned in horror as the Duke scrambled into the rigging and grabbed the gas release cord. He pulled it hard, there was a crack from above, then a loud hissing. The balloon began to shake.
“No”, she screamed, and made a grab for the cord, the Duke laughed and pulled it again, this time she was able to grab it, and gave it a gentle tug that should have closed it, there was no response, the valve was broken, and open. Air rushed past them, they were falling, and falling fast.
The Runner scrambled to his feet, Sophia snapped at him.
“Throw everything overboard, apart from my barometer and the mail bags, if you want to, throw him over board as well.” She pointed at the Duke who was sitting on the side of the basket, laughing. She shut her eyes, “Not again!” she thought, remembering her first, terrible, flight. She knew how lucky she had been then, there was little chance for them now.
Unless – suddenly she laughed, and picked up a knife. The Runner who had been struggling with the last sandbag turned, now she was the one who looked mad. Rapidly she scrambled up into the rigging and began to slash at the neck ropes. He went to grab her.
“Don’t,” She shouted, “This is the only way to save us.” Stunned by her vehemence he stepped back as she cut through the thin ropes holding the bottom of the balloon in place, until only one was left, by the Duke. As she went to grab it he went to stop her, then saw her face, and quailed. She sliced through the rope and jumped down into the basket.
“Hold on.” She shouted, “It’s going to be rough.”
They looked up and saw the fabric of the balloon fold upwards, filling the net and seemingly spreading out above them. There was a jerk and the rate of descent slowed, then the basket started to sway from side to side.
“What did you do?” Goddard shouted.
“Turned the balloon into a parachute, this happened by accident to an American a few years ago when his balloon burst. I wondered at the time if this might have saved Mr Harris on my first flight.”
They swayed from side to side as they descended, but slower now. Sophia looked at the men.
“Sit down on the bottom of the basket, and hold on tight.” She ordered, “We will be dragged along the ground when we land, and will be safe as long as we stay in the basket. Don’t try to get out until I tell you.”
Mr Goddard did as he was told, however the Duke just laughed and climbed onto the edge of the basket. Sophia ignored him, and watched the approaching ground, just before they landed she dropped into the bottom of the basket and grabbed tight hold. Above her the Duke shouted.
“You won’t catch me!” and jumped.
The balloon gave a perceptible jerk and the descent was slowed. As the basket hit the ground it tipped on one edge, they just held on tight as it scraped along the ground. The noise and bumping seemed to go on for ages. He had been in a carriage accident once, but this was worse, the Runner just held on tight and prayed. Miss Stocks also held on tight, she was more worried than she had been at twenty thousand feet, she had no idea what was in front of them, if there were rocks or water ahead then they would be in real trouble. But she could do nothing, just hold on, then, suddenly, they stopped.
Henry Goddard just lay there, looking up at the sky, then he slowly realised, he was on the ground, he was alive, he ached all over but, he was safe. Slowly he tried to rise.
“Stay still.” A voice ordered, he turned to see Miss Stocks climbing up to look over the side of the basket. The balloon had completely collapsed, it lay in a tangled mess safe on the ground. She looked down into the basket and said.
“Come on, Mr Policeman, it’s safe to get out.”
“Mr Goddard, please. Can you stop calling me Policeman?” Now they were on the ground, he was irritated and no longer wanted to take orders from this young woman.
“Certainly, Mr Policeman. Now Mr Goddard, do you want to see what has happened to your mad friend?”
He suddenly realised he had forgotten about the Duke. She pointed, a few hundred yards away a group of people seemed to be standing around something. Others were running towards them.
“Go to him, I will deal with these people.” She paused and added smiling, “Mr Goddard.”
He turned, he realised that there was no point in arguing about it, she was still in charge.
“Monsieur, your balloon?” One of the men asked. In his broken French he replied.
“Not my balloon, it is her balloon, she is the aeronaut.”
The men looked surprised, then one said. “I see, like Madam Blanchard.” And they turned towards Sophia.
Crowds around a fallen balloon
Sophia was having problems keeping the men from touching the balloon, she was trying to make sure that they didn’t damage it any further when a man rode up.
“Mademoiselle, can I be of assistance. I am the mayor of Clermont.” He pointed to a few roofs visible over the trees in the distance.
“Thank you sir, can you please ask these men not to touch my balloon. They don’t know how to fold it up.”
“Of course.” He called to the men, “And can you tell me how to find the local postmaster?” she added.
“I am also the postmaster.” He added in surprise.
“Excellent.” She ducked into the tangled mess of the basket and came out with the mailbags. She opened a flap and handed him the letter from the French post office. As he read it his eyes widened.
“Of course Mademoiselle, we will help as much as we can.”
A young man who had just ridden up looked sourly at them.
“Why father? She is English.”
His father began to tell him, Sophia just smiled at him.
“It is a race to see who can get mail to Paris the fastest, a balloon or a steamship.”
“So?” He was unconcerned.
“A race between a balloon, a French invention, and a steamship, a British invention.”
The mayor laughed, “Pierre, will you take on the challenge, carry this mail on to Paris.”
“Of course,” he replied, “Vive la France.”
The mayor, and Sophia, laughed.
After he had been given directions, and ridden off to fetch a chaise to carry him and his companion to Paris, the mayor now asked about the men. Sophia had forgotten them, then she saw Mr Goddard heading back towards the balloon.
“Talk to Mr Goddard, I would like to get my balloon packed up before it gets dark.”
Returning with a Balloon
An hour or so later they were all sat in the parlour of the Mayor’s house. His wife was very flustered, she was sure her guests were distinguished, the man she could understand, he was a senior policeman, something like her husband, but the woman? She was a complete mystery, she was polite and had been clearly been brought up to be a lady, but when she talked of her balloon and flying, she was something else, a femme du ciel perhaps.
The Woman of the Sky, Miss Sophia Stocks sat by the French Mayor’s fire and relaxed, she had carried the mail safely across the channel, she had flown higher than she had ever done before, and Resurgam was safely packed away in a barn. Oh, and as for the duke. She turned to Henry Goddard.
“So your prisoner survived his fall then?”
“He’s not my prisoner, my warrant doesn’t run here, but he is alive with two broken legs. And he will never return to Britain, he would be thrown into prison as soon as he set foot on British soil. I am afraid he is the French government’s problem now.” He nodded to the Mayor.
“Yes,” he sounded unconcerned, “I will write to Paris tomorrow. Perhaps they will want him sent there when he has recovered, or perhaps they will leave him where he is.”
Sophia was puzzled.
“But you said he had been sent to a local monastery where the monks care for the sick.”
“Yes, they care for the sick. It is where I would send my son if he broke his leg, they will care for that well there. But they also care for the sick in the mind.”
“A madhouse.” Added Henry Goddard.
“Perfect.” Said Miss Sophia Stocks.
And now for the facts behind the story
1 – There were attempts to carry mail by balloon, none succeeded because of the problems Sophia outlined at the beginning of the story.
2 – The career of the former Duke of Brunswick was more or less as described.
He came to England hoping to get help regain his Duchy and was soundly rebuffed.
King William IV loathed him and thought him mad.
He did fly with Mrs Graham and his stupidity led to a crash as a result of which she miscarried.
He tried to bring an action against a newspaper and was counter-sued, lost and fled owing £5000
He fled to France in a balloon (this was actually hired)
He ended his days in an asylum in Geneva, completely mad.
3 Henry Goddard was the Bow Street Runner charged with keeping a watch on the Duke. From his memoirs he was a very down to earth man, whom I doubt would have enjoyed flying.
4 The early aeronauts seem to have readily acclimatised to flying high, an experienced pilot like Sophia Stocks would have no trouble working at 20,000 feet, indeed Henry Coxwell experienced few difficulties until his balloon went above 30,000.
5 Collapsing a balloon to create a parachute was first done deliberately by Henry Coxwell in 1847, later balloonists designed the rigging of their balloons so that cutting a single line could cause a deflated balloon canopy to turn into a parachute.
As for the future career of Miss Sophia Stocks, with her balloon Resurgam (Latin for ‘I shall rise again’) will she try for the altitude record, then standing at 23,900 feet, or will her experiences with the collapsed balloon forming a parachute lead her to experiment with that device. Perhaps I might have her work with other female aeronauts, the real and unlucky Elizabeth Graham or the semi-fictional Amelia Wren.