Readers of my blog may recall the adventures of my semi-fictional aeronaut, Miss Sophia Stocks, if not then the tale of how she first took to the sky, will be found here.
The following events take place several years after her pioneering flights, by which time she has become an experienced, and respected, aeronaut. As you will guess from my previous tales, this story is a blend of fact and fiction. Generally, the more bizarre and remarkable events are based on fact.
Miss Sophia Stocks looked around with elation, this was it. Her new balloon rose majestically over the small Kentish village, and she had only had to pay for part of it! An MP, with an interest in the Post Office wanted to see if balloons could be used to carry the mail. She had actually tried to dissuade him, pointing out the unreliability of ballooning in that you could never be sure where you were going to land, but he was insistent. He had given her the money to build the Resurgam, as long as she agreed that, on her first proper flight, she would carry mail across the Channel, and race a steamboat. And now the race was on.
The Resurgam was fully inflated, the MP had made a speech, now she was just waiting for the mail and the men from the British and French Post Offices, who would accompany her. There was a movement in the crowd and the men came forward, she climbed into the basket, she smiled as the first Post Office official handed her the bags which she stowed carefully in the bottom of the gondola. The second, a very nervous looking man, handed a second set to a young man on horseback.
“As soon as you see the balloon leave the ground, ride for Dover where the Mail Boat is waiting for you.”
Sophia nodded at the young man, this was to be a real race. She offered her hand to the first Post Office man.
“If you would care to climb aboard.”
Nervously he climbed onto the mounting block, then there was a distant scream – and the shot of a pistol!
Everyone turned to the direction of the shot, the crowd parted in panic as a chaise galloped towards the balloon. It tumbled to a halt and a dishevelled man jumped out waving a pistol in one hand, a short sword in the other. He jumped onto the block, knocking the Post Office man down, and before anybody could stop him jumped into the gondola. He pointed the pistol at Sophia.
“You are the aeronaut – fly.”
She stood still, the man now turned to the main rope tethering the balloon, and started to slash at it with the sword. At this moment another man jumped into the balloon, no one had noticed the second chaise, which had been following the first.
“Stop sir, you are under arrest.” He shouted, and tried to grab the first man, who turned and tried to slash at the second. Sophia, who was more concerned about her balloon shouted.
“Stop that, Now!”
There was a sudden jerk and the men stumbled, the line had parted and the balloon swung into the air. It spun round and Sophia saw the Post Office rider gallop away, as far as he was concerned the race was now on. She now turned back to the fighters, the second man had managed to grab the pistol from the first and throw it out of the basket. The first man stopped fighting and laughed as he saw the land dropping away beneath them.
“I have escaped.” He looked at Sophia, “You will take me to France?”
“The wind should take us there.” She replied, “Though I don’t see why I should take you there. Who are you and why have you tried to steal my balloon?”
“I am the Duke of Brunswick, and I have requisitioned it as is my right as a Royal Duke.”
“Henry Goddard of Bow Street, Miss.” The second man began, “He is no Duke now and is now on the run from the law.” Then he faltered as he saw Sophia’s expression. She was looking at the Duke in disgust.
“I know exactly who this person is.” She looked at the Duke, “I am a friend of Mrs Graham, and if I could I would throw you from my gondola.”
“An unfortunate accident, that was all.” The Duke said, Sophia turned to Mr. Goddard and said.
“He wanted to go for a balloon ride, so persuaded Mrs Graham, who is an aeronaut like me, to take him up. They were about to land, which is the most dangerous part of the voyage, when he panicked and jumped. It was only a few feet up so he came to no harm. But it unbalanced the balloon and Mrs Graham fell out. She lost the child she was carrying as a result.”
“It was an accident…” the Duke spluttered.
Sophia looked straight at him, he quailed at her gaze. “As I said I would like to throw you out, but I am too nice for that.” She tugged the sword from his grip and threw it overboard. “Now sit down and get out of my way, I have a balloon to fly.”
“I’m sorry miss …” began the Runner, Sophia stopped him.
“You sit down too, I don’t blame you for being on board, but you don’t know how to fly a balloon and you may notice I have things to do.
A Balloon heading out to Sea
The men looked over the side of the basket and gasped, they had already crossed the coast and the balloon was dropping towards the sea.
“It happens because of colder air over the water, I just need to drop a little ballast.”
She moved to one of the sacks of sand and took out a handful, she was about to drop it over the side when the Duke pushed past her and threw the whole sack over.
“Must drop ballast.” He gasped, releasing another sack. The gondola swayed from side to side, Sophia was thrown to the floor, she looked across at the Runner.
“Stop him, he will kill us all!”
The Runner scrambled to his feet and tried to grab the Duke, who was trying to untie yet another bag of ballast, he hit out at him knocking him back. Sophia looked up at the canopy of the balloon and gasped, it was swelling as they ascended faster than she had ever done before.
“Hold on Resurgam, you will be all right,” She spoke, almost comfortingly, to her craft. Ignoring the fighting men, she took a firm hold on the side of the basket and struggled to her feet, then pulled herself up into the rigging. As she took hold of the mouth of the balloon the men stopped, Henry Goddard wondered what she was doing, the Duke knew and screamed.
“She is going to let the gas out and kill me, stop her.” He pushed the Runner to the floor, and made a grab at Sophia. Just in time she pulled the quick release cord and a stream of foul smelling gas hit the Duke in the face. As he fell back Goddard hit him on the head with a bag of ballast, the Duke collapsed.
“Good.” Said Sophia, “Now I have a lot of questions for you, but they must wait. Because of that idiot.” She gestured at the Duke, “We are going up – fast, now I don’t want to start coming down until I am sure we are over land, so we will have to ride out the ascent.”
She bent and looked at the barometer strapped to one side of the basket. Then began to tidy the mess the men had made in their fight. She passed a blanket over to Mr. Goddard. He took it and was about to wrap it around the unconscious Duke.
“No, leave him, he doesn’t deserve it, put it around yourself. It is going to get cold, very cold indeed.”
He now realised that she had buttoned her coat tight, wrapped a scarf round her neck and pulled on thick fur gloves. 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.”
To be continued