H.G. Wells: The War in the Air (1908)
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 as 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
"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, tand 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 prbaa 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
"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
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
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
"He's a go-ahead chap, is Bert," said Tom. "He knows a thing or
"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
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
"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. Itran 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
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
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
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
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
"I tell you they ARE flying," the soldier insisted. "I see it
"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
"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
"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
"If what he says is true," said Bert, "me and Grubb, we been
wasting our blessed old time. Besides incurring expense with
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
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 eircled 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
"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
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 happines. 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
ever 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
"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 modem 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
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
"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
"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.