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Title: The Trial Trip of the Flying Cloud
Author: J.R. Orton
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Language: English
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Trial Trip of the 'Flying Cloud'
J. R. Orton



"THROUGH in four days to San Francisco," repeated I. "Marvellous age!"

I hastily computed the distance by an air-line, and placed the speed
of the craft at some thirty miles an hour. That seemed reasonable
enough. Indeed, the whole statement cohered marvellously well; all the
parts harmonized with each other and looked plausible, even
reasonable, as I have said, except the grand fact itself, which was
too momentous for belief. But why should it not be true? What new
achievement of the human mind ought to startle one in this nineteenth
century, after having witnessed the wonders of steam and electro-
magnetism? I determined to sift the matter, but immediately remembered
that all the knowledge I had of it had been imparted to me in the
strictest confidence. The ingenious inventors, as was clearly their
right, had reserved it to themselves to choose the time and way of
making their invention public, when it was to break on the world, some
fine morning, like the discovery of a second moon performing its orbit
round the earth. I sunk into a brown study.

In the evening, Mr. Bonflon called again, as he had promised. He
brought with him a large roll of plans and drawings, for the purpose
of illustrating more clearly the principles and method of construction
and operation of his aerial ship. They were projected on a large
scale, and the workmanship was superb. Months of hard labor by a
finished draughtsman must have been devoted to their execution. "And
what an additional outlay of time and brains," thought I, "must have
been required, to devise the scheme and construct the machine itself,
so as to elevate the ingenious ideal into an absolute working
reality!" These drawings, Mr. Bonflon informed me, were duplicates of
others which had been privately deposited in the Patent-Office at
Washington.

The one which chiefly attracted my attention was that which
represented the monster steamer complete, with all its appendages and
complement of passengers, in its majestic flight through the air.
Below it were the drifting clouds. Its course lay quite above the
storms and hurricanes and conflicting wind-currents which vex the
lower strata of the atmosphere, where it comes in contact with the
earth's uneven surface, and is kept in motion by the contractions and
expansions of alternate cold and heat, and is broken and set whirling
by the forests and gorges and mountain-tops among which it is
compelled to force its way. Above all this, Mr. Bonflon assured me, as
aeronauts report, there is ever a smooth, quiet atmospheric sea.

"But how is life to be sustained for any considerable time in that
rarefied medium?" inquired I, "when it is asserted that even in
ascending high mountains, the texture of the soft parts of the human
body becomes so loose and flabby from diminished atmospheric pressure
as to cause one, so to speak, to sweat blood,--which oozes perceptibly
from the mouth and nose and eyes, and even from under the finger-
nails?"

Mr. Bonflon pointed to a long, narrow line which floated rearward at
an angle of about forty-five degrees from the point of its attachment
to his ship.

"That," said he, "is an India-rubber tube several thousand feet long,
extending down into the respirable atmosphere, and keeping the cabins
always supplied with fresh and wholesome air."

"But would the heavier nether air flow in that direction?" I asked.

"With a little help from the engine," he replied, "a constant current,
whenever needed, is kept up; and the process of breathing is rendered
as easy and agreeable in the cabins of the 'Flying Cloud' as in one's
own parlors at home. On the upper deck, which is not inclosed, you
see, it is different. In the first trial-trip to California, Mr. M----
insisted on remaining above on this deck for six consecutive hours,
and the result was an attack of hemorrhage from the lungs. On his
going below, however, it almost instantly ceased."

I must now endeavor to give the reader some definite idea of this
extraordinary machine, as exhibited in the drawings. Its buoyant power
was, of course, on the principle of the balloon. But the gas-chamber,
or part to be inflated, instead of being globular in form, consisted
of two horizontal cones joined at the base; or more accurately still,
it resembled an immense barrel extended at both ends to a point, and
resting on its side. This shape was given it, according to Mr.
Bonflon, that it might offer the least possible resistance to the
element in which it was intended to move. In structure it was composed
of a strong flexible frame of whalebone and steel, covered with silk,
strengthened and rendered air-tight and water-proof by a coating of
India-rubber. Its size, of course, would depend on the proposed
tonnage of a particular ship. That of the working-model, as nearly as
I remember, was about six hundred feet long, by some seventy or eighty
in breadth in the middle, which was calculated to be amply sufficient
to sustain the immense car beneath, with its engine, and fuel for a
week, and three hundred passengers with their baggage; leaving still a
considerable margin for freight.

Mr. Bonflon here pointed out, with great minuteness, the simple, but
ingenious method devised for the inflation of this enormous machine,
and the regulation of the gas; which I pass over, from an inability to
render it intelligible by mere description.

The car or vessel suspended below, and to which the balloon part bore
the relation of masts and sails, was fashioned after the best model of
a clipper ship, but still farther elongated. Below deck, it was
divided into sitting and dining cabins, state-rooms, kitchen, engine-
room, and so forth; and above was a long, railed, promenade deck. The
attachment between the two parts was by means of a network of ropes,
extending from every quarter, and from the whole circumference of the
ship, connecting with staples in the framework of the balloon, and
finally embracing its entire body in its folds. Two enormous paddle-
wheels, made of oiled silk stretched on delicate frames, and driven by
a steam-engine of the lightest structure possible, furnished the
propelling power; while at the stern, like a vast fin, played the
helm, of a similar material and construction to the paddle-wheels.

All this was explained to me in much fuller detail than I can here
repeat, by Mr. Bonflon, who added, that the materials employed
combined lightness with strength to a much greater degree than had
ever before been achieved,--that the fuel used was of the fluid kind,
a new combination of concentrated combustibles invented by himself,--
and that the weight of the entire machine had been carefully
calculated beforehand, together with its buoyant power, and the
results had demonstrated the accuracy of the mathematics.

I turned on Mr. Bonflon and looked him squarely in the face. He was a
modest man and blushed slightly, but did not shrink. There could be no
dishonesty there. His countenance bore the unmistakable stamp of
integrity, as well as intelligence; and his whole appearance and
bearing were those of a true man.

Had he brought me the newspaper he promised, not yet eight days old,
from San Francisco?

No. He had been detained down-town all day in the whirl of our New
York Babel, and had not yet been home. He would hand it in to-morrow.

Mr. Bonflon had been introduced to me that morning by a friend on
whose acuteness and judgment I felt I had many good reasons to rely.
Without pretending any precise knowledge of the man, or, indeed, any
knowledge at all, beyond what had been gathered from the individual
himself in a very brief acquaintance of Mr. Bonflon's own seeking, he
expressed a warm interest in him personally, as also in the startling
discovery he professed to have made.

In that interview, Mr. Bonflon had informed us in brief, that, after
ten years of patient and toilsome experiment, of disappointment, of
perishing and reviving hope, he had at length achieved the grand
object of his life. He had solved the problem of the navigation of the
air. He had proved by actual results, that the great ocean of
atmosphere above us could be ploughed as successfully and safely as
the waters beneath, and with much greater facility and pleasure. He
stated that the first trial--trip, after the completion of the ship,
had been made in the night from an obscure point in the State of
Maryland, and extended north and northeast, along the Atlantic coast,
to New York,--whose glow of light from a great height, like a
phosphorescent mist, was plainly distinguishable,--and thence to the
neighborhood of Boston, and back to the place of starting; and that a
second, with equally favorable results, had been made from the same
point by a more inland route, northwest to Buffalo and the Canada
line; and he named several well-known persons who were on board at one
or the other of these times, and related some little anecdotes
illustrative of their states of mind and apprehensions while drifting
above the earth on the occasion of these novel voyages.

He said, further, that the President and heads of departments at
Washington were fully cognizant of the matter; and that a third grant
trial-trip, in the interest of government, had been secretly made,
with important dispatches to California, relating to the security of
our rights in the Pacific. Four days had been consumed in the passage
out, including a stoppage of a couple of hours on a fine plateau, near
the head waters of the Missouri, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains;
and the same in the return. They had landed in the night in a deep
valley a few miles out of San Francisco, and remained two days in that
city; which gave a period of ten days to the entire voyage, out and
back. Forty selected individuals, all bound to secresy, had
participated in the risks and excitements of the extraordinary
occasion. Mr. Bonflon was not of the number. An heroic daughter of his
was. His partner, Mons. De Aery, a French gentleman of great
mechanical skill, had managed the affair; and the craft, in the same
hands, was now absent on her second expedition across the American
continent.

Such was the sum of Mr. Bonflon's revelations of the morning. What a
discovery! How the announcement would astonish the world! How the
practical fact would overturn the world, upset commerce, and transform
the habits and relations of mankind! America, the pioneer in many
valuable discoveries and reforms, was still ahead,--still destined to
lead the van in the development of the powers and resources of Nature,
and the onward march of nations.

Hurriedly recalling all these points to mind, I requested to know of
Mr. Bonflon how it had been possible, with so many confidants and the
prying propensities of the press, whose agents, like an invisible
police, are everywhere, to keep the matter from becoming public,--at
least, to cover the affair so completely that no hint of the existence
of his machine should have been given in any quarter, or of the vast
changes which its introduction as a power in the world could not fail
to effect.

To this he replied, that the press had behaved very handsomely; that
the principal papers of the country had attaches aboard on the first
trip to the Pacific; but that all parties--the government, the
editors, together with De Aery and himself--were agreed that the
matter should be kept strictly private, until its practicality and
value should be established beyond the possibility of question.

I now remembered, that, several years ago, a good deal of noise had
been made about a flying-machine which had been constructed in some of
the suburbs of the city,--and that a day had been advertised when it
was to make an ascent, but it failed. I mentioned the circumstance to
Mr. Bonflon.

"Yes," he replied. "It was at Hoboken. De Aery and myself spent years
in the construction of that machine, and a large amount of money. On
the day when the trial of its powers was to have taken place, the
weather proved unfavorable, and we met with unexpected delays. The
spectators, who had congregated by the thousands, became impatient;
and the mob, breaking in upon us, destroyed in an hour property which
had cost us five thousand dollars and the labor of years."

I felt obliged to sympathize with Mr. Bonflon. He had met with the
usual fortune of public benefactors, and particularly of inventors.
His success, however, should it prove real, in the unexampled
brilliancy of its results, would more than compensate him for all his
disappointments and losses. He would rank as the greatest of
discoverers,--as the master mind of this master century.

Leading him off from this one topic into general conversation, I held
him thus engaged for an hour. I was charmed with his comprehensive
intelligence, and with the scope and liberality of his views. In
everything relating to mechanics, his opinions were marked with
originality. This had evidently been his favorite field, where his
quick perceptions and powers of concentration and analysis had
elevated him to an eminence where he stood almost alone. I had never
met his equal. In plausible suggestions relative to the possibilities
of the future, he took me quite above my level, and left me floating
in a maze of glittering bewilderment. But I could discover no breaks,
no confusion in his mind, on the themes he presented. His premises
were apparently well considered, and his conclusions the fair and
natural sequences flowing from them.

On the following day, Mr. Bonflon called on me again. In the interval,
my friend and myself had held extended consultations. My friend, while
externally calm as the surface of a summer sea, as was his wont, it
was plain for me to see, was internally deeply stirred and excited by
the extraordinary nature of Mr. Bonflon's revelations. Acknowledging a
mutual and increasing interest in the intelligent inventor, we
nevertheless parted in a wilderness of doubt. There was a mystery in
the matter,--a surprise for the world or a surprise for ourselves,--
which time, it would seem, with its busy thumb and finger, must be
left to unravel at its leisure.

Mr. Bonflon had not brought the California paper with him. The two or
three copies only which had come into his possession had been handed
around among his confidential friends, and he had not been able to lay
his hand on one. He informed me that the "Flying Cloud" was expected
to return in three days, and, after remaining two days on the Atlantic
side of the continent, would then start on her third experimental trip
to the Pacific. At that time he expected to make one of the party
himself, and he invited me to accompany him.

I accepted the invitation, and received from him particular
instructions as to the nature of my outfit. It was in the midst of the
heats of summer. He advised, however, a full supply of thick clothing,
on account of the increased chill and coldness of the atmosphere at
high altitudes; and, indeed, recommended a mail of flannel next the
skin. Everything else--the supply of the larder, with an excellent
cook, beds, and so forth--would be found amply provided by De Aery and
himself for the comfort and accommodation of their guests. The
station, or point of departure, Mr. Bonflon informed me, was a retired
spot but a few miles out of the city of Baltimore; and he promised to
be at hand at the proper time to accompany me in person, and see me
safely on board the "Flying Cloud."

I saw nothing more of Mr. Bonflon for several days. Meanwhile I
arranged my affairs for a brief absence, and, as my family were all
off in the country, prepared a special letter for use, if needed, to
be dated and mailed at the last moment, notifying them of a probable
gap in my correspondence, on account of some pressing business which
would take me out of the city for a few days and keep me constantly
employed.

In three or four days I received a note from Mr. Bonflon, advising me
to hold myself in readiness; and at the proper time, he presented
himself before me. But he came to apologize. The "Flying Cloud" had
returned. The second trip had been as successfully and safely
performed as the first. Nothing had occurred to mar the pleasure of
the voyage; but, unfortunately, before coming on to New York, De Aery
had filled out the complement of guests for the third grand
expedition. Even he (Mr. Bonflon) should remain behind; but he should
see that seats were reserved for us both, without fail, for the next
succeeding trip.

Mr. Bonflon took his leave; and I found myself more deeply involved in
doubt and perplexity than ever. I could hardly say that I was
disappointed, or that I was not. I had thrown myself on a wave, with
no look-out or means of judging where I was to be cast, and had formed
no opinions. As yet, everything looked fair with Mr. Bonflon. His face
was as honest as the morning sun, and it was next to impossible to
doubt him. He might be the prey of some strange phantasm, some
monomania; but the evidences did not show it. The account he had given
of himself was manly and coherent; his claims as a discoverer had been
modestly presented, and were not wholly unsupported by circumstances,
or unreasonable in themselves. Indeed, they must be regarded as coming
within the range of probabilities fully as much as, to human seeming,
had once the established, but ceaseless, wonders of steam locomotion
and electric telegraphing.

Singularly enough,--and it illustrates the constantly shifting scenes
in the kaleidoscope of life,--within an hour, Mr. Bonflon returned
with a new message, and with the programme of the "Flying Cloud"
changed, if not reversed. He had seen De Aery again. One or two of the
expected passengers had telegraphed that untoward circumstances would
compel them to remain behind, and there would be room for us. But no
time was to be lost; the air-steamer would weigh anchor before
daylight of the following morning, and we must start for Baltimore by
the next train. De Aery and several others were already flying over
the rail on their way to Philadelphia.

I did not allow myself to hesitate. With an unusual degree of
excitement, made up of the mingled emotions of wonder, doubt, and, I
frankly confess, apprehension, I dated and superscribed the letter to
my absent family; and, taking my carpet-bag in my hand, packed to
plethora several days before in readiness for the occasion, set out on
the strange and questionable adventure.

The run to Baltimore was made without accident or delay. Mr. Bonflon
and myself conversed a good deal, and I found additional cause to
admire the discriminating character of his mind and the curious and
wonderful stores it contained. Some of the time we dozed, or sunk into
a mental confusion like that to which the body was subjected by the
motion of the cars, and called it sleep. My own most impressive
visions, however, were those of silent wakefulness, and were connected
with the morrow and the "Flying Cloud."

We stopped in the chief city of Maryland only long enough to obtain
some slight refreshments, such as could be furnished readily in the
middle of the night, and proceeded at once to the wharf or station of
our sky-sailer. Ah, how shall I describe my sensations on first
beholding this most wonderful achievement of the age, and thus
satisfying myself that it was an actual existence, and not the mere
chimera of a diseased brain? There she sat like a majestic swan,
floating, as it were, in the pure empyrean, and crowned with a diadem
of stars. The Moon, Arcturus, and the Pleiades might well all make
obeisance to her, and the Milky Way invite her to extend her flight
and plough its snowy fields. I was astonished at her size, the
symmetry of her parts, and the harmony of her proportions, as she lay
there at a great height, which I was quite unable to estimate, in bold
relief against the sky.

But Mr. Bonflon could afford me but a brief time for observation and
the indulgence of my wonder. The stores and most of the passengers
were already on board; and taking me by the arm, he hurried me
forward, and seated me in the small car or tender, by means of which,
and the agency of ropes and pulleys, we were to reach her decks. Our
upward movement immediately commenced. It was steady and gentle, not
calculated to create alarm; and still the notion of quitting Mother
Earth for an indefinite number of days, to rove in the blue unknown of
space, was attended with some apprehensions and regrets. I gazed
anxiously at the receding objects below; but my feelings underwent a
change as we approached the "Flying Cloud" herself, were pulled into
her gangway, and I found myself standing on her solid decks. A brief
further period intervened, and our anchor was loosed; the tremendous
machine became instinct with life; she began to move; and, hurrah! we
were under way.

The thoughts and emotions of this bewildering moment it is impossible
to describe. Our craft moved off majestically, like some huge water-
fowl rising from the sea. Her course was westward and upward, like the
eagle with his face turned toward the palace of the sun. At first the
lights in the city of Baltimore became more numerous and distinct, as
intervening objects were surmounted and overlooked. Next they began to
fade, shrinking down into twinkling points like fireflies, until they
disappeared. Forests, hills, and mountains followed after, as our
altitude was increased, blending together like a hazy landscape,
until, on passing above the cloud region, and finding the level of our
track, the earth was wholly lost to our view, and our course lay
through the blue serene of space, without a lighthouse or a landmark,
and nothing but the constant lamps of heaven to guide us in our
passage.

What a sea! The ocean has its visible surface on which move the ships;
but we had none. The heavens were beneath us as well as above. We were
floating in the great circle of the systems and the suns. We were of
the universe; but were to be numbered with the constellations and the
stars. We could compare ourselves to a company of immortals quitting
the earth and traversing the electric seas which lead to brighter
homes. Or we were voyagers to the sun, or to the nearer Venus, or to
the far distant Centaurus. What a world of new thought was forced upon
us by the fancies and realities and charm and awe of our extraordinary
condition, combined with the profound consciousness we could not fail
to entertain of the effects which this crowning discovery of Messrs.
Bonflon and De Aery must produce on travel, on commerce, on art, and
the common destiny of mankind!

I found the atmosphere of the cabins, as my friend Bonflon had
asserted, agreeable and healthful. I could also occupy the promenade
deck for half an hour with little inconvenience, so far as the levity
of the air was concerned; but the cold was severe; while the system,
in consequence of an undue expansion of its particles, solid and
fluid, from the diminished pressure of the atmosphere, was rendered
doubly susceptible to its influence. The advice given by Mr. Bonflon
to case myself in flannels, with an armament at hand of outer winter-
clothing, proved well-timed; and yet a period of lassitude, verging on
faintness, invariably followed every considerable exposure to the open
air.

But the pleasure of gazing on those fields of space without
obstruction, without the intervention of so much as a plate of crystal
glass, repaid me for every risk and every ill. Though it might be said
there was no scenery there, where nothing was visible but the stars,
yet far beyond the power of mountain and valley, forest and lake,
waterfall and ocean, did that scene, which was no scene, or next to
none, bind me in the spell of its fascination. The motion of our
craft, as we careered noiselessly through the shoreless and objectless
void, without sense of effort or friction, was a charm of itself,--
bringing to a flower, crystallizing into refulgent stars, the dim,
obscure, however glorious, poetry of life. Here were the wildest
imaginations of the dreamer melted in a crucible, and reproduced in
living forms of usefulness and beauty. In my own years of widely
diversified experience, what had I met with to compare with this?
Nothing. The force of steam was marvellous,--talking over a wire
mysterious; but here I was in a great ship riding among the planets
and the stars. I had likened Niagara to a vast mill-dam, because I
could find no peer to set beside it; so now, in my weakness, the
sublime pageant of the "Flying Cloud" could search out nothing higher
in my recollection with which to compare it than a wild ride of my
youth in a canoe, for a half-mile or so, down the rapids of a river.

But morning was at hand. The rich golden glow of night, to which the
dwellers on the earth's surface are accustomed, as we passed to higher
altitudes, had given place to a thin inky blue. This was obscured by
no fleck or mist, and yet the stars shone through it faint and dim,
despoiling the firmament of its glory. The same loss of power was
manifest on the ushering in of day. The auroral flame, which
ordinarily greets us in the east with such a ruddy laugh, was now
nothing better than a wan and dismal smile; and even the sun, as he
struggled up from what seemed a bed of leaden mist, brought with him
only a pallid, lifeless twilight. It was not that his rays were
impeded by cloud or haze; he had lost his power to shine. He hung
there in the heavens like a great white shield, and looked down on us
as rayless and powerless and devoid of life as a dead man's eye.

Having at length wearied myself with gazing, and feeling chill and
weak from the coldness and tenuity of the atmosphere, I subsided into
the comfort and companionship of the cabins below. Among the
passengers I recognized attaches of the press, besides several
gentlemen of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, with whom I was
somewhat acquainted. More circumspect, or less slaves to the
imagination than myself, they had contented themselves with in-door
observations. But their enthusiasm was none the less inflamed. In
astonishment they looked at each other; in restless bewilderment they
glanced out of the windows on the desert, trackless plane traversed by
the "Flying Cloud," and spoke with a species of awe of the shock which
the announcement of what they were then witnessing would give to sober
men's minds; and suggested, in broken sentences, some of the
consequences which would be likely to flow from the grand invention.

What with the excitement and lack of sleep, we all found ourselves a
little nervous. Coffee and Havanas failed to allay the feeling; and,
in the absence of the morning papers, we resorted to whist, chess, and
our pocket supplies of the "Atlantic Monthly," "Harper," and so forth,
and to the very select library provided by Messrs. Bonflon and De
Aery, the proprietors, for the use of the passengers,--and at last to
our beds. It could not be denied that we were nervous. With all the
smoothness and beauty of our running, there was a sensation, an
uncertain quivering motion, not at first noticed and not at all
definable, about our craft, that constantly suggested the idea that we
were standing on nothing, or, at best, nothing better than dissolving
quicksands, which were liable at any moment wholly to slide away and
leave us; and it required some strength of mind to resist the vagary,
and prevent it from effecting a troublesome lodgment in the
imagination.

Thus passed the day, which fortunately, in my case, was succeeded by a
night of repose. The restlessness of mind and body once subdued,
Nature asserted her empire, and I slept profoundly until morning.
Another day and night followed, with little variation from the first;
and by this time, the strangeness and mystery of my situation had
quite worn away, and the feeling of security was established. I trod
the upper deck with all the pride, and more than the composure, of a
modern monarch on his throne.

But the sameness of the scenery of the vast aerial ocean, in which we
were sailing alone, without consort, without ever descrying a sail, or
even keeping a lookout, without so much as ever discovering a floating
plank to remind us of a wreck, or a seaweed to tell us of the land,
was already beginning to pall on the senses, when there appeared in
the distance before us, and multiplying to the right and the left, a
succession of white, sparkling pyramids and cones, resting on the
clouds and flashing in the nether light, like crystal monuments set to
mark the boundaries of space. These were crests of the Rocky
Mountains, covered with perpetual snow.

I gazed on them with rapture. Right in our eye, nearly due west, stood
out Long's Peak, James's Peak, and the Spanish Peaks, at first small
in size, but momently swelling in dimensions; while, far to the north,
were just discernible the more lofty summits of Mount Hooker and Mount
Brown. Lying between Mount James and the Spanish Peaks, inclining to
their eastern slope, lay the green plateau, not yet visible, where we
were to land. Its position was carefully pointed out to Mr. Bonflon
and myself by Mr. De Aery, but we strained our eyes and used our
glasses in vain. No strength of sight could penetrate the clouds and
haze which covered the body of the mountains, and hid the earth, with
the exception of those lofty silver pinnacles, from our view.

Though these high peaks, like distant masts at sea, were first seen
early in the day, the meridian of noon overtook us before we came up
with them. At length, in increasing numbers and a thousand diversified
shapes, they lay spread out before us, and soon thereafter were
directly under our feet. Our magical machine, coming to a halt,
fluttered like a great bird above them, and gave us an opportunity,
such as probably had never been enjoyed by voyagers before, to spy out
their beauty, their mystery, and their strength.

On nearing the mountains, we had left behind us the twilight of the
void, and come again into the full flood of day. This enabled the
sight to rest upon the scene with pleasure, to examine its diversified
splendors, and penetrate its chasms and gorges, otherwise inaccessible
to man. But to describe them is impossible. Broad fields of sparkling
snow, pyramids of ice, wide fissures shining like steel mirrors,--
produced by some unimaginable convulsion, possibly a thousand or ten
thousand years ago, and large enough to ingulf a city,--with black
humps or spires of granite here and there projecting through the
white; while afar down the rocky sides of interminable swells and
precipices came up a sound of water and a blush of green, betokening
the direction in which we were to look for the generative body of
Mother Earth; all these, and much more which I cannot stop to name,
were grouped in the rough, but magnificent landscape before us.

No cabin could confine me at such a time as this. I stood out on the
upper deck in the extreme bow of the boat; and from an unobstructed
point of view, nearly over the figure-head, in the very abandonment of
daring, feasted my senses on the wondrous glories of this mountain-
scene of enchantment.

De Aery was at the helm. But I have scarcely introduced this
extraordinary gentleman to the reader. He was a tall, black--haired,
mercurial Frenchman, with an eye like a falcon, who, with only an
occasional Gallicism purposely indulged in, spoke American like a
native. I had every confidence in his prudence and skill in the
management of his craft; and still, as I perceived that we were
gradually settling down in the direction of the loftiest of those
snow-peaks, until scarcely fifty feet intervened between us and its
round, polished brow, to all appearance as solid as feldspar, I raised
my voice and accosted him.

"Halloo! Captain!" said I, "are you intending to land us on this
Atlas-top?"

"Effectivement," replied he. "Mon Dieu! B---, come here."

I went to him.

"This," said he, "is the very Old Man of the Mountain. I intend to
plant the stars and stripes in the centre of his bald head."

"Capital!" replied I. "But can you achieve it safely?"

"Yes. I can manage my bird with as much ease as a pigeon poises
himself on his wings, or an Indian steers his canoe. See! we are
approaching the crown of the pinnacle."

I watched the experiment with an interest not unmingled with fear. He
held in one hand a handsome American flag, of moderate size, and
occasionally, with a slight motion of his arm, and a glance of pride,
spread out its silken folds on the motionless air. Gradually the
"Flying Cloud," under his skilful hands, closed upon the bleak,
glittering summit, which, rounding off like the bald head of some
venerable giant, was, at its apex, scarcely ten feet in diameter.

"No eagle, even, has ever set his foot here," said De Aery. "There is
not a track, or feather, or mark of any living thing to be seen. The
'Flying Cloud' will be the first to explore many mysteries and to
explode others. Not even do the winds reach this height. Boreas and
the bird of Jove,--I will vanquish them both. I will step out upon
that icy peak."

"No, no, Captain," I expostulated. "You might lose your foothold and
perish."

"Not at all," rejoined he, with a laugh. "I am as sure-footed as a
goat. But if you think it risky, Monsieur, I forbear. But the snow
looks solid as adamant. I fear I shall not be able to erect this flag,
unless I have a firm spot for my feet."

By this time our craft had reached a proper position,--her stern
alongside and almost in contact with the jutting peak,--to answer the
ambitious purpose of the Frenchman. Raising the flag of the Republic
in his hand, he requested us all to do it proper honor,--to salute it
with a "three times three,"--as he should succeed in securing it in
its place. Cautiously extending the staff, he brought it in contact
with the snow, and gave it several light blows, for the purpose of
ascertaining its solidity. It seemed of almost icy texture, and
emitted a half-sharp and half--muffled sound in reply. Then, elevating
the standard aloft in both hands, he brought it down with force as the
farmer urges a stake into the ground; not doubting, as would seem,
that a succession of such blows would be needed in order to achieve
his purpose.

A single stroke of the shaft, however, proved more than enough. To the
surprise and dismay of us all, the firm ringing surface turned out but
a shell, and all beneath, a loose bed of sparkling snow-crystals, like
white sand. The flag sunk down and disappeared, and De Aery, losing
his balance, plunged over and went with it.

We gazed after him in speechless horror. Before any one of us had
sufficiently recovered himself to speak, we were startled by a dull
sound, like a rushing wind, or distant, rumbling thunder; and an
immense mass of snow, many hundred feet in depth, and covering a third
of the cone, parted from its place, and, like a great, foaming wave,
broken and shapeless, rushed down the mountain's side. For the moment,
all eyes were fixed upon it. At first, it swept on without cohering,
like a cataract of sand; but, on coming in contact with the moister
snow below, it formed into a thousand balls and masses, some rolling
and some sliding, but each gathering bulk and velocity as it went.

By the aid of our glasses we were able to sweep the rough slopes and
precipitous descents below, to the distance of many miles; and,
forgetting De Aery, we watched the development of the phenomenon with
terror. The larger slides gradually absorbed the smaller ones, as
common fish are swallowed by sharks; but those which remained,
fattened and expanded by what they fed on, assumed enormous
dimensions. Choosing different paths, they pursued their course in
smoking tracks of devastation. Rocks, precipices, forests, furnished
no obstruction. Roaring, crashing onward, as though Mars or the Sun
had opened its batteries upon us, those sliding, whirling worlds of
snow swept through valleys large enough to have furnished sites for
cities, without a check, and bore down or overleaped all obstacles, as
easily as a man would walk over an ant-hill, or some hollow where a
toad had burrowed. Finally they were lost to sight, passing behind
intervening spurs or ridges of the mountain, or becoming hidden in the
cloud-mists which lay heavily about its base; but the sound continued
to roll back upon us for some time, like the roar of distant
artillery. I could no longer wonder at the terror with which the cry
of an avalanche is said to fill the dwellers among the Alps.

As this absorbing pageant of the mountains disappeared, our thoughts
reverted to De Aery. Had he been carried away by the snow-slip? or was
his mangled corse below us among the black crags laid bare by that
catastrophe? Turning my gaze beneath, I discovered, far down, many
hundred feet, a moving object, scarcely bigger than a fly, and, on
bringing my glass to bear upon it, perceived that it was the
Frenchman. He was standing on a bare rib of rock, with his flag still
in his hand, and apparently unharmed. Waving the ensign to attract our
attention, at the same time he shouted with the whole strength of his
lungs. But his voice scarcely reached us, and probably would not alone
have attracted our notice. We replied with encouraging cheers; and the
"three times three," which we had intended for the American eagle, was
given on the spot to De Aery.

But how to rescue him from his perilous condition was indeed a serious
question. The "Flying Cloud," it was obvious, with her great size and
spreading pinions, could not venture among those ticklish quicksands,
whose insecure foundations had just been so strikingly illustrated
before us. Indeed, the slightest jar might precipitate another fall of
snow, and bury the object of our solicitude five hundred feet deep in
its bosom. The sagacity of Mr. Bonflon relieved us from our dilemma.
He hoisted out the small car or tender, and, letting it down with
great care and precision, safely accomplished the object. In the space
of half an hour, De Aery, without a scratch, and, like a gallant Gaul,
rather proud of his adventure than frightened at it, was again
restored to our arms.

Drawing off from our dangerous proximity to the "Old Man of the
Mountain," which had so nearly proved fatal to at least one of our
number, but astonished beyond measure at the novelty of our
experiences and the grandeur of the scenes we had witnessed, we
retraced our course for a short distance, and, gradually lessening the
interval between us and the earth, soon had the satisfaction of
hearing the cry of "Land, ho!" from the look-out man. The valley was
in sight where we were to take in water and enjoy a little picnic on
the green grass, ere the form and smell of Mother Earth, with her
homely but blessed realities, should be quite forgotten.

We effected our landing in complete safety. The spot was a little,
luxurious nook among the lesser hills, with few trees, but full of
wild flowers, wild fruits, and wild grasses. Everything about it was
wild, but cheering and charming, especially to air--wanderers like us.
The foot of the white hunter, or even of the roving Indian, had
perhaps never visited it, nor foraging-parties of the buffalo or deer,
for we saw no signs of them; but birds of varied plumage and song, and
troops of squirrels, with footprints here and there of the grizzly
bear, and a drove of wild turkeys, with red heads aloft, rushing over
an eminence at our left as we approached, and an occasional whir of a
rattlesnake at our feet, sufficiently indicated the kind of denizens
by which the plateau was inhabited.

Here, on the rich sward and delicate mosses, under the shadow of some
willows, we spread out our repast by the side of a clear mountain-
spring; and, to say nothing of old Otard and Schiedam Schnapps, opened
some bottles of Sparkling Catawba, and old Jersey Champagne, of a
remote vintage, which I have now quite forgotten. With the flow of
these beverages flowed our speech, in jovial words and songs and
raillery enough, if not in wit. De Aery, as having by a hair's breadth
just escaped with his life, and in virtue of his extraordinary feat in
leaping five hundred feet or more through a bank of snow, now that the
danger was over, was made the butt of much pleasantry, which he bore
with his usual equanimity and grace.

When these arrowy flights at the expense of the light-hearted
Frenchman had exhausted themselves, I took occasion to inquire of him
what his sensations were during his brief burial. He replied as
follows:--

"I thought nothing at all about it. I remember feeling chagrined
because I was making a failure, and clung tight to my flag, fearing to
lose that too. Mon Dieu! It might be expected that one would feel
cold, buried up in ice; but such was not the case. I was hot. The snow
burned my face, as it came in contact with it. As to the ride, it was
pleasant enough, but rather rapid and perplexing to the breath. It was
like sinking into a pit of quicksand, where everything gives way below
one, as though the bottom of the world had fallen out. There was the
struggle of a moment to keep the fine snow out of my mouth and
nostrils, as I drew in my breath, and the next instant my feet came in
contact with the solid rock, where you discovered me. The magnificent
avalanche you describe I know nothing about. I neither heard nor saw
anything of it, only as I afterward examined the marks it had left
behind it. This leads me to suppose that I was a good deal confused at
the time, though I was not aware of it. Indeed, I have an impression
of seeming to turn somersets in my descent, and this may account for
it. But, for the honor of France, I saved my adopted country's flag."

High-minded Gaul! We all praised and honored him, and comforted him
for his disappointment. It was a noble attempt he had made, to nail
the American banner to the head of Mount James, impelled by the
loftiest of motives,--and, like many others of its kind, had for the
present failed. At some other time he might prove more successful; or
some other might achieve the object in his place, and so appropriate
his laurels; but no one would be likely to excel him in his flying
leap. In this he had distanced even the famous traveller at Rhodes.

Having given a couple of hours to this species of recreation, we
weighed anchor, and again got under way. Slowly and smoothly, without
a ripple or a jar, we ascended through the blue ether to our former
altitude, and floated off over those majestic mountain--tops, toward
the west. Loath to part from scenes of such impressive beauty,--
scenes, alone paralleled in our recollection by fabulous tales of
Oriental enchantment,--we gazed behind us at those flashing crests of
alabaster, until they grew small in the distance, and finally were
wholly lost to our sight. With them disappeared the last vestige of
the solid earth, and we were again afloat in space.

The following night and day were passed like their predecessors.
Another night came, and we were over the eastern bound of the State of
California. A few hours more, without accident, would terminate our
remarkable voyage, and set us down in the city of San Francisco. All
of us were brimming high with hope. Though we did not anticipate
reaching the station before one or two o'clock in the morning, and
probably should not disembark before dawn, we were loath to retire to
rest. It was near midnight before all of us were in our berths.

But when at length there, I found it impossible to sleep. The
excitement attendant on the beginning of the trip seemed to have
returned on me with a double force. I listened for some sound to
relieve the awful stillness which, like the wing of Death, seemed to
have settled over the "Flying Cloud"; but there was no soughing of the
wind, as at sea, and no noise to be heard, save the monotonous
movement of the engine and the paddle-wheels; and this, so evenly did
they play, was rather a motion than a sound.

This period of restlessness was succeeded by one of strange
bewilderment, which might have been sleep, or might not. Rapidly
changing scenes and fantastic figures some of them beautiful and some
horrible, flitted before me like a dissolving panorama. A band, as
though of steel wire, seemed to encircle my brain, and to compress it
closer and closer; and the spine, for its whole length, felt as though
subjected to a like crushing pressure.

How long this state of hallucination continued I have no means of
knowing. From it, by a great effort, I suddenly aroused myself, and
returned to my proper senses. Where I was, and all the extraordinary
events of the last few days, were clear in my recollection. But I was
weighed down with weakness, and found, on attempting to speak, that I
had no voice.

Suspecting that I had been stricken by some terrible disease, I
attempted to rise; and, loath to disturb any of my fellow-travellers,
undertook to crawl out upon the upper deck. This, after a good deal of
effort, I accomplished. Lying, therefore,--I could not stand,--I
prayed for a breath of air to relieve my hot and oppressed brow; but
in vain. The atmosphere seemed gone. Chill and dark, the heavens
spread out above me without a twinkle or a smile. The full-moon was
there, and there was no cloud or haze to obscure her light; but she
did not shine. Her white, rayless face was a mockery to the night. The
same was true of the stars. The dazzling canopy was faded out, and
Cygnus and the Great Bear were subdued to pallid points, like patches
of white-gray paper stuck upon a wall.

Floating by the side of the "Flying Cloud," and nearly of her size, I
discovered a dark, irregular object, and dragged myself to the edge of
the deck to investigate it more closely. The two came together, but
without damage or friction. They touched and parted, like substances
nearly at rest in still water. I put out my hand on the strange
visitor, and received a pretty severe shock, as though I had been
subjected to the action of an electric battery. At the same time, a
light, bluish flame ran over it surface, showing me more accurately
its form and dimensions. To the touch, it was solid and cold, like
iron or granite. I pressed upon it, and it yielded like a floating
dish. I tried to break off a fragment, but was unable to separate so
much as a scale.

A moment's reflection convinced me of the nature of this apparent
island in the air. It was an immense aerolite; and with this
conviction came the solution of my own painful state. We had
unconsciously passed beyond the controlling power of the earth's
gravitation, into the region of the upper atmosphere, where, science
informs us, these meteoric stones float in equilibrium, until some
accidental impulse throws them from their balance, when they are
precipitated to the surface of the earth. I must be dying for lack of
air. And the man at the helm, where was he? He must have fallen
asleep, and left our vessel to her own buoyant fancies. And my
companions! Bonflon! De Aery! All ere this might have perished, and
the "Flying Cloud," aside from myself, be bearing into these upper
altitudes nothing but a load of death.

Terror-struck, I dragged myself, with all the speed I could
accomplish, to the stern. There sat the helmsman at his post, but
asleep or insensible. I shook him, but he gave no signs of life. I
shouted with what little strength I had, but in vain.

"Wake up! wake up!" I cried, "or we are lost!"

At length he opened his eyes, but did not move.

"Wake up!" I screamed again. "Breakers ahead, and worse. You have let
the craft run wild. We are above our level. We are all dying for lack
of air."

"Oh, let me sleep!" he murmured. "I must sleep a little while longer.
It can't--can't be morning yet."

"By this time, fright, or the necessity of the occasion, was renewing
my strength.

"Dick!" I shouted in his ear, "Dick, you scoundrel! you will murder us
all. Do your duty, or I will shoot you!"

With this I discharged a barrel of my revolver above his head, which,
like my voice in my efforts at hallooing, sounded only as a faint echo
of itself, but, nevertheless, proved sufficient to give his dormant
faculties a shock. He started up, and, though still but half-
conscious, took the helm and gave it the direction I bade him.

From him I hastened to the engineer, whom I found in a like state of
insensibility. I succeeded in arousing him; but it was necessary that
he should be made to comprehend the difficulties of our situation,--
that our craft, water-logged as it were, would float forever where she
was, for all anybody could say to the contrary, until forced down by
the power of the engine alone to lower and life-giving atmospheric
planes. To get him to understand this was not so easy. But I succeeded
in part, and, in my anxiety for my friends, rushed below to look after
their condition.

As I anticipated, I found every one of them in a state of incipient
asphyxia. But the "Flying Cloud" was already descending into denser
air. Oxygen and pressure were performing their mystic work; and within
half an hour I had the pleasure of seeing them all restored to
consciousness and rapidly returning strength. But the renewed lights
exposed a sight almost too frightful to mention. Every man of us was
crimson from escaped blood, which seemed to have oozed forth, like a
pale-red dew, from every pore of our bodies.

Messrs. Bonflon and De Aery, when they came to realize the danger from
which we had so narrowly escaped, were nearly dumb with horror. The
lively Frenchman exhibited a sensibility which the extremity of his
single peril, a day or two before, had failed to call up. He wept
aloud. Mr. Bonflon was circumspect and thoughtful. He did not lose his
Yankee balance; but both of them, each in his own way, overwhelmed me
with expressions of obligation.

But the dangers of this dreadful night--a night which can never pass
from my recollection--were not yet over. We were all gathered in the
main cabin, congratulating each other, next after our escape, on our
rapidly returning strength,--happy in the thought that our trip out,
though sprinkled with danger, was so near a prosperous completion, and
almost momently expecting to hear the stroke of the bell which should
announce to us that the red light to designate our place of landing
was in sight, when, instead of the silver ring of this messenger of
peace, we were startled and horrified by an alarm of fire.

Bonflon and De Aery rushed to the engine-room. A cloud of smoke poured
out from the door by which they disappeared. They were gone only for a
moment; for no man could remain in the hell of flames and vapors into
which they ventured and live. They came out dragging with them the
half-suffocated, scorched, and blazing engineer. How the accident
occurred, it was impossible to divine and useless to inquire. Closing
the door tightly after them to confine the flames, where confinement,
except for the briefest period, among matter so combustible, and
partitions scarcely more formidable than those of a paper bandbox, was
clearly impossible, they threw the burning engineer into our arms, and
themselves took the management of the craft.

De Aery, in this crisis, rose from the man to the hero, almost to a
demigod. His orders rung through the startled air clear and round like
the voice of a golden bell. Bonflon seconded him with coolness and
decision. With us a moment sufficed to extinguish the burning garments
of the engineer; but by that time the flames had burst from the
engine-room, and that part of the beautiful boat was a ragged,
crackling ruin.

Fleeing to the upper deck, and taking refuge in the bow, we became
sensible that we were descending through the air with frightful
rapidity. When the accident occurred, we were already at a low level,
on the look-out for the signal at our station. This circumstance was
in our favor, if anything could be, when a danger so imminent and
dreadful was pressing. Land, like a hazy shadow, was just discoverable
in the dim distance below us; and oh for one foot of it as a place of
rest! But if it were possible to escape the flames, it was clear
enough that we must be dashed in pieces against the solid earth.

De Aery was now the only one remaining in the stern. He was exposed to
great peril, but refused to quit his post while it remained possible
to control in any degree the motions of the vessel. The flames played
about him without shaking his courage or his coolness, and broke
through upon the upper deck and separated him from us with a seething
hedge and whirlpool of fire. We lost sight of him, and supposed he had
perished, when suddenly his voice, issuing from the midst of the
furnace, rung on our ears like a trumpet.

"Up the ropes! quit the ship, or you die, every man of you!" he
shouted; and at the same time we discovered him emerging from the
flames and smoke, and ascending the network which enveloped the
balloon and connected it with the ship. We followed his example; some
of our number--the more timid or the more daring, it would be
difficult to say which--continuing the ascent until they had reached
the upper surface of the gas-chamber, and placed its entire fragile
bulk between them and the hazard they most dreaded.

The momentary refuge afforded by these upper works was scarcely
attained, when the bow, where we had stood but a minute before, and
the whole hull of the "Flying Cloud" with it, blended together in one
mass of surging fire. The appearance in the heavens of this strange
sight, to a watcher at some rancho, or in the not distant city of San
Francisco, if such there were, must have afforded a more vivid
illustration of the fall of a blazing star or meteoric wonder than
astronomer has ever put on record.

But I delay the catastrophe. Land and water soon became
distinguishable from each other beneath us, and hills from valleys,
and forests from bare plains. There was little wind, except the fierce
currents rushing upward, produced by the heat of our own
conflagration. This, for the time, subdued everything to itself, and,
as we approached the ground, served by its direction to modify the
fury of our descent. The denser lower atmosphere also contributed to
the same end; and, most fortunately, when we reached the earth, and
the collision came, we struck in water instead of on the land.

Still, the collision was a fierce one. With the mass of fire between
us and the ground directly below, blinded by the smoke and half
suffocated by the heat, we were not conscious of the good fortune that
awaited us, until, with a swoop and a plunge, we found ourselves
submerged, and, with an equal velocity, immediately thrown back again
by the buoyant force of the balloon into the open air. The flood of
fire in which we had descended was instantly extinguished; and we
awoke to a sense of our possible safety in darkness rendered doubly
profound by the contrast.

Daylight was near at hand. By a careful adjustment of our weights we
kept the balloon from rolling, and sustained ourselves above the water
among the netting. As morning came, we discovered we had landed in a
small lake, hardly large enough to be dignified with the name, but
obviously of considerable depth. The shore was not distant; and as the
day was sultry, with a little grateful labor at swimming and towing,
on the part of a few of us, we soon reached it. There we examined into
each other's condition. Scarce one of us but was able to show damage
by fire, or from too rough contact with the fragments of the "Flying
Cloud," which preceded us in our plunge into the lake. But no bones
were broken, and no one badly flayed. The case of the engineer was the
worst; but even he was able to keep upon his feet, and pronounced in
no danger.

No hut or field or sign of inhabitants was to be seen. With mixed
feelings, in which, for the present at least, the sense of personal
safety triumphed over all regrets, even with Messrs. Bonflon and De
Aery, at the shipwreck of so many brilliant hopes, we scuttled that
part of our craft still afloat, and sunk it in the lake; and with
weary footsteps, but unobstructed with baggage, as near as we could
determine by the aid of a compass, took the direction toward San
Francisco. A couple of hours brought us to the rancho of Senor Jose
Dianza, who received us as a band of pilgrims over the Plains, who, at
the hands of robbers and the elements, had lost everything but life,
and helped us on to the city of the land of gold.

It is needless to detain the reader with the particulars of our
return. They were such only as occur to thousands in the rough and
circuitous transit between San Francisco and New York. We came home by
the Isthmus route, and in ships that ploughed the honest waves. We
explained our absence to our disturbed families and friends as best we
might; and some will remember--and if they do not, they can refresh
their recollection by a reference to the public prints--that several
missing gentlemen of some importance in the world, about that time,
suddenly reappeared upon the stage of action.

We resolved that the whole affair in which we had been engaged should
remain forever buried in oblivion. But time and reflection have
wrought a change with me, though I shall not presume to disturb the
veil which covers my associates. I have come to consider the adventure
quite too good to be lost, and the experiment in aerial navigation,
which came so near proving successful, of too much importance to
science to be suppressed. Hence, conquering my repugnance, I have
decided, on my own responsibility, to give these interesting and
valuable particulars to the world.



THE END





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