The Last Ascent
- Editor C.
The extraordinary rapidity with which a successful
airman may achieve fame was well shown
in the case of my friend, Radcliffe Thorpe.
One week known merely to a few friends as a
clever young engineer, the next his name was
on the lips of the civilised world. His first
success was followed by a series of remarkable
feats, of which his flight above the Atlantic,
his race with the torpedo-boat-destroyers across
the North Sea, and his sensational display
during the military manœuvres on Salisbury
Plain, impressed his name and personality firmly
upon the fickle mind of the public, and explains
the tremendous excitement caused by his inexplicable
disappearance during the great aviation
meeting at Attercliffe, near London, towards
the end of the summer.
Few people, I suppose, have forgotten the
facts. For some time previously he had been
devoting himself more especially to ascending
to as great a height as possible. He held all
the records for height, and it was known that
at Attercliffe he meant to endeavour to eclipse
his own achievements.
It was a lovely day, not a breath of wind
stirring, not a cloud in the sky. We saw him
start. We saw him fly up and up in great
sweeping spirals. We saw him climb higher
and ever higher into the azure space. We watched
him, those of us whose eyes could bear the strain,
as he dwindled to a dot and a speck, till at last
he passed beyond sight.
It was a stirring thing to see a man thus storm,
as it were, the walls of Heaven and probe the
very mysteries of space. I remember I felt
quite annoyed with someone who was taking
a cinematograph record. It seemed such a
sordid, business-like thing to be doing at such
Presently the aeroplane came into sight again
and was greeted with a sudden roar of cheering.
"He is doing a glide down," someone cried
excitedly, and though someone else declared
that a glide from such a height was unthinkable
and impossible, yet it was soon plain that the
first speaker was right.
Down through unimaginable thousands of
feet, straight and swift swept the machine,
making such a sweep as the eagle in its pride
would never have dared. People held their
breath to watch, expecting every moment some
catastrophe. But the machine kept on an even
keel, and in a few moments I joined with the
others in a wild rush to the field at a little distance
where the machine, like a mighty bird,
had alighted easily and safely.
But when we reached it we doubted our
own eyes, our own sanity. There was no sign
anywhere of Radcliffe Thorpe!
No one knew what to say; we looked blankly
at our neighbours, and one man got down on
his hands and knees and peered under the body
of the machine as if he suspected Radcliffe of
hiding there. Then the chairman of the meeting,
Lord Fallowfield, made a curious discovery.
"Look," he said in a high, shaken voice,
"the steering wheel is jammed!"
It was true. The steering wheel had been
carefully fastened in one position, and the lever
controlling the planes had also been fixed so
as to hold them at the right angle for a downward
glide. That was strange enough, but in
face of the mystery of Radcliffe's disappearance
little attention was paid it.
Where, then, was its pilot? That was the
question that was filling everybody's mind.
He had vanished as utterly as vanishes the
mist one sees rising in the sunshine.
It was supposed he must have fallen from his
seat, but as to how that had happened, how it
was that no fragment of his body or his clothing
was ever found, above all, how it was that his
aeroplane had returned, the engine cut off, the
planes secured in correct position, no even
moderately plausible explanation was ever put
The loss to aeronautics was felt to be severe.
From childhood Radcliffe had shown that, in
addition to this, he had a marked aptitude
for drawing, usually held at the service of his
profession, but now and again exercised in
producing sketches of his friends.
Among those who knew him privately he
was fairly popular, though not, perhaps, so
much so as he deserved; certainly he had a way
of talking "shop" which was a trifle tiring to those
who did not figure the world as one vast engineering
problem, while with women he was apt
to be brusque and short-mannered.
My surprise, then, can be imagined when,
calling one afternoon on him and having to
wait a little, I had noticed lying on his desk
a crayon sketch of a woman's face. It was
a very lovely face, the features almost perfect,
and yet there was about it something unearthly
and spectral that was curiously disturbing.
"Smitten at last?" I asked jestingly, and yet
aware of a certain odd discomfort.
When, he saw what I was looking at he went
"Who is it?" I asked.
"Oh, just—someone!" he answered.
He took the sketch from me, looked at it,
frowned and locked it away. As he seemed
unwilling to pursue the subject, I went on to
talk of the business I had come about, and I
congratulated him on his flight of the day before
in which he had broken the record for height.
As I was going he said:
"By the way, that sketch—what did you
think of it?"
"Why, that you had better be careful," I
answered, laughing; "or you'll be falling from
your high estate of bachelordom."
He gave so violent a start, his face expressed
so much of apprehension and dismay, that I
stared at him blankly. Recovering himself with
an effort, he stammered out:
"It's not—I mean—it's an imaginary portrait."
"Then," I said, amazed in my turn, "you've
a jolly sight more imagination than anyone
ever credited you with."
The incident remained in my mind. As a
matter of fact, practical Radcliffe Thorpe, absorbed
in questions of strain and ease, his head
full of cylinders and wheels and ratchets and
the Lord knows what else, would have seemed
to me the last man on earth to create that haunting,
strange, unearthly face, human in form, but
not in expression.
It was about this time that Radcliffe began
to give so much attention to the making of
very high flights. His favourite time was in
the early morning, as soon as it was light.
Then in the chill dawn he would rise and soar
and wing his flight high and ever higher, up
and up, till the eye could no longer follow his
I remember he made one of these strange,
solitary flights when I was spending the week-end
with him at his cottage near the Attercliffe
I had come down from town somewhat late the
night before, and I remember that just before
we went to bed we went out for a few minutes to
enjoy the beauty of a perfect night. The moon
was shining in a clear sky, not a sound or a breath
disturbed the sublime quietude; in the south one
wondrous star gleamed low on the horizon.
Neither of us spoke; it was enough to drink in the
beauty of such rare perfection, and I noticed how
Radcliffe kept his eyes fixed upwards on the dark
blue vault of space.
"Are you longing to be up there?" I asked
He started and flushed, and he then went very
pale, and to my surprise I saw that he was
"You are getting cold," I said. "We had
better go in."
He nodded without answering, and, as we
turned to go in, I heard quite plainly and distinctly
a low, strange laugh, a laugh full of a honeyed
sweetness that yet thrilled me with great fear.
"What's that?" I said, stopping short.
"What?" Radcliffe asked.
"Someone laughed," I said, and I stared all
round and then upwards. "I thought it came
from up there," I said in a bewildered way,
He gave me an odd look and, without answering,
went into the cottage. He had said nothing of
having planned any flight for the next morning;
but in the early morning, the chill and grey dawn,
I was roused by the drumming of his engine. At
once I jumped up out of bed and ran to the
The machine was raising itself lightly and
easily from the ground. I watched him wing his
god-like way up through the still, soft air till he
was lost to view. Then, after a time, I saw him
emerge again from those immensities of space.
He came down in one long majestic sweep, and
alighted in a field a little way away from the house,
leaving the aeroplane for his mechanics to fetch
"Hullo!" I greeted him. "Why didn't you
tell me you were going up?"
As I spoke I heard plainly and distinctly, as
plainly as ever I heard anything in my life, that
low, strange laugh, that I had heard before, so
silvery sweet and yet somehow so horrible.
"What's that?" I said, stopping short and
staring blankly upwards, for, absurd though it
seems, that weird sound seemed to come floating
down from an infinite height above us.
"Not high enough," he muttered like a man in
an ecstasy. "Not high enough yet."
He walked away from me then without another
word. When I entered the cottage he was seated
at the table sketching a woman's face—the same
face I had seen in that other sketch of his, spectral,
unreal, and lovely.
"What on earth——?" I began.
"Nothing on earth," he answered in a strange
voice. Then he laughed and jumped up, and
tore his sketch across.
He seemed quite his old self again, chatty and
pleasant, and with his old passion for talking
"shop." He launched into a long explanation of
some scheme he had in mind for securing automatic
I never told anyone about that strange, mocking
laugh, in fact, I had almost forgotten the incident
altogether when something brought every detail
back to my memory. I had a letter from a person
who signed himself "George Barnes."
Barnes, it seemed, was the operator who had
taken the pictures of that last ascent, and as he
understood I had been Mr. Thorpe's greatest
friend, he wanted to see me. Certain expressions
in the letter aroused my curiosity. I replied.
He asked for an appointment at a time that was
not very convenient, and finally I arranged to call
at his house one evening.
It was one of those smart little six-room villas
of which so many have been put up in the London
suburbs of late. Barnes was buying it on the
instalment system, and I quite won his heart by
complimenting him on it. But for that, I doubt
if anything would have come of my visit, for he
was plainly nervous and ill at ease and very
repentant of ever having said anything. But
after my compliment to the house we got on
"It's on my mind," he said; "I shan't be easy
till someone else knows."
We were in the front room where a good fire
was burning—in my honour, I guessed, for the
apartment had not the air of being much used.
On the table were some photographs. Barnes
showed them me. They were enlargements from
those he had taken of poor Radcliffe's last ascent.
"They've been shown all over the world," he
said. "Millions of people have seen them."
"Well?" I said.
"But there's one no one has seen—no one
He produced another print and gave it to
me. I glanced at it. It seemed much like the
others, having been apparently one of the last
of the series, taken when the aeroplane was at
a great height. The only thing in which it
differed from the others was that it seemed a
"A poor one," I said; "it's misty."
"Look at the mist," he said.
I did so. Slowly, very slowly, I began to
see that that misty appearance had a shape, a
form. Even as I looked I saw the features of
a human countenance—and yet not human
either, so spectral was it, so unreal and strange.
I felt the blood run cold in my veins and the
hair bristle on the scalp of my head, for I
recognised beyond all doubt that this face on
the photograph was the same as that Radcliffe
had sketched. The resemblance was absolute,
no one who had seen the one could mistake the
"You see it?" Barnes muttered, and his
face was almost as pale as mine.
"There's a woman," I stammered, "a woman
floating in the air by his side. Her arms are
held out to him."
"Yes," Barnes said. "Who was she?"
The print slipped from my hands and fluttered
to the ground. Barnes picked it up and put
it in the fire. Was it fancy or, as it flared up,
and burnt and was consumed, did I really
hear a faint laugh floating downwards from the
"I destroyed the negative," Barnes said,
"and I told my boss something had gone wrong
with it. No one has seen that photograph but
you and me, and now no one ever will."