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The Last Ascent - Editor C. Arthur Pearson

 

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 a moment.

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 forward.

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 very pale.

"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 ascent.

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 Aviation Grounds.

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 him jestingly.

He started and flushed, and he then went very pale, and to my surprise I saw that he was shivering.

"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, pointing upwards.

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 window.

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 up presently.

"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 balancing.

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 better.

"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 except me."

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 trifle blurred.

"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 other.

"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 upper air?

"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."