October 15, 2011

The Pioneer


The Pioneer
by B. G. Hilton

Aha, you say you want to hear my story? I know the one you mean. Not one of the stories about standing firm in the face of foreign musketry! Not one about bedding some fair maiden and then having to duel her brother! Not even about living on snow and horsemeat in the Eastern winter, where each night was a day long. No! Any old fool here can tell you stories like that. You want the other story. You want to know about how I was first.

Yes, I was a pioneer, which is to say that I did something incompetently. Like the first time one makes love c’est non? Oh, the awkwardness! Oh, the uncertainty! Oh, the – dare I say – the brevity? And yet even though near every time afterwards is better, it is important merely because it is first. The first matters! Tell me about the two hundred and fifty third time you made love? You cannot, can you? You simply cannot.

First. I need not have been, if the wonderful aerostat had possessed a basket suspended beneath it. Then the pilot could have gone alone. But the Brothers had not thought of such a thing, brilliant though they were – the mistakes of the first, as I say. There was a kind of platform around the bottom, so there had to be two aeronauts to balance the load.

At first, there was talk of sending two condemned criminals aloft. Yes, there was danger, but could you imagine that? The greatest feat of our National science piloted by robbers and murderers? Aha! They could have used their chains as ballast! No, the good doctor – the pilot, the man of science and sang froid – convinced the King that he should go, and the King selected a man of position and substance as his passenger. This was me, of course.

How well I recall the day! That said, I don’t quite remember if the sun was out, but I know that the wind was not strong, which was quite some relief. The King and Queen were there – he in blue silk, and she in a wig like a wedding cake – sitting on a platform before the great, brightly coloured globe of hot air. (By this I mean the balloon, of course, not the Duc D’Ansieurs, aha, although he was there too). And there were great nobles, and generals, and people cheering and laughing. These were the last days in which we nobles could stand before a crowd of peasants without pissing our pants, aha, the last for a long time. Who else was there? Oh, the ambassador, of course, that rough-hewn savant from across the seas, who peered approvingly over his spectacles. He and brave, foolish Leilokua were each trying to chat up the Countess de la Trieux, which would lead... ah, but I digress. We old aristros gossip like washerwomen, and you are not here for gossip.

The doctor and I bowed before the King, and took our places on the platform. The doctor was in charge, my task was to feed hay into the burner that produced the heated air that would keep us aloft. He was a brave one! Braver than I, certainly. I am an old soldier, you see, and to an old soldier the enemy you can see is infinitely less worrisome than the enemy that you cannot, aha! But Dr. d'Apeau, ah, the doctor was a man of science, and to such men the unknown is a lover to be wooed, not a foe to be fought. A dangerous lover, granted, but – well – we’ve all been there, have we not? Not all our scars come from sabre cuts, aha, no indeed!

Where were we? On the platform, yes. On the platform under the balloon, with Mother Earth about to drop out from beneath us. Then the King nodded to the Brothers, who waved to the workmen, who released the ropes, and for the first time since Icarus, man was airborne! At first, I felt no fear. We rose slowly. It was as if I was standing on a chair. Then a table, then the top of a ladder, then the roof of a high building. And then the roofs were beneath me, and the fear set in. The good doctor had to remind me to keep shovelling, as I could scarcely keep my mind even on this mundane task as the streets and houses drifted by beneath me.

Yes, I was scared, but true terror waited. As we passed over the cathedral, I looked down upon its towers from above. I remembered standing before that cathedral as a boy, seeing those towers rising, oh, so very high above my head and imagining that God himself was looking down from them. Now I was a hundred feet or more above those towers, and my mere physical terror was overtaken by a supernatural dread. If the balloon had not obscured the view, I believe I would have scanned the sky above for thunder clouds, aha! Oh, I laugh now, but if you had seen me then...

Now it was in this state of terror that we crossed the river. Oh, how the balloon rocked! Any aeronaut today will tell you that when you cross from land to water, this can happen. It is to do with the heat of the air they tell me, aha, and then seem so surprised that I do not know. Why? I say. Do you think the first man to build a house must perforce have known of plaster cornices and flock wallpaper? We were first, and flew on luck and guesswork. In my ignorance, I thought that the platform wobbled so because the doctor, delighted by our ascent, was dancing a jig! Stop dancing! I cried. Shovel harder, he replied, or we'll be in the river. And so I shovelled, not wishing to be – in Seine! Aha! Aha! Oh, forgive me, I could not resist.

The shovelling? I shovelled straw into the burner, to create the heated air that gave the balloon its power of aerial suspension. I had never in my life done anything like it. I do not mean merely that I had never flown, I mean that I had never attended a burner that was not fuelled by wood or charcoal. So I was doing two unprecedented things, while simultaneously trying to enjoy the view, and repressing the urge to soil myself. But then, you knew that this story could not end well, could it?

The streets beneath were thronged with people, and even at our altitude I could hear some of the cheering. Never trust cheers! Oh, practice a thousand lesser follies, but never trust cheers! In later years, I soldiered for a man who so loved the sound of cheering that he let it destroy him, aha, and half of Europe with him. The Romans knew not to trust cheers. Remember, thou art mortal, they would tell their heroes as they accepted the plaudits of the crowd. One has to admire the Romans, a people of equal parts wisdom and madness. They were almost French, really.

At any rate, I could hear the cheering, and young cockerel that I was, I thought all was going well. In fact, we were losing height dangerously. Nowadays, aeronauts use a barometer to measure altitude, but we had none. The doctor and I were judging our height by eyesight alone. What we had both neglected was that we had begun amongst the great buildings in the centre of the metropolis, passed over the lesser houses close to the river, and were now heading over the small houses and cottages of the suburbs. This created a sort of illusion; a barrier to our estimation. We had been so high above the rooftops before, we were almost as high above them still.

Perhaps we should have seen that the people on the ground looked larger than before. Doubtless, we would today. But we were first, you see. Before us, men had seen Paris from above from high towers or hills, or other stationary positions. We had the streets moving, moving beneath us, like a huge map unrolling. The perspective was so alien... but I have made excuses enough already. I shall make no more! The fire was not as hot as it should be and we did not realise how rapidly we were sinking, until the platform s-c-r-a-p-e-d – skkkkkkkkr! – on the high branches of a tall tree. The doctor shouted at me to shovel more, though he need not have. I was shovelling like an English sapper, aha, like an English sapper with a Prussian sergeant! Too late, of course, too late. We slipped lower, lower across the fields. The ground, that had seemed to unfold so sedately before was galloping by like a racehorse.

Unable to rise, the doctor ordered that I extinguish the fire to prevent it spreading when we made our impact – our landfall if you will, aha! No sooner had I done so, then the platform caught on a hedge on top of a low rise. We fumbled for the grapnel, but the platform tilted forward too quickly to make use of it. I can still remember the smell the grass as it came up to meet me, and then all was stars and blackness.

The Pioneer

I was not unconscious for long. I awoke, and paused for a moment. It is unwise to make rapid judgements upon opening one's eyes. Sometimes one awakes in a feather bed with bowing servants bringing coffee, and sometimes in a dismal trench full of dying grenadiers. C'est la vie. But I did not seem to be in any great pain, and I rose to my feet with but little discomfort. I surmised that I had tumbled down a fairly steep slope, but one comprised of very soft ground. I had no worse than some bruises and a chipped tooth to show for my troubles. Up the hill, I could see the great balloon, caught hopelessly in the hedge, ignored by incurious sheep as a thing of no consequence. The doctor – usually a man of the most temperate language – was tangled in the ropes, and cursing me blue and calling me every name under the sun.

The farmer who owned the field riding up, and with his help I cut the doctor free, but his leg was broken and we could not move him, so the farmer sent his boy for a cart. And in amongst the hedge, miraculously preserved, was the wicker basket containing our lunch, which had been completely forgotten when we were aloft. So the three of us dined upon roast capon, champagne and a somewhat inferior Roquefort cheese until the cart arrived.

And that, ami, is my story. As I say, I have other stories, everyday stories, stories I have in common with many others. This story I shared with one only, the good doctor; and since he died in his second balloon crash, I am alone. There were many more balloons. A mere week after ours a new one was launched; this one powered by the hydrogen gas, rather than by heated air. In the years since, balloons have become far better, and aeronauts far better prepared – in tools and in mind – for the rigours of flight. But since they have not yet learned to steer the things, they are deemed to be of limited practical value, and I fear that in this new age practicality is valued far and away above its worth. Perhaps we shall put aside these childish things until we find some way to make them practical – or until learn to temper our pragmatism.

Ah, listen to this old fool. These matters are for the world and for the young. I am but one man, and I am old.

But I was first.

* * *

B. G. Hilton has lived in Australia his whole life, and studies at the English and history at the University of Newcastle. He has worked at every boring and unpleasant job that there is and - quite understandably - would prefer to be a writer. This story is based on an assignment he did for his creative writing class.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

I think good historical fiction is the ideal blend of escapism and realism. It presents world different from our own, and which are yet very grounded in reality.