III. Dick

Conversation overheard at the Eight Bells Tavern, Shoreditch, the night of March 20th

Amazing escape from balloon peril

Amazing rescue: mid-air escape

“It were bloody amazing, that’s what it were!”

“Would have been better if she fell. Nothing funnier than a posh tart fallin’.”

“Nothin’ better than a tart’s knickers fallin’, you mean? Ain’t that right Bess?”

“Oi! Get your paws off me hose, you filthy taff-licker! You don’t get a grope ’til you cough up a groat. And you, John Chambers, what kind of a man wants to see someone fall to their death?”

“I saw a steeplejack fall off a chimney once…”

“Nobody cares, Boggs. They wants to hear about this Lady Posh-Bint. Go back to your cup.”

“Me cup’s dry. Now, as I were saying. It were in Macclesfield, famed for its tram-lines. This jack, he were climbing…”

“Oh shut yer chattergob, or I’ll batty-fang you back North of Watford Gap! Landlord, get this grub-scrubber a pint to keep ‘im schtum, will you? Now go on, Dick. What happened with this girl?”

“Right, so I were heading down Cable Street with the slop cart, stinking up the show as usual, when I hear this cry, see? Sort of a high-strung shriek.”

“Like a ‘Eeeeeh!’? Or a ‘Heeeewwwww!’?”

“An ‘Uuuuuuuuuuk!’, if you must know, Bess. No more sound effects, if you will, because you’re interruptin’ my tale. Now, I’m used to cries around the slop cart, ain’t I? Because the roads ain’t paved proper yet, and every so often a bit of the sump spills out and some half-rats chum stumbles past and gets covered in week-old shit. So, at first, I don’t pay any notice of the din. But then I notice people stoppin’ and starin’, and all pointing up in the sky. So I tell the mare to halt, and take a look-see.”

“What did you see?”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell woman, I’m coming to that. So I look up, and at first I don’t see nothin’, cause’ it’s a hot day and London’s coated in the usual smoggy fug, right? Then, through the clouds, I make out this flying contraption. One of those great balloons it was, like what the Prussians used to bomb Paris during their war.”

“A dirigibibul.”

“Dirigible, you illiterate shafter. Go on, Dick.”

“Yeah, so it was a dirigible. Now they come in two a penny down by Limehouse reach, because they follow the Thames toward the Tower Hill jetty so they can anchor. But this one was different, ‘cause it was in trouble an’ no mistake. The thing was swingin’ round in a spiral, the balloon looked like Saggy Nell’s tits, and the under-basket with its passengers was all squwiffy. Flames was comin’ out of it from somewhere, and this thick black smoke was belchin’ out of it. Ropes was hanging wild off the side, and at the end of one of these, hands gripped on to the cable for dear life, was this lady, all petticoats and corsets. Her legs were kickin’ furiously, and as I watched she finally managed to look her ankle around the coil and steady herself, like.”

“Could see her ankles? I didn’t know this were a saucy tale.”

“Never mind her ankles. Could you see up her skirt?”

“Hush, you two! Peril like that ain’t the time for perversions, and she weren’t so much interested in dignity as survival. By now everyone below was watchin’ the drama unfold. The balloon was still spinnin’, stuck as it was always turnin’ left, and it had begun to create this black twist of vapour in the sky that came lower with every pass. We could see it was goin’ to slap down on us, and those what was in the balloon were all going to end up strawberry jam unless the ship righted itself sharpish.”

“Well, go on, Dick! Did you run for it, or did you stay and watch?”

“Who’s tellin’ this story? I was pausin’ for effect, you thick bugger. Now, the gents on the craft, a couple of ‘em looked ready to meet the maker; I swear, one of ’em was God botherin’ his way to the Almighty’s good books, with another two watchin’ on in a kind of stupor. But then there were this squat chap. He were hangin’ off the side, hands thrust out toward the woman on the cable. And she, believe it or not, had begun to climb up ‘im! She moved proper nimble too, like that monkey the Gazette were talkin’ about, the one what stole the nipper? In seconds the lass had hauled herself up the rope, and with the assist of that gent she was back in the basket with the rest of the fools.”

“And?”

“And if you want to hear the rest of it, get me a pint. This story tellin’ lark’s thirsty work… ah, much obliged, sir! Now, were was I? Oh yeah, they’re was all about to die. Well not if this little madam has anythin’ to say about it, they wasn’t. The craft is, by now, shakin’ and rattlin’ and bouncin’ all about, but she grips the hand rail, and drags her way straight at that fire, no hesitation. No idea what she does, but an instant later there’s this sudden ‘whoooosh!’ of spray and steam and the craft rights itself in an instant. The balloon’s still gone and they’re still crashin’, but she don’t seem bothered. She just grips on to the ship’s wheel, and gives it a firm tug. ‘Hold fast, gentlemen!’ cries she, barely fifty feet above us now, and she twists the wheel right round. Then the balloon, and the basket, and every soul on board, vanishes from sight behind the Wilton’s Music Hall.”

“So? What did you do?”

“What d’yer’think? I climbed off the slop cart and ran down Fletcher street to see what’s what. I weren’t the only one, neither. The airship came down right in the middle of Swedenborg Gardens, and by the time I got there a whole crowd had surrounded the wreck. Right ragged it was, with the canvas tarp coverin’ the whole show like a tent.

“Did they make it?”

“At first it were hard to tell, what with the canvas blanketin’ ’em ‘n’ all. Nobody seemed to be movin’ rapid, but eventually some of the more stalwart lads grasped the balloon’s skin and cut their way through. There was silence, me buckos, like a collective intake of breath. Then a soot-stained hand emerged, the woman climbed free, and the whole gathering erupted in cheers and huzzahs. One by one the passengers, scrambled free, a little dazed and with a few cuts and bruises but nothin’ serious. She’d saved the whole bleedin’ lot of ‘em.”

“Blimey.”

“Blimey’s right, squire. And get this: she didn’t seem fazed by the experience, neither. People rush to congratulate her, but she ignores ’em all and gets out this pocket mirror. She flips it open, looks disapprovingly at the soot on her face, and proceeds to powder ‘er bleedin’ nose! Her hair’s a mess, her dress is in tatters, and she’s more concerned with the grime!”

“Sounds like my kind of girl.”

“Aye? Well, finished attending to herself, she sighs and turns to this fat gent who she’d just saved. ‘Captain Da Silva,’ she says, lookin’ down her nose at ‘im, ‘I have been most inconvenienced by the deficiencies of your craft. One cannot overstate the importance of airship maintenance, or indeed knowledge of its operation, and you have been most neglectful.’”

“She never!”

“She bleedin’ did. Then she turns to the little fella what helped her up from the cable. ‘Sykes,’ says she, ‘gather my belongings. Do not recompense Captain Da Silva. I am not satisfied by his conduct or his vessel, and believe it is only fitting he forfeits payment. Colonel, Reverend, I bid you both a good day.’”

“Crikey!”

“Then she’s away, the crowds partin’ for her as she walks off, tellin’ her little mate to collar a Hansom cab.”

“Walks off? Just like that?”

“Yeah. But here’s the kick. The last thing I hear her say as she swans off? ‘Mother will be most put out at the state of my attire. I have got oil stains quite all over my person.’”

“Toffs. They live in another world, don’t they?”

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