The longing to soar, to let the cool wind blow through the soul and cleanse it of earthly things is not a prerogative of the young. There is more than a little knowledge of the psychology of the ageing, in this story.
AT THE vague thrumming of an aeroplane aloft, Aunt Ellen raised her eyes from the newspaper and peered toward the window. She was an old lady, dressed in black sateen, with a face wrinkled by much laughter and much pain, each fighting an endless battle with the other. For some moments she listened, motionless and patient, her bright eyes held unwaveringly on the narrow opening above the sill, her grey head bent with birdlike curiosity. She wanted to be very certain of the sound; for it was much too strenuous an undertaking to make her way across the kitchen only to hear some variant of the long accustomed sounds that formed a great part of her contact with the outside world; the muffled rumble of the traffic a block or more away, the whining of the wind through sagging clothes strung from the rear of the houses, the wail of the distant siren at the Eastern Gap on foggy nights, and the whir of passing motors.
But the far-off whirring continued, and cautiously, lest the crackle of its sheets disturb her absorption in the plane, she laid the newspaper on the piled-up dishes, and painfully raised herself to her feet. With a movement that was half lurch, half limp, she made her way around the table to the gas stove, where she rested before attempting the crossing to the window. It was not a difficult window to open, but when one’s back has been crippled with rheumatism for many years, and one’s hands are little better than clumsy hooks, the most trivial accomplishment may demand stupendous effort. First she must bend over, not an easy thing for her to do, and then work into the narrow opening between the sash and sill the useless hands that once had been so deft and skilful. The throbbing overhead was growing more distinct, and she tugged at^the stubborn sash
until it gave an inch or two, fought with it uncomplainingly when it stuck, and was at last rewarded by having it slide up easily.
From above came the pulsating drone of an aeroplane engine, now with the joyous frenzy of a saw ripping through green pine, now with the lazy hum of bees above a barley field in August, now with the tumultuous roar of a river plunging madly down a canyon. The sound swelled and died away with the shifting fancy of the summer breeze, at one moment as distant from the city tenement as were bees and rapids, the next so close that some gigantic insect might have been above the gravelled roofs.
Ellen rested her hands on the stone sill and leaned far out the window; farther than was wise, perhaps, for the children playing in the yard below shouted noisy affectionate warnings: “Look out,” they called. “Be
careful, Aunt Elbe. You’ll fall out.” She was oblivious of them, of the houses about the area, of the mean yards divided by slatternly board fences. She saw nothing but the narrow strip of sky bounded by the lines of parapets and pent-houses; heard nothing but the throbbing from the blue above. As yet she could not see the plane, but the sound of it was growing steadier and more insistent. When she could feel certain that it must pass within the narrow limits of her vision, she strained forward to watch the corner of the roofs above which it would appear, her thin lips parted, her breath coming in little gasps.
At last she saw it, a translucent cross of amber-gold, luminous in the ' sundrenched air, floating over the city wdth serene, god-like aloofness. In the ecstasy the sight brought her, Aunt Ellen forgot her rheumatism, her gnarled hands were crossed upon her breasts, her body yearned upward in exulting, joyous wonder. To her, the aeroplane seemed to have no possible relation with earth. It was so superior, so far removed from the miserable limitations she knew lifeUo hold. She could make out dimly, in the foremost part of the machine, a black dot she knew must be the pilot’s head. Dear God, how she envied him. She thought that no sensation of the living could surpass the splendor of being in that remote plane. The dead, perhaps, on their long journey to the outer space, might know a greater bliss, but not the living.
To be above things, far up in the clean air; away from the cramped kitchen littered with a life-time’s saving of things that might some day be useful; away from the smell of cooking that always hung like a fog in the yard; away from the litter of boxes, of newspapers and of dishes that always needed tidying and which no
effort of hers could ever tidy; away from the gas stove with its stiff handles; away from the unending drip of the kitchen taps; away even from herself and her own infirmities.
The plane could not have been more than two minutes at the most within her sight, but in that short time a flood of forgotten images swept back to her: broad lands seen from heights, azure lakes cupped in the hills of the stern back-country where she had spent her girlhood, the gleaming breadth of the St. Lawrence. But these flashed by swiftly, like the flight of swallows, and in their stead came the persistent picture of the city as she had once 3een it. She was in the plane above it, as she had been that day when she and John, her husband, had climbed above the clock in the new city hall tower. She saw again the green carpet of the distant hills, a snail-like train crawling along the lake shore, the checkerboard of streets and houses, poles like matches strung with dirty cobwebs, the rivers to the east and west curving in leisured beauty to the harbor, beyond the harbor the green collar of the island, and outside the Lastern Gap one of the lake steamers afloat, in neither lake nor sky it seemed, but in an opalescent union of the two.
Long after the plane had passed and the drone of its engine had faded to a soothing murmur, Ellen was standing by the open window, gazing upward in an attitude of longing, her wrinkled face benignly happy.
I F WAS a long journey back to the untidy kitchen, *■ but the white heat of the emotion that had lifted her away cooled in time; the strident voices of the children brought her back to earth; and she reluctantly closed the window'. When she regained her stool and sank to it. almost exhausted, she realizing with chiding disapproval how greatly she had been moved and how vast had been her longing. It was the first time in many years that she had been so foolish as to desire something she could never have, and she called herself a silly old woman to indulge in such fantastic dreams. During the war there might have been some excuse for her; for then everyone was mad, but now, six months later. . . . Why, it was insane. She would be better employed straightening up the table before John returned for lunch, or heating the water for poor Miss Grant who would be coming with her sore foot at any moment, moaning and groaning as if all the ailments in the w'orld were hers alone.
And so Ellen, as a sort of penance, started ferociously to work, hoping that she might thus destroy the disturbing ache the aeroplane had brought her, and so win back her old tranquility. She elaw'ed the unoffending newspaper toward her, folded it with many an admonitory pat, piled what dishes she could reach, and cleared a space before her on the table. She then struggled to her feet and hobbled to the gas stove, fought the obstinate tap, set the kettle on the flame. . . .
As long as she was occupied she was able to forget her mad desire, but the moment she sat down to wait for the kettle to boil, she found her mind reverting to the picture of the city. Although she knew little of it since the days of its great grovrth, she had for the city the curious pride of old people for a community which was young when they too w’ere young. They had known youth together and her wish to see it, as she had that day they climbed the tower, was the wish to see again an old friend’s face. Yet it is possible the image of the city stayed with her because it was the only means she had of visualizing, with any sense of actuality, the experience of riding in an aeroplane. She had been blissfully happy that day with her husband, and unconsciously she associated the memory of her happiness with the height they had attained. To imagine doubling and trebling that height, without the long climb that now she knew must have been a little wearisome even then, was to imagine a joy so transcendental that she wondered if her frail body could contain it.
Aeroplanes had always fascinated the little woman, chained by her infirmities to the narrow limits of her kitchen and her bedroom. She had first seen one fifteen years or more before when a charitably inclined friend had lent her motor to take John and Ellen out to see one of those courageous, halting, early flights. Then she had thought how splendid it must be to go up, and up, and up, without an effort, without the trial of dragging aching, inadequate limbs a few short inches to gain every step. That night 3he had wanted desperately to fly, but after a struggle had thrust the wanting from her. She might as well wish for the moon, she thought, and cry herself into an early grave because she could not have it, as to wish to be taken up in an aeroplane.
With the war had come the establishment of Air Force camps outside the city and planes had been a familiar sight; stories of accident and death familiar gossip. She had heard of crumpled wings, of struts that broke, of engines that went dead and faulty landings, of lads not yet out of their teens plunging through ten thousand feet of space to crash, a mass of horrible battered pulp. But these tales had never daunted her or lessened the allurement of a plane, and if she tried
not to acknowledge, even to herself, her wild longing to go up in one just once before she died, it was not through humility or lack of courage, but because she had tried to be so eminently sensible all her life.
XTOW, as she watched the kettle and awaited Miss Annie Grant’s arrival, she knew that she could suppress her desires no longer. The coming of the plane that morning had taken her unawares, found her with defences down, and she knew instinctively that she would never be able to build them up again.
But surely there could be no harm for once in wondering what it would be like to rise superior to her afflictions. No more harm than for one of the children in the yard to pretend that he was Jack the Giant Killer. She smiled at her comparison; for she supposed, at first, her wish to be every bit as impossible as ridiculous. But when she continued to think about it, she wondered why it should be either ridiculous or impossible. What if she was an old woman? Suppose she couldn’t walk more than a few yards without torturing her rusty frame? What had these to do with riding in an aeroplane? It would cost money, she supposed, and she was very poor; but strange things often happened, and if she were to find out who owned those aeroplanes, and write to them—who knows but what they might take her up? The thought of writing caused her not the slightest trepidation. She was always writing letters to someone in her queer generous scrawl. She wrote to the papers about the chlorine in the city water, to the health department about the garbage in the backyard, to the Prince of Wales to urge him to marry whom he pleased and to be careful about horses. There would be no trouble about writing, and as for her being too old. . . . She rocked faster and chuckled at the absurdity of such a thought. Why, over in the corner by the cellar stairs, in one of the piles of old newspapers, there was a picture of a woman of eighty-one—Ellen was sixty-nine— standing beside the aeroplane in which she had ridden from London to Paris.
Her cheeks, like weathered russet apples, glowed with excitement, and her blue eyes sparkled, as she gazed toward the untidy heap of papers. It would be a long and bothersome task to search through them, but the temptation to see again the intrepid Englishwoman could not be resisted, and she was on her feet, making for the corner. Laboriously, but with unflagging zeal, she ferreted among the piles of newspapers until she had unearthed the picture of the adventurous old woman, who seemed, on re-examination, to be centuries older than herself. She hobbled back with it to her stool and studied it joyfully, finally convinced that her mad longing might become a reality. Now that she allowed her desire to emerge where, as she expressed it, she could get a good look at it, she found an immense delight in its bizarre nature. The thought of herself, who had seldom been on the street these latter years, riding in an aeroplane was piquant. It would be such a good joke on her creaking, rusty body to be lifted far above everything where the essential part of old Ellen Strachan, the gay, laughter-loving mind that had smiled on life in spite of bodily afflictions, would have its chance at last.
She was anxious, now, to talk over her adventure, to plan its details in company with someone else, and to increase her pleasures many fold by sharing them. Before she could do this she must await Miss Grant’s arrival and, when she came, listen to Annie’s morning lamentations, while she puttered with her aged crony’s ulcered foot, unwrapping the bandages, awkwardly but with much tender care, and murmuring many white lies about the progress of the sore.
Annie Grant was an ancient, white-faced mountain of a woman with whom caution was a disease and when Ellen, after a decent interval, broached the topic that had set her soul on fire, Miss Grant listened with sour disapproval. Throughout Ellen’s happy, ill-considered ramblings, her listener was as silent as the tomb, until it dawned at last on Ellen that her caller did not see eye-to-eye with her about aeroplanes and flying in the sweet, clean air. A puzzled shadow clouded the little woman’s eager face as -she saw the other growing more contemptuous.
“See, it has been done,” she cried, reaching for the picture of the intrepid octogenarian, and smoothing it out on Miss Grant’s lap. “Look there! That poor old creature’s eighty-one, and she flew from London to Paris. I only want to go up around the city.”
But Miss Grant would have none of the paper. She thrust it from her as though it had been contaminated, and glowered at the hopeful little person sitting opposite her. What she said was unimportant, except that it was cruel with the monstrous cruelty old age feels licensed to inflict. She did her conscientious best to blast the dream she couldn’t grasp, and Ellen said no more to her, but she did expect that John would sympathize with her longing. When her husband, now the shell of a splendid man, came home from his wood-working shop, and she told him of her great ambition, he only laughed at her. He would not take her seriously any
more than if she had wanted to rent the Parliament Buildings over in Queen’s Park to live in. And so it was with everyone to whom she talked: the other roomers, the postman, the milkman, the scavenger, and the man who read the gas-meter. All of them were polite enough—they didn’t laugh at her—but she could tell that all of them thought her a little crazy; she was not crazy, she knew that. Some offered her good advice, particularly the gas-meter man who had given her credit for more sense than most of them. He stayed with her in the kitchen talking for almost an hour, recounting the manner in which a friend of his, an aviator, had met his death. Ellen tried to tell him that she was not afraid of death, but he would not listen to her. He thought everyone must be afraid of death.
'T'HERE was one person, she knew, who would understand her because he had been so often misunderstood himself. It was her only nephew, a man of twenty-eight, a restless experimenter who would never settle down, was never satisfied. When she had last seen him, he had been a reporter on an evening paper, a position he returned to with disheartening regularity, whenever some new scheme went wrong.
For days she hoped that he might drop in by chance, and she could tell him then. When he did not come, and indeed there was no reason why he would, she was many times on the point of making the long arduous journey across the crowded street to the corner drugstore where there was a telephone. Once she put on her shawl and bonnet and made ready to go out, but at the last moment a great timidity swept over her. To excuse herself she said that he might be out of town or busy. But in her heart she was afraid that he would disappoint her, as had all the others.
Twice again she saw planes cross her meagre patch of sky; one so high that it was hard for her to make it out; the second low enough for her to see something of its structure, its airy strength, and what she called the cheerful flirt of its tail. That day the pains were worse than they had ever been before, and for some reason the kitchen was more hateful. It was hot, too, and every family in the yard seemed to be cooking fish or stew.
“We haven’t seen Robert in a long time,” she said that night to John. “I wonder where he is.”
“I suppose a person could find out,” he answered. “What made you think of him?”
“Nothing. . . . nothing much. I just got to thinking of him. Wondering why we hadn’t seen him.”
“I could ’phone the paper. Find out if he’s there.”
“Perhaps he’d like to come to dinner Sunday. If we had a chicken done his way. ...”
“It’d bring him if anything would. But I’ll ’phone first before I get it.”
On Saturday, when he came home at night, John brought a chicken.
“Is Robbie coming?” Ellen asked with wistful eagerness.
“The white-headed boy is coming.”
All Sunday morning she worked in a state of happy excitement; now singing in her thin cracked voice some nursery rhymes she had sung many times to Robert; now peeling her potatoes with gay flicks of her knife; now suddenly remembering a clipping from the paper she had hidden underneath the cloth to show to him, and abandoning all else until it had been found.
He came, just when John was serving dinner, happy to be with them again, humbly ashamed of his long absence. Robert McTavish was a big, loosely-jointed man with a shock of tawny hair aslant his forehead, and an ease of movement that seemed almost languorous. There was about him an immense latent capability, and one felt that once aroused he could make absurdities seem sensible and the impossible become inevitable. Toward the old people, and particularly his aunt Ellen, he showed a beautiful affection. He praised the chicken lavishly and ate it with a gusto that gave them untold pleasure. Throughout the meal he fascinated them with stories that had never found their way to print and made them marvel happily at his newspaperman’s omniscience.
It was not until John had left to have his after-dinner nap that Ellen made any effort to tell her nephew, and when she did, it was with difficulty, because his great sureness and his apparent satisfaction with life frightened her a little. She had grown diffident by now and could only tell him in pathetically evasive little speeches that would not disclose their true meaning too soon so that if he laughed at her or tried to humor her, she could stop and not be hurt again. But when she told him of the longing that had become an obsession to her, his air of amused disillusionment slipped from him as if it had been a cloak; he leaned his elbows on the table and ran his fingers through his shock of hair in rapt amazement.
"-just to get above things for once, Robbie. To move without dragging these old legs of mine around-"
Continued on page 50
Continued from page 28
ÍE was the first time he could remember her wanting anything, and at first it seemed to him magnificently incongruous that she should wish to tly, but as he listened, watching her with his trained insight, he realized that it was very natural lor an old crippled woman to want to fly providing she had the courage and the imagination.
“—not so very far, Robbie. If I could just go up around the city—" Vaguely, with no effort at the moment to arrange Ids impressions, he felt in her desire the splendid struggle of the dissatisfied. With increasing excitement he told himself that this was the same sublime urge that had lifted life out of the primordial mud, given it wings where there were only fins, made feathers out of bone, created speech, brought institutions into being to let them rot behind it. The fourth appetite, in brief, which is concerned neither with food, nor sex, nor power, but with the insatiable need to transcend them all and with them the limitations of the material. The need to go beyond.
“—for a while, I had it in my mind to write to them, but then everyone I spoke to thought me a little crazy, Robbie, and I suppose that, after all,
1 am. . .
Her voice trailed off weakly, and her nephew suddenly abandoned his ruminative pose to stride around the table and shelter her frail body in his strong embrace.
' You’re nothing of the sort, Aunt Elly,” bis great voice boomed. “They’ve got the souls of worms, these people you’ve been talking to, but I know how you feel. I’ve felt that way myself, Aunt Elly.” He swung a chair beside her and straddled it. “Listen! . .
He knew the pilots, the mechanics, all the men connected with the air-service venture then operating in the city. They had taken him up more than once and would be glad to do anything he asked of them because of the publicity he had given them. He told her there would be no danger; far less for her than to attempt to cross the street alone. He would arrange everything, borrow" the proper clothes to keep her warm, call for her in a motor-car and take her to the aerodrome. As he talked to her and watched the extraordinary' joy his aunt was feeling, he thought that even if they would not take her up her disappointment could not conceivably equal the happiness she then knew.
When he left, she hobbled wdth him to the front door, waved good-bye to him with the queer jerky movement of her arm, and as he strode along the street, her voice came floating after him: "—Just to get above things, Robbie. Not far, you know, only up around the city—”
On Tuesday Robert raced in to tell his aunt that everything had been arranged. He had been to the aerodrome and they would take her up on the morrow providing the weather w'as fine.
THAT night Ellen did not sleep. It did not seem the time for sleep when she could lie staring into the darkness knowing that in a few hours she would be above things, above things at last. The promise of the next day blinded her to all that might lie beyond. The thought that she would have to return to the kitchen and resume her old life never came to her. She only thought of flying, of being above things. She was free now to admit how bitterly she hated them, the accustomed objects that, together with the pains, had molded the routine of her daily life: the gas stove, the sink, the dishes. . . .
With the first faint promise of the dawn she was out of bed anxiously determining whether the day would be a fine one or not. From the kitchen window she watched a bamboo pole that flimsily held wires above the roofs of the hou3es opposite. When the pole was tipped with pinkish light and the wires shone burnished gold, she knew the sun had risen. She turned from the window, and hobbled back to the bedroom, where she dressed, slowly and with nervous care, as a bride might dress on her w'edding morning.
When -John came into the kitchen, she was methodically engaged in her house-
hold duties. The kettle was boiling and the oatmeal porridge simmered on the stove. During breakfast they spoke of items in the morning paper, as they had always done, but hollowly, as if there were no substance to their words. From time to time she examined the wisps of lace that fringed her cuffs. They were soiled and yellowed and they worried her. Once she made the painful journey to the window to examine them in a better light.
“What are you looking at?” asked John.
“ This trimming,” she absently answered. “I wonder if it’ll do.”
“Do? Sure it’ll do. You ain’t going to a wedding.”
But she was not satisfied, and before breakfast was well over, she had taken off her black sateen waist, snipped the bastings holding the lace in place, and was washing it at the sink.
She was fumbling with the clumsy hooks and eyes again when the front door opened and closed with a slam. They heard Robert tramping down the hall, shouting as he came: “Aunt Elly! Come on, hurry up. We’re going.” He burst into the kitchen like a gust of strong wind that blows everything before it. Ellen was allowed no time to take the leaving of the kitchen she had planned. Her nephew found her bonnet for her, clapped it on her head, and arranged it at a roguish angle. He helped her to her feet, rallied John, who was sitting in dazed wonderment in his chair, and thrust him into his coat and hat.
IN THE uncanny manner in which excitement spreads, the neighbors and the other roomers in the house knew that something untoward was happening. Doors were opened in the dusty hallways and heads craned out to satisfy their owners’ curiosity.
When she was placed comfortably in the front seat of the waiting motor and introduced to the young man who was driving, a doctor friend of Robert’s, who had kindly lent his car, she placed her wrinkled hand on his arm and smiled shyly at him.
“I hope you won’t drive too fast,” she told him earnestly. “I’m very nervous of these automobiles. They frighten me.” He thought it a splendid joke and told her so. But it was true, and all the way through the denser portion of the city she saw nothing but what was immediately beyond the bonnet of the car, although the doctor, beside her, and Robert, from the tonneau, deliberately kept up a running flow of comment. But when the street widened and they were able to speed ahead of the street-car that had held them pocketed for blocks, she took a new interest in the streets. She had a glorious feeling of superiority to everything and everyone she saw, and a mighty satisfaction in what she was going to do. No one in that suburban district could have been more worthy of commiseration than herself, and although she knew this fact, there was not a soul on whom she looked with anything but pity.
Three times the doctor tried to find out why she wanted to fly, to satisfy his scientific curiosity as to what strange desire could have seized this lovable old lady, crouched with rheumatism, beside him, to make her undertake so incredible an adventure. Each time she told him simply that she wanted to get above things. He thought it a most inadequate answer.
The motor swung away from the cartracks and curved along the roads of a new real-estate development. Far across the field, Ellen could see three squat black buildings that looked like slumbering beetles in the sunlight. The doctor told her they were the hangars at the aerodrome, and her interest was for them alone. She gazed at them as intently as any castaway ever watched a flock of white on the horizon grow into sails and spars, with a ridiculous anxiety they might disappear before she could reach them.
The road led to the rear of the hangars, and it was not until the motor swung around them that she saw the aeroplane, like a great white angular dragon-fly, resting on the tarmac in front of the tarpapered sheds. She was surprised that
it should appear so solid and so clumsy.
Their arrival created something of a mild sensation, and they were surrounded by men who wanted to meet the little old woman they had heard about. The pilot, a man with an absurdly small head and a great puffed up body, was introduced to her and assured her that there was no danger. Flying, he said, was no more dangerous than sailing in a punt. The overalled mechanics, the doctor, everyone in fact, told her the same thing. She felt annoyed with them for treating it all so casually, trying to make her believe her fine adventure was no more exciting than sailing in a punt. Had she known, she might have seen that they were all far more nervous for her than she was herself.
John stayed with her, dumbly, as if he did not quite know what was happening. Robert and the doctor withdrew a little distance and talked heatedly together, evidently the resumption of an old argument. Ellen wondered if they were talking about her, and wished that she could go over to them. They might be deciding not to take her up after all. Her heart seemed to skip a beat at the thought and she watched them anxiously. The pilot joined them; listened without taking any part in their conversation. The doctor was gesticulating vehemently, Robbie standing as impassive as a rock. Then she saw the doctor shrug his shoulders and spread out his hands resignedly. The pilot turned on his heel and walked to the machine, climbed up the small ladder, and swung into his seat. A mechanic walked to the two slim blades at the nose and two others sprawled across the insect’s tail.
Ellen wondered if they were going up without her, and called out anxiously to her nephew. He called back cheerily: “Just a minute, Aunt Elly, I’m getting you a coat.” In a moment he was back, pulling on big furlined boots, helping her into a great coat, lifting her out of the motor and assisting her across the concrete pavement. He wanted to carry her, but she would not let him. She preferred to walk.
“You’re not frightened, are you, Aunt Elly?” he whispered.
Almost pityingly, she smiled back at him, and touched the varnished surface of the wing with an infinitely tender gesture. No, she was not frightened.
“Do I climb that ladder, Robbie?” she asked.
“We’ll get you up all right when her engine’s running, lady,” one of the mechanics called to her, and she waited while the pilot and the mechanic in front held a queer cryptic dialogue. “Switches off, sir, switches off,” she heard them rattle off, saw the mechanic swing on the blades like a trapeze artist, once, twice, three times. The dialogue broke out again. “Switches on, sir, switches on contact, sir, contact.” Robbie was holding her very tightly, and she knew why when the terrific roar of the engine burst out, first a series of angry, ill-timed explosions, then in a thunderous, rhythmic roar; then, as the pilot throttled down, the steady roar she had heard faintly from her kitchen window.
THE pilot waved to them from his seat between the wings. He was ready. She waited for someone to tell her what to do, and, when no one made a move to help her, began to make her slow journey to the ladder that leaned against the plane, a strange, courageous little figure hobbling like some wounded thing across the blazing white pavement. The ten or twelve men, who were watching, stood there impotently, dimly conscious that they were witnesses of sublime purpose whose significance they could not seize. It was only when she reached the foot of the ladder and turned to them with the gay imperious hook of her arm that their reverential wait was broken and they ran to help her.
Other ladders were procured. Robbie tied the fur-lined hood about her face, while she waited with chin upraised like an impatient child anxious to be out of doors. Now his grand confidence seemed to have dropped from him, his fingers trembled, and he looked inio her eyes, deeply, as though he hoped to find there the answer to some doubt he held. But Ellen would not help him, and was glad when one of the mechanics tapped him on the shoulder and pointed up toward the pilot. He was signalling that he wanted to get away. She liked the pilot;
he was so definitely matter of fact.
While they were helping her into the seat behind the pilot, she laughed at how much it was like climbing into a huge bath tub hung near the ceiling. She wanted to tell the big mechanic about it, and then remembered that no one could hear her, and suffered herself to be lowered gently to the seat. She did not like the necessity of being strapped in—it seemed so like her kitchen—but the burly fellow who was adjusting the belt paid no attention to her protest. He fixed a pair of goggles on her—another thing she didn’t like—patted her affectionately on the shoulder, and was gone.
At the wing tips two mechanics had taken their places; the pilot waved his arms; something was happening underneath the ship; and then they began to move slowly as the men walked, then trotted forward. The one on the right swung his wing around the head of the machine Into the wind; the pilot waved his arms again; the mechanics stood clear; and the engine thundered into a tremendous roar. They began to move. Ellen remembered that she ought to wave to John and Robbie, but when she turned her head she found she could not see them.
Now she felt the rush of wind on her cheeks and was surprised by the sudden bumps the machine received. She could only see the ground far to either side, for her head was on a level with the body. Again came another bump, a series of them at greater intervals, as if the plane were hopping instead of flying. The pilot waved his hand to her; the bumping ceased; the wings stopped their erratic tipping; and she was slowly aware of the whole earth falling away beneath hér. She saw the horizons spreading out around her, the growing mass of the city to the south, the broadening blue band of the lake beyond it. The ship climbed in an easy spiral, and when they banked she saw below her the squat sheds they had left, and on the glittering white square before them, a tiny group of figures gazing upward.
THE plane straightened out and made toward the city, a vast arrangement of ill-assorted cubes flung into the square compartments made by gridironed streets —all of it a dusty pink from the hallation of red brick in the sunlight. To her left and right were the green carpets of the hills and woods as she remembered them, the black ribbon of the railroad tracks beside the curving lake shore, the lake like an endless sheet of opal.
As they climbed, the horizon stole imperceptibly outward as if seeking the ultimate rim of the earth. It spread until the far shore of the lake, forty miles away, was visible, moved onward until the city at its head was seen, stole beyond it to include other towns and villages. Ellen’s happiness was unbounded. “Think, Elly,” she murmured to herself. “Think, you can see Faringham and Kingswell. Look, that’s the other shore, and that soft smudge is Port Welcome.” It was all far more wonderful than she had ever imagined, and for some strange complex reason she felt that she must tell herself, over and over again, how wonderful it was. She was above things at last, and the whole world lay at her poor, useless, crippled feet. She had been right: the living could know no greater splendor; the dead, perhaps, in their long journey to the outer space might know a greater, but not the living. . . .
Now when she looked out, the earth was a soft pattern of blues and browns, always growing hazier. The ever-present thunder of the engine seemed to be growing dimmer, too, and in some inexplicable manner the plane itself and the pilot’s head before her were sharply focussed. The old lady noted these things, but did not trouble to question them, because they were all part of the indescribable ecstasy of her experience, an ecstasy that mounted as the plane swept on, and before long approached the thin barrier that divides great joy from pain, and pain from ultimate release.
Back at the aerodrome Robert, and the doctor were, watching a tiny speck low in the south-west. “He’s giving her a good long ride,” said the doctor. _ “She deserves it,” returned his friend, without taking the field glasses from his eyes. “They’re coming in, I think,” he said a moment later, and called the attention of the old man sitting in the tonneau to
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the fact. They waited silently for its arrival, and tensely, as one always awaits the landing of a plane. They were glad it would be all over shortly, and that no mishap had befallen her. After all, her going up had been a thing to fire the imagination, but something might have happened. It so often did with aeroplanes.
The machine swept above the sheds and circled the aerodrome, lowering as it turned. For some reason the pilot did not attempt to taxi to the hangers, but let his ship bump to a stop some distance from them. The handlers and the doctor were already racing out toward it before it landed. Robert followed slowly, because old John had asked him to wait for him. Above the cluster of figures at the machine, they saw the pilot throw back his hood and turn toward the rear seat. The doctor was clambering up beside him. A decent sort, the doctor, Robert thought, and wished that John could move more quickly. He would like to have heard what she had to say the minute that she landed. But he was glad that the doctor was there; someone besides the hard-boiled gang of mechanics.
They were helping her out of the machine now, lowering her carefully to the ground. Some of the men had taken off their hats; the doctor had clambered down and was lost behind the figures. Robert thought they might have at least welcomed her with a cheer, and then he saw some of the men turn away, and one swiftly brush his hand across his eyes. Robert broke into an anxious run, burning up the intervening distance with his long stride. The men moved aside as he ran toward them. The doctor took a step or two, and then shook his head as if to say that running was of no avail.
He knew then why there had been no cheering.
She was dead.
HE knelt on the ground beside her, unloosened the goggles no one had thought to take off, eased back her flying hood. He slipped his hand under the inert neck and lifted the small head to look into her face. In it he saw infinite repose and the vast contentment of one who had seen at last a vision long believed in. A mighty gladness swept over him that he had been the means of bringing it to her.
His friend, the doctor, touched him on the shoulder. “I was afraid all along this would happen, Bob. She died of heart failure.”
Heart failure? A sudden anger seized him for the petty insufficiency of the doctor’s words. He looked around at the solemn faces, rigidly arranged in the conventional acceptance of death. He looked down at the serene, placid face on the ground.
“Good God!” he cried. “Have you no souls, no imagination? You offer heart failure as the cause for such a death. Can’t you see she has died of sheer happiness?”