A Strange Development
We drove back to Eleanor’s mansion in Georgetown, but she was strangely silent until we had almost reached the bridge across to the town. While I did not mind that she had nothing to say, finally my curiosity got the better of me, and I asked, “Why is it you are so silent?”
She said nothing for a minute, and then spoke slowly. “I am wondering if it is worth all my time, effort and expense to keep you on your present assignment. Perhaps I should cut you loose and see what would happen.”
What would happen, I thought, would be I would become the happiest of men. “Why would you want to do such a thing?”
She sighed. “You have provided no information that I could have obtained more easily from other sources. Maybe this enterprise has been a mistake from the start.”
“So, let me go.”
“It’s not that simple. I need more information, and I think I have found a way for you to gather that information.”
“I will have you placed in the balloon corps.”
“What is a ‘balloon corps’?”
She sniffed. “It is a military enterprise which involves filling a large envelope with a gas that is lighter than air. This envelope is attached by cables to a large wicker basket in which several men may be put. The balloon is released to float perhaps 1000 feet above the ground, providing a kind of artificial place above all else by which a number of observations may be made. The generals are quite enthusiastic about this method.”
“Wouldn’t it be possible to shoot such a contraption down?”
She shook her head. “No, it is situated to far behind the lines of battle and too far away for any rifle or artillery to do harm. I know you are fond of avoiding battles, so this arrangement should suit you well.”
What would suit me well would be to away from you, I thought, but I said, “What do I do?”
“I will transport you to the lines near Fredericksburg where you will become familiar with this method of observation. When you are ready, you will seem to observe Confederate positions while in reality you will be observing the army you are a part of. You will then report anything you think I might of interest to me. And you had better find out more than you have heretofore. Your life will depend on it.”
I digested this bit of information. Apparently I was not going to be free any time soon. That blessed event would have to wait.
“All right, sir, all this is very easy. You step into the basket, and then we will hold the ropes and let the balloon lift you. There you are to observe and note anything that is significant. Is that clear enough?” The sergeant looked at me and watched as I climbed into the basket. I then waited for the rope holding the balloon down to be released.
The sergeant looked at me to see if I were ready. I nodded and he turned to the corporal holding the rope and nodded. I felt myself being lifted into the air and suddenly, I was higher than I had ever been before, even higher than the church steeple I and my friend used to climb up into. I could see so much, and I was delighted to watch birds flying below me.
The sergeant, who looked like a doll from my height, stepped off to one side and shouted up to me. “Are you all right, sir?”
I called back down. “Yes, I’m fine! This is so beautiful! I can see for miles!”
“That’s the idea, sir! You’ll get used to it.”
I can never become used to this, I thought. It was like being in the dream in which I could fly, which, in a sense, I was.
“Now tell me what you see!” The sergeant indicated by his motions that I should look all around me, which I did.
“I see a church over there, and beyond it, a river. Close to us I see some soldiers and a few tents. Further away across the river, I see the city of Fredericksburg.”
“Do you see any Confederates?”
“Let me see…yes, there are some over in the woods to the east of the city. Yes, they’re there!”
“All right, sir. Are you ready to come down?”
“No, but if I don’t come down now, I never will!”
“We’ll bring you back down, then.”
I felt myself slowly descending, and all that I had seen became hidden behind some trees. I was sad to not be able to see so very far.
“What did you think?” the sergeant asked as he helped my climb out of the basket.
“It was the most wonderful thing I have ever done!”
“I’m pleased you like it, but you’ll have a serious purpose when you go up for real. You’ll have to look where you’re told to look.”
“I’m accustomed to obeying orders,” I told him.
“Very good, sir. We’re done here. You’re to report for you first observation at 8 AM. Please be prompt! You’ll ascend with three other observers and a telegrapher. Do you have any questions for me?”
“No. I’m just eager to come back and go up again.”
“That will happen tomorrow morning. Thank you, sir.” He saluted, and I returned the salute. His crew began bringing the balloon down and emptying it of hydrogen. I watched them for a while and then went back to my tent.
Abner looked up as I came in. “How did you like it?”
“Abner, it was a wonderful experience! I could have stayed up all day! You’ll have to go up soon.”
“I’m glad you liked it. Do you think I could join the unit?”
“My sister arranged for me to be a part of it, so I don’t see why you can’t,” I told him, thinking that Eleanor would never want to grant me any favors.
“That’s great!” He was so excited at the prospect, I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.
Abner went off to see if we had any mail, and I lay on my cot. I heard someone at the entrance and called, “Who’s there?”
The person came into the tent, but I couldn’t see who it was since the sun was behind them. “Who is it, and what are you doing in my tent?” I said.
As they came in, I could see who it was. Eleanor stood before me as I sat on my cot. I stood up.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“My, aren’t we full of questions? I don’t have to answer any of your questions.”
“All right. Tell me why you’re here.”
She laughed sardonically. “You think you’re so clever, but I’ll tell you anyhow. I came here to make sure you hadn’t run off again.”
“Couldn’t you have telegraphed the same question?”
“I could have, but I enjoy seeing the look in your eyes when you first regard me. It’s wonderful,” she purred.
This is really a sick and twisted woman, I thought.
“Well, here I am.”
“I can see that. Did you receive your training?”
“Yes. My first real flight is tomorrow.”
“I don’t care what you thought of it. I just want to make sure you go up, so I’ll stay here overnight and see what you do.”
Instantly any thought I had of enjoying my flight vanished, and a heavy darkness settled over me. Eleanor once again had ruined something, but there was nothing I could do about it. “I guess there’s nothing I can do about it,” I said weakly.
“You’re absolutely right. I will be there tomorrow, and you’d best be there as well.”
I hung my head and said nothing. When I looked up, she was gone.
She will continue to ruin my life, I thought, until something happens. And I hope that will be sooner rather than later.