"I'm talking about the--the--" he gulped painfully--"the stage."
Alice wrung her hands, crying bitterly: "Wonderful! Splendid! Tristan LeHuber, The World's Unparalleled Upside-Down Man! He Doesn't Know Whether He's On His Head Or His Heels. He's Always Up In The Air About Something, But You Can't Upset Him! Vaudeville To-night--The Bodongo Brothers, Brilliant Burmese Balancers--Arctic Annie, the Prima Donna of Sealdom, and Tristan LeHuber, The Balloon Man--He Uses An Anchor For A Parachute!" At last indeed the LeHuber family will have arrived sensationally in the public eye!
"There are," Alice raved, "two billion people on the earth to-day. Counting three generations per century, there have been about twelve billion of us in the last two hundred years. And out of all those, and all the millions and billions before that, we had to be picked for this loathsome cosmic joke--just little us for all that distinction! Why, oh, why? If our romance had to be spoiled by a tragedy smeared across the billboards of notoriety, why couldn't it have been in some decent, human sort of way? Why this ghastly absurdity?"
"From time immemorial," said Grosnoff, "there have been men who sought to excite the admiration of their fellows, to get themselves worshiped, to dominate, to collect perquisites, by developing some wonderful personal power or another. From Icarus on down, levitation or its equivalent has been a favorite. The ecstatics of medieval times, the Hindu Yogis, even the day-dreaming schoolboy, have had visions of floating in air before the astounding multitudes by a mere act of will. The frequency of 'flying dreams' may indicate such a thing as a possibility in nature. Tradition says many have accomplished it. If so, it was by a reversal of polarity through an act of will. Those who did it--Yogis--believed in successive lives on earth. If they were right about the one, why not the other? Suppose one who had developed that power of will, carried it to another birth, where it lay dormant in the subconscious until set off uncontrolled by some special shock?"
"Then Tristan might have been--"
"He might. Then again, maybe my brain is addled by this thing. In any case, the moral is: don't monkey with Nature! She's particular."
Tristan's vaudeville scheme was not as easily realized as said. The first manager to whom we applied was stubbornly skeptical in spite of Tristan's appearance standing upside down in stilts heavily weighted at the ground ends; and even after his resistance was broken down in a manner which left him gasping and a little woozy, began to reason unfavorably in a hard-headed way. Audiences, he explained, were off levitation acts. Too old. No matter what you did, they'd lay it to concealed wires, and yawn. Even if you called a committee from the audience, the committee itself would merely be sore at not being able to solve the trick; the audience would consider the committee a fake or merely dumb. And all that would take too much time for an act of that kind.
"Oh, yeh, I know! It's got me goin', all right. But I can't think like me about this sorta thing. I got to think like the audience does--or go outa business!"
After which solid but unprofitable lesson in psychology, we dropped the last vestige of pride and tried a circus sideshow. But the results were similar.
"Nah, the rubes don't wear celluloid collars any more. Ya can't slip any wire tricks over on 'em!"
"But he can do this in a big topless tent, or even out in an open field, if you like."
"Nope--steel rods run up the middle of a rope has been done before."
"Steel rods in a rope which the people see uncoil from the ground in front of their eyes?"
"Well, they'd think of somethin' else, then. I'm tellin' ya, it won't go! Sure, people like to be fooled, but they want it to be done right!"
"Yes!" I sneered. "And a hell of a lot of people have fooled themselves right about this matter, too!"
He looked at me curiously.
"Say, have ya really got somethin' up y'r sleeve?"
"You'd be surprised!"
Thus he grudgingly gave us a chance for a tryout; and he was surprised indeed. But on thinking it over, he decided like the vaudeville man.
"Listen!" said Tristan suddenly, in a voice of desperation. "I'll do a parachute jump into the sky, and land on an airplane!"
"Tristan!" shrieked Alice, in horror.
The circus man nearly lost his cigar, then bit it in two.
"Sa-ay--what the--I'll call that right now! I'll get ya the plane and chute if y'll put up a deposit to cover the cost. If ya do it, we'll have the best money in the tents; if ya don't, I keep the money!"
"If I don't," said Tristan distinctly, "I'll have not the slightest need for the money."
But the airplane idea was out; we could think of no way for him to make the landing on such a swiftly-moving vehicle.
Again Alice solved it.
"If you absolutely must break my heart and put me in a sanitarium," she sobbed, "get a blimp!"
Of course! And that is what we did--on the first attempt coming unpleasantly close to doing just that to Alice.
The blimp captain was obviously skeptical, and betrayed signs of a peeve at having his machine hired for a hoax; but money was money and he agreed to obey our instructions meticulously. His tone was perfunctory, however, despite my desperate attempts to impress him with the seriousness of the matter; and that nonchalance of his came near to having dire consequences.
The captain was supplied with a sort of boat-hook with instructions to steer his course to reach the parachute ropes as it passed him on its upward flight. And he was seriously warned of the fact that, after the chute reached two or three thousand feet, its speed would increase because of the rarefaction of the air; and in case of a miss, it would become constantly harder to overtake. These directions he received with a scornful half smile; obviously he never expected to see the chute open.
We got all set, the blimp circling overhead, Tristan upside down in his seat suspended skyward, a desperately grim look on his face; and Alice almost in collapse. We were all spared the agony of several hundred feet of unbroken fall; the parachute was open on the ground, and rose at a leisurely speed, but too fast at that for the comfort of any of us. I don't think the wondering crowd and the dumbfounded circus people ever saw a stranger sight than that chute drifting upward into the blue. We heard nothing of "hidden wires," then or ever after! The white circle grew pitifully small and forlorn against the fathomless azure; and suddenly we noticed that the blimp seemed to be merely drifting with the wind, making no attempt to get under--or over--Tristan. Our hearts labored painfully. Had the engines broken down? Alice buried her face against my sleeve with a moan.
"I can't look ... tell me!"
I tried to--in a voice which I vainly tried to make steady.
All at once the blimp went into frenzied activity--we learned afterwards that its crew of three, captain included, had been so completely paralyzed by the reality of the event that they had forgotten what they were there for until almost too late. Now we heard the high note of its overdriven engines as it rolled and rocked toward the rising chute. For a moment the white spot showed against its gray side, then tossed and pitched wildly in the wake of the propellers as, driven too hastily and frenziedly, the ship overshot its mark and the captain missed his grab.
I could only squeeze Alice tightly and choke as the aerial objects parted company and the blue gap between them widened. Instantly, avid to retrieve his mistake, the captain swung his craft in a wild careen around and a spiral upward. But he tried to do too many things at a time--make too much altitude and headway both at once. The blimp pitched steeply upward to a standstill, barely moving toward the parachute. Quickly it sloped downward again and gathered speed, nearing the chute, and then making a desperate zoom upward on its momentum. Mistake number three! He had waited too long before using his elevator; and the chute fled hopelessly away just ahead of the uptilted nose of the blimp. I could only moan, and Alice made no sound or movement.
Next we saw the blimp's water ballast streaming earthward in the sun, and it was put into a long, steady spiral in pursuit of the parachute, whose speed--or so it seemed to my agonized gaze--was now noticeably on the increase. The altitude seemed appallingly great; the blimp's ceiling, I knew, was only about twenty thousand; and my brother, even if not frozen to death by that time, would be traveling far faster then than any climbing speed the blimp could make; as his fall increased in speed, the climb of the bag decreased.
At last, with a quiver of renewed hope, I saw the blimp narrowing down its spirals--it was overtaking! Smaller and smaller grew both objects--but so did the gap between them! At last they merged, the tiny white dot and the little gray minnow. In one long agony I waited to see whether the gap would open out again. Lord of Hosts--the blimp was slanting steeply downward; the parachute had vanished!
Then at last I paid some attention to the totally limp form in my arms; and a few minutes later, amid an insane crowd, a pitifully embarrassed and nerve-shaken dirigible navigator was helping me lift my heavily-wrapped, shivering brother from the gondola, while the mechanics turned their attention to the overdriven engines and wracked framing. Did I say "helping me lift?" Such is the force of habit--but verily, a new nomenclature would have to come into being to deal adequately with such a life as my poor brother's!
Tristan seized my hand.
"Jim!" he said through chattering teeth, "I'm cured--cured of the awful fear! That second time he missed, I just gave up entirely; I didn't care any longer. And then somehow I felt such a sense of peace and freedom--there weren't any upside-down things around to torture me, no sense of insecurity. I just was, in a great blue quiet; it wasn't like falling at all; no awful shock to meet, no sickness or pain--just quietly floating along from Here to There, with no particular dividing line between, anywhere. The cold hurt, of course, but somehow it didn't seem to matter, and was getting better when they caught me. But now--I can do things you never even imagined!"
Thus began my brother's real public career--he had arrived. After that he was able to name his own compensation, and shortly during his tours, began to sport a private dirigible of his own, which he often used for jumps between stands. He told me jokingly that it was very fitting transportation for him, as his hundred and sixty pound lift saved quite a bit of expense for helium!
He developed an astonishing set of tricks. After the jump, he would arrive on the field suspended above the dirigible doing trapeze tricks. After that, in the show tent, he would go through some more of them, with a few hair raisers of his own invention, one of which consisted of apparently letting go the rope by accident and shooting skyward with a wild shriek, only to be caught at the end of a fine, especially woven piano wire cable attached to a spring safety belt, the cable being in turn fastened into the end of the rope.
Needless to say, Alice was unable to wax enthusiastic about any of these feats, though she loyally accompanied him in his travels. She would sit in the tent gazing at him with a horrible fascination, and month by month grew thinner and more strained. Tristan felt her stress deeply; but was making money so fast that we all felt that in a short time, if not able to finance the discovery of a cure, at least he could retire and live a safer life. And he found his ideal haven of rest--in a Pennsylvania coal mine! Thus, the project grew in his mind, of buying an abandoned mine and fitting it with comfortable and spacious inverted quarters, environed with fungus gardens, air ferns and the like, plants which could be trained to grow upside down; he emerging only for necessary sun baths.
As time went on, I really grew accustomed to the situation, though seeing less and less of Tristan and Alice; during summers they were on tour, and in winter were quartered in Tristan's coal mine, which had become a reality.
So one summer day when the circus stopped at a small town where I was taking vacation, I was overjoyed at the opportunity to see them. I timed myself to get there as the afternoon performance was over, but arrived a little early, and went on into the untopped tent.
Tristan waved an inverted greeting at me from his poise on his trapeze, and I watched for a few minutes. There was an odd mood about the crowd that day, largely due to a group of loud-mouthed hill-billies from the back country--the sort which is so ignorant as to live in perpetual fear of getting "something slipped over," and so disbelieves everything it is told, looking for something ulterior behind every exterior. Having duly exposed to their own satisfaction the strong man's "wooden dumbbells," the snake charmer's rubber serpents, the fat woman's pillows, and the bearded lady's false whiskers (I don't know what they did about the living skeleton), these fellows were now gaping before Tristan's platform, and growing hostile as their rather inadequate brains failed to cook up any damaging explanation.
"Yah!" yelled a long-necked, flap-eared youth, suddenly. "He's got an iron bar in that rope!" They had come too late to see the parachute drop. Tristan grinned and pulled himself down the rope, which of course fell limp behind him. At this, the crowd jeered and booed the too-hasty youth, who became so resentfully abusive of Tristan that one of the attendants pushed him out of the tent. As he passed me, I caught fragments of wrathy words: "Wisht I had a ... Show'm whether it's a fake...."
Tristan closed his act by dropping full-length to the end of his invisible wire, then pulled himself down, got into his stilts, and was unfastening the belt, when the manager rushed in with a request that he repeat, for the benefit of a special party just arrived on a delayed train.
"Go on and look at the animals, old man." Tristan called to me. "I'll be with you in about half an hour!"
I strolled out idly, meeting on the way the flap-eared youth, who seemed bent on making his way back into the tent, wearing a mingled air of furtiveness, of triumph, and anticipation. Wondering casually just what kind of fool the lad was planning to make of himself next, I wandered on toward the main entrance--only to be stopped by an appalling uproar behind me. There was a raucous, gurgling shriek of mortal terror; the loud composite "O-o-o!" of a shocked or astonished crowd; a set of fervent curses directed at some one; loud confused babbling, and then a woman's voice raised in a seemingly endless succession of hysterical shrieks. Thinking that an animal had gotten loose, or something of that kind, I wheeled. Unmistakably the racket came from Tristan's own tent.
Cold dread clutching at my heart, and with lead on my boot soles, I rushed frantically back. At the entrance I was held by a mad onrush of humanity for some moments. When I reached the platform, Tristan was not in sight. Then I noticed the long-necked boy sitting on the platform with his face in his hands, shrieking: "I didn't mean to! I didn't mean to! Damn it, don't touch me! I thought sure it was a fake!"
I saw a new, glittering jack-knife lying on the platform beside the limp, foot-long stub of Tristan's rope. Slowly, frozenly, I raised my eyes. The blue abyss was traceless of any object....
ONE OUT OF TEN.
By J. Anthony Ferlaine
There may be a town called Mars in Montana. But little Mrs. Freda Dunny didn't come from there!
I watched Don Phillips, the commercial announcer, out of the corner of my eye. The camera in front of me swung around and lined up on my set.
"... And now, on with the show," Phillips was saying. "And here, ready to test your wits, is your quizzing quiz master, Smiling Jim Parsons."
I smiled into the camera and waited while the audience applauded. The camera tally light went on and the stage manager brought his arm down and pointed at me.
"Good afternoon," I said into the camera, "here we go again with another half hour of fun and prizes on television's newest, most exciting, game, 'Parlor Quiz.' In a moment I'll introduce you to our first contestant. But first here is a special message to you mothers ..."
The baby powder commercial appeared on the monitor and I walked over to the next set. They had the first contestant lined up for me. I smiled and took her card from the floor man. She was a middle-aged woman with a faded print dress and old-style shoes. I never saw the contestants until we were on the air. They were screened before the show by the staff. They usually tried to pick contestants who would make good show material--an odd name or occupation--or somebody with twenty kids. Something of that nature.
I looked at the card for the tip off. "Mrs. Freda Dunny," the card said. "Ask her where she comes from."
I smiled at the contestant again and took her by the hand. The tally light went on again and I grinned into the camera.
"Well, now, we're all set to go ... and our first contestant today is this charming little lady right here beside me. Mrs. Freda Dunny." I looked at the card. "How are you, Mrs. Dunny?"
"Fine! Just fine."
"All set to answer a lot of questions and win a lot of prizes?"
"Oh, I'll win all right," said Mrs. Dunny, smiling around at the audience.
The audience tittered a bit at the remark. I looked at the card again.
"Where are you from, Mrs. Dunny?"
"Mars!" said Mrs. Dunny.
"Mars!" I laughed, anticipating the answer. "Mars, Montana? Mars, Peru?"
"No, Mars! Up there," she said, pointing up in the air. "The planet Mars. The fourth planet out from the sun."
My assistant looked unhappy.
I smiled again, wondering what the gag was. I decided to play along.
"Well, well," I said, "all the way from Mars, eh? And how long have you been on Earth, Mrs. Dunny?"
"Oh, about thirty or forty years. I've been here nearly all my life. Came here when I was a wee bit of a girl."
"Well," I said, "you're practically an Earthwoman by now, aren't you?" The audience laughed. "Do you plan on going back someday or have you made up your mind to stay here on Earth for the rest of your days?"
"Oh, I'm just here for the invasion," said Mrs. Dunny. "When that's over I'll probably go back home again."
"Yes, the invasion of Earth. As soon as enough of us are here we'll get started."
"You mean there are others here, too?"
"Oh, yes, there are several million of us here in the United States already--and more are on the way."
"There are only about a hundred and seventy million people in the United States, Mrs. Dunny," I said. "If there are several million Martians among us, one out of every hundred would have to be a Martian."
"One out of every ten!" said Mrs. Dunny. "That's what the boss said just the other day. 'We're getting pretty close to the number we need to take over Earth.'"
"What do you need?" I asked. "One to one? One Martian for every Earthman?"
"Oh, no," said Mrs. Dunny, "one Martian is worth ten Earthmen. The only reason we're waiting is we don't want any trouble."
"You don't look any different from us Earth people, Mrs. Dunny. How does one tell the difference between a Martian and an Earthman when one sees one?"
"Oh, we don't look any different," said Mrs. Dunny. "Some of the kids don't even know they're Martians. Most mothers don't tell their children until they're grown-up. And there are other children who are never told because they just don't develop their full powers."
"Oh, telepathy, thought control--that sort of thing."