CHAPTER I—Over the City
Carpentaria!One of the three richly-uniformed officials who were in charge of the captive balloon, destined to be a leading attraction of the City of Pleasure, murmured this name warningly to his companions, as if to advise them that the moment had arrived for them to mind their p’s and q’s. And each man looked cautiously through the tail of his eye at a striking figure which was approaching through crowds of people to the enclosure. The figure was tall and had red hair and a masterful face, and it was clothed in a blue suit that set off the red hair to perfection. Over the wicket of the enclosure a small enamelled sign had been hung:
“CITY OF PLEASURE.“President: Josephus Ilam.
“Managing and Musical Director: Charles Carpentaria.
“Balloon Ascents every half-hour after three o’clock. Height of a thousand feet guaranteed. Seats, half-a-crown, including field-glass.”
The sign was slightly askew, and the approaching figure tapped it into position, and then entered the enclosure.
“Good afternoon,” it said. “Everything ready?”
“’d afternoon, Mr. Carpentaria,” said the head balloonist respectfully. “Yes, sir.”
The three men with considerable ostentation busied themselves among ropes, while a young man in gold-rimmed spectacles gazed with sudden self-consciousness into the far distance, just as if he had that very instant discovered something there that demanded the whole of his attention.
“Going up, sir?” inquired the head balloonist.
“Yes,” replied Carpentaria. “Mr. Ilam and I are going up together. We have time, haven’t we? It’s only half-past two.”
Carpentaria examined the vast balloon, which was trembling and swaying and lugging with that aspiration towards heaven and the infinite so characteristic of well-filled balloons. He ignored the young man in spectacles.
“Where’s the parachutist?” Carpentaria demanded.
A parachutist was to give éclat to the first public ascent of the silken monster by dropping from it into the Thames or somewhere else. His apparatus hung beneath the great circular car.
“He’ll be here before three, sir,” said the head balloonist.
“He’s been here once, sir,” added the second balloonist, anxious to prove to himself that he also had the right to converse with the mighty Carpentaria.
A few seconds later the august President arrived. Mr. Josephus Ilam was tall, like his partner, but much stouter. He had, indeed, almost the inflated appearance which one observes constantly in the drivers of brewers’ drays; even his fingers bulged. His age was fifty, ten years more than that of Carpentaria, and it was probably ten years since he had seen his own feet. Finally, he was clean-shaven, with areas of blue on his chin and cheeks like the sea on a map, and his hair—what remained of it—seemed to be hesitating between black and grey.
“What’s the matter?” he asked of Carpentaria.
“Oh, I thought I would just like to make the first ascent with you alone,” Carpentaria answered, and added, smiling, “I have something to show you up there.”
His hand indicated the firmament, and his peculiar smile indicated that he took Ilam’s consent for granted.
Ilam sighed obesely, and agreed. He did not care to argue before members of the staff. Nevertheless, the futility of ascending to the skies on this, the opening day, when the colossal organism of the show cried aloud for continual supervision on earth, was sufficiently clear to his mind. He climbed gingerly over the edge of the wickerwork car, which had a circumference of thirty feet, with a protected aperture in the middle, and Carpentaria followed him.
“Let go,” said Carpentaria, gleefully. “Let go!” he repeated with impatience, when the balloon was arrested at a height of about ten feet.
“Right sir,” responded briskly the head balloonist. There appeared to have been some altercation between the balloonists.
The day was the first of May, but the London spring had chosen to be capricious and unseasonable. Instead of the snow and frost and east wind which almost invariably accompany what is termed, with ferocious irony, the merry month, there was strong, brilliant sunshine and a perfect calm. The sun glinted and glittered on the upper surfaces of the balloon, but of course the voyagers could not perceive that. They, in fact, perceived nothing except that the entire world was gradually falling away from them. The balloon had ceased to shiver; it stood as firm as consols, while the City of Pleasure sank and sank, and the upturned faces of more than fifty thousand spectators grew tinier and tinier.
It would be interesting and certainly instructive to unfold some of the many mysteries and minor dramas which had diversified the history of the making of the City of Pleasure, from the time when Carpentaria, having conceived the idea of the thing, found the necessary millionaire in the person of Josephus Ilam, to the hurried and tumultuous eve of the opening day; but these are unconnected with the present recital. It needs only to remind the reader of the City’s geography. Towards the lower left-hand corner of any map of London not later than 1905, may be observed a large, nearly empty space in the form of an inverted letter “U.” This space is bounded everywhere, except across the bottom, by the Thames. It is indeed a peninsula made by an extraordinary curve of the Thames, and Barnes Common connects if with the mainland of the parish of Putney. Its dimensions are little short of a mile either way, and yet, although Hammersmith Bridge joins it to Hammersmith at the top, it was almost uninhabited, save for the houses which lined Bridge Road and a scattering of houses in Lonsdale Road and the short streets between Lonsdale Road and the reservoir near the bridge. The contrast was violent; on the north side of the Thames the crowded populousness of Hammersmith, and on the south side—well, possibly four people to the acre.
Ilam and Carpentaria, with Ilam’s money, bought or leased the whole of the middle part of the peninsula—over three hundred acres—with a glorious half-mile frontage to the Thames on the east side. They would have acquired all the earth as far as Barnes Common but for the fact that the monomaniacs of the Ranelagh Club Golf Course could not be induced to part with their links, even when offered a fantastic number of thousand pounds per hole. They obtained the closing of the Bridge Road, which cut the peninsula downwards into two halves, and the omnibus traffic between Hammersmith and Barnes was diverted to Lonsdale Road—not without terrific diplomacy, and pitched battles in the columns of newspapers and in Local Government offices. They pulled down every house in Bridge Road, thus breaking up some seventy presumably happy English homes, and then they started upon the erection of the City of Pleasure, which they intended to be, and which all the world now admits to be, the most gigantic enterprise of amusement that Europe has ever seen.
As the balloon rose the general conformation of the City of Pleasure became visible. Running almost north and south from Hammersmith Bridge was the Central Way, the splendid private thoroughfare which had superseded Bridge Road. It was a hundred feet wide, and its surface was treated with westrumite, and a service of gaily coloured cable-cars flashed along it in either direction, between the north and the south entrances to the City. It was lined with multifarious buildings, all painted cream—the theatre, the variety theatre, the concert hall, the circus, the panorama, the lecture hall, the menagerie, the art gallery, the story-tellers’ hall, the dancing-rooms, restaurants, cafés and bars, and those numerous shops for the sale of useless and expensive souvenirs without which the happiness of no Briton on a holiday is complete. The footpaths, 20 feet wide, were roofed with glass, and between the footpaths and the roadway came two rows of trees which were industriously taking advantage of the weather to put forth their verdure. Footpaths and road were thronged with people, and the street was made gay, not only by the toilettes and sunshades of women, but also by processions of elephants, camels, and other wild-fowl, bearing children of all ages in charge of gorgeous Indians and Ethiops. From every roof floated great crimson flags with the legend in gold: “City of Pleasure. President: Ilam; Director: Carpentaria.” Add to this combined effect the music of bands and the sunshine, and do not forget the virgin creaminess of the elaborate architecture, and you will be able to form a notion of the spectacle offered by the esplanade upon which Ilam and Carpentaria looked down.
Midway between the north and south entrances, the Central Way expanded itself into a circular place, with a twenty-jetted bronze fountain in the middle. To the west was the façade of what was called the Exposition Palace, an enormous quadrangular building, containing a huge covered court which, with its balconies, would hold twenty thousand people on wet days. The galleries of the palace were devoted to an exhibition of everything that related to woman, from high-heeled shoes to thrones; it was astonishing how many things did relate to woman. North of the Exposition Palace stretched out the Amusements Park, where people looped the loop, shot the chute, wheeled the wheel, switched the switchback, etc.; and here was the balloon enclosure. South of the palace lay the Sports Fields, where a cricket match was progressing.
Finally, and most important of all, to the east of the circular place in Central Way rose the impressive entrance to the Oriental Gardens, the pride of Ilam and Carpentaria. The Oriental Gardens occupied the entire eastern side of the City, and they sloped down to the Thames. They formed over a hundred acres of gardens, wood, and pleasaunce, laid out with formal magnificence. Flowers bloomed there in defiance of seasons. On every hand the eye was met by vistas of trees and shrubs, and by lawns and statues, and lakes and fountains. In the middle was Carpentaria’s own special bandstand. A terrace, two thousand five. hundred feet long, bordered the river, and from the terrace jutted out a pier at which steamers were unloading visitors.