The Man Who Flew

MR. WEEKS could see that the people in the church-supper room were already seated at the tables, so he hurried in and took the only empty place. He said hello to the man at his left, but Mr. Harper was so occupied with dashing at his little Edith with a napkin that a few minutes passed before he turned to say, ‘How do you do, Weeks,’ and went on eating.

Mr. Weeks was becoming so troubled about something that had lately happened to him that it was not two minutes before he was talking about it. ‘It’s a strange thing, you know,’ he said, laying down his fork, ‘nobody would have laughed louder at the idea than I would have three months ago. And I’m ready to laugh at it now, too, if I can get it put to the test and proved nonsense. I’ve thought of seeing a doctor, but I don’t know that flying is quite in a doctor’s line.’

Here he stopped, because his audience had snatched his child’s spoon from her and was scraping mayonnaise off the front of her dress. Mr. Weeks looked at her and thought that she was a child in whom doubtless the flesh outweighed the spirit. The father fed her the contents of the spoon, frowned, and turned back to Mr. Weeks. ‘I interrupted you,’ he said. ‘Go on.’ To that encouragement Weeks said, ‘All right,’ and went to eating his beans in silence. But the spirit was strong upon him. ‘It’s a thing I should think the scientists might look into with profit,’ he said at last, ‘and I’d feel better about it if somebody would look into it.’

He then dropped into a silence, as he often did of late in the middle of a conversation. It was because he could see as clear as day at these times how he had come down the steps from Reeves’ Sons one day in September, two months ago, thinking that thirty-eight marks a time when you can no longer be a promising young man, for it is time you kept your promise. And just then he had sprung off the step he had at that second been standing on, and let himself gently through the air to the street door.

The feeling of depression was gone from him. He had gone clapping with hard heels through the still streets to the house on Spring Street where he rented an upstairs room. He had thought for a minute as he passed the door of the woman downstairs that he would knock and tell her what had just happened to him; but he knew she was a very literal-minded woman who would be sure to give all the arguments she had ever heard for and against the possibility of flying, until he would wish he had never knocked. So, with a little leap, he had made his way through the air to the upper landing.

But, though on that first evening he had for some reason dreaded the woman’s logic, Mr. Weeks was not the man to let his flying remain unexamined. He brought the subject of it to mind only in broad daylight, when he might subject it to clear reason untouched by the feeling that often came with night. He had first whittled the story down to its bare facts, then had told it one day to a man at Reeves’ Sons. But the office had been so busy that day that Mr. Weeks doubted if the man had really taken in the word ‘fly’ at all. And so it had gone on ever since. This thing that had happened to him, that he had thought would either shake the world of science or mark him off as queer, had had no effect at all. It was, he said to himself, as if all the men he told also flew in secret, or as if deafness struck them as soon as he spoke.

The people were getting up from the table. Now Mr. Weeks had never thought of the minister of the church as one who could tell you the color of a man’s soul, or know a hawk from a handsaw, and yet when fat Mr. Cratty came up to him with hand extended Mr. Weeks saw his chance to talk, and took it.

‘I’m quite ready,’ he said, ‘to admit that this flying is only in my own mind. I don’t blame you if you think so. Let it be proved to be a mental stunt of mine and I’ll laugh with you and drop the subject for good. I don’t want to stand out as queer, but that’s exactly what I’m heading for. Yet before I can be called queer it must be proved that this flight can’t satisfy anyone else of its reality. If it’s a fake, let’s prove it. I’m ready to answer questions from a whole college of scientific men and not shift one iota from what I have said all along about the happenings of the last two months.’ Mr. Cratty had just seized another of his people by the hand, and Mr. Weeks was checked.

The minister would never come back to the subject again, nor would Harper the lawyer. Weeks laughed a little when he thought that another new thing had crept in under the sun, and that was selective deafness. He stood there now, not listening to the talk, but looking vacantly at the children screaming and chasing each other at the dark end of the room. Edith Harper was among them, Mr. Weeks had thought idly at supper of her solidity, and he now nodded to Mr. Cratty and the other man, and walked straight to the child. There was more than one way to skin a cat, he thought.

‘Want a piggy-back, Edith?’ he asked. She looked at her feet. ‘No,’ she said.

‘Come, I’ll give you a nice piggy. Here, get up on that bench.’

The girl then climbed up on the bench and clutched Mr. Weeks about the neck, pressing her knees at the same time into his sides. He gave a little spring as usual, walked a few steps, and gave the same kind of little spring again. But his feet did not come off the floor.

‘Where’s your coat?’ he asked the child. He buttoned the coat around her and went with her on his back to the door, where he tried to leap from the sill. But even the outdoor air made no difference. The wind was high and tatters of cloud raced across the moon. He walked down over the brown grass, stopping every now and then to give a little leap. Edith would giggle, and hug tighter. ‘Ten times and out,’ he said to himself, but he must have tried twelve for good measure. He always came down quite heavily. It was not as it had been so many times lately when the air had borne him up and he had swum in it. He let Edith down, and they went in together; her mother was already waiting to take her home.

Mr. Weeks’s teeth had begun to chatter. He put on his coat and started home. While he was on the way, the clouds that had been racing low all the evening broke into rain that swept in sheets across the roads. He pulled up his coat collar and walked faster, because he was chilled, and besides for several days now he had had a sharp pain under the fourth rib when he breathed, and a wetting would do him no good. The wind and rain exhausted him so that he could hardly get up the stairs to his room. There he made himself some tea on his alcohol lamp in the hope it would stop him from shaking. Then he went to bed, where the woman from downstairs found him the next day shouting and throwing his arms about, and in three days he was dead. But he had not been taken unprepared; his epitaph was in his pocket.

The woman sent for his only relative, a second cousin, who came to arrange for the funeral. He found, in looking over the belongings of the deceased, four or five books which were neither interesting nor valuable, a few clean shirts, and, in the pocket of a rumpled coat, a small notebook on the first page of which was Mr. Weeks’s epitaph. The cousin could not read it easily, and called the woman from downstairs to see what she could make of it. She attacked it with the air of a connoisseur of manuscripts, but the g’s and f’s and j’s were all made alike and she was a little daunted at first. She finally figured it out to read like this: —

Born March 10, 1897
Died —
He Flew

This last gave them both some trouble. The woman said she knew Mr. Weeks would never have thought he could spare the price of an airplane trip even of the shortest, and besides he had always worked all day and been home at night, and, now she came to think of it, he had once said that he never had gone up in an airplane and did n’t need to. The cousin said, supposing Mr. Weeks had been in a plane, what was there so very remarkable in that? He was for leaving out the end entirely.

When, after the funeral, the cousin had to leave for home, the business of arranging for a small headstone was turned over to Mr. Cratty the minister. But by the time the slip of notebook paper had come to him the woman downstairs had drawn an arrow that pointed to the end of the epitaph and had made a note which said, ‘Very doubtful,’ and gave reasons.

Mr. Cratty quite rightly said that a gravestone is no place for anything that is at all doubtful, and when he copied out the epitaph for the stonecutter he changed the end to ‘Asleep in Jesus’ — and so it was cut into the stone.