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The Twenty-one Balloons

by William Pene Du Bois

Paperback, 179 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $6.99 |


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William Pene Du Bois

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William Pene Du Bois

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Book Summary

William Pène du Bois' classic novel documents the incredible adventures of Professor William Waterman Sherman, who in 1883 sets off in a balloon across the Pacific, survives a volcanic eruption, discovers a fantastical diamond-filled island, and is eventually picked up floating in the Atlantic.

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Excerpt: The Twenty-One Balloons

the Twenty-One Balloons


Copyright © 1975William Pène du Bois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-14-240330-X


Introduction...................................................3I. Professor Sherman's Incredible Loyalty......................9II. A Hero's Welcome Is Prepared...............................19III. A Description of the Globe................................35IV. The Unwelcome Passenger....................................47V. A New Citizen of Krakatoa...................................61VI. The Gourmet Government.....................................77VII. The Moroccan House of Marvels.............................95VIII. Airy-Go-Round............................................113IX. Concerning the Giant Balloon Life Raft.....................135X. What Goes Up Must Come Down.................................155

Chapter One

Professor Sherman's Incredible Loyalty

The Western American Explorers' Club in the city of San Francisco, was honored as it had never been honored before in the first week of October 1883 by being promised to be first to hear the details of an unexplained, extraordinary adventure; the biggest news story of the year, the story the whole world was waiting impatiently to hear-the tale of Professor William Waterman Sherman's singular voyage. Professor Sherman had left San Francisco August 15. He flew off in a giant balloon, telling reporters that he hoped to be the first man to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Three weeks later he was picked up in the Atlantic Ocean, half starved and exhausted, clinging to the debris of twenty deflated balloons. How he found himself in the Atlantic with so many balloons after starting out over the Pacific with one, caught and baffled the imagination of the world. When he was sighted and rescued in the middle of the wreckage of twenty balloons in the Atlantic by the Captain of the freighter S.S. Cunningham, en route to New York City, he was immediately put to bed, for he was sick and weary, suffering from cold and shock. He was treated with great care by the ship's doctor, strengthened with food and brandy by the ship's cook, honored by the personal attention of Captain John Simon of the S.S. Cunningham. When he was well enough to talk, the Doctor, Cook, and Captain leaned over him at his bedside and said in excited voices, "How do you feel?"

"I could be worse," said Professor Sherman, rather feebly.

"Do you feel strong enough to tell us your story?" asked Captain Simon.

"I am strong enough," said Professor Sherman, "and I want first of all to thank you three gentlemen for your kind attention. But, gentlemen," he exclaimed, "as an honorary member of the Western American Explorers" Club in San Francisco, I feel sincerely that I owe the first accounting of my extraordinary adventure to that illustrious fraternity!"

At this, of course, Captain John Simon was somewhat hurt. After all, he had ordered the rescue of Professor Sherman when he found him floating around almost dead in a maze of broken planks and empty balloons, he had saved his life. And the ship's doctor had healed and tenderly nursed the Professor back on the road of recovery. The ship's cook had gone out of his way to prepare special, delicate food for him. They were all three most disappointed. This also made them much more curious. They tried all sorts of ways to get him to tell his story. They tried arguing with, persuading, tricking, and agitating him. They tried to entice him with spirits. They gave him medicine which made him dopey. But he only seemed to become more and more firm as he exclaimed as loudly as his strength would permit, "This tale of mine shall first be heard in the auditorium of the Western American Explorers' Club in San Francisco, of which I am an honorary member!"

"Will you at least tell me your name?" asked Captain Simon. "So that I might make a proper entry and report of the rescue in the ship's log."

"That information I shall not withhold," said the Professor. "My name is William Waterman Sherman."

"And now one more question," said Captain Simon.

"No more questions!" interrupted Professor Sherman.

"You will be well rewarded for rescuing me and my fare will be paid in full. I am saving every other detail of the voyage for the Western ..."

"All right, all right," said Captain Simon. He left the Professor's cabin, went to his own, and made the following entry in the ship's log:

Tuesday, September 8, 1883;°, w.long. 17°; weather clear-At twelve noon, sighted strange wreckage in the distance. Approached it with caution. Found it to be a mass of broken wooden beams to which were attached twenty ascension balloons in various stages of deflation. In the middle of all of this flotsam there appeared to be a large furnace, painted red with gold trim. The furnace toppled over and sank before we were near enough to make out clearly what it could possibly be for. Clinging to a beam which was part of a balustrade we found a man, near exhaustion and suffering from cold and shock. This man's clothes, unlike those of most explorers or balloonists, seemed suited for fashionable evening wear. We picked up the man, questioned him at length when he was able to talk, but the only information we could get out of him was that his name was William Waterman Sherman. Orders have been given to treat Professor Sherman with the normal care and attention given a regular passenger of this ship. He shall be treated and billed accordingly.

When the S.S. Cunningham arrived in New York, Professor Sherman was still in no condition to get around by himself. He planned a few days' rest before boarding a train for San Francisco. He asked Captain Simon to help him get to a hotel. Captain Simon helped him into a carriage and took him to the Murray Hill Hotel. He saw that he got a room, wrote down the number of the room. He then went back to his ship, picked up his ship's log which he took to the offices of the New York Tribune. He knew the story of the rescue had news value and that he could sell it for a handsome price to this paper. The Tribune bought the story immediately, paid Captain Simon for this information, and sent two reporters to Professor Sherman's room at the Murray Hill at once. Of course Professor Sherman didn't like this idea at all. To all questions asked him by the reporters he replied, "Gentlemen, I am saving the extraordinary details of my voyage for a talk in the auditorium of the Western American Explorers' Club in San Francisco-you are only wasting your time and mine. Good day, gentlemen!"

The reporters were quite disgusted at this. They made the most they could of the information found in Captain Simon's log and printed whatever story they could make of it on the front page. The story, incomplete as it was, did attract considerable attention. The headline read: PROFESSOR SHERMAN FOUND IN ATLANTIC WITH WRECKAGE OF TWENTY BALLOONS, and the sub-headline read: Refuses to Explain How or Why.

The San Francisco Tribune naturally picked up this story, with tremendous interest. They wired the information to the New York Tribune that a Professor Sherman had only recently attempted to fly the Pacific Ocean in one balloon. The New York Tribune looked in its picture files and found a picture of Professor Sherman taken at the Higgins Balloon Factory. They sent a photographer to the Murray Hill Hotel who (with considerable difficulty) took a picture of Professor Sherman. The following day the New York Tribune printed the two pictures side by side, to show it was quite the same man, in the front page with a headline which read: PROFESSOR SHERMAN IN WRONG OCEAN WITH TOO MANY BALLOONS, and the subheading: Refuses to Explain How or Why. These two stories were enough to excite the curiosity of millions, and Professor Sherman, in his bed at the Murray Hill, suddenly found himself to be the center of a considerable amount of the attention of the world. The Mayor of New York paid him a special visit. With all the pomp and ceremony that could possibly be displayed around the sick bed of a weary explorer in a hotel room, the Mayor presented the Professor with the Key to the City. Professor Sherman thanked him at length for this honor.

"And now," said the Mayor, "would it be too much to ask you in return to give to me, to New York, to the nation, to the world, the details of your amazing exploit?"

At this Professor Sherman exploded with anger. "Out of my room, Your Honor!" he shouted. "What matter of bribe is this, trying to buy my loyalty to the Western American Explorers' Club with the Key to this City? Out of my room, I say, and take your friends, reporters, and photographers with you!"

The New York Tribune made much of this the next morning, carrying the story on the front page again with a banner headline which read: KEY TO CITY FAILS TO UNLOCK SECRETS OF SHERMAN'S VOYAGE.

By now the public's curiosity was at a fever pitch, and the following morning Professor Sherman received a telegram which to a less extraordinary personage would have seemed to deserve far more undivided and humble attention. It was from the Secretary to the President of the United States. It was an invitation to the White House suggesting that this might be the ideal spot from which to reveal to the world the story which it was so impatiently waiting to hear. It requested that the Professor telegraph his reply. Professor Sherman dictated the following message, to be sent to the President's Secretary, without so much as a moment's reflection:

Dear Sir,

I appreciate the fact that the President's invitation amounts to what I should consider a Command Performance. However there is a code of ethics among explorers which l find myself at this particular moment unable to break. Had I a less fascinating story' to tell, nobody, except my fellow explorers, would care where or when I gave account of it. The very fact that my adventure is so unparalleled multiplies the need that I keep true to my oath of membership and first share the details of my passage with my brothers of the Western American Explorers' Club in San Francisco.

Will you please convey to the President this message and my sincere thanks for the honor he has bestowed on me by sending me this gracious invitation.

William Waterman Sherman

Instead of being angry at this reply, the President showed that he well appreciated the Professor's loyalty to his club. He had his Secretary send the following unprecedented wire to Professor Sherman:

Dear Sir,

The President understands exactly how you feel. However, in view of the fact that the world is waiting impatiently to hear your story, he has instructed me to place the Presidential train at your disposal with instructions to clear the lines between New York and San Francisco so that you may get there with all possible speed. He has been informed that you are resting up after your unfortunate crash into the Atlantic Ocean and do not feel quite well enough to travel at present. He assures you, sir, that you will be as comfortable in his car as you are in your hotel bedroom, and that all possible care and attention will be given you on your trip. If this is convenient, and he believes it surely is, an ambulance will pick you up this evening at eight o'clock to carry you in comfort to the train.

Please do not bother to convey your thanks to the President. He will eagerly await reports of your trip across the continent as the President and the world breathlessly stand by waiting to hear your story from the auditorium of the Western American Explorers' Club in San Francisco.

The Secretary to the President of the United States

Professor William Waterman Sherman left the Murray Hill Hotel that evening at eight o'clock, San Francisco bound, on the Presidential train.