The War in the Air – Day 100 of 115

“Good day, sah!” said the old negro, in a voice of almost incredible richness.

“What’s the name of this place?” asked Bert.

“Tanooda, sah!” said the negro.

“Thenks!” said Bert.

“Thank you, sah!” said the negro, overwhelmingly.

Bert came to houses of the same detached, unwalled, wooden type, but adorned now with enamelled advertisements partly in English and partly in Esperanto. Then he came to what he concluded was a grocer’s shop. It was the first house that professed the hospitality of an open door, and from within came a strangely familiar sound. “Gaw!” he said searching in his pockets. “Why! I ’aven’t wanted money for free weeks! I wonder if I–Grubb ’ad most of it. Ah!” He produced a handful of coins and regarded it; three pennies, sixpence, and a shilling. “That’s all right,” he said, forgetting a very obvious consideration.

He approached the door, and as he did so a compactly built, grey-faced man in shirt sleeves appeared in it and scrutinised him and his cudgel. “Mornin’,” said Bert. “Can I get anything to eat ’r drink in this shop?”

The man in the door replied, thank Heaven, in clear, good American. “This, sir, is not A shop, it is A store.”

“Oh!” said Bert, and then, “Well, can I get anything to eat?”

“You can,” said the American in a tone of confident encouragement, and led the way inside.

The shop seemed to him by his Bun Hill standards extremely roomy, well lit, and unencumbered. There was a long counter to the left of him, with drawers and miscellaneous commodities ranged behind it, a number of chairs, several tables, and two spittoons to the right, various barrels, cheeses, and bacon up the vista, and beyond, a large archway leading to more space. A little group of men was assembled round one of the tables, and a woman of perhaps five-and-thirty leant with her elbows on the counter. All the men were armed with rifles, and the barrel of a gun peeped above the counter. They were all listening idly, inattentively, to a cheap, metallic-toned gramophone that occupied a table near at hand. From its brazen throat came words that gave Bert a qualm of homesickness, that brought back in his memory a sunlit beach, a group of children, red-painted bicycles, Grubb, and an approaching balloon:–

“Ting-a-ling-a-ting-a-ling-a-ting-a ling-a-tang… What Price Hair-pins Now?”

A heavy-necked man in a straw hat, who was chewing something, stopped the machine with a touch, and they all turned their eyes on Bert. And all their eyes were tired eyes.

“Can we give this gentleman anything to eat, mother, or can we not?” said the proprietor.

“He kin have what he likes?” said the woman at the counter, without moving, “right up from a cracker to a square meal.” She struggled with a yawn, after the manner of one who has been up all night.

“I want a meal,” said Bert, “but I ’aven’t very much money. I don’ want to give mor’n a shillin’.”

“Mor’n a what?” said the proprietor, sharply.

“Mor’n a shillin’,” said Bert, with a sudden disagreeable realisation coming into his mind.

“Yes,” said the proprietor, startled for a moment from his courtly bearing. “But what in hell is a shilling?”

“He means a quarter,” said a wise-looking, lank young man in riding gaiters.

Bert, trying to conceal his consternation, produced a coin. “That’s a shilling,” he said.

“He calls A store A shop,” said the proprietor, “and he wants A meal for A shilling. May I ask you, sir, what part of America you hail from?”

Bert replaced the shilling in his pocket as he spoke, “Niagara,” he said.

“And when did you leave Niagara?”

“’Bout an hour ago.”

“Well,” said the proprietor, and turned with a puzzled smile to the others. “Well!”

They asked various questions simultaneously.

Bert selected one or two for reply. “You see,” he said, “I been with the German air-fleet. I got caught up by them, sort of by accident, and brought over here.”

“From England?”

“Yes–from England. Way of Germany. I was in a great battle with them Asiatics, and I got lef’ on a little island between the Falls.”

“Goat Island?”

“I don’ know what it was called. But any’ow I found a flying-machine and made a sort of fly with it and got here.”

Two men stood up with incredulous eyes on him. “Where’s the flying-machine?” they asked; “outside?”

“It’s back in the woods here–’bout arf a mile away.”

“Is it good?” said a thick-lipped man with a scar.

“I come down rather a smash–.”

Everybody got up and stood about him and talked confusingly. They wanted him to take them to the flying-machine at once.

“Look ’ere,” said Bert, “I’ll show you–only I ’aven’t ’ad anything to eat since yestiday–except mineral water.”

A gaunt soldierly-looking young man with long lean legs in riding gaiters and a bandolier, who had hitherto not spoken, intervened now on his behalf in a note of confident authority. “That’s aw right,” he said. “Give him a feed, Mr. Logan–from me. I want to hear more of that story of his. We’ll see his machine afterwards. If you ask me, I should say it’s a remarkably interesting accident had dropped this gentleman here. I guess we requisition that flying-machine–if we find it–for local defence.”

So Bert fell on his feet again, and sat eating cold meat and good bread and mustard and drinking very good beer, and telling in the roughest outline and with the omissions and inaccuracies of statement natural to his type of mind, the simple story of his adventures. He told how he and a “gentleman friend” had been visiting the seaside for their health, how a “chep” came along in a balloon and fell out as he fell in, how he had drifted to Franconia, how the Germans had seemed to mistake him for some one and had “took him prisoner” and brought him to New York, how he had been to Labrador and back, how he had got to Goat Island and found himself there alone. He omitted the matter of the Prince and the Butteridge aspect of the affair, not out of any deep deceitfulness, but because he felt the inadequacy of his narrative powers. He wanted everything to seem easy and natural and correct, to present himself as a trustworthy and understandable Englishman in a sound mediocre position, to whom refreshment and accommodation might be given with freedom and confidence. When his fragmentary story came to New York and the battle of Niagara, they suddenly produced newspapers which had been lying about on the table, and began to check him and question him by these vehement accounts. It became evident to him that his descent had revived and roused to flames again a discussion, a topic, that had been burning continuously, that had smouldered only through sheer exhaustion of material during the temporary diversion of the gramophone, a discussion that had drawn these men together, rifle in hand, the one supreme topic of the whole world, the War and the methods of the War. He found any question of his personality and his personal adventures falling into the background, found himself taken for granted, and no more than a source of information. The ordinary affairs of life, the buying and selling of everyday necessities, the cultivation of the ground, the tending of beasts, was going on as it were by force of routine, as the common duties of life go on in a house whose master lies under the knife of some supreme operation. The overruling interest was furnished by those great Asiatic airships that went upon incalculable missions across the sky, the crimson-clad swordsmen who might come fluttering down demanding petrol, or food, or news. These men were asking, all the continent was asking, “What are we to do? What can we try? How can we get at them?” Bert fell into his place as an item, ceased even in his own thoughts to be a central and independent thing.

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