The War in the Air – Day 14 of 115

Grubb arrived, riding hard. He was shouting something. He sprang off and threw his bicycle into the hedge. “Don’t throw water on it!” he said–“don’t throw water on it!” He displayed commanding presence of mind. He became captain of the occasion. Others were glad to repeat the things he said and imitate his actions.

“Don’t throw water on it!” they cried. Also there was no water.

“Beat it out, you fools!” he said.

He seized a rug from the trailer (it was an Austrian blanket, and Bert’s winter coverlet) and began to beat at the burning petrol. For a wonderful minute he seemed to succeed. But he scattered burning pools of petrol on the road, and others, fired by his enthusiasm, imitated his action. Bert caught up a trailer-cushion and began to beat; there was another cushion and a table-cloth, and these also were seized. A young hero pulled off his jacket and joined the beating. For a moment there was less talking than hard breathing, and a tremendous flapping. Flossie, arriving on the outskirts of the crowd, cried, “Oh, my God!” and burst loudly into tears. “Help!” she said, and “Fire!”

The lame motor-car arrived, and stopped in consternation. A tall, goggled, grey-haired man who was driving inquired with an Oxford intonation and a clear, careful enunciation, “Can we help at all?”

It became manifest that the rug, the table-cloth, the cushions, the jacket, were getting smeared with petrol and burning. The soul seemed to go out of the cushion Bert was swaying, and the air was full of feathers, like a snowstorm in the still twilight.

Bert had got very dusty and sweaty and strenuous. It seemed to him his weapon had been wrested from him at the moment of victory. The fire lay like a dying thing, close to the ground and wicked; it gave a leap of anguish at every whack of the beaters. But now Grubb had gone off to stamp out the burning blanket; the others were lacking just at the moment of victory. One had dropped the cushion and was running to the motorcar. “’Ere!” cried Bert; “keep on!”

He flung the deflated burning rags of cushion aside, whipped off his jacket and sprang at the flames with a shout. He stamped into the ruin until flames ran up his boots. Edna saw him, a red-lit hero, and thought it was good to be a man.

A bystander was hit by a hot halfpenny flying out of the air. Then Bert thought of the papers in his pockets, and staggered back, trying to extinguish his burning jacket–checked, repulsed, dismayed.

Edna was struck by the benevolent appearance of an elderly spectator in a silk hat and Sabbatical garments. “Oh!” she cried to him. “Help this young man! How can you stand and see it?”

A cry of “The tarpaulin!” arose.

An earnest-looking man in a very light grey cycling-suit had suddenly appeared at the side of the lame motor-car and addressed the owner. “Have you a tarpaulin?” he said.

“Yes,” said the gentlemanly man. “Yes. We’ve got a tarpaulin.”

“That’s it,” said the earnest-looking man, suddenly shouting. “Let’s have it, quick!”

The gentlemanly man, with feeble and deprecatory gestures, and in the manner of a hypnotised person, produced an excellent large tarpaulin.

“Here!” cried the earnest-looking man to Grubb. “Ketch holt!”

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

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