The War in the Air – Day 15 of 115

“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.

“We ought to have done this before,” panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

“Save the trailer!” cried some one, and that was the last round in the battle. But the trailer could not be detached; its wicker-work had caught, and it was the last thing to burn. A sort of hush fell upon the gathering. The petrol burnt low, the wicker-work trailer banged and crackled. The crowd divided itself into an outer circle of critics, advisers, and secondary characters, who had played undistinguished parts or no parts at all in the affair, and a central group of heated and distressed principals. A young man with an inquiring mind and a considerable knowledge of motor-bicycles fixed on to Grubb and wanted to argue that the thing could not have happened. Grubb was short and inattentive with him, and the young man withdrew to the back of the crowd, and there told the benevolent old gentleman in the silk hat that people who went out with machines they didn’t understand had only themselves to blame if things went wrong.

The old gentleman let him talk for some time, and then remarked, in a tone of rapturous enjoyment: “Stone deaf,” and added, “Nasty things.”

A rosy-faced man in a straw hat claimed attention. “I did save the front wheel,” he said; “you’d have had that tyre catch, too, if I hadn’t kept turning it round.” It became manifest that this was so. The front wheel had retained its tyre, was intact, was still rotating slowly among the blackened and twisted ruins of the rest of the machine. It had something of that air of conscious virtue, of unimpeachable respectability, that distinguishes a rent collector in a low neighbourhood. “That wheel’s worth a pound,” said the rosy-faced man, making a song of it. “I kep’ turning it round.”

Newcomers kept arriving from the south with the question, “What’s up?” until it got on Grubb’s nerves. Londonward the crowd was constantly losing people; they would mount their various wheels with the satisfied manner of spectators who have had the best. Their voices would recede into the twilight; one would hear a laugh at the memory of this particularly salient incident or that.

“I’m afraid,” said the gentleman of the motor-car, “my tarpaulin’s a bit done for.”

Grubb admitted that the owner was the best judge of that.

“Nothin, else I can do for you?” said the gentleman of the motor-car, it may be with a suspicion of irony.

Bert was roused to action. “Look here,” he said. “There’s my young lady. If she ain’t ’ome by ten they lock her out. See? Well, all my money was in my jacket pocket, and it’s all mixed up with the burnt stuff, and that’s too ’ot to touch. Is Clapham out of your way?”

“All in the day’s work,” said the gentleman with the motor-car, and turned to Edna. “Very pleased indeed,” he said, “if you’ll come with us. We’re late for dinner as it is, so it won’t make much difference for us to go home by way of Clapham. We’ve got to get to Surbiton, anyhow. I’m afraid you’ll find us a little slow.”

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