The War in the Air – Day 20 of 115

He stuck his head out between the ropes abruptly, and said, in a note of earnest expostulation: “Get some brandy!–some neat brandy!” Some one went up the beach for it.

In the car, sprawling upon a sort of bed-bench, in an attitude of elaborate self-abandonment, was a large, blond lady, wearing a fur coat and a big floriferous hat. Her head lolled back against the padded corner of the car, and her eyes were shut and her mouth open. “Me dear!” said Mr. Butteridge, in a common, loud voice, “we’re safe!”

She gave no sign.

“Me dear!” said Mr. Butteridge, in a greatly intensified loud voice, “we’re safe!”

She was still quite impassive.

Then Mr. Butteridge showed the fiery core of his soul. “If she is dead,” he said, slowly lifting a fist towards the balloon above him, and speaking in an immense tremulous bellow–“if she is dead, I will r-r-rend the heavens like a garment! I must get her out,” he cried, his nostrils dilated with emotion–“I must get her out. I cannot have her die in a wicker-work basket nine feet square–she who was made for kings’ palaces! Keep holt of this car! Is there a strong man among ye to take her if I hand her out?”

He swept the lady together by a powerful movement of his arms, and lifted her. “Keep the car from jumping,” he said to those who clustered about him. “Keep your weight on it. She is no light woman, and when she is out of it–it will be relieved.”

Bert leapt lightly into a sitting position on the edge of the car. The others took a firmer grip upon the ropes and ring.

“Are you ready?” said Mr. Butteridge.

He stood upon the bed-bench and lifted the lady carefully. Then he sat down on the wicker edge opposite to Bert, and put one leg over to dangle outside. A rope or so seemed to incommode him. “Will some one assist me?” he said. “If they would take this lady?”

It was just at this moment, with Mr. Butteridge and the lady balanced finely on the basket brim, that she came-to. She came-to suddenly and violently with a loud, heart-rending cry of “Alfred! Save me!” And she waved her arms searchingly, and then clasped Mr. Butteridge about.

It seemed to Bert that the car swayed for a moment and then buck-jumped and kicked him. Also he saw the boots of the lady and the right leg of the gentleman describing arcs through the air, preparatory to vanishing over the side of the car. His impressions were complex, but they also comprehended the fact that he had lost his balance, and was going to stand on his head inside this creaking basket. He spread out clutching arms. He did stand on his head, more or less, his tow-beard came off and got in his mouth, and his cheek slid along against padding. His nose buried itself in a bag of sand. The car gave a violent lurch, and became still.

“Confound it!” he said.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

He found it a little difficult to get on his feet. His limbs were mixed up with the garments Mr. Butteridge had discarded when that gentleman had thought he must needs plunge into the sea. Bert bawled out half angry, half rueful, “You might have said you were going to tip the basket.” Then he stood up and clutched the ropes of the car convulsively.

Below him, far below him, shining blue, were the waters of the English Channel. Far off, a little thing in the sunshine, and rushing down as if some one was bending it hollow, was the beach and the irregular cluster of houses that constitutes Dymchurch. He could see the little crowd of people he had so abruptly left. Grubb, in the white wrapper of a Desert Dervish, was running along the edge of the sea. Mr. Butteridge was knee-deep in the water, bawling immensely. The lady was sitting up with her floriferous hat in her lap, shockingly neglected. The beach, east and west, was dotted with little people–they seemed all heads and feet–looking up. And the balloon, released from the twenty-five stone or so of Mr. Butteridge and his lady, was rushing up into the sky at the pace of a racing motor-car. “My crikey!” said Bert; “here’s a go!”

He looked down with a pinched face at the receding beach, and reflected that he wasn’t giddy; then he made a superficial survey of the cords and ropes about him with a vague idea of “doing something.” “I’m not going to mess about with the thing,” he said at last, and sat down upon the mattress. “I’m not going to touch it…. I wonder what one ought to do?”

Soon he got up again and stared for a long time it the sinking world below, at white cliffs to the east and flattening marsh to the left, at a minute wide prospect of weald and downland, at dim towns and harbours and rivers and ribbon-like roads, at ships and ships, decks and foreshortened funnels upon the ever-widening sea, and at the great mono-rail bridge that straddled the Channel from Folkestone to Boulogne, until at last, first little wisps and then a veil of filmy cloud hid the prospect from his eyes. He wasn’t at all giddy nor very much frightened, only in a state of enormous consternation.

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