The War in the Air – Day 43 of 115

“Mr. Schmallvays, you haf obtained a footing in this airship,” he said, “by disgraceful and systematic lying.”

“’Ardly systematic,” said Bert. “I–“

The Prince silenced him by a gesture.

“And it is within the power of his Highness to dispose of you as a spy.”

“’Ere!–I came to sell–“

“Ssh!” said one of the officers.

“However, in consideration of the happy chance that mate you the instrument unter Gott of this Pooterage flying-machine reaching his Highness’s hand, you haf been spared. Yes,–you were the pearer of goot tidings. You will be allowed to remain on this ship until it is convenient to dispose of you. Do you understandt?”

“We will bring him,” said the Prince, and added terribly with a terrible glare, “als Ballast.”

“You are to come with us,” said Winterfeld, “as pallast. Do you understandt?”

Bert opened his mouth to ask about the five hundred pounds, and then a saving gleam of wisdom silenced him. He met Von Winterfeld’s eye, and it seemed to him the secretary nodded slightly.

“Go!” said the Prince, with a sweep of the great arm and hand towards the door. Bert went out like a leaf before a gale.

But in between the time when the Graf von Winterfeld had talked to him and this alarming conference with the Prince, Bert had explored the Vaterland from end to end. He had found it interesting in spite of grave preoccupations. Kurt, like the greater number of the men upon the German air-fleet, had known hardly anything of aeronautics before his appointment to the new flag-ship. But he was extremely keen upon this wonderful new weapon Germany had assumed so suddenlv and dramatically. He showed things to Bert with a boyish eagerness and appreciation. It was as if he showed them over again to himself, like a child showing a new toy. “Let’s go all over the ship,” he said with zest. He pointed out particularly the lightness of everything, the use of exhausted aluminium tubing, of springy cushions inflated with compressed hydrogen; the partitions were hydrogen bags covered with light imitation leather, the very crockery was a light biscuit glazed in a vacuum, and weighed next to nothing. Where strength was needed there was the new Charlottenburg alloy, German steel as it was called, the toughest and most resistant metal in the world.

There was no lack of space. Space did not matter, so long as load did not grow. The habitable part of the ship was two hundred and fifty feet long, and the rooms in two tiers; above these one could go up into remarkable little white-metal turrets with big windows and airtight double doors that enabled one to inspect the vast cavity of the gas-chambers. This inside view impressed Bert very much. He had never realised before that an airship was not one simple continuous gas-bag containing nothing but gas. Now he saw far above him the backbone of the apparatus and its big ribs, “like the neural and haemal canals,” said Kurt, who had dabbled in biology.

“Rather!” said Bert appreciatively, though he had not the ghost of an idea what these phrases meant.

Little electric lights could be switched on up there if anything went wrong in the night. There were even ladders across the space. “But you can’t go into the gas,” protested Bert. “You can’t breve it.”

The lieutenant opened a cupboard door and displayed a diver’s suit, only that it was made of oiled silk, and both its compressed-air knapsack and its helmet were of an alloy of aluminium and some light metal. “We can go all over the inside netting and stick up bullet holes or leaks,” he explained. “There’s netting inside and out. The whole outer-case is rope ladder, so to speak.”

Aft of the habitable part of the airship was the magazine of explosives, coming near the middle of its length. They were all bombs of various types mostly in glass–none of the German airships carried any guns at all except one small pom-pom (to use the old English nickname dating from the Boer war), which was forward in the gallery upon the shield at the heart of the eagle.

From the magazine amidships a covered canvas gallery with aluminium treads on its floor and a hand-rope, ran back underneath the gas-chamber to the engine-room at the tail; but along this Bert did not go, and from first to last he never saw the engines. But he went up a ladder against a gale of ventilation–a ladder that was encased in a kind of gas-tight fire escape–and ran right athwart the great forward air-chamber to the little look-out gallery with a telephone, that gallery that bore the light pom-pom of German steel and its locker of shells. This gallery was all of aluminium magnesium alloy, the tight front of the air-ship swelled cliff-like above and below, and the black eagle sprawled overwhelmingly gigantic, its extremities all hidden by the bulge of the gas-bag. And far down, under the soaring eagles, was England, four thousand feet below perhaps, and looking very small and defenceless indeed in the morning sunlight.

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