The War in the Air – Day 47 of 115

In the evening it began to blow and the air-ship to roll like a porpoise as it swung through the air. Kurt said that several of the men were sea-sick, but the motion did not inconvenience Bert, whose luck it was to be of that mysterious gastric disposition which constitutes a good sailor. He slept well, but in the small hours the light awoke him, and he found Kurt staggering about in search of something. He found it at last in the locker, and held it in his hand unsteadily–a compass. Then he compared his map.

“We’ve changed our direction,” he said, “and come into the wind. I can’t make it out. We’ve turned away from New York to the south. Almost as if we were going to take a hand–“

He continued talking to himself for some time.

Day came, wet and windy. The window was bedewed externally, and they could see nothing through it. It was also very cold, and Bert decided to keep rolled up in his blankets on the locker until the bugle summoned him to his morning ration. That consumed, he went out on the little gallery; but he could see nothing but eddying clouds driving headlong by, and the dim outlines of the nearer airships. Only at rare intervals could he get a glimpse of grey sea through the pouring cloud-drift.

Later in the morning the Vaterland changed altitude, and soared up suddenly in a high, clear sky, going, Kurt said, to a height of nearly thirteen thousand feet.

Bert was in his cabin, and chanced to see the dew vanish from the window and caught the gleam of sunlight outside. He looked out, and saw once more that sunlit cloud floor he had seen first from the balloon, and the ships of the German air-fleet rising one by one from the white, as fish might rise and become visible from deep water. He stared for a moment and then ran out to the little gallery to see this wonder better. Below was cloudland and storm, a great drift of tumbled weather going hard away to the north-east, and the air about him was clear and cold and serene save for the faintest chill breeze and a rare, drifting snow-flake. Throb, throb, throb, throb, went the engines in the stillness. That huge herd of airships rising one after another had an effect of strange, portentous monsters breaking into an altogether unfamiliar world.

Either there was no news of the naval battle that morning, or the Prince kept to himself whatever came until past midday. Then the bulletins came with a rush, bulletins that made the lieutenant wild with excitement.

“Barbarossa disabled and sinking,” he cried. “Gott im Himmel! Der alte Barbarossa! Aber welch ein braver krieger!”

He walked about the swinging cabin, and for a time he was wholly German.

Then he became English again. “Think of it, Smallways! The old ship we kept so clean and tidy! All smashed about, and the iron flying about in fragments, and the chaps one knew–Gott!–flying about too! Scalding water squirting, fire, and the smash, smash of the guns! They smash when you’re near! Like everything bursting to pieces! Wool won’t stop it–nothing! And me up here–so near and so far! Der alte Barbarossa!”

“Any other ships?” asked Smallways, presently.

“Gott! Yes! We’ve lost the Karl der Grosse, our best and biggest. Run down in the night by a British liner that blundered into the fighting in trying to blunder out. They’re fighting in a gale. The liner’s afloat with her nose broken, sagging about! There never was such a battle!–never before! Good ships and good men on both sides,–and a storm and the night and the dawn and all in the open ocean full steam ahead! No stabbing! No submarines! Guns and shooting! Half our ships we don’t hear of any more, because their masts are shot away. Latitude, 30 degrees 40 minutes N.–longitude, 40 degrees 30 minutes W.–where’s that?”

He routed out his map again, and stared at it with eyes that did not see.

“Der alte Barbarossa! I can’t get it out of my head–with shells in her engine-room, and the fires flying out of her furnaces, and the stokers and engineers scalded and dead. Men I’ve messed with, Smallways–men I’ve talked to close! And they’ve had their day at last! And it wasn’t all luck for them!

“Disabled and sinking! I suppose everybody can’t have all the luck in a battle. Poor old Schneider! I bet he gave ’em something back!”

So it was the news of the battle came filtering through to them all that morning. The Americans had lost a second ship, name unknown; the Hermann had been damaged in covering the Barbarossa…. Kurt fretted like an imprisoned animal about the airship, now going up to the forward gallery under the eagle, now down into the swinging gallery, now poring over his maps. He infected Smallways with a sense of the immediacy of this battle that was going on just over the curve of the earth. But when Bert went down to the gallery the world was empty and still, a clear inky-blue sky above and a rippled veil of still, thin sunlit cirrus below, through which one saw a racing drift of rain-cloud, and never a glimpse of sea. Throb, throb, throb, throb, went the engines, and the long, undulating wedge of airships hurried after the flagship like a flight of swans after their leader. Save for the quiver of the engines it was as noiseless as a dream. And down there, somewhere in the wind and rain, guns roared, shells crashed home, and, after the old manner of warfare, men toiled and died.

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