The War in the Air – Day 67 of 115


“In the air, Smallways–in the air! When we get down on the earth again we shan’t know what to do with our legs.”

“But what’s below us?”

“Canada, to the best of my knowledge–and a jolly bleak, empty, inhospitable country it looks.”

“But why ain’t we right ways up?”

Kurt made no answer for a space.

“Last I remember was seeing a sort of flying-machine in a lightning flash,” said Bert. “Gaw! that was ’orrible. Guns going off! Things explodin’! Clouds and ’ail. Pitching and tossing. I got so scared and desperate–and sick. You don’t know how the fight came off?”

“Not a bit of it. I was up with my squad in those divers’ dresses, inside the gas-chambers, with sheets of silk for caulking. We couldn’t see a thing outside except the lightning flashes. I never saw one of those American aeroplanes. Just saw the shots flicker through the chambers and sent off men for the tears. We caught fire a bit–not much, you know. We were too wet, so the fires spluttered out before we banged. And then one of their infernal things dropped out of the air on us and rammed. Didn’t you feel it?”

“I felt everything,” said Bert. “I didn’t notice any particular smash–“

“They must have been pretty desperate if they meant it. They slashed down on us like a knife; simply ripped the after gas-chambers like gutting herrings, crumpled up the engines and screw. Most of the engines dropped off as they fell off us–or we’d have grounded–but the rest is sort of dangling. We just turned up our nose to the heavens and stayed there. Eleven men rolled off us from various points, and poor old Winterfeld fell through the door of the Prince’s cabin into the chart-room and broke his ankle. Also we got our electric gear shot or carried away–no one knows how. That’s the position, Smallways. We’re driving through the air like a common aerostat, at the mercy of the elements, almost due north–probably to the North Pole. We don’t know what aeroplanes the Americans have, or anything at all about it. Very likely we have finished ’em up. One fouled us, one was struck by lightning, some of the men saw a third upset, apparently just for fun. They were going cheap anyhow. Also we’ve lost most of our drachenflieger. They just skated off into the night. No stability in ’em. That’s all. We don’t know if we’ve won or lost. We don’t know if we’re at war with the British Empire yet or at peace. Consequently, we daren’t get down. We don’t know what we are up to or what we are going to do. Our Napoleon is alone, forward, and I suppose he’s rearranging his plans. Whether New York was our Moscow or not remains to be seen. We’ve had a high old time and murdered no end of people! War! Noble war! I’m sick of it this morning. I like sitting in rooms rightway up and not on slippery partitions. I’m a civilised man. I keep thinking of old Albrecht and the Barbarossa…. I feel I want a wash and kind words and a quiet home. When I look at you, I know I want a wash. Gott!”–he stifled a vehement yawn–“What a Cockney tadpole of a ruffian you look!”

“Can we get any grub?” asked Bert.

“Heaven knows!” said Kurt.

He meditated upon Bert for a time. “So far as I can judge, Smallways,” he said, “the Prince will probably want to throw you overboard–next time he thinks of you. He certainly will if he sees you…. After all, you know, you came as Ballast…. And we shall have to lighten ship extensively pretty soon. Unless I’m mistaken, the Prince will wake up presently and start doing things with tremendous vigour…. I’ve taken a fancy to you. It’s the English strain in me. You’re a rum little chap. I shan’t like seeing you whizz down the air…. You’d better make yourself useful, Smallways. I think I shall requisition you for my squad. You’ll have to work, you know, and be infernally intelligent and all that. And you’ll have to hang about upside down a bit. Still, it’s the best chance you have. We shan’t carry passengers much farther this trip, I fancy. Ballast goes over-board–if we don’t want to ground precious soon and be taken prisoners of war. The Prince won’t do that anyhow. He’ll be game to the last.”

By means of a folding chair, which was still in its place behind the door, they got to the window and looked out in turn and contemplated a sparsely wooded country below, with no railways nor roads, and only occasional signs of habitation. Then a bugle sounded, and Kurt interpreted it as a summons to food. They got through the door and clambered with some difficulty up the nearly vertical passage, holding on desperately with toes and finger-tips, to the ventilating perforations in its floor. The mess stewards had found their fireless heating arrangements intact, and there was hot cocoa for the officers and hot soup for the men.

Bert’s sense of the queerness of this experience was so keen that it blotted out any fear he might have felt. Indeed, he was far more interested now than afraid. He seemed to have touched down to the bottom of fear and abandonment overnight. He was growing accustomed to the idea that he would probably be killed presently, that this strange voyage in the air was in all probability his death journey. No human being can keep permanently afraid: fear goes at last to the back of one’s mind, accepted, and shelved, and done with. He squatted over his soup, sopping it up with his bread, and contemplated his comrades. They were all rather yellow and dirty, with four-day beards, and they grouped themselves in the tired, unpremeditated manner of men on a wreck. They talked little. The situation perplexed them beyond any suggestion of ideas. Three had been hurt in the pitching up of the ship during the fight, and one had a bandaged bullet wound. It was incredible that this little band of men had committed murder and massacre on a scale beyond precedent. None of them who squatted on the sloping gas-padded partition, soup mug in hand, seemed really guilty of anything of the sort, seemed really capable of hurting a dog wantonly. They were all so manifestly built for homely chalets on the solid earth and carefully tilled fields and blond wives and cheery merrymaking. The red-faced, sturdy man with light eyelashes who had brought the first news of the air battle to the men’s mess had finished his soup, and with an expression of maternal solicitude was readjusting the bandages of a youngster whose arm had been sprained.

Bert was crumbling the last of his bread into the last of his soup, eking it out as long as possible, when suddenly he became aware that every one was looking at a pair of feet that were dangling across the downturned open doorway. Kurt appeared and squatted across the hinge. In some mysterious way he had shaved his face and smoothed down his light golden hair. He looked extraordinarily cherubic. “Der Prinz,” he said.

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