The War in the Air – Day 71 of 115

Bert got the news last, and chiefly in broken English, from a linguist among his mates. It was only far on in the night that the weary telegraphist got an answer to his calls, but then the messages came clear and strong. And such news it was!

“I say,” said Bert at his breakfast, amidst a great clamour, “tell us a bit.”

“All de vorlt is at vor!” said the linguist, waving his cocoa in an illustrative manner, “all de vorlt is at vor!”

Bert stared southward into the dawn. It did not seem so.

“All de vorlt is at vor! They haf burn’ Berlin; they haf burn’ London; they haf burn’ Hamburg and Paris. Chapan hass burn San Francisco. We haf mate a camp at Niagara. Dat is whad they are telling us. China has cot drachenflieger and luftschiffe beyont counting. All de vorlt is at vor!”

“Gaw!” said Bert.

“Yess,” said the linguist, drinking his cocoa.

“Burnt up London, ’ave they? Like we did New York?”

“It wass a bombardment.”

“They don’t say anything about a place called Clapham, or Bun Hill, do they?”

“I haf heard noding,” said the linguist.

That was all Bert could get for a time. But the excitement of all the men about him was contagious, and presently he saw Kurt standing alone, hands behind him, and looking at one of the distant waterfalls very steadfastly. He went up and saluted, soldier-fashion. “Beg pardon, lieutenant,” he said.

Kurt turned his face. It was unusually grave that morning. “I was just thinking I would like to see that waterfall closer,” he said. “It reminds me–what do you want?”

“I can’t make ’ead or tail of what they’re saying, sir. Would you mind telling me the news?”

“Damn the news,” said Kurt. “You’ll get news enough before the day’s out. It’s the end of the world. They’re sending the Graf Zeppelin for us. She’ll be here by the morning, and we ought to be at Niagara–or eternal smash–within eight and forty hours…. I want to look at that waterfall. You’d better come with me. Have you had your rations?”

“Yessir.”

“Very well. Come.”

And musing profoundly, Kurt led the way across the rocks towards the distant waterfall.

For a time Bert walked behind him in the character of an escort; then as they passed out of the atmosphere of the encampment, Kurt lagged for him to come alongside.

“We shall be back in it all in two days’ time,” he said. “And it’s a devil of a war to go back to. That’s the news. The world’s gone mad. Our fleet beat the Americans the night we got disabled, that’s clear. We lost eleven–eleven airships certain, and all their aeroplanes got smashed. God knows how much we smashed or how many we killed. But that was only the beginning. Our start’s been like firing a magazine. Every country was hiding flying-machines. They’re fighting in the air all over Europe–all over the world. The Japanese and Chinese have joined in. That’s the great fact. That’s the supreme fact. They’ve pounced into our little quarrels…. The Yellow Peril was a peril after all! They’ve got thousands of airships. They’re all over the world. We bombarded London and Paris, and now the French and English have smashed up Berlin. And now Asia is at us all, and on the top of us all…. It’s mania. China on the top. And they don’t know where to stop. It’s limitless. It’s the last confusion. They’re bombarding capitals, smashing up dockyards and factories, mines and fleets.”

“Did they do much to London, sir?” asked Bert.

“Heaven knows….”

He said no more for a time.

“This Labrador seems a quiet place,” he resumed at last. “I’m half a mind to stay here. Can’t do that. No! I’ve got to see it through. I’ve got to see it through. You’ve got to, too. Every one…. But why?… I tell you–our world’s gone to pieces. There’s no way out of it, no way back. Here we are! We’re like mice caught in a house on fire, we’re like cattle overtaken by a flood. Presently we shall be picked up, and back we shall go into the fighting. We shall kill and smash again–perhaps. It’s a Chino-Japanese air-fleet this time, and the odds are against us. Our turns will come. What will happen to you I don’t know, but for myself, I know quite well; I shall be killed.”

“You’ll be all right,” said Bert, after a queer pause.

“No!” said Kurt, “I’m going to be killed. I didn’t know it before, but this morning, at dawn, I knew it–as though I’d been told.”

“’Ow?”

“I tell you I know.”

“But ’ow could you know?”

“I know.”

“Like being told?”

“Like being certain.

“I know,” he repeated, and for a time they walked in silence towards the waterfall.

Kurt, wrapped in his thoughts, walked heedlessly, and at last broke out again. “I’ve always felt young before, Smallways, but this morning I feel old–old. So old! Nearer to death than old men feel. And I’ve always thought life was a lark. It isn’t…. This sort of thing has always been happening, I suppose–these things, wars and earthquakes, that sweep across all the decency of life. It’s just as though I had woke up to it all for the first time. Every night since we were at New York I’ve dreamt of it…. And it’s always been so–it’s the way of life. People are torn away from the people they care for; homes are smashed, creatures full of life, and memories, and little peculiar gifts are scalded and smashed, and torn to pieces, and starved, and spoilt. London! Berlin! San Francisco! Think of all the human histories we ended in New York!… And the others go on again as though such things weren’t possible. As I went on! Like animals! Just like animals.”

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