The War in the Air – Day 88 of 115

With that apparition began a new phase of Goat Island in Bert’s experience. He ceased to be a solitary representative of humanity in a vast and violent and incomprehensible universe, and became once more a social creature, a man in a world of other men. For an instant these two were terrible, then they seemed sweet and desirable as brothers. They too were in this scrape with him, marooned and puzzled. He wanted extremely to hear exactly what had happened to them. What mattered it if one was a Prince and both were foreign soldiers, if neither perhaps had adequate English? His native Cockney freedom flowed too generously for him to think of that, and surely the Asiatic fleets had purged all such trivial differences. “Ul-lo!” he said; “’ow did you get ’ere?”

“It is the Englishman who brought us the Butteridge machine,” said the bird-faced officer in German, and then in a tone of horror, as Bert advanced, “Salute!” and again louder, “Salute!”

“Gaw!” said Bert, and stopped with a second comment under his breath. He stared and saluted awkwardly and became at once a masked defensive thing with whom co-operation was impossible.

For a time these two perfected modern aristocrats stood regarding the difficult problem of the Anglo-Saxon citizen, that ambiguous citizen who, obeying some mysterious law in his blood, would neither drill nor be a democrat. Bert was by no means a beautiful object, but in some inexplicable way he looked resistant. He wore his cheap suit of serge, now showing many signs of wear, and its loose fit made him seem sturdier than he was; above his disengaging face was a white German cap that was altogether too big for him, and his trousers were crumpled up his legs and their ends tucked into the rubber highlows of a deceased German aeronaut. He looked an inferior, though by no means an easy inferior, and instinctively they hated him.

The Prince pointed to the flying-machine and said something in broken English that Bert took for German and failed to understand. He intimated as much.

“Dummer Kerl!” said the bird-faced officer from among his bandages.

The Prince pointed again with his undamaged hand. “You verstehen dis drachenflieger?”

Bert began to comprehend the situation. He regarded the Asiatic machine. The habits of Bun Hill returned to him. “It’s a foreign make,” he said ambiguously.

The two Germans consulted. “You are an expert?” said the Prince.

“We reckon to repair,” said Bert, in the exact manner of Grubb.

The Prince sought in his vocabulary. “Is dat,” he said, “goot to fly?”

Bert reflected and scratched his cheek slowly. “I got to look at it,” he replied…. “It’s ’ad rough usage!”

He made a sound with his teeth he had also acquired from Grubb, put his hands in his trouser pockets, and strolled back to the machine. Typically Grubb chewed something, but Bert could chew only imaginatively. “Three days’ work in this,” he said, teething. For the first time it dawned on him that there were possibilities in this machine. It was evident that the wing that lay on the ground was badly damaged. The three stays that held it rigid had snapped across a ridge of rock and there was also a strong possibility of the engine being badly damaged. The wing hook on that side was also askew, but probably that would not affect the flight. Beyond that there probably wasn’t much the matter. Bert scratched his cheek again and contemplated the broad sunlit waste of the Upper Rapids. “We might make a job of this…. You leave it to me.”

He surveyed it intently again, and the Prince and his officer watched him. In Bun Hill Bert and Grubb had developed to a very high pitch among the hiring stock a method of repair by substituting; they substituted bits of other machines. A machine that was too utterly and obviously done for even to proffer for hire, had nevertheless still capital value. It became a sort of quarry for nuts and screws and wheels, bars and spokes, chain-links and the like; a mine of ill-fitting “parts” to replace the defects of machines still current. And back among the trees was a second Asiatic aeroplane….

The kitten caressed Bert’s airship boots unheeded.

“Mend dat drachenflieger,” said the Prince.

“If I do mend it,” said Bert, struck by a new thought, “none of us ain’t to be trusted to fly it.”

I vill fly it,” said the Prince.

“Very likely break your neck,” said Bert, after a pause.

The Prince did not understand him and disregarded what he said. He pointed his gloved finger to the machine and turned to the bird-faced officer with some remark in German. The officer answered and the Prince responded with a sweeping gesture towards the sky. Then he spoke–it seemed eloquently. Bert watched him and guessed his meaning. “Much more likely to break your neck,” he said. “’Owever. ’Ere goes.”

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