The War in the Air, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 4

The German Air-Fleet

1

Of all the productions of the human imagination that make the world in which Mr. Bert Smallways lived confusingly wonderful, there was none quite so strange, so headlong and disturbing, so noisy and persuasive and dangerous, as the modernisations of patriotism produced by imperial and international politics. In the soul of all men is a liking for kind, a pride in one’s own atmosphere, a tenderness for one’s Mother speech and one’s familiar land. Before the coming of the Scientific Age this group of gentle and noble emotions had been a fine factor in the equipment of every worthy human being, a fine factor that had its less amiable aspect in a usually harmless hostility to strange people, and a usually harmless detraction of strange lands. But with the wild rush of change in the pace, scope, materials, scale, and possibilities of human life that then occurred, the old boundaries, the old seclusions and separations were violently broken down. All the old settled mental habits and traditions of men found themselves not simply confronted by new conditions, but by constantly renewed and changing new conditions. They had no chance of adapting themselves. They were annihilated or perverted or inflamed beyond recognition.

Bert Smallways’ grandfather, in the days when Bun Hill was a village under the sway of Sir Peter Bone’s parent, had “known his place” to the uttermost farthing, touched his hat to his betters, despised and condescended to his inferiors, and hadn’t changed an idea from the cradle to the grave. He was Kentish and English, and that meant hops, beer, dog-rose’s, and the sort of sunshine that was best in the world. Newspapers and politics and visits to “Lunnon” weren’t for the likes of him. Then came the change. These earlier chapters have given an idea of what happened to Bun Hill, and how the flood of novel things had poured over its devoted rusticity. Bert Smallways was only one of countless millions in Europe and America and Asia who, instead of being born rooted in the soil, were born struggling in a torrent they never clearly understood. All the faiths of their fathers had been taken by surprise, and startled into the strangest forms and reactions. Particularly did the fine old tradition of patriotism get perverted and distorted in the rush of the new times. Instead of the sturdy establishment in prejudice of Bert’s grandfather, to whom the word “Frenchified” was the ultimate term of contempt, there flowed through Bert’s brain a squittering succession of thinly violent ideas about German competition, about the Yellow Danger, about the Black Peril, about the White Man’s Burthen — that is to say, Bert’s preposterous right to muddle further the naturally very muddled politics of the entirely similar little cads to himself (except for a smear of brown) who smoked cigarettes and rode bicycles in Buluwayo, Kingston (Jamaica), or Bombay. These were Bert’s “Subject Races,” and he was ready to die — by proxy in the person of any one who cared to enlist — to maintain his hold upon that right. It kept him awake at nights to think that he might lose it.

The essential fact of the politics of the age in which Bert Smallways lived — the age that blundered at last into the catastrophe of the War in the Air — was a very simple one, if only people had had the intelligence to be simple about it. The development of Science had altered the scale of human affairs. By means of rapid mechanical traction, it had brought men nearer together, so much nearer socially, economically, physically, that the old separations into nations and kingdoms were no longer possible, a newer, wider synthesis was not only needed, but imperatively demanded. Just as the once independent dukedoms of France had to fuse into a nation, so now the nations had to adapt themselves to a wider coalescence, they had to keep what was precious and possible, and concede what was obsolete and dangerous. A saner world would have perceived this patent need for a reasonable synthesis, would have discussed it temperately, achieved and gone on to organise the great civilisation that was manifestly possible to mankind. The world of Bert Smallways did nothing of the sort. Its national governments, its national interests, would not hear of anything so obvious; they were too suspicious of each other, too wanting in generous imaginations. They began to behave like ill-bred people in a crowded public car, to squeeze against one another, elbow, thrust, dispute and quarrel. Vain to point out to them that they had only to rearrange themselves to be comfortable. Everywhere, all over the world, the historian of the early twentieth century finds the same thing, the flow and rearrangement of human affairs inextricably entangled by the old areas, the old prejudices and a sort of heated irascible stupidity, and everywhere congested nations in inconvenient areas, slopping population and produce into each other, annoying each other with tariffs, and every possible commercial vexation, and threatening each other with navies and armies that grew every year more portentous.

It is impossible now to estimate how much of the intellectual and physical energy of the world was wasted in military preparation and equipment, but it was an enormous proportion. Great Britain spent upon army and navy money and capacity, that directed into the channels of physical culture and education would have made the British the aristocracy of the world. Her rulers could have kept the whole population learning and exercising up to the age of eighteen and made a broad-chested and intelligent man of every Bert Smallways in the islands, had they given the resources they spent in war material to the making of men. Instead of which they waggled flags at him until he was fourteen, incited him to cheer, and then turned him out of school to begin that career of private enterprise we have compactly recorded. France achieved similar imbecilities; Germany was, if possible worse; Russia under the waste and stresses of militarism festered towards bankruptcy and decay. All Europe was producing big guns and countless swarms of little Smallways. The Asiatic peoples had been forced in self-defence into a like diversion of the new powers science had brought them. On the eve of the outbreak of the war there were six great powers in the world and a cluster of smaller ones, each armed to the teeth and straining every nerve to get ahead of the others in deadliness of equipment and military efficiency. The great powers were first the United States, a nation addicted to commerce, but roused to military necessities by the efforts of Germany to expand into South America, and by the natural consequences of her own unwary annexations of land in the very teeth of Japan. She maintained two immense fleets east and west, and internally she was in violent conflict between Federal and State governments upon the question of universal service in a defensive militia. Next came the great alliance of Eastern Asia, a close-knit coalescence of China and Japan, advancing with rapid strides year by year to predominance in the world’s affairs. Then the German alliance still struggled to achieve its dream of imperial expansion, and its imposition of the German language upon a forcibly united Europe. These were the three most spirited and aggressive powers in the world. Far more pacific was the British Empire, perilously scattered over the globe, and distracted now by insurrectionary movements in Ireland and among all its Subject Races. It had given these subject races cigarettes, boots, bowler hats, cricket, race meetings, cheap revolvers, petroleum, the factory system of industry, halfpeuny newspapers in both English and the vernacular, inexpensive university degrees, motor-bicycles and electric trams; it had produced a considerable literature expressing contempt for the Subject Races, and rendered it freely accessible to them, and it had been content to believe that nothing would result from these stimulants because somebody once wrote “the immemorial east”; and also, in the inspired words of Kipling —

East is east and west is west,
And never the twain shall meet.

Instead of which, Egypt, India, and the subject countries generally had produced new generations in a state of passionate indignation and the utmost energy, activity and modernity. The governing class in Great Britain was slowly adapting itself to a new conception, of the Subject Races as waking peoples, and finding its efforts to keep the Empire together under these, strains and changing ideas greatly impeded by the entirely sporting spirit with which Bert Smallways at home (by the million) cast his vote, and by the tendency of his more highly coloured equivalents to be disrespectful to irascible officials. Their impertinence was excessive; it was no mere stone-throwing and shouting. They would quote Burns at them and Mill and Darwin and confute them in arguments.

Even more pacific than the British Empire were France and its allies, the Latin powers, heavily armed states indeed, but reluctant warriors, and in many ways socially and politically leading western civilisation. Russia was a pacific power perforce, divided within itself, torn between revolutionaries and reactionaries who were equally incapable of social reconstruction, and so sinking towards a tragic disorder of chronic political vendetta. Wedged in among these portentous larger bulks, swayed and threatened by them, the smaller states of the world maintained a precarious independence, each keeping itself armed as dangerously as its utmost ability could contrive.

So it came about that in every country a great and growing body of energetic and inventive men was busied either for offensive or defensive ends, in elaborating the apparatus of war, until the accumulating tensions should reach the breaking-point. Each power sought to keep its preparations secret, to hold new weapons in reserve, to anticipate and learn the preparations of its rivals. The feeling of danger from fresh discoveries affected the patriotic imagination of every people in the world. Now it was rumoured the British had an overwhelming gun, now the French an invincible rifle, now the Japanese a new explosive, now the Americans a submarine that would drive every ironclad from the seas. Each time there would be a war panic.

The strength and heart of the nations was given to the thought of war, and yet the mass of their citizens was a teeming democracy as heedless of and unfitted for fighting, mentally, morally, physically, as any population has ever been — or, one ventures to add, could ever be. That was the paradox of the time. It was a period altogether unique in the world’s history. The apparatus of warfare, the, art and method of fighting, changed absolutely every dozen years in a stupendous progress towards perfection, and people grew less and less warlike, and there was no war.

And then at last it came. It came as a surprise to all the world because its real causes were hidden. Relations were strained between Germany and the United States because of the intense exasperation of a tariff conflict and the ambiguous attitude of the former power towards the Monroe Doctrine, and they were strained between the United States and Japan because of the perennial citizenship question. But in both cases these were standing causes of offence. The real deciding cause, it is now known, was the perfecting of the Pforzheim engine by Germany and the consequent possibility of a rapid and entirely practicable airship. At that time Germany was by far the most efficient power in the world, better organised for swift and secret action, better equipped with the resources of modern science, and with her official and administrative classes at a higher level of education and training. These things she knew, and she exaggerated that knowledge to the pitch of contempt for the secret counsels of her neighbours. It may be that with the habit of self-confidence her spying upon them had grown less thorough. Moreover, she had a tradition of unsentimental and unscrupulous action that vitiated her international outlook profoundly. With the coming of these new weapons her collective intelligence thrilled with the sense that now her moment had come. Once again in the history of progress it seemed she held the decisive weapon. Now she might strike and conquer — before the others had anything but experiments in the air.

Particularly she must strike America, swiftly, because there, if anywhere, lay the chance of an aerial rival. It was known that America possessed a flying-machine of considerable practical value, developed out of the Wright model; but it was not supposed that the Washington War Office had made any wholesale attempts to create air aerial navy. It was necessary to strike before they could do so. France had a fleet of slow navigables, several dating from 1908, that could make no possible headway against the new type. They had been built solely for reconnoitring purposes on the eastern frontier, they were mostly too small to carry more than a couple, of dozen men without arms or provisions, and not one could do forty miles. an hour. Great Britain, it seemed, in an access of meanness, temporised and wrangled with the imperial spirited Butteridge and his extraordinary invention. That also was not in play — and could not be for some months at the earliest. From Asia there, came no sign. The Germans explained this by saying the yellow peoples were without invention. No other competitor was worth considering. “Now or never,” said the Germans —“now or never we may seize the air — as once the British seized the seas! While all the other powers are still experimenting.”

Swift and systematic and secret were their preparations, and their plan most excellent. So far as their knowledge went, America was the only dangerous possibility; America, which was also now the leading trade rival of Germany and one of the chief barriers to her Imperial expansion. So at once they would strike at America. They would fling a great force across the Atlantic heavens and bear America down unwarned and unprepared.

Altogether it was a well-imagined and most hopeful and spirited enterprise, having regard to the information in the possession of the German government. The chances of it being a successful surprise were very great. The airship and the flying-machine were very different things from ironclads, which take a couple of years to build. Given hands, given plant, they could be made innumerably in a few weeks. Once the needful parks and foundries were organised, air-ships and Dracheinflieger could be poured into the sky. Indeed, when the time came, they did pour into the sky like, as a bitter French writer put it, flies roused from filth.

The attack upon America was to be the first move in this tremendous game. But no sooner had it started than instantly the aeronautic parks were to proceed to put together and inflate the second fleet which was to dominate Europe and manoeuvre significantly over London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg, or wherever else its moral effect was required. A World Surprise it was to be — no less a World Conquest; and it is wonderful how near the calmly adventurous minds that planned it came to succeeding in their colossal design.

Von Sternberg was the Moltke of this War in the Air, but it was the curious hard romanticism of Prince Karl Albert that won over the hesitating Emperor to the scheme. Prince Karl Albert was indeed the central figure of the world drama. He was the darling of the Imperialist spirit in German, and the ideal of the new aristocratic feeling — the new Chivalry, as it was called — that followed the overthrow of Socialism through its internal divisions and lack of discipline, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few great families. He was compared by obsequious flatterers to the Black Prince, to Alcibiades, to the young Caesar. To many he seemed Nietzsche’s Overman revealed. He was big and blond and virile, and splendidly non-moral. The first great feat that startled Europe, and almost brought about a new Trojan war, was his abduction of the Princess Helena of Norway and his blank refusal to marry her. Then followed his marriage with Gretchen Krass, a Swiss girl of peerless beauty. Then came the gallant rescue, which almost cost him his life, of three drowning tailors whose boat had upset in the sea near Heligoland. For that and his victory over the American yacht Defender, C.C.I., the Emperor forgave him and placed him in control of the new aeronautic arm of the German forces. This he developed with marvellous energy and ability, being resolved, as he said, to give to Germany land and sea and sky. The national passion for aggression found in him its supreme exponent, and achieved through him its realisation in this astounding war. But his fascination was more than national; all over the world his ruthless strength dominated minds as the Napoleonic legend had dominated minds. Englishmen turned in disgust from the slow, complex, civilised methods of their national politics to this uncompromising, forceful figure. Frenchmen believed in him. Poems were written to him in American.

He made the war.

Quite equally with the rest of the world, the general German population was taken by surprise by the swift vigour of the Imperial government. A considerable literature of military forecasts, beginning as early as 1906 with Rudolf Martin, the author not merely of a brilliant book of anticipations, but of a proverb, “The future of Germany lies in the air,” had, however, partially prepared the German imagination for some such enterprise.

2

Of all these world-forces and gigantic designs Bert Smallways knew nothing until he found himself in the very focus of it all and gaped down amazed on the spectacle of that giant herd of air-ships. Each one seemed as long as the Strand, and as big about as Trafalgar Square. Some must have been a third of a mile in length. He had never before seen anything so vast and disciplined as this tremendous park. For the first time in his life he really had an intimation of the extraordinary and quite important things of which a contemporary may go in ignorance. He had always clung to the illusion that Germans were fat, absurd men, who smoked china pipes, and were addicted to knowledge and horseflesh and sauerkraut and indigestible things generally.

His bird’s-eye view was quite transitory. He ducked at the first shot; and directly his balloon began to drop, his mind ran confusedly upon how he might explain himself, and whether he should pretend to be Butteridge or not. “O Lord!” he groaned, in an agony of indecision. Then his eye caught his sandals, and he felt a spasm of self-disgust. “They’ll think I’m a bloomin’ idiot,” he said, and then it was he rose up desperately and threw over the sand-bag and provoked the second and third shots.

It flashed into his head, as he cowered in the bottom of the car, that he might avoid all sorts of disagreeable and complicated explanations by pretending to be mad.

That was his last idea before the airships seemed to rush up about him as if to look at him, and his car hit the ground and bounded and pitched him out on his head . . . .

He awoke to find himself famous, and to hear a voice crying, “Booteraidge! Ja! Jai Herr Booteraidge! Selbst!”

He was lying on a little patch of grass beside one of the main avenues of the aeronautic park. The airships receded down a great vista, an im mense perspective, and the blunt prow of each was adorned with a black eagle of a hundred feet or so spread. Down the other side of the avenue ran a series of gas generators, and big hose-pipes trailed everywhere across the intervening space. Close at hand was his now nearly deflated balloon and the car on its side looking minutely small, a mere broken toy, a shrivelled bubble, in contrast with the gigantic bulk of the nearer airship. This he saw almost end-on, rising like a cliff and sloping forward towards its fellow on the other side so as to overshadow the alley between them. There was a crowd of excited people about him, big men mostly in tight uniforms. Everybody was talking, and several were shouting, in German; he knew that because they splashed and aspirated sounds like startled kittens.

Only one phrase, repeated again and again could he recognize — the name of “Herr Booteraidge.”

“Gollys!” said Bert. “They’ve spotted it.”

“Besser,” said some one, and some rapid German followed.

He perceived that close at hand was a field telephone, and that a tall officer in blue was talking thereat about him. Another stood close beside him with the portfolio of drawings and photographs in his hand. They looked round at him.

“Do you spik Cherman, Herr Booteraidge?”

Bert decided that he had better be dazed. He did his best to seem thoroughly dazed. “Where AM I?” he asked.

Volubility prevailed. “Der Prinz,” was mentioned. A bugle sounded far away, and its call was taken up by one nearer, and then by one close at hand. This seemed to increase the excitement greatly. A mono-rail car bumbled past. The telephone bell rang passionately, and the tall officer seemed to engage in a heated altercation. Then he approached the group about Bert, calling out something about “mitbringen.”

An earnest-faced, emaciated man with a white moustache appealed to Bert. “Herr Booteraidge, sir, we are chust to start!”

“Where am I?” Bert repeated.

Some one shook him by the other shoulder. “Are you Herr Booteraidge?” he asked.

“Herr Booteraidge, we are chust to start!” repeated the white moustache, and then helplessly, “What is de goot? What can we do?”

The officer from the telephone repeated his sentence about “Der Prinz” and “mitbringen.” The man with the moustache stared for a moment, grasped an idea and became violently energetic, stood up and bawled directions at unseen people. Questions were asked, and the doctor at Bert’s side answered, “Ja! Ja!” several times, also something about “Kopf.” With a certain urgency he got Bert rather unwillingly to his feet. Two huge soldiers in grey advanced upon Bert and seized hold of him. “‘Ullo!” said Bert, startled. “What’s up?”

“It is all right,” the doctor explained; “they are to carry you.”

“Where?” asked Bert, unanswered.

“Put your arms roundt their — hals — round them!”

“Yes! but where?”

“Hold tight!”

Before Bert could decide to say anything more he was whisked up by the two soldiers. They joined hands to seat him, and his arms were put about their necks. “Vorwarts!” Some one ran before him with the portfolio, and he was borne rapidly along the broad avenue between the gas generators and the airships, rapidly and on the whole smoothly except that once or twice his bearers stumbled over hose-pipes and nearly let him down.

He was wearing Mr. Butteridge’s Alpine cap, and his little shoulders were in Mr. Butteridge’s fur-lined overcoat, and he had responded to Mr. Butteridge’s name. The sandals dangled helplessly. Gaw! Everybody seemed in a devil of a hurry. Why? He was carried joggling and gaping through the twilight, marvelling beyond measure.

The systematic arrangement of wide convenient spaces, the quantities of business-like soldiers everywhere, the occasional neat piles of material, the ubiquitous mono-rail lines, and the towering ship-like hulls about him, reminded him a little of impressions he had got as a boy on a visit to Woolwich Dockyard. The whole camp reflected the colossal power of modern science that had created it. A peculiar strangeness was produced by the lowness of the electric light, which lay upon the ground, casting all shadows upwards and making a grotesque shadow figure of himself and his bearers on the airship sides, fusing all three of them into a monstrous animal with attenuated legs and an immense fan-like humped body. The lights were on the ground because as far as possible all poles and standards had been dispensed with to prevent complications when the airships rose.

It was deep twilight now, a tranquil blue-skyed evening; everything rose out from the splashes of light upon the ground into dim translucent tall masses; within the cavities of the airships small inspecting lamps glowed like cloud-veiled stars, and made them seem marvellously unsubstantial. Each airship had its name in black letters on white on either flank, and forward the Imperial eagle sprawled, an overwhelming bird in the dimness.

Bugles sounded, mono-rail cars of quiet soldiers slithered burbling by. The cabins under the heads of the airships were being lit up; doors opened in them, and revealed padded passages.

Now and then a voice gave directions to workers indistinctly seen.

There was a matter of sentinels, gangways and a long narrow passage, a scramble over a disorder of baggage, and then Bert found himself lowered to the ground and standing in the doorway of a spacious cabin — it was perhaps ten feet square and eight high, furnished with crimson padding and aluminium. A tall, bird-like young man with a small head, a long nose, and very pale hair, with his hands full of things like shaving-strops, boot-trees, hair-brushes, and toilet tidies, was saying things about Gott and thunder and Dummer Booteraidge as Bert entered. He was apparently an evicted occupant. Then he vanished, and Bert was lying back on a couch in the corner with a pillow under his head and the door of the cabin shut upon him. He was alone. Everybody had hurried out again astonishingly.

“Gollys!” said Bert. “What next?”

He stared about him at the room.

“Butteridge! Shall I try to keep it up, or shan’t I?”

The room he was in puzzled him. “‘Tisn’t a prison and ‘tisn’t a norfis?” Then the old trouble came uppermost. “I wish to ‘eaven I adn’t these silly sandals on,” he cried querulously to the universe. “They give the whole blessed show away.”

3

His door was flung open, and a compact young man in uniform appeared, carrying Mr. Butteridge’s portfolio, rucksac, and shaving-glass.

“I say!” he said in faultless English as he entered. He had a beaming face, and a sort of pinkish blond hair. “Fancy you being Butteridge. He slapped Bert’s meagre luggage down.

“We’d have started,” he said, “in another half-hour! You didn’t give yourself much time!”

He surveyed Bert curiously. His gaze rested for a fraction of a moment on the sandals. “You ought to have come on your flying-machine, Mr. Butteridge.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. “The Prince says I’ve got to look after you. Naturally he can’t see you now, but he thinks your coming’s providential. Last grace of Heaven. Like a sign. Hullo!”

He stood still and listened.

Outside there was a going to and fro of feet, a sound of distant bugles suddenly taken up and echoed close at hand, men called out in loud tones short, sharp, seemingly vital things, and were answered distantly. A bell jangled, and feet went down the corridor. Then came a stillness more distracting than sound, and then a great gurgling and rushing and splashing of water. The young man’s eyebrows lifted. He hesitated, and dashed out of the room. Presently came a stupendous bang to vary the noises without, then a distant cheering. The young man re-appeared.

“They’re running the water out of the ballonette already.”

“What water?” asked Bert.

“The water that anchored us. Artful dodge. Eh?”

Bert tried to take it in.

“Of course!” said the compact young man. “You don’t understand.”

A gentle quivering crept upon Bert’s senses. “That’s the engine,” said the compact young man approvingly. “Now we shan’t be long.”

Another long listening interval.

The cabin swayed. “By Jove! we’re starting already;” he cried. “We’re starting!”

“Starting!” cried Bert, sitting up. “Where?”

But the young man was out of the room again. There were noises of German in the passage, and other nerve-shaking sounds.

The swaying increased. The young man reappeared. “We’re off, right enough!”

“I say!”, said Bert, “where are we starting? I wish you’d explain. What’s this place? I don’t understand.”

“What!” cried the young man, “you don’t understand?”

“No. I’m ‘all dazed-like from that crack on the nob I got. Where ARE we? WHERE are we starting?”

“Don’t you know where you are — what this is?”

“Not a bit of it! What’s all the swaying and the row?”

“What a lark!” cried the young man. “I say! What a thundering lark! Don’t you know? We’re off to America, and you haven’t realised. You’ve just caught us by a neck. You’re on the blessed old flagship with the Prince. You won’t miss anything. Whatever’s on, you bet the Vaterland will be there.”

“Us! — off to America?”

“Ra — ther!

“In an airship?”

“What do YOU think?”

“Me! going to America on an airship! After that balloon! ‘Ere! I say — I don’t want to go! I want to walk about on my legs. Let me get out! I didn’t understand.”

He made a dive for the door.

The young man arrested Bert with a gesture, took hold of a strap, lifted up a panel in the padded wall, and a window appeared. “Look!” he said. Side by side they looked out.

“Gaw!” said Bert. “We’re going up!”

“We are!” said the young man, cheerfully; “fast!”

They were rising in the air smoothly and quietly, and moving slowly to the throb of the engine athwart the aeronautic park. Down below it stretched, dimly geometrical in the darkness, picked out at regular intervals by glow-worm spangles of light. One black gap in the long line of grey, round-backed airships marked the position from which the Vaterland had come. Beside it a second monster now rose softly, released from its bonds and cables into the air. Then, taking a beautifully exact distance, a third ascended, and then a fourth.

“Too late, Mr. Butteridge!” the young man remarked. “We’re off! I daresay it is a bit of a shock to you, but there you are! The Prince said you’d have to come.”

“Look ’ere, “ said Bert. “I really am dazed. What’s this thing? Where are we going?”

“This, Mr. Butteridge,” said the young man, taking pains to be explicit, “is an airship. It’s the flagship of Prince Karl Albert. This is the German air-fleet, and it is going over to America, to give that spirited people ‘what for.’ The only thing we were at all uneasy about was your invention. And here you are!”

“But! — you a German?” asked Bert.

“Lieutenant Kurt. Luft-lieutenant Kurt, at your service.”

“But you speak English!”

“Mother was English — went to school in England. Afterwards, Rhodes scholar. German none the less for that. Detailed for the present, Mr. Butteridge, to look after you. You’re shaken by your fall. It’s all right, really. They’re going to buy your machine and everything. You sit down, and take it quite calmly. You’ll soon get the hang of the position.”

4

Bert sat down on the locker, collecting his mind, and the young man talked to him about the airship.

He was really a very tactful young man indeed, in a natural sort of way. “Daresay all this is new to you,” he said; “not your sort of machine. These cabins aren’t half bad.”

He got up and walked round the little apartment, showing its points.

“Here is the bed,” he said, whipping down a couch from the wall and throwing it back again with a click. “Here are toilet things,” and he opened a neatly arranged cupboard. “Not much washing. No water we’ve got; no water at all except for drinking. No baths or anything until we get to America and land. Rub over with loofah. One pint of hot for shaving. That’s all. In the locker below you are rugs and blankets; you will need them presently. They say it gets cold. I don’t know. Never been up before. Except a little work with gliders — which is mostly going down. Three-quarters of the chaps in the fleet haven’t. Here’s a folding-chair and table behind the door. Compact, eh?”

He took the chair and balanced it on his little finger. “Pretty light, eh? Aluminium and magnesium alloy and a vacuum inside. All these cushions stuffed with hydrogen. Foxy! The whole ship’s like that. And not a man in the fleet, except the Prince and one or two others, over eleven stone. Couldn’t sweat the Prince, you know. We’ll go all over the thing tomorrow. I’m frightfully keen on it.”

He beamed at Bert. “You DO look young,” he remarked. “I always thought you’d be an old man with a beard — a sort of philosopher. I don’t know why one should expect clever people always to be old. I do.”

Bert parried that compliment a little awkwardly, and then the lieutenant was struck with the riddle why Herr Butteridge had not come in his own flying machine.

“It’s a long story,” said Bert. “Look here!” he said abruptly, “I wish you’d lend me a pair of slippers, or something. I’m regular sick of these sandals. They’re rotten things. I’ve been trying them for a friend.”

“Right O!”

The ex-Rhodes scholar whisked out of the room and reappeared with a considerable choice of footwear — pumps, cloth bath-slippers, and a purple pair adorned with golden sun-flowers.

But these he repented of at the last moment.

“I don’t even wear them myself,” he said. “Only brought ’em in the zeal of the moment.” He laughed confidentially. “Had ’em worked for me — in Oxford. By a friend. Take ’em everywhere.”

So Bert chose the pumps.

The lieutenant broke into a cheerful snigger. “Here we are trying on slippers,” he said, “and the world going by like a panorama below. Rather a lark, eh? Look!”

Bert peeped with him out of the window, looking from the bright pettiness of the red-and-silver cabin into a dark immensity. The land below, except for a lake, was black and featureless, and the other airships were hidden. “See more outside, “ said the lieutenant. “Let’s go! There’s a sort of little gallery.”

He led the way into the long passage, which was lit by one small electric light, past some notices in German, to an open balcony and a light ladder and gallery of metal, lattice overhanging, empty space. Bert followed his leader down to the gallery slowly and cautiously. From it he was able to watch the wonderful spectacle of the first air-fleet flying through the night. They flew in a wedge-shaped formation, the Vaterland highest and leading, the tail receding into the corners of the sky. They flew in long, regular undulations, great dark fish-like shapes, showing hardly any light at all, the engines making a throb-throb-throbbing sound that was very audible out on the gallery. They were going at a level of five or six thousand feet, and rising steadily. Below, the country lay silent, a clear darkness dotted and lined out with clusters of furnaces, and the lit streets of a group of big towns. The world seemed to lie in a bowl; the overhanging bulk of the airship above hid all but the lowest levels of the sky.

They watched the landscape for a space.

“Jolly it must be to invent things,” said the lieutenant suddenly. “How did you come to think of your machine first?”

“Worked it out,” said Bert, after a pause. “Jest ground away at it.”

“Our people are frightfully keen on you. They thought the British had got you. Weren’t the British keen?”

“In a way,” said Bert. “Still — its a long story.”

“I think it’s an immense thing — to invent. I couldn’t invent a thing to save my life.”

They both fell silent, watching the darkened world and following their thoughts until a bugle summoned them to a belated dinner. Bert was suddenly alarmed. “Don’t you ‘ave to dress and things?” he said. “I’ve always been too hard at Science and things to go into Society and all that.”

“No fear,” said Kurt. “Nobody’s got more than the clothes they wear. We’re travelling light. You might perhaps take your overcoat off. They’ve an electric radiator each end of the room.”

And so presently Bert found himself sitting to eat in the presence of the “German Alexander”— that great and puissant Prince, Prince Karl Albert, the War Lord, the hero of two hemispheres. He was a handsome, blond man, with deep-set eyes, a snub nose, upturned moustache, and long white hands, a strange-looking man. He sat higher than the others, under a black eagle with widespread wings and the German Imperial flags; he was, as it were, enthroned, and it struck Bert greatly that as he ate he did not look at people, but over their heads like one who sees visions. Twenty officers of various ranks stood about the table — and Bert. They all seemed extremely curious to see the famous Butteridge, and their astonishment at his appearance was ill-controlled. The Prince gave him a dignified salutation, to which, by an inspiration, he bowed. Standing next the Prince was a brown-faced, wrinkled man with silver spectacles and fluffy, dingy-grey side-whiskers, who regarded Bert with a peculiar and disconcerting attention. The company sat after ceremonies Bert could not understand. At the other end of the table was the bird-faced officer Bert had dispossessed, still looking hostile and whispering about Bert to his neighbour. Two soldiers waited. The dinner was a plain one — a soup, some fresh mutton, and cheese — and there was very little talk.

A curious solemnity indeed brooded over every one. Partly this was reaction after the intense toil and restrained excitement of starting; partly it was the overwhelming sense of strange new experiences, of portentous adventure. The Prince was lost in thought. He roused himself to drink to the Emperor in champagne, and the company cried “Hoch!” like men repeating responses in church.

No smoking was permitted, but some of the officers went down to the little open gallery to chew tobacco. No lights whatever were safe amidst that bundle of inflammable things. Bert suddenly fell yawning and shivering. He was overwhelmed by a sense of his own insignificance amidst these great rushing monsters of the air. He felt life was’ too big for him — too much for him altogether.

He said something to Kurt about his head, went up the steep ladder from the swaying little gallery into the airship again, and so, as if it were a refuge, to bed.

5

Bert slept for a time, and then his sleep was broken by dreams. Mostly he was fleeing from formless terrors down an interminable passage in an airship — a passage paved at first with ravenous trap-doors, and then with openwork canvas of the most careless description.

“Gaw!” said Bert, turning over after his seventh fall through infinite space that night.

He sat up in the darkness and nursed his knees. The progress of the airship was not nearly so smooth as a balloon; he could feel a regular swaying up, up, up and then down, down, down, and the throbbing and tremulous quiver of the engines.

His mind began to teem with memories — more memories and more.

Through them, like a struggling swimmer in broken water, came the perplexing question, what am I to do tomorrow? To-morrow, Kurt had told him, the Prince’s secretary, the Graf Von Winterfeld, would come to him and discuss his flying-machine, and then he would see the Prince. He would have to stick it out now that he was Butteridge, and sell his invention. And then, if they found him out! He had a vision of infuriated Butteridges. . . . Suppose after all he owned up? Pretended it was their misunderstanding? He began to scheme devices for selling the secret and circumventing Butteridge.

What should he ask for the thing? Somehow twenty thousand pounds struck him as about the sum indicated.

He fell into that despondency that lies in wait in the small hours. He had got too big a job on — too big a job . . . .

Memories swamped his scheming.

“Where was I this time last night?”

He recapitulated his evenings tediously and lengthily. Last night he had been up above the clouds in Butteridge’s balloon. He thought of the moment when he dropped through them and saw the cold twilight sea close below. He still remembered that disagreeable incident with a nightmare vividness. And the night before he and Grubb had been looking for cheap lodgings at Littlestone in Kent. How remote that seemed now. It might be years ago. For the first time he thought of his fellow Desert Dervish, left with the two red-painted bicycles on Dymchurch sands. “‘E won’t make much of a show of it, not without me. Any’ow ‘e did ‘ave the treasury — such as it was — in his pocket!” . . . The night before that was Bank Holiday night and they had sat discussing their minstrel enterprise, drawing up a programme and rehearsing steps. And the night before was Whit Sunday. “Lord!” cried Bert, “what a doing that motor-bicycle give me!” He recalled the empty flapping of the eviscerated cushion, the feeling of impotence as the flames rose again. From among the confused memories of that tragic flare one little figure emerged very bright and poignantly sweet, Edna, crying back reluctantly from the departing motor-car, “See you to-morrer, Bert?”

Other memories of Edna clustered round that impression. They led Bert’s mind step by step to an agreeable state that found expression in “I’ll marry ‘ER if she don’t look out.” And then in a flash it followed in his mind that if he sold the Butteridge secret he could! Suppose after all he did get twenty thousand pounds; such sums have been paid! With that he could buy house and garden, buy new clothes beyond dreaming, buy a motor, travel, have every delight of the civilised life as he knew it, for himself and Edna. Of course, risks were involved. “I’ll ‘ave old Butteridge on my track, I expect!”

He meditated upon that. He declined again to despondency. As yet he was only in the beginning of the adventure. He had still to deliver the goods and draw the cash. And before that — Just now he was by no means on his way home. He was flying off to America to fight there. “Not much fighting,” he considered; “all our own way.” Still, if a shell did happen to hit the Vaterland on the underside! . . .

“S’pose I ought to make my will.”

He lay back for some time composing wills — chiefly in favour of Edna. He had settled now it was to be twenty thousand pounds. He left a number of minor legacies. The wills became more and more meandering and extravagant . . . .

He woke from the eighth repetition of his nightmare fall through space. “This flying gets on one’s nerves,” he said.

He could feel the airship diving down, down, down, then slowly swinging to up, up, up. Throb, throb, throb, throb, quivered the engine.

He got up presently and wrapped himself about with Mr. Butteridge’s overcoat and all the blankets, for the air was very keen. Then he peeped out of the window to see a grey dawn breaking over clouds, then turned up his light and bolted his door, sat down to the table, and produced his chest-protector.

He smoothed the crumpled plans with his hand, and contemplated them. Then he referred to the other drawings in the portfolio. Twenty thousand pounds. If he worked it right! It was worth trying, anyhow.

Presently he opened the drawer in which Kurt had put paper and writing-materials.

Bert Smallways was by no means a stupid person, and up to a certain limit he had not been badly educated. His board school had taught him to draw up to certain limits, taught him to calculate and understand a specification. If at that point his country had tired of its efforts, and handed him over unfinished to scramble for a living in an atmosphere of advertisements and individual enterprise, that was really not his fault. He was as his State had made him, and the reader must not imagine because he was a little Cockney cad, that he was absolutely incapable of grasping the idea of the Butteridge flying-machine. But he found it stiff and perplexing. His motor-bicycle and Grubb’s experiments and the “mechanical drawing” he had done in standard seven all helped him out; and, moreover, the maker of these drawings, whoever he was, had been anxious to make his intentions plain. Bert copied sketches, he made notes, he made a quite tolerable and intelligent copy of the essential drawings and sketches of the others. Then he fell into a meditation upon them.

At last he rose with a sigh, folded up the originals that had formerly been in his chest-protector and put them into the breast-pocket of his jacket, and then very carefully deposited the copies he had made in the place of the originals. He had no very clear plan in his mind in doing this, except that he hated the idea of altogether parting with the secret. For a long time he meditated profoundly — nodding. Then he turned out his light and went to bed again and schemed himself to sleep.

6

The hochgeboren Graf von Winterfeld was also a light sleeper that night, but then he was one of these people who sleep little and play chess problems in their heads to while away the time — and that night he had a particularly difficult problem to solve.

He came in upon Bert while he was still in bed in the glow of the sunlight reflected from the North Sea below, consumng the rolls and coffee a soldier had brought him. He had a portfolio under his arm, and in the clear, early morning light his dingy grey hair and heavy, silver-rimmed spectacles made him look almost benevolent. He spoke English fluently, but with a strong German flavour. He was particularly bad with his “b’s,” and his “th’s” softened towards weak “z’ds.” He called Bert explosively, “Pooterage.” He began with some indistinct civilities, bowed, took a folding-table and chair from behind the door, put the former between himself and Bert, sat down on the latter, coughed drily, and opened his portfolio. Then he put his elbows on the table, pinched his lower lip with his two fore-fingers, and regarded Bert disconcertingly with magnified eyes. “You came to us, Herr Pooterage, against your will,” he said at last.

“‘Ow d’you make that out?” asked Bert, after a pause of astonishment.

“I chuge by ze maps in your car. They were all English. And your provisions. They were all picnic. Also your cords were entangled. You haf’ been tugging — but no good. You could not manage ze balloon, and anuzzer power than yours prought you to us. Is it not so?”

Bert thought.

“Also — where is ze laty?”

“‘Ere! — what lady?”

“You started with a laty. That is evident. You shtarted for an afternoon excursion — a picnic. A man of your temperament — he would take a laty. She was not wiz you in your balloon when you came down at Dornhof. No! Only her chacket! It is your affair. Still, I am curious.”

Bert reflected. “‘Ow d’you know that?”

“I chuge by ze nature of your farious provisions. I cannot account, Mr. Pooterage, for ze laty, what you haf done with her. Nor can I tell why you should wear nature-sandals, nor why you should wear such cheap plue clothes. These are outside my instructions. Trifles, perhaps. Officially they are to be ignored. Laties come and go — I am a man of ze worldt. I haf known wise men wear sandals and efen practice vegetarian habits. I haf known men — or at any rate, I haf known chemists — who did not schmoke. You haf, no doubt, put ze laty down somewhere. Well. Let us get to — business. A higher power”— his voice changed its emotional quality, his magnified eyes seemed to dilate —“has prought you and your secret straight to us. So!”— he bowed his head —“so pe it. It is ze Destiny of Chermany and my Prince. I can undershtandt you always carry zat secret. You are afraidt of roppers and spies. So it comes wiz you — to us. Mr. Pooterage, Chermany will puy it.”

“Will she?”

“She will,” said the secretary, looking hard at Bert’s abandoned sandals in the corner of the locker. He roused himself, consulted a paper of notes for a moment, and Bert eyed his brown and wrinkled face with expectation and terror. “Chermany, I am instructed to say,” said the secretary, with his eyes on the table and his notes spread out, “has always been willing to puy your secret. We haf indeed peen eager to acquire it fery eager; and it was only ze fear that you might be, on patriotic groundts, acting in collusion with your Pritish War Office zat has made us discreet in offering for your marvellous invention through intermediaries. We haf no hesitation whatefer now, I am instructed, in agreeing to your proposal of a hundert tousand poundts.”

“Crikey!” said Bert, overwhelmed.

“I peg your pardon?”

“Jest a twinge,” said Bert, raising his hand to his bandaged head.

“Ah! Also I am instructed to say that as for that noble, unrightly accused laty you haf championed so brafely against Pritish hypocrisy and coldness, all ze chivalry of Chermany is on her site.”

“Lady?” said Bert faintly, and then recalled the great Butteridge love story. Had the old chap also read the letters? He must think him a scorcher if he had. “Oh! that’s aw-right,” he said, “about ‘er. I ‘adn’t any doubts about that. I—”

He stopped. The secretary certainly had a most appalling stare. It seemed ages before he looked down again. “Well, ze laty as you please. She is your affair. I haf performt my instructions. And ze title of Paron, zat also can pe done. It can all pe done, Herr Pooterage.”

He drummed on the table for a second or so, and resumed. “I haf to tell you, sir, zat you come to us at a crisis in-Welt–Politik. There can be no harm now for me to put our plans before you. Pefore you leafe this ship again they will be manifest to all ze worldt. War is perhaps already declared. We go-to America. Our fleet will descend out of ze air upon ze United States — it is a country quite unprepared for war eferywhere — eferywhere. Zey have always relied on ze Atlantic. And their navy. We have selected a certain point — it is at present ze secret of our commanders — which we shall seize, and zen we shall establish a depot — a sort of inland Gibraltar. It will be — what will it be? — an eagle’s nest. Zere our airships will gazzer and repair, and thence they will fly to and fro ofer ze United States, terrorising cities, dominating Washington, levying what is necessary, until ze terms we dictate are accepted. You follow me?”

“Go on!” said Bert.

“We could haf done all zis wiz such Luftschiffe and Drachenflieger as we possess, but ze accession of your machine renders our project complete. It not only gifs us a better Drachenflieger, but it remofes our last uneasiness as to Great Pritain. Wizout you, sir, Great Pritain, ze land you lofed so well and zat has requited you so ill, zat land of Pharisees and reptiles, can do nozzing! — nozzing! You see, I am perfectly frank wiz you. Well, I am instructed that Chermany recognises all this. We want you to place yourself at our disposal. We want you to become our Chief Head Flight Engineer. We want you to manufacture, we want to equip a swarm of hornets under your direction. We want you to direct this force. And it is at our depot in America we want you. So we offer you simply, and without haggling, ze full terms you demanded weeks ago — one hundert tousand poundts in cash, a salary of three tousand poundts a year, a pension of one tousand poundts a year, and ze title of Paron as you desired. These are my instructions.”

He resumed his scrutiny of Bert’s face.

“That’s all right, of course,” said Bert, a little short of breath, but otherwise resolute and calm; and it seemed to him that now was the time to bring his nocturnal scheming to the issue.

The secretary contemplated Bert’s collar with sustained attention. Only for one moment did his gaze move to the sandals and back.

“Jes’ lemme think a bit,” said Bert, finding the stare debilitating. “Look ’ere I” he said at last, with an air of great explicitness, “I GOT the secret.”

“Yes.”

“But I don’t want the name of Butteridge to appear — see? I been thinking that over.”

“A little delicacy?”

“Exactly. You buy the secret — leastways, I give it you — from Bearer — see?”

His voice failed him a little, and the stare continued. “I want to do the thing Enonymously. See?”

Still staring. Bert drifted on like a swimmer caught by a current. “Fact is, I’m going to edop’ the name of Smallways. I don’t want no title of Baron; I’ve altered my mind. And I want the money quiet-like. I want the hundred thousand pounds paid into benks-thirty thousand into the London and County Benk Branch at Bun Hill in Kent directly I ‘and over the plans; twenty thousand into the Benk of England; ‘arf the rest into a good French bank, the other ‘arf the German National Bank, see? I want it put there, right away. I don’t want it put in the name of Butteridge. I want it put in the name of Albert Peter Smallways; that’s the name I’m going to edop’. That’s condition one.”

“Go on!” said the secretary.

“The nex condition,” said Bert, “is that you don’t make any inquiries as to title. I mean what English gentlemen do when they sell or let you land. You don’t arst ‘ow I got it. See? ‘Ere I am — I deliver you the goods — that’s all right. Some people ‘ave the cheek to say this isn’t my invention, see? It is, you know — THAT’S all right; but I don’t want that gone into. I want a fair and square agreement saying that’s all right. See?”

His “See?” faded into a profound silence.

The secretary sighed at last, leant back in his chair and produced a tooth-pick, and used it, to assist his meditation on Bert’s case. “What was that name?” he asked at last, putting away the tooth-pick; “I must write it down.”

“Albert Peter Smallways,” said Bert, in a mild tone.

The secretary wrote it down, after a little difficulty about the spelling because of the different names of the letters of the alphabet in the two languages.

“And now, Mr. Schmallvays,” he said at last, leaning back and resuming the stare, “tell me: how did you ket hold of Mister Pooterage’s balloon?”

7

When at last the Graf von Winterfold left Bert Smallways, he left him in an extremely deflated condition, with all his little story told.

He had, as people say, made a clean breast of it. He had been pursued into details. He had had to explain the blue suit, the sandals, the Desert Dervishes — everything. For a time scientific zeal consumed the secretary, and the question of the plans remained in suspense. He even went into speculation about the previous occupants of the balloon. “I suppose,” he said, “the laty WAS the laty. Bot that is not our affair.

“It is fery curious and amusing, yes: but I am afraid the Prince may be annoyt. He acted wiz his usual decision — always he acts wiz wonterful decision. Like Napoleon. Directly he was tolt of your descent into the camp at Dornhof, he said, ‘Pring him! — pring him! It is my schtar!’ His schtar of Destiny! You see? He will be dthwarted. He directed you to come as Herr Pooterage, and you haf not done so. You haf triet, of course; but it has peen a poor try. His chugments of men are fery just and right, and it is better for men to act up to them — gompletely. Especially now. Particularly now.”

He resumed that attitude of his, with his underlip pinched between his forefingers. He spoke almost confidentially. “It will be awkward. I triet to suggest some doubt, but I was over-ruled. The Prince does not listen. He is impatient in the high air. Perhaps he will think his schtar has been making a fool of him. Perhaps he will think I haf been making a fool of him.”

He wrinkled his forehead, and drew in the corners of his mouth.

“I got the plans,” said Bert.

“Yes. There is that! Yes. But you see the Prince was interested in Herr Pooterage because of his romantic seit. Herr Pooterage was so much more — ah! — in the picture. I am afraid you are not equal to controlling the flying machine department of our aerial park as he wished you to do. He hadt promised himself that . . . .

“And der was also the prestige — the worldt prestige of Pooterage with us. . . . Well, we must see what we can do.” He held out his hand. “Gif me the plans.”

A terrible chill ran through the being of Mr. Smallways. To this day he is not clear in his mind whether he wept or no, but certainly there was weeping in his voice. “‘Ere, I say!” he protested. “Ain’t I to ‘ave — nothin’ for ’em?”

The secretary regarded him with benevolent eyes. “You do not deserve anyzing!” he said.

“I might ‘ave tore ’em up.”

“Zey are not yours!”

“They weren’t Butteridge’s!”

“No need to pay anyzing.”

Bert’s being seemed to tighten towards desperate deeds. “Gaw!” he said, clutching his coat, “AIN’T there?”

“Pe galm,“said the secretary. “Listen! You shall haf five hundert poundts. You shall haf it on my promise. I will do that for you, and that is all I can do. Take it from me. Gif me the name of that bank. Write it down. So! I tell you the Prince — is no choke. I do not think he approffed of your appearance last night. No! I can’t answer for him. He wanted Pooterage, and you haf spoilt it. The Prince — I do not understand quite, he is in a strange state. It is the excitement of the starting and this great soaring in the air. I cannot account for what he does. But if all goes well I will see to it — you shall haf five hundert poundts. Will that do? Then gif me the plans.”

“Old beggar!” said Bert, as the door clicked. “Gaw! — what an ole beggar! — SHARP!”

He sat down in the folding-chair, and whistled noiselessly for a time.

“Nice ‘old swindle for ’im if I tore ’em up! I could ‘ave.”

He rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. “I gave the whole blessed show away. If I’d j’es’ kep quiet about being Enonymous. . . . Gaw! . . . Too soon, Bert, my boy — too soon and too rushy. I’d like to kick my silly self.

“I couldn’t ‘ave kep’ it up.

“After all, it ain’t so very bad,” he said.

“After all, five ‘undred pounds. . . . It isn’t MY secret, anyhow. It’s jes’ a pickup on the road. Five ‘undred.

“Wonder what the fare is from America back home?”

8

And later in the day an extremely shattered and disorganised Bert Smallways stood in the presence of the Prince Karl Albert.

The proceedings were in German. The Prince was in his own cabin, the end room of the airship, a charming apartment furnished in wicker-work with a long window across its entire breadth, looking forward. He was sitting at a folding-table of green baize, with Von Winterfeld and two officers sitting beside him, and littered before them was a number of American maps and Mr. Butteridge’s letters and his portfolio and a number of loose papers. Bert was not asked to sit down, and remained standing throughout the interview. Von Winterfeld told his story, and every now and then the words Ballon and Pooterage struck on Bert’s ears. The Prince’s face remained stern and ominous and the two officers watched it cautiously or glanced at Bert. There was something a little strange in their scrutiny of the Prince — a curiosity, an apprehension. Then presently he was struck by an idea, and they fell discussing the plans. The Prince asked Bert abruptly in English. “Did you ever see this thing go op?”

Bert jumped. “Saw it from Bun ‘Ill, your Royal Highness.”

Von Winterfeld made some explanation.

“How fast did it go?”

“Couldn’t say, your Royal Highness. The papers, leastways the Daily Courier, said eighty miles an hour.”

They talked German over that for a time.

“Couldt it standt still? Op in the air? That is what I want to know.”

“It could ‘ovver, your Royal Highness, like a wasp,” said Bert.

“Viel besser, nicht wahr?” said the Prince to Von Winterfeld, and then went on in German for a time.

Presently they came to an end, and the two officers looked at Bert. One rang a bell, and the portfolio was handed to an attendant, who took it away.

Then they reverted to the case of Bert, and it was evident the Prince was inclined to be hard with him. Von Winterfeld protested. Apparently theological considerations came in, for there were several mentions of “Gott!” Some conclusions emerged, and it was apparent that Von Winterfeld was instructed to convey them to Bert.

“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.

9

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 suddenly 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.

The realisation that there was England gave Bert sudden and unexpected qualms of patriotic compunction. He was struck by a quite novel idea. After all, he might have torn up those plans and thrown them away. These people could not have done so very much to him. And even if they did, ought not an Englishman to die for his country? It was an idea that had hitherto been rather smothered up by the cares of a competitive civilisation. He became violently depressed. He ought, he perceived, to have seen it in that light before. Why hadn’t he seen it in that light before?

Indeed, wasn’t he a sort of traitor?. . . . He wondered how the aerial fleet must look from down there. Tremendous, no doubt, and dwarfing all the buildings.

He was passing between Manchester and Liverpool, Kurt told him; a gleaming band across the prospect was the Ship Canal, and a weltering ditch of shipping far away ahead, the Mersey estuary. Bert was a Southerner; he had never been north of the Midland counties, and the multitude of factories and chimneys — the latter for the most part obsolete and smokeless now, superseded by huge electric generating stations that consumed their own reek — old railway viaducts, mono-rail net-works and goods yards, and the vast areas of dingy homes and narrow streets, spreading aimlessly, struck him as though Camberwell and Rotherhithe had run to seed. Here and there, as if caught in a net, were fields and agricultural fragments. It was a sprawl of undistinguished population. There were, no doubt, museums and town halls and even cathedrals of a sort to mark theoretical centres of municipal and religious organisation in this confusion; but Bert could not see them, they did not stand out at all in that wide disorderly vision of congested workers’ houses and places to work, and shops and meanly conceived chapels and churches. And across this landscape of an industrial civilisation swept the shadows of the German airships like a hurrying shoal of fishes . . . .

Kurt and he fell talking of aerial tactics, and presently went down to the undergallery in order that Bert might see the Drachenflieger that the airships of the right wing had picked up overnight and were towing behind them; each airship towing three or four. They looked, like big box-kites of an exaggerated form, soaring at the ends of invisible cords. They had long, square heads and flattened tails, with lateral propellers.

“Much skill is required for those! — much skill!”

“Rather!”

Pause.

“Your machine is different from that, Mr. Butteridge?”

“Quite different,” said Bert. “More like an insect, and less like a bird. And it buzzes, and don’t drive about so. What can those things do?”

Kurt was not very clear upon that himself, and was still explaining when Bert was called to the conference we have recorded with the Prince.

And after that was over, the last traces of Butteridge fell from Bert like a garment, and he became Smallways to all on board. The soldiers ceased to salute him, and the officers ceased to seem aware of his existence, except Lieutenant Kurt. He was turned out of his nice cabin, and packed in with his belongings to share that of Lieutenant Kurt, whose luck it was to be junior, and the bird-headed officer, still swearing slightly, and carrying strops and aluminium boot-trees and weightless hair-brushes and hand-mirrors and pomade in his hands, resumed possession. Bert was put in with Kurt because there was nowhere else for him to lay his bandaged head in that close-packed vessel. He was to mess, he was told, with the men.

Kurt came and stood with his legs wide apart and surveyed, him for a moment as he sat despondent in his new quarters.

“What’s your real name, then?” said Kurt, who was only imperfectly informed of the new state of affairs.

“Smallways.”

“I thought you were a bit of a fraud — even when I thought you were Butteridge. You’re jolly lucky the Prince took it calmly. He’s a pretty tidy blazer when he’s roused. He wouldn’t stick a moment at pitching a chap of your sort overboard if he thought fit. No! . . . They’ve shoved you on to me, but it’s my cabin, you know.”

“I won’t forget,” said Bert.

Kurt left him, and when he came to look about him the first thing he saw pasted on the padded wall was a reproduction, of the great picture by Siegfried Schmalz of the War God, that terrible, trampling figure with the viking helmet and the scarlet cloak, wading through destruction, sword in hand, which had so strong a resemblance to Karl Albert, the prince it was painted to please.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/w45wa/chapter4.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30