H.G. Wells: The War in the Air (1908)
The "Vaterland" Is Disabled
And then above the flames of Manhattan Island came a battle, the
first battle in the air. The Americans had realised the price
their waiting game must cost, and struck with all the strength
they had, if haply they might still save New York from this mad
Prince of Blood and Iron, and from fire and death.
They came down upon the Germans on the wings of a great gale in
the twilight, amidst thunder and rain. They came from the yards
of Washington and Philadelphia, full tilt in two squadrons, and
but for one sentinel airship hard by Trenton, the surprise would
have been complete.
The Germans, sick and weary with destruction, and half empty of
ammunition, were facing up into the weather when the news of this
onset reached them. New York they had left behind to the
south-eastward, a darkened city with one hideous red scar of
flames. All the airships rolled and staggered, bursts of
hailstorm bore them down and forced them to fight their way up
again; the air had become bitterly cold. The Prince was on the
point of issuing orders to drop earthward and trail copper
lightning chains when the news of the aeroplane attack came to
him. He faced his fleet in line abreast south, had the
drachenflieger manned and held ready to cast loose, and ordered a
general ascent into the freezing clearness above the wet and
The news of what was imminent came slowly to Bert's perceptions.
He was standing in the messroom at the time and the evening
rations were being served out. He had resumed Butteridge's coat
and gloves, and in addition he had wrapped his blanket about him.
He was dipping his bread into his soup and was biting off big
mouthfuls. His legs were wide apart, and he leant against the
partition in order to steady himself amidst the pitching and
oscillation of the airship. The men about him looked tired and
depressed; a few talked, but most were sullen and thoughtful, and
one or two were air-sick. They all seemed to share the
peculiarly outcast feeling that had followed the murders of the
evening, a sense of a land beneath them, and an outraged humanity
grown more hostile than the Sea.
Then the news hit them. A red-faced sturdy man, a man with
light eyelashes and a scar, appeared in the doorway and shouted
something in German that manifestly startled every one. Bert
felt the shock of the altered tone, though he could not
understand a word that was said. T he announcement was followed
by a pause, and then a great outcry of questions and suggestions.
Even the air-sick men flushed and spoke. For some minutes the
mess-room was Bedlam, and then, as if it were a confirmation of
the news, came the shrill ringing of the bells that called the
men to their posts.
Bert with pantomime suddenness found himself alone.
"What's up?" he said, though he partly guessed.
He stayed only to gulp down the remainder of his soup, and then
ran along the swaying passage and, clutching tightly, down the
ladder to the little gallery. The weather hit him like cold
water squirted from a hose. The airship engaged in some new feat
of atmospheric Jiu-Jitsu. He drew his blanket closer about him,
clutching with one straining hand. He found himself tossing in a
wet twilight, with nothing to be seen but mist pouring past him.
Above him the airship was warm with lights and busy with the
movements of men going to their quarters. Then abruptly the
lights went out, and the Vaterland with bounds and twists and
strange writhings was fighting her way up the air.
He had a glimpse, as the Vaterland rolled over, of some large
buildings burning close below them, a quivering acanthus of
flames, and then he saw indistinctly through the driving weather
another airship wallowing along like a porpoise, and also working
up. Presently the clouds swallowed her again for a time, and
then she came back to sight as a dark and whale-like monster,
amidst streaming weather. The air was full of flappings and
pipings, of void, gusty shouts and noises; it buffeted him and
confused him; ever and again his attention became rigid--a blind
and deaf balancing and clutching.
Something fell past him out of the vast darknesses above and
vanished into the tumults below, going obliquely downward. It
was a German drachenflieger. The thing was going so fast he had
but an instant apprehension of the dark figure of the aeronaut
crouched together clutching at his wheel. It might be a
manoeuvre, but it looked like a catastrophe.
"Gaw!" said Bert.
"Pup-pup-pup" went a gun somewhere in the mirk ahead and suddenly
and quite horribly the Vaterland lurched, and Bert and the
sentinel were clinging to the rail for dear life. "Bang!" came
a vast impact out of the zenith, followed by another huge roll,
and all about him the tumbled clouds flashed red and lurid in
response to flashes unseen, revealing immense gulfs. The rail
went right overhead, and he was hanging loose in the air holding
on to it.
For a time Bert's whole mind and being was given to clutching.
"I'm going into the cabin," he said, as the airship righted again
and brought back the gallery floor to his feet. He began to make
his way cautiously towards the ladder. "Whee-wow!" he cried as
the whole gallery reared itself up forward, and then plunged down
like a desperate horse.
Crack! Bang! Bang! Bang! And then hard upon this little rattle
of shots and bombs came, all about him, enveloping him, engulfing
him, immense and overwhelming, a quivering white blaze of
lightning and a thunder-clap that was like the bursting of a
Just for the instant before that explosion the universe seemed to
be standing still in a shadowless glare.
It was then he saw the American aeroplane. He saw it in the
light of the flash as a thing altogether motionless. Even its
screw appeared still, and its men were rigid dolls. (For it
was so near he could see the men upon it quite distinctly.) Its
stern was tilting down, and the whole machine was heeling over.
It was of the Colt-Coburn-Langley pattern, with double up-tilted
wings and the screw ahead, and the men were in a boat-like body
netted over. From this very light long body, magazine guns
projected on either side. One thing that was strikingly odd and
wonderful in that moment of revelation was that the left upper
wing was burning downward with a reddish, smoky flame. But this
was not the most wonderful thing about this apparition. The most
wonderful thing was that it and a German airship five hundred
yards below were threaded as it were on the lightning flash,
which turned out of its path as if to take them, and, that out
from the corners and projecting points of its huge wings
everywhere, little branching thorn-trees of lightning were
Like a picture Bert saw these things, a picture a little blurred
by a thin veil of wind-torn mist.
The crash of the thunder-clap followed the flash and seemed a
part of it, so that it is hard to say whether Bert was the rather
deafened or blinded in that instant.
And then darkness, utter darkness, and a heavy report and a thin
small sound of voices that went wailing downward into the abyss
There followed upon these things a long, deep swaying of the
airship, and then Bert began a struggle to get back to his cabin.
He was drenched and cold and terrified beyond measure, and now
more than a little air-sick. It seemed to him that the strength
had gone out of his knees and hands, and that his feet had become
icily slippery over the metal they trod upon. But that was
because a thin film of ice had frozen upon the gallery.
He never knew how long his ascent of the ladder back into the
airship took him, but in his dreams afterwards, when he recalled
it, that experience seemed to last for hours. Below, above,
around him were gulfs, monstrous gulfs of howling wind and eddies
of dark, whirling snowflakes, and he was protected from it all by
a little metal grating and a rail, a grating and rail that seemed
madly infuriated with him, passionately eager to wrench him off
and throw him into the tumult of space.
Once he had a fancy that a bullet tore by his ear, and that the
clouds and snowflakes were lit by a flash, but he never even
turned his head to see what new assailant whirled past them in
the void. He wanted to get into the passage! He wanted to get
into the passage! He wanted to get into the passage! Would the
arm by which he was clinging hold out, or would it give way and
snap? A handful of hail smacked him in the face, so that for a
time he was breathless and nearly insensible. Hold tight, Bert!
He renewed his efforts.
He found himself, with an enormous sense of relief and warmth, in
the passage. The passage was behaving like a dice-box, its
disposition was evidently to rattle him about and then throw him
out again. He hung on with the convulsive clutch of instinct
until the passage lurched down ahead. Then he would make a short
run cabin-ward, and clutch again as the fore-end rose.
Behold! He was in the cabin!
He snapped-to the door, and for a time he was not a human being,
he was a case of air-sickness. He wanted to get somewhere that
would fix him, that he needn't clutch. He opened the locker and
got inside among the loose articles, and sprawled there
helplessly, with his head sometimes bumping one side and
sometimes the other. The lid shut upon him with a click. He did
not care then what was happening any more. He did not care who
fought who, or what bullets were fired or explosions occurred.
He did not care if presently he was shot or smashed to pieces.
He was full of feeble, inarticulate rage and despair. "Foolery!"
he said, his one exhaustive comment on human enterprise,
adventure, war, and the chapter of accidents that had entangled
him. "Foolery! Ugh!" He included the order of the universe in
that comprehensive condemnation. He wished he was dead.
He saw nothing of the stars, as presently the Vaterland cleared
the rush and confusion of the lower weather, nor of the duel she
fought with two circling aeroplanes, how they shot her rear-most
chambers through, and how she foughtthem off with explosive
bullets and turned to run as she did so.
The rush and swoop of these wonderful night birds was all lost
upon him; their heroic dash and self-sacrifice. The Vaterland
was rammed, and for some moments she hung on the verge of
destruction, and sinking swiftly, with the American aeroplane
entangled with her smashed propeller, and the Americans trying to
scramble aboard. It signified nothing to Bert. To him it
conveyed itself simply as vehement swaying. Foolery! When the
American airship dropped off at last, with most of its crew shot
or fallen, Bert in his locker appreciated nothing but that the
Vaterland had taken a hideous upward leap.
But then came infinite relief, incredibly blissful relief. The
rolling, the pitching, the struggle ceased, ceased instantly and
absolutely. The Vaterland was no longer fighting the gale; her
smashed and exploded engines throbbed no more; she was disabled
and driving before the wind as smoothly as a balloon, a huge,
windspread, tattered cloud of aerial wreckage.
To Bert it was no more than the end of a series of disagreeable
sensations. He was not curious to know what had happened to the
airship, nor what had happened to the battle. For a long time he
lay waiting apprehensively for the pitching and tossing and his
qualms to return, and so, lying, boxed up in the locker, he
presently fell asleep.
He awoke tranquil but very stuffy, and at the same time very
cold, and quite unable to recollect where he could be. His head
ached, and his breath was suffocated. He had been dreaming
confusedly of Edna, and desert dervishes, and of riding bicycles
in an extremely perilous manner through the upper air amidst a
pyrotechnic display of crackers and Bengal lights--to the great
annoyance of a sort of composite person made up of the Prince and
Mr. Butteridge. Then for some reason Edna and he had begun to
cry pitifully for each other, and he woke up with wet eye-lashes
into this ill-ventilated darkness of thelocker. He would never
see Edna any more, never see Edna any more.
He thought he must be back in the bedroom behind the cycle shop
at the bottom of Bun Hill, and he was sure the vision he had had
of the destruction of a magnificent city, a city quite incredibly
great and splendid, by means of bombs, was no more than a
particularly vivid dream.
"Grubb!" he called, anxious to tell him.
The answering silence, and the dull resonance of the locker to
his voice, supplementing the stifling quality of the air, set
going a new train of ideas. He lifted up his hands and feet, and
met an inflexible resistance. He was in a coffin, he thought!
He had been buried alive! He gave way at once to wild panic.
"'Elp!" he screamed. "'Elp!" and drummed with his feet, and
kicked and struggled. "Let me out! Let me out!"
For some seconds he struggled with this intolerable horror, and
then the side of his imagined coffin gave way, and he was flying
out into daylight. Then he was rolling about on what seemed to
be a padded floor with Kurt, and being punched and sworn at
He sat up. His head bandage had become loose and got over one
eye, and he whipped the whole thing off. Kurt was also sitting
up, a yard away from him, pink as ever, wrapped in blankets, and
with an aluminium diver's helmet over his knee, staring at him
with a severe expression, and rubbing his downy unshaven chin.
They were both on a slanting floor of crimson padding, and above
them was an opening like a long, low cellar flap that Bert by an
effort perceived to be the cabin door in a half-inverted
condition. The whole cabin had in fact turned on its side.
"What the deuce do you mean by it, Smallways?" said Kurt,
"jumping out of that locker when I was certain you had gone
overboard with the rest of them? Where have you been?"
"What's up?" asked Bert.
"This end of the airship is up. Most other things are down."
"Was there a battle?"
"I haven't seen the papers, Smallways. We left before the finish.
We got disabled and unmanageable, and our colleagues--consorts I
mean--were too busy most of them to trouble about us, and the
wind blew us--Heaven knows where the wind IS blowing us. It blew
us right out of action at the rate of eighty miles an hour or so.
Gott! what a wind that was! What a fight! And here we are!"
"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
"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
"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 als 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
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
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.
A second pair of boots followed, making wide and magnificent
gestures in their attempts to feel the door frame. Kurt guided
them to a foothold, and the Prince, shaved and brushed and
beeswaxed and clean and big and terrible, slid down into position
astride of the door. All the men and Bert also stood up and
The Prince surveyed them with the gesture of a man who site a
steed. The head of the Kapitan appeared beside him.
Then Bert had a terrible moment. The blue blaze of the Prince's
eye fell upon him, the great finger pointed, a question was
asked. Kurt intervened with explanations.
"So," said the Prince, and Bert was disposed of.
Then the Prince addressed the men in short, heroic sentences,
steadying himself on the hinge with one hand and waving the other
in a fine variety of gesture. What he said Bert could not tell,
but he perceived that their demeanor changed, their backs
stiffened. They began to punctuate the Prince's discourse with
cries of approval. At the end their leader burst into song and
all the men with him. "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott," they
chanted in deep, strong tones, with an immense moral uplifting.
It was glaringly inappropriate in a damaged, half-overturned, and
sinking airship, which had been disabled and blown out of action
after inflicting the cruellest bombardment in the world's
history; but it was immensely stirring nevertheless. Bert was
deeply moved. He could not sing any of the words of Luther's
great hymn, but he opened his mouth and emitted loud, deep, and
partially harmonious notes....
Far below, this deep chanting struck on the ears of a little camp
of Christianised half-breeds who were lumbering. They were
breakfasting, but they rushed out cheerfully, quite prepared for
the Second Advent. They stared at the shattered and twisted
Vaterland driving before the gale, amazed beyond words. In so
many respects it was like their idea of the Second Advent, and
then again in so many respects,it wasn't. They stared at its
passage, awe-stricken and perplexed beyond their power of words.
The hymn ceased. Then after a long interval a voice came out of
heaven. "Vat id diss blace here galled itself; vat?"
They made no answer. Indeed they did not understand, though the
question repeated itself.
And at last the monster drove away northward over a crest of pine
woods and was no more seen. They fell into a hot and long
The hymn ended. The Prince's legs dangled up the passage again,
and every one was briskly prepared for heroic exertion and
triumphant acts. "Smallways!" cried Kurt, "come here!"
Then Bert under Kurt's direction, had his first experience of the
work of an air-sailor.
The immediate task before the captain of the Vaterland was a very
simple one. He had to keep afloat. The wind, though it had
fallen from its earlier violence, was still blowing strongly
enough to render the grounding of so clumsy a mass extremely
dangerous, even if it had been desirable for the Prince to land
in inhabited country, and so risk capture. It was necessary to
keep the airship up until the wind fell and then, if possible, to
descend in some lonely district of the Territory where there
would be a chance of repair or rescue by some searching consort.
In order to do this weight had to be dropped, and Kurt was
detailed with a dozen men to climb down among the wreckage of the
deflated air-chambers and cut the stuff clear, portion by
portion, as the airship sank. So Bert, armed with a sharp
cutlass, found himself clambering about upon netting four
thousand feet up in the air, trying to understand Kurt when he
spoke in English and to divine him when he used German.
It was giddy work, but not nearly so giddy as a rather
overnourished reader sitting in a warm room might imagine. Bert
found it quite possible to look down and contemplate the wild
sub-arctic landscape below, now devoid of any sign of habitation,
a land of rocky cliffs and cascades and broad swirling desolate
rivers, and of trees and thickets that grew more stunted and
scrubby as the day wore on. Here and there on the hills were
patches and pockets of snow. And over all this he worked,
hacking away at the tough and slippery oiled silk and clinging
stoutly to the netting. Presently they cleared and dropped a
tangle of bent steel rods and wires from the frame, and a big
chunk of silk bladder. That was trying. The airship flew up at
once as this loose hamper parted. It seemed almost as though
they were dropping all Canada. The stuff spread out in the air
and floated down and hit and twisted up in a nasty fashion on the
lip of a gorge. Bert clung like a frozen monkey to his ropes and
did not move a muscle for five minutes.
But there was something very exhilarating, he found, in this
dangerous work, and above every thing else, there was the sense
of fellowship. He was no longer an isolated and distrustful
stranger among these others, he had now a common object with
them, he worked with a friendly rivalry to get through with his
share before them. And he developed a great respect and
affection for Kurt, which had hitherto been only latent in him.
Kurt with a job to direct was altogether admirable; he was
resourceful, helpful, considerate, swift. He seemed to be
everywhere. One forgot his pinkness, his light cheerfulness of
manner. Directly one had trouble he was at hand with sound and
confident advice. He was like an elder brother to his men.
All together they cleared three considerable chunks of wreckage,
and then Bert was glad to clamber up into the cabins again and
give place to a second squad. He and his companions were given
hot coffee, and indeed, even gloved as they were, the job had
been a cold one. They sat drinking it and regarding each other
with satisfaction. One man spoke to Bert amiably in German, and
Bert nodded and smiled. Through Kurt, Bert, whose ankles were
almost frozen, succeeded in getting a pair of top-boots from one
of the disabled men.
In the afternoon the wind abated greatly, and small, infrequent
snowflakes came drifting by. Snow also spread more abundantly
below, and the only trees were clumps of pine and spruce in the
lower valleys. Kurt went with three men into the still intact
gas-chambers, let out a certain quantity of gas from them, and
prepared a series of ripping panels for the descent. Also the
residue of the bombs and explosives in the magazine were thrown
overboard and fell, detonating loudly, in the wilderness below.
And about four o'clock in the afternoon upon a wide and rocky
plain within sight of snow-crested cliffs, the Vaterland ripped
It was necessarily a difficult and violent affair, for the
Vaterland had not been planned for the necessities of a balloon.
The captain got one panel ripped too soon and the others not soon
enough. She dropped heavily, bounced clumsily, and smashed the
hanging gallery into the fore-part, mortally injuring Von
Winterfeld, and then came down in a collapsing heap after
dragging for some moments. The forward shield and its machine
gun tumbled in upon the things below. Two men were hurt badly--
one got a broken leg and one was internally injured--by flying
rods and wires, and Bert was pinned for a time under the side.
When at last he got clear and could take a view of the situation,
the great black eagle that had started so splendidly from
Franconia six evenings ago, sprawled deflated over the cabins of
the airship and the frost-bitten rocks of this desolate place and
looked a most unfortunate bird--as though some one had caught it
and wrung its neck and cast it aside. Several of the crew of the
airship were standing about in silence, contemplating the
wreckage and the empty wilderness into which they had fallen.
Others were busy under the imromptu tent made by the empty
gas-chambers. The Prince had gone a little way off and was
scrutinising the distant heights through his field-glass. They
had the appearance of old sea cliffs; here and there were small
clumps of conifers, and in two places tall cascades. The nearer
ground was strewn with glaciated boulders and supported nothing
but a stunted Alpine vegetation of compact clustering stems and
stalkless flowers. No river was visible, but the air was full of
the rush and babble of a torrent close at hand. A bleak and
biting wind was blowing. Ever and again a snowflake drifted
past. The springless frozen earth under Bert's feet felt
strangely dead and heavy after the buoyant airship.
So it came about that that great and powerful Prince Karl Albert
was for a time thrust out of the stupendous conflict he chiefly
had been instrumental in provoking. The chances of battle and
the weather conspired to maroon him in Labrador, and there he
raged for six long days, while war and wonder swept the world.
Nation rose against nation and air-fleet grappled air-fleet,
cities blazed and men died in multitudes; but in Labrador one
might have dreamt that, except for a little noise of hammering,
the world was at peace.
There the encampment lay; from a distance the cabins, hovered
over with the silk of the balloon part, looked like a gipsy's
tent on a rather exceptional scale, and all the available hands
were busy in building out of the steel of the framework a mast
from which the Vaterland's electricians might hang the long
conductors of the apparatus for wireless telegraphy that was to
link the Prince to the world again. There were times when it
seemed they would never rig that mast. From the outset the party
suffered hardship. They were not too abundantly provisioned, and
they were put on short rations, and for all the thick garments
they had, they were but ill-equipped against the piercing wind
and inhospitable violence of this wilderness. The first night
was spent in darkness and without fires. The engines that had
supplied power were smashed and dropped far away to the south,
and there was never a match among the company. It had been death
to carry matches. All the explosives had been thrown out of the
magazine, and it was only towards morning that the bird-faced man
whose cabin Bert had taken in the beginning confessed to a brace
of duelling pistols and cartridges, with which a fire could be
started. Afterwards the lockers of the machine gun were found to
contain a supply of unused ammunition.
The night was a distressing one and seemed almost interminable.
Hardly any one slept. There were seven wounded men aboard, and
Von Winterfeld's head had been injured, and he was shivering and
in delirium, struggling with his attendant and shouting strange
things about the burning of New York. The men crept together in
the mess-room in the darkling, wrapped in what they could find
and drank cocoa from the fireless heaters and listened to his
cries. In the morning the Prince made them a speech about
Destiny, and the God of his Fathers and the pleasure and glory of
giving one's life for his dynasty, and a number of similar
considerations that might otherwise have been neglected in that
bleak wilderness. The men cheered without enthusiasm, and far
away a wolf howled.
Then they set to work, and for a week they toiled to put up a
mast of steel, and hang from it a gridiron of copper wires two
hundred feet by twelve. The theme of all that time was work,
work continually, straining and toilsome work, and all the rest
was grim hardship and evil chances, save for a certain wild
splendour in the sunset and sunrise in the torrents and drifting
weather, in the wilderness about them. They built and tended a
ring of perpetual fires, gangs roamed for brushwood and met with
wolves, and the wounded men and their beds were brought out from
the airship cabins, and put in shelters about the fires. There
old Von Winterfeld raved and became quiet and presently died, and
three of the other wounded sickened for want of good food, while
their fellows mended. These things happened, as it were, in the
wings; the central facts before Bert's consciousness were always
firstly the perpetual toil, the holding and lifting, and lugging
at heavy and clumsy masses, the tedious filing and winding of
wires, and secondly, the Prince, urgent and threatening whenever
a man relaxed. He would stand over them, and point over their
heads, southward into the empty sky. "The world there," he said
in German, "is waiting for us! Fifty Centuries come to their
Consummation." Bert did not understand the words, but he read
the gesture. Several times the Prince grew angry; once with a
man who was working slowly, once with a man who stole a comrade's
ration. The first he scolded and set to a more tedious task; the
second he struck in the face and ill-used. He did no work
himself. There was a clear space near the fires in which he
would walk up and down, sometimes for two hours together, with
arms folded, muttering to himself of Patience and his destiny.
At times these mutterings broke out into rhetoric, into shouts
and gestures that would arrest the workers; they would stare at
him until they perceived that his blue eyes glared and his waving
hand addressed itself always to the southward hills. On Sunday
the work ceased for half an hour, and the Prince preached on
faith and God's friendship for David, and afterwards they all
sang: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott."
In an improvised hovel lay Von Winterfeld, and all one morning he
raved of the greatness of Germany. "Blut und Eisen!" he shouted,
and then, as if in derision, "Welt-Politik--ha, ha!" Then he
would explain complicated questions of polity to imaginary
hearers, in low, wily tones. The other sick men kept still,
listening to him. Bert's distracted attention would be recalled
by Kurt. "Smallways, take that end. So!"
Slowly, tediously, the great mast was rigged and hoisted foot by
foot into place. The electricians had contrived a catchment pool
and a wheel in the torrent close at hand--for the little
Mulhausen dynamo with its turbinal volute used by the
telegraphists was quite adaptable to water driving, and on the
sixth day in the evening the apparatus was in working order and
the Prince was calling--weakly, indeed, but calling--to his
air-fleet across the empty spaces of the world. For a time he
The effect of that evening was to linger long in Bert's memory.
A red fire spluttered and blazed close by the electricians at
their work, and red gleams xan up the vertical steel mast and
threads of copper wire towards the zenith. The Prince sat on a
rock close by, with his chin on his hand, waiting. Beyond and to
the northward was the cairn that covered Von Winterfeld,
surmounted by a cross of steel, and from among the tumbled rocks
in the distance the eyes of a wolf gleamed redly. On the other
hand was the wreckage of the great airship and the men bivouacked
about a second ruddy flare. They were all keeping very still, as
if waiting to hear what news might presently be given them. Far
away, across many hundreds of miles of desolation, other wireless
masts would be clicking, and snapping, and waking into responsive
vibration. Perhaps they were not. Perhaps those throbs upon the
etherz .wasted themselves upon a regardless world. When the men
spoke, they spoke in low tones. Now and then a bird shrieked
remotely, and once a wolf howled. All these things were set in
the immense cold spaciousness of the wild.
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 I" 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?"
"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.
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
"I tell you I know."
"But 'ow COULD you 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."
He said nothing for a long time, and then he dropped out, "The
Prince is a lunatic!"
They came to a place where they had to climb, and then to a long
peat level beside rivulet. There a quantity of delicate little
pink flowers caught Bert's eye. "Gaw!" he said, and stooped to
pick one. "In a place like this."
Kurt stopped and half turned. His face winced.
"I never see such a flower," said Bert. "It's so delicate."
"Pick some more if you want to," said Kurt.
Bert did so, while Kurt stood and watched him.
"Funny 'ow one always wants to pick flowers," said Bert.
Kurt had nothing to add to that.
They went on again, without talking, for a long time.
At last they came to a rocky hummock, from which the view of the
waterfall opened out. There Kurt stopped and seated himself on a
"That's as much as I wanted to see," he explained. "It isn't
very like, but it's like enough."
"Another waterfall I knew."
He asked a question abruptly. "Got a girl, Smallways?"
"Funny thing," said Bert, "those flowers, I suppose.--I was jes'
thinking of 'er."
"So was I."
"No. I was thinking of MY Edna. We've all got Ednas, I suppose,
for our imaginations to play about. This was a girl. But all
that's past for ever. It's hard to think I can't see her just
for a minute--just let her know I'm thinking of her."
"Very likely," said Bert, "you'll see 'er all right."
"No," said Kurt with decision, "I KNOW."
"I met her," he went on, "in a place like this--in the
Alps--Engstlen Alp. There's a waterfall rather like this one--a
broad waterfall down towards Innertkirchen. That's why I came
here this morning. We slipped away and had half a day together
beside it. And we picked flowers. Just such flowers as you
picked. The same for all I know. And gentian."
"I know" said Bert, "me and Edna--we done things like that.
Flowers. And all that. Seems years off now."
"She was beautiful and daring and shy, Mein Gott! I can hardly
hold myself for the desire to see her and hear her voice again
before I die. Where is she?... Look here, Smallways, I shall
write a sort of letter-- And there's her portrait." He touched
his breast pocket.
"You'll see 'er again all right," said Bert.
"No'! I shall never see her again.... I don't understand why
people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I
will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun
will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I
am dead and done.... Oh! It's all foolishness and haste and
violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and
selfish ambition--all the things that men have done--all the
things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and
confusion life has always been--the battles and massacres and
disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings,
the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all,
as though I'd just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found
it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for
him to die. I've lost heart, and death is over me. Death is
close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the
hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine
beginnings!... It was all a sham. There were no beginnings....
We're just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn't
matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York--New
York doesn't even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing
but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!
"Think of it, Smallways: there's war everywhere! They're
smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The
sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port
Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere.
Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among
themselves! No place is safe--no place is at peace. There is no
place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace.
The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet
people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing
overhead--dripping death--dripping death!"