H.G. Wells: The War in the Air (1908)
The World Under The War
Bert spent two more days upon Goat Island, and finished all his
provisions except the cigarettes and mineral water, before he
brought himself to try the Asiatic flying-machine.
Even at last he did not so much go off upon it as get carried
off. It had taken only an hour or so to substitute wing stays
from the second flying-machine and to replace the nuts he had
himself removed. The engine was in working order, and differed
only very simply and obviously from that of a contemporary
motor-bicycle. The rest of the time was taken up by a vast
musing and delaying and hesitation. Chiefly he saw himself
splashing into the rapids and whirling down them to the Fall,
clutching and drowning, but also he had a vision of
being hopelessly in the air, going fast and unable to ground.
His mind was too concentrated upon the business of flying for him
to think very much of what might happen to an indefinite-spirited
Cockney without credential who arrived on an Asiatic
flying-machine amidst the war-infuriated population beyond.
He still had a lingering solicitude for the bird-faced officer.
He had a haunting fancy he might be lying disabled or badly
smashed in some way in some nook or cranny of the Island; and it
was only after a most exhaustive search that he abandoned that
distressing idea. "If I found 'im," he reasoned the while, "what
could I do wiv 'im? You can't blow a chap's brains out when 'e's
down. And I don' see 'ow else I can 'elp 'im."
Then the kitten bothered his highly developed sense of social
responsibility. "If I leave 'er, she'll starve.... Ought to
catch mice for 'erself.... ARE there mice?... Birds? ... She's
too young.... She's like me; she's a bit too civilised."
Finally he stuck her in his side pocket and she became greatly
interested in the memories of corned beef she found there. With
her in his pocket, he seated himself in the saddle of the
flying-machine. Big, clumsy thing it was--and not a bit like a
bicycle. Still the working of it was fairly plain. You set the
engine going--SO; kicked yourself up until the wheel was
vertical, SO; engaged the gyroscope, SO, and then--then--you just
pulled up this lever.
Rather stiff it was, but suddenly it came over--
The big curved wings on either side flapped disconcertingly,
flapped again' click, clock, click, clock, clitter-clock!
Stop! The thing was heading for the water; its wheel was in the
water. Bert groaned from his heart and struggled to restore the
lever to its first position. Click, clock, clitter-clock, he was
ising! The machine was lifting its dripping wheel out of the
eddies, and he was going up! There was no stopping now, no good
in stopping now. In another moment Bert, clutching and
convulsive and rigid, with staring eyes and a face pale as death,
was flapping up above the Rapids, jerking to every jerk of the
wings, and rising, rising.
There was no comparison in dignity and comfort between a
flying-machine and a balloon. Except in its moments of descent,
the balloon was a vehicle of faultless urbanity; this was a buck-
-jumping mule, a mule that jumped up and never came down again.
Click, clock, click, clock; with each beat of the strangely
shaped wings it jumped Bert upward and caught him neatly again
half a second later on the saddle. And while in ballooning there
is no wind, since the balloon is a part of the wind, flying is a
wild perpetual creation of and plunging into wind. It was a wind
that above all things sought to blind him, to force him to close
his eyes. It occurred to him presently to twist his knees and.
legs inward and grip with them, or surely he would have been
bumped into two clumsy halves. And he was going up, a hundred
yards high, two hundred, three hundred, over the streaming,
frothing wilderness of water below--up, up, up. That was all
right, but how presently would one go horizontally? He tried to
think if these things did go horizontally. No! They flapped up
and then they soared down. For a time he would keep on flapping
up. Tears streamed from his eyes. He wiped them with one
temerariously disengaged hand.
Was it better to risk a fall over land or over water--such water?
He was flapping up above the Upper Rapids towards Buffalo. It
was at any rate a comfort that the Falls and the wild swirl of
waters below them were behind him. He was flying up straight.
That he could see. How did one turn?
He was presently almost cool, and his eyes got more used to the
rush of air, but he was getting very high, very high. He tilted
his head forwards and surveyed the country, blinking. He could
see all over Buffalo, a place with three great blackened scars of
ruin, and hills and stretches beyond. He wondered if he was half
a mile high, or more. There were some people among some houses
near a railway station between Niagara and Buffalo, and then more
people. They went like ants busily in and out of the houses. He
saw two motor cars gliding along the road towards Niagara city.
Then far away in the south he saw a great Asiatic airship going
eastward. "Oh, Gord!" he said, and became earnest in his
ineffectual attempts to alter his direction. But that airship
took no notice of him, and he continued to ascend convulsively.
The world got more and more extensive and maplike. Click, clock,
clitter-clock. Above him and very near to him now was a hazy
stratum of cloud.
He determined to disengage the wing clutch. He did so. The
lever resisted his strength for a time, then over it came, and
instantly the tail of the machine cocked up and the wings became
rigidly spread. Instantly everything was swift and smooth and
silent. He was gliding rapidly down the air against a wild gale
of wind, his eyes three-quarters shut.
A little lever that had hitherto been obdurate now confessed
itself mobile. He turned it over gently to the right, and
whiroo!--the left wing had in some mysterious way given at its
edge and he was sweeping round and downward in an immense
right-handed spiral. For some moments he experienced all the
helpless sensations of catastrophe. He restored the lever to its
middle position with some difficulty, and the wings were
He turned it to the left and had a sensation of being spun round
backwards. "Too much!" he gasped.
He discovered that he was rushing down at a headlong pace towards
a railway line and some factory buildings. They appeared to be
tearing up to him to devour him. He must have dropped all that
height. For a moment he had the ineffectual sensations of one
whose bicycle bolts downhill. The ground had almost taken him by
surprise. "'Ere!" he cried; and then with a violent effort of
all his being he got the beating engine at work again and set the
wings flapping. He swooped down and up and resumed his quivering
and pulsating ascent of the air.
He went high again, until he had a wide view of the pleasant
upland country of western New York State, and then made a long
coast down, and so up again, and then a coast. Then as he came
swooping a quarter of a mile above a village he saw people
running about, running away--evidently in relation to his
hawk-like passage. He got an idea that he had been shot at.
"Up!" he said, and attacked that lever again. It came over with
remarkable docility, and suddenly the wings seemed to give way in
the middle. But the engine was still! It had stopped. He flung
the lever back rather by instinct than design. What to do?
Much happened in a few seconds, but also his mind was quick, he
thought very quickly. He couldn't get up again, he was gliding
down the air; he would have to hit something.
He was travelling at the rate of perhaps thirty miles an hour
That plantation of larches looked the softest thing--mossy
Could he get it? He gave himself to the steering. Round to the
Swirroo! Crackle! He was gliding over the tops of the trees,
ploughing through them, tumbling into a cloud of green sharp
leaves and black twigs. There was a sudden snapping, and he fell
off the saddle forward, a thud and a crashing of branches. Some
twigs hit him smartly in the face....
He was between a tree-stem and the saddle, with his leg over the
steering lever and, so far as he could realise, not hurt. He
tried to alter his position and free his leg, and found himself
slipping and dropping through branches with everything giving way
beneath him. He clutched and found himself in the lower branches
of a tree beneath the flying-machine. The air was full of a
pleasant resinous smell. He stared for a moment motionless, and
then very carefully clambered down branch by branch to the soft
needle-covered ground below.
"Good business," he said, looking up at the bent and tilted
"I dropped soft!"
He rubbed his chin with his hand and meditated. "Blowed if I
don't think I'm a rather lucky fellow!" he said, surveying the
pleasant sun-bespattered ground under the trees. Then he became
aware of a violent tumult at his side. "Lord!" he said, "You
must be 'arf smothered," and extracted the kitten from his
pocket-handkerchief and pocket. She was twisted and crumpled and
extremely glad to see the light again. Her little tongue peeped
between her teeth. He put her down, and she ran a dozen paces
and shook herself and stretched and sat up and began to wash.
"Nex'?" he said, looking about him, and then with a gesture of
vexation, "Desh it! I ought to 'ave brought that gun!"
He had rested it against a tree when he had seated himself in the
He was puzzled for a time by the immense peacefulness in the
quality of the world, and then he perceived that the roar of the
cataract was no longer in his ears.
He had no very clear idea of what sort of people he might come
upon in this country. It was, he knew, America. Americans he
had always understood were the citizens of a great and powerful
nation, dry and humorous in their manner, addicted to the use of
the bowie-knife and revolver, and in the habit of talking through
the nose like Norfolkshire, and saying "allow" and "reckon" and
"calculate," after the manner of the people who live on the New
Forest side of Hampshire. Also they were very rich, had
rocking-chairs, and put their feet at unusual altitudes, and they
chewed tobacco, gum, and other substances, with untiring
industry. Commingled with them were cowboys, Red Indians, and
comic, respectful niggers. This he had learnt from the fiction
in his public library. Beyond that he had learnt very little.
He was not surprised therefore when he met armed men.
He decided to abandon the shattered flying-machine. He wandered
through the trees for some time, and then struck a road that
seemed to his urban English eyes to be remarkably wide but not
properly "made." Neither hedge nor ditch nor curbed distinctive
footpath separated it from the woods, and it went in that long
easy curve which distinguishes the tracks of an open continent.
Ahead he saw a man carrying a gun under his arm, a man in a soft
black hat, a blue blouse, and black trousers, and with a broad
round-fat face quite innocent of goatee. This person regarded
him askance and heard him speak with a start.
"Can you tell me whereabouts I am at all?" asked Bert.
The man regarded him, and more particularly his rubber boots,
with sinister suspicion. Then he replied in a strange outlandish
tongue that was, as a matter of fact, Czech. He ended suddenly
at the sight of Bert's blank face with "Don't spik English."
"Oh!" said Bert. He reflected gravely for a moment, and then
went his way.
"Thenks," he, said as an afterthought. The man regarded his back
for a moment, was struck with an idea, began an abortive gesture,
sighed, gave it up, and went on also with a depressed
Presently Bert came to a big wooden house standing casually among
the trees. It looked a bleak, bare box of a house to him, no
creeper grew on it, no hedge nor wall nor fence parted it off
from the woods about it. He stopped before the steps that led up
to the door, perhaps thirty yards away. The place seemed
deserted. He would have gone up to the door and rapped, but
suddenly a big black dog appeared at the side and regarded him.
It was a huge heavy-jawed dog of some unfamiliar breed, and it,
wore a spike-studded collar. It did not bark nor approach him,
it just bristled quietly and emitted a single sound like a short,
Bert hesitated and went on.
He stopped thirty paces away and stood peering about him among
the trees. "If I 'aven't been and lef' that kitten," he said.
Acute sorrow wrenched him for a time. The black dog came through
the trees to get a better look at him and coughed that well-bred
cough again. Bert resumed the road.
"She'll do all right," he said.... "She'll catch things.
"She'll do all right," he said presently, without conviction.
But if it had not been for the black dog, he would have gone
When he was out of sight of the house and the black dog, he went
into the woods on the other side of the way and emerged after an
interval trimming a very tolerable cudgel with his pocket-knife.
Presently he saw an attractive-looking rock by the track and
picked it up and put it in his pocket. Then he came to three or
four houses, wooden like the last, each with an ill-painted white
verandah (that was his name for it) and all standing in the same
casual way upon the ground. Behind, through the woods, he saw
pig-stys and a rooting black sow leading a brisk, adventurous
family. A wild-looking woman with sloe-black eyes and
dishevelled black hair sat upon the steps of one of the houses
nursing a baby, but at the sight of Bert she got up and went
inside, and he heard her bolting the door. Then a boy appeared
among the pig-stys, but he would not understand Bert's hail.
"I suppose it is America!" said Bert.
The houses became more frequent down the road, and he passed two
other extremely wild and dirty-looking men without addressing
them. One carried a gun and the other a hatchet, and they
scrutinised him and his cudgel scornfully. Then he struck a
cross-road with a mono-rail at its side, and there was a notice
board at the comer with "Wait here for the cars." "That's all
right, any'ow," said Bert. "Wonder 'ow long I should 'ave to
wait?" It occurred to him that in the present disturbed state of
the country the service might be interrupted, and as there seemed
more houses to the right than the left he turned to the right.
He passed an old negro. "'Ullo!" said Bert. "Goo' morning!"
"Good day, sah!" said the old negro, in a voice of almost
"What's the name of this place?" asked Bert.
"Tanooda, sah!" said the negro.
"Thenks!" said Bert.
"Thank YOU, sah!" said the negro, overwhelmingly.
Bert came to houses of the same detached, unwalled, wooden type,
but adorned now with enamelled advertisements partly in English
and partly in Esperanto. Then he came to what he concluded was a
grocer's shop. It was the first house that professed the
hospitality of an open door, and from within came a strangely
familiar sound. "Gaw!" he said searching in his pockets. "Why!
I 'aven't wanted money for free weeks! I wonder if I--Grubb 'ad
most of it. Ah!" He produced a handful of coins and regarded
it; three pennies, sixpence, and a shilling. "That's all right,"
he said, forgetting a very obvious consideration.
He approached the door, and as he did so a compactly built,
grey-faced man in shirt sleeves appeared in it and scrutinised
him and his cudgel. "Mornin'," said Bert. "Can I get anything to
eat 'r drink in this shop?"
The man in the door replied, thank Heaven, in clear, good
American. "This, sir, is not A shop, it is A store."
"Oh!" said Bert, and then, "Well, can I get anything to eat?"
"You can," said the American in a tone of confident
encouragement, and led the way inside.
The shop seemed to him by his Bun Hill standards extremely roomy,
well lit, and unencumbered. There was a long counter to the left
of him, with drawers and miscellaneous commodities ranged behind
it, a number of chairs, several tables, and two spittoons to the
right, various barrels, cheeses, and bacon up the vista, and
beyond, a large archway leading to more space. A little group of
men was assembled round one of the tables, and a woman of perhaps
five-and-thirty leant with her elbows on the counter. All the
men were armed with rifles, and the barrel of a gun peeped above
the counter. They were all listening idly, inattentively, to a
cheap, metallic-toned gramophone that occupied a table near at
hand. From its brazen throat came words that gave Bert a qualm
of homesickness, that brought back in his memory a sunlit beach,
a group of children, red-painted bicycles, Grubb, and an
What Price Hair-pins Now?"
A heavy-necked man in a straw hat, who was chewing something,
stopped the machine with a touch, and they all,turned their eyes
on Bert. And all their eyes were tired eyes.
"Can we give this gentleman anything to eat, mother, or can we
not?" said the proprietor.
"He kin have what he likes?" said the woman at the counter,
without moving, "right up from a cracker to a square meal." She
struggled with a yawn, after the manner of one who has been up
"I want a meal," said Bert, "but I 'aven't very much money. I
don' want to give mor'n a shillin'."
"Mor'n a WHAT?" said the proprietor, sharply.
"Mor'n a shillin'," said Bert, with a sudden disagreeable
realisation coming into his mind.
"Yes," said the proprietor, startled for a moment from his
courtly bearing. "But what in hell is a shilling?"
"He means a quarter," said a wise-looking, lank young man in
Bert, trying to conceal his consternation, produced a coin.
"That's a shilling," he said.
"He calls A store A shop," said the proprietor, "and he wants A
meal for A shilling. May I ask you, sir, what part of America
you hail from?"
Bert replaced the shilling,in his pocket as he spoke, "Niagara,"
"And when did you leave Niagara?"
"'Bout an hour ago."
"Well," said the proprietor, and turned with a puzzled smile to
the others. "Well!"
They asked various questions simultaneously.
Bert selected one or two for reply. "You see," he said, "I been
with the German air-fleet. I got caught up by them, sort of by
accident, and brought over here."
"Yes--from England. Way of Germany. I was in a great battle
with them Asiatics, and I got lef' on a little island between the
"I don' know what it was called. But any'ow I found a
flying-machine and made a sort of fly with it and got here."
Two men stood up with incredulous eyes on him. "Where's the
flying-machine?"they asked; "outside?"
"It's back in the woods here--'bout arf a mile away."
"Is it good?" said a thick-lipped man with a scar.
"I come down rather a smash--."
Everybody got up and stood about him and talked confusingly.
They wanted him to take them to the flying-machine at once.
"Look 'ere," said Bert, "I'll show you--only I 'aven't 'ad
anything to eat since yestiday--except mineral water."
A gaunt soldierly-looking young man with long lean legs in riding
gaiters and a bandolier, who had hitherto not spoken, intervened
now on his behalf in a note of confident authority. "That's aw
right," he said. "Give him a feed, Mr. Logan--from me. I
want to hear more of that story of his. We'll see his machine
afterwards. If you ask me, I should say it's a remarkably
interesting accident had dropped this gentleman here. I guess we
requisition that flying-machine--if we find it--,for local
So Bert fell on his feet again, and sat eating cold meat and good
bread and mustard and drinking very good beer, and telling in the
roughest outline and with the omissions and inaccuracies of
statement natural to his type of mind, the simple story of his
adventures. He told how he and a "gentleman friend" had been
visiting the seaside for their health, how a "chep" came along in
a balloon and fell out as he fell in, how he had drifted to
Franconia, how the Germans had seemed to mistake him for some one
and had "took him prisoner" and brought him to New York, how he
had been to Labrador and back, how he had got to Goat Island and
found himself there alone. He omitted the matter of the Prince
and the Butteridge aspect of the affair, not out of any deep
deceitfulness, but because he felt the inadequacy of his
narrative powers. He wanted everything to seem easy and natural
and correct, to present himself as a trustworthy and
understandable Englishman in a sound mediocre position, to whom
refreshment and accommodation might be given with freedom and
When his fragmentary story came to New York and the battle of
Niagara, they suddenly produced newspapers which had been lying
about on the table, and began to check him and question him by
these vehement accounts. It became evident to him that his
descent had revived and roused to flames again a discussion, a
topic, that had been burning continuously, that had smouldered
only through sheer exhaustion of material during the temporary
diversion of the gramophone, a discussion that had drawn these
men together, rifle in hand, the one supreme topic of the whole
world, the War and the methods of the War. He found any question
of his personality and his personal adventures falling into the
background, found himself taken for granted, and no more than a
source of information. The ordinary affairs of life, the buying
and selling of everyday necessities, the cultivation of the
ground, the tending of beasts, was going on as it were by force
of routine, as the common duties of life go on in a house whose
master lies under the knife of some supreme operation. The
overruling interest was furnished by those great Asiatic airships
that went upon incalculable missions across the sky, the
crimson-clad swordsmen who might come fluttering down demanding
petrol, or food, or news. These men were asking, all the
continent was asking, "What are we to do? What can we try? How
can we get at them?" Bert fell into his place as an item, ceased
even in his own thoughts to be a central and independent thing.
After he had eaten and drunken his fill and sighed and stretched
and told them how good the food seemed to him, he lit a cigarette
they gave him and led the way, with some doubts and trouble, to
the flying-machine amidst the larches. It became manifest that
the gaunt young man, whose name, it seemed, was Laurier, was a
leader both by position and natural aptitude. He knew the names
and characters and capabilities of all the men who were with him,
and he set them to work at once with vigour and effect to secure
this precious instrument of war. They got the thing down to the
ground deliberately and carefully, felling a couple of trees in
the process, and they built a wide flat roof of timbers and tree
boughs to guard their precious find against its chance discovery
by any passing Asiatics. Long before evening they had an
engineer from the next township at work upon it, and they were
casting lots among the seventeen picked men who wanted to take it
for its first flight. And Bert found his kitten and carried it
back to Logan's store and handed it with earnest admonition to
Mrs. Logan. And it was reassuringly clear to him that in Mrs.
Logan both he and the kitten had found a congenial soul.
Laurier was not only a masterful person and a wealthy property
owner and employer--he was president, Bert learnt with awe, of
the Tanooda Canning Corporation--but he was popular and skilful
in the arts of popularity. In the evening quite a crowd of men
gathered in the store and talked of the flying-machine and of the
war that was tearing the world to pieces. And presently came a
man on a bicycle with an ill-printed newspaper of a single sheet
which acted like fuel in a blazing furnace of talk. It was
nearly all American news; the old-fashioned cables had fallen
into disuse for some years, and the Marconi stations across the
ocean and along the Atlantic coastline seemed to have furnished
particularly tempting points of attack.
But such news it was.
Bert sat in the background--for by this time they had gauged his
personal quality pretty completely--listening. Before his
staggering mind passed strange vast images as they talked, of
great issues at a crisis, of nations in tumultuous march, of
continents overthrown, of famine and destruction beyond measure.
Ever and again, in spite of his efforts to suppress them, certain
personal impressions would scamper across the weltering
confusion, the horrible mess of the exploded Prince, the Chinese
aeronaut upside down, the limping and bandaged bird-faced officer
blundering along in miserable and hopeless flight....
They spoke of fire and massacre, of cruelties and counter
cruelties, of things that had been done to harmless Asiatics by
race-mad men, of the wholesale burning and smashing up of towns,
railway junctions, bridges, of whole populations in hiding and
exodus. "Every ship they've got is in the Pacific," he heard one
man exclaim. "Since the fighting began they can't have landed on
the Pacific slope less than a million men. They've come to stay
in these States, and they will--living or dead."
Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert's mind
realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his
life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the
epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and
order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get
back to peace, it might never recover peace.
He had thought the things he had seen had been exceptional,
conclusive things, that the besieging of New York and the battle
of the Atlantic were epoch-making events between long years of se
curity. And they had been but the first warning impacts of
universal cataclysm. Each day destruction and hate and disaster
grew, the fissures widened between man and man, new regions of
the fabric of civilisation crumbled and gave way. Below, the
armies grew and the people perished; above, the airships and
aeroplanes fought and fled, raining destruction.
It is difficult perhaps for the broad-minded and
long-perspectived reader to understand how incredible the
breaking down of the scientific civilisation seemed to those,who
actually lived at this time, who in their own persons went down
in that debacle. Progress had marched as it seemed invincible
about the earth, never now to rest again. For three hundred
years and more the long steadily accelerated diastole of
Europeanised civilisation had been in progress: towns had been
multiplying, populations increasing, values rising, new countries
developing; thought, literature, knowledge unfolding and
spreading. It seemed but a part of the process that every year
the instruments of war were vaster and more powerful, and that
armies and explosives outgrew all other growing things....
Three hundred years of diastole, and then came the swift and
unexpected systole, like the closing of a fist. They could not
understand it was systole.
They could not think of it as anything but a jolt, a hitch, a
mere oscillatory indication of the swiftness of their progress.
Collapse, though it happened all about them, remained
incredible. Presently some falling mass smote them down, or the
ground opened beneath their feet. They died incredulous....
These men in the store made a minute, remote group under this
immense canopy of disaster. They turned from one little aspect
to another. What chiefly concerned them was defence against
Asiatic raiders swooping for petrol or to destroy weapons or
communications. Everywhere levies were being formed at that time
to defend the plant of the railroads day and night in the hope
that communication would speedily be restored. The land war was
still far away. A man with a flat voice distinguished himself by
a display of knowledge and cunning. He told them all with
confidence just what had been wrong with the German
drachenflieger and the American aeroplanes, just what advantage
the Japanese flyers possessed. He launched out into a romantic
description of the Butteridge machine and riveted Bert's
attention. "I SEE that," said Bert, and was smitten silent by a
thought. The man with the flat voice talked on, without heeding
him, of the strange irony of Butteridge's death. At that Bert
had a little twinge of relief--he would never meet Butteridge
again. It appeared Butteridge had died suddenly, very suddenly.
"And his secret, sir, perished with him! When they came to look
for the parts--none could find them. He had hidden them all too
"But couldn't he tell?" asked the man in the straw hat. "Did he
die so suddenly as that?"
"Struck down, sir. Rage and apoplexy. At a place called
Dymchurch in England."
"That's right, said Laurier. "I remember a page about it in the
Sunday American. At the time they said it was a German spy had
stolen his balloon."
"Well, sir," said the flat-voiced man, "that fit of apoplexy at
Dyrnchurch was the worst thing--absolutely the worst thing that
ever happened to the world. For if it had not been for the death
of Mr. Butteridge--"
"No one knows his secret?"
"Not a soul. It's gone. His balloon, it appears, was lost at
sea, with all the plans. Down it went, and they went with it."
"With machines such as he made we could fight these Asiatic
fliers on more than equal terms. We could outfly and beat down
those scarlet humming-birds wherever they appeared. But it's
gone, it's gone, and there's no time to reinvent it now. We got
to fight with what we got--and the odds are against us. THAT
won't stop us fightin'. No! but just think of it!"
Bert was trembling violently. He cleared his throat hoarsely.
"I say," he said, "look here, I--"
Nobody regarded him. The man with the flat voice was opening a
new branch of the subject.
"I allow--" he began.
Bert became violently excited. He stood up.
He made clawing motions with his hands. "I say!" he exclaimed,
"Mr. Laurier. Look 'ere--I want--about that Butteridge
Mr. Laurier, sitting on an adjacent table, with a magnificent
gesture, arrested the discourse of the flat-voiced man. "What's
HE saying?" said he.
Then the whole company realised that something was happening to
Bert; either he was suffocating or going mad. He was
"Look 'ere! I say! 'Old on a bit!" and trembling and eagerly
He tore open his collar and opened vest and shirt. He plunged
into his interior and for an instant it seemed he was plucking
forth his liver. Then as he struggled with buttons on his
shoulder they perceived this flattened horror was in fact a
terribly dirty flannel chest-protector. In an other moment Bert,
in a state of irregular decolletage, was standing over the table
displaying a sheaf of papers.
"These!" he gasped. "These are the plans!... You know! Mr.
Butteridge--his machine ! What died! I was the chap that went
off in that balloon!"
For some seconds every one was silent. They stared from these
papers to Bert's white face and blazing eyes, and back to the
papers on the table. Nobody moved. Then the man with the flat
"Irony!" he said, with a note of satisfaction. "Real rightdown
Irony! When it's too late to think of making 'em any more!"
They would all no doubt have been eager to hear Bert's story over
again, but it was it this point that Laurier showed his quality.
"No, SIR," he said, and slid from off his table.
He impounded the dispersing Butteridge plans with one
comprehensive sweep of his arm, rescuing them even from the
expository finger-marks of the man with the flat voice, and
handed them to Bert. "Put those back, "he said, "where you had
'em. We have a journey before us."
Bert took them.
"Whar?" said the man in the straw hat.
"Why, sir, we are going to find the President of these States and
give these plans over to him. I decline to believe, sir, we are
"Where is the President?" asked Bert weakly in that pause that
"Logan," said Laurier, disregarding that feeble inqniry, "you
must help us in this."
It seemed only a matter of a few minutes before Bert and Laurier
and the storekeeper were examining a number of bicycles that were
stowed in the hinder room of the store. Bert didn't like any of
them very much. They had wood rims and an experience of wood
rims in the English climate had taught him to hate them. That,
however, and one or two other objections to an immediate start
were overruled by Laurier. "But where IS the President?" Bert
repeated as they stood behind Logan while he pumped up a deflated
Laurier looked down on him. "He is reported in the neighbourhood
of Albany--out towards the Berkshire Hills. He is moving from
place to place and, as far as he can, organising the defence by
telegraph and telephones The Asiatic air-fleet is trying to
locate him. When they think they have located the seat of
government, they throw bombs. This inconveniences him, but so
far they have not come within ten miles of him. The Asiatic
air-fleet is at present scattered all over the Eastern States,
seeking out and destroying gas-works and whatever seems conducive
to the building of airships or the transport of troops. Our
retaliatory measures are slight in the extreme. But with these
machines--Sir, this ride of ours will count among the historical
rides of the world!"
He came near to striking an attitude. "We shan't get to him
to-night?" asked Bert.
"No, sir!" said Laurier. "We shall have to ride some days,
"And suppose we can.'t get a lift on a train--or anything?"
"No, sir! There's been no transit by Tanooda for three days.
It is no good waiting. We shall have to get on as well as we
"But 'ow about--We shan't be able to do much to-night."
"May as well ride till we're fagged and sleep then. So much
clear gain. Our road is eastward."
"Of course," began Bert, with memories of the dawn upon Goat
Island, and left his sentence unfinished.
He gave his attention to the more scientific packing of the
chest-protector, for several of the plans flapped beyond his
For a week Bert led a life of mixed sensations. Amidst these
fatigue in the legs predominated. Mostly he rode, rode with
Laurier's back inexorably ahead, through a land like a larger
England, with bigger hills and wider valleys, larger fields,
wider roads, fewer hedges, and wooden houses with commodious
piazzas. He rode. Laurier made inquiries, Laurier chose the
turnings, Laurier doubted, Laurier decided. Now it seemed they
were in telephonic touch with the President; now something had
happened and he was lost again. But always they had to go on,
and always Bert rode. A tyre was deflated. Still he rode. He
grew saddle sore. Laurier declared that unimportant. Asiatic
flying ships passed overhead, the two cyclists made a dash for
cover until the sky was clear. Once a red Asiatic flying-machine
came fluttering after them, so low they could distinguish the
aeronaut's head. He followed them for a mile. Now they came to
regions of panic, now to regions of destruction; here people were
fighting for food, here they seemed hardly stirred from the
countryside routine. They spent a day in a deserted and damaged
Albany. The Asiatics had descended and cut every wire and made a
cinder-heap of the Junction, and our travellers pushed on
eastward. They passed a hundred half-heeded incidents, and
always Bert was toiling after Laurier's indefatigable back....
Things struck upon Bert's attention and perplexed him, and then
he passed on with unanswered questionings fading from his mind.
He saw a large house on fire on a hillside to the right, and no
man heeding it....
They came to a narrow railroad bridge and presently to a
mono-rail train standing in the track on its safety feet. It was
a remarkably sumptuous train, the Last Word Trans-Continental
Express, and the passengers were all playing cards or sleeping or
preparing a picnic meal on a grassy slope near at hand. They had
been there six days....
At one point ten dark-complexioned men were hanging in a string
from the trees along the roadside. Bert wondered why....
At one peaceful-looking village where they stopped off to get
Bert's tyre mended and found beer and biscuits, they were
approached by an extremely dirty little boy without boots, who
spoke as follows:--
"Deyse been hanging a Chink in dose woods!"
"Hanging a Chinaman?" said Laurier.
"Sure. Der sleuths got him rubberin' der rail-road sheds!"
"Dose guys done wase cartridges. Deyse hung him and dey pulled
his legs. Deyse doin' all der Chinks dey can fine dat weh! Dey
ain't takin' no risks. All der Chinks dey can fine."
Neither Bert nor Laurier made any reply, and presently, after a
little skilful expectoration, the young gentleman was attracted
by the appearance of two of his friends down the road and
shuffled off, whooping weirdly....
That afternoon they almost ran over a man shot through the body
and partly decomposed, lying near the middle of the road, just
outside Albany. He must have been lying there for some days....
Beyond Albany they came upon a motor car with a tyre burst and a
young woman sitting absolutely passive beside the driver's seat.
An old man was under the car trying to effect some impossible
repairs. Beyond, sitting with a rifle across his knees, with
his back to the car, and staring into the woods, was a young man.
The old man crawled out at their approach and still on all-fours
accosted Bert and Laurier. The car had broken down overnight.
The old man, said he could not understand what was wrong, but he
was trying to puzzle it out. Neither he nor his son-in-law had
any mechanical aptitude. They had been assured this was a
fool-proof car. It was dangerous to have to stop in this place.
The party had been attacked by tramps and had had to fight. It
was known they had provisions. He mentioned a great name in the
world of finance. Would Laurier and Bert stop and help him? He
proposed it first hopefully, then urgently, at last in tears and
"No!" said Laurier inexorable. "We must go on! We have
something more than a woman to save. We have to save America!"
The girl never stirred.
And once they passed a madman singing.
And at last they found the President hiding in a small saloon
upon the outskirts of a place called Pinkerville on the Hudson,
and gave the plans of the Butteridge machine into his hands.