Francis Meyrick

Jeremy’s War: Chapter 35 “The Vigil “

Posted on November 11, 2008


It was nearly six p.m.
Lt.Jeremy Armstrong was now officially overdue some ten hours. The atmosphere in the mess was very subdued.
Mac, despite the protestations of the M.O., who wanted to transfer him to the field hospital, had walked out of sickbay, and had temporarily partly anesthetized himself with a potent mix of whiskey and gin. His hand had now swollen to the size of a small football, and he was amazed how painful it was. He had just finished relating for the fortieth time the tale of how Jeremy had saved his and Tiny’s bacon. He was in shock, and beginning to ramble severely.

Sergeant Bennet knocked hurriedly on Captain Culpepper’s office door, and entered hastily on the first syllable of the answering grunt.
Captain Culpepper, used to the slow, steady inexorable gait of his aide, looked up in surprise. Then his stomach contracted into a knot, and he asked hastily:
“News? ”
Sergeant Bennet nodded, but seemed almost… embarrassed?
“Sir… “, he began. Then, abandoning all restraint, he blurted out:
“Mr Armstrong is alive, Sir, but he’s under arrest at the RFC squadron at Macon-le-Blanc! ”
Even the unflappable Captain Culpepper blanched.
“Under arrest? Armstrong??? What ever for? I’ve never heard anything so CRAZY!! ”

The two men stared at each other in blank amazement.

* * *

The reaction in the mess was even more stunned. Sergeant Bennet was bombarded with questions he could not answer, possessing only the barest details.
Mac especially reacted with fury, and was all for setting up a raiding party, and leaving for Macon-le-Blanc straight away, with the objective of retrieving their flightleader. His proposal met with considerable support from other indignant pilots, but further examination of the strategy threw up a number of weak points.
Macon-le-Blanc was seventy miles away. By the time they got there, over the bumpy, war damaged roads, it would be late. They had no idea what Jeremy was in for. Their untimely heavy handed arrival might make matters worse.
It was felt vital to have more information.
“Perhaps it’s just one helluva big mistake “, somebody offered.
“Perhaps by the time we get there, he’ll be on the way back here. The man’s a hero, not a criminal. Let’s wait until the morning. ”
It seemed sensible, logical, and was grumblingly accepted. Mac, helpless with amazed outrage, helped himself to more whiskey, threatening vengeance in the morning.

* * *

Looking over his shoulder, he had seen the English machine following him down, and he had cursed quietly, for the first time feeling the beginning of a cold sweat.
He was not in a good position to tackle the Yellow Canary. He was low on fuel, and even lower on ammunition.
He had also sensed, with the killer’s instinct for these things, that his adversary was ragingly angry.
Verdammt noch mal! I’ve killed his wingman, and shot up his flight. He wants revenge…
He steepened the dive, watching the airspeed screaming up towards the danger point. He sensed the entire airframe straining under the aerodynamic forces.
It was not enough. Peering over his shoulder, he could see the English machine slowly overhauling him. Soon, he would be in firing range.
It’s no good. I’m going to have to fight. Just try and get as close to home as possible…
It was uncanny the way it had happened. He had hit the man! Seen the machine roll slowly away. That had been no feint! He could have filled him with holes, but for the presence of the other machines.
He is pushing his machine even harder than I am mine. Normally the Albatros can out-dive an SE5. He is angry.
Very angry. He is taking risks. How far behind German lines is he now? Thirty miles…?

Home was only three minutes away. Home, a bath, warm food, good comrades, laughter… It suddenly seemed the most desirable place on earth. If he could only get out of this scrape… Perhaps General von Kleist was right.
Maybe it was time to take a backstage role. He couldn’t go on winning. He had done enough.
The realization hit him forcefully.
I’m frightened. The little Englishman has frightened me…
Anger had welled up then. The deep, roaring blood anger of the habitual warrior.
Hauling back on the stick, he had risked ripping the wings off in a gigantic spiraling half-loop, watching carefully to evade fire.
His party piece was coming up.
Specially for you, my friend…

* * *

Two men gazed up into the sky. They leaned on their pitchforks, and their rough garb showed them to be agricultural laborers.
Silently, they watched the two aircraft duel in the sky.
The big one, with the face that seemed to permanently signal contempt to the world, was determined to enjoy it.
It was a nice show they were putting on for him. There was a savage joy in listening to the machine gun fire, and in watching the little tongues of flame that licked forth from just behind the propellers. It seemed that first one duellist, and then the other, had the upper hand.
They were low. With a bit of luck, the loser would crash near them. It would be nice to have a souvenir. Maybe a gun, if he was lucky. He might be able to sell a gun.
It would fetch quite a few marks. The Burger Meister. He would be the one to approach. He would give a lot for a trophy. He already had several.
Come on, one of you, crash down here. Nice big field for you. Come on then…

The other man was horrified. He had a slightly simple expression, and gave the air of being an uncomplaining long-time servant, well used to humble status. His lower jaw hung slightly open, and he followed the fight with empathy, flinching in pity on behalf of whichever pilot was on the receiving end. His body moved, in odd little compulsive spasms, muscular jerks, as if he could sense the bullets trying to rip through human flesh and bone.

* * *

To Jeremy, some of the close up maneuvering of the Blue Albatros was a mystery, which confused him several times. He was having to wheel and turn as never before. He knew they were getting lower and lower to the ground.
They missed each other again, by inches it seemed, and Jeremy lost sight momentarily of his opponent. He turned in a 90 degree bank, his wings vertical, pulling tremendous forces, only to be confronted with the silhouette of the other biplane coming straight at him, also in a 90 degree bank, orientated the other way.

He’s coming straight for me… which way do I turn?
His brain froze, and in the last instant, he shut his eyes tight.

* * *

For a little canary, he packs a hell of a peck…
Who was it that said that?
Kurt Wolff…
The situation was critical. He was nearly out of ammunition, expecting any second to have his gun belts judder to a sickening stop.
As for fuel… I’m running on vapor…
There was nothing else for it. He had to meet each attack head on, going straight for the enemy, as if he wished to ram him. That way, perhaps, he could stretch the game until… what? The Englishman gave up?
Fat chance! Zum Teufel! His blood’s up…
Surely the man had to know he was miles and miles behind German lines? In danger any second from the arrival of other German aircraft?
The truth laughed quietly at him.
He doesn’t care… he wants YOU…
He wheeled around, and, in a 90 degree bank, drove straight at the silhouette that confronted him.

* * *

The splintering crash as both aircraft hit at no more than 400 feet above the ground, was clearly audible to the watchers below. The sound of wood fracturing, metal tearing, and a sudden high pitched, whining sound.
Both machines, having seemingly cannoned off each other, dived for the ground.
One made it, just, righting itself and pulling out at no more than fifteen feet height.
The other crashed in a shower of splinters and dust, with large segments of aircraft breaking off and rolling across the ground, and one wheel, crazily, bouncing high in the air.
The two laborers instinctively crouched down, one arm thrown up in front of their faces. Then they broke into a run.

* * *

To Jeremy, time stood almost still.
The shock that traveled through the airframe threw him forward, and the shoulder straps bit in painfully. The aircraft reared crazily, and rolled slowly inverted, diving towards the ground. He could see it all, in quite unnecessary detail. The ploughed furrows, the ditch, the weeds, small bushes, a broken fence… Purely automatically, by reflex, his situation registered in his pilot’s brain. But the events were happening a long way off, and it didn’t really matter anymore.
Upside down… low… don’t pull…
roll… roll through… push while you’re rolling…
ground coming up… going to crash…

The vague feeling was one of regret. Pity. All for nothing. He was going to finally die.
Oh, well…

Then time went by, and he was suddenly climbing slowly through 300 feet, his engine running unbelievably rough.
He wasn’t very interested. His hand had already automatically rolled off as much throttle as possible without descending again. Even the highly abnormal vibrations, which felt as if the entire airframe was buffeting before a stall, interested him barely at all.
He turned slowly, and looked down at the crumpled wreck of the Blue Albatros. The sight filled him with nothing except a feeling of vague emptiness.
Oh, well…
The thought crossed his mind to machine gun the wreck.
It wasn’t burning.
That’s never going to fly again… it’s a complete wreck.
He could see pieces of blue fabric scattered over half an acre, and a deep scar in the earth.
The machine was dead. Disintegrated.
How about the man?
He looked at the wreck, and doubted very much if any man could survive such an impact.
Machine gun the remains and make sure?
He shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t be bothered. His anger had dissipated.
If he’s survived that, he’s going to be a very broken up man…
The buffeting increased, and there was something funny about his propeller disc. It was fuzzy. Blurred.
He dragged his attention painfully away from the wreck below, and concentrated on his own machine.
This thing isn’t going to stay airborne long. The propeller’s damaged. Bottom wing leading edge is buckled up… what a mess.
He looked at the flying wires. Some were abnormally slack, and others looked taut – like piano wires.
He groaned, and realized he felt sick.
He turned westwards, leaving the wreck behind him.
With his last look, he could see two figures running…

* * *

The big man got there first.
Pity. It’s one of ours. I’d have got more for an English gun.
Nothing stirred. No smoke or fire. He walked around to the front, and tried to find the guns. He spared no thought for the pilot. He was obviously dead.
Serves him right for losing. Useless idiot…

The smaller man stumbled up, out of breath, and started groping through the remains of the upper wing, in the area where he guessed the cockpit lay. He had never seen an aircraft close up before, and he was astonished at the way the fabric covered the flimsy wooden ribs.
What an amazing way to build an aeroplane…
He pulled part of the upper wing roughly away, and found what he was looking for. A crumpled, hideously broken body lay, face upwards, eyes staring emptily into space.
He knelt down beside the pilot, and gently felt his forehead. He was full of pity.
Poor man… he’s dead.
The forehead felt cold and lifeless. He reached for the man’s pulse, but before he could feel it, a faint groan drew his gaze abruptly back to the pilot’s face.
The eyes had moved, slowly, racked in pain, and a thin trickle of blood bubbled forth from the tortured mouth.

Francis Meyrick

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