The Tale of the Gentleman
War saps the life out of people. It is always the case. Not a lot of people were in the mood to celebrate Valentine's Day, and the ones who did were separated from their lovers by the skirmishes. An old couple sit outside a dim cafe, sharing a bowl of thin soup while some sooty children frolic on the grimy street.
The children spy you walking down the road and stop in their tracks. They're mildly fascinated by your choice of attire. A grubby one waves her hand at you.
"Can tell from your looks that you are a fighter. Got news from the front?" She asks, "Sister is hoping she'd get a letter from Henry from the 2nd regiment on Valentine's, but nothing's come in yet."
You explain that you didn't come back the front. They all seem disappointed.
"You'd hope that they'd stop fighting and let the landships come home on Valentine's." She says. A young boy, after thoroughly picking his nose, says scruffily: "Va'entine this an Va'entine that, this why they don't let girls fight up there. Any time not shootin' is time when you're getting shooted at! What's the Va'entine about that boggles you girls so much?" What a cynical boy.
"It's about love." You say to the boy, who instinctively winces in childish disgust, "And that is especially important to remember in these trying times." You say, as you drift into thought.
You remember where you grew up in Canterbury. Your father worked the railway company with his best friend, whose daughter you knew well. Cheeks as red as the furnace fires, hair that glowed like warm coal, which she keeps in a tight bun, and handiworking skills that rivals yours, passed down in her family. You two would help out in the factory to earn a share of coin, which would be use to buy uppity cucumber sandwiches, eaten by the sooty chimney above the factory.
Life was modest, but comfortable in the time of war. Your families are all thankful for their peaceful life. But as the war was developing and resources diminished, the recruitment age limit rose, and both your fathers were drafted. It paid well, at least. You barely have time for a hug before the landship chugs off.
You were somewhat proud of your brave father, but her, she was more worried. She was right in worrying, as news came back, only six weeks later, that they were shelled to smithereens in their flaming trenches.
The shock was like a hammer to the head. You were almost looking forward to being 18 that year and being drafted, but now, the falsehood of glory was shattered, along with any hope of a complete family. You and your poor friend sat again night after night, by the billowing smokestacks, staring at the faint firelight across the channel, not knowing what to think.
She cried hard one time. She asked you to not to join the army, to not do what the enemies have done to your fathers. But there is nothing you can do about it. Your day of birth looms. It is inevitable.
Unless... You two get the hell out of there. You must leave the country! But with what? Her Fearsome Majesty's flotillas swarm the English channel, ready to intercept any boat. What about a dirigible? But they're such large and slow targets. How can you make it faster, then? Something without a hulking balloon. Something heavier than air that can soar like a bird! Yes, birds exist, they can be bigger, why not?
Without a blueprint or plan, you two start your work, motivated by dreams of flight. Together you will fly across the British Channel, faster than the troopers can see, and live far away from any reminder of this grim war. Taking apart the trains your father built, you mount engines onto a wood and canvas frame. Bit by bit, the machine is engineered. An innovation indeed, the aviatics engine! Not a lot of space, but enough for two and just a tiny bit more.
She smiles heartily for the first time in a while and asks, dreaming of a new life: what will you bring along for the journey?
You pick up her father's old steampan gun. Route a little bit of the boiler to it and it will work fine. The journey will not be safe. Self defense is needed. She stares at you with disbelief.
"I don't want to see that bloody thing ever again! We are leaving the war behind us! Why are we turning our escape into a killing machine?"
You try to calm her by telling her, for the fifth time, that it's only for emergency, but before you finish, she turns around and cuts you off. "I know, I know. Just don't... Just, I hope it doesn't get us killed." Her voice quivers, and she turns back to face you, "like father."
Before you can comfort her, a sudden knock on the wall of your shop jolts the both of you. Come from the other side of the door: "Army officer!"
You scramble to throw the tarp over the aviatics engine while she runs to distract him. "Don't bother." Says the officer, "We know what you're up to. We saw your test runs. Pretty impressive."
You go on about how it really will revolutionize the agricultural industry, but he waves his hand. "Save some spit. We know you're up to no good. You're about to be drafted, aren't you? Look, we can do it the easy way. Sell us the machine, we will give you enough money for a lifetime, and a job if you want to work on it. You'll be counted essential personnel, and you won't go to war."
Silence. The army is always a step ahead. Blaggards, they read you like a book! Your darling glances at you nervously. You part your lips to speak, but the officer walks back out.
"We will give you a few days to think about it. I'll be in the fort on Chamberlain Street, so have a courier send a letter when you decide." He looks back. "And don't try any funny business. Take the offer."
Late at night, you are writing the letter, the letters of your future. But what are you writing?
You slam your fists on the table. Letter? Who's writing letters? You kick out the chair from beneath you, jolting your darling from her sleep: "Rev up the engines, deary, across the channels, we fly tonight to freedom!" She wipes the sleep from her eyes, and, eyes closed, smiles just a little: "Let us go then, you and I."
You crank the door open at midnight. The half moon breaks herself across the crests of ocean waves. A glint in your darling's eye tells you that she believes that all will be well. And all will be well.
To your surprise, there are no guards or sentries to stop you, neither are there any dreadnoughts. All there is is a single, sleepy soldier and his rifle, sitting on his helmet. He throws a glance at you two and closes his eyes again.
A perfect opportunity! You light the fire in each of the engines, the propellers start whirring. The machine is inching forwards. The two of you push the machine on either side towards the cliff that faces the ocean.
The engines get loud. The soldier stands up and walks: "Hey, stop the engine. By order of the Captain."
You two ignore him. The machine now requires a small jog to keep up to.
"Hey! Stop right now please." The soldier is half awake now. He put his hand on the tail.
You two ignore him. The plane is starting to get faster than you can run.
"Hey! Hey! Stop! Oi!" The soldier chases after you two. He grabs onto the tailframe and tries to stop it. The delicate frame creaks in his hands, but one man can't overpower two people and three engines.
The cliff is getting closer and closer. You two jump onto the wing simultaneously and crawl into the pilot box. In two seconds, the machine will drop off the cliff, and it will fly into the heavens!
Wait, the guy is still hanging on. What.
The machine wobbles as it glides off the cliff. The nose is pointed up, but it is stalling bad. The soldier is still fluttering in the cold tailwind like a tattered cloth.
"Let go!" You shouted. "We are going to crash!" He doesn't let go. The plane keeps falling, keeps falling, nose pointed up in defiance. It tries its best to keep aloft to no avail. It gently touches down, into the chilling waters. The engines sputter as soon as it touches the waves, and then it dies.
Three people, wet and shivering, hold onto a machine, floating barely two hundred yards off shore. You can barely hold in your fury. It burns hotter than all the factories of London. Steam still flowed in one engine. The steampan gun is still operational. You jerk it around its swivel, prepared to pepper the bastard with lead, but you are cut off by a sigh from your love.
"All of this... so silly. Did we really think we could fly this thing across the channel? Our test flights barely last a minute. Would a cliff and sea draughts really make a difference?" She says in a murmur, "It's not his fault. We were too blinded by the... the daring of it all." She falls silent. You float next to the soldier, mind buzzing...
"What next?" Asked the little girl. In your recollection, you had almost forgotten that you had an audience. "How did you escape?"
You clear your throat and look slightly skyward: "I didn't. I knew that this was the end of the road. I did the only thing I could and held onto her, cried with her in the night, half sat on sinking framework and hissing engine. The soldier just silently floated next to us, almost apologetically."
The boy tilts his head: "but how did you get away?"
"I didn't." You say, "the patrolling ironclad drifted towards us slowly, and before daybreak, had picked us up."
"You didn't get in trouble?"
"Why would I? No harm was caused, other than the drenching of a poor soldier. I got yelled at by the army commander, my schematics were confiscated, and they just left. I wasn't even drafted. Didn't pass the physical."
"One day I was visited by a messenger. Was handed a small cheque. He said that army engineers were able to draw a meager bit of insight from my machine. They have been making their own version of the aviatics engine far before I did, ones that could fly to France and back, complete with dustingun turrets, infantry bastions, and whole crates of toxic salts."
The children stand quiet and the boy squeaks out, after a few seconds: "Salts?"
"Yes. Those machines are what you call salterbirds. They sprinkle it over fields, killing crops and rendering the land barren. It's the way the lands down South went."
"I bid the messenger go, and told him that I didn't want this money, but it didn't change the fact that I have led to thousands of deaths. The dream of a life unstained by blood was shattered for the both of us, and one night, heartbroken, my darling left, never to return. So I cashed in my cheque, and kept on... being."
You let out a long sigh. It has been so long since then. You wonder where she is now. Whatever. Knock it off. You just traumatized two kids, the least you can do is to finish the story.
"The next day was St. Valentine's... a cold morning..."