The Aviator

“The French Government declines to accept your services.” The words said themselves over and over in his ears in the drone of the motor, as the monoplane climbed into the velvet night sky.

Was that diplomatic blunder of two years ago so utterly unforgivable? Was exile not enough? Would the Republic deny him even the right to fight under her colours? “The French Government declines to accept your services.” The recruiting officer had said it, and General Joffre had reiterated the unrelenting statement in reply to his direct appeal for enlistment. And now the drone of the propeller, the hum of the motor, and the rush of the air through the braces whispered the words ceaselessly into his ears as the great wings carried him up into the darkness.

Below, the ghostly searchlight fingers of the fortress reached up, groping toward him. The central searchlight of the fortress was playing on a French cruiser which had crept up recklessly close to the fort and was pouring shells in rapid salvos up into the battlements on the hill. The sparks of fire from the ship’s side seemed but tiny points of light far down below. Momentarily balls of flame appeared above and around the dim outlines of the fortifications, and the smoke of bursting shells drifted wanly across the white, searching pencils of light. Down there France, undaunted, grappled the Turk in the darkness. From the farther shore distant lights of Asia twinkled in the night.

Behind that central searchlight, Henri had said, lay the entrance to the powder magazine. That passageway was the vital spot of the fortress. An explosion there would ignite the ammunition and shatter the entire centre of the fortifications.

A searchlight came wheeling across the sky and shot past just behind the monoplane. The flash of the guns on the hill were now just beneath him, and their roar formed a surging background of sound to the whirr of the machine. He swept in a huge curve toward a position back of the fortress. The searchlight was circling the sky again. For a fraction of a second the aeroplane was silhouetted in its full glare. The beam wavered and returned zigzagging to pick him up again. This time it caught and followed him. A shell burst below him. If one fragment of shrapnel should strike the nitroglycerine which he carried France would profit little from this last ride of his.

The fortress was not far behind him. He swept about and pointed the nose of the monoplane downward straight toward the base of the central searchlight. Its beam had ceased to play on the battleship and was lifting swiftly toward him. Suddenly its glare caught him straight in the eyes. He gripped the controls and steered tensely for that dazzling target.

“The French Government declines to accept your services.” He smiled grimly. They could not well decline them now. The air rushed past him so swiftly that it seemed stiff like a stream of water under high pressure. Below him at that point of light death stood smiling. The crash of a shell bursting behind him was lost in the gale of wind in his ears. The light grew swiftly larger and the outlines of the battlements became distinct. “The French Government——” the world ended in a crash of blistering whiteness.

“He was pointed directly at the magazine,” said Abdul, the gunner. “If the shell from the French cruiser had not struck him we should all by now have been with Allah.”


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