Many soiled hands grasped the floor of our hamper and eased the jar of its contact with the earth. Those same hands had redraped the rim with sandbags, and had helped us to clamber out from between the stay ropes, when up came the young captain who spelled the lieutenant as an aerial spy. He came at a run. Between the two of them ensued a sharp interchange of short German sentences. I gathered the sense of what passed.
“I don’t see it now,” said, in effect, my late traveling mate, staring skyward and turning his head.
“Nor do I,” answered the captain. “I thought it was yonder.” He flirted a thumb backward and upward over his shoulder.
“Are you sure you saw it?”
“No, not sure,” said the captain. “I called you down at the first alarm, and right after that it disappeared, I think; but I shall make sure.”
He snapped an order to the soldiers and vaulted nimbly into the basket. The horses turned about and moved off and the balloon rose. As for the lieutenant, he spun round and ran toward the edge of the field, fumbling at his belt for his private field glasses as he ran. Wondering what all this bother was about—though I had a vague idea regarding its meaning— I watched the ascent.
I should say the bag had reached a height of five hundred feet when, behind me, a hundred yards or so away, a soldier shrieked out excitedly. Farther along another voice took up the outcry. From every side of the field came shouts. The field was ringed with clamor. It dawned on me that this spot was even more efficiently guarded than I had conceived it to be.
The driver of the wagon swung his lumbering team about with all the strength of his arms, and back again came the six horses, galloping now. So thickly massed were the men who snatched at the cable, and so eagerly did they grab for it, that the simile of a hot handball scrimmage flashed into my thoughts. I will venture that balloon never did a faster homing job than it did then.
Fifty men were pointing aloft now, all of them crying out as they pointed:
“Flyer! French flyer !”
I saw it. It was a monoplane. It had, I judged, just emerged from a cloudbank to the southward. It was heading directly toward our field. It was high up—so high up that I felt momentarily amazed that all those Germans could distinguish it as a French flyer rather than as an English flyer at that distance.
As I looked, and as all of us looked, the balloon basket hit the earth and was made fast; and in that same instant a cannon boomed somewhere well over to the right. Even as someone who knew sang out to us that this was the balloon cannon in the German aviation field back of the town opening up, a tiny ball of smoke appeared against the sky, seemingly quite close to the darting flyer, and blossomed out with downy, dainty white petals, like a flower.
The monoplane veered, wheeled and began to drive in a wriggling, twisting course. The balloon cannon spoke again. Four miles away, to the eastward, its fellow in another aviation camp let go, and the sound of its discharge came to us faintly but distinctly. Another smoke flower unfolded in the heavens, somewhat below the darting airship.