Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 10
Much the same sort of scene was going on in the streets of Paris as Tom and Jack had witnessed when first the populace realized that they were under fire from a German cannon. There was the initial alarm—the warnings sounded by the police and soldiers, warnings which were different from those indicating a Zeppelin or aircraft raid, and then the hurry for cover.
But it was noticeable that not so many of the people rushed for a secure hiding place as had done so at first.
"They're not so afraid of the big gun as they were," observed Jack, as he hurried along with his chum.
"No. Though it's just as well to be a bit cautious, I think. The people of Paris are beginning to lose fear because they see that the German shells don't do as much damage as might be expected."
"You're right there, Tom," said Jack. "The shells are rather small, to judge by the damage they do. I wonder why that is?"
"Probably their gun, or guns, can't fire any larger ones such a long distance, or else their airships can't carry 'em up above the clouds to drop on the city."
"Then you still hold to the airship theory?"
"Well, Jack, I haven't altogether given it up. I'm open to conviction, as it were. Of course I know, in theory, a gun can be made that will shoot a hundred miles, if necessary, but the cost of it, the cost of the charge and the work of loading it, as well as the enormous task of making a carriage or an emplacement to with-stand the terrific recoil, makes such a gun a military white elephant. In other words it isn't worth the trouble it would take—the amount of damage inflicted on the enemy wouldn't make it worth while."
"I guess you're right, Tom. And yet such a gun would make a big scare."
"Yes, and that's what the Germans are depending on, more than anything else."
"But still don't you think the French will have to do something toward silencing the gun?"
"Indeed I do! And I haven't a doubt but the French command is working night and day to devise some plan whereby the gun can be silenced."
"There go the aviators now, out to try to find the big cannon," observed Jack, as he gazed aloft.
Soaring over Paris, having hastened to take the air when the signal was given, were a number of planes, their red, white and blue lights showing dimly against the black sky. They were off to try to place the big gun, if such it was, or discover whether or not some Hun plane was hovering over the city, dropping the bombs.
As Jack and Tom hastened on, in the wake of the crowd, which was hurrying toward the place where the latest shells had fallen, again came a distant explosion, showing that the gun had been fired again.
"Fifteen-minute interval," announced Tom, looking at his watch. "They're keeping strictly to schedule."
"Night firing is new for the big gun," said Jack. "I do hope they'll be able to locate the cannon by the flashes."
"It isn't going to be easy," asserted Tom.
"Because you can make up your mind if the Germans were afraid to fire the piece at night at first for fear of being discovered, and if now they are firing after dark, they have some means of camouflaging the flash. In other words they have it hidden in some way."
"Well, I suppose you're right. But say, Tom, old man! what wouldn't I give to be able to be up in the air with those boys now?" and Jack motioned to the scouts who were flitting around in the dark clouds, seeking for that which menaced the chief city of the French nation.
"I'd like to be there myself," said Tom. "And if this keeps up much longer I'm going to ask permission for us to go up and see what we can do."
"Think they'll let us?"
"Well, they can't any more than turn us down. And we've got to get at it in a hurry, too, or we'll have to report back at our regular station. We aren't doing anything here, except sit around."
"No, we must get busy, that's a fact," said Jack. "It's about time we downed some Hun scout, or broke up one of their 'circus' attacks. I've almost forgotten how a joy stick feels."
A "joy stick" is a contrivance on an aeroplane by the manipulation of which the plane is held on a level keel. If the joy stick control is released, either by accident (say when the pilot is wounded in a fight), or purposely, the plane at once begins to climb, taking its passenger out of danger.
Once the joy stick is released it gradually comes back toward the pilot. The machine climbs until the angle formed is too great for it to continue, or for the motor to pull it. Then it may stop for an instant when the motor, being heavier, pulls the plane over and there begins the terrible "nose spinning dive," from which there is no escape unless the pilot gets control of his machine again, or manages to reach the joy stick.
"Well, we'll have to get in the game again soon," said Tom. "But what do you say to taking a taxi? This explosion is farther than I thought."
Jack agreed, and they were soon at the place where the last German shell had fallen—that is as near as the police would permit.
A house had been struck, and several persons, two of them children, killed. But, as before, the military damage done was nothing. The Germans might be spreading their gospel of fear, but they were not advancing their army that way.
As Tom and Jack stood near the place where a hole had been blown through the house, another explosion, farther off, was heard, and there was a momentary flare in the sky that told of the arrival of another shell.
For a few seconds there was something like a panic, and then a voice struck up the " Marseillaise," and the crowd joined in. It was their defiance to the savage Hun.
A few shots were fired by the Germans, but none of them did much damage, and then, as though operating on a schedule which must not, under any circumstances, be changed, the firing ceased, and the crowds once more filled the streets, for it was yet early in the night.
The next morning the boys went to report, as they did each day, expecting that they might be called back to duty. They also found, after being told that their leave was still in effect, that some of the aviators who had gone up the night before, to try to locate the German gun, were on hand.
"Now we can ask them what they saw," suggested Jack.
"That's what we will," assented Tom.
But the airmen had nothing to report. They had ascended high in search of a hostile craft carrying a big gun, but had seen none.
They had journeyed far over the German lines, hoping to discover the emplacement of the gun, if a long range cannon was being used. But they saw nothing.
"Not even flashes of fire?" asked Tom.
"Oh, yes, we saw those," an aviator said. "But there were so many of them, and in so many and such widely scattered places, that we could not tell which one to bomb. We did manage to hit some, though with what effect we could not tell."
"Then the German gun is still a mystery," observed Tom.
"It is. But we shall discover it soon. We will never rest until we do!"
So more and new and different theories continued to be put forth regarding the big cannon, if such it was. Ordnance experts wrote articles, alike in London, Paris, and New York, explaining that it was possible for a cannon to be within the German lines and still send a shell into the French capital. But few believed that it was feasible. The general opinion was that the gun was of comparative short range and was hidden much nearer Paris than the sixty or seventy-odd miles away, beyond which stretched the German line of trenches.
Meanwhile Tom, though making careful inquiries, had learned nothing of his father. He did not feel it would be wise to cable back home, and ask what the news was there.
"It might spoil dad's plans if I did that," said Tom to his chum, "and it would worry the folks in Bridgeton to know that I haven't yet seen him in France. No, I'll just have to wait."
And wait Tom did, though there is no harder task in all the world.
It was one morning, after a night bombardment on the part of the Germans, that Jack, who had been out for a morning paper, came rushing into the room where Tom was just awakening.
"Great news, old man! Great!" cried Jack, waving the paper about his head.
"You mean about a victory?" asked Tom.
"No, not exactly, though it may lead to that. And it isn't any news about your father, I'm sorry to say. It's about the German gun. A 'dud' fell last night."
"A 'dud'?" repeated Tom, hardly sensing what Jack said.
"Yes, you know! A shell that didn't explode. Now they have a whole one to examine, and they can find out what sort of gun shot it. This paper tells all about it. Come on! Let's go for a look at the 'dud'!"