It was silent except for the wind. That was bad. The engine had shut down after being shot, and now the Sopwith Pup was trailing smoke and slowly gliding downward. The German pilot had broken off and left, leaving Lt. Daniels to drift alone in the sky, terror filling him, yet also giving him a firm resolve to keep his craft flying level. If he could just manage to glide down under control he might be able to land in a field.
That wouldn’t solve all his problems, of course. The Germans controlled the land below, and he wasn’t too far from the front either, so someone was bound to see him come down.
Closer to the ground now. There was a long hedgerow ahead with a road beside it. He might be able to use it as a runway. Banking the plane slightly, he lined up for the approach. Now he could see a pair of houses, one on either side of the road, with fields behind them. Low, one story houses, with what looked like barns nearby. He hoped someone down there was a doctor; the road looked rough and the landing would not be easy.
He was falling faster now, the wings of his plane unable to provide enough lift to keep him up. He pulled up the nose slightly to slow his descent. Only 50 feet or so now remained between him and the ground. He could hear the rustling of leaves as the wind blew through the hedge.
40 feet. Pull up just a bit more. The craft caught the air and obligingly slowed and began it’s final landing.
30 feet. 20 feet.
He was still going too fast, but he no longer had room to spare. He lowered the nose and let the wheels touch down. The front wheels hit with a jarring thud that shook everything. There was now a tremendous noise of rattling and squeaking as the plane lumbered down the road. The rear wheel came down now, and the plane bounced along lurching from side to side, and Daniels could barely keep it moving in a straight line.
Suddenly a woman appeared on the side of the road ahead. She must have come from one of the houses to see what was happening. The plane bounced again and threatened to go towards her. Desperately, Daniels swung the rudder to try and turn away from her, but he went too far. The plane swiveled to the right and clipped the hedgerow, and that was it’s doom. The Pup flipped up and planted its nose in the ground. With a great crunching the left wing hit the ground and collapsed as the aircraft rolled over onto its back. Daniels saw the road come up at him, and he lost consciousness as he hit.
It was a clear autumn day and Yvette had been up since dawn, milking the cow, cleaning, and generally keeping busy about the farm. It was harder with Claude gone, but he was in the army, and the German advance had passed by their farm before the trenches had been dug in. After that, all she could do was hope that he was still alive and that he would come home again someday. Poor Genevieve across the road had it worse, though, since she knew exactly where her husband was: in the family graveyard behind the house, killed by a stray artillery shell as the German advance swept through the area.
But that kind of gloomy thought had no place on a fine day like this. The sun was shining bright and bringing some unexpected late September warmth. There were crows calling back and forth across the fields, empty now after the harvest, little though it was, and in the air she could hear a faint buzzing of … bees?
That couldn’t be right. She looked around to find where the sound was coming from, but there was nothing in the yard except for the cow and her calf eating their fodder. The buzzing got louder and now she could hear two distinct tones of it. “Ah” she thought. “Airplanes.” Scanning the horizon towards the front she found what she expected: a British and a German airplane were dueling to the southwest. The front was 17 miles away and normally all she knew of it was the passing of German convoys – always smaller when coming back – or the distant muffled “krump” of artillery fire. But sometimes the airplanes would make it this far and entertain her with their acrobatics. She knew they must be engaged in deadly combat, but from her distant view they always looked like graceful dancers performing an aerial waltz to some music that only they could hear.
Today’s planes were no different. They came together, then pirouetted as they passed by one another. The tan British plane traced an elegant arc as it swung back around, and the black German plane mirrored it. They came together again, and repeated their dance. And again! Yvette hummed to herself as she watched. The end of the dance was always the same, with the men giving each other one last bow before heading each to their respective homes. She supposed aerial combat must be very difficult. She smiled as the planes passed by each other again in their dance, the Brit doing his left turn and the German … doing something different this time. Instead of turning left as before, he pulled straight up and described a little corkscrew shape as he turned 180 degrees, so that suddenly he was coming straight down at his opponent from above and a bit behind. As the two passed by once more the tan plane began trailing black smoke! Satisfied in his victory, the German left. “Why doesn’t he stay to witness the end” she thought?
But her eyes now turned to the stricken British plane. She could no longer hear the buzzing of its engine and she watched in horror knowing what must inevitably happen as gravity once again took command. But the craft was still flying level, and it turned towards her. It was coming almost directly at her now. “The road! He must be trying to land on the road!” She dropped her rake and began running down the lane to the road to get a better view. There were trees along her side of the lane and she found it difficult to see the plane as it neared the ground. It was close now! She heard it thump into the ground as she came to the end of the lane, where she flung open the gate without realizing how close she was.
She looked up and could see the plane bouncing towards her so close that she could see the eyes of the pilot through his goggles. They did nothing to conceal the fear in his face and for an eternal instant their gazes met in shared horror of the situation. But then the aircraft turned sharply to it’s right, struck the hedge, and flipped over on it’s back, coming to rest not 20 feet from her. She cried out as the pilot was thrown to the ground nearby with the unmistakable sound of cracking bones.
Two plates shattered on the floor with a clatter that echoed the loud crashing sound from the road, which is what had startled Genevieve into the dropping the plates to begin with. She looked up from the sink and out the kitchen window – there was a cloud of smoke and dust rising over the hedge. Coco, her dog, began barking furiously and jumping at the door. “Get down!” Genevieve said as she went outside to see what had happened.
She ran down the lane towards the hedge as fast as she could, thinking that a car must have crashed, but when she arrived at the road she saw her neighbor pulling a man away from a ruined airplane. “No” she said quietly as she stared numbly at what was in front of her. “No, no, no!” she yelled, and ran over to help Yvette. Together they pulled Daniels away from the wreckage and to a place in the grass beside the road.
“He doesn’t seem to be badly hurt”, said Yvette, “but there’s no telling when he’ll wake up. He has a few cuts. Do you have any bandages at your house?”
Genevieve did not respond. She simply stared silently at the pilot as he lay there. Yvette had removed his goggles and cap to reveal a young man in his mid 20’s, perhaps her own age. He had sandy hair and a freckled complexion that gave him a boyish look.
“Genevieve, do you have any bandages?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, no I don’t” she replied, finally pulling out of her thoughts, “but he seems mostly OK. I’m sure the Germans will take care of him when they arrive to get him.”
“What?” said Yvette. “We can’t let that happen. Here, help me pick him up. We’ll hide him in my cellar. There’s an old priest hole in there that we can use.”
“No” replied Genevieve.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I won’t help you hide him. The Germans would just search the house and find him anyway. Let’s just keep him safe and wait for them. It probably won’t be long.”
“Are you serious?”
“Of course. It’s for the best”
Yvette stood up and put her hands on her hips. “Do you hear what you’re saying?” He was fighting for us. He was fighting to free our land from the invaders, and you just want to give him to them? That’s madness!”
“It’s just realistic. The German camps are only a few miles away and it won’t be long before they arrive to investigate. If we try to hide the Englishman they will simply search our houses. They’ll turn over everything, and they’ll find him. I can’t let that happen.”
“Who cares about the mess they’ll make? What difference does that make? I told you, I have a hidden place in the cellar where we can put him. He won’t be found and we can tell the Germans that we saw him run north towards town. They’ll go look for him there when they give up searching here. It will be fine!”
She looked eagerly at Genevieve hoping that her argument was convincing. She couldn’t understand the reluctance to help the pilot.
“Yvette, I know you think this is for the best, but please trust me. If the Germans search for him they will find him, and besides, he may be more injured than he looks. They can get him to a doctor who can take care of him.”
“I can’t believe you are doing this” said Yvette. “I know you hate the Germans. They killed your husband! Why do you suddenly want to cooperate with them?”
“I don’t”, Genevieve said, her voice rising, “but I’m just being practical! They know he’s here and they won’t stop looking until they find him. They…”
She stopped short as the young man moaned and began to stir. Yvette knelt down beside him and told him to move gently. He said something to her. “Genevieve, you speak English. What is he saying?”
Genevieve glared silently for a moment before answering. “He said ‘thank you’. And his name is Henry Daniels.”
“Can he walk” asked Yvette. Genevieve translated and Lt. Daniels said “I think my ankle may be broken. It hurts at least, but I should be able to walk with help.”
The two woman helped him to his feet and Yvette held him up on his left side as they walked slowly to her house. They got him inside and he sat while Yvette looked at his swollen ankle.
“I need to get the boot off, but right now it’s the only thing supporting his foot. Help me get him into the cellar first so I can hide him.”
“No, I told you the Germans need to take him, especially if he has a broken bone.”
Yvette was quiet for a moment. “Then get out. Go home. At least have the decency to keep quiet when they come looking for him. Can you do that? Can you at least not betray your own friends and allies?” She sneered that last remark.
Genevieve swallowed hard and turned to leave, going home without replying.
It was a bit more than an hour later when the knock came on the door. A sergeant and three privates were standing there, and before they could even say anything Genevieve pointed across the road and said “He’s hiding there. He may be in a hidden room in the cellar.” With a raised eyebrow, the sergeant ordered two of his men to wait here while he crossed over the Yvette’s house, meeting up with his corporal and three others. Yvette put up a brave act and tried to insist that the pilot had fled, but when she saw them go straight for the cellar she began screaming. One soldier held her while the rest searched. Behind a stack of crates they found the priest hole with Lt. Daniels in it. As he was led out he smiled at Yvette and thanked her for trying to help. He was loaded onto a truck and driven off, while the crew from a second truck worked at clearing the road.
Genevieve sat alone in her kitchen now, drinking cold, weak tea. She heard the front door open and close, but did not react. Yvette walked in and stood in front of her.
Yvette spat on Genevieve and the spittle ran down one cheek as Genevieve watched Yvette leave again.
She sat there for a long time, not even bothering to wipe her face clean. The clock chimed 2 in the afternoon.
Quietly, the cellar door opened and a voice asked in accented French “is it safe now?”
“I think so Corporal Henderson” said Genevieve, “but the Germans are still out there, so you should probably stay down there until nightfall. Go back down and I will bring you something to eat.”
“Thank you” he said. He paused a moment. “It had to be done, you know. If they’d searched here too … ” His voice trailed off and he shut the door again.