THE GIRL AVIATORS' SKY CRUISE
AUTHOR OF "THE GIRL AVIATORS AND THE PHANTOM AIRSHIP," "THE GIRL AVIATORS ON GOLDEN WINGS," ETC.
HURST & COMPANY
I. A NEW VENTURE IN SANDY BEACH II. MR. HARDING DECLARES HIMSELF III. A NAVAL VISITOR IV. ALOFT IN A STORM V. PEGGY A HEROINE VI. FARMER GALLOWAY'S "SAFE DEPOSIT" VII. A CASE FOR THE AUTHORITIES VIII. MR. MORTLAKE LOSES SOME DRAWINGS IX. THE FLIGHT OF THE "SILVER COBWEB" X. AN AERIAL POST OFFICE XI. THE MARKED BILL XII. WHAT HAPPENED TO ROY XIII. PLOT AND COUNTERPLOT XIV. HOW THEY WORKED OUT XV. WHAT MORTLAKE DID XVI. THE MISSING SIDE-COMB XVII. JIMSY'S SUSPICIONS ARE ROUSED XVIII. A BOLT FROM THE BLUE XIX. THE GATHERING OF THE MAN-BIRDS XX. AN UNEXPECTED MEETING XXI. THE START OF THE SKY CRUISE XXII. THE WHITE PERIL XXIII. OUT OF THE CLOUDS XXIV. FRIENDS AND FOES—CONCLUSION
A NEW VENTURE IN SANDY BEACH.
"It isn't to be a barn; that's one thing certain. Who ever saw a barn with skylights on it?"
Peggy Prescott, in a pretty, fluffy morning dress of pale green, which set off her blonde beauty to perfection, laid down her racket, and, leaving the tennis-court, joined her brother Roy at the picket fence. The lad, bronzed and toughened by his trip to the Nevada desert, was leaning upon the paling, gazing down the dusty road.
About a quarter of a mile away was the object of his contemplation—a big, new structure, painted a staring red. It had no windows, but in front were great sliding doors. On its flat roof the forms of a dozen or more glazed skylights upreared themselves jauntily.
"No, it's a work-shop of some sort. But what? Old man Harding is interested in it, that's one thing sure. I heard, too, that while we were away, cases of machinery had arrived and been delivered there, and that active work of some sort had been going forward ever since," rejoined Roy, who was clad in white tennis flannels, with white shoes and an outing shirt, set off by a dark-red necktie.
"See Roy," cried Peggy suddenly, "they're putting up some sort of sign on it, or else I'm very much mistaken."
"So they are. I see men on some ladders, and now, look Peg, they are carrying up a big board with something painted on it. Perhaps at last the mystery will be solved, as they say in the dime novels."
"Can you read the printing on that sign?" inquired Peggy.
"Not a word. I can see the letters to know that they are printed characters, but that's all. Tell you what, Peg, just run and get those glasses we used on the desert—there's a good fellow—and we'll soon find out."
"Isn't that just like a brother? Always sending his long-suffering sister on his errands."
"Why, you know you are dying with curiosity yourself, to know what's on that signboard," parried Roy.
"And I suppose you're not," pouted Peggy in mock indignation. "However, I'll get the field glasses to oblige you—just once."
"As if you won't try to secure the first peek through them!" laughed Roy, as sunny Peggy tripped off across the lawn to a big shed in the rear of the Prescott home, where the aeroplanes and their appurtenances were kept.
She soon was back with the field glasses, and, as Roy had prophesied, raised them to her eyes first. Having adjusted the focus, she scrutinized the sign carefully. By this time the big board had been raised horizontally above the doors and was being fixed in position.
Suddenly Peggy gave a little squeal of astonishment and lowered the magnifiers.
"Well, what is it?" chaffed Roy; "an anarchist bomb factory or an establishment for raising goats, or something that will "butt in" just as much on our peace and quiet, or——"
"Roy Prescott," enunciated Peggy, severely shaking one pink-tipped finger under Roy's freckled nose, "this is not a subject for jesting."
"Never more serious in my life, Sis. If you could have seen your own face as you peeked through those glasses——"
Peggy stuffed the binoculars into her brother's brown hands.
"Here, look for yourself," she ordered. Her voice was so imperious that Roy obeyed immediately.
An instant later his sister's expression of dumfounded amazement was mirrored on his own straightforward, good-looking countenance.
"Well, as Bud used to say out West, 'if that ain't the beatingest'!" he gasped.
"What did you read?" demanded Peggy breathlessly. "Repeat it so that I may be sure my eyes didn't play me a trick."
"Not likely, Sis; the letters are big enough. They show up on that red painted barn of a place like a big freckle on a pretty girl's chin."
Then he repeated slowly, mimicking a boy reciting a lesson:
"The Mortlake Aeroplane Company. Well, wouldn't that jar you?"
"Roy!" reproved Peggy.
"There's no other way to express it, Sis," protested the boy. "Why, that's the concern that's been advertising so much recently. Just to think, it was right at our door, and we never knew it."
"And that hateful old Mr. Harding is interested in it, too, oh!"
The exclamation and its intonation expressed Peggy's dislike of the gentleman mentioned.
"It's a scheme oh his part to make trouble for us, I'll bet on it," burst out Roy. "But this time I guess it's no phantom airship, but the real thing. What time is that naval lieutenant coming to look over the Prescott aeroplane, Peggy?"
"Some time to-day. He mentioned no particular hour."
"Do you think it possible that he is also going to take in that outfit down the road?"
"It wouldn't surprise me. Maybe that's why they are just putting up the sign. They evidently have refrained from doing so till now in order to keep the nature of their business secret. If we hadn't come back from Nevada sooner than we expected, we might not have known anything about it till the navy had investigated and—approved."
Far down the road, beyond the big red building, came a whirl of dust. From it presently emerged a big maroon car. Peggy scrutinized it through the glasses.
"Mr. Harding is in that auto," she said, rather quietly for Peggy, as the car came to a stop in front of the Mortlake Aeroplane Manufacturing Company's plant.
Shortly before Peggy and Roy Prescott, their aunt, Miss Sallie Prescott, with whom they made their home, and their chums, Jess and Jimsy Bancroft, had returned from the Nevada alkali wastes, the red building which engaged their attention that morning had caused a good deal of speculation in the humdrum Long Island village of Sandy Beach. In the first place, coincident with the completion of the building, a new element had been introduced into the little community by the arrival of several keen-eyed, close-mouthed men, who boarded at the local hotel and were understood to be employees at the new building. But what the nature of their employment was to be, even the keenest of the village "cross examiners" had failed to elicit.
Before long, within the freshly painted wooden walls, still sticky with pigment, there could be heard, all day, and sometimes far into the night, the buzz and whir of machinery and other more mystic sounds. The village was on tenter-hooks of curiosity, but there being no side windows to peer through, and a watchman of ferocious aspect stationed at the door, their inquisitiveness was, perforce, unsatisfied. Not even a sign appeared on the building to indicate the nature of the industry carried on within, and its employees continued to observe the stoniest of silences. They herded together, ignoring all attempts to draw them into conversation. What Peggy and Roy had observed that day had been the first outward sign of the inward business.
From the throbbing automobile, which the boy and girl had observed draw up in front of the Mortlake plant, a man of advanced age alighted, whose yellow skin was stretched tightly, like a drumhead, over his bony face. From the new building, at the same time, there emerged a short, stout personage, garbed in overalls. But the fine quality of his linen, and a diamond pin, which nestled in the silken folds of his capacious necktie, showed as clearly as did his self-assertive manner, that the newcomer was by no means an ordinary workman.
His face was pouchy and heavy, although the whole appearance of the man was by no means ill-looking. His cheeks and chin were clean shaven, the close-cut beard showing bluely under the coarse skin. For the rest, his hair was black and thick, slightly streaked with gray, and heavy eyebrows as dark in hue as his hair, overhung a pair of shrewd, gray eyes like small pent-houses. The man was Eugene Mortlake, the brains of the Mortlake Company. The individual who had just descended from the automobile, throwing a word to the chauffeur over his shoulder, was a person we have met before—Mr. Harding, the banker and local magnate of Sandy Beach, whose money it was that had financed the new aeroplane concern.
MR. HARDING DECLARES HIMSELF.
Readers of the first volume of this series, "The Girl Aviators and The Phantom Airship," will recall Mr. Harding. They will also be likely to recollect his son, Fanning, who made so much trouble for Peggy Prescott and her brother, culminating in a daring attempt to "bluff" them out of entering a competition for a big aerial prize by constructing a phantom aeroplane. Fanning's part in the mystery of the stolen jewels of Mrs. Bancroft, the mother of Jess and Jimsy, will likewise be probably held in memory by those who perused that volume. The elder Harding's part in the attempt to coerce the young Prescotts into parting with their aerial secrets, consisted in trying to foreclose a mortgage he held on the Prescott home, with the alternative of Roy turning over to him the blue prints and descriptions of his devices left the lad by his dead father. How the elder Harding was routed and how the Girl Aviator, Peggy Prescott, came into her own, was all told in this volume. Since that time Mr. Harding's revengeful nature had brooded over what he chose to fancy were his wrongs. What the fruit of his moody and mean meditations was to be, the Mortlake plant, which he had financed, was, in part, the answer.
In the volume referred to, it was also related how Peter Bell, an old hermit, had been discovered by means of the Prescott aeroplane, and restored to his brother, a wealthy mining magnate.
In the second volume of the Girl Aviators, we saw what came of the meeting between James Bell, the westerner, and the young flying folk. By the agency of the aeroplane, a mine—otherwise inaccessible—had been opened up by Mr. Bell in a remote part of the desert hills of Nevada. The aeroplane and Peggy Prescott played an important part in their adventures and perils. Notably so, when in a neck-to-neck dash with an express train, the aeroplane won out in a race to file the location papers of the mine at Monument Rocks. The rescue of a desert wanderer from a terrible death on the alkali, and the routing of a gang of rascally outlaws were also set forth in full in that book, which was called "The Girl Aviators on Golden Wings."
The present story commences soon after the return of the party from the Far West, when they were much surprised—as has been said—to observe the mushroom-like rise of the Mortlake factory. But of what the new plant was to mean to them, and how intimately they were to be brought in contact with it, none of them guessed.
"Well, Mortlake," observed Mr. Harding, in his harsh, squeaky voice—not unlike the complaint of a long unused door, "well, Mortlake, we are getting ahead, I see."
The two men had, by this time, passed within the big sliding doors of the freshly-painted shed, and now stood in a maze of machinery and strange looking bits of apparatus. From skylights in the roof—there were no side windows to gratify the inquisitive—the sunlight streamed down on three or four partially completed aircraft. With their yellow wings of vulcanized cloth, and their slender bodies, like long tails, they resembled so many dragon-flies, or "devil's darning needles," assembled in conclave upon the level floor. At the farther end of the shed was a small blast furnace, shooting upward a livid, blue spout of flame, which roared savagely. Actively engaged at their various tasks at lathes and work-benches, were a dozen or more overalled mechanics, the most skillful in their line that could be gathered. Here and there were the motors, the driving power of the "dragon flies." The engines glistened with new paint and bright brass and copper parts. Behind them were ranged big propellers of laminated, or joined wood, in stripes of brown and yellow timber. Altogether, the Mortlake plant was as complete a one for the manufacture of aerial machines as could have been found in the country.
"Yes, we are getting along, Mr. Harding," returned Mortlake, "and it's time, too. By the way, Lieut. Bradbury is due here at noon. I want to have everything as far advanced as possible in time for his visit. You won't mind accompanying me then, while I oversee the workmen?"
Followed by Mr. Harding, he made an active, nervous tour of the work-benches, dropping a reproof here and a nod of commendation or advice there.
When he saw a chance, Mr. Harding spoke.
"So the government really means to give us an opportunity to show the worth of our machines?" he grated out, rubbing his hands as if washing them in some sort of invisible soap.
"Yes, so it seems. At any rate, they notified me that this officer would be here to-day to inspect the place. It means a great deal for us if the government consents to adopt our form of machine for the naval experiments."
"To us! To you, you mean," echoed Mr. Harding, with an unpleasant laugh. "I've put enough capital into this thing now, Mortlake. I'm not the man to throw good money after bad. If we are defeated by any other make of machine at the tests I mean to sell the whole thing and at least realize what I've put into it."
Mortlake turned a little pale under his swarthy skin. He rubbed his blue chin nervously.
"Why, you wouldn't chuck us over now, Mr. Harding," he said deprecatingly. "It was at your solicitation that the plant was put up here, and I had relied on you for unlimited support. Why did you go into the manufacture of aerial machines, if you didn't mean to stick it out?"
"I had two reasons," was the rejoinder, in tones as cold as a frigid blast of wind, "one was that I thought it was certain we should capture the government contract, and the other was—well, I had a little grudge I wished to satisfy."
"But we will capture the government business. I am not afraid. There is no machine to touch the Mortlake that I know of——"
"Yes, there is," interrupted Mr. Harding; "a machine that may be able to discount it in every way."
"Nonsense! Where is such an aeroplane?" "Within a quarter of a mile from here. To be accurate, young Prescott's—you know whom I mean?"
The other nodded abstractedly.
"Well, that youth has a monoplane that has already caused me a lot of trouble." The old man's yellow skin darkened with anger, and his blue pinpoints of eyes grew flinty. "It was partly out of revenge that I decided to start up an opposition business to his. He was in the West till a few days ago, and I never dreamed that he would return till I had secured the government contract. But I am now informed—oh, I have ears everywhere in Sandy Beach—that this boy and his sister, who is in a kind of partnership with him have had the audacity to offer their machine for the government tests also."
"Audacity," muttered Mortlake under his breath, but Harding's keen ears caught the remark.
"It is audacity," agreed the leathern-faced old financier; "and it's audacity that we must find some way to checkmate. I've never had a business rival yet that I haven't broken into submission or crushed, and a boy and a girl are not going to outwit me now. They did it once, I admit, but this time I shall arrange things differently."
"That I intend to cinch that government business."
"But what if, as you fear, the Prescotts have a superior aeroplane?"
"My dear Mortlake," the pin-point eyes almost closed, and the thin, bloodless lips drew together in a tight line, "if they have a superior machine, we must arrange so that nobody but ourselves is ever aware of the fact."
With a throaty gurgle, that might, or might not, have been meant for a chuckle, the old man glided through the doors, which, by this time, he had reached, and sliding rather than stepping into his machine, gave the chauffeur some orders. Mortlake, a peculiar expression on his face, looked after the car as it chugged off and then turned and re-entered the shop. His head was bent, and he seemed to be lost in deep thought.
A NAVAL VISITOR
Roy had departed, on an errand, for town. Peggy, indolently enjoying the perfect drowsiness of noonday, was reclining in a gayly colored hammock suspended between two regal maple trees on the lawn. In her hand was a book. On a taboret by her side was a big pink box full of chocolates.
The girl was not reading, however. Her blue eyes were staring straight up through the delicate green tracery of the big maples, at the sky above. She watched, with lazy fascination, tiny white clouds drifting slowly across the blue, like tiny argosies of the heavens. Her mind was far away from Sandy Beach and its peaceful surroundings. The young girl's thoughts were of the desert, the bleak, arid wastes of alkali, which lay so far behind them now. Almost like events that had happened in another life.
Suddenly she was aroused from her reverie by a voice—a remarkably pleasant voice:
"I beg your pardon. Is this the Prescott house?"
"Good gracious, a man!" exclaimed Peggy to herself, getting out of the hammock as gracefully as she could, and with a rather flushed face.
At the gate stood a rickety station hack, which had approached on the soft, dusty road almost noiselessly. Just stepping out of it was a sunburned young man, very upright in carriage, and dressed in a light-gray suit, with a jaunty straw hat. He carried a bamboo cane, which he switched somewhat nervously as the pretty girl advanced toward him across the velvet-like lawn.
"I am Lieut. Bradbury of the navy," said the newcomer, and Peggy noted that his whole appearance was as pleasant and wholesome as his voice. "I came—er in response to your letter to the department, in regard to the forthcoming trials of aeroplanes for the service."
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Peggy, smothering an inclination to giggle, "we—I—that is——"
"I presume that I have called at the right place," said the young officer, with a smile. "They told me——"
"Oh, come in, won't you?" suddenly requested the embarrassed Peggy. "The sun is fearfully hot. Won't you have a straw hat—I mean a seat?"
"Thank you," replied Lieut. Bradbury, gravely sitting in a garden bench at the foot of one of the big maples. His eyes fell on the book Peggy had been reading. It was a treatise on aeronautics.
"It isn't possible that you are R. Prescott?" he asked, glancing up quickly.
"Oh, no. I am only a humble helper. R. Prescott is in town. He—he will be back shortly."
"Indeed. I had hoped to see him personally. I was anxious to inspect the Prescott type of monoplane before visiting another aeroplane plant in this neighborhood, the—the——" The officer drew out a small morocco covered notebook and referred to it.
"The Mortlake Aeroplane Company," he concluded.
"Oh, yes. They are just down the road, within a stone's throw of here. You can see the place from here; that big barn-like structure," volunteered Peggy, heartily wishing that the Mortlake plant had been a hundred miles away.
"Indeed. That's very convenient. I shall be able to make an early train back to New York. Do you suppose that Mr. Prescott will be long?"
"I don't really know. He shouldn't be unless he is delayed. But in the meantime I can show you the aeroplane, if you wish."
"Ah!" the officer glanced at this girl curiously, "but you know what I particularly desired was a practical demonstration."
"Yes, if it were possible."
"I think it can be arranged."
"You have an aviator attached to your place, then?"
Peggy laughed musically. She had quite recovered from her embarrassment now.
"No. I guess it's an aviatress—if there is such a word. You see I——"
"Oh, yes. I have flown quite a good deal recently. I think it is the most delightful sport there is."
A sudden light seemed to break over the young officer.
"Are you Miss Margaret Prescott, the girl aviator I have read so much about in the technical publications?"
"I believe I am," smiled Peggy; "but here comes my aunt, Miss Sallie Prescott."
As she spoke, Miss Prescott, in a soft gown of cool white material, emerged from the house. Peggy went through the ceremony of introduction, after which they all directed their steps to the large shed in which the Prescott machines were kept. In the meantime, old Sam Hickey, the gardener, and his stalwart son Jerusah, had been summoned to aid in dragging out one of the aeroplanes.
"We only have two on hand," explained Peggy; "my brother has forwarded the others that we built to Mr. James Bell, the mining man. They are being used in aerial gold transportation across the Nevada desert."
"Indeed! That is most interesting."
Sam Hickey flung open the big doors and revealed the interior of the shed with the two scarab-like monoplanes standing within. A strong smell of gasoline and machine-oil filled the air. The officer glanced at Peggy's dainty figure in astonishment. It seemed hard to associate this refined, exquisite young girl with the rough actualities of machinery and aeroplanes.
But Peggy, with a word of excuse, dived suddenly into a small room. While she was gone, Miss Prescott entertained the young officer with many tales of her harrowing experiences on the Nevada desert. To all of which he listened with keen attention. At least he did so to all outward appearance, but his eyes were riveted on the door through which Peggy had vanished.
When she emerged a very business-like Peggy had taken the place of the lounger in the hammock. A linen duster, fitting tightly, covered her from top to toe. A motoring bonnet of maroon silk imprisoned her hair, and upon its rim, above her forehead, was perched a pair of goggles. Gauntlets encased her hands.
"Looks rather too warm to be comfortable, doesn't it?" she laughed. "But we shall find it cool enough up above."
"Perhaps the lieutenant——" ventured Miss Prescott.
"Oh, yes. How stupid of me not to have thought of it!" exclaimed Peggy. "Mr. Bradbury, you will find aviation togs inside there."
"By Jove; she knows enough not to call a naval officer 'lieutenant,'" thought the young officer, as, with a bow and a word of thanks, he vanished to equip himself for his aerial excursion.
By the time he was invested in a similar long duster, with weighted seams, and had donned a cap and goggles, the larger of the two aeroplanes, named the Golden Butterfly, was ready for its passengers. Old Sam and his son, who had dragged it out—it moved easily on its landing wheels—stood by, their awe of the big craft showing plainly on their faces.
A section of the fence had been made removable, so as to give the Prescott aeroplanes a free run from their stable to the smooth slope of the meadows beyond. This was now removed, and Peggy, followed by the young officer, took her place in the chassis. Peggy made a pretty figure at the steering wheel.
"The first improvement I should like to call your attention to," she began, in the most business-like tones she could muster up, "is the self-starter. It works by pneumatic power, and does away with the old-fashioned method of starting an aeroplane by twisting the propeller."
The girl opened a valve connected with a galvanized tank, with a pressure gauge on top, and pulled back a lever. Instantly, a hissing sound filled the air. Then, with a dexterous movement, Peggy threw in the spark and turned on the gasoline which the spark would ignite, thereby causing an explosion in the cylinders. But first the compressed air had started the motor turning over. At the right moment Peggy switched on the power and cut off the air. Instantly there was a roar from the exhausts and blue flames and smoke spouted from the motor. The aeroplane shook violently. It would have made an inexperienced person's teeth chatter. But both the officer and Peggy were sufficiently familiar with aeroplanes for it not to bother them in the least.
"Magnificent!" cried the young officer enthusiastically, as he saw the ease with which the compressed air attachment set the motor to working.
"It will do away with assistants to start the machine," he declared the next instant. "The importance of that in warfare can hardly be overestimated."
Peggy was too busy to reply. So far all had gone splendidly. If only she could carry out the whole test as well!
"Ready?" she asked, flinging back the word over her shoulder to Lieutenant Bradbury.
"All ready!" came in a hearty voice from behind her.
Peggy, with a quick movement, threw in the clutch that started the propeller to whirring.
With a drone like that of a huge night-beetle, or prehistoric thunder-lizard, the machine leaped forward as a race-horse jumps under the raised barrier.
In a blur of blue smoke it skimmed through the gap in the palings. Out upon the smooth meadowland it shot, roaring and smoking terrifically. And then, all at once, the jolting motion of the start ceased. It seemed as if the occupants of the chassis were riding luxuriously over a road paved with the softest of eiderdown. The sensation was delightful, exhilarating.
Peggy shut off the exhaust, turning the explosions of the cylinder into a muffler. In almost complete silence they winged upward. Up, up, toward the fleecy clouds she had been lazily watching, but a short time before, from the hammock.
The Golden Butterfly had never done better.
"You're a darling!" breathed Peggy confidentially to the motor that with steady pulse drove them upward and onward.
IN A STORM
Dwarfed to the merest midgets, the figures about the Prescott house waved enthusiastically, as the golden-winged monoplane made a graceful swoop high above the elms and maples surrounding it. Other figures could be glimpsed too, now, running about excitedly outside the barn-like structure housing the Mortlake aeroplanes.
"Guess they think you are stealing a march on them," drawled Lieut. Bradbury.
A wild, reckless feeling, born of the thrilling sensation of aerial riding, came over Peggy. She would do it—she would. With a scarcely perceptible thrust of her wrist, she altered the angle of the rudder-like tail, and instantly the obedient Golden Butterfly began racing through space toward the Mortlake plant.
The naval officer, quick to guess her plan, laughed as happily as a mischievous boy.
"What a lark!" he exclaimed. "It's contrary to all discipline, but it's jolly good fun."
Peggy turned a small brass-capped valve—the timer. At once the aeroplane showed accelerated speed. It fairly cut through the air. Both the occupants were glad to lower their goggles to protect their eyes from the sharp, cutting sensation of the atmosphere, as they rushed against it—into its teeth, as it were.
Peggy glanced at the indicator. The black pointer on the white dial was creeping up—fifty, sixty, sixty-two—she would show this officer what the Prescott monoplane could do.
"Sixty-four! Great Christmas!"
The exclamation came from the officer. He had leaned forward and scanned the indicator eagerly.
"We'll do better when we have our new type of motor installed," said Peggy, with a confident nod. The young fellow gasped.
"This is the twentieth century with a vengeance," he murmured, sinking back in his rear seat, which was as comfortably upholstered as the luxurious tonneau of a five-thousand-dollar automobile.
Like a darting, pouncing swallow, seeking its food in mid-air, the Golden Butterfly swooped, soared and dived in long, graceful gradients above the Mortlake plant. Once Peggy brought the aeroplane so close to the ground in a long, swinging sweep, that it seemed as if it could never recover enough "way" to rise again. Even the officer, trained in a strict school to repress his emotions, tightened his lips, and then opened them to emit a relieved gasp.
So close to the gaping machinists and the anger-crimsoned Mortlake did the triumphant aeroplane swoop, that Peggy, to her secret amusement could trace the astonished look on the faces of the employees and the chagrined expression that darkened Mortlake's countenance.
"I guess I've given them something to think over," she said mischievously, flinging back a brilliant smile at the dazed young officer.
"Now," she exclaimed the next moment, "for a distance flight. I'm anxious to put the Golden Butterfly through all her paces. Oh, by the way, the balancer. I haven't shown you how that works yet."
If Peggy's bright eyes had not been veiled by goggles, the officer might have seen a mischievous gleam flash into them, like a wind ripple over the placid surface of a blue lake.
Suddenly the aeroplane slanted to one side, as if it must turn over. Peggy had banked it on a sharp aerial curve. The young officer, in spite of himself, in defiance of his training, gave a gasp.
But the words had hardly left his lips before the aeroplane was back on a level keel once more. At the same time a rasping, sliding sound was heard.
"Like to see how that was done?" asked Peggy, with a bewitching smile.
"Yes. By Jove, I thought we were over for an instant. But how——"
"That we shall be glad to show you when the United States government has contracted for a number of the Prescott aeroplanes," retorted Peggy.
The young officer bit his lip.
"Confound it," he thought, "is this chit of a girl making fun of me?"
Young officers have a high idea of their own dignity. Mr. Bradbury colored a bit with mortification. But Peggy quickly dispelled his temporary chagrin.
"You see," she explained, "it would never do for us to reveal all our secrets, would it? You agree with me, don't you?"
"Oh, perfectly. You are quite right. Still, I confess that you have aroused all my inquisitiveness."
Peggy being busied just then with a bit of machinery on the bulkhead separating the motor from the body of the chassis, made no reply. But presently, when she looked up, she gave a sharp exclamation.
The sky, as if by magic, had grown suddenly dark. Above the pulsating voice of the motor could be heard the rumble of thunder. All at once a vivid flash of lightning leaped across the horizon. One of those sudden storms of summer had blown up from the sea, and Peggy knew enough of Long Island weather to know that these disturbances were usually accompanied by terrific winds—squalls and gusts that no aeroplane yet built or thought of could hope to cope with.
"We're running into dirty weather, it seems," remarked the officer. "I thought I noticed some thunderheads away off on the horizon when we first went up."
"I wish you'd mentioned them then," said the straightforward Peggy; "as it is, we'll have to descend till this blows over."
"What, won't even the wonderful equalizer render her safe?"
"No, it won't. It will do anything reasonable. But you've no idea of the fury of the wind that comes with these black squalls."
"Indeed I have. Last summer I was off Montauk Point in the Dixie. Something went wrong with the steering gear just as one of these self-same young hurricanes came bustling up. I tell you, it was "all hands and the cook" for a while. It hardly blows much harder in a typhoon."
Peggy gazed below her over the darkening landscape anxiously. There seemed to be trees, trees everywhere, and not a bit of cleared ground. All at once, as they cleared some woods, she spied a bit of meadowland. The hay which had covered it earlier in the summer had been cropped. It afforded an ideal landing-place. But the wind was puffy now, and Peggy did not dare to attempt short descending spirals. Instead, trusting to the balancing device doing its duty faithfully, she swung down in long circles.
Just as they touched the ground with a gentle shock, much minimized, thanks to the shock-absorbers with which the Golden Butterfly was fitted, the storm burst in all its fury. Bolt after bolt of vivid lightning ripped and tore across the darkened sky, which hung like a pall behind the terrific electrical display. The rain came down in torrents.
"Just in time," laughed the young officer, as he aided Peggy in dragging the aeroplane under the shelter of an open cart-shed. It was quite snug and dry once they had it under the roof. A short distance off stood a farm-house of fairly comfortable appearance. Smoke issuing from one of its chimneys showed that it was occupied.
"Let's go over there and see if we can dry our things," suggested Peggy. "I'm wet through."
"Same here," was the laughing reply; "but a sailor doesn't mind that. One actually gets webbed feet in the navy—like ducks, you know."
Ignoring this remarkable contribution to natural history, Peggy gathered up her skirts daintily and fled across the meadow to the farm-house. It was only a few hundred feet, but the rain came down so hard that both she and her escort were wetter than ever by the time they arrived at the door. It was shut, and except for the lazy wisps of smoke issuing from the chimney, there was no sign of life about the place.
The lieutenant knocked thunderously. No answer.
"Try again," said Peggy; "maybe they are in some other part of the house."
"Perhaps they were scared of the aeroplane and have all retired into hiding," suggested Mr. Bradbury.
He rapped again, louder this time, but still no reply.
"They must all be asleep," he said, applying himself once more to a thunderous assault on the door, but to no avail. A silence hung about the place, broken only by the roar and rattle of the thunder.
"It's positively uncanny," shuddered Peggy. "It's like Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Bears."
"One would think that even a bear would open the door on such an occasion as this," said her companion, redoubling his efforts to attract attention. Finally he gave the door handle a twist. It yielded, and the door was speedily found to be unlocked. The officer shoved it open and disclosed a neat farm-house kitchen. In a newly blackened stove, which fairly shone, was a blazing fire. An old clock ticked sturdily in one corner. The floor was scrubbed as white as snow, and on a shelf above the shining stove was an array of gleaming copper pans that gladdened Peggy's housewifely heart.
"What a dear of a place!" she exclaimed. "But where are the folks who own it?"
"Haven't the least idea," said the officer gayly; "but that stove looks inviting to me. Let's get over to it and get dried out a bit. Then we can commence to investigate."
"But, really, you know, we've not the least right in here. Suppose they mistake us for burglars, and shoot us?"
"Not much danger of that. They'd shoot me first, anyhow, because I'm the most burglarious looking of the two. Queer, though, where they all can be."
"It's worse than queer—it's weird. Good gracious!" exclaimed Peggy, as a sudden thought struck her, "suppose there should be trapdoors?"
"Trapdoors!" Her companion was plainly puzzled.
"Yes. You know in most books when two folks run across a deserted farm-house there's always a trapdoor or a ghost or something. Suppose——Good heavens, what's that?"
From without had come a most peculiar sound. A whirring, like the noise one would suppose would be occasioned by a gigantic locust. Then something—a huge, indefinite shadow—darkened the windows of the farm-house kitchen. Peggy gave a shrill squeal of alarm, while Lieut. Bradbury gallantly ran to the door and flung it open.
PEGGY A HEROINE.
"It's—it's another aeroplane!" cried the officer, with a shout of amazement.
Peggy sprang to her feet.
"A large red one?"
"Yes. Come here and look. They're just running it under the same shed as ours—yours, I mean."
The girl aviator sprang toward the door. Through the rain she peered to where, across the meadow, two dim figures, clad in oilskins, could be seen shoving a big aeroplane under the same shelter that already protected the Golden Butterfly.
"Well, if this isn't the ultimate!" she gasped.
"I beg your pardon?" asked the young man at her side.
"The ultimate! That's my way of expressing what the boys call 'the limit.' Why, that's Jess and Jimsy Bancroft, in their new aeroplane—the one Roy built for them. Well, did you ever! Oh, Jess! Oh, Jimsy!"
Peggy raised her voice and shouted. In response they saw the oil-skinned figures turn, and through the driving downpour came an answering shout. Presently, across the dripping meadows, the two figures began advancing. All this time the lightning was ripping in a manner to make Peggy shield her eyes occasionally. The thunder, too, was terrific, and the earth seemed to vibrate to its rolling detonations.
"Well, Peggy!" gasped Jess, her dark eyes peering from under her waterproof hood, as she and her brother arrived at the threshold of the farm-house, "what on earth does this mean?"
"Yes, give an account of yourself at once," demanded Jimsy. "Roy had us on the phone. Asked if you'd flown in our direction. We said no, but we'd take a flight and look for you. In our enthusiasm, we didn't notice the storm coming up. But luckily, being young persons of forethought, we had oilskins in a locker of the machine, and——"
"And here we are," finished Jess, shooting a "killing" glance from under her hood at the good-looking young man at Peggy's side.
"Aren't you going to ask us in?" demanded Jimsy the next minute. "For hospitality, I don't think you rate very high. We——"
"Well, you see, we are here ourselves without knowing if we have any right to be," rejoined Peggy. "But come in and I'll explain. First of all, I want you to meet Mr. Bradbury of the United States Navy. He came to test the Prescott aeroplanes. Mr. Bradbury, this is Miss Bancroft, and her brother——"
"Jimsy," put in that irrepressible youth. "Glad to meet you, sir. Almost as much at sea here as in mid-Atlantic."
Laughing, they all entered the farm-house kitchen, while Peggy hastily explained the state of affairs there.
"Well, so long as they don't put in an appearance before we get dry, I'm sure I don't care," said Jimsy airily. "What a delightful old kitchen. It might have come out of a picture book."
He and the naval officer were soon deep in conversation, leaving Peggy and Jess alone.
"My dear Peggy," exclaimed Jess, with a smile that showed all her white even teeth, "what will you do next? Don't you think it's a bit—er—er—unconventional for one of the foremost members of Sandy Beach's younger set to be flying about the country with a good-looking young naval officer?"
"Nonsense," retorted Peggy sharply, "as the only representative of the Prescott aeroplanes on the ground, I had to do it. If it hadn't been for this old storm, I'd have been home long ago."
"So should we. What a coincidence we should have met here. Is this—this——"
"Lieutenant," prompted Peggy.
"Is this lieutenant going to stay long in Sandy Beach?"
"Dear me, no. He is only on a flying visit—no pun intended. He was to have taken in the establishment of the Mortlake Aeroplane Company this afternoon. You know, they are in that red, barn-like place, down the road from our place, although Roy and I only found it out to-day."
"That was one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, Peggy dear," said Jess, sinking into an old-fashioned Andrew Jackson chair by the hearth. "Dad said at dinner last night that he had heard in New York that a lot of their stock had been floated on Wall Street, and that that hateful old Mr. Harding was back of it."
"They are actually selling stock?" asked Peggy, growing a bit pale.
"Yes. They have half-page advertisements in a lot of papers, I believe. Dad said so. But why do you look so distressed, Peggy?"
"Because they must be very sure of the merits of their machines, if they are going ahead so confidently."
"Rumor has it that their make of aeroplane is the most up-to-date and complete yet constructed, but nobody knows the details so far. They have kept that part of it close."
"They are making a bid for the navy contracts, at any rate," said Peggy presently, after a pause, during which both girls winked and blinked at the lightning and stared at the red glow of the fire.
"So you said. But you stole a march on them by kidnapping your lieutenant in this way."
"You ought to give the weather credit for that," laughed Peggy, "but seriously, Jess, there is no sentiment in things of this kind. If the Mortlake machine is a better machine than ours, the Mortlake will be the type adopted by the government."
"I suppose that's so," agreed Jess, with a wry face. "But I hate to think of that old Harding creature getting any——"
The door flew open suddenly, and a tall, thin-faced woman in a raincoat, and holding up an umbrella, stood in the doorway.
"Well, for the land's sake!" she ejaculated, looking fairly dumfounded, as she comprehended the scene and the young folks enjoying the unrequested hospitality of her kitchen.
But the words had hardly left her lips, and she was still standing there, like an image carved from stone, when a fearful light illumined the whole scene. It was followed almost instantaneously by a clap of thunder so deafening that the girls involuntarily quailed before it.
A fiery ball darted from the chimney and sped across the room, exploding in fragments with a terrific noise on the opposite side, just above the heads of Jimsy and Lieut. Bradbury.
Stunned by the shock, they both collapsed in heaps on the floor, while the farm woman's shrieks filled the air. At the same instant, a pungent, sinister odor filled the atmosphere.
"The house is on fire!" shrieked the woman in a frenzied voice.
Smoke rolled down into the room, and the acrid fumes grew sharper.
"The house is on fire, and my baby is up-stairs!"
"Where?" demanded Peggy.
"In the room above this!" groaned the woman, taking a few steps and then fainting.
"Jess," cried Peggy in a tense voice, "take that bucket and get water from that pump in the corner and then follow me."
"But the boys!" gasped Jess.
"They are only stunned. I saw Jimsy's arm move just now, and the lieutenant is breathing."
With these words, she started from the room, darting up a narrow stairway leading from one end of the kitchen to the upper regions.
"What are you going to do?" shouted Jess, her voice shaky with alarm.
"Save that child if I can," flung back Peggy, plunging bravely up the smoke-laden stairway.
In the unfamiliar house, and half blinded and choked by smoke and sulphurous fumes, Peggy had a hard task before her. But she pluckily plunged forward, feeling her way by the walls, and keeping her head low, where the smoke was not so thick. As she reached what she deemed was the top of the staircase, she thought she heard a tiny voice crying out in alarm.
Following the direction of the sounds, she staggered along a hallway and then reeled into an open door. The smoke was not so thick in the room, but its fumes were heavy enough. In a crib in one corner lay a child of about two years of age. Its rose-leaf of a face was wrinkled up in its efforts to make its terrified little voice heard.
Peggy darted upon it and hugged it close to her. Then, with renewed courage, she started to make her way back again. But more smoke than ever was rolling along the passage, and it was a hard task.
"I must do it—I must," Peggy kept saying to herself, clinging the while to the terrified child.
But at the head of the staircase the conditions appalled her. The smoke was thick as a blanket there. Yet plunge through it, Peggy knew she must. Still holding the child tightly, she bravely entered the dense smother, stooping as low as she dared.
But before she had taken more than two steps in the obscurity, a dreadful feeling, as if a hand was at her throat and choking her, overcame the girl. She tried to call out, but she could not. Her head was reeling, her eyes blinded. All at once something in her head seemed to snap with a loud report. Still clutching her little burden tightly, Peggy plunged forward dizzily—and knew no more.
FARMER GALLOWAY'S "SAFE DEPOSIT."
When she came to herself again, it was in a confusion of voices and sounds of hurrying footsteps. She was lying on a lounge in a stuffy "best" parlor, which smelled as moldy as "best" parlors in farm-houses are wont to do. Bending over her was the angular woman who had entered just as the bolt of lightning, that had caused all the trouble, struck the house.
"Is—is the baby all right?" asked Peggy, as she took in her surroundings.
"Yes, thanks to you, my dear. Oh, how can I ever thank you?" exclaimed the woman, a thrill of real gratitude in her voice. "And the fire is out, too. My husband and his men had been at work in a distant field and were sheltering themselves under a shed. I had just taken some water to them when the storm broke. When they saw the big flash and heard the crash, they knew that something right around the house must have been struck. They ran through the storm as fast as they could, and got here in time to put out the flames."
"And Jess and Jimsy and——"
"And that other young fellow? Why, they——"
"Never felt better in their lives," came Jimsy's cheerful voice from the door, which framed, beside himself, Jess, and the young naval officer.
"The first time I was ever knocked out by lightning," declared the latter, "and really it's quite invigorating."
Jess glided across the room to Peggy's side and threw her arms about her neck.
"Oh, Peggy, how brave and good you are!" she exclaimed. "I was dreadfully frightened, when you came plunging down through that smoke. I was just trying to make my way through it with a bucket, when you came toppling down the stairs. I managed to catch you and support you into the kitchen."
"I think some one else is the bravest," smiled Peggy, patting her chum's shoulder. "I'm so glad that the baby wasn't hurt. Poor little thing, it looked so cute in its crib. I remember seizing it up and then the smoke came, and after a few minutes it all got black and——"
"And all's well that ends well," declared Jimsy, capering about. "We've telephoned to your home to Roy, Peggy, and he'll be over in a short time with an auto."
"But what about the Butterfly?" asked Peggy.
"My dear girl," announced Jimsy, in his most pompous tones, "it would be impossible for you to guide her home this evening. Your nerves would not stand it. See, it's come out quite fine, now, after the storm, and Roy will spin you home in the machine in no time."
"Perhaps that would be best," agreed Peggy. "And I can come out, or Roy can, to-morrow, and get the aeroplane—that is," she added, turning to the farm woman, "if it won't be in your way."
"If you had a thousand of them air-buggies around here, miss, they wouldn't be in our way," came in a hearty, gruff tone from the door. They looked up to see a big farmer-like looking person, with a fringe of black whiskers running under his chin in a half-moon, standing there.
"This is my husband, Isaac Galloway," said the woman, introducing the owner of the farm.
"At your service, gents and ladies," said the farmer. "What that young woman did fer us ter-day ther' ain't no way of repaying; but anything Ike Galloway kin do any time ye kin count on him fer."
He moved toward an object they had not previously noticed, an iron door in the wall. Turning a knob this way and that, he presently flung it open, revealing the inside of a wall safe. Thrusting his hand inside, he drew out a bundle of bills. Then, closing the door again, and adjusting the combination, he said:
"Jes' goin' ter give ther boys a bit of thank you fer helpin' me put out ther fire. If any of you folks would like——"
"Oh, no. No, thank you," laughed Peggy, sitting up and feeling, except for a slight dizziness, almost herself again.
"Very well; no harm meant," said the farmer, as he shuffled out of the room and into the kitchen, where he distributed his largess.
"Quite an idea," commented Jimsy, regarding the wall safe. "I suppose you have quite a lot of money on hand at times, and it is safest to keep it so," he added, addressing the farmer's wife.
"Yep," was the rejoinder; "Ike got his money fer his corn crop ther other day—two thousand dollars, what with ther corn and ther early apples. It's all in thar, except what he's jes' took out."
"Aren't you afraid of burglars coming and blowing the door of the safe off?" asked Peggy.
"Lands sakes, no. We'd hear 'em. Besides, that's a patent safe, an' if it is opened without a knowledge of the combination, it would take a plaguey long time to do."
Just then the farmer came back, and after some more general conversation the whir of an approaching automobile announced the arrival of Roy. The lad was naturally much interested in the doings of the afternoon, as excitedly related to him by everybody at once, and was favorably impressed with the young naval officer. Of course, he did not ask him his opinion of the Prescott aeroplane, but from remarks Lieut. Bradbury dropped, Roy gathered that he was much pleased with its performance.
Soon afterward Jess and Jimsy shot skyward, in the now still air, in their red aeroplane—the Red Dragon Fly, as it had been christened, and amid warm farewells from the farmer and his wife, the auto buzzed off.
They had traversed a mile or more, when, on rounding a corner at a narrow part of the road, they came almost head-on against another machine coming in the opposite direction.
Both cars were compelled to slow down, so that the occupants had a good view of each other. Both Roy and Peggy were considerably astonished to see that the oncoming auto was occupied by old Mr. Harding, and that by his side was seated none other than the blue-chinned man, known as Eugene Mortlake.
"Where can they be going?" wondered Roy, as old man Harding favored them with a scowl in passing, and then both cars resumed their normal speed.
"I noticed that this is a private road leading only to that farm," rejoined Peggy; "the right-of-way ends there."
"Then that must be their destination, for there are no other houses on this road."
"Looks that way," assented Roy. "Queer, isn't it?"
"Very," responded Peggy. For some inexplicable reason, as the girl spoke, a chill ran through her. She felt a dull sense of foreboding. But the next minute she shook it off. After all, why shouldn't Mr. Harding and Mortlake be driving to the farm? Mr. Harding's financial dealings comprised mortgages in every part of the island. It was quite probable that the farmer was in some way involved in the old man's nets. Possibly that was the reason of all that money being stored in the wall safe.
Refusing courteously an invitation extended by Miss Prescott to spend the night at the homestead, Lieut. Bradbury was driven to the station by Roy, after they had dropped Peggy, and just managed to make a New York train.
"I shall be back to-morrow," he said, "and have a look at Mortlake's machines. Of course, the government wants to give everybody a fair field and no favors."
"Oh, of course," assented Roy, pondering in his own mind what sort of a machine this mysterious Mortlake craft was.
Suddenly there flashed across his mind a thought that had not occurred to him hitherto. The Golden Butterfly had been left under the shed at the farm. What was there to prevent Harding and Mortlake from examining it and acquainting themselves with the intricacies of the self-starting mechanism and the automatic balancing device?
There was no question that the farm must have been their destination. Roy blamed himself bitterly for not foreseeing this. He had half a mind to return to the farm and bring the aeroplane home himself. But it was growing dark, and a distant rumble seemed to presage the return of the afternoon's storm.
"Anyhow," the boy thought, and the thought consoled him, "all those devices are covered by patents, and even if they wanted to, they could not steal them. And yet—and yet——"
But the storm came up sharper than ever that evening, and even had he wished to, Roy would have found it impossible to handle the aeroplane alone in the heavy wind that came now in puffs and now in a steady gale. So Roy put his tiresome thoughts out of his head. But he resolved to get the aeroplane the first thing the following morning.
A CASE FOR THE AUTHORITIES.
It was just after breakfast the next morning that a big automobile skimmed past the Prescott home. Peggy and Roy saw it from the windows.
"Why, that's Sheriff Lawley," exclaimed Peggy. "And look, old Mr. Harding is with him, and that Mortlake man."
"That's right. Wonder where they can be going?" said Roy, sauntering out to the garage at the back of the house and giving the matter little more thought. It had been arranged that he was to bring the aeroplane back that morning, driving over with Peggy, Jimsy and Jess in the car, and skimming home in the Butterfly while a part of the party brought the car back. They were to call for Jess and Jimsy at their home, a fine residence overlooking the Sound from a lofty hill.
Jess and Jimsy were waiting for them, and, almost before the car had stopped, they were at its side.
"Heard the news?" asked Jimsy breathlessly.
"No. What is it?" demanded Peggy eagerly.
"Why, that safe at the farm-house was robbed last night. All the money was taken, and they have no clue to the thief."
"How did you hear of it?" asked Roy incredulously. Peggy had told him of the queer wall safe.
"The 'central' told one of the servants and she told Jess. Strange, isn't it?"
"It is odd," agreed Roy. "But if people will keep their money in such places, it is hardly surprising if they lose it. Did you hear any details?"
"No, but no doubt we shall when we reach the farm-house," put in Jess; "isn't it thrilling, though?"
"Not very thrilling for poor Galloway, who lost the money," said Peggy. "I expect he didn't make it any too easily."
On their arrival at the Galloway farm-house, the young people found a scene of great excitement. The sheriff, red-faced and important, was examining several farm hands beneath one of the big elms, while in the background stood the farmer and his wife, looking somewhat perplexed, as well as worried.
As the Prescott auto drove up, old Mr. Harding, in his usual rusty black suit, rose from his seat under the elm, and whispered something to the sheriff. The blue-chinned, thick-necked Mortlake arose also. All three turned and gazed curiously at the young occupants of the car, as it slowed down.
"Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Galloway," cried Peggy. "We were dreadfully sorry to hear of your loss. Have you any clue yet?"
There was something curiously cold in the woman's voice, as she replied in the negative. Her husband looked sullen and merely nodded. The sheriff now rose and came toward the machine. He knew all the young folks and greeted them briefly. At his heels pressed old Harding and his companion. They whispered in the sheriff's ear as he advanced, and seemed to be urging him to something.
"I understand that you folks was in this house yesterday afternoon?" began the sheriff abruptly.
"Why, yes, during the storm," said Peggy. "There was Lieut. Bradbury, of the United States Navy——"
Harding and Mortlake exchanged annoyed glances. This was confirmation of their fears.
"Yes, go on," urged the sheriff.
"And myself, and Mr. Bancroft here and his sister, and later my brother came."
"Do you recall the safe being opened while you were in the room? I presume from the remark you made when you drove up that you know of the robbery."
"We heard of it at the Bancroft's, but we don't know the details."
"That is not necessary. Answer my questions, please. Who was in the parlor beside yourself when Mr. Galloway opened the wall safe to reward the men who had helped him extinguish the fire?"
"Why, Jimsy—I mean Mr. Bancroft—his sister and Lieut. Bradbury, beside, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Galloway."
"What! Your brother was not there?"
"Certainly not. He didn't come till later."
"Then your brother didn't see the safe opened?"
"Of course not," struck in Roy. "I was here only a very brief time. But what does all this mean? I don't understand."
"It means that you are cleared of a grave suspicion," said the sheriff. "Mr. Harding and Mrs. Galloway's brother, Mr. Mortlake, here——"
"Her brother!" exclaimed Peggy in an undertone.
The sheriff went on:
"Seemed to have an idea that Roy Prescott was here at the time. They even went so far as to intimate that——"
But old Mr. Harding was tugging frantically at the sheriff's arm. He was seconded by Mortlake. Interpreting the signals aright, he stopped short.
"In fact, it looked suspicious," he concluded lamely. He turned and went off, followed by Harding and Mortlake.
"How did you ever come to make such a mistake?" snarled old Harding, as they walked away much crestfallen, "we haven't a leg to stand on, now."
"Why, confound it all," retorted Mortlake, "my sister mentioned a young man being with the girl in the aeroplane, and I took it for granted that it was her brother."
"And a nice mess you've got us both into, with your 'taking it for granted,'" snorted the old miserly financier of Sandy Beach. "It looks as if we'd got ourselves in a trap now."
"Nonsense. Who's to know we have the money? I'll take the first opportunity to send it back, and no more will be heard of the matter. Lucky I didn't hide it in his aeroplane, as I intended to do."
"Yes; but we've still got the cub as our rival. I wish I could think of some plan to choke him off. That scheme of yours to blame the robbery on him would have been all right if you'd only made sure of your facts first."
"Don't worry. Our chance will come yet. I'll make that whole outfit regret bitterly that they ever stole a march on us by kidnapping that officer."
"To have discredited him with the navy would have been the best way, however," said old Harding brusquely.
"I'll find a way to do that yet," Mortlake promised.
In the meantime, speculation and wonder had ruled among the occupants of Roy's auto. Everything seemed very much muddled, but one fact stood out clearly, and that was that an attempt had been made to cast suspicion, if not the actual guilt of the robbery, upon Roy.
For what object?
"I have it," cried Peggy suddenly. "If they could have placed Roy under a cloud of suspicion, it would have worked to his discredit with the naval authorities, and might have resulted in our aeroplane being denied a place in the trials. That seems plain enough."
They all agreed that it did. But Jimsy said suddenly: "If that was the case, why didn't they try to make out that I stole it?"
"Because—forgive me Jimsy—you're not Roy. Without him, the tests of the Prescott aeroplane could hardly be conducted. Unless——"
"Unless a certain young person named Peggy Prescott undertook to take charge of them," cried Jess loyally.
"Don't be foolish, Jess," warned Peggy; "but look, here is Mrs. Galloway coming to speak to us."
The farmer's wife approached the automobile, from which none of the party had as yet alighted. She was followed by her husband. Both began apologizing profusely for the questions of the sheriff.
"But land's sakes alive," exclaimed the farmer's wife, "I declar ter goodness, we've bin so flustered thet I don' know no more than a wet hen. My brother, that's Mr. Mortlake, was dead sot on it bein' one of you folks, but I knew that was reediculous."
They hardly knew whether to be angry or to laugh at the woman's blunt frankness. But Roy struck in with a question:
"Wasn't Mr. Mortlake, accompanied by Harding, out here last night?"
"Why, yes," said the woman, with perfect candor. "They stayed quite a while. Harding hed some business with Ike, an'——"
"An' Gene Mortlake said he'd like ter hev a look at yer aeroplane. Yer know he's in thet thar business hisself," volunteered Ike confidentially.
Peggy felt as if she could have groaned aloud. Roy's fears, earlier confided to her, seemed to have been based on a true presentiment. The blue-jowled Mortlake had undoubtedly improved his opportunity to study the Golden Butterfly at close range. The farmer's next words confirmed her.
"Reckon he was powerful interested, too," the farmer went on, "fer he made a lot uv ther nicest droorings you ever seen, an'—why, what's the trouble?"
For Roy, hardly knowing what he intended to do, had jumped from the machine and was sprinting toward the Harding car. But, as he neared it, the old financier, who with Mortlake was already seated in the tonneau, spoke a word in the chauffeur's ear, and the machine dashed off, leaving Roy enraged and nonplussed.
"Too bad, Roy," breathed Peggy, as, rather crestfallen, the lad returned.
"Oh, I don't know, Sis. Even if they hadn't sneaked off like that, and I'd caught the machine, I guess I'd have been like the dog that chased the train. I wouldn't have known what to do with it when I got it."
"But Roy, their flight confirms their guilt!"
"I know, Sis, but what possible way have we to prove it? The rascals have covered up their tracks cleverly."
A sudden thought struck Peggy, and she turned to the farmer.
"Did any of those bills have an identifying mark on it?" she asked.
The farmer shook his head. But Mrs. Galloway had a better memory.
"Why, yes, Ike," she exclaimed; "that twenty-dollar-bill you got frum Si. Giddens fer ther Baldwins. I re'klect thet it hed a big round O in red ink marked on ther back uv it. It was a bit rubbed out, an' hard ter see, but ef you knew it wuz thar an' luked fer it, you could see it plain enough."
After inquiring about the baby, whose thankful mother declared it to be as well as ever, Roy and Jimsy dragged out the Golden Butterfly and boarded it. It had been arranged that the two girls were to spin back to town in the car, the aeroplane following them as closely as possible from above.
As they chugged out of the farm-yard gate and on to the rough road, Peggy's thoughts kept time to the rhythmic pulsations of the motor:
MR. MORTLAKE LOSES SOME DRAWINGS.
Dashing along the rough country road, with every sense on the alert, Peggy found mental occupation enough to drive gloomier thoughts from her mind. The Prescott's car was a good one, with a powerful, sixty-horse motor, and splendidly upholstered. It was painted a dark blue, and was known in the surrounding country as "The Blue Bird." It had been purchased with the money made by the brother and sister from their shares in James Bell's desert mine.
Far above them sailed the aeroplane, its two occupants from time to time waving at their pretty sisters below. But in the upper-air currents, it would have been dangerous to drive at a pace slow enough to keep level with the automobile, and so the aeroplane soon dashed on ahead. From time to time, however, it made circles and swoops, which brought it sometimes in seemingly dangerous closeness to the tree-tops.
All at once Peggy stopped the automobile with a jerk which almost threw Jess, who was unprepared for the shock, out of the car.
"Good gracious, Peggy, what are you trying to do?" she gasped.
"Look!" cried Peggy, pointing with wide eyes.
In the center of the road lay a rolled-up bundle of papers secured with a rubber band.
"Somebody has dropped something from another auto or a wagon," cried Jess.
"I think so," said Peggy in excited tones, as she descended from the car, "and I've an idea that these papers have been dropped from Mr. Harding's car. It must have been the only one to pass here recently, as this road runs direct to the farm and nowhere else."
She stooped down in the road and picked up the bundle and then, with a beating heart, she opened it. But for an inward intuition of what its contents would prove to be, Peggy, with her rigid ideas of honor, could not have brought herself to do this. As her eyes fell on the first sheet, and she saw that it was covered with annotations and sketches, she gave a little cry.
"Oh, Jess! The luck! The wonderful, wonderful luck!"
"Why, what is it? A bundle of thousand-dollar bills, or——"
"It isn't that or anything," cried Peggy; "it's—oh, Jess—it's the sketches and plans of our aeroplane that Mortlake and his accomplice Harding were spiriting away."
"They must have dropped them from their automobile," said Jess.
"Or, more likely, from the pockets of one of them. See, the ground is trampled about here. It looks to me as if they had had a break-down, and were fixing it when the papers fell out and were left behind unnoticed. Oh, what a bit of luck! If they had had those papers, it would have meant——"
A shrill cry from Jess interrupted her. At the same moment Peggy became conscious of a presence behind her. She wheeled sharply and found herself facing two bloated-faced individuals, one of whom carried a heavy cudgel. Their clothes and broken boots, and their leering, odious appearance at once proclaimed them of the genus tramp.
"Waal!" growled one of the men, with an ugly leer, "we didn't hardly expec' ter run inter such luck ez this. Foun' suthin' vallerable, hev yer? Reckin' it must hev bin dropped by that auto that jes' went round the corner beyond. We'll hev ter trouble you for it, miss."
He held out a filthy hand, while Peggy, with a beating heart, fell back toward the car.
"Frum what we hearn' yer sayin', I guess the papers is vallerable, all right," chimed in the first speaker's companion. "Come on, now. Fork over. You know it ain't honest ter take wot don't berlong ter ye, an' by yer own confession them papers don't."
"What right have you to demand them?" asked Peggy boldly enough, despite her inward terror; "you had better go on at once, or——"
"Waal, or what?" sneered the other. "We've got ye here on a lonely road. You can't escape us. Come on, hand over them papers. We'll see that ther rightful owners git 'em, and that we git er reward beside. See?"
Peggy's reply was to leap nimbly into the machine. But to her horror the two tramps followed instantly. Jess cowered back in her seat. Her pale lips moved, but she said nothing.
"Tell yer wot," burst out the man with the club, "you gals give us ten bones a piece—the money don't mean much to folks like you—an' we'll let yer go. If not——"
A sudden inspiration came to Peggy—a flash of recollection.
"Why didn't you say that before?" she said cheerfully. "I'll be glad to give you the money. Wait a minute while I get it out."
She raised the cushion of the front "bucket seat," and dived beneath it with one hand. The men watched her with greedy, yet suspicious eyes.
"Ain't tryin' ter fool us, are yer?" growled one of them, "'cos ef you air——"
He raised his club threateningly, just as Peggy's hand withdrew from beneath the cushion. Something bright flashed in it.
"Look out, Mike. She's got a gun!" shouted one of the men, falling back.
The other whipped a hand amidst his rags and was just about to aim a pistol, when:
From the shiny object Peggy held in her hand, a fine stream of some sort of liquid jetted forcibly.
The fellow with the gun threw his hands up to his face, and dropping the pistol, staggered back with a howl of agony. The other darted off without even looking at him. The air was filled with a pungent scent of ammonia, and a quiet smile of triumph curled Peggy's red lips as she started the car in motion once more.
"Oh, Peggy, how brave you are!" gasped Jess. "Whatever was that you used? I hope the poor man isn't badly hurt, although he was so horrid."
"I just remembered in time, Jess dear," said Peggy, as she sped the car along, "that we had under the seat an ammonia pistol for use on vicious dogs. I used it on another sort of a dog, that's all, and it proved equally effective."
Just at this moment Peggy turned out to avoid another car that was approaching them from the opposite direction. In a second she saw that it carried Harding and Mortlake. They both looked angry and blank. Peggy guessed at once that they had discovered their loss. But she resolved not to stop unless they did and asked questions. She felt that such a despicable act as they had attempted to perpetrate deserved no help on her part.
"Hey, there!" shouted old Mr. Harding, as his car was slowed down by the chauffeur. "Hey, stop! I want to speak to you!"
"He's polite about it, isn't he?" whispered Jess. "Are you going to tell him, Peggy?"
"Cer-tain-ly not," rejoined Peggy, with a tightening of her lips. "Why should I? He tried to fasten a theft on my brother this morning, and then caps the climax by instigating Mortlake to try to steal the ideas of our aeroplane."
"Hey, girls, seen a package on the road?" bawled old Mr. Harding, as Peggy slowed up and stopped.
"I recovered some of my own property, if that is what you mean," said Peggy slowly, a dull flush rising to her cheeks.
"Well—well! What d'ye mean by that, hey? What d'ye mean by that?"
"You may construe it any way you wish to, Mr. Harding," was the cold rejoinder, and to avoid further questioning, Peggy sped up her machine, and soon vanished in a cloud of dust.
The old financier turned to his companion with a look of disgusted amazement.
"What d'ye think of that, hey, Mortlake?" he snapped out. "What d'ye think of that? Fine young girls, eh? Nice products of the twentieth century, hey?"
"Oh, let's get on and see if we can't find that roll of papers somewhere along here," rejoined Mortlake impatiently. "I don't think it's likely they could have seen it. It must have fallen from my pocket where the car broke down and I got out."
"Hey? Oh, yes, yes. That's it. Drive on, Tom. Drive us to where the car broke down."
In a few seconds they reached the spot just in time to see the two tramps who had molested the girls making off.
"There they go!" shouted Mortlake, "those fellows must have found them. I wouldn't lose those sketches for a thousand dollars. Put on more speed, Tom, and overtake them."
The chauffeur did as he was bid, and the car leaped ahead. In a few chugs it had reached the tramps' side, they having stopped, bewildered, in the meantime.
"Why, blow me, Bill," said one to the other, as the car came up, "if it ain't the self-same gents as drove down the road a while ago."
"Give me those papers, you rascals!" shouted Mortlake, almost flinging himself out of the car, "give them to me or——"
"Hold your horses, guv'ner! Hold your hosses," counseled the hobo who had received the dose of ammonia, and whose eyes were still red from its effects.
"Wot papers might you be lookin' fer?" asked this fellow cautiously, although he knew very well.
"A bundle of papers I dropped," panted Mortlake. "Didn't you find them."
"Naw!" grunted the red-eyed tramp.
"Naw!" echoed the other.
"Be careful what you say. If you are lying, it will go hard with you."
The warning came from old Mr. Harding.
"We know that, guv'ner. But we ain't got 'em. Search us, if yer like."
The knights of the road spread their arms to signify their willingness to be searched. Mortlake groaned. It was evident that neither of the tatterdermalions had the papers. But what had become of them? In his distress and chagrin, Mortlake gave an audible groan.
This the tramps seemed to construe as a favorable sign. One winked to the other, and the red-eyed one spoke.
"Wots it worth if we tell yer where them papers are, guv'ners both?"
"What, you know!" cried Mortlake, while old Mr. Harding spluttered:
"Eh, eh? Hey, what's all this? What's all this?"
"I didn't say we knew," was the cunning reply. "I said what's it worth if we did know."
Mortlake drew out a yellow-backed bill.
"Is this enough?" he asked.
The tramps' eyes rounded as they gazed at the figure.
"Perfec'ly satisfactory, guv'ner," said red eyes.
"Well, where are those papers, then?" snapped Mortlake impatiently.
"Thet thar purty gal wot jest went by in an autermobubble has 'em."
"Yes. We saw her pick them up out of the road. We tried to convince her it was dishonest to keep 'em, but she wouldn't listen to us."
"You've done well, and seem to be bright fellows," said Mortlake, handing over the bill to red eyes, who seemed to be the leader of the two, "by the way, you don't belong about here, do you?"
"Oh, no, guv'ner. Our homes is whar we hangs our hats. My permanent address is care of the 'dicky birds.'"
"Well, I may have some work for you to do——"
"Work, guv'ner? Work's only for the workmen."
"I know all that, but this work is on your own line. I'll pay well, too. If you want to talk it over, come to the Mortlake Aeroplane Factory, outside Sandy Beach at ten o'clock to-night. I'll be there to meet you."
"All right, guv'ner; we'll be, thar. Till then we'll bid yer 'oliver oil,' as ther French say. Come on, Joey."
The worthy pair shuffled off up the road, while Mortlake turned to Harding with a shrug.
"There are two tools made to our hand. We may find them very useful."
"I agree with you," was the dry and rasping reply; "at least, they have put us in possession of one valuable bit of knowledge, hey?"
THE FLIGHT OF THE "SILVER COBWEB."
A week rolled slowly by. A week of suspense, during which they had one or two calls from Lieut. Bradbury, who had been busy down at the Mortlake plant. But the officer was naturally noncommittal concerning his opinion of the comparative merits of the two types of aeroplanes. Equally naturally, of course, the young Prescotts had not questioned him concerning them.
But during this week they had had a glimpse of the Mortlake machine in flight. One still, breathless morning, the air had been filled, soon after dawn, with a vibrant buzzing sound, which Peggy's trained ear had recognized as the song of an aeroplane engine.
She hastened to her brother's room and rapped upon the door. In reply to his sleepy query, the girl rapidly told him of what she had heard. Roy's window faced on the road, and a glance satisfied him that the Mortlake machine was to have its first try-out. Hastily as he dressed, however, he found that Peggy was before him on the dewy lawn, field glasses in hand.
Down the road could be seen, in front of the Mortlake plant, a small crowd of mechanics with one or two dominant figures moving among them. With the glasses, they had no difficulty in making out Mortlake's heavy-shouldered figure, and the slender, upright form of Lieut. Bradbury. All at once the group opened up a bit and they saw a silvery, glittering aeroplane, agleam with new aluminum paint, throbbing and vibrating, as if anxious to be off. Blue smoke eddied up as the motor roared and whirred. The air seemed to vibrate under the sound as if a battery of gatling guns had been discharged.
Fascinated, brother and sister watched the spectacle intently. They saw Mortlake clamber heavily into the machine, followed by Lieut. Bradbury. A mechanic started for the front of the plane and began swinging the propeller.
"At least they haven't cribbed our self-starting device," exclaimed Peggy, as she saw.
The next instant the propeller became a whirring blur, and the aeroplane, after a brief preliminary run, began to climb upward. The morning sun caught its silvered planes and turned them to gold. It was a beautiful and inspiring sight. Even with all that lay at stake, Peggy and Roy could not deny the machine a meed of praise. It was fairy-like in its delicacy of construction, and speedy as a flash.
Thundering like an express train, it dashed above the Prescott home, leaving in its wake the pungent odor of burning castor-oil—the most suitable lubricant for aeroplanes.
Then suddenly—as if a recollection of Peggy's mischievous flight of a few days previously had occurred to him—Mortlake swung the delicate silvery machine about and dashed straight down at the boy and girl standing by the garden gate. So close to their heads did he skim in his desire to show off, that he almost came too low. For one instant it looked as if the machine would be dashed to a premature end, but it recovered buoyancy like a keeled-over racing yacht, and tore upward into the sky at an increased speed.
"Let's get out the Golden Butterfly and follow the——"
"Silver Cobweb!" cried Roy, the name occurring to him in a flash of inspiration as he watched the filmy outlines of the other aeroplane melt in the distance.
"Oh, Roy, what a pretty name."
"Isn't it? But somehow, I like Golden Butterfly best. Our machine may be a bit heavier, but solidity counts in hard service."
Scarcely ten minutes later, and while Mortlake's mechanics and assistants were still craning their necks skyward, another aeroplane, a yellow adventurer of the skies, thundered upward. Not to be outdone by Mortlake, Roy, who was at the wheel, swooped above the rival crowd. They did not take it with a good grace. Remarks, of which they could not catch the wording, but only the menacing intonation, were hurled upward at them. They received them with a laugh and a wave of the hand, which did not put the Mortlake crowd into any better humor. And then, with a graceful, swinging curve, that banked the machine almost on its beam ends, they were up, off and away in pursuit of the Silver Cobweb, which, by this time, was a mere shoe-button of a dot on the horizon.
"Do you think we can overhaul her, Roy?" ventured Peggy, as they raced through the air, the fresh breath of morning coming refreshingly in their faces.
"Not a chance," admitted Roy cheerfully, "but they'll turn after a while, I guess, and then we'll try the Butterfly against the Cobweb."
But they kept on and on unrelentingly, and still there was no sign of diminution of speed on the part of the Silver Cobweb. Nor did the other aircraft give any indication that she was preparing to put about.
Below them, farms, meadows, villages and crowds of wondering country folk swam by in an ever-changing panorama. The earth beneath them looked like a big saucer divided up into brown, red and green squares, with tiny fly-like dots running and walking about.
All at once Roy gave a shout and pointed. Dead ahead, and not more than a few miles distant, lay a silvery, gleaming streak.
The exclamation came simultaneously from Peggy and Roy.
They had been traveling due south across the island, and now the broad Atlantic lay stretched beyond the land, shimmering in the sunlight. Far off, they could make out the black smoke of a steamer, hovering above the ocean.
"A mail boat, making for New York," announced Roy.
So fast were they traveling that by this time they could plainly make out the ocean, which, from a silvery streak, was now changed into a dark-blue rolling expanse of salt water.
And still the Silver Cobweb kept on, and gave no sign of turning. Nor, for that matter, had her speed diminished appreciably. The rival aeroplane was now skimming above the water at a height of about a thousand feet. The Golden Butterfly maintained about the same altitude, but the gap between the two aerial craft was not closing up.
"Mortlake's taking a desperate chance to show Lieut. Bradbury what the Cobweb can do," exclaimed Roy. "With a new engine, he's risking too much."
"I guess he's seen us and means to beat us out at all hazards," conjectured Peggy.
And she was right. Mortlake, glancing back a short time before the sea appeared on the horizon, had seen the other aeroplane, and guessing at once what its appearance meant, had determined to keep on, even at the risk of plunging himself and his passenger into the sea.
That was Mortlake's character; he was a man who could brook no rivalry. Used all his life to sweep obstacles aside, he would rather have terminated his career than permit any one to pass him in the race for first place, no matter in what line that first place might lie.
"Are you going to keep on, Roy?"
The question came as a strip of white beach flashed beneath them, and Peggy, peering over the edge of the chassis, saw the big Atlantic swells rolling below them. The thunder of the surf on the beach came clearly to their ears, even at that height.
"What do you think, Sis? We've got lots of gasoline. The motor is working without a hitch. I'd hate to turn back now, particularly with that officer's eyes upon us, as in all probability they are."
"Oh, let's keep on," exclaimed Peggy, casting prudence to the winds. "I feel like you, Roy. If we turn back now, it would look as if we were afraid to trust the Butterfly above the ocean, and, after all, it is a naval contest that we hope to be elected for."
"Forward it is, then," cried Roy exultingly. The tang of the salt wind, the inspiration of the ocean, had come to him. He felt like a corsair—a very modern corsair—urging his craft above the ancient sea.
The vessel, whose smoke they had espied at a distance, was quite close to them now. A huge, black hull, with white passenger decks, rising tier on tier, four huge red funnels with black tops, and slender masts, between which hung the spider-web aerials of her wireless apparatus. Her bow was creaming up the ocean into foam, as she rushed onward at a twenty-four knot gait.
Roy, obeying a daring impulse, let the Golden Butterfly descend. Now they could see her promenade decks lined with white faces peering upward. Here and there the sun glinted on the bright metal work of cameras, all aimed at the wonderful spectacle of the soaring, buoyant Golden Butterfly.
"Oh, if only we could drop a message on her decks!" breathed Peggy eagerly. "I do wish we had a post-card or something——"
"By ginger," cried Roy suddenly, "I do believe I've got some in my coat-pocket. I bought some in the village yesterday to mail to the chaps back at school. Yes. Here they are, and here's a fountain-pen. Now write all you want."
Peggy took the cards her brother handed to her with his free hand, and, with the fountain-pen, sat down to compose some messages. After a few seconds' thought, she began to write busily. Card after card was covered with her neat penmanship. All this time Roy had kept the Golden Butterfly hovering above the liner, from time to time taking swoops and dives around it like some monstrous sea gull.
Suddenly, from the liner's whistle, a great cascade of white steam spouted.
It was the vessel's siren blowing a greeting to the young adventurers of the air. At the same instant a deep-throated roar, a cheer from cabin and steerage passengers alike, winged its way upward. Roy acknowledged it by a graceful wave of his cap. Then the cheering broke forth afresh.
The passengers of the newest ocean giant, the Ruritania, realized that they were seeing a spectacle that would remain in their memories all their lives. Having conquered old ocean with leviathan vessels, man was now seeking to subdue the air to his utility.
AN AERIAL POST OFFICE.
Peggy addressed half a dozen cards. Two, of course, went to Jess and Jimsy, another to Aunt Sallie Prescott; one to the captain of the Ruritania, and one other, which bore the address, "Eugene Mortlake, Esq."
It was a mischievous freak that made Peggy write this last missive, which read:
TO MR. EUGENE MORTLAKE,
Per Steamer Ruritania—in Mid-air: Greetings from aeroplane Golden Butterfly.
R. & M. PRESCOTT.
That was all, but Peggy knew that it would serve its prankish purpose.
All this time the Silver Cobweb had been out at sea, but now, apparently detecting the maneuvers of the Golden Butterfly, she headed about, and came racing back. Peggy deftly attached weights—spare bolts from the tool locker—to each of the cards, and then, snatching up a megaphone, she hailed the uniformed figures on the bridge of the great vessel below them.
"Will you be good enough to mail some letters for us?"
"With pleasure!" came the reply in a big, bellowing British voice, from one of the stalwart figures beneath.
"All right; Roy, come down as low as you dare," cried Peggy, catching her bundle of "mail."
Roy threw over a couple of levers and turned a valve. Instantly the Golden Butterfly began to drop in long, beautiful arc. She shot by above the liner's bridge at a height of not more than fifteen feet. At the correct moment Peggy dropped the weighted bundle overboard, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of the officers catch it. The gallant officers, now realizing for the first time that a girl—and a pretty one—was one of the passengers of the big aeroplane, waved their hats and bowed profoundly.
And Peggy—what would Aunt Sallie have said!—Peggy blew them a kiss. But then, as she told Jess later:
"I was in an aeroplane, my dear—a sort of an unattainable possibility, in fact."
In the meantime, Mortlake, in the Silver Cobweb, had been duly mystified as to what the Golden Butterfly was about when she swooped downward on the steamer. For one instant the thought flashed across him that they were disabled. An unholy glee filled him at the thought. If only the Golden Butterfly were to come to grief right under Lieut. Bradbury's eyes, it would be a great feather in the cap of the Mortlake-Harding machine.
But, to his chagrin, he saw them rise the next instant, as cleverly as ever. Lieut. Bradbury, who had been watching the maneuver of the Golden Butterfly, gave an admiring gasp, as he witnessed the daring feat.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, and the evident note of astonishment and appreciation in his tones did not tend to increase Mortlake's self-satisfaction.
"The pesky brats," he muttered to himself; "we've got to do something to put them out of the race. There isn't another American-built aeroplane that I fear except that bothersome kids' machine."
And there and then Mortlake began to hatch up a scheme that in the near future was to come very nearly proving disastrous to Peggy and Roy and their high hopes.
"Magnificently handled, don't you think so, Mortlake?" inquired the naval officer, the next instant.
"Yes, very clever," agreed Mortlake, far too smart to show his inward feelings, or to wear his heart upon his sleeve; "very neat. But I can do the same thing if you'd care to see it?"
The naval officer glanced at the puffy features of his companion and his thick, bull-like neck.
"No, thanks," he said. "I've got to be getting back. There's another type of machine I've got to look over out at Mineola. It is really necessary that I reach there as quickly as possible."
"Very well," said Mortlake, inwardly relieved, as he didn't much fancy duplicating Roy's feat, "we'll head straight on for the shore."
"If you please."
But what was the Golden Butterfly doing? As the steamer raced onward, that aerial wonder had swung in a spiral, and was now seemingly hovering about, awaiting the arrival of the Silver Cobweb.
As the two aeroplanes drew abreast, Mortlake muttered something, and bent over his engines. The Cobweb leaped forward like an unleashed greyhound. But the Golden Butterfly was close on her heels, and making almost as good time. Mortlake plunged his hands in among the machinery and readjusted the air valve of the carburetor. Another increase of speed resulted. The indicator crawled up to sixty-six, sixty-eight and then to seventy miles an hour.
"Pressing her a bit, aren't you?" asked the officer, as they seemed to hurtle through the air, so fast did they rush onward.
"Oh, no. She's built for speed," responded Mortlake, with a gratified grin; "she'll leave any such old lumber wagon as that Prescott machine miles behind her any day in the week."
This seemed to be true. The Golden Butterfly, making about sixty miles, was being rapidly left behind.
"I should think you'd be afraid of overheating your cylinders," volunteered the lieutenant.
Now, this was just what Mortlake was afraid of. But, as has been said, he was the sort of man who, in sporting parlance, was willing always "to take a chance" to beat any one he considered his rival. He was taking a desperate chance now. Under the artificial means he had used to increase the speed of his engines, the motor was "turning up" several hundred more revolutions a minute than she had been built for.
Now they shot above the strip of white beach, and, below them the pleasant meadow-lands and patches of verdant woods began to show once more.
All at once, the sign for which Mortlake had been watching so anxiously manifested itself. A tiny curl of smoke ascended from one of the cylinder-heads. A smell of blistering, burning paint was wafted back to the nostrils of Lieut. Bradbury.
"I thought so," he said; "overheating already. Better slow down, Mortlake."
Mortlake glanced back. The Golden Butterfly, much diminished in size now by the distance, still hung doggedly on his heels.
"I'll give her more air," he vouchsafed stubbornly, "that ought to cool her off a bit—that and advanced spark."
He manipulated the necessary levers, but before many minutes it became apparent that, if urged at that rate, the Silver Cobweb would never reach Sandy Beach without a break-down.
"Hadn't you better shut down a bit? That paint's blistering, as if the cylinders were red-hot."
Much as he disliked to interfere with the operation of the aeroplane, the young officer felt that it was necessary that some means should be taken to compel Mortlake to reduce speed. If the engine became so overheated that it stopped in mid-air, they might be caught in a nasty position, where it might be impossible to volplane—or glide—downward, without the aid of the engine.
"It's all right, I tell you," said Mortlake stubbornly. "We'll beat those cubs into Sandy Beach, or——"
Or what, was destined never to be known, for at that instant, with a splutter and a sigh, the overheated engines, almost at a red-heat, stopped short. The propeller ceased to revolve, and the aeroplane began to plunge downward with fearful velocity.