OF ALL modern pictures, this at least held poetry, beauty, and a certain grandeur: an airman, bareheaded and youthful, skimming the fringe of a lonely shore.
The sunlight of late afternoon struck the waves at a fast-lengthening angle; sand hills mounted into tropical forests that merged inland into a line of mountains already darkening in the east.
Unfortunately, the picture had one big flaw, known only to the airman himself; he had a raging toothache. It had begun about midday, soon after leaving Singapore, and had grown worse steadily until, over that golden beach, it became sheerly unbearable. Which accounted for the fact that, on a suitable stretch of sand, the machine planed down to make a skillful but not too easy landing.
The airman clambered out and lay down in the shadow of one of the wings, his chin dolefully in his hands. Presently there came along a much older man; heavily built, wrinkled, and yellowed by hot days out of doors. He asked briefly what the matter was. The youth looked up, his dumb misery quenching any surprise he might have felt that the spot was not as deserted as it had looked. "I've got the most hellish toothache," he began, "so I came down to see if it would go off if I rested a while."
"And has it gone off?"
"That's too bad. You'd better come along to my place—it's only a few minutes away. We'll see what we can do."
"If you could give me something—"
"Sure. They say essence of cloves with a drop of brandy is good. Let's try."
They clambered over the shingle beyond the sand and pushed their way along an upward track that wound through heavy undergrowth. The youth was drenched with sweat before he had walked many yards; the jungle held the air in warm moist pockets. He was vague in mind from the pain of his tooth and from the sudden unaccustomed silence in his ears. He was tall and slim and had young, proud features—just a boy not yet twenty.
When they reached the crest of a low rise, a bungalow came into view, perched halfway down a farther slope and looking across a valley littered with the sheds and gear of some mining enterprise. It was decently built, with wide verandas and a roof of native thatch.
"I'm alone here," said the older man. "I'm a sort of caretaker—the mine's shut down till the price of tin goes up again. Maybe if there's another war… My name's Carson."
"I'm David Clair."
"You say that as if I ought to have heard of you, so I must apologize. It's an out-of-the-way place and I don't get much news. The only flying name I know is Lindbergh."
The youth forced a smile. "That's all right. You wouldn't know me if that's your standard."
Carson led the way into a cool dark room furnished comfortably if shabbily; a search in a cupboard produced the necessary medicines, and a search in another cupboard some other bottles. "Soak this cotton in the oil and stick it on the tooth—don't mind if it hurts a bit at first. And then have a drink and make yourself at home."
"Thanks, but I won't have the drink and I'll try the oil without the brandy."
Carson gave him a quizzical glance which dissolved into a friendly but puzzled smile. "As you wish," he said. "I'll leave you to it." When he had gone David persevered with the oil and after ten minutes of no noticeable improvement the pain suddenly ceased altogether. He got up then with the half- frightened joy that such relief always brings. Carson was on the veranda, smoking a cigar.
"Hello, young man—better? That's fine. We dine at seven—out of cans. You'll stay the night, of course."
"Looks as if I shall have to—it's good of you not to mind. I rather think I strained my undercarriage in landing and I can't overhaul it till daylight."
"Well, that's all right. I like company."
"There's just one thing. I noticed you've a phone. I wonder if I could get through to Rangoon—the airport people there ought to know I'm delayed, otherwise they'll be up all night keeping the place lit for me."
"Sure. You go on resting—I'll tell 'em all about it."
The toothache did not recur, and David rested till Carson called him from another room. Dinner was served—certainly out of cans, but agreeably tasty and refreshing. "You know," David said, eating hungrily, "I really oughtn't to be enjoying myself like this."
"I should have been in Rangoon tonight. By the way, you did ring up the airport, didn't you?"
"Yes, that's all fixed. But why the hurry to get there?"
"Well, I had hoped to lower the Singapore-London record, but I'm afraid tonight's delay means I won't have much chance."
"Is it an awful disappointment?"
"Not so bad as if I'd nearly done it and then been held up on the last lap. As it is, I can just go back to Singapore and try again. But I'll see a dentist first."
"And carry a flask of brandy with you on your next trip, I should advise, even if you are teetotal."
"But I'm not. It's only for this trip. A man in Australia offered me a thousand pounds if I made a record flight without touching alcohol, as he called it. He thought it would be a good prohibition ad."
Carson laughed. "You should have gone to the whisky people. They might have offered you more."
"They wouldn't. I tried them."
Carson laughed again. "Did you, by Jove? What sort of a racket is this, anyway?"
"Well, if you don't have any money you have to get someone to back you. Most of the things that are done in the world seem to be paid for by people who don't want to do them themselves."
David flushed embarrassedly. "I've often thought it out like that. On a long flight, you know, there's hours and hours for thinking things out."
"I guess there must be. And who's backing you on this trip?"
"Pretty much as usual. The fuel company supplies the juice and you sell your story in advance to some newspaper, and then you can always make a bit extra by saying what you've eaten—somebody's chocolate or meat-cubes or something."
"And do you really eat them?"
"Oh, yes. They're all right as a rule. I don't find it matters much what I eat, so long as I don't get toothache."
"Is there much money in the game?"
"Not unless you strike it lucky. Of course that's what you always hope for. There's a sporting chance."
"Like mining for men of my generation, I suppose. What made you take it up?"
"Nothing else to do. I'd always been interested in cars and engines, and when my boss bought a plane I used to fly him about on the cattle station. In Queensland, that was. I flew first when I was sixteen—I've sort of grown up with it. My boss had land seventy miles across, so a plane was more use than a car. Then he lost all he had in the wool slump and I found a job with an air- mail company. Nothing else for me—flying is all I can do. I was never any good at school."
After a pause David added. "So I think in the morning I'll get back to Singapore and make plans for having another shot… The worst of it is, the big firms get tired of you after a time if you don't have any luck."
"And haven't you—yet?"
"Six months ago I was the first person to fly solo from Broome to Surabaya."
"That sounds pretty good."
"I know. But I was a fool—I just did it without any fuss, and the result was, there wasn't any fuss."
"I'm just beginning to wonder whether you're really a very simple or a very shrewd young man."
"Both, I daresay." David smiled, accepting a cigar and puffing luxuriously as he added: "Thank heaven nobody paid me not to smoke."
"You evidently keep your promises."
"Sometimes. It's kind of fair, I think. And after all, it's not for long. Take the bad with the good, that's my motto. And better luck next time. I'll go back to Singapore tomorrow, anyway."
"I'm not so sure that you will," Carson told him.
"Why, what do you mean?"
Carson replied slowly: "I'm afraid you've got to prepare yourself for an item of bad news."
"About my machine?" David looked up with sharp alarm. "It's all right, surely? I left it well above the tide mark."
"Your machine's all right. It's something a bit more serious than that."
But the relief on David's face conveyed the distinct impression that nothing at all could be more serious than that. "What then?" he asked, composedly.
"I delayed telling you because you couldn't possibly get away tonight, in any case, and I didn't want to spoil your meal. The fact is, when I rang up Rangoon to tell them about your being here, they asked me if you were the David Clair who was flying a Speedmore Hornet. I said I supposed you were."
"It seems there was a cable for you that arrived at Singapore just after you left, and they wired it on to Rangoon. Rather bad news from home."
"Your father. He's ill and they want you to get home as soon as you can."
After a pause David answered, calmly: "If that's so, I'd better fly on, then."
"Looks to me as if you had. I'm sorry."
David stared at the table. After another pause he added: "Good of you to break it gently. Actually, though, I haven't seen much of my family for quite a time."
"Living in Australia, you know, since I was a kid. Matter of fact, I never got on with them—went to live with an uncle in Brisbane. Father and mother were both traveling all the while—I shouldn't have seen much of them, anyway."
"Traveling all the while, you say?"
"Yes. He's a concert pianist. Quite a good one, I'm told."
"Did he ever visit Bucharest?"
"I wouldn't be surprised—he went to most places, especially before mother died."
"Francis Clair—that's the name?"
"Yes, that's his name. You've heard him?"
"More than that. I think I once met him. In Bucharest."
THE two men faced each other during a short silence. David was slightly excited, aware of some special drama in the occasion. Gazing through the blur of lamplight at the tropic sky into which the moon was just rising, he said, contemplatively: "Rather a remarkable character, my father, from all accounts. I wish I'd known him better. When did you meet him?"
"Long before you were born. I was in Rumania, working for an oil company. One morning I had to call at a Bucharest newspaper office on business, and while I was talking to the editor a big man came striding into the room in a tremendous temper about something or other. That was your father."
"Yes, that's right. A big man. And a temper, too. I remember that much."
"Well, he talked in bad German first of all, but when he heard me talking English he poured out his troubles to me. It was something about a piece of music criticism that had appeared in the paper about one of his concerts. Some word which he thought was insulting. He was in a fine rage about it, and the editor didn't know what to do except to send for the man who had written the criticism, and as soon as this fellow appeared your father turned on him. He had a temper, too. and before I properly realized what was happening they were exchanging cards and fixing a duel—all the silly palaver, you know. And for a quarter of an hour I did my best—but in vain—to prevent your father from being a damn' fool."
David began to laugh.
"Because duels were strictly against the local law, and if by chance anyone got killed there would be the devil to pay. I didn't like to see an Englishman getting into such a mess."
"He isn't an Englishman. He's an Irishman—at least his father was—his mother was Russian. And he was born in Shanghai."
"Sounds like a magnificent mixture. Anyhow, he fought that duel."
"The usual sort of sword or rapier or whatever they call it. And it was pretty clear to me that your father had never handled the weapon before and that his opponent was an expert. Yet—by some almighty fluke—your father won. Full of impetuousness, he dashed in with a few terrific lunges, one of which pinked the other fellow in the arm. Honor having been thus satisfied, your father shook hands with everybody and went off full of smiles and good will.
And that's the last I ever saw of him."
"It's all very funny."
"Yes—quite a piquant situation, me telling you something about your father that you'd no idea of. And more than that, I can tell you something that even he—to this day—may have no idea of himself. It's a sort of ironic postscript to the whole incident. The editor and I were friends and afterward we came to the conclusion that your father must have been entirely mistaken about the insult he complained of. It was really a complimentary adjective that was just different by a letter or so from the other word he must have imagined it to be. Like poison and poisson in French, you know. That's funny too, isn't it?"
"Pretty damn' crazy when you come to think about it."
"Yes, it's a crazy world."
They talked on and went to bed rather late.
IN THE morning David was up at daybreak and went down to the beach to overhaul and test his machine. There was only slight damage, which he was soon able to repair. When all was ready he returned to the bungalow for coffee; then Carson saw him off. The two men stood for a few moments by the ticking engine; they did not say much, except to exchange good wishes.
"I hope you'll be in time—take care of yourself—look me up if you're ever this way again—goodby!"
"Goodby," shouted David, against the roar of the engine as the plane began to move. It ran a little way along the beach, lifted, soared above the sand and shingle, and then set a course.
A brilliant morning, cloudless, and cool over the sea. David flew at a thousand feet, keeping the land well in sight, though he would cut corners across the bays and inlets. With the new eye of the new race of flying men he memorized the look of the country as he passed over it—a cape here that the seafarer never approaches, a river there whose width the landsman can never visualize. There was something Elizabethan in the way he thought of the world—as a place of virgin spaces and untried dangers, where a youth was already a man, and where a man might find death or fame by equal hazard. That was the dream; the business was to make it pay. And whether the dream or the business predominated in him at any given moment was largely a matter of mood.
He came down at Rangoon in the morning, filled up his tanks, and snatched a light meal. As the weather looked promising he decided to aim direct for Calcutta, flying across the Bay of Bengal. Within a few moments of setting off he was out of sight of all land, for there was a touch of mist in the air. He then settled himself, as he was fairly well used to doing, to a spell of purely automatic flying, keeping his eye on his instruments while his mind wandered at will among his private preoccupations.
These were mostly financial. He was really on the edge of personal penury, and had been for months, but it did not seem to matter except as a mere fidget for odd moments.
He didn't really worry about money, but he passionately wanted the extra freedom that money would confer; and when, on land, he met the kind of people he must beg favors from, he suffered a cold rancor that left him, in sympathies, estranged from the world of streets and cities. He didn't care two hoots about kings and princes and Fascism and Communism and disarmament and all the other issues that the newspapers talked about, and his patriotism, so far as he had any, was centered upon Australia rather than upon the British Empire, and even upon Queensland rather than upon Australia.
HE TOOK an airman's view of life in general, and noted with unconcern the landsman's growing fear of bombs; there even passed across his mind occasionally a strange daydream of a world that bombs had made safe for lordly boys to fly over.
Cruising steadily now at an even height above the sea, all the shabbiness of earth contacts vanished, and he was left, in mind and body, remote. This remoteness gave him a sensation of physical well-being, of gladness to be alive, even of gladness to be afraid. For he was, always, a little afraid when he crossed a stretch of open sea.
Suddenly, amidst his musings, a lift of wind swung the machine out of its even progress, and his nerves tightened automatically in response. The horizon ahead was still bright, though rather mistier, and up to now he had been flying well with a steady following wind. That was what puzzled him, for the gust had come head on.
Winds were incalculable things; someday, perhaps, they would be charted like sea currents; till then, every flyer was an explorer feeling his way. But with such experience in exploration came a sixth sense of warning, a lightning response to unfamiliar behavior; and this gust had evoked such a response.
Then, almost as quickly as if a curtain had been drawn across the sea, the mist darkened into a cloud and the cloud rolled and swelled over the sky with a spreading core of black. He felt cold fear creeping on him. He had flown through storms before and had always had fear. On land he could avoid them by detours or emergency landings, but there was no hope of avoiding this one, because it guarded the whole landward arc of the horizon; to turn tail would have been to face the open ocean. No option, therefore. And all that complicated mass of human machinery—brain, nerve, muscle, spirit—braced itself for the ordeal; the boyish features became a man's in resolution, the frown deepened to face the frowning sky. David Clair, whom no one had heard of, who had no money, no position, no social importance, was facing a storm in the Indian Ocean—alone.
He climbed higher, giving himself a safer distance from the sea, the surface of which was already green-dark and troubled. But at a couple of thousand feet the machine crashed into an almost solid wall of water that sent it reeling; in an instant he was drenched to the skin and water came pouring into the cockpit before he could close the side windows. Simultaneously the sky turned pitch-black. A shaft of panic transfixed him, but his nerve answered the call and drove it away; he switched on the light that illuminated the instrument panel, and lost height a little, hoping to emerge into rainless daylight.
But the darkness persisted, great ramparts of water fell against the machine, straining every strut and buffeting the wings like fist-blows. David held firm, peering at his instruments, countering every gust with the appropriate operation of the controls, fighting with every atom of mind and will and body. Suddenly a great glare streaked the sky and the rain glittered ahead like a limitless Niagara. Instinctively he ducked and was momentarily blinded; for a few seconds he was sure the plane had been struck.
"My God…" he muttered. "My God…" It was the conventional expression of terrified astonishment he had heard other people say, in plays and movies, and at such a moment it was easiest to be true to fiction. The darkness closed around him again, and all at once he knew, from a change in the note of the engine, that it was running less perfectly. He was done for. It came to him quite simply and naturally that within half an hour he would be dead.
He was calm about it at first, and then abruptly and rather incongruously angry. He was angry, not against Fate or Luck, which he respected, but against the world that hadn't lent him money enough to buy the radio equipment that might save his life, against the multitude of smug and snug newspaper readers who, if the couple of lines about his death should catch their eye, would murmur "Poor fellow" to themselves, and never think of him again. Not that he wanted them to, and yet—there he was, sinking to his death, and nobody gave a damn.
Well, why should they? he countered, self-contemptuously, and then, as he felt the machine sagging farther and farther and the engine sputtering against its rhythm, he had a sudden vision of his father, as Carson had described him, prancing about with foils in a park near Bucharest… Glad I know that story, he thought; you had pluck, father, anyway…
Then the miracle happened; a gray light spread below, and through a gap in the grayness came the sight of mud and crops in soaked fields.
He came down, waited for the rain to stop, tuned his engine, and flew on. All in a day's work. He reached Calcutta by dusk.
It was toward its latter stages that David began to realize that his flight might not pass entirely unnoticed after all. He had been making good time, and at Karachi had given an interview to a journalist. Among various questions and answers had been the following:
"What sort of weather have you been having during the trip?"
"Oh, not too bad on the whole."
"Any exciting incidents?"
"I ran into a storm over the sea between Rangoon and Calcutta, but I managed to get out of it again."
"Just a storm—I see… Now, Mr. Clair, I wonder if you could tell me why you are doing this trip. Are you hoping to break any records?"
"No, not particularly—at least, that's not the chief idea just now. You see, my father in England is ill and I was cabled for in Singapore. I'm just getting home as fast as I can, that's all."
That was all, but that was enough. The flight, though not a record one, acquired what even record flights so often lack—the human touch; by the time David reached Bagdad it had become "Son's Air Dash to Dying Father"; at Athens the photographers and newspapermen were lined up at the airport; at Marseilles David discovered that he had become the hero of a "Grim Race with Death." He was desperately tired, and torn between a desire to make what he could out of the suddenly evoked sensation, and a secret disgust with the whole business.
WHEN he arrived at Croydon Airport he was utterly exhausted and had to be lifted out of the cockpit. He didn't hear much that was told him; a few reporters did their best to make him say what they wanted him to say, photographers photographed him, and he couldn't get a drink because, in the curious manner of England, it was against the law at that particular hour. The airport authorities asked him if he wished to fly on to his father's home at Little Bigbury, Hants, but he said no, he was too tired; but the real reason was that he didn't know the way, and thought it would seem funny to say so. He knew the routes to Cairo and Bushire and Allahabad and Port Darwin, but from London to Little Bigbury was terra incognita.
He rested for a few minutes while customs officers examined his plane for smuggled heroin or Pekingese; then, because he really wanted to evade publicity, he actually succeeded in doing so. Few heroes want it as much as that; but for David there was the simple devastating fact that his toothache had begun again. All the way to Bigbury in a hired car it got worse and worse, driving out of his mind all satisfactory thoughts of headlines and oil company bonuses, and putting in their place the somber conviction that the whole affair was somehow shabby and depressing and unworthy; just think, to have one's father's illness turned into a publicity stunt; far better to face a storm in the Indian Ocean than newsmen and bulb-exploders plus toothache. And his clothes were dirty, and he had only nine shillings in his pocket; he felt ill and miserable and his eyes were red-lidded and sore.
The conquering hero! He had never been to Little Bigbury and didn't know how to find his father's house; he hadn't seen any of his family for seven years, and seven years is a long time to a youth who has flown from Singapore to London in six days, who has fought a three-hour battle with a typhoon, and stared into the face of death itself for a couple of minutes.
He found the house and rang the doorbell. A girl answered it; at first she did not realize who he was. "I'm David," he began, in his Australian voice; then she exclaimed: "David—oh, David—we've read about you! I'm your sister Monica—I don't suppose you remember me!" He hardly did; she had been only a little girl. Now she gazed at him bewilderedly, for he was so tall and brown and strange-looking.
In the hall he heard the sound of a piano upstairs, and presently, with Monica preceding him, he climbed to a door that opened upon a flood of music. A gray-haired, fine-looking man was playing. He did not see anyone at first, and went on playing. Then he saw David and stopped.
"I'm David," said David.
The old man swung around with eyes flashing.
"So you're David, are you? Then perhaps you can tell me what's all this damned nonsense about you flying here because I'm supposed to be dying? D'you know I've been badgered and pestered by all sorts of people these last few days? Wanting to know if I'm dead yet! I'm not, thank Heaven. I had a chill, that was all, but your damn' fool sister got the wind up and cabled you. She shouldn't have done it, I told her so at the time… Still, don't think I'm not glad to see you. Of course I am. Sit down. What would you like—I mean, what do you do—drink, smoke—anything?"
"There's just one thing," said David, struggling hard.
"Yes, yes—what's that?"
"I've—I'm afraid I've got the most awful toothache. Could you put me on to a good dentist round about here?"
The old man stared hard, then swung round to the piano. "Monica, call up Borrows and make an appointment for him to see this young man immediately. Tell him he's come all the way from Singapore to Little Bigbury to see a dentist… And you lie down on that couch, my boy—I'll play you some Bach while you're waiting… Lord, this is a crazy world."
"I know," said David, smiling.