BENEATH them was a dull grey-green carpet, laced with white patterns that changed every second, dissolving one into the other, to appear in newer and more fantastic arabesques. Beneath, too, but nearer, were flying wisps of cloud torn to shreds by the fury of the pursuing sou'wester. Ahead was a more solid sky barrier, the purple and black vanguard of the storm.
The pilot shot a casual, but interested, glance at the clouds above, a tumbling, rolling mass of grey vapour that trailed bedraggled streamers behind.
Then he looked round at the small mechanic, a grimy youth, with a face like Fate. And the pilot grinned.
He was driving into the teeth of a gale, and the humming whistle of his wires had risen to a shriek that sounded clear above the throaty roar of his engines.
He watched the blue blur of his tractor screw, only turning his head once: the wink of the Dungeness light came up to remind him that the minutes of daylight left to him were few. Night would come inkily and unpleasantly when he met the purple cloud bank now only a few miles ahead.
The forerunner of the greater storm came in the character of a terrific blast of wind that lifted the machine fifty feet in the air and dropped it as suddenly. The left wing went down and the machine slipped a thousand feet, a terrifying sideways toboggan down an airy chute. The one passenger gripped tightly at the rail and set his teeth, the small mechanic did not move. His eyes were glued to the leather-covered head of the pilot... then the airplane righted herself
Below came the matted lights of Folkestone, and no sooner were they over land than the nose of the machine dropped and the roar of the engines ceased.
Not too soon did her wheels touch earth.
The rain was lashing down, stinging the faces of the men, drumming on the canvas wings audibly. The airplane came to a standstill and the pilot, unstrapping himself leisurely, swung to the ground and wiped the rain from his face with a movement that was peculiarly deliberate.
"Peace hath her vic-tories, no less renooned than war-r!" he said, in that queer Glasgow accent which is neither Irish nor Scotch, but has the fascinating qualities of both.
The passenger was stamping his feet on the soddened ground, unconscious apparently that the rain was still pouring down. The force of the storm, as experienced from the firm surface of the earth, was mild by comparison with the howling tornado which is produced when a 100 m.p.h. Liberty engine bucks against a 70 m.p.h. gale.
Therefore, Mr. George Jackson scarcely realised that more than a gentle shower was falling.
"Phew!" he said, relieved; then, looking round with eyebrows gathered in a frown, "This isn't Croydon?"
"It's the airth," said the little man gently, and looked up at the sullen skies.
"It's no' so bad," he said meditatively. "It's a wee bit saft, but no' what ye'd call tu-mool-tuous. But the airth is better till yon clood's awa'."
Mr. Thomas MacTavish, whom his associates called "Tam"—most of them being wholly ignorant of his surname—had chosen the Claybury Aerodrome for his descent in preference to one nearer London, for reasons not wholly unconnected with a significant noise made by his engine. He had guessed the trouble and chose the first available landing, for he took no uncommercial risks.
He stood looking after the passenger as he squelched across the soddened field, and on Tam's face dawned the shadow of a smile.
The little mechanic had heaved himself from the fuselage and was walking round the machine, a look of anguish on his face.
"What's hurting ye, Angus?" asked Tam.
The youth's name was not Angus; it was, in fact, Henry Jones, and Tam had discovered him in a London slum and had elevated him to the dignity of apprentice aviator.
Henry Jones shook his head.
"This old bus has seen her best days," he said, and clicked his lips discouragingly. "I never did think much of these Bristol machines," he added, with gloom. "You mark my words, boss, one of these days there'll be TROUBLE!"
Tam eyed him tolerantly.
"Ye miserable little devil," he said. "Ye never saw an airplane till I introduced ye to the 'Pride of Glasgow.' Get up, noo, and taxi across to the hangar."
With a deep sigh Henry Jones climbed into the pilot's seat, and if his air was one of magnificent unconcern, his hands trembled and his eyes glittered with bottled excitement.
"And take yer hands off the control, will ye?" roared Tam, who had seen the rudder move.
Henry Jones started guiltily.
"Noo," said Tam, "run along to the hangar, and if ye lift her so much as an inch from the ground, I'll take ye by the scruff of yer neck and the seat of yer pants, and there'll be sair hearts in Limehoose!"
He pulled on the propeller, and, with a splutter that rose to a roar, the converted Bristol fighter skimmed along the ground towards the low-roofed hangars, Tam walking behind, his eyes glued to the wheels.
Only once did the machine lift, and he grinned, for it was Henry Jones's dearest dream that some day be would lift the "Pride of Glasgow" with his own hands and send her zooming to the blue.
In the meantime the passenger had reached the office and had been greeted without enthusiasm by the lean-faced manager.
"A car into town? Yes, I think I can manage that; you'll have to see the passport officer here."
"Who's the passport officer?" snarled Mr. Jackson.
"I am," said the other calmly; "and your bag must be examined by the Customs officer."
Mr. Jackson looked round.
"I am also the Customs officer," added the manager modestly.
"If that fool pilot hadn't come down here I shouldn't have wanted a car," said the passenger, and the manager fixed him with a cold and steely eye.
"That fool pilot," he repeated slowly, "was a gentleman who has so many decorations for good flying that he has to brace his coat to hold them. He was, in fact, the greatest aviator and the greatest fighter that the war produced on our side, and if he came down here you may be sure there was an excellent reason for his falling short of his objective—and in the circumstances," he added, "I should imagine that you are very lucky to be here at all."
The passenger grumbled something under his breath, and walking to the fire warmed his hands whilst the manager telephoned.
"He isn't attached to a company, is he?" he asked across his shoulder.
"Tam is not attached to anybody but his machine," said Major Burton. "Tam is a one-man, one-machine, company; in fact, he is the only genuine aerial taxi-driver in Europe."
He explained that on his demobilisation Mr. Thomas MacTavish had purchased an airplane from the War Disposal Board, had erected an hangar in a field near his house at Horsham, and had set up in business for himself. His modest advertisement in the Times had brought Tam many clients. It had been instrumental in arousing the interest of Mr. Jackson, and was the foundation of the pretty little scheme which he had evolved.
"Is the weather likely to change?" he asked suddenly.
Major Burton nodded.
"I think you will have fine weather to-morrow," he said. "Are you going back by air?"
Mr. Jackson said cautiously that he thought he was; then remembering that there was no need for mysteries, and that the pilot would probably disclose the nature of the engagement, he became more communicative.
Major Burton watched his visitor depart, and greeted Tam as he came into the office to register his arrival and pay his landing fees.
"Your passenger's gone, Tam," he said.
"Oh ay," said Tam. "I've a wee bit of a repair to be done, Major Burton. Do your high-class mechanics work after hours?"
"I dare say they would for you, Tam," laughed Burton good-humouredly.
"I've a mechanic of me own," said Tam, looking reproachfully at the diminutive figure of Mr. Henry Jones. "But he's no' so cairtain aboot his diagnosis. Maybe 'tis the engine that's wrong, says he, and maybe 'tis the wings. Likely enough 'tis the strut, or a malformation of the nacelle, or probably the tractor is losing its pull," he went on mercilessly, "or the carburation is faulty."
Mr. Henry Jones gurgled protestively and hotly.
"When Angus fails me, Major Burton, sir," said Tam, with a gesture of despair, "I feel that the re-sources of science are exhausted. There is a strike of brains, ye ken, Major Burton, sir. I'm thinking that there's a little watter in the petrol tank, but Angus is no' in agreement wi' me."
He stripped his leather coat and appeared dry from shoulder to shoulder to a point below his knee, and there the wetness showed black and shining.
"Who's your gentleman friend, Tam?" asked Major Burton.
"Ma client?" said Tam. "Well, I'm no' so sure. He's engaged me for the roond trip. I picked him up at Tremblay in France, in accordance with telegraphic instructions confirmed by letter, enclosing payment on account."
"Have you ever been bilked?" laughed Burton, as he sat down to make out a receipt for the money which Tam had laid on the desk.
"Major Burton, sir, I am a Scot," said Tam solemnly. "If the passengers no pay when they start, it's ma practice to get it oot of them when we're aboot sixteen thousand feet up, and the' Pride of Glasgow' is displaying alarming tendencies to fall into a tail spin."
"I ask 'em for it," said Mr. Henry Jones, husky with importance.
"Angus is my ticket collector, cashier, and portable scientist," said Tam, and then dropping his bantering—"Major Burton, sir, do you know High Barnet?"
The Major nodded.
"It's in the north of London."
"Is it likely there's a place there where I could park ma wee greyhoond of the skies?" asked Tam.
Tam shook his head.
"No, it'll have to be more private than an aerodrome."
The Major pondered.
"Well, there are any number of fields in High Barnet," he said.
"So he said—in fact, be gie me the exact field, but I think I'll go up to-morrow and have a bit of a squint," said Tam.
He fumbled in his side-pocket, produced a fat pocketbook, and after some delay extracted a paper which he examined.
"Here's the hoose—High Lodge, Barnet. And this is the field that ma client said I could come doon in; but to come doon and to get up are two different things, Major Burton, sir, as it's an impairtinence of me to tell ye."
"Why doesn't he let you go to the nearest aerodrome? Have you got to pick him up?"
"At dawn on the 23rd," said Tam dramatically. "'Tis an elopement, I'm thinking, and I'm seriously considering whether I'll put Angus into a suit of white satin or whether I'll be content with gieing the old bus a new coat of luminous paint. Don't forget your rosette, Angus."
"But, seriously," said the Major, "of course your queer business opens the way to all sorts of remarkable possibilities. Is it an elopement?"
"I'm no' so sure," said Tam cautiously. "It would be a graund adventure. Canna ye see me waiting in the field, tense wi' excitement? Canna ye see Angus here, with a graund boquet of roses stuck in his dairty shairt, and a plug hat on his heid, and the bride dashin' across the field in white satin, wi' a veil of old Brussels lace, and boots to match? Canna ye no' think of them leaping into the fuselage wi' the outraged father dashin' after them? Then up we go, and the old man runs to his hangar, and in a few minutes he is following us in his gold-plated DH. 7. Angus puts the machine-gun on him——"
"Oh no, no," protested his sometime superior; "you're not at war now!"
"Maybe not," said Tam reluctantly, "but it would no' be so difficult to manoeuvre overhead and crash him wi' a big chunk of wedding-cake."
"But I'm thinking," he said, shaking his head regretfully, "that 'tis no' an elopement. The man's face is verra seenister, and I'm glad he paid in advance."
Tam, late of the Scouts, had no other call to London than his business. His wife and their one baby were visiting relations in Connecticut, and his house was being run by an elderly but thrifty Scotch lady, of whom Tam was in awe, but Henry Jones in absolute terror, for she had views on ablution which were wholly at variance with Henry's philosophy of life.
Tam was not usually curious about the business of his clients. His interest began and ended when he bad picked them up and set them down at their destination but he was curious about Mr. Jackson. The fact that he, although a nervous man, had insisted upon taking the trip in the most unfavourable weather conditions, that he had given exact instructions as to where Tam was to wait for him, that he had chosen the hour of dawn for his forthcoming departure, and his strange avoidance of the London aerodromes, all pointed to romance.
Tam found High Lodge without difficulty. It was an old-fashioned Georgian house, with great windows looking out upon a park-like expanse of country, a very large proportion of which seemed to be belonging to the property. Tam had some trouble in making his observations, for a high wall surrounded not only the house but the grounds; but he was gratified to discover that the trees were few and no difficulties about taking off.
Here he might have ended his investigations, and have returned to Claybury, but for the fact, as he discovered from examination of the rough plan which the man had drawn him, that he was to make his landing at a point where he would be screened from the house and observation by a belt of tall elms. For it was in the park that his machine had been ordered to rendezvous.
Tam scratched his chin. He had had a few curious adventures since he had gone into business as an aerial taxi-man, but never before had he hesitated to carry out the services which were demanded of him. He walked round the front of High Lodge in time to see a tall, pretty woman saying good-bye to an elderly man whose car was at the door.
The front of the house, in spite of the extent of the demesne, was within a dozen yards of the roadway. Probably the extra ground had been acquired after the house had been built.
Tam watched the car drive away, and was standing looking after it when a hand fell on his shoulder, and he turned round to meet the suspicious eyes of a man who had "detective" written all over him, from the top of his Derby hat to the square toes of his heavy boots.
"What do you want?"
"Weel," said Tam slowly, "I want a Rolls-Royce car, a hoose in Berkeley Square, a new suit of clothes——"
"None of that," said the other sharply. "What do you want?"
"I want ye to take your hand off my shoulder before I hit ye in the stomach," said Tam; and the man smiled but dropped his hand.
"Do you want anybody in that house?" he asked.
"I canna tell ye till I know who's in the hoose," said Tam.
The man bit his lips thoughtfully.
"All right," he said. "I'm sorry I startled you."
"Ye didna startle me," said Tam, "but will ye tell me, sir, why the police are watching this place?"
"You'd better go to the station and ask the sergeant," said the other shortly and a little unpleasantly.
Tam walked away more thoughtful than ever. He did not ask the station sergeant, nor did he make a call at the local lock-up. He pursued his inquiries in his own peculiar way, and he discovered that the owner of the house was a Mrs. Lockyer. He discovered, too, that she had recently divorced her husband. A villain he was, by all accounts. (His informant on this point was a lank youth who wore spectacles and delivered fish. Tam had trailed him after he had emerged from the servants' entrance of the house, a gateway about fifty yards along the road.) Apparently Mrs. Lockyer was a rich woman, and she had married a mysterious Mr. Lockyer abroad. Too late she discovered that her husband was a man extraordinarily well known to the police of four countries.
"Why," said the spectacled young man impressively, "he didn't dare appear in court when she divorced him. What do you think of that?"
"Ye don't say!" said Tam. "And what are the police agin' the hoose for?"
"Because he's threatened what he'll do to her," said the fish man. "The cook told me that he says, if she don't send him money——"
He explained the presence of the police to Tam's entire satisfaction.
He went back to Claybury, having made first a very careful note of the topographical features of the country, which meant no more than that he had carefully located the waterways, the pools, and the reservoirs, for it is by water that airmen find their way in the half darkness.
At four o'clock the next morning Tam left the Claybury aerodrome and drove the nose of the "Pride of Glasgow" at such an angle as left Henry Jones a little breathless. Up, up, up he went into the purple night, until the ears of Henry Jones buzzed, and he found himself breathing more quickly; until the fingers of Henry Jones were numbed and blue, despite the fur gloves he wore.
"Ridiculous!" muttered Henry Jones, and referred to the unnecessary height to which Tam was climbing.
Beneath them now was a sparkle of lights that winked incessantly, and through the lights ran the grey streak of the Thames—a ribbon half an inch broad and apparently without break, for they were too high even to see the line of the bridges distinctly. The eastern horizon from that height was rimmed with the orange light of the coming sun, and the sky was a faint grey.
Tam found his water-marks and turned when he was over the city of London, moving north.
The light increased, though it had not yet touched the earth. He had to locate his landing, and he circled above the district where he would descend, waiting for the light to show him more clearly the exact spot. Then he suddenly shut off his engine and came down in a long noiseless, glide, touching earth at a spot which had been invisible to him until he was two hundred yards above it, yet so excellently accurate was his landing that the machine came to a standstill within fifty yards of the spot he had chosen the day before. He climbed down slowly. The ground was good for his purpose, the spot he had chosen was, he knew, as good as any he would have found if he had been permitted to prospect the park at his leisure.
He strolled to the end of the tree belt, and looked toward the house. The big windows showed grey in the dawn-light, but the house was silent and there was no sign of life.
It was nearing six o'clock when he heard a scream. It was faint, and might easily have been confused with a high note of a ship's syren, for at this hour of the morning distant noises sounded plain and near at hand.
Tam's eyes narrowed. He took his gloved hands from the deep pockets of his leather jacket, stripped them, and pushed back the leather ear-pieces of his helmet, but he heard no other sound.
Presently he saw a figure coming rapidly across the grass from the direction of the house. It was running, and it carried something in its arms. Tam drew a long breath, and his lined face twisted in a set grin. The runner was breathing heavily as he came up.
"Here you are," he said breathlessly. "Take this: where's the boy?"
"Get up, Angus," said Tam curtly, and Henry Jones climbed into the machine.
"Be careful," said Mr. Jackson in gasps. "Don't be frightened of it; it won't bite you."
A little wail came from the bundle of clothing he thrust up at the startled boy, and Jackson chuckled.
"Now get away as quick as you can."
"Oh ay," said Tam. "But where are ye taking the bairn?"
Mr. Jackson's face was white and ugly, and he had in his hand a small but useful automatic.
"To a safe place!" he said, and Tam looked at the pistol. A man who would abduct his own child in order to get a pull to squeeze money from its mother would not hesitate to commit a worse crime. He pulled hold of the propeller and leapt up as the machine was on the move. He threw one glance back as he came level with the end of the tree belt and saw another figure before the house.
He was heading now for the wall, but with a push of his stick he sent the "Pride of Glasgow" skimming away from the house along a great stretch of grass-land.
There were trees to be dodged, and yet another wall to be faced; within fifty yards of this latter the nose of the machine shot up, and she roared higher and higher into the air.
The passenger was sitting behind him, and presently Tam felt a touch and took from Mr. Jackson's hand a sheet of paper on which he had scribbled:
"I will give you a hundred pounds extra for this job."
Tam nodded, and glancing over his shoulder saw Henry Jones squatting on the floor with a baby in his arms, and inside Tam was one great chuckle of merriment.
Higher and higher drove the machine, and now they were flying over open country. With the sun came a gusty wind which sent the "Pride of Glasgow" seesawing from side to side. Then Mr. Jackson grew alarmed. Tam felt the grip of his hands on his shoulders and heard his hoarse voice in his ear.
"You're going westward!"
Tam nodded. Then something touched his cheek; it was the freezingly cold barrel of the automatic.
"Eastward!" roared the voice.
Tam nodded, but still the rising sun threw his shadow upon the instrument board.
Again the grip of the hands on his shoulder.
"If you land anywhere but in France I'll kill you!"
The minutes grew to an hour. The sun was up now, flooding the land with light, but still Tam kept his westward course. Once the man glimpsed the sea to his left, and they sighted a busy port crowded with ships. Tam, glancing backward, saw the change in the man's white face and the almost diabolical glitter in his eyes.
Westward, westward, still westward, until there came beneath them a great stark plain, sparsely fringed with tiny green squares which represented the farms of those who won a livelihood in this hardy soil.
And then the "Pride of Glasgow" dipped. They were heading straight for a little township, the principal feature of which was an ugly yellow starfish of brick. Nearer at hand, Jackson saw that the starfish was made up of five buildings radiating from a common centre, and he traced about these the black line of a wall.
There was only one clear space within that wall, and it was a limited space, into which none but an airman of Tam's extraordinary courage and resource would have dared to drop. The tail of the machine missed the top of the high buildings by inches; the wheels crunched to a gravel path, and the "Pride of Glasgow" came to rest with her tractor screw touching the steel bars of a great gate.
"And here we are!" said Tam, turning round; "'tis the safest place I ken for a wee bairn! Noo start yer shootin'."
Mr. Jackson, white and shaking, had no words, and when the warders of Dartmoor Convict Gaol lifted him from the fuselage and greeted him as an old friend, he looked dazedly from Tam to the unshaven convicts at work in the yard, their heads furtively turned to witness this great excitement which had come into their dull lives, and suddenly collapsed.
Tam took the baby gently from Henry's cramped arms. She was sleeping peacefully.
"Laddie or lassie, I dinna ken what ye are from yer wee face," said Tam. "Ye'd better say good-bye to yer papa. I dinna think ye'll see him again for a lang time."