Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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THE GREAT DISCOVERY
NAT MEADOWS took a last look at his beloved monoplane as it lay snug and comfortable in its rough but solid shed, then switched off his electric lamp and went out, locking the door carefully behind him.
Outside, a wild gale was raging. The roar of the great gusts was mingled with the smash of the waves as they beat upon the cliffs half a mile away, and the lights of the little fishing village of Poltrewan gleamed dimly through a haze of flying spray.
With head bent against the furious gale, Nat forced his way to the cottage, and opening the door entered the low-roofed living room where a turf fire glowed dully on the great stone hearth.
He went straight across to a table littered with papers, lit a lamp, and sitting down took up a bundle of bills and began running through them.
He was poring over them when all of a sudden a door on the opposite side was flung open, and his brother Martin burst into the room.
Martin was almost Nat's double—tall, slender, with muscles of steel, and the keen, hawk-like face that marks the new breed of airmen.
"I've got it at last!" he said, in a voice which trembled with suppressed excitement.
He strode across the room and thrust into Nat's hand something which resembled a sheet of thin grey paper.
Nat took it wonderingly, and held it to the lamp, in the rays of which it gleamed with a curious bluish lustre.
"Feel it. Bend it," ordered Martin.
Nat did so. Thin as it was, and of feather-weight lightness, it had the elasticity of finely tempered steel, and when the pressure was released, flew back to its original shape without a sign of cracking. Nat rolled it up into a tight cylinder. It sprang back at once. He tried to tear it, but only gashed a finger on its sharp edge. He dropped it, and it fluttered to the floor light as a dry leaf.
"What is it?" he said at last, and his voice, too, shook a little.
"The perfect alloy. Light as aluminium, stronger than steel, and, so far as my hasty tests go, it won't corrode."
Nat picked up the wafer-like sheet again and gazed at it with a sort of awe.
"How did you get it?" he asked. "Only this morning you said that you were almost in despair."
"So I was. This was pure luck. It was about four o'clock that I filled the crucible again, using almost the same mixture I had tried before, but in slightly different proportions. This time the stuff wouldn't fuse at all. At last I got angry. Then—I don't know what made me do it—I pulled out a half-crown and flung it in. You see the result."
"So it was the silver did it?" said Nat thoughtfully. "It must have been almost your last half-crown, old man?" he continued, looking up at his brother with an odd smile.
"The very last," he said. "But what's it matter? This discovery is worth a fortune."
"That's true," said Nat, but all the same he sighed.
"You mean we ought to use our secret, not sell it?"
"Exactly. Think what this would mean to us! For with this metal we could build the aircraft of our dreams. We could make not only the framework but the engine itself of this metal. We should cut the weight by half. Why"—he continued with growing excitement—"we should have such a reserve of weight that we could fit floats! The fifty thousand pound prize would be in our grasp!"
Martin nodded gravely.
"You are right, Nat. Given sufficient capital, I honestly believe that we could do all this, and more. I myself could build the machine, and it would be that dream of all inventors, the perfectly safe flying machine."
Nat sighed heavily.
"But it's nothing but a dream. We should need at least a thousand pounds, and I very much doubt if we could raise a thousand shillings—unless, indeed, we sold the monoplane. And even that would not fetch more than a couple of hundred pounds. It's old and out of date now."
"The goodwill of the shop would fetch something," said Martin.
"Precious little. The bicycle business is getting worse every year, and in a tiny place like Poltrewan we depend almost entirely on the holiday trade. Fifty pounds would be the very outside price, and if we do sell it we leave ourselves without any means of living."
"And poor old Uncle Roger would turn in his grave if he knew we even dreamt of doing such a thing," said Martin with a smile. "No, Nat, I'm afraid there's no help for it. We shall have to sell my new invention."
But Nat was not yet convinced.
"Couldn't we go into partnership with one of the big firms—Peregrine Brothers, or someone of that kind?"
"Peregrine Brothers!" repeated Martin in tones of contempt. "My dear fellow, I wouldn't touch them with a barge pole. Old Peregrine's much worse than a money-lender. He'd screw us down to the last penny, and then manage to do us in the eye. And I tell you straight, I don't know any firm that one could trust in a matter of this sort. They're all mad to win the big prize, for it's not only the money, but what will follow. The firm that wins it gets the contract for all the Army and Navy machines. There are millions in it."
"Well, we won't do anything in a hurry, Martin," said Nat. "We must patent your new alloy and wait a while to see what turns up."
"I shan't patent it," answered Martin sharply. "It's too risky. Some rival firm will steal the secret, and we should only be involved in all sorts of costly lawsuits."
"Perhaps you're right," said his brother thoughtfully. "But, at any rate, write down the formula. One never knows what may happen in our business."
"I'll do that. And we'll lock it up somewhere in safety. Now I'm going back to the workshop to make some fresh tests."
"I'll come with you," said Nat, getting up.
He followed his brother into a big, iron-roofed lean-to, built on at the back of the cottage, and there they worked together until long after midnight, while the great gale roared overhead, and the waves crashed against the cliffs, making the solid earth shudder.
It was very late indeed before the two got to bed, and both slept soundly, worn out by fatigue and excitement.
Nat was the first to wake. The storm had blown away, the sun was shining brilliantly through the open lattice window. Bees were humming, and the scent of honeysuckle blew softly in from outside. The only relic of the gale was the thunder of the waves which still boomed through the warm, bright air.
Nat bent down, picked up a slipper, and flung it at his brother, who was snoring peacefully at the other side of the room.
"Get up, you lazy beggar!" he cried.
Martin opened his eyes, yawned, stretched, and sprang out.
"Coming down for a bathe?" he asked sleepily.
"No use. Don't you hear the sea? We'll have to put up with the pump this morning."
The brothers did not run to the luxury of a servant. They did everything for themselves. Nat dressed hastily, ran down, lit the fire, put on the kettle, and sliced some bacon for frying.
Martin meanwhile laid the table.
Fried bacon, bread, and excellent fresh butter, and a big brown pot of tea were their morning meal. Then, while Martin washed up, Nat went to the shop to take the shutters down.
He was in the middle of this operation when a bare-headed boy, with a keen face and curly black hair came tearing by, evidently much excited.
"What's up, Dan?" called out Nat.
"Big wreck last night," cried Dan Trethewy, pausing for an instant. "She struck on the Gannet. Some of her chaps are on her still, they say. They're going to get the lifeboat out. Come on."
He rushed on, and Nat stepped quickly back into the house and told the news to his brother.
"We may as well go down and see if we can help," said Martin. "The whole village will be on the beach, and there won't be any business doing."
Nat nodded, flung on a cap, and they followed Dan Trethewy.
As Martin had prophesied, almost every soul in Poltrewan was on the narrow strip of shingle which lay at the foot of the step-like cliffs on which the village was built.
Although the wind had fallen the big Atlantic waves were rolling into the shallow bay, mountain-high, and breaking with deafening crashes, flinging up huge clouds of spray which flashed into lovely rainbows under the bright morning sun.
Broken timbers, casks, bales, all sorts of wreckage were coming ashore, and men and boys were risking their lives, snatching the floating stuff from under the very crests of the waves.
"There's the wreck," cried Nat, as he ran down the beach. "Dan was right. She's fast on the Gannet."
The wrecked ship was a biggish steamer, and the force of the storm had flung her clean athwart the ugly ridge of jagged, black rock teeth which rose from the sea about a mile outside the harbour mouth.
"There's chaps on her still," shouted Dan Trethewy in wild excitement, as he saw the two Meadows coming. "They's launching the lifeboat."
"Hi, there, we want two more hands for the boat," came a tremendous bellow, and a huge man in black oilskins appeared on the harbour wall to the left of the beach. He was Sam Rouse, captain of Poltrewan port.
Nat glanced at Martin.
"All right," he said quietly.
"We'll come, Captain," shouted back Nat, and the two brothers, running across the shingle, scrambled up the wall.
Sam Rouse gave the two long-legged, nimble-looking young fellows an approving glance.
"Yew'll do," he said shortly. "Come along sharp. I reckon she won't last a deal longer."
The harbour of Poltrewan was a small basin with a sea wall built across the mouth, leaving only a narrow entrance. In the quiet water below the wall lay the lifeboat, manned by half a dozen sturdy fishermen in oilskins and cork-jackets. The Meadows refused an offer of oilskins, and slipped on their cork-jackets like lightning.
"Be you ready?" demanded old Rouse, as he took the tiller.
"Aye! Aye!" came the reply in chorus.
"Let her go, then."
The ten oars struck the water as one, and the big, roomy boat shot forward towards the entrance, through which the huge breakers were pouring.
Nat felt the boat heave under him as she faced the narrow mouth of the harbour.
"Now, then, all together. Pull like blazes," roared Rouse in stentorian tones.
Timed to a nicety, the boat shot through the opening in the momentary interval between two waves.
Crash! The next wave came towering above her, and though she rose like a cork, a mass of green water plunged over her bows, pounding down on the bent backs of her crew, and filling her a quarter full.
"Getting our bathe after all," laughed Nat to Martin, who was on the thwart just aft of him.
Another few moments, and they were through the breakers, and dancing over the tremendous waves in the open bay. Neither of the brothers, although both good oarsmen, had ever been afloat before in such a sea.
Now the stout craft was at the bottom of a deep valley, with swelling slopes before and behind, then she was poised high in the sun-lit air on top of a huge hill of sliding green water.
Rouse steered her with wonderful skill, and yard by yard they won their way out to the Gannet Reef.
If the sea had been terrible on the beach, it was simply appalling on the reef. It was one mad welter of boiling foam, and the sound of the breakers as they smashed upon the iron rock was like a never ceasing roll of thunder.
Rouse took the boat right round the northern end of the reef, and made a wide semicircle before he turned her and swung her in towards the wreck.
The wreck lay crosswise on the rocks, with her bows high in air. Masts and funnel were gone, wrenched away by the fury of the sea, her decks were swept clear, and part of her stern had been torn away.
But, as the lifeboat turned, Nat Meadows saw four or five dripping figures clinging like grim death around the stump of the foremast.
Rouse, with a wary eye on each wave, brought the lifeboat slowly in towards the wreck, and, seizing his chance, shot her into the sheltered angle between the hull and the reef.
Sheltered, that is, compared with the sea on the weather side of the wreck, but all the same a desperately dangerous harbour, for the waves were making a clean breach over the stern of the steamer, and the lifeboat, swung this way and that, was in double danger from the jagged rocks on her right and the great iron hull on her left. It took all the strength and skill of her crew to prevent her from being smashed like an eggshell against one or the other.
Rouse sprang to his feet, and making a trumpet of his hands shouted to the survivors on the deck above:
"Jump, you fellows! Jump! We can't get aboard ye."
His hurricane roar rose high above the crash of the waves, and the next moment a row of white, terror-stricken faces appeared along the broken rail above.
The lifeboat was brought in as close as Rouse dared, and as she rose on a rushing crest, the first man leapt and was safely caught.
One by one, the unfortunate survivors made the perilous spring to safety, and each in turn was safely caught.
Each, that is, except the fifth and last, and he, weak and stiff with cold and exposure, jumped short, and instantly vanished in the foaming water.
It was Nat's quickness that saved him. Almost before the man struck the water, Nat had dropped his oar and snatched up a boat-hook. With a sweep of his long arm he stuck the steel hook into the drowning man's jersey, and dragged him to the surface. Then, as none of the others could lay down their oars for fear of losing control of the boat, he leant over, and, seizing the man by the arms, with a wonderful effort of strength pulled him over the gunwale into safety.
"Now, then, lads. Pull," shouted Rouse, and under the powerful drive of ten pairs of muscular arms, the lifeboat gradually drew away from the storm-beaten wreck, and made her way back towards the harbour.
The sea wall on each side of the harbour mouth was black with cheering crowds. Perhaps it was the shouting that upset Rouse's steering, perhaps it was just one of those unavoidable accidents, but as the boat rushed in towards the narrow entrance, her stern swung round and struck the right-hand wall with such force as ripped her gunwale and started several planks.
It was all her crew could do to beach her in time before she filled.
"Phew, but that was a close call!" gasped Nat, as he sprang out on to the shingle.
"I feel as if someone had been pummelling me for a week," replied Martin, stretching his strained muscles.
"It was precious lucky we smashed up the boat on our way back instead of going out," replied Nat, as he stooped to examine the damage.
At this moment young Dan Trethewy came tearing up.
"You didn't get 'em all," he announced breathlessly.
The two brothers both started as though stung, and stared at the boy.
"What on earth do you mean, Dan?" demanded Nat. "They told us themselves there was no one left on the wreck."
"No more there was," replied Dan. "But there's a chap on the reef. Mr. Pentony's just seed him with his telescope."
Martin and Nat looked at one another in dismay.
"And the lifeboat's smashed," muttered Martin. "The poor beggar will be left to drown."
NAT TO THE RESCUE
ON the harbour wall stood Mr. Pentony, the village clergyman, with his telescope fixed on the reef.
Nat sprang up beside him.
"They say there's a man there, sir."
Mr. Pentony turned. His face was very grave.
"It is true. Look for yourself."
Nat took the glass and focused it on the reef. In a moment he had caught the survivor in the little circle of vision. The powerful glass brought him within an apparent distance of about a hundred yards, and showed him to be a man as tall as Nat himself, long, lean, and muscular. He was wearing pyjama trousers and a dark overcoat, and his feet were bare.
He was clinging to the seaweed in a narrow crevice near the right-hand end of the reef, and it was no doubt the narrowness of this crevice and the fact that his dark coat so nearly matched the colour of the rock to which he clung that had prevented anyone from noticing him earlier.
"This is a bad job, sir," said Nat, lowering the glass. "We've smashed the lifeboat, and there's nothing else in the harbour that could live in this sea."
"Then we shall have to leave him where he is till the sea goes down," answered Mr. Pentony.
"That won't be no good, sir," put in Dan Trethewy, who had followed Nat on to the wall. "Tide's rising fast, and that there rock will be under water in little more'n an hour. An' dad says 'tis going to blow again afore night."
Mr. Pentony groaned. It went to his kindly heart to think of a man being condemned to a slow and cruel death in full sight of them all.
Evidently the village was of the same mind. One and all were clustered on the sea wall, staring out at the little dark dot which clung there motionless as a limpet against the steep side of the reef.
Although he was on the inner side, the crests of the immense waves which broke upon the seaward rim of the reef were already flinging deluges of water across him. And it was still three hours before high tide.
It was plain to all that, long before that time, the whole of that end of the reef would be under water. And even if the castaway were still able to exert himself, it was impossible for him to climb to the higher northern end of the reef. There were no fewer than three deep gaps in the line of rocks through which the sea roared in a cloud of foam.
Suddenly Sam Rouse, who had been busy getting the lifeboat back to her shelter, leapt up on the wall.
"Mates," he shouted, "we can't leave that chap to drown. We can't use the lifeboat again. She's stove too bad. But I'm willing to try it in my own boat, and I asks for volunteers."
For a moment there was utter silence among the crowd. Every eye was on Rouse, but no one moved or spoke.
Then a square-shouldered man, with a face tanned by forty years' sun and storm, stepped out.
"I'll go wi' ye, Cap'n," he said quietly.
It was Steve Trethewy, Dan's father.
But next moment a woman sprang to his side.
"Steve, I won't have it. Any risk in reason you should take for the sake of the poor man perishing out there, but not this. Captain, you know so well as I do no boat but the lifeboat can live in that sea."
Rouse hesitated. He knew as well as Mrs. Trethewy that there was not one chance in a thousand of even reaching the reef in an ordinary pull boat. But he himself was a widower without kith or kin.
"I won't take you, Steve. I'll have none but unmarried men," he said with sudden sharpness.
Martin stepped forward.
"Here's one, Captain Rouse," he said, with a smile on his ordinarily grave face.
Nat dashed after him.
"No, Martin," he cried. "I'm like Mrs. Trethewy. I won't have you committing suicide. Nor you either, Captain Rouse. I'll go alone and fetch the man."
"You?" gasped Rouse hoarsely, while the crowd gathering round listened in amazement. "Man alive, you're crazy!"
"Not so mad as you think," answered Nat with a twinkle in his keen grey eyes. "It's true I haven't got a lifeboat up my sleeve, but—I've got my aeroplane."
For a moment no one spoke. Nat's suggestion was so startling that it seemed to take everyone's breath.
Martin broke the silence.
"But, Nat, this is sheer foolishness. I don't doubt you can fly the distance easily enough, but no plane that ever was built could land on that reef, or if it did land, rise again."
"I don't mean to try to land there," answered Nat, with the same amused twinkle in his eyes. "My notion is to carry a rope-sling hanging below the machine. If that chap can hang to the rock as he is doing, he can hang to a rope. No, don't make any more bones about it. I'm going to try it, and as there's no time to waste the sooner I get started the better."
So saying, he turned swiftly and began to run back up the hill.
With a shrug of his shoulders that meant more than mere words, Martin followed, and tailing behind them came most of the men and boys of the village.
Nat was the first to reach the shed, which stood at a little distance from the shop in the middle of a small level field on the top of the cliffs.
As he unlocked the door his brother came up behind him.
"The tank is full," said Nat. "I tried the engine last night. All I want is a coil of stout rope about fifty feet long, with a fixed loop at one end."
"Dan's getting that for you. The lad's got a head on his shoulders. I'll give you a hand to get the machine out."
Nat's machine was a Blériot monoplane of rather an old-fashioned type, fitted with an Anzani three-cylindered, air-cooled motor of about 25 h.p. He had bought her cheaply out of the small savings which their uncle, old Roger Penruddocke, had divided between Martin and himself.
Small as she was, having a wing-spread of only about twenty-six feet, she was a very sound machine, and Nat kept her always in the most perfect condition, and had made many a long flight in her.
He and Martin wheeled her out of the shed and faced her round towards the edge of the cliffs.
Dan came running up behind with the rope, and this Nat coiled very carefully below the driving seat, securing one end firmly to the framework of the machine. He also took the precaution to fasten a five-pound lead weight above the loop at the free end. This was to keep the rope hanging straight down when he loosed it, and to prevent any risk of its fouling his propeller.
There were plenty of willing hands ready to hold the machine, and when all was ready Nat stepped lightly into the driving seat.
"Don't risk dropping too low, old chap," whispered Martin in his ear, as he came up beside him. "You'll be careful, won't you?"
Nat nodded, and the two brothers exchanged a hand-grip.
Martin stepped forward, and gave the propeller a quick swing.
With a spluttering roar the engine started into life.
The crowd scattered back.
"Let go!" shouted Nat.
Jarring and trembling the machine shot forward over the rough turf. Nat pulled over the wheel. The jarring ceased as the up-tilted planes caught the air.
Next moment he was over the raging waters, the rope trailing below him, speeding to the rescue of the shipwrecked stranger.
He was hardly clear of the cliffs before he was caught in an eddy of air rising directly from the surface of the sea. Catching the under side of the wings, it tilted the aeroplane to such an angle that it almost turned turtle.
With a swift movement Nat wrenched over the lever on his right, which deflected the wings, and the aeroplane, fluttering like a wounded bird, presently came back to an even keel, and darted forward towards the mouth of the bay.
Casting his eyes around the horizon, an ominous bank of clouds rising out of the south-west caught his glance. They were blue-black with white, rolling edges, the surest sign of a heavy squall.
His heart-beats quickened a little. To be caught by such a gust as was evidently working up would be desperately dangerous. All he could hope for was that he might be able to effect the rescue before the fresh storm blew up.
All this passed through his mind like a flash. He was travelling nearly forty miles an hour, and it was little more than a minute after leaving the cliff before he was over the Gannet.
Looking down, he caught a glimpse of the castaway still clinging tightly in his crevice on the leeward side of the reef. It was not more than half an hour since he had first seen the man through Mr. Pentony's glasses, but even in that short time the tide had risen alarmingly.
The water was now washing about the man's bare feet, but he evidently dared not climb any higher for fear of the great waves that were breaking in white clouds over the upper edge of the rock.
As the aeroplane passed directly over him, the shipwrecked man looked up, and Nat distinctly saw the flash of hope that lighted up his white, set face.
Nat waved to him encouragingly. Speaking was out of the question. The combined roar of the breakers pounding on the reef and of the powerful aeroplane engine was enough to drown anything short of thunder.
Nat flew a little way out to sea, then as he made a slow circle, managed to release the weighted end of his rope and let this drop down.
Now came the most ticklish part of the whole business. An aeroplane cannot stay still in the air. In fact, the slowest pace is about the legal limit for a motor-car. Nat had, therefore, to bring the loop exactly over the stranded man or else he would not be able to catch it. Also, he must keep at just the right height.
If he were too far up, it was plain that the man beneath would not be able to reach the loop; if too low, the loop might catch on a spur of the reef and drag him and his plane headlong to destruction. Even the loop and the weight dragging in the water might be enough to wreck the delicate balance of the plane.
Slowing as much as he dared, Nat turned his helm and bore down upon the reef. The man below evidently grasped the situation, for he scrambled up the narrow crevice in which he was sheltering and wedged himself near enough to the top to get his arms above the reef.
It was a most perilous position, for the waves rolling in from the open sea leapt at him like wolves. Their roar came up to Nat as he swung above them.
Nat's first attempt was a failure. The loop, caught by a gust of wind, swung sideways just out of the grasp of the man below.
Nat was forced to make another circle, sweeping round at a steep angle. As he faced the sea once more, he saw that the clouds in the south-west were gathering fast. Evidently there was no time to waste. The storm was coming up at fearful speed.
Again Nat swung his machine towards the reef. Every muscle was tense as he warped the planes to the exact height. The rope quivered and swayed in the rising wind.
There came a sharp jar as the weight above the loop struck the upper surface of the reef. It rebounded. The man had sprung to his feet, and was standing on the top of the rock. Nat saw him make a great leap.
It was neck or nothing. If he missed he was certain to go headlong into the sea and be dashed to pieces upon the sharp rock teeth among the foam.
But he did not miss. Nat saw his clutching fingers close upon the rope, and instantly raised his warping planes against the shock.
The whole machine jarred and shuddered as the weight came upon it, then pitched forward, reeling downwards.
For a second Nat fully believed it was all up. If the man's body struck the sea, the drag must pull the plane down headlong into the waves.
As it was, his legs actually dipped to the knees. But then the sturdy little plane responded to the quickening of her engine and the sharp flexing of her wings. She rose again, and, heavily burdened as she was, sped forward towards the land.
Nat gave a gasp of relief, and stooped forward to get a sight of his passenger. He was desperately anxious about the poor fellow, for if he had not strength to hold on while he got his legs through the loop, nothing could save him.
One glance put his mind at rest. It was plain that the castaway was a man of more than ordinary strength and determination, for, in spite of his long exposure on the reef, he was already sitting in the loop, apparently as much at ease as though swinging in mid-air over a stormy sea were an everyday amusement.
So far all had gone well, but Nat knew that he was not yet out of the wood. He had to land his passenger, and that must be done on top of the cliff. If he tried to drop him on the beach he would smash his plane and himself on the cliff face.
With this idea in view, he rose rapidly until he was fully three hundred feet above the tops of the tossing waves. The wind was behind him now, and his pace was increasing every moment.
Behind the village were a few fields, then a wide stretch of furzy common, stretching up towards the inland moors. Nat made up his mind to cross the fields before descending.
Flashing over the cliff tops, he saw Martin running hard inland, followed by a score of men and boys.
As the aeroplane flung its shadow across the turf, Martin looked up and shouted something which was drowned by the rattle of the engine. But the sharp wave of his arm told Nat more than words. He glanced quickly round and saw the storm racing up across the sea in a thick mist of rushing hail and rain.
To be caught, burdened as he was, meant instant smash up. He must take his chances and come down at once.
Had he been alone, he could have risked a steep, swift dive. But the heavy weight dangling beneath made this impossible. If he tilted the machine too steeply she would simply lose her balance and drop like a stone.
He gave a quick look at the ground in front. He was just passing over the outlying houses of the village. The small fields beyond were cut up by hedges and fences. If the man who swung in the loop struck one of these fences, the chances were strong that he would be killed and the aeroplane upset.
There was one field rather larger than the rest. It was in hay and was now nearly ready to cut. Like a flash Nat decided that this was the place to land. He switched off the engine and turned the plane earthwards.
The air whistled past his ears as she tobogganed downwards. Nat's heart beat suffocatingly. His passenger must, of course, reach the ground first. What would happen then?
Clinging tightly to his levers, he glanced down at the other.
To his intense relief the man had his knife out. Evidently he knew what to do.
Just as the man's feet were almost brushing the tops of the tall grass, Nat switched on his engine again, and went skimming across the field. Next instant he felt the plane leap upwards. His passenger was rolling over and over in the long grass. He had cut himself loose.
"Jove, he's a good plucked 'un!" muttered Nat with a gasp of relief, and pulling over his warping lever he shot downwards, landing safely within twenty yards of the hedge.
Next moment, with a rush and a roar, the storm was upon him. Flinging himself from his seat, Nat seized his anchor and tried to drive it into the ground.
Too late! Above the shriek of the gale came a sharp crackling sound. The aeroplane, lifted bodily by the tremendous gust, was hurled against the hedge, and next moment was a mere tangle of torn canvas and splintered sticks.
FAULKNER SHOWS HIS GRATITUDE
"THAT finishes it!" said Nat grimly, as he stood gazing at the remains of his aeroplane. The machine had been carted back to its shed, and lay there, a melancholy wreck.
Almost every strut and stay was splintered, the costly rubber cloth which covered the wings was in tatters, one blade of the wooden propeller was cracked through. Nothing was fit for use again, except the engine, and even that was damaged and full of dirt.
"It rather looks that way," came a quiet voice with a strong American accent, which made Nat start.
The rescued man stood close behind him, with a dry smile on his weather-beaten countenance. He had a bandage round his head, above which his iron-grey hair stood up stiffly. With his big, hawk like nose, his high cheekbones, deep-set eyes, and skin tanned to the colour of old leather, Nat thought he looked oddly like a Red Indian.
"She is a bit chewed up for a fact," continued the stranger, staring whimsically at the shattered machine. "But I guess it's better for her to be busted than for you or me to be in the same fix, eh, Mr. Meadows?"
"You're right there," answered Nat, forcing a laugh.
The stranger glanced keenly at the young man.
"Do you reckon she can be mended?" he asked.
Nat shook his head.
"She'll have to be rebuilt entirely. Nothing's any use except the engine."
"What's a machine like that cost, new?"
"I bought her second-hand, and gave two hundred for her."
"Well, you come right into the house and I'll give you a cheque for the money, Mr. Meadows."
"B-but that wouldn't be fair," stammered Nat. "As I tell you, the engine's still good, and it's worth more than half the money."
The stranger laughed.
"I guess the life of Rufus P. Faulkner is worth a long sight more than two hundred pounds, if only to himself. So don't you say anything more, young man, but come right in."
Nat took him into the living room of the cottage, and Mr. Faulkner, producing a cheque-book from one pocket and a fountain-pen from another, made out a cheque for £200 payable to "Nathaniel Meadows." It was drawn on a well-known New York bank, and signed in a firm hand, "Rufus P. Faulkner."
Nat took it gratefully. Although he had never given a thought to reward when he had risked his life in saving this man, he could not help being thankful that Faulkner was able and willing to pay for the damaged plane.
It was absolutely necessary that he should keep in good flying trim, and practice was impossible without a machine.
As he put the cheque-book back in his pocket, something lying among the papers on the writing table caught Faulkner's eye. It was the thin sheet of the new alloy, which Martin had discovered.
Faulkner picked it up, and instantly a gleam of interest crossed his keen face.
"Hullo, what's this?" he asked quickly, as he held the metal up to the light.
Nat hesitated. He hardly knew whether it was wise to say anything about the new discovery.
"A trade secret, eh? A new alloy?" remarked Faulkner, eyeing Nat sharply. "Well, don't say anything unless you want to."
"It isn't that. It's a discovery of my brother's," answered Nat quickly. "I have no right to talk about it without his permission."
At this moment the door opened and Martin came in from the shop.
"Martin," said Nat, "Mr. Faulkner has very generously given me £200 for my aeroplane."
"That's uncommonly good of him," exclaimed Martin, a smile lighting up his usually grave face.
"And he has just noticed the new metal," went on Nat. "May I tell him about it?"
"I don't want you to say a thing unless you've a mind to," broke in Faulkner quickly. "I've secrets in my own business that I wouldn't tell to my own brother—if I had one."
"There's no objection at all to telling Mr. Faulkner that I've been lucky enough to hit on a new alloy," said Martin, smiling again. "Naturally, I shan't tell him its composition. But as you see for yourself, sir," he went on, "it's as light as aluminium and as tough as fine steel. And best of all, it stands acids as no other alloy I know of will stand them."
Faulkner twisted the paper-thin sheet of metal in his strong, brown fingers.
"Then I reckon, Mr. Meadows, that I ought to congratulate you, for if it's all it seems, you'll be mighty nigh as rich as Rockefeller before you're my age. What do you propose to do—form a company to manufacture or sell your rights on royalty?"
"We don't want to do either," answered Martin straight out. "At least, not yet. Our idea is to build a machine out of it, and win the £50,000 flying prize offered by the British Government."
Faulkner gave a little whistle.
"So that's how the land lies? But you'll need capital for that?"
"Quite true. And that's just what we haven't got," answered Martin ruefully.
"I kind of guessed that was the trouble. Now look here, young fellows. You're a plucky pair, and I've taken a liking to you. What's more, you've done others besides myself a good turn in taking me off that nasty damp reef this morning. Now, I'll make you a suggestion. I'm not exactly a Rockefeller, but still I'm pretty well fixed, as they say our side of the Atlantic. Tell me how much money you need, and if I can spare that amount, I'll lend it to you."
Martin gave a gasp; Nat jumped up with a shout of joy. Faulkner watched them both with a twinkle in his deep-set eyes.
Martin pulled himself together and was the first to speak.
"We talked it out last night, Mr. Faulkner, and decided that a thousand pounds was the least we could do with."
"Five thousand dollars," said Faulkner thoughtfully. "Yes, I guess you wouldn't manage with less than that. Very well. I'm agreeable to lend you that much."
"But we've got no security to offer you," answered Martin dolefully.
"You've got this," said Faulkner, holding up the slip of metal. "I know a bit about metals, myself, and a bit more about men. Your note of hand will satisfy me."
Martin drew a deep breath.
"I can't say how grateful we are," he answered.
"Then don't try to. It's only a business proposition after all, for when you've won the fifty thousand I shall claim my money back, and I daresay ask to buy a few shares in the new company. And now that's fixed up," he went on, "I'd like to know how you propose to set to work. You've got to find some place where you can do your smelting and casting."
"I've thought of that," said Martin quickly. "Up on Meripit Moor, a few miles inland, there's an old tin mine. Wheal Antony, it's called. Some five or six years ago a man named Sylvester leased it and started working it again. But the tin vein petered out, and he went broke and disappeared. I've seen the place lately. The buildings are sound, there's a good furnace, and we could get it for a small rent."
"And it's just the place for us," put in Nat. "Nice and quiet. We shouldn't be pestered with chaps wanting to find out what we were after, as we should if we went to a town."
"Just so," said Faulkner, nodding his head. "It sounds to me a mighty good notion. Now, see here, to-morrow we'll run up to Plymouth, where you can pay my cheque into your account at the bank. Then I'll go up with you in the afternoon and take a look at this old mine. That suit you?"
"Capitally," answered both brothers in one breath.
"It was a real bit of luck our meeting you," added Nat gratefully.
"I guess I'm the one who's got most reason to be grateful," replied Mr. Faulkner with his dry smile. "And now, if there's such a thing as a cup of tea to be had, I won't say no."
"We'll give you tea," answered Nat. "A proper West Country tea. Martin, take Mr. Faulkner into your workshop for half an hour. By that time I'll have all ready."
He stoked up the fire, put the kettle on, then ran out to the baker's shop.
In about twenty minutes' time he called Martin and Mr. Faulkner, and the three sat down to a meal of hot scones, tough-cakes with Cornish cream and strawberry jam, pasties with the flakiest crust in the world, saffron cakes, and a big blue china bowl piled with luscious fresh raspberries.
Mr. Faulkner looked at the well-spread table, and there was a twinkle in his eyes.
"My word!" he chuckled. "If this is a fair sample of Cornish fare, I reckon I'm going to settle down here when I retire from business."
THE SPECTRE OF THE MINE
"I'VE got the last of the coal stored. We're all ready to begin smelting to-morrow," said Martin, coming into the mine-house. He dropped into a chair with a big sigh, and mopped his dripping forehead.
"You look like it, old chap," laughed Nat, for Martin's face was streaked black and white like a zebra's hide. "And I've pretty well finished my share of the job. Dan and I have got the furniture in, and the stores unpacked. Dan's making tea this minute."
"Good business! I've got a throat like a limekiln. Yes, you've done well, Nat," he continued, glancing round the room in which all the furniture from Poltrewan was neatly arranged. "I think we shall be quite snug here."
"It isn't half a bad house," admitted Nat, looking around with a satisfied air. "Not as pretty as our cottage, of course, but plenty of good, solid granite in the walls, and the roof is sound. Fact is, old man, we got a bargain when we leased this place."
"We certainly did get it uncommon cheap," agreed Martin. "I wonder why the agent let it go at such an absurd figure. There's always plenty of demand for houses, even up on the moor. The moor folk take them to let rooms to tourists in summer."
"Oh, Dan's found out all about that," laughed Nat. "The people about have got a notion the place is haunted."
"That's it, is it?" said Martin with his grave smile. "I hope Dan isn't scared."
"Not me, Mr. Meadows," answered Dan Trethewy, coming in at that moment from the kitchen. "It 'ud take more'n a ghost to scare me. But tea's ready, if you've a mind for it."
"I've got more than a mind. I've got an appetite," answered Martin dryly.
The brothers had found that a third hand would be absolutely necessary to attend to the housework at the mine-house while they were busy with the new machine, so they had engaged Dan, whose experience at sea on his father's fishing-boat had made him a capital cook.
The tea was first class, and they all did justice to it.
Nat got up first.
"I'm going down to the brook, Martin. Dan says there are trout, and a dish for breakfast wouldn't be amiss."
"Right you are, Nat. I've got some letters to write or I'd come with you."
Nat got out his rod, put it together, tied a cast with a Blue Upright and a Hare's Ear, and went out.
Wheal Antony stood high on the great bare moorlands which form the backbone of Cornwall. On every side were wide expanses of rolling hill and valley covered with heather now just coming into bloom. Far away in the distance lay the blue line of the sea.
Nat walked downhill across ground broken and seamed in every direction by the picks and shovels of old-time tin miners. To his right towered the old mine shaft, and near it a huge pile of dull red rubble made an ugly scar against the hillside.
Below, the brook, which rose a few miles to the northwards, rushed clear as crystal among big granite boulders.
The sun was low, and the shadows long and slanting. Every pool was starred with rings made by trout rising hungrily after the evening hatch of fly.
By keeping well out of sight behind rocks and bushes, Nat soon began to fill his basket. He wandered on and on, and the sun had set before he turned to make his way back.
By the time he came within sight of Wheal Antony it was getting thick dusk, and a cold breeze had sprung up. The lighted windows of the low, squat mine building looked bright and cheery.
"We're in luck, and no mistake," said Nat to himself with a pleased chuckle, as he gave his heavy basket a hitch and breasted the hill. "Ghost or no ghost, we've got this place most amazing cheap, and we couldn't have struck anything better for our purpose."
He was half-way up the hill, and just passing the great heap of tailings which had been dug out of the mine, when he suddenly caught sight of a figure flitting across among the heather about fifty yards ahead.
"Dan!" he called, thinking it was Dan Trethewy.
The figure did not pause, but went straight on towards the end of the dump. Now, Nat saw that it was certainly not Dan. Dan was short and sturdy. The figure was taller than Dan, and seemed to be wearing a long cloak or overcoat of a very light colour.
Suddenly the story he had heard of the ghost flashed across Nat's mind.
"Hi!" he shouted.
The figure only quickened its pace.
"It's some silly juggins playing a practical joke," muttered Nat. "I'll jolly well show him that we're not going to stand anything of that sort."
Dropping his rod, he broke into a sharp run.
The figure did not look round. But it evidently heard Nat's footsteps, for it quickened its pace.
It went flying across the rough, boulder-strewn ground at a speed which gave Nat all he knew to keep up. And the odd thing was that its feet made no sound at all. As Nat realised this fact, a nasty chill crept down his spine.
But he only set his teeth and ran the faster.
The thing in front vanished around the steep end of the dump. By the time Nat reached the spot where it had disappeared it was passing swiftly up hill towards the mine mouth.
Nat, now thoroughly set on catching the intruder, whoever it was, tore along at top speed, jumping over stones, gorse bushes, and everything else in his track.
He was gaining fast now, but just as he made sure of catching up, a loose boulder slipped beneath his foot, he stumbled badly, and came down on hands and knees.
With an angry exclamation he gained his feet just in time to see the figure plunge into the dark tunnel which was the adit or entrance to the old tin mine, and vanish in the gloom.
Reckless of consequences, he followed.
He had not gone a dozen steps before his head struck a cross beam with a force that sent him reeling, and stretched him flat on his back on the muddy floor of the tunnel.
For a moment he was stunned. As he struggled back to a sitting position, with his head reeling from the blow, something came soundlessly out of the inky darkness and suddenly bony fingers clutched his throat and flung him back again.
Nat was young and strong, and though half dazed by the heavy blow from the beam, struggled violently.
It was useless. The fingers never for one moment relaxed their hold.
Nat did his best to cry out, but the awful pressure on his windpipe made this impossible. White flashes of light seemed to shoot before his eyes, his struggles ceased, and he fell back limp and insensible.
* * * * *
Dan Trethewy had gone out to the turf shed for an armful of peat for the kitchen fire when he heard Nat call his name.
Peering through the dusk, downhill, his quick eyes, trained by long watches at sea, saw a dim figure running swiftly around the end of the dump, and hard after it another taller one, which, though he could not see the face, he made sure was Nat.
"Here's a rum go!" he muttered. "What in thunder is Mr. Nat after? Blessed if I don't go and see."
Dropping his load of turf, he ran off down the steep slope, and was just in time to see Nat dive headlong into the mine mouth.
All his curiosity aroused, he quickened his pace, and arrived in the mouth of the mine not a quarter of a minute after Nat.
He stopped a moment to listen. Somewhere in the pitch darkness beyond he heard a curious, thudding sound, and a heavy panting. He hastened in, and all of a sudden stumbled over a body lying there, and then pitched headlong, right on top of a second figure.
There was a shrill shriek, and the second figure struggled out from under him. He heard a faint splashing of feet running swiftly down the muddy floor of the tunnel, then, badly shaken, and with his teeth chattering, he picked himself up.
For a moment he stood, as scared a boy as any in Cornwall. Then he pulled himself together, took out his matchbox, and struck a light, revealing Nat flat on his back in the slimy red mud of the floor of the tunnel.
Nat lay very still. His soft collar was torn open, and there were livid marks on his throat. His eyes were closed, and his lips were blue and swollen.
Dan, who was devoted to Nat, gave a howl of misery and rage.
"He's dead!" he cried, and dropped on his knees beside him.
The match went out, and Dan, in panic lest the ghost should return, struck another with trembling fingers. He saw that, somehow or other, he must get Nat out, for he dared not leave him to fetch Martin. On the other hand, he could not possibly carry him and a lighted match as well, and he knew that his nerves would never stand the tunnel in the dark.
Out came the whole box of matches. He took off his hat, an old felt, piled the matches on top and lit the whole lot. Then while this tiny bonfire blazed merrily, he managed by a desperate effort to hoist Nat on his shoulders and stagger away with him into the open air and so home.
Martin, who was sitting at the table busy with some drawings for the new plane, got the shock of his life as Dan came staggering into the room with Nat on his back.
"Good gracious, what's happened?" he cried, as he sprang to his feet.
"The ghost got Mr. Nat," muttered Dan, as he dropped Nat on the sofa. "And I reckon he's killed him."
Martin rushed to the cupboard for the brandy bottle.
It was at this moment that Nat slowly opened his eyes, looked round vaguely, then put his hand to his bruised throat, and murmured:
"Is he gone?"
Martin gave a gasp of relief.
"Thank goodness you've come round, old chap. Dan and I thought you were dead."
"So did I," answered Nat in a queer, half-choked voice. "And it wasn't that chap's fault that I'm not. I hit my head on a beam and came a cropper, and he jumped on me and tried to throttle me."
"And I fell atop o' him," said Dan. "It were the ghost o' the mine, I reckon, Master Nat."
"Substantial sort of ghost," remarked Nat, ruefully feeling his throat. "He had fingers like a sea eagle's claws. Jove, he'd have finished me if you hadn't come just in the nick of time, Dan."
"But look here, Nat," said Martin, "I don't like this at all. We came up here to Wheal Antony to be quiet and undisturbed. It seems to me that we've got spies after us already."
"Yes, I must confess that it's not a pleasant business," agreed Nat, frowning thoughtfully. "Yet I'm inclined to think that this man, whoever he is, is not a spy. A spy wouldn't hide in a nasty, wet rabbit hole like that old adit."
"Then if he isn't a spy, what is he?" demanded Martin.
"That's more than I can say. But we'll jolly well find out to-morrow."
RUFUS P. SENDS A LETTER
AT breakfast time next morning the postman arrived, bringing a letter addressed to Messrs. M. & N. Meadows, Wheal Antony Mine, Cornwall.
Martin took the letter.
"Hullo, who's that from?" asked Nat, who was quite fit again after a good night's rest.
Martin looked at the address.
"It's Faulkner's writing, I believe, but by the look of it his pen must have been a funny one. And the envelope is simply filthy. All over mud."
"Probably the postman dropped it on the way," said Nat. "What's he got to say? We haven't had a word since he left, and that's a fortnight now."
Martin tore open the envelope, and took out a small sheet of common wrapping paper, such as a grocer uses for sugar.
"His paper seems as bad as his pen," laughed Nat.
But Martin did not smile. Upon his face had suddenly come a startled expression, which changed to one of real alarm.
"What's the matter?" asked Nat sharply.
"Read it and see," answered Martin.
Nat took the letter, and this is what he read:
"Dear Lads,—I've mussed up things badly, and just at the present moment yours truly is in a tight place. Paper's short, and so is ink, so I can't explain my trouble in this letter. All I've space to tell you is that I'm a prisoner here, at a place called Marlwood Manor, which is near Challacombe village, on the north coast of Devon, and I reckon about eighty miles from Wheal Antony, as an aeroplane flies. I haven't a dog's chance of getting out single-handed, so I'm asking you, Nat, to bring your 'plane and try to help me out.
"They let me out for exercise one hour each day, between five and six in the morning. The garden is mostly turf, with a fair slope to the edge of the cliffs. I reckon you could light there right enough and start up again down the hill.
"I've written this on a bit of paper I found in my room, and I'm going to throw it over the cliff on to the beach with half a sovereign in it, hoping someone will find it and post it along. I guess, if it ever reaches you, you'll do what you can to help yours truly,
"Rufus P. Faulkner.
"P.S.—You'll find the place easy enough. It's two miles north from Challacombe village. There's a right smart hill behind, with a bare top and a thick fir plantation all around the bottom."
Nat's face was as grave as his brother's as he finished this extraordinary letter.
"What luck the old plane is finished!" he said. "I must go to-night."
"You think it's genuine?" asked Martin anxiously.
"What—the letter? Certainly I do. I'd know Rufus P.'s fist anywhere. Come along, Martin. There's a lot to do on the machine before she's fit for a journey like this. We must pitch in this minute and work all day."
"There's no need for you to start overnight, Nat," said Martin, as he consulted a calendar. "The sun rises just after five. That means it's light by four, and if the weather stays as fine as it is, you ought to be able to do the trip in about an hour and a half. Start at half-past three, and you'll manage it comfortably."
Nat, who was in overalls and had his hands and face black with oil and grime, stared thoughtfully out of the hangar door.
"Perhaps you're right, Martin. It would be a horrid fag to sit by the machine all night and then have to start her up again single-handed in the morning. I'll take your tip and get off early."
The faithful Dan roused Nat next morning. The kitchen clock had just struck three, and as yet there was no sign of daylight in the sky. While Nat tumbled into his clothes, Dan brewed a pot of steaming coffee and poached a couple of eggs. Early as it was, Nat made an excellent breakfast.
Martin was busy in the shed, putting the last touches to the machine. It was Nat's old Blériot. At least, the engine was the same, but the rest had been entirely rebuilt and modernised with part of the two hundred pounds which Faulkner had given to Nat.
It still wanted half an hour to dawn as Martin and Dan pushed the plane out of the shed and set it with its head downhill.
Nat, in his thick sweater and overalls, with the ear-flaps of his cap tied tightly under his chin, and warmly lined gloves on his hands, took his place in the driving seat.
Martin and he exchanged a hand grip.
"Good-bye, old chap, and good luck. I only wish I was coming with you," said Martin.
Then he stepped back and gave the propeller a turn. The motor broke into a volley of pistol-like explosions, the wide-winged plane shot forward.
A few seconds later a misty, ghost-like shape soared overhead, the rattle of the engine died in the distance, and Martin and Dan were left alone on the dark, bare hillside.
Nat at once rose to a height of about a thousand feet, then, steering by compass, struck out in a direction nor'-east by north. He did not travel in quite a straight line, for he wished to avoid the great heights of Dartmoor, where even in the calmest weather ugly eddies of wind whirl over the huge, craggy tors.
His motor was working to perfection, the air, even at this great height, was delightfully calm, and what breeze there was was behind him. Far below he caught sight of a huddle of lights, and knew that he was passing over Launceston. There came the whistle of an engine, and a goods train crawled like a snake along the Great Western line nearly a quarter of a mile beneath his feet.
"Good business!" he said. "I'm on the right track now," and, settling himself more comfortably in his seat, he went rushing along in the direction of Holsworthy.
The sky to the eastward was now becoming faintly pink, and presently the light turned to gold and the ground below soon began to appear.
He rose higher when it grew light. He did not wish to attract attention from below.
Now he was within a couple of miles of the sea, and steamers out in the Channel showed trails of dark smoke. Lundy Island's tall cliffs towered out of the blue water.
He consulted his map.
Yes, there was Challacombe, a little village nestling beside a tiny silver ribbon, which was a river. As he passed over it a couple of men, hearing the drone of his engine, looked up and stood staring as he passed like a dragon-fly across the sky.
Beyond it, close to the sea, he caught sight of a bald hill with a blunt, rounded top. A dark belt surrounded it, and on the far side, only a quarter of a mile from the edge of the cliffs, a long slated roof appeared among thick timber.
Nat's heart beat quicker. This must be Marlwood Manor.
He did not dare to descend until he had learnt the lie of the land. To drop among trees was destruction. So, rising still higher, he circled far over the summit of the bald hill.
The house, a long, low, ugly building, faced the sea. It was surrounded by a high brick wall and thick fence. The drive came in at the back through the wood. The house itself was smothered in creepers, and evergreen shrubs made a wall across the front, giving it, even in the bright morning sunlight, a dark and forbidding appearance.
Beyond the trees, and stretching down to the edge of the cliffs, was a considerable expanse of grass, and even as Nat watched, a figure appeared walking along a gravel path which led down to this green slope.
From the immense height at which Nat was flying the figure appeared no larger than a sparrow, yet the airman was certain that it could be no one but Faulkner.
He was alone. Now was the chance to rescue him. Nat wheeled half a mile inland, then shut off his engine and came gliding down out of the sky to land, with hardly a jar, half-way between house and sea.
As the plane's rubber-shod wheels struck the turf she shot forward down the slope, but Nat braked her and brought her to a standstill some fifty feet from the edge of the cliff.
Almost before he could turn his head, feet came thudding down the moss-green gravel path, and there was Faulkner running at the top of his speed towards the plane.
"Good for you, Nat, my lad! I knew you wouldn't fail me," he exclaimed breathlessly, as he hurled himself into the seat beside Nat. "Let her go, man. They'll have seen you by now."
Nat pulled back the brake lever. But the grass on the neglected lawn was so long and stiff that the machine would not start.
"I'll have to get out and shove her," said Nat sharply.
As he sprang from his seat, there came a hoarse shout from the direction of the house. It was followed immediately by a deep baying, and two immense dogs burst through the screen of evergreens and came leaping across the turf with enormous bounds.
Awesome-looking brutes, each standing as high as a man's waist. In colour they were pale fawn brindled with black, and their heads were huge and massive, with hanging ears and black muzzles. After their first furious outcry they were silent, and came dashing neck and neck upon Nat.
Nat gave the plane a frantic shove. But one of her front wheels was fairly caught in the long grass, and for a moment Nat could not move her.
One of the great hounds had outdistanced the other, and was almost upon him. Behind them came a man, a huge, deep-chested, hairy fellow, brandishing a monstrous club of oak.
Nat dared not go forward to lift the wheel. He gave another terrific shove.
The plane moved. It began to glide forward. Nat made a wild dash for his seat. The foremost hound was so close that he heard its jaws clash at his very heels.
It leapt sideways at him as he sprang into the driving seat, but the plane was moving fast now, and it fell back.
Nat switched on the engine, and it responded instantly with its maxim-like rattle.
The dog leapt again. There was a slight jar, a fearful howl. The screw, whirling at an enormous number of revolutions per second, had caught the brute and flung it sideways. It was dead almost as soon as it struck the ground.
Next instant the plane had lifted, and with a great swoop flashed out over the edge of the cliff; then she lifted fast above the little waves that crawled beneath her, and, under Nat's guiding hand, made a wide half-circle, and came back over the land.
Rufus P. Faulkner peered sideways and downwards.
"Say, but Jake Drucker's cross," he remarked in his dry American drawl. "The way he's ranting and stamping down there is mighty nigh as good as a circus."
He took off his hat and waved it politely to the figure which was dancing with fury on the turf below.
"Bye-bye, Jake," he shouted. "Be good."
The plane was mounting over the bald-headed hill. The last they saw of Drucker, he was running as hard as he could pelt back towards the house.
Faulkner turned to Nat.
"See here, Nat, how much can you get out of this little machine of yours?"
Nat glanced down at the earth and up at the sky.
"The wind's against us," he said. "Not more than thirty on our way home."
Faulkner pursed his thin lips in a low whistle.
"Is that so? Then I reckon we're not out of the wood yet, old son."
"What do you mean?"
"Look down at the road below, and mebbe you'll catch on."
Nat glanced down.
A large car with a bonnet of such length as to indicate something like sixty horse-power had just left the Marlwood drive gates, and was rushing along the empty open road at a speed which could not have been far short of fifty miles an hour.
"D'YE mean they're chasing us?" asked Nat, astonished.
"That's about the size of it, Nat, my boy. And, as that machine is good for sixty up hill and down dale, it isn't quite such a crazy proposition as you might imagine."
"I suppose not," answered Nat doubtfully. "Still the car will have to slow down through the towns, and she can't keep a straight line as we can."
"True for you. All the same, she's got the legs of us, and we'll have to hustle a whole lot if we want to shake her off. How's petrol?"
"I've got enough to get back to Wheal Antony if we take a straight course, and the wind isn't too high." Faulkner glanced at the sky. Across the blue, thin lines of misty mare's-tails were lifting out of the south-west.
"I guess it's going to blow tolerable hard before a great while," he answered. "Nat, I tell you right here I don't want to take any risks. Those chaps down below want me mighty badly. It's up to us to fool them. They mustn't track us to the mine. If they find out where you're making your experiments, you don't know what mischief they may be up to."
Nat was silent a moment. He was evidently thinking hard.
"I'll tell you what we'll do, Mr. Faulkner. Instead of making straight back by Launceston, we might as well go round to the south of Dartmoor."
"That's longer. You'll have to come down for petrol."
"Quite true. But the roads that side are bad. They're steep, twisty, and narrow, especially the one from Exeter by Moretonhampstead to Plymouth. That's about the worst main road in England. In some places it's so narrow that if you meet a cart you can't pass it. If they try any sixty miles an hour game there, they'll simply smash themselves up."
"But if you take that route it means flying over Dartmoor," objected the American.
"No need to do that. Dartmoor doesn't begin till five miles beyond Moreton. I'll simply tempt them on to that road and then turn off to the eastward and skirt the southeastern edge of the moor."
"And how about petrol?"
"I can come down at Totnes and fill my tank. There's a nice flat meadow there, on the edge of the Dart. Just the place to alight comfortably."
"Good man!" exclaimed Faulkner approvingly. "I reckon we can't do better. Meanwhile, whoop her up. The car's gaining on us! See!"
"I can't help that. She can easily hold us all down the Exeter road. Perhaps it's just as well, for the beggars will feel so sure they've got the legs of us that they may get careless."
The main road from Barnstaple to Crediton is one of the best in Devon. Even a small-powered car can run the whole thirty miles with hardly a change of gear. The big Daimler roared onwards, taking the slopes without the slightest slackening in speed, and she was well up with the plane when, just before they reached Crediton, Nat suddenly swung to the right, and cut across country in the direction of Moreton.
Faulkner, looking down from his seat, chuckled delightedly.
"That's fooled them," he said. "We've shaken them off now."
"Don't be too sure," answered Nat, as he saw the car's driver swing her into the narrow cross road. "That chap can drive, and if he doesn't meet traffic he can still hold us. The worst of it is, the wind's hardening every minute."
Now the chase began in earnest. The car, though handicapped by the narrowness of the road and its many sharp twists and turns, still averaged over thirty. The man at the wheel, a great, broad-shouldered fellow, drove magnificently, getting every ounce of speed out of his huge machine.
It seemed no time before the square tower of Moreton church rose among the cluster of straggling houses, and then, getting on to a better bit of road, the car dashed through the town at terrifying speed, and shot away along the main road which leads by Two Bridges and Princetown to Plymouth.
"Now we've really fooled them!" laughed Nat, swinging the plane away to the left. "There's no turn this way for three miles or more, and with any luck we'll lose them before that. Hullo!"
He broke off sharply, and his hand flew to the warping lever.
"What's up?" cried Faulkner, startled out of his usual calm, for the plane was dropping like a stone.
"A pocket! An air pocket!" cried Nat, vainly trying to stop the terrible downward rush.
There is nothing that an airman dreads more than what is called a pocket. The plane, flying strongly and well, suddenly runs into a layer of air which is of less density than that through which she has been travelling. There is not enough under her wings to support her, and she drops like a shot bird.
It is a danger impossible to guard against, for it may occur anywhere, and neither eye, nor ear, nor any instrument, gives warning.
It was into a pocket of this kind that Nat's plane had suddenly shot, and by the way she dropped, a very deep and dangerous one.
She came down from about eight hundred feet to three hundred, then struck a layer of colder, denser air—struck it with a shock that strained every stay and bolt, and jarred Nat and his passenger almost as badly as if they had dropped flat into water.
Then, as her wings got hold again, her screw also gripped the air, and she shot forward once more.
"That's the worst I ever fell into," said Nat, as he lifted his warping planes, and the machine again began to climb skywards.
"Gee! but I thought we were gone coons that time," said Faulkner. "And so did Condon, by the look of him. See, he's pulled up."
"Well, if he wants to catch us he'd better be shoving on again," replied Nat coolly. "The worst of it is that now I shall have to go up high, and clear these hills and valleys. They cause the pockets."
"Why shouldn't you go high?"
"Because your friend—Condon, you called him, didn't you?—can see us from such a distance."
"That's so," said Faulkner. "Still, I reckon he'll have his work cut out to catch us. There's no road across the moor but the main one, is there?"
"No; but he can switch off to the left and go by Ashburton. Still, that's a long round, and a simply wicked road. I rather fancy he'll stick to the main Plymouth road."
Nat was right. From the great height to which they had soared they saw the big car rushing at full speed up the long slope leading to the high moor. Nat swung the plane farther to the eastward, and a few moments later the great bulk of Easdon Tor cut off all sight of Condon.
Soon Bovey Tracy was seen to the left, and in the distance Newton Abbot, with its big railway station. Beyond it they caught a glimpse of the estuary of the Teign, blue as the summer sky above it.
The wind came over the top of the moor in fitful gusts and drifted the aeroplane constantly to the eastwards. Nat had to bring her up into it every few minutes.
Another quarter of an hour and the old-fashioned town of Ashburton lay almost beneath them.
Nat guided the plane on till he reached the Dart at Buckfastleigh, and, taking the beautiful river as his guide, winged straight down the valley to Totnes.
Here he came gently to earth on a broad, flat meadow just above the upper end of the town.
The first thing he did was to unscrew the top of the petrol tank.
"Not a gallon left!" he said. "One of us will have to find the nearest garage and get a fresh supply."
"I guess we won't need to do much walking," observed Faulkner with his dry smile. "Here's half the town coming out to interview us. We ought to find a messenger among them."
It was true. Scores of people were already running hard across the river flats, and in another minute the bridge was black with crowds of spectators.
"This is a nuisance," he said. "I hate to be made a show of. And it's dangerous as well as difficult to start in a crowd."
But Faulkner was not listening. He was already posting off to meet the first of the new-comers, and Nat saw him pick a couple of stout lads and send them off back to the town.
"I've promised half a sovereign to the first that gets back with two cans of petrol," he told Nat with a chuckle. "I reckon we shan't waste more time than we've got to."
By this time the aeroplane was surrounded, and Nat and Faulkner were kept busy answering questions, and keeping boys from handling the machine.
Luckily a large policeman and some scouts arrived shortly, and did good service in keeping a ring. The aviators had several cordial invitations to breakfast, but hungry as they both were, they had to refuse. They pleaded an engagement elsewhere.
In less than ten minutes two boys were seen racing towards them, each with a two-gallon can under either arm. Faulkner gave them each a gold coin, Nat filled up the tank, the policeman opened a clear run for them, and as the sturdy little plane took the air and rose higher over the gleaming river, the shouts of the crowd died away, and they found themselves beating their way against the wind in the direction of Plymouth.
A main road runs almost dead straight from Totnes through Ivybridge to Plymouth, and following this they had no difficulty in finding their way.
But progress was very slow, for the wind was heavy and their engine power small.
"We'll be all day getting home against this," growled Nat, as the plane pitched and rolled, and every stay sang like a fiddle-string.
"It doesn't matter now we've put Brer Condon off the scent," replied Faulkner. "All the same, I shall be mighty glad to find my feet on firm ground again. I'm not a bad sailor as things go, but I don't mind telling you that this motion beats anything I ever felt in mid-Atlantic. It's making me feel real squeamish. Does it take you that way?"
Nat did not answer. He was looking downwards.
"Look at that car," he said with sudden sharpness.
Faulkner glanced down. A gasp of amazement burst from his lips.
"Jeerusalem, it's Condon again! Now where in sense has he sprung from?"
"He's cut down the by-road from Dousland to Ivybridge," answered Nat between set teeth.
"He's as bad to shake off as a leech," said Faulkner, as he watched the great car come tearing up the long white road, raising a huge rolling cloud of dust behind it. "What's to do now?"
"He's got to cross the toll bridge over the Laira," said Nat. "That'll hang him up for a few minutes, and he can't do more than twenty through Plymouth. I'm going straight over the town. It's breaking the air law, but I can't help that."
"No, I reckon the occasion demands it," answered Faulkner, trying to smile, though he was white and giddy with air-sickness.
In a few minutes more the plane was over the Laira.
Nat watched the car. It came shooting over the bridge at a great pace. The toll-keeper ran out and stood in the middle, but Condon did not slacken speed, and the man had to jump for his life as two tons of roaring metal rushed over the very spot where he had stood the moment before.
Condon's companion flung him a coin, and the car dashed onwards.
"He doesn't mean to lose us," muttered Faulkner.
"But we'll lose him," said Nat with spirit. "I've a card up my sleeve still. There's no bridge over the Hamoaze on the other side of the town—only a chain ferry at Torpoint. That'll hang him up for a bit, I'll be bound."
Faulkner, in spite of his sickness and giddiness, laughed outright.
"You're a dandy, Nat. Ha, I see the water. And the ferry's just started."
"Hurrah!" cried Nat gleefully. "Then that gives us half an hour. It only runs once in thirty minutes."
As Faulkner had said, the slow, clumsy ferry-boat had only just started from the Devon side of the Hamoaze. It had to cross to the Cornish side, load up, come back, and discharge its cargo before it made another trip. And as the nearest road bridge was twelve miles away up river at Gunnislake, there was no choice for Condon but to wait.
"Yes, we've fixed him this time," exclaimed Faulkner delightedly, but the words were hardly out of his mouth before the rattle of the engine ceased with startling suddenness, and instantly the machine began to slide downwards.
For a moment or two Nat was desperately busy, but the engine did not respond to his efforts. He looked round to Faulkner.
"I can't stop her," he told him. "I'm afraid there's a choke in the petrol pipe."
"Cheerful place to come down!" answered Faulkner grimly, as he glanced below at the tall houses and crowded streets.
They were over Fore Street, Devonport. In front were the dockyards, and beyond, the broad Hamoaze with its maze of shipping.
"I can clear the docks," said Nat between set teeth.
"Can you clear the water?"
"I doubt it," as he warped his planes. "Can you swim?"
"Like a fish!"
"Then there's a chance for us still," said Nat.
FORTUNATELY Nat had risen to something like fifteen hundred feet before crossing the Three Towns, and with the wind ahead, he was able to make a vol-plane, or sliding descent, at a comparatively slight angle.
He was quite confident that he would clear the dockyard and the masts of the warships which lay along the quays. But it seemed hardly possible that he could reach the far side of the river.
The Hamoaze here is about half a mile wide, and the tide race rushes through it at tremendous speed.
In a moment they were over the water. Bluejackets on the decks of the battleships stared up at the swiftly falling plane. Nat and Faulkner heard shouts of alarm. Some of the spectators had realised the peril of the airmen.
"There's the car," cried Faulkner, who was as cool as if a drop from fifteen hundred feet into salt water was an everyday happening. "Condon's waiting at the ferry. I'll bet he's chuckling to see our plight."
Nat did not answer. A gust of wind sweeping across from the Mount Edgcumbe side had made the plane sway violently. But at the same time it lifted her slightly.
"I believe we shall do it, after all," he cried sharply as he worked the warping lever.
They were more than half-way across, and still at a good height above the water.
"They've launched a boat from that big cruiser," exclaimed Faulkner. "They're not going to let us drown, anyhow."
"We shan't need it," answered Nat triumphantly as another friendly gust caught the under side of the wings.
Clearing the mast of a small sailing boat by half a dozen feet only, the plane shot landwards like a tired bird. Next instant her front wheels struck firm ground not her own length from the water's edge, and, missing two small staring boys by a sort of miracle, rushed almost into a building opposite before Nat could bring her up.
"Great Scott! but that was a close call!" exclaimed Faulkner. "What's the next item on the programme, Nat?"
"Get out and ask if we can put her in that garden opposite. If it's only a choked pipe, I can clear it in five minutes. But I can't work with a crowd round. And if there's a policeman handy, the chances are that he'll arrest us for flying over the town."
Faulkner was across the street like a shot and gave a thundering roll with a knocker. An elderly man with a red face fringed with white whiskers bounced out in a rage.
"Be you trying to burst my door down?" he roared.
"I'm real sorry to startle you," answered Faulkner politely, "but my friend and I are in a hurry. We want the loan of your garden for ten minutes, and I'm prepared to pay a sovereign for it."
The old chap's jaw dropped. He thought he was dealing with a lunatic. Suddenly he caught sight of the aeroplane which Nat was already wheeling towards the gate. He grinned.
"Right you be, mister," as he bustled off to help lift the plane over the fence. It was, of course, far too wide to go through any gate.
The usual crowd was already on the spot. Nat spotted a man in a chauffeur's cap and called him up. In a very few moments they had the machine over the low railings.
"This way," said White Whiskers briskly. "There's a paddock behind. You'll be all snug and shipshape there. But you chose a rummy place to come down."
Faulkner explained, while Nat and the chauffeur worked furiously at the engine. In less than five minutes Nat called to Faulkner.
"It's all right. She's clear. We can start."
"Good business!" answered Faulkner. He handed the old chap his promised sovereign, tipped the chauffeur generously, and scrambled into his seat beside Nat.
Another minute and they were again high in air and sweeping away in a nor'-westerly direction.
Faulkner looked back.
"Condon's not landed yet," he observed with a laugh.
"It doesn't matter whether he has or not," answered Nat quietly. "All this side of the country is a maze of creeks. By crossing the St. German's I can fool him for good. If nothing else happens to the machine he'll never see us again."
Nat was right. The last they saw of the great car, it was snorting westwards on the south side of the St. German's River. Nat bore north, and less than an hour later brought the stout little plane to rest on the heather-clad hillside close to the great red dump of the Wheal Antony mine.
Martin came striding out to meet them.
"I'm uncommonly glad to see you at the mine again, Mr. Faulkner," he said, as he gripped the American's hand.
"I reckon you're not half as glad as I am," answered Faulkner with a twinkle in his eyes. "I don't mind telling you, Martin, that this time last night I had my doubts whether I should ever set eyes on your solemn old phiz again. Or Nat's either, for that matter."
Then, seeing the look of interest on Martin's face, he added:
"Seems to me I owe you both an explanation. Come into the house, and if Dan can find us some food I'll tell you my troubles."
Dan wasted no time in getting a meal on the table. And with fresh broiled trout, pasties, cakes, and Cornish cream, they did themselves very well indeed. Then Faulkner poured himself out a cup of the very blackest coffee with which he liked to top off every meal, and began his story.
"Have either of you chaps got any notion what brought me across the Pond?" he asked.
"Detective business of some kind," suggested Nat shrewdly.
"You're not a great way out, sonny," answered the American. "But I'm not a professional Pinkerton—only an amateur. It's this way: You've maybe heard of the late Dudley Drew?"
"What, the millionaire mine-owner?" said Nat.
"That's him. I was his manager. And when he died last March, the last words he said to me were these: 'Rufus, you'll find my will in the desk in my office. You know I've got no relations except that no-count nephew of mine, Harvey Lucraft, and he's got more money right now than is good for him. I've left you a tidy little sum, and there's a year's wages to each of my men. But the most of my little pile I've left to the American Boy Scouts, and you're to administer it. You'll see it's laid out right, won't you?'
"'You'll bet I will,' said I, for I felt he couldn't have done anything better with the money if he'd thought a year.
"After he was gone, I went down to get the will. The desk had been broken open, and it was gone!"
"What! Condon had stolen it?" exclaimed Nat and Martin in one breath.
"That's so," said Faulkner gravely. "And that's why I'm on his track. You spot his little game? He's trying to see which will bid highest, me or Lucraft?"
"But why don't you put the police on to him?" asked Nat.
"No use to do that. Just to spite us, he'd be sure to burn the will."
"Then how do you propose to get it back?"
"Beg, buy, or steal," answered the American drily. "And the first thing I've tried was buying."
"Wouldn't they sell?" asked Nat quickly.
"They'd sell right enough," answered Faulkner with a wry smile. "But they asked a million dollars—that's two hundred thousand pounds, which was just twenty times my limit. Then Condon turned ugly, and, before I knew what was up, that hairy-faced creature, Jake Drucker, had his long arms round me, and I was told to consider myself a prisoner.
"'You'll just stay here,' Condon said, 'until this job is settled up one way or another. You're too dangerous to have around loose.'
"But I am loose," said Faulkner with a chuckle; "and now that I'm free I must think of some other plan."
THE BROTHERS GO GHOST-HUNTING
"MY brother and I are going to explore the old mine to-day," said Nat to Dan in the kitchen next morning.
"I reckon I'll come too," said Dan rather grumpily.
"No, Dan. You'll stay at the mouth and come to our help if we collar the ghost that caught me by the throat."
At this minute Martin entered.
"It's my belief," he said abruptly, "that this chap who's hiding in the mine is an escaped convict. There was a chap got away from Blackmoor a week ago, and they've never collared him yet."
"My dear Martin, no convict in his senses would take up his abode in such a damp, messy hole."
"Just the place, I should have thought," answered Martin. "Particularly if he knew the mine was supposed to be haunted."
"Well, we'll do our best to solve the mystery to-day," laughed Nat. "You have everything ready, haven't you, Martin?"
"Everything! We'll start as soon as we've had breakfast. I grudge a day off work, but it won't do to have a dangerous customer like this loose about the place."
Mr. Faulkner wanted to join the expedition, but Nat persuaded him to stay outside. Two were quite enough for the exploring party, he explained.
As soon as breakfast was finished, all four went down to the mine mouth. Nat and Martin were in their overalls. Martin had the electric torch, Nat carried spare candles, and both had stout sticks. Around Nat's waist was a long coil of fine but strong cord.
"Good-bye, boys," laughed Faulkner, as they entered the mouth of the low-browed tunnel. "Watch out the ghost doesn't catch you. Dan and I will rope him if he makes a bolt."
"Strikes me he's a pretty substantial ghost," observed Martin, turning the light of his torch on the muddy floor of the tunnel. "Look at those footmarks."
Nat stooped and examined them. They were those of a pair of rubber-soled shoes evidently badly worn.
"He's been here some time, that's one thing sure," he said. "The whole floor is covered with the prints."
"It does look that way," allowed Martin. "Phew! how slippery the ground is! Look out you don't fall, Nat." The going was certainly very bad. The whole floor was covered deep with greasy, reddish mud, and water dripped dismally from the rocky roof. In many places large lumps of jagged rock had fallen from the rotten roof, and the brothers had to move carefully for fear of fresh falls.
On and on they tramped until they were fully a thousand feet into the bowels of the hill. The silence was oppressive, and Nat felt as if a ton weight were pressing on his head.
Suddenly Martin, who was leading, pulled up short, and held his torch at arm's length in front of him.
Its radiance was reflected from the inky surface of a pool of still black water, which filled a great gap in the floor of the tunnel. A single plank spanned the ugly-looking chasm. Across the plank ran the wet marks of the rubber-shod feet.
"Evidently our friend the ghost is at home," whispered Martin.
"Careless of him not to raise his drawbridge," answered Nat, grinning.
"There may be some trick," said the cautious Martin. "Suppose he's cut it half through?"
"I'll put the rope on and try it," said Nat readily.
He did, and Martin held the loose end while Nat advanced cautiously across the greasy plank. It bore his weight, and they passed on.
A little way beyond the pool the main tunnel curved to the left.
"Dowse the torch, Martin," whispered Nat. "I think I heard something."
Martin switched off the current, and blackness fell like a solid pall.
Very softly the two brothers stole around the corner. Nat clutched Martin's arm.
"Look!" he muttered.
Some distance in front a red glow lit the darkness. It was a fire of smouldering peat, and the little flames that flickered over the burning pile flung an uncertain light on the walls of the small, square chamber hewn in the solid rock.
The place was evidently inhabited. There was a frying-pan by the fire and a heap of dry fuel in one corner. In another was a pile of heather, seemingly a bed.
"We've run him to earth at last," whispered Nat in a tone of triumph.
"But where is he?" answered Martin.
"Wait a while. I think I hear him."
The two stood in the black darkness, listening intently.
Suddenly a clinking sound like metal striking upon metal came from an unseen corner of the cave.
Nat nudged Martin, and they stole forward.
The dim light from the fire hardly reached the passage. Martin caught his toe on an unseen boulder and stumbled badly.
At the sound came a shrill scream from the rock chamber, and a figure dashed across the circle of crimson light thrown by the fire, and ran with tremendous speed towards an opening in the opposite wall, into which it flung itself, and disappeared from sight.
"You've done it now," exclaimed Nat vexedly, as he rushed past his brother.
Martin switched on his light and followed.
They crossed the cave chamber and hurled themselves through the opening down which the "ghost" had disappeared. They found themselves in a passage like the one they had come along, but narrower and apparently older. Also it was evidently unused, for only one set of footsteps marked the deep red slime on its floor.
This passage ran to the left and sloped sharply downwards, the slope and the slipperiness together making it positively dangerous to travel fast. Nat and Martin slipped in every direction, barking their shins against the stones which had fallen from the roof and their knuckles against the walls.
But both were so excited with the chase that they hardly noticed these discomforts; they rushed onwards until Nat suddenly seized his brother by the arm and stopped him.
"Where are the footsteps?" he asked sharply.
Martin stared down at the tunnel floor. The coating of dull red mud was bare of any mark.
"Jove, we've overrun him!" he exclaimed. "He must have switched up that cross cut which we just passed."
"Then he's between us and the mouth of the mine," said Nat anxiously. "Quick! We must get back. We don't know what mischief he'll be up to."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before, from somewhere far up in the tunnel, there came a loud report followed by a thundering crash. Next moment a number of loose stones came rolling and splashing down the long, slippery slope.
Nat seized Martin and dragged him into the shelter of a small niche in the wall, and they crouched there while a small avalanche of broken stuff came roaring past.
"What's happened?" gasped Martin, half choked with the dust from the flying fragments.
"He's fired a shot and brought the roof down," answered Nat grimly. "If I'm not badly mistaken, we're buried alive."
When the stones had stopped falling Martin started forward, but as he did so there came a second crash, and with it a wild shriek of fear or pain or both.
Nat's long arm shot out, and he dragged his brother back into the niche just in time to save him from being crushed by a second stone fall.
This was worse than the first. For several moments boulders large and small came hopping and bounding down the long, straight slope, striking sparks of fire as they crashed against the rock walls of the tunnel, and filling the narrow place with a choking, blinding dust.
The roar was deafening, and for the minute both the Meadows fully expected that the whole roof would fall and bury them beneath its gigantic mass.
But though great blocks were broken away from both roof and walls, the rock avalanche passed, the dust cleared, and the tunnel was seen to be still passable.
"That scream—did you hear it?" was Nat's first question, as soon as they could hear themselves speak.
"Yes, the wretched fellow has done for himself, I expect. Think it's safe to move, Nat?"
"Yes, let's get on and see the worst of it," answered Nat between his teeth. "It's enough to drive one mad to stay here."
If coming down the slope had been bad, climbing back was fifty times worse. Their nailed boots gave no sort of hold in the slime which covered the steep ascent, and, to make matters worse, every now and then a stone, loosened by the explosion, would drop with a hollow boom from the shaken roof, and come leaping down, forcing the brothers to dodge into any hollow or crevice they could find.
Nat had one particularly narrow escape, for a lump of granite weighing ten or twelve pounds actually grazed his left forearm as it came whizzing past, cutting his sleeve and bruising the flesh. If it had struck him on the head or chest it might have killed him instantly.
They were both breathless and exhausted when they reached more level ground.
Martin, who was leading, stopped short and gave a sharp exclamation.
"You were right, Nat," he said, turning to his brother. "We're buried safe enough. Look at that."
He pointed, as he spoke, to a great barrier of rock and earth which blocked the tunnel from floor to roof. How thick it was there was no means of telling, but not a rat could have burrowed its way through the tumbled mass.
Nat took a step or two forward.
"And there's the ghost," he said grimly, pointing to something which looked like a mere heap of rags lying on its back on the muddy floor a few feet from the fall, and close under the left wall of the tunnel.
Both ran forward together, and Martin, reaching the prostrate figure first, turned his light on the face.
The features were those of a man of about forty, miserably thin and haggard, and covered with a thick growth of beard. The hair of his head, too, was long and matted, his clothes were the veriest rags—so rotten that they hardly held together, and filthily dirty.
His eyes were closed, and he lay very still.
Nat stooped quickly and put his ear against the man's chest.
"He's not dead," he said. "His heart is beating."
"He's had an ugly rap on the head," answered Martin, pointing to a smear of blood oozing from under the matted hair. "But see here, Nat," he went on in a puzzled tone. "How does he come to be on this side of the fall? Surely, if he wanted to trap us like this he would have had sense enough to get to a safe distance the other side before he lit the fuse?"
"It's plain he hadn't sense," answered Nat sharply. "My own idea is that he's a lunatic. But never mind that now. What we've got to find is whether there's any way out. If there isn't, we're 'gone coons.'"
"I don't see that," answered Martin. "Faulkner and Dan will have heard the crash. They'll get men and dig us out."
"They'll do that, I'm sure. But what about air? A job like that takes a long time."
Martin's face showed white and pinched in the strong glow of the electric light.
"I'd forgotten that," he said slowly.
Nat put his arm round the insensible man and lifted him.
"He's coming to," he said. "See, his eyelids are twitching."
Martin drew out his handkerchief and soaked it in the water dripping from the roof. Nat took it and mopped the blood away from the other's forehead.
Quite suddenly the wounded man opened his eyes, and, seeing the two men standing over him, gave a queer, choking cry, and tried to shrink away.
"It's all right," said Nat quietly. "Lie still. We're going to try to find a way out."
The man said nothing, but watched them with terror in his face. Nat lit a candle and stuck it on a stone near by.
"We must leave him," he whispered. "He's as mad as a hatter, but he can't come to much harm here."
"Yes, I see he's dotty, poor chap. Let's try that cross cut that he bolted up when we were chasing him."
They turned back once more down the steep, greasy slope. The cross cut was even more narrow and low roofed than the main passage, and the farther they got in, the narrower it became, until it was little more than a mere burrow.
Then the light fell upon a huge rugged boulder, which absolutely blocked it.
"No use," said Martin quietly. "We must go back." They were both covered with mud and slime by the time they got back into the main passage, and, though neither would show it, both were badly frightened.
"We'd better try farther down," said Nat, and Martin led the way, slipping and sliding down the sloping tunnel, which seemed to lead into the very bowels of the earth.
They passed the niche where they had sheltered during the explosion, and pushed on.
"The air's getting very bad," said Nat presently.
"Yes, it's the fumes from the cartridge," answered Martin. "They're sinking to the bottom. It must mean we're getting to the end of the tunnel."
Nat did not reply. He, and Martin, too, knew that if this were really the case they were both doomed. The air in the upper end of the tunnel would certainly not keep life in them until the great roof fall could be dug away.
"Yes, there's the end. I can see the wall," said Nat, after they had gone another twenty or thirty paces. "I'm afraid it's no use, old chap. The only thing we can do is to go back to the top and wait."
Martin gave a sudden sharp cry.
"Wait a minute. There's another cross cut. See—to the right!"
He plunged forward, slipped, and slid in a sitting position for several yards. With the shock of his fall the torch flew out of his hand, and, striking a stone, broke and went out, leaving them in darkness that could be felt.
"All right, I've got matches. I'll light a candle," said Nat.
There was no reply from Martin.
"Are you hurt?" cried Nat anxiously as he fumbled for matches.
He got no answer.
The first match would not strike. At last he got a flame and lit one of the candles.
He saw Martin lying in a tumbled heap against the end wall of the tunnel.
THE CANDLE BURNS BLUE
"MARTIN!" cried Nat again. His voice was sharp with fear.
But Martin lay quite still.
Almost stunned by this last and worst misfortune, Nat started forward to his brother's help. But even now he had sense and self-restraint enough to move quietly. If he fell like Martin, there would be an end of them both.
He had not gone half a dozen steps before the flame of his candle turned blue and began to go out. At the same moment he had a feeling as if someone had gripped him suddenly by the throat.
"Choke damp!" he gasped, and sprang back.
At once he understood. At the bottom of the sloping tunnel lay a pool of carbonic acid gas, which, being heavier than air, had collected like water at the lower point of the old mine, and at the bottom lay his brother, drowning in the deadly gas.
If Nat were to save him, he must act quickly.
Like a flash he stuck the candle on a ledge in the wall, unrolled the rope, fastened one end firmly around a projecting rock spur, then, taking a long breath, slipped rapidly down the steep descent with the loose end sliding through his hands.
In a moment he was at Martin's side, and, stooping, secured the rope firmly round his body.
Now he had to get back, and already his lungs felt as though they were bursting. Yet he dared not open his lips. Once he filled his lungs with the choking, deadly stuff, he was done for.
How he climbed back up that score of feet of greasy, broken rock he never knew. His head was reeling and his eyes misty when at last he reached the level of his candle, and dared to take a long breath.
Then he had to pull Martin up.
Weakened as he was, the strain was cruel, and when it was over and Martin was safe at last out of the depths of the invisible lake of choke damp, Nat was panting from exhaustion, and his clothes wet through with the perspiration which streamed from every pore.
But there was no rest for him. Martin would die if his lungs were not started to work again, and Nat had to begin the movements of first-aid, exactly as one does in the case of a person apparently drowned.
It was a good five minutes before Martin showed signs of returning consciousness. Then his eyes opened, and he looked round in a dazed way.
"Hullo, what's happened?" he murmured weakly. "Oh, I remember. I had a tumble."
"You did," answered Nat grimly. "Here, drink some of this," putting a brandy flask to his lips.
The strong spirit brought back a touch of colour to Martin's livid face.
"That's better," he said, sitting up. "Take a little yourself, Nat. You're looking precious bad. But what knocked me silly?" he went on in a puzzled voice. "I don't seem to be much damaged. Did I butt my head against anything?"
"No," answered Nat. "But you swallowed more CO2 than was good for your constitution. There's about twenty feet of it just below us."
Martin gave a low whistle.
"So that was it!" His eyes fell on the rope, which was still tied to the projecting rock.
"And you pulled me out, eh?"
"There wasn't anyone else to do it or I might have shied at the job," answered Nat, smiling.
"You were always a good plucked 'un, Nat," said Martin simply, and something in the tone in which the words were uttered sent a pleasant little thrill through Nat's weary frame.
"Seems to me we're just as far as ever from getting out of this moist, unpleasant dungeon," Martin went on. "The mouth of that cross cut is below the gas, and I don't think either of us wants another dose of the stuff. I vote we go back up to the top again and wait."
Nat shrugged his shoulders.
"Hobson's choice," he said. "I only hope that Rufus P. will collect a good hefty crowd to dig us out. You see, that bad air is getting deeper every minute. It's pouring down like water from the powder fumes above."
Martin picked himself up stiffly, and the two slowly worked their way back up the long, slippery tunnel.
"Ugh!" growled Nat, as he paused to rest a moment. "What a beast of a place a tin mine is! If I ever get out of this you may be sure I'll never put my head inside one again."
"Same here," answered Martin. "But, hullo, what's become of our lunatic?"
Nat raised his candle. Its yellow gleam reached to the great fall which blocked the passage. Sure enough, there was no sign of the injured man.
He turned a startled face to his brother.
"This is a queer go and no mistake. He must have gone up that other side passage."
Martin seized his brother's arm.
"Steady!" he exclaimed in a voice that trembled slightly with excitement. "Don't go any farther."
"Why? What's up?"
"Perhaps that chap knew a way out. Remember, he's been living in the mine. We must find his footprints."
"You're right," he answered. "I never thought of that."
He lowered the candle and moved forward cautiously, throwing the light on the floor as he went.
Presently he gave a sharp exclamation.
"Here they are!"
He pointed to the unmistakable marks of the much-worn rubber soles of the shoes that the man wore.
Martin examined them closely.
"He's turned here," he said. "He must have walked a little way down to see what had become of us and then gone back."
"But there's no cross cut between this and the fall," answered Nat.
"Well, he can't have vanished into thin air," said Martin with a touch of sharpness in his voice. His nerves had been badly strained by the events of the past hour.
"That's true," replied Nat. "Come on, then. Let's see what rabbit-hole he's crawled into."
Step by step he followed the slipshod prints of the broken rubber soles.
Twenty yards or so from the fall, he pulled up short.
"They stop here. See, there are his tracks as he went down. Here they are coming back. And they stop right in the middle of the passage. Martin, I don't half like this. It's uncanny."
Martin rose slowly to his feet. Then all of a sudden he burst into a laugh, so loud and sharp that Nat fairly jumped.
"Nat!" he cried. "Someone ought to kick us for a couple of blind idiots. Look there!"
He pointed upwards.
Exactly above their heads was a good-sized hole in the roof.
"Well, I'm blessed!" muttered Nat sheepishly. Then, recovering himself: "Here, hold the candle, Martin. I'm going up."
"Steady on! The lunatic may be waiting up above with a brick," said Martin.
"I'll have to chance that," replied Nat dryly. "Here goes."
A wooden beam ran across the aperture. It was old and black and slimy, but apparently sound. Nat took hold of it with both hands, swung himself up, and got his feet on it.
"Hand up the candle, Martin," he called down. "It's black as a hat up here."
Martin did so.
Presently Nat stooped down again.
"It's a sort of shaft," he said. "But no great height. And cross-timbered all the way. Come on up. Even if we can't get out by it, at any rate we shall be away from the foul air."
Martin clambered up, and the two scrambled from beam to beam till, about twenty feet higher up, they reached another gallery, higher, broader, and drier than the one they had left. The air, too, was much fresher.
Along this they proceeded cautiously for some distance, when Nat, who was leading, pulled up short.
"I smell smoke," he said.
"Peat smoke, too," said Martin, sniffing. "Then there must be some communication between this passage and the cave chamber where we found the lunatic."
"You're right. There is!" answered Nat triumphantly as he took a couple of steps forward. "Here we are," pointing to a hole in the floor of the gallery. "If I'm not very much out, we're right on top of the chimney."
"Yes, I can see the glow down below," said Martin joyfully. "And, by Jove! some kindly disposed person has put in cross timbers all the way down. We're out of the wood at last, I do believe. Here goes."
He slipped down into the shaft. Nat followed. A few moments later they both dropped down safely on the floor of the cave chamber.
"My, boys, but you've scared me out of a year's growth!" came a startled exclamation, and there was Rufus P. Faulkner, candle in hand, staring at them in blank amazement.
It did not take the brothers long to explain their adventures. Faulkner listened with breathless interest. It appeared that he and Dan had heard the crash of the explosion and had rushed in.
It took them some time to discover where the fall had taken place, and then Faulkner, suspecting that the Meadows must be behind it, had at once sent Dan off for help, and meantime waited himself in the cave chamber to keep watch.
"And where's our lunatic?" broke in Nat suddenly. "In the excitement I'd forgotten all about him."
"Oh, I corralled him all right," answered Faulkner. "He was in here when I arrived, sitting over the fire and chuckling like a crazy hyena. He tried to bolt, but I roped him. There he is in the corner with his feet tied just to make sure."
"Then the sooner we get him and ourselves out of this unpleasant burrow the better for us all," said Nat.
The lunatic moaned and screamed pitifully when they took hold of him, and they had to carry him out bodily. His distress when they got him into the open air was painful to see. But they carried him up to the house, and put him to bed in one of the upper rooms.
Just then Dan came hurrying up the hillside followed by half a dozen moor men with picks and shovels.
Nat ran out to meet them. Dan was so surprised to see him that he nearly collapsed.
Nat explained matters, but said nothing about the lunatic. Then he asked the men in, and opened a jar of cider. While the men were enjoying this, he got Dan aside and sent him off for Dr. Pengelly.
It was two hours before the doctor arrived. They took him up to see the poor lunatic.
When he came down his face was grave.
"I'm afraid it's a hopeless case," he said, shaking his grizzled head.
"What—is he going to die?" exclaimed Nat.
"Oh, no, he's fairly sound in body. It's his brain that's all wrong. But at present he's half starved and miserably weak. The only thing to do is to keep him quiet and feed him up. I'll see him again in a few days. Then you can send him to the county asylum."
"Oh, no," replied Nat quickly, "we won't do that; we'll look after him for a bit, anyhow."
NAT RECEIVES A VISITOR
"GREAT Scott, boys, but you're making things hum!"
Martin and Nat both started at the sound of the familiar voice, and, dropping their tools, came forward to greet Faulkner, who, very spruce in a suit of grey tweeds, had just walked into the workshop at the mine house.
"Where have you been all this time? We began to think you were lost," laughed Nat, as he shook hands with the American.
"I've been real busy," answered Faulkner.
"Putting rods in pickle for Condon & Co.?" suggested Martin.
"That's telling," said Faulkner, with a twinkle in his eyes. "But it's a fact that I've been fixing things up for another try after those papers."
"So they haven't sold them yet?" asked Martin.
"No, I've put a stopper on that. At least for the present. I'm letting them think that maybe they can get more out of our people than out of anyone else. But we'll leave it at that for the moment. What I want to know is, how you're getting on. It looks to me as if you'd done a right smart lot of work since I left a month ago."
"We haven't done so badly," allowed Martin in his quiet way. "In fact, the first machine ought to be ready in another couple of weeks."
"The first machine?" said Faulkner, looking puzzled. "I don't catch on. Are you going to build more than one?"
"Yes! Nat and I talked it out, and came to the conclusion that we must build a small experimental machine before we go in for the big one. You see, we're working on new lines. This new alloy alters everything. We want to make a practical test of what it can do before we go in for the prize plane."
"I daresay you're right. Anyhow, I reckon you know what you're playing at. And if you can build as quick as this, you'll have plenty of time to get the large one ready before the date of the big race. But tell me, now"—as he picked up a beautifully made section of a crank case—"how did you manage about your castings? You told me that you had not machinery to make them yourselves."
"That's true," answered Martin. "We've been getting them made at different factories. Crank case at one place, propeller shaft at another, pistons at a third, and so on. We sent the metal and the scale drawings."
"Isn't that risky?" asked Faulkner, frowning a little. "I thought you were particularly anxious not to let your alloy get into other hands."
"I don't think it matters much," said Martin. "You see, even if they analyse it they can't make it without knowing the process. I think we're safe enough."
"But someone will be smart enough to realise that you're out for the fifty thousand."
"That can't be helped," answered Martin. "It's bound to creep out sooner or later. And so long as no one knows the secret of our alloy, they can't hope to compete with us."
"Well, I guess you know best. Anyhow, we'll leave it at that. Only be careful, boys. Apart from any money considerations, I'm dead set on seeing you win that big prize. And now, how's the lunatic?"
"Nat's tamed him," said Martin with his grave smile.
"Tamed him, eh? How did you do that, Nat?"
"Just like you'd tame a scared puppy," answered Nat cheerfully. "He's not half so loony as he used to be. And he's getting fatter every day."
"The trouble is to keep him out of the mine," added Martin. "We've had to put a door on the opening, or he'd be back in his burrow, and we'd never get him out again."
"That's funny," said Faulkner thoughtfully. "I wonder what makes him so keen on the mine."
"Can't say, I'm sure," said Nat. "We haven't been able to find out who he is or anything about him. And though he talks sensibly enough sometimes, he's never said a word to give us any information."
"I reckon you ought to put him in an institution," suggested Faulkner.
"What—a lunatic asylum?" exclaimed Nat. "No, I haven't the heart to do that. He'd fret his soul out if he was taken away from here. He doesn't cost much to keep, and he makes himself useful bringing in turf, and doing little odd jobs."
"Oh, well, please yourselves," answered Faulkner. "I only hope he won't go funny, and burn you out or stick a knife into you."
"Bless you, no! He won't do anything of that sort," laughed Nat, as he picked up his hammer again.
At this moment Dan Trethewy came into the shop. His usually merry face was graver than usual.
"Mr. Nat, there's a gent wants to see you," he said.
"A gentleman to see me? Who is he?" asked Nat, a good deal surprised. Visitors were rare at Wheal Antony.
"He didn't give no name."
"What sort of a man is he?"
"Oh, he's got clothes like a tourist. But I don't reckon he's a tourist all the same," answered Dan shrewdly.
"Why don't you think so, Dan?" asked Faulkner, while Nat slipped off his overalls and wiped his hands on a roll of waste.
"His face is too sharp, and he's got eyes like two gimlets," replied Dan.
"Sounds interesting," said Nat with a smile as he made for the door. "I'll go and interview Mr. Gimlet Eyes and see what he wants."
Dan's description was not a bad one, Nat thought, as he entered the living room and the visitor rose to meet him.
The new-comer was a man rather below middle height; he stood very straight, and had a keen, alert look on his clean-shaven face. But Nat's first impression was that his lips were too thin and his eyes, which were very deep sunken, were too sharp.
"You are Mr. Nat Meadows?" began the stranger, speaking in a thin, dry voice.
"Yes!" said Nat.
"My name is Alger, and I represent a firm you may have heard of—Peregrine Brothers."
Nat was on his guard at once.
"Yes, I have heard of them," he said.
"It has come to my principals' ears that you and your brother are engaged in the construction of a machine of a new type. Is that correct?"
"Quite; but I don't know how you heard it."
"It is our business to keep up with all the latest developments of aerial science," replied Alger, with a smile. "May I ask if it is true that you are working with a new alloy?"
"My dear sir, you can hardly expect me to answer questions of that sort," said Nat good humouredly.
"It was a foolish question to ask," answered Alger coolly, "for as a matter of fact I know that you are. A specimen is actually in the hands of my firm, and my principals are so favourably impressed with it that they are prepared to offer you and your brother very advantageous terms for the secret of its manufacture."
Nat raised his hand.
"Stop there, Mr. Alger. Nothing that your firm or any other firm could offer would induce us to sell the secret."
There was an ugly flicker in Alger's deep-set eyes, but his tone did not change in the least as he spoke again.
"Don't be hasty, Mr. Meadows. I have naturally made it my business to inquire into your circumstances, and I know that you and your brother have not the capital sufficient to tackle such a big thing as this. Now, I am prepared to offer you a large sum down, and also a royalty on all sales. If the new alloy proves to be as good as it seems, you will both be rich men."
"I know we shall," answered Nat with a smile. "That fifty thousand pound prize will make us so."
Alger bit his lips. He was evidently dangerously near the limit of his temper.
"Do you really imagine that you will have any chance of winning that?" he asked sourly.
"We're going to have a jolly good try," replied Nat genially.
"I gave you credit for more sense," snapped Mr. Alger. "Can you suppose for a moment that a pair of mechanics without capital or influence can possibly build a machine fit for such a race?"
"Time will show," answered Nat.
Alger's temper went snap.
"Then I will wish you a very good evening," he snarled, and snatching up his hat, gloves, and stick, marched out, slamming the door behind him.
Nat gave a prolonged whistle.
"So Mr. Alger means to be nasty? Well, with Faulkner's help we ought to be a match for him."
THE TRIAL TRIP
MARTIN tightened the last rigging screw and stepped back.
"She's finished, Nat," he said quietly.
The brothers stood in silence, looking at the new plane, which, complete to the last nut, stood under the skylight in the centre of the hangar.
"She's a jim dandy, boys," remarked Faulkner, who had just come into the shed carrying a heavy parcel. "If she's as good as she looks, she'll knock spots off anything that flies."
"We haven't tried her yet," said Martin with his grave smile.
"No, and we shan't be able to till the weather settles a bit," added Nat. "Listen to that," as a heavy gust roared overhead, rattling the iron roof of the building.
"I reckon it'll just give us time to paint her," said Faulkner cheerfully, as he dumped his parcel on the work bench and cut the string. Then he took a tin, and turned out into it a quantity of fine powder of the most vivid carmine tint.
"Great Scott, you don't want us to paint her that colour?" exclaimed Martin, startled for once out of his usual calm. "She'll look like a flying fire-engine."
"You don't know what you're talking about," retorted Faulkner. "Crimson's my lucky colour, and it's going to be yours, too. And I'd like you to know that this is proper vermilion, which I've just had down from London. None of your cheap iron oxide or red lead, but the genuine article made out of mercury.
"Give me some oil and turps," he went on. "I'll mix the stuff and put it on, too. It won't be the first time I've handled a paint brush, not by a long chalk."
Martin glanced at Nat. Nat grinned, and began to hunt for the oil tin. Within a couple of hours the job was finished, and the new plane glowed crimson from propeller to rudder.
"Looks as if she was blushing," chuckled Nat.
"Because she's so beautiful," answered Faulkner, gazing at the machine with extreme admiration.
It was still blowing hard as they walked across to the house for tea, but the sky was clearing and the glass rising.
"Fine day to-morrow," said Nat confidently. "We'll do her trial trip all right."
"Say, Nat, feel like a longish run?" asked Faulkner suddenly.
"Why, yes, if she goes all right," answered Nat, a little surprised.
"Take me to Marlwood again?"
"Seems to me you had trouble enough getting away last time," said Martin dryly. "What's the use of running your head into the lion's mouth again?"
"No lions' mouths for me this journey," declared Faulkner. "I've got the business fixed up all right at last, and I reckon to get those deeds back without a deal of trouble."
"I'll take you all right," said Nat heartily. "And if Condon tries chasing us again, I rather fancy he'll get left."
"I shouldn't wonder if he did," answered Martin dryly, as he began to pour out tea.
None of the party slept very well that night. They were all too excited about the coming trial. At first break of dawn Nat was up, and, dressing quickly, slipped down and out. He thought he was first, but was surprised to find Faulkner already outside.
"I reckon there's nothing wrong with the weather, Nat," was Faulkner's greeting.
"You couldn't better it," answered Nat, looking at the sunrise. "Proper golden! And the clouds moving steady as soldiers. Wait, I'll have her out in a minute."
"You'll have your breakfast before you fly an inch, Nat," came Martin's quiet voice. "No tricks on an empty stomach, if you please."
Nat made a wry face, but he knew it was no use kicking when his brother put his foot down.
"Well, I'll just see that all's right," he said. "Call me when the grub's on the table."
Dan Trethewy got breakfast in record time, and Martin saw that Nat ate a good meal. As soon as he had swallowed the last mouthful, Nat was out, and in less than five minutes the new machine had been wheeled out of her shed, and stood with her fresh paint gleaming in the morning sun.
The smoke from the mine house chimney was rising straight up into the calm air as Nat took his seat for the trial flight, and somewhere in the blue above a skylark was singing. In spite of having made scores of flights previously, and being an old hand in the matter of aerial travel, Nat's heart was beating more rapidly than usual as he started his engine.
What would the new machine do? Would she fulfil all the hopes they had formed? So much depended upon her that it was hardly wonderful he was a trifle nervous.
"Let go!" he shouted.
The powerful engine roared; the light machine shot forward across the turf. Nat lifted his warping planes, and almost before he knew it she was off the ground and whizzing with arrow-like speed high above the golden gorse and purple heather.
Nat drew a long sigh of relief. There was no doubt about her capacity to rise, and he was conscious of a wonderful feeling of lightness and power. She climbed steadily at a long slant, moving as easily and more swiftly than an albatross.
The contrast between this new machine and his old one was so great that Nat could hardly credit his senses when, a moment or two later, he looked downwards and saw the mine building a mere toy at his feet, while his brother, Faulkner and Dan Trethewy had dwindled to the size of mice.
Up and up he soared in great sweeping circles, until his barometer showed that he was already 1,200 feet above the tor tops. Then he steadied her, and, on level keel, darted forward.
Now he fairly leapt through the air. The wind caused by the terrific speed struck his face like something solid.
Faster and faster he flew. The country below unrolled like a map. He had left the moor. Poltrewan lay below, a cluster of tiny houses plastered on a little ledge. Beyond was the sea, a vast expanse resembling green silk, with the ledge from which he had rescued Faulkner on the morning after the gale sticking out like a small black wrinkle.
Nat's pulses leapt with excitement. He began to realise that he was flying with a power and freedom which no man born had ever yet accomplished. He wanted to shout with sheer joy. He felt that he must drive straight ahead and never stop until France lay beneath his feet.
Then he remembered Faulkner and his anxiety to reach Marlwood, where lived Condon, the man who had stolen the papers of which Faulkner was in search, and, seizing his steering column, he banked the plane round. He took her purposely at a steep angle, but there was no sign of the side-slip which has destroyed so many fine airmen, and in a moment he was speeding back to the mine.
Seven minutes later he landed lightly at the very spot from which he had started.
As he jumped from his seat Martin strode up. His face was a trifle flushed, and his eyes were shining.
"You think she'll do?" he asked.
"Do?" repeated Nat. "Man alive, there's nothing in the air to touch her! She'd make rings round the next fastest thing that flies. Come on. You must have a turn."
"Yes, Martin, I reckon you ought to have a run," said Faulkner. "I guess Nat and I won't need more than an hour or so to get to Marlwood."
So Martin got in, and Nat took him up and gave him twenty gorgeous minutes' whirling high over the moor in the strong morning sunlight. The Crimson Aeroplane behaved to perfection, and Martin's face was glowing with delight as they came to earth again.
Then Nat filled up the tanks once more with petrol, Faulkner stepped into the back seat, and Martin and Dan watched them sailing eastwards, till they vanished out of sight in the distant blue.
What breeze there was blew behind the Crimson Aeroplane, and like a scarlet dragon-fly she darted through the upper air at a speed which almost frightened Faulkner and gladdened Nat's heart.
The Cornishman, the big express running from Falmouth to Paddington, came roaring along beneath them, but they left her as if she were standing still.
The Tamar appeared like a silver thread, vanished in a few moments, and they were flashing up across Devon.
"No going round by Dartmoor to-day," cried Nat rejoicingly, as he lifted the planes and sent the splendid little machine soaring skywards.
"I should reckon not," answered Faulkner. "Great Scott! She wouldn't make any bones about flying over the Alps. I told you red was my lucky colour, lad."
"We're doing something like eighty," announced Nat. "We'll be at Marlwood in another twenty minutes."
"Can you come down a bit this side of Marlwood—somewhere near Challacombe?" asked Faulkner.
"Yes, if I can find a field to light in."
"You'll see one just to the west of the village. It belongs to Coaker, the landlord of a little fishing hotel they call the Herring Bone."
"You seem to know the place?" laughed Nat.
"You bet I do," answered Faulkner.
Talking was hard work at the speed they were travelling. Neither spoke again until Nat, with a magnificent volplane, shot down out of the sky and dropped gently on the level sward of Mr. Coaker's field.
"Here's your garage," said Faulkner, pointing to a large shed just in front. "Get her in quick. We don't want all the village to be coming round us."
"You've thought of everything," exclaimed Nat as he steered the plane into her new quarters.
"I guess you've got to when you're dealing with folk like Condon," answered Faulkner gravely.
It was still so early in the morning and their descent had been so sudden and rapid that, barring a couple of labourers, no one seemed to have noticed them.
As soon as the plane was safe in the shed Faulkner hastily closed and locked the door, then took Nat quickly across to a long, low building with a blue-slated roof, and a signboard over the door, with a faded picture of a very ugly nigger on it. Faulkner skirted round to a side door and opened it.
"Coaker," he called.
A short, stout man with a thick crop of curly grey hair came out. He was in his shirt-sleeves and was polishing a glass with a duster.
His fat face brightened as he saw Faulkner.
"Morning, sir," he said, cheerily.
"Good morning, Coaker. Hornett here?"
"No, sir. I'm expecting him every minute."
At this moment there was a quick, sharp step on the gravel walk, and a man came hurriedly in. He was quite short, but he had the squarest shoulders and deepest chest that Nat had ever seen for a man of his size. His keen face was clean-shaven and browned with exposure to weather, and his eyes seemed to take in everything at one glance.
"I'm real glad to see you, Hornett," said Faulkner. "This is Mr. Nat Meadows that you know of."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Meadows," said Hornett, grasping Nat's hand and giving it a powerful squeeze.
"How are things?" asked Faulkner, and, though his tone was light, Nat could hear the anxiety in his question.
"We're in the cart, Rufus," replied Hornett harshly. "And that's a fact."
A spasm of anxiety crossed Faulkner's face.
"How do you mean?" he asked quickly.
"Condon's got wind of what we are after. How, I can't tell, but, anyhow, he's cut his stick."
"What—ye don't mean to tell me he's cleared out?"
"I guess he has. He and Drucker left nearly an hour ago in the Tern."
"The Tern—you mean their motor-boat?"
"That's what. And it's my own fool fault," went on Hornett bitterly. "If I'd had any sense I'd have put their engine out of commission."
"Any idea which way they went?"
"Lundy Island, I guess. That's the way they were heading last time I saw them."
Faulkner gave a dismayed whistle.
"Then I reckon they meant to meet the other folk there?"
"That's the way I put it," said Hornett. "They'll meet 'em there, hand over the deeds, and take the cash. And as there isn't a craft nearer than Ilfracombe with half the speed of the Tern, why, I guess we're done in."
"I'm not so sure about that," answered Faulkner. "I've a notion we've got a chance still of overhauling the cunning beggars. How far is it to Lundy?"
"Matter of thirty miles from Marlwood."
"And what can the Tern do?"
"All of twenty-five knots."
"And they've got nearly an hour's start? Nat, have we a dog's chance, do you reckon?"
"We can try, anyhow," answered Nat. "Come on. There isn't a minute to waste."
"What's the game?" asked Hornett, mystified.
"Aeroplane. Smartest thing on wings," answered Faulkner, as he ran in pursuit of Nat.
Never before had Nat got a flying-machine under way so quickly. It was not four minutes after leaving the inn that he had the Crimson Aeroplane out of the shed.
Villagers came running as they heard the crackling roar of the powerful engine, but almost before they realised what caused the strange sound the brilliantly coloured little machine shot skywards like a rocket, leaving them gaping open-mouthed as they watched her flash at an amazing speed over the trees in the direction of the sea.
Another three minutes, and the yellow flood of the Bristol Channel lay far beneath the airman and his passenger. Opposite was the blue line of the Welsh coast, and in mid sea the black funnels of the steamers that use Bristol and the Severn ports threw dark smudges of smoke across the water.
Lundy's cliffs rose far to the left, and Nat headed the plane for the lonely island.
"Get well up, Nat. Maybe we'll get a sight of 'em," said Faulkner.
Nat tilted his planes, and the sea shrank beneath them.
Faulkner put a pair of glasses to his eyes and leant out, scanning the waste of waters.
"There they are!" he cried suddenly. "By Jinks! they're almost there. Let her out, Nat, for all you're worth."
The deep note of the engine rose a tone. The plane rushed on. Lundy seemed to rise rapidly out of the water, and presently Nat, too, caught sight of a long, low motorboat tearing across the water in the direction of the island. He could see the plume of white foam leaping from under her forefoot, and the milky trail she left in her wake. Already she was almost under the shadow of the cliffs.
"She's making for that bit of beach," said Faulkner. "Can you drop there, Nat?"
"Better not try it. Safer to land on top of the cliffs."
The fierce joy of the chase had seized Nat. He was driving the plane for all she was worth. Perhaps never before had man travelled at such appalling speed.
The motor-boat shot into the cove. Whether her crew had seen the plane or not, Faulkner and Nat were unable to tell, but it was plain that Condon and Drucker were in a terrible hurry, for as soon as the boat reached the little wharf, they were out, and mooring her alongside, hurried away across the sandy beach up a cliff path, and disappeared from the view of their pursuers.
"Never mind, well catch 'em all right. Well meet 'em on the top," cried Nat. But as he spoke the engine shut up like a knife.
THE sudden silence was absolutely terrifying. The plane pitched forward and began to drop swiftly.
Instinctively Nat raised his warping planes, and the angle of fall became less steep.
"What's up?" cried Faulkner.
"I don't know," answered Nat, trying desperately to start up the engine again. "Look at the tank. Seems to me she's getting no petrol."
Hastily Faulkner unscrewed the cover of the tank.
"Why, it's empty!" he gasped.
"Empty? Then there's a leak. We had plenty for two hundred miles. But don't worry," he added, as he heard Faulkner's gasp of dismay. "At the pace she's travelling, I think she'll reach the beach."
There followed a minute of desperate anxiety. In spite of the confidence with which he had spoken, Nat had strong doubts as to whether they had sufficient way to gain the shore. As for Faulkner, he did not for a moment believe it possible. But then he had never before travelled in any flying-machine except Nat's old Blériot, and he did not in the least realise the tremendous speed of the new plane.
Downwards and forwards she shot. The wrinkled waves seemed to leap upwards to meet them. It was like the sweep of a toboggan down a smooth ice slide. Faulkner, gripping the sides of the body, held his breath. He fully expected that they would be plunged next moment into the swirling tide.
Steeper and steeper became the drop; the speed was terrifying. Then, just as it seemed certain that she would plunge like a diving guillemot into deep water, Nat jerked up his planes once more, and the wonderful little machine came back almost to an even keel, and darted forward like a skimming swallow just above the tops of the waves.
Next instant there was a slight splash as the wheels skimmed the shallow edge of the ripple, then a sharp rustle as they rushed across the sand. Next instant a jerk, and the Crimson Aeroplane stopped so sharply and suddenly that both her passengers were flung forward in a heap on top of the steering wheel.
"Are you hurt, Nat?" cried Faulkner anxiously, as he picked himself up.
"No," gasped Nat breathlessly. "Only got the wind knocked out of me."
"What made her stop like that?" asked Faulkner, as he scrambled out.
"Soft sand. Her wheels have stuck in it," answered Nat, jumping out after the other.
"We've broken a wheel," said Faulkner quickly.
Nat's face became grave.
"That's a bad job," he muttered.
He turned and looked at the sea, and his lips tightened.
"The tide's rising," he said. "We'll have to get her out of this as quickly as we can."
"Come on then, I'll lend a hand," answered Faulkner. "No time to waste. We must be after Condon before he gets away."
Faulkner was under the impression that it would be the easiest thing in the world to lift the aeroplane out of her present position. He got a nasty shock when he found how heavy she was.
In spite of the lightness of the new metal, her big engine made her weight too much for his strength and Nat's, and in any case an aeroplane is a very awkward-shaped object to tackle.
After a great struggle they did manage to lift her a little, but the sand was soft and loose for a long way in, and there were no stones handy to prop her up with. The loss of her wheel made her quite unmanageable, and after three or four minutes' useless effort, they stopped, panting and exhausted.
"This'll never do," gasped Nat, wiping away the perspiration that poured down his forehead. "We must get help."
"There's a house up the cliff there," said Faulkner. "I'll go and see if I can find someone."
He strode away, leaving Nat anxiously watching the line of foam which was rapidly advancing up the beach.
Minutes passed. The ripples were touching the back skid when Faulkner reappeared, running down the beach with four stout-looking fellows behind him.
Nat showed them how to take hold, and with a heave and a haul the aeroplane was lifted bodily out of her sandy bed and tugged up to a point above high-water mark.
Nat looked at the damaged wheel while Faulkner paid the men for their help.
"I can fix this up all right in an hour or two," he said, "and I've no doubt I can solder up the tank. The question is, can we get any petrol? We're helpless without it."
"I reckon it's a mighty poor place to find petrol," answered Faulkner. "I don't suppose there are any motorcars on Lundy Island. But look here, Nat, what I want to do is to get hold of Condon. If he sells those papers to the other folk, I'm done in."
"I don't fancy there's any hurry about that," replied Nat. "There's their launch at the wharf. They can't leave without our seeing them. And Just remember, we're as good as marooned here until we've got the plane in flying order again."
"Maybe you're right," said Faulkner reluctantly. "Well, I guess I'll go and have a look round for petrol."
"One can would be enough to take us back to the mainland," called out Nat as Faulkner hurried off along the steep path leading up the cliff.
The wheel was a tough job, but Nat managed a temporary repair. Then he turned to the tank. How a brand new tank could have leaked like this was a mystery; but when he came to look at it, he found something which startled him badly.
A tiny hole had been bored in the bottom of the tank. It was no bigger than the point of a large pin, but Nat was certain in a moment that it was no flaw.
Without a doubt it had been made purposely.
Nat gave a low whistle.
"Now who did this, and when was it done?" he murmured. "It could hardly have been done at home. Strikes me someone must have been hidden in the shed at Challacombe. What a low-down trick to play!"
It was no use worrying about it. The thing was to mend it as soon as possible. Luckily he had a soldering iron among the tools, and a blow-lamp, and he set to work vigorously.
At last it was done. He looked at his watch. To his surprise he had been at work nearly two hours.
But what on earth was Faulkner doing?
At this moment a man came hurrying down the cliff path, and made straight for Nat. He was a long, thin, shambling fellow in a ragged blue guernsey and patched trousers.
He came straight across to Nat, and touched his greasy cap with a dirty forefinger.
"Be you Mr. Meadows?" he asked.
"Yes. What is it?"
"I were to tell you as the other gent, has fell down and hurt hisself. He's up to our house, and says will you please come to him."
Nat flung down his tools.
"What shocking bad luck!" he muttered. "Is he much hurt?"
"Broken his leg I believe, sir," answered the man, turning away.
Very anxious and troubled, Nat followed.
The man led the way up the cliff and along a rough track. About a mile inland they came to a lonely, bare-looking cottage, standing some way back from the path. No other house was in sight.
Nat's conductor went straight up to the door and opened it, and Nat, all unsuspecting, followed him into a room, so badly lighted that it seemed almost dark after the bright sunlight outside.
The door shut with a slam, and before Nat knew what was happening, two men had leapt upon him and flung him down. The next thing he knew he was flat on his face on the floor with his hands tied fast behind his back.
"Easy as falling off a log, eh, Jake?" came a sneering voice. "Just run through his pockets while he's safe."
Nat, helpless to resist, felt his pockets turned out, one after another. There was nothing of any particular importance in them, but everything was taken out.
"Now set him alongside his partner," came the same voice again.
Nat felt himself lifted by a pair of immensely powerful hands, and he was roughly dumped down in a wooden chair and tied into it. Next him was Faulkner, fast to another chair, and facing him were two men, one the great, shaggy creature whom he had previously seen at Marlwood, the other shorter with a bald head, a nose like an eagle's beak, and a hard mouth.
The latter, who was, of course, Condon, smiled in a way which made Nat long to kick him.
"Wal, my young friend," he said, wagging his head solemnly, "I reckon you'll think twice before you run up against Steve Condon again. Now I'm real sorry to inconvenience you, but Rufus here and you will hev to consider yourselves my guests for a day or two, until Jake and I have finished our little bit of business.
"Come right along, Jake," he continued, and with a hateful chuckle he went out, followed by his uncouth accomplice.
The key turned in the lock, and Nat and Faulkner were left alone in their dingy, ill-lit prison.
Nat looked at Faulkner.
"If your legs were free," he said grimly, "I'd ask you to kick me—hard."
"Same here, Nat," answered Faulkner with a poor attempt at a smile. "I don't know how they caught you, but I ran into the trap like a jack rabbit into a corral. A chap came and told me that there was a fellow here who had a couple of tins of petrol to sell, and I swallowed the yarn like a lamb."
"As for me, they said you were here with a broken leg, and it didn't occur to me to make any inquiries," said Nat.
"My legs are all right if I could only use 'em," remarked Faulkner, glancing at the coils of stout rope which fastened his lower limbs to the chair legs. "Say, Nat, is it any use shouting?"
"Not a ha'porth. We're a long way back from the track, and there's not a house in sight of this one."
"Then we've got to get loose all on our little own."
Nat was already twisting his wrists in a vigorous attempt to get free. His hands were very long and slender, and he hoped to be able to slip them through the ropes that fastened them. But Jake Drucker had evidently known his business, for after struggling till the perspiration dripped from his face, Nat had to give in.
"It's no use," he murmured. "The chap must have been a sailor. I can't get the beastly cord off."
"I'd like mighty well to know whether Condon's left anyone on guard," said Faulkner. "What's come of that ragged-looking loafer who acted as decoy duck?"
"He sneaked off after them," said Nat. "I saw him through the window."
"That's good," replied the American. "I guess he won't come back till he's spent some of the cash that Condon's given him for his share in the game. He's probably at the nearest public-house right now."
"Poor look-out for us if he gets tipsy, and leaves us here to starve," growled Nat.
"No starving for yours truly," replied Faulkner. "I'll tell you right now, it's not the first time I've been served like this, and I guess Mister 'Smarty' Condon hasn't seen the last of Rufus P.—no, not by some chalks."
"What are you going to do?" demanded Nat, all his interest aroused.
"You won't have to wait a great while to see, my boy. At least, not if I'm half as spry as I used to be four or five years ago."
Then, as Nat watched in amazement, Faulkner began to move himself, chair and all, across the floor. He did this by getting his toes against the boards and working along backwards with a series of short jerks.
The chair was heavy, and the bare boards were rough, but the strength in Faulkner's ankles was wonderful. He made towards a rough shelf at the end of the room, and Nat, who at first could not imagine what his object was, suddenly noticed an old rusty table knife lying there on the shelf.
At once he began to imitate the other, and work in the same direction.
It took the best part of five minutes for Faulkner to reach the shelf, and he was blowing hard by the time he got there.
Then Nat gave a gasp of disappointment. The shelf was too high to be reached by his companion's bound hands.
"All right, my son; don't worry," panted Faulkner, as he slewed his chair round. And cleverly tipping himself forward, he managed to get the handle of the knife between his teeth.
"My word, that's smart!" cried Nat, as he hitched himself nearer.
"You won't think it so smart if I should happen to drop the thing," answered Faulkner hoarsely. It was difficult to speak at all with his mouth full of knife. "Now you switch round, Nat, with your back to me. And if I can manage to lean far enough forward, I guess I'll cut that cord through before you're a great while older."
There was a moment of deep suspense as Faulkner bent his body forward as far as his bound arms allowed. Then Nat's heart leapt as he felt the rough edge of the worn blade grate upon the cord which fastened his wrists.
The person who has never tried cutting even a thin cord with a blunt knife held between his teeth can have absolutely no idea of the exertion involved. But Faulkner stuck to his task like a Trojan, and at last Nat felt a little snap, as the first coil was cut through.
"Hurrah!" he cried, giving his wrists a sharp jerk.
There was a slight tinkle.
"Now you've done it," remarked Faulkner quietly. "The knife's on the floor, and only one knot's gone."
Nat gave a gasp of dismay. Then in a sudden burst of anger and disappointment he wrenched his hands apart with all his force.
The cords fell away, and he was free.
"That's mighty fortunate," observed Faulkner in the same unmoved tone. "However, all's well that ends well. And now I reckon we're on the road to getting out of this for good."
Nat hardly heard. Already he had snatched up the knife, and with a couple of furious slashes had cut his legs free.
It was at this moment that the door opened and a lanky figure in ragged trousers and patched guernsey appeared in the opening.
The sight before him seemed to paralyse him. He stood for a moment, staring stupidly, then with a howl of alarm turned and bolted.
"After him, Nat. Catch him. For any sake don't let him get away and warn Condon," shouted Faulkner.
Nat was across the room in two jumps. The man was sprinting over the grass towards the path. His legs were long, and fright lent him pace.
But he was no match for Nat. An airman must always keep himself in the pink of condition, and Nat had been leading a particularly hard and healthy life for months past. He gained at every stride, caught the fellow just as he reached the path, tripped him neatly, and sent him sprawling.
Then, before the man could get his breath again, Nat had him by the collar of his guernsey and the slack of his breeches, and ran him back to the cottage. Another minute and the rope which had fastened Nat's wrists was knotted around those of the man who had tricked him, and then Nat quickly cut Faulkner loose.
"Now, then," said Faulkner to their prisoner, "what have you got to say for yourself, my beauty? Any reason to offer why I shouldn't hand you over to the nearest magistrate as a kidnapper and a thief?"
He spoke so sternly that the wretched man simply crumpled up and began to whine piteously for mercy.
"There's just one way you can get off," said Faulkner. "Tell us in which direction your late employers went."
"They went down to the landing," declared the man.
"You're sure of that?"
"I seed 'em with my own eyes."
"Did they meet anybody on the way or on the beach?"
"No, sir. They went straight down to their boat."
"Do you reckon he's telling the truth, Nat?"
The ragged man assured them frantically that every word he had said was true.
"All right. We'll prove it. Cast off the lashings, Nat. We'll take him with us, and if he's right, he shall go, and if not we'll haul him up."
Another minute and they were all three on their way back to the landing place.
"My word, he's right," exclaimed Nat, as they reached the top of the cliff. "The launch is gone!"
LIEUT. VOSPER, R.N.F.C.
"IS the plane all right?" asked Faulkner, as he eagerly hurried forward.
"Seems to be. No, the beggars have cut the stays!"
Nat's face was white with anger as he saw the damage that had been done to his beloved machine. He started running down the cliff road, and Faulkner, leaving the ragged man to his own devices, followed.
He found Nat examining the damaged machine.
"Is it bad, Nat?"
"Nothing I couldn't put right in a few hours if I had the stuff. But I haven't, and there's nothing on the island. The only thing will be to put her under cover and get a boat across to the mainland."
"I wish I knew what Condon was up to," said Faulkner, biting his lips thoughtfully.
"I suppose he's got rid of the will to the other people and hooked it."
"That's not my notion. If Lucraft, the fellow who's bargaining for the will, had been here there'd have been another boat. This is the only landing place on the island, and I've already made inquiries and found out that there's been no other boat here to-day. Besides, if Condon had fixed things up with Lucraft, why should he have been in such a hurry to pull out? No, I guess that some way he's missed Lucraft, and he's off in search of him right now."
"You may be right," answered Nat. "But seems to me it doesn't make much odds. We're marooned here, and even if we can hire that sail boat I see tied up to the wharf, we can't hope to catch the Tern with her."
"I reckon you're right, Nat," said Faulkner sadly. "I've made a proper mess of the whole business. I don't suppose I'll ever dare show my nose at home again."
"I'm awfully sorry," said Nat with real feeling. And for a moment the two stood in silence, gazing out over the water.
"Well, it's no use grousing," said Faulkner suddenly. "Let's put the plane in some safe place, and then we'll see about getting that boat and making for Devonshire again."
Instinctively he put his hand in his pocket.
A look of dismay crossed his face.
"Say, Nat, we're done down! Condon's took every cent I had. I haven't got a penny to hire the boat or anything else."
Nat gave a short laugh.
"I'm in the same box. Broke to the world. The only thing we can do is to go and find the owner of the island. He's a parson, I believe. We'll have to tell him what's happened and ask him to help us out."
"A pretty pair of idiots he'll think us," growled Faulkner. "Still I reckon there's no help for it. Come on."
They had turned and were walking back across the shingle when a deep, low droning, which sounded like a gigantic bumble-bee, made them both look round.
"What's that?" asked Faulkner sharply. "A steamer?"
"It's a motor engine," said Nat. "A jolly big one, too!"
"No motors on Lundy, my son. It must be an aeroplane."
"What, two in one day? Impossible!"
The sound became louder. They stared in every direction, but could see nothing.
Next moment, around the tall cliff guarding the northern end of the little bay, a huge biplane swung into sight.
It was the strangest-looking machine that either of them had ever seen, for besides its immense size and power, instead of the usual wheels it carried beneath its body two long, tapered objects resembling the skis on which Norwegians travel across the snow. It was flying only a few feet above the water, and as they watched it breathlessly, down it dived and struck the surface with a splash just like a great duck settling.
"Well, if that don't beat the band!" exclaimed Faulkner. "Say, Nat, what is it?"
"A waterplane," answered Nat excitedly. "A big Farman. One of the new sort they're building for the Navy. Yes, and that's a naval officer in it."
As he spoke he started running back towards the water's edge, waving his cap and shouting as he went.
The waterplane came gliding over the surface of the bay, sending two lines of creamy foam swirling from her floats. She slowed down, and when she had just enough way to reach the beach, her pilot switched off the engine, and she glided easily up on to the sand.
A jolly-looking, brown-faced man, clean shaven, and with the unmistakable cut of a naval officer, swung himself out of his seat, and his feet reached the beach just as Nat came tearing up.
"Have you seen a fast petrol launch making for the mainland?" was Nat's first eager question.
"Why, yes. Come to think of it, I believe I did. She was running southerly. Looked as if she might be making for Appledore or maybe Bude." Then, as he noticed the flying man's overalls, which Nat was wearing: "Hullo, are you a brother of the craft?" he demanded.
"Yes," said Nat. "There's my plane. But we're stranded. We were chivying those beggars in the launch and ran out of petrol. They fooled us, and cut the stays of my machine and got away."
"What's your name?" asked the officer.
"What, Nat Meadows?"
"By Jove! you're the chap who did that gallery rescue off Poltrewan. Jolly plucky thing, that! Clever, too! I'm very pleased to meet you. My name's Vosper. Lieut. Vosper, late of H.M.S. Eager, now of the Naval Flying Corps. I'm cruising around to try this new plane I've just bought. If there's anything I can do for you, just say the word."
"You can do a good deal for us," said Nat earnestly. "This is Mr. Faulkner, the man I was lucky enough to get off the reef. Those fellows in the launch have got hold of some papers which belong to him, and which are worth about a million of money. My plane's out of the running till I can get some fresh stays and petrol. If you can take one of us in chase of the launch, you'll do us the very biggest kind of a favour."
"Crumbs, what a lark! But, bless you, I'll take you both. I've seventy horse-power here"—patting his big Gnome engine affectionately. "Mother Goose will make no bones about a bit of extra weight."
"It's no use trying to tell you I'm grateful, Lieutenant," said Faulkner, "because it's just the luckiest thing that ever happened. But, say, do you reckon there's any chance of catching this here launch before she makes harbour?"
"What can she do?" asked Vosper.
"All of thirty."
"And this packet's good for seventy. I've a sort of notion we ought to pick 'em up somehow. All aboard, gentlemen."
"But what about my machine?" put in Nat anxiously.
"She's safe enough where she is. Glass stands at 'set fair.' No wind for twenty-four hours, anyhow, and I don't suppose there's anyone on Lundy will play tricks with her. Besides, we'll be back before dark."
To reach the seat behind the pilot, Nat and Faulkner had to make their way along one of the floats, then scramble up through the wire stays into a sort of little boat made of wood and canvas.
"All ready?" asked Vosper.
"Yes," replied Nat. "Go ahead."
Next moment the big seven-cylindered engine began to revolve with a roar that brought the echoes pealing back from the lofty cliffs, the propeller vanished in a misty whirl, and the big doubled-decked machine shot lightly away out into the bay.
Nat watched everything with the most intense interest. He had, of course, seen illustrations of the new type of hydroplane, and he was well up in all the details of her construction and machinery, but it was unexpected luck to have the chance of going up in one.
Gathering speed with every second, she rushed over the water at an enormous rate. Nat saw the hands of the pilot move; the prow of the floats lifted, the stern trailed for a second or two in the water. Then, apparently without an effort, she was clear, and lifting fast.
Nat was amazed to see how steeply she climbed. It seemed that they were hardly clear of the water before they were on a level with the top of the cliffs. From somewhere behind came a faint cheer. Nat looked back. A handful of fisher-folk and children were on the cliff road, waving their caps and shouting.
Nat waved back, and almost as he did so they faded to the size of mice. The big hydroplane was settling into her stride, and Nat felt the familiar rush of air in his face as she swept along on level keel at a height of perhaps two hundred feet above the water.
"You never travelled this fast before," shouted back Vosper over his shoulder.
"I have," answered Nat with a smile. "I'll race you any day you like."
"The dickens you will? All right, that's a go," said Vosper, as he headed due south. "See here, Mr. Faulkner," he continued, "I'm going to run first for Appledore. If we can't see the launch there, we'll shift on down towards Bude."
"I guess that'll be the best," answered Faulkner. "My, but this craft ought to overrun 'em before they get far!"
Lundy rapidly faded to a blue mist, and the rugged coast of North Devon lifted plainer into sight with every moment. Vosper was right to be proud of his big machine. Nat had never imagined that any biplane could be as fast, for they are generally slower than monoplanes. And her wonderful steadiness delighted him. Of course, she was not so speedy as his own Crimson Aeroplane, but he fancied she was doing something like seventy miles an hour.
They passed high above a couple of fishing smacks drifting idly on the windless sea. They could see the upturned faces of their crew, white dots against the brown decks. Then Saunton Sands, a long, white expanse, showed to the east, and presently they opened up the Estuary of the Taw, on which lies the quaint old town of Appledore. To the west was the great flat on which lie the famous Westward Ho! golf links.
Nat gave a sharp exclamation.
"What's that?" he cried, pointing out in the direction of Hartland Point.
Faulkner had the glass to his eye in a moment.
"You've got eyes, Nat, and no mistake. That's the Tern, sure pop!"
"What—spotted 'em already? Good egg!" exclaimed Vosper, and with a quick motion he swung the hydroplane almost at right angles to her former course. "Now watch me catch 'em."
It was worth watching, too. The speed at which the big machine went hurtling past the coast must have considerably astonished the golfers. But Nat and Faulkner were too deeply concerned in the chase to think of anything else.
"What are you going to do when you do catch up?" inquired Nat.
"I don't mind saying that's just what's troubling me," said Faulkner. "I guess I'll have to do a cold bluff."
"Supposing Condon refuses to be called down?"
"Then I'll have to call the police in, I reckon," replied Faulkner, frowning.
"I thought that was just what you didn't want?"
"That's a fact, Nat. But I'd better do that than risk Lucraft getting his greasy paws on the will."
As they spoke they were overhauling the Tern hand over fist. The launch was running at top speed. They could see that, by the tall stem wave she flung up, and the long, white wake that trailed out behind her.
"Those chaps will get the shock of their mis-spent lives when they see you after 'em again," chuckled Vosper, who was enjoying the whole business like a big schoolboy.
"They're watching us now through a telescope," exclaimed Nat with growing excitement.
"What shall I do, Mr. Faulkner? Drop? Do you want to board 'em?"
In spite of his anxiety, Faulkner laughed.
"My dear sir, boarding pikes and cutlasses are a bit out of date in the present century. And anyway, if it came to that you may lay your last dollar those two are heeled. What's more, they'd use their guns if it came to a pinch. No, I guess the best thing will be just to dog them and follow them into whatever harbour they make."
"Oh, that's not half a game," declared Vosper, much disappointed. "I thought we were going to do the Treasure Island act. Look here, sir, you don't mind if I just give 'em a scare, do you?"
"Scare them all you please, Lieutenant," answered Faulkner with a dry laugh. "But don't risk your machine, that's all."
"I can take care of Mother Goose," chuckled Vosper.
By this time the plane was within little more than half-a-mile of the launch, and it was plain that Condon and Drucker had taken alarm. The air was so clear that through the glasses Nat could plainly see the expression of mingled fear and rage on Condon's face as he glanced round at the fast-approaching plane.
Drucker, who was attending to the engine, was driving the Tern for all she was worth, but as the hydroplane was travelling two and one-third times as fast, the race was rather a one-sided affair.
They were now right off the great promontory known as Hartland Point. It is a huge, bare cliff, rising a couple of hundred feet out of the sea, and at its base lie a multitude of dangerous reefs, some of them running a long way out to sea. But at present the tide was high, and the rocks were nearly all covered. From the hydroplane, however, they could be plainly seen, dark brown shadows below the smooth green water.
Beyond Hartland Point the coast runs almost due south for miles, and there is no harbour of any importance until you reach Bude, some fifteen miles down the coast.
"Now watch!" said Vosper.
As he spoke, he altered the angle of his planes, and the big machine dipped sharply, and went skimming downwards, headed straight for the launch.
Even Nat held his breath. It looked exactly as though the hydroplane must strike the fleeing Tern fair and square in the stern. But just as catastrophe seemed unavoidable, Vosper swung her sideways, and she tore past within a yard or two of the Tern's counter.
"What are you playing at? Get out of it!" came Condon's voice sharp with fear.
But Vosper had not done with him yet. He wheeled, banking the plane round steeply, and came at the launch again, passing this time on the inside.
With a roar of rage, Condon sprang to his feet, and seizing a boat-hook, hurled it with all his force at the plane. But as the combined speed of launch and plane was nearly a hundred miles an hour, the missile naturally flew wide.
Next moment Vosper was overhead circling at a comfortable height, and laughing heartily at Condon's frantic threats.
Now, whether it was that Condon's nerves began to suffer under this sort of persecution, or whether he did not know the coast, at any rate his steering became somewhat erratic, and Nat suddenly caught sight of a great dark patch not fifty yards in front of the launch's bow.
"Look out!" he roared. "You'll be piling yourself up in a minute."
If Condon heard he paid no attention. Before anything more could be done or said there was a sharp, splintering crash. The Tern's bow suddenly leapt upwards, flinging both of her crew forward on their faces. She had struck the rock fair and square.
An ordinary boat would have knocked a hole in her bow and stuck on top of the submerged reef. But the Tern was travelling at such a tremendous pace that she actually leapt the reef like a jumping horse, and in doing so took practically the whole of her bottom strake out. Striking deep water on the far side, she began to fill with amazing speed.
With a terrified yell, Condon seized a lifebelt and flung himself over the side, and a moment later Drucker followed his example. Both of them struck out hard for the shore.
"After 'em!" cried Faulkner. "We must stop them somehow. Condon's got the will in his pocket."
CONDON LOSES HIS TEMPER
VOSPER instantly switched off his engine, and Mother Goose came gliding rapidly down, and alighted upon the smooth, green swells within a few yards of the fast sinking launch.
"After them," cried Faulkner again. "We mustn't let 'em escape."
"I'd love to oblige you," answered Vosper, glancing quickly at the two men who were swimming hard for the shore. "But, honestly, I daren't risk running in among those rocks. I should only chew up my floats, and that would see our finish in precious short order."
"Then, by thunder, I'm going to swim after them," exclaimed Faulkner, with more excitement than Nat had ever believed him capable of.
He sprang to his feet as he spoke, making the hydroplane rock dangerously.
"Sit down!" cried Vosper sharply.
Nat pulled Faulkner down.
"Steady!" he said soothingly. "They can't get away.
"They can," urged Faulkner. "Once they're up among those rocks, they can snap their fingers at us. Say, Nat, I can't stand this. I'll go clean crazy if they get off this time with the papers."
"Avast there! Don't talk of going crazy just yet," broke in Vosper's cheery voice. "At least, not till we've had a look at that case in the stern sheets of the launch."
"Case—what case?" cried, Faulkner. "Great Scott! but you're right, mister! I believe Condon's left the papers behind."
"So do I," answered Vosper. "But we'll have to be sharp if we want to get 'em before the launch sinks. Meadows, you've got a long arm. Reach out as I run alongside, and see if you can grab the case. You balance him, Mr. Faulkner, by leaning out t'other side."
The launch's gunwale was already within a few inches of the water as Vosper, with admirable skill, came circling round and ran the hydroplane as close alongside as he dared.
In the launch's stern sheets, just under her tiller, lay a small leather dispatch-case, with the initials "E.C." stamped in black upon its side.
Nat, clinging with one hand to a stay, leant out as far as possible, and Faulkner, who had pulled himself together again, though his face showed his intense anxiety, balanced him as best he could.
A few seconds of extreme suspense, then Nat's outstretched fingers clutched the handle of the case, and instantly he swung it inboard. At that very moment the bow of the launch dipped, her stern cocked up, and with a gentle gurgle she slid downwards and disappeared into the depths.
Faulkner fairly snatched the case from Nat's hands. It was locked, but with one wrench of his lean, brown fingers, he burst it open.
A shout of joy and relief burst from his lips as he pulled out a long, much thumbed blue envelope, with writing on it in a legal hand.
"Hurrah, boys, here it is!" he cried, waving it round his head like a boy. Then, suddenly ashamed of his emotion, he began to apologise. "I guess you gentlemen will think I've gone clean loony," he said. "But I just can't tell you what a relief this is to me."
"My dear sir, there's no need to apologise," answered Vosper. "You've been through enough to put any man off his rocker. Now, as we've brought this little episode to a successful conclusion, what do you say to making for port and getting some tea?"
"A mighty good notion, Lieutenant," said Faulkner, now quite himself again.
"But what about Condon and Drucker?" put in Nat rather anxiously. "We can't leave 'em to drown."
"Bless you, they'll be all right," chuckled Vosper. "They're safe on the rocks already, and as it's the top of the tide they're in no danger of drowning. The only risk your friend Condon will run is of dying of apoplexy brought on by rage. Watch him! He's dancing like a cat on hot bricks."
"A mighty wet cat, too," observed Faulkner, watching Condon with a grim twinkle in his eyes.
For Condon, who now realised what he had forgotten in his wild haste to escape, was standing on a weed-clad rock, dripping with water, and using language which was enough to make the sea boil.
Faulkner waved his hand to him in mock farewell.
"So long, Ezra," he called. "See now what comes of being greedy. If you'd taken what I offered you in the first place, you'd have been that much richer. Now I guess you don't get anything except what you stole from my pockets, and that you're welcome to. Speed her up, Lieutenant," he went on. "I reckon this is where Condon and I part brass rags, as you say in your British Navy."
Vosper switched on full power. Mother Goose went rushing along the surface at increasing speed. Next moment she had lifted clear, and, rising high in the air, headed back in a northerly direction.
"I'm bound for Bideford, shipmate," said Vosper to Nat. "That suit you?"
"Down to the ground," answered Nat, who, now the excitement was over, began to be painfully aware that it was something like eleven hours since he had had a mouthful to eat or a drop to drink.
The wide estuary of the Taw lay like a sheet of blue glass between its white sandbanks, and Mother Goose went whizzing up the centre like a great white sea bird. Salmon net-fishers stared, open-mouthed and open-eyed, as the great plane raced by like an express.
They passed Appledore and its shipping like a flash, and at the roar of the engine the people came tumbling out of the little, narrow-fronted houses and rushed down to the quay, shouting and waving their hands.
Bideford, three miles up the river, was reached in no time, and almost before they had pulled up and moored, the quay was black with people.
"Say, Lieutenant, but I don't reckon we'll ever manage to get ashore at all," said Faulkner, cocking his eye at the excited crowds.
"Don't worry," answered Vosper coolly. "We'll collar a couple of bobbies or a few Scouts. They'll look after Mother Goose for us, then we'll go and stoke up in comfort."
Several Scouts were already on the spot, also a big, capable-looking policeman. To him Vosper explained matters, and he promised to look after the plane.
"But I tell you what, sir," he said confidentially. "If you'd just promise to give the folk a little flying show afterwards, they'd be a deal easier to keep quiet like."
"Right-o!" replied Vosper. And with that he jumped on top of a dray and waved his hand for silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "If you'll kindly possess your souls in patience for just about half-an-hour while my friends and I get tea, I'll give you a little exhibition flight afterwards."
A roar of cheering answered his little speech, and a dozen people rushed forward with urgent invitations to a meal. But Vosper begged off on the score of lack of time, and he and his two passengers managed to worm their way through the crowd and dive into a small pastry cook's shop, where they asked for a private room and ordered tea.
They understand teas in Bideford, and when Faulkner sat down and ran his eyes over the groaning table, he shook his head sadly.
"If there's one thing I'll miss when I get back to the States, it'll be a British tea," he said. "I guess America can give points to the world in the way of breakfast, but I won't see a tea like this till I get back again."
"Do you mean you're off at once?" asked Nat quickly.
"Right away, Nat. Next boat as ever is. Rufus P. won't rest easy till this here little document"—patting his breast-pocket—"is locked in the biggest safe in New York."
"But you'll come back soon?" said Nat anxiously.
"You can bet your boots on that, Nat. I don't miss watching the Crimson Aeroplane win the fifty thousand if I'm alive and able to stand."
It was as jolly a meal as any of the three had ever sat down to, and the amount they ate positively frightened the proprietor. They began with an excellent tongue, and a salad cunningly composed of crisp lettuces, cucumbers, and hard-boiled eggs; next came tough-cakes with fresh butter and strawberry jam, and the last course was a great bowl of raspberries with any quantity of rich yellow Devonshire cream. Two large pots of tea washed these good things down. Then Vosper stood up with a sigh of satisfaction.
"Now I've got to go and play the goat for the amusement of the multitude," he observed cheerily.
"And I must go and buy wire stays and petrol," said Nat. "That is, if I can get credit, for I've got no cash, and after that I must hire a boat and get back to Lundy."
"What d'ye want a boat for? What's the matter with Mother Goose?" demanded Vosper.
"Do you mean you'll take me back?"
"Never knew the Navy go back on a pal in distress," answered Vosper. "And as for cash, take what you want." And he pulled out a pocket-book and took from it a bundle of notes.
It was still daylight when Vosper and Nat reached Lundy for the second time that day. But it was too late to start work on the Crimson Aeroplane, so they dragged Mother Goose well up on the strand, got supper in a cottage, and, borrowing a couple of blankets, camped out on the beach beside their air-craft.
It was no hardship sleeping out, for the night was fine and warm, and very soon they were both in the land of dreams.
Nat usually slept like a top, and never woke till the sun shone in his eyes. He was a good deal surprised, therefore, to find himself suddenly broad awake at a very early hour. There was barely a trace of dawn in the sky—just the palest glimmer of light over the distant Devon coast, and the brilliance of the summer stars was hardly dimmed.
He sat up and listened.
At first he could hear nothing but the soft ripple of the small waves washing on the beach; but after straining his ears for some seconds he became aware of another sound. It was the harsh rustle of a boat's keel grating over the shingle, and it came from the direction of the wharf.
It was natural to suppose that it was nothing more than a fishing boat coming in from a night's netting or long lining, but for some reason Nat felt uneasy. What struck him as odd was that there was no sound of voices. He could hear nothing but the grating of the boat's keel.
The outline of the wharf was dimly visible, but the boat had evidently come up on the far side, for he could not see it at all.
Some moments passed, then he heard footsteps on the beach. Very cautious footsteps, for they were barely audible.
Nat's heart-beats quickened. He was more and more convinced that something was wrong, and yet what it could be he had not the faintest idea.
Again a wait—a long one this time. Then, straining his eyes through the gloom, he made out two figures coming slowly and cautiously across the beach in his direction.
Now he was sure that some plot was afoot. He leant over and gently shook Vosper by the arm.
A naval man usually wakes pretty easily. Vosper sat up like a shot.
"What's up?" he asked.
"I don't know," whispered back Nat. "But two chaps have just landed from a boat, and they're stalking us across the beach."
"The mischief they are! Then I'll bet my boots its Condon and his pal trying to pay back a first instalment. They mean to bust up your plane."
"I rather thought so myself," answered Nat coolly. "What are we going to do about it?"
"Slip across and knock spots off 'em," was the ready reply, as Vosper rolled out of his blanket.
"We can't do that. We've got no proof against them yet. After all, they've got as good a right on Lundy as we."
"That's a fact," grunted Vosper. "Still, I haven't any notion of letting the beggars chew up Mother Goose, I can tell you."
"I think we'd best crawl over and hide between the two planes," suggested Nat. "Naturally, they won't have a notion there's anyone on guard, and if they really do mean to try any dirty game, why, we catch them in the act."
"That seems sound," answered Vosper, and at once crawled away towards the planes, Nat following closely.
"Any use with your fists, Meadows?" whispered Vosper as he took up a position between the two planes.
"Not a great deal," answered Nat modestly. "But I know a trick or two of Cornish wrestling."
"Bravo! Mind you don't give your man a chance to use a pistol or try any shabby trick of that sort. I don't fancy these chaps know anything about fighting fair. So you'd better be on your guard."
"Sh! they'll hear you," whispered Nat.
Both lay quite still while the two intruders cautiously approached.
"It's all right, Ezra," came a hoarse whisper. "There's no one on guard. Hullo, there's two planes, not one!" he continued in a surprised tone.
"Two; so there are!" came Condon's voice. "And the other's the big biplane which that there interfering fool of a naval officer brought 'em in. Say, Jake, but this is luck. I guess we'll kill two birds with one stone."
"One can o' petrol, I reckon you mean," answered Drucker.
Nat felt Vosper start.
"So that's their game," he murmured. "Great Christopher, but they're a pair of beauties!"
"Got the can open?" asked Condon.
"Well, chuck half of it over each machine. Right over the wings."
"You're not going to light it at once?" said Drucker nervously. "The blaze'll be seen all over the island."
"What dy'e take me for?" retorted Condon. "No, I've got enough fuse here to burn for ten minutes. We'll be a mile away at sea before the fire gets to 'em."
"I rather fancy you'll be a bit farther than that, my friend," said Vosper, and, springing to his feet with one leap, he went at Drucker like a shot from a gun. Drucker fell on the shingle with a thud.
Then Nat was at grips with Condon.
Condon, who was twice as quick as Drucker, had seen Nat coming, and his hand flashed back to his hip pocket. But Nat flung both his long muscular arms round the other's body, pinning Condon's arms to his sides.
Condon kicked out savagely, and caught Nat on the shin. Nat flung his whole weight forward and tried to throw Condon. But the fellow was amazingly strong and fought desperately.
For a moment or two the pair stamped to and fro on the shingle, Condon doing all he knew to wrench himself free. Then Nat put his wrestling knowledge into play, and gave the other the crook, throwing him heavily, and falling on top of him.
"Now, will you be good?" said Nat.
Condon's reply is unprintable, and so disgusted Nat that, snatching off the fellow's soft hat, he stuffed it into his mouth, gagging him neatly.
"Good man, Meadows!" came Vosper's cheery voice. "I see you've got your chap to rights."
"Give me a bit of rope," panted Nat. "I want to put him beyond harm."
"Here you are," said Vosper, handing over a length of spun yarn. "Shall I give you a hand?"
"I can manage," answered Nat, as with a big effort he rolled Condon over on his face, and, hauling his arms round behind his back, tied his wrists firmly.
"I'll gag you, too, if you give me any more of that foul talk of yours," he continued sternly. "Now let's see what he's got in his pocket. Ah, I thought so," as he took a small but deadly looking repeating pistol out of Condon's hip pocket.
"The other chap had one, too," said Vosper. "Well, we've pulled their teeth. Question is, what are we going to do with them? Six month's hard would do 'em both good."
"That's true," said Nat, as he picked himself up and drew Vosper out of earshot of the prisoners. "I suppose we ought to prosecute. But the fact is, I haven't a day to spare, and I don't want to waste time messing about police-courts. Can't we manage without giving them in charge?"
"They mustn't be loose on the island until we're safe off it," replied Vosper with decision. "I can't run risks with Mother Goose."
"Nor I, either," said Nat. "I've got an idea. There's a cottage up above where they locked up Faulkner and myself yesterday. Suppose we march them there, and leave them tied up. We can tell someone to loose them later on."
"Top hole!" chuckled Vosper. "Give 'em a taste of their own sauce."
Condon looked anything but pleased when Nat announced their decision, but he dared not explode again. Nat told him straight that he would be gagged if he did. So Vosper and he marched their prisoners away through the dawn, and left them securely tied in the lonely cottage. Then, as it was now light enough to see, they went back to the beach and set to work on the Crimson Aeroplane.
Vosper's help was invaluable. He was as well up in the mechanism of flying machines as Nat himself. And he was greatly interested in Nat's new plane.
Nat, who had taken greatly to the cheery but capable young naval officer, explained her fully, and told Vosper about his own and Martin's ambition to win the big prize.
Vosper nodded approvingly.
"My dear chap," he said, "you ought to do it on your head. At least, if the new machine you're going to build is as good as you say this one is. There, that's the last stay. Now let's fill her tank, and we'll see how many miles an hour she is better than Mother Goose."
Nat chuckled softly to himself. He quite saw that Vosper had not yet realised the capacities of the Crimson Aeroplane. He looked forward to opening his eyes before he was many minutes older.
He filled the tank with the petrol he had brought, and turned the little plane's head towards the sea. She was so light that he could easily do this single-handed. Another minute, and the two engines were started, and both pilots in their seats.
Half the population of Lundy—that is some score of people in all—were watching in keen excitement. Nat called one of them up and gave him a half-crown and directions about freeing Condon and Drucker.
"Are you ready?" he shouted to Vosper, who, with the help of a couple of fishermen, had got his big biplane afloat.
"Rather! Go ahead!"
The two powerful engines roared. Nat's light machine darted forward and took the air almost immediately. But he purposely waited until Vosper was clear of the water. Then, side by side, the big biplane and the small monoplane climbed steeply upwards.
At a height of about three hundred feet, Vosper waved his hand to Nat and darted forward, heading straight for the Devon coast. It had been agreed that they should race to the Westward Ho! beach, where there is a splendid stretch of hard sand below the pebble ridge, with plenty of room for alighting or starting again.
Nat followed the other's example. Over land he usually flew much higher, from seven to twelve hundred feet. But this was different.
Flying over water is much easier than flying over land, because there are none of those unpleasant upward whirls and rushes of air which are the plague and peril of the airman flying over land. These dangerous whirls are caused by the uneven heating of air lying over land, whereas air lying over water possesses a much more regular temperature.
It was an ideal day for a race. Hardly a breath of wind, and a warm, dry atmosphere, which made the engines fire as they never will in damp, muggy weather. Vosper at once put his engine to its full number of revolutions, and he was soon doing a round seventy miles an hour.
For a while Nat was content to flit alongside. Not too close, for the back draught from the biplane's great expanse of canvas would have toppled the little Crimson Aeroplane over like a dry leaf. He kept about a hundred yards away.
He saw Vosper glance at him triumphantly, and he laughed in his sleeve, for he knew that the other was thinking he had the best of it. Then all of a sudden he switched on full power.
Instantly he shot ahead. The wind upon his face seemed to harden to a wall. In about a minute he glanced back. Mother Goose was half-a-mile behind.
Still he kept going for all he was worth, and soon the biplane was a mere white blot in the distance. Then Nat shot upwards in great circles until he was some two thousand feet above the sea. He switched off and came down in a beautiful curving vol-plane, arriving just alongside of the hydroplane.
It was no use trying to talk. The roar of the engines drowned voices. But the puzzled, crestfallen expression on Vosper's face was enough. Nat tried no more tricks, but flew alongside until they both glided down together on to the beach.
"I give you best, Meadows," was Vosper's greeting as he jumped out of his seat. "That machine of yours is a wonder, and will knock spots off anything with planes. I'm coming to see you win the fifty thou, and don't you forget it. Where are you off to now?"
"Home," said Nat. "Here's my address. When you've got nothing else to do, come and see us. I'll send you the cash you lent me by to-morrow's post."
"And here's where I hang out," said Vosper, producing a card. "And now we'd better clear before the usual crowd collects. So long. Good luck to you!"
They shook hands warmly, jumped into their respective machines, and went off in different directions.
LOST IN THE NIGHT
LITTLE more than an hour later, Nat dropped safely in front of the hangar at Wheal Antony, to be welcomed with delight by Martin and Dan Trethewy.
"Where's Faulkner?" was Martin's first anxious question.
"On his way to New York," answered Nat. "Put the plane into the shed for me, that's a good chap. Then come in and I'll spin you the whole yarn. And after that I'll turn in, for I've had a pretty tough time of it the past thirty-six hours."
Dan had supper ready in very short order, and over fried eggs and bacon and a big pot of tea Nat told the story of his doings at Marlwood and Lundy Island.
Martin listened with breathless interest.
"You've had all the fun, Nat," he said regretfully, as Nat finished. "All the same, I congratulate you on coming through so well, and I'm delightful to hear that the Crimson Aeroplane behaved as she did."
"She's absolutely top hole," declared Nat. "Small as she is, I believe she's good enough to win the big prize." Martin shook his head.
"I've heard Peregrines are building a whacking great steel plane. Her speed is said to be guaranteed at eighty, and she'll be the sort to run through any kind of weather. We'll take no risks, Nat. We start on it to-morrow."
"Right-o!" said Nat, yawning. "Now I'll be off to by-bye. Where's Johnny?"
"He was here at dinner-time. He went off across the moor to look for you. He'll be back soon, you may be sure."
"I don't like him staying out so late," said Nat, a little anxiously. He had become quite fond of the poor "loony"—as the moor folk called the man whom they had found in the mine. And "Johnny"—as Nat had named him—repaid Nat's affection with a dog-like devotion.
"Don't worry, Nat," said Martin. "Get to bed. You've got to keep fit, remember."
So Nat turned in, and was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.
But he was fated not to get a night's sleep. Someone disturbed his slumbers by violently shaking his shoulder.
He jumped up to a sitting position.
"W-what's up?" he murmured. "Hullo—you, Johnny! What's the matter?"
It was the man from the mine who had awakened him. He stood by Nat's bed, holding a candle, and by the scared expression of his haggard face Nat realised that something was very wrong.
He jumped out of bed, and Johnny seized him by the arm and dragged him across to the window. Pulling the curtains aside, he pointed out.
A whiff of pungent smoke met Nat's face as he leant out of the open window. The night was all one red glare, while the air was full of the crackle of fire.
The heather, dry with weeks of drought, was all alight, and the flames, driven by a brisk breeze, were bearing rapidly down upon the hangar and the workshop.
There was not a moment to waste if the planes were to be saved. Shouting to Martin, Nat flung on some clothes and rushed out.
It was blowing a stiff breeze, and the air was full of the stinging smell of smoke. The sharp crackle and snap of the flames were growing louder every moment, as the wind swept the fire straight down upon the sheds. Already showers of sparks were beginning to fall upon the roofs of the buildings.
Nat snatched up a bucket and rushed to the trough which brought a rill of fresh water from a spring up the hillside. Johnny, with more sense than anyone would have credited him with, followed his example.
Before the buckets could be filled, Martin, followed by Dan Trethewy, came running out of the mine house.
"That's no use, Nat," he cried. "Nothing short of a fire-engine will save the shed if the flames get up to it. We must try to beat the fire out."
"Aye, that's the ticket," added Dan, and diving into a corner of the kitchen he brought out some old sacks, which he plunged into the bucket and wrung out.
Each took one, and in another minute they were out on the moor, beating the blazing heather.
The smoke was blinding, and the sparks stung Nat's hands and face as he fought the flames. But the heather was nearly two feet thick and as dry as cork. As fast as they beat the fire out in one place, the sparks fired it in another. And as the moor was alight over a front of fully two hundred yards, they very soon saw that the task was hopeless.
Nat bolted across to Martin.
"It's no use, Martin. The shed is bound to go. The only thing will be to get the planes out and stow them in the workshop. That won't burn. Its iron roof will save it."
"You're right," answered Martin hoarsely. His lungs were so full of smoke that he could hardly speak. Both turned and ran back to the buildings.
"We'll have to take the machines to pieces first," said Nat as he hurriedly unlocked the door of the hangar. "They won't go through the door of the shop with their wings spread."
"Smart about it then," answered Martin, who was as cool as he always was in any emergency.
The two planes were housed together in the hangar, which was built of timber and covered with tarred felt.
Snatching up their tools, the brothers set to work with silent yet desperate haste.
Nat's old Blériot was nearest the door, and by the light of two acetylene lamps they began rapidly removing her wings.
They were both as smart workmen as you could wish to see, and in less than four minutes they had the planes down. Then they ran the body out on its wheels, and rushed it through the smoke and sparks to the workshop.
As they went back for the wings, Dan, whom they had left fighting the fire, came rushing up. His face was black as coal, his hair was singed, and the wet sack he had in his hands was nothing but charred rags.
"You'd better be quick," he croaked hoarsely. "Fire's right atop of us. That shed'll be alight in about two twos."
Martin gave a quick glance round. The building, the ground, their faces, all glowed in the dull red glare of the fire. The smoke rolled across in suffocating clouds.
"He's right, Nat," he said sharply. "The roof's all over sparks already. You'll have to try throwing water on it, Dan."
"That's no use," said Nat. "It'll never last another five minutes. See here, I'm going to fly her out."
"What—at night? It's an awful risk," exclaimed Martin.
"I know that. But we can't possibly get her down in time. See, the roof's beginning to blaze."
It was true. The tarred roof was already alight in more places than one. Dan, at the top of a short ladder, was flinging water on the blaze, but as fast as he put one fire out another would start, for the sparks fell in swarms. Plainly, there was not a minute to lose.
"Is there petrol in her tank?" asked Martin quickly, as he rushed into the shed.
"It ought to be half full," answered Nat.
"Well, that'll have to do. We daren't open fresh cans now."
"Shove one in behind," said Nat, as he quickly made things ready.
Martin put a can in behind, and they wheeled the light machine out as rapidly as possible, and ran her through the spark storm right round to the front of the house.
"Can't we wheel her on down the hill?" asked Martin, breathing hard. "The night's black as a hat, and it's an awful risk to take her up."
"No, Martin," said Nat firmly. "The fire's bound to spread right down to the brook."
"You'll be careful, old chap," begged Martin, as Nat sprang into the pilot's seat.
"You bet I will. I shan't go any farther than I can help."
"Look out for the sea," was Martin's last injunction, as he gave the propeller a sharp turn.
"I shan't go near it," shouted Nat above the roar of the engine. "I shall run due west and drop as close to the edge of the moor as I dare. So long, Martin. Do your best for the house. The hangar's bound to go."
As he spoke, the light machine was already moving. Next moment the jarring of her wheels ceased, and with a rush she took the air.
Almost before he knew it Nat was shooting upwards at the wonderfully steep slant which was the peculiar property of the little Crimson Aeroplane.
He glanced downwards and backwards. The hangar was already ablaze. He caught a glimpse of Dan and Johnny working like heroes with buckets of water. Behind and to the eastward was a long crescent of crimson, showing where the flame was eating the heather and grass down to the very peat they grew from.
Rolling clouds of smoke, red with the blaze below, streamed westwards before the wind, and the sparks rose towards him in myriads as though anxious to reach and destroy him.
But though he was already far above the danger of fire, he could not hide from himself that other dangers were all around him.
No airman flies at night if he can help it, let alone on a night like this. For with the strong easterly wind had blown up a mass of dry haze which covered the whole sky, shutting out all stars. Nat had nothing in the world to guide him except his compass.
Even had it been daylight, it was no weather for flying, for the wind was stiff and gusty, and ugly air eddies made the light plane swing and dance and dip in perilous fashion.
There was nothing for it but to rise higher, and much against his will Nat kept his planes tilted, and rose until the heather fire was but a dull glow in the great depths beneath, and his only landmarks were the lights of Poltrewan to the southward and far away to the south-east the Eddystone lighthouse.
"I only wish I knew what idiot fired the moor," he murmured, as he steered through the black void with the following wind adding to the speed of his engine.
And then there shot through his mind a sudden remembrance of Peregrines' agent, Horace Alger, and of the half threat the man had uttered when Nat had refused to sell the secret of the new alloy.
"I wonder if it was he," he added thoughtfully.
A few hours earlier, when racing Vosper, a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Flying Corps, Nat had been intensely proud of the enormous speed of the Crimson Aeroplane. Now he found himself wishing that she were slower.
The very last thing he wanted was to land miles away in unknown country. For one thing, the risk to her safety and his own was very great if forced to land in the dark on ground with which he was not familiar; for another, he was most anxious not to have the new machine exposed to public gaze.
Agents of Peregrines and other rival firms were all over the country. It was all-important that they should not have the chance of inspecting her closely before the trials.
All this passed through Nat's mind in a few moments, but already he knew, by the pace he was travelling, that he was no longer over the moor. He resolved to take the risk of dropping to a lower level in the hope of spotting some place where it would be possible to alight in safety.
He shut off his engine, and came gliding down until he saw beneath him a great, dark mass, which was evidently a wood. He heard the wind roaring among the branches, and realising his peril, switched on again with all speed, and once more drove forward into the night.
Where he was he had not the faintest idea. He had lost all landmarks, and there was nothing to guide him.
NAT IS MADE PRISONER
FOR a mile or more Nat shot along over the tops of the waving branches. He had not known that there was any wood so large in the neighbourhood of the moor. Trees and telegraph wires are the airman's greatest peril. To drop among either spells certain disaster, in all probability death.
Never had Nat been more uneasy. Had it not been for the wind, which was now blowing half a gale, he would have turned back and made for the mine house.
But apart from the risk of fire, it would have been madness to attempt to alight on the boulder-strewn moor in this darkness.
He almost thought of keeping on flying until the dawn broke, and gave him light to descend. But he could not do this, for his tank had not been refilled since leaving Lundy, and he could not tell at what moment the petrol would give out and force him to descend just wherever he might happen to be.
All of a sudden the dark mass of forest was passed, and in the gloom beneath he could just make out that he was over a great open space.
He could not tell whether it was grass or crops, whether level or lumpy, but he made up his mind not to wait longer.
"Here goes!" he murmured between set teeth. And once more cutting out his engine he shot downwards.
His heart was in his mouth as he dropped earthwards. To do Nat justice, it was not his own safety he thought of half so much as that of the little Crimson Aeroplane. If he smashed her they were done for—he and Martin.
A thousand pounds is a useful sum, but it does not go far in building aeroplanes. Already they had spent most of the money which Faulkner had advanced, and they had made up their minds to earn enough to complete the big machine by exhibiting at the Tarnmouth Aviation meeting, which took place during the following week.
Though the drop took only a few seconds, it seemed a lifetime, as Nat clung to his controls ready to switch on and rise again should hedges or trees or walls loom suddenly up out of the darkness.
But nothing of the sort appeared. It must be all grass below. Nat gave a sigh of relief.
He was within a dozen feet of the ground when from immediately beneath him came a wild yell of terror, followed by another shriek.
With a gasp of fright Nat tried to lift again. But it was too late. The plane's front wheels struck the ground, and at the same time there was a strange ripping, tearing sound, and the machine brought up with a suddenness which almost jerked Nat out of his seat.
For a moment he was so terrified that he could not move. He made certain that he had struck some unfortunate person and smashed him to pieces with his whirling screw. He sat quite still, his heart in his mouth, listening.
The shouts had ceased, but it seemed to him that he could hear the thud of running feet in the distance. He pulled himself together and stepped out.
Instantly he caught his own feet in something trailing on the ground, and came down heavily on hands and knees. Only shaken, he picked himself up quickly, and found himself all mixed up in something which seemed like a net.
Utterly puzzled, he struggled free of the tangled meshes, and stumbled back towards the plane. He remembered that he had a small electric torch in the tool-box.
He got it out, and its white gleam showed him at once that it was really a net into which he had driven.
The net was not like the fishing-nets to which he had been accustomed to at Poltrewan, for it was not made of tarred cord, but of plain white string. Also it was lighter than a fishing-net. He had run right into the middle of it, and the screw, striking it full, had ripped it all to pieces. Ends of tangled twine hung from every blade of the big wooden tractor.
Nat searched all around in every direction, but could find no trace of any human being except a cap, an old, dirty, greasy thing, which lay on the grass near by.
Hugely relieved, he began to winder what he had better do next. So far as he could make out, he had come down in a large park, for he saw that the place was bigger than any ordinary meadow, and that on either side were dark walls of tall timber. He looked in every direction, but could see no light.
At this moment came a gust which made the little aeroplane heave as though she would turn over.
The wind was nothing like so strong here as up on the moor, for the ground was low, and the trees cut it off a good deal. But these gusts were dangerous, and it was clear that the first thing to do was to make the plane as safe as he could.
Some little way ahead he saw a small clump of low-growing trees. He took the brakes off and wheeled the plane towards them. They were hawthorns growing thick and close. They made a famous wind brake, and, getting the machine behind them, he anchored her securely.
"There, she's berthed all right," he remarked. "Next thing is to find a bed for myself."
In his hurry to escape the fire, he had gone off in nothing but shirt, trousers, and coat. He had got meltingly hot fighting the fire, and he was now shivering with cold.
If he waited by the plane for the rest of the night he would certainly be laid up with a bad chill. The only sensible thing to do seemed to be to find some sort of shelter—a haystack if he were not able to discover a cottage.
He had not gone more than a couple of hundred yards when he heard quick steps quite close at hand. He stopped and turned to see who it was, when all of a sudden a bull's-eye lantern was flashed in his eyes, and a man sprang at him, caught him by the arm, and shook him violently.
"I got ye, ye thieving vagabond," he cried triumphantly. "Here ye be, Joe!" he shouted. "I got one on 'em."
"What's the matter?" asked Nat sharply, as he wrenched himself free. "Are you crazy?"
The man instantly flung himself on Nat again. He was a big, burly fellow, weighing at least fourteen stone, and his arms were like oak branches.
"Ye can't bluff me," he growled. "Suppose you'll tell me you're not a poacher, eh?"
Nat recovered his temper. It was no good appearing undignified to this man.
"No," he said good-naturedly. "I'm no poacher. I've just come down here in an aeroplane, and I was trying to find a house when you collared me."
The fellow, who appeared to be a keeper, burst into a hoarse roar of laughter, and still grasping Nat firmly, turned the light on him again.
"Ho, ho! you a airyplanist! You looks like it, I must say!"
Nat became unpleasantly conscious that he probably looked as little like an aeronaut as any man well could, for besides his half-dressed condition, he was all over smoke, and black from the fire.
However, he pulled himself together and answered quietly:
"I assure you I am speaking the truth. If you want proof you will find my machine behind a clump of hawthorns about a couple of hundred yards back."
"You're a cool one, you are," answered the keeper. "But let me tell you, Bill Wardle is a bit too old to be caught with snuff. You'll come along up to Mr. Jukes and see what he's got to say."
"I don't know who Mr. Jukes may be, but I only hope he's got a little more sense than you," answered Nat sharply.
"Now, then, none o' your brass!" retorted the keeper angrily. "You'll come along with me quiet, or if you don't I'll know the reason why."
Nat had been patient a long time. Now he lost his temper. For a second time he wrenched himself free, and as Wardle came at him again, he met him, closed, and tripped him, sending him down heavily.
"Perhaps that'll teach you a lesson in manners," he said scornfully.
At that moment a second man came running up behind, and before Nat could turn, seized him round the body, pinning his arms to his sides.
Nat struggled hard, but it was no use. Before he could get free, Wardle was on his feet again, and between the two he was helpless.
"You'll be sorry for this, my beauty," threatened Wardle. "I reckon you'll get a month's hard. Bring him along, Joe, and mind he don't play no more tricks."
Between them they dragged Nat up the park, through a drive gate, and presently he saw lighted windows to his left. They took him round to the back of a big house, into a stable-yard, forced him into an outbuilding, and slammed and locked the door.
At first Nat was very angry, but after a bit the humorous side of the situation struck him, and he chuckled grimly to himself.
Though he was out of the wind, the place was cold and damp. He felt in his pockets, found matches, and struck one cautiously. By its light he saw that he was in an old harness room. Two sacks and an ancient horse cloth hung from a line stretched under the ceiling.
Nat took them down and shook them out. With the sacks as mattress and the horse rug as blanket he lay down on the floor, and in less than five minutes was sound asleep.
The sunlight shining full in his eyes through a small, dusty window roused him. He got up rather stiffly and looked out. The window opened on the yard, which was still empty and deserted, though smoke was coming from a chimney in the big, square, ugly-looking house opposite.
Nat's first thought was for his machine. He was glad to see that the wind had dropped. So long as no one had found and meddled with it, the plane would be safe enough. All the same, he was anxious, and the idea of escape at once occurred to him.
The window was very small and so high up that he could only just see through it. And the only part that opened was a narrow sash at the top, really little more than a ventilator.
With some difficulty Nat scrambled up on the sill.
He got hold of the upper part and found that it was loose on its pivots. A few minutes' work with his strong fingers, and he managed to pull the top sash out altogether. The space was very narrow, but he thought that he could just worm himself through.
A man's body can usually follow where he can get his head, and after a glance round to make sure that the coast was clear, Nat tried the opening. To his delight he found that he could get his head through.
Very carefully he got his right arm and shoulder out, and then tried to draw up his right leg and get that over the cross-bar.
But here he was stuck. The width of the window was only about thirty inches, and his leg was too long. It would have been all right if there had been anything outside to hang on to and pull himself through by. But there was nothing of the sort. What was more, there was an awkward drop of eight feet or so to the gravel below.
Nat, however, was not the sort to give up easily. He resolved on one more effort. If that did not pay, why, he would simply have to smash the lower panes. He turned the other way and had a shot at getting his left shoulder and leg through first.
He was balanced on the cross sash like a monkey on a branch, when he heard a loud crack. Before he could get back, the cross-bar came away from its fastenings, and with a crash of splintering wood and a crackle of breaking glass, Nat, with most of the window beneath him, landed heavily in the yard outside.
For a moment he lay half stunned. Gradually he got his breath, and staggered to his feet. By good luck he found he had escaped being cut seriously by the broken glass. But he had a nasty gash on the cheek which bled badly.
A dog began to bark furiously, and Nat knew that the noise of his fall must have roused everybody about the place. He must get off as quickly as possible.
He looked round. The gate was at the left-hand end of the yard; he started towards it.
Before he could reach it two men came running out.
"Hi, stop!" shouted one.
Nat recognised the voice as that of Joe.
"Harry, I say, Harry, the poacher's out!" came another yell, and a third man came rushing from a back door in his shirt-sleeves.
The three surrounded Nat, and seeing that it was no use trying to fight the lot, he pulled up.
"You've no earthly right to shut me up," he told them coolly, as they conducted him back to his prison. "I'm no poacher, as I told the keeper last night."
"That's a good 'un," observed Joe with a grin. "You'll just stay where you be till Mr. Jukes has had his breakfast. He'll learn you what's what."
They nailed the window up, and Nat spent two dreary hours of waiting until Joe arrived again with news that the poacher was to come along to the library, where Mr. Jukes was waiting for him.
So Nat, still covered with grime and with blood from the cut on his face, was taken in the back way, and led through long passages, where servant maids giggled as he passed, and finally ushered into a big, square room.
Behind a large oak writing-table sat a stiff-looking man with a hard, wooden face. Beside him was Wardle, the keeper.
"Is this the man?" asked Mr. Jukes.
"That's the poacher, sir. Joe and I caught him sneaking round the park at two this morning. And when I took hold of him he fought proper, I tell you."
"What have you to say for yourself?" demanded Mr. Jukes severely.
"Merely that your men have made an absurd mistake," replied Nat.
"I am an airman," he continued, "and I got lost last night in the dark, and came down in your park. I left my plane, and was looking for shelter when your keeper suddenly rushed up and seized me."
"You an airman?" said Jukes, with an air of utter disbelief. "You don't look much like one."
At that moment Nat caught sight of himself in the great mirror over the mantelpiece. His appearance shocked even himself. His face was almost as black as a negro's, his clothes were scorched, he had no collar or waistcoat on, and the blood from his cut face had stained his shirt and coat collar.
"That seems to be a fact," he answered grimly. "But I have had no chance to wash. Nor, I may add, have I been offered any breakfast."
"Do you think I feed every wandering vagabond in the country?" retorted Mr. Jukes.
"I'm not a vagabond," cried Nat. "If you'll come down into your precious park you'll find my aeroplane under a clump of thorns about half a mile from the house."
Mr. Jukes stood up stiffly.
"I don't believe for a moment we shall find anything of the sort. Still, you shall have the chance to prove your ridiculous statement. Bring him along, Wardle. You and Joe—take care he does not escape."
Mr. Jukes strutted ahead, while Nat was marched between the two men.
The thorns came in sight. The little party turned the corner of the clump of trees.
"Now where's your aeroplane?" asked Mr. Jukes. Nat stared round utterly confused—hardly able to believe his eyes.
The Crimson Aeroplane was no longer where he had left it. It had vanished completely.
WHEN THE BRAKES FAILED
TO say that Nat was flabbergasted at the disappearance of the Crimson Aeroplane is putting it mildly. For a moment he fancied that he must have made a mistake about the place, but almost instantly he caught sight of her wheel marks on the grass. And his trained eye told him at once that she had not been wheeled away, but flown!
There was the track where she had made her run. He could see the very spot where she had left the ground.
Before he could speak, Wardle, the keeper, had suddenly swooped upon something in the grass.
"Here evidence, if you want any more, sir," he exclaimed excitedly. "Here's the net the chap was working with last night. A-netting of our partridges, just as I thought. There's two or three fine coveys lies just around here."
"That's the net I ran into," answered Nat sharply. "It was torn by my propeller."
"Do you still persist in your absurd story?" demanded Mr. Jukes severely.
"If you mean, have I told you the truth, I have," answered Nat. "And though someone has taken away my aeroplane, here are the marks of its wheels on the grass, as you can see for yourself."
"Nonsense! They're simply marks made by you and your accomplices where you dragged your net across the ground. Let me inform you, you won't get off any the more easily by telling these cock-and-bull stories. The magistrates will be likely to deal with you the more severely."
"Do you mean to say you intend to bring me before the Bench?" asked Nat very quietly.
"I most certainly do. They sit at twelve to-day at Trewith, and there you shall go before you're an hour older."
"Then I warn you, Mr. Jukes, that you detain me any longer at your peril. I have told you the literal truth, and you and your servants have ill-treated and imprisoned me. The law gives very heavy damages for false imprisonment."
For a moment the wooden-faced Mr. Jukes looked a trifle uncomfortable. But he recovered himself almost at once.
"I think I may safely take the risk of that," he said with a sneer. "Wardle, take him and lock him up again, and tell Bolt to bring the car round in half an hour."
"Very good, sir," answered Wardle.
And Nat, still calm outwardly, but secretly determined to make Mr. Jukes pay dearly for his pig-headed obstinacy, was marched back and locked up once more.
After a time he heard the purr of a motor as it left its garage and passed through the yard. Then the man Joe entered the harness room and rudely ordered Nat to come with him.
Nat would dearly have liked to plant his fist in the grinning countenance, but he was anxious not to put himself in the wrong; and besides, by this time he was really faint with hunger. He had not had a mouthful since his early supper the previous evening.
The car, a twenty-five horse-power of well-known make, had a heavy open body. As Nat was brought up, Jukes himself came out of the front door wearing a long box cloth coat and a motoring cap.
"Where's Bolt?" was his first question.
"He hurt his wrist, sir," said Wardle. "It were a backfire or summat as he were starting her up. He managed to bring her round to the door, but then he nigh fainted, and he's gone to his room."
Jukes uttered an angry exclamation.
"The man's a perfect fool!" he growled. "Now I suppose I shall have to drive myself. Put the prisoner into the back, Wardle. And you and Joe sit one on each side. And be very careful he does not escape."
"Yes, sir, we'll see he don't try no tricks," said Wardle, who seemed to have a special spite against Nat since Nat had upset him so easily at their first meeting.
The car had hardly started before Nat realised that Jukes was an utterly incompetent driver. The horrible jarring as he changed gear from first to second speeds, and from second to third, positively set the young airman's teeth on edge. For Nat had the true mechanic's love for a good engine, and to hear it ill-used was like seeing a good horse wantonly thrashed.
Jukes himself was evidently nervous, for he did not attempt to put the car on her top drive. But even so, she was soon running at nearly thirty, and yawing in a way which made Nat hope sincerely that the road would remain wide and clear all the way.
Presently they came to a down slope. It was not very steep, nor very long, but it was quite long enough for Nat to be sure that the side breaks were not holding properly. The side brakes are those worked by the hand lever at the side of a car, and usually act upon expanding drums in the hubs of the back wheels. If through carelessness these get greasy, they naturally fail to grip.
Nat became really uneasy. He could only hope that the foot brake, which acts on the propeller shaft, was in good order. The car was a heavy one, and if it once got out of control there was bound to be a most awful smash.
For a couple of miles all went well, and Jukes seemed to be steering with a trifle more confidence. Then Nat suddenly saw a deep valley ahead.
They turned a corner, and the road sank away at a steep angle. So did Nat's heart, for Jukes was approaching the top of the hill much too quickly.
At the top, by the side of the road, was a big red board, and on it in large white letters—
This Hill is Dangerous.
Motorists Engage Lowest Gear.
Yet the car was shooting towards the dip at a good twenty-five miles an hour.
"Brake!" Nat shouted sharply.
Jukes must have heard, but he paid not the slightest attention. He waited until the car was actually over the brow of the hill before he touched a brake. Then Nat felt the jar as he stamped his foot roughly on the foot brake pedal.
For a moment the car slackened speed. Then came a snap and the jarring ceased, while the car instantly shot forward at a much greater pace.
Nat knew what had happened. The tremendous pressure had proved too much for the foot brake, and the shoe had snapped short off.
Jukes' right hand flew to the lever of the side brakes, and he pulled it back as far as it would go. This had not the slightest effect. The side brakes were absolutely useless.
Not only Nat, but everyone else in the car realised that she was completely out of control.
There was now no possible way of stopping the car, and she rushed on down the tremendously steep hill at an ever-increasing speed.
Jukes appeared to have lost his head completely, for he clung blindly to the steering-wheel, while the great car yawed perilously from side to side of the road, sometimes leaping so that all four wheels appeared to be off the ground at once.
Nat gave one glance at his two guards. They were clinging to the sides. Their faces were white. They were absolutely paralysed with terror.
He saw that a smash was only a matter of seconds, and leaping to his feet, sprang over the back of the driving seat, and forcing himself in front of Jukes, seized the wheel.
Jukes' nerveless fingers dropped away, and he shrank out of the seat and collapsed helplessly on the left-hand side.
The speed was now something appalling. It must have been at the very least sixty miles an hour. The car was progressing in a series of tremendous bounds, for every tiny unevenness in the road flung her bodily up into the air.
But Nat, who, in his time, had steered a racing car on the Brooklands track, managed at any rate to hold her in the centre of the road, and all the while he kept his horn going with furious blasts.
The worst of it was that the hill was not straight. It made a wide curve, and the hedges were too high for him to see what was beyond.
If they met any vehicle, and it did not get out of the way in time, they and it, too, were doomed.
Round the curve the car skidded on two wheels, and Nat's heart was in his mouth as he suddenly saw a heavy cart lumbering along a hundred yards ahead.
The sleepy carter had apparently not heard the horn.
Was there room to pass? Nat could not tell.
There was no time to think. In three ticks of a watch they were up to it. Nat held her as close to the bank as he dared. He felt a shock, heard a sharp crack, a yell. The cart staggered and collapsed. The hub of the off hind wheel of the car had struck the near wheel of the cart and smashed it.
But the car itself had not suffered. It continued its headlong descent into the valley.
There was another corner beyond—this to the right. A sharp one, too! Nat saw in an instant that it was too sharp for the car to have any chance of rounding it safely at the terrific pace at which she was travelling.
To the left of the road were wooden palings. Behind them he caught a gleam of water—a pond, apparently.
An airman is accustomed to meet emergencies at a moment's notice. Nat made up his mind on the instant. He knew the certain results of trying to take a corner too fast—knew that the car would most surely turn turtle, and probably grind her passengers to pieces under her ton and a half of weight.
The only possible chance for their lives was to go straight into the pond. There might be too little water to save them, or, on the other hand, there might be depth to drown them all. It was impossible to say. But anything was better than to upset or take the bank.
He held the leaping, roaring car straight as a die for the very centre of the palings.
Next instant there was a terrific crash. The car, travelling faster than an express train, struck the fence fair and square and went through it as though it had been so much brown paper. Splinters flew in a fountain, there were shrieks of terror from the men at the back.
Then the car leapt bodily into the air. Nat had the same sensation as if she were a plane leaving the ground, only that the shock was so violent that it flung him forward, bruising his chest against the steering wheel, and knocking all the breath out of his lungs.
A sheet of water rushed upwards and fell upon the car, blinding him and everyone else in it for the moment. There was a second shock, but not so severe as the first. Then Nat realised that the car was at a standstill in the middle of a small pond with the water not quite up to the seats.
He gave one glance at the other three occupants. Jukes was sitting quite still, with his mouth wide open. His cheeks were livid and his eyes goggling. A great trail of duckweed had been flung up across his face, and the muddy water was trickling from it down on to his limp collar. As for Wardle and the man Joe, they were still clinging feebly to the side doors, both in a stupid, dazed condition.
The next thing that Nat realised was that the whole car was rapidly settling into the soft mud at the bottom of the pool.
"I guess this is where I leave, as Faulkner would say," remarked Nat. And without waiting for a moment, he jumped up and vaulted nimbly out of his seat over the low screen on to the bonnet.
He made a big jump, reached water that was no deeper than his knees, struggled through the mud, and scrambled up on to the far bank.
The sight of his prisoner escaping moved Jukes to life again.
He jumped up.
"Stop that fellow," he shouted. "Wardle, Joe, get after him. He ran us in here on purpose. He'll go to prison for this."
"My good sir," replied Nat, "you're a little ungrateful. Under Providence, I've saved all your lives. I should advise you to use your men to get your car out. She's sinking fast, and if you leave her much longer you'll leave her there for good."
But Jukes was frantic with rage.
"Stop him!" he shrieked. "I'll give you a sovereign apiece if you catch him."
The promise spurred the two men to sudden activity. They scrambled clumsily out, and wading up to their armpits, struggled towards the bank.
Nat, who knew that he was in no trim for any further struggle, saw that it was time to quit, and started off across the field at as brisk a pace as he could manage.
This was not very fast, for he was weak and shaken, and soon the nail-clumped boots of his pursuers began to sound unpleasantly close.
He scrambled through a hedge, and found himself in a big grass field, sloping steeply upwards.
There was a crash of breaking branches close behind him, and Joe, closely followed by Wardle, came tumbling after him through the gap.
Nat spurted uphill, but it is ill work running on a very empty stomach and after two almost sleepless nights, to say nothing of having lost a deal of blood into the bargain.
His head began to spin in a very nasty fashion, his breath was coming in short gasps, and his heart hammering against his ribs. He realised that, long before he could reach the top of the field, the two men would be on him.
It was at this moment that a droning sound like that of a gigantic bumble bee came faintly to his ears. A strange sound, yet one very familiar to Nat, who knew it at once for the distant roar of the engine of a flying machine.
He stopped and look upwards.
High overhead he saw a monoplane, and even as he set eyes upon it the engine was shut off, and down she came in a magnificent, sweeping vol-plane.
As she dropped, Nat recognised her as his own old Blériot, and his heart leapt as he saw that the long, lean figure in the driving seat was Martin himself.
Wardle and Joe, too, had heard the roar of the engine. They pulled up short, and looked up. Probably they had never in all their dull lives set eyes upon a flying machine, and they stood stock still, staring in amazement at the plane swooping towards them out of the blue.
Next instant the Blériot dropped, light as a feather, on the turf between them and Nat.
"My dear old chap, I never thought to see you alive again," cried Martin, his usually grave face working with emotion. "I was watching the whole business, and how you saved the car. It was as fine a bit of work as ever I saw."
"These chaps don't think so," said Nat, pointing to the two astonished yokels. "They think I put 'em in the pond on purpose, and they want to send me to prison."
"Aye, we've the master's orders to arrest him," said Wardle, recovering himself a little.
"Your master must be as big a fool as his servants," retorted Martin severely. "Go back and tell him so, with my compliments. No, don't you dare come near me," as Wardle advanced. "You'll be sorry for it if you do." And Martin picked up a heavy spanner and swung it threateningly.
Nat gave the propeller a spin, and as the engine started, swung himself up behind Martin. Another moment, and before the eyes of the astonished rustics, the stout little plane had taken the air.
CAUGHT IN THE STORM
"WHERE'S the Crimson Aeroplane?" was Nat's first eager question, as Martin swung the Blériot back in the direction from which they had come.
"Quite safe, Nat."
"Thank goodness for that," breathed Nat gratefully.
"It's more than you can say for your friend in the motor," continued Martin dryly, as he glanced downward.
Exactly below them Jukes was standing up on the seat of his car, and though they could not hear him, evidently yelling lustily for help. The car had sunk so deeply in the soft mud that only the backs of the two seats were visible.
"She'll sink altogether pretty soon," chuckled Nat, who could not help being amused at the misfortunes of the man who had treated him so badly. "Then Jukes will have to wade ashore. It'll do him good."
"And he'll have to drain the pool to get the car out," put in Martin. "But you seem a bit vicious, Nat. Tell us all about it."
Nat gave his adventures in a few words. Martin listened with great interest.
"'Pon my word, old chap, I don't wonder you're a bit worked up. I never heard of anything more scandalous. And they gave you no breakfast?"
"Not a bite. And I don't mind telling you I could eat a horse."
"You shall have some food in about five minutes," said Martin, as he shut off the engine and planed down into a field near a farmhouse.
"The Crimson Aeroplane is in that big shed in the corner of the field," he told Nat, as they alighted. "There's no wind, so we can leave the old 'bus here. Now, come on into the house. Coaker, the farmer, is a real good sort, and he's expecting me back to dinner."
Coaker, a cheery-looking man of forty, with short side whiskers and a face as brown as a berry, came hurrying out to meet them.
"So you found your brother?" he exclaimed, as he saw Nat with Martin. "I heard as they had someone up at the big house, and I reckoned it was he."
Martin told him what had happened.
Coaker shook his head.
"Well I never! But he's a terror, is Mr. Jukes. I'm often pleased to think I'm not his tenant. My, but I'd have given something to see him and his car in that there pond! Now, you come right in, and have a wash up and a bite to eat. I never had the pleasure of entertaining flying gents before in my house."
Nat was taken into a comfortable bedroom and given a bath and plenty of warm water and soap and good rough towels. It was a real delight to get a good wash after going dirty so long.
A delicious smell of cooking came up the stairs, and when he got down he found the big kitchen table already spread. There was a great dish of steak and onions, a pile of potatoes boiled in their jackets, a splendid junket, and a cold whortleberry tart. Also a lordly loaf of homemade bread with crisp brown crust, and delicious butter fresh from the dairy.
Nat had never enjoyed a meal so much in his life, and
"He's longing to lay me by the heels," he said. "He's fully convinced I put him in the pond on purpose."
They sat talking for some little time, and then Martin looked at his watch and jumped up quickly.
"I say, Nat, it's time we got back. Dan will think I'm lost as well as you."
"Yes, we must be moving—or, rather, flying," said Nat. "Shall we race home, Martin?"
"Yes, if you'll let me have the Crimson Aeroplane," answered Martin, with one of his rare smiles.
"I'll toss you for it," laughed Nat.
They did, and Martin won.
"I'll come and see 'ee start," said the farmer. And he and Mrs. Coaker went out with the two brothers.
It was just as they got outside that a low, deep muttering sound shook the close, warm air.
"That's thunder, Martin," said Nat. "There's a storm working up. Hadn't we better wait?"
Martin looked up. Overhead, the sun, yellow as a ball of brass, glared hotly down. The sky was blue, all except a patch in the north-west, which was blotched with a dull haze.
"It's no distance home," he answered. "Surely we can get back long before it breaks."
"We ought to," agreed Nat. "All right. Let's shove along."
The air had grown strangely hot and close, the birds had stopped singing, not a leaf moved, and all over the countryside there was that curious hush which is usually felt before a thunderstorm.
The brothers wasted no time in getting out the two planes. The Crimson Aeroplane had her tank nearly empty, and there was a little delay in refilling it. Then the Blériot's engine would not start until her cylinders had been primed with petrol.
It was quite twenty minutes after leaving the house before they were ready to get away, and all this time the thunder had been rumbling louder, until now the distant peals seemed to shake the sullen air.
"Perhaps we'd better wait after all," suggested Martin. But now it was Nat who said:
"No, let's get on."
"All right. You start first."
He gave Nat's propeller a sharp swing, and, amid cheers from a small crowd which had gathered, the sturdy little Blériot ran forward across the turf and rose at her usual slow, steady slant.
As Nat lifted above the trees he glanced back and saw Martin coming flashing up behind him, the big seven-cylinder engine firing like a Gatling gun. In a moment he was past, and, travelling quite twice as fast as the poor old Blériot, soared away in the direction of the moor.
"Much chance I stand," laughed Nat. And as the words passed his lips a flash leapt crooked and crimson from the great storm-cloud over the hills to the north, and was followed by a bellowing roar of thunder.
At the same moment a cold blast of air struck his face, and the stout little plane quivered under the shock.
"My word! I'm in for it," groaned Nat. "I'll have to rise above it. It's my only chance."
Seizing his warping levers, he rose rapidly.
The air grew colder and colder. In his light clothes he shivered with the sudden chill.
Another blinding flash, the crash following instantly on its heels. Then he drove into the heart of a great mass of swirling mist. The ground beneath vanished from sight, and he was fighting for dear life in the pitching, rolling monoplane.
Nat could see nothing. The sky above, the ground beneath, both had vanished. The rain beat upon him from every side, drenching him to the skin and almost blinding him.
Every moment lightning burst out in vivid flashes, twisting jaggedly this way and that on all sides of him, while the thunder made noise enough to burst his ear-drums.
The plane pitched and rolled in terrifying fashion. At times it seemed almost to be standing on its head; again, the bow would be flung almost straight upwards. Nat had not the faintest notion in which direction he was travelling. Every ounce of muscle was centred in a frantic struggle to keep the frail structure of wood and canvas from being capsized.
The rain turned to hail. Lumps of ice rattled on the taut-stretched canvas of the wings, and beat cruelly on Nat's unprotected hands and face.
The pain was intense, yet Nat had no time to think of it. He was fighting for life. If he once lost control, the whole machine would be blown away like a withered leaf, and he and it scattered in broken fragments on the earth many hundreds of feet below.
Minute after minute the terrible struggle lasted.
Whenever there was the slightest lull Nat continued to fight his way upwards. His only chance was to rise above the storm. If he failed to do that he was lost.
He felt that his strength was failing. His senses were becoming confused. It seemed that he had been a lifetime battling in the heart of the tempest. But the fine old engine was still beating true and strong, and Nat had a dim idea that, so long as it continued to do so, he must manage somehow to keep up.
The hail ceased, and turned to rain again. The lightning became less vivid. But still the fierce wind tore at the little plane, and all around great billows of grey mist beat upon her thick as the thickest sea fog.
Nat managed to glance at his barometer. To his surprise, he saw that it registered a height of two thousand feet. He had risen fifteen hundred feet through the heart of the storm.
Next instant came a brilliant burst of sunshine, and Nat, dazed and confused, but with his heart full of deepest gratitude, found himself above the storm.
He looked down. Beneath him rolled gigantic coils of smoky cloud still torn by vivid flashes of electric fire. Above, the warm sun was shining down from a clear sky. It was glorious—all troubles were forgotten now.
Nat could see nothing of the ground beneath him, but to the eastwards he recognised the great humped head of Brown Willy, with the tall mine-shafts rising like columns from its steep sides. This gave him a landmark, and showed him that he had already far overshot Wheal Antony.
But it was no use dropping back into the reek below. He turned the Blériot, and began wheeling in wide circles. The wind, he could see, was carrying the thunderstorm swiftly seawards.
Suddenly his quick eye caught the figure of a man crouching under a jutting rock on a hillside almost directly below him.
There was something oddly familiar about the man, and quickly taking his glasses from their case, he steered with one hand, and with the other put them to his eyes.
A gasp of astonishment burst from his lips. It was Johnny, the man from the mine.
"Now what on earth is he doing there?" murmured Nat. "He's miles from home."
For a moment he was minded to drop and find out. But at present he was too anxious about Martin to think much of anything else. He felt that, first of all, he must make for home and find out whether his brother had weathered the tempest in safety.
He looked towards Wheal Antony, and as he looked the last of the rain mist swirled past the familiar mine dump, and the blue-slated roof of the mine-house showed out clear and distinct, with the great burnt and blackened patch running past it down to the brook.
But there was no sign of life about the place, nor any smoke arising from the chimney. Nat's heart sank.
Martin, then, had not arrived!
Forgetting all about Johnny, he turned the prow of his plane towards Wheal Antony and shot forward at top speed. In a moment or two he had cut off his ignition, and was sweeping downwards.
Steering with the precision born of long experience, he reached the patch of level ground sheltered from the wind by the house, and stepped stiffly out of the driving-seat.
WHAT THEY FOUND IN THE WORKSHOP
"DAN!" he cried loudly, as he hurried into the house.
There was no answer.
Now dreadfully anxious, he hurried into the kitchen. The ashes of last night's fire were still in the grate, and the supper dishes, unwashed, stood upon the table.
He ran up to Dan's little attic under the roof, and flung open the door.
Dan lay on his bed. He was fully dressed, with his face and hands still black from the battle with the fire.
Nat's heart stood still. He caught his breath painfully. Was the boy dead?
No. As he came nearer he saw that he was breathing.
"Dan," he shouted, shaking him roughly by the shoulder.
"What's the matter?" mumbled Dan drowsily.
"Wake up and tell me what's happened!" ordered Nat angrily.
Dan sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"That you, Mr. Nat?" he said. "I'm awful glad to see you. I'm sorry I was asleep, but I've only just got back from chasing Loony Johnny."
"Chasing Loony Johnny—what do you mean?"
"Why, he came and called me before daylight, and told me there was some chap outside trying to get into the workshop. And off he went before I could say a word, and I've been chasing him for hours. But find him I couldn't, and I was that dead beat that I just came home and turned in all standing."
"Johnny's all right. I know where he is. Up on Stannon Tor. But haven't you seen my brother?"
"I reckoned he'd gone to look for you," said Dan, evidently surprised.
"He isn't back yet. Didn't you hear the storm?"
"Storm? No, I suppose I was that tired I slept through it."
At this moment came a familiar sound. The distant roar of a big Gnome engine.
Nat tore downstairs, three steps at a time, and rushed out.
The Crimson Aeroplane was just alighting on the turf beside the old Blériot.
Next moment the two brothers had gripped one another's hands. For the moment neither could speak.
"I hardly hoped to see you again, Nat," said Martin at last. "I'll never forgive myself for letting you start in that storm."
"Nonsense, Martin! It was my fault. I can tell you I got the scare of my life when I found you weren't back."
"I saw the storm coming, and went wide. I've been a fifty mile round, and up to over four thousand feet. I was looking for you all the time. How you got through it in the poor old Blériot I can't imagine. I'm certain I should never have done it."
"It was pretty tough," admitted Nat. "Anyhow, here we are both safe home so we won't worry any more. But what's this Dan tells me about the man who tried to break into the workshop last night?"
"First I've heard of it," said Martin in much surprise. "I thought they were both safe in bed and asleep when I started this morning."
"No, we were out before you, Mr. Martin," put in Dan. "It was still dark when Johnny got me up, and he was so excited I wouldn't wait to call you."
"But was there anyone about?" demanded Martin.
"That I can't say," replied Dan. "I didn't see nobody. But Johnny says he did, and he was off across the moor like a red shank."
"He's up on the side of Stannon Tor," said Nat. "I spotted him from above. Poor beggar, he must be dead beat. We'll have to go and get him in."
"First we'll have a look at the workshop," said Martin anxiously. "It was safe when I left this morning, but for all we know, someone may have been here since."
All three turned out. The rain had cooled the last embers of the burnt hangar, and the iron roof of the shop still gleamed wet under the bright sun.
Martin reached the door first. He tried the handle.
"Hullo, it's open!" he exclaimed. "I left it locked." He flung the door wide.
A cry of horror burst from him and Nat at once.
"They've been here all right!" said Nat grimly, as he stood and stared at the ruin within.
The place looked as though a mad bull had been loose in it. Almost every single thing that could be smashed or destroyed was in pieces. Valuable tools and instruments were scattered broken on the floor. Castings cracked with a big sledge-hammer littered the place, and smaller articles had been piled in a heap on the forge and burnt. The work of weeks, together with a stock of tools worth over a hundred pounds, was utterly destroyed.
Martin's face was deathly white as he turned to Dan.
"They must have done this after you left," he said in the dull tones of utter despair.
Dan—big, sturdy Dan, burst into tears.
"It's all my fault," he sobbed. "My own fool fault."
Nat laid a kindly hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Steady, Dan, lad," he said. "It's a bad job. But it can't be helped. Brace up. We don't blame you, do we, Martin?"
"It was as much my fault as yours, Dan," said Martin, trying to pull himself together. "I had no business to go off as I did without seeing that you were on the place."
"Then Johnny was right," said Nat. "The poor chap did see or hear somebody about the place after you got the fire out."
"Yes, and the scoundrels came round just for the purpose of drawing us off, so that they could get the coast clear," added Martin, as he stooped and picked up a broken fragment of a casting for the new plane.
"Who were they? That's the question," said Nat, his voice sharp with anger.
Martin shook his head.
"Who can tell?" he said sadly.
"Well, it's either Condon and Co. or else that smooth-faced Alger," declared Nat. "One or the other. We've got no enemies besides them."
"Condon, then, I suppose," replied his brother. "Surely Alger would never dream of such brutal, wanton mischief as this."
"Don't be too sure," said Nat sharply. "Remember he and his crowd are all out for the fifty thousand. And they're afraid of us. If you ask me, I say it's Alger. Condon doesn't even know where we live, and if he did he could hardly have got here in the time."
"Well, it's not a bit of use worrying as to who the culprits are," said Martin, who was almost himself again. "Whoever they are, they're far enough out of our reach by now, and we can't waste time or money hunting them. The question is, what are we to do—chuck the whole thing and sell our alloy, or go on and make a struggle to build the new plane?"
"Chuck it?" cried Nat. "Not for worlds! We'll fight 'em and beat 'em."
"That's all very well," said the practical Martin. "No one is more anxious to win the prize than I. But on the face of it, I don't see how we can do it. We've got very little left in the bank of Faulkner's money. Most of that will go in refitting the workshop. How are we to get cash to build the big plane?"
"Make it," said Nat firmly. "We've got the Crimson safe and sound. We'll take her to the Tarnmouth week. It's a pity if we can't bring home some of those prizes." Martin stood biting his lower lip, a habit he had when thinking deeply.
"Very well," he said. "You shall go, Nat. I must stay here and push on as fast as I can. Time is running so short that I dare not lose even a day. In fact, we mustn't waste half a day. Put your overalls on and we'll clear up this mess. Dan, you go to Stannon Tor, find Johnny and bring him in."
Dan, very sad and subdued, went off at once, and the brothers, after housing the two planes, set to work in the wrecked shop.
It was a cruel task. Every minute they picked out from the heaps of broken rubbish fresh pieces of costly tools and castings, and their hearts were sick and sore as they toiled among the wreckage.
It was nearly tea-time before Dan arrived with Johnny.
Poor Johnny was in a sad state, covered with mud, and still so excited that he could hardly explain himself. However, Nat gathered that he had actually seen a man trying to pick the lock of the workshop door and had run out after him.
The man at once bolted, and Johnny had gone after him, full tilt across the moor. He declared that he had kept him in sight for miles, but at last had lost him among some rocks.
Then he himself had fallen into a bog, and had an awful job to get out. After that he had become completely lost, and wandered about until he was quite worn out, when he lay down under a rock and went to sleep.
"And what was the man like—the one you chased?" asked Nat.
"S-short and s-square," stammered Johnny.
That was all the description he could give, and Nat thought it best to pack him off to bed at once.
This was Friday. The Tarnmouth flying week began on the following Monday, so Saturday was spent in the work of tuning up the Crimson Aeroplane.
At dawn on Monday, Nat left the mine-house and flew away towards the big seaport.
TWO MILES UP
THE band was playing, flags were flapping in a light breeze, and a warm sun shone upon the crowds which blackened the great stands erected around the Tarnmouth Aerodrome. Everyone seemed happy and cheerful, and there was a buzz of talk and laughter on every side.
Nat stood by the door of the hangar that had been assigned to him. Martin had warned him strongly against letting any unauthorised person examine the Crimson Aeroplane, and Nat was fully resolved on guarding his precious possession against the spies of Peregrine Brothers or other firms.
He felt very lonely among all these gay crowds. He did not know a single soul, and had spoken to no one except the officials. He had no mechanic, as had all the other flying men, so it was impossible for him to leave his post for even a minute.
"Hullo, Meadows, you here? Well, I am surprised!"
The cheery voice made Nat start. He looked round to find Lieutenant Vosper at his elbow, the naval officer's jolly face beaming with pleasure at the meeting.
"I thought you were a jolly sight too busy at your health resort on the moor to attend frivolous performances of this sort," went on Vosper as he shook hands.
"I'm not here for pleasure," answered Nat rather grimly.
"What—out for the dollars?"
"Got the fire-engine here?"
"Yes, in the hangar."
"Jove! I thought you were saving her for the big business in September! Why, you ought to knock every record kite-high with that little rocket."
"We didn't mean to let her be seen in public," replied Nat. "But the fact is we've got to raise some cash. Some beauties broke into our workshop last Friday and made hay of everything."
"You don't say so? Tell me all about it."
Nat did so, and Vosper was full of sympathy.
"Never heard such a blackguardly business in all my life," he declared. "Any notion who did it? Was it that American bunco man, Condon?"
"Don't think so," said Nat. "Between you and me, I believe we have to thank a rival firm. But don't say anything about it, that's a good chap. I've no proof."
"Well, look out they don't try any dirty trick to-day, Meadows," said Vosper, speaking more gravely than Nat had yet heard him. "What are you out for in particular?"
"Altitude record principally. There's a hundred for the highest flight, and two hundred if the British record is beaten."
"Not much chance of that. They've cocked it up to 9,600, I hear."
"It'll depend on the weather a good deal," said Nat casting an eye upwards.
"The glass is fairly high," replied Vosper. "But I don't quite like those mares'-tails. They mean wind up above. And the clouds will thicken in an hour or two."
"That's what I think," agreed Nat. "I wish they'd start. The longer one waits, the worse it will be."
"You won't have to wait long. There's the first machine coming out now. See that one with the fuselage covered in and a rounded body."
"It looks more like a bird than anything I've seen yet," answered Nat. "It's a Nieuport, isn't it?"
"That's it. About the fastest thing that flies, barring your little fire-engine."
The graceful Nieuport was started and went circling upwards, followed by the eyes of all the assembled thousands, and after her a big powerful biplane left the ground.
Now it was Nat's turn, and Vosper helped him to wheel the Crimson Aeroplane out of her shed.
Her colour at once took the eye of the crowd.
"Here's a boiled lobster!" shouted one would-be wit.
"No, it's a travelling post-office," cried another.
"She's nothing but a blooming toy," observed a man in a chauffeur's cap. "I don't reckon she'll ever get off the ground."
Nat chuckled softly as the last remark reached his ears, and he and Vosper wheeled the machine to the starting-point.
The officials had already set and sealed Nat's barograph, and he had nothing to do but start. Vosper gave his propeller a swing, the light, bird-like machine shot forward, and took wing with a speed that drew cheers from the watching crowds.
"The engine was working to perfection, and the smart little plane went up at a tremendously steep angle. Nat took her round in wide spirals, and very soon the people below dwindled to mere black dots, while the sound of their cheers became a mere murmur.
Higher and still higher. The big city became a tiny collection of toy-like houses. The air grew colder every minute, and in spite of his warm clothing and thick gloves Nat shivered.
Climbing far more steeply than the Nieuport plane, he passed it, and it dwindled to a dot beneath it. He was now far above the flight of birds, and no sounds from below reached him.
He glanced at his barometer. When he started, the index had pointed to a little over 30 inches. Now it stood at 22. As the barometer falls—roughly speaking—an inch for a thousand feet rise, he knew that he was already eight thousand feet above the earth's surface.
The temperature was still falling. It was far below freezing point. But Nat's spirits rose. His engine was still working to perfection, which is not always the case with petrol engines in intense cold.
Next thing he knew he had shot into cloud. Thin cirrus or mares'-tails, but still thick enough to hide all sight of the earth below.
Up and up. The barometer recorded 8,500. Nat now felt certain of winning the hundred pound prize, but he was not content with this. He meant to have the two hundred, to say nothing of the honour of the British record.
The barometer marked 9,000 feet. The thermometer had dropped to 20° F.—that is 12 degrees of frost. The crimson paint of the plane was turning white with ice flakes, and Nat's breath was a cloud of vapour.
And still the brave little aeroplane circled upwards untiringly. Nine thousand five hundred feet was passed. The cold was getting terrible. In spite of his thick gloves, Nat's hands felt numb as sticks.
Nine thousand six hundred! He had equalled the British record, and went on climbing. His breath was falling in snowflakes, and that in spite of the fact that he was now above the clouds and in bright sunshine.
One curious result of the great height and the thinness of the air was that the sound of his engine was much more feeble than it had been. But as Nat knew the cause, this did not trouble him. The only thing that really worried him was the intense cold. He had never felt anything like it in his life, for the mercury was actually vanishing in the bulb. In other words, there were 32 degrees of frost.
The barometer marked 9,900 feet.
"Just a hundred more," muttered Nat. "Ten thousand is a nice round number. Then down we go."
He made one more wide circle, and just as the barometer marked the 10,000, the engine shut up like a knife.
To have one's motive power cease working when at a height of nearly two miles above the earth's surface sounds absolutely terrifying. But as a matter of fact, it is not really half so dangerous as if it failed when at a height of only two or three hundred feet.
Nat was not at all alarmed.
"Thought so!" he said aloud, as he rapidly worked his controls and turned the prow of the little Crimson Aeroplane to a proper angle for a long glide. "Carburettor frozen! Well, she'll thaw again before I get very far down."
He looked downwards. A bank of cloud cut off all view of the earth. This and the fact that a stiffish breeze was blowing from the north-west made Nat a trifle uneasy. He could not tell in the least where he was, nor how far he had been carried by the wind from Tarnmouth.
The mercury fairly raced upwards as the plane, gliding at a steep angle, dropped earthwards at a tremendous speed. The rapidity of the fall gave Nat a nasty singing sensation in his ears.
Next moment he was through the cloud. He caught a glint of water beneath, and then of the land far away to the northward. With an unpleasant shock he realised that he was at least three miles out over the sea.
He pulled the plane round with her bow pointing towards the land, and switched on the engine.
To his horror it would not work.
What the matter was he could not imagine, but he supposed that there was still ice in the nozzle of the carburettor jet. There was no time to find out. All he could possibly do was to try to reach the shore.
A well-built aeroplane will glide at an angle of one in eight. As Nat was still fully four thousand feet up, it looked all odds on his gaining the land with ease.
But to win the prize he had to come down inside the aerodrome. The aerodrome was about a mile inland. He could see it distinctly, the big oval of green turf, with its rim of black crowds.
The air beat upon his face as he shot through it at tremendous speed. The shore grew momentarily nearer.
At that moment a large plane swooped into sight to his left. It was a monoplane of the Valkyrie type, but the largest which Nat had ever seen. It was coming in from the sea at a lower level than himself, and travelling very fast.
Suddenly Nat saw that his course and that of the Valkyrie would almost meet unless he altered his helm. That, of course, he dared not do, for he needed every ounce of the impetus of his drop in order to reach the aerodrome.
He held on, fully expecting that the Valkyrie would give way. Next thing he knew, she was immediately below him.
"Idiots!" he cried aloud, for he knew what must happen. The words were hardly out of his mouth before the air waves set up by the passage of the monster below and the whirl of her great propeller reached him. He felt the Crimson Aeroplane swing beneath him, pitching from side to side.
Next moment she made a sudden dive, drawn downward by the suction of the machine beneath. Nat had no motive power to help him to regain his balance.
Down plunged the poor little Crimson Aeroplane, and next thing Nat knew she had struck the surface of the sea with a terrifying splash.
The wave caused by the force with which the plane had struck the water splashed over Nat's head, but he was on his feet in a moment, and, dashing the brine from his eyes, looked round.
The big Valkyrie was going straight away towards the aerodrome. Either her pilot had not seen what had happened, or he did not care.
Nat shook his fist at the fast vanishing machine, then, ashamed of his exhibition of temper, took stock of his own position.
He was in no immediate danger; for the cambered planes of the Crimson Aeroplane would keep her afloat for some little while, and the sea was very calm. Besides, he was no great distance from the shore, and already his fall had been seen, and boats were putting out.
But it was not of himself that he was thinking. It was of the lost prize. Two hundred pounds gone! And with it all chance of building the new plane. What would Martin say?
Poor Nat! Ten minutes earlier he had been exulting in the triumph of winning that fat cheque and the British record. And now it was all lost, and, what was more, the splendid little Crimson Aeroplane was soaked with salt water, and her engine full of it. Even if he got her ashore without further damage, it would be a long time before she was fit to fly again.
Small wonder that he was plunged in the depths of despair.
"Hold on. Meadows! We'll have you out of that in a jiffy."
It was Vosper's cheery voice which came from the bow of a big launch with a crew of four, which was rushing towards him.
Next moment it was alongside.
"Are you all right?" cried Vosper anxiously.
"I'm right enough," answered Nat. "But how are we going to get the plane ashore?"
"Don't worry about that, old man. I've got floats here. Jump aboard, and get your weight off her."
An aeroplane is an awkward thing to tackle at any time, but to get one out of the water is about as ticklish a job as can well be imagined. There is always the risk of breaking her spars and stays, in which case the chances are that the engine, which is, of course, by far the most valuable part of her, goes to the bottom like a stone.
If it had not been for Vosper, this is exactly what would have happened; but he was a true handyman, and he had taken the precaution of bringing a whole stock of lifebelts, and also two airtight floats, which he had commandeered from a sailing canoe. These were carefully lashed to the fuselage (body) of the machine, and then they towed her very gently in and dragged her up on the shelving beach.
"That's not a bad job," said Vosper with some pride as he straightened his back and took a long breath. "Not a spar smashed."
"Thanks to you," said Nat gratefully.
"Never mind the thanks, old chap. You go and change into dry kit. I'm going to have this engine out as quick as I can. Luckily I've got my own mechanic here, and we'll get the cylinders down, and dry all the parts out and grease 'em. I don't believe she'll be a ha'porth the worse."
"You've done enough already, Vosper. I can't be imposing on you like this!"
"Rats!" observed Vosper with a grin. "You go and shift your togs or I'll jolly well come and make you."
Nat hurried off. As he reached the entrance to the aerodrome a man came up to him.
Nat started as he recognised the sharp features of Mr. Horace Alger.
"Good morning, Mr. Meadows! I am so sorry for your misfortune, especially as I hear that you beat the British altitude record."
Nat was so taken back at the man's impudence that for a moment he could find no words. The Valkyrie, he knew from Vosper, belonged to Peregrine Brothers, and he more than suspected that it had been driven beneath him on purpose to bring him down.
"We are hoping," went on Alger smoothly, "that you and your brother may have reconsidered your decision, and be willing, after all, to sell your new invention."
Nat's blood boiled. It was Alger, he fully believed, who had fired the moor. Alger who had wrecked their workshop; and now, after robbing him of the longed-for prize, the man had the impudence to come and renew his proposal to buy the new metal.
He felt like driving his fist into the cool, sneering face, and such a dangerous expression came upon his own features that Alger involuntarily took a step backwards. Nat pulled himself together. He gave a short laugh.
"I admire your cheek more than your discretion, Mr. Alger," he answered quietly. "But if I were you I wouldn't make that suggestion again. And another bit of advice. Next time you try any of your dirty tricks, make sure that no one recognises you."
This was a mere random accusation on Nat's part, but it went home. Alger paled a little. He bit his lip hard, and Nat saw at once that his suspicions were correct.
"I don't know what you are talking about, Mr. Meadows. You must be mad, or perhaps your accident has upset you, so that you don't know what you are saying," replied Alger, getting a hold on himself.
"Oh, I know very well what I'm talking about," said Nat with a laugh. "Good-day, Mr. Alger!"
And turning on his heel he was gone, leaving Alger standing stock still.
"Got a bit of my own back there," said Nat to himself, as he went to his hangar. "It was Alger, then, that Johnny chased the other night. Well, he won't visit the moor again in a hurry, that's one thing sure. He's got a proper scare this time."
THE BURNING BRIDGE
HE changed quickly, and hung his soaked things to dry. As he came out he met Vosper with the Crimson Aeroplane on a lorry. They got it into the hangar and set to work.
"Every bit of the engine will have to come down, Meadows," said Vosper. "It's going to be a long job."
"I'm afraid it is," answered Nat ruefully. "It will cut me out of any chance of trying for anything else in the way of a prize."
"I don't know about that. We might get her right by Thursday. There's the circuit of the moor that day."
"Think I should stand any chance?" questioned Nat. "It's a passenger carrying business, and the Crimson is pretty small for a flight like that."
"You ought to stand a jolly good chance," answered Vosper. "Especially as I'm coming with you—that is, if you'll let me."
"Rather, only too glad!" said Nat. "What's the prize?"
"Only a hundred, I'm afraid. They're a mean crowd down here."
"A hundred isn't to be sneezed at," said Nat. "If we can get the Crimson right in time, I'll have a jolly good shot at it."
Vosper worked like a horse, and between the three of them they got the Crimson Aeroplane's engine back into her by Wednesday night.
"We ought to give her a trial spin," said Nat, as he wiped his hands on a wad of waste.
"It's too dark now," replied Vosper. "But I'm game to go up first thing in the morning."
"Right-o! Five o'clock!" said Nat.
Vosper had diggings in the town, and, to save Nat expense, had insisted upon his sharing them. They both turned in early, and were up at four.
It was a brilliant morning as they walked to the flying ground. Nat glanced at the sky.
"Going to be a regular scorcher," he said thoughtfully. "Tell you what, Vosper, we'll have to fly high to-day. There'll he all sorts of air-holes over the moor."
"You're right, Meadows. I know what hilly ground is like on a day of this kind. I came over the Quantocks once on a regular roaster in June, and it wasn't safe at anything much under two thousand. Give me the sea every time. I'd rather fly a hundred miles over sea than twenty over land."
There were still some small adjustments to be made before the Crimson Aeroplane was fixed up, and it was nearly six when they were ready to start.
"Phew, but it's a broiler!" exclaimed Vosper, mopping his forehead. "I never knew it so hot at this hour of the morning."
"You'll be cool enough in a minute," replied Nat, as he scrambled into the driving seat. "Are you ready?"
"Right-o!" said Vosper.
Nat held up his right hand as a signal to the mechanic. The latter gave the propeller a whirl, and, as the engine roared, sprang nimbly aside. Nat raised his planes, and the Crimson Aeroplane took the air with her own peculiar quickness.
"Jove, she does climb!" exclaimed Vosper as he noted the steep slant at which they rose. "Where are you going, Meadows?"
"Up to the moor. I want to see what it's like."
"Then go high."
"You bet," said Nat briefly.
In a very few minutes they had risen to two thousand feet, and at this height, as Nat had prophesied, the air was of a pleasant coolness. But down below everything shimmered with heat. The sea was like a mill pond; smoke from the chimneys rose straight up towards the cloudless sky, every glass roof shone and quivered in the glare.
Nat turned the Crimson Aeroplane's prow inland, and at an easy fifty they sailed towards the blue hills on the northern horizon.
He cut right across country on level keel until they reached Willacoombe Tor, the first outpost of the great moor tableland. Then all of a sudden the Crimson Aeroplane shot into an air-hole, and slid downwards at a steep angle.
It was not a bad one, yet every stay sang as Nat brought her up.
"Phew, that's nasty!" exclaimed Vosper. "You'll have to fly higher still, old chap."
Nat nodded, and as he worked the cloche (steering and warping control), the Crimson Aeroplane climbed again.
Exactly beneath them was the line of the branch railway running up to Moorlands, a large village which lay in a hollow between two great tors, at a height of over fourteen hundred feet above sea-level. It was said to be the highest town in England.
The rails ran like two shining streaks of silver, curving in and out of valleys, crossing rushing brooks, and climbing steeply around the great, heather-clad shoulders of the tors.
From the immense height at which they were flying they could see miles of the line. Moorlands itself, the terminus, was hidden by the big blunt head of Westworthy Tor.
"Jove, but it's a wonderful view!" exclaimed Vosper enthusiastically. "That's one thing I never get tired of, Meadows—the view. What a lot those chaps miss who always stick on the ground!"
"Do you know the moor?" asked Nat.
"Rather! I've fished pretty nearly every brook on it, and tramped every bog after snipe in winter."
"Hullo!" he broke off sharply. "The heather's afire. Blessed if I ever saw it burning so late in the summer as this. That coombe below the line is all alight."
"I've seen more of heather fires than I want," returned Nat grimly.
"Ah, you mean the other night, when your hangar was burnt? Yes, I should think you had. But this is a bigger blaze than usual. Look at the smoke."
"It's coming up pretty thick, certainly," admitted Nat, as he glanced down and noted the great cloud of dark grey smoke sweeping up into the sunshine. "And look at the eddies. My word, I wouldn't care to take the plane down there."
"Swing her a bit to the left. I want to get a sight of it," said Vosper.
Nat did so, and in a few moments they were right over the scene of the conflagration. Nat throttled down his engine so that the pace dropped to just over forty miles an hour.
Vosper was leaning over the side, looking down. Suddenly he straightened up, and there was an expression of alarm on his face.
"I say, Meadows, here's a go. The railway bridge is burning. It's caught from the heather."
Nat swung the plane again so as to keep her over the coombe. He looked down. True enough, the flames had caught the wooden supports of the bridge carrying the line over the narrow but deep coombe and the little brook at the bottom. They were burning fast.
Even in the strong sunlight, he could see the little red tongues of fire wreathing and twisting up the timbers. He almost fancied he could hear their snap and crackle.
"You're right, Vosper," he answered gravely. "The whole thing will be down before long, and even as it is, it's not safe for a train to cross. We must shove on to the next station and warn them there."
"Best go to Moorlands. It's up on the top, and the wind eddies won't be so bad there. All the same, it's no day for alighting anywhere on the moor."
"No train due, I suppose?" said Nat.
"I shouldn't think so. There are only about three each way in the day. But I don't know anything about the time-table."
Nat turned the plane again, and, putting on full power, they flew off in the direction of Moorlands.
Next moment Vosper gave a sharp cry:
"Great Christopher, here's a train coming!"
Nat looked down. Around the base of Westworthy Tor a train shot into sight, sweeping down the steep slope at a rapid rate.
It was a passenger train with half a dozen coaches, and even at this distance Nat could see the heads of children stretched out of almost every window.
"It's a school treat!" he murmured in a voice of horror. "Vosper, we've got to stop 'em somehow or other."
"It's an even chance whether we land alive," said Vosper, as he glanced quickly down upon the steep, rocky hillside, where the thickly-strewn granite boulders were mixed with tangles of deep heather and stiff clumps of gorse, and everything danced and shimmered in the fierce rays of the blazing sun.
Nat looked, too. But it was not the ground he feared. It was what was rising from it. The unseen dangers were far worse than those that were visible.
Where the Crimson Aeroplane was wheeling nearly half a mile up, the air was solid and steady. Down below, it was rising from the heated soil in irregular gusts and eddies. There were air-holes, crevasses, twisting cross-currents, every sort of wind-trap that the aviator fears most. He set his teeth.
"We can't warn 'em from above. We must go down," he said harshly.
"Go ahead, old man. Don't worry," answered Vosper coolly.
Nat switched off. The roar of the great seven-cylindered engine ceased like magic, the bows of the little plane dipped, the horizon seemed to tilt up suddenly.
At first the sweep was steady. A long, swift glide. The earth seemed to rush to meet them. The warm air beat upwards on their faces.
Then without an instant's warning the plane struck a rising column of air. It was like hitting something solid. Every stay twanged like a fiddle-string. The plane trembled all over. As for her occupants, the shock half-stunned them.
Nat worked like a fury. For a few seconds, which seemed like hours, it was touch and go. Then he got control again, and once more the Crimson Aeroplane tobogganed downwards on an even keel.
But only for a moment. She dropped into an air-hole. She fell like a stone, was saved by another uprush of heated air, and rose like a withered leaf. She was twisted here and there, tilted from one side to another, rolled to every kind of perilous angle.
Nat, the veins standing out on his forehead, the perspiration dripping from his face, fought with every muscle in his body. Vosper, hunched on the seat behind, watched him with wonder and admiration.
The stays twanged, every spar creaked and groaned under the fearful stress. And then Nat, in despair, switched on the engine again and drove forward.
In a moment she was out of the worst of the eddy. She steadied again.
Vosper, looking down, saw the train barely a mile away coming swiftly down the long curving gradient. The driver and fireman had seen the plane. Their faces, white dots in the sun's glare, were lifted to the sky.
But ignorant of the reason for the aeroplane's descent, the driver did not dream of braking, and the train, with the load of merry children, rushed onwards to certain destruction.
Nat switched off again. The air was a little steadier here. They were beyond the hot whirlwinds flung up by the blazing heather. The plane shot down to the three hundred-foot level.
Vosper shouted wildly to the driver, but the latter did not hear. The roar of the locomotive and roll of the steel-shod wheels drowned all other sounds.
Now they were almost exactly over the train, and the train itself was not half a mile from the blazing bridge. But the bridge was hidden by a spur of the hill, and the driver would not see the danger until it was too late.
Nat wrenched the Crimson Aeroplane right round. He flew back over the train. The plane, caught in another air-shoot, dropped fast.
"Look out! You'll be on top of her!" gasped Vosper.
"No! I'll land in front of her," answered Nat hoarsely. "It's the only way of stopping her."
Vosper saw the driver look up again. There was an expression of alarm upon his face. His lips moved. Evidently he was speaking to his fireman.
"Will he never stop?" murmured Vosper.
The aeroplane dropped lower still. She was rolling terribly. It was all that Nat could do to keep any sort of control. Little invisible air-eddies were spinning and dancing in every direction, pulling her up, down, this way and that.
Vosper, white and sick with the terrific tossing, suddenly gave a faint cheer.
"It's all right. He's braking!" he gasped.
The engine-driver, seeing that the plane was apparently out of control, and believing that it would drop on the rails in front of him, had suddenly flung on the brakes. Vosper heard them grind, saw sparks fly up from the skidding wheels, and noted the sudden slackening of speed.
Next moment the Crimson Aeroplane dropped upon the hillside not a dozen yards from the fence which ran alongside the railway. She came to ground lightly enough, but even as she did so a side gust caught her and tilted her sharply.
Over she went upon her side with a sharp crackle of snapping spars.
Vosper sprang clear. Nat was not so lucky. He was flung out sideways, and as Vosper picked himself up he saw his companion lying in a heap among the wreckage.
In a moment he had him in his arms and had lifted him clear, and laid him on the grass.
At the same moment, the driver and guard of the train came scrambling over the fence.
"What's happened, sir? Was it an accident?" cried the guard, a big man with a fair beard.
"About as near one as ever you want to see, guard. The culvert's afire just round the bend, and you and your whole train would have been in the coombe if Mr. Meadows here hadn't risked his life to come down and warn you."
The guard's red face went pale.
"The bridge afire! My goodness—and we've got nigh on a hundred children in the train! 'Tis the Moorlands School-treat. Is the gentleman hurt bad?"
"I don't know yet. Get some water, some of you, please. And if there's any brandy in the train, bring it."
The guard was off at unexpected speed. The driver bent down over Nat and felt his pulse.
"I know something of first-aid, sir," he explained. "Been to ambulance classes. He's only stunned like."
Nat, in fact, had got a nasty blow on the head as he was flung out of his seat, but by the time the guard came puffing back with a tin can full of cold water, he had already got his eyes open.
Vosper bathed his head and made him drink some brandy and water, and he very soon pulled round, and stared in wonder at the crowd surrounding him.
Then his eyes fell upon the poor little Crimson Aeroplane lying on her side with spars broken and stays snapped.
"My luck's dead out, Vosper," he said sadly. "She won't fly again for a long time to come."
"You saved the train anyhow, sir," said the driver admiringly. "The Company ought to pay the damage."
"You saved us all, sir," declared a tall, elderly man with the straight back and erect carriage of a soldier. "You may rely on me to represent the case to the Company. I am Colonel Peyton, Governor of Moorlands Prison."
"The accident has cut Mr. Meadows out of his chance of winning the circuit of the moor this afternoon," explained Vosper quickly. "He and I were running a practice spin when we spotted the bridge alight. It was the air currents that made the descent so difficult."
"I quite understand," answered Colonel Peyton. "You may count upon me to see justice done in the matter. And now I think that the best thing we can do is to return to Moorlands and take Mr. Meadows with us. I have no doubt the stationmaster will send down a truck for the aeroplane."
The driver agreed.
Most of the passengers decided to walk on to Willacoombe Station, and from there get the train to Tarnmouth. They were bound for the aviation ground. Colonel Peyton, however, went back with Nat, leaving Vosper to look after the loading of the broken plane.
Nat, still very dizzy and shaky from his tumble, was driven to the Governor's house and put on a sofa in a cool, airy room, where he went peacefully to sleep.
When he awoke, Vosper was standing beside him.
"How are you, old chap?" asked the lieutenant.
"Tons better, thanks! What about the Crimson?"
"She's in a shed at the station. Nothing much wrong with her. We can put her to rights in a couple of days. I've wired for the stuff and my mechanic."
"You're too good, Vosper. I've no claim on you, and you're doing everything for me."
"Oh, go and boil your head, you old duffer. Don't you know you've made a blooming hero of me? I've had the mammas of all the kids who were in that train following me around, wanting to hug me. I ran in here to escape them."
Vosper's expression was so comical that Nat laughed outright.
"Yes, you may laugh. But wait till you get outside. They'll mob you all right."
Nat's face clouded.
"I'm glad we saved the train, Vosper. But this last business has just about finished Martin and myself. We shall have to sell the new alloy and chuck all idea of trying for the £50,000."
Instead of looking sympathetic, the naval lieutenant chuckled outright.
Nat looked at him in astonishment.
Vosper put his hand in his pocket, and pulled out a slip of pink paper, which he unfolded.
"Read that," he said, handing the telegram to Nat.
This is what Nat read:
"Assure Mr. Meadows of the Company's gratitude for his heroism in saving the excursion train on the Moorlands branch line. The directors will be responsible for all repairs to his damaged machine and for any loss he, may have incurred owing to his inability to take part in to-day's race.—Strickland, Chairman Western Railway."
THE BIG RED CAR
"I SAY, you chaps, do you realise that you've only another fortnight before the great day?" remarked Lieut. Vosper as he came into the workshop at Wheal Antony one morning about a week after Nat's accident.
Martin, who was doing some delicate work with a tiny file, looked up.
"Thirteen days, to be exact," he said in his quiet voice. "But, thanks to you, we shall have the new machine ready in plenty of time."
"Thanks to yourself, you mean," answered Vosper with his ready laugh. "You're a fair wonder to work, Martin, my boy. Honestly, though, I think we can all pat ourselves on the back, for with any luck Number 2 ought to be ready for the air in a week, and that'll just give us time to tune her up, and take her to Salisbury Plain."
"If we have the luck to collar the fifty thou, you'll have to stand in, Vosper," put in Nat, who was planing down a long strip of clean-grained Californian spruce to make a spar. "You've been our mascot all the way through. First, you came to our rescue with Mother Goose, then you pulled the Crimson out of the sea without damaging her, and it was you who spotted the railway bridge on fire and—"
"Oh, cut it out," said Vosper quickly, as he peeled off his coat. "I've got no time to waste in blushing. And, anyhow, I'd nothing to do with that gallery rescue of yours except to look on. By-the-by, did you get the cheque all right from the Western?"
"Yes, rather! They made it a round two hundred. Very decent of them."
"Cheap at the price, I call it," retorted Vosper. "Two thousand wouldn't have gone far in the damages they'd have had to pay if the train had gone through the bridge. But the question is, have you got enough cash now to carry on?"
"We shall just get through," answered Martin. "I expect we shall have about fifty pounds in hand after paying everything here, including rent. We shall need that fifty for our expenses at Salisbury."
"Then you won't have enough to build a spare engine?" he said.
"I'm afraid not. But at a pinch we could use the engine of the Crimson for the new plane."
"You ought to have a spare engine," declared Vosper. "Let me lend you enough for it. I should be only too pleased."
Martin shook his head.
"My dear fellow, we are too deeply in your debt already, especially as you've done Nat's share of the work while he was laid up. And you must remember that we may very possibly fail to win the big prize. No, I'm very grateful to you, but I won't borrow."
"You're as obstinate as our skipper's bull-pup," answered Vosper, half offended. "You know as well as I do that you ought to have a second engine to fall back on. Most of your rivals will have two or three. If you only have one, it simply means that any small accident at the last minute may put you clean out of the running. As for the Crimson's engine, it's a jolly good one, but not powerful enough for this big Number 2."
"You may be right, Vosper," said Martin. "But I'll stick to what I've said. Nat and I are in debt deep enough already. We won't plunge any farther."
Vosper gave an impatient exclamation. He was really annoyed, for he thought Martin's scruples carried him too far. For the next two hours the silence in the workshop was broken only by the sound of plane, file, and drill.
At last Nat looked up, straightened his back, and stretched his long arms over his head.
"Pretty near grub-time, isn't it? I'm feeling uncommon peckish."
"Your tummy's as good as a clock," answered Vosper with a laugh. "Here comes Johnny to tell us dinner's ready."
The door opened, and Johnny came in.
"D-dinner's ready," he said with his queer stammer.
Apart from the stammer and a certain vacant look in his pale blue eyes, no one would have thought there was much the matter with the poor fellow.
Thanks to good feeding and Nat's care, he was almost fat, his cheeks were brown, and he looked a very different creature from the miserable, tattered wreck whom the brothers had rescued two months earlier from the dark-some recesses of the old tin mine. He had, indeed, quite regained his health, and was in most ways as rational as anybody. But he had not recovered his memory, and could not recall a single thing about his past life or any details connected with it.
Dan had his hands full cooking for five people, but as usual he had turned out a first-class feed. There was a roast leg of pork with apple sauce and baked potatoes, a plum tart with clotted cream, and bread and cheese to top off with.
They were just finishing when Nat started up.
"Hullo, that's a motor!" he exclaimed, and running to the door, hurried out.
Although a road ran close to the mine-house, motors were a rarity at Wheal Antony. The road was so fearfully hilly that cars usually shied at it, and kept to the main road nearer the coast. It was only occasionally that someone who was in a hurry took this short cut across the moors.
"I know that car," said Nat to the others who had all followed him out. "I'm jolly sure I do," pointing to a big, red touring car, which was climbing the long, steep slope at a very slow pace. "Why, it's old Jukes' Wickham!"
"I believe you're right, Nat," said Martin. "Dan, fetch the glasses."
Dan ran back into the house and fetched a pair of binoculars. Nat took them and focused them on the car.
"I'm right," he cried. "It's Jukes and his shover. So he got the car out of the pond after all."
"What, you mean it's the old chap who had you for poaching, Nat?" chuckled Vosper. "I expect he's coming after you to run you in for leaving him in the soup, otherwise the pool."
"I hope he is," said Nat. "I've been longing to give him a piece of my mind."
"I notice he's letting the chauffeur do the driving this time," said Martin with gentle sarcasm.
"Yes, and mighty badly he's doing the job," answered Nat. "A car with that much power ought to come up at a round fifteen, and I don't believe she's doing half that. Look at the smoke from her exhaust. The carburation's all wrong. That's what the trouble is."
All watched the approaching car with interest, wondering what on earth was bringing Jukes up here on to the lonely moors. Nat felt so sure that Jukes was on his track that he was genuinely astonished when the car passed the entrance to the rough track up to the mine-house, and ground heavily onwards up the hill.
"A let-off for you this time, Nat," laughed Vosper.
Almost as he spoke the car stopped short. There was a grinding of brakes, yet she did not stop immediately, but ran back some feet. And almost instantly there came a regular crash from somewhere inside her, and they saw the chauffeur rise hastily from his seat, jump out, and fling open the bonnet.
"The silly juggins left her in gear," cried Vosper. "I'll lay he's bust her innards all to smithereens. Now there'll be a circus."
"What have you done? What's happened, you idiot?" came Jukes' voice, loud and angry.
The chauffeur's reply could not be heard. The watchers grinned broadly.
"Just look at the old man!" chuckled Dan, as Jukes began to roar abuse at his unfortunate servant. "For a dead cert they'll come up here for help."
Dan was right. Jukes looked round, saw the mine-house and its inhabitants, and presently the wretched chauffeur, hot and angry, came stumping up the hill.
"We've had an accident," he said. "Can any o' you give us a hand? The boss'll make it all right with you."
Vosper, Nat, and Martin were all in their overalls, and the man evidently took them for mine-hands.
Nat glanced at Martin, and there was a twinkle in his eyes.
"What d'ye say, Martin? Shall we return good for evil?"
Martin nodded, and they all started down towards the disabled car.
"Was she in gear when you let her run back like that?" asked Nat of the chauffeur.
"I'm afraid she was," answered the chauffeur. "She's got a clutch as is two men's work to put out, and I wasn't in time."
"Then I should say it's all U P with your gear-box," answered Nat.
"We've had an accident, my men," remarked Jukes pompously, as the Meadows brothers and Vosper came up. "If you can help my chauffeur to put matters right you will not find me wanting in generosity."
"Less so, I hope, than on the occasion of our last meeting, Mr. Jukes," said Nat politely, at the same time looking his old enemy full in the face.
Jukes started, then stared. The next moment his cheeks went a rich plum colour, and for once he could find no words at all to say in reply. He looked so funny that, for the life of him, Nat could not help bursting out laughing.
"It's all right, Mr. Jukes," he said at last. "I don't bear any malice. Come on. Let's have a look at the damage. Pull up the bottom boards, chauffeur. We'll have to get the lid off the gear-box."
With two such mechanics as Martin and Nat this did not take long, and they began groping in the grease inside the gear-box to find out what was amiss. They had, however, to take most of the grease out before they could get at the seat of the trouble.
At last Nat straightened up.
"H'm, I thought so. The ball race at the back of the gear-box is all to bits. She'll have to be towed back to the shop and have a new one fitted."
"What—won't she run?" exclaimed Jukes with a horrified expression.
"Not without a pair of cart-horses to pull her," answered Nat dryly.
"But I've got to get to Ashburton. My brother's dying. They wired this morning. I've simply got to go on."
His distress was so plain that Nat felt quite sorry for him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "But the car is quite useless."
"Can't I hire another?" asked Jukes.
"Not nearer than Liskeard, I'm afraid."
"And that's twelve miles away!" said Jukes, wringing his hands. "It will take hours to get one from there. And my brother may be dying this minute."
"You might take the Crimson and go over to Liskeard and order a car, Nat," suggested Martin aside to his brother. He, like the others, was really touched at Jukes' condition.
"There's a better way than that," answered Nat.
He turned to Jukes.
"Look here, Mr. Jukes, I'll take you on to Ashburton."
"What, have you got a car?"
"I've something better," said Nat quietly. "I've an aeroplane."
Jukes' prominent eyes looked as if they would start from his head. He paled.
"I—I have never been up in one," he stammered. "Er—is it safe?"
"Safe enough with a pilot like Nat Meadows," put in Vosper sharply. "Even if you did take him for a poacher."
Jukes pulled himself together.
"I—Dr—am sorry for that mistake," he said with an attempt at dignity. "And—Dr—I shall be deeply indebted to Mr. Meadows if he will take me to Ashburton in his flying machine."
"He's got stuff in him, the old boy, after all," whispered Vosper to Nat as they hurried back to the mine-house. "But take my tip, Nat, and look out for his losing his head and making a grab at you. He isn't the sort I should cotton to as a passenger."
Nat nodded. He rather wondered if he had done wisely. Some people, plucky enough otherwise, lost their heads in a plane. He remembered the case of the so-called "ground-bound airwoman" who nearly killed George Beatty, the American airman, by going into hysterics at a height of fifteen hundred feet, and trying to fling herself out of her seat. He made up his mind that he would keep a pretty sharp eye on his passenger.
It was a rather dull day, but no wind to speak of. Martin and Vosper got the Crimson Aeroplane out of the hangar, while Nat put on his warm flying kit.
Jukes' heavy face had not recovered its colour as he climbed clumsily into his seat, but his teeth were set tightly, and he did his best not to show the nervousness which he evidently felt.
The Crimson Aeroplane, which had been thoroughly repaired since her smash on Dartmoor, rose easily, and Nat set her course a trifle to the north of east. He was doubtful about conditions over on the Devon side, so rose to a considerable height, and soon drove right into the clouds.
He glanced back at his passenger. Jukes was sitting still as a statue, gripping the sides of the fuselage with all his might.
"It's all right," said Nat encouragingly. "I'm going above the clouds. Then we shall be able to see better."
For some minutes the little plane drove through thick billows of grey mist, which hid everything above and below. Moisture gathered like dew on every metal surface, and it was very cold. Then all of a sudden they were out again in brilliant sunshine with the clear blue sky above, and beneath them a floor of shining white clouds. Not a glimpse of the earth was visible.
"That's better, isn't it?" said Nat to Jukes.
Jukes nodded, but he was quite incapable of making a reply.
As he could see no guiding marks, Nat had to steer by compass. His barograph told him that he was a little over two thousand feet up. In spite of the sunshine it was bitterly cold, but Nat knew he would have to rise much higher still in order to cross the great tableland of Dartmoor safely.
The worst of it was, that up here the wind was blowing very fresh. It was from the south-east, and catching the plane on the starboard bow made her roll most unpleasantly. He glanced at Jukes again. The unfortunate man's face was quite green, and he was already suffering agonies from air sickness.
He looked dreadfully ill, but there was no help for it. All Nat could do was to push on as quickly as possible and trust to a break in the clouds giving him some landmark by which he could shape his course.
Ah, a dark mass loomed dimly amid the swirling cloud masses below. It was the head of a tor, but which one he could not tell. At any rate, he was over the moor. He tilted his ailerons and rose still higher.
At two thousand eight hundred feet the wind was cruel. What was worse, Nat's quick ear caught the difference in the sound of the engine. One cylinder was missing fire. This was not necessarily serious, but it meant a loss of power. And he wanted all his power to fight against this cold gale, which seemed to be strengthening every minute.
He began to wish now that he had gone round north of the moor. But if he had tried that, the chances were that he would have been lost in the low-driving clouds.
In his anxiety he almost forgot Jukes. All his attention was given to the attempt to find some landmark in the cloud sea beneath. Ashburton is only a score of miles from the western edge of Dartmoor, and he began to be afraid that he had passed right over it.
All of a sudden he noticed a gap in the cloud floor below, and instantly there loomed into sight a curious pinnacle of rock resembling a great cairn which crowned the summit of a lofty ridge. On the slope below he caught a glimpse of a good-sized building.
"Hurrah! Hay Tor!" he murmured. "And there's the hotel below. Now I know where I am."
He was within half a dozen miles of Ashburton, and, in spite of the cloud, had come almost straight. He pulled the plane round a trifle to the right, drove on for three or four minutes, then, knowing that he was clear of the moor, suddenly cut off the ignition preparatory to planing down.
It had never occurred to him that he ought first to have warned Jukes.
Jukes, hearing the engine stop, and knowing even less of aeroplanes than he did of motor-cars, fully believed that the end of all things had come. Nat heard a perfect yell of terror, then a hand gripped his arm with the frenzied clutch of a drowning man.
An airman's touch on the cloche, the complicated guiding apparatus of the aeroplane, is as delicate as the hand of a good rider on the reins of a high-bred horse. A touch disturbs the balance. Jukes' sudden grip jerked Nat's arm. The Crimson Aeroplane swerved terribly, tilted sideways, and for the first time in all his many flights, Nat fully believed that his last moment had come.
With nine men out of ten, the shock caused by Jukes' panic-stricken stupidity would have caused disaster.
But Nat was the tenth man. It was his left arm that Jukes had seized. Instead of attempting to loosen Jukes' grip, he let go the cloche with his left hand, and using the right only managed by a violent effort to get the plane on to a level keel. Then letting go the steering apparatus altogether for a second, and leaving the little machine to take care of herself, he switched on the engine once more.
Instinctively he had realised that this was the only way in which to overcome Jukes' panic.
In this he was right. Next moment he felt the hand fall away from his left arm, and then he turned and talked to Jukes.
No need to repeat what he said, because for once in a way Nat was really angry, and he spoke so forcibly that Jukes simply collapsed in his seat and sat shivering, a picture of abject misery.
"You came precious near killing yourself and me, too," ended Nat fiercely. "And if you so much as touch me again before we reach the ground, I'll brand you all over Devon as a coward."
Jukes did not attempt to reply, and once more Nat cut off the engine and planed swiftly down.
The Crimson Aeroplane toboganned smoothly through a thick layer of cloud, and just as Nat was getting uneasy again, shot into clear air and showed her pilot the beautiful woods of Holne Chase immediately beneath him, and Ashburton lying just beyond the next ridge of rising ground.
Nat gave a sigh of relief, switched on the engine once more, flew on a couple of miles, then planed down into a large open field between the town and the River Dart.
Jukes climbed heavily out of his seat. He was still very pale and shaky.
"I am very greatly indebted to you, Mr. Meadows," he said. "And I am ashamed of losing my head as I did just now."
"Don't say anything more about it," said Nat quickly. "I ought to have warned you. A vol-plane is always a bit alarming the first time you try it. Now, where is it you want to go?"
"My brother's house is quite near. I can find my way there easily," answered the other. "Good-bye, Mr. Meadows. And please believe that if there is anything I can do to prove my gratitude, I shall be only too glad to do it."
He offered his hand; Nat shook it heartily, and as he saw that people were already running up to get a sight of the aeroplane, he jumped into his driving seat and made off as hard as he could go.
PERIL FROM ALOFT
IT was easy work running back with the wind, and in little less than an hour he dropped safely on the level ground just below the mine-house.
To his astonishment no one came out to meet him. He shouted, but there was no answer. Much puzzled, he wheeled the Crimson Aeroplane into her hangar, locked her up, and ran into the house.
The first thing he saw was a sheet of paper lying on the table with some words scrawled on it:
"Johnny has vanished. We've gone to look for him, Martin."
Johnny gone! What did it mean? Nat, who had become really attached to the poor fellow, was much upset.
Had Johnny gone off his head again? If so, what was the reason?
Nat dropped the sheet of paper and went out of the front door.
As he emerged on to the patch of rough turf in front of the house, he caught sight of two men coming round the end of the dump. They were Martin and Vosper, and between them they carried a rough stretcher with something on it.
Next moment Dan came into sight. He ran past them and up to the house.
"We've found him, Mr. Nat," he called, as he caught sight of Nat. "He was down in the mine."
"But he's hurt," exclaimed Nat as Dan came up.
"Aye, he'd fallen down through that hole in the roof of the gallery where you and Mr. Martin got out. He's cut his head bad. Mr. Martin said I was to fetch the doctor. I'll go down and get Caunter's pony and ride as fast as I can."
Nat was shocked at the sight of poor Johnny's face. It was ghastly white and smeared with blood.
"Yes, I'm afraid he's badly damaged," said Martin gravely, in answer to Nat's eager inquiries. "We must put him to bed at once and see what the doctor's got to say."
"But what on earth made him clear out in that crazy fashion?" asked Nat, when they had carried Johnny to his room and put him to bed. "He's been so sensible lately. And he hasn't been near the mine for weeks."
"It seems to have had something to do with Jukes," answered Martin. "Dan says that the minute he set eyes on Jukes he went funny, and began to mutter to himself. He must have run off just as we watched you starting, for none of us saw him go."
"It's a rum business," said Nat, frowning. "I don't see what connection there can possibly be between him and Jukes. Perhaps it was just the fact of strangers being on the place that frightened him."
It was nearly two hours before Dr. Pengelly arrived, and Johnny was still unconscious. Pengelly overhauled him and put fresh bandages on his head.
"What do you think of him?" asked Nat anxiously.
Pengelly shook his head.
"He's had a very bad smash, and I can hardly tell how much damage has been done as yet. You'll just have to keep him quiet and freshen his bandages every few hours. I'll send up some ice. Can one of you sit up with him to-night?"
"Yes, I will," answered Nat readily.
"Well, I'll come again to-morrow. I shall be able to tell more about him then. Don't worry if he raves a bit, but if he gets violent send for me again at once."
Supper that night was a very quiet meal. All the other inhabitants of the mine-house, including Vosper, who had been staying for some time with the Meadows, were fond of Johnny. The poor fellow was always so amiable and obliging, ready to fetch or carry, or do anything he was asked.
Martin refused to allow Nat to sit up for more than three hours. He and Dan both declared their intention of taking a spell. It was arranged that Dan should sit with the injured man from nine to twelve, Nat from twelve to three, and Martin should take on the duty from three to six.
Nat went to bed early. He and his brother were working fully ten hours a day in the shop, and it was essential for them to get plenty of rest. He had had three good hours' sleep when Dan called him.
"How is he?" he asked, as he pulled on his clothes.
"Just the same. Almost as quiet as if he were dead, but he's breathing right enough."
The house was very silent as Nat sat beside Johnny's bed. The night was still, with a pall of soft cloud over the sky. There was no light in the room except a fragment of candle burning behind a thick shade. It was too dark to read, and Nat sat quietly in his chair thinking of many things, yet always keeping one eye on the wounded man.
Time passed. He heard the old grandfather-clock in the living-room below strike one, and a few minutes later another sound broke the stillness of the night.
It was a low, distant, droning hum.
"What—another car?" murmured Nat in some surprise; and going softly across the room he pulled up the blind and looked out of the open window.
The humming sounded more distinct, but there was no sign of any headlights, either up or down the road.
Nat became interested. He leant far out, listening intently. Every moment the drone increased, and suddenly Nat realised that the sound was not that of a car at all.
The exhaust gases from the engine of a car pass into a silencer, but this sound, though distant, was that of an engine firing without any silencer. The rapid popping of the exhaust was exactly like the distant rattle of a machine gun.
"An aeroplane engine!" gasped Nat, and pulling down the blind again he made quickly for the door, hurried silently out and downstairs, and a moment later was in the open.
He looked up. He could see nothing, yet the splutter of the engine was coming closer every moment. It was undoubtedly the sound of an aeroplane coming up from the eastwards at a great height.
What was it doing? On the instant Nat's mind was full of suspicion. His thoughts flew first to Condon, then to Alger. Was this some new plot to put Martin and himself out of the running? He had a sudden conviction that it must be so.
The plane was coming up fast now. It was not a mile away. There seemed no time to do anything. In any case, what could he do?
Suddenly his glance was caught by the light which, since the last raid by Peregrine's people, he and Martin had always kept burning in the workshops He made a dash for the door. The key was in his pocket.
As he fumbled in the darkness to find the keyhole, he heard the strange plane immediately overhead. There came a whizzing sound, a thud. Then a deafening crash, a roar, and the night was lit by a blinding flash of white light.
A shower of earth and small fragments of stone drove against Nat like a hailstorm, and the air-wave from the explosion flung him forward against the door of the workshop with a force that almost stunned him.
But he was not hurt, and in a moment had pulled himself together again.
He did not need to be told what had happened. He realised the truth instinctively. Someone—probably Alger, Peregrine's agent—had dropped a bomb from above, with the intention of destroying the workshop and its contents. But by a miracle of good fortune, the missile had fallen wide, and missed its mark completely.
But almost before he could begin to feel gratitude for the wonderful escape, another thought occurred to him. The flash of the explosion would undoubtedly have shown the people in the plane that their plot had failed.
Supposing that they had another bomb?
The idea terrified Nat so that cold perspiration broke out upon his forehead.
What was he to do—-how guard against the danger?
Suddenly it came to him that it was the light shining from the workshop windows which had given the people above their target. Without that, they could not possibly have seen where to drop the bomb. They could not come low, for in that case the air-wave of the explosion would have brought their plane down like a stone.
What he had to do was to put out that lamp, and with a hand which shook a little in spite of himself, he got the key into the lock, turned it, flung open the door, and rushed in.
The lamp was one of those safety petrol arrangements, which burn the vapour given off from a brick soaked in petrol. Nat reached it, and his hand was on the tap to turn it off, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was making a mistake.
If the light were merely extinguished, his kind friends up above would know that this had been done on purpose, and they would sail up and down, dropping bombs until they were certain that their purpose had been accomplished.
No; what he had to do was to remove the lamp altogether.
About a hundred yards from the mine-house were the ruins of an ancient cottage. If he could once get the lamp across there, Alger and his friends might waste their whole stock of explosives on the old granite walls of the ruin.
All this went through Nat's brain like a flash. It was only a few seconds from the time the first bomb had fallen before he had the lamp in his hands, and turning it low, had dashed out of the workshop and across the dark moor in the direction of the old cottage.
He hardly gave a thought to the terrific risk he ran. If the plane came back on its tracks and dropped another bomb before he could leave the lamp and get away, it was certain death. But knowing aeroplanes so well as he did, he was aware that the machine must have been travelling at a speed of at least forty-five miles an hour, and that after dropping the first bomb, her pilot would almost certainly fly on another mile or more before turning to sweep back.
As he ran, he shielded the lamp with his coat, so that its light might not betray his ruse. The ground was rough, covered with charred stumps of gorse and heather, and it was so dark that he could not see where he was going. Twice he stumbled and nearly fell.
All the time, from out of the darkness above, he could hear plainly the coughing roar of the aeroplane engine.
Ah, it was coming back! He redoubled his speed. A dark blot loomed up ahead. It was the jagged, broken wall of the roofless cottage. Straining every nerve, he dashed inside through the gap that had once been the doorway, and dumped the lamp down.
To his horror he found that it had gone out. In his haste he had covered the top of the chimney with his coat, and choked out the flame.
He fumbled frantically in his pockets for matches. Horrors—he had left his box indoors!
There was no time to go back for it. The only chance was that he might find a loose match in a pocket. Hastily he turned out the linings.
Every moment the roar of the aeroplane came nearer. From the house someone was shouting loudly. The voice was Vosper's.
Ah, here was a vesta! Just one!
Nat drew a deep breath. He must steady his shaken nerves. Everything depended upon this one little wax match.
He took off the chimney. These petrolite lamps have an incandescent mantle. If he broke the mantle it would be as bad as if the match refused to burn.
The extremity of the danger braced his nerves. As he drew the head of the match sharply along the glass of the chimney, his hand was steady as a rock. The match struck well, the little flame burnt up straight and clear, and next moment the lichen-grown granite of the bare walls of the ruin showed up almost as bright as day in the strong, white light of the lamp.
Nat set the lamp on the level ground in the middle of the ruin, turned, and ran for his life.
Only just in time. He was barely a score of yards away from the ruin when he heard the same whizzing sound as before. Instantly followed a great glare of light, a crash which shook the air and flung him flat on his face on the ground.
Then pitch darkness, and thudding sounds as the stones of the ruined walls, flung high in the air by the explosion, came raining earthwards.
Nat lay still until the sounds ceased. Then he rose to his feet, stood a moment and listened.
The sound of the aeroplane engine was growing fainter again. She was travelling away in a north-westerly direction.
"Nat! Nat! Where are you?" came Martin's voice, hoarse with anxiety.
"All right, Martin," answered Nat, as he dashed back towards the house. "Get me the key of the hangar."
"I'm going to take the Crimson out and chase those bomb-dropping beggars. I'll catch them if I have to follow them across England."
THE CURLEW CALL
MARTIN did not move.
"Quick, Martin," cried Nat. "There's not a moment to lose. They'll be out of hearing in a couple of minutes."
"Let them go," said Martin, and by the light of the lantern which he was carrying, Nat saw his brother's lips set firmly. "You're not going to risk your life chasing them in the dark."
"But I must, man," urged Nat almost angrily. "Don't you see they may come back to finish their work?"
"They can't. There's no light for them to steer by. The minute I heard the first explosion I put out the light in Johnny's room. We're safe now."
"But we mustn't let the sweeps get away," exclaimed Nat. "We can't go on like this. It's the third time they've tried to smash us up. We've got to stop it."
"Don't be an ass, Nat," cut in Vosper, who had just run up. "Even if you found them, what could you do? You couldn't tackle them in mid-air."
"I want to know who it is. I want to make sure whether it's Alger."
"You'll be able to do that all right," said Martin quietly.
"Because he or one of his crowd is certain to come back to see how much damage they've done."
"Come back—what, in their plane?"
"No. On foot. Don't you agree with me, Vosper? To-morrow or the next night they'll be sure to send a spy round."
"I think it's extremely likely," replied Vosper. "And if they do, by crumbs! we'll be ready for them."
Between them, they persuaded Nat out of his harebrained scheme, and then Martin insisted upon his going to bed, while he himself kept watch in Johnny's room.
Nothing further happened to disturb the inhabitants of the mine-house that night, but when daylight came they were able to see how very narrow had been their escape.
The first bomb had fallen about thirty yards beyond the workshop. It must have contained some terrific explosive, for there was a hole in the rocky soil about four feet deep, a regular little crater. Great stones had been hurled out in every direction, and all the glass windows on that side were smashed to atoms.
As for the old cottage, two sides were in ruins as the result of the second explosion.
Luckily, the new plane had escaped injury, and all three set to work as hard as they could, meaning to finish her and get her away as soon as possible.
It was a beautiful day, and another thing which cheered them was that Johnny had recovered consciousness, and seemed much better. About ten o'clock Dr. Pengelly turned up, and was delighted at the change in his patient.
"He's pulling round wonderfully," he told Nat. "He'll be all right in a day or two. I shall come again to-morrow, but I hope that will be my last visit."
As the doctor went out to his motor, which was waiting in the road below, a big dray came rumbling slowly up the hill, and turned up the track towards the mine-house.
"Here's something for you," said Pengelly. "Machinery, I suppose."
Nat shook his head.
"We're not expecting anything," he answered. "I can't imagine what it can be."
"Something pretty heavy, anyhow, by the looks of it," smiled Pengelly as he rode off.
The dray came jolting up the track and stopped in front of the mine-house.
"Where will you have this put?" asked the driver.
"Are you sure it's for us?" asked Nat.
"It's addressed to 'Lieut. Vosper, care of Messrs. Meadows, Wheal Antony.'"
"Oh, it's for the lieutenant, is it? Wait a moment."
He ran round and called Vosper, who was in the workshop.
"Here's half-a-ton of goods for you, Vosper. Do you want it stored, or what?"
Vosper flushed slightly, but Nat did not notice this.
"That's just it," he answered quickly. "I ought to have mentioned it before, but I didn't expect it so soon. It's some things of mine that I want to leave here for a bit. Do you mind?"
"Mind—of course not! There's any amount of room. Dan, come and give us a hand."
It took the four of them to unload the huge crate, and they stored it in one corner of the shop. Then Vosper tipped the carter, and went back to his bench.
"I shan't bother to open it now," he said. "We'll shove on with our work."
Nat and Martin both thought it a little odd that their naval friend should have gone to the expense of having such a weighty package sent all the way up to the mine when he might so easily have stored it in Tarnmouth, but the whole thing soon passed out of their minds, for they had much more important matters to occupy them.
Nat was as keen as mustard to catch the bomb-dropper, and that night they made careful arrangements to keep watch.
All lights were put out soon after dark, and at nine o'clock Nat went to do a three hours' sentry-go outside. He saw nothing, and at twelve Martin relieved him. Vosper took the third watch from three to six, but when they met at breakfast not one of the three could report anything suspicious.
"I dare say they'll wait a day or two," said Vosper, "but I'm pretty sure they'll come sooner or later."
"I'll nab 'em if I have to stay up every night till we go to Salisbury Plain," declared Nat. "They've had it all their own way so far, but we'll turn the tables on them sometime or other."
"You'll do that all right," answered Vosper consolingly. "I'd like to see their faces when you walk off with the fifty thousand pound cheque."
"And that reminds me, Nat," said Martin in his quiet way. "I'm not going to have you ruining your nerves by going without sleep. You've got to be fit for the trials."
"Bless you, I'm as fit as a fiddle," said Nat with a laugh. "Take a lot of bad nights to hurt me."
"Well, anyhow, you'll turn in early to-night, Nat," said Martin.
"Anything to please you, old chap, but I'm going to take my share of the watches. I'll turn in immediately after supper, if you'll call me at twelve and let me take second watch."
He stuck to this, and Martin, rather unwillingly, was forced to agree.
Dr. Pengelly came just before dinner, and gave a capital account of Johnny.
"You don't think this second tumble will have made him worse in his head?" asked Nat.
"There's no sign of it. On the contrary, I think he's more rational. Sometimes a second injury to the skull will undo the harm caused by a former blow."
"What—you think he may recover his memory?"
"I don't say so, but it's just possible. Keep him quiet for a day or two more, then he can get up and come down."
The day passed quickly. All three worked hard, and great progress was made with the big plane. Her engine, made by the firm which did Vosper's own work, had arrived some days earlier, and when tried on the bench, ran with beautiful smoothness. That day they fitted it into the machine.
Nat, according to his promise, went to bed immediately after supper, and had had four hours' good sleep before Martin woke him to take the second watch.
It was a fine, warm night, but there was no moon, and the sky was somewhat hazy. Nat found it very dark as he strolled up and down on the clear space behind the hangar and workshop.
Now and then he sat down on a boulder, but all the time he kept his ears keenly alert for any unusual sound. But time passed, and the only thing he heard was the chime of the grandfather clock inside the house as it struck the quarters and the hours.
One o'clock came, the quarter, then two strokes for the half-hour. Still no sound.
"I don't believe the beggars are ever coming," he growled at last. "Probably they're so sure they've done for us that they're not worrying."
At that very moment he heard a curlew cry.
Now, curlew often fly and cry at night, so there was nothing extraordinary about the sound. Yet somehow it startled Nat, and he stood bolt upright, perfectly still, listening keenly.
A few seconds later the call was repeated.
"That's no curlew," murmured Nat, every nerve a-quiver with eagerness. "It came from the ground."
Still he waited, and soon the harsh cry sounded once more.
This time Nat was pretty sure that he knew the spot from which it came. It was close to the ruins of the old cottage. Bending double, he made across the burnt ground with long, silent strides.
He had no weapon except a stick, but conscious of his own strength, he was not in the least afraid, although he realised that, from the signal call, there must be at least two men on the prowl.
But he did not expect to meet more than one, for he reasoned that, if this were a signal cry, the second man must be at some distance. The one thing that did puzzle him was why the second man had not answered. Perhaps he had not yet arrived on the scene.
When he had got about half-way to the ruin, Nat heard the call for a fourth time. Now he was sure that it was no bird. It came from a spot just behind the back wall of the old cottage.
He dropped on hands and knees, and holding his stick in his mouth, crept cautiously towards the ruin. He remembered how he had been trapped on Lundy, and meant to take no chances this time.
There was a clump of tall nettles to the left of the cottage, which had escaped the fire. Nat skirted round till he got behind them. There he waited, listening eagerly.
At first he could hear nothing. Then all of a sudden his heart gave a leap. He had distinctly heard a man gently clearing his throat.
And the sound came from exactly the same place as the last curlew cry.
"Whoop!" he shouted, and springing to his feet made a dash.
He caught a glimpse of an indistinct figure standing close behind the wall. Then his foot caught in something, and down he came flat on his chest and face, with a thud that knocked every bit of breath out of him, and left him for the moment as helpless as a child, unable to speak, move, or even breathe.
Before he had time to recover, two men sprang upon him. One thrust a gag into his mouth, the other pulled his hands round behind his back, and knotted a hard cord tightly around his wrists.
"Quick, before anyone comes out!" he heard a hissing voice. He was dragged to his feet, and, with a man on each side holding him up, was started at a run downhill towards the road.
A BIT OF A MYSTERY
MOVEMENT was simply agony, for Nat could not get back his breath. His lungs felt as though they were bursting. Even so, he flung his weight back, and did all he knew to put a drag on his rapid progress towards the road.
One of the men who held him gave him a sharp blow with his fist in the middle of the back.
"Don't you try that game, or it will be the worse for you," he growled angrily.
For a moment the pain was so great that Nat was simply unable to resist. The two men began to run, almost lifting him between them. He dimly realised that they must have a car on the road. They meant to kidnap him. Evidently they had discovered the failure of their bomb-throwing plot, and, as the new aeroplane was still undamaged, intended to deprive her of her pilot.
The whole business had been an elaborately arranged plot, and instead of his waiting for them, they had been waiting for him. The curlew cry had been merely a decoy, and string or wire had been stretched to trip him.
All this went through Nat's mind like a flash, and with a last desperate effort he managed to drive his toes into the ground and fall forward.
He brought one of his gaolers down with him, but the fellow was up again in a moment, and with awful threats dragged Nat to his feet. Once more they rushed him forward down the hill.
Nat gave himself up for lost. There were no lights in the mine-house. Apparently no one had heard his shout.
They were quite close to the road now. Yes, he could hear the faint purring of a motor-engine. It had no lamps.
There was a steepish bank above the road. The men who held him were evidently afraid that Nat would seize the opportunity to make another fight as they went down it.
"Pick him up," growled one.
As they shifted their grip, out of the darkness a white figure flitted noiselessly.
"Look out!" came a startled cry from one of the men.
It was too late. There was the dull sound of a blow, and the right-hand man went down.
The other let go of Nat, and swung round to face the new attack.
Nat, who by this time had got his wind back, with great presence of mind let out with one of his long legs, and kicked the rascal clean off his feet.
As the man fell, he gave a shout for help. Nat heard someone spring out of the car. Footsteps rang on the hard surface of the road.
"Quick! Come on back!" cried Nat's rescuer urgently, and seizing him by the elbow dragged him back.
All Nat's fighting blood was up. He was crazy to get his own back on these hirelings of his rivals. He could not speak because of the gag, but he tried to sign to his unknown friend to cut him loose.
"I can't. I haven't a knife," answered the latter. "Come back to the house and we'll get help."
Nat heard the third man scrambling up the bank. The other whom he had kicked over was getting on his feet again. He realised that for once discretion was the better part of valour, and, yielding to the tug on his arm, turned and bolted back to the mine-house.
The others did not give chase. Apparently they had had enough of it.
The kitchen door was open. Nat's rescuer dragged him in, slammed it, and struck a match.
Nat gave a gasp of utter amazement. His rescuer was Johnny—Johnny whom he had supposed to be safe in bed.
Johnny coolly lit a candle, found a knife, and cut the cords from Nat's wrists and the gag from his mouth. As for Nat, for the moment he was so lost in amazement that he could not speak.
This was a new Johnny. There was a quick decision in all his movements which Nat had never seen before. He looked the same, as he stood there in pyjamas, with the bandages still round his head, and his bare feet thrust into slippers, yet Nat felt that somehow he was quite different.
However, there was no time now to think of such things. The first use Nat made of his tongue was to shout for Martin and Dan. They two and Vosper all came rushing in at once, and in about a dozen words Nat told them what had happened.
"Tried to kidnap you? This is the limit!" cried Vosper, and snatching up the first weapon that came handy, which happened to be the kitchen poker, he bolted out into the night.
The others followed, and went tearing down the hill as hard as they could go.
Vosper got to the road first.
"It's no use, you chaps," they heard him shout. "The beggars have hooked it."
He was right. They could just hear the rush of wheels as the unlighted car tore madly away down the steep hill towards the valley below.
"However did they manage to collar you?" asked Vosper.
Nat explained at greater length than he had been able to at first.
"And it was Johnny got you away from them?" exclaimed Martin, surprised out of his usual calm.
"Johnny, sure enough, though it beats me how he did it. You ought to have seen him. He came up out of the dark like a ghost, and clipped the nearest chap over the head with a stick or something. Then he lugged me off to the house, and cut the gag out of my mouth just as quickly as any of you chaps could have done it."
"This beats anything!" declared Vosper. "He must have got his wits back in some rummy fashion."
"That's what I think," answered Nat. "Pengelly told me that a second tumble sometimes has that effect."
"Let's go back and investigate," said Vosper eagerly. "Perhaps the poor chap will remember who he is now."
All four hurried back to the mine-house.
Nat was the first to reach the kitchen, where he saw Johnny lying back in the big arm-chair in the corner. His eyes were closed, and he was looking very white.
"He's fainted," Nat said sharply to Martin who was just behind him.
Martin stepped forward and stood over Johnny.
"It's all right," he told Nat in a tone of relief. "He's not fainting, he's sound asleep. Here, catch hold and we'll carry him up to bed."
Very gently the two brothers lifted the sleeping man and carried him upstairs. He never roused at all, and they tucked him up comfortably and left him breathing as quietly as a child.
When they got back to the kitchen, Vosper was standing in the middle of the room. He had something in his hand which he and Dan were examining with great interest.
"I say, you chaps, where on earth did this blunderbuss come from?" he exclaimed.
Nat took it. It was a single-barrelled wheel-lock pistol, evidently very old. But what struck him at once was its beautiful workmanship. The trigger and barrel were exquisitely engraved, and the butt was inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold.
"By Jove! it's a wonderful bit of work!" said Nat admiringly. "Where did you find it, Vosper?"
"On the floor there, by the chair Johnny was sitting in."
"It must be the thing that he used to smite that chap over the head with," said Nat.
"Yes, but where did he get it?" asked Martin, puzzled. Nat shook his head.
"I can't imagine. It looks like a regular heirloom."
"It's old Spanish workmanship," said Vosper, taking it again. "Look, here are the arms of Castile on the butt."
"There's nothing Spanish about Johnny," answered Nat. "Still, it may give us some clue as to who he really is. I've always been tremendously keen to find out."
"You'll have to wait till morning, Nat," said Martin. "I shouldn't wonder if Johnny himself will be able to tell you then. Lock that thing up for the present and tumble in."
What woke Nat next morning was the kitchen clock striking. He counted. Ten strokes. Hardly able to believe his ears, he made one wild leap out of bed.
Yes, it was true. His watch hands pointed to ten o'clock. He had overslept himself by more than three hours.
Tubbing and dressing in record time, he tore downstairs to find Dan busy in the kitchen.
"Dan, you ruffian, what d'ye mean by it?" he exclaimed. "Why didn't you call me?"
"Mr. Martin said you was to have your sleep out," answered Dan with a grin, as he put a plate of fried bacon and a pot of coffee on the table.
"Where is my brother?" asked Nat, pulling up a chair.
"Out in the shop with the lieutenant. They've been there these three hours."
"And Johnny—where is he?"
"He'll be down in a few minutes. I've just been up to him."
At that moment the door opened, and Johnny himself came into the kitchen.
Nat stared. Surely this was never the same man whom he had looked after like a child all these past weeks! This new Johnny was bright, alert; he stepped with a spring, and the whole expression of his face seemed to have changed.
"Hullo, Johnny!" he exclaimed. "You look splendid."
"I feel wonderfully fit, thanks."
Johnny's voice had a new tone, crisp, clear, as different as possible from his former stammer. Nat could hardly hide his amazement.
"We've both had a rare good sleep," he said, trying to laugh off his embarrassment.
"I have, I can tell you," answered Johnny, laughing in his turn. "It must have been our midnight excursion."
"You got to me in the nick of time," said Nat warmly. "I'm most awfully obliged to you."
"I'm so jolly glad I heard the beggars," replied Johnny. "There wasn't time to wake the others."
Suddenly Nat remembered the pistol, which he and his brother had discovered the previous night.
"I say, Johnny, that was a rum sort of blunderbuss you got hold of last night. Where did you raise it?"
A curious expression crossed the other's face. Then he laughed.
"Ah, that would be telling. By the way, where is the pistol?"
"Locked up in the cupboard."
"Oh, it'll be quite safe there. I won't bother about it now. Dan, have you any food for me? I'm frightfully hungry."
Dan produced a bowl of gruel.
Johnny looked at it whimsically.
"Mayn't I have some bacon? I'm not an invalid any longer, Dan."
"Doctor said as you was to have gruel," declared Dan gruffly.
"Then I'll eat the gruel first, and have some bacon afterwards."
Dan chuckled, and cutting a couple of rashers, dropped them into the frying-pan.
At this moment in came Vosper.
"Taxi's at the door, Nat," he announced.
"What d'ye mean, Vosper? Whose taxi?"
"Yours, you juggins. Don't you want a ride?"
"What jape have you got on now, I'd like to know," said Nat, swallowing down his coffee, and jumping up.
"Come and see, if you don't believe me," said Vosper laughing.
Nat followed him out. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the new aeroplane, complete to the last bolt and stay, standing there in the bright morning sunshine.
"Won't you believe me now?" chuckled Vosper.
"H-how on earth have you managed it?" gasped Nat.
"Martin and I got up a bit earlier than you, that's all. Now if you've quite finished your breakfast, you'd best see how she moves."
Nat could hardly wait for Dan to bring his overalls and gloves. He was in the driving seat in about half no time. Vosper spun the propeller, and the new machine shot forward over the close, dry turf.
Nat trimmed the elevator to the proper angle, and up she went, taking the air with the same steep slant of her elder but smaller sister, the Crimson Aeroplane.
The four other inhabitants of the mine-house watched Nat rise in great spirals while the roar of the great new engine seemed to fill the air.
Up and up he went until the wide white wings looked no larger than those of a butterfly. Then they saw him shoot away southwards at terrific speed.
"She can move," said Martin, straining his eyes upwards into the blue. He spoke quietly, but there was a little thrill in his voice.
"She's a fair wonder," exclaimed Vosper, almost dancing with delight. "I'm no judge if she's not travelling a hundred miles an hour. Martin, if you and Nat between you don't lift that fifty thousand, it won't be the fault of your machine."
They stood there staring till the new plane faded to a mere dot in the far distance. Then as they watched, she came round and began to grow again in size. Within an incredibly short time, Nat was overhead again, and came sliding down out of the upper air in a splendid curving vol-plane.
He brought the new plane to the ground as gently as a gull alighting on the sea, and was stepping out as they ran up.
"Well?" asked Martin.
"Well it is," cried Nat emphatically. "She's as steady as the Crimson, and twenty per cent. faster. Without any big talk at all, barring accidents, the prize is ours."
A quick gleam showed in Martin's eyes.
"That's good," he said. "Then to-morrow we'll take her straight up to Salisbury Plain."
"To-morrow?" exclaimed Nat.
"Yes. She'll be safer there. Our rivals can't drop bombs among the hangars, and they daren't set the grass afire. There'll be too many people about for tricks of that sort."
"Perhaps you're right," said Nat slowly.
"I'm quite sure he's right," declared Vosper. "And I'm coming with you to help keep guard."
THE "DOCTORED" OIL
IT was the morning before the trials, and Nat was busy tuning up the new plane in his hangar on the Salisbury Plain Aviation ground, when he heard the hum of a big car approaching.
Next minute Vosper came in, with the usual cheerful grin on his face.
"Well, Nat, old boy, how goes it?"
"Fine," answered Nat. "Martin and I are just going for a last spin. We mean to take her over part of the course, and see how she carries a passenger."
"I don't suppose it will make any difference to her. She's got loads of power," said Vosper. "Have you heard from the mine-house?"
"Yes, Johnny wrote. Got his letter yesterday. He seems no end chirpy."
"Wonderful thing about that chap. His second tumble appears to have cured him."
"Absolutely. He's as fit as you or I."
"Did you make out who he really is?"
"No, but I believe he knows. I mean he's got his memory back all right."
"Then why didn't he tell you about himself?"
"That I can't make out, for I'm almost certain that he knows. I rather fancy he's keeping some surprise up his sleeve."
"I hope it's a pleasant one," laughed Vosper. "What about Faulkner? Will he be here? I shall be disappointed if he doesn't turn up, seeing we should never have been able to build the machine if it hadn't been for him."
"I haven't had a line from him for a fortnight," answered Nat quickly. "I'm rather worried. In his last letter he said he'd be at Southampton on the 16th. This is the 18th, and there's no news of him."
"Oh, well, he's sure to turn up," said Vosper consolingly. "Hullo, here's Martin. How are you, Martin?"
"Very fit, thanks. Nat's going to take me up," answered Martin, as he shook hands.
"Well, I wish you luck. I see you've painted the new machine the same colour as her sister."
"That's for Faulkner's benefit," laughed Nat, as he scrambled into his pilot seat. "You know he thinks crimson is a lucky colour."
Vosper himself spun the propeller, and up went the new aeroplane, carrying her double burden with amazing ease.
With Nat's sure hand upon her steering wheel, she made light of the rather puffy breeze, and in a very few minutes was rushing along on level keel at a height of about a thousand feet above the ground.
Nat took her in a straight line above the gently rolling downs, and within five minutes they had left the plain and were crossing cultivated country to the south.
Suddenly Nat's trained ear detected something odd in the note of the engine. He turned to Martin, who was sitting directly behind him.
"She's not running just right," he said anxiously.
"I hear it. But I can't make it out. She's not missing."
"No. She's not missing. But she's slowing down."
"You'd best turn her and run back."
Nat nodded and slowly pulled the rudder over. The machine obeyed, and came round. But not with her usual readiness. She moved sluggishly, and Nat, who already knew every tone of her, realised that something was very wrong with the engine.
What it was he could not imagine, for it was not one of the usual troubles which befall an aeroplane engine. The two weak parts of such an engine are the carburettor and the electrical ignition.
The carburettor is the instrument which mixes petrol vapour and air into an inflammable gas. The petrol is fed into it by a tiny needle jet. If a particle of dirt happens to get into the petrol, the jet may choke, thereby cutting off the supply of petrol and stopping the engine altogether.
As for the electrical apparatus which fires the gas charges in the cylinders, several things may easily go wrong. Wires may break or soot may deposit on the sparking plugs, or the insulation may fail. In this case one or more cylinders go out of action.
But whatever was wrong with his engine, Nat knew that it was none of these troubles. All the cylinders were firing. The mischief was more deeply seated. What was worse, it was increasing every moment. Power was failing rapidly.
"We'll never get her home," he said sharply. "I shall have to come down where I can."
"Don't drop here," answered Martin anxiously. "We're right over the railway and the telegraph wires."
Nat glanced down. Immediately below was the double line of the South-Western Railway. They were almost over the viaduct by which it crossed the main road.
The country around was cut up into a great number of small fields, and the hedgerows were full of tall timber. It was bad country in which to descend, and, to make matters worse, they were now facing a strong and very puffy wind.
There is nothing which makes a flying man feel so helpless as when his engine develops some mysterious defect, and Nat had never been more anxious than at this moment. It was not merely the difficulty and danger of a sudden descent, it was the fear that something was wrong which might prevent them from taking part in the big trials the next day.
If this were so it meant the ruin of all their dearest hopes.
It was at this moment that all power seemed to fail suddenly, and Nat had just time to adjust his elevator before the plane swooped earthwards at a terribly steep angle.
There was no time to talk or do anything except aim for the best bit of ground visible. They were right over the railway, and, to make matters worse, here was the Exeter express coming roaring across the bridge at fifty miles an hour.
It was the very last place that he would have chosen to come down.
Clinging to the cloche like grim death, Nat held her for a grass field just to the right of the curve of the line. It was the only clear space fit for a descent, for to the left the ground rose so steeply that landing there would certainly mean "breaking wood"—as the aviator calls smashing his machine.
On the other hand, the field he was making for was perilously near the line and the tall telegraph posts with their many strands of wire.
Down they hurtled at ever-increasing speed. A stiff gust caught the dropping plane and swung her back almost directly over the line. Nat's heart was in his mouth as he held her hard over against the wind. At the moment it looked all odds against clearing the wires.
And the panting, roaring express was not half a mile away. If they dropped on the permanent way, they and the machine and all would be ground to pieces beneath the thundering wheels.
Another gust—this, however, more aft.
Now Nat was afraid of overshooting his mark. A few seconds of desperate suspense while the machine seemed on the point of turning head over heels; then she was right over the line at a height of, perhaps, a hundred feet from the ground.
Nat tilted the elevator again, pulled her head round, and, missing the wires by a few yards only, took ground so near the top hedge of the field that her tractor was actually buried in the bushes as she came to a stop.
At that moment the express thundered by, every window on that side alive with staring faces.
The Meadows brothers paid no attention. They both sprang out, and, after anchoring the machine to save her from being upset by gusts, set to work on the engine.
"I can't see anything wrong," said Nat presently.
"Nor can I. Start her up again."
Nat started up the engine. The cylinders began revolving at once with their familiar maxim-like roar, but the note of the engine itself was all wrong.
Martin shook his head.
"The mischief is deep-seated, whatever it is. We must get her back to the hangar and take the whole engine down.
"How on earth are we to get her there?" asked Nat in despair.
A sharp horn-blast coming from the road near by made them both start. Nat gave a cry of relief.
"Here's Vosper in his car."
Another minute and the naval lieutenant was with them.
"What's up?" he asked anxiously. He was almost as keen as Nat and Martin themselves about their winning the big prize.
"That's what we want to know," answered Martin frowning. "Whatever it is, we shan't find out until we've got the whole engine down. And to do that we've got to get the plane back to the hangar."
"Won't she fly?"
"No more than a stone will swim."
Vosper looked grave.
"Tell you what," he said, after a moment's consideration. "I'll run back to Salisbury and get a lorry. That'll be quickest. Meantime you two take her wings down ready to load her up."
He was off like a shot, and so quick was he that the brothers had not to wait more than an hour before he came back with a motor lorry.
But it was a slow job getting back to camp. The lorry was slow, and the distance by road was all of ten miles. The afternoon was far advanced before they had the plane back in her hangar.
Then all three set to work vigorously to take the engine to pieces.
Presently Martin lifted one of the pistons. He gave a sharp exclamation.
"Look at this," he cried, holding it out to the others.
The metal at the big end was cut and grooved in the most extraordinary manner.
With shaking hands he and Nat got out the remaining pistons. Every one of them, and the shaft itself, was scored and worn in similar fashion.
For a few moments they stared at one another in hopeless bewilderment. The beautiful brand-new engine was utterly ruined and destroyed.
Suddenly Martin dipped his forefinger in the oil in the crank case and held it up to the light.
The stuff was thick with some dark gritty substance.
"Look at this," he said.
"Emery!" muttered Vosper.
"Emery it is," said Nat. "But how on earth did it get into the engine?"
"Simple enough," answered Martin grimly. "You put it in yourself, Nat."
"I put it in?"
"Yes; didn't you oil up before starting?"
"Where's the tin?"
Nat picked it up out of the corner. He turned it up. A few drops ran out. The oil was clogged with the same deadly powder.
"I see," groaned Nat. "Someone changed the tin and put this doctored stuff instead. I suppose we've got to thank Alger for this."
"Most probably," answered Martin. His face had gone very white, and there was a dangerous gleam in his eyes. It would have been awkward for Alger if he had happened to come in at that moment.
"This finishes it," said Nat in a tone of dull despair. "The engine is useless. Vosper, I only wish we'd taken your advice and your loan, and built a spare engine. Now we are done for."
THERE was on odd expression on Vosper's face. He was actually blushing slightly. The brothers stared at him.
"Look here, you chaps," he said, after a moment's silence. "You won't be cross with me, will you, if I tell you something?"
"Cross?" said Martin with a hard laugh. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I took a great liberty. I thought something of this kind might happen, and I—Dr—I ordered a duplicate engine."
"You—ordered—a—duplicate engine?" gasped Martin.
"Yes." Vosper spoke quickly now. "You remember the big packing-case that came the day after they dropped the bombs. Those weren't tools at all. It held the spare engine. And there it is in the corner of the workshop this minute."
Nat sprang forward and seized Vosper's hand.
"My dear chap, you've saved us," he said in broken tones.
Then suddenly he snatched out his watch.
"Five o'clock!" he gasped. "Can we get her in time?"
"Rather! We'll take the car," answered Vosper, his cheery self again. "It's only a hundred and sixty miles. We'll be there by eleven and back before six. That'll give plenty of time to put the new engine into the plane. The trial won't start till eleven."
"Then I'll come with you," said Martin. "Nat must sleep."
"No," said Nat emphatically. "You'll be needed to put the engine in when we get back. I shall have a good sleep, between five and eleven to-morrow morning. Besides, I can rest in the car while Vosper drives."
Martin was silenced. The next fifteen minutes was one furious rush. The car's petrol and oil tanks had to be filled, spare cans and tyres packed, and everything got ready for the road. It still wanted ten minutes to the half-hour when they were ready to start.
"Keep your eyes open," were Martin's last words. "Peregrines' people are sure to be watching us. Don't run any risks."
Vosper nodded and slipped in his clutch. The powerful car glided away. Second, third, and fourth speeds followed one after another, and within thirty seconds of starting Vosper had accelerated to forty miles an hour.
Vosper had driven cars since he was old enough to take out a licence. He handled his great machine with the skill of a master, and she swept down the long white road, sending up a rolling cloud of dust behind from her steel-studded tyres.
"I'm going to get all I can out of her while it's daylight," he said to Nat, who sat beside him. "You can't average thirty over Devon roads after dark."
Nat hardly heard. He was gazing down the road. Over the top of the next hill a column of flying dust hung like a wreath of smoke in the air.
"There's a car ahead of us," he said.
"Well, it won't be ahead very long," said Vosper with a confident smile, and pressing down the accelerator he drew forth the whole power of his magnificent machine.
Light as she was, for she was built to carry six passengers, she seemed to bound down the long, straight slope, then with a roar rushed up the far side like a shot from a gun.
Nat sat straining his eyes eagerly forward.
Topping the hill, the foremost car was in sight, already a dot in the distance.
"My word! She must be a big 'un!" exclaimed Vosper. "She's doing something like sixty."
"It's my belief that some of Peregrines' people are aboard her," said Nat between his teeth.
"Peregrines' people! Great Scott! what makes you think that?"
"I hardly know. But I suspect them at every turn. If they've got an inkling that we have a spare engine, they'll do all they know to stop us from getting it. They've shown already that they'll stick at nothing to put us out of the running."
"That's true, but surely they can't know anything about the spare engine? I've never said a word to anyone but you."
"They seem to know everything. Look here, let's stop a moment at Yeovil and send a wire to Dan to watch out."
"Good! We'll do that."
Half an hour later they pulled up outside Yeovil post-office. While Nat wrote the telegram, Vosper inquired of a loafer if a big car had come past lately.
"You're right, mister. It was a whopper and no mistake. They runned over a dog just opposite here, and the policeman tried to take their number, but they was going that quick he couldn't."
"How many were in it?" asked Vosper.
Vosper gave his informant a shilling, and a moment later they were off again.
Crewkerne, Chard, and Honiton were flung behind them before dark, and they stopped just outside the latter town to light the big acetylene headlights.
From Honiton to Exeter the road is up and down, with a good surface all the way. But even so, the way in which Vosper drove was enough to try Nat's nerves, well seasoned though they were.
Whirling round curves, missing ditches by a series of miracles, every now and then jamming on the brakes to save a collision with some lumbering farm cart, they flashed onwards at a speed which hardly ever dropped below thirty-five. Vosper spared neither the car nor himself, but both stood the strain in wonderful fashion.
Most luckily the night was fine, though cold and windy. Had it been wet or foggy, they could not possibly have travelled at anything like the pace.
At last the lights of Exeter showed up, a dull glare against the dark night sky. Nat glanced at his watch. It was barely eight o'clock.
"Good business!" exclaimed Vosper. "We're half an hour ahead of time."
Almost as he spoke there was a loud report, the car swerved violently, and before Vosper could stop her, had left the road. Happily there was a broad stretch of turf between the metalled road and the hedge. By a marvellous bit of steering, Vosper missed the bank and switched her back into the road.
"A back tyre gone!" he said, as he sprang out. "Lucky it went when it did! Hullo, look at this!"
"This" was a great piece of a broken bottle sticking in the burst cover.
"Alger, for anything you like," snapped Nat.
"Not a doubt about it. Then he can't be very far ahead. I wonder how many more of these delicate attentions he has prepared for us. Out with that spare wheel, Nat. I'll jack her up."
In four minutes by the watch they had changed wheels and were off again.
"Which way are you going?" asked Nat suddenly, as Vosper slowed down to pass a tram.
"By Plymouth, I suppose."
"Why not take the north road by Moreton and Tavistock?"
"What, across the moor?"
"Yes, the hills are bad, but the surface is fair. And the chances are that, by taking that route, we shall escape any more broken bottles or other traps that Alger has laid for us."
"Not a bad notion," answered Vosper. "Right-oh! we'll go that way. I'm going to stop here for more petrol, and we'll find out if Alger's gone through."
While Nat filled up the tank, Vosper made inquiries. But no one had seen the big car.
"The beggars have gone round the town, I suppose," said Vosper in a vexed tone. "I wish to goodness I knew which way they'd gone."
"I should say they're sure to have taken the Plymouth road," answered Nat, as they slipped quickly down towards the bridge over the Exe.
Up the long hill beyond the car roared on third speed, and then came the fourteen twisty miles to Moreton. There is never half a mile in all this distance that is straight or level. It is one series of steep hills, with high hedges and terrible corners.
Fortunately there was no traffic about, and they covered the distance in thirty-five minutes, which was amazingly good going for night work.
"Shall we stop and inquire about Alger?" asked Vosper as the car boomed through Moreton's one long street.
"No. Don't let's waste time," answered Nat. "We've got twenty miles more of hills before we reach Tavistock."
Seven of these twenty consisted of a terribly narrow and crooked road, then at last the big car rushed rejoicingly up a long, sweeping slope, and the air bit sharply as they reached the top of the moor some twelve hundred feet above the sea level.
They passed the Warren Inn, the highest public-house in the South of England, roared through sleepy Postbridge, and across the East Dart. Then up more hills till they came to a dark coppice surrounding some ruins on the right-hand side of the road.
The car was speeding down a curving slope at fully forty miles an hour, when the glare of the headlights fell on a dark object lying right across the road.
"Look out!" shouted Nat.
Vosper clapped on all his brakes at once.
It was too late. The front wheels struck the obstacle, the heavy car leapt bodily into the air, came down with a shock which flung both her passengers forward against the wind screen, and, swerving to the left, rushed across the strip of rough grass and hit the stone wall with a shattering crash.
The shock flung Nat clean out of the car, but by a lucky chance he fell on the grass close under the wall and sprang up, a little dazed, but quite unhurt.
"Vosper!" he cried sharply. "Are you hurt?"
The headlights were smashed to atoms. Nat could see nothing. There was no reply, and for a moment his anxiety was desperate.
"N-no—only winded," came a gasping reply.
Vosper was still in his seat. He had been driven forward against the steering-wheel with a force that had knocked the wind out of him, but he was little the worse.
Nat pulled out the electric torch he carried in his pocket, switched it on, and surveyed the damage. The near front wheel was smashed, the front axle was buckled, the radiator was cracked, and the water was streaming out in clouds of vapour.
"She done for," he groaned.
"That's a fact," said Vosper grimly. "It'll take horses to move her. The wonder is we weren't done for, too. Look at that!"
He pointed to the road, across the whole breadth of which lay the long, slim stem of a dead fir-tree.
Nat fairly ground his teeth.
"Alger again," he muttered. "What are we to do, Vosper? I suppose we're miles from anywhere. Princetown's the nearest, isn't it?"
"No. Two Bridges is only just over the hill."
"That's only a hamlet."
"Yes, but there's an hotel there. First chop little place, kept by a jolly old boy called Trant. What's more, lie's got a car, I believe."
"A car?" Nat's tone jumped from deepest despair to wild excitement. "Then there's a chance after all."
"Don't be too sure. But I think there is one. An old Daimler, I believe. Come on and we'll see."
They left the wreck and set off at a run. At the foot of the next hill, close to the bank of the West Dart, they came upon a long pile of white-plastered buildings, and their ring at the front door was answered by a plump, benevolent-looking waiter.
"Can we see Mr. Trant?" asked Nat eagerly.
"Certainly, gentlemen. This way, please."
He took them to a little office where the proprietor, a stout man with curly grey hair, a thick moustache, and humorous eyes, was writing letters.
"What you, Mr. Vosper?" he exclaimed genially.
"You don't mean to say you remember me? I haven't been here for years," answered Vosper in surprise.
"I don't often forget a face," smiled the other. "But what can I do for you—some dinner?"
"There's something we want a deal worse than dinner, Mr. Trant," said Vosper. And in a few sentences he quickly explained the situation.
"Seems to me this is a job for Jack," said Mr. Trant briskly. He touched a bell.
"Send Mr. Jack here," he said to the waiter.
A very tall young man with prominent features and blue eyes came in.
"This is my son, gentlemen. Jack, can you run Mr. Vosper and Mr. Meadows over to Wheal Antony?"
"Let me see, that's beyond Liskeard. All right," answered Jack, as coolly as though it were just round the corner. "I'll have the car round in a minute."
"Right," said his father. "And you gentlemen will have some dinner while he fills the tank?"
"We'll be grateful for a mouthful, but time is everything," said Vosper.
"Jack will manage the time all right," laughed his father. "If this was any county but Devon he'd have lost his licence long ago. As it is, he's got a string of endorsements as long as my arm."
Cold game pie and bread and cheese were swallowed in no time, then they heard the deep rattle of the exhaust as a car pulled up in front.
She was a biggish grey car of French make, and though nothing like the size of Vosper's, her bonnet was long enough to promise a fair amount of power.
"This isn't the Daimler, Jack," said Vosper.
"No, that old packet went up long ago. This is a Berliet."
"What power?" asked Vosper.
"Twenty-two, they call her." And Jack laughed.
They realised why when she shot up the steep hill opposite at a round thirty miles an hour.
Nat gave a happy sigh, and settled back in his seat.
"We'll do it after all," he murmured, glancing at his watch. It was not quite a quarter to ten.
For the eight miles to Tavistock the road was fearfully hilly, but all open, and the surface good. Jack, who evidently knew every inch of it, drove superbly. It was only just after nine when they shot through sleepy Tavistock and turned off to the left towards Gunnislake.
By Vosper's advice, Jack slacked a little in the narrower roads. They could not tell what fresh traps Alger had set, and they dared not take any risks.
But nothing happened until they were up on the Cornish moors, and then a back tyre went. It was not glass this time, but just ordinary wear.
The Berliet had no spare wheel, and expert as they all were, it took fifteen minutes of precious time to take off the burst tyre and replace it with a spare.
Now came a slice of shocking ill-luck. On the high ground they ran into fog and were forced to slow down to about fifteen. This seemed like crawling after the pace they had kept so far, and Nat fidgeted in his seat, grudging every minute that passed.
At last the familiar mine dumps loomed up, a blur in the thickness, and beyond the lights of the mine-house glimmered faintly in the smother.
Nat looked at his watch again.
Twenty to twelve. Could they possibly do it in time?
NAT MAKES A RESOLVE
"DID you get our wire?" was Vosper's first question, as Dan came running out.
"Wire—no. What brings you here? And Mr. Nat?" exclaimed Dan in wide-eyed amazement. "Why, I thought the trials were to-morrow."
"So they are," answered Nat. "They begin in about eleven hours from now, and by that time we've got to get the spare engine up to Salisbury Plain and put it in the new plane. So if you ever hurried in your life, Dan, now's the time."
"But what became of the telegram?" demanded Vosper. Nat shrugged his shoulders.
"Lying at Trewith Post Office most likely. Probably they were afraid to send up on the moor because of the fog. But there's no time to think of that. We've got to get the engine out of its case."
Dan already had the key of the workshop. Nat, who had been terrified lest somehow Peregrines' gang had managed to get at the spare engine, was greatly relieved to find the case intact.
"What shall we do? Load her up as she is and run her to Plymouth in the car?" he asked. "There's a train at 1:45 which will get us up to Salisbury about six?"
"The case is a bit big to go into the car," said Jack Trant, eyeing the huge box doubtfully.
"It is," agreed Vosper. "And it's only extra weight. We'll unpack it. Dan, make some hot coffee for us. We shan't get any food till we get back to Salisbury."
Dan flew to obey, and Vosper and Nat, assisted by Trant, set to work on the case. It was fastened by huge screws, and it took hard work to open it and lift out the engine, which was well tallowed and in perfect condition.
But all three plugged in so hard that the engine was out of its case in less than ten minutes. Even without the case it was so heavy that it took the three of them to carry it.
They laid it down by the front door while Jack Trant ran to the car to clear the cushions out of the tonneau.
Suddenly they heard him give a sort of roar of fury.
"The brutes! Look what they've done!"
The others dashed forward. Trant was pointing to his tyres. Every single one of them had been cut to ribbons.
At that moment came a mocking laugh from the direction of the road. With a fierce exclamation, young Trant dashed away through the fog. There followed the derisive hoot of a horn and the sound of a car starting forward down the hill.
"Idiots that we were to leave the car unguarded!" groaned Nat.
"We were a bit trusting," answered Vosper with an angry ring in his voice. "They certainly fooled us properly that time. I'd no idea any of 'em were within fifty miles."
As he spoke he was examining the tyres. They were beyond hope of repair, and they had no spares.
"We might run her on her rims," said Trant, who had come back from his hopeless chase. "But we shouldn't get to Plymouth much before daylight. They've snookered us proper this time."
What he said was so evidently true that none of the rest had heart to reply. As for Nat, for the first time since the beginning of his long struggle with the Peregrines, he seemed to have entirely lost heart. He stood leaning against the useless car, and in the glare of its headlights his face was white and drawn.
All of a sudden he straightened up.
"We're not beaten yet," he cried, and his whole face glowed with a new determination. "There's still one chance of getting back in time."
"How—what do you mean?" asked Vosper, who for a moment really fancied that the strain had thrown poor Nat off his balance.
"I'll fly!" said Nat between set teeth.
"Fly?" repeated Vosper, amazed. "You mean, take the little Crimson up and race her. But, my dear chap—"
"The little Crimson with the big new engine," cut in Nat sharply.
"You're mad!" exclaimed Vosper. "She'll never stand it. Anyhow, it would be sheer idiocy to attempt to fly in a fog like this and in pitch darkness."
"It'll be light enough above the fog. I can steer by the stars. No, don't argue. My mind is made up. Come and help me change the engine."
"It's madness!" murmured Vosper, shrugging his broad shoulders. But all the same, he took hold of the engine and they lifted it back into the hangar.
Acetylene lamps were fit, and the task of removing the Crimson Aeroplane's engine began without delay. It was heavy work, and punished them all severely. But young Trant, who was a born mechanic, gave invaluable assistance, and Dan brought relays of hot coffee which kept them all awake.
First her own engine had to be taken out of the little Crimson Aeroplane, then the big new engine had to be put in. At one o'clock Vosper turned to Nat.
"This is a crazy business, Nat, but if you're set on it I'm not going to argue. But one thing I do insist upon. That is that you go and lie down for a bit and sleep. Trant and I can finish by three, then we'll wake you."
Nat looked as if he were going to object, but something in the set of Vosper's jaw discouraged him. And he knew the advice was wise. He went back into the house, flung himself on the settee in the living-room, and was asleep at once.
It seemed but a minute before Vosper was shaking his shoulder.
"It's ten past three, and all's ready," he said.
Nat sat up, yawned, and sprang to his feet.
"How do you feel?" asked Vosper anxiously.
"Bit stiff, but all right."
"Strip off and I'll rub you down before you start."
"I can't wait."
"Do as I tell you, or you shan't go at all."
Grumbling, Nat obeyed, and Vosper shampooed him scientifically.
Then Nat got into his warm flying things and went out. The prospect was not encouraging. It was very dark, and fog was driving before a northerly wind.
"Wait till dawn," urged Vosper. "You can do it in three hours."
"You forget. The engine has to be shifted again. No, I'll go now. Are the tanks full?"
"Yes, all's right. I've fixed the compass on myself."
"You've done everything, Vosper," said Nat gratefully.
"I'd do a jolly sight more to see you swipe the fifty thousand from those sweeps, Peregrines."
To say that Nat liked the prospect before him would be distinctly untrue. He was too good an airman not to realise the tremendous task ahead. He had something like one hundred and fifty miles to fly in darkness and bad weather on what was practically a new and untried machine. It is the engine that does most to make or mar an aeroplane, and Nat was well aware that this new engine was too large, too heavy, and too powerful for the Crimson Aeroplane.
Fortunately the engine was fitted with a device—an invention of Martin's—for throttling down. This Nat would have to use constantly, for if he drove at full power he knew that he would almost certainly wreck the little machine.
Just as he was starting Dan hurried up and handed him a small parcel.
"Chocolate and a flask," he said breathlessly. "You may need 'em."
Nat thanked him gratefully. Vosper spun the propeller, and the big engine roared out through the gloom. The little plane shot forward, bumping over the turf; Nat pulled back the cloche, and as he rose clear of the ground heard a faint cheer from his three friends below.
As he circled upwards, oddly enough his mind was not occupied so much with the terrible journey before him. He was thinking of Johnny. He suddenly remembered that he had not seen him, and in the rush and hurry had forgotten to ask for him. He wondered where the man of the mine was, and hoped that all was well with him.
Almost mechanically he steered upwards in wide, sweeping circles, and presently, to his great joy and relief, rose clear of the fog, and saw the stars shining brightly overhead.
He glanced at his aneroid, which hung to the right in its spring-suspended case. It marked 900 feet. Then he took his bearing by the compass, which swung in a similar case on the left. As he could see nothing of the earth below, he had to steer entirely by compass. His instruments were lit by a tiny electric bulb. That and the stars were his only light.
He listened to the engine, which kept up its steady, deep-toned roar close behind him. It was firing perfectly.
The wind was his chief trouble. Being northerly, it drifted him constantly to the right. He had to work the cloche frequently in order to correct her course. Although he did not dare to use the full power of the engine, he felt that he was probably averaging fifty miles an hour.
It was bitterly cold, and in spite of his thick gloves his fingers grew numb. Also he was desperately sleepy.
An hour passed, and suddenly lights gleamed below. Nat's spirits rose. He had crossed the fog area. What the town was he could not tell, but he hoped it was Exeter.
He dropped to the four hundred level, and his heart leapt as he recognised the square towers of the ancient cathedral. He had kept a wonderful course by compass alone.
He caught a glimpse of the London road gleaming faintly white, and resolved to follow it. But the wind at this lower elevation was so troublesome that he was forced to rise again. Then he could no longer see the road, and was obliged to trust to the compass again.
He saw more lights. Honiton, perhaps. He could not tell. The wind grew worse, and he was getting worn out with his constant efforts to fight it. Steering with one hand, he slipped into his mouth a bit of the chocolate which Dan had given him.
Just when he felt he could bear the strain no longer, a faint yellow glow appeared on the horizon to the eastward. It was the dawn, and never had Nat been more grateful to see it.
Gradually it grew light enough to see the outline of the ground below. It was all strange to Nat. He could pick out no landmark. Suddenly he caught a dark blue line to the right.
It was the sea. He had drifted miles to the southward of his proper course, and now must fight back almost dead in the teeth of the wind.
He swung the aeroplane's head north-east, and then began the worst struggle since the day he had been caught in the thunderstorm.
The wind was now a gale, and the small plane, over-burdened with its heavy engine, pitched and reeled perilously.
Nat's eyes were sore with the merciless cut of the cold blast, and soon he could hardly see at all. Every muscle ached with the never-ending strain, and the cold penetrated to his very bones.
It was only his brave spirit that carried him through.
Pace was out of the question. He could not fly more than thirty miles an hour against the streaming rush of the gale, and it seemed as though the journey would never come to an end. What was worse, he began to be terribly afraid that petrol would run short.
The sun rose red and angry as he was crossing a small town which looked like Dorchester. Another thirty miles to go. Could he last it out?
At length, sick and dizzy, he caught sight of the tall, slim spire of Salisbury Cathedral, and beyond the town, the vast, rolling expanse of Salisbury Plain. His long battle with the gale was nearing its end, but there were still ten miles to cover.
Twice the little plane was caught in fierce eddies and almost overturned; once she dropped into an air-hole and fell a hundred feet like a stone, before her pilot could bring her up.
It took nearly half-an-hour to cover those remaining ten or a dozen miles, and when at last the familiar tents came in view and the crowds which were already gathering to watch the trials, Nat hardly remembered shutting off the engine for the last plane down.
Dimly he saw the green turf, the sea of upturned faces, which seemed to rush up towards him. To check the swiftness of the fall he switched on the engine again; then, as he was within a few feet of the ground, cut it off once more.
He felt the skids jar upon the turf, and with a last effort scrambled out of his seat and collapsed all in a heap on the grass.
Martin was stooping over him as he came to himself.
"Am I in time?" Nat muttered thickly.
"Loads, dear lad," answered Martin.
Then Nat fainted away in real earnest, and knew no more until he awoke with a start to find himself comfortably tucked up in a camp-bed in his tent.
He sprang up with a start.
"Martin," he cried.
Martin came hurrying in. He was in overalls, and his hands black with oil and grease.
"Isn't it time to start?" asked Nat.
"Thank goodness, no. The weather's so bad that they've put off the start till one o'clock. Here, drink this soup and go to sleep again. I'll wake you in good time."
WHO WINS THE RACE?
THE sharp bang of a gun sounded. It was the signal for the start of the big race. Nat, much revived by a good sleep, a warm bath, and a capital meal, hurried out of the tent.
The wind had dropped, the sun was shining on the broad white wings of a dozen magnificent machines. Right in front of him Nat saw the big Crimson Aeroplane conspicuous by the brilliant colour of her fuselage. Martin and Vosper's mechanic stood by her. They were trying her engine, which roared magnificently.
Nat hurried eagerly across, and Martin switched off the engine.
"Don't excite yourself, Nat," said Martin. "We're fifth on the list. We shan't start for twenty minutes yet."
"Engine all right, Martin?"
"Splendid!" answered Martin with unusual enthusiasm. "How do you feel?"
"Fit for anything."
"Pity Faulkner isn't here," said Martin.
"It's too bad. I can't think what's hung him up. And Vosper, too. I miss his cheery face."
"Vosper will be here in about an hour. He wired he was coming up by train. Hullo, who's this?"
"This" was a stout, red-faced man, rather badly shaved. He wore a pepper-and-salt suit, a pot hat, and very large boots. He came straight up to the machine and put his hand on it.
"Take your hand off that," said Nat sharply.
"Here, here, don't you speak to me like that," said the other. "Do you know who I am?"
"I don't," said Nat. "And I don't want to."
"I'm a bailiff," declared the man pompously.
"If you touch that machine again," said Nat quietly, "it'll be the worse for you."
The fat man started back with an alarmed expression.
"None of that, young man, or you'll be sorry. You're running against the lor—that's what you're doing—running against the lor."
"Lor!" said Nat mockingly.
"You won't find this no laughing matter." The bailiff was angry now. "I arrest this machine at the suit of Messrs. Ireson & Jubb, and you moves it at your peril."
"Oh, go away," said Nat. "You're crazy!"
"I'll soon show whether I'm crazy," retorted the other, hauling out a long slip of blue paper from his pocket. Unfolding it, he held it open under Nat's eyes.
"Now then, young man, what do you make of that? That's all in proper form, isn't it?"
Nat ran his eyes down it. His expression changed.
"What's this mean, Martin?" he asked sharply. Martin stepped forward and put his hand out for the paper. But the bailiff would not let it go. He held it for Martin to read.
Martin did so, and an amazed look came upon his face.
"What is this? I don't understand. We don't owe these people any money, let alone a thousand pounds."
"They've got your acknowledgment for that amount, anyhow," answered the bailiff. "It's a note made out to an American gent, Rufus P. Faulkner."
"Faulkner! What have Ireson & Jubb got to do with Mr. Faulkner?" demanded Martin.
"That's no business of mine. I suppose he's assigned the note to them."
"Rot!" said Nat contemptuously. "Faulkner's our friend. And at present he's away in America."
"Friend or no, it don't make a mite of difference to me," returned the bailiff in surly tones. "Either you pays the money or I seizes this here airyplane and any other personal property as belongs to you."
Martin looked at Nat. His face was very grave.
"This is another plot of Peregrines," he said. "I see what's happened. Condon stole this note from Faulkner on Lundy. You remember you did not get it back with the will. Somehow, Alger or another of Peregrines' gang have got it from Condon, or perhaps he sent it them out of revenge."
"That's it without a doubt," replied Nat. "But who are Ireson & Jubb?"
"Some shady solicitors, I suppose. Peregrines, of course, wouldn't let their own name appear."
"But this is conspiracy," said Nat, turning on the bailiff so fiercely that the latter started back a pace.
"That word's actionable," he exclaimed, recovering himself.
"Actionable!" repeated Nat. "Nice person you are to talk of the law! We shall prosecute your precious firm for theft and conspiracy."
"You can do as you pleases—afterwards," said the bailiff stubbornly. "My papers is all in order, and if you don't pay up, I seizes this machine."
"But, you idiot, I'm just starting for the race," said Nat. "Can't help that. And if you makes any trouble—why, the police is handy."
By this time the argument had attracted the attention of a number of the spectators. Details of Nat's magnificent flight from Cornwall had leaked out, and when the people realised what was happening, an angry murmur arose. Two policemen came up, and the bailiff eagerly explained his case.
One of the constables looked at his papers. He shook his head.
"This is a bad job, gentlemen," he said to Nat and Martin. "But the man's papers are in order. If you can't settle up, I'm afraid you won't be able to start."
Nat's face was white and set.
"Then they've done us after all," he said in a half suffocated voice. "We're ruined, Martin!"
For once Martin could find no word of comfort. He stood like a statue watching the bailiff's stiff, awkward figure standing guard over the machine for which he and his brother had both made such tremendous sacrifices, and from which they had hoped so much.
Three machines had started, the fourth was being wheeled to the post. Their turn was to have come next. Nat could not bear it. He turned and walked blindly away in the direction of the empty hangar.
Suddenly sounded a loud shout. A man came bursting through the crowds, shouldering his way with fierce energy through the packed mass of people.
"Nat, stop! It's all right!"
Nat looked up in a dazed way. It was Johnny, the man from the mine. Smartly dressed, clean shaven, with his face alight with eagerness, he rushed forward. In one hand he carried a small brown leather bag, which seemed to be very heavy.
"It's all right," he repeated. "How much does that fellow want?"
"A thousand pounds," said Nat dully. He was hardly sure whether he was awake or asleep.
"Here you are. I've got enough to settle that twice over."
"You!" Nat gasped.
"Yes," and Johnny snapped open the bag and pulled out a huge handful of new sovereigns.
Nat and Martin were so amazed that they could only stare. Johnny turned smartly to the constables.
"You count the money, please. I don't trust this chap."
"Glad to do it, sir," answered the nearest policeman willingly, while the bailiff's face went purple, and he stood like one thunderstruck.
The crowd, beginning to understand what was happening, burst into a roar of cheering, and came surging against the ropes. The officials were forced to rush up and drive them back.
Smartly the big policeman counted out a thousand pounds in little stacks of gleaming gold.
"Sign this receipt," ordered Johnny. "Be sharp!"
The bewildered bailiff did so.
"Now get out. Sharp about it. You've no business on the course," said Johnny.
The wretched man was hustled away, the crowd booing him as he went.
"B-but how did you get it?" stammered Nat to Johnny.
"Never you mind now. I'll tell you later. It's time for you to start."
A bell rang. Nat woke to life. He leapt into his seat. Vosper's mechanic and Johnny seized the machine behind, Martin spun the propeller, and the big engine started.
The plane shot forward, rose like a rocket, and amid thunderous cheers from the spectators leapt away at bewildering speed.
● ● ● ● ● ●
"But how did you know of our troubles? And where did you get the money, Johnny?" asked Martin when the last machine had left, and the two had got back to Martin's quarters, where they were to wait for the result of the big race which was the first of the trials.
"I've been up here for the past twenty-four hours," answered Johnny quietly. "And I've been playing Peregrines' own game and watching them. I found out that they had this last dodge to work upon you in case they failed to stop Nat from starting by other means.
"As for the money," he continued, "I'm not a poor man. It was not the failure of my mine which brought me to grief; it was finding a fortune."
"Yes. You remember the pistol I used that night when Nat was attacked?"
"Of course I do. The old, gold-embossed Spanish wheel-lock."
"I found that in the mine. And a good deal else besides. In fact, an Armada chest full of bullion and a quantity of very good jewels. They are not all valued yet, but I should say they are worth over £15,000."
"You found that in the mine?"
"Yes; left there no doubt by one of the Armada captains who was wrecked on the Cornish coast. You won't wonder when I tell you that I got pretty much excited. And like an ass, I let my candle go out, and then when I tried to get out of the gallery I took a tumble. That, I suppose, was what cost me my memory, for I don't remember a single thing that happened afterwards until I came to after that second fall. It was Dan told me how decently you had treated me, and I'm only too thankful to have had a chance to show my gratitude."
Martin put out his hand. The other wrung it silently.
"But you haven't told me who you are yet," said Martin presently.
"Anthony Warne is my name. I'm old Jukes' nephew."
"The mischief you are?"
"I don't love him any better than you do," he said.
"Then it was the sight of him that upset you that day when Nat flew to Ashburton?"
"I expect it was."
They were still talking eagerly when someone rushed into the tent.
"Say, boys, I hear I'm too late."
It was Rufus P. Faulkner himself.
He told them how he had lost his boat at New York by an accident to the train in which he was travelling from Chicago, and how he had caught the next liner, with so little time to spare that he could not even cable.
"And now I've missed seeing Nat start," he ended ruefully.
"You won't miss seeing him win," said Johnny cheerfully.
Johnny was right. Two hours later Nat came in no less than twenty minutes ahead of the next competitor.
The terrific cheering proved how popular was the young airman's win.
The people broke through the ropes, seized and chaired him.
Next day he took the passenger-carrying and altitude records with the utmost ease, and as for the rising from rough ground, no other machine entered could touch the new Crimson Aeroplane.
On the third day the official notice was posted announcing that Meadows Brothers had won the big prize, and congratulations poured in from every side.
Meantime, Faulkner had not been idle. As soon as he heard about Peregrines' performances he set the wires to work, and his own lawyer, a Mr. Bendall, came hurrying down from town.
"We'll make 'em sweat," said Faulkner, gleefully rubbing his hands when the conference was over. "Peregrines have gone clean over the limit this time, and Bendall says we've got 'em on the hip. We're going to prosecute for theft and conspiracy."
He did, and the trial caused an enormous sensation. The worst of it was that the prosecution could not get hold of Condon to put him into the witness-box. He had disappeared entirely, and so had Alger. So in the end they failed to get a conviction.
But the judge spoke strongly, and popular opinion was roused. Peregrines' were widely boycotted, and just at the time that the firm of Meadows Brothers, Faulkner, & Warne began business on a huge scale, it was announced that Peregrines' had gone bankrupt.
Martin and Nat are busy most of their time in their great works just outside London, but when they can get a holiday, off they rush in one of their big cars to Cornwall. The mine-house at Wheal Antony has been rebuilt as a charming bungalow, of which Dan takes charge, and many a merry party meets there to catch trout or shoot snipe, and in the evenings they talk over their bygone struggles and victories.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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