"It is done. Adieu, messieurs," said Monsieur de Montause. Then, turning to his men: "As for you, imbeciles, I have no more need of you at present. Go and eat your supper. I shall eat nothing until I have deciphered the whole of the inscription."
"One moment, monsieur," said Smith; "we were driven out of our course by the storm, and I am not certain of our whereabouts. Can you tell me the latitude and longitude of this place?"
"Ah, no. I am not a geographer. The surface of the globe: bah! It is the rind of the orange, it is the shell of the nut; I seek the juice, the kernel. But I can tell you this: We are not far from the left bank of the Tigris, near its confluence with the Zab, and about a hundred kilometres from the ruins of Nineveh. Adieu, monsieur."
The two airmen resumed their coats, switched on their searchlight, and made a rapid examination of the engine, which appeared to have suffered no injury: then took their places. When the sparking began, and noisome smoke poured from the exhaust, the workmen again yelled, but as the machine, after a short run, sailed noisily into the air, they fell prostrate in utter consternation.
WITH GUN RUNNERS IN THE GULF
A glance at the sodden map showed Smith that he had been driven at least fifty miles out of his course. He could not afford time to return to the Euphrates: he would now have to follow the course of the Tigris until it joined the larger river. It would be folly to attempt a direct flight to Karachi, for in so doing he would have to pass over the mountainous districts of Southern Persia and Baluchistan, where, if any mishap befel the aeroplane, there would be absolutely no chance of finding assistance. Luckily the moon was rising, and by its light he was soon able to strike the Tigris near the spot where it flowed between the hills Gebel Hamrin and Gebel Mekhul into the Babylonian plain. From this point, keeping the hills well on his left, he steered south-east until about midnight he came upon an immense expanse of water, shimmering below him in the moonlight, which he concluded to be nothing else but the Persian Gulf.
By this time he was both tired and hungry. Rodier and he had eaten a few biscuits spread with Bovril, and drunk soda-water, while they were examining the engine, but they both felt ravenous for a good square meal. Smith, however, had set his heart on completing his flight to Karachi, where his scheme would allow an hour or two for rest and food, and he was the more determined to carry out his programme, if possible, because of the delay caused by the storm.
His plan was to keep close to the left shore of the Persian Gulf, not following its indentations, but never losing sight of the sea. The coast, he saw by the map, made a gentle curve for some six hundred miles, then swept southward opposite the projecting Oman peninsula, and thence ran almost due east to Karachi. The coast was for the most part hilly, and as he was now travelling at full speed there was always a risk, unless he flew high, of his being brought up by a spur or a rock jutting out into the Gulf; and as he did not wish to maintain too great an altitude, he altered his course a point or two to the south, flying over the sea, but not far from the shore.
Rodier and he took turns at the engine, each dozing from sheer weariness during his spell off. They flew on all through the night, and when dawn began to break, saw straight ahead land stretching far to right and left. There was no doubt that this was the Oman peninsula, which, jutting out from the Arabian mainland, almost closes the Gulf. Steering now a slightly more northward course, and rising to clear the hills of the peninsula, Smith passed over the neck of land, and found himself in the Gulf of Oman, half-way between the head of the Persian Gulf and Karachi.
Now that it was light, there was no longer the same necessity for keeping out to sea. Indeed, it was merely prudent to come over the land, so that if anything happened to the engine he would at least have an opportunity of descending safely. The engine had worked so well that he scarcely feared a breakdown, but he was not the man to take unnecessary risks.
Glancing at his watch, he calculated that he was about two hours behind time. As he had been flying at full speed except during the storm, he could hardly hope to make up the lost time except by diminishing the intervals for rest which he had allowed for before starting. It was, at any rate, important to lose no more. He had just come to this conclusion when there was a sudden snap in the framework of one of the planes. Looking round anxiously, he at once reduced the speed, feeling very thankful that the mischief had not developed during the storm, when the aeroplane must have inevitably crumpled up. Now, however, the weather was fair, and he could choose his landing-place. He had no doubt that the accident was due to the enormous strain which had been put upon the structure by the storm. A glance showed him that the plane was still rigid enough to stand the strain of motion at a lower speed, but that would neither satisfy him nor achieve success, and so he decided to alight and try to remedy the defect.
As he began to plane downwards, Rodier pointed to a cluster of huts at the mouth of a small river. A dhow lay moored to a rough wooden jetty beyond the hamlet. Between it and the huts was an open space of considerable extent, and though when Rodier first drew his attention to the place they must have been more than a mile distant from it, he could see, even without his binocular, a crowd of people moving about the open space.
"We may find a forge there," shouted Rodier.
Smith nodded, but he felt a little uneasy. It seemed likely that he had now reached what is known as the Mekran coast, and he remembered the ill reputation it bore with the officers of British ships who had seen service in these waters. The people had been described as greedy, conceited, unwilling, and unreasonable as camels, and their treacherous and cruel disposition was such that, thirty or forty years before, Europeans who landed on any part of their seaboard would have done so at great peril. Smith, however, had a vague recollection of their having been taught a salutary lesson by the Karwan expedition, and no doubt the presence of British war vessels in the Gulf had done something to correct their turbulence. He had to choose between finding a landing-place inland, out of sight of the inhabitants of this fishing village, and landing among them on the chance of getting the use of a forge, for it would probably be necessary to weld the broken stay. Deciding for the latter course, he steered straight for the village, and, circling round it, dropped gently to earth in the open space near the jetty.
The aeroplane had been seen and heard some time before it reached the spot, and its flight was watched with open-mouthed curiosity by the men, who paused in their work of carrying ashore bulky packages from the dhow. When they saw the strange visitant from the sky descending upon them, they gave utterance to shrill cries of alarm, dropped their burdens, and fled in hot haste up the shore, disappearing behind the huts. As he alighted, Smith noticed, close to the aeroplane, one of these packages, which had burst open in the fall, and saw with surprise that it contained rifles.
"I say, Roddy," he said; "this is rather unlucky. We have interrupted a gun-running."
"Ah, no, it is lucky, mister," returned the Frenchman. "We shall not need now to buy rifles en route; we can help ourselves; these are contraband, without doubt."
"That's true, I suspect; rifles are sure to be contraband here; but this is a wild district, and the people won't be too well-disposed towards us, coming and stopping their little game. We've a right to impound the rifles, I daresay, but I really think we had better look the other way."
"Wink the other eye, as you say. Well, at present there is no one to look at. The people do not speak French, I suppose?"
"Nor English, probably. They are Baluchis, I suppose, and perhaps haven't seen a white man before. Just look and see what's wrong with the stay while I go up to the village and parley."
Rodier stripped to his shirt, got his tools out of the little box in which they were kept, and set to work in as unconcerned and business-like a way as if he had been in the workshop at home. Meanwhile Smith, puffing at a cigarette, walked slowly towards the nearest hut. His easy manner gave no sign of alertness; but in reality he was keeping a keen look-out, and had already descried some of the natives peeping round the walls of the huts. Having taken a few steps he halted, looked inquiringly around, and hailed the lurking villagers with a stentorian "Ahoy!" At first there was no response, but on his advancing a little farther and repeating the call two or three swarthy and dirty-looking men came slowly from behind the nearest hut. Smith noticed the long spears they carried. He smiled and held out his hand, but the men stopped short and eyed him doubtfully, jabbering among themselves. He bade them good morning, inviting them to come and have a talk, but saw at once by the lack of expression on their faces that they did not understand him.
Somewhat perplexed, and trying to think of signs by which he could explain what he wanted, he saw a different figure emerge from the background, a small, bent, olive-skinned old man, clad in a white turban and dhoti. He came forward hesitatingly.
"Salaam, sahib," he said humbly.
"Oh, I say, can you speak English?" asked Smith eagerly, suspecting that the man was a Hindu.
"Speak English very fine, sahib," replied the man, with a smile.
"Thank goodness! Well, now, is there a smith in the village? You know what I mean: a blacksmith, a man who makes iron things?"
It was not a very clear definition, but the Hindu understood him.
"Yees, sahib," he said; "smif that way." He pointed to a hut at a little distance.
"That's all right. Fetch the smith along, and I'll get you to tell him what I want."
"I know, sahib, I tell them. I do big trade in this place. They silly jossers, sahib; think you a djinn."
"Well, put that right, and hurry up, will you?"
The Hindu salaamed and returned to the group of villagers. An excited colloquy ensued, the man pointing now to the Englishman, now to the aeroplane, and now to the dhow alongside the jetty. Presently the Hindu came back.
"Silly chaps say what for you come here, sahib. You know too much, they say."
Smith guessed that they supposed his visit had something to do with the smuggling operations in which they were engaged. He explained quickly that he was merely an ordinary traveller, on his way to India in one of the new air carriages in which Englishmen were accustomed to make long journeys, and he promised to pay the smith well for any assistance he could give in repairing a slight injury which the carriage had suffered in a storm. The Hindu carried this message to the villagers, who were now increasing in number as they regained confidence, and after another discussion he returned, accompanied by a big man, the dirtiest in the crowd, the others following slowly.
He found it no easy matter, through his smiling but incompetent interpreter, to explain that he wanted the use of the smith's appliances. To quicken their apprehension he produced a couple of half-crowns, pointing out that they were worth four rupees, and offered these as payment when the work was done. The Hindu recognized the King's head on the coins, and eagerly assured the Baluchis that they were good English money; but the smith, true to the oriental habit of haggling, rejected them scornfully as insufficient, and was backed up by a chorus of indignant cries from the crowd.
Smith, impatient at the loss of time, and forgetting that any show of eagerness would merely encourage the natives to delay, was incautious enough to show them a half-sovereign. Though the Hindu appeared to do his best to persuade them that this was generous pay, they showed even greater contempt, and became more and more clamorous.
"Greedy chaps want more, sahib," said the Hindu deprecatingly.
"Very well," replied Smith, pocketing the coin. "We'll do without them."
He turned his back on them, and returned at a saunter to the aeroplane, the crowd, now swelled by the arrival of apparently all the inhabitants of the village, old and young, pressing on behind. It was evident that they had now lost their fear of the strange machine.
"How are you getting on, Roddy?" he asked. "These asses won't take half-a-sovereign to lend a hand."
"Imbeciles! But the stay must be welded."
"Well, we'll pretend we can do without 'em. I daresay that will bring them round."
For a few minutes the two men made a great show of activity, completely disregarding the crowd curiously watching them. The plan had the desired effect. The Hindu came forward and said that the smith would accept the gold piece, if he were paid in advance.
"Not a bit of it. If he likes to help he shall have it when the work is done," replied Smith, turning to resume his interrupted work.
The smith, now fearful of losing his customer, began to abuse the Hindu for not completing the bargain. At length, with a show of reluctance, Smith relented, and with the aid of the villagers the aeroplane was wheeled to the smithy. It proved to be very poorly equipped, having a very primitive forge and a pair of clumsy native bellows; but Rodier set to work to make the best of it, welding the broken stay with the smith's help, while his employer remained outside the hut to keep watch over the aeroplane, which the people were beginning to examine rather more minutely than he liked. To drive them off, Smith set the engine working, causing a volume of smoke to belch forth in the faces of the nearest men, who ran back, holding their noses and crying out in alarm.
Smith filled in the minutes by opening a tin of sardines and eating some of the fish sandwiched between biscuits. The sight of small fish brought from a box struck the villagers with amazement, which was redoubled when he removed the stopper from a soda-water bottle and drank what appeared to be boiling liquid. Presently, however, he noticed that some of the men were quietly withdrawing towards the huts, behind which they disappeared. Among them was the Hindu, who was apparently summoned, and departed with a look of uneasiness. Smith went on with his meal unconcernedly, though he was becoming suspicious, especially when he found by-and-by that all the men had left him, the crowd consisting now only of women and children.
"Nearly done, Roddy?" he called into the hut.
"Yes, mister. The smith has took his hook, though."
"All the men have gone behind the huts. I wonder what they are up to."
Rodier took up a hammer, and gently broke a hole in the flimsy back wall of the hut.
"There's a big crowd beyond the village," he reported. "Having a pow-wow, too. They've got spears and muskets."
"That looks bad. Hurry up with the stay. The sooner we get out of this the better."
He noticed that the smith had now rejoined the crowd. No doubt he intended to make sure of getting his money. The mob behind the huts was growing noisy, and Smith gave a sigh of relief when Rodier came out with the mended stay and proceeded to fix it in place. While he did this, Smith beckoned some of the lads forward, and made them understand by signs that he wished them to help him wheel the aeroplane round. The slope between it and the sea was very rough ground, but it afforded space for starting off, and the moment Rodier had finished his job he swung the aeroplane round and started the engine. The smith, looking on suspiciously, took this as a signal for departure and rushed forward, clamouring shrilly for the promised payment. Smith gave him the half-sovereign, then jumped into his place, Rodier running beside the machine as it moved down the slope.
At this moment there was a shout from the village, which swelled into a furious din as the men came rushing from behind the huts, and saw the white men preparing to leave them. The aeroplane gathered way. Rodier was on the point of clambering into his place, as he had often done before, by means of the carriage supporting the wheels. But the machine jolting over the rough ground delayed him. The yelling crowd rushed down, some hurling spears, and others endeavouring to seize the Frenchman. He kept his grip on the rail, but another jolt forced him to loosen his hold, the machine suddenly sprang upwards, and Rodier fell backward among his captors.
Smith scarcely realized what had happened until he was many feet in the air; but seeing at a glance over his shoulder that Rodier was left behind, he put the helm over and warped the planes to a perilous degree. The aeroplane was fifty or sixty yards from the starting place when Smith's action caused it to swerve like a wounded bird; then it recovered itself, and turning in a narrow circle swept back towards the confused knot of men on the beach. Smith planed down straight upon them, intending to land and rush to Rodier's assistance. But perceiving that the Frenchman was struggling on the ground, with a dozen turbaned figures clustering over him, he steered straight for the middle of the group. There was a dull thud, and then another, and he felt a harsh jolt as the chassis struck some of the standing men. Smith had stopped the engine when he turned, and the aeroplane, brought up by this obstruction, sank to the ground, being saved from damage only by the spring attachments of the carriage.
Drawing his revolver, Smith leapt from his seat and dashed towards the group. Six or eight men lay on the ground, some of them too badly hurt to rise; the rest of the crowd had taken to their heels, and the whole population was in full flight, the children screaming with terror. In an instant, to Smith's relief, Rodier sprang to his feet. Together they turned the machine once more towards the sea.
"Are you hurt, Roddy?" asked Smith.
"Ah, the villains! they have given me a dig or two. Let us get away from this, mister. We are getting later and later."
He jumped into the car; Smith again started the engine; and as the machine rose into the air it was followed by a howl of rage from the baffled Baluchis. Half-a-dozen slugs pattered about it, piercing several holes in the planes. Already one of these had been gashed by a spear, which still stuck in it. But no serious damage had been done, and in a few seconds the aeroplane was flying at full speed over the sea.
It is one of the drawbacks of aerial travel that conversation can only be carried on in shouts. Smith would have liked to talk over things with Rodier, but the noise of the engine and the boom of the air as the machine cut through it smothered his voice unless he bellowed. Only a few words passed between them as they flew along a little distance out to sea. Rodier bathed two slight wounds he had received in the scuffle with water from the pots filled during the storm, and assured Smith that they were nothing to trouble about.
Some few minutes after leaving the inhospitable village they noticed the smoke of a steamer, a good deal nearer the shore than the dhows which they had seen occasionally on the Gulf. It was too far distant for them to determine its size and nationality, or to guess the direction in which it was bound. Smith decided to speak it in passing, but, observing that the stay had not been thoroughly fixed in the hurry of their departure, he looked about for a suitable landing-place, where the finishing touches might be given. The coast was rocky and precipitous, and the tops of the cliffs were strewn for a considerable distance inland with innumerable boulders, large and small, which would render landing dangerous, and starting perhaps more dangerous still. At length, however, just as he was thinking of running inland, in spite of the loss of time, Rodier caught sight of a large expanse of smooth rock, left bare by the falling tide. He pointed it out to Smith, who made a hasty calculation of its extent, and judged that it would serve his purpose. Steering to it, he circled round it and dropped gently upon its western end, scaring off a flamingo that was sunning itself there in solitary state.
"We came well out of that, Roddy," he said, as they set to work on the stay.
"But we lose time by all these stops, mister," replied Rodier. "We can perhaps make it up if you keep your gold in your pocket."
"I made a mistake there, certainly. If anything of the kind occurs again our motto must be 'take it or leave it.'"
"Just as you say to a cabby."
"You are sure you are not hurt much?"
"No more than with a cat's scratches. You came in the stitch of time, though."
"'A stitch in time saves nine,'" quoted Smith, smiling a little at the Frenchman's mistake. "That's why we had better make a good job of this. We don't want to stop again."
Ten minutes' work sufficed to fix the stay firmly in its place. Smith again started the engine, the aeroplane taking the air when it was only half-way across the rock. They looked around for the steamer when they were again going at full speed, but it was no longer visible. In a few minutes, however, the smoke again came into view, and as they rapidly approached it Smith was delighted to see that it came from the funnel of a small gunboat, which was steaming in the same direction as their own flight, making probably for Bombay or Karachi. The chances were that such a vessel in these waters was British, so Smith steered towards it, shouting to Rodier that they might perhaps arrange a tit-for-tat with the Baluchis.
There was much excitement on board the gunboat when the aeroplane planed down and soared over it at its own pace, just high enough to be out of reach of sparks from the funnel.
"Who are you?" shouted Smith through a megaphone.
"Gunboat Penguin, Captain Durward, bound for Bombay. Who are you?" came the answer.
"Lieutenant Thesiger Smith, of the Imperturbable, bound for Karachi."
"The deuce you are! What do you call that vessel of yours?"
"My pet lamb," replied Smith, grinning. "I say, sir, I've no time for explanations. Are you policing these seas?"
"This is my beat. Why?"
"Some Baluchis are gun-running fifty miles up the coast, that's all. Thought you'd like to know."
"Are they, begad! Thanks for the tip. Can you describe the spot?"
"A tiny village lying behind a point. A river runs through it, and there's a short jetty. Sorry I can't give you latitude and longitude. You'll catch 'em if you hurry up. Hope you will, and—run 'em in. Good-bye."
He set the engine at full speed again, and as the aeroplane soared on like a swallow its departure was followed by a lusty British cheer.
"Three hours late, mister," Rodier bawled in Smith's ear.
THE WHITE DJINN
It was half-past six by Smith's watch, near eleven by local time, when the aeroplane sailed across the long mangrove swamp that forms the western side of the harbour of Karachi. The sun was intensely fierce, and Smith, who found its glare affecting his eyes painfully, had donned a pair of huge blue-glass goggles. He was glad that he had done so when, passing over the crowded shipping of the port, he saw the sandy arid tracts around and beyond the town. Steamers hooted as the aeroplane flew above them; half-naked coolies lading the vessels with wheat and cotton, the produce of Sindh and the Punjab, dropped their loads and stared upwards in stupefied amazement. Smith could not wait to enjoy his first view of an Indian city. His business was to land at the first convenient place and find Mr. John Jenkinson, whose godown was near the Custom House, and obtain from him the petrol bespoken by Mr. Barracombe.
Being in complete ignorance where the Custom House lay, though he guessed it would be somewhere near the seafront, he was at first at a loss in which direction to make. There was no suitable landing-place in the crowded city itself, and to the immediate south of it there appeared to be nothing but mangrove swamps. Ascending to a considerable height, however, he saw, some distance to the east, near a railway line, a stretch of open brownish ground on which little red flags stood up at intervals. He instantly jumped to the conclusion that this was the golf course, though at this time of day there were no players to confirm his judgment. This was an advantage, because it promised that he might land without being beset by curious spectators. Accordingly he steered in that direction, hoping that having safely landed his aeroplane he might find some means of reaching the merchant whose name Mr. Barracombe had cabled to him.
It happened that, just as the aeroplane swooped down upon the golf course, an open vehicle like a victoria was driving slowly along a road that crossed it from the railway towards the city. The turbaned driver pulled up his horse and stared open-mouthed at this extraordinary apparition from the sky, and when the aeroplane alighted, and from the car stepped a tall, dirty creature with a monstrously ugly face, the native whipped up his horse and with shrill cries sought to escape the clutches of what he felt in his trembling soul must be a djinn of the most evil kind.
Smith shouted to him to stop, but in vain; whereupon he picked up his heels and ran to overtake the carriage. The horse was a sorry specimen, and Smith, being a very passable sprinter, soon came up with it, jumped in, and called to the driver to take him to Mr. Jenkinson's godown. The man yelled with fear, and in sheer panic flogged his horse until it went at a gallop, the vehicle swaying in a manner that any one but a sailor would have found unpleasant. Both horse and driver seemed to be equally affected with terror, but since the carriage was going towards the city Smith was perfectly well satisfied, and did not turn a hair even when it narrowly escaped a collision with a bullock-wagon.
On they went, past some buildings on the right which appeared to be barracks, until they reached a street in which there were so many people that Smith thought it time to pull up before mischief was done. Leaning forward, he gripped the driver's dhoti and drew him slowly backward. The man yelled again; the passers-by stood in wonderment; but with his backward movement the driver tightened his grip on the reins, and within a few yards the panting horse came to a standstill.
"Where is Mr. Jenkinson's godown?" said Smith, releasing the driver. But the man's terror was too much for him. Throwing the reins on the horse's back, he sprang from his seat and fled, a vision of bare brown legs twinkling amid white cotton drapery.
By this time a crowd of chattering natives had gathered round, who, not having seen the aeroplane, were more amazed at the driver's evident terror than at the passenger. He was dirty, it is true, and not clad like the sahibs whom they were accustomed to meet, but when he had removed his goggles they saw that he was certainly a sahib. Smith was about to ask some one to direct him to Mr. Jenkinson's when a native policeman pushed his way through the crowd, and in a shrill, high-pitched voice and wonderful English, announced that he had come to take the number of the carriage; it was clearly a case of furious driving to the danger of the public.
"Shut up!" said Smith impatiently. "Find me a driver to take me to Jenkinson sahib."
"Certainly, your honor," said the man, becoming deferential at once.
One of the bystanders, seeing the chance of earning a few pice, volunteered to drive.
"Jenkinson sahib? all right, sahib; down by Custom House. You bet!"
The carriage rolled off, followed by a crowd of runners, eager out of pure inquisitiveness to see the matter through. They passed Government House, turned into dusty Macleod Road, and in five or six minutes reached the Custom House, where, turning to the left for a short distance along the Napier Mole, the driver pulled up at a wooden godown, and said—
"Here we are again, sahib. Jenkinson sahib, all right."
Smith ordered the man to wait for him, and went into the godown. Here he met with a disappointment. In answer to his inquiry the native clerk, looking at him curiously, said that Mr. Jenkinson was not there, was not even in Karachi.
At this Smith looked blank.
"Your name, sir, is Lieutenant Smith?" said the clerk politely, but with an air of doubt.
"Then I tell you what, sir. Cable came yesterday for Mr. Jenkinson. I wired it, instanter, as per instructions, to esteemed employer at Mahableshwar, where he recuperates exhausted energies. Reply just come. Here you are: 'Refer Lieutenant Smith Mr. Macdonald. Regret absence.' Mr. Macdonald, sir, little way off. I have honour to escort you: do proper thing."
He conducted Smith some distance down the Mole, the carriage following. Luckily Mr. Macdonald had not returned to his bungalow for tiffin, but was napping in a little room behind his office, darkened by close trellises, which are found necessary for keeping out the clouds of sand blown up from the shore.
"Eh, what?" said Mr. Macdonald, when his clerk awakened him. "A visitor this time of day? Well, show him in."
He let a little light into the room, and stared when Smith was introduced. Smith was dripping with perspiration, and not having been able to wash since leaving London, he felt that his appearance must give a fellow-countryman something of a shock.
"What do ye want, man?" asked Mr. Macdonald, somewhat testily.
"Mr. Jenkinson referred me to you, sir—"
"I have no vacancies, none whatever, and—"
"My name is Lieutenant Smith, of His Majesty's navy, and I have just arrived from England."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Smith; I took ye for—well, I don't know what. Take a wee drappie? You came by the Peninsular, no doubt. I hear she came in this morning."
"No. I came by aeroplane."
The Scotsman stared.
"What's that ye were saying?"
"By aeroplane. The fact is, Mr. Macdonald, I'm in a hurry. I've got to get off within an hour or so; and I want some petrol for my engine. Mr. Jenkinson was to have arranged it for me, but being absent he refers me to you, and I shall be immensely obliged if you can manage it for me, and excuse my not entering into particulars, for which I really haven't time."
"Is that a fact? Petrol, is it? Come away with me; only, upon my word, sir, I will take it very kind if you will give me a few particklers of this astonishing business as we go."
He put on a sun helmet, and led the way from the room. Jumping into the victoria, he ordered the temporary coachman to drive to Harris Road, a quarter of a mile beyond the Custom House. In the two minutes occupied by the drive, Smith told the Scotsman merely that he had come from Constantinople and was proceeding immediately to Penang on important business.
"It took ye a week, I suppose?"
"No, I left there rather less than twenty-four hours ago."
"Man, you astonish me; fair take my breath away. But here we are."
He alighted at a store kept by a Parsi. It was a matter of a few moments to purchase the petrol and machine oil, Smith paying for it with English gold. The tins were rolled out; Mr. Macdonald hailed a closed cab, into which they were put, and then they set off to return to the golf links, Mr. Macdonald accompanying Smith, curious to see the machine which had performed such an astonishing journey.
"I've read in the papers about these aeroplanes, but never seen one yet. Is it your opinion, now, that we'll have a war in the air one of these days?"
"I shouldn't wonder. We shall have cruisers and battleships, air torpedoes and destroyers, air mines and air submarines."
"Are you pulling my leg, now?" asked Mr. Macdonald, but he received no reply, for Smith had noticed an European provision shop, and remembering that his biscuits and chocolate were running low, he called to the driver to stop, and made some purchases. He took the opportunity to lay in a dozen bottles of soda-water, and added a few packets of Rodier's favourite cigarettes, for smoking during the halts, for he would never allow a match to be struck near the engine.
Mr. Macdonald plied him with questions during the remainder of the drive, and Smith was ready enough with his answers except on his personal concerns. When they arrived at the links they found the aeroplane surrounded by a vast crowd. The majority were natives, but there was a sprinkling of Englishmen in the inner circle, and some soldiers from the barracks were doing police duty in keeping the onlookers at a distance from the aeroplane. Two British officers and some civilians were talking to Rodier, who was cleaning the engine with the assistance of a young fellow with the cut of a ship's engineer.
The arrival of the cabs caused a stir among the spectators. Smith alighted, asked Mr. Macdonald to see that the petrol and provisions were carried quickly to the aeroplane, and advanced to ask Rodier how he had been getting on.
"Like a house on fire, mister," replied the man. "Mr. Jones here is just off the Peninsular, and has helped a lot."
"I say," said one of the officers, "is your man stuffing us up? He says you have come from London in twenty-four hours."
"Quite true, Hawley," said Smith, with a smile. "Remember I googlied you for a duck at Lord's last year?"
The officer stared.
"By George, it's Charley Smith! I didn't know you; you're like a sweep. Yes, by George! and I stumped you and got it back on you. How are you? Rogers, this is a gentleman of the King's navee—Charley Smith, Elphinstone Rogers."
"How d'e do? Rummy machine, what!" said Captain Rogers.
"Yes, by George!" said Hawley. "What's your little game?"
"I've got seven days' leave, and am off big game hunting. Can't wait for liners in these times."
"You don't say so!"
"Tigers, eh?" said Rogers. "Wish I was you! But is it safe? Looks uncommon flimsy, what!"
"I hope for the best, but I haven't got a minute to spare. Sorry I can't have a go at your pads again, Hawley. Finished, Roddy?"
"All complete, mister."
"All the stuff onboard?"
"Well, Mr.—Jones, is it? Much obliged to you. Roddy, pay those fellows who've carried the stuff, and the drivers."
He handed him some silver.
"Hoots, man," said Mr. Macdonald; "that'll never do. They'll swank for a week if you give them all that. Leave it to me."
"All right. You know best. Many thanks for your help. Hawley, d'you mind getting your men to clear the course? I don't want to break any bones. And perhaps you'll send a cable home for me. Address Thesiger Smith, Cosham. Say 'All well.'"
"I'll do it, with pleasure."
"Thanks. Good-bye. Sorry I've got to rush off."
He shook hands all round, and jumped on board.
Rodier had already taken his place at the engine. It took a minute or two for the soldiers to force the crowd back, an interval which Smith utilized to trace on the map, for Rodier's guidance, the course he had decided to follow. Then, the clatter of the starting engine silencing the clamour of the crowd, the aeroplane ran forward and soared into the air. Its ascent was hailed with a babel of shouts and cheers. Smith waved his hand to his friends below; then, seeing that Rodier had the map before him, he spread himself in his seat for a comfortable nap.
A SHIP ON FIRE
Rodier had his full share of the Gallic dash which had won first honours in airmanship for France, but it was combined with the coolness and circumspection bred of scientific training, so that Smith was able to take repose in serene confidence that, barring accidents, the aeroplane would fly as safely under Rodier's charge as under his own. Karachi was soon a mere speck amid the sand. In less than half-an-hour the aeroplane was crossing the swampy delta of the Indus. Soon afterwards it flew over the Run of Cutch into Gujarat, leaving the hills of Kathiawar on the right. Sweeping over the head of the Gulf of Cambay, it crossed the railway line from Bombay to Baroda, and then the broad river Nerbudda. The city gleaming white in the sunlight, far to the left, must be Baroda itself. The course traced by Smith in the few minutes before leaving Karachi, avoided the high western Ghauts that fringe the Indian coast to far south of Bombay. Rodier therefore steered somewhat to the east, coming in the course of twenty minutes to the river Tapti. Seeing a line of mountains straight ahead, he swung round still more to the east, following the valley of the river until he had completely turned the mountains, the northernmost spurs of the Ghauts.
Now he turned south-east once more, crossed the Chandaur chain, and presently came in sight of the Godaveri river, which traverses the whole breadth of Hyderabad. Near Indor he left the river on his left. By this time it was becoming dark. Smith still slept, and Rodier, who was not able to steer by the stars, was considering whether he had not better waken his employer when he spied the characteristic glare from a locomotive furnace far ahead. In half-a-minute he had caught up the train, and slowed down to make sure of the direction in which the railway ran. He found that it was almost exactly south-south-east, and concluded from a glance at the map that he was above the connection of the Hyderabad railway running from Warangal to the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Reassured, he resolved to let Smith have his sleep out, followed the line until it swept eastward at Secunderabad, and then, steering a little to the left, put the engine once more to full speed. In less than an hour afterwards he saw a vast expanse of water glistening in the light of the rising moon, and knew that he had reached the sea.
Being by this time thoroughly stiff and tired, and knowing, moreover, that Smith would navigate the aeroplane over the sea with much more certainty than himself, he shouted to awaken him. This proving ineffectual, he leant over and nudged his shoulder. Smith was awake in an instant.
"Where are we?" he cried; but no answer was necessary; he saw the sea below him, and stretching far to the east, north, and south. He exchanged places with Rodier, who, too tired even to eat, fell asleep at once.
"Good thing he woke me," thought Smith. It was one thing to fly over land, with guiding marks in the shape of rivers, mountains, and other physical features that could be recognized more or less easily from the map; and quite another to cross the pathless ocean. But with a compass and a clear sky the course would present no difficulty to a seaman, and Smith settled down to a flight that would be without obstruction for at least seven hundred miles.
He knew that in the Bay of Bengal the prevailing wind at that season is south-westerly. Whether there was any wind or not it was impossible to ascertain while the aeroplane was maintaining its enormous speed; certainly there was none to cause unsteadiness. If wind there was, it blew in his, favour, and all that he would have to do would be to allow in steering for a slight northerly drift. He would certainly sight the Nicobar group, and possibly the Andaman Islands if he did not make sufficient allowance for the wind; but he was determined not to alight if he could help it until he arrived at Penang; he had lost time enough already.
It was the first time he had flown across so wide an expanse of sea, and he felt a touch of anxiety lest the engine should break down. If any accident should happen he had made up his mind that the only thing to be done was to don the lifebuoys, cut the engine loose, and trust to the buoys to keep them and the planes afloat until their plight was observed from some passing vessel. In the darkness this would, of course, prove a vain hope; even in daylight the chance that a vessel would be in sight was remote. But the die was cast: the engine was as yet working perfectly; and in three or four hours, all being well, he would come in sight of land.
There being no obstruction to fear, he kept at a height of only a hundred feet above sea level. The sea was calm, gleaming like a sheet of silver in the moonlight, so that the aeroplane seemed to fly over a continuous glistening track. Steadily it flew on; Smith had nothing to do but to sit still, feed the engine with petrol, and keep his eyes alternately on the compass and the stars.
At length, about six o'clock by his watch—past eleven in the longitude to which he had arrived—he caught sight ahead of a dark outline on the water, no doubt a group of islands, though whether the Andamans or the Nicobars he did not feel sure. Knowing that they were all hilly in formation, he slackened speed, intending to run down their coastline rather than cross them. It would not be difficult to find one of the many channels between them through which he could continue his flight, past the northern end of Sumatra to Penang. By taking a southerly course, moreover, he would, be able to assure himself of his direction.
After a short run parallel with the coastline he came to a wide channel which he believed to be, and subsequently ascertained to be, the Ten Degree channel between Little Andaman and Car Nicobar. From this, if he was right, there would be an uninterrupted course south-east to Penang. But within half-an-hour of entering the channel, still flying low, he suddenly ran into a dense cloud of exceedingly pungent smoke, which completely hid the sea beneath him. It made him cough, and woke Rodier with a start.
"What's this, mister?" he shouted, rubbing his eyes.
"Forest on fire," shouted Smith in reply, though he was surprised to meet with the smoke so far from land as he supposed himself to be. He hastily planed upwards, in case, by some error of navigation, he had come upon land and might endanger the aeroplane among hills or tree-tops, and also to avoid the risk of explosion from a stray spark. Still more surprised was he when, after only a few seconds, the aeroplane passed completely through the smoke, and he saw the sea again. At that instant, just as they reached the windward side of the smoke-cloud, which was evidently blown by an easterly wind, Rodier gave a cry.
"Mon Dieu! A ship on fire!"
Smith instantly checked the engine, and, swinging round in a narrow circle, saw a dark shape below him from which smoke was pouring up. There was no flame, but as the aeroplane dropped gently downwards Smith saw that Rodier's explanation must be correct, the ship being a sailing vessel.
A fire at sea is the sailor's worst terror. Urgent as was his own errand, Smith could not pass without at least inquiry, so he sank still lower, steering as close alongside the vessel on the windward side as the planes would allow. He perceived now that she was dismasted and had a bad list. Lifting his megaphone, he shouted—
"Ahoy there! Who are you?"
No answer reached him, though he saw that the crew were crowding on deck, gazing up at him, and one man, no doubt the captain, was making a trumpet of his hands.
"I can't hear owing to the noise of my engine," shouted Smith. "Haven't you got a megaphone?"
He was acutely conscious at that moment of two disadvantages which the airman had not yet been able to surmount. He had not yet invented a noiseless engine, nor could he keep the aeroplane motionless in the air. If Smith could have transformed his vessel for a few minutes into a Zeppelin airship he would gladly have done it.
Now a megaphone had been brought to the captain, and his words came, though faintly, to the ears of the airmen.
"Barque Elizabeth, from Calcutta to Dundee with jute. Dismasted in a cyclone ten days ago west of the Andamans; been adrift ever since. Fire broke out in cargo in the fore hold; had as much as we could do to keep it under; no time to rig a jury mast. Afraid of flames bursting through any minute."
He asked no questions and showed no surprise about the aeroplane. It was evident that he could give no thought to anything but the desperate plight of his vessel.
Smith was in great perplexity. He could do nothing for the ship; perhaps his best course would be to make all speed for the nearest port and send a steamer to her assistance. An idea struck him.
"Can't you get off in your boats?" he called.
"All carried away but one. She won't hold half of us. Besides, can't desert the ship."
"Only my daughter."
"His daughter, Roddy. I wish we could do something, but I don't know what."
"Ah! go down and lift her off, mister."
Smith reflected. A girl would probably weigh little more than the petrol they had consumed. The suggestion was feasible, and if the captain's daughter had pluck enough to risk the journey, no doubt her father would be glad to know that she at least was safe.
"We can but make 'em the offer," he said to Rodier; then shouted through the megaphone: "We're coming down. Get your men to clear the deck aft, and show lights and stand by to lend a hand."
All this time the aeroplane was moving slowly in circles over the vessel, being still careful to keep on the windward side for fear of sparks. When Smith's instructions had been carried out, he selected a landing place just abaft the mizzen and, warping his planes alternately, brought the aeroplane gently to the deck. Fortunately the bulwarks were sufficiently low not to catch the planes or the stays supporting them.
Smith and Rodier stepped on deck, and were instantly surrounded by a group of the officers and crew.
"Get for'ard," shouted the captain to the men. "D'you want to see a blaze?"
He was left with the first mate.
"I'm in a pretty fix, sir," he said, after a rapid glance at Smith. "We drifted south and southeast after the storm, then lay becalmed for a day or two; yesterday an east wind sprang up and carried us northward."
"What are your bearings?" asked Smith. "I'm in the Navy."
"You don't say so, sir! Yesterday's observations gave us latitude nine degrees forty-seven minutes south and longitude ninety-four degrees thirty-two minutes east."
"Well, look here, the best thing I can do is to run for a port and send you help."
"I'd take it very kind if you would, sir. I was thinking of sending my daughter off in the boat to-morrow with a few men; but we've managed to keep the fire under so far, and if there's a chance of getting help within a day, say, perhaps we can keep all together. It's terribly risky in these seas in an open boat."
"Well, I'll set a course for Penang—"
"Port Blair's nearer, sir, in South Andaman."
"But I'm more likely to find a fast steamer at Penang. And as to your daughter, captain, she'd better come along with us."
"In that what-you-may-call-it, sir?"
"Yes, certainly. We can easily carry her, and make a comfortable seat for her behind ours if you give us a cushion. We've come from London, so she needn't be afraid."
"From London! Near seven thousand miles! Jigger me if ever I heard the like of it! What do you think of that, Mr. McWhirter?"
"Rather a long un," replied the mate.
"Well, hang me, if you've come across the Bay of Bengal, you're sartin sure to be able to make Penang. She shall go with you, and that'll be one load off my mind. Go and fetch her, Mr. McWhirter. She's rather a superior gal, sir, though I say it myself. She's had a rattling good eddication; talks French like a native, and as for music and singing, I've never heard any gal as could touch her, that's a fact. Here she is."
Smith was not sorry that the outflow of paternal pride was checked. He wanted to get on. A girl of about twenty came forward with the mate. She was very self-possessed, and met Smith's look frankly.
"My daughter, Mr. ——. I don't know your name, sir," said the captain.
"My name's Smith." He doffed his cap.
"Now, Margy, my girl, Mr. Smith, who's in the Navy, is going to be so kind as to take you in his what-you-may-call-it to Penang, and send a steamer to take us off or tow us in, as the case may be."
The girl looked startled, glancing from Smith to the aeroplane, and then at her father.
"I think I'd rather stay with you, Father," she said quietly.
"And I'd rather you didn't," he said bluntly. "You don't know the risk as I do, my gal," he added kindly. "The blessed ship may blaze at any moment."
"I know, Father; but we've been in danger for several days, and I've got used to it."
"Ay, that's true, and you've been an uncommon plucky girl, I will say. She ain't like them females that faint and go into high strikes and fidget your life out," he said to Smith, who observed the girl's face flush. "Now, my dear, you'll go with Mr. Smith, and please your old father. There ain't a morsel of danger; he's come safe all the way from London, and I never see a better bit of manoeuvring, I will say, than when he brought the what-you-may-call-it down on the deck as light as a feather. It'll be a big sight safer than this poor old hulk, and I'll be thankful to know as you're safe in Penang. You can berth with my old friend Sam Upton and his missis, and please God I'll come for you in a day or two."
"I assure you, Miss—Miss Margaret," said Smith, "that there's really very little risk. We've come six thousand odd miles safely, and it's not far to Penang, you know. You won't be the first lady to fly in an aeroplane."
"Ma foi, non!" cried Rodier, unable to keep silence any longer. "I myself, mademoiselle, have kept company in an aeroplane with a lady. Ah, bah! vous parlez francais; eh bien! cette femme-la a ete ravie, enchantee; elle m'a assure que ce moment-la fut le plus heureux de sa vie."
"Shut up, Roddy," whispered Smith, smiling, however, as he caught a twinkle of amusement in the girl's eyes.
"I will go if you wish," she said to the captain, without replying to Rodier.
"That's right. Mr. McWhirter, will you please get a couple of cushions and put them in the thingummy where Mr. Smith shows you."
The seat was quickly prepared. Meanwhile Smith consulted with Rodier on the somewhat delicate problem how to make a start from the deck, which obviously did not afford more than a few feet of running-off space. Rodier hit on a solution, and by the time the passenger's seat was ready the necessary arrangements had been made.
"Now, my gal," said the captain, "step aboard. You sing like a bird; it's only right you should fly like one." It was obvious that the worthy seaman was making clumsy efforts to be cheerful. "I'll see you in two days, or three at most; we've got a raft ready, you know, in case the fire beats us. But, bless you, I shouldn't be surprised if we have a fire-engine coming through the sky next; there's no knowing what these clever young sparks won't be inventing. God bless you!"
The girl threw her arms round her father's neck. Smith turned away; there were tears in the old man's eyes. The captain conducted her to her place. Then he took Smith aside.
"You'll look after my gal, sir?" he said in an undertone. "She's all I've got. Suppose you do come down; what then?"
"I shall jettison the engine and keep afloat by the planes. We've a couple of life buoys, too. But I don't think we shall come down, so make yourself easy, and we'll save your vessel."
"There's one man that never forgets a good turn, and that's John Bunce. Where shall I find you in Penang, sir, if I get there safe?"
"Oh! I shan't be there. I'm going straight on to the Solomon Islands."
"Well, sir, if you're ever Rotherhithe way, you'll find me at 197 Prince's Road; I'm retiring after this voyage. Margy'll be proud to give you a cup of tea, and I will say I'd like you to hear her sing."
"All right, I won't forget. All ready, Roddy?"
"Ready and waiting, mister."
Smith went to his place.
"Are you quite comfortable, Miss Bunce?" he said, noticing that the girl was pale and nervous. "I'm sorry I can't give you my seat, but my man and I must sit together. You'll forgive us for turning our backs on you."
The girl smiled faintly without speaking. Several of the crew had ranged themselves on each side of the aeroplane, to hold it steady until the propellers had worked up a good speed. Smith started the engine; the deafening whirr began: then at the word "Go!" the sailors released their holds and the aeroplane lurched forward just clear of the bulwarks. Margaret Bunce clutched the rail nervously. One or two of the men had been somewhat slow in letting go, causing the aeroplane to cant over in a manner that was alarming to the onlookers. But long practice with the aeroplane in all kinds of gusty weather had developed in Smith an instinct for the right means of meeting an emergency of this nature. Like a bicyclist, he did the right thing without thinking. The vessel righted itself at a touch on the warping lever, and in two or three seconds she was sailing rapidly away from the ship.
A PASSENGER FOR PENANG
From the information given him by Captain Bunce, Smith hoped to pick up the lights of Penang without much difficulty. While on the ship's deck he had noticed that the easterly breeze was very light, so that even with the slight additional weight he carried, his speed would not be greatly diminished. With good luck three or four hours would see him safe in port.
Rodier pulled out his watch soon after they started, and comparing it with the schedule of the journey, shouted in Smith's ear—
"We are four hours late, mister."
"I know we are," cried Smith. "Confound you, Roddy, you're always telling me I'm late. If you say anything like that again I'll throw you out."
"Mademoiselle wouldn't like that," he shouted. "Tout va bien, mademoiselle?" he said, turning to the lady. "Vous n'avez pas peur?"
"It is terribly fast," said the girl breathlessly, and Rodier came to the conclusion that Captain Bunce's opinion of his daughter's linguistic ability was exaggerated.
The moon had set, and the flight was continued in almost total darkness. At length, shortly before four o'clock in the morning, Smith caught sight of lights ahead. He had touched at Penang some years before, when his first ship was on her way out to the Australian station, and he knew that the most suitable place for alighting was a large open space, clear of vegetation and buildings, about a mile from the port. In a few minutes the aeroplane was flying over the sleeping town. He slackened speed, and circled around for some time, seeking the spot with the aid of his searchlight. He discovered it with more ease than he had dared to hope, and bidding Rodier look out for obstacles, descended to the ground.
"Here we are, Miss Bunce," he said cheerfully, as he stepped out. "I hope you feel none the worse for your ride."
"It is wonderful," said the girl. "I shall never forget it."
"The question is, what are we to do now? Your father mentioned a friend of his, but as I have little time to spare I think you had better come with me to my friend Mr. Daventry. He is in the administration here, and I am sure Mrs. Daventry will be glad to do anything she can for you. You see, I can find my way there in the dark, I think, whereas we should have to wait until daylight to find your father's friend, and that would be a nuisance in every way."
"I will do whatever you think best."
Leaving Rodier with the aeroplane, the other two set off towards the town.
"You will try to send help to Father?" said the girl.
"As soon as it's light. This is Sunday morning, by the way. You're all right, but I'm afraid I look far from Sundayish. Still, no one can see me, and I shall be off before the people go to church."
"So soon as that? Aren't you very tired?"
"Not so tired as I've been in the manoeuvres. We get a nap in turn, you know."
"How can you sleep when you're in such terrible danger?"
"Well, you see I'm used to it. We don't think of the danger. Perhaps it's because I've never had a bad accident. The want of a decent meal is the worst of it. We haven't had one since Thursday night, but I daresay we can keep going on light fare for another three or four days."
"You know I've often wanted to go up in an aeroplane, though I suspect I should have backed out if I had really had the chance. I'm very glad Father insisted on my coming, but I wish it had been daylight; I could only hold on and try not to be afraid."
"I'm sorry we can't take you with us—no, I don't quite mean that, Miss Bunce; of course you couldn't come careering about; what I mean is that I shall be very glad to take you a daylight trip one of these days if you care to come—when we get back home, of course. Captain Bunce was kind enough to give me an invitation; he said you would give me a cup of tea—"
"And sing to you! I know exactly what he said; but you mustn't pay too much attention to Father. He's a dear old man, but quite absurd over my little accomplishments."
"But I may have a cup of tea?"
"With or without sugar—if you really mean it."
"Of course I mean it. One of these days you will find my aeroplane at your door—"
"Good gracious! it will be in pieces, then, for our street isn't wide enough to give it room."
"Well, you'll find me at the door then; and after I have had my cup of tea, with three lumps of sugar, and you have sung a little song—just to please your father, of course—we will walk to where my man is waiting with the aeroplane, two or three streets off, and we'll take a jaunt to Greenwich Park, or Richmond, or wherever you like."
"That will be very nice," said Miss Bunce, and Smith wished it were not too dark to see her face, for the tone expressed utter disbelief. He wanted to assure her that he meant what he said, but, reflecting that he had better not seem to suggest that she doubted it, he said—
"That's settled, then. I suppose it will be three or four months before you get home, and I shan't have another leave for I don't know how long, so we won't fix a date. Now Mr. Daventry's bungalow is in this direction; I hope I shall be able to find it."
They walked about for some minutes before Smith was able to satisfy himself that he had discovered the bungalow. They passed through the compound, looked with a smile at the native servant sleeping on a mat at the door, and laughed to see him jump when awakened by Smith's vigorous rapping. At a word from Smith the man went into the dwelling, but a moment afterwards a window above the entrance was thrown open, and a loud voice demanded what was the matter.
"That you, Daventry?" Smith called.
"Yes. Who are you? What's the matter?"
"It's Charley Smith. Sorry to disturb you at this unearthly hour, old chap."
"What in the name of—! All right. I'll come down."
They saw a light struck; in a minute they saw framed in the doorway a tall man in pyjamas, holding a candle.
"Come in, Smith," he cried. "Why, what the—! Here, I say, I won't be a minute."
Setting down the candle on the doorstep, he hurriedly fled. Smith glanced at the girl. She was quite unembarrassed, and when she caught his eye she frankly smiled. "She's the right sort," he said to himself. Presently Mr. Daventry returned in trousers and a smoking jacket.
"Excuse my leaving you. I went to—to waken Mary," he said. "She'll be down in a minute; come in. Didn't know you were married, old boy," he whispered, taking Smith by the arm.
"Hush!" said Smith anxiously, hoping that Margaret Bunce had not caught the words.
Mr. Daventry led them into his dining-room, turned on the lights, and looked inquiringly at his visitors. The girl was already unpinning her low cloth hat.
"Why, what on earth—!" exclaimed Mr. Daventry; "what have you been doing to yourself, Smith?"
"I am a bit of a sweep, no doubt, but you can give me a bath. The fact is—well, it's plaguey difficult to tell it shortly—but the fact is I picked up this lady—no, hang it all! Miss Bunce, please help me out."
"Mr. Smith picked me up, as he says, from a burning ship in mid-ocean, and was kind enough to bring me here in his aeroplane."
"Sounds simple, don't it?" said Smith, as Mr. Daventry looked from one to the other in amazement.
"But—I don't understand—mid-ocean—an aeroplane? Mary," he added to a lady in a dressing-gown who had just entered, "come and listen to this. You know Charley Smith? Miss—Miss—"
"Margaret Bunce," said the girl, rising.
"My wife. Now, let us all sit down and see if we can make this out. If I understand aright Miss Bunce was in a burning ship in mid-ocean—"
"Oh, poor thing!" said Mrs. Daventry sympathetically, going to Margaret and taking her hand.
"And—correct me if I'm wrong—Smith descended out of the clouds, caught up Miss Bunce, and flew with her to the house of his nearest friend. Is your aeroplane outside, old man?"
"It's a mile away, in charge of my chauffeur. I think I had better tell the whole story from the beginning."
"I think so, too; it's rather cloudy at present. Have a cigar—if the ladies don't mind."
"Well, two days ago I learnt that my father was shipwrecked along with the company of his survey vessel on one of the Solomons, practically unarmed, the report says. As the news was taken to Brisbane by some of the crew in an open boat, they must have been at the mercy of the savages for a week or more, and probably hard pushed. Of course a gunboat was to be sent to relieve them, but as every hour was important I decided to try to get to them in my aeroplane and take them some ammunition. Last night, coming somewhere south of the Andamans, we saw a ship on fire; she was adrift, lost her masts and all boats but one. The captain asked me to send help as soon as I got here, and Miss Bunce was good enough to accept our escort, and here we are."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Mr. Daventry. "But—I don't understand yet. How did you come to be by the Andamans? Where did you come from?"
"Left London early Friday morning: came by Constantinople and Karachi."
"Upon my word, Smith, if I didn't know you I should be inclined to ask if you are sober. You have come all the way from London since Friday morning?"
"Exactly. But I know you'll excuse me: I haven't time to tell you any more. We are already four hours late, and every hour means nearly two hundred miles. There are two things I want to do. First to arrange with the port officer to send help to Captain Bunce; then to get the petrol and lubricating oil ordered for me here. Van Kloof's the man. You know him, of course."
"Yes, but it's Sunday."
"The better the day, the better the deed. I must have the petrol; I must start in two hours or less. And I should like a good bath and a breakfast first."
"You shall have both, but surely you can wait till daylight."
"I'm afraid I can't. It is very awkward, I admit, and I fear I shall give you and several others a lot of trouble; but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and the devil in this case is Father Time. You see, I've not only got to take some rifles and ammunition to the shipwrecked party, but I must rejoin my ship by Friday morning, or there'll be ructions. I've got a name for overstepping the limit, and my captain warned me that I'd better rejoin promptly this time."
"We mustn't hinder him, Jack," said Mrs. Daventry.
"But, hang it all, Mary, do you understand what it means? He'll kill himself, rushing round the world like this."
"Not at all; I'm pretty tough," said Smith. "Now, old fellow, what is the best you can do for me?"
"Go and get your things on, Jack," said Mrs. Daventry practically. "You can take Mr. Smith down to the harbour and get what he wants. I'll see about the bath and the breakfast, and I am sure Miss Bunce will help; I won't disturb the servants. Really, it is quite exciting."
"Thank you, Mrs. Daventry. It is very good of you. But I'm sure Miss Bunce ought to go to sleep."
"I am not a bit sleepy," said the girl, "and I shall certainly help Mrs. Daventry."
"Come along then, my dear," said the hostess. "We will go and see to things at once."
In five minutes Mr. Daventry was down. He and Smith left the house and made their way rapidly to the harbour. The port officer complained at having his beauty sleep disturbed, and when he learnt that his assistance was wanted for a burning ship near the Andamans he declared that he wished wireless had never been invented.
"People know too much nowadays," he grumbled. "They'll know what we think before we think it next."
"Don't undeceive him," whispered Smith to Daventry, anxious to escape the necessity of lengthy explanations. The port officer agreed to send a steamer in search of the Elizabeth as soon as it was light. Then, without losing a minute, Daventry led Smith to the house of Mr. Van Kloof, of whom the petrol had been ordered.
"He's a bit of a slow-coach," said Daventry, "and will want to know all about it, so I advise you to tell him everything; or better still, leave it to me."
"Very well. Anything to save time."
Mr. Van Kloof was hard to awaken. When he was at last aroused by his servants, he put his head out of his bedroom window, and demanded gruffly what was the matter.
"Come down, Van Kloof, and I'll explain. It's a matter of life or death," said Daventry.
"Vat is it? An earthquake?"
"Worse than that. Slip into your breeches, man."
The merchant presently appeared at his door in shirt and breeches, and carrying a revolver.
"You got a cable from London ordering eighty gallons of petrol to be held ready for Lieutenant Smith?" said Daventry.
"So. Dat is quite true."
"Well, here is Lieutenant Smith, and he wants the petrol at once."
Mr. Daventry explained where the petrol was to be sent.
"No, it cannot be done, Mr. Daventry. It is Sunday morning. My store is closed, and I do not understand the hurry."
"Lieutenant Smith is off to the Solomon Islands to save his father from being eaten by cannibals. There isn't a moment to lose."
"Dat is strange. For vy should I take oil for a motor-boat up country? You are playing games vid me?"
"Of course not. He's not going by motor-boat, but by aeroplane."
"Oho! Tell dat to the marines."
"Hang it, Van Kloof, listen without interrupting. Mr. Smith has come by aeroplane from London, and is going on at once. Give me the key of your store, and we'll go and get the stuff ourselves."
"Veil, of all the—pardon me, gentlemen, but you vill allow me to be shocked to hear such news at five o'clock on a Sunday morning. I vill come vid you. I must vake up some coolies to carry the cans. But it shall be done; I vill myself see to it. I must look vell at dis aeroplane."
"You're sure we can rely on you?"
"I vill bring all before an hour, you may trust me for dat."
"Then we'll hurry back, Smith, and see about your breakfast. What about your man, by the way?"
"He's cleaning the engine by searchlight, and eating sardines and biscuits, or something of the sort."
"Couldn't we fetch him?"
"I'm afraid there isn't time, and besides, he can hardly leave the aeroplane unattended. It's hard lines, but I'll make it up to him when we get back."
They returned to the bungalow. A steaming bath was ready. When Smith had bathed, he found hot coffee and eggs awaiting him. He ate and drank ravenously, and in a quarter of an hour declared that he must get back to the aeroplane.
"Nonsense," said Daventry. "The petrol won't be there for half-an-hour yet. You'll just lie down and rest, and have a comfortable smoke. I'll go up the hill and take some food to your man."
"You're a good fellow," said Smith, dropping into a capacious arm-chair. Mrs. Daventry arranged a cushion behind his head, Miss Bunce placed a stool for him to stretch his legs on, and in half-a-minute he was fast asleep.
"Don't wake him for an hour," said Mr. Daventry, as he left the house; "I'll see that all is ready for him."
The sun was rising when Mrs. Daventry, now dressed for outdoors, wakened the sleeper by lifting his hand. He sprang up with a start.
"Now, don't be agitated," said Mrs. Daventry. "It's just six o'clock. Jack has gone to see that all is ready for you, and Miss Bunce and I are coming to see you start. Really, I quite envy her, though I'm sure I should never have the courage to go up in the air."
"You'll think nothing of it some day. You've been very kind, and I'm immensely obliged to you. By the way, will you ask Daventry, in case I forget it, to send a cable to my sister to say that I'm all right?"
"I won't forget. Now shall we go?"
They found that a small crowd had collected round the aeroplane. Mr. Daventry and Mr. Van Kloof were there, with several other Englishmen, and a number of Chinese coolies and nondescript natives stood at a little distance, gazing in wondering silence. Rodier had his watch in his hand, and looked reproachfully at his employer. Smith pressed through the crowd, shaking hands with the Englishmen one after another, but declaring that he had no time for talking. He shook hands with the Daventrys and Miss Bunce last of all, thanking them very heartily for their assistance; then, calling for a clear space, he followed Rodier to his seat. Almost before the onlookers could realize what was happening, the aeroplane was in action, and while they were still discussing the extraordinary nature of this means of locomotion, it had soared into the air, flown humming away from them, and become a mere speck in the eastern sky.
They were scarcely clear of the ground before Rodier, raising his voice to a bellow, shouted—
"Yes. What?" replied Smith, fearing that something was wrong.
"Mister! We are four hours ten minutes late!"
"I'm afraid it's all up, doctor."
Day had just broken. Lieutenant Underhill, standing rifle in hand at his post in a corner of the barricade, addressed Dr. Thesiger Smith, who had come to relieve him.
"You think we can't hope for relief?" replied the doctor.
"Yes. The boat must have foundered, or got lost, or perhaps has fallen into the hands of the savages. We've come to our last tin of biscuits; we've hardly ten rounds of cartridges among us."
"What can we do then?"
"Either fight till we drop, or give in; there's nothing else. The end will be the same either way, but the first would be the quicker."
The doctor stroked his beard with his thin hand. His son joined them; not the ruddy, clean-shaven youth that had landed from the wreck twelve days before, but a gaunt man whose hollow cheeks were dark with a stubby beard.
"Underhill gives up hope at last," said his father.
"Then I'm ashamed of him," said Tom cheerfully. "Never say die. Go and have a sleep, old man; it's enough to give any one the blues, keeping watch in the dark. You'll feel better after a nap. Had any trouble?"
"No, they haven't made a sound. I almost wish they had. Anything would be better than this eternal keeping watch for an enemy that's afraid to come on."
"Well, not being a fighting man, I prefer for my part to keep a whole skin as long as I can. Go and sleep, and the pater and I will talk things over."
Underhill, who was tired out, withdrew to the centre of the camp, and throwing himself on a tarpaulin, was soon plunged in an uneasy slumber.
It was twelve days since the wreck, ten since the boat had put off to seek assistance. When the storm had subsided, the castaways, drenched to the skin, had taken stock of their situation. It was a wild and desolate spot, far from the track of ships; months might pass before a vessel came in sight. They had only a small store of food, barely sufficient, even if husbanded with the utmost care, to last a fortnight. From their position at the foot of rugged cliffs it was impossible to tell what sustenance the island afforded, and the evil reputation of the natives did not give promise of peaceful exploration. While not actually head hunters, like the inhabitants of the New Georgian group to the south, they were said to be treacherous and vindictive. At the southern end of the island, as Underhill knew, there was a Wesleyan mission station, placed in a somewhat inaccessible spot, and at Tulagi, on Florida Island to the south, was a Government station and the seat of the Resident. It might be possible to reach one or the other of these, but even so they would be compelled to wait indefinitely, there being no telegraphic communication between either and a civilized port.
Reflections like these did not tend to cheer the castaways; but, now that the sun shone once more out of a clear sky, the invincible optimism of the British sailorman displayed itself, and the men began to scramble up the cliffs with almost light-hearted eagerness. At the top they found themselves at the edge of a dense and tangled forest. Underhill sent some of the crew to search for a likely camping place, while the remainder hauled up the boat's cargo. A comparatively clear space, about a hundred and fifty yards square, was discovered within a short distance from the cliffs. A stream running through the midst ensured a good supply of water, and here Underhill determined to make his camp.
Great havoc had been wrought in the forest by the storm. Many trees had been snapped off or uprooted; the ground was strewn with broken branches; and when the whole party were assembled at the spot, and the arms and provisions had been covered with a tarpaulin, Underhill sent all hands to collect broken timber for forming a breastwork. Fortunately, a good number of tools had been brought from the vessel, and as the men came in with their loads, Rumbold, the ship's carpenter, set to work, with the assistance of two or three, to surround the enclosure with a rough fence. Underhill ordered them to avoid the use of hammers and axes, the noise of which, carrying far in these solitudes, might attract the attention of the natives, who, for all he knew, had a village in the neighbourhood. There was no lack of tough creepers which were serviceable for binding the logs together, and a great number of cactus-like plants were cut down to form a defensive lining to the barricade.
In the course of three or four hours the whole encampment had been roughly fenced. It would not, in its present condition, prove a very formidable obstacle to a determined attack; but the day had become very hot, and Underhill was anxious to avoid overworking the men. The barricade could be strengthened next day.
Just before nightfall the company ate a spare supper of tinned meat and biscuit, and then, in a little group apart from the rest, Underhill, with his officers and the Smiths, held a council to decide on a course of action. They determined, after brief discussion, that next day four of the men should take the boat and try to make their way to Tulagi. The loss of the second boat had rendered it impossible for the whole party to embark; but no doubt the Resident at Tulagi would have boats of some sort at his disposal, and in these the castaways could be taken off. When once at Tulagi, they would have to wait until the first vessel touched at the island. Four men, including Venables, volunteered to make the voyage, and were ready to start that night; but every one was exhausted by the adventures and fatigues of the day, and Underhill thought it best that they should have a night's rest before they set off. Having arranged for watches to be kept as on board ship, he gave the order to turn in, and their clothes and the ground having been well dried by the afternoon sun, they passed a comfortable and undisturbed night.
Up at daybreak, they first of all occupied themselves with completing the barricade; then, about eleven o'clock, when they were preparing to escort the four men to the boat, which had been anchored at the foot of the cliff, some one cried out that he saw brown men advancing through the woods. Underhill instantly ordered the barricade to be manned, and served out arms and ammunition as far as they would go round. There were only a dozen rifles, however, among twenty men; the rest armed themselves with tools and implements of various kinds.
Soon a large body of brown-skinned, fuzzy-headed natives, armed with spears, clubs, and bows and arrows, came slowly towards the camp. Their attitude was apparently friendly, but, remembering their reputation for treachery, Underhill did not trust them, and refused to leave the shelter of the barricade in answer to their invitation, expressed by signs, to come forth and palaver with them. It was well he refrained, for when they were within a few yards of the camp they suddenly darted forward with a wild whoop. Underhill ordered his men to fire a volley over their heads, hoping to scare them away without bloodshed; but the reports of the rifles did not make the astounding impression it usually produced upon savages, and Underhill could not but believe that they were not wholly unacquainted with the use of firearms. They advanced with the more ferocity, and it was not until several had fallen to another volley from behind the barricade that they drew back to the shelter of the woods.
It would clearly be unsafe to attempt to reach the boat while the savages were in view. As time went on they appeared to increase in numbers, and every now and then they sent a flight of arrows into the camp. But the garrison kept out of sight behind the barricade nearest to the enemy, and their missiles either stuck in it, or fell harmlessly within the enclosure.
So the day passed. The fact that trouble had come so soon impressed Underhill with the necessity of sending for assistance without delay. The prospect of a siege, with only a limited supply of ammunition to repel assaults, and a scarcely greater supply of food, was very disturbing. He had little fear of being able to beat off attack so long as ammunition lasted, but when it was all spent, the savages must overpower the white men by sheer weight of numbers. Venables now wished to recall his undertaking, and remain in the fighting line; but Underhill decided that he must go in command of the other men. Accordingly, at nightfall, the four crept through a small gap made in the seaward face of the barricade, and clambered down the cliff. Underhill listened anxiously for a time, wondering whether the men had been discovered, or whether they had safely reached the boat; but after an hour of silence he concluded that either the enemy had not been watching in that quarter, or that the boat had slipped away unobserved in the darkness.
The night was undisturbed, but with dawn the natives reappeared. The lesson of the previous day had not proved effectual; they came resolutely up to the barricade in a vast yelling horde. Underhill ordered his men to reserve their fire until the enemy was within a few yards of the enclosure; then two rapid volleys with repeating rifles and revolvers opened a great gap in the throng, and the survivors, scared by their losses, once more betook themselves to the woods. Several times during the day they returned to the attack, pushing it home each time with more determination, and towards evening with a rage and frenzy that could only be due to the stimulation of strong liquor. At this last onset the defenders were almost overwhelmed, repeated volleys seeming only to inflame the fierce warriors. For some minutes there was a hand-to-hand fight as they made desperate endeavours to scale the barricade, and only when a score of their number lay dead and wounded did they relinquish the contest. They took away the wounded, but left the dead where they lay, and in the night the garrison had the gruesome task of carrying the bodies to the edge of the cliff and casting them into the sea. For some time Dr. Smith was kept busy in attending to the wounded among his own party, and next day one of the stokers, struck by a poisoned arrow, succumbed to blood-poisoning, and his comrades, at dead of night, gave him sailor's burial.
Some days passed, and no serious attack was made, though the garrison had to be very wary to avoid the arrows which flew at intervals into the enclosure. One evening, soon after sunset, one of the men on watch noticed a small light approaching the barricade, and thought at first it was one of the phosphorescent insects which abounded in the woods, and which the garrison had seen every night like little lamps among the trees. But as it came nearer he perceived that it grew larger and brighter, and moved from side to side with more regularity than was probable with an insect, and at length he saw that it was a smouldering torch held by a native, who was waving it to and fro to cause a flame. Evidently he was coming to fire the barricade. A well-directed shot brought him down, but to guard against any more attempts of the same kind Underhill had the barricade constantly drenched with water from the stream, a fatiguing job, but one that was welcome to the men, in that it gave them something to do.
Day after day went by. It was clear that the enemy were trusting to famine to accomplish their end. Luckily, it never entered their heads to hasten the inevitable by damming up the stream before it entered the enclosure. If they had done this the garrison could hardly have held out for a day. In that hot climate a constant supply of water was a prime necessity. But water without solid food would not keep them alive, and as the stock of provisions diminished, and no help came, they saw the horrors of starvation looming ever nearer. Underhill and Tom Smith assumed a false cheerfulness before each other and the men, but on the morning of the twelfth day Underhill was unable to keep up the pretence any longer.
"I didn't want to show Underhill," said Tom to his father, when the lieutenant had gone; "but we're just about done, I think."
"I'm afraid so, Tom. Poor Jenkins had a touch of delirium in the night, and we are all getting so weak that we shall go off our heads."
"Well, I've got an idea. I thought I'd mention it to you before I spoke to Underhill. The blacks haven't been near us for a day or two, but you may be sure they are not far off. I fancy they've got a camp or a village in the woods yonder. They must have food there, and I don't see why we shouldn't try a night attack on them, and run away with all we can lay hands upon. If we must, perish, better perish fighting than starving."
"Yes, but it would be folly to attempt it unless we saw a chance of success, and I see none. We don't know where their camp is; they may be constantly on the watch, and could take us in the rear and occupy our camp before we could get back. Besides, we might have to go a long way, and how could we find our way back again?"
"One difficulty at a time, Father. As to finding our way back, we could light small fires at intervals, which would serve as guide-posts."
"And betray us to the enemy."
"But I shouldn't undertake it unless we discover that the course is clear. I don't believe these natives ever keep watch by night; we have seen no sign of them at night since they tried to burn us. The chief difficulty is that we don't know the exact direction of their camp, but why shouldn't I go out to-night and locate it?"
"Very dangerous, my boy."
"There's danger anyway," replied Tom, with a shrug. "I should take my pocket compass; two or three of those insects would be enough to light it."
"I think we had better remain all together, Tom. Help may yet come. Why should you imperil your life, perhaps in vain?"
"Well, Father, I think I ought to chance it. I'll be careful! if I'm seen I can make a bolt for it; and I fancy I can pick up my heels quicker than the fuzzy-wuzzies, even though they don't wear boots."
Dr. Smith was still loth to acquiesce in the proposal, but Tom returned to it more than once during the day, and at last obtained his father's consent. It was scarcely easier to win over Underhill; but with him Tom cut the matter short.
"You command the men," he said, with a smile. "My father commands me—in a sense, for I'd have you know I am over age. I'm going to have a try. Get the men ready to make a dash when I come back, for if I succeed the sooner we set about it the better."
The knowledge of his intended expedition had a wonderful effect on the spirits of the men. Their faces brightened: they threw off the lethargy of despondence which had settled upon them, and discussed with some animation the chances of success.
An hour after nightfall, having first looked and listened for any sign of the enemy, Tom was let out through a gap in the barricade. He caught two or three light-giving insects in the bushes just beyond, and set off in the direction in which the natives had always retreated when their attacks were beaten off.
It was pitch dark in the belt of forest. Night insects hummed around; sometimes Tom heard the rustle made by some small animal as it darted through the undergrowth; there was no other sound. He was able to determine his general direction by means of the compass, but as the forest grew thicker he began to fear that he would find more difficulty than he had anticipated in retracing his course. The damp warm air was oppressive; now and then he struck his head against a low branch, stumbled over a stump or a fallen bough, or found his feet entangled in the meshes of some creeping plant. He was soon bathed in perspiration; every new sound made him jump; and with every stumble he waited and listened with beating heart, wondering if he had betrayed his presence to the enemy. He thought ruefully that his speed as a sprinter would avail him little on ground like this; he had his revolver, but that would be useless against numbers; discovery would mean death.