Friday, November 4, 2011

Fiction: The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airship

The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airshipby Margaret Burnham
Published in 1912

This book is in the public domain. We'll share a chapter every other day.

CHAPTER I. THE GOLDEN BUTTERFLY.
"Roy! Roy! where are you?"

Peggy Prescott came flying down the red-brick path, a rustling newspaper clutched in her hand.

"Here I am, sis,--what's up?"

The door of a long, low shed at the farther end of the old-fashioned garden opened as a clattering sound of hammering abruptly ceased. Roy Prescott, a wavy-haired, blue-eyed lad of seventeen, or thereabouts, stood in the portal. He looked very business-like in his khaki trousers, blue shirt and rolled up sleeves. In his hand was a shiny hammer.

Peggy, quite regardless of a big, black smudge on her brother's face, threw her arms around his neck in one of her "bear hugs," while Roy, boy-like, wriggled in her clasp as best he could.

"Now, just look here," cried Peggy, quite out of breath with her own vehemence. She flourished the paper under his nose and, imitating the traditional voice of a town crier, announced:

"Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! Roy Prescott or any of the ambitious aviators--now is your chance! Great news from the front! Third and last
call!"

"You've got auctioneering, the Supreme Court and war times, mixed up a bit, haven't you?" asked Roy with masculine condescension, but gazing fondly at his vivacious sister nevertheless.

Peggy made a little face and then thrust forth the paper for his examination.

"Read that, you unenthusiastic person," she demanded, "and then tell me if you don't think that Miss Margaret Prescott has good reason to feel somewhat more enthusiastic than comports with her usual dignity and well-known icy reserve--ahem!"

"Good gracious, sis!" exclaimed the boy, as he scanned the news-sheet, "why this is just what we were wishing for, isn't it? It's our chance if we can only grasp it and make good."

"We can! We will!" exclaimed Peggy, striking an attitude and holding one hand above her glossy head. "Read it out, Roy, so that Monsieur Bleriot can hear it."

M. Bleriot, a French bull-dog, who had dignifiedly followed Peggy's mad career down the path, gazed up appreciatively, as Roy read out:

"Big Chance for Sky Boys!

"Ironmaster Higgins of Acatonick Offers Ten Thousand Dollars In Prizes for Flights and Planes."

"Ten thousand dollars, just think!" cried Peggy, clasping her hands one minute and the next stooping to caress M. Bleriot. "Oh, Roy! Do you think we could?"

"Could what? you indefinite person?" parried Roy, although his eyes were dancing and he knew well enough what his vivacious sister was driving at.

"Could win that ten thousand dollars, of course, you goose."

Roy laughed.

"It's not all offered in a lump sum," he rejoined. "Listen; there is a first prize of five thousand dollars for the boy under eighteen who makes the longest sustained flight in a plane of his own construction--with the exception of the engine, that is; and here's another of two thousand five hundred dollars to the glider making the best and longest sustained flight, and another of one thousand five hundred to the boy flying the most carefully constructed machine and the one bearing the most ingenious devices for perfecting the art of flying and--and--oh listen, Peggy!"

"I am--oh, I am!" breathed Peggy with half assumed breathlessness.

"There's a prize offered for girls!"

"No!"

"Yes. Now don't say any more that girls are downtrodden and neglected by the bright minds of the day. Here it is, all in black and white, a prize of a whole thousand to the young lady who makes a successful flight. There, what do you think of that?"

"That Mr. Higgins is a mean old thing," pouted Peggy, "five thousand dollars to the successful boy and only one thousand to the successful girl. It's discrimination, that's what it is. Don't you read every day in the papers about girls and women making almost as good flights as the men? Didn't a--a Mademoiselle somebody-or-other make a flight round the bell tower at Bruges the other day, and hasn't Col. Roosevelt's daughter been up in one, and isn't there a regular school for women fliers at Washington, and--and----?"

"Didn't the suffragettes promise to drop 'Votes for Women' placards from the air upon the devoted heads of the British Parliament, you up to date young person?" finished Roy, teasingly.

Peggy made a dash for him but the boy dodged into the shed, closely followed by his sister.

But as she crossed the threshold Peggy's wild swoop became a decorous stroll, so to speak. She paused, all out of breath, beneath a spreading expanse of yellow balloon silk, braced and strengthened with brightly gleaming wires and stays,--one wing of the big monoplane upon which her brother had spent all his spare time for the past year. The flying thing was almost completed now. It stood in its shed, with its scarab-like wings outspread like a newly alighted yellow butterfly, which, by a stroke of ill luck, had found itself installed in a gloomy cage instead of the bright, open spaces of its native element.

In one corner of the shed was a large crate surrounded by some smaller ones. The large one had been partially opened and Peggy gave a little squeal of delight as her eyes fell on it.

"Oh, Roy, that's it?"

"That's it," rejoined the boy proudly, lifting a bit of sacking from the contents of the opened crate, "isn't it a beauty?"

The lifted covering had exposed a gleam of bright, scarlet enamel, and the glint of polished brass. To Roy the contents of that crate was the splendid new motor for his aeroplane. But to Peggy, just then, it was something far different. A bit of a mist dimmed her shining eyes for an instant. Her voice grew very sober.

"Three thousand dollars--oh, Roy, it scares me!"

Roy crossed the shed and threw an arm about his sister's neck.

"Don't be frightened, sis," he breathed in an assuring tone, "it's going to be all right. Why, can't you see that the very first thing that happens is a chance to win $5,000?"

"I know that. But that contest is not to come off for more than a month and--and supposing someone should have a better machine than you?"

For an instant that air of absolute assurance, which truth to tell, had made Roy some enemies, and which was his greatest fault, left him. His face clouded and he looked troubled. But it was as momentary as the cloud-shadow that passes over a summer wheat field.

"It'll be all right, sis," he rejoined, confidently, "and if it isn't, I can always sell out to Simon Harding. You know he said that his offer held good at any time."

"I know that, Roy," rejoined Peggy, seriously, "but we could never do that. We could neither of us go against father's wishes like that. He--well, Roy, it's not to be thought of. Poor dad----"

Her bright eyes filled with tears as her mind travelled back to a scene of a year before when Mr. Prescott had ceased from troubling with the affairs of this world, and commended his children to the care of their maiden aunt--his sister with whom, since their mother's death some years before, the little family had made their home.

Poor Mr. Prescott had been that hopelessly impracticable creature--an inventor. Fortunately for himself, however, he had a small fortune of his own so that he had been enabled to carry on his dreaming and planning without embarrassing his family. Roy and Peggy had both been sent to good boarding schools, and had known, in fact, very little of home life after their mother's death which had occurred several years before, as already said.

Mr. Prescott, in his dreamy, abstract way, had cared dearly for his children. But those other children of his--the offsprings of his brain--that surrounded him in his workshop, had, somehow, seemed always to mean more to him. And so the young Prescotts had grown up without the benefit of home influences.

On Peggy's naturally sweet, vivacious character, this had not made so much difference. But Roy had developed, in spite of his real sterling worth and ability, into a headstrong, rather self-opinionated lad. His success at school in athletics and the studies which he cared about "mugging" at had not tended to decrease these qualities.

It had come as a shock to both of them a year before when two telegrams had been despatched--one to Peggy's school up the Hudson, and the other to Roy up in Connecticut, telling them to return to the Long Island village of Sandy Bay at once. Their father--that half-shadowy being--was very ill.

The messages had not exaggerated the seriousness of the situation. Three days after his children reached his side Mr. Prescott gently breathed his last, dying, as he had lived, so quietly, that the end had come before they realized it. But in those last brief moments Roy came to know his father better than ever before. He learned that the dream of his parent had been to produce an aeroplane free from the defects of its forerunners,--a safe vehicle for passengers or freight. How far he had progressed in this there was no time for him to tell before the end came. But Roy, interested already in aeronautics at school, where he had been president of "The High Fliers"--a model aeroplane association,--eagerly took up his father's desire that he would try to carry on his work, and began to take lessons in flying.

In the shed which had been Mr. Prescott's workshop the framework of an aeroplane already stood. And with the aid of what money his father had left him, Roy had carried on the work till now it was almost completed. But the three thousand dollars which had gone for the motor had completely exhausted the lad's legacy. As Peggy put it, all their eggs were in an "aerial basket."

But how much Peggy had aided him, in what had, in the last few months possessed all his thoughts, Roy did not guess. To what extent her encouragement had spurred him on to surmount seemingly unconquerable difficulties, and how she had actually aided him in constructing the machine, his ambition never realized. Not innately selfish, Roy was yet too used to having his own way to attribute his success to any one but himself.

Sometimes, brave, loyal little Peggy, try as she might, could not disguise this from herself, and it pained her a good deal. But she had uncomplainingly, ungrudgingly, aided her brother, without hoping for, or expecting, the appreciation she sometimes felt she was really entitled to. But her great love for her brother kept Peggy from ever betraying to him or any one else an iota of her inner feelings.

So intent had the brother and sister been on their talk that neither of them had noticed, while they conversed, that a big four-door touring car, aglitter with gleaming maroon paint, and with a long, low hood concealing a powerful engine, had glided up to the white gate in the picket fence surrounding Miss Prescott's old fashioned cottage.

From it a frank, pleasant-faced lad and an unusually striking girl, tall, slender and with a glossy mass of black hair coiled attractively on her shapely head, had alighted.

Hearing the sound of voices from the open door of the shed in which The Golden Butterfly, as Peggy had christened it, was nearing completion, they, without ceremony, at once made their way toward it. Peggy, glancing up from her sad reverie at the sound of footsteps, gave a glad little cry as she beheld the visitors standing framed in the sunlight of the open door. While she and the tall, dark-haired girl mingled their contrasting tresses in an exuberant school-girl caress, the lad and Roy Prescott, were, boy fashion, slapping one another on the back and shaking hands with just as much enthusiasm.

"Why, if this isn't simply delightful, Jess, you dear old thing," cried the delighted Peggy, as, with both hands on her chum's shoulders, she held Jess Bancroft off at arm's length, the better to scrutinize her handsome face, "and Jimsy, too," as she turned to the lad with a bright smile of welcome; "wherever did you two come from?"

"From the clouds?" demanded Roy.

"No, hardly, although I don't wonder at your asking such a question," laughed Jess, merrily, exchanging greetings with Roy. "Roy Prescott, positively I can see your wings sprouting."

They all laughed heartily at this, while Jess ran on to explain that she and her brother were stopping for the summer at Seaview Towers, a summer estate which their father, a Wall Street power, had leased for the season. Of course, explained the merry girl, who had been Peggy's closest chum at school, her first thought had been to take a spin over in her new motor car and look up her friends, for Roy and James--or Jimsy--Bancroft had been almost as close chums as the girls.

"And so this is the wonderful Golden Butterfly that you wrote to me about?" exclaimed Jess enthusiastically after the first buzz of conversation subsided.

"Yes, this is it," said Roy with great satisfaction in his tones, "and I'm proud of it, I can tell you. I think I've made a success of it."

Jess and Jimsy exchanged glances. And then Jess stole a look at Peggy, but no cloud had crossed the face of Roy's sister.

"Oh, you darling," thought Jess, "you're too sweet for anything. I just how much you contributed to the Golden Butterfly's existence, and yet you won't detract a bit from Roy's self satisfaction."

As for Jimsy Bancroft, he said nothing. He glanced rather oddly at Roy for an instant. Then his eyes turned to Peggy's face. Perhaps they dwelt there for rather a long period of time. At any rate, they were still fixed on her brave beauty when a sudden shadow fell across the stream of sunlight that poured into the open portal of the workshop.

"Ah! So this is the place in which young genius finds its habitation;" grated out a rather harsh, unpleasant voice.

They all looked up. Perhaps none of them--Jimsy least of all--was pleased at the interruption. The newcomer was a tall, angular man, with a withered, clean-shaven face,--what Peggy called a "money making face"; and surely that described Simon Harding, as he stood there in his black, none-too-new garments, and his square-toed shoes. One could fairly catch the avaricious glint in his eyes as he squinted rapidly over the new aeroplane's outlines.

By his side stood a youth who was, so far as dress went at any rate, the exact opposite of the elder man. Fanning Harding--or Fan as he was usually called--was dressed in elaborate motoring costume. His goggles, of the latest and most exaggerated design, were shoved up off his countenance now, exposing to view a good-looking browned face. It was marred, however, by the same restless, strained look that could be seen on his father's visage.

"We're not intruding, I hope," he hastened to say, coming forward with a cordiality that seemed somewhat forced.

"Not in the least," said Peggy, hastily, realizing that none of them had perhaps looked very cordial, "won't you come in?"

Fan Harding, bestowing an admiring glance on her, seemed to be about to accept. His father, however, struck in:

"I'll leave you with the young folks, my boy, while I go up to the house. I have some business with Miss Prescott."

As he shuffled off, Peggy and Roy exchanged somewhat uneasy glances. What business could this old man--in some respects a power financially and otherwise in Sandy Beach--have with their aunt?

"Say Peggy," spoke up Fan Harding, suddenly, "ain't you going to introduce me to your friends? And how about inviting us all to have some of those strawberries Pop and I noticed as we came down the path?"

"Well, he isn't a bit backward about coming forward!" thought Jess as the young people, with due formality, went through the ceremony of introductions.

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