The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airship,
By Margaret Burnham, first published 1912
SUSPENSE AND ACHIEVEMENT.
It was a week after Fan Harding's visit to the Prescott home, on one windless, steamy morning, when the pearl-gray mist still lay in the smooth hollows running back from the coast, that The Golden Butterfly was wheeled out of her cocoon--so to speak--and dragged up the hillside at the back of the white, green-shuttered cottage. Miss Prescott, a sweet-faced old lady, whose cheek was still blooming despite the passage of the years, stood on the back porch of the house watching the process.
If Miss Prescott's face had been somewhat less cheerful than usual since her talk with Mr. Harding, all the clouds had been chased from it now. She watched as eagerly as a girl while Roy and Peggy, aided by Jess and Jimsy and two other lads, friends of Roy's from the village, dragged the brand new aeroplane up the hillside.
The excited chatter and laughter of the young folks rang out merrily as they worked--for it was work to get the 'plane, light as it was, up the grade. Fortunately--for Roy had no desire of a crowd to witness his initial ascent in the new 'plane--the Prescott house was some distance out of the village, and there were no near neighbors. The place had, in fact, once been a farm house, and although the acreage still was in the possession of Miss Prescott it was not worked.
A more ideal place for flying could not be imagined. Smooth slopes--unwooded, except in clumps--were all about. To the north glimmered the sparkling waters of Long Island Sound, while to the south stretched fertile farming land, devoted to crop-raising and pasturage.
Very business-like the young people looked as they hauled the monoplane up the hill. Roy and Jimsy wore leather puttees, trousers fashioned somewhat like riding breeches, and leather coats. On their heads were caps of the latter material, well padded within and provided with visors pierced with goggles.
The girls wore shirt waists, outing skirts and "sensible" walking boots. Jess had on her "Shaker" motoring bonnet, in which she looked very captivating indeed. Peggy's glossy hair, unadorned, but tightly confined in a net, formed her hair covering. Both girls were all a-tiptoe with excitement, for although Roy had had experience with aeroplanes, and so, in a limited way, had Jimsy, this feature of the sport was new to them.
At last the summit was reached, and Roy, after calling a halt, took a brief but comprehensive survey of the Golden Butterfly. This done, he climbed into the chassis--or body--of the thing, and leaning over the machinery he rapidly tested all the adjustments and examined the lubricating devices to see that all was in order. Everything appeared to be.
"Well," said Roy, with some self complacency, stepping out of the machine, "everything seems to be ready for the initial flight of the Golden Butterfly, my lords and gentlemen."
"And ladies, if you please," put in Jess, in a voice that was vibrant with excitement, despite her endeavor to keep calm.
"And ladies," added Roy, with a gallant bow in her direction.
Peggy in the meantime, like an anxious little mother fussing over dolls,
had been examining the aeroplane once more. Suddenly she gave a little cry. The exclamation interrupted Roy who was explaining, with great satisfaction, that everything was all right.
"I've looked it over and if there had been anything wrong it couldn't have escaped my notice," he observed rather pompously.
"Oh, Roy! Just look here! The spring of this landing wheel is all slack!"
This was the exclamation from Peggy that brought up Roy somewhat shortly in the midst of his self-confident harangue.
"By George, so it is, sis!" exclaimed Roy, reddening a little, while Lem Sidney, one of his chums, observed with a chuckle to Jeff Stokes, that Peggy appeared to know as much, if not more, about the machine than did Roy.
The spring was soon tightened by means of a monkey wrench. But that did not prevent them all realizing that had it not been for Peggy's acute observation a serious accident might have occurred. This done, even Peggy's anxious glances could not detect any other flaw in the machine.
"What time did that aviator fellow say he would show up?" then demanded Jimsy, abruptly.
"He should be here now," rejoined Roy. "I've half a mind to start anyhow. I can manage the machine I am very certain."
"Oh, Roy!" cried Peggy, reprovingly, "you know you promised aunty that you wouldn't do anything till Mr. Hal Homer got here."
"All right, sis," put in Roy, hastily, "don't be scared. I'll stick to my word."
"Hullo!" cried Jimsy, suddenly, "there comes an auto now."
"So it is," exclaimed the others, as a black touring car came whizzing down the road below them. It soon halted, and a figure in leather garments with gaitered legs alighted and hastened across the fields toward the party clustered about the aeroplane. The car was left in charge of the chauffeur.
As Jimsy had guessed, the new arrival proved to be Hal Homer, the well-known cross country flier, from whom Roy had taken some vacation time aviation lessons.
"He's awfully good looking," whispered Jess to Peggy, after introductions to the dapper young aviator had been extended by Roy.
"Oh, so--so," rejoined Peggy, with a toss of her head.
"Maybe you know some one who is handsomer?" questioned Jess with a mischievous side glance of her fine eyes.
Peggy flushed under her fair skin. But Jess laughed with good-humored raillery.
"Jimsy surely is a good-looking boy," she said, "if he hadn't a pug nose."
"A pug nose!" flared up Peggy. "Oh, Jess, how can----"
Then she stopped short in confusion while Jess laughed the more at her discomfiture.
Young Mr. Homer lost no time in starting operations. He ordered his helpers to secure the machine to a small tree growing nearby by means of a stout rope Roy had brought with him. This done, and the monoplane thus secured from flying away when her engine was started, he set the sparking and gasolene levers and threw in the switch. Roy and Jimsy, the latter acting under Roy's instructions, flew to the propeller.
The Golden Butterfly being a monoplane, this was in front of the machine.
"Be careful when you feel it start, to leap aside," warned Roy, "or you might be beheaded."
"I never lose my head in an emergency," joked Jimsy.
But just the same his heart beat, as did those of all of them but Hal Homer's, as he and Roy started to swing the great shiny wooden driving appliance.
Once, twice, three times they swung it round, exerting all their force. The fourth time they were rewarded by a feeble sigh from the engine--a sixty horse power motor.
All at once--Bang!
"Let go!" yelled Roy, jumping backward.
Jimsy in his hurry to obey stumbled and fell backward in a heap. He rolled some distance down the hill unnoticed, before he succeeded in stopping his motion. In the meantime the others--even Peggy--were too absorbed in the sight before them to watch Jimsy.
Simultaneously with the sharp report the propeller had whirled around swiftly. The next instant it was a mere gray blur, while a furious wind from its revolving blades swept the onlookers. Blue smoke spurted from the exhausts, mingled with flame, and the uproar was terrific.
The Golden Butterfly, like a thing of life, struggled at her moorings. The rope stretched and strained, taut as a violin string, under the pull. But it held fast, and after a while Aviator Homer slowed down the engine and finally stopped it, after adjusting a miss-fire in one of the cylinders. As the propeller became once more visible and then came to a stop, the boys broke into cheers, while the girls, too, voiced their enthusiasm.
"Oh, Peggy, isn't it a darling!" cried Jess.
"Aeroplanes are not usually called 'darlings,'" responded Peggy with assumed severity, "but--oh, Jess, it's--it's--a jewel and----"
"I'm dying for a ride in it!" burst in Jess.
"Then if you will consent to live a little longer I hope to have the pleasure of saving your life," put in Roy, gallantly.
"Oh, Roy! I can ride in it now!" gasped Jess, while Peggy clasped her hands and snuggled up close to her chum.
"Well, no, hardly just yet," laughed Roy, "but after Homer has tested her thoroughly out I guess you girls can take a spin."
"You know I'm going to learn to handle one," declared Peggy, as Roy made off once more. "I know a good deal about the theoretical part of it already."
"Well, theory wouldn't do you much good in a mile-long tumble," quoth Jess, sagely.
"Nonsense," rejoined Peggy. "Mr. Homer says one is as safe in an aeroplane, if one is careful, as in an auto."
"Safer I guess, the way that brother of mine drives sometimes," replied Jess. "He calls it 'burning up the road.' But--oh, look, they're casting off, or whatever it is you do to an airship when you turn her loose. Oh!"
Snatching off her motoring bonnet Jess began waving it furiously. While they had been talking the rope had been cast loose, and now, with Mr. Homer himself at the driving wheel, in cap and goggles, the engine was being started once more.
In wrapt excitement both girls stood breathless. So intent were they on the scene transpiring before them that they had not noticed the approach of a second auto on the road below. From it Fan Harding had alighted and hastened up the hill, after "parking" his machine, as if in fear that he would be too late to view the proceedings.
A sneering look was on his rather handsome face as he rapidly climbed the hill. He reached a position behind the two girls just as the aviator gave the signal to let go of the machine--to the rear structure of which Lem Sidney and Jeff Stokes were perspiringly clinging, their heels digging into the soft turf to steady themselves.
As Mr. Homer's hand swung backward and downward they let go. Instantly, like an arrow from a bow, the monoplane--the work of Peggy and Roy--was off. How it scudded across the hill top! Blue smoke and flame shot from its exhaust. Its operator sat hunched over his machinery looking, with his goggles, like some creature of the lower regions. Peggy clasped her hands and stood a-tiptoe breathlessly as it scudded along.
"Oh, will it rise?" she breathed, her color coming and going in her excitement.
"I'll bet ten dollars it won't fly any more than an earthworm."
Peggy turned swiftly, indignantly. Her color flamed and her eyes blazed angrily. Jess, hardly less indignant at the sneering tone and words, also faced about.
"Good morning, girls," said Fan Harding, easily, raising his motoring cap nonchalantly, "I came to see the ascension, but I'm afraid that it's going to be a descension."
"I think you're hateful to talk like that," cried Peggy, angrily, stamping her foot. "Our aeroplane will rise. It just will, I tell you--oh, gracious!"
She broke off in confusion and stood aghast for a moment. The swiftly scudding aeroplane had stopped its skittering over the grass and had come to an abrupt stop at a distance of about five hundred yards.
Already the boys were running across the turf toward it at top speed. The girls could see Mr. Homer clambering out of the chassis as the machine came to a standstill.
"Ha! Ha! just as I thought," chuckled Fan Harding, viciously, "that thing is a dead failure."
Poor Peggy, tears in her eyes at this seeming disaster, was stung fairly out of herself. She switched round on Fan Harding with a suddenness that made her skirt fly out and that young gentleman step precipitately backward.
"It isn't a failure, Fan Harding," she cried, with blazing eyes. "How dare you come here to sneer at us. We didn't invite you. Oh, I could----"
But Jess had seized her arm and succeeded in checking Peggy just in time. She whispered something to the indignant girl, who, with a scornful look at Fan Harding, turned and, with her friend, ran lightly off toward the stranded aeroplane.
"By Jove, I really thought for a minute she was going to slap my face," chuckled Fan Harding to himself. "How pretty she is when she is angry. But I guess if she knew what I do about certain affairs she wouldn't be quite so fresh with me."
He cast a glance at the aeroplane around which the anxious young people were now clustering thickly.
"If that thing is a success," he mused, as he strode off to join them, "so much the better for me. I think I could use an aeroplane. I don't see why I should let Roy Prescott beat me out at anything. Ah! They've started the engine again and--by ginger, she's rising! She's going up! She's flying!"
The small irregularity in the working of the engine, which had brought the plane to a stop, had been quickly remedied. Even Fan Harding, little as he liked Roy, could not help but join in the cheers as the Golden Butterfly, swinging in an easy circle, began to climb--higher and higher toward the fleecy clouds that flecked the blue dome above.
As for Peggy, she jumped up and down in her enthusiasm till her golden hair was tumbling in a tangle about her pink shells of ears.
"Oh, goody! goody! goody!" she squealed in the intensity of her joy.