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CHAPTER XIII
SYBIL IS CRITICAL

Steve was now progressing finely with the work on the Kane Aircraft and believed he would be able to overcome all the imperfections that had disclosed themselves during the first trial. Mr. Cumberford came to the hangar nearly every day, now, and Steve and Orissa began to wonder how he found time to attend to other business—provided he had any. On the day of Tyler’s visit he had announced it was his last trip to see the Kanes, as he had been summoned to Chicago to attend a directors’ meeting and from there would go on to New York. But having discovered that Burthon was intent upon some secret intrigue, which could bode no good to his protégés—the Kanes—he promptly changed his mind and informed Steve on a subsequent visit that he had arranged affairs at home and was now free to spend the entire winter in Southern California.

“My daughter likes it here,” he added, “and kicks up fewer rows than she does at home; so that’s a strong point in favor of this location. Aviation interests me. I’ve joined the Aëro Club out here and subscribed for the big meet to be held in January, at Dominguez Field. That’s when we are to show the world the Kane invention, my lad, and I think it will be an eye opener to most of the crowd present.”

“How does your mine, the Queen of Hearts, get along?” asked Orissa.

“It continues to pay big—even better than I had hoped. Burthon must be pretty sore over that deal by this time. Speaking of my sainted brother-in-law, I’ve just made a discovery. He owns the mortgage on your place.”

“Why, we got the money from the Security Bank!” exclaimed Orissa.

“I know. I went there. Thought I’d take up the mortgage myself, but found Burthon had bought it. Now, the question is, why?”

Neither brother nor sister could imagine; but Cumberford knew.

“He hopes you won’t be able to meet it, and then he’ll foreclose and turn you out,” he said. “But you’re not the principal game he’s after; he’s shooting me over your heads. Burthon is miffed because I let you have the money, but believes I haven’t any financial or personal interest in you beyond that. If he can prevent your aircraft from flying he’ll make me lose my money and also ruin you two youngsters. That’s doubtless his game. That’s why he sent his man here to spy upon you.”

“But that is absurd! Burthon can’t prevent our success,” declared Steve. “Even if some minor parts go wrong, the aircraft will fly as strongly and as well as anything now in existence.”

“Don’t be too sure,” cautioned Mr. Cumberford. “You and your machine may be all right, but that’s no reason why Burthon can’t push failure at you, or even prevent you from flying. We must watch him.”

“I do not believe the man hates us,” observed Orissa, thoughtfully. “Mr. Burthon is a little queer and—and unscrupulous, at times; but I don’t consider him a bad man, by any means.”

“I know him better than you do, and he hates me desperately,” replied Cumberford.

“He says that—that you abused his sister,” doubtfully remarked the girl.

“Well, I did,” said Cumberford, calmly. “I pounded her two or three times. Once I choked her until it’s a wonder she ever revived.”

“Oh, how dreadful!” exclaimed Orissa, shrinking back.

“Isn’t it?” he agreed, lighting a cigarette. “Only a brute would lift his hand against a woman. But Burthon’s sister—my wife—had a fiendish temper, and her tantrums aroused all the evil in my nature—there’s plenty there, I assure you. It was the time I choked her that Burthon had me arrested for cruelty. She had put poison in my coffee and I took the fluid into court with me. Burthon said I was lying and I asked him to drink the coffee to establish his sister’s innocence. But he wouldn’t. Pity, wasn’t it? The judge begged my pardon and said I ought to have choked her a moment longer. But no; I’m glad I didn’t, for she died naturally in the end. My dear daughter, whom I sincerely love, is like her lamented mother, except that I can trust her not to poison me.”

“Doesn’t she love you in return?” asked Orissa.

“Sybil? Why, she’s tremendously fond of me. My daughter,” and his voice grew suddenly tender, “has been for years—is now—the only person I live for. We’re chums, we two. The poor child can’t help her inherited tendencies, you know, and I rather enjoy the fact that she keeps me guessing what she’s going to do next. It—er—interests me, so to speak. I like Sybil.”

Sybil interested Orissa, too. Her father’s reports of her were so startlingly condemnatory, and his affection for her so evident, that Orissa’s curiosity was aroused concerning her. Mr. Cumberford, in spite of his peculiarities and deprecating remarks concerning himself had won the friendship of both Stephen and Orissa by this time; for whatever he might be to others he had certainly proved himself a friend in need to them. It was evident he liked the Kanes and sought their companionship, for the aircraft could scarcely account for his constant attendance at the hangar.

“I would like to meet your daughter,” said the girl, thoughtfully.

“Would you, really?” he asked, eagerly. “Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt Sybil to know you. I’ll bring her out here to-morrow, if she’ll come. Never can tell what she will do or won’t do, you know. Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Quite so,” she concurred, laughing at his whimsical tone.

Because of this conversation the Kanes awaited Mr. Cumberford’s arrival next day with keen curiosity. Steve advanced the opinion that the girl wouldn’t come, but Orissa thought she would. And she did. When the motor car stopped in front of the bungalow there was a girl in the back seat and Orissa ran down the path to welcome her.

A pale, composed face looked out from beneath a big black hat with immense black plumes. A black lace waist with black silk bolero and skirt furnished a somber costume scarcely suited to so young a girl, for Sybil Cumberford could not have been much older than Orissa, if any. Her father was right when he claimed that Sybil was not beautiful. She had high, prominent cheek bones, a square chin and a nose with a decided uplift to the point. But her brown hair was profuse and exquisitely silky; her dark eyes large, well opened and far seeing; her slight form carried with unconscious grace.

Orissa’s critical glance took in these points at once, and intuitively she decided that Sybil Cumberford was not unattractive and ought to win friends. That she had a strong personality was evident; also the girl whom her father had affectionately called a “demon” was quiet, reserved and undemonstrative—at least during this first interview.

She acknowledged the introduction to Orissa with a rather haughty bow, alighting from the car without noticing Miss Kane’s outstretched hand.

“Which way is the aëroplane, Daddy?” she asked, speaking not flippantly, but in low, quiet tones.

“I’ll lead the way; you girls may follow,” he said.

As they went up the path Orissa, anxious to be sociable and to put the stranger at her ease, said brightly:

“Don’t you think the ride out here is beautiful?”

“Yes,” responded Sybil.

“The orange groves are so attractive, just now,” continued Orissa. There was no response.

“I hope you enjoyed it, so you will be tempted to come again,” resumed the little hostess.

Miss Cumberford said nothing. Her father, a step in advance, remarked over his shoulder: “My daughter seldom wastes words. If you wish her to speak you must address to her a direct question; then she will answer it or not, as she pleases. It’s her way, and you’ll have to overlook it.”

Orissa flushed and glanced sidewise to get a peep at Sybil’s face, that she might note how the girl received this personal criticism. But the features were as unemotional as wax and the dark, mysterious eyes were directed toward the hangar, the roof of which now showed plainly. It was hard to continue a conversation under such adverse conditions and Orissa did not try. In silence they traversed the short distance to the shed, where Steve met them, a little abashed at receiving a young lady in his workshop.

But Mr. Cumberford’s daughter never turned her eyes upon him. She gave a graceful little nod when presented to the inventor, but ignored him to stare at the aircraft, which riveted her attention at once.

“This, Sybil,” said her father, enthusiastically, “is the famous aëroplane to be known in history as the Kane Aircraft. It’s as far ahead of the ordinary biplane as a sewing machine is ahead of a needle and thimble. It will do things, you know. So it—er—interests me.”

It seemed to interest her, also. Examining the details of construction with considerable minuteness she began asking questions that rather puzzled Mr. Cumberford, who retreated in favor of Steve. The inventor explained, and as all his heart and soul were in the aëroplane he explained so simply and comprehensively that Sybil’s dark eyes suddenly flashed upon his face, and clung there until the young fellow paused, hesitated, and broke down embarrassed.

Orissa, smiling at Steve’s shyness, picked up the subject and dilated upon it at length, for the girl had every detail at her tongue’s end and understood the mechanism fully as well as her brother did. The visitor listened to her with interest, and when she had no more questions to ask stood in absorbed meditation before the aëroplane, as if in a dream, and wholly disregarded the others present.