Open main menu
 

CHAPTER XIV
THE FLYING FEVER

Mr. Cumberford said frankly to Steve and Orissa:

“Don’t expect too much of Sybil, or you’ll be disappointed. She’s peculiar, and the things that interest her are often those the world cares nothing for. Anything odd or unusual is sure to strike her fancy; that’s why she’s so enraptured with the aircraft.”

The word enraptured did not seem, to Steve, to describe Sybil’s attitude at all; but Orissa, watching the girl’s face, decided it was especially appropriate. They left her standing before the machine and went on with their work, while Mr. Cumberford ignored his daughter and smoked cigarettes while he watched, as usual, every movement of the young mechanic.

“Saw Burthon this morning,” he remarked, presently.

“Did he say anything?” asked Steve.

“No. Just smiled. That shows he’s up to something. Wonder what it is.”

Steve shook his head.

“I don’t see how that man can possibly injure me,” he said, musingly. “I’ve gone straight ahead, in an honest fashion, and minded my own business. As for the machine, that’s honest, too, and all my improvements are patented.”

“They’re what?”

“Patented, sir; registered in the patent office at Washington.”

“Oho!”

Steve looked at him, surprised.

“Well, sir?”

“You’re an irresponsible idiot, Stephen Kane.”

“Because I patented my inventions?”

“Yes, sir; for placing full descriptions and drawings of them before the public until you’ve startled the aviation world and are ready to advertise what you’ve done.”

Steve stared, a perception of Cumberford’s meaning gradually coming to him.

“Why, as for that,” he said a little uneasily, “no one ever takes the trouble to read up new patents, there are so many of them. And, after all, it’s a protection.”

“Is it? I can put another brace in that new elevator of yours and get a patent on it as an improvement. The brace won’t help it any, but it will give me the right to use it. I’m not positive I couldn’t prevent you from using yours, if I got mine publicly exhibited and on the market first.”

Steve was bewildered, and Orissa looked very grave. But Mr. Cumberford lighted another cigarette and added:

“Nevertheless, I wouldn’t worry. As you say, the patent office is a rubbish heap which few people ever care to examine. Is everything covered by patent?”

“Everything but the new automatic balance. I haven’t had time to send that on.”

“Then don’t.”

“The old one is patented, but it proved a failure and nearly killed me. The one I am now completing is entirely different.”

“Good. Don’t patent it until after the aviation meet. It’s your strongest point. Keep that one surprise, at least, up your sleeve.”

As Steve was considering this advice Sybil Cumberford came softly to her father’s side and said:

“Daddy, I want to fly.”

“To flee or to flew?” he asked, banteringly, at the same time looking at her intently.

“To fly in the air.”

Mr. Cumberford sighed.

“Kane, what will a duplicate of your aircraft cost?”

“I can’t say exactly, sir,” replied the boy, smiling.

“Shall we order one, Sybil?”

She stood staring straight ahead, with that impenetrable, mysterious look in her dark eyes which was so typical of the girl. Cumberford threw away his cigarette and coughed.

“We’ll consider that proposition some time, Steve,” he continued, rather hastily. “Meantime, perhaps my daughter could make a trial flight in your machine.”

“Perhaps,” said Steve, doubtfully.

“Will it carry two?”

“It would support the weight of two easily,” replied the young man; “but I would be obliged to rig up a second seat.”

“Do so, please,” requested Miss Cumberford, in her even, subdued voice. “When will it be ready?”

“The aircraft will be complete in about ten days from now; but before I attempt to carry a passenger I must give it a thorough personal test,” said Steve, with decision. “You may watch my flights, Miss Cumberford, if you wish, and after I’ve proved the thing to be correct and safe I’ll do what I can to favor you—if you’re not afraid, and still want to make the trial.”

“Thank you,” she said, and turned away.

“I’ll go myself, some time,” observed Mr. Cumberford, after a pause. “Flying interests me.”

Orissa was much amused. She had not known many girls of her own age, but such as she had met were all commonplace creatures compared with this strange girl, who at present seemed unable to tear herself away from the airship. Sybil did not convey the impression of being ill-bred or forward, however unconventional she might be; yet it seemed to Orissa that she constantly held herself firmly repressed, yet alert and watchful, much like a tiger crouched ready to spring upon an unsuspecting prey. In spite of this uncanny attribute, Orissa found herself powerfully drawn toward the peculiar girl, and resolved to make an attempt to win her confidence and friendship.

With this thought in mind she joined Sybil, who was again examining the aëroplane with rapt attention. While she stood at her side the girl asked, without glancing up:

“Have you ever made a flight?”

“No,” replied Orissa.

“Why not?”

“I haven’t had an opportunity.”

“Don’t you like it?”

“I imagine I would enjoy a trip through the air,” answered Orissa; “that is, after I became accustomed to being suspended in such a thin element.”

“You seem to understand your brother’s invention perfectly.”

“Oh, I do, in its construction and use. You see, I’ve been with Steve from the beginning; also I’ve examined several other modern aëroplanes and watched the flights at Dominguez Field. Naturally I’m enthusiastic over aviation, but I haven’t yet considered the idea of personally attempting a flight. To manage a machine in the air requires a quick eye, a clear brain and a lot of confidence and courage.”

“Is it so dangerous?” asked Miss Cumberford quietly.

“Not if you have the qualities I mention and a bit of experience or training to help you in emergencies. I’m sure an aëroplane is as safe as a steam car, and a little safer than an automobile; but a certain amount of skill is required to manage even those.”

The girl’s lips curled scornfully, as if she impugned this statement; but she remained silent for a while before continuing her catechism. Then she asked:

“Do you mean to try flying?”

“Perhaps so, some day,” said Orissa, smiling; “when aëroplanes have become so common that my fears are dissipated. But, really, I haven’t given the matter a thought. That is Steve’s business, just now. All I’m trying to do is help him get ready.”

“You believe his device to be practical?”

“It’s the best I have ever seen, and I’ve examined all the famous aëroplanes.”

“What has my father to do with this invention?”

Orissa was surprised.

“Hasn’t he told you?” she asked.

“Only that it ‘interests him;’ but many things do that.”

“We needed money to complete the aircraft, and Mr. Cumberford kindly let us have it,” explained the girl.

“What did he demand in return?”

“Nothing but our promise to repay him in case we succeed.”

Sybil shot a swift glance toward her father.

“Look out for him,” she murmured. “He’s a dangerous man—in business deals.”

“But this isn’t business,” protested Orissa, earnestly; “indeed, his act was wholly irregular from a business standpoint. As a matter of fact, Mr. Cumberford has been very generous and unselfish in his attitude toward us. We like your father, Miss Cumberford, and—we trust him.”

The girl stood silent a moment; then she slowly turned her face to Orissa with a rare and lovely smile which quite redeemed its plainness. From that moment she lost her reserve, toward Orissa at least, and it was evident the praise of her father had fully won her heart.

Day by day, thereafter, Sybil came with Mr. Cumberford to the hangar, until the important time arrived when Steve was to test the reconstructed aircraft. By Cumberford’s advice the trial was made in the early morning, and in order to be present both father and daughter accepted the hospitality of the Kanes for the previous night, Sybil sharing Orissa’s bed while Steve gave up his room to Mr. Cumberford and stretched himself upon a bench in the hangar.

Mrs. Kane knew that her son was to make an attempt to fly at daybreak, but was quite undisturbed. The description of the Kane Aircraft, which Orissa had minutely given her, seemed to inspire her with full confidence, and if she had a thought of danger she never mentioned it to anyone. The Cumberfords were very nice to Mrs. Kane, while she, in return, accepted their friendship unreservedly. Orissa knew her mother to be an excellent judge of character, for while her affliction prevented her from reading a face her ear was trained to catch every inflection of a voice, and by that she judged with rare accuracy. Once she said to her daughter: “Mr. Cumberford is a man with a fine nature who has in some way become embittered; perhaps through unpleasant experiences. He does not know his real self, and mistrusts it; for which reason his actions may at times be eccentric, or even erratic. But under good influences he will be found reliable and a safe friend. His daughter, on the contrary, knows her own character perfectly and abhors it. As circumstances direct she will become very bad or very good, for she has a strong, imperious nature and may only be influenced through her affections. I think it is good for her to have you for a friend.”

This verdict coincided well with Orissa’s own observations and she accepted it as veritable. Yet Sybil was a constant enigma to her and seldom could she understand the impulses that dominated her. The girl was mysterious in many ways. She saw everything and everyone without looking directly at them; she found hidden meanings in the most simple and innocent phrases; always she seemed suspecting an underlying motive in each careless action, and Orissa was often uneasy at Sybil’s implied suggestion that she was not sincere. The girl would be cold and silent for days together; then suddenly become animated and voluble—a mood that suited her much better than the first. Steve said to his sister: “You may always expect the unexpected of Sybil.” Which proved he had also been studying this peculiar girl.