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CHAPTER XVIII
THE ONE TO BLAME

Mr. Cumberford locked the doors of the hangar and refused to admit anyone but his own daughter. Even Reed and Wilson, having assisted to drag the wreck to its shed, were ordered peremptorily to keep out. Wilson obeyed without protest, but Reed was angry and said it was his duty to put the aircraft into shape again. Cumberford listened to him quietly; listened to his declaration that he had had nothing to do with the construction of the aëroplane and therefore could in no way be held responsible for the accident; and after the man had had his say his employer asked him to come to his hotel in the evening to consider what should be done. He also made an appointment with Wilson. Then he shut himself up in the hangar with Sybil.

Orissa had gone with Steve in the ambulance to the hospital, where she remained by his side until the leg was set and the young man felt fairly comfortable. The injury was not very painful, but Steve was in great mental distress because his accident would prevent his taking part in the aviation meet. All their carefully made plans for the successful promotion of the Kane Aircraft were rendered futile by this sudden reverse of fortune, and the youthful inventor constantly bewailed the fact that Burthon would now have a clear field and his own career be ignominiously ended.

Orissa had little to say in reply, for her own heart was aching and she saw no way to comfort her brother. When he was settled in his little white room, with a skillful nurse in attendance, the girl went home to break the sad news to their blind mother.

Meantime Mr. Cumberford was busy at the hangar. In spite of his usual nonchalance and obtuse manner—both carefully assumed—the man had a thorough understanding of mechanics and by this time knew every detail of young Kane’s aëroplane quite intimately. Also, he was a shrewd and logical reasoner, and well knew the accident had been due to some cause other than faulty parts or inherent weakness of the aircraft. So he took off his coat, rolled up his shirt sleeves and began a careful examination of the wreck.

It was Sybil, however, who stood staring at the aëroplane, always fascinating to her, who first discovered the cause of Steve’s catastrophe.

“See here, Daddy,” she exclaimed; “this guy-wire has been cut half through, in some way, and others are broken entirely.”

Mr. Cumberford came to her side and inspected the guy-wire. The girl was right. It was certainly odd that several strands of the slender but strong woven-wire cable had parted. Her father took a small magnifying glass from his pocket and examined the cut with care.

“It has been filed,” he announced.

Sybil nodded, but she seemed absent-minded and to have lost interest in the discovery.

“From the first I suspected the guy-wires,” she said. “When the aircraft collapsed I knew the wires had parted, and then—I thought of my clever uncle.”

Mr. Cumberford rolled down his sleeves and put on his coat.

“Three of the wires gave way,” he observed, “and it’s a wonder young Kane wasn’t killed. Come, ’Bil; we’ll go back to the hotel.”

They found the field deserted, their motor car being the last on the grounds. During the ride into town Sybil remarked:

“This affair will cause you serious loss, Daddy.”

“Why?”

“Steve can’t exhibit his device at the meet, and Uncle Burthon will be on hand to win all the laurels.”

“Don’t worry over that,” he said grimly. “We’ve ten days in which to outwit Burthon, and if I can’t manage to do it in that time I deserve to lose my money.”

Wilson came to the hotel promptly at eight o’clock for his interview with Mr. Cumberford. Said that gentleman:

“Tell me all that happened at the hangar after we left you and Reed there this morning.”

The man seemed reluctant at first, but finally decided to tell the truth. He appeared to be an honest young fellow, but knew quite well that his testimony would injure his fellow assistant.

“It was quite early, sir, when an automobile came into the field and a gentleman asked to see the aircraft. Mr. Reed was at the door, at the time, and I heard him reply that no one could be admitted. Then the gentleman said something to him in a low voice and Reed, after a little hesitation, turned to me and told me to guard the door. I did so, and the two walked away together. I saw them in close conversation for quite a while, and then Reed came back to the hangar and said: ‘The gentleman is having trouble with his motor car, Wilson, and one of his engines is working badly. You understand such things; go and see if you can help him, while I guard the door.’

“I thought that was queer, sir, for Reed is as good a mechanic as I am; but I took a wrench and walked over to the automobile, which was not a hundred yards distant. A little dried-up chauffeur was in the driver’s seat. The gentleman asked me to test the engines, which I did, and found there was nothing wrong with them at all. I hadn’t been a bit suspicious until then, but this set me thinking and I hurried back to the hangar. I hadn’t been away ten minutes, and I found Reed standing in the doorway quietly smoking his pipe. Everything about the aircraft seemed all right, so I said nothing to Reed except that his friend was a ringer and up to some trick. He answered that the man was no friend of his; that he had never seen him before and was not likely to see him again. That is all, sir. I didn’t leave the hangar again until Mr. Kane returned and took charge of it.”

Mr. Cumberford had listened intently.

“Do you know the name of the man with the automobile?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“Describe him, please.”

Wilson described Burthon with fair accuracy.

“Thank you. You may go now, but I want you on hand to-morrow morning to assist in getting the machine back to Kane’s old hangar.”

“Very well, sir.”

Reed came a half hour after Wilson had left. His attitude was swaggering and defiant. Mr. Cumberford said to him:

“Reed, your action in filing the guy-wires is a crime that will be classed as attempted manslaughter. You are liable to imprisonment for life.”

The man grew pale, but recovering himself replied:

“I didn’t file the wires. You can’t prove it.”

“I’m going to try, anyway,” declared Cumberford. “That is, unless you confess the truth, in which case I’ll prosecute Burthon instead of you.”

Reed stared at him but, stubbornly made no reply.

“How much did he pay you for the work?” continued Cumberford.

No answer.

Mr. Cumberford touched a bell and a detective entered.

“Officer, I accuse this man of an attempt to murder Stephen Kane,” said he. “You overheard the recent interview in this room and understand the case perfectly and the evidence on which I base my charge. You will arrest Mr. Reed, if you please.”

The officer took the man in charge. Reed was nervous and evidently terrified, but maintained a stubborn silence.

“Confession may save you,” suggested Cumberford; but Reed was pursuing some plan previously determined on, and would not speak. So the officer led him away.

Next morning the wrecked aëroplane was transferred to the workshop in the Kane garden, where Wilson, under the supervision of Orissa and Mr. Cumberford, began taking it apart that they might estimate the damage it had sustained. Orissa’s face bore a serious but determined expression and she directed the work as intelligently as Steve could have done. Cumberford, who had brought a pair of overalls, worked beside Wilson and in a few hours they were able to tell exactly what repairs were necessary.

“The motors are not much injured,” announced Orissa, “and that is indeed fortunate. We need one new propeller blade, five bows and struts for the lower plane, new wing ends and guy-wires and almost a complete new running gear. It isn’t so very bad, sir. With the extra parts we have on hand I believe the aircraft can be put in perfect condition before the meet.”

“Good!” exclaimed Mr. Cumberford. “Then our greatest need is to secure a competent aviator.”

“To operate Stephen’s machine?”

“Of course. He’s out of commission, poor lad; but the machine must fly, nevertheless.”

Orissa’s blue eyes regarded him gravely. She had been considering this proposition ever since the accident.

“Our first task,” said she, “is to get my brother’s invention thoroughly repaired.”

“But the question of the aviator is fully as important,” persisted her friend. “Wilson,” turning to the mechanic, “do you think you could operate the aircraft?”

“Me, sir?” replied the man, with a startled look; “I—I’m afraid not. I understand it, of course; but I’ve had no experience.”

“No one but Stephen Kane can claim to have had experience with this device,” said Mr. Cumberford; “so someone must operate it who is, as yet, wholly inexperienced.”

“Can’t you find an aviator who has used other machines, sir?” asked Wilson. “The city is full of them just now.”

“I’ll try,” was the answer.

Mr. Cumberford did try. After engaging another mechanic to assist Wilson he interviewed every aviator he could find in Los Angeles. But all with the slightest experience in aërial navigation were engaged by the various aëroplane manufacturers to operate their devices, or had foreign machines of their own which were entered for competition. He was referred to several ambitious and fearless men who would willingly undertake to fly the Kane invention, but he feared to trust them with so important a duty.

Returning one day in a rather discouraged mood to Orissa, who was busy directing her men, he said:

“I have always, until now, been able to find a man for any purpose I required; but the art of flying is in its infancy and the few bold spirits who have entered the game are all tied up and unavailable. It looks very much as if we were going to have a winning aëroplane with no one to develop its possibilities.”

Orissa was tightening a turnbuckle. She looked up and said with a smile:

“The aviator is already provided, sir.”

“What! You have found him?” exclaimed Mr. Cumberford.

“I ought to have said ‘aviatress,’ I suppose,” laughed the girl.

“My daughter? Nonsense.”

“Oh, Sybil would undertake it, if I’d let her,” replied Orissa. “But I dare not trust anyone but—myself. There is too much at stake.”

“You!”

“Just Orissa Kane. I’ve been to the hospital this morning and talked with Steve, and he quite approves my idea.”

Mr. Cumberford looked at the slight, delicate form with an expression of wonder. The girl seemed so dainty, so beautiful, so very feminine and youthful, that her suggestion to risk her life in an airship was positively absurd.

“You’ve a fine nerve, my child,” he remarked, with a sigh, “and I’ve no doubt you would undertake the thing if I’d give my consent. But of course I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not fit.”

“In what way?”

“Why, er—strength, and—and experience. Girls don’t fly, my dear; they simply encourage the men to risk their necks.”

“Boo! there’s no danger,” asserted Orissa, scornfully. “One is as safe in the Kane Aircraft as in a trundle-bed.”

“Yet Steve—”

“Oh, one may be murdered in bed, you know, as well as in an aëroplane. Had those guy-wires not been tampered with an accident to my brother would have been impossible. Have you stopped to consider, sir, that even when the planes separated and crumpled under the air pressure Steve’s device asserted its ability to float, and dropped gently to the ground? Steve managed to get hurt because he fell under the weight of the motors; that was all. Really, sir, I can’t imagine anything safer than the aircraft. And as for brawn and muscle, you know very well that little strength is required in an aviator. Skill is called for; a clear head and a quick eye; and these qualities I possess.”

“H-m. You think you can manage the thing?”

“I know it—absolutely. I’ve talked over with Steve every detail from the very beginning, and have personally tested all the working parts time and again, except in actual flight.”

“And you’re not afraid?”

“Not in the least.”

“You won’t faint when you find yourself among the clouds?”

“Not a faint, sir. It isn’t in me.”

Mr. Cumberford fell silent and solemn. He began to seriously consider the proposition.