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CHAPTER III
THE KANE AIRCRAFT

Stephen set up his workshop at home, devoting his evenings to the new aëroplane. Progress was necessarily slow, as four or five hours out of each twenty-four were all he could devote to his enterprise.

The boy was still employed in this manner when the Aviation Meet was held at Dominguez Field and Paulhan accomplished the wonderful flights that made him world famous. Of course, Orissa and Stephen were present and did not miss a single event. On the grand stand beside them sat a young fellow Stephen had often met at the automobile shop, a chauffeur named Arch Hoxsey. It was the first time Hoxsey had ever seen an aëroplane, and neither he nor Stephen could guess that within one year this novice would become the greatest aviator in all the world. These are days when, comet-like, a heretofore unknown aviator appears, accomplishes marvels and disappears, eclipsed by some new master of the art of flying. It is the same way with aëroplanes; the leading one to-day is within a brief period destined to be surpassed by a greatly improved machine.

The enthusiasm of the Kanes rose to fever heat in witnessing this exhibition, at the time the most remarkable ever held in the annals of aviation. Afterward they counseled together very seriously and agreed that it would be better for Steve to resign his position at the shop and devote his whole time to his aëroplane, in which he had now more confidence than ever.

He applied for patents on his various devices and the complete machine, being fearful that someone else might adopt his ideas before he could finish his first aëroplane; yet at the same time he observed the utmost secrecy as to the work on which he was engaged and admitted no person except Orissa to the garden, where he had set up his hangar and shop.

The girl had been for some time persistently seeking employment, for now that Steve had ceased to be a breadwinner it was more important than ever for her to earn money. By good fortune she was engaged by Mr. Burthon as his secretary the very week following her brother’s retirement.

Steve’s expenses were growing greater, however, and Orissa began figuring on “ways and means.” Their life in this retired place was so simple that she believed her mother could do without the maid and questioned her on the subject. Mrs. Kane declared she preferred to be alone, if Orissa felt she could prepare the breakfasts and dinners unaided. Luncheons at home were very plain affairs and Steve readily agreed to come into the house at noon and get a bite for himself and his mother. So the maid was dismissed and a considerable expense eliminated.

During the summer construction of the airship progressed more rapidly and, after the motors were completed and tested and found to be nearly perfect, Steve began to model the planes and perfect his automatic balance.

It was hard work sometimes for Orissa to sit in the office and keep her mind on her work when she knew her brother was completing or testing some important detail of the aëroplane, but she held herself in rigid restraint and succeeded in giving satisfaction to her employer.

On the August afternoon on which our story opens Stephen Kane was to begin the final assembling of the parts of his machine, after which he could test it in real flight. He needed Orissa’s assistance to help him handle some of the huge ribbed planes, and so she had promised to come home early.

It was not long before she entered the hangar, arrayed in her old gingham, which allowed her to move freely. The two became so interested that Mrs. Kane almost missed her dinner in spite of the girl’s promise; but Orissa did manage to tear herself away from the fascinating task long enough to prepare the meal and serve it. Steve came in and tried to eat, for he was at a point where he could do nothing without his sister’s help; but neither of them was able to swallow more than a morsel, and as quickly as possible hurried back to their work.

Mrs. Kane, although totally blind, knew her way about the house perfectly and was able to take care of herself in nearly all ways; so when bedtime came she abandoned her monotonous knitting, played a few pieces on the pianoforte—one of her few amusements—and then calmly retired for the night. She never worried over the “children,” believing they were competent to care for themselves.

It was long past midnight before Steve got to a point where he could continue without Orissa. “In about three days more,” he said, as they washed up and prepared to adjourn to the house, “I will be able to make my first flight. Shall we wait till Sunday, Ris, or will you take a day off?”

“Oh, not Sunday,” she replied. However eager her brother might be she had never yet allowed him to work a moment on a Sunday, and Steve deferred to her wishes in this regard. “We’re pretty busy at the office and Mr. Burthon was inclined to be a little cranky to-day; but I’ll manage it somehow, just as soon as you are ready.”

“What sort of a fellow is Burthon?” asked her brother, somewhat curiously.

“Why, he stands well in the business world, I’m told, and is very successful in handling large tracts of real estate,” she replied. “Also, he seems a gentleman by birth and breeding, yet a queerer man I never met. His chief peculiarity is in being very absent-minded, but he does other odd things. Yesterday he refused to sell a piece of land to a customer because he did not like him, and he told the man so with rude frankness. One day I discovered he had cheated another man out of six hundred dollars. I called his attention to what I described as a ‘mistake,’ and he said he robbed the man on purpose, because he had been snobbish and overbearing. He gave the six hundred dollars to a poor woman to build her a house with, saying to me that he had once committed a serious crime for which this was in part penance, and soon after he platted a lot of swamp land down near San Pedro and advertised it as ‘desirable residence property.’ Really, Steve, I can’t quite make out Mr. Burthon.”

“He seems to have good and bad points, from what you say,” observed her brother, “and I judge the two qualities are about evenly mixed. Is he nice to you, Ris?”

“He is always polite and respectful, but most of the time he doesn’t know I’m in existence. When he gets one of his absorbed fits his eyes look right through me, as if I wasn’t there.”

“Perhaps he is thinking out some big schemes. Is he a rich man?”

“He is said to be quite wealthy. But he is an old bachelor, and the girl across the hall says he lives at a club, goes to the theater every night and drinks more than is good for him. I hardly believe that last, Steve, for Mr. Burthon doesn’t look a bit like a drinking man.”

“Perhaps he’s a morphine fiend. That would make him absent-minded, you know.”

“No; when he’s aroused his head is clear as a bell and he drives a shrewd bargain. Do you know, Steve, I’m inclined to think that speech of his was in earnest, although he laughed harshly at the time, and that—that—”

“That what?”

“That at some time or other he has committed some crime that worries him.”