Stephen and Orissa both sprang to their feet, startled by the interruption. A tall man, having a stoop to his shoulders, had parted the entrance curtains and stood looking at them. He wore blue goggles, an automobile cap and duster, and heavy shoes; but Orissa recognized him at once.
“Mr. Cumberford!” she exclaimed.
“Dear me!” said the man; “it’s the young lady from Burthon’s office—and my friend.” He laughed, lightly, as if amused by the recollection; then added: “I’ve run out of gasoline and my car is stranded a quarter of a mile off. Think you could furnish me enough of the elusive fluid to run me into town?”
Steve walked silently to his gasoline tank. He was excessively annoyed to have a stranger spy upon his workshop and resolved to get rid of the man in short order. Orissa also was silent, fearing Mr. Cumberford might linger if she entered into conversation with him. The spot was so retired that until now no one but themselves had 79ever entered the hangar, and the secret had been well kept.
“Here’s a two-gallon can,” said Stephen, surlily. “Will that do you?”
Mr. Cumberford nodded, set the can upon the ground and walked over to the bench, where he calmly seated himself beside the girl.
“What are you up to, here?” he asked.
“Our own especial business,” retorted Steve. “You will pardon me, sir, if I ask you to take your gasoline and go. This is private property.”
“I see,” said Cumberford. “I’m intruding. Never mind that. Let’s talk a bit; I’m in no hurry.”
“We are very much occupied, sir,” urged Orissa, earnestly.
“No doubt,” said the man. “I overheard a remark as I entered. You were wondering whether to accept Burthon’s offer and give him a half interest. Eh? That interests me; I’m Burthon’s brother-in-law.”
He glanced around him, then calmly took a cigarette from his pocket and offered one to Steve.
“I can’t allow smoking here, sir; there’s too much gasoline about,” said the boy, almost rudely.
“True. I forgot.” He put the case in his pocket. “You’re building some sort of a—er—er—flying machine, I see. That interests me. I’m 80a crank on aviation. Is this the thing Burthon wants a half interest in?”
Steve scowled. When Cumberford turned to Orissa she slightly nodded, embarrassed how to escape this impertinent questioning.
“I thought so. Then you’ve really got something?”
Steve laughed. His annoyance was passing. The man had already seen whatever there was to see, for his eyes had been busy from the moment he entered. And Steve remembered that this was the person who had outwitted Mr. Burthon in the mine deal.
“I have something that will fly, if that is what you mean,” he replied.
“Yes; that is what I mean. Tried the thing yet?”
“Oh, yes,” said Orissa eagerly. “It flew splendidly yesterday morning, but—but Steve had an accident with his aëroplane, and a bull demolished what was left of it.”
“Ah; that interests me; it really does,” said Cumberford. He looked at Stephen more attentively. “Your brother, Miss Kane?”
“And you need money?”
“To rebuild the machine, and perfect it; yes, sir.”
81“And Burthon will furnish the money, for a half interest?”
“Yes, sir,” repeated the girl, uneasy at his tone.
“Too much,” asserted Mr. Cumberford, positively. “Burthon’s a rascal, too. You know that, Miss Kane. Tried to rob me; and you tried to prevent him. I haven’t forgotten that; it was a kindness. I’ve had to fight a cold, hard, selfish world, and fight it alone. I’ve won; but it has made me as cold, as hard and selfish as the others. You’re different, Miss Kane; the world hasn’t spoiled you yet. I can’t recollect when anyone ever took the trouble to do me a kindness before. So I, your direct opposite, admire you for your originality. I’m a scoundrel and you’re a—an honest girl.”
There wasn’t a particle of emotion in his voice, but somehow both Orissa and Stephen knew he was in earnest. It was difficult to say anything fitting in reply, and after a brief pause the man continued:
“I can see that your airship is at present something of a wreck. How much money do you need?”
“I ought to have at least a thousand dollars,” answered Steve, reflectively glancing around the shop. Cumberford’s eyes followed his.
“Will two thousand do it?”
82“Of course, sir.”
“I’ll lend you three,” said the man. “I don’t want a half interest. I won’t rob you.”
Both boy and girl stared at him in amazement.
“What security do you require?” asked Stephen, suspiciously.
“Eh? None at all. The thing interests me. If you make a lot of money, I’ll let you pay me back some day. That’s fair. If you fail, you’ll have worries enough without having to repay me. But I attach two conditions to my offer. One is that you have nothing to do with Burthon. The other is that I have permission to come here and watch your work; to advise with you at times; to help you map out your future career and to attend all the flying exhibitions in which you take part. Agree to that, and I’ll back you through thick and thin, because I’m interested in aviation and—because your sister was good to me.”
“I’ll do it, sir!” cried Steve, excitedly.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you, Mr. Cumberford,” added Orissa, in joyful tones.
“It’s a bargain,” said Cumberford, smiling at them both. He took out a fountain pen and wrote a check on a Los Angeles bank for three thousand dollars in favor of Stephen Kane. But he handed it to Orissa.
“Now then,” said he, “tell me something about it.”