There lived in Los Angeles at that time one of those unaccountable individuals whom nature, in fashioning, endows with such contradictory qualities that their fellow creatures are unable to judge them correctly.
He was a young man, fresh from college, whose name was engraved upon his cards as H. Chesterton Radley-Todd, but whom his new acquaintances promptly dubbed “Chesty Todd.” Having finished his collegiate course he had been at a loss what to do next, so he drifted to the Pacific coast and presently connected himself with the Los Angeles Tribune as literary critic, society reporter and general penistic roustabout.
Mr. Radley-Todd had a round, baby face; expressionless and therefore innocent blue eyes that bulged a little; charmingly perfect teeth; an awkward demeanor; a stumbling, hesitating mode of speech and the intellectual acumen of a Disraeli. He was six feet and three inches tall and dressed like a dandy. People estimated him as a mollycoddle 175at first acquaintance; wondered presently if he possessed hidden talents, and finally gave him up as a problem not worth solving. No one believed in his ability, even when he demonstrated it; because, as they truly said, he “did not look as if he amounted to shucks.”
That such a callow youth, predoomed to adverse judgment, should be able to secure a position on a daily paper seemed remarkable. But the Tribune loves to employ green and budding “talent,” which can be had at a nominal salary. The managing editor shrewdly contends that these young fellows work with an enthusiasm and perseverance unknown to older and more experienced journalists, because they have a notion that the world is their oyster and a newspaper job the knife that opens it. When they discover their mistake they are dismissed and other ambitious ones take their places. Mr. H. Chesterton Radley-Todd was at present enjoying this fleeting prominence, and occasionally the editor would read his copy with genuine amazement and wonder from what source he had stolen its brilliance and power.
So, when the great aviation meet approached and every man, woman and child in Southern California was eager for details concerning it and demanded pages of description of the various participating aëroplanes and aviators, in advance of 176their exhibition, and when Tom Dunbar, the Tribune’s expert on aviation, was suddenly stricken with pneumonia, “Chesty” Todd was assigned to this important department.
“Dig for every scrap of information that can possibly be unearthed,” said the editor to him. “Spread it out as much as you can, for the dear public wants a cyclone of aërial gossip and will devour every word of it. When there isn’t any broth don’t fear to manufacture some; any ‘mistake’ in the preliminaries will be forgotten as soon as the big meet is in full swing.”
Chesty nodded; stumbled against a chair on his way out; stepped on the toe of the private stenographer and slammed the door to muffle her scream. Then he made his way to Dominguez Field; strolled among the hangars with his hands in his pockets and imbibed unimportant information by the column.
Two things, however, really interested the reporter. One was the popular interest in the Kane Aircraft, which was now in its hangar and invited inspection. Wilson and Brewster, the latter now openly in the employ of Mr. Cumberford, guarded the local aëroplane and explained its unique features to an eager throng. For, although the Kane hangar was in a retired location—“around the corner,” in fact—a bigger crowd besieged it, on this 177last day preceding the official opening of the meet, than visited the older and better known devices. Stephen Kane’s remarkable flight at Kane Park, which was followed by his peculiar accident, was of course responsible for much of the interest manifested in his machine; and this interest was shared by the experienced aviators present, who silently examined the novel improvements of the young inventor and forbore to discuss them or their alleged merits.
“What do you think of it?” Chesty Todd asked an aviator of national prominence.
“Looks good,” was the evasive reply. “Cumberford, who is managing the Kane campaign, has been trying hard to get a man to fly it, but so far without success. Pity the thing can’t be exhibited. Young Kane, who was entered as the aviator, broke his leg and is now out of it.”
The reporter made a mental note of this; he would find out the plans of the Kane party and make a two column story of their hope or despair.
Later in the afternoon another thing puzzled him. Burthon, the direct competitor of Kane, suddenly and without explanation withdrew his aëroplane from the meet and actually took it from the field, closing his hangar. The officials and others interested were amazed, and the action aroused considerable comment.
178Chesty Todd scented a story. He secured an automobile and followed Burthon and Tot Tyler at a distance, until they placed the aëroplane in the old workshop at South Pasadena. He crept up to the shed unobserved and found half a dozen men busily putting the parts together again and preparing the device for use. Why, since it had been withdrawn from the aviation meet?
Todd and Burthon walked out and went to a near by restaurant, where the reporter found them seated in a corner engaged in earnest conversation. Chesty made signs to the waiter that he was deaf and dumb, secured a seat at a table within hearing distance of Burthon and his chauffeur, and overheard enough to give him a clew to their latest conspiracy. Then he went away, regained his automobile and drove straight to the Alexandria Hotel.
Mr. Cumberford had insisted on the Kanes taking rooms at the hotel during the meet, and all three were now established there, Mrs. Kane having decided to go each day to Dominguez, where Stephen and Sybil could tell her of the events as they occurred. In a way the blind woman would thus be able to participate and avoid the anxiety and suspense of remaining at the bungalow while her daughter undertook the hazardous feat of operating Stephen’s aëroplane. The Cumberford 179automobile was placed at the disposal of mother and son, and the young inventor could watch the flight of his machine while propped among the cushions, Sybil being at his side to attend him and his mother.
The party had just finished dinner and assembled in the Cumberford sitting room when Chesty Todd’s card was brought in. It was marked “Tribune” and Mr. Cumberford decided to go down to the office and see the reporter, as it was not his purpose to snub the press at this critical juncture. However, the young man discouraged him at first sight. His appearance was, as usual, against him.
“Will the Kane Aircraft take part in the contests?” he inquired.
“Certainly,” replied Mr. Cumberford.
“You have secured a man to—er—run the thing?”
“We have secured an operator.”
Chesty stared at him, his comprehensive mind alert. Why did Cumberford turn his reply to evade the “man” proposition? Could a woman operate an aëroplane? Perhaps none but an inexperienced youth would have dreamed of the possibility.
“Has Stephen Kane any family?” he cautiously asked.
180“A mother and sister. He is unmarried.”
“How old is the sister?”
“Oh!” The age seemed to eliminate her. “And the mother?”
It was Cumberford’s turn to stare.
“The mother is blind,” he said.
Mr. Radley-Todd’s thoughts took another turn.
“Have you a family, sir?”
“I have a daughter, an only child. Mrs. Cumberford is not living.”
“And your daughter’s age, sir?”
“Seventeen. She is the same age as Orissa Kane.”
“Are the young ladies—er—interested in airships?”
Mr. Cumberford did not like these questions. He knew that a reporter is akin to a detective, and began to fear the youth was on the track of their secret. So he answered rather stiffly:
“Fairly so. Everyone seems interested in aviation these days. It interests me.”
Chesty saw he would not confess; so he tried another tack.
“Mr. Burthon is your brother-in-law, I believe.”
Mr. Cumberford nodded.
“Mr. Radley-Todd, or whatever your name is,” 181angrily glancing at the card, “I do not object to being interviewed on the subject of the Kane Aircraft, or the coming aviation meet. But your questions are becoming personal and are wide of the mark. You will please confine yourself to legitimate topics.”
The young man rose and bowed.
“Excuse me,” he said in his halting way; “a reporter is often forced to appear impertinent when he does not intend to be so. At present I am—er—face to face with a curious—er—complication. I have discovered—eh—unintentionally—that your er, er—aviator will be in great danger to-morrow. If it’s a man, I don’t care. I don’t like you, Mr. Cumberford, and I wouldn’t lift a finger to save the Kane Aircraft from going to pot. Why should I—eh? It’s nothing to me. But if one of those girls—your daughter or Kane’s sister, is to fly the thing, I feel it my—er—duty to say: look out!”
He started to go, but Cumberford grabbed his arm.
“What do you mean?” he demanded sternly.
“Is it a girl?”
“You won’t betray us? You won’t publish it?”
“Not at present.”
“Orissa Kane will operate the aircraft.”
Chesty looked at his boots reflectively.
182“Don’t let her undertake it, sir,” he said. “If you can’t find a man, follow Burthon’s example and withdraw your—eh—airship from the meet. Better withdraw it, anyhow—that’s the best move—if you don’t wish to court disaster.”
“Explain yourself, sir!”
“I won’t. I’m not going to spoil a good story for my paper—and a scoop in the bargain—to satisfy your curiosity. But Miss Kane—May I see her a moment?”
Mr. Cumberford reflected.
“If you warn her of danger you will take away her nerve. She’s the only person on earth competent to operate the Kane Aircraft, and to withdraw the aëroplane would mean the ruin of her brother’s fortune and ambitions.”
“I don’t know her brother; I don’t care a fig for him. If I see the girl I shall warn her,” said the reporter.
“Then you shall not see her.”
“Very good. But you will tell her to look out?”
“At all times; especially during her flight.”
“There is always danger of accident, of course.”
“This won’t be an accident—if it happens,” said Chesty Todd, decidedly.
183“But who would wish to injure Orissa?” asked Cumberford, wonderingly.
“Think it over,” said the reporter. “If you’ve one deadly enemy—a person who will stick at nothing, being desperate—that’s the man.”
With this he coolly walked away, leaving Mr. Cumberford considerably disturbed. But he thought it over and decided to say nothing to Orissa. The warning might refer to Burthon, who was the only person they might expect trouble from, although to Cumberford’s astonishment Burthon had quit the field at the last moment and abandoned the contest. Knowing nothing of Sybil’s interview with her uncle, that action seemed to indicate, to Cumberford’s mind, that Burthon had weakened.
Under no circumstances would he have permitted Orissa to face an unknown danger, but it occurred to him, after thinking over the interview, that Mr. H. Chesterton Radley-Todd was a fair example of a fool.