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Title: The Dreadnought of the Air
Author: Westerman, Percy F. (Percy Francis)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Dreadnought of the Air" ***

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[Illustration: cover art]



THE DREADNOUGHT OF THE AIR



GLORIES OF SEA
AND AIR SERIES

By
PERCY F.
WESTERMAN

THE MYSTERY SHIP
THE RIVAL SUBMARINES
BILLY BARCROFT OF THE R.N.A.S.
A WATCH-DOG OF THE NORTH SEA
A SUB OF THE R.N.R.
THE DREADNOUGHT OF THE AIR

Publishers
PARTRIDGE
LONDON



[Illustration: "She was describing a succession of 'loops,' while her
motors were still running." Frontispiece]



THE DREADNOUGHT
OF THE AIR



BY
PERCY F. WESTERMAN
AUTHOR OF "THE RIVAL SUBMARINES"
ETC., ETC., ETC



Publishers
PARTRIDGE
LONDON



MADE IN GREAT BRITAIN



CONTENTS.

CHAP.
       I. CONCERNING SUB-LIEUTENANT DACRES
      II. THE FRENCH INSTRUCTOR
     III. REMOVED FROM THE NAVY LIST
      IV. THE MYSTERIOUS AIRSHIP
       V. A MOMENTOUS TRAIN JOURNEY
      VI. CHALLENGED
     VII. THE RETURN OF THE AIRSHIP
    VIII. WHITTINGHAME'S NARRATIVE
      IX. THE FLIGHT TO LONDON
       X. THE STOLEN PLANS
      XI. THE "METEOR"
     XII. THE "METEOR'S" DEBUT
    XIII. AN OFFICIAL AND AN UNOFFICIAL INSPECTION
     XIV. ACROSS GREENLAND
      XV. THE NORTH POLE
     XVI. IN THE NICK OF TIME
    XVII. ZAYPURU'S BOLD STROKE
   XVIII. THE DISASTER TO THE "LIBERTAD"
     XIX. INVESTIGATING THE WRECK
      XX. A HAZARDOUS PROPOSAL
     XXI. WITHIN THE CAVARALE PRISON
    XXII. DACRES REMINDS THE ADMIRAL
   XXIII. LOCOMOTIVE VERSUS AEROPLANE
    XXIV. A BRUSH WITH THE INDIANS
     XXV. THE CAPTURE OF THE CAVARALE
    XXVI. UNABLE TO RISE
   XXVII. PREPARING FOR THE PRESIDENT'S VISIT
  XXVIII. A PRISONER OF WAR
    XXIX. WORK FOR THE SEAPLANES
     XXX. THE FALL OF NAOCUANHA
    XXXI. A SURPRISE FOR DACRES
   XXXII. A SUBMARINE ENCOUNTER
  XXXIII. NEWS OF DURANGO
   XXXIV. THE CHASE
    XXXV. THE THUNDERSTORM
   XXXVI. THE ABANDONED FLYING-BOAT
  XXXVII. THE GALAPAGOS FISHERMEN
 XXXVIII. CORNERED
   XXXIX. DACRES' PROMOTION



THE DREADNOUGHT
OF THE AIR.


CHAPTER I.

CONCERNING SUB-LIEUTENANT DACRES.


IT was Thursday afternoon--Make and Mend Clothes Day as it is known
in the Royal Navy. H.M.S. "Royal Oak," a Super-Dreadnought now
relegated to the second class, lay at moorings off Singapore. Two
cables' length ahead of her swung her sister ship the "Repulse,"
flying the flag of Admiral Maynebrace commanding the Special
Squadron, now on a cruise round the world in order to display the
White Ensign in foreign waters as a gentle reminder to petty
potentates that the British Lion's tail could not be twisted with
impunity.

The heat was terrific. The sun's scorching rays beat down with
relentless violence upon the white awnings that shrouded the warships
from bow to stern. The glare, reflected from the oily sea, seemed to
penetrate everywhere on board in spite of electric fans and the
latest type of ventilators. Officers and men, used though they were
to the heat of the Tropics, were reduced to a state of perspiring
listlessness. Alacrity seemed for the time being no longer the
characteristic of the British seamen. One and all they barely existed
in Nature's stew-pan and waited for the sun to set.

To add to the discomfort the crew of the "Royal Oak" were rankling
under a grievance. Hitherto first in the list for prize-firing, they
had been ousted from their proud position by the flagship: and the
flagship didn't forget to crow over her success. Had the contest been
carried out under equal conditions and the "Royal Oak" had "gone
under" the disappointment would not have been so great; but the
"Repulse" had gained the position of "top-dog" more by a fluke than
anything else.

"Makes one feel jolly rotten," remarked Eccles, the "Royal Oak's"
gunnery jack. "The Service papers at home will publish the results
and add a lot about the superb efficiency of the flagship and the
lamentable falling-off of the 'Royal Oak's' gun-layers. All that sort
of twaddle, you know: penny-a-line stuff from a fellow who does not
know a fifteen-inch from a seven-pounder."

"You'll bet your bottom dollar, Eccles, there won't be a word said
about the flagship making her record with the Beaufort Scale logged
as O (a flat calm), while our packet was shoving her nose into it
with the fo'c'sle awash and everything battened down. Ugh! It makes
me wild," rejoined Commander Bourne. "Healthy rivalry is all very
well, but----"

"I don't know whether you heard the yarn," said Eccles, "but
indirectly an outstanding row between the Admiral and the skipper has
something to do with it: a little misunderstanding they had when they
were at Osborne, I believe. And the fact that Maynebrace is now an
admiral and Staggers only a captain doesn't improve matters. The
owner forgets sometimes that the Admiral's grandfather was an earl
and his only a post-captain."

"I did hear something of the sort," replied Bourne. "It's a pity that
personal matters are taken into consideration in the Service. Anyway,
Captain Staggers would be glad of a chance to pull the Admiral's
leg."

"Hear that?" asked little Dick Alderney, the midshipman of the watch.

"Rather," agreed Sub-lieutenant Basil Dacres emphatically. "It almost
gives one a cue."

Basil Dacres was a tall, alert-looking young officer of nineteen. His
features were clean cut, his complexion tanned to a deep brown by
reason of exposure to the sun and the salt breezes of three of the
five oceans. His athletic frame betokened a zest for sport, for in
spite of the heat he paced the deck with an elasticity of tread that
denoted exceptional physical energy. It did not take long for an
observer to come to the right conclusion that Basil Dacres' solemnity
of manner when on duty was an acquired one. Those dancing clear blue
eyes betrayed the inborn love of a high-spirited nature. Even the
rigid rules and regulations of the Service could not break his
fondness of practical Joking.

Yet, somehow, he contrived to wriggle out of the dire consequences
without dishonour, and upon calming down he would enter into the
preparatory stages of perpetrating another joke. Upon the eve of his
departure from home on the present commission this trait asserted
itself. Dacres' little pranks were invariably intended to be of a
harmless nature, but sometimes the result surpassed his expectations.

Dacres' father was a retired colonel who, possessed of ample private
means, kept a large establishment in the West End. The colonel was
absolutely military to the backbone, a martinet even in home life,
although "his bark was worse than his bite." One thing is certain,
Basil Dacres never inherited the lighter vein from his father, for
the latter was never known to have spoken a funny sentence except by
a sheer accident; and then, when the rest of the mess laughed, he was
completely puzzled to know why.

It happened that the Thursday on which the sub was to leave to join
his ship was his mother's at-home day, and Mrs. Dacres' at-homes were
always well-attended. On this occasion there were present a colonial
bishop and his wife in addition to the usual "smart-set" in which the
hostess moved.

Now Mrs. Dacres' Georgian silver tea service was the envy and
admiration of her guests, and Mrs. Colonial Bishop had been
previously told to pay particular attention to the magnificent
teapot. In came the head footman, resplendent in his fine livery and
powdered hair, and placed the tray in front of the hostess. The
far-famed teapot, enveloped in a huge cosy, was for the time being
hidden from admiring and covetous eyes.

"Pouring-out" was one of the great events of Mrs. Dacres' at-homes:
it was a sort of sacrifice at the altar of conventionality.

The hostess, after having asked whether the guests took cream and
sugar, made a preliminary flourish ere removing the covering that hid
the gorgeous silver teapot. The act was a silent appeal for
attention, and all eyes were fixed in anticipation upon the piece of
plate that held the fragrant beverage.

With the dexterity of a practised conjuror Mrs. Dacres lifted the
cosy. . . .

In the place of the teapot was a huge tortoise that blinked solemnly
at the sudden transit from darkness into light, and proceeded to
slowly waddle across the slippery silver tray.

The next instant, amidst a chorus of shrieks, tortoise and
tea-things, including the choicest Crown Derby, clattered on the
floor.

The sub's departure took place under a cloud. His mother's farewell
was somewhat chilly, while the colonel spoke his mind in a very blunt
manner.

"Mark my words, you confounded young fool!" he said, "unless you stop
this sort of thing there'll be trouble. It will end with your being
court-martialled and kicked out of the Service. And, by Jove! if you
are, don't look to me for any sympathy."

But the funny part about the whole business was that Basil knew
nothing about the tortoise episode until after the tea cosy was
removed. His part of the joke was to take the blame upon his broad
shoulders and to chuckle at the idea that he had been accused of what
he had not done. He was not asked for an explanation, nor did he give
one. He had no wish that punishment should fall upon the real
culprit--his ten-year-old brother, Clarence; for the fond parents
never for one moment suspected that guile could be found in their
cherub-faced youngest-born child.

"Give you a cue--what about?" asked the midshipman.

The sub brought himself up with a round turn. He realized that
perhaps it was not altogether wise to confide in his subordinate over
the plan that had readily resolved itself in his brain.

"H'm!" he ejaculated. "Eccles seems rather up the pole about the
prize-firing result. I suppose it's natural."

"Well, aren't you, sir?" asked Alderney. "I know I am, and so are the
rest of the gun-room. Just fancy! the midshipmen of the flagship,
whom we licked hollow at cricket, actually had the cheek to row round
the ship with a cock perched on a jack-staff in the bows, and the
whole crowd crowing like anything. Beastly bad form, I call it. After
all, gunnery isn't everything, as the Admiral ought to know he had
with the 'Aphrodite.'"

"The submarine? Yes, I remember. She's 'M. I.' now. That business has
given us a good lead in submarines and pretty well knocked the Flying
Branch into a cocked hat, worse luck."

And Dacres shook his shoulders deprecatingly. He had volunteered for
the Service with the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, but owing
to an unexpected decision on the part of the First Lord to cut down
that part of the Service his offer had been declined.

Just then Sinclair, the duty-sub for the First Dog Watch, came on
deck, and Dacres, freed from his responsible duty of doing nothing in
particular, made his way below to the gun-room.

There the conversation was mainly upon the bumptiousness of the
flagship. Dacres said little, but thought the more. After a while he
went to the half-deck and knocked at the Gunnery Lieutenant's cabin
door. He was there for nearly an hour, at the end of which time he
applied for leave till eight bells (noon) on the following day. This
he obtained without difficulty, then changing into mufti he went
ashore.



CHAPTER II.

THE FRENCH INSTRUCTOR.


SINGAPORE in the year 1919 was a very important naval station. During
the last six or seven years it had undergone great changes. The
practical abandonment of a powerful war-squadron on the China
Station, owing to the understanding with Japan, had led to a decline
in the greatness of Hong-Kong as a base. And what Hong-Kong had lost
Singapore had gained--with compound interest. Henceforth that little
island at the extreme south of the Malay Peninsula was to be the
greatest British naval station on the portals of the Pacific.

Additional docks, capable of taking the largest battleships afloat,
had been constructed, with smaller basins for submarines, of which
twelve of the "C" class and six of the "D" type were stationed there.
Bomb-proof sheds for seaplanes had been built, and the whole defended
by modern forts armed with the most up-to-date and powerful guns.

At half-past eight on the morning following the event recorded in the
first chapter a signal was made from the dockyard to the flagship of
Rear-Admiral Maynebrace. It read: "Commander-in-Chief to 'Repulse':
French instructor will proceed on board at four bells. Please send
boat to meet him at Kelang Steps."

The receipt of this message was duly acknowledged and then
communicated through the manifold yet proper channels to the
gun-room, where the midshipmen received it with ill-concealed
disgust.

They had planned a picnic along the well-kept country road that,
fringed on either side by unbroken avenues of fruit-trees and
luxuriant palms, led to the lofty Who Hen Kang. There they had hoped
to revel in the gorgeous glades, eating pine-apples and coco-nuts
till the services of the sick-bay staff might have to be called into
requisition. The prospect, ignoring the consequences of their
injudicious appetites, was most alluring; till almost on the eve of
the anticipated picnic came this disconcerting message that the
French instructor was about to come off to the ship.

French lessons with the temperature at ninety-eight in the shade!
This ordeal was sufficient to crush even the resistance of a
punch-ball, let alone a dozen irresponsible midshipmen.

Such terrors did not exist for Rear-Admiral Maynebrace. He had
forgotten all the foreign languages that had been dinned into his
head forty years ago, and since the King's Regulations say nothing
about flag officers polishing up their French, Maynebrace felt no
qualms. As it happened he had an invitation to meet the Governor.

With due ceremony the Admiral was piped over the side and his
motor-pinnace landed him at the Kelang Steps. Somehow there was no
conveyance in waiting, not even a rickshaw, so Maynebrace and his
flag-lieutenant had to walk.

On his way through the dockyard the Admiral's attention was directed
towards an individual who, even amidst the quaintly-costumed
inhabitants of Singapore, looked singularly bizarre.

The person who attracted the notice of the mighty Maynebrace was
tall, inclined to corpulence, and bowed in the shoulders. His
sun-dried face was partly concealed by a bristling black moustache
and an imperial. His hair, or at least what was visible outside a top
hat of wondrous style, was grey.

A white waistcoat, buttoned almost to bursting strain over his
_embonpoint_ and fitting where it touched elsewhere, was cut deeply
at the throat, revealing a wide, turned-down collar and an enormous
red silk tie. His frock coat was of a late nineteenth century
pattern; while his trousers, baggy fore and aft, were at one time
"white ducks": now they were saffron colour. Sky-blue socks and brown
canvas shoes completed the extraordinary "get-up."

As this remarkable personage passed the Admiral he hesitated a
moment, then removing his "stove-pipe" made a most elaborate bow, a
compliment that Maynebrace returned by stiffly bringing his right
hand up to the edge of his white-covered peaked cap.

"Rummy codger," remarked the Admiral.

"It's the French instructor, I believe, sir," said the
flag-lieutenant.

"H'm! fancy that on board my ship!"

"Regulations, sir; paragraph 574d says: Whenever practicable
instruction in French is to be given to midshipmen by French
instructors domiciled in British ports."

"Well, well. Thank goodness I'm not a midshipman," ejaculated
Maynebrace, as he frantically signalled to a passing rickshaw-man.

Whatever opinion the Frenchman had of Rear-Admiral Maynebrace he
wisely kept it to himself, and trotting along with short jerky steps
he reached the place where the gig from H.M.S. "Repulse" awaited him.

The coxswain could scarce suppress a grin as the instructor stepped
into the stern sheets. His surprise was still greater when the latter
took the yoke-lines and gave the order to "Pull you to ze ship!"

Bending their backs to the supple ash oars the boats crew made the
gig dart rapidly through the water. Some of them, possibly, wondered
what order the grotesque object in the stern-sheets would give as the
boat ran alongside the flagship. As a matter of fact he gave none,
but pulling at the wrong yoke-line he made the light gig collide bows
on with the accommodation ladder, jerking the rowers backwards off
their thwarts, and causing himself to sit ungracefully upon the
gratings.

Considering his corpulence the instructor picked himself up with
agility and, not waiting for the boat to be brought properly
alongside, made his way from thwart to thwart, gaining the foot of
the accommodation-ladder by way of the bows of the gig.

At the head of the ladder he was met by the Officer of the watch.
Greatly to the latter's disgust the instructor committed a most
heinous offence: he spat upon the sacred precincts of the
quarter-deck and coolly threw his cigarette end upon the snowy
planks!

So flabbergasted was the duty-lieutenant that he said not a word, and
before he could recover his composure he was anticipated by
First-lieutenant Garboard.

Garboard was an officer who owed his position to influence rather
than to merit. He shone in the reflected light of his parent, Sir
Peter Garboard, till lately Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth.

He was one of those officers, luckily becoming rarer, who believe in
cast-iron discipline amounting almost to tyranny. He would bully and
brow-beat at the ship's-police when there were not enough defaulters
to do the odd jobs requisitioned by the commander. When the childish
punishment known as 10_a_ (which consisted of compelling blacklist
men to stand on the lee side of the quarter-deck from 8 to 10 p.m.,
to have their meals under the sentry's charge and to be deprived of
grog and tobacco) was abolished, Garboard, then a junior lieutenant,
asserted that the Service was going, to the dogs. He was never
happier than when bully-ragging the men of his watch, under the plea
of efficiency.

Wishing to air his French the first lieutenant remarked: "_Il fait
très chaud, monsieur._"

The instructor whisked off his stove-pipe hat and bowed
ceremoniously.

"Show?" he repeated. "_Oui_, ver' fine show," and looked about him as
if he expected to see a floating Agricultural Hall.

"Blockhead!" muttered the discomfited Garboard as he beat a retreat,
signing to a quarter-master to take the Frenchman below to the
midshipmen's study.

The dozen disconsolate youngsters were already mustered, and awaited
with no great zest the arrival of their instructor; but their apathy
changed when the Frenchman appeared. They seemed to scent a lark.

But they were sadly mistaken if they hoped to rag that oddly-garbed
individual.

"Sit you down," he said sternly. "Sit you down. You tink I haf not
imparted ze instruction to ze midsheepmens before, eh? You make great
mistake. Ze first zat acts ze light-headed goat he go in ze capitan's
report: zen, no leave for a whole veek."

Taking up a piece of chalk the instructor wrote in a firm hand:--

"_Mon frère a raison, mais ma soeur a tort._"

"Now, zen," he continued, "zat young zhentleman with ze red hair. How
you translate zat, eh?"

Mr. Midshipman Moxitter's particular weakness was French translation.
It had caused him hours of uneasiness at Osborne and Dartmouth. By a
succession of lucky shots he had foiled the examiners and had managed
to scrape through in that particular subject.

Upon being asked to translate the sentence, Moxitter stood up,
squared his shoulders, and said solemnly:--

"'My brother has reasons that my sister's a tart,' sir."

A roar of laughter, audible even in the captain's cabin, greeted this
information. The rest of the midshipmen nearly succumbed to apoplexy,
while even the Frenchman was obliged to pull out his pink silk
handkerchief and press it tightly to his face.

"We vill not dispute ze point, monsieur," he said after an awkward
pause. "Ze affairs of your family are of no concern to ze rest of ze
class, mais you are a good-for-nothing rascal, I say. If you no
better are at ze rest of ze work on ze sheep zen I say you are a
young rotter."

For the full three-quarters of an hour the instructor bullied and
badgered the midshipmen in a manner that outvied Lieutenant
Garboard's treatment of the men. They had to submit: the alternative
of having their leave stopped by the captain put all idea of
resistance out of their heads. Finally he made each midshipman write
in bold characters, "_Mais, que je suis sot,_" and sign this
humiliating confession.

Gathering up the papers the instructor went on deck.

"Will you take any refreshment before you leave?" asked the officer
of the watch.

"No, sare, with many tanks. Permit me: my card."

The lieutenant took the proffered piece of pasteboard, and watched
the Frenchman go over the side. The coxswain of the gig had been
previously cautioned not to allow the instructor to handle the
yoke-lines again.

As the boat headed for Kelang Steps the officer of the watch glanced
at the instructor's card. It was written in a flowing hand:--

"_Jean le Plaisant, professeur de litérature et des langues,
Singapore._"

The second time the officer of the watch looked at the piece of
pasteboard more intently. He even tilted his cap on one side and
scratched his closely-cut hair.

"Fetch me the French dictionary from the wardroom," he ordered, and
the quarter-deck messenger hastened to carry out his instructions.

Seizing the book the lieutenant hurriedly turned over the pages, then
looked dubiously at the retreating gig, now out of hailing distance.

"H'm," he muttered. "I'll speak to the commander. By Jove! I
will."



CHAPTER III.

REMOVED FROM THE NAVY LIST.


"WELL?" asked Eccles, as Sub-lieutenant Basil Dacres came off to the
ship at the expiration of his leave.

"Ripping time, by Jove! I'll tell you about it when you've done your
trick. Is the commander below?"

Receiving an affirmative reply the sub made his way to Commander
Bourne's cabin, bubbling over with suppressed excitement.

"I've done it, sir," he announced. "Spoofed the whole jolly lot of
them, Admiral included."

"Hope you've covered up your tracks?" asked his superior anxiously.

"Rather! I snubbed Garboard, twitted Oxley and played the very
dickens with the flagship's midshipmen. It was hot work, though.
Fancy spending a couple of hours on a day like this with a pillow
stuffed under your waistcoat, and false moustaches tickling like
billy-ho."

Bourne laughed heartily as Dacres related the details of the joke he
had played, but his face grew serious as he remarked:--

"'Pon my word, Dacres, I'm rather sorry I let you carry out this mad
prank, after all. It's bound to leak out."

"It may, sir. If it does the flagship's people won't say much. The
less they say the better, for they will be the laughing-stock of the
squadron."

"I don't know so much about that," rejoined the commander. "You see,
we must do our best to keep it to ourselves. The culprit must be
screened. If there is a row, of course I must own up to my share."

"You must do nothing of the sort, sir," said the sub firmly. "This is
my pigeon, you know. Anyway, they haven't tumbled to it yet, and when
they do they'll have to go a long way to spot me."

During the First Dog Watch the commander told the captain, who
laughed till the tears rolled down his mahogany-coloured cheeks. The
chaplain had it third hand from the skipper, and passed the news on
to the ward-room. As for the gun-room they heard it directly from
Dacres.

So far so good. Loyalty to a brother officer joke a sure bond that
the joke against the unpopular flagship would be kept a secret. But
Jones, the captain's valet, heard his master and the padre laughing
immoderately--was human enough to put his ear to the keyhole of the
captain's cabin. In less than an hour the whole of the lower deck
heard the yarn, and Mr. Dacres was unanimously acclaimed a
"thunderin' brick."

Everything passed off quietly until the following afternoon. It was
the calm before the storm.

Basil Dacres had just completed his trick as "Duty Sub," and was
enjoying a cooling glass of lime juice in the gun-room when a
signalman knocked at the door.

"Chit for Mr. Dacres, sir," he announced.

The sub held out his hand for the folded slip of paper. His intuition
told him that something was amiss: it was.

"Flag to officer commanding H.M.S. 'Royal Oak.' Mr. Basil Dacres,
sub-lieutenant, is to report himself on board the flagship as soon as
possible."

Dacres said not a word to his messmates, but the deep flush that
swept over his bronzed features told its own tale.

Without waiting to give explanations or to receive condolences or
advice the sub hurried off to his cabin and changed into No. Eight
Rig. In the midst of the operation Commander Bourne entered. He had,
in the course of his duty, initialled the message and guessed its
purport.

"Look here, Dacres," he exclaimed impulsively, "I'm going with you.
There's bound to be a most unholy bust-up, I'm afraid; but I mean to
stand by you."

For a moment the sub hesitated. He quite realized the need of a
friend to back him up during the coming ordeal, but his independence
quickly reasserted itself.

"I don't think you need, sir," he replied. "You see, it may be
something else. In any case, I'd much rather I went through by
myself."

"You would?"

"Yes, sir."

"But, look here, Dacres----"

"It's no use, sir. I'll stick to it somehow. What's the good of
getting other men mixed up in this affair when one can bear the
brunt. Sharing the blame will not make things any easier for me, I'm
afraid. After all, I had a rattling good time."

There was a ring of determination in the sub's voice that compelled
his superior officer to give way.

"Very well, then," said Bourne reluctantly. "You go alone. But, mark
you, if there's to be any serious bother I, as your commander and a
fellow conspirator, will stand by you."

"All right, then, sir," replied Dacres, "that's agreed. If I am in
danger of going under I'll look to my superior officer for
assistance."

Just then Eccles and Plumbly, the assistant paymaster, entered the
cabin and expressed their intention of "standing in."

"Standing in--what about?" demanded Dacres.

"About hoaxing the flagship, of course," replied Eccles.

"You've done your part of the business," retorted the sub, "now let
me carry on with mine. For one thing I'm not sure that the Admiral
wants me in connexion with that affair. How on earth could he find
out? Now sheer off, there's good fellows, and let me finish
dressing."

Young Alderney was midshipman of the duty boats, and on the run to
the "Repulse" he added his condolences till Dacres peremptorily cut
him short. The sub hated outward expressions of sympathy almost as
much as he detested formal praise. He vastly preferred in matters of
this sort to be self-reliant.

Gaining the quarter-deck of the flagship he saluted with the utmost
coolness, and turned to follow the lieutenant who was to escort him
to the Admiral's cabin. Three or four youngsters, whom he recognized
as being members of the French instructor's class, were on deck,
evidently anticipating his discomfiture. Something about his bearing
impelled them to return to the shelter of the after barbette, feeling
rather sorry for the man who had so recently "pulled their legs."

Vice-Admiral Maynebrace was alone. He had sent his secretary away on
some convenient duty, and well-nigh bursting with indignation he
stood prepared for the fray.

"Well, sir," he began, as soon as the door was closed. "Do you
recognize this?"

And he held up the pseudo Jean le Plaisant's card.

"Yes, sir," answered the sub calmly.

"Then, perhaps, sir, next time you have an opportunity to impersonate
a French professor you might have the sense to remember that
_littérateur_ is spelt with a double 't.' Had it not been for the
perspicuity of the officer of the watch your senseless joke might
have passed off undetected--at least for a time. Now, sir, you, on
your own confession, have been guilty of the heinous offence of
bringing his Majesty's uniform into contempt. A senseless joke, sir!
There are no extenuating circumstances."

Admiral Maynebrace paused to recover his breath. He had completely
forgotten his early days, when, a ringleader of a little mob of
midshipmen from the guardship, he had gone ashore at Southampton in
the small hours of the morning and had artistically decorated the two
lions guarding the historic Bargate. Dacres had heard of the episode
and how young Maynebrace was jockeyed out of what promised to be a
serious scrape; and he was half tempted to remind his superior of
that little delinquency, but the sub had steadfastly made up his mind
not to say a word save to reply directly to questions put to him.

The Admiral had fully expected that the culprit would metaphorically
go down on his knees and beg for pardon, but he had mistaken Dacres'
character. The sub's silence and coolness goaded him to a further
outburst.

"Confound you, sir!" he roared. "You're a discredit to the Service,
sir. You have two alternatives: either to stand your trial by
court-martial for unbecoming conduct, or to send in your papers. You
understand?"

"Yes, sir," replied Dacres.

The pros and cons of the two alternatives flashed through his mind in
a brief instant. He was fully convinced that the old martinet meant
to have him kicked out of the Service. A court-martial could but
bring in a verdict of guilty and with no extenuating circumstances.
The publicity and disgrace were most undesirable. By resigning he
might be able to make a fresh start in another sphere, without the
taint of ignominy. His father's words, "Unless you stop this sort of
thing there'll be trouble. It will end in your being court-martialled
and kicked out of the Service. And, by Jove! if you are, don't look
to me for sympathy," came home with redoubled force.

"I'll send in my papers, sir," he said steadily.

The Admiral looked searchingly at him as if to detect any signs of
remorse in his words. There were none.

"Very good," he replied with an air of finality. "You may go, sir."

Vice-Admiral Maynebrace spent a restless night. Possibly it was the
tropical heat, but more than once he thought of the young officer
whose career was in jeopardy.

"If only the young fool had said he was sorry," he soliloquized, "I
would have let him down lightly. Hang it! I'll send for him again in
the morning and see if he's amenable to reason."

But when morning came, before the Admiral could carry out his good
intention, Sub-lieutenant Basil Dacres' papers, duly annoted by his
captain, were sent to the flagship accompanied by a written
application for the young officer to be allowed to withdraw from his
Majesty's Service.

The receipt of this document was received by both ships with feelings
of regret. The officers of the flagship, in spite of the fact that
they were indignant at the prank that had been played upon them, were
good-natured fellows. They fully expected that the culprit would
"climb down" and apologize for his delinquency; but they were
mistaken. They had misjudged Dacres' peculiar temperament, for the
sub, regarding himself as being with his back to the wall, was as
obstinate as the proverbial mule. Now that the sub had taken the
desperate plunge, they felt genuinely sorry.

As for the ship's company of the "Royal Oak" they were all completely
taken aback. Dacres was a favourite with his brother-officers and
well-liked by the Lower Deck. It seemed incomprehensible that the
Admiral should take such a strong step; but it was not the first time
that drastic measures were the result of comparatively slight
offences against discipline.

At the eleventh hour Admiral Maynebrace sent a message to the "Royal
Oak" to ask whether Sub-lieutenant Dacres had reconsidered the
matter. In vain Captain Staggers tried to reason with his
subordinate.

"Look here, Dacres," he said kindly. "Think over this affair.
Remember your career is at stake. It was a silly thing to do to
attempt to hoax the flagship, in spite of the circumstances. Of
course you realize that we were in sympathy with you, but that was a
mistake. If you think you are going to come out 'top-dog' in your
difference with the Admiral the sooner you put that idea out of your
head the better. I don't believe in the whole of naval history that a
junior officer has done so with any degree of success. You see, it's
against all principles of discipline."

"Thank you, sir," replied Dacres, "but I'm afraid you cannot
understand my motives, and I cannot very well explain. All the same,
I don't wish to withdraw my resignation; and as to scoring over the
Admiral, well, the idea never entered into my head until you
mentioned it. But I may, even yet," he added.

Nettled by the sub's refusal, the Admiral used the power entrusted to
him under the revised King's Regulations. He accepted Dacres'
resignation, without having to wait for Admiralty authority; and
before noon on the same day Dacres ceased to be an officer of his
Majesty's navy.

"Look here, Dacres," exclaimed Commander Bourne impetuously, "you're
a young rotter. You remember what I said: 'If there's any serious
bother I, your commander and fellow conspirator, will stand by you.'
To that you agreed; so I'm off to the flagship to bear my share of
the brunt."

Dacres looked at the commander for a few moments, then, doing what he
would not have dared to do but an hour previously, he tapped him
familiarly on the shoulder.

"Look here, Bourne," he said, "you are no longer my superior officer,
so the deal's off. If you attempt to put your finger in my pie I'll
give you the biggest hiding you've ever had in your life. So don't
make matters worse, and I'll be thankful to one of the best pals I've
ever had in the Service."

Bourne agreed reluctantly. He had fully intended to interview the
Admiral, but now he was somewhat relieved to find that Dacres had
vetoed the proposal. The commander's prospects were no longer in
danger; and since Bourne's chances of promotion depended solely upon
merit--for he had no outside influence--he was genuinely grateful for
the principal culprit's magnanimity.

That same afternoon the squadron, with the exception of the "Royal
Oak," weighed and proceeded to sea. The "Royal Oak" had developed
slight engine-room defects and was left behind in order to effect
necessary repairs.

Thus an opportunity occurred of giving a demonstration that otherwise
could not have taken place; for as Dacres went over the side of the
battleship for the last time the officers turned out on the
quarter-deck to bid him good luck, while by a purely spontaneous
impulse the men gave three rousing cheers for the youngster whom they
could no longer regard as one of the ship's company of H.M.S. "Royal
Oak."



CHAPTER IV.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRSHIP.


ON his homeward voyage Basil Dacres had plenty of opportunities for
pondering over his future plans. Having once taken the plunge he was
not a fellow to repine. His thoughts were of the future and not of
the past.

"In any case," he thought, "I'll be as independent as I can. I don't
want to come to loggerheads with the pater, but goodness only knows
how he'll take it. If I can have a quiet chat with him before he
learns the official version of the row, I may be able to explain
matters with a certain degree of satisfaction. After that I'll go
abroad, and get an appointment under one of the South American
governments. There will be plenty of scope in that direction."

At Suez the liner received a batch of English mails, and, as usual,
there was a great demand for newspapers to supplement the meagre
details of the world's doings as received by wireless.

Dacres hurriedly scanned the columns of four successive weeks of the
journal, but to his relief he saw no mention of his resignation being
reported. That gave him hopes of being able to be first in the field
as far as his parent was concerned.

Having assured himself on this point he proceeded systematically to
wade through the news with the zest that only those who have been cut
off from home ties know how to appreciate.

Presently his eye caught sight of a heading, "The mysterious airship
again."

"H'm, this sounds interesting," he soliloquized, for anything in
connexion with aviation appealed to him. When his services for the
Naval Flying Wing were declined the refusal hit him far harder than
his being asked to withdraw from his Majesty's Service.

"They say 'again,' I notice. I wonder for how long this airship has
been claiming the attention of the great British public? It's a pity
I've been unable to see the first account of its appearance. Seems
like starting a book at the sixth chapter."

Settling himself in a comfortable deck-chair Dacres was soon lost to
his surroundings in the account of the remarkable exploits of an
airship of entirely new design. It was seen within a few hours at
places as far apart as Newcastle and Plymouth, and Holyhead and
Canterbury. Although the eye-witnesses' accounts varied considerably
in detail the general description was sufficiently unanimous to prove
conclusively that the airship was not a creation of an excited
imagination.

It was agreed that the airship was of immense length and of
exceptional speed. She invariably flew at a great altitude. Her
appearance resembled that of a lead pencil pointed at one end, but
the observers were unable to state whether there were planes, cars,
and other appendages. There was none of that gently see-sawing motion
of the British military and naval dirigibles: she flew as steadily as
a seaplane on a calm day, and created a far greater impression of
speed.

Near Newcastle she was spotted by a pair of belated motorists who
were travelling over a road that follows the old Roman wall between
Chollerford and Heddon. It was a moonlight night, although the sky
was frequently obscured by drifting clouds. While brought up to make
good a slight defect one of the motorists noticed a dark object
overhead and called his companion's attention to it. Both
simultaneously expressed their opinion that it was an airship, while
one of the men found by extending his arm that the extremities of the
craft coincided with the length between his outstretched little
finger and thumb, while its breadth was roughly half the thickness of
the nail joint of the same finger. Taking the breadth to be forty
feet it was reasonable to suppose that the length of the airship was
nearly thirty times that dimension, or one thousand two hundred feet.
The airship was then travelling rapidly in a westerly direction, the
time being 1.30 a.m.

So impressed were the travellers by this unusual sight that they
proceeded to the offices of the "Newcastle Daily Record" and stated
the facts to the sub-editor who happened to be on night duty.

Just before four on the same morning the coastguard on watch at Yealm
Head, near Plymouth, "spotted" the airship still flying at a great
height, but in an easterly direction. He followed it through his
telescope until it was lost to sight, but owing to the airship being
against the growing dawn he was unable to give any details as to its
construction. His description, however, tallied with that of the
Newcastle motorists, whose report was published in a special edition
of the principal London papers.

Since Newcastle and Plymouth are roughly 360 miles apart the speed of
the airship could not be less than 150 miles per hour, and that not
taking into consideration the fact that on each occasion the craft
was shaping a course at right angles to the direct line between these
two places.

Two days later came an even more startling report, this time from
Canterbury.

It appears that a shepherd employed at Wether Farm, Petham--a small
village five miles from the Kentish cathedral city--had occasion to
visit a fold at some distance from the farm-buildings. This was at
three o'clock, an hour before sunrise, but it was just light enough
to distinguish surrounding objects.

Suddenly he saw a huge object falling through the air. All he could
liken it to was a haystack. It struck the ground quite gently and
about two hundred yards from the place where he stood. At first he
was afraid to move, until, thinking it might be a balloon that had
met with an accident, he ran towards the spot. As he did so he heard
voices, evidently discussing the situation; but before he could get
close to the "haystack," the object gave a bound and shot skywards.

He stood stock still watching the balloon growing smaller and smaller
till it approached an object that had hitherto escaped his notice--an
airship resembling a "wooden meat-skewer," according to his
description. Of what happened to the smaller balloon he had no idea,
but as he watched he saw the airship soar still higher till lost to
sight.

Curiosity prompted him to examine the spot where the balloon had
alighted. The marks on the dew-sodden grass gave him an opportunity
of measuring its base, which was twelve paces square, or, roughly,
thirty feet. There were footprints showing that two men had alighted,
but had not moved far from the spot. Although he made a careful
search he found that nothing had been left behind that might give a
clue to the occupants of the balloon.

This story the shepherd told to his master, who, knowing that a
mysterious aircraft had been sighted at Newcastle and Plymouth, took
the first opportunity of reporting the matter to the military
authorities at Canterbury. Asked if he could vouch for his
informant's trustworthiness the farmer replied that the man had been
in his employment for thirty years, and as far as shepherds went, was
intelligent, honest, and not given to immoderate drinking.

When this was reported in the Press the interest in the mysterious
airship redoubled. Various theories were advanced as to the presence
of the balloon, or airship dinghy as a facetious correspondent
suggested. Crediting the airship with a mean speed of 150 miles per
hour, it was still doubted whether it would be possible to tow a
balloon with it, while, on the other hand, it was equally impossible
to deflate and stow the gas-bag within the airship during the short
interval that had elapsed according to the shepherd's statement.

Then, of course, there was the alarmist section; People who wrote
demanding that the Royal Flying Corps should be brought to book for
neglecting their duty. It was pointed out that in the course of her
nocturnal voyages the airship had passed the prohibited areas without
being challenged by any of the air patrols. It seemed incredible that
the mysterious giant of the clouds could be here, there, everywhere,
from the north of England to the south, without being seen except by
chance by a few individuals. Where, also, could a huge aircraft,
measuring at least a thousand feet over-all, be housed in complete
secrecy?

Then from the wilds of North Wales came an astounding report. This
time the narrator was a signalman on the North Western Railway, who
witnessed a remarkable sight from his box near Llanfaelog in the Isle
of Anglesey. It was at midnight. The moon had just risen in a
cloudless sky, and there was hardly any wind.

The man had just cleared a goods train over his section and was about
to set the signals, when he was aware of a huge object rushing with a
rapidity greater by far than that of the most powerful express train.
It passed almost overhead and, according to his estimate, at about a
hundred feet from the ground. After it passed the leaves of the trees
close to the signal box were violently agitated and a sudden blast of
air swept the papers off his desk, but in spite of the commotion in
the air there was hardly any sound from the mysterious airship, save
a subdued buzzing.

Recovering his presence of mind the signalman promptly telegraphed
the news along the line, but the terrific rush of this gigantic
aircraft was unnoticed by any of the other railway employés on duty.

At six o'clock, however, two fishermen put into Dulas Bay, on the
north coast of Anglesey, and reported that at dawn they had seen a
large airship break in two at a distance of about two miles N. N. of
where they were fishing. Both men were unshaken in this statement,
that a complete severance had taken place, and that both portions,
instead of falling into the sea, headed off at great speed in a
westerly direction.

It was pointed out to the Government, in a strongly-worded leader in
"The Times," that something must be radically wrong with our system
of policing the air, since it was conclusively proved that an unknown
aircraft, possessing superior power of propulsion and radius of
action to any yet known, had cruised over the length and breadth of
England and Wales--and perhaps further afield--without being
officially reported.

Although there were no evidences that the mysterious aircraft was
flying under the auspices of a foreign power, it was quite possible
that she hailed from a country other than our own. If not, and she
was built and controlled by a British subject, the Government ought
to take steps to secure a right to build others of her pattern;
otherwise the bare margin of safety set up by the Aerial Defence
Committee was in danger.

Awaking out of its customary lethargy the British Government accepted
the advice of "The Times," and steps were taken to locate the base
from which the airship operated, and also, if possible, to trace her
complete course during one of her nocturnal flights.

Searchlights were temporarily installed on almost every important
hill-top from Berwick to Land's End, and from the South Foreland to
Holyhead; airmen, both military and civilian, were encouraged to make
night flights with the idea of being able to sight and perhaps keep
in touch with the giant dirigible; while destroyers and seaplanes
patrolled the coast, ready on the first intimation by wireless to
concentrate at any rendezvous on the line of flight that the
sought-for airship was likely to adopt.

"H'm!" ejaculated Dacres, as he carefully folded the latest newspaper
that it was possible to obtain. "This looks lively. Things are
getting exciting in the Old Country. Perhaps, after all, I may get a
chance of a berth with one of the private flying schools, even if I
can't manage to join the Flying Corps. I'll have a shot at it, by
Jove!"



CHAPTER V.

A MOMENTOUS TRAIN JOURNEY.

UPON the arrival of the liner in the Thames, Basil Dacres took the
opportunity of leaving the vessel at Tilbury, thus avoiding the
tedious passage up to the docks.

Still uncertain as to what his reception by his father would be he
booked his scanty belongings at the London terminus, and proceeded
west.

Although outwardly calm his heart was thumping violently as he
knocked at the door of Colonel Dacres' house. A strange footman
answered him, and in reply to an inquiry said that Colonel Dacres had
let the house for the season.

This was astonishing news, for in his last letter the colonel had
made no mention of his intention, and to let his house was quite a
departure from his usual plans.

"Can you give me Colonel Dacres' present address?"

"Yes, sir," replied the man; "it is Cranbury House, near Holmsley,
Hants."

"I wonder what possessed the governor to rusticate," thought Dacres
as he turned away. "Well, the sooner we come to an understanding the
better, I suppose. I'll get some lunch and then take the first train
to this out-of-the-way show. I can't say that I've heard of the place
before."

Whilst having lunch Dacres asked for a time-table, and by dint of a
considerable tax upon his brain-power he discovered that Holmsley was
a small station in the New Forest. An express train, leaving Waterloo
at five, would take him as far as Brockenhurst in an hour and fifty
minutes. Then, as is usual with railway companies' arrangements, he
found that he had three-quarters of an hour to wait until a slow
train took him on to Holmsley.

The daily papers gave no further definite information about the
unknown airship. It appeared to have escaped notice for nearly three
weeks, although during that interval there were several
unauthenticated accounts that it had been "spotted." Many reports
turned out to be deliberate hoaxes, while in one instance a company
of Royal Engineers at Portsmouth turned out with a searchlight, only
to find that the "airship" reported by a belated and slightly
inebriated clubman was a large telephone cable spanning the narrow
roadway between two lofty blocks of buildings.

Finding he had plenty of time on his hands Dacres decided to walk to
Waterloo. After an absence from Town he had a strong desire to see
some of the familiar haunts, so after walking along Piccadilly and
thence to Trafalgar Square, he turned down Northumberland Avenue.
Under existing circumstances he gave the Admiralty buildings a wide
berth, for he had no inclination to come in contact with any of his
former brother-officers.

Just as he was passing the Metropole, Dacres nearly collided with a
powerfully-built, athletic-looking man who looked anything between
twenty and thirty years of age.

In the midst of mutual apologies the stranger suddenly exclaimed:--

"Why, bless my soul, what are you doing here, Dacres?"

"Hythe, by Jove!" ejaculated Dacres.

"Right you are, old man. You haven't altered much since I saw you
last. Let me see, that was when we paid off in the old 'Cornwall' in
1914. But we needn't stand here; come to my club--it's only a few
minutes' walk."

Arnold Hythe was in more respects than one a fortunate individual. In
recognition of his services in connexion with the submarine
"Aphrodite"--now the prototype of the British "M" class--he had been
promoted to the rank of Inspecting Commander of Submarines after less
than a year's service as lieutenant. This was creating a precedent,
but circumstances warranted it, and when the unusual appointment was
announced, the shoals of congratulatory telegrams that poured in from
his brother-officers showed that in this case there was little or no
grumbling at Hythe's well-deserved promotion.

"Dacres, old man, I am awfully sorry," remarked Hythe with genuine
concern when Dacres had told his story. "I cannot imagine what
possessed old Maynebrace to take such drastic measures. Of course I
had a lot to do with him when he was Admiral Superintendent at
Portsmouth, and, personally, I found him quite a genial old fellow.
Possibly his being sent to sea from a dockyard commission without
being promoted to Vice-Admiral may have soured his temper a bit. By
the by, what are your plans?"

"Nothing definite at present. Ultimately I hope to do something in
the way of flying. Always had an inclination in that direction."

"Yes, I remember you had. A little affair with that aviator at
Dartmouth, for instance. Thank goodness, it isn't in my line. Give me
six fathoms of water any day of the week."

"I suppose so," rejoined Dacres, "but I'm not keen on submarine work.
It lacks the sense of freedom that you get when rushing through the
air."

"H'm!" ejaculated Hythe. "My experience does not lead me to agree
with you, at least, as far as aeroplanes are concerned. I had a nasty
tumble at Zanzibar."

"Yes, I recollect: it was while you were doing your unlawful
commission in the 'Aphrodite.' By the by, what's your opinion about
this mysterious aircraft? It's making as much commotion as when
Captain Restronguet shook us up a couple of years ago."

"Cannot say," replied Hythe laconically.

"But in the event of her proving to be in the employ of a foreign
power, how would you propose to collar her?"

"I wouldn't give much for her chances if she came within range of one
of our aerial torpedoes."

"An airship moving at over 150 miles an hour wants some hitting,"
remarked Dacres. "Besides, supposing she keeps clear of the sea?"

"That's out of my bearings," said Hythe. "It's a case for the
military authorities. Anyhow, there's been nothing heard of her for
days past, so no doubt she has transferred her activities elsewhere.
Personally I have but little faith in the command of the air. So long
as we keep command of the sea there's not much to trouble about. But
to get back to more personal matters, Dacres, where are you bound
for?"

"Going to pay the governor a visit."

"But you were shaping a course in the opposite direction when I
crossed your bows."

"The pater has let his house and gone to live somewhere in the New
Forest--near Holmsley. It's a matter of three hours' journey, even by
express."

"Why not hire a 'plane? All you've to do is to tube to Richmond and
get one from the Metropolitan and Suburban Volo Company. You'd be at
Holmsley in three-quarters of an hour."

Dacres shook his head.

"Can't run to it, old man," he said gravely. "I haven't any too much
shot in the locker at present."

Hythe's hand was in his pocket in an instant.

"Don't be offended, Dacres," he said hurriedly, "but if I can let you
have----"

Dacres shook his head.

"Thanks, old chap," he replied, "I'd rather not."

"As a loan, then?"

"No, thanks all the same. It hasn't come to that yet, and I hope it
never will. It's awfully good of you, Hythe."

"Sorry you won't let me show my sympathy in a tangible manner,
Dacres. Still, you know my address. If there's anything I can do,
don't hesitate to write."

"I won't, forget," said Dacres. "There are not many old shipmates I
would care to look to for a favour, but you are the exception, Hythe.
Well, I must be getting under way once more. It's close on quarter to
five."

By a few seconds Dacres caught his train. He travelled first class,
for in spite of his dwindling purse he resolved to maintain the
dignity of the family. It was one of the few concessions he made to
appearances.

As the train was moving out of the station he bought an evening
paper, and settling himself in a corner seat, scanned the pages. In
the "stop press column" appeared a report to the effect that the
elusive airship had been sighted by the S.S "Micronome" in Lat. 51
degrees 4 minutes N. Long. 30 degrees 25 minutes W., or roughly
midway between Liverpool and New York. The tramp was plugging at half
speed against a furious easterly gale. The sky was obscured with dark
clouds, and although it was noon the light was very dim. The airship,
travelling at an estimated speed of one hundred miles an hour, passed
at a height of eight hundred feet above the vessel, and was seen by
the captain and second mate, who were on the bridge, and also by four
of the dockhands. The force of the wind was registered at fifty miles
per hour, yet the airship flew steadily and without the slightest
inclination to pitch.

The information was received by wireless at Valencia at 2.15 p.m. and
immediately transmitted to the Admiralty. Presuming that the speed
and direction of the airship were uniformly maintained she ought to
be sighted by the coast-guards on the Kerry coast by 6 p.m.

Dacres finished reading the paper without discovering any news
bearing directly upon the actual doings of the gigantic aircraft;
then, having devoured the advertisement columns for the simple reason
that there was nothing else to read, he threw the paper on to the
seat and began to take a slight interest in his fellow-passengers.

They were two in number, One, a short, redfaced man whose chief
characteristics were a white waistcoat, a massive gold chain, and a
large diamond tie pin, was evidently a well-to-do City man. Dacres'
surmise was strengthened by the fact that the man was deep in the
pages of the "Financial Times."

The second passenger was a man of a very different type. He was about
five feet nine inches in height, and heavily-built. He was
clean-shaven, revealing an exceedingly sallow complexion. This,
together with the fact that the "whites" of his eyes were far from
being white and were of an aggressively bilious colour, seemed to
suggest that this man had been born under a tropical sun. His hair
was dark and inclined to curl, while Dacres noticed that the
"half-moons" of his finger-nails were of a purple hue. His lips were
heavy and of a pale pink tint.

"Touch of the tar-brush there," soliloquized Dacres. "Finger-nails of
that colour invariably betray a dash of black blood. He doesn't look
any too well dressed, either."

The stranger was attired in a shabby brown suit; his dirty collar and
frayed red tie were in keeping with his sombre appearance. Altogether
he looked as unlike a man who habitually travels first class as
anyone could possibly imagine.

Dacres made his examination with assumed and well-guarded
indifference, but his scrutiny was none the less minute. He had the
knack of being able to read a person's character by observation, and
was rarely at fault.

"A truculent bounder," was his summing-up. Twenty years back he would
have made a fairly tough customer in the ring. "Unless I'm much
mistaken he is too fond of bending his elbow. I'd like to hear him
talk: ten to one he has a South American accent."

As the train tore past the Brooklands Flying Ground two large
biplanes were in the act of ascending. They rose awkwardly, bobbing
in the stiff breeze, then, gradually overhauling the express, passed
beyond the limits of Dacres' observation.

"Untameable beasts," remarked an evenly-modulated voice, and turning
from the window Dacres found that the sallow-faced passenger was
addressing him. The City man, deep in his paper, had paid no heed to
the aeroplanes in flight.

"Think so?" asked Dacres. "They seem to be making good headway,
especially as they are plugging right in the eye of the wind."

"While they are under control they are--well--safe," rejoined the
man. "But one never knows when they take it into their heads to side
slip or bank too steeply. To my mind accidents are bound to happen
till a means is found of counteracting the force of gravity."

"Which is only obtainable by means of hydrogen gas-bags," added
Dacres.

"Up to the present," agreed the stranger. "Still, one never knows. A
compromise between an airship and an aeroplane, for example?"

"The speed would suffer in consequence," objected Dacres.

"Oh? Take the case of this mysterious airship which has been seen in
various parts of the country. Her speed exceeds that of the swiftest
monoplane that the country possesses."

In spite of his adverse opinion of the man Dacres felt interested. He
felt inclined to admit that he had made a mistake in putting him down
as a South American. His accent was almost perfect; in fact, almost
too faultless for an average Englishman, yet there was not the
slightest trace of a foreign pronunciation in his sentences.

"That is where submarines score," continued the man. "So long as they
retain their reserve of buoyancy they are practically safe. They can
return to the surface and remain motionless. Of course I am alluding
to peace conditions. A helpless submarine lying awash would stand a
very poor chance in action if exposed to the fire of a hostile
vessel. I presume, sir, that you are a naval officer?"

"Your surmise is at fault," replied Dacres. "I have no connexion with
the----" he was about to say "service," but checking himself in time
substituted "navy."

A shade of disappointment flitted across the stranger's face.

"Thought perhaps you were," he said apologetically. "The subject of
the navy interests me. By the by, does this train stop at Southampton
Docks?"

"No," replied Dacres. "Only at Southampton West. It's quite a short
distance thence to the Docks."

"Ah, that is good. You see, I am a cold storage contractor, and this
is my first visit to Southampton. My duties hitherto have been
confined to Liverpool and Manchester. Thanks for the information,
sir."

Then, drawing a notebook from his breast-pocket, the stranger broke
off the conversation as abruptly as he had started.

"That's strange," thought Dacres. "He seemed very much inclined to
yarn till I told him I had no connexion with the service--worse luck.
He shut up like a hedgehog after that. Cold storage contractor, eh?
With a red-hot temper, I'll be bound. Pity the poor bounders under
him."

Shortly afterwards Dacres happened to glance in the direction of the
livery-looking individual. He was still deep in his notebook. On the
cover, partially concealed by the man's flabby hands, was the title
in gilt letters. Enough was left uncovered for Dacres to read the
words "Telegrafos y----"

"H'm! My yellow-skinned fellow-traveller understands Spanish after
all," he soliloquized. "Perhaps my original summing-up is not so much
at fault after all."

The man made no further attempt to enter into conversation, but just
as the train was rushing through Winchester station he stood up, took
his handbag from the rack, and went out into the corridor.

The express pulled up at Eastleigh for a few minutes; then, just as
it was on the move, Dacres happened to catch a glimpse of his late
fellow-passenger seated in a Portsmouth train by the furthermost
platform.

"H'm! Decidedly funny way to get to Southampton Docks by that train,"
he muttered. "That fellow was trying to pull my leg over the cold
storage business, I'll be bound. Bless me, if I like the cut of your
jib. I am not generally given to presupposition, but something seems
to tell me that you and I will fall foul of each other before very
long."



CHAPTER VI.

CHALLENGED.


REFERRING to the back of an envelope on which he had jotted down the
times of the trains, Dacres found upon alighting at Brockenhurst
junction that he had three-quarters of an hour to wait. Since he did
not feel inclined to cool his heels on the station platform he made
up his mind to take a stroll through the village, have tea, and thus
turn the interval of waiting to good account.

The air was cool, the dense foliage afforded a pleasant shelter from
the slanting though powerful rays of the sun, and Dacres began to
feel quite easy in his mind.

"By George!" he ejaculated. "That airship seems to interest me far
more than my forthcoming interview with the governor. I wonder if she
has been sighted again. I'll get an evening paper at the bookstall
when I return to the station. How jolly fine the forest scenery is.
Now I am not surprised that the pater came down to this part of the
country if the scenery around Cranbury House is anything like this."

A plain but substantial tea filled Dacres' cup of contentment to the
brim. English bread, fresh country butter, and watercress, after the
fare obtainable on board the "Royal Oak" in the Tropics, combined to
make the most appetizing meal he had tasted for months past. It
reminded him of the saying of an old chief boatswain on returning to
England after a two years' arduous commission mostly in the Persian
Gulf.

"Bless you, sir," said the warrant officer emphatically. "Directly I
set foot ashore at Portsmouth I'll order a prime beefsteak and a
tankard--not a glass, mind you--of ale."

Two months later the chief bo's'un retired with the rank of
lieutenant, and forthwith settled down in the country. One of his
first acts was to hire a man to stand outside his bedroom window
every evening from ten to eleven, his duty being to throw buckets of
water against the panes.

"Couldn't get to sleep unless I heard the sea breaking against the
scuttles," he explained.

Dacres wondered whether the call of the sea would come back to him
with such vividness. Perhaps; but up to the present he felt no such
overwhelming desire. It was just possible that he had not yet had
time to realize his position.

In the midst of his meditation the traveller remembered that he had
to catch a train.

Pulling out his watch he found that he had fifteen minutes to get to
the station and, since he did the outward journey in ten minutes, it
was an easy jaunt back to the junction.

"Where are you for?" asked a porter as Dacres arrived on the
practically deserted platform.

"Holmsley."

"Your train's just gone, sir," announced the railway employee with
the air of a man who has imparted a joyful surprise.

"But----" Dacres pulled out the envelope. "I thought it went at
seven-four."

"Did till this month, sir," was the unconcerned reply. "Now it leaves
here at six-fifty-six. Next train at eight-two."

"They must have had an old time-table in that restaurant," muttered
Dacres disgustedly. "I was a bit of an ass not to make sure, and a
doubly confounded idiot not to have asked when I arrived here.
However, can't be helped. 'What's done can't be undone,' as the
landlubber remarked when he tied a slippery hitch in his hammock
lashing and found himself sprawling on the mess-deck ten seconds
later. This time I keep watch here, I don't mean to be let down a
second time."

When a fast train bringing the evening papers from London stopped at
the station Dacres hurried to buy a copy. The news as far as the
airship was concerned was woefully disappointing. She had not been
sighted anywhere in Great Britain or Ireland.

There was one item of news that interested him, however. It was a
wireless message from Cape Columbia, announcing that Lieutenant
Cardyke and four men of the British Arctic Expedition had started on
their dash for the North Pole.

"Plucky chap!" ejaculated Dacres. "I hope he'll pull it off all
right. It's a jolly risky business, though. Never fancied that kind
of job myself, but Cardyke was always keen on Polar work. I remember
how he used to devour Scott's and Shackleton's works when he was at
Osborne. All the same, I wonder they don't make a dash for the Pole
in an up-to-date dirigible, instead of tramping all those hundreds of
miles. I'd volunteer for a Polar airship expedition like a shot."

The loud ringing of an electric bell warned Dacres that his train was
signalled. Folding the paper and placing it in his pocket he rose
from his seat and waited for the train to run into the station.

The last stage of his journey was a short one and he chided himself
for not having walked. The sun had just dipped behind the
heather-clad hills as Dacres alighted, while already the evening
mists were rising from the shallow valleys.

A typical country porter took the tickets of the three passengers who
left the train, and in response to Dacres' inquiry as to the
direction of Cranbury House, scratched his head in obvious
perplexity.

"Garge, du 'ee knaw whur be Cranbury 'Ouse?" he sung out to a
shock-headed youth who was struggling with a truck on the opposite
platform.

"Yes," was the reply. "A matter of a couple o' mile t'other side o'
Wilverley Post."

After a lengthy and complex explanation of how to reach Wilverley
Post, Dacres found himself almost as much enlightened as before.

"Can I get a motor or a cab?" he asked.

"Naw, zur; not onless you'm ordered 'em. There be a bus, only it
doänt meet this train."

Dacres was not a man to be daunted by difficulties. Emerging from the
station he swung along the road, breathing in the pure moorland air,
determined by hook or by crook to reach his destination with the
least possible delay.

The road was quite deserted. Not even a motorist passed, otherwise he
would have boldly asked the favour of a lift. Overhead a deep buzzing
caused him to look upwards. Two aviators, making towards Bournemouth,
glided swiftly through the gathering gloom. In this part of the
country, Dacres reflected, there were more men in the air than on the
highway.

Presently he reached a signpost at the junction of four cross roads.
By this time there was just sufficient light for him to decipher the
directions. Lyndhurst--he did not want to go there; Ringwood--equally
undesirable, as were the other places mentioned.

"I suppose this is Wilverley Post," he thought. "Here I must bring up
and wait till some one comes along. That ought to be fairly soon.
What a deserted-looking spot, though. However," he added
optimistically, "it might be a jolly sight worse. For instance, it
might be raining hard and blowing half a gale. Ha! Here's a cart
coming along."

In response to a hail the driver pulled up, but he was quite at a
loss to give the desired information. He had lived at Ringwood all
his life, and had never heard of Cranbury House.

Ten minutes later a large motor-car came swinging along. The
chauffeur obligingly stopped, but was likewise unable to state the
locality of Colonel Dacres' property.

"If it were this way, sir, I would give you a lift with pleasure,"
added the man, "but ten chances to one it would only be taking you
farther out of your way. If you like, though, I'll run you down to
Christchurch and you can put up there for the night, sir."

"Thanks all the same, I want particularly to get to Cranbury House
to-night," said Dacres.

With a civil good-night the chauffeur sped on his way, while Dacres
prepared to resume his vigil by the gaunt signpost.

Presently his ready ear detected the sounds of footsteps plodding
methodically along the hard tarred road. Out of the darkness loomed
the shape of a powerfully-built man, bending under a load of faggots.

"Cranbury House, zur? Sure I knaws 'ut well. If 'tweer light enow oi
could show you the chimbleys, over yonder. Du 'ee taäk this path an'
'twill bring ee right agin the gates of t'ouse. It'll be a matter of
a couple o' miles. If ye like, zur, I'll come along wi' ee," said the
man, setting his load down by the roadside.

"I won't trouble you, thanks," replied Dacres, bestowing a shilling
upon the man. "It's a fairly easy path, I hope?"

"Yes, zur, 's long as you keep to un. There be some bad bogs close on
hand. Why, only t'other evenin' old Bill Jarvis as lives down
Goatspen Plain wur a-comin'----"

But Dacres was not at all anxious to hear of the nocturnal adventures
of the said Bill Jarvis.

"I'll keep to the path all right," he said. "About two miles, eh?
Thank you and good night."

The path, showing grey in the misty starlight, was barely wide enough
for two persons to walk abreast. On either hand were clumps of furze
and heather, that at places encroached to such an extent that the
sharp spikes tingled the pedestrian's calves. Here and there the
footway, worn by the action of rain and the passing of cattle, was
several feet below the surface of the surrounding ground. It was far
from level, for all around the country seemed composed of a series of
hillocks, all divided by wreaths of mist.

For ten minutes Dacres walked on at a rapid rate till he was suddenly
brought up by the bifurcation of the path. So acute was the angle
between the two ways and so alike in width that he stood stock still
in deep perplexity. His informant had made no mention of the forked
paths.

"Perhaps they reunite farther on," muttered Dacres. "It looks like a
case of pay your money and take your choice. Why not toss for it?
Heads the right hand, tails the left."

He spun the coin. He missed it and it fell dully upon the sandy
ground. Three matches he struck before he discovered it standing
upright in the soft earth.

"Ah! That bears out my theory. The ways meet again. Anyway, I'll take
the right hand one."

He had not gone very far when, with a rush and a swish amidst the
heather, four black objects darted across his path, within an ace of
capsizing him altogether.

"Pigs," he exclaimed. "Fancy those beasts roaming about in this
deserted spot. I wonder if there's a cottage handy?"

A hundred yards further on the path was joined on the left hand by
another, which apparently confirmed his suggestion that it was the
reunion of the two forked routes. With this reassuring discovery he
redoubled his efforts until he found that the path was growing
narrower and eventually broke off in three fairly diverging
directions.

Taking his bearings by means of the Pole Star Dacres chose the path
that followed the direction he had hitherto pursued. Down and down
into a wide yet shallow valley it plunged, till once more it split
into two ways. To add to the perplexity of the situation both of them
bore away to the right and in quite a different direction from that
which he supposed to be the proper one.

Dacres brought "all standing." Not a sound disturbed the stillness of
the night. He could easily imagine himself to be "bushed" in the
Australian wilds as far as the presence of human beings was
concerned.

Again he glanced upwards to ascertain his bearings, but in the hollow
the mists were considerably denser and rose high above the ground.
The stars were completely blotted out.

"I'll take the left hand path this time," he muttered impatiently,
for his peace of mind was now considerably ruffled by the vexatious
delays that he had experienced. "It's bound to lead somewhere, so
here goes."

But before he had covered a hundred paces he found that his progress
was impeded by a brook that trickled over the now ill-defined track.
On either hand the ground was marshy and, bearing in mind the
incompleted narrative of Bill Jarvis's experience, he acted warily.

"It won't be the first time that I've entered the paternal dwelling
with muddy boots," he reflected as he waded through the shallow
stream, prodding the bed of the brook with his stick at each step.

When, at length, he negotiated the twenty feet of water he found to
his intense disgust that there were no signs of the path being
resumed. Evidently that track was made by cattle for the purpose of
going to the stream to drink.

Away on the left rose a rounded hill crowned with a gaunt tree, the
outlines of which were curiously distorted by the layers of mist.

"Here goes!" he exclaimed desperately. "I'll make for that hill.
Perhaps it will be clearer up there, and I may be able to strike a
fresh path."

Forcing his way through the heather, dodging aggressive clumps of
gorse, and slipping on the loose sandy soil, Dacres reached the
summit of the knoll. Here he was no better off, for the sky was still
overcast, while as far as he could see in the dim light the
surrounding country was enshrouded in mist. In vain he attempted to
retrace his steps, till sinking ankle deep in marshy ground warned
him that he was not only lost but in danger of being trapped in a
bog.

"Ahoy!" he shouted in stentorian tones.

His hail was quickly answered by another "ahoy."

"That's good," he exclaimed. "There's a sailor somewhere about. I've
heard that pensioners frequently settle down in these out of the way
wilds."

"Ahoy! Where are you?" he hailed again.

"Where are you?" came the voice.

"Hang it all," said Dacres dejectedly. "It's only an echo. I am
merely wasting precious breath. If only there were a breeze I could
keep a fairly straight course. Luck's quite out this trip."

Striking a match and glancing at his watch Dacres discovered that it
was a quarter to ten.

"No use stopping here," he decided. "I'll plug away and trust to find
another path. Wish I'd accepted that fellow's offer and got him to
pilot me through this wilderness. That's the result of being so
beastly independent."

On and on he went, dodging between the thick masses of furze. An hour
later he had a shrewd suspicion that he was describing a large
circle, for one peculiar-shaped tree struck him as being familiar;
yet no longed-for path rewarded his perseverance.

"Hurrah!" he exclaimed as a tiny speck of light leapt up at some
distance ahead of him. "Now there's a chance of finding out where I
am."

Recklessly he plunged through the undergrowth, his eyes fixed upon
the friendly gleam that came from the midst of a deep shadow.
Suddenly the light vanished, but the shadow resolved itself into a
dense clump of trees extending right and left like a huge wall till
lost in the night mist.

Now he could hear voices: men talking rapidly and earnestly, while
the clatter of a metal object falling upon hard ground raised a sharp
reproof.

"Midnight motor repairs," thought Dacres. "A broken-down car,
perhaps. Then, these trees are by the side of the high road. Ha!"

Further progress was impeded by a barbed wire fence upon which he
blundered with disastrous results to his trousers and coat sleeves.
The pain caused by one of the spikes cutting his wrist made him utter
an exclamation of annoyance.

Simultaneously a bell began to tinkle faintly. The men's voices
ceased.

Dacres paid scant heed to these ominous warnings. His one desire was
to get into touch with human beings once more. Standing upon the
lowermost wire and holding upon the one above, he wriggled adroitly
through the fence, then hurried through the wood, half expecting to
find himself upon the road.

But no highway rewarded his efforts. Pine trunk after pine trunk he
passed until it began to occur to him that he was in danger of being
lost in a wood, which was as undesirable as being adrift in the midst
of a foggy moorland.

He paused. All was quiet.

"I'll give a shout," he thought, but before he could raise his voice
there was a sudden scuffling to the right and left of him and a deep
voice exclaimed:--

"Collar him, lads. He's one of them."



CHAPTER VII.

THE RETURN OF THE AIRSHIP.


IT was no time for explanation. Dacres could just discern the
outlines of two men in the act of springing upon him. At this
uncalled-for outrage is blood was up. He would resist first and
explain afterwards.

Stepping agilely aside Dacres thrust out his foot and sent one of his
assailants sprawling on his hands and knees. His comrade, within an
ace of tripping over the other's prostrate body, thought discretion
the better part of valour, and slipped back until he could obtain
assistance.

"What's the meaning of this?" demanded Dacres angrily. "I'm not a
poacher. I've lost my way."

"A likely story," exclaimed the man who had given the order for the
attack. "All the same, you've got to come with us."

"Got to?" repeated Dacres, standing on his guard. "There are two
sides to that question."

A minute before he would have gone anywhere with anyone, and with the
utmost willingness. Now, the aggressive nature of the reception
completely destroyed any such desire.

As he stood with his arms in a professional boxing attitude he heard
other footsteps, crunching on the dry pine-needles.

"Look here," continued the speaker. "It's no use resisting. We are
five to one. You've jolly well got to be brought before the governor.
It may be all right for you or it may not. We've got our orders and
we mean to carry them out. Now, then, are you coming quietly?"

"Evidently they take me for a poacher," thought Dacres. "Perhaps I am
on the pater's preserves. It will be rather a joke if I am, and they
run me in before my own governor."

"Very well, then," he said aloud, "I'll come quietly; only keep your
hands off me."

"We will if you promise to give no trouble," replied the leader of
the party in a mollified tone, "but orders are orders, you know."

"And this is an illegal arrest," added Dacres.

"Maybe," retorted the man coolly. "Anyway, it isn't our pigeon. You
can argue that out with the governor. Quick march, you men."

Two of Dacres' captors faced about with military precision; two more
formed up behind him, while the spokesman kept in the rear. In this
order, and like an escort marching a deserter through the streets,
the men set off through the wood.

Presently they emerged into a circular clearing, measuring roughly
two hundred yards in diameter. The ground was covered with grass mown
as short and as evenly as a cricket pitch, while at equal distances
were five lofty wooden sheds, their fronts level with the surrounding
forest and extending backwards into the dense masses of trees. In
front of each of these buildings a red lamp was burning brightly.

"Can we get him across to the house before----?" whispered one of
Dacres' captors.

"Yes, if we hurry. No, we can't, by Jupiter! There she is."

Overhead, its extremities hidden by the lofty tree tops, was a huge
cylindrical object. In a moment the truth flashed across Dacres'
mind. The mysterious airship was returning to its place of
concealment, and he was the first outsider to stumble upon its secret
hiding-place.

"Remember your promise," hissed the leader of the men. "This is a
mess. I'll have something to answer for. Come on, you chaps."

Followed by three of his companions the man bounded across the open
space. Dacres' remaining captor touched him on the shoulder.

"Get back," he ordered.

"I think not," replied Dacres coolly, although inwardly consumed with
excitement. "I mean to stay where I am."

"You jolly well must," said the man threateningly.

"Thank you, but I'm not used to being ordered about," rejoined Dacres
with a sternness that commanded respect. "I will take the risk. I am
perfectly aware that this is the secret hiding-place of the airship
that has been causing such a stir, and I mean to see my part of the
business through."

"You'll be sorry for it, then," muttered the man. "We guessed as
much. I won't give much for your chances when----"

"My friend, you were not asked to," retorted Dacres. "Remember, I'm
giving no trouble, as I promised. Any trouble which arises depends
solely upon yourself."

The man, powerful though he was, realized that single-handed he was
no match for his athletic prisoner. The rest of his companions had to
hasten to assist in the berthing of the airship. To appeal to them
would be useless. Fortunately, however, the detained intruder made no
attempt to escape.

Fascinated, Dacres watched the strange scene. The airship was almost
touching the tree-tops. It was too dark to distinguish any details of
her construction. She showed no lights, nor was there a suspended
platform visible. He could hear men's voices conversing in subdued
tones, although he was unable to distinguish what was being said.

Presently coils of ropes were thrown down and secured by the men who
had recently been Dacres' assailants. There came a faint hissing
sound like that of escaping air, and, as he watched, Dacres saw the
midship section of the huge envelope drop slowly out of line. Held by
the ropes it sank gently to the ground, and from it emerged two of
the crew, who, assisted by one of the men in waiting guided it into
one of the sheds that Dacres had previously noticed.

Another section followed, and then a third, both of which were placed
under cover. Only the bow and stern portion now remained, till,
smoothly as if they were gliding on a pair of rails, they came
together without the faintest suspicion of a jar.

Even with the removal of the major portion of its bulk, the remaining
sections of the airship were of considerable dimensions. The
extremities almost touched the surrounding trees as the massive
fabric was brought to earth.

Dacres could distinguish no signs of any propellers. The remaining
remaining sections were very much like those already housed, except
for the pointed bow and a long cylindrical projection on either side
and parallel to the major axis of the main body.

Nor were there any elevating planes or rudders to be seen. The whole
fabric seemed to be remarkably simple and business-like in design.

By this time the fore and aft sections of the airship had shed their
crew, and nearly thirty men were holding on to the guide ropes. Again
came the faint hissing sound and once more the giant envelope swung
apart.

Within ten minutes from the lowering of the first rope the huge
leviathan of the air was securely housed in the sheds erected for its
reception. The red lights were switched off and darkness brooded over
the open space.

"Now for it," thought Dacres, as several of the men crossed the green
and approached the spot where he was standing.

"Here is the man, sir," announced the fellow who had directed the
capture.

Without saying a word the person addressed flashed an electric torch
full in the captive's face. It struck Dacres that this was taking
rather a mean advantage, for no man can be at ease with a powerful
glare temporarily blinding him.

"You have made a mistake, Callaghan," said the stranger at length, as
he switched off the light. "This gentleman is not one of our
undesirable friends. You ought to have exercised more discretion."

"I thought, sir----" began Callaghan.

"Never mind what you thought," interrupted the stranger peremptorily.
"What is done is, unfortunately, hardly remediable at present. Excuse
me," he continued addressing himself to Dacres, "but the zeal of my
man rather outran his discretion. I think I am right in assuming that
I am speaking to an Englishman and a gentleman?"

Dacres bowed stiffly. He was still unable to see what his questioner
was like, but judging by his voice he was a comparatively young man.

"I think I can claim to be both," he replied. He was now in no hurry
to furnish explanations. The situation appealed to him, and the more
he could prolong his stay on the forbidden ground the better, he
decided. Cranbury House was for the time being far remote from his
mind.

"Allow me to show you the way to my modest dwelling," continued the
unknown. "There is no need for you to hurry away."

Whether there was any significance in the latter sentence Dacres
could not quite determine. He cared still less, for here, apparently,
was a chance of learning more about the owner of this mysterious
airship.

After giving various directions to his men, the stranger took hold of
Dacres' arm in an easy yet dignified manner.

"Now," he said, "this way. It is rather a rough path."

"It couldn't be rougher than the path I traversed this evening," said
Dacres, but the remark drew no response from his self-constituted
companion.

The track seemed a perfect labyrinth. It wound in sharp curves
between the thickly-clustered trees; sometimes ascending and
sometimes dipping steeply into hollows crowded with dense
undergrowth. The darkness under the foliage was intense, and without
his companions guiding arm Dacres must have collided with the tree
trunks more than once; but the stranger seemed to possess the
instincts of a cat, for unhaltingly he pursued his way with the
certainty of a man familiar with his haunts.

Presently the two men came upon a road that cut its way boldly
through the wood. This the stranger followed for about a hundred
yards, till he stopped in front of a gateway in a tall brick wall.

Had Dacres wished to escape there seemed no reason why he should not
take to his heels, for the roadway was evidently a carriage-drive,
and must lead somewhere. But without hesitation he complied with the
unknown's unspoken request as, with a wave of the hand, he indicated
that his guest should enter.

"Here we are," said the stranger apologetically as they reached the
door of a long rambling house. "We have not the convenience of
electric light here, so I must strike a match and light the lamp."

These words were spoken in such a matter-of-fact way that Dacres
could hardly realize that the speaker was one and the same as the
daring airman who had stirred not only the United Kingdom but the
whole of the civilized world.

Unhesitatingly Dacres followed his host into a plain but
substantially furnished room, and when the lamp was turned up the
former was able to discern the features of his companion.

The owner of the aircraft was the shorter by two inches. He was
sparely built, yet his breadth and depth of chest betokened more than
average strength. His limbs were long in comparison to his body,
while the long, tapering fingers indicated an artistic temperament.
His face was oval, and of a deep tanned colour, his eyes were grey
and evenly set beneath a pair of heavy brows. His hair was brown in
hue and neatly parted in the centre, giving him at first sight a
slightly effeminate appearance. Dacres guessed his age to be about
twenty-five.

His dress consisted of a brown Norfolk suit and riding breeches, box
gaiters and brown boots. Round his neck was a dark green muffler. His
golf-cap and doeskin gloves he tossed upon the table.

"Now we can discuss this little matter, Mr.----?" He raised his
eyebrows interrogatively.

"Dacres is my name--Basil Dacres."

"Ah! Any relation of Colonel Dacres, my nearest neighbour?" he asked.
"His son? That's quite a coincidence. I owe the Colonel a duty call,
but I have been so excessively busy of late that I really haven't had
time. By the by, my name's Whittinghame--Vaughan Whittinghame. I
don't suppose for one moment that you've heard of me before."

"I have reason to dispute that," said Dacres.

"Well, then, as an individual you might, but as far as the name is
concerned----"

"I happened to meet a Gerald Whittinghame in town about five years
ago," said Dacres.

"Oh--how?"

"During the College summer vacation. I met him at General Shaldon's
house, when I was staying with my friend Dick Shaldon. Whittinghame
was then a man of about twenty-two. He had just come home from
somewhere in South America. He was a rattling good left-hand bowler,
I remember."

"That's my brother," said Vaughan Whittinghame quietly. "By the by,
are you a 'Varsity man?"

Dacres shook his head. He did not at present feel inclined to lay his
cards upon the table.

"To get straight to the point," continued Whittinghame, looking his
guest full in the face, "how came you in my grounds this evening?"

"That's easily explained," replied Dacres. "I was on my way to
Cranbury House--I've never been there yet--and I lost my way. Nearly
got stuck in a bog more than once. Eventually I saw a light, and
crawling through a fence"--here he looked regretfully at his torn
clothing "--I found myself confronted by some of your men."

"It is as well you thought better of resisting," said Whittinghame
quietly. "They are tough customers and they know their orders. I may
as well tell you, Mr. Dacres, that I am compelled to detain you here
for a few days."

"Very well," replied Dacres with perfect sangfroid.

It was Whittinghame's turn to look astonished.

"There's nothing like making the best of a bad job," he remarked as
soon as he had mastered his feelings. "'Pon my soul you are a cool
customer. I fully expected that you would have made a dash for it,
when we reached the drive."

"There was nothing to prevent me from so doing," rejoined Dacres.

His host smiled.

"There you're wrong You gave your word you'd come quietly, and I
wanted to test you. If you had attempted to escape you would have
been laid by the heels in a brace of shakes. You honestly assert that
you had no idea that my little airship had her head-quarters here
when you broke through the fence?"

"No, I did not; but honestly I'm glad I found out."

"I am afraid your knowledge will be of no service to anyone save
yourself until there is no further need for concealment, Mr. Dacres.
I trust that your enforced detention will in no wise inconvenience
you?"

"Not in the least," declared Dacres fervently. "I have no immediate
plans."

"But Colonel Dacres?"

"Does not expect me."

"Excuse me, but would you mind telling me what you are?" asked
Whittinghame. "If you do not feel inclined I will not press the
point; but I am interested to know."

"What I am and what I was a few weeks ago are two very different
conditions," said Dacres without hesitation. "I was once a British
naval officer. Now I am a--well, one of the unemployed, I suppose."

"Sorry, 'pon my word," said the other sympathetically. "Let's hear
your story--but wait: you must be famished. I'll get something to eat
and drink."

With that Whittinghame left the room, ostensibly to order
refreshment. He also took the opportunity of consulting the latest
quarterly copy of the official Navy List.

"By Jove! I'm in luck," soliloquized Dacres. "Whittinghame's quite a
decent sort. I may even be able to get him to let me have a trip with
him. Anyway, it's something to occupy my mind, and since the governor
doesn't know I'm in England our somewhat delicate interview can
wait."

He looked round the room. There was nothing to denote the aerial
propensities of his host. Over the mantelpiece was a pair of huge
horns covered with a metallic substance resembling silver. On the
walls were oil-paintings of country scenes which looked suspiciously
like Constable's work. In one corner was a gun rack containing
several twelve bores and rook-rifles; a few fishing-rods and a pair
of waders occupied another. A smoker's cabinet stood on the massive
oak table. The room might well be the den of an ordinary country
gentleman.

Presently Whittinghame returned followed by a serving-man bearing a
loaded tray.

"That will be all to-night, Williamson," said his master. "You can
lock up and go to bed."

"Very good, sir."

"H'm!" thought Dacres, looking at the black-garbed man. "You're a bit
of a quick-change artist, I know." For he recognized the fellow by
his voice: he was the one who had been left to keep an eye on the
captive when the airship returned.

"Now, set to," continued Whittinghame genially. "Then, if you're not
too tired, we can yarn over a pipe."

Until Dacres commenced eating he had no idea how hungry he really
was. The food was plain but appetizing, the cold ham especially, and
he did hearty justice to the repast.

"Fill your pipe--or do you prefer a cigar?" asked his host pointing
to the cabinet. "Try that chair; you'll find it fairly comfortable.
By Jove! your boots are wet. Let me offer you some slippers."

"Yes, I feel sorry for your carpet," said Dacres apologetically as he
stooped to unfasten his bootlaces.

For a few moments both men smoked in silence. Dacres felt that his
host was watching him narrowly, yet he imperturbably puffed at his
pipe.

"Look here, Dacres, old man," Whittinghame suddenly exclaimed, "what
do you say? Will you ship along with me?"



CHAPTER VIII.

WHITTINGHAME'S NARRATIVE.


VAUGHAN WHITTINGHAME had not made the proposal on the spur of the
moment. He already knew the circumstances under which Dacres had left
the Service; he was aware that the young man was "down on his luck;"
he also had found out that he had volunteered for the Royal Flying
Corps.

Dacres was a man who could be useful to him in more ways than one. He
was used to command; he had a thorough knowledge of armaments, and
what was more essential he was used to navigating a ship and could
determine his position by either solar or stellar observation. The
coolness with which he had followed Whittinghame into what might have
proved to be a dangerous trap convinced the latter that the ex-naval
officer was a man on whom he could entirely depend.

"Conditionally--yes," replied Dacres, whereat his companion was even
better pleased. He was not a hot-headed man, he reflected.

"What stipulations do you lay down?" he asked.

"One only," answered Dacres. "That I am not called upon to assist in
committing any acts prejudicial to the interests of King and
country."

"That I can safely agree to. But before I give you any details as to
the nature of my masterpiece I ought to explain the reasons why I
have undertaken a definite mission."

"Quite so," assented Dacres.

"You are not too tired? Would you rather turn in?"

"Not in the least. Fire away; I am all attention."

"You've heard, of course, of Valderia?" began Whittinghame abruptly.

"Yes, that rotten tin-pot South American republic that owes its very
existence to the jealousy between Chili and Peru."

"That's the average Englishman's idea of Valderia. You can take it
from me that that republic is greatly under-rated. The inhabitants,
of course, are of the usual South American type: the better class are
Creoles and the lower class are a mixture of Spanish, Negro, and
Indian blood. You may remember President Santobar? He was
assassinated about two years ago--in March, 1917, to be correct. He
was a most able ruler as far as order and progress went. Under his
presidency Valderia became prosperous. Gold was found there, and
also, although not generally known, platinum. That pair of horns, for
example, is overlaid with thin platinum from the San Bonetta mines.
At current London prices that metal is worth at least eight thousand
pounds.

"My brother Gerald had a mining concession at San Bonetta, which is
less than thirty miles from the capital, Naocuanha. He was held in
great esteem by President Santobar, who often asked his advice on
matters concerning internal transport.

"After a while prosperity turned the Valderians heads. They hankered
after military and naval supremacy amongst the South American
republics; and since Santobar was of a peace-loving disposition,
there was a revolution and he was deposed. Four days after the
revolution the president was murdered, and an octroon named Diego
Zaypuru became dictator.

"A glance at the map will convince anyone who studies the situation
of the favourable physical conditions of Valderia. It has a fair
extent of coast-line, possessing several deep and land-locked
harbours, while a semi-circle of lofty snow-capped mountains,
breaking off abruptly at the coast on the northern and southern
frontiers, form a well-nigh impossible barrier between it and the
neighbouring states.

"Although the climate on the littoral is unhealthy it is quite the
reverse on the three great terraces that lie between the sea and the
Sierras. Not only is there abundant mineral wealth, but two of these
plateaux are extremely suitable for raising corn and rearing cattle.

"Had the Valderians contented themselves with their commercial
advantages they might easily, within a few years, have become the
most prosperous state of South America, but their aptitude for
commerce was outweighed by their desire for the hollow glory of feats
of arms.

"One of President Zaypuru's first acts was to purchase a
Super-Dreadnought that had been constructed at Elswick to the order
of another South American republic; four ocean-going destroyers were
bought from the Vulkan Yard at Stettin, and six semi-obsolete
submarines were obtained from the French government. These formed the
nucleus of the Valderian navy, while docks were constructed at
Zandovar, the port of Naocuanha.

"At the same time an army of fifteen thousand men was raised, armed
with modern rifles, and drilled by ex-non-commissioned officers of
the German army. Of course, President Zaypuru must have an aerial
fleet, and with this object in view he sent for my brother.

"Gerald and I had always been very keen on all matters appertaining
to aviation and aeronautics. Before he left England for Valderia we
prepared plans in duplicate of a veritable Dreadnought of the Air--in
fact, they were the plans from which my airship was constructed.

"It was agreed that as soon as Gerald made sufficient money he was to
return home, and both of us were to carry our long-cherished plan
into effect.

"Somehow, Don Diego Zaypuru came to know of the existence of these
plans, and sending for my brother offered him immense sums if he
would superintend the construction of an aerial Dreadnought on the
lines indicated in the design.

"Gerald had sufficient foresight to be prepared for a rupture. He had
already sent home an amount more than enough to defray the cost of
building and maintaining the projected airship. He was actually about
to leave the country when the President's arbitrary summons was
presented to him.

"There was no love lost between my brother and the murderer of
ex-President Santobar. Gerald point-blank refused to have any truck
with Zaypuru; and because of this refusal my brother was arrested and
thrown into prison, where he still remains.

"It is with the primary object of rescuing my brother from the
clutches of President Zaypuru that my Dreadnought of the Air--the
'Meteor,' as I have named her--has now become an airship in being."

"But surely," remarked Dacres, taking advantage of a pause in the
narrative, "surely the British government would take up the matter,
since the life and liberty of one of its subjects is at stake?"

"You have not yet heard all of the business, Dacres. In the first
place, the lethargy of the British government is proverbial. The time
has passed when England would strike and explain afterwards. Now a
long-winded and generally futile course of diplomatic relations is
the order of things. My own opinion is that sooner than release my
brother President Zaypuru would put him out of the way, disclaim
knowledge of the act, and if pressed offer apologies and a monetary
indemnity.

"But there is another phase in the story of Valderia. You remember,
of course, a renegade called von Harburg?"

"The fellow Captain Restronguet tracked and eventually discovered
dead somewhere in Portuguese East Africa. Yes, and curiously enough I
met Hythe in town this afternoon."

"In all probability you'll meet again ere long; but to carry on. Von
Harburg's base was in the Dutch East Indies, and, when the 'Vorwartz'
was captured, the renegade's Sumatran retreat was occupied by Dutch
troops and the remainder of his gang dispersed.

"The fellow whom von Harburg had left in charge of his repairing-base
was a Mexican named Reno Durango. He is a clever rascal, from all
accounts, for on being pushed out of Sumatra--he managed, by the by,
to get clear with a tidy sum of money--he volunteered his services to
President Zaypuru as adviser to the submarine branch of the infant
Valderian navy.

"The semi-obsolete French submarines were equipped with many of von
Harburg's really dangerous means of offence; while Durango managed to
build a large airship from the plans which had been found in Gerald's
house. Of course that airship does not embody all my inventions,
still it is not to be despised. I would class it as superior to any
dirigible now owned by the Great Powers.

"But to get back to the submarine part of my narrative. Reno
Durango's ambition was to acquire the secrets of the British 'M'
class of submarines--those built to the same type as the renowned
'Aphrodite.' And with this object in view, I hear from a very
trustworthy source--from one of my brother's native assistants and a
real loyal man to his employer's interests--that Durango is on his
way to England to attempt to steal the specifications from the
British Admiralty."

Dacres smiled.

"Surely," he said incredulously, "the fellow doesn't know the utter
impracticability of his scheme. His appearance, his accent, would
betray him. Besides, see how jealously those secrets are guarded."

"Perhaps you do not know that this rascal was educated in England--at
a public school near London. He speaks English perfectly. He is as
wily as a fox, and since he has ample funds--well, there have been
instances of high officials being known to sell state secrets for a
considerable bribe, you know."

"The Admiralty ought to be warned."

"I agree with you. I mean to do so; but there is plenty of time.
Durango is still on the high seas. Now you can follow my plan of
operation. The 'Meteor' has now passed her final trials. In a few
days I mean to offer my services to the Admiralty and to ask for a
letter of marque to destroy the airship that the Valderian government
has taken under its protection. In the course of this operation I
hope to rescue my brother."

"But Valderia is a friendly state. The republic has been recognized
by the Powers," objected Dacres.

"Admitted; but the airship is still the private property of Reno
Durango, and since that rogue is branded as an outlaw--for the
declaration by the Great Powers against Karl von Harburg and his gang
has never been withdrawn--he is still the lawful prey to anyone who
can lay him by the heels."

"When taking refuge in a neutral country?"

"We'll see about that later on," rejoined Whittinghame grimly.
"Suppose we knock off now; you've quite enough to dream about
to-night."

"One moment," said Dacres, a thought flashing across his mind. "What
is this fellow Durango like?"

"I'll describe him--no, I won't. I've a photograph of him somewhere.
I'll fetch it."

"Don't trouble."

"No trouble at all. Have another cigar."

Whittinghame hurried out of the room, soon to return with a cabinet
photograph in his hand.

"Here you are," he announced. Dacres took the photograph. One glance
was sufficient.

"It strikes me rather forcibly that you are mistaken about Reno
Durango," he remarked. "He is not on the high seas: he's in England.
I travelled from Waterloo in the same carriage with him this
afternoon."



CHAPTER IX.

THE FLIGHT TO LONDON.

WHITTINGHAME sprang to his feet, the muscles of his face working with
excitement.

"That's serious--decidedly serious," he exclaimed. "We can't afford
to underrate that fellow. Look here, Dacres, there's a job for you
the first thing to-morrow. Your formal introduction to the 'Meteor'
can wait."

"Very good; what is it?"

"You told me you knew Commander Hythe; go up to town to-morrow
morning and warn him. Don't give him the name of your informant,
merely say that Reno Durango is in England, and was seen in a
Portsmouth train. That will be enough--he knows the character of the
rogue. If we can nab the fellow on English soil that will save a lot
of complications, for otherwise it won't end only in a rupture
between Great Britain and Valderia. Valderia is only a pawn in the
game as far as Durango is concerned. If he succeeds in obtaining the
secret specifications and getting back to Zandovar he will, of
course, apply his knowledge to the improvement of the Valderian
submarines."

Whittinghame paused to wipe his face. The perspiration was slowly
trickling down his forehead. He was labouring under intense mental
strain. Dacres made no remark. He allowed his companion to take his
time. Presently Whittinghame resumed.

"No, Valderia hardly counts in Durango's estimation. He is playing
for higher stakes. Once he has succeeded in working the
specifications what is there to prevent him from negotiating with
some of the Great Powers? Should the secret pass into the hands of
our avowed rivals, in a very short space of time they would possess a
fleet of submarines of the 'Aphrodite' type, and our present
unquestionable superiority would become a thing of the past."

"I see the drift of your argument," said Dacres. "In a way, Durango
indirectly gains you the sympathy of the government, and your plans
to rescue your brother will be facilitated."

"You've hit the right nail on the head, Dacres," observed
Whittinghame. "Now let's see about turning in. It is half-past one."

Dacres was shown into a small but well-furnished bedroom. He noticed,
with considerable surprise, that his small handbag for immediate use
was placed on a chair by, the side of his bed.

"Hang it!" he exclaimed, as soon as he was left alone. "I clean
forgot all about that bag. I must have dropped it when Callaghan and
Co. tracked me in the wood. Well, I'm in luck--by Jove, I am! Here I
am signed on for service in the mysterious airship--and already
entrusted with an important mission. By the by, I wonder what that
fellow Callaghan meant by saying, 'He's one of them!' I'll ask
Whittinghame in the morning."

Even the momentous events of the day did not keep Dacres from
sleeping. In less than ten minutes he was lost to the world in a
sound, dreamless slumber.

At seven o'clock Dacres was awakened by a knock on the door, and in
reply to his "All right" the man Williamson, who had acted as butler
on the preceding evening, entered.

"Your bath is ready, sir," he announced, "and Mr. Whittinghame
presents his compliments and would you care to make use of this suit
of clothes until you can get your luggage?"

Half an hour later Dacres, rigged out in a suit of his host's--which
fitted him fairly well considering the slight difference in
height--entered the diningroom, where breakfast was already served.

"Hope it's not too early for you," remarked Whittinghame after the
customary morning greetings, "but the matter is urgent. One of my
monoplanes will be ready for you at half-past eight. With luck you
ought to be at the Admiralty soon after ten--that, I believe, is the
usual hour at which the officials arrive preparatory to duty. All
being well you should be back by noon. If, for any unforeseen cause,
you are detained you might communicate with me."

"How?" asked Dacres; "by telegraph?"

Whittinghame shook his head.

"Too risky, in spite of the vaunted 'official reticence' of the
Postmaster-General. No, there is another way--by wireless."

"By wireless?" echoed Dacres.

"Why not? The monoplane is fitted with an installation of the latest
type, and Callaghan, who is to pilot you, is a skilled operator. You
give him any message and he will transmit it in code."

"There was one thing I meant to ask you," said Dacres, in the course
of the meal. "Have any persons attempted to trespass upon your
property?"

"Yes, several," was the reply. "At first I had a lot of trouble with
poachers, until I effectually scared them off. After that I had to
deal with one or two members of Durango's gang."

"Then, Durango knows of the existence of the 'Meteor' and of her
place of concealment?"

"Oh, no. He knows through his spies that I have taken a house in the
New Forest, but I do not for one moment think he suspects that the
'Meteor' is hidden here. To conceal an airship of over a thousand
feet in length in a comparatively small plantation seems illogical.
That is the beauty of the whole scheme. He knows right enough who the
owner of the 'Meteor' is--he has good reasons for so doing--but it is
to his own interests to keep that a secret."

"Why do his agents prowl about here?"

"Under his orders. I don't believe that they even know who or what he
is, but money will work wonders. If these fellows had the opportunity
I don't suppose they would hesitate to kidnap or even murder me; but
I don't give them the chance. You may recollect that when you made
your way through the fence a bell rang?"

"Now you mention it, I do."

"That is for the purpose of raising an alarm. Also two of the wires
of that fence are electrically charged. By a thousand to one chances
you missed them. Had you touched them you would have been held
powerless till my men released you. Again, had you made a dash for
liberty last night, you would have found the drive barred by a gate.
Naturally you would either open it, or vault over the top. In either
case you would have been stopped by the live wire and become as
helpless as a fly stuck to a fly paper."

"Then, perhaps it's as well I didn't attempt it," remarked Dacres
with a smile. "I'm jolly glad I didn't for other reasons. But what
happens when tradesmen and _bona fide_ visitors call?"

"They are few and far between," replied Whittinghame. "We make due
allowance for them. Fifty yards beyond the electrically-charged gate
is another gate. The lodge-keeper has to open that, and if he is
certain that the callers are above suspicion, he switches off the
current and telephones up to the house."

"Then, where is the generating station?"

"Underground. In fact, all the gas-producing plant and workshops are
underground. I'll show them to you when you return. By a rare slice
of luck the house is built on the site of an old royal hunting-lodge,
and the extensive cellars still remain, although long forgotten until
we discovered them by pure accident. Otherwise, had the workshops to
be above ground, the risk of detection would be infinitely great. But
it's close on the half-hour. Are you ready for your journey?"

On a lawn in front of the house was a two-seated monoplane, one of
the standard "Velox" design that had recently become popular in Great
Britain. Aviation as a means of making a journey had become quite
common, and an aeroplane in flight attracted no more attention than a
taxi in the Strand.

Callaghan, a burly, good-natured Irishman, was already in the pilot's
seat. On his left was the wireless installation which, since the
monoplane was automatically steered when once in the air, could be
worked without detriment to Callaghan's other duties. The passenger's
seat, in the rear and slightly higher than the pilot's, was protected
from the wind and rain by an enclosed structure resembling the body
of the now defunct hansom-cab. To view the country beneath him the
passenger could make use of the two sponson-like windows on either
side, through which the traveller, leaning sideways, could see
immediately below.

There was no necessity for half a dozen men to hang on to the
monoplane's tail. As soon as Dacres had taken his seat, Callaghan
thrust forward a short lever and the propeller began to revolve. The
passenger was made aware that the flight had begun by reason of his
head coming into contact with the padded back of the cab, and by a
sinking sensation in the region of his waist like the experience when
being suddenly jerked up in a lift.

Beyond that there was nothing to give an impression of flight. The
glass protected him from the wind and silenced the buzz of the
powerful rotary motor, and it was not until Dacres looked over the
side and saw the moorland and forest slipping away beneath him that
he realized that he was being borne through the air at one hundred
and twenty miles an hour.

Even at that terrific speed the light westerly wind caused an
appreciable drift. In eight minutes the monoplane was over and
slightly to the west of Southampton. Here Callaghan altered the
course to counteract the cross air-current, and three minutes later
Winchester, nestling between the downs, glided underneath like a
panoramic effect. Then Alton and Aldershot were left behind in quick
succession, and forty minutes after leaving the ground Dacres
discerned the Thames looking like a silvery thread amidst the meadows
and woods of Middlesex and Surrey.

With the rapid progress and popularity of aviation many of the
restrictions that had been placed upon the pioneers of this branch of
aeronautics had been abolished. It was no longer forbidden to fly
over towns, and the metropolis was no exception. In fact, a portion
of Hyde Park had, with part of other open spaces, been allotted to
the use of airmen.

It was to the Hyde Park alighting station that Callaghan steered. Had
he been a stranger to London he could easily have found his way by
reason of hundreds of aeroplanes making for or returning from the
most central aviation ground in the metropolis.

Speed was reduced to a safe forty miles an hour, which, after the
rapid rush, seemed to Dacres more like a painful crawl in a motor-bus
through Cheapside.

Almost immediately beneath them was Hyde Park. The monoplane was
circling now in company with ten more, spread out at regular
intervals like a flock of wood-pigeons in flight.

Presently Callaghan's practised eye caught sight of the signal he was
waiting for: a huge red and white disk rotated till its face was
visible from above. It was to signify that the ground was clear to
receive the next batch of waiting 'planes. Fascinated, Dacres watched
the sward apparently rising to meet him. The volplane was so steep
that it seemed that nothing could prevent the monoplane from being
dashed to bits upon the earth. So acute was the angle that he had to
plant his feet firmly against the front of the cab to prevent himself
from slipping from his seat.

Suddenly the whole fabric tilted upwards, then with a barely
perceptible jar and a strange sensation in the back of his neck,
Dacres found himself on terra firma in the heart of the metropolis.

"We would have done it in forty-eight minutes, sir, if it hadn't been
for that block," remarked Callaghan apologetically, as he opened the
door. "You'll find me over by that pylon, sir. We are not allowed to
wait here."

"Very good," replied Dacres, and feeling rather stiff in his lower
limbs, hurried to the exit, called a taxi, and was soon bowling along
towards Whitehall.

"I wish to see Commander Hythe," he announced to the petty-officer
messenger on duty at the Admiralty.

The man consulted a register.

"I'm sorry, sir," he replied, "but Commander Hythe is not in the
building. Mr. Wells is doing duty for him. Would you wish to see Mr.
Wells sir?"

"I don't know the man," thought Dacres, "and I don't suppose he'll
know me. In any case, he can tell me where Hythe is with more
certainty than the messenger. Very well," he said. "I'll see Mr.
Wells."

Much to his disgust Dacres had to cool his heels in a waiting-room
for full twenty minutes until the official was at liberty to receive
him.

Commander Hythe was on duty at Portsmouth, Dacres was informed. It
was quite uncertain when he would return: it might be a matter of a
few hours or it might be a couple of days.

"We've got to run down to Portsmouth, Callaghan," announced Dacres as
he rejoined the monoplane. "Send a message to Mr. Whittinghame and
explain that Commander Hythe is away on duty and that I am going to
get in touch with him."

"Very good, sir. I'll send off a wireless when we are clear of this
place. I'll land you on the Officers' Recreation Ground."

"That will do nicely," agreed Dacres as he took his seat.

Thirty-nine minutes after leaving Hyde Park the monoplane shaved past
the tower of Portsmouth Town Hall and alighted at the spot the
Irishman had suggested.

From a police inspector at the Dockyard gate Dacres elicited the
information that Commander Hythe was engaged with the
Commander-in-Chief, and that it was very doubtful whether he could be
seen.

"But I must see him," declared Dacres peremptorily, "the
Commander-in-Chief notwithstanding. This is official and not private
business. Would you mind letting me have paper and envelope? I'll
write a note and one of your men can take it to Commander Hythe."

Five minutes later a telephone message was received at the gate to
the effect that Commander Hythe would receive Mr. Dacres at once.

"Hulloa, old man!" exclaimed the youthful commander as Dacres was
shown into the office.

"You've come at a very busy time. I can give you five minutes only.
What can I do for you?"

Hythe's usually cheerful face looked drawn and haggard. It seemed as
if he had aged ten years since yesterday, when Dacres met him in
Northumberland Avenue.

"I've been sent to warn you that the plans of the 'M' class of
submarines are in danger."

"To warn me," echoed Hythe grimly. "My dear fellow, you're too late.
The plans and specifications were stolen from the manager's
confidential record room between six last evening and this morning.
That's why I'm here."



CHAPTER X.

THE STOLEN PLANS.


"RENO DURANGO is the culprit," said Dacres. "If you lay him by the
heels the secret will be safe."

"But the fellow isn't in England," objected Hythe.

"Perhaps not," agreed Dacres. "But he was last night. I saw him in
the train."

"Then why on earth didn't you report the matter?"

"Simply because I had then no idea who or what he was. I know now."

"Come and see the Admiral," said the Commander, taking his friend by
the arm.

"One minute. Look here, old man, I'm in a bit of a fix. I'm not a
free agent in the matter. Besides----"

"Can't be helped. This is a matter of national importance."

"Very well, then; only don't give the show away that I once held his
Majesty's commission."

Dacres found himself in the company of the Commander-in-Chief, the
Admiral Superintendent of the Dockyard, two naval secretaries, the
Superintendent of Police, and two high officials from Scotland Yard.

To these he related the circumstances under which he had met the
Mexican in the train, and that he had come purposely to warn his
friend, Commander Hythe, that the plans of the submarines were in
danger.

"Did you come here on your own initiative, sir?" asked one of the
Scotland Yard men.

"No," replied Dacres. "I was acting under instructions."

"Whose, might I ask?"

This was an awkward question. Dacres hesitated.

"One who has good reason to wish to see Durango arrested," he replied
guardedly. "I'm not at liberty at present to divulge his name."

"But suppose we insist?" asked the Commander-in-Chief bluntly.

"No useful purpose would result, sir," said Dacres boldly. "In fact,
the chances of recovering the papers would be considerably retarded.
I will return at once to my principal and inform him of the loss of
the documents. No doubt he will act promptly and unreservedly in
conjunction with you. Meanwhile, I would suggest that you ascertain
what ships left Southampton between six o'clock yesterday and the
present time. By giving a description of this Señor Durango you will
possibly be able to find out whether he has left the country."

"That we propose to do," said one of the Scotland Yard officials with
owl-like wisdom. As a matter of fact, such an idea had not previously
entered his head.

"Very well, gentlemen," said Dacres firmly, "I will now take my
leave. I can assure you that at present I can be of no further use to
you. No doubt my principal will communicate with you in due course."

Dacres certainly held the whip hand. He was no longer a naval officer
subject to the King's Regulations; there was not the faintest excuse
for arresting him, while his vague hint as to what might happen if he
were detained could not be ignored.

Hythe followed him into the ante-room.

"I say, old man," he exclaimed, "what sort of enterprise have you
embarked upon?"

"Something that will never cause me to regret leaving the Service,"
replied Dacres. "You'll be surprised when you are told, but I cannot
say any more about it at present. Cheer up, old fellow! We'll get
those plans before there's any serious damage done."

"Stop at Southampton, Callaghan," ordered Dacres, as calmly as if he
were giving directions to a taxi-driver. "Somewhere as close to the
shipping offices as you can."

The pilot was "all out" to break records, and within eight minutes of
the time of rising from the ground he alighted at Southampton--a
distance of sixteen miles as the crow flies.

Dacre's instincts prompted him first to visit the offices of a
Brazilian steamship company. Fortune favoured him, for he made the
discovery that a man answering to his description of Señor Durango
had booked a passage on board the S.S "Maranhao." The ship had
cleared Southampton Docks at 10 a.m.

"She's well down Channel by this time," soliloquised Dacres. "The
rogue is safe for the time being, for the authorities dare not arrest
him on a vessel flying Brazilian colours."

"What is the speed of the 'Maranhao'?" he asked of the English clerk
in the firm's office.

"She's a fairly slow boat, sir," replied the man apologetically. "You
see, she's running a relief trip, because the 'Alagoas' has broken
her mainshaft. Twelve knots would be her average."

Dacres thanked him for the information and inquired when the
"Maranhao" was likely to arrive at her destination--Pernambuco.

The man was unable to hazard an opinion, but in answer to further
inquiries said that the distance from Southampton to Pernambuco was
3920 seamiles.

Allowing for a stop at Cape Verde Islands, Dacres came to the
conclusion that the "Maranhao" would take at least thirteen and a
half days to reach Pernambuco. This was reassuring, and having
thanked the clerk for the trouble he had taken, he rejoined Callaghan
and gave instructions to be whirled back to Whittinghame's retreat.

"We're too late," he announced as Vaughan Whittinghame came from the
house to meet him. "Durango has contrived to get hold of the plans."

"Knowing the man I am not surprised," replied the owner of the
"Meteor" calmly. "Have they collared him?"

"No; he's on the high seas. In another thirteen or fourteen days
he'll land at Pernambuco--if he doesn't double on his tracks and
disembark at Las Palmas or Cape Verde."

"He won't," said Whittinghame. "He'll get across to Naocuanha as
sharp as he can possibly manage it. We'll try to nab him when he
enters Valderian territory. It would be too risky to do so before."

As briefly as he could Dacres related the incidents of his aerial
journey and his interview with the authorities at Portsmouth.

"I told them that in the interests of the Empire you would doubtless
communicate with them direct," he added.

"I will," assented Whittinghame.

"When?" asked Dacres eagerly.

"Plenty of time. Let them have a chance to indulge in a mild panic.
We will pay them an official visit at the end of the week--say on
Saturday."

"We?" repeated Dacres.

"Yes--in the 'Meteor' There are times when dramatic moments are
desirable, and this is one of them. I'll write to the
Commander-in-Chief and inform him that the airship that has caused so
much stir in official circles will appear at Portsmouth at 10 a.m. on
the 9th instant, and that her commander will, in support of his
deputy's assurances, communicate an important announcement to the
representatives of My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty--sounds
imposing, eh? Well, let's have lunch, and then I'll introduce you to
the 'Meteor.'"

During the meal Whittinghame studiously avoided talking "shop." He
discussed topics of ordinary interest with consummate ease, his
knowledge of all branches of sport being especially profound. He had
all the noteworthy records of athletics at his fingers' ends, and had
the happy knack of imparting his knowledge without conveying the idea
that he was trying to be pedantic.

"Before we go outside," he said, after lunch was over, "suppose we
have a look at the workshops?"

"I should be delighted," assented his guest.

"This is my private entrance," announced Whittinghame, touching an
almost invisible projection on the wall and causing a secret panel to
open. "At one time it was a boast that an Englishman's house was his
castle, but that is no longer true. Since I cannot prevent the
minions of the Government from entering my house and taking an
immense amount of data for some useless purpose, I must protect my
own interests by this means. I discovered the secret panel after the
under-ground cellars had been opened up from outside. Evidently it
was a 'Priest's hole,' or refuge in troublous times. This is a
seventeenth century house built over cellars of a much older date.
Mind the steps; they are a lot worn in places."

At the lowermost step Whittinghame stopped and unlocked a
baize-covered door. A faint buzz greeted Dacre's ears.

"The doors are almost sound-proof," continued his guide. "Wait while
I switch on a light."

The brilliant glow from an electric lamp revealed the fact that they
were standing in a long narrow passage, with a door at the far end
similar to the one that had just been opened.

"You wonder why I use lamps in a house when there is electric
lighting in the cellars?" asked Whittinghame, noting the look of
surprise on his companion's face. "It's easy to explain. If I had
electric fittings installed in the house they would cause comment. By
retaining the old-fashioned system of lighting it helps to keep up
the deception that this is a remote country house and the home of a
simple country gentleman of limited means. This is the retort room,"
he added, opening the second sound-proof door.

The place reeked of gas. Dacres felt somewhat apprehensive, for there
were no visible means of ventilation.

"Quite harmless," said Whittinghame reassuringly. "We use electricity
for producing the gas ultra-hydrogen we term it. I had the secret
from a German scientist who was unable to sell his priceless formula
in his own country. He was regarded as a lunatic, poor fellow. This
ultra-hydrogen has, under equal conditions of density and capacity,
three times the lifting-power of ordinary hydrogen. Nor is that all:
it is absolutely non-inflammable."

"By Jove!" ejaculated Dacres, too surprised to say anything else.

"Yes," continued his companion. "You may well express astonishment.
Just think: nine-tenths of the dangers to which an airship is exposed
are by this stupendous discovery. Thanks to the practical
non-porosity of the ballonettes of the 'Meteor' we have not yet found
it necessary to recharge them. We are, however, laying in a reserve
supply of ultra-hydrogen and storing it under pressure in cast-steel
cylinders."

"Then, what happens when you want to descend?" asked Dacres. "Has not
the gas to be released?"

"No, otherwise we should have to continually rely upon our reserve of
ultra-hydrogen. It is six weeks since the 'Meteor' made her first
flight, by the by."

"Then, how do you manage to husband the supply of gas in the
ballonettes?"

"There are no less than a hundred of these sub-divisions. Each
consists of two skins, the outer one of rigid aluminium, the inner of
flexible non-porous fabric. When we wish to descend--apart from the
action of the horizontal planes--the ultra-hydrogen is exhausted from
the required number of ballonettes and forced under great pressure
into steel cylinders similar to those you see here. Air at the normal
atmospheric pressure is then introduced into the ballonettes until
the weight of the airship is slightly heavier than air.

"These men you see working here also form part of the crew of the
'Meteor.' In due course I shall muster them and give them proper
notice of your appointment as navigating officer to the vessel. I
might mention, however, that every one of them has seen service in
the Royal Navy. They are all trained men, who, under the rotten short
service system, have been cast aside by the Admiralty when they might
be of the best possible use."

"Aren't you afraid that some of them might betray your secret?"

Whittinghame laughed.

"No," he replied emphatically, "I am not. Many people imagine that
nowadays there is not such a thing as honour. Government officials
wonder why important secrets leak out. They threaten their employees
with dire pains and penalties, instead of paying them decent wages
and appealing to their sense of honour. I know that for a fact. My
experience teaches me that so long as you pick your men carefully in
the first instance, pay them adequately, and treat them
considerately, they'll stick to you through thick and thin with
unswerving loyalty. Now let us visit the workshops. There is not much
to be seen, for all the constructive work is now completed, but you
will be able to form some idea of how an airship of over one thousand
feet in length was constructed in secret."

The next cellar was about fifty feet in length and twenty-five in
breadth, and practically bare.

"This is our mould loft," explained Whittinghame. "Through dire
necessity we were compelled to make the work in comparatively small
sections. Each subdivision was assembled here before taken into the
open air. I might add that the whole work of finally assembling the
parts was done without the use of a hammer. Over thirty thousand
bolts and nuts were used in setting up the completed craft. In the
next room are the lathes and fitters' benches; beyond that are the
electric rolls for making the aluminium sheets, and the hydraulic
presses for moulding them into shape. But I do not think we need
waste time there; suppose we devote our attention to an inspection of
the 'Meteor'?"



CHAPTER XI.

THE "METEOR."


WHITTINGHAME conducted his companion to the open air by a different
route from that by which they had gained the subterranean workshops.
It was a fairly broad way, of quite recent construction, and sloping
gently for quite eighty yards and finishing, up by a steep incline.

Dacres found himself in the midst of a thick wood, an avenue the
width of the passage terminating at the rear of a large shed. But
instead of entering the building, Whittinghame broke away to the left
by a narrow footpath, which by a circuitous route gained the open
space where Dacres had obtained his first glimpse of the returning
airship.

At first he was puzzled. There was the circular clearing with its
closely-mown grass, but no signs of the five airship-sheds.

Pulling out a whistle Whittinghame gave two sharp blasts. This signal
was almost immediately followed by the appearance of three men clad
in dungaree suits.

"Open up No I. shed, Parsons," ordered the "Meteor's" owner, then
turning to his companion he observed: "That's my chief engineer. He
is absolutely part and parcel of the 'Meteor's' machinery. What he
doesn't know about motors is hardly worth troubling about. Now
watch."

The engineer and his two assistants disappeared behind a clump of
trees. Then, even as Dacres looked, a number of lofty pines moved
bodily sideways with regimental precision, disclosing the end of one
of the sheds that he had seen overnight.

"We have to disguise our sheds as much as possible," said
Whittinghame. "Those trees are dummies set in a base that travels on
wheels on a pair of rails. They would defy detection unless anyone
were warned as to their nature. The roof too, is covered with
artificial tree-tops. An airman passing overhead would have no idea
that there were five sheds each two hundred and forty feet in length,
forty-five feet in height and forty in breadth hidden in this
comparatively small wood. Now, this is the bow section of the
'Meteor.' A noble craft, I think you'll admit."

As soon as his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-gloom Dacres saw that
the pointed bow was facing him, while on either side of the main
fabric was a smaller cylinder open at each end.

"Those contain the propellers," explained his guide. "The airship has
four cylinders with two propellers in each. The foremost propeller
works at 1,200 revolutions per minute, and the backdraught is taken
up by the rear propeller, which runs at twice that speed. The
cylinders form a partial silencer, so that, except through an arc of
about eleven degrees, its centre parallel to the major axis of the
airship, the whirr of the blades is practically inaudible when at a
height of two hundred or more feet above the ground. Do you notice
those plates of metal lying against the outer envelope?"

"One above and one underneath the propeller covering?"

"Yes, those are the elevating planes and rudders, 'housed' for the
time being to allow the craft to enter her shed. The motors are in
the centre of the body, the propeller shafting being chain-driven."
"What do you use--petrol?" asked Dacres.

Whittinghame shook his head.

"Too dangerous," he replied. "We use cordite."

"Eh?" ejaculated Dacres incredulously.

"Yes, cordite: the ideal fuel for internal combustion engines. You
must be perfectly aware of the properties of cordite. In the open air
and not under pressure it burns slowly; but under pressure its
explosive capabilities are enormous. Our motors are actuated by
introducing small charges of cordite into the cylinders and exploding
them by electricity. The principle is similar to that of a maxim gun,
only of course we don't use cartridges on a belt. The cylinder
chamber itself acts as a cartridge case. Suppose we go aboard?"

Whittinghame indicated a wire rope-ladder running from a doorway
about twenty feet from the ground.

"The whole of the underbody of the outer envelope is watertight," he
remarked. "The 'Meteor' can float on the sea if necessary. Of course
there are observation scuttles and bomb-dropping ports, but these can
be hermetically sealed."

Agilely Dacres swarmed up the swinging ladder and passed through the
doorway. He found himself in a room twenty feet square, and ten in
height, with circular ports on one side and doors on the transverse
bulkheads. In the floor were two rectangular openings furnished with
plate-glass, but for the time being shuttered on the outside by
closely-fitting slides.

"This is our forward bomb-dropping compartment," continued
Whittinghame as he regained his companion. "The devices for that
purpose are behind that partition. All the ammunition is stored in
the 'midship or No. 3 section and transported along these rails as
required. We also keep stores here, the idea being that should the
various sections of the airship have to part company each will be
self-supporting in a double sense.

"The next compartment for'ard contains the mechanism for actuating
the vertical rudders. Above that are the motor-rooms, while right
for'ard are the twin navigation-rooms. We'll have a look at the
motor-rooms first of all. By the by, those are the cylinders for
storing the ultra-hydrogen under pressure. At the present moment the
dead weight of this section is less than fifty pounds."

"But we weigh more than that," observed Dacres.

"Quite so; but the buoyancy is automatically maintained. As you
crossed the threshold of the doorway you stepped upon a plate
resembling the floor of aweigh-bridge. At once a sufficient quantity
of ultra-hydrogen is introduced into the ballonettes to counteract
your weight, and, in fact, the weight of any person or article
brought on board."

"I'm afraid I'm curious," said Dacres, "but what will happen when we
go 'ashore'? Will the volume of the gas in the ballonettes be
correspondingly reduced?"

"Yes, but not wholly automatically. You will have to record your
weight on an indicator, and the adjustment then takes place. That
dial you see on the bulkhead gives the total lifting power of the
whole of the ballonettes. That instrument to the left makes the
necessary compensating adjustments to the airship according to the
temperature, altitude, and amount of moisture in the air."

In the starboard engine-room Dacres noticed that each of the two
motors had four cylinders of comparatively small bore considering the
horsepower developed.

"These are not air-cooled?" he asked pointing to the motors.

"No, water-cooled. This system serves a dual purpose, for the water
circulates throughout all the cabins of the section, and if necessary
through Nos. 2 and 3 section as well, thus affording a warmth that is
appreciated when we are flying at a great altitude. Ten to twelve
thousand feet is our favourite height, for then we can command a
field of vision--provided the atmosphere is clear--of anything up to
one hundred and twenty miles. Now for the upper navigation-room--your
future post."

This compartment was situated under the commencement of the tapering
portion of the envelope, its roof and walls being formed by the
rounded surface of the outer skin. Here there were several
observation panes, so that a fairly extensive view could be obtained.
It was impossible, however, to see immediately below, and on this
account the necessity of a second navigation-room was apparent.

It reminded Dacres strongly of the conning-tower of a battleship,
except that the scuttles were much larger than the slits in the
armoured walls of the latter. A standard compass, chart-table,
gauges, indicator, voice-tubes, and telephones left very little space
unoccupied.

Professional habit prompted Dacres to unfasten a sextant case and
critically examine the instrument. "Can't say I altogether like this
chap," he observed bluntly. "If you don't mind I'll use my own
sextant. It's with the rest of my luggage at Fenchurch Street
Station."

"We'll send for it, by all means," said Whittinghame. "I frankly
admit that I'm not much use at fixing positions, and one sextant is
very much like another to me. The difficulty of getting hold of a
competent navigator worried me considerably until you trespassed upon
my property. I'm jolly glad you did."

"And so am I," said Dacres cordially.

"Now you've seen practically everything of importance in the foremost
section," continued his companion. "The rest of the available space
is taken up with ballonettes. No. 2 section is devoted to crew space,
stores, and of course more ballonettes. No. 3 contains the
wireless-room, the ammunition and reserve of cordite for propelling
purposes, in No. 4 the officers are berthed, while the aftermost, or
No. 5, is practically identical with No. 1."

"But how are the various divisions kept in position?" asked Dacres.

"By means of double-cam action bolts. The 'Meteor' is of a semi-rigid
type. Her great length would be a positive danger if she were
otherwise, while she would be most awkward to manoeuvre. As it is we
can turn her in a radius equal to twice her length. In violent
air-currents she 'whips' considerably; it's a weird experience until
you get accustomed to it, but therein lies another proof of safety.
It is analogous to the case of a tall chimney that sways in a gale.
If it didn't it would snap like a carrot.

"The upper surface of the envelope is flattened, and we have a
promenade deck exactly one thousand feet in length. Of course it is
only available when we are running at a greatly reduced speed or are
brought up. At a very high rate of speed you would be unable to keep
your feet and run a great risk of having the air forced out of your
lungs."

"A most marvellous craft!" exclaimed Dacres enthusiastically. "How I
shall enjoy a cruise in her!"

"I hope you will," added Whittinghame gravely.

"Are you making another trip before you take her to Portsmouth?"

"I think not. I do not believe in purposeless flights. Her final
trials have been successfully passed, and now nothing remains to be
done until she is required to perform some task for the well-being of
the British nation."

As the two men prepared to descend the ladder Whittinghame suddenly
remarked:--

"You'll meet the rest of the officers to-night, Dacres. Hambrough,
our doctor, turns up at five. You'll like him, I think. He's a real
good sort, and as keen as anything on the voyage. I don't suppose
he'll have much to do, for these high altitudes are so beastly
healthy; but there's no telling. He hasn't seen the 'Meteor' yet; in
fact, he's only just resigned his post as medical officer to a North
of England hospital. Setchell, who will be next in seniority to you,
is at present on leave. We dropped him near his home at Plymouth
about three weeks ago. He had urgent domestic affairs to demand his
attention, and our wireless man here got in touch with us as we were
passing over the Pennines. We made a rattling good run down to
Plymouth--rattling good--but cut it rather fine in getting back here.
I was almost afraid that we should be spotted, but luckily we
descended without being detected. Setchell will also be here at about
the same time. Callaghan will pick the pair of them up at Holmsley
Station. By Jove! It's close on five already. How time flies when
you're busy. We had better get back to the house."



CHAPTER XII.

THE "METEOR'S" DEBUT.


SETCHELL and Dr. Hambrough arrived before Whittinghame and his
companion had completed their preparations for dinner, and as soon as
the formal introductions were gone through, the thin ice of reserve
quickly vanished.

Dacres instinctively felt that he would have true comrades on his
first commission in the Dreadnought of the Air.

The two new arrivals were quite different in temperament. Setchell
was vivacious--even boisterous at times; while the doctor was grave
and dignified--at first one might have thought he was taciturn.

They were both fairly young men--under thirty--and as keen on their
work as Whittinghame could possibly desire.

"We're now practically ready to put the 'Meteor' into full
commission," observed Whittinghame. "All her stores are on board.
Dacres has to have his kit brought from London, and there is about
another half-day's work to complete the charging of the reserve
cylinders. So we'll have 'divisions' to-morrow, and put the men into
their proper watches. You brought those rifles along with you all
right, Setchell?"

"Rather. There are two cases of them at Holmsley Station, and four
boxes of ammunition. With the eight thousand rounds we already
have--I suppose you haven't expended any yet, sir--that ought to be
ample."

"Very good," assented the skipper. "We'll send a trolley for them
early to-morrow morning. By the by, how did you get on after we
dropped you at Yealmpton?"

Setchell laughed.

"You might have been more discriminating, sir, but I suppose we must
make allowances for the fact that it was pitch-dark and we could show
no light. As a matter of fact I found myself in a piggery. When I
managed to struggle out of that and over a very aggressive fence I
struck a fowl-run. Did you hear the noise those creatures made?"

"No, we were too far off by that time," replied Whittinghame.

"At any rate," continued the third officer, "the farmer turned out
with a gun. I had to pitch up some sort of yarn, so I told him I was
a tourist who had lost his way. The old chap promptly harnessed a
pony and drove me to the outskirts of Plymouth."

"Talking of that," remarked Dacres, "the shepherd of Canterbury said
the section of the airship that dropped to the ground was about the
size of a haystack."

"So it was," replied Whittinghame. "When we wish to make hurried
descents we can detach a subdivision of No. 3 section. It is also
handy for landing in fairly confined spaces, where the length of a
complete section might be too great for safety. I'll show you that
arrangement to-morrow; but what do you say to a game of billiards,
gentlemen? It may be our last opportunity for a considerable time,
for, with all her wonderful mechanism, I cannot guarantee a level bed
on board the 'Meteor.'"

This proposal was received with acclamation, and the four men
adjourned to the billiard-room, where they amused themselves till the
clock struck eleven and warned them that it was time to retire to
rest.

At ten on the following morning all hands formed up on the open space
between the sheds. There were thirty-two men, exclusive of the four
officers, and a fine athletic set they made, rigged out in neat yet
serviceable uniforms.

Whittinghame, as captain, headed the starboard watch, with the doctor
as his assistant for executive duties in the after-part of the ship;
for Hambrough was not content to act simply as surgeon to the ship's
company. Williamson was chosen as first quartermaster of the watch,
the rest of the division consisting of ten "deck hands" and five
mechanics for engine-room duties.

Dacres had charge of the port watch, Setchell being responsible for
the after-guard during the "watch on deck". The stalwart Irishman,
Callaghan, was appointed quartermaster, and the rest of the crew
consisted of an equal number of hands to that of the captain's watch.

The men were then served out with small-arms, the rifles being
up-to-date automatic weapons firing twenty-two cartridges and having
a range and velocity equal to the latest service rifles. Bayonets
were also issued, and since the crew had had a thorough training
whilst they were serving in the Royal Navy they were now able to pick
up their drill without much difficulty.

Under Dacres' orders they were exercised for nearly an hour. The
ex-sub-lieutenant had reason to be very well satisfied with them, and
expressed his opinion to Whittinghame that if necessary they could
give a very good account of themselves. As for the men, they
recognized that they had an officer over them who knew his work, and
they respected him accordingly.

At length the eventful Saturday came round, and just after eight
o'clock the fore-section of the airship was taken out of its shed
and, to use Dacres' expression, "sent aloft."

The bow portion, with its complement of nine men, was the first to
leave the ground, anchoring at a height of seventy-four feet from the
surface--the "ground-tackle" consisting of a bridle with a single
loop running through a huge pulley fixed in the earth, and back to
the bow division of the "Meteor."

No. 2 section was sent up, and by means of a wire hawser hauled into
position, so that the cam-action could come into play. Only three and
a half minutes elapsed between the time of its leaving the ground and
of its being united to the bow-section.

Divisions 3 and 4 were "launched" and joined up in a similar fashion,
"and then there was one," as the nursery rhyme goes.

Dacres found himself with six men to man the aftermost section of the
airship. He had already "got the hang of it," although he could not
quite see how any of the crew could be left behind to guide the huge
fabric on its ascent to unite to the still greater bulk that floated
serenely above the tree-tops, her propellers churning slowly ahead to
counteract the faint breeze that blew from the south-west.

"Give the word for the men to get aboard, sir," said Callaghan, who,
being an ex-gunner's mate, knew how to prompt judiciously young
officers who were not quite up to their work.

Dacres complied. He was glad of his quarter-master's assistance,
although fully determined to master his part of the routine as soon
as possible.

When the last man swarmed up the rope-ladder Dacres followed, and
took up his station at the open doorway in the for'ard bulkhead.

"All ready, sir?" asked Callaghan.

"All ready," echoed the newly appointed officer.

"Here's the lever for charging the ballonettes, sir," continued the
quartermaster. "Turn the indicator to eighty, sir. That will be
enough to raise us."

Gently and almost imperceptibly the after-section rose clear of the
ground, guided by a light wire rope joining it to the already
coupled-up portions of the airship. With a rhythmic purr the
windlass, worked by a supplementary belt from one of the motors,
hauled in the slack till the "Meteor" was complete and ready for
flight.

So nice was the adjustment of the various sections that connexion
with the telephones and electric telegraphs was made automatically by
the contact of insulated bushes in corresponding position to the
exterior bulkheads.

From the navigation-room for'ard Whittinghame asked if all were
ready, and received a confirmative reply from the after-end of the
ship. As far as Dacres was concerned he was now at liberty to "stand
easy," for it was his watch below, and Setchell had come aft to take
charge.

"Captain says he would like to see you for'ard," announced the third
officer. "Hold on till she gathers way, old man."

Warning bells tinkled in various parts of the giant airship.
Instantly every man grasped some object to prevent himself from being
thrown across the floor. Simultaneously the eight propellers began to
revolve.

For quite half a minute Dacres felt as if he were seized by an
invisible arm round his waist and was being forced backwards. Then
the tension ceased as the inertia was overcome, he was part and
parcel of a mass flying through the air at more than twice the speed
of an express train.

Dacres glanced at his watch--it was twenty-five minutes past
nine--then, lurching along the alley-way, for the "Meteor" was
trembling and swaying as she cleft the air, he made his way for'ard.

He found Whittinghame standing in front of one of the observation
scuttles in the lower navigation room. Williamson was at the wheel
controlling the vertical rudders, while another man had his eye upon
the indicators of the horizontal planes.

"Look!" exclaimed the captain, pointing downwards.

Dacres did so. Nine thousand feet beneath him stretched a ribbon-like
expanse of water like a silver-streak between dense woodland on one
hand and green fields on the other. Away on the starboard bow this
streak merged into a wide stretch of sea, backed by hills that were
dwarfed to the size of a mere series of mounds.

"By Jove! We're passing Southampton Water," ejaculated Dacres. He
again glanced at his watch. It had taken him three and a half minutes
to traverse the length of the "Meteor," and in that space of time the
airship had travelled eleven miles.

"Top speed now," announced Whittinghame. "We're doing one hundred and
ninety. We'll have to slacken down now; we're nearly there."

As he spoke the Captain rang down for half speed. The order being
simultaneously received by both engine-rooms, resulted in a gradual
slowing down till the mud-flats of Portsmouth Harbour hove in sight.
Even then the "Meteor" overhauled a naval seaplane as quickly as an
express runs past a "suburban" crawling into Clapham Junction.

"Still sou'west," remarked Whittinghame pointing to the smoke that
was pouring out of a tall chimney between Fareham and Gosport. "We'll
bring her head to wind in any case."

Down swooped the "Meteor" till she was less than three hundred feet
from the ground. She was now following the main road to Gosport. On
her left could be discerned the battleships and cruisers in the
harbour, their decks and riggings black with men, while hundreds of
craft of various sizes, crowded with spectators, literally swarmed on
the tidal waters between the Dockyard and the western shore.

Swooping past the new semaphore tower, and skimming above the lofty
chimneys of the electric light station, the "Meteor" shaped a course
towards the Town Hall clock tower. So quickly did she turn that it
seemed as if a straight line between the bow and stern would cut the
masonry of the tower. Looking aft the appearance of the twelve
hundred feet of airship reminded Dacres of a train taking a curve.
Her starboard planes were within twenty feet of the cupola of the
tower.

But the helmsman knew his business. He was well to leeward of the
improvised "pylon," and before the thousand of spectators gathered in
the Town Hall square could recover from their astonishment the
"Meteor" was heading back to the dockyard.

Slowly, with her propellers revolving enough to keep her up against
the breeze, the Dreadnought of the Air hovered over the Government
establishment, seeking a place where she could come to rest. The
swarm of vessels in the harbour made it impossible for her to descend
without great risk to the spectators.

"There's the semaphore working," announced Dacres, pointing to the
two arms that were set at the "preparatory" sign.

In response to an order, one of the "Meteor's" crew, armed with two
hand flags, made his way up to the platform of the promenade deck. As
soon as he replied, the semaphore began to spell out the message:--

"Berth ready for airship in Fountain Lake," said Dacres, translating
the signal for his chief's information. "That's on the north side of
the Dockyard and between it and Whale Island."

"Easy ahead," ordered Whittinghame; then, "Stop her."

A series of hisses, similar to the sounds that Dacres had heard when
he first beheld the "Meteor," announced that the contents of several
of the ballonettes were being pumped out and forced into the metal
cylinders. Slowly and on an even keel the giant bulk sank lower and
lower till a gentle roll announced that the airship was riding head
to wind upon the sheltered waters of Portsmouth Harbour. The "Meteor"
had made her debut.



CHAPTER XIII.

AN OFFICIAL AND AN UNOFFICIAL INSPECTION.


PROMPTLY the naval picket-boats had taken the bow-hawsers of the
airship and had passed them to two mooring buoys. Other wire ropes
were run out astern, till like a fettered Cyclops the "Meteor" was
securely moored.

"Commander-in-Chief coming off, sir," announced Dacres, as a green
motor-boat flying the St. George's Cross in the bows, tore towards
the airship.

"So the reception is to be held on board the 'Meteor,' eh?" remarked
Whittinghame. "I'm sorry I didn't provide an accommodation-ladder.
The Admiral may find it rather awkward to swarm up a swaying
rope-ladder. Will you see that the after entry-port is opened?"

The officers of the "Meteor" assembled ready to receive the
Commander-in-Chief and his staff, while a "guard of honour" stood at
attention, to do honour to the distinguished visitor.

Admiral Sir Hardy Staplers--"Old Courteous," as he was nick-named in
the Service--was one of the most popular officers of Flag rank. His
nickname was an apt one, for he was invariably polite to every one he
came in contact with. Nothing seemed to ruffle his composure. He was
a strict disciplinarian, and woe betide the subordinate--be he
officer or man--who deliberately shirked his duty. On the other hand,
he was keenly observant to reward zeal on the part of those under
him, but whether admonishing or praising he was uniformly urbane.

Considering his age--for Sir Hardy was bordering on fifty-five--he
climbed up the swaying rope-ladder with marvellous agility, and,
greeted by the pipe of the bos'n's whistle, he advanced to meet the
Captain and owner of the Dreadnought of the Air.

Accompanying the Admiral were his secretary, several officers of the
executive and engineering branch, and--to Dacres'
satisfaction--Commander Arnold Hythe.

"You have a wonderful craft here," observed Sir Hardy, after the
usual courtesies had been exchanged.

"I think we have, sir," replied Whittinghame modestly. "Would you
care to look round, or would you rather discuss the business that
brought us here?"

The Commander-in-Chief expressed his desire to make an inspection of
the "Meteor," and, escorted by his host and followed by their
respective officers, Sir Hardy and Whittinghame proceeded on their
tour of the airship.

"You are a lucky dog, Dacres," said Hythe, for the two old friends
had contrived to "tail off" at the rear of the procession. "So this
was the business which you so mysteriously hinted at? Mind you, I'm
not envious. The submarine service suits me entirely, but I am glad
for your sake. Do you know how Whittinghame proposes to put a stopper
on that rascal Durango?"

Dacres shook his head.

"I do not know exactly," he replied. "At any rate, we are waiting
till he lands in South America."

"The Scotland Yard men are at a loss to know on what ship he took
passage," remarked Hythe. "They made inquiries at the offices of all
the steam-ship companies running boats through the Panama Canal, but
without success."

"I'm not surprised, old man. Durango was too artful to book by any of
those lines. His plan was to make for Pernambuco, and cross to the
Pacific coast by the new trans-continental railway. I know that for a
fact."

"You do?" asked the Commander surprisedly. "How?"

"Simply by making enquiries at the Brazilian Steamship Company's
office. We'll get your plans back again, Hythe, or I'm sadly mistaken
in my estimate of the 'Meteor' and her skipper."

The inspection finished, Admiral Sir Hardy Staplers and Whittinghame
retired to the latter's private cabin to discuss the proposals for
the "Meteor's" future. They were alone for the best part of an hour,
and when they rejoined the others both their faces simply beamed with
satisfaction.

"President Zaypuru has foolishly played into our hands, Dacres," said
Whittinghame, when the Commander-in-Chief and his staff had taken
their departure. "An incident has occurred of which, strangely
enough, I have hitherto been in ignorance, although I am generally
well posted in events taking place in Valderia. Sir Hardy has just
informed me that two men belonging to a British trader have been
arrested on a trumped-up charge at the port of Zandovar. In spite of
the protests of the British Consul the men were taken to Naocuanha
and thrown into prison, while His Majesty's representative was most
grossly insulted by the President.

"Evidently the Valderians have a poor opinion of British prestige,
for their Government refused to apologize. Knowing the pig-headed
obstinacy of Don Diego Zaypuru I am not surprised, but it will end in
a declaration of war between Great Britain and Valderia. Of course,
although it would hardly admit it, the British Government is glad of
the opportunity to strike a blow at that elusive and daring outlaw,
Durango."

"How do you think your brother will fare?" asked Dacres.

"That is what is troubling me considerably," replied Whittinghame.
"If there is a rupture and a fleet is sent to chastise the Republic,
Zaypuru may, and probably will, make reprisals. It may be taken for
granted, however, that the President will go gently until Durango is
back at Naocuanha. Our plan will be to act promptly at the very first
intimation of hostilities, liberate my brother Gerald and capture
Durango before the Valderians are aware of the presence of the
'Meteor' on the west side of the Sierras. Sir Hardy approves of my
plan, and has promised to get official concurrence from the
Admiralty; so everything will be square and above board."

"Are we remaining here long, sir?" asked Setchell, who, being the
officer of the watch, had all his work cut out to refuse repeated
requests for the occupants of the swarm of small craft to be shown
over the airship. Whittinghame's orders were adamant. No one was to
be allowed on board on any pretext whatsoever. Nevertheless, in spite
of the heroic efforts of the water-police, the crowd of boats lay
thickly round the "Meteor," their crews patiently waiting for the
huge airship to resume its voyage, or else clamouring to be allowed
on board.

"For why?" asked the skipper.

"Well, sir, the crowd is getting a bit out of hand. There are some
fellows hammering away at the side. They'll be chopping bits off as
souvenirs, I'm thinking, or else painting advertisements on the hull.
And what is more, sir, there's a reporter sitting on the after
horizontal plane on the port side. He cannot climb up, and he
declines to budge until he's had an interview with you."

"Oh, I'll see about that," said Whittinghame grimly. "Come aft,
Dacres, and let us see what this enterprising member of the Press is
like."

The fellow was evidently not lacking in pluck and determination, for
he had coolly passed a length of rope round the plane with the
deliberate intention of "sitting tight."

"Hulloa, sir!" he sung out as Whittinghame made his way out upon the
platform above the propeller-guard. "I represent the 'Weekly Lyre.'
I've asked half a dozen times to be allowed on board to interview
you."

"You are as much on board as you can reasonably expect to be,"
replied Whittinghame genially. "You are trespassing, you know. I
shall be greatly obliged if you will go back to your boat, as we are
about to move. I haven't time for an interview." "Then I'll wait,"
replied the man, to the great delight of the crowd of spectators
afloat. "I'll have the distinction of being the first man, apart from
your crew, to experience a flight in your airship, sir. Here I
stick."

"You'll be blown away if you remain there."

"I risk that," replied the reporter imperturbably. "I'll lash myself
on."

"Have the goodness to go," said Whittinghame with a faint show of
annoyance.

The man shook his head. He had the appearance of being a resolute
sort of individual.

Without another word Whittinghame walked to the after motor-room and
gave orders for the propellers to be started easy ahead. Then he went
outside, fully expecting to find the man gone.

At the first sign of movement the dense pack of boats had given back,
but the pressman still stuck to his precarious post.

"There's pluck for you," commented the skipper. "That's the sort of
man we could very well do with. But I'm not going to be balked. Just
wait here for a few minutes, Dacres, and watch developments.
Telephone to me when he's gone, and then take care to get inside and
close the sliding panel as sharp as you can."

"He's lashed himself on, by Jove!" said Dacres.

"It will be a case of suicide if he's there when we gather speed,"
rejoined Whittinghame. "The sharp edge of the plane will cut through
that lashing as if it were a piece of worsted."

With that the Captain went aft, leaving Dacres on the platform to
report the course of events.

In response to an order the after hawsers were cast off, while the
crew stood by ready to let go the for'ard springs that alone held the
"Meteor" head to wind.

Suddenly Dacres saw the horizontal plane dip into an almost vertical
position. The unfortunate reporter slid until brought up by the rope.
For a few moments he hung there, struggling frantically to gain a
foothold upon the smooth surface. His efforts only caused the rope to
chafe through on the sharp edge of the plane and with a splash he
fell into the sea.

Quickly rising to the surface he struck out for the nearest boat,
amid the laughter of the onlookers, while Dacres, mindful of his
warning, returned to the shelter of the outer envelope.

Whittinghame was about to give the order to let go for'ard when
Callaghan entered the navigation-room.

"Wireless just come through, sir," he announced.

"Important?"

"Yes, sir," said the man gravely.

Half dreading that it was bad news from Naocuanha the Captain took
the proffered paper.

The message was not from Valderia, but from the Admiralty. Its
wording was indeed serious:--

"To Captain Whittinghame, airship 'Meteor.' Advises from British
Polar Expedition state that communication with Lieutenant Cardyke has
been interrupted for forty-eight hours. Feared disaster has overtaken
party. Is 'Meteor' capable of rescue?"

Whittinghame turned to the operator.

"Reply, 'Yes; will proceed at once,'" he said.



CHAPTER XIV.

ACROSS GREENLAND.


VAUGHAN WHITTINGHAME was one of those men who make up their minds
almost on the spur of the moment, yet possessing the rare capability
of weighing the pros and cons of the issue with lightning speed.

Admiral Sir Hardy Staplers must have communicated with the Admiralty
with the least possible delay, for one of Whittinghame's conditions
was that he and his crew should receive official recognition. By
giving him the title of Captain the authorities had tacitly expressed
their consent.

Apart from that the appeal for aid was such that no man with humane
principles could refuse.

The undertaking--navigating a huge airship through the intensely cold
atmosphere of the Arctic--was a hazardous one, but Whittinghame was
ready and willing to attempt the task.

In obedience to a general order all hands were mustered in the large
compartment of No. 4 section. Officers, deck-hands and mechanics all
wondering what had happened to cause the Captain to suspend suddenly
the operation of unmooring, eagerly waited for Whittinghame to
address them.

"My lads," said he, "I have been asked to make a voyage of three
thousand four hundred miles and back. Not to Valderia but to a region
where the climate is quite different. To be brief, the Admiralty have
informed me that Lieutenant Cardyke and four men who made a dash for
the North Pole some weeks ago are in pressing danger. Their Lordships
appeal to me to proceed to his assistance, and I have signified my
intention of so doing.

"It will be a hazardous task, for there are conditions to be met with
that were not taken into consideration when the 'Meteor' was
projected. Since you, my men, were not engaged to undertake a Polar
Relief Expedition, I must ask for volunteers. All those who are
willing to take part in this work will step two paces to the front."

Without the faintest hesitation every man stepped forward. A flush of
pleasure swept across the face of their young Captain.

"Thank you," he said simply. "This is just what I expected. Now,
dismiss. There will be half an hour's 'stand easy.' If any man wish
to take advantage of that interval to write to his relatives or
friends, opportunity will be found to send the letters ashore."

While the ship's company were thus employed, Whittinghame stood by
the entry-port, pondering over his plans for the voyage.

As he did so, he became aware that the flotilla of boats still
hovered around, and prominently in the foreground was the pressman,
who seemed none the worse for his involuntary bath.

"May as well do the chap a good turn," soliloquised Whittinghame, and
beckoning him to approach waited till the boat was alongside the
rope-ladder.

"Sorry I had to drop you overboard, but you asked for it, my friend,"
said the Captain blandly. "I hope you bear no ill will."

"Not in the least," replied the reporter with a laugh. "It's not the
first time I've been 'chucked out.' Besides, as you say, I asked for
it. Are you going to invite me for a trip, sir?"

"No," replied Whittinghame, "but here's some information for you:
it's perfectly genuine."

The man caught a folded slip of paper on which Whittinghame had
written a few words. He opened it, then gave a searching glance at
the Captain's face. He had been hoaxed before and was consequently
cautious.

But that glance was sufficient. He was convinced. With a few words of
thanks to Whittinghame he bade the boatman row like greased lightning
for the shore. Twenty minutes later the "Weekly Lyre" issued a
special with the exclusive information that the airship "Meteor" was
to proceed to the relief of the British Arctic Expedition.

Meanwhile, Sir Hardy Staplers came on board to bid the departing
aircraft God-speed, while, acting upon an "immediate demand note,"
suits of Arctic clothing were sent aboard from the clothing
department of Royal Clarence Yard.

By twenty minutes past four all preparations were complete, and for
the first time in her brief yet exciting career the "Meteor" hoisted
the Blue Ensign; an Admiralty warrant having been hurriedly granted
for that purpose.

Amid the deafening cheers of the thousands of spectators the "Meteor"
rose majestically to a height of four hundred feet, then gathering
way, darted forward in a northerly direction towards the desolate
regions of the Far North.

Whittinghame, knowing that every moment was precious, gave orders for
every possible knot to be screwed out of the motors, and nobly the
engineers responded to the call. Within ten minutes of the start the
speed indicators hovered around the two hundred miles an hour mark.

"Seventeen hours ought to do it," remarked the doctor.

"Hardly," corrected Whittinghame. "In the rarefied air we shall have
to slow down a trifle. There will be less resistance to the vessel
and correspondingly less resistance to the propeller blades. With
luck we ought to reckon on twenty hours."

The navigation of the "Meteor" was entirely in Dacres' hands. There
could be no rest for him until the voyage ended, for he alone of all
on board could shape a course in these high latitudes, when the
compass is useless to any but men skilled in the art of applying
complicated magnetic variation adjustments.

Already the needle was pointing thirty degrees west of north, while
hourly the angle was increasing.

Just before eleven Dacres pointed to the setting sun.

"That's the last sunset we'll see for some days, I fancy, doctor," he
remarked. "We are nearing the Arctic Circle."

"Of course, I didn't think of that," replied Hambrough. "I was
imagining us ploughing along in the pitch dark night with our
searchlight on."

"It would be looking for a needle in a haystack were it not for the
midnight sun," said Dacres. "By Jove, it is getting cold in spite of
the hot water pipes. Would you mind bringing my coat from the cabin?"

By the time the doctor returned Dacres was able to report that the
coast of Iceland was in sight.

"Where are you making for?" asked Hambrough. "The west coast of
Greenland?"

"No," replied Dacres. "Here's the chart. We're making almost a
bee-line for Cape Columbia. That will take us across Greenland from
Scoresby's Land to the Humboldt Glacier and over the icy-clad plateau
which the eye of man has never yet seen. Excuse me a minute while I
look up this variation chart."

"You must be tired," observed Hambrough.

"Can't afford to be," said his companion. "It's a thirty-hour watch
for me. All the same, doctor, if you can give me something to
overcome this sleepy feeling I shall be glad. I suppose it is being
unaccustomed to the altitude."

"I'll fix you up all right," declared Hambrough. "It won't do for you
to be knocked up, or we'll be in a bit of a hole."

"It's not that. The 'Meteor' is quite capable of finding her way back
to temperate regions. It was young Cardyke I was thinking of."

"You know him, then?"

"Rather. Lucky youngster obtained his promotion over the
'Independencia' affair."

Before Dacres could relate the incident Whittinghame entered the
navigation room.

"How goes it?" he asked.

"Right as rain," replied Dacres cheerfully.

"Good! Now you take a spell and have some food. I'll stand by the
helm and you can sing out the compass-course as you re eating. I'm
sorry I didn't apply to the Commander-in-Chief for a navigator to
take turns with you. Honestly, flying to a course in these regions is
beyond me."

Already--it was twenty minutes past twelve by Greenwich time--the sun
was rising--a pale, watery-looking disc. Six thousand feet beneath
the airship could be seen the sea dotted with masses of floating ice,
dwarfed into insignificance when viewed from above.

"We've struck the drift-ice rather far south, I think," remarked
Dacres. "It's rather a bad sign, although, of course, there may be a
higher temperature in the corresponding latitude in Baffin Bay."

"Let us hope so, in any case," rejoined the captain. "But isn't
Parsons doing well? I don't think our speed has dropped to 190 since
we started. I mustn't boast, though."

Hour after hour Whittinghame remained with the navigator. He scorned
to sleep when such a luxury was denied his comrade.

On nearing the Greenland coast the "Meteor's" speed was reduced in
order that Dacres could go on deck and take an observation. The cold
cut him like a knife. His fingers could scarcely feel the
vernier-screw of the sextant.

"I'm not cut out for an Arctic explorer," he muttered as he hastened
below to work out his position. "If it's like this on the coast what
will it be like over there, I wonder?"

"Well?" asked Whittinghame anxiously, as his companion straightened
himself after bending over the set of figures.

"Here we are," announced Dacres, pricking off the portion on the
chart. "Twenty miles farther north than I expected. We must have
under-estimated the strength of the wind. I'll take good care to make
allowance for that in the future."

"What a waste of desolation!" ejaculated the Captain, looking down
upon the snow-clad land. They were far above the northern limit of
trees. The ground rose steeply in places, black granite precipices
loomed menacingly against the white mantle which covered the gentle
slopes.

Lower and lower fell the temperature. The crew, muffled in their fur
garments, were already feeling numbed in spite of the hot-water
apparatus. Higher and higher rose the airship, until a height of
twelve thousand feet above the sea level was recorded. Yet less than
nine hundred feet below was the summit of that ice-bound plateau--the
portals of death.

Presently Parsons, the chief engineer, entered the navigation room.

"We'll have to shut off the heating pipes in the cabins, sir," he
announced, "or the water will freeze and burst them. The heat of the
motors is not enough to warm the jacket of the cylinders. I've even
had to melt the oil before I could fill up the lubricators."

"Very well; carry on," replied Whittinghame. "We must endure the cold
as best we may. Are the engines all right otherwise?"

"Running splendidly, sir."

"What temperature have you in the motor-rooms?"

"Minus ten for'ard and a point above zero aft, sir."

The Captain glanced at the thermometer on the navigation room
bulkhead. The mercury stood at minus twenty-five degrees or
fifty-seven below freezing point.

"I almost wish we had taken the east coast route and gone through
Davis Strait," remarked Whittinghame. "It wouldn't have been anything
like so cold."

"She'll do it all right, sir," declared Parsons. "Besides, we shan't
find it any colder at the Pole itself."

"And it will save us at least six hours," added Dacres.

Acting under his suggestion two quarter-masters took ten minute
spells at the wheel, for beyond that period a man's outstretched arms
would be numbed.

Mile after mile was reeled off with the utmost rapidity. There was
nothing to be seen but the dreary expanse of cliffs, snow and
ice--cliffs that outvied the canons of Colorado for height, and snow
and ice that had covered what at one time might have been a fertile
land for perhaps millions of years. It was a vision of the earth
during the Glacial Age.

At seven o'clock, or twenty-two hours after the "Meteor" had left
Portsmouth, Dacres pointed to a huge winding track of ice that,
according to the most modest estimate, was at least fifty miles wide.

"We're nearly there, sir," he said. "We've struck the head of the
Humboldt Glacier. With luck we ought to sight the open sea in another
hour. We are covering one degree of longitude every three minutes
now."

Whittinghame nodded. It was almost too cold to talk. Speaking was
accompanied by a volume of white vapour that, rapidly congealing,
fell upon the floor in showers of fine ice. To touch a piece of metal
with bare hands caused painful blisters, as many of the crew learnt
to their cost. The airship was little more than a floating icebox.

Presently Dacres touched his comrade on the shoulder.

"The sea!" he exclaimed.

It was the sea. Right ahead was an expanse of open water, though
greatly encumbered with huge bergs, for the "Meteor" was now passing
over the birth-place of those enormous mountains of floating ice that
find their way down into the Atlantic as far south as the fortieth
parallel.

Even as he spoke there was a terrific crash, like that of a peal of
thunder. The voyagers were just in time to see a mass of ice, nearly
three miles in width, topple over the end of the glacier and fall
into the sea. Almost instantaneously the placid surface changed to
that of a tempestuous sea, as the iceberg rolled and plunged ere it
gained a position of stability.

Ten seconds later the "Meteor" struck the first of the air-waves
caused by the sudden disturbance of the atmosphere.

Well it was that she was of the non-rigid type, for otherwise the
shock would have broken her back. As it was she writhed like a
tortured animal. The crew, holding on like grim death, looked at each
other in amazement akin to terror. At one moment her bow was pointing
upwards at an angle of forty-five degrees; at the next the airship
was banking steeply downwards.

It was a nasty two minutes while it lasted, but by the time the
"Meteor" settled on an even keel she was tearing over the open
sea.



CHAPTER XV.

THE NORTH POLE.


AT the twenty-third hour after leaving Portsmouth the "Meteor" came
to rest on the ice under the lee of Cape Columbia and within three
hundred yards of the "New Resolute," the ship of the British Arctic
Expedition.

News of the airship's approach had already been communicated by
wireless, and as she gracefully settled upon the ice she was greeted
by three tremendous cheers from the crew of the ship.

But Dacres knew nothing of this. As soon as Cape Columbia had been
sighted he went to his cabin to snatch a few hours' well-earned and
needed sleep. For the time being his responsibility was not in
request.

Compared with the severity of the climate above the Greenland plateau
the temperature at Cape Columbia was milder. The "New Resolute,"
although moored to the ice, was still afloat, and sheltered from all
gales by the land-locked harbour.

From the captain the "Meteor's" people soon had a fairly definite
idea of the state of affairs.

Lieutenant Cardyke, with four men, had pushed on towards the pole,
the party being accompanied by thirty-two Esquimo dogs. A portable
wireless installation had been taken, so that the progress and
welfare of the expedition could be communicated to the base.

Favoured by fine weather Cardyke and his companions made rapid
progress compared with the distance covered by previous Arctic
explorers. They reported that the hummocks gave considerable trouble,
but there was no sign of open water.

Then with startling suddenness all wireless communication was broken
off. A rescue party immediately set off, only to find that at a point
150 miles north of Cape Columbia their progress was checked by an
expanse of open, agitated sea that had been formed by the separation
of the ice-fields since Cardyke had traversed them. Reluctantly the
second party had to turn back, and were almost hourly expected by the
"New Resolute."

The "Meteor" did not wait long at Cape Columbia. Having secured the
services of two junior lieutenants to assist in the navigation of the
airship, Whittinghame started on the 500 mile journey to the North
Pole.

Greatly to the relief of all on board, the motors began to work
without the faintest hitch. The cordite fired at once. Had petrol
been the fuel it was quite possible that the low temperature would
have greatly diminished its efficacy. Parsons was most enthusiastic
over the matter. Although at first dubious about substituting cordite
for petrol he was now firmly convinced that a perfect ignition charge
had been found.

Within half an hour after leaving Cape Columbia the "Meteor" passed
over the relief party, who were dejectedly making their way back to
the ship. A greater contrast would be difficult to find: the airship
cutting rapidly and evenly through the air at three miles a minute;
and half a dozen men, looking more like bundles of fur, plodding
painfully along, glad to be able to cover two miles an hour. Even the
dogs seemed to share their masters' dejection. Yet failure of the
rescue party did not prevent them from waving their arms to the
fleeting airship, a compliment that the "Meteor," by reason of her
speed, was unable to return.

When at length Dacres awoke he knew by the motion of the airship that
the "Meteor" was again under way. Quickly he made his way for'ard, to
find two strangers in charge of the navigation room.

"It's all right," said Whittinghame genially. "There's no slur upon
your prowess as a navigation officer, Dacres. We've obtained reliefs
for you. Allow me to introduce Mr. Quinton and Mr. Baskett to you."

Armed with powerful binoculars Whittinghame and his assistants swept
the snow-field. According to the opinion of the "New Resolute's"
officers the airship was now fairly close to the spot where Cardyke
was last heard of. There was nothing to indicate the tracks of the
sledges; a recent fall of snow had accounted for that. All they could
hope to do was to pick out some outstanding object, such as a tent or
a snow hut, where the young officer and his four men might be
sheltering.

Speed had been reduced to fifty miles an hour, while frequently the
"Meteor" made a deviation in order to give the look-out an
opportunity to examine a dark patch upon the white waste. Invariably
the patch turned out to be the shadow of a hammock cast by the
slanting rays of the ever-present sun, till Dr. Hambrough called his
companions' attention to a dark speck away on the starboard bow.

Round swung the "Meteor," the eyes of the watchers riveted on a
fluttering object that rapidly resolved itself into a flag. More, the
flag was a Union Jack. Close to it, and hitherto invisible, was a
rounded hut made of blocks of ice, and half-buried in the snow.

"There they are!" exclaimed Setchell excitedly.

"I'm afraid not," said Lieutenant Baskett. "I can see no signs of
their skis or of the sledges. But we're on their track, that's one
blessing."

Again the "Meteor" descended. Whittinghame would not run the risk of
detaching one of the compartments, especially as there was abundant
room for the whole length of the airship to settle evenly. Her
anchors held admirably in the rough ice, and with hardly a tremor she
brought up on terra firma.

Quickly the entry port was opened and the rope-ladder dropped.
Whittinghame was the first to land, quickly followed by Dacres and
the two naval lieutenants.

With beating hearts they made their way over the ice and snow till
they gained the hut, the four men gravely saluting the national flag
as they passed by.

The doorway of the ice-hut had been blocked up--not by drifting snow
but by human hands. Whether this had been done from the inside or
from without could not at present be determined. The ice was as hard
as iron.

In response to a signal to the "Meteor," three of the crew came up
with ice-axes and shovels, and began a fierce attack upon the door.
When the obstruction was removed the Captain entered.

His fears were realized. The hut was empty.

"Here's a tin containing some documents," he announced. "By Jove!
Cardyke claims that this is the North Pole."

"He can't be so very far out," said Lieutenant Quinton. "Does he say
anything about the route?"

"No, only that he is returning after verifying his position, and asks
that the finder of the document should transmit it, if possible, to
the Admiralty."

"Run and fetch my sextant, Williamson," said Dacres.

"And mine," added Baskett.

Before the men could return Whittinghame pointed to a staff
projecting a few inches from the ground. Attached to it were the
fragments of a flag, and by dint of removing a couple of feet of snow
the nationality of the flag became obvious. It had been the Stars and
Stripes.

"Peary's flag, by Jove!" ejaculated Whittinghame. "All honour,
gentlemen, to that intrepid American. Even if an Englishman were not
the first to plant his country's flag at the North Pole there is no
little consolation to be derived from the fact that an Anglo-Saxon
established the priority."

When Williamson returned with the instruments the two officers made
careful separate observations, afterwards checking each other's
figures. There was no mistake. The rescue party was standing on the
northern extremity of the Earth's axis.

"Well, this won't find Cardyke, gentlemen," said Whittinghame
sharply, breaking in upon the reveries of his companions. "What do
you propose to do? Return by a slightly different route?"

"Supposing Cardyke and his party are incapable of finding their way.
They might be partially exhausted by their exertions and have
blundered in a totally different direction," suggested Baskett.

"Such an instance is not unknown," added Quinton.

"Then I propose to make several ever-widening circles. We ought to
command a field extending twenty-five miles from the Pole. Let us
return to the 'Meteor.'"

Rising to a height of five hundred feet the airship began to circle.
In five minutes she had passed through every one of the three hundred
and sixty degrees of longitude.

Miles of dreary waste lay beneath them. There was nothing to mark the
position of the North Pole save the almost invisible hut and two
flags, and nothing to break the horizon where the white plain merged
into the pale blue of the Arctic sky.

Presently Dacres discovered signs of open water. A broad sea, its
coast-line extending through a hundred and eighty degrees of
longitude, proved conclusively that Cardyke could not have blundered
far in that direction. It was fairly evident the five men had
retraced their steps. The question that puzzled Whittinghame was, how
could the "Meteor" have missed the party on its flight to the Pole?

"We'll make our way back," he announced. "By keeping a zig-zag course
we ought to come across some traces of them. Fifteen miles to the
right and left of their supposed route ought to be ample."

To this the two naval officers agreed; but as the vertical rudders
were being put hard over, Dacres called the Captain's attention to a
dark object in a hollow at less than two miles off.

"It's far too large for a tent, Dacres," said Whittinghame. "But we
may as well investigate. To me it looks like a----yes, by George, it
is! It's a derelict balloon."

"André!" exclaimed Baskett.

"I think you are right," said Whittinghame.

"Yes, it has been a balloon. There is the car, half-buried in snow.
Evidently in strong winds the snow-drifts are uncovered, or otherwise
in twenty years the remains would be buried fathoms deep."

"Are you going to investigate, sir?" asked Dr. Hambrough.

"Much as I should like to," replied Whittinghame gravely, "I must
decline. The claims of those who may yet be living are more pressing
than those of the gallant dead. Perhaps, another time----"

He broke off abruptly to conceal his emotion, then having steadied
the "Meteor" on her course, he relinquished the navigation into the
hands of his able assistants.

For a long time no word was spoken. The memories of that mournful
wreck deeply affected the spirits of the intrepid rescuers. They felt
the irony of the situation, for had the gallant Frenchman delayed his
ill-fated aerial voyage but a few years he might have been able to
have made good use of a dirigible instead of drifting helplessly to
his doom amid the awful solitudes of the Arctic.

Zig-zagging against the wind after the manner of a sailing-ship
tacking, the "Meteor" resumed her quest. Two hours passed without
result. The airship was now almost within sight of the newly-opened
sea caused by the breaking up of the ice-floes.

The crew were almost despairing of success, for twice the supposed
route of Cardyke's party had been examined. The Lieutenant and his
men had left the Pole: they could not cross the barrier formed by the
open sea. Where had they gone? Had they been buried beneath an almost
irresistible blizzard? To add to the difficulties of the look-out,
the sun was shining almost into the men's eyes, while an enormous
tract of snow was covered by the reflected glare.

"We'll carry on till we are above the end of the pack-ice," said
Whittinghame. "Then, if we haven't sighted them, we'll turn again and
go back to the Pole. It is just possible----"

"What's that, sir?" interrupted Hambrough, his usually quiet manner
giving place to intense excitability. "See! almost beneath us!"

In another fifteen seconds the "Meteor" would have overshot the mark.
Signalling full speed astern, Whittinghame kept the spot indicated by
the doctor under observation.

Five hundred feet below was a small black patch. It seemed so
insignificant that it resembled a fur cap accidently dropped upon
that trackless waste.

Under the retarding influence of the propellors the airship trembled
so violently that it was almost an impossibility to bring glasses to
bear upon the desired object, but when the "Meteor" lost way and
orders had been given to the engineers to stop the motors, the
occupants of the navigation-room were able to examine the solitary
relic.

"By Jove!" ejaculated Dacres. "It's a tent. Look. There are the skis
sticking up in the snow. Seven, eight, nine, ten of them. Then, the
five men are there."

"Hurrah!" shouted Baskett. "Are you going to let off a rocket, or
hail them, sir?"

"Neither," replied Whittinghame shortly. He was tremendously excited,
only he knew that there was a chance that even now they might be too
late.

Quickly the powerful pumps were set to work, and as the required
number of ballonettes were exhausted the "Meteor" sank gently to the
snow-clad ground. Thanks to the almost total absence of wind her
anchors held without difficulty, although she had grounded nearly
eight hundred yards to leeward of the tent.

Leaving Setchell in charge, the rest of the officers lost no time in
descending the rope-ladder and making for the resting-place of the
explorers. Somehow the rescuing party felt strained. They could
hardly understand why, in almost perfect weather as far as the Polar
climate went, the five men were not resuming their homeward march.
The utter solitude of the black fur tent seemed ominous.

Although presenting the appearance of a level plain when viewed from
above, the ground was rough, and encumbered with hummocks, while here
and there deep but narrow fissures required care and skill on the
part of the rescue party. Occasionally a deep groaning sound
betokened the appalling fact that the ground was one vast ice-floe in
momentary danger of breaking up.

If the five men were still alive, how could they be indifferent to
the danger that now threatened them?

Whittinghame was the first to gain the tent. With numbed fingers he
cut the lashings that secured the flaps of the outer and inner
coverings and peered within.

Five fur-clad forms lay upon a pile of skins, their heads buried in
their arms. Whether they were sleeping the long last sleep that knows
no awakening in this world, Whittinghame could not tell. Nervelessly
he backed out and signed to Dacres to enter.

"Dead?" asked Dacres laconically.



CHAPTER XVI.

IN THE NICK OF TIME.


"CAN'T say," replied the Captain. "It is more----See what you make of
it, Dacres."

For a moment, like a swimmer contemplating a "header" into icy cold
water, Dacres hesitated; then with a swift determined movement he
disappeared within the tent.

Grasping the nearmost man he turned him over on his back. His face
was as black as that of a seaman engaged in a coaling ship; but to
Dacres' great relief he opened his eyes and stared wonderingly at his
rescuer.

"So you've come, old mate?" he muttered, like one in a dream.
"Thought you would, somehow. We got there all right--no kidding, we
did."

"Get up and turn out," said Dacres authoritatively.

The seaman, disciplined to obey orders implicitly, attempted to rise.
He realized that he was addressed by some one having authority; but
to arise was beyond the power of his numbed limbs and exhausted body.

"We'll have to unship the tent," declared Dacres as he rejoined his
comrades. "There's one of them alive, if not more; but he cannot
move."

"Is there a lamp burning?" asked Dr. Hambrough.

"No; there is one but it's gone out," replied Whittinghame. "I
noticed that."

Quickly the foot of the tent was freed from the wall of snow that had
been built around it, and the flimsy structure thrown aside.

The man whom Dacres had roused was asleep once more.

One by one the doctor examined the five men. "They are all alive," he
said; "but we are only just in time. We must get them on board as
quickly as we can."

It was impossible to distinguish Cardyke from the rest of the party.
The men's faces were encrusted with soot and grease, while they had
allowed their beards to grow and these were clogged with the same
uncongenial mixture.

"We'll have to hurry up," said Whittinghame anxiously, as an extra
loud groan gave warning that the ice around them was ready to part
company with the rest of the pack. "It will take two of us to assist
each man to the 'Meteor'."

"That will help their blood to circulate," agreed the doctor, "but
will this rotten ice stand the strain? It's pretty shaky between us
and the 'Meteor,' if you'll remember."

"Then the 'Meteor' must come to us," rejoined the Captain.

In spite of the distance--nearly half a mile--the airship was within
hail. In the rarefied atmosphere sound travels with the utmost
facility, and instances have been recorded of men engaging in
conversation at distances of two miles apart.

"Ay, ay, sir," replied Setchell, and without delay the airship's
anchors were broken out and the propellers began to revolve.

Almost touching the ice the "Meteor" again brought up, this time so
close that, as she swung to the light breeze, the men on the ground
had to give a united heave and pass her immense bulk over their
heads.

Already the alert Setchell had seen what was required and had rigged
up a bos'n's chair from the entry port. In ten minutes rescuers and
rescued were safely on board the airship.

Cardyke and his four men slept throughout the embarkation process;
they slept during the run of the "Meteor" to Cape Columbia; they
still slept when they were taken on board the "New Resolute," only
awakening when they were being washed with slightly chilled water.
And, strange to relate, Cardyke's first words were those of reproach
at not being allowed to complete the journey by his own efforts.

He remembered resting in his tent; realized that he was back on the
"New Resolute," and consequently came to the conclusion that a rescue
party from the ship had taken a mean advantage by finding him and his
comrades asleep and had hauled them on sledges for the rest of the
way.

He was, in fact, light-headed. He could give no coherent account of
what had occurred. It was Bates, the petty-officer, who was the first
to relate their hazardous adventures.

Beyond the loss of two days, Cardyke's party reached the
eighty-seventh parallel without mishap. Then accidents happened with
alarming frequency. The portable wireless apparatus was irreparably
damaged through the sledge capsizing on rough ice. Then two complete
dog teams were lost in crevasses, leaving only six dogs to haul the
remaining sledge.


Fortunately the weather remained exceptionally fine, and the party
were able to make good progress. There still remained plenty of food,
while a reserved store had been cached some days before the accident
to the two sledges.

Cardyke, therefore, resolved to push on. The freshly fallen snow
afforded easy travelling, for in the absence of wind there was very
little "drift."

He reached the Pole. The making of certain important observations
that had been entrusted to him he carried out, carefully and
methodically, yet without undue loss of time; then setting their
faces southward the five began their homeward journey.

It was a record of one continued struggle between grit and personal
exertion on the one hand, and the relentlessness of the elements on
the other. A blizzard impeded their progress; they lost their way and
missed their store of spare provisions. The supplies they took with
them were running short; the remaining dog had to be killed for food.

They began to realize that it was to be a race against time, unless
they were met by a rescue party. Resting as little as possible, badly
attacked by frostbite, and at times partially blinded by the glare of
the snow, they toiled on, till hope was all but dead. And,
fortunately unknown to them, a broad sea had opened out between them
and their comrades at Cape Columbia.

At length they regained their proper course. It was during the time
that they were making the detour that the "Meteor" must have passed
them, about ten miles to the eastward. Human endurance could hold out
no longer. They pitched their tent, filled their lamp with the last
remaining oil, and resolved to rest for six hours--six hours when for
days they had halted for two periods of two hours in every
twenty-four.

It was a case of the triumph of matter over mind. Utterly done up,
their intellects dimmed by their vicissitudes, the men fell asleep,
and with the exception of a partial rousing in the case of the seaman
Dacres had spoken to, they knew nothing till they found themselves
back on board the "New Resolute."

The written results of Lieutenant Cardyke's observations were found
in his possession, and so complete was the data that there was no
longer any need for the Arctic Expedition ship to remain at Cape
Columbia. The channel was still open, and eagerly her officers and
crew prepared for the homeward voyage.

By the time Cardyke had recovered sufficiently to be told of the
manner of his rescue, the "Meteor" was no longer in the Arctic.
Returning by Davis Strait she reached England in thirty-four hours
from the time of parting company with the "New Resolute."

The tidings of his achievement had preceded her, for even her
prodigious speed could not outstrip the magical wireless. Had Captain
Whittinghame felt so inclined he would have been fêted until further
orders. But he had no such desire. His avowed mission was not yet
accomplished. It was not in the dreary and desolate Arctic that his
ambitions were centred, but upon the aggressive little Republic of
Valderia. His dash for the Pole was humanity's call which could not
be denied, also, it served the purpose as a means to put Reno Durango
off his guard; but the publicity given to his return had undone all
the good that Whittinghame had hoped for in that direction.

"We'll return to the New Forest base, Dacres," said he. "A rest after
being half-frozen for the last few days will do us good. By that time
the 'Maranhao' will be nearing Pernambuco, and we shall then be able
to start in pursuit of our friend Señor Durango. By the by, aren't
you anxious to interview your father?"

Dacres hardly knew what to reply. He was anxious to explain matters
to the Colonel, but, although a full-grown man, he had a strange
dread of his father's temper. It was, he knew, only putting off the
evil day, for Colonel Dacres was bound to know sooner or later that
his son had been requested to resign his commission. Yet, on the
other hand, Dacres had a sort of presentiment that before long he
would be reinstated in his former rank in his Majesty's service.

"You don't seem keen on it," remarked Whittinghame.

"No, sir, I do not," admitted Dacres. "Of course I know the governor
has no legal control over me, yet somehow--I can't exactly explain--I
feel in an awful funk about it."

"About what?"

"Having to tell him I've been more or less pitched out of the
Service."

"That needn't worry you, old chap."

Dacres looked curiously at his chief.

"You don't know the governor," he replied. Whittinghame smiled. It
was not on that account that he told Dacres not to worry. He held an
official document, the contents of which he would have greatly liked
to communicate to his comrade. But for the present his hands were
tied.

Naturally the news of the rescue by the "Meteor" of the gallant
Cardyke caused immense excitement, not only in Great Britain but
throughout the civilized world. But the public curiosity was
unsatisfied. The names of the individuals who undertook the voyage
were not mentioned. In vain the Press appealed to the Admiralty.
Never was a secret better kept, for up to the time of the "Meteor's"
departure for Valderia the identity of her owner and crew remained a
mystery.



CHAPTER XVII.

ZAYPURU'S BOLD STROKE.


MEANWHILE, events were moving quickly in the Republic of Valderia.
The demands of the British Government for satisfaction had been
rigorously pushed forward, but the prisoners had not been released,
nor was there any apology tendered.

President Diego Zaypuru was biding his time. Although desirous of
measuring steel with the British he was loath to act until Reno
Durango was back at Naocuanha. He had been advised that the Mexican
was on his way via Brazil, and that his arrival would be a matter of
a few days. Durango was the President's right hand, although, did but
Zaypuru know it, the "right hand" was not desperately enamoured with
the task before him.

When Durango heard of the disagreement between Great Britain and
Valderia, he cursed the stupidity of the Dictator of the Republic. He
could clearly foresee the result: Valderia would be beaten. Willingly
would he have turned back and left Zaypuru to meet with his deserts,
but for the fact that he had vast interests in the Republic. To do so
would mean financial ruin, and to a man of unbounded cupidity the
idea was unthinkable. He decided that he must run the risk, lay his
hands on as much of his wealth (and, incidentally, other peoples') as
he possibly could, and make use of the airship which had been
constructed from the plans stolen from Gerald Whittinghame to get
clear of the sinking ship of State.

Zaypuru miscalculated the British temperament. He was firmly
convinced that as long a as he delayed negotiations the British
Government would be content. His plans, however, received a nasty
shock when the Republic was peremptorily informed that diplomatic
relations with Great Britain were broken off, and that a British
fleet under the command of Rear-Admiral Maynebrace was to proceed at
once to Zandovar, the port of Naocuanha, and obtain immediate
satisfaction, or else the town was to be shelled.

As the situation stood Zaypuru knew that it was a race between the
British Admiral and Reno Durango. If the former appeared at Zandovar
before Durango reached the capital the President would have to give
way. That would result in another revolution. On the other hand, if
the Mexican arrived first, Zaypuru would have sufficient confidence
to resist.

Immediately upon receipt of the intelligence that a rupture had
occurred, the "Meteor"--having been previously granted a letter of
marque--set out for South America.

Vaughan Whittinghame also realized that there was a possibility of
his having to choose one of two alternatives, unless by a lucky
stroke he could carry off two projects simultaneously. His duty to
his country urged him to attempt the capture of Durango and the
recovery of the submarine plans. Fraternal devotion called upon him
to effect the rescue of his brother before he fell a victim to the
vindictive President.

It fell to Dacres to suggest a plan.

"Let's collar the Mexican, by all means, if we can," he urged.
"Without him that Zaypuru fellow will be tied up in knots. Once we
get Durango in our hands the President will think twice before
proceeding to extreme measures with your brother."

"But you are not taking into consideration the effect of the
appearance of the British fleet," objected Whittinghame.

"Including my late ship," added Dacres. "Yes, there, again, is a
complication. If Zaypuru shows fight there'll be short work made of
Zandovar, but I doubt whether there will be sufficient seamen and
marines to undertake a march on the capital. Personally, I fancy that
when the President realizes that we mean business he'll knuckle
under."

"I hope he does," agreed Whittinghame; "but that won't prevent us
from collaring Durango. Those submarine plans must be recovered,
Dacres. As I said before, the bother won't end with Valderia, if the
rascal takes it into his head to open negotiations with one of the
Great Powers."

Flying at a great height and avoiding the regular steamship routes
the "Meteor" arrived off the coast of Brazil one day before the time
the "Maranhao" was expected.

Waiting till it was dark the airship passed inland and before morning
broke she was hovering over the desolate country in the neighbourhood
of Salto Augusto, a town in the province of Matto Grosso and
approximately sixteen hundred miles west of Pernambuco.

It had never been Whittinghame's intention to effect Durango's
capture on Brazilian territory. Wireless information from his
brother's trustworthy agent at Naocuanha had been received to the
effect that the airship built according to the plans stolen from
Gerald Whittinghame was to leave Valderia for Salto Augusto, and
there to take Durango on board.

Here, then, was the "Meteor's" opportunity. She was to lie in wait
for her rival and imitator, to which the name "Libertad" had been
given. When it could be safely assumed that Durango had joined the
Valderian airship the "Meteor" was to stand in pursuit until both
craft were out of neutral territory. Then Whittinghame could and
would act.

For five days the "Meteor" waited and watched, floating practically
motionless at an altitude of fifteen thousand feet, at which height,
unless deliberately sought for, she would escape observation. During
that time no information came from Naocuanha announcing the departure
of the "Libertad"; but other news, quite as momentous, reached him by
the aid of wireless from the Valderian capital.

In less than a week events had moved rapidly. As soon as it was
definitely known that Admiral Maynebrace's squadron was actually on
its way to Zandovar, the fighting nature of the Valderians showed
itself. They were not without a considerable reserve or cunning; for,
realizing the impossibility of their one Super-Dreadnought making a
stand against the predominant ships of the "Royal Sovereign" class,
they promptly sold the battleship to Peru.

Peru had for years past sought to purchase a Super-Dreadnought, with
the idea of forming a fleet superior to that of Chili. She was only
too glad of the chance to buy the Valderian battleship at a
remarkably low price.

The destroyers and submarines upon which President Zaypuru relied
proved to be a broken reed. The Valderian crews--never seamen by
choice or instinct--refused to put to sea when they were ordered to
make a surprise attack upon the British fleet. The destroyers, manned
by skeleton crews, were thereupon sent to Callao, there to be
interned till the hostilities ended; while the submarines were kept
in the harbour of Zandovar in the hope that they might be able to
inflict damage upon the ships under Admiral Maynebrace's command.

On the morning of the 21st of July, corresponding to the second day
of the "Meteor's" vigil at Salto Augusto, the British fleet came in
sight of Zandovar. The battleships were in two columns in "line
ahead" formation, led respectively by the "Repulse" and "Royal Oak."
Overhead flew the six seaplanes attached to the squadron, their duty
being to watch for the presence of hostile submarines, whose
movements could be easily discerned in the clear waters of the
Pacific.

At first the British tars were under the impression that the
Valderians would not fight, but when a shell from one of the
batteries whizzed past one of the seaplanes the delight of the crews
of the warships showed itself in three hearty cheers. The signal to
open fire was hoisted on the flagship, and without further ado the
eight battleships began the bombardment.

Grimly workmanlike looked the floating monsters. Stripped for the
fray, the top-hamper sent down, boats and combustible gear dropped
overboard, they showed no dash of colour except the White Ensigns, of
which each ship displayed three flown in positions where they would
not effect the training of guns. Everything else that was visible on
these modern leviathans was painted a dull grey; and in a very short
time from the opening of the bombardment that grey was merged into a
shapeless blurr by the haze from the cordite.

The noise was deafening. Punctuating the loud detonations of the
fourteen-inch guns could be heard the sharp bark of the quick-firers,
the scream of the hurtling projectiles, and not unfrequently the
appalling crash as the Valderian shells struck the steel plating of
the British warships.

For a quarter of an hour the batteries replied vigorously. Generally
speaking the aim of the Valderian gunners was erratic, but one
unlucky hit brought the aftermast of the "Renown" crashing down on
the deck, completely putting out of action the guns on the two after
turrets. The flagship had her bridge shot away and the foremost
funnel demolished early in the action, while the "Royal Oak" was
considerably damaged by a twelve-inch projectile that, finding its
way into one of the nine-inch-gun casemates on the starboard side,
disabled every man of the gun's crew.

At the end of half an hour the Valderian fire was very feeble. The
earthworks of the forts were practically levelled. Wherever one of
the huge shells struck the ground it burst and tore a deep pit, into
which, as often as not, the nearmost gun and its mountings promptly
tumbled. Many of the projectiles, flying high, dropped into the town
and did enormous damage. The submarines, lying in the inner harbour,
were quickly sunk by gun-fire; and within an hour of firing the first
shot the resistance on the part of the garrison of Zandovar ceased.

Admiral Maynebrace promptly gave the order to cease fire, and before
the haze had cleared away, the seaplanes dashed forward to
investigate. Soon they returned with the information that the
batteries were completely knocked out of action and that a stream of
fugitives were observed making towards Naocuanha by road and rail.

As soon as the boats of the fleet were brought alongside their
respective ships preparations were made to land a force of seamen and
marines and occupy the town. It was a needless task, for any
communication between the Republic and the victors could be received
with equal facility on board the flagship; but Admiral Maynebrace,
with the idea of making a display, resolved to land and hoist the
British colours over the ruined forts.

One of the principal fortifications--Belgrano--stood on lofty ground
in the rear of the town, but it had not escaped the hail of
projectiles. Owing to its elevation it could be seen from the capital
and on that account Maynebrace determined to take possession of it
and hold it with a strong force in the event of an attack on the part
of the Valderian army before Naocuanha.

The advance guard, composed of Royal Marine Light Infantry, traversed
the narrow deserted streets without seeing a sign of any living
Valderians. By the time they reached Belgrano the main body of the
invaders reached the plaza, or open square in the centre of the town.
Pickets were posted to command the various approaches, and due
precautions having been taken, the Admiral and his staff proceeded to
the fort of Belgrano.

Amid ringing cheers the Union Jack was hoisted over the captured
mound that a short time before had been a strongly fortified
position. Light field guns and maxims were brought up and trained to
command the road to Naocuanha, and the force of occupation prepared
to receive either an attack or--what was more likely--a proposal for
an armistice. About an hour before sunset Admiral Maynebrace made his
way towards the harbour, intending to return to the flagship. He was
accompanied by his secretary and flag-lieutenant, and escorted by a
guard of marines.

The Admiral was in high spirits. Throughout the whole of his career
he had never smelt powder in real earnest until this eventful day. He
was close upon the age limit, and now he had survived the action and
had the honourable distinction of having won glory for the King and
country before being relegated to the limbo of retirement.

His pleasing reveries were suddenly interrupted by hearing a furious
commotion. He was dimly conscious of hearing the marine officer give
a hurried order to his men to face about, while from one of the
narrow streets issued a number of horsemen. They were not members of
the regular Valderian army, but rough-riders from the grass country
of the middle plateau, men who had practically lived in the saddle
from childhood.

Before the marines could fire a shot the avalanche of men and horses
were upon them, through them, and off out of sight between the
massive stone buildings. And with them were carried the Admiral and
his staff, prisoners in the hands of the enemy.

In vain the marines fired their rifles in the air to warn the
outposts. The latter, imagining that an attack was impending from
without, stood to their arms, while dashing along with loose rein and
unspared spur rode the daring horsemen with their captives, never
slacking pace until they drew up outside the plaza of Naocuanha.

It was certainly a daring and well-executed plan on the part of the
President. With these important hostages he realized that the outlook
from his point of view had considerably improved. The British force
in possession of Zandovar was too small to advance upon the capital,
and weeks would elapse before reinforcements could be sent from
England. During that interval he might be able to make satisfactory
terms.

Under the circumstances Zaypuru felt it safe to allow the airship
"Libertad" to leave the country and pick up his adviser, Reno
Durango.



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE DISASTER TO THE "LIBERTAD."


"HERE'S a pretty how d'ye do!" remarked Whittinghame when the news of
Zaypuru's daring stroke was received by the "Meteor." "That alters
the state of affairs, I'm thinking. What would you do, Dacres? Wait
till the 'Libertad' I arrives, or make a dash across the Sierras into
Valderian territory and attempt the rescue of the prisoners?"

"Wait for Durango--that would be the best course, I think. I don't
suppose Admiral Maynebrace will come to any harm. But I was
forgetting your brother."

"I wasn't," said the Captain of the "Meteor." "We must find out where
the Admiral and his staff are imprisoned. If they are shut up in the
Cavarale--that's the name of the prison on the outskirts of
Naocuanha--Gerald will have company. Then, again, will Durango return
to Valderia now that the submarines are destroyed? The phase of the
situation seems to point to the possibility of the Mexican deserting
the sinking ship and trying his luck with the plans elsewhere."

"But he has large pecuniary interests in Naocuanha."

"True. After all, I think we might hang on a little while longer. I
have no reason to doubt my agent's report that the 'Libertad' is
ordered to proceed to Salto Augusto; unless the report is a false one
issued to put us off the scent. Durango might have followed his
original plan and proceeded by rail."

"In that case we have been nicely had," said Dacres.

"We'll remain here twenty-four hours longer," decided Whittinghame;
"then, if the 'Libertad' does not put in an appearance, we'll make a
night descent upon Naocuanha."

While the officers of the "Meteor" were at lunch Callaghan brought in
a message received by wireless that the "Libertad" had left Naocuanha
at seven that morning, bound east.

"Good!" ejaculated Whittinghame. "Left Naocuanha at seven? She has a
thousand mile flight. Allowing her speed to be the same as that of
the 'Meteor'--although I doubt it--she ought to reach Salto Augusto
by about noon or one o'clock. They couldn't have chosen a better time
as far as we are concerned, for the sun will be almost directly
overhead. At five thousand feet we'll run no risk of being spotted."

At exactly fifteen minutes past twelve the watchers on the British
airship saw her rival approaching. The "Libertad" was flying low--at
an altitude of about five hundred feet. This proved that her speed
was approximately the same as that of her opponent. In appearance she
strongly resembled the "Meteor," but, of course, Whittinghame was not
aware of the details of her construction and propulsive arrangements.
Durango had had the secret of the ultra-hydrogen, but whether he knew
how to render the gas non-inflammable was a question that could not
be satisfactorily answered by the Captain of the "Meteor."

Keeping the "Libertad" under observation by means of their powerful
binoculars the officers of the "Meteor" saw the Valderian craft
alight at less than half a mile from the outskirts of the town. She
did not remain long. Almost skimming along the ground, like a snake
crawling stealthily through the grass, she turned westward.

Although the "Meteor" could not adopt offensive methods over
Brazilian territory, there was now no further need of concealment.
She could follow the "Libertad" relentlessly, keeping her in view
until she crossed the border. Then she would act promptly and
decisively.

Swooping downwards, but still maintaining a superior elevation, the
"Meteor" began to chase. With her motors running "all out" she slowly
yet surely overhauled her prey, till a sudden spurt on the part of
the "Libertad" announced the fact that she had sighted her pursuer,
and was putting on extra speed.

Mile after mile the two airships tore at a terrific rate. On board
the "Meteor" the bomb-dropping gear was made ready, and the light
quick-firers manned. But even had Whittinghame wished to open fire
upon the enemy, the speed at which the "Meteor" was travelling put
that out of the question, until the "Libertad" was overhauled
sufficiently for the British craft's guns to be trained abeam. Nor
could the machine guns on the promenade deck be worked. No man could
stand to serve them in the howling gale that swept past the rapidly
moving vessel.

On the other hand Durango could make use of the two after guns on the
"Libertad" without risk. To open the bow-ports of the "Meteor" meant
serious damage both to the structure of the hull and to her crew,
unless the speed were materially reduced.

The Captain of the "Libertad" cared not one jot for international
rights now that he was on his way back to Valderia. He opened fire
upon the "Meteor," two shells fitted with time-fuses screeching past
the huge flimsy target and bursting three hundred yards astern.

"This won't do," remarked Whittinghame calmly. "We cannot afford to
be potted without chance of replying."

He turned and gave a brief order. The elevating planes and an
addition of ultra-hydrogen resulted in the "Meteor" quickly bouncing
up another two thousand feet. Her Captain's plan was to gain an
important advantage in altitude and continue to overhaul the
"Libertad." He would thus have what corresponded to the weather-gauge
in old-time frigate actions.

In the excitement of the chase the hours sped quickly--so quickly
that Whittinghame uttered an exclamation of surprise when Dacres
announced that the frontier was passed and that the "Meteor" was
above Valderian territory.

"Are you quite sure?" he asked.

"Of course, sir, I couldn't obtain an absolutely correct reading on
account of the motion and the slight refraction of the glass
scuttles," replied Dacres. "But I am quite convinced that, allowing a
margin of safety, we are between twenty and thirty miles over the
dividing-line."

"There are the Sierras," announced Setchell, pointing to a row of
snow-topped peaks. "If the 'Libertad' doesn't begin to ascend, she'll
have a stiff climb."

"We have her right enough," said Whittinghame, rubbing his hands
gleefully. "We have her. Before she can ascend sufficiently to clear
those peaks we'll have overhauled her."

"Unless she finds a pass between the mountains," added Dr. Hambrough,
who, in his shirt-sleeves, was going through the contents of an
ambulance-chest.

Nearer and nearer drew the formidable chain of peaks. Both airships
were continually ascending, but it was quite apparent to the crew of
the "Meteor" that unless the "Libertad" rose at a fairly steep angle
she would never clear the summit. Even if she attempted it her speed
must be greatly retarded, during which time the "Meteor" would have
overlapped her antagonist.

Suddenly the Valderian airship ported her helm, slowing down as she
did so. Whittinghame instantly ordered the "Meteor's" motors to be
stopped.

"She means to show fight!" he exclaimed.

Once again Durango had gained the better position by skilful
manoeuvring. Owing to the great difference in height the "Meteor's"
bombs stood little chance of hitting the target, immense though it
was. She was provided with only two quick-firing guns that could be
trained immediately beneath her; while the six weapons on vertical
mountains on the "Libertad's" upper platform could be brought into
play.

"The cunning sweep!" ejaculated Whittinghame.

Round swung the "Meteor," then, plunging steeply, she made off at
full speed at right angles to her former course, until she was barely
two hundred feet above the height of her antagonist.

The craft were now seven thousand yards apart. Each, when viewed from
the other, resembled a thin dark line against the deep blue sky.

It was a long range, but Whittinghame decided to try his luck. The
five broadside quick-firers spoke simultaneously. No reply came from
the "Libertad," which now set off as fast as she could towards the
mountains.

Evidently Durango was adopting Fabian tactics. Whittinghame muttered
angrily. He had been out-witted by their manoeuvres and had lost the
advantage of altitude which he had hitherto possessed.

Ten minutes later the "Libertad" vanished from sight behind a
precipitous bluff in the mountains. Evidently the pilot of the
Valderian airship knew of a means of escape. He had taken her into
one of the deep gorges that penetrate these stupendous walls of rock.

Well it was that the Captain of the "Meteor" had not ordered the
upper deck guns to be manned. There was, in consequence, no delay
while the promenade-deck was being cleared.

At half-speed the "Meteor" again stood in pursuit of her rival.

A hundred miles an hour is a dangerous pace to navigate an airship
between mountainous walls, but Whittinghame was not to be denied.
What the "Libertad" could do, he would do--and more. Even then, he
argued that if the pursued maintained her utmost rate of speed she
would be practically out of sight before the "Meteor" emerged from
the narrow valley. At all costs the "Libertad" must be brought to bay
ere she reached Naocuanha.

Whittinghame now realized that, with true British contempt of
foreigners, he had underrated the capabilities of his rival. He
resolved, with bulldog tenacity, to carry on, heedless of risks.

On the other hand Reno Durango never thought for one moment that the
"Meteor" would follow the "Libertad" through the mountain pass. He
fully expected that his rival would laboriously climb to a height
sufficient to enable him to cross the snow-clad range. By that time
the "Libertad" would be under the cover of the guns of Naocuanha.

Acting under this supposition the Mexican ordered speed to be reduced
during the passage of the gorge, and at a bare fifty miles an hour
the "Libertad" entered the gloomy defile. On either hand the cliffs
towered almost vertically to a height of two thousand feet; above
this the mountainside rose with less declivity until it reached far
above the snow-line. The pass itself averaged two hundred yards in
width, and, although winding, its curves were gradual enough to allow
the thousand odd feet of airship to be manoeuvred with comparative
ease.

"Steady on your helm, Callaghan," cautioned Whittinghame as the
"Meteor" swung round the projecting bluff.

With every nerve on the alert the crew of the pursuing craft stood at
their posts, those for'ard half-expecting to see their rival brought
up to bar their way, those aft, unable to use their powers of vision,
trusting implicitly in the energy and skill of their young commander.

Ahead lay the narrow gorge, desolate, forbidding and withal majestic.
There were no signs of the "Libertad."

Bend after bend was negotiated in safety. In four minutes the
"Meteor" traversed the pass, then, to the surprise of her officers,
they found the "Libertad" waiting broadside on, at a distance of less
than half a mile.

Nor was the dramatic appearance of the "Meteor" as she suddenly
emerged from between the lofty mountain range any the less surprising
to Durango and his crew. So intent were they in watching the peaks of
the Sierras that for the moment they could scarce believe their eyes.

That the "Libertad" meant to fight was evident from the fact that she
had slackened speed and had hoisted Valderian colours from an ensign
staff at the after end of her upper deck.

Before the "Meteor's" guns could open fire a fusillade of musketry
and a broadside from the guns on the upper deck of the hostile
airship woke the silence of the valley. The British craft reeled,
then, several of her ballonettes pierced through and through, she
began to drop vertically through space.

As Whittinghame sprang to the emergency lever for charging the
reserve sub-sections to the full capacity, a shout from his
companions attracted his attention. Thrusting down the metal rod he
turned to follow the direction of Dacres' outstretched arm.

The "Libertad" was turning turtle.

Slowly, but with increasing speed she rolled over to port, till the
whole extent of her upper deck sloped at an angle of sixty degrees.
Her guns broke from their mountings and went crashing through the
light metal stanchions into the depths. Men, frantically struggling
to keep a foothold or clinging to the railings, slipped off her
aluminium deck to a swift yet awful death in the vast abyss below.

Still falling she turned on her longitudinal axis till she described
a complete semi-circle. All the while her propellers were driving her
ahead. The horizontal planes, that in her normal position would tend
to make her ascend, now acted in a totally opposite direction. She
was descending rapidly under her own power rather than the force of
gravity towards the earth.

Spellbound and too enthralled to notice the injuries to their own
craft the crew of the "Meteor" watched the scene of disaster, till,
with a crash, accompanied by the hiss of the escaping ultra-hydrogen,
the bows of the "Libertad" plunged into a thick clump of mountain
pine-trees. For a few seconds the wreckage hung in an oblique
position, then, the framework slowly collapsing, the Valderian
airship finished her brief career upon the unsympathetic soil of her
native land.

"Good heavens!" ejaculated the doctor, breaking the tense silence.
Strong nerved though he was and used to the scientific horrors of the
operating room, the appalling tragedy made him feel giddy and sick.

Whittinghame moved to the telephone.

"Stand by to anchor," he ordered coolly. Then turning to his
companions: "There is no time to be lost; we must repair damages and
investigate the wreck. Since there is no sign of fire, we may be able
to recover the plans intact."



CHAPTER XIX.

INVESTIGATING THE WRECK.


ALREADY, owing to the introduction of additional ultra-hydrogen, the
earthward descent of the "Meteor" had been arrested. The damage done
by the broadside from the ill-fated "Libertad" was serious enough. A
large quantity of gas which could be ill spared had been lost, nine
ballonettes having been pierced. Most damage had been done to No. 4
section, the officers' cabins being reduced to a state of chaos.
Fortunately there were only four of the crew stationed in that part
of the ship, and with one exception they had come off unscathed. The
exception was Williamson, the quartermaster of Dacres' watch, who had
received a deep flesh wound in the left shoulder.

To the south of the wood upon which the airship had fallen was an
expanse of fairly level ground, barely sufficient to accommodate the
whole length of the "Meteor." In her disabled condition her Captain
would not risk bringing her down in one piece. The only alternative
was to separate her between Nos. 2 and 3 sections, since Nos. 3 and 5
were necessary to support the riddled No. 4.

With considerable misgivings the order was given to release the
cam-action bolts. The foremost part of the "Meteor" being practically
intact, gave no trouble; but before the remainder of the ship could
be brought to the ground even more ultra-hydrogen had to be made use
of.

When, at length, the two portions were safely anchored fore and aft
all hands set to work to make good the damage. Every ballonette that
still contained gas was emptied, the ultra-hydrogen being forced into
spare emergency cylinders. By the time this task was accomplished in
the short tropical twilight, the work had to be abandoned till the
next day.

Had the Valderian capital been informed of this double calamity, the
capture of the "Meteor" and her crew could have been easily
undertaken by a comparatively small body of troops, for the British
airship was quite as incapable of motion as was her totally wrecked
rival.

"What caused the 'Libertad' to turn turtle?" asked Setchell during
dinner. "We didn't fire a shot at her during the last part of the
chase."

"I think it can be explained," replied Whittinghame. "Those fellows
had too much top-hamper. They carried six quick-firers on the upper
or promenade deck. Added to that there were several of the crew armed
with rifles. The broadside did more harm to them than it did to us,
although, goodness knows, we've been badly knocked about. The recoil
of the broadside was the finishing touch, so to speak. She was
already bordering on a state of unstable equilibrium, and over she
went."

"Will our repairs take long?" asked Dacres.

"I think not. The material of which the ballonettes is made is very
amenable to treatment. We shall have to force air into each of the
ballonettes to find out which are gas-tight and which are not. Those
which require only slight repairs we will patch. The others must wait
until we return to our base. Fortunately there was an ample reserve
of buoyancy."

"And the reserve of ultra-hydrogen?" asked Dr. Hambrough.

"That is a more serious question, doctor. We have enough and barely
enough to impart sufficient lifting power to the 'Meteor.' Perhaps I
must sacrifice No. 4 section. It contains our cabins, gentlemen, but
judging by the state they are in I do not think you will be put to
greater inconvenience than the present condition promises. However,
we shall be in a position to decide that point tomorrow. One thing is
pretty certain: had the gas been of an explosive nature not one of us
would be here to tell the tale."

"And the wireless room?" asked Setchell.

"Still intact, so you will be able to communicate with your relations
and friends in England and let them know that you are still in the
land of the living," replied the Captain. "Now, gentlemen," he
continued, "I suggest that those who are not on duty should retire.
Mr. Setchell will be in charge of the armed patrol until midnight,
and then, doctor, you will kindly change the guard and relieve Mr.
Setchell. To-morrow, I promise you, will be a strenuous day for all
hands."

The night passed without interruption. With the first sign of dawn
the officers were out and about. At his chief's request Dacres
accompanied him to the wreck of the luckless "Libertad," four of the
crew armed with rifles going with them in case of danger from either
man or beast.

In a few minutes the debris was sighted. Owing to the velocity of the
"Libertad's" descent many of the young pine-trees had either snapped
off or bent, and thus the fore part of the airship was resting on the
ground.

The motors from the forward compartment were lying nearly a hundred
yards from the rest of the wreckage. Aluminium plates, twisted and
ripped out of almost all recognition, fractured girders, pieces of
oiled silk from the interior of the ballonettes, and a miscellaneous
assortment of other material gave silent evidence of the completeness
of the disaster.

The after-part, having subsided more slowly, since the "Libertad"
struck the ground obliquely, was in a more recognisable condition,
except that the motors had broken from the bearings.

"Pretty mess!" ejaculated Whittinghame.

"There seems little chance of recovering the plans," remarked Dacres.
"After all, it won't matter so very much if we don't. They are
doubtless lost in that heap of wreckage."

"It would be more satisfactory to know definitely," added
Whittinghame. "Do you fancy a climb? If so, we'll investigate the
after-sections of the wreck."

Dacres willingly assented, and soon both men were climbing along the
twisted framework, cautiously testing each piece of metal ere they
trusted their weight to it.

The Captain of the "Meteor" laughed at their careful precautions.

"It's a strange thing," he remarked, "how seriously we, who are used
to altitudes running into thousands of feet, regard a possible fall
of twenty or thirty."

"Yet there is a good reason," added his companion. "Were we to fall
out of the 'Meteor' and drop a few thousand feet through space the
consequences would be a matter of complete indifference to us. On the
other hand, we might slip off this girder on to the ground and live
for years afterward, no doubt, crippled for life. I've known a blue
jacket go aloft in a strong wind to clear the pennant--a man's life
at stake for the sake of a few yards of bunting--and to do it without
turning a hair. Ashore that same man would think twice before
alighting on a greasy road from a tramcar in motion."

Beyond a state of disorder caused by movable articles being thrown
out of place by the concussion the cabins were practically intact.
Rapidly Whittinghame made his way from one to the other until he
reached one that had the appearance of belonging to the "Libertad's"
Captain.

In one corner was a pedestal desk, its top "stove-in" by coming into
contact with the bulkhead. Charts, maps, and documents littered the
floor, in company with a clock, barometer, articles of clothing and
books. From a peg hung a light coat, its pocket bulging considerably.

"We'll put etiquette on one side," said Whittinghame, "and see what
is in this gentleman's pockets."

There was a revolver with about fifty loose cartridges in one pocket.
Jerking open the weapon Whittinghame broke it across his knee and
threw the pieces into the tree-tops. In the corresponding pocket was
a leather case stuffed with papers. Amongst them was the counterfoil
of a steamship ticket from Southampton to Pernambuco, a Brazilian
railway time-table and almost a dozen envelopes bearing the stamps of
four different European countries besides those of Valderia.

Without examining their contents Whittinghame thrust the envelopes
into his pocket and resumed his search. In the breast-pocket of the
coat were two South American newspapers dated the day previous and,
what was especially useful, a large scale plan of the city of
Naocuanha.

"This is Durango's cabin," he observed.

"Without a doubt," assented Dacres; "but we've had no luck with the
plans."

"He may have stowed them away in one of these drawers. There's no
immediate hurry. We'll have a look round the rest of the wreck, and
remove the contents of the desk later on."

Although the impact had been violent several of the ballonettes still
retained gas. Whittinghame was about to release their contents when
Dacres interposed.

"Better be careful," he said. "There must be still a considerable
amount of buoyancy in that end of the ship, since she's supported
only by a few slender trees. If we release the ultra-hydrogen we may
be involved in a supplementary disaster, and have that forty-foot
fall we were discussing."

"Right," replied the Captain laconically. "Do you know, there's
something remarkable about this wreckage?"

"In what way?"

"We've examined every part of the two after-sections, and we haven't
seen any of the bodies of the crew. They couldn't have all been on
deck. Those below were not pitched overboard when she turned right
over; where, then, are they?"

"I saw twenty men, at least, drop off her when she turned turtle.
There are four bodies at least under the fore-part."

"Then, assuming her crew to be at least as numerically as strong as
that of the 'Meteor,' where are the rest? The fact that some of the
ballonettes are still charged points to the suggestion that the shock
to the after-part was not sufficient to kill a man. Therefore there
are survivors. That being so, where are they?"

"I noticed something like a muster-book in one of the cabins," said
Dacres. "I'll get hold of it and see if it is."

So saying he made his way to the place where he had noticed the book
in question. As he passed along the alley-way a door swung to.

Dacres stopped and listened intently. He could have sworn that he
heard footsteps on the upper deck.

Giving the alarm to his companion Dacres dashed up the metal ladder
leading to the promenade deck, pushed back the hinged flap, and,
crawling on his hands and knees, gained the stanchion rails on the
lee side of the steeply shelving platform. He could see or hear
nothing of a suspicious nature.

"What's wrong?" asked Whittinghame, thrusting his head and shoulders
through the hatchway.

"Thought I heard some one moving," replied his comrade. "Below
there!" he shouted, hailing the men who had accompanied their
officers to the scene of the wreck.

"Ay, ay, sir," replied Callaghan.

"Have you seen anyone about?"

"No, sir."

"Have any of you been climbing on the wreckage?"

"No, sir; we've been standing here ever since you went on board."

"Must have been mistaken, then," said Dacres to his Captain. "I saw a
door swing to, and I felt sure that I heard footsteps on the deck."

"You must have been. With the airship lying at this angle the door
must have swung accidentally. We may have left it just ajar, and a
tremor of the hull set it in motion."

With that Dacres crawled back to the hatchway. It was a tricky
business, for the smooth metal plates afforded a very insecure
foothold.

"Here's the book, sir," he said. "It does contain the names of the
crew--thirty-nine, by Jove! And Durango's tally is not amongst them.
That's forty, at least, for there may have been others on board whose
names are not on the list."

"H'm! Well, we'll throw overboard the papers we found in Durango's
cabin and our men can take them back to the 'Meteor.' After that
we'll make a careful examination of the wreckage of the fore-part and
see if we can identify any of the victims. Tell Callaghan to stand by
as we throw the gear over-board."

As the two officers re-entered Durango's cabin they "brought up all
standing," and looked at each other in amazement. They had left the
coat hanging on its peg. It now lay on the floor, with the lining of
the pockets turned inside out, while the loose ammunition had been
thrown about and had rolled into a corner to leeward.

"That rascal has been on board!" exclaimed Whittinghame.



CHAPTER XX.

A HAZARDOUS PROPOSAL.


"YES, we've had a narrow squeak," continued the Captain. "It's easy
to reconstruct the case. Durango was either concealed in the woods or
else hiding on board. More than likely he was stowed away somewhere
on the airship, otherwise Callaghan and the other men ought to have
spotted him."

"But they didn't see him leave," objected Dacres.

"Quite true. Conversely they didn't see him come on board; but that
is a side issue. One thing is certain; he was aware of our presence.
He must have been stalking us. Directly we left the cabin he crept
in, knowing that there was a revolver and ammunition in his pocket.
With these in his possession it would have been an easy matter for
him to shoot the pair of us, as we were quite in ignorance of his
being here; but fortunately, as far as we are concerned, I smashed
the revolver and threw the pieces over the side."

"With this possibility in your mind?"

Whittinghame shook his head.

"Don't credit me with too much, my friend. I saw the look on your
face when I deliberately destroyed a particularly neat little weapon.
Had it been of the same calibre as ours I would have kept it. As it
wasn't, I put it out of the way of others who might make use of it
against our interests. Anyhow, Durango was foiled on that count. He
then remembers that he had documents of importance in those
coat-pockets, so he hurriedly turns them inside out. In the midst of
the search he hears you coming along the alley-way, and being without
a weapon and afraid to tackle you on equal terms, makes a hurried
retreat. The door slams, and your suspicions are aroused."

"Perhaps he's still on board?" suggested Dacres.

"You heard him on deck."

"But there are other hatchways he could make use of besides going
over the side."

"There are; we'll investigate. I'll tell Callaghan to send up half a
dozen armed men, and then we'll search every nook and cranny."

The reinforcements were quick in responding to the call. First of all
the woods in the immediate vicinity of the after-part of the
"Libertad" were searched; men were posted to prevent anyone leaving
the wreck without being seen, while the rest joined the two officers
in exploring the still intact practical portion of the airship.

For an hour the search was kept up, but without result. Satisfied at
length that none of the original crew remained on board, Whittinghame
gave orders for the whole of the documents to be removed.

This done the fore-part was examined. Under the wreckage were found
the bodies of eight men, all terribly mangled, but sufficiently
recognizable for the searchers to decide that Reno Durango was not
amongst them.

The cunning rogue, instead of fighting his ship from the navigation
room for'ard, had delegated that duty to a subordinate, and had taken
up his position in the after-part which, when the disaster occurred,
had escaped the destruction meted out to the rest of the ill-fated
"Libertad."

Upon returning to the crippled "Meteor" Whittinghame, assisted by Dr.
Hambrough and Dacres, proceeded to examine the documents found in
Durango's cabin. From the contents of the letters it was soon made
evident that the rascal had already entered into negotiations with
several of the Great Powers for the disposal of the plans of the
British submarines.

The original specifications and constructional drawings of the
airship--those that had been appropriated by the Valderian
authorities when Gerald Whittinghame had been arrested--were found
intact.

"That's good," ejaculated Whittinghame. "It was more than I dared
hope. I expected to find tracings of the original plans, but these
rascals have evidently thought it unnecessary to make duplicates. If
they haven't--and judging by the state of these drawings I don't
think they have--they will never be able to make another imitation of
the 'Meteor.'"

"What do you propose to do with the wreck?" asked the doctor.

"We'll wait until the repairs to the 'Meteor' are complete and then,
I think, we'll set fire to the trees around the 'Libertad.' I would
do so earlier, but we must try, if possible, to prevent the alarm
reaching Naocuanha."

"But surely Durango will make a dash for the capital?"

"I think not. The Valderians do not look favourably upon those
leaders who have come to grief. He will, for a dead certainty, leave
Zaypuru in the lurch, and try his luck elsewhere--unless we prevent
him."

"And the submarine plans?" asked Dacres.

"I have not forgotten that point," replied Whittinghame; "since they
are not here nor in the wreck of the 'Libertad' it can be reasonably
surmised that Durango has them in his possession--unless he left them
with a trustworthy agent in Pernambuco. From the documents we found
on board we know that he had not got past the preliminary
negotiations. My immediate plans are as follows, gentlemen; if you
have any suggestions or objections to make I shall be pleased to hear
them:--

"In the first place we must make the 'Meteor' fit to resume her
flight. Then, on the principle of striking while the iron's hot, we
must attempt the rescue of the British prisoners at Naocuanha.
Whether we succeed or not we can then devote our attention to the
capture of Señor Reno Durango. Under the most favourable conditions
it will take him six weeks to reach the nearest railway station. He
has to recross the Sierras and make a long journey across the
Voyocama Desert. By that time we shall have either succeeded or
failed in our enterprise in Valderia. By making inquiries of any of
the few Indians who exist in the Voyocama Desert we shall be able to
get upon Durango's trail and run him to earth."

"Perfectly straightforward, sir," observed Setchell.

"Unless anything should go wrong," added Whittinghame guardedly.
"Now, having settled these points, suppose we make an examination of
our own craft?"

It did not require much inspection from the Captain to decide that
No. 4 section was useless for further service. It had borne the brunt
of the "Libertad's" fire. Only one ballonette retained its supply of
ultra-hydrogen. The others, pierced through and through, resembled
gigantic colanders, being completely riddled by the small calibre
shell. Since the "Libertad's" magazine was situated in the
corresponding section her crew had come to the conclusion that the
same state of affairs existed in the "Meteor," and had hoped by
directing most of their fire upon No. 4 section to destroy utterly
their antagonist by exploding her ammunition-room.

In the other sections the damage was comparatively slight. Wherever a
ballonette was pierced the high velocity of the projectiles had made
a clean circular hole. All that was required to be done--for the
ultra-hydrogen had already been exhausted from the intact ballonettes
and stored in the high-pressure cylinders--was to patch the silken
inner envelopes, rivet aluminium plates on the outer plating and test
each gas compartment by forcing air into it. Should an escape still
exist the hissing of the compressed air would be a sure indication of
the precise position of the leak.

Officers and men worked with desperate haste, yet without sacrificing
efficiency. In order to guard against a surprise attack sentries were
posted at some distance from the stranded "Meteor," while several of
her quick-firing guns were unshipped and remounted in positions
commanding the approach from the Valderian capital.

Nevertheless, had Durango and his surviving comrades been men of
pluck and determination, they might have entirely prevented the work
of repairing the "Meteor." Under cover of darkness it would have been
a comparatively easy matter to fire the dry grass, and the
destruction of the British airship would have been a foregone
conclusion. But the Mexican was a man to run no great risk. As soon
as he had secured certain property from his wrecked cabin he had
resolutely set out towards the Brazilian frontier.

Being a born gambler he realized that as far as Naocuanha and
Valderia were concerned his luck was out. He still had the means of
recouping his losses, but he was too wily to tempt fate in the
country that had already proved so disastrous to his projects.
Whittinghame was perfectly correct in his surmise. The Mexican was
already on his way to pastures which, if not new, could provide
abundant sustenance for his cupidity and cunning.

The day passed without any signs of Valderian activity. The news of
the disaster had not reached Naocuanha, and as the mountain pass was
an unfrequented one there was little risk of detection from passing
travellers.

At daybreak on the following morning work was renewed. The condemned
section, stripped of everything of value that had escaped the hail of
hostile shot, had been removed from the adjoining divisions. Most of
the leaks had been stopped, and Whittinghame had good reasons for
hoping that the air test could be applied that afternoon.

Just before noon one of the outposts signalled that three armed men
were approaching, but whether they were alone or merely the advance
guard of a force of Valderian troops he could not determine.

Whittinghame, Dacres and Setchell were quickly on the spot, where,
sheltered behind a ridge of rocks, they could command the approach of
the three strangers.

Bringing their glasses to bear the officers saw that the party
consisted of an elderly man and two who might be anything between
eighteen and twenty-five, even when taking into account the effect of
the climate. Each had a rifle slung across his back and a short
native knife, somewhat resembling the Mexican machete, in a sheath on
the right hip.

They had naturally seen the several separated portions of the
"Meteor" as well as the after-part of the wreck of the "Libertad,"
and had left the beaten track with the evident intention of making a
closer inspection.

"Not much strategy shown there," observed Dacres. "They make no
attempt to conceal themselves. Who and what are they, I wonder?"

"We'll soon find out," replied Whittinghame, and beckoning to six of
the crew he ordered them to make a detour in order to cut off the
strangers' retreat.

Nearer and nearer came the three men, chatting unrestrainedly and
gesticulating excitedly. Whittinghame, who spoke Spanish with
tolerable fluency, strained his ears to catch the drift of their
conversation.

"Frenchmen, by Jove!" ejaculated Dacres.

"I think not," whispered his chief. "Now!"

Simultaneously the officers and several of the "Meteor's" crew sprang
to their feet, while at the signal those in ambush stepped into the
path which the strangers had traversed.

In spite of the odds against them the three men were not wanting in
courage, although deficient in strategy.

They stopped, unslung their rifles, and having given their opponents
ample opportunity to shoot them down had the Englishmen felt so
inclined, they flopped down on the rocky path and took what cover
they could behind the small boulders.

"_Amigos!_" shouted Whittinghame.

"_Si, señor_," replied the elder man, and without any hesitation he
jumped up, spoke a few words to his companions, and then strode
towards the spot where Whittinghame stood.

"_Americanos?_" he asked interrogatively.

Whittinghame shook his head.

"_Inglese,_" he replied.

"_Bien,_" rejoined the stranger, removing his hat and making a
profound bow. "I am ver' pleased to speak with you, monsieur."

"You are a Frenchman, then?"

"Assuredly. I am called Antoine de la Fosse, I am an engineer of
electricity. Gaston, Henri!" he shouted in his native tongue; "come
here and make the acquaintance of these English airmen."

De la Fosse required but little "pumping." He seemed bursting with
anxiety to explain his presence to Whittinghame and the rest of the
officers.

He lived at Adiovonta, a small town about thirty miles from
Naocuanha and nearly forty from the scene of the combat between the
rival airships. He was on his way to San Carlos, where he had to
inspect the electric-lighting apparatus of a newly opened
copper-mine. Accompanied by his two sons and twenty Indian porters he
was within ten miles of the mountain pass when he heard the dull
detonations of the "Libertad's" guns. At first he did not know what
to make of it, for he was in ignorance of the fact that hostilities
had broken out between Great Britain and Valderia.

During his journey upon the succeeding day he made good use of a pair
of binoculars, and at length spotted what appeared to be the wreckage
of half a dozen airships. Leaving his men on the beaten track he set
out with his two sons to investigate the scene of the disaster.

"So there is war between Great Britain and Valderia, eh? And the port
of Zandovar is taken? Then I think I will not go to Naocuanha just _à
l'instant._"

"Were you bound for the capital, then?" asked Dacres.

"As soon as I finish the work at San Carlos. I have to see the
installation of the electric light at several of the buildings
public--the Cathedral and the Cavarale, for example, but I think it
will wait."

Whittinghame was too good a diplomat to come straight to the point
and ask for direct information concerning the Cavarale--the prison
where his brother and the British officers were confined. But the
chance was too good to be thrown aside. He would put the question
indirectly at a more opportune moment.

"Come and have lunch with us," he said courteously. "We cannot,
unfortunately, offer you of the wines of _la belle France_, but our
stores are by no means exhausted. After we have lunched we will show
you the airships, or rather ours and the remains of the Valderian
one."

"The Valderian one?" replied de la Fosse incredulously. "I did not
know that Valderia possessed an airship. _Mais,_ perhaps it is well
not to show too much interest in a country that is not ones own."

During the meal Whittinghame, who attended to his guests' wants with
the utmost politeness, related the salient facts of the dispute
between the two countries and the events leading up to the chase of
Señor Reno Durango.

"_Nom de Chien!_" ejaculated de la Fosse excitedly, bringing his hand
down violently upon the edge of his plate, and sending the contents
into his lap. "Reno Durango! Is it possible?"

"A friend of yours, monsieur?" asked Whittinghame.

"He is no friend to me," retorted the indignant Frenchman. "I
remember well his master, the pirate Karl von Harburg, who captured
'La Touraine' and stole fifty thousand francs from me. Again, Señor
Durango--_que le diable l'importe_--did his best to kill me at
Zandovar a little more than a year ago. _Peste!_ I have no love for
Señor Durango. _Voyons_, let me rejoice over the debris of his
airship."

Accordingly Whittinghame, Dacres, and the doctor accompanied the
Frenchman and his two sons to the scene of the disaster. De la Fosse,
with a Frenchman's typical sagacity, took the greatest interest in
all he saw, and asked innumerable questions, while his two sons
joined vivaciously in the conversation.

Suddenly a sharp report, unlike that of a rifle, came from the
direction of the "Meteor." The three officers exchanged glances.

"Something gone this time!" exclaimed Whittinghame.

Something had gone. One of the ballonettes in No. 3 section had burst
under the pressure of the compressed air introduced for the purpose
of testing its non-porosity. The explosion resulted in the partial
wreckage of the wireless room. Until the damage could be made good
the "Meteor" was practically cut off from intercourse with the
outside world. Before the days of wireless, isolation counted for
little, but once having enlisted the aid of the Italian wizard,
Marconi, the exigencies of civilization could ill bear being deprived
of this means of communication.

"Anyone hurt?" asked Whittinghame anxiously, as he and his companions
arrived on the scene of the accident.

"No one, sir," replied Callaghan saluting.

"That's a blessing," said the Captain fervently. "One man down is one
too many; we don't want any more casualties to our small crew. Now
let us see the extent of the damage to the wireless room."

"_Ciel!_ It is of little consequence to one who knows," replied de la
Fosse, after a brief yet comprehensive examination. "I know not how
you call this----"

"The magnetic detector, sir," volunteered Callaghan.

"Ah! the magnetic detector: it is out of--how you call it?--tune, _ne
c'est pas?_ The air-gap around the edge of this plate is destroyed.
In two days the damage is made good."

"To anyone who understands the business," added Whittinghame.

"_Oui, monsieur._ Very well, then: I do you good turn. I will stop.
Gaston will take my men to San José. Then in a few days I follow."

"It's awfully good of you, monsieur," said the Captain gratefully.

"_Pouf!_" ejaculated the Frenchman, throwing out his hands in a
deprecatory gesture. "It is nothing. I will help you set it right."

This latest accident, coming on top of the previous misfortunes to
the "Meteor," meant that the airship would not be ready to resume her
flight for at least a week; and during a week history might be made
in Valderia without Whittinghame and his companions being aware of
what was going on.

Dacres got on excellent terms with Antoine de la Fosse and his son
Henri, and before the end of the week he felt emboldened to tackle
the Frenchmen on the subject of the Cavarale Prison.

"You seem very anxious to know all about the prison, _mon ami,_"
remarked the elder de la Fosse. "One would think that you would like
to pay it a visit."

"That I should," replied Dacres. "Not as a prisoner, monsieur, but
just to find my way about. You remember Mr. Whittinghame told you we
were making an attempt to rescue some English prisoners there."

"And I showed you the plan of the Cavarale," said de la Fosse. "A
plan like that to a man with ordinary intelligence is worth a hundred
thousand books of direction."

"Quite true," assented Dacres. "But I have a strong desire to see
what the prison is like. To put the matter bluntly, could you get me
a pass to enter the Cavarale?"

The Frenchman did not reply for a few moments. "See you here," he
exclaimed. "I would help you, for I like not the President Zaypuru.
But it is too difficult. If they catch you, then you are shot as a
spy, and I am arrested for assisting an Englishman to spy. You
understand?"

"I quite see your point, monsieur," said Dacres. "You would be
betraying the country which you have made your temporary home."

"You do not see the point, Monsieur Dacres," corrected the Frenchman.
"It is not a question of betray: it is revenge. I have no cause to
like the present government, for when Zaypuru made the insurrection
his soldiers looted my house. I was then living close to Naocuanha.
It is a long story and I will not now tell it you. But if I could I
would help you."

He paused and puffed vigorously at his cigar. Dacres watched his face
eagerly. De la Fosse was pondering the question over in his mind.
Dacres let him think undisturbed. He realized that he had stirred the
Frenchman's passions. He was brooding under a heavy grievance. De la
Fosse, like many other Europeans, had good cause to hate President
Zaypuru and all his works.

"I have a plan," exclaimed de la Fosse suddenly. "I tell you. Suppose
I send Henri to inspect the Cavarale? It must be examined before I
can start work with the electric light installation."

"Well?"

"Then Henri must have an assistant, _bien entendu?_ Suppose you go as
assistant to my son? I give your name on the pass as Monsieur----"

"As Monsieur le Plaisant," added Dacres, a thought flashing across
his mind.

"You, then, know a Monsieur le Plaisant?" asked the Frenchman.

"Yes, I believe I do," replied Dacres grimly, with a lively
recollection of his prank on the midshipmen on H.M.S "Repulse."

"_Bien!_ Then I will inform Henri. Only, monsieur, if you are
detected you will be shot."

"That I quite understand," replied Dacres coolly.

"If you are detected," continued de la Fosse, "I know that you are an
English gentleman and will absolve Henri from blame."

"Of course," agreed Dacres. "I promise on my honour that if anything
goes wrong--I don't think it will, by the by--I will make out that I
deliberately deceived your son. He, of course, must be told to
repudiate me, should the Valderians spot me."

"You are a good impersonator, Monsieur Dacres?"

"Fairly," replied Dacres modestly. "I bluffed a flagship's officers
once, only----"

He pulled himself up. It was not desirable, on the eve of a similar
episode, to proclaim the failure of the former attempt.

"Very well," agreed de la Fosse. "I will put the name of Monsieur le
Plaisant on the pass, and Henri will show you the road to
Naocuanha."



CHAPTER XXI.

WITHIN THE CAVARALE PRISON.


"LOOK here, Dacres, I won't have you running this risk," said
Whittinghame when his subordinate unfolded his plan for investigating
the place of captivity of Admiral Maynebrace and his compatriots in
misfortune.

"There'll be no risk," replied Dacres. "That is, if I act with a
reasonable amount of caution. Besides, I want to have another little
game with old Maynebrace--bless his grey hair!"

Whittinghame shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly. "How long do you
reckon this mad freak of yours will take?" he asked.

"If we leave here at daybreak to-morrow we ought to be back at the
end of the fifth day. It's only half a day's journey to La Paz
railway station, so de la Fosse informs me. We'll have to hire a
couple of Indians to carry our professional gear and clothing, so as
to give more colour to the scheme. Henri could take some of his
father's men, only they might start talking about the stranded
airships and give rise to suspicions."

"Honestly I don't like your scheme, Dacres, but since you think it's
feasible and its results will be beneficial to our proposed
operations I suppose I mustn't raise any more objections."

Henri de la Fosse entered into the project with the greatest
eagerness. He, too, had cause to hate the present Valderian
government like poison.

Had it not been for Zaypuru and Durango, the Frenchman and his two
sons would have been able to attain their desires and return to their
native country long ago. The revolution had practically ruined de la
Fosse. His accumulated earnings had been fraudulently appropriated.
He was almost without sufficient means to pay his passage back to
Marseilles. He had, therefore, been obliged to remain in Valderia,
working desperately at his profession in the hope of being able, to
some extent, to retrieve his lost fortune.

When Whittinghame requested Antoine de la Fosse to name a sum for
repairing the wireless gear the little Frenchman waxed indignant. He
would take nothing, he replied proudly. It was a pleasurable task to
be able to assist the Englishmen in their effort against Zaypuru and
Durango.

Whittinghame was equally indignant. Finally the matter was
compromised. Should Dacres' adventure prove a success, and should the
"Meteor" contrive to rescue the prisoners from the Cavarale, de la
Fosse was to put forward a claim on the British Government, and
Whittinghame would back it up for all he was worth.

Antoine de la Fosse realized that he was making a great sacrifice in
allowing his son to go to Naocuanha. Had it not been for the fact
that he himself was the only one capable of effecting the delicate
repairs to the wireless gear he would have insisted on being Dacres'
companion. But having Dacres' assurance that in the event of
detection the Englishman would accept all responsibility his doubts
were set aside.

"Are you disguising yourself?" asked Whittinghame, for his comrade
was turning out the contents of a small portmanteau in which the
extraordinary "get up" he had worn on board the flagship was
conspicuous.

"No," replied Dacres. "At least, not with false moustaches or
whiskers. It would be too risky: the things might come adrift while I
was fooling about pretending to take measurements."

"But we must take certain possibilities into the question," continued
Whittinghame. "Suppose, for instance, Durango has, in spite of our
surmises to the contrary, returned to Naocuanha?"

"Hardly likely," replied Dacres. "Had he done so we should have had a
crowd of Valderian soldiers buzzing about before this."

The eventful morning came round. Antoine de la Fosse was to go with
Dacres and Henri as far as the place where the mules had been left in
charge of an Indian servant.

"By the by," remarked Whittinghame casually. "You haven't forgotten a
rule. You must have one if you have to take measurements, you know."

"I'll get one," said Dacres, and presently he returned with a
two-foot rule in his hand.

"If it weren't a very serious matter, Dacres, I'd simply roar with
laughter," declared the Captain of the "Meteor." "I asked you simply
to see what you'd do, and you've simply given the whole show away.
Imagine a supposed Frenchman taking measurements in a country where
the metric system is in force and using a British two-foot rule."

Dacres flushed under his tanned features.

"By Jove! I must be more careful."

"You must, not only on your account but for the sake of your
companion. It's a good thing de la Fosse didn't see what you were up
to."

Amid the hearty good wishes and farewells of the "Meteor's" officers
and men Dacres and Henri, attired in sombreros, loose grey shirts,
buckskin trousers, and native shoes fitted with formidable-looking
spurs, set out on their hazardous enterprise.

Soon Dacres found himself in the high-peaked saddle of a mule.
Although fairly docile as mules go, this animal required a
considerable amount of skill on the part of the rider. Like most
sailors Dacres rode awkwardly, hanging on more by good luck than good
management, the performance causing the high-spirited Henri no end of
amusement, especially when the inapt rider was slung out into the
dust no less than three times during the first half hour.

"Pardon me, monsieur, I cannot help it," said young de la Fosse
apologetically, although tears of laughter were trickling down his
face.

"Neither can I," replied Dacres as he picked himself up and essayed
to clamber into the awkward saddle.

"But if you ride thus into La Paz the Valderians will have
suspicions," resumed Henri doubtfully. "In Valderia everyone rides
superbly."

"I'll manage the brute all right long before we get to La Paz,"
declared Dacres stoutly. "Gee up, you rascal!"

Evidently the Valderian mule strongly objected to being urged on in
English, for his hind-quarters suddenly reared. Dacres found himself
rising in the air. Clearing the pommel by a few inches he alighted on
the animal's crupper, whence he cannoned off into a particularly
prickly clump of cacti.

Leaping from his saddle Henri handed the reins to his companion, then
devoting his attention to the refractory mule he made it trot round
and round in a small circle until the youth was almost ready to drop
with sheer giddiness. This treatment also proved most subduing to the
mule, for from that time Dacres had no further trouble.

The road to La Paz was with few exceptions mostly down hill. In
places it wound round forbidding spurs of the mountains, where a
false step would send animal and rider into the almost fathomless
depths below.

So narrow was the track that Dacres wondered what would happen if
they met persons coming in the opposite direction.

"That is easily managed," replied Henri when his companion expressed
his doubts. "We would dismount. The other travellers would do
likewise. We speak with them; they speak with us. There is no hurry
in these parts. Then the mules going that way would crouch down, and
the mules coming this way would step over them. It is so simple when
one knows how."

"Thanks, I would rather not have any," remarked Dacres, and later on
he reiterated his thanks when he found himself once more in open
country.

Feeling so stiff that he could scarcely dismount Dacres arrived at La
Paz. The mules were handed over to the care of a most
villainous-looking innkeeper, and their baggage given to four
miserable-looking Indians, who for a few centavos could be engaged to
act as servants.

While waiting for the train to start--it would be a fortunate event
if it left the station within an hour of the supposed time--Henri,
who spoke Spanish excellently, made several judicious inquiries of
the men who were loafing about--for leaning against the adobe walls
and smoking huge cigars seemed the total occupation of the visible
inhabitants of La Paz.

When at length the train started on its journey to the capital, young
de la Fosse had an opportunity of communicating to his companion the
news he had gathered from the loungers at the station.

If it were true the situation looked very grave. There were reports
that a battle had been fought outside the town of Zandovar between
the gallant Valderians and the invaders. The British had been
compelled to retreat to their ships, leaving over five hundred men
prisoners in the hands of the victors. More, two English battleships
had been sunk by mines, and the rest had stood out to sea.

Dacres simply roared. The rumours were so utterly unlikely.

"It may be true," said Henri gravely. "The best generalled armies
make the mistake at times. The Italians at Adowah, the Russians in
Manchuria, and the English in South Africa, _par exemple._"

"Then, if it is true we'll find the Cavarale chock-a-block with
British prisoners," said Dacres. "So we'll wait and see."

When, after a slow and irksome journey, the train entered Naocuanha
station, Dacres and his companion were pounced upon and questioned by
half a dozen gaudily-uniformed officials. Their pass had to be
examined, signed and countersigned by men who could hardly write
their names, their baggage being searched, and even the contents of
their pockets scrutinized. Dacres realized that had he attempted to
don artificial hair and whiskers as a disguise he would have been
detected before he left the platform.

At length the ordeal was passed, and escorted by four soldiers the
two "electrical experts" made their way to an hotel.

The city of Naocuanha was under martial law. There were troops--for
the most part ill-clad, ill-armed, and badly disciplined--everywhere.
Most of the shops were shut, and had their windows boarded up. In
several places barricades had been thrown across the streets and
machine guns placed in position. The steam-cars and public vehicles
had either been kept in their sheds or pressed into military service.
Everywhere notices were posted up, warning the civil population to be
in their houses by sunset under pain of fine and imprisonment.

"This doesn't look like a British reverse," thought Dacres. "The
whole crowd of them are in a mortal funk. That's quite evident."

Acting on his companion's advice Dacres feigned a bad headache on
their arrival at the hotel and promptly went to bed. Until Henri felt
fairly certain that none of the guests--who, fortunately, were few in
number--understood French it was advisable for the pseudo-electrician
to keep to himself.

All night long bugles were blaring and drums beating. The garrison of
Naocuanha were evidently expecting an attack from the British forces
in possession of Zandovar. Consequently Dacres spent a restless
night, while the swarms of mosquitos that found their way in through
the rents in the mosquito curtains of his bed added to his
discomfort.

Next morning, after Henri had paid a compulsory visit to the
commandante's office, the two men, with their Indian servants, set
out for the Cavarale.

The prison stood about two miles from the city. It occupied an
isolated position, being on a broad grassy plain. The building was of
rectangular formation with squat square towers at the four corners.
It was surrounded at a distance of twenty feet from the main walls by
a mud and rubble wall surmounted by a _chevaux de frise._

In the centre of this outer enclosure on the city side was a gateway
with an adobe hut close by; but this entrance was apparently
neglected, for the gate stood wide open, and no one seemed to be on
guard.

In the intervening space ran a dry ditch crossed by a broad wooden
bridge leading to the inner gateway.

This was a more imposing affair, the stone archway being surmounted
by the arms of the republic. The door was of very massive wood and
pierced by a wicket. On either side were loopholes so that the
approach could be commanded by rifle fire if necessary; while above
each of the four towers grinned the barrels of an old type of machine
gun of the Nordenfeldt pattern.

Pacing up and down the parapet or else lolling in the shade of the
towers were several sentries, each with the inevitable cigar or
cigarette in his mouth. They eyed the approaching strangers with
apparent unconcern, making no attempt to challenge them.

Directly Henri pulled the bell the wicket was opened and a serjeant
gruffly demanded to know the business of the two strangers.

In reply young de la Fosse pulled out the pass and presented it. The
fellow took the document, pretended to read it while holding it
upside down, and calling to a soldier who happened to be standing
close by, bade him hand the pass to the serjeant of the guard.

Apparently, this non-commissioned officer could make no more of it
than did his subordinate; but, throwing aside his cigar, he leisurely
strolled off to the quarters of the commandante of the prison.

Half an hour later the Frenchman and the pseudo compatriot were
permitted to enter. An empty store was allotted for the reception of
their belongings, and the Indians were told to remain there until
wanted.

"You remain also," said Henri in a low voice to Dacres. "I have to
see the commandante."

Presently Henri returned with a bundle of papers, showing the general
plan of the prison on a large scale, and the various parts that it
was proposed to fit with electric lighting apparatus.

To show undue energy would arouse suspicion, so the two electricians
spent quite an hour in ostentatiously examining the documents before
proceeding with the actual work of "measuring up."

Then, having offered a cigarette to the soldier told off to attend on
them, Henri and Dacres made their way to the _patio_ or courtyard in
the centre of the quadrangle.

While busy with the tape Dacres kept his eyes wide open. Evidently
three sides of the building were intended for the prisoners'
quarters, for they were lighted by small square windows heavily
barred and at a height of twenty feet from the ground. The remaining
side was in the occupation of the troops who formed the joint rôle of
garrison and jailers, while in one corner of the _patio_ and farthest
remote from the entrance was a stone building in which the
commandante of the prison lived. It was two-storyed, with a flat
roof, from which a light gangway communicated with the flats of the
quarters surrounding the quadrangle. A covered way also led from the
commandante's residence to the guard room.

"The commandante says that he is busy to-day and does not wish to be
disturbed by having men to measure the rooms of his house," said
Henri, "so that will be much better for us. We can go sooner to the
quarters of the prisoners."

"Very good," assented Dacres.

They conversed in English, since Dacres was a precious bad French
scholar. There was no need to do otherwise since de la Fosse, by a
simple, seemingly aimless question to the soldier who accompanied
them, found out that he understood no language but his own.

Having finished their ostentatious work in the _patio_, Henri tapped
the plan he held in his hand and pointed significantly towards the
prison-buildings.

The soldier shrugged his shoulders indifferently, then slouched
towards the door. In response to a knock the door was opened by a
fierce-looking mulatto who, apparently satisfied that the two
foreigners were properly escorted, passed them in without further
ado.

The prison was two-storyed. The cells on the ground floor were not
lighted from without, and were constructed for the reception of
common criminals. Recently these occupants had been transferred _en
bloc_ to the civil prison in Naocuanha, and consequently they were
now unoccupied. The political and foreign prisoners were distributed
in cells on the upper story, to the number of nearly a hundred. Of
these nine were Englishmen, including the two who were arrested
before the outbreak of hostilities, and whose detention formed one of
the principal causes of the rupture between Great Britain and the
republic of Valderia. In addition to the nine were partisans of the
late President San Bonetta who, having escaped the extreme measures
adopted by the ferocious Diego Zaypuru, were still in rigorous
confinement and in constant fear of being summoned to execution.

Fearing to cause suspicions by asking where the British prisoners
were lodged, Dacres and his companion had to take each cell in order,
measuring the distance from the centre of the corridor, and the
height of the position of the proposed lamp. To hurry over the task
would raise doubts in the officials' minds as to the _bona fides_ of
the avowed electricians. Thus the short working-day ended without
Dacres having an opportunity of entering into communication with any
of his former brother-officers.

On the following day the prospect looked brighter, since there was no
needless delay in the _patio._ Don Alonzo da Costa, the commandante,
was still indisposed to allow the electricians to enter his quarters,
so, thankfully, Dacres and his companion resumed their tedious tour
of the cells.

At length the jailer unlocked the door of a cell situated in the
north-east angle of the building, and the two engineers solemnly
filed into the room.

It was slightly larger than the others, but sparely furnished, the
latter consisting of a plain deal table and chair, and an iron
cot-frame, on the foot of which were two rolled blankets and a thin
straw mattress.

As the men entered a stentorian voice exclaimed,

"Bless my soul, Dacres, what on earth are you doing here?"

The speaker was his late chief, Rear-Admiral Maynebrace.



CHAPTER XXII.

DACRES REMINDS THE ADMIRAL.


"STEADY, sir," remonstrated Dacres, addressing the Admiral and at the
same time turning his head away as if consulting with his colleague.
"This won't do; you'll spoil the whole show."

"Surely, Mr. Dacres, you haven't signed on with these----"

Admiral Maynebrace's remarks were cut short by the soldier bringing
the butt of his rifle down upon the stone floor with a resounding
clang and causing the astonished old officer to skip more agilely
than he had done for years past.

"That's excellent," exclaimed Henri addressing the sentry in Spanish.
"Keep the rascally prisoner in his place. We do not want to be
hindered in our work."

"Sit down, sir, and pray be calm," continued Dacres, still talking as
if he were referring to the task of measuring the walls. "Don't pay
any outward attention and listen. (Twenty-five centimetres from that
cornice, Henri: have you got that down?) We hope to bring the airship
'Meteor' to your rescue in a few days, sir, so be prepared. Turn in
all standing, if you can, for we may have to hurry you up. (Do you
think that will be far enough from the wall for the position of the
switch, Henri? Good!) I can't expect you to answer any questions,
sir. It isn't pleasant to be prodded on the toes by the butt-end of a
rifle. Yes, sir, I am once more impersonating a Frenchman. Let us
hope with more success than on the last occasion. Then I was
literally slung out of the Service; now, by a similar means, I hope
to get you slung out of here. (You think so, Henri? Suppose we carry
the wiring down in this direction?)"

Dacres paused in his monologue, partly to allay any signs of
curiosity on the part of the soldier and partly to enjoy his little
joke with his one time superior officer. It wasn't every day in the
week that an ex-sub-lieutenant could talk like a Dutch uncle to an
admiral on the Active List. The idea of heaping coals of fire on
Maynebrace's head commended itself to the pseudo-Frenchman, and he
made good use of the opportunity.

"I am indeed sorry that you cannot express in words your gratitude
for what we are doing for you, sir," he continued. "I know the
feeling under which one labours when a man has to listen to a sermon
without being able to put his spoke in the wheel (unwind the tape a
little, please, Henri. _Merci, bien_). However, we will not dwell on
that point. We hope at about six bells in the middle watch on the
first convenient night to pay a surprise visit to the Cavarale. We
may have to use explosives, so, sir, pray do not be unduly alarmed.
(That is right, Henri, six metres will be quite sufficient.)"

Dacres methodically paced the cell, motioning the Valderian sentry to
stand aside so as not to impede his work. The fellow, impressed by
the zeal of the "electrician," stepped back without a murmur or
gesture of remonstrance.

"If in the meantime you can get into communication with the rest of
your staff, sir," continued Dacres, "perhaps you will mention what I
have told you in case we have to pack up before our professional work
is completed. That being so, Messieurs Henri de la Fosse and Jean le
Plaisant--you may have heard that name before--must bid you their
adieux."

Admiral Maynebrace stood his unaccustomed gruelling like a man. He
knew quite well what Dacres was driving at. He was generous enough to
admit that his former subordinate was to a certain extent justified
in "pulling his leg." Moreover, he admired the cool audacity of the
ex-naval officer in risking his life by entering the Cavarale prison.

"Hang it all!" he soliloquized. "I was much too hard on the young
rascal. We all make mistakes. It was a mistake on my part that landed
me in this hole. The Service lost a promising officer when Dacres
sent in his papers. If ever I get clear of Naocuanha I'll do my very
best to make things right for him."

With this praiseworthy resolution Rear-Admiral Maynebrace sank back
in his chair to endure the dreadful monotony of his cell, for the
only diversion he had was to make a systematic onslaught upon the
swarm of insects that pestered him with their lively attentions.

While the Valderian soldier was securing the door of the Admiral's
cell Dacres took particular notice of the lock. It was not morticed
into the woodwork but simply screwed on from the outside. A fairly
heavy hammer and a cold chisel would, he reflected, soon make short
work of the lock on the door of No. 19, for that was the official
designation of Rear-Admiral Maynebrace's substitute for the cabin of
H.M.S. "Repulse."

The next cell was empty, but prudence compelled the two "electrical
engineers" to spend a few minutes in taking bogus measurements. The
adjoining one was occupied by a bearded man whom Dacres rightly
surmised to be Gerald Whittinghame. There was a strong facial and
bodily resemblance between him and the Captain of the "Meteor."

Still pursuing his quasi-professional tactics Dacres explained who
and what his visitors really were, and at the same time cautioning
the prisoner to act with discretion and not to speak a word in reply.
Acting implicitly on these instructions Gerald Whittinghame assumed a
despondent air, burying his hand on his arm as if completely
indifferent to the presence of the three men.

But, presently, in the lull in his monologue Dacres' quick ear
detected a systematic tapping made by the prisoner's fingers upon the
deal table. He was replying in Morse.

"Carry on, I understand," said Dacres who, rule in hand, was fumbling
on his knees in one corner of the cell, while Henri was taking down
the measurements in his notebook.

"Tell Vaughan to attempt rescue before Friday," rapped out the
message. "Zaypuru is coming here. Wants me to be a traitor to my
country, or----"

The message broke off abruptly. Of the ominous nature of the
incompleted part there could be no doubt.

"I say, Henri," said Dacres. "There's precious little time to be
lost. I vote we make some excuse to leave Naocuanha to-night. Cut and
run for it, if necessary."

"We will try," agreed young de la Fosse. "I understand."

"We'll do our best," said Dacres for Gerald Whittinghame's
information. "So stand by, say, on Thursday night, if it can possibly
be managed."

When the second day's work was accomplished the two "electricians"
left the Cavarale, and followed by their Indian servants set their
faces towards Naocuanha.

"We must clear out," said Dacres decisively.

"How?" asked Henri. "To go before we have finished there will arouse
suspicions. We shall be seen when we enter the train."

"There are more ways than one of boarding a train."

"But the peons--the Indian servants?"

Dacres whistled.

"We mustn't leave them in the lurch, by Jove!" he said. "If it comes
to leaving our hotel unpaid I think the exigencies of the business
will be sufficient excuse; but I don't relish the idea of those
fellows left to the mercies of Zaypuru and company."

"It is not that," replied de la Fosse. "They would come to no harm.
They would as easily serve one master as another; but they would
betray my father."

"If that is the only objection I don't see that that matters in the
slightest," observed Dacres. "After this it will not be safe for your
father or any of your family to remain in Valderia while Zaypuru is
in power. Whittinghame will see you all safely through and send you
back to France with a guarantee of sufficient money to keep you in
comfort for the rest of your days."

"Very good: I am content," replied the young Frenchman simply.

"Then send the Indians on to the town," continued Dacres. "We'll take
a stroll. I've a wish to see what the approaches to Naocuanha are
like on the eastern side."

"Not in that direction," expostulated his companion. "It is towards
Fort Volador, and if we go towards it we shall probably be arrested
as spies."

"Very well, we'll bear away to the right," said Dacres reassuringly.
"It doesn't so very much matter."

Henri dismissed the Indians and proceeded with the Englishman in the
direction the latter had indicated. Young de la Fosse did not at all
relish the new phase of the adventure. To run the risk of being
captured he was willing to enter the Cavarale, but outside the prison
a bid for freedom seemed fraught with more peril than he had
bargained for.

Less than half a mile from the road to the prison ran the Naocuanha
and La Paz railway, the course diverging slightly from that of the
highway. Although the country around the capital was generally level
at this spot, there was a slight valley, through which the Rio del
Sol made its way to join the waters of the Pacific.

The railway, consisting of a single track, crossed the river by means
of a steel girder bridge, while on the Naocuanha side of the valley
was a siding.

As Dacres and his companions approached the bridge a goods train
rumbled out of the city, panted heavily up the slight incline, and
came to a stand-still on the siding. There were two locomotives
attached to the train, one at either end, but upon pulling up there,
no attempt was made to detach one of the engines.

"Look here," said Dacres. "We'll nick that rear-engine."

"What do you mean?" asked Henri dubiously. "What do you mean by
nick?"

"Take possession of it. We have our revolvers. We'll terrify the
driver and the fireman and make them disconnect the engine and push
off towards La Paz."

"But the train from La Paz will be on its way," objected de la Fosse.

"I know; but we can wait till that goes by and then have a shot at
it. We'll do it all right, never fear."

There was something so utterly confident in Dacres' tone that the
young Frenchman's objections vanished.

"Very good," he replied. "I am ready."

As the two adventurers drew nearer the nature of the goods train
became apparent. The twenty odd trucks were loaded with blasting
powder, and were escorted by a dozen armed men.

It occurred to Dacres that it was rather an unusual thing to be
taking explosives away from the seat of hostilities, until he
realized that in anticipation of a siege of the capital Zaypuru
thought it would be wiser and safer to send the blasting powder out
of the city. It was a case of straws showing which way the wind blew.
The president was beginning to fear for the safety of Naocuanha.

Henri's face lengthened when he saw the armed party, but having once
signified his intention of going through the business, the plucky
little Frenchman was not one to back out.

The display of force was more than Dacres bargained for, but knowing
the temperament of the Valderians he felt convinced that on the
sudden approach of two determined men the dozen irregulars would in
all probability bolt like frightened hares.

However, he felt mightily relieved when the escort clambered down
from the train and made their way down to the brink of the river,
where, stripping off their raw hide shoes and canvas gaiters they
paddled about in the water.

"Don't hurry, My festive friends!" exclaimed Dacres. "Take your time,
and you'll do us a favour."

It was certainly a daring move on Dacres' part, for the plain was
almost without cover, and the two men were in full view of anyone on
Fort Volador or Fort Banquo who happened to be using a telescope or
binoculars.

Nor was it advisable to attempt to take cover. The only feasible plan
was to saunter towards the train and make a sudden rush at the last
twenty yards.

Presently a dull rumble announced the approach of the La Paz and
Naocuanha "express."

Dacres was half afraid that the escort hearing the noise of the
on-coming train would hasten back to their charge, but fortunately
the South American habit of procrastination was as deeply rooted in
these Valderian irregulars as it could possibly be. An hour or two
made very little difference to them: "to-morrow" was their creed.

With a rattle and a roar the train crossed the bridge, passed the
siding and began to slow down as it approached the terminus of
Naocuanha.

The time for action had arrived.

"Take it easily," cautioned Dacres. "Keep your hands away from your
pockets till we make a dash for it."

Calmly lighting cigarettes the Englishman and his companion ambled
towards the engine at the rear of the goods train. The driver was
leaning out of his hooded cab, with the inevitable cigar in his
mouth. The fireman had descended and was leisurely awaiting the
approach of the two strangers.

His apathy quickly changed to an attitude of consternation as he
found himself looking down the muzzle of Henri's revolver. His knees
shook and almost automatically he raised both arms to their fullest
extent over his head.

With a quick, deft motion de la Fosse plucked the revolver from the
fireman's holster and threw it far into the thick grass, and, still
keeping the man well covered, sternly ordered him to uncouple the
engine.

Meanwhile, the driver made an attempt to draw a pistol, but Dacres
was too quick for him. There was an ominous glitter in the
Englishman's eye that told the Valderian engineer the uselessness of
offering resistance. The next moment Dacres swung himself into the
cab and clapped the muzzle of his weapon behind the ear of the
terrified man.

Hidden by the brink of the declivity the escort was in total
ignorance of what was going on. Their first intimation that something
was wrong was a warning whistle from the foremost locomotive as the
captured engine began to back away from the rest of the train.

"I hope to goodness that the other chap doesn't leave the siding,"
muttered Dacres, "or our retreat will be cut off."

Fortunately the driver of the first engine contented himself with
giving the alarm. Had he backed on to the main line the Englishman's
fears would have been realized.

In thirty seconds the captured engine ran over the points. Hearing
the noise the pointswoman--a half-caste--came out of the hut and
looked suspiciously at the crowded cab of the engine.

A sharp order from Henri was sufficient. The driver, thoroughly
cowed, shouted to the woman to shift the points, and with the coupled
wheels racing furiously the engine gathered speed in the direction of
La Paz.

The race for freedom had begun.



CHAPTER XXIII.

LOCOMOTIVE VERSUS AEROPLANE.


DACRES had overestimated the advantage caused by the escort being
barefooted. The men, unslinging their rifles, scaled the sun-dried
bank with considerable agility and prepared to pour a volley into the
fugitive locomotive. One thing only deterred them: they feared the
presence of the dangerous contents of the trucks.

Still gathering speed the engine dashed across the bridge, greeted by
an irregular and futile volley from the Valderian soldiers. Every
shot either flew high above the cab or went wide.

The oscillation of the engine now began to be greatly in evidence.
The speed soon mounted up to fifty miles an hour, practically a
record for the La Paz railway. Dacres, still holding his revolver in
readiness, was glad to lean back against a pile of coal and grasp a
rail with his left hand; while his companion, standing behind the
trembling fireman, kept looking anxiously through the square window
in front of the cab.

The line, badly laid and maintained, caused the engine to swerve and
jolt till at almost every instant it seemed as if it would leave the
metals. Without a load the pace was exceedingly dangerous, till at
Dacres' suggestion Henri gave orders for speed to be materially
reduced.

Mile after mile sped by. Although the driver assured his captors that
no other train was on the line between them and La Paz, Dacres had
his doubts. He knew that the telegraph would soon be working, and
utterly regardless of the lives of the engineer and driver, the
railway authorities at La Paz would not hesitate to send a number of
empty trucks down the long, gradual incline, or possibly tear up and
portion off the track and derail the captured engine.

"Stop her!" ordered Dacres, an inspiration flashing across his mind,
and his companion communicated the order to the driver, who seemed
only too glad to obey.

With a heavy grinding of brakes the engine was brought to a
standstill. The two Valderians, wondering what was going to happen,
cowered in front of their resolute kidnappers.

During the run Dacres' sharp eyes had caught sight of a
magazine-rifle of an American pattern stowed away inside the cab.
Evidently the lot of an engineer on the republic of Valderia
government railways was not a happy one, since he had to be provided
with a rifle to defend the train from robbers and "express agents."

Seizing the weapon Dacres jerked back the bolt. A loaded cartridge
falling out and another appearing ready to be thrust into the breech,
told him that the magazine was charged.

"Keep an eye on both men for half a minute," he cautioned, then
resting the barrel of the rifle on a ledge of the cab he took
deliberate aim at one of the two insulators of the nearest telegraph
post.

Simultaneously with the sharp crack of the rifle the insulator flew
into pieces, while the copper wire dropped to the ground, cut
completely through.

With a hideous yell of fright the engineer, imagining that his
comrade had been deliberately shot from behind, leapt from the cab.

"Don't fire," shouted Dacres, as Henri was about to blaze away with
his revolver. "Mark time on the fireman."

So saying Dacres jumped from the engine and started in pursuit of the
fugitive. Ere the latter had covered fifty yards the Englishman
overhauled him. The moment the Valderian felt himself gripped by the
shoulder he stopped short, whipped out a formidable-looking knife
which he had hitherto kept concealed, and made a savage lunge at his
pursuer.

Dacres felt the keen blade pass between the right arm and his ribs.
Adroitly springing backwards he raised his revolver and fired--not at
the half-frantic engineer but at the glittering blade.

The knife was wrenched from the Valderian's grasp. He fell on his
knees, begging for mercy. "Get up, you silly idiot," roared Dacres.
"We are not going to hurt you. Get back to the engine."

Although the fellow knew not a word of English, the gestures that
Dacres used were sufficiently emphatic to be understood. Like a lamb
he allowed himself to be taken back towards the post he had but
recently deserted.

Henri was alone on the engine. The fireman, profiting by the
diversion caused by Dacres' revolver shot, had made a bolt for
liberty. Forbearing to fire on the fugitive, the Frenchman watched
the fellow running for dear life through the long grass of the plain
that stretched on either hand as far as the eye could see.

"Can't be helped," said Dacres cheerfully. "We'll have to do our own
stoking--putting the coals on the furnace, you know. Tell that
engineer he's in no danger so long as he sticks to his post and obeys
orders. After all, it doesn't very much matter. In fact, it's a good
job, since we've only one man to keep in order. Now for the remaining
telegraph wire. Tell the fellow to turn round and see what I am going
to do, in case he gets another jumpy fit."

With the second shot the wire was severed. Telegraph communication
between Naocuanha and La Paz was, for the time being, totally
interrupted.

"Hope we're not too late," muttered Dacres.

"They may have wired through already. If they have there's ten
precious minutes thrown away. Tell the fellow to start her up again,
Henri."

As the engine gathered speed Dacres glanced back. The single track
was visible for nearly four miles. There were no signs of pursuit
from that direction.

Ejecting the cartridge from the magazine of the rifle, the Englishman
found that there were still eleven rounds. Having made this
reassuring discovery he reloaded, set the weapon carefully in a
corner, and devoted his attention to keeping a sharp look-out.

The engine had now gained the foot of the forty-five mile incline up
to La Paz. Along this section the danger of being derailed by a
loaded truck was not only possible but probable, provided the
authorities at La Paz had already been warned. So long as the rail
ran in a fairly straight direction there would be ample time to slow
down and jump off before the impact occurred; but the fugitives knew
that before long the railway would make several sharp and awkward
turns.

Soon it became evident that more coal was required. Ordering the
engineer to step back and face aft, Dacres plied the shovel while
Henri still kept the prisoner covered.

As the vile Lota coal was shovelled into the furnace, clouds of black
smoke poured from the squat inverted triangle-shaped funnel, and
eddying downwards momentarily obscured the out-look.

The amateur fireman was in the act of throwing on another shovelful
when Henri shouted into his ear and with his disengaged arm pointed
obliquely in the direction of Naocuanha.

A rift in the pungent cloud of smoke revealed a very unpleasant
sight. Overhauling the fugitives, hand over fist, were two large
biplanes.

The engineer saw them also, and a wave of ashy grey passed over his
sallow olive features.

"Madre!" he gasped. "They will blow us all up."

He realized that the danger was greatest from his compatriots.
Without the least compunction the Valderian airmen would sacrifice
the luckless engineer if by so doing they would involve the fugitives
in the destruction of the engine.

"Tell that fellow to get back upon the foot-plate," ordered Dacres,
at the same time picking up the rifle. "Keep a bright look out ahead,
Henri. We'll stop their little game."

The young Frenchman was now entirely carried away by the excitement
of the wild ride. What little fear he had at the commencement of the
adventure had completely left him. Although he lacked the cool,
calculating manner of his Anglo-Saxon companion, and manifested all
the vivacity of the Gaul, he was not deficient in courage.

There could be no doubt as to the intentions of the two aeroplanes.
Flying low--less than three hundred feet from the ground--they
followed the line of rails. In front and slightly the pilot in each
was a light automatic gun. The airman-gunner, however, was busy not
with this weapon but with a number of cylindrical objects that Dacres
recognized as bombs. The idea of the airman was to overtake the
fugitive engine and drop a charge of high explosive on or immediately
in front of it. This manoeuvre must be frustrated at all costs.

Setting the sliding bar of the back-sight to a hundred yards, the
Englishman waited. He realized that he was at a disadvantage owing to
the jarring and swinging of the engine, but the targets were fairly
large ones and moving at less than ten miles an hour more than the
object of their pursuit.

Soon the whirr of the aerial propeller of the leading biplane was
audible above the rush of the wind and the rattle of the locomotive.
The bomb-thrower poised one of his missiles.

"Idiot!" muttered Dacres. "He'd make a better show of it with that
automatic gun--well, here goes."

Gently pressing the trigger, the Englishman let fly. The bullet
passed close enough to the pilot to make him duck, but without
cutting any of the wire stays and struts it zipped through the upper
plane and whistled away into space.

"Lower, Basil, my boy," quoth Dacres reprovingly.

The pilot, realizing the danger to which he was exposed, tilted the
elevating planes.

As the biplane darted upwards the Englishman's rifle spoke again. The
brilliant sunshine seemed out-classed by the vivid flash that
followed. Fragments of the aeroplane flew in all directions, falling
with widely varying velocities to the ground, while only a trailing
cloud of smoke marked the position of the unfortunate Valderian
biplane a second before it was blown out of existence.

Struck by the furious eddy that followed the detonation the second
aeroplane rocked violently. The gunner grasped one of the struts as
if expecting the frail craft to plunge headlong to the ground. It
lurched through the still falling debris of its disintegrated
consort, then, gradually recovering its equilibrium it followed
grimly in the wake of the fleeing locomotive.

"There's pluck for you," said Dacres under his breath. "I should have
thought it was enough to knock the stuffing out of those fellows. Ah!
they're going to tickle us up with that gun."

Three shots from Dacres' rifle in quick succession had no apparent
effect. The biplane, soaring upwards, was momentarily presenting a
smaller target against the dazzling light of the afternoon sky.

"_Phit, phit, phit!_" The automatic gun began spitting out bullets.
Most of the shot went wide. One perforated the funnel, another
ricochetted from the huge bell that takes the place of a steam
whistle on American locomotives; the rest kicked up the dust.

Crack went the Englishmen's rifle: this time a bad miss.

"_Phit, phit, phit!_" The Valderian bullets were finding billets now.
One, penetrating the boiler plate, let loose a fierce blast of
hissing steam; another, piercing the roof of the cab, struck a
pressure gauge, sending fragments of glass in all directions. The
speed of the locomotive began to decrease appreciably.

This was more than the driver could stand. He threw himself flat upon
the foot-plate, holding his hands to his ears as if to shut out the
din of the unique engagement.

"Take cover!" shouted Dacres to his comrade. "Don't worry about the
engine: she's stopping, worse luck."

The comparatively rapid diminution of speed on the part of the
locomotive resulted in the aeroplane overshooting the limit at which
it could use the automatic gun. The respite from the missiles was
welcome until Dacres noticed the observer making ready to drop a
bomb.

Three cartridges only remained in the Englishman's rifle; after that
he would have to trust to his revolver. Beyond a range of fifty yards
that weapon was practically useless for deliberate aiming.

Once again Dacres raised his repeater. He lingered over the sights
till the biplane was almost overhead, then pressed the trigger.

"Missed, by Jove!" he ejaculated disgustedly. "Try it with your
revolver, Henri."

Before Dacres could reload the Frenchman emptied four of the chambers
of his revolver. The Valderian aeroplane, swinging like a wounded
bird, began to fall towards the earth. The left aileron, bending
upwards, threw the tottering fabric more and more on one side. The
pilot, still grasping the wheel, was wedged against the padded rim of
the chassis. His companion, hurled from his seat, fell to the ground
with a dull thud thirty seconds before the biplane crashed upon the
track.

Then with a detonation that shook earth and sky the six dynamite
bombs exploded, blowing the wrecked aircraft to atoms and leaving a
hole six feet in depth where the railway lines had been.

Almost at that identical moment the locomotive came to a standstill a
hundred yards from the scene of the disaster. Fortunate it was that
Dacres and his companion were sheltered from the blast of the
explosives by the riddled hood of the cab, for stones and fragments
of metal flew all around them.

Well-nigh deafened and with their senses dulled by the awfulness of
the termination of the encounter the two men rose to their feet. The
engineer was still lying face downwards upon the foot-plate.

"Now what's to be done?" asked Dacres, more of himself than with the
idea of asking Henri's opinion. "Here we are stranded fifty miles
from the 'Meteor' and with that rotten town of La Paz between us and
our friends."

"We must walk," said the Frenchman. "See, there is our guide: the
peaks of the Sierras. But this poltroon?" and he pointed to the
motionless Valderian.

"Let him stop," replied Dacres. "He'll buck up when he finds he's
alone. It will be all the better for us if he doesn't see in which
direction we go."

Removing the breech-action from the rifle, Dacres began to make
preparations for the long tramp. A bottle half-full of wine, a couple
of small cakes made of Indian corn, and a piece of sun-dried meat
comprised their stock of provisions after a careful search of the
lockers of the cab had been made.

Presently Henri astonished his companion by shouting "_Prenez
garde!_" and pointing through the forward window, which was partly
obscured by the steam that was still escaping from the boiler.

Whipping out his revolver in anticipation of another attack, Dacres
looked in the direction indicated.

Travelling swiftly down the long incline was a number of trucks. In
another two or three minutes they would be crashing into the
stationary engine.



CHAPTER XXIV.

A BRUSH WITH THE INDIANS.


"JUMP for it!" exclaimed Dacres.

Henri hesitated, then, prodding the engineer with his foot, gave
additional warning of the threatened danger.

The fellow moved not a muscle. Thinking he had fainted through sheer
fright, the Englishman grasped him under the arms and dropped him out
on the ground. As he fell the Valderian rolled over on his face. He
was stone dead: a bullet from the second aeroplane had pierced his
heart.

Looking over his shoulder Dacres ran, following his fleeter-footed
companion.

"Lie down when I give the word," he exclaimed breathlessly. "Now--lie
down."

Both men threw themselves flat upon the ground at eighty yards from
the railroad.

The noise of the impact was deafening. The splintering of wood, the
clang of iron, and the hiss of the water upon the scattered contents
of the furnace were outvoiced by the thud of the debris, which,
hurled far and wide by the concussion, fell in showers about the
prostrate survivors from the stolen locomotive.

Dacres rose to his feet. It was a bad enough smash, but he had
expected it to be worse, for the trucks looked suspiciously similar
to those left on the siding near Naocuanha. He felt convinced that
had the authorities at La Paz the means at their disposal they would
not have hesitated to dump a heap of dynamite cartridges into the
trucks to make a complete business of "wiping out" the two fugitives.

He realized that their position was far from enviable. The mere fact
of the attempt on the part of the Valderians at La Paz was sufficient
to prove that Dacre's act of cutting the wires had failed to attain
its desired object. The two comrades had a dangerous journey before
them. Ill-equipped, ill-provisioned, and in an open country where the
Republican irregulars were practically certain to be in evidence,
many perils would beset them ere they rejoined the "Meteor."

On the other hand, there was a chance that when the Valderian troops
arrived at the scene of the disaster they might come to the
conclusion that the two fugitives were either killed in the collision
and buried under the debris, or else that they were blown to atoms in
one of the two explosions caused by the head-long fall of the
biplanes. Taking this for granted, the Valderians might abandon the
pursuit.

Again, Dacres and his companion had dealt the Republic a heavy blow.
In addition to the loss of the two aeroplanes the railway track
between Naocuanha and La Paz had been torn up in two places, the
damage being beyond all chance of a speedy repair. In the event of
the Valderians having to abandon the capital and fall back upon La
Paz, their retreat would be seriously impeded.

Having shared their scanty load of provisions the two comrades set
out on their long and necessarily circuitous route towards the
Sierras. Fortunately the grass was dry and left little or no
indication of their tracks. In places the plain was composed of mud,
still moist from the recent rains. In crossing these patches Henri
suggested that they should walk backwards, so that should the faint
trail be followed through the grass the trackers would come to the
conclusion that they had hit upon the route of two men walking
towards the railway instead of from it. To heighten the deception
Dacres and his companion removed their boots when crossing the
plastic mud. Their trail then resembled that of two Indians of the
plains, who invariably go barefooted, although they mostly ride on
horseback.

Before nightfall they had put twelve miles between them and the place
where they had made their compulsory landing from the locomotive.

"It is time to halt for the night," declared de la Fosse, pointing to
the sun, now about to dip beyond the horizon.

"Tired?" asked Dacres laconically.

"No, only we cannot see our way after dark."

"Is that all?" asked the Englishman. "If so we may as well carry on
and sleep during the day. I can shape a course by the stars."

With the fall of night the temperature dropped rapidly. The
travellers could well have done with the poncho or South American
cloak, for in spite of their steady progress the keen air of the
uplands cut them like a knife. They were already footsore; the long,
tough grass impeded them; they were unable to see the ruts in the
hard ground; nevertheless, they toiled on, Dacres setting the
direction by means of the relative position of the Southern Cross.

"What is that glare in the sky?" asked Henri, stopping and pointing
behind him. Away to the west and close to the horizon a blurr of pale
light flickered incessantly.

"Search light," replied Dacres.

"Where, then?"

"From the British fleet. On a clear night like this we can see the
glare nearly a hundred miles away. Well, suppose we rest for half an
hour and have some food?"

To this proposal Henri willingly assented. He was more done up than
he would admit, but had gamely struggled to overcome fatigue and an
almost irresistible desire for sleep.

Sitting back to back, as a mutual protection from the cold, the two
men ate and drank in silence. They dare not smoke, knowing that the
flicker of a match or the glow of a cigarette might indicate their
presence.

"Time," announced Dacres in a low voice.

It required a great effort for them to regain their feet. The cold
had numbed their weary limbs, and the Englishman was forced to come
to the unpleasant conclusion that the halt had done them more harm
than good.

On and on they trudged till the dawn. The Sierras, their snow-clad
peaks crimsoned by the rising sun long before the orb of day appeared
above the horizon, seemed as far off as they had on the previous
night.

"You sleep for a few hours," suggested Dacres after another scanty
and unappetising repast. "I'll keep watch."

The young Frenchman protested, but in vain. His companion was
obdurate. With a quaint gesture of despair Henri stretched himself
upon the grass and was soon fast asleep, utterly worn out with his
long period of wakefulness.

Although Dacres was heavy-eyed he stoutly resisted the inclination to
slumber. Very easily he could have shut his eyes and dozed while he
was standing. More than once his head fell upon his chest to the
accompaniment of a painful jerk of the back of his neck. Then with a
sudden start he would open his eyes and survey the seemingly
boundless expanse of waving grass in every direction, save where the
distant mountains reared themselves in solitary grandeur. For two
hours he kept the tedious vigil, the rapidly increasing heat of the
sun adding to his discomfort.

"What's that?" he muttered, as a number of small moving objects at a
distance of at least two miles caught his attention.

He rubbed his eyes, thinking possibly that his sense of vision was
playing him a trick. No, he was not mistaken. There was movement--the
movement of horses and possibly horsemen.

Without attempting to awaken his comrade Dacres dropped on his knees
and watched. His sleepiness had temporarily vanished. He was now in
full possession of his mental and bodily faculties.

"Horsemen, by Jove!" he muttered. "Indians probably. I'll keep well
out of sight and perhaps they will pass by at a safe distance."

The riders were approaching rapidly: not from the direction Dacres
and his companion had come, but from the south-east. If they
maintained their present course they would pass about two hundred
yards from the place where the travellers lay concealed.

Presently one of the riders reined up. His example was followed by
the rest of the group. They sat on their horses like living statues,
awaiting their leader's orders.

The Englishman was right in his surmise. They were Indians of the
plains, more than half savages, born horsemen and crafty fighters.
Most of them were naked save for a piece of hide round their waists
and descending nearly to their knees. They were all armed with long
knives, while, in addition, some carried spears of about ten feet in
length and others had bolas coiled up ready to throw at any moment.

They evidently were suspicious. It seemed incredible that even their
sharp eyes could detect the presence of the two men crouched in the
long grass, but Dacres came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the
Indians were about to advance towards the spot where he and his
companion lay hidden.

Dacres grasped the sleeping Frenchman gently and firmly by the hand.
The pressure caused him to open his eyes and to become wide awake
without a spasmodic start that would have inevitably betrayed them.

"Indians!" he whispered.

Henri rolled over, then quietly raising his head peered between two
tall tufts of grass. Without replying he deliberately drew his
revolver.

Presently the horsemen--there were eleven of of them--broke into two
parties and galloped towards the two Europeans, yet sufficiently
apart to pass within fifty yards on either side.

Still wondering how the Indians were aware of their hiding-place, and
hoping against hope that such was not the case, the two comrades
still crouched in the grass; but in a very short time their doubts
were at an end, for having formed a complete cordon the horsemen
began to gallop round and round and at the same time gradually
closing in upon their quarry.

"Do not let them get close enough to throw their bolas," cautioned
Henri, "or we shall be entangled and as helpless as rats in a trap."

"Back to back, then," said Dacres. "Don't fire unless it is
absolutely necessary."

The Indians had received warning in the night from one of their
number who had come across the strange trail. Knowing that the two
men were without horses--a rare occurrence on the plains--they came
to the right conclusion that the strangers were in difficulties.
Thus, they decided, it would be an easy matter to kill them, rob
their bodies and bury them. The disappearance of two white men in a
country where murder is a common, everyday occurrence, would raise
little or no comment on the part of the lax authorities of the
Valderian Republic.

Up sprang the two comrades, and steadying their revolvers in the
crook of the left arm, each aimed at the Indian nearest to him. The
crowd, without slackening speed, increased the distance between them
and their intended victims, shouting the while in a jargon of which
Henri, who could understand the language of his father's servants,
failed to grasp the meaning.

After a while the Indians, who failed to understand why the two men
refrained from opening fire, began to contract their circular
formation. They could only come to the conclusion that the strangers'
ammunition was exhausted, and that they were merely pointing empty
weapons in the hope that the horsemen would beat a retreat.

Nevertheless, the attackers took ample precautions. Still keeping
their horses at a hot pace, they threw themselves sideways out of the
saddle, holding on only by one foot thrown across the backs of their
steeds. Thus, practically sheltered by their horses' bodies, the
Indians presented no great target to the white men's weapons.

Dacres understood their tactics. The constant whirling of the living
circle tended to daze the senses of the two men in the centre. The
Indians, having come within easy throwing distance, would hurl their
bolas, then rush in and complete their murderous work with their keen
knives.

"Fire!" exclaimed Dacres.

Two shots rang out as one. The Englishman's bullet brought down a
horse, throwing its rider headlong and causing the animal immediately
behind to stumble. As the Indian behind the second horse fell clear
another shot from Dacres settled his little account.

Henri's shot was equally fortunate. Apparently it hit one of the
Indians in the thigh, for he dropped and lay still. The horse
instantly stopped, its fore legs thrust straight in front of it.
Although untouched it remained by its master.

This totally unexpected welcome was more than the cowardly Indians
could stand. With wild shrieks they rode off at full gallop, leaving
two of their number and three steeds on the scene of action.

"We will take that horse!" exclaimed Henri, pointing to the one that
remained by the body of its rider.

So saying he advanced cautiously so as not to affright the animal.
Dacres, having recharged the empty chambers of his revolver, watched
the proceedings. He did not feel at all capable of tackling a partly
savage animal.

The Indian to whom it belonged still lay on the grass, his body
huddled up and the long hide rope that served as a bridle and tether
combined grasped in his hand.

"Look out!" shouted Dacres.

The warning came a trifle too late. With a spring resembling that of
a jaguar the Indian threw himself upon the unsuspecting Frenchman,
who had replaced his revolver in his holster.

In vain Henri leapt backwards and raised his left arm to ward off the
stroke of the Indian's keen knife. The blade glittered in the
sunlight. Even as it fell Dacres raised his revolver and fired.
Although the distance between him and the Indian was a good twenty
yards the Englishman's aim was true. Shot through the head the fellow
dropped, writhed convulsively for a few seconds and then lay
quiet--as dead as the proverbial door-nail.

"Hold up, old man!" exclaimed Dacres encouragingly, but to his great
consternation he saw his companion reel. Before he could get to him
the young Frenchman was lying on the ground close to the body of his
treacherous assailant.

A rapidly darkening stain on Henri's shirt left no doubt as to the
locality of the wound. Deftly cutting away the cloth Dacres found
that the knife, partially parried by de la Fosse's left arm, had
missed his heart, but had made a fairly deep gash between the third
and fourth ribs; while in addition there was a clean cut on his
forearm about four inches from the elbow.

Being without medical bandages and knowing that their scanty supply
of water was none too pure, Dacres was puzzled as to what was to be
done. Finally he tore the cleanest portions of his own shirt into
long strips and bound the wounds tightly, after allowing sufficient
time for the flow of blood to wash away any impurities that might
have been communicated by the Indian's knife.

"Here's a pretty mess," muttered Dacres. "This is a fine way to look
after Henri, after my promise to his father. Stranded miles from
anywhere, in a hostile country, and with a wounded man to look after.
A nice out look, by Jove! but it might be worse."



CHAPTER XXV.

THE CAPTURE OF THE CAVARALE.


HALF an hour later Henri opened his eyes. He looked about him for
nearly a minute, then bravely attempted to rise.

Dacres heard him muttering in French but could not distinguish the
words.

"The horse," he murmured, pointing with his uninjured hand to the
animal that was still standing quietly browsing by its dead master.

"All right," said Dacres soothingly. "I'll see about that later on.
Drink some of this water."

The young Frenchman gratefully accepted the proffered bottle, but
steadfastly refused to drink more than a very small quantity.

"I feel much better now," he said. "Am I hurt very much? The rogue
was too quick for me."

"It's not dangerous," answered Dacres. Neither was it. Nevertheless,
should complications ensue owing to the lack of proper medical
attention the result might easily prove to be fatal but for the
present all that could be done was to cheer his wounded comrade and
persuade him to attempt to continue his toilsome journey.

"How goes it?" asked Dacres, having assisted Henri to his feet.


"I feel so: my head goes round and round, but I shall be all right
soon. Try to catch the horse," he persisted.

"Suppose I must tackle the brute, if it's only to humour Henri,"
thought Dacres, then, with considerable misgiving, he approached the
animal.

Greatly to his agreeable surprise he found that the horse allowed
itself to be quietly led away from its former master. The change of
ownership did not seem to matter so long as the animal had a human
being to assert his authority.

The knowledge that the food supply was running short, prompted Dacres
to examine the bodies of the slain Indians in the hope of finding
something in their possession that would sustain him and his
companion; but he was disappointed.

"Are you fit to make a start?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Henri.

"Then I'll lift you on to the horse's back."

"But you?" objected de la Fosse. "We can both ride."

"Thanks, I won't risk it," said Dacres emphatically. "If I fell off I
might drag you with me. I'm game for another forty miles, I think; so
let me give you a heave up."

Walking by the animal's side the Englishman set a steady pace, his
face still towards the seemingly elusive Sierras. The heat was now
terrific, and although Henri bore himself bravely, he suffered
agonies.

Shortly after noon the travellers came across a small stream. This
was indeed good fortune. The water-bottle was refilled, the horse
watered, and additional wet bandages placed over Henri's wounds;
while Dacres stripped and revelled in the comparatively cool stream.

"I think I know where we are," said de la Fosse. "This river flows
through San Carlos and La Paz. We ought to be within ten kilometres
of the road my father and I were following when we saw the two
airships."

"In that case we ought to reach the 'Meteor' before to-night," said
Dacres reassuringly, but in his mind he had grave doubts. The terrors
of the mountain pass loomed largely in his imagination. Burdened by a
wounded comrade the passage would be hazardous in the extreme.

Buoyed up with hope Henri was impatient to resume the journey, and
Dacres, willing to humour him, complied. But the young Frenchman's
physical strength was not equal to his mental powers, for within an
hour of leaving the river he suddenly fell forward in a dead faint.

Dacres caught him before he fell to the ground, then, lowering him
gently, he rested his comrade's head on a mound, at the same time
sheltering the luckless man from the fierce rays of the sun.

To the Englishman's dismay the horse, hitherto quiet, reared, then
galloped off at full speed. The reason for the stampede was not
difficult to see; at less than a mile off were the Indians,
reinforced till they numbered thrice the original band.

Dacres was one of those men who see and enlarge upon perils a long
way ahead. Perhaps it was natural caution. But the sudden appearance
of the swarm of natives simply roused the British bull-dog spirit
within him. He was metaphorically about to fight with his back
against the wall, although actually there was nothing to protect him
from a rear attack.

Carefully he drew Henri's revolver from his holster, opened the
breech and assured himself that the six chambers were loaded. Then,
placing the remainder of the cartridges on the ground within easy
reach, he knelt with a revolver in each hand, ready to open fire.

Again the attackers prepared to execute their enveloping tactics.
They were now within two hundred yards.

"Come on, you brutes!" shouted Dacres furiously. "Come on, and have a
jolly good thrashing."

The possibility of being wiped out never entered his mind. He was now
a fighter who "saw red."

A yell burst from the horsemen; then, simultaneously, the whole crowd
broke into a gallop, the hoofs of the horses making a terrific din
upon the hard ground.

Suddenly, just as the attack was about to split into two sections,
one of the men reined in his horse, almost pulling it on its
haunches. He pointed towards the sky, with fear and astonishment
written plainly on his dark brown features.

The next moment the Indians had turned tail and were riding for dear
life.

Dacres looked over his shoulder, half expecting to have fallen out of
the frying-pan into the fire, and that the cause of the panic was the
approach of a body of Valderian roughriders.

But to his astonishment and delight he beheld the "Meteor" flying at
full speed and momentarily looming up larger and larger.

Dacres sprang to his feet and emptied both revolvers at his
retreating foes. They were already out of range, but the shots served
to attract the attention of the airship in case Whittinghame had not
yet sighted his absent comrade.

Five minutes later the "Meteor"--still gigantic in spite of the fact
that she had been shortened by two hundred feet--alighted upon the
grassy plain The instant the rope-ladder was dropped men hastened to
the assistance of Dacres and his stricken friend, foremost amongst
them being Whittinghame and Antoine de la Fosse.

"My son--is he dead?" asked the elder Frenchman, who was almost
beside himself with anxiety.

"No; he's fainted," replied Dacres. "He'll be all right directly
Hambrough takes him in hand."

Quickly the crew of the "Meteor" rigged up a rigid stretcher, and
upon this, lashed on to prevent him from slipping, Henri de la Fosse
was taken on board the airship. As soon as the rest of the officers
and men were embarked the Dreadnought of the Air rose to a height of
ten thousand feet.

"Well?" asked Whittinghame with his characteristic brevity when
asking a question.

"It's all right up to the present, sir," said Dacres. "Your brother
is safe and so is Admiral Maynebrace. I've seen them both. It is
essential that we should attempt their rescue at three o'clock Friday
morning."

In spite of his efforts to suppress it, Dacres gave a prodigious
yawn.

"Excuse me," he continued, "but I've had no sleep for nearly forty
hours and precious little food."

"Then, make a good meal," said Whittinghame, "and have a sound sleep.
There's plenty of time before the day and hour you mention. When
you've told your story we'll lay our plans--no, not now. I refuse to
hear another word till you have eaten and slept."

The appearance of the "Meteor" in the very nick of time was not a
coincidence. As soon as Antoine de la Fosse had set the wireless
apparatus in order a message came through from Whittinghame's secret
agent at Naocuanha to the effect that two Europeans, posing as
electrical engineers, had escaped from the city by taking forcible
possession of a locomotive. Directly Whittinghame heard this he
ordered the final work of assembling the four remaining sections of
the "Meteor" to be carried out with the utmost celerity; but before
the ballonettes could be recharged, another "wireless" was received
announcing that the locomotive had been derailed after having been
the means of destroying two of the Valderian air-fleet. It was
supposed that the fugitives had escaped since there were no traces of
their bodies under the wreckage.

"They've outwitted the rascals, de la Fosse," exclaimed the Captain
when he received the news. "Trust Dacres to wriggle out of a tight
corner. He'll see that your son comes through this business, too.
Now, where do you think they'll make for?"

"Not to the south side of the line, monsieur le capitaine; Henrie has
too much sense to go to our home. He will doubtless lead Monsieur
Dacres across the plain to the south."

"Very well; we'll make a search," decided Whittinghame.

Thus the "Meteor," the damage having been made good as far as
possible, set out on her voyage of investigation. Keeping at a great
altitude she passed within ten miles of La Paz and shaped a course
parallel to the railway till almost abreast of the place where the
engine was derailed. Then, by a pure chance, the crew "spotted" the
bodies of the Indians and their horses who had fallen in the first
encounter.

Descending they made a careful search, and Dacres' trail as he led
the captured horse was picked up across an expanse of bare ground.
The general direction was followed by the "Meteor" till the alert
look-out saw the Indians about to charge down upon the Englishman and
his unconscious comrade.

For the next twenty-four hours the "Meteor" remained at a height of
ten thousand feet, drifting with the light air current towards the
Sierras. Whittinghame did not mean to anticipate the time arranged by
his brother for the arrival of the airship at the Cavarale. For one
thing he wished Dacres to be as fit as possible after his arduous
experiences. He also was influenced by the fact that quietude was
essential to Henri de la Fosse, if he were to be saved from an attack
of fever following his wounds.

Whittinghame would have landed the patient and his father but for the
fact that, in consequence of the affair at the Cavarale it would not
be safe for the Frenchman to risk a meeting with any of the Valderian
troops. As for Gaston he was miles away from the seat of war, and
would not be in any danger, at least, for some considerable time. Ere
that Whittinghame proposed to embark him and take the reunited family
on board the "Meteor" when she started on her homeward voyage.

As soon as the sun set the "Meteor," still keeping at a great height,
started on her run to the outskirts of Naocuanha. There was plenty of
time, since the actual attempt to rescue the prisoners was not to
commence till one in the morning.

Fortunately the night was dark. The stars were obscured; the
searchlights of the capital were directed solely towards the seaport
of Zandovar, for the garrison was in hourly dread of a surprise
attack on the part of the British seamen and marines.

Shortly after midnight the "Meteor" arrived above the city of
Naocuanha--unseen and unsuspected. The capital was at her mercy. Had
Whittinghame wished he could have dropped powerful charges of
explosives upon the buildings, but the idea of taking a mean
advantage did not commend itself to his chivalrous instincts.

At 12.30 Dacres with Callaghan and ten of the crew entered No. 5
compartment. They were fully armed, while in addition a supply of
short cords and two sponges saturated with chloroform were provided.

"All ready?" asked Whittinghame.

"Ay, ay, sir."

A metallic clang echoed through the after-section. The bolt action
had been unlocked and No. 5 compartment was no longer joined to the
remaining three divisions.

Slowly the ultra-hydrogen was pumped out of several of the
ballonettes, and gently the independent division sank towards the
earth.

Stationed at an open flap in the floor, Dacres "conned" the
descending part of the airship under his command. Once or twice it
was necessary to start the motors to bring the two hundred odd feet
of gas-bag immediately over the rectangular courtyard of the
Cavarale.

By the aid of his night-glasses Dacres could distinguish the outlines
of the prison with tolerable ease. Nevertheless, every moment of the
descent was one of suspense.

At any instant the huge overhead bulk might be seen by an alert
sentry. In that case a bomb was to be thrown into the soldiers'
quarters, and profiting by the confusion the airship was to descend
as fast as possible and let loose her armed crew upon the terrified
garrison; but only in case of extreme necessity were explosives to be
used.

Only five hundred feet more. Perfect silence reigned below, while the
only sound that came from No. 5 section was the laboured breathing of
the twelve men as they strove with their pent-up feelings.

"Sentry!" whispered Callaghan pointing to a motionless figure on the
wall nearest to the city.

Dacres nodded. He would not trust himself to speak.

Four hundred feet.

Suddenly a light flashed from one of the towers, and a number of men,
one of them carrying a lantern, emerged and marched along the broad
flat roof. "Rounds, by Jove!" gasped Dacres, then springing to the
emergency switch controlling the supply of ultra-hydrogen and the
ballonettes, he thrust it down.

The hiss of compressed air that followed seemed to the crew loud
enough to arouse the whole garrison. Simultaneously the downward
movement was checked and the section leapt quickly to a height of a
thousand feet.

"Keep her there," ordered Dacres, then, glass in hand, he returned to
his post of observation. Thank heavens the visiting rounds had
neither heard nor seen the danger that threatened them. The crew
could catch the sibilant challenge of the sentry as the soldiers
approached his post. Having satisfied themselves that all was well,
the rounds passed on to the next sentry, and so on till they had
completed a tour of the walls. Then, descending to the courtyard by a
flight of steps, the party crossed the _patio_ and disappeared within
the guard-room.

"We'll wait another half-hour," said Dacres. "Perhaps by that time
the sentries will not be on the alert."

"Very good, sir," replied Callaghan. "I've tumbled across South
American soldiers before now, and, between you and me, sir, they
ain't up to much."

"Cap'n coming alongside, sir," reported one of the crew as coolly as
if announcing the approach of the captain's gig towards a man-of-war.

Silently the major part of the "Meteor" glided within fifty feet of
No. 5 section.

"What are you waiting for?" demanded Whittinghame.

"We saw the rounds were out, sir," replied Dacres.

"Oh, all right. I thought perhaps that something had gone wrong with
the exhaust pumps."

"Oh, no; they are working most splendidly," announced Dacres. "We've
decided to wait till the sentries quiet down after being visited by
the rounds."

"Do you think you could do better by descending about a mile from the
prison and scaling the walls?" asked the Captain.

"The difficulty would be to get the rescued prisoners to the airship,
sir; I think we had better stick to our original plans."

"Very good," was Whittinghame's only comment.

Slowly the minutes sped, till Dacres, shutting the case of his watch
with an emphatic snap, gave the order to descend.

Far below the glimmer of a match told its own tale. One of the
sentries was lighting a cigarette.

"Look out," whispered Callaghan. "Blest if the four of 'em aren't
altogether. That's a bit of all right."

The quarter-master spoke truly. Three of the Valderian soldiers had
deserted their posts and had joined the one stationed on the west
wall--that nearest to the city.

"Silly asses!" ejaculated Dacres "they are playing into our hands."

The four men were apparently having a friendly argument. More
cigarettes were produced and lighted. Then after a short interval the
sentries entered one of the towers and shut the door leading on to
the roof. A gleam on the stonework told the aerial watchers that the
unsuspecting soldiers had lit a lantern.

Two hundred--one hundred and fifty feet.

No. 5 section was now barely twenty feet above the walls and
immediately over the courtyard. Her fabric, dimly illuminated by the
distant searchlights, could not have escaped the notice of the
sentries had they been at their posts.

Dacres now felt tolerably certain of success. Even had the sentries
emerged from their unauthorized place of shelter the sudden
transition from artificial light to the darkness of the night would
have prevented them from seeing anything for at least half a minute.

With a slight tremor the detached portion of the "Meteor" alighted
fairly equidistant from the encircling wall. Quickly Dacres and eight
men descended and anchored the craft by means of ropes secured to the
railings surrounding the _patio_.

Silently the adventurers followed their leader up the outside flight
of stone steps on to the roof. Twenty yards farther on was the tower
in which the faithless sentries were skulking.

Dacres looked through the narrow space formed by the door being ajar.
The four Valderians were standing around an upturned barrel on which
stood a candle. The men were deep in a game of faro, peering through
the smoky atmosphere with eyes intent only upon the cards which were
being thrown upon the impromptu table.

Signing to his men to approach, Dacres held up his revolver.

"Now," he exclaimed.

Pushing open the door he entered, following by his men.

For a moment the Valderians could not credit their senses. They
stared stupidly down the muzzles of half a dozen revolvers. The cards
dropped from their nerveless fingers, their winnings clattered on the
floor. At the same time the candle toppled over and went out, leaving
the room illuminated only by a lantern set in one corner.

Then one of the soldiers raised both hands above his head. His
companions followed his example with surprising celerity. Without
uttering a sound they tamely surrendered.

"Secure them," ordered Dacres.

In a trice the four trustworthy sentries were gagged and bound hand
and foot. The knots were tied as only seamen know how: there was
little fear of the prisoners being able to slip their bonds; while to
prevent them from moving to each other's assistance each Valderian's
rifle was lashed to his legs by cords above the knees and round the
ankles. The captives were as helpless as logs of wood, and incapable
of uttering a sound.

"Now for the guard-room," whispered Dacres.

This building, situated in one corner of the courtyard, could be
gained either by descending the steps leading to the roof of the
buildings abutting on the outer wall, or else by a covered way
communicating with the quarters occupied by the rest of the troops.

The first was the only practicable way for the British airship's men
to tackle the guard; but the great danger now was that should any of
the soldiers on duty escape into the living-rooms by means of the
covered gallery all chances of a complete surprise would be lost.

The guard-room was roughly furnished. There was a long table on which
stood several empty wine glasses. Round the walls were wooden forms
on which two men were sitting. Half a dozen more, including the
serjeant, were lying on the floor, wrapped in blankets. In a rack
close to the door were the rifles of the soldiers on duty.

Without hesitation Dacres and his men rushed as quietly as they could
into the guard-room and planted themselves between the arms-rack and
the surprised Valderians.

One of the latter, more daring than his comrades, made a dash for the
farther door communicating with the men's quarters. Before he could
open it Callaghan struck him on the temple with his clenched fist.
The fellow dropped like a felled ox, the Irishman catching him ere
his body flopped noisily upon the floor.

This slight commotion was sufficient to arouse the sleeping soldiers.

"Surrender or we shoot!" ordered Callaghan in the execrable Spanish
he had picked up during a three years' commission in Gibraltar
dockyard.

Without hesitation the men threw up their arms.

"Now what's to be done with this lot, sir?" asked the Irishman. "We
can't waste time lashing 'em up."

Dacres saw that the windows were small and heavily barred, and that
the locks on the door were strong.

"Remove the bolts of those rifles," he ordered. "Now, Callaghan, tell
these men that if they attempt to escape or utter a sound we'll make
it hot for them."

This the Irishman did, uttering threats that he had learned from the
Scorps of the Rock which, judging by the speaker's ferocious
gestures, struck terror into the hearts of the cowardly Valderians.
They vowed compliance with such vehemence that they had to be told to
keep silence lest the noise should alarm the rest of the garrison of
the prison. Locking both doors and taking possession of the keys,
Dacres led his men towards the barrack-quarters where the remainder
of the rank and file--thirty all told--were asleep.

Now it was that Dacres' knowledge of the plan of the buildings was
put to good account. He knew that underneath was a large storeroom,
to which the only means of access was by a trap-door in the corridor
outside the barrack-room. Once the soldiers could be forced into this
semi-dungeon they would be incapable of doing any mischief.

The room was in darkness. A delay ensued till one of the "Meteor's"
men took down a lantern that was hanging in the covered way.

"Two at a time," whispered Dacres, pointing to the triple line of
sleeping men who were stretched in various attitudes on straw
palliasses on the floor.

The first two sleepers were rudely awakened to find their arms and
legs pinioned and a horny hand over their mouths. Incapable of
resistance they were carried to the top of the ladder leading to the
cellar, then fiercely threatened by the huge Irishman they were
compelled to descend into utter darkness.

Twenty Valderians were served this way, when one fellow managed to
give vent to a terrific yell, at the same time gripping with his
powerful teeth the hand that strove to stifle his cry of alarm.

Instantly the remaining soldiers were awake, but being unarmed, they
saw the uselessness of resistance. Without further trouble they were
made to join their comrades in the underground cellar.

Without loss of life on either side, the Cavarale was in possession
of the crew of the "Meteor."



CHAPTER XXVI.

UNABLE TO RISE.


"CUT the telephone wires, Callaghan," ordered Dacres.

"Beg pardon, sir," expostulated that worthy.

"Well?"

"Might I make so bold as to suggest, sir?"

"Carry on, then," replied Dacres, who from previous experience knew
that the Irishman's suggestions were well worth taking into
consideration.

"Suppose those chaps at Naocuanha telephone to the prison and get no
reply, they'll find out that there's something up. I think, sir, it
would be best to let the wire alone, and station a chap there to
answer all inquiries and complaints, in a manner o' speaking."

"Quite so; but who will be able to do so?" objected his superior
officer. "You're the only man amongst us who has any knowledge of
Spanish, and with all due respect to your capabilities, Callaghan, I
think they would spot your brogue."

"Yes, sir; but how about the Valderian chaps imprisoned here--the
fellows old Zaypuru's got his knife into? They'd do the business with
the greatest of pleasure."

"Good idea," assented Dacres. "But before we release the prisoners we
must secure the commandante. Meanwhile, Callaghan, you might post two
men at the door of the orderly-room in case there's a call, or if
there are any of the garrison who have escaped our notice."

Silently the quarters occupied by Commandante Don Alonzo da Costa
were surrounded. Then, having severed the telephone wire
communicating with the orderly-room, Dacres knocked at the door.

After considerable delay the door was opened by a military servant,
who was promptly knocked down and secured.

Don Alonzo was a widower and lived alone in the official residence
except for the company of two servants. Owing to his refusal to let
the pseudo-"electricians" enter his quarters, Dacres was not well
acquainted with the interior. Three empty rooms were examined before
the raiders came to the one in which the commandante was fast asleep.
The door was locked.

Dacres knocked. A voice replied in Spanish demanding to know what was
amiss?

Not trusting himself to reply the Englishman knocked again. He could
hear the occupant getting out of bed. Then the jalousies across one
of the windows were opened and a pistol shot rang out.

Don Alonzo, finding himself summoned in an unorthodox manner, had
suspected that something was amiss. Going to the window he saw the
section of the airship in the courtyard. Partly with the idea of
giving the alarm and partly with the idea of damaging the ballonettes
he fired almost point blank at the huge target.

"Lie down, men," ordered Dacres, then clapping his revolver to the
door he blew away the stout lock. Before he could push open the
shattered woodwork five shots in rapid succession whistled along the
corridor. Had Dacres or any of his companions been standing they
would have been in the direct line of fire.

The commandante had emptied his revolver. Before he could reload he
was pounced upon, disarmed, and secured.

Meanwhile, the noise of the firing had reached the ears of the
prisoners. The British ones, having been warned of what was taking
place, maintained silence, but the Valderian political prisoners,
thinking that either a mutiny or a counter revolution had broken out,
shouted, cheered, and kicked up a terrific din.

Leaving a man to keep guard over the governor Dacres led the rest of
his command to the prisoners' quarters. The captives had been left
for the night, the authorities taking it for granted that there would
be no use for any military warders. Since the keys could not be
found, and Don Alonzo stubbornly refused to answer any questions put
to him by Callaghan, the doors of the cells had to be broken open.

"Knock off this lock for me," ordered Dacres, pointing to the one on
the door of No. 19--that tenanted by his former Admiral.

A telling blow with a sledge-hammer wielded by a former armourer's
mate of the Royal Navy, sent the metal-work clattering on the stone
floor of the corridor.

"Come aboard, sir!" said Dacres, saluting. Rear-Admiral Maynebrace
did a thing he had never done before. He grasped the hand of his
former subordinate and wrung it heartily. He tried to speak, but his
emotion prevented him from uttering a single word.

"Smith," said Dacres, addressing one of his men. "Escort Admiral
Maynebrace to No. 5 section. Place him safely on board and return.
Now, lads," he continued, "we'll have the British prisoners out
before we release the Valderian ones. We can't take them with us;
they must shift for themselves. One moment: open this door."

The cell Dacres had indicated was tenanted by a Valderian general who
had been a partisan of the ill-fated President San Bonetta.

Upon the situation being explained to him by Callaghan the Valderian
readily agreed to take command of the rest of his fellow-prisoners.
Going from cell to cell and addressing the inmates through the
grille, he quickly obtained some semblance of order. The shouts and
cheers died down, and the luckless Valderians, who for months past
had been in hourly dread of death, assented to obey whatever orders
their rescuers might give.

"Thanks, Mr. Dacres," said Gerald Whittinghame, when he was let out
of his place of confinement. "I hardly know how to express my
gratitude. President Zaypuru will, I hope, be disappointed in the
morning."

"I trust it won't be the only disappointment," rejoined Dacres. "But
there is little time to be lost. If you will go on board the section
of the 'Meteor' will be with you presently."

Meanwhile, two more Valderians had been released and ordered to
remain by the telephone in the orderly-room. Should any message come
through they were to give a reassuring reply, and lead the
authorities at the capital to believe that all was in order at the
Cavarale. They were then told that as soon as the section of the
airship rose clear of the prison, they were to open the doors of the
remaining cells and take whatever steps they thought best for their
own safety.

As soon as the nine Englishmen were released the order was given to
return to the airship. As soon as the crew were on board, the two
cables were slipped and additional ultra-hydrogen pumped into the
ballonettes.

No. 5 section refused to rise.

"That's that rascal of a commandante," declared Dacres. "Up aloft,
there, and report damage."

Armed with an electric torch one of the crew ascended the aluminium
ladder between the double rows of ballonettes and gained a
longitudinal gangway from whence it was possible to examine each
individual gas subdivision. It was not long before he returned.

"Four badly holed, sir. All of them on the starboard side."

"Which ones?"

"B2, 3, 4, and 5, sir. They are quite flabby."

"Very good. Close the valves of the supply pipes to these ballonettes
and charge the others to their fullest capacity."

Promptly this order was carried out. No. 5 section no longer stuck
stubbornly to the ground: she was lively, with a tendency to list to
starboard; but still the upward force of the ultra-hydrogen was
insufficient to raise her.

Just then a vicious blast of wind whistled over the walls of the
Cavarale, causing the airship to rock violently. The night, hitherto
calm, was rapidly becoming stormy.

Ordering the crew to fall in, Dacres addressed them.

"My lads," he said, "we're in a bit of a hole. Owing to the damage
done to some of the ballonnettes No. 5 section is incapable of
lifting the additional weight. Some of us must remain. We may be
rescued by the 'Meteor'--we may not. Owing to the rising wind, the
odds are against us."

He paused. Taking advantage of the lull several of the men stated
their willingness to remain.

"What's this, Dacres?" asked the Admiral. "You clear out and leave
us. You've done all that is humanly possible, and if you fall into
the hands of Zaypuru it will go hard with you. He won't dare to go to
extreme measures with us."

"I don't know so much about that, sir," replied Dacres. "In any case,
please let me remind you that I am in charge of these operations.

"Now, lads, I mean to stop. When we are discovered the forts will no
doubt try to shell us to pieces, unless"--then raising his voice he
added--"unless we contrive to capture President Zaypuru and hold him
as a hostage. Now, my lads, who will remain with me?"



CHAPTER XXVII.

PREPARING FOR THE PRESIDENT'S VISIT.


"NOT all of you," remonstrated Dacres, although well pleased at the
devotion of the men under his immediate orders. "Seven will be
sufficient. That will lighten No. 5 section enough to give it proper
buoyancy. Callaghan, you will take charge of the section until it is
rejoined to the rest of the airship. Explain matters to Captain
Whittinghame and say that we will sit tight so long as we can. Ask
him to take the 'Meteor' out of sight of Naocuanha till ten this
morning. If then it is advisable for him to return, a blue and white
flag will be hoisted from the flagstaff of the Cavarale."

"One moment, Dacres," interposed Gerald Whittinghame. "I am ready to
abide by your decision, but couldn't I render some assistance by
remaining with you? My knowledge of Spanish, for instance? If you are
to lure Zaypuru into the Cavarale you'll have to be very wary."

"I quite agree," replied Dacres, "but at the same time I think you
ought to rejoin your brother."

"It's not a question of ties of relationship," objected Gerald. "It's
a question of duty. That idea of yours, Dacres--if it comes off--will
be a means of bringing the war to an end. With Zaypuru in our hands
the resistance of the Valderian troops will crumble like a pack of
cards."

"Very well, then," agreed Dacres. "We shall be very glad of your
assistance. We'll discuss the plans later."

"I say, Dacres," persisted the Admiral's flag-lieutenant, "I mean to
stay----"

"I'll put you under close arrest if you don't obey orders," retorted
Dacres with well-assumed severity.

"Landing-party, fall in!" he ordered.

The seven men quickly descended and fell in upon the courtyard.
Dacres bade the released prisoners farewell, gave a few necessary
orders to the trustworthy Callaghan, and followed Gerald Whittinghame
down the ladder.

"All clear!" he shouted.

Once more the ultra-hydrogen was forced into the reserve ballonettes.
Carried sideways by the wind No. 5 section rose, cleared the wall by
less than six feet, and shot upwards at a rapid pace till lost to
sight in the darkness. Her movements, however, had been followed by
the anxious Captain of the "Meteor," and without delay he started to
get in touch with the tail portion of the Dreadnought of the Air.

By the time the "Meteor" coupled on her No. 5 section the airship had
drifted twelve miles to leeward of Naocuanha.

"That hare-brained rascal!" exclaimed Vaughan Whittinghame, when he
received the Irishman's report. "I suppose he'll scrape through all
right--he generally does. In any case, it's a piece of sterling work;
self-sacrifice of the highest order."

"Can you land us at Zandovar?" asked Rear-Admiral Maynebrace.

"Sorry," replied Whittinghame. "Not by night. I've no fancy to be
plugged by the shells of your squadron or mistaken for a hostile
aircraft. After ten o'clock to-morrow I may--if I haven't to avenge
Dacres and my brother." Acting under Gerald Whittinghame's
instructions General Galento--for that was the name of the Valderian
who had been entrusted to maintain order amongst the released
prisoners--ordered his compatriots to assemble in the _patio_.

This they did, to the number of eighty. As far as Valderians went
these men looked capable of giving a good account of themselves. They
were all actuated by feelings of revenge towards their former captors
and especially President Zaypuru. Had they got out of hand the lives
of the soldiers who had formed the garrison of the Cavarale would not
have been worth a moment's purchase. Without delay Gerald
Whittinghame addressed them. His almost perfect knowledge of Spanish,
the fluency of his words and his commanding delivery all told upon
his listeners.

"Friends of the late President San Bonetta," he exclaimed. "The time
is at hand when you will be able to completely turn the tables on
your oppressors. To do so you must implicitly obey the orders of the
Commandante Dacres here, whose mouthpiece I am. The Cavarale is
entirely in our possession. Don Alonzo da Costa is a prisoner,
together with every man of the garrison. At nine o'clock this morning
the villainous Zaypuru will pay us a visit."

Shouts of execration burst from the lips of his listeners. Cries of
"Death to the President!" "Down with Zaypuru!" were heard on all
sides. At length Gerald silenced them by raising his right hand.

"Zaypuru must be captured," he continued. "It can be done. How, I
will explain; but before so doing I must have your promise that if he
fall into our hands he will be treated in a manner worthy of
civilized people."

"We will have him shot," muttered a Valderian, and several voices
backed him up.

"Very well," rejoined Whittinghame. "If that is what you are resolved
to do you had better go outside the prison and do it. Remember that
your only chance of safety lies in remaining here. Without, you will
be seen and pursued by Zaypuru's horsemen. Detachments of his troops
are at La Paz, so that your retreat in that direction is cut off.
Rather than allow a prisoner in our hands to be barbarously murdered
the Commandante Dacres will release and arm the soldiers who are now
in his power. Think it over quickly, and let me know your decision."

The partisans of the late president saw that the Englishmen held the
whip-hand. Great as was the hatred of the former for Zaypuru, the
fear of what might happen should the aid of Dacres and his companions
be withdrawn was greater.

"We agree," they announced. "We swear it."

"It is well," continued Gerald. "Now for our plans. When your English
friends surprised the garrison many of the soldiers were in their
beds. They were sent into one of the cellars under the barracks,
their clothes and accoutrements remain. Thirty of you will,
therefore, put on these men's uniforms, and by forming a guard of
honour and placing sentries on the walls will completely deceive the
President Zaypuru. General Galento will oblige us by arraying himself
in the uniform of the Commandante Alonzo da Costa and acting the part
of our late custodian-in-chief, until Zaypuru is safely landed in the
trap."

"And what then, señor?" asked one of the Valderians.

"Be content with that, señor," replied Gerald. "With Zaypuru in our
power the rest will be easy. Your lives and liberties will be
assured. Now, remember, success depends upon your discretion and
implicit obedience of Señor Dacres' orders. We have yet five hours
before us: hasten and make ready."

Away trooped the Valderians, filled with hope and resolution, to don
the uniforms of their former captors, while General Galento,
accompanied by two of the crew of the "Meteor," made his way to the
commandante's quarters to deck himself out, without asking the
owner's permission, in the gorgeous regimentals of the luckless Don
Alonzo da Costa.

At sunrise the new garrison was under arms. The men, having
breakfasted, were ready for any duty that Dacres called upon them to
perform.

There were no signs of the "Meteor." Acting upon Dacres' request to
his chief the airship had put a safe distance between herself and the
capital. The wind had fallen, the sky was cloudless and unbroken. Had
the "Meteor" remained she would have inevitably been sighted by the
garrison of Naocuanha and Zaypuru's suspicions would have been
aroused.

Just before eight a telephone message was received at the Cavarale
stating that the president would arrive half an hour earlier than he
had previously arranged.

His object in visiting Gerald Whittinghame was a crafty one. He knew
the value of the captive Englishman's technical skill; he totally
underestimated his sense of honour. Reno Durango having, from some
cause for the present unknown, failed him, Zaypuru bethought himself
of Gerald Whittinghame.

His plan was to offer the Englishman his liberty and a huge sum of
money if he would take charge of the aerial defences of the city of
Naocuanha. He remembered that under President San Bonetta's regime
Gerald Whittinghame had brought out an aerial torpedo--a monoplane
carrying a heavy charge of guncotton--which could be electrically
controlled by an operator on the ground. The device passed the severe
tests imposed upon it with the greatest ease. Then came the
revolution that caused San Bonetta to lose his life and Gerald
Whittinghame his liberty. The knowledge, unlike that which resulted
in the construction of the "Libertad," remained with the inventors,
and hitherto threats and promises alike had failed to extort the
priceless secret.

"Troops on the move, sir," announced one of "Meteor's" crew who had
been posted to supplement the Valderian sentries on the wall of the
Cavarale.

Dacres and Gerald ascended as quickly as possible, then taking cover
behind the breastwork, used their binoculars through one of the
embrasures. "That's Zaypuru's bodyguard right enough," said Vaughan's
brother. "He doesn't go far without that escort."

"Quite enough to set up a fairly good fight if they've any pluck,"
remarked Dacres. "I don't think we ought to let the whole party into
the courtyard."

"Yet I don't see how we can prevent them without arousing suspicion."

"I do," said Dacres. "You've forgotten the bridge across the dry
moat. We'll fix a detonator, sufficient to bring the whole concern
down without doing very much harm to the President's bodyguard. We'll
have to hurry, for there's precious little time."

"But we haven't a battery," objected Gerald.

"No, but we have plenty of rifles. Smith, bring a couple of sticks of
guncotton from the magazine."

Putting on a coat and _képi_ belonging to one of the former garrison
Dacres issued from the gateway, descended into the moat and lashed
the explosive to one of the props of the wooden bridge. To the one
nearest to it he fixed a loaded rifle, taking care to lock the safety
bolt while he made fast a thin but strong wire to the trigger. This
wire he led back to one of the narrow loopholes by the side of the
gate, giving one of his men instructions to release the trigger the
moment he heard the bugle give the "Alarm."

Rapidly the president and his escort approached the Cavarale. They
were all splendidly mounted, while many of them were distinguishable
as generals by their gorgeous uniforms. Like most revolutionary
armies of the South and Central American republics staff officers
were numerically out of all proportion to the size of the army.

Half a dozen troopers armed with carbines led the procession.
Immediately behind them, and supported by two generals, rode the
president.

Zaypuru was a little man, with iron-grey hair and moustachios. He
rode very erect with his arms thrown well back, but Dacres noticed
that one shoulder was slightly higher than the other. His features
were sharp and pointed, his eyes close-set, while his eye-brows,
slanting upwards from the bridge of his nose, gave him a saturnine
expression in keeping with his character.

An arrant coward at heart he, like most men of tyrannical nature,
took a delight in inflicting pain upon those who, having thwarted
him, had fallen into his power. Blindly he regarded himself as being
essential to the welfare of Valderia, and counting on the support of
the men he had gathered around him, he was as insensible to danger as
the proverbial ostrich hiding its head in the sand. It was only by
relying upon others that he had any confidence in his official
capacity. Reno Durango's disaffection had hit him hard. Had it not
been for his successful coup in capturing Admiral Maynebrace and his
staff, he would have fled from Naocuanha and sought an asylum in one
of the neighbouring republics when the "Libertad" failed to return.
Puffed up with success he was riding hot-shod towards ruin.

Behind the president rode a lieutenant bearing the national flag of
Valderia with an eagle emblazoned in silver upon the centre
horizontal stripe. This was the presidential standard of the head of
the republic.

The cavalcade concluded with about forty officers and men in nearly
equal numbers.

As Zaypuru and his retinue approached the outer wall General Galento
ordered the general salute to be sounded. The great gate of the inner
wall was thrown open and a guard of honour, composed of twenty men in
the borrowed uniforms of the imprisoned garrison, presented arms.

Greatly to Dacres' delight the president gave orders for the bulk of
his escort to wait beyond the dry moat. Attended only by ten of his
staff Zaypuru trotted his steed across the wooden bridge, stiffly
acknowledged the compliment paid by the guard, and cantered into the
_patio_.

Dacres, still out of sight of the president, raised his hand. A sharp
detonation was followed by the crash of shattered woodwork, as the
bridge collapsed into the dry moat. Simultaneously the guard closed
the gateway.

President Diego Zaypuru was trapped.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

A PRISONER OF WAR.


THE noise of the explosion and the clang of the gate caused Zaypuru
to rein in his horse and give a hasty glance over his shoulder. Then,
still unsuspicious, he advanced towards the officer he took to be the
commandante, Alonzo da Costa, till shouts of "Treason" from his men
outside the gates gave warning that something was amiss.

With a snarl of rage Zaypuru drew his horse almost on its haunches
and tugging violently at the reins caused the animal to swerve. In so
doing it came into violent contact with the animal ridden by one of
his staff. Both chargers reared, and had their riders been anything
but expert horsemen they would have been dismounted. Forcing his way
between his attendants Zaypuru made for the gate, to find his
progress barred by a line of glistening bayonets.

"Surrender, Zaypuru!" shouted General Galento in stentorian tones.
"We will spare your life."

Two members of the president's staff alone showed any determined
resistance. Drawing their revolvers and using their sharp rowelled
spurs unmercifully they rode straight towards the impersonator of Don
Alonzo da Costa.

Before they had covered half that distance an irregular volley of
musketry burst from the men supporting General Galento. The two
horses, riddled with bullets, dropped to the ground, rolled
completely over and then lay feebly kicking in their death agonies.
Their riders, fortunately thrown clear, were too dazed to offer
further resistance to the men, who left the ranks and seized them.

"Surrender, Zaypuru!" repeated Galento.

"Is my life guaranteed?" asked the president, who was trembling like
a leaf.

"You will not die a violent death at our hands," replied the general
urbanely.

"You mean to murder me," howled the wretched man.

"I would have you shot by a platoon with the greatest pleasure, I
assure you," remarked Galento with well-assumed indifference.
"Unfortunately, as far as my inclination is concerned, I have given a
promise to the English commandante of the Cavarale."

"They are referring to you, Dacres," said Gerald Whittinghame, who,
unseen by the president and his followers, had followed the whole of
the conversation. "There is no further need for concealment. That
rascal Zaypuru will surrender to you."

Although Zaypuru had not hesitated to treat his British captives with
indignity, he had a certain amount of respect for the word of an
Englishman. Directly Dacres crossed over to where Galento was
standing, the President got down from his horse, and unbuckling his
sword, tendered it to the Englishman.

Just then a rattle of musketry was heard without. Those of the
President's escort who had been left on the remote side of the dry
ditch had taken cover behind the outer wall and were firing at the
Valderians who held the roof of the prison. The latter briskly
replied, and the exchange of shots was rapidly maintained.

"Where are you, Whittinghame?" shouted Dacres. "Tell some of these
men to take the prisoner to the Commandante's quarters. I'll have to
direct operations against those fellows who are kicking up a dust
outside."

Directly Gerald Whittinghame appeared on the scene Zaypuru's terrors
returned. The sight of the man whom he had treated with uncalled for
severity filled him with the most abject fright. He fell on his
knees, and, upraising his clasped hands, implored his former captive
to have pity.

"Get up, and don't make a fool of yourself," exclaimed Gerald
sternly. "You won't be hurt unless you give trouble."

"I never meant to do you an injury, señor," persisted Zaypuru; "it
was my adviser Durango who urged it."

"The less you say about it the better," interrupted Whittinghame. "I
want to hear no excuses. Party!" he ordered, addressing a file of
men. "Escort the prisoner to the Commandante's quarters."

Trembling like a leaf the President was taken away and lodged in the
same room as his henchman, Alonzo da Costa, while the rest of his men
who had followed him into the _patio_ surrendered at discretion.

Meanwhile, Dacres was directing the fire of the defenders. Although
the aim of the Valderians on both sides was erratic, several of the
bullets whistled unpleasantly close. The President's escort, fearing
to retire, since in their retreat they would be fully exposed to the
fire of the garrison, stuck tenaciously to the cover afforded by the
outer wall, hoping that additional troops would be sent from
Naocuanha to their support.

"Man that machine gun," ordered Dacres to those of the crew of the
"Meteor" who had remained with him.

The ammunition was soon forthcoming, and a hail of small projectiles
directed upon the adobe wall. This was more than the enemy could
swallow, and a white flag soon appeared above the crumbling outer
wall.

Keeping the defenders well under control, Gerald Whittinghame shouted
to the President's men that they were at liberty to retire to the
capital. For some moments there was no indication of this offer being
accepted. At length, one or two plucked up courage to make a dash
towards Naocuanha, and finding that they were not fired upon the rest
of the escort promptly took to their heels, amid the jeers of the
released prisoners.

Dacres looked at his watch. It was ten minutes past nine.

"Nearly an hour to wait," he remarked as Gerald Whittinghame came up.
"If Zaypuru hadn't been so inconsiderate as to arrive an hour earlier
he might have saved us some trouble."

"What do you mean?" asked Gerald.

"Unless I am very much mistaken Fort Volador will be opening fire on
us."

"With Zaypuru in our hands?"

"That won't count with them, I fancy," said Dacres, as he bent the
blue and white flag to the halliards in readiness for hoisting at the
approach of the "Meteor."

Just then General Galento hurried up.

"Señor Whittinghame," said he, "a message has just been sent by
telephone from Fort Volador. The men belonging to Zaypuru's escort
whom you allowed to go without hindrance have reported the situation.
The Commandante of the fort has called upon us to surrender at
discretion, otherwise he will bombard the Cavarale."

"Then let him," replied Whittinghame. "That is, if he wants to murder
his President. As a matter of fact I don't believe there are guns
mounted on Fort Volador that are capable of doing much damage. All
the heavy ordnance have been taken to the Zandovar side of the city."

"Then how shall I answer, señor?"

"Tell him to go to Jericho," replied Whittinghame, shrugging his
shoulders.

"That's the way to talk to these gentry," remarked Dacres when Gerald
told him of the conversation. "Treat the matter lightly and it will
give our Valderian allies confidence. Ha! There's the first shot."

With a peculiar, throbbing screech a twelve-pounder shell flew
handsomely over the Cavarale, bursting quite eight hundred yards
beyond the building.

"Bad shot!" ejaculated Dacres coolly. "All the same I think we will
withdraw our men from the wall. Order them to lie down as far apart
as possible. I'll be with you in a moment."

Deliberately hoisting the blue and white flag Dacres took a final
survey of the horizon. Seeing no sign of the Dreadnought of the Air
he descended to the _patio_.

Another shell screeched overhead, missing the parapet of the
furthermost wall by a bare five feet. Fort Volador's gunners were
getting the correct range, yet the rate of firing was painfully slow.

The third shot struck that part of the prison in which the British
officers had been incarcerated. With a crash that shook the place the
missile burst, blowing a gap in the outer and inner walls large
enough for a horse and cart to pass.

"Señor," exclaimed a Valderian breathlessly, "Zaypuru has asked me to
be allowed to speak with the Commandante of Fort Volador. He says he
will order the battery to cease fire."

"It will be useless," replied Whittinghame.

"It is surely worth trying," urged General Galento, who was beginning
to show signs of "jumpiness."

"Very good," assented Gerald. "You might accompany Zaypuru to the
orderly-room, General, and repeat to me what he says."

Catching up his long sword, Galento, still resplendent in his
borrowed plumes, ran across the _patio_, his movements hastened by a
shell that struck the ground within ten yards of him--happily without
bursting.

He found Zaypuru ashen with fear. Both Valderians, their enmity
vanishing before a common danger, hurried to the orderly-room.

With trembling fingers the President lifted the receiver, and held it
to his ear.

"Is that Commandante Vilano?" he asked. "It is I, Diego Zaypuru, your
President. My life is in danger from the fire of the fort. I order
you to desist immediately."

He waited to listen to a jeering reply.

"I order you. I beg of you," he continued.

Galento, equally agitated, anxiously watched the face of his former
persecutor.

With a gesture of despair the President threw the receiver against
the wall, where it struck with disastrous results to the instrument;
then burying his face in his hands he burst into tears.

"Is there no place where I can hide in safety?" he whined. In his
utter selfishness he gave no thought to the members of his staff, who
were in an equally hazardous predicament.

Ten minutes later Gerald Whittinghame, finding that General Galento
had not returned, took two of the "Meteor's" men to look for him. The
orderly-room was empty.

A muffled groan from the adjoining barrack-room attracted his
attention.

Lying side by side on the bare floor and covered by a heap of straw
mattresses were the President of Valderia and General Galento.

"White-livered rascals; fear, like adversity, makes strange
bedfellows," he exclaimed contemptuously.

By this time the shells from Fort Volador were coming quicker and
with better aim. Already the front of the Cavarale facing Naocuanha
was little better than a heap of ruins, but the debris formed such an
effective breastwork that Dacres ordered the garrison to take shelter
behind it. The two angle-towers had disappeared, tearing away heaps
of brick and stone and leaving a mound twenty feet in height. Their
destruction had resulted in the removal of the recognized signal to
the "Meteor" that all was well.

Even Dacres began to be anxious, although he kept his doubts to
himself. The fact of being under fire without being able to return an
effective shot told heavily upon the Valderian members of the
garrison. He began to consider the possibilities of a retirement.

"Getting pretty hot," he said to Gerald Whittinghame.

"Yes; three men down with that last shell," replied Vaughan's
brother, flicking some dust from his coat. "That makes sixteen, I
believe."

"Any of the 'Meteor's' men?"

"No, thank heavens! unless one or two of them have received slight
hurts. They are splendid fellows. How goes the time? My watch was
stolen before I was brought here as a prisoner."

"Nine minutes to ten," replied Dacres.

"Hurrah, there she is!" shouted one of the "Meteor's" men at that
moment.

Flying high and at her greatest speed the huge airship was
approaching from the direction of the Sierras.

Heedless of the risk he ran, one of the British defenders of the
Cavarale dashed across the heap of brickwork and recovered the blue
and white flag. The bunting was torn, the staff severed, but the
daring fellow waved the remains of the flag above his head.

"Come down, Jones; they've seen us!" ordered Dacres.

Two minutes later the "Meteor" passed immediately overhead and at an
elevation of ten thousand feet. She made no attempt to descend.

"By Jove! I have it!" ejaculated Gerald Whittinghame. "She's going to
settle with Fort Volador."

The garrison of the Valderian fort saw the danger. Their fire upon
the Cavarale ceased. An attempt was made to train the quick-firers
upon the airship, but the weapons were not on suitable mountings.

Panic seized the artillerymen. Abandoning the fort they fled
pell-mell towards Naocuanha.

The "Meteor's" motors stopped. Rapidly she lost way, bringing up
immediately above the doomed fort.

Through his binoculars Dacres observed a small black object drop from
the airship. Sixty-five seconds later, having fallen vertically
through a distance of nearly three thousand five hundred yards, the
bomb struck the ground.

The aim was superb. Alighting fairly in the centre of the deserted
fort it exploded. A burst of lurid flame was followed by a dense
cloud of yellow smoke, mingled with fragments of earth, stones and
bricks. The missile of destruction, powerful enough in itself to
knock the defences of the fort out of action, had caused the main
magazine to explode. When the smoke dispersed sufficiently for the
observers on the ruins of the Cavarale to see what had taken place,
Fort Volador was no more.

Apparently content with this act of vengeance the "Meteor," gliding
vertically downwards, flew slowly over the four-square mass of rubble
that marked the position of the state prison of the Republic of
Valderia.

"All right, below there?" came a hail from the "Meteor."

"All right, sir," replied Dacres. "We've close on fifty Valderians we
found in the cells. We must stand by them."

"Quite right," replied Vaughan Whittinghame. "What have you done with
the Commandante and the rest of the garrison?"

"Safe in the underground cellars, sir."

"You might detain the Commandante as a hostage."

"We've a better hostage than the Commandante."

"Who, then?"

"President Zaypuru is a prisoner of war."



CHAPTER XXIX.

WORK FOR THE SEAPLANES.


"SEND him on board, by all means," said the Captain of the "Meteor,"
after the rousing cheer from her crew that greeted the announcement
had died away. "We'll lower a rope and whip him on board in a jiffey.
You might then hold your position for ten hours more. I don't suppose
the Valderians will risk another assault during that interval. We are
about to take Admiral Maynebrace and his staff back to his flagship.
Zaypuru will go too. He will be a strong argument in favour of the
Valderians asking for terms."

"I doubt it, sir," replied Dacres grimly. "Those fellows in Fort
Volador ignored his request to cease firing."

"We'll see," rejoined Vaughan Whittinghame.

"Hulloa, there, Gerald, old boy! How goes it?"

This was the Captain of the "Meteor's" greeting to his brother, who
for months past had been in danger of being put to death by an
unscrupulous Dictator.

"See you later," was Gerald's equally unconcerned reply, although at
heart the brothers were longing to shake each other by the hand.
"We'll rout out old Zaypuru. He's buried himself under a regular
mountain of bedding."

Still in paroxysms of terror the President of Valderia was removed
from his place of concealment, while General Galento, in almost an
equal state of fear, was allowed to remain in his uncomfortable
position.

At the sight of the "Meteor," anchored barely fifty feet above the
shattered walls of the Cavarale, with a rope dangling from one of the
entry ports, Zaypuru fell on his knees, begging for mercy. The noosed
rope had a terrible significance.

"We do not ill-treat our prisoners of war, señor," said Gerald
Whittinghame. "Circumstances necessitate your removal from this
dangerous locality to a safer sphere."

But before the President could be ignominiously seated in the bight
of the rope a warning shout came from Setchell, who was on duty in
the after-section.

"Look out, sir!" he hailed; "there are half a dozen aeroplanes
bearing down upon us."

"Cast off, there!" ordered Vaughan Whittinghame calmly.

The "Meteor" soared skywards, although not so swiftly as was her
wont. The heavy drain upon her store of ultra-hydrogen was beginning
to make itself felt.

Dacres watched her receding bulk with envious eyes. He would have
given much to have formed one of the band of aerial warriors; but
duty compelled him to remain, an eager spectator of the forthcoming
encounter, on the position he had held so doggedly against the guns
of Fort Volador. Setchell had made a mistake in stating the number of
the hostile aircraft to be half a dozen. There were five of the
latest type of Valderian aeroplanes, each capable of rendering a good
account of itself, had they been properly handled.

Hoping to take advantage of the great airship being close to the
ground, the airmen left Naocuanha, and, flying fairly low, made a
wide detour so as to approach from a direction whence danger was
least expected.

Seeing the "Meteor" rise, they too tilted their elevating planes, and
in a semi-circular formation rushed at top speed upon this surprised
foe.

Suddenly the airship's propellers began to run at full speed. She did
not belie her name as she shot forward, firing from her after-guns as
she did so.

The aeroplanes replying with their comparatively feeble automatic
guns, were completely outdistanced, till the "Meteor," slowing down,
lured them on.

Before the Valderian mosquitoes could approach within range the
airship was off again, till she was almost out of sight of the
watchers on the Cavarale. Dacres understood her tactics. Vaughan
Whittinghame wanted to entice the biplanes away from the vicinity of
the Cavarale, whose garrison would otherwise be at the mercy of the
aviators. On the other hand, he dared not risk an attack at an
effective range, owing to the fact that, in addition to Rear-Admiral
Maynebrace and his staff, the "Meteor" carried Antoine de la Fosse
and his son, and also the two men from the British merchant vessel
whose arrest by Zaypuru had been the commencement of the dispute.

Presently the "Meteor" was observed to be returning towards
Naocuanha, the five aeroplanes hanging on in pursuit. When within a
mile of the Cavarale she rose to an additional height of two thousand
feet. The biplanes, fearing to be annihilated by an aerial bomb,
swerved right and left. Doubling like a hare the airship proved
conclusively that her turning powers were, in spite of her length and
bulk, superior to those of the Valderian aircraft, but owing to her
speed and the smallness of the swiftly-moving targets, she made no
palpable hits with her two stern-chasers.

So intent were the garrison of the Cavarale in watching this aerial
steeplechase that it was not until a loud droning almost above their
heads told them that other aircraft were approaching.

"Take cover as best you may!" ordered Gerald to the Valderian allies.

"Steady on, old man," suddenly exclaimed Dacres. "I think--yes, I am
certain--they are British seaplanes."

"I suppose you know," admitted Whittinghame. "But how will they know
we are not the enemy? Personally, I've a strong objection to being
blown sky-high by a British seaplane."

"We must risk it. I'll hail. Perhaps they might hear, although the
noise of the propeller--Hulloa! They're swerving."

Paying no attention to the remains of the Cavarale with its occupants
who wore the Valderian uniform, the air-squadron tore to the rescue
of their Admiral.

The Captain of the "Meteor" had informed the flagship of the
situation by wireless, and Captain Staggers, who, by virtue of his
seniority, had hoisted the Commodore's Broad Pennant on board the
"Royal Oak" during Rear-Admiral Maynebrace's enforced absence, had
dispatched six of the seaplanes attached to the fleet to tackle the
enemy's air-fleet.

Giving the high-angle firing-guns of the defences of Naocuanha a wide
berth, the seaplanes made short work of the distance between Zandovar
and the scene of the manoeuvres of the "Meteor" and her attackers.

Now, for the first time in the history of the world, was to be a
pitched battle between aircraft heavier than the medium in which they
soared. It was to be a fight to the finish: there could be no
question of surrendering or of giving quarter.

Yet the British Flying Squadron was not one to take an undue
advantage. The aeroplanes, intent upon the "Meteor," were unaware of
the approach of their new foes; but the officers in command of the
seaplanes waited till they were certain that their presence was
observed by the Valderian airmen.

To escape by flight was impossible. The Valderian airmen, realizing
that their only chance lay in vanquishing their opponents, turned and
headed straight for the seaplanes. On both sides the automatic guns
were sending out small but powerful shells as fast as the delicate
and intricate mechanism could admit, yet ninety-nine per cent of the
missiles failed to find a billet.

One of the British aircraft was the first to receive a knock-out
blow. Hit fairly on the swiftly revolving cylinders it seemed to stop
dead. Then, plunging vertically, it fell at a comparatively low rate
of speed and with ever-widening circles through space till its
descent was checked by crashing violently upon the ground.

Ten seconds later a Valderian biplane was literally pulverized by a
shell that exploded in her petrol tank. Two more were quickly put out
of action, while the fourth, seeing the hopelessness of the
situation, vainly attempted a vol-plane.

With two of her antagonists like avenging angels following her steep
downward glide, the biplane dropped to within a hundred feet of the
ground without any apparent injury. Then, suddenly tilting beyond the
angle of stability, she fell vertically. Under the joint action of
gravity and the traction of her propeller her rate at the moment of
impact could not have been far short of two hundred miles an hour.

It took all the skill at their pilots' command to save the two
seaplanes from a similar fate. So intent had they been in the
headlong pursuit that they temporarily lost all sense of caution.

The first seaplane succeeded in rising, but the second was not so
fortunate. The sudden downward pressure on the planes as the frail
craft changed her direction resulted in the carrying away of one of
the tension wires. The right-hand plane collapsed like a limp rag,
and the seaplane, tilting sideways, fell to the earth, her pilot
getting off lightly with a few bruises, while almost by a miracle the
observer escaped injury.

Only one Valderian biplane now remained. Her pilot, whether from
sheer daring or whether he was incapable of realizing what he was
about, headed straight for the nearest of his antagonists.

The British pilot, equally fascinated by the sight of the huge
mechanical bird bearing straight towards him, held on his course. The
slightest alteration to the elevating planes would have resulted in
the seaplane flying either above or under her opponent; but
inexplicably the naval pilot made no effort to avoid the collision.

With a crash that was plainly heard by the spell-bound crew of the
"Meteor," both aeroplanes met, eight thousand feet above the ground.

The spectators saw both motors, thrown clear of the tangle of struts
and canvas, drop almost side by side, followed by the mangled bodies
of three of the victims. Then, slowly, the lighter debris began to
fall, until, some of the spilt petrol catching fire, the wreckage
blazing furiously like a funeral pyre, streamed earthwards, leaving
behind it a trail of smoke resembling a gigantic memorial column to
the slain.



CHAPTER XXX.

THE FALL OF NAOCUANHA.


"HEAVY firing, sir," remarked Commander Bourne to his superior
officer.

"You're right," assented Captain and Acting Commodore Staggers. "It's
about time we had a wireless report."

"Nothing has come through yet, sir," said Bourne.

Surrounded by a group of officers Captain Staggers stood upon the
battlements of Fort Belgrano, on the landward side of the town of
Zandovar. Away to the eastward, and only just discernible in the
heated atmosphere, was the city of Naocuanha. Beyond the capital
there was nothing to be seen, save at sunset when the peaks of the
far-distant Sierras showed rosy-pink against the gloom of approaching
night.

"The seaplanes ought to be returning," remarked Captain Staggers for
the sixth time in half an hour. He was unable to conceal an anxiety
for the naval aircraft that, two hours previously, had proceeded to
the assistance of the handicapped "Meteor."

Drawn up just outside the fort was every available man who could be
landed from the fleet: one thousand seamen and five hundred Marines,
with the usual quota of light quick-firers and maxims. Why the men
were there under arms none of them knew; they could only conjecture.
Once again there was work to be done and they meant to do it right
well, to wipe off the slur upon British prestige caused by the
capture of Admiral Maynebrace and his staff.

"Speak to the 'Royal Oak,' Mr. Eccles, and ask if there's any news,"
continued the Captain.

Away doubled the lieutenant to the signalling station, only to return
within five minutes with the disconcerting report that the battleship
had not been able to "pick up" the "Meteor" by wireless.

"Seaplanes returning, sir!" announced the Commander, whose attention
had been drawn to the fact by a petty officer.

"How many?" demanded the Captain abruptly, his anxiety causing him to
drop his customary courtesy.

"Only three, sir."

"Only three? Good heavens! Only three."

Captain Staggers set his jaw firmly. Was he to hear of another
reverse? Where was the "Meteor"--the Dreadnought of the Air? Had she
fallen a victim to the fire of the batteries of Naocuanha?

Flying with mathematical precision the three seaplanes alighted
practically simultaneously upon a level expanse of ground on the
landward side of Fort Belgrano. Under ordinary circumstances
etiquette would demand that the subordinate should approach the
senior officer, but casting observances to the winds Captain
Staggers, holding his scabbard to prevent his sword from impeding his
progress, ran towards the returned airmen.

"Five of the Valderian biplanes destroyed, sir." reported the senior
lieutenant of the air squadron. "All that opposed us. G1 and G3 of
ours are done for. G4 is badly damaged, but her crew are safe."

"And the 'Meteor'?" asked the Captain anxiously.

"Is standing by to the east of Naocuanha, sir. I understand that
there are some British subjects, assisted by a part of the airship's
crew and some of the late President's adherents, holding the
Cavarale. Captain Whittinghame suggests that if an attack be made as
soon as possible, while the Valderian troops are still demoralized by
the destruction of their aircraft, we may be able to capture the
capital without great loss."

"And where is Admiral Maynebrace?"

"I do not know, sir. Captain Whittinghame gave me no information on
that point, so I concluded that he is with the party holding the
Cavarale."

"Gentlemen," said Captain Staggers, turning to his officers who
accompanied him, "I propose to make a reconnaissance in force
immediately, and, if practicable, to deliver an assault upon Fort San
Josef. If our efforts in that direction are successful, we shall hold
the key of the position."

In spite of their protests the officers and crews of the seaplanes
were ordered to stand by. Their places were taken by others who were
fresh to undergo the trying ordeal, and the hard-worked aircraft
having been given a rapid overhaul, they set off on their task of
searching the intervening country in case the Valderians should offer
resistance to the advance of the Naval brigade.

In sections of fours the British force set out on its seven mile
march to Naocuanha, the advance covered by the seaplanes and well
flanked by strong parties of Marines. The railroad had been torn up,
and the rolling-stock destroyed before the evacuation of Zandovar by
the Valderians, but the wide and fairly well-kept road rendered the
advance practicable and speedy.

"'Meteor' heading due north, sir," exclaimed Commander Bourne, as the
huge bulk of the airship, looking little larger than a needle, was
observed to be making off at full speed in the direction the
Commander had stated.

"What's the matter with her, I wonder?" asked Captain Staggers. "I
thought she was to operate on the east side of Naocuanha? By sheering
off she leaves the Valderian troops free to devote the whole of their
attention to us."

"I don't know, sir," replied Bourne, "Perhaps----"

His surmise was never expressed in words, for even as he spoke, the
"Meteor," having put a safe distance between her and the batteries of
the capital, swung round and made for the town of Zandovar.

"Pass the word for the men to halt," ordered the captain, who was
regarding the approaching mammoth with ill-disguised wonderment and
admiration, for in spite of the fact that two hundred odd feet had
been taken from her original length, she still appeared the
embodiment of size, power and speed.

The seamen and Marines grounded arms and watched the Dreadnought of
the Air with the deepest interest. She had spotted the advancing
force, and starboarding her helm was making in the direction of the
column.

Her propellers stopped; she lost way, then, slowly sinking, alighted
on level ground at less than a hundred and fifty yards from the place
where Captain Staggers and his staff were standing.

There was no wind, consequently there was no need to anchor. The
"Meteor," now possessing a dead weight of ten or twelve tons, sat
firmly upon Valderian soil.

"Captain Whittinghame, I presume?" asked the Commodore as he
approached within convenient talking distance of the airship.

"The same," answered Vaughan. "I am in a hurry, sir; I have left
several of my men in an exposed position at the Cavarale, so I must
quickly return. The city of Naocuanha ought to be taken with but
little trouble. Meanwhile, sir, I shall be glad if you will receive
some of my passengers--Rear-Admiral Maynebrace, his staff and
others."

Captain Staggers literally gasped. The fact that his superior had
been rescued by the "Meteor" was quite unexpected news, for he had
misinterpreted Whittinghame's appeal for the seaplanes to be sent to
the airship's aid. Before he could recover from his astonishment the
rope ladder was dropped from the entry-port and the Admiral's burly
form was seen to be slowly descending the swaying means of
communication with terra-firma.

A spontaneous cheer burst from the throats of the men as they saw
their Admiral returned to them. In spite of the slight disappointment
that they were not able to wipe off the slur and retrieve their
commanding officer, the seamen and marines were more than willing to
recognize the excellent work accomplished by the Dreadnought of the
Air.

"Will you continue the advance, sir?" asked Captain Staggers, after
the Admiral and his staff, the two Frenchmen, and the two men of the
trader had descended.

"Certainly," replied Admiral Maynebrace. "There's nothing like
striking while the iron's hot. That airship wiped out Fort Volador by
a single charge of explosive. And there's news, Staggers, but I'll
tell you later. Look, the 'Meteor' is ascending."

With the least possible delay the airship returned to continue her
self-imposed task of threatening the city on the eastern side; while
the naval brigade resumed its march.

Having received from Captain Staggers the plan of operations and duly
approved his subordinate's dispositions for the attack, Rear-Admiral
Maynebrace started a breezy narrative of his captivity in the
Cavarale.

"And one day I was surprised to see an Englishman enter my cell. That
man was Dacres."

"Dacres?" echoed Captain Staggers, completely taken aback. "Dacres in
the Valderian service?" For, although the name of Captain Vaughan
Whittinghame had been communicated to the officers of the squadron
operating off the Valderian coast, the Admiralty had given no
information to the effect that ex-Sub-lieutenant Dacres formed one of
the "Meteor's" complement.

"Yes, Dacres," declared Admiral Maynebrace. But not in the Valderian
service--far from it. The youngster managed to get hold of an
appointment under Captain Whittinghame. At considerable risk he
managed to communicate with me. Later on the airship landed a handful
of her crew under Dacres' command in the Cavarale in the dead of
night. They overpowered the garrison, rescued the British officers
and sent them off in the 'Meteor'."

"Capital!" ejaculated the Captain.

"More than that--it shows Dacres' devotion--the 'Meteor' being unable
to take us all, he volunteered to remain in the captured prison with
his men, and by a cool piece of work he made a prisoner of----"

"The commandante of the Cavarale?" hazarded Captain Staggers.

"Yes, and President Zaypuru as well," added Admiral Maynebrace
enthusiastically. "Staggers, I made a great mistake when I told young
Dacres to send in his papers. We must have him back."

"We must, sir," said the Captain of the "Royal Oak" wholeheartedly.
"That is, if he's agreeable. Dacres always appeared to me to be
rather independent."

"Wish to goodness he hadn't played that practical joke on my
midshipmen," growled Admiral Maynebrace.

Further conversation was for the time being out of the question, for
the brigade was now almost within range of the batteries of
Naocuanha.

A strange silence seemed to hang over the capital. There were no
signs of movement. Through the field-glasses of the British officers
Naocuanha appeared to be a city of the dead. There was not the
slightest indication of an attempt about to be made by the superiorly
numerical Valderian troops to dispute the advance.

"Wish those beggars would start firing," muttered the Admiral. "A
silence like that seems suggestive of an ambuscade. Any report from
the seaplanes?"

"G2 and G6 both report no signs of the batteries being manned, sir,"
announced Lieutenant Eccles.

"Then continue the advance in open order. Maxims in the centre, and
quick-firers to cover the advance on either flank. What a rotten
country, Staggers! Not a particle of cover."

Silently the attackers extended, then with six feet separating one
man from another, the bluejackets and marines approached the frowning
walls of Fort San Josef.

Suddenly a succession of short reports burst from seaplane G5. She
had opened fire upon some object, still invisible to the attackers on
the remote side of the fort.

For quite half a minute there was no reply from the Valderian
position; then right and left came the sharp crackle of musketry
punctuated by the bark of quick-firers.

Taking a prone position on the grass the British seamen and marines
opened a steady fire upon their unseen foes, while the covering guns
sent shell after shell into Fort San Josef, over which floated the
flag of the republic.

"What's that?" asked Admiral Maynebrace as a report received from G6
was handed to him. "Fort San Josef evacuated? Tell the quick-firers
to search the ground to the right and left and not waste time and
ammunition on an empty building. By Jove! what's the matter with G5?"

He might well ask that question, for the seaplane was descending with
alarming rapidity and apparently right upon the Valderian position.
The attackers, seeing her glide earthwards, promptly directed their
fire elsewhere, but the devoted G5 was plunging through the zone of
fire of the enemy.

"She's disabled, sir," exclaimed Captain Staggers. "Look, there she
goes."

The seaplane disappeared behind Fort San Josef. Her two consorts,
disdainful of the fate which had overtaken her, still flew serenely
over the Valderian lines, occasionally dropping bombs, but more
frequently reporting the effect of the fire of the British
field-guns.

"What's that?" demanded Captain Staggers, grasping his superior
officer's arm in his eagerness. "Look, sir, at the fort."

Standing upon the ramparts and showing clearly against the skyline
was a man in naval uniform. Rapidly he uncleated the halliards of the
flagstaff and hauled down the Valderian flag. Then, even as he waved
his white-covered cap in triumph, he suddenly pitched forward on his
face and rolled inertly down the steep face of the earthworks.

"It's Vine, the pilot of G5, sir," said Bourne.

Enraged by the lieutenant's fall the attackers implored the officers
to be allowed to storm the position. The men were like hounds in
leash, eager to vent their fury upon their foes.

But Admiral Maynebrace hesitated. The significance of Fort San Josef
offering no active resistance was ominous.

Up dashed a sub-lieutenant.

"G2 reports safe to advance, sir," he said.

"Fort San Josef is mined, but G5 destroyed the firing station and has
cut the wires."

The Admiral hesitated no longer. Along the line the officers'
whistles sounded the advance. Up from the cover afforded by the grass
sprang hundreds of figures in khaki and blue. A regular clatter
followed the order to fix bayonets, and at the double the gallant men
raced towards their goal.

In spite of the covering fire from the British guns the Valderian
troops to the right and left of the deserted fort maintained a hot
fusillade. Enfiladed by the converging volleys the British suffered
severely, the ground being dotted with dead and dying. Yet,
undaunted, the stormers passed on, threw themselves into the dry
ditch, and clambered up the steep ramp beyond. The more active of the
attackers assisted those who experienced difficulty in negotiating
the slippery slope. Marines and bluejackets, without any apparent
semblance of order, vied with each other in the race to gain
possession of the coveted position, till a ringing British cheer
announced to the Admiral and his staff that Fort San Josef was in the
occupation of his gallant men.

While the Union Jack was hoisted over the captured position, the
bluejackets rushed to the guns to turn them upon the Valderian troops
who had so severely galled the advance; but to their disappointment
and rage they discovered that the breech-blocks had previously been
removed.

In spite of the danger from the hostile bullets that were singing
over the earthworks a signalman stood erect and semaphored for the
guns to be brought up.

Two brawny bluejackets, each staggering under the weight of a Maxim,
successfully crossed the danger-zone, while four man-hauled
quick-firers were ordered to the fort.

At the double the guns were dragged across the open plain. Several of
the men at the drag-ropes fell, but, undaunted, their comrades
maintained the hot pace. The dry-ditch they made light of. In twenty
seconds each gun was unlimbered and dismantled. The lighter parts,
passed from hand to hand, were taken up the ramp; the heavier gear,
hauled by willing hands, quickly followed.

To the tap, tap, tap of the Maxims was added the sharp bark of the
quick-firers, and, swept by the hail of projectiles, the Valderian
troops bolted precipitately. Outside the city they could not go, for
hovering overhead was the "Meteor," and the fate of Fort Volador was
still fresh in the minds of the beaten side.

At exactly three o'clock--one hour and twenty minutes from the
opening of the assault--the city of Naocuanha surrendered at
discretion.



CHAPTER XXXI.

A SURPRISE FOR DACRES.


"SAY, Dacres, old man, here's something that will interest you,"
remarked Vaughan Whittinghame, handing his comrade and able assistant
a letter that had just been delivered by a marine orderly.

Dacres took the missive. The familiar heading on the envelope, "On
His Majesty's Service," recalled the days not long since when he was
one of the officers of the ship whence the letter came.

Drawing out the enclosure Dacres, with considerable difficulty,
deciphered the crabbed handwriting of Rear-Admiral Maynebrace. That
officer had written requesting the pleasure of the company of Captain
Whittinghame and Mr. Basil Dacres on board the flagship at three p.m.

"Well?" asked Whittinghame in his usual manner. "Going?"

"I hardly know what to say, sir. I suppose you will accept the
invitation?"

"Yes. If it were a mere formal affair I would decline, but I have
reason to believe that the Admiral wishes to consult us with
reference to the submarine plans. It's not a matter of etiquette
exactly, but an affair of national importance, so I think you'd
better decide to go with me."

The "Meteor" was lying afloat in Zandovar Harbour. Beyond the
low-lying spit of sand that narrowed the entrance to less than three
hundred yards could be seen the British warships lying in the open
roadstead.

Two days had elapsed since the fall of Naocuanha. A provisional
government had been set up in Valderia, and Señor Juan Desiro, a
distant relative of the late President San Bonetta, had been
nominated as acting president. The terms imposed by the British
Admiral had been accepted, and the Valderians regarded the inevitable
changes with comparative equanimity. The garrison of La Paz had taken
the oath of allegiance to the new ruler, and with amazing rapidity
the republic settled down to make the best of a hard bargain.

Ex-President Diego Zaypuru, after being officially deposed, was glad
to avail himself of an offer by the British Admiral to be given a
passage to a far-distant land, where, with the bulk of the riches he
had amassed, he would be able to live in comparative peace and
plenty.

Antoine de la Fosse, with his two sons, also shook the dust of
Valderia from his feet. Henri had made rapid progress towards
recovery. His wounds were healing satisfactorily, and as no signs of
fever were detected, the British medical officers expressed an
opinion that he could with safety undertake a sea voyage.

So the de la Fosse family, well rewarded for the parts they had
played so well in the capture of the Cavarale, had been given a
generous grant and a free passage to Cherbourg, and had left early
that morning by a Peruvian mailboat en route for Panama.

Already a wireless message from the British Admiralty had been sent
through the Admiral expressing thanks and due appreciation to the
gallant captain of the "Meteor," and Rear-Admiral Maynebrace had
communicated the news in person. Now, following his official visits
to the Dreadnought of the Air, came an invitation for Captain
Whittinghame and Dacres to repair on board the flagship.

At half-past two the Admiral's motor-barge was observed to be
entering the inner harbour. In the sternsheets was a flag-lieutenant
resplendent in full-dress uniform, his duty being to escort the
Admiral's guests to the "Repulse."

As soon as the boat came alongside the "Meteor," Captain Whittinghame
and Dacres, in their neat and serviceable uniforms, went over the
side and took their places in the waiting craft.

The visit was understood to be a purely unofficial one, but the
British bluejackets, always eager to recognize a brave act, were not
to be denied. As the barge approached the flagship the shrill trills
of the bos'n's whistle rang out. In a moment the upper decks and
superstructure of the warship were black with humanity, and the
waters of Zandovar Bay echoed and re-echoed to three deep, hearty
cheers that only Britons can do full justice to.

Dexterously the barge was brought alongside the "Repulse's"
accommodation ladder. Whittinghame stepped out of the barge, and,
followed by his companion, ascended to the quarter-deck. As Dacres
mounted the steps he could not help recalling the previous time he
visited the flagship. Then it was with heavy heart and the
well-founded presentiment that there was trouble in store for him.
Now he was the guest of the very man who had "broken him."

Then to Dacres' surprise the "pipe side" was sounded by the bos'n's
mate, and a serjeants' guard drawn up on the quarter-deck presented
arms. These marks of respect were, according to the King's
Regulations, to be given to captains of H.M. ships in uniform. Why,
then, had the regulation been officially ignored?

After being received by the Commander and the officers of the watch,
Whittinghame and Dacres were shown below to the Admiral's cabin.

Rear-Admiral Maynebrace was not alone. The other occupant of the
cabin was Dacres' old chief, Captain Staggers.

"Sit down, my dear Whittinghame, and you, too, Dacres," exclaimed the
Admiral genially, as he drew a green curtain over the cabin door in
order to balk any curiosity that the marine sentry without might
develop. "We may as well proceed at once to business. I believe,
Captain Whittinghame, that on the eve of your departure from England
you were given honorary rank of captain in His Majesty's fleet?"

"I believe that was so," he replied.

This was indeed news to Dacres, but it was only one of a series of
surprises.

"My Lords also stipulated, should events justify all that was claimed
for your wonderful aircraft, that they would be entitled to buy the
'Meteor' into the Royal Navy?"

Again Whittinghame nodded assent.

"It is almost needless to say," continued Admiral Maynebrace, "that
their expectations have been fully realized. The amount agreed upon
has been deposited at your bankers, Captain Whittinghame. Moreover, I
am empowered to offer you a full commission as commanding officer of
H.M. Airship 'Meteor.'"

"I am afraid Their Lordships are a bit premature," said Whittinghame.
"If I remember aright the terms of the proposal were that the
'Meteor' was to be purchased on her return from a successful
mission."

"But surely you consider the part you played in the Valderian
business a successful piece of work?"

"I suppose so," admitted the captain of the "Meteor."

"Then why hesitate?"

"Because I have not yet completed the work on which I am engaged. The
'Meteor' came to Valderia for three objects. Firstly, to co-operate
with the British fleet and destroy the 'Libertad.' That has been
done. Secondly, to liberate my brother from Zaypuru's power. That,
also, is an accomplished fact. Thirdly--and from a national point of
view, the most important object--the recovery of the stolen plans of
the submarines. In that respect my work is still unfinished."

"I trust you will be equally successful, Captain Whittinghame. When
do you propose to resume your quest?"

"Almost at once. Allowing for the slow method of travelling across
the Voyocama Desert, Durango ought to be on the verge of it in two
days' time. I propose to take the 'Meteor' to Salto Augusto to-morrow
and watch developments."

"But that is Brazilian territory," objected Admiral Maynebrace.

"Quite so," admitted Whittinghame, "but Durango is an outlaw. Three
days ago I received intimation that the British Ambassador at Rio was
successful in obtaining permission from the Brazilian Government for
his arrest. Directly Durango sets foot in Salto Augusto he will be
detained by the authorities, extradited, and placed on board the
'Meteor' to be brought back to England."

"I hope it comes off," said the Admiral.

"So do I, sir, especially if we find the submarine plans in Durango's
possession."

"To get back to the subject of the purchase of the 'Meteor,' Captain
Whittinghame. I presume you are still willing to sell her to the
government as soon as Durango is made a prisoner?"

"Certainly," replied Whittinghame rather stiffly. "I never go back on
my word. But there is one point I should like to raise--how will my
officers and men be affected by the change of ownership?"

"That is just what I was about to mention," said Rear-Admiral
Maynebrace, glancing at Dacres. "I have here a copy of the Admiralty
wireless message. The proposal is, should you be willing to accept
the proffered commission, Captain Whittinghame, that your crew should
be transferred en bloc to Admiralty service, provided that they are
agreeable. I presume Mr. Dacres has informed you of the circumstances
under which he left the Navy? I thought so. Well, Mr. Dacres, apart
from the great personal service which you rendered me, your conduct
during these operations has been praiseworthy. I regret most deeply
that I took the drastic step I did when you played a somewhat unwise
joke upon the midshipmen of the flagship. Had you expressed regret,
Mr. Dacres, I might have overlooked it, or let you off with a severe
reprimand."

"But I wasn't asked to express regret, sir."

"You had the opportunity," remarked the Admiral drily. "However, I
have tendered my apologies in front of Captain Staggers and Captain
Whittinghame, and I trust that you will accept them."

"I do, sir."

"I propose sending a further report to the Admiralty on the subject,"
continued the Admiral, "and asking whether they will give orders for
your name to be restored to the Navy List. I trust that will be
agreeable to you, Mr. Dacres?"

"One minute, sir," interrupted Whittinghame. "I am about to impart a
piece of information of which Dacres has hitherto been in ignorance.
His name was never removed from the Navy List."

"What!" ejaculated the Admiral and Dacres simultaneously.

"Fact," exclaimed Whittinghame. "I brought the case before the notice
of Admiral Sir Hardy Staplers on the eve of our dash for the North
Pole. Sir Hardy transmitted my request to the Admiralty, and I was
informed that Mr. Dacres' resignation was to be annulled, and he was
to retain his rank while serving in the 'Meteor.' Thus, before the
removal of Dacres' name from the Navy List was notified, his
commission was restored. Owing to my fear that I might lose the
services of a very able assistant I suggested to Sir Hardy that
Dacres should for the time being be kept in ignorance of what had
transpired, and to this he agreed."

Dacres tried to speak but failed. There was a strange sensation in
his throat. He felt tempted to dance for sheer joy even in the
sanctity of the Admiral's cabin. He was still entitled to wear the
uniform of the Royal Navy.

"Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Dacres," said the Admiral, rising
and extending his hand.

"And me, also," added Captain Staggers. "I wish for some reasons that
you were reappointed to the 'Royal Oak.'"

"I had a good time under you, sir," was the sub's non-committal form
of reply.

"There is yet another point," continued Whittinghame. He was enjoying
himself. His face beamed with satisfaction. To heap pleasurable
surprises on others was one of his chief delights. "According to the
terms offered by My Lords, of which you have just informed me, my
officers and men were to be transferred to the Royal Navy, provided
they were willing to serve."

"That is so," agreed the Admiral, tapping a folded document on the
table.

"Without reduction of rank?"

"Certainly; that is expressly stated."

"Then, take for example the case of Dacres. He is my chief officer, a
rank, I take it, that corresponds to first lieutenant in the Navy."

"It's rather rapid promotion," remarked the Admiral. "Scores of men
have waited years to obtain that rank. But, by Jove, Dacres! you
jolly well deserve it. I am afraid, though, yours is a special case.
I shall have to raise the point."

"If Mr. Dacres is not promoted to that rank I'm afraid I shall have
something to say very strongly on the subject, sir," declared
Whittinghame. "Perhaps I had better delay the acceptance of my
commission pending definite information as to Mr. Dacres' status."

"I do not doubt that it will be all right," said the Admiral.

"I prefer to wait, however," added Whittinghame firmly.

"Very well," asserted the Admiral, "we'll leave it at that. I don't
suppose for an instant that there will be any objections raised by
the Admiralty, but, you see, I haven't authority to act in the case.
For the present, then, Mr. Dacres is still a sub-lieutenant in His
Majesty's Navy."



CHAPTER XXXII.

A SUBMARINE ENCOUNTER.


"THERE is one thing I didn't mention to the Admiral," remarked
Whittinghame on his way back to the airship. "It has been worrying me
somewhat. The 'Meteor's' supply of ultra-hydrogen is running low."

"I thought so too, sir," said Dacres. "We've had quite a series of
accidents."

"And we cannot risk another mishap with equanimity," added
Whittinghame. "Even under the best conditions we must be back in
England before the next fortnight; otherwise we must remain here
until we get a fresh supply from home. If, in the event of--Hulloa!
The 'Meteor' seems to be lower in the water than when we left her."

Whittinghame's surmise was quite correct. The airship was floating
with a pronounced list to starboard and slightly down by the stern.

"Anything wrong?" he demanded briskly as he ascended the swaying
ladder and gained the interior of the "Meteor."

"Yes, sir," answered Setchell. "There's a leak in No. 5 compartment.
We have located it, and exhausted the ultra-hydrogen from the three
sub-divisions affected."

"It's lucky that the gas wasn't wasted," remarked the Captain. "The
ballonette sub-divisions are flooded, I presume?"

"Yes, sir, a fairly large hole, I should think. We tried compressed
air, but could not expel the water."

"Shall we lift her and ascertain the extent of the damage?" asked the
sub.

Whittinghame shook his head.

"It's my belief that some rascally agent of Durango has been at
work," he said. "If we rise we shall create suspicion in his mind,
and frighten him away. Now we know we can take steps to protect
ourselves accordingly. I'll ask the flagship to lend us a couple of
divers. Fortunately the damage is easily repaired provided we save
the ultra-hydrogen."

"I'll go down, sir," volunteered Dacres, "and Callaghan will
accompany me."

"I'll be delighted to accept your offer," said Whittinghame
gratefully. "I'd go myself only I've had no experience in submarine
work of any description. Mr. Setchell, will you please signal the
'Repulse' and ask the loan of two Restronguet diving-suits?"

Callaghan expressed his willingness to accompany the sub. The
Irishman had been a first-class seaman-diver in the Royal Navy, and,
although unaccustomed to the modern diving-dress, could be relied
upon to do his work thoroughly.

Without delay a motor pinnace from the flagship came alongside,
bringing the required apparatus. The Restronguet diving-dress, the
invention of the late owner of the famous submarine, "Aphrodite," had
been generally adopted by the Royal Navy.

The dress was entirely self-contained, the chemically-charged
air-supply being carried in metal cylinders attached to the diver,
while airtubes and life-lines were no longer required.

The sub was well acquainted with the Restronguet diving-dress, and it
required only a brief explanation to acquaint Callaghan with its
simple peculiarities.

"Another sub-division flooded, sir," announced Setchell.

"The rascal, or rascals, must be still at work, by Jove!" ejaculated
Whittinghame. "Have your knives ready in case there's any
resistance."

"We have something better than that, sir," said Dacres, holding up an
instrument resembling a tuning-fork. "These are issued with the
diving-suits in case the divers are attacked by sharks or human
beings."

"What is it?" asked Whittinghame curiously.

"Be careful, sir," cautioned the sub as his chief stretched out his
hand to take hold of the weapon. "It is electrically charged, and
will temporarily paralyse any living thing it touches with these two
barbs. My friend Commander Hythe had a dose of it once. He said he
will never forget it. It simply knocked all the stuffing out of him."

"A good substitute for the 'cat,' then," commented Whittinghame.
"Now, all ready?"

The metal headpieces were placed over the wearer's heads and clamped
on to the collar-plates. The two men, deprived of the outside air,
were now dependent solely upon the supply contained in the portable
reservoirs.

Dacres led the way. Shuffling awkwardly to the entry port he made his
way slowly down the ladder till the water reached to his shoulders.
Then releasing his hold he sank gently to the bed of the Zandovar
Harbour.

Fortunately there were no tidal currents. The bottom was composed of
fine gravel and sand, and practically destitute of marine growth. The
depth being less than thirty feet, the brilliant sunshine penetrated
the clear water with very little loss of intensity.

The sub waited till the Irishman joined him, then pointed
significantly towards the after end of the floating airship, whose
rounded hull could be traced through almost its entire length.

Callaghan raised his hand to signify assent, and slowly the two
divers made their way aft.

Suddenly Dacres came to a dead stop. His quick eye detected a foreign
movement. In the deep shadow cast by the lower horizontal plane a man
in a diving-dress was at work. An air-tube and life-line showed that
the villainous diver was equipped with an old-fashioned apparatus,
but the question was, how far was he working from his air-supply? Was
he alone?

Cautiously Dacres and his companion approached, but before they could
get within striking-distance the bubble caused by the escaping air
from the valves in the helmets gave the alarm. The fellow, dropping a
large drill with which he had been studiously employed, slid off the
flange on which he had been seated and gained the bed of the harbour.

Evidently his chief aim was flight, for he made his way off as fast
as he could, his life-line and airtube trailing in an ever-increasing
bight upon the sand. His cumbersome diving-dress so impeded his
efforts that he was no match for his pursuers. Once he turned, and
seeing that flight was impossible, he drew a huge knife with his left
hand, while in his right he grasped a formidable-looking axe.

All prospect of taking the marauder by surprise being at an end,
Dacres realized that both he and his companion were at a
disadvantage. The only vulnerable portions of their antagonist to
which the electric fork could be applied were his bare hands. To get
in a knock-out blow would entail a great risk on the part of the
attackers, for the fellow evidently meant to make good use of his
weapons.

The sub did not fear the axe so much as he did the knife. Owing to
the density of the water the force and velocity of the blow of the
former would be considerably diminished, but a thrust of a sharp
steel knife, meeting with very little resistance, was not to be
regarded lightly.

Dacres stopped, and grasping the other's life-line cut it with his
knife. He could, of course, have easily settled the submarine
encounter by severing the rascal's airtube, but this he was loth to
do. On the other hand how could the fellow be secured? If he
surrendered, he could not be taken ashore, especially if there were,
as was quite likely, a crowd of accomplices. The only solution,
according to the sub's idea, was to compel the man to surrender, take
him to the surface, and there disconnect his airtube.

Again the sub bent down, this time laying hold of the flexible
armoured hose. He raised his knife threateningly, and indicated that
his antagonist should either surrender or be deprived of his supply
of air.

The fellow's reply was more than Dacres had bargained for. Either he
mistook the invitation to give in, or else he meant to die gamely.
Raising his axe he floundered towards the place where the sub stood
grasping the airtube.

Dacres dropped the pipe like a piece of red-hot coal, and promptly
retreated. Brave as he was he did not like the look of that long,
keen knife glistening in the pale green light.

As the stranger advanced Callaghan made his way behind him, and
poising his electric fork awaited an opportunity to seize the fellow
by the arm and prick him on the back of his hand.

Again the mysterious diver halted and, turning alternately to his
right and left, contemplated the two points of attack. By this time
the sandy bed of the sea had been considerably disturbed, and the
water was rapidly becoming mingled with a muddy deposit that greatly
curtailed the range of vision.

It was now a complete deadlock. Neither of the unknown's antagonists
could bring themselves to start the attack at close quarters, while
the stranger would not surrender.

Awaiting his opportunity the Irishman stealthily gained possession of
the airtube, and, grasping it in his powerful hands, attempted to
curtail the supply of air. The attempt was a failure, for he was
quite unable to compress the stout wire coil running around the
rubber hose. He fancied he could see a grim smile of contempt upon
the features of his foe. Suddenly Callaghan changed his tactics.
Still holding on to the airtube he began to retreat towards the
"Meteor." The unknown diver had, perforce, to follow, and since his
speed was less than that of the men equipped with the Restronguet
apparatus, he could not hope to overtake the Irishman. Dacres saw the
latter's plan, and he, too, made for the side of the
partially-submerged airship.

It seemed as if nothing could prevent the stranger from being
ignominiously hauled to the surface alongside the "Meteor's" wire
ladder, until he caught sight of one arm and a fluke of an old anchor
that was almost buried in the sand. Round the projecting ironwork he
took a turn with the flexible pipe, and the united efforts of his two
foes were unable to make him budge another step.

The only solution as far as Dacres could suggest was to return to the
surface and get hold of a length of rope wire. By this means the
unknown diver could be capsized, made a prisoner and be taken to the
airship. The only objection was that some time must necessarily
elapse before the wire could be obtained, and in the interval the
stranger would make good his escape.

While he was pondering over the problem Dacres saw a huge object
heading straight towards him with tremendous speed. The next instant
his antagonist was thrown forward, his legs working convulsively in
spite of the leaden weights on his boots, while his weapons dropped
from his outstretched arms. Then came a terrific blast as the air
under considerable pressure burst from the man's diving-dress, while
all around the water was tinged with blood. An enormous swordfish,
its bulk intensified by the magnifying effect of the water, had
charged the unfortunate diver from behind and had impaled him on the
long, sharp, horny spike that projected from its head.

Shaking the lifeless body like a terrier does a rat the swordfish
strove to disengage its formidable weapon. Dacres knew that either he
or his comrade would be the next object of attack, since the
ferocious swordfish is never satisfied with one victim. Discretion
urged him to make a speedy retreat while there was still an
opportunity, but his sense of devotion to his companion soon put that
idea out of his head.

Holding his electric fork well in front of him, the sub steeled his
nerves and approached his latest foe, which was still striving to
withdraw its "sword" from its victim's body.

But Dacres was forestalled. Callaghan, being more in the wake of the
fiercely-struggling fish, made his way through the blood-stained
water and drove his electric weapon deeply into the leather-like
skin. Giving one tremendous jerk that sent the Irishman on his back
the swordfish became as rigid as if it were a frozen carcass of
mutton in a ship's refrigerator.

As quickly as possible Callaghan regained his feet. His Hibernian
blood was up. Securing the knife that had fallen from the grasp of
the slain diver he plunged the blade deeply--not once but many
times--into the carcass of the swordfish.

At length, satisfied with his efforts, Callaghan desisted, and
pointed towards the "Meteor." Although encased in the metal helmet
the sub shook his head. The Irishman saw the gesture. Dacres meant to
follow the length of airtube, through which the air was still being
pumped by the dead man's assistants, who were in ignorance of what
had occurred, although the manometer told them that something was
amiss.



CHAPTER XXXIII.

NEWS OF DURANGO.


FOR nearly two hundred feet the two divers trudged over the sandy
bed, till the airtube rising obliquely towards the surface told them
that they were near the end of their quest.

Overhead was a rectangular floating body measuring roughly twenty
feet by ten. Dacres had found out enough to identify the craft as a
kind of floating store. He remembered having seen it moored in the
harbour, but previously there had been nothing to arouse his
suspicions.

He touched the Irishman's hand, and pointed towards the now invisible
"Meteor." The two men tramped slowly back in the direction of the
airship till they came in sight of the corpse of the unfortunate
diver and the body of the dead swordfish.

Again Dacres came to a halt. The idea of taking the body of the
victim on board flashed across his mind. Perhaps the man might be
identified. Taking possession of the dead man's axe he commenced to
hew laboriously at the horny substance in the head of the swordfish.
It was a lengthy task, but at length the stubborn bone was severed.

"Man, I thought you were done for," exclaimed Vaughan Whittinghame,
as soon as Dacres' head-dress was removed. "What has happened?"

The Captain and the crew of the "Meteor" had good cause to think that
something terrible had overtaken their comrades, for the water all
around was tinged with blood and agitated by the air-bubbles that
were still being thrown up through the severed tube.

"We're all right," said the sub. "We caught the fellow fairly in the
act of boring holes in the under sheathing."

"You killed him?"

The sub shook his head.

"No," he replied. "There will be direct evidence in a few moments.
Callaghan is still busy down there. Will you have a weighted line
lowered, sir?"

While two members of the crew were divesting Dacres of his borrowed
diving-suit a rope was lowered over the side, and the rest of the
crew eagerly watched the course of events. Presently the Irishman's
helmet appeared above the surface, then his shoulders and arms.
Holding on to the ladder with one hand he motioned with the other for
the men to haul away.

Up came the corpse of the unknown diver transfixed by the pointed
weapon of the swordfish.

"It might have been one of us, sir," said Dacres.

"Get the man on board and let's see who he is," ordered the captain.

"That's where he descended," announced the sub, pointing to the
galvanized shed on the raft. "If we are fairly sharp we ought to nab
the whole crowd before they become alarmed."

"Good!" ejaculated Captain Whittinghame. "Mr. Setchell, will you
please send a message to the flagship and request that an armed
boat's crew be sent as soon as possible."

In double quick time a cutter was observed to leave the "Repulse."
The men, instinctively realizing that the matter was urgent, bent to
their oars with a will.

"There's been an attempt made to scuttle the 'Meteor,'" exclaimed
Whittinghame to the lieutenant in charge of the boat. "The fellows
are operating from yonder house-boat or raft."

"They're still there, I suppose?" asked the officer.

"We haven't seen them leave. Can you board and investigate?"

"Certainly," was the reply, and ordering his men to give way the
lieutenant instructed the coxswain to pull straight for the raft.

Eagerly the crew of the airship watched the departing cutter. As she
ran alongside the floating store the oars were boated, and the
seamen, armed with rifles and bayonets, clambered on to the platform
surrounding the iron shed.

The lieutenant knocked once without receiving any reply. He knocked
again. This time he was greeted by a revolver shot, the bullet
passing completely through the door and missing the officer's body by
a hand's breadth.

Another and another shot came in quick succession, but at the first
sign of resistance the lieutenant and his men had thrown themselves
flat upon the platform.

"Give it to them hot, men," shouted the officer.

Seven Lee-Enfields spoke almost simultaneously The bullets, passing
completely through the frail galvanized iron sheeting, whistled high
above the British ships lying half a mile away in the open roadstead.
From within the hut came groans and shrieks for mercy, while from a
small window was thrust a white handkerchief fastened to the staff of
a boathook.

One of the seamen, putting his shoulder to the frail door, quickly
burst it open. In rushed the bluejackets, presently to emerge with
four uninjured but badly scared men and two slightly-wounded ones as
the result of their prompt action.

"Do you know any of these gentlemen, sir?" asked the lieutenant
unconcernedly as the cutter returned to the "Meteor."

"I do," declared Gerald Whittinghame. "They are some of Durango's
gang. Three of them, at least, were members of the crew of the
'Libertad.'"

"Never!" ejaculated his brother incredulously. "We left the
'Libertad' a total wreck. The survivors were known to have made for
the Brazilian frontier."

"All the same, I'm certain I'm right," persisted Gerald. "Ask the
lieutenant to send the men on board and we will question them."

To this proposal the "Repulse's" officer raised no objection. The six
Valderians were made to enter the airship. The two wounded ones were
handed over to Dr. Hambrough's care, while the others were told to
stand against one of the bulkheads, with an armed man between each to
prevent any further act of violence.

The prisoners maintained a sullen silence when questioned by Gerald
Whittinghame. Promises to be treated with leniency and threats if
they refused to divulge their employer's whereabouts alike were
useless.

The Valderians apparently realized that being in the power of the
British their lives were safe. Had they thought otherwise fear would
have compelled them to speak to save themselves from summary
execution.

"I'll take the whole jolly lot back to the flagship, sir," said the
lieutenant. "No doubt the Admiral will send them ashore with the
request that the new president of Valderia will deal with them as he
thinks fit."

"One moment," replied Vaughan Whittinghame. "Suppose we see if we can
identify the fellow in the diver's suit. It might even be Durango
himself."

The body of the dead diver had been removed from where it had been
lying close to the entry port, and had been placed in a compartment
out of the sight of the captives as they were being brought on board.

When the head-dress was removed Gerald Whittinghame tapped his
brother on the shoulder.

"Now are you convinced?" he asked.

"I don't know the man," replied the Captain.

"But I do. That is Sebastian Lopez, the fellow who took command of
the 'Libertad' when she left Naocuanha to pick up Reno Durango at
Salto Augusto. I don't mind staking any amount that Durango has
doubled on his tracks and is somewhere in Valderian territory."

"Hardly likely with those submarine plans in his possession,"
demurred Captain Whittinghame. "He knows that Valderia is no go as
far as he is concerned. He'll be making his way as fast as he can to
Europe, to raise money on the plans."

"When it's a choice between cupidity and revenge there's no telling
what the Mexican will do," declared Gerald. "My opinion is that he is
somewhere about, and has bribed these men to cripple the 'Meteor.' I
admit they went a clumsy way about it, for they could easily have
fixed an electrically-fired mine under the aircraft and blown her to
atoms. Look here; the best thing we can do is to separate the
prisoners and try to get them to open their mouths."

"Good idea!" asserted the lieutenant of the "Repulse." "If you
threaten to hand them over to President Desiro I should think they'll
listen to reason pretty smartly."

"Very well, then," assented the Captain. "So long as you have no
objection I haven't; they are your prisoners, you know."

The first Valderian to be questioned maintained an obstinate silence.
At the threat of being sent ashore to be dealt with by the new
president he merely shrugged his shoulders.

"Take him away," ordered Vaughan Whittinghame impatiently. "They show
far greater solicitude for their rascally leader than Durango would
show towards them."

"Before you have the next prisoner brought in we'll arrange a little
dramatic episode," said the flagship's lieutenant. "I'll order my men
to fire a volley."

"By all means," assented Whittinghame. "I quite follow you."

Having given his boat's crew orders for each man to break out a
bullet from a cartridge and load with the blank, the lieutenant told
the men to fire. The sharp crack of musketry resounded from one end
of the airship to the other.

When the second prisoner was ushered in he was pale and trembling. He
was now fully convinced that the faith he had in the Englishman's
reluctance to take life was a mistake, for in his mind he felt
certain that the volley he had just heard meant the summary execution
of his predecessor.

"Pay attention," exclaimed Gerald Whittinghame sternly. He had been
deputed to act as cross-examiner-in-chief, and his intimate knowledge
of Spanish stood him in good stead. "Pay attention: you have been
caught in the act of committing an outrage on the property of a
friendly nation; for it is useless to attempt to excuse yourself on
the grounds that you were unaware of the settlement of the
differences between Great Britain and Valderia. We mean to take
extreme measures with you, unless----"

Vaughan's brother paused in order that his words should carry weight,
while the incompleted sentence indicated that even yet the prisoner
might expect clemency.

"Unless you tell us all you know of the whereabouts of Señor Reno
Durango. Do not attempt to deceive us. Already we know a great deal,
so if you tell us anything that we know to be false you will have
good cause to wish you had held your tongue."

"Señor, I speak the truth," replied the Valderian. "I have been made
to do what I have done. I swear it----"

"We do not ask you about your part of the affair," interrupted
Gerald. "What we want to know, and what we insist on finding out,
relates to Durango."

"Señor, he is not in Zandovar."

"That I know," said Whittinghame. It was a sheer piece of bluff, for
up to the present he had had a suspicion that the Mexican might have
returned.

"Nor is he in Naocuanha."

"We do not wish to know where he is not, but where he is."

"Señor, I know not."

Gerald Whittinghame pulled out his watch.

"You are lying," he thundered. "I give you thirty seconds. At the end
of that time if you do not tell the truth----" and he pointed
significantly towards the door.

The silence was so intense that the ticking of the watch could be
distinctly heard. The prisoner's face was working spasmodically.

"Twenty-eight, twenty-nine ----" counted Gerald.

Before he could say the word "thirty" the Valderian leapt upon him
like a tiger. The watch was hurled across the cabin, while ere
Whittinghame and his companions quite realized what was taking place
the prisoner was clawing Gerald's face like a wild cat.

Two or three of the "Meteor's" crew threw themselves upon the violent
prisoner and secured him.

"Shoot me!" he shouted defiantly. "Shoot me, you English cowards! I
will not tell."

"Take him below," ordered Gerald. "He is a jolly sight braver than
most of his countrymen. You will not be shot," he added, addressing
the Valderian.

"By Jove! if they are all like that fellow we shan't learn very
much," remarked Vaughan to his brother, after the man had been led
away to join the first prisoner. "Either Durango has put black fear
into their hearts, or else they regard him as a hero worthy of any
sacrifice."

"We'll try the effect of another volley, sir," suggested the
lieutenant from the "Repulse." "Number Three may be made of different
stuff."

The third prisoner certainly was. With the report of the rifles
ringing in his ears he was ushered into the cabin. He, too, thought
he was to be sent to execution, and in the hope of saving his life he
most readily agreed to tell all he knew concerning his chief.

Durango, two days after the destruction of the "Libertad," had made
off for Salto Augusto, accompanied by two men who had served under
von Harburg, while the other survivors, under his orders, went to
Naocuanha. Apparently, the Mexican thought better of attempting the
hazardous journey on foot across the Voyocama Desert; for on the eve
of the fall of the Valderian capital he arrived at Naocuanha. Without
attempting to inform President Zaypuru of his presence, the Mexican
called together his remaining partisans and ordered them to destroy
or at least seriously cripple the airship as she lay in the inner
harbour.

His idea was not merely to revenge himself upon his rival, but to
prevent Whittinghame from pursuing him. He had left Zandovar that
morning for Nazca, a small seaport in Peru. "For what reason is
Durango going to Nazca?" demanded Gerald Whittinghame.

"Señor, I do not know. I can only guess, for the Señor Durango rarely
told us of his plans. I know that at Nazca dwells an inventor who has
constructed a boat that can fly through the air. Some months ago this
inventor wrote to President Zaypuru and offered to sell him the
craft, but Durango advised the president to have nothing to do with
it. Perhaps, now, Durango will buy it. _Quien sabe?_"

"How long will it take Durango to reach Nazca?"

"He has but to ride to Tuiche: there he will find an aeroplane,"
replied the prisoner.

"That will do; remove him," ordered Gerald, then turning to his
brother he added, "we must be off almost at once, if we are to catch
the villain. How long will it take for the 'Meteor' to be ready for
flight?"

"Twenty minutes," replied Vaughan calmly.



CHAPTER XXXIV.

THE CHASE.


"TWENTY minutes," repeated Gerald blankly. "Why, she's half a dozen
ballonettes useless."

"Quite so," assented the captain. "Fortunately they are all in the
lowermost tier. We can make use of the emergency compartments. Now,
Dacres, will you see about making ready to slip the moorings?"

Quickly the "Repulse's" lieutenant and his men boarded their cutter,
taking with them the Valderian prisoners. Since Whittinghame was not
under the orders of Rear-Admiral Maynebrace he did not have to
request "permission to part company"; but he paid the Admiral the
compliment, sending the message by the lieutenant.

Within a few minutes of that officer's return to the flagship the
"Repulse" signalled, "Wish you success."

The "Meteor" rose slowly to a height of three hundred feet. Even then
the whole of the ultra-hydrogen at Whittinghame's disposal had to be
brought into play. The airship possessed sufficient gas barely to
counteract the attraction of gravity. To increase the altitude she
would have to depend solely upon her elevating planes unless some of
the stores could be ruthlessly sacrificed, for there was no ballast
available.

At quarter speed the "Meteor" passed immediately over the flagship's
masts, dipped her ensign, then circling, bore away northward for the
Peruvian coast.

"It's getting serious," declared Captain Whittinghame to Dacres. "The
supply of ultra-hydrogen is less than I thought. We'll stick to it
and attempt to run Durango's new craft down. After that the best
thing we can do is to make for Jamaica, and wait there until we get a
fresh consignment of ultra-hydrogen from home."

"There's a leakage somewhere," said the sub.

"Yes, unfortunately. Still, it is not to be wondered at, after what
the 'Meteor' has gone through. No doubt our hurried repairs after the
scrap with the 'Libertad' were not carried out so carefully as we
could have wished."

"And the motors, sir?"

"Thank goodness they are good for another twenty thousand miles, if
necessary. One couldn't hope for a more economical fuel than
cordite."

"I suppose we could, if necessary, rest on the surface of the sea and
carry on under power?"

"We could, provided the water were sufficiently calm. All the same,
Dacres, I don't want to have to do it. The air is my sphere, my lad.
Ha! we're approaching Nazca, I can see. Keep a good look out in case
we spot this flying boat arrangement. I'm rather curious to see what
it is like."

"But if Durango hasn't started yet and spots the 'Meteor'
approaching? He'll give us the slip."

"He cannot go far without being noticed in a strange country,"
replied Vaughan Whittinghame cheerfully. "We have an extradition
treaty with Peru, you know."

"He may disguise himself."

"More than likely; but to what end? Had he made for a large city like
Lima or even Callao he might escape notice. But in a little place
like Nazca, why, he's playing into our hands."

Both men remained silent for a few moments, then Dacres blurted
out:--

"It is awfully good of you, sir, to make it all right at the
Admiralty for me."

"Nonsense!" protested Captain Whittinghame. "I knew you'd be pleased.
One can generally take it for granted that when a young fellow cuts
off his nose to spite his face he's genuinely sorry for it, even
though he won't admit it. Now, honestly, weren't you jolly sick about
having to leave the 'Royal Oak'?"

"I'm very glad I joined the 'Meteor,' sir."

"That's no answer to my question, Dacres."

"Well, then, I don't mind having to leave the 'Royal Oak,' but I'm
awfully pleased to find that I am still an officer of the Royal
Navy."

"Then, I wasn't far out in my estimation, Dacres. All's well that
ends well, you know."

"It hasn't ended yet," rejoined the sub, pointing to the land, which
was now only a mile off. "Now for Durango."

Captain Whittinghame telegraphed for the propellers to be stopped.
Slowly the "Meteor" descended, alighting on the south side of the
town of Nazca.

Practically all the inhabitants, preceded by the alcalde, came out to
see the unwonted sight of a huge airship flying the British colours,
the mayor tendering the hospitality of Nazca to the visitors during
their stay.

"We do not remain long, señor alcalde," replied Gerald Whittinghame.
"We are in pursuit of an outlaw, one Reno Durango, who has fled from
Valderia. We heard, on good authority, that he came hither."

"All strangers arriving at Nazca are known to us, señor," said the
portly alcalde. "No one of that name has set foot in our town."

Gerald Whittinghame showed no sign of disappointment at the
information. It was as he had expected.

"I believe, señor," he remarked, "that you have an inventor who has
built a kind of boat that is capable of flying?"

"Ah, yes," replied the alcalde. "Then you, too, are anxious to
purchase the boat? I fear you are too late, for an English milord has
just taken her away."

"I think I know the gentleman," said Gerald. "Would you mind
describing him to me?"

The mayor's description left no doubt as to the identity of the
supposed English "milord." Durango had forestalled them.

"Ask the alcalde if the inventor of the boat is present," suggested
Vaughan, after his brother had explained the conversation.

"Here he is, Señor Jaurez is his name," announced the mayor,
indicating an alert little Peruvian, who was paying more attention to
the visible details of the "Meteor" than to the conversation between
the chief magistrate of Nazca and the officers of the airship.

Señor Jaurez elbowed his way through the crowd. His face was beaming
in anticipation of booking another order.

"What is the radius of action of your flying-boat, señor?" asked
Gerald, prompted by his brother.

"A hundred leagues, señors; that is without replenishing the
petrol-tanks. I could, of course, construct another boat with twice
or even thrice the capacity. Perhaps your worships would like to pay
a visit to my hacienda?"

"We regret, señor," replied Whittinghame, not to be outdone in
courtesy, "that such a course is at present impossible. Might we ask
what is the speed of your flying boat?"

The Peruvian explained that under favourable conditions a rate
equivalent to eighty-five miles per hour was possible.

"We'll overtake his craft in three hours, then," said Vaughan to his
brother. "Now, let us bid farewell to Nazca."

The "Meteor" resumed her quest. Durango's destination was unknown. He
had gone in a northerly direction, and since it was very unlikely
that he would take overland a craft designed to alight upon the sea,
it was reasonable to conclude that he would attempt a landing in
Equador or Columbia, seeing that, now his identity was established,
he dare not seek refuge in Peruvian territory.

Flying at her greatest speed the "Meteor" skirted the coast line.
Every little harbour and creek capable of affording refuge to the
winged boat--which by reason of its two forty-feet planes was very
conspicuous--were carefully swept by the aid of binoculars. At
Truxillo the airship brought up to hail a Peruvian man-of-war lying
in the harbour. The officer of the watch replied that a
hydro-aeroplane had passed overhead less than an hour previously,
bound north. The motors, he added, were apparently giving trouble.

"Good! We're gaining rapidly!" ejaculated Captain Whittinghame. "I
hope to goodness we pick the fellow up before dark, or he may give us
the slip--but only for a time. As long as the 'Meteor' is capable of
keeping the air I will continue the pursuit."

Two hours later the "Meteor" was above the small town of Mancora.
Ahead lay the broad expanse of the deep indentation of the Gulf of
Guayaquil--practically the only large break in the coastline on the
Pacific coast between Corcovado Gulf in Southern Chile and the Bay of
Panama. The question was: had Durango crossed it, or had he skirted
the shore? By adopting either course he would quickly reach
Equadorean territory, where he would be able to land without fear of
arrest.

"We will make inquiries; it will save time," declared Whittinghame,
as he telegraphed for the propellers to be stopped.

Descending to within fifty feet of the plaza the "Meteor" hung
motionless in the air. Gerald Whittinghame promptly hailed the throng
of spectators. A hundred voices shouted in reply, while a hundred
hands pointed in a northerly direction; but not a word was
intelligible to the crew. Whittinghame tried again, only to be
greeted by a chorus that conveyed no information to the anxious
members of the "Meteor's" crew.

"Evidently he's gone straight across the gulf," declared Vaughan.
"We'll carry on. We are only wasting precious time."

"One moment," protested his brother. "Here, take hold of this rope
and let me down. I'll soon find out."

Four of the crew paid out the rope, and Gerald, turning like a joint
on a meat-jack, was lowered to earth. Instantly he was surrounded by
a mob of ever curious townsfolk all pointing, shouting, and pushing
each other with the utmost vehemence. The airship, drifting slowly in
the faint breeze, carried Gerald along the ground, and the crowd
moved too.

"Hurry up!" shouted Vaughan. "You'll be jammed up against the wall of
that building in half a minute."

"Haul away, then," bawled his brother in reply, at the same time
throwing his arms round one of the most loquacious of his attentive
audience.

The man struggled, but unavailingly. His companions, too astounded to
come to his aid, watched him being taken up in the iron grip of the
Englishman. Then, realizing that should he break away there would be
an ever-increasing drop that would end fatally to him, the Peruvian
changed his tactics and clung with desperation to his captor.

"We will not hurt you, señor," said Gerald reassuringly, as the two
men were hauled into safety within the "Meteor." "We merely want
information, and then we will land you in safety. Here is a five
dollar piece for you."

"What information do you want, señor?" asked the Peruvian, after
testing the coin betwixt his teeth. The gold reassured him. Had his
life or liberty been in danger he would not have been treated in this
lavish fashion.

"The boat that flies, señor?" he repeated. "_Madre!_ of course I have
seen her. Did not all of us say so?"

"But we could not understand: you were all shouting together. Now,
where did you see that flying-boat?"

"Señor, she came down just outside the town not an hour ago. There
were three men in her. Two were Valderians. Their master was not. He
bought petrol: four cans of it. He poured the petrol into a metal
flask in the boat and went on his way, over yonder," and the Peruvian
pointed due north.

With the utmost celerity the fellow was lowered to his native soil,
and again the "Meteor" darted ahead. Every man was now keenly on the
alert. All depended upon Durango's craft being sighted before the sun
dipped behind the waters of the Pacific. Only forty minutes' of
daylight remained.

"Land right ahead, sir," reported one of the crew.

"That's St. Helena Point, then," declared Captain Whittinghame.
"We've done a hundred miles in an hour and ten minutes. Nothing much
wrong with the motors as far as we are concerned."

The next instant he devoutedly wished he hadn't spoken in this
strain, for with a terrific crash one of the blades of the foremost
port propeller became detached from the boss. Sheering through the
aluminium cylinder protecting the double propellers, it ripped the
metal to such an extent that a long strip of wreckage caught the
remaining blade, snapping it off close to the base. The motor raced
furiously until Parsons, knowing that something was amiss, promptly
cut off the detonator.

"That's done it!" ejaculated Vaughan Whittinghame disgustedly. "That
is the result of boasting."

"Repairable?" asked Dr. Hambrough.

"Yes, but not now. We can't afford to bring up for repairs. How's the
steering, quartermaster?"

"Rather hard on her helm, sir," replied that worthy. "She wants to
come round to port, sir."

"I thought so," rejoined the Captain. "That's caused by the unequal
drive of the starboard engines. We must carry on and risk the
consequences."

He glanced at the speed indicator. The "Meteor" was still travelling
through the air at one hundred and twenty miles an hour.

"We're gaining thirty at least on that villain," continued Vaughan.
For the time being he appeared to give slight attention to the damage
done to his beloved airship. His whole thoughts were centred upon the
pursuit of Durango.

Only ten more minutes to sunset.

"Get the two bow searchlights connected up," ordered the Captain.
"See that new carbons are used. It will be like chasing a mouse by
candlelight, but we----"

"There she is, sir!" interrupted Callaghan excitedly.

"Where?" asked Whittinghame, rushing to one of the scuttles on the
port bow, and following the direction of the Irishman's outstretched
arm. "You're right, Callaghan. Hurrah! We've overtaken her."

Such indeed was the case. Evidently Durango had gone a couple of
points out of his course in the dash across the mouth of the Gulf of
Guayaquil. Consequently, although the crew of the "Meteor" were
unaware of it until a few moments previously, the airship had drawn
level with her quarry, but on a divergent course; while--another
point in her favour--she was between the flying-boat and the shores
of Equador.

"Starboard your helm, quartermaster," ordered the Captain.

Round swung the "Meteor" till her bows pointed straight for the
object of her pursuit. Durango and his two companions, ignorant of
the fact that they were being followed, were possibly contemplating a
welcome rest on neutral ground, when one of the Valderians caught
sight of their arch-enemy bearing down upon them hand over fist.

The crew of the "Meteor" saw the Mexican literally push the helmsman
aside and grip the steering-wheel. The aerial boat turned almost as
rapidly as a racing yacht, and made, not for the coast, but due west
towards the wide Pacific.

Down plunged the sun--a red orb in a ruddy sky. Night was about to
fall upon the scene of the desperate race between the airship and her
prey.



CHAPTER XXXV.

THE THUNDERSTORM.


"WHERE's he making for?" asked the doctor.

Vaughan Whittinghame paid no apparent heed to the question. His eyes
seemed riveted upon the small dark object against the crimson glow
of the brief tropical sunset.

It was Dacres who answered Hambrough's query.

"I believe he's making a dash for the Galapagos Islands," he replied.
"It's a matter of six hundred and fifty odd miles."

"If the fellow had any sense he would keep on doubling," said Gerald.
"Quick as we are that craft can turn like a top. It would be like a
hare dodging a hound."

"Don't send him any telepathic messages, Mr. Whittinghame," said the
doctor. "The sooner we nab him the better. I am beginning to see what
a London theatre looks like again."

"Now, if you were a kinematograph operator you'd make your fortune,
doctor," remarked Setchell.

The Captain half turned his head. One glance was enough. The
inconsequent conversation annoyed him. The rest of the officers
promptly subsided.

"Switch on, there," he ordered curtly.

The two powerful beams shot out into the now fast gathering gloom.
Both were focussed upon the fugitive. The flying-boat looked as if
made of silver, floating motionless in the air, for the "Meteor's"
speed had been reduced till the relative rates of the two craft were
practically the same.

Had Captain Whittinghame wished he could have ordered the bow-gun to
be manned, and the result would be a foregone conclusion. Owing to
engine trouble Durango's craft was capable of travelling only at the
comparatively slow rate of sixty miles an hour. At that speed the
ordnance of the "Meteor" could be brought into action. But the
captain of the airship, apart from his desire to recover the stolen
plans, was averse to taking life unless absolutely necessary. He
would pursue the Mexican until the latter, through sheer exhaustion
or inability on the part of his craft to keep running, would be
compelled to surrender.

Onwards and onwards tore the two craft, the huge airship in pursuit
of the midget aerial boat. Durango made no attempt to double. It was
his only chance, and for some unknown reason he failed to avail
himself of his loophole of escape.

The two Whittinghames, Dacres, and the doctor remained in the lower
fore observation room, their eyes fixed upon the apparently
stationary object upon which the two searchlights played
relentlessly. Not a word was spoken. The rapt attention of the
watchers was centred upon their prey.

Presently Durango relinquished the steering-wheel, his place being
taken by one of his Valderian companions. Stooping he drew a small
leather bag from one of the lockers, opened it and produced a bundle
of papers.

For a few moments he paused irresolutely, alternately looking at the
tied-up parcel of documents and at the relentless Dreadnought of the
Air. Then, standing up and steadying himself against the furious
blast that whirled past the boat, he poised the packet.

A muttered ejaculation burst from Vaughan Whittinghame's lips. This,
then, was to be the fate of the precious submarine plans, for such
the documents undoubtedly were.

The Mexican was on the point of letting the packet fall when the
second Valderian touched him on the shoulder and said something.
Durango shook his head. Again the Valderian spoke, seemingly in
remonstrance. Just then a vivid flash of lightning threw the
boundless expanse of sea into strong relief.

A tropical storm was brewing. Although there was practically no wind
and the sea was as smooth as glass it was quite evident that the
"Meteor" and her prey were heading towards the storm-centre. A glance
at the barometer showed Dacres that, allowing for the difference in
altitude when the instrument was last set, the mercury had dropped
nearly three-quarters of an inch in two hours.

Suddenly the helmsman of the flying-boat put the vertical rudder hard
over. Round spun the craft like a top, tilting to a dangerous angle
as she did so. The unexpected movement took Durango by surprise, and
unable to retain his balance he sprawled ignominiously upon the
floor-boards. The precious plans slipped from his grasp.

As the fugitive boat swerved from her former course the
quartermaster, running the port searchlight of the "Meteor," promptly
swung the giant beam in the hope of following the elusive craft. The
effort was in vain. The object of the chase darted out of the path of
brilliant light and was instantly swallowed up in the darkness.

"After searchlights, there!" ordered Captain Whittinghame on the
telephone. "Switch on and try to pick up the flying boat."

At the same time the "Meteor's" vertical rudders were put hard over,
while the remaining propellers on the port side were set astern to
assist in the more rapid manoeuvring of the airship.

Four searchlights swept the air in all directions. Yet although it
seemed impossible that any object floating in space within the limits
of the beams could escape detection there were no signs of the craft
containing Durango and his two companions.

"Perhaps, sir, she crumpled her planes when she turned," suggested
Dacres.

"Quite possible," assented Captain Whittinghame. "In that case she
has a drop of nearly eight thousand feet before she hits the surface
of the sea."

"Then, it will be useless to expect to recover the plans," said Dr.
Hambrough.

"It does not matter so long as we know they are destroyed," replied
Vaughan Whittinghame. "The Admiralty have others: the danger was that
there was a possibility of this set getting into the hands of a
foreign power. Provided----"

His remarks were cut short by a vivid flash of lightning that seemed
to envelop completely the now practically stationary airship. Almost
simultaneously came an ear-splitting detonation. The whole fabric of
the Dreadnought of the Air seemed to quiver.

Dacres, Hambrough, and Gerald Whittinghame looked at each other. They
fully expected to find the "Meteor" rent amidships, falling with an
ever-increasing rapidity into the sea.

The Captain was the only man who seemed to ignore the sublime and
appalling atmospheric conditions.

"Keep a look-out!" he exclaimed; "you're missing our only chance."

Flash succeeded flash with the utmost frequency. The "Meteor" was
evidently between two huge stores of electricity, for the clouds were
not releasing their super-charges to earth. The airship's best chance
of safety was to descend to within a few hundred feet of the sea.

Three ballonettes only were required to be emptied to allow the
"Meteor" to drop rapidly, until the air, growing denser as she
descended, her vertical course would be automatically retarded and
eventually stopped.

The seaward plunge was awe-inspiring. The airship was passing through
a bank of clouds so dense that even the powerful searchlights were as
useless as candle lamps in a heavy London fog. Yet at about every ten
seconds the veil of pitch dark vapour was pierced by flashes of
lightning that left the crew blinking like owls suddenly transported
from the depths of a lightless cave to the dazzling brilliance of the
noonday sun.

Four thousand feet. The "Meteor" was still enveloped in clouds, but
to add to the terrors of the situation fierce whirlwinds were
assailing her on all sides. In spite of her non-rigidity the
unprecedented strain to which she was subjected threatened to break
her asunder amidships.

The Dreadnought of the Air was now utterly out of control. At one
moment her bows were pointing upwards at an angle of forty-five
degrees and to the horizontal. At another she was plunging obliquely
with her nose downwards. She rolled like a barrel, and strained and
writhed like a human being in torment.

Elevating planes and vertical rudders were alike useless. The only
chance of escape was to drop vertically.

Staggering to the engine-room indicators the Captain ordered the
motors to be switched off Now the motion was slightly less erratic.
Hailstones the size of pigeons' eggs were falling upon her aluminium
deck--not with the metallic clang that characterizes their fall on
the land, but with comparative lightness, for the airship was still
within a few hundred feet of the cloud in which the frozen rain-drops
were generated.

Two thousand feet. The "Meteor" was now regaining her normal
stability. Her seaward descent was momentarily becoming slower. She
had emerged from the rain-cloud, and although the lightning still
played, the danger seemed to have passed.

Something had to be done to save the airship from violently alighting
upon the water. Her present rate of retardation was insufficient.

"Telegraph for half speed ahead," ordered Captain Whittinghame. "Trim
the forward elevating planes there, doctor."

Back came the startling information from both the fore and after
motor-rooms: the ignition had failed.

"Short circuit somewhere," muttered the Captain. "I'm not surprised.
Recharge those three ballonettes, Dacres."

A thousand feet. With a succession of sharp hisses the ultra-hydrogen
escaped from the cylinder in which it had been stored under pressure
and re-entered the ballonettes. The crew could feel the sudden check
to the downward plunge, but in spite of the additional gas the
"Meteor" was still falling.

The four searchlights were still running: two practically parallel
beams showing ahead and two astern. In the after motor-room--whence
were actuated the still intact propellers--Parsons was hard at work
trying to locate the source of the mischief. Could these motors be
started in time the attraction due to gravity would yet be overcome.

Suddenly Gerald Whittinghame gave a shout and pointed towards the
starboard observation scuttle. Dacres was just in time to see an
object falling--falling with extraordinary irregularity. It was
Durango's flying-boat. She was describing a succession of "loops,"
while her motors were still running.

In the path of the starboard searchlights' rays she appeared to check
her downward course; then lurching ahead made straight for the bows
of the "Meteor." Just as it seemed as if a collision were imminent
the wrecked craft dipped and passed into Cimmerian darkness.

"He's done for, by Jove!"

"What's that?" asked Captain Whittinghame, who had heard his
brother's exclamation but had failed to see the reason for it.

"Durango--smashed up," reported Dacres.

Vaughan Whittinghame made no audible remark. H e realized that the
"Meteor" herself was in peril. In the face of impending disaster one
is apt to banish thoughts of vengeance.

Two hundred feet. Dacres glanced at his watch and looked inquiringly
at his chief.

"Well?" asked the Captain laconically.

"We're hardly falling, sir," said the sub. "Our downward course is
being greatly retarded----"

"You're right, by Jove!" exclaimed Whittinghame. "All the same, I
wish Parsons could get those motors to start."

His hopes were not to be realized for the present. With a barely
perceptible jar the airship alighted on the surface of the Pacific.
Her searchlights played upon an unruffled expanse of calm water. The
storm had been confined to the upper strata of the atmosphere.

"Heave out the sea-anchor in case it comes on to blow," ordered
Vaughan Whittinghame. "We're safe for the present. Mr. Dacres, will
you please go on deck and obtain a stellar observation? It will be
dawn in half an hour; but I would like to ascertain our position in
case we drive ashore before daybreak."

The sub hurried to carry out his orders. It was a relief, after being
cooped up in the confined atmosphere of the observation room of the
heaving and pitching "Meteor," to breathe in the fresh night air.

The searchlights had now been switched off. The airship was floating
motionless in a phosphorescent sea. Having taken the observation
Dacres was about to go below and work out his position when a
peculiar swirl in the water about a hundred yards to starboard
attracted his attention.

"Surely that's not a reef?" he asked himself. "I wish I had my
night-glasses."

Then came a quick succession of splashes. "Sharks--that's what it is.
Or perhaps a swarm of threshers attacking a whale. A lively
commotion! I'll go below and get my binoculars."

"Anything in sight?" asked Captain Whittinghame, noticing Dacres'
haste.

"Something splashing, sir; I'm just going to get my binoculars."

The two men made their way to the upper deck. The sub pointed in the
direction he had noticed the commotion, but all was now quiet. A
careful examination of the spot by the powerful night-glasses
revealed no sign of anything to account for the swirl of the water.

"Hark! What's that?" demanded Whittinghame.

"I heard nothing," replied Dacres.

"Could have sworn I heard a man's voice. Perhaps my senses are
playing me a trick."

"It may be the breeze, sir," suggested the sub, as a catspaw ruffled
the surface of the placid water.

"Of course. All the same, I'll have the searchlight trained on the
place."

For quite ten minutes the beams swung slowly to and fro, but nothing
could be seen beyond the ripples on the sea.

"There's a vessel approaching, sir," announced Dacres, who had been
sweeping the horizon with his glasses. "I can just pick up her red
and green lights. She's quite five miles off, I should think."

"She must have spotted our searchlight, and is altering her course to
investigate. Pass the word for the searchlight to be switched off,
Dacres. I don't think we need assistance, unless I'm very much
mistaken about Parson's capabilities."

"There's quite a decent breeze, sir," commented Dacres as he prepared
to descend the companion ladder. "We must be making a fair drift."

"Not with that sea-anchor out," said Whittinghame.

"I don't know about that, sir; you see, we're floating light. I'll
work out our position, for I shouldn't be surprised if we are
drifting down upon the Galapagos."

Captain Whittinghame remained on deck. He was pondering over the fate
of his rival, Reno Durango, and wondering whether he could safely
assert that the last of the tasks he had set out to perform had been
satisfactorily accomplished. He had witnesses ready to affirm on oath
that they had seen the Mexican's flying-boat being hurled to
destruction. Could it unquestionably be taken for granted that the
stolen plans of Submarine "M I" were no longer in existence to prove
a menace to the admittedly superior construction and organization of
the British submarine service?

The rapid approach of the coming day disturbed Vaughan Whittinghame's
reveries.

The vessel whose navigation light Dacres had picked up had altered
her course and was steaming quite two miles to windward of the
practically helpless airship.

By the aid of his glasses the captain could see that she was a tramp
of about eight hundred tons, and in ballast, for she rose high out of
the water, while the tips of her propeller blades could be seen amid
the smother of foam under her rudder-post. There was nothing about
her to enable Whittinghame to determine her nationality. Her single
funnel was painted a dull black without any colouring bands.

Even as he looked the tramp starboarded her helm. The dawn had
likewise revealed to her sleepy watch on deck the presence of the
disabled airship. She was on the point of steaming down in the hope
of earning a salvage job.

"No use, my friend," quoth Vaughan.

The next moment he burst into a hearty laugh, for the tramp began to
circle as if to resume her former course. The acceptance of his
muttered advice to a vessel a mile and a half away tickled his sense
of humour.

"Hulloa! What is the move now, I wonder?" he exclaimed. He might well
evince curiosity, for instead of holding on to her former course,
which was practically due north, the tramp was slowly turning due
east. Even as he watched, Whittinghame could see that the cascade of
foam under her rudder had vanished. She had stopped her engines.

Apparently the vessel was still carrying too much way, for again her
propellers churned up the froth, this time for less than half a
minute. Men were hanging over her port side and lowering ropes.

"Good heavens!" ejaculated Whittinghame aghast.



CHAPTER XXXVI.

THE ABANDONED FLYING-BOAT.


WHITTINGHAME could now see the reason for the manoeuvre. One of the
derricks of the stumpy foremast was swung outboard. Her donkey-engine
began to work, and from the sea, with the water pouring out of her,
was hoisted the waterlogged flying-boat.

The plane on her port-side had completely vanished, and only a few
fragments of her starboard one remained. Standing amidships and
steadying themselves by the spars of the lifting tackle were three
men--Reno Durango and his Valderian crew.

When the crippled craft was half-way up the side of the tramp the
donkey-engine stopped. The captain of the vessel, leaning over the
bridge rail, shouted to the three castaways. Durango replied,
vigorously shaking his head and gesticulating wildly in the direction
of the "Meteor."

Apparently his protests were unavailing, for he grasped a rope
trailing from the tramp's rail and clambered on board. His companions
followed suit.

The argument proceeded. Evidently the master of the cargo vessel
wished to steam towards the airship, and to this suggestion Durango
demurred strongly. After a while the wrecked flying-boat was lowered
into the water again, and the lifting tackle cast off, the Mexican
pointing towards the abandoned craft and talking volubly.

With a shrug of his shoulders the skipper walked to the centre of the
bridge and telegraphed to the engine-room. The tramp's propeller
began to revolve, and the lumbering vessel gathered way.

For some moments Durango stood as if in despair, then leaning over
the bridge-rail shook his fist at the disabled airship.

Through his binoculars Captain Whittinghame saw his expression
clearly. The rogue, despite his own troubles and obvious
disappointment, was gloating over his rival's misfortunes.

Without saying a word to his comrades in the observation room,
Vaughan Whittinghame went below and made his way to the after
engine-room, where Parsons was found lying on his back with portions
of the partly-stripped motor all around him.

"How long, now?" asked the Captain.

"A couple of hours, maybe, sir," replied the engineer.

"Can you manage in an hour? The after-motors will be sufficient."

"I'll try my best, sir," replied Parsons, unwilling to commit
himself.

"Very good; carry on," rejoined his superior, and without another
word he left the engineer to do his level best towards restoring the
motors to a state of efficiency.

"We are sixty-four miles east a quarter north of the Galapagos, sir,"
announced Dacres.

"Thank you," replied Vaughan. "Just one minute, Mr. Dacres; will you
please come on deck with me?"

The sub followed his chief. Whittinghame said nothing more until the
two officers were out of earshot and on the deck of the water-borne
airship.

"There's the vessel whose lights you picked up an hour ago, Dacres."

"Yes, sir; has she communicated?"

"She apparently meant to, but changed her mind. Do you see something
floating about two and a half miles dead to windward of us?"

The sub brought his telescope to bear in the direction indicated. It
took him some time to locate the object, as it was almost in the
reflected glare of the early morning sun.

"I have it, sir," he said.

"What do you make of it?"

"Cannot say, sir. Wreckage of some sort."

"It is," added Whittinghame. "More, it is the wreck of the
flying-boat, and that rascal Durango has eluded us again."

"Surely he didn't survive the fall?"

"He did. I saw him boarding yonder tramp. Now, this is what I want
you to do: take a compass bearing of the wreckage, and observe the
direction and rate of our drift. In an hour Parsons hopes to have the
after-propellers working. We will then forge ahead and investigate
Durango's flying-boat. Do not say a word to any of the others until
after breakfast. I know them: they would throw aside any idea of food
until we are fit to get under way; and, with all due respect to their
zeal, I am no believer in a man working on an empty stomach."

In exactly forty-nine minutes from the time that the Captain left the
motor-room, Parsons had the engines ready for work. The fault, once
discovered, was easy to remedy.

"Gentlemen," began the Captain after the morning meal was over, "I
have unpleasant news to announce; but I can rely upon your
co-operation sufficiently to know that you will face it with your
characteristic determination. Reno Durango is not only alive, but he
is on board the vessel we saw approaching us just before dawn.
Fortunately we are no longer in a totally crippled state. Although
the supply of ultra-hydrogen is insufficient to lift the bulk of the
'Meteor' our after-motors are once more in working order. I propose,
therefore, to bring the 'Meteor' up to the wreck of the flying-boat
and investigate. We will then take a drastic step. We will pump all
the remaining ultra-hydrogen in Nos. 2 and compartments into Nos. 1
and 5; abandon and scuttle the first two compartments I have
mentioned, and resume the pursuit in a 'Meteor' that will be only
two-fifths of the size of the one that left England only a few weeks
ago. I mean to chase that rascal as long as there is sufficient
buoyancy to keep us in the air and as long as an ounce of cordite
remains to actuate the motors."

"Hear, hear!" exclaimed the doctor, as if he were at a medical
students' smoking concert. The others present contented themselves by
inclining their heads, but resolution was plainly visible on their
bronzed features.

The "Meteor" was navigated from the upper deck, her course set
according to Dacres' observations. Meanwhile, owing to the now steady
breeze the airship had drifted nearly five miles from the scene of
the disaster.

"There she is, sir," shouted the look-out man, "a point on the
starboard bow."

Travelling at a modest ten knots the waterborne craft made straight
for the flying-boat that was lying practically awash in the slight
swell. Owing to her immense bulk and to the fact that she had little
or no grip upon the water the airship was almost unmanageable. To run
to leeward of the wreck was to court disaster, for the thin aluminium
plates were especially liable to be stove in should they come in
contact with the water-logged craft.

"I'll swim to her, sir," said Dacres. "If we bring the 'Meteor' bows
on to the wreckage I can easily take a light line to her and make her
fast. She will serve as a good sea-anchor while we make
investigations."

"How about sharks?" objected Whittinghame.

"Must risk that, sir. A couple of men with rifles will scare them
off."

"Very good; I'll see that they are the best shots we have on board. I
shouldn't like to see you plugged, Dacres--especially by one of our
own men."

Dacres smiled, then proceeded to strip. Waiting till the "Meteor" was
dead to leeward of the remains of the flying-boat, and moving ahead
only enough to counteract the drift caused by the wind, the sub
lowered himself over the bows. Round his waist was made fast one end
of a length of mackerel-line, which though strong was not heavy
enough to impede his progress.

"Pay out!" he shouted, at the same time slipping into the sea. The
water was agreeably warm and remarkably buoyant. Dacres swam with
ease, fifty strokes being sufficient to enable him to gain the wreck.

As he scrambled over the gunwale the boat dipped stern-foremost, but
on sitting on one of the thwarts with the water up to his chin she
quickly resumed a horizontal position.

Dacres' first act upon getting on board was to haul in the light
line, to which was attached a stout grass rope. The latter he made
fast to a bollard in the bows of the craft, which enabled the
"Meteor" to ride comfortably to her practically submerged "mooring."

Considering the weight of her motors it seemed wonderful that the
flying-boat kept awash, till the sub discovered that fore and aft
were air-tight lockers. Indeed, the hull of the boat seemed but
little damaged. Evidently as she was executing a loop she struck the
water with very little speed in a vertical direction. It was
certainly strange that Durango and his companion had not been hurled
clear of her as she fell, and the only conclusion Dacres could come
to was that the men when they felt their craft falling must have
thrown themselves under the waterways and held on tightly during her
erratic downward plunge.

"Much amiss?" shouted Captain Whittinghame.

"Very little, I believe, sir," replied Dacres. "She may be slightly
strained."

"Is she fitted with slings?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then, stand by; we'll haul you to windward and abreast of No. 3
section."

Evidently, thought Dacres, the skipper had some scheme in his mind's
eye. Whittinghame had. It would be possible to stow the boat aboard
the airship, for in her curtailed displacement there would be
sufficient ultra-hydrogen to lift the slightly added weight. Should
occasion serve the hull of the flying-boat, if repaired, would make a
handy tender.

In response to an order several of the crew brought up stout fir
spars from below. These they lashed to the deck, allowing their
slightly tapered ends to project seven feet clear of the extreme beam
of the airship. To these, stout purchase blocks and tackle were
secured, the falls manned, and the lower blocks lowered to the
water's edge.

It was now an easy matter to cant the airship sufficiently for the
water-logged craft to be brought immediately under the improvised
davits. Deftly the sub adjusted the hooks of the lower blocks and
gave the word to haul away.

Under the heavy strain the "Meteor" took a list to starboard, and by
the time the gunwales of the boat were a foot out of water the
airship's decks were at an angle of fifteen degrees.

"She won't stand it, sir," expostulated Setchell, "unless we station
at least twenty men on the port side."

"I don't mean her to," replied Vaughan Whittinghame. "Couple up a
length of hose to the auxiliary pump. We'll soon throw the water
clear of her. One blessing, it shows the boat's topsides are fairly
tight. I was rather afraid of it, when I remember seeing the water
pour from her as the tramp's derrick heaved away at her; but I
suppose it was that she was not slung accurately. Any signs of the
water leaking out of her, Mr. Dacres?"

"None, sir," replied the sub, who had now emerged from his liquid
surroundings, and was perched upon the turtle back deck.

"Very good. We're sending down a hose."

Ten minutes later the pump sucked dry. Relieved of the weight of
water the salvaged boat's keel was a foot clear of the surface, while
the "Meteor" had practically recovered from her awkward list. The
lightly constructed hull and the motor together weighed less than
two-and-a-half hundredweight, so that on being hauled up level with
the upper deck it was a comparatively easy matter to get the craft
inboard and secure her on that part of the platform over No. 5
section.

Two of the crew, skilled shipwrights, at once proceeded to overhaul
the planks, while Parsons and his assistant attended to the motor,
which, owing to its comparatively short period of submergence, was
hardly affected by the salt water.

It did not take Dacres long to resume his clothing and report himself
ready to carry on with his duty, for there was much to be done and
very little time in which to do it.

All the stores and gear that were absolutely essential were removed
from those compartments that were to be abandoned, and carefully
stored in the remaining divisions. The ultra-hydrogen was then
exhausted and recharged into the ballonettes of the fore and aft
sections. In an hour from the time of salving the flying-boat the
"Meteor" was ready to shed her now superfluous 'midship divisions.

Meanwhile, Dacres and Gerald Whittinghame had carefully examined the
interior of the hull of Durango's craft, but no trace of the
submarine plans were forthcoming. Nor had Captain Whittinghame seen
them in the Mexican's possession as he boarded the tramp steamer.
During the chase Durango had been seen holding the precious documents
ready to drop them into space, but none of the men in the "Meteor's"
observationroom could state definitely what happened to them after
the Mexican had been thrown upon the floor-boards of the boat.

"I wish I knew that they were actually destroyed," said Vaughan when
the result of the search was reported to him. "Circumstantial
evidence is always most unsatisfactory. However, Durango cannot get
away from the ship until she touches port, and long before that I
hope to be able to have a few words with him. All ready, there, Mr.
Setchell?"

"Ay, ay, sir."

"All clear aft, there?"

"Ay, ay, sir," replied Dr. Hambrough, who looked more like a South
American stevedore than a member of an honourable profession, for he
had neither spared himself nor his clothing in assisting to clear the
condemned divisions of the airship.

Giving a final glance around to satisfy himself that all was in
order, Captain Whittinghame touched the switch operating the
cam-action bolts. Instantly the "Meteor" split into four separate
divisions. The two central ones, stripped of heavy gear and with
their ballonettes devoid of gas, rolled over and over on the surface
of the sea, for very little water had as yet entered the scuttles,
which had been left open.

The bow and stern sections shot upwards to a height of nearly a
thousand feet. The bow division, being unable to be manoeuvred under
motor-power, had to float aimlessly until the after section,
skilfully steered under Dacres' direction, was brought end on and
quickly secured.

The "Meteor," although now but four hundred and forty feet in length,
was again fit to resume her pursuit of the arch-rogue, Reno Durango.

Vaughan Whittinghame showed no immediate desire to take up the chase.
Gripping the stanchion rails he lent over the stern, his eyes fixed
upon the two cylindrical objects far beneath him: the abandoned
sections of his beloved airship. He watched them as they slowly
filled. They were no longer lively, but wallowed sluggishly in the
slight swell. They sank slowly: quite three-quarters of an hour
elapsed ere one section slipped quietly beneath the waves. Its
downward course was clearly visible long after it had sunk beneath
the surface of the Pacific. Five minutes later No. 3 section plunged
to its ocean bed--a sacrifice to the force of circumstances.

Whittinghame turned abruptly. His eyes looked suspiciously moist, but
without a tremor in his voice he gave the order "Clear upper
deck."



CHAPTER XXXVII.

THE GALAPAGOS FISHERMEN.


IN spite of the drastic reduction in length, and the fact that the
motors in the bow section were still disabled, the "Meteor" was able
to maintain a respectable speed of ninety miles an hour. Owing to her
comparatively small midship-section she offered less resistance to
the wind than do the standard types of British dirigibles.

Apart from the restriction in crew and store space the only
disadvantage of the reduced "Meteor" was the fact that she yawed
considerably. Formerly she was "drawn" by the for'ard propellers and
"pushed" by the after ones, but now the tractors were out of action
the whole of the driving effort was aft. Consequently the motion was
rather erratic, the greatest inconvenience being experienced by those
of the crew stationed in the bow division.

"You there, Callaghan?" asked the Captain at the telephone
communicating with the new wireless room; for previous to abandoning
the two midship compartments the wireless operator had transferred
his delicate apparatus to a cabin immediately abaft the for'ard
motor-room on the starboard side.

"Ay, ay, sir," replied the Irishman.

"Call up the 'Repulse,' will you, and ask the Admiral if he can
conveniently detach a light cruiser. Tell him we are still in pursuit
of Durango, who is on board a tramp, nationality unknown. Our present
position is 1° 45' 20" N. lat., and 86° 2' 10" W. long.,
approximate."

"That ought to settle the business," continued Vaughan Whittinghame,
turning to his comrades in the observation room. "I hardly like the
responsibility of compelling a strange vessel to heave-to: it might
lead to awkward international complications; besides, it would be a
difficult matter for us to board her, even if her skipper offered no
objections."

"Let's hope the Admiral will be willing to detach a cruiser," added
the doctor. "There is no reason why he should not, as far as I can
see, since things have quieted down in Valderia. It reminds me----"

Dr. Hambrough's reminiscences were interrupted by the wireless man
entering the observation room.

"What's amiss now, Callaghan?" asked the Captain, who could read bad
news on the Irishman's face.

"Something wrong, sir," replied the operator. "I can't call up the
flagship, nor any other ship or station, if it comes to that. I was
very particular, sir, when I transferred the gear----"

"When was it last used?" asked Vaughan.

"At seven o'clock last Tuesday, sir."

"That was before the storm. I shouldn't wonder if the same electrical
disturbance that crippled our motors has not played the wireless a
nasty trick. Any way, Callaghan, see what you can do, Unfortunately,
we have not Monsieur de la Fosse with us."

The Irishman backed out of the cabin.

"Must make the best of a bad job," continued the Captain without
visible signs of annoyance at the latest misfortune. "At any rate, we
shall have to use discretion when we tackle the business with the
tramp. What course do you suggest, Mr. Dacres?"

"I think we ought to wait until we overhaul the vessel, sir; then,
when he have discovered her nationality, we can act accordingly. It's
a seventy-five per cent chance that she's either a British or a
Yankee."

"But, surely, if she were," demurred Setchell, "that rascal wouldn't
have the cheek to be taken on board?"

"You must remember Durango is as full of resource as a Christmas
turkey is full of stuffing," replied Dacres. "He's had the cheek to
pose as an Englishman--an Englishman, mind you!--more than once. It's
pretty certain, if the tramp sails under a red ensign, that Durango
has bluffed her 'old man.' Bluffing, as a fine art, is a valuable
asset."

The "Meteor" was now heading N.E. by N., at less than five hundred
feet above the sea. She was passing over a number of small sailing
craft that reminded the sub of a scene off the Dogger.

"They are principally engaged in carrying turtles from the Galapagos
to Panama," remarked Gerald. "Recently there's been a big demand for
turtles, and the industry has revived. It's strange that most of the
export trade should be carried on in craft like those; yet one rarely
hears of any of them coming to grief."

"I hope that Durango hasn't been put on board one of them!" suggested
the irresponsible Setchell.

"Don't say that," expostulated Dacres.

"Mr. Setchell has named a possibility," added Captain Whittinghame.
"The thought never occurred to me. If, when we overhaul the tramp, we
are satisfied that Durango is not on board we can return and make
investigations amongst the turtle fleet. It will be a week or more
before they fetch Panama."

By this time a stiff south-easterly breeze had sprung up, so that the
drift of the airship was considerable. In less than an hour it had
developed into half a gale.

"That's the worst of this part of the globe," remarked Dacres. "In
the Doldrums it is either a flat calm or blowing hard enough to carry
away one's sticks. There are no half measures."

"Sail in sight, sir," announced one of the look-out men. "Dead
ahead."

"It's one of those Galapagos boats," declared Captain Whittinghame,
after making a careful scrutiny through his binoculars. "Poor brute!
she's tried to steal a march on the rest of the fleet and has run
into this gale of wind."

"She's got it well on her starboard quarter, though," said Setchell.
"She's almost running free."

"The worst direction for a craft of that build," added Gerald. "Look,
there goes her canvas, ripped to ribbons."

The turtle boat--she was barely thirty feet overall and entirely
open--was now at the mercy of the waves. Wallowing sluggishly in the
trough of the huge crested seas she was in momentary danger of being
swamped.

Captain Whittinghame was not long in making up his mind. He quickly
weighed the difficulties: the "Meteor" unable to manoeuvre so easily
as before; the practically crippled motors; the urgency of the quest,
all flashed through his brain. On the other hand, human life was in
danger.

As quickly as possible the "Meteor" was brought head to wind and
about half a mile to leeward of the dismasted craft. With the
propellers running ahead just sufficiently for him to counteract the
force of the wind the airship rolled and pitched like a barrel.

"Clear away a coil of three-inch manila," ordered Vaughan
Whittinghame. "Stand by to veer out a buoy."

Several of the crew of the "Meteor" hastened to carry out their
captain's orders and, in spite of the howling wind, they succeeded in
getting the necessary gear on the upper deck.

The men in the turtle boat, seeing that help was at hand, were waving
their arms frantically.

"Pity those fellows didn't make use of their energy in cutting away
that raffle and riding to it," remarked Dacres. "What will happen
when we forge ahead with that craft in tow, sir?"

"We'll lie steadier than we are at present," replied the captain.
"All the same, we'll approach her stern-foremost. It will give the
propellers a better chance."

Round swung the "Meteor," dropping half a mile to leeward during the
operation, but as soon as she made towards the crippled boat the new
conditions suited her admirably. Instead of rolling she settled down
to a steady undulating motion.

"Pay out the rope," ordered Captain Whittinghame.

The airship was now only two hundred feet above the raging sea. As
soon as the whole coil, one hundred and thirteen fathoms in length,
was paid out and allowed to trail in the water, she forged ahead
immediately over the disabled craft.

Dexterously one of the crew of the latter caught the trailing rope
and made it fast round the stump of the foremast. Just then a
tremendous broken sea was observed to be bearing down upon the
already sluggish vessel.

The three men who formed the crew saw it coming. The master attempted
to put the helm down, but the craft had not yet gathered way. A shout
of terror, barely audible above the roar of the wind and water, arose
from the men; the two who were for'ard deftly fastened themselves to
the slack of the rope trailing from the "Meteor." The helmsman,
seeing what they were about, promptly abandoned the tiller, ran to
the bows, and cast off the tow-rope. Even as he did so the huge wave
surged down upon the doomed craft and swept completely over her. She
sank like a stone.

"Take a couple of turns round the capstan," shouted Dacres, who saw
what had occurred; then thrusting the starting lever hard down he
bade one of the crew stand by while he himself went to the guard-rail
to direct operations.

Fortunately the master of the lost craft was a man of powerful
physique and held on to the rope like grim death. His two companions,
being lashed on, were in no actual danger, but could the master
retain his hold sufficiently long to enable him to be hauled into
safety?

Whittinghame had now ordered the motors to be switched off, and the
"Meteor," scudding before the gale, no longer dragged the three men
against the hard wind. Foot by foot the three-inch manila came home.
It had to be stopped while the first of the rescued men was assisted
over the bulging side of the airship, and again when the second was
hauled into safety.

Dacres, keenly on the alert, saw that the master's strength was
ebbing. Quickly bending a stout rope round his waist and calling to
three of the crew to take a turn, he leapt over the guard-rail, slid
down the convex slope and grasped the wellnigh exhausted master by
his wrists.

Forty seconds later the sub and the man he had risked his life to
save were standing almost breathless upon the upper deck of the
airship.

"Take them below," ordered Dacres, "coil away this rope and make all
snug, then clear upper deck."

Directly this was done the "Meteor" forged ahead and quickly settled
down to her former pace.

As soon as the rescued men had been supplied with food and drink
General Whittinghame asked them whether any steamer had passed them.

To this the master replied that one had, about four hours previously.
His description of her left no doubt but that she was the craft which
had picked up Durango and his companions from the waterlogged
flying-boat.

"Do you know her name?" asked his questioner.

"No, señor, I do not. Do you, Enrico?"

The man addressed shook his head. Neither could his companion give a
satisfactory answer. He remembered that it began with Q, and that the
name of the port she belonged to was Boston.

"Good!" ejaculated Captain Whittinghame when, his brother had
interpreted the information. "She's a Yankee. I don't suppose we
shall have much trouble now. Four hours ago, eh? Allowing her eight
knots at the very outside with this sea running we ought to overhaul
her in less than half an hour. Tell those fellows not to worry. We
will pay them well for the information and put them ashore at Panama,
or else the first vessel we speak that will serve their purpose."

Vaughan had not over-estimated the time taken to overhaul the Boston
tramp. Eighteen minutes after resuming the chase the look-out
reported a column of smoke rising above the horizon. Four minutes
later the sought-for vessel was plainly visible.

On her short rounded counter appeared the words "Quickstep, of
Boston, Mass."

Being high in ballast she was rolling furiously. Cascades of water
were pouring from her scuppers. Spray was flying in sheets over her
bows and dashing against the wheel-house on the bridge, for owing to
a sudden change of wind she was plugging almost dead into the teeth
of the gale.

"It is impossible to communicate with her with this sea running,"
remarked Captain Whittinghame. "All we can do is to slow down and
wait until the gale moderates."

As he spoke an oilskinned figure was observed to stagger out of the
wheel-house and make his way to the starboard side of the bridge.
Casting off the halliards leading to a block on a shroud between the
two stumpy masts he hoisted a signal.

Owing to the direction of the wind it was for the time being
impossible to read the flags, and it was not until the 'Meteor'
forged ahead and was almost abeam of the tramp that Dacres could
interpret the message.

"I--F--that's something to do with communicate," he announced.
"Where's the code-book?"

"Here you are," replied Setchell rapidly turning over the pages.

"'I--F: I cannot stop to have any communication.' Like his
impudence!"

"Or Durango's," added Whittinghame. "We cannot acknowledge, so we
will mark time on the 'Quickstep.' How's the glass, Mr. Dacres?"

"Steady, sir, with a slight tendency to rise. This gale will soon
blow itself out."

"Then the sooner the better," declared the Captain.

The rest of the day passed in tedious inaction Night fell, and the
bow searchlights of the airship played incessantly upon the tramp.
Day dawned and found, as Dacres had predicted, that the gale had
expended itself, and although the seas still ran high, the angry
waves were rapidly subsiding.

It was now safe for the "Meteor" to approach within hand-signalling
distance. The officers and crew of the "Quickstep" were all on deck,
curiously regarding the airship, but there were no signs of Durango
and the two Valderians.

"What airship is that?" came from the tramp.

"The 'Meteor.'"

"We doubt it."

"But we are; if you'll heave-to and send a boat we will prove it."

"What do you want?"

"You have three men on board, rescued from a water-logged boat."

"What of it?"

"One is the outlaw, Durango."

"I guess not."

"You guess wrongly, then. Durango and two Valderians."

"Sure? He said he was a Britisher."

"We'll soon prove it if you send a boat."

"I will. We'll heave-to."

Captain Whittinghame slapped his brother on the back.

"At last!" he exclaimed.



CHAPTER XXXVIII.

CORNERED.


BEFORE the "Meteor" could alight and throw out her huge sea-anchor
the "Quickstep" had hove-to and was lowering a boat. Into the latter
tumbled four lean-jawed men and a hatchet-faced youngster of about
nineteen years of age.

There was no doubt about it: those New Englanders knew how to manage
a boat in a seaway. Dexterously the falls were cast off, and bending
to their oars the rowers made the whaler shoot over the long, heaving
waves.

Before they had made twenty strokes the report of a pistol shot came
from the tramp. Without a moment's hesitation her skipper jumped from
the bridge without troubling to make use of the ladder, and bolted
aft, followed by half a dozen of the deck hands.

It was not long before he was back on deck with a revolver in his
hand. At his command one of the men signalled to the "Meteor."

"Sorry! You're right. Laid the skunk by the heels."

As soon as the "Quickstep's" boat came alongside the airship the lad
in charge swarmed up the rope ladder and gained the deck.

"Guess you're the boss of this hyer packet?" he exclaimed. "I'm Silas
P. Cotton, second mate of the S.S 'Quickstep.' Shake."

Vaughan Whittinghame smiled and accepted the invitation. He extended
his hand and shook the proffered tarry paw of the self-possessed
young Boston man.

"That skunk Durango has been throwing dust into the old man's eyes,"
continued Silas P. Cotton. "So the boss has sent me to square things
up. I reckon we've heard of the wonderful 'Meteor,' but we didn't
calculate on her being so short in length."

"Neither did we," agreed Whittinghame. "Come to my cabin and let us
hear about your three passengers. What will you have to drink?"

"Guess rum's my pizen, boss."

A jar of Navy rum that had been sent on board the "Meteor" by the
fleet paymaster of one of the ships of Admiral Maynebrace's squadron
was produced and uncorked. Filling half a tumbler with the dark
spirit the second mate tossed it down at one gulp.

"Now, bizness, boss. This hyer Durango swore that he was a Britisher,
and that the airship was one of those blarmed Valderian craft that
wanted to lay him by the heels. Our skipper bit the bullet. Sez he:
'There ain't no British airship of that size off this hyer coast;
I'll reckon we'll have no truck with that one. I don't want no
greasers on my hooker.' So he ordered the helm to be put up, leaving
you lying on the water as you are doing now. Durango--Mister Turner
of London, he said he was--had heaps of dollars and offered to square
up handsome-like if the 'old man' would land him at Guayaquil. The
boss said the best he could do was to put him ashore at Panama. With
that the skunk seemed right down sick, for he went below to the berth
we'd given him, and wouldn't stir."

"Do you happen to know if he had any papers on him?"

"Rolls of paper dollars," replied the second mate. "That's all, I
guess. What do you say to coming aboard and seeing how the old man
has fixed him up?"

"With pleasure," said Whittinghame. "I hope you won't mind if two of
my officers accompany me?"

"Guess they'll get a wet shirt apiece if they ain't particularly
slick in getting aboard," replied Silas P. Cotton with a grin.

"Come along, Gerald; and you, too, Mr. Dacres," said the Captain. "We
may as well----"

"Message just been signalled from the 'Quickstep,' sir," reported
Callaghan. "Captain Gotham asks you to come aboard and bring pistols
with you."

"Then, all the fun is not yet over," exclaimed Vaughan Whittinghame.
"Take arms, gentlemen. Durango evidently means to give as much
trouble as possible."

As the boat ran alongside the "Quickstep" another shot rang out from
below. Thinking that there was no time to be lost Vaughan
Whittinghame seized hold of the man-ropes and, ably supported by his
comrades and the whaler's crew, gained the deck.

To his surprise Whittinghame found Captain Gotham, with his hands
thrust deeply into his pockets, leaning against the after guard-rail
of the bridge. A huge cigar was jammed tightly betwixt his teeth, and
his peaked cap raked at an alarming angle.

"G'day, gentlemen," he exclaimed without attempting to remove his
cigar. "Guess you've come to take that wild critter off my hands?
Great snakes! If I had a-known he was a low-down Mexican greaser I'd
thought twice before he set foot on this hooker."

"Where is he?" asked Whittinghame.

"In the mate's cabin. He's locked himself in, you bet. Thorssenn
tried to boost open the door, but the sarpint let fly some.
Thorssenn's got more than he can chew, I reckon."

"Was he hit?"

"Clean through the shoulder, boss. Say, how are you going about it?"

Going below and making their way along the narrow alley-way the two
Whittinghames and Dacres approached the place where Durango had taken
refuge. The hard-visaged Yankee skipper and Silas P. Cotton, not to
be outdone in the business of securing the renegade, also joined the
attacking party.

Through the cabin door two small jagged holes marked the tracks of
Durango's shots. One bullet was embedded in the panelling on the
opposite side of the alley-way; the other the unfortunate first mate
was nursing in his shoulder.

"The game's up, Durango," said Captain Whittinghame sternly. "You
cannot escape, so surrender."

The Mexican's reply was to send another shot through the door, the
bullet whizzing between Vaughan and the sub.

The attackers promptly backed out of the danger zone.

"Say, why not let rip at him altogether?" asked Captain Gotham,
raising his heavy Colt revolver.

"We want him alive," replied Vaughan Whittinghame. "I cannot explain
now, but he's worth more alive than dead."

"Then aim low and cripple the skunk," rejoined the skipper bluntly.
"If we've got to wait till he's starved out I reckon we'll be in the
latitude of Cape Hatteras before he bails up. Say, what's your
programme?"

"Have you a piece of boiler-plate handy?"

"You bet," drawled the Yankee, blowing out a cloud of smoke through
his nose, for the cigar was still tightly held between his teeth.
"Cut away, sonny, and tell Andrews to send up a piece of biler plate
as much as one man can hold--git."

With remarkable agility Silas P. Cotton, who had been addressed as
"sonny," made off to carry out the old man's orders. Presently he
returned, staggering under the weight of a slightly curved
three-sixteenths plate.

Using this as a shield Whittinghame, Dacres, and the master of the
"Quickstep" exerted their whole weight and strength against the
comparatively frail door. It creaked, but refused to give. The
Mexican had barricaded it with the first mate's furniture and
bedding.

Durango let fly another shot. The ping of the lead against the
boiler-plate told its own tale. He fired again, this time low down.
The bullet cut a groove in the Yankee's sea-boots and caused that
worthy to let fly a string of oaths.

"Guess I'm master of my own ship!" he shouted. "Who tells Captain
Gotham not to use his shooting arms? Here goes."

He raised his revolver and sent six shots in rapid succession through
the door. Then he listened, only to skip and dodge behind the iron
plate as another bullet cut the peak of his cap.

"Have you any sulphur on board, captain?" asked Dacres, as the
American was about to reload.

"Sulphur? Wal, I guess I have some."

"Then we'll smoke him out," continued the sub. "All we want is a
brazier and some short lengths of copper pipe and a pair of bellows."

"Bully for you!" exclaimed Captain Gotham enthusiastically. "Git,
sonny, and tell Andrews to lay out with the gear."

Off hurried the second mate, to return accompanied by the engineer, a
man as lantern-jawed as the rest of the officers of the "Quickstep."
With him came a deckhand, who, under Cotton's orders, had stove in a
barrel of sulphur.

Soon the yellow rock-like substance was burning. Its pungent fumes
caused water to run from the eyes of the operators. More than once
during their preparations they had to beat a hurried retreat and gasp
for breath in the open air.

At length two pipes were inserted through the shot-holes in the door;
the bellows were filled with reeking fumes and discharged through the
pipes.

Durango began to cough. The men without could hear him fumbling with
the things he had used to barricade the door, with the intention of
plugging the pipes and preventing the invasion of the sulphur fumes.
Again the attackers hurled themselves against the woodwork. The
Mexican realized that he had either to abandon the barricade or
submit to be smoked out.

Sheltered behind the boiler-plate Dacres vigorously plied the
bellows. After five minutes a strange silence prevailed. Gerald
Whittinghame, risking the chance of being shot, peeped through one of
the bullet-holes in the upper part of the woodwork.

The interior of the cabin was full of yellow vapour. He could discern
the Mexican. Durango had his face jammed up against the open scuttle.

"Tarnation thunder!" ejaculated Captain Gotham. "I fair forgot that
scuttle. Keep the pot bilen', boss."

With this injunction the master of the "Quickstep" made his way to
the poop deck and peered over the rail. He could see the tip of
Durango's nose projecting beyond the rim of the scuttle, while clouds
of sulphur fumes wafted past the Mexican's head and eddied along the
ship's side.

"Lower that fender--look alive, there!" ordered Captain Gotham.

Two men dragging a huge globular rope fender lowered it over the side
and adjusted it so that it blocked the Mexican's sole means of
obtaining fresh air. He immediately pushed the obstruction aside with
his knife.

The Yankee skipper was not to be baulked. A long handspike was
procured; one end was wedged between the lower part of a convenient
davit and the vessel's side; a tackle was clapped on to the other end
and bowsed taut, thus jamming the fender hard against the scuttle.

The end was now in sight. Durango was gasping for breath.

"Will you surrender?" demanded Captain Whittinghame.

There was no answer.

The attacking party waited a few moments longer. There was a dull
thud upon the cabin floor. Still suspecting that this was a ruse on
the part of the trapped man they waited another minute, then the door
was burst open.

The rush of sulphurous air almost capsized them. Dacres, tying a
handkerchief over his mouth and nose, crawled in. His hands
encountered the Mexican's resistless form. With a heave he dragged
him into the alley-way. Other hands relieved him of his burden and
carried Durango on deck.

"Dead?" asked Gerald Whittinghame.

"Snakes don't die easy," grunted Captain Gotham. "Take him away,
boss, and welcome to him."

The unconscious form of Durango was lowered out into the
"Quickstep's" whaler. The British officers shook hands with the
Yankee skipper as they prepared to go over the side.

"One moment, boss," said the latter. "Guess you know I've got those
two Valderians aboard?"

"Yes," assented Vaughan. "Can you give five men a passage to Panama?
I'll see that you are not out of pocket by it."

"Five?" queried Captain Gotham.

"Yes, these two Valderians and three men of a Galapagos boat we
picked up just now. Will fifty dollars be sufficient?"

"Guess that'll fix 'em up, cap. Send the others along."

Twenty minutes later the airship and the tramp parted company, the
"Quickstep" to flounder along at a sedate eight knots, while the
"Meteor," with Durango in safe keeping, was speeding aloft at ninety
miles an hour, homeward bound at last.



CHAPTER XXXIX.

DACRES' PROMOTION.


WHEN Reno Durango recovered from the stupifying effects of the
sulphur he found himself in a cabin destitute of furniture and
securely locked and barred. He knew by the peculiar undulating motion
that he was on board an airship. Then the truth flashed across his
mind: he was in the hands of his rivals.

Rage and despair filled his heart. At one moment he thought of
dashing his head against the metal bulkhead of the cabin; at another
he contemplated putting an end to his existence and evading
well-merited punishment by strangling himself. But his nerve failed
him. Never backward in delighting to cause pain to the unfortunate
wretches who had fallen into his hands at various times, he shrank
from inflicting the slightest injury upon himself.

His frenzied thoughts were interrupted by the entry of Captain
Whittinghame, Dacres, and Dr. Hambrough.

The Englishmen had not come to gloat over their captive; the doctor
was there in his official capacity of surgeon of the "Meteor," while
the others were there in case the Mexican should become violent.

"Well, my man, how do you feel now?" asked the doctor in a
matter-of-fact tone, as if he were addressing a hospital patient.

Durango's reply was to roll his yellow eyes and thrust out his
leathery under lip. He wanted to curse his captors, but blind rage
held him speechless.

Deftly Dr. Hambrough took hold of his wrist. The Mexican, snarling
like a wild beast, shook him off.

"I cannot do anything more for the patient at present," said the
doctor suavely, and the three men turned to leave the prisoner to his
own devices.

Just as Whittinghame, who was the last to leave, was backing out of
the door--for he gave Durango no chance of making a sudden dash--the
Mexican found his tongue.

"Curse you, Whittinghame!" he shouted with a torrent of oaths. "If I
had thrown those plans overboard instead of stowing them in under the
boat's fore-deck, I'd have the laugh of you yet."

Vaughan Whittinghame made no reply, but pushing Dacres across the
threshold he closed and relocked the door.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed delightedly. "Durango's let the cat out of
the bag. He imagines that we have already found the plans."

"Let's hope it won't be long before we do," rejoined the sub, and the
three men hastened to search the hull of the flying-boat.

The "Meteor's" speed was materially reduced to enable the searchers
to go on deck, where the boat was made fast to four strong
ring-bolts.

Leaping over her coamings Dacres dived under the fore-deck. The place
had already been cleared out, but on each side a skirting had been
fastened to the ribs to within a foot of the deck-beams.

The sub thrust his hand into one of the spaces thus formed. He could
feel nothing. The second gave no better result, but in the third his
fingers came in contact with some moist paper.

Carefully withdrawing his band the sub found that he had recovered a
bundle of documents tied with red tape. Although damp they were
little the worse for their adventures in sea and air.

"Hurrah!" shouted Dacres. "We've discovered the object of our search,
sir. Here are the submarine plans."

 * * * * *

The great Naval Review at Spithead was over. On board H.M.S.
"Foudroyant," the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hardy
Staplers, a grand dinner was being held. The flag-officers and
captains of the various divisions and ships, the principal military
officers of the garrison of Portsmouth, and the heads of the Dockyard
establishments were present.

After the customary loyal toast had been proposed and duly honoured,
Sir Hardy rose to reply to the toast of The Navy.

The Commander-in-Chief was by no means a fluent speaker, but when he
"warmed up" to his subject he lost all sense of time. His speech was
practically a résumé of the vast strides that the British Navy had
made during his lengthy career. At last he spoke of the Flying
Wing:--

"Gentlemen, I need say but little more (the majority of his listeners
heaved an inward sigh of relief). We now know of the sterling work
performed by the subsidized airship 'Meteor.' When the time comes for
that noble craft to be taken over by H.M. Government--and I venture
to assert that the day is not far distant--our Flying Wing will have
a unit that is second to none.

"It is a matter of regret that the 'Meteor' was not present at the
memorable display at Spithead to-day. As all of you are no doubt
aware the latest dispatches from Zandovar stated that the airship
left in pursuit of the outlaw, Durango. A week has elapsed and no
further news of her has been forthcoming. Personally, I do not think
we need labour under any misapprehension as to her safety; but at the
same time the silence--especially in this age of wireless--is
somewhat inexplicable. An airship that could with safety undertake at
short notice a successful dash to the North Pole (hear, hear!) can be
relied upon to take care of herself. Therefore, I feel confident in
expressing my opinion that before many hours have elapsed news will
be received from the Senior Officers at Zandovar announcing the
return of the Dreadnought of the Air from yet another successful
mission.

"One more point I should like to mention, and that is the great
changes in the near future in in engineering. I refer to the cordite
motors as carried in the 'Meteor.' It is, of course, too early to
predict with certainty that cordite will be the fuel used on our
great battleships in place of oil, but to a great extent the era of
the coal and oil-fed furnace is doomed."

Now, it so happened that amongst the guests was Engineer-Captain
Camshaft, an engineering officer of the old school, who swore by
triple-expansion engines, took ungraciously to turbine machinery, and
scoffed at internal combustion engines. He was particularly scathing
in his opinion of cordite as fuel for propulsion, and had offered to
bet any of his brother-officers that the "Meteor" would never return
to England under her own power. Perhaps he had had more champagne
than was good for him; at anyrate, at this point of Sir Hardy's
speech, he exclaimed in a "stage aside," "Question."

A deadly silence prevailed in the crowded ward-room. The protest was
plainly audible, yet save for Camshaft's immediate neighbour, no one
knew who had had the temerity to contradict the Commander-in-Chief.

"Did I hear some one say 'Question'?" asked Sir Hardy with his
customary urbanity.

The culprit recognized that he had overstepped the bounds. It meant
that his future career was in jeopardy, especially as it was freely
mooted that Sir Hardy Staplers was shortly to be made First Sea Lord
of the Admiralty.

Fortunately the engineer-captain was a man of resource in such
matters.

"Beg pardon, Sir Hardy," he exclaimed thickly, "I said
unquestionably--unquestionably."

A badly suppressed titter ran round the table. The situation was
saved.

"Yes, of course," agreed the Commander-in-Chief blandly. "Now I quite
understand; you said 'unquestionably', Captain Camshaft."

Before Sir Hardy could resume the thread of his lengthy discourse a
voice on deck was heard hailing "Boat ahoy!"

Loud and clear came the reply that electrified every member of that
convivial dinner-party:--

"Meteor!"

The Commander-in-Chief's speech was never finished. Following Sir
Hardy's example the officers and their guests rushed upon the
quarter-deck and crowded to the starboard guard-rails.

They were just in time to see a motor-boat of unusual design run
alongside the accommodation-ladder. The glare of the electric lamps
fell upon the bronzed features of Captain Vaughan Whittinghame and
Sub-lieutenant Basil Dacres.

"How in the name of wonder!" exclaimed the astonished
Commander-in-Chief.

"We've brought two-fifths of the original 'Meteor' back, sir,"
reported Whittinghame. "She's lying off the Warner Lightship. Our
wireless is out of gear, or we would have reported our progress.
Durango is a prisoner on board; and here, sir, are the plans of the
'M' class of submarines."

 * * * * *

Shortly before lunch-time on the following morning Basil
Dacres--specially promoted by virtue of an Order-in-Council to the
rank of commander (Flying Squadron, Naval Wing) of His Majesty's
Fleet--arrived at his father's country residence, Cranbury House.

"Governor in, Sparkes?" he asked as the footman opened the door and
stared with amazement at the "young master." Years of training had
steeled Sparkes to most shocks, but this time he was completely taken
aback.

"Yes, Mr. Basil, Colonel Dacres has just come in. He's been out
rabbit-shooting, sir."

"Then don't tell him who I am," cautioned Dacres. "Take in this card
and say that someone wishes to see him."

Sparkes took the pasteboard and vanished. Half way up the stairs he
paused to look at the card.

"Mr. Basil's up to some of his pranks, I'll be bound," he said to
himself. "Hope to goodness the master doesn't jaw me for it."

"Gentleman to see you, sir," he announced.

Colonel Dacres took the card and read,

"Commander Basil Dacres, R.N."

"Commander Basil Dacres, R.N.," he repeated. "Wonder who the deuce he
is? Some distant relation, I suppose, after something or the other.
Sparkes, where's the Navy List?"

"You lent it to Admiral Padbury the morning before last, sir,"
replied the footman smartly.

"So I did, Sparkes, so I did. Never mind. I'll see this gentleman.
Where is he, Sparkes?"

"In the green room, sir."

"What sort of a man is he?"

The footman coughed to clear his throat, and nearly broke a
blood-vessel in striving to suppress a grin.

"Cannot say as how I took particular stock of him, sir; but he's a
smartish-looking gentleman, sir."

"Then he must belong to our branch of the family," thought the
colonel complacently. "But dash it all, what does he want to come
just before tiffin for?"

Colonel Dacres waited to put a few finishing touches, then hastened
downstairs to conceal, under a guise of cordiality, any traces of his
annoyance at being disturbed before lunch.

To his unbounded astonishment he found himself confronted by his son,
whom he supposed to be still on board H.M.S. "Royal Oak" off
Zandovar. He could only come to one conclusion--a hastily formed
one--on the situation: Basil had been in trouble, and had turned up,
in spite of his parent's fiat, like a bad halfpenny.

"What's the meaning of this, sir?" he demanded, holding up the card.
"Are there no limits to your senseless pranks? I had hoped when that
Valderian business took place that you might have proved yourself
worthy of the name of Dacres. Instead of that you turn up with a
handle to your name to which you have no right. Explain yourself,
sir."

"It's all right, dad," said the youthful commander coolly.

"But it isn't all right. I----"

"Steady on, pater! You've asked me a lot of questions; give me a
chance to reply. In the first place there is a limit to my pranks,
and I don't mean to exceed it. Secondly, I was in the Valderian
affair; thirdly, I came home because the 'Meteor' brought me home;
fourthly and lastly, I am really a commander in His Majesty's Fleet,
my appointment being dated at the Admiralty yesterday."

"'Meteor?'" repeated the colonel. "You were on the 'Meteor'? I knew
nothing of this."

"Naturally, sir. Our mission was a confidential one. Even
Rear-Admiral Maynebrace was in ignorance of who formed her crew until
we pulled him out of the Cavarale."

"Were you the officer who was reported to have distinguished himself
in rescuing the Admiral, then?" asked Colonel Dacres amazedly.

"Yes, sir; but the newspaper reports may have been exaggerated. They
often are," declared Dacres modestly. "But the fact remains that I am
specially promoted, for which I have to thank Captain Whittinghame,
who has been made Commandant of the Airship Section; the 'Meteor' is
to undergo a hasty refit and reconstruction--we left three-fifths of
her in different places, you know--and after that--well, we must hope
for something fairly exciting to turn up. For the present I have
three weeks' leave."

"Leave!" echoed the colonel. "Won't you have to give evidence at the
trial of Durango?"

"Yes, I suppose so," replied the young commander. "He is to be
indicted on a list of charges as long as my arm. However, I am not at
all keen on that part of the business. Hunting him down was exciting
enough, but now the rascal is laid by the heels I wish I could regard
the incident as closed. After a turn at active service in the air a
fellow doesn't want to descend to the stuffy atmosphere of the Law
Courts. I want to be up and doing, in a double sense, pater; I feel
as keen as mustard."

"Basil, my boy, I'm afraid I've misjudged you."

"I don't think so, pater; I believe that once or twice you've blamed
me for practical jokes I didn't play, but that's a mere detail. The
mater's teapot, for example."

"I don't mean in that way," continued the colonel. "I thought that
you might let your chances slip through your fingers, but, by Jove!
you're a true Dacres after all."

"Thank you, pater," said the young commander simply.



THE END



THE LONDON AND NORWICH PRESS LIMITED, LONDON AND NORWICH, ENGLAND



  [Transcriber's note:

  The original text contained a number of obvious spelling and
  typographic errors. They have been corrected without note.
  Inconsistent spellings and typographical errors have been preserved
  as printed.

  These are:
  - "Chili" and "Chile" both occur
  - "Equadorean" instead of "Equadorian"]





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