PRINCE ALEXIS poked his head into the pilot’s compartment. His face, overcast with a greenish pallor, reflected apprehension, if not actual fright. “Are we in any danger, Brown?” he shouted above the roar of the exhaust and the blast of the propeller. “Do you think you can get us out of here?”
“For God’s sake, shut up,” snapped the pilot. “Ain’t I got troubles enough without you asking fool questions every five minutes?”
The man in the seat beside the pilot looked horrified. “S-s-sh,” he cautioned. “You shouldn’t speak to his ’ighness like that, my man. It’s most disrespectful.”
“Nuts,” snapped Brown.
The prince staggered back to his seat in the cabin. He almost succeeded in registering offended dignity when a current of air tossed the ship at the moment and threw him off his balance, so that it was a very angry prince who lurched awkwardly into his seat.
“Fasten your safety belt, darling,” admonished his princess. “We are apt to turn over at any minute. I mean, really, did you ever see anything so terribly rough? Oh, I wish we had never come.”
“So do I,” growled Alexis. “I didn’t want to come in the first place; and if I ever get my feet on the ground again, the first thing I am going to do is fire that impudent boor.”
“I think, under the circumstances,” said Jane, “that we really ought to overlook any idiosyncrasy of manner that he may manifest. He’s got all the responsibility. He must be under a terrific nervous strain; and, regardless of everything else, I think you will have to admit that so far he has proved himself a splendid pilot.”
“Annette, my smelling salts, please,” cried Princess Sborov, in a weak voice; “I am sure I’m going to faint. I certainly am.”
“Sapristi, what a trip!” exclaimed Sborov. “If it were not for you, dear lady, I should go crazy. You seem to be the only one in the party with any poise. Are you not afraid?”
“Yes, of course I am afraid. We have been flying around in this storm for what seems an eternity, but getting excited about it won’t do us any good.”
“But how can you help being excited? How could anyone help being excited?”
“Look at Tibbs,” said Jane. “He’s not excited. He’s as cool as a cucumber.”
“Bah!” exclaimed Sborov. “Tibbs is not human. I do not like these English valets—no heart, no feeling.”
“Really, my dear,” expostulated the princess, “I think he is perfect—a regular gentleman’s gentleman.”
A vivid flash of lightning shot the dark clouds that enveloped them. Thunder roared and crashed. The ship lurched drunkenly onto one wing and nosed suddenly down. Annette screamed; the Princess Sborov swooned. The plane spun once before Brown could pull her out of it. He righted her with an effort.
“Wh-ew!” he exclaimed.
“My word,” said Tibbs.
Princess Sborov was slumped in her chair. Her smelling salts had fallen to the floor. Her hat was over one eye; her hair dishevelled. Alexis made no move to come to her aid.
“You had better look after the princess, Annette,” said Jane. “I think she needs attention.”
There was no answer. Jane turned to see why the girl had not responded. Annette had fainted.
Jane shook her head. “Tibbs,” she called. “Come back here and look after the princess and Annette. I’m coming up to sit with Brown.”
Gingerly Tibbs made his way into the cabin, and Jane took the seat beside the pilot.
“That last was a bad one,” she said. “I really thought we were through. You handled the ship marvellously, Brown.”
“Thanks,” he said. “It would be easier if they were all like you. The rest of them get in my hair. Although,” he added, “Tibbs ain’t so bad. I guess he’s too dumb to be scared.”
“You are having real trouble with the ship, aren’t you, Brown?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell the others. They’d have gone nutty. We’ve got too much of a load. I told the old lady so before we took off; but she was set on bringing everything but the kitchen sink, and now I can’t get no elevation. That’s the reason I can’t get up above this storm, just wallowing around here in this muck without any idea where we are or which way we’re going; and there’s mountains in Africa, Miss, some damned high mountains.”
“Yes, I know that,” replied Jane. “But you must have some idea where we are; you have a compass, and you know your air speed.”
“Yes,” he said, “I got a compass; and I know my air speed; but there’s another thing that the rest of ’em better not know. The compass has gone haywire.”
“I mean we’re just flying blind in this pea soup without a compass.”
“Not so good; is it, Brown?”
“I’ll say it’s not.”
“What are we going to do about it?”
“If we could get at the baggage compartment, we could throw all the junk out,” he replied; “but we can’t, and there you are.”
“And in the meantime we may crash into a mountain at any moment, is that it?”
“Yes, Miss,” he replied, “or run out of gas and have to come down, which will probably be just as bad as hitting a mountain.”
“There’s no other way out?” she asked. Her voice was level, her eyes unafraid.
“Well, I’ve got a little plan I’d like to work,” he said, and turned to her with a grin.
“What is it, Brown?”
“Well, we can’t get at the junk to throw it overboard; but the prince must weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds. That would help some.”
Jane turned her head away to hide a smile, but evidently he saw it.
“I thought you’d like the idea,” he said.
“We shouldn’t joke about such a thing, Brown,” she reprimanded.
“I guess we can’t help it,” he said. “We both got that American sense of humor.”
“Is the petrol—gas really very low, Brown?” she asked.
“Look,” he indicated the gauge on the dash. “We’re good for about an hour at the outside.”
“And no parachutes.”
“Nary a chute. Most people don’t bother with them on a cabin job.”
She shook her head. “It does look bad, doesn’t it? But we’d better not tell the others how really bad it is. There is nothing they can do to help themselves.”
“Not a thing,” he said, with a wry smile, “unless they want to pray.”
“I think they’ve been doing that already.”
“What are you going to do—just cruise around until the gas is gone?”
“No, of course not. If I don’t find a hole in this mess in half an hour, I’m going to nose down easy and try to get under it. There’ll be nothing to it, if we ain’t over mountains. That’s all I’m afraid of. Then I may find a place where I can get her down, but I’m hoping for a hole. I’d like to look down first.”
“Jane! Jane!” It was a plaintive wail from the cabin. “Oh, my dear, where are we? I mean are we all dead?”
Jane looked back. Tibbs had recovered the lost smelling salts and had successfully applied first-aid to the princess. Annette had come to and was sobbing hysterically. The prince sat tense and ashen-faced, beads of perspiration standing upon his forehead. He was quite evidently in a blue funk. He caught Jane’s eye.
“Is there any hope?” he asked. “Has Brown said anything?”
“We’ll be all right if he can find an opening in the clouds,” she replied. “That is what he is looking for.”
“If we’d had a decent pilot, we’d never have gotten into this,” grumbled the prince. “As I told you, Kitty, you should have hired a good French pilot. These Americans don’t know anything about flying; and into the bargain you don’t know anything about this fellow, Brown.”
“I guess that guy never heard of the Wright Brothers or Lindbergh,” grumbled Brown.
“Don’t mind what he says,” said Jane. “We are all under a terrific nervous strain, and not exactly accountable for what we say or do.”
“It doesn’t seem to be bothering you much, Miss,” said Brown.
“Well, it’s just the way we happen to be,” she said, “and we can’t help that either. Just because I succeed in hiding it, doesn’t mean that I am not frightened to death.”
“You’re sure a good sport,” said Brown. “You’ve got guts, and so I don’t mind telling you that I don’t feel like no little school girl going to her first picnic. I can think of lots of things I’d rather do than crash in the middle of Africa.”
“What did he say?” demanded Sborov. “We are going to crash? Look what you have gotten me into, you old fool,” he cried, angrily, turning upon his wife, “you and your rejuvenation and your perpetual youth. Sapristi! You’ve had your face lifted so many times now that you could be arrested for indecent exposure.”
The Princess Sborov gasped. “Why, Alexis!” she exclaimed. Then she burst into tears.
“Oh, why did I ever come?” wailed Annette. “I did not wish to come. I am afraid. I do not want to die. Oh, mon Dieu, save me! Save me!”
“Here, madam, try the smelling salts again,” said Tibbs.
“Nice party,” remarked Brown. “Perhaps they think I’m enjoying it.”
“In great danger, we think mostly of ourselves,” said Jane.
“I suppose so. I’m thinking mostly of myself right now; but I’m thinking of you and Annette and Tibbs, too. You’re worth saving. As far as the other two are concerned, I’d like to chuck ’em overboard; but I think I read somewhere that there was a law against that.”
“Yes, I believe there is,” smiled Jane. “But, really, Brown, do you know I have an idea that you are going to get us out of this all right?”
“That’s the first encouragement I’ve had,” he replied. “And I’m sure going to try to get us out of this. It all depends upon what’s underneath this mess. If there’s any ceiling at all, we’ll have a chance; and that’s what I’m hoping for.”
“I’m praying for it.”
“I’m going to start down now, Miss. I’ll just ease her down slowly.”
“At a hundred and fifty miles an hour.”
“Well, we won’t lose elevation that fast.”
The ship struck a down current and dropped a hundred feet, careening wildly. The screams of the Princess Sborov and Annette, the maid, mingled with the curses of Alexis.
Jane gasped. “Well, we went down pretty fast that time,” she said.
“But when she drops like that, you can be sure you’re not on the ground, anyway. The air has to have some place to go. It can’t get through the earth; so they never carry you all the way down.”
For tense minutes the two sat in silence. Then suddenly Jane voiced a quick exclamation. “Look, Brown,” she cried, “trees! We’re below it.”
“Yes,” he said, “and with five hundred feet to spare but—”
She looked at him questioningly. “We’re not much better off, are we? How much gas have you left?”
“Oh, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, and I don’t need to tell you—well, it doesn’t look so hot.”
“Nothing but forest,” she said; “there’s not a place to land anywhere.”
“We may find an opening, and believe me it won’t have to be a Croydon either.”
“And if you don’t find an opening?”
He shrugged. “We’ll just have to set down in the tree tops,” he said. “The chances are pretty fair that we won’t all be killed, Miss.” He turned and looked back in the cabin. “Tibbs, get into a seat and fasten your safety belt. Put your wraps and pillows in front of your faces. I am going to make a forced landing in a few minutes. I will tell you when. If you pad your faces, you may not get hurt at all.”
Nobody made any reply. The princess moaned, and Annette sobbed.
“There’s a terrific wind, isn’t there?” said Jane. “Look at those tree tops bend.”
“Yes,” he said, “and in a way that may help us. The wind will cut down our ground speed a lot; and if I can hook the tail skid into those trees, we may land on them easy-like and hang there.”
“You know those tree tops may be a couple of hundred feet from the ground, or even more?”
“Yes,” he said, “I suppose they may, but I don’t think we’ll go through them; they look too dense. And if I set her down easy, the wings and fuselage will catch and hold her. I think we’ve got a chance.”
The ship skimmed on a few hundred feet above the swaying forest top for several minutes. There was no sign of a clearing; no break in those wildly tossing waves of green.
“We’re out of gas now, Miss,” said Brown, and mechanically he cut the switch. Then he turned back once more to the cabin. “Hold everything,” he said; “I’m going to bring her down.”