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首页 » 英文科幻小说 » The Mystery of Seal Islands » CHAPTER VIII THROUGH THE STORM
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CHAPTER VIII THROUGH THE STORM
If Roberta had really been unconscious when the fury of the storm burst upon them, with the repeated cutting flashes of light and the thunder booming like a terrific bombardment all about the gallant little Nike, she would have come to if there was any life in her at all. She started up with a wild cry, then remembered instantly that she was supposed to be just coming out of a prolonged period of sleep, and so, strained forward on her straps, stared around as if she had no knowledge of anything which had transpired, and struggled to free herself from the belts that held her secure.

At first Mrs. Pollzoff was too fully occupied132 to pay any attention to the plane’s real pilot, and the girl managed to take in the whole situation. The lightning revealed an endless surge of white rollers stretched row after row and piling themselves on top of one another as the gale lashed them like an escaped demon. Her first sensation was one of dismayed certainty that her second glove had gone into the raging water beneath them, so that its chances of being picked up were ruined; the tiny thing would never be recovered and the name printed indelibly on the stiff cuff would never be deciphered.

Twisting and wriggling to get free of her bonds, Roberta verified what she already suspected, that they were secured well out of her reach. The rain began to pour down on them in great sheets as if the heavens had suddenly opened and dumped the accumulation of years on the struggling machine. She managed to catch a glimpse of the indicators and saw that the tanks were well filled; the altimeter registered eight thousand feet but it was going lower with each jerk of the pointer. Whether the engine was functioning or not she couldn’t tell, because the howling133 wind deadened every other sound as Nike tipped and spun like a helpless leaf.

“Let me loose,” Roberta shrieked, but if Mrs. Pollzoff heard, she paid no attention, but battled with grim determination with the controls, endeavoring to climb above the tempest which was pressing down on them with such power that it seemed impossible for the plane to lift an inch.

“Let me fly her,” the girl pleaded frantically, for she realized above everything else, that Mrs. Pollzoff was losing her head, and that their chances of getting out of the dilemma were growing more and more remote. She strained so far forward that her shoulder touched that of the woman, who whirled about angrily, her teeth bared like those of a snarling animal at bay.

“Get out of the way!” She shoved her back into the drenched seat and shook her fist in her face. “Stay where you are or I’ll throw you out!” Roberta couldn’t hear a word, but there was no mistaking the command. “If I can’t get us out, the three of us will go down together. I won’t have it said that you saved me.” Again the clenched134 fist shot close to the girl’s face, and probably if there had been a moment to waste, she would have been struck.

With a furious snarl, Mrs. Pollzoff turned her attention back to her job, and after a grilling ten minutes, Nike’s nose began to lift slowly. The brave little plane climbed sturdily into the gale, which continued to fight every fraction of an inch gained. Ten minutes more and they struggled above the worst of the storm, then Mrs. Pollzoff took time to put the cover over the top of the machine. Before it was closed she scanned the heavens and waters as best she could, but there was no sign of another plane in the air or ship on the ocean. When the cover was finally in place, the cock-pit no longer acted as a space to fill and help drag them to destruction, but the rain beat on the top, and in spite of the lights Mrs. Pollzoff turned on both inside and outside, the lightning filled the whole atmosphere with its weird glow, changing the cheerful illumination to a ghastly, sulphurous hue.

Consulting the altimeter again, Mrs. Pollzoff forced the plane to climb higher, but135 there seemed to be no ceiling to the storm, and they could not get above its rage. The wind veered around until it was on Nike’s tail, and its force drove her ahead at a terrific speed. Here the woman showed a bit more sense than before, by letting the tempest carry them forward instead of struggling against it. She also kept climbing, but at a gradual ascent. The tiny clock on the control-board ticked away two hours, but they seemed more like one hundred and twenty years than that many minutes to the imprisoned young girl. It was nearly morning and if they succeeded in coming through the storm, the first streaks of dawn would be flashing across the heavens in another hour. But that hour too went by bringing no hopeful rays of day to relieve the blackness. On and on they went, once the tank had to be replenished, and once the engine crackled alarmingly for a moment, but that was adjusted. Two hours later they had traveled nearly two hundred miles. It was still raining, but a bit of light was beginning to force its way through the darkness.

Mrs. Pollzoff stubbornly refused to release136 her prisoner or ask advice, although her hands trembled and her body quivered with terror and weariness under the continuous strain, but she did not say another word to the girl beside her, nor did Roberta waste her own strength to plead that she might be given the management of Nike. She could not help admire the indomitable grit of the woman even while she deplored the fact that such courage was misdirected.

Another hour dragged on before there was the faintest sign that they might win through if Nike could hang together through the awful beating she was getting. The rain pounded against her, the gale pressed her down spasmodically, tossed her up again like a plaything, but all the time shoved her forward. It seemed to the girl as if every section in her construction must surely be ripped apart any moment, and Roberta’s heart was grateful for the skill and careful workmanship which had been put into her little craft.

The girl Sky-Pilot’s head no longer ached from the effects of the drug, and her mind was clearer as she tried to figure how she might get free of her bonds, but whenever137 she wiggled too strenuously, Mrs. Pollzoff would look at her maliciously and glance at the buckles to be sure that they were where she had put them. Thinking of the construction of the plane brought back to Roberta’s mind the fact that Mr. Wallace had installed an alarm button; one which was in some way tuned with the broadcasting band, and her heart leaped. Months before when the Blue Pirate Terror had been making a determined effort to force her out of the sky she had pressed her foot over one of the narrow boards in the flooring and by this means had released a spring carefully hidden. If she wasn’t too far away from any broadcasting or radio station she might be heard again, but she knew that the other time she had used this emergency, dozens of men were listening for it and had instantly sprung into action.

Leaning over, as if weary, Roberta studied the floor for the tiny knot which marked the secret section, but the cloak Mrs. Pollzoff had used to dim the lights on the control board was over it. However, she knew well exactly where it was located, and although she had never released it from the passenger’s138 seat, she repeated in her mind the directions. She must reach it with her heel and press hard with the side of it until she felt it give, then she was to hold it so a second, after which it was to be again released.

Roberta hadn’t the faintest idea where they were, nor could she tell from the charts, for the compass was on the further side of the control-board and as Mrs. Pollzoff managed the machine her body obstructed the view. She feared they were so far away that it would do no good at all to use Mr. Wallace’s clever little invention, but just because she was uncertain of the result she wasn’t passing up even an uncertain effort which might help the searchers locate her. She moved her bound feet forward experimentally under the cloak, but although she tried pressing with her heel she found no spot which responded to the force. However, she might get a chance later, so she watched for an opportunity.

Another hour went by slowly, then Mrs. Pollzoff got out the container of food; poured herself a drink of strong coffee which she drank black, then took another. That139 steadied her nerves somewhat and she filled a cup for Roberta, but to this she added a quantity of milk and held it to the girl’s lips. It had been in the thermos bottle and was a sickish warm, a nasty mixture, but she drank it gratefully, for her throat was dry as parchment, and her tongue swollen.

“Thank you,” she said when the last drop was gone, but she didn’t expect to be heard.

After that the woman got out more food, and between operations necessary to keep Nike balanced, she managed to feed the girl beside her some bread and butter sandwiches, topping them off with a little water poured from a tin container. The amount of food, water and the fact that arrangements had been made for the refueling in the air was convincing proof that the woman had carefully planned this scheme, but there was no fathoming the reason for it. When the meal was finished, what was left was stored away again, the cloak was folded, put out of the way, and Roberta’s heart leaped hopefully.

It took the girl Sky-Pilot only a few moments to locate the tiny knot in the floor, which was still wet from the drenching it had140 received while the cover was open. The little square with its outline so dim it could barely be seen was inches away from her feet, and thanking her lucky star that Mrs. Pollzoff had not been able to secure her feet to the seat, she calculated its position. It was still raining, the wind was still blowing them forward and Roberta yawned wearily as she glanced at the shelter above them. Stretching her back, which was strained and aching in every muscle, she managed slowly to give her body a luxuriant treat by moving every part of it, including her feet. They went in the direction of the knot, but when she leaned forward a trifle she saw that it was not far enough.

At that moment Mrs. Pollzoff drew herself up in her own seat, leaned back to relax her pain-racked limbs, and then Roberta took advantage of the opportunity offered. She slid low, her feet extended as far as she could get them, and when she guessed that they were in the right spot, she pressed hard. But there was no yield, not the slightest movement, and she grew faint with discouragement. Then she reasoned that the water might have swollen141 the board, so she pressed again, throwing every ounce of her strength into that heel. Still it did not sink. Moving her foot a trifle she tried again, harder than ever and kept it up. At last the wee board gave slightly, so, with a heart beating furiously, she continued to push on it with all her strength. Anxiously she held the position for fully a minute, dreading every second that her companion might suspect some sort of trick, but apparently Mrs. Pollzoff was confident that her prisoner was helpless. Just then Nike began to buck, as if it was riding steep rollers, and the attention of his pilot was demanded.

“Get back, out of the way,” she ordered harshly and gave the girl a shove.

Thankful that the command had been delayed so long, Roberta sat up quickly in her seat, her eyes swept the little square, and she saw it slip slowly into place. At least the signal was set and if only some government wireless man or anybody at all would pick it up and start inquiries as to its cause, they could tell at Lurtiss Field where Nike was and possibly trace her to her destination.

142 It was getting extremely cold, more so than the altitude would warrant unless they had been coming steadily north. To occupy her mind, Roberta tried to calculate how far they had come if they had followed the course the woman had set when they left Charleston, but there were so many “ifs” to the reasoning, that she couldn’t get even an idea, so she gave it up. As soon as she could read the indicators she would be able to tell. Now she was tired, hopelessly so, and her heavy lids dropped over her eyes, but she forced herself to keep them open. Mrs. Pollzoff too, must be greatly fatigued; she couldn’t stand such a strain indefinitely, and besides, unless they were refueled again, they would be compelled to make a landing very shortly.

In order to keep herself awake, Roberta went over carefully in her mind every detail of the days since that first morning when she and Nike had been engaged to take Mrs. Pollzoff on her mysterious mission. At first she had given her passenger little thought, but the seeming aimlessness of their flights, together with the woman’s taciturnity had made her uneasy. She tried hard to recall143 anything she had done to offend the woman or arouse her animosity, but could recall nothing. Again she tried to remember the words she had heard vaguely when she was sinking into unconsciousness, but they continued to elude her. She wondered if by any possible chance Mrs. Pollzoff had objected to young Powell’s seeing them off, but promptly dismissed the idea as too absurd for consideration. Who could mind the appearance of the fun-loving chap and his sister? No, Roberta was sure that it was something that went back further, and again she racked her brain for the answer.

“At any rate, I guess she isn’t interested in killing me or she would have done it long ago; she has had opportunity enough. She might have given me a second dose of drug, bigger than the other, and finished the job. If she had wanted to do anything of that kind, I certainly gave her a good chance when I ate and drank. Wonder why I wasn’t afraid to take the food! I might have been afraid not to, I don’t know. Heavens, I’d like to go to sleep, but I can’t desert144 Nike—I won’t,” she resolved, but it was a resolution mighty difficult to keep.

No matter how long the engine stood up, the plane held together, and the fuel lasted; the woman was bound to reach a point when her body refused to act. Even now she was moving in jerks, staring three and four times at the different indicators before she was positive of the readings. Her breath came in painful gasps; Roberta could tell that by the way her shoulders heaved; she moved her feet as if they felt weighted, and twice her head nodded, but it was brought up always with a quick jerk. As soon as the woman’s will power weakened, as it surely must, then Roberta was sure that she could manage to get free of her bonds. She could wriggle and twist until she could reach the buckle, and with one arm loose, the rest would be but the work of a moment; then she could take charge, and would see to it that Mrs. Pollzoff did not get the upper hand again.

As she glanced at the woman, whose fatigue was obvious, she determined to make a try for her freedom at once for it was probable that if Mrs. Pollzoff fainted from strain145 and exhaustion, she would get herself so tangled with the controls of the plane that before Roberta could get loose, Nike would have her nose buried in the bottom of the ocean, if it was still under them, or in the ground if they were traveling over land. After fifteen minutes, during which she moved her elbow not more than an inch at a time, the girl finally got her left hand back to the buckle, but maintaining the same position for so long a period had made her fingers so cold and numb that contact with the hard metal sent thousands of pins and needles stinging through her body. It took considerable time before the digits could feel with any accuracy, but at last they did. She could not risk a glance at what she was trying to do, but she felt the end of the strap, placed her fingers well over it, and slowly drew them back until there was a hump in the leather. Under this lee-way she pushed with her thumb, then working breathlessly she got the strap through the end of the buckle.

At that moment Mrs. Pollzoff leaned back as if she suspected something amiss and glanced at her companion, but her eyes were146 so heavy, and Roberta looked so much as if she were nearly asleep, that she devoted her energy to the job at hand, which was demanding enough. It was still raining, but not so violently, the wind blew with an angry roar as if furious with Nike for not being brought down in splinters, while intermittent flashes of lightning and a far off bombing of thunder kept them reminded that they were in the greatest danger, so the robber-pilot bent forward again. Three minutes later Roberta pushed the tongue of the buckle out of the hole.

Never had Roberta’s heart hammered so furiously as it did while her fingers gradually got the strap through, but at last it was accomplished. She wriggled just enough to draw it under her back, which loosened her right arm. It had been tight so long that there was almost no sensation left, and as the blood began to circulate more normally the pain was excruciating. The belt had been wound about her arm in three twists, and being mighty careful that the strap across her body remained, to all appearances, as usual, she finally got it free. What should147 she do next was the question which immediately confronted her. She made up her mind that the best thing to do was to allow her body to relax as much as possible so that if she had to make a quick move, she would be able to manage. In the meantime, she might get an opportunity to free her feet.

With this project in mind, Roberta drew her feet back carefully, at the same time lowering her right hand. She was glad that the gauntlets had been removed, and wondered a little why Mrs. Pollzoff had not missed them. But she evidently didn’t and that was something to be thankful for. It was half an hour before she finally brought her fingers into contact with the strap, the buckle of which was in the back, then drooping forward as if she were asleep, she gave a great sigh, and closed her lids, but her hand worked quickly and presently the strap was off. She couldn’t prevent its dropping down, but she was banking on the fact that Mrs. Pollzoff had been paying no attention to her. Cautiously moving her toes and ankles, the girl slowly began to feel more normal. Although she was horribly weary,148 she determined that in a few minutes she would take charge of the situation. But a moment later, Mrs. Pollzoff shut off the engine and Nike began to glide down; whether it was to the earth or water, there was no telling, but she was coming down, and the pilot was evidently preparing to make a landing.

“If she does,” Roberta thought, “she’ll surely discover that I got loose.”


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