BRAMHOPE was strong on etiquette, and Jeff Crane was chafing mildly in the grip of Mrs. Grundy’s propriety restrictions. The day was Tuesday, the date the twenty-second of October. To-morrow Jeff was to be married at the little church in Paradise Corners to Ann Moore, and sundry excited females, who were grooming Ann for the event, had pointed out to Jeff that it was not strictly proper for a bridegroom-elect to see his bride-to-be from, say, the afternoon before the ceremony, until she burst on his enraptured vision as he stood awaiting her at the altar rail. Jeff was learning a lot these days about decorum and etiquette. Still, he supposed, it was all right.
He had quit work at noon, not to resume it until the honeymoon was over, and, naturally, he had gone down to see Ann. His coming had created as much stir among the aforesaid excitable ladies as if he had been some particularly objectionable dragon, bent on gobbling Ann up on the spot. The sitting-room of Ann’s abode was like a hive of female bees set down in the midst of a milliner’s shop on a rush day, and, on Jeff’s innocent appearance, they, with the exception of Ann, had made a swarming attack on Jeff, each armed with needle or scissors, or other effective weapons.
Jeff stood his ground, as a soldier should, and finally, after negotiations with a stout elderly dragoness who seemed to be running the show, secured the company of Ann for five minutes by the clock in semi-privacy. Then, yielding to the inevitable, he had withdrawn, in the light of Ann’s laughter, not to see her again until they should meet at Philippi, otherwise the altar.
There had been sundry arrangements for Jeff to make in connection with the great event, such as engaging beds for the pals who were coming along by the morning train, and giving final instructions to the liverymen who were to drive out the guests. Then he had to make a few belated purchases, and by the time all was finished the afternoon had pretty well worn away. Jeff decided to dine at the hotel, and to spend his last bachelor night in the wonderful little house. Waiting for the cook to finish his tricks with the victuals, Jeff sat on the verandah and smoked a reflective pipe. Some day, this Wednesday, October twenty-third, was going to be. At a quarter to eleven he would be at the church, waiting for Ann. At about five minutes to eleven she would arrive in a stately car, attended by her bridesmaids, Aunt Catherine, and an Uncle Elijah, who had lately cropped up to claim a relative’s privilege. He was going to give Ann away. Then there would be a long string of cars and teams, making the most imposing procession that either Bramhope or Paradise Comers had ever seen. Jeff hoped he wouldn’t stub his toe when it came to the marriage service itself, and the thought that he might make an ass of himself before the great assemblage sent cold shivers down his back.
He fished in his pockets and brought up a small Church Service book, turning to the part that concerns itself with marriage, going all the way through it from “Dearly Beloved” to the “Amazement” with which it ends. It solemnized his mind. It was a beautiful service, and all he hoped was that he wouldn’t stick his foot through it and rip it all up. Never in all his fighting career, flying over the enemy’s lines, assailed by foe aircraft, popped at by the malignant Archies, had his nerve been racked as it was by the thought of his part in the marriage service, so he started in again to “bone up” his lines.
In selecting the verandah as his retiring place it had been farthest from his thought to bask in the limelight, but he had hardly got going on his second reading of the service when he became aware that he had been observed. The men were flocking down from the pits and mills, and all of them seemed to be going home by way of the hotel. Salutations were shouted to him, grins from grimy faces greeted him, hats were doffed by polite foreigners, with the result that Jeff felt rather like a conquering general, on a reviewing stand, taking the salute. Then into the lobby below burst a batch of bosses—owners, engineers, bookkeepers, and such-like—with a tumult like that of many waters, and strong ones at that. They were clamoring for Jeff, good old Jeff, Jeff Crane, and demanding that he come forth and down.
Jeff grinned and sat tight. What trouble there might be would have to come to him. Then a bellowing chorus began and Jeff grinned still wider. It was a dirge setting forth, in graphic detail, the renunciations of a married man.
“No more whiskey, no more rum,
No more rolling home at half past one;
No more standing at the corner of the street
Winking at every pretty girl you meet.”
And much more of the same kind. Then there was a rush upstairs; Jeff was captured and led below to receive felicitations, and assurances that whether the pits and mills ran or had to stop on the morrow, the bunch would be out at Paradise Corners the next morning at eleven.
It was a great relief to Jeff when all was over and he was permitted to enter the dining-room to give his attention to the results of the cook's operations. It was a much greater relief to think that this was the last time he need look to a hotel hash-brewer to provide him with a meal. No more “water” soup, no more “sole-leather” steak, no more “india-rubber” pie, no more “dishpan” coffee. Wait till Ann got busy on that wonderful stove with the polished steel fittings.
“Buggy all ready, M’sieu Jeff!” said the smiling ostler as the bridegroom-elect sauntered out from his final battle in the dining-room.
“That’s talking!” replied Jeff heartily, eager to get off. He fetched his purchases, piled them into the rig, and gave a look upward, as if he intended to travel that way—the airman’s habitual glance into the realm of heart’s desire. The sun was a glowing crimson ball seen through a thin smoky veil, the skies faintly shrouded in yellowish haze. There was a warm stuffiness in the air, and with it a distinct smell of burning.
"Bush fire!” said the ostler, sniffing vigorously.
“The cook at work on more of that raw-hide steak,” suggested Jeff. “Late in the year for bush fires, isn’t it?”
“No rain, plenty sun, everyting dry—dry, and he burn queeck. But long way off,” responded Napoleon.
JEFF boarded his chariot and took the road. The horse was a sedate animal, and when the town was left behind and they were on the direct road to the Settlement, Jeff let the reins rest slackly on the animal’s back and left it to its own sober devices. Jeff wanted leisure to think. He checked off all the arrangements for the morrow, for about the fiftieth time, and it seemed to him that there could be no hitch anywhere, provided he did not fall down badly in his part of the service.
There was but one slight regret in Jeff’s mind regarding the great event. He would have liked to take his bride away in the family “bus,” his beloved aeroplane, but reflection had induced him to abandon the project, though most reluctantly. There might be difficulties in connection with landings and getting off again, and then a bride wanted quite a bit of baggage, so Jeff, lamenting the world’s crass backwardness in the matter of flying accommodations, decided that for this time he would patronize motor cars and trains.
As he neared home his reflections had to be suspended, for his progress became a sort of triumphal procession, the folks from farms and cottages rushing out to greet him. The horse seemed to enjoy the popular favor, for whenever he caught sight of a pedestrian he pulled up of his own accord for the tribute. It was almost dark when the Franklin house was reached, but the members of the family, except the two babies, were on the look-out, Jack smoking his pipe in great content, his wife, all radiant smiles, at his side. The six kids were out in the road, making sure that Jeff should not get by without running over some of them.
“We’ve got new dresses and hats, Jeff, and we’re coming to the wedding,” said the eldest girl, her sisters nodding smiling corroboration.
“And we’ve got new pants and caps,” shouted the biggest boy.
“That’s the stuff!” approved Jeff.
“I wanted to find out about that, and now the wedding can go right on.”
“Come in and see them, Jeff,” coaxed the girl.
“You leave Jeff alone, he’ll see them to-morrow, that is if he will be able to see anybody or anything but Ann,” the mother laughed.
Jeff sat down on the steps, smoking and chatting for the better part of an hour. Franklin accompanied him to his buggy when he decided at last to move on. The air was still oppressive, the smell of burning more perceptible.
“Bush fire!” said Jack. “And pretty bad one, I guess. Somewhere in the Larochelle country, forty miles to the west of this.”
Bush fires, however, in that country were not so rare as to arouse much interest. Most of the heavy timber of the Bramhope country had been burned off thirty years before, when the little town and a score of other settlements had been wiped out by a tremendous conflagration. The Larochelle country was different, being thickly wooded and thinly populated, a woodsman’s country with a few lumberjacks’ cottages dotted here and there about it, and an occasional small farm on a cleared space in the forest depths.
Looks and smells as if it might be a nasty one,” agreed Jeff.
“A man came through this way in a car this afternoon and he said he’d just come along from the fire region,” said Franklin. “Told me they’d been fighting that fire for the better part of a week; they thought they had it in hand yesterday, but the west wind sprang up and started things sizzling again. They’re getting scared for some of the lone settlers in the bush and have warned them out. The mischief is, with those folks, they’ll hang on till the last minute and then be hard put to it to get clear.”
“Not much chance of a change of wind,” said Jeff, looking up into the dull darkness. “More rather than less of it as the night goes on.” He paused a moment to remove the halter from the head of his horse, his eyes glancing westward in the direction of the Larochelle country. There was the faintest red glow tinging the darkness. Franklin noticed it at the same time.
“And that’s all of forty miles off,” observed the latter. “It will be worse before it’s better. Well, good night, Jeff, we’ll be there to see the skids put under you in the morning.”
IT WAS quite dark when Jeff finished his journey and stabled the meditative steed. Then he went into his little hangar to see that all was right with his plane. He felt, somehow, that he was doing a rather shabby trick in leaving it during the epochal days immediately before him, and as he fussed about it and played with it, he explained to it apologetically the exact situation.
Most of his luck had come with it. Its speedy wings had enabled him to run down the absconding confidential man of the Foxcroft Mining Company, and thus had given him a lucrative job and a cheque when he and Ann decided that it would be wicked to waste any more of life in single wretchedness; it had earned, in swift pursuit of Pemberton, one magnificent piano that presently would tinkle melodiously under the flying fingers of Ann, and a patent washer that would make Ann’s washing day a sort of drawing-room affair.
If it had not been for the ’bus he would never have had the thousand to lend to Jack Franklin, and never would have been able to get square with old Peterson, and, incidentally, collect the sum of one dollar of which he had been ungenerously mulcted. It was the ’plane that had put the new dresses on the backs of the Franklin girls and new pants on the legs of the Franklin boys. It did seem tough that on the great day, the day of days, the contributor in largest measure to his happiness—excluding Ann—should be cooped up in a dark, silent, and solitary hangar, while his world celebrated.
He went over the ’plane with affectionate care, missing no part, rubbing and cleaning and polishing, until it was speckless and perfect. He filled the tanks more as a concession to his loved side-partner than from any thought that he might have occasion to use his ship before he and Ann returned to the commonplace world. Then, everything in shipshape order, he passed into the garden to the front door of the dark little house that was quietly, but—as Jeff felt—alertly waiting for the big days that were to follow this last bachelor night. The scent of the roses came to him with welcoming fragrance, for despite the lateness of the season, the clambering bush on the porch was still thickly covered with blooms. Then Jeff entered the still house. There was no solitariness, though, in its silence. He fancied he could hear soft musical voices in the darkness, murmurous laughter, the quiet patter of feet, the pleasant swish of a woman’s garments. He listened to it all for some moments, then broke the spell.
“Getting sort of mushy,” he grunted in self-rebuke, then passed on into the kitchen and lit the lamp. He paused for a moment, his eyes surveying the snug little place with a vast content in them. Then he went upstairs, opened the wardrobe, and took out the superlative garments in which he was to array himself on the morrow, the smart black coat, the vest in which the solemn and the sporty were chastely blended, the lavender-grey trousers, the tall hat—fit emblem of his passage from the irresponsibilities of bachelorhood to the seriousness of the more blessed estate. He laid them all out on the bed, together with the minor items of his glorious apparel.
“I only hope I won’t gum up all the show,” he said, reflecting on the intricacies of the marriage service.
Leaving the raiment all ready to don, he went downstairs again, proposing to put in a solid half hour’s grind on the bits of the service he felt he was shaky in, but this purpose was balked by the appearance of Fairleigh, his neighbor.
“The missus saw your light in the kitchen and sent me over to get you for a bite of late supper. She’s got ham and eggs on the fire so you’re to come right off,” said the visitor. “Want something to hold you up at a time like this.”
“I had supper in Bramhope, but ham and eggs sound good to me,” responded Jeff with alacrity. “I say, Jim, about the ring. The best man keeps it till the right time comes, then does he give it to the parson, or does he give it to you and you give it to the parson? I’m all balled up over it.”
“Oh, forget it, Jeff,” grinned Fairleigh. “So long as you have a ring ready the parson’ll see it goes where it belongs. Buck up, son, it isn’t half as hard as you think it’ll be. You just put that Prayer Book away and don’t ball yourself up any more. Between Ann and the parson and the rest of us, we’ll see you’re hitched tight enough before you get out of church. It isn’t getting the knot tied that bothers lots of folks, that’s easy enough, it’s getting it untied afterwards.”
JEFF regarded Fairleigh with stony disapproval; such levity was ill-timed, if not improper. He put out the light, locked the door and went over to interview the ham and eggs.
“Some blaze over Larochelle way,” said Fairleigh, as they were crossing from one farm to the other. “They say it’s gaining instead of being checked, with no likelihood of its being pulled up till it gets to the stripped lands. We will be lucky if we don’t hear of some poor souls being trapped by it in the deep bush.”
“That’s not very likely,” replied Jeff. “Everybody will have had plenty of notice.”
“Yes, but where folks have their all at stake they stand by it to the last minute, hoping things will turn out right,” said Fairleigh.
It was half-past eleven when Jeff returned to his house. It seemed to him that the dim glare in the western sky was deeper than it had been when he accompanied Fairleigh to the repast. The air seemed smokier, the smell of burning wood more pungent. He did not enter the house at once as he was not at all sleepy, and after two or three great rashers of ham and three or four eggs, to say nothing about Mrs. Fairleigh’s excellent coffee, Jeff thought a digestive pipe would be about the right thing. He didn’t want to invite a nightmare in which a menacing clergyman would forbid his marrying Ann because he had flunked shamefully on his end of the service. So he dropped into the arbor seat, charged his pipe, lit it, drew in and emitted half a dozen puffs, and felt easier in his mind.
As he thought of the good that had come to him, he contrasted his fortune with that of many who had gone out with him in ’14 on the Great Adventure and who, this night, were sleeping their long sleep in the scarred but saved alien land across the broad expanse of sea. He now recalled them to memory, pals of his own, made more than kin by the ties of comradeship in fiery fight, men from this very country over which his eyes looked. He named them, half-aloud, affectionately, reverently, prayerfully, as they filed before him in the semi-darkness, a gallant, glorious company. Some had worked with him in the Bramhope mines, others had come from the farms that dotted the hillsides, and some again from the wooded lands that lay beneath the threatening glare that tinged the western sky. In a score of homes within daylight range of the spot at which he sat, father and mother, wife and child, sorrowed proudly on account of one who would never tread the hill-slopes and wooded trails again.
There was Jim Blake, who had left wife and child on one of the small farmsteads somewhere on the border of the Larochelle country. Jim had transferred to the Air Service with Jeff, they had been trained together, had gone overseas together, had been together on the fighting front. Jeff recalled a day when he had been hard pressed by four enemy ’planes, his ’bus crippled, and the chances of pulling out right the slimmest. It had been Jim who had dived into the fight to his aid, with the result that two Hun machines had been crashed in flames, the others driven off, and a safe return made by Jeff and his pal to their own lines. Only a few weeks later Jim had been killed in a fight, and it had been one of Jeff’s melancholy satisfactions, on his return, to carry the word to Mrs. Blake of the great life and the soldier-hero’s death of her man. She and her child were living with her father and mother on the land Jim had farmed.
WITH the thought came a new sense of uneasiness to Jeff, and he looked out again to the red stain on the horizon’s blackness. The Blake farm was near the eastern edge of the Larochelle forest. Could it be possible that it was in danger? The report Fairleigh had given him was that the fire was gaining, with little likelihood of its being checked until the cleared lands starved it out. He got to his feet and walked out on to the hillside. There was no more to be seen from there than from his garden, and he returned, restless, undecided, feeling impelled to do something and yet not knowing what he should do. It seemed to him that Jim Blake walked by his side, seeking something, asking something of him.
Jeff had installed a telephone in the house a few days before, and he now hurried to it. The service was ordinarily cut off at eleven, and it was now far past that hour, but persistent ringing roused Central, and Jeff persuaded the operator to connect him with the police station on the edge of the fire-swept region. The reply to his inquiries confirmed the worst apprehensions. So far from being checked the conflagration was spreading and there, was no probability of its being checked until it reached the cleared lands that fringed the broad lake. It had swept through the woods like a great army with a centre and two mighty wings, and the wings had come together, encircling a wide area of doomed country. Most of the people in the cleared forest farms had abandoned their homes and reached safety but some were missing.
“What about the Blakes?” asked Jeff.
“The old folks came through in time with a load of their belongings, and the man was going back for the rest and Mrs. Blake and the child, but a shift of the wind brought the wings of the fire together and now they can’t get through. Maybe Mrs. Blake with her baby got out at some place we are not connected with yet, but there’s no word of their safety. If they’re not out now, there is no hope for them. Their place is in the middle of a seven or eight mile strip that’s hemmed in on every side,” was the clear reply.
“Look out for me in my ’plane in about three-quarters of an hour’s time,” said Jeff. “I’ll try for a landing on the lake beach.” And he hung up and made a dive for the door.
Fairleigh, in his first sleep, was roused by a thunderous pummelling on his door, and came drowsily to the window.
‘Come quick and give me a hand with the ’bus.” said Jeff. "No time for questions or answers, hurry up, clothes or no clothes.”
Back to the house, Jeff shed his clothes and jumped into an old uniform that was hanging in a cupboard. He felt more at home in that than in anything else; it was part of the ’plane and himself. He was busy in the hangar when Fairleigh and his man came along.
“Going over to St. Pierre on the edge of the Larochelle country,” said Jeff, forestalling questions. “The fire’s circled a patch of land there with houses on it, and there may be people in those houses. I got the police station on the wire just now, and they say that my pal, Jim Blake’s wife and child are missing, and I’ve got to find out if that’s so.”
“But it’s your wedding day, Jeff,” said Fairleigh. “It’s after one o’clock now, and you’ve got to be at church in ten hours."
“Don’t I know it?” snapped Jeff. “All the more reason why I get off without a lot of talk delay. Come on, old girl, more night-hawking. Some day we’ll settle down to respectable hours. Look here, boys, I’ve just gone for a fly round. No buzzing it through the neighborhood where I’m off to or what I’m going for I’ve a hunch I’ll be back in time for my date with the parson. And I don’t want Ann to know; it would only worry her needlessly, so for once in your lives keep mum, and if anybody should get very persistent, say I’ve gone to get something I’d forgotten.”
“All right, if you say so, Jeff—but—” began Fairleigh.
“But—But—Leave that to the billygoats!” yelled Jeff, swinging into the fuselage. “Let’s get going. Mind her tail, Dick! Switch off!”
“Contact!” yelled Fairleigh.
Jeff switched on, shouting “Contact!” in reply. The propellor was swung and the engine started with a roar.
A few moments later Jeff was away, heading over the lake in the direction of the fiery glow in the sky. Fairleigh and Dick, the farm-hand, watched him till sight of the ’plane was lost in the darkness and the drone of the engine died away.
“Some way to start a wedding day,” the farmer muttered gloomily.
“He’s a bird all right,” grinned Dick. “But you’ll see he’ll be on time when the bells start ringing. What are you going to tell the Missus?” For Dick knew something of the cross-examination they would have to face.
“Ask me another!” grunted Fairleigh knowing what was before him.
“Tell her that a pal called Jeff up, and he’s gone to meet him,” suggested the wilier-brained servant.
“Time be was married,” replied Mrs. Fairleigh acidly, when her husband uttered what he believed to be a prevarication, but what was absolute truth. “Ann’ll stop that night-hawking.”
“Maybe so,” conceded her husband, seeking refuge in slumber.
CLIMBING high to surmount the ridge of tall hills that divided the long stretch of flat lands, that reached to Bramhope, from the wooded Larochelle valley, Jeff came into full view of the conflagration that had swept over sixty miles of thickly-forested country. It seemed, in its terrible splendor, framed against the blackness of the night, to be a world ablaze. Thick massy seas of rolling yellow smoke drifted before the western breeze that, fortunately, was diminishing in strength.
In the van of the fire, like the cavalry of an invading army, the gorgeous plumes of their riders’ helms tossing in the wind, tall columns of flame rose and fell; behind them was a red-glowing sea. The heat of it came to Jeff almost insupportably, and he climbed higher to get out of its range. From the height he could make out distinctly a ring of dark country as yet unravaged by the flames. The lake, on whose shore the little town of St. Pierre was built, was now beneath him, and he circled it twice, near the ground, to make quite sure of his landing place, although he had already a general knowledge of the place. His coming being expected, some preparation had been made for him, and a flare had been lighted on the beach to indicate a desirable spot for him to land and, after making as sure as he could, from personal examination, Jeff made the glide easily, touched firm sand and taxied safely to a standstill. A crowd gathered around him at once, for in addition to the villagers belonging to St. Pierre and half a dozen near-by communities, who had banded together to fight the terrible invader, were the refugees from the farms in the fire-swept woods, cast-down and despondent-looking, as indeed they might well be, having lost all, save life, in the flames.
“Got everybody out?” yelled Jeff to the police officer who came up to greet him.
“As far as we know, except Mrs. Blake and her child,” was the reply. “She sent the old folks in with the best of the furniture and the only team of horses they had. There seemed no immediate danger then, but the wind veered and shut the door of escape before we knew it. We’ve tried to get through, but—you see how it is.” And he pointed to the advance line of the fire. “It will come no farther, for we’ve back-fired a wide strip, but you can see what chance there is for those inside to get out, or those outside to get in.”
“Just where does the house lie, from here?” asked Jeff. A dozen eager voices shouted the information.
“But, nothing can be done,” said the officer in a low voice. “It seems terrible to have to stand by idly and know that Jim Blake’s wife and child are to die that way, but what can be done? We can’t get through.”
“When you can’t get under or through the only way is to go over,” said Jeff. “Jim, you see, was a pal of mine—though it wouldn’t make any difference, you know, if he hadn’t been—and we lived together and ate together, and slept together, and sometimes fought together, and—well, we can’t do any less than try or any more than fail. No time to waste. Got any mechanic in the bunch that knows anything about an aeroplane?”
There was one grimy-faced young man who said he had been an “AK Emma,” Leaside Camp, Toronto.
“And I’ll go with you if you’ll take me,” said the spunky lad.
“Fine! That’s the stuff!” said Jeff. “But I hope to have passengers on the way back, so another time, son. Now a couple of you to keep her tail down. No quitting with this bird, tail up and spurs out if she gets half a chance.”
THERE was a burst of cheering, that sounded even above the roar of the engine as the ’plane sped easily over the smooth sand, rose gradually and made a wide sweep of the lake. Climbing into the wind that had moved somewhat north of west, Jeff found himself presently well above the fire and in a position to survey the untouched area beneath. It was like looking down on an island floating in a rolling crimson sea. One thing in his favor was that the wind was blowing from the direction in which the flames were the least menacing. The heat came up to him in great gusts as from the mouth of a gigantic furnace. There was no time to waste, decisions must be briskly taken.
Circling about over the seething cauldron he brought the ’plane up into the wind and when on the edge of the untouched area, prepared for the swift descent. Cutting off his engine he pushed the joystick forward, and went into a sharp nosedive; when within a bare two hundred feet of the ground he came out of the dive, surveyed the ground beneath him and saw the Blake house just in front with a long, cleared meadow in front of it. The heat was almost insupportable. He made a sharp turn into wind, managed a landing, and, to his immense joy, saw a woman with something closely huddled in her arms stagger toward him, the water dripping from her—evidence of the refuge she had sought from the scorching heat. She was unable to speak, her face was scorched to Indian hue. His arms went about her and lifted her into the ’plane, belting her and the child in securely, then he hastened to make the arrangements for starting up without aid, since in his eccentric landing he had “lost his 'props’.”
Luckily close by there were fence poles and a few cords of pulp wood, from which he selected emergency “chocks” to put in front of the wheels. Then he was faced with the problem of starting his engine alone. He had done it many times before and prayed earnestly that he might be successful this time.
Fortunately, his engine was one that would throttle well. With the switch off the explosive mixture was sucked in. Jeff walked round to the switch, putting this to “contact,” and closed the throttle. Then he took a giant pull on his propellor, swinging it with every ounce of muscle. And—it caught, and whirred away right merrily.
The heat was surging round him like a veritable sea, the paint on the sides of the ship was hanging out in great, bulging blisters. There was, fortunately, room enough before him in the scorched meadow to let him take off straight into wind without taxi-ing around first. He shifted the “chocks” until they barely held the bus, and hastily he tumbled into his cockpit.
A great sigh of thanksgiving rose to his lips as the faithful plane tore over the ground, zooming at the edge of the meadow as if it knew the hell it was escaping. The machine responded as if it had been a thing of life, climbing steeply and suddenly until Jeff was enabled to right her and make a safe dash across the northern edge of the fire ring. Hot as was the air beyond the inferno of burning forest, it had never seemed sweeter to Jeff Crane and his human freight, as they drew the first draughts of the northern breeze into their scorched lungs; never had green trees been fairer to their sight as they now looked down on them in the fiery light; never had water appeared so beautiful as the waves of Lake Pierre rolling placidly beneath.
He saw the edge of the sand strip lined with people, cheering and waving for an attempt, even if it might prove to have been no more than that.
Then just as he was taking the ground there was a rush of people. In his endeavor to avoid them there was a quick swerve, and the much tried ’plane that had done her work so brilliantly in great emergencies tilted forward on her nose as part of the under-carriage crumpled. Jeff was conscious of a mighty crack on the head, and then he went to sleep.
When he woke the sun was up, and from the appearance of things had been up quite a while.
“Jiminy crickets!” exclaimed Jeff. “I’ve slept late! About the only time in my life I’ve done it, and, of course, had to select this day.”
THERE was a scientific-looking gentleman with whiskers and spectacles surveying him curiously, and, as Jeff thought, rather offensively.
“You might bid yourself good-bye for me,” said Jeff petulantly. “I want to get dressed, and, not being a Louis Something of France. I like to superintend the job myself.”
“A soothing draft, perhaps,” said the gentleman.
“Presently, downstairs,” responded Jeff.
“But you can’t get up,” protested the guardian.
“Let me argue to contrary,” said Jeff, assuming the perpendicular position in rebuttal. “Practice licks theory any time.”
“But you mustn’t,” “Whiskers” sought to dissuade.
“But I’ve done it,” said Jeff triumphantly. “Now kindly go, I’m modest in spots, and one of ’em has broken out right now. Don’t you know I’ve got to be at church to be married at eleven o’clock?”
"But, my dear sir, your head!”
“What about it?”
“You can’t get up, travel, and be married, with a head like that.”
“It’s the only one I’ve got,” snapped Jeff. “How many do you expect a man to have, one for work-days and another for Sundays, just as if it was a mere conscience? This is the only one I’ve got, and it’s got to do me for being born, getting married, and dying, I guess. What—!”
And at this minute the door opened and a woman came in bearing in her arms a baby. She was a dark-looking woman, with bandages about her head and face, but Jeff could see a smile on her face and laughter in her eyes. He pulled a cover from the bed and draped himself in it, for his costume consisted of trousers and shirt, and he felt decidedly négligé.
“Jeff!” she said. “I heard you talking and had to come in.”
"Mary Blake!” and then everything came back to Jeff. “Let’s look at Jim’s kid! Some kid, too. I've been trying to induce this gentleman to get out of my room so that I could get rigged up. You know, Mary I’ve to be at church to be married at eleven o’clock, and what the time is now I’ve no idea.”
“It’s a quarter past nine, Jeff,” she replied.
"Suffering Peter!" shouted Jeff. "What's this—St. Pierre? What did I get, a bat over the head? Well that’s my least vulnerable spot, a bullet once tried it and caromed off in disgust. I wonder how the bus is? I’d sooner have broken a leg than have anything happen to it.”
But Jeff, won’t you let me say a word about what you did for us?” she asked.
"What kind of a word?" he replied gruffly. "Say it, if you want to, Mary, that is if it'll make you feel better; but you know how it goes. If there were two of us, over at the Front, closer pals than any other pair in our lot it was your Jim and Jeff Crane, and palship like that has to go all the way and forever, and reaches out not only to each other but what belonged or belongs to each. I was thinking of Jim this morning, my luck against the price he paid, and with the thought came the call Jim's call, then I went to the phone, and learned about you. So you see, Mary you haven’t lost him, he's with you still. I say, Mary, come on over to the wedding and bring the kid.”
"I'd like to, Jeff, but look at me, and then there's no way of going,” she replied in smiles and tears.
“Let’s see what the ’bus says. She’s never failed me yet, and I'll not believe she'll throw me in this hour. So get ready Mary,” replied Jeff, tearing out of the house in sadly incomplete attire and heading for the beach.
His heart almost descended to his boots as he saw the second-best idol of his heart on the beach. She was a rather pathetic sight, her fine paint blistered and hanging in mournful-looking strips, her wings brown and scorched in appearance, one of the wheels badly bent.
AN EXAMINATION showed, however, that things were not as bad as appearances portended. What had seemed to be serious scorching was little more than smoke-staining, the body was uninjured, the crumpled wheel could be straightened so that a landing might be made on it, with care. Jeff and the mechanic, with all the unskilled help they needed, set to work at once to make what repairs were necessary. It seemed to Jeff that misfortunes never came singly.
He wanted to telephone to the rectory to put the minister in possession of the news, but the wire was down and would not be repaired until late in the day; the nearest telegraph office was twenty odd miles away. By the time a messenger could get in with a wire Jeff hoped to be in Paradise Corners. The fire was still raging, and had overflowed the lands from which Mary Blake and her child had been rescued during the night. It was now in its final stage, having wrought all the mischief of which it was capable.
It was a quarter after ten when, the emergency patching up done, Jeff climbed into his pilot’s seat and began to test the engine. It was fifteen minutes to eleven when everything was in order. At the last moment, however, Mary Blake decided not to go with him, and Jeff felt that perhaps it was just as well. It would look a bit swanky and grandstand stuff to take her along; folks would ask a lot of silly questions, and since the telephone wire was down, it might be possible for him to get off with Ann before any ballyhoo started up. By the time they got back folks would have come to their senses and have let the thing cool off. Everything was for the best.
There was a rather snippetty young chap among the crowd who seemed in a hurry to get over to Bramhope, and asked Jeff for a lift in the ’bus, and as he was as persistent as a mosquito the flying man promised the place to him as the best way to get rid of his importunities. So amid a lot of cheering he took the air.
There was a terrible weight on his mind. He’d be all of twenty minutes late as it was, and that; twenty minutes would be twenty agonies to Ann. Besides, what did it look like, for a bridegroom to leave his bride to hang round the church for twenty minutes waiting for him? Then—he looked like a last year’s scarecrow. True, he had washed his face and had had a quick shave, but his clothes were extremely disreputable, an ancient uniform that had been more than passé in France, and had not improved with age. If he went home to don more fitting garb that would add about sixty more agonies to Ann. Not if he knew it. Anything would be better than that.
"Have to land at old Peterson’s again,” he grumbled to himself. “Bet he’ll soak me two dollars this time, and like enough want to clap me in jail as well. Still—!” Then he caught sight of a church spire rising out of a background of maple bush, and his heart lightened.
It wasn’t the kind of hasting to the wedding he had promised himself, and Ann would be amply justified in bidding him go home, wash his face, and put on some nice clothes, before asking a sweet, silk and lace and orange-blossomy girl to promise to love, honor, and obey him. Still—he grinned—she would be justified in doing it, but she wouldn’t do it, and, if she mind, Aunt Catherine and Uncle Elijah and the rest didn’t matter. So in a mood of blended jubilance and defiance, Jeff and his passenger sped on through the October sunlight.
PARADISE CORNERS woke to greet the great day in the best of high spirits. Work, apart from necessary chores, was relegated to the background. A wedding wasn’t an every day event, and a wedding like this of Jeff Crane and Ann Moore might conceivably take place once or so in a thousand years, so it behooved folks to make the most of it. Never had the church been so wonderfully decorated. There was crimson carpet all along the main aisle and right down the front steps to the place where the bride’s car would halt. There were autumn leaves and flowers everywhere. The choir stalls were packed with singers; children, women, and men. There were enough parsons to christen or marry or bury the whole parish in an hour or two’s time. Sunday School children, the Franklin kids among them, lay in decorous ambush, half way down the church, with bunches of flowers with which to bombard the married pair on their way out of church. There were soldiers from a dozen different regiments, men in gay kilts and tartans, men in sober khaki, men wearing the R.A.F. wings, and all of them with service medals on their breasts.
All Paradise Corners, most of Bramhope, many from a dozen different towns and hamlets, were there, in the church and outside the church. By ten o’clock the church was jammed, and then consternation was roused by the strange intelligence that Jeff had gone out in his'plane during the night, and had not returned. Fairleigh and his hired man had seen him go, but were rather guiltily indefinite as to the surprising errand of the bridegroom to be. Half-past ten and Jeff reported “Missing!”
All kinds of things were imagined. Jeff had met with an accident somewhere; he might be dead or dying. Was the day, so eagerly anticipated as a grand festival, to be turned into a day of blackest mourning? Jeff’s soldier friends who had come out ahead of the bridal party to meet the bride at the church looked much perturbed. Some of them got Fairleigh and his man into a private room and extorted the truth out of him; then it became known that Jeff had gone into the Larochelle country during the night to see about Jim Blake’s folks. Thereupon a great gloom descended on the company.
At five minutes to eleven, punctually, Ann drove up, with her bridesmaids, Aunt Catherine, and Uncle Elijah. If Ann had seemed to be pretty before, she was entrancingly lovely this morning. She seemed to sense something wrong as soon as she stepped into the porch. The news was broken to her, and while her face paled, she held her head high.
“He’ll come,” she said, with quiet confidence.
“Come into the vestry and wait for him there,” invited the minister.
“No, I’ll wait for him in the open church,” she said, and she had her procession formed and walked up the aisle as if Jeff had been awaiting her there. The bell tolled eleven, the hands of the clock crawled round to the quarter, then the half hour. It was then that the ear of one of the waiting airmen was cocked up at a sound that greeted it.
Before he could reach the door, the drone of the engine of a ’plane was distinctly heard, the noise deepening to a thunderous roar as it swept over the church to the Peterson field.
“It don’t look like Jeff’s ’plane, that was all spick and span,” said one of the uplookers.
“It’s Jeff all right,” shouted an airman, tearing across to the landing place. Jeff was down and out almost as soon as the mob got to the field, and the little snippetty chap was a close second. A score of voices demanded where Jeff had been and what he’d been doing, but before he could get a word in, his passenger announced that he was a newspaper reporter, and wanted to do what few reporters ever did or will do—give away information that is a “scoop.”
“I’ll tell you what he did,” said Mr. Snippetty. “The bush fire ringed in Jim Blake’s wife and child on their farm in the woods last night, and this Jeff Crane man just flew into hell, grabbed both woman and kid out and brought them to safety; that’s why he’s a bit late for his wedding.”
“Somebody bat that loose-mouth over the head for me?” said Jeff wrathfully. “Come on, Bill—” this to his airman pal and groomsman. “Let me go into the vestry, and have a word with Ann first. Maybe she’d rather I’d go home and get into my swell duds.”
“If you change a stitch I’ll put a drum of cartridges into you,” replied friend Bill. “You’re the real Jeff Crane, the fighting bird, and we’re going to marry you as you are, and Ann’s going to get you in full feather. March, my lad; you’ve ordered me round good and plenty in your time, this is where I get a bit of my own back ”
HOW the news got to the church no one seemed to know, but it was there before Jeff, and the congregation stood to greet the smoky, dingy, but soldier-smart figure, as he strode up the aisle. Ann had got it too, and a new radiance came into her face as she saw him, the fighting man in war, the fighting man in peace, and together they moved toward the altar.
And Jeff found it all wonderfully simple and easy. Since the day of its purchase the wedding ring had never left his person, and at the beginning of the service he turned it over to his best man, who acted as coolly and smartly as if he had been hooking up couples since infancy. Between the parson and Bill they put Jeff into the cerulean as neatly as ever he had taken the air in his ’bus.
“I’ll spoil all your fine things, Ann,” whispered Jeff, as they stood aside in the vestry while the witnesses signed the register. “Did ever such a grubby scarecrow get married?”
Jeff hadn’t kissed her at the end of the ceremony, and the throng about them were chaffing him.
“They’re to be worn just once, Jeff,” she replied, and he corrected the omission.
Then there was the march down the carpeted aisle, between the standing rows of people, the passage through the ranks of the soldier lads, the bombardment of the twain with flowers, the Franklin kids, in their new best, being among the most strenuous pelters.
“Where’s the ’bus?” said Jeff, a bit uneasily, as he sat down with Ann to the wedding breakfast in the village hall.
“Make your mind easy,” said the ubiquitous Bill, who seemed to forget nothing. “Wild Joe Farquahar’s whizzing her home. Hear him!”—and the familiar drone was heard in the sky.
If Wild Joe had her all was right, so Jeff unburdened his mind of almost the last care. There were speeches to be listened to, and Jeff had to make one, but the speechiest occasion comes to an end, and the car came to take them away to catch the early afternoon train. They were going to Bramhope station to which Ann’s baggage had been sent, and Jeff had to call at the little house, on the way, for his belongings. He was stepping into the car after Ann when Wild Joe came up.
“Stable her all right, Joe?” asked Jeff.
“Neat and comfy,” replied Joe. “There was an old longhorn up in the field there who told me he’d impounded the machine for a two dollar damage charge.”
“Pay him?” asked Jeff, going to his pocket.
“Pay him nothing,” replied Joe. “And so he got into the looky-see seat and said he'd stay there till he got paid, so I naturally belted him in, and took him for a ride. I gave him a loop or two and a tail spin and he paid me ten to let him out at the end of the trip, and I laid it out in candy for the kids. Peterson he said his name was.
And so, in vast content, Jeff and Mrs. Jeff sped to Bramhope to face another waiting crowd. There were the Glenns, Mr. and Mrs., and Alice, on the platform, having driven home from the ceremony at the church, Jack Franklin and his wife had sped in to speed the couple off, and a woman in black, with a baby in her arms, drove up in a car before the train appeared. She was scorched with fire, her face bandaged, but no touch of fire was on the child’s face. Jeff pushed his way through the eager throng to her side, drawing Ann with him.
“My pal Jim’s wife and baby, Ann,” said Jeff. And what Mary said to Ann, and what Ann said to Mary, none but the two of them ever knew, but when the train came in, and Ann joined her husband on the way to their compartment, there was a brighter glory on her face, a deeper pride in her eyes, than any had seen there before.