The love story of two adventurers of the air who almost crashed their hope of happiness
THE whine of the motor, the swerve of the plane’s response to his wishes, the pressure of the wind on his face— these things were joy to Sloane Hardy.
As a stunt flyer for the Crates Flying Circus he was supremely in his element.
He was content, in a way, and he never failed to feel a warm glow when, after a dare-devil performance, he taxied up to the crowd and smiled acknowledgment of the applause.
He was, of course, aware of the figure he cut, as he strolled about the field in mahogany boots, grey whipcord breeches and leather flying helmet.
He knew that he was tall and not bad for romantic young girls to look at. He knew that he was vain, too, but he forgave himself for it and nobody else ever objected to it.
He liked being the star pilot of the flying circus.
But he fell down one notch from stardom the day John Crates hired Barbara Bradfield.
That stunt of hers on a trapeze bar slung beneath a moving airplane was the best crowd-thriller to be had. John Crates hired her and he did not keep from Sloane the fact that she would get more salary than anybody else on the field, including Sloane himself.
Sloane was resentful at first—a little. But after he saw her go through her first performance, resentment changed to admiration.
He had gone through his dizzy succession of stunts— loops, falling leaves, barrel rolls, spins, and that final dive that always scared the crowd into thinking he was going to crash. He had levelled off and was coming on to the field for a landing when he noticed that another ship was streaking down the runway. That was annoying, for his own performance did not properly end until he had taxied up to the crowd and taken his applause.
However, he was not going to be in bad grace about losing his stardom. As a graceful gesture—he had an instinct for them—he decided to escort the trapeze girl’s plane into the air. He followed the other plane as it circled the field, gaining altitude.
At three thousand feet, the girl stood up in the cockpit and waved to the crowd. Her pilot dropped the trapeze bar and it hung from the landing gear, the ropes stretching back horizontally on the wind.
Sloane watched her climb out of her seat and stand between the wings and step to the leading edge, with the propeller whirling two feet from her. She sat on the wing a moment and then she slipped down to the spreader bar. She took the trapeze ropes, one in each hand, and prepared to slide down them.
He was close enough to see the expression on her face. He saw her eyes grow wide and her mouth clench into a frozen line of tensity. Good lord, she oughtn’t to do it if she was afraid ! He even wished that he could stop her. . Not wanting to fly close enough to make her more nervous, he banked his plane to the right, still watching.
His heart pounded up in the roof of his mouth, it seemed. It would have been less nerve-wracking to watch if she had been a man. But a woman . . . Women faint sometimes, under stress. What if she fainted? What if her grasp loosened for the briefest fraction of an instant?
He had no desire to see any more of it. It made him sick.
Pushing forward on the throttle, he guided his plane in a spiral down toward the flying field.
It was a comforting relief to look back over his shoulder and see the blue plane coming down behind him. The girl seemed secure now, waving to the crowd from where she stood in comparative safety between the wings, her trapeze s)ung up on her arm so that it would not interfere with the plane’s landing.
After that, Sloane never watched her perform. He felt certain that unless she gave up the stunt she would fall one day. He simply did not want to see it. When she would be up, holding on to life merely by the grip of slender, feminine fingers on a little round bar, he would resolutely refuse to look.
“Nervous ordeal” as a phrase applied to Sloane Hardy seems inappropriate, particularly if you ever saw the way he daily risked his own life stunting in a
He saw her fall backward off the spreader bar and swing between the ropes. Down she slid, head first, toward the trapeze. On she went, past the bar and for an instant it seemed that she had
slipped . . Oh, she was still there . She flung her
arms out and hung by her knees. Where did she get her nerve to do that? He flashed a glance to the ground. Buildings were mere toys. Three thousand feet. If she fell ... plane. But that is exactly what he went through every time Barbara Bradfield was in the air. His iron nerves were steady only when he contemplated his own dangers. Wrhen he thought of hers, he was a shivering coward, afraid even to watch her. Usually, bte contrived to be distractingly busy, fumbling with the engine of his plane, anything to keep him occupied. When the crowd began to murmur, he would jump and his heart would seem to stop beating, until the murmur rose into a cheer and let him know that once more she had come off with her life.
At first, he did not fully understand why he felt such a reluctance about her thrilling the flying-field crowds. She was just a pretty girl, formerly a trapeze artist in a circus. W'hat if she did kill herself? What was that to him? And then, one evening at dusk, Sloane realized what it was to him.
He was in love with her. Love at first sight, he supposed. However, it took him three weeks to recognize it. She had been with the flying circus three weeks and they had barnstormed in three western towns, when finally he put the name to the way he felt about her.
Appropriately, it happened on the flying field. The last joy-hopper had paid his three dollars for a fiveminute ride; the mechanics had put canvas covers over the motors of the circus’s dozen planes; Sloane had worked with his engine until it was too dark, and then, as he was walking off the field, he saw her. She was leaning against the fuselage of an airplane, staring dreamily off to where the evening star was beginning to brighten above the last traces of crimson left by the sunset.
“Going to town, Miss Bradfield?” he asked, breezily. She turned and he saw the white of her face faintly contrasting against the deepening night.
“Yes, in a moment.”
“Come and ride with me in my old gas cart.”
“That’s nice of you, Captain Hardy. But what’s the hurry? It’s such a pretty night.”
“I’m not in a hurry; just hungry.”
Nevertheless, he stopped and, as she made no move to go, they remained standing there. She was leaning against the plane and he was grinning down at her.
He became aware of an enchantment, a sweet something that grew from her presence outward on to the beauty of the night. He felt the sort of loveliness that a beautiful woman sometimes gives a man when they are in a moonlit garden, and there is music, but the magic was no less potent for being distilled by a slim girl—an ex-ring artist wearing breeches and boots—set among the shadowy bulks of airplanes, where the atmosphere was streaked with odors of gasoline and lubricating oil. He had felt that sort of enchantment before, but always in more gentle surroundings.
“It is a pretty night,” he agreed.
“It makes you think of home . . . Now I don’t know why I said that. I never had one.”
“Never had a home?”
“No, I grew up in a circus tent. But every time I see the stars come out, it makes me feel that I did have a home, somewhere, and it seems like I am away from it.” Sloane could not imagine why stars would have that effect upon her, but not being concerned with conditioned thought trends, he ventured:
“Maybe you’ll have one, some day.”
“Maybe—when I have love.”
Love! The wray she uttered the word made it cut into him. Love. That was it. He loved her. The realization seemed to dazzle him. For there was a wild moment—then, without knowing just how it had come about, he realized that he had her in his arms. Her body was soft, yielding, willing. His was full of singing fire.
And so this was love. This was the thing he had never even thought about. This he had never experienced, except as a game you played with women who considered it a game also. This was the thing, which in its absence had left him free to live adventurously, recklessly, gaily and—emptily.
But he had no thoughts about it at the moment, no words for it. There was just a blind feeling that made his voice tremble when he said:
“You are wonderful, little girl.”
Suddenly, she twisted out of his arms and pushed him away.
“Oh, I can’t do this. What will you think of me?” “I—I love you.”
And then she was back in his arms and he was looking down into the white blur which was all the darkness left of her face.
“I mean the real thing.”
“Do you, Sloane?”
“Yes . . marriage and . . . and—”
He broke off, but his embarrassed stammering was enough to convince her of the truth that he was trying to tell. After that, there was no need for words.
They had a few bright days of quick happiness. Days that were long stretches of time through which they waited for evening and each other. Days of secret joy.
For some reason she did not want it known that they planned to be married, to have a home, children.
“Nobody needs to know,” she said. “It’s not their affair and if they knew they would only be cracking jokes about it.”
“All right, darling. We won’t tell them.”
The evenings held starlit hours of bliss for them. Sloane quickly became adept at getting her off alone, usually on the pretext of taking her for a ride.
“It’s wonderful, big, handsome Sloane, to know that I am going to have you always ...” She said that often and each time he answered: “You are the wonderful thing about it.”
It got to be a sort of formula and when she recited her part of it, he would give her a gentle kiss and then, when he said she was the wonderful thing about it, he would give her one not so gentle.
“Do you love me, darling?”
“More than anything.”
“How much is that?”
“Let’s see—more than a pilot loves happy landings.” But there were two things to make Sloane unhappy. One was the danger of her performance. They eventually quarrelled about that.
“Darling, you ought to quit.”
“But I don’t want to, Sloane.”
“It’ll get you if you keep at it.”
“It’s not so dangerous.”
“It’s doubly dangerous. In the first place, airplanes are not perfectly safe yet. And if you ever slipped on that trapeze ...”
He shuddered at the very thought.
She sensed the fact that he was about to make an issue of it and she tried, after a woman’s fashion, to avert the crisis. She slipped her hand into his and leaned against him. They were in the noisesome privacy of being lost in the crowd at the flying field.
“Darling, the act pays good money. We’ll need it when we marry. I’m not going to give it up.”
“You’ve got to, Barbara.”
He was getting excited about it. There was anger in the hard line of his jaw.
“Now Sloane, dear, don’t be like that. Please don’t tell me what I’ve got to do.”
“You have got to quit if you’re going to marry me.” “Huh! I don’t have to marry you or anybody else.” He had become angry first and now he was first to be sorry. He caught her arm, but he was excited and she must have mistaken the strength of his hand for roughness.
“Don’t grab me like that!”
She jerked free and strode angrily away from him. The suddenness of it left him standing alone in the crowd, glaring unseeingly at the blur of faces which milled about him.
Later, from the edge of the crowd he watched her preparing to ascend for her stunt. Her blue plane was waiting a few feet from where prospective joy-hoppers stood packed against the rope barrier. A mechanic was nursing the even throbbing of the motor.
Then Barbara emerged into his view. She seemed nonchalant, walking with a devil-maycare swagger, her legs in tights flashing in and out of the coat which was slung over her shoulders. Under her flying helmet her smile was careless and easy, framed with leather and stray strands of black, bobbed hair. Her hand rested on the arm of her pilot.
It was in the attitude of her pilot, that Sloane found his second excuse for being unhappy in love jealousy. He thought he saw a loverlike solicitude in the way the fellow caught her coat when she flung it aside, in the way he handed her up into the cockpit, and then in the smile that he turned to her over his shoulder as the plane rolled forward. They seemed to have an understanding between them,1 Sloane thought; something more than the faot. that they were partners in a flying-circus act.
The more he thought about that pilot, the more certain he was that Barbara had been dividing her affections. He recalled evenings when she had not been with him because of some engagement with her partner pilot.
“Is that bird anything to you?” he had asked.
“Of course not. He’s just a very good friend. I like him because he’s such a careful pilot.”
He had refused to allow himself to doubt her, but now the questions came surging. Did that other fellow love her, too? Was she merely playing with love? Other questions. He could not voice them, for they might have insulted her.
But he could tell her he was sorry he had made her angry. With that purpose in his mind, he went in the evening to her room in the hotel where the flying circus people were staying.
At the door he paused, his knuckles poised to knock.
A voice checked him. A man’s voice—the pilot’s voice! Jim, the fellow’s name was. What was Jim doing in her room? He heard a masculine laugh and then a gurgle of mirth from her. In his self-consciousness he thought they were laughing at him; at how she had duped him into falling in love with her. He thought other things, terrible things . . .
“And so that’s what she is!”
He turned away from the door without knocking and went down into the lobby, where he sat gazing into empty space.
Half an hour later she came down, saw him from the elevator and walked toward him. He knew from the shamefaced smile she had, that she wanted to make up their quarrel, but he walked away. That was fatal.
Romances often end like that, spoiled by misunderstanding mixed with false pride. Circumstances, also, stepped into this one. For, three days later, Barbara and Jim broke their contract with the Crates Flying Circus. Sloane would learn later that they had accepted an offer from a rival outfit. At the time, he did not care what she had done; so hurt was he by the fact that she had left without even telling him good-by.
“Well, that’s that,” was his comment to himself. But that, somehow, persistently refused to be merely that. In fact, fight it as he did, he felt a grief such as he might have had if it had been death instead of mere misunderstanding. As the weeks went by, he became more and more dejected.
Correspondingly, he became more and more daring as a stunt flyer. He got so he was reckless enough to try anything, and he managed, sometimes almost miraculously, to get away with whatever he did. He brought gasps not only from the crowds, but from fellow pilots who saw him take risks that they knew better than to chance. For instance, he would loop so close to the ground that, they would tell him afterward, they expected to see the plane dive straight into the earth.
“Better be more careful, Hardy,” John Crates would warn him. “Keep more altitude."
“There’s more fun in it if you make it dangerous. The hicks like it better, too.”
“Fun! Boy, do you think that’s fun?”
"Well, it relieves the monotony.”
“All right, Hardy. You know what you are doing. But I think you ought to wear a ’chute, anyway.”
“No chutes for me.”
CONTRARY to all expectations, he was still alive when the Crates Flying Circus ended the summer’s barnstorming tour. Alive and needing a job to keep him subsisting in his miserable loneliness. He got one with a company which wanted its type of plane to win the transcontinental non-stop record.
The whole world heard of that flight.
“Flyer Spans Continent in Non-Stop Trip,” the newspaper headlines screamed. “Captain Hardy Sets New Record.” Those and others, making him famous.
He remained in the West, because he found himself there and would as soon be one place as another. His next job was as test pilot for a West Coast manufacturing concern.
The company had an open-cockpit sport plane which, they boasted in advertising, was designed with such aerodynamic accuracy that it would fly itself. They gave Sloane the ticklish job of demonstrating their claims by taking the plane up, climbing out on the fuselage away from the controls and riding there, at the mercy of any chance gust of wind. Pictures of the stunt were taken and were printed in newspapers all over the Continent.
Meanwhile, he was convalescing from frustrated love. He kept trying to convince himself that he had forgotten Barbara. But his efforts were, in themselves, the proof that he could not forget.
He would say to himself: “I'll never see her again, and if ever I do, she won’t mean anything to me; then why don’t I quit thinking about her.”
He was, however, destined to see her again. The occasion was the big aviation meet at a West Coast city. The situation was—well, promising.
On the opening morning, Sloane flew away with all the honors to be had. First, he won the race for the type classification into which his company’s plane had been put. Then he went through a dizzy sequence of stunts, more thrilling even than those he had done for the flying circus. His climaxing performance was to get out of the cockpit and sit astride the fuselage while the plane, unguided, swept before the grandstand at the precarious altitude of five-hundred feet.
The crowd held its breath when they observed that the altitude was rapidly lessening. But instead of getting back into the cockpit, where the instinct of selfpreservation should have kept him in the first place, he put the plane into a climb by sliding back, farther away from the controls. His weight behind the centre of gravity balanced the nose upward.
Privately, Sloane thought the stunt was almost as good as Barbara’s had been.
When he was back on the ground, he pulled a greasy programme out of the pocket of his combination. His eye scanned the list of events. He saw his own printed name and then, next below it—He started and his hand trembled. Yes, it was there all right. “Barbara Bradfield, dare-devil trapeze performance under moving plane.”
A blue biplane was, at that moment, zooming up from the take-off. His eye caught the ropes that were slung from the undercarriage up to the cockpit. A figure, small in the distance, waving to the crowd . . . Barbara!
He would see her. She would be here for the two weeks of the meet. Whether he tried or not, he would surely come across her on the field. He would greet her casually, as a friend. Or had he better not speak to her?
He was trying to decide, when the manager of the field rushed over to where he stood leaning against a hangar wall.
“Captain Hardy, could you go up and stunt again? The monoplane race is next on the programme, but all the ships are not ready. Do me u favor and keep the crowd interested.”
“Sure. Give me an order for another tankful of gas.”
"Here you are.”
In the hurry to get his plane ready for the take-off, Sloane did not have time to think of Barbara. He would not have watched her swing under the plane up there, anyway. As before, the thought of her daring made him feel what was his emotion closest to fear - a reluctance.
While he supervised the refuelling of his plane, he could hear the motor of Barbara’s ship humming steadily above.
The noise came closer and he knew that her stunt was over and she was coming in to a landing.
He screwed the cap on the tank and swung up into the cockpit of his green biplane.
“Ain’t you going to wear a ’chute?” a mechanic asked.
“I never wear them.”
“Not even to stunt?"
“No. I think they’re unlucky. Besides,
I don’t take a ship up unless I know I can get it down.”
The mechanic laughed and ducked under the wing to turn the propeller.
The mechanic swung the blade down.
THE motor was turning over sweetly.
Sloane hooked the safety belt across his lap, snapped the goggles down over his eyes, and opened the throttle. The plane lumbered out into the runway and he turned it into the wind. He opened the throttle wide, pushed forward a little on the stick and the tail lifted. He watched the ground, the familiar blur of earth, as he skimmed down the runway. Then he was in the air, pulling the. stick back to zoom up steeply from the take-off. He held the zoom until the stick quivered in his hand—the sign that straight-up flying could be held no longer. Forward again, he pushed the stick, to get speed; back then, into another zoom.
He knew that, from the ground, the take-off was pretty and that the crowd would see the ship go up as though on steep steps of air.
With a sharp thrust of the stick to the left and a pressure on the left side of the rudder bar, he turned sharply and dived at the grandstand. It was his old trick of diving at the crowd and then looping in its face.
Close to the ground in front of the grandstand he brought the stick back into his stomach. The plane turned up—straight up—on its back—then down— then forward—then—
For once he had misjudged the circle of the loop. This time he did not clear with a clever few feet between the wheels and the ground. The undercarriage hit. He was jarred, twisted, and there was a cracking sound.
But he found himself still flying. Skill came to him reflexly and he got the plane balanced into flight again. A glance over the edge of the cockpit told him what had happened. The wheels had struck, had been knocked off, and the plane had bounced back into the air.
Now, how would he get down? He thought of ways to do it. Land in water. But there was no lake or river anywhere near. Land without wheels. But that wouldn’t do. He had heard of the same freakish accident happening before. In that case the pilot had come down, landed on the fuselage and had been seriously injured. To try that with this ship might be fatal; she was too fast. Minimum landing speed fifty miles an hour. He decided to circle the field and think it over.
He was white and tense as he made up his mind to crash. Below, men were running out and holding up wheels, the signal that he had lost his. Well, he knew it. The fools! Signals wouldn’t help any. Lord, if only he had worn a 'chute! He saw also a blue plane skimming down the runway.
He paid no attention to it, while he eased off on the throttle to approach the field as warily as possible.
The other plane got in his way. Then he recognized it—Barbara’s ship.
Barbara was standing up in the cockpit making motions. Her gestures seemed to indicate that he should keep flying. He obeyed, although he knew of no reason for it.
When she held up a parachute for him to see, he understood her purpose. She was going to try to give it to him. But he did not want her risking herself flying close to him. He shook his head.
She nodded vigorously, imperatively.
He was confused, but he flew along and waited to see what would happen. What the devil was she going to do? Her plane began manoeuvring into a position directly above his. He saw her climb out on a wing and stand looking down at him. He was close enough to see the expression on her face. Sympathy, he thought.
Her trapeze swung down, as though she were about to perform for the mere entertainment of the crowd. Then she brought the parachute out of the cockpit and hooked her arm through the straps. With an easy grace she clambered from the wing to the spreader bar, and from there slid down the ropes until she hung like a girl sitting in a swing, a swing that jerked with speed and wind three thousand feet above the brown and green checkerboard that was the ground.
Sloane did not want to fly close enough under her to get the parachute. If he did, his plane might strike her. But when he had a glimpse of her face, he was reassured by her confident look. Daring as her task was, she was performing it with an easy casualness.
He climbed slowly under the other plane and flew as closely beneath Barbara as he dared. The parachute tumbled from her lap and dangled on a length of rope five feet above his head. For a moment, he manipulated the controls with hairbreadth precision, flying with intense concentration. The pack came closer. Then, for an instant, it was touching the top of the upper wing. Then he had it in clutching fingers.
The rest was simple, easy for him. While Barbara’s plane climbed away to a safe altitude above him, he squirmed into the parachute straps. First, he scanned the ground and headed the plane in a direction where it was not likely to fall on anything. Then he stepped up on the seat and over into space.
“One, two, three, four, five,” he counted—and pulled the ring.
Looking up, he could see the silk above him fan out like a gigantic white umbrella; ’way below, the pattern of the ground was rapidly spreading. The wind was carrying him beyond the field.
Another moment and his trained ability to judge distance assured him that he would fall in a clump of trees. He pulled hard on the parachute’s ropes, trying to guide it. It did not seem to make much difference. He did not know the tricks of professional jumpers. His feet barely cleared the top of one tree. He struck the next. He felt branches striking him. A crack against his head, then blackness.
The next thing he knew he was lying on the ground. His head was on something soft. He opened his eyes and saw the torn and wrinkled silk of the parachute clinging among the branches through which he had fallen. A voice, gentle, beautiful—
“Poor darling. Are you hurt much?” Barbara! He closed his eyes again. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Sloane dear . . . for the way I treated you. Please, please forgive me.”
Then, as from a great distance, he heard Jim, Barbara’s pilot, saying something. “Poor fellow, he was jealous of me, that time. We should have told him better. He was crazy about you, kid.”
“I know, Jim. I was a fool. But if he ever comes out of this, you can bet your last penny that I’ll make it up to him. Oh, won’t that ambulance ever get here?” “I don’t think he’s badly hurt,” Sloane heard Barbara say. “Just knocked cold. Sloane, darling, please speak to me. Oh, Sloane, I love you so.”
He felt a warm tear fall on his cheek and he did not have the heart to keep on feigning unconsciousness. He opened his eyes, smiled, reached up and drew her face down to his.
“You don’t need an ambulance,” Jim said. “What you need is a preacher.”