Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 37

His Great Hour

Saturday night at eight o’clock.

So the fiat had gone forth, with no concession to be made on account of weather.

As Oswald came from his supper and took a look at the heavens from the small front porch, he was deeply troubled that Orlando had remained so obstinate on this point. For there were ominous clouds rolling up from the east, and the storms in this region of high mountains and abrupt valleys were not light, nor without danger even to those with feet well planted upon mother earth.

If the tempest should come up before eight!

Mr. Challoner, who, from some mysterious impulse of bravado on the part of Brotherson, was to be allowed to make the third in this small band of spectators, was equally concerned at this sight, but not for Brotherson. His fears were for Oswald, whose slowly gathering strength could illy bear the strain which this additional anxiety for his brother’s life must impose upon him. As for Doris, she was in a state of excitement more connected with the past than with the future. That afternoon she had laid her hand in that of Orlando Brotherson, and wished him well. She! in whose breast still lingered reminiscences of those old doubts which had beclouded his image for her at their first meeting. She had not been able to avoid it. His look was a compelling one, and it had demanded thus much from her; and — a terrible thought to her gentle spirit — he might be going to his death!

It had been settled by the prospective aviator that they were to watch for the ascent from the mouth of the grassy road leading in to the hangar. The three were to meet there at a quarter to eight and await the stroke and the air-cars rise. That time was near, and Mr. Challoner, catching a glimpse of Oswald’s pallid and unnaturally drawn features, as he set down the lantern he carried, shuddered with foreboding and wished the hour passed.

Doris’ watchful glance never left the face whose lightest change was more to her than all Orlando’s hopes. But the result upon her was not to weaken her resolution, but to strengthen it. Whatever the outcome of the next few minutes, she must stand ready to sustain her invalid through it. That the darkness of early evening had deepened to oppression, was unnoticed for the moment. The fears of an hour past had been forgotten. Their attention was too absorbed in what was going on before them, for even a glance overhead.

Suddenly Mr. Challoner spoke.

“Who is the man whom Mr. Brotherson has asked to go up with him?”

It was Oswald who answered.

“He has never told me. He has kept his own counsel about that as about everything else connected with this matter. He simply advised me that I was not to bother about him any more; that he had found the assistant he wanted.”

“Such reticence seems unpardonable. You have — displayed great patience, Oswald.”

“Because I understand Orlando. He reads men’s natures like a book. The man he trusts, we may trust. To-morrow, he will speak openly enough. All cause for reticence will be gone.

“You have confidence then in the success of this undertaking?”

“If I hadn’t, I should not be here. I could hardly bear to witness his failure, even in a secret test like this. I should find it too hard to face him afterwards.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Orlando has great pride. If this enterprise fails I cannot answer for him. He would be capable of anything. Why, Doris! what is the matter, child? I never saw you look like that before.”

She had been down on her knees regulating the lantern, and the sudden flame, shooting up, had shown him her face turned up towards his in an apprehension which verged on horror.

“Do I look frightened?” she asked, remembering herself and lightly rising. “I believe that I am a little frightened. If — if anything should go wrong! If an accident-” But here she remembered herself again and quickly changed her tone. “But your confidence shall be mine. I will believe in his good angel or — or in his self-command and great resolution. I’ll not be frightened any more.”

But Oswald did not seem satisfied. He continued to look at her in vague concern.

He hardly knew what to make of the intense feeling she had manifested. Had Orlando touched her girlish heart? Had this cold-blooded nature, with its steel-like brilliancy and honourable but stern views of life, moved this warm and sympathetic soul to more than admiration? The thought disturbed him so he forgot the nearness of the moment they were all awaiting till a quick rasping sound from the hangar, followed by the sudden appearance of an ever-widening band of light about its upper rim, drew his attention and awakened them all to a breathless expectation.

The lid was rising. Now it was half-way up, and now, for the first time, it was lifted to its full height and stood a broad oval disc against the background of the forest. The effect was strange. The hangar had been made brilliant by many lamps, and their united glare pouring from its top and illuminating not only the surrounding treetops but the broad face of this uplifted disc, roused in the awed spectator a thrill such as in mythological times might have greeted the sudden sight of Vulcan’s smithy blazing on Olympian hills. But the clang of iron on iron would have attended the flash and gleam of those unexpected fires, and here all was still save for that steady throb never heard in Olympus or the halls of Valhalla, the pant of the motor eager for flight in the upper air.

As they listened in a trance of burning hope which obliterated all else, this noise and all others near and distant, was suddenly lost in a loud clatter of writhing and twisting boughs which set the forest in a roar and seemed to heave the air about them.

A wind had swooped down from the east, bending everything before it and rattling the huge oval on which their eyes were fixed as though it would tear it from its hinges.

The three caught at each other’s hands in dismay. The storm had come just on the verge of the enterprise, and no one might guess the result.

“Will he dare? Will he dare?” whispered Doris, and Oswald answered, though it seemed next to impossible that he could have heard her:

“He will dare. But will he survive it? Mr. Challoner,” he suddenly shouted in that gentleman’s ear, “what time is it now?”

Mr. Challoner, disengaging himself from their mutual grasp, knelt down by the lantern to consult his watch.

“One minute to eight,” he shouted back.

The forest was now a pandemonium. Great boughs, split from their parent trunks, fell crashing to the ground in all directions. The scream of the wind roused echoes which repeated themselves, here, there and everywhere. No rain had fallen yet, but the sight of the clouds skurrying pell-mell through the glare thrown up from the shed, created such havoc in the already overstrained minds of the three onlookers, that they hardly heeded, when with a clatter and crash which at another time would have startled them into flight, the swaying oval before them was whirled from its hinges and thrown back against the trees already bending under the onslaught of the tempest. Destruction seemed the natural accompaniment of the moment, and the only prayer which sprang to Oswald’s lips was that the motor whose throb yet lingered in their blood though no longer taken in by the ear, would either refuse to work or prove insufficient to lift the heavy car into this seething tumult of warring forces. His brother’s life hung in the balance against his fame, and he could not but choose life for him. Yet, as the multitudinous sounds about him yielded for a moment to that brother’s shout, and he knew that the moment had come, which would soon settle all, he found himself staring at the elliptical edge of the hangar, with an anticipation which held in it as much terror as joy, for the end of a great hope or the beginning of a great triumph was compressed into this trembling instant and if —

Great God! he sees it! They all see it! Plainly against that portion of the disc which still lifted itself above the further wall, a curious moving mass appears, lengthens, takes on shape, then shoots suddenly aloft, clearing the encircling tops of the bending, twisting and tormented trees, straight into the heart of the gale, where for one breathless moment it whirls madly about like a thing distraught, then in slow but triumphant obedience to the master hand that guides it, steadies and mounts majestically upward till it is lost to their view in the depths of impenetrable darkness.

Orlando Brotherson has accomplished his task. He has invented a mechanism which can send an air-car straight up from its mooring place. As the three watchers realise this, Oswald utters a cry of triumph, and Doris throws herself into Mr. Challoner’s arms. Then they all stand transfixed again, waiting for a descent which may never come.

But hark! a new sound, mingling its clatter with all the others. It is the rain. Quick, maddening, drenching, it comes; enveloping them in wet in a moment. Can they hold their faces up against it?

And the wind! Surely it must toss that aerial messenger before it and fling it back to earth, a broken and despised toy.

“Orlando?” went up in a shriek. “Orlando?” Oh, for a ray of light in those far-off heavens For a lull in the tremendous sounds shivering the heavens and shaking the earth! But the tempest rages on, and they can only wait, five minutes, ten minutes, looking, hoping, fearing, without thought of self and almost without thought of each other, till suddenly as it had come, the rain ceases and the wind, with one final wail of rage and defeat, rushes away into the west, leaving behind it a sudden silence which, to their terrified hearts, seems almost more dreadful to bear than the accumulated noises of the moment just gone.

Orlando was in that shout of natural forces, but he is not in this stillness. They look aloft, but the heavens are void. Emptiness is where life was. Oswald begins to sway, and Doris, remembering him now and him only, has thrown her strong young arm about him, when — What is this sound they hear high up, high up, in the rapidly clearing vault of the heavens! A throb — a steady pant — drawing near and yet nearer — entering the circlet of great branches over their heads — descending, slowly descending — till they catch another glimpse of those hazy outlines which had no sooner taken shape than the car disappeared from their sight within the elliptical wall open to receive it.

It had survived the gale! It has re-entered its haven, and that, too, without colliding with aught around or any shock to those within, just as Orlando had promised; and the world was henceforth his! Hail to Orlando Brotherson!

Oswald could hardly restrain his mad joy and enthusiasm. Bounding to the door separating him from this conqueror of almost invincible forces, he pounded it with impatient fist.

“Let me in!” he cried. “You’ve done the trick, Orlando, you’ve done the trick.”

“Yes, I have satisfied myself,” came back in studied self-control from the other side of the door; and with a quick turning of the lock, Orlando stood before them.

They never forgot him as he looked at that moment. He was drenched, battered, palpitating with excitement; but the majesty of success was in his eye and in the bearing of his incomparable figure.

As Oswald bounded towards him, he reached out his hand, but his glance was for Doris.

“Yes,” he went on, in tones of suppressed elation, “there’s no flaw in my triumph. I have done all that I set out to do. Now —”

Why did he stop and look hurriedly back into the hangar? He had remembered Sweetwater. Sweetwater, who at that moment was stepping carefully from his seat in some remote portion of the car. The triumph was not complete. He had meant —

But there his thought stopped. Nothing of evil, nothing even of regret should mar his great hour. He was a conqueror, and it was for him now to reap the joy of conquest.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37