Chapter XIII. The Telephone Picture
 

"Oh, Tom Swift! I'm so glad to see you!"

Mrs. Damon clasped her arms, in motherly fashion, about the young inventor. He held her close, and his own eyes were not free from tears as he witnessed the grief of his best friend's wife.

"Now, don't worry, Mrs. Damon," said Tom, sympathetically. "Everything will be all right," and he led her to a chair.

"All right, Tom! How can it be?" and the lady raised a tear- stained face. "My husband has disappeared, without a word! It's just as if the earth had opened and swallowed him up! I can't find a trace of him! How can it be all right?"

"Well, we'll find him, Mrs. Damon. Don't worry. Ned and I will get right to work, and I'll have all the police and detectives within fifty miles on the search--if we have to go that far."

"Oh, it's awfully good of you, Tom. I--I didn't know who else to turn to in my trouble but you."

"And why shouldn't you come to me? I'd do anything for you and Mr. Damon. Now tell me all about it."

Tom and Ned had just arrived at the Damon home in the airship, to find the wife of the eccentric man almost distracted over her husband's strange disappearance.

"It happened last night," Mrs. Damon said, when she was somewhat composed. "Last night about twelve o'clock."

"Twelve o'clock!" cried Tom, in surprise "Why that's about the time--"

He stopped suddenly.

"What were you going to say?" asked Mrs. Damon.

"Oh--nothing," answered Tom. "I--I'll tell you later. Go on, please."

"It is all so confusing," proceeded Mrs. Damon. "You know my husband has been in trouble of late--financial trouble?"

"Yes," responded Tom, "he mentioned it to me."

"I don't know any of the details," sighed Mrs. Damon, "but I know he was mixed up with a man named Peters."

"I know him, too," spoke Tom, grimly.

"My husband has been very gloomy of late," went on Mrs. Damon. "He foolishly entrusted almost his entire fortune to that man, and last night he told me it was probably all gone. He said he saw only the barest chance to save it, but that he was going to take that chance."

"Did he go into details?" asked Tom.

"No, that was all he said. That was about ten o'clock. He didn't want to go to bed. He just sat about, and he kept saying over and over again: 'Bless my tombstone!' 'Bless the cemetery!' and all such stuff as that. You know how he was," and she smiled through her tears.

"Yes," said Tom. "I know. Only it wasn't like him to bless such grewsome things. He was more jolly."

"He hasn't been, of late," sighed his wife. "Well, he sat about all the evening, and he kept figuring away, trying, I suppose, to find some way out of his trouble."

"Why didn't he come to my father?" cried Tom. "I told him he could have all the money he needed to tide him over."

"Well, Mr. Damon was queer that way," said his wife. "He wanted to be independent. I urged him to call you up, but he said he'd fight it out alone."

"As I said, we sat there, and he kept feeling more and more blue, and blessing his funeral, and the hearse and all such things as that. He kept looking at the clock, too, and I wondered at that."

"'Are you expecting someone?' I asked him. He said he wasn't, exactly, but I made sure he was, and finally, about half-past eleven, he put on his hat and went out."

"'Where are you going?' I asked him."

"'Oh, just to get a breath of air. I can't sleep,' he said. I didn't think much of that, as he often used to go out and walk about a bit before going to bed. So he went out, and I began to see about locking up, for I never trust the servants."

"It must have been about an hour later when I heard voices out in front. I looked, and I saw Mr. Damon talking to a man."

"Who was he?" asked Tom, eagerly, on the alert for the slightest clue.

"I thought at the time," said Mrs. Damon, "that it was one of the neighbors. I have learned since, however, that it was not. Anyhow, this man and Mr. Damon stood talking for a little while, and then they went off together. I didn't think it strange at the time, supposing he was merely strolling up and down in front with Mr. Blackson, who lives next door, He often had done that before."

"Well, I saw that the house was locked up, and then I sat down in a chair to wait for Mr. Damon to come back. I was getting sleepy, for we don't usually stay up so late. I suppose I must have dozed off, but I was suddenly awakened by hearing a peculiar noise. I sat up in alarm, and then I realized that Mr. Damon had not come in."

"I was frightened then, and I called my maid. It was nearly one o'clock, and my husband never stays out as late as that. We went next door, and found that Mr. Blackson had not been out of his house that evening. So it could not have been he to whom Mr. Damon was speaking."

"We roused up other neighbors, and they searched all about the grounds, thinking he might have been overcome by a sudden faint. But we could not find him. My husband had disappeared-- mysteriously disappeared!" and the lady broke into sobs.

"Now don't worry," said Tom, soothingly, as he put his arms about her as he would have done to his own mother, had she been alive, "We'll get him back!"

"But how can you? No one knows where he is."

"Oh, yes!" said Tom, confidently, "Mr. Damon himself knows where he is, and unless he has gone away voluntarily, I think you will soon hear from him."

"What do you mean by--voluntarily?" asked the wife.

"First let me ask you a question," came from Tom. "You said you were awakened by a peculiar noise. What sort of a sound was it?"

"Why, a whirring, throbbing noise, like--like--"

She paused for a comparison.

"Like an airship?" asked Tom, with a good deal of eagerness.

"That was it!" cried Mrs. Damon. "I was trying to think where I had heard the sound before. It was just like the noise your airship makes, Tom!"

"That settles it!" exclaimed the young inventor.

"Settles what?" asked Ned.

"The manner of Mr. Damon's disappearance. He was taken away--or went away--in my airship--the airship that was stolen from my shed last night!"

Mrs. Damon stared at Tom in amazement.

"Why--why--how could that be?" she asked.

Quickly Tom told of what had happened at his place.

"I begin to see through it," he said. "There is some plot here, and we've got to get to the bottom of it. Mr. Damon either went with these men in the airship willingly, or he was taken away by force. I'm inclined to think he went of his own accord, or you would have heard some outcry, Mrs. Damon."

"Well, perhaps so," she admitted. "But would he go away in that manner without telling me?"

"He might," said Tom, willing to test his theory on all sides. "He might not have wanted you to worry, for you know you dislike him to go up an airships."

"Yes, I do. Oh, if I only thought he did go away of his own accord, I could understand it. He went, if he did, to try and save his fortune."

"It does look as though he had an appointment with someone, Tom," suggested Ned. "His looking at the clock, and then going out, and all that."

"Yes," admitted the young inventor, "and now I'm inclined to change my theory a bit. It may have been some other airship than mine that was used."

"How so?" asked Ned.

"Because the men who took mine were unprincipled fellows. Mr. Damon would not have gone away with men who would steal an airship."

"Not if he knew it," admitted Ned. "Well, then, let's consider two airships--yours and the other that came to keep the appointment with Mr. Damon. If the last is true, why should he want to go away in an airship at midnight? Why couldn't he take a train, or an auto?"

"Well, we don't know all the ins and outs," admitted Tom. "Taking a midnight airship ride is rather strange, but that may have been the only course open. We'll have to let the explanation go until later. At any rate, Mrs. Damon, I feel sure that your husband did go off through the air--either in my Eagle or in some other craft."

"Well, I'm glad to hear you say so, Tom Swift, though it sounds a dreadful thing to say. But if he did go off of his own accord, I know he did it for the best. And he may not have told me, for fear I would worry. I can understand that. But why isn't he back now?"

Tom had been rather dreading that question. It was one he had asked himself, and he had found no good answer for it. If there had been such need of haste, that an airship had to be used. why had not Mr. Damon come back ere this? Unless, as Tom feared to admit, even to himself, there had been some accident.

Half a dozen theories flashed through his mind, but he could not select a good, working one,--particularly as there were no clues. Disappearing in an airship was the one best means of not leaving a trace behind. An auto, a motor boat, a train, a horse and carriage--all these could be more or less easily traced. But an airship--

If Mr. Damon wanted to cover up his tracks, or if he had been taken away, and his captors wanted to baffle pursuit, the best means had been adopted.

"Now don't you worry," advised Tom to Mrs. Damon. "I know it looks funny, but I think it will come out all right. Ned and I will do all we can. Mr. Damon must have known what he was about. But, to be on the safe side, we'll send out a general alarm through the police."

"Oh, I don't know what I'd done if you hadn't come to help me!" exclaimed Mrs. Damon.

"Just you leave it to me!" said the young inventor, cheerfully. "I'll find Mr. Damon!"

But, though he spoke thus confidently, Tom Swift had not the slightest notion, just then, of how to set about his difficult task. He had had hard problems to solve before, so he was not going to give up this one. First he wanted to think matters out, and arrange a plan of action.

He and Ned made a careful examination of the grounds of the Damon homestead. There was little they could learn, though they did find where an airship had landed in a meadow, not far away, and where it had made a flying start off again.

Carefully Tom looked at the marks made by the wheels of the airship.

"They're the same distance apart as those on the Eagle," he said to his chum, "and the tires are the same. But that isn't saying anything, as lots of airships have the same equipment. So we won't jump to any conclusions that way."

Tom and Ned interviewed several of the neighbors, but beyond learning that some of them had heard the throbbing of the midnight airship, that was as far as they got on that line.

There was nothing more they could do in Waterford, and, leaving Mrs. Damon, who had summoned a relative to stay with her, the two chums made a quick trip back through the air to Shopton. As Eradicate came out to help put away the monoplane Tom noticed that the colored man was holding one hand as though it hurt him.

"What's the matter, Rad?" asked the young investor.

"Oh, nuffin--jest natcherly nuffin, Massa Tom."

But Eradicate spoke evasively and in a manner that roused Tom's suspicions.

"Boomerang, your mule, didn't kick you; did he?"

"No, sah, Massa Tom, no sah. 'Twern't nuffin laik dat."

"But what was it? Your hand is hurt!"

"Well, Massa Tom, I s'pose I done bettah tell yo' all. I'se had a shock!"

"A shock?"

"Yas, sah. A shock. A lickrish shock."

"Oh, you mean an electrical shock. That's too bad. I suppose you must have touched a live wire."

"No, sah. 'Twern't dat way."

"How was it, then?"

"Well, yo' see, Massa Tom, I were playin' a joke on Koku."

"Oh, you were; eh? Then I suppose Koku shocked you," laughed Tom.

"No, sah. I--I'll tell you. Dat giant man he were in de telefoam boof in de pattern shop--you know--de one where yo' all been tryin' to make pishures."

"Yes, I know. Go on!" exclaimed Tom, impatiently.

"Well, he were in dere, Massa Tom, an' I slipped into de boof in de next shop--de odder place where yo' all been 'speermentin'. I called out on de telefoam, loud laik de Angel Gabriel gwine t' holler at de last trump: 'Look out, yo' ole sinnah!' I yell it jest t' scare Koku."

"I see," said Tom, a bit severely, for he did not like Eradicate interfering with the instruments. "And did you scare Koku?"

"Oh, yas, sah, Massa Tom. I skeered him all right; but suffin else done happen. When I put down de telefoam I got a terrible shock. It hurts yit!"

"Well," remarked Tom, "I suppose I ought to feel sorry for you, but I can't. You should let things alone. Now I've got to see if you did any damage. Come along, Ned."

Tom was the first to enter the telephone booth where Eradicate had played the part of the Angel Gabriel. He looked at the wires and apparatus, but could see nothing wrong.

Then he glanced at the selenium plate, on which he hoped, some day, to imprint an image from over the wire. And, as he saw the smooth surface he started, and cried.

"Ned! Ned, come here quick!"

"What is it?" asked his chum, Crowding into the booth.

"Look at that plate! Tell me what you see!"

Ned looked.

"Why--why it's Koku's picture!" he gasped.

"Exactly!" cried Tom. "In some way my experiment has succeeded when I was away. Eradicate must have made some new connection by his monkeying. Ned, it's a success! I've got my first photo telephone picture! Hurray!"