Chapter VI. An Interview in the Dark
 

While Mr. Swift was writing the message he wished his son to take to the village, the young mechanic inspected the motor-cycle he had purchased. Tom found that a few repairs would suffice to put it in good shape, though an entire new front wheel would be needed. The motor had not been damaged, as he ascertained by a test. Tom rode into town on his bicycle, and as he hurried along he noticed in the west a bank of ugly-looking clouds that indicated a shower.

"I'm in for a wetting before I get back," he mused, and he increased his speed, reaching the telegraph office shortly before seven o'clock.

"Think this storm will hold off until I get home?" asked Tom.

"I'm afraid not," answered the agent. "You'd better get a hustle on."

Tom sprinted off. It was getting dark rapidly, and when he was about a mile from home he felt several warm drops on his face.

"Here it comes!" exclaimed the youth. "Now for a little more speed!"

Tom pressed harder on the pedals, too hard, in fact, for an instant later something snapped, and the next he knew he was flying over the handlebars of the bicycle. At the same time there was a metallic, clinking sound.

"Chain's busted!" exclaimed the lad as he picked himself up out of the dust. "Well, wouldn't that jar you!" and he walked back to where, in the dusk, he could dimly discern his wheel.

The chain had come off the two sprockets and was lying to one side. Tom picked it up and ascertained by close observation that the screw and nut holding the two joining links together was lost.

"Nice pickle!" he murmured. "How am I going to find it in all this dust and darkness?" he asked himself disgustedly. "I'll carry an extra screw next time. No, I won't, either. I'll ride my motor-cycle next time. Well, I may as well give a look around. I hate to walk, if I can fix it and ride."

Tom had not spent more than two minutes looking about the dusty road, with the aid of matches, for the screw, when the rain suddenly began falling in a hard shower.

"Guess there's no use lingering here any longer," he remarked. "I'll push the wheel and run for home."

He started down the road in the storm and darkness. The highway soon became a long puddle of mud, through which he splashed, finding it more and more difficult every minute to push the bicycle in the thick, sticky clay.

Above the roar of the wind and the swishing of the rain he heard another sound. It was a steady "puff-puff," and then the darkness was cut by a glare of light.

"An automobile," said Tom aloud. "Guess I'd better get out of the way."

He turned to one side, but the auto, instead of passing him when it got to the place where he was, made a sudden stop.

"Want a ride?" asked the chauffeur, peering out from the side curtains which somewhat protected him from the storm. Tom saw that the car was a large, touring one. "Can I give you a lift?" went on the driver.

"Well, I've got my bicycle with me," explained the young inventor. "My chain's broken, and I've got a mile to go."

"Jump up in back," invited the man. "Leave your wheel here; I guess it will be safe."

"Oh, I couldn't do that," said Tom. "I don't mind walking. I'm wet through now, and I can't get much wetter. I'm much obliged, though."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I can hardly take you and the bicycle, too," continued the chauffeur.

"Certainly not," added a voice from the tonneau of the car. "We can't have a muddy bicycle in here. Who is that person, Simpson?"

"It's a young man," answered the driver.

"Is he acquainted around here?" went on the voice from the rear of the car. "Ask him if he is acquainted around here, Simpson."

Tom was wondering where he had heard that voice before. He had a vague notion that it was familiar.

"Are you acquainted around here?" obediently asked the man at the wheel.

"I live here," replied Tom.

"Ask him if he knows any one named Swift?" continued the voice from the tonneau, and the driver started to repeat it.

"I heard him," interrupted Tom. "Yes, I know a Mr. Swift;" but Tom, with a sudden resolve, and one he could hardly explain, decided that, for the present, he would not betray his own identity.

"Ask him if Mr. Swift is an inventor." Once more the unseen person spoke in the voice Tom was trying vainly to recall.

"Yes, he is an inventor," was the youth's answer.

"Do you know much about him? What are his habits? Does he live near his workshops? Does he keep many servants? Does he--"

The unseen questioner suddenly parted the side curtains and peered out at Tom, who stood in the muddy road, close to the automobile. At that moment there came a bright flash of lightning, illuminating not only Tom's face, but that of his questioner as well. And at the sight Tom started, no less than did the man. For Tom had recognized him as one of the three mysterious persons in the restaurant, and as for the man, he had also recognized Tom.

"Ah--er--um--is--Why, it's you, isn't it?" cried the questioner, and he thrust his head farther out from between the curtains. "My, what a storm!" he exclaimed as the rain increased. "So you know Mr. Swift, eh? I saw you to-day in Mansburg, I think. I have a good memory for faces. Do you work for Mr. Swift? If you do I may be able to--"

"I'm Tom Swift, son of Mr. Barton Swift," said Tom as quietly as he could.

"Tom Swift! His son!" cried the man, and he seemed much agitated. "Why, I thought--that is, Morse said--Simpson, hurry back to Mansburg!" and with that, taking no more notice of Tom, the man in the auto hastily drew the curtains together.

The chauffeur threw in the gears and swung the ponderous machine to one side. The road was wide, and he made the turn skilfully. A moment later the car was speeding back the way it had come, leaving Tom standing on the highway, alone in the mud and darkness, with the rain pouring down in torrents.