Chapter XII. A Night Alarm
 

Mary Nestor spoke with such earnestness, and her action in catching hold of Tom's arm to enjoin silence was so pronounced that, though he had at first regarded the matter in the light of a joke, he soon thought otherwise. He glanced from the girl's face to the dense underbrush on either side of the woodland path.

"What is it, Mary?" he asked in a whisper.

"I don't just know. I heard whispering, and thought it was the rustling of the leaves of the trees. Then someone spoke your name quite loudly. Didn't you hear it?"

Tom shook his head in negation.

"It may be Ned and his friend," he whispered, his lips close to Mary's ear.

"I think not," was her answer. "Listen; there it is again."

Distinctly then, Tom heard, from some opening in the screen of bushes, his own name spoken. "Did you hear it?" asked Mary, barely forming the words with her lips. But Tom could read their motion.

"Yes," he nodded. Then, motioning to Mary to remain where she was, he stepped forward, taking care to tread only on grassy places where there were no little twigs or branches to break and betray his presence. He was working his way toward the sound of the unseen voice.

There was a sudden movement in the bushes, just beyond the spot Tom was making for. He halted quickly and peered ahead. Mary, too, was looking on anxiously.

Tom saw the forms of two men, partially concealed by bushes, walking away from him. The men took no pains to conceal their movements, so Tom was emboldened to advance with less caution. He hurried to where he could get a good view, and, at the sight of one of the men, he uttered an exclamation.

"What is it?" asked Mary, who was now at his side. She had seen that Tom had thrown aside caution, and she had come up to join him.

"That man--I know him!" the young inventor exclaimed. "It is Feldman--the one who wanted to be changed from the trip-hammer to the airship department. But who is that with him?"

As Tom spoke the other turned, and at the sight of his face Mary Nestor said:

"He looks like a Frenchman, with that little mustache and imperial."

"So he is!" exclaimed Tom, in a hoarse whisper. "He must be the Frenchman that Eradicate spoke about. I wonder what this can mean? I didn't know Feldman had left the shop."

"You may know what you're talking about, but I don't, Tom," said Mary, with a smile at her companion. "Are they friends of yours?"

"Hardly," spoke the young inventor dryly. "That one, Feldman, is one of my workmen. He had charge of a drop-forge press and trip-hammer that--"

"Spare me the details, Tom!" interrupted Mary. "You know I don't understand a thing about machinery. The wireless you erected on Earthquake Island was as much as I could comprehend."

"Well, a trip-hammer isn't as complicated as that," spoke Tom, with a laugh, as he noticed that the two men were far enough away so they could not hear him. "What I was going to say was, that one of those men works in our shops. The other I don't know, but I agree with you that he does look like a Frenchman, and old Eradicate had a meeting with a man whom he described as being of that nationality."

"And you say they are not friends of yours?"

"I have no reason to believe they are."

"Then they must be enemies!" exclaimed Mary with quick intuition. "Oh, Tom, you will be careful, won't you?"

"Of course I will, little girl," he said, a note of fondness creeping into his voice, as he covered the small hand with his own large one. "But there is no danger."

"Then why were these men discussing you?"

"I don't know that they were, Mary."

"They mentioned your name."

"Well, that may be. Probably one of them, Feldman, who works for me, was speaking to his companion about the chance for a position. My father and I employ a number of men, you know."

"Well, I suppose it is all right, Tom, and I surely hope it is. But you will be careful, won't you? And you look more worried than you used to. Has anything gone wrong?"

"Not a thing, little girl. Everything is going fine. My new aerial warship will soon make a trial flight, and I'd be pleased to have you as a passenger."

"Would you really, Tom?"

"Of course. Consider that you have the first invitation."

"That's awfully nice of you. But you do look worried, Tom. Has anything troubled you?"

"No, not much. Everything is going all right now. We did have a little trouble at a fire in one of my buildings--"

"A fire! Oh, Tom! You never told me!"

"Well, it didn't amount to much--the only suspicious fact about it was that it seemed to have been of incendiary origin."

Mary seemed much alarmed, and again begged Tom to be on his guard, which he promised to do. Had Mary known the warnings uttered by Lieutenant Marbury she might have had more occasion for worry.

"Do you suppose that hammer man of yours came to these woods to meet that Frenchman and talk about you, Tom?" asked his companion, when the two men had strolled out of sight, and the young people were on their way back to the launch.

"Well, it's possible. I have been warned that foreign spies are trying to get hold of some of my patents, and also to hamper the government in the use of some others I have sold. But they'll have their own troubles to get away with anything. The works are pretty well guarded, and you forget I have the giant, Koku, who is almost a personal bodyguard."

"Yes, but he can't be everywhere at once. Oh, you will be careful, won't you, Tom?"

"Yes, Mary, I will," promised the young inventor. "But don't say anything to Ned about what we just saw and heard."

"Why not?"

"Because he's been at me to hire a couple of detectives to watch over me, and this would give him another excuse. Just don't say anything, and I'll adopt all the precautions I think are needful."

"I will on condition that you do that."

"And I promise I will."

With that Mary had to be content. A little later they joined Ned and his friend, and soon they were moving swiftly down the lake in the launch.

"Well, hasn't it done you good to take a day off?" Ned demanded of his chum, when they were on their homeward way.

"Yes, I think it has," agreed Tom.

"You swung your thoughts into a new channel, didn't you?"

"Oh, yes, I found something new to think about," admitted the young inventor, with a quick look at Mary.

But, though Tom thus passed off lightly the little incident of the day, he gave it serious thought when he was alone.

"Those fellows were certainly talking about me," he reasoned. "I wonder what for? And Feldman left the shop without my knowledge. I'll have to look into that. I wonder if that Frenchy looking chap I saw was the one who tried to pump Eradicate? Another point to settle."

The last was easily disposed of, for, on reaching his shops that afternoon, Tom cross-questioned the colored man, and obtained a most accurate description of the odd foreigner. It tallied in every detail with the man Tom had seen in the woods.

"And now about Feldman," mused Tom, as he went to the foreman of the shop where the suspected man had been employed.

"Yes, Feldman asked for a day off," the foreman said in response to Tom's question. "He claimed his mother was sick, and he wanted to go to see her. I knew you wouldn't object, as we were not rushed in his department."

"Oh, that's all right," said Tom quickly. "Did he say where his mother lived?"

"Over Lafayette way."

"Humph!" murmured Tom. To himself he added: "Queer that he should be near Lake Loraine, in an opposite direction from Lafayette. This will bear an investigation."

The next day Tom made it his business to pass near the hammer that was so frequently out of order. He found Feldman busy instructing Koku in its operation. Tom resolved on a little strategy.

"How is it working, Feldman?" he asked.

"Very well, Mr. Swift. There doesn't seem to be any trouble at all, but it may happen any minute. Koku seems to take to it like a duck to water."

"Well, when he is ready to assume charge let me know."

"And then am I to go into the aeroplane shop?"

"I'll see. By the way, how is your mother?" he asked quickly, looking Feldman full in the face.

"She is much better. I took a day off yesterday to go to see her," the man replied quietly enough, and without sign of embarrassment.

"That's good. Let me see, she lives over near Lake Loraine, doesn't she?"

This time Feldman could not repress a start. But he covered it admirably by stooping over to pick up a tool that fell to the floor.

"No, my mother is in Lafayette," he said. "I don't know where Lake Loraine is."

"Oh," said Tom, as he turned aside to hide a smile. He was sure now he knew at least one of the plotters

But Tom was not yet ready to show his hand. He wanted better evidence than any he yet possessed. It would take a little more time.

Work on the aerial warship was rushed, and it seemed likely that a trial flight could be made before the date set. Lieutenant Marbury sent word that he would be on hand when needed, and in some of the shops, where fittings for the Mars were being made, night and day shifts were working.

"Well, if everything goes well, we'll take her for a trial flight to-morrow," said Tom, coming in from the shops one evening.

"Guns and all?" asked Ned, who had come over to pay his chum a visit. Mr. Damon was also on hand, invoking occasional blessings.

"Guns and all," replied Tom.

Ned had a little vacation from the bank, and was to stay all night, as was Mr. Damon.

What time it was, save that it must be near midnight, Tom could not tell, but he was suddenly awakened by hearing yells from Eradicate:

"Massa Tom! Massa Tom!" yelled the excited colored man. "Git up! Git up! Suffin' turrible am happenin' in de balloon shop. Hurry! An' yo' stan' still, Boomerang, or I'll twist yo' tail, dat's what I will! Hurry, Massa Tom!"

Tom leaped out of bed.