Chapter VI. The Aerial Warship
 

Ned Newton looked at Tom questioningly. Then he glanced at the unsuspicious colored man, who was industriously polishing the half-dollar the mysterious stranger had given him.

"Rad, just exactly what sort of a man was this one you speak of?" asked Tom.

"Why, he were a gen'man--"

"Yes, I know that much. You've said it before. But was he an Englishman, an American--or--"

Tom paused and waited for an answer.

"I think he were a Frenchman," spoke Eradicate. "I done didn't see him eat no frogs' laigs, but he smoked a cigarette dat had a funny smell, and he suah was monstrous polite. He suah was a Frenchman. I think."

Tom and Ned laughed at Eradicate's description of the man, but Tom's face was soon grave again.

"Tell us more about him, Rad," he suggested. "Did he seem especially interested in the fire?"

"No, sah, Massa Tom, he seemed laik he was more special interested in mah mule, Boomerang. He done asted how long I had him, an' how much I wanted fo' him, an' how old he was."

"But every once in a while he put in some question about the fire, or about our shops, didn't he, Rad?" Tom wanted to know.

The colored man scratched his kinky head, and glanced with a queer look at Tom.

"How yo' all done guess dat?" he asked.

"Answer my question," insisted Tom.

"Yes, sah, he done did ask about yo', and de wuks, ebery now and den," Rad confessed. "But how yo' all knowed dat, Massa Tom, when I were a-tellin' yo' all about him astin' fo' mah mule, done gets me--dat's what it suah does."

"Never mind, Rad. He asked questions about the plant, that's all I want to know. But you didn't tell him much, did you?"

Eradicate looked reproachfully at his master.

"Yo' all done knows me bettah dan dat, Massa Tom," the old colored man said. "Yo' all know yo' done gib orders fo' nobody t' talk about yo' projections."

"Yes, I know I gave those orders," Tom said, with a smile, "but I want to make sure that they have been followed."

"Well, I done follered 'em, Massa Tom."

"Then you didn't tell this queer stranger, Frenchman, or whatever he is, much about my place?"

"I didn't tell him nuffin', sah. I done frowed dust in his eyes.

Ned uttered an exclamation of surprise.

"Eradicate is speaking figuratively," Tom said, with a laugh.

"Dat's what I means," the colored man went on. "I done fooled him. When he asted me about de fire I said it didn't do no damage at all--in fack dat we'd rather hab de fire dan not hab it, 'case it done gib us a chance t' practice our hose drill."

"That's good," laughed Tom. "What else?"

"Well, he done sort ob hinted t' me ef we all knowed how de fire done start. I says as how we did, dat we done start it ourse'ves fo' practice, an dat we done expected it all along, an' were ready fo' it. Course I knows dat were a sort of fairy story, Massa Tom, but den dat cigarette-smokin' Frenchman didn't hab no right t' asted me so many questions, did he?"

"No, indeed, Rad. And I'm glad you didn't give him straight answers. So he's coming here later on, is he?"

"T' see ef I wants t' sell mah mule, Boomerang, yais, sah. I sort ob thought maybe you'd want t' hab a look at dat man, so I tole him t' come on. Course I doan't want t' sell Boomerang, but ef he was t' offer me a big lot ob money fo' him I'd take it."

"Of course," Tom answered. "Very well, Rad. You may go on now, and don't say anything to anyone about what you have told me."

"I won't, Massa Tom," promised the colored man, as he went off muttering to himself.

"Well, what do you make of it, Tom?" asked Ned of his chum, as they walked on toward the shed of the new, big aerial warship.

"I don't know just what to think, Ned. Of course things like this have happened before--persons trying to worm secrets out of Eradicate, or some of the other men."

"They never succeeded in getting much, I'm glad to say, but it always keeps me worried for fear something will happen," Tom concluded.

"But about this Frenchman?"

"Well, he must be a new one. And, now I come to think of it, I did hear some of the men speaking about a foreigner--a stranger-- being around town last week. It was just a casual reference, and I paid little attention to it. Now it looks as though there might be something in it."

"Do you think he'll come to bargain with Eradicate about the mule?" Ned asked.

"Hardly. That was only talk to make Eradicate unsuspicious. The stranger, whoever he was, sized Rad up partly right. I surmised, when Rad said he asked a lot of questions about the mule, that was only to divert suspicion. and that he'd come back to the subject of the fire every chance he got."

"And you were right."

"Yes, so it seems. But I don't believe the fellow will come around here. It would be too risky. All the same, we'll be prepared for him. I'll just rig up one of my photo-telephone machines, so that, if he does come to have a talk with Rad, we can both see and hear him."

"That's great, Tom! But do you think this fellow had anything to do with the fire?"

"I don't know. He knew about it, of course. This isn't the first fire we've had in the works, and, though we always fight them ourselves, still news of it will leak out to the town. So he could easily have known about it. And he might be in with those who set it, for I firmly believe the fire was set by someone who has an object in injuring me."

"It's too bad!" declared Ned. "Seems as though they might let you alone, if they haven't gumption enough to invent things for themselves."

"Well, don't worry. Maybe it will come out all right," returned Tom. "Now, let's go and have a look at my aerial warship. I haven't shown it to you yet. Then we'll get ready for that mysterious Frenchman, if he comes--but I don't believe he will."

The young inventor unlocked the door of the shed where he kept his latest "pet," and at the sight which met his eyes Ned Newton uttered an exclamation of surprise.

"Tom, what is it?" he cried in an awed voice.

"My aerial warship!" was the quiet answer.

Ned Newton gave vent to a long whistle, and then began a detailed examination of the wonderful craft he saw before him. That is, he made as detailed an examination as was possible under the circumstances, for it was a long time before the young bank clerk fully appreciated all Tom Swift had accomplished in building the Mars, which was the warlike name painted in red letters on the big gas container that tugged and swayed overhead.

"Tom, however did you do it?" gasped Ned at length.

"By hard work," was the modest reply. "I've been at this for a longer time than you'd suppose, working on it at odd moments. I had a lot of help, too, or I never could have done it. And now it is nearly all finished, as far as the ship itself is concerned. The only thing that bothers me is to provide for the recoil of the guns I want to carry. Maybe you can help me with that. Come on, now, I'll explain how the affair works, and what I hope to accomplish with it."

In brief Tom's aerial warship was a sort of German Zeppelin type of dirigible balloon, rising in the air by means of a gas container, or, rather, several of them, for the section for holding the lifting gas element was divided by bulkheads.

The chief difference between dirigible balloons and ordinary aeroplanes, as you all know, is that the former are lifted from the earth by a gas, such as hydrogen, which is lighter than air, while the aeroplane lifts itself by getting into motion, when broad, flat planes, or surfaces, hold it up, just as a flat stone is held up when you sail it through the air. The moment the stone, or aeroplane, loses its forward motion, it begins to fall.

This is not so with a dirigible balloon. It is held in the air by means of the lifting gas, and once so in the air can be sent in any direction by means of propellers and rudders.

Tom's aerial warship contained many new features. While it was as large as some of the war-type Zeppelins, it differed from them materially. But the details would be of more interest to a scientific builder of such things than to the ordinary reader, so I will not weary you with them.

Sufficient to say that Tom's craft consisted first of a great semi-rigid bag, or envelope, made of specially prepared oiled silk and aluminum, to hold the gas, which was manufactured on board. There were a number of gas-tight compartments, so that if one, or even if a number of them burst, or were shot by an enemy, the craft would still remain afloat.

Below the big gas bag was the ship proper, a light but strong and rigid framework about which were built enclosed cabins. These cabins, or compartments, housed the driving machinery, the gas-generating plant, living, sleeping and dining quarters, and a pilot-house, whence the ship could be controlled.

But this was not all.

Ned, making a tour of the Mars, as she swayed gently in the big shed, saw where several aluminum pedestals were mounted, fore and aft and on either beam of the ship.

"They look just like places where you intend to mount guns," said Ned to Tom.

"And that's exactly what they are," the young inventor replied. "I have the guns nearly ready for mounting, but I can't seem to think of a way of providing for the recoil. And if I don't take care of that, I'm likely to find my ship coming apart under me, after we bombard the enemy with a broadside or two."

"Then you intend to fight with this ship?" asked Ned.

"Well, no; not exactly personally. I was thinking of offering it to the United States Government. Foreign nations are getting ready large fleets of aerial warships, so why shouldn't we? Matters in Europe are mighty uncertain. There may be a great war there in which aerial craft will play a big part. I am conceited enough to think I can build one that will measure up to the foreign ones, and I'll soon be in a position to know."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I have already communicated with our government experts, and they are soon to come and inspect this craft. I have sent them word that it is about finished. There is only the matter of the guns, and some of the ordnance officers may be able to help me out with a suggestion, for I admit I am stuck!" exclaimed Tom.

"Then you're going to do the same with this aerial warship as you did with your big lantern and that immense gun you perfected?" asked Ned.

"That's right," confirmed Tom. My former readers will know to what Ned Newton referred, and those of you who do not may learn the details of how Tom helped Uncle Sam, by reading the previous volumes, "Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight," and "Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon."

"When do you expect the government experts?," Ned asked.

"Within a few days, now. But I'll have to hustle to get ready for them, as this fire has put me back. There are quite a number of details I need to change. Well, now, let me explain about that gun recoil business. Maybe you can help me."

"Fire away," laughed Ned. "I'll do the best I can."

Tom led the way from the main shed, where the aerial warship was housed, to a small private office. As Ned entered, the door, pulled by a strong spring, swung after him. He held back his hand to prevent it from slamming, but there was no need, for a patent arrangement took up all the force, and the door closed gently. Ned looked around, not much surprised, for the same sort of door-check was in use at his bank. But a sudden idea came to him.

"There you are, Tom!" he cried. "Why not take up the recoil of the guns on your aerial warship by some such device as that?" and Ned pointed to the door-check.