Chapter VIII. Strange Talk
 

There was a rapid and sudden drop. Mary, sitting beside Tom Swift in the speedy aeroplane, watched with fascinated eyes as he quickly juggled with levers and tried different valve wheels. The girl, through her goggles, had a vision of a landscape shooting past with the speed of light. She glimpsed a brook, and, almost instantly, they had skimmed over it.

A jar, a nerve-racking tilt to one side, the creaking of wood and the rattle of metal, a careening, and then the machine came to a stop, not exactly on a level keel, but at least right side up, in the midst of a wide field.

Tom shut off the gas, cut his spark, and, raising his goggles, looked down at Mary at his side.

"Scared?" he asked, smiling.

"I was," she frankly admitted. "Is anything broken, Tom?"

"I hope not," answered the young inventor. "At least if it is, the damage is on the under part. Nothing visible up here. But let me help you out. Looks as if we'd have to run for it."

"Run?" repeated Mary, while proving that she did not exactly need help, for she was getting out of her seat unaided. "Why? Is it going to catch fire?"

"No. But it's going to rain soon--and hard, too, if I'm any judge," Tom said. "I don't believe I'll take a chance trying to get the machine going again. We'll make for that farmhouse and stay there until after the storm. Looks as if we could get shelter there, and perhaps a bit to eat. I'm beginning to feel hungry."

"It is going to rain!" decided Mary, as Tom helped her down over the side of the fusilage. "It's good we are so near shelter."

Tom did not answer. He was making a hasty but accurate observation of the state of his aeroplane. The landing wheels had stood the shock well, and nothing appeared to be broken.

"We came down rather harder than I wanted to," remarked Tom, as he crawled out after his inspection of the machine. "Though I've made worse forced landings than that."

"What caused it?" asked Mary, glancing up at the clouds, which were getting blacker and blacker, and from which, now and then, vivid flashes of lightning came while low mutterings of thunder rolled nearer and nearer. "Something seemed to be wrong with the carburetor," Tom answered. "I won't try to monkey with it now. Let's hike for that farmhouse. We'll be lucky if we don't get drenched. Are you sure you're all right, Mary?"

"Certainly, Tom. I can stand a worse shaking up than that. And you needn't think I can't run, either!"

She proved this by hastening along at Tom's side. And there was need of haste, for soon after they left the stranded aeroplane the big drops began to pelt down, and they reached the house just as the deluge came.

"I don't know this place, do you, Tom?" asked Mary, as they ran in through a gateway in a fence that surrounded the property. A path seemed to lead all around the old, rambling house, and there was a porch with a side entrance door. This, being nearer, had been picked out by the young inventor and his friend.

"No, I don't remember being here before," Tom answered. "But I've passed the place often enough with Ned and Mr. Damon. I guess they won't refuse to let us sit on the porch, and they may be induced to give us a glass of milk and some sandwiches--that is, sell them to us."

He and Mary, a little breathless from their run, hastened up on the porch, slightly wet from the sudden outburst of rain. As Tom knocked on the door there came a clap of thunder, following a burst of lightning, that caused Mary to put her hands over her ears.

"Guess they didn't hear that," observed Tom, as the echoes of the blast died away. "I mean my knock. The thunder drowned it. I'll try again."

He took advantage of a lull in the thundering reverberations, and tapped smartly. The door was almost at once opened by an aged woman, who stared in some amazement at the young people. Then she said:

"Guests must go to the front door."

"Guests!" exclaimed Tom. "We aren't exactly guests. Of course we'd like to be considered in that light. But we've had an accident--my aeroplane stopped and we'd like to stay here out of the storm, and perhaps get something to eat."

"That can be arranged--yes," said the old woman, who spoke with a foreign accent. "But you must go to the front door. This is the servant's entrance."

Mary was just thinking that they used considerable formality for casual wayfarers, when the situation dawned on Tom Swift.

"Is this a restaurant--an inn?" he asked.

"Yes," answered the old woman. "It is Meadow Inn. Please go to the front door."

"All right," Tom agreed good-naturedly. "I'm glad we struck the place, anyhow."

The porch extended around three sides of the old, rambling house. Proceeding along the sheltered piazza, Tom and Mary soon found themselves at the front door. There the nature of the place was at once made plain, for on a board was lettered the words "Meadow Inn."

"I see what has happened," Tom remarked, as he opened the old- fashioned ground glass door and ushered Mary in. "Some one has taken the old farmhouse and made it into a roadhouse--a wayside inn. I shouldn't think such a place would pay out here; but I'm mighty glad we struck it."

"Yes, indeed," agreed Mary.

The old farmhouse, one of the best of its day, had been transformed into a roadhouse of the better class. On either side of the entrance hall were dining rooms, in which were set small tables, spread with snowy cloths.

"In here, sir, if you please," said a white-aproned waiter, gliding forward to take Tom's leather coat and Mary's jacket of like material. The waiter ushered them into a room, in which at first there seemed to be no other diners. Then, from behind a screen which was pulled around a table in one corner, came the murmur of voices and the clatter of cutlery on china, which told of some one at a meal there.

"Somebody is fond of seclusion," thought Tom, as he and Mary took their places. And as he glanced over the bill of fare his ears caught the murmur of the voices of two men coming from behind the screen. One voice was low and rumbling, the other high-pitched and querulous.

"Talking business, probably," mused Tom. "What do you feel like eating?" he asked Mary.

"I wasn't very hungry until I came in," she answered, with a smile. "But it is so cozy and quaint here, and so clean and neat, that it really gives one an appetite. Isn't it a delightful place, Tom? Did you know it was here?"

"It is very nice. And as this is the first I have been here for a long while I didn't know, any more than you, that it had been made into a roadhouse. But what shall I order for you?"

"I should think you would have had enough experience by this time," laughed Mary, for it was not the first occasion that she and Tom had dined out.

Thereupon he gave her order and his own, too, and they were soon eating heartily of food that was in keeping with the appearance of the place.

"I must bring Ned and Mr. Damon here," said Tom. "They'll appreciate the quaintness of this inn," for many of the quaint appointments of the old farmhouse had been retained, making it a charming resort for a meal.

"Mr. Damon will like it," said Mary. "Especially the big fireplace," and she pointed to one on which burned a blaze of hickory wood. "He'll bless everything he sees."

"And cause the waiter to look at me as though I had brought in an escaped inmate from some sanitarium," laughed Tom. "No use talking, Mr. Damon is delightfully queer! Now what do you want for dessert?"

"Let me see the card," begged Mary. "I fancy some French pastry, if they have it."

Tom gazed idly but approvingly about as she scanned the list. The sound of the rumbling and the higher-pitched voices had gone on throughout the entire meal, and now, as comparative silence filled the room, the clatter of knives and forks having ceased, Tom heard more clearly what was being said behind the screen.

"Well, I tell you what it is," said the man whom Tom mentally dubbed Mr. High. "We got out of that blaze mighty luckily!"

"Yes," agreed he of the rumbly voice, whom Tom thought of as Mr. Low, "it was a close shave. If it hadn't been for his chemicals, though, there would have been a cleaner sweep."

"Indeed there would! I never knew that any of them could act as fire extinguishers."

Tom seemed to stiffen at this, and his hearing became more acute.

"They aren't really fire extinguishers in the real sense of the word," went on the other man behind the screen. "It must have been some accidental combination of them. But in spite of that we put it all over Josephus Baxter in that fire!"

"What's this? What's this?" thought Tom, shooting a glance at Mary and noting that apparently she had not heard what was said. "What strange talk is this?"