The big blue and silver car drove silently over the bumpy field until it came to the aeroplane. Pilescu was there, his red beard shining in the light of a lamp. With him was another man just as big.
“Hallo, Ranni!” said Prince Paul joyfully. “Are you coming too? I’m so glad to see you!”
Ranni lifted the small Prince off the ground and swung him into the air. His broad face shone with delight.
“My little lord!” he said. “Yes — I come with you and Pilescu. I think it is not right that you should do this — but the lords of Baronia were always mad!”
Paul laughed. It was easy to see that he loved big Ranni, and was glad that the Baronian was coming too.
“Will my aeroplane take seven?” he asked, looking at it.
“Easily,” said Pilescu. “But now, come quickly before the mechanics come to see what is happening.”
They all climbed up the little ladder to the cockpit. The aeroplane inside was like a big and comfortable room. It was marvellous. Mike and the others cried out in amazement.
“This is a wonderful aeroplane,” said Mike. “It’s much better than even the White Swallow.”
“Baronia has the most marvellous planes in the world,” said Pilescu proudly. “It is only a small country, but our inventors are the best.”
The children settled down into comfortable armchair seats. Paul, who was tremendously excited, showed everyone how the seats unfolded, when a spring was touched, and became small beds, cosy and soft.
“Golly!” said Jack, making his seat turn into a bed at once, and then changing it back to an armchair, and then into a bed again. “This is like magic. I could do this all night!”
“You must settle down into your seats quickly,” ordered Pilescu, climbing into the pilot’s seat, with big Ranni just beside him. “We must be off. We have many hundreds of miles to fly before the sun is high.”
The children settled down again, Paul chattering nineteen to the dozen! Nobody felt sleepy. It was far too exciting a night to think of sleep.
Pilescu made sure the children had all fastened their seat belts, and started the engines, which made a loud and comfortable noise. Then, with a slight jerk, the aeroplane began to run over the dark field.
It bumped a little — and then, like a big bird, it rose into the air and skimmed over the long line of trees that stood at the far end of the big field. The children hardly knew that it had left the ground.
“Are we still running over the field?” asked Mike, trying to see out of the window near him.
“No, of course not,” said Ranni laughing. “We are miles away from the airfield already!”
“Goodness!” said Peggy, half-startled to think of the enormous speed at which the plane was flying. The children had to raise their voices when they spoke, because the engine of the plane, although specially silent, made a great noise.
That flight through the dark night was very strange to the children. As soon as the plane left the ground its wheels rose into its body and disappeared. They would descend again when the aeroplane landed. It flew through the darkness as straight as an arrow, with Pilescu piloting it, his eyes on all the various things that told him everything he needed to know about the plane.
“Why did Ranni come?” Prince Paul shouted to Pilescu.
“Because Ranni can take a turn at piloting the plane,” answered Pilescu. “Also there must be someone to look after such a crowd of children!”
“We don’t need looking after!” cried Mike indignantly. “We can easily look after ourselves! Why, once when we ran away to a secret island, we looked after ourselves for months and months!”
“Yes — I heard that wonderful story,” said Pilescu. “But I must have another man with me, and Ranni was the one I could most trust. We may be very glad of his help.”
No one knew then how glad they were going to be that big Ranni had come with them — but even so, Ranni was very comforting even in the plane, for he brought the children hot cocoa when they felt cold, and produced cups of hot tomato soup which they thought tasted better than any soup they had ever had before!
“Isn’t it exciting to be drinking soup high up in an aeroplane in the middle of the night?” said Peggy. “And I do like these biscuits. Ranni, I’m very glad you came with us!”
Big Ranni grinned. He was like a great bear, yet as gentle as could be. He adored little Paul, and gave him far too much to eat and drink. They all had bars of nut chocolate after the soup, and Pilescu munched as well.
The plane had been flying very steadily indeed — in fact, the children hardly noticed the movement at all — but suddenly there came a curious jerk, and the plane dropped a little. It happened two or three times, and Paul didn’t like it.
“What’s it doing?” he cried.
Mike laughed. He had been up in aeroplanes before, and he knew what was happening at that moment.
“We are only bumping into air-pockets,” he shouted to Paul. “When we get into one we drop a bit — so it feels as if the plane is bumping along. Wait till we get into a big air-pocket — you’ll feel funny, young Paul!”
Sure enough, the plane slipped into a very big air-pocket, and down it dropped sharply. Paul nearly fell off his big armchair, and he turned quite green.
“I feel sick,” he said. Ranni promptly presented him with a strong paper bag.
“What’s this for?” asked Paul, in a weak voice, looking greener than ever. “There’s nothing in the bag.”
The other four children shouted with laughter. They felt sorry for Paul, but he really did look comical, peering into the paper bag to see if there was anything there.
“It’s for you to be sick in, if you want to be,” shouted Jack. “Didn’t you know that?”
But the paper bag wasn’t needed after all, because the plane climbed high, away from the bumpy air-pockets, and Paul felt better. “I shan’t eat so much chocolate another time,” he said cheerfully.
“I bet you will!” said Jack, who knew that Paul could eat more chocolate than any other boy he had ever met. “I say — isn’t this a gorgeous adventure? I hope we see the sun rise!”
But they didn’t, because they were all fast asleep! Nora and Peggy began to yawn at two o’clock in the morning, and Ranni saw them.
“You will all go to sleep now,” he said. He got up and helped the two girls to turn their big armchairs into comfortable, soft beds. He gave them each a pillow and a very cosy warm rug.
“We don’t want to go to sleep,” said Nora in dismay. “I shan’t close my eyes. I know I shan’t.”
“Don’t then,” said Ranni with a grin. He pulled the rugs closely over the children and went back to his seat beside Pilescu.
Nora and Peggy and Paul found that their eyes closed themselves — they simply wouldn’t keep open. In three seconds they were all sound asleep. The other two boys did not take much longer, excited though they were.
Ranni nudged the pilot and Pilescu’s dark eyes twinkled as he looked round at the quiet children.
He and Ranni talked in their own language, as the plane roared through the night. They had travelled hundreds of miles before daylight came. It was marvellous to see the sun rising when dawn came.
The sky became full of a soft light that seemed alive. The light grew and changed colour. Both pilots watched in silence. It was a sight they had often seen and were never tired of.
Golden light filled the aeroplane when the sun showed a golden rim over the far horizon. Ranni switched off the electric lights at once. The world lay below, very beautiful in the dawn.
“Blue and gold,” said Ranni to Pilescu, in his own language. “It is a pity the children are not awake to see it.”
“Don’t wake them, Ranni,” said Pilescu. “We may have a harder time in front of us than they know. I am hoping that we shall turn and go back, once the children realise that we cannot possibly find their parents. We shall not stay in Africa very long!”
The children slept on. When they awoke it was about eight o’clock. The sun was high, and below the plane was a billowing mass of snowy whiteness, intensely blue in the shadows.
“Golly! Is it snow?” said Paul, rubbing his eyes in amazement. “Pilescu, I asked you to fly to Africa, not to the North Pole!”
“It’s fields and fields of clouds,” said Nora, looking with delight on the magnificent sight below them. “We are right above the clouds. Peggy, look — they seem almost solid enough to walk on!”
“Better not try it!” said Mike. “Ranni, you might have waked us up when dawn came. Now we’ve missed it. I say, I am hungry!”
Ranni became very busy at the back of the plane, where there was a proper little kitchen. Soon the smell of frying bacon and eggs, toast and coffee stole into the cabin. The children sniffed eagerly, looking down at the fields of cloud all the time, marvelling at their amazing beauty.
Then there came a break in the clouds and the five children gave shouts of joy.
“Look! We are over a desert or something. Isn’t it queer?”
The smooth-looking desert gave way to mountains, and then to plains again. It was most exciting to watch.
“Where are we?” asked Mike.
“Over Africa,” said Ranni, serving bacon and eggs to everyone, and putting hot coffee into the cups. “Now eat well, for it is a long time to lunch-time!”
It was a gorgeous meal, and most exciting. To think that they had their supper in London — and were having their breakfast over Africa! Marvellous!
“Do you know whereabouts our parents came down, Pilescu?” asked Mike.
“Ranni will show you on the map,” said the pilot. “Soon we must go down to get more fuel. We are running short. You children are to stay hidden in the plane when we land on the airfield, for I do not want to be arrested for flying away with you!”
“We’ll hide all right!” said Paul, excited. “Where is that map, Ranni? Let us see it. Oh, how I wish I had done better at geography. I don’t seem to know anything about Africa at all.”
Ranni unfolded a big map, and showed the children where Captain and Mrs. Arnold’s plane had been found. He showed them exactly where their own plane was too.
“Golly! It doesn’t look very far from here to where the White Swallow was found!” cried Paul, running his finger over the map.
Ranni laughed. “Further than you think,” he said. “Now look — we are nearing an airfield and must get fuel. Go to the back of the plane and hide under the pile of rugs there.”
So, whilst the plane circled lower to land, the five children snuggled under the rugs and luggage. They did hope they wouldn’t be found. It would be too dreadful to be sent back to London after coming so far.