A number of men came running to meet the plane as it landed beautifully on the runway. Pilescu climbed out of the cockpit and left Ranni on guard inside. The children were all as quiet as mice.
The blue and silver plane was so magnificent that all the groundsmen ran round it, exclaiming. They had never seen such a beauty before. Two of them wanted to climb inside and examine it, but Ranni stood solidly at the entrance, his big body blocking the way. Pilescu spoke to the mechanics and soon the plane was taking in an enormous amount of fuel.
“Pooh! Doesn’t it smell horrid?” whispered Paul. “I think I’m going to choke.”
“Don’t you dare even to sneeze,” ordered Jack at once, his voice very low but very fierce.
So Paul swallowed his choking fit and went purple in the face. The girls couldn’t bear the smell either, but they buried their faces deeper in the rug and said nothing.
A man’s voice floated up to the cockpit, speaking in broken English.
“You have how many passengers, please?” he asked.
“You see me and my companion here,” answered Pilescu shortly.
The man seemed satisfied, and walked round the plane admiring it. Pilescu took no notice of him, but began to look carefully into the engines of the plane. He noticed something was wrong and shouted to Ranni.
“Come down here a minute and give me a hand.” Ranni stepped down the ladder and went to stand beside Pilescu. As quick as lightning one of the airfield men skipped up the ladder to the cockpit and peered inside the plane.
It so happened that Mike was peeping out to see if all was clear at that moment. He saw the man before the man saw him, and covered his face again, nudging the others to keep perfectly still.
Ranni saw that the man had gone up to the cockpit and he shouted to him. “Come down! No one is allowed inside our plane without permission.”
“Then you must give me permission,” said the man, whose quick eye had seen the enormous pile of rugs at the back, and who wished to examine it. “We have had news that five children are missing from London, and there is a big reward offered from the King of Baronia if they are found.”
Pilescu muttered something under his breath and ran to where the mechanics had just finished refuelling the plane. He pushed them away and made sure nobody was still nearby. Ranni went up the steps in a trice, and tipped the inquisitive man down them. Pilescu leapt into the plane and slipped into the pilot’s seat like a fish sliding into water.
There was a good deal of shouting and calling, but Pilescu ignored it. He started the plane and it ran swiftly over the ground. With a crowd of angry men rushing after it, the plane taxied to the end of the field and then rose gently into the air. Pilescu gave a short laugh.
“Now it will be known everywhere that we have the children on board. Get them out, Ranni. They were very good and they must be half smothered under those rugs.”
The five children were already crawling out, excited to think of their narrow escape.
“Would we have been sent back to London?” cried Paul.
“I peeped out but the man didn’t see me!” shouted Mike.
“Are we safe?” said Peggy, sitting down in her comfortable armchair seat again. “They won’t send up planes to chase us, will they?”
“It wouldn’t be any use,” said Ranni, with a grin. “This is the fastest plane on the airfield. No — don’t worry. You are all right now. But we must try to find the place where the White Swallow came down, for we do not want to land on any more airfields at the moment.”
The day went on, and the children found it very thrilling to look out of the windows and see the mountains, rivers, valleys and plains slipping away below them. They longed to go down and explore them. It was wonderful to be over a strange land, and see it spread out below like a great map.
Towards the late afternoon, as the children were eating sweet biscuits and chocolate, and drinking lemonade, which by some miracle Ranni had iced, Pilescu gave a shout.
Ranni and he put their heads together over the map, and the two men spoke excitedly in their own language. Paul listened, his eyes gleaming.
“What are they saying?” cried Mike impatiently. “Tell us, Paul.”
“They say that we are getting near the place where the White Swallow came down,” said Paul. “Ranni says he had been in this part of the country before. He was sent to get animals for our Baronian Zoo, and he knows the people. He says they live in tiny villages, far from any towns and they keep to themselves so that few others know them.”
The plane flew more slowly and went down lower. Ranni searched the ground below them carefully as the plane flew round in big circles.
But it was Mike who first saw what they were all eagerly looking for! He gave such a shout that the girls nearly fell off their seats, and Ranni turned round with a jump, half-expecting to see one of the children falling out of the plane!
“Ranni! Look — there’s the White Swallow! Oh, look — oh, we’ve passed it! Pilescu, Pilescu, go back! I tell you I saw the White Swallow!”
The boy was so excited that he shook big Ranni hard by the shoulder, and would have done the same to the pilot except that he had been warned not to touch Pilescu when he was flying the machine. Ranni looked back, and gave directions to Pilescu.
In a trice the plane circled back and was soon over the exact place where the gleaming white plane stood still and silent. The children gazed at it. To think that they were looking at the very same plane they had waved good-bye to some weeks before — but this time the two famous pilots were not there to wave back.
“I can’t land very near to it,” said Pilescu. “I don’t know how Captain Arnold managed to land there without crashing. He must be a very clever pilot.”
“He is,” said Peggy proudly. “He is one of the best in the world.”
“I shall land on that smooth-looking bit of ground over there,” said Pilescu, flying the plane lower. “We may bump a bit, children, because there are rocks there. Get ready for a jolt!”
The plane flew even lower. Then Pilescu found that he could not land with safety, and he rose into the air again. He circled round once more and then went down. This time he let down the wheels of the plane and they touched the ground. One ran over a rock and the plane tilted sideways. For one moment everyone thought that it was going over, and Pilescu turned pale. He did not want to crash in the middle of an unknown country!
But the plane was marvellously built and balanced and it righted itself. All the children had been thrown roughly about in their seats, and everything in the cabin had slid to one side.
But the five children soon sorted themselves out, too excited even to look for bruises. They rushed to the door of the cockpit, each eager to be out first. Ranni shouted to them.
“Stay where you are. I must go out first to see what there is to be seen.”
Pilescu stopped the engines, and the big throbbing noise died away. It seemed strange to the children when it stopped. Everything was so quiet, and their voices seemed suddenly loud. It took them a little time to stop shouting at one another, for they always had to raise their voices when they were flying.
Ranni got out of the cockpit, his gun handy. No one appeared to be in sight. They had landed on rough ground, strewn with boulders, and it was really a miracle that they had landed so well. To the left, about two miles away, a range of mountains rose. To the right was a plain, dotted with trees that the children did not know. Small hills lay in the other directions.
“Everything looks very strange, doesn’t it?” said Mike. “Look at those funny red-brown daisies over there. And even the grass is different!”
“So are the birds,” said Peggy, watching a brilliant red and yellow bird chasing a large fly. A green and orange bird flew round the plane, and a flock of bright blue birds passed overhead. They were not a bit like any of the birds that the children knew so well at home.
“Can we get out, Ranni?” called Mike, who was simply longing to explore. Ranni nodded. He could see no one about at all. All the five children rushed out of the plane and jumped to the ground. It was lovely to feel it beneath their feet again.
“I feel as if the ground ought to bump and sway like the plane,” said Nora, with a giggle. “You know — like when we get out of a boat.”
“Well, I jolly well hope it doesn’t,” said Jack. “I don’t want an earthquake just at present.”
The sun was very hot. Pilescu got out some marvellous sun-hats for the five children and for himself and Ranni too. They had a sort of veil hanging down from the back to protect their spines from the sun. None of them were wearing very many clothes, but even so they felt very hot.
“I’m jolly thirsty,” said Mike, mopping his head. “Let’s have a drink, Ranni.”
They all drank lemonade, sitting in the shade of the plane. The sun was now getting low, and Pilescu looked at the time.
“There’s nothing more we can do today,” he said. “Tomorrow we will find some local people and see what we can get out of them by questioning them. Ranni thinks he can make them understand, for he picked up some of their language when he was here hunting animals for the Baronian Zoo.”
“Well, surely we haven’t got to go to bed already?” asked Nora in dismay. “Aren’t we going to explore a bit?”
“There won’t be time — the sun is setting already,” said Ranni. As he spoke the sun disappeared over the horizon, and darkness fell around almost at once. The children were surprised.
“Day went into night, and there was no evening,” said Nora, looking round. “The stars are out, look! Oh, Mike — Jack — aren’t they enormous?”
So they were. They seemed far bigger and brighter than at home. The children sat and looked at them, feeling almost afraid of their strange beauty.
Then Nora yawned. It was such an enormous yawn that it set everyone else yawning too, even big Ranni! Pilescu laughed.
“You had little sleep last night,” he said. “You must have plenty tonight. In this country we must get up very early whilst it is still cool, for we shall have to rest in the shade when the sun climbs high. So you had better go to sleep very soon after Ranni has given you supper.”
“Need we sleep inside the plane?” said Jack. “It’s so hot there. Can we sleep out here in the cool?”
“Yes,” said Ranni. “We will bring out rugs to lie on. Pilescu and I will take it in turns to keep watch.”
“What will you watch for?” asked Peggy, in surprise. “Not enemies, surely?”
“Well, Captain and Mrs. Arnold disappeared just here, didn’t they?” said Pilescu solemnly. “I don’t want to wake up in the morning and find that we have disappeared too. I should just hate to go and look for myself!”
Everyone laughed — but the children felt a little queer too. Yes — this wasn’t nice, safe old England. This was a strange, unknown country, where queer, unexpected things might happen. They moved a little closer to red-bearded Pilescu. He suddenly seemed very safe and protective as he sat there in the starlight, as firm and solid as one of the big dark rocks around!