Romano's face grew stony as he maneuvered the ship higher. Helen glanced at her father, whose white-knuckled hands gripped the ropes, bracing himself for further shifting winds, then she unstrapped herself from the seat and made her way to the rear of the ship to listen attentively to the engine.
"What are you doing," her father shouted, tightening his hold on the gondola's ropes as the craft shuddered up at an angle. "Sit down!"
Helen ignored him and listened carefully to the chugging gears. Then she smiled. The motor seemed to be running without complications and they were buoyed up by its power at an increasing rate.
Glancing over her shoulder, Helen saw that the Lintons' ship had picked up its pace as well, though not flying as high as hers at present. She hoped they could increase the distance between them.
She could use that £500!
"Take it up to top gear, signore," Helen called out to her pilot.
Romano looked at her, his face full of misgiving. "Perhaps we should not risk it, signorina."
"Yes, we must try it out."
"But it may not be necessary; I think we can beat them without it." The pilot gestured at the craft below them. There could be no doubting that the gap between the two ships had begun to increase.
Helen smiled as she looked over the edge of the gondola, but when her gaze returned to meet the pilot's, it was lit with enthusiasm.
"I want to try it out."
Helens father fought his way to a standing position. "What the devil are you two talking about?"
The pilot looked apologetic, trying to keep a watch on the dials and levers before him as he tried to remonstrate with his patroness. "We repaired the previous damage—"
"From the failed flight, last week—you remember, Papa."
"I'm not an idiot," Rochester grumbled. "Of course I remember."
Helen smiled indulgently. "I know you don't enjoy the technical discussions."
Her father grimaced. "You're delaying. Your mother will be so proud to hear that you have followed in her extremely irritating habit."
"Sorry, Papa. I took the opportunity we had with taking apart the engine assembly to initiate a few improvements that I think will offer some surprising innovations."
"I don't like the sound of that." Her father suddenly appeared a trifle more pale.
Helen laughed. "It's only a mild increase in speed capability and—you will be glad to hear—an improvement in motor efficiency at those higher speeds."
"Provided the assembly does not overheat," Romano cautioned.
Helen waved away his words. "I worked it all out in the sketches. The bearings and the oil should withstand the friction without trouble."
"But rotation at that velocity!" the pilot said, wrestling with the wheel before him which seemed to be fighting back. "I think we have underestimated the heat generation index for the entire assembly."
Helen shrugged. "How else will we discover whether the calculations hit the mark?"
"You're speaking gibberish," Rochester shouted, feeling courageous enough to let go of the ropes with one hand as he waved the other at the Lintons' ship. "And anyway, it seems unnecessary. We're clearly in the lead. Just maintain that—"
All three of them watched as suddenly the other craft lurched in the air and then began closing the gap between them at an alarming rate. Tuppence croaked from her perch on the ropes as if to warn them of its approach.
"You see?" Helen said, triumph filling her voice. "We've got to test it now!"
"They may not catch up," her father muttered, but she noticed that he took a firmer hold of the gondola's cables. All her life the towering temper of the man who gave her that distinctive profile had demonstrated his fearlessness.
She found it quite enjoyable to be the cause of making him a bit unsettled. For try as he might, Helen could see behind the bluster that he was afraid.
I am being rather cruel, she tutted herself. But the smile spread across her lips anyway. "Top gear," she shouted to Romano. "Let's show these amateurs what a real ship can do!"