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HOME > Classical Novels > White Motley > CHAPTER V THE GHOST TAKES WINGS
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A sense of elation quite foreign to the somewhat methodical order of his daily life accompanied Benny to the chalet, where he found his brother Jack awaiting him with some anxiety. Jack had been the baby of the family from the beginning, and this somewhat precocious infant of twenty-six lifted a shaggy head above the bedclothes upon Benjamin's entry, and asked him with real solicitude what had kept him. He would have been surprised to the point of wonder had the answer been "A woman."

Possibly Jack Benson was the only human being who understood his brother wholly and had no doubt about his future. He himself was a somewhat lazy youth with few affections and no enthusiasms, unless it were for his wire-haired terrier Toby; but he knew that Benjamin Benson was a genius of whom the world would hear one day to its profit. In his own dull way he tried to serve his brother; and this was very proper, for all the legacy that Benjamin ever received from his kindly old father was one thousand pounds sterling and the care of "the baby." That charge he had undertaken faithfully. The brothers were inseparable; and if the younger added little but encouragement to the common stock, his faith was precious to the shy, reserved man who wrought so strenuously for the common good.

"Wherever have you been, Benny? It's after twelve o'clock, isn't it?" Jack asked as he lifted his head from the pillow. Benjamin replied by setting the candlestick down upon the table and laughing in the most ridiculous way possible.

"I've been up to Vermala on a luge," he said as though the idea tickled him immensely; "imagine me at the game! Well, I've been there sure enough, Jack. Do you remember the pretty little woman in violet—the one with the sad face and the dreamy eyes? You do remember her; well, then, that's all right, for I brought her down. She was a derelict, and the hee-haw man, who went up with her, had an engagement on a drift. He was getting the snow out of his neck as I went by—so, you see, I brought her down—and, well, it makes me laugh to think about it, that's all."

Jack stared as though he had seen the ghost of whom the peasants spoke. He was almost tempted to prescribe hot blankets. "Benny," he exclaimed at last, "what's the matter with you? What are you going on like that for? Is it something they said to you—was it the woman, Benny?"

Benny became serious in a moment. No oyster shut his shell more surely.

"No, she's not in it, Jack," he rejoined hastily. "I was just thinking that it was odd I should have brought her down, that's all. She's Mrs. Kennaird, one of the Yorkshire lot, I guess, though she wouldn't own up. I suppose she didn't want anyone to know too much about her—that would be very natural, eh?"

"But it wasn't much of a compliment to you, Benny."

"Do you think so, Jack? Well, I didn't look at it in that light. Perhaps it wasn't, after all. She might have been afraid that I would go down to her house in Yorkshire and try to see her. She might have done so—and, of course, it wouldn't have done; would it, Jack?"

Jack sat up in bed again. He was used to this kind of talk, and it never failed to anger him.

"Why wouldn't it have done? Aren't you good enough for her? You're always crying us down, Benny. Wasn't our grandfather a Brerton, and wasn't he a d——d sight better than any Kennaird in Yorkshire? Why shouldn't you call on her if you wanted to?"

Benny threw himself into a chair and took a very black briar pipe from his pocket.

"Oh," he said almost impatiently, "the world's a funny place. The cannibals get on best, Jack—those who live on their dead ancestors. You can't draw bills on futurity nowadays; no one honours them. A man's either up or down; there's no middle course. If I were to make a hit, people would remember that I had a history. If I fail, they won't even say 'Poor devil.' Birth and breeding are all right, but you must have the trappings if they are to be any good to you. While I'm just Benjamin Benson, engineer, the little woman in violet will regard me as she does her motor driver or the man who works the lift in the hotel. She wouldn't remember that she had done it if I made my mark—they never do."

He spoke with an intensity of feeling quite beyond the circumstance, and Brother Jack was altogether puzzled.

"I never heard you talk like this before," he said questioningly; "surely to Heaven, Benny, you're not bitten with the society craze? For goodness' sake don't tell me you're going to buy a new silk hat!"

Benny laughed.

"The old one will do yet awhile, Jack. It's up in London, packed away with the cylinder castings we had from Anzini. No, I'm not going in for that line, old boy; but when a man does meet a pretty woman, one he's likely to remember, why then, I suppose, these thoughts will come. That's what old Shakespeare says, and he knew women better than most of us. Wasn't it the same old Billy who told us to fling away ambition, for by that sin fell the angels? Well, I hope I shan't fall to-night, for I'm going to try the Zaat again."

"The Zaat—but you never told me!"

"The idea came as I walked along. I want to see how the new propeller is working. It's only three weeks to the day, Jack, and if I let some Frenchman in before me, you know you'd never forgive me. Ten thousand pounds, my boy—and that's fortune. Let me win them and I will be one of the richest men in Europe in five years' time. You believe that, Jack, don't you?"

Jack believed every word of it. His faith had never faltered. The great prize, offered to the man who first flew from the summit of the Weisshorn round Mont Blanc to the valley of Chamonix, would be won by his brother or it never would be won at all. Such a victory would change the course of their lives in an instant. It would lift them from the ruck of mere adventurers to the high places of fame. And Benny's genius would accomplish it—the day would come speedily when the world would acknowledge him for what he was. This Brother Jack believed faithfully; this was his whole creed, with an anathema upon any Frenchman who differed from him.

"It's a dead certainty, Benny," he said with a real ring in his voice; "you couldn't fail if you tried."

Benny shook his head at that. "I could fail right enough if I played the fool, Jack; and then there's the weather to be reckoned with. What's going to happen if I start in a blizzard? The magneto may give out on short circuit—that's one of the chances if it's wet. When it begins to do that you may sally forth with a stretcher—not before. What I'm going 'no trumps' on is the snow. If that keeps soft and I come down, there'll be a new start. And anyway, it doesn't much matter, for there'll only be one flying man less in the world; and, like the folks in Gilbert's opera, he really won't be missed. You go to sleep and don't worry over it, Jack. It will be time enough to do that when I take a toss."

He stood up as upon a sudden impulse and, laughing at his brother's remonstrances, filled his pipe again and went quickly down the stairs. A moment later he shut the door of the chalet softly and turned to the wooden shed upon his right hand. Here his machine was harboured; this was his hangar, wherein he guarded secrets so precious that he believed they would revolutionise the art of aviation, youthful as it was. For three years, since the day when he first heard of the Wrights and their achievements at Pau, had Benny dreamed the dreams by night and slaved at the bench by day. And now the harvest had come to fruition and the sickle was at hand. An offer by an English newspaper of ten thousand pounds to the man who first flew over the great peaks of the Pennine Alps sent Benny to Andana with the determination to win it or court the ultimate ignominy. He worked feverishly in the dread that he might be forestalled. The day and the hour were at hand—he believed that he was ready.

The moon had waned a little when he opened the door of his shed, and the night fell bitter cold. He chose such an hour purposely, that he might prove his engines under all temperatures, and know that they would serve him in that rare atmosphere. Unlike the majority of others, Benny's machine was in the shape of a light steel torpedo with a whale's snout and the fins of a monstrous fish. He sat snug within this shell, and could raise or depress the great wings by the slightest touch upon the pedals at his feet. His elevating planes were cunningly placed above the rudder at the tail, and were connected to a lever at his right hand. He had designed the seven-cylindered engines himself, and while they embodied in some part the principles of the gyroscope, they had a power and reliability he had discovered in no other. Perhaps, however, the chief merit of the design was its neatness and its response in every particular to the scientific theory upon which human flight is based. In the air it looked like some monster, half fish, half bird. But on land it was a very beautiful thing, as every expert had admitted.

Upon this night of events he dressed himself in leather clothes by the aid of the powerful electric lamps in his hangar; then, pushing the machine out, he climbed to his seat and started the engine by the powerful air-pump he had designed for that purpose. Permitting it to run free for a few moments, at length he gave a cheery "Good night" to Brother Jack at the window; then, letting in a clutch, he glided swiftly over the frozen snow and was lifted almost immediately from the ground. Thereafter he towered as some monstrous eagle; and the motor running at a great speed, he drove upwards, high above the plateau of Andana to the woods of the Zaat.

This miracle of flight—assuredly its secret lay in his keeping! The world and men were vanquished at his feet. He was no cramped and cabined automaton, no soulless machine, but the dominating arbiter of his own destinies. To tower upwards as a bird that drives against the blast; to swoop downwards as a hawk upon the quarry; to swing hither, thither, as his fancy chose—all this his own brain had contrived for him. And who shall wonder if a pride in his achievements attended his lonely triumphs, spake in his ear while he soared and gave him soft words when he descended? Had he not become mightier than the very mountains? The earth beneath him stood typical of the dead ages; the vista above him seemed to open the infinite to man's understanding.

Benny took a wide sweep upwards from the chalet and then swung his machine about and hovered for a little while above the Park Hotel. The waning moon had robbed the scene of much of its charm, but the lights in the windows of the hotel became brighter by contrast, and he could believe that one blind at least was drawn while he rested. When next he set his motor going, it was to cross the plateau before the Palace Hotel at Andana, which he did at the bidding of a futile hope he would have been at a loss to express. Here he glided downwards almost to the level of the pinnacles upon the summit of the lofty building, and passed so close to the windows that more than one tale of his coming would be told next day. Benny laughed to himself when he recalled the stories of "the ghost"; his pride was quickened when he reflected that the secret would be known before many days had passed, and his name linked to it. It may be that there lurked in his mind some desire that Mrs. Kennaird should know the truth before the others; but he put that by as a foolish thought and, regretting his boldness and the inspiration of it, he now swung rapidly to the left and again towered upwards.

The night air was intensely still and bitter cold. The woods glowed with jewels of the frost; the valleys had become but profound cavities in a mist of wavering light. Just as at the hour of sunset the weird kaleidoscope of changing lights fascinated the stranger, so now, as Benny mounted upwards to the high peak of the Zaat, did the play of the moonlight upon the summits of the giants reveal new glories to him and bewitch him by its wantonness. Here would the hollow of a glacier become for a brief instant a river of molten gold; there a needle of the rock turned to solid silver; or again a mighty circle of glittering radiance with a heart grown ashen grey. Towns were now but the tiniest of stars in a fathomless abyss. The hotels upon the heights stood for children's houses set in mockery upon a gigantic plateau. The night wind stirred rarely, and when it stirred it burned as with the breath of fire.

Benny had mounted to the summit of the Zaat twice since he came to Andana, and he told himself with a laugh that the third time paid for all. The mountain itself is inconsiderable, but there is a fine view over the Wildstrubel from its summit, and the prospect of the Simplon is very fine. Chiefly, however, Benny chose it because he had determined to make it his starting point when he set out to win the great prize of ten thousand pounds; and now, when he hovered lightly above it for some minutes and then touched the snow as gently as any bird, his first thought was of this venture.

To-morrow he must give notice to the English editor, who would appoint judges and send them south. Assuredly the attempt would draw aviators from all quarters of Europe—there would be special trains from Paris, from Berne, and from Milan.

Benny's heart warmed when he depicted the great crowds upon the plateau of Andana; the enthusiasm he must excite and the criticism to which he would be subject. Some, no doubt, would deride him—he was prepared for that. A few would be openly incredulous, but he hoped none the less to win friendship by his initiative, and the possibilities of victory remained. Let it come to that and his fortune was made. He believed that by money his genius would conquer the world. The humblest of men as he appeared to others, his secret ambitions surpassed all reason, and were of themselves an ironic commentary upon an ancient text.

He was vain, truly, and yet vanity ceased to afflict him when the need of other qualities arose. Standing there upon the summit of the Zaat, a lonely figure of the night, apart from men and the world, Benny quickly dismissed the phantom multitude and settled down to the cold logic of his task.

A powerful electric lamp, fixed to the snout of the machine, focused an aureole upon his map of the Pennine Alps and confirmed its verities. He began to think of winds and weather, of what he would do in a west wind and what in a south. Determined to start very early in the day, he thought he would steer right across the plateau toward Mont Blanc; then head for the Matterhorn and, passing high above Zermatt, would return by the Weisshorn to Sierre and the plateaus. One of the conditions of flight stipulated that he must cross a high peak and start once unaided from any spot he cared to choose. Benny determined to choose Chamonix for this purpose; to descend at the foot of Mont Blanc, and thence to begin the second stage across the Matterhorn. Perilous truly such a flight must be, perilous beyond any in the story of aviation; but of peril he thought little for he had lived for such an hour as this—and it mattered not what befell him if he failed.

He smoked a pipe at the summit of the Zaat and tried to forget how very cold it was. Far from being a romantic person in the abstract sense of the term, his imagination delighted in the isolation of his position and the mastery which genius had conferred upon him. Other men climbed to this height laboriously. He had heard them talking about it in the hotels, planning excursions upon skis and calculating the hours necessary for the expedition. Often they had left the Palace at eight o'clock of the morning and returned when it was quite dark. He himself had been six minutes in attaining the same position, and he could descend to the chalet in three if he chose. Pardonable vanity became something very like egotism of an unpleasant nature at that particular moment; and when he put his pipe into his pocket and spread his wings again, he was a different person from the nervous hesitating nobody who had addressed Mrs. Kennaird that morning.

Had he not conquered, and would not all the world acknowledge his attainments? So he said as he started his motor once more and the whir of it droned a slumber song upon the still air. If the "little widow" could see him on this height! No schoolboy, aping a conquerer in his dreams, could have hugged a thought more tenaciously; it may be added that no schoolboy could have experienced a disappointment so swift.

There is a great slope of the snow, free of wood and rock, and running down at an easy angle, perhaps a third of the way, from the summit of the Zaat to the hotel at Vermala. Over this Benny would have flown to reach the chalet; and he never could quite say why he should have bungled in such a place of all others. Bungle he did, none the less; and bending an aileron too sharply, he came round just like a yacht when the helm is put hard down. An ominous lurch, a startled cry, and he knew he was done for. He felt himself dragged downward and still downward, sliding and twisting and turning at last upon his face. Then the soft snow overwhelmed him; it was as though someone put a hand suddenly upon his mouth and defied him to breathe a full breath.

His eyes perceived nothing now but a glaring whiteness; he suffered intolerable pain and believed himself to be choking. When the sensation passed, a deadly chill struck him as though his body had turned to solid ice. He understood that he had forced himself upwards by a great effort, and that he was now lying upon his chest. Such an attitude was insupportable and must quickly give place to another which would suffocate him—at least he thought so as he put forth all his strength to lift himself and failed hopelessly at the attempt.

In the end he lay back and tried to reason it out. One wing of the two remained to him, and had buried itself deeply in the soft snow; and upon this was the weight of the shell and of the engine. These must drag him down, inch by inch, but down unpityingly to the depths of the crevasse. To-morrow Jack would find him—surely he would search the slopes about the Zaat—and so the end of the story would be written. Well, it was foreordained, and he had done his best. If the curse of failure lay upon his life, better that he were dead.

All this, to be sure, was accompanied by a sane review of the situation which such a man might have been expected to make. Benny did not hide it from himself that he had been staring down at the Palace Hotel at the very moment when he lost control of the machine, and he could calculate just what the accident would cost him if he were saved.

All hope of winning the great prize must be abandoned. Slave as he might, this night's work was irreparable. He had never trusted unfamiliar hands upon his machine and would not do so now. The great prize must go, and that hope of success which meant so much to him. It was a heavy price to pay for the sympathy of a woman to whom he had spoken for the first time yesterday, and it made strange appeals to his sense of irony. That he should have played the fool, he, "Benny the philosopher," who used to say that the Greeks were right when they kept their women in sheds at the bottom of the garden!

How she would laugh when she heard the truth! He was quite sure of it, and dwelt upon it almost savagely as though he were destined to bear the world's contempt whatever he did. The "little widow" would call it an excellent joke and narrate the story in the hotel. Benny could almost pick and choose the words she would employ. He could hear the music of her laugh and read the story in her eyes—at least he thought that he could; and that was much the same thing to a man who might have an hour to live if luck stood by him.

He had managed to get almost free of the cage by this time, but not of the wings themselves, and they held him tenaciously, though he did not quite understand what new thing was happening to him. Anyone familiar with skis would have told him that the smaller ailerons fixed to the tail were holding the machine in the snow, while his head and shoulders were being dragged down by the weight of it, inch by inch, with a subtlety of cruelty defying description. When Benny realised this his courage quavered, and he uttered a loud cry, more in despair than in the hope that anyone could possibly hear him. For who should be on the Zaat at such an hour of the night, and what absurd chance of ten million would bring peasants to the woods when the new day was not an hour old?

Benny knew it to be impossible; but the cry was forced from him nevertheless, and upon it another and another as the machine pulled him down without pity, and the snow began to close about his ears and neck. In five minutes or in ten it would cover his mouth; but whether sooner or later, he must suffer a lingering death, dying as a man held up a little while upon the surface of lake or river and then drawn down imperceptibly but irresistibly to the depths. So much Benny understood at the crisis of it, and so much his brother, who had watched him from the window of the bedroom, perceived in a flash when he detected the black speck upon the distant slope and knew that Benny indeed had fallen.

Jack was as clever upon skis as Benny was clumsy, and he was out of the house and climbing almost as soon as the truth of the accident had dawned upon his somewhat slow intelligence. Luckily he had been unable to sleep, and had dressed himself with the idea of going out to meet his brother when he returned from the Zaat. So it came about that he had but to put on his boots and skis to be up and away—the height for his goal, Benny's need for his spur.

Calculating the time at a rough guess, he thought he would be at least three hours upon the journey—three hours of desperate endeavour to accomplish what the white wings had attained in six minutes. If this reflection vindicated his brother's genius, it did little to make his own heart lighter. He thought of Benny lying there in the snow, dying, perhaps dead, and he cursed the limitations of his own ignorance.

In ten, in twenty, years this age of stagnant incredulity would have passed—such men as Benny were heaping contempt upon it—and the golden years would be at hand. Altogether a fine philosophic commentary, helpful in its place, but of no service whatever to the panting youth who climbed the steeps laboriously and felt the icy cold freezing his very heart. Benny had fallen in the wide snow-fields above Vermala. How far off they were, how cruel were these hours of delay!

But here Pity had a word to say upon it, for Brother Jack had been but an hour upon the road when he heard voices in the wood, and presently, peering through the trees, he espied the figures of two men, and could say that one of them was his brother and the other that pleasant little abbé from the Sanatorium, who had so often accompanied him to the Zaat upon skis, and was quite the kindliest little priest in all Valais.

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