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CHAPTER XVIII THE EVE OF THE GREAT ATTEMPT
The reporters, who arrived from London shortly after midday, were astonished to hear that Benny knew little of the excitement which his entry for the great prize had occasioned in London.

Some of them had written very pleasantly of this unknown aspirant; others had been severely derisive, a fact they overlooked when they called at the chalet later on and took out their note-books as a matter of course.

He, good man, had but a dim understanding of later-day journalism, and these attentions overwhelmed him. Some of his replies were quite unconventional. They asked him where he was educated, and he answered "anywhere." An interrogation concerning his favourite pursuits obtained the response "doing nothing." Generally, he said that if the engine kept going, he would win the money; but that if the engine stopped, he would not win it, and this was written down as an item of great importance, and cabled to London for the next day's issue.

Now all this had carried the man into a new world, and so swiftly that it seemed but yesterday he was a plodder in a dull workshop, without prospects and unknown. He had dreamed of fame, but not of this kind of fame, which came to him, note-book in hand, and desired to hear whether he flew on whisky or cold water. The world he would conquer was a shadow world; the great vague universe, wherein so many ambitions are interred. To be a newspaper hero was well enough, but he reflected a little sadly that even an acrobat may be that. He wondered already if he would find the fruits of success to be bitter; and this speculation set him thinking of Lily Delayne. Did he owe it to her indifference that flight to-morrow was possible? In truth, he believed that he did.

Brother Jack, upon the other hand, welcomed the reporters with real cordiality. He delighted to talk of his clever brother; to tell them impossible anecdotes of Benny's youth, and to insist that he himself had always known he was a genius. Jack spent a long afternoon in this employment, and when he varied it, his activities carried him up to the plateau whence the start was to be made, and back again to the shed wherein the machine was housed. What hours of strenuous labour it stood for; how they had worked to get everything ready! And now their work was done. Not a wire that had not been overhauled; not a stay which had not been tested.

Of those who had come from England to witness the great attempt, Sir John Perinder, the proprietor of the Daily Recorder, was the most eminent. A well-built, clear-eyed man, his manner was volatile to a ridiculous extent, and had earned for him the title of the greatest hustler in the universe. Naturally he asked Benny to dinner at the Palace, and with him Brother Jack and the Abbé Villari, of whom he heard with much interest. These had been but a little while at the table when they discovered that their host knew a great deal about aviation, and had the clearest perceptions as to the future of flying. At the same time he did not deceive himself by any of those futile prophecies in which unthinking men delight.

"You fellows are about to give us a new sport," he said bluntly, "young men will fly because they are tired of motoring. There will be a fine trade with the war-offices of Europe, but the rest I don't see. None of us now living will take aeroplanes where we now take cabs. That's foolish talk; the world will prefer terra firma to the air, just as it prefers terra firma to the sea. Do you think I would go to America on a ship if I could travel in a train? You know that I wouldn't. And so with your airships, good enough for their own purposes, but limited by the factor of personal courage. Why, I wouldn't go up in one for a thousand, and I'll warrant Monsieur l'Abbé here wouldn't go up for two."

Here, however, he met a tough adversary. The abbé had followed the movement with interest from the beginning. He had even built a machine of his own, and purposed to show it at Rome in the spring of the year. His optimism baffled the blunt baronet, who brushed it aside with a jest, and went on to speak of to-morrow's flight.

"If you win," he said to Benny, "you'll do the greatest thing ever done by man. I've been a climber for twenty years, and never did I think that a man would look down on what I've looked up to with awe. You'll do that to-morrow if you succeed. You're going to see the Alps as no man has ever seen them since the world dropped out of the sun. That's something to sleep on, Mr. Benson; it's something to take with you on your journey. I'd give ten thousand pounds to see it myself—twenty thousand for the courage which would let me do what you are going to do. It's a safe offer. There isn't a greater coward living where a height is concerned, and yet I climb mountains. Explain that if you can."

Benny would have explained it if he had been given half a chance, but he had hardly opened his mouth when the baronet was off again, saying how the affair must be "boomed" in this or the other way; the reports which must be given of it; the particular points which the aviator must note during his voyage. He declared that the public liked sensation, but must have it first hand nowadays. The man who has seen another man eaten by a lion in Africa is of no use—he must be eaten himself. Few mechanical minds were capable of conveying mechanical sensations, and that was the difficulty. He hoped that Benny would prove the exception to the rule, and give them a story for their money. Commercialism intruded when he added that no other paper in Europe would have put up such a sum, and that he relied upon Benny not to let him down. This the inventor modestly offered not to do if he could help it. "We ride in the same boat," he explained, and added, in imitation of Douglas Jerrold, "but we use different sculls."

The party was gay enough, and broke up early. The bright light which beat suddenly upon this quite modest throne somewhat alarmed Benny, and set him hungering for the solitude of the chalet. He had left gendarmes in charge of his machine, but he was anxious none the less; and upon that was all the fulsome adulation now lavished upon him by good-natured folk who had just discovered his existence.

He could detect a change everywhere, a new respect paid to him, and a desire to be seen in his company. Even such athletic aristocrats as Keith Rivers patronised him no longer; while it began to be plain that he had lighted a candle which failure alone would put out. That was the rub which must be present in his reckoning. It would be a mighty humiliation to fail before the thousands who were coming to Andana to see him start. He knew that there would be thousands, for the hotel people said as much; and when he managed to escape his host and to steal............
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