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HOME > Classical Novels > White Motley > CHAPTER XX THE FLIGHT IS BEGUN
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Benny had dreamed that he fell in the Val d'Hérens after an ignoble start from the plateau of Andana. He woke upon this to find it was but a dream, and that the little abbé stood by his bedside with a steaming bowl of coffee in his hand. Here was a man who had been up all night, and who would not sleep until the issue were known. Never was there such an enthusiast.

"It is nothing," he said apologetically. "I have often watched for thirty hours at the Hospice when there has been a storm. We make little difference between night and day up there. The poor people who fall in the snow would not thank us if we did."

Benny laughed, and sitting up in bed, he drank his coffee willingly.

"What time is it, Abbé?"

"It is half-past six o'clock; you have two hours yet. Your brother is already dressed; you will find him in the shed."

Benny put on his engineer's overalls and went down. He felt a little excited; perhaps he was actually nervous, but no one would have guessed as much. Whistling a few bars of an ancient waltz almost in as many keys as there were notes, he went out to the shed and set to work to help his brother. It was still black dark, and the great arc lamp shone out weirdly at such an hour of the morning.

Jack Benson carried an electric torch in one hand and an oil-can in the other. He said that all was well. He had been over the "ship" from stem to stern—there was not a nut which a spanner could tighten a hair's-breadth, not a wire that was not taut. The machine itself seemed to bear witness to the truth of this. Benny himself admitted that she was a picture, while a stranger would have likened her to a great steel bird, with the head of a snout-faced whale and the fins of a ravening shark. Another image would have made of her a shining torpedo, with great wings thrust out on either side and a monster propeller large enough to have moved a steamship at her stern. It seemed ridiculous that those slight stays, those ridiculous bicycle wheels supported her as she stood. Yet that was the truth, for she was light to the point of miracle.

"Shall we run the engine now, Jack?"

Jack thought that they might.

"I'm not too sure of that union we made yesterday, Benny. You'd look handsome if the petrol gave out. Let's run her, and see if it's leaking. You've a good hour yet before you need go up. There's breakfast, too—you'll have to let the Abbé fill you up, for he's cook this morning. Are you ready, old boy? Then let her rip."

He switched off the magnet, gave a few sharp turns to the propeller, and the engine started. Had not the machine been anchored, she would have glided off at once, but, being anchored, she heaved and tossed as a ship at sea. Jack was satisfied with the union, and declared that it was not leaking, upon which Benny announced his intention to take a short flight as a final precaution.

They ran the machine out of the shed, and he climbed into his seat, to which a light steel door in the side of the torpedo-like body admitted him. Once again Jack started the engine. Benny glided swiftly over the snow for some thirty yards, then rose swiftly and circled the Park Hotel. There was no wind and it was bitter cold. Of all the visitors, he did not espy a single one upon the slopes beneath him. An intense silence prevailed—a silence that was almost ominous.

They sat to breakfast upon his return, and the abbé served an excellent omelet and some eggs which he had captured in the village last night. If their talk was a little constrained and nervous, the circumstances more than justified it. Here they were, with their eyes upon a goal so distant that its attainment seemed impossible. All the dangers, the risks, the difficulties of such an emprise stared them in the face, and would be remembered. A man's life might be the price of success. Secretly in his heart, Jack wondered if he were speaking to his beloved brother for the last time. It might be that.

Benny, upon his part, said very little. He had a map of the Pennine Alps on the white cloth before him and he studied it closely. His questions concerned the arrangements and the names of the committee of the Aero Club of England, who would be present. He understood that his flight was to be checked at Chamonix and again in the Val d'Anniviers as he returned. There were to be watchers at Zermatt and at the Weisshorn hut, if it could be reached. Twice he was permitted to land for petrol. He made it out that they were sixty-three miles from Mont Blanc as the crow flies, and that would be his first halting-place.

"Marfan and Collot from Paris are to be there," he said, "I had a letter from them. I hope there will be good landing somewhere near the hotel—it wouldn't do to mow down the crowd. I've got a spot in my mind, but they may not have in theirs. The petrol, of course, will be all right. émile is seeing to that, and he's a man to trust."

Jack agreed to it. émile was the cleverest airman he knew.

"If you want anything at all, Benny, it may be a couple of plugs. Mind you see they don't blow. The oil's gone through from London, and I had an advice from Chamonix yesterday saying they had stored it. Mind you keep alive in the valley from the Matterhorn, and remember to come up pretty far before you swing and drop. The wind looks like being an easter; you'll have to take care in the last hour."

He agreed, and consented under compulsion to eat his breakfast. Day had broken now at the far end of the Rhone Valley, and the higher peaks were shaping above the mists to pinnacles of rose and silver and many shades of purple. Clouds drifted toward Sion and the west; the great chasm below them was so filled by the rolling white vapour that it might have been a sea of downy billows; but the day promised warm sunshine and little wind despite Jack's prophecy. Benny liked the look of it altogether; and when, without warning, strains of ridiculous music were to be heard on the path below the chalet, he pushed on his hat and went out.

All the world about him was astir now and eager for the day. Hatless men had emerged from the Palace Hotel, and were darting hither and thither on skis, or crying the news to girls hidden at their bedroom windows. Caterers for an expected multitude flocked towards the booths they had erected on the mountain-side, and prepared to set out their wares. A perpetual going and coming, the jangling of sleigh bells and the neighing of horses spoke of unusual activity at the stables.

Higher up on the slope whence the actual start was to be made, a little throng had already gathered. It surveyed the ground, and looked wonderingly toward distant Mont Blanc veiled in the mists. Was it possible that this mad Englishman would attempt to fly as far as that? Incredible! A thing undreamed of—perhaps an affront to the Almighty, who had created the mountains to speak of His power and dominion.

Benny saw these people as he wheeled his aeroplane out of the shed at eight o'clock, and began to push it up toward the plateau. He thought very little of them, and remembered few of his friends at Andana. A certain pleasure at the interest he had awakened was mingled already with the desire to hear if Lily Delayne would be present at the start. He knew not quite why it was, but his desire that she should be there became rather a superstition than a sentiment. He blamed her no longer for the indifference she had displayed during the week, for that was natural to the circumstance; but he associated her presence with the success of his attempt, and was almost ready to say that it would not succeed if she failed him.

Of Lily, however, there was no sign at present. He had to be content with the gossip of Bess Bethune, who was early on the scene, and ready with a thousand questions. Bess promised to tell her uncle, the Cabinet Minister, all about the wonderful machine; and, as she said, "Of course, the Government will buy thousands, especially if you don't do it, because Governments always buy things which fall down." When this offer failed to excite the stolid engineer as much as it might have done, she turned to Dr. Orange, and asked him if he were not going to lend Mr. Benson his surgical instruments? Her chatter was not unmusical, and her presence welcome amid the gloom which now fell upon the company. Perhaps many shared the child's fears. This Englishman was going to his death—there could hardly be a doubt about it.

Benny moved in and out among the people, exchanging a word here, bestowing a nod there. He was wrapped up like an Arctic explorer, and resembled a shaggy bear more than a man; but his black eyes were very bright, and his pale cheeks carried a flush of colour foreign to them. Chiefly, perhaps, his attention centred upon the narrow path by which Lily Delayne must come up from her chalet, if she came at all; and he searched it at brief intervals, even pushing his way through the press of the people that he might inspect it more surely, but always to his disappointment. Of Lily herself there was not a sign, the very blinds of her sitting-room were drawn down. He fell to wondering if she had left Andana altogether, and he might have rested upon his opinion but for a message brought to him from the chalet just five minutes before the signal to start was given. This was nothing less than a little horse-shoe carved out of wood and set with silver nails. To it was attached a card with the simple words, "Good Luck," and then the initials, "L. C." Benny resolved immediately to make it his "mascot," and he affixed it to the prow of his machine without a word to anyone.

Such an offering at the altar of superstition set other friends busy, and mascots were offered by many hands. Teddy-bears, brought in haste from the bazaar, squatted upon the aluminium shell of the aeroplane; pigs and elephants from the same merchant were tied by willing hands wherever a lodgment could be found. The occupation found the company in better mood, and as the moment drew near many who had been silent became eloquent enough and forgot their apprehensions. It was almost with impatience that the people heard the long-winded speech of the president for the day. Words would not help Benjamin Benson across the Pennine Alps, they remembered, and some of them did not hesitate to say so aloud. Fortunately, the address came to an end just when the patience of the malcontents was quite exhausted; and then, with a last salute and a word of good cheer to Brother Jack and the Abbé, Benny climbed to his seat and roared to them to let go.

In a sense, it was an undramatic start, and pleased the excitable Frenchmen but little. Their tastes would have dictated a flourish of trumpets or a salute of twenty-one guns; whereas, in fact, there was no music whatever at this particular moment, and the solitary gun which denoted the start boomed heavily and almost with menace. Its echoes had hardly died away in the heights above Vermala when the roar of Benny's engine was to be heard, and immediately upon that the machine, flashing silver in the sunshine, soared above the plateau, and was gone in an instant straight across the mighty chasm of the Rhone Valley. Five minutes later the same machine was but a speck against the azure of the sky.

Benny had made a good ascent, and was pleased enough with the way his engine ran. The exhaust was firm and regular; he knew the firing to be even; while, as for the lifting power, he was off the ground in twenty yards and had mounted five hundred feet the very first time he circled above the spectators. This gave him confidence, and sent him straight across the valley without further preliminary. To be sure, he cast down one quick glance at the black ring of spectators upon the plateau before the Palace Hotel, searched out for an instant Lily's cha............
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