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HOME > Classical Novels > White Motley > CHAPTER XXI THE FLIGHT IS FINISHED
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There is no more impressive fact of aviation than the speed at which the airman loses touch with terra firma.

At one moment the subject of congratulations amid a press of people, a familiar landscape about him, hills for his horizon, a great plain for his environment; at the next, he is high above the earth, the familiar landmarks are almost blotted out, the people have disappeared from his sight.

Benny had shaken hands perhaps with five hundred worthy souls at Chamonix, had written his name in fifty books, posed for his picture to excited acrobats who held quaking cameras, addressed blunt little speeches to the deputies, quaffed a stirrup-cup of hot spiced wine, been conscious of an environment of mighty mountains and majestic peaks, and then, in a flash, the picture was changed, the people had disappeared, the voices were lost to him, the very scene transformed.

He rose a little to the north of the forbidding Aiguille du Géant and experienced just for an instant the sensation that he had not attained a sufficient altitude and must strike the dread pinnacles of the rock. This was an unnecessary alarm, for the ship responded quickly to a touch of the elevating plane, and he cleared the mountain by three hundred feet or more. Then he headed almost due east, as he had been told to do. The wind, capricious ever in the Valley of Chamonix, here became almost boisterous; and for the first time that day he discovered a vacuum, as it were a whirlpool of the ether, into which he was drawn, and for a few moments whirled about with a velocity which appalled him. One less skilful might have wrecked all at such a moment, and had it been so he would have gone down headlong amid the pinnacles of rock which stand attendant to the famous peak. Benny, however, was always prepared for such a happening as this, and despite that crude sensation of the swift descent he covered his balance almost immediately and put the ship due east again.

He had saved himself, but for how long? The dread mountains, above which he must sail henceforth, would be fertile in such perils as this; the valleys he must cross would be death-traps to any but the most vigilant. Pride in his swift flight to Mont Blanc had seduced him to this easy confidence, which might undo all if uncorrected. He resolved to apply all the mental concentration of which he was capable to the one purpose of success, and taking the wheel firmly in his hands, he set his eyes toward the great mountains about Zermatt and would heed no other spectacle.

It has been said that he was quite ignorant of the Alps, and, truly, a man more familiar with the scene would have better understood the wonder of the deed.

Here below him were the steeps and slopes, the dread arrêtes, the gleaming precipices which climbers had dared since Switzerland first called them to her wonders. Observed from that immense altitude he had now attained, the precipices had become but slabs of snow, steps in a puny wall above which the pinnacles soared; the steeps were but mild hills whereon children should have played; the glaciers but silver threads in whitened moraines which pierced the woods. Hotels and huts—he could hardly distinguish one from the other; the valleys were flattened out until they resembled the plateaus, and all with such a grotesque effect that sometimes the very earth would appear to be turned inside out as it were, the valleys made heights and the heights pressed down to valleys. Going on a little way, a cloud would shut the whole scene from his view, and he would imagine himself in the boundless ether, a wanderer apart from all worlds and voyaging toward the Eternal.

Engineers seldom lack imagination, and he of them all had a soul above the mechanics of things material. Despite his desire to accomplish the task he had set himself, this phantasy of the cloud inspired him to wonderful thoughts of life and death and the transit of the soul. Let this new science of flight continue, and who could name its limitations? He laughed at the folly of the notion, and then remembered that he must breast Zermatt according to the conditions.

Had he lost count of the Matterhorn? He peered down anxiously through the mist, descended a little and received the first real fright since the beginning. For a mountain loomed suddenly before him; he swung instantly to the left, and was then almost abreast of a fearsome precipice which suggested the whole measure of that height. The terror of it set him shuddering. He soared again desperately, and listened to the beat of his engine as to a message of life or death. Would it fail him? If it did, death must be the end of it. He laughed at his own cowardice when the rattle of the exhaust made music for his ears again, and the drifting vapour showed him all the wonders of the Riffelberg, as no living man but he had seen it.

Here for the first time he could look down upon the smiling face of Italy, and discern the gentler country between the chain of the Pennines and Biella. Despite the altitude, a warmer breath was breathed upon him from the southern valleys. The vast bulk of Monte Rosa, approached as he swung about to regain the Simplon, warned him that the respite was but brief, and that all the rigour of the northern range must be faced anew if he would reach Andana. But he was cheered by this break in the vista of eternal snows; and bringing his machine about, he searched the wilderness of ice below for any sign of those who must observe his passing.

He had crossed the sloping peak of the Matterhorn by this time, and could espy the precipices of the Weisshorn once more. The Valley of Zermatt running down to the pass was but a trench in a desolation from which the eyes must shrink. Knowing little of the place, he had few landmarks; but the Gorner Glacier was one of them, and he traced it with precision. There he perceived great tendrils of pure ice, bent and gnarled as the trunks of trees; black rocks upon which no snow could rest; fathomless depths of ice so blue that a magic river should lie beneath them. And there, as elsewhere, the stillness appalled him. He was glad that it was so, for wind was the enemy. Let the weather change, and he might still be defeated. He knew it, and his heart sank at the remembrance.

A great endeavour is chiefly a story of great hopes. This man had dreamed of such an opportunity as this—he knew not in what phase of his calling—but he had dreamed that some day the world would hail him as a victor, and that his name would be known to men. Now it seemed that the moment was at hand. The immensity of his achievement was hardly present to his mind. Sometimes he was almost afraid for himself, saying, "I am jesting with my fellow-men; it is the machine and not the man which counts in the story of the sciences." At other times a great pride in what he had done ran like fire through his veins. The whole world must know his name to-morrow. If he fell dead then and there upon the black rocks of the Matterhorn, they must still say that he of all living men had first crossed the summit of Mont Blanc. He knew it, and flushed at th............
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