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CHAPTER XXII THE EMPTY HOUSE
The fit of weakness passed swiftly to give place to a finer measure of courage than any which had inspired him hitherto.

The prize was lost. What then? He had been robbed of it, not by any failure of the machine he had created, but by the caprice of nature, against which he was powerless. Those who criticised him would be compelled to admit as much. And, all said and done, he had been the first man to cross Mont Blanc in an aeroplane, and no tongue could rob him of the credit.

These were early impressions, and not a little vague. He was bitterly cold and so cramped in every limb that when he rolled out of his seat at last he could not stand upright. Utterly exhausted in mind and body, he held as well as he could to the shell of the ship, and tried to drag himself to his feet. Then he remembered that there was a flask of brandy among his "stores," and finding it with maladroit hand, he took a heavy draught. The potent liquor revived him immediately. Circulation came back at last. He stood upright and looked about him.

He was on a steep slope of the snow, and there were woods above him. When he had searched them a little while with patient eyes, he began to think that they were not unfamiliar. A further scrutiny showed him a gabled building above the woods, and he could have sworn that it was the well-known hotel at Vermala. Turning to the valley below, he perceived a clump of pines emerging from the mists, and they fitted into the picture he had imagined. Yes, they would be the woods standing between Vermala and the plateau of Andana, and if they were, his chalet lay below them. But at that thought he shrugged his shoulders and laughed in an odd way. He would not think about a chance so preposterous.

His machine had escaped all damage in the swift descent, and lay across the bank; one wing just tipping the froth of the snow, the other poised high above the white ground. His difficulty was to reach solid ground, for the drifts were deep hereabouts, and he sank up to his knees at every step he took. It occurred to him that he must carry skis with him in future against such a mishap as this; and resolving to make a note of it, he began to examine the engine and propellers to see if all were well with them. This scrutiny still occupied him when he heard a loud shouting from the woods below, and picked up his ears as a hare that is warned.

There were cries in the wood, incoherent salvos as of a mob whose hearts might be in unison, but whose lungs were out of tune. Listening intently, Benny thought that he could distinguish the raucous voices of boys, the shrill piping of girls, and the deep baying of men excited abnormally. A moment later and a man emerged from the wood, and set out to cross the snow toward him, and this man was up to his waist in the drift immediately, while strong arms were thrust out to help him, and a roar of laughter proffered as his reward.

"Good God!" cried Benny, "it's the little priest!" And, in truth, it was.

The Abbé Villari, with his cassock tucked up to his waist, his arms waving wildly, hatless and with tousled hair, he had been first before them all. No runner at Stamford Bridge could have had much the better of him in that mad striving for the first prize in the race. And, worthy soul, the snow engulfed him immediately, and it remained for the parson, Harry Clavering, to drag him out and set him, sobered, upon his feet. Meanwhile, others had snatched the prize from him, and before them all the Admirable Crichton of Andana, Dr. Orange, the immaculate.

Benny steadied himself by the shell of his ship while he watched this advance; nor could his wit make anything of it. Why were all these people in such a hurry to thrash a dead horse? Had they come to tell what he knew so well, that his endeavour had failed, and that the prize must go to another? He could make nothing of it, and he stood and stared while men and women on skis debouched from the woods by twenty paths and came racing over the snow toward him.

Dr. Orange was quite out of breath when he reached the place, and he stood for a little while holding to the ship and trying to find words. Before he had recovered, Bob Otway, Dick Fenton, and Keith Rivers had joined him, and these were eloquent enough, though they spoke a strange tongue to Benny. In truth, their greeting was an incoherent salvo of wild words among which he distinguished such homely phrases as, "You've got them stiff"; "Bravo old Benny!" and "Perinder pays, by thunder!" An instant later and Bob had suggested that it was a case for "chairing"; and there being no chair handy, he and Rivers laid violent hands upon the astonished victor and lifted him bodily to their shoulders.

His protest went for nothing. He cried out that it was "damned nonsense!" but no one seemed to hear him. Perchance a man has never been carried shoulder-high by other men on skis before. They would establish a precedent, as Bob declared, and calling the parson and Dick Fenton to his aid, set off bravely for the Palace.

"Where is my brother?" Benny asked them in an interlude. The doctor answered that he had fainted when the gun announced the victory; but that was an enigma to the engineer, and kept him quiet awhile. "When the gun announced his victory. Good God! What victory?"

"I lost it," he stammered presently, "because the mist took me. It seems I was nearer than I thought. Another ten minutes and I would have done it."

Nobody listened to this. They were in the woods now, and went on in a triumph characteristic of Andana. If the music were chiefly of horns and bugles, it mattered little. Major Boodle, among others, had devoted a master intellect to the acquisition of the "yoodle" in various keys, and he practised it relentlessly. There was one fellow who had borrowed a drum in the village, and beat a tattoo with real cleverness. A few mild youths, who always carried revolvers when "on the Continent," produced those far from formidable weapons and shot down the branches from the trees. But, in the main, the voice was the instrument, and was to be heard in a stentorian cheer, or the less musical and more joyous chant of victory.

Some hundreds of the spectators had gone up to Vermala, but many thousands remained on the plateau and were discovered suddenly as the odd procession emerged from the woods. The drift of cloud, which had tricked the aviator into the belief that he had failed, was now but a wall of vapour flanking the precipices across the valley, all the scene stood out, revealed in magic glory.

Heaven knew whence all the flags had come. It was said that the bunting erected by the Daily Recorder had been pulled down by excited hands and distributed among the people. Certainly, every other man carried a flag and waved it perpetually. In their turn, the women waved handkerchiefs while the children ran to and fro hardly understanding what it was all about, and caring very little. Meanwhile, the band blared incessantly, and down at the village the church bell tolled as gaily as an ancient bell-ringer could persuade it to do.

The crowd had waited patiently for its hero to come down from the heights, and directly it perceived the outposts of the procession, all bonds were broken and a wild tumult ensued. A hundred hands fought for the burden, and were repulsed with difficulty. A frenzy of cheers succeeded the intermittent salvos. Men, and women too, fell in the snow and were rolled over and over by the heedless feet of other runners. The one desire was to see the man who had done this thing, and, if it might be, to touch his hand. He, in turn, implored those who carried him to make an end of it.

"Take me to the chalet," he said. And the doctor commanding, they carried him there in triumph, and shut and barred the door against the multitude.

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