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CHAPTER XXV THE LIGHTS OF MAGADINO
The cold was less as he began to descend amid the gentle mountains of the Ticino, and he knew that the night was won.

Behind him, far away where the white caps marked the encircling mountains of the Simplon, the storm must be raging furiously, he thought. More than once a gust of the wind, tearing through a breach of the southern spurs, had flung him headlong, as a leaf is whirled by the winter blast. There had been a time when all sensation left him, when hands and feet were stiff and powerless; when the very skin of his face was as dried parchment. He made light of that, for the kindlier country lay before him, and if he gained it, this were not too high a price to pay.

His landmarks were few. He had set off from Sierre while the twilight remained and had crossed the pass above Brigue at a great height and remote from danger of the peaks. He turned thence a little to the southward, and saw the smiling country for an instant as the sun sank finally, and the night crept about him. For an hour afterwards there had been the black darkness, the biting cold, the anger of the winds. Then a spell of silence intervened. He seemed to be lost in the shadows, gone from the world, drifted to the eternal darkness. But he held on resolutely, praying for the light.

When the light came at last, no panorama of a splendid imagination could have surpassed the wonder of it. It was as though an unseen hand cleft a wall before him and showed him a magic city. Countless stars glowed beneath a panoply of mountains. To the right, to the left, look where he would, the lamps shone a welcome—here in clusters to speak of a town; there apart to tell of a high road. And Benny knew that they were lights about Lake Maggiore, and that the battle was won.

Such good fortune as this had been in his mind from the outset, and he reckoned upon the chance. Let him espy the lights of the lake from a sufficient altitude, and his own skill would do the rest. The shanty lay almost opposite to Magadino, and if a man could not name Magadino when the lake lay illuminated far beneath him, then was he no fit pilot for an airship.

Benny placed the town at once, working up from the southward, past the islands of the Borromeos to Locarno and the mountains. He thought that he could have dropped a stone upon the very shanty—and laughed at himself for the boast.

There was a great acetylene lamp at the prow of his ship, and it burned brightly enough as he began to sweep down toward the lake. Long afterwards the simple folk were to tell how a star had fallen from the north and shone gloriously above the Virgin's Church at Ascona. Others would have it that a fireball, monstrous beyond any of the fables, had come down and settled a while upon the slope of the mountain opposite Magadino. The whole country round about was golden with the flame of it, they said, while the sounds attending it were unlike anything earthly. But one old fellow, and he a fisherman of Losone, actually saw the machine descend; he believed that the veritable dragon, which the saint slew, had come to life again, and he ran headlong.

Benny landed about a third of a mile from the chalet. He chose a gentle slope of the hill, and came down without much damage—but he could not help the reflection that the flight might cost him a good deal of money before he had done with it, and that it would be no light undertaking to get the machine across the pass again. This, however, was the thought of an instant, and when he had seen to his engine, turned off the petrol, and done what he could to make things ship-shape, he went on to the shanty without further delay, and was at its garden gate in less than twenty minutes from the time of his descent.

It was a pretty little house, gabled and covered in summer with the great flowers of the begonia. Possessing a good frontage to the lake, there was also a boathouse and landing-stage—the former having a smoking-room built right out over the water. On the other side there ran the high road to Losone on the one hand, and to Ronco on the other. In summer this road was alive with the motor cars of the Americans doing Europe in five-and-twenty minutes; but a night of winter found it deserted enough, and not a soul was to be discerned, either in the little village above the shanty or upon the highway itself. Benny had hoped to meet some friend or neighbour among the villagers who would have helped him to guard the airship; but finding none, he determined to telephone to Ascone directly it was safe to do so—and with that in his head he opened the garden gate and went in.

The consummation of a perilous emprise is often commonplace to the point of banality, and this is especially the case when the quest of man or woman is the objective. Benny had crossed the Simplon that he might reach the lake before another—and having reached it, might warn a madman of his danger. To do that, he had imperilled his own life as many times as there had been minutes in his journey; he had run the risk of being frozen alive or dashed to instant death in the chasms of the pass. And now that it was done he went up to the door of the house like any ordinary traveller, stood an instant while his eyes searched the unlighted windows, then rang the bell upon the right-hand side of the porch, and waited quietly. All the excitement of the quest appeared to have subsided at this time. He thought nothing of his victory; he did not even remember that it had been a victory!

The bell was unanswered, not a little to his surprise. He had looked at his watch before he left the ship, and had discovered that it was just a quarter-past seven. By all rights, Sir Luton should have been then at his dinner, and it occurred to him that the old woman who kept the shanty might be so busy in her kitchen that she did not hear him. Against this was the black fact of the unlighted windows, and the silence. Benny could hear the splash of the waves as they ebbed and flowed upon the shore of the lake, but no other sound save that of the distant bells of Losone. It began to force itself upon his mind that this silence was prophetic, and, with a shiver of apprehension different from any he had yet experienced, he rang a second time, and listened to the jangling reverberations and their diminuendos. Again the summons was unanswered. It was plain that there was no one in the house, and that his errand had been in vain.

He would not admit this at the beginning, or even contemplate a house of shadows. Knowing Luton Delayne, he thought it very likely that he had gone to one of the neighbouring towns for his dinner; while the old woman, taking advantage of his absence, would have run down to the village to her home there. Going round to the back of the house, which looked upon the lake, he found it shut and barred, and no evidence of occupation whatever—but the bars were no obstacle to such a wit as his, and forcing the kitchen window, he climbed in and began to search the place. A fleck of fire reddened in the grate; there were dirty plates upon a bare table, with a candle and a box of matches. Benny lit the candle, and passed on into the hall. The shanty had been occupied that day, so much was evident.

It was here that a strange hallucination took possession of him, and one he had some little difficulty to stifle. Suddenly, and without warning, he thought that he heard Luton Delayne's voice from one of the inner rooms; but when he entered it there was no sign of occupation whatever, no evidence that it had been used for many months. This should have set his mind at rest, but no such result followed upon the discovery. For the second time he heard the voice calling him from another quarter of the house; and, refusing to believe that he could be mistaken a second time, he crossed the narrow hall, and entered the room he had used as his study. Here at last were those visible evidences of occupation he had sought vainly elsewhere. The remains of such a meal as a man would have ordered were still upon the table. A fire burned in the grate, and a flask of red wine stood upon a side table. Whoever had occupied this room had left it during the day, and, what was more, he had written a letter shortly before he left.

Benny set down the candle upon the side table, and knelt to warm himself before the fire, upon which he heaped fresh logs. The window showed him the broad expanse of the lake with the mountains upon the far side of it, and the star cluster of Magadino at their feet. A man of indomitable courage, he was astonished to discover how greatly the hallucination of the voice had shaken him, and how real it had seemed when it called him. He had never realised the remoteness of the shanty before, nor its isolation from the towns by the lakeside. Presently a fit of shivering seized him, and he started up fearing that he was about to be ill, and determined that his will should master the situation. He heaped up the logs until the fire roared in the chimney, and then searching the kitchen for candles made such an illumination as that little room had never witnessed before. The light cheered him—he drank what was left of the wine in the flask, and ate of the bread and butter upon the table.

He had pipe and tobacco, and these had ever been his good friends in every kind of emergency. A long smoke by the fireside cleared his brain of the cobwebs, and gave him a clearer vision. And first he said that Luton had left the house, and it was doubtful if he would return. Had it been otherwise, had he gone across to dine at one of the neighbouring towns, assuredly the beldame would have returned to her kitchen by this time and made her preparations for the night. So it was clear that Delayne had left the shanty, and that he, Benny, had come too late. Whether this were a good thing or a bad he had as yet no means of knowing. The darker suggestion that the man had been arrested by the police, and that the old woman had fled the shanty in consequence, was not to be put aside. That seemed a very likely thing to have happened; but if it had happened, he would hear of it soon enough, and so would every newspaper in Switzerland.

This latter thought grew with the minutes and awakened every instinct to the danger. He wondered that it had not occurred to him directly he found the shanty deserted, and was going on to say that it was the absolutely obvious thing, when a sound arose which chilled him to the very marrow. A moment later he laughed aloud, and picked up one of the candles. Of course, the telephone still ran to the shanty. There is hardly a decent house in Switzerland which does not possess it.

A telephone bell ringing clearly in the silence of the house! Well, it was a thing to give a man a start—and his nerves were not what they should............
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