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R. M. Ballantyne
The Eagle Cliff

Chapter One
Begins the Tale—Naturally

From the earliest records of history we learn that man has ever been envious of the birds, and of all other winged creatures. He has longed and striven to fly. He has also signally failed to do so.

We say “failed” advisedly, because his various attempts in that direction have usually resulted in disappointment and broken bones. As to balloons, we do not admit that they fly any more than do ships; balloons merely float and glide, when not otherwise engaged in tumbling, collapsing, and bursting.

This being so, we draw attention to the fact that the nearest approach we have yet made to the sensation of flying is that achieved by rushing down a long, smooth, steep hill-road on a well-oiled and perfect ball-bearings bicycle! Skating cannot compare with this, for that requires exertion; bicycling down hill requires none. Hunting cannot, no matter how splendid the mount, for that implies a certain element of bumping, which, however pleasant in itself, is not suggestive of the smooth swift act of flying.

We introduce this subject merely because thoughts somewhat similar to those which we have so inadequately expressed were burning in the brain of a handsome and joyful young man one summer morning not long ago, as, with legs over the handles, he flashed—if he did not actually fly—down one of our Middlesex hills on his way to London.

Urgent haste was in every look and motion of that young man’s fine eyes and lithe body. He would have bought wings at any price had that been possible; but, none being yet in the market, he made the most of his wheel—a fifty-eight inch one, by the way, for the young man’s legs were long, as well as strong.

Arrived at the bottom of the hill the hilarious youth put his feet to the treadles, and drove the machine vigorously up the opposite slope. It was steep, but he was powerful. He breathed hard, no doubt, but he never flagged until he gained the next summit. A shout burst from his lips as he rolled along the level top, for there, about ten miles off, lay the great city, glittering in the sunshine, and with only an amber-tinted canopy of its usual smoke above it.

Among the tall elms and in the flowering hedgerows between which he swept, innumerable birds warbled or twittered their astonishment that he could fly with such heedless rapidity through that beautiful country, and make for the dismal town in such magnificent weather. One aspiring lark overhead seemed to repeat, with persistent intensity, its trill of self gratulation that it had not been born a man. Even the cattle appeared to regard the youth as a sort of ornithological curiosity, for the sentiment, “Well, you are a goose!” was clearly written on their mild faces as he flew past them.

Over the hill-top he went—twelve miles an hour at the least—until he reached the slope on the other side; then down he rushed again, driving at the first part of the descent like an insane steam-engine, till the pace must have increased to twenty miles, at which point, the whirl of the wheel becoming too rapid, he was obliged once more to rest his legs on the handles, and take to repose, contemplation, and wiping his heated brow—equivalent this, we might say, to the floating descent of the sea-mew. Of course the period of rest was of brief duration, for, although the hill was a long slope, with many a glimpse of loveliness between the trees, the time occupied in its flight was short, and, at the bottom a rustic bridge, with an old inn and a thatched hamlet, with an awkwardly sharp turn in the road beyond it, called for wary and intelligent guidance of this lightning express.

Swiftly but safely to the foot of the hill went John Barret (that was the youth’s name), at ever-increasing speed, and without check; for no one seemed to be moving about in the quiet hamlet, and the old English inn had apparently fallen asleep.

A delicious undulating swoop at the bottom indicates the crossing of the bridge. A flash, and the inn is in rear. The hamlet displays no sign of life, nevertheless Barret is cautious. He lays a finger on the brake and touches the bell. He is half-way through the hamlet and all goes well; still no sign of life except—yes, this so-called proof of every rule is always forthcoming, except that there is the sudden appearance of one stately cock. This is followed immediately by its sudden and unstately disappearance. A kitten also emerges from somewhere, glares, arches, fuffs, becomes indescribable, and—is not! Two or three children turn up and gape, but do not recover in time to insult, or to increase the dangers of the awkward turn in the road which is now at hand.

Barret looks thoughtful. Must the pace be checked here? The road is open and visible. It is bordered by grass banks and ditches on either side. He rushes close to the left bank and, careering gracefully to the right like an Algerine felucca in a white squall, dares the laws of gravitation and centrifugal force to the utmost limitation, and describes a magnificent segment of a great circle. Almost before you can wink he is straight again, and pegging along with irresistible pertinacity.

Just beyond the hamlet a suburban lady is encountered, with clasped hands and beseeching eyes, for a loose hairy bundle, animated by the spirit of a dog, stands in the middle of the road, bidding defiance to the entire universe! The hairy bundle loses its head all at once, likewise its heart: it has not spirit left even to get out of the way. A momentary lean of the bicycle first to the left and then to the right describes what artists call “the line of beauty,” in a bight of which the bundle remains behind, crushed in spirit, but unhurt in body.

At the bottom of the next hill a small roadside inn greets our cyclist. That which cocks, kittens, dangers, and dogs could not effect, the inn accomplishes. He “slows.” In front of the door he describes an airy circlet, dismounting while yet in motion, leans the lightning express against the wall, and enters. What! does that vigorous, handsome, powerful fellow, in the flush of early manhood, drink? Ay, truly he does.

“Glass of bitter, sir?” asks the exuberant landlord.

“Ginger,” says the young man, pointing significantly to a bit of blue ribbon in his button-hole.

“Come far to-day, sir?” asks the host, as he pours out the liquid.

“Fifty miles—rather more,” says Barret, setting down the glass.

“Fine weather, sir, for bicycling,” says the landlord, sweeping in the coppers.

“Very; good-day.”

Before that cheery “Good-day” had ceased to affect the publican’s brain Barret was again spinning along the road to London.

It was the road on which the mail coaches of former days used to whirl, to the merry music of bugle, wheel, and whip, along which so many men and women had plodded in days gone by, in search of fame and fortune and happiness: some, to find these in a greater or less degree, with much of the tinsel rubbed off, others, to find none of them, but instead thereof, wreck and ruin in the mighty human whirlpool; and not a few to discover the fact that happiness does not depend either on fortune or fame, but on spiritual harmony with God in Jesus Christ.

Pedestrians there still were on that road, bound for the same goal, and, doubtless, with similar aims; but mail and other coaches had been driven from the scene.

Barret had the broad road pretty much to himself.

Quickly he ran into the suburban districts, and here his urgent haste had to be restrained a little.

“What if I am too late!” he thought, and almost involuntarily put on a spurt.

Soon he entered the crowded thoroughfares, and was compelled to curb both steed and spirit. Passing through one of the less-frequented streets in the neighbourhood of Finchley Road, he ventured to give the rein to his willing charger.

But here Fortune ceased to smile—and Fortune was to be commended for her severity.

Barret, although kind, courteous, manly, sensitive, and reasonably careful, was not just what he ought to have been. Although a hero, he was not perfect. He committed the unpardonable sin of turning a street corner sharply! A thin little old lady crossed the road at the same identical moment, slowly. They met! Who can describe that meeting? Not the writer, for he did not see it; more’s the pity! Very few people saw it, for it was a quiet corner. The parties concerned cannot be said to have seen, though they felt it. Both went down. It was awful, really, to see a feeble old lady struggling with an athlete and a bicycle!

Two little street boys, and a ragged girl appeared as if by magic. They always do!

“Oh! I say! Ain’t he bin and squashed ’er?”

Such was the remark of one of the boys.

“Pancakes is plump to ’er,” was the observation of the other.

The ragged girl said nothing, but looked unspeakable things.

Burning with shame, trembling with anxiety, covered with dust and considerably bruised, Barret sprang up, left his fallen steed, and, raising the little old lady with great tenderness in his arms, sat her on the pavement with her back against the railings, while he poured out abject apologies and earnest inquiries.

Strange to say the old lady was not hurt in the least—only a good deal shaken and very indignant.

Stranger still, a policeman suddenly appeared in the distance. At the same time a sweep, a postman, and a servant girl joined the group.

Young Barret, as we have said, was sensitive. To become the object and centre of a crowd in such circumstances was overwhelming. A climax was put to his confusion, when one of the street arabs, observing the policeman, suddenly exclaimed:—

“Oh! I say, ’ere’s a bobby! What a lark. Won’t you be ’ad up before the beaks? It’ll be a case o’ murder.”

“No, it won’t,” retorted the other boy; “it’ll be a case o’ manslaughter an’ attempted suicide jined.”

Barret started up, allowing the servant maid to take his place, and saw the approaching constable. Visions of detention, publicity, trial, conviction, condemnation, swam before him.

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The Eagle Cliff

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На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «The Eagle Cliff», автора Robert Michael Ballantyne. Данная книга относится к жанрам: «Детские приключения», «Зарубежная старинная литература».. Книга «The Eagle Cliff» была издана в 2019 году. Приятного чтения!