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The Eagle Cliff

The Eagle Cliff

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


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

  We say "failed" advisedly, because his various attempts in thatdirection have usually resulted in disappointment and broken bones. Asto 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 approachwe have yet made to the sensation of flying is that achieved by rushingdown a long, smooth, steep hill-road on a well-oiled and perfectball-bearings bicycle! Skating cannot compare with this, for thatrequires exertion; bicycling down hill requires none. Hunting cannot,no matter how splendid the mount, for that implies a certain element ofbumping, which, however pleasant in itself, is not suggestive of thesmooth swift act of flying.

  We introduce this subject merely because thoughts somewhat similar tothose which we have so inadequately expressed were burning in the brainof 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--downone of our Middlesex hills on his way to London.

  Urgent haste was in every look and motion of that young man's fine eyesand lithe body. He would have bought wings at any price had that beenpossible; but, none being yet in the market, he made the most of hiswheel--a fifty-eight inch one, by the way, for the young man's legs werelong, as well as strong.

  Arrived at the bottom of the hill the hilarious youth put his feet tothe treadles, and drove the machine vigorously up the opposite slope.It was steep, but he was powerful. He breathed hard, no doubt, but henever flagged until he gained the next summit. A shout burst from hislips as he rolled along the level top, for there, about ten miles off,lay the great city, glittering in the sunshine, and with only anamber-tinted canopy of its usual smoke above it.

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

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

  Swiftly but safely to the foot of the hill went John Barret

that wasthe youth's name

, at ever-increasing speed, and without check; for noone seemed to be moving about in the quiet hamlet, and the old Englishinn had apparently fallen asleep.

  A delicious undulating swoop at the bottom indicates the crossing of thebridge. A flash, and the inn is in rear. The hamlet displays no signof life, nevertheless Barret is cautious. He lays a finger on the brakeand touches the bell. He is half-way through the hamlet and all goeswell; still no sign of life except--yes, this so-called proof of everyrule is always forthcoming, except that there is the sudden appearanceof one stately cock. This is followed immediately by its sudden andunstately disappearance. A kitten also emerges from somewhere, glares,arches, fuffs, becomes indescribable, and--is not! Two or threechildren turn up and gape, but do not recover in time to insult, or toincrease the dangers of the awkward turn in the road which is now athand.

  Barret looks thoughtful. Must the pace be checked here? The road isopen and visible. It is bordered by grass banks and ditches on eitherside. He rushes close to the left bank and, careering gracefully to theright like an Algerine felucca in a white squall, dares the laws ofgravitation and centrifugal force to the utmost limitation, anddescribes a magnificent segment of a great circle. Almost before youcan wink he is straight again, and pegging along with irresistiblepertinacity.

  Just beyond the hamlet a suburban lady is encountered, with claspedhands and beseeching eyes, for a loose hairy bundle, animated by thespirit of a dog, stands in the middle of the road, bidding defiance tothe 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 rightdescribes what artists call "the line of beauty," in a bight of whichthe 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 innaccomplishes. He "slows." In front of the door he describes an airycirclet, dismounting while yet in motion, leans the lightning expressagainst the wall, and enters. What! does that vigorous, handsome,powerful fellow, in the flush of early manhood, drink? Ay, truly hedoes.

  "Glass of bitter, sir?" asks the exuberant landlord.

  "Ginger," says the young man, pointing significantly to a bit of blueribbon 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 thecoppers.

  "Very; good-day."

  Before that cheery "Good-day" had ceased to affect the publican's brainBarret 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 menand women had plodded in days gone by, in search of fame and fortune andhappiness: some, to find these in a greater or less degree, with much ofthe tinsel rubbed off, others, to find none of them, but insteadthereof, wreck and ruin in the mighty human whirlpool; and not a few todiscover the fact that happiness does not depend either on fortune orfame, 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 drivenfrom the scene.

  Barret had the broad road pretty much to himself.

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

  "What if I am too late!" he thought, and almost involuntarily put on aspurt.

  Soon he entered the crowded thoroughfares, and was compelled to curbboth steed and spirit. Passing through one of the less-frequentedstreets in the neighbourhood of Finchley Road, he ventured to give therein to his willing charger.

  But here Fortune ceased to smile--and Fortune was to be commended forher severity.

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

  Two little street boys, and a ragged girl appeared as if by magic. Theyalways 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 andconsiderably bruised, Barret sprang up, left his fallen steed, and,raising the little old lady with great tenderness in his arms, sat heron the pavement with her back against the railings, while he poured outabject apologies and earnest inquiries.

  Strange to say the old lady was not hurt in the least--only a good dealshaken and very indignant.

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

  Young Barret, as we have said, was sensitive. To become the object andcentre of a crowd in such circumstances was overwhelming. A climax wasput to his confusion, when one of the street arabs, observing thepoliceman, suddenly exclaimed:--

  "Oh! I say, 'ere's a bobby! What a lark. Won't you be 'ad up beforethe beaks? It'll be a case o' murder."

  "No, it won't," retorted the other boy; "it'll be a case o' manslaughteran' attempted suicide jined."

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

  "A reg'lar Krismas panty-mime for nuffin'!" remarked the ragged girl,breaking silence for the first time.

  Scarcely knowing what he did, Barret leaped towards his bicycle, set itup, vaulted into the saddle, as he well knew how, and was safely out ofsight in a few seconds.

  Yet not altogether safe. A guilty conscience pursued, overtook, and satupon him. Shame and confusion overwhelmed him. Up to that date he hadbeen honourable, upright, straightforward; as far as the world'sestimation went, irreproachable. Now, in his own estimation, he wasmean, false, underhand, sneaking!

  But he did not give way to despair. He was a true hero, else we wouldnot have had anything to write about him. Suddenly he slowed, frowned,compressed his lips, described a complete circle--in spite of afurniture van that came in his way--and deliberately went back to thespot where the accident had occurred; but there was no little lady to beseen. She had been conveyed away, the policeman was gone, the littleboys were gone, the ragged girl, sweep, postman, and servant maid--allwere gone, "like the baseless fabric of a vision," leaving only newfaces and strangers behind to wonder what accident and thin old lady theexcited youth was asking about--so evanescent are the incidents thatoccur; and so busily pre-occupied are the human torrents that rush inthe streets of London!

  The youth turned sadly from the spot and continued his journey at aslower pace. As he went along, the thought that the old lady might havereceived internal injuries, and would die, pressed heavily upon him:Thus, he might actually be a murderer, at the best a man-slaughterer,without knowing it, and would carry in his bosom a dreadful secret, anda terrible uncertainty, to the end of his life!

  Of course he could go to that great focus of police energy--ScotlandYard--and give himself up; but on second thoughts he did not quite seehis way to that. However, he would watch the daily papers closely.That evening, in a frame of mind very different from the mentalcondition, in which he had set out on his sixty miles' ride in theafternoon, John Barret presented himself to his friend and oldschoolfellow, Bob Mabberly.

  "You're a good fellow, Barret; I knew you would come; but you look warm.Have you been running?" asked Mabberly, opening the door of his lodgingto his friend. "Come in: I have news for you. Giles Jackman has agreedto go. Isn't that a comfort? for, besides his rare and valuablesporting qualities, he is more than half a doctor, which will beimportant, you know, if any of us should get ill or come to grief. Sitdown and we'll talk it over."

  Now, it was a telegram from Bob Mabberly which led John Barret tosuddenly undertake a sixty miles' ride that day, and which was thus theindirect cause of the little old lady being run down. The telegram ranas follows:--

  "Come instanter. As you are. Clothes unimportant. Yacht engaged.Crew also. Sail, without fail, Thursday. Plenty more to say when wemeet."

  "Now, you see, Bob, with your usual want of precision, or care, or somesuch quality--"

  "Stop, Barret. Do be more precise in the use of language. How can thewant of a thing be a _quality_?"

  "You are right, Bob. Let me say, then, that with your usual unprecisionand carelessness you sent me a telegram, which could not reach me tilllate on Wednesday night, after all trains were gone, telling me that yousail, without fail, on Thursday, but leaving me to guess whether youmeant Thursday morning or evening."

  "How stupid! My dear fellow, I forgot that!"

  "Just so. Well to make sure of losing no time, instead of coming hereby trains, which, as you know, are very awkward and slow in ourneighbourhood, besides necessitating long waits and several changes, Ijust packed my portmanteau, gun, rods, etcetera, and gave directions tohave them forwarded here by the first morning train, then took a fewwinks of sleep, and at the first glimmer of daylight mounted my wheeland set off across country as straight as country roads would permitof--and--here I am."

  "True, Barret, and in good time for tea too. We don't sail tillmorning, for the tide does not serve till six o'clock, so that will giveus plenty of time to put the finishing touches to our plans, allow yourthings to arrive, and permit of our making--or, rather, renewing--ouracquaintance with Giles Jackman. You remember him, don't you?"

  "Yes, faintly. He was a broad, sturdy, good-humoured, reckless, littleboy when I last saw him at old Blatherby's school."

  "Just so. Your portrait is correct. I saw him last month, after a goodmany years' interval, and he is exactly what he was, but considerablyexaggerated at every point. He is not, indeed, a little, but a middlesized man now; as good-humoured as ever; much more reckless; sturdierand broader a great deal, with an amount of hair about his lip, chin,and head generally that would suffice to fit out three or four averagemen. He has been in India--in the Woods and Forests Department, orsomething of that sort--and has killed tigers, elephants, and such-likeby the hundred, they say; but I've met him only once or twice, and hedon't speak much about his own doings. He is home on sick-leave justnow."

  "Sick-leave! Will he be fit to go with us?" asked Barret, doubtfully.

  "Fit!" cried Mabberly. "Ay, much more fit than you are, strong andvigorous though you be, for the voyage home has not only cured him; ithas added superabundant health. Voyages always do to sickAnglo-Indians, don't you know? However ill a man may be in India, allhe has to do is to obtain leave of absence and get on board of a shiphomeward bound, and straightway health, rushing in upon him like ariver, sends him home more than cured. So now our party is made up,yacht victualled, anchor tripped; and--`all's well that ends well.'"

  "But all is not ended, Bob. Things have only begun, and, as regardsmyself, they have begun disastrously," said Barret, who thereuponrelated the incident of the little old lady being run down.

  "My dear fellow," cried Mabberly, laughing, "excuse me, don't imagine meindifferent to the sufferings of the poor old thing; but do you reallysuppose that one who was tough enough, after such a collision, to sit upat all, with or without the support of the railings, and give way toindignant abuse--"

  "Not abuse, Bob, indignant looks and sentiments; she was too thorough alady to think of abuse--"

  "Well, well; call it what you please; but you may depend upon it thatshe is not much hurt, and you will hear nothing more about the matter."

  "That's it! That's the very thing that I dread," returned Barret,anxiously. "To go through life with the possibility that I may be anuncondemned and unhung murderer is terrible to think of. Then I can'tget over the meanness of my running away so suddenly. If any one hadsaid I was capable of such conduct I should have laughed at him. Yethave I lived to do it--contemptibly--in cold blood."

  "Contemptibly it may have been, but not in cold blood, for did you notsay you were roused to a state of frenzied alarm at the sight of thebobby? and assuredly, although unhung as yet, you are not uncondemned,if self-condemnation counts for anything. Come, don't take such adesponding view of the matter. We shall see the whole affair in themorning papers before sailing, with a report of the old lady's name andcondition--I mean condition of health--as well as your unmanly flight,without leaving your card; so you'll be able to start with an easy--Ha!a cab! yes, it's Jackman. I know his manservant," said Mabberly, as helooked out at the window.

  Another moment and a broad-chested man, of about five-and-twenty, with abronzed face--as far as hair left it visible--a pair of merry blue eyes,and a hearty manner, was grasping his old schoolfellows by the hand, andendeavouring to trace the likeness in John Barret to the quiet littleboy whom he used to help with his tasks many years before.

  "Man, who would have thought you could have grown into such a greatlong-legged fellow?" he said stepping back to take a more perfect lookat his friend, who returned the compliment by asking who could haveimagined that he would have turned into a Zambezian gorilla.

  "Where'll I put it, sor?" demanded a voice of metallic bassness in thedoorway.

  "Down there--anywhere, Quin," said Jackman turning quickly; "and be offas fast as you can to see after that rifle and cartridges."

  "Yes, sor," returned the owner of the bass voice, putting down a smallportmanteau, straightening himself, touching his forehead with amilitary salute, and stalking away solemnly.

  "I say, Giles, it's not often one comes across a zoological specimenlike that. Where did you pick him up?" asked Mabberly.

  "In the woods and forests of course," said Jackman, "where I have pickedup everything of late--from salary to jungle fevers. He's an oldsoldier--also on sick-leave, though he does not look like it. He cameoriginally from the west of Ireland, I believe; but there's little ofthe Irishman left, save the brogue and the honesty. He's a first-rateservant, if you know how to humour him, and, being a splendid cook, weshall find him useful."

  "I hope so," said Mabberly, with a dubious look.

  "Why, Bob, do you suppose I would have offered him as cook and stewardif I had not felt sure of him?"

  "Of course not; and I would not have accepted him if I had not felt sureof you, Giles, my boy; so come along and let's have something to eat."

  "But you have not yet told me, Bob," said Jackman, while the threefriends were discussing their meal, "what part of the world you intendto visit. Does your father give you leave to go wherever you please,and stay as long as you choose?"

  "No; he limits me to the Western Isles."

  "That's an indefinite limitation. D'you mean the isles of the WesternPacific?"

  "No; only those of the west of Scotland. And, to tell you the truth, Ihave no settled or definite plan. Having got leave to use the yacht allthe summer on condition that I don't leave our own shores, I haveresolved to begin by running at once to the wildest and farthest awaypart of the kingdom, leaving circumstances to settle the rest."

  "A circumstantial account of the matter, no doubt, yet rather vague.Have you a good crew?"

  "Yes; two men and a boy, one of the men being skipper, and the nearestapproach to a human machine you ever saw. He is a Highlander, athorough seaman, hard as mahogany and about as dark, stiff as a poker,self-contained, silent, except when spoken to, and absolutely obedient."

  "And we set sail to-morrow, early?" asked Barret.

  "Yes; after seeing the morning papers," said Mabberly with a laugh.

  This, of course, turned the conversation on the accident, much to thedistress of Barret, who feared that the jovial, off-hand reckless manfrom the "woods and forests" would laugh at and quiz him more severelythan his friend Bob. To his surprise and great satisfaction, however,he found that his fears were groundless, for Jackman listened to theaccount of the incident quite gravely, betrayed not the slightesttendency to laugh, or even smile; asked a good many questions in aninterested tone, spoke encouragingly as to the probable result, andaltogether showed himself to be a man of strong sympathy as well as highspirits.

  Next morning found our three adventurers dropping down the Thames withthe first of the ebb tide, and a slight breeze from the south-west;Mabberly and Jackman in the very small cabin looking after stores, guns,rods, etcetera; Barret anxiously scanning the columns of a newspaper;Quin and the skipper making each other's acquaintance with much of thesuspicion observable in two bull-dogs who meet accidentally; the boy inthe fore part of the vessel coiling ropes; and the remainder of the crewat the helm.

  "Port! port! stiddy," growled the skipper.

  "Port it is; steady," replied the steersman in a sing-song professionaltone, as a huge steamer from the antipodes went slowly past, like amighty leviathan of the deep.

  "Is it to the north, south, east, or west we're bound for, captain?"asked Quin, with a voice like that of a conciliatory bassoon.

  "I don't know where we're bound for," growled the skipper slowly."Starboard a bit; stiddy!"

  "Steady!" sang out the man at the tiller.

  A few hours carried them into the German Ocean. Here Quin thought hewould try again for a little information.

  "Sure it's nor'-east we're steerin', captain," he remarked in a casualway.

  "No, it's not," growled the skipper, very much through his nose; "she'sheadin' west."

  "It's to _somewhere_ that coorse will take us in the ind, no doubt, ifwe carry on?" suggested Quin, interrogatively.

  "Ay; oot to sea," replied the skipper.

  Quin was obliged to give it up for the time being.

  For some time they were nearly becalmed; then, as the land droppedastern and the shades of night deepened, the wind fell altogether, and,when the stars came out, a profound calm prevailed over the gentlyundulating sea. The exuberant spirits of our three friends were subduedby the sweet influences around, and, as the hour for rest drew near, theconversation, which at first became fitful, dropped at last to silence.

  This was broken at length by Jackman saying, to the surprise of hiscompanions, "What d'you say to reading a chapter before turning in? I'mfond of striking what's called a key-note. If we begin thispleasure-trip with an acknowledgment of our dependence on God, we shallprobably have a really pleasant time of it. What say you?"

  Both Mabberly and Barret gladly agreed to their friend's proposal--forboth had been trained in God-fearing families--though neither would havehad the courage to make the proposal himself. The crew were invited tojoin, and thus family worship was established on board the _Fairy_ fromthe first day.

  Only one point is worthy of note in connection with this--although noone noted it particularly at the time, namely, that the portion ofScripture undesignedly selected contained that oft-quoted verse, "Yeknow not what a day may bring forth."

  The truth of this was very soon thrust home upon them by sternexperience.