Charles Roberts.

The Ledge on Bald Face



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After about an hour the lower slopes of the mountain were reached. The ledge widened and presently broke up, with trails leading off here and there among the foothills. At the first of these that appeared to offer concealment the bear turned aside and vanished into a dense grove of spruce with a haste which seemed to Peddler highly amusing in a beast of such capacity and courage. He was well content, however, to be so easily quit of his dangerous advance guard.

"A durn good thing for me," he mused, "that that there b'ar never got up the nerve to call my bluff, or I might 'a' been layin' now where that onlucky old bull-moose is layin', with a lot o' flies crawlin' over me!"

And as he trudged along the now easy and ordinary trail, he registered two discreet resolutions – first, that never again would he cross Old Bald Face without his gun and his axe; and, second, that never again would he cross Old Bald Face at all, unless he jolly well had to.

II
THE EAGLE

The Eagle

He sat upon the very topmost perch under the open-work dome of his spacious and lofty cage. This perch was one of three or four lopped limbs jutting from a dead tree-trunk erected in the centre of the cage – a perch far other than that great branch of thunder-blasted pine, out-thrust from the seaward-facing cliff, whereon he had been wont to sit in his own land across the ocean.

He sat with his snowy, gleaming, flat-crowned head drawn back between the dark shoulders of his slightly uplifted wings. His black and yellow eyes, unwinking, bright and hard like glass, stared out from under his overhanging brows with a kind of darting and defiant inquiry quite unlike their customary expression of tameless despair. That dull world outside the bars of his cage, that hated, gaping, inquisitive world which he had ever tried to ignore by staring at the sun or gazing into the deeps of sky overhead, how it had changed since yesterday! The curious crowds, the gabbling voices were gone. Even the high buildings of red brick or whitish-grey stone, beyond the iron palings of the park, were going, toppling down with a slow, dizzy lurch, or leaping suddenly into the air with a roar and a huge belch of brown and orange smoke and scarlet flame. Here and there he saw men running wildly. Here and there he saw other men lying quite still – sprawling, inert shapes an the close-cropped grass, or the white asphalted walks, or the tossed pavement of the street. He knew that these inert, sprawling shapes were men, and that the men were dead; and the sight filled his exile heart with triumph. Men were his enemies, his gaolers, his opponents, and now at last – he knew not how – he was tasting vengeance. The once smooth green turf around his cage was becoming pitted with strange yellow-brown holes. These holes, he had noticed, always appeared after a burst of terrific noise, and livid flame, and coloured smoke, followed by a shower of clods and pebbles, and hard fragments which sometimes flew right through his cage with a vicious hum.

There was a deadly force in these humming fragments. He knew it, for his partner in captivity, a golden eagle of the Alps, had been hit by one of them, and now lay dead on the littered floor below him, a mere heap of bloody feathers. Certain of the iron bars of the cage, too, had been struck and cut through, as neatly as his own hooked beak would sever the paw of a rabbit.

The air was full of tremendous crashing, buffeting sounds and sudden fierce gusts, which forced him to tighten the iron grip of his talons upon the perch. In the centre of the little park pond, some fifty feet from his cage, clustered a panic-stricken knot of eight or ten fancy ducks and two pairs of red-billed coot, all that remained of the flock of water-birds which had formerly screamed and gabbled over the pool. This little cluster was in a state of perpetual ferment, those on the outside struggling to get into the centre, those on the inside striving to keep their places. From time to time one or two on the outer ring would dive under and force their way up in the middle of the press, where they imagined themselves more secure. But presently they would find themselves on the outside again, whereupon, in frantic haste, they would repeat the manoeuvre. The piercing glance of the eagle took in and dismissed this futile panic with immeasurable scorn. With like scorn, too, he noted the three gaunt cranes which had been wont to stalk so arrogantly among the lesser fowl and drive them from their meals. These once domineering birds were now standing huddled, their drooped heads close together, beneath a dense laurel thicket just behind the cage, their long legs quaking at every explosion.

Amid all this destroying tumult and flying death the eagle had no fear. He was merely excited by it. If a fragment of shell sang past his head, he never flinched, his level stare never even filmed or wavered. The roar and crash, indeed, and the monstrous buffetings of tormented air, seemed to assuage the long ache of his home-sickness. They reminded him of the hurricane racing past his ancient pine, of the giant waves shattering themselves with thunderous jar upon the cliff below. From time to time, as if his nerves were straining with irresistible exultation, he would lift himself to his full height, half spread his wings, stretch forward his gleaming white neck, and give utterance to a short, strident, yelping cry. Then he would settle back upon his perch again, and resume his fierce contemplation of the ruin that was falling on the city.

Suddenly an eleven-inch shell dropped straight in the centre of the pool and exploded on the concrete bottom which underlay the mud. Half the pool went up in the colossal eruption of blown flame and steam and smoke. Even here on his perch the eagle found himself spattered and drenched. When the shrunken surface of the pool had closed again over the awful vortex, and the smoke had drifted off to join itself to the dark cloud which hung over the city, the little flock of ducks and coot was nowhere to be seen. It simply was not. But a bleeding fragment of flesh, with some purple-and-chestnut feathers clinging to it, lay upon the bottom of the cage. This morsel caught the eagle's eye. He had been forgotten for the past two days – the old one-legged keeper of the cages having vanished – and he was ravenous with hunger. He hopped down briskly to the floor, grabbed the morsel, and gulped it. Then he looked around hopefully for more. There were no more such opportune tit-bits within the cage, but just outside he saw the half of a big carp, which had been torn in twain by a caprice of the explosion and tossed up here upon the grass. This was just such a morsel as he was craving. He thrust one great talon out between the bars and clutched at the prize. But it was beyond his reach. Disappointed, he tried the other claw, balancing himself on one leg with widespread wings. Stretch and struggle as he would, it was all in vain. The fish lay too far off. Then he tried reaching through the bars with his head. He elongated his neck till he almost thought he was a heron, and till his great beak was snapping hungrily within an inch or two of the prize. But not a hair's-breadth closer could he get. At last, in a cold fury, he gave it up, and drew back, and shook himself to rearrange the much dishevelled feathers of his neck.

Just at this moment, while he was still on the floor of the cage, a high-velocity shell came by. With its flat trajectory it passed just overhead, swept the dome of the cage clean out of existence, and whizzed onwards to explode, with a curious grunting crash, some hundreds of yards beyond. The eagle looked up and gazed for some seconds before realizing that his prison was no longer a prison. The path was clear above him to the free spaces of the air. But he was in no unseemly haste. His eye measured accurately the width of the exit, and saw that it was awkwardly narrow for his great spread of wing. He could not essay it directly from the ground, his quarters being too straitened for free flight. Hopping upwards from limb to limb of the roosting-tree, he regained the topmost perch, and found that, though split by a stray splinter of the cage, it was still able to bear his weight. From this point he sprang straight upwards, with one beat of his wings. But the wing-tips struck violently against each side of the opening, and he was thrown back with such force that only by a furious flopping and struggle could he regain his footing on the perch.

After this unexpected rebuff he sat quiet for perhaps half a minute, staring fixedly at the exit. He was not going to fail again through misjudgment. The straight top of the roosting-tree extended for about three feet above his perch, but this extension being of no use to him, he had never paid any heed to it hitherto. Now, however, he marked it with new interest. It was close below the hole in the roof. He flopped up to it, balanced himself for a second, and once more sprang for the opening, but this time with a short, convulsive beat of wings only half spread. The leap carried him almost through, but not far enough for him to get another stroke of his wings. Clutching out wildly with stretched talons, he succeeded in catching the end of a broken bar. Desperately he clung to it, resisting the natural impulse to help himself by flapping his wings. Reaching out with his beak, he gripped another bar, and so steadied himself till he could gain a foothold with both talons. Then slowly, like a dog getting over a wall, he dragged himself forth, and stood at last free on the outer side of the bars which had been so long his prison.

But the first thing he thought of was not freedom. It was fish. For perhaps a dozen seconds he gazed about him majestically, and scanned with calm the toppling and crashing world. Then spreading his splendid wings to their fullest extent, with no longer any fear of them striking against iron bars, he dropped down to the grass beside the cage and clutched the body of the slain carp. He was no more than just in time, for a second later a pair of mink, released from their captivity in perhaps the same way as he had been, came gliding furtively around the base of the cage, intent upon the same booty. He turned his head over his shoulder and gave them one look, then fell to tearing and gulping his meal as unconcernedly as if the two savage little beasts had been field mice. The mink stopped short, flashed white fangs at him in a soundless snarl of hate, and whipped about to forage in some more auspicious direction.

When the eagle had finished his meal – which took him, indeed, scarcely more time than takes to tell of it – he wiped his great beak meticulously on the turf. While he was doing so, a shell burst so near him that he was half smothered in dry earth. Indignantly he shook himself, hopped a pace or two aside, ruffled up his feathers, and proceeded to make his toilet as scrupulously as if no shells or sudden death were within a thousand miles of him.

The toilet completed to his satisfaction, he took a little flapping run and rose into the air. He flew straight for the highest point within his view, which chanced to be the slender, soaring spire of a church somewhere about the centre of the city. As he mounted on a long slant, he came into the level where most of the shells were travelling, for their objective was not the little park with its "Zoo," but a line of fortifications some distance beyond. Above, below, around him streamed the terrible projectiles, whinnying or whistling, shrieking or roaring, each according to its calibre and its type. It seemed a miracle that he should come through that zone unscathed; but his vision was so powerful and all-embracing, his judgment of speed and distance so instantaneous and unerring, that he was able to avoid, without apparent effort, all but the smallest and least visible shells, and these latter, by the favour of Fate, did not come his way. He was more annoyed, indeed, by certain volleys of debris which occasionally spouted up at him with a disagreeable noise, and by the evil-smelling smoke clouds, which came volleying about him without any reason that he could discern. He flapped up to a higher level to escape these annoyances, and so found himself above the track of the shells. Then he made for the church spire, and perched himself upon the tip of the great weather-vane. It was exactly what he wanted – a lofty observation post from which to view the country round about before deciding in which direction he would journey.

From this high post he noticed that, while he was well above one zone of shells, there was still another zone of them screaming far overhead. These projectiles of the upper strata of air were travelling in the opposite direction. He marked that they came from a crowded line of smoke-bursts and blinding flashes just beyond the boundary of the city. He decided that, upon resuming his journey, he would fly at the present level, and so avoid traversing again either of the zones of death.

Much to his disappointment, he found that his present observation post did not give him as wide a view as he had hoped for. The city of his captivity, he now saw, was set upon the loop of a silver stream in the centre of a saucer-like valley. In every direction his view was limited by low, encircling hills. Along one sector of this circuit – that from which the shells of the lower stratum seemed to him to be issuing – the hill-rim and the slopes below it were fringed with vomiting smoke-clouds and biting spurts of fire. This did not, however, influence in the least his choice of the direction in which to journey. Instinct, little by little, as he sat there on the slowly veering vane, was deciding that point for him. His gaze was fixing itself more and more towards the north, or, rather, the north-west; for something seemed to whisper in his heart that there was where he would find the wild solitudes which he longed for. The rugged and mist-wreathed peaks of Scotland or North Wales, though he knew them not, were calling to him in his new-found freedom.

The call, however, was not yet strong enough to be determining, so, having well fed and being beyond measure content with his liberty, he lingered on his skyey perch and watched the crash of the opposing bombardments. The quarter of the town immediately beneath him had so far suffered little from the shells, and the church showed no signs of damage except for one gaping hole in the roof. But along the line of the fortifications there seemed to be but one gigantic boiling of smoke and flames, with continual spouting fountains of debris. This inexplicable turmoil held his interest for a few moments. Then, while he was wondering what it all meant, an eleven-inch shell struck the church spire squarely about thirty feet below him.

The explosion almost stunned him. The tip of the spire – with the weather-cock, and the eagle still clinging to it – went rocketing straight up into the air amid a stifling cloud of black smoke, while the rest of the structure, down to a dozen feet below the point of impact, was blown to the four winds. Half stunned though he was, the amazed bird kept his wits about him, and clutched firmly to his flying perch till it reached the end of its flight and turned to fall. Then he spread his wings wide and let go. The erratic mass of wood and metal dropped away, and left him floating, half-blinded, in the heart of the smoke-cloud. A couple of violent wing-beats, however, carried him clear of the cloud; and at once he shaped his course upwards, as steeply as he could mount, smitten with a sudden desire for the calm and the solitude which were associated in his memory with the uppermost deeps of air.

The fire from the city batteries had just now slackened for a little, and the great bird's progress carried him through the higher shell zone without mishap. In a minute or two he was far above those strange flocks which flew so straight and swift, and made such incomprehensible noises in their flight. Presently, too, he was above the smoke, the very last wisps of it having thinned off into the clear, dry air. He now began to find that he had come once more into his own peculiar realm, the realm of the upper sky, so high that, as he thought, no other living creature could approach him. He arrested his ascent, and began to circle slowly on still wings, surveying the earth.

But now he received, for the first time, a shock. Hitherto the most astounding happenings had failed to startle him, but now a pang of something very like fear shot through his stout heart. A little to southward of the city he saw a vast pale-yellow elongated form rising swiftly, without any visible effort, straight into the sky. Had he ever seen a sausage, he would have thought that this yellow monster was shaped like one. Certain fine cords descended from it, reaching all the way to the earth, and below its middle hung a basket, with a man in it. It rose to a height some hundreds of feet beyond the level on which the eagle had been feeling himself supreme. Then it came to rest, and hung there, swaying slowly in the mild wind.

His apprehension speedily giving way to injured pride, the eagle flew upwards, in short, steep spirals, as fast as his wings could drive him. Not till he could once more look down upon the fat back of the glistening yellow monster did he regain his mood of unruffled calm. But he regained it only to have it stripped from him, a minute later, with tenfold lack of ceremony. For far above him – so high that even his undaunted wings would never venture thither – he heard a fierce and terrible humming sound. He saw something like a colossal bird – or rather, it was more suggestive of a dragonfly than a bird – speeding towards him with never a single beat of its vast, pale wings. Its speed was appalling. The eagle was afraid, but not with any foolish panic. He knew that even as a sparrow would be to him, so would he be to this unheard-of sovereign of the skies. Therefore it was possible the sovereign of the skies would ignore him and seek a more worthy opponent. Yes, it was heading towards the giant sausage. And the sausage, plainly, had no stomach for the encounter. It seemed to shrink suddenly; and with sickening lurches it began to descend, as if strong hands were tugging upon the cords which anchored it to earth. The eagle winged off modestly to one side, but not far enough to miss anything of the stupendous encounter which he felt was coming. Here, at last, were events of a strangeness and a terror to move even his cool spirit out of its indifference.

Now the giant insect was near enough for the eagle to mark that it had eyes on the under-sides of its wings – immense, round, coloured eyes of red and white and blue. Its shattering hum shook the eagle's nerves, steady and seasoned though they were. Slanting slightly downwards, it darted straight toward the sausage, which was now wallowing fatly in its convulsive efforts to descend. At the same time the eagle caught sight of another of the giant birds, or insects, somewhat different in shape and colour from the first, darting up from the opposite direction. Was it, too, he wondered, coming to attack the terrified sausage, or to defend it?

Before he could find an answer to this exciting question, the first monster had arrived directly above the sausage and was circling over it at some height, glaring down upon it with those great staring eyes of its wings. Something struck the sausage fairly in the back. Instantly, with a tremendous windy roar, the sausage vanished in a sheet of flame. The monster far above it rocked and plunged in the uprush of tormented air, the waves of which reached even to where the eagle hung poised, and forced him to flap violently in order to keep his balance against them.

A few moments later the second monster arrived. The eagle saw at once that the two were enemies. The first dived headlong at the second, spitting fire, with a loud and dreadful rap-rap-rapping noise, from its strange blunt muzzle. The two circled around each other, and over and under each other, at a speed which made even the eagle dizzy with amazement; and he saw that it was something more deadly than fire which spurted from their blunt snouts; for every now and then small things, which travelled too fast for him to see, twanged past him with a vicious note which he knew for the voice of death. He edged discreetly farther away. Evidently this battle of the giants was dangerous to spectators. His curiosity was beginning to get sated. He was on the point of leaving the danger area altogether, when the dreadful duel came suddenly to an end. He saw the second monster plunge drunkenly, in wild, ungoverned lurches, and then drop head first, down, down, down, straight as a stone, till it crashed into the earth and instantly burst into flame. He saw the great still eyes of the victor staring down inscrutably upon the wreck of its foe. Then he saw it whirl sharply – tilting its rigid wings at so steep an angle that it almost seemed about to overturn – and dart away again in the direction from which it had come. He saw the reason for this swift departure. A flock of six more monsters, of the breed of the one just slain, came sweeping up from the south to take vengeance for their comrade's defeat.



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