THE PRINCESS PASSES
A Romance of a Motor-Car
C. N. and A. M. WILLIAMSON
Authors of The Lightning Conductor
New York Henry Holt and Company
THE DEAR PRINCESS
WHO, EACH YEAR, MAKES THE RIVIERA SUNNIER FOR HER PRESENCE
I. WOMAN DISPOSES
II. MERCEDES TO THE RESCUE
III. MY LESSON
IV. POTS, KETTLES, AND OTHER THINGS
V. IN SEARCH OF A MULE
VI. THE WINGS OF THE WIND
VII. AT LAST!
VIII. THE MAKING OF A MYSTERY
IX. THE BRAT
X. THE SCRAPING OF ACQUAINTANCE
XI. A SHADOW OF NIGHT
XII. THE PRINCESS
XIII. AFTERNOON CALLS
XIV. THE PATH OF THE MOON
XV. ENTER THE CONTESSA
XVI. A MAN FROM THE DARK
XVII. THE LITTLE GAME OF FLIRTATION
XVIII. RANK TYRANNY
XIX. THE LITTLE RIFT WITHIN THE LUTE
XX. THE GREAT PAOLO
XXI. THE CHALLENGE
XXII. AN AMERICAN CUSTOM
XXIII. THERE IS NO SUCH GIRL
XXIV. THE REVENGE OF THE MOUNTAIN
XXV. THE AMERICANS
XXVI. THE VANISHING OF THE PRINCE
XXVII. THE STRANGE MUSHROOM
XXVIII. THE WORLD WITHOUT THE BOY
XXIX. THE FAIRY PRINCE'S RING
XXX. THE DAY OF SUSPENSE
XXXI. THE BOY'S SISTER
"FOOD FOR THE GODS, AND ONLY A BOY TO EAT IT" (Frontispiece)
"WE REALLY WANT YOU, SAID MOLLY"
"SOMETIMES JACK DROVE, WITH MOLLY BESIDE HIM"
"THE BLUE FLAME OF THE CHAFING-DISH"
"I WAS SUDDENLY CLAPPED UPON THE SHOULDER"
"TREADING THE ROAD BUILT BY NAPOLEON"
"THERE WAS A PANG WHEN I TURNED MY BACK"
"THAT IS THE DEJEUNER OF NAPOLEON"
"DOWN, TURK!" "BE QUIET, JUPITER!"
"ON THE GROUND CROUCHED THE BOY"
"'DO YOU KNOW,' SAID I, 'YOU ARE A VERY QUEER BOY'"
"LOOKING OUT OF THE WINDOW I SAW HIM IN CONVERSATION"
"SITTING WITH MY BACK TO THE HORSES"
"HERE WE WERE AT ANNECY"
"THE ROCK OF MONACO"
"Away, away, from men and towns, To the wild wood and the downs, To the silent wilderness." —PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.
"To your happiness," I said, lifting my glass, and looking the girl in the eyes. She had the grace to blush, which was the least that she could do, for a moment ago she had jilted me.
The way of it was this.
I had met her and her mother the winter before at Davos, where I had been sent after South Africa, and a spell of playing fast and loose with my health—a possession usually treated as we treat the poor, whom we expect to have always with us. Helen Blantock had been the success of her season in London, had paid for her triumphs with a breakdown, and we had stopped at the same hotel.
The girl's reputation as a beauty had marched before her, blowing trumpets. She was the prettiest girl in Davos, as she had been the prettiest in London; and I shared with other normal, self-respecting men the amiable weakness of wishing to monopolise the woman most wanted by others. During the process I fell in love, and Helen was kind.
Lady Blantock, a matron of comfortable rotundity of figure and a placid way of folding plump, white hands, had, however, a contradictorily cold and watchful eye, which I had feared at first; but it had softened for me, and I accepted the omen. In the spring, when my London tyrant had pronounced me "sound as a bell," I had proposed to Helen. The girl said neither yes nor no, but she had eyes and a smile which needed no translation, so I kissed her (it was in a conservatory at a dance) and was happy—for a fortnight.
Then came this bidding to dinner. Lady Blantock wrote the invitation, of course, but it was natural to suppose that she did it to please her daughter. It happened to be my birthday, and I fancied that Helen had kept the date in mind. Besides, the selection of the guests had apparently been made with an eye to my pleasure.
There was Jack Winston, who had lately married an American heiress, not because she was an heiress, but because she was adorable; there was the heiress herself, nee Molly Randolph, whom I had known through Winston's letters before I saw her lovely, laughing face; there was Sir Horace Jerveyson, the richest grocer in the world, whom I suspected Lady Blantock of actually regarding as a human being, and a suitable successor to the late Sir James. Besides these, there was only myself, Montagu Lane; and I believed that the dinner had been arranged with a view to my claims as leading man in the love drama of which Helen Blantock was leading lady, the other characters in the scene merely being "on" as our "support." If this idea argued conceit, I was punished.
It was with the entree that the blow fell, and I had a curious, impersonal sort of feeling that on every night to come, should I live for a hundred years, each future entree of each future dinner would recall the sensation of this moment. Something inside me, that was myself yet not myself, chuckled at the thought, and made a note to avoid entrees.
We had been asking each others' plans for August. Molly and Jack had said that they were going to Switzerland to try the new Mercedes, which had been given as a wedding present to the girl by a school friend of that name, and of many dollars.
Then, solely to be civil, not because I wanted to know, I asked Sir Horace Jerveyson what he meant to do. Hardly did I even expect to hear his answer, for I was looking at Helen, and she was in great beauty. But the man's words jumped to my ears.
"Miss Blantock and I are going to Scotland," answered the grocer, in his fat voice, which might have been oiled with his own bacon. I stared incredulously. "Together," he informatively added.
Lady Blantock laughed nervously. "I suppose we might as well let this pass for an announcement?" she twittered. "Nell and Sir Horace have been engaged a whole day. It will be in the Morning Post to-morrow. Really, it has been so sudden that I feel quite dazed."
It was at this point that I drank to the girl's happiness, looking straight into her eyes.
I have a dim impression that the grocer, who no doubt mistook her blush for maiden pride of conquest, essayed to make a speech, and was tactfully suppressed by the future mother-in-law. I am sure, though, that it was Helen who presently asked, in pink-and-white confusion, if I, too, were bound for Scotland. "But, of course you are," she added.
"No," I said. "I've been planning to take a walking tour as soon as this tiresome season is over. I shall run across to France and wander for a while. Eventually, I shall end up at Monte Carlo. A friend whom I rather want to meet, will arrive there, at her villa, in October."
I knew that Jack Winston would understand, for he had not been the only one last winter who had written letters. But Jack was of no importance to me at the instant. I was talking at Helen, and she, too, would understand. I hoped that, in understanding, she would suffer a pang, a small, insignificant, poor relation of the pang inflicted upon me.
It is a thing unexplained by science why the miserable hours of our lives should he fifty times the length of happy hours, though stupid clocks, seeing nothing beyond their own hands, record both with the same measurement. If we had sat at this prettily decorated dinner table in the Carlton restaurant (I had thought it pretty at first, so I give it the benefit of the doubt) through the night into the next day, while other people ate breakfast and even luncheon, the moments could not have dragged more heavily. But when it appeared that we must have reached a ripe old age—those of us who had been young with the evening—Lady Blantock thought we might have coffee in the "palm court." We had it, and by rising at last, sweet Molly Winston saved me from doing the musicians a mischief. "Lord Lane, you promised to let us drop you, in the car," she said to me. "Oh, I don't mean to 'drop you' literally. Our auto has no naughty ways. I hope we are not carrying you off too soon."
Too soon! I could have kissed her. "Angel," I murmured, when we were out of the hotel, for in reality there had been no engagement. "Thank you—and good-bye." I wrung her hand, and she gave a funny little squeak, for I had forgotten her rings.
"What! Aren't you coming?" asked Jack.
"We really want you," said Molly. "Please let us take you home with us—to supper."
"We've just finished dinner," I objected weakly.
"That makes no difference. Eating is only an incident of supper. It's a meal which consists of conversation. Look, here's the car. Isn't she a beauty? Can you resist her? Such a dear darling of a girl gave her to me, a girl you would love. Can you resist Mercedes?"
"I could resist anything if I could resist you. But seriously, though you're very good, I think I'll walk to the Albany, and—and go to bed."
"What nonsense! As if you would. You're quite a clever actor, Lord Lane, and might deceive a man, but—I'm a woman. Jack and I want to talk to you about—about that walking tour."
It would have been ungracious to refuse, since she had set her heart upon a rescue. The chauffeur who had brought round the motor surrendered his place to Molly, whom Jack had taught to drive the new car, and I was given the seat of honour beside her. By this time the streets were comparatively clear of traffic, and we shot away as if we had been propelled from a catapult, Molly contriving to combine a rippling flow of words with intricate tricks of steering, in an extraordinary fashion which I would defy any male expert to imitate without committing suicide and murder.
I was a determined enemy of motor cars, as Jack knew, and thus far had avoided treachery to my favourite animal by never setting foot in one. But to-night I was past nice distinctions, and besides, I rather hoped that Molly and her Mercedes would kill me. My nerves were too numb to tell my brain of any remarkable sensations in the new experience, but I remember feeling cheated out of what I had been led to expect, when without any tragic event Molly stopped the car before their house in Park Lane—another and bigger wedding present.
It was a brand-new toy bestowed by millionaire Chauncey Randolph on his one fair daughter. Jack and Molly Winston had been married in New York in June (when I would have been best man had it not been for Helen), had spent their honeymoon somewhere in the bride's native country, and had come "home" to England only a little more than a fortnight ago. Jack's father, Lord Brighthelmston, had furnished the house as his gift to the bride, and as he is a famous connoisseur and collector, his taste, combined with Lady Brighthelmston's management, had resulted in perfection. Already I had been taken from cellar to attic and shown everything, so that to-night there was no need to admire.
We went into the dining-room; why, I do not know, unless that sitting round a table in the company of friends opens the heart and loosens the tongue. I have reason to believe that on the table there were things to eat, and especially to drink, but we gave them the cut direct, though I recall vaguely the fizz of soda shooting from the syphon, and afterwards holding a glass in my hand.
"Do you mind my saying what I think of Lady Blantock and her daughter?" inquired Molly, with the meek sweetness of a coaxing child. "Perhaps I oughtn't, but it would be a relief to my feelings."
"I wonder if it would to mine?" I remarked impersonally, addressing the ancient tapestry on an opposite wall.
"Let's try, and see," persisted Molly. "Calculating Cats! There, it's out. I wouldn't have eaten their old dinner, except to please you. I've known them only thirteen days, but I could have said the same thing when I'd known them thirteen minutes. Indeed, I'm not sure I didn't say it to Jack. Did I, or did I not. Lightning Conductor?"
"You did," replied the person addressed, answering with a smile to the name which he had earned in playing the part of Molly Randolph's chauffeur, in the making of their love story.
"Women always know things about each other—the sort of things the others don't want them to know," Molly went on; "but there's no use in our warning men who think they are in love with Calculating Cats, because they would be certain we were jealous. Of course I shouldn't say this to you, Lord Lane, if you hadn't taken me into your confidence a little—that night of my first London ball."
"It was the night I proposed to Nell," I said, half to myself.
"Sir Horace Jerveyson was at the ball, too."
"Talking to Lady Blantock."
"And looking at Miss Blantock. I noticed, and—I put things together."
"Who would ever have thought of putting those two together?"
"I did. I said to myself and afterwards to Jack—may I tell you what I said?"
"Please do. If it hurts, it will be a counter-irritant."
"Well, Jack had told me such heaps about you, you know, and he'd hinted that, while we were having our great romance on a motor car, you were having one on toboggans and skates at Davos, so I was interested. Then I saw her at the ball, and we were introduced. She was pretty, but—a prize white Persian kitten is pretty; also it has little claws. She liked you, of course, because you're young and good-looking. Besides, her father was knighted only because he discovered a new microbe or something, while you're a 'hearl,' as my new maid says."
"A penniless 'hearl,'" I laughed.
"You must have plenty of pennies, for you seem to have everything a man can want; but that is different from what a woman can want. I'm sure Helen Blantock and her mother had an understanding. I can hear Lady Blantock saying, 'Nell, dear, you may give Lord Lane encouragement up to a certain point, for it would be nice to be a countess; but don't let him propose yet. Who knows what may happen?' Then what did happen was Sir Horace Jerveyson, who has more pounds than you have pennies. Helen would console herself with the thought that the wife of a knight is as much 'Lady So-and-So' as a countess. I hate that grocerman, and as for Helen, you ought to thank heaven fasting for your escape."
"Perhaps I shall some day, but that day is not yet," I answered. "However, there is still Monte Carlo."
"Shall you drown your sorrows in roulette?" asked Molly, looking horrified.
"Don't let her misjudge you," cut in Jack. "Have you forgotten what I told you about the Italian Countess, Molly?"
"Oh, the Countess with whom Lord Lane used to flirt at Davos before he met Miss Blantock? Now I see. You said that you were going to Monte Carlo, on purpose to make Helen Blantock jealous."
"I'm afraid some spiteful idea of the sort was in my mind," I admitted. "But the Countess is fascinating, and if she would be kind, Monte Carlo might effect a cure of the heart, as Davos did of the lungs."
"I believe you're capable of marrying for pique. Oh, if I could prove to you that you aren't, and never have been, in love with Helen!"
"It would be difficult."
"I'll engage to do it, if you'll take my prescription."
"What is that?"
"Cheerful society and amusement. In other words, Jack's and my society, and a tour on our motor car."
"What, make a discord in the music of your duet?"
"Dear old boy, we want you," said Jack.
I was grateful. "I can't tell how much I thank you," I answered. "But I'm in no mood for companionship. The fact is, I'm stunned for the moment, but I fancy that presently I shall find out I'm rather hard hit."
"No, you won't, unless you mope," broke in Molly. "On the contrary, you'll feel it less every day."
"Time will show," said I. "Anyhow, I must dree my own weird—whatever that means. I don't know, and never heard of anyone who did, but it sounds appropriate. I should like to do a walking tour alone in the desert, if it were not for the annoying necessity to eat and drink. I want to get away from all the people I ever knew or heard of—with the exceptions named."
"One would think you were the only person disappointed in love!" exclaimed Molly. "Why, I have a friend who has really suffered. Dear little Mercedes——"
Mrs. Winston stopped suddenly, drawing in her breath. She looked startled, as if she had been on the point of betraying a state secret; then her eyes brightened; she began abstractedly to trace a leaf on the damask tablecloth. "I have thought of just the thing for you," she said, apparently apropos of nothing. "Why don't you buy or hire a mule to carry your luggage, and walk from Switzerland down into Italy, not over the high roads, but do a pass or two, and for the rest, keep to the footpaths among the mountains, which would suit your mood?"
"The mule isn't a bad scheme," I replied. "A dirty man is an independent animal, but a clean man, or one whose aim is to be clean, is more or less helpless. If he has a weakness for a sponge bag, a clean shirt or two, and evening things to change into after a long tramp, he must go hampered by a caravan of beasts."
"One beast would do," said Molly practically, "unless you count the muleteer, and that depends upon his disposition."
"I suppose muleteers have dispositions," I reflected aloud.
"Mules have. I've met them in America. But if you think my idea a bright one, reward it by going with Jack and me as far as Lucerne. There you can pick up your mule and your mule-man."
"'A picker-up of unconsidered trifles,'" I quoted dreamily. "Well, if you and Jack are willing to tool me out on your motor car as far as Lucerne, I should be an ungrateful brute to refuse. But the difficulty is, I want to turn a sulky back on my kind at once, while you two——"
"We're starting on the first," said Jack.
"What! No Cowes?"
"We wouldn't give a day on the car for a cycle of Cowes."
And so the plan of my consolation tour was settled, in the supreme court beyond which there is no appeal. But man can do no more than propose; and woman—even American woman—cannot invariably "dispose" to the extent of remaking the whole world of mules and men according to her whim.
Mercedes to the Rescue
"What is more intellectually exhilarating to the mind, and even to the senses, than . . . looking down the vista of some great road . . . and to wonder through what strange places, by what towns and castles, by what rivers and streams, by what mountains and valleys it will take him ere he reaches his destination?"—The Spectator.
That Locker should have come in at the moment when I was trying on my new automobile get-up was more than a pin-prick to my already ruffled sensibilities—it was a knife-thrust.
"What on earth are you laughing at, man?" I demanded, whipping off the goggles that made me look like a senile owl, and facing him angrily, as he had a sudden need to cover his mouth with a decorous palm.
"I beg pardon, me lord," he said. "It was coming on you sudden in them things. I never thought to see you, me lord, in hotomobeel clothes—you who always was so down on the 'orrid machines."
"Well, help me out of them," I answered, feeling the justice of Locker's implied rebuke. I twisted my wrists free of the elastic wind-cuffs, and shed the unpleasantly heavy coat that Winston had insisted I should buy.
"And you such a friend of the 'orse too, me lord," added Locker, aware that he had me at a disadvantage.
I winced, and felt the need of self-justification. "You're right," I said. "I never thought I should come to it. But all men fall sooner or later, and I have held out longer than most. Don't be afraid, though, that I am going to have a machine of my own: I haven't quite sunk to that; if everybody else I know has. I'm only going across France on Mr. Winston's car. He has a new one—the latest make. He tells me that when he 'lets her out' she does seventy an hour."
"Wot—miles, me lord?" Locker almost dropped the coat of which he had disencumbered me.
"Kilometres. It's the speed of a good quick train."
It was strange; but until the night of that hateful dinner at the Carlton, I had never been in a motor car. Half my friends had them, or meant to have them; but in a kind of lofty obstinacy I had refused to be a "tooled down" to Brighton or elsewhere. Fancying myself considerably as a whip, and being an enthusiastic lover of horses, I had taken up an attitude of hostility to their mechanical rivals, and chuckled with malice whenever I saw in the papers that any acquaintance had been hauled up for going beyond the "legal limit."
But on the night of the Carlton dinner, when Molly Winston whirled me from Pall Mall to Park Lane, that part of me which was not frozen by the grocer (the part the psychologists call the "unconscious secondary self") told me that I was having another startling experience apart from being jilted.
Winston is my oldest friend, and when his letters were mere paeans in praise of automobilism, I looked upon his fad with compassionate indulgence. Then we met in London after his marriage, and between the confidences which we had exchanged, he managed to sandwich in something about motor cars. But I ruthlessly swept aside the interpolation as unworthy of notice. When he suggested a drive in the new car, I called up all my tact to evade the invitation. If the active part of me had not been stunned on the night when Helen threw me over, I believe I should have kept bright the jewel of consistency. But the kindness of Molly in circumstances the opposite of kind, had undone me. Here I was, pledged to get myself up like a figure of Fun, and sit glued for days to the seat of a noisy, jolting, ill-smelling machine which I hated, feeling (and looking), in my goggles and hairy coat, like a circus monkey or a circus dragon.
Nevertheless, I could confess the motor car to my man with comparative calmness. That I should fall was no doubt a disappointment to him. As a conscientious snob and a cherisher of conservative ideals, he could mention it to other valets without a blush. The mules however, towards which the motor was to lead, was a different thing; and while poor Locker excavated me from the motor coat, my mind was busily devising means to keep the horrid secret of the mule hidden from him forever.
There was but one way to do this.
"I suppose, me lord, I'm to travel with the 'eavy luggage, and take rooms at the end of the journey," he suggested.
The crucial moment had come. If a man can support existence without the girl he loves, thought I, surely it must be possible for him to live without a valet. "No, Locker," I said firmly. "I am to be Mr. and Mrs. Winston's guest, and we—er—shall have no fixed destination. I shall be obliged to leave you behind."
"Very good, me lord," returned Locker in a meek voice. "Very good, me lord; has you will. I do 'ope you won't suffer from dust, with no one to keep you in proper repair, as you might say. But no doubt it will be only for a short time."
Knowing that days, weeks, and even months might pass while I consorted with motors and mules, far from valets and civilisation, I was nevertheless toward enough to hint that Locker must be prepared for a wire at any time. I had often derived a quaint pleasure from the consciousness that he despised my bookish habits and certain unconventionalities not suited to a 'hearl'; but one must draw the line somewhere, and I drew it at the mule. I would give a good deal rather than Locker should suspect me of the mule.
It was arranged that we should leave from Jack's house in Park Lane, and as we wanted to reach Southampton early, our start was to be at nine o'clock. "In France," Jack had said to me, "we could reel off the distance almost as quickly as the train; but in our blessed land, with its twenty miles an hour speed limit, its narrow winding roads, chiefly used in country places as children's playgrounds, and its police traps, motoring isn't the undiluted joy it ought to be. The thing to prepare for is the unexpected."
At half-past eight at Jack's door, I bade an almost affectionate farewell to the last cabhorse with which for many wild weeks I should have business dealings. The untrammelled life before me seemed to be signalised by the lonely suit case which was the one article of luggage I was allowed to carry on the motor. A portmanteau was to follow me vaguely about the Continent, and I had visions of a pack to supersede the suit case, when my means of transport should be a mule. Sufficient for the motor was the luggage thereof, however, and when my neat leather case was deposited in Jack's hall, I was rewarded with Molly's approving comment that it would "make a lovely footstool."
We had breakfast together, as though nothing dreadful were about to happen, and I heartened myself up with strong coffee. By the time we had finished, and Molly had changed herself from a radiant girl into a cream-coloured mushroom, with a thick, straight, pale-brown stem, the Thing was at the door—Molly's idol, the new goddess, with its votive priest pouring incense out of a long-nosed oil can and waving a polishing rag for some other mystic rite.
This servant of the car answered to the name of Gotteland, and having learned from Jack that he had started life as a jockey in Hungary, I thought evil of him for abandoning the horse for the machine. He evidently belonged to that mysterious race of beings called suddenly into existence by a vast new industry; mysterious, because how or why a man drifts or jumps into the occupation of chauffeur is never explained to those who see only the finished article. Jack praised him as a model of chauffeury accomplishments, among which were a knowledge of seventeen languages more or less, to say nothing of dialects, and a temper warranted to stand a burst tyre, a disordered silencer, an uncertain ignition, and (incidentally) a broken heart—all occurring at the same time. Despite these alleged perfections, I distrusted the cosmopolitan apostate on principle, and was about to turn upon his leather-clad form a disapproving gaze, when I dimly realised that it would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Instead, I smiled hypocritically as we "took a look" at the car before lending it our lives.
"I hope the brute isn't vicious; doesn't blow up or explode, or shed its safety valve, or anything," I remarked with a facetiousness which in the circumstances did me credit.
Gotteland answered with the pitying air of the professional for the amateur. "The one thing an automobile can't do, sir, is to blow up."
I was glad to hear this, in spite of the strong coffee lately swallowed, but on the other hand there were doubtless a great many other equally disagreeable things which it could do. Of course, if it were satisfied with merely killing me, neatly and thoroughly, I still felt that I should not mind; indeed, would be rather grateful than otherwise. But there were objections, even for a jilted lover, to being smeared along the ground, and picked up, perhaps, without a nose, or the proper complement of legs, or vertebrae.
"Anyhow, the beast has a certain meretricious beauty," I admitted. "Those red cushions and all that bright metal work give an effect of luxury."
Gotteland revenged his idol with another smile. "Amateurs do notice such things, sir," said he. "Professionals don't care much about the body; it's the motor that interests them." He lifted a sort of lattice which muzzled the dragon's mouth, disclosing some bulbous cylinders and a tangle of pipes and wires. "It's the dernier cri. That engine will work as long as there's a drop of essence in the carburetter, and will carry you at forty miles an hour, without feeling a hill which would set many cars groaning and puffing. It will do the work of twenty horses, and more——"
"Yet I shouldn't be really surprised if one horse had to tow it some day," I murmured more to myself than to him, but Molly heard me, through her mushroom.
"You'll soon apologise to Mercedes for your doubts of her, for motors are their own missionaries," she said, her eyes laughing through a triangular talc window. "You will have learned to love her before you know what has happened, just as you would the real Mercedes, if you could see her."
Curious, I thought, that Molly, knowing my state of mind, should be constantly weaving into our conversation some allusion to the namesake and giver of her car. I had never in my life been less interested in the subject of extraneous girls, and with all Molly's tact, it seemed strange that she should not recognise this. However, she did not appear to expect an answer, and we were soon settled in the car, Molly, as I have said, looking like a graceful fungus growth, Jack and I like haggard goblins.
Molly was to drive, and Jack insisted that I should sit in one of the two absurdly comfortable armchair arrangements in front. The chauffeur was presently to curl like a tendril round a little crimson toadstool at our feet, and Jack took the tonneau in lonely state. This was, no doubt, an act of fine self-abnegation on his part, nevertheless I could have envied him his safe retirement, from my place of honour, with no noble horses in front to save Molly and me from swift destruction.
Physically, we were very snug, however. The luggage was fitted into spaces especially made for it; long baskets on the mudguards at the side were stowed with maps and guide-books for the tour, and (as Molly remarked in the language of her childhood) a "few nice little 'eaties' to make us independent on the way."
There was also a sort of glorified tea basket, containing, Molly said, a chafing-dish, without which no self-respecting American woman ever travelled, and by whose aid wonderful dishes could be turned out at five minutes' notice in a shipwreck, on a desert island, or while a tyre was being mended.
As I mentally finished my last will and testament, Gotteland gave a short twist to the dragon's tail, which happened to be in front. Instantly a heart began to throb, throb. The chauffeur sprang to his toadstool. Molly moved a lever which said "R-r-r-tch," pressed one of her small but determined American feet on something, and the car gave a kind of a smooth, gliding leap forward, as if sent spinning from an unseen giant's hand.
Though it was but just after nine, the early omnibus had gathered its tribute of toiling or shopping worms, and was too prevalent in Park Lane for my peace of mind. There were also enormous drays, which looked, as our frail bark passed under their bows, like huge Atlantic liners. The hansoms were fierce black sharks skimming viciously round us, and there were other monsters whose forms I had no time to analyse: but into the midst of this seething ocean Molly pitilessly hurled us. How we slipped into spaces half our own width and came out scatheless, Providence alone knew, but it seemed that kindly Fate must soon tire of sparing us, we tempted it so often.
"Here's a smash!" I said to myself grimly, at the corner of Hamilton Place, and it flashed through my brain, with a mixture of self-contempt and pity, that my last thought before the end would be one of sordid satisfaction because a fortnight ago I had reluctantly paid an accident assurance premium.
My fingers yearned with magnetic attraction toward the arms of the seat, but with all that was manly in me I resisted. I wreathed my face with a smile which, though stiff as a plaster mask, was a useful screen; and as South African tan is warranted not to wear off during a lifetime, I could feel as pale as I pleased without visible disgrace.
"How do you like it?" asked Molly.
"Glorious," I breezily returned.
"Ah, I thought you would enjoy it, when—as they say of babies—you 'began to take notice.' The other night, of course, you were a little absent-minded. Besides, it was dark, and the streets were dull and empty. A motor is just as nice as a horse, isn't it? Do say so, if only to please me."
Now I knew why the victims of the Inquisition told any lie which happened to come handy. I said that it was marvellous how soon the thing got hold of one; and Molly's mushroom reared itself proudly. "That is because you are so brave," said the poor, deceived girl. "Of course it's having been a soldier, and all that. People who've been in battle wouldn't think anything of a first motor experience ("Oh, wouldn't they?" I inwardly chortled). But, do you know, Lord Lane, I've actually seen men who were quite brave in other ways, feel a little queer the first time they drove in an automobile through traffic, or even in quiet country roads? I don't suppose you can understand it."
"I couldn't," I replied valiantly, "were not imagination the first ingredient of sympathy. But—er—don't you think that omnibus in front is rather large—near, I mean? You mustn't exert yourself to talk, you know, for my sake, if you need to give your whole attention to driving."
"I like to talk. It's no exertion at all," said Molly, and I fancy I responded with some base flattery, though by this time that smile of mine was so hard you could have knocked it off with a hammer.
"The first day I went through traffic," she continued, "my toes had the funniest sensation, as if they were turning up in my shoes. One seemed to come so awfully near everything, without any horses in front."
At this very moment my own toes happened to feel as if they were pasted back on my insteps; yet I laughed heartily at the suggestion, and to my critical ear there was only a slight hollowness in the ring, although before us now loomed a huge railway van. It was loaded with iron bars, their rusty ends hanging far out and sagging towards the roadway, enough to frighten the gentlest automobile. Ours seemed far from gentle, and besides, we could not possibly stop in time to avoid impalement on the iron spikes. Molly and I, if not Jack and the chauffeur, must surely die a peculiarly unpleasant and unnecessary death, in the morning of our lives, just as other more fortunate people were starting out, safe and happy in exquisitely beautiful omnibuses, to begin their day's pleasure. And Molly believed, because I had been in a few battles, with nothing worse than a bee-like buzzing of some innocent bullets in my ears, that I should be callous in a motor car.
However, the bravest soldiers are those who feel fear, and fight despite it. I maintain that I deserved a Victoria Cross for the grim smile which did not leave my lips as I braced myself for the death-dealing blow. But, as in a dream one finds without surprise that the precipice, over which one is hanging by an eyebrow, obligingly transforms itself into a bank of violets, so did the dragon which had been whirling us to destruction magically change into a swan-like creature skimming just out of harm's way.
I now reflected, with a vague sense of self-disgust, that, instead of being glad to leave the world which had denied me Helen, I had felt distinctly annoyed at the necessity, had not given a thought to my lost love, and had been thankful for the mere gift of life without her.
"I'm so glad you don't think I'm reckless," said Molly, as quietly as though we had not passed through a crisis; and indeed to this day I do not believe she would admit that we had.
"I'm really very careful; Jack says I am. He takes tremendous risks sometimes, or at least it seems so when you're not driving. You'll see the difference when he's in front."
I refrained from comment, but I had never valued Jack's friendship less, and I was in the act of concocting a telegram from Locker which might recall me to London, when from the speed of the Scotch express we slowed down to a pace which would have been mean even for a donkey. We continued this rate of progression for a peaceful but all too brief interval; then in the line of traffic opened a narrow canal which I hoped might escape Molly's eye. But there was no such luck. She saw; we leaped into it, raced down it, and before I could have said "knife," or any other equally irrelevant word of one syllable, we had left everything else behind.
I expected to be (to put it mildly) as uncomfortable as I had been before my short respite, yet strange to say, this was not the case. I did not know what was the matter with me, but suddenly I seemed to be enjoying myself. The tension of muscles relaxed, as if a string which had held them tight—like the limbs of a Jumping Jack—had been let go. I leaned back against the crimson cushions of my seat with a new and singular sense of well-being. Once, as a volunteer in South Africa, I had felt the same when, after having a splinter of bone taken out, under chloroform, I had waked up to be told it was all over. This wasn't over, but somehow, I didn't want it to be.
We took Putney Bridge at a gulp, and swallowed the long hill to Wimbledon Common in the fashion of a hungry anaconda; but before we arrived at this stage a thing happened which unexpectedly raised my opinion of motor cars. It was in the Fullham Road that we glided close behind a hansom bowling along at a rattling pace. Traffic on our right prevented us from passing, and Molly had just remarked how vexing it was to be kept back by a mere hansom, when plunk! down went the little nag on his nose. It was one of those tumbles in which the horse collapses in a limp heap without any sliding, though he had been going fast downhill, and of course the hansom stopped dead. The whole scene was as quick as the flashing of a biograph. The driver struggled to keep his seat, clawing at the shiny roof of the cab; his fare, in a silk hat and pathetic frock coat, shot from the vehicle like a flying Mercury, and this time it seemed that nothing could keep us from telescoping the vehicle thus suddenly arrested a few feet ahead.
But I reckoned without Molly. Her little gloved hand, and the high-heeled American toys she had for feet, moved like lightning. Without any violent wrench, the car stopped apparently in less than its own length, and as, even thus, we were too close upon the cab, Molly threw a quick glance behind, then bade Mercedes glide gently backward.
With the fall of the horse, Jack rose in the tonneau, with the instinct of protection over Molly. But he said not a word till she had guided the car to safety, when he gave her a little congratulatory pat on the shoulder. "Good girl; that was perfect. Couldn't have been better," he murmured. We waited until we had seen that neither man nor horse was badly hurt, and then sped on again, with a certain respect for the motor rankling in my reluctant heart. Comparing its behaviour with that of an automobile, Hansom's ironically named "Patent Safety" had not a wheel to stand upon.
When we were clear of Kingston, and winging lightly along the familiar Portsmouth Road, with its dark pines and purple gleams of heather, I began to feel an exhilaration scarcely short of treacherous to my principles. We were now putting on speed, and running as fast as most trains on the South-Western, yet the sensation was far removed from any I had experienced in travelling by rail, even on famous lines, which give glorious views if one does not mind cinders in the eye or the chance of having one's head knocked off like a ripe apple. I seemed to be floating in a great opaline sea of pure, fresh air; for such dust as we raised was beaten down from the tonneau by the screen, and it did not trouble us. Our speed appeared to turn the country into a panorama flying by for our amusement; and yet, fast as we went, to my surprise I was able to appreciate every feature, every incident of the road. Each separate beauty of the way was threaded like a bead on a rosary.
Here was Sandown Park, which I had regarded as the goal of a respectable drive from town, with horses; but we were taking it, so to speak, in our first stride. Esher was no sooner left behind than quaint old sleepy Cobham came to view; between there and Ripley was but a gliding step over a road which slipped like velvet under our wheels. Then a fringe of trees netted across a blue, distant sea of billowing hills, and a few minutes later we were sailing under Guildford's suspended clock.
It was somewhere near the hour of one when Molly brought the car gently to a standstill by the roadside, and announced that she would not go a yard further without lunch. The chauffeur successfully took up the part of butler at a moment's notice, busying himself with the baskets, spreading a picnic cloth under a shady tree, and putting a bottle of Graves to cool in a neighbouring brook. Meanwhile Molly was doing mysterious things with her chafing-dish and several little china jars. By the time Jack and I had with awkward alacrity bestowed plates, glasses, knives, and forks on the most hummocky portions of the cloth, white and rosy flakes of lobster a la Newburg were simmering appetisingly in a creamy froth.
I was deeply interested in this cult of the chafing-dish, which could, in an incredibly short time, serve up by the wayside a little feast fit for a king—who had not got dyspepsia.
"Can't you imagine the programme if we had gone to an inn?" asked Jack, proud of his bride's handiwork. "We should have walked into a dingy dining-room, with brown wallpaper and four steel engravings of bloodthirsty scenes from the Old Testament. A sleepy head waiter would have looked at me with a polite but puzzled expression, as if at a loss to know why on earth we had come. I should have enquired deprecatingly: 'What can you give us for lunch?' What would he have replied?"
"There's only one possible answer to that conundrum, and it doesn't take any guessing," said I. "The reply would have been: 'Cold 'am or beef, sir; chops, if you choose to wait.' Those words are probably now being spoken to some hundreds of sad travellers less fortunate than our favoured and sylvan selves."
"If you would like to have a chafing-dish in your family," remarked Jack, "you'll have to marry an American girl."
"I'm no Duke," said I.
"Earls aren't to be despised, if there are no Dukes handy," said Molly. "Besides, it's getting a little obvious to marry a Duke."
"Which is the reason you took up with a chauffeur," retorted Jack.
"You call yourself a 'penniless hearl,'" went on Molly, "and I suppose, of course, you are 'belted.' All earls are, in poetry and serials, which must be convenient when you're really very poor, because if you're hungry, you can always take a reef in your belt, while mere plain men have no such resource. Have you got yours on now?"
"It's in pawn," said I. "It's no joke about being penniless. Jack will tell you I'm obliged to let my dear old house in Oxfordshire, and the only luxuries I can afford are a few horses and a few books. I prefer them to necessities—since I can't have both."
I thought that Molly might laugh, but instead she looked abnormally grave. "Jack told me," she said, "how, when you and he came over to America, six or seven years ago, to shoot big game, you avoided girls, for fear people might suppose your alleged bear hunt was really an heiress hunt. I forgive Jack, because that was in the dark ages, before he knew there was a Me. But why should a girl be shunned by nice men solely because she's an heiress? Can't she be as pretty and lovable in herself as a poor girl?"
"She can," I replied, emphasising my words with a look in Molly's face. "No doubt she often is. But I do wish some American girls who marry men from our side of the water wouldn't let the papers advertise their weddings as 'functions' (sounds like obscure workings of physical organs), attended by the families of their exclusive acquaintance, worth, when lumped together, a billion of dollars or so."
"I know. It's as if they were prize pigs at a fair, and were of no importance except for their dollars," sighed Molly. "And then, the detectives to watch the presents! It's disgusting. But some of our newspapers are like Mr. Hyde. Poor Dr. Jekyll can't do anything with him; and anyhow, you needn't think we're all like that. I have a friend who is one of the greatest heiresses in America, but she hates her money. It has made her very unhappy, though she's only twenty-one years old. If you could see Mercedes, with her lovely, strange sad face, and big, wistful eyes——"
"I can think of Mercedes only with a shiny grey body, upholstered crimson; and for eyes, huge acetylene lamps," I was rude enough to break in; for I fancied that I saw what Mistress Molly would fain be up to, and my heart was not of the rubber-ball description, to be caught in the rebound. If Molly cherished a secret intention of springing her peerless friend Mercedes upon me, during this tour which she had organised, it seemed better for everyone concerned that the hope should be nipped in the bud. It was with unwonted meekness that she yielded to being suppressed, and I suffered immediate pangs of remorse. To atone, I did my best to be agreeable. All the way to Southampton I praised automobiles in general and hers in particular; admitted that in half a day I had become half a convert; and soon I had the pleasure of believing that the divine Molly had forgotten my sin.
"The broad road that stretches." —R.L. STEVENSON.
Forty-eight hours later we drove out of Havre, bound for Paris and Lucerne, where I was to "pick up" that mule, and become a lone wanderer on the face of the earth. Gotteland had seen to the shipping of the car from Southampton, while we spent a day on the crowded sands of Trouville, where I was so lucky as to meet no one I knew.
It was only now, Winston said, that I should realise to the full the joys of motoring, impossible to taste under present conditions in England. Our way was to lie along the Seine to Paris, and Jack recalled to us Napoleon's saying that "Paris, Rouen, and Havre form only one city, of which the Seine is the highway."
Last year, these two had seen the country of the Loire together, under curious and romantic conditions, and now Molly was to be shown another great river in France. We changed places in the car, like players in the old game of "stage coach." Sometimes Molly had the reins, and I the seat of honour by her side. Sometimes Jack drove, with Molly beside him, I in the tonneau; then I knew that they were perfectly happy, though Gotteland and I could hear every word they said, and their talk was generally of what we passed by the way, occasionally interspersed by a "Do you remember?"
Now, if there is an insufferable companion under the sun, it is the average "well-informed person" who continually dins into your ears things you were born knowing. This I resent, for I flatter myself that I was born knowing a good many exceptionally interesting and exciting things which can't be learned by studying history, geography, or even Tit-Bits. Jack Winston, however, though he has actually taken the trouble to house in his memory an enormous number of facts,—"those brute beasts of the language,"—has so tamed and idealised the creatures as to make them not only tolerable but attractive. I can even hear him tell things which I myself don't know or have forgotten, without instantly wishing to throw a jug of water at his good-looking head; indeed, I egg him on and have been tempted to jot down an item of information on my shirt cuff, with a view of fixing it in my mind, and eventually getting it off as my own.
Whenever Molly or I admired any object, natural or artificial, it seemed that Jack knew all about it. She showed a flattering interest in everything he said, and, fired by her compliments, he suddenly exclaimed: "Look here, Molly, suppose we don't hurry on, the way we've been planning to do? Last year we had that wonderful chain of feudal chateaux in Touraine, to show us what kingly and noble life was in dim old days. Now, all along the Seine and near it, we shall have some splendid churches instead of castles. We can hold a revel, almost an orgie, of magnificent ecclesiastical architecture if we like to spend the time. I've got Ferguson's book and Parker's, anyhow, and why shouldn't we run off the beaten track——"
"No, dearest," said his wife gently, but firmly, and I could have hugged her. My bump of reverence for the Gothic in all its developments is creditably large, but in my present "lowness of mind," as Molly would say, a long procession of cold, majestic cathedrals would have reduced me to a limp pulp. "No," Molly went on, "I can't help thinking that the churches would be a sort of anticlimax after our beloved, warm-blooded chateaux. It would be like being taken to see your great-grandmother's grave when you'd been promised a matinee. You know we engaged to get Lord Lane into his lonely fastnesses as soon as possible——"
"I don't believe Monty's in any hurry for them," said Jack, crestfallen. "You ask him if——"
"He'd be too polite to be truthful. No, I'm sure that edelweiss will do him more good than rose windows, and mountain air than incense."
As she thus prescribed for my symptoms, she gazed through her talc window with marked particularity into her "Lightning Conductor's" un-goggled face. It wore a puzzled expression at first, which suddenly brightened into comprehension. "Do they repent having brought me along, and want to get rid of me?" I asked myself. I could scarcely believe this. They were too kind and cordial; still, something in that look exchanged between them hinted at a secret which concerned me, and my curiosity was pricked. Nevertheless, I was grateful to Molly, whatever her motive might be for hurrying on to Paris. Fond as I was of the two, their happy love, constantly though inadvertently displayed before my eyes, was not a panacea for the wound which they were trying to cure, and I still longed for high Alpine solitudes.
I had let myself drift into a gloomy thought-land, when it occurred to Jack that I had better learn to drive. No doubt the clear fellow fancied that I "wanted rousing" and certainly I got it. Luckily, as a small boy, I had taken an interest in mechanics, to the extent of various experiments actively disapproved of by my family, and the old fire was easily relit. I listened to his harangue in mere civility at first, then with a certain eagerness. Molly sat in the tonneau, Jack driving, full-petrol ahead, and I beside him. We talked motor talk, and he forgot the churches, except when they seemed actually to come out of their way to get in ours. I listened, and at the same time gathered impressions of roads—long, strange, curiously individual roads.
Someone has written of the "long, long Indian day." I should like to write of the long, long roads of France. They had never before had any place in my thoughts. Paris and the Riviera had been France for me till now. I had never been intimate, never even got on terms of real friendship with any country save my own; and I had sometimes been narrow enough to take a kind of pride in this. The sweet English country had yielded up her secrets to me; I knew her spring whimsies, her soft summer moods, her autumn dreams, her wintry tempers, and I had vaunted my faithfulness and love. But here was France in prime of summer, giving me of her best. My heart warmed to her loveliness, and I sniffed the perfume of her breath, mysteriously characteristic as the chosen perfume of some loved woman's laces. It was glorious to spin on, on, between the rows of sentinel poplars, bound for the horizon, yet never reaching it, and regarding crowded haunts of men more as interruptions than as halting places.
Harfleur was a mere mirage to me, a vision of a gently decaying town left stranded by the stream of civilisation, flowing past to busy Havre. Some lines from "Henry the Fifth" made elusive music in my brain, mixed with a discussion of carburetters, explosion chambers, and sparking-plugs. At Lillebonne, Winston deigned to break short his string of motor technicalities and point out the position of the Roman theatre, almost the sole treasure of the sort possessed by Northern Europe. I stared through my goggles at the castle where the Conqueror unfolded to the assembled barons his scheme for invading England; and I begged for a slackening of speed at ancient Caudebec, which, with its quay and terrace overhanging the Seine, and its primly pruned elms, had such an air of happy peace that I wished to stamp it firmly in my memory. Such mental photographs are convenient when one courts sleep at night, and has grown weary of counting uncountable sheep jumping over a stile.
Beyond Caudebec we sailed along a road running high on the shoulder of the hill, with wide views over the serpentine writhings of the Seine. Here, Jack urged a turning aside for St. Wandeville or, at least, for the abbey of Jumieges, poetic with memories of Agnes Sorel, whose heart lies in the keeping of the monks, though her body sleeps at Loches. But Molly would countenance no loitering. Her body, she said, should sleep at Paris that night.
We held straight on, therefore, keeping to a road at the foot of white cliffs, sometimes near the river, sometimes leaving it. Quickly enough to please even this unaccountably impatient Molly, we had measured off the fifty miles separating Havre from Rouen, and slowed down for the venerable streets of the Norman capital.
"I suppose even you will want to give half an hour to the cathedral which I love best in France?" Jack inquired, looking back at Molly as he turned from the quay up the Rue Grand Port, and stopped in the mellow shade of an incomparable pile which towered above us.
Molly's mushroom, however, was agitated in dissent. She has an American chin, and an American chin spells determination. We could not see it, but we knew that it meant business. "You and I will spend hours in the cathedral another time," she said. "But now—" She did not finish her sentence, nevertheless a look of comprehension again lighted up Jack's face, which for the moment was innocent of goggles.
"Molly's so keen on the Maid," said he, "that she can't forgive Rouen for not really being the scene of the trial and burning. But never mind, since she wills it, we'll shake the dust off our Michelins, and when we're outside, you will have got far enough in your motoring lesson, I think, to try driving."
What the last hour had not taught me (thanks to him) in theory of coils and accumulators, electromagnets and other things, was scarcely worth learning. I seemed to have looked through glass walls into the cylinders, at the fussy little pistons working under control of the "governor,"—a tyrant, I felt sure. I had already formed a mature opinion on the question of mechanically operated inlet valves (which sounded disagreeably surgical), and was able to judge what their advantage ought to be over those of the old type worked by the suction of the piston. I could imagine that more than half the fun of owning a motor car would lie in understanding the thing inside and out; and I said so.
"It's a little like controlling the elements," Jack answered. "Think of the difference in this machine, when it's asleep—cold and quiet, an engine mounted on a frame, a tank of water, a reservoir of cheap spirit, a pump, a radiator, a magnet, some geared wheels fitting together, a lever or two. My man twists a handle. On the instant the machine leaps into frenzied life. The carburetter sprays its vapour into the explosion chamber, the magnet flashes its sparks to ignite it, the cooling water bathes the hot walls of the cylinders—a thing of nerves, and ganglions, and tireless muscles is panting eagerly at your service. You move this lever, you press your foot lightly on this pedal; the engine transfers its power to the wheels; you move. The carriage with you and your friends is borne at railway speed across continents. You can hurl yourself at sixty miles an hour along the great highroads, you can crawl like a worm through the traffic of cities."
By the time Jack had finished this harangue we had climbed the hill out of Rouen and were on the fine but accidente highroad that leads past Boos and Pont St. Pierre. Soon we would reach Les Andelys and Chateau Gaillard. Still Jack was not quite ready to let me put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. There was a hill of some consequence before Mantes, which we had to reach by way of La Roche Guyon and Limay. After that there would be only what the route book calls "fortes ondulations"; and under the stronghold of Lion Heart himself (an appropriate spot, forsooth!), I was to try my hand at dragon-driving.
Winston brought the car to a standstill at the foot of the mouldering ruins of Richard's "Saucy Castle," and as we looked up at the towering battlements, the huge flanking towers, and the ponderous citadel, the dark mass on its lofty rock set in the sunny landscape like a bloodstone in a gold ring, seemed to be an epitome in stone of life in the Middle Ages.
I uttered every idea that came into my mind concerning the ruin, and squeezed my brain for more, till my head felt like a drained orange; not that I enjoyed hearing myself talk, or thought that Jack and Molly would do so, but because they could not well interrupt the flow of my eloquence to remind me of the reason for our stop.
At last, however, silence fell upon us. It was a shock to me when Molly broke it. "Oh, Lord Lane, have you forgotten that this is where you're to begin driving? The road is nice and broad here."
I put on a brave air, as does one at the dentist's. "I hope that you're not afraid I shall run you into a ditch?" I asked, laughing. "I don't believe, after all, it can be any worse than steering a toboggan down a good run, or driving a four-in-hand with one's eyes shut, as I did once for a wager on a road I knew as I knew my own hat."
"Perhaps it isn't exactly worse," said Molly, "still—I think you'll find it different."
Meanwhile, however, Winston was cheering me on. "You'll find steering the simplest thing in the world, really," he assured me. "There's no car so sensitive as this. The faster you go, the easier it is——"
"But, perhaps he'd better not try to prove that, just at first!" cried Molly, with an affected little gasp.
"No, no; certainly he won't, my child. He won't go beyond a walk until he's sure of himself and the car. You needn't be frightened. I know my man, or I shouldn't trust him with you and your Mercedes. Now, then, Monty, are you ready?"
I had never before sufficiently realised the solemnity of that word "now." It sounded in my ears like a knell, but I swallowed hard, and echoed it. To do myself justice, though, I don't think I was afraid. I was only in a funk that I should do something stupid, and be disgraced forever in the eyes of Molly Winston. However, I reflected, it couldn't be so very bad. Molly herself, and even Jack, had to learn. Winston had explained to me several times the purpose of all the different levers, and, at least, I shouldn't touch the brake handle when I wanted to change the speed.
"No need to grip the wheel so tightly," said Jack, and I became aware that I had been clinging to it as if it were a forlorn hope. "A light touch is best, you know; it's rather like steering a boat. A very slight movement does it, and in half an hour it has got to be automatic. Of course, always start on the lowest, that is, the first speed, and with the throttle nearly shut."
Mine was in much the same condition, but I managed to mutter something as I moved the lever, and touched the clutch-pedal with a caress timid as a falling snowflake. Almost apologetically, I slid the lever into position, and let in the clutch. Somehow, I had not expected it to answer so soon; but, as if it disliked being patted by a stranger, the dragon took the bit between its teeth and bolted. I hung on and did things more by instinct than by skill, for the beast was hideously lithe and strong, a thousand times stronger and wilder than I had dreamed.
Every faculty of body and brain was concentrated on first keeping the monster out of the ditch on the off side, then the ditch on the near. My eyes expanded until they must have filled my goggles. We waltzed, we wavered, we shied, until we outdid the Seine in the windings of its channel.
I fully expected that Winston would pluck me like a noxious weed from the driver's seat where I had taken root, and snatch the helm himself; but strange to relate, I remained unmolested. Jack confined his interference to an occasional "Whoa," or "Steady, old boy"; while in the tonneau so profound a silence reigned that, if I had had time to think of anything, I should have supposed Molly to be swooning.
"Why don't you curse me, and put me out of my misery?" I gasped, when I had by a miracle avoided a tree as large as a house, which I had seen deliberately step out of its proper place to get in my way.
"'Curse you,' my dear fellow? You're doing splendidly," said Jack. "You deserve praise, not blows. I did a lot worse when I began."
Thus encouraged, I gained confidence in myself and the machine. Almost at once, I was conscious of improvement in mastering the touch of the wheel. Soon, I was imitating a straight line with fair success, subject to a few graceful deviations. I realised that, after all, we were not going very fast, though my sensation at starting had been that of hanging on to a streak of greased lightning.
I began to sigh for more worlds to conquer, and when Jack reminded me that we were on the first speed, I pronounced myself equal to an experiment with the second. He made me practice taking one hand from the wheel, looking about me a little, and trying to keep the car straight by feeling rather than sight. When I had accomplished these feats, and had not brought the car to grief (even though we passed several vehicles, and I was drawn by a demoniac influence to swerve towards each one as if it had been the loadstone to my magnet, or the candle to my moth), Jack finally consented to grant my request. He told me clearly what to do, and I did it, or some inward servant of myself did, whenever the master was within an ace of losing his head. I pressed down the clutch-pedal, pulled the lever affectionately towards me, and very gradually opened the throttle, so as not to startle it. In spite of my caution, however, I thought for an instant we were really going to get on the other side of the horizon, which had been avoiding us for so long. We shot ahead alarmingly, but to my intense relief, as well as surprise, I found that Jack had not exaggerated. It was easier to steer on the second speed than on the first. I had merely to tickle the wheel with my finger, to send us gliding, swanlike, this way or that. To be sure, I did well-nigh run over a chicken, but I would be prepared to argue with it till it was black in the face (or resort to litigation, if necessary) that the proper place for its blood would be on its own silly head, not mine.
Elated by my triumphs, I scarcely listened further to Jack's directions; how, if I thought there was danger, all I had to do was to unclutch, and put on the brake, whereupon the car would stop as if by magic, as it had for Molly in the Fulham Road; how I must not forget that the foot brakes had a way of obeying fiercely, and must not be applied with violence; how I must remember to pull the brake lever by my hand, towards me if I wanted to stop; how it acted on expanding rings on the inside faces of drums, which were on the back wheels (I pitied those poor, concealed faces, for the description was neuralgic, somehow), and I could lock them at almost any speed.
"I want to get on the third, and then I'll try the fourth, thank you," I interpolated impatiently. "More-more! Faster, faster! Whew, this knocks spots out of the Ice Run!"
"Let him have his way, Jack," cried Molly, speaking for the first time. "Hurrah, the motor microbe is in his blood, and never, never will he get it out again."
"Full speed ahead, then!" said Jack.
I took him at his word. I could have shouted for joy. Mercedes was mine, and I was Mercedes'.
Pots, Kettles, and Other Things
"Seared is, of course, my heart—but unsubdued Is, and shall be, my appetite for food." —C.S. CALVERLEY.
* * * * *
"A little buttery, and therein A little bin, Which keeps my little loaf of bread Unchipt, unflead; Some little sticks of thorn or brier Make me a fire." —ROBERT HERRICK.
If any man had told me before I started, that in two days I should find it a genuine sacrifice to stop driving a motor car, I should have looked upon him as a polite lunatic. It was only because Jack could drive faster than he dared to let me, and because I was ashamed to tell Molly that after all I was not in a desperate hurry to reach Paris or anywhere else, that I finally tore myself from the driver's seat of the Mercedes. Afterwards, though I had not reached the stage when confession is good for the soul, I sat wondering what there was expensive and at the same time disagreeable which I could give up for the sake of possessing a motor of my own. In various phases of my mental and spiritual development, I had framed different conceptions of a future state beyond this life. Never, even in my earliest years, had I sincerely wished to be an angel with an undeserved crown weighing down my forehead, and a harp, which I should be totally incompetent to play, within my hand; but now it struck me that there might be a worse sort of Nirvana than driving a 10,000 horsepower car along a broad, straight road free from dogs, chickens, or any other animals (except, perhaps, rich, knighted grocers), and reaching all round Saturn's ring.
Dogs had been the one "little speck in garnered fruit" for me when driving, for I love dogs and would not willingly injure so much as the end hair of the most moth-eaten mongrel's tail; therefore my brain searched a remedy against their onslaught, as I sat mute, inglorious, in the tonneau, after my late triumphs.
We flashed on, passing the kilometre stones in quick succession. At pretty little Mantes we crossed the Seine, and presently came into the France I knew in my old, conventional way; for we passed St. Germain, and so on to Paris by Le Pecq, Reuil, the long descent to the Pont de Suresnes (which seemed to hold laughable memories for Jack and Molly), through the Bois down the Champs Elysees, and to our hotel in the Place Vendome, where Jack announced that we had had a run of 130 miles. Winston and I flattered ourselves that Paris had few secrets from us (though I don't doubt that five minutes' wrestling with Baedeker might have made us feel small), and we had no wish to linger at this season. But, if we were deaf to the sirens who sing in the Rue de la Paix, Molly was not. She had discovered that there were some "little things she wanted, which she really thought she had better buy." I fancy that the little things were shoes; anyhow, it was to be Jack's blissful privilege to help her choose them, and he was of opinion (probably founded on experience) that it would take nearly all day. I decided to call on a man at the Embassy, ask him out to lunch, and do him very well. I had not seen him for years, and he had bored me to extinction the last time we met; but it had come to my ears that he had been in love with Helen Blantock, and proposed to her, so I felt that there would be a certain charm in his society. Later, there was a "little thing" which I, too, wished to buy (though I did not intend to seek it in the Rue de la Paix), and then I was to meet Molly and Jack about tea time at our hotel, in time to arrange for dining out somewhere.
After all, the man was more boring than ever, as he had got himself engaged to another girl, and insisted upon talking of her, instead of Helen. My one pleasure in the day, therefore, lay in purchasing the article of which I had fixed my mind after driving yesterday. This was a water pistol, warranted to keep dogs at bay, in motoring. I had some difficulty in obtaining it, and when I did, it was expensive, but I was rewarded by the thought of the pleasure my acquisition would afford my friends. The wild dashes of dogs in front of the wheels gave Molly such frequent starts of anguish, that I wondered Jack had not thought of this simple preventive, and I congratulated myself on having remembered an advertisement of the weapon which I had seen in some magazine. It was, I thought, rather clever of me to remember, since in those days motors had been no affair of mine; but then, the illustration had been striking, in every sense of the word. It had represented a lovely girl, with hair unbound, saving from destruction the automobile in which she sat with several companions, by shooting a fierce blast of water into the face of a huge beast well-nigh as terrible as Cerberus. I determined to surprise Jack and Molly, when the right time should come; accordingly, the moment I reached our hotel, I filled the pistol with water, and placed it, thus loaded, in the pocket of my motoring coat ready for emergencies. Hardly had I made this preparation for the future when I discovered on the table a note addressed to me in Winston's handwriting.
"Dear Monty," I read, "Molly and I have a bet on. She has bet me a dinner that you will drive her car out to Madrid, and meet us at half-past seven, so that we can have the dinner by daylight. I have bet her the same dinner that you won't. Which of us must pay?—Yours, Jack."
I whistled. What, drive the car through the traffic of Paris? It must be a joke. Of course it was a joke, but——
When I had dressed for dinner, I strolled over to the garage not far away where the creature lurked. Anyhow, I would have a look at her, and see what orders Gotteland had received. Yes, of course it was a joke. Or else my poor friends had gone mad. Still, there was a kind of madness with method in it. Diabolical wretches, with their bets, and their dinners! Did they dream I would try to do it, and smash the car? "Nothing like driving a motor through traffic, to give one self-confidence afterwards," Jack had said yesterday, after praising me for refraining from killing a small boy in a village street. "Once a man has been thrown on his own resources, and has got through the ordeal all right, it is as good as a certificate," he had added.
Gotteland was in the shrine of his goddess, talking to other cosmopolitan-looking persons in leather. There was a nice smell of petrol in the place. I snuffed at it as a war-horse scents the battle, and promptly decided that the joke should become deadly earnest, no matter what the consequence to the cart the chauffeur, or myself.
"Everything is ready, my lord," said one of the sacrifices about to be offered up. He had now discovered that there was a sort of starting-handle to my name, and seemed as fond of using it as he was of the equivalent on his beloved motor.
"Did Mr. Winston—er—say anything about my driving?" I humbly inquired.
"Well, my lord, his orders were that it should be as you pleased. But perhaps I had better mention that driving is careless in Paris, with cabs and automobiles all over the road, to say nothing of the trams; and then there's the keeping to the right instead of the left. If you should happen to get a little confused, my lord, not being accustomed to drive in France——"
"I wish I had a mille note for every time I've driven a four-in-hand through this blessed town," said I. "I'm not afraid if you're not."
"Oh, my lord, I've been in so many accidents, one or two more can't matter," he replied, as Hercules might have replied if asked whether he were equal to a Thirteenth Labour in odd moments. "When I was jockey in Count Tokai's racing stables, a horse went mad and kicked me nearly to death. Then I was a racer in old bicycling days, and had several bad spills. This scar on my face I got in a smash with one of the first Benz cars made. My master thought it a fine thing at that time to go ten miles an hour, and before he'd driven much, my lord, he was determined to take the car through the streets of Duesseldorf himself. There was a wagon coming one way——"
"Thank you," I cut in, "I'll bear the rest of that story another time. I'm not sure it would exhilarate me much at the moment. We'll be off now, and I'll do my best not to adorn you with a second scar."
Without another word, Gotteland started the motor. The critical eyes of the assembled chauffeurs pierced to my marrow, but I squared my shoulders, prayed my presence of mind to behave itself and not get stage fright; then—noblesse oblige!—we swept in a creditable curve to the door of the garage, and out in fine style. Gotteland also tried to look unconcerned. I think I must have seen this with my ears, as both eyes were fully occupied in searching a way through the surging current of street traffic, but I did see it. I was pleased to find that I was the better actor of the two, for Gotteland's attitude revealed a strained alertness. He was like a woman sitting beside a driver of skittish horses, saying to herself: "No, I won't scream or seize the reins till I must!"
A sneaking impulse pricked me to take the easiest way, by the Rue de Rivoli, and across the Place de la Concorde, but I shook myself free of it, and with high resolve turned the car towards the Boulevards, determined that, if Molly won her bet, it should be well won. A sailor steering a quivering smack towards harbour in a North Sea hurricane; an Indian guiding a bark canoe through the leaping rapids of a swollen river: to both of these I likened myself as the dragon threaded in and out among the adverse streams of traffic. The great crossing by the Opera was a whirling maelstrom; a policeman with a white staff, scowled when he should have pitied; I felt alone in chaos before the creation of the world. As for Noah and his ark, not an experience could he have had that I might not have capped it before I reached the Bois.
If I have a guardian spirit, I am sure that to numberless other good qualities he adds the skill of an accomplished motorist; for if he did not get the car to Madrid, without a single scratch upon her brilliant body, I do not know who did. I have no distinct memories, after the first, yet when we arrived at our destination, Gotteland generously complimented, and as I did not care to go into psychological explanations, I accepted his eulogium. It was Jack, not Molly, who paid for the dinner at Madrid, and it was a good one.
Next morning early we started on our way again. Jack driving, and I watching his prowess. I was now as anxious to meet dogs belligerently inclined towards motors, as I had been to avoid them, but it was not until we were well past Fontainebleau that the chance for which I yearned, arrived. Suddenly we came upon a yard of Dachshund wandering lizard-like across the road, accompanied by a pert Spitz. The waddler prudently retired, but the Spitz, with all the disproportionate courage of a knight of old attacking a fire-breathing dragon, lanced himself in front of the car. After all, what are dragons but strange, new things which we know nothing about and therefore detest? This brave little knight detested us, and with magnificent self-confidence essayed to punish us for troubling his existence.
My hand flew to my pocket, but paused, even as it grasped the water pistol. The dog was small, the weapon large. A fierce jet of water propelled from its muzzle might blow the breath from that tiny body, which my sole wish was to warn from under the wheels of Juggernaut. However, he was persistent, and was in real danger, since to avoid an approaching cart, Jack was forced to steer perilously near the yapping beast.
I snatched the weapon, pulled the trigger, and—a mild, mellifluous trickle which would have disgraced a toilet vaporiser sprayed forth. Jack, Molly, and the peasants in the approaching cart burst into shouts of laughter. The Spitz, undismayed by the gentle shower, which had spattered his nose with a drop or two, leaped at the weapon, and, irritated, I flung it at his head. It fell innocuously in the road and our last sight of the Spitz was when, rejoined by his lizard friend, he industriously gnawed at the pistol, mistaking it for a bone, while the Dachs gratefully lapped up the water I had provided. My surprise was a popular success, but not the kind of success which I had planned. Jack said that he could have "told me so" if I had asked him, and I vowed in future to let dogs delight to bark and bite without interference from me.
The one inept remark which Shelley seems ever to have made was that "there is nothing to see in France." My opinion, as we spun along the road which would lead us to Lucerne and my waiting mule, was that there was almost too much to see, too much charm, too much beauty for the peace of mind of an imaginative traveller; there were so many valleys which one longed to explore, in which one felt one could be content without going farther, so many blue glimpses of mysterious mountains, veiled by the haze of dreamland, that one suffered a constant succession of acute pangs in thinking that one would probably never see them again, that one would need at least nine long lives if one were to spend, say, even a month in each place.
Molly advised me not to be a spendthrift of my emotions, at this stage of the journey, lest I should be a worn-out wreck before the grandest part came, but the idea of husbanding enthusiasm did not commend itself to me. Why not enjoy this moment, instead of waiting until the moment after next? It was too much like saving up one's good clothes for "best," a lower-middle-class habit which I have detested since the days when I howled for my smartest Lord Fauntleroy frills in the morning.
There were sweet villages where they made cheese, and where I could have been happy making it with Helen Blantock; there were chateaux with turret rooms where my book shelves would have fitted excellently; but always we fled on, on, until at last, after two bewildering, cinematographic days, we drove into the streets of that dignified and delightful city, Bern.
It had not been necessary for us to pass through Bern; it was, in fact, a few yards more or less out of the most direct path. We chose this route simply and solely with the view of paying a visit to the Bears. Molly had never met them; I had neglected them since childhood; Jack looked forward to the pleasure of introducing them to his wife.
It was on our way to call upon the Bears, that destiny seduced me to turn my head at a certain moment, and look into a shop window. Suddenly the flame of my desire for the walking solo with a mule accompaniment (somewhat diminished lately, I confess) leaped up anew. There were things in that window which made a man long to be a hermit.
"Mrs. Winston." I cried (Molly was driving), "for goodness' sake stop."
In an instant the car slowed down. "What is the matter?" she implored. "Are you ill? Have we run over anything?"
"No, but look there," I said eagerly. "What an outfit for a camping tour! My mouth waters only at sight of it."
"Greedy fellow," commented Jack from the tonneau. "Drive on, Molly. Get him past the shop. He doesn't really want any of those things, and wouldn't use them if he had them. The sooner he forgets the better."
"Never shall I forget that Instantaneous Breakfast for an Alpiniste," I fiercely protested, "and I will have it at any cost. I know there's no other shop on the Continent like this, and I shall buy an outfit for myself and mule, here, if I have to come back from Lucerne by train for it."
"Hang your mule!" exclaimed Jack. "I was hoping you'd forgotten all about him by this time, and had made up your mind to go on with us indefinitely."
I saw reproach blaze through the talc triangle in Molly's mushroom. (Yet I thought she liked me, and had not, thus far, found "three a crowd.")
"Lord Lane isn't a chameleon, Jack," said she, "that he should change his mind every few minutes. Of course he's going to have his mule trip. And as for this shop, all those dear little pots and kettles and things in the window are too cute for words. He shall have them."
Was I to be a bone of contention between husband and wife?
"Please, both of you come in and help me choose," I meekly pleaded, in haste to restore the peace which I had broken.
We got out, and a small crowd collected round the car, Gotteland standing by with his chin raised and the exact expression of the frog footman in "Alice in Wonderland." One would have said that he saw, afar off, the graves of his ancestors, on the summit of some lonely mountain.
It was what Molly would have called a "lovely" shop, and it did business under the strange device: "Magasin Suisse d'Equipment Sportif." The name alone was worth the money one would spend. Everything to cover the outer, and nourish the inner sportsman, was to be had. I felt that I could scarcely be lonely or sad if I possessed a stock of these friendly articles. Jack's ribald advice to buy a pelerine, and a green-loden Gemsjaeger hat with a feather, stirred me neither to smiles nor anger, for Molly and I were already deep in exploration.
The first thing I bought was a mule-pack. Being a merciful man, I chose one of medium size, for already I could fancy myself becoming fond of the animal which was to be my companion in many wild and solitary places, and I did not wish to overburden him. I then, aided and abetted by Molly, began to choose the pack's contents.
An "Appareil de cuisson alpin, Ideal" went without saying, like the air one breathes. It composed itself, according to the voluble attendant who displayed it, of six parts, each part far better than the others. There was a gamelle, with a "crochet pour l'enlever" and a couvercle, which, not to show itself proud, would lend its services also as an assiette or a poele a frire. There was the burner of alcohol; there was "le couvercle de celui-ci," which served equally to measure the spirit, and there was a charming appareil brise vent which had the air of defying tornadoes. When I had secured this treasure, Molly drew my attention to a series of aluminium boxes made to fit eggs and sandwiches. I bought these also, and, pleased with the clean white metal, invested in plates, goblets, and water bottles of the same. Next came a couvert pliant, containing knife, fork, and spoon; and, lest I should be guilty of selfishness, I ordered a duplicate for the man who would look after the mule. Best of all, however, were the tinned soups, meats, vegetables, puddings, and cocoas, which you simply set on the fire in their bright little cans, and heated till they sent forth a steamy fragrance. Then you ate or drank them, and were happy as a king.
Molly and I selected a number of these, and completed the list with a sleeping bag and a tente de touriste, which she persuaded me would be indispensable when lost in the mountains, as I was sure to be, often.
When my goods and chattels came to be collected, we were shocked to find that the mule-pack would not contain them. The question remained, then, whether I should sacrifice these new possessions, already dear, or whether I should doom my mule to carry a greater burden. The attendant intimated that Swiss mules preferred heavy loads, and had they the vocal gifts of Balaam's ass, would demand them. Swayed by my desires and his arguments, I changed my pack for a larger one. After more than an hour in the shop, we tore ourselves away, leaving word that the things should be sent by post to Lucerne. We then repaired to the Bear Pit, by way of the Clock, and having supplied ourselves with plenty of carrots, had no cause to complain of our reception.
In Search of a Mule
"Yes, we await it, but it still delays, and then we suffer." —MATTHEW ARNOLD.
"When I arose and saw the dawn, I sighed for thee . . . Come, long-sought!" —PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.
Jack no longer attempted to dissuade me from my walking tour. Whether Molly had talked to him, or whether he had, unprompted, seen the error of his ways, I cannot tell, but the fact remains that, during the rest of our run to Lucerne, he showed a lively interest in the forthcoming trip.
"I suppose," said he, when we had caught our first sight of Pilatus (seen, as one might say, on his back premises), "I suppose that anywhere in Switzerland, there ought to be no trouble about finding a good pack-mule. Somehow one thinks of Switzerland and mules together, just as one does of bacon and eggs, or nuts and raisins, and yet, I can't recall ever having come across any mules in Lucerne, can you, Monty?"
"No," I admitted, "but there were probably so many that one didn't notice them—like flies, you know."
"Of course, the air of Switzerland is dark with mules and donkeys," said Molly, who always seemed quick to resent any obstacles thrown between me and my mule. "One sees them in picture books. All that Lord Lane will have to say is, 'Let there be mules,' and there will be mules—strings of them. He will only have to pick and choose. The thing will be to get a good one, and a nice, handsome, troubadour-sort of man who can cook, and jodel, and sew, and put up tents, and keep off murderers in mountain passes at night. It may take a day or two to find exactly what is wanted."
"The best person in Switzerland to give Monty all the information he needs," said Jack, evidently not wholly convinced, "is Herr Widmer, who has an hotel high above Lucerne, on the Sonnenberg. He has another in Mentone, and I've heard him tell how he has often come up from the Riviera to Switzerland on horseback. He would be able to advise Monty exactly how to go."
"Let's stop at his place on the Sonnenberg, then," said Molly, who never took more than sixty seconds to make the most momentous decisions, less important ones getting themselves arranged while slow-minded English people drew breath.
Certainly, as we drove through the streets of Lucerne, we saw neither mules nor donkeys, but Molly accounted for this by saying that no doubt they were all at dinner. In any case, with the blue lake a-glitter with silver sequins dropped from the gowns of those sparkling White Ladies, the mountains; the shops gay and bright in the sunshine, on one side the way, shadows lying cool and soft under the long line of green trees on the other, who could take thought of absent mules? Let them dine or die; it mattered not. Lucerne was beautiful, the day divine.
When we were lunching on the balcony of the Winstons' private sitting-room at the Sonnenberg, with mountains billowing round and below us, I saw that there was something on Molly's mind for she was distraite. Suddenly she said, "Before you talk to Herr Widmer about your mule, don't you think that you had better decide absolutely upon your route?"
"But, darling," objected Jack, "that is largely what he wants advice about."
"He can't do better than take mine, then," said Molly. "Lord Lane, promise me you'll take mine and no one's else."
"Of course I'll promise," I answered recklessly, for her eyes were irresistible, and any man would have been enraptured that so exquisite a creature should interest herself in his fate. "It doesn't much matter to me where I go, so long as I can moon about in the mountains, and eventually, before I'm old and grey, bring up on the Riviera."