- CHAPTER II Mercédès to the Rescue
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Mercédès 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.| | 13
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 pæans in praise of automobilism, I looked upon his fad with compassionate indulgence. | | 14 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 f a noisy, jolting, ill-smellng 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 mule, 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 | | 15 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 coward 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 | | 16 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 | | 17 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 carburet- | | 18 ter, 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 Mercédès 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 Mercédès, 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 | | 19 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 remnarked 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.| | 20
"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."| | 21
"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 but, 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.| | 22
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 ,he 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 | | 23 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 thy 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 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 Fulham 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 pa- | | 24 thetic 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 cabs Molly threw a quick glance behind, then bade Mercédès 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, | | 25 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 à 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 | | 26 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 chaffeur," 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?"| | 27
"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 un- | | 28 happy, though she's only twenty-one years old. If you could see Mercédès, with her lovely, strange sad face, and big, wistful eyes-"
"I can think of Mercédès 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 Mercédès 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 pans 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.
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