- CHAPTER III My Lesson
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--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 | | 30 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 châteaux 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 | | 31 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" ungoggled 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 | | 32 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 dear 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 | | 33 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 Jumièges, 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 | | 34 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 | | 35 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 accidenté highroad that leads past Boos and Pont St. Pierre. Soon we would reach Les Andelys and Chiteau 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 | | 36 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 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 | | 37 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 Mercédès. 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, | | 38 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, | | 39 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 | | 40 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. Mercédès was mine, and I was Mercédès'.
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