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   Chapter 1 A CHAPTER OF SURPRISES

My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 26114

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"WANTED, LADIES, TO CONDUCT. An amateur automobilist (English, titled) who drives his own motor-car accommodating five persons, offers to conduct two or three ladies, Americans preferred, to any picturesque centres in Europe which they may desire to visit. Car has capacity for carrying small luggage, and is of best type. Journeys of about 100 miles a day. Novel and delightful way of travelling; owner of car well up in history, art, and architecture of different countries. Inclusive terms five guineas a day each, or slight reduction made for extensive trip. Address-"

When Terry had read aloud thus far, I hastily interrupted him. I wasn't quite ready yet for him to see that address. The thing needed a little leading up to; and by way of getting him quickly and safely on to a side rack I burst into a shout of laughter, so loud and so sudden that he looked up from the little pink Riviera newspaper of which I was the proud proprietor, to stare at me.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

I subsided. "The idea struck me so forcibly," said I. "Jolly clever, isn't it?"

"It's a fake, of course," said Terry. "No fellow would be ass enough to advertise himself like that in earnest. Probably the thing's been put in for a bet, or else it's a practical joke."

I had been aware that this, or something like it, would come, but now that the crisis was at hand I felt qualmish. Terry-known to strangers as Lord Terence Barrymore-is the best and most delightful chap in the world, as well as one of the best looking, but like several other Irishmen he is, to put it mildly, rather hard to manage, especially when you want to do him a good turn. I had been trying to do him one without his knowing it, and in such a way that he couldn't escape when he did know. But the success of my scheme was now being dandled on the knees of the gods, and at any instant it might fall off to break like an egg.

"I believe it's genuine," I began gingerly, almost wishing that I hadn't purposely put the pink paper where Terry would be sure to pick it up. "And I don't see why you should call the advertiser in my paper an ass. If you were hard up, and had a motor-car-"

"I am hard up, and I have a motor-car."

"What I was going to say is this: wouldn't it be much better to turn your car into the means of making an honest living, and at the same time having some rattling good fun, rather than sell the thing for less than half cost, and not only get no fun at all, but not know how to get out of the scrape in which you've landed yourself?"

It was Terry's turn to laugh now, which he did, though not uproariously, as I had. "One would think the ass was a friend of yours, by your enthusiasm in defending him," said he.

"I'm only putting the case to you in the way I thought you'd see it most clearly," I persisted mildly. "But, as a matter of fact, the 'ass' as you call him, is my friend, a very intimate friend indeed."

"Didn't know you had any intimate friends but me, anyhow owners of motor-cars, you old owl," remarked Terry. "I must say in your defence, though, it isn't like you to have friends who advertise themselves as titled couriers."

"If you're obliged to start a shop I suppose it's legitimate to put your best goods in the windows, and arrange them as attractively as you can to appeal to the public," I argued. "This is the same thing. Besides, my friend isn't advertising himself. Somebody is 'running him'-doing it for him; wants him to get on, you know-just as I do you."

Terry gave me a quick glance; but my face (which is blond and said to be singularly youthful for a man of twenty-nine) was, I flatter myself, as innocent as that of a choir-boy who has just delivered himself of a high soprano note. Nevertheless, the end was coming. I felt it in the electric tingle of the air.

"Do you mind telling me your friend's name, or is he a secret?"

"Perhaps the address at the end of the advertisement will be enlightening."

Terry had dropped the paper on the grass by the side of his chaise longue, but now he picked it up again, and began searching for the place which he had lost. I, in my chaise longue under the same magnolia tree, gazed at him from under my tilted Panama. Terry is tall and dark. Stretched out in the basket chair, he looked very big and rather formidable. Beside him, I felt a small and reedy person. I really hoped he would not give me much trouble. The day was too hot to cope with troublesome people, especially if you were fond of them, for then you were the more likely to lose your head.

But the beginning was not encouraging. Terry proceeded to read the end of the advertisement aloud. "Address X. Y. Z., Chalet des Pins, Cap Martin." Then he said something which did not go at all with the weather. Why is it that so many bad words begin with D or H? One almost gets to think that they are letters for respectable people to avoid.

"Hang it all, Ralph," he went on, after the explosion, "I must say I don't like your taste in jokes. This is a bit too steep."

I sat up straight, with a leg on each side of the chair, and looked reproaches. "I thought," I said slowly, "that when your brother behaved like such a-well, we won't specify what-you asked, I might even say begged, for my advice, and promised in a midnight conversation under this very tree to take it, no matter how disagreeable it might prove."

"I did; but-"

"There's no such word as 'but.' Last year I advised you not to put your money into West Africans. You put it in. What was the consequence? You regretted it, and as your brother showed no very keen interest in your career, you decided that you couldn't afford to stop in the Guards, so you cut the Army. This year I advised you not to play that system of yours and Raleigh's at Monte Carlo, or if you must have a go at it, to stick to roulette and five franc stakes. Instead of listening to me, you listened to him. What were the consequences?"

"For goodness sake don't moralize. I know well enough what they were. Ruin. And it doesn't gild the pill to remember that I deserved to swallow it."

"If only you'd swallowed the advice instead! It would have slipped down more easily, poor old boy. But you swore to bolt the next dose without a groan. I said I'd try and think of a better plan than selling your Panhard, and going out to help work an African farm on the proceeds. Well, I have thought of a plan, and there you have the proof of my combined solicitude and ingenuity, in my own paper."

"Don't shoot off big words at me."

"I'm a journalist; my father before me was a journalist, and got his silly old baronetcy by being a journalist. I'm one still, and have saved up quite a little competency on big words and potted phrases. I've collected a great many practical ideas in my experience. I want to make you a present of some of them, if only you'll have them."

"Do you call this advertisement a practical idea? You can't for a minute suppose that I'd be found dead carting a lot of American or other women whom I don't know about Europe in my car, and taking their beastly money?"

"If you drove properly, you wouldn't be found dead; and you would know them," I had begun, when there was a ring at the gate bell, and the high wall of the garden abruptly opened to admit a tidal wave of chiffon and muslin.

Terry and I were both so taken aback at this unexpected inundation that for a moment we lay still in our chairs and stared, with our hats tipped over our eyes and our pipes in our mouths. We were not accustomed to afternoon calls or any other time-of-day calls from chiffon and muslin at the Chalet des Pins, therefore our first impression was that the tidal wave had overflowed through my gate by mistake, and would promptly retire in disorder at sight of us. But not at all. It swept up the path, in pink, pale green, and white billows, frothing at the edges with lace.

There was a lot of it-a bewildering lot. It was all train, and big, flowery hats, and wonderful transparent parasols, which you felt you ought to see through, and couldn't. Before it was upon us, Terry and I had sprung up in self-defence, our pipes burning holes in our pockets, our Panamas in our hands.

Now the inundation divided itself into separate wavelets, the last lagging behind, crested by a foaming parasol, which hid all details, except a general white muslin filminess. But Terry and I had not much chance to observe the third billow. Our attention was caught by the first glittering rush of pink and emerald spray.

Out of it a voice spoke-an American voice; and then, with a lacy whirl, a parasol rose like a stage curtain. The green wave was a lady; a marvellous lady. The pink wave was a child with a brown face, two long brown plaits, and pink silk legs, also pink shoes.

"We've come in answer to X. Y. Z.'s advertisement in this morning's Riviera Sun. Now which of you two gentlemen put it in?" began the lady, with gay coquetry which played over each of us in turn. Oh yes, she was wonderful. She had hair of the brightest auburn that ever crowned a human head. It was done in undulations, with a fat ring in the middle of her forehead, between two beautifully arched black eyebrows. Her skin was very white, her cheeks were very pink, and her lips were very coralline. Everything about her was "very." Out of a plump face, with a small nose that turned up and a chin which was over-round, looked a pair of big, good-natured, nondescript-coloured eyes, and flashed a pair of pleasant dimples. At first glance you said "a stout girl of twenty-five." At the second, you were not sure that the lady wasn't ten years older. But her waist was so slender that she panted a little in coming up the path, though the path was by no means steep, and her heels were so high that there was a suspicion of limp in her walk.

Even to me the lady and her announcement gave a shock, which must have doubled its effect upon Terry. I was collecting my forces for a reply when the little brown girl giggled, and I lost myself again. It was only for an instant, but Terry basely took advantage of that instant in a way of which I would not have believed him capable.

"You must address yourself to my friend, Sir Ralph Moray," said the wretched fellow glibly. "His are the car and the title mentioned in the advertisement of The Riviera Sun, which he owns."

My title indeed! A baronetical crumb flung to my father because of a service to his political party. It had never done anything for me, except to add ten per cent to my bills at hotels. Now, before I could speak a word of contradiction, Terry went on. "I am only Mr. Barrymore," said he, and he grinned a malicious grin, which said as plainly as words, "Aha, my boy, I think that rips your little scheme to smithereens, eh?"

But my presence of mind doesn't often fail for long. "It's Mr. Barrymore who drives my car for me," I explained. "He's cleverer at it than I, and he comes cheaper than a professional."

The wonderful white and pink and auburn lady had been looking at Terry with open admiration; but now the light of interest faded from the good-natured face under the girlish hat. "O-oh," she commented in a tone of ingenuous disappointment, "you're only the-the chawffur, then." I didn't want Terry to sink too low in these possible clients' estimation, for my canny Scotch mind was working round the fact that they were probably American heiresses, and an heiress of some sort was a necessity for the younger brother of that meanest of bachelor peers, the Marquis of Innisfallen. "He's an amateur chauffeur," I hastened to explain. "He only does it for me because we're friends, you know; but," I added, with a stern and meaning glance at Terry, "I'm unable to undertake any tours without his assistance. So if we-er-arrange anything, Mr. Barrymore will be of our party."

"Unfortunately I have an engagement in South Af-" began Terry, when the parasol of the third member of the party (the one who had lagged behind, stopping to examine, or seeming to examine a rose-bush) was laid back upon her white muslin shoulders.

Somehow Terry forgot to finish his sentence, and I forgot to wonder what the end was to be.

She was only a tall, white girl, simply dressed; yet suddenly the little garden of the Chalet des Pins, with its high wall draped with crimson bougainvilla, became a setting for a picture.

The new vision was built on too grand a scale for me, because I stand only five foot eight in my boots, while she was five foot seven if she was an inch, but she might have been made expressly for Terry, and he for her. There was something of the sweet, youthful dignity of Giovanni Bellini's Madonnas of the Trees about the girl's bearing and the pose of the white throat; but the face was almost childlike in the candour and virginal innocence of its large brown eyes. The pure forehead had a halo of yellow-brown hair, burnished gold where the sun touched it; the lips were red, with an adorable droop in the corners, and the skin

had that flower-fairness of youth which makes older women's faces look either sallow or artificial. If we-Terry and I-had not already divined that the auburn lady got her complexion out of bottles and boxes, we would have known it with the lifting of that white girl's parasol.

Can a saintly virgin on a golden panel look sulky? I'm not sure, but this virgin gave the effect of having been reluctantly torn from such a background, and she looked distinctly sulky, even angelically cross. She had not wanted to come into my garden, that was plain; and she lagged behind the others to gaze at a rose-bush, by way of a protest against the whole expedition. What she saw to disapprove of in me I was at a loss to guess, but that she did disapprove was evident. The dazzling brown eyes, with the afternoon sun glinting between their thick dark fringes, hated me for something;-was it my existence, or my advertisement? Then they wandered to Terry, and pitied, rather than spurned. "You poor, handsome, big fellow," they seemed so say, "so you are that miserable little man's chauffeur! You must be very unfortunate, or you would have found a better career. I'm so sorry for you."

"Do sit down, please," I said, lest after all it should occur to Terry to finish that broken sentence of his. "These chairs will be more comfortable if I straighten their backs up a little. And this seat round the tree isn't bad. I-I'll tell my servant to send out tea-we were going to have it soon-and we can talk things over. It will be pleasanter."

"What a lovely idea!" exclaimed the auburn lady. "Why, of course we will. Beechy, you take one of those steamer-chairs. I like a high seat myself. Come, Maida; the gentlemen have asked us to stay to tea, and we're going to."

Beechy-the little brown girl-subsided with a babyish meekness that contradicted a wicked laughing imp in her eyes, into one of the chaises longues which I had brought up from its knees to a sort of "stand and deliver" attitude. But the tall white girl (the name of "Maida" suited her singularly well) did not stir an inch. "I think I'll go on if you don't mind, Aunt Ka-I mean, Kittie," she said in a soft voice that was as American in its way as the auburn lady's, but a hundred and fifty times sweeter. I rather fancied that it must have been grown somewhere in the South, where the sun was warm, and the flowers as luxuriant as our Riviera blossoms.

"You will do nothing of the kind," retorted her relative peremptorily. "You'll just stay here with Beechy and me, till we've done our business."

"But I haven't anything to do with-"

"You're going with us on the trip, anyhow, if we go. Now, come along and don't make a fuss."

For a moment "Maida" hesitated, then she did come along, and as obediently as the brown child, though not so willingly, sat down in the chaise longue, carefully arranged for her reception by Terry.

"Evidently a poor relation, or she wouldn't submit to being ordered about like that," I thought. "Of course, any one might see that she's too pretty to be an heiress. They don't make them like that. Such beauties never have a penny to bless themselves with. Just Terry's luck if he falls in love with her, after all I've done for him, too! But if this tour does come off, I must try to block that game."

"I expect I'd better introduce myself and my little thirteen-year-old daughter, and my niece," said the auburn lady, putting down her parasol, and opening a microscopic fan. "I'm Mrs. Kathryn Stanley Kidder, of Denver, Colorado. My little girl, here-she's all I've got in the world since Mr. Kidder died-is Beatrice, but we call her Beechy for short. We used to spell it B-i-c-e, which Mr. Kidder said was Italian; but people would pronounce it to rhyme with mice, so now we make it just like the tree, and then there can't be any mistake. Miss Madeleine Destrey is the daughter of my dead sister, who was ever so much older than I am of course; and the way she happened to come over with Beechy and me is quite a romance; but I guess you'll think I've told you enough about ourselves."

"It's like the people in old comic pictures who have kind of balloon things coming out of their mouths, with a verse thoroughly explaining who they are, isn't it?" remarked Miss Beechy in a little soft, childish voice, and at least a dozen imps looking out of her eyes all at once. "Mamma's balloon never collapses."

To break the awkward silence following upon this frank comparison, I bustled away with hospitable murmurs concerning tea. But, my back once turned upon the visitors, the pink, white, and green glamour of their presence floated away from before my eyes like a radiant mist, and I saw plain fact instead.

By plain fact I mean to denote Félicité, my French cook-housekeeper, my all of domesticity in the Chalet des Pins.

Félicité might be considered plain by strangers, and thank heaven she is a fact, or life at my little villa on the Riviera would be a hundred times less pleasant than it is; but she is nevertheless as near to being an angel as a fat, elderly, golden-hearted, sweet-natured, profane-speaking, hot-tempered peasant woman of Provence can possibly be. Whatever the greatest geniuses of the kitchen can do, Félicité can and will do, and she has a loyal affection for her undeserving master, which leads her to attempt miracles and almost invariably to accomplish them.

There are, however, things which even Félicité cannot do; and it had suddenly struck me coldly in the sunshine that to produce proper cakes and rich cream at ten minutes' notice in a creamless and cakeless bachelor villa, miles from anywhere in particular, might be beyond even her genius.

I found her in the back garden, forcibly separating the family pet, a somewhat moth-eaten duck, from the yellow cat whose mouse he had just annexed by violence.

With language which told me that a considerable quantity of pepper had got into her disposition (as it does with most cooks, according to my theory) she was admonishing the delinquent, whom she mercilessly threatened to behead and cook for dinner that evening. "You have been spared too long; the best place for you is on the table," I heard her lecturing the evil cannibal, "though the saints know that you are as tough as you are wicked, and all the sauce in the Alpes Maritimes would not make of you a pleasant morsel, especially since you have taken to eating the cat's mice."

"Félicité," I broke in upon her flood of eloquence, in my most winning tones. "Something has happened. Three ladies have come unexpectedly to tea."

The round body straightened itself and stood erect. "Monsieur well knows that there is no tea; neither he nor the other milord ever take anything but coffee and whisk-"

"Never mind," said I hastily. "There must be tea, because I asked the ladies to have some, and they have said yes. There must also be lettuce sandwiches, and cakes, and cream-plenty, lots, heaps, for five people."

"As well ask that serpent of wickedness, your duck, to lay you five eggs in as many minutes."

"He isn't my duck; he's yours. You won him in a raffle and adopted him. I suspect it's a physical impossibility for him to lay eggs; but look here, Félicité, dear, kind, good Félicité, don't go back on me. Man and boy I've known you these eighteen months, and you've never failed me yet. Don't fail me now. I depend on you, you know, and you must do something-anything-for the honour of the house."

"Does Monsieur think I can command tea, cakes, and cream from the tiles of the kitchen floor?"

"No; but I firmly believe you can evolve them out of your inner consciousness. You wouldn't have me lose faith in you?"

"No," said Félicité, whose eyes suddenly brightened with the rapt look of one inspired. "No; I would not have Monsieur lose faith. I will do what I can, as Monsieur says, for the honour of the house. Let him go now to his friends, and make his mind easy. In a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes at most, he shall have a feef o'clocky for which he need not blush."

"Angel!" I ejaculated fervently, patting the substantial shoulder, so much to be depended upon. Then with a buoyant step I hastened round the house to rejoin the party in the front garden, where, I anxiously realized, the tables might have been completely turned during my absence.

Ready to hurl myself into the breach, if there were one, I came round the corner of the villa, to meet the unexpected. I had left Terry with three ladies; I found him with seven.

Evidently he had gone into the drawing-room and fetched chairs, for they were all sitting down, but they were not being sociable. Mrs. Kidder's round chin was in the air, and she wore an "I'm as good as you are, if not better" expression. The imps in Beechy's eyes were critically cataloguing each detail of the strangers' costumes, and Miss Destrey was interested in the yellow cat, who had come to tell her the tragic tale of the stolen mouse.

The new arrivals were English. I can't explain exactly how I knew that, the moment I clapped eyes on them, but I did; and I felt sure their nearest male relative must have made money in beer, pickles, or it might have been corsets or soap. They were that kind; and they had a great many teeth, especially the daughters, who all three looked exactly thirty, no more and no less, and were apparently pleasantly conscious of superlative virtue.

I could see the house they lived in, in England. It would be in Surbiton, of course, with "extensive grounds." There would be a Debrett's "Peerage," and a Burke's "Landed Gentry," and a volume of "Etiquette of Smart Society" on the library shelves, if there was nothing else; and in the basket on the hall table the visiting cards of any titled beings of the family's acquaintance would invariably rise to the top like cream.

"I understand from your friend that it is your advertisement which appears in The Riviera Sun to-day," began the Mother, whose aspect demanded a capital M. "You are Sir Ralph Moray, I believe?"

I acknowledged my identity, and the lady continued: "I am Mrs. Fox-Porston. You will have heard of my husband, no doubt, and I daresay we know a great many of the same People at Home." (This with a dust-brush glance which swept the Americans out of the field.) "I think it is a very excellent idea of yours, Sir Ralph, to travel about the Continent on your motor-car with a few congenial companions, and I have brought my daughters with me to-day in the hope that we may arrange a delightful little tour which-"

"Ting-a-ling" at the gate bell robbed us of Mrs. Fox-Porston's remaining hope, and gave us two more visitors.

Little had I known what the consequences of one small, pink advertisement would be! Apparently it bade fair to let loose upon us, not the dogs of war, but the whole floating feminine population of the French Riviera. Something must be done, and done promptly, to stem the rising tide of ladies, or the Chalet des Pins and Terry and I with it, would be swamped.

I looked at Terry, he looked at me, as we rose like mechanical figures to indicate our hosthood to the new arrivals.

They were Americans; I could tell by their chins. They had no complexions and no particular age; they wore blue tissue veils, and little jingling bags on their belts, which showed that they were not married, because if they had been, their husbands would have ordered the little jingling bags into limbo, wherever that may be.

"Good-afternoon," said the leading Blue Veil. "I am Miss Carrie Hood Woodall, the lady lawyer from Hoboken, who had such a nice little paragraph in The Riviera Sun, close to your advertisement; and this is my chaperone, Mrs. Elizabeth Boat Cully. We're touring Europe, and we want to take a trip with you in your automobile, if-"

"Unfortunately, ladies," said I, "the services of-er-my car are already engaged to Mrs. Kidder, of Colorado, and her party. Isn't it so, Barrymore?"

"Yes," replied Terry stoutly. And that "yes" even if inadvertent, was equivalent I considered, to sign and seal.

Mrs. Kidder beamed like an understudy for The Riviera Sun. Beechy twinkled demurely, and tossed her plaits over her shoulder. Even Miss Destrey, the white goddess, deigned to smile, straight at Terry and no other.

At this moment Félicité appeared with a tray. Whipped cream frothed over the brow of a brown jug like a white wig on the forehead of a judge; lettuce showed pale green through filmy sandwiches; small round cakes were piled, crisp and appetizing, on a cracked Sèvres dish; early strawberries glowed red among their own leaves. Talk of the marengo trick! It was nothing to this. The miracle had been duly performed; but-there were only five cups.

Mrs. Fox-Porston and her daughters, Miss Carrie Hood Woodall and her chaperone, took the hint and their leave; and the companions of the future were left alone together to talk over their plans.

"Lock the gate, Félicité," said I. "Do make haste!" And she did. Dear Félicité!

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