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My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 20860

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

So it is that Fate calmly arranges our lives in spite of us. Although no details of the coming trip were settled during what remained of our new employers' visit, that was their fault and the fault of a singularly premature sunset, rather than mine, or even Terry's; and we both felt that it came to the same thing. We were in honour bound to "personally conduct" Mrs. Kidder, Miss Beechy Kidder, and Miss Destrey towards whatever point of the compass a guiding finger of theirs should signify.

It has always been my motto to take Father Time by the fore-lock, for fear he should cut it off, or get away, or play some other trick upon me, which the cantankerous old chap (no parent of mine!) is fond of doing. Therefore, if I could, I would have had terms, destination, day and hour of starting definitely arranged before that miraculously-produced tea of Félicité's had turned to tannin. But man may not walk through a solid wall, or strive against such conversational gifts as those of Mrs. Kidder.

She could and would keep to anything except the point. That, whatever its nature, she avoided as she would an indelicacy.

"Well, now, Mrs. Kidder," I began, "if you really want us to organize this tour, don't you think we'd better discuss-"

"Of course we want you to!" she broke in. "We all think it's just awfully good of you to bother with us when you must have so many friends who want you to take them-English people in your own set. By the way, do you know the Duchess of Carborough?"

"I know very few duchesses or other Americans," I replied. Whereupon Miss Kidder's imp laughed, though her mother remained grave, and even looked mildly disappointed.

"That's a funny way of putting it," said Beechy. "One would think it was quite an American habit, being a Duchess."

"So it is, isn't it?" I asked. "The only reason we needn't fear its growing like the Yellow Peril is because there aren't enough dukes. I've always thought the American nation the most favoured in the world. Aren't all your girls brought up to expect to be duchesses, and your men presidents?"

"I wasn't," snapped Beechy. "If there was a duke anywhere around, Mamma would take him, if she had to snatch him out of my mouth. What are English girls brought up to expect?"

"Hope for, not expect," I corrected her. "Any leavings there are in the way of marquesses or earls; or if none, a mere bishop or a C. B."

"What's a C. B.?" asked Mrs. Kidder anxiously.

"A Companion of the Bath."

"My goodness! Whose bath?"

"The Bath of Royalty. We say it with a capital B."

"My! How awkward for your King. And what was done about it when you had only a Queen on the throne?"

"You must inquire of the chamberlains," I replied. "But about that trip of ours. The-er-my car is in a garage not far away, and it can be ready when-"

"Oh, I hope it's a red car, with your coat of arms on it. I do so admire red for an automobile. We could all fix ourselves up in red cloaks and hats to match, and make ourselves look awfully swell-"

"Everybody'd call us 'The Crimson Ramblers,' or 'The Scarlet Runners,' or something else horrid," tittered that precocious child Beechy.

"It isn't red, it's grey," Terry managed hastily to interpolate; which settled one burning question, the first which had been settled or seemed likely to be settled at our present rate of progress.

"If you are keen on starting-" I essayed again, hope triumphing over experience.

"Yes, I'm just looking forward to that start," Mrs. Kidder caught me up. "We shall make a sensation. We're neighbours of yours, you know. We're at the Cap Martin Hotel. Isn't it perfectly lovely there, with that big garden, the woods and all? When we were coming to the Riviera, I told the man at Cook's that we wanted to go to the grandest hotel there was, where we could feel we were getting our money's worth; and he said all the kings and princes, and queens and princesses went to the Cap Martin, so-"

"We thought it might be good enough for us," capped Beechy.

"It's as full of royalties, as-as-"

"As a pack of cards," I suggested.

"And some of them have splendid automobiles. I've been envying them; and only this morning I was saying to my little girl, what a lot of nice things there are that women and children can't do, travelling alone-automobiling for one. Then, when I came on that advertisement of yours, I just screamed. It did seem as if the Hand of Providence must have been pointing it out. And it was so funny your home being on the Cap, too, within ten minutes' walk of our hotel. I'm sure it was meant, aren't you?"

"Absolutely certain," I responded, with a glance at Terry, who was not showing himself off to any advantage in this scene although he ought to have been the leading actor. He did nothing but raise his eyebrows when he thought that no one was looking, or tug at his moustache most imprudently when somebody was. Or else he handed the cakes to Miss Destrey, and forgot to offer them to her far more important relatives. "I'm so sure of it," I went on, "that I think we had better arrange-"

"Yes, indeed. Of course your ch-Mr. Barrymore (or did I hear you say Terrymore?) is a very experienced driver? We've never been in an automobile yet, any of us, and I'm afraid, though it will be perfectly lovely as soon as we're used to it, that we may be a little scary at first. So it would be nice to know for sure that the driver understood how to act in any emergency. I should hate to be killed in an automobile. It would be such-such an untidy death to die, judging from what you read in the papers sometimes."

"I should prefer it, myself," I said, "but that's a matter of taste, and you may trust Terry-Mr. Barrymore. What he doesn't know about a motor-car and its inner and outer workings isn't worth knowing. So when we go-"

"Aunt K-I mean Kittie, don't you think we ought to go home to the hotel?" asked Miss Destrey, who had scarcely spoken until now, except to answer a question or two of Terry's, whom she apparently chose to consider in the Martyr's Boat, with herself. "We've been here for hours, and it's getting dark."

"Why, so it is!" exclaimed Mrs. Kidder, rising hurriedly. "I'm quite ashamed of myself for staying so long. What will you think of us? But we had such a lot of things to arrange, hadn't we?"

We had had; and we had them still. But that was a detail.

"We must go," she went on. "Well, we've decided nearly everything" (this was news to me). "But there are one or two things yet we'll have to talk over, I suppose."

"Quite so," said I.

"Could you and Mr. Terrymore come and dine with us to-night? Then we can fix everything up."

"Speaking for myself, I'm afraid I can't, thanks very much," Terry said, hastily.

"What about you, Sir Ralph? I may call you Sir Ralph, may I not?"

"Please. It's my name."

"Yes, I know it. But it sounds so familiar, from a stranger. I was wondering if one ought to say 'Sir Ralph Moray,' till one had been acquainted a little longer. Well, anyway, if you could dine with us, without your friend-"

I also thanked her and said that matters would arrange themselves more easily if Barrymore and I were together.

"Then can you both lunch with us to-morrow at one o'clock?"

Quickly, before Terry could find time to object if he meditated doing so, I accepted with enthusiasm.

Farewells were exchanged, and we had walked to the gate with the ladies-I heading the procession with Mrs. Kidder, Terry bringing up the rear with the two girls-when my companion stopped suddenly. "Oh, there's just one thing I ought to mention before you come to see us at the hotel," she said, with a little catch of the breath. Evidently she was embarrassed. "I introduced myself to you as Mrs. Kidder, because I'm used to that name, and it comes more natural. I keep forgetting always, but-but perhaps you'd better ask at the hotel for the Countess Dalmar. I guess you're rather surprised, though you're too polite to say so, my being an American and having that title."

"Not at all," I assured her. "So many charming Americans marry titled foreigners, that one is almost more surprised-"

"But I haven't married a foreigner. Didn't I tell you that I'm a widow? No, the only husband I ever had was Simon P. Kidder. But-but I've bought an estate, and the title goes with it, so it would seem like a kind of waste of money not to use it, you see."

"It's the estate that goes with the title, for you, Mamma," said Beechy (she invariably pronounces her parent "Momma"). "You know you just love being a Countess. You're happier than I ever was with a new doll that opened and shut its eyes."

"Don't be silly, Beechy. Little girls should be seen and not heard. As I was saying, I thought it better to use the title. That was the advice of Prince Dalmar-Kalm, of whom I've bought this estate in some part of Austria, or I think, Dalmatia-I'm not quite sure about the exact situation yet, as it's all so recent. But to get used to bearing the title, it seemed best to begin right away, so I registered as the Countess Dalmar when we came to the Cap Martin Hotel a week ago."

"Quite sensible, Countess," I said without looking at Beechy-of-the-Attendant-Imps. "I know Prince Dalmar-Kalm well by reputation, though I've never happened to meet him. He's a very familiar figure on the Riviera." (I might have added, "especially in the Casino at Monte Carlo," but I refrained, as I had not yet learned the Countess's opinion of gambling as an occupation.) "Did you meet him here for the first time?"

"No; I met him in Paris, where we stopped for a while after we crossed, before we came here. I was so surprised when I saw him at our hotel the very day after we arrived! It seemed such a coincidence, that our only acquaintance over on this side should arrive at the same place when we did."

"When is a coincidence not a coincidence?" pertly inquired Miss Beechy. "Can you guess that conundrum, Cousin Maida?"

"You naughty girl!" exclaimed her mother.

"Well, you like me to be childish, don't you? And it's childish to be naughty."

"Come, we'll go home at once," said the Countess, uneasily; and followed by the tall girl and the little one, she tottered away, sweeping yards of chiffon.

"I do hope she won't wear things like that when she's in-ahem!-our motor-car," I remarked sotto voce, as Terry and I stood at the gate,

watching, if not speeding, our parting guests.

"I doubt very much if she'll ever be there," prophesied Terry, looking handsome and thoroughly Celtic, wrapped in his panoply of gloom.

"Come away in, while I see if I can find you 'The harp that once through Tara's halls,' to play your own funeral dirge on," said I. "You look as if it would be the only thing to do you any good."

"It would certainly relieve my feelings," replied Terry, "but I could do that just as well by punching your head, which would be simpler. Of all the infernal-"

"Now don't be brutal!" I implored. "You were quite pleasant before the ladies. Don't be a whited sepulchre the minute their backs are turned. Think what I've gone through since I was alone with you last, you great hulking animal."

"Animal yourself!" Terry had the ingratitude to retort. "What have I gone through, I should like to ask?"

"I don't know what you've gone through, but I know how you behaved," I returned, as we walked back to the magnolia tree. "Like a sulky barber's block-I mean a barber's sulky block. No, I-but it doesn't signify. Hullo, there's the universal provider, carrying off the tray. Félicité, mon ange, say how you summoned that tea and those cakes and cream from the vasty deep?"

"What Monsieur is pleased to mean, I know not," my fourteen-stone angel replied. "I visited with haste a friend of mine at the hotel, and I came back with the things-that is all. It was an inspiration," and she sailed away, her head in the air.

Terry and I went into the house, for the sun had left the high-walled garden, and besides, the talk we were going to have was more suitable to that practical region, my smoking-room-study-den, than to the romantic shade of a magnolia tree.

We unpocketed our pipes, and smoked for several minutes before we spoke. I vowed that Terry should begin; but as he went on puffing until I had counted sixty-nine slowly, I thought it simpler to unvow the vow before it had had time to harden.

"A penny for your thoughts, Paddy," was the sum I offered with engaging lightness. "Which is generous of me, as I know them already. You are thinking of Her."

Teddy forgot to misunderstand, which was a bad sign.

"If it weren't for Her, I'd have got out of the scrape at any price," said he, bold as brass. "But I'm sorry for that beautiful creature. She must lead a beastly life, between a silly, overdressed woman and a pert minx. Poor child, she's evidently as hard up as I am, or she wouldn't stand it. She's miserable with them, I could see."

"So you consented to fall into my web, rather than leave her to their mercy."

"Not exactly that, but-well, I can't explain it. The die's cast, anyhow. I'm pledged to join the menagerie. But look here, Ralph, do you understand what you've let me in for?"

"For the society of three charming Americans, two of whom are no doubt worth their weight in gold."

"It's precisely their weight that's on my mind at this moment. You may know one or two little things, my dear boy, but among them motoring is not, otherwise when you were putting that mad advertisement into your pink rag, you would have stopped to reflect that a twelve-horse power car is not expected to carry five grown persons up airy mountains and down rushy glens. Europe isn't perfectly flat, remember."

"Only four of us are grown up. Beechy's an Infant Phenomenon."

"Infant be hanged. She's sixteen if she's a day."

"Her mother ought to know."

"She doesn't want any one else to know. Anyway, I'm big enough to make up the difference. And besides, my car's not a new one. I paid a thumping price for her, but that was two years ago. There have been improvements in the make since."

"Do you mean to tell me that car of yours can't carry five people half across the world if necessary?"

"She can, but not at an exciting speed; and Americans want excitement. Not only that, but you saw for yourself that they expect a handsome car of the latest make, shining with brass and varnish. Amateurs always do. What will they say when my world-worn old veteran bursts, or rather bumbles, into view?"

I felt slightly crestfallen, for the first time. When one is an editor, one doesn't like to think one has been caught napping. "You said you ought to get two hundred pounds for your Panhard, if you sold it," I reminded him. "That's a good deal of money. Naturally I thought the motor must be a fairly decent one, to command that price after several seasons' wear and tear."

Terry fired up instantly, as I had hoped he would; for his car is the immediate jewel of his soul. "Decent!" he echoed. "I should rather think she is. But just as there's a limit to your intelligence, so is there a limit to her power, and I don't want it to come to that. However, the thing's gone too far for me to draw back. It must depend upon the ladies. If they don't back out when they see my car, I won't."

"To all intents and purposes it's my car now," said I. "You made her over to me before witnesses, and I think I shall have her smartened up with a bit of red paint and a crest."

"If you try on anything like that, you can drive her yourself, for I won't. I like her old grey dress. I wouldn't feel at home with her in any other. And she sha'n't be trimmed with crests to make an American holiday. She goes as she is, or not at all, my boy."

"You are the hardest chap to do anything for I ever saw," I groaned, with the justifiable annoyance of a martyr who has failed to convert a pagan hero. "As if you hadn't made things difficult enough already by 'Mistering' yourself. At any moment you may be found out-though, on second thoughts, it won't matter a rap if you are. If you're a mere Mister, you are often obliged to appear before an unsympathetic police magistrate for pretending to be a Lord. But I never heard of a Lord's falling foul of the law for pretending to be a Mister."

"If you behave yourself, there isn't much danger of my being found out by any of the people most concerned, during a few weeks' motoring on the Continent; but it's to be hoped they won't select England, Scotland, or Ireland for their tour."

"We can tell them that conditions are less favourable for motoring at home-which is quite true, judging from the complaints I hear from motor-men."

"But look here; you let me in for this. What I did was on the spur of the moment, and in self-defence. I didn't dream then that I should be, first cornered by you, then led on by circumstances into engaging as chauffeur, to drive my own car on such a wild-goose chase."

"It's a wild goose that will lay golden eggs. Fifteen guineas a day, my son; that's the size of the egg which that beneficent bird will drop into your palm every twenty-four hours. Deduct the ladies' hotel expenses-say three guineas a day; expenses for yourself and car we'll call two guineas more (of course I pay my own way), that leaves you as profit ten guineas daily; seventy guineas a week, or at the rate of three thousand five hundred guineas per annum. Before you'd spent your little patrimony, and been refused an-er-fratrimony, you weren't half as well off as that. You might do worse than pass your whole life as a Personal Conductor on those terms. And instead of thanking the wise friend who has caught this goose for you, and is willing to leave his own peaceful duck for your sake, with no remuneration, you abuse him."

"My dear fellow, I'm not exactly abusing you, for I know you meant well. But you've swept me off my feet, and I'm not at home yet in mid air."

"You can lie on your back and roll in gold in the intervals of driving the car. I promise not to give you away. Still, it's a pity you wouldn't consent to trading a little on your title, which Heaven must have given you for some good purpose. As it is, you've made my tuppenny-ha'penny baronetcy the only bait, and that's no catch at all for an American millionairess, fishing for something big in Aristocracy Pond. Why, when that Prince of hers discovers what is doing, he will persuade the fair Countess Dalmar that she's paying a high price for a Nobody-a Nobody-at-All."

"What makes you think he doesn't know already, as he evidently followed the party here, and must be constantly dangling about?"

"My detective instinct, which two seasons of pink journalism has developed. Mrs. Kidder saw the advertisement this morning, and was caught by it. May Sherlock Holmes cut me in the street if Prince Dalmar-Kalm hasn't been away for the day, doubtless at Monte Carlo where he has lost most of his own money, and will send the Countess's to find it, if she gives him the chance."

"I never saw the fellow, or heard of him, so far as I can remember," said Terry thoughtfully. "What's he like? Middle-aged, stout?"

"He looks thirty, so he is probably forty; for if you look your age, you are probably ten years past it-though that sounds a bit more Irish than Scotch, eh? And he's far from being stout. From a woman's point of view, I should say he might be very attractive. Tall; thin; melancholy; enormous eyes; moustache waxed; scar on forehead; successful effect of dashing soldier, but not much under the effect, I should say, except inordinate self-esteem, and a masterly selfishness which would take what it wanted at almost any cost to others. There's a portrait of Prince Dalmar-Kalm for you."

"Evidently not the sort of man who ought to be allowed to hang about young girls."

"Young girls with money. Don't worry about the vestal virgin. He won't have time in this game to bother with poor relations, no matter how pretty they may happen to be."

Terry still looked thoughtful. "Well, if we are going in for this queer business, we'd better get off as soon as possible," said he.

I smiled in my sleeve. "St. George in a stew to get the Princess out of the dragon's claws," I thought; but I refrained from speaking the thought aloud. Whatever the motive, the wish was to be encouraged. The sooner the wild goose laid the first golden egg the better. Fortunately for my private interests, the season was waning and the coming week would see the setting of my Riviera Sun until next November. I could therefore get away, leaving what remained of the work to be done by my "sub"; and I determined that, Prince or no Prince, luncheon to-morrow should not pass without a business arrangement being completed between the parties.

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