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   Chapter 6 A CHAPTER OF PREDICAMENTS

My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 21699

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


On we went, and twilight was falling in this deep gorge, so evidently cut by the river for its own convenience, not for that of belated tourists. Here and there in the valley little rock towns stood up impressively, round and high on their eminences, like brown, stemless mushrooms. Each little group of ancient dwellings resembled to my mind a determined band of men standing back to back, shoulder to shoulder, defending their hearths and homes from the Saracens, and saying grimly, "Come on if you dare. We'll fight to the death, one and all of us."

At last, without further mishap, we arrived at a mean village marked Airole on Terry's map. It was a poverty-stricken place, through which, in happier circumstances, we should have passed without a glance, but-there, by the roadside was a blacksmith's forge, more welcome to our eyes than a castle double-starred by Baedeker.

Joseph's spleen reduced by the sight of his master tramping in the mud while he steered, the little chauffeur looked almost cheerful. He promised to have a new lever ready in half an hour, and so confident was he that he urged us to go on. But the Prince did not echo the suggestion, and Mrs. Kidder proposed that we should have tea while we waited.

Though it was she who gave birth to the idea, it would have been Miss Destrey who did all the work, had not Terry and I offered such help as men can give. He went in search of water to fill the shining kettle; I handed round biscuits and cakes, while the Prince looked on in the attitude of Napoleon watching the burning of Moscow.

We were as good as a circus to the inhabitants of Airole; nay, better, for our antics could be seen gratis. The entire population of the village, and apparently of several adjacent villages, collected round the two cars. They made the ring, and-we did the rest. We ate, we drank, and they were merry at our expense. The children wished also to eat at our expense, and when I translated (with amendments) a flattering comment on Mrs. Kidder's hair and complexion offered by an incipient Don Juan of five years, she insisted that all the spare pastry should be distributed among the juveniles. The division led to blows, and tears which had to be quenched with coppers; while into the mêlée broke a desolate cry from Joseph, announcing that his lever was a failure. The Prince strode off to the blacksmith's shop, forgetful that he held a teacup in one hand and an éclair in the other. With custard dropping onto the red-hot bar which Joseph hammered, he looked so forlorn a figure that Terry was moved to pity and joined the group at the forge. He soon discovered what Joseph might have known from the first, had he not lived solely in the moment, like most other chauffeurs. The village forge was not assez bien outillée for a finished lever to be produced; the Prince's car must remain a derelict, unless we towed it into port.

We started on again, in the same order as before and at the same pace, followed by all our village protegés, who commented frankly upon the plight of the Prince, and the personal appearance of the whole party. At length, however, our moving audience dwindled. A mile or two beyond Airole the last, most enterprising boy deserted us, and we thought ourselves alone in a twilight world. The white face of the moon peered through a cleft in the mountain, and our own shadows crawled after us, large and dark on the grey ribbon of the road. But there was another shadow which moved, a small drifting shadow over which we had no control. Sometimes it was by our side for an instant as we crept up the hill, dragging our incubus, then it would fall behind and vanish, only to reappear again, perhaps on the other side of the road.

"What is that tiny black thing that comes and goes?" asked Mrs. Kidder.

"Why," exclaimed Miss Destrey, "I do believe it's that forlorn little dog that was too timid to eat from my hand in the village. He must have followed all this time."

"Do see if it is the same dog, Prince," Beechy cried to the tall, dark figure completing the tail of our procession.

A yelp answered. "Yes, it is he," called the Prince. "A mangy little mongrel. I do not think he will trouble us any longer."

Then a surprising thing happened. The Vestal Virgin rose suddenly in the car. "You have kicked him!" she exclaimed, the gentleness burnt out of her pretty voice by a swift flame of anger. "Stop the car, Mr. Barrymore-quickly, please. I want to get down."

Never had that Panhard of Terry's checked its career in less space. Out jumped Maida, to my astonishment without a word of objection from her relatives. "I will not have that poor, timid little creature frightened and hurt," I heard her protesting as she ran back. "How could you, Prince!"

Now, though the girl was probably no more than a paid companion, she was lovely enough to make her good opinion of importance to the most inveterate fortune hunter, and as Miss Destrey called, "Here, doggie, doggie," in a voice to beguile a rhinoceros, Dalmar-Kalm pleaded that what he had done had been but for the animal's good. He had not injured the dog, he had merely encouraged it to run home before it was hopelessly lost. "I am not cruel, I assure you. My worst troubles have come from a warm heart. I hope you will believe me, Miss Destrey."

"I should be sorry to be your dog, or-your chauffeur," she answered. "He won't come back to be comforted, so I suppose after all we shall have to go on. But I shall dream of that poor little lonely, drifting thing to-night."

Hardly had she taken her seat, however, than there was the dog close to the car, timid, obsequious, winning, with his wisp of a head cocked on one side. We drove on, and he followed pertinaciously. Mildly adjured by the Countess to "go home, little dog," he came on the faster. Many adventures he had, such as a fall over a heap of stones and entanglement in a thorn-bush. But nothing discouraged the miniature motor maniac in the pursuit of his love, and we began to take him for granted so completely that after a while I, at least, forgot him. On we toiled with our burden, the moon showering silver into the dark mountain gorges, as if it were raining stars.

The further we burrowed into the fastnesses of the Roya, the more wild in its majestic beauty grew the valley, so famed in history and legend. The gorge had again become a mere gash in the rock, with room only for the road and the roaring river below. High overhead, standing up against the sky like a warning finger, towered the ancient stronghold of Piena, once guardian fortress of the valley; where the way curved, and crossed a high bridge spanning the torrent, we passed a tablet of gleaming bronze set against the rock wall, in commemoration of Masséna's victory in an early campaign of Napoleon's against Italy. Sometimes we rushed through tunnels, where the noise of the motor vibrated thunderously; sometimes we looked down over sublime precipices; but the road was always good now, and we had no longer to fear side-slip.

We met no one; nevertheless Terry got down and lit our lamps, Dalmar-Kalm making an unnecessary delay by insisting that Joseph should light his too. This was sheer vanity on the Prince's part. He could not bear to have his great Bleriots dark, while our humbler acetylene illumined the way for His Mightiness.

Suddenly we ran out of the bewildering lights and shadows, woven across our way by the moon, into the lights of a town; and two douaniers appeared in the road, holding up their hands for us to stop. Down jumped Terry to see why he should be challenged in this unexpected place, and the Prince joined him.

"Your papers, if you please," demanded the official.

Terry produced those which had been given us at the custom-house in Grimaldi.

"But these are Italian papers. Where are those for France?" asked the douanier.

"This is not France," said the Prince, before Terry could speak.

"It is Breil, and it is France," returned the man. "France for nine kilometres, until Fontan, where Italian territory begins again."

Terry laughed, rather ruefully. "Well," said he, "I have no French papers, but we paid a penny at the Pont St. Louis to leave France. This car is French, and we ought not to pay anything to enter; nevertheless, I shall be delighted to hand you the same sum for the privilege of coming in again."

"Ah, you paid ten centimes? Then, if you have the receipt it may be possible to permit you to go on."

"Permit us to go on!" echoed Dalmar-Kalm angrily. "I should think so, indeed."

"I'm sorry, I took no receipt," said Terry. "I thought it an unnecessary formality."

"No formality is unnecessary, monsieur," said the servant of form. "I also am sorry, but in the circumstances you cannot enter French territory without a receipt for the ten centimes. As a man I believe implicitly that you paid the sum, as an official I am compelled to doubt your word."

Who but a Frenchman could have been so exquisitely pompous over a penny? I saw by Terry's face that he was far from considering the incident closed; but he had too much true Irish tact to try and get us through by storming.

"Let us consider," he began, "whether there is not some means of escape from this difficulty."

But Dalmar-Kalm was in no mood to temporize, or keep silent while others temporized. The lights of Breil showed that it was a town of comparative importance; it was past eight o'clock; and no doubt His Highness's temper was sharpened by a keen edge of hunger. That he-he should be stopped by a fussy official figure-head almost within smell of food, broke down the barrier of his self-restraint-never a formidable rampart, as we had cause to know. In a few loud and vigorous sentences he expressed a withering contempt for France, its institutions, its customs, and especially its custom-houses.

"If you'd mix up the Prince's initials, as you do Mr. Barrymore's sometimes, and call him Kalmar-Dalm, there'd be some excuse for it," Beechy Kidder murmured to the Countess.

"Hush, he'll hear!" implored the much-enduring lady, but there was small danger that His Highness would hear any expostulations save his own.

The functionary's eye grew dark, and Terry frowned. Had the douanier been insolent, my peppery Irishman would have been insolent too, perhaps, in the hope of cowering the man by truculence more swashbuckling than his own; but he had been as polite as his countrymen proverbially are, if not goaded out of their suavity. "Look here, Prince," said Terry, hanging onto his temper by a thread (for he also was hungry), "suppose you leave this matter to me. If you'll take the ladies to the best hotel in town, Moray and I will stop and see this thing through. We'll follow when we can."

Dalmar-Kalm snapped at the suggestion; our pas

sengers saw that it was for the best, and yielded. As they moved away, a shadowy form hovered in their wake. It was the little black dog of Airole.

The Marquis of Innisfallen's first quarrel with his brother had been caused by Terry's youthful preference for an army instead of a diplomatic career. Now, could his cantankerous relative have seen my friend, he would once more have shaken his head over talents wasted. The oily eloquence which Terry lavished on that comparatively insignificant French douanier ought to have earned him a billet as first secretary to a Legation. He pictured the despair of the ladies if the power of France kept them prisoners at the frontier; he referred warmly to that country's reputation for chivalry; he offered to pay the usual deposit on a car entering France and receive it back again at Fontan. To this last suggestion the harassed official replied that technically his office was closed for the night, and that after eight o'clock he could not receive money or issue papers. Finally, therefore, Terry was reduced to appealing to the cleverness and resource of a true Frenchman.

It was a neat little fencing-match, which ended in the triumph of Great Britain. The functionary, treated like a gentleman by a gentleman, became anxious to accommodate, if he could do so "consistently with honour." He had an inspiration, and suggested that he would strain his duty by sending a messenger with us to Fontan, there to explain that we were merely en passage. Out of the crowd which had collected a loutish youth was chosen; a pourboire promised; and after many mutual politenesses we were permitted to teuf-teuf onto the sacred soil of France.

It is no more safe to judge a French country inn by its exterior, than the soul of Cyrano de Bergerac by his nose. The inn of Breil had not an engaging face, but it was animated by the spirit of a Brillat Savarin, by which we were provided with a wonderful dinner in numerous courses. We could not escape from it, lest we hurt the amour-propre of the cook, and it was late when we were ready for our last sortie.

"You will never reach San Dalmazzo to-night, towing that car," we were informed by the powers that were in the hotel. "The hills you have passed are as nothing to the hills yet to come. You will do well to spend the night with us, for if you try to get on, you will be all night upon the road."

Our passengers were asked to decide, and we expected a difference of opinion. We should have said that the two girls would have been for pushing on, and the Countess for stopping. But that plump lady had already conquered the tremors which, earlier in the day, had threatened to wreck our expedition at its outset.

"It's a funny thing," said she, "but I want to go on, just on, for the sake of going. I never felt like that before, travelling, not even in a Mann Boudoir car at home, which I guess is the most luxurious thing on wheels. I always wanted to get there, wherever 'there' was; but now I want to go on and on-I wouldn't care if it was to the end of the world, and I can't think why, unless it's the novelty of automobiling. But it can't be that, either, I suppose, for only a little while ago I was thinking that bed-ridden people weren't badly off, they were so safe."

We all laughed at this (even the Prince, whom plenty of champagne had put into a sentimental mood), and I suddenly found myself growing quite fond of the Countess, crowns and all.

After the heat of the salle à manger, the night out of doors appeared strangely white and cold, its purple depths drenched with moonlight, the high remoteness of its dome faintly scintillant with icy points of stars. An adventure seemed to lie before us. We turned wistfully to each other for the warmth of human companionship, and had not the Prince been trying to flirt with little Beechy unseen by Mamma, I should have felt kindly even to him. Even as it was, I consented to let him try sitting in his own car, and the rope, inured to suffering, had the consideration not to break.

We forged on, up, up the higher reaches of the Roya valley, so glorious in full moonlight that it struck us into silence. The mountains towering round us shaped themselves into castles and cathedrals of carved marble, their fa?ades, grey by day, glittering white and polished under the magic of the moon. The wonderful crescent town of Saorge, hanging on the mountain-side, would alone have been worth coming this way to see if there had been nothing else. Veiled by the mystery of night, the old Ligurian stronghold appeared to be suspended between two rocky peaks, like a great white hammock for a sleeping goddess, and now and then we caught a jewelled sparkle from her rings.

They had not told an idle tale at the inn. The road, weary of going uphill on its knees, like a pilgrim, got suddenly upon its feet and we were on its back, with the Prince's chariot trailing after us. Nevertheless, our car did not falter, though the motor panted. Scarcely ever were we able to pass from the first speed to the second, but then (as Beechy remarked), considering all things, we ought to be thankful for any speed above that of a snail.

At Fontan-when he had vouched for us-we dismissed our oaf, with a light heart and a heavy pocket. Again, we were in Italy, a silent, sleeping Italy, drugged with moonlight, and dreaming troubled dreams of strangely contorted mountains. Then suddenly it waked, for the moon was sinking, and the charm had lost its potence. The dream-shapes vanished, and we were in a wide, dark basin, which might be green as emerald by day. A grey ghost in a long coat, with a rifle slung across his back, flitted into the road and startled the Countess by signing for us to stop.

"Oh, mercy! are we going to be held up?" she whispered. "I'd forgotten about the brigands."

"Only an Italian custom-house brigand," said Terry. "We've got to San Dalmazzo after all, and it isn't morning yet."

"Yes, but it is!" cried Beechy. "There's a clock striking twelve."

A few minutes later we were driving along a level in the direction of the monastery-hotel, which was said to be no more than a hundred metres beyond the village. I had often heard of this hostelry at the little mountain retreat of San Dalmazzo, loved and sought by Italians in the summer heat. The arched gateway in the wall was clearly monastic, and we felt sure that we had come to the right place, when Terry steered the car through the open portal and a kind of tunnel on the other side.

Before the door of a long, low building he stopped the motor. Its "thrum, thrum" stilled, the silence of the place was profound, and not a light gleamed anywhere.

Terry got down and rang. We all waited anxiously, for much as we had enjoyed the strange night drive, the day had been long, and the chill of the keen mountain air was in our blood. But nothing happened, and after a short pause Terry rang again. Silence was the only answer, and it seemed to give denial rather than consent.

Four times he rang, and by this time the Prince and I were at his back, striving to pierce the darkness behind the door which was half of glass. At last a greenish light gleamed dim as a glow-worm in the distance, and framed in it a figure was visible-the figure of a monk.

For an instant I was half inclined to believe him a ghost, haunting the scene of past activities, for one does not expect to have the door of an hotel opened by a monk. But ghosts have no traffic with keys and bolts; and it was the voice of a man still bound to flesh and blood who greeted us with a mild "Buona sera" which made the night seem young.

Terry responded and announced in his best Italian that we desired accommodation for the night.

"Ah, I see," exclaimed the monk. "You thought that this was still a hotel? I am sorry to disappoint you, but it ceased to be such only to-day. The house is now once more what it was originally-a monastery. It has been bought by the Order to which I belong."

"Isn't he going to take us in?" asked the Countess, dolefully.

"I'm afraid not," said Terry, "but I'll see what I can do."

Ah, that "seeing what he could do!" I knew it of old, for Terry's own brother is the only person I ever met who could resist him if he stooped to wheedle. Italian is a language which lends itself to wheedling, too; and though the good monk demurred at first, shook his head, and even flung up his hands with a despairing protest, he weakened at last, even as the douanier had weakened.

"He says if we'd come to-morrow, it would have been impossible to admit us," translated Terry for the ladies' benefit. "The lease is going to be signed then. Until that's done the house isn't actually a monastery, so he can strain a point and take us in, rather than the ladies should have to travel further so late at night. I don't suppose we shall find very luxurious accommodation, but-"

"It will be perfectly lovely," broke in Beechy, "and Maida, anyhow, will feel quite at home."

"He won't accept payment, that's the worst of it," said Terry, "for we shall make the poor man, who is all alone, a good deal of bother. Still, I shall offer something for the charities of his Order, and he can't refuse that."

We filed into the hall, lit only by the lantern in our host's hand, and "Kid, Kidder, and Kiddest," charmed with the adventure, were delightfully ready to be pleased with everything. We seemed to have walked nearly half a kilometre before we were shown into small, bare rooms, furnished only with necessaries, but spotlessly clean. Then beds had to be made and water brought. Every one worked except the Prince, and every one, with the same exception, forgot to be tired and ceased to be cold in the pleasure of the queer midnight picnic. We had not dared hope for anything to eat, but when our host proposed a meal of boiled eggs, bread, and wine, the good man was well-nigh startled by the enthusiastic acceptance of his guests.

A small room containing a table, and a pile of chairs against the wall, was chosen for the banquet. Terry and Maida laid the table with the dishes from the tea-basket, and a few more found in neighbouring cupboards. Beechy boiled the eggs while our host unearthed the wine; the Countess cut slices of hard, brown bread, and I added butter in little hillocks.

Then we ate and drank; and never was a meal so good. We seemed to have known each ether a long time, and already we had common jokes connected with our past-that past which had been the present this morning. It was after one o'clock when it occurred to us that it was bedtime; and as at last the three ladies flitted away down the dim corridor, Terry and I, watching them, saw that something flitted after.

It was the little black dog of Airole.

PART II

TOLD BY BEECHY KIDDER

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