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   Chapter 10 A CHAPTER OF THRILLS

My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 27451

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The hotel at Tenda is apparently the one new thing in the town, and it is new enough to more than make up for the oldness of everything else. We went there to grumble because, after we had done the ruined castle (and it had done Mamma), Joseph's "all little" hour threatened to lengthen itself into at lest two of ordinary size.

Mr. Barrymore's eyebrows said, "I told you so," but his tongue said nothing, which was nice of it; and the Prince did all the complaining as we sat on perfectly new chairs, in a perfectly new parlour, with a smell of perfectly new plaster in the air, and plu-perfectly old newspapers on the table. According to him, Joseph was an absolutely unique villain, with a combination of deceit, treachery, procrastination, laziness, and stupidity mixed with low cunning, such as could not be paralleled in the history of motor-men; and it was finally Mr. Barrymore who defended the poor absent wretch.

"Really, you know," said he, "I don't think he's worse than other chauffeurs. Curiously enough, the whole tribe seems to be alike in several characteristics, and it would be an interesting study in motor lore to discover whether they've all-by a singular coincidence-been born with those peculiarities, whether they've been thrust upon them, or whether they've achieved them!"

"Joseph never achieved anything," broke in the Prince.

"That disposes of one point of view, then," went on Mr. Barrymore. "Anyhow, he's cut on an approved pattern. All the professional chauffeurs I ever met have been utterly unable to calculate time or provide for future emergencies. They're pessimists at the moment of an accident, and optimists afterwards-until they find out their mistakes by gloomy experience, which, however, seldom teaches them anything."

The Prince shrugged his shoulders in a superior way he has, and drawled, "Well, you are better qualified to judge the brotherhood, than the rest of us, at all events, my dear sir."

Mr. Barrymore got rather red, but he only laughed and answered, "Yes, that's why I spoke in Joseph's defence. A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind," while Maida looked as if she would like to set the new dog at His Highness

.

The fact is she has got into her head that our handsome chauffeur is very unfortunate; and when Maida is sorry for anybody or anything she'll stick by that creature-man, woman, or dog-through thick and thin. And funnier still, he is sorry for her. Well, it all comes into my game of dolls. But I'm not sure that I shan't fall in love with him myself, and want to keep him up my sleeve against the time when I'm seventeen again

.

The hotel clock was so new that it hadn't learned to go yet; and I never saw people glance at their watches so much, even in the midst of a long sermon, as we did, sitting on those new chairs in that new parlour. At last Sir Ralph Moray proposed that we should have lunch; and we had it, with delicious trout as new as the dish on which they came frizzling to the table. While we were eating them Joseph was announced, and was ordered to report himself in the dining-room. He seemed quite cheerful-for him.

"I came to tell Your Highness that I shall be able to finish in time to start by four o'clock this afternoon," said he complacently.

Up sprang the Prince in a rage and began to shout French things which must have been shocking, for Sir Ralph and Mr. Barrymore both scowled at him till he superficially calmed down.

Joseph had either forgotten that he'd promised to be ready hours ago, or else he didn't see why we should attach the least importance to a tiny discrepancy like that.

In the midst of the argument, while the Prince's language got hot and his fish cold, Mr. Barrymore turned to Mamma and proposed that we should start directly after lunch, as most probably the Prince wouldn't get off till next morning.

The prospect of staying all night at Tenda, with nothing to do but sit on the new chairs till bed time, was too much even for Mamma's wish to please Titled Opportunity Number One. She nervously elected to go on with Titled Opportunity Number Two and his friend.

I thought that the Prince would be plunged in gloom by this decision, even if he didn't try to break it. To my surprise, however, he not only made no objection, but encouraged the idea. He wouldn't wish to sacrifice us on the altar of his misfortune, he said. We must go on, dine at Cuneo, and he would meet us at the hotel there, which he could easily do, as, when once his automobile was itself again, it would travel at more than twice the speed of ours. "Especially up hill," he added. "The landlord has told Joseph that beyond Tenda the ascent is stupendous, nothing less than Alpine. You will be obliged to travel at a snail's pace, even if you reach the top without every passenger walking up the hill, which mounts, curve after curve, for miles."

Poor Mamma's face fell several inches. She had had enough walking up hill for one day, as the Prince knew well, and no doubt he enjoyed the chance of disgusting her with motoring in other people's automobiles. But Mr. Barrymore's expression would have put spirit into a mock turtle. "I know what the gradients are," he said, "and what we can do. To show that I'm an exception which proves the rule I laid down for chauffeurs, I'm not making any experiments without counting the cost. I hope we shall get to Cuneo by tea-time, not dinner-time, and push on to Alessandria as a better stopping-place for the night."

"Very well. In any case I shall expect to catch you up at Cuneo," said the Prince, "and so, if you please, we will make a rendezvous at a certain hotel."

Baedeker was produced, a hotel was selected, and half an hour later His Highness was bidding us au revoir, as we settled ourselves in our luggage-wreathed car, to leave the town of Beatrice and the dominating, file-on-end shaped ruin.

We had all been up so early that it seemed as if the day were growing old, but really it was only one o'clock, for we'd lunched at twelve, and all the afternoon was before us in which to do, or not to do, our great climbing act.

Just to see how our gorgeous chauffeur would look, I asked if I mightn't sit on the front seat for a change, because my feet had gone to sleep in the tonneau yesterday. I half-expected that he would shuffle round for an excuse to keep Maida; but with an immovable face he said that was for the three ladies to arrange. Of course, Maida must have wanted to be in front, but she is so horribly unselfish that she glories in sacrificing herself, so she gave up as meekly as if she had been a lady's-maid, or a dormouse, and naturally I felt a little brute; but I usually do feel a brute with Maida; she's so much better than any one I ever saw that I can't help imposing on her, and neither can Mamma. It's a waste of good material being so awfully pretty as Maida, if you're never going to do anything for people to forgive.

Yesterday we had been too hot in our motor-coats till night came on. To-day, when we had left Tenda a little way below, we opened our shawl-straps and got out our fur stoles.

At first I thought that the Prince had only been trying to frighten us, and make us wish we were in a big car like his, for the road went curving up as gracefully and easily as a swan makes tracks in the water, and our automobile hummed cheerfully to itself, forging steadily up. It was so nice having nothing to drag that, by comparison with yesterday afternoon, we moved like a ship under full sail; but suddenly the road reared up on its hind feet and stood almost erect, as though it had been frightened by the huge snow-capped mountains that all at once crowded round us. An icy wind rushed down from the tops of the great white towers, as if with the swooping wings of a giant bird, and it took our car's breath away.

Instead of humming it began to pant, and I noticed the difference at once. If I'd been Maida, I should probably have been too polite to put questions about the thing's behaviour, for fear Mr. Barrymore might think I hadn't proper confidence in him; but being Beechy, with no convictions to live up to, I promptly asked if anything was the matter.

"The car's only trying to tell me that she can't manage to spurt up on third speed any more," said he. "I shall put on the second, and you'll hear what a relief it gives to the motor."

It certainly was as if the automobile had gulped down a stimulant, and revived in a second. But as we turned a shoulder of the mountain, coming in sight of a railroad dep?t, a high embankment, and a monstrous wall of mountain with the sky for a ceiling, I couldn't help giving a little squeak.

"Is that a road?" I asked, pointing up to a network like a skein of silk twisted in a hundred zigzags across the face of the mountain from bottom to top. "Why, it's like the way up Jack's beanstalk. No sane automobile could do it."

"Some could," said Mr. Barrymore, "but I dare say it's lucky for us that ours hasn't got to. It's the old road, only used now to communicate with that desolate fortress you see on the top shelf of the mountain, standing up there on the sky-line like the ark on Ararat. All this country is tremendously fortified by both the French and Italians, in case they should ever come to loggerheads. Above us somewhere is a long tunnel burrowing into the col, and the new road runs through that instead of over the summit."

"Bump!" went the car, as he finished his explanation, and then we began to wade jerkily through a thick layer of loose stones that had been spread over the road like hard butter over stale bread.

"Le corse" (that is what our landlord had called the cruel wind sweeping down from the snow mountains) was hurling itself into our faces; our fat rubber tyres were bouncing over the stones like baseballs, and I'd never been so uncomfortable nor so perfectly happy in my life. I wished I were a cat, so that I could purr, for purring has always struck me as the most thorough way of expressing satisfaction. When other people are in automobiles, and you are walking or jogging past with a pony, you glare and think what insufferable vehicles they are; but when you're spinning, or even jolting, along in one of them yourself, then you know that there's nothing else in the world as well worth doing. I made a remark like that to Mr. Barrymore, and he gave me such a friendly, appreciative look as he said, "Have you discovered all this already?" that I decided at once to eat my heart out with a vain love for him.

I haven't been really in love before since I was ten; so the sensation was quite exciting, like picking up a lovely jewel on the street, which you aren't sure won't be claimed by somebody else. I was trying to think what else I could say to fascinate him when the car lost its breath again, and-"r-r-retch" went in another speed.

"It's our 'first and last,'" said Mr. Barrymore. "Good old girl, she's going to do it all right, though there's many a twenty-four horse-power car that wouldn't rise to it. By Jove, this is a road-and a half. I believe, Ralph, that you and I had better jump off and ease her a bit."

Mamma squeaked, and begged our chauffeur not to leave us to go up by ourselves, or we should be over the awful precipice in an instant. But Mr. Barrymore explained that he wasn't deserting the ship; and he walked quickly along by the side of the car, through the bed of sharp stones, keeping his hand always on the steering-wheel like a pilot guiding a vessel among hidden rocks.

Maida would have been out too, in a flash, if Mr. Barrymore had let her, but he told us all to sit still, so we did, happy (judging the others by myself) in obeying him.

I hadn't supposed there could be such a road as this. If one hadn't had hot and cold creeps in one's toes for fear the "good old girl" would slide back down hill and vault into space with us in her lap, one would have been struck dumb with admiration of its magnificence. As a matter of fact, we were all three dumb as mutes, but it wasn't only admiration that paralysed my tongue or Mamma's, I know, whatever caused the phenomenon with Maida, who has no future worth clinging to.

As we toiled up, in spite of the stones that did their best to keep us back, we simply hung on the breathing of the motor, as Mamma used to on mine when I was small and indulged in croup. When she gasped, we gasped too; when she seemed to falter, we involuntarily strained as if the working of our muscles could aid hers. All our bodies sympathized with the efforts of her body, which she was making for our sakes, dragging us up, up, into wonderful white, shining spaces where it seemed that summer never had been and never would dare to come.

The twisted skein of silk we had looked up to was turning into a coil of rope now, stretched taut and sharp from zig to zag, and on from zag to zig again. Below, when we dared to look back and down, the coil of rope lay looser, curled on itself. The mountain-top crowned by the fort (which as Mr. Barrymore said, did certainly look like the ark on Ararat when all the rest of creation was swept off the globe) didn't appear so dimly remote now. We were coming almost into friendly relations with it, and with neighbouring mountains whose summits had seemed, a little while ago, as far away as Kingdom Come.

I began to feel at last as if I could speak without danger of giving the motor palpitation of the heart. "What are you thinking of, Maida?" I almost whispered.

"Oh!" she answered with a start, as if I'd waked her out of a dream. "I was thinking, what if, while we're still in this world we could see heaven, a far, shining city on a m

ountain-top like one of these. How much harder we would strive after worthiness if we saw the place always with our bodily eyes; how much harder we'd try; and how much less credit it would be for those who succeeded."

"What are you thinking of, Mamma?" I asked. "Did the big mountains give you a thought too?"

"Yes, they did," said she, "but I'm afraid it was more worldly than Maida's. I was saying to myself, the difference in being down far below, where we were, and high up as we are now, is like our old life in Denver and our life here." As she went on to expound her parable, she lowered her voice, so that Sir Ralph and Mr. Barrymore, walking, couldn't catch a word. "In those days at home, it would have seemed as impossible that we could have princes and baronets and-and such people for our most intimate friends, as it looked a little while ago for us to get near that fort up there, or the mountain-tops. Yet we are, in-in every sense of the word, getting there."

The thoughts which the mountains had put into Maida's golden head and Mamma's (now) auburn one were so characteristic of the heads themselves that I chuckled with glee, and our two men glanced round questioningly. But in accordance with Mamma's simile, to explain to them would have been like explaining to the mountains themselves.

By and by, though still going up, we were on snow level. Snow lay white as Maida's thoughts on either side of the steep road, but le corse had run shrieking farther down the mountain, and was not at home in its own high house. We were less cold than we had been; and when presently the worst of the zigzags were past and a great black tunnel-mouth in sight to show we'd reached the col, the sun was almost warm. A few moments more, and (on our second best speed, with all five on board) we had shot into that great black mouth.

I always thought that we had the longest and biggest of everything in our country, but I never heard of a tunnel like this in America.

It was the queerest thing to look into I ever saw.

The lamps of our automobile which Mr. Barrymore had stopped to light before plunging in, showed us a long, long, straight passage cut through the mountain, with an oval roof arched like an egg. Except for a few yards ahead, where the way was lit up and the arch of close-set stones glimmered grey, the blackness would have been unbroken had it not been for the tunnel-lights. They went on and on in a sparkling line as far as our eyes could reach; and if the most famous whale in the world had had a spine made of diamonds, Jonah would have got much the same effect that we did as he wandered about in the dark trying to get his bearings.

It was only the most distant electric lamps that looked as if they were diamonds stuck close together along the roof. The near ones were balls of light under swaying umbrellas of ink-black shadow; and sometimes we would flash past great sharp stalactites, which were, as Maida said, like Titanesses' hatpins stuck through from the top of the mountain.

At first the tunnel road was inches thick with white dust; then, much to our surprise, we ran into a track of greasy mud which made our car waltz as it had in the Roya valley close to the precipice.

"It's the water filtering in through the holes your Titanesses' hatpins have made in their big pincushion," explained Mr. Barrymore, who had heard Maida make that remark. And the hateful creatures had so honeycombed the whole mountain over our heads, that Mamma and I put up umbrellas to save ourselves from being drenched.

"What a place this would be for an accident! Or-suppose we met something that objected to us!" Mamma shrieked, her voice all but drowned by the reverberation made by our motor in the hollow vault.

With that, as if her words had "conjured it from the vasty deep"-to use a quotation of Sir Ralph's-something appeared, and it did object to us very much.

It was a horse, and it gleamed like silver as our front lamp pointed it out to our startled eyes with a long, bright finger of light.

He was coming towards us, down the narrow, arched passage, walking on his hind legs, with some one in a cart behind him, standing up and hitting him on the head with a whip.

We were not really going very fast on account of the splashy mud; but what with the roaring echo of the motor, the dripping of water, the narrowness of the tunnel, the yapping of our little dog, the shouts of the man in the cart, and the strangeness of the picture ahead-just like a lighted disc on the screen of a magic lantern-it did seem as if everybody concerned must come to awful grief in about three seconds.

I don't know whether I screamed or not; though I know Mamma did; a deaf man would have known that. But the first thing I was really sure of was that Mr. Barrymore had not only stopped the car but the motor, had jumped down, and gone to the horse's head.

He said something quickly to the driver, which I couldn't understand, because it was in Italian; but the man didn't yell or whip the horse any more. Mr. Barrymore patted the poor beast, and talked to him, until he seemed tired of dancing about as if he were popcorn over a hot fire. Then, when he had quieted down, and remembered that his forefeet were given him to walk with and not to paw the air, Mr. Barrymore led him gently up to our automobile, patting his neck all the time. He snorted and quivered for a minute, then smelt of what Mr. Barrymore calls the "bonnet," with the funniest expression of disgust and curiosity.

I imagined the horse was thinking, "This is a very nasty thing, but it seems to belong to the nicest, kindest man I ever met, so perhaps it isn't as bad after all as I thought at first."

The driver's scowl turned to a smile, as he eventually drove by, we waiting till he had got safely past.

"I think that was real nice of you, Mr. Barrymore," said Mamma, as we went teuf-teufing on again.

She is always a little uneasy with him, because, though he's a friend of Sir Ralph Moray's, he's only a chauffeur, and she isn't quite sure whether she oughtn't to patronize him a little to keep up her dignity as a Countess. But it was a good sign that she should remember his name for once. As for me, I've given him one for use behind his back, which is to make up for his lack of a title, express his gorgeousness and define his profession all at the same time. It is "Chauffeulier," and I rather pride myself on it.

"It was only decent," he answered Mamma. "I love horses, and I've enough imagination to guess pretty well how one feels when he's called upon to face some unknown horror, with no sympathy from behind. It would have been sheer brutality not to stop motor and all for that poor white chap. He won't be as bad next time; and perhaps his master will have learned a little common sense too. All the same, that kind of adventure spells delay, and I hope this tunnel isn't infested with timid horses. Luckily, the line seems all clear ahead."

A few minutes more, and looking before and after, we could see far away two little oval pearls of daylight, one straight ahead, one straight behind. It was like having one's foresight as good as one's hindsight; which in real life, outside tunnels, would save a lot of disasters. Mr. Barrymore explained that we'd reached the apex of two slopes, and now we would be descending gradually.

It gave us a shock to burst out into the sunlight again by-and-by, but it was a glorious shock, with a thrill as the dazzling white mountains seemed to leap at our eyes.

If you speak of zigzags going up hill, oughtn't you to call them zagzigs going down? Anyway, there they were, hundreds of them apparently, looking something as a huge corkscrew might look if it had been laid on a railroad track for a train to flatten.

We began to fly down, faster and faster, the motor making no noise at all. At each turn of the corkscrew it seemed to me as if we must leap over into space, and I felt as if I had been struck by lightning; but always our chauffeur steered so as to give plenty of margin between our tyres and the edge of the precipice; and by-and-by I was thoroughly charged with electricity so that I ceased to be actually afraid. All I felt was that my soul was covered with a very thin, sensitive skin.

"Oh, Mr. Terrymore, for mercy's sake, for heaven's sake...!" wailed Mamma. "I don't feel able to die to-day."

"You shan't, if I can help it," answered Mr. Barrymore, without looking round; but as he never wears goggles, I could see his face plainly from my place by his side, and I thought it had rather an odd, stern expression. I wondered whether he were cross with Mamma for seeming to doubt his skill, or whether something else was the matter. But instead of fading away, the expression seemed to harden. He looked just as I should think a man might look if he were going to fight in a battle. I awfully wanted to ask if anything were wrong, but something mysterious-a kind of atmosphere around him, like a barrier I could feel but not see-wouldn't let me.

"I believe the thing is broken, somehow," I said to myself; and the thought was so awful, when I stared down at all those separate layers of precipice which we would have to risk before we reached human-level (if we ever reached it) that my heart pounded like a hammer in my side. It was a terrible sensation, yet I revelled in it with a kind of desperate joy; for everything depended on the eye, and nerve, and hand of this one man whom it was so thrilling to trust.

Each time we twisted round a corkscrew I gave a sigh of relief; for it was one less peril to pass on the way to safety.

"Do just stop for a moment and let us breathe," cried Mamma; and my suspicions were confirmed by Mr. Barrymore's answer, thrown over his shoulder. "It's best not, Countess," he said. "I'll explain afterwards."

Mamma is always ecstatic for an instant after any one has addressed her as "Countess," so she didn't insist, and only murmured to herself, "Oh, why did I leave my peaceful home?" in a minor wail which showed me that she wasn't really half as anxious as I was. But if she could have seen Mr. Barrymore's profile, and had the inspiration to read it as I did, she would probably have jumped out of the automobile in full flight. Whereupon, though she might have gained a crown to wear upon her forehead, all those on her brushes and powder-pots, and satchels and trunks, would have been wasted. Poor little Mamma!

We plunged down below the snow-line; we saw far beneath us a wide, green valley, where other people, the size of flies, were safe if not happy. We passed some barracks, where a lot of sturdy little mountain soldiers stopped bowling balls in a dull, stony square to watch us fly by. We frightened some mules; we almost made a horse faint away; but the Chauffeulier showed no desire to stop and let them admire our "bonnet" at close quarters.

The excitement of the drive, and my conviction that Mr. Barrymore was silently fighting some unseen danger for us all, filled me with a kind of intoxication. I could have screamed; but if I had, it wouldn't have been with cowardly fear. Partly, perhaps, the strange exhilaration came from the beauty of the world on which we were descending almost as if we were falling from the sky. I felt that I could have lovely thoughts about it-almost as poetical as Maida's-if only I had had time; but as it was, the ideas jostled each other in my mind like a crowd of people rushing to catch a train.

From behind, I could hear Maida's voice from moment to moment, as she talked to Mamma or Sir Ralph, innocently unsuspicious of any hidden danger.

"Isn't it all wonderful?" she was saying. "Day before yesterday we left riotous, tumultuous summer on the Riviera; found autumn in the Roya valley, chill and grim, though so magnificent; and came into winter snows this morning. Now we've dropped down into spring. It's like a fairy story I read once, about a girl whose cruel stepmother drove her from home penniless, and sent her into the mountains at dead of night, telling her never to come back unless she could bring an apronful of strawberries for her stepsister. The poor girl wandered on and on in the dark in a terrible storm, until at last she strayed to a wild mountain-top, where the twelve Months lived. Some were old men, wrapped in long cloaks; some were young and ardent; some were laughing boys. With a stroke of his staff, each Month could make what he would with the weather. Father January had but to wave his stick to cause the snow to fall; May, in pity for the girl's tears, created a rose garden, while his brother's snow-wreaths were melting; but it was June who finally understood what she wanted, and gave her a bed of fragrant strawberries. I feel as if we had wandered to the house of the Months, and they were waving their staffs to create miracles for us."

"It will be a miracle if we ever get out of the house of the Months and into one of our own," I said to myself, almost spitefully, for the talk in the tonneau did seem frivolous when I glanced up furtively at that tight-set mouth of Mr. Barrymore's. And after that, to look down from a frame of snow mountains through a pinky-white haze of plum, cherry, and pear blossoms to delicate green meadows sparkling with a thick gold-dust of dandelions, was for me like going out to be tried for my life in a frock made by a fairy.

I hardly breathed until the corkscrew uncurled itself at last and turned into an ordinary downhill road. Our car slackened speed, and finally, as we came upon the first long, level stretch, to my astonishment moved slower and more slowly until it stopped dead.

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