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My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 26968

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

It is wonderful how well it passes time to have a secret understanding with anybody; that is, if you're a girl, and the other person a man. Mr. Barrymore and Maida seemed hardly to have gone before they were back again; which pleased me very much. In attendance was a man with a mule-a grinning man; a ragged and reluctant mule; which was still more reluctant when it found out what it was expected to do. However, after a fine display of diplomacy on our Chauffeulier's part, and force on that of the mule's owner, the animal was finally hitched to the automobile with strong rope.

Mr. Barrymore had to sit in the driver's seat to steer, while the man led the mule, but we others decided to walk. Mamma's heels are not quite as high as her pride (when she's feeling pretty well), so she preferred to march on the road rather than endure the ignominy of being dragged into even the smallest of villages behind the meanest of beasts.

A train for Cuneo was due at Limone, it seemed, in an hour, and we could walk there in about half that time, Mr. Barrymore thought. He had made arrangements with the capo di stazione, as he called him, to have a truck in readiness. The automobile would be put on it, and the truck would be hitched to the train.

Maida and I were delighted with everything; and when Mamma grumbled a little, and said this sort of thing wasn't what she'd expected, we argued so powerfully that it was much more fun getting what you did not expect, than what you did, that we brought her round to our point of view, and set her laughing with the rest of us.

"After all, what does it matter, as long as we're all young together?" said she, at last; and then I knew that the poor dear was happy.

Sir Ralph considered Limone an ordinary Italian village, but it seemed fascinating to us. The fruit stalls, under overhanging balconies, looked as if piled with splendid jewels; rubies, amethysts and pearls, globes of gold, and silver, and coral, as big as those that Aladdin found in the wonderful cave. Dark girls with starry eyes and clouds of hair stood gossipping in old, carved doorways, or peered curiously down at us from oddly shaped windows; and they were so handsome that we liked them even when they doubled up with laughter at our procession, and called their lovers and brothers to laugh too.

Men and women ran out from dark recesses where they sold things, and from two-foot-wide alleys which the sun could never have even seen, staring at us, and saying "molta bella" as Maida passed. She really was very effective against the rich-coloured background-like a beautiful white bird that had strayed into the narrow village streets, with sunshine on its wings. But she didn't seem to realize that she was being looked at in a different way from the rest of us. "I suppose we're as great curiosities to them, as they are to us," she said, lingering to gaze at the gorgeous fruit, or some quaint Catholic emblems for sale in dingy windows, until Sir Ralph had to hurry her along lest we should miss the train.

We were in plenty of time, though; and at the railroad dep?t (according to me), or the railway station (according to Sir Ralph and our Chauffeulier), the automobile had been got onto the truck before the train was signalled. Our tickets had been bought by Mr. Barrymore, who would pay for them all, as he said it was "his funeral," and we stood in a row on the platform, waiting, when the train boomed in.

As it slowed down, car after car passing us, Mamma gave a little scream and pointed. "Look, there's another automobile on a truck!" said she. "My goodness, if it isn't exactly like the Prince's!"

"And if that isn't exactly like the Prince!" echoed Sir Ralph, waving his hand at the window of a car next to the truck.

We all broke into a shout of ribald joy. Not even a saint could have helped it, I'm sure; for Maida is pretty near to a saint, and she was as bad as any of us.

The Prince's head popped back into the window, like a rabbit's into its hole; but in another second he must have realized that it was no use playing 'possum when there, within a dozen yards, was that big scarlet runner of his, as large as life, though not running for the moment. He quickly decided to make the best of things by turning the tables upon us, and pointing the finger of derision at our automobile, which by careening himself out of the window he could see on its truck.

Before the train had stopped, he was down on the platform, gallantly helping Mamma up the high step into the compartment where he had been sitting; so we all followed.

"You broke something, I see," His Highness remarked jovially, as if nothing had ever happened to him.

"It was you who broke it," said I, before either of our men could speak.

"But I mean something in your motor," he explained.

"Yes, its heart! The long agony of towing you up those miles of mountain was too much for it. But motors' hearts can be mended."

"So can young ladies', n'est-ce pas? Well, this is an odd meeting. I telegraphed you, Countess, to the hotel at Cuneo, where we arranged our rendezvous, in case you arrived before me, to say that I was on the way; but now we will all go there together. Since we parted I have had adventures. So, evidently, have you. Joseph's repairs were so unsatisfactory, owing to his own inefficiency and that of the machine shop, that I saw the best thing to do was to come on by train to Cuneo, where proper tools could be obtained. After some difficulty I found horses to tow me up to the railway terminus at Vievola, where I succeeded in getting a truck, and-voila!"

Whereupon Mamma poured a history of our exploits into the Prince's ears, exaggerating a little, but saying nothing detrimental to our Chauffeulier, who would perhaps not have cared or even heard if she had, for he was showing things to Maida through the window.

"We're in Piedmont now," he said. "How peaceful and pretty, and characteristically Italian it is, with the vines and chestnut trees and mulberries! Who would think, to see this richly cultivated plain, that it was once appropriately nicknamed 'the cockpit of Europe,' because of all the fighting that has gone on here between so many nations, ever since the dawn of civilization? It's just as hard to realize as to believe that the tiny rills trickling over pebbly river-beds which we pass can turn into mighty floods when they choose. When the snows melt on Monte Viso-that great, white, leaning tower against the sky-and on the other snow mountains, then is the time of danger in this land that the sun loves."

Mamma thought the train rather restful after an automobile, but I discouraged her in that opinion by saying that it sounded very old-fashioned, and she amended it by hurriedly remarking that, anyhow, she would soon be tired of resting and glad to get on again.

"That must be Cuneo, now," said Mr. Barrymore, pointing to a distant town which seemed to grow suddenly up out of the plain, very important, full of vivid colours, and modern looking after the strange, ancient villages we had passed on the way.

When we got out of the train Joseph was on the platform, more depressed than ever, but visibly brightening at sight of Mr. Barrymore, for whom he evidently cherishes a lively admiration; or else he regards him as a professional brother.

What happened to the two automobiles, I don't know, for we didn't stop to see. Sir Ralph had a hurried consultation with Mr. Barrymore, and then said that he would take us up to the hotel in a cab, with all our luggage.

There wasn't room for the Prince in our ramshackle old vehicle, and he took another, being apparently very anxious to arrive at the hotel before us. He spoke to his driver, who lashed the one poor nag so furiously that Maida cried out with rage, and they flashed past us, the horse galloping as if Black Care were on his back. But something happened to the harness, and they were obliged to stop; so we got ahead, and reached the wide-arcaded square of the hotel first after all.

It was quite a grand-looking town, for a middle-sized one, but Mamma drew back hastily when she had taken a step into the hall of the hotel. "Oh, we can't stop here!" she exclaimed. "This must be the worst instead of the best."

With that several little men in greasy dress-coats, spotted shirts, and collars so low that you could see down their necks, sprang forward and bowed very humbly, like automata. "May I have the extreme honour of asking if it is her very high grace, Madame the Countess Dalmar and suite who felicitate our humble hotel with their presence?" inquired the fattest and spottiest in one long French breath.

Mamma drew herself up to her full height, which must be at least five feet three, heels included. I don't know exactly what it is to bridle, but I'm sure she did it. She also moistened her lips and smiled with both dimples.

"Wee, wee, jay swee Countess Dalmar," she admitted, leaving her suite to account for itself.

"Then I have here a telegram for madame," went on the man, giving her a folded paper which, with an air, he drew forth from an unspeakable pocket.

Mamma looked important enough for a princess, at least, as she accepted (I can't say took) the paper and opened it. "Oh, I might have known," she said, "it's that one the Prince sent this morning. But isn't it funny he telegraphs 'Automobile in grand condition, took hills like bird, shall make slight détour for pleasure, but will reach Cuneo almost as soon as your party. Dalmar-Kalm.' I don't understand, do you?"

"I understand why the Prince was willing to be left behind at Tenda, and why he wanted to get to this hotel first, anyhow," said I; and Sir Ralph and I were laughing like mad when his belated Highness appeared on the scene. Seeing Mamma with the telegram in her hand, he explained volubly that it had been sent before he decided to save time and wear and tear by coming on the train; but he was red, and stammery, and Sir Ralph looked almost sympathetic, which made me wonder whether all motor-men sometimes tell fibs.

After being received with so much appreciation, Mamma began to think that perhaps the hotel wasn't so dreadful after all; and when Sir Ralph gave his opinion that it would prove as good as any other, she said that we would stay.

"I should be sorry to hurt the people's feelings, as they seem such nice men," she sighed. "But-I suppose it will only be for coffee?"

"I'm sorely afraid it will be for dinner to-night and breakfast to-morrow morning too," replied Sir Ralph. "It's too bad that virtue such as ours should have such a reward. We did unto others as we would they should do unto us; and this is the consequence. Terry intends to work all night on the car, if he can get the mechanic to keep his shop going, and we may hope to start as early in the morning as you like."

"Perhaps Joseph may have mine ready to-night, in which case I can take the ladies on-" the Prince began, but Mamma was too overcome to hear him. Trying to look like a Countess at all costs, she allowed herself and us to be led, as lambs to the slaughter, up a flight of dirty stone stairs, to see the bedrooms.

"You will have our best, is it not, Madame la Comtesse?" inquired the man of the hotel, who seemed to be a cross between a manager and a head-waiter, and who swelled with politeness behind a shirt-front that resembled nothing so much as the ten of clubs. "Yes, I was sure of that, gracious madame. You and your suite may assure yourselves that you will be placed in our chambres de luxe."

With this announcement, he threw open a door, and stood salaaming that we might file in before him.

Mamma pitched forward down a step, shrieked, tottered, saved herself by clawing the air, while Maida and I both pitched after her, falling into fits of laughter.

It couldn't have been colder in the spotty man's family vault, and I hope not as musty.

Maida flew to one of the two windows, set deep in the thickness of the wall, and darkened by the stone arcade outside. But apparently it was hermetically sealed, and so was the other which I attacked. The Ten of Clubs looked shocked when we implored him to open something-anything; and it was with reluctance that he unscrewed a window. "The ladies will be cold," he said. "It is not the weather for letting into the house the out of doors. We do that in the summer."

"Haven't these windows been opened since then?" gasped Maida.

"But no mademoiselle. Not to my knowledge."

"Make him show us other rooms, quick," said Mamma, who can't speak much more French than a cat, though she had a lesson from a handsome young gentleman every day at Cap Martin, at ten francs an hour.

"This is the only one that will accommodate the ladies," replied the Ten of Clubs. "The other that we have unoccupied must be for the gentlemen."

The idea of our two men and the Prince as room-mates was so excruciating that I suddenly felt equal to bearing any hardship; but Mamma hasn't the same sense of humour I have, and she said that she knew she was sickening for something, probably smallpox.

"Three of us in this room all night!" she wailed. "We shall never leave the hotel alive."

At this juncture Sir Ralph appeared at the door, peeping gingerly in at us, and looking the picture of misery.

"I'm so sorry for everything," he said. "Terry's down-stairs, and we both feel that we're awful sweeps, though w

e hope you won't think we are. He's going to interview the other hotels and see if he can find anything better, so don't decide till he comes back."

We three female waifs stood about and smelt things and imagined that we smelled still more things, while Sir Ralph exhausted himself in keeping up a conversation with the Ten of Clubs, as if all four of our lives depended upon it. The ordeal lasted only about ten minutes, though it seemed a year, and then Mr. Barrymore's tall form loomed in the dark doorway.

"There's nothing better," he announced desperately. "But you ladies can go on to Alessandria by train with Dalmar-Kalm, who'll be only too happy to take you."

"What, and desert Mr. Automobile-Micawber?" I cut in. "Never! We're none of us infirm old women, are we, Mamma, that we should mind roughing it, for once?"

"No-o," said Mamma. "It-I dare say it will be fun. And anyhow, we can have them make a fire here, so it will be less like picnicking in one's own grave."

The very thought of a fire was cheering, and we trooped off to the salle à manger, where it was understood that the Prince had gone to order coffee. Mr. Barrymore wouldn't stay, for he was anxious to get back to the motor, which he had left at a machinist's, and deserted only long enough to come and give us news. The "shop" was to keep open all night, and he would work there, making a new cone. Joseph, it seemed, was to work all night in another shop, and both automobiles were to be ready in the morning.

"But you will be horribly tired, driving through the day and working through the night," said Maida. "I for one would rather stop here to-morrow."

"It's nothing, thanks. I shall rather like it," replied the Chauffeulier. "Please don't worry about me." Then he gave us a smile and was off.

The coffee was so good that our spirits rose. We decided to unpack what we needed, and then, by way of passing the time before dinner, take a walk.

Strange to say, the Prince did not complain of his quarters, but, after we had for the second time refused his offer of an escort to Alessandria, became somewhat taciturn. We left him in the salle à manger, Mamma heading the procession of three which trailed to our room. Maida and I lingered behind for a moment, to play with our first Italian cat, until a wild cry of "Fire!" from Mamma took us after her with a rush. A cloud of wood smoke beat us back, but Maida pushed bravely in, got a window open again, and, after all, there was nothing more exciting than a smoky chimney.

Sir Ralph, hearing the clamour, flew to the rescue, poured water from the pitcher into the ricketty three-legged stove, upset a good deal on himself and on the cemented floor (which looked like a slab of frozen sausage), and finally succeeded in putting out the fire, though not until both beds were covered with blacks.

By this time the Ten of Clubs, the Nine, the Eight, and all the little cards of the pack were dancing about us in a state bordering on frenzy, but Maida and Sir Ralph together eventually evolved a kind of unlovely order out of chaos, and everybody was told off to perform some task or other: one to sweep, one to dust, one to change the bedding.

In self-defence we hurried off for our walk, leaving the unpacking for later, and Sir Ralph proposed that we should find the machine shop where the Chauffeulier was working.

We asked the way of a good many people, all of whom gave us different directions, and at last arrived at a building which looked as if it might be the right place. But there was Joseph pounding and mumbling to himself, and no Mr. Barrymore.

In common humanity we stopped for a few words, and Joseph mistook our inch of sympathy for an ell. Almost with tears he told us the history of his day, and choked with rage at the prospect of the long task before him. "What is it to His Highness that I lose a night's sleep?" he demanded of a red-hot bar which he brandished at arm's length. "Less than nothing, since he will sleep, believing that all will be ready for him in the morning. But his dreams would be less calm if he knew what I know."

"What do you know, Joseph?" asked Sir Ralph, edging nearer to the door.

"That the water-power will be shut off at eleven o'clock, the lathes will no longer turn, and I can do nothing more till to-morrow morning at six, which means that we will not get away till noon."

"By Jove, that's a bad look-out for us, too," said Sir Ralph, when we had escaped from Joseph. "I suppose things will be the same at Terry's place. What a den for you to be delayed in! But I've an idea the Prince means to sneak quietly off to Alessandria, and will expect Joseph to meet him there to-morrow morning. My prophetic soul divined as much from his thoughtful air as we discussed our quarters."

It was almost dark when we found the other machine shop, at the end of a long straight road with a brook running down it, and trees walking beside it, straight and tall. It was a wonderful, luminous kind of darkness, though, that hadn't forgotten the sunset, and the white mountains were great banks of roses against a skyful of fading violets. But the minute we stepped inside the machine shop, which was lighted up by the red fire of a forge, night seemed suddenly to fall like a black curtain, shutting down outside the open door and windows.

Two or three men were moving about the place, weedy little fellows; and Mr. Barrymore was like a giant among them, a splendid giant, handsomer than ever in a workman's blouse of blue linen, open at the throat, and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows to show muscles that rippled under the skin like waves on a river.

That was what I thought, at least; but Sir Ralph apparently differed with me, for he said, "You do look a sweep. Isn't it about time you dropped work, and thought of making yourself respectable for dinner? Judging by appearances, that will take you several hours."

"I'm going to have a sandwich and some wine of the country here," answered the giant in the blue blouse. "Awfully good of you all to come and call on me. Would you like to see the new cone, as far as it's got?"

Of course we said "yes," and were shown a thing which looked as if it might be finished in ten minutes; but when Sir Ralph commented on it to that effect, Mr. Barrymore went into technical explanations concerning "cooling" and other details of which none of us understood anything except that it would be an "all night job."

"But you can't work without the water-wheel, I suppose?" said Sir Ralph. "And we've just heard from Joseph toiling away at a rival establishment, that the water is taken off at eleven."

"This water won't be. I'm paying extra for it. As a great concession I'm to have it all night. Joseph could have got it, too, if he'd had a little forethought."

"Joseph and forethought! Never. And what is more, I don't think he'd thank us for the information. He is rejoicing in the thought of an excuse for bed."

"That's the difference between a chauffeur and a Chauffeulier," I whispered to Maida.

"It's really very good of you to work so hard," said Mamma, condescending to the blue blouse.

"I never enjoyed anything more in my life," replied its wearer, with a quick glance towards Maida, which I intercepted. "The one drop of poison in my cup is the thought of your discomfort," he went on, to us all. "You must make them give you warming-pans anyhow, and be sure that the beds are dry."

"I should think they're more like swamps than beds," said Mamma. "We shall sit up rather than run any risk."

"Besides," I began, "there might be-"

Two or three men were moving about the place

"Hush, Beechy!" she indignantly cut me short.

"I was only going to say there might be-"

"You mustn't say it."

"Sofa birds."

"You naughty, dreadful child. I am astonished."

"Don't prig or vipe, Mamma. Sir Ralph, don't you think those are nice abbreviations? I made them up myself. 'Prig', be priggish. 'Vipe', be viperish. Mamma's not at all nice when she's either."

"I think you're all wonderfully good-natured," remarked Mr. Barrymore hastily. "You are the right sort of people for a motoring trip, and no other sort ought to undertake one. Only men and women of fairly venturesome dispositions, who revel in the unexpected, and love adventure, who can find fun in hardships, and keep happy in the midst of disappointments, should set out on such an expedition as this."

"In fact, young people like ourselves," added Mamma, beaming again.

"Yes, young in heart, if not in body. I hope to be still motoring when I'm eighty; but I shall feel a boy."

We left him hammering, and looking radiantly happy, which was more than we were as we wandered back to the arcaded town and our hotel; but we felt obliged to live up to the reputation Mr. Barrymore had just given us.

Somehow, the Ten of Clubs and his assistant cards (there were no chambermaids) had contrived to make a fire that didn't smoke, and the bed linen looked clean, though coarse. Dinner-which we ate with our feet on boards under the table, to keep them off the cold stone floor-was astonishingly good, and we quite enjoyed grating cheese into our soup on a funny little grater with which each one of us was supplied. We had a delicious red wine with a little sparkle in it, called Nebiolo, which Sir Ralph ordered because he thought we would like it; and when we had finished dining, Mamma felt so much encouraged that she spoke quite cheerfully of the coming night.

We went to our room early, as we were to start at eight next day, and try to get on to Pavia and Milan. We had said nothing to the Prince about the water-wheel, as it was not our affair to get Joseph into trouble with his master; and I'm afraid that all of us except Mamma derived a sinful amusement from the thought of His Highness's surprise in the morning, at Alessandria or elsewhere. Even Maida's eyes twinkled naughtily as he bade us "au revoir, till our start," kissing Mamma's hand, and saying nothing of his night plans.

"I wonder, if we could go to bed, after all?" soliloquized Mamma, looking wistfully at the hard pillows and the red-cased down coverlets, when we were in our room. "What was that Mr. Terrymore said about warming-pans? I should have thought they were obsolete, except to hang up on parlour walls."

"I should think nothing that was in use six hundred years ago, was obsolete in an Italian town like this," said I. "Anyhow, I'll ring and see."

I did ring, but nobody answered, of course, and I had to yell over the top of the stairs for five minutes, when the Ten of Clubs appeared, looking much injured, having evidently believed that he was rid of us for the night.

He almost wept in his earnest endeavours to assure us that the bedding was as dry and warm as the down on a swan's breast; but when Maida insisted on warming-pans, he admitted that they existed in the house.

We were sleepy, but having ordered warming-pans which might stalk in at any moment, we could not well begin to undress until they had been produced and manipulated. We waited an hour, until we were nodding in our chairs, and all started from a troubled doze at the sound of loud knocking at the door.

In the passage outside stood four sad-faced young men of the card tribe, bearing two large and extraordinary implements. One looked like a couple of kitchen chairs lashed together foot to foot, to make a cage, or frame, the space between being lined with sheets of metal. The other was a great copper dish with big enough holes pricked in the cover to show the red glow from a quantity of acrid smelling wood-ashes.

All four came into the room, solemn and silent, while we watched them, struck dumb with amazement.

They set down the things on the floor, turned open the larger bed of the two, which Mamma and I were to share, put in the huge frame, shoved the copper bowl inside it, as a cook would shove a dish into the oven, and replaced the covering. Then they stood and gravely waited for ten or fifteen minutes, till they thought that the dampness had been cooked out. We stood by also, momentarily expecting to see the bed break into flames; but nothing happened, except rather a nice, hot smell. At last, with one accord they flew at the blankets, turned them down, took out dish and frame, and repeated the same process with Maida's narrow bunk.

It took us nearly an hour afterwards to get ready for bed, but when we crept in at last it was like cuddling down in a hot bird's-nest, odorous of cooked moss.

In the daytime we hadn't noticed that the hotel was particularly noisy, though it apparently had most other vices; but ten o'clock seemed the hour when all the activities of the house and town began.

Church bells boomed; electric bells rang; myriads of heavy carts rolled through the stone-paved square; people sang, whistled, laughed, gossipped, quarrelled, and even danced in the street under our windows, while those in the hotel had apparently been advised by their physicians to run up and down stairs for hours without stopping, for the good of their livers.

It was a busy night for everybody, and my one consolation was in planning the dreadful tortures I would inflict on the whole population of Cuneo if I were King of Italy. I thought of some very original things, but the worst of it was, when I did finally fall asleep I dreamed that they were being tried on me


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