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   Chapter 13 A CHAPTER OF WILD BEASTS

My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 22316

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"The dear thing! How nice to see it again! I could kiss it," I heard Maida saying. Something was snorting dreadfully, too. I'm not sure which waked me. But I sleepily asked Maida what it was she could kiss.

"Why, the automobile, of course," she replied. "Now, Beechy, don't drop off again. It's down there in the courtyard. Can't you hear it calling? This is the third time I've tried to wake you up."

"Oh, I thought it was the Ten of Clubs roaring, while I dipped him repeatedly into boiling cod-liver oil," I murmured; but I jumped out of bed and dressed myself as if the house were on fire.

Mamma said that she had been up since six; and I knew why; she hadn't liked to make herself beautiful under the eyes of Maida, so exquisitely adorned by Nature. But she was fresh and gay as a cricket.

In the salle à manger were Sir Ralph and Mr. Barrymore, who had brought the motor from the machine shop. He looked as well tubbed and groomed as if he had had two hours for his toilet, instead of twenty minutes; and we laughed a great deal as we told our night adventures, feeling as if we'd been friends for months, if not years. It was much nicer without the Prince, I thought, though Mamma kept glancing at the door, and showed her disappointment on learning that he had stolen off to sleep at Alessandria. Joseph, it seemed, had telegraphed him this morning about the water-wheel, and the news that his automobile couldn't be ready till twelve or one o'clock.

As we thankfully turned our backs on Cuneo we realized why it had been given a name signifying "wedge," because of the two river torrents, the Stura and Gesso, that whittle the town to a point, one on either side. For a while we ran smoothly along a road on a high embankment, which reminded Sir Ralph and the Chauffeulier of the Loire; less beautiful though, they thought, despite the great wedding-ring of white mountains that girdled the country round.

By and by the mountains dwindled to hills, purple and blue in the distance, misty spring-green in the foreground; in place of the dandelions of yesterday we had a carpet of buttercups woven in gold on either side of the road. There was always the river, too; and, as Maida said, water brightens a landscape as a diamond brightens a ring.

The air was as warm now as on the Riviera but there was a tingle of youth and spring in it, while at Cap Martin it was already heavy with the perfume of summer flowers. And we had not to be sorry for poor people to-day, for there were no poverty-stricken villages. The country was rich, every inch cultivated, and there were comfortable farms with tall, important-looking gateways. But, then, Mr. Barrymore told us that it was no safer to judge an Italian farm by its gateway than an Italian village shop by the contents of its windows.

After a while, just as we might have begun to tire of the far-reaching plain, it broke into billows, each earthy wave crested by a ruined chateau, or a still thriving medi?val town. Bra was the finest, with a grand old red-brown castle towering high on a hill, and throwing a cool shadow all across the hot, white road below.

"We must stop in Asti, if it's but for ten minutes," said Sir Ralph.

"Why?" asked Maida, over her shoulder (she was sitting in the front seat again, where Mr. Barrymore had contrived to put her). "Do you mean on account of Vittorio Alfieri?"

"Who is he?" inquired Mamma; and I was wondering, too; but I hate to show that I don't know things Maida knows.

"Oh, he was a charming poet, born in Asti in the middle of the eighteenth century," said Maida. "I've read a lot about him, at-at home. He had one of the prettiest love stories in history. It is like an Anthony Hope romance. I thought, perhaps, Sir Ralph wanted us to see the house where he lived."

"I'm ashamed to say it was the Asti Spumante I was thinking of," confessed Sir Ralph. "It's a wine for children, but it might amuse you all to taste it on its native heath; and you could drink the health of Vittorio Alfieri-in a better world."

Mamma thought that proceeding rather too Popish for a professed Presbyterian; nevertheless, we decided to have the wine. We approached Asti by way of a massive gateway, which formed a part of the ancient fortifications of the city; and though we had seen several others rather like it since coming into Piedmont and Lombardy, it struck me with a sort of awe that I would have been ashamed to put into words, except on paper, for fear somebody might laugh. I suppose it's because I come from a country where we think houses aged at fifty, and antique at a hundred; but these old fortified towns and ruined castles frowning down from rocky heights give me the kind of eerie thrill one might have if one had just died and was being introduced to scenery and society on the fixed stars or planets.

At home it had always seemed so useless to know which was which, Guelfs or Ghibellines, when I was studying history, that I made no effort to fix them in my mind; but now, when I caught snatches of talk between Maida and the Chauffeulier, to whom the Guelfs and Ghibellines are still apparently as real as Republicans and Democrats were to Papa, I wished that I knew a little more about them. But how could I tell in those days that I would ever be darting about in a country where George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would seem more unreal than the Swabian Emperors, the Marquesses of Montferrat, and the Princes of Savoie ever did to me in Denver?

I envied Maida when I heard her say that the House of Savoie had been like G?the's star, "unhasting and unresting" in its absorption of other principalities, marquisates, counties, duchies, and provinces, which it had matched into one great mosaic, at last, making the kingdom of Italy. Mr. Barrymore loves Italy so much that he likes her for knowing these things, and I think I shall steal that book she bought at Nice, and is always reading-Hallam's "Middle Ages."

The effect of the grim old gateways, even upon me, is a little marred by the fact that from out of their shadows usually jump small blue-uniformed Octroi men like Jacks from a box. At Asti there was a particularly fussy one, who wouldn't take Mr. Barrymore's word that we'd nothing to declare, but poked and prodded at our hold-alls and bags, and even sniffed as if he suspected us of spirits, tobacco, or onions. He looked so comic as he did this that Maida laughed, which appeared to overwhelm him with remorse, as if an angel had had hysterics. He flushed, bowed, motioned for us to pass on, and we sailed into a wide, rather stately old street.

"Oh, look!" Maida cried out, pointing, and the Chauffeulier slowed down before a house with a marble tablet on it. It was almost a palace; and Mamma began to feel some respect for Vittorio Alfieri when she read on the slab of marble that he had been born there. "Why, he must have been a gentleman!" she exclaimed.

Maida and Mr. Barrymore laughed at that, and Sir Ralph said that evidently the Countess had a small opinion of poets.

"Another Countess loved Alfieri," remarked Mr. Barrymore; and when Mamma heard that, she made a note to buy his poems. But I don't believe she knew who the Countess of Albany was, though she was able to join feebly in the conversation about the Young Pretender.

We went into the house, and wandered about some cold, gloomy rooms, in one of which Vittorio had happened to be born. We saw his portrait, and a sonnet in his own handwriting, which Mr. Barrymore translated for Maida, and would for me, perhaps, only I was too proud to interrupt. Altogether I should have felt quite out of it if it hadn't been for Sir Ralph. After our talk about the worm and other things, he couldn't help guessing what my feelings were, and he did his best to make me forget my sorrow. He said that he didn't know anything about the Italian poets except the really necessary ones, such as Dante and Petrarch, and as little as possible of them. Then he asked about the American ones, and seemed interested in Walt Whitman and Eugene Field and James Whitcomb Riley, all of whom I can recite by the yard.

When we had scraped up every item of interest about Alfieri, as Papa used to scrape up butter for his bread rather than take a fresh bit, we spun on again to an old-fashioned hotel, where everybody rushed to meet us, bowing, and looked ready to cry when they found we didn't want rooms.

"Perhaps the Countess would absolve you from your vow of temperance, Terry, that you may have the exquisite delight of quaffing a little Asti Spumante," said Sir Ralph to Mr. Barrymore, when we were at a table in a large, cool dining-room.

"Why, of course," replied Mamma, and then opened her eyes wide when both men laughed, and Mr. Barrymore intimated that Sir Ralph's head would be improved by punching. Neither of them would take any of the wine when it came, though it looked fascinating, fizzling out of beautiful bottles decked with gold and silver foil, like champagne. It tasted like champagne too, so far as I could tell; but perhaps I'm not a judge, as there was never any wine except elderberry at home, and I've only had champagne twice since I've been the child of a Countess. The Asti was nice and sweet. I loved it, and so did Mamma, who said she would have it, torrents of it, at the next dinner party she gave. But when Sir Ralph hurried to tell her that it was cheap, she vacillated, worrying lest it shouldn't be worthy to go with her crowns.

I don't know whether it was the Spumante, or the sunshine, as golden as the wine, but I felt quite happy again when we drove out of Asti. I didn't care at all that I wasn't sitting beside Mr. Barrymore, though I thought that I probably should care again by and by. Mamma was happy, too, and Sir Ralph amused us by planning a book to be called "Motoring for Experts, by Experts." There were a good many Rules for Automobilists, such as:-

No. 1. Never believe you have got money enough with you when you start. Whatever you think will be right, be sure you will want exactly twice as much.

No. 2. Never suppose you have plenty of time, or plenty of room for your luggage. Never get up in the morning at the time your chauffeur (not Mr. Barrymore, but others) tells you he will have the car ready. Do not leave your bed till the automobile is under your window, and do not pack the things you have used for the night until the chauffeur has started your motor for the third time.

No. 3. All invalids, except those suffering from pessimism, may hope to be benefited by motoring; but pessimism in a mild form often becomes fatally exaggerated by experience with automobiles, especially in chauffeurs.

No. 4. Hoping that things which have begun to go wrong with a motor will mend, should be like an atheist's definition of faith: "believing what you know isn't true." If you think a bearing is hot, but hope against hope it 's only oil you smell, make up your mind that it is the bearing.

No. 5. Never dream that you'll get anywhere sooner than you thought you would, for it will always be later; or that a road may improve, for it i

s sure to grow worse; or that your chauffeur, or anyone you meet, knows anything about the country through which you are to pass, for every one will direct you the wrong way.

No. 6. If your chauffeur tells you that your car will be ready in an hour, it will be three, if not four; if he says that you can start on again that afternoon, it will be to-morrow before lunch.

No. 7. Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the motor-cars of Princes.

No. 8. Cultivate your bump of presence of mind, and the automobile will see that you have plenty of other bumps.

We hadn't got half to the end of the rules we had thought of, when things began to happen. The road, which had been splendid all the way to Asti and beyond, seemed suddenly to weary of virtue and turn eagerly to vice. It grew rutty and rough-tempered, and just because misfortunes never come singly, every creature we met took it into its head to regard us with horror. Fear of us spread like an epidemic through the animal kingdom of the neighbourhood. A horse drawing a wagon-load of earth turned tail, broke his harness as if it had been of cobweb instead of old rope, and sprang lightly as a gazelle with all four feet into another wagon just ahead. A donkey, ambling gently along the road, suddenly made for the opposite side, dragging his fruit-laden cart after him, and smashed our big acetylene lamp into a brass pancake before Mr. Barrymore could stop. Children bawled; women, old and young, ran screaming up embankments and tried to climb walls at the bare sight of us in the distance; old men shook their sticks; and for a climax we plunged deep into a tossing sea of cattle just outside Alessandria.

It was market day, the Chauffeulier explained hastily, over his shoulder, and the farmers and dealers who had bought creatures of any sort, were taking them away. As far as we could see through a floating cloud of dust, the long road looked like a picture of the animals' procession on their way to the ark. Our automobile might have stood for the ark, only it is to be hoped, for Noah's sake, after all he was doing for them, that the creatures behaved less rudely at sight of it, novelty though it must have been.

Great white, classic-looking oxen whose horns ought to have been wreathed with roses, but weren't, pawed the air, bellowing, or pranced down into ditches, pulling their new masters with them. Calves ran here and there like rabbits, while their mothers stood on their hind legs and pirouetted, their biscuit-coloured faces haggard with despair.

Mamma said that never before had she given cows credit for such sensitive spirits, but perhaps it was only Italian ones which were like that, and if so she would not drink milk in Italy. She was very much frightened, too; and talking of an automobile supplying bumps, her grip on Sir Ralph's arm must have supplied a regular pattern of bruises, during the animal episode.

But worse than the terrified beasts were the ones that were not terrified. Those were the most stupidly stolid things on earth, or the most splendidly reckless, we couldn't tell which; we knew only that they were irritating enough to have made Job dance with rage, if he had had an automobile. What they did was to wheel round at the sound of our horn, plant themselves squarely in the centre of the road, and stand waiting to see what we were, or else to trot comfortably along, without even taking the trouble to glance over their shoulders. As the road was too narrow for us to pass on either side, with an enormous ox lolling insolently in the middle, refusing to budge an inch, or an absurd cow taking infinite pains to amble precisely in front of the motor's nose, we were frequently forced to crawl for ten or fifteen minutes at the pace of a snail, or to stop altogether and push a large beast out of the way.

By the time we got into Alessandria, with its mighty maze of fortifications, I was so weak from laughing that I giggled hysterically at sight of the Prince standing in the doorway of a hotel which we were sailing past. I pointed at him, as Maida had pointed at Vittorio Alfieri's tablet, and Mamma gave a welcome meant to drown my giggle. Mr. Barrymore stopped, and His Highness came to the side of the car.

"I was so sorry to miss you this morning," he said, "but after bidding you au revoir last evening, I suddenly remembered that I had a friend in Alessandria whom I had not seen for long, and it occurred to me that I would pay him a visit. After all, I might have saved myself the pain, as I found that he was away."

"At least you saved yourself the pain of a bad night," said I.

"Oh, that would have been nothing," he exclaimed. "Indeed, if there were hardships to be borne, I would have preferred to share them with you."

I don't know what would have happened at that moment if I'd met Maida's eyes, or Sir Ralph's eyes, or indeed, any eyes on the prowl; but all avoided mine.

The Prince was expecting, or said that he was expecting Joseph to arrive at any instant with the car. Then he would follow us, and as we planned to stop at Pavia and he did not, he would be in Milan before us. We had suffered so many delays at the hands, or rather the hoofs of our four-footed brethren, that we had no time to waste in compliments with irrelevant Princes, so we quickly sped on again as well as the uneven road would allow, leaving behind the big fortified town which Mr. Barrymore said had been built by the Lombard League (whatever that was) as a place of arms to defy the tyranny of the Emperors.

Though the road was poor, except in bits, and gave us all the bumps mentioned in Sir Ralph's rules, the country was lovely and loveable. Grapes, mulberries, rice, and stuff called maize, which looked exactly like our American corn, grew together like a happy family of sisters, and from the hills dotted about, more thickly than Mamma's crowns on her toilet things, looked down old feudal castles as melancholy as the cypresses that stood beside them, like the sole friends of their adversity.

Of Tortona and Voghera I carried away only the ghost of an impression, for we darted through their long main streets, deserted in the noon-tide hour, and darted out again onto the straight white ribbon of road that was leading us across all Northern Italy. It was so dusty that Mamma, Maida, and I put on the motor-veils we had discarded after the first few hours of the trip till now; things made of pongee silk, with windows of talc over our eyes and little lace doors for our breath to pass through. It was fun when we would slacken speed in some town or village, to see how the young Italians tried to pry into the motor-masks' secrets and find out if we were pretty. How much more they would have stared at Maida than at her two grey-clad companions, if they had known! But behind the pongee and the talc, for once our features could flaunt themselves on an equality with hers. Even monks, brown of face and robe, gliding noiselessly through wide market places in the blue shadows of hoary campaniles, searched those talc windows of ours with a curiosity that was pathetic. Young officers, with great dark eyes and slender figures tightly buttoned-up in grey-blue uniforms, visibly preened themselves as the car with the three veiled ladies would sweep round a corner; and really I think there must be something rather alluring about a passing glance from a pair of eyes in a face that will always remain a mystery. If I were a man I believe I should find it so. Anyway, it's fun for a girl to guess how she would feel about things if she were a man. I suppose though, we 're generally wrong.

After we 'd frightened enough horses and other domestic animals to overstock the whole of Northern Italy and felt quite old in consequence (considerably over thirteen), a sweet peace fell suddenly upon us. We had passed the place where Napoleon's great battle was fought, and Voghera, where we might have stopped to see the baths but didn't, because we were all too hungry to be sincerely interested in anything absolutely unconnected with meals. Then turning towards Pavia, we turned at the same moment into Arcadia. There were no more beasts in our path, unless it was a squirrel or two; there were no houses, no people; there was only quiet country, with a narrow but deliciously smooth road, colonies of chestnut and acacia trees, and tall growths of scented grasses and blossoming grain. It was more like a by-path through meadows than an important road leading to a great town, and Mr. Barrymore had begun to wonder aloud if he could possibly have made a mistake at some cross-way, when we spun round a corner, and saw before us a wide yellow river. It lay straight in front, and we had to pass to the other side on the oddest bridge I ever saw; just old grey planks laid close together on top of a long, long line of big black boats that moved up and down with a lazy motion as the golden water of the Po flowed underneath.

"This is a famous bridge," said the Chauffeulier; so Mamma hurried to get out her camera and take a picture, while we picked our way daintily over the wobbly boards at a foot pace; and another of the man at the far end, who made us pay toll-so much for each wheel, so much for each passenger. Maida never takes photographs. She says she likes better just to keep a picture-gallery in her brain. Mamma always takes them, but as she usually has three or four on the same film, making a jumble of Chicago street-cars with Italian faces, legs, and sun-dials, as intricate as an Irish stew, I don't see that in the end they will be much of an ornament to the journal of travel we're all keeping.

"This is where the Po and the Ticino meet, so we're near Pavia," Mr. Barrymore told us; and if our eyes brightened behind our masks, it wasn't so much with interest in his information, as at the thought of lunch. For we were to lunch at Pavia, before seeing the Certosa that Maida had been talking about for hours with the Chauffeulier; and before us, as we crossed the Ticino-bridged by a dear, old, arching, wooden-roofed thing supported with a hundred granite columns-bubbled and soared a group of grey domes and campaniles against a turquoise sky.

The roofed bridge, that seemed to be a lounging place and promenade, led into a stately city, which impressed me as a regular factory for turning out Italian history, so old it was, and so conscious, in a dignified kind of way, of its own impressiveness. I felt sure that, if I could only remember, I must have studied heaps of things about this place at school; and the town was full of students who were probably studying them, with more profit, now. They were very Italian, very good-looking, very young youths, indeed; and they were all so interested in us that it seemed ungrateful not to pay more attention to them than to their background. They grouped round our automobile with a crowd of less interesting people, when we had stopped before a hotel, and some of the students came so close in the hope of seeing what was behind the motor-veils, that Maida was embarrassed, and Mamma and I pretended to be.

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