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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Luckiest Girl in the School By Angela Brazil Characters: 23977

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Winona Turns Chauffeur

After the Christmas holidays Winona returned to Abbey Close. Miss Beach was installed once more in her own home, though under strict orders from the doctor not to over-exert herself. During her stay at Harrogate she had bought a small two-seater car, and had learnt to drive it. She kept it at a garage in the town, and used it almost every day. It was invaluable to her as a means of getting about. She was anxious not to relinquish all her work in Seaton, but she could not now bear the fatigue of walking. In her car distance was no obstacle, and she could continue her inspection of boarded-out workhouse children, attend babies' clinics in country villages beyond the city area, visit the wives of soldiers and sailors, regulate the orphanage, and superintend the Tipperary Club. Miss Beach's energetic temperament made her miserable unless fully occupied, so, the doctor having forbidden her former strenuous round of duties, she adopted the car as a compromise, assuring him that she would limit her list to a few of her pet schemes only. It was probably her wisest course. It is very hard for elderly people to be laid on the shelf, and to feel that their services are set aside. Miss Beach had lived so entirely in her various philanthropic occupations, that to give everything up would have been a severe mental shock. As it was, she managed to obey medical orders, and at the same time, to a certain extent, keep her old place in the work of the city.

As the days became longer and lighter, she sometimes took her great-niece with her in the car. Winona had really very little time out of school hours; her duties as Games Captain were paramount, and hockey practices and matches absorbed most of her holiday afternoons. When she had an occasional free hour, however, it was an immense treat to go motoring. She loved the feeling of spinning along through the country lanes. It was delightful to see new places and fresh roads. Seaton was in the midst of a beautiful district, and there were charming villages, woods, and lovely views of scenery within easy distance.

One Saturday, when for a wonder there was no event at school, Miss Beach suddenly suggested that they should start in the car, take a luncheon basket with them, and explore some of the country in the neighborhood. It was a glorious spring morning, with a clear pale blue sky, and a touch of warmth in the sunshine that set winter to flight, and brought the buds out on the trees. On such a day the human sap, too, seems to rise, there is an exhilaration, physical and spiritual, when we long to run or to sing for the sheer vital joy of living, when our troubles don't seem to matter, and the future looks rosy, and for the moment we feel transferred to the golden age of the poets, when the world was young, and Pan played his pipes in the meadows among the asphodels. Winona, at any rate, was in an ecstatic frame of mind, and though Aunt Harriet did not openly express her enthusiasm, the mere fact of her suggesting such an outing proved that the spring had called her, and that she was ready to go out and worship at Nature's shrine. Do not imagine for a moment that Miss Beach, whatever her feelings, allowed any romantic element to appear on the surface. She fussed over the car, measured the amount of petrol left in the tank, debated whether she had better go to the garage for an extra can in case of emergencies, called out the cook to dust the seat, sent the housemaid flying to the attic for an air-cushion, inspected the lunch basket, gave half-a-dozen directions for things to be done in her absence, wrote last messages on a slate for people who might possibly call on business, scolded Winona for putting on her thin coat, and sent her to fetch her thick one and a rug for her knees, and finally, after a very breathless ten minutes got under way, and started forth. They drove slowly through the town traffic, but soon they had left streets behind, and were spinning along the high road in the direction of Wickborough.

Long as she had lived at Seaton, Miss Beach had never seen Wickborough Castle, and to-day she was determined to pay it a visit. It was a very ancient place, built originally by King Canute, in the days when red war was waged between Saxon and Norseman. Little of the old Danish tower remained, but successive generations had erected keep and turret, bastion and guard house, crumbling now indeed into ruins, but picturesque in their decay, and full of historical associations. Here proud Queen Margaret, hard pressed by her enemies, had found a timely shelter for herself and her little son, till an escort could convey her to a spot of greater safety; here Richard II. had pursued sweet unwilling Anne of Warwick, and forced her to accept his hated suit; Princess Mary had passed a part of her unhappy childhood within its walls, and Anne Boleyn's merry laugh had rung out there. The situation of the Castle was magnificent. It stood on the summit of a wooded cliff which ran sheer into the river, and commanded a splendid prospect of the country round, and a bird's-eye view of the little town that clustered at the foot of the crag.

"It's like an eagle's nest!" commented Winona, as leaving the car at the bottom of the hill they climbed on foot up the zigzag pathway to the keep. "It must have been a regular robber-baron's stronghold in the Middle Ages!"

Miss Beach had bought a guide-book, and rejecting the services of a persistent little girl who was anxious to point out the various spots of interest, with an eye to a tip, they strolled about, trying to reconstruct a fancy portrait of the place for themselves. Canute's tower was still left, a squat solid piece of masonry, with enormously thick walls and tiny lancet windows. It was rather dark, but as it was the only portion remaining intact, it was used as a museum, and various curiosities were preserved there. The great fire-place held a spit for roasting an ox whole, and had a poker five feet long; stone cannon-balls were piled up on the floor, and on the walls hung a medieval armory of helmets, gorgelets, breast-plates, coats of mail, shields and swords, daggers and lances. A special feature of the museum was a wax-work figure of a knight clad in full armor which gave an excellent idea of what Sir Bevis of Wickborough must have looked like somewhere about the year 1217. Another figure, dressed in rich velvet and fur, with flowered silk kirtle, represented his wife Dame Philippa, in the act of offering him a silver goblet of wine, while a hound stood with its head pressed to her hand. The group was so natural that it was almost startling, and took the spectator back as nothing else could have done to the ancient medieval days which it pictured. A small stair in the corner of the tower led down to a dungeon, where, lying among the straw, was an equally impressive wax-work figure of a prisoner, wretched, unkempt, and bound hand and foot with chains. A pitcher of water lay by his side, and a stuffed rat peering from the straw added a further touch of realism. Winona shuddered. It was a ghastly sight, and she was thankful to run up the stairs and go from the keep out into the spring sunshine. She had always had a romantic admiration for the Middle Ages, but this aspect of thirteenth-century life did not commend itself to her. "They were bad old times, after all!" she decided, and came to the conclusion that the twentieth century, even with its horrible war, was a more humane period to live in.

At the foot of the crag, close by the river, lay the remains of the old Priory Church, an ivy-covered fabric, whose broken chancel still gave a shelter to the battered tombs of the knights who had lived in the Castle above. Sir Bevis and Dame Philippa lay here in marble, their features calm and rigid, their hands folded in prayer, less human indeed, but infinitely grander than in their wax effigies of the tower. Seven centuries of sunshine and storm had passed over their heads, and castle and church were alike in ruins.

"Their bones are dust,

Their good swords rust,

Their souls are with the Saints, we trust,"

thought Winona, as she took a photograph of the quiet scene. It was deeply interesting, but on this glorious lovely spring day it seemed a little too sad. With all the birds singing, and the hedges in bud, and the daisies showing white stars among the grass, she wanted to live in the present, and not in the past. And yet, if we think about it rightly, the past is never really sad. Those who lived before us accomplished their work, and have passed onwards-a part of the world scheme-to, we doubt not, fuller and worthier work beyond. We, still in the preparatory class of God's great school, cannot yet grasp the higher forms, but those who have been moved up surely smile at our want of comprehension, and look back on this earth as the College undergraduate remembers his kindergarten; for the spiritual evolution goes ever on, working always Godwards, and when the human dross falls away, the imperfect and the partial will be merged into the perfect and the eternal. The broken eggshells may lie in the old nest, but the fledged larks are singing in the blue of the sky.

From the little town of Wickborough they drove along the old Roman road towards Danestone. Part of their way lay across Wickland Heath, and here, as it was now past mid-day, Miss Beach suggested that they should stop and take their lunch. It was a most glorious spot for a picnic. They were at the top of a tableland, and before them spread the Common, a brown sea of last year's heather and bilberry, with gorse bushes flaming here and there like golden fires. A sparrow-hawk, more majestic than any a?roplane, sailed serenely overhead, and a pair of whinchats, perturbed by his vicinity, flew with a sharp twitter over the low stone wall, and sought cover among the brambles. Beyond stretched the Roman road, broad and straight, a landmark for miles. Cities and civilization were far away, and they were alone with the moor and the peaty little brook, and the birds and the sun and the fresh spring wind. The joyous influence was irresistible; even Miss Beach dropped ten years' burden of cares, and waxed almost light-hearted. Winona had seldom seen her aunt in such a mood, and she seized the opportunity as a favorable moment to proffer a request which she had often longed, but had never hitherto dared, to make. It was no less a suggestion than that she might be allowed to try to drive the car. She put it in tentative fashion, fully expecting a refusal, but Aunt Harriet received the idea quite graciously.

"There's no reason why you shouldn't. The road's wide and straight, and not a vehicle in sight; you couldn't have a better place to learn on in the whole of the kingdom. Mind you do exactly what I tell you, that's all!"

Winona's face was shining. Ever since she had first seen the pretty little two-seater it had been her secret ambition to work its steering wheel for herself. She packed up the lunch basket in a hurry, for fear her aunt might repent. But Miss Beach seldom went back on her word, and was quite disposed and ready to act motor instructress. She began by explaining very carefully the various levers, and how to start.

"One golden rule," she urged, "is to take care the lever is at neutral before you begin, or the car will jump on you. Many motorists have had nasty accidents by omitting that most necessary precaution. Next you must see that the ignition is pushed back, or you'll get a back-fire in starting, and break your wrist. It must be just at this notch-do you see? Now you may swing round the handle."

The engine began to work, and Winona took her place in the driver's seat. Miss Beach, sitting by her side, showed her how to put the low gear in, then to put in the clutch. The car started off under Winona's guidance.

She gripped the steering wheel tightly, turning i

t to right or left at first according to her aunt's directions, but soon from instinctive comprehension. It was something like guiding a gigantic bicycle; she could not yet exactly estimate the amount of turn required, but she felt that it would come to her with practice. There was an immense exhilaration in feeling the car under her control. For a beginner, she really kept very steadily in the middle of the road; occasionally Aunt Harriet made a snatch at the wheel, but that was seldom necessary. They were going very slowly, only about ten miles an hour, but even that seemed a tolerable speed to a novice. The road was curving now, and Winona must steer round a corner; it was easier than she had expected, and her instructress ejaculated "Good!" The sense of balance was beginning to come to her. Such a tiny movement of the wheel sent the car to right or left; at first she had jerked it clumsily, now she could reckon the proportion with greater nicety. Was that something coming in the distance? "Sound your hooter!" shouted Aunt Harriet quickly, as a motor cycle hove in sight. In rather a panic, Winona squeezed the india-rubber bulb, making the car lurch as she took her hand momentarily from the wheel. "Keep well to the left!" commanded Miss Beach, and Winona, with her heart in her mouth, contrived to obey, and passed her first vehicle successfully. She heaved a sigh of relief when it had whizzed by, and the road was once more clear. Naturally, however, she could not expect to keep a thoroughfare all to herself. Further on, she overtook a farmer's cart full of little squealing pigs. As it occupied the exact center of the road she hooted (with great confidence this time), and, when it had swung to the left, she rounded it successfully on the right. A furniture van looked a terrible obstacle, but she passed it without assistance, and began to wax quite courageous. Three motor cars in succession tearing along one after another, and sounding ear-splitting electric hooters, left her nerves rather rocky. When houses and chimneys appeared in sight Miss Beach told her to stop.

"I daren't let a learner drive through a village. There are always too many children and dogs about the street. Change places with me now, and you shall try again when we come to a quiet road."

Rather thankful not to have to venture her 'prentice skill in the narrow winding street, Winona gave the wheel into her aunt's more experienced hands. It was only pro tem., however, for when they were once more in the open country Miss Beach continued the lesson, making her start and stop several times just for practice.

"I believe you know the routine now," she said. "It's the motorist's first catechism. Remember those cardinal rules, and you can't go so far wrong."

"Do experienced people ever forget them?" asked Winona.

"Sometimes, when they grow careless. Mr. Forster sprained his wrist the other day with a back-fire, which he ought to have avoided, and I heard of a horrible accident in Paris, when a chauffeur started his car with the clutch in gear, with the consequence that it dashed over a bridge into the Seine, and the occupants-a lady and two little children-were drowned before his eyes. There's no need to be nervous if you take proper care, but cars are not playthings to be trifled with."

They had reached a part of the country which Miss Beach had known as a child. She had not visited it since, and was interested to see again spots which had once been familiar.

"I remember the river perfectly," she said. "And that hill, with the wood where we used to get blackberries in the autumn. I wonder if the wild daffodils still grow in Chipden Marsh! It's fifty years since I gathered them! Shall we go and see? They ought just to be out now, and it's really not late yet."

Winona was only too delighted to prolong the day's outing, and would not have demurred if Aunt Harriet had proposed returning home by moonlight. She caught eagerly at the suggestion of finding daffodils. Though half-a-century had sped by Miss Beach remembered the way, and drove through many by-lanes to a tract of low-lying pasture land that bordered the river. She had not forgotten the stile, which still remained as of yore, so leaving the car in the road they walked down the fields. At first they were disappointed, but further on, beside the river, the Marsh might well have been called "Daffodil Meadow." Everywhere the lovely little wild Lent lilies were showing their golden trumpets in such profusion among the grass that the scene resembled Botticelli's famous picture of spring. Miss Beach said little, but her eyes shone with reminiscences. Winona was in ecstasies, and ran about picking till her bunch was almost too big to hold. The slanting afternoon sunlight fell on the water with a glinting, glistening sheen; the sallows overhanging the banks were yellow with pollen, the young pushing arum shoots and river herbs wore their tender early spring hue; the scene was an idyll in green and gold. They were loath to leave, but time was passing, so, very reluctantly, they walked up the fields again to rejoin the car. They had stowed their daffodils in the lunch basket, and Winona was peeping over the hedge to take a last look at the river, when an exclamation behind her made her turn round. Miss Beach was leaning heavily against the car, her face was ashen gray, her lips were white and drawn. She looked ready to faint. Winona flew to her in a panic.

"What is it, Aunt Harriet? Are you ill? Get into the car and sit down. Let me help you!"

Miss Beach sank on to the seat, and sat with half-closed eyes, moaning feebly. Winona was terribly alarmed. She had seen Aunt Harriet before with one of her bad heart attacks, and knew that restoratives ought to be given. In this lonely spot, with no help at hand, what was to be done? Suppose her aunt were to faint-die, even, before aid could be rendered? For a moment Winona shook like a leaf. Then, with a rush, her presence of mind returned. There was only one possible course-she herself must start the car, and drive to within reach of civilization. It would need courage! It was one thing to drive with an experienced instructor at her elbow to shout necessary directions, but quite another to manage alone, with Aunt Harriet half unconscious beside her. Suppose she were to forget part of her motorists' catechism, and make some horrible, fatal mistake! Well, it must be ventured, all the same! Every minute's delay was important.

With a nervous shiver she forced herself to action. She looked first that the clutch was out of gear, and that the ignition was pushed back, then swung round the handle to start the engine. It had cooled while they were picking daffodils, and she was obliged to repeat the process four times ere the welcome whirring answered her efforts. She sprang to her seat, took off the brake, and put in the low gear. Then she put the clutch in with her foot. But alas! in her tremor and hurry she had done it too suddenly, and stopped the engine! She could have cried with annoyance at her stupidity. There was nothing for it but to put the lever again at neutral, put on the brake, and climb out to re-swing the handle. This time the engine, being warm, was more amiable and condescended to start easily. Winona leaped into the car, adjusted her levers, put in her clutch more gradually, and the car glided slowly away. With a feeling of desperation she gripped the steering wheel. The lane was narrow and twisting, and not too smooth. Suppose she were to meet a farm cart-could she possibly pass it in safety? She had a feeling that she would run into any vehicle that might approach her. So far the lane was empty, but at any moment an obstacle might arise. What was that? There was a sound of baa-ing, and round a corner ran a flock of sheep, urged on by a boy and a collie dog. Here was the first human being she had seen, and for a second she thought of stopping to ask for help. But what could a stupid-looking young boy do for her? No, it were better far to push on. She managed to sound the hooter, and with a supreme effort kept in the middle of the lane, while the sheep scattered to right and left. She dared not go any slower, for fear of stopping her engine, but she expected every instant to feel a bump, and find that she had run over one of the flock. The collie did his duty, however, and in a whirl of barking, shouting, and baa-ing she steered safely through the danger.

She looked anxiously at every turning, for fear she might miss her way. Her object was to regain the main road, where she might find some passing motorist, and implore help. Yes, there was the sign-post where Aunt Harriet had halted, she must keep to the left by that ruined cottage-she remembered noticing its broken roof as they had passed it. How interminably long the lanes were! They had seemed far shorter when Aunt Harriet was driving! Oh! thank goodness, there was the big oak tree-it could not be far now. A few minutes more and Winona had reached the sign-post, and swung round the corner into the Crowland Road. She felt as if her nerves would not stand very much more. Would help never come? A distant hooting behind her made her heart leap. She stopped the car beside the hedge, and standing up, waved her handkerchief as a signal of distress. A splendid Daimler came into sight. Would the chauffeur notice and understand her plight? She shrieked in desperation as it whizzed past. Oh! It was stopping! A gentleman got out, and walked quickly back towards her. She jumped down, and ran to meet him.


"Can I be of any assistance?" he asked politely.

"Oh, please! My aunt is very ill, and I don't know how to drive properly yet. How am I going to get back to Seaton?" blurted out Winona, on the verge of tears.

She never forgot how kind the stranger was. With the aid of his chauffeur he lifted poor Aunt Harriet into his own car, and told Winona to take her place beside her.

"Now tell me exactly where you want to go," he said, "and I'll run you straight home as fast as I can. My man shall follow with your car. You can manage this little two-seater, Jones?"

"Yes, Sir," grinned the chauffeur, inspecting the levers.

The stranger made his big Daimler fly. Winona never knew by how much he exceeded the speed limit, but it seemed to her that they must be spinning along at the rate of nearly fifty miles an hour. Aunt Harriet had recovered a little, though she still moaned at intervals. The hedges seemed to whirl past them, they went hooting through villages, and whizzed over a common. At last the familiar spires and towers of Seaton appeared in the distance. Their good Samaritan drove them to their own door, helped Miss Beach into the house, and volunteered to take a message to the doctor, then, evading Winona's thanks, he sprang into his car, and started away.

The chauffeur arrived later with Miss Beach's car, and considerately offered to run it round to the garage.

Aunt Harriet was laid up for several days after this episode, and Dr. Sidwell forbade any long expeditions in the immediate future. He encouraged the idea of Winona learning to drive.

"You could be of the greatest help in taking your aunt about," he said to her. "You must have a capital notion of it, or you couldn't have brought the car three miles entirely on your own. But of course you'll need practice before you can be trusted to mix in traffic. You'll have to apply for a license, remember. You'll be getting into trouble if you drive without!"

Winona looked back upon that outing as a most memorable occasion. She hoped to try her skill again as soon as opportunity offered. The charm of the wheel was alluring. She wished she knew the name of the stranger who had rendered such invaluable assistance. But that she never learnt.

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