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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Princess Passes By A. M. Williamson Characters: 19755

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Pots, Kettles, and Other Things

"Seared is, of course, my heart-but unsubdued

Is, and shall be, my appetite for food."

-C.S. Calverley.

* * *

"A little buttery, and therein

A little bin,

Which keeps my little loaf of bread

Unchipt, unflead;

Some little sticks of thorn or brier

Make me a fire."

-Robert Herrick.

If any man had told me before I started, that in two days I should find it a genuine sacrifice to stop driving a motor car, I should have looked upon him as a polite lunatic. It was only because Jack could drive faster than he dared to let me, and because I was ashamed to tell Molly that after all I was not in a desperate hurry to reach Paris or anywhere else, that I finally tore myself from the driver's seat of the Mercédès. Afterwards, though I had not reached the stage when confession is good for the soul, I sat wondering what there was expensive and at the same time disagreeable which I could give up for the sake of possessing a motor of my own. In various phases of my mental and spiritual development, I had framed different conceptions of a future state beyond this life. Never, even in my earliest years, had I sincerely wished to be an angel with an undeserved crown weighing down my forehead, and a harp, which I should be totally incompetent to play, within my hand; but now it struck me that there might be a worse sort of Nirvana than driving a 10,000 horsepower car along a broad, straight road free from dogs, chickens, or any other animals (except, perhaps, rich, knighted grocers), and reaching all round Saturn's ring.

Dogs had been the one "little speck in garnered fruit" for me when driving, for I love dogs and would not willingly injure so much as the end hair of the most moth-eaten mongrel's tail; therefore my brain searched a remedy against their onslaught, as I sat mute, inglorious, in the tonneau, after my late triumphs.

We flashed on, passing the kilometre stones in quick succession. At pretty little Mantes we crossed the Seine, and presently came into the France I knew in my old, conventional way; for we passed St. Germain, and so on to Paris by Le Pecq, Reuil, the long descent to the Pont de Suresnes (which seemed to hold laughable memories for Jack and Molly), through the Bois down the Champs Elysées, and to our hotel in the Place Vend?me, where Jack announced that we had had a run of 130 miles. Winston and I flattered ourselves that Paris had few secrets from us (though I don't doubt that five minutes' wrestling with Baedeker might have made us feel small), and we had no wish to linger at this season. But, if we were deaf to the sirens who sing in the Rue de la Paix, Molly was not. She had discovered that there were some "little things she wanted, which she really thought she had better buy." I fancy that the little things were shoes; anyhow, it was to be Jack's blissful privilege to help her choose them, and he was of opinion (probably founded on experience) that it would take nearly all day. I decided to call on a man at the Embassy, ask him out to lunch, and do him very well. I had not seen him for years, and he had bored me to extinction the last time we met; but it had come to my ears that he had been in love with Helen Blantock, and proposed to her, so I felt that there would be a certain charm in his society. Later, there was a "little thing" which I, too, wished to buy (though I did not intend to seek it in the Rue de la Paix), and then I was to meet Molly and Jack about tea time at our hotel, in time to arrange for dining out somewhere.

After all, the man was more boring than ever, as he had got himself engaged to another girl, and insisted upon talking of her, instead of Helen. My one pleasure in the day, therefore, lay in purchasing the article of which I had fixed my mind after driving yesterday. This was a water pistol, warranted to keep dogs at bay, in motoring. I had some difficulty in obtaining it, and when I did, it was expensive, but I was rewarded by the thought of the pleasure my acquisition would afford my friends. The wild dashes of dogs in front of the wheels gave Molly such frequent starts of anguish, that I wondered Jack had not thought of this simple preventive, and I congratulated myself on having remembered an advertisement of the weapon which I had seen in some magazine. It was, I thought, rather clever of me to remember, since in those days motors had been no affair of mine; but then, the illustration had been striking, in every sense of the word. It had represented a lovely girl, with hair unbound, saving from destruction the automobile in which she sat with several companions, by shooting a fierce blast of water into the face of a huge beast well-nigh as terrible as Cerberus. I determined to surprise Jack and Molly, when the right time should come; accordingly, the moment I reached our hotel, I filled the pistol with water, and placed it, thus loaded, in the pocket of my motoring coat ready for emergencies. Hardly had I made this preparation for the future when I discovered on the table a note addressed to me in Winston's handwriting.

"Dear Monty," I read, "Molly and I have a bet on. She has bet me a dinner that you will drive her car out to Madrid, and meet us at half-past seven, so that we can have the dinner by daylight. I have bet her the same dinner that you won't. Which of us must pay?-Yours, Jack."

I whistled. What, drive the car through the traffic of Paris? It must be a joke. Of course it was a joke, but––

When I had dressed for dinner, I strolled over to the garage not far away where the creature lurked. Anyhow, I would have a look at her, and see what orders Gotteland had received. Yes, of course it was a joke. Or else my poor friends had gone mad. Still, there was a kind of madness with method in it. Diabolical wretches, with their bets, and their dinners! Did they dream I would try to do it, and smash the car? "Nothing like driving a motor through traffic, to give one self-confidence afterwards," Jack had said yesterday, after praising me for refraining from killing a small boy in a village street. "Once a man has been thrown on his own resources, and has got through the ordeal all right, it is as good as a certificate," he had added.

Gotteland was in the shrine of his goddess, talking to other cosmopolitan-looking persons in leather. There was a nice smell of petrol in the place. I snuffed at it as a war-horse scents the battle, and promptly decided that the joke should become deadly earnest, no matter what the consequence to the cart the chauffeur, or myself.

"Everything is ready, my lord," said one of the sacrifices about to be offered up. He had now discovered that there was a sort of starting-handle to my name, and seemed as fond of using it as he was of the equivalent on his beloved motor.

"Did Mr. Winston-er-say anything about my driving?" I humbly inquired.

"Well, my lord, his orders were that it should be as you pleased. But perhaps I had better mention that driving is careless in Paris, with cabs and automobiles all over the road, to say nothing of the trams; and then there's the keeping to the right instead of the left. If you should happen to get a little confused, my lord, not being accustomed to drive in France––"

"I wish I had a mille note for every time I've driven a four-in-hand through this blessed town," said I. "I'm not afraid if you're not."

"Oh, my lord, I've been in so many accidents, one or two more can't matter," he replied, as Hercules might have replied if asked whether he were equal to a Thirteenth Labour in odd moments. "When I was jockey in Count Tokai's racing stables, a horse went mad and kicked me nearly to death. Then I was a racer in old bicycling days, and had several bad spills. This scar on my face I got in a smash with one of the first Benz cars made. My master thought it a fine thing at that time to go ten miles an hour, and before he'd driven much, my lord, he was determined to take the car through the streets of Düsseldorf himself. There was a wagon coming one way––"

"Thank you," I cut in, "I'll bear the rest of that story another time. I'm not sure it would exhilarate me much at the moment. We'll be off now, and I'll do my best not to adorn you with a second scar."

Without another word, Gotteland started the motor. The critical eyes of the assembled chauffeurs pierced to my marrow, but I squared my shoulders, prayed my presence of mind to behave itself and not get stage fright; then-noblesse oblige!-we swept in a creditable curve to the door of the garage, and out in fine style. Gotteland also tried to look unconcerned. I think I must have seen this with my ears, as both eyes were fully occupied in searching a way through the surging current of street traffic, but I did see it. I was pleased to find that I was the better actor of the two, for Gotteland's attitude revealed a strained alertness. He was like a woman sitting beside a driver of skittish horses, saying to herself: "No, I won't scream or seize the reins till I must!"

A sneaking impulse pricked me to take the easiest way, by the Rue de Rivoli, and across the Place de la Concorde, but I shook myself free of it, and with high resolve turned the car towards the Boulevards, determined that, if Molly won her bet, it should be well won. A sailor steering a quivering smack towards harbour in a North Sea hurricane; an Indian guiding a bark canoe through the leaping rapids of a swollen river: to both of these I likened myself as the dragon threaded in and out among the adverse streams of traffic. The great crossing by the Opéra was a whirling maelstrom; a policeman with a white staff, scowled when he should have pitied; I felt alone in chaos before the creation of the world. As for Noah and his ark, not an experience could he have had that I might no

t have capped it before I reached the Bois.

If I have a guardian spirit, I am sure that to numberless other good qualities he adds the skill of an accomplished motorist; for if he did not get the car to Madrid, without a single scratch upon her brilliant body, I do not know who did. I have no distinct memories, after the first, yet when we arrived at our destination, Gotteland generously complimented, and as I did not care to go into psychological explanations, I accepted his eulogium. It was Jack, not Molly, who paid for the dinner at Madrid, and it was a good one.

Next morning early we started on our way again. Jack driving, and I watching his prowess. I was now as anxious to meet dogs belligerently inclined towards motors, as I had been to avoid them, but it was not until we were well past Fontainebleau that the chance for which I yearned, arrived. Suddenly we came upon a yard of Dachshund wandering lizard-like across the road, accompanied by a pert Spitz. The waddler prudently retired, but the Spitz, with all the disproportionate courage of a knight of old attacking a fire-breathing dragon, lanced himself in front of the car. After all, what are dragons but strange, new things which we know nothing about and therefore detest? This brave little knight detested us, and with magnificent self-confidence essayed to punish us for troubling his existence.

My hand flew to my pocket, but paused, even as it grasped the water pistol. The dog was small, the weapon large. A fierce jet of water propelled from its muzzle might blow the breath from that tiny body, which my sole wish was to warn from under the wheels of Juggernaut. However, he was persistent, and was in real danger, since to avoid an approaching cart, Jack was forced to steer perilously near the yapping beast.

I snatched the weapon, pulled the trigger, and-a mild, mellifluous trickle which would have disgraced a toilet vaporiser sprayed forth. Jack, Molly, and the peasants in the approaching cart burst into shouts of laughter. The Spitz, undismayed by the gentle shower, which had spattered his nose with a drop or two, leaped at the weapon, and, irritated, I flung it at his head. It fell innocuously in the road and our last sight of the Spitz was when, rejoined by his lizard friend, he industriously gnawed at the pistol, mistaking it for a bone, while the Dachs gratefully lapped up the water I had provided. My surprise was a popular success, but not the kind of success which I had planned. Jack said that he could have "told me so" if I had asked him, and I vowed in future to let dogs delight to bark and bite without interference from me.

The one inept remark which Shelley seems ever to have made was that "there is nothing to see in France." My opinion, as we spun along the road which would lead us to Lucerne and my waiting mule, was that there was almost too much to see, too much charm, too much beauty for the peace of mind of an imaginative traveller; there were so many valleys which one longed to explore, in which one felt one could be content without going farther, so many blue glimpses of mysterious mountains, veiled by the haze of dreamland, that one suffered a constant succession of acute pangs in thinking that one would probably never see them again, that one would need at least nine long lives if one were to spend, say, even a month in each place.

Molly advised me not to be a spendthrift of my emotions, at this stage of the journey, lest I should be a worn-out wreck before the grandest part came, but the idea of husbanding enthusiasm did not commend itself to me. Why not enjoy this moment, instead of waiting until the moment after next? It was too much like saving up one's good clothes for "best," a lower-middle-class habit which I have detested since the days when I howled for my smartest Lord Fauntleroy frills in the morning.

There were sweet villages where they made cheese, and where I could have been happy making it with Helen Blantock; there were chateaux with turret rooms where my book shelves would have fitted excellently; but always we fled on, on, until at last, after two bewildering, cinematographic days, we drove into the streets of that dignified and delightful city, Bern.

It had not been necessary for us to pass through Bern; it was, in fact, a few yards more or less out of the most direct path. We chose this route simply and solely with the view of paying a visit to the Bears. Molly had never met them; I had neglected them since childhood; Jack looked forward to the pleasure of introducing them to his wife.

It was on our way to call upon the Bears, that destiny seduced me to turn my head at a certain moment, and look into a shop window. Suddenly the flame of my desire for the walking solo with a mule accompaniment (somewhat diminished lately, I confess) leaped up anew. There were things in that window which made a man long to be a hermit.

"Mrs. Winston." I cried (Molly was driving), "for goodness' sake stop."

In an instant the car slowed down. "What is the matter?" she implored. "Are you ill? Have we run over anything?"

"No, but look there," I said eagerly. "What an outfit for a camping tour! My mouth waters only at sight of it."

"Greedy fellow," commented Jack from the tonneau. "Drive on, Molly. Get him past the shop. He doesn't really want any of those things, and wouldn't use them if he had them. The sooner he forgets the better."

"Never shall I forget that Instantaneous Breakfast for an Alpiniste," I fiercely protested, "and I will have it at any cost. I know there's no other shop on the Continent like this, and I shall buy an outfit for myself and mule, here, if I have to come back from Lucerne by train for it."

"Hang your mule!" exclaimed Jack. "I was hoping you'd forgotten all about him by this time, and had made up your mind to go on with us indefinitely."

I saw reproach blaze through the talc triangle in Molly's mushroom. (Yet I thought she liked me, and had not, thus far, found "three a crowd.")

"Lord Lane isn't a chameleon, Jack," said she, "that he should change his mind every few minutes. Of course he's going to have his mule trip. And as for this shop, all those dear little pots and kettles and things in the window are too cute for words. He shall have them."

Was I to be a bone of contention between husband and wife?

"Please, both of you come in and help me choose," I meekly pleaded, in haste to restore the peace which I had broken.

We got out, and a small crowd collected round the car, Gotteland standing by with his chin raised and the exact expression of the frog footman in "Alice in Wonderland." One would have said that he saw, afar off, the graves of his ancestors, on the summit of some lonely mountain.

It was what Molly would have called a "lovely" shop, and it did business under the strange device: "Magasin Suisse d'Equipment Sportif." The name alone was worth the money one would spend. Everything to cover the outer, and nourish the inner sportsman, was to be had. I felt that I could scarcely be lonely or sad if I possessed a stock of these friendly articles. Jack's ribald advice to buy a pelerine, and a green-loden Gemsj?ger hat with a feather, stirred me neither to smiles nor anger, for Molly and I were already deep in exploration.

The first thing I bought was a mule-pack. Being a merciful man, I chose one of medium size, for already I could fancy myself becoming fond of the animal which was to be my companion in many wild and solitary places, and I did not wish to overburden him. I then, aided and abetted by Molly, began to choose the pack's contents.

An "Appareil de cuisson alpin, Idéal" went without saying, like the air one breathes. It composed itself, according to the voluble attendant who displayed it, of six parts, each part far better than the others. There was a gamelle, with a "crochet pour l'enlever" and a couvercle, which, not to show itself proud, would lend its services also as an assiette or a poêle à frire. There was the burner of alcohol; there was "le couvercle de celui-ci," which served equally to measure the spirit, and there was a charming appareil brise vent which had the air of defying tornadoes. When I had secured this treasure, Molly drew my attention to a series of aluminium boxes made to fit eggs and sandwiches. I bought these also, and, pleased with the clean white metal, invested in plates, goblets, and water bottles of the same. Next came a couvert pliant, containing knife, fork, and spoon; and, lest I should be guilty of selfishness, I ordered a duplicate for the man who would look after the mule. Best of all, however, were the tinned soups, meats, vegetables, puddings, and cocoas, which you simply set on the fire in their bright little cans, and heated till they sent forth a steamy fragrance. Then you ate or drank them, and were happy as a king.

Molly and I selected a number of these, and completed the list with a sleeping bag and a tente de touriste, which she persuaded me would be indispensable when lost in the mountains, as I was sure to be, often.

When my goods and chattels came to be collected, we were shocked to find that the mule-pack would not contain them. The question remained, then, whether I should sacrifice these new possessions, already dear, or whether I should doom my mule to carry a greater burden. The attendant intimated that Swiss mules preferred heavy loads, and had they the vocal gifts of Balaam's ass, would demand them. Swayed by my desires and his arguments, I changed my pack for a larger one. After more than an hour in the shop, we tore ourselves away, leaving word that the things should be sent by post to Lucerne. We then repaired to the Bear Pit, by way of the Clock, and having supplied ourselves with plenty of carrots, had no cause to complain of our reception.

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