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The Lightning Conductor Discovers America By A. M. Williamson Characters: 21270

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02




Huntersford, Long Island,

April Something or Other.

(Why be a slave to dates?)

Dear Strickland:

Yours full of reproaches for changing my plans and upsetting yours is "duly to hand," as you'd probably phrase it yourself. What are you for, my dear man, except to take trouble off the shoulders of others on to your own? I ask you that! You like it. You thrive on it. With your uncanny talent for character reading, you should never have expected anything of me but the unexpected. And the whole embroglio is your fault, if you come to look at it between the eyes. I ought never to have come back from Siberia four years ago. You hauled me back. What did I do in the West and in the South? You know only too well. Yet here I am again, at your call.

You'll say you didn't call me to do what I'm doing now, but something widely different. I meant to answer the call in your way, it's true (if at all), but for reasons which have cropped up I prefer to do it in my own. You ought to be pleased at this, because I've now definitely determined to answer the call. I hadn't at first. I'd made up my mind no farther than to come and look into the matter you spoke of. I'm looking into it all right where I am, I assure you, though from a different angle than that proposed by you.

I don't know why you "deduce" that there's a woman in the case, for there never has been one before. There were sometimes several, I admit. But never One. Trust you to see the distinction! Have you been pumping Marcel? You may as well admit it if you have, for I shall ask him when I see him next at one of our secret meetings, and he will confess. There's nothing he can refuse me, as you have cause to know-and you know why.

I inquire as to this more from curiosity than anxiety, because I should rather like to know what is in Marcel's mind about me. I never knew he had the qualities of a detective among his many gifts. He has plenty of others! But what does it matter what he thinks, or you screw out of him? I don't mind telling you frankly that your suspicions are justified-to a certain extent. It's not a woman who is in the case. It's a girl. Is that worse or better, think you?

I'm not in love with her, but Edward Caspian is, and I am dog in the manger enough not to want him to get her. My future fate-as I expect it to be-lies thousands of hard miles away from this exquisite American child, just unfolded from the pink cotton of a French convent. I am human, however. I'm not a stone, but a man. I saw the girl on the ship, and before I heard her name something stirred in my memory. You know already what the name is, if you know anything from Marcel, or if you've put two and two together-a favourite occupation of yours, and then skilfully demonstrating that they're five!

She didn't remember me-how could she?-though she did once say something about my eyes "looking familiar." Naturally I was interested in her. And though I thoroughly enjoyed the patronage of Mrs. Shuster and some others who condescended to visit us third-class animals, I could but appreciate the delicate discrimination of Miss Moore and her friend Mrs. Winston.

I've never thought of myself as a chivalrous person. On the contrary, I'm what my life has made of me, something of the brute. But such dregs of chivalry as had settled at the bottom of my soul's cup were stirred by the news of Laurence Moore's trouble and its immediate effect upon his daughter. I heard on the dock, and the child heard on the dock-from Caspian, who had come to meet my present employer, Mrs. Shuster. It was easy to see (knowing what we know of him now) that Caspian had decided at first sight to go for the girl, who has grown astonishingly pretty and attractive. I'm here to block his game. That's why I took on this idiotic job with Madam Shuster. It's enough to make a Libyan lion laugh! But I saw no other way of keeping near, to do the watchdog act-not being a gentleman or a millionaire like Caspian, able to live at leisure anywhere preferred.

This blooming hotel business was started to prevent Caspian getting his entering wedge into the crack of the family fortunes. He was all generosity. Wanted to lend money on a mortgage, just the sort of thing a lazy, happy-go-lucky chap like Moore would snap at. And the child couldn't be expected to look farther ahead than her father looked. Marcel was my next inspiration-a bait to decide Moore that I was not to be despised as an adviser. Now, I am the power behind the throne-very much behind, it's true, not in the palace of the king at all, but prodding at the throne with a thin stick through an all but invisible hole in the wall. If it's visible to any one, that one is Caspian himself, who probably realized in the hour of battle between us that I'd guessed what he was up to.

I am a type he would dislike and distrust in any case, as I think small men are apt to dislike bigger ones capable of reducing them by superior brute force if necessary. As it is, he hates me. I suppose he thinks I have designs on Miss Moore myself: "the pauper adventurer who has already taken advantage of his influence over an older woman to gain access to the heroine." Sounds like a moving picture "cut in," doesn't it? Not only does he (the self-cast hero of the picture) intend to punish the villain's impudent interference with him, but to unmask the wretch in order to thwart his designs upon the heroine. To do this, the said hero has put a detective agency on to me.

I can hear you ask sharply, "How do you know this?"

The answer is, "I don't know. I feel it." And the life I've led has taught me to trust my feelings. I have been like a stag in the forest who scents the unseen hunters when still very far off. If the villain, Peter Storm, is "unmasked"-well, so much the worse for him, but others will fall with his fall, we know. And the danger for me (it is a danger, I admit) only adds to the-fun.

Probably you'll mention the word "damn" or some other analogous one when you read that. "Fun!" you'll sneer. But my dear fellow, it expresses my point of view. I am having fun. I'm having the time of my life. Afterward-"let come what come may, I shall have had my day." And I'm going to fight it out on these lines if it takes all summer-unless Caspian undermines me and blows up my trenches.

The latter, by the way, are of a homely character. I lurk in lodgings at the village dressmaker's. I have one room at the back of the house, its dormer window looking over a grass plot and a chicken coop. Fortunately the cock is as morose and reserved an individual as I am myself, without my sense of humour-or else he's henpecked. He never opens his head till it's necessary to salute the sunrise; and the hens consider it bad form to boast loudly because a mere egg has been given to the world. For this accommodation I pay four dollars a week, and ten cents a day for having a rubber bath filled. Breakfast of bread, butter, and coffee is brought to my room by a timid fawn of a dressmaker's daughter who does me the honour of fearing and admiring me, I surmise. I pay twenty cents for her attendance and admiration. Mine is the simple life, but luxurious compared with many of my experiences. As to clothes, I am always Hyde, never Jekyll. It's safer. My hat is the worst thing in hats you ever beheld, though I have at times surpassed it.

You would think I ought to have plenty of leisure on my hands for the work I brought from Siberia, but I confess the girl has got between me and it. Don't waste a smile. No girl born could tempt me to what I should have to give up for her. Besides, there are a thousand other obstacles between me and love. If she wastes a few thoughts on me-as perhaps she does sometimes-it's only curiosity concerning the "Ship's Mystery." That's what they all called me on board, I heard. But there is the past, a faded yet beautiful background of early youth-one of the few really beautiful things in my life. And there is the girl, a radiant figure in the foreground.

I'm in the house at Kidd's Pines often enough, doing my secretarial work (a howl of laughter here, please!), to see pretty well all that goes on, and the demoniac joy I feel in acting as deus ex machina I can't express to you, because I don't entirely understand it myself. But I wouldn't be out of this for anything.

Miss Moore has been learning to drive her car. (You know about that car!) Captain Winston began to give her lessons, but cracked up, as his wounds aren't thoroughly mended yet. I had half a mind to offer my services, but thought it would add too much fuel to the fire of curiosity, so held my peace until-well, several things happened first. Among them was the coming of Castnet, the chauffeur engaged by Marcel himself-a Frenchman, too young to be mobilized, but supposed to understand a Grayles-Grice. He looked a smart fellow, and a lesson or two went off well, according to what I heard in Mrs. Shuster's room. Miss Moore sometimes comes in when I am there, with news from the front, so to speak: what new guests have arrived, what they are like, how they get on together-or don't get on; for Kidd's Pines as a hotel is already a going concern.

Three days after Castnet's arrival Miss Moore gave up having her lesson in order to give Count von Falm and his wife a spin. They happened to be the only guests-except my boss-without a car of their own, and von Falm pointedly alluded to an advertisement promising an automobile for the service of visitors. Thereupon the bomb exploded. Young Castnet, like a sprat defying a sturgeon, refused to drive an enemy of his country. The sturgeon demanded the sprat's discharge. Miss Moore sought her father. "Larry" was teaching the Russian Countess tennis, and gaily gave his daughter carte blanche. She, overwhelmed by responsibility, temporized. France, you see, is her second home! The Austrian was in no mood to stand half measures, and gave notice of departure. Meanwhile, Castnet departed without this ceremony, unaware that Providence was at work in his behalf. Behold Kidd's Pines with its best room empty and minus a chauffeur! But Miss Moore was undaunted. At any moment somebody else might clamour for the car. She determined to be her own chauffeur, and on the strength of her half-dozen lessons, set out alone to experiment with the forty horsepower Grayles-Grice.

That was when I met her on her second excursion, I think. I was taking a walk, and she was stranded in the middle of the "king's highway," about two miles

from Huntersford. Another car equally large and powerful was drawn up almost nose to nose with the Grayles-Grice, and the road was becoming congested with vehicles of various sorts. The Grayles-Grice blocked the way. It was impossible for anything else wider than a bicycle or a skeleton to proceed in either direction; consequently you would have supposed that a big reception or an automobile race was taking place in the neighbourhood.

You can imagine what language would ordinarily, in such circumstances, have belched from the serried ranks of fiery Pierce Arrows, dashing Cadillacs, and even from peace-loving Fords; but what should you say was happening in the present instance? If you refuse to commit yourself to an opinion, it's only because you've never seen Miss Patricia Moore.

I will tell you what was happening!

All the men were out of all the cars, either helping, advising, or trying to get near enough to do one or both. The chauffeuse herself was sitting behind her wheel with the manner of a youthful queen on a throne receiving homage from courtiers. The Grayles-Grice is gray, and she was dressed in gray to match, a light pearl gray I should say it would be called. She has a complexion also like pearl, but not gray pearl. Excitement had given her a bright rosy colour. Her black hair-I don't know whether excitement makes a girl's hair curl-but anyhow hers was doing it, in little rings and spirals which fluttered in the breeze and blew across her cheeks and eyes. By the way, she has the bluest eyes I ever saw in human head. She was thanking her courtiers charmingly whenever they came within speaking distance, rolling her "r's" in a fascinating French fashion she has, and whenever a heated red man would lift his head from the open bonnet or pop up from under the car she would remark how kind he was, or how sad she felt that he should be having all this trouble for her! Then other men for whom there was not room at the bonnet or under the capacious Grayles-Grice envied the hot red ones, and intimated (in order to get hot and red and awake sympathy themselves) that they and they alone could find out what was the matter. I should estimate that at least a dozen men had enlisted under the voluntary system, while others on the outer ring only waited their turn.

As for the stranded autos (whose number increased as the minutes went on), ladies young and old who sat desiring the return of their cavaliers looked as pleased as the wives of Circe's admirers must have looked while their male belongings were transformed into beasts.

"Why doesn't somebody roll the old thing out of the way and let us go on?" shrieked one of a carful of school teachers deserted by their chauffeur. He, from a distance, explained not too patiently that the trouble was, the thing wouldn't roll. I am pretty sure that not one of the men engaged was in a hurry for it to budge; for you know as well as I that all men are deeply romantic at heart, the oldest boys as well as the youngest boys-or more so. This girl looked like Romance incarnate-the face that we see in the sunrise and in our dreams-and it couldn't be often that most of these good commonplace chaps came in for such an adventure.

"Oh, Mr. Storm!" exclaimed Miss Moore when I added myself to the rank of recruits. Everybody stared at me. I felt I was not liked. "You see I've br-roken down!" she explained with the smile of a child. "The poor car won't move without ter-r-rible danger, and no one can find out what the mystery is-though they're so good to me!"

Perhaps she wildly hoped there might be a bond between the man of mystery and all other mysteries. It didn't seem likely that where so many men had failed I should succeed; still, I'd driven a Grayles-Grice (you remember, don't you?) and perhaps they hadn't.

"I suppose you don't know things about cars?" she questioned anxiously, as I drew nearer.

"I know some things," I admitted with due modesty. And suddenly I wanted to succeed where these others had failed. Because, though I had done some small favours for her, she hadn't known about them, so she had never thanked me except in the most casual way. I thought it would be rather nice to be thanked by her. I gazed at the Grayles-Grice, which also gazed at me from under her bonnet, and seemed to wink with her carburetor.

"How do you know she won't move?" I inquired of every one in general and no one in particular.

"The young lady begged us not to try, as it had been tried already by two gentlemen on motor bikes, who had to go on before this lot came," the school teachers' chauffeur defended the crowd's intelligence and his own. "I thought it might be a ball broken in the bearings had jammed a rear wheel, but it ain't that; so we took a squint at the differential, but it ain't that either."

"Shall we try again to give her a shove?" I suggested. "The traffic can't be held up here all night. Pretty soon it will be solid between here and New York."

"Oh, don't try till you find out what's the matter!" cried Miss Moore. "There was the most hor-r-r-rible noise when those two other men tried. We might be killed!"

I made her get down, and then, with a couple of bold volunteers, risked the mystic peril that lurked behind the "hor-r-rible noise," by attempting to push the car to the edge of the road.

If you will believe me, the Grayles-Grice rolled silently and smoothly as if she were on skates. In a moment she was out of the way, and the coast clear for the crowd. But no man near enough to have seen Miss Moore stirred until I had made a further discovery. The deep-rooted trouble which had defied the gray matter of all explorers proved to be nothing more or less than complete lack of gasoline. No one had thought of that, because the search had been for something serious and esoteric.

"Gas" was offered on all hands, and the G.-G., having drunk long and deep, was once more refreshed as a giant to run her course.

"Shall I drive, or will you?" I mildly asked Miss Moore.

"Can you?" she inquired.

"I don't think I've forgotten how. I drove a Grayles-Grice once for a year when I was down on my luck."

(You'll let that statement go unchallenged, won't you? It was the most beastly year of my life.)

We were about to start on a return journey to Kidd's Pines, with me at the helm, and quite an audience looking on, when two policemen came bumping along in a short-nosed car. They bawled out a question: Had any of us "folks" seen two fellows on motor bikes?

Miss Moore was the only one of the "folks" who had. "Do tell them I saw the men," she appealed to me. And then before I could open my lips she had (characteristically of woman) plunged into the recital herself. Her car had come to a standstill, she explained, in the middle of the road. She couldn't make it start. Two motor bicycle riders had appeared and would have passed, but she signalled them to stop. She begged the pair to push her car out of the way. At first she thought they meant to hurry on. They went past her, one on each side. But they muttered something to each other, stopped suddenly, and jumped off their machines. They were laughing together as they came running back. They said, "All right, Miss," and took hold of the Grayles-Grice as if to wheel her to the edge of the road. But then there followed a fear-r-ful bang, like a pistol shot, and Miss Moore noticed a queer smell-a little like the Fourth of July when you were a child. She was frightened, and so were the men. One of them cried out, "Something wrong here! This'll take an expert!" And the other warned her, whatever she did, not to let anybody who didn't understand that make of motor try to budge the wheels an inch. Then the two were obliged to go in haste because they had a ferryboat to catch. Not long after autos and autos began to stream along from both directions, and were held up because she warned every one not to move the car.

Clever dodge, wasn't it? The pair had robbed a jewellery shop window, and bagged a whole trayful of suburban engagement rings. As it happened, the police had taken up a wrong scent before they got on the right one. But had the watchdogs come along a few minutes earlier they would have found their way blocked effectively. One of the thieves had fired a torpedo in the road just behind the G.-G. to scare the chauffeuse (one of those big, fat torpedoes motorists and bicyclists sometimes use to frighten dogs) and so had secured a clear road to the nearest ferry. The policemen found the fragments of the torpedo in the dust-after I had suggested their looking for it.

That is the way I entered Miss Moore's service as temporary chauffeur, combining the duties as best I may with secretarial work for Mrs. Shuster. I'm not sure yet how the two parts are to be doubled successfully, but I'm sure of one thing: I don't mean to throw either part up at present, so there's no use in your grumbling or preaching.

Some new people have come to stay in the hotel, a jolly family of boys and girls, and a few days' motor trip is suggested, with me at the helm. The party will consist of the jolly Family, about whom more later; Miss Moore as conductress; and Captain and Mrs. Winston accompanying in their own car, as chaperons. For some extraordinary reason, which puzzles me, Mrs. S. is not going. Apropos of this excursion, I warn you, my dear friend, that you needn't fash yourself to answer my letter in a hurry. You may take time to think. Mrs. Shuster is not only willing, but anxious, for me to drive for the party. I can't imagine why. But I shall certainly know why, and perhaps to my sorrow, when I get back. If I hadn't taken on the job, Caspian would. He spent two days away from Kidd's Pines, and Moncourt (just back from a trip to town as I finish writing) saw him in N. Y. in a Grayles-Grice, apparently taking a lesson how to drive. (His own car is a Wilmot.) When he returned, it was without the Wilmot. Said he'd had an accident, and his auto would be laid up for a week; he hoped Miss Moore would let him avail himself of her G.-G. when necessary. He was too late, however, for this particular occasion. All arrangements had been made in his absence. I've nobly refused an extra salary; but I expect to have heaven knows how much extra fun. I bet Caspian's car will be mended unexpectedly soon, as another is booked to drive the G.-G. this time.


P. S.

The Wilmot has arrived from New York, and doubtless will follow us like a tame dog. If my hand has not forgotten its cunning, the said dog will find itself often outdistanced.

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