a motor-car tale
BY HENRY C. ROWLAND
LITTLE 677-X-7, glittering with brass and red enamel-paint, turned off the Champs-Elysėes and paused, with his one-cylinder eighteen horse-power motor trying to make itself heard above the uproar. It was the opening day of the Automobile Salon, and the Avenue Alexandre III was a turbid vortex of traffic, its sides presenting two solid lines of fronting cars.
A blue haze of burned oil, acrid with stinging particles of carbon, hung heavy on the place. Horns blatted, squawked, whistled, or grunted according to their taste. Motors volleyed, and cogs clashed as the different cars turned to back into their places, hind wheels against the curb. Visitors, coming and going, obstructed the thoroughfare and wove strange, quadrille-like figures in and out.
Little 677-X—7 came in cautiously on second speed, his clutch alternately gripping and releasing, as his driver, the young Vicomte de Tonney-Ruffée, wove his way through the press. Car and driver were strange to each other, and the vicomte had no more idea of what the car might do than had the car of what the vicomte might try to make him do. The vicomte had bought him in the last week, and they had just come from the practical examination by the government engineer which the French law compels every driver to take before he is turned loose on a sufficiently crazy traffic.
677-X-7 could scarcely breathe. His little lungs were drowned in oil, and he felt that his heart was over-stimulated. Also his valves were stiff, his clutch was hot and dry, and he could have screamed with the pain in his back when his driver threw on the power as he rounded a corner.
A policeman pointed out a place between a majestic limousine and a big, open touring-car. "Là," said he, and 677-X-7 made his half-turn and started to back into the berth.
"Look out, youngster," said a gruff voice; "don't scratch Mme. la Marquise."
It was the touring-car that spoke. 677-X-7 looked back nervously over his hood. His clutch was gripping in spiteful jerks.
"Yes, do please be careful!" said the limousine. "This is a new winter coat."
"Pardon, Madame," choked 677-X-7, scarcely able to speak because of his last deluge of oil. "Aïe!" He stifled a shriek as the vicomte put him in neutral and spun the motor an instant before cutting off the current. But the whir of the motor cleared his lungs, and as the explosions ceased, he gave a sigh of relief.
"You are just a baby, are n't you?" said the marquise, kindly. She glanced at his tires. "Your first promenade?"
"Yes, Madame," said 677-X-7.
"Feeling a little stiff, eh?" grunted the roadster.
"Stiff is not the word," said 677-X-7. "I am ready to fly to pieces. Something must be wrong with me. Turning into this jam, my right hind wheel slipped in a puddle of grease, and I thought that I was going to faint."
"Nonsense, my dear!" soothed the marquise. "Just a little roughness in the pinion gear of your differential. That will pass."
"But I can scarcely breathe," said 677-X-7. "Just as my lungs begin to clear, M. le Vicomte reaches over and souses them full of oil."
"He knows his business," said the roadster. "Oil is good for babies. If he had n't done that, you might have got a sudden fever and gone home in disgrace at the end of a rope."
"But my exhaust-valves," sighed the little car, "they stick and hurt. If he'd only wash 'em off with a little gasolene—"
Before he could finish there was an interruption, "Hello! here's a Yankee!"
Lounging easily up the broad avenue came a long, lean car with what impressed the Europeans as an unnecessarily high clearance. He had a rakish air, and the high level of the hood carried its straight line clear back to the end of his tonneau.
Backing smartly into place, he stopped, and looked around curiously.
"Howdy do, everybody," said he, genially. "Say, this is great. First time I 've seen such a bunch since the Vanderbilt Cup."
His keen eye rested on little 677-X-7. "Hello, Vicomte. Just out of the shop?"
"Good. You 're a twenty, are n't you?"
"Only eight-ten, M'sieur."
"Well, that's about twenty with us. You rate 'em down to beat the taxes, and we rate 'em up to catch the trade. Hello! here comes a blooming Britisher! Looks as if he'd been built on the plans of the last dreadnought."
A heavy English touring-car, square, angular, rough of finish, and none too silent, was shouldering his way through the throng. There was a vacant berth beside the American, and without bothering to turn, the sturdy Briton elbowed his way in, head on, and came to a stop.
"Hello, John!" said the American. "Have a good crossing?" His Yankee scrutiny had discovered sundry splashes of dried brine on the rough enamel of the new-comer.
"Aw, beg pardon, but have I been introduced to you?" drawled the Englishman.
"Oh, that's all right, old sport. We 're first cousins, 3000 miles removed."
The Briton stared through his searchlights. "I say, are n't you an American?"
"All but my shoes. Hello! your left mud-guard's bent. Hit something?"
"Aw, a mere trifle. These silly foreigners persist in turning out to the right. Sometimes we forget."
Briton and Yankee engaged in conversation; the marquise proceeded to instruct 677-X-7 in regard to some of the different cars.
"Ah, here comes a German. He is going to park beside the Englishman."
A big, aggressive-looking Teuton suspended the traffic of the place while he manœuvered to back up to the curb. The driver, a young man of military appearance, very blond and with farouche mustache, manipulated the levers as though obeying orders given by himself and with absolutely no reference to the clash of the gears or the laboring of the motor.
"That sausage thinks he's drilling artillery," observed the American car to his British colleague.
"Ah?" said the other, looking back over his shoulders. "I say," he called to the German, who was poisoning the air with a volume of black soot which told of an over-rich mixture of fuel, "this is n't a smoking compartment, ye know."
"Herr Gott!" puffed the German, "could you not perhaps a little r-room make? This is the Prince von Fallingbostel-Holstein. It is royalty."
"I know the breed," whispered the American. "I bumped one in New Jersey last summer. Milk all over the shop."
His pleasantry was lost on the others. "We 're crowded as it is," said the English car. "I say, why don't you go lower down?"
The American car nudged his French comrade. "That's what England has been telling Germany for some time," said he, "but the bludvorsts don't seem to catch on. Cheer up, cousin," he said to the Briton; "it's the fashion for Germany to crowd perfidious Albion these days."
"I do hope he does n't wipe the shine off me shoes," said the Englishman.
But the German, having made his berth, decided not to lie in it, after he had stopped his motor. There was another place on the other side of the street which he liked better. "Start the motor," said the prince to his stolid mechanician.
A turn of the crank brought no result. The next several turns brought the same.
"Bad mixture, Hans," observed the American. "Drain the beer out of your carbureter. Sometimes it settles at the bottom."
The French cars looked shocked at this lack of respect. The German fumed, too proud to answer. The driver executed a new manœuver, and the black smoke gave way to white.
"Help!" said the American. "Now he's slugging him full of oil. Call out the Pompeers."
The mechanician had desisted from his efforts with the crank, and was regarding the contact with meaning though timid eyes. The prince followed his gaze, and understood.
"Fool!" he rasped. "Electricity."
The mechanician left the crank, walked back, and snapped on the current directly under the driver's hand.
"Now, what do you think of that!" gasped the American. "Too stiff in the back to reach for the zigzags. And yet they claim to threaten Europe."
"We 're frightfully unprepared, you know," sighed the Briton.
"And glory in it," said the American, dryly. "Never mind, John, old horse, they 're over-prepared, and if they don't look out, they '11 get restless and start in to chaw each other."
The German motor overheard. "We have more army aëroplanes as there are motors here," he growled.
"Oh, fudge!" said the American. "Aëroplanes be darned! Mere gnats—ephemeræ. They live a hundred hours, and then the crucible for theirs. Tell Willie to chase 'em over, Herr Holstein. We 'll show him some wing-shootin', and not on driven birds, either. Just look at that," said he to the Englishman, for the prince was backing out into the traffic. "I 'll bet he learned to drive out of a book called 'Motor manœuvers for the German Army.' No living man could teach him anything."
But 677-X-7 had lost the thread of the conversation. The vicomte was coming across the street. He jumped into his seat and threw in the gears, starting him on second. The clutch he let in a bit roughly. 677-x-7's wheels spun for an instant on the greasy road; then they gripped, and he sprang forward.
"Bonne chance!" called the marquise and the roadster, while the Yankee sang out cheerfully: "Good luck, baby! Ta-ta!"
But 677-X-7 was too intent on his work to respond. As he turned into the broad avenue, narrowly escaping collision with a taxi, he heard the drawling voice of the Englishman exclaim:
"I say, there goes a new one. Best luck, youngster!"
At the end of a month's constant running in town, 677-X-7 found that he no longer needed to take odds from anybody. By that time he and the vicomte had got to understand each other, and the little car began to take huge pleasure in his work. He could run on half the fuel that he had seemed to need at first, and the friction pains had entirely departed. He was still a little stiff on leaving the garage, but this quickly passed, and he leaped into the traffic with a sense of power tingling through his small body. The vicomte drove with a light but steady hand, and 677-X-7 could start and stop and shift speed without a tremor. Also, he learned how to slang back, and he took no odds from anybody. He knew his road rights and stood up for them, cocking his short nose and jumping into any hole in the crowd that offered without reference to the next man. To crown his content, the vicomte had fitted him with twin searchlights.
But up to this time 677-X-7 had never been for a long run over the road. Chantilly was the farthest from Paris that he had ever been, and the little car longed to be able to talk knowingly of Trouville and Biarritz and the Riviera. Another thing that bothered him was a growing nervousness on the part of the vicomte. He called often at a fine old house on the Parc Monceau, and 677-X-7 noticed that, on leaving, the vicomte's erratic driving was such that it required all of his own efforts to prevent coming to grief.
Then one bright autumn afternoon the vicomte left him at the gates of Bagatelle and hurried into the gardens. The little car had been standing there only a few minutes when he heard a voice behind him say:
"Bonjour, Vicomte," and the next instant the marquise came gliding up, and stopped just ahead of him.
"Bonjour, Madame," said 677-X-7.
They entered into conversation, and 677-X-7 noticed that her voice was a trifle hoarse and that she was in a dripping perspiration. Her chauffeur opened the door of the limousine, and a very pretty girl got out and walked over into the gardens. The marquise looked after her and gave a little sniff of disapproval.
"That is Mlle. Alyette, the niece of my mistress the marquise," said she. "She and her father, the Comte de la Tour, are visiting us, and next week we are going to their château near Beauvais. I shall be glad of the change. I have been suffering from asthma, and hope that the country air may prove beneficial. Where is the vicomte?"
"In the gardens, Madame," said 6677-X-7.
The marquise gave a little cough. "H'm," said she. "Do you know, Vicomte, this looks to me very like a rendezvous. The vicomte is a suitor for the hand of Mlle. Alyette, but the comte will not give his approval, as he is anxious that his daughter should marry a rich old senator. Personally I sympathize with the young people. This is very indiscreet of the vicomte. My chauffeur is not to be trusted, and I noticed that he glanced at your name-plate. I do hope that he will keep his mouth shut."
They talked for a few minutes longer, when Mlle. Alyette came out of the gardens. Her cheeks were very red and her eyes were bright. "To the house," said she to the chauffeur, who touched the vizor of his cap, and the marquise rolled off. Scarcely had they gone when the vicomte appeared, and the run back to the garage was fraught with considerable danger despite the caution of the little car.
The very next day it became apparent to 677-X-7 that he was off for a tour. The mechanician of his garage, under the eye of the vicomte, carefully went over the little car, replenishing the grease-and- oil mixture in transmission-box and differential, looking to front wheels, and carefully cleaning the carburetor.
When, the next morning, the vicomte arrived at the garage with a valise and dressing-case, 677-X-7 was wild with rapture. He knew then that they were off for an extended tour. All good cars love the road. No bothersome traffic, no constant twisting and turning and shifting of gears, no daily baths. Instead, the long, unending road, with its fascinating uncertainty; the mystery of what lies beyond each distant bend; the exhilaration of speed; the soaring descents, the vigorous conquering of the opposite slope; the pure, fresh, country air, free of soot and smoke and evil, disconcerting gases; then the evening dampness, which makes a perfect mixture in the lungs, and drives the strong heart with a vigor such as one never feels in town.
Out of the garage rolled 677-X-7, followed by the envy of his garage-mates, for the most part doomed to a season of slush and cold, stiff valves, sudden braking, startings, and stoppings, and the like which go with city life, so deadly to any car. But 677-X-7's ardor was a little dampened when the vicomte turned his head northeast. He was hoping that they were southward bound. He had pictured himself settling down for the long run to Nice or Monte Carlo, the level road ahead and his road-song steady and uninterrupted. Also, the vicomte had his nerves again. 677-X-7 could feel that through his pedals. But he was being driven carefully and well, and once in the open country, he settled down to see what he could really do, which was an average of about forty kilometers an hour.
But at Beauvais, to the great disgust of the little car, the vicomte stopped at the hotel, and 677-X-7 was put in the garage in company with a commercial traveler and two antiquated limousines belonging to local people. Both of these cars knew the marquise, and 677-X-7 learned that she had arrived the day before and was visiting at the château of the Comte de la Tour.
Bright and early the following morning the vicomte started off again on the route nationale for Boulogne; but at the end of the first three kilometers he slowed down, and the next moment turned off into a blind lane, which presently brought them up before an ancient little door in the face of a very old wall, which was covered with ivy. Here the vicomte turned him around, then stopped the motor, went quickly to the door, and entered.
Where he stood, 677-X-7 was visible from the main route, at the opening of the lane. The little car had been waiting perhaps ten minutes when from the distance he heard the road-song of his friend the marquise. She was coming slowly, and he noticed that she was still suffering slightly from her asthma. Now, all might have been well and the two have exchanged greetings, and no one have been the wiser, for motor talk is pitched too low for the human ear; but it happened that the earth was soft at the mouth of the lane, and the eye of the marquise's chauffeur was caught by the tracks turning in. He glanced up the lane in passing, and caught a glimpse of 677-X-7 waiting in front of the postern gate.
677-X-7 heard the marquise slow, stop, then come astern. At the mouth of the lane she stopped again, while the chauffeur took in the situation with a curious eye.
"Mon Dieu," called the marquise, "but what are you doing there?"
"Don't ask me," answered 677-X-7.
"But that is our wall," cried the marquise. "Dear, dear! My child, this looks to me very like an elopement, and now this fool of a chauffeur will spoil the whole affair. He will tell the comte, and even if the young people were to start at once, we should be after you as quickly as the comte could get into his clothes."
"Oh, my dear Madame," cried 677-X—7, "could you not refuse to start, or lag on the road?"
"My child," said the old lady, "it is the duty of every self-respecting car to serve its master faithfully, no matter what our personal sympathies may be. Noblesse oblige."
The conversation was interrupted by the chauffeur, who started suddenly ahead. Scarcely had the marquise disappeared when the little, iron-bound door swung open, and out came the vicomte and Mlle. Alyette. Both were breathless and excited. The vicomte started the motor, and 677-X-7 whirred off like a flock of frightened partridges. The vicomte leaned over and patted his small hood.
"Now, mon ami," he said, "it all depends on you." He leaped into his seat, and they were off.
The château was on the top of a ridge, and as 677-X-7 flew past the big gates he caught a glimpse of the stately avenue of chestnut-trees, the ancient château at the end, and the marquise standing before the door. Ahead, the road dropped away in an easy decline, straight as far as one could see, and bordered by a double line of poplars. The vicomte gave him a full mixture, and 677-X-7 took the descent like a soaring bird. The autumn leaves swirled and scurried in his wake, and the early sun flashed between the tree-trunks and dazzled his eyes, but the vicomte held him true. He darted across a bridge, then took a short, steep rise without a change of speed. Beyond was a long, level stretch, and, horrors! at the end of it a steep, winding descent.
"Now, if I can only stick to the road," thought 677-X-7 as he started down. The first turn was ticklish, but he got around it, hugging the inner ditch and clinging to the rough grit. A short, straight rush, then a reverse curve, and here he was suddenly assailed by a horrid sense of suffocation. The vicomte had cut off the fuel and was braking with the motor. Little 677-X-7 felt an agonizing pain. His clutch, holding against a force from the opposite direction, slipped an inch or two, but he set his teeth, and gripped with all his strength. Better that than the scorch of the brakes. His lungs struggled for breath, and his intake seemed a mere quill. Then, blessed relief, the vicomte gave him a drop of fuel, and he leaped ahead again. Around the curve he spun, hunting the inner ditch and clinging to the road by his tire-nails. Thank heaven for the high crown! Another rush, then another curve, and here the road was dished in the wrong direction. The vicomte saw it too late, and slid him almost into the ditch; but 677-X-7 climbed back upon the road again, cursing his lightness. There were no more curves on this hill, but at the bottom the grade pitched even more steeply, and led straight into a village street, paved in rough old Belgian blocks, laid in the time of Louis XIV, and never touched since.
Honk! honk! honk! screamed the horn. Two farmer's carts were swung across the track, but in answer to the cry of a woman, the drivers rushed from a low-linteled door, overhung by a bush, and jerked their horses aside.
Bumpety-bumpety-bump! Crash-rattle-bang! 677-X-7 struck the pavement, all holes and hummocks. Screams were wrenched from every part of him. For an instant he thought that he was flying into a thousand pieces, but he set his teeth and rushed onward. A white flash ahead. Yap! yow! wow! and here was a cur dog rushing out in front of him. "Clear the track!" screamed 677-X-7. Yow! wow! yelped the dog, directly in his path.
677-X-7 was in no mood for trifling, nor was his driver. Besides, the cobbles were wet, and the vicomte would not risk a skid. The cur saw his danger and tried to dart aside; but 677-X-7 was upon him. There was a thud, a yelp, a scream from Alyette, and the dog was rolling in the ditch with a broken back.
677-X-7 felt rather sick. It was the first time that he had killed, and he hated it, as do all good cars and all good drivers. But he tore through the village and up the opposite slope without looking back.
Another level stretch, another eight per cent. down grade with two turns, and here they nearly came to grief. The road was slippery at the first turn, and before he realized it, 677-X-7 felt himself skimming toward the ditch. His heart stood still as he saw that he was doomed to strike squarely a transverse water-drain. "Hang on, everything!" he yelled.
Had not the vicomte been quick of wit, the elopement might have ended with a funeral. As it was, seeing that it was too late to slow, he threw on full power, so that little 677-X-7, instead of plunging into the trench, was able in some measure to leap it. Even then the strain was terrific and the danger great. There was a crash; the opposing bank took the number plaque, and a tree-trunk crumpled the mud-guard. Then they were out on the road again, still racing, racing.
677-X-7 guessed that they were trying to escape to England by the noon boat for Boulogne. His blood was up now, and he felt ready and able to race the marquise car for car, though reason told him that her twenty-four horse-power would make short work of his little eight-ten. The vicomte knew it, too, for he had heard the alarm being raised as they fled from the château. The young man felt that theirs was a forlorn hope, and on the tedious ascents his eyes were anxiously on the road behind. At the top of a high ridge which commanded a five-kilometer stretch of the road they had traveled, the vicomte stopped for an instant to look back.
Straight across the valley two cars were flying down a long grade which descended at right angles to the straight road. The first car was undoubtedly the marquise. The second, which was rapidly overhauling her, was long and lean, with a high clearance, and as 677-X-7 listened, he was able to recognize the road-song of the big Yankee whom he had first met at the Grand Palais and had since seen often in the Bois.
The vicomte started off again, constantly looking back. 677-X-7 could hear the Yankee's deep road-song rise a note as he struck the stiff up-grade. Then, to the amazement of the little car, the vicomte put him suddenly at the side of the road, and brought him to a stop, the motor still running.
But the reason for this was soon explained. Up came the big Yankee, then slowed and stopped at a signal from the vicomte. In the American car were the owner, who was driving, a mechanician, and in the tonneau the wife of the owner and a French maid.
The big car had fetched up some distance ahead of 677-X-7, and the vicomte, who appeared to know its driver, had rushed forward and begun a passionate harangue. 677-X-7 could not hear what was said, but his friend proceeded to put him au courant.
"Hello, kid!" said he. "Look sharp now. We 're going to give you the French maid for a dummy, and you 've to duck down this farm-road, and lead the old lady a chase while we take the bride-elect to London. You are to cross later. Gee! I wish they'd hurry! We 're racing that belted Holstein prince person from St. Germain to the Boulogne octroi for a thousand francs. He's got it over me by about twenty of the ponies; but, say, I made him think he was lost in the woods on that level stretch just this side of Beauvais. Doubt if he's in telephoning distance now." He cocked his head. "No, I'm a liar. Here he comes up the hill."
Hardly had he spoken when the great German breasted the summit and the next instant had swept past like a meteor.
"Mon Dieu!" cried 677-X-7, "that is a pity! You will lose the race through my fault."
"Don't you believe it." The American was quivering with impatience, but his voice still held its customary drawl. "We 're off now. I 'll catch him before Etaples. Let me give you a tip, son: scratch gravel on the down grades. You turn over fast enough, and the marquise is a bit foundered. She goes downhill like an old lady crawling down a ladder. Keep her going, and give us time to catch the boat. Ta-ta! now watch me give that Frankfurter a dust cure for the beer habit. ..." He leaped ahead like a greyhound.
The vicomte, followed by the French maid, who had exchanged coats with Mlle. Alyette, sprang quickly aboard and the next instant 677-X-7 had jumped forward, then turned sharply into a rough trail that led through the middle of a big meadow that had been planted with sugar-beets. Farm-carts had been hauling out the harvest, plentifully sprinkling the road with the big roots, which were as hard and round as cobbles. Ahead, the trail dipped steeply into a swale, and as he started down the incline, 677-X-7 could hear the road-song of the marquise as she breasted the hill on the main route. A moment later he saw her, and was himself seen. At sight of the little car scurrying like a rabbit across the beet-field, the road-song of the marquise slightly changed its key, and seemed to hold a note of trepidation. She was a town limousine and had but little taste for steeplechases.
Down the slope they plunged. The road was pitted, full of ruts, and the beets dropped from the farm-wagons made treacherous going. Bumpety-bump! bumpety-bump! went 677-X-7, sliding on the beets, twisting viciously at his direction as his front wheels sank in the ruts. But he was built for rough going, and although the wrenching gave him frightful pain, he never slackened or complained. The honest work which had endowed him with his brave little soul was now proving itself.
Far in the distance a straight line of poplars along a ridge marked another route nationale, 677-X-7 struggled for it frantically, while the road-song of the marquise grew ever louder in his ears. If his blood was up, so was that of his pursuer, and private sympathy was now buried under pride of race.
But the vicomte, looking back, saw that he must soon be overtaken. On each side lay fields of freshly planted winter wheat, but some distance to the right, across the sludgy expanse, was a narrow lane bordered by a double line of pollards. The vicomte leaned forward, and touched the little car lightly on his hood.
"Now for a fighting chance, mon ami," he said; then slowing down, he dropped to second, then to first speed, and turned 677-X-7 squarely into the newly turned earth.
Never in his short life had the little car encountered the like. The heavy loam stuck to his wheels and slid greasily under the knobs of his shoes. Yet, realizing the extremity, he pushed stubbornly ahead. A hundred meters of horrid struggle, and here was the marquise sputtering wrathfully at him from where he had left the road.
"Come on!" called back 677-X-7, exultingly, for the worst was passed, and he seemed to have struck a firmer footing. "Come on in; the mud is fine."
To his amazement, the marquise took him at his word. Straight into the slough she plunged, and now her road-song was a song no longer, but the sort of talk which an old French lady sometimes uses when thoroughly shocked and incensed. Thirty meters she got, then stopped, bogged down by the weight of her limousine.
677-X-7 chuckled. "It will take about four yoke of oxen to get her out of that," he said to himself as he crashed through the pollards and out into the lane.
"No," said the big American to little 677-X-7 as they talked the matter over in the garage of the Savoy, "the race ain't always to the swift. But in my case it was. I caught that sauerkrauter about half a mile this side of the Boulogne octroi. 'Vorfahrtsrecht," growls he, tearin' chunks off the top of the road; 'I'm royalty.' 'Get over on your own side of the road-bed,' says I, 'or you 'll be scrap-iron.' He waddles over just as I was getting ready to hand him a mailed fist in the muffler. We were both doin' about a mile a minute. I walked past him as if he'd been trying to borrow money, and then bu'sted one of my new French shoes when we braked for the octroi. Say, that was luck, was n't it. Oh, yes, we won. I limped across the line on my rims. The prince paid up like a little man. But, say, I would n't have cared to flop across that plowed ground after you, and we 're pretty good mud horses, too."
"It was awful," said 677-X-7. "I'm afraid the poor marquise is there yet. She 'll never speak to me again. Said it was n't a nice thing for us to do."
The American car laughed. "All's fair in love and war. Say, we 'll be wearing flowers to-morrow. The wedding's fixed for noon. My owner is goin' to give the bride away, and the prince is to be best man. Did you see my owner this morning? Gee-whiz! I guess the prince got his revenge last night at the vicomte's bachelor supper. And I learn the old count's wired his blessing. Well, my friend, here's to the bride!"
And they joined in a friendly drink of gasolene.