Starch and Gasolene

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Starch and Gasolene  (1917) 
by Wallace Irwin
From the "Editor's Drawer" section of Harper's Magazine, Jan 1917. Illustrated by Peter Newell

Starch and Gasolene


WE live in New York. We have an unsettled income of $20,000 a year—irritating sum which makes us appear very rich to the very poor and very poor to the very rich. Being in competition with Manhattan's three or four million social climbers, we spend a large share of our genius in concealing our disgraceful poverty. Fortunately, my beautiful wife Andalusia has the knack of making a forty-dollar noise with a twenty-dollar hat. But what avails our penny popgun against the surrounding dissonance of Mammon's artillery?

Of course, as we are too proud to reside in the slums, it is our civic duty to spend $2,000 a year more for rent than we can afford. Our dinners are sketchy imitations of the Feast of Lucullus, and when we dine with friends we give a general effect of fabulous wealth—at least to those who do not know our business rating or where we get our clothes. We have not met the Grand Lama of New York Society, but we are known and recognized by four head-waiters, two of whom we call by their first names.

In a word, we live beyond our means, dress beyond our taste, eat beyond our appetite, and entertain beyond our capacity for friendship. Otherwise we would live in Brooklyn.

Two years ago common decency demanded that I should buy an automobile. I availed myself of a chance to get a slightly used high-class car for $2,500—a bargain. This was considerably more than we could afford; but as the car was practically new, we were able to pass it off as costing twice the amount. This would be considered a wicked fib in Columbus, Ohio. But you must remember, we live in New York.

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The car had always been a great comfort to me and my wife. Promptly at half-past nine in the morning it would draw up against the curb before my Riverside Drive home. That machine was to me the embodiment of power. I looked upon it as proud Louis must have looked upon the throne of France. With it I was a King, without it I was a Thing. How it stood, awaiting my pleasure, in the morning sunshine! Bright shone its glory of magenta paint and golden trimmings. As a preliminary to my regular morning appearance, Rasmussen, my chauffeur, would open the hood of the mechanical monster and gaze fixedly down into its mechanical brain; then he would close the hood again and stand attention. Dramatic pause. A splendid being (myself) would appear at the door, dressed in the garments of the season. Almost languidly I would descend the steps and deposit myself among the vast leather cushions. Then, amidst a halo of smoke and a glory of honks, we would bowl along in the general direction of Wall Street. Thus daily I sat enthroned, appearing every inch the millionaire that I wasn't.

I am sure the car increased our credit. In the aristocracy of Rome there was a predatory class called Knights, or Equites, its members thus distinguished because they were each able to afford one or more horses. Why should we not establish in modern America a knightly caste to be called Motorites, composed of persons able to afford one or more horse-power? There could be various degrees of this gasolene chivalry from the petite noblesse who travel on one cylinder to the great Lords of the Limousine. For an automobile class we certainly have. Let him who would deny this go as far as he likes.

Well, a crisis walked into our happy, abnormal lives one day. It knocked at a directors' meeting where I was presiding in the absence of the president. You see, I am an officer in the Trans-Universal Starch Co. Our affairs up to that fatal morning had been enjoyably precarious. We had been living for months on the hope that Mr. Leonidas Hay, an eccentric manufacturer of rotary mops, would invest in 100,000 shares of our capital stock. Mr. Hay, who is very deaf, mistook one of our treasurer's compliments for an insult, flew into a rage, and stamped away with the announcement that he had decided to invest his million in the Colossal Starch Combine, our rival. Thus lay our business, crippled and moaning at our feet. Liabilities like hungry giants were devouring our trembling little assets, while dividends, like wicked fairies, were turning into assessments. There was an immediate cut of 30 per cent, on all our salaries. It was imperative that each of us should raise a few thousand dollars to tide over a bad six months.

Next morning, as we sat in our near-Jacobean breakfast-room, I explained it all to my loving, tactful wife.

"Do you mean, Armand, that we've got to live on less than we've got?" she hissed.

"Andalusia," I said, "you can help me to meet this crisis like the dear, brave little woman that you are. We've got to sell something."

"We have a Murillo and two or three Corots," she said. "We might get rid of them."

"They wouldn't bring us in anything. They're fakes."

"You should have known that when you bought them," said Andalusia, with fine candor. "They cost us seventy-five dollars apiece."

"We'll have to raise money on something more valuable than that," I hinted, darkly.

"Armand," whispered my pallid wife, "you don't mean the—"

"Yes—the car. The car must go up for sale right away."

I buried my face in my hands. Nothing but Andalusia's measured sobbing could be heard for a few moments. In times of deep loss it is best to let grief have its way.

"After all," said Andalusia at last, in such a voice as Joan might have used before her wicked judges—"after all, taxis aren't so horrid as they might be; they jolt fearfully, and I don't think any one's life is safe in one—but otherwise we can learn to endure them."

"After all, a big car is rather clumsy in town," said I.

"Yes," agreed Andalusia. "Of course, taxis are only used by mere nobodies or people who are so rich they don't care. Nearly all of them splash grease and oil—I mean the taxis. Maybe we can give up going anywhere—or, if we go, maybe we can dash slyly in and out of places so that people won't notice what sort of horrid machines we come in."

"That's my brave little girl!" I cried, clasping her in my arms. "I knew you'd take our reverses in the proper spirit."

So I drove splendidly down to the financial district, sitting wretchedly upright in my car. Perhaps this would be my last ride in my own equipage. I resolved to sell it at once and have it over with. I easily understood how hard it was for Andalusia. Our removal from the smart set of a small suburban town to the society of the metropolis had necessitated our making superhuman efforts to keep up with incomes vastly beyond our own. Success was just beginning to crown our four years' struggle. Only this winter we had met friends who were in a position to introduce us, after a decent delay, to one of the directors of New York's greatest bank. Great social and financial careers have depended on less than this. And at this dramatic point in our lives our chariot of fame, our motor-car, must fail us, punctured, as it were, on the very Speedway of Achievement.

I worked dully that morning, from minute to minute putting off the distressing moment when I must telephone my chauffeur to put my automobile in a sales-house and resign his post forever. It seemed, somehow, like murder, or like strangling my younger brother to oblige a board of directors. Then, in order to enrage myself to the killing-point, I consulted a private monthly motor expense account which I kept in a memorandum-book.

With the alarming figures that it disclosed in mind, I was willing to commit any cruelty. Almost blithely I reached for the telephone receiver to give the word, when the bell rang.

"Hello! Is that you, Armand?" came a dear, familiar voice over the wire. "This is Andalusia."

"Yes, darling."

"Have you—have you sold it yet?"

"No. Not yet."

A sigh.

"To tell you the truth, I've been so busy this morning—a thousand things—that I almost forgot about the car." I didn't want Andalusia to know how seriously I was taking the affair.

"I'm so glad! You mustn't sell it—not for two or three days. I've simply got to have it. They're going to play bridge at Mrs. Buchanan's this afternoon. I promised to pick up Nellie Dolliver on the way over—and you know what she'd say if I appeared with a taxi. I might tell her the car was out of order, but everybody suspects you of being bankrupt in these hard times. And you know Nellie Dolliver. She's poor as dirt, but she's related to half the money in New York. And you know how particular people like that get. Then, to-morrow night the Robinsons are going with us to "Thais" and supper afterward at the Ritz—of course I could have them take us over in their car—but to have Dollie Robinson look at me inquiringly with her oyster-colored eyes is one humiliation I think I can't stand in my present nervous state. Thursday there's a luncheon at the Anti-Suffrage Club. I must have the car then, because I'm on the tableau committee with Mrs. John Smith. Why must I have the car? Why, Mrs. Smith was Consuela Van Osterweeval—you must know. And then in the evening, you remember—"

"But, precious," I protested. "At this rate we'll never be able—"

"Oh, very well," said Andalusia, coldly. "After I've sacrificed everything in letting you sell the car, you won't do me the slightest little favor."

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I surrendered. What else could I do? I was no dull clod, deaf to the anguish of the world's most beautiful woman. Also, I liked the idea of owning an automobile for three days longer.

But three days lengthened into three weeks. I never saw such a brilliant list of showy social engagements as seemed to inundate us from all sides. Right and left we were asked to places where to appear without our private equipage would be like attending the opera wearing blue pajamas. We were drawn to dinners, we were dragged to teas, we were forced into accepting weekend invitations to country houses where automobiles comprised the wit and wisdom of hourly conversation. It all came at once.

Down at the office there was an almost daily call for my assessment. I was not doing the square thing by them—they knew it and I knew it. Everybody had come nobly forward with money with the exception of me. I staved them off with daily promises of selling my car. I despised myself. Also creditors were beginning to yawp around my Riverside Drive home with threats to sell my houseful of antiques—most of which were bogus.

I saw Carbon & Coggs, automobile sales agents. They found me a client, and I made an engagement to bring my car around on a Friday afternoon. The faithful Rasmussen was waiting with the machine in front of my office at two o'clock on that day. With heavy heart I told him to drive around to Carbon & Coggs's. They told me their man wanted my car very much. I was dreadfully sure he would take it. This would be the last act of my vain show.

Just as Rasmussen had turned over the engine and I was settling back in the tonneau, a fat, gopher-faced old man passed less than a yard from where I sat. It was Leonidas Hay, the eccentric magnate whose surly humor had crippled our firm. With desperate agility I leaped over the rear door and headed the old man off.

"Good morning, Mr. Hay!" I shouted in his deaf ear.

"It's afternoon!" he grunted, with the courtesy of a wounded pig. He looked around, seemingly at a loss for further disagreeable observations. His glance finally settled on my automobile, and an expression distinctly resembling pleasure came into his face.

"That your automobile?" he asked.

"Yes," I shouted, "it's mine!"

"Huh! Where'd ye git it?"

"Bought it."

"Want to sell it?" inquired Leonidas, poking the tires with his crooked stick.

"I might," I shrieked. "Of course it's a very fine French car, and—"

"I 'ain't got anything to do for a couple of hours," said Mr. Hay, in his deafness apparently taking my explanation for an invitation of some kind. "I'm willin' to drive around with you for a bit."

I almost dragged the peculiar financier into the car. If I pride myself on anything it is on my fine business instinct. I saw here a chance to make a two-bird killing. I could sell my car at a profit and talk the old man into the Trans-Universal Starch Co. again.

"Go out on the Pelham Road," I said to Rasmussen. I bristled with arguments, but Leonidas quelled me with a monologue. He had the psychology of a frog. Approach him, and he mopes forever under a stone. But let him once start croaking and there's no power in heaven and earth that can stop his song. He had come to New York with Mrs. Hay for a few days on business. He was overworked. The doctors had told him to buy an automobile and get more air. He hated automobiles on general principles, but this one seemed to be fairly decent. He hadn't anything to do to-morrow and wished to goodness he had a chance to spend all day in the woods somewhere.

"Come with us!" I yelled. "I know a little French inn in the wilds of Jersey. We always go there for lunch on Saturday. You and Mrs. Hay come and make a day of it with us."

When I reached home that night, Andalusia, palely calm, greeted me with the usual question:

"Have you sold it?"

"We are going to use it to-morrow for positively the last time," I said. "We're going to have an all-day's tour through the Jersey woods."

"How jolly!" tinkled Andalusia.

"Yes," I Said. "We're going to take as passengers an eccentric couple, both over seventy years of age. He's deaf—and Lord knows what's the matter with her."

"Well, what on earth did you ask them for?"

"Well, you see it's Mr. and Mrs. Hay, of the Princess Mop Company. It's absolutely necessary for me to get him alone and have a talk with him about Trans-Universal Starch. So you see we can't very well put the car up to-morrow."

"Armand, you're a coward!" said Andalusia.

Poor woman! In her mind she had firmly planted the idea that I was taking the Hays to Jersey merely as a pretext to hang on to the car a little longer.

As I have said, I am essentially a business man. Strategic position is everything to me. Leonidas Hay is one of those deaf people who hear very well in a moving vehicle. With the crisp morning air blowing in his face, and seated next to me where escape was impossible, I unmercifully peppered him with the commercial advantages of Trans-Universal. With the directness of a general and the glamour of a poet I pictured to him our marvelous process for extracting starch from banana-peel. I was racy as Kipling and profound as Herbert Spencer. Along the path of inevitable logic I led him up to the very gates of the Trans-Universal Starch Co., destined to make the collars of humanity stiffer and whiter through countless generations. Finally I explained to him in a hundred pungent sentences how money spent on the Colossal Starch Combine would be as chaff scattered before screaming gulls.

I argued with all the inspiration of despair and natural eloquence. But the harder I pleaded for Trans-Universal Starch the more intent became Leonidas Hay on the sale value of my car. He wanted to know if I'd let the machine go for $3,500 and throw in four extra tires. He wanted to know how fast it would go and how many miles it had covered in the last year. When I promised him that the Trans-Universal plant could produce starch at fifty per cent. the present cost price, he answered me by asking if I thought a chain-car would stand more wear and tear than the shaft-driven style. Presently my eloquence grew less. I was developing a sore throat.

We had lunch at the little Nyack restaurant. Under the influence of warm, red Chianti I talked starch, Leonidas talked car, and the ladies talked styles. After lunch, while we were preparing for the homeward run, old Hay insisted on going out under the shed and taking another look at my automobile. He was apparently falling a prey to automania. The gasolene had entered his soul, and he could think of nothing else. He crawled under the car to see how it was built; he peeked into the hood, tunked the tires, and had Rasmussen crank her up to see how it was done. Then he stood off at a distance and simply gazed, wrapt in thought.

Suddenly he straightened up, walked over to me and said: "Mr. Whittlebush, I have been thinkin' over that Universal Starch proposition. I think more'n half you said to-day is right. Say, I'll be at your office to-morrow mornin' at eleven—and if your officers will meet me there, I'll be willin' to subscribe to them 100,000 shares originally considered."

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It's a bad rule in love and business to show premature elation, but I fear my mustache trembled as I answered. Mr. Hay's sudden decision to come in with his money meant everything to me and my wife. My salary would be raised—we could keep the car, or buy a newer model. We were several notches higher in New York's social mountain climbing.

I didn't have an opportunity to tell Andalusia the good news on the way home; but I managed to give her hand, under the lap-robes, the 3-2-5 squeeze, which is the code-signal, "All right ahead!"

As we let the Hays off at their hotel the old gentleman paused.

"I wish you wouldn't take everything I said this afternoon in earnest," he began.

My heart hit shoe-leather.

"I guess I sort o' led you to believe I wanted to buy your automobile," he went on. "But I don't think I'll want it, after all. It's a nice enough machine, but I don't like 'em. To tell you the truth, I only pretended to like your machine as an excuse for another chance to talk over that Trans-Universal Starch business with you."

"Don't apologize," said I. My motor whizzed away toward Riverside Drive like a soul released from Purgatory.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1959, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.