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A TRICYCLE FOR TWO

By W. L. Alden


A STREET organ was playing "A Bicycle Made (or Two," and as we listened sadly, and wondered how long England would be permitted to be the refuge of Anarchists and organ-grinders, the Colonel remarked to no one in particular, "A bicycle made for two may do well enough in this country, but if you Britishers had ever seen Professor Van Wagener's tricycle made for two, you would never think of singing about any kind of bicycle."

"I think I was telling you the other day," continued the Colonel, "about Professor Van Wagener, the great electrical sharp, who used to live next door to me in New Berlinopolisville. A mighty clever man he was in many other directions than that of electricity. He was always inventing something. I have known that man to get up at four o'clock on a winter's morning and invent straight along till noon. Show him a piece of machinery, I don't care what it might be, and he would instantly go to work to improve it.

"I had a reaping-machine in my field, and one day the Professor happened to see it. Nothing would satisfy him but to put an attachment to that machine so that it would gather the straw into bundles, and tie them neatly around the middle with ropes which were to be twisted out of straw by a second attachment to the machine. He worked at that idea for several months, until he got it to suit him. Then he built a brand new machine with his two attachments, and took it into my field to exhibit it. He was so proud of it that he sent out written invitations to about all his acquaintances to come and see it, and he told me that this time he had made an invention that was going to make his fortune and give him a reputation that would lie over any other man's, except, perhaps, George Washington's.

"The machine was a big, clumsy-looking affair, and was run by a horse that had a sort of stall in about the middle of it, where he couldn't play any tricks, and where the machine couldn't play any tricks on him. The Professor had his wife with him and his wife's cousin, who was a very pretty girl, though I don't believe Van Wagener ever noticed that anything was pretty unless it was some sort of scientific apparatus. The horse was started up, and the machine began to reap and to tie up bundles of straw, just as the Professor had said it would do. His wife's cousin wanted to see just how the thing worked, so he took her alongside of the machine, and before they fairly knew what was the matter the machine had tied the Professor and the girl into a bundle, and tied them so tight that they could hardly breathe. Naturally the people who had been invited to see the machine work, rushed up to help the Professor and the young woman, and presently that machine had most of the leading citizens of New Berlinopolisville tied up in neat bundles, and lying around on the ground calling for help, except such of them as had been wrapped round with straw, and were too nearly suffocated to speak. The machine kept on its way, seeking for more citizens and more straw, until some man had sense enough to stop the horse, and so put an end to the performance. There isn't any manner of doubt that it was a talented machine, but when the leading citizens had been set free, they seemed very much prejudiced against it. Some of them were for killing the Professor, and some of them were for killing the horse, but they finally compromised, and arranged their differences by smashing the machine into scrap iron, and informing the Professor that if he ever calculated to build another one, he had better dig his grave first, and sit close to the edge of it. I can't say that I blame them very much, for when a man is violently tied up with some other man whom he don't particularly like, or with some other man's wife, knowing all the time that the woman's husband is spry with his weapons and unwilling as a general rule to argue a matter until after he has got through shooting, it stands to reason that he won't feel particularly friendly to the machine that has done the tying. I never heard any more about that machine from the Professor, and it's my belief that when his wife got him home she let him know that he couldn't be tied up in the same bundle with a good-looking cousin without inviting the just indignation of a virtuous and devoted wife.

"Another time the Professor was taking a drive with me in my buggy, and it struck him as a bright idea that the bit and reins ought to be superseded by electricity. So he goes to work and invents a new way of driving a horse by pressing buttons instead of pulling on the reins. He had wires running from the seat of his wagon to different parts of the horse. You pressed one button, and the horse got a shock on the right side of his face that made him turn to the left. You pressed another button, and a shock on the left cheek turned him to the right. A wire connecting with his tail was used to stir him up instead of a whip, and a strong current sent into his forelegs was expected to make him stop dead still whenever it was turned on. All these currents came from a battery under the seat of the wagon, and the buttons that turned them on were let into the seat on either side of the driver.

"Van Wagener took his wife out to drive in this new style of wagon as soon as he got it perfected, and to all appearances it worked very well. He stopped in front of Dr. Smith's drug store, which was our leading drug store at the time, though afterwards the proprietor was crusaded by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who smashed all his whiskey bottles and knocked out the heads of his whiskey barrels, and left nothing in his establishment except a few medicine bottles and a little perfumery. Well, as I was saying, the Professor stopped in front of the drug store, and Mrs. Van Wagener climbed down and bought some mustard-plasters, or something of the sort, and then climbed into the wagon again. She was a middling heavy woman, which was a little strange, considering how strict she was in matters of morality and religion, for your strict woman is nearly always more or less bony, and she sat down on the seat with considerable force, and directly on the top of about half the electric buttons, she having forgot all about them. The horse couldn't quite understand the signals, but when he felt a current setting up his spine and another in his left cheek, and another in his right cheek, he saw that as a matter of self-respect he ought to kick that wagon to flinders, and accordingly he started in to do it. The Professor yelled to him to whoa, and he turned on all his electricity at once, hoping to shock the horse into some sort of paralysis, but it didn't work. The horse just kicked the whole front of the wagon into smithereens, and when he struck the battery and spilt the acids over his legs, he remembered that he had an engagement in the next county, and he started to keep it at a pace of about thirty miles an hour. It didn't much matter to the Professor and his wife, who had been scattered all over the neighborhood when the horse's heels first struck the seat, but when they came to, and Smith had plastered them up with brown paper and arnica, Van Wagener remarked that, in his opinion, horses were played out, and that in this age electricity ought to be made to take the place of such a grossly unscientific animal."

The Colonel paused, and pulled his hat down over his eyes as was his custom when he had finished speaking and desired to smoke in silence. He was reminded by Thompson that, however interesting his reminiscences of Professor Van Wagener might be, they had not yet included the promised account of the tricycle made for two.

"Beg your pardon, gentlemen," said the Colonel. "I clean forgot about that. The truth is, when I get to remembering about the Professor's inventions there are so many of them that I generally forget the particular one I started out to tell about. It's the same way with this hyer village of London. I've started out half a dozen times to go to see the Tower, and I strike so many things that interest me that I have never yet got there. Take your cigar shops, for instance. Why, they are fifty years behind the age, and when I go into one I get talking with the proprietor, and trying to show him the error of his ways, till first I know it's too late to go anywhere.

"But about this hyer tricycle. When bicycles and tricycles came to New Berlinopolisville, the Professor was mightily interested in them. Not that he admired them, but because, as he said, they were unscientific. He demonstrated with not more than half a slateful of figures that it took more exertion to drive a bicycle a mile than it would take to run that mile with a man's own legs. There was no getting around his figures. They proved that a man weighing a hundred and forty pounds and driving an ordinary bicycle at the rate of ten miles an hour consumed, say, five hundred foot pounds of energy—if anybody knows what that means, and I don't much believe anybody does. Well, the same man could run a mile with the consumption of only four hundred pounds, leaving a surplus of a hundred pounds for the benefit of the poor. 'If these young fellows that I see on bicycles had any sense,' said Van Wagener, 'they would drive their machines by electricity, and avoid the awful consumption of energy.' No sooner had this idea struck him than he proceeded to invent an electric engine for bicycles, and in the course of the summer he had his invention worked out to his own satisfaction.

"The engine and the storage battery took up a good deal of space, and so the Professor, instead of applying it to a bicycle, built a big tricycle with seats for two, and fitted his engine to that. He calculated that it would drive the machine for twelve hours at a speed of fifteen miles' on a level, and that it would carry two persons weighing in the aggregate 500 lbs. with perfect ease. When the machine was all finished the Professor wheeled it out of the yard and down to a turn in the road, where Mrs. Wagener couldn't see him, and made ready for a start. You see his wife was prejudiced against his inventions, and always said that he should never try experiments with new inventions so long as she could prevent it. Just as the Professor was climbing aboard the tricycle, Widow Dumfries comes along, and, being young and full of spirits, besides being a mighty sociable sort of woman, she told Van Wagener that it looked mighty selfish for him to start out alone, and that if he wanted to be real accommodating he would give her a little ride on his machine. The Professor never could say no, except to another scientific person; and so he told Mrs. Dumfries to get into the front seat and he would take her down to her house, which was about a quarter of a mile down the road.

"The machine went along all right, and the Professor worked his way cautiously along the main street with his brake on most of the time; but as soon as he got in the outskirts of the town he turned on the full current and let her whiz. The widow was delighted, and said that she had never enjoyed anything half so much in all her life. Pretty soon the machine came to a middling steep descent in the road, and the Professor started to shut off the current and put on his brake. But there was something wrong about his levers. He couldn't shut off the current to save his life, and when he put the brake hard on, hoping that it would stop the thing, the brake broke.

"They tell me that the tricycle went down that hill at about sixty miles an hour; that is, after it got well under headway, you understand. Nothing that Van Wagener could do had any effect in slowing it down. The engine was working for all it was worth, and she meant to keep on working according to contract. When the tricycle struck the level ground she slowed down to about eighteen miles an hour, for the Professor had given her rather more power than he had intended to give her. There weren't any hills or any ascents worth mentioning for the machine to climb, for Berlinopolisville is about six hundred feet above the lake, and the road that the Professor had taken keeps descending all the way.

"When the Professor found that he couldn't stop the tricycle, he was a pretty badly frightened man. He couldn't possibly throw himself off without mixing himself all up with the wheels, and breaking most of his bones. Besides, he couldn't desert the widow in any such way as that. You may ask why he didn't turn the machine round, and steer for home. The reason was that he couldn't possibly turn it at the speed it was running at without capsizing the whole concern. The only thing he could possibly do was to keep in the middle of the road, and let the machine run till the power was exhausted, which, if he had made no mistake in his calculation, wouldn't be less than twelve hours.

"Mrs. Dumfries enjoyed the thing at first, but after a little while she suspected that something was wrong. The Professor told her that he was sorry to say that he couldn't stop the tricycle, but that if she sat tight, and they had middling good luck, he calculated that they wouldn't come to any great harm. The widow wasn't easily frightened. She reflected that she had on her best pair of shoes and stockings, and declared that if there was to be an accident she would have to make the best of it. The longer the ride lasted the less chance there seemed to be of running into anything, for the teams that the Professor and Mrs. Dumfries did meet mostly went into the ditch on one side of the road or the other, before the tricycle had a chance to run into them. The Professor, being a kind-hearted man, and disliking profane language, was considerably troubled when he saw a horse and buggy, or, maybe, a pair of horses and loaded wagon, pile up in the ditch, and heard the remarks that the driver made—that is, in those cases where he was in a condition to make remarks; but he couldn't stop to explain or apologize.

"It was about nine o'clock in the morning when the tricycle started, and about two o'clock Mrs. Dumfries was about as tired and as hungry as they make 'em. She called to the Professor and asked him to tell her the truth about the time it would take the machine to run down. He told her that, if he hadn't made any miscalculation, she would run till about nine o'clock that night; but that it was a bright moonlight night, and he thought everything would go well, unless there should happen to be a turnpike gate on the road, and it should happen to be closed. At that the widow broke down, and, leaning back with her head on the Professor's waistcoat, fainted away. All he could do was to hold her tight with one arm, so that she couldn't slip off the machine, and to steer with the other hand. Just then he began to meet friends and acquaintances. He afterwards told me that it seemed as if there was a procession of them coming up the road, and before they went off into the ditch they all recognized the Professor, and he heard several of them say, 'Why, that there ain't Mrs. Van Wagener! Well, I never would have thought it!' or similar remarks, showing a want of confidence in the Professor's motives. He tried to call out to two or three people whom he knew very well that the machine had run away with him, but they mostly misunderstood him, and said, when they got back to town, that Van Wagener had up and told them in so many words that he was running away with the widow.

"Night came along and the moon came up, but the road was lined with trees, and it was fair to middling dark. Mrs. Dumfries had come to long before this; but she had lost her temper, and told the Professor he was a brute, and that her brother would settle with him for his outrageous conduct. Once a man hailed the tricycle and ordered it to stop, and, finding that it would not stop, fired three revolver shots after it, without, however, doing any harm. Once the machine ran into an old woman who was crossing the road, and was either deaf or blind, but there wasn't very much of her, and the tricycle went over her like a horse taking a low fence. If it hadn't been for the excitement of the ride, and the thought of what the consequences would probably be when Mrs. Van Wagener should come to know about it, the Professor would probably have dropped exhausted, for he wasn't a very strong man. However, he held out well, and about nine o'clock, just as the machine was approaching a tavern that stood alongside of the road, the current gave out and the tricycle stopped.

"There wasn't any other house nearer than four miles, and there was the Professor and Mrs. Dumfries, nearly two hundred miles from New Berlinopolisville, and about as tired, and about as hungry, and about as mad as any two people ever were. Of course they had to stop at the tavern till morning, and it took them two more days to get home, partly by stage coach and partly by rail. When they did get home the Professor found that Mrs. Van Wagener had gone to her mother's, leaving word with a neighbor that she should begin proceedings for a divorce at once, and that the widow's brother had started out with his Winchester rifle, remarking to the Professor's friends that they could make arrangements for the funeral at once, and that he would send the body on to them at their expense, if they so desired.

"The end of it all was that I went to see the widow, and then I hunted up Mrs. Van Wagener, and finally explained things so that the Professor's wife came back again, and the widow's brother allowed that he was satisfied that it was a case which didn't require any shooting. But after that you could never get the Professor to listen to the word tricycle, which was a pity, for in my opinion there was a fortune in that invention of his if it had been properly put on the market. But that's the way with these scientific men. When they make a good invention they don't know it, and when they invent something that is of no earthly use they spend their bottom dollar trying to get people to take an interest in it."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.