The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 1



In the Oak Room, the "White Lion,"
Cobham, Surrey, November 12.

Dear Shiny-headed Angel,

I hope you won't mind, but I've changed all my plans. I've bought an automobile, or a motor-car, as they call it over here; and while I'm writing to you, Aunt Mary is having nervous prostration on a sofa in a corner at least a hundred years old—I mean the sofa, not the corner, which is a good deal more. But perhaps I'd better explain.

Well, to begin with, some people we met on the steamer (they were an archdeacon, with charming silk legs, and an archdeaconess who snubbed us till it leaked out through that Aunt Mary that you were the Chauncey Randolph) said if we wanted to see a thoroughly characteristic English village, we ought to run out to Cobham; and we ran—to-day.

Aunt Mary had one of her presentiments against the expedition, so I was sure it would turn out nice. When we drove up to this lovely old red-brick hotel, in a thing they call a fly because it crawls; there were several automobiles starting off, and I can tell you I felt small—just as if I were Miss Noah getting out the ark. (Were there any Miss Noahs, by the way?)

One of the automobiles was different from any I've ever seen on our side or this. It was high and dignified, like a chariot, and looked over the heads of the others as the archdeaconess used to look over mine till she heard whose daughter I was. A chauffeur was sitting on the front seat, and a gorgeous man had jumped down and was giving him directions. He wasn't looking my way, so I seized the opportunity to snapshot him, as a souvenir of English scenery; but that tactless Kodak of mine gave the loudest "click" you ever heard, and he turned his head in time to suspect what had been happening. I swept past with my most "haughty Lady Gwendolen" air, talking to Aunt Mary, and hoped I shouldn't see him again. But we'd hardly got seated for lunch in a beautiful old room, panelled from floor to ceiling with ancient oak, when he came into the room, and Aunt Mary, who has a sneaking weakness for titles (I suppose it's the effect of the English climate), murmured that there was her ideal of a duke.

The Gorgeous Man strolled up and took a place at our table. He passed Aunt Mary some things which she didn't want, and then began to throw out a few conversational feelers. If you're a girl, and want fun in England, it's no end of a pull being American; for if you do anything that people think queer, they just sigh, and say, "Poor creature! she's one of those mad Americans," and put you down as harmless. I don't know whether an English girl would have talked or not, but I did; and he knew lots of our friends, especially in Paris, and it was easy to see he was a raving, tearing "swell," even if he wasn't exactly a duke. I can't remember how it began, but really it was Aunt Mary and not I who chattered about our trip, and how we were abroad for the first time, and were going to "do" Europe as soon as we had "done" England.

The Gorgeous Man had lived in France (he seems to have lived nearly everywhere, and to know everybody and everything worth knowing), and, said he, "What a pity we couldn't do our tour on a motor-car! " At that I became flippant, and inquired which, in his opinion, would be more suitable as chauffeur—Aunt Mary or I; whereupon he announced that he was not joking, but serious. We ought to have a motor-car and a chauffeur. Then we might say, like Monte Cristo, "The world is mine."

He went on to tell of the wonderful journeys he'd made in his car, "which we might have noticed outside." It seemed it was better than any other sort of car in the world; in fact there was no other exactly like it, as it had been made especially for him. You simply couldn't break it, it was so strong; the engine would outlast two of any other kind; and one of the advantages was that it had belts and a marvellous arrangement called a "jockey pulley" to regulate the speed: consequently it ran more "sweetly" (that was the word he used) than gear-driven cars, which, according to him, jerk, and are noisy, break easily, and do all sorts of disagreeable things.

By the time we were half through lunch I was envying him his car, and feeling as if life wasn't worth living, because I couldn't have it to play with. I asked if I could buy one like it, but he was very discouraging. He had had his fitted up with lots of expensive improvements, and it didn't pay the firm to make cars like that for the public, so I would have to order one specially, and it might be months before it could be delivered. I was thinking it rather inconsiderate in him to work me up to such a pitch, just to cast me down again, when he mentioned, in an incidental way, that he intended to sell his car, because he had ordered a racer of forty horse-power.

I jumped at that and said, "Why not sell it to me?"

You ought to have seen Aunt Mary's face! But we didn't give her time to speak, and gasps are more effectual as punctuations than interruptions.

Her Duke was too much moved to pause for them. He hurried to say that he hoped I hadn't misunderstood him. The last thought in his mind had been to "make a deal." Of course, if I really contemplated buying a car, I must see a great many different kinds before deciding. But as it seemed I had never had a ride on an automobile (your fault, Dad—your only one!), he would be delighted to take us a little spin in his car.

Before Aunt Mary could get in a word I had accepted; for I did want to go. And what is Aunt Mary for if not to make all the things I want to do and otherwise couldn't, strictly proper?

Anyhow, we went, and it was heavenly. I know how a bird feels now, only more so. You know, Dad, how quickly I make up my mind. I take that from you, and in our spin through beautiful lanes to a delightful hotel called—just think of it!—the "Hautboy and Fiddle," at the village of Ockham, I'd had quite time enough to determine that I wanted the Duke's car, if it could be got.

I said so; he objected. You've no idea how delicate he was about it, so afraid it might seem that he had taken advantage. I assured him that, if anything, it was the other way round, and at last he yielded. The car really is a beauty. You can put a big trunk on behind, and there are places for tools and books and lunch, and no end of little things, in a box under the cushions we sit on, and even under the floor. You never saw anything so convenient. He showed me everything, and explained the machinery, but that part I forgot as fast as he talked, so I can't tell you now exactly on what principle the engine works. When it came to a talk about price I thought he would say two thousand five hundred dollars at least (that's five hundred pounds, isn't it?) for such a splendid chariot. I know Jimmy Payne gave nearly twice that for the one he brought over to New York last year, and it wasn't half as handsome; but—would you believe it?—the man seemed quite shy at naming one thousand five hundred dollars. It was a second-hand car now, he insisted, though he had only had it three months, and he wouldn't think of charging more. I felt as if I were playing the poor fellow a real Yankee trick when I cried "Done!"

Well, now, Dad, there's my confession. That's all up to date, except that the Duke, who isn't a duke, but plain Mr. Reginald Cecil-Lanstown ("plain" seems hardly the word for all that, does it?) is to bring my car, late his, to Claridge's on Monday, and I'm to pay. You dear, to have given me such an unlimited letter of credit! He's got to get me a chauffeur who can speak French and knows the Continent, and Aunt Mary and I will do the rest of our London shopping on an automobile—my own, if you please. Then, when we are ready to cross the Channel, we'll drive to Newhaven, ship the car to Dieppe, and after that I hope we shan't so much as see a railroad train, except from a long distance. Automobiles for ever, say I, mine in particular.

I'm writing this after we have come back to Cobham, and while we wait for the fly which is to take us to the station. Aunt Mary says I am mad. She is quite "off" her Duke now, and thinks he is a fraud. By the way, when that photo is developed I'll send it to you, so that you can see your daughter's new gee-gee. Here comes the cab, so good-bye, you old saint. From

Your sinner,