The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 10


FROM JACK WINSTON TO LORD LANE

Pau, December 15.

Dear Safety Valve,

After the recent budget from Biarritz I had no intention of inflicting another upon you at—least, until we should reach Nice. But—there's as much virtue in "but" as in "if"—you will be thinking in Davos that it never rains but it pours letters; I am thinking in Pau that it never rains but it pours young men—Miss Randolph's young men. We've got another one now, in his way as objectionable as the first; and though I don't regard this specimen as an active menace to the car, nor do I believe he will resort to ripping up the tyres, he has his knife into me.

Well, we arrived in Pau, which I know of old, and in which I've had some rather jolly times, as Miss Randolph would put it. Pau is the sort of place where you meet your friends, and I scented danger, but we were booked for only two days, and luck had befriended me so well thus far that I trusted it once more. I came to a hotel at some distance from the Goddess's. Between two evils I chose the less, and put my name down as "J. Winston," hoping that if anyone knew me they wouldn't know Miss Randolph, or vice versâ. Besides, I took counsel with prudence, engaged a private sitting-room, and ordered my meals sent up, to avoid being on show in the salle à manger. All seemed serene, when suddenly an adverse wind began to blow (as usual) from an unexpected quarter.

Lured by fancied security, I took advantage of that idleness for which Satan is popularly supposed to provide mischief to put in a little private fun on my own account. On the morning after our arrival in Pau, Miss Randolph informed me that the car and I would not be wanted, as she had met some American friends and would be at their disposal during the day. In an evil moment a golf rage overpowered me, and I yielded, seeing no special reason why I shouldn't. The Pau links are the best on the Continent, and I had retained my membership of the club from last year, when I was here with my mother, so that was all right. I nicked into a cab and told the man to drive to the golf club.

The steward remembered me, so did the professional; but as it was fairly early in the morning as well as early in the season there were only a couple of men in the smoking-room. I sat down to write a letter at a corner table, and as one of the fellows was talking in loud tones, advertising all the wares in his shop windows, so to speak, I couldn't help over-hearing what he said. He had one of those objectionable, Anglo-maniac, American voices that get on your nerves; you know the snobbish sort that, instead of being proud as punch of their own country, want to appear more English than the English, and get up for the part like an actor with all an actor's exaggerations. Well, this was one of those voices; and for all the owner might have taken his accent from his groom, he was mightily pleased with it.

I hadn't looked at the chap at first, but when I heard him telling his meek little exclamatory friend stories about a lot of my own friends (invariably making his impression by mentioning their titles first, then dropping into Christian names), I did take a glance at him over my shoulder.

I found him a curious combination of Sherlock Holmes and Little Lord Fauntleroy. He might have "gone on" at a moment's notice as understudy either for Mr. William Gillette in the one part, or for that clever little What's-his-name who resurrected the latter in London lately; though as for his dramatic talent, I've yet to judge, and may be called upon to do so, as you shall hear.

He went on gassing about all sorts of impossible feats he'd accomplished on a Panhard car, which he alluded to as his. According to himself, Fournier wasn't in it with him. Having heard to the end the tale of a motor race in which Sherlock-Fauntleroy, in company with the Duke of Bedford, had beaten King Edward the Seventh, the other man, deeply impressed, inquired through his nose (which he, being frankly Far- Western, didn't mind using as a channel of communication) whether his magnificent acquaintance was at present travelling on the famous Panhard, and had it with him.

"No," was the answer; "fact is I got a bit tired of keeping the road, and lent my car to my old friend Montie—Lord Lane, don't you know, who's running it about the Riviera now."

Aha, my boy, does that make you sit up? I assure you it did me. And if, just before, I hadn't heard the gentleman discoursing on the pleasures of a certain trip taken with Burford at a date when you and Burford and I happened to be together, I should have sat still straighter. I might have said to myself, "So all is discovered. My Montie—or rather his Montie—has taken a leaf out of Brown's book, and instead of stuffing himself with fresh air and eggs at Davos, is flashing about the Riviera in his dear chum's Panhard, which he must have lately learnt to drive, as he didn't know gearing from belts when I saw him last." As it is, however, I assure you no such suspicions are at present keeping me awake; I've enough worries of my own to do that.

But Fauntleroy-Holmes was continuing, and I sat in my obscure corner inhaling his tobacco smoke and his equally ephemeral anecdotes

"I am going on to Nice myself in a day or two, with some ladies, on their motor-car," said he. "Very good car, I believe; one of the ladies very handsome. She has a chauffeur, of course, but I shall drive and let him do the dirty work. I fancy I shall be able to show my friend something in the way of driving. She wants to learn, and ought to have good instruction to begin with; one never recovers form if taught bad ways at first."

I lay low, like Brer Rabbit, but my ears were burning. He'd named no names, and I had no reason to fit a cap on anybody's head. There were plenty of ladies and plenty of motor-cars in Pau, any of which might be going to Nice. I had never seen the man before, and didn't believe Miss Randolph knew him from Adam; still, I had a sensation of heat in my ears, and when I'd finished the letter I had begun (it was to Burford, by the way, but I refrained from telling him how his name had been taken in vain, less out of good nature than because I couldn't be bothered), I got up, went out, and asked the steward who the young man was who looked like Sherlock Holmes.

He knew at once who I meant, grinned, and informed me that the gentleman was a very rich American, named Payne, a great amateur automobilist, and a keen golfer. How he had obtained all these particulars it wasn't difficult to guess, when one reflected upon Mr. Payne's fondness for talking of himself. By the way, have you ever met the man at all?

A few minutes after questioning the steward, I was strolling on the lawn thinking over what I had heard, when Sherlock walked out of the club, his obtrusive eyeglass dangling from his buttonhole.

He advanced towards me, somewhat to my surprise, and hailed me from afar, seeing, I suppose, that I was inclined to move on. "I say, sir," he began, "if you want a game, will you take me on? I've a friend just gone, and there doesn't seem to be anyone here but you and me——"

By this time he had stuck the big monocle in his eye, where it had somewhat the effect of a biscuit. I fancied it was the addition of the eyeglass which discomposed his expression, but almost immediately I realised that the change was due to a cause more violent.

"B—ah Jove!" he ejaculated. And then, "'Pon my word, what damned impertinence!" He stood glaring at me through that eyeglass with such an "I am the Duke of Omnium, who the devil are you?" sort of expression that I thought he must be mad, and I stared also, in amazed silence.

After looking me up and down he began again. "What do you mean by it, I want to know, swaggering about here, among gentlemen, as if you were one of Us? I'll have you put out by the waiters." With this extraordinary outburst he turned on his heel, and was making off towards the club-house; but as you know, my temper is not of the sweetest, and mad or not mad, I didn't exactly yearn over Mr. Payne. I took advantage of the long legs about which "my friend Montie" has occasionally chaffed me and caught him up. I cannot conceal from you that I did more. I gripped him by the shoulder. I held him firmly, apparently somewhat against his will. I also shook him, and it now comes dimly back to me that his eyeglass jumped out of his eye.

"You damned cad!" I then remarked in a tone which some people might consider abrupt; "what in h—— do you mean?"

He took to stuttering—some men do in emergencies—and I knew from that instant that he couldn't drive a motor-car. "L—et go," he stammered like a schoolboy. "You—you—confounded chauffeur, you! I'll tell your mistress of you, and have you discharged. You—you're Miss Randolph's chauffeur, and you come here to pass yourself off as a member at a gentleman's club."

On the point of knocking him down, I decided I wouldn't, and dropped him instead like a hot chestnut. You see, he "had me on the hip"; for I am Miss Randolph's chauffeur, and there was no good denying it. In a small way it was one of the nastiest situations of my life. What "A." in Vanity Fair would have done I don't know, and I didn't know what to do myself for a minute. You see, my prophetic soul tells me that the time hasn't come to confess all and throw myself on the Goddess's mercy, as I hope it may some day; and I couldn't afford to be plunged into hot water with her when the facts would look fishy and be impossible to explain. Still, I couldn't eat humble pie with that Bounder; sooner I would have quietly killed him, and stuffed him into a hole in the links. However, a sweet little cherub of inspiration looked out for the fate of poor Jack, and whispered an alternative in my ear.

"Do you dare deny it?" Payne demanded, plucking up courage.

"I 'dare' do a good deal," said I, looking him straight in the eyes. "But I don't intend to deny it. I am Miss Randolph's chauffeur." How he had found that out I couldn't imagine.

"Then, I can tell you, you won't long remain so," blustered the fellow, as cocksure as if he were her brother, or something nearer—hang him! "A man who is capable of practising such deception isn't fit to be trusted with a lady. I shall get you the sack."

"You ought to be a good judge of deception," said I. "Have you told Miss Randolph yet about that trip of yours with the Duke of Burford last summer?"

Sherlock-Fauntleroy got as red as a beet, and the Fauntleroy characteristics predominated. I thought tears were about to start from his eyes, but he merely relapsed into another fit of the stutters. "Wh—hat d—do you mean?" he chattered. "Y—you don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh yes, I do," I said, growing calmer as he grew excited, "a good deal more than you knew what you were talking about when you claimed the Duke as your friend. I happened to be with him at the time last summer, when you said you were driving him on your car."

"You with the Duke!" sneered Sherlock. "Who would believe that?"

"Miss Randolph would," said I. "The Duke of Burford was driving his own car last summer. Now you can guess how I happened to be with him. There was just one other man on board; your friend Montie, Lord Lane, you know. Lord Lane was another of my old masters." (Hope you don't object to being referred to as an Old Master, and I was your fag at Eton.) "I know him very well. He can do a good many things, can Lord Lane, but he can't drive a motor-car. And another little detail you've got wrong. He isn't running about on the Riviera. He is at Davos Platz. I've had a letter from him there the other day; he's very thoughtful of his old servants. Miss Randolph would think it queer if you said you expected to meet Lord Lane on the Riviera with your car, and I showed her a letter from him which proved he'd been at Davos for the last six weeks. Or he wouldn't mind telegraphing if I wired."

"You're a regular blackmailer," gasped Payne.

"Not at all," said I. "I suggest a bargain, but I don't want money. All I want is not to lose my job. Don't you give me away, and I won't give you away. Do you agree to that compromise and no more said?"

We had been holding each other by the eye, but suddenly his wandered, assisted by the monocle. So odd an expression sat on his face that I followed his straying glance, and saw what he saw—Miss Randolph! Miss Randolph at one of the long French windows of the club-house, with several other ladies. Without a second's hesitation I gripped Payne by the arm and dragged him across the lawn, using him as a screen. Once round the corner of the house, I let him go; but I dared not wait to chaffer. "Remember, it's a bargain," I reminded the fellow. "While you keep to your part I keep to mine, and not a moment longer." With this I darted into one of the waiting cabs. That was a narrow shave, but I congratulated myself that I had come cut of it "on top," joyful in the hope that I should snatch Miss Randolph away in a day or two, and the episode would be closed. But mice and men should go slow in self-congratulation. Even a confirmed liar occasionally tells the truth by mistake. Next day (which means to-day) I learned this through bitter experience. Nothing had happened, and when I presented myself to Miss Randolph in the morning for orders, her manner was so pleasant, so exactly the same as usual, that I made sure Mr. Payne had chosen the better part of valour and held his peace. Evening came, however; my mistress sent for me, as I was informed through the invaluable hall-porter. Coward conscience, or some other intricate internal organ, gave a twinge. I asked myself blankly if I had been betrayed, if I were in for a scolding, if I should have to choose between being ignominiously chucked out of my precious berth, or prematurely owning up to the trick I have played, with the consequent risk of losing my lady forever. I felt pretty sick as I went up the servants' stairs to Miss Randolph's floor at the "Gassisn" and knocked at the door of her private sitting-room.

The door was on the latch, and as I tapped I heard Aunt Mary exclaim in a tone of extreme scorn, "Ask him 'if he objects,' indeed! One would think you were the servant and he the master. You shall do nothing of the kind."

My knocking evidently cut short the argument. Miss Randolph called "Come in!" and I obeyed, all black leather and humility. I hardly raised my eyes to the ladies, yet I saw that She was looking adorable in a white dress, with nothing but sparkling lacey stuff over the loveliest neck and arms on earth. She smiled, so I hoped that my sin had not found me out, but it was not precisely one of her own frank, starry smiles; there was something new and constrained, and my heart still misgave me.

"Brown," said she (and I observed that Aunt Mary had fixed her with a threatening eye), "Brown, I thought I'd send for you to say that we'll have another passenger to-morrow for a few days. Or that is we may have to ask him to drive sometimes, out of politeness, for I believe he's a good driver, and he might be hurt if we didn't; though I'm sure he drives no better than you."

By this time I knew what was coming, and steeled myself to bear it, but there might have been a certain involunatry elongation of countenance, for the poor child rushed into explanations to save my battered feelings. "You see," she went on, "this gentleman, Mr. Payne, is a very old friend of the family, and he has been travelling in Europe a long time, for a rest. He overworked himself or something, and broke down. Now, he has lent his car to an English friend of his, Lord Lane, whom he arranged to rejoin on the Riviera. But he doesn't feel well, and railway travelling disagrees with him. His doctor here has just told him that he must be continually in the open air if he doesn't want to have a relapse; and Miss Kedison thinks my father would be annoyed if we didn't ask him to drive with us, as we are going the way he must go. The Napier is such a fine car, I suppose it can take four as well as three, and a little more luggage?"

"Oh yes, miss, there'll be no difficulty about that," I answered grudgingly.

"And you won't feel that it is lack of trust in you, if he drives part of the time?"

At this Aunt Mary glared, but that Angel paid not the slightest attention.

There is an unwritten law that a man shall not be a brute; and after her sweet consideration of my chauffery feelings I couldn't show myself ungracious. I assured her that I should not feel hurt, and that she was very kind to think of me at all. I would do my best for the party, unless, of course, my services would be superfluous, now that she was to be accompanied by a friend who was a competent driver.

I wonder what I should have done in the unlikely event that she took me at my word? Picture my feelings, bereft of my Goddess, bereft of my Napier at one and the same time, constrained to resignation, while a confounded impostor drove off with both from under my very nose! Miss Randolph hastened to deny any such thought, and to impress upon me my value as a chauffeur. But things are bad enough as they are.

Here I am saddled with a fellow who hates me as a cur hates a man who has thrashed him, and will snap if he dares. Instead of turning my back upon him, I have to carry him away on it; and if a rod isn't in pickle for me, I'm not

Your old friend,
Jack Winston