The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 11


FROM JACK WINSTON TO LORD LANE

Toulouse, December 16.

Dear Montie,

I can't let you alone, you see. I must unburden myself, or something will happen—something apoplectic. If I have sinned, I am punished; and so far as I can see the worst still stretches before me in a long vista. It was good of you to scrawl off that second letter, at midnight, as an afterthought. It was forwarded, and has just reached me here, by grand good luck.

You say I would do better to make a clean breast of it; but that's easier said than done. You're not here, and you can't see the "lie of the land" as I can. I'll explain the position to you, from my point of view, for I think you don't quite understand it.

Not to mince matters, I am a Fraud, and Miss Randolph is the sort of girl to resent being imposed upon, If this Payne, who rejoices in the name of Jimmy, should find out the truth about me and tell her to-morrow, she would be exceedingly angry, as she would have a right to be, and would, I think, find it hard to forgive me. It is because I have felt this instinctively that I have let things slide. I have drifted down the stream of enjoyment, saying to the passing hour, like Goethe's hero, "Stay, thou art fair," though too often the thought would present itself that this could not go on for ever. Besides, there were drawbacks, big or little, according to my mood. I have always kept it before myself, more or less, that some day Miss Randolph would dispense with me and my car, in the natural course of affairs, even if the event were not hastened by some contretemps or other; and that it might then be as difficult to adjust matters as it is now. But in truth I hope it won't be so. What I aim to do is to make myself so indispensable to her as Brown that she can't bring herself to get on without me as Jack Winston. I haven't done that yet, though it isn't for lack of trying; therefore I'm not ready for the crisis, and therefore I'm afraid of Payne. Yes, "afraid," that's the word. And my one consolation is that he's equally afraid of me.

Your ordinary, habitual liar can bear up if he's found out, and laugh it off somehow, but your snob and boaster can't. This man could hardly survive being stripped of his dukes and earls, with which he's covered his untitled nakedness as with a mantle, for the eyes of Miss Randolph. In this natural phenomenon lies my chance of gaining time, and other things that I want.

You would have had some pure enjoyment out of to-day if you had been the fifth person on my Napier. If you could have heard Aunt Mary (who, in common with a certain type of American, worships a title and rolls it on her tongue as if it were a plover's egg out of season) asking "Jimmy" questions about his grand English friends! Knowing that my cold and venomous eye was upon him, and writhing under it, he had to answer her questions. "What sort of looking man is the Duke of Burford, Jimmy? Did you ever stay at any of his country places? Is it true that he often entertains the Royalties? Were you ever asked to a house-party to meet the King and Queen?"

I could almost have found it in my heart to pity him; but my interests at stake were too big for me to have derived the serene pleasure from the situation that you might have enjoyed as an initiated outsider. But with my attempted explanations and my chortlings I've digressed too much, and I'll get back to "Hecuba."

We started from the "Gassion." Miss Randolph announced that she would drive at first. This was, I judged, a sop for me, as Cerberus. But Payne was given the seat of honour beside her, and I was relegated to the tonneau with Aunt Mary and the other impedimenta. My day was over!

Miss Kedison considers it infra dig. to converse with a servant, though she has been content often enough to use me as a guide-book. She doesn't like sitting in front, so she was obliged to put up with my physical nearness, but she took pains to emphasise her soul's remoteness. I think her opinion of me has been for some time that I am "too big for my boots," and I was not surprised to learn that it was by her advice Mr. Payne had been invited io join the party. No doubt she thought it would put me in my proper place, and so it has. Besides, we had not been long en route when I gleaned from several indications, small in themselves, that "Jimmy" is a great favourite with her, so great that she would not object to becoming his aunt by marriage. They are warm friends, and if he hasn't already poured into her ear confidences prejudicial to me, there, I fear, lies danger for the future.

We had not been gone long from Pau before Miss Randolph glanced round at me—a risky thing to do when you're driving; but the road was straight and clear as far as the eye could see. I was half in hopes she would request me to drive; but not so. "By the way, Brown," said she, "I forgot to ask; didn't I see you at the golf club the other day?"

From the form of the question I couldn't tell whether Payne had played the sneak or not, nor could I guess from her face, as she had turned to business again. As for him, he had ignored me haughtily since the start.

"Me, miss, at the golf club?" I promptly protested, regardless of grammar and not sure I wasn't in for an explosion which would blow poor Brown sky-high; "why, a chauffeur wouldn't be admitted there."

"I suppose not," she answered over her shoulder. "But there was a man very like you when my friends took me—and walking with Mr. Payne, too."

"Now for it!" thought I. But then Jimmy's first words reassured me. "Oh, I don't know all the strangers one talks to at a club," he replied in haste; and then, by way of changing the subject, the bounder asked Miss Randolph if she wouldn't let him drive. "It's over a hundred miles to Toulouse, and you'll want a firm hand, for the days are short," he had the impudence to add.

At that I lost my head, and made a big mistake. I felt I couldn't stand sitting still while he tried experiments with my car, and almost before I knew what I was doing I blurted out, "Beg pardon, miss, but are you sure this gentleman understands driving a Napier? My master expected that I was to drive his car when he let it out, and——"

Such a look of reproach as the Goddess threw me! "But I understand that, while I hire the car it is mine to do as I like with, in reason," she cut me short. "Mr. Payne tells me that he has often driven his friend the Duke of Burford's Napier. And if anything happens to your master's car while I have it, I will pay for the damage up to its full value, so your mind may be at ease on his account."

With this well-deserved, but none the less crushing snub she brought the car to a standstill and inadvertently stopped the motor. After virtually agreeing the night before to let Payne drive, I ought to have kept my mouth shut; but you will admit that the temptation was strong. I descended, like a well-conducted chauffeur, to help my mistress change places with my hated rival, and of course it was my duty to start the motor again, which I did. Before I could get out of the way, Payne started on the third speed, like the duffer he is, changing so quickly to the second that I had to race after the car and hurl myself into the tonneau to avoid being left behind. In doing this I unfortunately trod on Aunt Mary's toes. She groaned, glared, and muttered only half below her breath, "Clumsy creature!" Thoroughly humiliated, and no longer in a mood to care whether their Jimmy wrecked the car and killed us (all but one) I took my seat. I do believe that Aunt Mary secretly thinks me capable of having misjudged and ill-treated Eyelashes, who laid himself out to "be nice" to her.

Hardly had we started when I heard Miss Randolph telling Payne that this car belonged to the Honourable John Winston, Lord Brighthelmston's son, and asking him if he had ever met Mr. Winston. I suppose that, in the excitement of managing a big machine which he knew little or nothing about, Payne forgot that, since I "went with the car," the owner must have been one of those (to him) fatal old masters of mine. He can't bear to deny the soft impeachment of knowing anyone whom he thinks may be a swell, and in the hurry of the moment habit got the better of prudence.

"Oh yes, I know Jack very well!" he exclaimed; then drew in his breath with a little gasp which he turned into a cough. In that moment he had probably remembered me.

"I suppose you know his mother, then?" said Miss Randolph. "I met her in Paris. She's at Cannes now, and so you will see her there."

"Ye—es," returned Jimmy. "Oh yes, I shall certainly see her. I know Lord Brighthelmston better than I do her; but I shall call, of course."

What with his fear of having committed himself anew, and the chill in his marrow produced by my critical eye on his vertebræ, he grew more and more nervous, wobbling whenever there was a delicate piece of steering to be done or a restive horse to be passed. He changed speeds so clumsily that the pinions went together with a crash each time, and shivers ran up and down my spine when I heard the noise and thought of the damage this conceited idiot might do to my poor gears. Could you stand by like Patience on the lee cathead, smiling at a wet swab, while some duffer with a whip and spurs bestrode your favourite stallion, Roland? Perhaps that simile will help you to understand how I've been feeling all day.

Payne is a rank amateur. I doubt if he ever drove a Napier before, and would bet something he depended for his success to-day (such as it was) on keen observation of everything Miss Randolph did before he took the helm. He knows how to steer a moderately straight course and to change speeds—that's about all; and I wouldn't trust his nerve in an emergency. However, we bowled along without incident through Tarbes and Tournay, thanks more to the fine car than the driver; but when mounting a long stretch of steep road beyond a place called Lanespede, where a great railway viaduct crosses the valley, Payne missed his change, and then completely lost his head, failing to put on the brakes to prevent us running down the hill backwards. Luckily I was sitting on the brake side, and reaching out of the tonneau, I seized the lever of the hand-brake and jammed it on. Next instant (to make quite sure) I jumped out, ran to the front, and lowered the sprag. I don't think any of them knew what a narrow escape we'd had, and Payne covered himself by abusing the car. We started up again on the second, and came out on an undulating plain overlooking a little watering-place called Capvern-les-Bains, lying far below in a dimple of the Pyrenean foothills.

There was no other incident till we came to Montréjeau, where my road-book showed that there was an uncommonly steep hill. So I ventured to say over Payne's shoulder, "Better look out here, sir; a bad hill." The cad had not the civility to notice my warning, but charged through the long street of the town till he came to the verge of a dangerous descent, dipping steeply and suddenly for a little way, then turning abruptly to the left. He was taking the hill at a reckless pace, not because he was plucky, but because he knew no better; and half-way down, seeing a lumbering station-omnibus climbing slowly up, not leaving much room, he began to get wild in his steering. Again I hung out, and gently but firmly put on the hand-brake, steadying the car. The idiot didn't even see how I had saved him, for when we got safely down he said to Miss Randolph, "Took that hill flying, didn't I?" I can tell you I was glad when we pulled up for luncheon at St. Gaudens, knowing that the road here turns away from the Pyrenees to cross the great plain of Languedoc.

Blessed plain of Languedoc, which has been abused by some travellers for its monotony! Sitting silently in the tonneau with Aunt Mary, I revelled in the long, straight level of wide, poplar-fringed road that stretched as far as the eye could reach, running up to a point in the distant perspective. "Here, at any rate," I reflected, "the duffer at the wheel can't do us much harm." It was a beautiful scene, had I been in tune to enjoy it, for the Pyrenees showed their blue outlines on the far horizon, and the Garonne gave us many pictures near at hand. There was in particular one sweet sylvan "bit" at a place called St. Martory, which, though it was but a fleeting glimpse, framed itself in my mind with all the precision of a stereoscopic view.

It was a relief to me, when this evening, we ran into Toulouse; its many buildings of brick lying along the bank of the broad and peaceful Garonne, looking curiously rose-hued in the level rays of the declining sun.

But poor car! when I set to work at cleaning it after its ill-treatment it seemed to reproach me for disloyalty. Its very lamps were like mournful, misunderstood eyes. And this is only the first day of many. How long, O friend, how long? I don't quite see what is to become of your unfortunate

Jack Winston


Narbonne, December 17.

I didn't post the beginning of this letter. I felt I should want to add something.

Another day has passed—a day of alarms and excursions. Payne has made an ass of himself, and I have scored off him, winning my way back to the front seat of the car, and relegating him to the tonneau with Aunt Mary. But I have not shaken him off. He's still in our pocket, and to all appearance means to stick there. The situation, therefore, remains essentially what it was yesterday.

But for the incident of which I will tell you, this might have been one of the most delightful bits of the whole tour. Even though at first I was stuffed into the tonneau, I couldn't help finding pleasure in the pictures through which we flashed in the earlier part of the day.

There was a good deal of pavé to traverse before we were clear of Toulouse, and then we came into a fine, open world, chasing and passing many peasants' carts. These always occupy the middle of the road, and as their drivers are often asleep, there is much blowing of the horn and shouting before they pull over to their right side. Presently we found out the meaning of this stream of carts, for we ran into a large village with turkeys and geese all over the road, like carpet bedding, tied by the legs and cackling loudly. There were crowds of peasants—old and young; the old women with neat, black silk head-dresses framing their brown, wrinkled faces; and through the midst of this animated scene we had to drive at a foot-pace, tootling on the horn. On the other side of the long village we found ourselves on a wide, level road, that for smoothness would shame a billiard-table, crossed the green Canal du Midi, and ran for a while by its side, passing a queer obelisk erected to Riquet, its constructor.

Suddenly, on mounting a hill, an enormous view spread out before us. The distant Pyrenees showed their serrated line far away to the right, their snowy tops spectral over an intervening range of hills; to the left stretched a vast, undulating tract of country, with towns and church spires distinctly outlined in the blear, crisp air—for it was a day of glorious lights. Beyond all was a range of vague, blue hills which I knew to be the Cevennes, sacred to the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson.

We sped through village after village—a long street; children in blouses playing strange games, disputing in shrill voices, wagging little eloquent fingers under each other's noses; handsome men clothed in blue, with red sashes and the universal berret on their heads, guiding with their cruel goads patient teams of yoked oxen; a group of persons round a church door—a wedding, perhaps a funeral; old women knitting in the sun, young women smiling from windows—all these impressions follow each other like flickering pictures in a cinematograph; and then with the last flicker one is out again on the broad, white road, with the flying trees spinning by on either hand, and the white, filmy clouds floating in an azure sky. It is only on the motor-car that you get all these sensations. In a train you are in a box; on a motor you are in a chariot of fire with the wide heavens open above you.

At Castelnaudary there was another scene of animation, for here also it was market day; and though it was only twenty miles or so on to Carcassonne (out intended destination), my betters decided that they would take luncheon at the hotel in Castelnaudary. For the first time since Payne has been with us Miss Randolph seemed to wish to restore me to my old, lost footing. "You must lunch with us, Brown," she said, with a smile that goes straight to one's heart. But I was not in a gracious mood. I had had enough of Aunt Mary; I could not stand the haughty Payne. I answered, therefore, rather shortly. There were certain adjustments to be done on the car which would occupy some time, I said, and I would take my luncheon later. Her poor little friendly smile went out, like a lamp extinguished. For an instant she lingered, then turned away without a word, and I could have bitten out my own surly tongue.

To justify myself I pottered with the car, then went moping off to another hotel, and tried to restore my lost spirits with paté de joie de canard and fresh walnuts, which would have delighted the palate of a happier man.

At it was I had neither the heart nor the stomach to linger over the feast, and consequently got back long before the others were ready for me. They didn't hurry themselves. I promise you. While busying myself in nicking dust off the car, a courteous little crowd assembled and questioned me as to the make of the car (expressing surprise when they heard it was all English, even to the tyres) and as to how far I had come. When I said "From Dieppe viâ Biarritz" a murmur of respect rippled to the outer edge of the group, and at this moment my party appeared.

Payne wore a swaggering air, and looked now like Little Lord Fauntleroy gone wrong. He was far too big a man to notice me, or any of the kindly, simple people who had been admiring the car, and came up with us, talking his loudest to Aunt Mary. He almost elbowed me aside, and got into the driver's seat as a matter of course. Perhaps he had looked upon the rich wine of the country when it was red, though I didn't think of that at the time, and attributed his exaggerated insolence to natural cussedness of soul.

We swept away from the hotel with a curve, which isn't a line of beauty for a motor-car, and as we left the town Jimmy's conception of his part as driver became so eccentric that Miss Randolph looked worried—that is, her pretty shoulders stiffened themselves; I couldn't often see her face—and Aunt Mary more than once gave vent to a frightened squeak. Once, in her extremity as we shaved the wheel of a passing cart, she unbent so far as to throw an appealing glance at me. But I sat in stony silence with crossed arms, looking oblivious to all that went on and somewhat resembling, I flattered myself, portraits of Napoleon beholding the burning of Moscow.

On the high road Jimmy began to recover his form—if it be worth the name—but, as if to show that he was all right, and never had been otherwise, he put the car at its quickest pace, which was so far from safe on a road dotted with carts that I began to expect trouble; and if it hadn't been for Miss Randolph, to see my expectation fulfilled would have pleased the baser part of me. Once or twice a cart-load of peasants scowled savagely at us as we rushed past on our headlong career, and at length I had the satisfaction of hearing Miss Randolph rather stiffly suggest that Jimmy should moderate the pace. He obeyed with a laugh, which he meant to be recklessly brave, yet indulgent to the weaknesses of women; but in my ears it only sounded silly. At this moment a two-wheeled cart with five peasants in it—three men and two women—came in sight.

As soon as they saw us one of the men—a big, black-browed fellow—held up his hand imperatively in warning. Another fine, muscular chap jumped down and ran to the horse's head. Anyone with a grain of sense or consideration, on seeing these signals, would have slowed down, and if necessary have stopped the engine altogether; but though I heard Miss Randolph beg him to go slow, Sherlock-Fauntleroy held right on at a good twenty-five miles an hour.

In a moment or two we had come level with the cart, and the horse bolted. The man leading it was thrown violently to the ground, and the cart went over him. Luckily he tucked in his head and drew up his feet, or he would have been shockingly hurt, perhaps killed. He lay a moment or two, half stunned with the shock, while the horse galloped away, dragging after him the swaying cart, the two women screaming at the top of their voices. The man driving managed to pull up the frightened animals some way down the road, and the people in the cart scrambled out to help their fallen friend, who meanwhile had picked himself up, and pale with fright and passion, blood streaming down his face, was limping after the car gesticulating violently.

Payne had not turned his head, and the moment that a startled "Oh!" from Miss Randolph told him there had been an accident he put on speed, clearly with the intention of avoiding a row. The injured man stooped to pick up a stone. At the same instant Miss Randolph, in her most imperious manner (and she can be imperious), commanded Payne to stop instantly and go back. "But we shall have the whole pack of them on us like wolves," he objected. "Go back!" she repeated, stamping her little foot. "I won't hurt a man and drive away." Suddenly Payne pulled up, and putting in the reverse, we ran slowly into the midst of the horde of angry peasants, swollen now by many others who had been passing along the crowded road.

As we backed into that sea of scowling faces I thought of the various revolutions France has seen. It was like stirring up a wasps' nest. Everyone was yelling at once. In the front rank stood the man who had been knocked down, his trousers cut to tatters. He had lashed himself into such a fury that he had become almost incoherent, and the flood of speech which rushed from his white lips was more like the yells of an animal than the ordered utterance of a human being. By his side were the two women who had been in the cart, both sobbbing and screaming, while everyone else in the angry mob shouted simultaneously. Aunt Mary went very pale; Payne looked upon his handiwork with a sulky grin; but Miss Randolph took the business in hand with the greatest pluck. She had whisked off her veil and faced the people boldly, her grey eyes meeting theirs, her face white, save for a bright pink spot on either cheek. At sight of her beauty the clamour died down, and in the lull she spoke to the man who had been thrown under the horse.

"I am very sorry you are hurt," she said, "and shall be pleased to give you something to buy yourself new clothes. Are you injured anywhere?"

At the sound of her correct but foreign-sounding French someone in the crowd shouted out, "A bas les Anglais!" The girl drew herself up proudly and looked in the direction of the voice. She didn't try to excuse herself by denying England and claiming a nationality more popular in France, and I loved her more than ever for this reticence.

"Pay!" shouted the man who had been hurt, with one hand wiping a trickle of blood out of his eye, with the other thumping the mud-guard of the car. "Of course you shall pay. God only knows what injuries I have received. Mazette! I am all one ache. Ah, you pay well, or you do not go on!" He pressed closer to the car, and his friends closed in around him.

"Pay them, Molly! pay anything they ask!"quavered Aunt Mary, "or they will kill us! Oh, I always knew something like this was bound to happen! What a fool I was to leave my peaceful home and come to a country of thieves and murderers!"

"Don't be frightened, Aunt Mary," said the girl, with more patience for her relative's garrulous complaints than I had. Then she turned to me. "Brown, is that man much hurt?" she asked briskly.

"No," I replied. "He is merely scratched, and no doubt bruised. If he had any bones broken, any internal injury or severe strain, he couldn't rage about like a mad bull."

"Still, it was our fault," she said. "We ought to have stopped. His clothes are torn. How much ought we to pay?"

"Nothing at all," said Sherlock. "Don't you let yourself be blackmailed."

She didn't answer or look in his direction, thus emphasising the fact that she had asked her question of me, not of him.

"Fifty francs would be generous," I said, "to buy the fellow a new suit of clothes and pay for a bottle of liniment. With that to-morrow he would be thanking his stars for the accident. But as Mr. Payne was driving, hadn't you better let him talk to them? It isn't right that two men should stand by and let the burden fall on a lady."

"You speak to them, Brown; I give you carte blanche," said she, and we faced the mob together.

"If you threaten us," I said, "you shall have nothing. We were going fast, but your horse is badly broken, and is more of a danger on the road than an automobile. If you behave yourself and tell your friends to do likewise, this lady wishes to give you fifty francs to buy new clothes in place of those which have suffered in this accident. But we don't intend to be bullied."

"Fifty francs!" shrieked the man. "Fifty francs for a man's life! Bah! You aristocrats! Five hundred francs; not a sou less, or you do not stir from this place. Fifty francs! Mazette!"

"You are talking nonsense, and you know it," said I roughly. "Stand out of our way, or we will send for the police."

Now this was bluff, for the last thing to be desired was the presence of the police. I had been careful to get in Paris the necessary permis de conduire from the Department of Mines, without which it is illegal to drive a motor vehicle of any sort in France. But I had heard Payne boasting to Miss Randolph that he never bothered himself about a lot of useless red tape; it was only milksops and amateurs who did that. I, as Brown, had kept "my master's" papers, but it would do more harm than good to our cause, should it come to an investigation, if I attempted to pass over my permit to Payne. Were the police to appear on the scene their first demand would be for papers, and if the man who had been driving were unable to produce any, not all our just complaints of the peasants' unlawful threats would help us. Payne would be liable to arrest and imprisonment; not only would he be heavily fined, but we should all be detained, perhaps for weeks; and as French magistrates have as strong a prejudice against the automobile as their English brothers, especially when the offender is a foreigner, it might go hard with everyone concerned. This would be a dismal interruption of our tour, and if I hadn't felt sure that the enemy would be in as great a funk of the police as we were, I wouldn't have ventured on so bold a bluff. I trembled internally for an instant as to its success, but as usual in life and poker, it paid.

"No, you don't!" shouted not the one peasant, but many in chorus, as unlike the merry peasant-chorus of light opera as you can imagine. "We won't have the police. We attend to this affair ourselves."

And it began to look as if they meant to. "Give the five hundred francs, or you will be sorry!" they yelled, and again, in a second, they were all surging round us, threatening with their fists, snatching out their pocket-knives, and I saw things were getting hot. A French crowd barks a good deal before it bites, but this one had come to the biting stage. We were far from town and the police, even if the latter wouldn't have done us more harm than good. Here we had Miss Randolph and Miss Kedison. If Payne were as useless as I judged him, I was one man against forty.

The two ladies were still on the car. Payne had got off at first, but had slipped back when things began to be lively. I alone was on the ground, close to the bonnet, so that if needful I could protect the motor and Miss Randolph at the same time.

The crowd consulted an instant, then stampeded the car. Aunt Mary shrieked, and threw out her purse, as if she flung a live lamb to hungry wolves. The motor was going still, but to charge into the crowd might mean killing a dozen wretched peasants. It was out of the question, but something must be done, and now was the moment for doing it. One fellow tried to snatch a sable rug off Miss Kedison's knees; I struck his hand away, and sent him staggering. Then I yelled to Payne to get into the tonneau. There was no more pride left in him than in a rag, and he crawled over, like a dog. Meanwhile, I'd made up my mind what to do, and was going to try an experiment as our best chance to get out of the town without bloodshed.

I knew that a union which held the exhaust pipe in place on the silencer had been working loose. I grabbed a spanner out of the tool-box, and elbowing my way along the side of the car again, with two turns of the spanner loosened the union, pushed forward the throttle-lever in the steering-post, and gave the motor all its gas.

The thing was done in a quarter the time it's taken me to write of it, and you can guess the effect. Bang! bang! came a succession of explosions quick and pitiless as a Maxim gun. Those peasants gave way like wheat before the scythe. I don't doubt they thought they were shot and on the way to kingdom come; and before they'd time to find out their mistake I was up on the step, had seized the steering-wheel, and started the car. We were on a slight decline, and the good steed bounded forward at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. An instant later I slipped in the fourth, and we were going forty-five.

When the enemy saw how they'd been tricked, which they did in about six seconds, they were after us with a howl. A shower of stones fell harmlessly on the road behind us, angry yells were drowned in the hideous noise of the exhaust. We could afford to laugh at the thought of pursuit. But there was another side to the story. Now that there was no one on the spot to complain of their threats of violence, they could safely apply to the police and make a bold stroke for vengeance, just as we had for escape. However, there was no use in thinking of that for the moment; I had done the best I could and must go on doing it. No normal tympanum could stand the racket of the exhaust for long, and Miss Randolph and Miss Kedison were sitting with their hands over their ears, the lower part of Aunt Mary's face under her mask expressing a comical horror. I caught sight of her visage when I stopped the car (which I did as soon as we were beyond danger of pursuit) to fasten up the silencer again; and it was all I could do not to laugh.

The fastening-up business was an affair of two or three minutes, and at first the three sat in shocked silence, their heads dazed by the late ear-splitting din. Then, the cool peace of welcome silence was broken by Mr. Payne. "I consider," he said stiffly to Miss Randolph, "that your mécanicien has behaved with unwarrantable insolence in ordering me——"

"And I consider that he saved the situation," cut in the mécanicien's mistress.

"I acted for what I thought the best, miss; there wasn't much time to decide," said I, with a sleek humility which I assume on occasions. "If I have given offence, I am sorry," I went on, looking at her and not at Payne.

"You haven't given offence," she said. "I am sure Mr. Payne, when he comes to reflect, will see that you did yeoman's service. But what is to happen now? I suppose we're not safe from trouble yet, and we don't deserve to be."

I thought it rather sporting of her to say "we," when all the bother was due to the conceit and cocksureness of one person.

"No, miss, we don't deserve to be, if you'll excuse the liberty," I meekly replied. "We had no business charging along a crowded road the way we did. I'm sure, until to-day, we've never had anything but courtesy from people of all classes. It isn't often French peasants misbehave themselves, and to-day most of the wrong was on our side, though it's true that their horse was skittish; and being market-day, I daresay they'd taken a little more red wine than was good for them. The wine of this country is apt to go to the head."

I spoke to Miss Randolph, but at Jimmy, especially when I gave that dig about the wine. I finished my tirade and my work on the silencer at the same time, and it was then that my triumph came. Instead of getting back on the car, I stood still in the road.

"What are you waiting for?" asked Miss Randolph.

"For Mr. Payne to take his place in the driver's seat," said I.

At this he half jumped up in the tonneau, but Miss Randolph hurriedly exclaimed, "Oh, I think you had better drive for a while, Brown. I want to talk to you, and ask you what to do, and what will happen next." Little Lord Fauntleroy, with every Sherlockian characteristic temporarily obliterated, sat down again in the tonneau pouting.

We had not wasted five minutes, and now we sprang forward at a good speed for Carcassonne.

"What will happen next," I said, answering Miss Randolph's question, "may be this. If the peasants are angry enough to take the trouble and risk, all they have to do is to go to the police-station in the nearest village and give information against us, when a wire with a description of us and the car will raise the whole country so that we shall not be safe anywhere."

"Oh, my gracious!" the poor child exclaimed. "What are we to do? Aunt Mary and I have other hats and jackets and things in our car-luggage. Couldn't we change, so as to look quite different, and buy a lot of of—Aspinall, or something in the next village before they've had time to give the alarm, and paint the poor car a bright scarlet? Then we should get through and no one would know."

I couldn't help laughing, though really her suggestion wasn't so fantastic as it may sound, for I know a man who did that very trick in somewhat similar circumstances; but her earnestness combined with the childlike guile on her face was comic.

"It would be too long a job to paint the car before we could be spotted," I said. "I think we must just hope for the best, and show a bold face. I shouldn't be surprised if we'd get through all right somehow. Perhaps, if there was much money in your aunt's purse, miss, the peasants would prefer keeping their mouths shut and sticking to that than mixing themselves up with the police and perhaps losing what they might have had, like the dog with his meat in the fable."

"There were about a hundred francs in my purse," announced Aunt Mary.

"If they do catch us, what then?" the girl asked.

I explained the state of the case as I had argued it out to myself.

"Oh, well," sighed Miss Randolph, "I suppose we can't do better than take your advice, but this isn't a nice adventure. I do hate feeling guilty—like an escaping criminal, with every hand against me. And I loathe suspense; I always want to know the worst. When shall we be sure what the peasants have made up their minds to do?"

"Well," I said, "in less than an hour, if all goes well, we ought to be at the octroi station outside Carcassonne, and if we are 'wanted' by the police we shall know it fast enough, because they will—er—try to stop us there."

"Then I hope all won't go well," moaned Miss Randolph. She who had been so brave when forty peasants threatened us with words, stones, and even knives, was crushed under the vague menace of the law. "If only we could arrive after dark we might flash through before the octroi people knew. Let's arrive after dark," she exclaimed eagerly. "It's getting on towards four now. Let's stop—since we've been perfectly certain for ages that no one was attempting to follow us—and—and deliberately have tea by the roadside. If we do that we can easily pass the time, so as not to arrive at the octroi until half-past five, when it will be dark. It's moonlight, but the moon doesn't rise now till six or after."

"We could do that certainly," I said, "and we might get through without being nabbed. If we succeed, we might rush on through Carcassonne, instead of stopping there to-night; for the farther away we get and the more towns we can say we've passed through without being detained, the better for our chances of ultimate escape."

"But I don't want to miss Carcassonne," she objected. "You've told me so much about the place that I've been looking forward to it more than to almost anything else."

So had I, if the truth were known, but I had looked forward to visiting Carcassonne with her before I had "drunk and seen the spider." In other words, before Mr. Payne had joined our party. However, I couldn't bear to have her disappointed, for his fault, too; besides, I'm vain enough to like hearing from her lips the flattering words, "Brown, you are so resourceful!" Therefore I stirred up my brains in the effort to be resourceful now.

"We might hide the car in Carcassonne if we could once get in," I mysteriously suggested; "then you could steal up on foot to the cité by moonlight, and when you'd had your fill of sight-seeing steal back to the car again and make a rush for it."

"Splendid!" cried Miss Randolph, clapping her hands. Behold, I had made a hit!

The car was stopped, the tea-basket got out, and who so indispensable as the late despised Brown? Brown it was who went to a cottage hard by and procured drinking-water, since, not expecting to stop, we had come out unprovided. Brown it was who saved the methylated spirit from upsetting, and Brown was rewarded presently with an excellent cup of tea, into which Miss Randolph had dropped two lumps of sugar with her own blessed little pink-tipped fingers. As a matter of fact, in ordinary circumstances sugar in tea is medicinal to my taste; but when that angel sat with a lump between her fingers asking how many I would have, though she had just let Jimmy Sherlock put in his own, I would have said half a dozen, if that would have left any over for her. And if the taste was medicinal, why, it had a curative effect on my injured feelings.

Refreshed, invigorated by more than tea, I felt ready for anything. Darkness was falling, but I didn't light the lamps. The road was empty, a torch of dusky red blazing along the west. We started, going cautiously; our tongues silent, our eyes alert. By-and-by, from afar off, we caught the twinkle of low-set, yellow lights. We were coming to the neighbourhood of the octroi. Luckily it was cold; the door and windows of the house would certainly be shut, unless the men were engaged in transacting business in the road. I now hurriedly explained to Miss Randolph the exact method I meant to adopt, and the word was passed round to be "mum." While the tea-things were being packed away, a short time ago, I had well oiled the wheels and chains; the car moved as silently as a bat, except for the chuff! chuff! of the motor. About a hundred yards from the lights I put on speed, and when we had begun to scud along like a ship with all sails set, I took out the clutch and let the motor run free. By this time we were within thirty yards of a building which I now felt certain was the octroi. The car, which had been going extremely fast, dashed on, coasting past the little lighted house by its own impetus. Not a sound, not a creak of a wheel, not the grating of a chain.

On we sped for full forty yards past the octroi before we lost speed, and I had to slip in the clutch.

"Oh, Brown!" breathed my Goddess ecstatically. Just that, and no more. But if I had been Jack Winston and asked her to marry me at this moment, I believe she would have said "yes," in sheer exuberance of grateful bliss.

So far, so good, but we were not yet out of the wood. We drove quietly on into the town, expecting every moment to be challenged for not lighting our lamps, though we were within our rights, really, dark as it was, for it was not yet an hour after sunset. But nothing happened; not even a dog barked. We crossed the high bridge spanning the Aude, and the old cité, which we had come to see, loomed black against the dusky sky. No one molested us; no fiery gendarme leaped from the shadows commanding us to stop. My small trumps were taking all the tricks, but I had a big one still in my hand. We were now—having crossed the bridge and left the new town behind us—in a comparatively deserted region.

"My idea," I said quietly to Miss Randolph, "is to drive the car into some dark, back street, far from the ken of the gendarme. It is six o'clock. People are sitting down to dinner. That is in our favour. I shall, if possible, find a place where the car may stand for several hours without being remarked, while your visit is paid to the cité. Here, now, is the very place!" I broke short my disquisition to remark; for as I elaborated my plan, driving very slowly, we had arrived before a dingy mews with a waggon standing, shafts down, on the cobbles. I turned in and stopped both car and motor.

"This shelter might have been made for us," I said, beginning to find a good deal of pleasure in the situation. "The only difficulty is" (out with my big trump) "that of course someone must stay with the car. It is my place, miss, to do so. But, unfortunately, it is after hours for showing the ramparts, the interior of the towers, the dungeons, and so on, which are really the attractions of the wonderful, old restored mediæval city. I have been here before. I know the gardien, and might, if I were in the party, induce him to make an exception in your favour. Still, as it is, the best I can do will be to write a note and ask him to take you through."

Jimmy laughed, or I should say, chortled. "I should think a banknote would appeal to the gardien's intelligence better than any other kind," said he, "and I will see that he gets it."

"I advise you not to do that, sir," I remarked quietly. "The gardien here isn't that sort of man at all. He would be mortally offended if you tried to bribe him, and would certainly refuse to do anything for you."

"I'm sure a letter would be of very little use," said Miss Randolph. "I think we must manage to have you with us somehow, Brown. Couldn't we hire a man to look after the car?"

"I shouldn't like to take the risk," said I. "And remember, miss, we are in hiding."

"I don't want to see the old thing," protested Aunt Mary. "I've gone through so much to-day I feel a thousand years old. I'm not going to climb any hills or see any sights. I want my dinner."

"I think we'd better get on," advised Sherlock. "Not much fun poking about in a lot of old ruins in the dark."

"They're not ruins, and it isn't dark," said Miss Randolph. "Look at the sky! The moon's coming up this minute. If you don't want to see the cité, Jimmy, you might just as well sit here in the car while the rest of us go."

"I shall sit with him," announced Aunt Mary. "And if you must go on this wild goose chase, do for pity's sake hurry back, or we shall be frozen."

I began to fear that the scheme would fall through, with so much against it, but Miss Randolph kept to her resolution despite the moving picture of her relative's suffering.

"Oh yes, we will hurry back. We shan't be long," she said cheerfully, "we" meaning herself and her courier mécanicien. "You can't be cold in your furs; it's very early yet; you had a good tea; and Brown and I will whisk you off to some dear little village inn in time for an eight o'clock dinner."

I knew we should do nothing of the kind, but mine not to reason why, mine but to do or die—with her.

I daresay, my dear Montie, that even to you "Carcassonne" expresses nothing in particular. To those who have been there the name must, I think, always bring with it an imperishable recollection. Carcassonne is one of the unique places of the world. Years ago—as far back as the Romans, probably much further—there was a fortress on this hill, which commanded one of the chief roads into Spain. Afterwards it was used by the Visigoths, and in the Middle Ages it reached its highest importance under St. Louis. Then gradually it sank again into insignificance, and early last century there was a proposal that the ruins should be destroyed. By this time hardly anyone lived in the old city on the hill, a new and flourishing modern town (laid out in parallelograms) having sprung up in the plain. The demolition of the ancient ruins was prevented by one Cros-Mayrevieille, a native of Carcassonne, who succeeded in whipping up such enthusiasm on behalf of his birthplace that the city was made into a monument historique, and money was granted for its complete reconstruction by Viollet le Duc. A large sum has been spent, great works have been carried out, and the result is one of the most extraordinary feats of restoration in the history of the world.

From afar off this city upon a hill makes a vivid appeal to the imagination. Its great assemblage of towers, walls, and battlements, rising clear-cut and majestic against the sky, suggests at the first glimpse one of those imaginary mediæval cities that Doré loved to draw as illustrations to the Contes Drolatiques. So extraordinary is the apparition of this ancient, silent, fortified city existing in the midst of the railway epoch that one is tempted to think it a mirage, some strange trick of the senses, which, on rubbing the eyes, must disappear. And the nearer one draws, the more vivid does this impression become. Everything perfect, marvellously perfect, yet with no jarring hint of newness. It is well-nigh impossible at any time to tell where the original structure ends and where Viollet le Duc's restoration begins, and on what a grand scale it all is.

By moonlight the effect was really glorious. My Goddess and I walked over a drawbridge and entered the silent, grass-grown streets of the old, old city, where quaint and ancient houses, given up now to the poor, huddle under the protecting walls of the great fortress. We were in a perfect mediæval city, just as it existed in the time of the Crusades. In thus exactly realising the life of a garrisoned fortress of those stirring days, I found much the same dramatic interest I feel on stepping into the silent streets of Pompeii, where the ghosts seem more real than I.

We stopped at the house of the gardien, and I made an excuse for leaving Miss Randolph at a little distance, as I talked to him, reminded him of my last visit, and begged that, as a favour, he would show us about, although it was now "after hours." He is a very good fellow, courteous and intelligent, speaking with the noticeably distinct enunciation which seems to be the mark of all these guardians of monuments historiques in France; and when he understood that there was a lady in the case, he readily consented to oblige, though I suspect he left his supper in the midst. He took off his cap to Miss Randolph's beauty, etherealised by the moon's magic, and we all three started on our expedition. We were conducted into huge, round towers and out upon lofty, commanding battlements, whence we could gaze through a haze of moonlight over a great sweep of country, with here and there the sparkle of a winding river, like a diamond necklace flung down carelessly on a purple cushion. Our guide conscientiously pointed out the stations of the sentries and the guards, the disposition of the towers for mutual defence (each a bowshot from the other), the sally-ports, the secret passages communicating with underground tunnels for revictualling the city in time of siege; and so realistic were our surroundings that I fancied Miss Randolph once or twice actually caught herself listening in vain for the tramp of mailed feet, the hoarse word of command. At all events, I'm sure she forgot for the time being all about Aunt Mary and Jimmy Payne waiting in the car, and I didn't think it incumbent upon me to remind her of their existence or necessities. We lingered long enough in the splendid region of towers, battlements, and ramparts to do them full justice. Then, when I had slipped something of no importance into the gardien's hand, we reluctantly departed, often looking back as we went down the hill. As we left the old city we did not leave it alone. A group of young men and women of a humble class were hurrying down just before us on their way to the new town. We were so near that we couldn't help overhearing their eager talk of a spectacle they were on their way to see, and judging from the fragments we caught, this was to be a kind of Passion Play. Although I had been at Carcassonne before, I didn't know that such a thing existed in France, or, indeed, outside Oberammergau and a few villages in the Tyrol. Miss Randolph questioned me about it, but I could tell her nothing, and she exclaimed rather shamefacedly, "Oh, how I should love to go!"

"Would you let me take you there, just to look on for a few minutes, miss?" I doubtfully asked.

"I should like it above anything," said she. "Only—we've already kept those poor people waiting too long, I'm afraid."

"This needn't keep them very much longer," said I, "and it may be the last chance you will ever have of seeing such a thing."

"Oh, well, I can't resist," she cried. "Well go—and I'll take the scolding afterwards."

We did go, following our leaders until we came to a good-sized booth with a crowd round it. The admission was twopence each, but the best seats cost a franc. We went in and found ourselves in a long, canvas room, with sloping seats and a small stage at one end lighted by oil lamps.

The place was dreadfully hot, and smelled strongly of humanity. Presently a bell rang; there was solemn music on a tinkling piano and a young actor, bare-faced and dressed in a white classical dress, took his place near the stage, beginning to recite in a clear, sympathetic voice. He was the choragus, explaining to us what was to happen in. the play. The curtain went up, to reveal a tableau of Adam and Eve in very palpable flesh tights, with garlands of fig leaves festooned about their bodies.

Adam, with an elaborate false beard, slept under a tree. Then to the accompaniment of the choragus' explanation a mechanical snake appeared in the branches with an apple in its mouth. An unseen person off the stage made the snake twist and writhe. Eve put out her hand, took the apple, and ate a bit. Adam waking, she pointed to the tree and to the fruit, offering him a piece. He demurred in pantomime, but accepted and swallowed what was left of the apple. Instantly there appeared at the wing an angel with a long, flaxen wig, who threatened the guilty pair with a tinsel sword. They cowered, and then shading their eyes with their hands, were walking sadly away when the curtain fell. It was tableau number one, showing the fall of man.

The audience on the whole received the exhibition with devotional reverence, but a knot of young men openly tittered and jeered, commenting satirically upon the deficiencies in the stage management. Then, with more music, began the scenes from the New Testament. One was rather pretty, introducing the woman at the well, Christ being impersonated by a sweet-faced young man in white, with a light brown wig and beard. The girl who played the Virgin was not more than twenty, and had a serene prettiness, with an air of grave modesty, which were very attractive. She wore her own long hair falling like a mantle over her dark dress as far down as the knees.

Each scene lasted perhaps five minutes, the characters on the stage speaking no word, but opening their mouths and moving their bodies in time with the recitation of the choragus. We had the betrayal in the garden, the trial before Pilate, the scourging, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, all given with feeling and surprising dignity, and in the crucifixion scene, with pathos. Most of the women in the audience were in tears, their compassion spending itself noticeably more upon the Virgin's sorrow than upon her Son's agony; and all through the representation the same irreverent knot of scoffers continued to laugh, to whistle, to mimic. From many parts of the tent there were indignant cries of "Shame!" and "Silence!" but the disturbers went on to the end, quite regardless of good taste and the pious feelings of the majority.

I heard whispers which informed us that this company of players had no repertoire; such a thing they would have considered sacrilegious, but they travelled all over France in caravans, carrying their own scenery and costumes. We dared not stay till the very end of the performance, but had to get up and steal quietly out, with Aunt Mary heavy on our consciences.

I believe poor little Miss Randolph really was afraid of that scolding she had prophesied. But behold, vice was its own reward, and the enemy was delivered into our hands. We arrived at the mews, and there was the car; but there was not Aunt Mary nor yet Sherlock-Fauntleroy. In their place, curled up in the tonneau, reclined a callow French youth, comfortably snoozing, with his coat-collar turned up to his ears. We roused him, learned that he had been caught en passant and hired at the rate of two francs an hour to await the return of a lady and gentleman; also that he had been in his present position for nearly an hour. One lady and gentleman seemed to his mind as good as another, for when offered a five-franc piece he showed no hesitation in delivering up his charge to us, although, for all he could tell, we might have been the rankest of rank impostors. After the departure of this faithless guardian, Miss Randolph and I sat enthroned in the car for some twenty minutes before Aunt Mary and Jimmy came speeding round the corner of the mews. They brought with them an atmosphere of warmth and good cheer, and at first sniff it was evident that they had dined where dining in both solid and liquid branches was a fine art.

In my part of servant I was not "on" in the ensuing comedy; but I listened "in the wings," and chuckled inwardly. Well did Miss Randolph fill the rôle of injured virtue which she had taken up at such short notice. Her surprise that Aunt Mary and Jimmy could have been capable of betraying her trust in them, that they should have gone off and left a valuable car, which wasn't even hers, to the tender mercies of a stupid little boy, a perfect stranger, was bravely done. It was represented as a miracle that the Napier and everything in it had not been stolen during their absence; and the good dinner the culprits had enjoyed at the neighbouring hotel could not fortify them against the blighting sense of their own depravity so vividly brought home.

Not a reproach for us; all the wind had been taken out of their sails. A sadder and wiser Jimmy and Aunt Mary meekly allowed themselves to be driven on through the cold moonlight, with distant gleams of towered towns, to Narbonne, where I am writing to you, after having dined and cleaned the car. Our hotel is not an ideal one; yet on my hard pillow my head, I ween, will lie easier than on a downy one last night. We arrived late, and will leave early, to lessen the chances of being pounced upon by the clutches of the law. But I begin to hope that, after all, those peasants decided to let well alone, and that we shall escape scatheless.

When I was a little boy we used to have honey in red-brown earthenware pots labelled "Finest Narbonne Honey," and for years the place figured in my imagination as a smiling region of brilliant flowers. But the disillusioning reality is a dusty, rather noisy, very commercial town, paved with stones the most abominable; and between Carcassonne and here the roads grow more abominable with every kilometre. I am tired, but not unhappy; and so, good night.

Your fraudulent friend,
Brown-Winston.