The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 4


Orleans, November 29.

My dear Montie,

I have so many things to tell you I scarcely know where to begin. First let me announce that I am in for an adventure a real flesh and blood adventure—into which I plump without premeditation, but an adventure of so delightful a kind that I hope it may continue for many a day. I know you'll say at once, "That means "Woman"; and you're right. But I won't go to the heart of the story at once; I'll begin at the beginning. First, though, a word as to yourself. I miss you enormously. It is a cruel stroke of fate that you should have been ordered to Davos after you had made all your plans to go with me on my new car to the Riviera. I still think that a trip on which you would have been in the open air all day was just as likely to check incipient chest trouble as the cold dryness of Davos; but no doubt you were right to do as the doctors told you. I shall look eagerly for letters from you with bulletins of your progress. As I can't have you with me, the next best thing will be to write to you often; besides, you said that you would like to have frequent reports of my doings in France, with "plenty of detail."

Well, the new car is a stunner. I haven't so far a fault to find with her. She takes most hills on the third, which is very good; for though we are only two up—Almond and I—I have luggage in the tonneau almost equal to the weight of another passenger. Between Dieppe and Paris she licked up the kilometres as a running flame licks up dry wood. She runs sweetly and with hardly any noise. The ignition seems to work perfectly; she carries water and petrol enough for 150 miles. I think at last in the Napier I have found the ideal car, and you know I have searched long enough. Almond timed her on the level bit at Acheres, and it was at the rate of over forty-five miles an hour—not bad for a touring car.

It was between Dieppe and Paris (somewhere between Gisors and Mem) that the adventure began. I was flying up a slope of perhaps one in fifteen, when I became aware of Beauty in Distress. An antediluvian car, which was recognisable by its rearward protuberance as something archaic, was stationary on the hill; two ladies sat on an extraordinarily high seat behind like a throne, and a mechanic was slouching towards a smith's forge by the roadside. One motorist, of course, must always offer help to another—to pass a stranded car would be like ignoring signals of distress at sea; besides, one of the ladies looked young and seemed to have a charming figure. So, having passed them, I pulled up and went back.

The ladies said "America" to me as plainly as if they had spoken. They were most professionally got up, the elder so befurred and goggled that I could see only the tip of her nose; the younger with a wonderfully fetching grey fur coat, a thing that I believe women call a "toque," and a double veil, which allowed only a tantalising hint of a piquant profile and a pair of bewildering grey eyes. They—or rather the younger one—met my profferred help with a rather curt refusal, but the voice that uttered it was musical to a point rare among the American women of the eastern States, and these were New York or nowhere. There was nothing for me to do except retire; but Almond, looking back as we sped away, said, "Why, sir, blowed if they haven't got those three smiths pushing them up the hill!" From which I argued that Beauty was very jealous for the reputation of her car. This is the end of Chapter I.

Chapter II. opens at Suresnes, some days later. I was starting for Cannes, and had just crossed the bridge when, in the yard of a garage on the left-hand side at the foot of the hill, I detected again Beauty in Distress—the same Beauty, but a different Distress. There was the high and portly car, with Beauty perched up in it alone—Beauty in the attitude appropriate to Patience smiling at Grief. Almost before I knew what I did, I turned my car into the yard and pulled up near her, making an excuse of asking for Stelline, though, as a matter of fact, Almond had filled up the tank only half an hour before at the Automobile Club. The manager of the garage told me that Beauty's car was stranded with a broken crank. Now Almond had caught sight of her mécanicien the previous time we met, and knew him for a wrong un in London; therefore when I heard he had gone off to Paris with five hundred francs to buy a new crank, I thought the situation serious. So, despite the former snub, I again offered my services.

She had her veil up, and, by Jove! she was good to look upon! The eyes were deep and candid; the curve of the red lips (a little subdued now) suggested a delightful sense of humour; her brown hair rippled over the ears and escaped in curly tendrils on her white neck. The girl was delicately balanced, finely wrought, tempered like a sword-blade. Something in my inner workings seemed to cry out with pleasure at her perfections; a very unusual nervousness got hold of me when I spoke to her.

It ended in my flying off to the Avenue de la Grande Armée to search for the missing man and another crank. You remember my earliest automobile experiences were with a Benz, as so many people's have been, and I knew where to go. Nothing had been heard of the man; I bribed a fellow to take a crank out of another car, and on the way back a wild idea occurred to me. I was obliged to sketch it to the astonished Almond, commanded him to deadly secrecy, then offered my own services to the beautiful American girl in place of her former chauffeur, absconded. The whole thing came into my mind in a flash as I was spinning through the Bois, and I hadn't time to think of the difficulties in which I might get landed. I only felt that this was the prettiest girl I had ever seen, and determined at any price to see a good deal more of her. Only one way of doing that occurred to me. I couldn't say to her, "I am Mr. John Winston, a perfectly respectable person. I have been seized with a strong and sudden admiration for your beauty. Will you let me go with you on your trip through France?" Even an American girl would have been staggered at that. The situation called for an immediate decision—either I was to lose the girl, or resort to a trick. You quite see how it was, don't you?

In the first instant there came a complication. I had stopped my car a minute in the Bois to scribble a character for my new self—James Brown, from my old self—John Winston; but as soon as I presented this piece of writing to back up my application for the place, Miss Molly Randolph (I may as well give you her name) exclaimed that she knew my mother. Such is life! It seems they met in Paris. But the die was cast, and she engaged me. I trusted the Napier to Almond, giving him general instructions to keep as near to us as he could, without letting himself be seen, and for the last two days I have been chauffeur, mécanicien, call it what you will, to the most charming girl in this exceedingly satisfactory world.

By this time I know that your eyes are wide open. I can picture you stretched in your chaise longue at Davos in the sunshine reading this and whistling softly to yourself. I have no time to write more to-night; the rest must wait.

Your very sincere and excited friend,
Jack Winston.