THIS is a poor story, for it has no plot, and all stories written in America are supposed to have a plot. Nothing else matters. This story has a girl and a man and a chief event. Of these the chief event happened only in the ordinary course of things, and if the girl had not had one straight, white streak in her internal construction, probably it would not have affected her in the proper way, and there would have been no excuse for writing this at all. It may still be a question whether the girl was worthy of the event and so worth our valuable consideration. But whether she was worth it at the time or not—and it seems improbable— she doubtless became so in the end. Under the drilling of love and life many of this sort do when you never would have suspected it. The chief event itself was an artistic performance, and every artistic performance, however mean may be its little type, deserves worth in its appreciators; but as has been said, if she had no worth, without doubt she acquired it, and, also without doubt, in the acquiring process the chief event helped her. So far this seems a bit abstruse.
Her name was Helen McNab. Her father was a Montreal broker. In 1869 he had walked in from a creek seventeen miles up the Ottawa River to take a position as an office boy—this story was written in 1907, which makes a profound difference— I remember imperfectly a description given me by Winslow Whitman, late of Boston and India.
“Never been in the McNab’s drawing room !” he said, with a face full of pity. “Your life is yet to be lived. They got stuffed birds in it, and a stuffed bear, an’ a stuffed Injun, an’ a full-sized Eskimo kayak. Then they got all sorts of chairs—chairs that belonged to Louis Quatorze, an’ Louis Quinze, an’ Louis Seize, an' I guess most of the other Louis. Some of their legs turn in, an’ some of ’em turn out, an’ the tops of ’em are all different; some like squash-pies, with a rim round ’em, an’ some like meat-pies, with a lump on ’em; but you can’t sit on any of ’em. In one corner it ’s Patagonia, in another it’s the Petit Trianon, an’ in another it’s Hudson’s Bay. Oh, your life is yet to be lived.”
Miss McNab was the only daughter and she was pretty; but if you stripped her of the aura that surrounds every pretty girl, she was not attractive. In the ordinary course of things she went away to a boarding school to develop her individuality, and when she came back she had it fully developed. She wore a suit covered with large black and white checks and a very flat sailor hat, and she walked in all respects like an ostrich. Later she had a bored expression, and there was something about her that led you to suspect she had never done enough to deserve it. She had a nasal voice, which she used for producing an unfounded libel on an English accent and an unsorted collection of English sporting phrases. She had one slash scar on her left cheek from having collided with a tree one night on the Mountain on skees, and of this she was reservedly proud—she had followed fifteen others down the slope, and had come out blind-stunned at the bottom. She was always well groomed and manicured, her nails were cut to a "rounded point, she was usually marceled (this is a way of doing a woman’s hair that makes it take on a beautiful regularity of contour that you see in the ripples of the sand of the sea-shore, or the clouds of a mackerel sky), and she was gifted with the taste (which is the proper term for money when applied in this connection) to dress effectively, which she did. Any time she had left over from the operations involved in these peculiarities she used in maintaining her position, and this position was a complicated thing.
In North America there is a small but delicately perfumed army of young ladies who have made it their business to start an aristocracy. For certain obscure reasons including the lack of aristocrats to fill in with, they have failed; but, instead, they have what is called a plutocracy, which is the same thing from the inside, though from the outside it is quite different. Montreal, like many other cities to the East and West and South, has an ornate nascent plutocracy, and Miss McNab’s position at the time of this tale was on the extreme outer edge. The position of these plutocracies is uncertain, as they are maintained entirely by keeping just such young ladies from looking behind the Veil (where, by the way, there is nothing whatever—though that is a secret), and so the plutocracy is usually busy, and the young ladies are busy as well.
Miss McNab was so busy that she had never had time to see a man. She believed she had danced with them. She unquestionably had decorated boxes at His Majesty’s with them when they could afford it, and stalls when they could not. She had received violets from them, and large American Beauty roses. (The former she had worn, and they had wilted; the latter a maid had put in water, and they had wilted—at eighteen dollars a dozen.) She had dined at the Hunt Club with them, and at the Forest and Stream, for there is something about that brusque, sporting manner over the warmth of transparent chiffon that is attractive to the uninitiated. But she had no idea in the world what a man was really like inside. She had her own imperious method of dealing with them, and that was to be all-sufficient for all time. It was her perfect, patent, impervious system, filled with raw oil and finished with three coats of best spar varnish. It was applied to all men alike that moved within her orbit, with variations to fit their prestige. Beyond her orbit there was a vague and unimportant region filled with college professors, navvies, photographers, and mechanical engineers, such as drive the Lusitania, and such like. Any one of these she would refer to as a man, but with a different tone, and that was the end of him. This was her whole philosophy; quite inconceivable, but approximately so. And yet, still more inconceivable, under all this there was doubtless the stuff to make a woman that could sing songs to her own children, and the Magnificat to herself, and repeat the Apostles’ Creed. This is a wonderful world.
Now, the man had recently come to Montreal from England. His father had been a great consulting engineer in Victoria Street, and, like all good consulting engineers, had died at his appointed time. He had been great even above riches, which is very great indeed, so he had been able to leave his son only a little under 6,000 pounds, a strong engineering tendency, and two or three of the recognized varieties of common sense. Among these was not the one relating to the value of worldly possessions, and in five calendar months Mr. George Porteous Vaughan Morgan—for that was the son’s name—had expended 5,384 pounds, 12 shillings, 9 pence; and of such beautiful quality was one sort of common sense he did have—the one that teaches how to deal gracefully with men and women— that with this comparatively small sum of money he made a notable disturbance in the great City of London, and his existence was admitted from the Circus to the foot of the throne. In fact, so great was this disturbance that its echoes have not altogether died away to this day. Afterward, having learned his lesson cheerfully and silently, and without a touch of melo-drama, he came out to Canada with 600 pounds, and, following his engineering trend, joined himself to a company in Montreal whose business was to sell English automobiles to the Canadian public under the blessed advantages of the Canadian Preferential Tariff. Then of a sudden it seemed that all his reserve common sense came into action at once, and immediately he began to prosper; for he was one of those rare specimens, an utterly adaptable Englishman. He even arose before eight o’clock in the morning.
Early in his Canadian career he collided with Miss Helen McNab at the St. Andrew’s Ball. It so happened that no fewer than two of Miss McNab’s bondmen had failed. One had been found by a two-years’ widow of twenty-six, and the other had found a very charming young lady who belonged to one of the oldest French-Canadian families and who had just returned from eighteen months in Paris; so there was no prospect of either of them coming back at all. So, partly by accident, which is our crude way of describing the methods of Providence, and partly through his own cheerful initiative, Mr. Vaughan Morgan received three dances. This, for Miss McNab of Montreal, was quite unheard of, and an excellent start.
Being an adaptable Englishman, Mr. Vaughan Morgan did not conceive that a two-step was made out of a mighty, automatic walk, or that a waltz consisted in turning in one direction over a limited area of floor at thirty-six revolutions per minute. On the contrary, he studied his surroundings, took thought, carefully put Miss McNab on her mettle by asking if she was very tired, and finished smiling and warm, with the lady in a more disheveled condition than she had ever been in public in her life. In the midst of her disapproval, she noticed a new, uncatalogued, pleasant, tingling sensation that apparently came out of an uncertain pink haze. But in the face of a life-time of habit, this effect was ephemeral, and in the intervals between the dances she reverted to her normal condition, and languidly told Mr. Vaughan Morgan reserved tales of the doings of the frightfully smart set to which she belonged.
Now, Mr. Vaughan Morgan, having laid out with great intelligence 5,384 pounds 12 shillings 9 pence in finding out what he could about London, was amazed at so much innocence so wickedly put, and, at the end of the third of those dances and interviews, went out into another room and served himself with bad claret lemonade a number of times, chuckling insanely all the while. Still, having come from a land where there are a million and a half surplus women, he was taken with the novelty of the imperious treatment— with apparently so little to warrant it—so two days later, being Sunday, he called. He found Miss McNab in her especial element, surrounded by a salon, and haughty beyond his most amazed conception; for he also came from the only democratic country in the world, and had seen no other.
Miss McNab’s mother held a lorgnette under a transformation, and said that the St. Andrew’s Ball was becoming frightfully mixed—which is true of all balls—and Miss McNab’s brother, though apparently in his own house, conversed with a friend on the opposite end of the same divan, and regarded Mr. Vaughan Morgan as a stranger. This was all he got out of that visit, and when he arose, Mr. McNab, junior, and the friend smiled, and he departed in some wonder, but with unabated interest. But Miss McNab imagined she saw a smile in the back of his eyes, and said a good-by that lacked poise—her first since she was six years old.
Working under the illogical rules that govern these things, Mr. Vaughan Morgan’s interest continued to grow, and within three months, in spite of occasional contact, he had formed a most wonderful idea of Miss McNab. Now, the description of this young lady already submitted was dispassionate and, as far as it went, unquestionably correct from a mechanical point of view, which makes Mr. Vaughan Morgan’s later idea all the more wonderful: put into English words, what he came to see was this :
Her height was the perfect height. (In this case it happened to be 5 feet 6 3-4 inches, less 2 1-4 inches for sole leather and brass nails.) She was erect and beautifully balanced, and full-figured. She had glorious, indescribable golden-brown hair, with a shimmer that traveled like the shimmer of raw silk; walnut-brown eyes that shone and sparkled and had a way of looking up suddenly under lids that flickered for a second and shut down, leaving the effect of distant, silent summer lightning. (So far these were his precise words.) Her skin was clear and fair, but with an uncertain flush beneath that carried warmth from her finger tips to the forehead, and at the least provocation blazed in her cheeks till you had to draw a slow breath to stand still. This was the over-whelming impression—tides and surges of growing color; those eyes; and then such hands! They were not particularly small, but altogether wonderful; well-balanced, soft, deft, and strong, the essence of all capability, adaptable, responding to every foreshadowed need, and accomplishing with all adequacy and finish, and with a touch that was perfectly sure, so that anything they had done could never conceivably come undone at all. When she played they flowed—and she neglected Chaminade for Chopin—and when she stopped they glided on their own irresponsible way, and were a source of danger to all mankind. But wonderful above everything else was her mouth: sensitive and mobile until it was heartbreaking to watch it. Every little thought that slipped through her mind, every little trend of a half-formed idea in fun or in earnest, in devilment or in pure play, was heralded there, and the corners slid up and down or quivered for one small second under the flutter of those eyelids until the alluring color came, stormed up, and you could only stand and groan. And then her voice was clear as crystal (bis) and she had a way of turning her words that was frightfully attractive. . .
Mr. Vaughan Morgan’s conception went, in part; and, besides, into this creation he breathed the breath of life, making her into the flattering likeness of a real woman with all the attributes—prospective, useful motherhood, and the rest— probably not one of which she then actively possessed.
And Miss McNab remained imperious and unscathed to the point of irritation.
Now for the sacrifice. In every artistic performance there must be a sacrifice. If you paint a picture that attains to the line at the R. A., it is the canvas, the pigments, and a little boiled linseed oil. If you write a success of the season, it is several blocks of rag paper, half a pint of ink, and a suffering iridosmine pen-point. If you play the Second Rhapsody, it is an expensive grade of felt wearing on steel wires. In this case it was an English car called the Brunel, sold in Canada by the company to which Mr. Vaughan Morgan had joined himself. Her makers called her “The Engineer’s Car,” to distinguish her from the mass of cars that seemed to be dedicated to the public—or the devil. A glimpse into her gear-box, or at the mighty teeth of her driving pinion (which is as important a part of a car as a hairpin is of a woman), or at the mightier hub and gun-carriage spokes of her hind wheels, told you why, and why she was peculiarly fitted to be the sacrifice. And, besides, under her bonnet was an engine-room like the engine-room of an ice-breaker, with a centrifugal pump that might have come from Tangyes, with any spare space filled with a giant magneto; and all notably protected from the wet and gritty world outside. Her builders had laboriously come to the conclusion that an automobile was a dignified private carriage, and had gone forever from red bodies to the darkest of nile-green; so, aside from a certain massiveness, she was altogether deceptive, and no man would believe that she could rage furiously, for they called her but twenty horse-power. But of horses there are many sorts, and doubtless the horses in England are bigger than the horses in America.
Here begins the introduction of the chief event. One April day, when the ice out of Lake St. Louis was moving down in rafts over the Lachine Rapids, and a Donaldson liner and the Bellona, with fruit were waiting at Quebec for the breaking of the bridge at Cap Rouge, Mr. Vaughan Morgan took out the twenty Brunel to demonstrate to a man who was preparing a summer home beyond Como.
And here it is necessary to digress for a geographical explanation.
Montreal City is on the island of Montreal, and Montreal island is in the mouth of the Ottawa, where that woodland river empties itself into the great St. Lawrence; for the Ottawa has a delta like the Nile and the Amazon. If you wish to get off the island of Montreal, you can go in two ways: by something that floats on the water or by a bridge. At this particular time in April there is nothing afloat except ice and driftwood, so you must go by a bridge, and of the bridges there are two kinds, railway and highway. The railway bridges are owned chiefly by corporations and so lead everywhere it is desirable to go; and the highway bridges are owned chiefly by the Government, and so would lead nowhere except by what is called the express will of the people, and the people of North America, unlike the people of England, never express their will, but are governed directly, in as far as it may be necessary, by an over-ruling Providence, who does not build bridges.
It is twenty-three miles by road from the City of Montreal to Ste. Anne de Bellevue, which is at the extreme end of the island of Montreal. Beyond is the flood of the Ottawa, with Isle Perrot, over two miles wide, breasting the current in midstream, and with Vaudreuil three miles away on the opposite shore. And Como, where Mr. Vaughan Morgan wished to be, is six miles beyond Vaudreuil.
The main lines of those two great corporations, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway, run out to Ste. Anne, and, by high bridges resting on ponderous, ice-cutting piers, cross over to Isle Perrot. Across that elm-clad island, side by side, they strike a broad, straight, stately roadway, until, by other bridges with ponderous piers, they cross over from Isle Perrot to Vaudreuil, and go on their way into the West.
On the other hand, the highway, which is the property of the Government, comes out speciously by Lachine and through lakeside villages to Ste. Anne; and then, instead of proclaiming its inadequacy by turning down into the river and ceasing, swings nobly round the end of the island and returns to Montreal—as is proper—through the woods.
That is to say if you have attained to Ste. Anne by road, and wish to reach Vaudreuil-which-is-beyond-the-Ottawa, three miles away, you may go by little bridges over little rivers and so round by the City of Ottawa, two hundred and fifty miles, or you may go back twenty-three miles to Montreal, cross the River St. Lawrence by the Victoria bridge, travel many leagues upstream, cross the River St. Lawrence again at Valleyfield, P.Q., and travel eastward again many leagues to Vaudreuil, which is the shorter. Or, to put it in all its nakedness, from Montreal, the greatest city in Canada, you cannot directly by road reach the mainland of Western Quebec and Ontario, the most populous section of Canada, at all. This of course is an outrage, and if the island of Montreal were inhabited by the English as such, would be expressed as an outrage day and night without ceasing until the Governments involved, helpless against importunity, like all Governments, and for the sake of blessed peace, which is the ultimate aim and object of all Governments, would signal their weariness, and immediately there would arise the sound of hammering on metal and the voice of the pneumatic riveter on girders at St. Anne.
All these great and seemingly irrelevant matters bear directly on Mr. Vaughan Morgan, for they show why, to reach Como, which is beyond Vaudreuil, he had to load the twenty Brunel on a flat-car, from which she was precariously navigated down three-inch planks at Como Station.
And here, to justify Mr. Vaughan Morgan's intelligence, it may be said that he had no conception what an Ottawa Valley road might be in the spring, but having alighted in four inches of snow water, he went forward in faith and demonstrated. He demonstrated through wasted, sooty snow-banks that melted without ceasing under a summer-blue sky. He demonstrated on a water swept tundra where runnels poured over an ice-edge into a lake that in summer was a hay meadow. He demonstrated over a half-frozen plowed field, preferring it to a four-horse-power stream which the owner assured him at other seasons was the drive, and he finished by taking his victim for what he called a spin on the main road. The spin consisted in leaping from mud-holes to muddy snow-banks, and swooping from snow-banks into mud-holes, and resembled nothing so much as navigating the Bay of Fundy in a high sea in an open boat.
“It is a bit sloppy-you-know—isn't it!" he said, with one eye overlaid with mud, and he went on talking reassuringly between gulps as the patient springs jolted their livers. In the end he careered away joyfully toward the station by himself, with one bent mud-guard and an order for one $3,500 car in his inmost pocket.
For that night the twenty Brunel was to have stayed in a shed, and he was to have gone into town on the 6.13. But the demonstration had been long, and the 6.13 was on time, and passed down, unflagged, toward Vaudreuil when he was still a quarter of a mile across the plain.
“Marooned!” Mr. Vaughan Morgan commented, and plowed ahead to interview the agent. The agent was already being interviewed. There were two young ladies and one young gentleman, and they appeared to have reached the station platform only the moment before. In any case, they paid no attention to the arrival of anything so trivial as a motor. One young lady was addressing the agent personally.
‘‘You stupid fool, didn't you know we were coming, whether you could see us or not? Did you think we wished to stay out here all night alone?” with a side-swept glance at the young gentleman. It was the voice of Miss Helen McNab, in heat. The agent was French-Canadian, brief in temper, and not fully trained in deference. His reply was full of words. On the first count he tried to make plain that he was not a mind-reader. On the second, he pointed out that he had no method of judging.
“I don't know, me!" he said, waving his arms in the air. “Vot eef you don' came en time for y'r train —I s’pose so." And he departed into the station, leaving Miss McNab white with wrath. (The McNabs had a house at Como, and the gods-that-desire-excitement had arranged that Miss McNab should choose this day in April to visit it for the purpose of suggesting improvements. She had brought with her a suite, Miss Yvonne Dacoste, because she was one step nearer the Veil, and very haughty, and Mr. Gerald Brian Glover, who had a thin and fair mustache, and was what she called a “nice boy.”) Then, the mud storm having subsided, she saw the twenty Brunel and Mr. Vaughan Morgan, For one inexplicable second she was abashed: after which she had an inspiration. She consulted with the other two. “Watch me work this Englishman !” was the substance of it, though it was more beautifully put.
“How do you do!” she opened, and advanced towards the edge of the platform. Mr. Vaughan Morgan shuddered, and bowed through his crust.
“Beastly walking, isn't it?” he said.
“Frightful,” said Ms. McNab, and properly introduced Miss Dacoste and Mr. Glover. “We've lost our last train, and I must be in town at a quarter to eight. Won't you go and ask that man if there’s no other train—anywhere?—He's been horribly rude." There was somewhat implied, but to that phase Mr. Vaughan Morgan seemed deaf and blind.
“Must?” he said, with the painful literalness of a man, and took on a serious expression. She did not explain that it was bridge at Lady Sanderson’s—her first—and, after all, that was very important. Her impervious system drove her ahead, full into the bosom of the unguessed future.
“Yes, must!" This tone was her final. Mr. Vaughan Morgan said, “Oh!” with a face full of consideration and a mind full of thoughts, and in a moment dropped over the unopened door into the mud and was in the station-house. In half a minute he returned, visibly anxious. There was a Grand Trunk train from Vaudreuil at 7.10.
“Bonaventure at five minutes to eight.”
“That is much too late,” she said regally, smoothing the wrinkles out of long, tan gloves, while Mr. Glover pulled his mustache.
"—Or we might get a special at Vaudreuil. I can take you down in the car—if you don’t mind the roads and the mud.” Miss McNab held rigidly to her part. She did not mind anything. Mr. Vaughan Morgan absently eyed Mr. Glover’s expanse of vicuna and satin and Miss Dacoste’s hard-crowned, over-feathered hat ( we shall remember the spring of 1907), and his smile almost broke out. But his face remained the face of one who realizes that something must be done immediately.
“I’m quite sure we shall manage it in some way, if we go at once,” he said, cheerily, leaning toward the sacrifice. Would Miss McNab like to ride in front?
He advanced on the crank, preoccupied, as a man thinking out things far ahead, while Miss Dacoste and Mr. Glover daintily climbed into the tonneau, with the manner of people who have certain misgivings, and seated themselves on luxurious cushions spattered with half-dry mud. Mr. Vaughan Morgan heaved, and a deep-seated tremor ran through the twenty Brunel. He moved to one side, and half the nile-green roof over the forward mysteries rose up and balanced itself in the air. For a dozen seconds Miss McNab watched his hand wandering amid complications—scarlet cylinders, glaring brass piping and a whizzing aluminum fan, which she gazed at incuriously, not being a mechanic, after which the bonnet closed with a clang. The lady did notice that it was unlike the tinny snap of certain bonnets she had seen, but this was her only impression of unusual strength. This impression immediately gave place to another more interesting. She painted a beautiful picture of Mr. Vaughan Morgan hiring a special at Vaudreuil, and taking her in instate; and she would see that he did it.
This last impression was not accurate. Mr. Vaughan Morgan had also a plan: which did not coincide in the least. How he thought it might forward his interests, or why he thought of it at all, I am sure I could never guess. Probably it was one of those first-flush impulses that have created that Outer-Empire title, Mad Englishman. Miss McNab’s “must” had made it possible. He knew part of Miss McNab, and he knew how to foster that “must” until it became a fetish. If she ever gave in, his excuse would be gone. But, then, with a little urging, she would never give in till the trumpet blew and the earth dissolved away from beneath her feet.
In the meantime he slid into the driver’s seat, pressed his foot on a pedal, and moved two levers that clicked. A hum rose up from somewhere, and Miss McNab felt herself being pushed back deep into the cushions. Then the hum ceased, and there was no sound but the hiss of snow water driven out in two clean sheets under the bows. The twenty Brunel, in a hundred-foot lake, was silently under way.
“Top speed,” said Mr. Vaughan Morgan irrelevantly, with the appreciation of an enthusiast.
“It does not seem very fast,” Miss McNab commented, with a voice like an echo from a glacier.
“I should have said, ‘Direct drive,’ ”
Miss McNab said, “Ah!” not knowing in the least what he meant.
“’Don’t believe you have to be home by a quarter to eight at all,” he continued, in great absence of mind, still dealing thoughtfully with levers. “What is it for?”
“That is my own particular business; but it is really important.”
“Really!” said Mr. Vaughan Morgan, and this time a little child could see that he was impressed. He was a beautiful actor, and that expression of great anxiety came back. Miss McNab was satisfied. The first result took place at once. They had climbed from the lake into pure mud that played in two smooth fountains alongside, and they had arrived at the turn to the main road. On every car there is a little innocent-looking pedal that is called the accelerator. It has an unseen connection with the throttle, and is more potent than all the pedals of a cathedral organ put together. Turning into the main road, Mr. Vaughan Morgan rested his foot on this pedal ever so lightly, and smiled a grim smile in the back of his eyes. (This sort of smile does not show outside.) The twenty Brunel accelerated, and Mr. Gerald Brian Glover, in the tonneau, sat in Miss Yvonne Dacoste’s lap. Miss McNab grasped Mr. Vaughan Morgan’s left arm with a grip like the grip of a drowning man, and then let go as if it were red-hot iron. Mr. Vaughan Morgan, unnoting, ostentatiously fought with the steeringwheel, and, when the trouble had subsided, busied himself in apologizing lavishly to the tonneau. Mr. Glover was forcing the crown of his hat into shape, and Miss Dacoste looked ruffled.
“So sorry,” he said; “but we skidded a little. This mud is awfully treacherous, you know.” Mr. Glover had been laying himself out not to say the unclean things that were in his mind, so his reply was at random and barely polite. Miss Dacoste vented a few crisp sentences of high-strung words and ferociously repinned her hat, and Miss McNab sat as rigid as Cleopatra’s Needle. With her crew in this order, because, in his apology, Mr. Vaughan Morgan had disregarded the road ahead, the twenty Brunel rose up on the edge of an unwarned hollow with sides like a pit, pitched forward, heaving the suffering tonneau skyward, coasted on heated brakes over water-washed gravel into troubled water, rode for a second, dorylike, in foam, trod down a half-floating pole bridge, where her axles came up and smote her frame with blows like the blows of a sledge, and plowed out and upward on naked rock, with Mr. Vaughan Morgan transformed in the flash of an eye, laughing the joyful laugh of the English, that, in the midst of a great event, counts not the cost of anything, though life itself may depart in the next breath. It was all part of the Vaudreuil road, though in bad condition.
“There’s one more river,” he sang softly, wiping the water from his eyes, and leaning forward to his work, “An’ that’s the river of Jordan.” This quotation had a deep and hidden significance, but he went on at once, “I say, didn’t she take that beautifully?”
“She really did,” said Miss McNab. It sounded more normal than anything he had ever heard her say, and he managed to look once without being seen. She was holding the edge of the seat and the rim of her hat, and the color was blazing in her cheeks. From the tonneau arose a heated silence. They had seen water drifting back there in great clouds, and they forebore to look.
Then the twenty Brunel settled down to perform marvels, for the best of modern motor-cars is a miracle on wheels. No other piece of complicated machinery—saving only perhaps the human mind—has to live through such outrageous shocks.
Mr. Vaughan Morgan was a good driver—they also are born—and that day he drove with all his judgment, or as much judgment as he could use and get the Brunel’s best speed under these terrible conditions. There was only one thing that might happen: the Brunel might burst— collapse—disintegrate — and settle back softly into a scrap heap—or an impalpable powder—but if she did, in his opinion it was worth the cost. If she did not, he would end one day with satisfaction.
Sometimes her starboard tires traveled on an uneven ridge of sandy snow, and her port tires plowed in the worn sleigh-track and removed the water therefrom into the next field; and sometimes it occurred to her to change sides, and then, immediately afterward, to change back, and she alternated with great rapidity so that she rolled like a torpedo-boat in a beam sea and terribly disarranged the passengers in her tonneau. Again, on a side hill, where the down-hill side of the road had melted first, her lower wheels ran in mud and her upper on ice, and she circled the hill with a list so heavy that you could hear the tonneau gasp, clinging desperately to the windward rail. Sometimes, on the level, she struck the remnants of the winter’s pitches, with every ridge still frozen and as even as waves of the sea, and she rocked and bucked like an unhandled broncho until the floor of the tonneau, under its carpet, rose up and dropped back at every pitch with a clack like a slapstick, and the passengers and their cushions were lifted five clear inches above the seat, and came down all braced for the next jump. There is nothing in the world more disconcerting to real dignity than just this sort of thing without any time allowed for rearranging yourself between jumps. It recalls a baby with a pain being danced on an inconsiderate knee. The effect is cumulative, and Miss Dacoste’s New York hat, which was not fitted for motoring, pulled apart her brilliantine-clotted hair and hung itself over her left ear. Mr. Glover bounced like a muddy ping-pong ball, and Miss McNab, still holding the edge of the seat and the rim of her hat, braced both feet against the sloping footboard and labored with her expression.
Mr. Vaughan Morgan appeared to see none of these things, but stared at the ominous pathway ahead. At times it was glare ice, at other times it was gruel-thick mud, and in one hollow it was a duck-pond, with ducks and everything complete. There is a theory that neither the Cochin duck nor the domestic Mallard can fly. They flew that day— all but one. Whether he could fly, if he really cared to, will now never be known.
The twenty Brunel dazzled her occupants and became a dream. Between endless snake-fences, dancing astern through tears, she climbed slopes that opened up on the left the flood-brown Ottawa in the afternoon sun, ever widening down into the Lake of Two Mountains; and on the farther side of these slopes she descended recklessly, dizzily chattering her lamps, and joyously pounding her tool-box up and down in its locker, until it sounded as if her vitals would certainly fly out on the road. She advanced on small farmhouses close by the roadside, and froze large French-Canadian families into uncouth groups of statuary, until the horse collected himself and tried to back up the front of the barn, and then all was activity in her settling wake. In pure faith she rounded abruptly into unseen stretches of road, and once was cursed wonderfully by an agent for sewing machines with a matched team of bays, which were stopped only by having to fight a five-barred gate. Sometimes she traveled straight and sometimes she sidled like a shying horse under the saddle, but always in a rain of flying water or mud or wornout snow. At all times she rocked and slued frightfully, and in certain brief moments she proceeded on two wheels. She dodged up-country chickens and she raced up-country dogs, one of which miscalculated and flew for a space like the Cochin ducks—but with the aid of the mud-guard. Twice her driver mistrusted the whole appearance of things ahead, and led her aside over squashy spring turf, through which she sucked her way until at last she rolled, mud-bathed, into Vaudreuil, where she was the wonder of the inhabitants, and up to the station. Her passengers had passed from fear and disgust into amazement, and finally into apathy. The populace could see that it was something desperate, and exhibited no levity, though Mr. Glover’s features were lost to the eye. Miss Dacoste was transfigured and Miss McNab sat with tight lips. Mr. Vaughan Morgan had the situation by the throat.
“Sit still for one moment,” he begged, and fled in the direction of the station-agent, to whom he talked aggressively for a few seconds. No one knows what he said. He came back running, but was stopped and drawn aside by a bystander from Isle Cadieux.
"De lady’s seeck?” he inquired, indicating Miss Dacoste, who had partly swathed herself in a gritty rug.
"Yes,” whispered Mr. Vaughan Morgan, confidently; "very," and mounted the step.
"Just as I thought,” he said politely—"no special possible.” And before he was fully settled in his seat, the twenty Brunel had gathered way. He swung her round the corner of the station, humored her softly over eighty-pound rails, and turned her down the main line, inbound, of the Grand Trunk Railway! A yell arose from far behind. He paid no attention. Three times he slowed to climb over switchpoints, then opened up, and the twenty Brunel fled down the line, thuttering over sleepers toward the great bridges and the mighty Ottawa itself. Steering lightly with one hand, he found his watch and looked.
"Now we sha’n't be long,” he said, addressing Miss McNab’s ironbound countenance. All his anxiety had passed, and he was visibly appreciating the last of the red-gold sunshine and the soft, spring evening air. What Miss McNab might have replied is not known, for Mr. Glover burst through his mud-caked silence.
"What are you going to do? Where are you going?”
"Home," said Mr. Vaughan Morgan, looking at Miss McNab.
Miss McNab flushed. Into the heart of Miss Dacoste came a great fear, which she strove to conceal in a lady-like manner.
“ Surely-the-man-is-not-going-to-take-us-across-the-railway-bridges!” she exploded.
"Miss McNab must be home at a quarter to eight," said Mr. Vaughan Morgan, softly. A good driver does not turn his head. Miss McNab sat as undrawn as the London “Times,” and ahead there rose up a subdued and suggestive roar. It was the terrible sound of a six-hundred-mile river in flood. Miss Dacoste, in the trembling tonneau, covered her face with her hands, and Mr. Vaughan Morgan drove—like an engineer.
On the edge of the thunder stood a gang of incapacitated section men and a red shanty containing a gasolene engine and a three-bucket pump that filched a little of the Ottawa’s water for the passing locomotives. Long afterward Miss McNab admitted that she would have been willing to live in that shanty for a very long time had she been allowed to stay ashore. But she gave no sign, and in the next breath the twenty Brunel was running in midair over open ties.
Ahead the way stretched clear enough, but that was a little thing. To the left, a few yards up-stream, hung the great mainline bridge of the Canadian Pacific Railway, breaking the oncoming flood, with every sharpened pier carrying a bow wave like a battle-ship, and singing its own song in overwhelming roar. Between came down the waters, golden-brown and overlaid with foam, to break again in thunder on the piers that held up the twenty Brunel. Between the ties they could see the torrent pouring through far beneath, bearing an occasional log from some lost brough on the Gatineau. On each side was the raw edge—bare tie-ends; no guard-rail; nothing. Miss McNab thought of the car’s steering gear, which might be mutable, like all things human. She stared down at the water, which was unwise. For one little instant she went dizzy and sick. The Ottawa stood still. The Grand Trunk bridge and the twenty Brunel, moving corner-wise, started up-stream, furiously chasing the tails of the stone piers of the Canadian Pacific bridge, that swirled on ahead like the sterns of battleships abreast, until she closed her eyes. (Mr. Vaughan Morgan, unseeing, saw this also.) When she opened them again, it was to keep them up, as one who would successfully waltz on skates. Ahead ranged the bare, wind-swept elms on Isle Perrot. To the right were more bare elms and swamp ashes, doubtless attached to summer islands, but now bending like twigs in the midst of the brown flood. Later she remembered to the left, three hundred yards above, one small island, with a bare, white house, sheltered by nine pines and flanked by water-whipped scrub, and remembered praying she were there; until of a sudden she found herself on Isle Perrot with the twenty Brunel heading down that four-tracked avenue through the woods, and Mr. Vaughan Morgan talking freely about the beauties of the country in spring, while the Canadian Pacific enbankment rose ever higher on the left.
Mr. Gerald Brain Glover, feeling the exigencies of the situation, sat up to say that the trip across the bridge was “magnificent,” with which everybody undertook to agree, until the Ottawa’s other branch hove in sight through the trees, with bridges still higher and boiling white rapids below, and a great silence settled down once more. On this passage, high in the air, over the precise centre of the rapids, they met an astonished way freight, and her thunder blended with the roar from below, and the wind of her passing brought tears to their eyes till they bowed down their heads for relief. So with bowed heads they whirled into the still more astonished station at Ste. Anne, and without so much as glancing aside, Mr. Vaughan Morgan jerked the twenty Brunel out into the carriage drive, and so into the king’s highway along which she lurched at high speed once more, spattering mud anew.
The details of that flight eastward down the island of Montreal, in the golden light after sunset, through lakeside villages and past disregarded and incensed toll-gates, are all most ordinary details. There was no such navigation as on the Vaudreuil-Como road. The only marvelous thing was Miss McNab’s conversation; and for her it was marvelous beyond all marvels. It was jerky and telegraphic and without great poise, and sometimes it was bitten in two because of an excess of enthusiasm on the part of the twenty Brunel over some bump. But through the agency of Mr. Vaughan Morgan and the twenty Brunel, in some way I do not understand, the golden light that overcast the melting snow, and the great spring floods, from road runnels to boiling rivers, had reached in to her soul, and she talked; and Mr. Vaughan Morgan was electrified. She paid no attention to the people in the tonneau. In any case they could not hear. It was all very ordinary, because it had all been said so many times before—though anything that was ordinary was most extraordinary coming from Miss McNab—so none of it is worth repeating. It was all about ideals, and what a man lives for, and what a woman is hunting for all the time. And the girl’s color was so gorgeous, and it was all so wonderful that at Lachine Mr. Vaughan Morgan took the lower road for no other reason than to buck that suffering car through those disgraceful streets of lower St. Henri, and to dodge among the Amherst trams and the traffic of Notre Dame. The twenty Brunel lifted them as lightly as a gust of summer wind up into Sherbrooke Street with time to spare and she left Miss Dacoste and Mr. Glover at their doors, through which they disappeared, running. Their clothes were ruined and, for the time being, they were not friends with anybody; but the trip had been awfully good for their appetites.
Now here is where the blessed illogical part of the whole business comes in. As was said at first, this is a poor story, for it has no plot. The gentleman simply took the lady for a ride in a motor-car. But in front of her own house Miss McNab said, “You dear, dear boy!” for Mr. Vaughan Morgan had also been talking. “And, however you accomplish it, don’t ever let father find out we crossed those bridges. Go down to every newspaper now and stop it however you like, but stop it; and then change and come back and talk to me. I’m not going to Lady Sanderson’s tonight.”
Forty minutes later, Mr. Vaughan Morgan, pale with hunger, handed the twenty Brunel in at the garage.
“I say, Beckley,” he said, “you might wash her down a bit, will you?” In thirty-five minutes more, freshly clothed and newly fed, he was climbing upper Peel Street on foot.