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Phineas and the Motor Car by Eleanor H. Porter

 

Phineas used to wonder, sometimes, just when it was that he began to court Diantha Bowman, the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired idol of his boyhood. Diantha's cheeks were not rosy now, and her hair was more silver than gold, but she was not yet his wife.

And he had tried so hard to win her! Year after year the rosiest apples from his orchard and the choicest honey from his apiary had found their way to Diantha's table; and year after year the county fair and the village picnic had found him at Diantha's door with his old mare and his buggy, ready to be her devoted slave for the day. Nor was Diantha unmindful of all these attentions. She ate the apples and the honey, and spent long contented hours in the buggy; but she still answered his pleadings with her gentle: “I hain't no call to marry yet, Phineas,” and nothing he could do seemed to hasten her decision in the least. It was the mare and the buggy, however, that proved to be responsible for what was the beginning of the end.

They were on their way home from the county fair. The mare, head hanging, was plodding through the dust when around the curve of the road ahead shot the one automobile that the town boasted. The next moment the whizzing thing had passed, and left a superannuated old mare looming through a cloud of dust and dancing on two wabbly hind legs.

“Plague take them autymobiles!” snarled Phineas through set teeth, as he sawed at the reins. “I ax yer pardon, I'm sure, Dianthy,” he added shamefacedly, when the mare had dropped to a position more nearly normal; “but I hain't no use fur them 'ere contraptions!”

Diantha frowned. She was frightened—and because she was frightened she was angry. She said the first thing that came into her head—and never had she spoken to Phineas so sharply.

“If you did have some use for 'em, Phineas Hopkins, you wouldn't be crawlin' along in a shiftless old rig like this; you'd have one yourself an' be somebody! For my part, I like 'em, an' I'm jest achin' ter ride in 'em, too!”

Phineas almost dropped the reins in his amazement. “Achin' ter ride in 'em,” she had said—and all that he could give her was this “shiftless old rig” that she so scorned. He remembered something else, too, and his face flamed suddenly red. It was Colonel Smith who owned and drove that automobile, and Colonel Smith, too, was a bachelor. What if—Instantly in Phineas's soul rose a fierce jealousy.

“I like a hoss, myself,” he said then, with some dignity. “I want somethin' that's alive!”

Diantha laughed slyly. The danger was past, and she could afford to be merry.

“Well, it strikes me that you come pretty near havin' somethin' that wa'n't alive jest 'cause you had somethin' that was!” she retorted. “Really, Phineas, I didn't s'pose Dolly could move so fast!”

Phineas bridled.

“Dolly knew how ter move—once,” he rejoined grimly. “'Course nobody pretends ter say she's young now, any more 'n we be,” he finished with some defiance. But he drooped visibly at Diantha's next words.

“Why, I don't feel old, Phineas, an' I ain't old, either. Look at Colonel Smith; he's jest my age, an' he's got a autymobile. Mebbe I'll have one some day.”

To Phineas it seemed that a cold hand clutched his heart.

“Dianthy, you wouldn't really—ride in one!” he faltered.

Until that moment Diantha had not been sure that she would, but the quaver in Phineas's voice decided her.

“Wouldn't I? You jest wait an' see!”

And Phineas did wait—and he did see. He saw Diantha, not a week later, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, sitting by the side of Colonel Smith in that hated automobile. Nor did he stop to consider that Diantha was only one of a dozen upon whom Colonel Smith, in the enthusiasm of his new possession, was pleased to bestow that attention. To Phineas it could mean but one thing; and he did not change his opinion when he heard Diantha's account of the ride.

“It was perfectly lovely,” she breathed. “Oh, Phineas, it was jest like flyin'!”

“'Flyin'!'“ Phineas could say no more. He felt as if he were choking,— choking with the dust raised by Dolly's plodding hoofs.

“An' the trees an' the houses swept by like ghosts,” continued Diantha. “Why, Phineas, I could 'a' rode on an' on furever!”

Before the ecstatic rapture in Diantha's face Phineas went down in defeat. Without one word he turned away—but in his heart he registered a solemn vow: he, too, would have an automobile; he, too, would make Diantha wish to ride on and on forever!

Arduous days came then to Phineas. Phineas was not a rich man. He had enough for his modest wants, but until now those wants had not included an automobile—until now he had not known that Diantha wished to fly. All through the autumn and winter Phineas pinched and economized until he had lopped off all of the luxuries and most of the pleasures of living. Even then it is doubtful if he would have accomplished his purpose had he not, in the spring, fallen heir to a modest legacy of a few thousand dollars. The news of his good fortune was not two hours old when he sought Diantha.

“I cal'late mebbe I'll be gettin' me one o' them 'ere autymobiles this spring,” he said, as if casually filling a pause in the conversation.

Phineas!”

At the awed joy in Diantha's voice the man's heart glowed within him. This one moment of triumph was worth all the long miserable winter with its butterless bread and tobaccoless pipes. But he carefully hid his joy when he spoke.

“Yes,” he said nonchalantly. “I'm goin' ter Boston next week ter pick one out. I cal'late on gettin' a purty good one.”

“Oh, Phineas! But how—how you goin' ter run it?”

Phineas's chin came up.

“Run it!” he scoffed. “Well, I hain't had no trouble yet steerin' a hoss, an' I cal'late I won't have any more steerin' a mess o' senseless metal what hain't got no eyes ter be seein' things an' gittin' scared! I don't worry none 'bout runnin' it.”

“But, Phineas, it ain't all steerin',” ventured Diantha, timidly. “There's lots of little handles and things ter turn, an' there's some things you do with your feet. Colonel Smith did.”

The name Smith to Phineas was like a match to gunpowder. He flamed instantly into wrath.

“Well, I cal'late what Colonel Smith does, I can,” he snapped. “Besides”—airily—“mebbe I shan't git the feet kind, anyhow; I want the best. There's as much as four or five kinds, Jim Blair says, an' I cal'late ter try 'em all.”

“Oh-h!” breathed Diantha, falling back in her chair with an ecstatic sigh. “Oh, Phineas, won't it be grand!” And Phineas, seeing the joyous light in her eyes, gazed straight down a vista of happiness that led to wedding bells and bliss.

Phineas was gone some time on his Boston trip. When he returned he looked thin and worried. He started nervously at trivial noises, and his eyes showed a furtive restlessness that quickly caused remark.

“Why, Phineas, you don't look well!” Diantha exclaimed when she saw him.

“Well? Oh, I'm well.”

“An' did you buy it—that autymobile?”

“I did.” Phineas's voice was triumphant. Diantha's eyes sparkled.

“Where is it?” she demanded.

“Comin'—next week.”

“An' did you try 'em all, as you said you would?”

Phineas stirred; then he sighed.

“Well, I dunno,” he acknowledged. “I hain't done nothin' but ride in 'em since I went down—I know that. But there's such a powerful lot of 'em, Dianthy; an' when they found out I wanted one, they all took hold an' showed off their best p'ints—'demonstatin',' they called it. They raced me up hill an' down hill, an' scooted me round corners till I didn't know where I was. I didn't have a minute ter myself. An' they went fast, Dianthy-powerful fast. I ain't real sure yet that I'm breathin' natural.”

“But it must have been grand, Phineas! I should have loved it!”

“Oh, it was, 'course!” assured Phineas, hastily.

“An' you'll take me ter ride, right away?” If Phineas hesitated it was for only a moment.

“'Course,” he promised. “Er—there's a man, he's comin' with it, an' he's goin' ter stay a little, jest ter—ter make sure everything's all right. After he goes I'll come. An' ye want ter be ready—I'll show ye a thing or two!” he finished with a swagger that was meant to hide the shake in his voice.

In due time the man and the automobile arrived, but Diantha did not have her ride at once. It must have taken some time to make sure that “everything was all right,” for the man stayed many days, and while he was there, of course Phineas was occupied with him. Colonel Smith was unkind enough to observe that he hoped it was taking Phineas Hopkins long enough to learn to run the thing; but his remark did not reach Diantha's ears. She knew only that Phineas, together with the man and the automobile, started off early every morning for some unfrequented road, and did not return until night.

There came a day, however, when the man left town, and not twenty-four hours later, Phineas, with a gleaming thing of paint and polish, stood at Diantha's door.

“Now ain't that pretty,” quavered Diantha excitedly. “Ain't that awful pretty!”

Phineas beamed.

“Purty slick, I think myself,” he acknowledged.

“An' green is so much nicer than red,” cooed Diantha.

Phineas quite glowed with joy—Colonel Smith's car was red. “Oh, green's the thing,” he retorted airily; “an' see!” he added; and forthwith he burst into a paean of praise, in which tires, horns, lamps, pumps, baskets, brakes, and mud-guards were the dominant notes. It almost seemed, indeed, that he had bought the gorgeous thing before him to look at and talk about rather than to use, so loath was he to stop talking and set the wheels to moving. Not until Diantha had twice reminded him that she was longing to ride in it did he help her into the car and make ready to start.

It was not an entire success—that start. There were several false moves on Phineas's part, and Diantha could not repress a slight scream and a nervous jump at sundry unexpected puffs and snorts and snaps from the throbbing thing beneath her. She gave a louder scream when Phineas, in his nervousness, sounded the siren, and a wail like a cry from the spirit world shrieked in her ears.

“Phineas, what was that?” she shivered, when the voice had moaned into silence.

Phineas's lips were dry, and his hands and knees were shaking; but his pride marched boldly to the front.

“Why, that's the siren whistle, 'course,” he chattered. “Ain't it great? I thought you'd like it!” And to hear him one would suppose that to sound the siren was always a necessary preliminary to starting the wheels.

They were off at last. There was a slight indecision, to be sure, whether they would go backward or forward, and there was some hesitation as to whether Diantha's geranium bed or the driveway would make the best thoroughfare. But these little matters having been settled to the apparent satisfaction of all concerned, the automobile rolled down the driveway and out on to the main highway.

“Oh, ain't this grand!” murmured Diantha, drawing a long but somewhat tremulous breath.

Phineas did not answer. His lips were tense, and his eyes were fixed on the road ahead. For days now he had run the car himself, and he had been given official assurance that he was quite capable of handling it; yet here he was on his first ride with Diantha almost making a failure of the whole thing at the start. Was he to be beaten—beaten by a senseless motor car and Colonel Smith? At the thought Phineas lifted his chin and put on more power.

“Oh, my! How f-fast we're goin'!” cried Diantha, close to his ear.

Phineas nodded.

“Who wants ter crawl?” he shouted; and the car leaped again at the touch of his hand.

They were out of the town now, on a wide road that had few turns. Occasionally they met a carriage or a wagon, but the frightened horses and the no less frightened drivers gave the automobile a wide berth— which was well; for the parallel tracks behind Phineas showed that the car still had its moments of indecision as to the course to pursue.

The town was four miles behind them when Diantha, who had been for some time vainly clutching at the flying ends of her veil, called to Phineas to stop.

The request took Phineas by surprise. For one awful moment his mind was a blank—he had forgotten how to stop! In frantic haste he turned and twisted and shoved and pulled, ending with so sudden an application of the brakes that Diantha nearly shot head first out of the car as it stopped.

“Why, why—Phineas!” she cried a little sharply.

Phineas swallowed the lump in his throat and steadied himself in his seat.

“Ye see I—I can stop her real quick if I want to,” he explained jauntily. “Ye can do 'most anythin' with these 'ere things if ye only know how, Dianthy. Didn't we come slick?”

“Yes, indeed,” stammered Diantha, hastily smoothing out the frown on her face and summoning a smile to her lips—not for her best black silk gown would she have had Phineas know that she was wishing herself safe at home and the automobile back where it came from.

“We'll go home through the Holler,” said Phineas, after she had retied her veil and they were ready to start. “It's the long way round, ye know. I ain't goin' ter give ye no snippy little two-mile run, Dianthy, like Colonel Smith did,” he finished gleefully.

“No, of course not,” murmured Diantha, smothering a sigh as the automobile started with a jerk.

An hour later, tired, frightened, a little breathless, but valiantly declaring that she had had a “beautiful time,” Diantha was set down at her own door.

That was but the first of many such trips. Ever sounding in Phineas Hopkins's ears and spurring him to fresh endeavor, were Diantha's words, “I could 'a' rode on an' on furever”; and deep in his heart was the determination that if it was automobile rides that she wanted, it was automobile rides that she should have! His small farm on the edge of the town—once the pride of his heart—began to look forlorn and deserted; for Phineas, when not actually driving his automobile, was usually to be found hanging over it with wrench and polishing cloth. He bought little food and less clothing, but always—gasolene. And he talked to any one who would listen about automobiles in general and his own in particular, learnedly dropping in frequent references to cylinders, speed, horse power, vibrators, carburetors, and spark plugs.

As for Diantha—she went to bed every night with thankfulness that she possessed her complement of limbs and senses, and she rose every morning with a fear that the coming night would find some of them missing. To Phineas and the town in general she appeared to be devoted to this breathless whizzing over the country roads; and wild horses could not have dragged from her the truth: that she was longing with an overwhelming longing for the old days of Dolly, dawdling, and peace.

Just where it all would have ended it is difficult to say had not the automobile itself taken a hand in the game—as automobiles will sometimes—and played trumps.

It was the first day of the county fair again, and Phineas and Diantha were on their way home. Straight ahead the road ran between clumps of green, then unwound in a white ribbon of dust across wide fields and open meadows.

“Tain't much like last year, is it, Dianthy?” crowed Phineas, shrilly, in her ear—then something went wrong.

Phineas knew it instantly. The quivering thing beneath them leaped into new life—but a life of its own. It was no longer a slave, but a master. Phineas's face grew white. Thus far he had been able to keep to the road, but just ahead there was a sharp curve, and he knew he could not make the turn—something was the matter with the steering-gear.

“Look out—she's got the bits in her teeth!” he shouted. “She's bolted!”

There came a scream, a sharp report, and a grinding crash—then silence.

       * * * * *

From away off in the dim distance Phineas heard a voice.

“Phineas! Phineas!”

Something snapped, and he seemed to be floating up, up, up, out of the black oblivion of nothingness. He tried to speak, but he knew that he made no sound.

“Phineas! Phineas!”

The voice was nearer now, so near that it seemed just above him. It sounded like—With a mighty effort he opened his eyes; then full consciousness came. He was on the ground, his head in Diantha's lap. Diantha, bonnet crushed, neck-bow askew, and coat torn, was bending over him, calling him frantically by name. Ten feet away the wrecked automobile, tip-tilted against a large maple tree, completed the picture.

With a groan Phineas closed his eyes and turned away his head.

“She's all stove up—an' now you won't ever say yes,” he moaned. “You wanted ter ride on an' on furever!”

“But I will—I don't—I didn't mean it,” sobbed Diantha incoherently. “I'd rather have Dolly twice over. I like ter crawl. Oh, Phineas, I hate that thing—I've always hated it! I'll say yes next week—to- morrow—to-day if you'll only open your eyes and tell me you ain't a-dyin'!”

Phineas was not dying, and he proved it promptly and effectually, even to the doubting Diantha's blushing content. And there their rescuers found them a long half-hour later—a blissful old man and a happy old woman sitting hand in hand by the wrecked automobile.

“I cal'lated somebody'd be along purty soon,” said Phineas, rising stiffly. “Ye see, we've each got a foot that don't go, so we couldn't git help; but we hain't minded the wait—not a mite!”

 
 
 

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