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Professor Todd's Used Car by L. H. Robbins

 

He was a meek little man with sagging frame, dim lamps and feeble ignition. Anxiously he pressed the salesman to tell him which of us used cars in the wareroom was the slowest and safest.

The salesman laid his hand upon me and declared soberly: “You can't possibly go wrong on this one, Mr. Todd.” To a red-haired boy he called, “Willie, drive Mr. Todd out for a lesson.”

We ran to the park and stopped beside a lawn. “Take the wheel,” said Willie.

Mr. Todd demurred. “Let me watch you awhile,” he pleaded. “You see, I'm new at this sort of thing. In mechanical matters I am helpless. I might run somebody down or crash into a tree. I—I don't feel quite up to it to-day, so just let me ride around with you and get used to the—the motion, as it were.”

“All you need is nerve,” Willie replied. “The quickest way for you to get nerve is to grab hold here and, as it were, drive.”

“Driving, they say, does give a man self-confidence,” our passenger observed tremulously. “Quite recently I saw an illustration of it. I saw an automobilist slap his wife's face while traveling thirty miles an hour.”

“They will get careless,” said Willie.

Mr. Todd clasped the wheel with quivering hands and braced himself for the ordeal.

“Set her in low till her speed's up,” Willie directed. “Then wiggle her into high.”

It was too mechanical for Mr. Todd. Willie translated with scornful particularity. Under our pupil's diffident manipulation we began to romp through the park at the rate of one mile an hour.

Willie fretted. “Shoot her some gas,” said he. “Give it to her. Don't be a-scared.” He pulled down the throttle-lever himself.

My sudden roaring was mingled with frightened outcries from Todd. “Stop! Wait a minute! Whoa! Help!”

Fortunately for my radiator, the lamp-post into which he steered me was poorly rooted. He looked at the wreckage of the glass globe on the grass, and declared he had taken as much of the theory of motoring as he could absorb in one session.

“This is the only lesson I can give you free,” said Willie. “You'd better keep on while the learning's cheap.”

To free education and to compulsory education Mr. Todd pronounced himself opposed. Cramming was harmful to the student; the elective method was the only humane one. He put off the evil hour by engaging Willie as a private tutor for the remaining afternoons of the month.

I have met many rabbits but only one Todd. He would visit me in the barn and look at me in awe by the half-hour. Yet I liked him; I felt drawn toward him in sympathy, for he and I were fellow victims of the hauteur of Mrs. Todd.

In my travels I have never encountered a glacier. When I do run across one I shall be reminded, I am certain, of Mr. Todd's lady.

“So you are still alive?” were her cordial words as we rolled into the yard on the first afternoon.

“Yes, my dear.” His tone was almost apologetic.

“Did he drive it?” she asked Willie.

“I'll say so, ma'am.”

She looked me over coldly. When she finished, I had shrunk to the dimensions of a wheelbarrow. When Todd sized me up in the warehouse only an hour before, I had felt as imposing as a furniture van.

“Put it in the barn,” said Mrs. Todd, “before a bird carries it off.”

I began to suspect that a certain little stranger was not unanimously welcome in that household. For a moment I was reassured, but only for a moment.

“John Quincy Burton says,” she observed, “that a little old used car like this is sometimes a very good thing to own.”

“That is encouraging,” said Todd, brightening. In his relief he explained to Willie that John Quincy Burton drove the largest car in the neighbourhood and was therefore to be regarded as an authority.

“Yes,” Mrs. Todd concluded, “he says he thinks of buying one himself to carry in his tool-box.”

Willie was an excellent teacher, though a severe disciplinarian.

But by way of amends for the rigours of the training, Willie would take Mr. Todd after the practice hour for a spin around the park. At those times I came to learn that the collision I had had with a trolley-car before Todd bought me had not left me with any constitutional defect. I still had power under my hood, and speed in my wheels. But what good were power and speed to me now? I doubted that Todd would ever push me beyond a crawl.

Yet I had hope, for when his relaxation from the tension of a lesson had loosened his tongue he would chatter to Willie about self-confidence.

“Some day you say, I shall be able to drive without thinking?”

“Sure! You won't have to use your bean any more'n when you walk.”

At nights, when no one knew, Mr. Todd would steal into the barn and, after performing the motions of winding me up, would sit at the wheel and make believe to drive.

“I advance the spark,” he would mutter, “I release the brake, I set the gear, and ever so gently I let in the clutch. Ha! We move, we are off! As we gather speed I pull the gear-lever back, then over, then forward. Now, was that right? At any rate we are going north, let us say, in Witherspoon Street. I observe a limousine approaching from the east in a course perpendicular to mine. It has the right of way, Willie says, so I slip the clutch out, at the same time checking the flow of gasoline....”

Thus in imagination he would drive; get out, crank, get in again, and roll away in fancy, earnestly practising by the hour in the dark and silent barn.

“I'm getting it,” he would declare. “I really believe I'm getting it!”

And he got it. In his driving examination he stalled only once, stopping dead across a trolley track in deference to a push-cart. But he was out and in and off again in ten seconds, upbraiding me like an old-timer.

Said the inspector, stepping out at last and surely offering a prayer of thanks to his patron saint: “You're pretty reckless yet on corners, my friend.” But he scribbled his O.K.

The written examination in the City Hall Mr. Todd passed with high honours. Willie, who was with us on the fateful morning, exclaimed in admiration: “One hundred! Well, Mr. Todd, you're alive, after all—from the neck up, at least.”

In gratitude for the compliment, the glowing graduate pressed a bonus of two dollars into the panegyrist's palm. “Willie,” he exulted, “did you hear the inspector call me reckless?”

I can scarcely think of the Todd of the succeeding weeks as the same Todd who bought me. He changed even in looks. He would always be a second, of course, but his frame had rigidity now, his lamps sparkled, he gripped the wheel with purposeful hands and trampled the pedals in the way an engine likes. In his new assurance he reminded me strongly of a man who drove me for a too brief while in my younger days—a rare fellow, now doing time, I believe, in the penitentiary.

No longer Todd and I needed the traffic cop's “Get on out of there, you corn-sheller!” to push us past the busy intersection of Broad and Main streets. We conquered our tendency to scamper panic-stricken for the sidewalk at the raucous bark of a jitney bus. In the winding roads of the park we learned to turn corners on two wheels and rest the other pair for the reverse curve.

One remembered day we went for a run in the country. On a ten-mile piece of new macadam he gave me all the gas I craved. It was the final test, the consummation, and little old Mr. Todd was all there. I felt so good I could have blown my radiator cap off to him.

For he was a master I could trust—and all my brother used cars, whether manufactured or merely born, will understand what comfort that knowledge gives a fellow. I vowed I would do anything for that man! On that very trip, indeed, I carried him the last homeward mile on nothing in my tank but a faint odour.

II

Mrs. Todd was one of those gentle souls who get their happiness in being unhappy in the presence of their so-called loved ones. She was perpetually displeased with Todd.

His Christian name was James, but she did not speak Christian to him. When she hailed him from the house she called him “Jay-eems”—the “eems” an octave higher than the “Jay.”

He would drop the grease-can or the monkey-wrench to rush to her side.

“Look at your sleeves!” she would say. “Your best shirt!” Words failing her, she would sigh and go into a silence that was worse than words. He was a great burden to her.

Humbly he entreated her one day for an obsolete tooth-brush. “I want to clean spark-plugs with it,” he explained.

“Next,” she replied, icily, “you'll be taking your little pet to the dentist, I suppose.”

From such encounters Jay-eems would creep back to the barn and seek consolation in tinkering around me.

He liked to take the lid off my transmission-box and gaze at my wondrous works. He was always tightening my axle-burrs, or dosing me with kerosene through my hot-air pipe, or toying with my timer. While he was never so smart as Willie about such things, he was intelligent and quick to learn; and this was not surprising to me after I discovered the nature of his occupation in life.

I had taken him to be a retired silk-worm fancier, a chronic juryman, or something of the sort. But shiver my windshield if he wasn't a professor in a college!

On the morning when first he dared to drive me to his work, the college must have got wind of our coming, for the students turned out in a body to cheer him as he steered in at the campus gate, and the faculty gathered on the steps to shake his hand.

A bald-headed preceptor asked him if he meant to cyanide me and mount me on a pin for preservation in the college museum. The chancellor inquired if Todd had identified me. Todd said he had. He said I was a perfect specimen of Automobilum cursus gandium, the most beautiful species of the Golikellece family. It was the nearest he ever came to profanity in my hearing. I suppose he got it from associating with Willie.

They demanded a speech, and he made one—about me. He said that my name was Hilaritas, signifying joy. He said, among other flattering things, that I was no common mundane contraption, though such I might seem to the untutored eye. In their studies of the Greek drama they had read of gods from the machine. I was a machine from the gods. In my cylinders I consumed nectar vapour, in my goo-cups ambrosia, in my radiator flowed the crystal waters of the Fount of Bandusia.

Three other items of his eulogium I remember: The breath of Pan inflated my tires, I could climb Olympus in high, and he, James Todd, a mere professor in a college, while sitting at my wheel, would not bare his head to Zeus himself, no, nor even to the chairman of the college board of trustees.

His nonsense appeared to be as popular in that part of town as it was unpopular in another. They gave the varsity yell with his name at the end.

The day came when Mrs. Todd risked her life in our sportive company. She made it clear to us that she went protesting. She began her pleasantries by complaining that my doors were trivial. Straightening her hat, she remarked that the John Quincy Burtons' car top never took a woman's scalp off.

“But theirs is only a one-man top,” Todd hinted vaguely.

“Whatever you mean by that is too deep for me,” she said, adding bitterly, “Yours is a one-boy top, I presume.”

He waived the point and asked where she preferred to make her debut as an automobilist.

“Back roads, by all means,” she answered.

As we gained the street a pea-green Mammoth purred past, the passengers putting out their heads to look at us.

“Goodness!” she sighed. “There go the John Quincy Burtons now.”

“We can soon join them,” said Todd confidently.

She expostulated. “Do you think I have no pride?” Yet we went in pursuit of the John Quincy Burton dust-cloud as it moved toward the park.

“Since you have no regard for my feelings,” said she, “you may let me out.”

“Oh, no, Amanda, my dear. Why, I'm going to give you a spin to Mountaindale!”

“I do not care to be dragged there,” she declared. “That is where the John Quincy Burtons ride.”

“Aren't they nice people? It seems to me I've heard you sing hosannas to their name these last twenty years.”

They were nice people indeed. That was just it, she said. Did he suspect her of yearning to throw herself in the way of nice people on the day of her abasement? If he chose to ignore her sentiments in the matter, he might at least consider his own interests. Had he forgotten that John Quincy Burton was chairman of the board of trustees of the college? Would the head of the department of classical languages acquire merit in Mr. Burton's eyes through dashing about under Mr. Burton's nose in a pitiable little last-century used car that squeaked?

Todd gripped the wheel tighter and gave me gas.

“You missed that storm sewer by an inch!” she exclaimed.

“My aim is somewhat wild yet,” he admitted. “Perhaps I'll get the next one.”

“Jay-eems!”

“My dear, we have a horn, remember.”

“You did not see that baby carriage until we were right upon it! Don't tell me you did, sir, for I know better.”

“I saw it,” said Todd, “and I was sure it wouldn't run over us. As you see, it didn't. Trust a baby carriage my love.”

His humour, she informed him, was on a par with his driving. Also it was in poor taste at such a moment.

In time of danger, he replied, the brave man jests.

We were now in the park. We clipped a spray of leaves off a syringia bush. On a curve we slid in loose gravel to the wrong side.

“James Todd!”

“Yes, my dear?”

“Let me out! I decline to be butchered to make a holiday for a motormaniac.”

“Don't talk to the motormaniac,” said Todd.

She clutched a top support and gasped for breath, appalled at his audacity, or my speed, or both. In the straight reaches I could see the Burton Mammoth a quarter of a mile ahead. When it swung into the broad avenue that leads to the mountain, we were holding our own.

“You are following them—deliberately,” said Mrs. Todd.

“Yet not so deliberately, at that. Do you feel us pick up my dear, when I give her gas? Aha!” he laughed. “I agree with you, however, that the order of precedence is unsatisfactory. Why should we follow the Burtons, indeed?”

We went after them; we gave them the horn and overtook and passed them on a stiff grade, amid cheers from both cars. But all of our cheering was done by Todd.

“Now they are following us,” said he. “Do you feel better, my dear?”

“Better!” she lamented. “How can I ever look them in the face again?”

“Turn around,” he suggested, “and direct your gaze through the little window in the back curtain.”

She bade him stop at the next corner. She would walk home. She was humiliated. Never had she felt so ashamed.

“Isn't that an odd way to feel when we have beaten the shoes off them?”

“But they will think we tried to.”

“So we did,” he chuckled; “and we walked right past them, in high, while Burton was fussing with his gear shift. Give our little engine a fair go at a hill, my dear——”

“I am not in the least interested in engines, sir. I am only mortified beyond words.”

She had words a-plenty, however.

“Isn't it bad enough for you to drive your little rattletrap to college and get into the paper about it? No; you have to show it off in a fashionable avenue, and run races with the best people in Ashland, and scream at them like a freshman, and make an exhibition of me!”

His attention was absorbed in hopping out from under a truck coming in from a side street. A foolish driver would have slowed and crashed. I was proud of Todd. But his lady was not.

“You have no right to go like this. You don't know enough. You will break something.”

He had already broken the speed law. Unknown to him, a motor-cycle cop was tagging close behind us on our blind side.

“If you think this is going, my dear,” said Todd reassuringly, “wait till we strike the turnpike. Then I'll show you what little Hilaritas can really do.”

“Stop at the car barns,” she commanded.

We crossed the car-barn tracks at a gallop. The cop rode abreast of us now. “Cut it out, Bill,” he warned.

“You see?” she crowed. “You will wind up in jail and give the papers another scandal. Why didn't you stop at the car barns?”

“Because we are going to Mountaindale,” he explained cheerily; “where the nice people drive. Perhaps we shall see the John Quincy Burtons again—as we come back.”

“If we ever do come back!”

“Or how would you like to have supper with them up there?”

She had gone into one of her silences.

Ill

We settled down for the long pull over First Mountain. Todd slowed my spark and gave me my head. Then he addressed the partner of his joy-ride in a new voice: “Amanda, my dear, you and I need to have a frank little understanding.”

She agreed.

“For some years past,” he began, “I have borne without complaint, even without resentment, a certain attitude that you have seen fit to adopt toward me. I have borne it patiently because I felt that to an extent I deserved it.”

My floor boards creaked as she gathered her forces for the counter attack. He went on recklessly:

“In the beginning of our life together, Amanda, you were ambitious. You longed for wealth and position and that sort of thing, in which respect you were like the rest of men and women. Like most people, my dear, you have been disappointed; but unlike most of them you persist in quarrelling with the awards of fortune, just as to-day you are quarrelling with this plebeian car of ours. As you speak of Hilaritas, so you speak of me. At breakfast this morning, for example, you reminded me, for perhaps the tenth time since Sunday, that you are chained to a failure. Those were your words, my dear—chained to a failure.”

“Do you call yourself a dazzling success?” she asked.

“Not dazzling, perhaps,” he replied, “and yet—yes—yes, I believe I do.”

“What I told you at breakfast was that Freddy Burton makes one hundred dollars a week, and he is only twenty-four—not half as old as you.”

“Freddy Burton is engaged in the important occupation of selling pickles,” Todd answered, “and I am only an educator of youth. Long ago I reached my maximum—three thousand dollars. From one point of view I don't blame you for looking upon me as a futility. I presume I am. Nor will I chide you for not taking the luck of life in a sportsmanlike spirit. But I do insist——”

“At last!” she broke in. “At last I understand some pencil notes that I found yesterday when I cleaned out your desk. A minute ago I thought you were out of your head. Now I see that this—this frightfulness of yours is premeditated. Premeditated, James Todd! You prepared this speech in advance!”

Between you and me, she was right. I had heard him practise it in the barn.

He took her arraignment calmly, “Hereafter,” said he, “please refrain from cleaning out my desk.”

I heard her catch her breath. “You have never talked to me like this before; never!” she said. “You have never dared. And that is precisely the trouble with you, James Todd. You won't talk back; you won't speak up for your rights. It is the cross of my life.”

From the sound, I think she wept.

“You are the same in the outside world as you are at home. You let the college trustees pay you what they please. You slave and slave and wear yourself out for three thousand a year when we might have twenty if you went into something else. And when your building-loan stock matures and you do get a little money, you spend it for this—this underbred little sewing-machine, and lure me out in it, and lecture me, as if I—as if I were to blame. I don't know what has come over you.”

I knew what had come over him. I knew the secret of the new spirit animating the frail personality of Professor Todd. And Willie knew. I recalled that boy's prophetic words: “The quickest way to get nerve is to grab hold here and drive.” I worried, nevertheless. I wondered if my little man could finish what he had started.

He could. As we rolled down the mountain into the ten-mile turnpike where he and I had rediscovered our youth, he concluded his discourse without missing an explosion. I knew his peroration by heart.

“To end this painful matter, my dear, I shall ask you in future to accord me at least the civility, if not the respect, to which a hard-working man and a faithful husband is entitled. I speak in all kindliness when I say that I have decided to endure no more hazing. I hope you understand that I have made this decision for your sake as well as for mine, for the psychological effect of hazing is quite as harmful to the hazer as to the hazed. Please govern yourself accordingly.”

He opened the throttle wide, and we touched thirty-five miles. I felt a wild wabble in my steering-gear. I heard Todd's sharp command—“Kindly keep your hands off the wheel while I am driving.”

At the Mountain Dale Club Todd descended.

“Will you come in and have a lemonade, my dear?” he asked. There was a heartbroken little squeak in his voice.

“Thank you,” she replied frigidly. “I have had all the acid I can assimilate in one pleasant day.”

“May I remind you,” said he, stiffening with the gentle insistence of a steel spring, “that I am not to be addressed in sarcastic tones any longer?”

The Mammoth slid up beside us. The stout John Quincy Burton at the wheel shouted jovially: “I tell you what, Todd, when our soberest university professors get the speed bug, I tremble for civilization!”

My owner grinned with pleasure.

“Mrs. Todd,” said Burton, “after that trimming from your road-burning husband, I'll stand treat. Won't you join us?”

“Yes, Mrs. Todd, do be persuaded,” Mrs. Burton chimed in. “After twenty miles with your Barney Oldfield you need nourishment, I'm sure. You and I can talk about his recklessness while he and Mr. Burton have their little conference.”

If Todd had an appointment for a conference there at that hour with Burton, I am positive it was news to Mrs. Todd and me. I could feel her weight growing heavier on my cushion springs.

“Thank you for the invitation,” she replied, “but I am so badly shaken up, I prefer to sit out here.”

To which her husband added, laughingly: “She wouldn't risk having her new car stolen for anything.”

It was twilight before we started for home, the Burtons pulling out ahead of us. At the beginning of the climb over the mountain I saw the Mammoth stop. We drew alongside.

“Out of gas, confound it,” growled Burton, “and five miles from a service station!”

“I'd lend you some, only I haven't much myself,” said Todd. “Got a rope?”

“Yes, but——”

“Oh, we can. We can pull you and never know it. Hitch on behind. We like to travel in stylish company, Mrs. Todd and I.”

So we towed them over the mountain and left them at a red pump. John Quincy Burton's gratitude was immense.

“The pleasure is all ours,” Todd assured him. “But, say, old man!”

“Well?”

“You ought to buy a little old used car like this some time to carry in your tool-box.”

They were still laughing when we drove away.

Not a word did Mrs. Todd utter on the homeward journey; but in the privacy of our humble barn—

“Oh!” she cried. “I could die! Why did you have to say that to Mr. Burton?”

“Amanda!”

She subsided, but she had not surrendered.

“You didn't tell me you had an engagement with him. What——”

Todd laughed. “I was chosen this week, my dear, as a grievance committee of one, representing the teaching staff at the college, to put a few cold facts into John Quincy Burton's ear.”

“You?”

“Precisely, my dear. I was the only man in the faculty who seemed to have the—the self-confidence necessary. And I made Burton see the point. I have his promise that the college trustees will campaign the state this summer for a half-million-dollar emergency fund, a good slice of which will go toward salary increases.”

“Well! I must say——”

She did not say it. Silently she left us.

He lingered a while in the barn. He opened my hood, for I was quite warm from the towing job. He examined a new cut in one of my tires and loosened my hand-brake a notch. He couldn't seem to find enough to do for me.

From the house came a hail. I am not sure that he did not hold his breath as he listened.

“James, dear!” again.

“Hello!” he answered.

“James, dear, won't you bring your automobile pliers, please, and see if you can open this jar of marmalade?”

My little man went in whistling.