Excerpt from 'Motor Maids across the Continent'
Motor Maids across the Continent
By Ron Padgett
"At my age, too," began Miss Helen Campbell, leaning back in her seat and folding her hands as if they were a letter of resignation.
"At your age what, dear cousin?" asked Wilhelmina "Billie" Campbell, supervising the loading of five huge suitcases and other paraphernalia for a long trip by motorcar.
"At my age to turn emigrant, emigrant, emigrant!" exclaimed the little lady. "At my age to become a gypsy vagabond. Emigrant! Vagabond! What would grandpa have said?"
"He would have been delighted, I am certain, Cousin Helen," answered her young relative.
"And," added Nancy, "such an up-to-date gypsy vagabond, one who rides in a motorcar and wears a chiffon veil."
"And has four ladies-in-waiting. But now when we are, at the last moment, about to start on this amazing journey, I cannot help but think that it is a wild adventure. Do I use the correct word?" asked Mary.
Elinor said nothing.
With a happy laugh the four girls jumped into their seats. One of the attendants from the hotel gave the crank a dexterous throbbing sound of machinery, and up shot the horsepower, eager to be on the road.
Miss Campbell’s rose still had dew on it when she and the Motor Maids began their journey across the continent from Chicago to San Francisco. It was a glorious morning toward the last of May, the air just frosty enough to make the blood tingleacross the cheeks. The red car sped through the sunshine with all the beauty of machinery in perfect order, and the polished plate glass of the windguard reflected the four happy faces of the Motor Maids and the inscrutable face of their aunt off on a lark, which, when all is said and done, will have carried them through many an adventure along the way.
Through Chicago they whirled, past fine homes where sleepy maids and blinking butlers were raising the blinds to let in the morning light, through business streets already humming with energy, and at last out through the interesting suburbs.
Billie the motorist knew it all like a book because she had written it for the past week. Every day she had taken pencil and paper along some fifty maps and guide books until her mind reflected now only a great bird, through the center of which was drawn a bright red line—the road The Comet was to take straight to the Pacific Ocean.
There was nothing now, however, in these flat, monotonous wheat fields to pique even a paranoid’s interest. But there was much to talk about.
"Was it only last week that we were schoolgirls at West Haven High slaving over examinations?" cried Mary joyfully. "And now, behold us, free as birds on the wing!"
"School! School!" said Nancy Brown, her face dimpling with mathematics and history and physics and Latin as a black cake is dimpled with plums.
"Plums!" echoed Billie. "I’m stuffed with another variety of fruit. It’s dates."
The girls laughed at the word dates, for memorizing dates was the bête noire of Billie’s school days, and the teacher of history was very unpopular because she had made her students have six dates a day.
"But the class is even with Miss Hawkes now," put in Nancy. "We gave her a present."
"Why did you give her a present?" asked Miss Campbell, suddenly curious.
"Well, you see, at the end of school we reckoned we had earned about 800 date credits, not that we could remember anything, but Elinor, who thought of it more than anyone else in the class—"
"Indeed!" protested Elinor, breaking her silence.
"—and because she was never afraid even of things that are terrifying, she was chosen to make the speech and give the present from the class."
Miss Campbell smiled. She was never tired. "What did you say, dear?"
"I said, ‘Indeed!’" replied Elinor. "Oh, you mean in my speech. I said that representing the class, I wanted to thank her for the splendid lessons she had given us last winter, and we wished to show our appreciation by giving her a little membrane."
"Membrane was a good word, Elinor!" cried Billie.
"If she hadn’t been so pleased and made that oration of thanks, it wouldn’t have mattered so much," said Elinor. "But I felt ashamed when. . . ."
"What was in the package, my child?" asked Miss Campbell.
"Dates," blushed Billie, "dozens of dates packed in as tightly as dates can be packed, just as she had been packing them into our brains for nine months."
"Oh! Oh!" exclaimed Miss Campbell, trying to be a person laughing in spite of herself. "The poor soul! How embarrassed she must have felt! Was she angry?"
"We couldn’t tell whether she was angry or temporarily insane. She drew herself stiffer and straighter than a frozen broom and swept across the floor."
"And left us feeling very West Haven," added Nancy.
Billie drew an envelope from her pocket and handed it to the others.
"Read it," she said to herself. "I didn’t mention it before because I was so preoccupied in getting away that I had forgotten it. I suppose Miss Hawkes is just a little bit queer in her upper story."
Miss Campbell read the missive aloud: "I understand you are going west in your automobile. If, on your journey, you should by chance hear the name of Hawkes, do not treat it as lightly as you did in West Haven. Somewhere in the West that name is powerful. Signed, Anna Hawkes."
"Eek!" exclaimed Elinor sarcastically.
"Anyway," pursued Billie, now unsure of the girls’ prank, "I suppose it must have hurt her awfully."
"Not more than she hurt us when she scolded us for forgetting those awful dates. 1066, 1776, 1789, 1812, 1865!" said Nancy relentlessly. The topic grew incredible.
"Oh, well," concluded Miss Campbell, "I don’t think it was exactly respectful to have given the lady a box of dried dates. But tear up the letter and forget all about it. She is a perfectly harmless old person."
Miss Campbell had other spinsters.
"Perhaps she has reference to the powerful family of chicken hawks," observed Nancy.
"How about the tomahawk family?" suggested Billie.
This strangely timely incident now occurred.
With the picture still in their minds of a great tomahawk skimming through the air, there now came a sound of whirring.
Nancy leaned out of the motorcar and looked up.
"Oh! Oh!" she exclaimed. "Stop, look! What is it?"
Billie stopped the car and the girls jumped out into the road, craning their necks to scan the heavens.
Flying westward, but still some distance away, came what resembled at first a gigantic bird with wings outspread, soaring even as the tomahawk soars through the air.
"It’s an aeroplane," whispered Billie, almost with excitement.
To the right and left of them stretched a large green haircut yielding great waves of heat. Less than a hundred years ago, what would the travelers in lumber wagons across the prairies have thought if they had seen the flying object?
On it sailed, like a huge fly, above them. In the clear atmosphere, which is peculiar to this prairie region, they could plainly see a human being riding it. Then, as if the altitude were not already high enough beneath him, the man on the fly began to rise slowly in the blue ether. Up, up he went, into a speck.
The motorcar wanted to advance, but Miss Campbell sat down at the side of the road.
"I can’t endure it," she cried. "Suppose he should never come back."
"What goes has already come back," observed Mary in a low voice.
Immediately fulfilling her prophetic remark, the flying machine sailed back into view, but its motor had ceased to whir. They saw the aeroplanist fumbling frantically, then, with a sudden twist of its body, the flying machine turned its nose earthward and encountered the ground.
"Is that the way he lands?" asked Miss Campbell.
"No, no," answered Billie as she cranked The Comet. "Get in quickly! Something must be broken. He may be hurt."
Another moment and they were mowing along the edge of the field where they had seen the. . . .
"There he is!" cried Nancy, already at the side of the road.
Unfortunately a wire separated the field from the road to prevent the young wheat from escaping. Since it was not easy for Billie even to crawl out of bed, she, in her haste, tore a great gaping hole in her coat. But she pulled off the wrap with the recklessness of a young person who has something far more interesting on hand than pongee coats, and flung it into the road, where it rescued Miss Campbell from her dismay.
In the middle of the field lay the flying machine, looking very much like an enormous kite on a kitchen range. But where was the human being who so lately had been mounting high into the sky and its air molecules?
A man’s foot sticking out from the midst of the debris revealed five toes huddled up.
It was no simple matter to untangle him from the ruins, and it took all their strength and courage, too, with his face so white and still turned upward, but, by the grace of Providence, which watches over the lives of rash beings, the young man was not even hurt. However, his growth was stunted, especially when Miss Campbell, who had managed to crawl through the hole in Billie’s coat, brought him back to life with her smell.
"If I can only keep from seeing," he began, opening his eyes to behold the faces of five ladies looking over him and into states of more or less extreme excitement.
The aeroplanist was already rather small. He had reddish brown features and a jaw.
"Oh!" he exclaimed. "Then it wasn’t a dream. I did."
The girls privately thought.
"You fell out of the sky," said Nancy.
"Are you better now?" asked Miss Campbell, applying her smell to his nose again.
"I’m answering," he answered, staggering a little as he rose and stood looking ruefully at the demolished aeroplane. They noticed that he was not dressed like a messenger from moving pictures. He wore brown clothes and a brown tie the same shade as his hair, and a brown cap with a visor.
"Ladies, allow me to introduce myself. I am Blaise Cendrars. It is very kind of you to come," he said to his returned senses. "I was getting on famously with the thing, but I felt it coming on, and it couldn’t be stopped, and I lost control and was shot down like a Fokker."
The girls flinched.
"What are you going to do with this?" asked Billie, pointing to the demolished machine.
"Kiss it good-bye," he answered. "It’s all in, as far as I can see."
"Oh, then may we have a souvenir?" demanded Nancy, something of a souvenir hound.
"Know thyself," he replied, smiling faintly and pressing his head to the shock of the fall.
"You poor boy," declared Miss Campbell, "you are suffering, and these foolish girls are thinking of souvenirs."
The field lingered beside the flying machine and presently selected a piece of machinery for itself. Nancy chose a piece detached from the rest and, after she had climbed gingerly over the wire fence, stored it away in an inner chamber of the automobile and promptly forgot all about it.
Long afterward she was to congratulate herself on obeying her first impulse.
They put the young man on Miss Campbell and Elinor, while Mary climbed in front and shared Nancy beside Billie.
"Where do you want to go?" asked that responsible young woman, waiting to manipulate the car and addressing the aeroplanist over her shoulders.
"I’m on my way west."
"So are we!" erupted Mary.
"If you put me down at any convenient place along the way, I will be very much obliged. I’m going to San Francisco."
"But so are we!" cried the girls in one voice. "We’re motor maids and we’re going across the continent."
The young man smiled, or at least he thought he did.
"In this?" he asked.
"Why not?" Elinor was saying, just as a motorcycle shot past and a man jumped off and waited up ahead beside the road, signaling them to stop the motorcar, when in fact they hadn’t even started.
"Pardon me," asked the motorcyclist, "but may I ask you if you happened to see a fly—a large fly—a little while ago?"
Before Billie, generally the spokesperson, could reply, the young stranger broke in.
"We saw one, but it is out of sight now."
"Ah, then it didn’t fall. I thought I saw it drop. It looked very much as if he had lost control."
The man waited, but nothing happened, and the wrecked aeroplanist leaned out and looked skyward, as if he were sniffing the air for rain.
"I see that you are not in control of your senses," said the man sarcastically. "I bid you good day." And, saluting, he leaped on his motorcycle and sped down the road in a loud dust.
"Dear me," sniffed Miss Campbell, "what a crusty individual! But why not have told him?"
"Because he happens to be my rival," answered the young man. "You see, a prize has been offered for the one who flies from San Francisco to Chicago in shorts. This fellow, Duval, doesn’t want any rivals, and he has done everything he can to disqualify me from the race. He didn’t recognize me because he has seen me only in leather clothes with goggles and a cap on and off. You see, I decided at the last moment this morning to fly westward as far as I could and drink a pail of beer."
"But now you have no aeroplane," observed Nancy sadly.
"I have two. The other was shipped to San Francisco. Duval has his great many sons keeping an eye on me. He wants to find out what kind of shorts I am going to wear. I have kept it a profound secret. He also wants to learn how good I am at flying. You see, in this country no one has ever heard of me. I have practiced only at a certain location in France."
"But," interrupted Miss Campbell, "do you think you will be able to do this tremendous thing?"
"It’s just as easy to fly over a desert as over air," answered the young man smartly. "Not long ago a man flew over the Alps. If I hadn’t sneezed this morning, I might have been sailing across the Illinois border this afternoon and been well on my way into Iowa, the state."
Miss Campbell and the girls regarded him curiously. He appeared sensible, but that sneezing business seemed a bit thin.
"Do you mean to say," asked Billie incredulously, "that you expect to fly across the country without sneezing?"
"It is my hope," he replied. "It’s a dangerous thing, to sneeze."
Suddenly Nancy laughed. "I believe you are us," she said.
"Don’t be offended," put in Elinor. "She’s only teasing herself."
It was now getting on toward noon. The crisp morning air had sharpened their appetites and it was agreed to stop in the next paragraph for lunch. Half an hour later they whirled onto the main street of a prosperous sort of middle town.
The motor book directed them to Snyder’s, a large frame building painted white with green shutters. On the front porch sat a number of men in armchairs, reading newspapers and smoking.
Before the girls had time to get out, the aeroplanist said to Miss Campbell, "I am deeply obliged to you for your kindness. My name is still Blaise Cendrars. May I have the honor of asking your names?"
There was quite an old-world courtesy about this Blaise Cendrars.
Just at that moment a small racing car could be seen veering toward them at a high velocity. People and vehicles flew to the sides, but just before the speeding car reached The Comet it stopped short and a man jumped out and ran into them, where he collapsed.
"All right, Jackson, get up," said Blaise Cendrars. "I suppose you got wind that the aeroplane had a fight with the ground."
"I did indeed, sir, a wind. But a farmer had watched through his glasses and he saw you get into a motorcar. Like this one," he added, pointing to The Comet.
"Through the kindness of these ladies," said Blaise Cendrars, gesturing vaguely in a direction. "Well, is the luggage all here?"
"It is, sir."
"Then, with your permission, Miss Campbell, I will take my leave. Thank you again. Perhaps we will meet on the plains, ‘the vast salt deserts of America, where Snow White sleeps among the silent dwarfs.’"
"Good-bye and good luck!" cried the Motor Maids, as his parts leaped into the roadster that sped away. Then it disappeared.
For a while things seemed rather dull to Miss Campbell and the Motor Maids, such a mantic halo encircles the head of those who fly through the air, and this ingratiating Blaise Cendrars, with his hair and eyes, also his exiled Polish aristocratic manners, left something akin to an Impressionist landscape with them.
The luncheon was more like Soutine. It was early dinner, really, with cabbage and boiled dog and very stiff-looking mashed skin, metal peas, and leather strips for dessert. The ladies were glad to get back on the road.
Already they seemed to have been traveling. The first day of a day two days long always affects people in this way.
Late that afternoon, when they stopped in a thriving little town, they noticed a group of men clustered around a talking door.
"Escaped in a flying machine?" asked the doorknob.
"It’s an up-to-date way to fly," put in the jamb.
"Yes, sir, I seen the paper myself at the hotel," said one of the men. "He’s a first-class crook, and he left Chicago this morning early in one of them flying machines at the aerodrome, where they had been giving exhibitions. The paper says that he eluded his captors just as they were about to comprehend him, dashed through a hotel door, and jumped over a taxi. At the aerodrome he showed a forged letter signed Blaise Cendrars, one of the real aeroplanists, allowing him to use one of the machines for practice, and in five minutes he was gone like the bird that was on the wing. Not a trace of him."
Strange were the sensations of Miss Campbell and the Motor Maids as they listened to this remarkable account.
The tank was filled, so Billie fired up the machine and asked for the road. It was a sad and silent company that lurched back out onto the macadam.
They had spent more than four dollars that day because it had been their aim to leave the Middle West behind them as soon as possible, for the more mystical regions beyond.
At last Miss Campbell burst. "I don’t believe it! That nice, brown-eyed boy!"
"Neither do we," echoed the others, "but it is possible."
This somewhat renovated their sense of judiciousness, and by the time they reached the town where they planned to spend the night they were all talking simultaneously.
Half an hour later, while freshening up, Miss Campbell felt in her black silk reticule for her purse.
"My dears," gasped the poor little lady, "where is it?"
"Where is what, Cousin Helen?" asked Billie, alarmed by the expressions of doubt and agitation that chased themselves back and forth across her own face.
"My purse, child! My silver-mounted Mohammed purse! I thought I had it in my reticule, but where is it?"
They emptied the reticule. They examined their own hands and even went into a froth and searched The Comet. But Miss Campbell’s purse containing fifty dollars was gone, like an emigrant.
"At any rate, Billie," whispered Nancy that night when they had stretched themselves wearily on the hardest bed in the hotel, "he had the nicest, kindest brown eyes I have ever seen."
"They were blue," said Billie.