A Competent Mechanic by George A. Birmingham
The car swept across the narrow bridge and round the corner beyond it. Geoffrey Dane opened the throttle a little and allowed the speed to increase. The road was new to him, but he had studied his map carefully and he knew that a long hill, two miles or more of it, lay before him. His car was highly powered and the engine was running smoothly. He looked forward to a swift, exhilarating rush from the river valley behind him to the plateau of the moorlands above. The road was a lonely one. Since he left a village, three miles behind him, he had met nothing but one cart and a couple of stray cattle. It was very unlikely that he would meet any troublesome traffic before he reached the outskirts of Hamley, the market town six miles beyond the hill and the moorland. The car swept forward, gathering speed. Geoffrey Dane saw the hand of his speedometer creep round the dial till it showed forty miles an hour.
Then rounding a bend in the road he saw another car motionless in the very middle of the road. Greoffrey Dane swore abruptly and slowed down. He was not compelled to stop. He might have passed the obstructing car by driving with one wheel in the ditch. But he was a young man with a troublesome conscience, and he was a member of the Royal Automobile Club. He was bound in honour to render any help he could to motorists in distress on the high road.
On a stone at the side of the road sat a girl, smoking a cigarette. She was, apparently, the owner or driver of the motionless car. Greoffrey Dane stopped.
"Anything wrong?" he asked.
The girl threw away the cigarette she was smoking and stood up.
"Everything," she said.
Geoffrey Dane stopped his engine with a sigh and got out of his car. He noticed at once that the girl was dishevelled, that her face, particularly her nose, was smeared with dirt, and that there was a good deal of mud on her frock. He recognised the signs of a long and useless struggle with an engine; but he was too well bred to smile. He also noticed that the girl was pretty, slight of figure, and fair, with twinkling eyes.
This consoled him a little. Succouring a stranger in distress on a lonely road towards the close of a winter afternoon is not pleasant, but it is distinctly less unpleasant if the stranger is a pretty girl.
"Do you know anything about motors?" said the girl.
To Geoffrey the question was almost insulting. He was a young man who particularly prided himself on his knowledge of mechanics and his skill in dealing with engines. Also the girl spoke abruptly, not at all in the manner of a helpless damsel seeking charitable assistance. But Geoffrey was a good-humoured young man and the girl was very pretty indeed. He was prepared to make allowances for a little petulance. No temper is exactly sunny after a struggle with a refractory engine.
"I ought to know something about motors," he said. "I'm driving one."
He looked round as he spoke at his own large and handsome car. The girl's car in comparison, was insignificant.
"It doesn't in the least follow that you know anything about it," said the girl. "I was driving that one." She pointed to the car in the middle of the road. "And I haven't the remotest idea what's wrong."
This time Geoffrey felt that the girl, though pretty, deserved a snub. He was prepared to help her, at some personal inconvenience, but he felt that he had a right to expect politeness in return.
"I don't think you ought to have drawn up right in the middle of the road," he said. "It's beginning to get dark and if anything came down the road at all fast there'd be an accident."
"I didn't draw up in the middle of the road," said the girl.
Geoffrey looked at her car. It was in the middle, the very middle of the road.
"I didn't draw up at all," said the girl. "The beastly thing just stopped there itself. But I don't mind telling you that if I could, I'd have turned the car across the road so as to block the way altogether. I'd rather there wasn't any room to pass. I wanted anyone who came along to stop and help me."
Geoffrey remained polite, which was very much to his credit
"I see she's a Ford," he said, "and Fords are a bit hard to start sometimes, especially in cold weather. I'll have a try."
He went to the front of the car and seized the crank handle. He swung it, jerked, it, pulled at it with his full strength. There was a slight gurgling noise occasionally, but the engine refused to start. Geoffrey stood erect and wiped his forehead. The evening was chilly, but he had no reason to complain of being cold. The girl sat on her stone at the side of the road and smoked a fresh cigarette.
"I don't think you'll do much good that way," she said. "I've been at that for hours."
Geoffrey felt there was, or ought to be a difference between the efforts of a girl, a slight, rather frail looking girl, and those of a vigorous young man. He took off his overcoat and tried again, vainly. Then he opened the throttle wide, and advanced the sparking lever a little.
"If you do that," said the girl, "she'll back-fire and break your arm--that is to say if she does anything at all, which she probably won't. She sprained father's wrist last week. That's how I came to be driving her to-day."
Geoffrey was aware of the unpleasant effects of a back-fire. But he took the risk without hesitating. Nothing happened. The car, though obstinate, was not apparently malicious.
"There must be something wrong," he said. "Did you try the sparking plugs?"
"I had them all out," said the girl, "and cleaned them with a hairpin and my pocket handkerchief. It isn't worth your while to take them out again."
Geoffrey fetched a wrench from his own car and began to work on the sparking plugs.
"I see you don't believe me," said the girl. "But I really did clean them. Just look."
She held up her pocket handkerchief. It was thickly smeared with soot. She had certainly cleaned something with it. Geoffrey worked away steadily with his wrench.
"And the worst of it is," said the girl, "that this is just the sort of evening on which one simply must blow one's nose. I've had to blow mine twice since I cleaned the plugs and I expect its awful."
Geoffrey looked up from his work. He had noticed when he first saw her that her face was very dirty. He knew now where the dirt came from. He smiled. The girl smiled, too. Her temper was beginning to improve. Then she sniffed. Geoffrey offered her his pocket handkerchief. She took it without saying thank you.
The sparking plugs were cleaned very carefully, for the second time. Then Geoffrey took another turn at the crank handle. He laboured in vain. The engine did not respond with so much as a gasp.
"The next thing I did," said the girl, "was to take out the commutator and clean it. But I don't advise you to do that unless you really do know something about engines."
It was Geoffrey's turn to feel a little irritated.
"I'm a competent mechanic," he said shortly.
"All right," said the girl, "don't be angry. I'm a competent mechanic, too. At least I thought I was before this happened.
"Perhaps," said Geoffrey, "you didn't put the commutator back right after you took it out. I've known people make mistakes about that."
His suspicion was unjust. The commutator was in its place and the wire terminals correctly attached. He took it out again, cleaned it, oiled it, and replaced it. Then he tried the crank handle again. The engine was entirely unaffected.
"The feed pipe must be choked," said Geoffrey decisively.
"I didn't try that," said the girl, "but you can if you like. I'll lend you a hairpin. The one I cleaned the plugs with must be lying about somewhere."
It was getting dark, and a search for a lost hairpin would be very little use. Geoffrey said he would try blowing through the feed pipe with the pump. The girl, coming to his assistance, struck matches and held them dangerously near the carburetter while he worked. The clearing of the feed pipe made no difference at all to the engine. It was quite dark and freezing hard when the job was finished. Geoffrey, exhausted and breathless, gave up his final attempt at the starting crank.
"Look here," he said, "I'm awfully sorry; but I'll have to chuck it. I've tried everything I can think of. The only thing to do is to send someone out from the nearest town. If I had a rope, I'd tow you in, but I haven't. Is there a motor man in Hamley?"
"Yes," said the girl, "there's a man called Jones, who does motors, but----"
"Well," said Geoffrey, "you get into my car. I'll drive you home, and then--by the way, where do you live?"
"In Hamley. My father's the doctor there."
"That's all right. I'll drive you home and send out Jones."
"The worst of that is," said the girl, "that Jones always charges the most frightful sums for anything he does."
"But you can't stay here all night," said Geoffrey. "All night! It'll be all day to-morrow too. As far as I can see it'll be always. You'll never make that car go."
"If father was in any ordinary temper," said the girl, "he wouldn't grouse much about Jones's bill. But just now, on account of what happened to him----"
"Yes," said Geoffrey. "I understand. The sprained wrist makes him irritable."
"It's not exactly that," said the girl. "Anyone might sprain a wrist. There's no disgrace about that. The real trouble is that the poor old dear put some stuff on his wrist, to cure it, you know. It must have been the wrong stuff, for it brought on erysipelas."
"I thought you said he was a doctor."
"That's just it. He thinks that no one will believe in him any more now that he's doctored his own wrist all wrong. That's what makes him depressed. I told him not to mind; but he does."
"The best doctors make mistakes sometimes," said Geoffrey.
"Everybody does," said the girl. "Even competent mechanics aren't always quite sure about things, are they? Now you see why I don't want to send out Jones if I can possibly help it."
"But you can't possibly help it," said Geoffrey.
He wondered whether he could offer to pay Jones' bill himself. It would not, he supposed, be very large, and he would have been glad to pay it to save the girl from trouble. But he did not like to make the offer.
"We might," he said, "persuade Jones not; to send in his bill till your father's wrist is better. Anyhow, there's nothing for it but to get him. We'll just push your car to the side of the road out of the way and then I'll run you into Hamley."
The car was pushed well over to the side of the road, and left on a patch of grass. Geoffrey shoved hard at the spokes of one of the back wheels. The girl pushed, with one hand on a lamp bracket. She steered with the other, and added a good deal to Geoffrey's labour by turning the wheel the wrong way occasionally.
The drive to Hamley did not take long; but it was nearly half-past six before they reached the village street. Jones's shop and motor garage were shut up for the night; but a kindly bystander told Geoffrey where the man lived. Unfortunately, the man was not at home. His wife, who seemed somewhat aggrieved at his absence, gave it as her opinion that he was likely to be found in the George Inn.
"But it isn't no use your going there for him," she said. "There's a Freemason's dinner tonight, and Jones wouldn't leave that, not if you offered him a ten-pound note."
Geoffrey turned to the girl.
"Shall we try?" he asked. "Is it worth while going after him?"
"I can't leave the car on the side of the road all night," she said. "If we can't get Jones, I must walk back and try again."
Geoffrey made a heroic resolve.
"I'll leave you at home first," he said, "and then I'll go and drag Jones out of that dinner party of his. I'm sure you must be very tired."
But the girl firmly refused to go home without the car. Her plan was to go back with Jones, if Jones could be persuaded to start, and then drive home when the car was set right.
"Very well," said Geoffrey, "let's go and get Jones. We'll all go back together. I can stop the night in Hamley and go on to-morrow morning."
He rather expected a protest from the girl, a protest ending in warm thanks for his kindness. He received instead a remark which rather surprised him.
"I daresay," she said, "that you'd rather like to see what really is the matter with the car. It will he so much knowledge gained for you afterwards. And you do take an interest in mechanics, don't you?"
Geoffrey, in the course of his operations on the car, had several times professed a deep interest in mechanics. He recollected that, just at first, he had boasted a good deal about his skill and knowledge. He suspected that the girl was laughing at him. This irritated him, and when he reached the George Inn he was in no mood to listen patiently to Jones' refusal to leave the dinner.
Jones did refuse, firmly and decisively. Geoffrey argued with him, attempted to bribe him, finally swore at him. The girl stood by and laughed. Jones turned on her truculently.
"If young ladies," he said, "would stay in their homes, which is the proper place for them, and not go driving about in motor cars, there'd be less trouble in the world; and decent men who work hard all day would be left to eat their dinners in peace."
The girl was entirely unabashed.
"If decent men," she said, "would think more about their business and less about their dinners, motors wouldn't break down six miles from home. You were supposed to have overhauled that car last week, Jones, and you told father yourself that the engine was in first rate order."
"No engine will go," said Jones, "if you don't know how to drive it.
"Look here," said Geoffrey, "hop into my car. I'll have you there in less than half an hour. We'll bring a rope with us, and if you can't make the car start at once, we'll tow it home. It won't be a long job. I'll undertake to have you back here in an hour. Your dinner won't be cold by that time."
He took Jones by the arm and pulled him towards the door of the inn. Jones, protesting and muttering, gave way at last. He fetched his hat and coat, and took a seat in Geoffrey's car.
Geoffrey made good his promise. Once clear of the town, with an empty road before him, he drove fast and reached the scene of the breakdown in less than twenty minutes.
Jones was evidently sulky. Without speaking a word to either Geoffrey or the girl he went straight to the car at the side of the road. He gave the starting handle a single turn. Then he stopped and went to the back of the car. He took out a tin of petrol and emptied it into the tank. Then he gave another jerk to the starting handle. The engine responded at once with a cheerful rattle. The girl, to Geoffrey's amazement, laughed loud. He felt abashed and humiliated, very little inclined to mirth.
"I'm awfully sorry," he babbled his apologies. "I'm really awfully sorry. It was extremely stupid of me, but I never thought----. Of course I ought to have looked at the petrol tank first thing."
"It was a bit stupid of you, I must say," said the girl, "considering what you said about understanding motors."
Geoffrey felt inclined to remind her that she, too, had boasted some knowledge of cars and that she had been at fault even more than he had, and that in fact she ought to have guessed that her petrol had gone. He was saved from making his retort by Jones. Ignoring the girl completely, as if she were beneath contempt, Jones spoke to Geoffrey.
"I dunno," he said, "how you expected the engine to work without petrol."
His tone was full of scorn, and Geoffrey felt like a withered flower. The girl was in no way abashed.
"It's just like asking a man to work without his dinner," she said, "but they sometimes do, you know."
Then she turned to Geoffrey.
"If you promise faithfully," she said, "not to tell father what happened, you can come and have dinner with us to-night."
It was the only sign of gratitude that the girl had shown, and Geoffrey's first inclination was to refuse the invitation definitely. But he caught sight of her face before she spoke. She was standing in the full glare of one of the lamps. Her eyes were twinkling and very bright. On her lips was a smile, impudent, provocative, extremely attractive.
Geoffrey Dane dined that night with the doctor and his daughter. He described the breakdown of the motor in the vaguest terms.