The Count’s Chauffeur. Being the Confessions of George Ewart, Chauffeur to Count Bindo Di Ferraris - William Le Queux - ebook

The Count’s Chauffeur. Being the Confessions of George Ewart, Chauffeur to Count Bindo Di Ferraris ebook

William Le Queux



When I was fourteen, we moved to London with my father. He became an agent on Wood Street, City, representing a large silk maker in Lyon. At the age of twenty, I worked in an office with dusty books and a large armchair that I did not really like. I was always interested in mechanics, but my father did not perceive her as a profession and wanted me to walk in his footsteps.

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IN Paris, in Rome, in Florence, in Berlin, in Vienna–in fact, over half the face of Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Russian frontier–I am now known as “The Count’s Chauffeur.”

An Englishman, as my name George Ewart denotes, I am of cosmopolitan birth and education, my early youth having been spent on the Continent, where my father was agent for a London firm.

When I was fourteen, my father, having prospered, came to London, and established himself as an agent in Wood Street, City, representing a great firm of silk manufacturers in Lyons.

At twenty I tried City life, but an office with a high stool, a dusty ledger, and sandwich lunches, had no attraction for me. I had always had a turn for mechanics, but was never allowed to adopt engineering as a profession, my father’s one idea being that I should follow in his footsteps–a delusive hope entertained by many a fond parent.

Six months of office life sufficed me. One day I went home to Teddington and refused to return again to Wood Street. This resulted in an open quarrel between my father and myself, with the result that a week later I was on my way to Canada. In a year I was back again, and, after some months of semi-starvation in London, I managed to obtain a job in a motor factory. I was then entirely in my element. During two years I learned the mechanism of the various petrol-driven cars, until I became classed as an expert driver and engineer.

At the place I was employed there was manufactured one of the best and most expensive makes of English car, and, being at length placed on the testing staff, it was my duty to take out each new chassis for its trial-run before being delivered to a customer.

Upon my certificate each chassis was declared in perfect running order, and was then handed over to the body-makers indicated by the purchaser.

Being an expert driver, my firm sent me to drive in the Tourist Trophy races in the Isle of Man, and I likewise did the Ardennes Circuit and came in fourth in the Brescia race for the Florio Cup, my successes, of course, adding glory and advertisement to the car I drove.

Racing, however, aroused within me, as it does in every motorist, an ardent desire to travel long distances. The testing of those chassis in Regent’s Park, and an occasional run with some wealthy customer out on the Great North Road or on the Bath or Brighton roads, became too quiet a life for me. I was now seized by a desire to tour and see Europe. True, in my capacity of tester, I met all classes of men. In the seat beside me have sat Cabinet Ministers, Dukes, Indian Rajahs, Members of Parliament, and merchant princes, customers or prospective purchasers, all of whom chatted with me, mostly displaying their ignorance of the first principles of mechanics. It was all pleasant enough–a merry life and good pay. Yet I hated London, and the height of my ambition was a good car to drive abroad.

After some months of waiting, the opportunity came, and I seized it.

By appointment, at the Royal Automobile Club one grey December morning, I met Count Bindo di Ferraris, a young Italian aristocrat, whose aspect, however, was the reverse of that of a Southerner. About thirty, he was tall, lithe, and well dressed in a dark-brown lounge suit. His complexion, his chestnut hair, his erect, rather soldierly bearing, his clean-shaven face, and his open countenance gave him every appearance of an English gentleman. Indeed, I at first took him for an Englishman, for he spoke English so perfectly.

When he had examined my testimonials and made a number of inquiries, he asked–

“You speak French?”

“Yes,” was my reply; “a little Italian, and a little German.”

“Italian!” he exclaimed in surprise. “Excellent!”

Then, while we sat alone, with no one within hearing, he told me the terms upon which he was willing to engage me to drive on the Continent, and added–

“Your salary will be doubled–providing I find you entirely loyal to me. That is to say, you must know how to keep your mouth closed–understand?”

And he regarded me rather curiously, I thought.

“No,” I answered; “I don’t quite understand.”

“Well, well, there are matters–private family matters–of which you will probably become cognisant. Truth to tell, I want help–the help of a good, careful driver who isn’t afraid, and who is always discreet. I may as well tell you that before I wrote to you I made certain secret inquiries regarding you, and I feel confident that you can serve me very much to our mutual advantage.”

This puzzled me, and my curiosity was further aroused when he added–

“To be plain, there is a certain young lady in very high society in the case. I need not tell you more, need I? You will be discreet, eh?”

I smiled and promised. What did it all mean? I wondered. My employer was mysterious; but in due course I should, as he prophesied, obtain knowledge of this secret–a secret love affair, no doubt.

The Count’s private affairs did not, after all, concern me. My duty was to drive on the Continent, and for what he was to pay me I was to serve him loyally, and see that his tyre and petrol bills were not too exorbitant.

He went to the writing-table and wrote out a short agreement which he copied, and we both signed it–a rather curiously worded agreement by which I was to serve him for three years, and during that time our interests were “to be mutual.” That last phrase caused me to wonder but I scribbled my name and refrained from comment, for the payment was already double that which I was receiving from the firm.

“My car is outside,” he remarked, as he folded his copy of the agreement and placed it in his pocket. “Did you notice it?”

I had not, so we went out into Piccadilly together, and there, standing at the kerb, I saw a car that caused my heart to bound with delight–a magnificent six-cylinder forty horse-power “Napier,” of the very latest model. The car was open, with side entrance, a dark green body with coronet and cipher on the panels, upholstered in red, with glass removable screen to the splashboard–a splendid, workmanlike car just suitable for long tours and fast runs. Of all the cars and of all the makes, that was the only one which it was my ambition to drive.

I walked around it in admiration, and saw that every accessory was the best and very latest that money could buy–even to the newly invented gas-generator which had only a few weeks ago been placed upon the market. I lifted the long bonnet, looked around the engine, and saw those six cylinders in a row–the latest invention of a celebrated inventor.

“Splendid!” I ejaculated. “There’s nothing yet to beat this car. By Jove! we can get a move on a good road!”

“Yes,” smiled the Count. “My man Mario could make her travel, but he’s a fool, and has left me in a fit of temper. He was an Italian, and we Italians are, alas! hot-headed,” and he laughed again. “Would you like to try her?”

I assented with delight, and, while he returned inside the Club to get his fur coat, I started the engine and got in at the steering-wheel. A few moments later he seated himself beside me, and we glided down Piccadilly on our way to Regent’s Park–the ground where, day after day, it had been my habit to go testing. The car ran perfectly, the engines sounding a splendid rhythm through the Regent Street traffic into broad Portland Place, and on into the Park, where I was afforded some scope to see what she could do. The Count declared that he was in no hurry, therefore we went up through Hampstead to Highgate Station, and then on the Great North Road, through East End, Whetstone, Barnet, and Hatfield, to Hitchin–thirty-five miles of road which was as well known to me as the Strand.

The morning was dry and cold, the roads in excellent condition bar a few patches of new metal between Codicote and Chapelfoot, and the sharp east wind compelled us to goggle. Fortunately, I had on my leather-lined frieze coat, and was therefore fully equipped. The North Road between London and Hitchin is really of little use for trying the speed of a car, for there are so many corners, it is mostly narrow, and it abounds in police-traps. That twenty miles of flat, straight road, with perfect surface, from Lincoln to New Holland, opposite Hull, is one of the best places in England to see what a car is worth.

Nevertheless, the run to Hitchin satisfied me perfectly that the car was not a “roundabout,” as so many are, but a car well “within the meaning of the Act.”

“And what is your opinion of her, Ewart?” asked the Count, as we sat down to cold beef and pickles in the long, old-fashioned upstairs room of the Sun Inn at Hitchin.

“Couldn’t be better,” I declared. “The brakes would do with re-lining, but that’s about all. When do we start for the Continent?”

“The day after to-morrow. I’m staying just now at the Cecil. We’ll run the car down to Folkestone, ship her across, and then go by Paris and Aix to Monte Carlo first; afterwards we’ll decide upon our itinerary. Ever been to Monty?”

I replied in the negative. The prospect of going on the Riviera sounded delightful.

After our late luncheon we ran back from Hitchin to London, but, not arriving before lighting-up time, we had to turn on the head-lights beyond Barnet. We drove straight to the fine garage on the Embankment beneath the Cecil, and after I had put things square and received orders for ten o’clock next day, I was preparing to go to my lodgings in Bloomsbury to look through my kit in preparation for the journey when my employer suddenly exclaimed–

“Come up to the smoking-room a moment. I want to write a letter for you to take to Boodle’s in St. James’s Street, for me, if you will.”

I followed him upstairs to the great blue-tiled smoking-room overlooking the Embankment, and as we entered, two well-dressed men–Englishmen, of aristocratic bearing–rose from a table and shook him warmly by the hand.

I noticed their quick, apprehensive look as they glanced at me as though in inquiry, but my employer exclaimed–

“This is my new chauffeur, Ewart, an expert. Ewart, these are my friends–Sir Charles Blythe,” indicating the elder man, “and Mr. Henderson. These gentlemen will perhaps be with us sometimes, so you had better know them.”

The pair looked me up and down and smiled pleasantly. Sir Charles was narrow-faced, about fifty, with a dark beard turning grey; his companion was under thirty, a fair-haired, rather foppishly dressed young fellow, in a fashionable suit and a light fancy vest.

Then, as the Count went to the table to write, Sir Charles inquired where we had been, and whether I had driven much on the Continent.

When the Count handed me the letter, I saw that he exchanged a meaning glance with Sir Charles, but what it was intended to convey I could not guess. I only know that, for a few seconds, I felt some vague distrust of my new friends, and yet they treated me more as an equal than as a mere chauffeur.

The Count’s friends were certainly a merry, easy-going pair, yet somehow I instinctively held them in suspicion. Whether it was on account of the covert glance which Sir Charles shot across at my employer, or whether there was something unusual about their manner, I cannot tell. I am only aware that when I left the hotel I went on my way in wonder.

Next day, at ten punctually, I ran the car from the Strand into the courtyard of the hotel and pulled up at the restaurant entrance, so as to be out of the way of the continuous cab traffic. The Count, however, did not make his appearance until nearly half an hour later, and when he did arrive he superintended the despatch by cab of a quantity of luggage which he told me he was sending forward by grande vitesse to Monte Carlo.

After the four-wheeler had moved off, the hall-porter helped him on with his big fur coat, and he, getting up beside me, told me to drive to Piccadilly.

As we were crossing Trafalgar Square into Pall Mall, he turned to me, saying–

“Remember, Ewart, your promise yesterday. If my actions–I mean, if you think I am a little peculiar sometimes, don’t trouble your head about it. You are paid to drive–and paid well, I think. My affairs don’t concern you, do they?”

“Not in the least,” I answered, nevertheless puzzled.

He descended at a tobacconist’s in Bond Street, and bought a couple of boxes of cigars, and then made several calls at shops, also visiting two jewellers to obtain, he remarked, a silver photograph frame of a certain size.

At Gilling’s–the third shop he tried–he remained inside some little time–quite twenty minutes, I should think. As you know, it is in the narrowest part of Bond Street, and the traffic was congested owing to the road at the Piccadilly end being partially up.

As I sat in my place, staring idly before me, and reflecting that I should be so soon travelling due South over the broad, well-kept French roads, and out of the gloom and dreariness of the English winter, I suddenly became conscious of a familiar face in the crowd of hurrying foot-passengers.

I glanced up quickly as a man bustled past. Was I mistaken? I probably had been; but the thin, keen, bearded countenance was very much like that of Sir Charles Blythe. But no. When I looked back after him I saw that his figure was much more bent and his appearance was not half so smart and well groomed as the Count’s friend.

At one moment I felt absolutely positive that the man had really been watching me, and was now endeavouring to escape recognition, yet at the next I saw the absurdity of such a thought. Sir Charles’s face had, I suppose, been impressed upon my memory on the previous evening, and the passer-by merely bore some slight resemblance.

And so I dismissed it from my mind.

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