CHAPTER ONE. SOME PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS

THE MADDING CROWD

Any woman can drive an electric automobile, any man can drive a steam, but neither man nor woman can drive a gasoline; it follows its own odorous will, and goes or goes not as it feels disposed.

For this very wilfulness the gasoline motor is the most fascinating machine of all. It possesses the subtle attraction of caprice; it constantly offers something to overcome; as in golf, you start out each time to beat your own record. The machine is your tricky and resourceful opponent. When you think it conquered and well-broken to harness, submissive and resigned to your will, behold it is as obstinate as a mule, - balks, kicks, snorts, puffs, blows, or, what is worse, refuses to kick, snort, puff, and blow, but stands in stubborn silence, an obdurate beast which no amount of coaxing, cajoling, cranking will start.

One of the beauties of the beast is its strict impartiality. It shows no more deference to maker than to owner; it moves no more quickly for expert mechanic than for amateur driver. When it balks, it balks, - inventor, manufacturer, mechanic, stand puzzled; suddenly it starts, - they are equally puzzled.

Who has not seen inventors of these capricious motors standing by the roadside scratching their heads in despair, utterly at a loss to know why the stubborn thing does not go? Who has not seen skilled mechanics in blue jeans and unskilled amateurs in jeans of leather, so to speak, flat on their backs under the vehicle, peering upward into the intricacies of the mechanism, trying to find the cause, - the obscure, the hidden source of all their trouble? And then the probing with wires, the tugs with wrenches, the wrestling with screw-drivers, the many trials, - for the most part futile, - the subdued language of the bunkers, and at length, when least expected, a start, and the machine goes off as if nothing at all had been the matter. It is then the skilled driver looks wise and does not betray his surprise to the gaping crowd, just looks as if the start were the anticipated result of his well-directed efforts instead of a chance hit amidst blind gropings.

One cannot but sympathize with the vanity of the French chauffeur who stops his machine in the midst of a crowd when it is working perfectly, makes a few idle passes with wrenches and oil-cans, pulls a lever and is off, all for the pleasure of hearing the populace remark, "He understands his machine. He is a good one." While the poor fellow, who really is in trouble, sweats and groans and all but swears as he works in vain to find what is the matter, to the delight of the onlookers who laugh at what seems to them ignorance and lack of skill.

And why should not these things be? Is not the crowd multitude always with us - or against us? There is no spot so dreary, no country so waste, no highway so far removed from the habitations and haunts of man that a crowd of gaping people will not spring up when an automobile stops for repairs. Choose a plain, the broad expanse of which is unbroken by a sign of man; a wood, the depths of which baffle the eye and tangle the foot; let your automobile stop for so long as sixty seconds, and the populace begin to gather, with the small boy in the van; like birds of prey they perch upon all parts of the machine, choosing by quick intuition those parts most susceptible to injury from weight and contact, until you scarcely can move and do the things you have to do.

The curiosity of the small boy is the forerunner of knowledge, and must be satisfied. It is quite idle to tell him to "Keep away!" it is worse than useless to lose your temper and order him to "Clear out!" it is a physical impossibility for him to do either; the law of his being requires him to remain where he is and to indefatigably get in the way. If he did not pry into everything and ask a thousand questions, the thoughtful observer would be fearful lest he were an idiot. The American small boy is not idiotic; tested by his curiosity concerning automobiles, he is the fruition of the centuries, the genius the world is awaiting, the coming ruler of men and empires, or - who knows? - the coming master of the automobile.

Happily, curiosity is not confined to the small boy; it is but partially suppressed in his elders, - and that is lucky, for his elders, and their horses, can often help.

The young chauffeur is panicky if he comes to a stop on a lonely road, where no human habitation is visible; he fears he may never get away, that no help will come; that he must abandon his machine and walk miles for assistance. The old chauffeur knows better. It matters not to him how lonely the road, how remote the spot, one or two plaintive blasts of the horn and, like mushrooms, human beings begin to spring up; whence they come is a mystery to you; why they come equally a mystery to them, but come they will, and to help they are willing, to the harnessing of horses and the dragging of the heavy machine to such place as you desire.

This willingness, not to say eagerness, on the part of the farmer, the truckman, the liveryman, in short, the owner of horses, to help out a machine he despises, which frightens his horses and causes him no end of trouble, is an interesting trait of human nature; a veritable heaping of coals of fire. So long as the machine is careering along in the full tide of glory, clearing and monopolizing the highway, the horse owner wishes it in Hades; but let the machine get into trouble, and the same horse owner will pull up out of the ditch into which he has been driven, hitch his horses to the cause of his scare, haul it to his stable, and make room by turning his Sunday carryall into the lane, and four farmers, three truckmen, and two liverymen out of five will refuse all offers of payment for their trouble.