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
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
"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.
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 début
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
"Since you have no regard for my feelings," said she, "you may let
"Oh, no, Amanda, my dear. Why, I'm going to give you a spin to
"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
"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.
"Yes, my dear?"
"Let me out! I decline to be butchered to make a holiday for a
"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
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
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.
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."
"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
"Do you call yourself a dazzling success?" she asked.
"Not dazzling, perhaps," he replied, "and yet—yes—yes, I believe I
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"I'd lend you some, only I haven't much myself," said Todd.
"Got a rope?"
"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!"
"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
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."
"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.