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THE BARON AS A RUNNER
The Twins had been on the lookout for the Baron for at least an hour, and still he did not come, and the little Imps were beginning to feel blue over the prospect of getting the usual Sunday afternoon story. It was past four o'clock, and for as long a time as they could remember the Baron had never failed to arrive by three o'clock. All sorts of dreadful possibilities came up before their mind's eye. They pictured the Baron in accidents of many sorts. They conjured up visions of him lying wounded beneath the ruins of an apartment house, or something else equally heavy that might have fallen upon him on his way from his rooms to the station, but that he was more than wounded they did not believe, for they knew that the Baron was not the sort of man to be killed by anything killing under the sun.
"I wonder where he can be?" said Angelica, uneasily to her brother, who was waiting with equal anxiety for their common friend.
"Oh, he's all right!" said Diavolo, with a confidence he did not really feel. "He'll turn up all right, and even if he's two hours late he'll be here on time according to his own watch. Just you wait and see."
And they did wait and they did see. They waited for ten minutes, when the Baron drove up, smiling as ever, but apparently a little out of breath. I should not dare to say that he was really out of breath, but he certainly did seem to be so, for he panted visibly, and for two or three minutes after his arrival was quite unable to ask the Imps the usual question as to their very good health. Finally, however, the customary courtesies of the greeting were exchanged, and the decks were cleared for action.
"What kept you, Uncle Munch?" asked the Twins, as they took up their usual position on the Baron's knees.
"What what?" replied the warrior. "Kept me? Why, am I late?"
"Two hours," said the Twins. "Dad gave you up and went out for a walk."
"Nonsense," said the Baron. "I'm never that late."
Here he looked at his watch.
"Why I do seem to be behind time. There must be something wrong with our time-pieces. I can't be two hours late, you know."
"Well, let's say you are on time, then," said the Twins. "What kept you?"
"A very funny accident on the railroad," said the Baron lighting a cigar. "Queerest accident that ever happened to me on the railroad, too. Our engine ran away."
The Twins laughed as if they thought the Baron was trying to fool them.
"Really," said the Baron. "I left town as usual on the two o'clock train, which, as you know, comes through in half an hour, without a stop. Everything went along smoothly until we reached the Vitriol Reservoir, when much to the surprise of everybody the train came to a stand-still. I supposed there was a cow on the track, and so kept in my seat for three or four minutes as did every one else. Finally the conductor came through and called to the brakeman at the end of our car to see if his brakes were all right.
"'It's the most unaccountable thing,' he said to me. 'Here's this train come to a dead stop and I can't see why. There isn't a brake out of order on any one of the cars, and there isn't any earthly reason why we shouldn't go ahead.'
"'Maybe somebody's upset a bottle of glue on the track,' said I. I always like to chaff the conductor, you know, though as far as that is concerned, I remember once when I was travelling on a South American Railway our train was stopped by highwaymen, who smeared the tracks with a peculiar sort of gum. They'd spread it over three miles of track, and after the train had gone lightly over two miles of it the wheels stuck so fast ten engines couldn't have moved it. That was a terrible affair."
"I don't think we ever heard of that, did we?" asked Angelica.
"I don't remember it," said Diavolo.
"Well, you would have remembered it, if you had ever heard of it," said the Baron. "It was too dreadful to be forgotten — not for us, you know, but for the robbers. It was one of the Imperial trains in Brazil, and if it hadn't been for me the Emperor would have been carried off and held for ransom. The train was brought to a stand-still by this gluey stuff, as I have told you, and the desperadoes boarded the cars and proceeded to rifle us of our possessions. The Emperor was in the car back of mine, and the robbers made directly for him, but fathoming their intention I followed close upon their heels.
"'You are our game,' said the chief robber, tapping the Emperor on the shoulder, as he entered the Imperial car.
"'Hands off,' I cried throwing the ruffian to one side.
"He scowled dreadfully at me, the Emperor looked surprised, and another one of the robbers requested to know who was I that I should speak with so much authority. 'Who am I?' said I, with a wink at the Emperor. 'Who am I? Who else but Baron Munchausen of the Bodenwerder National Guard, ex-friend of Napoleon of France, intimate of the Mikado of Japan, and famed the world over as the deadliest shot in two hemispheres.'
"The desperadoes paled visibly as I spoke, and after making due apologies for interfering with the train, fled shrieking from the car. They had heard of me before.
"'I thank you, sir,' began the Emperor, as the would-be assassins fled, but I cut him short. 'They must not be allowed to escape,' I said, and with that I started in pursuit of the desperate fellows, overtook them, and glued them with the gum they had prepared for our detention to the face of a precipice that rose abruptly from the side of the railway, one hundred and ten feet above the level. There I left them. We melted the glue from the tracks by means of our steam heating apparatus, and were soon booming merrily on our way to Rio Janeiro when I was fêted and dined continuously for weeks by the people, though strange to say the Emperor's behaviour toward me was very cool."
"And did the robbers ever get down?" asked the Twins.
"Yes, but not in a way they liked," Mr. Munchausen replied. "The sun came out, and after a week or two melted the glue that held them to the precipice, whereupon they fell to its base and were shattered into pieces so small there wasn't an atom of them to be found when a month later I passed that way again on my return trip."
"And didn't the Emperor treat you well, Uncle Munch?" asked the Imps.
"No — as I told you he was very cool towards me, and I couldn't understand it, then, but I do now," said the Baron. "You see he was very much in need of ready cash, the Emperor was, and as the taxpayers were already growling about the expenses of the Government he didn't dare raise the money by means of a tax. So he arranged with the desperadoes to stop the train, capture him, and hold him for ransom. Then when the ransom came along he was going to divide up with them. My sudden appearance, coupled with my determination to rescue him, spoiled his plan, you see, and so he naturally wasn't very grateful. Poor fellow, I was very sorry for it afterward, because he really was an excellent ruler, and his plan of raising the money he needed wasn't a bit less honest than most other ways rulers employ to obtain revenue for State purposes."
"Well, now, let's get back to the runaway engine," said the Twins. "You can tell us more about South America after you get through with that. How did the engine come to run away?"
"It was simple enough," said the Baron. "The engineer, after starting the train came back into the smoking car to get a light for his pipe, and while he was there the coupling-pin between the engine and the train broke, and off skipped the engine twice as fast as it had been going before. The relief from the weight of the train set its pace to a mile a minute instead of a mile in two minutes, and there we were at a dead stop in front of the Vitriol Station with nothing to move us along. When the engineer saw what had happened he fainted dead away, because you know if a collision had occurred between the runaway engine and the train ahead he would have been held responsible."
"Couldn't the fireman stop the engine?" asked the Twins.
"No. That is, it wouldn't be his place to do it, and these railway fellows are queer about that sort of thing," said the Baron. "The engineers would go out upon a strike if the railroad were to permit a stoker to manage the engine, and besides that the stoker wouldn't undertake to do it at a stoker's wages, so there wasn't any help to be looked for there. The conductor happened to be nearsighted, and so he didn't find out that the engine was missing until he had wasted ten or twenty minutes examining the brakes, by which time, of course, the runaway was miles and miles up the track. Then the engineer came to, and began to wring his hands and moan in a way that was heart-rending. The conductor, too, began to cry, and all the brakemen left the train and took to the woods. They weren't going to have any of the responsibility for the accident placed on their shoulders. Whether they will ever turn up again I don't know. But I realised as soon as anybody else that something had to be done, so I rushed into the telegraph office and telegraphed to all the station masters between the Vitriol Reservoir and Cimmeria to clear the track of all trains, freight, local, or express, or somebody would be hurt, and that I myself would undertake to capture the runaway engine. This they all promised to do, whereupon I bade good-bye to my fellow-travellers, and set off up the track myself at full speed. In a minute I strode past Sulphur Springs, covering at least eight ties at a stretch. In two minutes I thundered past Lava Hurst, where I learned that the engine had twenty miles start of me. I made a rapid calculation mentally — I always was strong in mental arithmetic, which showed that unless I was tripped up or got side-tracked somewhere I might overtake the runaway before it reached Noxmere. Redoubling my efforts, my stride increased to twenty ties at a jump, and I made the next five miles in two minutes. It sounds impossible, but really it isn't so. It is hard to run as fast as that at the start, but when you have got your start the impetus gathered in the first mile's run sends you along faster in the second, and so your speed increases by its own force until finally you go like the wind. At Gasdale I had gained two miles on the engine, at Sneakskill I was only fifteen miles behind, and upon my arrival at Noxmere there was scarcely a mile between me and the fugitive. Unfortunately a large crowd had gathered at Noxmere to see me pass through, and some small boy had brought a dog along with him and the dog stood directly in my path. If I ran over the dog it would kill him and might trip me up. If I jumped with the impetus I had there was no telling where I would land. It was a hard point to decide either way, but I decided in favour of the jump, simply to save the dog's life, for I love animals. I landed three miles up the road and ahead of the engine, though I didn't know that until I had run ten miles farther on, leaving the engine a hundred yards behind me at every stride. It was at Miasmatica that I discovered my error and then I tried to stop. It was almost in vain; I dragged my feet over the ties, but could only slow down to a three-minute gait. Then I tried to turn around and slow up running backward; this brought my speed down ten minutes to the mile, which made it safe for me to run into a hay-stack at the side of the railroad just this side of Cimmeria. Then, of course, I was all right. I could sit down and wait for the engine, which came booming along forty minutes later. As it approached I prepared to board it, and in five minutes was in full control. That made it easy enough for me to get back here without further trouble. I simply reversed the lever, and back we came faster than I can describe, and just one hour and a half from the time of the mishap the runaway engine was restored to its deserted train and I reached your station here in good order. I should have walked up, but for my weariness after that exciting run, which as you see left me very much out of breath, and which made it necessary for me to hire that worn-out old hack instead of walking up as is my wont."
"This brought my speed down ten minutes to the mile, which made it safe for me to run into a haystack."
"Yes, we see you are out of breath," said the Twins, as the Baron paused. "Would you like to lie down and take a rest?"
"Above all things," said the Baron. "I'll take a nap here until your father returns," which he proceeded at once to do.
While he slept the two Imps gazed at him curiously, Angelica, a little suspiciously.
"Bub," said she, in a whisper, "do you think that was a true story?"
"Well, I don't know," said Diavolo. "If anybody else than Uncle Munch had told it, I wouldn't have believed it. But he hates untruth. I know because he told me so."
"That's the way I feel about it," said Angelica. "Of course, he can run as fast as that, because he is very strong, but what I can't see is how an engine ever could run away from its train."
"That's what stumps me," said Diavolo.