September 16th, 2008
Bede J. F. Bentley and his good and faithful friend and mechanician Reginald G. Wells drove all the way from Djibouti to Addis Ababa with a motor-car, going through many adventurous experiences on their route. They took this journey to present this new technology of that era to the Emperor Menilik.
This section of the story is taken from the book “TO MENELEK IN A MOTOR-CAR” by Clifford Halle in 1913.
To Menelik in a Motor-Car
…Menelek, they were informed, was awaiting them in the Hall of Audience, and therefore, leaving the car at the door in charge of Wells and as many of the escort as could crowd into the still vacant spaces in the courtyards, the Ministers and Bentley were formally led into the presence of the King of Kings.
The Emperor was seated in state. In the agitation of the moment Bentley had only time to note that he had a shrewd and kindly black face ; that he wore, evidently with the intention of going out presently, quite the most enormous clergyman’s hat he had ever seen, black robes of rich silk set off with red, and brilliant purple silk socks on shoeless feet, while beside him, rather spoihng the picture, was a pair of enormous ” jemimas,” by which name Bentley had learnt in his youth to designate the spring-side boots dear to old ladies.
Emperor Menelik laughs at the simplicity of the drip feed lubricator. British and Russian Ministers in back of car.
The presentation was made in due form, and after a few kindly words of praise for Bentley’s achievement, through the medium of an interpreter, Menelek intimated that it was his pleasure to at once inspect the car.
Attendant slaves inserted his feet into the ” jemimas,” and he got up—a tall and commanding figure in his rich robes and enormous hat, in spite of the incongruous footgear.
They walked in procession to the porch of the Palace, and there Bentley gave a short lecture as to the working of a motor-car. Menelek proved an attentive and intelligent listener, not allowing a single part to be left until he fully comprehended its functions.
At length, when everything had been explained, Menelek suddenly remarked to Mr. Hohler, ” Yes, yes. He does not look like an anarchist who has come all this way to kill me; and the machine does not seem so very dangerous, as I have been told.”
Bentley could only stare in astonishment when this was interpreted to him, and he began to have visions of himself minus arms and legs, which, from the number of cripples about, seemed to be a favourite form of punishment in the country; but he was reassured by the gleam of amusement in the Emperor’s eyes. “Yes,” continued Menelek, “I have been told almost daily for the past month, that the moment I sat in the car I should be blown up. When I said I thought that was foolish, for those in the car would be blown up with me, I was told that perhaps, instead of blowing me up, I should be driven over a precipice, and that those who drove the car had practised jumping off at the last moment.” The old man placed his hand in a friendly fashion on Bentley’s shoulder and told him that he did not think he looked as though he contemplated doing any of those dreadful things.
Bentley, through the medium of Mr. Hohler, responded with a flowery speech, and then, while the Emperor was again bending over the car, Mr.Hohler whispered hurriedly in his ear, ” Bet you five pounds you don’t get the old man to take a drive.”
” Done,” said Bentley promptly, and he asked Mr. Hohler to suggest that perhaps the Emperor would like to see the car in action.
Menelek nodded, and Bentley suggested that he should be accompanied by two members of the Court. Menelek nodded again, and intimated to two dignitaries that they might have the honour.
The two chosen ones did not absolutely rush for their seats. In fact, their ascent into the car might be described as careful and gingerly.
Bentley intimated that he proposed running down to the market-place and back, and asked the Emperor how long it generally took a man on a mule to do the double journey.
The market-place was about two miles off, and the road thereto was an excellent one and in sight of the Palace all the way. Menelek produced a watch to match his hat—he evidently liked large things and said that half an hour, there and back, was considered very good going. He also said that, as a token that he had really been there, Bentley could bring him a httle basket of fruit from the shop at the end of the market.
Bentley suggested that, as he was anxious to go rather quickly, it would be as well if some of the crowds were removed. Then it was seen that Menelek was indeed Emperor. He said one or two short, sharp words and, in less time than it takes to write the fact, the road to the market-place began to clear, and as though by magic the teeming multitudes disappeared into side streets, leaving an absolutely clear road to their destination.
Wells turned the car in the courtyard, and as he did so, Bentley, who sat beside him, whispered in his ear, ” Wells, I want to do two things: Get back as quickly as ever we can and incidentally frighten the souls of these two gentlemen behind out of their cases.”
” Right, sir,” said Wells, as usual. They went. There is no mistake about it that they went to that market-place, for the car was nicely tuned up, the road was excellent, and Wells had been unable to reheve his feehngs for some time.
There was also no mistake as to the feelings of the dignitaries inside the car. Their faces paled as much as the colour would allow, while they clutched nervously at the sides of the car and at each other absolutely speechless from fright.
As has been said, the car was nicely tuned up, and they were presently doing a comfortable fifty miles an hour, and by this time the dignitaries were limp lumps of wabbling flesh, allowing themselves to be bumped about helplessly, their eyes staring into vacancy and nearly starting out of their sockets.
When at length the car drew up at the marketplace, after what really was less than a three-minutes’ run, but which to them no doubt appeared a few centuries, with simultaneous promptitude each dignitary alighted from his own door, and when he reached terra firma ejaculated something which was no doubt the Amheric equivalent of “Thank God!”
But Bentley was not out to lose time. He bought his little basket and made a sign to Wells, and without more ado, each bundled a dignitary back into the car, slammed the door to, and before they had time to protest, much less get out again. Wells was in his seat, Bentley beside him, and they were off again, a little quicker perhaps than they had come, for the road was now, if anything, down-hill.
This time the dignitaries fairly howled, and held on to each other like two affrighted children. They were both big men, and gorgeously attired, and no doubt, in ordinary circumstances, brave enough, but all sense of self-respect fled from them on that return journey.
Going, they had held on to their feelings as much as they possibly could, which was not a very large amount ; coming back, they were simply pitiable objects, their eyes streaming, their mouths gibbering, and their beautiful robes one mass of dust.
“Keep her going. Wells, as long as you dare,” said Bentley, “I want the old man to get a good view of the pretty Punch and Judy show we’ve got in the back.”
Wells obeyed, and had to use the brakes pretty sharply as he swung into the first courtyard, just past the Emperor, who had walked to the entrance to watch.
Bentley stepped out and handed his basket to the Emperor, who was delighted, and pointed to his watch to show that they had been gone under the six minutes. He then said with one of his roguish smiles, “I see that you have frightened my poor Ministers a good deal,” for those two worthies were still sitting in the car, too paralysed to move.
Bentley signed to Wells to help them out, which he did, and while they were slowly crawling up to the Emperor, Bentley, speaking loud, said to Mr. Hohler, “Tell the Emperor I say that all the populace having seen the terror of his Ministers, what an opportunity for His Majesty to show that he has no fear.”
No sooner had Mr. Hohler translated, than the old man (Menelik) jumped at the idea. He chaffed his Ministers unmercifully when they came up, and announced that he himself was going for a drive.
The Ministers almost prostrated themselves before him in their agonized endeavours to protect him from the ordeal they had just been through. To them it seemed impossible that such a thing could happen twice without deadly harm coming to everybody in the car.
The more they pleaded, the more Menelek laughed, and he walked straight up to the car and seated himself beside Wells.
Mr. Hohler and Bentley at once got into the back and Menelek signed to Wells to start slowly.
It is the custom that whenever Menelek moves, he is escorted by an army of soldiers, both cavalry and infantry, as a duty, while any few odd thousands who happen to be about join as volunteers. Therefore, as soon as Wells let in the clutch one or two regiments of cavalry and some battalions of infantry lined up as escort.
Even at the slow pace that Wells kept up at first, the infantry were soon left behind, although they struggled manfully to, at any rate, keep in sight of the car.
Presently, however, the Emperor turned to Mr. Hohler and said that he would Hke to go a little faster, so Wells was told to gradually put on speed.
The old man had much sounder nerves than his Ministers, for, as the speed increased, he began to laugh like a boy, and was soon urging Wells to go faster and faster.
Wells, nothing loath, responded with full-speed ahead, and presently they were flying along on top speed, for Wells, watching the august presence beside him with one eye, to see how much he could stand, gradually let the car out to full throttle, and the old Emperor sat laughing and puffing for breath, with his goggleless eyes streaming, as happy as a schoolboy, while the now galloping escort was left somewhere on the horizon.
After a splendid run of about ten miles, Menelek bethought him of his people and laid his hand gently on Wells’ arm as a signal to pull up, and with a comical grimace at Mr. Hohler, through the thick coating of dust that made his black face almost white, suggested that perhaps they had better return.
They went back at the same flying pace, and as they drew near the town they heard above the hum of the car a sort of long-drawn wail as of a nation howling in unison.
By and by they met the cavalry, still galloping madly on nearly-spent horses. They pulled up at the first sight of the car, and the men jumped from their horses and prostrated themselves in the dust at the sight of their Emperor, still alive and happy.