Mastering a bicycle – in private! (1869)

Mastering a bicycle – in private!

Aristocratic wielders of the pen have seized hold of an accident or two, and the reckless riding of a few enthusiasts, to make them handles for a wholesale condemnation of the velocipede. This piece of mechanism may certainly be an intrusion, but for all that it seems to have its good qualities; and as to the objections that have been made to its use, — well, upon racking one’s brains a little it is possible to recall objections having been made to steam in days gone by. Tramways have been driven off our roads, but they are trying to creep back; perambulators have been crushed endlessly, and they certainly are unpleasant when the fore-wheel is thrust between your legs and you feel about to be transformed into a baby murderer; but perambulators increase in number fast, as do their occupants, and the green four-wheeler that fathers of families used to draw about on Sundays is now a thing of the past. And doubtless, if some opponent of the good old conservative notions of England were to introduce a comfortable street cab, to take the place of the hideous jangling vehicles of the present day, he would be cried down, — perhaps ruined.

For my part, being a very- mild, inquisitive individual, I have felt rather disposed to welcome the new means of locomotion, and mentally exclaimed, “How delightful to spin along upon land more independently than the Rob Roy canoe on water! How glorious to be free of tolls, ostlers, taxes, and trouble! To ride where one listeth, and then, — ‘double up your perambulator.’ The name was enough to tempt one to invest, so I bought a ‘bicycle,’ and anxiously smuggled it into the little coach-house, ready for an opportunity of trying its paces.

Being such a revolutionary method of going over the ground one naturally felt a delicacy about appearing in public until able to perform with grace and effect. Here was a difficulty: privacy was required, but not to be obtained. I had learned skating upon a ditch, riding in a school, dancing in so many private lessons; but velocipeding how was it to be attained? A garden seventy feet by thirty, with narrow gravel paths at right angles, was certainly not adapted; and, besides, inquisitive people could have looked over the walls. One could not do it in a room, — what was to be done?

I had that horrible vehicle in bed with me for nights. There was a complete reverse of circumstances; it sat upon me, nightmare fashion, instead of me riding it; I dreamed of it, and saw myself ignominiously dragged off to the station-house for bowling my hoops upon the pavement. I saw myself brought to ruin by people thrusting walking sticks in my spokes. I was laughed at; shouted after; hunted by a mob of boys, who would catch me, paddle hard as I would; and time after time I sat up in bed in a violent state of perspiration, avowing that I would either burn or sell the thing which threatened to be the bane of my existence.

Weeks passed, and the bicycle had not even been looked at without a shudder, when one bright, frosty night, about eleven, when taking my customary look out before retiring, the thought occurred to me, ‘why not try in the dark?’

Why indeed? Five minutes after I was stealing down to the coach-house, and trying to smuggle the thing out, but the doors would creak horribly, and the wheels grated upon the gravel. I knew that another sound would bring people right and left, to their windows anticipating doctors or fire-engines; so, hugging my enemy in my arms, I bore it to the railings lifted it over, tearing my coat in the act, and then followed it into the road.

We are to have gas our way, but at present it is under consideration; and upon this dark, cold night, as I stood beside my vehicle, looking in all directions cautiously as a burglar, suddenly a light was thrown full upon me, and from behind it a gruff voice inquired, —“What’s your little game?” Game indeed it was no sport, but a piece of serious earnest; and it was only with difficulty that I induced police-constable John Dorhead to believe that this was not an infernal machine, and that he might turn off his bull’s-eye and leave me to my own devices.

The ground was dry and hard, — O, how hard! — and lifting the incubus once more, I made the best of my way beyond the last house. Pausing for breath, I set the thing down, straddled across it, settled myself in my seat, and then, — well, then I went forward, very slowly, walking upon the tips of my toes and taking the thing along with me. I knew I ought to give myself a good start, thrust my feet upon the treadles, and then go along rapidly. I say I knew all this, but that was all. If I lifted one’ leg from the ground, I inclined that side; if I lifted the other, the inclination was but the reverse; and as to taking both feet up, I freely confess it, I dared not.

However, I got on slowly, with the thing between my legs, telling myself that I was progressing fast; and I chuckled as I congratulated myself upon the fact of my being unobserved. At last, as time was getting on, I grew more daring, and made a rush, performing a wild curve which sent me into the ditch on the left, while the next attempt sent me into the hedge on the right. ‘Perseverance conquers in the end,’ I muttered, as I prepared for another try; and so I went on until, conceiving that I had done pretty well for one night, and that even if I had acquired no skill I had done something towards overcoming my timidity, I turned back and walked, or rather waddled, the instrument till I reached the top of the hill, where I paused to consider.

Should I? Shouldn’t I? There was nothing to do but to sit firmly and to steer carefully and it would go down hill of itself. The maker told me that the faster I went the safer. If I meant to learn, I must be a little bold, I’d a good mind to let it go, and I walked it down a few yards. Why, even if I did fall, I could not hurt myself much; it was not like being upon a restive horse, and being dragged by the stirrups, and, — wasn’t it, though! I only lifted my legs for an instant to touch the treadles when the wretch of a thing was off down the incline. Mazeppa’s ride was nothing to it; the bicycle cycled, the wind rushed past my ears, and I believe I shouted, ” Stop it” feeling for the moment that I was off at express speed; then there was a crash, a sudden halt, and O, how hard and firm was that new road!

“I thought you’d get up to something afore you’d done,” said a gruff voice, and once more I was illuminated. I only groaned as I asked the constable to assist me in with my wheels of misfortune. I did not scruple about making a noise now, all I wanted was to get the thing locked up, and to go and bathe that large lump swelling upon my noble forehead; but I believe the fellow was grinning when I gave him a shilling. I don’t know whether mind or body was the sorer the next morning, but I was very ill at ease, and said to myself, “here’s a lesson for me,” while I ran over in my own mind the list of my enemies, being at last fully determined to send my compliments to the gentleman who cut up my last book, and with my compliments the gift of the bicycle. Humbly and sincerely I trust that he may not break his neck.

(Every Saturday, Vol. 8, 1869, p. 62)

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