The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 1
“HOW many did you say?” inquired Lemois, our landlord.
“Five for dinner, and perhaps one more. I will know when the train gets in. Have the fires started in the bedrooms and please tell Mignon and old Leà to put on their white caps.”
We were in the Marmouset at the moment—the most enchanting of all the rooms in this most enchanting of all Normandy inns. Lemois was busying himself about the table, selecting his best linen and china—an old Venetian altar cloth and some Nancy ware—replacing the candles in the hanging chandelier, and sorting the silver and glass. Every one of my expected guests was personally known to him; some of them for years. All had shared his hospitality, and each and every one appreciated its rare value. Nothing was too good for them, and nothing should be left undone which would add to their comfort.
I had just helped him light the first blaze in the big baronial fireplace, an occupation I revel in, for to me the kindling of a fire is the gathering of half a dozen friends together, each log nudging his neighbor, the cheer of good comradeship warming them all. And a roaring fire it was when I had piled high the logs, swept the hearth, and made it ready for the choice spirits who were to share it with me. For years we have had our outings—or rather our “in-tings” before it—red-letter days for us in which the swish of a petticoat is never heard, and we are free to enjoy a “man’s time” together; red-letter days, too, in the calendar of the Inn, when even Lemois, tired out with the whirl of the season, takes on a new lease of life.
His annual rejuvenation began at dawn to-day, when he disappeared in the direction of the market and returned an hour later with his procession of baskets filled with fish and lobsters fresh out of the sea a mile away (caught at daylight), some capons, a string of pigeons, and an armful of vegetables snatched in the nick of time from the early grave of an impending frost.
As for the more important items, the Chablis Moutonne and Roumanée Conti—rare Burgundies—they were still asleep in their cobwebs on a low Spanish bench that had once served as a temporary resting-place outside a cardinal’s door.
Until to-night Lemois and I have dined in the kitchen. You would too could you see it. Not by any manner of means the sort of an interior the name suggests, but one all shining brass, rare pottery, copper braziers, and resplendent pewter, reflecting the dancing blaze of a huge open hearth with a spit turned by the weight of a cannon ball fired by the British, and on which—the spit, not the ball—are roasted the joints, chickens, and game for which the Inn is famous, Pierre, the sole remaining chef—there are three in the season—ineffectually cudgelling his French pate under his short-cropped, shoe-brush hair for some dish better than the last.
Because, however, of the immediate gathering of the clan, I have abandoned the kitchen and have shifted my quarters to the Marmouset. Over it up a steep, twisted staircase with a dangling rope for banisters is my bedroom, the Chambre de Cure, next to the Chambre de Officier—where the gluttonous king tossed on his royal bed (a true story, I am told, with all the details set forth in the State Archives of France). Mine has a high-poster with a half lambrequin, or bed curtain, that being all Lemois could find, and he being too honest an antiquary to piece it out with modern calico or chintz. My guests, of course, will take their pick of the adjoining rooms—Madame Sévigné’s, Grèvin’s, the Chambre du Roi, and the others—and may thank their stars that it is not a month back. Then, even if they had written ten days ahead, they would have been received with a shrug—one of Lemois’ most engaging shrugs tinged with grief—at his inability to provide better accommodation for their comfort, under which one could have seen a slight trace of suppressed glee at the prosperity of the season. They would then doubtless have been presented with a massive key unlocking the door of a box of a bedroom over the cake-shop, or above the apothecary’s, or next to the man who mends furniture—all in the village of Dives itself.
And now a word about the Inn itself—even before I tell you of the Arm-Chair or the man who sat in it or the others of the clan who listened and talked back.
Not the low-pitched, smothered-in-ivy Kings Arms you knew on the Thames, with its swinging sign, horse-block, and the rest of it; nor the queer sixteenth-century tavern in that Dutch town on the Maas, with its high wainscoting, leaded window-panes, and porcelain stove set out with pewter flagons—not that kind of an inn at all.
This one bolsters up one corner of a quaint little town in Normandy; is faced by walls of sombre gray stone loop-holed with slits of windows, topped by a row of dormers, with here and there a chimney, and covers an area as large as a city block, the only break in its monotony being an arched gate-way in which swing a pair of big iron-bound doors. These are always open, giving the passer-by a glimpse of the court within.
You will be disappointed, of course, when you drive up to it on a summer’s day. You will think it some public building supported by the State—a hospital or orphan asylum—and, tourist-like, will search for the legend deep cut in the key-stone of the archway to reassure yourself of its identity. Nobody can blame you—hundreds have made that same mistake, I among them.
But don’t lose heart—keep on through the gate, take a dozen steps into the court-yard and look about, and if you have any red corpuscles left in your veins you will get a thrill that will take your breath away. Spread out before you lies a flower-choked yard flanked about on three sides by a chain of moss-encrusted, red-tiled, seesaw roofs, all out of plumb. Below, snug under the eaves, runs a long go-as-you-please corridor, dodging into a dozen or more bedrooms. Below this again, as if tired out with the weight, staggers a basement from which peer out windows of stained glass protected by Spanish grills of polished iron, their leaded panes blinking in the sunshine, while in and out, up the door-jambs, over the lintels, along the rain-spouts, even to the top of the ridge-poles of the wavy, red-tiled roofs, thousands of blossoms and tangled vines are running riot.
And this is not all. Close beside you stands a fuchsia-covered, shingle-hooded, Norman well, and a little way off a quaint kiosk roofed with flowering plants, and near by a great lichen-covered bust of Louis VI, to say nothing of dozens of white chairs and settees grouped against a background of flaring reds and brilliant greens. And then, with a gasp of joy, you follow the daring flight of a giant feather-blown clematis in a clear leap from the ground, its topmost tendrils throttling the dormers.
Even then your surprises are not over. You have yet to come in touch with the real spirit of the Inn, and be introduced to our jewel of a dining-room, the “Marmouset,” opening flat to the ground and hidden behind a carved oaken door mounted in hammered iron: a low-ceilinged, Venetian-beamed room, with priceless furniture, tapestries, and fittings—chairs, tables, wainscoting of carved oak surmounted by Spanish leather; quaint andirons, mirrors, arms, cabinets, silver, glass, and china; all of them genuine and most of them rare, for Lemois, our landlord, has searched the Continent from end to end.
Yes!—a great inn this inn of William the Conqueror at Dives, and unique the world over. You will be ready now to believe all its legends and traditions, and you can quite understand why half the noted men of Europe have, at one time or another, been housed within its hospitable walls, including such exalted personages as Louis XI and Henry IV—the latter being the particular potentate who was laid low with a royal colic from a too free indulgence in the seductive oyster—not to mention such rare spirits as Molière, Dumas, George Sand, Daubigny, as well as most of the litterateurs, painters, and sculptors of France, including the immortal Grèvin, many of whose drawings decorate the walls of one of the garden kiosks, and whose apartment still bears his name.
And not only savants and men of rank and letters, but the frivolous world of to-day—the flotsam and jetsam of Trouville, Houlgate, and Cabourg—have gathered here in the afternoon for tea in the court-yard, their motors crowding the garage, and at night in the Marmouset when, under the soft glow of overhead candles falling on bare shoulders and ravishing toilettes, laughter and merry-making extend far into the small hours. At night, too, out in the gardens, what whisperings and love-makings in the soft, starry air!—what seductive laughter and little half-smothered screams! And then the long silences with only the light of telltale cigarettes to mark their hiding-places!
All summer this goes on until one fine morning the most knowing, or the most restless, or the poorest of these gay birds of passage (the Inn is not a benevolent institution) spreads its wings and the flight begins. The next day the court is empty, as are all the roosting-places up and down the shore. Then everybody at the Inn takes a long breath—the first they have had for weeks.
About this time, too, the crisp autumn air, fresh from the sea, begins to blow, dulling the hunger for the open. The mad whirl of blossoms no longer intoxicates. Even the geraniums, which have flamed their bravest all summer, lose their snap and freshness; while the blue and pink hydrangeas hang their heads, tired out with nodding to so many passers-by: they, too, are paying the price; you can see it in their faces. Only the sturdy chrysanthemums are rejoicing in the first frost, while the more daring of the roses are unbuckling their petals ready to fight their way through the perils of an October bloom.
It is just at this blessed moment that I move in and settle down with my companions, for now that the rush is over, and the little Normandy maids and the older peasant women who have served the hungry and thirsty mob all summer, as well as two of the three French cooks, have gone back to their homes, we have Leà, Mignon, and Pierre all to ourselves.
I put dear old Leà first because it might as well be said at once that without her loving care life at the Inn, with all its comforts, would be no life at all—none worth living. Louis, the running-water painter, known as the Man in High-Water Boots—one of the best beloved of our group—always insists that in the days gone by Leà occupied a pedestal at the main entrance of the twelfth-century church at the end of the street, and is out for a holiday. In proof he points out the empty pedestal set in a niche, and has even gone so far as to pencil her name on the rough stone.
Mignon, however, he admits, is a saint of another kind—a dainty, modest, captivating little maid, who looks at you with her wondering blue eyes, and who is as shy as a frightened gazelle. There is a young fisherman named Gaston, a weather-tanned, frank, fearless fellow who knows all about these eyes. He brings the fish to the Inn—those he catches himself—and Mignon generally manages to help in their unpacking. It is not a part of her duty. Her special business is to make everybody happy; to crack the great white sugar-loaf into bits with a pair of pincers—no machine-made dominoes for Lemois—and to turn the coffee-roaster—an old-fashioned, sheet-iron drum swinging above a brazier of hot coals—and to cool its contents by tossing them in a pan—much as an Egyptian girl winnows wheat. It is a pity you never tasted her coffee, served in the garden—old Leà on the run with it boiling-hot to your table. You might better have stopped what you were doing and taken steamer for Havre and the Inn. You would never have regretted it.
Nor would you even at this late hour regret any one of the dishes made by Pierre, the chef. And now I think of it, it is but fair to tell you that if you repent the delay and show a fit appreciation of his efforts, or come properly endorsed (I’ll give you a letter), he may, perhaps, invite you into his kitchen which I have just vacated, a place of such various enticing smells from things baking, broiling, and frying; with unforgettable, appetizing whiffs of burnt sugar, garlic, fine herbs, and sherry, to say nothing of the flavors of bowls of mayonnaise, heaps of chopped onions, platters of cream—even a basket of eggs still warm from the nest—that the memory of it will linger with you for the rest of your days.
Best of all at this season, we have quite to ourselves that prince of major-domos, our landlord, Lemois. For as this inn is no ordinary inn, this banquet room no ordinary room, and this kitchen no ordinary kitchen, so, too, is Monsieur Lemois no ordinary landlord. A small, gray, gently moving, low-voiced man with thoughtful, contented face, past the prime of life; a passionate lover of animals, flowers, and all beautiful things; quick of temper, but over in a moment; a poet withal, yet a man with so quaint a humor and of so odd a taste, and so completely absorbed in his pets, cuisine, garden, and collection, that it is easy to believe that when he is missed from his carnal body, he will be found wandering as a ghost among these very flower-beds or looking down from the walls of the Marmouset—doubtless an old haunt of his prior to this his latest incarnation. Only here would he be really happy, and only here, perhaps, among his treasures, would he be fully understood.
One of the rarest of these—a superb Florentine chair—the most important chair he owns, stood within reach of my hand as I sat listening to him before the crackling blaze.
“Unquestionably of the sixteenth century!” he exclaimed with his customary enthusiasm, as I admired it anew, for, although I had heard most of it many times, I am always glad to listen, so quaint are his descriptions of everything he owns, and so sincerely does he believe in the personalities and lineage of each individual piece.
“I found it,” he continued, “in a little chapel in Ravenna. For years it had stood outside the cabinet of Alessandro, one of the Florentine dukes. Think of all the men and women who have sat in it, and of all the cruel and anxious thoughts that raced through their brains while they waited for an audience with the tyrant! Nothing like a chair for stirring up old memories and traditions. And do you see the carved heads on the top! I assure you they are alive! I have caught them smiling or frowning too often at the talk around my table not to know. Once when De Bouf, the great French clown was here, the head next you came near splitting itself in two over his grimaces, and when Marcot told one of his pathetic stories that other one wept such tears that I had to mop them up to keep the velvet from being spoilt. You don’t believe it?—you laugh! Ah!—that is just like you modern writers—you do not believe anything—you have no imagination! You must measure things with a rule! You must have them drawn on the blackboard! It is because you do not see them as they are. You shut your eyes and ears to the real things of life; it is because you cannot understand that it is the soul of the chair that laughs and weeps. Monsieur Herbert will not think it funny. He understands these queer heads—and, let me tell you, they understand him. I have often caught them nodding and winking at each other when he says something that pleases them. He has himself seen things much more remarkable. That is the reason why he is the only one of all who enters this room worthy to sit in it.”
“You like Herbert, then?” I interrupted, knowing just what he would say.
“How absurd, my dear friend! You like a filet, and a gown on a woman—but you don’t like a man. You love him—when he is a man!—and Monsieur Herbert is all that. It is the English in him which counts. Since he was fourteen years of age he has been roaming around the world doing everything a man could to make his bread—and he a gentleman born, with his father’s house to go home to if he pleased. Yet he has been farm-hand, acrobat, hostler, sailor before the mast, newspaper reporter, next four years in Africa among the natives; then painter, and now, at forty-five, after only six years’ practice, one of the great sculptors of France, with his work in the Luxembourg and the ribbon of the Legion in his button-hole! Have I not the right to say that he is a man? And one thing more: not for one moment has he ever lost the good heart and the fine manner of the gentleman. Ah! that is most extraordinary of all, when you think of the adventures and hair-breadth escapes and sufferings he has gone through! Did he ever tell you of his stealing a ride in Australia on a locomotive tender to get to Sydney, two hundred miles away?”
I shook my head.
“Well—get him to tell you. You will be so sorry for him, even now, that you cannot keep the tears from your eyes. Listen! There goes the scream of his horn—and I wager you, too, that he brings that delightful wild man, Monsieur Louis, with him.”