The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 11


THE Engineer’s story whetted every one’s appetite for more. Lemois, hoping to further inspire him, left his chair, crossed the room, and began searching through the old fifteenth-century triptych to find some object of interest which would start him to talking again as entertainingly as had the carved soup bones from the Moscow prison. When he reoccupied his seat he held in his hand a small statuette in terra-cotta. This he placed on the table where the light fell full upon it.

“You overlooked this, I am afraid,” he said, addressing The Engineer. “It is one of the most precious things I own. It is a portrait of Madame de Rabutin-Chantal, the grandmother of Madame de Sévigné.” The Sévigné family were a favorite topic with the old gentleman, and anything pertaining to them of
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Lemois crossed the room and began searching through the old fifteenth-century triptych

peculiar interest to him. “You will note, I am sure, Monsieur Herbert, the marvellous carving especially in the dress and about the neck.”

Before Herbert could answer, Louis craned his head and a disgusted look overspread his face. “I hope,” he said, “she didn’t look like that, Lemois—squatty old party with a snub nose.”

Herbert, ignoring Louis’ aside, reached over and took the little image in his fingers.

“Squatty or not, Louis, it is an exquisite bit—modern Tanagra, really. Seventeenth century, isn’t it, Lemois?”

Lemois nodded. If he had heard Louis’ remark he gave no sign of the fact.

“Yes,” continued Herbert, “and wonderfully modelled. We can’t do these things now—not in this way”—and he passed it to The Engineer, who turned it upsidedown, as if it were a teacup, glanced at the bottom in search of its mark, and without a word handed it back.

Lemois replaced the precious object in the triptych, his mind still filled with his favorite topic, and, turning suddenly, wheeled a richly upholstered chair from a far corner into the light.

“And here is another relic of Madame Sévigné, monsieur. This is madame’s own chair; the one she always used when she stopped here, sometimes for days at a time, on her way to her country-seat, Les Rochers. The room which she occupied, and in which she wrote many of her famous letters, is just over our heads. If monsieur will shift his seat a little he can see the very spot in which she sat.”

But The Engineer neither shifted his seat nor rose to the bait. None of the small things of past ages appealed to him. Even mummies and the spoil of coffins three thousand years old—and he had inspected many of them—failed to stir him. It was what was built over them, and the brains and power that hoisted the stones into place, as well as the forces of wind and water—the song of the creaking crane—those were the things that thrilled him. That Herbert, after his career in the open, had contented himself with a few tools and a mass of clay was what had most surprised him when he came upon his statues in the Royal Academy.

So he kept silent until what Louis called the “bric-à-brac moment” had passed—such discussion often occurring whenever Lemois felt he had a new audience. Gradually the talk drifted into other channels. Mistaken identity and the injustice of convictions on circumstantial evidence were gone into, The Engineer recalling some of his own errors in dealing with his men in Egypt. At this Le Blanc, wandering slightly from the main topic, gave an account of a mysterious woman in white who on certain nights when the moon was bright used to descend the wide staircase of a French château which he often visited, the apparition being the ghost of a beautiful countess who had been walled up somewhere below stairs by a jealous husband, and who took this mode of publishing her wrongs to the world. Le Blanc had seen her himself, first at the head of the great staircase and then as she crept slowly down the steps and disappeared through the solid wall to the left of the baronial fireplace. His hostess, who affected not to believe in such uncanny mysteries, tried to persuade him it was merely a shaft of moonlight stencilled on the white wall, but Le Blanc scouted the explanation and was ready to affirm on his word of honor that she looked at him out of her great, round, beseeching eyes, and would, he felt assured, have spoken to him had not one of the servants opened a door at the moment and so scared her away.

I told of a somewhat similar experience in which a strong-minded Englishwoman, who laughed at ghosts and all other forms of unsavory back numbers, and a bishop of distinction were mixed up. There was a haunted room in the Devonshire country house that no one dared occupy. Another white figure prowled here, but whether man or woman, no one knew. That it was quite six feet high and broad in proportion, and had at various times scared the wits out of several nervous and semi-hysterical females who had passed the night between the sheets, all agreed. As it was the week-end, there were a goodly number of visitors and the house more or less crowded. When the haunted room was mentioned, even the bishop demurred—preferring to take the one across the corridor—he being a frequent visitor and knowing the lay of the land. The strong-minded young woman, however, jumped at the chance. She had all her life been hoping to see a ghost and, in order to allow his or her ghostship free entrance, had left the door of the haunted room unlocked when she got into bed. Despite her screwed-up courage she began to get nervous, and when she heard the door creak on its hinges and felt the cold, clammy air of the corridor on her cheek, she slid down off her pillow and ducked her head under the sheet. Then, to her horror, she felt the blanket slowly slipping away and, peering out, was frozen stiff to see a tall figure, dressed in white, standing at the foot of her bed, its long, skinny fingers clutching at the covering. Without even a groan she passed promptly into a fit of unconsciousness, known as a dead faint, where, with only a sheet over her, she lay until the cold woke her. She left by the early coach and believes to this day that she would have been strangled had she offered the slightest protest. Nor did her hostess’s letter, covering a full explanation, satisfy her. “It was not a ghost you saw, my dear, but the bishop, who wanted an extra blanket, and who jumped out of bed in search of one, and into your room, thinking it empty. It’s a mercy you didn’t scream, for then the situation could never have been explained—better say nothing about it, or, if you do—stick to its being a ghost.”

While these and other yarns were sent spinning around the table, Louis had cut in, of course, with all sorts of asides—some whispers behind his hand to his next neighbor—some squibs of criticism exploded without rhyme or reason in our midst—all jolly and diverting, but nothing approaching a story short or long.

My own and Herbert’s efforts to draw him out into something sustained brought only—“Don’t know any yarns” and “Never had anything happen to me”—followed at last by—“The only time I was ever in a tight place was when I was sketching in Perugia; then I jumped through the window and took most of the sash with me.”

“Let’s have it!” we all cried in one breath. No one was so lively and entertaining once we got him started.

“That’s all there is to it. They had locked the door on me—three of them—and when the back of the chair gave out—I was swinging it around my head—I made a break for out-of-doors.”

“Oh!—go on—go on, Louis!” came the chorus.

“No, I’d rather listen to you men. I haven’t been tattooed in the South Seas, nor half murdered rounding Cape Horn. I’m just a plain painter, and my experience is limited, and my three Perugian villains were just three dirty Italians, one of whom was the landlord who had charged me five prices for my meal, and and tried to hold me up until I paid it—only a vulgar brawl, don’t you see? The landlord had his head in splints when I passed him the next day.”

“You were lucky to escape,” said The Engineer. “They have a way of knifing you while you are asleep. I had a friend who just got out of one of those Italian dives with his life.”

“Yes, that was why I was swinging the chair. Hard for any three men to get at you if its legs and back hold out. Of course a fellow can sneak up behind you with a knife and then you— By Jingo!—come to think of it, I can tell you a story! It just popped into my head. You have brought it all back”—and he nodded to our guest—“about the closest shave—so I thought at the time—that I ever had in my life. Your ghost stories don’t hold a candle to it—stealthy assassin—intended victim sound asleep—miraculous escape!—Oh! a blood-curdler!—I was scared blue.”

Everybody shifted their chairs and craned their heads to watch Louis’ face the better, overjoyed that he had at last wakened up. Louis scared blue—and he a match for any five men—meant a tale worth hearing.

“It was the summer I made those studies of mountain brooks flowing out of the glaciers—you remember them, Herbert? Anyway, I was across the Swiss border, and in a ragged Italian town dumped down on the side of a hill as if it had been spilt from a cart—one of those sprawled-out towns with a white candle of a campanile overtopping the heap. The diligence, about sunup, had dropped me at the exact spot with my traps, and was hardly out of sight before I had started to work, and I kept it up all day, pegging away like mad, as I always do when a subject takes hold of me—and this particular mountain brook was choking the life out of me, with lots of deep greens and transparent browns all through it, and the creamy froth of a glass of beer floating on the top.

“When the sun began to sink down behind the mountains I realized that it was about time to find a place to sleep. I was at work on a 40 x 30—rather large for out-doors—and, as it would take me several days, I had arranged with a goatherd—who lived in a slant with stones enough on its roof to keep it from being blown into space—to let me store my wet canvas and my palette and box under its supports. I’d have bunked in with the goats if I’d had anything to cover me from the cold—and it gets pretty cold there at night. Then again I knew from experience that a goatherd’s sour bread and raw onions were not filling at any price. What I really wanted was two rooms in some private house, or over a wine-shop or village store, with a good bed and a place where I could work in bad weather. I had found just such a place the summer before, on the Swiss side of the mountains, belonging to an old woman who kept a cheap grocery and who gave me for a franc a day her two upper rooms—and mighty comfortable rooms they were, and with a good north light. So I hung the wet canvas where the goats couldn’t lick off my undertones, shouldered my knapsack, and started downhill to the village.

“I found that the red-tiled houses followed a tangle of streets, no two of them straight, but all twisting in and out with an eye on the campanile, and so I struck into the crookedest, wormed my way around back stoops, water barrels, and stone walls with a ripening pumpkin here and there lolling over their edges, and reached the church porch just as the bell was ringing for vespers. When you want to get any information in an Italian village, you go to the priest, and if he is out, or busy, or checking off some poor devil’s sins—and he has plenty of it to do—then hunt up the sacristan.

“There must have been an extra load of peccadilloes on hand that night, for I didn’t find his reverence, nor the sacristan, nor anybody connected with the church. What I did find was a chap squatting against one side of the door with a tray on his lap filled with little medals and rosaries—and a most picturesque-looking chap he was. His feet were tied up in raw hides; his head bound in a red cotton handkerchief, over which was smashed a broad-brimmed sombrero; his waist was gripped with another to match; his lank body squeezed into a shrunken blue jacket, and his shambly legs wobbled about in yellow breeches. The sombrero shaded two cunning, monkey eyes, a hooked nose, a wavering mouth, and a beard a week old. It was his smile, though, that tickled my funny-bone, and this happened when he held up the tray for my inspection—one of those creepy, oily smiles that spread slowly over his dirty, soapy face, like the swirl of oil and turpentine which floats over a basin of suds when you wash your brushes.

“Not a very inviting person;—a loafer, a lazzaroni, a dead-beat of a dago, really—and yet my heart warmed to him all the same when he answered me with enough French sandwiched between his ‘o’s’ and ‘i’s’ to help out my bad Italian. What finally trickled from his wrinkled lips was the disappointing announcement that no hostelry at all worthy of the Distinguished Signore existed in the village, nor was there money enough in the place for any one of the inhabitants to have a surplus of anything—rooms especially—but there was—here the oily smile overran the soap-suddy face—a most excellent casino kept by an equally excellent citizen where travellers were wont to stay overnight; that it was up a back street—they were all ‘back’ so far as I had seen—and that, if the Distinguished Signore would permit, he would curtail the sale of his religious relics long enough to conduct his D. S. to the very door.

“So we started, the vendor of ‘helps to piety’ ahead and I following behind, my knapsack over my shoulder. I soon discovered that if the casino was up a back street he was going a long way round to reach it. First he dived into an alley behind the mouldy, plaster-pockmarked church—the candle-stick of the campanile—ducked under an archway—‘sotto portico,’ he called it—opened out into a field, struck across a little bridge into another street—hardly a soul about, nothing alive—nothing except dogs and children—all of which he explained was a short cut. For some time his dodging made no impression on me; then the way he rounded the corners and hugged the shadowed side of the street, away from the few dim lamps, set me to wondering as to his intentions. What the devil did he mean by picking out these blind alleys? He must have seen that I was no tenderfoot or tourist who had lost his way.

“With this I began to fix certain landmarks in my memory in case I had to make my way back alone. There was no question now in my mind as to the town’s character. Half the murders and hold-ups in the large cities are concocted in these villages, and this had rascality stamped all over it. Every corner I turned looked more forbidding than the last—every street seemed to end in a trap—the kind of street a scene-painter tries to produce when he has a murder up a back alley to provide for the third act. And crooked!—well, the tracks of a bunch of fishworms crawling out from under a brick were straight compared to it. When I at last protested—for I was getting ravenous and I must say a trifle uneasy—the beggar bowed low enough for me to see the tail of his jacket over his sombrero, and gave as a reason that any other route would have greatly fatigued the signore, all of which he must have known was a lie. The fact was that if I had known how to get out of the tangle, I would have lifted him by the scruff of his neck and the slack of his trousers and dropped him into the first convenient hole.

“When he did come to a halt I found myself before a low two-story ruin of a house—almost the last house in the village, and on the opposite edge from that which I had entered on my way to the church. It was evidently a common road house, the customary portico covered with grape-vines and a square room on the ground floor, containing one or more tables. In the rear, so I discovered later, was a dreary yard corralling a few scraggly trees—one overhanging a slanting shed under which the cooking was done—and below this tree an assortment of chairs and tables under an arbor, where a bottle of wine and a bit of cheese or bunch of grapes were served when the sun was hot.

“It was now quite dark, and my guide had some difficulty in getting his fingers on the latch of the garden gate. When it swung open I followed up a short path and found myself in a square room which was lighted by a single lamp. Under this sat another oily Italian, in his shirt-sleeves, eating from an earthen bowl. Not a picturesque-looking chap at all, but a fat, swarthy lump of a man with small, restless eyes, stub nose, and flabby lips—one of those fellows you think is fast asleep until you catch him studying you from under his eyebrows, and begin to look out for his knife. The only other occupant of the room was a woman who was filling his glass from a straw-covered flask—a thin, flat-bosomed woman who stooped when she walked, and who sneaked a glance at me now and then from one side of her nose. I might better have slept in the slant and bunked in with the goats.

“My guide bent down and whispered a word in his ear; the man jumped up—looked me all over—a boring, sizing-up look—like a farmer guessing the weight of a steer—bowed grandiloquently, and with an upward flourish of his hand put his house, his fortune, and his future happiness at my feet. There were bread and wine, and cheese and grapes; and there were also eggs, and it might be a slice of pork. As for chicken—he would regret to his dying day that none was within his reach. Would I take my repast in the house at the adjoining table, or would I have a lamp lighted in the arbor and eat under the trees?

“I preferred the lamp, of course, under the trees; picked up the flask of wine, poured out a glass for my guide, which he drank at a gulp, and handed him a franc for his trouble. The woman gave a sidelong glance at the coin and followed him out into the garden; there the two stood whispering. On her return, while she passed close enough to me to graze my arm, she never once raised her eyes, but kept her face averted until she had hidden herself in the kitchen.

“I had selected the garden for two reasons: I wanted the air and I wanted to know something more of my surroundings. What I saw—and I could see now the more clearly, for the moon had risen over the mountain—were two rear windows on the second floor, their sills level with the sloping shed, and a tree with its branches curved over its roof. This meant ventilation and a view of the mountains at sunrise—always a delight to me. It also meant an easy escape out the window, over the roof, and down the tree-trunk to the garden, and so on back to the goatherd if anything unusual should happen. That, however, could take care of itself. The sensible thing to do was to eat my supper, order my coffee to be ready at six o’clock, go to bed in one of these rear rooms, and get back to my work before the heat became intense.

“All this was carried out—that is, the first part of it. I had the rear room, the one I had picked out for myself, not by my choice but by his, the landlord selecting it for me; it would be cooler, he said, and then I could sleep with my window open, free from the dust which sometimes blew in the front windows when the wind rose—and it was rising now, as the signore could hear. Yes, I should be called at six, and my coffee would be ready—and ‘may the good God watch over your slumbers, most Distinguished of Excellencies.’

“This comforting information was imparted as I followed him up a break-neck stair and down a long, narrow corridor, ending in a small hall flanked by two bedroom doors. The first was mine—and so was the candle which he now placed in my hand—and ‘will your Excellency be careful to see that it is properly blown out before your Excellency falls asleep?’ and so I bade him good-night, pushed in the door, held the sputtering candle high above my head, and began to look around.

“It wouldn’t have filled your soul with joy. Had I not been tired out with my day’s work I would have called him back, read the riot act, and made him move in some comforts. The only things which could be considered furniture were a heavy oaken chest and a solid wooden bed—a box of a bed with a filling of feathers supporting two hard pillows. And that was every blessed thing the room contained except a toy pitcher and basin decorating the top of the chest; a white cotton curtain stretched across the lower sash of the single window; a nail for my towel, a row of wooden pegs for my clothes, and a square of looking-glass which once had the measles. Not a chair of any kind, no table, no wash-stand. This was a place in which to sleep, not sit nor idle in. Off with your clothes and into bed—and no growling.

“I walked to the open window, pushed aside the cotton curtain, and looked out on the sloping shed and overhanging tree, and the garden below, all clear and distinct in the light of the moon. I could see now that the tree had either prematurely lost its leaves or was stone dead. The branches, too, were bent as if in pain.

“The correct drawing of trees, especially of their limbs and twig ends, has always been a fad of mine, and the twistings of this old scrag were so unusual, and the tree itself so gnarled and ugly, that I let my imagination loose, wondering whether, like the villagers, it was suffering from some unconfessed sin, and whether fear of the future and the final bonfire, which overtakes most of us sooner or later, was not the cause of its writhings. With this I blew out the candle and crawled into bed, where I lay thinking over the events of the evening and laughing at myself for being such a first-class ass until I fell asleep.

“How long I slept I do not know, but when I woke it was with a start, all my faculties about me. What I heard was the sound of steps on the shed outside my window—creaking, stealthy steps as of a man’s weight bending the supports of the flimsy shed. I raised myself cautiously on my elbow and looked about me. The square of moonlight which had patterned the floor when I first entered the room was gone, although the moon was still shining. This showed me that I had slept some time. I noticed, too, that the wind had risen, although very little seemed to penetrate the apartment, the curtains only flopping gently in the draught.

“I lay motionless, hardly breathing. Had I heard aright—or was it a dream? Again came the stealthy tread, and then the shadow of a hand crept across the curtain. This sent me sitting bolt upright in bed. There was no question now—some deviltry was in the air.

“I slid from under the cover, dropped to the floor, flattened myself to the matting, worked my body to the window-sill, and stood listening. He must have heard me, for there came a sudden halt and a quick retreat. Then all was silent.

“I waited for some minutes, reached up with one hand and gently lowered the sash a foot or more, leaving room enough for me to throw it up and spring out, but not room enough for him to slide in without giving me warning. If the brute tried it again I would paste myself to the wall next the sash where I could see him, and he not see me, and as he ducked his head to crawl in I’d hit him with all my might; that would put him to sleep long enough for me to dress, catch up my traps, and get away.

“Again the step and the shadow. This time he stopped before he reached the window-sill. He had evidently noticed the difference in the height of the sash. Then followed a hurried retreating footstep on the roof. I craned my head an inch or more to see how big he was, but I was too late—he had evidently dropped to the garden below.

“I remained glued to the window-jamb and waited. I’d watch now for his head when he pulled himself up on the roof. If it were the lumpy landlord, the best plan was to plant the flat of my boot in the pit of his stomach—that would double him up like a bent pillow. If it was the brigand with the rosaries, or some of his cut-throat friends, I would try something else. I had no question now that I had been enticed here for the express purpose of doing me up while I was asleep. The mysterious way in which I had been piloted proved it; so did my guide’s evident anxiety to avoid being seen by any of the inhabitants. Then there bobbed up in my mind the cool, sizing-up glance of the landlord as he looked me over. This clinched my suspicions. I was in for a scrap and a lively one. If there were two of them, I’d give them both barrels straight from the shoulder; if there were three or more, I’d fight my way out with a chair, as I had done at Perugia.

“With this I came to a sudden halt and moved to the middle of the room. There I stood, straining my eyes in the dim light, hoping to find something with which to brain the gang should they come in a bunch. I took hold of the bed and shook it—the posts and back were as solid as a cart body. The chest was worse—neither of them could be whirled around my head as a club, as I had used the chair at Perugia. Next I tried the door, and found it without lock or bolt—in fact it swung open as noiselessly and easily as if it had been greased. The toy pitcher and basin came next—too small even to throw at a cat. It was a case, then, of bare fists and the devil take the hindmost.

“With this clear in my mind, I laid the pitcher on the floor within an inch of the door, so that the edge would strike it if opened, and again raised the window high enough for me to jump through. I could, of course, have dragged the chest across the door, as a girl would have done, put the basin and pitcher on top, and shoved the head-board of the bed against the window-sash—but this I was ashamed to do; and then, again, the whole thing might be a blooming farce—one I would laugh over in the morning.

“The question now arose whether I should get into my clothes, walk boldly down the corridor, and make a break through the kitchen and square room, with the risk of being stabbed in the garden, or whether I should stick it out until morning. Inside, I could choose my fighting ground; outside was a different thing. Then, again, daylight was not far off.

“I decided to hold the fort; slipped into my clothes—all but my coat—packed my knapsack, laid the basin within striking distance of the pitcher, placed the candle and matches close to my hand, stretched myself on the bed, and, strange as it may seem to you, again dropped off to sleep; only to find myself again sitting bolt upright in bed, my heart pounding away like a trip-hammer, my ears wide open.

“More footsteps!—this time in the corridor. I slid out of bed, crept to the door, and pulled myself together. When the pitcher and basin came together with a clink, he would get it behind the ear—all at once—ker-chunk! He was so close now that I heard his fingers feeling around in the dark for the knob. A steady, gentle push with his hand near the key-hole, and he could then steal in without waking me. Whether he smelt me or not I do not know, for I made no sound—not even with my breath—but he came to a dead halt, backed away, rose to his feet and tiptoed down the corridor.

“That settled all sleep for the night, and it was just as well, for the day was breaking—first the gray, pallid light, then the yellow, and then the rose tint. Nothing like a sunrise to put a fellow’s ghosts to flight. So I picked up the basin and pitcher, unhooked my towel, had a wash, finished dressing, leaned out of the window for a while watching the rising sun warm up the little snow peaks one after another, and, shouldering my trap, started along the corridor and so on downstairs.

“The pot-bellied lump of a scoundrel was waiting for me in the square room. He gave me the same keen, scrutinizing look with which he had welcomed me the night before. This time it began with my hair and ended at my boots, which were still muddy from the tramp of the previous evening.

“‘I am sorry, your Excellency,’ he said, ‘but if you had left your shoes outside your door I could have polished them; I was afraid of disturbing you or I should have hunted for them inside.’”

Louis, as he finished, settled his big shoulders back in the chair until it creaked with his weight, and ran his eye around the table waiting for the explosion which he knew would follow. All we could do was to stare helplessly in his face. Le Blanc, who hadn’t drawn a full breath since the painter began, found his voice first.

“And he didn’t intend cutting your throat?” he roared indignantly.

“No, of course not—I never said he did. I said I was scared blue, and I was—real indigo. Oh!—an awful night—hardly got an hour’s sleep.”

“But what about the fellow on the shed, and his footsteps, and the shadow of the hand?” demanded Brierley, wholly disappointed at the outcome of the yarn.

“There was no fellow, Brierley, and no footsteps.” This came in mild, gentle tones, as if the hunter’s credulity were something surprising. “I thought you understood. It was the scraping of the dead tree against the roof of the shed that made the creaking noise; the hand was the shadow cast by the end of a bunched-up branch swaying in the wind. The same thing occurred the next night and on every moonlight night for a week after—as long as I stayed.”

“And what became of the soap-suddy brigand with the rosaries?” inquired The Engineer calmly, looking at Louis over the bowl of his pipe, a queer smile playing around his lips.

“Oh, a ripping good fellow,” returned Louis in the same innocent, childlike tone—“a real comfort; best in the village outside the landlord and his wife, with whom I stayed two weeks. Brought me my luncheon every day and crawled up a breakneck hill to do it, and then kept on two miles to mail my letters.”

“Well, but Louis,” I exclaimed, “what a mean, thin, fake of a yarn; no point, no plot—no nothing but a string of——

“Yes, High-Muck, quite true—no plot, no nothing; but it is as good as your bogus ghosts and shivering bishops. And then I always had my doubts about that bishop, High-Muck. I’ve heard you tell that story before, and it has always struck me as highly improper. I don’t wonder the girl was scared to death and skipped the next morning. And the gay old bishop! Felt cold, did he?” and Louis threw back his head and laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks.