The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 2

II
THE WOOD FIRE AND ITS FRIENDS

TWO men burst in.

Herbert, compact, wellknit, ruddy, simple in his bearing and manner; Louis, broad-shouldered, strong as a bull, and bubbling over with unrepressed merriment. Both were muffled to their chins—Herbert in his fur motor-coat, his cap drawn close over his steady gray eyes; Louis in his big sketching-cloak and hood and a pair of goggles which gave him so owlish a look that both Mignon and Leà broke out laughing at the sight.

“Fifty miles an hour, High-Muck” (I am High-Muck) “this brute of a Herbert kept up. Everything went by in a blur; but for these gig-lamps I’d be stone blind.”

The brace and the snap of the crisp autumn air clinging to their clothes suddenly permeated the room as with electricity. Even slow-moving Lemois felt its vivifying current as he hurriedly dragged the Florentine nearer the fire.

“See, Monsieur Herbert, the chair has been waiting for you. I have kept even Monsieur High-Muck out of it.”

“That’s very good of you, Lemois,” returned the sculptor as he handed Leà his coat and gloves and settled himself in its depths. “I’m glad to get back to it. What the chair thinks about it is another thing—make it tell you some time.”

“But it has—only last night one of the heads was saying——

“None of that, Lemois,” laughed Louis, abreast of the fireplace now, his fingers outspread to the blaze. “Too many wooden heads talking around here as it is. I don’t, of course, object to Herbert’s wobbling around in its upholstered magnificence, but he can’t play doge and monopolize everything. Shove your high-backed pulpit with its grinning cherubs to one side, I tell you, Herbert, and let me warm up”—and off came the cloak and goggles, his broad shoulders and massive arms coming into view. Then tossing them to Mignon, he turned to me.

“There’s one thing you’re good for, High-Muck-a-Muck, if nothing else, and that is to keep a fire going. If I wanted to find you, and there was a chimney within a mile, I’d be sure you were sitting in front of the hearth with the tongs in your hand”—here he kicked a big log into place bringing to life a swarm of sparks that blazed out a welcome and then went laughing up the chimney. “By thunder!—isn’t this glorious! Crowd up, all of you—this is the best yet! Lemois, won’t you please shove just a plain, little chair this way for me? No—come to think of it, I’ll take half of Herbert’s royal throne,” and he squeezed in beside the sculptor, one leg dangling over the arm of the Florentine.

Herbert packed himself the closer and the talk ran on: the races at Cabourg and Trouville; the big flight of wild geese which had come a month earlier than usual, and last, the season which had just closed with the rush of fashion and folly, in which chatter Lemois had joined.

“And the same old crowd, of course, Lemois?” suggested Herbert; “and always doing the same things—coffee at nine, breakfast at twelve, tea at five, dinner at eight, and bridge till midnight! Extraordinary, isn’t it! I’d rather pound oakum in a country jail.”

“Some of them will,” remarked Louis with a ruminating smile. “And it was a good season, you say, Lemois?” he continued; “lots of people shedding shekels and lots of tips for dear old Leà? That’s the best part of it. And did they really order good things—the beggars?—or had you cleaned them out of their last franc on their first visit? Come now—how many Pêche-Flambées, for instance, have you served, Lemois, to the mob since July—and how many demoiselles de Cherbourg—those lovely little girl lobsters without claws?”

“Do you mean the on-shore species—those you find in the hotels at Trouville?” returned Lemois, rubbing his hands together, his thoughtful face alight with humor. “We have two varieties, you know, Monsieur Louis—the on-shore—the Trouville kind who always bring their claws with them—you can feel them under their kid gloves.”

“Oh, let up!—let up!” retorted Louis. “I mean the kind we devour; not the kind who devour us.”

“Same thing,” remarked Herbert in his low, even tones from the depths of the chair, as he stretched a benumbed hand toward the fire. “It generally ends in a broil, whether it’s a woman or a lobster.”

Louis twisted his body and caught the sculptor by the lapel of his coat.

“None of your cheap wit, Herbert! Marc, the lunatic, would have said that and thought it funny—you can’t afford to. Move up, I tell you, you bloated mud-dauber, and give me more room; you’d spread yourself over two chairs with four heads on their corners if you could fill them.”

Whereupon there followed one of those good-natured rough-and-tumble dog-plays which the two had kept up through their whole friendship. Indeed, a wrestling match started it. Herbert, then known to the world as an explorer and writer, was studying at Julien’s at the time. Louis, who was also a pupil, was off in Holland painting. Their fellow students, noting Herbert’s compact physique, had bided the hour until the two men should meet, and it was when the room looked as if a cyclone had struck it—with Herbert on top one moment and Louis the next—that the friendship began. The big-hearted Louis, too, was the first to recognize his comrade’s genius as a sculptor. Herbert had a wad of clay sent home from which he modelled an elephant. This was finally tossed into a corner. There it lay a shapeless mass until his conscience smote him and the whole was transformed into a Congo boy. Louis insisted it should be sent to the Salon, and thus the explorer, writer, and painter became the sculptor. And so the friendship grew and strengthened with the years. Since then both men had won their gold medals at the Salon—Louis two and Herbert two.

The same old dog-play was now going on before the cheery fire, Louis scrouging and pushing, Herbert extending his muscles and standing pat—either of them could have held the other clear of the floor at arm’s length—Herbert, all his sinews in place, ready for any move of his antagonist; Louis, a Hercules in build, breathing health and strength at every pore.

Suddenly the tussle in the chair ceased and the young painter, wrenching himself loose, sprang to his feet.

“By thunder!” he cried, “I forgot all about it! Have you heard the news? Hats off and dead silence while I tell it! Lemois, stop that confounded racket with your dishes and listen! Let me present you to His Royal Highness, Monsieur Herbert, the Gold Medallist—his second!” and he made a low salaam to the sculptor stretched out in the Florentine. He was never so happy as when extolling Herbert’s achievements.

“Oh, I know all about it!” laughed back Lemois. “Le Blanc was here before breakfast the next morning with the Figaro. It was your African—am I not right, Monsieur Herbert?—the big black man with the dagger—the one I saw in the clay? Fine!—no dryads, no satyrs nor demons—just the ego of the savage. And why should you not have won the medal?” he added in serious tones that commanded instant attention. “Who among our sculptors—men who make the clay obey them—know the savage as you do? And to think, too, of your being here after your triumph, under the roof of my Marmouset. Do you know that its patron saint is another African explorer—the first man who ever set foot on its western shores—none other than the great Bethencourt himself? He was either from Picardy or Normandy—the record is not clear—and on one of his voyages—this, remember, was in the fifteenth century, the same period in which the stone chimney over your heads was built—he captured and brought home with him some little black dwarfs who became very fashionable. You see them often later on in the prints and paintings of the time, following behind the balloon petticoats and high headdresses of the great ladies. After a time they became a regular article of trade, these marmots, and there is still a street in Paris called ‘The Marmouset.’ So popular were they that Charles VI is said to have had a ministry composed of five of these little rascals. So, when you first showed me your clay sketch of your African, I said—‘Ah! here is the spirit of Bethencourt! This Monsieur Herbert is Norman, not English; he has brought the savage of old to light, the same savage that Bethencourt saw—the savage that lived and fought and died before our cultivated moderns vulgarized him.’ That was a glorious thing to do, messieurs, if you will think about it”—and he looked around the circle, his eyes sparkling, his small body alive with enthusiasm.

Herbert extended his palms in protest, muttering something about parts of the statue not satisfying him and its being pretty bad in spots, if Lemois did but know it, thanking him at the same time for comparing him to so great a man as Bethencourt; but his undaunted admirer kept on without a pause, his voice quivering with pride: “The primitive man demanding of civilization his right to live! Ah! that is a new motive in art, my friends!”

“Hear him go on!” cried Louis, settling himself again on the arm of Herbert’s chair; “talks like a critic. Gentlemen, the distinguished Monsieur Lemois will now address you on——

Lemois turned and bowed profoundly.

“Better than a critic, Monsieur Louis. They only see the outside of things. Pray don’t rob Monsieur Herbert of his just rights or try to lean on him; take a whole chair to yourself and keep still a moment. You are like your running water—you——

“Not a bit like it,” broke in Herbert, glad to turn the talk away from himself. “His water sometimes reflects—he never does.”

“Ah!—but he does reflect,” protested Lemois with a comical shrug; “but it is always upsidedown. When you stand upsidedown your money is apt to run out of your pockets; when you think upsidedown your brains run out in the same way.”

“But what would you have me do, Lemois?” expostulated Louis, regaining his feet that he might the better parry the thrust. “Get out into your garden and mount a pedestal?”

“Not at this season, you dear Monsieur Louis; it is too cold. Oh!—never would I be willing to shock any of my beautiful statues in that way. You would look very ugly on a pedestal; your shoulders are too big and your arms are like a blacksmith’s, and then you would smash all my flowers getting up. No—I would have you do nothing and be nothing but your delightful and charming self. This room of mine, the ‘Little Dwarf,’ is built for laughter, and you have plenty of it. And now, gentlemen”—he was the landlord once more—both elbows uptilted in a shrug, his shoulders level with his ears—“at what time shall we serve dinner?”

“Not until Brierley comes,” I interposed after we were through laughing at Louis’ discomfiture. “He is due now—the Wigwag train from Pont du Sable ought to be in any minute.”

“Is Marc coming with him?” asked Herbert, pushing his chair back from the crackling blaze.

“No—Marc can’t get here until late. He’s fallen in love for the hundredth time. Some countess or duchess, I understand—he is staying at her château, or was. Not far from here, so he told Le Blanc.”

“Was walking past her garden gate,” broke in Louis, “squinting at her flowers, no doubt, when she asked him in to tea—or is it another Fontainebleau affair?”

“That’s one love affair of Marc’s I never heard of,” remarked Herbert, with one of his meaning smiles, which always remind me of the lambent light flashed by a glowworm, irradiating but never creasing the surface as they play over his features.

“Well, that wasn’t Marc’s fault—you would have heard of it had he been around. He talked of nothing else. The idiot left Paris one morning, put ten francs in his pocket—about all he had—and went over to Fontainebleau for the day. Posted up at that railroad station was a notice, signed by a woman, describing a lost dog. Later on Marc came across a piece of rope with the dog on one end and a boy on the other. An hour later he presented himself at madame’s villa, the dog at his heels. There was a cry of joy as her arms clasped the prodigal. Then came a deluge of thanks. The gratitude of the poor lady so overcame Marc that he spent every sou he had in his clothes for flowers, sent them to her with his compliments and walked back to Paris, and for a month after every franc he scraped together went the same way. He never called—never wrote her any letters—just kept on sending flowers; never getting any thanks either, for he never gave her his address. Oh, he’s a Cap and Bells when there’s a woman around!”

A shout outside sent every man to his feet; the door was flung back and a setter dog bounded in followed by the laughing face of a man who looked twenty-five of his forty years. He was clad in a leather shooting-jacket and leggings, spattered to his hips with mud, and carried a double-barrelled breech-loading gun. Howls of derision welcomed him.

“Oh!—what a spectacle!” cried Louis. “Don’t let Brierley sit down, High-Muck, until he’s scrubbed! Go and scrape yourself, you ruffian—you are the worst looking dog of the two.”

The Man from the Latin Quarter, as he is often called, clutched his gun like a club, made a mock movement as if to brain the speaker, then rested it tenderly and with the greatest care against one corner of the fireplace.

“Sorry, High-Muck, but I couldn’t help it. I’d have missed your dinner if I had gone back to my bungalow for clothes. I’ve been out on the marsh since sunup and got cut off by the tide. Down with you, Peter! Let him thaw out a little, Herbert; he’s worked like a beaver all day, and all we got were three plover and a becassine. I left them with Pierre as I came in. Didn’t see a duck—haven’t seen one for a week. Wait until I get rid of this,” and he stripped off his outer jacket and flung it at Louis, who caught it with one hand and, picking up the tongs, held the garment from him until he had deposited it in the far corner of the room.

“Haven’t had hold of you, Herbert, since the gold medal,” the hunter resumed. “Shake!” and the two pressed each other’s hands. “I thought ‘The Savage’ would win—ripping stuff up and down the back, and the muscles of the legs, and he stands well. I think it’s your high-water mark—thought so when I saw it in the clay. By Jove!—I’m glad to get here! The wind has hauled to the eastward and it’s getting colder every minute.”

“Cold, are you, old man!” condoled Louis. “Why don’t you look out for your fire, High-Muck? Little Brierley’s half frozen, he says. Hold on!—stay where you are; I’ll put on another log. Of course, you’re half frozen! When I went by your marsh a little while ago the gulls were flying close inshore as if they were hunting for a stove. Not a fisherman fool enough to dig bait as far as I could see.”

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Howls of derision welcomed him

Brierley nodded assent, loosened his under coat of corduroy, searched in an inside pocket for a pipe, and drew his chair nearer, his knees to the blaze.

“I don’t blame them,” he shivered; “mighty sensible bait-diggers. The only two fools on the beach were Peter and I; we’ve been on a sand spit for five hours in a hole I dug at daylight, and it was all we could do to keep each other warm—wasn’t it, old boy?” (Peter, coiled up at his feet, cocked an ear in confirmation.) “Where’s Marc, Le Blanc, and the others—upstairs?”

“Not yet,” replied Herbert. “Marc expects to turn up, so he wired High-Muck, but I’ll believe it when he gets here. Another case of Romeo and Juliet, so Louis says. Le Blanc promises to turn up after dinner. Louis, you are nearest—get a fresh glass and move that decanter this way,—Brierley is as cold as a frog.”

“No—stay where you are, Louis,” cried the hunter. “I’ll wait until I get something to eat—hot soup is what I want, not cognac. I say, High-Muck, when are we going to have dinner? I’m concave from my chin to my waistband; haven’t had a crumb since I tumbled out of bed this morning in the pitch dark.”

“Expect it every minute. Here comes Leà now with the soup and Mignon with hot plates.”

Louis caught sight of the two women, backed himself against the jamb of the fireplace, and opened wide his arms.

“Make way, gentlemen!” he cried. “Behold the lost saint—our Lady of the Sabots!—and the adorable Mademoiselle Mignon! I kiss the tips of your fingers, mademoiselle. And now tell me where that fisher-boy is—that handsome young fellow Gaston I heard about when I was last here. What have you done with him? Has he drowned himself because you wouldn’t be called in church, or is he saving up his sous to put a new straw thatch on his mother’s house so there will be room for two more?”

Pretty Mignon blushed scarlet and kept straight on to the serving-table without daring to answer—Gaston was a tender subject to her, almost as tender as Mignon was to Gaston—but Leà, after depositing the tureen at the top of the table, made a little bob of a curtsy, first to Herbert and then to Louis and Brierley—thanking them for coming, and adding, in her quaint Normandy French, that she would have gone home a month since had not the master told her of our coming.

“And have broken our hearts, you lovely old gargoyle!” laughed Louis. “Don’t you dare leave the Inn. They are getting on very well at the church without you. Come, Herbert, down with you in the old Florentine. I’ll sit next so I can keep all three wooden heads in order,” and he wheeled the chair into place.

“Now, Leà—the soup!”