The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 6


MIGNON'S coffee-roaster was silent this morning. By listening intently a faint rhythm could be heard coming from beyond the kitchen door, telling that she was alive and about her work, but the garden was not the scene of her operations. Rain had fallen steadily all night and was still at it, driving every one within doors. Furthermore, somewhere off in the North Sea the wind had suddenly tumbled out of bed and was raising the very Old Harry up and down the coast. Reports had come in of a bad wreck along shore, and much anxiety was felt for the fishing fleet.

To brave such a downpour seemed absurd, and so we passed the morning as best we could. I made a sketch in color of the Marmouset; Herbert and Brierley disposed themselves about the room reading, smoking, or criticising my work; Louis upstairs was stretching a canvas—nothing appealed to him like a storm—and he had determined, as soon as the deluge let up—no moderate downpour ever bothers him—to paint the surf dashing against the earth cliffs that frowned above the angry sea. Lemois did not appear until near noon, his excuse being that he had lain awake half the night thinking of Herbert’s story of the African’s dried wife, and had only dropped off to sleep when the fury of the storm awoke him.

As luncheon was about to be served, Le Blanc arrived in his car one mass of mud, the glass window in the rear of the cover smashed by the wind. He brought news of a serious state of things along the coast. The sea in its rage, so his story ran, was biting huge mouthfuls out of the bluffs, the yellow blood of the dissolving clay staining the water for half a mile out. One of the card-board, jig-saw, gimcrack villas edging the cliff had already slid into the boiling surf, and the rest of them would follow if the wind held for another hour.

We drew him to the fire, helped him off with his drenched coat, each of us becoming more and more thoughtful as we listened to his description. Leà and Mignon, unheeded, came in bearing the advance dishes—some oysters and crisp celery. They were soon followed by Lemois, who, instead of helping, as was his invariable custom, in the arrangement of the table, walked to the hearth and stood gazing into the coals. He, too, was thoughtful, and after a moment asked if we would permit Mignon to replace him at the coffee-table that evening, as he must be off for a few hours, and possibly all night, explaining in answer to our questions that the storm had already reached the danger line, and he felt that as ex-mayor of the village he should be within reach if any calamity overtook the people and fishermen in and around Buezval. We all, of course, offered to go with him—Louis being especially eager—but Lemois insisted that we had better finish our meal, promising to send for us if we were really needed.

His departure only intensified our apprehensions as to the gravity of the situation. What had seemed to us at first picturesque, then threatening, assumed alarming proportions. The gale too, during luncheon, had gone on increasing. Great puffs of smoke belched from the throat of the chimney into the room, and we heard the thrash of the rain and shrill wails of the burglarious wind rising and falling as it fingered the cracks and crevices of the old building. Now and then an earthen tile would be ripped from the roof and sent crashing into the court. “By Jove!—just hear that wind!” followed by an expectant silence, interrupted almost every remark.

As the fury of the storm increased we noticed that a certain nervous anxiety had taken possession of our pretty Mignon, who, at one crash louder than the others, so far forgot herself as to go to the window, trying to peer out between the bowed shutters, her baffled eyes seeking Leà’s for some comforting assurance, the older woman, without ceasing her ministrations to our needs, patting the girl’s shoulder in passing.

Suddenly the great outside door of the court, which had been closed to break the force of the wind, gave way with a bang; then came the muffled cry of a man in distress, and Gaston burst in, clad in oilskins, his south-wester tied under his chin, rivers of rain pouring from his hat and overalls. Mignon gave a half-smothered sob of relief and would have sunk to the floor at his feet had not Leà caught her.

The young fisherman staggered back against the edge of the fire-jamb, his hand on his chest.

“It’s madame la marquise!” he gasped. He had run the two miles from Buezval and had barely breath enough to reach the Inn. “I came for Monsieur Lemois! There isn’t a moment to lose—the sea is now up to the porch. She is lost if you wait!”

“Madame lost!” we cried in unison.

“No,” he panted, “the house. She is not there. Find Monsieur Lemois!—all of you must come!”

Le Blanc was out of his chair before Gaston had completed his sentence.

“Get your coats and meet me at the garage!” he shouted. “I’ll run the motor out; we’ll be there in ten minutes! My coat too, Leà!” and he slammed the door behind him.

The old woman clattered upstairs into the several rooms for our ulsters and water-proofs, but Mignon sat still, too overjoyed to move or speak. Gaston, she knew, was going out into the rain again, but he was safe on the land now and not on a fishing craft, fighting his way into the harbor, as she had feared all day. The young fellow looked at her from under the brim of his dripping south-wester, but there was no word of recognition, though he had come as much to tell her he was safe as to summon us to madame’s villa. I caught her lifted eyes and the furtive glance of gratitude she gave him.

It was a wild dash up the coast; Le Blanc driving, Herbert handling the siren, the others packed in, crouching close, Gaston holding to the foot-board, where he roared in our ears the details of the impending calamity, his breath having now come back to him. The cliff, he explained, that supported the tennis court of an adjoining villa had given way, taking with it a slice of madame’s lawn, leaving only the gravel walk under her library windows. The surf, goaded by the thrash of the wind, was, when he left, cutting great gashes in the toe of the newly exposed slope. Another hour’s work like the last—and it was not high water until four o’clock—would send the cottage heels over head into the sea. Madame was in Paris, and the caretakers—an old fisherman and his wife—too old to work—were panic-stricken, calling piteously for Monsieur Lemois, whom their mistress trusted most of all the people in and about the village.

The end of the shore road had now been reached, our siren blowing continuously. With a twist of the wheel we swerved from the main highway, climbed a short hill, and chugged along an overhanging road flanked by a row of little black lumps of cottages in silhouette against the white fury of the smashing surf. The third of these, so Gaston said, was madame’s. Thank God it was still square-sided and the chimneys still upright. We were in time anyhow!

More than once have I helped in a fire or lent a welcoming hand to a shipwrecked crew breasting an ugly sea in a water-logged boat; but to hold on to a cottage sliding into the sea—as one would to the heels of a would-be suicide determined to dash himself to pieces on the sidewalk below—was a new experience to me.

Not so to Herbert—that is, you would never have supposed it from the way he took hold of things. In less time than I tell it, he had swung wide the rear door of madame’s villa, stationed Brierley, Le Blanc, and myself at the side entrances to keep out poachers, formed a line of fishermen (whom Gaston knew) to pass out bric-à-brac, pictures, and rare furniture to the garage at the end of the lawn—the only safe place under cover—and, with Louis to help, was packing it with household goods.

While this was going on, although we did not know it, Lemois was half-way down the slope watching the encroaching sea; calculating the number of minutes which the villa had to live; watching, too, the slow crumbling of the cliff. He knew something of these earth slides—or thought he did—and, catching sight of our rescue party, struggled up to warn us.

But Herbert had not furled a mainsail off Cape Horn for nothing. He also knew the sea and what its savage force could do. He, too, had swept his eyes over the crumbling slopes, noted the wind, looked at his watch, and, bounding back, had given orders to go ahead. There was possibly an hour—certainly thirty minutes—before the house, caught by the tide at high water, would sag, tilt, and pitch headlong, like a bird-cage dropped from a window-sill, and no power on earth could save it. Until then the work of rescuing madame’s belongings must go on.

Louis’ enormous strength now came into play: first it was an inlaid cabinet, mounted in bronze, with heavy glass doors. This, stripped of its curios, which he crammed into his pockets, was picked up bodily and carried without a break to the garage, a hundred yards in the rear; then followed bronzes that had taken two men to place on their pedestals; pictures in heavy frames; a harp muffled in a water-proof cover, which became a toy in his hands; even the piano went out on the run and was slid along the porch and down the steps, and, with the aid of Gaston and another fisherman, whirled under cover.

The fight now was against time, Lemois indicating the most valuable articles. Soon the first floor was entirely cleared except for some heavy pieces of furniture, and a dash was made upstairs for madame’s bedroom and boudoir, filled with choice miniatures, larger portraits, and the little things she loved and lived with. The pillows were now torn from the beds, emptied, and every conceivable kind of small precious thing—silver-topped toilet articles, an ivory crucifix, bits of Dresden china—all the odds and ends a woman of quality, taste, and refinement uses and must have—were dumped one after another into the pillow-sacks and carried carefully to shelter. Then followed the books and rare manuscripts.

Herbert, who, between every trip to the garage or to the crowd of willing workers outside, had paused to watch the sea, now bawled up the staircase ordering every man out. The last moment of safety had arrived. Lemois, intent on rescuing a particular portfolio of etchings, either would not or did not hear. Gaston, more alert, and who had been helping him to carry down an armful of the more precious books, sprang past Herbert, despite his cry, and dashed back up the steps, shouting as he raced on that Lemois was still upstairs. Herbert made a plunge to follow when Louis threw his arms around him.

“No, for God’s sake! She’s going! Out of this!—quick! Jump, Herbert, or you’ll be killed!”

As the two men cleared the doorway there came a racking, splitting, tearing noise; a doubling under of the posts of the front porch; a hail of broken glass and clouds of blinding dust from squares of plaster as the ceilings collapsed; then the whole structure canted—slid ten feet and stopped, the brick chimneys smashing their full length into the crumbling mass. When the dust and flying splinters settled, Herbert and Louis were standing on firm ground within a foot only of the upheaved edge of raw earth. Staring them in the face, like the upturned feet of a prostrate man, were the bottom timbers of the cottage.

Somewhere inside the chaotic mass lay Lemois and Gaston!

A cry of horror went up from the crowd, made more intense by the shriek of a fisherwoman—Gaston’s mother—who just before the crash came had seen her son’s head at the library window, and who was now fighting her way to where Herbert was keeping back the mob until he could make up his mind what was best to do. Her breathless news decided him.

“Louis!” he shouted, his voice ringing above the roar of the sea, “pick out two men—good ones—and follow me!”

The four worked their way to a careened window now flattened within a foot of the ground, crawled over the sill, and Herbert calling out to Lemois and Gaston all the while, crept under a tangle of twisted beams, flooring, and furniture, until they reached what was once the farther wall of the library.

Under an overturned sofa, pinned down but unhurt, white with dust and broken plaster and almost unrecognizable, they found our landlord. Gaston lay a few feet away, the breath knocked out of him, an ugly wound in his head. Lemois had answered their call, but Gaston had given no sign.

Herbert braced himself and in the dim light looked about him. The saving of lives was now a question of judgment, requiring that same instantaneous making up of his mind always necessary when his own life had depended upon the exact placing of a rifle-ball in the skull of a charging elephant. There was not a second to lose. Another slash of the sea and the whole mass might go headlong down the slope, and yet to lift the wrong timber in an effort to free Lemois might topple the entire heap, as picking out the wrong match-stick topples a pile of jackstraws.

He ran his eye over the shattered room; ordered the two fishermen to leave the wrecked building; selected, after a moment’s pause, a heavy joist lying across the sofa; stood by while Louis put his shoulder under its edge, his enormous strength bearing the full brunt of the weight; waited until it swayed loose, and then, grabbing Lemois firmly by the coat-collar, dragged him clear and set him on his feet.

Gaston came next, limp and apparently dead—the blood trickling from his head and spattering his rescuers.

The crowd shouted in unison as they caught sight of Lemois’ gray head, all the whiter from the grime of powdered plaster. Then came another and louder shout, followed by another piercing shriek from Gaston’s mother as her boy’s sagging, insensible body was brought clear of the wreck. None of his bones were broken, none that Lemois could find; something had struck the boy—some falling weight—perhaps a bust from one of the bookcases over his head. That was the last the lad had known until he found his mother kneeling beside him in the rain and mud, where the cold wind and rain revived him.

But our work was not yet over. The miscellaneous assortment of precious things housed in the garage must be rearranged before nightfall and protected against breakage and leakage. Watchmen must be selected and made comfortable in the garage, a telegram despatched to madame at her apartment in Paris, with details of the catastrophe and salvage, and another to her estate at Rouen, and, more important still, Gaston must be carried home, put to bed, and a doctor sent for.
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As her boy's sagging, insensible body was brought clear of the wreck

This done, Herbert and the rest of us could go back to the inn in Le Blanc’s motor.

The first load brought Herbert, Brierley, and myself, Le Blanc driving: Lemois had remained with Gaston. Mignon, with staring, inquiring eyes, her apron over her head to protect her from the wet, met us at the outer gate, but not a word was said by any of us about Gaston, a crack on a fisherman’s head not being a serious affair—and then again, this one was as tough as a rudder-post and as full of spring as an oar—and then, more important still, the poor child with her hungry, tear-stained eyes had had trouble enough for one day, as we all knew. Later when Leà and I were alone, I told her the story, describing Gaston’s pluck and bravery and his risking his life to save Lemois—the dear old woman clasping her fingers together as if in church when I added that “he’d be all right in the morning after a good night’s rest.”

“Pray God nothing happens to him!” she said at last, crossing herself. “Mignon is only a child and it would break her heart. Monsieur Lemois does not wish it, and there is trouble—much trouble—ahead for her, but while there is life there is hope. He is a good Gaston—his mother and I were girls together; she had only this one left—the boat upset and the father was drowned off Les Dents Terribles two years ago.”

Louis, whose heart is as big as his body, was less cautious. He must have a word with the girl herself. And so, when we had all gathered before the fire to dry out—for most of us were still wet and all ravenous—he called out to her in his cheery, hearty way:

“That is a plucky garçon of yours, mademoiselle. Monsieur Lemois would have been flattened into a pancake but for him. When the house fell it was Monsieur Gaston who jerked him away from the window and rolled a sofa on top of him. Ah!—a brave garçon, and one who does you credit.”

The girl—she was busying herself with her dishes at the time—blushed and said: “Merci, monsieur,” her eyes dancing over the praise of her lover, but she was too modest and too well trained to say more.

Again Le Blanc’s siren came shrieking down the road. This time it would bring Lemois. I threw on another log to warm them both, and Louis began collecting a small assortment of glasses, Mignon following with a decanter.

Several minutes passed, during which we waited for the heavy tread of fat Le Blanc. Then the door opened and Leà appeared; she was trembling from head to foot and white as a ghost.

“Monsieur wants you—all of you—something has happened! Not you, Mignon—you stay here.”

Inside the court-yard, close to the door of the Marmouset, stood Le Blanc’s motor. Lemois was on the foot-board leaning over the body of a man stretched out on the two seats.

“Easy now,” Lemois whispered to Louis, who had pushed his way alongside of the others crowding about the car. “He collapsed again as soon as you all left. There is something serious I am afraid—that is why I brought him here. His mother wanted to take him home, but that’s no place for him now. He must stay here to-night. We stopped and left word for the doctor and he will be here in a minute. Be careful, Monsieur Louis—not in there—upstairs.”

Louis was careful—careful as if he were lifting a baby; but he did not delay, nor did he take him upstairs. Picking up the unconscious fisherman bodily in his arms, he bore him clear of the machine, carried him through the open door of the Marmouset, and stretched him full length on the lounge, tucking a cushion under his head as the lad sank down into the soft mattress.

As the flare of the table candles stirred by the night wind lighted up his face, Mignon, who had been pushing aside the chairs from out the wounded man’s way, believing it to be Le Blanc, sprang forward, and with a half-stifled cry sank on her knees beside the boy. Lemois lunged forward, stooped quickly, and grasping her firmly by the arm, dragged her to her feet.

“Leave the room!—you are in the way,” he said in low, angry tones. “There are plenty here to take care of him.”

Louis, who had moved closer to the girl, and who had already begun to quiet her fears, wheeled suddenly and would have broken out in instantaneous protest had not Leà, her lean, tall body stretched to its utmost, her flat, sunken chest heaving with indignation, stepped in front of Lemois.

“You are not kind, monsieur,” she said coldly, with calm, unflinching eyes.

“Hold your tongue! I do not want your advice. Take her out!—this is no place for her!”

Louis’ eyes blazed. Unkindness to a woman was the one thing that always enraged him. Then his better judgment worked.

“Give her to me, Leà,” he said. “Come, Mignon! Don’t cry, child; he’s not hurt so bad; he’ll be all right in the morning. Move away there, all of you!” and he led the sobbing girl from the room.

A dull, paralyzing silence fell upon us all. Those of us who knew only the gentle, kind-hearted, always courteous Lemois were dumb with astonishment. Had he, too, received a crack on his head which had unsettled his judgment, or was this, after all, the real Lemois?

The opening of the door and the hurried re-entrance of Louis, followed by the doctor, a short, thick-set man with a bald head, for a time relieved the tension.

“I was on my way near here when your messenger met me,” called out the doctor with a nod of salutation to the room at large as he dropped into a chair beside the sufferer, thus supplanting Brierley, who during Lemois’ outburst had been wiping the blood-stained face and lips with a napkin and finger-bowl he had caught up from the table.

There was an anxious hush; the men standing in a half-circle awaiting the decision; the doctor feeling for broken limbs, listening to his breathing, his hand on the boy’s heart. Then there came a convulsive movement and the wounded man lifted his head and gazed about him.

The doctor bent closer, studied Gaston’s eyes for a moment, rose to his feet, tucked his spectacles into a black leather case which he took from his pocket, and said calmly:

“I think there’s no fracture of the skull. I’ll know definitely later on. He is, as I at first supposed, suffering from shock and has swallowed a lot of dust. He must have complete rest; get him to bed somewhere and send for a woman in the village to take care of him. I’ll come to-morrow. Who carried him in here?”

Louis nodded his head.

“Then pick him up again and, if Monsieur Lemois is willing, put him in the room on the ground floor at the end of the court. I can get at him then from the outside without disturbing anybody. You, gentlemen, so I hear, are down here for your pleasure and not to run a hospital, and so I will see you are not disturbed.”

Louis leaned down, picked the young fisherman up in his arms with no more effort than if he had been handling a bag of flour, and carried him out of the room, across the court, Leà following, and into the basement chamber, where he laid him on the bed, leaving him with the remark:

“Now stay here and take care of him, Leà, no matter what Monsieur Lemois says.”

Meanwhile Lemois had poured out a glass of wine for the doctor, waited until he had drank it, thanked him in his most courteous tones for his promptness, bidden him good-night on the threshold, closed the door behind him, and without a word to any of us had resumed his place by the fire.

Another embarrassing silence ensued. Every one felt that the incident, if aggravated by any untimely remarks, might lead up to an outbreak which would bring our visit to a premature close. And yet both Leà and Mignon were so beloved by all of us, and the brutality of the attack upon the little maid was so uncalled for, that we felt something was due to our own self-respect.

Herbert, catching our suggestive glances, essayed the task. He was the man held in most esteem by Lemois, and might perhaps be allowed to say things which the old gentleman would not take from the rest; and then again, whatever the outcome, Herbert could be depended upon to keep his temper no matter what Lemois might answer in return.

“Mignon did nothing, monsieur, except show her love for her sweetheart—why break out on her?” Herbert’s voice was low, but there was meaning behind it.

“I won’t have this thing!” came the indignant retort, all his poise gone. “That’s why I broke out on her. Mignon is not for fishermen, nor ditch-diggers, nor road-makers. She is like my child—I have other things in store for her. I tell you I will not have it go on—she knows why and Leà knows why! I have said so, and it is finished!”

“He about saved your life a little while ago. Does that count for anything?” The words edged their way through tightly closed lips.

“Yes—for me; that is why I brought him home—but he has not saved Mignon’s life. He would wreck it. She will marry somebody else and he will marry somebody else. There are too many thick-heads along the coast now. I decide to steer clear of them.”

Louis, who now that his human-ambulance trip was over, had returned to the Marmouset, stood wondering. What had taken place in his absence was a mystery. He had, after depositing his burden, taken Mignon to Pierre and sat her down by the kitchen fire, where he had left her crying softly to herself.

Lemois waited until Louis had found a seat and went on:

“You, gentlemen, are my friends, and so I will explain to you what I would not explain to others. You wonder at what I have just said and done. I try to do my duty—that is my religion, and my only religion. I have tried to do it to-night. With your help I have done what I could to save my friend’s property, because she was away and helpless. She has now left to her some of the things she loved. So it is with this girl. Ten years ago I found her, a child of eight, crying in the street. For months she had gotten up at daylight, had washed and dressed her two baby brothers, cooked their breakfast, cleaned house, and tucked in her bedridden mother; but, try as she would, she was late for school—not once, but several times. This was against the rules, and when the prizes and diplomas were given out, all she got was a scolding. Later on she was dismissed. Because she had no other place to go, and because I had no child of my own, I took her home with me. As I assumed all responsibility for her, and she has no one but me, I shall carry it out to the end, exactly as if she were my daughter. My own daughter should not and would not marry a fisherman, neither shall Mignon. Madame la Marquise de la Caux is in Paris, and I do what I can to look after her belongings. Madame, Mignon’s mother, is in heaven, and the remnant of her people God knows where, and so I do what I can to look after their child.”

“But has the girl no say in the matter?” broke out Louis angrily. “You are not to live with him—she is.”

“That may make some difference in your country, Monsieur Louis, but it makes no difference in mine. In France we parents and guardians are the best judges of what is and what is not good for our children. Now, gentlemen, let us brush it all away. It is very creditable to your hearts to be so interested in the child; I do not blame you. She is very lovely and very amusing, and when she leaves us—even with the man I shall choose for her—it will be a great grief for me, for you see I am quite alone in the world. So, Monsieur Herbert, there is my hand. Not to have you understand me would be harder than all the rest, for I esteem you as I do no other man. And you too, Monsieur Louis, with your big arms and your big heart. Let us be friends once more. And now I am tired out with the day’s work, and if you do not mind I will say ‘Good-night!’”