The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 7

VII
IN WHICH OUR LANDLORD BECOMES
BOTH ENTERTAINING AND INSTRUCTIVE

THE experiences of the previous day had left their mark in stiffened joints and blistered hands. Herbert was nursing a wrenched finger, Lemois had discovered a bruised back, and Louis a strained wrist—slight accidents all of them, unheeded in the excitement of the rescue, and only definitely located when the several victims got out of bed the next morning.

The real sufferer was Gaston. Two stitches had been taken in his shapely head and, although he was quite himself and restless as a goat, the doctor had given positive orders to Leà to keep him where he was until his wound should heal. To this Lemois had added another and far more cruel mandate, forbidding Mignon either outside or inside his bedroom door under pain of death, or words to that effect.

It was not to be wondered at, therefore, that the day was passed quietly, the men keeping indoors, although the storm had whirled down the coast, leaving behind it only laughing blue skies and a light wind.

The one exciting incident was a telegram from madame la marquise, thanking Lemois and his “brave body of men” for their heroic services and adding that she would come as soon as possible to inspect what she called her “ruin,” and would then give herself the pleasure of thanking each and every one in person. This was followed some hours later by a second despatch inquiring after the wounded fisherman and charging Lemois to spare no expense in bringing him back to health; and a third one from Marc saying he had gone to Paris and would not be back for several days.

The absorbing topic, of course, had been Lemois’ outbreak on Mignon and subsequent justification of his conduct. Louis was the most outspoken of all, and, despite Lemois’ defence, valiantly espoused the girl’s cause, the rest of us with one accord pledging ourselves to fight her battles and Gaston’s, no matter at what cost. Brierley even went so far as to offer to relieve Leà, during which blissful interim he would smuggle Mignon in for a brief word of sympathy, but this was frowned upon and abandoned when Herbert reminded us that we were in a sense Lemois’ guests and could not, therefore, breed treachery among his servants. To this was added his positive conviction that the girl’s sufferings would so tell upon the old man that before many days he would not only regret his attitude, but would abandon his ambitious plans and give her to the man she loved.

If Lemois had any such misgivings there was no evidence of it in his manner. But for an occasional wry face when he moved, due to the blow of the overturned sofa, he was in an exceptionally happy frame of mind. Nor did he show the slightest resentment toward any one of us for not agreeing with him. Even when the twilight hour arrived—a restful hour when the fellowship of the group came out strongest, and men voiced the thoughts that lay closest to their hearts—no word escaped him. Music, church architecture, the influence of Rodin and Rostand on the art and literature of our time, French politics—all were touched upon in turn, but not a word of the condition of Gaston’s broken head nor the state of Mignon’s bleeding heart—nothing so harrowing. Indeed, so gay was he, so full of quaint sayings and odd views of life and things, that when Brierley sat down at the spinet and ran his fingers over the keys, giving us snatches of melodies from the current music of the day, he begged for some mediæval anthems “as a slight apology to my suffering ears,” and when Brierley complied with what he claimed was an old Italian chant, having found the original in Padua, Lemois branched off into a homily on church music which evinced such a mastery of the subject that even Brierley, who is something of a musician himself, was filled with amazement. Indeed, the discussion was in danger of becoming so heated that the old man, with a twinkle in his eye, relieved the tension with:

“No, you are quite wrong, Monsieur Brierley, if you will forgive me for saying so. Your chant is not Italian; it is Spanish. I have a better way of knowing than by searching among musty libraries and sacristies. When your fingers were touching the keys I looked around my Marmouset to see who was listening beside you gentlemen. I soon discovered that the two heads on Monsieur Herbert’s chair were glum and solemn; they might have been asleep so dull were they. My old Virgin in the corner, which I found in Rouen, and which is unquestionably French, never raised her eyes; but the two carved saints over your head, the ones I got in Salamanca when I was last there, were overjoyed. One smiled so sweetly that I could not take my eyes from her, and the other kept such perfect time with his head that I was sorry when you stopped. So you see, your chant is unquestionably Spanish, and I am glad.”

Nor did his spirits flag when dinner was over and he took his place by the coffee-table, handing Mignon the tiny cups without even a look of reproach at the demure, sad-eyed girl who was keeping up so brave a heart.

The change was a delightful one to the coterie. As long as the embarrassing situation continued there was no telling what might happen. A question of cuisine could be settled by more or less cayenne, but the question of a marriage settlement was another affair. Press him too far and the old gentleman might have bundled us all into the street and thrown our trunks after us.

The wisest thing, therefore, was to meet his cordiality more than half way, an easy solution, really, since his amende honorable of the night before had put us all on our mettle. He should be made to realize and at once that all traces of ill feeling of every kind had been wiped out of our hearts.

Herbert, who, as usual when any patching up was to be done, was chief pacificator, opened the programme by becoming suddenly interested in the several rare specimens of furniture that enriched the room in which we sat, complimenting Lemois on his good taste in banishing from his collection the severe, uncomfortable chairs and sofas of Louis XIV and XV, and calling special attention to the noble Spanish and Italian specimens about us, with wide seats, backs, and arms, where, even in the old days, tired mortals could have lounged without splitting their stockings or disarranging their wigs, had the dons and contessas worn any such absurdities.

“Quite true, Monsieur Herbert, but you must remember that the aristocrats of that day never sat down—their mirrors were hung too high for them to see themselves should they recline. It was an era of high heels and polished floors, much low bowing, and overmuch ceremony. And yet it was a delightful period, and a most instructive one, for the antiquary, even if it did end with the guillotine. I have always thought that nothing so clearly defines the taste and intelligence of a nation as their furniture and house decoration. The frivolities of the Monarchs of the period is to be found in every twist and curve of their several styles, just as the virility and out-door life of the Greeks and Romans are expressed in their solid-marble benches and carved-stone sofas. Since I have no place in my gardens for ruins of this kind, I do not collect them—nor would I if I had. There should be, I think, a certain sane appropriateness in every collection, even in so slight a one as my own, and a Greek garden with a line of motor cars on one side and a Normandy church on the other would, I am afraid, be a little out of keeping,” and he laughed softly.

“But you haven’t kept close to that rule in this room,” said Herbert, gazing about him. “We have everything here from Philip the Second to Napoleon the Third.”

“I have kept much closer than you think, Monsieur Herbert. The panels, ceiling, furniture, and stained glass, as well as the fireplace, are more or less of one period. The fixtures, such as the andirons, candelabra, and curtains, might have been obtained in one of the antiquary shops of the day—if any such existed; and so could the china, silver, and glass. What I had in mind was, not a museum, but a room that would take you into its arms—a restful, warm, enticing room—one full of surprises, too”—and he pointed to his rarest possession, the Black Virgin, half hidden in the recess of the chimney breast. “You see, a very rare thing is always more effective when you come upon it suddenly than when you confront it in the blaze of a window or under a fixed light. Your curiosity is then aroused, and you must stoop to study it. I arrange these surprises for all my most precious things.

“Here, for instance”—and he crossed the room, opened a cabinet, and brought from its hiding-place a crystal chalice with a legend in Latin engraved in gold letters around the rim, placing it on the table so that the light from the candelabra could fall upon it—“here is something now you would not look at twice, perhaps, if it were put in the window and filled with flowers. It must be hidden away before you appreciate it. I found it in a convent outside of Salamanca some years ago. It is evidently the work of some old monk who spent his life in doing this sort of thing, and is a very rare example of that kind of craftsmanship. Be very careful, Monsieur Louis, you will break the monk’s heart, as well as my own, if you smash it.”

“Brierley is the man you want to look out for,” answered the painter, bending closer over the precious object. “He’ll be borrowing it to mix high-balls in unless you keep the cabinet locked.”

“Monsieur Brierley is too good for any such sacrilege. And now please stand aside, and you, Monsieur High-Muck, will you kindly move your arm?” and he lifted the vase from the cloth and replaced it in the cabinet, adding with a shrewd glance, “You see, it is always wise to keep the most precious things hidden away, with, perhaps, only an edge peeping out to arouse your curiosity—and I have many such.”

“Like a grisette’s slipper below a petticoat,” remarked Louis sotto voce.

“Quite like a grisette’s slipper, my dear Monsieur Louis. What a nimble wit is yours! Only, take an old man’s advice and don’t be too curious.

Every one roared, Louis louder than any one, and when quiet reigned once more Herbert, who was determined to keep the talk along the lines which would most interest our landlord, and who had examined the chalice with the greatest interest, said, pointing to the cabinet:

“And now show us something else. Here I have lived with these things for weeks at a time and yet am only beginning to find them out. What else have you that is especially rare?”

Lemois, who had just closed the door of the cabinet, turned and began searching the room before replying.

“Well, there is my bas-relief, my Madonna. It is just behind you—very beautiful and very rare. I do not lock it up; I keep it in a dark corner where the cross-lights from the window can bring out the face in strong relief. Please do me the favor, gentlemen, to leave your seats. I never take it from its place,” and he crossed the room and stood beneath it. “This is the only one in existence, so far as I know—that is, the only replica. The original is in the Sistine Chapel, near Ravenna. Bring a candle, please, Monsieur Brierley, so we can all enjoy it. See how beautiful is the Madonna’s face—it is very seldom that so lovely a smile has lived in marble—and the tenderness of the mother suggested in the poise of the head as it bends over the Child. I never look at it without a twinge of my conscience, for it is the only thing in this room which I made off with without letting any one know I had it, but I was young then and a freebooter like Monsieur Herbert’s man Goringe. I did penance for years afterward by putting a few lira in the poor-box whenever I was in Italy, and I often come in here and say my prayers, standing reverently before her, begging her forgiveness; and she always gives it—that is, she must—for the smile has never, during all these years, faded from her face.”

“But this is plaster,” remarked Herbert, reaching up and passing his skilled fingers over the caste. “Very well done, too.”

“Yes—of course. I helped make the mould myself from the original marble built into the altar—and in the night too, when I had to feel my way about. I am glad you think it is so good.”

“Couldn’t do it better myself. But why in the night?”

“Ah—that is a long story.”

Herbert clapped his hands to command attention.

“Everybody take their seats. Monsieur Lemois is going to tell us of how he burglarized a church and made off with a Madonna.”

Louis walked solemnly toward the door, his hand over his heart.

“You must excuse me, Herbert, if I leave the room before Lemois begins,” he said, turning and facing the group, “for I should certainly interrupt his recital. This whole discussion is so repulsive to me, and so far below my own high standard of what is right and wrong, that my morals are in danger of being undermined. And I——

“Dry up, Louis!” growled Brierley. “Go on, Lemois.”

“No, I mean what I say,” protested Louis. “Only a few nights ago, and at this very table, a most worthy woman, descendant of one of the oldest families in France, and our guest, confessed to wilful perjury, and now a former mayor of this village admits that he robbed a church. I have not been brought up this way, and if——

“Tie him to a chair, High-Muck!” cried Herbert. “No, his hands are up! All right, go on, Lemois.”

“Our landlord drew nearer to the table, sat down, and, with a humorous nod toward Louis, began:

“You must all remember I was an impressionable young fellow at the time, full of daredevil, romantic ideas, and, like most young fellows, saw only the end in view without caring a sou about the means by which I reached it.

“I found the bas-relief, as I have told you, in a small chapel outside of Ravenna—one of those deep-toned interiors lighted by dust-begrimed windows, the roof supported by rows of marble columns. The altar, which was low and of simple design, was placed at the top of a wide flight of three rose-marble steps over which swung a huge brass lamp burning a ruby light. With the exception of an old woman asleep on her knees before a figure of the Virgin, I was the only person in the building. I had already seen dozens of such interiors, all more or less alike, and after walking around it once or twice was about to leave by a side door protected by a heavy clay-soiled red curtain when my eye fell on the original of the caste above you, the figures and surrounding panel being built into the masonry of the altar, a position it had occupied, no doubt, since the days of Michael Angelo.

“For half an hour I stood before it—worshipping it, really. The longer I looked the more I wanted something to take away with me that would keep it alive in my memory. I drew a little, of course, and had my sketch-book filled, student-like, with bits of architecture, peasants, horses, and things I came across every day; but I knew I could never reproduce the angelic smile on the Madonna’s face, and that was the one thing that made it greater than all the bas-reliefs I had seen in all my wanderings. Then it suddenly occurred to me—there being no photographs in those days: none you could buy of a thing like this—that perhaps I could get some one in the village to make a caste, the Italians being experts at this work. While I was leaning over the rose-marble rail drinking it in, a door opened somewhere behind the altar and an old priest came slowly toward me.

“‘It is very lovely, holy father,’ I said, in an effort to open up a conversation which might lead somewhere.

“‘Yes!’ he replied curtly; ‘but love it on your knees.’

“So down I got, and there I stayed until he had finished his prayer at one of the side chapels and had left the church by the main door.

“All this time I was measuring it with my eye—its width, thickness, the depth of the cutting, how much plaster it would take, how large a bag it would require in which to carry it away. This done I went back to Ravenna and started to look up some one of the image vendors who haunt the door of the great church.

“But none of them would listen. It would take at least an hour before the plaster would be dry enough to come away from the marble. The priests—poor as some of them were—would never consent to such a sacrilege. Without their permission detection was almost certain; so please go to the devil, illustrious signore, and do not tempt a poor man who does not wish to go to prison for twenty lira.

“This talk, let me tell you, took place in a shop up a back street, kept by a young Italian image-vendor who made casts and moulds with the assistance of his father, who was a hunchback, and an old man all rags whom I could see was listening to every word of the talk.

“That same night, about the time the lamps began to be lighted, and I had started out in search of another mouldmaker, the old man in rags stepped out of the shadow of a wall and touched my arm.

“‘I know the place, signore, and I know the Madonna. I have everything here in this bucket—at night the church is closed, but there is a side door. I will take your twenty lira. Come with me.’

“When you are twenty, you are like a hawk after its quarry—your blood boiling, your nerves keyed up, and you swoop down and get your talons in your prey without caring what happens afterward. Being also a romantic hawk, I liked immensely the idea of doing my prowling at night; there was a touch of danger in that kind of villany which daylight dispels. So off we started, the ragged man carrying the bucket holding a small bottle of olive-oil, dry plaster, and a thick sheet of modelling wax besides some tools: I with two good-sized candles and a box of matches.

“When you rob a bank at night you must, so I am told, be sure you have a duplicate key or something with which to pick the lock. When you rob an Italian church, there is no such bother—you simply push wide the door and begin feeling your way about. And it was not, to my surprise, very dark once we got in. The ruby light in the big altar lamp helped, and so did what was left of a single candle placed on a side altar by some poor soul as part penance for unforgiven sins.

“And it did not take long once we got to work. First a coat of oil to keep the wax from sticking to the marble; then a patting and forcing of the soft stuff with thumbs, fingers, and a wooden tool into the crevices and grooves of the stone, and then a gentle pull.

“Just here my courage failed and my conscience gave a little jump like the toothache. It might have been the quick flare of the lone candle on the side altar—I had not used my own, there being light enough to see to work—or it might have been my heated imagination, but I distinctly saw on the oil-smeared face of the blessed mother an expression of such intense humiliation that I pulled out my handkerchief, and although the ragged man was calling me to hurry, and I myself heard the noise of approaching footsteps, I kept on wiping off the oil until I saw her smile once more.

“The time lost caused our undoing—or rather mine. The ragged man with the precious mould ran out the side door which was never locked—the one he knew—I landed in the arms of a priest.

“He was bald-headed, wore sandals, and carried a lantern.

“‘What are you doing here?’ he asked gruffly.

“I pulled out the two candles and held them up so he could see them.

“‘I came to burn these before the Madonna—the door was open and I walked in.’

“He lifted the lantern and scanned my face.

“‘You are the man who was here this morning. Did you get down on your knees as I told you?’

“‘Yes, holy father.’

“‘Get down again while I close the church. You can light your candles by the lantern,’ and he laid it on the stone pavement beside me and moved off into the gloom.

“I did everything he bade me—never was there a more devout worshipper—handed him back his lantern, and made my way out.

“At the end of the town the ragged man thrust his head over a low wall. He seemed greatly relieved, and picking up the bucket, we two started on a run for my lodgings. Before I went to bed that night he had mixed up the dry plaster in his bucket and taken the cast. He wanted to keep the matrix, but I wouldn’t have it. I did not want his dirty fingers feeling around her lovely face, and so I paid him his blood money and pounded the mould out of shape. The next morning I left Ravenna for Paris.

“You see now, messieurs, what a disreputable person I am.” Here he rose from his seat and walked back to the bas-relief. “And yet, most blessed of women”—and he raised his eyes as if in prayer—“I think I would do it all over again to have you where you could always listen to my sins.”