The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 15


Hotel Angst, Bordighera,
December 25.

Merry Christmas, my dear Santa Klaus, merry Christmas! This morning I sent you a long cable, expressing my sentiments. It does seem strange to think that by this time you have it. A thousand thousand thanks for your letter and the enclosure at Cannes. You are the dearest Dad!

Our first Christmas apart! and may it be the last. Christmas isn't Christmas without you and a stocking to hang up, and I'm awfully homesick. Still, if one can't be spirited away home on a magic carpet, this is the sweetest place to spend Christmas in you can imagine.

Speaking of magic carpets recalls the Arabian Nights, and gives me a simile. For a whole week I've been realising what Aladdin must have felt when the Genie took him into the wonderful Cave of Jewels. Oh, the Riviera! But you know it, dear. You spent your honeymoon with the beautiful little mother whom I never knew in the Riviera and in Italy. That is one reason why I want to see Italy—why I sent that question to you by cable the other day. Your one journey abroad, dear, dear old Dad! I can guess now why you have never been keen to
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come again, though you have always pretended you preferred Wall Street to all Europe. Now I am seeing these fairylike places I know how you have wished to keep the memory unspoiled; for they would never, never be the same if you saw them for the second time, even .with me, though you do love me dearly, don't you? It's first times that are so thrilling; and I'm having my first times now, though they're different from yours. I don't suppose I shall ever have such a love in my life as you had, or if I do, it will be sad and broken. Either the man I could care for would be divided from me by an impassable barrier, or something else horrid will happen. I feel that. I shall never write like this again, but I can't help it to-night. There! I won't go on about your past and my future any more; but just about the "winged present." And, oh, its wings are of rainbows!

Elderly people I've talked to at hotels during the last few days tell me the "Riviera is being ruined." You would say so too perhaps; but it seems heaven to me, from Hyères to Bordighera—as far as we've gone. Just here I must stop and thank you for your answer to my cable and saying "Italy by all means." If it hadn't been for that, we shouldn't be here.

I thought that we couldn't see anything more beautiful than on the other side of Marseilles; but the Riviera is a thing apart. I'm gratefully glad to have come into such an enchanted land of sunshine and flowers on an automobile instead of a stuffy train. There's nothing in the world to equal travelling on a motor-car. You can go fast or slow; you can stop where you like and as long as you like; with a little luggage on your car you're as independent as a bird; and like a bird you float through the open air, with no thought for time-tables. When will the poet come who will sing the song of the motor-car? Maeterlinck has sung it in prose, but the song was too short.

Of course, after that horrid affair the other side of Toulon I couldn't let Jimmy drive any more. He realised that I distrusted him and rather sulkily resigned the wheel, blaming the car for the accident and declaring that it could not have happened to his Panhard, which, of course, is silly. So Brown took the helm again, and Jimmy sat in the tonneau with Aunt Mary, where they whispered and chuckled a good deal together, appearing to have a real live mystery up their sleeves, which I suppose had something to do with the promised surprise at Cannes.

It was quite late in the day before the steering-gear was mended and we could take the road again, and then we all thought it a pity to run through the dark to Cannes, so we decided to stay a second night in Toulon, at the same hotel where I had dinner with Brown; he, poor fellow, being this time banished to some invisible lower region, or another hotel, for Aunt Mary and Jimmy would have had fits if I had proposed that he should make a fourth at our table. I thought the people of the hotel and the head waiter looked curiously at me; for one night they saw me dine with a gentleman who the next night drives to the door as my chauffeur (I assure you, Dad, it's no stretch of language to speak of Brown as a "gentleman," and you really must get him a gentleman's berth, even if it's way off in Klondyke).

Early next morning we started for what proved to be the most beautiful drive we have yet had, as warm as summer, and sparkling with sunshine. We bowled along at a gentle pace through a fairyland of flowers and rivers, with billowy blue mountains rising into the sky, and showing here and there a distant ethereal peak of snow. Very soon we passed through Hyères, which Brown called the gate of the Riviera, and I should have liked to turn aside for a peep at Costebelle, which Brown thinks one of the loveliest places of all. But Aunt Mary and Jimmy both opposed me, saying that we ought to get on as soon as possible to Cannes—"to Cannes" was their constant cry.

Beyond Hyères the road became more and more superb. We were travelling now along the mountains of the Moors, gliding through groves of oak and woods of shimmering grey-green olives, with glimpses of the glittering sea on our right hand. Presently the way dipped to the verge of the sea as far as Fréjus, from which place it rose again to wind up and up into the heart of the Esterels. Though we mounted many hundreds of feet, the road was so well engineered that gradients were not very trying. Our agreeable Napier, at any rate, made nothing of them, but simply flew up at twelve or fourteen miles an hour. And the descent on the other side! My heart comes into my mouth when I think of it. "It's quite safe," said Brown; but it looked the most breakneck thing in the world, and my very toes seemed to curl up, not with fear, but with a kind of awful joy. I think when a bird takes its great swoops through the air it must feel like we felt that day. The car bounded down the long lengths of looped road, slowed up a little at the turns (where we all had to throw our bodies sideways, like sailors hanging over the gunwale of a racing yacht), bounded forward again so that the wind rushed by our ears like a hurricane, slowed up once more, and so by a series of these magnificent bird-like swoops reached the level ground. It was a fine piece of driving on Brown's part, needing nerve, judgment, and a perfect knowledge of the capabilities of his car. I had scarcely recovered from the tingling joy of this wild mountain descent when we were in Cannes, driving up an avenue to our hotel.

It was a charming house, and I fell in love with Cannes at first sight; but would you believe it? Jimmy's wonderful surprise never came off at all!—and he wouldn't even tell me what it was. Aunt Mary wanted to; but he got quite red, and said, "No, Miss Kedison, it may make me a great deal of trouble if you say anything—at present. The whole position is changed." I think mysteries are silly.

By the way, you remember my telling you about the nice Lady Brighthelmston I met in Paris, on her way to the Riviera—the mother of the Honourable John who owns our Napier? She was going to stay at this very hotel, and I thought it would be rather nice to see her again. I meant to ask, when we arrived at the hotel, if she were there; but to my surprise Aunt Mary remembered to do it before I did, and she and Jimmy both seemed eager to find out. We had hardly got into the big, beautiful hall, when they began to ply the manager with questions, and Jimmy looked quite crestfallen when he was told that she had just gone on to Rome. He is rather fond of what he calls "swells," but I hadn't fancied from what he said before that he knew Lady Brighthelmston very well, or cared particularly about meeting her.

"Most annoying!" he exclaimed crossly, glaring at the manager as if it were his fault. "And has the Honourable John Winston, her son, been here also?"

"No," said the manager. "Lady Brighthelmston was with friends, an old gentleman and his daughter. But I understood that her ladyship's son was expected and that she was disappointed he did not arrive before she and her party went away. Lady Brighthelmston left a letter for Mr. Winston," and he pointed to a letter in the rack close by the office addressed in a large handwriting to the Honourable John Winston.

I was quite frightened when I heard that the owner of my car was expected to arrive in Cannes, for Brown was so certain that he was in England; yet here he might walk in at any moment to say that he'd changed his mind and wanted back his Napier. Just as I was thinking of going on to Italy in it, too! Why, the very thought that maybe I should have to lose the car made me long to keep it all the more.

I was gazing reproachfully at the letter and wondering if we hadn't better hurry away from Cannes before the H. J. turned up, when I saw Aunt Mary lay her hand on Jimmy's arm in a warning kind of way, as if she wanted to keep him from saying something he had begun to say. At that moment I found that Brown was at my elbow, though whether Aunt Mary's warning to Jimmy had anything to do with him or not I don't know. I don't see why it should, but she did look rather funny. Brown had come in to bring me my dear little gold-netted purse with my monogram in rubies and diamonds that you gave me just before I started. I'd dropped it off my lap when I got out of the car, so you see I'm as bad about that as ever. I thanked Brown, and then drawing him aside a little, I told him about Mr. Winston and what I was afraid of. He was as sure as ever that his old master wouldn't turn up to spoil sport, though I pointed out the letter; and it's a funny thing that the Hon. J.'s ex-chauffeur should be kept more in touch with his movements than his own mother. However, that's not my business.

That afternoon Aunt Mary, Jimmy, and I had a lovely walk in Cannes by the sea. We had tea at a fascinating confectioner's called Rumpelmayer, and a long time afterwards dined at a perfect dream of a little restaurant built out into the sea—the Restaurant de la Réserve, something like the one in Marseilles. I wonder if they were here in your day, Dad? There are pens in the water built up with walls, and lobsters and other creatures are swimming unsuspectingly about in them. You select your own fish, and in a few minutes the poor thing, so happy a little while ago, is on the table exquisitely cooked with its own appropriate sauce. It seems sad. Still, one does give them honourable burial, and they couldn't expect to live for ever. I let Jimmy choose mine, though, and while he and Aunt Mary discussed the langouste I leaned on the railing looking out over the bay. You will remember that scene—all the twinkling lights of the town, and the tumbled mass of the Esterel mountains, sombre and strange, across the sea.

At dinner I began to hint to Aunt Mary about going on to Italy, but I was rather sorry I'd said anything, for Jimmy caught me up like a flash, and exclaimed that if we did make up our minds to such a trip, he would like to keep us company on his Panhard, which he should no doubt find waiting for him at Nice. Aunt Mary asked if we should be likely to meet Lord Lane, as she had heard Jimmy talk so often of his friend Montie that she quite longed to know him. She loves a lord, poor Aunt Mary, and her face fell several inches when Jimmy answered that Montie was a very retiring chap, shy with ladies, and might make a point of keeping out of the way. When we got home to the hotel I had such a start. The Honourable John's letter was gone out of the rack. I made sure that all would now be over between the Napier and me, unless I could get so far away with it that he'd sooner hire another than follow up his; and anyway, if we disappeared he wouldn't know where to find us. I suppose that was very bad and sly of me, wasn't it? I sent word to Brown that we'd start at nine o'clock next morning; and wasn't it a joke on me, after we'd been on the road for a while I told him what had happened, and it turned out that he'd taken the letter to re-address to his master?

Just before we started Jimmy said he'd had a wire from Lord Lane that his car was waiting for him at the garage in the Boulevard Gambetta at Nice, and we went there after our splendid drive from Cannes, as Brown knew about the place, and thought it would be convenient to leave our Napier there.

We sent our luggage by cab to our hotel, lunched at a delightful restaurant, and in the afternoon, said Jimmy gaily, "I'll race you to Monte and back with my Panhard." I knew in a minute what he meant, but Aunt Mary thought he was talking about his everlasting Lord Lane, and was so disappointed to find it was only Monte Carlo. His Montie, he explained, was seedy and confined to bed but he hoped we wouldn't mention this before Brown, as Lord Lane didn't want his friend Jack Winston to hear that he had come to the Riviera without letting him know.

So after lunch we started away from glittering, flowery blue and white and golden Nice by the most glorious coast road for Monte Carlo, But you know it well, dear Dad. I suppose there can be nothing more beautiful on earth. And Monte Carlo is beautiful; but somehow its beauty doesn't seem real and wholesome and natural, does it? It's like a magnificently handsome woman who is radiant at night, and doesn't look suitable to morning light, because then you see that her hair and eyelashes are dyed and her complexion cleverly made up. If Monte Carlo could be concentrated and condensed into the form of a real woman, I think she would be the kind who uses lots of scent and doesn't often take a bath.

We wandered about among the shops and saw the most lovely things, but somehow I didn't "feel to want" any of them, as my nurse used to say. I couldn't help associating all the smart hats and dresses and jewels in the windows with the terrible hawk faces painted to look like doves, which kept passing us in the streets or the Casino gardens, instead of thinking whether the things would be pretty on me.

Jimmy knows "Monte" very well, and was inclined to swagger about his knowledge. There's one thing which I am compelled to admit that he can do—order a dinner. He took us to a restaurant, led aside the head waiter, talked with him for a few minutes, and announcing that dinner would be ready when we wanted it, pioneered us across to "the rooms." I'd seen so many pictures of the Casino that it didn't come upon me as a surprise. The first thing that struck me was the overpowering deadness of the air, which felt as if generations of people had breathed all the oxygen out of it, and the ominous, muffled silence, broken only by the sharp chink! chink! of the croupiers' rakes as they pulled in the money.

Jimmy insisted on staking a louis for me and another for Aunt Mary, who was enraptured when she won thirteen louis, and would have given up dinner to go on playing if she hadn't lost her winnings and more besides.

When we sat down to our table at the restaurant she was quite depressed, but everything was so bright and gay that she soon cheered up. Our tablecloth was strewn all over with roses and huge bluey-purple violets, and the dinner was pluperfect. There was a great coming and going of overdressed women and rather loud young men, which amused me, but I think it would soon pall. I can't imagine any feeling of rest or peace at Monte Carlo, not even in the gardens. To stop long in the place would be like always breathing perfume or eating spice.

We had finished dinner, and Jimmy was paying the bill (I couldn't help seeing that it was of enormous length), when the scraping of chairs behind us advertised that a new party had arrived at the table back of ours. A noisy, loud-talking party it was—all men, by the voices, and one of those voices sounded remotely familiar. The owner of it seemed to be telling an amusing story, which had been interrupted by entering the restaurant and taking seats. "Well, she simply jumped at it like a trout at a mayfly," the man was saying, as I sat wondering where I'd heard the voice before. "I couldn't help feeling a bit o a beast to impose on Yankee innocence. But all's fair in love and motor-cars. This was the most confounded thing ever designed; a kind of ironmonger's shop on wheels. And the girl was deuced pretty——"

The word "motor-car" brought it all back, and in a flash I crossed Europe from the restaurant in Monte Carlo to the village hotel at Cobham. I looked round and into the face of Mr. Cecil-Lanstown.

Aunt Mary looked too, for the bill was paid, and we were getting up to go. Our eyes met in the midst of his sentence; the man half rose, but dropped down again with a silly smile, and I gave him one of those elaborate glances that begin with a person's boots and work slowly up to the necktie. Just as we were sweeping past Aunt Mary said in a loud aside to me, "Did you ever see such a creature? And I took him for a duke." I think he heard.

In the Casino gardens we saw the moon rise out of the sea. and never shall I forget the glory of it. But just the very beauty of everything made me feel sad. So stupid of me. I really don't think I can be well lately. I must take a tonic or a nerve pill. We went back to Nice for the night, and next morning we drove to Mentone, where I decided that I would rather stay for a long time than anywhere else on the Riviera. It is just the sweetest, dearest little picture-place, with the natural, country peacefulness that others lack, and yet there's all the gaiety and life of a town. We drove to it along the upper road, which is almost startlingly magnificent I asked Brown to go slowly, so that we might sip the scenery instead of bolting it. Though the Napier could have gone romping up the steep road out of Nice to the Observatory, and on to quaint La Turbie, I chose a pace of six or seven miles an hour, often stopping at picturesque corners to drink in sapphire draughts of sea and sky. Coming this way from Nice to Mentone we skipped Monte Carlo altogether, only looking down from La Turbie on its roofs, on the glittering Casino, and the gloomy, rock-set castle of Monaco.

And, oh, by the way, Jimmy wasn't with us on that drive, nor has he joined us yet, though he threatens to (if that word isn't too ungracious) a little farther on in Italy. He stayed behind in Nice to take care of Lord Lane. Aunt Mary thinks that shows such a sweet disposition; but I'm not sure. I believe that Montie is a marquis.

"We stopped near Mentone, at Cap Martin, which of course you don't know, as it's rather new. And it was lovely there, up high on a hill, among sweet-smelling pines. It was pleasant to be alone with Aunt Mary again, and I was nicer to her than I have been, I'm afraid, since Pau and Jimmy. I should have loved to stay a long while (and it would be jolly to come back for the carnival, though I don't suppose we shall), but there was such a thrill in the thought of Italy being near that I grew restless. Italy! Italy! I heard the name ringing in my ears like the "horns of elfland."

Now we are in it—Italy, I mean, not elfland, though it seems much the same to unsophisticated me for mystery and colour; and it is good to have warm-hearted Christmas for our first day. The one jarring note in the Italian "entrance music" was at the frontier. I think I wrote you how, when we landed at Dieppe from England, about a hundred years ago, I had to pay a deposit to the custom-house for the right to take my car into France. That money I should have got back at Mentone on leaving the country if the late-lamented Dragon had still been in existence, but as it vanished in smoke and flame the money has vanished too. Brown, however (or, rather, Brown's master), paid a similar deposit on the Napier, and passing the French custom-house on the outskirts of Mentone, the Lightning Conductor asked my permission to stop, that he might present Mr. Winston's papers and get the money back to send to England.

So far, so good; but it was dusk when we left the Cap Martin (as we'd spent the day in exploring Mentone), and the custom-house people have detained us some time; it was dark, cloudy, and windy when we moved on again towards Italy. A douanier mounted by Brown's side (I was with Aunt Mary in the tonneau) to conduct us to the last French post, where we dropped him; and in few yards farther we were in Italy. Maybe you remember that the frontier is marked by a wild chasm, cleft in the high mountains which hurl themselves down to the very margin of the sea. Over the splendid chasm is the Pont St. Louis, and through the very middle of the stone bridge runs the invisible "frontier line."

I thought I saw a sentry-box on the Italian side, but it was too dark to be sure; and one has to go a good way up the steep mountain road before one reaches the office of the douane. Here Brown pulled up, as two slouching men in blue-grey overcoats, with rifles slung over their backs, came forward to meet us. Our Lightning Conductor is always very courteous in dealing with foreign officials. He says it "smooths things"; and now, seeing that the men intended to stop us, he politely expressed the wish to pass, offering to pay whatever deposit was demanded. Though I have only the smallest smattering of Italian, I could understand pretty well what followed. The men refused to let us pass. Brown argued the matter; he produced a passport, which the two men inspected by the light of a lantern. They appeared impressed, but still refused us passage, saying that the office was closed for the night, that the chief had gone, and that there was no one who could make out the necessary papers. "But it is monstrous!" cried Brown. "Is this Italian hospitality? Do you suggest that the ladies should remain here on the road till morning?" The douaniers shrugged their shoulders. "There are plenty of good hotels in Mentone," said one. "Go back there."

"No," said Brown, "I will not go back. Where does the chief of the bureau live?" The douaniers refused to tell. Clearly they did not want a "wigging" for letting loose an imperious Englishman upon their chief, reposing after his dinner. By this time an interested crowd of ten or twelve persons had assembled, their shadowy forms seeming to rise out of the ground. I heard a voice in French whisper into my ear, "I am of France, and all these Italians are pigs. The chef de douane lives in Mortola, the first village up the road"; and before I could look round to thank him, the friendly Frenchman was swallowed up in darkness. I called Brown and gave him the news. He asked if we minded being left alone while he went to fetch the chief, saying we should be quite safe in charge of the douaniers; and on our agreeing strode off up the steep road, one of the guards immediately padding silently after him. We sat and waited perhaps half an hour on the threshold of Italy, our lamps casting their rays into the country we were forbidden to enter, when I heard Brown's voice and the sound of footsteps. By some persuasion he had induced the chef de douane to return with him. The office doors were thrown open, the gas was lighted, the necessary papers were made out, the deposit paid, and then, at Brown's invitation, the agreeable official mounted into the car, and we ran quickly up the hill to his house.

It was a thrilling drive from the frontier to Bordighera. A great wind coming salt off the sea was moaning along the face of the mountains, completely drowning the comforting hum of our motor. The road mounted up and up, terrific gusts striking the car as it came out into exposed places. Far below we heard the thunder of mighty waves dashing on the rock. Then we began to descend a steep and twisting road that led up presently to low ground, not much above the sea, where the wind shrieked down the funnel of a river-bed. Then up again along another face of cliff under cyclopean walls of masonry, and down a sudden shoot between houses into the old, old town of Ventimiglia; across a river and a plain, to be pulled up presently by a very dangerous obstacle—a huge beam of wood, unlighted, and swung across the road to guard a level crossing. Our great acetylene eye, glaring ahead, gave Brown ample warning, and we slowed down, then stopped, while a train thundered past. Very deliberately a signalman presently came to push the barrier aside, and we darted on through a long, straggling village, turned away from the sea, found a large iron gate with a lamp over it, standing hospitably open, and twisting through a fairy-like garden studded with gigantic palms, drew up in a flood of light that poured from the door of a large white hotel. To walk into the big, bright hall, to hear pleasant English voices, to see nice men and pretty girls dressed for dinner and waiting for the stroke of the gong, was an extraordinary contrast to the roaring blackness of the night outside. Everyone turned to stare at us as we came in masked and goggled like divers.

This morning I waked up and looked out of my window a little before seven. It was just sunrise and the wind had died. Under my eyes lay the garden, lovely as Eden, garlands of roses looped from orange trees to palms; banks of heliotrope, and sweetness unutterable. Then, a waving sea of palms, with here and there the glow of a scarlet roof, and beyond the sea. The rising sun shone on it and on the curved line of coast, with Monte Carlo and Mentone gleaming like pearl. Floating up on the horizon I saw a shadowy blue shape of an island, hovering like a ghost, and as I looked it vanished suddenly as a broken bubble, leaving the sea blank. I thought it must have been a mirage; but by-and-by a soft-speaking, fawn-eyed maid called Apollonia told me it was Corsica, which only shows itself sometimes early in the morning when the sun is at a certain height and usually after a storm.

We breakfasted in our sitting-room, with delicious honey for our crisp rolls, and afterwards, when I went downstairs to send your cable, I found the hall smelling like a forest of balsam firs. It was decorated for Christmas, and the whole hotel seemed full of a sort of joyous, Christmas stir, so that it was more like a jolly, big country-house than a hotel.

Then I found out that this hotel is famous for its Christmas celebration. Everyone stopping there was supposed to be the landlord's guest at a wonderful dinner, a regular feast, with dozens of courses, ending up with crackers, which we all pulled. Last of all the dining-room was darkened, and a long procession of waiters glided in bearing illuminated ices—green, crimson, gold, and rose. We clapped our hands and laughed, just like children, and the landlord had to make a little speech. Altogether everything was so friendly and Christmasy that the most gloomy misanthrope could not have felt homesick. I supposed when dinner was over that the special festivities were at an end. But no, quite the contrary. Everyone trooped into a huge picture-panelled recreation-room, which had been the scene of secret preparation all day, and there was a giant Christmas-tree, sparkling with pretty decorations, and heavy with presents for each person in the hotel, all provided by the landlord. We drew them with numbers, and I got a charming inlaid box with a secret opening; Aunt Mary had a little silver vase. There was music, too; harps and violins. I was sorry that poor Brown was cut off from all the fun. But I did give him a present. You know he refuses tips, so I couldn't offer him money; but the other day at Cannes he was looking rather worried, and it turned out that something—I didn't understand exactly what, for he was rather vague in his answers—had happened to his watch. I didn't say much then, but in Monte Carlo I bought him quite a decent one for fifty dollars (he really does deserve it), and gave it to him this morning with a "merry Christmas." You've no idea how pleased he was. He seemed quite touched.

There! a bell somewhere is striking midnight. Good-bye, dearest. My thoughts have been full of you all day.