- CHAPTER X The Scraping of Acquaintance
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The Scraping of Acquaintance
"You shall be treated to ... ironical smiles and mockings."—WALT WHITMAN.
I SAW, standing desolate in the basin of mountains, an old house of grey stone, very square, very plain, very resolute and staunch of physiognomy. The windows were still unlighted, and it looked a gloomy home for months of winter cold and snow. Suddenly, as we approached, rather wearily now, a yellow gleam flashed out in an upper window.
"That is the spare room for strangers," said Joseph, and I thought that there was a note of anxiety in his voice.
"Perhaps someone has arrived before us," I remarked. "I hadn't thought of that, as you said so few people ever stopped at the Cantine over night."
"Had you noticed, Monsieur, that after all we never passed the party with the donkeys?" asked my muleteer.
"I had forgotten them."
"I had not, but it was Monsieur's pleasure to go slowly; to stop for the views, to look at the ruined forts, and to trace the old road. We gave them time to get far ahead. I was always watching, but never saw them. The ânes had more endurance | | 113 than I thought, and as for that Innocentina, she is a daughter of Satan; she would know no fatigue."
"It would be like that little brat to gobble up the one spare room of the Cantine as he did the one chicken of the 'Déjeûner,'" I muttered. "But we shall see what we shall see."
We went on more rapidly, and soon arrived at the bottom of a steep flight of stone steps which led up to the door of the Cantine. A man came forward to greet us--a fine fellow, with the frank and lofty bearing of one whose life is passed in high altitudes.
"Can we have supper and accommodation for the night at your house?" I asked.
"Supper, most certainly, and with pleasure," came the courteous answer, "though we have only plain fare to offer. But the one spare room we have for our occasional guests, has just been taken by a young English or American gentleman. The woman who drives the two donkeys with which they travel, will have a bed in the room of my sister, and we could find sleeping place of a sort for your muleteer; but I fear we have no way of making Monsieur comfortable."
I was filled with rage against the wretch who had robbed me of a decent meal, and would now filch from me a night's rest.
"We have walked a long way," I said, "and are tired. We might have stopped at St. Pierre, but preferred to come on to you. It is now too dark to go back, or go on. Surely there are two beds in your spare room, and as you keep an inn, and pretend to give bed and board to travellers, you are bound to arrange for my accommodation."
"The young monsieur pays for the two beds in | | 114 the Spare room, in order to secure the whole for himself alone," replied the landlord. "Not expecting any other guests, we agreed to this; but the youth is perhaps a countryman of yours, and rather than you should go further, or spend a night of discomfort, he will probably consent to let you share the room."
"He shall consent, or I will know the reason why," I said to myself fiercely; but aloud I merely answered that I would be glad of a few minutes' conversation with the young gentleman.
My host led me to the house door, introduced me to a handsome sister, who was my hostess, explained to her the situation, with the view of it we had arrived at, and descended to show Joseph where to shelter Finois.
My landlady said that she would put the case to the occupant of the spare room, who was already in his new quarters, preparing for supper, but I persuaded her that it would be well for me to be on the spot, and add my arguments to hers. We went upstairs, and in a dark passage plunged suddenly into a pool of yellow light, gushing from a half-open door. I hurried forward, step for step with my guide, lest the door should be shut in my face before I could reach it. Over my hostess' shoulder, I saw a bare but neat interior; a "coffin" bed, a white-washed wall, and an uncarpeted floor, Mademoiselle Innocentina Palumbo sitting upon it, tailor-fashion, engaged in excavating a large, dark object from a rücksack. In front of her stood the Brat, deeply interested in the operation, his curly head bent, his childish little hands oh his hips.
He was talking and laughing gaily; but at the sound of footsteps in the passage he glanced up, | | 115 and, seeing me, stared in haughty surprise, which tipped the scales towards anger.
"Here is a monsieur who is belated on the Pass, and begs" (this was hardly the way in which I would have put it) "that he may be allowed to share your room," explained our landlady.
"Share my room!" repeated the Brat, so dum-founded at the simple statement that he spoke in English. Now I knew that he was a countryman, not of mine, but of Molly's, and I wished that she were here to deal with him. "I have never heard anything so--so ridiculous."
"Really," said I, assuming an air I had found successful with freshers in good old days of undergrad-dom (Molly called it my "belted hearl" manner), "really, I fail to see anything ridiculous in the proposal. This is an inn, which professes to accommodate travellers. I have a right to insist upon a bed."
To my intense irritation Innocentina giggled. The Brat did not laugh, but he grew rosy, like a girl. Even his little ears turned pink, under his absurd mop of chestnut curls. "You have no right to insist upon mine," retorted he, in the honey-sweet contralto which tried in vain to make of a pert imp, an angel.
"You cannot sleep in two," said I.
"That is my affair, since I have agreed to pay for them."
"I contend that you cannot pay for both, since one is legally mine, by the laws protecting travellers," I argued truculently, hoping to frighten the rude child, though I should have been sore put to it to prove my point.
"I have always heard that possession is nine | | 116 points of the law," said he, impudent and apparently unintimidated. "This is my room, every hole and corner of it, and if you try to intrude, I shall simply sit up and yell all night, and throw things, so that you will not get an instant's sleep. I swear it."
Then I lost my temper. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," I exclaimed. "I wonder where you were brought up ?"
"Where big boys never bully little ones."
"Of all the selfish, impertinent brats!" I could not help muttering.
"If I'm a brat, you're a brute, sir. You have only to glance at the dictionary to see which is worse."
He looked so impish, defying me, like a miniature Ajax, that with all the will in the world to box his ears, I burst out laughing.
Checking my mirth as soon as I could, however, I covered its inappropriateness with a steely frown. "I do not need to glance at the dictionary to see that you would be a detestable room-mate," said I, " and on second thoughts I prefer to sleep quietly in the stable rather than press my claim here." With this, I turned on my heel, not giving the enemy time for another volley, and stalked downstairs, followed, I regret to say, by Innocentina's ribald laughter.
Almost immediately I was rejoined by the handsome landlady, who, profuse in her regrets, though she had understood no word of what had passed, attempted to console me with the promise of a bed in the salle-à-manger. Meanwhile, if I desired to wash, her brother would superintend my ablutions.
Over those rites (which were duly performed at a pump, while the little wretch upstairs wallowed in the luxury of a basin almost as large as my hat) | | 117 I draw a veil. By the time that they were finished, and I was shining with yellow kitchen soap, having been unable to make use of my own in the circumstances, supper was ready. I walked sulkily into the room, which later would be transformed into my bedchamber, and to my annoyance saw the Brat already seated at the table. I had fancied that his conscience would counsel supping privately in the room he had usurped, but this imp seemed to have been born without a sense of shame. Thanks to him, I had not even been able to give myself a clean collar, as it had not been possible to open the mule-pack and improvise a dressing-room in the neighbourhood of the pump. But he--he, the usurper, he, the guilty one--had changed from his low-necked shirt and blue serge jacket and knickers into a kind of evening costume, original, I should say, to himself, or copied from some stage child, or Christmas Annual.
He did not speak to me, nor I to him, though, as I sat down in the chair placed for me at the opposite end of the table, I caught a sapphire gleam from the brilliant eyes, which burned so vividly in the little brown face.
There came an omelette. It was passed to me. Maliciously, I selected the best bit from the middle. The boy took what was left. Veal followed, in the form of cutlets, two in number. A glance showed me that one was mostly composed of bone and gristle. I helped myself to the other. Revenge was mine at last, though to enjoy it fully I must have a peep at the enemy, to make sure that he felt and understood his righteous punishment.
But life is crowded with disappointments. The foe was looking incredibly small, and young, and | | 118 meek, a puny thing for a man to wreak his vengeance on. With long lashes cast down, making a deep shadow on his thin cheeks, he sat wrestling with his portion, from which the cleverest manipulation of knife and fork was powerless to extract an inch of nourishment. As he gave up the struggle at last, with unmoved countenance, and not even a sigh of complaint, my heart failed me. I felt that I had snatched bread from the mouth of starving infanthood. Had not Joseph learned from Innocentina that the boy had lately recovered from a severe illness? Unspeakable brat that he was, and small favour that he deserved at my hands, I resolved that he should have the best of the next dish when it came round.
This good intention, however, went to supply another stone in that place which seems ever in need of repaving. Cheese succeeded the veal, a well-meaning but somewhat overpowering cheese, and neither the Brat nor I encouraged it. It was borne away, intact, and after a short delay appeared a dish of plums,with another of small and attractive cakes, evidently imported from a town.
I saw the boy's eye brighten as it fell upon the cakes. He glanced from them to me, as I was offered my choice, and said hastily: "There is one cake there which I want very much. I suppose if I tell you which it is, you will eat it."
"There is also only one which I care for," said I. "I wonder if it's the same?"
"Probably," said the boy. "If you take it, there isn't another which I would be found dead with in my mouth, on a desert island. And I haven't had much dinner."
"I had to wash under the pump," said I. "Still | | 119 greatness lies in magnanimity. You shall choose your cake first; but remember, you cannot have it, and eat it, too; so make up your mind quickly which is better."
"I always thought that a stupid saying," remarked the Brat, as he helped himself to a ginger-nut with pink icing. "I have my cake, and when I have eaten it, I take another."
"Your experience in life has been fortunate," I replied, contenting myself with the second-best cake. "But it has not been long. When you are a man--"
"A man! I would rather die--young than grow up to be one."
"Indeed?" I exclaimed, surprised at this outburst.
"I hate men."
"Ah, perhaps then, your experience has not been as fortunate in men as in cakes."
"No, it hasn't. It has been just the opposite."
"One would say, "Thereby hangs a tale.'"
"There does. But it is not for strangers."
"I'm not a lover of after-dinner stories. Here comes the coffee. Luckily, there's plenty for us both. Will you have a cigarette?"
"A cigar, then?"
"I don't smoke."
"Ah, some boys' heads won't stand it. I'm ashamed to say that I smoked at fourteen. But perhaps you're not yet--"
"I will change my mind and have a cigarette, since you are so obliging."
"Sure you won't regret it?"
"Quite sure, thank you."| | 120
"They're rather strong."
"I'm not afraid."
He took a cigarette from my case, and smoked it daintily. Whether it were my imagination, or whether a slight pallor did really become visible under the sun-tan on the velvet-smooth face, I am not certain; but at all events he rose when nothing was left between his fingers save an ash clinging to a bit of gold paper, and excused himself with belated politeness.
Not long after, my bed was made up on the floor, and I slept as I fancy few kings sleep.
Strange; not then, or ever, did I dream of Helen.
The voice of Finois or some near relative of his roused me at dawn. I remembered where I was, whither bound, and sleep instantly seemed irrelevant. I scrambled up from my lonely couch, went to the open window, which was a square of grey-green light, and looked out at the mountain walls of the valley basin.
The day was not awake yet, but only half conscious that it must awake. There was the faint thrill of mystery which comes with earliest dawn, as though it were for you alone of all the world, and no one else could find his way down its dim labyrinths. But even as I looked, there came a movement near the house, and I saw the stalwart figure of the landlord shape itself from the shadows. Other forms were stirring too, the stolid forms of cows, and those of two sturdy little ponies, which were being turned into a pasture.
It occurred to me that I could not do better than get through my toilet, and, if Joseph and Finois were of the same mind, make an early start. I thought | | 121 that if I could reach the Hospice before all the gold of sunrise had boiled over night's brim, I should have a picture to frame in memory.
At bedtime they had given me a wooden tub such as laundresses use, and filled it for my morning bath. I had my own soap, and a great, clean, coarse dish-towel of crash or some such material. Never before was there a bath like it, with the good smell of pine-wood of which the tub was made, and the tingle of the water from a mountain spring. I revelled in it, and as I dressed could have sung for pure joy of life, until I remembered that I was a jilted man, and this tour a voyage of consolation.
"You are miserable, you know," I informed my reflection in a small, strange-coloured glass, which allowed me to shave my face in greenish sections.
"It is a kind of madness, this spurious gaiety of yours."
In half an hour I was out of the house, and found Joseph feeding Finois. They were both prepared to leave at ten minutes' notice, and when the two human creatures of the party had been refreshed with crusty bread and steaming coffee, the procession of three set forth. As for the boy, the donkeys, and their guardian, as far as I knew they were still sleeping the sleep of the unjust.
If the Pass had been glorious in open day, and by falling twilight, it was doubly wonderful in this mystic dawn-time before the lamp of the rising sun had lit the valley. The green alps where the cattle pastured were faintly musical, far and near, with the ringing of unseen bells, and the air was vibrant with the rush and whisper of waters. As the shadows melted in the crucible of dawn, and an opaline light trembled on the dark mountain-tops that towered | | 122 round us, I saw marvels which either had not existed last night, or I had been dull clod enough to miss them.
Fairy wild-flowers such as I had never seen studded the rocks with jewels of blue and gold, and rose, and little silver stars; and there were some wonderful, shining things of creamy grey plush, suggesting glorified thistles.
We walked through the Valley of Death, where many of Napoleon's men had perished; and the first rays of sunrise touched the tragic rocks with the gold of hope. Up, up beyond the alps and the sparse pine-trees we climbed, until we came to the snowline and passed beyond the first white ledge, carved in marble by the cold hand of a departed winter. Down through a gap in the mountains streamed an icy blast, and I had to remind myself, shivering,that this was August, not December. The wind tore apart the fabric of lacy cloud which had been looped in folds across the rock-face, like a veil hiding the worn features of some aged nun, and showed jagged mountain peaks, towering against a sky of mother-o'-pearl. Suddenly, after a steep ascent, we saw before us a tall, lonely mass of grey stone, built upon the rock. Behind it the sun had risen, and fired to burnished gold the still lake which mirrored the Hospice and its dark wall of mountains, seamed with snow.
The impression of high purity, of peace won through privation, and of nearness to Heaven itself, was so strong upon me, that I seemed to hear a voice speaking a benediction.
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