The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IV. The Hotel at Chastel
John was fast finding that in a crowded country like Europe, suddenly ravaged by war, nothing was more common than abandoned houses. People were continually fleeing at a moment's warning. He had already made use of two or three, at a time when they were needed most, and here was another awaiting him. Before he pushed open the door he had already read above it, despite the incrustations of snow, the sign, "Hotel de l'Europe," and he felt intuitively that they were coming into good quarters. He was so confident of it that his cheerful mood deepened, turned in fact into joyousness.
As he held open the door he took off his cap, bowed low and said:
"Enter my humble hotel, Madame la Princesse. Our guests are all too few now, but I promise you, Your Highness, that you and your entourage shall have the best the house affords. Behold, the orchestra began the moment you entered!"
As he spoke the deep thunder of guns came from invisible points along the long battle-line. The firing of the cannon was far away but the jarring of the air was distinct in Chastel, and the windows of the hotel shook in their frames. John and Julie had become so used to it that it merely heightened their fantastic mood.
"Yours is, in truth, a most welcome hotel," she said, "and I see that we shall not be annoyed by other guests."
She shook the snow from her hood and cloak and entered, and Picard and Suzanne, also divesting themselves of snow coverings, followed her. Then John too went in, and once more closed a door between them and the storm. He noticed that the great Antoine gave him a glance of strong approval, and even the somber Suzanne seemed to be thawing.
John was sorry that the European hotels did not have a big lobby after the American fashion. It would have given them a welcome now, but all was as usual in the Hotel de l'Europe, Chastel. There was the small office for the cashier, and the smaller one for the bookkeeper. Near them was the bureau and upon it lay an open register. Through an open door beyond, the smoking-room was visible, and from where he stood John could see French and English illustrated weeklies lying upon the tables. Nothing had been taken, nothing was in disorder, the hotel was complete, save that it was as bare as Crusoe's deserted island. But John did not feel any loneliness. Julie and the two Picards were with him, and the aspect of the Hotel de l'Europe changed all at once.
"We'll register first," said John. "I know it's customary to send a waiter to the rooms for the names, but as our waiters have all gone out we'll use the book now."
Pen and ink stood beside the register and he wrote in a bold hand:
Mademoiselle Julie Lannes, Paris, France. Mademoiselle Suzanne Picard, Paris, France. Monsieur Antoine Picard, Paris, France. Mr. John Scott, New York, U.S.A.
Julie looked over his shoulder.
"It is well," she said. "If Philip arrives perhaps he will come to the hotel and see our names registered here."
"And we'll reserve a good room for him," said John, "but although I don't want to appear a pessimist, Miss Julie, I don't think he'll come just now, at least not in the Arrow. All aeroplane, balloon and Zeppelin trains have stopped running during the blizzard. Blizzard is an American word of ours meaning a driving storm. It's expressive, and it can be used with advantage in Europe. What accommodations do you wish, Madame la Princesse?"
"A sitting-room, a bedroom and a bath for myself, and a room each for my maid, Suzanne, and my faithful retainer, her father, Antoine Picard."
"You shall have all that you wish and more," said John, and then dropping into his usual tone he said: "I think we'd better look over the rooms together. It's barely possible some looter may be prowling in the house. Of course, the electric power is cut off, but Suzanne will know where to find candles, and we can provide for all the light we need."
He thought of light, because the heavy storm outside kept the hotel in shadow, and he knew that when night came, depression and gloom would settle upon them, unless they found some way to dispel the darkness. Despite the silence of the hotel they had a sense of comfort. They had been oppressed in the cathedral by its majesty and religious gloom, but this was the haunt of men and women who used to come in cheerfully from the day's business and who laughed and talked in rooms and on the stairways.
John's imaginative mind was alive at once. He beheld pleasant specters all about him. Chastel was off the great highways, but many quiet tourists must have come here. The beautiful cathedral, the picturesque situation of the little town above the little river and the very ancient Gothic buildings must have been an attraction to the knowing. He could shut his eyes and see them now, many of them his own countrymen and countrywomen, walking in the halls after a day of sightseeing, comparing notes, or looking through the windows down at the little river that foamed below. Yes, Chastel had been a pleasant town and one could pass many days in right company in its Hotel de l'Europe.
"What are you smiling at, Mr. John?" asked Julie.
It was the first time she had called him "Mr. John," the equivalent for his "Miss Julie," and he liked it. But he hid his pleasure and apparently took no notice of it.
"I was seeing our hotel in times of peace," he said. "It was a sort of mental transference, I suppose, but the place looked good to me. It was crowded with people, many of whom were from America, and some of whom I would like to know. I've never had a horror of tourists--in fact I think the horror of them that most people pretend to feel is a sort of affectation, a false attempt at superiority--and I always liked, when I was a sightseer myself, to come back to the hotel in the evening and meet the cheerful crowd full of chatter and gossip."
"That is what I should want to do if ever I should go to America. They say that your distances there are great and your hotels large and bright. I shouldn't want to miss seeing the people in the evenings under the blazing electric lights."
"You'll see them, Miss Julie, because I know that you're going to America some time or other."
They were speaking in English again and Suzanne, wrapped in a gray cloak and looking very large, assumed her old grim look. John glanced at her and for the moment he was just a little afraid of her. He saw her eyes saying very plainly: "You're an American and a foreigner and my mistress, Mademoiselle Julie Lannes, a very young girl, is French. You should not be talking together at all, and if you were not so necessary to us in our hour of danger I would see that she was quickly taken far away from you."
He led the way into the smoking-room, where there were many comfortable chairs, and writing-desks with pen, ink and paper at hand. Everything was ready for use, but guests and waiters were lacking.
"Let's go into the main dining-room," said John, who had opened another door. "It's a fine, big place and the windows look directly over the river. Doubtless we'd have a good view from here if it were not for the driving snow."
It was, in fact, a handsome long room, proving the truth of John's surmise that many guests came at times to Chastel, and, to their great surprise, they found several of the tables fully dressed, as if some of the people had just been sitting down to dinner, when the voice of the shells bade them go.
"You see it's waiting for us," said John. "Why, we'd have done its proprietor a wrong if we'd missed the Hotel de l'Europe. The table is set and, hospitable Frenchman that he is, he'll be glad to know that somebody is enjoying his house in his absence. The pepper, the salt and the vinegar are there, and I actually see a small bottle of wine on one of the tables."
"Poor man!" said Julie. "It must have cost him much to go. You don't know, Mr. John, how we French love our homes and houses."
"Oh, yes, I do, and we in America, since there's no longer any Wild West in which we can seek romance and change, are settling down into the same habits."
"Would Mademoiselle and Mr. Scott wish us to serve their dinner here?" asked Antoine gravely, the duties of his position ever uppermost in his mind.
"Not now, Antoine," said Julie, "but we will later. I'm glad to see, though, that you are making the best of it. You show a spirit worthy of a Picard."
Picard bowed and smiled with gratification. John suggested that they look upstairs for rooms, and then, after putting them in order, they could return for dinner. But before ascending the grand stairway, they lighted several candles which Suzanne had found, and put them at convenient places. They were not sufficient to illuminate the interior of the hotel, but they threw a soft glow which John found warm and pleasing.
Above was the main drawing-room, and a great array of guest chambers, continued also on the third floor, which was the last. John selected the best suite, looking over the river, for Julie and also for Suzanne, who, under the circumstances, must remain with her. A running water system had not been installed in the houses of Chastel but the great pitchers were filled, and the stalwart Suzanne could easily bring more. They were good rooms, perhaps with an excess of gilt and glass after the continental fashion, but they were comfortable, and John said to Julie:
"Maybe you'd like to remain here a half-hour or so, while Antoine and I choose a place for ourselves. It's best that the members of our party remain close together in view of possible emergencies."
"Yes, Suzanne and I will stay," said Julie. "I felt no weariness a few moments ago, but I've grown suddenly tired. A short rest will restore me."
"Very well," said John. "I bid you a brief au revoir, and when you hear a knock on your sitting-room door don't be alarmed, because it will be Antoine and I returning. Come, Antoine, we'll let the ladies rest while you and I look for the state apartments for ourselves."
Picard permitted a grin to pass over his broad face. His heart belonged to his daughter Suzanne and the Lannes family, and it was not moved easily by outsiders. Yet, this young John Scott from across the sea was beginning to find a favorable place in his mind. He spoke good French, he fought well for the French, he was highly esteemed by Monsieur Philip, he had done great service for Mademoiselle Julie and in the present crisis he was a tower of strength for them all. His daughter, Suzanne, regarded young Scott with a certain fear, but he, Antoine, could not share it. Henceforth John would have his distinct approval, and he felt a measure of pride in being now his comrade in danger.
When John had closed the door of the sitting-room and he knew that neither Julie nor Suzanne could hear him, he said:
"Picard, have you any weapon?"
Picard drew a heavy automatic revolver from the pocket of his jacket.
"Before I started I provided myself with this, knowing the dangers of the journey," he replied.
"Good, but don't use it, except in the last resort. Remember how near you came to execution as a franc-tireur."
"Does Monsieur apprehend an attack?"
"I scarcely know, Antoine. But things have come about too easily. We find here a furnished hotel waiting for us. I've no doubt that the kitchens of the Hotel de l'Europe are well stocked, and we have all the comforts, even the luxuries sufficient for a hundred guests. So far as we know there is not a soul in all this town save our four selves. It doesn't look natural, my good Antoine. It's positively uncanny."
"But, sir, if what we want is here waiting for us, why shouldn't we take it?"
"That's true, wise Antoine. 'Take the goods the gods provide thee whilst the lovely Thais sits beside thee,' as Mr. Dryden said."
"Who is Mr. Dryden? Must I infer, sir, from his name, that he is one of our brave English allies?"
"Doubtless he would be if he were living, but he has been dead some time, Antoine."
"Alas, sir, the way of all flesh!"
"So it is, Antoine, but I refuse to grieve about it or get morbid over it. I like to live and living I mean to live. What do you think of this big room, Antoine? It has two beds in it, one for you and one for me, and it's near enough to hear any call from the suite, occupied by Mademoiselle Julie and your daughter."
"A wise precaution. Monsieur Scott thinks of everything."
"No, not of everything, Antoine, but the presence of Mademoiselle Lannes is bound to sharpen the wits of anyone who is trying to take care of her."
"Will you make your toilet here, sir? I will call Suzanne and we will prepare dinner. When it is ready we will serve Mademoiselle Lannes and you."
The stalwart Picard had become all at once the discreet and thoughtful servant, and John felt a sudden sense of restfulness. Intense democrat that he was, he realized in his moment of weariness that all could not be masters.
"Thank you, Picard," he said gratefully. "The afternoon is wearing on and I do need to shake myself up."
"You'll find plenty of water in the pitchers, sir, and there are clean towels on the rack. One would think, sir, that the manager of the Hotel de l'Europe before taking his departure, made careful preparation for our coming."
"It looks like it, Picard, and it certainly will be true, if you and Suzanne find the well-filled kitchen that you predict."
"Never a doubt of it, sir. The perfect condition in which we find everything above-stairs indicates that we shall find the same below."
He went out, leaving the door open, according to John's wish, and the young American heard his firm step pass down the hall and to the stairway. He drew a deep sigh of content, and lying down on a red plush sofa rested for a little while. It was luck, most wonderful luck, that he had come into Chastel, and had found Julie and her servants, and it was luck, most marvelous luck, that this well-equipped hotel was here waiting for them.
He rose and looped back the heavy lace curtains from the windows which looked over the river. But the snow was falling so fast that he could not see far into the dense, white cataract. The stream was completely hidden, and so, of course, was the hospital camp beyond. Yet through all the driving storm came a faint moan, a light pulsing of the air, which he knew to be the far throb of the great guns.
He turned impatiently away. Why couldn't they stop at such a time? As for himself, he would think of Julie, and a very handsome, tanned young man looking into the glass over the dresser smiled, although it was not at his own reflection. Then he bathed his face and hands, straightened out his hair with the small pocket comb and brush that he, like most other young officers, carried, and felt as if he had been made over.
He hung up his hat and heavy overcoat, and, resuming his place on the sofa, waited until Julie should announce her readiness. But she took more than a half-hour. He had not expected anything else. Truly a girl in her position was entitled to at least an hour if she wanted it. So he continued to wait with great patience. Besides it was very comfortable there on the sofa, and the swish of the driving snow against the window-panes was soothing. Now and then the low mutter of the guns came, but it did not disturb him.
"I'm ready if you are, Mr. John," called a clear voice, and springing from the sofa he joined Julie in the hall. She had smoothed her hair and her Red Cross dress, and the rest had restored all her brilliant color. She was as calm, too, as if they were not alone under the cloud of war, and the hotel was full of real guests. It was her courage as much as her beauty that appealed to John. At no time in all the dangers through which they had gone had he seen her flinch. He had heard much of the courage shown by the women in the great Civil War in his own country, and this maid of France was proving anew that a girl could be as brave as a man.
"May I take you down to dinner, Mademoiselle Lannes?" he asked.
"You may, Mr. Scott," she replied, and they walked together down the hall and the stairway into the great dining-room. Antoine, a napkin on his arm, ceremoniously held open the door for them and Suzanne showed them to opposite seats at a small table by the window.
"We have found an abundance, Mademoiselle," she said, "and you shall be served as if you were real guests."
The memory of that dinner will always be vivid in the mind of John Scott, though he live to be a hundred. Julie and he were invincible youth that always blooms anew. War and its horrors and dangers fell from them. Their sportive fancy that they were guests in the hotel and nothing ailed the world just then held true. As Antoine and his daughter served the excellent dinner that Suzanne had prepared these two found amusement in everything. The barrier of race that had been becoming more slender all the time melted quite away, and they were boy and girl looking into each other's eyes across a narrow table.
Picard and Suzanne even felt a touch of their fantastic spirits. Suzanne from the north of France, powerful in her prejudices, a Frenchwoman to the core, had viewed John from the first with a distinct hostility, softening slowly, very slowly, as time passed. It was not that she disliked his voice, his figure, his manner, or anything about him. He was a brave and true young man and he had rendered great service to the contemporary house of Lannes, but he was not a Frenchman.
But it seemed to Suzanne, as she served the courses and watched with an eye which nothing escaped, that Monsieur Jean the Scott was becoming a Frenchman--almost at least. She had seen young Frenchmen act very much as the young American was acting. The Frenchman, too, would lean forward to speak when the girl to whom he was speaking was as lovely as her Mademoiselle Julie. No, that was impossible! None other was as lovely as her Mademoiselle Julie. The glow that illumined his face was just the same, quite of the best French manner, too. She had seen people who were people and she knew. She admitted, too, that he was very handsome, with the slenderness of youth, but strong and muscular, and above all, his face was good.
Antoine with the napkin over his arm did most of the serving, and being a man the conventional differences did not seem to him so great as they did to his daughter.
"A handsome pair," he said to her.
But while willing to admit much to herself, Suzanne would not admit it to her father.
"Aye, handsome," she replied in a fierce whisper, "but not well matched. He comes from an uncivilized continent on the other side of the world, and soon he'll be going back there. I would that her brother, Monsieur Philip, were here where he ought to be. Perhaps he'd be foolish, too, because he likes the strange American, but it would relieve us of care."
"But America is not a barbarous continent, Suzanne, at least some of it is not. I have heard that in the eastern part of their country many of them act very much as we do, and we have seen those in Paris who appear to be quite civilized. And Suzanne, often they are rich, very rich. Before I left Paris the second time I made it a point to inquire about this young man, and I discovered that he had an immensely wealthy uncle, whose sole heir he is."
"Ah!" said Suzanne, making a long intake of the breath. It was easier than she had thought for John to become French.
"And the fortunes of the house of Lannes are moderate now, as you and I know quite well, Suzanne," continued the wise Antoine. "Surely it must have occurred to Madame her mother, when our little Mademoiselle Julie was yet but a beautiful young child, that she might make a great marriage some day. In this world of ours, Suzanne, many millions of good francs should not be allowed to escape from France."
"It is so, my father," said Suzanne. "France will need numberless millions when this war is over. Here is the vinegar for the salad. Not too much. Mademoiselle Julie likes only a little of it. What fortune it was to find a hotel furnished with everything! The faint sighing sound that still comes on the wind, is it not that of the guns, my father?"
"Aye, Suzanne, it's that of the cannon thundering far away, but Mademoiselle Julie and Mr. Scott have forgotten all about it, and it would be a pity to recall them to it."
Suzanne nodded. For a little space she, too, was compelled to relax. The salad now being complete she served it herself, and as she did so she relaxed still further, murmuring that they were just boy and girl together, but that they were very handsome. She had lifted two of the candles and put them upon the table, their light touching Julie's hair of deep gold with a ruddy tint and heightening the brilliant color of her cheeks. The heavy curtains before the window near them had been looped back a little, and the glass revealed the snow pouring down like a cataract, but they did not see it.
"It's the best dinner I ever ate," said John.
"Now you are finding what capable people Antoine and Suzanne are," said Julie.
"I give them all the credit due them," said John, as he made mental reservations.
"They're wonderfully capable, but it will always be Antoine's bitter regret that he does not serve in this war. If he could, he would be glad to represent himself fifteen years younger than he really is."
"His chance will come. Again I say to myself, Miss Julie, what luck I had in arriving at Chastel!"
"And it was lucky for us, too. We need your courage and resource, Mr. John. I know that Philip cannot come today or tonight and perhaps not tomorrow."
"In that event, what plans have you, Miss Julie?"
"To remain in Chastel. We have an excellent hotel here at our service, and as we're behind the French army we're in perfect safety."
John opened his lips to speak, but changed his intention and did not say what was in his thought. He said instead:
"Antoine is looking unusually important. He is going to serve us wine. He has mineral water, too. Will you take a little of it with your wine? It's a white wine, and the water improves it for me."
"Yes, Mr. John, I'll take mine the same way."
Any dinner, although it may have a flavor which the food and drink themselves, no matter how good, cannot give, must draw to an end, and when the dessert had been served and eaten John looped back the heavy curtain still further and looked out at the white cataract.
"The snowfall will certainly continue the rest of the day," he said, "and perhaps all through the night. Suppose we go to the smoking-room. Antoine and Suzanne must eat also. It's their hour now."
"That is true, Mr. John. The smoking-room is a good place, but I'm afraid that you have no cigarette."
"I don't smoke, but we can talk there, of your brother Philip, of your mother, safe now, of Paris, delivered as if by a miracle from the German menace, and of other good events that have happened."
He held open the door of the dining-room and when she went out he followed her, leaving Picard and Suzanne to their hour.