The Marquis Arrives At The Inn
By the end of the second decade of the last century Monday Port had passed the height of prosperity as one of the principal depots for the West Indian trade. The shipping was rapidly being transferred to New York and Boston, and the old families of the Port, having made their fortunes, in rum and tobacco as often as not, were either moving away to follow the trade or had acquiesced in the changed conditions and were settling down to enjoy the fruit of their labours. The harbour now was frequently deserted, except for an occasional coastwise trader; the streets began to wear that melancholy aspect of a town whose good days are more a memory than a present reality; and the old stage roads to Coventry and Perth Anhault were no longer the arteries of travel they once had been.
To the east of Monday Port, across Deal Great Water, an estuary of the sea that expanded almost to the dignity of a lake, lay a pleasant rolling wooded country known in Caesarea as Deal. It boasted no village, scarcely a hamlet. Dr. Jeremiah Watson, a famous pedagogue and a graduate of Kingsbridge, had started his modest establishment for "the education of the sons of gentlemen" on Deal Hill; there were half-a-dozen prospering farms, Squire Pembroke's Red Farm and Judge Meath's curiously lonely but beautiful House on the Dunes among them; a little Episcopalian chapel on the shores of the Strathsey river, a group of houses at the cross roads north of Level's Woods, and the Inn at the Red Oak,--and that was all.
In its day this inn had been a famous hostelry, much more popular with travellers than the ill-kept provincial hotels in Monday Port; but now for a long time it had scarcely provided a livelihood for old Mrs. Frost, widow of the famous Peter who for so many years had been its popular host. No one knew when the house had been built; though there was an old corner stone on which local antiquarians professed to decipher the figures "1693," and that year was assigned by tradition as the date of its foundation.
It was a long crazy building, with a great sloping roof, a wide porch running its entire length, and attached to its sides and rear in all sorts of unexpected ways and places were numerous out houses and offices. Behind its high brick chimneys rose the thick growth of Lovel's Woods, crowning the ridge that ran between Beaver Pond and the Strathsey river to the sea. The house faced southwards, and from the cobbled court before it meadow and woodland sloped to the beaches and the long line of sand dunes that straggled out and lost themselves in Strathsey Neck. To the east lay marshes and the dunes and beyond them the Strathsey, two miles wide where its waters met those of the Atlantic; west lay the great curve, known as the Second Beach, the blue surface of Deal Bay, and a line of rocky shore, three miles in length, terminated by Rough Point, near which began the out-lying houses of Monday Port.
The old hostelry took its name from a giant oak which grew at its doorstep just to one side of the maple-lined driveway that led down to the Port Road, a hundred yards or so beyond. This enormous tree spread its branches over the entire width and half the length of the roof. Ordinarily, of course, its foliage was as green as the leaves on the maples of the avenue or on the neighbouring elms, and the name of the Inn might have seemed to the summer or winter traveller an odd misnomer; but in autumn when the frost came early and the great mass of green flushed to a deep crimson it could not have been known more appropriately than as the Inn at the Red Oak.
It was a solidly-built house, such as even in the early part of the nineteenth century men were complaining they could no longer obtain; built to weather centuries of biting southeasters, and--the legend ran--to afford protection in its early days against Indians. At the time of the Revolution it had been barricaded, pierced with portholes, and had served, like innumerable other houses from Virginia to Massachusetts, as Washington's headquarters. When Tom Pembroke knew it best, its old age and decay had well set in.
Pembroke was the son of the neighbouring squire, whose house, known as the Red Farm, lay In the little valley on the other side of the Woods at the head of Beaver Pond. From the time he had been able to thread his way across the woodland by its devious paths--Tom had been at the Inn almost every day to play with Dan Frost, the landlord's son. They had played in the stables, then stocked with a score of horses, where now there were only two or three; in the great haymows of the old barn in the clearing back of the Inn; in the ramshackle garret under that amazing roof; or, best of all, in the abandoned bowling-alley, where they rolled dilapidated balls at rickety ten-pins.
When Tom and Dan were eighteen--they were born within a day of each other one bitter February--old Peter died, leaving the Inn to his wife. Mrs. Frost pretended to carry on the business, but the actual task of doing so soon devolved upon her son. And in this he was subjected to little interference; for the poor lady, kindly inefficient soul that she was, became almost helpless with rheumatism. But indeed it was rather on the farm than to the Inn that more and more they depended for their living. In the social hierarchy of Caesarea the Pembrokes held themselves as vastly superior to the Frosts; but thanks to the easy-going democratic customs of the young republic, more was made of this by the women than the men.
The two boys loved each other devotedly, though love is doubtless the last word they would have chosen to express their relation. Dan was tall, dark, muscular; he had a well-shaped head on his square shoulders; strong well-cut features; a face that the sun had deeply tanned and dark hair that it had burnished with gold. Altogether he was a prepossessing lad, though he looked several years older than he was, and he was commonly treated by his neighbours with a consideration that his years did not merit. Tom Pembroke was fairer; more attractive, perhaps, on first acquaintance; certainly more boyish in appearance and behaviour. He was quicker in his movements and in his mental processes; more aristocratic in his bearing. His blue eyes were more intelligent than Dan's, but no less frank and kindly. Young Frost admired his friend almost as much as he cared for him; for Dan, deprived of schooling, had a reverence for learning, of which Tom had got a smattering at Dr. Watson's establishment for "the sons of gentlemen" on the nearby hill.
One stormy night in early January, the eve of Dan Frost's twenty-second birthday, the two young men had their supper together at the Inn, and afterwards sat for half-an-hour in the hot, stove-heated parlour until Mrs. Frost began to nod over her knitting.
"Off with you, boys," she said at length; "you will be wanting to smoke your dreadful pipes. Nancy will keep me company."
They took instant advantage of this permission and went into the deserted bar, where they made a roaring fire on the great hearth, drew their chairs near, filled their long clay pipes with Virginia tobacco, and fell to talking.
"Think of it!" exclaimed young Frost, as he took a great whiff at his pipe; "here we are--the middle of the winter--and not a guest in the house. Why we used to have a dozen travellers round the bar here, and the whole house bustling. I've known my father to serve a hundred and more with rum on a night like this. Now we do a fine business if we serve as many in a winter. Times have changed since we were boys."
"Aye," Tom agreed, "and it isn't so long ago, either. It seemed to me as if the whole county used to be here on a Saturday night."
"I'm thinking," resumed Dan musingly, "of throwing up the business, what's the use of pretending to keep an inn? If it wasn't for mother and for Nancy, I'd clear out, boy; go off and hunt my fortune. As it is, with what I make on the farm and lose on the house, I just pull through the year."
"By gad," exclaimed Tom, "I'd go with you, Dan. I'm tired to my soul with reading law in father's office. Why, you and I haven't been farther than Coventry to the county fair, or to Perth Anhault to make a horse trade. I'd like to see the world, go to London and Paris. I've wanted to go to France ever since that queer Frenchman was here--remember?--and told us those jolly tales about the Revolution and the great Napoleon. We were hardly more than seven or eight then, I guess."
"I would like to go, hanged if I wouldn't," said Dan. "I'm getting more and more discontented. But there's not much use crying for the moon, and France might as well be the moon, for all of me." He relapsed then into a brooding silence. It was hard for an inn-keeper to be cheerful in midwinter with an empty house. Tom too was silent, dreaming vividly, if vaguely, of the France he longed to see.
"Hark!" exclaimed Dan presently. "How it blows! There must be a big sea outside to-night."
He strode to the window, pushed back the curtains of faded chintz, and stared out into the darkness. The wind was howling in the trees and about the eaves of the old inn, the harsh roar of the surf mingled with the noise of the storm, and the sleet lashed the window-panes in fury.
"You will not be thinking of going home tonight, Tom?"
"Not I," Pembroke answered, for he was as much at home in Dan's enormous chamber as he was in his own little room under the roof at the Red Farm.
As he turned from the window, the door into the parlour opened, and a young girl quietly slipped in and seated herself in the chimney-corner.
"Hello, Nance," Dan exclaimed, as she entered; "come close, child; you need to be near the fire on a night like this."
"Mother is asleep," the girl answered briefly, and then, resting her chin upon her hands, she fixed her great dark eyes upon the glowing logs. She was Dan's foster-sister, eighteen years of age, though she looked hardly more than sixteen; a shy, slender, girl, lovely with a wild, unusual charm. To Tom she had always been a silent elfin creature, delightful as their playmate when a child, but now though still so familiar, she seemed in an odd way, to grow more remote. Apparently she liked to sit with them on these winter evenings in the deserted bar, when Mrs. Frost had gone to bed; and to listen to their conversation, though she took little part in it.
As Dan resumed his seat, he looked at her with evident concern, for she was shivering as she sat so quietly by the fireside.
"Are you cold, Nance?" he asked.
"A little," she replied. "I was afraid in the parlour with Mother asleep, and the wind and the waves roaring so horribly."
"Afraid?" exclaimed Tom, with an incredulous laugh. "I never knew you to be really afraid of anything in the world, Nancy."
She turned her dark eyes upon him for the moment, with a sharp inquisitive glance which caused him to flush unaccountably. An answering crimson showed in her cheeks, and she turned back to the fire. The colour fled almost as quickly as it had come, and left her pale, despite the glow of firelight.
"I was afraid--to-night," she said, after a moment's silence.
Suddenly there came the sound of a tremendous knocking on the door which opened from the bar into the outer porch, and all three started in momentary alarm.
Dan jumped to his feet. "Who's that?" he cried.
Again came the vigorous knocking. He ran across the room, let down the great oaken beam, and opened the door to the night and storm.
"Come in, travellers." A gust of wind and sleet rushed through the opening and stung their faces. With the gust there seemed to blow in the figure of a little old man wrapped in a great black coat, bouncing into their midst as if he were an India rubber ball thrown by a gigantic hand. Behind him strode in Manners, the liveryman of Monday Port.
"Here's a guest for you, Mr. Frost. I confess I did my best to keep him in town till morning, but nothing 'd do; he must get to the Inn at the Red Oak to-night. We had a hellish time getting here too, begging the lady's pardon; but here we are."
Good-naturedly he had taken hold of his fare and, as he spoke, was helping the stranger unwrap himself from the enveloping cloak.
"He's welcome," said Dan. "Here, sir, let me help you." He put out his hand to steady the curious old gentleman, who, at last, gasping for breath and blinking the sleet out of his eyes, had been unrolled by Manners from the dripping cloak.
He was a strange figure of a man, they thought, as Dan led him to the fire to thaw himself out. He was scarcely more than five and a half feet in height, with tiny hands and feet almost out of proportion even to his diminutive size. He was an old man, they would have said, though his movements were quick and agile as if he were set up on springs. His face, small, sharp-featured and weazened, was seamed with a thousand wrinkles. His wig was awry, its powder, washed out by the melting sleet, was dripping on his face in pasty streaks; and from beneath it had fallen wisps of thin grey hair, which plastered themselves against his temples and forehead. This last feature was also out of proportion to the rest of his physiognomy, for it was of extraordinary height, and of a polished smoothness, in strange contrast to his wrinkled cheeks. Beneath shone two flashing black eyes, with the fire of youth in them, for all he seemed so old. The lower part of his face was less distinctive. He had a small, sharply-pointed nose; a weak mouth, half-hidden by drooping white moustaches; and a small sharp chin, accentuated by a white beard nattily trimmed to a point. He was dressed entirely in black; a flowing coat of French cut, black small clothes, black stockings and boots that reached to the calves of his little legs. These boots were ornamented with great silver buckles, and about his neck and wrists showed bedraggled bits of yellowed lace."
He stood before the fire, speechless still; standing first on one foot then on the other; rubbing his hands the while as he held them to the grateful warmth.
Nancy had in the meanwhile drawn a glass of rum, and now advancing held it toward him a little gingerly. He took it eagerly and drained it at a gulp.
"Merci, ma petite ange; merci, messieurs" he exclaimed at last; and then added in distinct, though somewhat strongly accented English, "I ask your pardon. I forget you may not know my language. But now that this good liquor has put new life in my poor old bones, I explain myself. I am arrived, I infer, at the Inn at the Red Oak; and you, monsieur, though so young, I take to be my host. I have your description, you perceive, from the good postilion. You will do me the kindness to provide me with supper and a bed?"
"Certainly, sir," said Dan. "It is late and we are unprepared, but we will put you up somehow. You too, Manners, had best let me bunk you till morning; you'll not be going back to the Port tonight? Nancy a fresh bumper for Mr. Manners."
"Thankee, sir; I managed to get out with the gentleman yonder, and I guess I'll manage to get back. But it's a rare night, masters. Just a minute, sir, and I'll be getting his honour's bags.... Thank ye kindly, Miss Nancy."
He drained the tumbler of raw spirit that Nancy held out. Then he opened the door again and went out into the storm, returning almost at once with the stranger's bags.
Dan turned to his sister. "Nancy dear, go stir up Susan and Deborah. We must have a fire made in the south chamber and some hot supper got ready. Tell Susan to rout out Jesse to help her. Say nothing to Mother; no need to disturb her. And now, sir," he continued, turning again to the stranger, "may I ask your name?"
The old gentleman ceased his springing seesaw for a moment, and fixed his keen black eyes on the questioner.
"Certainment, monsieur--certainly, I should say," he replied in a high, but not unpleasant, voice. "I am the Marquis de Boisdhyver, at your service. I am to travel in the United States--oh! for a long time. I stay here, if you are so good as to accommodate me, perhaps till you are weary and wish me to go elsewhere. You have been greatly recommended to me by my friend,--quiet, remote, secluded, an auberge--what you call it?--an inn, well-suited to my habits, my tastes, my desire for rest. I am very fatigué, monsieur."
"Yes," said Dan, with a grim smile, "we are remote and quiet and secluded. You are welcome, sir, to what we have. Tom, see that Manners has another drink before he goes, will you? and do the honours for our guest, while Nance and I get things ready."
As he disappeared into the kitchen, following Nancy, the Marquis looking after him with a comical expression of gratitude upon his face. Tom drew another glass of rum, which Manners eagerly, if rashly, devoured. Then the liveryman wrapped himself in his furs, bade them good-night, and started out again into the storm for his drive back to Monday Port.
All this time the old gentleman stood warming his feet and hands at the fire, watching his two companions with quickly-shifting eyes, or glancing curiously over the great bar which the light of the fire and the few candles but faintly illuminated.
Having barred the door, Tom turned back to the hearth. "It is a bad night, sir."
"But yes," exclaimed the Marquis. "I think I perish. Oh! that dreary tavern at your Monday Port. I think when I arrive there I prefer to perish. But this, this is the old Inn at the Red Oak, is it not? And it dates, yes,--from the year 1693? The old inn, eh, by the great tree?"
"Yes, certainly," Pembroke answered; "at least, that is the date that some people claim is on the old cornerstone. You have been here before then, sir?"
"I?" exclaimed Monsieur de Boisdhyver. "Oh, no! not I. I have heard from my friend who was here some years ago."
"Oh, I see. And you have come far to-day?"
"From Coventry, monsieur--Monsieur--?"
"Pembroke," Tom replied, with a little start.
"Ah! yes, Monsieur Pembroke. A member of the household?"
"I make a mistake," quickly interposed the traveller, "Pardon. I am come from Coventry, Monsieur Pembroke, in an everlasting an eternal stage, a monster of a carriage, monsieur. It is only a few days since that I arrive from France."
"Ah, France!" exclaimed Tom, recalling that only a little while before he and Dan had been dreaming of that magic country. And here was a person who actually lived in France, who had just come from there, who extraordinarily chose to leave that delightful land for the Inn at the Red Oak in mid-winter.
"France," he repeated; "all my life, sir, I have been longing to go there."
"So?" said the Marquis, raising his white eyebrows with interest. "You love ma belle patrie, eh? Qui Sait?--you will perhaps some day go there. You have interests, friends in my country?"
"No, none," Tom answered. "I wish I had. You come from Paris, sir?"
For some time they chatted in such fashion, the Marquis answering Tom's many questions with characteristic French politeness, but turning ever and anon a pathetic glance toward the door through which Dan and Nancy had disappeared. It was with undisguised satisfaction that he greeted young Frost when he returned to announce that supper was ready.
"I famish!" the old gentleman exclaimed. "I have dined to-day on a biscuit and a glass of water."
They found the kitchen table amply spread with food,--cold meats, hot eggs and coffee, and a bottle of port. Monsieur de Boisdhyver ate heartily and drank his wine with relish, gracefully toasting Nancy as he did so. When his meal was finished, he begged with many excuses to be shown to his bedroom; and indeed his fatigue was evident. Dan saw him to the great south chamber, carrying a pair of lighted candles before. He made sure that all had been done that sulky sleepy maids could be induced to do, and then left him to make ready for the night.
Lights were extinguished in the parlour and the bar, the fires were banked, and the two young men went up to Dan's own room. There on either side of the warm hearth, had been drawn two great four-posted beds, and it took the lads but a moment to tumble into them.
"It's queer," said Dan, as he pulled the comfort snugly about his shoulders, calling to Tom across the way; "it's queer--the old chap evidently means to stay awhile. What does a French marquis want in a deserted hole like this, I'd like to know? But if he pays, why the longer he stays the better."
"I hope he does," said Tom sleepily. "He has a reason, I fancy, for he asked questions enough while you were out seeing to his supper. He seems to know the place almost as well as if he had been here before, though he said he hadn't. But, by gad, I wish you and I were snug in a little hotel on the banks of the Seine to-night and not bothering our heads about a doddering old marquis who hadn't sense enough to stay there."
"Wish we were," Dan replied. "Good-night," he called, realizing that his friend was too sleepy to lie awake and discuss any longer their unexpected guest.
"Good-night," murmured Tom, and promptly drifted away into dreams of the wonderful land he had never seen. As for Dan he lay awake a long time, wondering what could possibly have brought the old Marquis to the deserted inn at such a time of the year and on such a night.