Hotel Dull, Food Indifferent: Coffee With Maxim
The Hotel Dull, Food Indifferent project is a weekly fiction series that, for legal purposes, charts various uncomfortable meals hosted by the nameless second wife – let’s call her Mrs. de Summer — of a wealthy Cornish landowner.
The previous chapter can be found here: “The enemy of the successful dinner party is not the couple form but partiality, demonstrating a marked particularity for one person’s company over another, for the whispered joke, the huddling away in corners, the refusal to turn at the hostess’ signal….I have sat through so many meals with a wife and husband beside me for guidance; Rebecca, insubstantial yet immediate, at my left hand, Max a little less accessible and directly opposite. One to spin out, one to measure, one to cut — Max measuring twice, first with Rebecca, later with me, and cutting exactly once, precisely, in the predetermined spot.”
I cannot count our first meal together from that snatched half-hour between Maxim and Mrs. Van Hopper. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, because Mrs. Van Hopper had already finished eating long since, and so of course had I. One ate in time and in tune with Mrs. Van Hopper or not at all. She had no patience for anybody’s appetite unless it stimulated her own. Talk of food was welcome at all hours, and talk of diet even better; she would gladly discuss antique menus on shared ship-crossings from decades past, or promise the lending of a turbot-pan to anyone complaining of an indifferent cook, trade receipts for the relief of indigestion, dispute the thickness of a velouté, argue for or against the wholesomeness of fruit at breakfast, but linger over a cleared table she would not. Our first encounter cannot then have lasted over ten minutes.
Between the departure of the entree-dishes and the arrival of the dessert trolley Mrs. Van Hopper gave scope to her appetite for novelty, snapping open her lorgnette with a practiced throw of the wrist and bracing it against the bridge of her curiously-small nose in one swift movement, scanning the whole of the restaurant before her and the reception-hall just beyond it, taking only as much notice of what lay immediately before her as strictly necessary to exchange a cup of coffee for a pâte à choux, to stub a cigarette-end into the sugar bowl and present a fresh end for me to light, to fumble through her handbag for her diary-book to confirm or disprove a suspicion of acquaintance. Curiosity was a mania of hers. At first I had been shocked, made wretched and embarrassed by this constant exercise of naked interest; I would feel like a whipping boy who must bear his master’s pains when I watched others leave a room hurriedly upon her entrance, laugh behind their hands, or even vanish behind a Service door. She did not gamble, aside from bridge. She returned every year to the Hôtel Côte d’Azur to scour its dining-rooms, to claim anyone of distinction as her particular friends on the thinnest of pretexts. The thinner the better, in fact; I sometimes suspect that her chiefest pleasure lay in creating and observing occasions for squirming. I was a reliable source of such a diversion, of course, keenly aware as I always was of the looming possibility of finding oneself overstepping one’s welcome, but so too were the legions of hotel-guests that each spring restores to Monte Carlo, many still slightly travel-dazed and off-balance in the fashion peculiar to someone who is not at home, eager not to give offense, eager to lubricate each unexpected point of interaction past the possibility of friction. Every guest, no matter how used to command at home nor how brief the journey, is a servant in the interest of smoothness, and fears contradicting the Mrs. Van Hopper type as keenly as a misplaced reservation. She left open very few avenues of escape, once she had settled on someone, and counted on their being too well-bred to thrash noticeably against their restraints. She counted on me to appreciate the subtlety of these small cruelties, I think — there being enough question about my breeding that the possibility of my thrashing remained an interesting, if unthreatening, prospect. I lent piquancy by way of contrast, as a dash of human vinegar to the stream of notables the hotel placed before her.
She knew him at once, of course, had whispered his name to me on his first arrival in the dining room (“It’s Max de Winter, you know, the man who owns Manderley—”) loudly enough to be overheard without appearing conscious of so doing. The table next to ours had been vacant for three days running. Maxim sat either unconscious or unappreciative of her notice until she turned to me, eyes alight, saying,
“Go upstairs quickly, and find that letter from my nephew — the one written on his honeymoon, with the snapshot. Bring it down to me right away.”
I could see then she had already formed her plans for catching him, that I was not even to play the bait this time but only the fishhook securing it. Mrs. Van Hopper took a mild but accomplished interest in surveying the full spectrum of my resentments, and wanted me implicated but inert on the question of Mr de Winter. I went upstairs to retrieve her props, then returned to her side to await my next cue. This newcomer would not welcome intrusion, I felt certain of that. From what little I had learned of him from Mrs. Van Hopper’s conversation (gained in turn from hearsay and old newspapers), I could easily imagine his annoyance in this sudden bursting-in upon his solitude. Not all who travel become guests. The Holy Roman Emperors once had itinerant courts, and ruled as well on the road as from home; while Manderley stood, I never knew Max to feel himself to be anything other than the head of the house.
Mrs. Van Hopper may have been perfectly aware of the deference owed to a man recently widowed traveling alone, but she did not choose to employ tact in such matters. I had hesitated a moment, upon finding the relevant letter in a pigeonhole in her desk, before bringing it to her — it seemed to me, rather senselessly, that in so doing I could grant him a few more moments to himself. I wished I had the courage to take the Service staircase, and so by roundabout way enter the restaurant and warn him of the ambush awaiting him. But I did not know how I should frame such a warning, and I dared do nothing.
“Mr. de Winter is having coffee with us,” she announced on her subsequent return from his table, flushed with success and eager to unsettle me again. “Go and ask the waiter for another cup,” delivered just casually enough to warn him of my standing with her, that there would be no need to cast the golden net of conversation around me. This was an unnecessary overplaying of her hand. It may even have been what proved unluckiest for her — Maxim would have been unlikely to notice a poor relation, unremarked-upon, but could not help but regard with interest an undercompanion who was yet the chief target of Mrs. Van Hopper’s desire to subjugate. Thus he mistook her captive for her antagonist.
“I’m afraid I must contradict you,” he said to her, “you are both having coffee with me”; and before I knew what had happened he was sitting in my usual hard chair, and I was on the sofa beside Mrs. Van Hopper.
For a moment she looked annoyed. Proximity had been her end, yes, but on her terms, and this was not how she had intended to proceed, but she soon recomposed herself and leaned forward his chair, talking eagerly and rapidly, bracing the letter in her hand. He contradicted her briefly but easily at several intervals throughout the conversation; again she checked herself against irritation and blustered on. When he found it necessary to stall her, he handed her his cigarette-case, and in the business of lighting her up would distract her with a question, while I busied myself with emptying the ashtray of smoking ends, for she took a fresh one each time he offered it, regardless of whether the previous cigarette remained burning. He smoked too, and did not limit himself to a single cup of coffee, although I don’t believe I saw him eat anything that day. I remember, on a slightly later date, the sight of his steady, well-shaped hands peeling a mandarin in quiet, methodical fashion, but it cannot have been on that first meeting – there could have been no time. A half-cup of coffee, an interrupted sizing-up, and then it was suddenly over as Mrs. Van Hopper and I were tumbled out into the corridor, now dazzling with the reflected strength of the afternoon sunlight.