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. deSummer — of a wealthy Cornish landowner.
The first chapter can be found here: “There is no breakfast-companion more tiresome than one who passed the night dreaming. Morning alone, out of all the sunlight hours, allows for the clearing-away of superfluities and the clarification of mind and body before the endless varied necessities of the day. The dream-sharer is as welcome and necessary at breakfast as vomit. Worse, too, for he is not only eager to share his residuum, but proud of its contents.”
We take all our meals in public now, which lends a slightly surreal picnicking quality to our daily affairs. Our little pension of today is quite unlike the Hôtel Côte d’Azur at Monte Carlo, where the breakfast room alone could fit our present hotel twice over, although in other respects one might be forgiven for thinking my situation remarkably unchanged. Still the stubby little vineyards and crumbling white half-walls of southern Europe, still the hard blue of the shadowless sky and sea out the window, still taking one’s breakfast before strangers and from strangers. No one has left service, even now. I myself have not left it, although I pride myself on having exchanged a poor master for a worthy. One takes tea from a waiter in much the same way as one formerly took it from one’s housekeeper.
But the housekeeper receives in change a home for life, a family’s dignity to add to her own, keys to each room of the house, and someone to pour her own tea at five; God alone knows where waiters go at the end of the day. A housekeeper has one mistress, for good or for ill – even an indifferent mistress is still her mistress, to be managed or placated or pleased or outmaneuvered as best she can. All housekeepers are Mrs. Somebody, although they’re likelier to be single than not. One might well say she has eliminated the middleman and married the house directly. She is second in precedence only to one woman on earth, and fewer degrees removed from the heart of the matter. A waiter is servant to all who can afford a bill of fare, and many of them that can’t, but who have themselves the gift of pleasing those belonging to the first type. He has the allemannsrett, the same right as any man, to wander. So do we have it; the right to wander, the right to picnic, the right to go where we like, when we like. One might just as rightly call it the right to stay away from home, which is very much like banishment. Adam’s right it was too, dispensed directly from Heaven like tea from an urn, the right to clear off.
We do not go back, we can not go back, we must not go back. Everything is still too close to home, except, of course, for home itself. A marriage rests as much on what is not said, what is not done, what does not pass between two people as what is and what does. That which lies uneasily between us at present might not sit at all on home shores, on home soil, might stir and sit up, might try to clasp hands and fix itself to our sides as a traveling-companion. I have had enough of traveling companions, and of company. Max, too, although his surfeit was nothing like mine.
His patience is truly remarkable now. He never complains. He can afford to be patient, of course, now that he is no longer host of M_____. He has lost the power to transform a stranger into a guest-friend, to protect the bewildered and the lost, to guard over the thousand daily transfers from the public to the private and back again, to dispense order, clarity, largesse, and reassurance to all who pass lawfully through his particular corner of the world. It no longer matters to anyone whether he is on time or not. It might matter a great deal whether Maxim de Winter the host of M_____ were late to dinner, failed to notice a cigarette in need of lighting, a guest in need of a chair or a dancing-partner or a drink. But whether Maxim de Winter, presently of the Villa Gallici, where he commands whatever table the maître d'hôtel chooses to reserve for him, dines at seven or at midnight is of no importance to anyone besides himself. He does not seek to command that which is not his. Max’ pride has always matched his inventory, and he has no interest in hotel management. But still, he is patient, and it does him credit.
The house was the point of the family; the land was the point of the house. The de Winters were themselves housekeepers to it, and the de Winters were the land’s easiest method of maintaining itself. I confine myself to the smaller forms of kindness, so as not to remind him of his degradation, although I can tell he is often reminded of it without any help, by the way his face is sometimes suddenly swept clean of expression, and he falls to smoking cigarette after cigarette, either forgetting or not bothering to put them out, until he is wreathed in half-extinguished flames, the dozen entrances of a dozen miniature Mephistopheles. He has not been used to play guest, and it is no easy task to find a menu that will tempt him into eating some other man’s dinner. His premonition of disaster — and Mrs. van Hopper’s, too, for that matter — was correct. Disaster, yes, and for both of us, but I do believe I have come out of the whole thing much better off than he has. I have lost less, at any rate, though I have paid dearly. The final reckoning has not yet come down, of course. But the crisis is over, in spiritual as well as in physical terms, if only because it is not possible to pass the long dark night of the soul in hotel rooms. The ceilings are too low, and do not provide adequate scope for contemplation. We are united, Max and I, these days. We order from the same menu, drink the same wines, speak to the same bellhops, sleep in sheets selected by someone else. There is no clash of thought or opinion to divide us. There is not even the possibility of a clash, should either of us want one.
We are on an endless picnic together, although not an endlessly charming one. There is less appeal in the out-of-doors, broadly, than there had been in our out-of-doors — what fun is going out when you cannot return through your own entryways? — although there is little to be gained, and still much to be lost, by dwelling too long even only in memory in those deep woods of M_____, where I lost many a pleasant afternoon following the slow, stupid mutterings of the wings of wood pigeons, with nothing to disturb either my peace or theirs until Jasper came ferreting through the undergrowth for his dinner. Only a moment’s uncertainty would foretell his coming — was that him? — before his red muzzle burst through the hedge, sending the pigeons into a violent, straggling cloud of agitation, lurching up to the tree-tops before disappearing into great height and greater silence. That silence made the movement of the sun more obvious, the darkness of the branches more pronounced, and my shoes invariably soiled; there were never any discernible clues that something important was about to commence or conclude until the right time had already past. But at the house there would be fresh raspberries for tea, if I could dare to ask Mrs. D___ without collapsing into underbred apology.
At the hotel one blue-shot day is much like another. The menu varies little. There are no signs of anything, either coming or going. There are no servants to speak to, even if one has finally mastered the art. I do prize mastery now, coming to me as it has a little late in the day. I suppose it is his dependence upon me that has made me sure. Like Mrs. D____, I married the house; perhaps I carry something of M_____ with me yet. Maxim I carry along with me too, though somewhat awkwardly, like a key without a corresponding lock. Max came with the house, and I think he was as surprised as anyone that he survived the house’s end. Perhaps this is why I am so careful to be kind to him now. He appreciated, I think, my capacity for mortification in those early days, not only because it whispered of breeding but of internal depths in proportions that might match the house. I might have made an excellent foundation for M_____, given enough time and sufficient materials.
She knew, I think, that the only reason she was my enemy to begin with was because she could have been. We were on the same level then, and she had enough pride-of-place to try to clear me out, much as she would have removed something belonging to the library from the great hall, although with a little more rancor in my case. It was straightforward enough for her. I lacked the credentials for the job I had been assigned, and worse than that, lacked poise. But I had my own reasons too, of course, which she never knew about. And I rather suspect she would be pleased with how I turned out, in the end. To care something for a servant’s welfare and nothing at all for a servant’s opinion was the trick. A very simple lesson, but difficult to discern if you have no one on hand to teach you.
Dinner is a cold collation tonight; afterwards a game of Knock Euchre and a Test match on the wireless. I do think, on the whole, I have improved my position. Mrs. van Hopper would never have accepted a cold collation. She would have demanded something “fresh” from the undercook, and ended up with a far worse dinner otherwise, but would have to swallow the fuss along with the rest of it.