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Chapter 1

THE OPEN DOOR.

There are many interesting hotels scattered about the world, with a few of which I am acquainted and with a great many of which I am not. Of course all hotels are interesting, from one point of view or another. In fact, the surest way to fix an audience's attention is to introduce your hero, or to display your opening chorus in the lobby or along the façade of a hotel. The life, the movement and colour, the drifting individualities, the pretence, the bluff, the self-consciousness, the independence, the ennui, the darting or lounging servants, the very fact that of those before your eyes seven out of ten are drawn from distant and scattered places, are sufficient in themselves to invest the smallest hostelry with glamour. It is not of this general interest that I would now speak. Nor is it my intention at present to glance at the hotels wherein "quaintness" is specialized, whether intentionally or no. There are thousands of them; and all of them well worth the discriminating traveller's attention. Concerning some of them--as the old inns at Dives-sur-Mer and at Mont St. Michel--whole books have been written. These depend for their charm on a mingled gift of the unusual and the picturesque. There are, as I have said, thousands of them; and of their cataloguing, should one embark on so wide a sea, there could be no end. And, again, I must for convenience exclude the altogether charming places, like the Tour d'Argent of Paris, Simpson's of the Strand,[1] and a dozen others that will spring to every traveller's memory, where the personality of the host, or of a chef, or even a waiter, is at once a magnet for the attraction of visitors and a reward for their coming. These, too, are many. In the interest to which I would draw attention, the hotel as a building or as an institution has little part. It is indeed a façade, a mise en scènebefore which play the actors that attract our attention and applause. The set may be as modernly elaborate as Peacock Alley of the Waldorf or the templed lobby of the St. Francis; or it may present the severe and Elizabethan simplicity of the stone-paved veranda of the Norfolk at Nairobi--the matter is quite inessential to the spectator. His appreciation is only slightly and indirectly influenced by these things. Sunk in his arm-chair--of velvet or of canvas--he puffs hard and silently at his cigar, watching and listening as the pageant and the conversation eddy by.

Of such hotels I number that gaudy and polysyllabic hostelry the Grand Hôtel du Louvre et de la Paix at Marseilles. I am indifferent to the facts that it is situated on that fine thoroughfare, the Rue de Cannebière, which the proud and untravelled native devoutly believes to be the finest street in the world; that it possesses a dining-room of gilded and painted repoussé work so elaborate and wonderful that it surely must be intended to represent a tinsmith's dream of heaven; that its concierge is the most impressive human being on earth except Ludwig von Kampf (whom I have never seen); that its head waiter is sadder and more elderly and forgiving than any other head waiter; and that its hushed and cathedral atmosphere has been undisturbed through immemorial years. That is to be expected; and elsewhere to be duplicated in greater or lesser degree. Nor in the lofty courtyard, or the equally lofty halls and reading-rooms, is there ever much bustle and movement. People sit quietly, or move with circumspection. Servants glide. The fall of a book or teaspoon, the sudden closing of a door, are events to be remarked. Once a day, however, a huge gong sounds, the glass doors of the inner courtyard are thrown open with a flourish, and enters the huge bus fairly among those peacefully sitting at the tables, horses' hoofs striking fire, long lash-cracking volleys, wheels roaring amid hollow reverberations. From the interior of this bus emerge people; and from the top, by means of a strangely-constructed hooked ladder, are decanted boxes, trunks, and appurtenances of various sorts. In these people, and in these boxes, trunks, and appurtenances, are the real interest of the Grand Hôtel du Louvre et de la Paix of the marvellous Rue Cannebière of Marseilles.

For at Marseilles land ships, many ships, from all the scattered ends of the earth; and from Marseilles depart trains for the North, where is home, or the way home for many peoples. And since the arrival of ships is uncertain, and the departure of trains fixed, it follows that everybody descends for a little or greater period at the Grand Hôtel du Louvre et de la Paix.

They come lean and quiet and a little yellow from hard climates, with the names of strange places on their lips, and they speak familiarly of far-off things. Their clothes are generally of ancient cut, and the wrinkles and camphor aroma of a long packing away are yet discernible. Often they are still wearing sun helmets or double terai hats, pending a descent on a Piccadilly hatter two days hence. They move slowly and languidly; the ordinary piercing and dominant English enunciation has fallen to modulation; their eyes, while observant and alert, look tired. It is as though the far countries have sucked something from the pith of them in exchange for great experiences that nevertheless seem of little value; as though these men, having met at last face to face the ultimate of what the earth has to offer in the way of danger, hardship, difficulty, and the things that try men's souls, having unexpectedly found them all to fall short of both the importance and the final significance with which human-kind has always invested them, were now just a little at a loss. Therefore they stretch their long, lean frames in the wicker chairs, they sip the long drinks at their elbows, puff slowly at their long, lean cheroots, and talk spasmodically in short sentences.

Of quite a different type are those going out--young fellows full of northern health and energy, full of the eagerness of anticipation, full of romance skilfully concealed, self-certain, authoritative, clear voiced. Their exit from the bus is followed by a rain of hold-alls, bags, new tin boxes, new gun cases, all lettered freshly--an enormous kit doomed to diminution. They overflow the place, ebb towards their respective rooms; return scrubbed and ruddy, correctly clad, correctly unconscious of everybody else; sink into more wicker chairs. The quiet brown and yellow men continue to puff at their cheroots, quite eclipsed. After a time one of them picks up his battered old sun helmet and goes out into the street. The eyes of the newcomers follow him. They fall silent; and their eyes, under cover of pulled moustache, furtively glance towards the lean man's companions. Then on that office falls a great silence, broken only by the occasional rare remarks of the quiet men with the cheroots. The youngsters are listening with all their ears, though from their appearance no one would suspect that fact. Not a syllable escapes them. These quiet men have been there; they have seen with their own eyes; their lightest word is saturated with the mystery and romance of the unknown. Their easy, matter-of-fact, everyday knowledge is richly wonderful. It would seem natural for these young-young men to question these old-young men of that which they desire so ardently to know; but that isn't done, you know. So they sit tight, and pretend they are not listening, and feast their ears on the wonderful syllables--Ankobar, Kabul, Peshawur, Annam, Nyassaland, Kerman, Serengetti, Tanganika, and many others. On these beautiful syllables must their imaginations feed, for that which is told is as nothing at all. Adventure there is none, romance there is none, mention of high emprise there is none. Adventure, romance, high emprise have to these men somehow lost their importance. Perhaps such things have been to them too common--as well mention the morning egg. Perhaps they have found that there is no genuine adventure, no real romance except over the edge of the world where the rainbow stoops.

The bus rattles in and rattles out again. It takes the fresh-faced young men down past the inner harbour to where lie the tall ships waiting. They and their cargo of exuberance, of hope, of energy, of thirst for the bubble adventure, the rainbow romance, sail away to where these wares have a market. And the quiet men glide away to the North. Their wares have been marketed. The sleepy, fierce, passionate, sunny lands have taken all they had to bring. And have given in exchange? Indifference, ill-health, a profound realization that the length of days are as nothing at all; a supreme agnosticism as to the ultimate value of anything that a single man can do, a sublime faith that it must be done, the power to concentrate, patience illimitable; contempt for danger, disregard of death, the intention to live; a final, weary estimate of the fact that mere things are as unimportant here as there, no matter how quaintly or fantastically they are dressed or named, and a corresponding emptiness of anticipation for the future--these items are only a random few of the price given by the ancient lands for that which the northern races bring to them. What other alchemical changes have been wrought only these lean and weary men could know--if they dared look so far within themselves. And even if they dared, they would not tell.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] In old days before the "improvements."


Stewart Edward White

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