A Pulpit in the Grill Room - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

A Pulpit in the Grill Room ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



In 1914, after seven years of service in the most famous room in the Grill Room in London, he dropped his very favorable position and went to France. In 1919, he came from a war with two crutches and many medals. He came to Paris and looked enviously at the funny scenes in the cafe, and thought that it was all over for him.

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IN view of the many curious adventures for which his unique appointment was largely responsible, Louis has asked me to explain exactly how it came to pass that he was first placed in that very exceptional position.

In 1914, after seven years’ service in London’s most famous Grill Room, he threw up his very lucrative position and departed for France. In 1919 he limped back from the war with two crutches and many medals. He limped as far as Paris and looked enviously at the gay scenes in the cafés, and thought that for him all that was ended. Later he returned to England and presented himself at the Milan.

“I have called because you asked me to, sir,” he said to Sir Edward Rastall, chairman of the company. “There is nothing I can do for you. though. A maître d’hôtel on crutches could scarcely get through an hour’s work a week.”

Sir Edward took him by the arm and led him across the court to the Grill Room entrance. It was five o’clock in the afternoon, and the place was empty. Louis, who had turned his head away as he drove up in his taxi to the front entrance of the hotel, looked sorrowfully at that fascinating wilderness of white linen and sparkling glass.

Every one of those private corners, vantage places from which one could see and not be seen, and those other more flamboyant tables plumped down in full view of everybody, mostly in demand by the fair sex, brought their own peculiar memories. If he had been alone, his eyes would soon have been dim.

“Louis,” his companion said, “do you know why we thought you worth two thousand a year to us before the war?”

“Because I was reasonably good at my job, I hope, sir.” the maître d’hôtel suggested.

“That, of course; but there are hundreds of others who are good at their jobs. You had what we thought a flair for placing your patrons. You see all those tables? It would take a diplomat to deal with the streams of people you had to deal with, to offend no one and please those who were worth pleasing. You did it, Louis. I have watched you sometimes–the plan in your hand, a speculative look in your eyes, a welcoming smile always there. You never made a mistake. Then, of course, just before the war the other thing came. You began to be a useful man for your adopted country, long before the first shot of the war was fired.”

“Strange things have happened here.” Louis reflected.

“And stranger things may come.” Sir Edward commented gravely. “Ii you will turn your head, you will see that we have done away with that ridiculous little bar, and made what seems to be a low pulpit just inside the revolving doors.”

“I was wondering what that was for, Sir Edward.” Louis acknowledged.

“It is for you, my lad.”

“What on earth could I do there?”

“Go on earning your two thousand a year, of course.” was the prompt reply. “Every day you will have a fresh plan of the room, and all correspondence with regard to the ordering of tables will be handed to you. You know the weaknesses of every one of our habitues. You will study them and you will know exactly which clients to encourage and which we are better without. You will sit in your easy-chair there, watch the people come in, and seat them at your discretion. They will be satisfied–that is, if we want them to be satisfied–and you will continue to draw your two thousand a year. A few more details later on. You start on Monday.’”

Sir Edward waved his hand and hurried away to avoid what he hated most in life–thanks. Monday morning found Louis ensconced in the easy-chair that later on was to become historical.

*     *


I SUPPOSE that I, Charles Lyson, late of His Majesty’s Army, and now a freelance journalist, with still more serious interests, was one of the most regular patrons of the famous Grill Room at the Milan Hotel, and I had grown, after the first few days, just as accustomed to seeing Louis in his new position inside the room as I was to receiving that cheerful good morning of the concierge in the hall. This particular morning, however, was the first time that I had ever seen him show signs of agitation.

He held out his hand and arrested my progress into the room.

“You have chanced to notice who is lunching here to-day, Captain Lyson?” he asked in that peculiarly distinct, clear voice of his. It dropped almost to a whisper sometimes, yet it was always audible.

“The usual crowd.” I answered. “Indications also that the boat-train from Southampton was in early. Another all-conquering film party, I think.”

Louis smiled. It always astonished me that a man with so waxen a complexion and such set features should yet possess so sensitive an expression. Notwithstanding the smile. I knew that trouble was in the air.

“Will you do me a kindness?” he begged. “Walk from here the whole length of the Grill Room and then return, casting a glance, perhaps, at the table set against the far wall on the left-hand side.”

Mystified, but with too much confidence in Louis to hesitate for a moment, I obeyed his suggestion. On my return I loitered by his chair. He knew at once that my journey had not been fruitless.

“If you could pay me a brief visit in my room at five o’clock, it would give me great pleasure,” he invited.

I nodded acquiescence.

“More like the old wolf than ever.” I remarked in an undertone.

“I was looking elsewhere when he entered,” Louis confided. “I think that I must have smelt the gunpowder as he passed. I lifted my head and behold–it was he!”

“And Madame?”

“And the whole outfit.” Louis murmured under his breath. “At five o’clock then.”

I took the hint and moved on. I knew now what had brought the frown to Louis’ face, and the look of trouble into his eyes.

The Administration of the Milan Hotel and Restaurant owed much to Louis, the Guardian Angel of the Grill Room, and did their best to prove their grateful appreciation. In addition to his large salary and very considerable benefices, always the recognised blood money of the man who wields the table plan of a famous restaurant–as well as being entrusted with the buying of the choice wines and specialities offered by the establishment–Louis possessed the only small flat on the ground floor of the court, the outside door of which, although few ever knew of its existence, was barely a dozen yards from his daily post of vantage.

It was there that I sought him at five minutes to five that afternoon and found, to my great satisfaction, his only daughter, Mademoiselle Julie Duchesne, just returned from a matinee, smoking a cigarette, and sipping a glass of vermouth.

“Never tell me again that Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day!” I exclaimed, taking off my gloves and making for the divan upon which she was seated.

“Monsieur Charles,” she said, waving me away with a little grimace, “to-day there are to be no frivolities. That dear father of mine awaits you impatiently. I am not to detain you for a single moment.”

I obeyed her gesture and passed at once into the inner room. Louis was seated before his desk, and motioned me to the chair by his side.

“Sit down, please, Captain Lyson,” he invited. “We were right this morning. The old wolf has come to life. You saw him for yourself.”


“There is no other word,” Louis acquiesced. “For months he lies in his chaise-longue like a lizard aching for the sunshine, breathing feebly, like one for whom life is passing, pale as a ghost, with those hollow eyes of his empty of all light. Then suddenly, where it comes from Heaven only knows, but he hears something. The rustling of a torn treaty destroyed by angry fingers, a cry of triumph from a savant in his laboratory, the clash of threatening voices or perhaps the dull booming of a new gun across an empty plain.

“He raises his tired old head and sniffs. Battle is coming! War is at hand. Thousands may be leaving their homes and marching to fill the cemeteries. His laden ships in this port or that–Heaven knows where–wake to life. His agents are at work. The cheques roll into his bank. The great snowball has started. A few more millions for the old man, a few more thousands of stone crosses in the cemetery.”

I listened to Louis in amazement. Never in the fifteen years of our acquaintance had I heard him speak quite so bitterly. Apparently he regretted his emotion, for he shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette.

“A waste of time, this,” he concluded. “Forgive me. He has come to life again, but he goes still with a price upon his head…Would you mind glancing at this for a moment?”

I stood by his side, looking down upon the plan of the Grill Room.

“The Chevalier has demanded the same table to-night for dinner, and we are to arrange for three people, one, we are given to understand, a most important guest. To that, of course, we have acquiesced with pleasure. He wishes also, however, to reserve the table on either side of him. Our reply has been that number eight, which is the one nearer the main passageway, is at his service, but number six is engaged by a most particular client.”

“The particular client?”

“Being yourself.”

“With a companion?”

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