Monsieur Rene: A Novel

Monsieur Rene: A Novel

by Peter Ustinov


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573927406
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 09/28/1999
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.22(w) x 9.28(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

The late Peter Ustinov traveled the globe as an entertainer and actor and served as ambassador at large for UNICEF. For his work in film and the arts he received two Academy Awards, three Emmys, and one Grammy. He was also a producer, director, and playwright, and the author of Life Is an Operetta and Other Short Stories, Add a Dash of Pity, Quotable Ustinov, and Ustinov Still at Large. He was knighted in 1990.

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Chapter One

Monsieur René drummed his fingers with impatience on the shiny tabletop. It was the habit of a lifetime. Behind him, in the early sunshine of a beautiful summer morning, his several trophies sparkled, and seemed to have lives of their own as they reflected the gentle animation on the surface of Lake Geneva.

    A wasp entered the parlor and performed a quick inventory of the contents of the room before flying away again through the window, leaving silence in its wake. M. René hardly noticed the wasp, since he had weightier matters on his mind. His guests were late, which was unlike them. He quickly surveyed the bottles of liquor lined up like a regiment on the bar. Everything was in place, which was not surprising, since he had not touched them for a week, other than dusting them. He had no taste for alcohol, nothing which clouded the vision, or affected the iron control which every man must exercise over his faculties. Especially after the age of seventy, when crystal clarity was more difficult to maintain with infallible consistency.

    M. René was a widower who took his solitude as a matter of course. He had never expected anything else. As a man who had spent all of his adult life and much of his youth in and around hotels, the death of his wife had meant, among other things, the vacating of a room. His marriage could hardly have been dignified by describing it as one of convenience; rather it had been a marriage of efficient administration, of overlapping responsibilities. The couple had met when she, born Elfie Schlütter, was in charge ofhousekeeping at the Hotel Alpetta Palace in St. Moritz and he, René, was the chief concierge. Neither had ever felt totally at ease unless formally dressed, and, as a consequence, they had never had a family. Not even a pet. Oh, occasionally in the summer he had put on a short-sleeved sports shirt and she a floral print, but only to emphasize that they were off duty.

    Now, life had changed. He had given her a funeral worthy of her status as his wife, many flowers and a pompous tomb in doubtful taste, with weeping angels, badly sculpted by a hack specializing in such aberrations. He did not indulge in this moderate extravagance because it was to his liking, but because he thought she might have appreciated it. Now, on a purely practical level (and finally, what other level was there?), things were not as different as all that. True, he made his own coffee of a morning, but it was rather better than the one she used to make. He now aired the bed and changed the sheets, but even that was not so unusual, since, if truth were told, she had become lazy and self-indulged in her dotage, in the habit of speaking to herself in order to justify her indolence, usually striking a querulous and aggrieved note, which even out of coherent earshot succeeded in making its mournful point. M. René had developed his own counteroffensive by uttering isolated but disconnected phrases which made no sense but left a disturbing afterglow. He never rose to any of the occasions so profusely offered because he guessed that these discreet outbursts had something to do with her final illness, and that his duty was compassion. To make his point was enough, whether she heard or not, immaterial. All this had been fairly recent, and he still wore black, but then, he had usually worn black when she was alive. The habit of uttering phrases had also survived her passing, but now, he could permit them to be audible and distinct, since he was the only beneficiary, and they helped disspell an occasional feeling of loneliness, which was not the same as a not-disagreeable solitude.

    His detached house stood a little way outside Geneva, between Bellevue and Versoix, and although it boasted a pleasant garden full of flowers, fruit, and vegetables, it was within feet of the railway line. Inevitably friends and acquaintances had asked him if this proximity to the Paris-Milan line, among many others of a more local nature, was not a nuisance. M. René was a great man for minute calculation, and the question automatically brought a smile to his lips. "A good question," he would reply. "I have calculated that I am incommoded for 3.57 minutes a day. Do you think that is too high a price to pay for this glory?" and the sweep of his arm indicated the extent of the garden. Before the guest had time to digest this impressive figure, a train would inevitably pass with an impeccable sense of timing, rendering all conversation momentarily impossible. The smile on M. René's face had soured by the end of the interruption, but he carried on gamely with some such remark as, "A case in point. Twelve seconds of interruption. The local train, Geneva-Lausanne, stopping at Nyon, Rolle, and Morges." And that was always that.

    Now there had not been a train for quite a time, and he began to miss the familiar sound. He glanced at his watch, a gold one presented him on his retirement from the hotel circuit, and inscribed with a message of goodwill from his peers. Every time he consulted the watch, he lingered for a moment to sense once again the sum of his achievements. Then he was reminded of the extent of his guests' lateness. The crunch of gravel on the drive changed the private person, with his own way of wiling away the time, into the public one, which he had been for most of his life. He rose and went to the door, a trace of a smile on his face. He opened the door. A small man with a gray crew-cut came toward him. It was Monsieur Alonso.

    "You are late, dear friend," M. René called.

    M. Alonso was visibly surprised. "Late?" he cried, slightly out of breath. "I had no idea that an invitation to come between eleven and twelve entailed punctuality."

    "I was joking," said M. René, who had a habit of saying basically unfunny things, and then protesting that he had been joking.

    "It is not as though it had been an invitation to dinner—"

    "Forget it."

    "It's not as though I had so much free time to spare."

    M. René rose to the bait.

    "You told me it was your day off," he snapped, as factually as possible.

    "Yes, it's my free day," M. Alonso explained, laboriously.

    "In any case, the others are not here yet."

    "They are still later?" M. Alonso allowed himself a moment of sarcasm, then realized what had been said. "The others?"

    "Yes. I have invited Monsieur Arrigo, Mr. Butler, and, of course, my nephew, Louis."

    "What is it all about?" inquired M. Alonso, sensing some kind of occasion.

    "I will have to wait for them. Sit down. Can I serve you a drink?"

    "Ten past eleven is a little early for me."

    "Even on a day off? How about a Cocktail Monsieur René?"

    "Ah, there you tempt me!"

    While M. René began to mix all the prepared ingredients—lemon juice, angostura, crème de cacao, vodka, and Italian vermouth—a mixture which had curiously enough never really caught on among these who still drink cocktails, this neglect only served to make his concoction more exclusive in M. René's eyes. M. Alonso watched the ritual with some foreboding.

    There was the noise of a motorbike revving up.

    "It's unusual that my nephew, Louis, is not last," M. René grunted as he shook his cocktail in its shaker. Still shaking, he went to the front door on an impulse.

    "Not on the grass!" he shouted. "How often do I have to tell you?"

    "Why don't you have a proper parking place like everyone else?" called the nephew, having some difficulty removing his crash helmet.

    "I've never had need of one."

    "Am I the last?"

    "Funnily enough, no."

    "Where did the others park their cars?"

    "M. Alonso knows the property. He obviously left his vehicle outside somewhere," and he returned inside to his guest.

    The manner in which he referred to his small allotment as his property irritated Louis as he propped his motorbike up on the path and followed his uncle into the house. Mr. Butler followed moments later, and then Monsieur Arrigo. When they were all seated with their cocktails, all, that is, except Louis who preferred a Coke with ice cubes in it, M. René seemed ready to explain their presence to his strange assortment of guests. His nephew, Louis, wore his hair long, and affected the black leather costume which has become almost a uniform among the motorcycle community. He sat with his garish white crash helmet in his hands as though already thinking of his departure. M. Alonso toyed with his cocktail, staring into what depth it had for inspiration. Mr. Butler was English, with a craggy red face and blue eyes which frequently watered. He sniffed intermittently like someone who had been swimming, and his hands had a tendency to shake. M. Arrigo, the last to arrive, was almost indecently handsome, a fading blond from the North Italian lakes, erect as a ramrod, with the movements of a dancing master. Now that they were all there, no one broke the silence, which drew excessive attention to them so that they were not gulping their refreshment and eagerly asking for more.

    Since M. René himself seemed tongue-tied, it was left to M. Alonso to start things off. "May one ask how the autobiography is going?" he asked.

    "The ideal question to start this meeting off," blurted M. René, as though so full of information to impart that he did not know where to begin. "I have abandoned it!"

    "Go on," said Louis, incredulous. "I thought that young woman was a permanent fixture in this house."

    "She was a young person sent by the publisher to ghost my words into an acceptable literary form," M. René announced dryly.

    "Yes, but she was not a bad looker, and I would have thought it only natural to drag out the pleasure of dictating your life story ..."

    "I don't know how you can say that, so soon after your aunt's passing," M. René interrupted testily, to which Louis shrugged his shoulders like a sulking child.

    The mention of the bereavement cast a pall of embarrassment on the others, who stared at their cocktails without drinking.

    It was M. René himself who broke the silence.

    "The fact that I sent the young person packing is no reflection on her competence or on the choice of the publisher. In fact, she did all she could to be agreeable, and although she was of a different generation, she made every effort to understand my motivations. No, no. The fact is, I have been thinking—"

    The others exchanged looks. It was always a bad sign when someone has been thinking, especially in a profession where excessive thought is more of a hindrance than a help.

    M. René studied their faces with an omniscient expression.

    "You all have superb anecdotes to tell from different branches of our profession—superb and dangerous anecdotes."

    "Dangerous for whom?" asked M. Arrigo.

    "I am coming to that. All of you are as capable of having autobiographies ghosted for you as I am. It is perhaps that as permanent president of the International Brotherhood of Concierges and Hall Porters, I occupy a position of particular eminence in the record books that I was chosen for this—this honor."

    He awaited momentarily for confirmation of this declaration. None was forthcoming. He went on mournfully.

    "When I think of the confidences which have passed your way, M. Alonso, and which you absorbed out of a sense of the tradition of our métier, I marvel at the waste."

    "The waste?" It was the last reflection M. Alonso expected.

    "And you, M. Arrigo, while the diners were studying the menus and talking as your minions were serving them, what a mine of scattered information which, when pieced together, is a woven tapestry of the history of our times."

    "When you come to think of it, yes," M. Arrigo admitted.

    "I repeat. What a waste. And you, Mr. Butler, all the items left in the pockets of statesmen wanting their suits pressed for the next day's conference or meeting, all the idle words expended while the influential were standing before you, unguarded because trouserless. What an opportunity for exclusivity of information!"

    "I always made it a matter of principle to place all papers found in pockets to be pressed—small change, stray telephone numbers, scribbles—in a plastic envelope, unread, to their owner."

    M. René's eyes gleamed. "Need I say it once again, what a waste!"

    Mr. Butler was mystified. "If I understand rightly, M. René, you are rebelling against one of the fundamental laws which make our profession so unique in a world of constantly shifting values. Trust is the word I had in mind. Being trustworthy, being known to be trustworthy, is more important to me than anything else in this world. Are you now asking me, after a lifetime devoted to an ideal, to betray my trust?"

    "How was your trust compensated?" M. René snapped.

    "By personal satisfaction."

    "By tips," M. René was merciless.

    "By both," Mr. Butler conceded.

    "Tips are common to us all. Satisfaction is up to the individual. Tips are things we pool, by tradition. There I was as scrupulous as anyone else. Even when some Eastern potentate, deprived by birth of a sense of values, slipped me thousands of dollars in breathless gratitude for having found him a couple of willing call girls, I pooled the money with the rest. That is, indeed, a law in our profession, and I respect it. But what kind of satisfaction was his generosity supposed to engender in me? An inner glow that a couple of wretched girls had gone through degrading antics to bring His Highness to a state of ecstasy? And thanks to me?"

    "They chose their profession, not you," Mr. Butler argued with his weak voice. "By their own rights, you did them well. If he could afford to slip you thousands of dollars, they probably found even more on their pillow."

    "Don't you believe it. They were only women, to be used. Worse, females. I was the man, the natural accomplice, the silent conspirator. Should my satisfaction spring out of playing this role?"

    There was silence.

    M. René continued with the utmost gravity, measuring his words.

    "You see, my friends, the Bible is right in one respect at least. Three score and ten is the expectancy of life. After that, it is borrowed time, and urgency. Much that had been taken for granted is suddenly questioned. In a sense, it is a rebirth. Only the other day, I passed by the Law Courts, a magnificent building you will say, but dedicated to the poor fools who get caught. This whole massive structure, and the learning that stands behind it, is never visited by the really culpable. The whales and sharks of industry and international intrigue wallow in the open sea, only the minnows are caught in the nets. And who are the big tippers, Mr. Butler, the minnows? No, dear friend, the whales and sharks, those who are never caught, and we are their accomplices, because only they can afford to stay in the best hotels. Should that be a source of pride in us?"

    M. Arrigo laughed, if somewhat nervously.

    "Can it be that the great M. René, defender of all that is conservative, has become a revolutionary?"

    "If by revolutionary you mean one who examines all he expected in life to be worthy and finds the very opposite to be the truth, yes, then I am a revolutionary."

    Louis balanced the crash helmet on his knees, and clapped.

    "You are too young to understand."

    "Then why invite me here?" Louis was insulted.

    "You are the only family I have. Isn't that tragic? Louis and his Motoyama, all I have to leave behind."

    "If you hadn't sent the girl packing you might have had some decently written memories as well."

    "The very point I am making," declared M. René to the others, "why did I send her packing? Because she failed to interpret my thoughts correctly? Because her literary style displeased me? That was not the principal reason. I reflected, what is the point of recollecting items which have lost all urgency, all focus? And are not memories full of an old personality, worthy of confidence, eager to whitewash and beautify some of the outstanding scoundrels of this century who have passed close to our ears and to our pockets? The emir of Djabbadieh, for instance." The others, Louis apart, smiled a little grimly at the mention of the emir. "He traveled, if you remember, with eight of his wives. It was always such a business to find him a suite of eight adjoining rooms, seven for himself and one for the wives. We all thought at the outset that the wives took it in turns to pleasure him. None of us could guess that he always enjoyed eight at a time. His people lived in misery, while he wiled away years at a time far from the minarets and the abstinence, living like a pig, too idle or too exhausted to use the abundance of toilets at his disposal, and roasting lambs on the hotel veranda. Why should his story only appear years after his death from a series of massive attacks, only a colorful anecdote instead of the stinging condemnation he deserved while he was alive?"

    "You are surely not going to pillory the few lunatic eccentrics which pass our way, and who add color to our otherwise drab lives? For obvious reason, most of these eccentrics are rich. Most eccentricities cost money. Eight wives are certainly dearer than one. His habits may have been dirty, but are the quirks of an old fool really worth the venom you waste on him?" asked M. Alonso.

    "I agree," said M. René reasonably, "there is absolutely no use in castigating dead horses. I had the duchess of Calamayor to cope with over the years, a seven-time grandee of Spain in her own right, only three more than the right of her husband, the duke. She liked to confide in me that she had married beneath her. I used to shrug fatalistically, as though life is like that, with ups and downs. She used to praise me for my profound philosophy, and then demand an endless supply of straws to be sent to her suite."

    "Straws?" asked Louis, intrigued despite himself.

    "She drank wine in quantity, at times water, even gazpacho, through a straw. She had a morbid hatred of lipstick marks on glasses or spoons, and in no way wished to be guilty of lapses of taste of that kind. Thick soup she adored, but avoided it on the grounds that the stupid manufacturers catered mainly to adolescents, and had not yet developed a straw of sufficient diameter to permit the passage of small vegetables or chunks of meat. I used to reflect that in this world, everyone has this cross to bear. She used to sigh, nod, and thank me for my solace. She was utterly harmless, and certainly not worth getting excited about. We all must have culled thousands of stories of a like order."

    "I remember Lord Harry Cyplemore, the earl of Isay's eldest boy—," Mr. Butler's eyes watered with affection.

    "To the point," M. Arrigo interrupted. "What exactly are you after, M. René, so that we may take positions? Money?"

    "Money?" M. René recoiled. "You surprise me, M. Arrigo. Is it likely that one who always made it a point of pooling his tips, even when his tips were far above the average—I repeat, is it likely that such a man would suddenly develop a taste for blackmail? For that is how money would have to be made if it is uppermost in our minds. Of course not! I live frugally, and enjoy my way of life. I have no desire to ruin it all by wealth."

    M. Arrigo laughed. "There is no reason to appear so outraged, dear friend. I was at no time moralizing, merely asking for clarification. Personally, I am not averse to blackmail."

    "A great one for jokes, our M. Arrigo," cackled Mr. Butler, tears cascading down his cheeks.

    "Power," said M. René soberly, striking a sinister note by his choice of word and his manner of saying it.

    "Power? Us?" echoed M. Alonso, incredulous.

    "Power. We left the power to others, out of obsequiousness. And what have they done with it? Destroyed the earth," M. René said coldly, quietly.

    "We never had the power," M. Alonso spoke, as reasonably.

    "Listen, friends, they call this the age of information. Why? Because information is power. All the world fears it, secret knowledge, as useful for insider trading, fraudulent dealing on the stock market, as it is in the jockeying that takes place in international affairs. Everyone is trying to find out more all the time, to have the edge on the competition. Now I ask you, who is in a better position to deal in information than we are?"

    "How?" M. Alonso felt it his right to ask.

    M. René bent forward, and spoke with unusual intensity. "By listening, by overhearing, by pooling an information as we once pooled our tips, by remembering points in the conversation of the highly placed as they indulge themselves in second helpings at banquets. It is always at table that statesmen are at their most unguarded. Waiters have golden opportunities for this kind of work, which they never take. Concierges are well placed for a different kind of intelligence work, which I suspect can be a perfect compliment to the work of waiters and maître d's. Then there are the valets, and the small shreds of evidence left inadvertently in clothes. You objected when I brought the matter up, Mr. Butler, but I persist in believing that the carelessness of celebrities can play a vital part in penetrating the rules of the games they have invented for humanity's discomfort. I don't give a damn for picturesque anecdotes of the kind we exchange with each other over a glass of wine after a day's work. I don't give a damn for scandals either. Who is sleeping with who, or where. Power lies in information about dirty tricks and deliberate deception in a world in which every denial is a silent confirmation and every outburst of injured innocence is a tacit confession of guilt. I want to know what these people know, and make proper use of it."

    M. Alonso was aghast. "But your plan, even if feasible, requires the most enormous organization!"

    M. René smiled. "The organization is already in place. Who needs spies if they have waiters, concierges, and valets? All they need do is to keep their ears and eyes open, and conquer their scruples. Then we pool our knowledge at a central command post. For the moment, I put my house at your disposal. Later, it may become too dangerous."

    "Too dangerous?" M. Arrigo exploded. "Why?"

    "Oh, I'm not speaking of physical danger. I mean the success of my venture depends on a high degree of secrecy. And, to start with, very careful recruiting. Don't try to enlist gossips, drunkards, drug-takers, or womanizers. Go for discretion and intelligence."

    "Do we vote, or what?" asked M. Alonso.

    "There are too few of us to vote yet," M. René conceded. "Between ourselves we can speak openly. Later the vote—the secret vote may become a necessity."

    "As you know, I have my doubts, not only about whether your plan can succeed, René, but whether it ought to succeed. I need some time to examine my ethical position in all this."

    M. René grinned. "You have dropped the Monsieur. That is a good sign, Alonso. Take what time you need. I can accept no other head of department. Think of it this way, if you will. Endless secret meetings take place in Geneva. This city asks no questions. The sick and the politically sick come here for treatment in obscure clinics. Statesmen drop off here casually on the way to somewhere else. Conspirators come in on false passports to prepare their coups and to acquire their weapons. All these people have to eat, sleep, and have their smalls washed. And they have to meet. We may well have it in our hands to prevent assassinations, secret clauses in treaties, all manner of chicanery which costs the lives of the innocent. Our potential is enormous, since no one in his right mind thinks of waiters as threatening or valets as political animals. That is our strength. Our reputation is that of being menials, before whom it is safe to talk, because we have not the mental wherewithal to understand."

    "So your purpose is moral?" asked Mr. Butler.

    "Exclusively," insisted M. René. "Mr. Butler, there are other satisfactions, beside obedience."

    "How about women?" inquired M. Arrigo with a debonair simper.

    "I have thought about them, and at the risk of offending those rather tough and, dare I say it, masculine ladies who consistently uphold women's rights, I would say that certain elderly maids and established housekeepers are invaluable adjuncts, but I would be most careful in their selection. Finally the same rules apply to them as to men, but remember, the keeping of secrets is a masculine propensity rather than nature's gift to the fair sex."

    "And chauffeurs?" asked M. Alonso.

    "Not as good an idea as it at first seems. Obviously chauffeurs have the possibility of overhearing longer and more coherent conversations, but the kind of people we are targeting rarely employ rented drivers. They usually have their own, or they use those of embassies and of international organizations. And it is not an ambition to corrupt, merely to listen."

    "So what is the overall plan, given we are in agreement?" M. Alonso said, and added: "And I must say, up to now I am most intrigued by the idea. Whether it works or not is in the lap of the gods, but I suspect it is all a question of attitude. It is true to say that only on our days off are we really ourselves. The rest of the time we are, as you say, obsequious by nature. It is part of our profession in the same way that an omniscient smile is the necessary part of a priest's equipment. There are things we don't morally discuss. They are there, facts of hotel life. If now we managed to uncondition these reflexes, to unplug the automatic pilot which programs our existences, then anything is possible. With a little luck, your quixotic vision of our duties to humanity may become a reality, at least part of the time."

    M. René extended his hand. M. Alonso took it. They looked deeply into each other's eyes, as though each had placed a foot on an unexplored planet.

    "Finally, M. René, what do you want us to do?" M. Arrigo asked.

    "I ask no more than this, think it over for a week. Test the water. Talk only to real friends, ones you can trust. We meet again next Saturday if that is convenient. If there is one or the other of us who feels, after mature reflection, that he cannot live with this idea, there is no harm done. All you need do is not turn up. But all I would ask you is, give my child a chance to grow and prosper. Keep silent. Don't give us away."

    Slowly they rose and looked at each other to get a premature hint of the others' decision. Then they shook hands and left in silence, conspirators already, leaving the filled cocktail glasses behind them as the only evidence of their presence. M. René accompanied them to the door and noticed Louis's massive motorcycle on the path, its front wheel leaning over the grass like the mouth of a stroke victim, and he reflected that he had rarely seen such ugliness. He returned to the drawing room and saw Louis still sprawling in his armchair, spread over his allotted place like treacle.

    "Well?" he inquired.

    There was a pause, which grew to almost insulting proportions.

    "You really want to know?"


    Louis rose to his feet as though the armchair were trying to detain him, and placed his gleaming white helmet on his head. "I think you're nuts. Bonkers. Cuckoo."

    "Everyone is entitled to their opinion," M. René replied stiffly, and added as his nephew reached the door, "at least you will keep our secret!"

    "Who would believe me anyway?"

    "That is not the point. Swear."

    Louis smiled quite warmly, but it was invisible inside the helmet. He held up his hand.

    "I swear it. Satisfied?"

    "How are you enjoying the École Hôtelière?"

    "It's hell."

    "Will you pass your exams?"

    "That, I won't swear to."

    M. René laughed as pleasantly as he could. "I never thought I would pass them either. Give my love to your mother."

    "I'll give your love to your sister."

    And on that heartwarming note, Louis left.

    M. René sat, and contemplated the events of the morning. He noticed the abandoned cocktails, and tried one. He made a face. He was over seventy. Had he forgotten the recipe? Bonkers, eh? Ah, the young! Young and drab, dressed in that odious black leather, with metal studs, the pretentious aesthetics of evil. Still, it had been disturbingly successful, the meeting of those groping for the last vestiges of youth in their hearts. Second youth must be authentic youth, the rebirth of enthusiasm. Certainly, when compared to the verve of that morose idiot. Cuckoo indeed.

    His thoughts were interrupted by the explosion into life of four cylinders, barking for release like dogs with the scent of the hunt in their nostrils, and then the crunch of gravel, small rocks displaced by wheelspin, all over the grass no doubt, and then the receding wail of the superbike, drowned out by the civilized prattle of the 12:11 from Paris to Milan. Life was more than good, it was interesting. And then he went into the bathroom. In his hurry to receive his guests, the latecomers, he had neglected to trim his pencil-thin moustache. No detail is too small to deserve attention, not in our business.

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