Hilaire Belloc on the Hospitality of Small Inns and their Surprises: On the Path to Rome

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                   28 February 2019

Pope Saint Hilary (d. 468)

Saint Romanus (d. 460)

Epigraphs

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“Upon my soul I believe such people are the salt of the earth. I bowed with real contrition, for at several moments I had believed myself better than they.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

“Nevertheless, I was so wrapped round with the repose of this family’s virtues that I fell asleep at once.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

“And I pitied her so much that I bought bread and wine off her, and I let her overcharge me, and went out in the afterglow with her benediction.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

Throughout his varied writings in prose and verse, Hilaire Belloc manifested a special affection for small inns, especially for the inimitable and recurrent hospitality of well-rooted, traditional inns. He also considered the decadence of that institution—those refreshing and reposeful inns—to be a sure sign of the decomposition of civilization.

When he was still thirty years old (in June of 1901) and making his adventurous “path to Rome” largely afoot—often wandering off the main paths and doing so during uncommon hours—he encountered small inns of different characters and cultures and customs. These often-restorative discoveries were for our beloved Belloc a great consolation and also a nourishing repose, especially when he was without sufficient wine and famished and physically fatigued or even, at times, gravely hindered by his own hobbling and blisters and torn boots.

In the first one hundred pages of The Path to Rome,1 Hilaire Belloc gives us, for instance, two interwoven and vivid examples of small inns that he had gratefully visited along the way (largely along the upstream route of the Moselle River flowing down from its mountain source at “the Ballon d’Alsace” (70) towards the south-east). He found those two inns during the first 80-100 miles of his pilgrimage from Toul, France in Lorraine whence he had so energetically begun his demanding journey afoot to Rome: “this great march” (70), as he called it. Belloc gives us character portraits and a fuller flavor of the hostess or host of the inn, as well as conveying the attitudes and atmosphere often radiantly generated by some of the occupants or the visiting diners then present at the little inn. Some of Belloc’s own evasive ruses, tall tales, and politely ironic excuses are depicted with charm. They are also, for sure, a balm to the reader!

Belloc will now introduce us to a rare view of beauty as it is to be seen from the high hill above the village of Archettes where he shall soon also discover and enter his first small inn:

When I reached it [“the brow of the hill”] I looked down the slope…and there was the whole valley of the Moselle at my feet.

As this was the first really great height, so this was the first really great view I met on my pilgrimage….Archettes, just below; …the dark pines on the hills, and the rounded mountains rising farther and higher into the distance until the last [mountain] I saw, far off to the south-east, must have been the Ballon d’Alsace at the sources of the Moselle—the hill that marked the first full stage in my journey and that overlooked Switzerland.

Indeed, this is the peculiar virtue of walking to a far place [like Rome], and especially of walking there in a straight line, that one gets these visions of the world from hill-tops.

When I call up for myself this great march I see it all mapped out in landscapes, each of which I caught from some mountain….The view here from the Hill of Archettes [is the first long view of the whole sequence]….They unroll themselves all in their order till I can see Europe, and Rome shining at the end. (69-71—my emphasis added)

This sense of geography and scale and proportion also prepares us better to savor the welcome little inn, beginning with its identifying sign, “The Trout Inn”:

So much for views. I clambered down the [steep] hill to Archettes and saw, almost the first house, a swinging board “At the sign of the Trout of the Vosges,” and as it was now evening I turned in there to dine.

Two things I noticed at once when I sat down to meat. First, that the people seated at that inn table were of the middle class of society, and, secondly, that I, though of their [social] rank, was an impediment to their enjoyment. For to sleep in woods, to march some seventy miles [from Toul], the latter part in a dazzling sun, and to end by sliding down an earthy steep into the road stamps a man with all that this kind of [“middle-class”] people least desire to have thrust on them. (71-72—my emphasis added)

With these last discerning perceptions and comments, Belloc will then make an extensive digression, to which we shall briefly return, namely his “Apology for the Middle Class”:

I say it roundly ; [for] if it were not for the punctiliousness of the middle-class in these matters [e.g., “cleanliness and clothes and social ritual” (72)] all our civilisation would go to pieces. They are the conservators and maintainers of the standard, the moderators of Europe, the salt of society….

I [myself] find it very hard to keep up to the demands of my colleagues [e.g., “cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper” (73)], but I recognise that they are on the just side in the quarrel; let none of them go about pretending that I have not defended them in this book. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Now we shall see how deftly—in the imagined presence of the other guests at the small inn— Belloc brings out for his readers his own cunning “tall tale”; his imagined self-defense, with some delightfully imaginative forms of irony (and light sophistry), and with a winking impishness, to boot:

So I thought of how I should put myself right with these people [the middle-class diners]. I saw that an elaborate story [would not be suitable, nor would it work] (such as, that I had been set upon by a tramp who forced me to change clothes: that I dressed like this for a bet: that I was an officer employed as a spy, and was about to cross the frontier into Germany in the guise of a laborer: that my doctor forbade me to shave—or any other such rhodomontade); I saw, I say, that by venturing upon any such excuses I might unwittingly offend some other unknown canon of theirs deeper and more sacred than their rule on clothes; [for,] it had happened to me before now to do this in the course of explanations.

So I took another method, and said, as I sat down—

“Pray excuse this appearance of mine. I have had a most unfortunate adventure in the hills, losing my way and being compelled to sleep out all night, nor can I remain to get tidy, as it is essential that I should reach my luggage (which is at Remiremont) before midnight.”

I took great care to pay for my glass of wine before dinner with a bank note, and I showed my sketches to my neighbor to make an impression. I talked of foreign politics, of the countries I had seen, of England especially, with such minute exactitude that their disgust was soon turned to admiration. (73-74—my emphasis added)

May it be so that you are still imagining the details of that scene and laughing along with the rumbustious Belloc himself!

Now after his own dexterous tales, Belloc will introduce us to the hostess of the inn and he will fittingly show us a few of her own pert or feisty exchanges with the middle-class diners:

The hostess of this inn was delicate and courteous to a degree, and [she was] at every point attempting to overreach her guests, who, as regularly as she attacked, countered with astonishing dexterity.

Thus she would say: “Perhaps the joint would taste better if it were carved on the table, or do the gentlemen prefer it carved aside?”

To which a banker opposite me said in a deep voice: “We prefer, madame, to have it carved aside.”

Or she would put her head in and say—

“I can recommend our excellent beer. It is really preferable to this local wine.”

And my neighbor, a tourist, answered with decision

Madame, we find your wine excellent. It could not be bettered.”

Nor could she get around them on a single point, and I pitied her so much that I bought bread and wine off her to console her, and I let her overcharge me, and went out into the afterglow with her benediction, followed also by the farewells of the middle-class, who were now taking their coffee at little tables outside the house.

I went hard up the road to Remiremont. The night darkened. (75—my emphasis added)

Some time later, while on his demanding hike in the higher mountains with their panoramic views of beauty, Belloc feels somewhat overwhelmed and he admits his fatigue:

I tired of these immensities, and, feeling now my feet more broken that ever, I very slowly and in sharp shoots of pain dragged down the slope towards the main road: I saw just below me the frontier towns of the Prussians, and immediately within them a hut. To this I addressed myself.

It was an inn. The door opened of itself, and I found there a pleasant woman of middle age, but frowning. She had three daughters, all of great strength, and she was upbraiding them loudly in the German of Alsace and making them scour and scrub. On the wall above her head was a great placard [in witty and political French, under which was also the droll message in French of an “emblematic figure of a gallic cock”] which I read very tactfully, and in a distant manner, until she had restored the discipline of her family….

While I was still wondering at this epitome of the French people, and was attempting to combine the French military tradition with the French temper…, the hard-working, God-fearing, and honest woman that governs the little house [inn] and the three great daughters, within a yard of the frontier, and on top of this huge hill, had brought back all her troops into line and had the time to attend to me. (94-95—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now give us a further depiction of the small inn’s hostess:

This [belated attentiveness to me] she did with the utmost politeness, though cold by race [the Prussian?], and through her politeness ran a sense of what Teutons called Duty, which once would have repelled me; but I have wandered over a great part of the world and [along with the Catholic scholar, Josef Pieper] I know it now to be a distorted kind of virtue.

She was of a very different sort from that good [Lorraine-rooted] tribe of the Moselle valley beyond the hill; yet she was Catholic–(she had a little tree set up before her door for the Corpus Christi: see what religion is, that makes people of utterly different races understand each other; for when I saw that tree I knew precisely where I stood. So once all we Europeans [in Christendom] understood each other, but now we are divided by the worst malignancies of nations and classes, and a man does not so much love his own nation as hate his neighbors, and even the twilight of chivalry is mixed up with a detestable patronage of the poor. But as I was saying—) she also was a Catholic, and I knew myself to be with friends. (95-96—my emphasis added)

Belloc now says a little more about his hostess’ manner as an unmistakably robust Catholic:

She was moreover not exactly of—what shall I say?—not of those who delight in a delicate manner; and her good heart prompted her to say, very loudly—

“What do you want?”

I want a bed,” I said, and I pulled out a silver coin. “I must lie down at once.”

Then I added, “Can you make omelettes?”….

When, therefore, I asked this family-drilling, house-managing, mountain-living woman whether she could make omelettes, she shook her head at me slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on mine, and said in what was the corpse of French with a German ghost in it, “The bed is a franc.”

Motherkins,” I answered, “what I mean is that I would sleep until I wake, for I have come a prodigious distance and have last slept in the woods. But when I awake I shall need food, for which,” I added, pulling out yet another coin, “I will pay whatever you charge may be; for a more delightful house I have rarely met with. I know most people do not sleep before sunset, but I am particularly tired and broken.”

She showed me my bed then more kindly…. (96-98—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now gradually lead us to consider an unforgettable passage of courtesy and graciousness, after first presenting the situation and then another vivid and laconic exchange:

When I woke up, which was long after dusk, she gave me in the living room of the hut eggs beaten up with ham, and I ate brown bread and said grace.

Then (my wine was not yet finished, but it is an abominable thing to drink your own wine in another person’s home) I asked whether I could have something to drink.

“What you like,” she said.

“What have you?” said I.

“Beer,” said she.

“Anything else?” said I.

“No,” said she.

Why, then, give me some of that excellent beer.”

I drank this with delight, paid my bill (which was that of a labourer), and said good-night to them.

In good-nights they had a ceremony; for they all [four of them] rose together and curtsied. Upon my soul I believe such people to be the salt of the earth. I bowed with real contrition, for at several moments I had believed myself better than they. (98—my emphasis added)

These last words amongst his new Catholic friends give another glimpse of Hilaire Belloc’s deep soul and good heart—and humility.

After that gracious and unmistakably touching ceremony, Belloc at once modestly writes:

Then I went to my bed and they to theirs. The wind howled outside; my boots were stiff like wood and I could hardly take them off; my feet were so martyrised that I doubted if I could walk at all on the morrow. Nevertheless, I was so wrapped round with the repose of this family’s virtues that I fell asleep at once….

The morning outside came living and sharp after the gale—almost chilly. Under a scattered but clearing sky I first limped, then, as my blood warmed, strode down the path that led between the trees of the farther vale and was soon following a stream that leaped from one fall [waterfall] to another till it should lead me to the main road, to Belfort, to the Swiss whom I had never known, and at last to Italy [“and Rome shining at the end” (71)!]. (98-99—my emphasis added)

CODA

At the end of this essay, we propose to consider Hilaire Belloc’s brief, partly humorous, digression on wealth and the ways of the wealthy, and especially on the power and the illusions of luxury, as he presented them to us during his visit to Archettes, when he was attentive to the contrasting qualities of the honorable Middle Class (70-75). As is usually the case, our Belloc seeks to be fair:

And those who blame the middle-class for their conventions in such [personal] matters, and who profess to be above the care for cleanliness and clothes and social ritual which marks the middle-class, are either anarchists by nature or fools who take what is but an effect of their wealth for a natural virtue….

For the kind of man who boasts that he does not mind dirty clothes or roughing it [as in his desultory “vagabondism”], is either a man [as is “the barbarian”] who cares nothing for all that civilisation has built up and who rather hates it, or else (and this is much more common) he is a rich man, or accustomed to live among the rich, and can afford to waste energy and stuff because he feels in a vague way that more clothes can always be bought, that at the end of his vagabondism he can get elegant dinners, and that London and Paris are full of luxurious baths and barber shops. Of all the corrupting effects of wealth there is none worse than this, that it makes the wealthy (and their parasites) in some way divine, or at least a lovely character of mind, what is nothing but their power of luxurious living. Heaven keep us all from great riches—I mean from very great riches.

Now the middle-class cannot [as of 1902] afford to buy new clothes whenever they feel inclined, neither can they end up a jaunt by a Turkish bath and a great feast of wine. So their care is always to preserve intact what they happen to have, to exceed in nothing, to study cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper, and they fence all this round and preserve it in the only way it can be preserved, with conventions [and traditions], and they are quite right. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Here too, even about Prussians, Hilaire Belloc attempts to be both forthright and fair-minded.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902, 1936). The second edition of 1936 contains a new four-page Preface (pp. vii-x) by Hilaire Belloc; but otherwise it is an exact replica of the original 1902 edition. All future page references will be to this edition, and will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

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