Seven Keys to Baldpate/Chapter 14

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


THE SIGN OF THE OPEN WINDOW


UNDECIDED, Mr. Magee looked toward the kitchen door, from behind which came the sound of men's voices. Then he smiled, turned and led Mr. Peters back into the office. The Hermit of Baldpate fairly trembled with news.

"Since I broke in on you yesterday morning," he said in a low tone as he took a seat on the edge of a chair, "one thing has followed another so fast that I'm a little dazed. I can't just get the full meaning of it all."

"You have nothing on me there, Peters," Magee answered. "I can't either."

"Well," went on the hermit, "as I say, through all this downpour of people, including women, I've hung on to one idea. I'm working for you. You give me my wages. You're the boss. That's why I feel I ought to give what information I got to you."

"Yes, yes," Mr. Magee agreed impatiently. "Go ahead."

"Where you find women," Peters continued, "there you find things beyond understanding. History—"

"Get to the point."

"Well—yes. This afternoon I was looking round through the kitchen, sort of reconnoitering, you might say, and finding out what I have to work with, for just between us, when some of this bunch goes I'll easily be persuaded to come back and cook for you. I was hunting round in the big refrigerator with a candle, thinking maybe some little token of food had been left over from last summer's rush—something in a can that time can not wither nor custom stale, as the poet says—and away up on the top shelf, in the darkest corner, I found a little package."

"Quick, Peters," cried Magee, "where is that package now?"

"I'm coming to that," went on the hermit, not to be hurried. "What struck me first about the thing was it didn't have any dust on it. 'Aha,' I says, or words to that effect. I opened it. What do you think was in it?"

"I don't have to think—I know," said Magee. "Money. In the name of heaven, Peters, tell me where you've got the thing."

"Just a minute, Mr. Magee. Let me tell it my way. You're right. There was money in that package. Lots of it. Enough to found a university, or buy a woman's gowns for a year. I was examining it careful-like when a shadow came in the doorway. I looked up—"

"Who?" asked Magee breathlessly.

"Who?" asked Magee breathlessly.

"That little blinky-eyed Professor Bolton was standing there, most owlish and interested. He came into the refrigerator. 'That package you have in your hand, Peters,' he says, 'belongs to me. I put it in cold storage so it would keep. I'll take it now.' Well, Mr. Magee, I'm a peaceful man. I could have battered that professor into a learned sort of jelly if I'd wanted to. But I'm a great admirer of Mr. Carnegie, on account of the library, and I go in for peace. I knew it wasn't exactly the thing, but—"

"You gave him the package?"

"That's hardly the way I would put it, Mr. Magee. I made no outcry or resistance when he took it. 'I'm just a cook,' I says, 'in this house. I ain't the trusted old family retainer that retains its fortunes like a safety deposit vault.' So I let go the bundle. It was weak of me, I know, but I sort of got the habit of giving up money, being married so many years."

"Peters," said Mr. Magee, "I'm sorry your grip was so insecure, but I'm mighty glad you came to me with this matter."

"He told me I wasn't to mention it to anybody," replied the hermit, "but as I say, I sort of look on it that we were here first, and if our guests get to chasing untold wealth up and down the place, we ought to let each other in on it."

"Correct," answered Magee. "You are a valuable man, Peters. I want you to know that I appreciate the way you have acted in this affair." Four shadowy figures tramped in through the dining-room door. "I should say," he continued, "that the menu you propose for dinner will prove most gratifying."

"What—oh—yes, sir," said Peters. "Is that all?"

"Quite," smiled Magee. "Unless—just a minute, this may concern you—on my word, there's another new face at Baldpate."

He stood up, and in the light of the fire met Hayden. Now he saw that the face of the latest comer was scheming and weak, and that under a small blond mustache a very cruel mouth sought to hide. The stranger gazed at Magee with an annoyance plainly marked.

"A friend of mine—Mr.—er—Downs, Mr. Magee," muttered Bland.

"Oh, come now," smiled Magee. "Let's tell our real names. I heard you greeting your friend a minute ago. How are you, Mr. Hayden?"

He held out his hand. Hayden looked him angrily in the eyes.

"Who the devil are you?" he asked.

"Do you mean," said Magee, "that you didn't catch the name. It's Magee—William Hallowell Magee. I hold a record hereabouts, Mr. Hayden. I spent nearly an hour at Baldpate Inn—alone. You see, I was the first of our amiable little party to arrive. Let me make you welcome. Are you staying to dinner? You must."

"I'm not," growled Hayden.

"Don't believe him, Mr. Magee," sneered the mayor, "he doesn't always say what he means. He's going to stay, all right."

"Yes, you'd better, Mr. Hayden," advised Bland.

"Huh—delighted, I'm sure," snapped Hayden. He strolled over to the wall, and in the light of the fire examined a picture nonchalantly.

"The pride of our inn," Mr. Magee, following, explained pleasantly, "the admiral. It is within these very walls in summer that he plays his famous game of solitaire."

Hayden wheeled quickly, and looked Magee in the eyes. A flush crossed his face, leaving it paler than before. He turned away without speaking.

"Peters," said Magee, "you heard what Mr. Hayden said. An extra plate at dinner, please. I must leave you for a moment, gentlemen." He saw that their eyes followed him eagerly—full of suspicion, menacing. "We shall all meet again, very shortly."

Hayden slipped quickly between Magee and the stairs. The latter faced him smilingly, reflecting as he did so that he could love this man but little.

"Who are you?" said Hayden again. "What is your business here?"

Magee laughed outright, and turned to the other men.

"How unfortunate," he said, "this gentleman does not know the manners and customs of Baldpate in winter. Those are questions, Mr. Hayden, that we are never impolite enough to ask of one another up here." He moved on toward the stairs, and reluctantly Hayden got out of his path. "I am very happy," he added, "that you are to be with us at dinner. It will not take you long to accustom yourself to our ways, I'm sure."

He ran up the stairs and passed through number seven out upon the balcony. Trudging through the snow, he soon sighted the room of Professor Bolton. And as he did so, a little shiver that was not due to atmospheric conditions ran down his spine. For one of the professor's windows stood wide open, bidding a welcome to the mountain storm. Peters had spoken the truth. Once more that tight little, right little package was within Mr. Magee's ken.

He stepped through the open window, and closed it after him. By the table sat Professor Bolton, wrapped in coats and blankets, reading by the light of a solitary candle. The book was held almost touching his nose—a reminder of the spectacles that were gone. As Magee entered the old man looked up, and a very obvious expression of fright crossed his face.

"Good evening, Professor," said Magee easily. "Don't you find it rather cool with the window open?"

"Mr. Magee," replied the much wrapped gentleman, "I am that rather disturbing progressive—a fresh air devotee. I feel that God's good air was meant to be breathed, not barricaded from our bodies."

"Perhaps," suggested Magee, "I should have left the window open?"

The old man regarded him narrowly.

"I have no wish to be inhospitable," he replied. "But—if you please—"

"Certainly," answered Magee. He threw open the window. The professor held up his book.

"I was passing the time before dinner with my pleasant old companion, Montaigne. Mr. Magee, have you ever read his essay on liars?"

"Never," said Magee. "But I do not blame you for brushing up on it at the present time, Professor. I have come to apologize. Yesterday morning I referred in a rather unpleasant way to a murder in the chemical laboratory at one of our universities. I said that the professor of chemistry was missing. This morning's paper, which I secured from Mr. Peters, informs me that he has been apprehended."

"You need not have troubled to tell me," said the old man. He smiled his bleak smile.

"I did you an injustice," went on Magee.

"Let us say no more of it," pleaded Professor Bolton.

Mr. Magee walked about the room. Warily the professor turned so that the other was at no instant at his back. He looked so helpless, so little, so ineffectual, that Mr. Magee abandoned his first plan of leaping upon him there in the silence. By more subtle means than this must his purpose be attained.

"I suppose," he said, "your love of fresh air accounts for the strolls on the balcony at all hours of the night?"

The old man merely blinked at him.

"I mustn't stop," Magee continued. "I just wanted to make my apology, that's all. It was unjust of me. Murder—that is hardly in your line. By the way, were you by any chance in my room this morning, Professor Bolton?"

Silence.

"Pardon me," remarked the professor at last, "if I do not answer. In this very essay on—on liars, Montaigne has expressed it so well. 'And how much is a false speech less sociable than silence.' I am a sociable man."

"Of course," smiled Magee. He stood looking down at the frail old scholar before him, and considered. Of what avail a scuffle there in that chill room? The package was no doubt safely hidden in a corner he could not quickly find. No he must wait, and watch.

"Good-by, until dinner," he said, "and may you find much in your wise companion's book to justify your conduct."

He went out through the open window, and in another moment stood just outside Miss Norton's room. She put a startled head out at his knock.

"Oh, it's you," she said. "I can't invite you in. You might learn terrible secrets of the dressing-table—mamma is bedecking herself for dinner. Has anything happened?"

"Throw something over your head, Juliet," smiled Magee, "the balcony is waiting for you."

She was at his side in a moment, and they walked briskly along the shadowy white floor.

"I know who has the money," said Magee softly. "Simply through a turn of luck, I know. I realize that my protestations of what I am going to do have bored you. But it looks very much to me as if that package would be in your hands very soon."

She did not reply.

"And when I have got it, and have given it to you—if I do," he continued, "what then?"

"Then," she answered, "I must go away—very quickly. And no one must know, or they will try to stop me."

"And after that?"

"The deluge," she laughed without mirth.

Up above them the great trees of Baldpate Mountain waved their black arms constantly as though sparring with the storm. At the foot of the buried roadway they could see the lamps of Upper Asquewan Falls; under those lamps prosaic citizens were hurrying home with the supper groceries through the night. And not one of those citizens was within miles of guessing that up on the balcony of Baldpate Inn a young man had seized a young woman's hand, and was saying wildly: "Beautiful girl—I love you."

Yet that was exactly what Billy Magee was doing. The girl had turned her face away.

"You've known me just two days," she said.

"If I can care this much in two days," he said, "think—but that's old, isn't it? Sometime soon I'm going to say to you: 'Whose girl are you?' and you're going to look up at me with a little heaven for two in your eyes and say: 'I'm Billy Magee's girl.' So before we go any further I must confess everything—I must tell you who this Billy Magee is—this man you're going to admit you belong to, my dear."

"You read the future glibly," she replied. "Are your prophecies true, I wonder?"

"Absolutely. Some time ago—on my soul, it was only yesterday—I asked if you had read a certain novel called The Lost Limousine, and you said you had, and that—it wasn't sincere. Well, I wrote it—"

"Oh!" cried the girl.

"Yes," said Magee, "and I've done others like it. Oh, yes, my muse has been a nouveau riche lady in a Worth gown, my ambition a big red motor-car. I've been a 'scramble a cent, mister' troubadour beckoning from the book-stalls. It was good fun writing those things, and it brought me more money than was good for me. I'm not ashamed of them; they were all right as a beginning in the game. But the other day—I thought an advertisement did the trick—I turned tired of that sort, and I decided to try the other kind—the real kind. I thought it was an advertisement that did it—but I see now it was because you were just a few days away."

"Don't tell me," whispered the girl, "that you came up here to—to—"

"Yes," smiled Magee, "I came up here to forget forever the world's giddy melodrama, the wild chase for money through deserted rooms, shots in the night, cupid in the middle distance. I came here to do—literature—if it's in me to do it."

The girl leaned limply against the side of Baldpate Inn.

"Oh, the irony of it!" she cried.

"I know," he said, "it's ridiculous. I think all this is meant just for—temptation. I shall be firm. I'll remember your parable of the blind girl—and the lamp that was not lighted. I'll do the real stuff. So that when you say—as you certainly must some day—'I'm Billy Magee's girl' you can say it proudly."

"I'm sure," she said softly, "that if I ever do say it—oh, no, I didn't say I would"—for he had seized her hands quickly—"if I ever do say it—it will certainly be proudly. But now—you don't even know my name—my right one. You don't know what I do, nor where I come from, nor what I want with this disgusting bundle of money. I sort of feel, you know—that this is in the air at Baldpate, even in the winter time. No sooner have the men come than they begin to talk of—love—to whatever girls they find here—on this very balcony—down there under the trees. And the girls listen, for—it's in the air, that's all. Then autumn comes, and everybody laughs, and forgets. May not our autumn come—when I go away?"

"Never," cried Magee. "This is no summer hotel affair to me. It's a real in winter and summer love, my dear—in spring and fall—and when you go away, I'm going too, about ten feet behind."

"Yes," she laughed, "they talk that way at Baldpate—the last weeks of summer. It's part of the game." They had come to the side of the hotel on which was the annex, and the girl stopped and pointed. "Look!" she whispered breathlessly.

In a window of the annex had appeared for a moment a flickering yellow light. But only for a moment.

"I know," said Mr. Magee. "There's somebody in there. But that isn't important in comparison. This is no summer affair, dear. Look to the thermometer for proof. I love you. And when you go away, I shall follow."

"And the book—"

"I have found better inspiration than Baldpate Inn."

They walked along for a time in silence.

"You forget," said the girl, "you only know who has the money."

"I will get it," he answered confidently. "Something tells me I will. Until I do, I am content to say no more."

"Good-by," said the girl. She stood in the window of her room, while a harsh voice called "That you, dearie?" from inside. "And I may add," she smiled, "that in my profession—a following is considered quite—desirable."

She disappeared, and Mr. Magee, after a few minutes in his room, descended again to the office. In the center of the room, Elijah Quimby and Hayden stood face to face.

"What is it, Quimby?" asked Magee.

"I just ran up to see how things were going," Quimby replied, "and I find him here."

"Our latest guest," smiled Magee.

"I was just reminding Mr. Hayden," Quimby said, his teeth set, an angry light in his eyes, "that the last time we met he ordered me from his office. I told you, Mr. Magee, that the Suburban Railway once promised to make use of my invention. Then Mr. Kendrick went away—and this man took charge. When I came around to the offices again—he laughed at me. When I came the second time, he called me a loafer and ordered me out."

He paused, and faced Hayden again.

"I've grown bitter, here on the mountain," he said, "as I've thought over what you and men like you said to me—as I've thought of what might have been—and what was—yes, I've grown pretty bitter. Time after time I've gone over in my mind that scene in your office. As I've sat here thinking you've come to mean to me all the crowd that made a fool of me. You've come to mean to me all the crowd that said 'The public be damned' in my ear. I haven't ever forgot—how you ordered me out of your office."

"Well?" asked Hayden.

"And now," Quimby went on, "I find you trespassing in a hotel left in my care—the tables are turned. I ought to show you the door. I ought to put you out."

"Try it," sneered Hayden.

"No," answered Quimby, "I ain't going to do it. Maybe it's because I've grown timid, brooding over my failure. And maybe it's because I know who's got the seventh key."

Hayden made no reply. No one stirred for a minute, and then Quimby moved away, and went out through the dining-room door.