Seven Keys to Baldpate/Chapter 3
BLONDES AND SUFFRAGETTES
MR. MAGEE slipped into his dressing gown, seized a candle, and like the boy in the nursery rhyme with one shoe off and one shoe on, ran into the hall. All was silent and dark below. He descended to the landing, and stood there, holding the candle high above his head. It threw a dim light as far as the bottom of the stairs, but quickly lost the battle with the shadows that lay beyond.
"Hello," the voice of Bland, the haberdasher, came out of the blackness. "The Goddess of Liberty, as I live! What's your next imitation?"
"There seems to be something doing," said Mr. Magee.
Mr. Bland came into the light, partially disrobed, his revolver in his hand.
"Somebody trying to get in by the front door," he explained. "I shot at him to scare him away. Probably one of your novelists."
"Or Arabella," remarked Mr. Magee, coming down.
"No," answered Bland. "I distinctly saw a derby hat."
With Mr. Magee descended the yellow candlelight, and brushing aside the shadows of the hotel office, it revealed a mattress lying on the floor close to the clerk's desk, behind which stood the safe. On the mattress was the bedding Magee had presented to the haberdasher, hastily thrown back by the lovelorn one on rising.
"You prefer to sleep down here," Mr. Magee commented.
"Near the letters of Arabella—yes," replied Bland. His keen eyes met Magee's. There was a challenge in them.
Mr. Magee turned, and the yellow light of the candle flickered wanly over the great front door Even as he looked at it, the door was pushed open, and a queer figure of a man stood framed against a background of glittering snow. Mr. Bland's arm flew up.
"Don't shoot," cried Magee.
"No, please don't," urged the man in the doorway. A beard, a pair of round owlish spectacles, and two ridiculous ear-muffs, left only a suggestion of face here and there. He closed the door and stepped into the room. "I have every right here, I assure you, even though my arrival is somewhat unconventional. See—I have the key." He held up a large brass key that was the counterpart of the one Hal Bentley had bestowed upon Mr. Magee in that club on far-off Forty-fourth Street.
"Keys to burn," muttered Mr. Bland sourly.
"I bear no ill will with regard to the shooting," went on the newcomer. He took off his derby hat and ruefully regarded a hole through the crown. His bald head seemed singularly frank and naked above a face of so many disguises. "It is only natural that men alone on a mountain should defend themselves from invaders at two in the morning. My escape was narrow, but there is no ill will."
He blinked about him, his breath a white cloud in the cold room.
"Life, young gentlemen," he remarked, setting down his bag and leaning a green umbrella against it, "has its surprises even at sixty-two. Last night I was ensconced by my own library fire, preparing a paper on the Pagan Renaissance. To-night I am on Baldpate Mountain, with a perforation in my hat."
Mr. Bland shivered. "I'm going back to bed," he said in disgust.
"First," went on the gentleman with the perforated derby, "permit me to introduce myself. I am Professor Thaddeus Bolton, and I hold the Chair of Comparative Literature in a big eastern university."
Mr. Magee took the mittened hand of the professor.
"Glad to see you, I'm sure," he said. "My name is Magee. This is Mr. Bland—he is impetuous but estimable. I trust you will forgive his first salute. What's a bullet among gentlemen? It seems to me that as explanations may be lengthy and this room is very cold, we would do well to go up to my room, where there is a fire."
"Delighted," cried the old man. "A fire. I long to see one. Let us go to your room, by all means."
Mr. Bland sulkily stalked to his mattress and secured a gaily colored bed quilt, which he wound about his thin form.
"This is positively the last experience meeting I attend to-night," he growled.
They ascended to number seven. Mr. Magee piled fresh logs on the fire; Mr. Bland saw to it that the door was not tightly closed. The professor removed, along with other impedimenta, his ear tabs, which were connected by a rubber cord. He waved them like frisky detached ears before him.
"An old man's weakness," he remarked. "Foolish, they may seem to you. But I assure you I found them useful companions in climbing Baldpate Mountain at this hour."
He sat down in the largest chair suite seven owned, and from its depths smiled benignly at the two young men.
"But I am not here to apologize for my apparel, am I? Hardly. You are saying to yourselves 'Why is he here?' Yes, that is the question that disturbs you. What has brought this domesticated college professor scampering from the Pagan Renaissance to Baldpate Inn? For answer, I must ask you to go back with me a week's time, and gaze at a picture from the rather dreary academic kaleidoscope that is my life.
"I am seated back of a desk on a platform in a bare yellow room. In front of me, tier on tier, sit a hundred young men in various attitudes of inattention. I am trying to tell them something of the ideal poetry that marked the rebirth of the Saxon genius. They are bored. I—well, gentlemen, in confidence, even the mind of a college professor has been known to wander at times from the subject in hand. And then—I begin to read a poem—a poem descriptive of a woman dead six hundred years and more. Ah, gentlemen—"
He sat erect on the edge of his great chair. Back of the thick lenses of his spectacles he had eyes that still could flash.
"This is not an era of romance," he said. "Our people grub in the dirt for the dollar. Their visions perish. Their souls grow stale. Yet, now and then, at most inopportune times, comes the flash that reveals to us the glories that might be. A gentleman of my acquaintance caught a glimpse of perfect happiness while he was in the midst of an effort to corner the pickle market. Another evolved the scheme of a perfect ode to the essential purity of woman in—a Broadway restaurant. So, like lightning across the blackest sky, our poetic moments come."
Mr. Bland wrapped his gay quilt more securely about him. Mr. Magee smiled encouragement on the newest raconteur.
"I shall be brief," continued Professor Bolton. "Heaven knows that pedagogic room was no place for visions, nor were those athletic young men fit companions for a soul gone giddy. Yet—I lost my head. As I read on there returned to my heart a glow I had not known in forty years. The bard spoke of her hair:
"'Her yellow lockes, crisped like golden wyre,
About her shoulders weren loosely shed'
and I saw, as in a dream—ahem, I can trust you, gentlemen—a girl I supposed I had forever forgot in the mold and dust of my later years. I will not go further into the matter. My wife's hair is black.
"And reading on, but losing the thread of the poet's eulogy in the golden fabric of my resurrected dream, it came to me to compare that maid I knew in the long ago with the women I know to-day. Ah, gentlemen! Lips, made but for smiling, fling weighty arguments on the unoffending atmosphere. Eyes, made to light with that light that never was by land or sea, blaze instead with what they call the injustice of woman's servitude. White hands, made to find their way to the hands of some young man in the moonlight, carry banners in the dusty streets. It seemed I saw the blue eyes of that girl of long ago turned, sad, rebuking, on her sisters of to-day. As I finished reading, my heart was awhirl. I said to the young men before me:
"'There was a woman, gentlemen—a woman worth a million suffragettes.'
"They applauded. The fire in me died down. Soon I was my old meek, academic self. The vision had left no trace. I dismissed my class and went home. I found that my wife—she of the black hair—had left my slippers by the library fire. I put them on, and plunged into a pamphlet lately published by a distinguished member of a German university faculty. I thought the incident closed forever."
He gazed sorrowfully at the two young men.
"But, gentlemen, I had not counted on that viper that we nourish in our bosom—the American newspaper. At present I will not take time to denounce the press. I am preparing an article on the subject for a respectable weekly of select circulation. Suffice it to record what happened. The next day an evening paper appeared with a huge picture of me on its front page, and the hideous statement that this was the Professor Bolton who had said that 'One Peroxide Blonde Is Worth a Million Suffragettes'.
"Yes, that was the dreadful version of my remark that was spread broadcast. Up to the time that story appeared, I had no idea as to what sort of creature the peroxide blonde might be. I protested, of course. I might as well have tried to dam a tidal wave with a table fork. The wrath of the world swept down upon me. I was deluged with telegrams, editorials, letters, denouncing me. Firm-faced females lay in wait for me and waved umbrellas in my eyes. Even my wife turned from me, saying that while she did not ask me to hold her views on the question of suffrage, she thought I might at least refrain from publicly commending a type of woman found chiefly in musical comedy choruses. I received a note from the president of the university, asking me to be more circumspect in my remarks. Me—Thadeus Bolton—the most conservative man on earth by instinct!
"And still the denunciations of me poured in; still women's clubs held meetings resolving against me; still a steady stream of reporters flowed through my life, urging me to state my views further, to name the ten greatest blondes in history, to—heaven knows what. Yesterday I resolved I Could stand it no longer. I determined to go away until the whole thing was forgotten. 'But', they said to me, 'there is no place, on land or sea, where the reporters will not find you'. I talked the matter over with my old friend, John Bentley, owner of Baldpate Inn, and he in his kindness gave me the key to this hostelry."
The old man paused and passed a silk handkerchief over his bald head.
"That, sirs," he said, "is my story. That is why you see me on Baldpate Mountain this chill December morning. That is why loneliness can have no terrors, exile no sorrows, for me. That is why I bravely faced your revolver-shots. Again let me repeat, I bear no malice on that score. You have ruined a new derby hat, and the honorarium of professor even at a leading university is not such as to permit of many purchases in that line. But I forgive you freely. Even at the cannon's mouth I would have fled from reputation, to paraphrase the poet."
Wisely Professor Bolton blinked about him. Mr. Bland was half asleep in his chair, but Mr. Magee was quick with sympathy.
"Professor," he said, "you are a much suffering man. I feel for you. Here, I am sure, you are safe from reporters, and the yellow journals will soon forget you in their discovery of the next distorted wonder. Briefly, Mr. Bland and myself will outline the tangle of events that brought us to the inn—"
"Briefly is right," broke in Bland. "And then it's me for that mountainous mattress of mine. I can rattle my story off in short order, and give you the fine points to-morrow. Up to a short time ago—"
But Billy Magee interrupted. An idea, magnificent delicious, mirthful, had come to him. Why not? He chuckled inwardly, but his face was most serious.
"I should like to tell my story first, if you please," he said.
The haberdasher grunted. The professor nodded. Mr. Magee looked Bland squarely in the eye, strangled the laugh inside him, and began:
"Up to a short time ago I was a haberdasher in the city of Reuton. My name, let me state, is Magee—William Magee. I fitted the gay shoulder-blades of Reuton with clothing from the back pages of the magazines, and as for neckties—"
Mr. Bland's sly eyes had opened wide. He rose to a majestic height—majestic considering the bed quilt.
"See here—" he began.
"Please don't interrupt," requested Mr. Magee sweetly. "I was, as I have said, a happy carefree haberdasher. And then—she entered my life. Arabella was her name. Ah, Professor, your lady of the yellow locks, crisped liken golden wire—even she must never in my presence be compared with Arabella. She—she had—a—face—Noah Webster couldn't have found words to describe it. And her heart was true to yours truly—at least I thought that it was."
Mr. Magee rattled on. The haberdasher, his calling and his tragedy snatched from him by the humorous Magee, retired with sullen face into his bed quilt. Carefully Mr. Magee led up to the coming of the man from Jersey City; in detail he laid bare the duel of haberdashery fought in the name of the fair Arabella. As he proceeded, his enthusiasm grew. He added fine bits that had escaped Mr. Bland. He painted with free hand the picture of tragedy's dark hour; the note hinting at suicide he gave in full. Then he told of how his courage grew again, of how he put the cowardice of death behind him, resolved to dare all—and live. He finished at last, his voice husky with emotion. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced triumphantly at Bland. That gentleman was gazing thoughtfully at the blazing logs.
"You did quite right," commented Professor Bolton, "in making up your mind to live. I congratulate you on your common sense. And perhaps, as the years go by, you will realize that had you married your Arabella, you would not have found life all honey and roses. She was fickle, unworthy of you. Soon you will forget. Youth—ah, youth throws off its sorrow like a cloak. A figure not original with me. And now—the gentleman in the—er—the bed quilt. Has he, too, a story?"
"Yes," laughed Mr. Magee, "let's hear now from the gentleman in the bed quilt. Has he, too, a story? And if so, what is it?"
He smiled delightedly into the eyes of Bland. What would the ex-haberdasher do, shorn of his fictional explanation? Would he rise in his wrath and denounce the man who had stolen his Arabella? Mr. Bland smiled back. He stood up. And a contingency that had not entered Mr. Magee's mind came to be.
Mr. Bland walked calmly to the table, and picked up a popular novel that lay thereon. On its cover was the picture of a very beautiful maiden.
"See that dame?" he inquired of the professor. "Sort of makes a man sit up and take notice, doesn't she? Even the frost-bitten haberdasher here has got to admit that in some ways she has this Arabella person looking like a faded chromo in your grandmother's parlor on a rainy afternoon. Ever get any notion, Professor, the way a picture like that boosts a novel in the busy marts of trade? No? Well—"
Mr. Bland continued. Mr. Magee leaned back, overjoyed, in his chair. Here was a man not to be annoyed by the mere filching of his story. Here was a man with a sense of humor—an opponent worthy his foe's best efforts. In his rôle of a haberdasher overcome with woe, Mr. Magee listened.
"I used to paint dames like that," Bland was saying to the dazed professor. He explained how his pictures had enabled many a novelist to "eat up the highway in a buzz-wagon." As he approached the time when the novelists besieged him, he gave full play to his imagination. One, he said, sought out his apartments in an aeroplane.
"Say, Professor," he finished, "we're in the same boat. Both hiding from writers. A fellow that's spent his life selling neckties—well, he can't exactly appreciate our situation. There's what you might call a bond between you and me. D'ye know, I felt drawn to you, just after I fired that first shot. That's why I didn't blaze away again. We're going to be great friends—I can read it in the stars."
He took the older man's hand feelingly, shook it, and walked away, casting a covert glance of triumph at Mr. Magee.
The face of the holder of the Crandall Chair of Comparative Literature was a study. He looked first at one young man, then at the other. Again he applied the handkerchief to his shining head.
"All this is very odd," he said thoughtfully. "A man of sixty-two—particularly one who has long lived in the uninspired circle surrounding a university—has not the quick wit of youth. I'm afraid I don't—but no matter. It's very odd, though."
He permitted Mr. Magee to escort him into the hall, and to direct his search for a bed that should serve him through the scant remainder of the night. Overcoats and rugs were pressed into service as cover. Mr. Bland blithely assisted.
"If I see any newspaper reporters," he assured the professor on parting, "I'll damage more than their derbies."
"Thank you," replied the old man heartily. "You are very kind. To-morrow we shall become better acquainted. Good night."
The two young men came out and stood in the hallway. Mr. Magee spoke in a low tone.
"Forgive me," he said, "for stealing your Arabella."
"Take her and welcome," said Bland. "She was beginning to bore me, anyhow. And I'm not in your class as an actor." He came close to Magee. In the dim light that streamed out from number seven the latter saw the look on his face, and knew that, underneath all, this was a very much worried young man.
"For God's sake," cried Bland, "tell me who you are and what you're doing here. In three words—tell me."
"If I did," Mr. Magee replied, "you wouldn't believe me. Let such minor matters as the truth wait over till to-morrow."
"Well, anyhow," Bland said, his foot on the top step, "we are sure of one thing—we don't trust each other. I've got one parting word for you. Don't try to come down-stairs to-night. I've got a gun, and I ain't afraid to shoot."
He paused. A look of fright passed over his face. For on the floor above they both heard soft footsteps—then a faint click, as though a door had been gently closed.
"This inn," whispered Bland, "has more keys than a literary club in a prohibition town. And every one's in use, I guess. Remember. Don't try to come down-stairs. I've warned you. Or Arabella's cast-off Romeo may be found with a bullet in him yet."
"I shan't forget, what you say," answered Mr. Magee. "Shall we look about up-stairs?"
Bland shook his head.
"No," he said. "Go in and go to bed. It's the down-stairs that—that concerns me. Good night."
He went swiftly down the steps, leaving Mr. Magee staring wonderingly after him. Like a wraith he merged with the shadows below. Magee turned slowly, and entered number seven. A fantastic film of frost was on the windows; the inner room was drear and chill. Partially undressing, he lay down on the brass bed and pulled the covers over him.
The events of the night danced in giddy array before him as he closed his eyes. With every groan Baldpate Inn uttered in the wind he started up, keen for a new adventure. At length his mind seemed to stand still, and there remained of all that amazing evening's pictures but one—that of a girl in a blue corduroy suit who wept—wept only that her smile might be the more dazzling when it flashed behind the tears. "With yellow locks, crisped like golden wire," murmured Mr. Magee. And so he fell asleep.