Seven Keys to Baldpate/Chapter 5

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THE MAYOR CASTS A SHADOW BEFORE


"FROM tears to smiles," said Mr. Magee, taking the girl's hand. "What worked the transformation? Not the Commercial House, I know, for I passed it last evening."

"No, hardly the Commercial House," laughed the girl. "Rather the sunshine of a winter morning, the brisk walk up the mountain, and the sight of the Hermit of Baldpate with eyes like saucers staring at a little girl who once bought his postal cards."

"Then you know Mr. Peters?" inquired Magee.

"Is that his name? You see, I never met him in private life—he was just the hermit when I knew him. I used to come to Baldpate in the summers, and send his cards back to the folks at home, and dream dreams of his love-story when from my window I saw the light of his shack at night. I'm so glad to meet Mr. Peters informally."

She held out her hand, but Peters, by long practise wary of women, had burdened himself with breakfast plates which prevented his clasping it. He muttered "How d'ye do?" and fled toward the door, narrowly averting what would have proved a serious collision with the large woman on the way.

"Mr. Peters meets so few of your sex in winter," Magee apologized, "you must pardon his clumsiness. This gentleman"—he indicated the professor, who arose—"is Thaddeus Bolton, a distinguished member of a certain university faculty, who has fled to Baldpate to escape the press of America. And this is Mr. Bland, who hides here from the world the scars of a broken heart. But let us not go into details."

The girl smiled brightly. "And you—" she asked.

"William Hallowell Magee," he returned, bowing low. "I have a neat little collection of stories accounting for my presence here, from which I shall allow you to choose later. Not to mention the real one, which is simple almost to a fault."

"I am so happy to meet you all," said the girl. "We shall no doubt become very good friends. For mamma and I have also come to Baldpate Inn—to stay."

Mr. Bland opened wide his usually narrow eyes, and ran his hand thoughtfully over his one day's beard. Professor Bolton blinked his astonishment. Mr. Magee smiled.

"I, for one, am delighted to hear it," he said.

"My name," went on the girl, "is Mary Norton. May I present my mother, Mrs. Norton?"

The older woman adopted what was obviously her society manner. Once again Mr. Magee felt a pang of regret that this should be the parent of a girl so charming.

"I certainly am pleased to meet you all," she said in her heavy voice. "Ain't it a lovely morning after the storm? The sun's almost blinding."

"Some explanation," put in Miss Norton quickly, "is due you if I am to thrust myself thus upon you. I am perfectly willing to tell why I am here—but the matter mustn't leak out. I can trust you, I'm sure."

Mr. Magee drew up chairs, and the two women were seated before the fire.

"The bandits of Baldpate," he remarked flippantly, glancing at the two men, "have their own code of honor, and the first rule is never to betray a pal."

"Splendid!" laughed the girl. "You said, I believe, that Professor Bolton was fleeing from the newspapers. I am fleeing for the newspapers—to attract their attention—to lure them into giving me that thing so necessary to a woman in my profession, publicity. You see, I am an actress. The name I gave you is not my stage name. That, perhaps, you would know. I employ a gentleman to keep me before the public as much as possible. It's horrid, I know, but it means bread and butter to me. That gentleman, my press-agent, evolved the present scheme—a mysterious disappearance."

She paused and looked at the others. Mr. Magee surveyed her narrowly. The youthful bloom of her cheek carried to him no story of grease paint; her unaffected manner was far from suggesting anything remotely connected with the stage. He wondered.

"I am to disappear completely for a time," she went on. "'As though the earth had swallowed me' will be the good old phrase of the reporters. I am to linger here at Baldpate Inn, a key to which my press-agent has secured for me. Meanwhile, the papers will speak tearfully of me in their head-lines—at least, I hope they will. Can't you just see them—those head-lines? 'Beautiful Actress Drops from Sight'." She stopped, blushing. "Every woman who gets into print, you know, is beautiful."

"But it'd be no lie in your case, dearie," put in Mrs. Norton, feeling carefully of her atrociously blond store hair.

"Your mother takes the words from my mouth," smiled Mr. Magee. "Guard as they will against it, the newspapers let the truth crop out occasionally. And this will be such an occasion."

"From what part of Ireland do you come?" laughed the girl. She seemed somewhat embarrassed by her mother's open admiration. "Well, setting all blarney aside, such will be the head-lines. And when the last clue is exhausted, and my press-agent is the same, I come back to appear in a new play, a well-known actress. Of such flippant things is a Broadway reputation built."

"We all wish you success, I'm sure." Mr. Magee searched his memory in vain for this "actress's" name and fame. Could it be possible, he wondered, at this late day, that any one would try for publicity by such an obvious worn-out road? Hardly. The answer was simple. Another fable was being spun from whole cloth beneath the roof of Baldpate Inn. "We have a New York paper here," he went on, "but as yet there seems to be no news of your sad disappearance."

"Wouldn't it be the limit if they didn't fall for it?" queried the older woman.

"Fall for it," repeated Professor Bolton, not questioningly, but with the air of a scientist about to add a new and rare specimen to his alcohol jar.

"She means, if they didn't accept my disappearance as legitimate news," explained the girl "That would be very disappointing. But surely there was no harm in making the experiment."

"They're a clever lot, those newspaper guys," sneered Mr. Bland, "in their own opinion. But when you come right down to it, every one of 'em has a nice little collection of gold bricks in his closet. I guess you've got them going. I hope so."

"Thank you," smiled the girl. "You are very kind. You are here, I understand, because of an unfortunate—er—affair of the heart?"

Mr. Bland smoothed back his black oily hair from his forehead, and smirked. "Oh, now—" he protested.

"Arabella," put in Mr. Magee, "was her name. The beauties of history and mythology hobbled into oblivion at sight of her."

"I'm quick to forget," insisted Mr. Bland.

"That does you no credit, I'm sure," replied the girl severely. "And now, mamma, I think we had better select our rooms—"

She paused. For Elijah Quimby had come in through the dining-room door, and stood gazing at the group before the fire, his face reflecting what Mr. Magee, the novelist, would not have hesitated a moment in terming "mingled emotions".

"Well," drawled Mr. Quimby. He strode into the room. "Mr. Magee," he said, "that letter from Mr. Bentley asked me to let you stay at Baldpate Inn. There wasn't anything in it about your bringing parties of friends along."

"These are not friends I've brought along," explained Magee. "They're simply some more amateur hermits who have strolled in from time to time. All have their individual latch-keys to the hermitage. And all, I believe, have credentials for you to examine."

Mr. Quimby stared in angry wonder.

"Is the world crazy?" he demanded. "Any one 'd think it was July, the way people act. The inn's closed, I tell you. It ain't running."

Professor Bolton rose from his chair.

"So you are Quimby," he said in a soothing tone. "I'm glad to meet you at last. My old friend John Bentley has spoken of you so often. I have a letter from him." He drew the caretaker to one side, and took an envelope from his pocket. The two conversed in low tones.

Quickly the girl in the corduroy suit leaned toward Mr. Magee. She whispered, and her tone was troubled:

"Stand by me. I'm afraid I'll need your help."

"What's the matter?" inquired Magee.

"I haven't much of any right here, I guess. But I had to come."

"But your key?"

"I fear my—my press-agent—stole it."

A scornful remark as to the antiquated methods of that mythical publicity promoter rose to Mr. Magee's lips, but before he spoke he looked into her eyes. And the remark was never made. For in their wonderful depths he saw worry and fear and unhappiness, as he had seen them there amid tears in the station.

"Never mind," he said very gently, "I'll see you through."

Quimby was standing over Mr. Bland. "How about you?" he asked.

"Call up Andy Rutter and ask about me," replied Bland, in the tone of one who prefers war to peace.

"I work for Mr. Bentley," said Quimby. "Rutter hasn't any authority here. He isn't to be manager next season, I understand. However the professor wants me to let you stay. He says he'll be responsible." Mr. Bland looked in open-mouthed astonishment at the unexpected sponsor he had found. "And you?" went on Quimby to the women.

"Why—" began Miss Norton.

"Absolutely all right," said Mr. Magee. "They come from Hal Bentley, like myself. He's put them in my care. I'll answer for them." He saw the girl's eyes; they spoke her thanks.

Mr. Quimby shook his head as one in a dream.

"All this is beyond me—way beyond," he ruminated. "Nothing like it ever happened before that I've heard of. I'm going to write all about it to Mr. Bentley, and I suppose I got to let you stay till I hear from him. I think he ought to come up here, if he can."

"The more the merrier," said Mr. Magee, reflecting cheerfully that the Bentleys were in Florida at last accounts.

"Come, mamma," said Miss Norton, rising, "let's go up and pick out a suite. There's one I used to have a few years ago—you can see the hermit's shack from the windows. By the way, Mr. Magee, will you send Mr. Peters up to us? He may be able to help us get settled."

"Ahem," muttered Mr. Magee, "I—I'll have a talk with Peters. To be quite frank, I anticipate trouble. You see, the Hermit of Baldpate doesn't approve of women—"

"Don't approve of women," cried Mrs. Norton, her green eyes flashing. "Why not, I'd like to know?"

"My dear madam," responded Mr. Magee, "only echo answers, and it but vacuously repeats, 'Why not?'. That, however, is the situation. Mr. Peters loathes the sex. I imagine that, until to-day, he was not particularly happy in the examples of it he encountered. Why, he has even gone so far as to undertake a book attributing all the trouble of the world to woman."

"The idiot!" cried Mrs. Norton.

"Delicious!" laughed the girl.

"I shall ask Peters to serve you," said Magee. "I shall appeal to his gallant side. But I must proceed gently. This is his first day as our cook, and you know how necessary a good first impression is with a new cook. I'll appeal to his better nature."

"Don't do it," cried the girl. "Don't emphasize us to him in any way, or he may exercise his right as cook and leave. Just ignore us. We'll play at being our own bell-boys."

"Ignore you," cried Mr. Magee. "What Herculean tasks you set. I'm not equal to that one." He picked up their traveling-bags and led the way up-stairs. "I'm something of a bell-boy myself, when roused," he said.

The girl selected suite seventeen, at the farther end of the corridor from Magee's apartments. "It's the very one I used to have, years and years ago—at least two or three years ago," she said. "Isn't it stupid? All the furniture in a heap."

"And cold," said Mrs. Norton. "My land, I wish I was back by my own fire."

"I'll make you regret your words, Mrs. Norton," cried Magee. He threw up the windows, pulled off his coat, and set to work on the furniture. The girl bustled about, lightening his work by her smile. Mrs. Norton managed to get consistently in the way. When he had the furniture distributed, he procured logs and tried his hand at a fire. Then he stood, his black hair disheveled, his hands soiled, but his heart very gay, before the girl of the station.

"I hope you don't expect a tip," she said, laughing.

"I do," he said, coming closer, and speaking in a voice that was not for the ear of the chaperon. "I want a tip on this—do you really act?"

She looked at him steadily.

"Once," she said, "when I was sixteen, I appeared in an amateur play at school. It was my first and last appearance on the stage."

"Thanks, lady," remarked Mr. Magee in imitation of the bell-boy he was supposed to be. He sought number seven. There he made himself again presentable, after which he descended to the office.

Mr. Bland sat reading the New York paper before the fire. From the little card-room and the parlor, the two rooms to the right and left of the hotel's front door, Quimby had brought forth extra chairs. He stood now by the large chair that held Professor Bolton, engaged in conversation with that gentleman.

"Yes," he was saying, "I lived three years in Reuton and five years in New York. It took me eight years—eight years to realize the truth."

"I heard about it from John Bentley," the professor said gently.

"He's been pretty kind to me, Mr. Bentley has," replied Quimby. "When the money was all gone, he offered me this job. Once the Quimbys owned most of the land around Baldpate Mountain. It all went in those eight years. To think that it took all those years for me to find it out."

"If I'm not impertinent, Quimby," put in Magee, "to find what out?"

"That what I wanted, the railroad men didn't want," replied Quimby bitterly, "and that was—the safety of the public. You see, I invented a new rail joint, one that was a great improvement on the old kind. I had sort of an idea, when I was doing it—an idea of service to the world—you know. God, what a joke! I sold all the Quimby lands, and went to Reuton, and then to New York, to place it. Not one of the railroad men but admitted that it was an improvement, and a big one—and not one but fought like mad to keep me from getting it down where the public would see it. They didn't want the expense of a change."

Mr. Quimby looked out at the sunlit stretch of snow.

"Eight years," he repeated, "I fought and pleaded. No, I begged—that was the word—I begged. You'd be surprised to know the names of some of the men who kept me waiting in their private offices, and sneered at me over their polished desks. They turned me down—every one. Some of them played me—as though I'd been a fish. They referred me to other ends of the same big game, laughing in their sleeves, I guess, at the knowledge of how hopeless it was. Oh, they made a fine fool of me."

"You might have put down some of your joints at your own expense," suggested the professor.

"Didn't I try?" cried Quimby. "Do you think they'd let me? No, the public might see them and demand them everywhere. Once, I thought I had convinced somebody. It was down in Reuton—the Suburban Railway." There was a rustle as Mr. Bland let his paper fall to the floor. "Old Henry Thornhill was president of the road—he is yet, I guess—but young Hayden and a fellow named David Kendrick were running it. Kendrick was on my side—he almost had Hayden. They were going to let me lay a stretch of track with my joints. Then—something happened. Maybe you remember. Kendrick disappeared in the night—he's never been seen since."

"I do remember," said the professor softly.

"Hayden turned me down," went on Quimby. "The money was all gone. So I came back to Upper Asquewan—caretaker of an inn that overlooks the property my father owned—the property I squandered for a chance to save human lives. It's all like a dream now—those eight years. And it nearly drives me mad, sometimes, to think that it took me eight years—eight years to find it out. I'll just straighten things around a bit."

He moved away, and the men sat in silence for a time. Then the professor spoke very gently:

"Poor devil—to have had his dream of service—and then grow old on Baldpate."

The two joined Mr. Bland by the fire. Mr. Magee had put from his mind all intention of work. The maze of events through which he wandered held him bewildered and enthralled. He looked at the haberdasher and the university scholar and asked himself if they were real, or if he was still asleep in a room on a side street in New York, waiting for the cheery coming of Geoffrey. He asked himself still more perplexedly if the creature that came toward him now through the dining-room door was real—the hairy Hermit of Baldpate, like a figure out of some old print, his market basket on his arm again, his coat buttoned to the chin.

"Well, everything's shipshape in the kitchen," announced the hermit cheerfully. "I couldn't go without seeing to that. I wish you the best of luck, gentlemen—and good-by."

"Good-by?" cried the professor.

"By the gods, he's leaving us," almost wept Mr. Bland.

"It can't be," said Mr. Magee.

"It has to be," said the Hermit of Baldpate, solemnly shaking his head. "I'd like to stay with you, and I would of, if they hadn't come. But here they are—and when women come in the door, I fly out of the window, as the saying is."

"But, Peters," pleaded Magee, "you're not going to leave us in the hole like this?"

"Sorry," replied Peters, "I can please men, but I can't please women. I tried to please one once—but let the dead past bury its dead. I live on Baldpate in a shack to escape the sex, and it wouldn't be consistent for me to stay here now. I got to go. I hate to, like a dog, but I got to."

"Peters," said Mr. Magee, "I'm surprised. After giving your word to stay! And who knows—you may be able to gather valuable data for your book. Stick around. These women won't bother you. I'll make them promise never to ask about the love-affair you didn't have—never even to come near you. And we'll pay you beyond the dreams of avarice of a Broadway chef. Won't we, gentlemen?"

The others nodded. Mr. Peters visibly weakened.

"Well—" he began. "I—" His eyes were on the stair. Mr. Magee also looked in that direction and saw the girl of the station smiling down. She no longer wore coat and hat, and the absence of the latter revealed a glory of golden hair that became instantly a rival to the sunshine in that drear bare room.

"No, Peters," she said, "you mustn't go. We couldn't permit it. Mamma and I will go."

She continued to smile at the obviously dazzled Peters. Suddenly he spoke in a determined tone:

"No—don't do that. I'll stay." Then he turned to Magee, and continued for that gentleman's ear alone: "Dog-gone it, we're all alike. We resolve and resolve, and then one of them looks at us, and it's all forgot. I had a friend who advertised for a wife, leastways, he was a friend until he advertised. He got ninety-two replies, seventy of 'em from married men advising against the step. 'I'm cured,' he says to me. 'Not for me.' Did he keep his word? No. A week after he married a widow just to see if what the seventy said was true. I'm mortal. I hang around the buzz-saw. If you give me a little money, I'll go down to the village and buy the provisions for lunch."

Gleefully Mr. Magee started the hermit on his way, and then went over to where the girl stood at the foot of the stairs.

"I promised him," he told her, "you'd ask no questions regarding his broken heart. It seems he hasn't any."

"That's horrid of him, isn't it?" she smiled. "Every good hermit is equipped with a broken heart. I certainly shan't bother him. I came down to get some water."

They went together to the kitchen, found a pail, and filled it with icy water from the pump at the rear of the inn. Inside once more, Mr. Magee remarked thoughtfully:

"Who would have guessed a week ago that to-day I would be climbing the broad staircase of a summer hotel carrying a pail of water for a lady fair?"

They paused on the landing.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," smiled the girl, "than are dreamed of, even by novelists." Mr. Magee started. Had she recognized him as the Magee of light fiction? It seemed hardly likely; they read his books, but they rarely remembered his name. Her face went suddenly grave. She came closer. "I can't help wondering," she said, "which side you are on?"

"Which side of what?" asked Magee.

"Why, of this," she answered, waving her hand toward the office below.

"I don't understand," objected Mr. Magee.

"Let's not be silly," she replied. "You know what brought me here. I know what brought you. There are three sides, and only one is honest. I hope, so very much, that you are on that side."

"Upon my word—" began Magee.

"Will it interest you to know," she continued, "I saw the big mayor of Reuton in the village this morning? With him was his shadow, Lou Max. Let's see—you had the first key, Mr. Bland the second, the professor the third, and I had the fourth. The mayor has the fifth key, of course. He'll be here soon."

"The mayor," gasped Mr. Magee. "Really, I haven't the slightest idea what you mean. I'm here to work—"

"Very well," said the girl coldly, "if you wish it that way." They came to the door of seventeen, and she took the pail from Mr. Magee's hand. "Thanks."

"'Where are you going, my pretty maid?'" asked Magee, indicating the pail.

"'"I'll see you at luncheon, sir," she said,'" responded Miss Norton, and the door of seventeen slammed shut.

Mr. Magee returned to number seven, and thoughtfully stirred the fire. The tangle of events bade fair to swamp him.

"The mayor of Reuton," he mused, "has the fifth key. What in the name of common sense is going on? It's too much even for melodramatic me." He leaned back in his chair. "Anyhow, I like her eyes," he said. "And I shouldn't want to be quoted as disapproving of her hair, either. I'm on her side, whichever it may be."