Seven Keys to Baldpate/Chapter 7

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THE MAYOR BEGINS A VIGIL


ONE summer evening, in dim dead days gone by, an inexperienced head waiter at Baldpate Inn had attempted to seat Mrs. J. Sanderson Clark, of Pittsburgh, at the same table with the unassuming Smiths, of Tiffin, Ohio. The remarks of Mrs. Clark, who was at the time busily engaged in trying to found a first family, lingered long in the memory of those who heard them. So long, in fact, that Miss Norton, standing with Mr. Magee in the hotel office awaiting the signal from Peters that dinner was ready, could repeat them almost verbatim. Mr. Magee cast a humorous look about.

"Lucky the manners and customs of the summer folks aren't carried over into the winter," he said. "Imagine a Mrs. Clark asked to sit at table with the mayor of Reuton and his picturesque but somewhat soiled friend, Mr. Max. I hope the dinner is a huge success."

The girl laughed.

"The natural nervousness of a host," she remarked. "Don't worry. The hermit and his tins won't fail you."

"It's not the culinary end that worries me," smiled Magee. "It's the repartee and wit. I want the mayor to feel at home. Do you know any good stories ascribed to Congressman Jones, of the Asquewan district?"

Together they strolled to a window. The snow had begun to fall again, and the lights of the little hamlet below showed but dimly through the white blur.

"I want you to know," said the girl, "that I trust you now. And when the time comes, as it will soon—to-night—I am going to ask you to help me. I may ask a rather big thing, and ask you to do it blindly, just trusting in me, as I refused to trust in you." She stopped and looked very seriously into Mr. Magee's face.

"I'm mighty glad," he answered in a low tone. "From the moment I saw you weeping in the station I've wanted to be of help to you. The station agent advised me not to interfere. He said to become involved with a weeping woman meant trouble. The fool. As though any trouble—"

"He was right," put in the girl, "it probably will mean trouble."

"As though any storm," finished Mr. Magee "would not be worth the rainbow of your smile at the end."

"A very fancy figure," laughed she. "But storms aren't nice."

"There are a few of us," replied Magee, "who can be merry through the worst of them because of the rainbow to come."

For answer, she flattened her finely-modeled nose into shapelessness against the cold pane. Back of them in the candle-lighted room, the motley crew of Baldpate's winter guests stood about in various attitudes of waiting. In front of the fire the holder of the Chair of Comparative Literature quoted poetry to Mrs. Norton, and probably it never occurred to the old man that the woman to whom he talked was that nightmare of his life—a peroxide blonde. Ten feet away in the flickering half-light, the immense bulk of the mayor of Reuton reposed on the arm of a leather couch, and before him stood his lithe unpleasant companion, Lou Max, side by side with Mr. Bland, whose talk of haberdashery was forever stilled. The candles sputtered, the storm angrily rattled the windows; Mr. Peters flitted like a hairy wraith about the table. So the strange game that was being played at Baldpate Inn followed the example of good digestion and waited on appetite.

What Mr. Magee flippantly termed his dinner party was seated at last, and there began a meal destined to linger long in the memories of those who partook if it. Puzzled beyond words, the host took stock of his guests. Opposite him, at the foot of the table, he could see the lined tired face of Mrs. Norton, dazed, uncomprehending, a little frightened. At his right the great red acreage of Cargan's face held defiance and some amusement; beside it sneered the cruel face of Max; beyond that Mr. Bland's countenance told a story of worry and impotent anger. And on Mr. Magee's left sat the professor, bearded, spectacled, calm, seemingly undisturbed by this queer flurry of events, beside the fair girl of the station who trusted Magee at last. In the first few moments of silence Mr. Magee compared her delicate features with the coarse knowing face of the woman at the table's foot, and inwardly answered "No."

Without the genial complement of talk the dinner began. Mr. Peters appeared with another variety of his canned soup, whereupon the silence was broken by the gastronomic endeavors of Mr. Max and the mayor. Mr. Magee was reflecting that conversation must be encouraged, when Cargan suddenly spoke.

"I hope I ain't putting you folks out none," he remarked with obvious sarcasm. "It ain't my habit to drop in unexpected like this. But business—"

"We're delighted, I'm sure," said Mr. Magee politely.

"I suppose you want to know why I'm here," the mayor went on. "Well—" he hesitated—"it's like this—"

"Dear Mr. Cargan," Magee broke in, "spare us, I pray. And spare yourself. We have had explanations until we are weary. We have decided to drop them altogether, and just to take it for granted that, in the words of the song, we're here because we're here."

"All right," replied Cargan, evidently relieved. "That suits me. I'm tired explaining, anyhow. There's a bunch of reformers rose up lately in Reuton—maybe you've heard about 'em. A lovely bunch. A white necktie and a half-portion of brains apiece. They say they're going to do for me at the next election."

Mr. Max laughed harshly from the vicinity of his soup.

"They wrote the first joke book, them people," he said.

"Well," went on Cargan, "there ain't nobody so insignificant and piffling that people won't listen to 'em when they attack a man in public life. So I've had to reply to this comic opera bunch, and as I say, I'm about wore out explaining. I've had to explain that I never stole the town I used to live in in Indiana, and that I didn't stick up my father with a knife. It gets monotonous. So I'm much obliged to you for passing the explanations up. We won't bother you long, me and Lou. I got a little business here, and then we'll mosey along. We'll clear out about nine o'clock."

"No," protested Magee. "So soon? We must make it pleasant for you while you stay. I always hate hosts who talk about their servants—I have a friend who bores me to death because he has a Jap butler he believes was at Mukden. But I think I am justified in calling your attention to ours—Mr. Peters, the Hermit of Baldpate Mountain. Cooking is merely his avocation. He is writing a book."

"That guy," remarked Cargan, incredulous.

"What do you know about that?" asked Mr. Bland. "It certainly will get a lot of hot advertising if it ever appears. It's meant to prove that all the trouble in the world has been caused by woman."

The mayor considered.

"He's off—he's nutty, that fellow," he announced. "It ain't women that cause all of the trouble."

"Thank you, Mr. Cargan," said Miss Norton, smiling.

"Anybody'd know it to look at you, miss," replied the mayor in his most gallant manner. Then he added hastily: "And you, ma'am," with a nod in the other woman's direction.

"I don't know as I got the evidence in my face," responded Mrs. Norton easily, "but women don't make no trouble, I know that. I think the man's crazy, myself, and I'd tell him so if he wasn't the cook." She paused, for Peters had entered the room. There was silence while he changed the courses. "It's getting so now you can't say the things to a cook you can to a king," she finished, after the hermit had retired.

"Ahem—Mr. Cargan," put in Professor Bolton, "you give it as your opinion that woman is no trouble-maker, and I must admit that I agree with your premise in general, although occasionally she may cause a—a slight annoyance. Undeniably, there is a lot of trouble in the world. To whose efforts do you ascribe it?"

The mayor ran his thick fingers through his hair.

"I got you," he said, "and I got your answer, too. Who makes the trouble? Who's made it from the beginning of time? The reformers, Doc. Yes, sir. Who was the first reformer? The snake in the garden of Eden. This hermit guy probably has that affair laid down at woman's door. Not much. Everything was running all right around the garden, and then the snake came along. It's a twenty to one shot he'd just finished a series of articles on 'The Shame of Eden' for a magazine. 'What d'ye mean?' he says to the woman, 'by letting well enough alone? Things are all wrong here. The present administration is running everything into the ground. I can tell you a few things that will open your eyes. What's that? What you don't know won't hurt you? The old cry', he says, 'the old cry against which progressives got to fight,' he says. 'Wake up. You need a change here. Try this nice red apple, and you'll see things the way I do.' And the woman fell for it. You know what happened."

"An original point of view," said the dazed professor.

"Yes, Doc," went on Mr. Cargan, evidently on a favorite topic, "it's the reformers that have caused all the trouble, from that snake down. Things are running smooth, folks all prosperous and satisfied—then they come along in their gum shoes and white neckties. And they knock away at the existing order until the public begins to believe 'em and gives 'em a chance to run things. What's the result? The world's in a worse tangle than ever before."

"You feel deeply on the subject, Mr. Cargan," remarked Magee.

"I ought to," the mayor replied. "I ain't no writer, but if I was, I'd turn out a book that would drive this whiskered hermit's argument to the wall. Woman—bah! The only way women make trouble is by falling for the reform gag."

Mr. Peters here interrupted with the dessert, and through that course Mr. Cargan elaborated on his theory. He pointed out how, in many states, reform had interrupted the smooth flow of life, set everything awhirl, and cruelly sent "the boys" who had always been faithful out into the cold world seeking the stranger, work. While he talked, the eyes of Lou Max looked out at him from behind the incongruous gold-rimmed glasses, with the devotion of the dog to its master clearly written in them. Mr. Magee had read many articles about this picturesque Cargan who had fought his way with his fists to the position of practical dictator in the city of Reuton. The story was seldom told without a mention of his man Max—Lou Max who kept the south end of Reuton in line for the mayor, and in that low neighborhood of dives and squalor made Cargan's a name to conjure with. Watching him now, Mr. Magee marveled at this cheap creature's evident capacity for loyalty.

"It was the reformers got Napoleon," the mayor finished. "Yes, they sent Napoleon to an island at the end. And him without an equal since the world began."

"Is your—begging your pardon—is your history just straight?" demurred Professor Bolton timidly.

"Is it?" frowned Cargan. "You can bet it is. I know Napoleon from the cradle to the grave. I ain't an educated man, Doc—I can hire all the educated men I want for eighteen dollars a week—but I'm up on Bonaparte."

"It seems to me," Miss Norton put in, "I have heard—did I read it in a paper?—that a picture of Napoleon hangs above your desk. They say that you see in your own career, a similarity to his. May I ask—is it true?"

"No, miss," replied Cargan. "That's a joking story some newspaper guy wrote up. It ain't got no more truth in it than most newspaper yarn. No, I ain't no Napoleon. There's lots of differences between us—one in particular." He raised his voice, and glared at the company around the table. "One in particular. The reformers got Napoleon at the end."

"But the end is not yet," suggested Mr. Magee, smiling.

Mr. Cargan gave him a sudden and interested look.

"I ain't worrying," he replied. "And don't you, young fellow."

Mr. Magee responded that he was not one to indulge in needless worry, and a silence fell upon the group. Peters entered with coffee, and was engaged in pouring it when Mr. Bland started up wildly from the table with an expression of alarm on his face.

"What's that?" he cried.

The others looked at him in wonder.

"I heard steps up-stairs," he declared.

"Nonsense," said Mr. Cargan, "you're dreaming. This peace and quiet has got to you, Bland."

Without replying, Mr. Bland rose and ran up the stair. In his absence the Hermit of Baldpate spoke into Magee's ear.

"I ain't one to complain," he said; "livin' alone as much as I do I've sort of got out of the habit, having nobody to complain to. But if folks keep coming and coming to this hotel, I've got to resign as cook. Seems as though every few minutes there's a new face at the table, and it's a vital matter to me."

"Cheer up, Peters," whispered Mr. Magee. "There are only two more keys to the inn. There will be a limit to our guests."

"What I'm getting at is," replied Mr. Peters, "there's a limit to my endurance."

Mr. Bland came down-stairs. His face was very pale as he took his seat, but in reply to Cargan's question he remarked that he must have been mistaken.

"It was the wind, I guess," he said.

The mayor made facetious comment on Mr. Bland's "skittishness", and Mr. Max also indulged in a gibe or two. These the haberdasher met with a wan smile. So the dinner came to an end, and the guests of Baldpate sat about while Mr. Peters removed all traces of it from the table. Mr. Magee sought to talk to Miss Norton, but found her nervous and distrait.

"Has Mr. Bland frightened you?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I have other things to think of," she replied.

Mr. Peters shortly bade the company good-by for the night, with the warmly expressed hope in Mr. Magee's ear that there would be no further additions to the circle in the near future. When he had started off through the snow for his shack, Mr. Cargan took out his watch.

"You've been pretty kind to us poor wanderers already," he said. "I got one more favor to ask. I come up here to see Mr. Bland. We got some business to transact, and we'd consider it a great kindness if you was to leave us alone here in the office."

Mr. Magee hesitated. He saw the girl nod her head slightly, and move toward the stairs.

"Certainly, if you wish," he said. "I hope you won't go without saying good-by, Mr. Cargan."

"That all depends," replied the mayor. "I've enjoyed knowing you, one and all. Good night."

The women, the professor and Mr. Magee moved up the broad stairway. On the landing Mr. Magee heard the voice of Mrs. Norton, somewhere in the darkness ahead.

"I'm worried, dearie—real worried."

"Hush," came the girl's voice. "Mr. Magee-we'll meet again—soon."

Mr. Magee seized the professor's arm, and together they stood in the shadows.

"I don't like the looks of things," came Bland's hoarse complaint from below. "What time is it?"

"Seven-thirty." Cargan answered. "A good half-hour yet."

"There was somebody on the second floor when I went up," Bland continued. "I saw him run into one of the rooms and lock the door."

"I've got charge now," the mayor reassured him, "don't you worry."

"There's something doing." This seemed to be Max's voice.

"There sure is," laughed Cargan. "But what do I care? I own young Drayton. I put him where he is. I ain't afraid. Let them gumshoe round as much as they want to. They can't touch me."

"Maybe not," said Bland. "But Baldpate Inn ain't the grand idea it looked at first, is it?"

"It's a hell of an idea," answered Cargan. "There wasn't any need of all this folderol. I told Hayden so. Does that phone ring?"

"No—it'll just flash a light, when they want us," Bland told him.

Mr. Magee and Professor Bolton continued softly up the stairs, and in answer to the former's invitation, the old man entered number seven and took a chair by the fire.

"It is an amazing tangle," he remarked, "in which we are involved. I have no idea what your place is in the scheme of things up here. But I assume you grasp what is going on, if I do not. I am not so keen of wit as I once was."

"If you think," answered Mr. Magee, proffering a cigar, "that I am in on this little game of 'Who's Who', then you are vastly mistaken. As a matter of fact, I am as much in the dark as you are."

The professor smiled.

"Indeed," he said in a tone that showed his unbelief. "Indeed."

He was deep in a discussion of the meters of the poet Chaucer when there came a knock at the door, and Mr. Lou Max's unpleasant head was thrust inside.

"I been assigned," he said, "to sit up here in the hall and keep an eye out for the ghost Bland heard tramping about. And being of a sociable nature, I'd like to sit in your doorway, if you don't mind."

"By all means," replied Magee. "Here's a chair. Do you smoke?"

"Thanks." Mr. Max placed the chair sidewise in the doorway of number seven, and sat down. From his place he commanded a view of Mr. Magee's apartments and of the head of the stairs. With his yellow teeth he viciously bit the end from the cigar. "Don't let me interrupt the conversation, gentlemen," he pleaded.

"We were speaking," said the professor calmly, "of the versification of Chaucer. Mr. Magee—"

He continued his discussion in an even voice, Mr. Magee leaned back in his chair and smiled in a pleased way at the settings of the stage: Mr. Max in a cloud of smoke on guard at his door; the mayor and Mr. Bland keeping vigil by a telephone switchboard in the office below, watching for the flash of light that should tell them some one in the outside world wanted to speak to Baldpate Inn; a mysterious figure who flitted about in the dark; a beautiful girl who was going to ask Mr. Magee to do her a service, blindly trusting her.

The professor droned on monotonously. Once Mr. Magee interrupted to engage Lou Max in spirited conversation. For, through the squares of light outside the windows, he had seen the girl of the station pass hurriedly down the balcony, the snowflakes falling white on her yellow hair.