"Make me a willow cabin at your gate," quoted Mr. Magee, looking at th_ermit's shack with interest.
"U-m-m," replied Miss Norton. Thus beautiful sentiments frequently fare, eve_t the hands of the most beautiful. Mr. Magee abandoned his project o_ompleting the speech.
The door of the hermit's abode opened before Mr. Max's masterful knock, an_he bearded little man appeared on the threshold. He was clad in a purpl_ressing-gown that suggested some woman had picked it. Surely no man coul_ave fallen victim to that riot of color.
"Come in," said the hermit, in a tone so colorless it called added attentio_o the gown. "Miss, you have the chair. You'll have to be contented with tha_oap-box davenport, gentlemen. Well?"
He stood facing them in the middle of his hermitage. With curious eyes the_xamined its architecture. Exiled hands had built it of poles and clay and _eliable brand of roofing. In the largest room, where they sat, were chairs, _able, and a book-shelf hammered together from stray boards—furniture midwa_etween that in a hut on a desert isle and that of a home made happy from th_ack pages of a woman's magazine. On the wall were various posters tha_efined the hermit's taste in art as inflammatory, bold, arresting. Throug_ne door at the rear they caught a glimpse of a tiny kitchen; through anothe_he white covering of a hall-room cot could be seen.
"Well?" repeated Mr. Peters. "I suppose you're a delegation, so to speak?"
"A cold unfeeling word," objected Mr. Magee.
"We have come to plead"—began Miss Norton, turning her eyes at their ful_andle-power on the hermit's bearded face.
"I beg pardon, miss," interrupted Mr. Peters, "but it ain't any use. I'v_hought it all out—in the night watches, as the poet says. I came up here t_e alone. I can't be a hermit and a cook, too. I can't and be true to myself.
No, you'll have to accept my resignation, to take effect at once."
He sat down on an uncertain chair and regarded them sorrowfully. His lon_ell-shaped fingers clutched the cord of the purple gown.
"It isn't as though we were asking you to give up the hermit business fo_ood," argued Magee. "It's just for a short time—maybe only for a few days. _hould think you would welcome the diversion."
Mr. Peters shook his head vigorously. The brown curls waved flippantly abou_is shoulders.
"My instincts," he replied, "are away from the crowd. I explained that to yo_hen we first met, Mr. Magee."
"Any man," commented Mr. Max, "ought to be able to strangle his instincts fo_ good salary, payable in advance."
"You come here," said the hermit with annoyance, "and you bring with you th_entiments of the outside world—the world I have foresworn. Don't do it. I as_ou."
"I don't get you," reflected Mr. Max. "No, pal, I don't quite grab this hermi_ame. It ain't human nature, I say. Way up here miles from the little bras_ail and the sporting extra, and other things that make life worth living.
It's beyond me."
"I'm not asking your approval," replied the hermit. "All I ask is to be le_lone."
"Let me speak," said Miss Norton. "Mr. Peters and I have been friends, yo_ight say, for three years. It was three years ago my awed eyes first fel_pon him, selling his post-cards at the inn. He was to me then—the tru_omance—the man to whom the world means nothing without a certain woman at hi_ide. That is what he has meant to all the girls who came to Baldpate. H_sn't going to shatter my ideal of him—he isn't going to refuse a lady i_istress. You will come for just a little while, won't you, Mr. Peters?"
But Peters shook his head again.
"I dislike women as a sex," he said, "but I've always been gentle and eas_ith isolated examples of 'em. It ain't my style to turn 'em down. But this i_sking too much. I'm sorry. But I got to be true to my oath—I got to be _ermit."
"Maybe," sneered Mr. Max, "he's got good reason for being a hermit. Mayb_here's brass buttons and blue uniforms mixed up in it."
"You come from the great world of suspicion," answered the hermit, turnin_eproving eyes upon him. "Your talk is natural—it goes with the life you lead.
But it isn't true."
"And Mr. Max is the last who should insinuate," rebuked Mr. Magee. "Why, onl_ast night he denounced suspicion, and bemoaned the fact that there is so muc_f it in the world."
"Well he might," replied the hermit. "Suspicion is the key-note of moder_ife—especially in New York." He drew the purple dressing-gown closer abou_is plump form. "I remember the last time I was in the big town, seeing _rowd of men in the grill-room of the Hoffman House. One of them—long, lean, like an eel—stooped down and whispered in the ear of a little fellow with _iamond horseshoe desecrating his haberdashery, and pointing to another ma_ear by. 'No, I won't,' says the man with the diamonds, 'I don't introduc_obody to nobody. Let every man play his own game, I say.' That's New York.
That's the essence of the town. 'I introduce nobody to nobody.'"
"It seems odd," remarked Mr. Magee, "to hear you speak of the time you walke_n pavements."
"I haven't always been on Baldpate Mountain," replied the hermit. "Once I, too, paid taxes and wore a derby hat and sat in barbers' chairs. Yes, I sat in
'em in many towns, in many corners of this little round globe. But that's al_ver now."
The three visitors gazed at Mr. Peters with a new interest.
"New York," said Mr. Max softly, as a better man might have spoken the name o_he girl he loved. "Its a great little Christmas tree. The candles are alway_urning and the tinsel presents always look good to me."
The hermit's eyes strayed far away—down the mountain—and beyond.
"New York," said he, and his tone was that in which Max had said the words. "_reat little Christmas tree it is, with fine presents for the reaching.
Sometimes, at night here, I see it as it was four years ago—I see the candle_it on the Great White Way—I hear the elevated roar, and the newsboys shout, and Diamond Jim Brady applauding at a musical comedy's first night. New York!"
Mr. Max rose pompously and pointed a yellow finger at the Hermit of Baldpat_ountain.
"I got you!" he cried in triumph. "I'm wise! You want to go back."
A half-hearted smile crossed the visible portion of the hermit's face.
"I guess I'm about the poorest liar in the world," he said. "I never got awa_ith but one lie in my life, and that was only for a little while. It was _asterpiece while it lasted, too. But it was my only hit as a liar. Usually _ail, as I have failed now. I lied when I said I couldn't cook for you becaus_ had to be true to my hermit's oath. That isn't the reason. I'm afraid."
"Afraid?" echoed Mr. Magee.
"Scared," said Mr. Peters, "of temptation. Your seventh son of a seventh so_riend here has read my palm O. K. I want to go back. Not in the summer, whe_he inn blazes like Broadway every evening, and I can sit here and listen t_he latest comic opera tunes come drifting up from the casino, and go down an_ingle with the muslin brigade any time I want, and see the sympathetic loo_n their eyes as they buy my postals. It ain't then I want to go back. It'_hen fall comes, and the trees on the mountain are bare, and Quimby locks u_he inn, and there's only the wind and me on the mountain—then I get th_ever. I haven't the post-card trade to think of—so I think of Ellen, and Ne_ork. She's—my wife. New York—it's my town.
"That's why I can't come among you to cook. It'd be leading me into temptatio_reater than I could stand. I'd hear your talk, and like as not when you wen_way I'd shave off this beard, and burn the manuscript of _Woman_ , and g_own into the marts of trade. Last night I walked the floor till two. I can'_tand such temptation."
Mr. Peters' auditors regarded him in silence. He rose and moved toward th_itchen door.
"Now you understand how it is," he said. "Perhaps you will go and leave me t_y baking."
"One minute," objected Mr. Magee. "You spoke of one lie—your masterpiece. W_ust hear about that."
"Yes—spin the yarn, pal," requested Mr. Max.
"Well," said the hermit reluctantly, "if you're quite comfortable—it ain'_ery short."
"Please," beamed Miss Norton.
With a sigh the Hermit of Baldpate Mountain sank upon a most unsocial seat an_rew his purple splendor close.
"It was like this," he began. "Five years ago I worked for a fruit company, and business sent me sliding along the edges of strange seas and picture-boo_ands. I met little brown men, and listened to the soft swish of the banan_rowing, and had an orchestra seat at a revolution or two. Don't look for _agazine story about overthrown tyrants, or anything like that. It's just _uiet little lie I'm speaking of, told on a quiet little afternoon, by th_ands of a sea as blue as Baldpate Inn must have been this morning when _idn't show up with breakfast.
"Sitting on those yellow sands the afternoon I speak of, wearing carpe_lippers made for me by loving, so to speak, hands, I saw Alexander McMan_ome along. He was tall and straight and young and free, and I envied him, fo_ven in those days my figure would never have done in a clothin_dvertisement, owing to the heritage of too many table d'hôtes about th_iddle. Well, McMann sat at my side, and little by little, with the se_ashing sad-like near by, I got from him the story of his exile, and why.
"I don't need to tell you it was woman had sent him off for the equator. Thi_ne's name was Marie, I think, and she worked at a lunch-counter in Kansa_ity. From the young man's bill-of-fare description of her, I gathered tha_he had cheeks like peaches and cream, but a heart like a lunch-counte_oughnut, which is hard.
"'She cast you off?' I asked.
"'She threw me down,' said he.
"Well, it seems he'd bought a ticket for that loud-colored country where I me_im, and come down there to forget. 'I could buy the ticket,' he said, 'a_oon as I learned how to pronounce the name of this town. But I can't forget.
I've tried. It's hopeless.' And he sat there looking like a man whose bes_riend has died, owing him money. I won't go into his emotions. Mr. Bland, u_t the inn, is suffering them at the present moment, I'm told. They'r_nimportant; I'll hurry on to the lie. I simply say he was sorrowful, and i_eemed to me a crime, what with the sun so bright, and the sea so blue, an_he world so full of a number of things. Yes, it certainly was a crime, and _ecided he had to be cheered up at any cost. How? I thought a while, gazing u_t the sky, and then it came to me—the lie—the great glorious lie—and I tol_t."
The hermit looked in defiance round the listening circle.
"'You're chuck full of sorrow now,' I said to McMann, 'but it won't las_ong.' He shook his head. 'Nonsense,' I told him. 'Look at me. Do you see m_oing a heart-bowed-down act under the palms? Do you find anything but joy i_y face?' And he couldn't, the lie unfolding itself in such splendor to me.
'You?' he asked. 'Me,' I said. 'Ten years ago I was where you are to-day. _oman had spoken to me as Mabel—or Marie—or what was it?—spoke to you.'
"I could see I had the boy interested. I unfolded my story, as it occurred t_e at the moment. 'Yes,' said I, 'ten years ago I saw her first. Dancing as _utterfly dances from flower to flower. Dancing on the stage—a fairy sprite. _oved her—worshiped her. It could never be. There in the dark of the wings, she told me so. And she shed a tear—a sweet tear of sorrow at parting.
"'I went to my room,' I told McMann, 'with a lot of time-tables and steamshi_ooks. Bright red books—the color came off on my eager hands. I picked out _ountry, and sailed away. Like you, I thought I could never be happy, neve_ven smile, again. Look at me.'
"He looked. I guess my face radiated bliss. The idea was so lovely. He wa_mpressed—I could see it. 'I'm supremely happy,' I told him. 'I am my ow_aster. I wander where I will. No woman tells me my hour for going out, or m_our for coming in. I wander. For company I have her picture—as I saw he_ast—with twinkling feet that never touched earth. As the spirit moves, I go.
You can move the memory of a woman in a flash, my boy, but it takes two month_o get the real article started, and then like as not she's forgot everythin_f importance. Ever thought of that? You should. You're going to be as happ_s I am. Study me. Reflect.' I waved my carpet-slippered feet toward th_alms. I had certainly made an impression on Alexander McMann.
"As we walked back over the sands and grass-grown streets to the hotel, hi_eart got away from that cupid's lunch-counter, and he was almost cheerful. _as gay to the last, but as I parted from him my own heart sank. I knew I ha_o go back to her, and that she would probably give me a scolding about th_arpet slippers. I parted from McMann with a last word of cheer. Then I wen_o the ship—to her. My wife. That was the lie, you understand. She travele_verywhere with me. She never trusted me.
"We were due to sail that night, and I was glad. For I worried some over wha_ had done. Suppose my wife and Alexander McMann should meet. An estimabl_oman, but large, determined, little suggesting the butterfly of th_ootlights I married, long before. We had a bad session over the carpe_lippers. The boat was ready to sail, when McMann came aboard. He carried _ag, and his face shone.
"'She's sent for me,' he said. 'Marie wants me. I got a letter from m_rother. I'll blow into Kansas like a cyclone, and claim her.'
"I was paralyzed. At that minute a large black figure appeared on deck. I_eaded for me. 'Jake,' it says, 'you've sat up long enough. Go below now.'
"McMann's face was terrible. I saw it was all up. 'I lied, McMann,' _xplained. 'The idea just came to me, it fascinated me, and I lied. She di_urn me down—there in the wings. And she shed that tear I spoke of, too. But, when I was looking over the railroad folders, she sent for me. I went—on th_ings of love. It was two blocks—but I went on the wings of love. We've bee_arried twenty years. Forgive me, McMann!'
"McMann turned around. He picked up the bag. I asked where he was going.
'Ashore,' he said, 'to think. I may go back to Kansas City—I may. But I'l_ust think a bit first.' And he climbed into the ship's boat. I never saw hi_gain."
The hermit paused, and gazed dreamily into space.
"That," he said, "was my one great lie, my masterpiece. A year afterward _ame up here on the mountain to be a hermit."
"As a result of it?" asked Miss Norton.
"Yes," answered Mr. Peters, "I told the story to a friend. I thought he was _riend—so he was, but married. My wife got to hear of it. 'So you denied m_xistence,' she said. 'As a joke,' I told her. 'The joke's on you,' she says.
That was the end. She went her way, and I went mine. I'd just unanimously gon_er way so long, I was a little dazed at first with my freedom. After fightin_or a living alone for a time, I came up here. It's cheap. I get the solitud_ need for my book. Not long ago I heard I could go back to her if _pologized."
"Stick to your guns," advised Mr. Max.
"I'm trying to," Mr. Peters replied. "But it's lonesome here—in winter. And a_hristmas in particular. This dressing-gown was a Christmas present fro_llen. She picked it. Pretty, ain't it? You see why I can't come down and coo_or you. I might get the fever for society, and shave, and go to Brooklyn, where she's living with her sister."
"But," said Mr. Magee, "we're in an awful fix. You've put us there. Mr.
Peters, as a man of honor, I appeal to you. Your sense of fairness must tel_ou my appeal is just. Risk it one more day, and I'll have a cook sent up fro_he village. Just one day. There's no danger in that. Surely you can resis_emptation one little day. A man of your character."
Miss Norton rose and stood before Mr. Peters. She fixed him with her eyes—eye_nto which no man could gaze and go his way unmoved.
"Just one tiny day," she pleaded.
Mr. Peters sighed. He rose.
"I'm a fool," he said. "I can't help it. I'll take chances on another day.
Though nobody knows where it'll lead."
"Brooklyn, maybe," whispered Lou Max to Magee in mock horror.
The hermit donned his coat, attended to a few household duties, and led th_elegation outside. Dolefully he locked the door of his shack. The fou_tarted down the mountain.
"Back to Baldpate with our cook," said Mr. Magee into the girl's ear. "I kno_ow how Cæsar felt when he rode through Rome with his ex-foes festooned abou_is chariot wheels."
Mr. Max again chose the rear, triumphantly escorting Mr. Peters. As Mr. Mage_nd the girl swung into the lead, the former was moved to recur to the topi_e had handled so amateurishly a short time before.
"I'll make you believe in me yet," he said.
She did not turn her head.
"The moment we reach the inn," he went on "I shall come to you, with th_ackage of money in my hand. Then you'll believe I want to help you—tell m_ou'll believe then."
"Very likely I shall," answered the girl without interest. "If you really d_ntend to give me that money—no one must know about it."
"No one shall know," he answered, "but you and me."
They walked on in silence. Then shyly the girl turned her head. Oh, mos_ssuredly, she was desirable. Clumsy as had been his declaration, Mr. Mage_esolved to stick to it through eternity.
"I'm sorry I spoke as I did," she said. "Will you forgive me?"
"Forgive you?" he cried. "Why, I—"
"And now," she interrupted, "let us talk of other things. Of ships, and shoes, and sealing-wax—"
"All the topics in the world," he replied, "can lead to but one with me—"
"Ships?" asked the girl.
"For honeymoons," he suggested.
"In some circles of society, I believe they are flung at bridal parties."
"On the license, isn't it?" he queried.
"I'll not try you on cabbage and kings," laughed the girl. "Please, oh, please, don't fail me. You won't, will you?" Her face was serious. "You see, it means so very much to me."
"Fail you?" cried Magee. "I'd hardly do that now. In ten minutes that packag_ill be in your hands—along with my fate, my lady."
"I shall be so relieved." She turned her face away, there was a faint flush i_he cheek toward Mr. Magee. "And—happy," she whispered under her breath.
They were then at the great front door of Baldpate Inn.