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SIXTEEN MILES TO BOSWELL'S
"One passenger off the five-thirty, coming up the hill," announced Sue Boswell, peering eagerly out of the Inn's office window. "That makes nine for supper. I'll run and tell mother."
"Nine--poor child," murmured Tom Boswell, behind the desk. "That's certainly a great showing for a summer hotel, on the fifteenth day of July. If we don't do better in August--the game's up."
He stared out of the window at the approaching guest, who, escorted by Tom's brother Tim, was climbing the road toward Boswell's Inn at a pace which indicated no pressing anxiety to arrive. As the pair drew nearer, Tom could see that the stranger was a rather peculiar-looking person. Of medium height, as thin as a lath, with a nearly colourless face in which was set a pair of black eyes with dark circles round them, the man had somewhat the appearance of an invalid; yet an air of subdued nervous energy about him in a measure offset the suggestion of ill-health. He was surveying Boswell's Inn as he approached it in a comprehensive way which seemed to take in every feature of its appearance.
Across the desk in the small lobby the newcomer spoke curtly. "Good room and a bath? I want an absolutely quiet room where I get no kitchen noises or ballroom dancing. Windows with a breeze--if you've got such a thing."
"I can't give you the bath," Tom answered regretfully, "because we haven't got one that goes with any room in the house. But you can have plenty of hot and cold, in cans. The room will be quiet, all right. And we always have a breeze up here, if there is one anywhere in the world. Shall I show you?"
"Lead on," assented the stranger. He had not offered to register, though Tom had extended to him a freshly dipped pen.
"He's going to make sure first," thought Tom, recognizing a sign of the experienced traveller. He led the way himself, feeling, for some reason, unwilling to hand young Tim the key and allow him to exploit the rooms. As they mounted the stairs, Tom was rapidly considering. He had brought along three keys--rather an unusual act on his part. It was hard to say why he felt it necessary to bestow any special attention upon this guest, who certainly was by no means of an imposing appearance, and whose hot-weather dress was as careless as his manner.
He opened the door of the first room, and the stranger looked in silently. "I'll show you another before you decide," said Tom hurriedly, without waiting for a comment.
This was not his best empty room, and he felt somehow that the man who wanted a room with a bath and a breeze knew it. He led the way on along the hall to a corner room in the front. This was his second best. Tom always preferred to reserve his choicest for a chance millionaire or a possible wealthy society lady--though Heaven knew that, during the six weeks the Inn had been open, no guest distantly resembling one or the other of those desirable types had approached the little mountain hostelry.
"Anything better?" inquired the thin man, his extraordinarily quick glance covering every detail of the room like lightning, as Tom felt.
"Sure--if you want the bridal suit." Tom pronounced it proudly, as it were a claw-hammer and white waistcoat.
"Bring her on."
Tom marched ahead to the two rooms opening on the little balcony above the side porch, a balcony which belonged to the "bridal suite" alone, and which commanded the finest view into the very heart of the mountains that the house afforded. Seeing his guest--after one look around the spotless room with its pink and white furnishings, and into the small dressing-room beyond--stride toward the outer door, Tom threw it wide. The guest stepped out on to the balcony. Here he pulled off his hat, which he had not before removed, and let the breeze--for there was unquestionably a breeze, even on this afternoon of a day which had been one of the hottest the country had known--drift refreshingly against his damp brow. The zephyr was strong enough even to lift slightly the thick locks of black hair which lay above the white forehead.
"Price for this?" asked the stranger, in his abrupt way, turning back into the room.
Tom mentioned it--with a little inward hesitation. The family had differed a good deal on the question of prices for these best rooms. In his opinion that settled upon for the bridal suite was almost prohibitively high. Not a guest yet but had turned away with a sigh. For a moment he had been tempted to reduce it, but he had promised the others to stick by the decision at least through July. So he mentioned the price firmly.
The guest glanced sharply at him as he did so. There was a queer little contraction of the stranger's thin upper lip. Then he said: "I'll take 'em--for the night, and you may hold 'em for me till to-morrow night. Tell you then whether I'll stay longer."
Tom understood, of course, that it was now a question of a satisfactory table. But here he knew he was strong. Mother Boswell's cooking--there was none better obtainable. He was already in a hurry to prove to this laconic stranger who demanded the best he had of everything, including breezes, that in the matter of food Boswell's Inn could satisfy the most exacting. Not in elaborately dressed viands of rare kitchen product, of course--that was not to be expected off here. But in temptingly cooked everyday food, and in certain extras which were Mother Boswell's specialties, and which the few people now in the Inn called for with ever-increasing zest--though they seldom deigned to send any special word of praise to the anxious cook--Boswell's needed to ask forbearance of nobody.
"I'll send your stuff up right away," said Tom, as the other man cast his straw hat upon a chair and went over to a washstand, where hung several snowy towels. "Have some hot water?"
"All right." Tom was off on the jump. It was certainly something to have rented the bridal suite even for the night, but he felt more than ordinarily curious to know who his guest was.
"Might be a travelling man," he speculated, when he had given Tim his orders, "though he doesn't exactly seem like one. But he looks like a fellow who's used to getting what he wants."
When the new guest came downstairs, at the peal of a gong through the quiet house, Tom saw him cast one keen-eyed glance in turn at each of the other occupants of the lobby, as they clustered about the door of the dining-room. Seven of these were women, and of that number at least five were elderly. Of the two younger ladies, neither presented any special attractiveness beyond that of entire respectability. The eighth guest was a man--a middle-aged man who was reading a book and who carried the book into the dining-room with him, where he continued to read it at his solitary table.
Tom Boswell was at the elbow of the latest arrival as he entered the dining-room, a long, low, but airy apartment, as spotless and shining in its way as the bedroom upstairs had been. There was no head waiter, and Tom himself piloted the new guest to a small table by a window, looking off into the mountains on the opposite side of the house from that of the bridal suite. The women boarders were all behind him, the solitary man just across the way at a corresponding small table. Certainly the proprietor of Boswell's Inn possessed that great desideratum for such an official--tact.
Sue Boswell, aged fifteen, in a blue-and-white print frock and white apron so crisp that one could not discern a wrinkle in them, waited on the new guest. She did not ask him what he would have, nor present to him a card from which to select his meal. She brought him first a small cup of chicken broth, steaming hot; and though he regarded this at first as if he had no appetite whatever, after the first tentative sip he went on to the bottom of the cup. When this was gone, Sue placed before him a plate of corned-beef hash, an alluring pinkness showing beneath the gratifying upper coat of brown. A small dish of cucumbers--thin, iced cucumbers, with a French dressing--accompanied the hash; and with these he was offered hot rolls so small and delicate and crisp that, after cautiously sampling the butter with what seemed a fastidious palate, the guest took to eating rolls as if he had seldom found anything so well worth consuming.
Something made of red raspberries and cream followed, and then half a large cantaloupe, its golden heart filled with crushed ice, was placed before him. Last appeared a cup of amber coffee. As the guest tasted this beverage, a look of complete satisfaction overspread his pale face, and he drained the cup clear and asked for more.
Presently he strolled out into the lobby. Here Tom awaited him behind the desk. The hotel register was open, and Tom's fingers suggestively held a pen. The guest obeyed the hint. At an inn so small, it certainly would be a pity for any guest not to add his name to the short list.
For it was a very short list. Although a full month had gone by since the first arrival had written her name, the bottom of the page had not been quite reached when this latest one scratched his in characters which looked quite as much like Arabic as English. When Tom came to examine the name later, he made it out to be Perkins, though it might quite as easily have been Tompkins, or Judson, or any other name which had an elevated letter somewhere in the middle. The initials were quite indecipherable. But Perkins it turned out to be, for when Tom tentatively addressed the newcomer by that appellation there was no correction made, and he continued to respond whenever so accosted.
Mr. Perkins spent the evening smoking upon the porch, his head turned toward the mountains. The next morning, when he had eaten a breakfast which included some wonderful browned griddle-cakes and syrup--another of the Inn's specialties--he strolled away into the middle distance and was observed by various of the guests, from time to time, perched about among the rocks, in idle attitudes.
"He's a queer duck," observed Tom in the kitchen that day, describing Mr. Perkins to his mother. Mrs. Boswell seldom appeared beyond her special domain--that of the kitchen--but left the rest of the housekeeping to her daughters Bertha and Sue; the management of the Inn to Tom and Tim. "Silent as an owl. Seems to like his food--nothing strange about that. He doesn't act sick, exactly, but tired, or bored, or used up, somehow. Eyes like coals and sharper than a ferret's. I can't make him out. He won't talk to anybody, except now and then a word or two to Mr. Griffith. Never looks at the ladies, but I tell you they look at him. Every one of 'em has a different notion about him. Anyhow, he's taken the bridal suit for two weeks. Goes down to the post-office for his mail--gave particular orders not to have it sent up here. That's kind of funny, isn't it? Oh, I meant to tell you before: he's paid for his rooms a week in advance."
"It helps a little," said his sister Bertha. She was twenty-five years old, and if any one of this family had the responsibility of the success of Boswell's Inn heavily and anxiously at heart, it was Bertha. "But it can't make up the difference. Here's July half over, and not a dozen people in the house. What can be the matter? Isn't everything all right?"
"Sure it's all right," insisted Tom. "We just haven't got known, that's all."
"But how are we going to get known, if nobody comes? Our advertisement in the city papers costs dreadfully, and it doesn't seem to bring anybody."
"Now see here," said Tom firmly, "don't you go to getting discouraged. This is our first season. We can't expect to do much the first season. We're prepared for that."
But he realized, quite as clearly as his sister, that they had not been prepared for so complete a failure as they were making. Boswell's Inn stood only sixteen miles away from a large city, a great Western railroad centre, into which, early and late, thousands of tourists were pouring. The road out into the mountains was a good one, the trip easy enough for the owners of motor cars, of whom the city held enough to make a continuous procession all the way if only they could be headed in the right direction. But how to head them? That was what Tom couldn't figure out.
On the third evening after Mr. Perkins's arrival, Tom, strolling gloomily out upon the porch to see if any one was lingering there to prevent his closing up, discovered Perkins sitting alone, smoking. There had not been a new arrival that day; worse, one of the elderly ladies had gone away. She had departed reluctantly, but her absence counted just the same, and Tom was missing her as he had never expected to miss any elderly lady with iron-gray curls and a cast in one eye.
"Nice night," observed Tom to Mr. Perkins.
"Getting cooled off a bit up here?"
"Are, you--having everything you want?"
Tom asked the question with some diffidence. It was a matter of regret with him that he couldn't afford yet to put young Tim into buttons, but without them he was sure the lad made as alert a bellboy and porter as could be asked.
"Nothing to complain of."
Tom wished Mr. Perkins wouldn't be so taciturn. The proprietor of the Inn That Couldn't Get a Start was feeling so blue to-night that speech with some one besides his depressed family was almost a necessity. He couldn't talk with the women; Mr. Griffith, though kindly enough, had his nose forever buried in a book. Perkins looked as if he could talk if he would, and have something to say, too. Tom tried to think of an observation which would draw this silent man out. But quite suddenly, and greatly to Tom's surprise, Mr. Perkins began to draw Tom out. Even so, his questions were like shots from a gun, so brief and to the point were they.
"Doing any advertising?" broke the silence first, from a corner of the thin mouth. Perkins's cigar had been shifted to the opposite corner. He did not look at Tom, but continued to gaze off toward a certain curious effect of moonlight against the rocky sides of the canyon.
"We have a card in all the city papers."
"Any specials? Write-ups?"
"Well, this is our first season, and we didn't feel as if we could afford to pay for that."
"No pulls, eh?"
"No friends among the newspaper men?"
"I don't know one. They don't seem to come up here. I wish they would."
"Ever ask one?"
"I don't know any," repeated Tom.
A short laugh, more like a grunt, was Perkins's reply. Tom didn't see what there was to laugh at in the misfortune of having no acquaintance among the writing fellows. He waited eagerly for the next question. It was worth a good deal to him merely to have this outsider show a spark of interest in the fortunes of Boswell's Inn.
"When did you open up?" It came just as he feared Perkins was going to drop the subject.
"The third of June."
"Own the house?"
"No--lease it, cheap. It's an old place, but we put all we could afford into freshening it up."
"Cook a permanent one?"
The form of the question perplexed Tom for an instant, but it presently resolved itself, and he was grinning as he replied: "Sure she is. It's my mother. Do you like her cooking?"
Ah, Tom would tell his mother that! The young man flushed slightly in the darkness of the porch. It was almost the first compliment that had been paid her, and she worked like a slave, too.
"Little waitress your sister?"
"Yes. Sue's young, but we think she does pretty well."
"Delivers the goods. Housekeeper a member of the family, too?"
"Yes--and Tim's my brother. Oh, it's all in the family. The only trouble is----" he hesitated.
"Lack of patronage?"
"We can't keep open much longer if things don't improve." The moment the words were out Tom regretted them. He didn't know how he had come to speak them. He hadn't meant to give this fact away. Certainly there had been nothing particularly sympathetic in the tone of Perkins's choppy questions. But the other man's next words knocked his regrets out of his mind in a jiffy.
"Could you entertain a dozen men at supper to-morrow night if they came in a bunch without warning?"
"Give us the chance!"
"Chance might happen--better be prepared. I expect to be away over to-morrow night myself, but have the tip that a crowd may be coming out to sample the place. It may be a mistake--don't know."
"We'll be ready. Would they come by train?"
"Don't ask me--none of my picnic. Merely overheard the thing suggested." And Perkins, rising, cast away the close-smoked stub of his cigar. "Good-night," said he, carelessly enough, and strolled in through the wide hall of the old stone house. Tom looked after him as he mounted the stairs. The young innkeeper's spirits had gone up with a bound. A dozen men to supper! Well--he thought they could entertain them. He would go and tell his mother and Bertha on the instant; the prospect would cheer them immensely. He wondered how or where Perkins had overheard this rumour. At the post-office, most likely. It was a gossipy place, the centre of the tiny burg at the foot of the mountain, an eighth of a mile away, where a dozen small shops and half a hundred houses strung along the one small street, at the end of which the two daily trains made their half-minute stops.
* * * * * * *
The dozen men had come and gone. There were fourteen of them, to be exact, and they had climbed out of a couple of big touring cars with sounds of hilarity which made the elderly ladies jump in their chairs. They had swarmed over the place as if they owned it, had talked and laughed and joked and shouted, all in a perfectly agreeable way which woke up Boswell's as if it were in the centre of somewhere instead of off in the mountains. They had scrawled fourteen vigorous scrawls upon the register and made it necessary to turn the page, this of itself affording the clerk a satisfaction quite out of proportion to the apparent unimportance of the incident. Then they had gone gayly in to supper, had sat about two stainless tables close by the open windows, and had been waited upon by both Sue and Tim in such alert fashion that their plates arrived almost before they had unfurled their napkins.
Out in the kitchen, crimson-cheeked and solicitous, Mrs. Boswell had sent in relays of broiled chicken, young and tender, browned as only artists of her rank can brown them, flanked by potatoes cooked in a way known only to herself. These were two of her "specialties," which the elderly ladies were accustomed to enjoy without mentioning it. Pickles and jellies such as the fourteen men had tasted only in childhood accompanied these dishes, and the little hot rolls came on in piles which melted away before the delighted attacks of the hungry guests; so that the kitchen itself became alarmed, and cut the elderly ladies a trifle short, at which complaints were promptly filed, though it was the first time such a shortage had occurred.
Other toothsome dishes followed and were partaken of with such zest and so many frank expressions of approval that Sue and Tim carried to the kitchen reports which forced their mother to ask them to stop, lest she lose her head. When the amber coffee with a fine cheese and crisp toasted wafers ended the meal, the guests were in such a state of satisfaction that Tom, though he did not know it, had acquired with them his first "pull."
He did not know it--not then. He only knew that they were very cordial with him, asking him a good many interested questions, and that one requested to be shown rooms, remarking that his wife and children might like to run out for a little while before the summer was over. Most of them looked back at the Inn as the automobiles bore them away, and one waved his cigar genially at Tom standing on the top step.
He was standing on the top step again the next morning when Mr. Perkins returned. Tom was wishing Perkins had been there the night before, to see confirmed the truth of the rumour he had reported.
"Well, we had the crowd here last night," was Tom's greeting, as Perkins's sharp black eyes looked up at him from the bottom step.
"So I see." Perkins held up a morning paper. The inevitable cigar was in his mouth. His face indicated no particular interest. He went along into the house as Tom grasped the paper. So he saw! What did Perkins mean by that? It couldn't be that any of that party of men had, unsolicited, taken the trouble to----
But they had, or one of them had. In a fairly conspicuous position on one of the local pages of the best city daily was an item of at least a dozen lines setting forth the fact that a party of prominent men, including several newspaper men, had taken supper the night before at Boswell's Inn, Mount o' Pines, and had found that place decidedly attractive. The paragraph stated that such a supper was seldom found at summer hotels, added that the air and the view were worth a long trip to obtain when the city was sweltering with heat, and ended by speaking of the prime condition of the roads leading to the Inn. Altogether, it was such an item as Tom had often longed to see, and the reading of it went to his head. When, ten minutes later, Tim, coming up from the post-office with the mail and another of the morning papers, excitedly called Tom's attention to a second paragraph headed, "Have You Had a Supper at Boswell's Inn?" Tom became positively delirious.
"It pays to set it up to a bunch like that," was Perkins's comment when Tom showed him this second free advertisement.
"But I didn't treat them. They paid their bills," cried the young host.
"Charge your usual price?"
"Sure. We didn't have anything extra--except the cheese. Tim drove ten miles for that."
"Usual price was all the treat those fellows needed."
"Do you mean you don't think I charge enough?" Tom's eyes opened wide. He had felt as if he were robbing those men when he counted up the sum total.
"Ever dine at the Arcadia?--or the Princess?"
Tom did not know the prices at these imposing popular hotels in the nearby city, but he supposed they were high. He felt as if he were the greenest innkeeper who ever invited the patronage of city guests.
"Would you advise me to put up the price?" Tom asked presently, with some hesitation.
Perkins glanced at him out of those worn, brilliant, black eyes of his, which looked as if they had seen more of the world than Tom's ever would see in the longest life he could live, though Perkins himself could hardly be over forty, perhaps not quite that.
"Not yet, son," said he. "By and by--yes. But keep up the quality now--and then."
That evening a young man, whom Tom recognized as one of the party of the night before, the one who had waved to him as he had driven away, appeared again. He came in a runabout this time and brought two women, who proved to be his mother and sister. The young man himself--Mr. Haskins--smiled genially at Tom, and said by way of explanation:
"I liked your place so well I brought them up to see if my fairy tales were true."
Upon which Tom naturally did his best to make the fairy tales seem true, and thought, by the signs he noted, that he had succeeded.
During the following week three or four others of the men of the original fourteen came up to Boswell's or sent small parties. Evidently the flattering paragraphs in the two dailies had also made some impression on people eager to get away from the intense heat of a season more than ordinarily trying. They found the air stirring upon the porches and through the rooms at the Inn; and they found--which was, of course, the greater attraction--a table so inviting with appetizing food, and an unpretentious service so satisfactory, that mouth-to-mouth advertising of the little new resort, that most-to-be-desired means of becoming known, began, gradually but surely, to tell.
Strange to say, several more paragraphs now appeared: brief, crisp mention of the simple but perfect cooking to be had for the short drive of sixteen miles over the best of roads. These inevitably had their effect, and at the end of the third week Tom declared to Perkins that he was more than making expenses.
"Much more?" inquired that gentleman, his eyes as usual upon the view.
"Enough so we're satisfied and won't have to close up. Why, there's been from one to three big autos here every day this week."
One of Perkins's short laughs answered this--Tom never could tell just what that throaty chuckle indicated. Presently he found out.
"What you want, Boswell," said Perkins, removing his cigar--an unusual sign of interest with him--"is a boom. I'd like to see you get it. Gradual building up's all right, but quick methods pay better."
"A boom! How on earth are we to get a boom?" Tom felt a bit disconcerted.
He had noticed for several days an increasing restlessness in the silent guest. Instead of sitting quietly upon the porch with his cigar, Perkins had fallen to pacing up and down with a long, nervous stride. At first he had seemed moody and fatigued, now he had the appearance of a man eager to be at something from which he was restrained.
When Tom asked his startled question about the desirable boom, Perkins got out of his chair with one abrupt movement, threw one leg over the porch rail, and began suddenly to talk. He could not be said really to have talked before. Tom listened, his eyes sticking out of his head.
"Bunch of motoring fellows down in town--Mercury Club--want to get up an auto parade, end with supper somewhere. Hotels at Lake Lucas, Pleasant Valley, and half a dozen others all crazy to get 'em. Happen to know a chap or two in town who could swing it out here for you if you cared to make the bid, and could handle the crowd. Chance for you, if you want it. Make a big thing of it--lanterns, bonfires, fireworks, orchestra--regular blow-out."
Tom's breath came in gasps. "Why--why----" he stammered. "How could we--how could we--afford----What----? How----?"
Perkins threw away the stub of his cigar, chewed to a pulp at the mouth end. His eyes had an odd glitter. "I've what you might call a bit of experience in that sort of thing," he said in a quiet tone which yet had a certain edge of energy. "Going away next week, but might put this thing through for you, if you cared to trust me."
"But--the money?" urged Tom.
"Willing to stand for that--pay me back, if you make enough. Otherwise--my risk. Something of a gambler, I am. Club'll pay for the fireworks--that's their show. Bonfires on the mountains around are easy. Lanterns cheap. Get special terms on the music--friend of mine can. Supper's up to you. Can you get extra help?"
"We can manage the supper," agreed Tom, his round cheeks deeply flushed with excitement. "Say, you're--you're awfully kind. I don't know why----"
Perkins vaulted over the porch rail. From the ground below he looked back at Tom. For the first time since he had come to Boswell's Inn Tom caught sight of the gleam of white teeth, as an oddly brilliant smile broke out for an instant on the face which was no longer deadly white but brown with tan. "Son," said Perkins, preparing to swing away down to the post-office, "I told you I was a gambler. Gambler out of work's the lamest duck on the shore. Game of booming the Inn interests me--that's all."
Tom watched the lithe, slim figure in the distance for a minute before he went in to break the plan to the force of Boswell's. "He's no gambler," said he to himself, "or I couldn't trust him the way I do. He's queer, but I don't believe he has any other motive for this than wanting to help us."
With which innocent faith in the goodness of the man who had already seen more of the world than Tom Boswell would ever see, he rushed in to tell Bertha and the rest of his excited family the astounding talk he had just had with Perkins.
* * * * * * *
"Mother Boswell, you've got to come out on the porch--just one minute--and look."
"No, no, child, I can't. I----"
"Not where the folks are--just out on Mr. Perkins's balcony. He told me to take you."
"But I can't leave----"
"Yes, you can. Everything's all right. Come--quick. The first autos are coming--you can see 'em miles off."
With one glance about the kitchen, where two extra helpers were busy with the last preparations, over which Mrs. Boswell had kept a supervising eye to the smallest detail, herself working harder than anybody, the mistress of the place suffered herself to be led away. Up the back stairs, through Mr. Perkins's empty rooms, out upon the balcony, Sue hustled her mother, and then with one triumphant "There!" swept an arm about the entire horizon.
"My goodness!" burst from the lady's lips, and she stood gazing, transfixed.
At the foot of the mountainside, where lay the little village street with its row of shops and houses, glowed a line of Chinese lanterns, hung thickly along the entire distance. The winding road up to the Inn was outlined by lanterns; the trees about the Inn held out long arms dancing with the parti-coloured lights; the porch below, as could be told by the rainbow tints thrown upon the ground beneath, was hung with them from end to end.
"My goodness!" came again from Mrs. Boswell, in stupefied amazement. "There must be a thousand of those things. How on earth----?"
But her ear was caught by a distant boom, and her eyes lifted to the surrounding mountain heights. In a dozen different places bonfires flashed and leaped, with an indescribable effect of beauty.
"They're firing dynamite up on West Peak!" explained Sue. "Jack Weatherbee offered to do that. Tim's got boys at all those places to keep up the fires--and put 'em out afterward. Oh, look!--now you can see the parade beginning to show!"
Down upon the distant plain, across which lay the winding road out from the city, one could discern a trail of light--thrown by many searchlights--and make out its rapid advance. The sight moved Mrs. Boswell instantly to action again.
"I must get back to the kitchen!" she cried, and vanished from the balcony.
"If you could only see the Inn from outside!" Sue called after her, but uselessly. Mrs. Boswell felt that the entire success of the "boom" depended upon the kitchen. They might string lanterns from Boswell's to Jericho, but if the supper shouldn't be good--the thought sent her down the back stairs at a speed reckless for one of her years. But she reached the bottom safely, or this story would never have been told.
The first cars in the procession came up the steep road with open cut-outs. The bigger cars made nothing of it; the smaller ones got into their low gears and ground a bit as they pulled. In fifteen minutes from the first arrival, the wide plateau upon which the Inn stood looked like an immense garage, cars of every description having been packed in together at all angles. Up the Inn steps flowed a steady stream of people: men in driving attire and motor caps; women in long coats and floating veils, under which showed pretty summer frocks; a few children, dressed like their elders in motoring rig, their faces eager with interest in everything. In the hall, behind a screen of flags and evergreen, the orchestra played merrily. It presently had to play its loudest to be heard above the chorus of voices.
In less time than it takes to tell, every table in the airy dining-room, lit by more Chinese lanterns and hung with streamers of bunting, was filled. Reservations had been made by mail and telephone for the past three days, and with a list in his hand Tom hurried about. He could never have kept his head if it had not been for young Haskins at his elbow. Haskins was secretary of the Mercury Club and knew everybody. He was a genial fellow, and if anybody attempted to tell Tom that a mistake had been made, and certain reservations should have been for the first or second table, instead of the third, Haskins would cut in with a joke and have the murmurer appeased and laughing in a trice.
As for Perkins--but where was Perkins? Up to the last minute before the first car arrived, Perkins had been in evidence enough--in fact, he had been everywhere all day, personally supervising every detail, working like a fiend himself and inspiring everybody else to work, proving himself the ablest of generals and a perfect genius at effective decoration. The Inn, inside and out, was a fairyland of light and colour--even the sated eyes of the city people, accustomed to every trick of effect in such affairs, were charmed with the picturesque quality of the scene. But now Tom could see nothing of Perkins anywhere. Tim, hurriedly questioned, shook his head, also puzzled.
Late in the evening there came a moment when Tom could free himself long enough to run up to Perkins's room. He was uneasy about his guest--and friend--for that the stranger seemed to have become. Perkins certainly didn't look quite strong--could he have overdone and be ill, alone in his room? After one hasty knock, to which he got no answer, Tom turned the knob. Through the open balcony door he saw a leg and shoulder--and smelled the familiar fragrance of the special brand.
"Hello, son!" was Perkins's greeting.
"You're not sick?"
"Never. Things going O. K.?"
"Oh, splendid! Such a crowd--such a jolly crowd! But--why don't you come down?"
"To help make things go?"
"No, no--to enjoy it. You've done enough. You must know some of these people, and if you don't--it's worth something just to look at 'em. I didn't know ladies dressed like that--under those things they wear in the autos. Say, Mr. Perkins, the Lieutenant-Governor's here--and his wife!"
"Mr. Haskins thinks they want to stay all night. The lady hasn't been sleeping well through the heat. Mr. Haskins says she's taken a fancy to the Inn. But I haven't a really good room for 'em."
Tom gasped. "Oh, no! Not yours--after all you've done----"
"Going to-morrow, you know. It doesn't matter where I hang up to-night. Matters a good deal where Mrs. Lieutenant-Governor hangs up."
"Anywhere. May sit up till morning, anyhow. Feel like it. Your show sort of goes to my head."
"My show? Yours! But why on earth don't you come down and----?"
"By and by, son. Say, send me some clean linen and I'll see that this room's in shape for the lady--girls all busy yet. Room swept yesterday. My truck's packed. I'll have things ready in ten minutes."
Tom went downstairs feeling more than ever that his guest was an enigma. But he was too busy to stop just then to think about it.
The hours went by. The guests talked and laughed, ate and promenaded. They crowded the porch to watch the fireworks on the mountain; they swept over the smooth space and the roadway in front of the Inn, looking up at it and remarking upon the quaint charm of it, the desirability of its location, its attractiveness as a resort. Tom heard one pretty girl planning a luncheon here next week; he heard a group of men talking about entertaining a visiting delegation of bankers up here at Boswell's out of the heat.
Everywhere people were asking, "Why haven't we known about this?" and to one and another Arthur Haskins, in Tom's hearing, was saying such things as, "Just opened up. Jolly place, isn't it? Going to be the most popular anywhere around. Deserves it, too."
"But is the table as good every day as it is to-night?" one skeptic inquired.
"Better." Haskins might have been an owner of the place, he was so prompt with his flattering statements. "First time I came up was with a crowd of fellows. We took them unawares, and they served a supper that made us smile all over. Their cook can't be beaten--and the service is first-class."
It was over at last. But it was at a late hour that the first cars began to roll away down the hill, and later still when the last got under way. They carried a gay company, and the final rockets, spurting from West Peak, flashed before the faces of people in the high good humour of those who have been successfully and uniquely entertained.
The Lieutenant-Governor and his wife had gone to the pink and white welcome of the bridal suite when Perkins at last came strolling downstairs. Only Haskins's party remained in the flag-hung lobby, the women sheathing themselves in veils, as their motor chugged at the porch steps.
Haskins turned as Perkins crossed the lobby. He stared an instant, then advanced with outstretched hand, smiling.
"Why, Mr. Parker," he said, "I didn't know you were here. Doctor Austin was asking me to-day if I knew where you were. He seems to have got you on his mind. He'll be delighted to see you. I'll call him--he's just outside. He's with our party."
With an expression half dismayed, half amused, Perkins looked after the Mercury Club's secretary as he darted to the outer door, where a big figure in a motoring coat was pacing up and down.
Tom, leaning over the office desk, looked at Perkins. But Haskins had called the man "Parker." What----?
The big figure in the motoring coat came hurriedly in at the doorway and grasped the hand of Tom's guest. "Parker," he cried, "what are you doing here? Are you responsible for this panjandrum to-night? Didn't I send you off for an absolute rest?"
"Been obeying directions strictly, Doctor. I've lain around up here till the grass sprouted under my feet. You haven't seen me here to-night, have you?"
"No, but the thing looks like one of your managing."
"No interest in this place whatever. Never heard of it till I stumbled on it." But Perkins's eyes were dancing.
"You're looking a lot better, anyhow. Come out here and meet Mrs. Austin. I want to show her the toughest patient I ever had to pull loose from his work."
The two went out upon the porch. Tom gazed at young Haskins, as the latter looked at him with a smile.
"Did he engineer this part of the thing, too, Boswell?" questioned the young man, interestedly.
"Sure, he did. But who is he?"
"Didn't you know who he was? That's so--you've called him Perkins all along, but this is the first time I've seen him here, and I didn't put two and two together. His letters and 'phones about this supper came from in town somewhere. Why, he's Chris Parker, the biggest hotel man in the country. Nobody like him--he'd make the deadest hotel in the loneliest hamlet pay in a month. Head of all the hotel organizations you can count. Most original chap in the world. Doctor Austin was telling me to-night about ordering him off for a rest because he'd put such a lot of nerve tension into his schemes he was on the edge of a bad breakdown. Well, well, you're mighty lucky if you've got him backing you. No other man on earth could have got the Mercury Club up here to-night--a place they'd never heard of."
So Tom was thinking. He was still thinking it when the motor car shot away down the hill with its load, the physician calling back at his ex-patient: "Don't get going too soon again, Parker! So far, so good, but don't----"
The last words were lost in a final boom from West Peak.
Tom went slowly out upon the porch, feeling embarrassed and uncertain. How could he ever express his gratitude to this mighty man of valour?
"Perkins" was sitting, as usual, astride the porch rail, the red light of his cigar glowing against the dark background of the mountains where the bonfires were dying to mere sparks. He looked around as Tom appeared, and grinned in a friendly way under the Chinese lanterns.
"Tough luck, to get caught at the last minute, eh?" he said.
"Mr. Per--Parker----" began Tom, and stopped.
The "biggest hotel man in the country" looked at the greenest young innkeeper, and there was satisfaction in his bright black eyes.
"Not any thanks, son. Should have croaked in one week more if I couldn't have worked off a few pounds of high pressure. This sort of thing to me's like a game to a gambler--as I told you. Had to keep incog., or I'd have had a dozen parties from town after me on one deal or another. Thought I could put this little stunt through without giving myself away--but came downstairs five minutes too soon. Went off pretty well--eh? You'll have patronage after this, all right. No--no thanks, I said. I'm under obligations to you for trusting me to run the thing. It's saved my life!"
Well, if it were all a game, Tom thought, as he watched Mr. Christopher Parker run lightly up the stairs, a few minutes later, it was certainly a wondrous friendly one.
And Boswell's Inn was now known to be only sixteen short motor miles from town.
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