At the Belton Arms
At the Belton Arms
by Hugh Pendexter
AS I had feared, Amos Camper shook his head and refused my invitation.
“Some other time, Henry,” he said with a weary smile. “I must go to Washington to-night. Take Batak here in my place.”
Batak was his general superintendent and well liked by both of us.
“You could get back in time for your train,” I persisted, drumming out my disappointment on the window. “Of course, Batak was included in the invitation. But, hang it, Amos; you’re done up. You need a breath of fresh air. We’ll reach Storville in time for lunch, and you two can wait for me to interview Dr. Manning, or you can return without me.”
“Why don’t you go, chief?” Batak urged.
Camper shook his head stubbornly, but his smile was more boyish as he repeated:
“Perhaps in a few days. I’ve just finished my work. Once it’s delivered in Washington—no, no story, Henry. The Washington end must give it out.”
“No one but the chief has all the strings in his hand,” explained Batak. “I know what my committee has done and that’s all. He knows what every committee has done.”
I was glad at least to learn that Camper’s gigantic labors in mobilizing the nation’s industrial resources were ended. He looked worn to the bone, but his eyes, I was pleased to see, shone as brightly as ever.
War stuff had the call, and being assigned to run up the river and interview Dr. Manning for a Sunday special, I had been inspired to drop in on Camper, thinking to take him along for a few hours’ relaxation, including lunch at the historic Belton Arms.
“I suppose you must have your own way,” I grumbled, making for the door and beckoning Batak to follow me.
Camper, who had been washing his hands at the corner lavatory, was still shaking his head good-naturedly, but as Batak handed him a towel from the cabinet he staggered and leaned against the wall, and his face became fearfully distorted.
“Good Heavens, Amos!” I exclaimed, making to assist him. He motioned Batak and me back and stood erect, panting for breath, and glaring at us wildly.
Then he tottered to his desk and rested his hands on it, and again I expected him to collapse. The face he turned toward us was livid, and he could not yet control his breathing.
Batak, quicker of wit than I, sprang to the telephone to summon a doctor; but Camper halted him with a harsh:
“Stop! I—I’ve changed my mind. I’ll be all right in a minute. We’ll all go up to Storville for lunch.”
I eyed him askance, wondering what chances he was taking in not calling a physician.
“I used to know Storville—when a boy,” he mumbled as he waited for us to precede him through the door. “When I was ten, I went to the Belton Arms with my father—never there since.”
“If you’d only go home and go to bed—” Batak began, but Camper silenced him with a gesture, saying:
“Never been there since, and lived so near all these years. New York takes the sentiment out of some of us—sometimes takes the soul out of a man.”
He had aged ten years since I entered the office. I’m inclined to boast how the newspaper grind burns the life out of a man, but my activities were jokes compared to the terrific grind of hooking up a nation’s resources inside of two months so as to overcome the neglect of years. And only Amos Camper with his iron will could have turned the trick so successfully, I opine. Even Batak, much younger and very virile, showed the strain of his lesser responsibility.
During the run up-river Batak and I stealthily studied the chief. I was fearing he would die before we reached Storville. Once arrived there, Dr. Manning could take him into his private sanatorium and patch him up. A storm was brewing, and the dark heavens banked us in with an unwholesome half-light which accentuated the pallor of his face.
Batak exchanged significant looks with me and pursed his lips dubiously. I tried to rouse my friend with some of my nonsense. Although usually quick to respond, he now refused to hear me, and remained with his chin sunk on his breast, his gaze riveted on the black rack of oily clouds crawling over the eastern horizon.
Once he turned and stared at me, but his gaze must have been fixed on some inner picture; for never had a friend looked at me with that expression. The same terrible intensity, bordering on the malignant, was evident when he suddenly turned his eyes on Batak.
Dr. Manning was a golf friend of the Sunday editor, and had informed him that he had the material for a good feature story. The sanatorium was a short distance back of the Belton Arms. I proposed they wait for me at the inn, lunch to be served as soon as I had covered the assignment. My purpose in reversing my original plan of lunch first and assignment afterward was to enlist Dr. Manning’s services and bring him back with me to prescribe for Camper.
To my consternation, Camper received my proposal with a savage display of heat, and in an ugly tone announced that my “scribbling” could wait till we had eaten.
I was shocked. Had any one intimated that Amos Camper could be capable of roughness toward me, I would have ridiculed the notion. In spite of my realization that he was a sick man, my face burned at the severity of his speech; and, clucking my tongue to keep my mouth shut, I followed as he led the way to the inn.
“How long has he been as bad as this?” I whispered from the corner of my mouth.
Batak cautiously glanced ahead at the bowed form and as secretly replied:
“Been coming on for some time. Never thought he’d crack so quick, though.”
“If he would only lay off for a bit,” I sighed.
“He must. He has finished his work. We subordinates can do the rest now.”
“Wish he’d given me a forecast of his report,” my news instinct prompted me to say.
“Better not ask him, seeing how he snapped you up.” And Batak smiled grimly.
The rain began as we reached the veranda, falling in a dull-gray downpour. The pounding of the water on the veranda-roof made conversation difficult. The twilight made it hard to believe it was high noon in May. The dining-hall, long and low of ceiling, would have been as gloomy as a cellar if not for the scattered yellow blobs of candles. Colonial atmosphere was everything at the Arms.
Camper strode to the door of the hall and paused to survey the few diners grouped near the opposite wall. Then he turned to a string of empty tables near the door and waited for me to make a choice.
Seeing he was averse to fellowship, and recalling I w-as the host, I bustled ahead and scared up a waiter from the shadows, and conducted my guests to a side table. The waiter punctuated the gloom with two candles and departed with our orders, my friends refusing a preliminary drink.
We slumped back in the old-fashioned chairs, Camper’s melancholy mood exerting its influence on Batak and me. It was more like a funeral than a friendly luncheon. I heartily wished them both back in town.
For nearly a minute the dismal silence remained unbroken, with Camper staring down at the table, the grayness of death on his face. Just as my nerves began jumping, he jerked up his head and in a hollow voice began:
“I can’t see as it has changed any.”
“A very old place,” murmured Batak, eager to encourage him.
“It was here, serving man and beast, during the Revolutionary War,” muttered Camper, again darting a peculiar glance at Batak and repeating it on me. This time I could have sworn the man was frightened at something.
“It must have seen some history,” I prompted. “Colonials and king’s troopers must have called here frequently. Bully for local color stuff.”
“Legend says something more important than loca1 color was witnessed by the Arms,” Camper ominously replied, the croak in his voice fitting in with the depressing. atmosphere.
We waited for him to go on. His head fell forward, and his fingers plucked aimlessly atthe table-cover till I feared he was sinking into a stupor. Then he resumed:
“According to ancient gossip, repeated to me by my grandfather when I was a lad, the history of this country was decided here at the Arms. For it was here, so went the story in the old days, that the captors of Major André first learned of his trip to negotiate with Benedict Arnold for the surrender of West Point.”
It is impossible to convey any impression of how these few words were twisted from his lips, as though some agency were dragging them from him against his will. I was positive his manner cast the same sinister spell over Batak. And it may be that the electrical disturbances added to the effect.
“Quite momentous, only history fails to mention it,” said Batak, pushing forward his cigarette-case.
Camper refused to smoke, but gazed steadily at Batak for some moments, as if trying to sense his words. Then he returned to pleating the table-cloth, and deep creases sank into his forehead. And he was laboriously saying:
“My grandfather used to tell the tale. It made a deep impression on my young mind. That’s why I remember so vividly the day my father brought me here—I peopled the place with ghosts.
“The story consisted of this: A servant served André with refreshments in this very room. He suspected his errand was hostile to the welfare of the colonies. After André departed, the three colonials came along and sat on the veranda and called for food. While serving them, the waiter voiced his suspicions about André, and as a result of that information André was captured—and hung. Worse than death was Arnold’s lot—the eternal condemnation of mankind.”
His vehemence in declaring the last caused me to shiver. His fashion of pausing before pouncing on the word hung, and the hint of exultation or fear in speaking the word made me wince and draw back.
Nor did his recital fail to register a strong effect on Batak, for all of his red-blooded buoyancy. To add to our mental discomfort was the physical shrinking from the raw, cold breath of the storm invading the open window. Batak, with a little shudder, said something about an open fire and a hot drink.
In a tone that sounded sickly Camper kept on:
“Some of the old settlers believed this place to be haunted after that. Boys gave it a wide berth at night, even when it was occupied as an inn.”
“Ghost of André or Arnold?” I jested.
Camper eyed me coldly and answered:
“Neither. Ghost of the waiter.”
I pictured the room of a winter’s night, with the white moonlight flooding it. I imagined it on a summer evening, deserted except for the damp shadows. If a man be given to that sort of thing, it possessed rare potentials for lively fancies. Even now I had but to half-close my eyes to behold the servant and the three men who exposed Arnold’s treason, and the shade of the unfortunate André.
“My grandfather often saw the young waiter, grown up to a man, and was fond of describing him as a tall, gaunt chap that would make you think of a death’s-head,” monotonously continued Camper. “It pleased him to think of him as the personification of inevitable justice, or retribution.”
His voice came from far off, for already my nervous brain was reconstructing the dramatic values of that legendary scene. It was at this very table that André sat to break his fast after completing arrangements for Arnold’s betrayal of West Point. The table instantly became repugnant to me. Out on the veranda, probably beside the window nearest the steps, the three colonials had halted to rest their legs and eat and drink.
With shivery satisfaction, I summoned the colonials from the dust to play their part. They formed a homely little group, unkempt, homespun men. I conjured back the shade of the waiter and fancied him placing a warning finger to his thin lips before bowing his head over the three rough polls and whispering the death sentence of the British major.
“God! It’s a dead man!”
This startling exclamation fell from Batak’s lips and capped the climax to my mood. I fairly jumped and met Camper’s gaze burning into my eyes. Turning, I beheld the cause of Batak’s emotion. A most remarkable figure was moving about the lower end of the hall, but vaguely discernible, and then only when he entered the zone of some candle. The face, surmounting an old-fashioned stock, appeared to be fleshless. The weird-looking creature carried a napkin over his arm like a waiter and moved with a shuffling, noiseless step.
Camper, too, was now observing him, his eyes wide with amazement. Because the thought came to my mind, I knew it was in his—his grandfather’s description of the patriotic waiter, long since dead.
For the moment I was glad the burly Batak sat beside me. Had I been there alone in the shadows, with Camper’s story fresh in my ears, and the cold breath of the storm on my neck, I should have experienced uneasiness. This, especially, had the spectral figure approached me.
We leaned forward and watched. The tables cut off a full view of the strange figure, but his coat, like the stock, was of an ancient style. It was the face, however, that riveted our attention. In the uncertain light it was cadaverous to a disturbing degree. When the deep-set eyes reflected the candle-light they glowed with an unearthly luster. Surely no one could eat a meal served by such an apparition.
The man passed to an empty table and bent over a chair as if taking a patron’s order. It was uncanny to see the bony head bowing respectfully as the waiter glided to the next chair, where the same pantomime of learning a diner’s wishes was gone through with. There were four chairs at the table, and the servitor paused at three. Across the hall flesh-and-blood men were dining, but none noted his presence.
“He’s working toward us,” I commented under my breath, now feeling a hysterical desire to laugh and relieve my nerves. My friends paid no heed. Camper continued staring spellbound. Batak passed a hand to his forehead and scowled feebly. The gloom of the place, the depressing influence of the storm, and Camper’s legend had made us susceptible to the same suggestion. The waiter seemed unreal.
“He acts as if there were just three at each table,” mumbled Batak.
“Probably the three colonials who got André,” I whispered with a foolish snicker.
“And spoiled Arnold’s game,” murmured Camper.
Batak grunted something unintelligible, then said:
“The other waiters don’t seem to see him. I’ve been watching to see if one of them wouldn’t walk right through him.”
The words were scarcely uttered before the figure straightened and the ghastly countenance turned in our direction. For a moment we looked into the sunken eyes, where sparks of ancient fire slumbered. Then the emaciated figure returned to bow over another empty chair, the impossible head being cocked to one side as if heeding a fantom’s order.
“Only three at that table apparently,” muttered Batak, this phase of the pantomime seeming to obsess him.
He started to light a cigarette, abruptly changed his mind, and reverted to his former thought, saying:
“I’m still waiting to see a waiter walk through him. Unless they bump, I won’t believe he’s real.”
I sought to encourage his touch of levity by declaring:
“Amos, it must be your friend, the waiter, who tipped off the colonials about André.”
Camper frowned at my jocularity, warning:
“He’s coming this way.”
“He only tends empty tables,” reminded Batak, drawing his feet under his chair.
Unnoticed by the waiters flitting back and forth across his path, the man glided to the line of tables paralleling ours by the wall and began working up the ball. His halt at each table was marked by the same deportment. In fact, so identically did he deport himself at each empty chair, I was impelled to think of a grotesque automaton, capable of certain motions only.
As he drew abreast of us, I could detect no sound of a footfall. A nearer view increased the likeliness of Batak’s first utterance—that he was a dead man. For the yellow skin was drawn as tight as parchment over the bones of the face, and the hands appeared to consist of bones only.
“Coming for our order,” I whispered. “Let’s order drinks.”
I was mistaken. Instead of approaching our table he passed to the window, and for a moment bent over the sash and gazed out on the storm-drenched veranda. When he faced about and glided back to the center line of tables, Batak, with a touch of relief in his voice, said:
“He’s going back to his grave. Management must be crazy for allowing such a spectacle in the room.”
“No one seems to have seen him but us,” said Camper thoughtfully.
“I’ll bet he went to the window to tip off the colonials about Arnold’s treachery,” I joked.
My voice must have carried farther than I had intended, for the man faced our table and for nearly a minute stood motionless, his sunken eyes fixed on us like eyes peering through a bone mask.
I, for one, did not move under that steady scrutiny, and when he took a step forward I think we all had the same thought, that we were the only living men he had deigned to notice. Camper’s feet scuffed staccato under the table.
The attenuated form drew nearer. I was seated so as to face him. To gain my side he must pass one of my companions who held the ends of the table. We remained quite rigid as he came to a halt behind the fourth chair, waiting for something to happen. But in an anticlimax his mechanical figure turned aside, and he would have departed down the hall had not Batak’s jangling nerves prompted him to cry out:
“By God! I’m going to see if it’s real!” And leaning from his chair, he grabbed for the long, thin arm.
As he exclaimed this, the man stopped and one bony hand met Batak’s clawing digits for a second. Then the man glided away. Camper and I gaped after him. When we sifted our questioning gaze, it was to behold Batak sitting bolt-upright and rigid, and glaring at something he was clutching in his right hand. Not till he slowly withdrew his hand into the candlelight did we make out what he was grasping. It was a small American flag.
Before we could give voice to our amazement at this unexpected finale, Batak staggered to his feet, holding the flag high above his head, his left hand pressing against his side.
“Fingers of ice! The flag! God!”
With this astounding outcry he swerved and would have fallen headlong had I not caught him under the arms and eased him into his chair.
He lay there, sprawling back, his head tilted up, his eyes rolling. Then he commenced hiccuping. Camper sprang up and tried to force water between his lips, but the hiccups only increased in violence. Once, while on the court-house beat, I had seen a witness on the stand taken like this and die of heart disease. When the heart runs down in that fashion it is hideous to behold. Releasing him to Camper’s care, I frantically called for the waiters to bring stimulants.
When I turned back, Camper was resting his hand inside Batak’s coat, testing his heart.
The hiccups were dwindling away.
“He’s dying!” I choked.
With a shrill cry that distressed me, Camper withdrew his hand; distressed me because of the insane thought shooting through my mind that Camper was exulting.
“The man’s dead,” he announced.
As I gazed down into the immobile features of my friend, overwhelmed by the tragedy, my mind persisted in resenting Camper’s behavior. He had known Batak longer than I. He had given him employment and promoted him to a position of trust in a mighty industry. When volunteering to head the general committee on industrial mobilization, Batak had been his choice for chairman of the most important subcommittee.
And yet, with Batak dead, he failed to express the degree of grief I would have expected. Rather, he seemed to be checking some unnatural display. I knew he was worn and played out by his arduous labors and was willing to plead it as his excuse, but when with a brusk, rough motion he snatched the flag from the dead hand, I found it hard to forgive him.
“Business is business,” I sadly remarked as we stepped from the wet veranda into a patch of sunshine. “I must see Dr. Manning. Suppose you’ll return home at once.”
“I’ll go with you,” Camper replied.
He clapped my shoulder affectionately, and his voice had the old ring. I preferred to be alone, but could not well refuse his company. So we set forth for the sanatorium; he talking rapidly and with a fierce zest; I was morosely silent.
Dr. Manning shook his head regretfully when I explained my errand.
“It was Mr. Pachard I mentioned to your editor as having a human interest story. But he is in no condition to be interviewed. I wish I had known you were coming to-day. I would have saved you the trip.”
“We’re not supposed to report failures,” I reminded. “Can’t you help me out? I must take something back.”
“I can’t revive the mentality of a man in his hundredth year,” he answered. “He is the most interesting character I ever met, but to-day he is under a cloud. I could take you in to him, but he would not sense our presence. Had you come yesterday, he would have talked.”
“I’ve got to take something back,” I repeated. “He’s talked with you a lot. Suppose you talk for him.”
He hesitated, then agreed, saying:
“If that is permissible, all right. I can also furnish you with his latest photograph.
“To begin with, Mr. Pachard is more of an institution than the sanatorium. He was born at the Belton Arms in 1817, his father being the proprietor. His father worked there as a youth during the Revolutionary War, and took over the business in 1800. Our Mr. Pachard succeeded his father in the late 30’s and ran the inn for many years. What isn’t generally known is that he owns the Arms to-day. It’s never been out of the family since 1800.”
“Pachard!” softly exclaimed Camper. “1 remember now.”
Dr. Manning continued:
“Mr. Pachard came to live here during the management of my predecessor, who gave me his life history. It has been his daily custom to visit the Arms for a few hours. During the last few months he has had spells of imagining he was running the place. The proprietor has humored him, the regular patrons admire and respect him, and, like the employees, never pretend to see him when his mind is clouded. Unfortunately, he had one of his spells to-day. Possibly to-morrow he may be normal.”
Camper squeezed my arm. I was beginning to anticipate the rest of the doctor’s recital.
“He is very patriotic,” interposed Camper.
“Extremely so, as was his father before him. Understand me; he is not unbalanced in any sense of senility. His mind has merely turned back some fifty-odd years. To-day he had the illusion he was proprietor of the inn and that Lincoln was calling for volunteers. During the Civil War it was his custom to refuse to serve a guest who did not wear the national colors. If such came to the inn, he was presented with a small flag by his host. If he hesitated in accepting it, he was shown out.”
“His father—strange yarns when I was a boy—did his father figure in the capture Of André?” cried Camper, tripping over his words in his eagerness.
“I don’t recall his mentioning anything like that,” slowly responded Manning. “He may have to my predecessor, however.”
If the two said more along this line, I did not hear them, for now my eyes were fixed on a photograph on the doctor’s desk.
“I must take that picture. I’ll see you get it back, all right,” I said, pointing to the likeness of the waiter who had thrust the flag into poor Batak’s hand.
“A remarkable story, only it’s cruel the death of a friend must figure in it,” I said as we were returning to the city.
“A miracle instead of a story,” impressively corrected Camper. “I now humbly beg your pardon and ask your forgiveness.”
I believed he had cracked in earnest. My expression betrayed this fear.
“I mean it,” he assured, resting his hand on my shoulder and glancing back to make sure we were isolated from the other passengers. “When you entered my office today there was a thin package of papers on my desk which contained my summary of the industrial mobilization committee’s work for the last two months.
“I was the only person who possessed all that vital information. Should it fall into the hands of a spy or a traitor the result might be disastrous to the nation. Yet those papers disappeared shortly after you arrived in the office. Batak and I were the only other persons in the room when they vanished. Only one hypothesis was possible—either you or Batak took them.”
“Good Heavens!” I choked. “Me! A spy!”
“Softly," he warned, pressing my shoulder. “The papers were on my desk when I rose to greet you. You passed close to the desk when you went to the window. Batak walked by the desk when he procured me a towel. I discovered the theft while wiping my hands. I had two courses open to me: to summon help and have you both searched, or accompany the two of you to Storville and perhaps learn which was guilty before taking any action.
“Each of you had been my trusted friend. I had no reason for suspecting one more than the other. So I came up the river to fight it out with the two of you. I will confess my mind began turning against you when you seemed so eager to leave us before lunch. I had been waiting for one of you to make excuses for breaking away long enough to conceal the papers.
“I regretted then I had not had you both searched, although that would subject an innocent man to a terrible humiliation. So I insist Mr. Pachard is a miracle rather than an interesting special for your Sunday edition.”
“Batak—André?” I faintly whispered.
“No—an Arnold,” Camper grimly replied. “He was an American citizen and he was a traitor. When I placed my hand over his heart to see if he lived, I found the papers inside his waistcoat.”