She retreated, hiding most of her face. Mrs. Bagley stroked her hair and said, "Now, Martha, come on. Tell the little boy your name."
Purely as a matter of personal pride, James Holden objected to the "little boy" but he kept his peace because he knew that at eight years old he was still a little boy. In a soothing way, James said, "Come on out, Martha. I'll show you some girl-type toys we've got."
The girl's head emerged slowly, "I'm Martha Bagley," she announced.
"How old are you?"
"I'm eight," stated James. "Come on."
Mrs. Bagley looked around. She saw that the dirt on the windows was all on the outside. The inside was clean. So was the room. So were the curtains. The room needed a dusting--a most thorough dusting. It had been given a haphazard lick-and-a-promise cleanup not too long ago, but the cleanup before that had been as desultory as the last, and without a doubt the one before and the one before that had been of the same sort of half-hearted cleaning. As a woman and a housekeeper, Mrs. Bagley found the room a bit strange.
The furniture caught her eye first. A standard open bookcase, a low sofa, a very low cocktail-type table. The chair she stood beside was standard looking, so was the big easy chair opposite. Yet she felt large in the room despite its old-fashioned high ceiling. There were several low footstools in the room; ungraceful things that were obviously wooden boxes covered with padding and leatherette. The straight chair beside her had been lowered; the bottom rung between the legs was almost on the floor.
She realized why she felt big. The furniture in the room had all been cut down.
She continued to look. The strangeness continued to bother her and she realized that there were no ash trays; there was none of the usual clutter of things that a family drops in their tracks. It was a room fashioned for a small person to live in but it wasn't lived-in.
The lack of hard cleanliness did not bother hervery much. There had been an effort here, and the fact that this Charles Maxwell was hiring a housekeeper was in itself a statement that the gentleman knew that he needed one. It was odd, but it wasn't ominous.
She shook her daughter gently and said, "Come on, Martha. Let's take a look at these girl-type toys."
James led them through a short hallway, turned left at the first door, and then stood aside to give them a full view of the room. It was a playroom for a girl. It was cleaner than the living room, and as--well, untouched. It had been furnished with girl-toys that some catalog "recommended as suitable for a girl of seven."
The profusion of toys overwhelmed little Martha. She stood just inside of the door with her eyes wide, glancing back and forth. She took one slow step forward, then another. Then she quickened. She moved through the room looking, then putting out a slow, hesitant hand to touch very gently. Tense, as if she were waiting for the warning not to touch, Martha finally caressed the hair of a baby doll.
Mrs. Bagley smiled. "I'll have a time prying her loose from here," she said.
James nodded his head. "Let her amuse herself for a bit," he said. "With Martha occupied, you can give your attention to a more delicate matter."
Mrs. Bagley forgot that she was addressing an eight-year-old boy. His manner and his speech bemused her. "Yes," she said. "I do want to get this settled with your mysterious Charles Maxwell. Do you expect him down, or shall I go upstairs--?"
"This may come as a shock, Mrs. Bagley, but Charles Maxwell isn't here."
"Isn't here?" she echoed, in a tone of voice that clearly indicated that she had heard the words but hadn't really grasped their full meaning. "He won't be gone long, will he?"
James watched her covertly, then said in a matter-of-fact voice, "He left you a letter."
"He was called away on some urgent business."
"Please read the letter. It explains everything."
He handed her an envelope addressed to "Mrs. Janet Bagley." She looked at it from both sides, in the womanlike process of trying to divine its contents instead of opening it. She looked at James, but James sat stolidly waiting. Mrs. Bagley was going to get no more information from him until she read that letter, and James was prepared to sit it out until she did. It placed Mrs. Bagley in the awkward position of having to decide what to do next. Then the muffled sound of little-girl crooning came from the distant room. That brought the realization that as odd as this household was, it was a home. Mrs. Bagley delayed no further. She opened the letter and read: My Dear Mrs. Bagley: I deeply regret that I am not there to greet you, but it was not possible. However, please understand that insofar as I am concerned, you were hired and have been drawing your salary from the date that I forwarded railroad fare and traveling expenses. Any face-to-face meeting is no more than a pleasantry, a formal introduction. It must not be considered in any way connected with the thought of a "Final Interview" or the process of "Closing the Deal."
Please carry on as if you had been in charge long before I departed, or--considering my hermitlike habits--the way you would have carried on if I had not departed, but instead was still upstairs and hard at work with most definite orders that I was not to be disturbed for anything less important than total, personal disaster.
I can offer you a word of explanation about young James. You will find him extraordinarily competent for a youngster of eight years. Were he less competent, I might have delayed my departure long enough to pass him literally from my supervision to yours. However, James is quite capable of taking care of himself; this fact you will appreciate fully long before you and I meet face-to-face.
In the meantime, remember that our letters and the other references acquaint us with one another far better than a few short hours of personal contact.
Sincerely, Charles Maxwell "Well!" said Mrs. Bagley. "I don't know what to say."
Jimmy smiled. "You don't have to say anything," he said.
Mrs. Bagley looked at the youngster. "I don't think I like your Mr. Maxwell," she said.
"He's practically shanghaied me here. He knows very well that I couldn't possibly leave you here all alone, no matter how I disliked the situation. He's practically forced me to stay."
James suppressed a smile. He said, "Mrs. Bagley, the way the trains run in and out of Shipmont, you're stuck for an overnight stay in any case."
"You don't seem to be perturbed."
"I'm not," he said.
Mrs. Bagley looked at James carefully. His size; his physique was precisely that of the eight-year-old boy. There was nothing malformed nor out-of-proportion; yet he spoke with an adult air of confidence.
"I am," she admitted.
"Perturbed? You needn't be," he said. "You've got to remember that writers are an odd lot. They don't conform. They don't punch time-clocks. They boast of having written a novel in three weeks but they don't mention the fact that they sat around drinking beer for six months plotting it."
"Meaning that Maxwell sees nothing wrong in attending to his own affairs and expecting you to attend to yours."
"But what shall I do?"
James smiled. "First, take a look around the house and satisfy yourself. You'll find the third floor shut off; the rooms up there are Maxwell's, and no one goes in but him. My bedroom is the big one in the front of the second floor. Pick yourself a room or a suite of rooms or move in all over the rest of the house. Build yourself a cup of tea and relax. Do as he says: Act as if you'd arrived before he took off, that you'd met and agreed verbally to do what you've already agreed to do by letter. Look at it from his point of view."
"What is his point of view?"
"He's a writer. He rented this house by mail. He banks by mail and shops by mail and makes his living by writing. Don't be surprised when he hires a housekeeper by mail and hands her the responsibility in writing. He lives by the written word."
Mrs. Bagley said, "In other words, the fact that he offered me a job in writing and I took it in writing--?"
"Writing," said James Holden soberly, "was invented for the express purpose of recording an agreement between two men in a permanent form that could be read by other men. The whole world runs on the theory that no one turns a hand until names are signed to written contracts--and here you sit, not happy because you weren't contracted-for by a personal chit-chat and a handshake."
Mrs. Bagley was taken aback slightly by this rather pointed criticism. What hurt was the fact that, generally speaking, it was true and especially the way he put it. The young man was too blunt, too out-spokenly direct. Obviously he needed someone around the place who wasn't the self-centered writer-type. And, Mrs. Bagley admitted to herself, there certainly was no evidence of evil-doing here.
No matter what, Charles Maxwell had neatly trapped her into staying by turning her own maternal responsibility against her.
"I'll get my bags," she said.
James Holden took a deep breath. He'd won this hurdle, so far so good. Now for the next!
Mrs. Bagley found life rather unhurried in the days that followed. She relaxed and tried to evaluate James Holden. To her unwarned mind, the boy was quite a puzzle.
There was no doubt about his eight years, except that he did not whoop and holler with the aimlessness of the standard eight-year-old boy. His vocabulary was far ahead of the eight-year-old and his speech was in adult grammar rather than halting. It was, she supposed, due to his constant adult company; children denied their contemporaries for playmates often take on attitudes beyond their years. Still, it was a bit on the too-superior side to please her. It was as if he were the result of over-indulgent parents who'd committed the mistake of letting the child know that their whole universe revolved about him.
Yet Maxwell's letters said that he was motherless, that he was not Maxwell's son. This indicated a probable history of broken homes and remarriages. Mrs. Bagley thought the problem over and gave it up. It was a home.
Things went on. They started warily but smoothly at first with Mrs. Bagley asking almost incessantly whether Mr. Maxwell would approve of this or that and should she do this or the other and, phrased cleverly, indicated that she would take the word of young James for the time being but there would be evil sputterings in the fireplace if the programs approved by young James Holden were not wholly endorsed by Mr. Charles Maxwell.
At the end of the first week, supplies were beginning to run short and still there was no sign of any return of the missing Mr. Maxwell. With some misgiving, Mrs. Bagley broached the subject of shopping to James. The youngster favored Mrs. Bagley with another smile.
"Yes," he said calmly. "Just a minute." And he disappeared upstairs to fetch another envelope. Inside was a second letter which read: My Dear Mrs. Bagley: Attached you will find letters addressed to several of the local merchants in Shipmont, explaining your status as my housekeeper and directing them to honor your purchases against my accounts. Believe me, they recognize my signature despite the fact that they might not recognize me! There should be no difficulty. I'd suggest, however, that you start a savings account at the local bank with the enclosed salary check. You have no idea how much weight the local banker carries in his character-reference of folks with a savings account.
Otherwise, I trust things are pleasant.
Sincerely, Charles Maxwell.
"Things," she mused aloud, "are pleasant enough."
James nodded. "Good," he said. "You're satisfied, then?"
Mrs. Bagley smiled at him wistfully. "As they go," she said, "I'm satisfied. Lord knows, you're no great bother, James, and I'll be most happy to tell Mr. Maxwell so when he returns."
James nodded. "You're not concerned over Maxwell, are you?"
She sobered. "Yes," she said in a whisper. "Yes, I am. I'm afraid that he'll change things, that he'll not approve of Martha, or the way dinner is made, or my habits in dishwashing or bedmaking or marketing or something that will--well, put me right in the role of a paid chambermaid, a servant, a menial with no more to say about the running of the house, once he returns."
James Holden hesitated, thought, then smiled.
"Mrs. Bagley," he said apologetically, "I've thrown you a lot of curves. I hope you won't mind one more."
The woman frowned. James said hurriedly, "Oh, it's nothing bad, believe me. I mean--Well, you'll have to judge for yourself.
"You see, Mrs. Bagley," he said earnestly, "there isn't any Charles Maxwell."
Janet Bagley, with the look of a stricken animal, sat down heavily. There were two thoughts suddenly in her mind: Now I've got to leave, and, But I can't leave.
She sat looking at the boy, trying to make sense of what he had said. Mrs. Bagley was a young woman, but she had lived a demanding and unrelenting life; her husband dead, her finances calamitous, a baby to feed and raise ... there had been enough trouble in her life and she sought no more.
But she was also a woman of some strength of character.
Janet Bagley had not been able to afford much joy, but when things were at their worst she had not wept. She had been calm. She had taken what inexpensive pleasures she could secure--the health of her daughter, the strength of her arms to earn a living, the cunning of her mind to make a dollar do the work of five. She had learned that there was no bargain that was not worth investigating; the shoddiest goods were worth owning at a price; the least attractive prospect had to be faced and understood, for any commodity becomes a bargain when the price is right. There was no room for laziness or indulgence in her life. There was also no room for panic.
So Janet Bagley thought for a moment, and then said: "Tell me what you're talking about, James."
James Holden said immediately: "I am Charles Maxwell. That is, 'Charles Maxwell' is a pen name. He has no other existence."
"But it's true, Mrs. Bagley," the boy said earnestly. "I'm only eight years old, but I happen to be earning my own living--as a writer, under the name of, among others, Charles Maxwell. Perhaps you've looked up some of the 'Charles Maxwell' books? If so, you may have seen some of the book reviews that were quoted on the jackets--I remember one that said that Charles Maxwell writes as though he himself were a boy, with the education of an adult. Well, that's the fact of the case."
Mrs. Bagley said slowly, "But I did look Mr. Max--I mean, I did look you up. There was a complete biographical sketch in Woman's Life. Thirty-one years old, I remember."
"I know. I wrote it. It too was fiction."
"You wrote--but why?"
"Because I was asked to write it," said James.
"But, well--what I mean, is--Just who is Mr. Maxwell? The man at the station said something about a hermit, but--"
"The Hermit of Martin's Hill is a convenient character carefully prepared to explain what might have looked like a very odd household," said James Holden. "Charles Maxwell, the Hermit, does not exist except in the minds of the neighbors and the editors of several magazines, and of course, the readers of those pages."
"But he wrote me himself." The bewildered woman paused.
"That's right, Mrs. Bagley. There's absolutely nothing illegal about a writer's using a pen name. Absolutely nothing. Some writers become so well-known by their pseudonym that they answer when someone calls them. So long as the writer isn't wanted by the F.B.I. for some heinous crime, and so long as he can unscramble the gobbledygook on Form 1040, stay out of trouble, pay his rent, and make his regular contributions to Social Security, nobody cares what name he uses."
"But where are your parents? Have you no friends? No legal guardian? Who handles your business affairs?"
James said in a flat tone of recital, "My parents are dead. What friends and family I have, want to turn me over to my legal guardian. My legal guardian is the murderer of my parents and the would-have-been murderer of me if I hadn't been lucky. Someday I shall prove it. And I handle my affairs myself, by mail, as you well know. I placed the advertisement, wrote the letters of reply, wrote those letters that answered specific questions and asked others, and I wrote the check that you cashed in order to buy your railroad ticket, Mrs. Bagley. No, don't worry. It's good."
Mrs. Bagley tried to digest all that and failed. She returned to the central point. "But you're a minor--"
"I am," admitted James Holden. "But you accepted my checks, your bank accepted my checks, and they've been honored by the clearing houses. My own bank has been accepting them for a couple of years now. It will continue to be that way until something goes wrong and I'm found out. I'm taking every precaution that nothing goes wrong."
"Mrs. Bagley, look at me. I am precisely what I seem to be. I am a young male human being, eight years old, possessed of a good command of the English language and an education superior to the schooling of any high-school graduate. It is true that I am an infant in the eyes of the law, so I have not the right to hold the ear of the law long enough to explain my competence."
"Listen a moment," insisted James. "You can't hope to hear it all in one short afternoon. It may take weeks before you fully understand."
"You assume that I'll stay, then?"
James smiled. Not the wide open, simple smile of youth but the knowing smile of someone pleased with the success of his own plans. "Mrs. Bagley, of the many replies to my advertisement, yours was selected because you are in a near-desperate position. My advertisement must have sounded tailor-made to fit your case; a young widow to work as resident housekeeper, child of preschool or early school age welcome. Well, Mrs. Bagley, your qualifications are tailor-made for me, too. You are in need, and I can give you what you need--a living salary, a home for you and your daughter, and for your daughter an education that will far transcend any that you could ever provide for her."
"And how do you intend to make that come to pass?"
"Mrs. Bagley, at the present time there are only two people alive who know the answer to that question. I am one of them. The other is my so-called legal 'guardian' who would be most happy to guard me right out of my real secret. You will be the third person alive to know that my mother and father built a machine that produces the same deeply-inlaid memory-track of information as many months of learning-by-repetition. With that machine, I absorbed the information available to a high-school student before I was five. I am rebuilding that machine now from plans and specifications drilled into my brain by my father. When it is complete, I intend to become the best informed person in the world."
"That isn't right," breathed Mrs. Bagley.
"Isn't it?" asked James seriously. "Isn't it right? Is it wrong, when at the present time it takes a man until he is almost thirty years old before he can say that his education is complete?"
"Well, I suppose you're right."