The joke was on Mark Tidd!
All four of us, Mark, Plunk Smalley, Binney Jenks, and Tallow Martin, which is me, stood and looked at the big, ramshackle summer hotel and then looked at one another-and three of us grinned. Grinned, did I say? Maybe it started out with a grin, but it ended up with us rolling on the grass and yelling. For the hotel was closed tight, and anybody with half an eye could see it hadn't been opened for years!
The three of us who laughed didn't include Mark Tidd. He didn't laugh. He looked as if he was attending three funerals at once and trying to do his duty by all of them. He was flabbergasted-and that's the first time I ever saw him in that shape. The whole hundred and sixty pounds of him was flabbergasted. His little eyes looked sort of dazed; his jaw dropped till his fat cheeks stretched out almost thin, and he didn't have a word to say.
Was the joke on him? Well, I should say! Here he had brought us all the way from Michigan to Vermont to spend our vacation in this summer hotel in the mountains-and the hotel hadn't been running since Ethan Allen licked the British! Now I know why the driver who brought us over had chuckled so much, and why everybody else in the little town had seemed to know something funny that they didn't want to tell us as soon as we told them where we were going.
I don't blame them. I'd have laughed, too. Think of us out there at Lake Ravona, ten miles from town-and pretty nearly a million miles from Wicksville, where we lived. Think of us there, and then think about the hotel being shut up and ready to fall down-and us hungry and likely to keep on being hungry, with no chance to get anything to eat. It had cost each of us close to twenty dollars railroad fare to get there, and it would cost that much to get home again-with nothing to show for it. Why, the jokers at the grocery would never have done laughing at us! Life would be close to unbearable, and Mark Tidd's reputation for smartness would be hit so hard it would pretty nearly be a total wreck.
We three finished up laughing and waited to see what Mark would have to say. In a minute his face pulled back into shape and he began to grin, too. That was one fine thing about Mark-he was ready to own up when the horse was on him, and to laugh just as loud as anybody else.
"It l-l-looks," says he, stuttering worse than he had for a month back-"it looks l-like that advertisin' book wasn't quite up to d-d- date." He fumbled in his pocket and brought out a little booklet with a picture on the cover of it and began studying it. "Um!" says he, and then he sat down kerplump and laughed so he shook all over like a plate of jelly. "Six years old. Six. Wonder how they kept it s-s-so clean in the depot."
We had found the book in the depot one day when we were down visiting with old Sam Clarke, the agent, and it had got us all excited by what it said about fishing and mountains and deer in the woods and such like. It sounded like about the best place in the world to go-and we'd never stopped to see when it was printed. Six years! The hotel didn't look like it had been run for twenty-six.
Even Mrs. Tidd hadn't noticed, and she is one of the most noticing women you ever heard of. She hadn't noticed, and she had liked the place as well as we did-so much that she got our mothers to let us go with Mark. Mr. Tidd was paying our expenses. He was rich now because he had invented a turbine engine, and, because we had helped a little once when some men had gotten his model away from him, he was going to send us all to college, and every little while he did something fine for us-like paying for this vacation trip.
"Well," says I, "what next?"
"Better climb back into the wagon and make for home," says Plunk Smalley.
Mark wrinkled up his nose and looked out at the lake. "D-don't exactly fancy goin' home like this," he says.
"Nothin' else to do," says Binney Jenks.
Mark turned to the man who drove us out. "Kind of a humorous feller, ain't you?" he says, and the man grinned, not mean, but like he was enjoying himself and wouldn't mind being right friendly.
"I calc'late to know a joke when I see one," says he.
"This is one, all r-right," says Mark; "but maybe we can pull some of the laugh out of it if we can get a good holt onto it.... Who owns this l-lumber-pile?"
"Man named Ames."
"What kind of a man is he?"
"Takes after you for flesh, and lets folks call him Jim," says the driver.
"Live in town?"
"Guess we better call on Mr. Ames then," says Mark. "Pile into the wagon, f-fellers."
"What's the idea?" I asked him.
"'Ain't g-got that far yet," says Mark.
That was the way with him. You couldn't get anything out of him till he was ready to tell you. You could ask questions all day without finding out a thing. So we got into the wagon and drove back the ten miles to town. The driver stopped in front of a big white house.
"This here's Ames's place," says he, "and there's Jim."
A fat man was working in the garden. He was not only fat, but tall and wide across the shoulders. The fat was mostly in front and from his chin to his legs he looked just like a whopping-big egg. There was a cane hanging to his suspenders, I noticed.
He turned around to see who was stopping, and after squinting at us a moment through colored glasses he dropped his hoe, reached for his cane, and came hobbling toward us. He was lame. One of his legs-the left one- -was stiff at the knee. He leaned on his cane and sort of balanced himself by holding his right hand on his hip. It made him come at you side on.
I was so interested in his gait that I didn't notice his face till he was close by. Then I guessed I knew why the fellows all called him Jim. He was the sort of man everybody would call Jim even if his name happened to be Methuselah. His face was red-not the way Mark Tidd's cheeks are red, but red like a boxcar. He had three chins in view and I suspected a couple more hidden by his shirt. There was a little scraggly mustache- -hardly enough of it to pay him for keeping it, and right above it was a nose. A nose, did I say? It was more like a monument. It was the kind of nose folks call a pug, but this was a grown-up pug. It had got its growth. If county fairs were to give prizes for the biggest pug noses Mr. Ames would have the world's championship. He had on a little linen cap that looked as if he'd borrowed it from some boy.
"Howdy!" says he, and smiled-no, grinned.
"Howdy, Jim!" says our driver. "Some boarders just come in from the Ravona House."
"Whoo-oo-ssh!" says Mr. Ames, and stared at Mark. "Didn't stay long, eh? Board didn't suit, maybe."
"'Twasn't the b-board, exactly," says Mark, "though I've seen a better t-t-table set. What we complain of is the crowds. We came to a quiet p-place. Didn't want to get in a jam. Soon's we saw folks elbowin' one another all over the p-place we decided we couldn't s-stay."
"Git out of that wagon," says Mr. Ames, "and set down."
We did, while Mr. Ames grinned at us like we were good to eat.
"What d'you calculate on doin'?" says he. "'Ain't got no f-further than calc'latin'," says Mark.
Mr. Ames pounded on the porch wits his cane and shouted: "Ma, here's four boys- and one of 'em special size-to stay to supper. Don't forget the pie."
That sounded pretty good to all of us, I can tell you. Twenty miles of driving with nothing to eat is enough to make a fellow dance a jig at the mention of a baked potato.
"Mr. Ames," says Mark, "we 'ain't never set anything on fire."
"No?" says Mr. Ames, wondering what Mark was getting at, I expect.
"Nor we 'ain't ever been arrested for doin' d-d-damage to property."
"You s'prise me," says Mr. Ames.
"And we d-don't want the whole town of Wicksville laughin' at us."
"Don't wonder at it a mite."
"We can c-cook."
"And eat," says Mr. Ames, with another grin.
"Folks say we can take care of ourselves."
"I'd take their word for it."
"Then, Mr. Ames, will you rent us your ho- ho-hotel?"
Well, sir! You could have knocked me over with a feather. You could have done it with half a feather, and wouldn't have had to hit very hard, either. Rent his hotel! I thought Mark had been hit by sunstroke.
"Calc'late to run it? Calculate to go into the hotel business?"
"Calc'late to l-live in it," says Mark. "Just the four of us."
"Hum! Occupy the whole thirty-nine bedrooms, besides the office and kitchens and dinin'-room and other parts of the buildin'?"
"We want the whole b-business. Don't want anybody else there."
Mr. Ames scratched his head and felt of his prize nose and eyed Mark and the rest of us. "Shouldn't be s'prised if we could make a deal," says he.
"How much?" says Mark, business-like as a banker.
"Calc'late to fish?"
"Calc'late to ketch any?"
"If they're there."
"Rent 'll be five pounds of bass, live weight, to be paid every Thursday. I'll come after it." He pounded on the porch with his cane again and bellowed: "Ma, I've rented the hotel. Got the fixin's for four beds?"
"Got the fixin's for forty," says Ma Ames from the back of the house somewheres. "Attic's full of beddin' from that tarnation summer-resort place."
"There.... How about dishes and cookin' tools, ma?"
"Barn loft's full of 'em."
"Want to move in right away, eh?"
"Yes, sir," says Mark.
"Haul you and your stuff out to-morrow. Included in the rent," says Mr. Ames.
Mark started in to thank him, and so did the rest of us, but it made him bashful and fidgety and you could see he didn't like it. Just in the middle of it Ma Ames called, "Supper," and in we went to one of the best and biggest meals of victuals I ever tried to get the best of.