The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
I. From Him That Hath Not
Receiver at ear, Spaulding, of Messrs. Atwater & Spaulding, importers of motoring garments and accessories, listened to the switchboard operator's announcement with grave attention, acknowledging it with a toneless: "All right. Send him in." Then hooking up the desk telephone he swung round in his chair to face the door of his private office, and in a brief ensuing interval painstakingly ironed out of his face and attitude every indication of the frame of mind in which he awaited his caller. It was, as a matter of fact, anything but a pleasant one: he had a distasteful duty to perform; but that was the last thing he designed to become evident. Like most good business men he nursed a pet superstition or two, and of the number of these the first was that he must in all his dealings present an inscrutable front, like a poker-player's: captains of industry were uniformly like that, Spaulding understood; if they entertained emotions it was strictly in private. Accordingly he armoured himself with a magnificent imperturbability which at times almost deceived its wearer.
Occasionally it deceived others: notably now it bewildered Duncan as he entered on the echo of Spaulding's "Come!" He had apprehended the visage of a thunderstorm, with a rattle of brusque complaints: he encountered Spaulding as he had always seemed: a little, urbane figure with a blank face, the blanker for glasses whose lenses seemed always to catch the light and, glaring, mask the eyes behind them; a prosperous man of affairs, well groomed both as to body and as to mind; a machine for the transaction of business, with all a machine's vivacity and temperamental responsiveness. It was just that quality in him that Duncan envied, who was vaguely impressed that, if he himself could only imitate, however minutely, the phlegm of a machine, he might learn to ape something of its efficiency and so, ultimately, prove himself of some worth to the world--and, incidentally, to Nathaniel Duncan. Thus far his spasmodic attempts to adapt to the requirements and limitations of the world of business his own equipment of misfit inclinations and ill-assorted abilities, had unanimously turned out signal failures. So he envied Spaulding without particularly admiring him.
Now the sight of his employer, professionally bland and capable, and with no animus to be discerned in his attitude, provided Duncan with one brief, evanescent flash of hope, one last expiring instant of dignity (tempered by his unquenchable humour) in which to face his fate. Something of the hang-dog vanished from his habit and for a little time he carried himself again with all his one-time grace and confidence.
"Good-afternoon, Mr. Spaulding," he said, replying to a nod as he dropped into the chair that nod had indicated. A faint smile lightened his expression and made it quite engaging.
"G'dafternoon." Spaulding surveyed him swiftly, then laced his fat little fingers and contemplated them with detached intentness. "Just get in, Duncan?"
"On the three-thirty from Chicago...."
There was a pause, during which Spaulding reviewed his fingernails with impartial interest; in that pause Duncan's poor little hope died a natural death. "I got your wire," he resumed; "I mean, it got me--overtook me at Minneapolis.... So here I am."
"You haven't wasted time."
"I fancied the matter might be urgent, sir."
Spaulding lifted his brows ever so slightly. "Why?"
"Well, I gathered from the fact that you wired me to come home that you wanted my advice."
A second time Spaulding gestured with his eyebrows, for once fairly surprised out of his pose. "Your advice!..."
"Yes," said Duncan evenly: "as to whether you ought to give up your customers on my route or send them a man who could sell goods."
"Well...." Spaulding admitted.
"Oh, don't think I'm boasting of my acuteness: anybody could have guessed as much from the great number of heavy orders I have not been sending you."
"You've had bad luck...."
"You mean you have, Mr. Spaulding. It was good luck for me to be drawing down my weekly cheques, bad luck to you not to have a man who could earn them."
His desperate honesty touched Spaulding a trifle; at the risk of not seeming a business man to himself he inclined dubiously to relent, to give Duncan another chance. The fellow was likeable enough, his employer considered; he had good humour and even in dejection, distinction; whatever he was not, he was a man of birth and breeding. His face might be rusty with a day-old stubble, as it was; his shirt-cuffs frayed, his shoes down at the heel, his baggy clothing weirdly ready-made, as they were: there remained his air. You'd think he might amount to something, to somewhat more than a mere something, given half a chance in the right direction. Then what?... Spaulding sought from Duncan elucidation of this riddle.
"Duncan," he said, "what's the trouble?"
"I thought you knew that; I thought that was why you called me in with my route half-covered."
"I mean I can't sell your line."
"God only knows. I want to, badly enough. It's just general incompetence, I presume."
"What makes you think that?"
Duncan smiled bitterly. "Experience," he said.
"You've tried--what else?"
"A little of everything--all the jobs open to a man with a knowledge of Latin and Greek and the higher mathematics: shipping clerk, time-keeper, cashier--all of 'em."
"And yet Kellogg believes in you."
Duncan nodded dolefully. "Harry's a good friend. We roomed together at college. That's why he stands for me."
"He says you only need the right opening--."
"And nobody knows where that is, except my unfortunate employers: it's the back door going out, for mine every time.... Oh, Harry's been a prince to me. He's found me four or five jobs with friends of his--like yourself. But I don't seem to last. You see I was brought up to be ornamental and irregular rather than useful; to blow about in motor cars and keep a valet busy sixteen hours a day--and all that sort of thing. My father's failure--you know about that?"
Spaulding nodded. Duncan went on gloomily, talking a great deal more freely than he would at any other time--suffering, in fact, from that species of auto hypnosis induced by the sound of his own voice recounting his misfortunes, which seems especially to affect a man down on his luck.
"That smash came when I was five years out of college--I'd never thought of turning my hand to anything in all that time. I'd always had more coin than I could spend--never had to consider the worth of money or how hard it is to earn: my father saw to all that. He seemed not to want me to work: not that I hold that against him; he'd an idea I'd turn out a genius of some sort or other, I believe.... Well, he failed and died all in a week, and I found myself left with an extensive wardrobe, expensive tastes, an impractical education--and not so much of that that you'd notice it--and not a cent.... I was too proud to look to my friends for help in those days--and perhaps that was as well; I sought jobs on my own.... Did you ever keep books in a fish-market?"
"No." Spaulding's eyes twinkled behind his large, shiny glasses.
"But what's the use of my boring you?" Duncan made as if to rise, suddenly remembering himself.
"You're not. Go on."
"I didn't mean to; mostly, I presume, I've been blundering round an explanation of Kellogg's kindness to me, in my usual ineffectual way--felt somehow an explanation was due you, as the latest to suffer through his misplaced interest in me."
"Perhaps," said Spaulding, "I am beginning to understand. Go on: I'm interested. About the fish-market?"
"Oh, I just happened to think of it as a sample experience--and the last of that particular brand. I got nine dollars a week and earned every cent of it inhaling the atmosphere. My board cost me six and the other three afforded me a chance to demonstrate myself a captain of finance--paying laundry bills and clothing myself, besides buying lunches and such-like small matters. I did the whole thing, you know--one schooner of beer a day and made my own cigarettes: never could make up my mind which was the worst. The hours were easy, too: didn't have to get to work until five in the morning.... I lasted five weeks at that job, before I was taken sick: shows what a great constitution I've got."
He laughed uncertainly and paused, thoughtful, his eyes vacant, fixed upon the retrospect that was a grim prospect of the imminent future.
"Oh--?" Duncan roused. "Why, then I fell in with Kellogg again; he found me trying the open-air cure on a bench in Washington Square. Since then he's been finding me one berth after another. He's a sure-enough optimist."
Spaulding shifted uneasily in his chair, stirred by an impulse whose unwisdom he could not doubt. Duncan had assuredly done his case no good by painting his shortcomings in colours so vivid; yet, somehow strangely, Spaulding liked him the better for his open-hearted confession.
"Well...." Spaulding stumbled awkwardly.
"Yes; of course," said Duncan promptly, rising. "Sorry if I tired you."
"What do you mean by: 'Yes, of course'?"
"That you called me in to fire me--and so that's over with. Only I'd be sorry to have you sore on Kellogg for saddling me on you. You see, he believed I'd make good, and so did I in a way: at least, I hoped to."
"Oh, that's all right," said Spaulding uncomfortably. "The trouble is, you see, we've nothing else open just now. But if you'd really like another chance on the road, I--I'll be glad to speak to Mr. Atwater about it."
"Don't you do it!" Duncan counselled him sharply, aghast. "He might say yes. And I simply couldn't accept; it wouldn't be fair to you, Kellogg, or myself. It'd be charity--for I've proved I can't earn my wages; and I haven't come to that yet. No!" he concluded with determination, and picked up his hat.
"Just a minute." Spaulding held him with a gesture. "You're forgetting something: at least I am. There's a month's pay coming to you; the cashier will hand you the cheque as you go out."
"A month's pay?" Duncan said blankly. "How's that? I've drawn up to the end of this week already, if you didn't know it."
"Of course I knew it. But we never let our men go without a month's notice or its equivalent, and--"
"No," Duncan interrupted firmly. "No; but thank you just the same. I couldn't. I really couldn't. It's good of you, but ... Now," he broke off abruptly, "I've left my accounts--what there is of them--with the book-keeping department, and the checks for my sample trunks. There'll be a few dollars coming to me on my expense account, and I'll send you my address as soon as I get one."
"But look here--" Spaulding got to his feet, frowning.
"No," reiterated Duncan positively. "There's no use. I'm grateful to you for your toleration of me--and all that. But we can't do anything better now than call it all off. Good-bye, Mr. Spaulding."
Spaulding nodded, accepting defeat with the better grace because of an innate conviction that it was just as well, after all. And, furthermore, he admired Duncan's stand. So he offered his hand: an unusual condescension. "You'll make good somewhere yet," he asserted.
"I wish I could believe it." Duncan's grasp was firm since he felt more assured of some humanity latent in his late employer. "However ... Good-bye."
"Good luck to you," rang in his ears as the door put a period to the interview. He stopped and took up the battered suitcase and rusty overcoat which he had left outside the junior partner's office, then went on, shaking his head. "Much obliged," he said huskily to himself. "But what's the good of that. There's no room anywhere for a professional failure. And that's what I am; just a ne'er-do-well. I never realised what that meant, really, before, and it's certainly taken me a damn' long time to find out. But I know now, all right...."
Outside, on the steps of the building, he paused a moment, fascinated by the brisk spectacle afforded by lower Broadway at the hour when the cave-like offices in its cliff-like walls begin to empty themselves, when the overlords and their lieutenants close their desks and turn their faces homewards, leaving the details of the day's routine to be wound up by underlings. In the clear light of the late spring afternoon a stream of humanity was high and fluent upon the sidewalks. Duncan had glimpses of keen-faced men, bright-faced women, eager boys, quickened all by that manner of efficiency and intelligence which seems so integrally American. A well-dressed throng, well-fed, amiable and animated, looking ever forward, the resistless tide of affairs that gave it being bore it onward; it passed the onlooker as a strong current passes flotsam in a back-eddy, with no pause, no turning aside. Acutely he felt his aloofness from it, who had no part in its interests and scarcely any comprehension of them. The sunken look, the leanness of his young face, seemed suddenly accentuated; the gloom in his discontented eyes deepened; his slight habitual stoop became more noticeable. And a second time he nodded acquiescence to his unspoken thought.
"There," said he, singling out a passer-by upon whose complacent features prosperity had set its smug hall-mark--"there, but for the grace of God, goes Nat Duncan!" He rolled the paraphrase upon his tongue and found it bitter--not, however, with a tonic bitterness. "Lord, what a worthless critter I am! No good to myself--nor to anybody else. Even on Harry I'm a drag--a regular old man of the mountains!"
Despondently he went down to the sidewalk and merged himself with the crowd, moving with it though a thousand miles apart from it, and presently diverging, struck across-town toward the Worth Street subway station.
"And the worst of it is, he's too sharp not to find it out--if he hasn't by this time--and too damn' decent by far to let me know if he has! ... It can't go on this way with us: I can't let him ... Got to break with him somehow--now--to-day. I won't let him think me ... what I've been all along to him.... Bless his foolish heart!..."
This resolution coloured his reverie throughout the uptown journey. And he strengthened himself with it, deriving a sort of acrid comfort from the knowledge that henceforth none should know the burden of his misfortunes save himself. There was no deprecation of Kellogg's goodness in his mood, simply determination no longer to be a charge upon it. To contemplate the sum total of the benefits he had received at Kellogg's hands, since the day when the latter had found him ill and half-starved, friendless as a stray pup, on the bench in Washington Square, staggered his imagination. He could never repay it, he told himself, save inadequately, little by little--mostly by gratitude and such consideration as he purposed now to exhibit by removing himself and his distresses from the other's ken. Here was an end to comfort for him, an end to living in Kellogg's rooms, eating his food, busying his servants, spending his money--not so much borrowed as pressed upon him. He stood at the cross-roads, but in no doubt as to which way he should most honourably take, though it took him straight back to that from which Kellogg had rescued him.
There crawled in his mind a clammy memory of the sort of housing he had known in those evil days, and he shuddered inwardly, smelling again the effluvia of dank oilcloth and musty carpets, of fish-balls and fried ham, of old-style plumbing and of nine-dollar-a-week humanity in the unwashen raw--the odour of misery that permeated the lodgings to which his lack of means had introduced him. He could see again, and with a painful vividness of mental vision, the degenerate "brownstone fronts" that mask those haunts of wretchedness, with their flights of crumbling brownstone steps leading up to oaken portals haggard with flaking paint, flanked by squares of soiled note-paper upon which inexpert hands had traced the warning, not: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here," but: "Furnished rooms to let with board." And pursuing this grim trail of memory, whether he would or no--again he climbed, wearily at the end of a wearing day, a darksome well of a staircase up and up to an eyrie under the eaves, denominated in the terminology of landladies a "top hall back"--a cramped refuge haunted by pitiful ghosts of the hopes and despairs of its former tenants. And he remembered with reminiscently aching muscles the comfort of such a "single bed" as is peculiar (one hopes) to top hall backs, and with a qualm what it was to cook a surreptitious meal on a metal heater clamped to the gas-bracket (with ears keen to catch the scuffle of the landlady's feet as she skulked in the hall, jealous of her gas bill).
And to this he must return, to that treadmill round of blighted days and joyless nights must set his face....
Alighting at the Grand Central Station he packed the double weight of his luggage and his cares a few blocks northward on Madison Avenue ere turning west toward the bachelor rooms which Kellogg had established in the roaring Forties, just the other side of the Avenue--Fifth Avenue, on a corner of which Duncan presently was held up for a time by a press of traffic. He lingered indifferently, waiting for the mounted policeman to clear a way across, watching the while with lack-lustre eyes the interminable procession of cabs and landaus, taxis and town-cars that romped by hazardously, crowding the street from curb to curb.
The day was of young June, though grey and a little chill with the discouraged spirit of a retarded season. Though the hegira of the well-to-do to their summer homes had long since set in, still there remained in the city sufficient of their class to keep the Avenue populous from Twenty-third Street north to the Plaza in the evening hours. The suggestion of wealth, or luxury, of money's illimitable power, pervaded the atmosphere intensely, an ineluctable influence, to an independent man heady, to Duncan maddening. He surveyed the parade with mutiny in his heart. All this he had known, a part of it had been--upon a time. Now ... the shafts of his roving eyes here and there detected faces recognisable, of men and women whose acquaintance he had once owned. None recognised him who stood there worn, shabby and tired. He even caught the direct glance of a girl who once had thought him worth winning, who had set herself to stir his heart and--had been successful. To-day she looked him straight in the eyes, apparently, with undisturbed serenity, then as calmly looked over and through and beyond him. Her limousine hurried her on, enthroned impregnably above the envious herd.
He sped her transit with a mirthless chuckle. "You're right," he said, "dead right. You simply don't know me any more, my dear--you musn't; you can't afford to any more than I could afford to know you."
None the less the fugitive incident seemed to brim his disconsolate cup. In complete dejection of mind and spirit he pushed on to Kellogg's quarters, buoyed by a single hope--that Kellogg might be out of town or delayed at his office.
In that event Duncan might have a chance to gather up his belongings and escape unhandicapped by the immediate necessity of justifying his course. At another time, surely, the explanation was inevitable; say to-morrow; he was not cur enough to leave his friend without a word. But to-night he would willingly be spared. He apprehended unhappily the interview with Kellogg; he was in no temper for argumentation, felt scarcely strong enough to hold his own against the fire of objections with which Kellogg would undoubtedly seek to shake his stand. Kellogg could talk, Heaven alone knew how winningly he could talk! with all the sound logic of a close reasoner, all the enthusiasm of youth and self-confidence, all the persuasiveness of profound conviction singular to successful men. Duncan had been wont to say of him that Kellogg could talk the hind-leg off of a mule. He recalled this now with a sour grin: "That means me..."
The elevator boy, knowing him of old, neglected to announce his arrival, and Duncan had his own key to the door of Kellogg's apartment. He let himself in with futile stealth: as was quite right and proper, Kellogg's man Robbins was in attendance--a stupefied Robbins, thunderstruck by the unexpected return of his master's friend and guest. "Good Lord!" he cried at sight of Duncan. "Beg your pardon, sir, but--but it can't be you!"
"Your mistake, Robbins. Unfortunately it is." Duncan surrendered his luggage. "Mr. Kellogg in?"
"No, sir. But I'm expecting him any minute. He'll be surprised to see you back."
"Think so?" said Duncan dully. "He doesn't know me, if he is."
"You see, sir, we thought you was out West."
"So you did." Duncan moved toward the door of his own bedroom, Robbins following.
"It was only yesterday I posted a letter to you for Mr. Kellogg, sir, and the address was Omaha."
"I didn't get that far. Fetch along that suitcase, will you please? I want to put some clean things in it."
"Then you're not staying in town over night, Mr. Duncan?"
"I don't know. I'm not staying here, anyway." Duncan switched on the lights in his room. "Put it on the bed, Robbins. I'll pack as quickly as I can. I'm in a hurry."
"Yes, sir, but--I hope there's nothing wrong?"
"Then you lose," returned Duncan grimly: "everything's wrong." He jerked viciously at an obstinate bureau drawer, and when it yielded unexpectedly with the well-known impishness of the inanimate, dumped upon the floor a tangled miscellany of shirts, socks, gloves, collars and ties.
"Didn't you like the business, sir?"
"No, I didn't like the business--and it didn't like me. It's the same old story, Robbins. I've lost my job again--that's all."
"I'm very sorry, sir."
"Thank you--but that's all right. I'm used to it."
"And you're going to leave, sir?"
"I am, Robbins."
"I--may I take the liberty of hoping it's to take another position?"
"You may, but you lose a second time. I've just made up my mind I'm not going to hang round here any longer. That's all."
"But," Robbins ventured, hovering about with exasperating solicitude--"but Mr. Kellogg'd never permit you to leave in this way, sir."
"Wrong again, Robbins," said Duncan curtly, annoyed.
"Yes, sir. Very good, sir." With the instinct of the well-trained servant, Robbins started to leave, but hesitated. He was really very much disturbed by Duncan's manner, which showed a phase of his character new in Robbins' experience of him. Ordinarily reverses such as this had seemed merely to serve to put Duncan on his mettle, to infuse him with a determination to try again and win out, whatever the odds; and at such times he was accustomed to exhibit a mad irresponsibility of wit and a gaiety of spirit (whether it were a mask or no) that only outrivalled his high good humour when things ostensibly were going well with him.
Intermittently, between his spasms of employment, he had been Kellogg's guest for several years, not infrequently for months at a time; and so Robbins had come to feel a sort of proprietary interest in the young man, second only to the regard which he had for his employer. Like most people with whom Duncan came in contact, Robbins admired him from a respectful distance, and liked him very well withal. He would have been much distressed to have harm happen to him, and he was very much concerned and alarmed to see him so candidly discouraged and sick at heart. Perhaps too quick to draw an inference, Robbins mistrusted his intentions; his dour habit boded ill in the servant's understanding: men in such moods were apt to act unwisely. But if only he might contrive to delay Duncan until Kellogg's return, he thought the former might yet be saved from the consequences of folly of some insensate sort. And casting about for an excuse, he grasped at the most sovereign solace he knew of.
"Beg pardon, sir," he advanced, hesitant, "but perhaps you're just feeling a bit blue. Won't you let me bring you a drop of something?"
"Of course I will," said Duncan emphatically over his shoulder. "And get it now, will you, while I'm packing.... And, Robbins!"
"Only put a little in it."
"A little what, sir?"
"Seltzer, of course."