The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
X. Roland Barnette's Friend
Nat had a busy day or two after that, trying to set things to rights in the store for the better reception and display of the new stock. Sperry dropped him a line saying that the goods would arrive on the third day, and there was much to do to make way for it. He managed to get the shop cleaned up thoroughly with Betty's not unwilling but distinctly suspicious aid; the girl was apparently convinced that Duncan meant business, and that this would ostensibly work for her father's benefit, but she was distinctly dubious as to the deus ex machina. Duncan now and again would catch her watching him, her eyes dark with speculation; but when she detected his gaze her look would change instantly to one of hostility and defiance. He suspected that only her father's wishes prevented an open break with her; as it was he was conscious that there was no more than an armed truce between them. And he did not like it; it made him uncomfortable. He wasn't hardened enough to have an easy conscience, and Betty's open doubts as to the reason for his coming to Radville disturbed Duncan more than he would have cared to own.
For all that, they worked together steadily, and accomplished a rather sensational transformation in the appearance of the place. The floor, counter and shelves were swept, washed, dusted and garnished with paint; that is, all but the floor received the attention of the paint-brush; Duncan managed to smuggle a quantity of oil-cloth into the shop and get it down before Graham could enter any protest: the effect approximated tiling nearly enough to brighten the room up wonderfully. Aside from this the old stock was routed out and, for the greater part, donated to the rubbish-heap. Teddy Smart, the glazier, was commissioned to repair the broken window-panes and show-cases. A can of metal polish freshened up the nickel and brass trimmings and rendered the single upright of the soda fountain almost attractive. The stove was uprooted and stored away, and its aspiring pipes dispensed with. Finally, after considerable argument, Graham consented to the removal of his work-bench to a shed in the back-yard. The model was suffered to remain, the tanks and burner being stored out of sight beneath one of the window-seats, more because Duncan considered it would be a good thing to have the light than because he understood or attached much importance to the contrivance. For that matter, he hadn't the time to listen to an exposition of its advantages, and Graham, recognising this, was content to abide his time, serene in the conviction that he would presently find in his assistant a willing and sympathetic listener.
Between spasms of work Duncan had his hands full attending to the soda fountain. Soda water being practically the only salable thing in the store, it had to serve as an excuse for the inquisitiveness of many of my fellow-citizens, to say nothing of--I should put it, but especially--their wives and daughters. The consumption of vanilly sody in those two days broke all known Radville records, and stands a singular tribute to the Spartan fortitude of Radville womanhood, particularly the young strata thereof. Duncan, after he had succeeded in taming the fountain, seemed rather to enjoy than object to dispensing sody, standing inspection and receiving adulation and nickels in unequal proportions. By the end of the second day he could not truthfully have told his friend Willy Bartlett: "The list has shrunk." It had swollen enormously. There isn't any doubt but that he had a nodding acquaintance with every pretty girl in town, as well as with most not considered pretty.
From my window in the Citizen office I was able to keep a tolerably close account of events and obtain a consensus of public opinion. So far as the latter bore upon Duncan, it was divided into two rather distinct parties, one of course favouring him; and this was feminine almost exclusively. Tracey Tanner, to be sure, confessed within my hearing to a predilection for the Noo York dood, but was inclined to hedge and climb the fence when assailed by Roland's strictures. Roland, I suspect, was a wee mite jealous; he had been paying attention to--I mean, going with--Josie Lockwood for several months. Instinctively he must have divined his danger; and it's not in reason to exact admiration of the usurper from the usurped, even when the act of usurpation has not yet been definitely consummated. Roland went to the length of labelling Duncan "sissy," and professed to believe that Hiram Nutt was justified in calling him a "s'picious character"; Roland hinted darkly that Duncan knew New York no better than Will Bigelow.
"And if he did come from there," he asseverated, "I betcher he didn't leave for no good purpose."
His temper inspired me with the sapient reflection that it's a terrible thing to be in love, even if only with an old man's millions.
"There's goin' to be a real Noo Yorker here before long," Roland boasted; "he's comin' to see me on some 'special private bus'ness of ourn."
"Huh," commented Tracey, the sceptical. "What kind of a Noo Yorker'd come all the way here to see you?"
"That's all right. You'll see when he gets here. He's a pro-motor."
"A pro-motor, a financier." Roland pronounced it "finnan seer," thus betraying symptoms of culture and bewildering Tracey beyond expression.
"What's that?" he demanded aggressively.
"That's a feller 't can take nothing at all and incorporate it and make money out of it," Roland defined with some hesitancy.
"And that's why he's coming down here to take a look at you?" inquired Tracey, skipping nimbly round the corner.
Curiously enough in my understanding (for I own to no great faith in Roland's statements, taking them by and large) his friend from New York put in an unheralded appearance in Radville that same night, on the evening train. The Bigelow House received him to its figurative bosom under the name of W.H. Burnham. He sent for Roland promptly and treated him to a dinner at the hotel; something which I have always regarded as a punishment several sizes too large for the crime. Later, having displayed him on the streets in witness to his good faith, Roland spent the evening with Mr. Burnham mysteriously confabulating behind closed doors in the hotel. Speculation ran rife through the town until nine o'clock, and land for several days basked in the heat of public interest.
I happened accidentally to get a glimpse of Mr. Burnham after supper, although I had to miss my baked apple in order to get down town in time. He was a disappointment to some extent, although his mode of dress attracted much comment as being far more sprightly than Duncan's and less startling than Roland's. He had a self-confident air and a bit of swagger that filled the eye, but a face and a voice that detracted, the one too boldly good-looking, with eyes roving and predaceous, the other a suggestion too loud and domineering. ... I fear association with Duncan had vitiated my taste.
However that may be, Roland got an hour off at the bank the following morning, and the pair of them, after wandering with evident aimlessness round the town, drifted as it were on the tide of hap-chance into Graham's drug-store.
Duncan was at the station, superintending the transportation of the new stock, which had come by the early local; Betty was busy with her housework upstairs; and only old Sam kept the shop.
Sam wasn't in the best of spirits. His evergreen optimism seldom withered, but in spite of all that had already been accomplished in behalf of the store, in spite of the rosier aspect of his declining fortunes and his confidence in and affection for Duncan, Sam was worried. He had been over to the bank once, even at that early hour, but Blinky Lockwood had driven out of town to see about foreclosing one of his numerous mortgages in the neighbourhood, and his note, which fell due at the bank that day, was still a weight upon Sam's mind.
Roland and Burnham found him wandering nervously round the store, alternately taking his hat down from the peg, as if minded to make a second trip to the bank, and replacing it as he realised that patience was his part. He looked older and more worn than ordinarily, and seemed distinctly pleased to be distracted by his callers.
"Why, hello, Roland!" he cried cheerfully, hanging up his hat for perhaps the twentieth time. And, "How de doo, sir?" he greeted the stranger.
"Good-morning, sir," said Burnham pleasantly.
"Say, Sam," Roland blundered with his usual adroitness, "this gentleman------"
Burnham's hand fell heavily on his forearm and he checked as if throttled.
"What's that, Roland?" Sam turned curiously to them.
"Oh, nothin'; I was--er--just going to say that this gentleman's my friend from Noo York, Mr. Burnham. I was showin' him round the town and we just happened to look in."
"The friend you were going to write to about my burner?" inquired Sam. "Well, I'm right glad to meet you, sir."
It was here that Roland got a look from Mr. Burnham that withered him completely. His further contributions to the conversation were somewhat spasmodic and ineffectual.
"Why, no, Mr. Graham," Burnham interposed deftly. "Mr. Barnette must've been talking of someone else he knew in New York. I----"
"Didn't know he knew more'n one there," Sam observed mildly.
Burnham's glance jumped warily to Sam's face, but withdrew reassured, having detected therein nothing but the old man's kindly and simple nature. "At all events," he continued, "I don't remember hearing anything about the matter (what did you call it? A burner, eh?) from Mr. Barnette."
"I s'pose Roland forgot," Sam allowed. "He's so busy courtin' our pretty girls, Mr. Burnham----"
"Yes, that was it," Roland put in hastily, seeing his chance to mend matters. "I did intend to write you about it, Mr. Burnham, but it kind of slipped my mind. We've had a lot of important business over to the bank recently."
"By the way, Roland, did you just come from the bank? Is Mr. Lockwood back yet?"
"No; I got off this morning. I don't think he is, Sam. Did you want to see him?"
"Well, yes," Sam admitted. "I guess you know about that, Roland."
"Mean business, sometimes, asking favours of these bankers, eh, Mr. Graham?" Burnham remarked, much too casually to have deceived anybody but old Sam.
Graham nodded, dolefully. "Yes, it is unpleasant," he admitted confidingly. "You see, there's a note of mine come due to-day, and I'm not able to take care of it or pay the interest just now...." He thought it over gravely for a moment, then brightened. "But I guess it'll be all right. Mr. Lockwood's kind, very kind."
"I'm afraid you're a little too sure, Sam," Roland contributed tactfully. "When there's money due Lockwood, he wants it, and most times he gets it or its equivalent."
"Yes," Sam assented sadly, "I guess he does, mostly."
"But," Burnham changed the subject adroitly, "what was this--burner, did you say?--that Mr. Barnette forgot to tell me about?"
"Oh, just one of my inventions, sir."
"I understand you're quite an inventor?"
Sam's smile lightened his face like sunlight striking a snow-bound field. He nodded slowly, thinking of his past enthusiasms, his hopes and discouragements. "I've spent most of my life at it, sir, but somehow nothing has ever turned out well... not so far, I mean. But I mean to hit it yet."
"That's the way to talk," Burnham cried heartily; "never give up, I say!... But tell me about some of these inventions, won't you?"
"Wel-l"--Sam knitted his fingers and pursed his lips reflectively--"I patented a new type threshing machine, once, but I couldn't get anybody to take hold of it. You see, I haven't any money, Mr. Burnham."
"How would you like to talk it over with me, some time? I'm interested in such things--as a sort of side issue."
"Will you?" Sam's eagerness was not to be disguised.
"Be glad to. Tell me, how did you get your power?"
"From gas, sir--though coal will do 'most as well. You see, I've got this burner patented, that makes gas from crude oil--no waste, no odour nor trouble, and little expense. It'd be cheaper than coal, I thought; that's why I invented it. I could get steam up mighty quick with that gas arrangement. I use it for lighting here in the store, now."
"Do you, indeed?" Burnham's tone indicated failing interest, but such diplomacy was lost on Sam.
"If you've got time, I could show you; it's right over here."
A glance at his watch accompanied Burnham's consent to spare a few minutes. "There's a telegram I must send presently," he said. "But I'd like to see this burner, if it won't take long."
"No, not long; just a minute or two." Sam was already dragging the affair out from under the window box. "You see..."
He went on to expound its virtues with all the fond enthusiasm of a father showing off his firstborn, and wound up with a demonstration of the illuminating appliance. I'm afraid, though, he got little encouragement from Mr. Burnham. He considered the machine with a dispassionate air, it's true, and admitted its practical advantages, but wasn't at all disposed to take a roseate view of its future.
"Yes," he grudged, when Sam put a match to the jet, "that's certainly a very good light."
"All right, ain't it?" chimed Roland, enthusiastic.
"Oh, it may amount to something. It's hard to tell. Of course you know, sir," he continued, addressing Graham directly, "you've got competition to overcome."
Sam's old fingers trembled to his chin. "No-o," he said, "I didn't know that. I've got the patent----"
"Of course that's something. But the Consolidated Petroleum crowd has another machine, slightly different, which does the same work, and, I should say, does it better."
"Is--is that so?" quavered Sam. "My patent----."
"Now see here, Mr. Graham," Burnham argued, "we're practical men, both of us----"
"No; I shouldn't say that about myself," Sam interrupted. "Now you, sir----I can see you're a man who understands such things. But I----"
"Nevertheless, you must know that a patent isn't everything. You said a moment ago a man had to have money to make anything out of his inventions."
"Did I?" Sam interjected, surprised.
"Certainly you did; and dead right you are. A patent's all very well, but supposing you're up against a powerful competitor like the Consolidated Petroleum Company. They've got a patent, too. Granted it may be an infringement of yours even--what can you do against them."
"Why, if it's an infringement----"
"Sue, of course. But do you suppose they're going to lie down just because an unknown and penniless inventor sues them? Bless you, no! They'll fight to the last ditch, they'll engage the best legal talent in the country. You'll have to carry the case to the Supreme Court of the United States if you want a winning decision. And that's going to cost you thousands--hundreds of thou-sands--a million----"
"Never mind; a thousand's enough," said Sam gently. "I see what you mean, sir. It's just another case where I've got no chance."
"Oh, I wouldn't put it as strong as that------"
"But I have no money."
"Still, you never can tell. I'll think it over, if I get time."
"Why, that's kind of you, sir, very kind."
It was at this point that Roland rose to the occasion like the noble ass he is. Roland never could see more than an inch beyond the end of his nose.
"Say, Mr. Burnham," he floundered, "don't you think you could help Sam to----"
"I think," said Mr. Burnham, with additional business of looking at his watch, "I'd like to send that wire I spoke of."
"Yes, Roland," Sam agreed meekly; "you mustn't keep your friend from his business. I'm glad you looked in, sir. You'll call again, I hope."
"Thank you," said Burnham, moving toward the door.
It was too much for Roland's sense of opportunity. He rolled in Burnham's wake, sullenly reluctant. "Say, Mr. Burnham," he exploded as they got to the door, "if you'll just offer Sam five----"
"That will do!" Roland collapsed as if punctured. Burnham turned to Graham with a wave of his hand. "I'm leaving on the afternoon train, but if I get time I may drop in again and talk things over with you. There might be something in that threshing machine you mentioned."
"I'll be glad to show you anything I've got here..."
"All right. Good-day. I'll see you again, perhaps."
This cavalier snub was lost on Sam, an essential of whose serene soul is the quality of humility. He followed them to the door, as grateful as a lost dog for a stray pat instead of a kick. "Good-day, sir. Good-day, Roland," he sped their parting cheerfully.
But it was a broken man who shut the door behind them and turned back, fingering his grey chin. There must have been a dimness in his eyes and a quiver to his wide-lipped, generous mouth.
"Perhaps Mr. Burnham was right. Only I was kind of hopin'... Now Mr. Lockwood over there..."
He shook himself to throw off the spell of depression and somehow managed to quicken again his abiding faith in the essential goodness of the world.
"Well, well! He's kind, very kind."
He began to restore his model to its hiding place, musing upon the ebb-tide in his affairs in his muddle-headed way, and in the process managed to convince himself that "it 'ud all come right."
"With this young man in here, and everythin' gettin' fixed up, and new stock comin' in ... I'm sure Mr. Lockwood'll see it the right way ... for us.... He's kind, very kind."
Thus it was that he presently called up the stairs in a very cheerful voice: "Betty, are you pretty near through up there?"
The girl's weary voice came down to him without accent: "Yes, father, almost."
"Well, then, you keep an eye on the store, please. I'm goin' to step out for a minute."
"And if--if anybody asks for me, I'll most likely be down to the depot, with Mr. Duncan."
He didn't mention that he contemplated calling on Lockwood, because he feared it might worry Betty. ... As if a woman doesn't always understand when things are going wrong!
Betty knew, or rather divined. And she had no hope, no faith such as made Sam what he was. She came down the steps listlessly, overborne by her knowledge of the world's wrongness. The glance with which she comprehended the renovated shop was bitter with contempt. What was the worth of all this? Nothing good would come of it; nothing good came of anything. Life was drab and dreary, made up of weary, profitless years and months and weeks and days, to each its appointed disappointment.
Only her sense of duty sustained her. She owed something to old Sam for the gift of life, dismal though she found it. He needed her; what she could do for him she would. I have always thought that her affection for her father was less filial than maternal. He seemed such a child, she--so very old! She mothered him; it was her only joy to care for him. Her care was constant, unfailing, omniscient. In return she got only his love. But it was almost enough--almost, not quite, dearly as she prized it. There were other things a girl should have--indeed, must have, if her life were to be rounded out in fulness. And these, she understood, were forever denied her: apples of Paradise growing in her sight, heartrending in their loveliness so far beyond her reach....
Sighing, she went to work. In work only could she forget.... The soda glasses needed cleaning, and the syrup jars replenishing (for the new order of syrups had come in the previous evening).
After a time, to a tune of pounding feet, Tracey Tanner pranced into the shop with all the graceful abandon of a young elephant feeling its oats. His face was fairly scarlet from exertion and his eyes bulging with a sense of importance. The girl looked up without interest, nodding slightly in response to his breathless: "'Lo, Betty."
"Father's gone out," she said, holding a glass to the light, suspicious of the lint from her dish towel.
"I know--seen him down the street." The boy halted at the counter, producing a handful of square envelopes. "Note for you from the Lockwoods, Betty," he panted. "Josie ast me to bring it round."
Betty put down her glass in consternation. From the Lockwoods?"
"Uh-huh." Tracey offered it, but she withheld her hand, dubious.
"For me, Tracey?"
"Uh-huh. It's a ninvitation. I got four more to take." He thrust it into her reluctant fingers. "Got five, really, but one of 'em's for me."
"An invitation, Tracey!"
"Yeh. Hope you have a good time when it comes off." Already he was bouncing toward the door. "Goo'-bye."
"But what is it, Tracey?"
"Aw, it tells in the ninvitation. S'long."
"From the Lockwoods!" she whispered.
Suddenly she tore it open, her hands unsteady with nervousness.
The envelope contained a square of heavy cardboard of a creamy tint with scalloped edges touched with gold. On the face of the card a round and formless hand had traced with evident pains the information:
Miss Josephine Mae Lockwood
Requests the Pleasure of your Company at a Lawn Fete and Dance to be held at the residence of her Parents, Mr. & Mrs. Geo. Lockwood, Saturday July 15, at 8 p. m. R.S.V.P.
The envelope fluttered to the floor while the card was crushed between the girl's hands. For a moment her face was transfigured with delight, her eyes blank with rapturous visions of the joys of that promised night.
"Oh!... it 'ud be grand!..."
Then suddenly the light faded. Her eyes clouded, her face settled into its discontented lines. She stuffed the card heedlessly into the pocket of her dingy apron, and took up another glass.
"But I can't go; I've got nothin' to wear...."