The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XI. Blinky Lockwood
She was scrubbing blindly at the same glass when, a quarter of an hour later, Blinky Lockwood strode into the store, his right eye twitching more violently than usual, as it always does in his phases of mental disturbance--as when, for instance, he fears he's going to lose a dollar.
Lockwood is that type of man who was born to grow rich. He inherited a farm or two in the vicinity of Radville and the one over Westerly way, to which I have referred, and ... well, we've a homely paraphrase of a noted aphorism in Radville: "Them as has, gits." Lockwood had, to begin with, and he made it his business to get; and, as is generally the case in this unbalanced world of ours, things came to him to which he had never aspired. Fortune favoured him because he had no need of her favours; the discovery of coal under his Westerly acres was wholly adventitious, but it made him far and away the richest man in Radville--with the possible exception of old Colonel Bohun's traditional millions.
In person he is as beautiful as a snake-fence, as alluring as a stone wall. Something over six feet in height, he walks with a stoop (one hand always in a trouser-pocket jingling silver) that materially detracts from his stature. His face, like his figure, is gaunt and lanky, his nose an emaciated beak; his mouth illustrates his attitude toward property--is a trap from which nothing of value ever escapes; his eyes are small and hard and set close together under lowering brows. He's grizzled, with hair not actually white, but grey as the iron from which his heart was fashioned. Aside from these characteristics his principal peculiarity is a nervous twitching of the right eye which has earned him his sobriquet of Blinky. Legrand Gunn said he contracted the affliction through squinting at the silver dollar to make sure none of its milling had been worn off. ... I have never known the man to wear anything but a rusty old frock coat, black, of course, and black and shiny broadcloth trousers, with a hat that has always a coating of dust so thick that it seems a mottled grey.
He grunts his words, a grunt to each. He grunted at Betty when he saw her.
"Where's your father?"
She put down her glass and dish-rag. "I don't know, sir."
"Don't know, eh?" he asked in an indescribably offensive tone.
"I think he went to the bank to see you."
"Oh, he did, eh? Did he have anything for me."
The girl took up another glass. "I don't know, sir," she said wearily. "I'm afraid not."
"Well, if he didn't there's no use see in' me. It won't do him any good."
"I guess he knows that," she returned with a little flash of spirit.
Lockwood looked her up and down as if he had never seen her before, then summarised his resentful impression of her attitude in an open sneer. "Does, eh? Well, that's a good thing; saves talk."
She contained herself, saying nothing. He glared round the place, remarking the improvements.
"You don't do no business here, not to speak of, do ye?"
"No," she admitted without interest, "not to speak of."
"Then what's the good of all this foolishness, fixing up?"
"I don't know."
"Costs money, don't it?"
"I guess so."
"And that money belongs to me."
"It's Mr. Duncan's doing. Father ain't paying for it. He can't."
"What's he doin', then? Sittin' round foolin' with his inventions, ain't he?"
"What's he inventin' now?" "I don't know much about it." She pointed to the model beneath the window. "That's the last thing, I guess."
Blinky snorted and stamped over to the window, stooping to peer at the machine. "What's the good of that?" he demanded, disdainful; and without waiting for her response went on nagging. "Foolishness! That's what it is. Why don't you tell him not to waste his time this way?"
"Because he likes it," said Betty hopelessly. "It's the only thing that makes life worth while to him. So I let him alone."
"What difference does that make? It don't bring him in nothin', does it?"
"Nor do any good?"
"No, siree, it don't. He'd oughter stop it. What does he do with them things when he gets 'em finished?"
"And then what?"
"Nothin' that I know of."
"That's it; nothing--nor ever will. Well, he's been getting money from me for those patents--I thought at fust there might be somethin' in 'em--but he won't any more. I'd oughter had more sense."
A little colour spotted the girl's sallow cheeks. "He'd never ha' got money from you if he hadn't thought he could pay it back," she told Blinky hotly.
"No, nor if I hadn't thought he could----"
She interjected a significant "Huh!" He broke off abruptly, pale with anger.
"Well, I want to see him, and I want to see him before noon," he snapped. "I'm goin' over to the bank, an' if he knows what's good for him he'll come there pretty darn quick."
"I'll try to find him for you; he must be somewhere round," she offered.
"Well, you better. I ain't got much patience to-day."
He swung on one heel and slouched out, as Betty turned to go upstairs. Presently she reappeared pinning on her sad little hat, and left the store.
It was upwards of an hour before she returned, walking quickly and very erect, with her head up and shoulders back, her eyes suspiciously bright, the spots of colour in her cheeks blazing scarlet, her mouth set and hard, the little work-worn hands at her sides clenched tightly as if for self-control. Even old Sam, who had returned from the depot after missing Blinky at the bank--even he, blind as he ordinarily was, saw instantly that something was wrong with the child.
"Why, Betty!" he cried in solicitude as she flung into the store--"Betty, dear, what's the matter?"
For an instant she seemed speechless. Then she tore the hat from her head and cast it regardlessly upon the counter. "Father!" she cried. "Father!"--and gulped to down her emotion. "Can you get me some money?"
"Money? Why, Betty, what--?"
Her foot came down on the floor impatiently. "Can you get me some money?" she repeated in a breath.
"Well--er--how much, Betty?" He tried to touch her, to take her to his arms, but she moved away, her sorry little figure quivering from head to feet.
"Enough," she said, half sobbing--"enough to buy a dress--a nice dress--a dress that will surprise folks--"
"But tell me what the matter is, Betty. Wanting a dress would never upset you like this."
She whipped the cracked and crumpled card from her pocket and pushed it into his hand. "Look at that!" she bade him, and turned away, struggling with all her might to keep back the tears.
He read, his old face softening. "Josie Lockwood's party, eh? And she's sent you an invitation. Well, that was kind of her, very kind."
She swung upon him in a fury. "No, it was not kind. It was mean... It was mean!"
"Oh, Betty," he begged in consternation, "don't say that. I'm sure--"
"Oh, you don't know... I heard the girls talking in the post-office-- Angle Tuthill and Mame Garrison and Bessie Gabriel... I was round by the boxes where they couldn't see me, but I could hear them, and they were laughing because I was invited. They said the reason Josie did it was because she knew I didn't have anything to wear, and she wanted to hear what excuse I'd make for not going. Ah, I heard them!"
"Oh, but Betty, Betty," he pleaded; "don't you mind what they say. Don't--"
"But I do mind; I can't help mindin'. They're mean." She paused, her features hardening. "I'm going to that party," she declared tensely: "I'm goin' to that party and--and I'm goin' to have a dress to go in, too! I don't care what I do--I'm goin' to have that dress!"
Sam would have soothed her as best he might, but she would neither look at nor come near him.
"We'll see," he said gently. "We'll see. I'll try--"
She turned on him, exasperated beyond thought. "That only means you can't help me!"
"Oh, no, it doesn't. I'll do what I can--"
"Have you got any money now?"
He hung his head to avoid her blazing eyes. "Well, no--not at present, but here's this new stock and--."
"That doesn't mean anything, and you know it. You owe that note to Mr. Lockwood, don't you? And you can't pay it?"
"Not to-day, Betty, but he'll give me a little more time, I'm sure. He's kind, very kind."
"You don't know him. He's as mean--as mean as dirt--as mean as Josie."
"Then if you did get any money you'd have to give it to him, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, but--I'm sure--I think it'll come all right."
"Ah, what's the use of talkin' that way? What's the use of talkin' at all? I know you can't do anything for me, and so do you!"
Sam had dropped into his chair, unable to stand before this storm; he stared now, mute with amazement, at this child who had so long, so uncomplainingly, shared his poverty and privations, grown suddenly to the stature of a woman--and a tormented, passionate woman, stung to the quick by the injustice of her lot. He put out a hand in a feeble gesture of placation, but she brushed it away as she bent toward him, speaking so quickly that her words stumbled and ran into one another.
"I can't understand it!" she raged. "Why is it that I have to be more shabby than any other girl in town? Why is it that the others have all the fun and I all the drudgery? Why is it that I can't ever go anywhere with the boys and girls and laugh and--and have a good time like the rest do?..."
Sam bent his head to the blast. In his lap his hands worked nervously. But he could not answer her.
"It ain't that I mind the cookin' and doin' the housework and--all the rest--but--why is it you can never give me anything at all? Why must it be that everyone looks down on us and sneers and laughs at us? Why is it that half the time we haven't got enough to eat?... Other men manage to take care of their families and give their children things to wear. You've got only us two to look after, and you can't even do that. It isn't right, it isn't decent, and if I were you I'd be ashamed of myself--!"
Her temper had spent itself, and with this final cry she checked abruptly, with a catch at her breath for shame of what she had let herself say. But, childlike, she was not ready to own her sorrow; and she turned her back, trembling.
Sam, too, was shaken. In his heart he knew there was justification for her indictment, truth in what she had said. And he was heartbroken for her. He got up unsteadily and put a gentle hand upon her shoulder.
A dry sob interrupted him. He pulled himself together and forced his voice to a tone of confidence. "Just be a little patient, dear. I'm sure things will be better with us, soon. Just a little more patience-- that's all... Why, there was a gentleman here this morning, from Noo York City, talkin' about an invention of mine."
The girl moved restlessly, shaking off his hand. "Invention!" she echoed bitterly. "Oh, father! Everybody knows they're no good. You've been wastin' time on 'em ever since I can remember, and you've never made a dollar out of one yet."
He bowed to the truth of this, then again braced up bravely. "But this gentleman seemed quite interested. He's over to the Bigelow House now. I think I'll step over and have a talk with him--"
"You'd much better go and have a talk with Blinky Lockwood," she told him brutally. "He's waitin' for you at the bank, and said he wasn't goin' to wait after twelve o'clock, neither!"
"Wel-l, perhaps you're right. I'll go there. It's after twelve, but..." He started to get his hat and stopped with an exclamation: "Why, Nat! I didn't know you'd got back!"
Duncan was at the back of the store, clearing the last remnants of the old stock from the shelves. "Yes," he said pleasantly, without turning, "I've been here some time, cleaning up the cellar, to make room for the stuff that's coming in. I came upstairs just a moment ago, but you were so busy talking you didn't notice me."
He paused, swept the empty shelves with a calculating glance, and came out around the end of the counter. "Everything's in tip-top shape," he said. "I checked up the bill of lading myself, and there's not a thing missing, not a bit of breakage. Mr. Graham," he continued, dropping a gentle hand on the old man's shoulder, "you're going to have the finest drug-store in the State within six months. With the stuff that Sperry has sent us we can make Sothern and Lee look like sixty-five cents on the dollar.... We're going to make things hum in this old shop, and don't you forget it." He laughed lightly, with a note of encouragement. But he avoided Graham's eyes even as he did Betty's. He could not meet the pitiful look of the former, any more than that stare of hostility and defiance in the latter.
"It's good of you, my boy," Graham quavered. "I--but I'm afraid it won't----"
"Now don't say that!" Duncan interposed firmly. "And don't let me keep you. I think you said you were going out on business? And I'll be busy enough right here."
And without exactly knowing how it had come about, Graham found himself in the street, stumbling downtown, toward the bank.
When he had gone, Duncan would have returned to the shelves for a final redding-up. He desired least of all things an encounter with Betty in her present frame of mind, and he tried his level best to seem as one who had heard nothing, who was only concerned with his occupation of the moment. But from the instant that she had been made aware of his presence Betty had been watching him with smouldering eyes, wondering how much he had heard and what he was thinking of her. The keen repentance that gnawed at her heart, allied with shame that an alien should have been private to her exhibition, half maddened the child. With a sudden movement she threw herself in front of Duncan, thrusting her white, drawn face before his, her gaze searching his half in anger, half in morose distrust.
"So you were listening!"
"I'm sorry," he said uncomfortably.
She drew a pace away, holding herself very straight while she threw him a level glance of unqualified contempt.
"I didn't mean to hear anything," he argued plaintively. "I was in the room before I understood, and by the time I did, it was too late-- you had finished."
"Oh, don't try to explain. I--I hate you!"
He held her eyes inquiringly. "Yes," he said in the tone of one who solves a puzzling problem, "I believe you do."
She looked away, shaking with passion. "You just better believe it."
"But," he went on quietly, "you don't hate your father, too, do you, Miss Graham?"
She swung back to meet his stare with one that flamed with indignation.
"What do you mean by that, Mr. Duncan?"
"I mean," he said, faltering in where one wiser would have feared to venture--"I'm going to give you a bit of advice. Don't you talk to your father again the way you did just now."
"What business is that of yours?"
"None," he admitted fairly. "But just the same I wouldn't, if I were you."
"Well, you ain't me!" she cried savagely. "You ain't me! Understand that? When I want advice from you, I'll ask for it. Until I do, you let me alone."
"Very well," he replied, so calmly that she lost her bearings for a moment. And inevitably this, emphasising as it did all that she resented most in him--his education, wit, address, his advantages of every sort--only served further to infuriate the child.
"Oh, I know why you talk that way," she said, rubbing her poor little hands together.
"Do you?" he asked in wonder.
"Yes, I do--you!..."
Suddenly she found words--poverty-stricken words, it's true, but the best she had wherewith to express herself. And for a little they flowed from her lips, a scalding, scathing torrent. "It's because you go to church all the time and try to look like a saint and--and try to make out you're too religious for anything, and like to hear yourself givin' Christian advice to poor miserable sinners--like me. You think that's just too lovely of you. That's why you said it, if you want to know. ... Folks wonder what you're doing here, don't they? Guess you know that--and like it, too. It makes 'em look at you and talk about you, and that's what you like. I could tell 'em. You're only here to show off your good clothes and your finger-nails and the way you part your hair and--and all the other things you do that nobody in Noo York would pay any attention to!"
He faced her soberly, attentively. She was a little fool, he knew, and making a ridiculous figure of herself. But--his innate honesty told him --she was right, in a way; she had hit upon his weakest point. He was in Radville to "show off," as she would have said, to make an impression and ... to reap the reward thereof. The way she spoke was ludicrous, but what she said was mostly plain truth. He nodded submissively.
"A pretty good guess at that," he acknowledged candidly.
"Yes, it is, and I know it, and you know it. ... Oh, it's easy enough to give advice when you've got plenty of money and fine clothes and ... but..."
"I understand," he said when she paused to get a grip upon herself and find again the words she needed. "You needn't say any more. The only reason I said what I did was because I'm strong for your father and ... well, I wanted to do you a good turn, too."
"I don't want any of your good turns!"
"Then I apologise."
"And I don't want your apologies, neither!"
"All right, only ... think over what I said, some time."
"I had a good reason for saying what I did."
"I know you had."
"You know I had!" She looked at him askance. She had been on the point of relenting a little, of calming, of being a bit ashamed of herself. But his quiet acquiescence rekindled her resentment. "How do you know? You!" she said bitterly.
"Because I'm not what you think I am, altogether."
"I guess you're not," she observed acidly.
"But I don't mean what you mean. I mean you think I'm conceited and rich and don't know what trouble is. Well, you're mistaken. I've been up against it the worst way for five years, and I know just how it feels to see other people getting up in the world when you're at the bottom of the heap with no chance of squirming out--to know that they have things you haven't got any chance of getting. I've been through the mill myself. Why, I've kept out of the way for days and days rather than let my prosperous friends see how shabby I was. Many's the time I've dodged round corners to avoid meeting men I knew would invite me to have dinner or luncheon or a drink--of soda--or something, for fear they'd find out that I couldn't treat in return. Many a time I've gone hungry for days and weeks and slept on park benches ... until an old friend found me and took me home with him."
The ring of sincerity in his manner and tone silenced the girl, impressed her with the conviction of his absolute sincerity. The tumult in her mind quieted. She eyed him with attention, even with interest temporarily untinged with resentment. And seeing that he had succeeded in gaining this much ground in her regard, Duncan dared further, pushing his advantage to its limits.
"But it's your father I wanted to talk about," he hurried on. "I'd bet a lot he knows more than any other man in this town; and besides, he's a fine, square, good-hearted old gentleman. Anybody can see that. Only, he's got one terrible fault: he doesn't know how to make money. And that's mighty tough on you--though it's just as tough on him. But when you roast him for it, like you did just now ... you only make him feel as miserable as a yellow dog ... and that doesn't help matters a little bit. He can't change into a sharp business crook now; ... he's too old a man. ... Before long he ... he won't be with you at all and ... when he's gone you'll be sore on yourself ... sure! ... if you keep on throwing it into him the way I heard you. ... And that's on the level."
He paused in confusion; the role of preacher sat upon him awkwardly, a sadly misfit garment. He felt self-conscious and ill at ease, yet with a trace of gratulation through it all. For he felt he'd carried his point. He could see no longer any animus in the pale, wistful little face that looked up into his--only sympathy, understanding, repentance and (this troubled him a bit) a faint flush of dawning admiration. Presently she grew conscious of herself again, and looked aside, humbled and distressed.
"I--I won't do it again," she faltered, twisting her hands together.
"Bully for you!" he cried, and with an abrupt if artificial resumption of his business-like air turned away to a show-case--to spare her the embarrassment of his regard.
"I didn't think," said the voice behind him; "I didn't mean to-- something happened that almost drove me wild and..."
"I know," he said gently.
After a bit she spoke again: "I'll go up and get dinner ready now."
"That's all right," he returned absently. "I'll tend the store."
He heard her footsteps as she crossed to the door and opened it. There followed a pause. Then she came hurriedly back. He faced about to meet her eyes shining with wonder.
"I wanted to ask you," she said hastily, "if--was it this friend you spoke about--that found you in the park--who set you on the road to fortune?"
"That's what he said," Duncan answered, twisting his brows whimsically.