The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XIII. The Business Man and Mr. Burnham
It was, perhaps, within the next thirty minutes that Betty (who had been left in charge of the store while Duncan, with coat and collar off and sleeves rolled above his elbows, hacked and pounded and pried and banged at the packing-cases in the backyard) sought him on the scene of his labours.
She waited quietly, a little to one side, watching him, until he should become aware of her presence. What she was thinking would have been hard to define, from the inscrutable eyes in her set, tired face of a child. There was no longer any trace of envy, suspicion or resentment in her attitude toward the young man. You might have guessed that she was trying to analyse him, weighing him in the scales of her impoverished and lopsided knowledge of human nature, and wondering if such conclusions as she was able to arrive at were dependable.
In the course of time he caught sight of that patient, sad little figure, and, pausing, panting and perspiring under the July sun, cheerfully brandished his weapon from the centre of a widespread area of wreckage and destruction.
"Pretty good work for a York dude--not?" he laughed.
There was a shadowy smile in her grave eyes. "It's an improvement," she said evenly.
He shot her a curious glance. "Ouch!" he said thoughtfully.
"I just came to tell you," she went on, again immobile, "you're wanted inside."
"Somebody wants to see me?" he demanded of her retreating back.
"Blinky Lockwood," she replied over her shoulder, as she went into the house.
"Lockwood?" He speculated, for an instant puzzled. Then suddenly: "Father-in-law!" he cried. "Shivering snakes! he mustn't catch me like this! I, a business man!"
Hastily rolling down his shirt-sleeves and shrugging himself into his coat, he made for the store, buttoning his collar and knotting his tie on the way.
He found Blinky nosing round the room, quite alone. Betty had disappeared, and the old scoundrel was having quite an enjoyable time poking into matters that did not concern him and disapproving of them on general principles. So far as the improvements concerned old Sam Graham's fortunes, Blinky would concede no health in them. But with regard to Duncan there was another story to tell: Duncan apparently controlled money, to some vague extent.
"You're Mr. Duncan, ain't you?" he asked with his leer, moving down to meet Nat.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Lockwood, I believe?"
"That's me." Blinky clutched his hand in a genial claw. "I'm glad to meet you."
"Thank you," said Duncan. "Something I can do for you, sir?"
"Wal, Pete Willin' was tellin' me you'd just took up this note of Graham's?"
"Not exactly; the firm took it up."
Blinky winked savagely at this. "The firm? What firm?"
"Graham and Duncan, sir. I've been taken into partnership."
"Have, eh?" Blinky grunted mysteriously and fished in his pocket for some bills and silver. "Wal, here's some change comin' to the firm, then; and here," he added, producing the document in question, "is Sam's note."
"Thank you." Duncan ceremoniously deposited both in the till, going behind the soda fountain to do so, and then waited, expectant. Blinky was grunting busily in the key of one about to make an important communication.
"I'm glad you're a-comin' in here with Sam," he said at length, with an acid grimace that was meant to be a smile.
"Oh, it may be only temporary." Nat endeavoured to assume a seraphic expression, and partially succeeded. "I'm devoting much of my time to my studies," he pursued primly; "but nevertheless feel I should be earning something, too."
"That's right; that's the kind of spirit I like to see in a young man.... You always go to church, don't you?"
"No, sir--Sundays only."
"That's what I mean. D'you drink?"
"Oh, no, sir," Duncan parroted glibly: "don't smoke, drink, swear, and on Sundays I go to church."
The bland smile with which he faced Lockwood's keen scrutiny disarmed suspicion.
"I'm glad to hear that," Blinky told him. "I'm at the head of the temp'rance movement here, and I hope you'll join us, and set an example to our fast young men."
"I feel sure I could do that," said Duncan meekly.
Lockwood removed his hat, exposing the cranium of a bald-headed eagle, and fanned himself. "Warm to-day," he observed in an endeavour to be genial that all but sprained his temperament.
Indeed, so great was the strain that he winked violently.
Duncan observed this phenomenon with natural astonishment not unmixed with awe. "Yes, sir, very," he agreed, wondering what it might portend.
"I believe I'll have a glass of sody."
"Certainly." Duncan, by now habituated to the formulae of soda dispensing, promptly produced a bright and shining glass.
"I see you've been fixin' this place up some."
"Oh, yes," said Nat loftily. "We expect to have the best drugstore in the State. We're getting in new stock to-day, and naturally things are a little out of order, but we'll straighten up without delay. We'll try to deserve your esteemed patronage," he concluded doubtfully, with a hazy impression that such a speech would be considered appropriate under the circumstances.
"You shall have it, Mr. Duncan, you shall have it!"
"Thank you, I'm sure.... What syrup would you prefer?"
"Just sody," stipulated Lockwood.
His spasmodic wink again smote Duncan's understanding a mighty blow. Unable to believe his eyes, he hedged and stammered. Could it be--? This from the leader of the temperance movement in Radville?
"I beg pardon----?"
His denseness irritated Blinky slightly, with the result that the right side of his face again underwent an alarming convulsion. "I say," he explained carefully, "just--plain--sody."
"On the level?"
"What?" grunted Blinky; and blinked again.
A smile of comprehension irradiated Nat's features. "Pardon," he said, "I'm a little new to the business."
Blinky, fanning himself industriously, glared round the store while Duncan, turning his back, discreetly found and uncorked the whiskey bottle. He was still a trifle dubious about the transaction, but on the sound principles of doing all things thoroughly, poured out a liberal dose of raw, red liquor. Then, with his fingers clamped tightly about the bottom of the glass, the better to conceal its contents from any casual but inquisitive passer-by, he quickly filled it with soda and placed it before Blinky, accompanying the action with the sweetest of childlike smiles.
Lockwood, nodding his acknowledgments, lifted the glass to his lips. Duncan awaited developments with some apprehension. To his relief, however, Blinky, after an experimental swallow, emptied the mixture expeditiously into his system; and smacked his thin lips resoundingly.
"How," he demanded, "can anyone want intoxicatin' likers when they can get such a bracin' drink as that?"
"I pass," Nat breathed, limp with admiration of such astounding hypocrisy.
Blinky reluctantly pried a nickel loose from his finances and placed it on the counter. Duncan regarded it with disdain.
"Ten cents more, please," he suggested tactfully.
"Plain sody." The explanation was accompanied by a very passable imitation of Blinky's blink.
Happily for Duncan, Blinky has no sense of humour: if he had he would explode the very first time he indulged in introspection.
"Not much," said he with his sour smile. "I guess you're jokin'.... Well, good luck to you, Mr. Duncan. I'd like to have you come round and see us some evenin'."
"Thank you very much, sir." Duncan accompanied Blinky to the door. "I've already had the pleasure of meeting your daughter, sir. She's a charming girl."
"I'm real glad you think so," said Blinky, intensely gratified. "She seems to've taken a great shine to you, too. Come round and get 'quainted with the hull family. You're the sort of young feller I'd like her to know." He paused and looked Nat up and down captiously, as one might appraise the points of a horse of quality put up for sale. "Good-day," said he, with the most significant of winks.
"Oh, that's all right," Nat hastened to reassure him. "I won't say a word about it."
Blinky, on the point of leaving, started to question this (to him) cryptic utterance, but luckily had the current of his thoughts diverted by the entrance of Roland Barnette, in company with his friend Mr. Burnham.
Roland's consternation at this unexpected encounter was, in the mildest term, extreme. At sight of his employer he pulled up as if slapped. "Oh!" he faltered, "I didn't know you was here, sir."
"No," said Blinky with keen relish, "I guess you didn't."
"I--ah--come over to see Sam about that note," stammered Roland.
"Wal, don't you bother your head 'bout what ain't your business, Roly. Come on back to the bank."
"All right, sir." Roland grasped frantically at the opportunity to emphasise his importance. "Excuse me, Mr. Lockwood, but I'd like to interdoos you to a friend of mine, Mr. Burnham from Noo York."
Amused, Burnham stepped into the breach. "How are you?" he said with the proper nuance of cordiality, offering his hand.
Lockwood shook it unemotionally. "How de do?" he said, perfunctory.
"I brought Mr. Burnham in to see Sam----"
"Yes," Burnham interrupted Roland quickly; "Barnette's been kind enough to show me round town a bit."
"Here on business?" inquired Lockwood pointedly.
"No, not exactly," returned Burnham with practised ease, "just looking round."
"Only lookin', eh?" Blinky's countenance underwent one of its erratic quakes as he examined Burnham with his habitual intentness.
The New Yorker caught the wink and lost breath. "Ah--yes--that's all," he assented uneasily. And as he spoke another wink dumbfounded him. "Why?" he asked, with a distinct loss of assurance. "Don't you believe it."
"Don't see no reason why I shouldn't," grunted Blinky. "Hope you'll like what you see. Good day."
"So long ... Mr. Lockwood," returned Burnham uncertainly.
Lockwood paused outside the door. "Come 'long, Roland."
"Yes, sir; right away; just a minute." Roland was lingering unwillingly, detained by Burnham's imperative hand. "What d'you want? I got to hurry."
"What was he winking at me for?" demanded Burnham heatedly. "Have you----?"
"Oh!" Roland laughed. "He wasn't winking. He can't help doing that. It's a twitchin' he's got in his eye. That's why they call him Blinky."
"Oh, that was it!" Burnham accepted the explanation with distinct relief, while Duncan, who had been an unregarded spectator, suddenly found cause to retire behind one of the show-cases on important business.
So that was the explanation!...
After his paroxysm had subsided and he felt able to control his facial muscles, Duncan emerged, suave and solemn. Roland had disappeared with Blinky, and Burnham was alone.
"Anything you wish, sir?" asked Nat.
"Only to see Mr. Graham."
"He's out just at present, but I think he'll be back in a moment or so. Will you wait? You'll find that chair comfortable, I think."
"Believe I will," said Burnham with an air. He seated himself. "I can't wait long, though," he amended.
"Yes, sir. And if you'll excuse me----?"
Burnham's hand dismissed him with a tolerant wave. "Go right on about your business," he said with supreme condescension.
And Duncan returned to his work in the backyard. It wasn't long before he found occasion to go back to the store, and by that time old Sam was there in conversation with Burnham. Neither noticed Nat as he entered, and to begin with he paid them little heed, being occupied with his task of depositing an armful of bottles without mishap and then placing them on the shelves. The hum of their voices from the other side of the counter struck an indifferent ear while he busied himself, but presently a word or phrase caught his interest, and he found himself listening, at first casually, then with waxing attention.
"That's part of my business," he heard Burnham say in his sleek, oleaginous accents. "Sometimes I pick up an odd no-'count contraption that makes me a bit of money, and more times I'm stung and lose on it. It's all a gamble, of course, and I'm that way--like to take a gambling chance on anything that strikes my fancy--like that burner of yours."
"Yes," Graham returned: "the gas arrangement."
"It's a curious idea--quite different from the one I told you about; but I kinda took to it. There might be something to it, and again there mightn't. I've been thinking I might be willing to risk a few dollars on it, if we could come to terms."
"Do you mean it, really?" said old Sam eagerly.
"Not to invest in it, so to speak; I don't think it's chances are strong enough for that. But if you'd care to sell the patent outright and aren't too ambitious, we might make a dicker. What d'you say?"
"Why, yes," said Graham, quivering with anticipation. "Yes, indeed, if--"
"If you really think it's worth anything, sir."
"Well, as I say, there's no telling; but I was thinking about it at dinner, and I sort of concluded I'd like to own that burner, so I made out a little bill of sale, and I says to myself, says I: 'If Graham will take five hundred dollars for that patent, I'll give him spot cash, right in his hand,' says I."
With this Burnham tipped back in his chair, and brought forth a wallet from which he drew a sheet of paper and several bills.
"Five hundred dollars!" repeated Graham, thunderstruck by this munificence.
"Yes, sir: five hundred, cash! To tell you the truth--guess you don't know it--I heard at the bank that they didn't intend to extend the time on that note of yours, and I thought this five hundred would come in handy, and kind of wanted to help you out. Now what do you say?"
He flourished the bills under Graham's nose and waited, entirely at ease as to his answer.
"Well," said the old man, "it is kind of you, sir--very kind. Everybody's been good to me recently--or else I'm dreamin'."
"Then it's a bargain?"
"Why, I hope it won't lose any money for you, Mr. Burnham," Sam hesitated, with his ineradicable sense of fairness and square-dealing. "Making gas from crude oil ought to--"
Duncan never heard the end of that speech. For some moments he had been listening intently, trying to recollect something. The name of Burnham plucked a string on the instrument of his memory; he knew he had heard it, some place, some time in the past; but how, or when, or in respect to what he could not make up his mind. It had required Sam's reference to gas and crude oil to close the circuit. Then he remembered: Kellogg had mentioned a man by the name of Burnham who was "on the track of" an important invention for making gas from crude oil. This must be the man, Burnham, the tracker; and poor old Graham must be the tracked....
Without warning Duncan ran round and made himself an uninvited third to the conference.
"Mr. Graham, one moment!" he begged, excited. "Is this patent of yours on a process of making gas from crude oil?"
Burnham looked up impatiently, frowning at the interruption, but Graham was all good humour.
"Why, yes," he started to explain; "it's that burner over there that--"
"But I wouldn't sell it just yet if I were you," said Nat. "It may be worth a good deal--"
"Now look here!" Burnham got to his feet in anger. "What business 've you got butting into this?" he demanded, putting himself between Duncan and the inventor.
"Me?" Duncan queried simply. "Only just because I'm a business man. If you don't believe it, ask Mr. Graham."
"He's got a perfect right to advise me, Mr. Burnham," interposed Graham, rising.
"Well, but--but what objection 've you got to his making a little money out of this patent?" Burnham blustered.
"None; only I want to look into the matter first. I think it might be-- ah--advisable."
"What makes you think so?" demanded Burnham, his tone withering.
"Well," said Nat, with an effort summoning his faculties to cope with a matter of strict business, "it's this way: I've got an idea," he said, poking at Burnham with the forefinger which had proven so effective with Pete Willing, "that you wouldn't offer five hundred iron men for this burner unless you expected to make something big out of it, and... it ought to be worth just as much to Mr. Graham as to you."
"Ah, you don't know what you're talking about."
"I know that," Nat admitted simply, "but I do happen to know you're promoting a scheme for making gas from crude oil, and if Mr. Graham will listen to me you won't get his patent until I've consulted my friend, Henry Kellogg."
"Yes. You know--of L.J. Bartlett & Company." Nat's forefinger continued to do deadly work. Burnham backed away from it as from a fiery brand.
"Oh, well!" he said, dashed, "if you're representing Kellogg"--and Nat took care not to refute the implication--"I--I don't want to interfere. Only," he pursued at random, in his discomfiture, "I can't see why he sent you here."
"I'd be ashamed to tell you," Nat returned with an open smile. "Better ask him."
Burnham gathered his wits together for a final threat. "That's what I will do!" he threatened. "And I'll do it the minute I can see him. You can bet on that, Mister What's-Your-Name!"
"No, I can't," said Nat naively. "I'm not allowed to gamble."
His ingenuous expression exasperated Burnham. The man lost control of his temper at the same moment that he acknowledged to himself his defeat. In disgust he turned away.
"Oh, there's no use talking to you--"
"That's right," Nat agreed fairly.
"But I'll see you again, Mr. Graham--"
"Not alone, if I can help it, Mr. Burnham," Duncan amended sweetly.
"But," Burnham continued, severely ignoring Nat and addressing himself squarely to Graham, "you take my tip and don't do any business with this fellow until you find out who he is." He flung himself out of the shop with a barked: "Good-day!"
"Well, Mr. Graham?" Duncan turned a little apprehensively to the inventor. But Sam's expression was almost one of beatific content. His weak old lips were pursed, his eyes half-closed, his finger tips joined, and he was rocking back and forth on his heels.
"Margaret used to talk that way, sometimes," he remarked. "She was the best woman in the world--and the wisest. She used to take care of me and protect me from my foolish impulses, just as you do, my boy...."
For a space Duncan kept silent, respecting the old man's memories, and a great deal humbled in spirit by the parallel Sam had drawn. Then: "I was afraid what I said would sound queer to you, sir," he ventured-- "that you mightn't understand that I'm not here to do you out of your invention..."
"There's nothing on earth, my boy,"--Graham's hand fell on Nat's arm-- "could make me think that. But five hundred dollars, you see, would have repaid you for taking up that note, and--and I could have bought Betty a new dress for the party. But I'm sure you've done what's best. You're a business man--"
"Don't!" Nat pleaded wildly. "I've been called that so much of late that it's beginning to hurt!"