The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XIV. Mostly About Betty
Sam Graham said to me, that night: "I don't know when so many things have happened to me in so short a time. It don't seem hardly possible it's only four days since that boy came in here asking for a job. It's wonderful, simply wonderful, the change he's made."
He waved a comprehensive hand, and I, glancing round the transformed store, agreed with him. Everything was spick and span and mighty attractive--clean and neat-looking--with the new stock in the shining cases and arranged on the glistening white shelves: not all of it set out by any means, of course, but no unplaced goods in sight, cluttering up the counters or kicking round the floor.
"The way he's worked----! You'd hardly believe it, Homer. He said he wanted to get home early so's to write a letter to a friend of his in New York, a Mr. Kellogg, junior member of L. J. Bartlett & Company, about my invention. But he insisted on leaving everything to rights for business to-morrow. And just look!"
"But I thought Roland Barnette----?" I suggested with guile. Of course I'd heard a rumour of what had happened--'most everyone in town had--and how Roland and his friend, Mr. Burnham, had sort of fallen out on the way from the Bigelow House to the train; but no one knew anything definite, and I wanted to get "the rights of it," as Radville says.
So I had dropped in at Graham's, on my way home from the office, as I often do, for an evening smoke and a bit of gossip: something I rarely indulge in, but which I've found has a curious psychological effect on the circulation of the Citizen--like a tonic. Sam was just at the point of closing up. He was alone, Duncan having gone home about an hour earlier, and Betty being upstairs, while (since it was quite half-past nine) all the rest of Radville, with few exceptions (chiefly to be noted at Schwartz's and round the Bigelow House bar) was making its final rounds of the day: locking the front door, putting out the lamp in its living-room, banking the fire in the range, ejecting the cat from the kitchen and wiping out the sink, and finally, odoriferous kerosene lamp in hand, climbing slowly to the stuffy upstairs bed-chamber. Indeed, the lights of Radville begin to go out about half-past eight; by ten, as a rule, the town is as lively as a cemetery.
But I am by nature inexorable and merciless, a masterful man with such as old Sam; and it was an hour later before I left him, drained of the last detail of the day. He was a weary man, but a happy one, when he bade me good-night, and I myself felt a little warmed by his cheerfulness as I plodded up Main Street through the thick oppression of darkness beneath the elms.
After a time I became aware that someone was overtaking me, and waited, thinking at first it would be one of my people. But it wasn't long before I recognised from the quick tempo of the approaching footfalls that this was no Radvillian. There was just light enough--starlight striking down through the thinner spaces in the interlacing foliage--to make visible a moving shadow, and when it drew nearer I saluted it with confidence.
"Good-evening, Mr. Duncan."
He stopped short, peering through the gloom. "Good-evening, but--Mr. Littlejohn? Glad to see you." He joined me and we proceeded homeward, he moderating his stride a trifle in deference to my age. "Aren't you late?"
"A bit," I admitted. "I've been gossiping with Sam Graham."
"You're out late yourself, Mr. Duncan, for one of such regular, not to say abnormal, habits."
He laughed lightly. "Had a letter I wanted to catch the first morning train."
"Then you're interested in Sam's burner?"
"No, I'm not, but I hope to interest others....Oh, yes: Mr. Graham told you about it, of course.... It just struck me that if a man of Burnham's stamp was willing to risk five hundred dollars on the proposition, he very likely foresaw a profit in it that might as well be Mr. Graham's. So I've sent a detailed description of the thing to a friend in New York, who'll look into it for me."
He was silent for a little.
"Who's Colonel Bohun?" he asked suddenly.
"Why do you ask?"
"I saw him this evening. He was passing the store and stopped to glare in as if he hated it--stopped so long that I got nervous and asked Miss Lockwood (she'd just happened in for a parting glass--of soda) whether he was an anarchist or a retired burglar. She told me his name, but was otherwise inhumanly reticent."
"For Josie?" I chuckled; but he didn't respond. So I took up the tale of the first family of Radville.
"The story runs," said I, "that the Bohuns were one of the F.F.V.'s; that they sickened of slavery, freed their slaves and moved North, to settle in Radville. I believe they came from somewhere round Lynchburg; but that was a couple of generations ago. When the Civil War broke out the old Colonel up there"--I gestured vaguely in the general direction of the Bohun mansion--"couldn't keep out of it, and naturally he couldn't fight with the North. He won his spurs under Lee.... After the war had blown over he came home, to find that his only son had enlisted with the Radville company and disappeared at Gettysburg. It pretty nearly killed the old man--though he wasn't so old then; but there's fire in the Bohun blood, and his boy's action seemed to him nothing less than treason."
"And that's what soured him on the world?"
"Not altogether. He had a daughter--Margaret. She was the most beautiful woman in the world...." I suspect my voice broke a little just there, for there was a shade of respectful sympathy in the monosyllable with which he filled the pause. "He swore she should never marry a Northerner, but she did; I guess, being a Bohun, she had to, after hearing she must not. There were two of us that loved her, but she chose Sam Graham...."
"Why," he said awkwardly--"I'm sorry."
"I'm not: she was right, if I couldn't see it that way. They ran away-- and so did I. I went East, but they came back to Radville. Colonel Bohun never forgave them, but they were very happy till she died. Betty's their daughter, of course: Sam's not the kind that marries more than once."
Duncan thought this over without comment until we reached our gate. There he paused for a moment.
"He's got plenty of money, I presume--old Bohun?"
"So they say. Probably not much now, but a great deal more than he needs."
"Then why doesn't somebody get after the old scoundrel and make him do something for that poor--for Miss Graham?" he asked indignantly.
"He tried it once, but they wouldn't listen. His conditions were impossible," I explained. "She was to renounce her father and take the name of Bohun------."
"What rot!" Duncan growled. "What an old fiend he must be! Of course he knew she'd refuse."
"I suspect he did."
Duncan hesitated a bit longer. "Anyhow," he said suddenly, "somebody ought to get after him and make him see the thing the right way."
"S'pose you try it, Mr. Duncan?" I suggested maliciously, as we went up the walk.
He stopped at the door. "Perhaps I shall," he said slowly.
"I'd advise you not to. The last man that tried it has no desire to repeat the experiment."
"Who was he?"
"An old fool named Homer Littlejohn."
Duncan put out his hand. "Shake!" he insisted. "We'll talk this over another time."
We went in very quietly, lit our candles, and with elaborate care avoided the home-made burglar-alarm (a complicated arrangement of strings and tinpans on the staircase, which Miss Carpenter insists on maintaining ever since Roland Barnette missed a dollar bill and insisted his pocket had been picked on Main Street) and so mounted to our rooms. As we were entering (our doors adjoin) a thought delayed my good-night.
"By the way, did you get your invitation to Josie Lockwood's party, Mr. Duncan? I happened to see it on the hall table this evening."
"Yes," he assented quietly.
"It's to be the social event of the year. I hope you'll enjoy it."
"I'm not going."
"Not going!... Why not?"
"It's against the rules at first--I mean, business rules. I'll be so busy at the store, you know."
"Josie'll be disappointed."
"Thank you," said he gratefully. "Good-night."
Alone, I was fain to confess he baffled my understanding.
The rush of business to Graham's began the following morning: Duncan's hands were full almost from the first, and he had to relegate such matters as making final disposition of his stock and getting acquainted with it to the intervals between waiting upon customers. Old Sam must have put up more prescriptions in the next few days than he had within the last five years. Everybody wanted to take a look at the renovated store, shake Sam's hand, and see what the new partner was really like. Sothern and Lee's was for some days quite deserted, especially after Duncan took a leaf out of their book, bought an ice-cream freezer and began to serve dabs of cream in the sody. I've always maintained that our Radville folks are pretty thoroughly sot in their ways (the phrase is local), but the way they flocked to Graham's forced me to amend the aphorism with the clause: "except when their curiosity is aroused." Every woman in town wanted to know what Graham and Duncan carried that Sothern and Lee didn't, and how much cheaper they were than the more established concern; also they wanted to know Mr. Duncan. I suspect no drug-store ever had so many inquiries for articles that it didn't carry, but might possibly, or ought to, in the estimation of the prospective purchasers, as well as that at no time had Radvillians happened to think of so many things that they could get at a druggist's. People drove in from as far as twenty miles away, as soon as the news reached them, to buy notepaper and stamps--people who didn't write or receive a letter a month. Will Bigelow, even, dropped round and bought samples of the tobacco stock, from two-fors up to ten-centers--and smoked them with expressive snorts. Tracey Tanner's soda and cigarette trade was transferred bodily to Graham's from the first, and Roland Barnette gave it his patronage, albeit grudgingly, as soon as he found it impossible to shake Josie Lockwood's allegiance. I say grudgingly, because Roland didn't like the new partner, and had said so from the first. But everyone else did like him, almost without exception. His attentiveness and courtesy were not ungrateful after the way things were thrown at you at Sothern and Lee's, we declared.
Duncan certainly did strive to please. No man ever worked harder in a Radville store than he did. And from the time that he began to believe there would be some reward for his exertions, that the business was susceptible to being built up by the employment of progressive methods, he grew astonishingly prolific of ideas, from our sleepy point of view. The window displays were changed almost daily, to begin with, and were made as interesting as possible; we learned to go blocks out of our way to find out what Graham and Duncan were exploiting to-day. And daily bargain sales were instituted--low-priced articles of everyday use, such as shaving soap, tooth brushes, and the like, being sold at a few cents above cost on certain days which were announced in advance by means of hand-lettered cards in the show-windows; whereas formerly we had always been obliged to pay full list-prices. An axiom of his creed as it developed was to the effect that stock must not be allowed to stand idle upon the shelves; if there were no call for a certain line of articles, it must be stimulated. I remember that, some time along in August, he began to worry about the inactivity in cough-syrups.
"No one wants cough-syrups in summer," he told Graham; "that stuff's been here six weeks and more. It's getting out of training. Needs exercise. Look at this bottle: it says: 'Shake well.' Now it hasn't been shaken at all since it was put on the shelves, and I haven't got time to shake it every morning. We must either hire a boy to give it regular exercise, or sell it off and get in a fresh supply for the winter. I'll have to think up some scheme to make 'em take it off our hands."
He did. Somehow or other he managed to convince us that forewarned was forearmed, that it was better to have a bottle or two of cough-syrup in our medicine chests at home than on the shelves of the drug-store, when the chill autumnal winds began to blow, especially when you could buy it now for thirty-nine cents, whereas it would be fifty-four in October.
Still earlier in his career as a business man he noticed that the local practitioners wrote their prescriptions on odd scraps of paper.
"That's all wrong," he declared. "We'll have to fix it." And by next morning the job-printing press back of the Court House was groaning under an order from Graham and Duncan's, and a few days later every physician within several miles of Radville received half a dozen neat pads of blanks with his name and address printed at the top and the advice across the bottom: "Go to Graham's for the best and purest drugs and chemicals." The backs of the blanks were utilised to request people living out of reach, but on rural free delivery routes, either to mail their prescriptions and other orders in, or have the physicians telephone them, promising to fill and despatch them by the first post.
For he had a telephone installed within the first fortnight, and the next day advertised in the Gazette that orders by telephone would receive prompt attention and be delivered without delay. Tracey Tanner became his delivery-boy, deserting his father's stables for the obvious advantages of three dollars a week with a chance to learn the business.... Sothern and Lee were quick to recognise the advantage the telephone gave Graham and Duncan, and promptly had one put in their store; but the delay had proven almost fatal: Radville had already got into the habit of telephoning to Graham's for a cake of soap, or whatnot, and it's hard to break a Radville habit.
As business increased and the stock turned itself over at a profit, Duncan began to branch out, to make improvements and introduce new lines of goods. He it was who inoculated Radville with the habit of buying manufactured candies. Up to the time of his advent, we had been accustomed to and content with home-made taffies and fudges--and were, I've no doubt, vastly better off on that account. But Duncan, starting with a line of five- and ten-cent packages of indigestible sweets, in time made arrangements with a big Pittsburgh confectionery concern to ship him a small consignment of pound and half-pound "fancy" boxes of chocolates and bonbons twice a week. And taffy-pulls and fudge parties lapsed into desuetude.
Later, Sperry introduced him to an association of druggists, of which he became a member, for the maintenance and exploitation of the cigar and tobacco trade in connection with the drug business. They installed at Graham's a handsome show-case and fixtures especially for the sale and display of cigars, and thereafter it was possible to purchase smokable tobacco in our town.
Again, he treated Radville to its first circulating library, establishing a branch in the store. One could buy a book at a moderate price, and either keep it or exchange it for a fee of a few cents. I disputed the wisdom of this move, alleging, and with reason, that Radville didn't read modern fiction to any extent. But Duncan argued that it didn't matter. "They're going to try it on as a novelty, to begin with," he said, "and it'll bring 'em into the store for a few exchanges, at least. That's all I want. Once we get 'em in here, it'll be hard if we can't sell them something else. You'll see."
He was right.
Undoubtedly he made the business hum during those first few months; and after that it settled down to a steady forward movement. The store became a social centre, a place for people to meet. In time Tracey was promoted to be assistant and another boy engaged to make deliveries. ... And Duncan had never been happier; he had found something he could understand and, understanding, accomplish; there was work for his hands to do, and they had discovered they could do it successfully. I don't believe he stopped to think about it very much, but he was conscious of that glow of achievement, that heightening of the spirits, that comes with the knowledge of success, be that success however insignificant, and it benefited him enormously....
But this chronicle of progress has run away altogether with a desultory pen, which started to tell why Duncan didn't want to go to Josie Lockwood's party. I was long in finding out, but not so long as Duncan himself, perhaps; by which I mean to say that he was conscious of the desire not to go, and determined not to, without stopping to analyse the cause of that desire more than very superficially.
It happened, toward the close of the eventful day already detailed at such length, that as Duncan was entering the house with a load of boxed goods, he heard voices in the store--young voices, of which one was already too familiar to his ears. He paused, waiting for them to get through with their business and go; for he had no time to waste just then, even upon the heiress of his manufactured destiny. Betty was keeping shop at the time (old Sam having gone upstairs for a little rest, who was overwrought and weary with the excitement of that day) and it was Duncan's hope that she would be able to serve the customers without his assistance.
There were two of them, you see--Josie and Angle Tuthill--hunting as usual in couples; and while he waited, not meaning to eavesdrop but unwilling to betray his whereabouts by moving, he heard very clearly their passage with Betty.
He overheard first, distinctly, Betty responding in expressionless voice: "Hello, Angie.... Hello, Josie."
There ensued what seemed a slightly awkward pause. Then Josie, painfully sweet: "Did you get the invitation, Betty?"
Betty moved into Duncan's range of vision, apparently intending to come and call him. She turned at the question, and he saw her small, thin little body and pinched face en silhouette against the fading light beyond. He saw, too, that she was stiffening herself as if for some unequal contest.
"The invitation?" she questioned dully, but with her head up and steady.
"Why," said Josie, "I sent you one. To the party, you know--my lawn feet next week."
I give the local pronunciation as it is.
"I gave it to Tracey for you," persisted the tormentor. "Didn't you get it?"
Betty caught at her breath, inaudibly; only Duncan could see the little spasm of mortification and anger that shook her.
"Oh, perhaps I did," she said shortly. "I--I'll ask Mr. Duncan to wait on you."
She swung quickly out into the hallway, slamming the door behind her and so darkening it that she didn't detect Duncan's shadowed figure. And if she had meant to call him, she must have forgotten it; for an instant later he heard her stumbling up the stairs, and as she disappeared he caught the echo of a smothered sob.
He waited, motionless, too disturbed at the time to care to enter the store and endure Josie's vapid advances; and through the thin partition there came to him their comments on Betty's ungracious behaviour.
"Well!... did you ever!"
That was Angle; Josie chimed in the same key: "Oh, what did you expect from that kind of a girl?"
"Ssh! maybe he's coming!"
After a moment's silence, Josie: "Oh, come on. Don't let's wait any longer. I don't think it's healthy to drink sody so soon before dinner, anyway."
"And, besides, we only wanted to hear--"
Their voices with their footsteps diminished. Duncan allowed a prudent interval to elapse, entered the store and began to bestow the goods he had brought in.
While he was at work the light failed. He stopped for lack of it just as Betty came downstairs.
"Hello!" he said cheerfully. "Know where the matches are?"
"Yes." She moved behind a counter and fetched him a few. "Are you 'most done?" she inquired, not unfriendly, as he took down from its bracket one of the oil lamps.
"Hardly," he responded, touching a light to the wick and replacing the chimney. "It's a good deal of a job."
He replaced the lamp, and in the act of turning toward another caught a glimpse of the girl's face, pale and drawn, her eyes a trifle reddened. And with that commonsense departed from him, leaving him wholly a prey to his impulse of pity. "Oh, thunder!" he told himself, thrusting a hand into his pocket. "I might as well be broke as the way I am now." He produced the scanty remains of his "grubstake."
"Yes?" she asked, wondering.
"Could you get a party dress for thirty-four dollars?"
"Thirty-four dollars!" she faltered.
He discovered what small change he had in his pocket: it was like him to be extravagant, even extreme. "And fifty-three cents?" he pursued, with a nervous laugh.
"Heavens!" the girl gasped. "I should think so!"
"Then go ahead!" He offered her the money, but she could only stare, incredulous. "I'll stake you."
"Oh...no, Mr. Duncan," she managed to say.
"Oh, yes!" He tried to catch one of the hands that involuntarily had risen toward her face in a gesture of wonder. "Please do," he begged, his tone persuasive, "as a favour to me."
But she evaded him, stepping back. "I couldn't take it; I couldn't really."
"Yes, you can. Just try it once, and see how easy it is," he persisted, pursuing.
"No, I can't." She looked up shyly and shook her head, that smile of her mother's for the moment illuminating her face almost with the radiance of beauty. "But I--I thank you very much--just the same."
"But I want you to go to that party..."
"You're awful' kind," she said softly, still smiling, "but I don't care to go, now. I--"
"Don't care to! Why, you were insisting on going, a little while ago."
"Yes," she admitted simply, "I know I was. But ... I've been thinking over what you said, since then, and I ... I've made up my mind I'd be out of place there."
"Out of place!" he echoed, thunderstruck.
"Yes. I've concluded I belong here in the store with father." She half turned away. "And I guess folks is better off if they stay where they belong...."
She went slowly from the room, and he remained staring, stupefied.
"You never can tell about a woman," he concluded with all the gravity of an original philosopher.