The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XV. Manoeuvres of Josie
Nat didn't go to the Lockwood lawn fete, and did excuse himself on the plea of being unable to leave the store. I'm afraid the young man had a faint, fond hope that Josie would be offended; but his excuse was accepted without remonstrance. And, indeed, it was at that time quite a reasonable one. Tracey had not been added to the staff, although business was booming, and Saturday night is, as everyone who has lived in a Radville knows, the busiest of the week; all the stores keep open late on Saturday--some as late as eleven--and frequently take in half the week's income between noon and the closing hour. Duncan really couldn't be spared; so it's probable that Josie cloaked her disappointment and comforted herself with the assurance that her selection of the day had been an error in judgment, of which she would not again be guilty.
But the party came off, without fail, and that on a wonderful, still, moonlit night; and everybody voted it a splendid success. The Citizen in its next issue recorded the event to the extent of a column and a half of reading matter, called it a social function, and described the gowns of the leading ladies of society present in bewildering phrases. I was not invited, but the owner of the paper was, and his wife wrote the description with the assistance of the entire editorial and reportorial force, a dictionary and some evil if suppressed language from the foreman of the composing-room. I read the proofs with an admiration strongly tinctured with awe, and found it lacking in one particular only: no mention was made of Roland Barnette's first open-faced suit.
Roland had ordered it from a clothing-house in Chicago, and it arrived just in time. Having heard all about it from Roland's own lips (they dilated upon the matter to Watty the tailor, just beneath my window), I sort of hung round downtown Saturday evening in the hope of catching a glimpse of it, and was not disappointed. I was loitering in Graham's when Roland sauntered nonchalantly in at about a quarter to eight and called for a pack of "Sweets." Sam served him, and Duncan, happily for him disengaged at the moment, after one look at Roland retired precipitately behind the prescription counter--overcome, I judged from Roland's triumphant smirk, by deepest chagrin. Well, thought I, might he have been: he could never, by whatever wildest endeavour, have approximated Roland's splendour.
The coat was bob-tailed (at least, so Watty described it within my hearing) and curiously double-breasted, caught together at the waist with a single button, thus revealing a shining expanse of very stiff shirt-bosom; which creaked, for some reason. With this Roland wore a ribbed white-silk waistcoat, very brilliant low-cut patent leather shoes, and white-silk socks. The trousers were strikingly cut, as to each leg, after the physical configuration of the domestic pear, and the effect of the whole was measurably enhanced by an opera-hat--one of those tall and striking contraptions that you can shut up by pressing gently but firmly upon the human midriff and looking unconscious, but which is apt to open with a resounding report if you're not careful... I am glad to be able to report that Roland failed to commit the solecism of wearing a red string tie; his tie was a sober black, firmly knotted at the factory. I'm glad too, for the sartorial honour of Radville, that Roland knew how to wear such fixin's: that is to say, with an expression of proud defiance.
After he had departed, stepping high, Sam called me behind the counter to assist in reviving Duncan. We found him leaning upon the counter, his forehead resting upon a mortar, very red in the face and breathing stertorously; and when Sam addressed him, to learn what was the matter, he seemed unable to speak, but choked and beat the air feebly with his hands. Sam concluded he had swallowed something, and was, I think, right; he was plainly half strangled, and only recovered after we had beaten his back severely. Then he refused any explanation, beyond saying that he was subject to such seizures.
After the party the town's excitement simmered down and subsided; we had become moderately accustomed to the presence of Duncan in our midst (strange as this may sound), and for some time nothing happened germane to the fate of the Fortune Hunter.
On his part, he fell into a routine without the least evidence of discontent. He was early to rise and early to work, and rarely left the store save at meal hours and closing-up time. And in the course of our serene days, I began to notice in him an increasing interest in the affairs of the church; he seemed to look forward with a not uneager anticipation to the fixtures of its calendar. He attended with admirable regularity both morning and evening services, on Sunday, the mid-weekly prayer-meeting, and Friday evening choir practice. For in the course of time he had been won over to join the choir, and modestly discovered to our edification a barytone voice, wholly untrained but not unpleasing. Mrs. Rogers, our organist, averred his superiority to Packy Soule, whom he superseded, and was supported in this estimate by the remainder of the choir, with the exception of Roland Barnette, who helped with his reedy tenor. Josie Lockwood sang contralto and Bess Gabriel what we were informed was soprano--only Radville called it a treble. Tracey Tanner pumped the organ and puffed audibly in the pauses--a singular testimony to his devotion to Angie Tuthill, who "just sang" with the others, chiefly because she was Josie's nearest friend.
I remember that, one Sunday night after evening service, Duncan confided to me, quite seriously, "that the church thing was getting to him." He seemed somewhat surprised, to a degree indignant, as if he suspected religion of having taken an advantage of him in some roundabout, underhand way.... He wondered audibly what Harry would think if he could see him now.
He had settled down to a pretty steady correspondence with Kellogg, chiefly on business matters. Kellogg was investigating old Sam's burner, and seemed quite impressed with its possibilities. He had quarrelled with Roland's friend, Burnham, on Duncan's representations, and ordered him out of the offices of L. J. Bartlett & Company, it seemed. Later he opened up negotiations with a corporation known as the Modern Gas Company, I believe, a competitor of Consolidated Petroleum, and in due course representatives of both concerns came to Radville, examined the burner, and retired, non-committal. Then Bartlett sent a requisition for a model, and supplied the funds for making it--thus demonstrating his confidence. Sam never had such a good time in his life as when occupied with that model, and in his elation was inspired to invent two notable improvements on the machine--which were promptly patented. Then the model was despatched, receipt acknowledged, and nothing ensued for three or four months. Radville, which had been watching and wondering with open incredulity and dissatisfaction (this latter because neither Graham nor Duncan would talk about the matter), concluded that the whole business had gone up in smoke, said "I told ye so," and forgot it completely. Roland Barnette, I believe, drove the last nail in the coffin of our expectations that anything would ever come of it, by writing to Burnham that Duncan's negotiations had failed, and inviting him to renew his offer if he thought it worth while. Presumably he didn't, for Roland received no reply, and told the town so....
I don't remember just how soon it was, but it was shortly after the formation of the firm of Graham and Duncan that the young man received his first invitation to dinner at the Lockwoods'. He accepted, of course, whether he wanted to or not, for there could be no excuse for his refusing a Sunday bid, and the Lockwoods made quite an event of it. The Soules were invited, because they were Araminta Lockwood's brother and sister-in-law, and the Godfreys came over from Westerly to grace the board as representatives of the Lockwood strain. Also Ben Lockwood attended--Blinky's first cousin and senior.
Duncan described the function in a letter to Kellogg as the time of his young life. Undoubtedly it was in certain respects singular in his experience. The entire party walked home from church through a hot August noon, with that air of chastened joy common to a gathering of relations--an atmosphere of festive gloom and funeral baked meats painfully enlivened by exhilarating jests from old Ben, who was a connoisseur of vintages when it came to jokes. Duncan wished fervently, first that he might expire; secondly, and with greater intensity of feeling, that they all might die. Minta Lockwood, he felt, was slowly but expertly greasing him with adulation--as a python prepares its prey before dining (or is it a python?)--and he knew he was presently to be swallowed alive.
They dined protractedly. The meal, consisting of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, boiled onions with cream sauce, boiled beets and green corn, followed by rhubarb pie and ice cream, was served by an independent, bony and red-faced specimen of the "help" genus. The atmosphere was stifling, with the heat of the day thickened by the steam and odour of cooked food. Duncan was seated consciously beside Josie--a circumstance of which, in fact, everyone else seemed tolerantly aware. He writhed in impotent agony, confronted alone by the consciousness he had brought this thing upon himself: it was a part of his punishment.
At the conclusion of the meal, which endured throughout two interminable hours, the elder menfolk withdrew to the garden and the lawn, where they strolled about, sleepy eyes glistening with repletion, until finally they disappeared, to each his doze. The ladies foregathered in the parlour, conversing in undertones, with significant glances and liftings of their eyebrows. Nat was left to Josie, who conducted him to the side porch, out of sight of everybody, and planted herself in the baggy hammock there. She was gay, even brilliant within her limitations, arch, naive, coquettish, shy, petulant, by turns: animated by a sense of conquest. She supplied the major part of the conversation, chatting volubly on the thousand subjects she didn't understand, the dozen she did. In the most ingenuous manner imaginable she laid herself open to advances, not once, but a score of times; and when he failed to respond according to the code of Radville, had the wit to mask her chagrin, did she feel any: very probably she laid his lack of responsiveness at the door of his shyness (a quality he was wholly without) and liked him the better for it.
It was on this day that she extracted from him his promise to join the choir; he acceded through apathy alone.
"I don't care whether you can sing or not," she confessed, with a look. "But I do want somebody to walk home with me that ... I like."
"That's a nice way of putting it," Duncan considered without emphasis.
"Roland Barnette's always walked home with me, but I think he's just tiresome."
"Why?" inquired the young man, with some interest.
She averted her head, plucking at the strands of the hammock. "Oh, you know," she said diffidently.
"Oh?" Nat was enlightened. "Then I'm sorry for Roland."
"I can't blame him, you know." He couldn't help this: the time, the place, the girl inspired, indeed incited, one to banality.
"Why?" she persisted.
"Oh, you know." He caught the intonation of her previous words precisely.
She had the grace to blush and hang her head; but he received a thrilling sidelong glance.
"Ah... aren't you awful to talk that way, Mr. Duncan?"
"Yes," he admitted meekly.
"Then you will join the choir?" she pursued, failing to fathom the meaning of that humble acquiescence. Any other boy or man of her acquaintance would have taken her remark as openly provocative.
"Oh, yes," he agreed listlessly.
"I'm so glad..."
He thanked her, but avoided her eye.
"We might's well begin to-night," she suggested presently, with diffident, downcast eyes.
"What--the choir?" He was startled. "Oh, I couldn't without a rehearsal--"
"No, I didn't mean that..."
"I mean about Roland." She was paying minute attention to the lace insertion of her skirt. From this circumstance he divined that he was on dangerous ground, but could not, in his stupidity, understand just what made it dangerous.
"Yes; I mean... You know what I mean, Mr. Duncan?"
"I assure you I do not, Miss Lockwood."
"About not walking home with him any more. I don't want to. I wish you'd commence to-night, instead of choir practice night. I'd much rather walk home with you."
"After evening service, you mean?" She nodded. "It'll be a great pleasure."
"Really?" She gave him her eyes now.
"Really," he assured her.
"Ah, I don't believe you mean that!"
"But indeed I do...."
It was not until nearly five o'clock that he was given a chance to escape. He had, even then, to refuse inflexibly an invitation to stay to supper.
Minta Lockwood--an expansive woman, generously convex--almost smothered him with appreciation of his thanks. She held his hand in a large, moist palm and beamed upon him, saying: "Now't you know the way, Mr. Duncan...."
"Yes," Blinky insisted, blinking roguishly, "drop in any time. Take pot luck. We're plain people, Mr. Duncan, but allus glad to see our friends. Drop in any time."
Josie accompanied him to the front gate, where etiquette required him to linger for a parting chat....
"Good-bye." The girl gave him her hand. "I'm real glad you came--at last."
"The pleasure has been all mine," insisted the gallant bromide, fishing the trite phrase desperately from the grey vacuity of his thoughts. "You won't forget?"
"Do you imagine I could?..."
Josie returned to the family conclave, to interrupt a symposium on Duncan's qualities. He was unanimously approved, on every point. She took no part in the conversation, but listened, aglow with the pride of triumph, until old Ben chose to observe:
"He seems to've taken a right smart set for Josie."
Then she rose, blushing, and tossed her pretty, pert head. "How you all do talk!" she cried. "I'm not thinking about Mr. Duncan that way." And she left the gathering.
"You might's well begin now as later," pursued her, accompanied by chucklings; and she tossed her head, but wasn't at all displeased, be sure.
Duncan wrote to Kellogg in his room that night after church: "I don't want to sound immodest, but it looks as if you were right, old man: apparently there's nothing to it...
"Probably I should have stayed on for supper, but I couldn't; I should have choked. As it was, my soul was curdling. Another ten minutes and I should have jumped down on the lawn and run round the house on all fours, yapping and foaming at the mouth, and have wound up by biting old Blinky..
"The worst of it all is, I know I'm ungrateful: I know they mean well. But why is it that people who mean well almost invariably grate upon your sensibilities like the screeching of a slate-pencil?
"In this case, I suspect it's a case of when Snob meets Snob. A snob, I take it, is a fellow who holds himself your superior because he looks at things in a different way. That counts me a snob in my mental attitude toward the Lockwoods. I don't understand their conception of life--wasn't brought up to understand it. And yet I know they're not a bad sort, though they bore me to death what time I'm not laughing in my sleeve at them. Blinky, for instance, is an old screw, but he can't help that; he was born that way; and aside from the fact that money has made him snobbish toward his neighbours, he's a simple, honest, square-dealing (according to his lights) old Jasper. He's not snobbish toward me, because I've got something he admires but can't understand and never can acquire; but he's a snob of the first water when it comes to somebody like this old prince I'm working for--Graham--and his daughter. And so is Josie....
"But I mustn't say mean things about my future spouse, I presume.... That is the great trouble with your infernal scheme, Harry: it seems to be working like a charm, and now that I've got something to do I'm not so strong for it as I was. But I gave you my word. ... Only, mind this: if the rules prescribe a perpetual course of Sunday dinners, en famille, it's going to break down and turn out a natural-born flivver. There are limits to human endurance, and I'm human, whatever else I am not...."