The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XVI. Where Radville Feared to Tread
Summer slumbered to its close, a drowsy autumn settled upon our valley, in which its traditional peace seemed but the more profound. The skies darkened to an ineffable intensity of blue; the livery of the fields was changed, green giving place to gold; the woodlands and lower slopes of our hills flamed with the scarlet of dying sumach, with the russet and orange and crimson of a foliage making merry against its moribund to-morrows; a drought parched the land, and our little river lessened to a mere trickle of water. The daylight hours became sensibly abbreviated; while they endured they were golden and warm and hazy: faint veils of purple shrouded the distances. Twilight fell early, its air sweet with the tang of dead leaves raked into heaping bonfires by the children of the town. The nights were long and cool, with a hint of frosts to come. Day dissolved into day almost imperceptibly. ...
Josie Lockwood announced that she was going away to school in New York for the winter. Pete Willing took the pledge and kept it almost a month. Will Bigelow secured time-tables and laboriously mapped out his semi-annually contemplated trip to the East: like the others destined never to come off. Tracey Tanner went to work for Graham and Duncan. The Citizen gained eighteen subscribers; four old ones paid up their accounts. Babies were born, people married and died, loved and hated, lived in striving or sloth, accomplished or failed. Roland Barnette paid ostentatious attentions to Bess Gabriel, who tolerated him simply because she didn't much like Josie; but, blighted by Josie's supreme indifference, this budding passion drooped and failed by mutual consent of both parties concerned. Angie Tuthill became more conspicuously than ever the orb of Tracey's universe. Duncan walked home with Josie on two weekday evenings and twice on Sundays, and learned how to play Halma and Parcheesi, as well as how long to linger at the front gate in the gloaming, saying good-night. Eight young women of the town set their caps for him, at one time or another and... set them back again, because he was too blind to see. As a body they united with the female element in Radville in condemning Josie for a heartless flirt, and sympathising with Nat, behind his back, for being so nice and at the same time so easily taken in. Mrs. Lockwood gave a Bridge party which failed as such because Radville knew not Bridge; but everybody went and played progressive euchre, instead. The drug-store prospered in moderation, Sothern and Lee vainly contesting its conquering campaign. And Duncan grew thoughtful.
One has more time to think unselfishly in Radville than in a great city, where there's rarely more time than enough to think of one's own concerns. And Duncan was making time to think about others--notably, Betty Graham. The girl was, as usual, shy, reticent, reserved; she kept her thoughts to herself, sharing the most intimate not even with old Sam, who would talk; but Duncan divined that she was unhappy. The easier circumstances of the family had provided her with a few simple frocks, adequate clothing which she had gone without for years, and with a sufficiency of wholesome and appetising food: with these, peace of mind should likewise have come to her, and content. But Duncan thought they hadn't. Relieved, on Tracey's engagement, of any share in the store service, she had only the housework for herself and father to occupy her; her associations with the girls of her age were distant and constrained. Usage wears into tradition in the Radvilles of our land; even with the young folks this is so; and in Betty's case, the girl had for so long been "out of it," debarred by her unfortunate circumstances from participation in the pastimes, pleasures and duties of her generation, that by common consent, unspoken but none the less absolute, she remained an outsider. You might say that she relied on her father alone for companionship. Duncan she avoided, unobtrusively but with pains; he consorted with those with whom she had nothing in common, and she would not thrust herself upon him or seem to seek his notice. Her early suspicion and sullen resentment of his intrusion into their affairs had vanished; there remained only a gnawing consciousness that to him she was little or nothing, that his vision ranged above her humble head. She was not the sort to take this ill; she was reasonable enough to believe it natural. But she would not willingly intrude upon his thoughts--who little knew how much she did occupy his leisure moments.
He saw her go and come, a wistful shadow on the borders of his occupations, self-contained, a little timid, but at the same time brave in her own quiet, uncomplaining fashion. And the distant look in those soft eyes he divined to be one of longing for that which she might not possess--the advantages that other girls had, socially and educationally, the pleasures they contrived, the attentions they received, the thousand and one slight things that make existence life for a woman. He saw her drooping insensibly day by day, growing a little paler, a shade more aloof and listless. And he became infinitely concerned for her.
He told himself he had solved the problem of her disease, but its remedy remained beyond his reach. The business was doing very well indeed, but it was still young and must be subjected to as few financial drains as possible; as it ran, there was an income sufficient to board, lodge and clothe the three of them, maintain the credit of the partnership, and now and again admit of a slight but advantageous addition to the stock or fixtures. Things would certainly be better in the course of time, but... Kellogg he would not beg another dollar of, the bank was an equally impossible resource; there wasn't a chance in a hundred that Lockwood would refuse to accommodate the growing concern with money in reason, but the concern, individually and collectively, would never ask it of him. There remained--?
It came to pass that he left the store early one evening, excusing himself on the plea of some slight indisposition, and lost himself for the space of two hours. I mean to say, that no one knew where he went until long after. When he came home some time after ten he told me he had been for a walk....
He found himself shortly after eight at pause by the gate to the Bohun place. The night was dark and murmurous with a sibilant wind that sent the leaves drifting, softly clashing one with another. At the far end of the straight brick walk, up through the formal grounds, he could just see the glimmer of the stately columns, and, between them, to one side, a little twinkling light. The gate was closed, but he tried it and found it on the latch. He entered and scuffled up the walk, ankle deep in fallen leaves. His footfalls as he crossed the porch sounded startlingly loud by contrast; he even fancied a note of indignation in the cavernous echoes of the knocker on the front door. He waited with a thumping heart, aware that he was venturing where even fools would fear to tread.
An aged negro butler, one of the freed slaves brought from Virginia by the Bohuns, admitted him to the hall and took his card, smothering his own wonderment. For in those days nobody disturbed the silence and the peace of decay of the Bohun mansion save its master. And Duncan had long to wait in the wide, gloomy, musty hall before the servant returned.
"Cunnul Bohun will see yo', suh," he said, and ushered him into the library--a great, high-ceiled, shadowy room illuminated by a single lamp, tenanted by the old colonel alone.
Bohun received the young man standing: he was as courteous beneath his own roof as he was impossible away from it. A quaint old figure, with his grey hair tousled and his dressing-gown draped grotesquely from his shoulders, he stood by the fireplace, Duncan's card between his fingers, and bowed ceremoniously.
"Mr. Duncan, I believe?"
Nat returned the bow. "Yes, sir," he said. "Will you be good enough to pardon this intrusion, Colonel Bohun, and spare me five minutes of your time?"
The colonel nodded. "At your service, sir," he replied, and waited grimly--perhaps not unsuspicious of the nature of his visitor's errand, since he could not have been ignorant of his place in Radville.
Duncan had his own way of getting at things--generally more circuitous than now, though he struck on a tangent sufficiently acute momentarily to puzzle Bohun.
"May I inquire, sir, if you are acquainted with the firm of L.J. Bartlett & Company of New York?"
"I have heard of it, Mr. Duncan, through the newspapers."
"You know that it ranks pretty high, then, I presume?"
"I understand that such is the case."
"Then would you mind doing me the favour of writing to Mr. Henry Kellogg, the junior partner, and asking him about me?"
The colonel stiffened. "May I ask why I should do anything so uncalled-for?"
"Because it isn't uncalled-for, sir. I mean, you won't think so after I've explained."
Bohun inclined his head, searching Nat's face with his keen, bright eyes.
"You see, sir, it's this way: I want you to entrust me with a considerable sum of money, and naturally you wouldn't do that without knowing something about me."
"I incline very much to doubt that I should do it in any event, Mr. Duncan."
"Oh, don't say that. You don't know the circumstances, as yet." Nat jerked his head earnestly at the colonel. "You see, you're said to be one of the richest men in town, and I'm certainly one of the poorest, so of course I turn to you in a case like this."
"In a case like what, Mr. Duncan?" Something in the young man's manner seemed to tickle the colonel; Duncan could have sworn that the eyes were twinkling beneath the savagely knitted brows.
"Well, you must understand I'm in business here in Radville--a partner in a growing and prospering concern--ah--doing--very well, in point of fact."
"But we haven't any spare capital; in fact, we haven't got any capital worth mentioning. But the business is entirely sound and solvent."
"I congratulate you, sir."
"Thank you very much.... Now I'm interested in a rather singular case: that of a young woman--a girl, I should say--daughter of my partner. She's a good girl and wonderfully sweet and fine, sir. She comes of one of the best families in these parts--"
"On her mother's side," suggested the colonel drily.
"So I'm told, sir. But she's been neglected. Circumstances have been against her. She hasn't had a real chance in life, but she ought to have it, and I'm going to see that she gets it, one way or another."
"You haven't finished?" said the colonel coldly, as he paused for breath and thought.
"Not quite, sir," said Duncan. "Good sign!" he told himself: "he hasn't ordered me thrown out yet." And he hurried on, speaking quickly in the semi-humorous style he had, more arresting to the attention than absolute gravity would have been.
"To come down to cases, sir, she ought to be sent to a good boarding-school for a few years. It'll make a new woman of her--a woman to be proud of. She's got that in her--it only needs to be brought out."
"And before you leave, sir," said the colonel with significant precision, "will you be so kind as to inform me why you think this should interest me?"
"No," said Duncan candidly; "I haven't got the nerve to. But what I wanted to propose was this: that you lend me five hundred dollars to cover the expense of the first year, on condition that I represent the money as coming from the profits of the business and, in short, keep the transaction between ourselves absolutely quiet. If you'll inquire of Mr. Kellogg he'll tell you I can be trusted to keep my word. Furthermore"--he galloped, suspecting that his time was perilously short and desiring to get it all out of his system--"I'll guarantee you repayment within a year, and that you shan't be annoyed this way a second time."
Bohun looked him over from head to foot, bowed in silence, and turning--both had stood throughout this passage--grasped a bell-rope by the chimney, and pulled it violently.
Duncan turned to the door, hat in hand, realising that he had his answer and was lucky to get away with one so mild. Only the emergency could have spurred him to the point of so outrageous an impertinence.
In the desolate fastnesses of that dreary house somewhere a bell tinkled discordantly. A moment later the white-headed darky butler opened the door.
"Suh?" he said.
Colonel Bohun essayed to speak, cleared his throat angrily, and indicated Duncan with a courteous gesture.
"Scipio," said he, "this gentleman will have a glass of wine with me."
"Yassuh!" stammered the negro, overcome with astonishment.
Bohun turned to his guest. "Won't you be seated, Mr. Duncan?" he said. "You have interested me considerably, sir, and I should be glad to discuss the matter with you."
Speechless, Duncan gasped incoherently and moved toward a chair as the servant reappeared with a tray on which was a decanter of sherry and two old-fashioned, thin-stemmed crystal glasses. He placed this on the library table, filled the glasses, and at a sign from Bohun retired.
"Sir," said the colonel, indicating the tray, "to you."
"I--I thank you, sir." Duncan lifted one of the glasses. Bohun took up the one remaining, and held it toward his guest with the gracious gesture of a bygone day.
"I hold it a privilege, sir," he said, "to drink to the only gentleman of spirit it's been my good fortune to meet this many a year."
By way of an aside, it should be mentioned that this was the first and only drink Duncan took while he lived in Radville.