The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XVII. Tracey's Troubles
Probably nothing ever gave rise to more comment in Radville than Betty Graham's departure to spend the winter at a boarding-school near Philadelphia. Hardly anyone knew anything about it--in fact, the rumour of it was just being noised about and contemptuously discredited on all hands--when Tracey galloped down Main Street Monday morning with the news that she had left on the early train. He himself had remained in ignorance of the impending event until requested to carry Betty's bag down to the station....
She left under convoy of a certain Mrs. Hamilton, who lived in Philadelphia and had been visiting her cousin, Mrs. Will Bigelow. Duncan had met this lady at a church sociable and, apparently, taken a liking to her; for he prevailed upon her, via Sam Graham and Will Bigelow, to see the girl safely to her school, after superintending the purchase of a suitable wardrobe in Philadelphia.
So Betty was gone--herself, I believe, no less surprised and incredulous than the rest of us.
Radville was at first stupefied, then clamorous; but there was little information to be got out of old Sam. I found him busy working on his new model and much preoccupied with that. When interrogated and given to understand that I would not be put off, he roused a bit, but beyond being unquestionably a very happy man, seemed himself slightly dazed by the amazing circumstances. I learned from him that Nat had evidently made all his plans in advance, but had withheld his announcement of them until the Saturday prior to that Monday; and then he had fairly whirled Betty and her father off their feet and left them no time to think or to raise objections.
"There's no use at all arguing with that boy," Sam told me, with the fond smile that I was beginning to recognise as the invariable accompaniment of his thoughts about Nat; "when he says a thing must be, it must. When he first came here I told him he was a wonderful business man, and he laughed at me, but now I know he is. Why, he gave Betty a hundred dollars to buy clothes with in Philadelphia, and said he'd have more for her by Christmas, besides paying all the expenses of that school--which must be considerable. I don't see how the store's going to stand the strain--though it's doing splendidly since he came in, splendidly!--but he says it's all right, and so it must be...."
Duncan himself refused to be interviewed. He told everybody who had the impudence to mention the matter to him, that it was Mr. Graham's affair: Mr. Graham was a substantial business man, he said, and if he chose to send his daughter away to school he had a perfect right to do so. I don't believe even Josie Lockwood got more than that out of him, for if she had we would have heard of it; and Josie was unmistakably a little jealous, and undoubtedly questioned Nat.
One direct result of it all was to hasten Josie's own leave-taking. It would never do to let the Grahams eclipse the Lockwoods, you see. Josie had been talking of going to a school in Maryland, but Betty's move to a fashionable centre like Philadelphia made her change her mind; and arrangements were made by which Josie was able to go Betty one better: a young ladies' seminary in New York City itself received Josie. She left us bereaved about a week after Betty vanished from our ken, but promised to be back for the Christmas holidays--an announcement which Duncan received with expressions of chastened joy, as he did her promise to write to him regularly, in return for his covenant to respond promptly.... Betty, by the way, had made no such arrangement; but she wrote twice a week to old Sam, and I understand she never failed to include a message to Nat.
Betty was happy, she protested in every communication, and wholly content. She was getting along. The other girls liked her and she liked them (these statements being made in the order of their relative importance). Lots of them, of course, were frightfully swell (Betty annexed "frightfully" at school, by the by) and had all sorts of clothes; but Betty was perfectly content with her modest outfit, and none of the other girls seemed to mind how she dressed. They were all kind and nice, and she'd never had such a good time.... I quote these expressions from memory of Sam's digest of her letters.
Of Josie I heard less; I know that Graham and Duncan's mail seldom lacked a personal communication to Duncan, postmarked at New York; our postmaster told me so. But Duncan was reticent, and the Lockwoods said little. I gathered an impression that Josie was not altogether happy in her new surroundings.... One inferred there was a difference between New York and Philadelphia, that one was less friendly and sociable than the other.
Josie kept her promise and came home for Christmas. She was reticent as to her impressions of the New York seminary, but seemed extremely glad to be home, notwithstanding the fact that Nat had apparently contracted no disturbing alliances with the other belles of our village. And Roland remained true--a reliable second string to Josie's bow. Roland was working hard at the bank, with an application that earned Blinky Lockwood's regard and outspoken approbation; and his Christmas raiment proved the sensation of the season. But none of us believed he had any chance against Duncan: Josie's attitude toward the latter was such that we confidently anticipated the announcement of their engagement before she went away again. But it didn't come, for some reason. We bore up under the disappointment bravely, all things considered, sustained by a very secure feeling that the proclamation couldn't be long deferred.
In passing, I should mention that Betty didn't come home once throughout the entire school term. The Christmas and Easter holidays she spent with a girl friend at her Philadelphia home.
Meanwhile, life in our town simmered gently. Things went on much as they might have been expected to. I don't recall much essential to this narrative, in the way of events; and part of the ground I've covered on earlier pages. Duncan continued to make progress: for one thing, I recall that he put in hot soda with whipped cream, which helped a lot to hold the trade regained in the summer from Sothern and Lee. And he bought a new soda fountain, a very magnificent affair, installing it in the early spring. Graham and Duncan's, in short, became a town institution: to it Radville pointed with pride....
He remained reserved, retiring, inconspicuous, and puzzling to our understanding. In his effort (never very successful) to strike off the shackles of modern slang, he fell into a way of speech that bewildered those unable to realise what an abiding sense of humour underlay it--as water runs beneath ice--more, I think, a matter of intonation and significant silences, than a mere play upon words and phrases; which, coupled with an unshakable sobriety of demeanour, furnished us with wonder and some admiration, but no resentment. We liked him pretty well and mostly unanimously: he was a good fellow, if queer; entitled to his idiosyncrasy, if he chose to keep one....
There was a certain night, by way of illustration--a bitter night, along toward the first of January--when trade was dull, as it always is after Christmas, and there was nobody in the store save Nat and Tracey. Each had their task, whatever it may have been, and each was busied with it, but of the two Tracey seemed the more restless. His ample, if low, forehead was decidedly corrugated; his always rosy face owned an added trace of scarlet--a flush of perturbation; his chubby hands were inexpert, clumsy. He stumbled, fumbled, forgot and (in our homely phrase) flummoxed generally; his mind was elsewhere, and his hands and feet went anywhere but where they should have gone: a condition which eventually excited Duncan's attention.
He broke a long silence in the store. "What's the trouble, Tracey?"
Tracey pulled up with a stare of confusion. "I--I dunno, Mr. Duncan; I was thinkin', I guess."
"Anything gone wrong?"
"Not yet." Niobe would have made the response with a greater show of cheer.
Duncan looked up curiously, struck by the boy's tone. "Somebody been demonstrating that your doll's stuffed with sawdust, Tracey?"
"Say, Mr. Duncan--" Tracey's confusion became terrific.
"Say on, Mr. Tanner."
The interjection diverted Tracey's train of thought to an inconsiderable siding. "I only called you Mr. Duncan," he said, aggrieved, "'cause you're my boss."
"That's a poor excuse, Tracey. You call Mr. Graham 'Sam,' and he's likewise your boss."
"I know. But it's diff'runt."
"I don't see it. Even Nats have their place in the cosmic system, Tracey."
"I dunno what that is, but you ain't like Sam."
"The loss is mine, Tracey. Proceed."
"But, Mr. Duncan..."
"I beg of you, speak to me as to a friend."
Tracey struggled perceptibly. The words, when they came, were blurted. "Ah... I was only thinkin' 'bout Angie."
"Do you ever think about anything else?"
"No," Tracey admitted honestly, "not much. But I was wonderin'--"
"Are you stuck on Angie, Mr. Duncan?" demanded Tracey desperately.
"Great snakes! I hope not!" Duncan cast an anxious glance about him, and discovered the poster depicting the gentleman in strange attire vainly endeavouring to free his overcoat (I believe it's his overcoat) from the bench upon which a pot of glue has been spilled. He lifted a reverent hand to the card. "Tracey," he said solemnly, "I swear to you that not even that indispensable article of commerce could stick me on Angie."
The boy sighed. "Thank you, Mr. Duncan. I was only worryin' because you and Angie is singin' together in the choir, now Josie Lockwood's gone to school, an'--an' Angie's the purtiest girl in town--and I was 'fraid 't you might like her best, when Josie's away. An' I wanted to ask you to pick out s'mother girl."
Duncan chuckled silently. "Tracey," he said presently, "it strikes me you must be in love with Angie."
The boy gulped. "I--I am."
"And I think she's rather partial to you."
"Do you, really, Mr. Duncan?"
"I do. Do you want to marry her?"
"Gee! I can't hardly wait!... Only," Tracey continued, disconsolate, "it ain't no use, really. She's so purty and swell and old man Tuthill's so rich--not like the Lockwoods, but rich, all the same--an' I'm only the son of the livery-stable man, an' fat an'--all that--an'--"
"Nonsense, Tracey!" Nat interrupted firmly. "If you really want her and will follow the rules I give you, it's a cinch."
"Honest, Mr. Duncan?"
"I guarantee it, Tracey. Listen to me...." And Duncan expounded Kellogg's rules at length, adapting them to Tracey's circumstances, of course; and throughout maintained the gravity of a graven image. "You try, and you'll see if I'm not right," he concluded.
"Gosh! I b'lieve you are!" Tracey cried admiringly. "I'm just going to see how it works."
"Do, if you'd favour me, Tracey."
Tracey was quiet for a time, working with the regularity of a mind relieved. But presently he felt unable to contain himself. Gratitude surged in his bosom, and he had to speak.
"Say, Mist--Nat, you've treated me somethin' immense."
"Your mistake, Tracey. I haven't treated anybody since I've been here: I'm on the wagon."
"I mean just now, when we was talkin' 'bout me an' Angie. I'd--I'd like to help you the same way, if I could."
"You would?" Duncan eyed the boy apprehensively, wondering what was coming.
"Yes, indeedy, I would. An' p'rhaps I kin tell you somethin' that will."
"Speak, I beg."
"You--er--you're tryin' to court Josie Lockwood, ain't you?"
"Oh!" said Nat. "So that was it! That's a secret, Tracey," he averred.
"All right. Only, if you are, she's your'n."
"Just how do you figure that out?"
"Oh, I kin tell. She was in here to-night with Roland."
"Yes, just afore you come home from prayer-meetin'. She was lookin' for you, and when she seen you wasn't here, she wouldn't wait for no soda nor nothin'. Said she had a headache an' was goin' home. Roland went with her, but she didn't want him to. You just missed seein' her."
"Heavens, what a blow!"
"But Roland's takin' her home needn't upset you none."
"Thank you for those kind words, Tracey." Nat sighed and passed a troubled hand across his brow. "You're a true friend."
"I'm tryin' to be, Nat, same's you are to me." Tracey thought this over. "But you ain't foolin' me, are you?" he asked presently. "I mean 'bout bein' a true friend?"
"Why should I?"
"Ah, I dunno. You're so cur'us, sometimes. I ain't never sure whether you mean what you're sayin' or not."
"Oh, don't say that."
"Well, I ain't the only one. Everybody in town says they don't understand you, half the time."
Duncan left his counter and moved over to that at which Tracey was occupied. His face was entirely serious, his manner deeply sympathetic. "Tracey," he said, dropping a hand on the boy's shoulder, "do you know, nothing in life is harder to bear than not to be understood?"
Tracey wrestled with this for a moment, but it was beyond him.
"Then why the hell don't you talk so's folks'll know what it's about?" he demanded heatedly.
"Because... Hm." Duncan hesitated, with his enigmatic smile. "Well, because the rules don't require it."
"What d'you mean by that?" Tracey exploded.
Nat couldn't explain, so he countered neatly. "This is one of your Angie... evenings, isn't it, Tracey?"
"Well, you hurry along. I'll close up the shop."
Tracey had slammed on his hat and was struggling into his overcoat almost as soon as the words were out of Nat's mouth.
"Kin I?" he cried excitedly.
"Yes," said Nat, watching the boy turn up his collar and button his overcoat to the throat, "I haven't got the heart to keep you."
"Ah, thanks, Mr. Duncan."
The boy paused at the door. "What?"
"Remember what I told you. Don't you make too much love. Let Angie do that."
"Gosh, that'll be the hardest rule of all for me!" A shadow clouded Tracey's honest eyes. "But I got to do it that way, anyway. I can't ask her to marry me yit. I can't afford to get married."
"It's a contrary world, Tracey, a contrary world!" sighed Nat in a tone of deepest melancholy.
"What makes you say that? You kin git married's soon's you want to."
"You think so, Tracey?"
"All you got to do's ask Josie--"
"I'm almost afraid you're right."
"Why? Don't you want to git married?"
"Well"--Nat smiled--"no. Don't believe I do. Not just now, at any rate."
"Well, you don't have to if you don't want to.... G'd-night."
"Yes, I do," Nat told Tracey's back. "The rules say so. If the girl asks me, I must."
He grimaced ruefully beneath his wisp of a moustache. "Anyhow, I've got a few months left...."