The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XVIII. A Bargain is a Bargain
So the winter wore away.... And as spring drew nigh upon our valley, Duncan seemed to grow perturbed, even as he had been in the autumn before Betty went away. He was pondering another scheme for the betterment of the condition of those he cared for, and gave it ample consideration before he broached it to old Sam, after swearing him to secrecy.
He had to propose nothing more or less than an abandonment of the old Graham housekeeping quarters above the store and a removal of the menage bodily to a vacant house on Beech Street, near the store, which could be rented, partly furnished, at a moderate rate.
To begin with (thus ran his argument) the store itself was growing too small for the volume of business it commanded. More room was needed, both for storage and laboratory purposes, to say nothing of accommodation for Sam's models and work-bench. The latter had already been moved upstairs for the winter, the shed in the backyard being too cold to work in; and the laboratory end of the business was growing at such a rate that it was crowding the prescription counter to the wall--so to speak. You see, there really wasn't a more clever analytical chemist in the northern part of the State than Sam Graham, and now that the drug-store was becoming an influence in the neighbourhood he was receiving commissions from physicians operating in districts as far as fifty miles away. So a room was needed for that branch of the business alone.
Moreover, a separate residence distinctly befitted the dignity of a man who was at once a prominent inventor and one of Radville's leading merchants (vide a "Personal" in the late issue of the Radville Citizen), to say nothing of the social position of his daughter--meaning Betty. And the house Duncan had his metaphorical eye upon was large enough to shelter Nat himself in addition to the Graham family. Thus they might pool their living expenses to the economical advantage of each.
Finally, it would be a great and glad surprise for Betty on her homecoming.
Graham fell in with the scheme without a murmur of dubiety or dissent. Whatever Nat proposed in Sam's understanding was right and feasible; and even if it wasn't really so, Nat would make it so.... They engaged the house and moved. Miss Ann Sophronsiba Whitmarsh, a maiden lady of forty-five or thereabouts, popularly known as "Phrony," had been coming in by the day to "do for" old Sam in the rooms above the shop. She was engaged as resident housekeeper for the new establishment, and entered upon her duties with all the discreet joy of one whose maternal instincts have been suppressed throughout her life. She mothered Sam and she mothered Nat and she panted in expectation of the day when she would have Betty to mother. Incidentally, she was one of the best housekeepers in Radville, and cooperated with all her heart with Nat in the task of making a home out of the new house. They arranged and disarranged and rearranged and discarded old furniture and bought new with almost the abandon of a newly married couple fitting out their first home.... It was surprising what they managed to accomplish with it; when they were finished, there wasn't a prettier nor a more home-like residence in all Radville--and Phrony Whitmarsh was Nat's slave, even as Miss Carpenter had been. She gave him all the credit for everything praiseworthy about the place: and with some reason; for, as a matter of fact, he had spared himself not at all in the business of scheming and contriving to make the new home suitable for the reception of Betty Graham....
It's interesting when one has come to my time of life, to sit and speculate on the singular mental blindness of mortal man, such as that which kept Nat unaware of the real, rock-bottom reason why he was working so hard on the Beech Street house. I daresay the young idiot thought his motives as much selfish as anything else--told himself that he wanted a comfortable home--and this was his way of securing one--and all that rot. At all events, he told me as much, quite seriously-- seemed to believe it himself; and this, in spite of the fact that Miss Carpenter had done everything imaginable to make him comfortable....
Josie Lockwood came home again for the Easter holidays, but didn't return to finish her term in the New York school. Just why, we never discovered: the Lockwoods furnished us with no really satisfying explanation; they said that Josie didn't like New York, but I've always doubted that, especially since Josie married and insisted on moving straightway to that metropolis. I suspect she didn't get along with the class of young women with whom she was thrown at school, and I'm pretty certain she was uneasy about Nat all the time she was so far away from him. Anyway, she elected to remain in Radville and keep the young man dancing attendance on her day in and out. Which he did, as in duty bound; he liked the game less and less all the time, but Kellogg held his promise....
It was during this period, between the Easter vacation and the end of the spring school term, that Roland Barnette's animosity toward Duncan became virulent. Looking back, I can recall the symptoms of his waxing hostility--as, for instance, the evening he spent in the Citizen office, poring over back files of our exchanges. That seemed innocent enough at the time, a harmless freak on the part of the young man, and no one paid much attention to it; but it led to great things, in the end, and incidentally did Duncan a service which probably could have been accomplished through no other agency. This, however, is something that Roland doesn't realise to this day; and I'm inclined to doubt if you could ever make him understand it.
Josie, of course, was prompt to oust Angie Tuthill from her place in the choir. After that she sang with Nat on Friday nights as well as Wednesdays and twice per Sunday. Between whiles she was a pretty constant patron of the store. There was no longer the least doubt in the collective mind of the town as to the inclination of Josie's affections. Nat himself gave evidence of his appreciation of the gravity of the situation, managing by some admirable diplomacy to evade the issue until the very last moment. But with the three--Roland, Nat, and Josie--so involved, we sensed a storm below the horizon, and awaited its breaking, if not with avidity, at least with quickened apprehension.
The culmination came the day before Betty was to return--a day late in May, I remember, and a Friday at that.
It began along toward evening. Duncan, alone in the store, was busy behind the prescription counter. The day had been humid, warm and sultry, and the doors and windows were open. The air was bland and still, and sound travelled easily. He could hear the musical clanking of hammers in Badger's smithy, on the next block, the deep-throated hoot-toot of the late afternoon train as it rushed down the valley, sounds of fierce altercation from the home of Pete Willing near by, a boy rattling a stick along palings down on Main Street.... But he did not hear anybody enter the store: absorbed with his task, he thought himself quite alone until a well-kenned voice reached his ear.
"Well!" it said, unctuous with appreciation of the sight of him. "Old Doctor Duncan!"
He let the pestle fall from his hand and jumped as if he had been stuck with a pin. His jaw dropped and his eyes bulged. "Great Scott!" he cried; and in a twinkling was round the counter, throwing himself into the arms of a man whom he hailed ecstatically: "Harry, by all that's wonderful!" He fairly danced with delight. "Henry Kellogg, Esquire!" he cried, holding him at arms' length and looking him over. "What in thunderation are you doing here?"
Kellogg freed himself, only to seize both Nat's hands and squeeze them violently. "Wanted to see you," he replied, beaming. "On my way to Cincinnati on business--thought I'd drop off for a night and size you up. My, but it's good to get a look at you! How are you?"
"Me? Look at me--picture of health. Harry, you've made a new man of me." Duncan pranced round his friend in a mild frenzy. "No booze--no smokes--no swears--work! I feel like a two-year-old: I could do a Marathon without turning a hair. Watch me kick up my heels and neigh!" He paused for breath. "And you?"
"Fine as silk--but you've got it on me, Nat, physically. You're a sight to heal the blind."
"And listen!" Nat crowed: "I'm a business man. Didn't you believe it? Pipe my shop!"
Kellogg checked to obey the admonition of Duncan's gesticulations, and took a long look round the store. "Gad!" said he. "I'm blowed if it isn't true! It was hard to credit your letters. But it's great, old man. I congratulate you, with all my heart."
"Just wait and I'll tell you all about it. But first tell me how long you're going to be here."
"Well, I plan to hang around with you a couple of days. My business in the West isn't pressing."
"Which is the least worst hotel?"
"There ain't no such thing in the whole giddy town.... No, none of that hotel stuff, now I I'm going to put you up--and I'll do it in style, too. I wrote you about taking a new place for the Grahams?"
"Yes, and I'm mighty keen to meet 'em. The girl here?"
"Betty? No; she's coming home to-morrow. But Graham himself is upstairs in the laboratory. Take you up in a minute, but not before I've had a good look at you."
Kellogg found himself a chair. "Well," he inquired, twinkling, "how's the scheme working out? Are you really living up to all the rules?"
"Every singletary one."
"You have got a strong constitution.... Even prayer-meetings?"
"The church thing? Honest, Harry, I own it."
"Bully for you, Nat. But how does it work? Was I right?"
"I should say you were. It's so easy it's a shame to do it. If this thing ever should get into the papers there'd be a swarm of city men lighting out for the Rube centres so thick you wouldn't be able to see the sky."
"I knew it! Trust your Uncle Harry." Kellogg waited a time for further particulars, but Duncan seemed stuck; his transports of the few minutes just gone were sensibly abated; and the sidelong look he gave Kellogg was both uneasy and rueful--apprehensive, indeed. So Kellogg had to pump for news. "And you've made a strong play for the fond affections of Lockwood's daughter?"
"You forget your rules." Nat grinned, whimsical. "I let her to make a play for me."
"Of course. My mistake.... But how has it worked?"
"Oh! immense." Duncan's tone, however, was wholly destitute of enthusiasm. He stuck his hands in his trousers' pockets and half turned away from his friend, looking out of the window.
Kellogg smiled secretly. "You mean you've won her already?"
"Oh, there's nothing to it," said Duncan, shaking his head and meaning just the exact opposite of what his words conveyed, for of such is our modern slang.
"Then you're engaged?" Kellogg had understood perfectly, you see.
"No, not yet. I've got two months left--almost."
"So you have. And since she's so strong for you, there's no hurry: let her take her time."
"I only wish she would." Duncan removed one hand from the pocket the better to tug at his moustache. "It's got beyond that--to the point where I have to keep dodging her."
"You don't mean it! That's splendid." Kellogg got up and slapped Nat's shoulder heartily. "But don't overdo the dodging. She might get her back up."
"Not she. She'd eat out of my hand, if I'd let her. You don't understand."
"What's the matter, then? Aren't you strong for her?"
"I wish I were."
"But why? Is there another----?"
"No." Nat shook his head, honestly believing he was telling the truth. "Only ... I don't look at things the way I did once."
"Just what do you mean by that?"
Nat, squaring himself to face Kellogg, was very serious, now, and troubled. "See here, Harry," he said: "do you really want me to carry out the rest of the agreement?"
"Most certainly I do. Why not?"
"Because I'm pretty well fixed here. The business is making good--and so am I. It won't be long before I can pay you back, with interest, as we agreed, without having to marry that poor girl and ... and draw on her money to make good to you."
"You want to go back on our agreement?" demanded Kellogg, with a show of disappointment and disgust.
"Yes and no. I won't break faith with you, if you insist, but I'd give a lot if you'd let me off--let me pay back what you advanced and cry quits.... When you outlined this scheme I was down and three times out--willing to take a chance at anything, no matter how contemptible. Now... well, it's different."
"Good heavens! You don't mean you'd be willing to live here?"
Nat smiled, but not mirthfully. "I don't know," he hesitated; "I'm afraid I'm beginning to like it."
"You, Nat?" Kellogg's amazement was unfeigned. "You, ready to spend your life here slaving away in this measly store?"
Duncan grunted indignantly. "Hold on, now. Don't you call this a measly store. There isn't a more complete drug-store in the State!"
"Do you hear that?" Kellogg appealed vehemently to the universe at large. "Is it possible that this is Nat Duncan, the fellow who hated work so hard he couldn't earn a living?... Gad, I believe I've arrived just in time!"
"In time for what?"
"To save you from yourself, old man. Here's the heiress you came here to cop out, ready and anxious, everything else coming your way and ... and you're more than half inclined to back out.... You make me tired."
"I suppose I must. But I can't help it. I can't make you see how the thing looks to me. You know--I've written you all about everything-- what this place has meant to me. Until I came here I never realised it was in me to make good at anything. But here I have; I'm doing so well that I'd actually have some self-respect if I wasn't bound to play this low-down trick on Josie Lockwood. I've worked and succeeded and been of some service to people who were worth it----"
"Who? Sam Graham?"
"He and his daughter----"
"Oh, his daughter!"
"Now get that foolish idea out of your head; there's nothing in it. Betty's just a simple, sweet little girl, who's had a pretty hard time and never a real chance in life--until I managed to give it to her. And I'd feel pretty good about that if ... Oh, there's no use talking to you!"
"No; go on; you're very entertaining." Kellogg laughed mockingly.
"Well, I have tried to keep to the terms of our understanding; I singled out this Lockwood girl and worked all the degrees--didn't say much, you know--no love-making--just let her catch me looking sadly at her once in a while..."
"That's the way to work it."
"Yes, that's the way," Nat assented gloomily. "But the longer I keep it up the meaner I feel and... I wish you'd agree to call it off. ... These Rubes at first struck me as being nothing but a lot of jay freaks, but when I got to know them I realised they were just as human as we are. I like them now and... on the level, I'm getting kind of stuck on church.... As for work, why, I eat it up!"
Kellogg laughed with delight "Nat," he cried, "my poor crazy friend, listen to me: This working and church-going and helping old Graham is all very noble and fine, and I'm glad you've done it. This drug-store is a monument to the business ability that I always knew was latent in you. And clean living hasn't done you any harm.... But now you're due to come down to earth. This place pays you a neat profit. Well and good! That's all it'll ever do. It's new to you now and you like the novelty and you're having the time of your life finding out you're good for something. But pretty soon it'll begin to stale on you, and before long you'll find yourself hating it and the town--and then you'll be back where you started. Now, I'm going to hold you to our bargain for your own sake. If you're stuck on the town and the work you can keep right on just as well after you're married; but when you do begin to tire of it, you'll want that fortune to fall back on and do what you like with. Don't let this chance slip--not on your life!"
"But," Nat argued feebly, "think of the injustice to the girl. From the way I've behaved since I struck this burg she thinks I'm closely related to the saints."
"Very well, then; I'll concede a point. If you really think you're taking a mean advantage of her, when she proposes to you tell her all about yourself--just the sort of a chap you've been. You needn't mention our agreement, however. Then if she wants to drop you, I'll have nothing to say."
"Thank you for nothing," said Duncan bitterly. "A bargain's a bargain. I gave you my word of honour I'd go through with this thing, and I'll stick to it. But I tell you now, I don't like it."
"Oh, I know how you feel, Nat. But I know that some day you'll come to me and say: 'Harry, if you had let me back out, I'd never have forgiven you.'"
"All right," said Nat impatiently. "I presume you know best."
"You can bet I do. And now I'd like to meet old Graham."
"I'll take you right up--no, I can't. Here comes a customer. But you just go through that door and upstairs; he'll be in the laboratory--the front room--and he knows all about you. I'll join you just as soon as Tracey gets back."