The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
XXII. Roland's Triumph
But at the doorstep of the Methodist Church Nat hesitated. The building was dimly lighted, for it was choir practise night, and the door was ajar; but he couldn't bring himself to enter. He would not long have peace and quiet in which to think, there; presently would come Angle and Josie and Roland and...
"I couldn't stand it; I'd probably murder Roland....
"Besides, I've no right there--an impostor--a contemptible low-lived pup like me!...
"Why the thunderation did I ever allow myself to be persuaded to come here? Why was I ever such a fool?...
"How could I be such a fool?..."
He was walking, now, striding swiftly through the silent village streets, meeting few wayfarers and paying them no heed, whether they knew and greeted him or not. His entire consciousness was obsessed by regret, repentance and remorse. He had ruined everything, deceived everybody--even himself for a time--played the cad and the bounder with consummate address. There were no bounds to the contempt he felt for the man who had tricked these simple, kindly folk into believing him immaculate, impeccable; who had hoodwinked "that old prince, Graham," and under false pretences gained his confidence and affection; who had deliberately set out to snare an innocent and trusting girl for the sake of the filthy money her father owned; who had made another and a better girl love him, though that he had done so unconsciously, only to break her heart; who had sacrificed everything, honour and decency and self-respect, to his greed for money.
But it should go no further. He'd given what he called his word of honour to a despicable compact; there could be no dishonour so great as holding by that word, sticking to his bargain, maintaining the deception and--ruining the life of one woman--perhaps two: Josie Lockwood's, for he could never love her; and possibly Betty Graham's, for she was of that sort that loves once and once only. If she truly loved him...
But by his own act he had placed himself forever beyond the joy of her love. He could never accept it, desire it as passionately as he might--and did. He could never consent to drag her down to his base level...
To-morrow--no, to-night, that very night, he would unmask himself, declare his character to them all, pillory himself that all might see how low a man could fall. And to-morrow he would go, leave Radville, lose himself to all that had come to be so dear to him, forever....
So, raving and ranting with the extravagance of youth, he passed through the village, out into the open country, and in the course of an hour and a half, back--all blindly: circling back to the store, in the course of his wanderings, as instinctly as a carrier pigeon shapes its course for home.
It was with incredulity that he found himself again in that cheerful, cherished, homely place. But there he was when he came out of his abstraction: there in those familiar surroundings, with Tracey's round red face beaming at him over the cigar-stand like a lively counterfeit of the round red moon he had watched lift up into the skies, back there in the still countryside, just as he paused to turn back to town.
He recollected his faculties and resumed command of himself sufficiently to acknowledge Tracey's greeting with a moody word.
"All right, Tracey," he said abruptly. "You may go, now. I'll shut up the store."
He looked at his watch, and was surprised to discover that it was no later than half-past eight. He seemed to have lived a lifetime in the last few hours.
"Thank you, sir," said Tracey with a gush of gratitude. "I'll be glad to get off. Angle's waiting."
"Good-evening, Mr. Duncan."
"Oh, Miss Tuthill!" Nat discovered that little rogue, all smiles and dimples and blushes, not distant from his elbow. "I didn't see you--I was thinking."
"Guess we know what you was thinkin' about," observed Tracey, bringing his hat round the counter. "Everybody in town's talkin' about it."
"Ah, you know about what, and we're mighty glad of it, and we want to congratulate you, don't we, Angie."
"Oh, yes, indeed, Mr. Duncan. It's just too sweet for anything."
"O Lord!" groaned Nat.
"I'm awful glad you done it when you did," pursued Tracey, oblivious to Nat in his own ecstatic temper. "I guess I wouldn't never 've got up the spunk to--to tell Angie what I did to-night, 'f it hadn't been we was talkin' 'bout your engagement to Josie. Then, somehow, it just seemed to bust right out of me, like I couldn't hold it no longer. Didn't it, Angie?"
"Oh, Tracey, how can you talk so!"
"Then you're engaged, too?" Nat inquired, rousing himself a little and smiling feebly upon them.
"I'm glad to hear it. It's great news. Now run along, both of you, and don't forget you'll never be so happy again." With what he thought an expiring flash of humour he raised his hands above their heads. "Bless you, my children!" he said solemnly. "Now, for Heaven's sake, beat it!"
Alone he went to the prescription desk and opening one of the drawers took out the firm's books. After that for some fifteen minutes there was nothing to be heard in the store save Nat's breathing and the scratching of his pen as he figured out a trial balance....
Brisk footfalls disturbed him. He sighed and moved out into the store to find Kellogg there, suave and easy as always, yet with that in his manner, perceptible perhaps only to a friend of long-standing like Nat, to betray a mind far from complacent.
"Oh, you're here!" he cried, with a distinct start of relief. "I've been looking all over for you."
"I just got in." Nat brushed aside explanations curtly, intent upon his purpose. "Harry, I've got something to say to you: I'm not going through with this thing."
"No; and that's final. I was just on the point of drawing you a cheque for three-hundred; that's all my share of the profits of this concern, so far; and my note for the balance. I'll pay that up as soon as I'm able--and I'll work like a terrier until I do. But as for the rest of it, I'm through."
"Oh, you are?" Kellogg took a chair and tipped back, frowning gravely. "But what about your word to me?"
"Damn that," said Duncan without heat. "The word of honour of a man who'd stoop to a trick as vile as I have doesn't amount to a continental shinplaster. I'll rather be dishonoured by breaking it than by ruining a woman's life."
"Very well, if you feel that way about it," said Kellogg as coolly. "And you may keep your cheque and note: I wouldn't take them. You can pay me back when it's convenient--I don't care when. But what I want to know is what you mean to do?"
"I mean to do the only thing left to do. I'm going to shut up here and then see Lockwood and Josie and tell them the whole story."
"Hm," Kellogg reflected, quizzical. "You've got a pleasant little job ahead of you."
"I don't care about that: I deserve all that's coming to me. I owe Josie a duty. Why, it's awful, Harry, to trick a girl into caring for you and then to--to----"
"Break her heart?" Kellogg's tone was sardonic.
"That's what I meant."
"Don't flatter yourself, my boy. Josie Lockwood doesn't love you; she just set herself to win you because you're the best chance she's seen." Kellogg laughed quietly. "The system would have worked just as well if anyone else had tried it."
"Do you think so--honest?" Nat's eagerness to believe him was undisguised.
"I'm sure of it. The trouble is that people will say you've thrown her over--there isn't anyone in Radville who hasn't heard the news by this time; and that's going to make the girl feel pretty cheap. But only for a while: she'll get over it and solace herself with the next best thing.... And don't forget; you lose a fortune."
"No, I don't," Duncan disclaimed. "I never had it and now I don't want it."
"That's true enough," Kellogg admitted evenly. "And I hope you'll always feel that way about it; but, believe me, you'll find plenty of money a great help if you want to live a happy life."
"There are better things than money to make a man happy; I'll pass up the money and try for the others."
"That's true, too; but when did you find it out?"
"Here--this last year.... You know I had everything my heart desired until the governor cashed in; and I used to think I was a pretty happy kid in those days. But now I've learned that you can beat that kind of happiness to death. Harry"--Duncan was growing almost sententious--"the real way to be happy is to work and have your work amount to something and--and to have someone who believes in you to work for."
"Is this a sermon, Nat?"
"Call it what you like: it goes, just the same. ... That's what I've found out this year."
Kellogg let his chair fall forward and rose, imprisoning Nat's shoulders with two heavy but kindly hands. "And you're right!" he cried heartily. "I'm glad you had the backbone to back out, Nat. It was a low-down trick and I'm ashamed of myself for proposing it. I did it, I presume, simply because I'm a schemer at heart, and I knew it would work. It did work, but it's worked a finer way than I dreamed of: it's made a man of you, Nat, and I'm mightly glad and proud of you!"
Nat swayed with amazement. "What's changed you all of a sudden?" he demanded blankly.
Releasing him, Kellogg resumed his seat, laughing. "Well, a number of things. Among others, I've talked with Graham and I've met his daughter."
"And that reminds me," Kellogg changed the subject briskly; "I understood from you that Graham was sole owner of that patent burner."
"So he is."
"He says not. I had a proposition to make him from the Mutual people, and he referred me to you, saying that you controlled the matter."
"I've not the slightest interest in it!" Nat protested.
"I know you haven't, but Graham insisted you owned the whole thing. I pressed him for an explanation, and he finally furnished one in his rambling, inconsequent, fine old way. He admitted that there wasn't any sort of an existing contract or agreement of any sort, even oral, between you, but just the same you'd been so good to him and his girl that he'd made up his mind--some time ago, I gather--to make you a present of the burner; but naturally he forgot to tell you about an insignificant detail like that."
"Of course that's nonsense; I wouldn't and shant accept."
"Of course you won't. I did you the honour to discount that. But he wouldn't say a word about the offer--yes or no--just left it all up to you. He says you're a business man, and that he's often thought what a help you must have been to me before you left New York."
Nat laughed outright. "Can you beat that? ... But what is the offer?"
"Fifty thousand cash and ten thousand shares of preferred stock--hundred dollars par."
"What's that worth?"
"At the market rate when I left town, seventy-eight." Kellogg waited a moment. "Well, what do you say?"
"Say? Great Caesar's Ghost! What is there to say? Wire 'em an acceptance before they get their second wind.... You don't know how good this makes me feel, Harry; I can't thank you enough for what you've done. This'll square me with Graham to some extent, and I can clear out----"
"No, you can't, Mr. Smarty! You ain't been 'cute enough."
Both men, startled by the interruption, wheeled round to discover Roland Barnette dancing with excitement in the doorway, the while he beckoned frantically to an invisible party without. "Come on!" he shouted. "Here he is!"
"What's eating you, Roly-Poly?" inquired
Nat, too happy for the money to cherish animosity even toward his one-time rival.
"You'll find out soon enough," snarled Roland. "Mr. Lockwood's got something to say to you, I guess."
And on the heels of this announcement Lockwood strode into the store, Josie clinging to his arm, Pete Willing--a trifle more sanely drunk than he had been some hours previous--bringing up the rear.
"So!" snarled Blinky, halting and transfixing Nat with the stare of his cold blue eyes. "So we've found you, eh?"
"Oh? I didn't know I was lost."
"No nonsense, young man. I ain't in the humour for foolin'." Blinky was unquestionably in no sort of a humour at all beyond an evil one. "I come here to have a word with you."
"Well, sir?" Nat's tone and attitude were perfectly pacific.
"Ah, there ain't no use beatin' 'round the bush. You've behaved yourself ever since you come to Radville, and insinooated yourself into our confidence, 'spite of the fact that nobody in town knows who you were before you came. But now Roland's laid a charge again' you, and I want to know the rights to it."
"Well," Roland interposed cockily, "I accused him of it to-night and he didn't deny it."
[Illustration: "You're a thief with a reward out for you!"]
"What's more," Lockwood continued with rising colour, "Roland says he can prove it?"
"Prove what?" Nat insisted. "Get down to facts, can't you?"
"That you're a thief with a reward out for you," said Roland. "You're that Mortimer Henry what absconded from the Longacre National Bank in Noo York."
There fell a brief pause. Nat bowed his head and tugged at his moustache, his shoulders shaking with emotion variously construed by those who watched him. Presently he looked up again, his features gravely composed.
"Roly," said he, "Balaam must miss you terribly."
"That ain't no answer." Lockwood put himself solidly between Nat and the object of his obscure remark--who was painfully digesting it. "I want to know about this. You got my daughter to say she'd marry you this evenin', and you've got to explain to me about this bank business before it goes any further."
"Yes?" commented Nat civilly.
"Yes!" thundered Blinky. "Do you deny it? ... Answer me."
To Kellogg's huge diversion, Nat struck an attitude, "I refuse to answer," said he.
"Aha! What'd I tell you?" This was Roland's triumphant crow.
"Nat!" Josie advanced, trembling with excitement. "Tell me, what does this mean?"
Duncan perforce avoided her gaze. "Don't ask," he said sadly.
"Is it true?" she insisted.
"You heard what Roly said," he replied, with a chastened expression.
"Then you admit it?"
"I admit nothing."
"Oh-h!" The girl drew away from him as from defilement. "I--I hate you!" she cried in a voice of loathing
"That's all right," he told her serenely; "I've despised myself all evening."
The girl showed him a scornful back. "Papa----" she began.
"Don't thank me, Josie. Roland done it all: he got onto him." Lockwood continued to watch Duncan with the air of a cat eyeing a mouse.
Impulsively Josie moved to Roland's side and caught his arm. He drew himself up proudly.
"I do thank you, Roland; I can never be grateful enough. I've been so foolish.
"That's all right." Roland tucked the girl's hand beneath his arm and patted it down. "You wasn't to blame. I never seen anyone from Noo York yet that wasn't a crook."
"Won't you please take me away from this--place, Roland?" she appealed.
"I'll be mighty glad to see you home, Josie," he assured her generously, turning.
In the act of leaving, Josie caught Nat's eye. She hung back for an instant, withering him with a glare. "Oh-h!" she cried. "How did you dare pretend to care for me?"
He bowed politely. "It was one of the rules, Josie."
"There's no need to tell you, I guess, that the engagement is broken."
"None whatever, Miss Lockwood. Good-evening."
Arm in arm they left, with the haughty tread of the elect, while Pete Willing lurched to Duncan's side and caught his arm.
"Come 'long to jail, Mish'r Duncan," he said with sympathy. "Mush bessher."
"You look after him, Pete." Lockwood turned to leave with a final shot for Duncan. "I'll 'tend to your case in the mornin', young man, and I'll make you wish you never came to this town."
"You needn't trouble. I feel that way about it already. Good-night."
Lockwood left them, snarling. Nat caught Kellogg's eye and began to giggle. But Pete was still holding him fast, partially, beyond doubt, for support.
"You've been saved just in time, Mish'r Duncan," he commented; "y'are mighty lucky man. Now lissen: you better make tracks. I ain't got no warrant to hold you, 'nd I wouldn't if I had."
"You're a good fellow, Pete; but you needn't worry. I'm not the man they think me, and it'll be easy to prove."
"Wal," said Pete, "jus' the same, you better git out, 'r you may have to marry her aft'all."
"No, I won't."
"Thank Gawd f'r that!" Pete exclaimed in maudlin gratitude. He swung widely toward the door, and by a miracle found it. "G'night, Mish'r Duncan. I feel s' good 'bout thish I'm goin' try goin' home 'nd face m' wife. G'night."
"Well!" said Kellogg after a pause, "that was a bit of luck!"
"Luck!" Nat seized his hat and began to turn off the lights. "It's more luck than I thought there was in the whole world. Come along."
"Where are you going?"
"First, to see Lockwood and have it out with him."
"No, you aren't," Kellogg laughed as Nat locked the door. "You're going to leave Lockwood to me; I'll manage to ease his mind. You've got infinitely more important matters to attend to--and the sooner you find her, the better, Nat!"