The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
"Look here, Nat," demanded Kellogg, when they were half way through the meal, "do you mind telling me what you're going to do?"
Duncan pondered this soberly. "No," he replied in the end.
Kellogg waited a moment, but his guest did not continue. "What does that kind of a 'No' mean, Nat?"
"It means I don't mind telling you."
Again an appreciable pause elapsed.
"Well, then, what do you mean to do?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
Kellogg regarded him sombrely for a moment, then in silence returned his attention to his plate; and in silence, for the most part, the remainder of the dinner was served and eaten. Duncan himself had certainly enough to occupy his mind, while Kellogg had altogether forgotten his own cause for rejoicing in his concern for the fortunes of his friend. He was entirely of the opinion that something would have to be done for Nat, with or without his consent; and he sounded the profoundest depths of romantic impossibilities in his attempts to discover some employment suited to Duncan's interesting but impracticable assortment of faculties and qualifications, natural and acquired. But nothing presented itself as feasible in view of the fact that employment which would prove immediately remunerative was required. And by the time that Robbins, clearing the board, left them alone with coffee and cigars and cigarettes, Kellogg was fain to confess failure--though the confession was a very private one, confined to himself only.
"Nat," he said suddenly, rousing that young man out of the dreariest of meditations, "what under the sun can you do?"
"Me? I don't know. Why bother your silly old head about that? I'll make out somehow."
"But surely there's something you'd rather do than anything else."
"My dear sir," Duncan told him impressively, "the only walk of life in which I am fitted to shine is that of the idle son of a rich and foolish father. Since I lost that job I've not been worth my salt."
"That's piffle. There isn't a man living who hasn't some talent or other, some sort of an ability concealed about his person."
"You can search me," Duncan volunteered gloomily.
His unresponsiveness irritated Kellogg; he thought a while, then delivered himself of a didactic conclusion:
"The trouble with you is you were brought up all wrong."
"Well, I've been brought down all right. Besides, that's a platitude in my case."
"Let's see: I've know you--er--nine years."
"Is it that long?" Duncan looked up from a gloomy inspection of the interior of his demitasse, displaying his first gleam of interest in this analysis of his character. "You are a long-suffering old duffer. Any man who'd stand for me for nine years--"
"That'll be all of that," Kellogg cut in sharply. "I was going on to say that you can't room with a man for four terms at college and then know him, off and on, for five years more, pretty intimately, without forming a pretty clear estimate of what he's worth in your own mind."
"And I don't mind telling you, Harry, I think you're the best little business man as well as the finest sort of an all-round good-fellow on this continent."
"Thanks awfully. I presume that's why you're determined to throw me down just at the time you need me most.... What I was trying to get at is the fact that I've never doubted your ultimate success for an instant."
"You'd be a mighty lonesome minority in a congress of my employers, Harry."
"Given the proper opportunity--"
"Hold on," Duncan interrupted. "I know just what you're going to say, and it's all very fine, and I'm proud that you want to say it of me. But you're dead wrong, Harry. The truth is I haven't got it in me--the capacity to succeed. Just as much as you love work, I hate it. I ought to know, for I've had a good, hard try at it--several tries, in fact. And you know what they came to."
"But if you persist in this way, Nat,--don't you know what it means?"
"None better. It means going back to what you helped me out of--the life that nearly killed me."
"And you'd rather--"
"I'd rather that a thousand years before I'd sponge on you another day.... But, on the level, I'd as lieve try the East River or turn on the gas.... What's the use? That's the way I feel."
"That's fool talk. Brace up and be a man. All you need is a way to earn money."
"No," Duncan insisted firmly: "get it. I'll never be able to earn it--that's a cinch."
Kellogg laughed a little mirthlessly, absorbed in revolving something which had popped into his head within the last few moments. "There are ways to get it," he admitted abstractedly, "if you're not too particular."
"I'm not. I only wish I understood the burglar business."
This time Kellogg laughed outright. He sat up with a new spirit in his manner. "You mean you'd steal to get money?"
"Oh, well ..." Duncan smiled a trace sheepishly. "I can't think of anything hardly I wouldn't do to get it."
"Very well, my son. Now attend to uncle." Kellogg leaned across the table, fixing him with an enthusiastic eye. "Here, have a smoke. I'm going to demonstrate high finance to your debased intelligence." He thrust the cigarette case over to Duncan, who helped himself mechanically, his gaze held in wonder to Kellogg's face.
"Fire when ready," he assented.
"I know a way," said Kellogg slowly, "by which, if you'll discard a scruple or two, you can be worth a million dollars--or thereabouts--within a year."
Duncan held a lighted match until it singed his fingertips, the while he stared agape. "Say that again," he requested mildly.
"You can be worth a million in a year."
"Ah!" Duncan nodded slowly and comprehendingly. He turned aside in his chair and raked a second match across the sole of his shoe. "Let him rave," he observed enigmatically, and began to smoke.
"No, I'm not dippy; and I'm perfectly serious."
"Of course. But what'd they do to me if I were caught?"
"This is not a joke; the proposition's perfectly legal; it's being done right along."
"And I could do it, Harry?"
"A man of your calibre couldn't fail."
"Would you mind ringing for Robbins?" Duncan asked abruptly.
"Certainly." Kellogg pressed a button at his elbow. "What d'you want?"
"A straight-jacket and a doctor to tell which one of us needs it."
Kellogg, chagrined as he always was if joked with when expounding one of his schemes, broke into a laugh that lasted until Robbins appeared.
"You rang, sir?"
"Yes. Put those decanters over here, and some glasses, please."
The man obeyed and withdrew. Kellogg filled two glasses, handing one to Duncan.
"Now be decent and listen to me, Nat. I've thought this thing over for--oh, any amount of time. I'll bet anything it will work. What d'you say? Would you like to try it?"
"Would I like to try it?" A conviction of Kellogg's earnestness forced itself upon Duncan's understanding. "Would I--!" He lifted his glass and drained it at a gulp. "Why, that's the first laugh I've had for a month!"
"Then I'll tell you--"
Duncan placed a pleading hand on his forearm. "Don't kid me, Harry," he entreated.
"Not a bit of it. This is straight goods. If you want to try it and will follow the rules I lay down, I'll guarantee you'll be a rich man inside of twelve months."
"Rules! Man, I'll follow all the rules in the world! Come on--I'm getting palpitation of the heart, waiting. Tell it to me: what've I got to do?"
"Marry," said Kellogg serenely.
"Marry!" Duncan echoed, aghast.
"Marry," reaffirmed the other with unbroken gravity.
"A girl with a fortune.... You see, I can't guarantee the precise size of her pile. That all depends on luck and the locality. But it'll run anywhere from several hundred thousand up to a million--perhaps more."
Duncan sank back despondently. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Harry," he said dully; "you had me all excited, for a minute."
"No, but honestly, I mean what I say."
"Now look here: do you really think any girl with a million would take a chance on me?"
"She'll jump at it."
Duncan thought this over for a while. Then his lips twitched. "What's the matter with her?" he inquired. "I'm willing to play the game as it lies, but I bar lunatics and cripples."
"There's no particular her--yet. You can take your pick. I've no more idea where she is than you have."
"Now I know you're stark, staring, gibbering----"
"Not a bit of it. I'm inspired--that's all. I've solved your problem--you only can't believe it."
"How could I? What the devil are you getting at, anyhow?"
"This pet scheme of mine. Lend me your ears. Have you ever lived in a one-horse country town--a place with one unspeakable hotel and about twenty stores and five churches?"
"I have; I was born in one of 'em.... Have you any idea what becomes of the young people of such towns?"
"Not a glimmering."
"Then I'll enlighten your egregious density. ...The boys--those who've got the stuff in them--strike out for the cities to make their everlasting fortunes. Generally they do it, too."
"The same as you."
"The same as me," assented Kellogg, unperturbed. "But the yaps, the Jaspers, stay there and clerk in father's store. After office-hours they put on their very best mail-order clothes and parade up and down Main Street, talking loud and flirting obviously with the girls. The girls haven't much else to do; they don't find it so easy to get away. A few of 'em escape to boarding-schools and colleges, where they meet and marry young men from the cities, but the majority of them have to stay at home and help mother--that's a tradition. If there are two children or more, the boys get the chance every time; the girls stay home to comfort the old folks in their old age. Why, by the time they're old enough to think of marrying--and they begin young, for that's about the only excitement they find available--you won't find a small country town between here and the Mississippi where there aren't about four girls to every boy."
"It's a horrible thought ..."
"You'd think so if you knew what the boys were like. There isn't one in ten that a girl with any sense or self-respect could force herself to marry if she ever saw anything better. Do you begin to see my drift?"
"I do not. But go on drifting."
"No? Why, the demand for eligible males is three hundred per cent. in excess of the supply. Don't you know--no, you don't: I got to that first--that there are twenty times as many old maids in small country towns as there are in the cities? It's a fact, and the reason for it is because when they were young they couldn't lower themselves to accept the pick of the local matrimonial market. Now, do you see--?"
"You're as interesting as a magazine serial. Please continue in your next. I pant with anticipation."
"You're an ass.... Now take a young chap from a city, with a good appearance, more or less a gentleman, who doesn't talk like a yap or walk like a yap or dress like a yap or act like a yap, and throw him into such a town long enough for the girls to get acquainted with him. He simply can't lose, can't fail to cop out the best-looking girl with the biggest bank-roll in town. I tell you, there's nothing to it!"
"It's wonderful to listen to you, Harry."
"I'm talking horse sense, my son. Now consider yourself: down on your luck, don't know how to earn a decent living, refusing to accept anything from your friends, ready (you say) to do almost anything to get some money.... And think of the country heiresses, with plenty of money for two, pining away in--in innocuous desuetude--hundreds of them, fine, straight, good girls, girls you could easily fall in love with, sighing their lives away for the lack of the likes of you.... Now, why not take one, Nat--when you come to consider it, it's your duty--marry her and her bank-roll, make her happy, make yourself happy, and live a contented life on the sunny side of Easy Street for the rest of your natural born days? Can't you see it now?"
"Yes," Duncan admitted, half-persuaded of the plausibility of the scheme. "I see--and I admire immensely the intellect that conceived the notion, Harry. But ... I can't help thinking there must be a catch in it somewhere."
"Not if you follow my instructions. You see, having come from just such a hole-in-the-ground, I know just what I'm talking about. Believe me, everything depends on the way you go about it. There are a lot of things to contend with at first; you won't enjoy it at all, to begin with. But I can demonstrate how it can be managed so that you'll win out to a moral certainty."
Duncan drew a deep breath, sat back and looked Kellogg over very critically. There was not a suspicion of a gleam of humour in his face; to the contrary, it blazed with the ardour of the instinctive schemer, the man who, with the ability to originate, throws himself heart and soul into the promotion of the product of his imagination. Kellogg was not sketching the outlines of a gigantic practical joke; he believed implicitly in the feasibility of his project; and so strongly that he could infuse even the less susceptible fancy of Duncan with some of his faith.
"If I didn't know you so well, Harry," said Duncan slowly, "I'd be certain you were mad. I'm not at all sure that I'm sane. It's raving idiocy--and it's a pretty damned rank thing to do, to start deliberately out to marry a woman for her money. But I've been through a little hell of my own in my time, and--it's not alluring to contemplate a return to it. There's nothing mad enough nor bad enough to stop me. What've I got to do?"
Kellogg beamed his triumph. "You'll try it on, then?"
"I'll try anything on. It's a contemptible, low-lived piece of business--but good may come of it; you can't tell. What've I got to do?"
Slipping back, Kellogg knitted his fingers and stared at the ceiling, smiling faintly to himself as he enumerated the conditions that first appealed to his understanding as essentials toward success.
"First, pick out your town: one of two or three thousand inhabitants--no larger. I'd suggest, at a hazard guess, some place in the interior of Pennsylvania. Most of such towns have at least one rich man with a marriageable daughter--but we'll make sure of that before we settle on one. Of course any suburban town is barred."
"Oh, they don't count. The girls always know people in the city--can get there easily. That spoils the game."
"How about the game laws?"
"I'm coming to them. Of course there isn't an open or close season, and the hunting's always good, but there are a few precautionary measures to be taken if you want to be sure of bagging an heiress. You won't like most of 'em."
"Like 'em! I'll live by them!"
"Well, here come the things you mustn't do. You mustn't swear or use slang; you mustn't smoke and you mustn't drink--"
"Heavens! are these people as inhuman as all that?"
"Worse than that. It might be fatal if you were ever seen in the hotel bar. And to begin with, you must refuse all invitations, of any sort, whether to dances, parties, church sociables, or even Sunday dinners."
"Why Sunday dinners?"
"Because Sunday's the only day you'll be invited. Dinner on week-days is from twelve to twelve-thirty, and it's strictly a business matter--no time for guests. But you needn't fret; they won't ask you till they've sized you up pretty carefully."
"Moreover, you must be very particular about your dress; it must be absolutely faultless, but very quiet: clothing sober--dark greys and blacks--and plain, but the very last word as to cut and fit. And everything must be in keeping--the very best of shirts, collars, ties, hats, socks, shoes, underwear--." Kellogg caught Duncan's look and laughed. "Your laundress will report on everything, you know; so you must be impeccable."
"I'll be even that--whatever it is."
"Be very particular about having your shoes polished, shave daily and manicure yourself religiously--but don't let 'em catch you at it."
"Would they raid me if they did?"
"And then, my son, you must work."
Kellogg paused to let his lesson sink in. After a time Duncan observed plaintively: "I knew there was a catch in it somewhere. What kind of work?"
"It doesn't make any difference, so long as you get and hold some job in the town."
"Well, that lets me out. You'll have to sic some other poor devil on this glittering proposition of yours. I couldn't hold a job in--"
"Wait! I'll tell you how to do it in just a minute."
"I don't mind listening, but--"
"You'll cinch the whole business by going to church without a break. Don't ever fail--morning and evening every Sunday. Don't forget that."
"It's the most important thing of all."
"Does going to church make such a hit with the young female Jasper--the Jasperette, as it were?"
"It'll make you more solid than anything else with her popper and mommer, and that's very necessary when you're a candidate for their ducats as well as their daughter. You must work and you must go to church."
"That can't be all. Surely you can think of something else?"
"Those are the cardinal rules--church and work until you've landed your heiress. After that you can move back to civilisation.... Now as soon as you strike your town you want to make arrangements for board and lodging in some old woman's house--preferably an old maid. You'll be sure to find at least half a dozen of 'em, willing to take boarders, but you want to be equally sure to pick out the one that talks the most, so that she'll tell the neighbours all about you. Don't worry about that, though, they all talk. When you've moved In, stock up your room with about twenty of the driest-looking books in the world--law books look most imposing; fix up a table with lots of stationery--pens and pencils, red and black ink and all that sort of thing; make the room look as if you were the most sincere student ever. And by no means neglect to have a well-worn Bible prominently in evidence: you can buy one second-hand at some book-store before you start out."
"I'd have to, of course. I thank you for the flattery. Proceed with the programme of the gay, mad life I must lead. I'm going to have a swell time: that's perfectly plain."
"As soon as you're shaken down in your room, make the rounds of the stores and ask for work. Try and get into the dry-goods emporium if you can: the girls all shop there. But anything will do, except a grocery or a hardware store and places like that. You mustn't consider any employment that would soil your clothes or roughen your lily-white hands."
"You expect me to believe I'd have any chance of winning a millionaire's daughter if I were a ribbon-clerk in a dry-goods store?"
"The best in the world. The ribbon-clerk is her social equal; he calls her Mary and she calls him Joe."
"Done with you: me for the ribbon counter. Anything else?"
"The storekeepers aren't apt to employ you at first; they'll be suspicious of you."
"They will be afterwards, all right. However--?"
"So you must simply call on them--walk in, locate the boss and tell him: 'I'm looking for employment.' Don't press it; just say it and get out."
"No trouble whatever about that; it's always that way when I ask for work."
"They'll send for you before long, when they make up their minds that you're a decent, moral young man; for they know you'll draw trade. And every Sunday--"
"I know: church!"
"Absolutely.... Pick out the one the rich folks go to. Go in quietly and do just as they do: stand up and kneel, look up the hymns and sing, just when they do. Be careful not to sing too loud, or anything like that: just do it all modestly, as if you were used to it. Better go to church here two or three times and get the hang of it...."
"Nearly all the wealthy codgers in such towns are deacons, you see, and though they may not speak to you for months on the street, it's their business to waylay you after the service is over and shake hands with you and tell you they hope you enjoyed the sermon and ask you to come again. And you can bank on it, they'll all take notice from the first."
"It's no wonder Bartlett made you a partner, Harry."
"Now behave. I want you to get in right. ... If you follow the rules I've outlined, not only will all the girls in town be falling over themselves to get to you first, but their fond parents will be egging them on. Then all you've got to do is to pick out the one with the biggest bundle and--"
"Make a play for her?"
"Not on your life. That would be fatal. Your part is to put yourself in her way. She'll do all the courting, and when she scents the psychological moment she'll do the proposing."
"It doesn't sound natural, but you certainly seem to know what you're drooling about."
"You can anchor to that, Nat."
"And are you finished?"
"I am. Of course I'll probably think of more things to wise you to, before you go."
Duncan laughed shortly and tilted back in his chair, selecting another cigarette. "And you're the chap who wanted me to go to some bromidic old show to-night! Harry, you're immense. Why didn't you ever let me suspect you had all this romantic imagination in your system?"
"Imagination be blowed, son. This is business." Kellogg removed the stopper from the decanter and filled both glasses again. "Well, what do you say?"
"I've just said my say, Harry. It's amazing; I'm proud of you."
"But will you do it?"
"Everything else aside, how can I? I've got to live, you know."
"But I propose to stake you."
Duncan came down to earth. "No, you won't; not a cent. I'm in earnest about this thing: no more sponging on you, Harry. Besides--"
"No, seriously, Nat: I mean this, every word of it. I want you to do it--to please me, if you like; I've a notion something will come of it. And I believe from the bottom of my heart there's not the slightest risk if you'll play the cards as they fall, according to Hoyle."
"Harry, I believe you do."
"I do, firmly. And I'll put the proposition on a business basis, if you like."
"Go on; there's no holding you."
"You start out to-morrow and order your war kit. Get everything you need, and plenty of it, and have the bills sent to me. You can be ready inside a fortnight. The day you start I'll advance you five hundred dollars. When you're married you can repay me the amount of the advances with interest at ten per cent, and I'll consider it a mighty good deal for myself. Now, will you?"
"You mean it?"
"Every word of it. Well?"
For a moment longer Duncan hesitated; then the vision of what he must return to, otherwise, decided him. In desperation he accepted. "It's a drowning man's straw," he said, a little breathlessly. "I'm sure I shouldn't. But I will."
Kellogg flung a hand across the table, palm uppermost.
"Word of honour, Nat?"
Duncan let his hand fall into it. "Word of honour! I'll see it through."
"Good! It's a bargain." Kellogg lifted his glass high in air. "To the fortune hunter!" he cried, half laughing.
Duncan nervously fingered the stem of his glass. "God help the future Mrs. Duncan!" he said, and drank.