The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
IV. Triumph of Mr. Homer Littlejohn
The twenty-first of June was a day of memorable triumph to me, a day of memorable events for Radville.
Only the evening previous Will Bigelow and I had indulged in acrimonious argument in the office of the Bigelow House, the subject of contention being the importance of the work to which I am devoting my declining years, to wit, the recording of The History of Radville Township, Westerly County, Pennsylvania; Will maintaining with that obstinacy for which he is famous, that nothing ever had happened, does happen, can or will happen in our community, I insisting gently but firmly that it knows no day unmarked by important occurrence (for it would ill become me, as the only literary man in Radville, to yield a point in dispute with the proprietor of the town tavern). Besides, he was wrong, even as I was indisputably right--only he had not the grace to admit it. We ended vulgarly with a bet, Will wagering me the best five-cent Clear Havana in the Bigelow House sample-room that nothing worth mentioning would take place in Radville before sundown of the following day.
I left him, returning to my room at Miss Carpenter's (Will and I are old friends, but I refuse to eat the food he serves his guests), warmed by the prospect of certain triumph if a little appalled by the prospect of winning the stake; and sympathising a little with Will, who, for all his egregious stubborness, has some excuse for upholding his unreasonable and ridiculous views. He knows no better, having never had the opportunity to find out for himself how utterly absurd are his claims for the outside world. Whereas I have.
He's an adventurer at heart, Will Bigelow, a romantic soul crusted heavily with character--like a volcano smouldering beneath its lava. For many years he has managed the Bigelow House, with his thoughts apart from it, his eyes ever seeking the horizon that recedes beyond the soaring rim of our encircling cup of hills, his heart forever yearning forth to the outer world; which he erroneously conceives to be a theatre of events--as if outside of Radville only could there be things worth seeing, considering, or doing, or matters of any sort that move momentously! As long as I've known the man (and we played truant together fifty years ago--hookey, we called it then) he's had his heart set on going forth from Radville, "for to admire and for to see, for to view this wide world o'er"; always he has presented himself to me as one poised on the pinnacle of purpose, ready the next instant to dive and strike out into the teeming unknown beyond the barrier hills. But this promise he has never fulfilled. He still maintains that he will surely go--next week--after the hayin's over--as soon as the ice is in--the minute Mary graduates from High School. ... But I know he never will.
So to Will Radville is as dull as ditchwater to a teamster; to me it's as fascinating as that same ditchwater to a biologist with a microscope. I see nothing going on in the world outside of Radville more important than our daily life. Too long I have lived away from it, a stranger in strange lands, not to appreciate its relative significance in the scheme of things. It makes all the difference--the view-point: Will sees Radville from its homely heart outwards, I stand on its boundaries, a native but yet, somehow in the local esteem (by reason of my long residence in the East) an outlander. Thus I get a perspective upon the place, to Will and his ilk denied.
It seems curious that things should have fallen out thus for the two of us: that Will Bigelow, all afire with the lust for travel, should never have mustered up enterprise enough to break his home ties, whilst I whose dearest desire had always been to live no day of my alloted span away from Radville, should have been, in a manner which I'm bound presently to betray, forced out into the world; that he, the rebellious stay-at-home, cursing the destiny which chained him, should have prospered and become the man of substance he is, while I, mutinously venturing, should have returned only to watch my sands run out in poverty--what's little better.
Not that I would have you think me whining: I have enough, little but ample for my simple needs, if inadequate for my ambitions or my neighbours' necessities. My editorial work for the Radville Citizen is quite remunerative, while my weekly column of local gossip for the Westerly Gazette brings me in a little, and I've one or two other modest sources of still more modest income. But Radville folks are poor, many of them, many who are very dear to me for old sake's sake. There's Sam Graham.... Though I wouldn't have you understand that as a community we are not moderately prosperous and contented, comfortable if not energetic and advanced. This is not a pushing town: it has never known a boom. That I'm sure will some day come, but I hope not in my time. I have faith in the mountains that fold us roundabout; they are rich with the possibilities of coal and iron, and year by year are being more and more widely opened up and developed; year by year the ranks of flaming, reeking coke ovens push farther on beside the railway that penetrates our valley. But as yet their smoke does not foul our skies, nor does their refuse pollute our river, nor their soot tarnish our vegetation. And as I say, I hope this is not to be while I live, though sometimes I have fears: Blinky Lockwood made a fortune selling the coal that was discovered beneath his father's old farm over Westerly way, and ever since that there's been more or less quiet prospecting going on in our vicinity. I shall be sorry to see the day when Radville is other than as it is: the quiet, peaceful, sleepy little town, nestling in the bosom of the hills, clean, sweet and wholesome....
But this is rambling far from the momentous twenty-first of June, my day of triumph.
I shall try to set down connectedly and coherently the events which culminated in the humbling of Will Bigelow to the dust.
To begin with, we were early startled by the rumour that Hiram Nutt, theretofore deemed unconquerable, had been disastrously defeated at checkers in Willoughby's grocery--and that by Watty the tailor, of all men in Radville. The rumour was confirmed by eleven in the forenoon, and in itself should have provided us with a nine days' wonder.
As it happened, an event happening almost simultaneously confused our minds. At eleven-fifteen Miss Carpenter's household was thrown into consternation by the scandalous behaviour of her black cat, Caesar, who chose suddenly to terminate a long and outwardly respectable career as Miss Carpenter's familiar by having kittens under the horse-hair sofa in the parlour. Incidentally this indelicate and ungentlemanly behaviour temporarily unloosed the hinges of Miss Carpenter's reason, so that my supper suffered that evening, and for several days she wandered round the house with blank and witless eyes. Perhaps I should have warned her, for I had latterly come to suspect Caesar of leading a double life; but for reasons which seemed sufficient I had refrained.
By the noon train Roland Barnette received his new summer suit from Chicago. I did not see it till evening, but heard of it before one, since Roland donned it immediately and wore it to the bank that very afternoon. I understand it caused something very near a run on the bank; people came in to draw a dollar or so or get change and lingered to feast their outraged visions, so that Blinky Lockwood, the president, had to send Roland home to change before closing-time. He changed back, however, as soon as off duty, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hours in Sothern and Lee's, at the soda-fountain; which Sothern and Lee did not object to, since it drew trade.
Pete Willing established a record by getting drunk at Schwartz's bar by three in the afternoon, his best previous time being four-thirty; and Mrs. Willing chased him up Centre Street until, at the corner of Main, he blundered into the arms of Judge Scott; who ordered him to arrest and lock himself up; which Pete, being the sheriff, solemnly did, saying that it was preferable to a return to home and wife.
At five o'clock there was a dog-fight in front of Graham's drug-store.
At five-forty-five the evening train lurched in, bearing The Mysterious Stranger.
Tracey Tanner saw him first, having driven down to the station with his father's surrey on the off-chance of picking up a quarter or so from some drummer wishing to be conveyed to the Bigelow House. Only outlanders pay money for hacks in Radville; everybody else walks, of course. Naturally Tracey took The Mysterious Stranger for a drummer; he had three trunks and a heavy packing-box, so Tracey's misapprehension was pardonable. Instinctively he drove him to the Bigelow House; Will now and again makes Tracey a present of a bottle of sarsaparilla or lemon-pop, with the result that Tracey calls Tannehill, who runs the opposition hotel, a skinflint and never takes strangers there except on their express desire. The Mysterious Stranger merely asked to be driven to the best hotel. This is not like most commercial travellers, who as a rule know where they want to go, even in a strange town, having made inquiry in advance from their brothers of the road. Tracey made a note of this, and is further on record as having observed that this stranger was rather better dressed than the run of drummers, if not so nobbily. Moreover, he was reticent under the cross-fire of Tracey's irrepressible conversation, and failed to ask the name of the first pretty girl they passed; who happened to be Angle Tuthill. Finally The Mysterious Stranger actually tipped Tracey a whole quarter for carrying his suit-case into the hotel office.
With these incitements it would have been unreasonable to expect Tracey to do otherwise than linger around for the good health of his sense of inquisitiveness, which would else have been severely sprained.
Will Bigelow was dozing behind the desk, lulled by the sound of Hi Nutt's voice in the barroom, as he explained to all and sundry just how he had inadvertently permitted Watty the tailor to best him at checkers that morning. Otherwise the office was deserted. Tracey wakened Will by stamping heavily across the floor, and Will mechanically pushed down his spectacles and dipped a pen in ink, slewing the register round for the guest's signature. He says he knew at a glance that The Mysterious Stranger was no travelling man, but this is a moot point, Tracey's memory being minutely accurate and at variance with Will's assertion.
The Mysterious Stranger was a young man, rather severely clothed in a dark suit which excited no interest in Bigelow's understanding, although I, when I saw him later, had no difficulty in realising that it had never been made by a tailor whose place of business was more than five doors removed from Fifth Avenue. He was tallish, but not really tall, and carried himself with a slight stoop which took way from his real height. Tracey says he had a way of looking at you as if he was smiling inside at some joke he'd heard a long time ago; and I don't know but that's a fairly apt description of his ordinary expression. He had a way, too, of nodding jerkily at you--just once--to show he recognised you or understood what you were driving at; at other times he carried his head a trifle to one side and slightly forward. He was a man you wouldn't forget, somehow, though what there was about him that was remarkable nobody seemed to know.
He nodded that jerky way in answer to Will Bigelow's "G'devenin'," and without saying anything took the pen and started to register. He had to stop, however, for Tracey was pressing him so close upon the right that he couldn't get any play for his elbow, and after a minute or two he asked Tracey politely would he mind stepping round to the left, where he could see just as well. So Tracey did. Then he wrote his name in a good round hand: "Nathaniel Duncan, N.Y."
"I'd like a room with a bath," he told Will: "something simple and chaste, within the means of a man in moderate circumstances."
Will thought he was joking at first, but he didn't smile, so Will explained that there was a bathroom on the third floor at the end of the hall, though there wasn't much call for it. "I could give you a room next to that," he said, "but you wouldn't want it, I guess."
"Why not?" asked The Mysterious Stranger.
"Because," said Will, "'taint near the sample-room."
"That doesn't make any difference; I'm on the wagon."
The only sense Will could get out of that was that the young man was travelling for a buggy house and hadn't brought any samples with him. "I thought," he allowed, "as how you'd be wantin' a place to display your samples, but of course if you're in the wagon business--"
"Oh," said Mr. Duncan, "I thought you meant the 'sample-room' over there." He nodded toward the bar. "That's what you call the dispensaries of intoxicating liquors in this part of the country, is it not?"
Will made a noise resembling an affirmative, and as soon as he got his breath explained that travelling men generally wanted a sort of a showroom next to theirs and that that was called a sample-room, too.
"But I'm not a travelling man," said The Mysterious Stranger. "So I shall have as little use for the one as the other."
"Then the room on the third floor'll do for you," said Will. "How long do you calculate on stayin'?"
"That will depend," said Mr. Duncan: "a day or so--perhaps longer; until I can find comfortable and more permanent quarters."
In his amazement Will jabbed the pen so hard into the potato beside the ink-well that he never could get the nib out and had to buy a new one. "You don't mean to say you're thinkin' of coming here to live?" he gasped.
"Yes, I do," said the young man apologetically. "I don't think you'll find me in the way. I shall be very quiet and unobtrusive. I'm a student, looking for a quiet place in which to pursue my studies."
"Well," said Will, "you've found it all right. There ain't no quieter place in Pennsylvany than Radville, Mr. Duncan. I hope you'll like it," he said, sarcastic.
"I shall endeavour to," said the young man.
"And now may I go to my room, please? I should like to renovate my travel-stained person to some extent before dinner."
"You'll have time," said Will; "dinner's at noon to-morrow. I guess you're thinkin' about supper. That's ready now. Here, Tracey, you carry this gentleman's things up to number forty-three."
But Tracey had already gone, and such was his haste to spread the news that he forgot to take the horse and surrey back to the stable, but left it standing in front of the hotel till eight o'clock; for which oversight, I am credibly informed, his father justly dealt with him before sending him to bed.
I have never been able to understand how we failed to hear of it at Miss Carpenter's before seven o'clock. That was the hour when, having finished supper and my first evening pipe, I started down-town to the Citizen office, intending to stop in at the Bigelow House on the way and confound Will with the list of the day's happenings. Main Street was pretty well crowded for that hour, I remember noticing, and most of the townsfolk were grouped together on the corners, underneath the lamps, discussing something rather excitedly. I paid no particular attention, realising that between Caesar, Pete Willing, Roland Burnette's suit and the checker game, they had enough to talk about. So it wasn't until I walked into the Bigelow House office that I either heard or saw anything of The Mysterious Stranger.
Will Bigelow was in his usual place behind the desk, and looked, I thought, rather disgruntled. His reply to my "Howdy, Will?" sounded somewhat snappish. But he got out of his chair and moved round the end of the desk just as the young man came out of the dining-room door. Then Will pulled up and I realised that he was calling my attention to the stranger.
So far as I could see, he seemed an ordinary, everyday, good-looking, good-natured young man, whose naturally sunny disposition had been insulted by the food recently set before him. He wandered listlessly out upon the porch and stood there, with his hands in his pockets, looking up and down Centre Street, just then being shadowed into the warm, purple June dusk, beneath its double row of elms. We've always thought it a rather attractive street, and that night it seemed especially lively with its trickle of girls and boys strolling up and down, and the groups of grown folks on the corners, and Roland Burnette's summer suit conspicuous through Sothern and Lee's plate-glass windows; and I supposed the young man was admiring it all. But now I know him better. He felt just the same about Main Street, corner of Centre, Radville, as I should have about Broadway and Forty-second Street, New York, if you had set me down there and told me I'd got to get accustomed to the idea that I must live there. He was saying, deep down in his heart: "O Lord!"--with the rising inflection.
Will grabbed my arm, without saying anything, and pulled me into the bar.
"Hello!" I said, as he went round behind and opened the cigar-case, "what's up?"
He took out two boxes of the finest five-centers in town and placed them before me. "Them's up," he said. "You win. Have one."
It staggered me to have him give in that way; I had been looking forward to a long and diverting dispute. "I guess you've heard everything worth hearing about to-day's history," I said, disappointed, as I selected the least unpleasant looking of the cigars.
"No, I haven't," he said. "I didn't have to hear anything. What earned you that smoke took place right here in this office.... Here," he said, striking a match for me.
I had been trying to put the cigar away so that I might dispose of it without hurting Will's feelings, but he had me, so I recklessly poked the thing into the automatic clipper and then into my mouth. "What do you mean?" I asked, puffing.
"Come 'long outside," said Will; and we went out on the porch just in time to see Mr. Duncan going wearily upstairs to his room. "I mean," said Will, "him". And then he told me all about it.
"But things like that don't happen every day," he wound up defensively. "I'll go you another cigar on to-morrow."
"No, you won't," I said indignantly; and furtively dropped the infamous thing over the railing.
I am never successful in my little attempts at deception, even in self-defence. In all candour I believe my disposition of that cigar would have gone undetected but for my notorious bad luck. Of course Bigelow's setter, Pompey, had to be asleep right under the spot where I dropped the cigar, and equally of course the burning end had to make instantaneous connection with his nerve centres, via his hide, with such effect that he arose in agony and subsequently used coarse language. Investigation naturally discovered my empty-handed perfidy. To no one else in Radville would this have happened.
On the other hand, no one else in Radville would have thrown away the cigar.