The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
V. Margaret's Daughter
Discomfort roused Duncan from his rest at an early hour, the morning following his arrival in Radville. I must confess that the beds in the Bigelow House are no better than they should be; in fact, according to Duncan, not so good. Duncan ought to know; he has slept in one of them, or tried to; a trial thus far to me denied. From what he has said, however, I shudder to think what will become of me should I ever lose the shelter of Miss Carpenter's second-story front and be thrown out into a heartless world to choose between the Bigelow House and Frank Tannehill's Radville Inn....
Duncan arose and consulted the two-dollar watch which he had left on the pine washstand by the window. It was half-past seven o'clock, and that seemed early to him. He was tired and would willingly have turned in again, but a rueful glance at the couch of his night-long vigil sufficed him. He lifted a hand to Heaven and vowed solemnly: "Never again!"
As he bent over the washstand and poured a cupful of water into the china basin, thus emptying the pitcher, he was conscious of a pain in his back; but a thought cheered him. "They must have decent stables in this town," he considered, brightening. "The haymows for mine, after this."
He dressed with scrupulous care, mindful of Kellogg's parting words, the sense of which was that first impressions were most important. "All the same," Duncan thought, "I don't believe they count in a dead-and- alive place like this. There's no one here with sufficient animation to realise I'm in town." This shows how little he understood our little community. A day of enlightenment was in store for him.
Pansy Murphy was scrubbing out the office when he came down for breakfast. She is large, of what is known as a full complexion, good-hearted and energetic. His pause at the foot of the stairs, as he surveyed in dismay the seven seas of soapy water that occupied the floor, aroused her. She sat back suddenly on her heels and looked her fill of him, with her blue Irish eyes very wide, and her mouth a trap. He bowed politely. Pansy saved herself from falling over backwards by a supreme effort, scrubbed her hair out of her eyes with a very wet hand, and gave him "Good-marrin', Misther Dooncan," in a brogue as rich as you could wish for.
He started violently. "Heavens!" he said. "I am discovered!"
"Make yer moind aisy about thot," Pansy assured him. "'Tis known all over town who ye arre, what's yer name, how manny troonks ye've brought wid ye, and th' rayson f'r yer comin' here."
"A comforting thought, thank you," he commented: "to awake to find one's self grown famous over-night!..."
"Now ye know," she returned, emboldened, "what it is to be a big toad in a small puddle."
"I thank you." He nodded again, with a comprehensive survey of the reeking floor. "I'm afraid I do." With which he slipped and slid over to and through the swinging wicker doors of the dining-room.
It was deserted. From the negligee of the tables, littered with the plates and dishes, dreary survivors of a dozen breakfasts, he divined that he was the tardiest guest in the household. A slatternly young woman in a soiled shirt-waist--the waitress--received him with great calm and waved him toward a table by the window, where an unused cover was laid. He went meekly, dogged by her formidable presence. She stood over him and glared down.
"Haman neggs," she said defiantly, "steakan nomlette."
"I'll be a martyr," he told her civilly. "Me for the steak."
She frowned gloomily and tramped away. He folded his hands and, cheered by an appetising aroma of warm water and yellow soap from the office, considered the prospect from the window by his side. Three children and a yellow dog came along and watched him do it, dispassionately reviewing his points in clear young voices. Tracey Tanner ambled into view on the other side of the street and beamed at him generously, his round red face resembling, Duncan thought, more than anything else a summer sun rising through mist. Josie Lockwood (he was to discover her name later) passed with her pert little nose ostentatiously pointed away from him; none the less he detected a gleam in the corner of her eye.... Others went by, singly or in groups, all more or less openly interested in him.
He tried to look unconscious, but with ill success. There was nothing particularly engaging in the view: the broad, dusty street lined with commonplace structures of "frame" and brick, glowing in the morning sunshine. There were, to be sure, cool shadows beneath the trees, but the suggestion was all of summer heat. There was a watering-trough and hitching-rail directly opposite, a little to one side of Hemmenway's feed-store, and there a well-fed mare stood, drooping dejectedly between the shafts of a dilapidated buggy. On the corner was a two-storey brick building with large plate-glass windows on the ground floor for the display of intimate articles of feminine apparel. The black and gold sign above proclaimed it: "The Fair. Dry Goods & Notions. Leonard & Call." Duncan considered it with grave respect. "The scene of my future activities," he observed.
By this time his audience had become too large and friendly for his endurance. He rose and retired to a less public table.
In her own good time the waitress returned with a plate, and a small oval platter in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. She placed them before him with a manner that told him plainly he could never make himself the master of her affections. The small oval platter was discovered to contain a small segment of dark-brown ham and two fried eggs swimming in grease.
Duncan questioned the woman with mute, appealing eyes.
"Steak's run out," she told him curtly.
"Leaving no address?" he inquired with forced gaiety.
A suppressed smile softened her austerity, and she turned away to hide it. "To think," he wondered, "that a sense of humour should inhabit that!" He broke a roll and munched it gloomily, pondering this revelation. "And such humour !" he added, with justice.
After an interval the woman returned. He had refrained from the staple dish. She indicated it with a grimy forefinger.
"Please!" he begged plaintively. "I'm never very hungry in the morning."
"I guess you don't like the table here," she observed icily, clearing away.
"I don't have to; I live home."
He stared. Could it be possible...?
"I know a good old one, too," he ventured hopefully. "Now here." He drew his coffee cup toward him and began to stir with energy. "You say: 'It looks like rain'; and I'll say: 'Yes, but it tastes a little like coffee.'"
She clattered away indignantly. He rose, depressed, and sighing sought the outer air.
In the course of a forenoon's stroll Radville discovered itself to him in all its squalor and its loveliness. It sits in the centre of a broad valley of rolling meadow-land, studded with infrequent homesteads, broken into rather extensive farms, threaded by a shallow silver stream that gives its all in tribute to the Susquehanna far in the south. The barrier mountains rise about it like the sides of a bowl, with a great V-shaped piece chipped out of the southern wall. This break we call the Gap; through it the railroad comes to us, through it the river escapes. The hills rear high and steep, their swelling flanks cloaked in sombre green and grey, with here and there a bald spot like a splash of ochre where there's been a landslide, climbing directly from the plain, with no foothills. A recluse, I have thought, must have chosen this spot for a town site; sickened of the world, he sought seclusion--and found it here to his heart's content. Until the coke-ovens come, following the miners, with their attendant hordes of Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, we shall be near to God, for we shall know peace....
The town has been laid out with great rectangularity; the river divides it unequally. On the western bank is the larger community--locally, the Old Town, retaining its characteristics of sobriety, quiet and comfort; here, also, is the business centre--such business as there is. Here Duncan found homely residences sitting back from the street in ample grounds--grounds, perhaps, not very carefully groomed, but in spite of that attractive and pleasant to the eye. With one or two exceptions, none were strongly suggestive of wealth. He detected a trace of ostentation, and no taste whatever, in Lockwood's new villa (I'm told that's the polite designation for the edifice he caused to be erected what time the plague of riches smote him and the old home on Cherry Street became too small for the collective family chest), and there was quiet dignity in the quaintly columned facade of the Bohun mansion, now occupied solely by old Colonel Bohun, lonely and testy, reputed the richest as well as the most miserable man in the county. But as to his wealth, I doubt if rumour runs by more than tradition; Blinky Lockwood's new-found hundred-thousands are growing rapidly toward the million mark, unless Blinky's a worse business man than the town takes him to be.
An old stone arch (whereon lovers linger in the moonlight) spans the stream and links the Old Town with the new, which we sometimes term the Flats, but more often simply Over There. It is a sordid huddle of dingy and down-at-the-heel tenements, housing the poorer working classes and the frankly worthless and ruffianly riff-raff of the neighbourhood. There are eight gin-mills Over There as against two sample-rooms in the Old Town, and of the local constabulary two-thirds lead exciting lives patrolling the Flats; the remaining third is ordinarily to be found dozing in the backroom of Schwartz's, and if roused will answer to the name and title of Pete Willing, Sheriff and Chief of Police.
Duncan reviewed both sides of the municipal face with fine impartiality--the Flats last; and turned back to the Old Town. "There's one thing," he communed as he reached the bridge: "If these people ever find me out they'll run me across the river--sure."
He paused there, looking up and down the valley with contemplative gaze; and it was there I found him.
As is my custom, I had devoted the earlier morning hours to the compilation of that work which is to gain for the name of Littlejohn a trifle more respect than, I fear, it owns in Radville nowadays; and afterwards, again in accordance with habit, had started out for my morning constitutional. As I was about to leave the house Miss Carpenter waylaid me and, in a voice still tremulous from the shock of yesterday, asked me to hunt up Jake Sawyer in the Flats and tell him to come and cut the grass.
I was not in the least unwilling, for the walk was not long, and the morning very pleasant--not too warm, and bright with the smiling spirit of June. I don't remember feeling more cheerful and at peace with the world than when I marched off on my mission. The cloud I might, of course, have anticipated: clouds always come, and a lifetime has taught me to be sceptical of that tale about the silver lining. And even when it came it seemed no more depressing, of no more significant moment, than the cloud shadow that scurries across a wheat-field with no effect other than to enhance the beauty of the sunshine that pursues it.
Old Colonel Bohun was the cloud-shadow of that morning. I met him turning into Main Street from Mortimer--at the head of which his mansion stands. He came down the sidewalk, but with a hint of haste in his manner: a tall old man, bending beneath the burden of his years, his fierce old face and iron-grey hair shaded as always by the black slouch hat with the flapping brim, his rounded shoulders cloaked with the black Inverness cape he wore summer and winter. In spite of his age and evident decrepitude, he bodied forth the spirit of what he had been, and none could pass him without knowledge of his presence; he drew eyes as a magnet draws filings, and drawing, held them in respect. I doubted if there were a man in Radville who could meet the old colonel with anything but a mingling of fear and deference--with one or two exceptions. For myself I hated him heartily, and he, looking down at me from the peak of pride whereon his iron soul perched, despised me with equal intensity. So we got along famously at our infrequent encounters.
This morning I caught a flash of fire from his red-rimmed old eyes, and told myself I was sorry for whoever crossed his path before he returned to his lonely castle. It was his habit at odd intervals to foray down the village streets with one grievance or another rankling in his bosom, seeking some unlucky one upon whose head to wreak his resentment. We had come to recognise the heavy, slow tapping of his thick cane as a harbinger of trouble, even as you might prognosticate a thunderstorm from the rumbling beneath the horizon.
I saw he recognised me and gave him a civil salute, which he returned with a brusque nod and a sharper, "Good-morning, Littlejohn," as he passed. Then he swung into Main Street, paralleling my course on the opposite sidewalk, and went thump-thumping along, darting quick glances hither and yon beneath his heavy brows, like some dark incarnation of perverse pride and passion.
Partly because the sight of him sensibly influenced my mood, and partly because inevitably he made me think of Sam Graham, I turned off at Beech Street, leaving him to pursue his way toward the centre of town. Graham's one-horse drug-store stood on Beech, a block south of Main. That being the least promising location in town for a business of any sort, Sam had naturally selected it when he concluded to set up shop. If Sam had ever in his life displayed any symptoms of business sagacity, Radville would never have recovered from the shock. I believe it was Legrand Gunn, our only really certificated village wit, who coined the epigram: "As useless as to take a prescription to Graham's." The implication being that Graham didn't carry sufficient stock to fill any prescription; which was largely true; he couldn't; he hadn't the money to stock up with. What little he took in from time to time went in part to the support of Betty and himself, but mainly to pay interest on his debts and buy raw materials for models of his thousand-and-one inventions. Most Radvillians firmly believed that Sam has at some time or other in his busy, worthless career invented everything under the sun, practicable or impracticable--the former always a few days after somebody else had taken out patents for the identical device. But at that time no one believed he would ever make a cent out of any one of the children of his ingenious brain; nor was I, in this respect, more credulous than any of my fellow-townsmen.
I lingered a moment outside the shop, thinking of the change that had come over it since the death of Margaret Graham, Betty's mother. For, despite its out-of-the-way location, the shop had not always been unprofitable; while Margaret lived (my heart still ached with the memory of her name) Sam's business had prospered. She had been one of those woman who can rise to any emergency in the interest of her loved ones; the first to realise Sam's improvidence and lack of executive ability, she had taken hold of the business with a firm hand and made it pay--while she lived. It has never ceased to be a source of wondering speculation to me, that she, with her gentle training, so wholly aloof from every thought of commerce or economy, should have proven herself so thorough and level-headed a business woman. There's no accounting for it, indeed, save on the theory that she conceived it a woman's function to make up for man's deficiencies; Sam needed her, so she become his wife; he needed a manager, so she had became that also....
During Margaret's regime, as I say, the shop had thrived. Sam had few ill-wishers in Radville; the trade came his way. Then Betty was born and Margaret died....
Most of this I have on hearsay. I left Radville shortly after their marriage and did not return until some months after Margaret's burial. By that time the shop had begun to show signs of neglect; its stock was decimated, its trade likewise. Sam was struggling with his inventions more fiercely than ever--seeking forgetfulness, I always thought. The business was allowed to take care of itself. He had always a serene faith in his tomorrows.
Now the little shop had been far distanced by the competition of Sothern and Lee. It was twenty years behind the times, as the saying is. Small, darksome, dreary and dingy, it served chiefly as a living-room for Sam, his daughter, and his cronies, as well as for his workshop. He had a bench and a ramshackle lathe in one corner, where you might be sure to find him futilely pottering at almost any hour. He owned the little building--or that portion in it which it were a farce to term the equity above the mortgage--and Betty kept house for him in three rooms above the store.
I saw nothing of him as I stepped across the street, and was wondering if he were at home when, through the small, dark panes of glass in his show windows I discerned his white old head bobbing busily over something on the rear counter. I pushed the door open and entered. He looked up with his never-failing smile of welcome and a wave of his hand.
"Howdy, Homer? Come in. Well, well, I'm glad to see you. Sit down--I think that chair there by the stove will hold together under you."
"What are you doing, Sam?" I asked.
"Fixin' up the sody fountain. 'Meant to get it working last month, Homer, but somehow I kind of forgot."
He rubbed away briskly at the single faucet which protruded above the counter, lathering it briskly with a metal polish that smelt to Heaven.
"Do much sody trade, Sam?"
He paused, passing his worn old fingers reflectively across a chin snowy with a stubble of neglected beard. "No," he allowed thoughtfully, "not so much as we used to, now that Sothern and Lee've got this new-fangled notion of puttin' ice cream in a nickel glass of sody. Most of the young folks go there, now, but still I get a call flow and then--and every little bit helps." He rubbed on ferociously for a moment. "'Course, I'd do more, likely, if I carried a bigger line of flavours."
"How many do you carry?"
"One," he admitted with a sigh, "vanilly."
While I filled my pipe he continued to rub very industriously.
"Why don't you get more?"
He flashed me one of his pale, genial smiles. "I'm thinkin' of it, Homer, soon's I get some money in. Next week, mebbe. There's a man in N'York that mebbe can be int'rested in one of my inventions, Roland Barnette says. Mebbe he'd be willin' to put a little money in it, Roland says, and of course if he does, I'll be able to stock up considerable."
I sighed covertly for him. He rubbed, humming a tuneless rhythm to himself.
"Roland's goin' to write to him about it."
"What invention?" I asked, incredulous.
Sam put down his bottle of polish and came round the counter, beaming; nothing pleases him better than an opportunity to exhibit some one of his innumerable models. "I'll show you, Homer," he volunteered cheerfully, shuffling over to his work-bench. He rasped a match over its surface and applied the flame to a small gas-bracket fixed to the wall. A strong rush of gas extinguished the match, and he turned the flow half off before trying again. This time the vapour caught and settled to a steady, brilliant flame as white as and much softer than acetylene.
"There!" he said in triumph. "What d'ye think of that, Homer?"
"Why," I said, "I didn't know you had an acetylene plant."
"No more have I, Homer."
"But what is that, then?" I demanded.
"It's my invention," he returned proudly.
"I've been workin' on it two years, Homer, and only got it goin' yestiddy. It's going to be a great thing, I tell you."
"But what is it, Sam?"
"It's gas from crude petroleum, Homer. See ..." he continued, indicating a tank beneath the bench which seemed to be connected with the bracket by a very simple system of piping, broken by a smaller, cylindrical tank. "Ye put the oil in there--just crude, as it comes out of the wells, Homer; it don't need refinin'--and it runs through this and down here to this, where it's vaporised--much the same's they vaporise gasoline for autymobile engines, ye know--and then it just naturally flows up to the bracket--and there ye are."
"It's wonderful, Sam," said I, wondering if it really were.
"And the best part of it is the economy, Homer. A gallon will run one jet six weeks, day in and out. And simple to install. I tell ye--"
"Have you got it patented yet?"
"Yes, siree! took out patents just as soon as it struck me how simple it 'ud be--more than two years ago. Only, of course, it took time to work it out just right, 'specially when I had to stop now and then 'cause I needed money for materials. But it's all right now, Homer, it's all right now."
"And you say Roland Barnette's writing to some one in New York about it?"
"Yes; he promised he would. I explained it to Roland and he seemed real int'rested. He's kind, very kind."
I was inclined to doubt this, and would probably have said something to that effect had not a shadow crossing the window brought me to my feet in consternation. But before I could do more than rise, Colonel Bohun had flung open the door and stamped in. He stopped short at sight of me, misguided by his near-sighted eyes, and singled me out with a threatening wave of his heavy stick.
"Well, sir!" he snarled. "I've come for my answer. Have you sense enough in your addled pate to understand that, man? I've come for my answer!"
"And may have it, whatever it may be, for all of me," I told him.
His face flushed a deeper red. "Oh, it's only you, is it, Littlejohn? I took you for that fool Graham, in this damned dark hole. Where is he?"
I looked to Graham and he followed the direction of my gaze to the work-bench, where Sam stood with his back to it, his worn hands folded quietly before him. He seemed a little whiter than usual, I thought; and perhaps it was only my fancy that made him appear to tremble ever so slightly. For he was quite calm and self-possessed--so much so that I realised for the first time there was another man in Radville besides myself who did not fear old Colonel Bohun.
"I'm here, colonel," he said quietly. "What is it you wish?"
The colonel swung on him, shaking with passion. But he held his tongue until he had mastered himself somewhat: a feat of self-restraint on his part over which I marvel to this day.
"You know well, Graham," he said presently. "You got my letter--the letter I wrote you a week ago?"
"Yes," said Sam, with a start of comprehension. "Yes, I got it."
"Then why the devil, man, don't you answer it?"
Sam's apologetic smile sweetened his face.
"Why," he said haltingly--"I'm sure I meant no offence, but--you see, I'm a very busy man--I forgot it."
"The hell you forgot it. D'ye expect me to believe that, man?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to."
Bohun was speechless for a moment, stricken dumb by a second seizure of fury. But again he calmed himself.
"Very well. I'll swallow that insolence for the present--"
"It wasn't meant as such, I assure--"
"Don't interrupt me! D'you hear? ... I've come for my answer. Yes, I've come down to that, Graham. If you can't accord me the common courtesy of a written reply--I've come to hear it from your mouth."
Sam nodded thoughtfully. "Mebbe," he said, "you forgot you have failed to accord me the common courtesy of any sort of a communication whatever for twenty years, Colonel Bohun. Even when my wife, your daughter, died, you ignored my message asking you to her funeral...."
"Be silent!" screamed the colonel. "Do you think I'm here to bandy words with you, fool? I demand my answer."
"And as for that," continued Sam as evenly as if he had not been interrupted, "your proposition was so preposterous that it could have come only from you, and deserved no answer. But since you want it formally, sir, it's no."
For a moment I feared Bohun would have a stroke. The back of the chair I had just vacated and his stick alone supported him through that dumb, terrible transport. He shook so violently that I looked momentarily to see the chair break beneath him. There was insanity in his eyes. When finally he was able to articulate it was in broken gasps.
"I don't believe it," he stammered. "It's a lie. I don't believe it. It's madness--the girl wouldn't be so mad. ..."
"What is it, father?"
I don't know which of us three was the more startled by that simple question in Betty Graham's voice; Sam, at all events, showed the least surprise; the old colonel wheeled toward the back of the store, his jaw dropping and his eyes protruding as though he were confronted with a ghost. As, in a way, he was: even I had been struck by that strange, heartrending similarity to her mother's tone; and even I trembled a little to hear that voice, as it seemed, from beyond the grave.
Betty stood at the foot of the staircase; alarmed by the noise of the colonel's raging, she had stolen down, unheard by any of us. And in that moment I realised as never before that the girl had more of her mother in her than lay in that marvellous reproduction of Margaret Graham's voice. As she waited there one detected in her pose something of her mother's quiet dignity, in her eyes more than a little of Margaret's tragedy. Of Margaret's beauty I saw scant trace, I own; but in those days my eyes were blinded by the signs of overwork and insufficient nourishment that marred her young features, by the hopeless dowdiness of her garments.
Abruptly she moved swiftly to her father's side and slipped her hand into his. "What is it, father?" she repeated, eyeing Colonel Bohun coldly.
I thought Sam's eyes filled. His lips trembled and he had to struggle to master his voice. He smiled through it all, tenderly at his girl, but there was in that smile the weakness of the child grown old, the dependence of the man whose womanfolk must ever mother him.
"Why, Betty," he said, tremulous--"why, Betty, your grandfather here has been kind enough to offer to take you and educate you and make a lady of you, and--and we were just talking it over, dear, just talking it over."
"Do you mean that?" she flung at Bohun.
He straightened up and held himself well in hand. "Is it the first you have heard of it?"
"Yes." She looked inquiringly at her father.
"Why didn't you tell her?" Bohun persisted harshly. "Were you afraid?"
"No." Sam shook his head slowly. "I wasn't afraid. But it was unnecessary.... You see, Betty, Colonel Bohun is willing to do all this for you on several conditions. You must leave me and never see me again; you mustn't even recognise me should we meet upon the street; you must change your name to Bohun and never permit yourself to be known as Betty Graham. Then you must--"
"Never mind, daddy dear," said the girl. "That is enough. I know now--I understand why you never told me. It's impossible. Colonel Bohun knew that when he made the offer, of course; he made it simply to harass you, daddy. It's his revenge...."
She looked Bohun up and down with a glance of contempt that would have withered another man, poor, wan, haggard little maid of all work that she was.
"And that's your answer, miss?" he snapped, livid with wrath.
"I would not," she told him slowly, "accept a favour from you, sir, if I were starving...."
Bohun drew himself up. "Then starve," he told her; and walked out of the shop.
I gaped after his retreating figure. It seemed impossible, incredible, that he should have taken such an answer without yielding to a fit of insensate passion. And I was still marvelling when I heard Graham saying in a broken voice: "Betty! Betty, my little girl!"
Then I, too, went away, with a mist before my eyes to dim the golden grace of June.