The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
VI. Introduction to Miss Carpenter
On my way back from the Flats I discovered Duncan sitting on the wall of the bridge, moodily donating pebbles to the water. His attitude suggested preoccupation with unhappy reflections, a humour from which the sound of my footsteps roused him. He looked up and caught my eye with an uncertain nod, as though he half recognised me--presumably having casually noticed me at the Bigelow House the previous evening.
"Good-morning," said I cheerfully, with a slight break in my stride intended craftily to convey the impression that I was not altogether averse to a pause for gossip.
He said "Good-morning," sombrely.
"A pleasant day," I observed spontaneously, stopping.
"Yes," he agreed. "By the way, have you a match about you?"
I searched my pockets, found a box and handed it over.
"I've been perishing for a ..." He slid his fingers into a waistcoat pocket, as one who should seek a cigarette-case; but the hand came forth empty. He bit his remark off abruptly, with a blank look in his eyes which was promptly succeeded by an expression of deepest chagrin. He got up and with a little bow returned the box.
"I forgot," he said, apologetic.
"I'm afraid I can't help you out," said I.
"Oh, that's all right. I'd just forgotten that I don't smoke."
I pretended not to notice his disconcertion.
"You're to be congratulated; it's a shameful waste of time and money."
"A filthy habit," said he warmly.
"Indeed, yes," I chanted, finding my pipe and tobacco pouch.
He caught my twinkle as I filled and lighted, and looked away, the shadow of a smile lurking beneath his small, closely clipped moustache.
"I beg your pardon," he said a moment later, regarding me with more interest, "but--do you live here?"
"I was sure of it," he replied soberly. "But don't you feel a bit lonesome, sometimes?"
"Not in the least. Radville's one of the most interesting places on this side of the footstool." He sighed. "Indeed," I insisted, "you won't feel any more lonely after you've lived here a while, than I do now, Mr. Duncan."
He opened his eyes at my acquaintance with his name, but jerked his head at me comprehendingly.
"To be sure," he said. "You would know. But I'm only beginning to realise what it feels like to be a marked man."
"I hear you intend to make Radville your permanent residence, Mr. Duncan?"
"It's part of the system," he said obscurely. "It may prove a life sentence."
"Don't you think you'll like it here?"
"Oh, I'm strong for Radville," he declared earnestly. "It's all to the merry ... I beg your pardon."
I stared curiously to see him colour like a school-girl. "What for?"
"My mistake, sir; I forgot myself again. I don't use slang."
"Oh!" I commented, wondering. He was beginning to puzzle me.
In the pause the air began to rock with the heavy clanging of the clock in the Methodist Church steeple.
"That's noon," I said. "We'll have to cut along: dinner's ready."
Duncan immediately replanted himself firmly upon the parapet. "I know it," he said with some indignation.
Again bewildered, I hesitated, but eventually advanced: "Our ways run together, Mr. Duncan, as far as the Bigelow House. My name is Littlejohn--Homer Littlejohn."
He rose again to take my hand and assured me he was glad to make my acquaintance. "But," he added morosely, "I'll be damned if I go back to that hotel before dinner's over.... Great Scott! I forgot again. I don't swear!"
"Have you any other unnatural accomplishments?" I inquired, chuckling.
"I'm so full of 'em I can hardly stick," he assented gloomily. "I don't drink or smoke or swear or play pool or cards, and on Sundays I go to church."
I laughed outright. "You've come to the right place for such exemplary virtues to be fully appreciated, Mr. Duncan."
"That's all right," he said with a return of his indignation, "but it wasn't in the bargain that I should starve to death. Do you realise, Mr. Littlejohn," he continued, warming, "that you behold in me a young man in the prime of health actually on the point of wasting visibly away to a shadow of my former hardy self? It's a fact: I am. For the past two days I've had nothing to eat except railway sandwiches and coffee and the kind of fodder they pitchfork you at the Bigelow House. And I came here with a mind coloured with rosy anticipations of real old-fashioned country cooking. It's an outrage!"
"Look here," said I: "why not come home with me for dinner? I'll be glad to have you, and Miss Carpenter won't mind your coming, I'm sure."
He got up with alacrity. "Those are the first human words I've heard in Radville, sir! I accept with joy and gratitude. Come--lead me to it!"
Now, Miss Carpenter doesn't like her meals delayed; so I would have been inclined to hasten this Mr. Duncan; but he saved me the trouble.
"Miss Carpenter?" he asked without warning, as we hurried up Main Street.
"My landlady, Mr. Duncan."
"She takes boarders? An old maid?" he persisted eagerly.
"An elderly spinster; boarders are her distraction as well as a source of income."
"Do you think she'd take me in, Mr. Littlejohn?"
"I'm sure of it. There's a vacant room ..."
"Does she talk?"
"Not a regular walking newspaper--no?"
"Then I'm afraid it's no use," he sighed.
I glanced up at his face, but it was inscrutable.
"You--you want a landlady who talks?" I gasped, incredulous.
"It's one of the rules," he said, again obscurely.
I could make nothing of him. And had I any right to introduce to Hetty Carpenter a guest who came without credentials and talked more or less like a lunatic at large?
"Mr. Duncan--" I began, uncomfortable.
"Don't say it," he anticipated me. "I know you think I'm crazy--but I'm not. You would think so, naturally, because you're the only man here who's ever lived away from Radville long enough--not counting those who went to the World's Fair--."
"How did you know?"
"Bigelow told me last night; said you'd be glad to meet somebody from New York. I hope he's right. I'm glad, personally.... You see--May I request that you regard this as confidential?"
"I've come to Radville to make my fortune."
The confession smote me witless: I could only gape. He nodded confirmation, with a most serious mien. At length I found strength to articulate. "From New York--?"
"Yes. It's a new scheme. You see, Mr. Littlejohn, matters have come to such a state that a city-bred boy practically doesn't stand any show on earth of making good in the cities; your country-bred boys crowd him to the wall, nine times out of ten. They invade us in hordes, fresh from the open, strong, vigorous, clear-headed, ambitious.... What chance have we got? ... I've been figuring it out, you see, and I've come to the conclusion that it's my only salvation to get back to the country and improve some of the opportunities--the golden opportunities--that your boys have neglected, overlooked, in their mad desire to invade the commercial centres of the country."
He seemed very much in earnest; I was watching him as closely as I might without making my scrutiny offensive; and there seemed to be the ring of conviction in his voice, while the expression of his eyes indicated concentrated thought. And how was I to know, then, that the concentration was due to the necessity of invention?
"You follow me, Mr. Littlejohn?"
"I was here first," I corrected. "Still, there's more in what you say than perhaps you realise."
"If I'd made this discovery originally I'd agree with you, sir. But, quite to the contrary, it was pointed out to me by one of the shrewdest business minds in the United States--a man who'd been a country boy to begin with. And I've come to the conclusion that he's right."
"So you're here."
"Here I am."
"And what do you propose doing?"
"I'm reading law, Mr. Littlejohn; that I shall continue. In the meantime, I shall keep my eyes open. At any day, at any amount, the opportunity may present itself, the opportunity I'm looking for."
"Probably you're right," I assented, impressed, as we turned a corner.
A young woman in a very attractive linen gown was strolling toward us, quite prettily engaged with a book which she read as she walked, her fair young head bowed beneath a sunshade which tinted her face becomingly. She gave me a shy smile and a low-voiced greeting as we passed. Only my knowledge of the young woman prevented me from being blinded by her engaging appearance.
"That," said I, when we were out of earshot, "shows you what a furore a good-looking young man can create in a town like this. Josie Lockwood has put on her best bib-and-tucker to go walking in this afternoon, on the off-chance of meeting you, Mr. Duncan."
"Flattery note," he commented. "Who's Josie Lockwood?"
"Daughter of Blinky Lockwood, the richest man in Radville."
"Ah!" he said cryptically.
We had come to Miss Carpenter's. I opened the gate for him, but he stood aside, refusing to precede me. And courtesy in the young folk of to-day warms my old heart.
He had as much for Hetty Carpenter. Within an hour he had insinuated himself into her good graces with a deftness, an ease, that astounded. Within three hours he was established, bag and baggage, in her very best room.
And thirty minutes after she had helped Duncan unpack, Hetty had to run downtown to buy a spool of thread.