The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
VII. A Window in Radville
A jealous secret, which has never heretofore been divulged, is responsible for the prosperity of the Radville Citizen--at least, in very great measure. As the discoverer of this recipe for circulation, I have kept it carefully locked in my guilty bosom for many a year, and if I now betray it I do so without scruple, for the Gazette is now established firmly in a groove of popularity from which you'd find it hard to oust the paper. So here's letting the cat out of the bag:
The policy of the Citizen has long been to devote its columns mainly to the exploitation of what is known in newspaper terminology as "the local story." Of the news of the great outside world we're parsimonious, recognising the fact that the coronation of King Edward VII. is a matter of much less import to our community than the holocaust which was responsible for the destruction of Sir Higginbottom's new hen-house. Similarly a West Indian tornado involving losses running up into hundreds of thousands of dollars sinks into relative insignificance as compared with the local weather forecast and its probable effect on crops not worth ten thousand; while the enforced abdication of the Sultan of Turkey gets a "stick" (a space in a newspaper column about as long as your forefinger, if you have a small hand) as contrasted with the column and a half assigned to the death of old Colonel Bohun.
Now, naturally, a paper in a small country town can't afford a large and hustling staff of enthusiastic reporters; and very probably the Citizen would overlook many items and stories of burning local interest were it not for the fact that the population has been cunningly made to serve in a reportorial capacity without either pay or its own knowledge. We literally get our local news by wireless; and from dawn to dark there's a constant supply of it on tap.
It's this way: our editorial rooms are in the second storey of a building overlooking Court House Square. The lower floor is occupied by the Post Office, and in front of the Post Office are a hitching-post and two long, weather-scarred benches, while just across the road--I mean street--on the boundary of the square proper--is a near-bronze drinking-fountain and watering-trough erected from the proceeds of several fairs given by the local branch of the W. C. T. U. Naturally, indeed inevitably, all Radville gravitates to the Post Office, bringing the news with it, and stops to discuss it on the steps or the benches or by the fountain; and the acoustics are admirable. With a window open and scratch-pad handy, the keen-eared scribe at his desk in our offices can hardly fail to pick up every scrap of town information between sunrise and dusk.... Of course, in winter the supply's not so good. Winter before last we all suffered with colds acquired through keeping the windows open; and last winter our circulation fell off surprisingly through keeping them closed. This winter we contemplate cutting a trap-door through the floor for the ostensible purpose of ventilation.
And thus it was that I managed to hear much of Mr. Duncan while I myself was engaged in formulating an estimate of the young man. He engaged the popular imagination no less than mine own, although I was more intimately associated with him--as a fellow-resident at Hetty Carpenter's. My professional duties making their habitual demands upon my time, I saw, it may be, less of him than many of our people. Certainly I learned less of his ways from first-hand knowledge. But from my desk (it's the nearest to the window right above the Post Office door) I was enabled to keep a pretty close line upon his habits and movements, during the first fortnight of his stay in Radville.
At home I saw him with unvarying regularity at meal-times and less frequently after supper. Between whiles he seemed to observe a fairly regular routine: in the morning, after breakfast, he walked abroad for his health's sake; in the afternoon and evening he sequestered himself in his room for the pursuit of his legal studies. About the genuineness of these latter I was long without a question: having been privileged to inspect his room I found it redolent of an atmosphere of highly commendable application. His writing table was a model of neatness, and his store of legal treatises impressed one vastly. That no one, not even Hetty Carpenter, ever saw the room without remarking the open volume of "The Law of Torts," with its numerous pages painstakingly spaced by slips of paper by way of bookmarks, is an attested fact. That it was always the same volume is less widely known.
Less directly (that is to say, via my window) I learned of him compendiously from sources which would have been anonymous but for my long acquaintance with the voices of the townspeople.... I write these pages at my desk at home and, if truth's to be told, somewhat surreptitiously; but with these voices ringing in my memory's ear I seem still to be sitting at my erstwhile desk by the window, looking out over Court House Square, chewing the rubber heel of my pencil the while I listen. It's summer weather and there's a smell in the air of dust and heat; the square simmers and shimmers in unclouded sunshine, its many green plots of grass a trifle grey and haggard with dust, the flagstaff with its two flanking cannon by the bandstand in the middle wavering slightly in the haze of heat; there are two rigs, a farm-wagon and a buckboard, hitched to the post below, and some boys are squirting water on one another by holding their hands over the lips of the fountain across the way. Immediately opposite, on the far side of the square, the Court House rises proudly in all the majesty of its columned front and clapboarded sides; farther along there's the Methodist Church, very severe, with its rows of sheds to one side for the teams of the more rural members. Behind them all bulk our hills, dim and purple against the overwhelming blue of the sky. It's very quiet: there are few sounds, and those few most familiar: the raucous war-cry of a rooster somewhere on the outskirts of town; an intermittent thudding of hoofs in the inch-deep dust of the roadway; Miles Stetson wringing faint but genuine shrieks of agony from his cornet, in a room behind the Opery House on the next street; periodically a shuffle of feet on the sidewalk below; less frequently the whine of the swinging doors at Schwartz's place; above it all, perhaps, the shrill but not unpleasant accents of Angie Tuthill as she pauses on the threshold downstairs and injects surprising information into the nothing-reluctant ears of Mame Garrison.
" ... He's got six suits of clothes, three for summer and three for winter, and two others to wear to parties--one regular full-dress suit and another without any tails on the coat that he told Miss Carpenter was a dinner-coat, but Roland Barnette says he must've meant a Tuxedo, because nobody wears that kind of clothes except at night; so how could it be a dinner-coat?... And Miss Carpenter told Ma he's got twelve striped shirts and eight white ones and dozens of silk socks and two dozen neckties and handkerchiefs till you can't count and...."
Mame punctuates this monologue with a regular and excusable "My land!" and the young voices fade away into the mid-summer afternoon quiet. I am free to resume my interrupted flight of fancy, but I refrain. The atmosphere is soporiferous, hardly conducive to editorial inspiration, and I find the commingled flavours of red-cedar, glue and rubber quite nourishing.
Presently Dr. Mortimer, the minister, comes down the street in company with his deacon, Blinky Lockwood. They are discussing someone in subdued tones, but I catch references to a worthy young man and the vacancy in the choir.
Josie Lockwood rustles into hearing with Bessie Gabriel in tow. Josie is rattling volubly, but with a hint of the confidential in her tone. She insists that: "Of course, I never let on, but every time we meet I can just feel him looking and...."
Bessie interposes: "Why, Tracey Tanner's just crazy for fear he'll take on with Angie."
I can see Josie's head toss at this. "I bet he don't know what Angie Tuthill looks like. That's too absurd..."
"Absurd" is Josie's newest word. It's a very good word, too, but sometimes I fear she will wear it threadbare. It closes her remarks as the two girls dart into the Post Office, and there is peace for a time; then they emerge giggling, and I hear Josie declare: "I'd get Roland Barnette to do it, but he's so jealous. He makes me tired."
Bessie's response is inaudible.
"Well," Josie continues, "I'm simply not going to send them out until I meet him. Father said I could give it a week from Saturday, but I won't unless--"
Bessie interrupts, again inaudibly.
"Of course I could do that, but ... if I just said 'Miss Carpenter and guests' that nosey old Homer Littlejohn'd think I meant him too, and if I only said 'guest' it'd look too pointed. Don't you think so?"
To my relief they pass from hearing, and I feel for my pipe for comfort. Anyway, I never did like Josie Lockwood.... Smoking, I meditate on the astonishing power of personality. Here is Mr. Nathaniel Duncan no more than a fortnight in our midst (the phrase is used callously, as something sacred to country journalism) and, behold! not yet has the town ceased to discuss him. The control he has over the local mind and imagination is certainly wonderful: the more so since he has apparently made no effort to attract attention; rather, I should say, to the contrary. Quiet and unassuming he goes his way, minding his own business as carefully as we would mind it for him, with all the good will in the world, if only we could find out what it is. But we can't leave him alone....
Tracey Tanner interrupts my musings.
"Hello!" he twangs, like a tuneless banjo.
"'Lo, Tracey." This lofty and blase greeting can come from none other than Roland Barnette.
"Where you goin'?"
"Over to the railway station."
"To give you something to talk about. I'm going to send a telegram to a friend of mine in Noo York."
"Aw, you ain't the only one can send telegrams. Sam Graham sent one just now."
"Uh-huh. I was sort of hangin' round, when he came in, and I seen him send it myself."
"Sam Graham telegraphing! Do you know; who to, Tracey?" Roland's superiority is wearing thin under contact with his curiosity. This surprising bit of news makes him distinctly more affable and inclined to lower himself to the social level of the son of the livery-stable keeper.
As for myself, I am inclined to lean out of the window and call Tracey up, lest he get out of hearing before I hear the rest of it. Fortunately I am not thus obliged to compromise my dignity. The two are at pause.
"Gimme a cigarette 'nd I'll tell you," bargains Tracey shrewdly. "Lew Parker told me after Sam'd gone."
The deal is put through promptly.
"He was telegraphin' to--Got a match?"
For once I am in sympathy with Roland, whose tone betrays his desire to wring Tracey's exasperating neck.
"Aw, he was only telegraphing to Gresham an' Jones for some sody water syrups."
"Where'd he get the money?" There's fine scorn in Roland's comment.
"I dunno, but he handed Lew a five-dollar bill to pay for the message."
"Well, if Sam Graham's got any money he'd better hold on to it, instead of buying sody-water syrups. I guess Blinky Lockwood'll get after him when he finds it out. He owes Blinky a note at the bank and it's coming due in a day or two and Blinky ain't going to renew, neither."
"Sam seemed cheerful 'nough. Anyhow, it ain't my funeral."
I have now something to think about, indeed, and am more than half inclined to stroll up to Graham's and find out what has happened, on my own account, when the voices of Hi Nutt and Watty the tailor drift up to me. The cronies are coming down for their regular afternoon session on the Post Office benches--a function which takes place daily, just as soon as the sun gets round behind the building, so that the seats are shaded. And I pause, true to the ethics of journalism; it's my duty not to leave just yet.
Surprisingly enough these two likewise are discussing Sam Graham. At least I can deduce nothing else from Hiram's first words, though their subject is for the moment nameless.
"Yes, sir; he's the poorest man in this town."
"Yes," Watty quavers; "yes, I guess he be."
"An' he's got no more business sense into him than God give a goose."
"No, I guess he ain't."
"Why, look at the way things has run down at his store since Margaret died. She kept things a-runnin' while she was alive."
"Yes, she was a fine woman, Margaret Bohun was."
"An' they ain't no doubt about it, Sam had money into the bank when she died. But ever sinst then it's been all go out and no come in with him. He keeps fussin' and fussin' with them inventions of his, but no one ever heard tell of his gettin' anything out of 'em."
"And what'd he do with all the money he had when Margaret died?"
"Spent it, what he didn't lend and give away and lose endorsin' notes for his friends and then havin' to pay 'em. An' speakin' of notes, I heard Roland Barnette say, t'other day, that old Sam had a note comin' due to the bank, an' Blinky wasn't goin' to renew it any more."
"'Course Sam can't pay it."
"Certainly he can't. I was in his store day before yestiddy an' they wasn't nobody come in for nothin' while I was there. He don't do no business to speak of."
"How long was you there, Hi?"
"From nine o'clock to noon."
"Nuthin'; jes' settin' round."
"I seen him to-day goin' into the bank. Guess he must've gone to see Lockwood 'bout thet note."
"Well, I don't envy him his call on Blinky Lockwood none."
"Mebbe he went in to deposit his coupons," Watty chuckled.
Hiram snorted and there was silence while he filled and lit his pipe.
"I hearn tell this mornin'," he resumed, "that Josie Lockwood's goin' to give a party next week."
"Yes, I hearn it too. Angie Tuthill was talkin' 'bout it to Mame Garrison up to Leonard and Call's. She said they was goin' to have the biggest time this town ever see. Goin' to decyrate the grounds with lanterns an' have ice cream sent from Phillydelphy, and cakes, too. Can't make out what's come into Blinky to let that gal of his waste money like that."
"I figger," says Hiram after a sapient pause, "she must be gettin' it up for thet New York dood."
"I didn't know he was 'quainted with the Lockwoods."
"I didn't know he was 'quainted with nobody."
"Nobody 'ceptin' Homer Littlejohn an' Hetty Carpenter, an' they don't seem to know much about him. I call him darn cur'us. Hetty says he allus a-settin' in his room, a-studyin' an' a-studyin' an' a-studyin'."
"He goes walkin' mornin's, Hetty told me."
"Wal, he don't come downtown much. Nobody hardly ever sees him 'cept to church."
Hiram ponders this profoundly, finally delivering himself of an opinion which he has never forsaken. "I claim he's a s'picious character."
"Don't look to me as though he knew 'nough to be much of anythin'."
"Wal, now, if he's a real student an' they ain't no outs 'bout him, what in tarnation's he doin' here? Thet's jest what I'd like to have somebody tell me, Watty."
"Hetty sez he sez he wants a quiet place to study."
Hiram snorts with scorn. "Oh, fid-del! You don't catch no Noo York young feller a-settlin' down in Radville unless he's crazy or somethin' worse."
"'Tain't no use tellin' Hetty Carpenter thet." "No; if anybody sez a word agin him she shets 'em right up."
"'Tain't only Hetty, but all the wimmin's on his side."
"Thet's proof enough to me he ain't right." "Wimmin," says Watty, as the result of a period of philosophical consideration, "is all crazy about clothes. When a feller's got good clothes you can't make them see no harm into him, no matter what he is. I pressed some of Duncan's last Satiddy. I never see clothes--such goods and linin's. They was made for him, too--made by a tailor on Fifth Avenue, Noo York. I fergit the name now."
"Wal, Roland Barnette sez they ain't stylish. He sez they're too much like an undertaker's gitup."
"Wal, Roland oughter know. He's the fanciest dressed-up feller in the county."
"Yes, I guess he be."
The subject apparently languishes, but I know that it still occupies their sage meditations; and presently this is demonstrated by Hiram, who expectorates liberally by way of preface.
"When this cuss Duncan fust come here," he says with a self-contained chuckle, "ev'rybody but me figgered he had stacks of money. Guess they be singin' a different tune, now, sinst he's been goin' round askin' for work."
This is news to me, and I sit up, sharing Watty's astonishment.
"Be he a-doin' thet, Hiram?"
"That's what he's been a-doin'."
"Funny I missed hearin' about it."
"He only started this mornin'. He went to Sothern and Lee's and Leonard and Call's and Godfrey's--'nd then I guess he must 'ev quit discouraged. They wouldn't none of them give him nothin'. Leastways, thet's what they said after he'd gone out. He didn't give anybody a reel chance to say anythin'. I was in Leonard and Call's and he came in an' asked for a job, but the minute Len looked at him he turned right round and slunk out without a-waitin' for Len to say a word." Hiram smoked in huge enjoyment of the retrospect. "He's the curiousest critter we ever had in this town."
"Yes," agrees Watty, "I guess he be."
At this juncture comes an interruption; Tracey Tanner returns, hot-foot. Either he has been running, or his breathlessness is due to excitement. Before the two upon the bench he pauses in agitated glee, a bearer of tremendous tidings.
"Hello," he pants.
"Now, you Tracey Tanner," Hiram cuts in sharply, "you run 'long an' don't be a-botherin' round. Seems like a body never can git a chance to rest, with you children allus a-buttin' in--"
"Aw, shet up," says Tracey dispassionately. "I only wanted to tell you the news."
Watty quavers: "What news, Tracey?"
"Well," says the boy, "I'll tell you, Watty, but I wouldn't 've told him after what he said."
"But what's the news, Tracey?" There is suspense in the iteration.
"Well, seein's it's you, Watty--"
"You Tracey Tanner, you run 'long and stop your jokin'!" interrupts Hiram with authority.
"'Tain't no joke; it's news, I'm tellin' you. Sa-ay, what d'ye think, Watty?"
"Yes, Tracey, yes? What is it, boy?"
"Thet--Noo--York--dood," drawls Tracey, "is a-workin' for Sam Graham!"
A dramatic pause ensues. I rise and find my coat.
"Tracey Tanner," shrills Hiram, "be you a-tellin' the truth?"
"Kiss my hand and cross my heart and vow Honest Injun, I seen him up there just now in the store, Watty, tendin' the sody fountain."
"Wal," says Hiram, rising, "I don't believe a word of it, but if it's true we better be goin' round to see, Watty, 'cause it ain't a-goin' to last long. He won't stay after he finds out Sam ain't got no money to pay his wages with."