The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
VIII. The Man of Business in Embryo
There's no questioning the fact that two weeks of Radville had driven Duncan to desperation; on the morning of the fifteenth day he wakened in his room at Miss Carpenter's and lay for a time abed staring vacantly at the gaudily papered ceiling, not through laziness remaining on his back, but through sheer inertia. The prospect of rising to ramble through another purposeless, empty day appalled his imagination; it had been all very well when the humour of his project intrigued him, when the village was a novelty and its inhabitants "types" to be studied, watched, analysed and classified with secret amusement; but now he felt that he had already exhausted its possibilities; he was a foreigner in thought and instinct, had as little in common with Radvillians as any newly imported Englishman would have had. In plain language, he was bored to the point of extinction.
"Why," he reflected aloud, "it doesn't seem reasonable, but I'm actually looking forward to the delirious dissipation of church next Sunday!
"If Kellogg could only see me now!"
He laughed mirthlessly.
"I must have done something to deserve this in my misspent life...
"Wonder if nothing ever happens here?.... I'd give a whole lot, if I had it, for a good rousing fire on Main Street--the Bigelow House, for choice....
"And it's got me to the point of drooling to myself, like those fellows you read about who get lost in the desert....
"Come! Get out of this! And, my boy, remember to 'count that day lost whose low descending sun sees nothing accomplished, nothing done.'...
"Probably misquoted, at that."
Sullenly he rose and dressed.
He was late at the breakfast and silent and reserved throughout that meal. Poor Miss Carpenter thought him dissatisfied and hung round his chair, purring with a solicitude that almost maddened him. As soon as possible he made his escape from the house.
The walk he indulged in that morning took him in a wide circle: south on the road to the Gap, then eastwards, crossing the railroad and the river, north through a smiling agricultural region, east to the Flats, and so across the stone bridge to the Old Town once more. He was trudging up Street toward Centre shortly after eleven--hot, a little tired, and utterly disgusted. The exercise, instead of exhilarating, had depressed him; the quickened flow of blood through his veins, the vigour of the clean air he inhaled, demanded of him action of some sort; and he had nothing whatever to do with himself all afternoon save drowse over "The Law of Torts."
Recognition of Leonard and Call's familiar shop-front fired him with a spirit of adventure and enterprise. He stopped short, thoughtfully rubbing his small moustache the wrong way, his vision glued to the embarrassingly candid window displays.
"It'd be an awful thing for me to do....
"Think of yourself, man, jumping counters in and out amongst all hose--those Things! like a lunatic monkey performing on a Monday morning's clothes line!..."
He thought deeply, and sighed. "It ain't moral....
"But it's one of the rules, it must be did. Henry said a ribbon clerk was a social equal....
"Come, now! No more shennanigan! Brace up! Be a man!...
"A man? That's the whole trouble: I am a man; I've got no business in a place like that."
He turned and moved away slowly. But the idea had him by the heels. He struggled against a growing resolution to return. Then enlightenment came to him suddenly. He paused again, grappling with this amazing revelation of self.
"Great Scott! Harry was right, damn him! He said this place would reconstruct me from the inside out and vice versa, and by jinks! it has. I actually want to work!...
"Can you beat that--me!"
He swung back to Leonard and Call's, mentally reviewing his instructions.
"Let's see. I was to wait at least a month, to let the shopkeepers get accustomed to the sight of me.... Hmm.... Harry certainly has a cute way of expressing his thought.... But it can't be helped; I can't wait. If I do, I'll throw up the job....
"I'm to walk in and say, politely: 'I'm looking for employment. If at any time you should have an opening here that you can offer me, I shall endeavour to give satisfaction. Good-day.'...
"But be careful not to press it. Just say it and get right out...."
With the air of a man who knows his own mind he pulled open the wire screen-door and strode in.
Two minutes later he emerged, breathing hard, but with the glitter of determination in his eye.
"I wouldn't 've believed I could get away with it. Here goes for the next promising opening."
He headed for Sothern and Lee's drug-store.
"Wonder what that fellow would have said if I'd had the nerve to wait and listen...."
In the drug-store he experienced less difficulty in making his speech and exit; he flattered himself that he accomplished both gracefully, even impressively. And indeed you may believe he left a gaping audience behind him. So likewise at Godfrey's notions and stationery shop.
As he emerged from the latter the resonant clamour of the Methodist Church clock drove him home for dinner, hungry and glowing with self-approbation. At all events, no one had refused him: he had not been set upon and incontinently kicked out. He felt that he was getting on.
"Now this afternoon," he mused, "I'll wind up the job. By night everyone in town will know I want work."
But if he had thought a moment he would have realised that he might have spared himself the trouble; the consummation he so earnestly desired was already being brought about by resident and recognised, if unofficial, agents for the dissemination of news.
It was two o'clock or thereabouts, I gather, when, shaping his course toward Radville's commercial centre, Duncan hesitated on the corner of Beech Street, cocking an incredulous eye up at the weather-worn sign which has for years adorned the side of Tuthill's grocery: a hand indicating fixedly:
THIS WAY TO GRAHAM'S DRUG STORE
"Two druggists in Radville!" he mused. "Is it possible?... Then it's Harry's mistake if the scheme fails; he said this was a one-horse country town, but I'm blest if it isn't a thriving metropolis! Two!... Here, I'm going to have a look."
He turned up Beech and presently discovered the object of his quest, a two-storey building of "frame," guiltless of the ardent caress of a paint-brush since time out of mind. On the ground floor the windows were made up of many small square panes, several of which had been rudely mended. Through them the interior glimmered darkly. In the foreground stood a broken bottle, shaped like a mortuary urn and half full of pink liquid. Beside it reposed a broken packing-box in which bleary camphor-balls nestled between torn sheets of faded blue paper. Of these a silent companion in misery stood on the far side of the window: a towering pagoda-like cage of wire in which (trapped, doubtless, by means of some mysterious bait known only to alchemists) three worn but brutal-looking sponges were apparently slumbering in exhaustion. Back of these a dusty plaster cast of a male figure lightly draped seemed to represent the survival of the fittest over some strange and deadly patent medicine. The recessed door bore an inscription in gold letters, tarnished and half obliterated:
AM GRAHAM RUGS & CHEM C LS R SCRIPTION CAREF LY C POUNDED
"Looks like the very place for one of my acknowledged abilities," said Duncan. He turned the knob and entered, advancing to the middle of the dingy room. There, standing beside a cold and rusty stove whose pipe wandered giddily to a hole in the farthest wall (reminding him of some uncouth cat with its tail over its back), he surveyed with the single requisite comprehensive glance the tiers of shelves tenanted by a beggarly array of dingy bottles; the soda fountain with its company of glasses and syrup jars; the flanking counters with their broken show-cases housing a heterogenous conglomeration of unsalable wares; the aged and tattered posters heralding the virtues of potent affronts to the human interior--to say naught of its intelligence; the drab walls and debris-littered flooring.
A slight grating noise behind him brought Duncan round with a start. At a work-bench near the window sat a white-haired man garbed baggily in an old crash coat and trousers. His head was bowed over something clamped in a vise, at which he was tinkering busily with a file. He did not look up, but, as his caller moved, inquired amiably: "Well?"
"Good-morning," stammered Duncan; "er--I should say afternoon."
"So you should," Sam admitted, still fussing with his work. "Anything you want?"
Duncan swallowed hard and mastered his confusion. "Would it be possible for me to speak to the proprietor a moment?"
"I should jedge it would. Go right along." Sam filed vigorously.
"Might I ask--are you Mr. Graham?"
"Yes, sir; that's me."
The filing continued stridently. Duncan moved closer. There was scant encouragement to be gathered from Graham's indifferent attitude; yet his voice had been pleasant, kindly.
"I--I'm looking for employment," said Duncan hastily. "If--"
Graham dropped his tools with a clatter and faced round. For a moment his eyes twinkled and a wintry smile lightened his fine old features. "Well, I declare!" he said, rising. "You must be the stranger the whole town's been talkin' about."
"If at any time," Duncan pursued hastily, "you should have an opening here that you can offer me, I shall endeavour to give satisfaction. Good-day, sir." And he made for the door.
"Eh, just a minute," said Graham. "Are you in a hurry?"
Duncan paused, smiling nervously. "Oh, no--only I mustn't press it, you know--just say it and get right--I mean I don't want to take up your valuable time, sir."
Graham chuckled. "Guess the folks haven't been talking much to you about me," he suggested. "You seem to have a higher opinion of the value of my time than anybody else in Radville."
"Yes, but--that is to say--"
"But if you're really looking for a job, I'd like to give you one first rate."
Duncan started toward him in breathless haste. "You--you'd like to!--You don't mean it!"
"Yes," Graham nodded, smiling with enjoyment of his little joke. It was harmless; he didn't for a moment believe that Duncan really needed employment; and on the other hand it tickled him immensely to think that anyone should apply to him for work.
"Well," said Duncan, staring, "you're the first man I ever met that felt that way about it."
Sam's amusement dwindled. "The trouble is," he confessed--"the trouble is, my boy, my business is so small I don't need any help. There isn't much of anything to do here."
"That's just the sort of a place I'd like," said Duncan impulsively. Then he laughed a little, uneasily. "I mean, I'm willing to take any position, no matter how insignificant. I mean it, honestly."
"This might suit you, then--"
"I wish you'd let me try it, sir."
"But you don't understand." Graham was serious enough now; there wasn't any joke in what he had to say. "To tell you the truth, I can't afford it. When your pay was due, I'm afraid I shouldn't have any money to give you."
Duncan dismissed this paltry consideration with a princely gesture. "I don't mind that part," he insisted. "Mr. Graham, if you'll teach me the drug business I'll work for you for nothing."
He said it earnestly, for he meant it just a bit more seriously than he himself realised at the moment; and I'm glad to think it was because Sam's serene and gentle, guileless nature had appealed to the young man. He had that in him, that instinct for decency and the right, that made him like this simple, sweet and almost childish old man at sight--like him and want to help him, though he was hardly conscious of this and believed his motive rather more than less selfish, that he was grasping at this opportunity for relief from the deadly ennui that oppressed him as madly as a famished man at a crust. Indeed, the boy was eager to deceive himself in this respect, with youth's wholesome horror of sentiment.
"Between you and me," he hurried on, "it's this way: I've been here for two weeks with nothing to do but look at a book, and it's got me crazy enough to want to work!"
But still I like to think it was for a better reason, that his conduct then bore out my theory that there are streaks of human kindliness and right-thinking in all of us--buried deep though they may be by many an acquired stratum of callousness and egoism: the sediment of life caking upon the soul....
But as for Sam, as soon as he recovered he shook his head in thoughtful deprecation. "Well, I swan!" he said. "I guess you must find it pretty slow down here. But"--brightening--"if you feel that way about it, I'd better take you over to Sothern and Lee's. They'd be glad to get you at the price."
"And in a week they'd think they were over-paying me," Duncan argued. "No--I've been there. Why not try me on here?"
"Well, I'm just a little bit afraid you wouldn't learn much, my boy. I don't do business enough to give you a good idea of it. Sothern and Lee get all the trade nowadays."
"But look here, sir: don't you think if I came in here perhaps we could build up the business?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Graham deprecated, pursing his lips and rubbing the white stubble of his beard with a toil-worn thumb.
Duncan eyed him in bitter humour. "No, of course not. You're right--but somebody must have tipped you off."
Graham paid little heed, whose mind was bent upon his own parlous circumstances. "I haven't got capital enough to stock up the store," he explained; "that's the real trouble. Folks have got into the habit of going to the other store because I'm out of so many things."
"Well, to be sure," said Duncan, a little dashed; "you can't expect to do business unless you've got things to sell...."
"I don't expect it, my boy," Sam assented dolefully. "'Twouldn't be in reason.... You see," he added, hope lightening his gloom, "I'm working on an invention of mine, and if that should work out I'd get some money and be able to get a fresh stock. Then I'd be glad to have you."
Duncan brushed this impatiently aside. "How much business are you doing here now?"
"Some days"--Graham reckoned it on his fingers--"I take in a dollar or two, and some days... nothing.... There's my sody fountain," he said with a jerk of a thumb toward it: "got that fixed up a little while ago, and it's bringing in a little. Not much. You see, I need more syrups. I've only got vanilly now."
"Soda water!" Duncan jumped at the idea. "Hold on! All the girls round here drink soda, don't they?"
"Oh, yes," said Graham abstractedly.
The thought infused new life into the younger man's waning purpose. "Mr. Graham, I wish you'd let me come in here for a while. I don't care about wages."
Graham lifted his shoulders resignedly. "Well, my boy, it don't seem right, but if you really want to work here for nothing, I'll be glad to have you; and if things look up with me, I'll be glad to pay you."
Abruptly he found his hand grasped and pumped gratefully.
"That's mighty good of you, Mr. Graham. When can I start?"
"Why... whenever you like."
In a twinkling Duncan's hat and gloves were off. "I'd like to, now," he said. "Where can we get more syrups?"
"Unfortunately... I'll have to buy them."
"How much?" Duncan's hand was in his pocket in an instant.
"Oh, no, you mustn't do that." Sam backed away in alarm. "I couldn't allow it, my boy. It's good of you, but..."
"Either," Nat told himself, "I'm asleep or someone's refusing to take money from me." He grinned cheerfully. "Oh, that's all right," he contended aloud. "I'll draw it down as soon as we begin to sell soda." He selected a bill from his slender store. "Will five dollars be enough?"
"Oh, yes, but it wouldn't be right for me to--"
But by this time Duncan was pressing the bill into his hand. "Nonsense!" he insisted. "How can we build up trade without syrup?"
"And how can I learn the business without trade?" He closed Graham's unwilling fingers over the money and skipped away.
Sighing, Graham gave over the unequal argument. "Well, if you're satisfied, my boy.... But I'll have to write to Elmiry for it."
"Telegraph!" Graham laughed. "That'd kill Lew Parker, I guess."
"Telegraph operator and ticket agent."
"Well, he won't be missed much. Telegraph and tell 'em to send the goods C.O.D. Please, Mr. Graham. We want to get things moving here, you know; we've got to build up the business. We'll put out some signs and ... and ... well, we'll get the people in the habit of coming here somehow. You'll see!"
He raked the poverty-stricken shelves with a calculating eye, all his energy fired by enthusiasm at the prospect of doing something. Graham watched him with kindling liking and admiration. His old lips quivered a little before he voiced his thought.
"You--you know, my boy, you've got splendid business ability," he asserted with whole-souled conviction.
Duncan almost reeled. "What?" he cried.
"I was just saying, you have wonderful business ability."
"You're the first man that ever said that. I wonder if it's so."
"I'm sure of it."
"Well," said Nat, chuckling, "I'll write that to my chum. He'll--"
"Oh, I can tell," Graham interrupted. "Now, I ... Well, you see, I've been a failure in business. So far as that goes, I've been a failure in everything all my life."
Duncan stared for a moment, then offered his hand. "For luck," he explained, meeting Graham's puzzled gaze as his hand was taken.
Wondering, Graham shook his head; and gratitude made his old voice tremulous. He put a hand over Duncan's, patting it gently.
"I want you to know, my boy, that I appreciate..." His voice broke. "It's mighty kind of you to buy the syrup--very kind--"
"Nothing of the sort; it's just because I've got great business ability." Duncan laughed quietly and moved away. "We'll want to clean up a bit," said he; "got a broom? I'll raise the dust a bit while you're out sending that wire."
"You'll find one in the cellar, I guess, but--your clothes--"
"Oh, that's all right. Where's the cellar?"
"Underneath," Graham told him simply, taking down a battered hat from a hook behind the counter.
"I know; but how do I get there?"
"By the steps; you go through that door there into the hall. The steps are under the stairs to our rooms. I live above the store, you see."
"Yes.... Good-bye, Mr. Graham."
"Good-bye, my boy."
Duncan watched the old man move slowly out of sight, then with a groan sat down on the counter to think it over. "It wouldn't be me if I didn't make a mess of things somehow," he told himself bitterly. "Now you have gone and went and done it, Mr. Fortune Hunter. You stand a swell chance of getting away with the goods when you take a wageless job in a spavined country drug-store with no trade worth mentioning and nothing to draw it with... just because that old duffer's the only human being you've spotted in this burg!...
"Wonder what Harry would say if he heard about that wonderful business ability thing...
"But what in thunder can we do to bring business to this bum joint?"
He raked his surroundings with a discouraged glance.
"Oh," he said thoughtfully, "hell!"
Five minutes later Ben Sperry found him in the same position, his head bent in perplexed reverie. Sperry had been travelling for Gresham and Jones, a wholesale drug-house in Elmira, more years than I can remember. His friendship for Sam Graham, contracted during the days when Graham's was the drug-store of Radville, has survived the decay of the business. He's a square, decent man, Sperry, and has wasted many an hour trying to persuade Sam to pay a little more attention to the business. I suspect he suffered the shock of his placid life when he found Sam absent and the shop in the care of this spruce, well set-up young man.
"Anything I can do for you?" chirped Duncan cheerfully, dropping off the counter as Sperry entered.
"No-o; I just wanted to see old Sam. Is he upstairs?"
"No, Mr. Graham's not in at present," Duncan told him civilly.
Sperry wrinkled his brows over this problem. "You working here?" he asked.
"Well, I'll be hanged!"
"Let us hope not," said Duncan pleasantly. He waited a moment, a little irritated. "Sure there's nothing I can do for you?"
"No-o," said Sperry slowly, struggling to comprehend. "Thank you just the same."
"Not at all." Duncan turned away.
"You see," Sperry pursued, "I don't buy from drug-stores: I sell to 'em."
Duncan faced about with new interest in the man. "Yes?" he said encouragingly.
"My card," volunteered Sperry, fishing the slip of pasteboard from his waistcoat pocket. He dropped his sample case beside the stove and plumped down in the chair, to the peril of its existence. "I don't make this town very often," he pursued, while Duncan studied his card. "Sothern and Lee are the only people I sell to here, but I never miss a chance to chin a while with old Sam. So, having half an hour before train time, I thought I'd drop in."
"Mr. Graham doesn't order from your house, then?"
"Doesn't order from anybody, does he?"
"I don't know; I've just come here. He'll be sorry to have missed you, though. He's just stepped out to wire your house--I gather from the fact that it's in Elmira; he mentioned that town, not the firm name--for some syrups."
"You don't mean it!" Sperry gasped. "What's struck him all of a sudden? He ain't put in any new stock for ten years, I reckon."
"Well, you see," Duncan explained artfully, "I've persuaded him, in a way, to try to make something out of the business here. We're going to do what we can, of course, in a small way at first."
Sperry wagged a dubious head. "I dunno," he considered. "Sam's a nice old duffer, but he ain't got no business sense and never had; you can see for yourself how he's let everything run to seed here. Sothern and Lee took all his trade years ago."
"Yes, I know; that's why he needs me," said Duncan brazenly. In his soul he remarked "O Lord!" in a tone of awe; his colossal impudence dazed even himself. "But don't you think he could get back some of the trade if the store was stocked up?"
"No doubt about that at all," Sperry averred; "he'd get the biggest part of it."
"You think so?"
"Sure of it. You see, everybody round here likes Sam, and Sothern and Lee have always been outsiders. They'd swing to this shop in a minute, just on account of that. Fact is, I wasted a lot of talk on our firm a couple of years ago, trying to make our people give him some credit, but they couldn't see it. He owed them a bill then that was so old it had grown whiskers."
"And still owes it, I presume?"
"You bet he still owes it. Always will. It's so small that it ain't worth while suing for----"
"Look here, Mr. Sperry, how much is this bill with the whiskers?"
"About fifty dollars, I think," said the travelling man, fumbling for his wallet. "I'm supposed to ask for payment every time I strike town, you know, so I always have it with me; but I haven't had the heart to say a word to Sam for a good long time.... Here it is."
Duncan studied carefully the memorandum: "To Mdse, as per bill rendered, $47.85." "I wonder..." he murmured.
"Eh?" said Sperry.
"I was wondering:... Suppose you were to tell your people that there's a young fellow here who'd like to give this store a boom.... Say he wants a little credit because--because Mr. Graham won't let him put in any cash----"
"Not a bit of use," Sperry negatived. "I would, myself, but the house--no."
"But suppose I pay this bill----"
"Pay it? You really mean that?"
"Certainly I mean it." Duncan produced the wad of bills which Kellogg had furnished him the night before his departure from New York. Thus far he had broken only one of the five-hundred-dollar gold certificates, and of that one he had the greater part left; living is anything but expensive in Radville.
"I'm beginning to understand that I was cut out for an actor," he told himself as he thumbed the roll with a serious air and an assumed indifference which permitted Sperry to estimate its size pretty accurately.
"That's quite a stack of chips you're carrying," Sperry observed.
Duncan's hand airily wafted the remark into the limbo of the negligible. "A trifle, a mere trifle," he said casually. "I don't generally carry much cash about me. Haven't for five years," he added irrepressibly. He extracted a fifty-dollar certificate from the sheaf, and handed it over.
"I'll take a receipt, but you needn't mention this to Mr. Graham just now."
"No, certainly not." Sperry scrawled his signature to the bill.
"And about that line of credit?----"
"Well, with this paid, I guess you could have what you needed, in moderation. Of course----"
"My name is Duncan--Nathaniel Duncan." Sperry made a memorandum of it on the back of an envelope. "Any former business connections?"
"None that I care to speak about," Duncan confessed glumly.
Sperry's face lengthened. "No references?"
It took thought, and after thought courage; but Duncan hit upon the solution at length. "Do you know L. J. Bartlett & Company, the brokers?"
"Do I know J. Pierpont Morgan?"
"Then that's all right. Tell your people to inquire of Harry Kellogg, the junior partner. He knows all about me."
Noting the name, Sperry put away the envelope. "That's enough. If he says you're all right, you can have anything you want." He consulted his watch. "Hmm. Train to catch.... But let's see: what do you need here?"
Duncan reviewed the empty shelves, his face glowing. "Pills," he said with a laugh: "all kinds of pills and... everything for a regular, sure-enough drug-store, Mr. Sperry: everything Sothern and Lee carries and a lot of attractive things they don't.... Small lots, you know, until I see what we can sell."
"I see. You leave it to me; I probably know what you need better than you do. I'll make out a list this afternoon and mail it to-night with instructions to ship it at the earliest possible moment."
"Splendid!" Duncan told him. "You do that, and don't worry about our making good. I'm going to put all my time and energy into this proposition and----"
"Then you'll make good all right," Sperry assured him. "All anybody's got to do is look at you to see you're a good business man." He returned Duncan's pressure and picked up his sample-case. "S'long," said he, and left briskly, leaving Duncan speechless.
As if to assure himself of his sanity he put a hand to his brow and stroked it cautiously. "Heavens!" he said, and sought the support of the counter. "That's twice to-day I've been told that in the same place!"...
"It's funny," he said, half dazed, "I never could have pulled that off for myself!"