The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance
IX. Small Beginnings
Presently Duncan moved and came out of his abstraction. "I'd better get that broom," he said slowly. "The place certainly needs some expert manicuring before we get that new stock in.... By George, I really begin to believe we've got a chance to do something, after all!...
"Or else I'm dreaming...."
He opened the back door and entered a narrow and dark hallway, almost stumbling over the lowest step of a flight of stairs communicating with the upper storey. From above he could hear a clatter of crockery, sounds of footsteps, a woman singing softly.
"Graham's wife, I presume. Never struck me he might be married.... Well, I'll be quiet. If she catches me now, before we're introduced, she'll take me for a burglar."
On tiptoes he found the descent to the cellar, where by the aid of a match he discovered a floorbrush whose reasons for retirement from active employment were most evident even to his inexpert eye. None the less nothing better offered, and he took it back with him to the shop.
Graham's tinkering was never of a cleanly sort; the floor was thick with a litter of rubbish--shavings, old nuts and bolts, bits of scrap tin and metal, torn paper, charred ends of matches: an indescribable mess. Duncan surveyed it ruefully, but with the will to do strong in him, took off his coat, turned up his trousers, and fell to. The disposition of the sweepings troubled him far less than the dust he raised; obviously the only place to put it was behind the counters.
"Nobody'll see it there," he said in a glow of satisfaction, pausing with the room half cleared. "I always wondered what they did with that sort of truck--under the beds, I suppose. Funny Graham never thought of this, himself--it's so blame' easy."
He resumed his labours, thrilled with the sensation of accomplishment. "One thing at least that I can do," he mused; "never again shall I fear starvation... so long as there's a broom handy." Absorbed he brushed away, raising a prodigious amount of dust and utterly oblivious to the fact that he was observed.
Two shadows moved slowly athwart the windows, to which his back was turned, paused, moved on out of sight, returned. It was only during a pause for breath that he became aware of the surveillance.
Straightening up, he looked, gasped and fled for the back of the store. "Heavens!" he whispered, aghast to recognise Josie Lockwood and Angie Tuthill, of whose ubiquitous shadows in his way he had been conscious so frequently within the past several days. "I thought I must have made an impression.... Don't tell me they're coming in!"
Behind the counter he struggled furiously into his coat. "They are," he said with a sinking heart; "and I'll bet a dollar my face is dirty!"
Notwithstanding these misgivings, it was a very self-possessed young man, to all appearances, who moved sedately round the end of the counter to greet these possible customers. His bow was a very passable imitation of the real thing, he flattered himself; and there's no manner of doubt but that it flattered the two prettiest and most forward young women in Radville of that day.
"May I have the honour of waiting on you, ladies?" he inquired with all the suavity of an accomplished salesman.
Josie and Angie sidled together, giggling and simpering, quite overcome by his manner. A muffled "How de do?" from Angie and a half-strangled echo of the salutation from the other were barely articulate. But hearing them he bowed again, separately to each.
"Good-afternoon," said he, and waited in an inquiring pose.
"This--'this is Mr. Duncan, isn't it?" inquired Josie, controlling herself.
"Yes, and you are Miss Lockwood, if I'm not mistaken?"
Renewed giggles prefaced her: "Oh, how did you know?"
"Could anyone remain two weeks in Radville and not hear of Miss Lockwood?"
The shot told famously. "How nice of you! Mr. Duncan, I want you to meet my friend, Miss Tuthill."
"I've had the honour of admiring Miss Tuthill from a distance," Duncan assured the younger woman. And, "She'll burn up!" he feared secretly, watching the conflagration of blushes that she displayed. "Just think of getting away with a line of mush like that! Harry was right after all: this is a country town, all right."
"And--and are you working here, Mr. Duncan?" Josie pursued.
"I'm supposed to be; I'm afraid I don't know the business very well, as yet."
"Oh, that's awf'ly nice," Angle thought.
He thanked her humbly.
"We didn't expect to see you here," Josie assured him. "We just thought we'd like some soda."
"Soda!" he parroted, horrified. He cast a glance askance at the tawdry fountain. "Let's see: how d'you work the infernal thing?" he asked himself, utterly bewildered.
"Yes," Angie chimed in; "it's so warm this afternoon, we----"
"I've got to put it through somehow," he thought savagely. And aloud, "Yes, certainly," he said, and smiled winningly. "Will you be pleased to step this way?"
Out of the corners of his eyes he detected the amused look that passed between the girls. "Oh, very well!" he said beneath his breath. "You may laugh, but you asked for soda, and soda you shall have, my dears, if you die of it." He put himself behind the counter with an air of great determination, and leaned upon it with both hands outspread until he realised that this was the pose of a groceryman. "What'll you have?" he demanded genially. "Er--that is--I mean, would you prefer vanilla or--ah--soda?"
A chant antiphonal answered him:
"I hate vanilla."
"And so do I."
"Oh, don't say that!" he pleaded. "Of course you know there's--ah-- vanilla and vanilla..., Ah... some vanilla I know is detestable, but when you get a really fine vintage--ah--imported vanilla, it's quite another matter--ah--particularly at his season of the year----"
His confusion was becoming painful.
"Oh, is it?" asked Josie helpfully. Her eyes dwelt upon his with a confiding expression which he later characterised as a baby stare; and he was promptly reduced to babbling idiocy.
"Indeed it is; no doubt whatever, Miss Lockwood. Especially just now, you know--ah--after the bock season--ah--I mean, when the weather is-- is--in a way--you might put it--vanilla weather."
"But I like chocolate best," Angle pouted. And he hated her consumedly for the moment.
"Very well," Josie told him sweetly, "I'll have the vanilla."
He thanked her with unnecessary effusion and turned to inspect the glassware. There could be no mistake about the right jar, however; there was nothing but vanilla, and seizing it he removed the metal cap and placed it before the girls. With less ease he discovered a whiskey glass and put it beside the bottle, with a cordial wave of the hand. A pause ensued. Duncan was smiling fatuously, serene in the belief that he had solved the problem: the way to serve soda was to make them help themselves. It was very simple. Only they didn't... With a start he became sensible that they were eyeing him strangely.
"You--ah--wanted vanilla, did you not?"
"Yes, thanks, vanilla," Josie agreed.
"Well, that's it," he said firmly, indicating the jar and the glass.
Josie giggled. "But I don't want to drink it clear. You put the syrup in the glass, you know, and then the soda."
"Oh, I see! You want to make a high-ba--ah--a long drink of it. Ah, yes!" He procured a glass of the regulation size. "Now I understand." A pause. "If you'll be good enough to help yourself to the syrup."
"No; you do it," Josie pleaded.
"Certainly." He lifted the whiskey-glass and the jar and began to pour. "If you'll just say when."
"What? Oh, that's enough, thank you."
"If I ever get out of this fix, I'll blow the whole shooting match," he promised himself, holding the glass beneath the faucet and fiddling nervously with the valves. For a moment he fancied the tank must be empty, for nothing came of his efforts. Then abruptly the fixture seemed to explode. "A geyser!" he cried, blinded with the dash of carbonated water and syrup in his face, while he fumbled furiously with the valves.
As unexpectedly as it had begun the flow ceased. He put down the glass, found his handkerchief and mopped his dripping face. When able to see again he discovered the young women leaning against one of the show-cases, weak with laughter but at a safe remove.
"Our soda's so strong, you know," he apologised. "But if you'll stay where you are, I'll try again."
Warned by experience, he worked at the machine gingerly, finally producing a thin, spluttering trickle. Beaming with triumph, he looked up. "I think it's safe now," he suggested; "I seem to have it under control."
Angie and Josie returned, torn by distrust but unable to resist the fascination of the stranger in our village. And there's no denying the boy was good-looking and a gentleman by birth: a being alien to their experience of men.
He had filled one glass and was tincturing it with syrup when he caught again that confiding smile of Josie's, full upon him as the beams of a noon-day sun.
"Haven't we seen you at church, Mr. Duncan?" she said prettily.
"I think, perhaps, you may have," he conceded. "I have seen you, both." The second glass (for he was determined that Angie should not escape) took up all his attention for an instant. "Do you have to go, too?" he inquired out of this deep preoccupation.
"I mean, do you attend regularly?" he amended hastily.
"Oh, yes, of course," Josie simpered, accepting the glass he offered her. "You make it a rule to go every Sunday, don't you, Mr. Duncan?"
He permitted himself an indiscretion, secure in the belief it would pass unchallenged: "It's one of the rules, but I didn't make it."
"Did you know there was a vacancy in the choir?" Angle asked, taking up her glass.
"Yes," Josie chimed in; "we were hoping you'd join. I want you to, awfully."
"We're both in the choir," Angie explained.
"And all the girls want you to join. Don't they, Angie?"
"Oh, yes, indeed; they're all just dying to meet you."
"I'll have to write and ask," he said abstractedly.
"Why, what do you mean by that?"
Josie's question struck him dumb with consternation. He made curious noises in his throat, and fancied (as was quite possible) that they eyed him in a peculiar fashion. "It's--I mean--a little trouble with my throat," he managed to lie, at length. "I must ask my physician if I may, first."
"Oh, I see," said Josie.
"But," he hastened to change the subject, "you're not drinking, either of you. I sincerely hope it's not so very bad."
Angie replaced her glass, barely tasted. "Do you like it, Josie?"
To Josie's credit it must be admitted that she made a brave attempt to drink. But the mixture was undoubtedly flat, stale and unprofitable. She sighed, put it back on the counter, and rose to the emergency.
"Mine's perfectly lovely"--with a ravishing smile--"but it's not very sweet."
"I made them dry for you--thought you'd like 'em that way," he stammered. "Perhaps you'd like 'em better if I put a collar on 'em?"
The chorus negatived this suggestion very promptly.
"Why don't you try a glass, Mr. Duncan?" Angie added with malice.
"I'm on the wagon--I mean, I don't drink at all," he said wretchedly; and was deeply grateful for the diversion afforded by the entrance of a third customer.
It was Tracey Tanner, as usual swollen with important tidings, as usual propelling himself through the world at a heavy trot. It has always been a source of wonderment to me how Tracey manages to keep so stout with all the violent exercise he takes.
"Say, Angle," he twanged at sight of her, "I've been lookin' for you everywhere. Did you hear that----"
He stopped instantaneously with open mouth as he saw Duncan behind the counter; and openmouthed he remained while the young man came round and advanced toward him, with a bland smirk accompanied by a professional bow and rubbing of hands.
"May I have the pleasure of serving you, Mr. Tanner?"
"Huh?" bleated Tracey, dumbfounded.
"Is there anything you wish to purchase?"
A violent emotion stirred in Tracey. Sounds began to emanate from his heaving chest. "N-n-no, ma'am!" he breathed explosively.
Duncan bowed again, his face expressionless. "Then will you be good enough to excuse me?" He turned precisely and made his way back to the counter.
As if released from some spell of strong enchantment by the movement, Tracey swung on his heel and lunged for the door.
"What was it you wanted to ask me, Tracey?" Angie called after him.
As the boy disappeared at a hand-gallop his response floated back: "I fergit."
"I'm afraid I must have frightened him?" Duncan said inquiringly.
"Oh, no, not at all," Josie reassured him; "he's just gone to tell everybody you're here."
"Come, Josie, we've been here ever so long." Angie moved slowly toward the door, but Josie inclined to linger.
"Don't hurry, I beg of you," Duncan interposed.
"Oh, we haven't hurried," she said with a gush of gratification that startled the man. "You'll remember what I said about the choir, won't you?"
He braced himself to take advantage of the opening. "I shall never forget it," he said impressively.
She gave him her hand. "Then good-bye."
"Not good-bye, I trust?" He retained the hand, despising himself inexpressibly.
"Oh, we'll be in again, won't we Angie?"
"Oh, yes, indeed."
"My land, Angie! What do you think? I'd almost forgotten to pay for the soda?"
"Please don't speak of it, Miss Lockwood--the pleasure--."
"But I must, Mr. Duncan. How much is it?"
Josie fingered the contents of her purse expectantly, but Duncan hung in the wind. He had no least notion what might be the price of soda water. "Two for a quarter?" he hazarded with his disarming grin.
Angle choked with appreciation of this exquisite sally. "Ain't you funny!"
"I'm afraid you're right," he conceded; "still I'd rather you didn't think so."
"It's ten cents, isn't it, Mr. Duncan?"
Josie was offering him a dime; he accepted it without question.
"Thank you, very much," said he. "Good afternoon, ladies."
He was aware of Angle's fluttering farewells on the sidewalk. Josie was lingering on the doorstep in an agony of untrained coquetry. He lowered his tone for her benefit, thereby adding new weight to his bombardment of her amateur defences.
"Remember you promised to call again."
Her giggles tore his ear-drums. "Th-thank you, I'm sure," she stammered, and fled.
They disappeared. He wandered to the chair and threw himself limply into it. "That voice!" he said stupidly. "That giggle! I've got to woo and win... that!...
"It serves me right," he concluded.
The most hopeless of humours assailed him, and he yielded to it without a struggle. His attitude expressed his mood with relentless verity. Chin sunken upon his breast, eyes fairly distilling gloom, legs stretched out carelessly before him, he sat motionless, suffocating at the bottom of a gulf of discontent. His lips moved, sometimes noiselessly, again in whispers barely audible.
"Years of this!... A matter of human endurance--no, superhuman!... If it wasn't for the bargain, I'd chuck it all and...
"Well, the only way to forget your misery is to work, I suppose."
He pulled himself together and stood up, wondering where he had left his broom, and simultaneously stiffened with surprise, aware that he was not alone. A glance, however, established the connection between the rear door, which stood ajar, and the young woman who stood staring at him in utterest stupefaction. This, he thought, must be the woman of the voice, upstairs.
But she couldn't be Graham's wife. She was too young. Even beneath the mask of care and weariness, the all too plain evidences of privation, spiritual and mental as well as physical, that Betty wore unceasingly in those days, he could discern youth and grace and gentleness, and the nascent promise of prettiness that longed to be, to have the chance to show itself and claim its meed of deference and love. He was quick to see the intelligence in her mutinous eyes, and the sweet lines of her mouth, too often shaped in sullen mould, and no less quick to recognise that she would carry herself well, with spirit and dignity, once she were relieved of household toil and moil, once given the chance to discard her shapeless, bedraggled and threadbare garments for those dainty and beautiful things for which her starved heart must be sick with longing....
"Good Lord!" he thought, pitiful, "it's worse here than I dreamed. Old Graham must need a keeper--and this child has been trying to be that, with nothing to keep him on."
"Who are you?" the girl demanded sullenly, in a voice a little harsh and toneless. "What are you doing here? Where's my father?"
"Mr. Graham has stepped out on business," Duncan replied. "You are his daughter, I believe?"
"Yes, I'm his daughter, but----"
"My name is Nathaniel Duncan. Mr. Graham has been kind enough to take me on as apprentice, so to speak."
Her stare continued, intense, resentful, undeviating.
"You mean you're going to work here?"
"That my intention, Miss Graham." He nodded gravely.
"To learn the drug business."
"Oh-h!" She flung herself a pace away, impatiently. "I'm not a child, and I don't want to be talked to like one."
"I didn't mean to annoy you----"
[Illustration: "You mean you're going to work here?"]
"Well, you do. You've got no business in a run-down place like this-- you with your fine clothes and your fine airs. You didn't come here to learn the drug business; you know as well as I do you've got some other motive."
There was a truth in that to sting him. He smarted under its lash, but held his temper in check because he was sorry for the girl. "Perhaps you're right," he conceded; "perhaps I have some other motive. But that's neither here nor there. I'm here, and it is my present intention to learn the drug business in your father's store."
"I don't believe you, Mister Duncan--or whatever your name is."
"I'm sorry," he said patiently.
Betty's lips twitched, contemptuous. "Well, saying you do mean to work here----"
"Where do you think your pay's going to come from?"
"I guess you think that's funny, don't you?"
"I confess, at the moment I did. But now I realise it's probably a bitter truth."
He was too much for her, she saw, and the knowledge only served to fan her indignation and suspicions.
"You're making a mistake," she snapped. "Father can't pay you nothing."
"He'll pay me all I'm worth," said Duncan meekly.
She glared at him an instant longer, then mute for lack of a sufficiently scornful retort, turned and ran back up the steps, slamming the door behind her.
Duncan drew a rueful face, contemplating the place where she had been.
"I didn't think this was going to be a bed of roses--and it isn't," he concluded.