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The Fortune Hunter by Louis Joseph Vance

Part 5 out of 5

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"How could I know that?"

"I should think you ought to know it, Nat, unless you're blind.
Besides, I told you once."

"True," he fenced desperately, "but that was a long time ago; and how
could I be sure you hadn't changed your mind? Besides, you know, I
mustn't monopolise you. If I do...."

"Well?" she inquired sweetly as he paused on the lip of a break.

"Why, if I do--ah--"

"If you're afraid people will talk about us, seeing us so much
together, you needn't worry. They're doing that now."

"Why, Josie!"

"Yes, they are. We've been going together so long, and then suddenly
you don't seem to care about--care to be alone with me at all. This
is the first chance I've had to talk to you, when there wasn't somebody
else round, for I don't know how long. And even now you don't seem glad
to see me."

"You should _know_ I am...."

"You don't act like it."

"It's so unexpected," he muttered wretchedly.

"You didn't really think I wanted Roland Barnette to go home with me
Wednesday night, did you, Nat?"

"It seemed so, but ... that's all right. Why shouldn't you?"

She turned to him, trembling a little. "Must I tell you, Nat?"

"O, no!" he cried in dismay. "Please don't----!"

"I see I must," she persisted. "You're so blind. It----"

"Josie, don't say anything you'll be sorry for," he entreated wildly.

"I can't help it: I've got to. It was--it was because I wanted to be
with you.... There!" she gasped, frightened by her own forwardness.

"Now I've said it!"

Duncan grasped frantically at straws. "But you don't really mean it,
Josie: you know you don't," he floundered. "You're just saying that
because you--you have such a kind heart and--ah--don't want to hurt

She stemmed the flood of his protestations with a hand on his arm.
"Nat," she said gently, looking up into his face, "would it make you
happy to know I really meant it?"

"Why--ah--why shouldn't it, Josie?"

"Then please believe me, when I say it."

"But I do believe it. I..." He stammered and fell still.

"Because I do like you, Nat, very much, and--and it's very hard for me
to know that folks think I'm pursuing you and that you're trying to
avoid me."

"Josie!" he exclaimed reproachfully.

"Well, that's the way it looks," she affirmed plaintively. "You don't
want it to, do you?"

"Why, no; of course I don't."

"Then why don't you stop it?" She watched his face, her manner coy and
yielding. "Nat," she said in a softer voice, "if you like me as well as
I like you----"

He moved away a pace or two. "Ah, child!" he said, with a feeling that
the term was not misapplied, somehow, "you don't know what you're

"Yes, I do." She pouted. "I don't believe you... care anything about

"Oh, Josie, please----"

"Well, anyway, you've never told me so." She turned an indignant
shoulder to him.

"How could I?"

"Why couldn't you?"

"But don't you see that I shouldn't, Josie?" He turned back to her
side, looked down at her, pleaded his defence with the fire of

"Just think: you are an only daughter." Just what this had to do with
the case was not plain even to him. "An only daughter," he repeated--
"ah--not only your father's only daughter, but your mother's only
daughter. Your father--ah--is my friend. How unfair it would be to him."

But the girl interrupted with decision. "But papa wants you to... He
told me so."

He could only pretend not to understand. "But consider, Josie: you are
rich, an heiress: I'm a poor man. Would you like it to be said I was
after your money?"

"No one would dare say such a thing," she asserted with profound

"Oh, yes, they would. You don't know the world as I do. And for all you
know, they might be right. How do you know that------"

"Nat!" A catch in her voice stopped him. "Don't say such horrid things!
I could tell: a woman always can. I know you would be incapable of such
a thing. Papa knows it, too. No one has ever got ahead of papa, and
_he_ says you are a fine, steady, Christian man, and he would
rather see me your wife than any------"'


The interjection was so imperative that she was silenced. "Why, what,
Nat?" she asked, rising.

"The time has come," he declared; "you must know the truth."

"Oh, Nat!"

"I'm _not_ what you think me," he continued, dramatic.

_"Oh, Nat!"_

"Nor what your father thinks me, nor what anybody else in this town
thinks me. I'm not a regular Christian--it's all a bluff: I didn't
know anything about a church till I came here. I smoke and I drink and
I swear and I gamble, and I only cut them all out in order to trick you
into caring for me!"

"Oh, Nat, I don't believe it."

"Alas, Josie!" he protested violently, "it's true, only too true!"

"But you did it to win my love, Nat?"

"Ye-es." He saw suddenly that he had made a fatal mistake.

"Then, Nat, I will be your wife in spite of all!"

He found himself suddenly caught about the neck by the girl's arms. His
head was drawn down until her cheek caressed his and he felt her lips
warm upon his own.

"Josie!" he gasped.

"Nat, my darling!"

With a supreme effort he pulled himself together and embraced the girl.
"Josie," he said earnestly, "I--I'm going to try to be a good husband
to you.... And that," he concluded, _sotto voce_, "wasn't in the

She held him to her passionately. "Dearest, I'm so glad!"

"It makes me very happy to know you are, Josie," he murmured miserably.
And to himself, while still she trembled in his embrace: "What a cur
you are!... But I won't renege now; I'll play my hand out on the
square, with her...."

Upon this tableau there came a sudden intrusion. The back door opened
and Graham came in, Kellogg at his heels. It was the voice of the
latter that told the two they were discovered: a hearty "Hello! What's
this?" that rang in Nat's ears like the trump of doom.

In a flash the girl disengaged herself, and they were a yard apart by
the time that Graham, blundering in his surprise, managed to turn on
the lights at the switchboard. But even in the full glare of them he
seemed unable to credit his sight.

"Why, Nat!" he quavered, coming out toward the guilty pair. "Why,

Duncan took a long breath and Josie's hand at one and the same time.
"Mr. Graham," he said coolly, "I'm glad you're the first to know it.
Josie has just ask--agreed to be my wife."

Old Sam recovered sufficiently to take the girl's hand and pat it. "I'm
mighty glad, my dear," he told her. "I congratulate you both with all
my heart."

"And so will I, when I have the right," Kellogg added, smiling.

"Oh, I forgot." Nat hastened to remedy his oversight. "Josie, this is
my dearest friend, Mr. Kellogg; Harry, this is Miss Lockwood."

Josie gave Kellogg her hand. "I--I," she giggled--"I'm pleased to meet
you, I'm sure."

"I'm charmed. I've heard a great deal of you, Miss Lockwood, from Nat's
letters, and I shall hope to know you much better before

"It's awful' nice of you to say so, Mr. Kellogg."

"And, Nat, old man!" Kellogg threw an arm round Duncan's shoulder. "I
congratulate you! You're a lucky dog!"

"I'm a dog, all right," said Nat glumly.

"But we mustn't disturb these young people, Mr. Kellogg," Graham broke
in nervously.

"They'll--they'll have a lot to say to one another, I'm sure; so we'll
just run along. I'm taking Mr. Kellogg up to the house, Nat. You'll
follow us as soon as you can, won't you?"


"I've got some news for you, too, that'll make you happy."

"Never mind about that; it'll keep till supper, Mr. Graham." Kellogg
laughed, taking the old man's arm. "Good-bye, both of you--good-bye for
a little while."


"Wasn't that terrible!" Josie turned back to Nat when they were alone.
"I think it was real mean of Mr. Graham to turn on all the lights
that way," she simpered. "Somebody else might've seen."

"Yes," agreed the young man, half distracted; "but of course I daren't
turn them off again."

"Never mind. We can wait." Josie blushed.

"I'll just sit here and wait--we can talk till Tracey comes, and then
you can walk home with me."

"Yes, that'll be nice," he agreed, but without absolute ecstasy.

Fortunately for him, in his temper of that moment, Pete Willing reeled
into the shop, two-thirds drunk, with his face smeared with blood from
a cut on his forehead.

"'Scuse me," he muttered huskily. "Kin I see you a minute, Doc?"

He reeled and almost fell--would have fallen had not Duncan caught his
arm and guided him to a chair. "Great Scott, Pete!" he cried. "What's
happened to you?"

"M' wife..." Pete explained thickly.



"Perhaps I'd better go." Josie, fluttering with alarm and a little
pale, went quickly to the door.

Duncan followed her a pace or two. "I can't leave just now," he

"I don't mind one bit. I don't want to be in the way. I'll telephone
from home.... Good-night, dearest!" On tiptoes she drew his face down
to hers and kissed him. "I'm so happy..."

Half dazed, Nat stared after her until her lightly moving figure merged
with the shadows beneath the trees and was lost. Then, with a sigh, he
turned back to Pete.

The sheriff had undoubtedly suffered at the hands of that militant
person, Mrs. Willing. "Great Scott!" Duncan exclaimed as he examined
the two-inch gash in his head. "That's a bird, Pete."

"M' wife done it," Willing muttered huskily. "Sh' threw side 'r th'
house at me, I think."

"Wife, eh?" The coincidence smote Duncan with redoubled force. He
shivered "Well, she certainly gave it to you good." He went behind the
counter to prepare a dressing for the wound, which, if wide, was
neither deep nor serious and gave him little concern for Pete.

The latter ruminated on the event, breathing stertorously, while Duncan
was fixing up a wash of peroxide. "She'll kill me some day," he
announced suddenly, with intense conviction in his tone.

"Oh, don't say that...."

Opposition roused Pete to a fury of assertion. "Yes, she will, sure!"
he bawled. Then his emotion quieted. "But I'd 'bout as soon be dead's
live with her, anyway."

"_Um_." Nat got some absorbent cotton and adhesive plaster. "Been
drinking again, hadn't you?"

"Yesh," Pete admitted with a leer of drunken cunning. "But she druv me
to it." He was quiet for a moment. "Mish'r Duncan," he volunteered
cheerfully, "you ain't got _no_ idee how lucky y'are y'aint married."

"Is that so?" Nat returned with the dressings.

"No idee'tall." Pete surrendered his head to Nat's ministrations. "'Nd
I hope y' won't never have."

"But I'm going to be married, Pete."

The sheriff assimilated this information and became abruptly
intractable. He jerked his head away and swung round in his chair to
argue the matter.

"Oh, no!" he expostulated. "Don't, Mish'r Duncan. Don't never do it.
Take warnin' from me."

"But I'm engaged, Pete."

"Maksh no diff'runsh--break it off." His voice rose to a howl of alarm.
"F'r Gaw's sake, break it off!--now, before it's too late! Do anythin'
rather'n that: drink--lie--steal--murder--c'mit suicide--don't care
what--only _keep single!_" "Here," said Duncan, laughing, "sit back
there and let me'tend to your head." He began to wash the wound with
the peroxide. "There: that'll sting a bit, but not long.... But
suppose, Pete, I'd get a lot of money by marrying?"

"No matter how mush y'get, 'tain't enough!"

"I'm inclined to think you're about right, Pete."

"You bet I'm right. I'm married 'nd _I know_."

Nat finished dressing the cut, smoothed down the ends of the adhesive
tape, and stood back. "That's all right, now. Go home, wash your face,
and sleep it off. Let me see you sober in the morning."

"Huh!" Pete chuckled derisively. "Ain't goin' home t'night."

"You've got to get some sleep: that's the only way for you to
straighten up."

"Well," agreed Pete, rising, "then I'll go over to the barn 'nd sleep
with the horse."

"Aren't you afraid he'll step on you?" asked Nat, amused.

"Maybe he will," Pete replied fairly, "but I'd ruther risk that 'n m'

He swerved and lurched toward the door. "Thanks, doc, 'nd g'night," he
mumbled, and incontinently collided with Roland Barnette.

Roland was working under a full head of steam, apparently; his
naturally sanguine complexion was several shades darker than the
normal, and he was seething with repressed emotion--excitement,
anticipated triumph, jealousy, envy and hatred: all centring upon the
hapless head of Nat Duncan. Plunging along with his head down, his
thoughts wholly preoccupied with his grievance and its remedy, he
bumped into Willing and cannoned off, recognising him with an angry
growl. The result of this was to stay Pete's departure; he grasped
the frame of the door and steadied himself, glaring round at the

"'Lo, Roland," he said, focussing his vision. "Whash masser?"

Roland disregarded him entirely. "Say, you!" he snorted, catching sight
of Nat. "I want to see you."

"Oh?" Nat drawled exasperatingly. He had never had much use for Roland,
and now with hidden joy he read the signs of passion on the boy's
inflamed countenance. Happy he would be, thought Nat, if Roland were to
be delivered into his hands that night. He owed the world a grudge,
just then, and needed nothing more than an object to wreak his
vengeance upon. "Well, I'll stake you to a good long look," he added

"Ah-h! don't you try to be so funny; you might get hurt."

Pete seemed to be suddenly electrified by Ro-land's matter. "Here!" he
interposed. "Whajuh mean by that?" And relinquishing his grasp on the
door, he reeled between the two and thrust his face close to Roland's.
"Who're you talkin' to, an'way?" he demanded, truculent.

Nat stepped forward quickly and grabbed Pete's arm. "That's all right,
Pete," he soothed him. "Don't get nervous. Roly won't hurt anybody."

The diminutive stung Roland to exasperation. "Why, damn you----!" he
screamed, and promptly became inarticulate with rage.

"Ah! ah! ah!" Nat wagged a reproving forefinger. "Naughty word, Roly!
Careful, or you'll sour your chewing gum."

"Now, say! Do you think----"

At this juncture Pete drowned his words with an incoherent roar, having
apparently reached the conclusion that the time had now arrived when it
would be his duty and pleasure to eat Roland alive. Nat saved the young
man by the barest inch; he grappled with Pete and drew himself aside
just in time.

"Steady, Pete!" he said quietly. "Steady, old man. Let Roland alone."

"Awrh, I ain't 'fraid of him!" spluttered Pete.

"Neither am I. Get out, won't you, and leave him to me."

"Aw'right." Pete became more calm. "I'll leave him 'lone, but all the
same I wan' it 'stinctly un'erstood I kin lick any man in town 'ceptin'
m' wife. G'night, everybody."

He gathered himself together and by a supreme effort lunged through the
door and into the deepening dusk.

"Well, Roly?" Nat asked, turning back.

His ironic calm gave Roland pause. For a moment he lost his bearings
and stammered in confusion. "I come in to tell you that me and you's
apt to have trouble," he concluded.

"Oh? And are you thinking of starting it?"

"You bet I'll start it, and I'll start it damn' quick if you don't
leave Josie Lockwood alone."

"So that's the trouble, is it?" commented Nat thoughtfully.

"Yes, that's the trouble. From now on I want you to let her alone, and
you'll do it, too, if you know what's best for you."

A suggestion of menace in his manner, unconnected with any hint of
physical correction, caught Nat's attention. He frowned over it.

"Just what do you mean by this line of talk?" he inquired blandly,
stepping nearer.

"I'll tell you what I mean." Roland clenched both fists and thrust his
chin out pugnaciously. "I'd been a-goin' steady with Josie Lockwood for
more'n a year before you come here and thought that, on account of her
money, you could sneak in and cut me out...."

"Was her money the reason you were after her, Roly?"

"What----?" The question brought Roland momentarily up in the wind.
"'Tain't none of your business if it was!" he snapped, recovering. "But
here's what I'm gettin' at." He tapped his breast-pocket with a sneer
of bucolic triumph. "Just about ten months ago," he continued
meaningly, "they was a cashier skipped out of the Longacre National
Bank in Noo Yawk, and they ain't got no track of him yet."

So this was why Roland had been so assiduous a student of the back
files in the Citizen office!


"Yes, indeed. I had my suspicions all along, but didn't say nothin',
but just to-day I got a description of him, and the description just
fits, Mr. Mortimer Henry."

"Just fits Mr. Mortimer Henry? But what has that----?"

"Ah, don't you try to seem too darn' innocent," Roland snarled. "You
can't fool me!"

A light dawned upon Nat, and laughter flooded his being, although
outwardly he remained imperturbable--merely mildly curious. But his
fingers were itching.

"So you think I'm the absconding cashier, eh, Roly?"

"You keep away from Josie 'r you'll find out what I think." Nat's
placidity deceived Roland, who drew the wholly erroneous conclusion
that he had succeeded in frightening his rival, and consequently dared
a few lengths further in his tirade. "Why, if I was to go to Mr.
Lockwood and tell him you're Mortimer Henry, alias Nat Duncan----"

Duncan's temper suddenly snapped like a taut violin string.

"That will do," he said icily. "That will be all for this evening,

"Ah... Are you going to quit chasin' after Josie?"

"I'll begin chasing after you if you don't clear out of here."

"You better agree----"

[Illustration: "Betty!"]

Just there the storm burst. Ten seconds later Roland, with a confused
impression of having been kicked by a mule, picked himself up out of
the dust in the middle of the street and stared stupidly back at the
store. Nat was waiting in the doorway for a renewal of hostilities, if
any such there were to be. Seeing, however, that Roland had apparently
sated his appetite for personal conflict, he picked up a dark object at
his feet and held it out.

"Here's your hat, Roly," he called.

Roland spat out a mouthful of dust and swore beneath his breath. "Throw
it out here," he replied prudently.

Tossing him the hat, Nat turned contemptuously. "Come in again, any
time you want to apologise," he shouted over his shoulder, as an

He paused in the middle of the store and felt of his necktie. It proved
to be a little out of place, but otherwise he was as immaculate as was
his wont. He reviewed the encounter and laughed quietly.

"There's no cure for a fool," he mused....

The telephone bell roused him from his reverie. He went over to the
instrument, sat down, and put the receiver to his ear.

"Hello?" he said.... "Oh, hello, Josie! ... What's that?... That's
right, but I'm not used to it yet, you know.... Well, I'll try again.

He schooled his voice to a key of heartrending sentiment: "Hello,
darling.... How's that? ... Told your father? Told him what?... Oh,
about the engagement! Was he angry? ... Oh, he wasn't, eh? What did he
say? ... Wasn't that nice of him!..."

Conscious of a slight noise in the store he looked up. A young woman
had just entered. She paused just inside the door, smiling at him a
little timidly.

Without another word to his fiancee Nat put down the telephone and
hooked up the receiver.

"Betty!" he cried wonderingly.



If Nat's cry of recognition had been wondering, it was no less one of
delight. The surprise he felt was perfectly natural; Betty wasn't to
have returned until the morrow, and was therefore the last person he
had expected to see when he looked up from the telephone desk. But it
was the change in the girl that most stirred him: the change he had
prophesied, planned for, anticipated eagerly throughout the long seven
months of her absence; to have his expectations so wonderfully
fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, pleased him beyond expression. And
it's curious to speculate upon the fact that he fancied his greatest
pleasure came from the knowledge that old Sam would be so overjoyed....

It was really only a paraphrase of the old story of the grub and the
butterfly. The little, starveling drudge who had found him in the
store, that first day, had completely vanished; it was as if she had
never been. In her place he discovered a girl all grace and loveliness,
her slender figure ripening into gracious womanhood; a girl of mind and
heart and understanding, all fire and tenderness; demure, intelligent,
with a pretty pose of independence and sureness of herself moderated by
modesty and reserve. Her travelling dress of sober colouring and severe
lines became her bewitchingly. Beneath the brim of her dainty hat, with
veil thrown back, her dark hair waved back, glossy with the sheen of
perfect well-being, from a face serenely charming--the more so for her
slightly deepened flush; and the eyes that shone into Nat's danced with
the light of enjoyment, bred of his supreme astonishment....

"Nat, I'm so glad to see you again!"

He was speechless.

She laughed, put down her suit-case, and moved toward him, offering him
both her hands. He took them, stammering.

"It's such a surprise, Betty----!"

"I knew it would be. I just couldn't wait, Nat, when I found I could
get here by the night train instead of tomorrow morning. I haven't been
home, you know, but I couldn't resist the temptation to stop in here
and see--what the store looked like after all these months. Besides, I
thought that you or father----" Her eyes fell and she faltered,
withdrawing her hands.

By now he had himself in hand. "Why," he laughed, "you nearly took my
breath away. Even now I can hardly believe it..."

"Believe what, Nat?" she asked quickly.

"That you're the same little Betty Graham. I never saw such a change."

"It's a change for the better, isn't it, Nat?" she asked with a smile
half wistful.

"I should think it was. It's just marvellous!"

"Did I seem so very awful, then?"

"Nonsense. You know you didn't, only, now..."

"Then you think father will be pleased?"

"If he isn't, I'm blind!"

She looked away, embarrassed, and touched by his interest and his
feeling. "And does it make you a little proud, Nat?"

"Proud!" he exclaimed blankly.

"Because you know you've done it all. If there's any improvement in
Betty Graham to-day, it's because of you. If it hadn't been for

"Never in the world; you don't know what you're talking about, Betty.
Nobody but yourself could have brought about this change. It had to be
in you before it could come out. You know that."

She shook her head very decidedly, seating herself on one of the chairs
by the soda-fountain. "Oh, no," she contradicted calmly and sincerely.
"Why, Nat, don't you suppose I have any memory? You began making me a
better girl the very first day we met here in the store, by the things
you said to me. And ever since I've been watching you, while you were
making life a Heaven for father and me, and thinking that if I were a
man I'd try to be as near like you as I could."

"Oh, don't say that," he pleaded wretchedly.

"It's true.... And when you sent me away to school I promised myself
I'd try to repay you for the sacrifice you must be making for me; that
I'd follow your example as nearly as ever I could; that I'd work hard
and try to treat people the way you do--kindly, Nat, and considerately,
and bravely and tenderly and honestly----"

He dropped into a chair near her and buried his head in his hands.
"Don't!" he begged huskily. "Please, Betty, don't!"

But she wouldn't stop, little guessing how she was racking his heart in
her innocent desire to make him understand how deeply she appreciated
all he had done for her. "And, O Nat, it's worked so wonderfully! It's
made all the girls at school like me, and it's made me understand and
like everybody else better; and now, what's ten thousand times the best
of all, you notice an improvement the minute you see me! And I--I never
was so happy in all my life." She bent forward and took one of his
hands, patting it softly. "Nat, I think you're the very best man in the
whole world!"

"Don't!" he groaned. "Don't, for Heaven's sake!"

"Oh, I know, Nat--I know you don't like me to say this, but I must,
just the same, tell you the truth about yourself. It's so splendid to
live the life you do. You're all unconscious of it, but I want you to
realise it and know that I do, too. You've made everybody love you

But confusion silenced her, and she gently replaced his hand. For
several moments neither spoke. Then Nat broke the tension with a short,
hard laugh.

"That's right," he said inscrutably; "that was the idea...."

"Nat, what do you mean?"

He turned to her. "Betty, does it make you--feel that way toward me?"

She coloured divinely. "Why, Nat, of course ... Why, everyone..."

"That's why I came here, Betty," he pursued, blind to her
embarrassment. "I came here with the idea... of getting married...."

He was staring gloomily at the floor and could not see the light that
dawned upon the girl's face. Absorbed in the struggle with his
conscience he had no least suspicion of how his words were affecting
her. He knew only that he must somehow make a confession to her, that
to own her regard and gratitude on the terms that then existed between
them was utterly intolerable.

"You never guessed that, did you?"

"No," she breathed brokenly. "No, Nat, I--"

"Well, it's the truth and...." He rose and moved away. "But I can't
tell you just now--not now...."

"No, not now, Nat." Betty, too, got up. "I think I'd better go home and
see father--I mustn't forget--" she faltered, half blinded by the mist
of the happiness before her eyes.

"No--wait." She stopped to find his gaze full upon her; for the first
time he comprehended that she had not understood, that, worst of all,
she had misunderstood. "I must tell you," he blurted desperately, "I

Instinctively she moved a step toward him. He hung his head.

"To-night, Betty--this evening, just a little while ago, I became
engaged to Josie Lockwood."

She stood as if petrified throughout a wait that seemed to both
interminable. Then he heard her catch her breath sharply. He looked up,
frightened, but she was smiling steadily into his face. Somehow he
found her hand in his.

"Oh, Nat dear," she said, "I'm so glad for you.... I wish you all the
happiness in the world. I ... Good-night."

The hand slipped out of Nat's. He did not move, but waited there with
his empty palm outstretched, despair in his eyes and hell in his heart,
while she walked quietly from the store.

After some time he awoke to the knowledge that she was gone.

"Blithering fool!" he growled. "Why didn't I know I loved her like
this?" He took a turn to and fro, distracted. "And now I've made a mess
of everything! Good Lord! what can I do? I must do something or go
mad!" He swung round behind the soda-fountain counter and seized a
bottle. "I know what! The rules are off! I can have a drink! I can have
two drinks! I can have a million drinks if I want 'em!"

Pouring a generous dose of raw whiskey into the glass he lifted it to
his lips and threw back his head. But the heavy bouquet of the liquor
was stifling in his nostrils, and the first mouthful of it almost
choked him. In a fury he flung the glass from him, so that it crashed
and splintered upon the floor. "Great Heavens!" he cried. "I don't like
the stuff any more.... But"--his gaze fell upon the cigar case--"I can
have a smoke. That'll help some!"

With feverish haste he snatched a cigar from the nearest box, gnawed
off one end, and thrusting the other into the alcohol lighter, puffed
vigorously. But to his renovated palate the potent fumes of the tobacco
were no less repugnant than the whiskey had been. Half strangled, he
plucked the cigar from his mouth and stamped on it.

"Oh," he cried wildly, "I'll be--I'll be damned!"

He paused, staring vacantly at nothing. "And even that doesn't do any
good! God help me, I've forgotten how to swear!"

To him, in this overwrought state, came Tracey, lumbering cheerfully
in, his mouth shaped for a whistle. At sight of Nat he pulled up as if
hit by a club.

"'Evenin', Mister Duncan. What's the matter?"

By an effort Nat brought his gaze to bear upon the boy and comprehended
his existence.

"Ain't you feeling well, Mr. Duncan?"


"What's the matter?"

"_Nothing_!" Nat shouted ferociously.

"Anything I kin----"


At that instant Kellogg appeared. "Hello, Nat! What's been keeping you?
I came down to bring you home to supper."

"Go to blazes with your supper! Keep away from me! Don't talk to me! I
don't want anything to do with you, d'you understand? You and your
confounded systems have got me into all this----"

He caught sight of his hat abruptly, ceased talking, grabbed the hat
and jammed it on his head, muttering; then started on a run for the

"But what's the matter?" demanded Kellogg, thunderstruck. "Here! Hold
on! Where are you going?"

"To the only place I can get any consolation--church!"



But at the doorstep of the Methodist Church Nat hesitated. The building
was dimly lighted, for it was choir practise night, and the door was
ajar; but he couldn't bring himself to enter. He would not long have
peace and quiet in which to think, there; presently would come Angle
and Josie and Roland and...

"I couldn't stand it; I'd probably murder Roland....

"Besides, I've no right there--an impostor--a contemptible low-lived
pup like me!...

"Why the thunderation did I ever allow myself to be persuaded to come
here? Why was I ever such a fool?...

"How _could_ I be such a fool?..."

He was walking, now, striding swiftly through the silent village
streets, meeting few wayfarers and paying them no heed, whether they
knew and greeted him or not. His entire consciousness was obsessed by
regret, repentance and remorse. He had ruined everything, deceived
everybody--even himself for a time--played the cad and the bounder with
consummate address. There were no bounds to the contempt he felt for
the man who had tricked these simple, kindly folk into believing him
immaculate, impeccable; who had hoodwinked "that old prince, Graham,"
and under false pretences gained his confidence and affection; who had
deliberately set out to snare an innocent and trusting girl for the
sake of the filthy money her father owned; who had made another and a
better girl love him, though that he had done so unconsciously, only to
break her heart; who had sacrificed everything, honour and decency and
self-respect, to his greed for money.

But it should go no further. He'd given what he called his word of
honour to a despicable compact; there could be no dishonour so great as
holding by that word, sticking to his bargain, maintaining the
deception and--ruining the life of one woman--perhaps two: Josie
Lockwood's, for he could never love her; and possibly Betty Graham's,
for she was of that sort that loves once and once only. If she truly
loved him...

But by his own act he had placed himself forever beyond the joy of her
love. He could never accept it, desire it as passionately as he
might--and did. He could never consent to drag her down to his base

To-morrow--no, to-night, that very night, he would unmask himself,
declare his character to them all, pillory himself that all might see
how low a man could fall. And to-morrow he would go, leave Radville,
lose himself to all that had come to be so dear to him, forever....

So, raving and ranting with the extravagance of youth, he passed
through the village, out into the open country, and in the course of an
hour and a half, back--all blindly: circling back to the store, in the
course of his wanderings, as instinctly as a carrier pigeon shapes its
course for home.

It was with incredulity that he found himself again in that cheerful,
cherished, homely place. But there he was when he came out of his
abstraction: there in those familiar surroundings, with Tracey's round
red face beaming at him over the cigar-stand like a lively counterfeit
of the round red moon he had watched lift up into the skies, back there
in the still countryside, just as he paused to turn back to town.

He recollected his faculties and resumed command of himself
sufficiently to acknowledge Tracey's greeting with a moody word.

"All right, Tracey," he said abruptly. "You may go, now. I'll shut up
the store."

He looked at his watch, and was surprised to discover that it was no
later than half-past eight. He seemed to have lived a lifetime in the
last few hours.

"Thank you, sir," said Tracey with a gush of gratitude. "I'll be glad
to get off. Angle's waiting."


"Good-evening, Mr. Duncan."

"Oh, Miss Tuthill!" Nat discovered that little rogue, all smiles and
dimples and blushes, not distant from his elbow. "I didn't see you--I
was thinking."

"Guess we know what you was thinkin' about," observed Tracey, bringing
his hat round the counter. "Everybody in town's talkin' about it."

"About what?"

"Ah, you know about what, and we're mighty glad of it, and we want to
congratulate you, don't we, Angie."

"Oh, yes, indeed, Mr. Duncan. It's just too sweet for anything."

"O Lord!" groaned Nat.

"I'm awful glad you done it when you did," pursued Tracey, oblivious to
Nat in his own ecstatic temper. "I guess I wouldn't never 've got up
the spunk to--to tell Angie what I did to-night, 'f it hadn't been we
was talkin' 'bout your engagement to Josie. Then, somehow, it just
seemed to bust right out of me, like I couldn't hold it no longer.
Didn't it, Angie?"

"Oh, Tracey, how can you talk so!"

"Then you're engaged, too?" Nat inquired, rousing himself a little and
smiling feebly upon them.

"Yes, sir."

"I'm glad to hear it. It's great news. Now run along, both of you, and
don't forget you'll never be so happy again." With what he thought an
expiring flash of humour he raised his hands above their heads. "Bless
you, my children!" he said solemnly. "Now, for Heaven's sake, beat it!"

Alone he went to the prescription desk and opening one of the drawers
took out the firm's books. After that for some fifteen minutes there
was nothing to be heard in the store save Nat's breathing and the
scratching of his pen as he figured out a trial balance....

Brisk footfalls disturbed him. He sighed and moved out into the store
to find Kellogg there, suave and easy as always, yet with that in his
manner, perceptible perhaps only to a friend of long-standing like Nat,
to betray a mind far from complacent.

"Oh, you're here!" he cried, with a distinct start of relief. "I've
been looking all over for you."

"I just got in." Nat brushed aside explanations curtly, intent upon his
purpose. "Harry, I've got something to say to you: I'm not going
through with this thing."

"You're not?"

"No; and that's final. I was just on the point of drawing you a cheque
for three-hundred; that's all my share of the profits of this concern,
so far; and my note for the balance. I'll pay that up as soon as I'm
able--and I'll work like a terrier until I do. But as for the rest of
it, I'm through."

"Oh, you are?" Kellogg took a chair and tipped back, frowning gravely.
"But what about your word to me?"

"Damn that," said Duncan without heat. "The word of honour of a man
who'd stoop to a trick as vile as I have doesn't amount to a
continental shinplaster. I'll rather be dishonoured by breaking it than
by ruining a woman's life."

"Very well, if you feel that way about it," said Kellogg as coolly.
"And you may keep your cheque and note: I wouldn't take them. You can
pay me back when it's convenient--I don't care when. But what I want to
know is what you mean to do?"

"I mean to do the only thing left to do. I'm going to shut up here and
then see Lockwood and Josie and tell them the whole story."

"Hm," Kellogg reflected, quizzical. "You've got a pleasant little job
ahead of you."

"I don't care about that: I deserve all that's coming to me. I owe
Josie a duty. Why, it's awful, Harry, to trick a girl into caring for
you and then to--to----"

"Break her heart?" Kellogg's tone was sardonic.

"That's what I meant."

"Don't flatter yourself, my boy. Josie Lockwood doesn't love you; she
just set herself to win you because you're the best chance she's seen."
Kellogg laughed quietly. "The system would have worked just as well if
anyone else had tried it."

"Do you think so--honest?" Nat's eagerness to believe him was

"I'm sure of it. The trouble is that people will say you've thrown her
over--there isn't anyone in Radville who hasn't heard the news by this
time; and that's going to make the girl feel pretty cheap. But only for
a while: she'll get over it and solace herself with the next best
thing.... And don't forget; you lose a fortune."

"No, I don't," Duncan disclaimed. "I never had it and now I don't want

"That's true enough," Kellogg admitted evenly. "And I hope you'll
always feel that way about it; but, believe me, you'll find plenty of
money a great help if you want to live a happy life."

"There are better things than money to make a man happy; I'll pass up
the money and try for the others."

"That's true, too; but when did you find it out?"

"Here--this last year.... You know I had everything my heart desired
until the governor cashed in; and I used to think I was a pretty happy
kid in those days. But now I've learned that you can beat that kind of
happiness to death. Harry"--Duncan was growing almost sententious--"the
real way to be happy is to work and have your work amount to something
and--and to have someone who believes in you to work for."

"Is this a sermon, Nat?"

"Call it what you like: it goes, just the same. ... That's what I've
found out this year."

Kellogg let his chair fall forward and rose, imprisoning Nat's
shoulders with two heavy but kindly hands. "And you're right!" he cried
heartily. "I'm glad you had the backbone to back out, Nat. It was a
low-down trick and I'm ashamed of myself for proposing it. I did it, I
presume, simply because I'm a schemer at heart, and I knew it would
work. It did work, but it's worked a finer way than I dreamed of: it's
made a man of you, Nat, and I'm mightly glad and proud of you!"

Nat swayed with amazement. "What's changed you all of a sudden?" he
demanded blankly.

Releasing him, Kellogg resumed his seat, laughing. "Well, a number of
things. Among others, I've talked with Graham and I've met his


"And that reminds me," Kellogg changed the subject briskly; "I
understood from you that Graham was sole owner of that patent burner."

"So he is."

"He says not. I had a proposition to make him from the Mutual people,
and he referred me to you, saying that you controlled the matter."

"I've not the slightest interest in it!" Nat protested.

"I know you haven't, but Graham insisted you owned the whole thing. I
pressed him for an explanation, and he finally furnished one in his
rambling, inconsequent, fine old way. He admitted that there wasn't any
sort of an existing contract or agreement of any sort, even oral,
between you, but just the same you'd been so good to him and his girl
that he'd made up his mind--some time ago, I gather--to make you a
present of the burner; but naturally he forgot to tell you about an
insignificant detail like that."

"Of course that's nonsense; I wouldn't and shant accept."

"Of course you won't. I did you the honour to discount that. But he
wouldn't say a word about the offer--yes or no--just left it all up to
you. He says you're a business man, and that he's often thought what a
help you must have been to me before you left New York."

Nat laughed outright. "Can you beat that? ... But what is the offer?"

"Fifty thousand cash and ten thousand shares of preferred
stock--hundred dollars par."

"What's that worth?"

"At the market rate when I left town, seventy-eight." Kellogg waited a
moment. "Well, what do you say?"

"Say? Great Caesar's Ghost! What is there to say? Wire 'em an
acceptance before they get their second wind.... You don't know how
good this makes me feel, Harry; I can't thank you enough for what
you've done. This'll square me with Graham to some extent, and I can
clear out----"

"No, you can't, Mr. Smarty! You ain't been 'cute enough."

Both men, startled by the interruption, wheeled round to discover
Roland Barnette dancing with excitement in the doorway, the while he
beckoned frantically to an invisible party without. "Come on!" he
shouted. "Here he is!"

"What's eating you, Roly-Poly?" inquired

Nat, too happy for the money to cherish animosity even toward his
one-time rival.

"You'll find out soon enough," snarled Roland. "Mr. Lockwood's got
something to say to you, I guess."

And on the heels of this announcement Lockwood strode into the store,
Josie clinging to his arm, Pete Willing--a trifle more sanely drunk
than he had been some hours previous--bringing up the rear.

"So!" snarled Blinky, halting and transfixing Nat with the stare of his
cold blue eyes. "So we've found you, eh?"

"Oh? I didn't know I was lost."

"No nonsense, young man. I ain't in the humour for foolin'." Blinky was
unquestionably in no sort of a humour at all beyond an evil one. "I
come here to have a word with you."

"Well, sir?" Nat's tone and attitude were perfectly pacific.

"Ah, there ain't no use beatin' 'round the bush. You've behaved
yourself ever since you come to Radville, and insinooated yourself into
our confidence, 'spite of the fact that nobody in town knows who you
were before you came. But now Roland's laid a charge again' you, and I
want to know the rights to it."

"Well," Roland interposed cockily, "I accused him of it to-night and he
didn't deny it."

[Illustration: "You're a thief with a reward out for you!"]

"What's more," Lockwood continued with rising colour, "Roland says he
can prove it?"

"Prove what?" Nat insisted. "Get down to facts, can't you?"

"That you're a thief with a reward out for you," said Roland. "You're
that Mortimer Henry what absconded from the Longacre National Bank in
Noo York."

There fell a brief pause. Nat bowed his head and tugged at his
moustache, his shoulders shaking with emotion variously construed by
those who watched him. Presently he looked up again, his features
gravely composed.

"Roly," said he, "Balaam must miss you terribly."

"That ain't no answer." Lockwood put himself solidly between Nat and
the object of his obscure remark--who was painfully digesting it. "I
want to know about this. You got my daughter to say she'd marry you
this evenin', and you've got to explain to me about this bank business
before it goes any further."

"Yes?" commented Nat civilly.

"Yes!" thundered Blinky. "Do you deny it? ... Answer me."

To Kellogg's huge diversion, Nat struck an attitude, "I refuse to
answer," said he.

"Aha! What'd I tell you?" This was Roland's triumphant crow.

"Nat!" Josie advanced, trembling with excitement. "Tell me, what does
this mean?"

Duncan perforce avoided her gaze. "Don't ask," he said sadly.

"Is it true?" she insisted.

"You heard what Roly said," he replied, with a chastened expression.

"Then you admit it?"

"I admit nothing."

"Oh-h!" The girl drew away from him as from defilement. "I--I hate
you!" she cried in a voice of loathing

"That's all right," he told her serenely; "I've despised myself all

The girl showed him a scornful back. "Papa----" she began.

"Don't thank me, Josie. Roland done it all: he got onto him." Lockwood
continued to watch Duncan with the air of a cat eyeing a mouse.

Impulsively Josie moved to Roland's side and caught his arm. He drew
himself up proudly.

"I do thank you, Roland; I can never be grateful enough. I've been so

"That's all right." Roland tucked the girl's hand beneath his arm and
patted it down. "You wasn't to blame. I never seen anyone from Noo York
yet that wasn't a crook."

"Won't you please take me away from this--place, Roland?" she appealed.

"I'll be mighty glad to see you home, Josie," he assured her
generously, turning.

In the act of leaving, Josie caught Nat's eye. She hung back for an
instant, withering him with a glare. "Oh-h!" she cried. "How did you
dare pretend to care for me?"

He bowed politely. "It was one of the rules, Josie."

"There's no need to tell you, I guess, that the engagement is broken."

"None whatever, Miss Lockwood. Good-evening."

"Come, Roland!"

Arm in arm they left, with the haughty tread of the elect, while Pete
Willing lurched to Duncan's side and caught his arm.

"Come 'long to jail, Mish'r Duncan," he said with sympathy. "Mush

"You look after him, Pete." Lockwood turned to leave with a final shot
for Duncan. "I'll 'tend to your case in the mornin', young man, and
I'll make you wish you never came to this town."

"You needn't trouble. I feel that way about it already. _Good_-night."

Lockwood left them, snarling. Nat caught Kellogg's eye and began to
giggle. But Pete was still holding him fast, partially, beyond doubt,
for support.

"You've been saved just in time, Mish'r Duncan," he commented; "y'are
mighty lucky man. Now lissen: you better make tracks. I ain't got no
warrant to hold you, 'nd I wouldn't if I had."

"You're a good fellow, Pete; but you needn't worry. I'm not the man
they think me, and it'll be easy to prove."

"Wal," said Pete, "jus' the same, you better git out, 'r you may have
to marry her aft'all."

"No, I won't."

"Thank Gawd f'r that!" Pete exclaimed in maudlin gratitude. He swung
widely toward the door, and by a miracle found it. "G'night, Mish'r
Duncan. I feel s' good 'bout thish I'm goin' try goin' home 'nd face m'
wife. G'night."

"Good-night, Pete."

"Well!" said Kellogg after a pause, "that was a bit of luck!"

"Luck!" Nat seized his hat and began to turn off the lights. "It's more
luck than I thought there was in the whole world. Come along."

"Where are you going?"

"First, to see Lockwood and have it out with him."

"No, you aren't," Kellogg laughed as Nat locked the door. "You're going
to leave Lockwood to me; I'll manage to ease his mind. You've got
infinitely more important matters to attend to--and the sooner you find
her, the better, Nat!"



The air was heavy with moisture and very still and warm; a heady
fragrance of precocious blooms flavoured the air, vying with the scent
of rain. The silence was profound, but shaken now and then by a grumble
of distant thunder. The world hung breathless on the issue of the night.

Since evenfall a wall of cloud, massive and portentous, had been
climbing up over the western hills, slowly but with ominous steadiness
obscuring the moon-swept sky with its far, pale wreaths of stars,
blotting it out with monstrous folds and convolutions of impenetrable
purple-black. Along its crest fire played like swords in the sunlight,
and now and again sheeted flame lightened the monstrous expanse so that
it glowed with the pale phosphorescence of a summer sea.

As Duncan hurried homeward over sidewalks chequered in silver and ink,
the advance of the cloud army seemed to become accelerated. With
increasing frequency gusts of air set the trees a-shiver until their
sibilant whispers of warning filled the valley. The rolling of the
thunder grew more sharp, more instant upon the flashes.... When there
was no wind the air seemed to quiver with terror--as a dog cringes to
the whip....

But of this Duncan was barely conscious.

He gained the gate in the fence of wood paling, opened it, and entered.
The lawn and house were lit with the unearthly radiance of moonlight
threatened by eclipse. He could see the light in Graham's study and,
through the open doors, the faint glow of the hall-lamp. But there was
no one visible.

He hurried up the path, tortured by impatience, fear, longing,

Then he saw what seemed at first a pale shadow detach itself from
darker shades in the shrubbery and move toward him.

"Nat, is it you?"


His whole heart was in that cry; the girl thrilled to its timbre as
though a master hand had struck a chord upon her heart-strings.

"Nat, what--what is it?"

"Betty, I want to tell you something."

She came very slowly toward him, torn alternately by fear and hope.
What did he mean?

"Do you happen to remember that I told you a while ago I was engaged to
Josie Lockwood?"

[Illustration: "Forever and ever and a day"]

"Nat! Could I forget? ... Why?"

"Because ... it's broken off, Betty."

"Broken off! ... How? Why?"

"Because it had to be, sweetheart: because I love you."

She was very close to him then. Her uplifted face shone like marble in
the fading light. "Nat, I ... I don't understand."

"Then, listen--I must tell you. It was all a plan, a scheme, my coming
here, Betty. Everything I did, said, thought, was part of a
contemptible trick.... I meant to marry Josie Lockwood, whom I'd never
seen, for her money. ... Now you know what I was, dear.... But it's
different, now. I'm not the same man who came to Radville ten months
ago. I've learned a little to understand the right, I hope: I've
learned to love and reverence goodness and purity and unselfishness and
... And I want to be a man, the kind of a man you thought me: a man
worthy of you and your love, Betty.... Because I love you. I want you
to be my wife. ... And, O Betty, Betty, I need you to help me!"

His voice broke. He waited, every nerve and fibre of him tense for her
answer. While he had been speaking, the onrush of the storm had blotted
out the moon. There was only darkness there in the garden--deep, dense
darkness, so thick he could not even see the shimmer of her dress....

Then suddenly she was in his arms, shaking and sobbing, straining him
to her.

"Oh, Nat, my Nat! I've loved you from the first day I ever saw you! You
know I have."
"Betty! ... sweetheart..."

There came an abrupt, furious patter of heavy drops of water, beating
upon the foliage, splashing and rebounding from the house.

"Forever and ever, Nat?"

"Forever and ever and a day, my dear ... my dear!"

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