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CHAPTER III
Presently Hunt's mind shifted to Larry Brainard, whom Barney Palmer and Old Jimmie Carlisle had come here to see. Hunt had a mind curious about every thing and every one; and blustering, bullying creature though he was, he had the gift, possessed by but few, of audaciously thrusting himself into other people's affairs without arousing their resentment. He was keen to learn Maggie's attitude toward Larry; and he spoke not so much to gain knowledge of Larry as to draw her out.

“This Larry—what sort of chap is he, Maggie?” As with most artists, talking did not interfere with Hunt's painting.

Warm color slowly tinted Maggie's cheeks. “He's clever,” she said positively. “You already know that. But I was only a girl when he was sent away.”

Hunt smiled at her idea of her present maturity, implied by her last sentence. “But you lived with the Duchess for a year before he was sent away. You must have seen a lot of him, and got to know him well.”

“Oh, he used to come down now and then to see his grandmother—I was only fifteen or sixteen then—just a girl, and he didn't pay much attention to me. Father can tell you better just how smart he is.”

Old Jimmie spoke up promptly. He knew Hunt was not a police stool, and he liked the painter as much as it was in him to like any man; so he felt none of the reserve or caution that might have controlled him in other company.

“You bet Larry's smart! Got the quickest brain of any con man in the business—and him only about twenty-seven now. Some think I'm a smooth proposition myself, but Larry puts it all over me. That's why I'm willing to let him be my boss. He's a wonder at thinking up new stunts, and then at working out safe new ways of putting them across.”

“But the police landed him at last,” commented Hunt.

“Yes, but that was only because another man muffed his end of the job.”

The handsome Barney Palmer had been restless during Old Jimmie's eulogy. “Oh, Larry's all to the good—but he's not the only party that's got real ideas.”

“Huh!” grunted Old Jimmie. “But you'll remember that we haven't put over any big ones since Larry's been in stir.”

“That's been because you wouldn't listen to any of my ideas!” retorted Barney. “And I handed out some peaches.”

Even during the period of Larry's active reign it had irked Barney to accept another man as leader, and it had irked him even more during the interregnum while Larry was guest of the State. For Barney believed in his own Napoleonic strain.

“Don't let yourself get sore, Barney,” Old Jimmie said appeasingly. “You'll have plenty of chances to try out your ideas as the main guy before you cash in. You know the outfit wanted to lay low for a while, anyhow. But we'll be putting over a lot of the big stuff when Larry gets out.”

Hunt had noted a quick light come into Maggie's dark eyes while her father praised the absent leader. He himself suddenly perceived a new possibility.

“Maggie, ever think about teaming up with Larry?” he demanded, with his audacious keenness.

She flushed, and hesitated. He did not wait for her slow-coming reply, but turned to her father.

“Jimmie, did Larry ever use women in his stunts?”

“Never. Whenever we suggested using a skirt, Larry absolutely said there was nothing doing. That's one point where he was all wrong. Nothing helps so much, when the sucker is at all sentimental, as a clever, good-looking woman. And Larry'll come around to it all right. He'll see the sense of it, now that he's older and has had two years to think things over.”

Old Jimmie nodded, showing his yellow teeth in a sly grin. “You said something a second ago: Maggie and Larry! They'll make a wonder of a team! I mean that she'll work under him with the rest of us. I've been thinking about it a long while. Mebbe you haven't guessed it, but we've been coaching her for the part, and she's just about ripe. She's got the looks, and we can dress her right for whatever job's on hand. Oh, Larry'll put over some great things with Maggie!”

If Hunt felt that there was anything cynically unpaternal in this father planning for his daughter a career of crime, he gave no sign of it. His attention was just then all on Maggie. He saw her eyes grow yet more bright at these last sentences of her father: bright with the vision of approaching adventure.

“The idea suits you, Maggie?” he asked.

“Sure. It'll be great—for Larry is a wonder!”

Barney Palmer suddenly rose, his face twisted with anger. “I'm all fed up on this Larry, Larry, Larry! Come on, Jimmie. Let's get uptown.”

Wise Old Jimmie saw that Barney was near an outburst. “All right, Barney, all right,” he said promptly. “Not much use waiting any longer, anyhow. If Larry comes, we'll fix it with the Duchess to meet him tomorrow.”

“Then so-long, Maggie,” Barney flung at her, and that swagger ex-jockey, gambler, and clever manipulator of the confidence of people with money, slashed aside the shabby burlap curtains with his wisp of a bamboo walking-stick, and strode out of the room.

“Good-night, daughter,” and Old Jimmie crossed and kissed her. She kissed him back—a perfunctory kiss. Maggie had never paused to think the matter out, but for some reason she felt little real affection for her father, though of course she admired his astuteness. Perhaps her unconscious lack of love was due in part to the fact that she had never lived with him. Ever since she remembered he had boarded her out, here and there, as he was now boarding her at the Duchess's—and had only come to visit her at intervals, sometimes intervals that stretched into months.

“Barney is rather sweet on you,” remarked Hunt after the two were gone.

“I know he is,” conceded Maggie in a matter-of-fact way.

“And he seems jealous of Larry—both regarding you, and regarding the bunch.”

“He thinks he can run the bunch just as well as Larry. Barney's clever all right, and has plenty of nerve—but he's not in Larry's class. Not by a million miles!”

Hunt perceived that this daring, world-defying, embryonically beautiful model of his had idealized the homecoming nephew of the Duchess into her especial hero. Hunt said no more, but painted rapidly. Night had fallen outside, and long since he had switched on the electric lights. He seemed not at all finicky in this matter of light; he had no supposedly indispensable north light, and midday or midnight were almost equally apt to find him slashing with brush or scratching with crayon.

Presently the Duchess entered. No word was spoken. The Duchess, noteworthy for her mastery of silence, sank into a chair, a bent and shrunken image, nothing seemingly alive about her but her faintly gleaming, deep-set eyes. Several minutes passed, then Hunt lifted the canvas from the easel and stood it against the wall.

“That's all for to-day, Maggie,” he announced, pushing the easel to one side. “Duchess, you and this wild young thing spread the banquet-table while I wash up.”

He disappeared into a corner shut off by burlap curtains. From within there issued the sound of splashing water and the sputtering roar of snatches of the Toreador's song in a very big and very bad baritone.

Maggie put out a hand, and kept the Duchess from rising. “Sit still—I'll fix the table.”

Silently the Duchess acquiesced. Maggie had never felt any tenderness toward this strange, silent woman with whom she had lived for three years, but it was perhaps an indication of qualities within Maggie, whose existence she herself never even guessed, that she instinctively pushed the old woman aside from tasks which involved any physical effort. Maggie now swung the back of a laundry bench up to form a table-top, and upon it proceeded to spread a cloth and arrange a medley of chipped dishes. As she moved swiftly and deftly about, the Duchess watching her with immobile features, these two made a strangely contrasting pair: one seemingly spent and at life's grayest end, the other electric with vitality and giving off the essence of life's unknown adventures.

Hunt stepped out between the curtains, pulling on his coat. “You'll find that chow in my fireless cooker will beat the Ritz,” he boasted. “The tenderest, fattest kind of a fatted calf for the returned prodigal.”

Maggie started. “The prodigal! You mean—Larry is coming?”

“Sure,” grinned Hunt. “That's why we celebrate.”

Maggie wheeled upon the Duchess. “Is Larry really coming?”

“Yes,” said the old woman.

“But—but why the uncertainty about when he was coming back? Father and Barney thought he was due to get out yesterday.”

“Just a mistake we all made about his release. His time was up this afternoon.”

“But you told Barney and my father you hadn't heard from him.”

“I had heard,” said the Duchess in her flat tone. “If they want to see him they can see him to-morrow.”

“When—when will he be here?”

“Any minute,” said the Duchess.

Without a word Maggie whirled about and the next moment she was in her room on the floor below. She did not know what prompted her, but she had a frantic desire to get out of this plain shirt-waist and skirt and into something that would be striking. She considered her scanty wardrobe; her father had recently spoken of handsome gowns and furnishings, but as yet these existed only in his words, and the pseudo-evening gowns which she had worn to restaurant dances with Barney she knew to be cheap and uneffective.

Suddenly she remembered the things Hunt had given her, or had loaned her, the evening four months earlier when he had taken her to an artists' masquerade ball—though to her it had been a bitter disappointment when Hunt had carried her away before the unmasking at twelve o'clock. She tore off the offending waist and skirt, pulled from beneath the bed the pasteboard box containing her costume; and in five minutes of flying hands the transformation was completed. Her thick hair of burnished black was piled on top of her head in gracious disorder, and from it swayed a scarlet paper flower. About her lithe body, over a black satin skirt, swathing her in its graceful folds, clung a Spanish shawl of saffron-colored background with long brown silken fringe, and flowered all over with brown and red and peacock blue, and held in place by three huge barbaric pins jeweled with colored glass, one at either hip and upon her right shoulder, leaving her smooth shoulders bare and free. With no more than a glance to get the hasty effect, she hurried up to the studio.

Hunt whistled at sight of her, but made no remark. Flushed, she looked back at him defiantly. The Duchess gave no sign whatever of being aware of the transformation.

Maggie with excited touches tried to improve her setting of the table, aquiver with expectancy and suspense at the nearness of the meeting—every nerve of audition strained to catch the first footfall upon the stairs. Hunt, watching her, could but wonder, in case Larry was the clever, dashing person that had been described, what would be the outcome when these two natures met and perhaps joined forces.


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