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CHAPTER IV
While the preparations for dinner were going on in the studio, down below Larry turned a corner and swung up the narrow street toward the pawnshop. He halted and peered in before entering; in doing this he was obeying the caution that was his by instinct and training.

Leaning over the counter within, and chatting with his grandmother's assistant was Casey, one of the two plain-clothesmen who had arrested him. Larry drew back. He was not afraid of Casey, or of Gavegan, Casey's partner, or of the whole police force, or of the State of New York; they had nothing on him, he had settled accounts by having done his bit. All the same, he preferred not to meet Casey just then. So he went down the street, crossed the cobbled plaza along the water-front, and slipped through the darkness among the trucks out to the end of the pier. Under his feet the East River splashed sluggishly against the piles, but out near the river's center he could see the tide swirling out to sea at six miles an hour, toward the great shadowy Manhattan Bridge crested with its splendid tiara of lights.

He stretched himself and breathed deeply of the warm free spring. It tasted good after two long years of the prison's sealed air. He would have liked to shed his clothing and dive down for a brisk fight with the tingling water. Larry had always taken pleasure in keeping his body fit. He had not cared for the gymnasiums of the ward clubs where he would have been welcome; in them there had been too much rough horseplay and foulness of mouth, and such had always been offensive to him. And though he had ever looked the gentleman, he had known that the New York Athletic Club and other similar clubs were not for him; they pried a bit too much into a candidate's social and professional standing. So he had turned to a club where really searching inquiries were rarely made; for years he had belonged to a branch of the Y.M.C.A. located just off Broadway, and had played handball and boxed with chunky, slow-footed city detectives who were struggling to retain some physical activity, and with fat playwrights, and with Jewish theatrical managers, and with the few authentic Christians who occasionally strayed into the place and seemed ill at ease therein. He had liked this club for another reason; his sense of humor had often been highly excited by the thought of his being a member of the Y.M.C.A.

Having this instinct for physical fitness, he had not greatly minded being a coal-passer during the greater part of his stay at Sing Sing; better that than working in the knitting mills; so that now, though underfed and under weight, he was active and hard-muscled.

Larry Brainard could not have told why, and just when, he had turned to devious ways. He had never put that part of his life under the microscope. But the simple facts were that he had become an orphan at fifteen and a broker's clerk at nineteen after a course in a business college; and that experiences with wash-sales and such devious and dubious practices of brokers, his high spirits, his instinct for pleasure, his desire for big winnings—these had swept him into a wild crowd before he had been old enough to take himself seriously, and had started him upon a brilliant career of adventures and unlawful money-making in whose excitement there had been no let-up until his arrest. He had never thought about such technical and highly academic subjects as right and wrong up to the day when Casey and Gavegan had slipped the handcuffs upon him. To laugh, to dance, to plan and direct clever coups, to spend the proceeds gayly and lavishly—to challenge the police with another daring coup: that had been life to him, a game that was all excitement.

And now, after two years in which there had been plenty of time for thinking, his conscience still did not trouble him on the score of his offenses. He believed, and was largely right in this belief, that the suckers he had trimmed had all been out to secure unlawful gain and to take cunning advantage of his supposedly foolish self and of other dupes. He had been too clever for them, that was all; in desire and intent they had been as great cheats as himself. So he felt no remorse over his victims; and as for anything he may have done against that impersonal entity, the criminal statutes, why, the period in prison had squared all such matters. So he now faced life pleasantly and with care-free soul.

Larry had turned away from the dark river and had started to retrace his way, when he saw a man approaching through the darkness. Larry paused. The man drew near and halted exactly in front of Larry. By the swing of his body Larry had recognized the man, and his own figure instinctively grew tense.

“What you doin' out here, Brainard?” The voice was peremptory and rough.

“Throwing kisses over at Brooklyn,” Larry replied coolly. “And what are you doing out here, Gavegan?”

“Following you. I wanted a quiet word with you. I've been right behind you ever since you hit New York.”

“I knew you would be. You and Casey. But you haven't got anything on me.”

“I got plenty on you before!—with Casey helping,” retorted Gavegan. “And I'll get plenty on you again!—now that I know you are the main guy of a clever outfit. You'll be starting some smooth game—but I'm going to be right after you every minute. And I'll get you. That's the news I wanted to slip you.”

“So!” commented Larry drawlingly. “Casey's a fairly decent guy, considering his line—but, Gavegan, I don't see how Casey stands you as a partner. And, Gavegan, I don't see why the Board of Health lets you stay around the streets—when putrefying matter causes so much disease.”

“None of your lip, young feller!” growled Gavegan. He stepped closer, bulking over Larry. “You think you are such a damned smart talker and such a damned clever schemer—but I'll bet I'll have you locked up in six months.”

Anger boiled up within Larry. Against all the persons connected with his arrest, trial, and imprisonment, he had no particular resentment, except against this one man. He never could forget the time he and Gavegan, he handcuffed, had been locked in a sound-proof cell, and Gavegan had given him the third degree—in this case a length of heavy rubber hose, applied with a powerful arm upon head and shoulders—in an effort to make him squeal upon his confederates. And that third degree was merely a sample of the material of which Gavegan was made.

Larry held his desire in leash. “So you bet you'll get me. I'll take that bet—any figure you like. I've already got a new game cooked up, Gavegan. Cleverer than anything I've ever tried before.”

“Oh, I'll get you!” Gavegan growled again.

“Oh, no, you won't!” And then Larry's old anger against Gavegan got into his tongue and made it wag tauntingly. “You didn't get me the last time; that was a slip and police stools got me. All by yourself, Gavegan, you couldn't get anything. Your brain's got flat tires, and its motor doesn't fire, and its clutch is broken. The only thing about it that still works is the horn. You've got a hell of a horn, Gavegan, and it never stops blowing.”

A tug was nearing the dock, and by its light Larry saw the terrific swing that the enraged detective started. Larry swayed slightly aside, and as Gavegan lunged by, Larry's right fist drove into Gavegan's chin—drove with all the power of his dislike and all the strength of five years in a Y.M.C.A. gymnasium and a year in a prison boiler-room.

Gavegan went down and out.

Larry gazed a moment at the dim, sprawling figure, then turned and made his way off the pier and again to the door of the pawnshop. Casey was gone; he could see no one within but Old Isaac, the assistant.

Larry opened the door and entered. “Hello, Isaac. Where's grandmother?”

It is not a desirable trait in one connected with a pawnshop, that is also reputed to be a fence, to show surprise or curiosity. So Isaac's reply was confined to a few facts and brief direction.

Wondering, Larry mounted the stairway which opened from the confidential business room behind the pawnshop. It was common enough for his grandmother to rent out the third floor; but to a painter, and a crazy painter—that seemed strange. And yet more strange was it for her to be having dinner with the painter.

Larry knocked at the door. A big male voice within gave order:

“Be parlor-maid, Maggie, and see who's there.”

The door opened and Larry half entered. Then he stopped, and in surprise gazed at the flushed, gleaming Maggie, slender and supple in the folds of the Spanish shawl.

“Why, Maggie!” he exclaimed, holding out his hand.

“Larry!”

She was thrillingly confused by his surprised admiration. For a moment they stood gazing at each other, holding hands. The clothes given him on leaving prison were of course atrocious, but in all else he measured up to her dreams: lithe, well-built, handsome, a laugh ready on his lips, and the very devil of daring in his smiling, gray-blue eyes.

“How you have grown up, Maggie!” he said, still amazed.

“That's all I've had to do for two years,” she returned.

“Come on in, Larry,” said the Duchess.

Larry shut the door, bowed with light grace as he had to pass in front of Maggie, and crossed to the Duchess.

“Hello, grandmother,” he said as though he had last seen her the day before. He held out his hand, the left one, and she took it in a mummified claw. In all his life he had never kissed his grandmother, nor did he remember ever having been kissed by her.

“Glad you're back, Larry.” She dropped his hand. “The man's name is Hunt.”

Larry turned to the painter. His laughing eyes could be sharp; they were penetratingly sharp now. And so were Hunt's eyes.

Larry held out his hand, again the left. “And so you're the painter?”

“They call me a painter,” responded Hunt, “but none of them believe I'm a painter.”

Larry turned again to Maggie. “And so you're actually Maggie! Meaning no offense”—and there was a smiling audacity in his face that it would have been hard to have taken offense at—“I don't see how Old Jimmie Carlisle's daughter got such looks without stealing them.”

“Well, then,” retorted Maggie, “I don't see how you got your looks unless—”

She broke off and bit her tongue. She had been about to retort with the contrast between Larry's face and his shriveled, hook-nosed grandmother's. They all perceived her intention, however.

Larry came instantly to her rescue with almost imperceptible ease.

“Dinner!” he exclaimed, gazing at the miscellany of dishes on the table. “Am I invited?”

“Invited?” said Hunt. “You're the guest of honor.”

“Then might the guest of honor beg the privilege of cleaning up a bit?” Larry drew his right hand from his coat pocket, where it had been all this while, and started to unwind the handkerchief which he had wound about his knuckles as he had crossed from the pier.

“Is your hand hurt much?” Maggie inquired eagerly.

“Just skinned my knuckles.”

“How?”

“They happened to connect with a flatfoot's jaw while he was trying to make hypnotic passes at me. He's coming to about now. Officer Gavegan.”

“Gavegan!” exclaimed Hunt. “You picked a tough bird. Young man, you're off to a grand start—a charge of assault on an officer the very day they turn you out of jail.”

Larry smiled. “Gavegan is a dirty one, but he'll make no charge of assault. He claims to be heavy-weight champion boxer of the Police Department. Put a fine crimp in his reputation, wouldn't it, if he admitted in public that he'd been knocked out by a fellow, bare-handed, supposed to be weak from prison life, forty pounds lighter. He'd get the grand razoo all along the line. Oh, Gavegan will never let out a peep.”

“He'll square things in some other way,” said Hunt.

“I suppose he'll try,” Larry responded carelessly. “Where's the first-aid room?”

Hunt showed him through the curtains. When he came out, Hunt, Maggie, and the Duchess were all engaged in getting the dinner upon the table. Additional help would only be interference, so Larry's eyes wandered casually to the canvases standing in the shadows against the walls.

“Mr. Hunt,” he remarked, “you seem to have earned a very real reputation of its sort in the neighborhood. Old Isaac downstairs told me you were crazy—said they called you 'Nuts'—said you were the worst painter that ever happened.”

“Yeh, that's what they say,” agreed Hunt.

“They certainly are awful, Larry,” put in Maggie, coming to his side. “Father thinks they are jokes, and father certainly knows pictures. Just look at a few of them.”

“Yeh, look at 'em and have a good laugh,” invited Hunt.

Larry carried the portrait of the Duchess to beneath the swinging electric bulb and examined it closely. Maggie, at his shoulder, waited for his mirth; and Hunt regarded him with a sidelong gaze. But Larry did not laugh. He silently returned the picture, and then examined the portrait of Old Jimmie—then of Maggie—then of the Italian madonna, throned on her curbstone. He replaced this last and crossed swiftly to Hunt. Maggie watched this move in amazement.

Larry faced the big painter. His figure was tense, his features hard with suspicion. That moment one could understand why he was sometimes called “Terrible Larry”; just then he looked a devastating explosion that was still unexploded.

“What's your game down here, Hunt?” he demanded harshly.

“My game?” repeated the big painter. “I don't get you.”

“Yes, you do! You're down here posing as a boob who smears up canvases!”

“What's wrong with that?”

“Only this: those are not crazy daubs. They're real pictures!”

“Eh!” exclaimed Hunt. Maggie stared in bewilderment at the two men.

Hunt spoke again. “What the dickens do you know about pictures? Old Jimmie, who's said to be a shark, thinks all these things are just comics.”

“Jimmie only thinks a picture's good after a thousand press-agents have said it's good,” Larry returned. “I studied at the Academy of Design for two years, till I learned I could never paint. But I know pictures.”

“And you think mine are good?”

“Not in the popular manner—they're too original. But they're great. And you're a great painter. And I want to know—”

“Hurray!” shouted Hunt, and flung an enthusiastic arm about Larry, and began to pound his back. “Oh, boy! Oh, boy!”

Larry wrenched himself free. “Cut that out. Then you admit you're a great painter?”

“Of course I'm a great painter!” shouted Hunt. “Who should know it better than I do?”

“Then what's a great painter doing down here? What's the game you're trying to put over, posing as—”

“Listen, son,” Hunt grinned. “You've called me and I've got to show my cards. Only you mustn't ever tell—nor must Maggie; the Duchess doesn't talk, anyway. No need bothering you just now with a lot of details about myself. It's enough to say that people wouldn't pay me except when I did the usual pretty rot; no one believed in the other stuff I wanted to do. I wanted to get away from that bunch; I wanted to do real studies of human people, with their real nature showing through. So I beat it. Understand so far?”

“But why pose as a dub down here?”

“I never started the yarn that I was a dub. The people who looked at my work, and laughed, started that talk. I didn't shout out that I was a great artist for the mighty good reason that if I had, and had been believed, the people who posed for me either wouldn't have done it or would have been so self-conscious that they would have tried to look like some one else, and would never have shown me themselves at all. Thinking me a joke, they just acted natural. Which, young man, is about all you need to know.”

Maggie looked on breathlessly at the two men, bewildered by this new light in which Hunt was presented, and fascinated by the tense alertness of her hero, Larry.

Slowly Larry's tensity dissipated. “I don't know about the rest of your make-up,” he said slowly, “but as a painter you're a whale.”

“The rest of him's all right, too,” put in the dry, unemotional voice of the Duchess. “Dinner's ready. Come on.”

As they moved to the table Hunt clapped a big hand on Larry's shoulder. “And to think,” he chuckled, “it took a crook fresh from Sing Sing to discover me as a great artist! You're clever, Larry—clever! Maggie, get the corkscrew into action and fill the glasses with the choicest vintage of H2O. A toast. Here's to Larry!”


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