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CHAPTER V

The dinner was simple: beef stewed with potatoes and carrots and onions, and pie, and real coffee. But it measured up to Hunt's boast: the chef of the Ritz, limited to so simple a menu, could indeed have done no better. And Larry, after his prison fare, was dining as dine the gods.

The irrepressible Hunt, trying to read this new specimen that had come under his observation, sought to draw Larry out. “Barney Palmer and Old Jimmie were here this afternoon, wanting to see you. They've got something big waiting for you. I suppose you're all ready to jump in and put it over with a wallop.”

“I'm going to put something over with a wallop—but I guess business will have to wait until Barney, Jimmie, and I have a talk. Can you spare me a little more of that stew?”

His manner of speaking was a quiet announcement to Hunt that his plans were for the present a closed subject. Hunt felt balked, for this lean, alert, much-talked-of adventurer piqued him greatly; but he switched to other subjects, and during the rest of the meal did most of the talking. The Duchess was silent, and seemingly was concerned only with her food. Larry got in a fair portion of speech, but for the most part his attention, except for that required for eating, was fixed upon Maggie.

How she had sprung up since he had last seen her! Almost a woman now—and destined to be a beauty! And more than just a beauty: she was colorful, vital, high-strung. Before he had gone away he had regarded her with something akin to the negligent affection of an older brother. But this thing which was already beginning to surge up in him was altogether different, and he knew it.

As for Maggie, when she looked at him, she flushed and her eyes grew bright. Larry was back!—the brilliant, daring Larry. She was aware that she had been successful in startling and gripping his attention. Yes, they would do great things together!

When the dinner was finished and the dishes washed, Larry gave voice to this new urge that had so quickly grown up within him.

“What do you say, Maggie, to a little walk?”

“All right,” she replied eagerly.

They went down the narrow stairway together. On the landing of the second floor, which contained only Maggie's bedroom and the Duchess's and a tiny kitchen, Maggie started to leave him to change into street clothes; but he caught her arm and said, “Come on.” They descended the next flight and came into the back room behind the pawnshop, which the Duchess used as a combination of sitting-room, office, and storeroom. About this musty museum hung or stood unredeemed seamen's jackets, men and women's evening wear, banjos, guitars, violins, umbrellas, and one huge green stuffed parrot sitting on top of the Duchess's safe.

“I wanted to talk, not walk,” he said. “Let's stay here.”

He took her hands and looked down on her steadily. Under the yellow gaslight her face gleamed excitedly up into his, her breath came quickly.

“Well, sir, what do you think of me?” she demanded. “Have I changed much?”

“Changed? Why, it's magic, Maggie! I left you a schoolgirl; you're a woman now. And a wonder!”

“You think so?” She flushed with pride and pleasure, and a wildness of spirit possessed her and demanded expression in action. She freed her left hand and slipped it over Larry's shoulder. “Come on—let's two-step.”

“But, Maggie, I've forgotten.”

“Come on!”

Instantly she was dragging him over the scanty floor space. But after a moment he halted, protesting.

“These prison brogans were not intended by their builders for such work. If you've got to dance, you'll have to work it out of your system alone.”

“All right!”

At once, in the midst of the dingy room, humming the music, she was doing Carmen's dance—wild, provocative, alluring. It was not a remarkable performance in any professionally technical sense; but it had vivid personality; she was light, lithe, graceful, flashing with color and spirits.

“Maggie!” he exclaimed, when she had finished and stood before him glowing and panting. “Good! Where did you learn that?”

“In the chorus of a cabaret revue.”

“Is that what you're doing now, working in a chorus?”

“No. Barney and father said a chorus was no place for me.” She drew nearer. “Oh, Larry, I've such a lot to tell you.”

“Go on.”

“Well”—she cocked her head impishly—“I've been going to school.”

“Going to school! Where?”

“Lots of places. Just now I'm going to school at the Ritzmore Hotel.”

“At the Ritzmore Hotel!” He stared at her bewildered. “What are you learning there?”

“To be a lady.” She laughed at his increasing bewilderment. “A real lady, Larry,” she went on excitedly. “Oh, it's such a wonderful idea! Father had never seemed to think much of me till the night I went to a masquerade ball with Mr. Hunt, and he and Barney saw me in these clothes. They had never seen me really dressed up before; Barney said it was an eye-opener. They saw how I could be of big use to you all. But to be that, I've got to be a lady—a real lady, who knows how to behave and wear real clothes. That's what they're doing now: making me a lady.”

“Making you a lady!” exclaimed Larry. “How?”

“By putting me where I can watch real ladies, and study them. Barney cut short my being in a chorus; Barney said a chorus girl never learned to pass for a lady. So I've been working in places where the swellest women come. First in a milliner shop; then as dresser to a model in the shop of a swell modiste; always watching how the ladies behave. Now I'm at the Ritzmore, and I carry a tray of cigarettes around the tables at lunch and at tea-time and during dinner and during the after-theater supper. I'm supposed to be there to sell cigarettes, but I'm really there to watch how the ladies handle their knives and forks and behave toward the men. Isn't it all awfully clever?”

“Why, Maggie!” he exclaimed.

“And pretty soon, when I've learned more,” she continued rapidly, “I'm going to have swell clothes of my own—and be a lady—and get away from this dingy, stuffy, dead old place! I can't stand for being buried down here much longer. And, oh, Larry, I'm going to begin to work with you!”

“What?” he blinked, not yet quite understanding.

“You think I'm not clever enough? But I am!” she protested. “I tell you I've learned a lot. And Barney and father have let me help in a lot of things—nothing really big yet, of course. They think I'm going to be a wonder. Just to-day father was saying that you and I, teamed up—Why, what's the matter, Larry?”

“You and I—teamed up,” he repeated slowly.

“Yes. Don't you like the idea?”

His hands suddenly gripped her bare shoulders.

“There's nothing to it!” he exclaimed almost savagely.

“What's that?” she cried, startled.

“I tell you there's nothing to it!”

“You—you think I can't put it over?”

“You can't! And I'm not going to have it!”

“Why—why—”

Staring, she drew slowly away from him. His face, which a few moments before had been smiling, was now harsh and dominant with decision. She had heard him spoken of as “Laughing Larry”; and also as “Terrible Larry” whose aroused will none could brook. He looked this latter person now, and she could not understand.

But though she could not understand, her own defiant spirit stormed up to fight this unexpected opposition. He didn't believe in her—that was it! He didn't think she was equal to working with him! Her young figure stiffened in angered pride, and her mind was gathering hot phrases to fling at him when the door from the pawnshop began to creak open. Instantly Larry turned toward it, relaxed and yet alert for anything. Old Jimmie and Barney Palmer entered.

“Hello, Larry!” cried the old man, crossing. “Welcome to our city!”

“Hello, Jimmie. Hello, Barney.” And Larry shook hands with his partners of other days.

“Gee, Larry, it's good to see you!” exclaimed the cunning-eyed old man. “Didn't know you were back till I bumped into Gavegan on Broadway. He told me, and so Barney and I beat it over here to see you. Believe me, Larry, that flatfoot is certainly sore at you!”

Larry ignored the last sentence. “Think it exactly wise for you two to come here?”

“Why, Larry?”

“Gavegan, Casey, the police, may follow, thinking you've come to see me for some purpose. That outfit may act upon suspicion.”

Jimmie grinned cunningly. “A man can come to visit his own daughter as often as he likes. Father love, Larry.”

“I see; that'll be your explanation.” Larry's eyes grew keen at the new understanding. “I hadn't thought of that before, Jimmie. So that's why you've always boarded Maggie around in shady joints: so's you could meet your pals and yet always have the excuse that you had come to meet your daughter?”

“Partly that,” smiled Old Jimmie blandly—perhaps too blandly. “Suppose we sit down.”

They did so, Maggie sitting a little apart from the men and regarding Larry with indignant, questioning eyes. She still could not understand his queer behavior when she had announced her intention of working with him. Could it be, as her father had said, because he would never work with women—not trusting them? She'd show him!

She was so occupied with this wonderment that she gave no heed to the talk about Larry's experience in Sing Sing and Old Jimmie's recital of what had happened among Larry's friends during his absence. During this gossip the Duchess entered from the stairway, and without word to any one shuffled across to her desk in a corner and bent silently over her accounts: just one more grotesque and unredeemed pledge in this museum of antiquities and forgotten pawns.

Presently Barney Palmer, who had been impatient during all this, broke out with:

“Aw, let's cut out this chatter about what used to be and get down to cases. Jimmie, will you spill the business to Larry, or want me to?”

“I'll tell him. Listen, Larry.” Maggie pricked up her ears; the talk was now excitingly important. “We've got our very greatest game all planned out. Stock-selling game; going to unload the whole thing on one sucker, and we've got the sucker picked out. Besides you and Barney and me, there's Red Hannigan and Jack Rosenfeldt in it—a classy bunch all right. And we think that for the woman end we'll take in Mae Gorham. She's clever and innocent-eyed—”

“But I thought you were going to take me in!” protested Maggie.

“Maggie'll be just as good as Mae Gorham,” put in Barney.

“We'll let that pass,” said Old Jimmie. “The main thing, Larry, is that everything is ready. It's a whale of a business proposition. We've been waiting for you; you're all that's lacking—the brainy guy to sit behind the scenes and manage the thing. You've handled the bunch for a long time, and they want you to handle this. For you're sure a wonder at business, Larry! None keener. Well, we've held this off waiting for you for a month. How about jumping right in?”

All three eyed Larry. His lean face was expressionless. He lit a cigarette, rose and leaned against the Duchess's safe on which stood the green parrot, and, gaze on the floor, slowly exhaled smoke through his nostrils.

“Well?” demanded Barney.

Larry looked at the two men with quiet, even eyes. “Thanks to both of you. It's a great compliment. But I've had time to do a little planning myself up in Sing Sing, and I've worked out a game that's got this one beat a mile.”

“Hell!” ejaculated Barney in wrathful disgust. “Jimmie, I told you we were wasting time waiting for him!”

“Hold on a second, Barney. If Larry's worked out a better game, he'll take us into it. But, Larry, how can your game beat this one?”

“Because there's more money in it. And because it's safer.”

“Safe! Aw, hell!” The smouldering jealousy and hatred glared out of Barney's greenish eyes. “I always knew you had a yellow streak! Something safe! Aw, hell!”

“Don't blow up, Barney. What is the new game, Larry?” queried the old man.

Larry regarded the two men steadfastly. He seemed reluctant to speak.

“Well?” prompted Old Jimmie. “Is it something you don't want to let us in on?”

“Of course I'll let you in on it, and be glad to, if you want to come in,” Larry replied in his level tone. “As I said, I've thought it all out and it's a great proposition. Here's the game: I'm going to run straight.”

For a moment all three sat astounded by this quiet statement from their leader. Nothing he might have said could have been more unexpected, more stupefying. The Duchess alone moved; she turned her head and held her sunken eyes upon her grandson.

Simultaneously the two men and Maggie stood up.

“The hell you say!” grated Barney Palmer.

“Larry, you gone crazy?” cried Old Jimmie.

Maggie moved a pace nearer him. “Going to go straight?” she asked incredulously.

“Listen, all of you,” Larry said quietly. “No, Jimmie, I've not gone crazy. I'm merely going a little sane. You just said I was a wonder at business, Jimmie. I think I am myself. I thought it all over as a business proposition. Suppose we clean up fifty or a hundred thousand on a big deal. We've got to split it several ways, perhaps pay a big piece to the police for protection, perhaps pay a lot of lawyers, and then perhaps get sent away for a year or several years, during which we don't take in a nickel. I figured that over a term of years my average income was mighty small. As a business man it seemed to me that I was in a poor business, with no future. So I decided to get into a new business that had a future. That's the size of it.”

“You're turning yellow—that's the real size of it!” snarled Barney Palmer, half starting toward him.

“Better be a little careful, Barney,” Larry warned with tightening jaw.

“You really mean, Larry,” demanded Old Jimmie, “that you're going to drop us after us counting on you and waiting for you so long?”

“I'm sorry about having kept you waiting, Jimmie. But we've parted definitely.” Then Larry added: “Unless you want to travel my road.”

“Your road! Never!” snapped Barney.

“And you, Jimmie?” Larry inquired, his eyes on Barney's inflamed face.

“I don't see your proposition. And I'm too old a bird to start something new. No, thanks. I'll stick to what I know.”

His next words, showing his long yellow teeth, were spoken slowly, but they were hard, and had a cutting edge. “You've got a sweet idea of what's straight, Larry: dropping us without a leader, just when we need a leader most.”

Larry's composed yet watchful gaze was still on Barney. “You're not really left in such a bad way. Barney here is ready to take charge.”

“You bet I am!” Barney flamed at him, his hands clenching. “And the bunch won't lose by the change, you bet! The bunch always thought you were an ace—and I always knew you were a two-spot. And now they'll see I was right—that you were always yellow!”

Larry still leaned against the safe in the same posture of seeming ease, but he expected Barney to strike at any moment, and held himself in readiness for a flashing fist. Barney had been hard to hold in leash in the old days; now that all ties of partnership were broken, he saw in those small gleaming eyes a defiance and a hatred that henceforth had no reason for restraint. And he knew that Barney was shrewd, grimly tenacious, and limitless in self-confidence and ambition.

“And listen to this, too, Larry Brainard,” Barney's temper carried him on. “Don't you mix in and try any preaching on Maggie.” He half turned his head jealously. “Maggie, don't you listen to any of this boob's Salvation Army talk!”

Maggie did not at once respond, but stood gazing at the two confronting figures. To her they were an oddly dissimilar pair: Barney in the smartest clothes that an over-smart Broadway tailor could create, and Larry in the shapeless garments that were the State's gift to him on leaving prison.

“Maggie,” he repeated, “don't you listen to this boob's talk!”

“I'll do just as I please, Barney.”

“But you're going to come our way?” he demanded.

“Of course.”

He turned back to Larry. “You hear that? You leave Maggie alone!”

Larry did not answer, though his temper was rising. He looked over Barney's head at Maggie's father.

“Jimmie,” he remarked in his same even voice, “anything more you'd like to say?”

“I'm through.”

“Then,” said Larry, “better lead your new commander-in-chief out of here, or I'll carry him out and spank him.”

“What's that?” snarled Barney.

“Get out!” Larry ordered, in a voice suddenly like steel.

Barney's fist swung viciously at Larry's head. It did not land, because Larry's head was elsewhere. Larry did not take advantage of the opening to strike back, but as the fist flashed by he seized the wrist, and in the same instant he seized the other wrist. The next moment he held Barney helpless in a twisting, torturing grip that he had learned from one of his non-Christian friends at the Y.M.C.A.

“Barney—are you going to walk out, or shall I kick you out?”

Barney's answer came after a moment through gritted teeth: “I'll walk out—but I'll get you for this!”

“I know you'll try, Barney. And I know you'll try to get me behind my back.” Larry loosed his grip. “Good-night.”

Barney backed glowering to the door; and Old Jimmie, his gray face an expressionless mask, silently followed him out.

All this while the Duchess had looked on, motionless in her corner, a dingy, forgotten part of the dingy background—no more noticeable than one of her own dusty, bizarre pledges.


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