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CHAPTER VIII
That night Larry slept on a cot set up in Hunt's studio. Hunt had made the proposition that Larry consider the studio his headquarters for the present, and Larry had accepted. Of course the cot and the rough-and-ready furnishings of the studio were grotesquely short of the luxury of those sunny days when Larry had had plenty of easy money and had been free to gratify his taste for the best of everything; but the quarters were infinitely more luxurious and comfortable than his more recent three-by-seven room at Sing Sing with its damp and chilly stone walls.

There were many reasons why Larry was appealed to by the idea of making his home for the present in this old house in this dingy, unexciting, unromantic street. He was drawn toward this bluff, outspoken, autocratic painter, and was curious about him. And then the way his grandmother had spoken, the gleam in her old eyes, had stirred an affection for her that he had never before felt. And then there was Maggie, with her startlingly new dusky beauty, her admiration of him that had so swiftly altered to defiance, her challenge to a duel of purposes.

Yes, for the present, this dingy old house in this dingy old street was just the place he preferred to be.

It was not the part of wisdom to start forth on the beginning of his new career in his shapeless prison shoddy; so the next day Larry pottered about the studio, acting as maid-of-all-work, while the clothes in his trunk which had been stored with the Duchess were being sponged and pressed by the little tailor down the street, and while a laundress, driven by the Duchess, was preparing the rest of his outfit for his debut. In his capacity of maid, with a basket on his arm, he went out into the little street, where in his shabby clothes he was recognized by none and leaned for a time against the mongrel, underfed tree that was hesitatingly greeting the spring with a few half-hearted leaves. He bathed himself in the warm sun which seemed over-glorious for so mean a street; he filled his lungs with the tangy May air; yes, it was wonderful to be free again!

Then he strolled about the street on his business of marketing. It amused him to be buying three pounds of potatoes and a pound of chopped meat and a package of macaroni, and to be counting Hunt's pennies—remembering those days when he had been a personage to head waiters, and had had his table reserved, and with a careless Midas's gesture had left a dollar, or five, or twenty, for the waiter's tip.

When he climbed back into the studio he watched Hunt slashing about with his paint. Hunt growled and roared at him, and kidded him; and Larry came back at him with the same kind of verbal horseplay, after the fashion of men. Presently a relaxation, if not actual friendship, began to develop in their attitude toward each other.

“Tell you what,” Larry remarked, standing with legs wide apart gazing at the picture of the Italian mother throned on the curb nursing her child, “if I were dolled up all proper, I bet I could take some of this stuff out and sell it for real dough.”

“Huh, nobody wants that stuff!” snorted Hunt. “It's too good. Sell it! You're off your bean, young fellow!”

“I can sell anything, my bucko,” Larry returned evenly. “All I need is a man who has plenty of money and a moderate willingness to listen. I've sold pictures of an oil derrick on a stock certificate, exact value nothing at all, for a masterpiece's price—so I guess I could sell a real picture.”

“Aw, you shut up!”

“The real trouble with you,” commented Larry, “is that, though you can paint, as a business man, as a promoter of your own stock, the suckling infant in that picture is a J. Pierpont Morgan of multiplied capacity compared to—”

“Stop making that noise like a damned fool!”

This amiable pastime of throwing stones at each other was just then interrupted by the entrance of Maggie for an appointed sitting, before going to her business of carrying a tray of cigarettes about the Ritzmore. She gave Hunt a pleasant “good-morning,” the pleasantness purposely stressed in order to make more emphatic her curt nod to Larry and the cold hostility of her eye. During the hour she posed, Larry, moving leisurely about his kitchen duties, addressed her several times, but no remark got a word from her in response. He took his rebuffs smilingly, which irritated her all the more.

“Maggie, I'll get my real clothes late this afternoon; how about my dropping in at the Ritzmore for a cup of tea, and letting me buy some cigarettes and talk to you when you're not busy?” he inquired when Hunt had finished with her.

“You may buy cigarettes, but you'll get no talk!” she snapped, and head high and dark eyes flashing contempt, she swept past him.

Hunt watched her out. As the door slammed behind her, he remarked dryly, his eyes searching Larry keenly:

“Our young queen doesn't seem wildly enthusiastic about you or your programme.”

“She certainly is not.”

“Don't let that worry you, young fellow. That's a common trait of her whole tribe; women simply cannot believe in a man!”

There was an emphasis and a cynicism in this last remark which caused Larry to regard the painter searchingly. “You seem to know what it is. Don't mean to butt in, Hunt, if there are any trespassing signs up—but there's a woman in your case?”

“Of course there is—there's always a woman; that's another reason I'm here,” Hunt answered. “She didn't believe in me—didn't believe I could paint—didn't believe in the things I wanted to do—so I just picked up my playthings and walked out of her existence.”

“Wife?” queried Larry.

“Thank God, no!” exclaimed Hunt emphatically. “No—'I thank whatever gods there be, I am the captain of my soul!' Oh, she's all right—altogether too good for me,” he added. “Here, try this tobacco.”

Larry picked up the pouch flung him and accepted without remark this being abruptly shunted off the track. But he surmised that this woman in the background of Hunt's life meant a great deal more to the painter than Hunt tried to indicate by his attempt to dismiss her casually—and Larry wondered what kind of woman she was, and what the story had been.

The following day, clean-shaven and in his freshened clothes—they were smart and well-tailored, though sober indeed compared with Barney's, and two years behind the style of which Barney's were the extreme expression—Larry passed Maggie on the stairway with a smile, who gave him no smile in return, and started forth upon his quest. He was well-dressed, he had money in his pockets, he had a plan, and the air of freedom of a new life was sweet in his nostrils. He was going to succeed!

It was easy enough, with his mind alert for what he wanted, and with the Duchess's liberal allowance to pay for what he wanted, for Larry to find in this city of ten thousand institutes teaching business methods, the particular article which suited his especial needs. He found this article in an institute whose black-faced headline in its advertisements was, “We Make You a $50,000 Executive”; and the article which he found, by payment of a special fee, was an old man who had been the manager of a big brokerage concern until his growing addiction to drink and later to drugs had rendered him undependable. But old Bronson certainly did know the fundamentals and intricacies of the kind of big business which is straight, and it was a delight to him to pour out his knowledge to a keen intelligence.

Larry, in his own words, simply “mopped it up.” His experience had been so wide and varied that he now had only to be shown a bone of fact and almost instantly he visioned in their completeness unextinct ichthyosauri of business. By day he fairly consumed old Bronson; he read dry books far into the night. Thus he rapidly filled the holes in the walls of his knowledge, and strengthened its rather sketchy foundation. Of course he realized that what he was learning was in a sense academic; it had to be tested and developed and made flexible by experience; but then much of it became instantly a living enlargement of the things of which he was already a master.

Old Bronson was delighted; he had never had so apt a pupil. “In less than no time you'll be the real head of that house you're with!” he proudly declared. Larry had not seen it as needful to tell the truth about himself; his casual story was that he was there putting to use a month's holiday granted him by a mythical firm in Chicago.

The Duchess's statement that it would be best for him not to seek work at once was founded on wisdom. Larry was busy and interested, but he did not yet have to face the constant suspicion and hostility which are usually the disheartening lot of the ex-convict who asks for a position. In this period his confidence and his purpose expanded with new vitality.

As the busy days passed down in the little street, the bantering fellowship between Larry and Hunt took deeper root. The Duchess did not again show any of the emotion which had gleamed in her briefly when Larry had announced his new plan; but bent and silent went like an oddly revivified mummy about her affairs. And during these days he did not again see Barney or Old Jimmie; he had learned that on the day following his conference with them they had gone to Chicago on a very private matter of business.

He saw Maggie daily, but she maintained the same attitude toward him. He was now conscious that he was in love. He saw splendid qualities in her, most of them latent. Maggie had determination, high spirits, cleverness, courage, and capacity for sympathy and affection; she had head, heart, and beauty, the makings of an unusual woman, if only she could be swung into a different attitude of mind. But he realized that there was small chance indeed of his working any alteration in her, much less winning her admitted regard, until he was definitely a success, until he had definitely proven himself right. So he took her rebuffs with a smile, and waited his time.

He understood her point of view, and sympathized with her; for her point of view had once been his own. With a growing understanding he saw her as the natural product of such a fathership as Old Jimmie's, and of the cynical environment which Old Jimmie had given her in which crime was a matter of course. In this connection one matter that had previously interested him began to engage his speculation more and more. All her life, until recently, Old Jimmie had apparently shown little more concern over Maggie than one shows over a piece of baggage which is stored in this and that warehouse—and so valueless a piece of baggage in Old Jimmie's case that it had always been stored in the worst warehouses. What was behind Old Jimmie's new interest in his daughter?

Old Jimmie had in late months awakened to the value to him of Maggie as a business proposition—that was Larry's answer to his own question.

As for Maggie, during these days, the mere fact that Larry smiled at her and refused to get angry angered her all the more. Her anger at him, the manner in which he had refused her offered and long-dreamed-of partnership, would not permit her pride and self-confidence to consider any justification for him to enter her mind and argue in his behalf. The great dream she had nourished had been destroyed. And, moreover, he had proclaimed himself a fool.

Yes, despite him and all he could do, she was going to go the brilliant, exciting way she had planned!

In fairness to Maggie it must be remembered that despite her assumed maturity and self-confident wisdom, she really was only eighteen, and perhaps did not yet fully know herself, and had all the world yet to learn. And it must be remembered that she believed herself entirely in the right. This was a world where strength and cunning were the qualities that counted, and every one was trying to outwit his neighbor; and all who acted otherwise were either weak-witted fools or else pretenders who saw in their hypocrisy the keenest game of all. Living under the influence of Old Jimmie, and later of Barney, and of the environment in which she had been bred, these beliefs had come to be her religion. She was thoroughly orthodox, and had the defensive and aggressive fervor which is the temper of militant orthodoxy.

And so more keenly than ever, because she was more determined than ever, Maggie studied the groups of well-dressed men and women who ate and danced at the Ritzmore, among whom she circulated in her short, smart skirt with her cigarette tray swung from her neck by a broad purple ribbon. Particularly she liked the after-theater crowd, for then only evening wear was permitted in the supper-room and the people were at their liveliest. She liked to watch the famous professional couple do their specialties on the glistening central space with the agile spot-lights always bathing them; and then watch the smartly dressed guests take the floor with the less practiced and more humble steps. Sometime soon she was going to have clothes as smart as any of these. Soon she would be one of these brilliant people, and have a life more exciting than any. Very soon—for her apprenticeship was almost over!

Barney Palmer had these last few months, since he had discovered in Maggie a star who only needed coaching and then an opportunity, made it a practice to come for Maggie occasionally when one o'clock, New York's curfew hour, dispersed the pleasure-seekers and ended Maggie's day of work, or rather her day of intensive schooling for her greater life. On the night of his return from Chicago, which was a week after his break with Larry, Barney reported to take Maggie home. He was in swagger evening clothes and he asked the starter for a taxi; with an almost lordly air and for the service of a white-gloved gesture to a chauffeur, he carelessly handed the starter (who, by the way, was a richer man than Barney) a crisp dollar bill. Barney was trying to make his best impression.

“Seen much of that stiff, Larry Brainard?” he asked when the cab was headed southward.

His tone, which he tried to make merely contemptuous, conveyed the deep wrath which he still felt whenever his mind reverted to Larry. Maggie reserved to herself the privilege of thinking of Larry just as she pleased; but being the kind of girl she was, she could not help being also a bit of a coquette.

“I didn't think he was such a stiff, Barney,” she said in an irritatingly pleasant voice. “His prison clothes were bad, but now that he's dressed right I think he looks awfully nice. You and father have always said he looked the perfect swell.”

“See here—has he been talking to you?” Barney demanded savagely.

“A little. Yes, several times. In fact he said quite a lot that night after you'd gone.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he was not only going to go straight, but”—in her provocative, teasing voice—“he was going to make me go straight.”

“What's that? Tell me just what he said!” demanded Barney, his wrath suddenly flaring into furious jealousy.

Maggie told him in detail; in fact told him the scene in greater detail and with a greater length than had been the actuality. Also she censored the scene by omitting her own opposition to Larry's determination. She enjoyed playing with Barney, the exercise of the power she had over Barney's passions.

“And you stood for all that!” cried Barney. By this time they were far down town. “You listen to me, Maggie: What I said to Larry's face that night at the Duchess's still stands. I think he's yellow and has turned against his old pals. I tell you what, I'm going to watch that guy!”

“You won't find it hard to watch him, Barney. Larry never hides himself.”

“Oh, I'll watch him all right! And you, Maggie—why, you talk as though you liked that line of talk he gave you!”

“Larry talks well—and I did like it, rather.”

“See here! You're not falling for him? You're not going to let him make you go straight?”

Maggie certainly had no intention of letting any such thing come to pass; but she could not check her innocent-toned baiting.

“How do I know what he'll make me do? He's clever and handsome, you know.”

Barney gripped her shoulder fiercely. “Maggie—are you falling in love with him?”

“How do I know, when—”

“Maggie!” He gripped her more tightly, and his phrases tumbled out fiercely, rapidly. “You're not going to do anything of the sort! If he goes straight—if you go straight—how can he ever help you? He can't! And it will be your finish—the finish of all the big things we've talked about. Listen: since Larry threw us down, I've taken hold of things and will soon be ready to spring something big. Just a few days now and you'll be out of that dirty street, and you'll be in swell clothes doing swell work—and it will mean the best restaurants, theaters, swell times!”

The car had turned into the narrow, cobbled street and had paused before the Duchess's. Suddenly Barney caught her into his arms.

“And, Maggie, you're going to be mine! We'll have a nifty little place, all right! You know I'm dippy about you....And, Maggie, I don't even want you to go back in there where Larry Brainard is. Let's drive back uptown and start in together now! To-night!”

It was not the fact that he had not suggested marriage which stirred Maggie: men and women in Barney's class lived together, and sometimes they were married and sometimes they were not. It was something else, something of which she was not definitely conscious: but she felt no such momentary thrill, no momentary, dazing surrender, as she had felt the night when Larry had similarly held her.

“Stop that, Barney!” she gasped. “Let me go!” She struggled fiercely, and then tore herself free.

“What's wrong with you?” panted Barney. “You're mine, ain't you?”

“You leave me alone! I'm going to get out!”

She had the door open, and was stepping out when he caught her sleeve. But she pulled so determinedly that to have held her would have meant nothing better than ripping the sleeve out of her coat. So he freed her and followed her across the sidewalk to the Duchess's door.

“What's the idea?” he demanded, choking with fierce jealousy. “It's not Larry, after all? You're not going to let him make you go straight?”

She had recovered her poise, and she replied banteringly:

“As I said, how can I tell what he's going to make me do?”

She heard him draw a deep, quivering breath between clenched teeth; but she could not see how his figure tensed and how his face twisted into a glower.

“Get this, Maggie: Larry Brainard is never going to be able to make you do anything. You get that?”

“Yes, I get it, Barney; good-night,” she said lightly.

And Maggie slipped through the door and left Barney trembling in the little street.



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