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CHAPTER XV

No prison could have been more agreeable—that is, no prison from which Maggie was omitted—than this in which Larry was now confined. He had the run of the apartment; Dick Sherwood outfitted him liberally with clothing from his superabundance of the best; Judkins and the other servants treated him as the member of the family which they had been informed he was; the lively Dick, with his puppy-like friendliness, asked never an uncomfortable question, and placed Larry almost on the footing of a chum; and the whimsically smiling Miss Sherwood treated Larry exactly as she might have treated any well-bred gentleman and in every detail made good on her promise to give him a chance. In fact, in all his life Larry had never lived so well.

As for Miss Sherwood's aunt, a sister of Miss Sherwood's mother and a figure of pale, absent-minded dignity, she kept very much to her own sitting-room. She was a recent convert to the younger English novelists, and was forced to her seclusion by the amazing fecundity with which they kept repopulating her reading-table. Larry she accepted with a hazy, preoccupied politeness, eager always to get back to the more substantial characters of her latest fiction.

Of course Miss Sherwood did not make of Larry a complete confidant. For all her smiling, easy frankness, he knew that there were many doors of her being which she never unlocked for him. What he saw was so interesting that he could not help being interested about the rest. Of course many details were open to him. She was an excellent sportswoman; a rare dancer; there were many men interested in her; she dined out almost every other evening at some social affair blooming belatedly in May (most of her friends were already settled in their country homes, and she was still in town only because her place on Long Island was in disorder due to a two months' delay in the completion of alterations caused by labor difficulties); she had made a study of beetles; she had a tiny vivarium in the apartment and here she would sit studying her pets with an interest and patience not unlike that of old Fabre upon his stony farm. Also, as Larry learned from her accounts, there was a day nursery on the East Side whose lack of a deficit was due to her.

All in all she was a healthy, normal, intelligent, unself-sacrificing woman who belonged distinctly to her own day; who gave a great deal to life, and who took a great deal from life.

Often Larry wished she would speak of Hunt. He was curious about Hunt, of whom he thought daily; and such talk might yield him information about the blustering, big-hearted painter who was gypsying it down at the Duchess's. But as the days passed she never mentioned Hunt again; not even to ask where he was or what he was doing. She was adhering very strictly to the remark she had made the night Larry came here: “I don't want to know until he wants me to know.” And so Hunt remained the same incomplete picture to Larry; the painter was indubitably at home in such surroundings as these, and he was at home as a roistering, hard-working vagabond at the Duchess's—but all the vast spaces between were utterly blank, except for the sketchy remarks Hunt had made concerning himself.

Larry had guessed that hurt pride was the reason for Hunt's vanishment from the world which had known him. But he knew hurt pride was not Miss Sherwood's motive for making no inquiries. Anger? No. Jealousy? No. Some insult offered her? No. Larry went through the category of ordinary motives, of possible happenings; but he could find none which would reconcile her very keen and kindly feeling for Hunt with her abstinence from all inquiries.

From his first day in his sanctuary Larry spent long hours every day over the accounts and documents Miss Sherwood had put in his hands. They were indeed a tangle. Originally the Sherwood estate had consisted of solid real-estate holdings. But now that Larry had before him the records of holdings and of various dealings he learned that the character of the Sherwood fortune had altered greatly. Miss Sherwood's father had neglected the care of this sober business in favor of speculative investment and even outright gambling in stocks; and Dick, possessing this strain of his father, and lacking his father's experience, had and was speculating even more wildly.

Larry had followed the market since he had been in a broker's office almost ten years earlier, so he knew what stock values had been and had some idea of what they were now. The records, and some of the stock Larry found in the safe, recalled the reputation of the elder Sherwood. He had been known as a spirited, daring man who would buy anything or sell anything; he had been several times victimized by sharp traders, some of these out-and-out confidence men. Studying these old records Larry remembered that the elder Sherwood a dozen years before had lost a hundred thousand in a mining deal which Old Jimmie Carlisle had helped manipulate.

Larry found hundreds and hundreds of thousands of stock in the safe that were just so much waste paper, and he found records of other hundreds of thousands in safety deposit vaults that had no greater value. The real estate, the more solid and to the male Sherwoods the less interesting part of the fortune, had long been in the care of agents; and since Larry was prohibited from going out and studying the condition and true value of these holdings, he had to depend upon the book valuations and the agents' reports and letters. Upon the basis of these valuations he estimated that some holdings were returning a loss, some a bare one and a half per cent, and some running as high as fifteen per cent. Larry found many complaints from tenants; some threatening letters from the Building Department for failure to make ordered alterations to comply with new building laws; and some rather perfunctory letters of advice and recommendation from the agents themselves.

From Miss Sherwood Larry learned that the agents were old men, friends of her father since youth; that they had both made comfortable fortunes which they had no incentive to increase. Larry judged that there was no dishonesty on the part of the agents, only laxity, and an easy adherence to the methods of their earlier years when there had not been so much competition nor so many building laws. All the same Larry judged that the real-estate holdings were in a bad way.

Larry liked the days and days of this work, although the farther he went the worse did the tangle seem. It was the kind of work for which his faculties fitted him, and this was his first chance to use his faculties upon large affairs in an honest way. Thus far his work was all diagnostic; cure, construction, would not come until later—and perhaps Miss Sherwood would not trust him with such affairs. This investigation, this checking up, involved no risk on her part as she had frankly told him. The other would: it would mean at least partial control of property, the handling of funds.

Miss Sherwood had many sessions with him; she was interested, but she confessed herself helpless in this compilation and diagnosis of so many facts and figures. Dick was prompt enough to report his stock transactions, and he was eager enough to discuss the probable fluctuation of this or that stock; but when asked to go over what Larry had done, he refused flatly and good-humoredly to “sit in any such slow, dead game.”

“If my Solomon-headed sister is satisfied with what you're doing, Captain Nemo, that's good enough for me,” he would say. “So forget that stuff till I'm out of sight. Open up, Captain—what do you think copper is going to do?”

“I wish you could be put on an operating-table and have your speculative streak knifed out of you, Dick. That oil stock you bought the other day—why, a blind man could have seen it was wild-cat. And you were wiped out.”

“Oh, the best of 'em get aboard a bad deal now and then.”

“I know. But I've been tabulating all your deals to date, and on the total you're away behind. Better leave the market absolutely alone, Dick, and quit taking those big chances.”

“You've got to take some big chances, Captain Nemo”—Dick had clung to the title he had lightly conferred on Larry the morning he had come in to apologize—“or else you'll never make any big winnings. Besides, I want a run for my money. Just getting money isn't enough. I want a little pep in mine.”

Larry saw that these talks on the unwisdom of speculation he was giving Dick were not in themselves enough to affect a change in Dick. Mere words were colorless and negative; something positive would be required.

Larry hesitated before he ventured upon another matter he had long considered. “Excuse my saying it, Dick. But a man who's trying to do as much in a business way as you are, particularly since it's plain speculation, can't afford to go to after-theater shows three times a week and to late suppers the other four nights. Two and three o'clock is no bedtime hour for a business man. And that boot-legged booze you drink when you're out doesn't help you any. I know you think I'm talking like a fossilized grand-aunt—but all the same, it's the straight stuff I'm handing you.”

“Of course it's straight stuff—and you're perfectly all right, Captain Nemo.” With a good-natured smile Dick clapped him on the shoulder. “But I'm all right, too, and nothing and nobody is going to hurt me. Got to have a little fun, haven't I? As for the booze, I'm merely making hay while the sun shines. Soon there'll be no sun—I mean no booze.”

Larry dropped the subject. In his old unprincipled, days his practice had been much what he had suggested to Dick; as little drink as possible, and as few late nights as possible. He had needed all his wits all the time. In this matter of hilarious late hours, as in the matter of speculation, Larry recognized words alone, however good, would have little effect upon the pleasure-loving, friendly, likable Dick. An event, some big experience, would be required to check him short and bring him to his senses.

While Larry was keeping at this grind something was happening to Larry of which he was not then conscious: something which was part of the big development in him that was in time to lead him far. A confidence man is essentially a “sure-thing” gambler. It had been Larry's practice, before the law had tripped him up, to study every detail of an enterprise he was planning to undertake, to know the psychology of the individuals with whom he was dealing, to eliminate every perceivable uncertainty: that was what had made almost all of his deals “sure things.” Strip a clever knave of all intent or inclination for knavery, and leave all his other qualities and practices intact and eager, and you have the makings of a “sure-thing” business man:—a man who does not cheat others, and who takes precious care that his every move is sound and forward-looking. Aside from the moral element involved, the difference between the two is largely a difference in percentage: say the difference between a thousand per cent profit and six per cent profit. The element of trying to play a “safe thing” still remains.

This transformation of character, under the stimulus of hard, steady work upon a tangled thing which contained the germ of great constructive possibilities for some one, was what was happening unconsciously to Larry.


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