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CHAPTER XVII
The taxi went rocking up Fourth Avenue. But now that decision was made and he was headed toward Maggie, a little of judgment reasserted itself. It would not be safe for him to walk openly into the Grantham with a mouthful of questions. He did not know the number of Maggie's suite. And Maggie might not be in. So he revised his plan slightly. He called to his driver:

“Go to the Claridge first.”

Five minutes later the taxi was in Forty-Fourth Street and Larry was stepping out. Fortune favored him in one fact—or perhaps his subconscious mind had based his plan upon this fact: the time was half-past ten, the theaters still held their crowds, the streets were empty, the restaurants were practically unoccupied. He was incurring the minimum of risk.

“Wait for me,” he ordered the driver. “I'll be out in five minutes.”

In less than the half of the first of these minutes Larry had attained his first objective: the secluded telephone-room down behind the grill. It was unoccupied except for the telephone girl who was gazing raptly at the sorrowful, romantic, and very soiled pages of “St. Elmo.” The next moment she was gazing at something else—a five-dollar bill which Larry had slipped into the open book.

“That's to pay for a telephone call; just keep the change,” he said rapidly. “You're to do all the talking, and say just what I tell you.”

“I got you, general,” said the girl, emerging with alacrity from romance to reality. “Shoot.”

“Call up the Hotel Grantham—say you're a florist with an order to deliver some flowers direct to Miss Margaret Cameron—and ask for the number of her suite—and keep the wire open.”

The girl obeyed promptly. In less than a minute she was reporting to Larry:

“They say 1141-1142-1143.”

“Ask if she's in. If she is, get her on the 'phone, tell her long distance is calling, but doesn't want to speak to her unless she is alone. You get it?”

“Sure, brother. This ain't the first time I helped a party out.”

There was more jabbing with the switch-board plug, evident switching at the other end, several questions, and then the girl asked: “Is this Miss Margaret Cameron? Miss Cameron—” and so on as per Larry's instructions.

The operator turned to Larry: “She says she's alone.”

“Tell her to hold the wire till you get better connections—the storm has messed up connections terribly—and keep your own wire open and make her hold her end.”

As Larry went out he heard his instructions being executed while an adept hand safely banked the bill inside her shirt-waist. Within two minutes his taxi set him down at the Grantham; and knowing that whatever risks he ran would be lessened by his acting swiftly and without any suspicious hesitation, he walked straight in and to the elevators, in the manner of one having business there, his collar again pulled up, his cap pulled down, and his face just then covered with a handkerchief which was caring for a sniffling nose in a highly natural manner.

With his heart pounding he got without mishap to the doors numbered 1141, 1142, and 1143. Instinctively he knew in a general way what the apartment was like: a set of rooms of various character which the hotel could rent singly or throw together and rent en suite. But which of the three was the main entrance? He dared not hesitate, for the slightest queer action might get the attention of the floor clerk down the corridor. So Larry chose the happy medium and pressed the mother-of-pearl button of 1142.

The door opened, and before Larry stood a large, elderly, imposing woman in a rigidly formal evening gown—a gown which, by the way, had been part of Miss Grierson's equipment for many a year for helping raw young things master the art of being ladies. Larry surmised at once that this was the “hired companion” his grandmother had spoken of. In other days Larry had had experience with this type and before Miss Grierson could bar him out or ask a question, Larry was in the room and the door closed behind him—and he had entered with the easiest, most natural, most polite manner imaginable.

“You were expecting me?” inquired Larry with his disarming and wholly engaging smile.

Neither Miss Grierson's mind nor body was geared for rapid action. She was taken aback, and yet not offended. So being at a loss, she resorted to the chief item in her stock in trade, her ever dependable dignity.

“I cannot say that I was. In fact, sir, I do not know who you are.”

“Miss Cameron knows—and she is expecting me,” Larry returned pleasantly. His quick eyes had noted that this was a sitting-room: an ornate, patterned affair which the great hotels seem to order in hundred lots. “Where is Miss Cameron?”

“In the next room,” nodding at the connecting door. “She is engaged. Telephoning. A long-distance call. I'm quite sure she is not expecting you,” Miss Grierson went on to explain ponderously and elaborately, but with politeness, for this young man was handsome and pleasant and well-bred and might prove to be some one of real importance. “We were to have had a theater party with supper afterwards; but owing to Miss Cameron's indisposition we did not go to the theater. But she insisted on keeping the engagement for the supper, but changing it to here. Besides herself and myself, there are to be only her uncle, her cousin, and just one guest. That is why I am so certain, sir, she is not expecting you.”

“But you see,” smiled Larry, “I am that one guest.”

Miss Grierson shook her carefully coiffured transformation. “I've met the guest who is coming, and I certainly have not met you.”

“Then she must have asked two of us. Anyhow, I'll just speak to her, and if I'm mistaken and de trop, I'll withdraw.” And ere Miss Grierson could even stir up an intention to intervene further, this well-mannered young man had smiled his disarming smile and bowed to her and had passed through the door, closing it behind him.

He halted, the knob in his hand. Maggie was standing sidewise to him, holding a telephone in her hand, its receiver at her ear. She must have supposed that it was Miss Grierson who had so quietly entered, for she did not look around.

“Yes, I'm still waiting,” she was saying impatiently. “Can't you ever get that connection?”

Larry had seen Maggie only in the plain dark suit which she had worn to her daily business of selling cigarettes at the Ritzmore; and once, on the night of his return from Sing Sing, in that stage gypsy costume, which though effective was cheap and impromptu and did not at all lift her out of the environment of the Duchess's ancient and grimy house. But Larry was so startled by this changed Maggie that for the moment he could not have moved from the door even had he so desired. She was accoutered in the smartest of filmy evening gowns, with the short skirt which was then the mode, with high-heeled silver slippers, her rounded arms and shoulders and bosom bare, her abundant black hair piled high in careful carelessness. The gown was cerise in color, and from her forearm hung a great fan of green plumes. In all the hotels and theaters of New York one could hardly have come upon a figure that night more striking in its finished and fresh young womanhood. Larry trembled all over; his heart tried to throb madly up out of his throat.

At length he spoke. And all he was able to say was:

“Maggie.”

She whirled about, and telephone and receiver almost fell from her hands. She went pale, and stared at him, her mouth agape, her dark eyes wide.

“La-Larry!” she whispered.

“Maggie!” he said again.

“La-Larry! I thought you were in Chicago.”

“I'm here now, Maggie—especially to see you.” He did not know it, but his voice was husky. He noted that she was still holding the telephone and receiver. “It was I who put in that long-distance call. But I came instead. So you might as well hang up.”

She obeyed, and set the instrument upon its little table.

“Larry—where have you been all this while?”

He was now conscious enough to note that there was tense concern in her manner. He exulted at it, and crossed and took her hand.

“Right here in New York, Maggie.”

“In hiding?”

“In mighty good hiding.”

“But, Larry—don't you know it's dangerous for you to come out? And to come here of all places?”

“I couldn't help myself. I simply had to see you, Maggie.”

He was still holding her hand, and there was an instinctive grip of her fingers about his. For a moment—the moment during which her outer or more conscious self was startled into forgetfulness—they gazed at each other silently and steadily, eye into eye.

And then the things the Duchess had said crept back into his mind, and he said:

“Maggie, I've come to take you out of all this. Get ready—let's leave at once.”

That broke the spell. She jerked away from him, and instantly she was the old Maggie: the Maggie who had jeered at him and defied him the night of his return from prison when he had announced his new plan—the Maggie who had flaunted him as “stool” and “squealer” the evening she had left the Duchess's to enter upon this new career.

“No, you're not going to take me out of this!” she flung at him. “I told you once before that I wasn't going your way! I told you that I was going my own way! That held for then, and it holds for now, and it will hold for always!”

The softer mood which had come upon him by surprise at sight of her and filled him, now gave way to grim determination. “Yes, you are coming my way—sometime, if not now! And now if I can make you!”

Their embattled gazes gripped each other. But now Larry was seeing more than just Maggie. He was also taking in the room. It was close kin to the room in which he had left Miss Grierson: ornate, undistinguished, and very expensive. He noted one slight difference: a tiny hallway giving on the corridor, its inner door now opened.

But the greatest difference was what he saw over Maggie's smooth white shoulders: a table all set with china and glass and silver, and arranged for five.

“Maggie, what's this game you're up to?” he demanded.

“It's none of your business!” she said fiercely, but in a low tone—for both were instinctively remembering Miss Grierson in the adjoining room. And then she added proudly: “But it's big! Bigger than anything you ever dreamed of! And you can see I am putting it across so far—and I'll be putting it across at the finish! Compare it to the cheap line you talked about. Bah!”

“Listen, Maggie!” In his intensity he gripped her bare forearm. “This is bad business, and if you had any sense you'd know it! Don't you think I get the layout? Barney is your cousin, Old Jimmie is your uncle, that dame in the next room and this suite and your swell clothes to help put up a front! And your sickness that wouldn't let you go to the theater is just a fake, so that, not wanting to disappoint them entirely, you'd have an excuse for having supper here—and thus adroitly draw some person into the trap of a more intimate relationship. It's a clever and classy layout. Maggie, exactly what's your game?”

“I'll not tell you!”

“Who's that man that's coming here?”

“I'll not tell you!”

“Is he the sucker you're out to trim?”

“I'll not tell you!”

“You will tell me!” he cried dominantly. “And you're going to get out of all this! You hear me? It may look good to you now. But I tell you it has only one finish! And that's a rotten finish!”

She tore free from his punishing grip, and pantingly glared at him—her former defiance now an egoistic fury.

“I won't have you interfering with my life!—you fake preacher!—you stool, you squealer!” she flung at him madly. “Stool—squealer!” she repeated. “I tell you I'm going my own way—and it's a big way—and I tell you again nothing you can say or do can stop me! If I could have my best wish, all I'd wish for would be something to keep you from always interfering—something to get you out of my way!”

Panting, she paused. Her tense figure, with hands closing and unclosing, expressed the very acme of furious defiance—of desire to annihilate—of ultimate hatred. Larry was astounded by the very extent, the profundity, of her passion. And so they stood, silent except for their quick breathing, eyes fixed upon eyes, for several moments.

And then a key sounded in the outer door of the little hallway. Instantly there was an almost unbelievable transformation in Maggie. From an imperious, uncontrollable fury, she changed to a white, quivering thing.

“Barney!” she whispered; and sprang to the inner door of the little hallway, closed and locked it.

She turned on Larry a face that was ghastly in its pallor.

“Barney always carries a pistol,” she whispered.

They had heard the outer door close with a click of its automatic lock. They now heard the knob of the inner door turn and tugged at; and then heard Barney call: “What's the matter, Maggie? Let us in.”

Maggie made a supreme effort to reply in a controlled voice:

“Just a minute. I'm not quite ready.”

Then a second voice sounded from the other side of the door:

“Don't keep us too long, Maggie. Please!”

There was a distantly familiar quality to Larry in that second voice. But he did not try to place it then: he was too poignantly concerned in his own situation, and in the bewildering change in Maggie.

She slipped a hand through his arm. “Oh, La-Larry, why did you ever take such a risk!” she breathed. Her whisper was piteous, aquiver with fright. “Come this way!” and she quickly pulled him into the room where he had met Miss Grierson and to the door by which he had entered.

Maggie opened this door. “They're all in the little hallway—I don't think they'll see you,” her rapid, agitated whisper went on. “Don't take the elevators in this corridor, they're in plain sight. There are elevators just around the corner. Take them; they're safer. Good-bye, Larry—and, oh, Larry, don't ever take such a risk again!”

With that she pushed him out and closed the door.

Larry followed her instructions about the elevator; he used the same precautions in leaving that he had used in coming, and twenty minutes later he was back in his room in the Sherwood apartment. For an hour or more he sat motionless—thinking—thinking: asking himself questions, but in his tumultuous state of mind and emotions not able to keep to a question long enough to reason out its possible answer.

Just what was that game in which Maggie was involved?—a game which required that Grantham setting, that eminently respectable companion, and Maggie's accouterment as a young lady of obvious wealth.

Whose was that vaguely familiar second voice?—that voice which he still could not place.

But what he thought about most of all was something very different. What had caused that swift change in Maggie?—from a fury that was both fire and granite, to that pallid, quivering, whispering girl who had so rapidly led him safely out of his danger.

To and fro, back and forth, shuttled these questions. Toward two o'clock he stood up, mind still absorbed, and mechanically started to undress. He then observed the roll of paintings Hunt had given him. Better for them if they were flattened out. Mechanically he removed string and paper. There on top was the Italian mother he had asked for. A great painting—a truly great painting. Mechanically he lifted this aside to see what was the second painting Hunt had included. Larry gave a great start and the Italian mother went flapping to the floor.

The second painting was of Maggie; the one on which Hunt had been working the day Larry had come back: Maggie in her plain working clothes, looking out at the world confidently, conqueringly; the painting in which Hunt, his brain teeming with ideas, had tried to express the Maggie that was, the many Maggies that were in her, and the Maggie that was yet to be.



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