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CHAPTER XIX
The night of Larry's unexpected call upon her at the Grantham, Maggie had pulled herself together and aided by the imposing Miss Grierson had done her best as ingenue hostess to her pseudo-cousin, Barney, and her pseudo-uncle, Old Jimmie, and to their quarry, Dick Sherwood, whom they were so cautiously stalking. But when Dick had gone, and when Miss Grierson had withdrawn to permit her charge a little visit with her relatives, Barney had been prompt with his dissatisfaction.

“What was the matter with you to-night, Maggie?” he demanded. “You didn't play up to your usual form.”

“If you don't like the way I did it, you may get some one else,” Maggie snapped back.

“Aw, don't get sore. If I'm stage-managing this show, I guess it's my business to tell you how to act the part, and to tell you when you're endangering the success of the piece by giving a poor performance.”

“Maybe you'd better get some one else to take my part right now.”

Maggie's tone and look were implacable. Barney moved uneasily. That was the worst about Maggie: she wouldn't take advice from any one unless the advice were a coincidence with or an enlargement of her own wishes, and she was particularly temperish to-night. He hastened to appease her.

“I guess the best of us have our off days. It's all right unless”—Barney hesitated, business fear and jealousy suddenly seizing him—“unless the way you acted tonight means you don't intend to go through with it?”

“Why shouldn't I go through with it?”

“No reason. Unless you acted as you did to-night because”—again Barney hesitated; again jealousy prompted him on—“because you've heard in some way from Larry Brainard. Have you heard from Larry?”

Maggie met his gaze without flinching. She would take the necessary measures in the morning with Miss Grierson to keep that lady from indiscreet talking.

“I have not heard from Larry, and if I had, it wouldn't be any of your business, Barney Palmer!”

He chose to ignore the verbal slap in his face of her last phrase. “No, I guess you haven't heard from Larry. And I guess none of us will hear from him—not for a long time. He's certainly fixed himself for fair!”

“He sure has,” agreed Old Jimmie.

Maggie said nothing.

“Seems to me we've got this young Sherwood hooked,” said Old Jimmie, who had been impatient during this unprofitable bickering. “Seems to me it's time to settle just how we're going to get his dough. How about it, Barney?”

“Plenty of time for that, Jimmie. This is a big fish, and we've got to be absolutely sure we've got him hooked so he can't get off. We've got to play safe here; it's worth waiting for, believe me. Besides, all the while Maggie's getting practice.”

“Seems to me we ought to make our clean-up quick. So that—so that—”

“See here—you think you got some other swell game you want to use Maggie in?”

Old Jimmie's shifty gaze wavered before Barney's glare.

“No. But she's my daughter, ain't she?”

“Yes. But who's running this?” Barney demanded. Thank Heavens, Old Jimmie was one person he did not have to treat like a prima donna!

“You are.”

“Then shut up, and let me run it!”

“You might at least tell if you've decided how you're going to run it,” persisted Old Jimmie.

“Will you shut up!” snapped Barney.

Old Jimmie said no more. And having asserted his supremacy over at least one of the two, Barney relented and condescended to talk, lounging back in his chair with that self-conscious grace which had helped make him a figure of increasing note in the gayer restaurants of New York.

It did not enter into Barney's calculations, present or for the future, to make Maggie the mistress of any man. Not that Barney was restrained by moral considerations. The thing was just bad business. Such a woman makes but comparatively little; and what is worse, if she chooses, she makes it all for herself. And Barney, in his cynical wisdom of his poor world, further knew that the average man enticed into this poor trap, after the woman has said yes, and after the first brief freshness has lost its bloom, becomes a tight-wad and there is little real money to be got from him for any one.

“It's like this: once we've got this Sherwood bird safely hooked,” expanded Barney with the air of an authority, flicking off his cigarette ash with his best restaurant manner, “we can play the game a hundred ways. But the marriage proposition is the best bet, and there are two best ways of working that.”

“Which d'you think we ought to use, Barney?” inquired Old Jimmie.

But Barney went on as if the older man had not asked a question. “Both ways depend upon Sherwood being crazy in love, and upon his coming across with a proposal and sticking to it. The first way, after being proposed to, Maggie must break down and confess she's married to a man she doesn't love and who doesn't love her. This husband would probably give her a divorce, but he's a cagy guy and is out for the coin, and if he smelled that she wanted to remarry some one with money he would demand a large price for her freedom. Maggie must further confess that she really has no money, and is therefore helpless. Then Sherwood offers to meet the terms of this brute of a husband. If Sherwood falls for this we shove in a dummy husband who takes Sherwood's dough—and a big bank roll it will be!—and that'll be the last Sherwood'll ever see of Maggie.”

Old Jimmie nodded. “When it's worked right, that always brings home the kale.”

“The only question is,” continued Barney, “can Maggie put that stuff over? How about it, Maggie? Think you're good enough to handle a proposition like that?”

Looking the handsome Barney straight in the eyes, Maggie for the moment thought only of his desire to manage her and of the challenge in his tone. Larry and the appeal he had made to her were forgotten, as was also Dick Sherwood.

“Anything you're good enough to think up, Barney Palmer, I guess I'm good enough to put over,” she answered coolly.

And then: “What's the other way?” she asked.

“Old stuff. Have to be a sure-enough marriage. Sherwoods are big-time people, you know; a sister who's a regular somebody. After marriage, family permitted to learn truth—perhaps something much worse than truth. Family horrified. They pay Maggie a big wad for a separation—same as so many horrified families get rid of daughters-in-law they don't like. Which of the ways suits you best, Maggie?”

Maggie shrugged her shoulders with indifference. It suited her present mood to maintain her attitude of being equal to any enterprise.

“Which do you like best, Barney?” Old Jimmie asked.

“The second is safer. But then it's slower; and there would be lawyers' fees which would eat into our profits; and then because of the publicity we might have to wait some time before it would be safe to use Maggie again. The first plan isn't so complicated, it's quick, and at once we've got Maggie free to use in other operations. The first looks the best bet to me—but, as I said, we don't have to decide yet. We can let developments help make the actual decision for us.”

Barney did not add that a further reason for his objecting to the second plan was that he didn't want Maggie actually tied in marriage to any man. That was a relationship his hopes were reserving for himself.

Barney's inborn desire for acknowledged chieftainship again craved assertion and pressed him on to say:

“You see, Maggie, how much depends on you. You've got a whale of a chance for a beginner. I hope you take a big brace over to-night and play up to the possibilities of your part.”

“You take care of your end, and I'll take care of mine!” was her sharp retort.

Barney was flustered for a moment by his second failure to dominate Maggie. “Oh, well, we'll not row,” he tried to say easily. “We understand each other, and we're each trying to help the other fellow's game—that's the main point.”

The two men left, Jimmie without kissing his daughter good-night. This caused Maggie no surprise. A kiss, not the lack of it, would have been the thing that would have excited wonder in Maggie.

Barney went away well satisfied on the whole with the manner in which the affair was progressing, and with his management of it and of Maggie. Maggie was obstinate, to be sure; but he'd soon work that out of her. He was now fully convinced of the soundness of his explanation of Maggie's poor performance of that night: she had just had an off day.

As for Maggie, after they had gone she sat up long, thinking—and her thoughts reverted irresistibly to Larry. His visit had been most distracting. But she was not going to let it affect her purpose. If anything, she was more determined than ever to be what she had told him she was going to be, to prove to him that he could not influence her.

She tried to keep her mind off Larry, but she could not. He was for her so many questions. How had he escaped?—thrown off both police and old friends? Where was he now? What was he doing? And when and how was he going to reappear and interfere?—for Maggie had no doubt, now that she knew him to be in New York, that he would come again; and again try to check her.

And there was a matter which she no more understood than Larry, and this was another of her questions: Why had she gone into a panic and aided his escape?

Of course, she now and then thought of Dick Sherwood. She rather liked Dick. But thus far she regarded him exactly as her scheme of life had presented him to her: as a pleasant dupe who, in an exciting play in which she had the thrilling lead, was to be parted from his money. She was rather sorry for him; but this was business, and her sorrow was not going to interfere with what she was going to do.

Maggie Cameron, at this period of her life, was not deeply introspective. She did not realize what, according to other standards, this thing was which she was doing. She was merely functioning as she had been taught to function. And if any change was beginning in her, she was thus far wholly unconscious of it.


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