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CHAPTER XX
Larry's new problem was the most difficult and delicate dilemma of his life—this divided loyalty: to balk Maggie and the two men behind her without revealing the truth about Maggie to Dick, to protect Dick without betraying Maggie. It certainly was a trying, baffling situation.

He had no such foolish idea that he could change Maggie by exposing her. At best he would merely render her incapable of continuing this particular course; he would increase her bitterness and hostility to him. Anyhow, according to the remnants of his old code, that wouldn't be playing fair—particularly after her aiding his escape when he had been trapped.

Upon only one point was he clear, and on this he became more settled with every hour: whatever he did he must do with the idea of a fundamental awakening in Maggie. Merely to foil her in this one scheme would be to solve the lesser part of his problem; Maggie would be left unchanged, or if changed at all the change would be toward a greater hardness, and his major problem would be made more difficult of solution.

He considered many ways. He thought of seeing Maggie again, and once more appealing to her. That he vetoed, not because of the danger to himself, but because he knew Maggie would not see him; and if he again did break in upon her unexpectedly, in her obstinate pride she would heed nothing he said. He thought of seeing Barney and Old Jimmie and somehow so throwing the fear of God into that pair that they would withdraw Maggie from the present enterprise; but even if he succeeded in so hazardous an undertaking, again Maggie would be left unchanged. He thought of showing Miss Sherwood the hidden portrait of Maggie, of telling her all and asking her aid; but this he also vetoed, for it seemed a betrayal of Maggie.

He kept going back to one plan: not a plan exactly, but the idea upon which the right plan might be based. If only he could adroitly, with his hand remaining unseen, place Maggie in a situation where circumstances would appeal conqueringly to her best self, to her latent sense of honor—that was the idea! But cudgel his brain as he would, Larry could not just then develop a working plan whose foundation was that idea.

But even if Larry had had a brilliant plan it would hardly have been possible for him to have devoted himself to its execution, for two days after his visit to Maggie at the Grantham, the Sherwoods moved out to their summer place some forty miles from the city on the North Shore of Long Island; and Larry was so occupied with routine duties pertaining to this migration that at the moment he had time for little else. Cedar Crest was individual yet typical of the better class of Long Island summer residences. It was a long white building of many piazzas and many wings, set on a bluff looking over the Sound, with a broad stretch of silken lawn, and about it gardens in their June glory, and behind the house a couple of hundred acres of scrub pine.

On the following day, according to a plan that had been worked out between Larry and Miss Sherwood, Joe Ellison appeared at Cedar Crest and was given the assistant gardener's cottage which stood apart on the bluff some three hundred yards east of the house. He was a tall, slightly bent, white-haired man, apparently once a man of physical strength and dominance of character and with the outer markings of a gentleman, but now seemingly a mere shadow of the forceful man of his prime. As a matter of fact, Joe Ellison had barely escaped that greatest of prison scourges, tuberculosis.

The roses were given over to his care. For a few brief years during the height of his prosperity he had owned a small place in New Jersey and during that period had seemingly been the country gentleman. Flowers had been his hobby; so that now he could have had no work which would have more suited him than this guardianship of the roses. For himself he desired no better thing than to spend what remained of his life in this sunlit privacy and communion with growing things.

He gripped Larry's hand when they were first alone in the little cottage. “Thanks, Larry; I'll not forget this,” he said. He said little else. He did not refer to his prison life, or what had gone before it. He had never asked Larry, even while in prison together, about Larry's previous activities and associates; and he asked no questions now. Apparently it was the desire of this silent man to have the bones of his own past remain buried, and to leave undisturbed the graves of others' mistakes.

A retiring, unobtrusive figure, he settled quickly to his work. He seemed content, even happy; and at times there was a far-away, exultant look in his gray eyes. Miss Sherwood caught this on several occasions; it puzzled her, and she spoke of it to Larry. Larry understood what lay behind Joe's bearing, and since the thing had never been told to him as a secret he retold that portion of Joe's history he had recited to the Duchess: of a child who had been brought up among honorable people, protected from the knowledge that her father was a convict—a child Joe never expected to see and did not even know how to find.

Joe Ellison became a figure that moved Miss Sherwood deeply: content to busy himself in his earthly obscurity, ever dreaming and gloating over his one great sustaining thought—that he had given his child the best chance which circumstances permitted; that he had removed himself from his child's life; that some unknown where out in the world his child was growing to maturity among clean, wholesome people; that he never expected to make himself known to his child. The situation also moved Larry profoundly whenever he looked at his old friend, merging into a kindly fellowship with the earth.

But while busy with new affairs at Cedar Crest, Larry was all the while thinking of Maggie, and particularly of his own dilemma regarding Maggie and Dick. But the right plan still refused to take form in his brain. However, one important detail occurred to him which required immediate attention. If his procedure in regard to Hunt's pictures succeeded in drawing the painter from his hermitage, nothing was more likely than that Hunt unexpectedly would happen upon Maggie in the company of Dick Sherwood. That might be a catastrophe to Larry's unformed plan; it had to be forestalled if possible. Such a matter could not be handled in a letter, with the police opening all mail coming to the Duchess's house. So once more he decided upon a secret visit to the Duchess's house. He figured that such a visit would be comparatively without risk, since the police and Barney Palmer and the gangsters Barney had put upon his trail all still believed him somewhere in the West.

Accordingly, a few nights after they had settled at Cedar Crest, he motored into New York in a roadster Miss Sherwood had placed at his disposal, and after the necessary precautions he entered Hunt's studio. The room was dismantled, and Hunt sat among his packed belongings smoking his pipe.

“Well, young fellow,” growled Hunt after they had shaken hands, “you see you've driven me from my happy home.”

“Then Mr. Graham has been to see you?”

“Yes. And he put up to me your suggestion about a private exhibition. And I fell for it. And I've got to go back among the people I used to know. And wear good clothes and put on a set of standardized good manners. Hell!”

“You don't like it?”

“I suppose, if the exhibition is a go, I'll like grinning at the bunch that thought I couldn't paint. You bet I'll like that! You, young fellow—I suppose you're here to gloat over me and to try to collect your five thousand.”

“I never gloat over doing such an easy job as that was. And I'm not here to collect my bet. As far as money is concerned, I'm here to give you some.” And he handed Hunt the check made out to “cash” which Mr. Graham had sent him for the Italian mother.

“Better keep that on account of what I owe you,” advised Hunt.

“I'd rather you'd hold it for me. And better still, I'd rather call the bet off in favor of a new bargain.”

“What's the new proposition for swindling me?”

“You need a business nursemaid. What commission do you pay dealers?”

“Been paying those burglars forty per cent.”

“That's too much for doing nothing. Here's my proposition. Give me ten per cent to act as your personal agent, and I'll guarantee that your total percentage for commissions will be less than at present, and that your prices will be doubled. Of course I can't do much while the police and others are so darned interested in me, so if you accept we'll just date the agreement from the time I'm cleared.”

“You're on, son—and we'll just date the agreement from the present moment, A.D.” Again Hunt gripped Larry's hand. “You're all to the good, Larry—and I'm not giving you half enough.”

That provided Larry with the opening he had desired. “You can make it up to me.”

“How?”

“By helping me out with a proposition of my own. To come straight to the point, it's Maggie.”

“Maggie?”

“I guess you know how I feel there. She's got a wrong set of ideas, and she's fixed in them—and you know how high-spirited she is. She's out in the world now, trying to put something crooked over which she thinks is big. I know what it is. I want to stop her, and change her. That's my big aim—to change her. The only way I can at this moment stop what she is now doing is by exposing her. And mighty few people with a wrong twist are ever set right by merely being exposed.”

“I guess you're right there, Larry.”

“What I want is a chance to try another method on Maggie. If she's handled right I think she may turn out a very different person from what she seems to be—something that may surprise both of us.”

Hunt nodded. “That was why I painted her picture. Since I first saw her I've been interested in how she was going to come out. She might become anything. But where do I fit in?”

“She's flying in high company. It occurred to me that, when you got back to your own world, you might meet her, and in your surprise you might speak to her in a manner which would be equivalent in its effect to an intentional exposure. I wanted to put you on your guard and to ask you to treat her as a stranger.”

“That's promised. I won't know her.”

“Don't promise till you know the rest.”

“What else is there to know?”

“Who the sucker is they're trying to trim.” Larry regarded the other steadily. “You know him. He's Dick Sherwood.”

“Dick Sherwood!” exploded Hunt. “Are you sure about that?”

“I was with Maggie the other night when Dick came to have supper with her; he didn't see me. Besides, Dick has told me about her.”

“How did they ever get hold of Dick?”

“Dick's the easiest kind of fish for two such smooth men as Barney and Old Jimmie when they've got a clever, good-looking girl as bait, and when they know how to use her. He's generous, easily impressed, thinks he is a wise man of the world and is really very gullible.”

“Have they got him hooked?”

“Hard and fast. It won't be his fault if they don't land him.”

The painter gazed at Larry with a hard look. Then he demanded abruptly:

“Show Miss Sherwood that picture of Maggie I painted?”

“No. I had my reasons.”

“What you going to do with it?”

“Keep it, and pay you your top price for it when I've got the money.”

“H'm! Told Miss Sherwood what's doing about Dick?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I thought of doing it, then I decided against it. For the same reason I just gave you—that it might lead to exposure, and that exposure would defeat my plans.”

“You seem to be forgetting that your plan leaves Dick in danger. Dick deserves some consideration.”

“And I'm giving it to him,” argued Larry. “I'm thinking of him as much as of Maggie. Or almost as much. His sister and friends have pulled him out of a lot of scrapes. He's not a bit wiser or better for that kind of help. And it's not going to do him any good whatever to have some one step in and take care of him again. He's been a good friend to me, but he's a dear fool. I want to handle this so he'll get a jolt that will waken him up—make him take his responsibilities more seriously—make him able to take care of himself.”

“Huh!” grunted Hunt. “You've certainly picked out a few man-sized jobs for yourself: to make a success of the straight life for yourself—to come out ahead of the police and your old pals—to make Maggie love the Ten Commandments—to put me across—to make Dick into a level-headed citizen. Any other little item you'd like to take on?”

Larry ignored the irony of the question. “Some of those things I'm going to do,” he said confidently. “And any I see I'm going to fail in, I'll get warning to the people involved. But to come back to your promise: are you willing to give your promise now that you know all the facts?”

Hunt pulled for a long moment at his pipe. Then he said almost gruffly:

“I guess you've guessed that Isabel Sherwood is about the most important person in the world to me?”

That was the nearest Hunt had ever come to telling that he loved Miss Sherwood. Larry nodded.

“I'm in bad there already. Suppose your foot slips and everything about Dick goes wrong. What'll be my situation when she learns I've known all along and have just stood by quietly and let things happen? See what I'll be letting myself in for?”

“I do,” said Larry, his spirits sinking. “And of course I can understand your decision not to give your promise.”

“Who said I wouldn't give my promise?” demanded Hunt. “Of course I give my promise! All I said was that the weather bureau of my bad toe predicts that there's likely to be a storm because of this—and I want you to use your brain, son, I want you to use your brain!”

He upreared his big, shag-haired figure and gripped Larry's hand. “You're all right, Larry—and here's wishing you luck! Now get to hell out of here before Gavegan and Casey drop in for a cup of tea, or your old friends begin target practice with their hip artillery. I want a little quiet in which to finish my packing.

“And say, son,” he added, as he pushed Larry through the door, “don't fall dead at the sight of me when you see me next, for I'm likely to be walking around inside all the finery and vanity of Fifth Avenue.”


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