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CHAPTER XXI
Larry came down the stairway from Hunt's studio in a mood of high elation. Through Hunt's promise of cooperation he had at least made a start in his unformed plan regarding Maggie. Somehow, he'd work out and put across the rest of it.

Then Hunt's prediction of the trouble that might rise through his silence recurred to Larry. Indeed, that was a delicate situation!—containing all kinds of possible disasters for himself as well as for Hunt. He would have to be most watchful, most careful, or he would find himself entangled in worse circumstances than at present.

As he came down into the little back room, his grandmother was sitting over her interminable accounts, each of which represented a little profit to herself, some a little relief to many, some a tragedy to a few; and many of which were in code, for these represented transactions of a character which no pawnshop, particularly one reputed to be a fence, wishes ever to have understood by those presumptive busy-bodies, the police. When Larry had first entered, she had merely given him an unsurprised “good-evening” and permitted him to pass on. But now, as he told her good-night and turned to leave, she said in her thin, monotonous voice:

“Sit down for a minute, Larry. I want to talk to you.”

Larry obeyed. “Yes, grandmother.”

But the Duchess did not at once speak. She held her red-rimmed, unblinking eyes on him steadily. Larry waited patiently. Though she was so composed, so self-contained, Larry knew her well enough to know that what was passing in her mind was something of deep importance, at least to her.

At length she spoke. “You saw Maggie that night you hurried away from here?”

“Yes, grandmother. Have you heard from her since the?—or from Barney or Old Jimmie?”

The Duchess shook her head. “Do you mind telling me what happened that night—and what Maggie's doing?”

Larry told her of the scene in Maggie's suite at the Grantham, told of the plan in which Maggie was involved and of his own added predicament. This last the Duchess seemingly ignored.

“Just about what I supposed she was doing,” she said. “And you tried again to get her to give it up?”

“Yes.”

“And she refused?”

“Yes.” And he added: “Refused more emphatically than before.”

The Duchess studied him a long moment. Then: “You're not trying to make her give that up just because you think she's worth saving. You like her a lot, Larry?”

“I love her,” Larry admitted.

“I'm sorry about that, Larry.” There was real emotion in the old voice now. “I've told you that you're all I've got left. And now that you've at last started right, I want everything to go right with you. Everything! And Maggie will never help things go right with you. Your love for her can only mean misery and misfortune. You can't change her.”

Larry came out with the questions he had asked himself so frequently these last days. “But why did her manner change so when she heard Barney and the others? Why did she help me escape?”

“That was because, deep down, she really loves you. That's the worst part of it: you both love each other.” The Duchess slowly nodded her head. “You both love each other. If it wasn't for that I wouldn't care what you tried to do. But I tell you again you can't change her. She's too sure of herself. She'll always try to make you go her way—and if you don't, you'll never get a smile from her. And because you love each other, I'm afraid you'll give in and go her way. That's what I'm afraid of. Won't you just cut her out of your life, Larry?”

It had been a prodigiously long speech for the Duchess. And Larry realized that the emotion behind it was a thousand times what showed in the thin voice of the bent, gestureless figure.

“For your sake I'm sorry, grandmother. But I can't.”

“Then it's only fair to tell you, Larry,” she said in a more composed tone which expressed a finality of decision, “that if there's ever anything I can do to stop this, I'll do it. For she's bad for you—what with her stiff spirit—and the ideas Old Jimmie has put into her—and the way Old Jimmie has brought her up. I'll stop things if I can.”

Larry made no reply. The Duchess continued looking at him steadily for a long space. He knew she was thinking; and he was wondering what was passing through that shrewd old brain, when she remarked:

“By the way, Larry, I just remembered what you told me of that old Sing Sing friend—Joe Ellison. Have you heard from him recently?”

“He's out, and he's working where I am.”

“Yes? What's he doing?”

“He's working there as a gardener.”

Again she was silent a space, her sunken eyes steady With thought. Then she said:

“From the time he was twenty till he was thirty I knew Joe Ellison well—better than I've ever told you. He knew your mother when she was a girl, Larry. I wish you'd ask him to come in to see me. As soon as he can manage it.”

Larry promised. His grandmother said no more about Maggie, and presently Larry bade her good-night and made his cautious way, ever on the lookout for danger, to where he had left his roadster, and thence safely out to Cedar Crest. But the Duchess sat for hours exactly as he had left her, her accounts unheeded, thinking, thinking, thinking over an utterly impossible possibility that had first presented itself faintly to her several days before. She did not see how the thing could be; and yet somehow it might be, for many a strange thing did happen in this border world where for so long she had lived. When finally she went to bed she slept little; her busy conjectures would not permit sleep. And though the next day she went about her shop seemingly as usual, she was still thinking.

That night Joe Ellison came. They met as though they had last seen each other but yesterday.

“Good-evening, Joe.”

“Glad to see you, Duchess.”

She held out to him a box of the best cigars, which she had bought against his coming, for she had remembered Joe Ellison's once fastidious taste regarding tobacco. He lit one, and they fell into the easy silence of old friends, taking up their friendship exactly where it had been broken off. As a matter of fact, Joe Ellison might have been her son-in-law but for her own firm attitude. He had known her daughter very much better than her words to Larry the previous evening had indicated. Not only had Joe known her while a girl down here, but much later he had learned in what convent she was going to school and there had been surreptitious love-making despite convent rules and boundaries—till the Duchess had learned what was going on. She had had a square out-and-out talk with Joe; the romance had suddenly ended; and later Larry's mother had married elsewhere. But the snuffed-out romance had made no difference in the friendship between the Duchess and Joe; each had recognized the other as square, as that word was understood in their border world.

To Joe Ellison the Duchess was changed but little since twenty-odd years ago. She had seemed old even then; though as a youth he had known old men who had talked of her beauty when a young woman and of how she had queened it among the reckless spirits of that far time. But to the Duchess the change in Joe Ellison was astounding. She had last seen him in his middle thirties: black-haired, handsome, careful of dress, powerful of physique, dominant, fiery-tempered, fearless of any living thing, but with these hot qualities checked into a surface appearance of unruffled equanimity by his self-control and his habitual reticence. And now to see him thin, white-haired, bent, his old fire seemingly burned to gray ashes—the Duchess, who had seen much in her generations, was almost appalled at the transformation.

At first the Duchess skillfully guided the talk among commonplaces.

“Larry tells me you're out with him.”

“Yes,” said Joe. “Larry's been a mighty good pal.”

“What're you going to do when you get back your strength?”

“The same as I'm doing now—if they'll let me.”

And after a pause: “Perhaps later, if I had the necessary capital, I'd like to start a little nursery. Or else grow flowers for the market.”

“Not going back to the old thing, then?”

Joe shook his white head. “I'm all through there. Flowers are a more interesting proposition.”

“Whenever you get ready to start, Joe, you can have all the capital you want from me. And it will cost you nothing. Or if you'd rather pay, it'll cost you the same as at a bank—six per cent.”

“Thanks. I'll remember.” Joe Ellison could not have spoken his gratitude more strongly.

The Duchess now carefully guided the talk in the direction of the thing of which she had thought so constantly.

“By the way, Joe, Larry told me something about you I'd never heard before—that you had been married, and had a child.”

“Yes. You didn't hear because I wasn't telling anybody about it when it happened, and it never came out.”

“Mind telling me about it, Joe?”

He pulled at his perfecto while assembling his facts; and then he made one of the longest speeches Joe Ellison—“Silent Joe” some of his friends had called him in the old days—was ever known to utter. But there was reason for its length; it was an epitome of the most important period of his life.

“I had a nice little country place over in Jersey for three or four years. It all happened there. No one knew me for what I was; they took me for what I pretended to be, a small capitalist whose interests required his taking occasional trips. Nice neighbors. That's where I met my wife. She was fine every way. That's why I kept all that part of my life from my pals; I was afraid they might leak and the truth would spoil everything. My wife was an orphan, niece of the widow of a broker who lived out there. She never knew the truth about me. She died when the baby was born. When the baby was a year and a half my big smash came, and I went up the river. But I was never connected up with the man who lived over in Jersey and who suddenly cancelled his lease and moved away.”

The Duchess drew nearer to the heart of her thoughts.

“Was the baby a boy or girl, Joe?”

“Girl.”

The Duchess did not so much as blink. “How old would she be by this time?”

“Eighteen.”

“What was her name?”

“Mary—after her mother. But of course I ordered it to be changed. I don't know what her name is now.”

The Duchess pressed closer.

“What became of her, Joe?”

A glow began to come into the somber eyes of Joe Ellison. “I told you her mother was a fine woman, and she never knew anything bad about me. I wanted my girl to grow up like her mother. I wanted her to have as good a chance as any of those nice girls over in Jersey—I wanted her never to know any of the lot I've known—I wanted her never to have the stain of knowing her father was a crook—I wanted her never to know even who her father was.”

“How did you manage it?”

“Her mother had left a little fortune, about twenty-five thousand—twelve or fifteen hundred a year. I turned the money and the girl over to my best pal—and the squarest pal a man ever had—the only one I'd let know about my Jersey life. I told him what to do. She was an awfully bright little thing; at a year and a half, when I saw her last, she was already talking. She was to be brought up among nice, simple people—go to a good school—grow up to be a nice, simple girl. And especially never to know anything about me. She was to believe herself an orphan. And my pal did just as I ordered. He wrote me how she was getting on till about four years ago, then I had news that he was dead and that the trust fund had been transferred to a firm of lawyers, though I wasn't given the name of the lawyers. That doesn't make any difference since she's getting the money just the same.”

“What was your pal's name, Joe?”

“Jimmie Carlisle.”

The Duchess had been certain what this name would be, but nevertheless she could not repress a start.

“What's the matter?” Joe asked sharply. “Did you know him?”

“Not in those days,” said the Duchess, recovering her even tone. “Though I got to know him later. By the way,” she added casually, “did Jimmie Carlisle have any children of his own?”

“Not before I went away. He wasn't even married.”

There was now no slightest doubt left in the Duchess's mind. Maggie was really Joe Ellison's daughter.

Joe Ellison went on, the glow of his sunken eyes becoming yet more exalted. He was almost voicing his thoughts to himself alone, for his friendship with the Duchess was so old that her presence was no inhibition. His low words were almost identical in substance with what Larry had told—a summary of what had come to be his one great hope and dream, the nearest thing he had to a religion.

“Somewhere, in a nice place, my girl is now growing up like her mother. Clean of everything I was and I knew. She must be practically a woman now. I don't know where she is—there's now no way for me to learn. And I don't want to know. And I don't want her ever to know about me. I don't ever want to be the cause of making her feel disgraced, or of dragging her down from among the people where she belongs.”

The Duchess gave no visible sign of emotion, but her ancient heart-strings were set vibrating by that tense, low-pitched voice. She had a momentary impulse to tell him the truth. But just then the Duchess was a confusion of many conflicting impulses, and the balance of their strength was for the moment against telling. So she said nothing.

Their talk drifted back to commonplaces, and presently Joe Ellison went away. The Duchess sat motionless at her desk, again thinking—thinking—thinking; and when Joe Ellison was back in his gardener's cottage at Cedar Crest and was happily asleep, she still sat where he had left her. During her generations of looking upon life from the inside, she had seen the truth of many strange situations of which the world had learned only the wildest rumors or the most respectable versions; but during the long night hours, perhaps because the affair touched her so closely, this seemed to her the strangest situation she had ever known. A father believing with the firm belief of established certainty that his daughter had been brought up free from all taint of his own life, carefully bred among the best of people. In reality the girl brought up in a criminal atmosphere, with criminal ideas implanted in her as normal ideas, and carefully trained in criminal ways and ambitions. And neither father nor daughter having a guess of the truth.

Indeed it was a strange situation! A situation charged with all kinds of unforeseeable results.

The Duchess now understood the unfatherly disregard Old Jimmie had shown for the ordinary welfare of Maggie. Not being her father, he had not cared. Superficially, at least, Jimmie Carlisle must have been a much more plausible individual twenty years earlier, to have won the implicit trust of Joe Ellison and to have become his foremost friend. She understood one reason why Old Jimmie had always boarded Maggie in the cheapest and lowest places; his hidden cupidity had thereby been pocketing about a thousand dollars a year of trust money for over sixteen years.

But there was one queer problem here to which the Duchess could not at this time see the answer. If Jimmie Carlisle had wished to gratify his cupidity and double-cross his friend, why had he not at the very start placed Maggie in an orphanage where she would have been neither charge nor cost to him, and thus have had the use of every penny of the trust fund? Why had he chosen to keep her by him, and train her carefully to be exactly what her father had most wished her not to be? There must have been some motive in the furtive, tortuous mind of Old Jimmie, that now would perhaps forever remain a mystery.

Of course she saw, or thought she saw, the reason for the report of Old Jimmie's death to Joe Ellison. That report had been sent to escape an accounting.

As she sat through the night hours the Duchess for the first time felt warmth creep over her for Maggie. She saw Maggie in the light of a victim. If Maggie had been brought up as her father had planned, she might now be much the girl her father dreamed her. But Old Jimmie had entered the scheme of things. Yes, the audacious, willful, confident Maggie, bent on conquering the world in the way Old Jimmie and later Barney Palmer had taught her, was really just a poor misguided victim who should have had a far different fate.

And now the Duchess came to one of the greatest problems of her life. What should she do? Considering the facts that Joe Ellison wished the life of a recluse and desired to avoid all talk of the old days, the chances were that he would never happen upon the real state of affairs. Only she and Old Jimmie knew the essentials of the situation—and very likely Jimmie did not yet know that the friend who had once trusted him was now a free man. She felt as though she held in her hands the strings of destiny. Should she tell the truth?

She pondered long. All her considerations were given weight according to what she saw as their possible effect upon Larry; for Larry was the one person left whom she loved, and on him were fixed the aspirations of these her final years. Therefore her thoughts and arguments were myopic, almost necessarily specious. She wanted to see justice done, of course. But most of all she wanted what was best for Larry. If she told the truth, it might result in some kind of temporary breakdown in Maggie's attitude which would bring her and Larry together. That would be disastrous. If not disastrous at once, certainly in the end. Maggie was a victim, and undoubtedly deserved sympathy. But others should not be sacrificed merely because Maggie had suffered an injury. She had been too long under the tutelage of Old Jimmie, and his teachings were now too thoroughly the fiber of her very being, for her to alter permanently. She might change temporarily under the urge of an emotional revelation; but she would surely revert to her present self. There was no doubt of that.

And the Duchess gave weight to other considerations—all human, yet all in some measure specious. Joe Ellison was happy in his dream, and would be happy in it all the rest of his life. Why tell the truth and destroy his precious illusion?—especially when there was no chance to change Maggie?

And further, she recalled the terrific temper that had lived within the composed demeanor of Joe Ellison. The fires of that temper could not yet be all burned out. If she told the truth, told that Jimmie Carlisle was still alive, that might be just touching the trigger of a devastating tragedy—might be disaster for all. What would be the use when no one would have been benefited?

And so, in the wisdom of her old head and the entanglements of her old heart, the Duchess decided she would never tell. And that loving, human decision she was to cling to through the stress of times to come.

But even while she was thus deciding upon a measure to checkmate them both, Larry was pacing his room at Cedar Crest, at last excitedly evolving the elusive plan which was to bring Maggie to her senses and also to him; and Maggie, all unconscious of this new element which had entered as a potential factor in her existence, all unconscious of how far she had been guided from the course which had been charted for her, was lying awake at the Grantham after a late party at which Dick Sherwood had been her escort, and was exulting pridefully over the seemingly near consummation of the plan that was to show Larry Brainard how wrong he was and that was to establish her as the cleverest woman in her line—better even than Barney or Old Jimmie believed her.

And thus separate wills each strove to direct their own lives and other lives according to their own separate plans; little thinking to what extent they were all entangled in a common destiny; and thinking not at all of the further seed that was being sown for the harvest-time of the whirlwind.


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