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CHAPTER XXIII
When Miss Sherwood's invitation reached Maggie, Barney and Old Jimmie were with her. The pair had growled a lot, though not directly at Maggie, at the seeming lack of progress Maggie had made during the past week. Barney was a firm enough believer in his rogue's creed of first getting your fish securely hooked; but, on the other hand, there was the danger, if the hooked fish be allowed to remain too long in the water, that it would disastrously shake itself free of the barb and swim away. That was what Barney was afraid had been happening with Dick Sherwood. Therefore he was thinking of returning to his abandoned scheme of selling stock to Dick. He might get Dick's money in that way, though of course not so much money, and of course not so safely.

And another item which for some time had not been pleasing Barney was that Larry Brainard had not yet been finally taken care of, either by the police or by that unofficial force to which he had given orders. So he had good reason for permitting himself the relaxation of scowling when he was not on public exhibition.

But when Maggie, after reading the invitation, tossed it, together with a note from Dick, across to Barney without comment, the color of his entire world changed for that favorite son of Broadway. The surly gloom of the end of a profitless enterprise became magically an aurora borealis of superior hopes:—no, something infinitely more substantial than any heaven-painting flare of iridescent colors.

“Maggie, it's the real thing! At last!” he cried.

“What is it?” asked Old Jimmie.

Barney gave him the letter. Jimmie read it through, then handed it back, slowly shaking his head.

“I don't see nothing to get excited about,” said the ever-doubtful, ever-hesitant Jimmie. “It's only an invitation.”

“Aw, hell!” ejaculated the exasperated Barney in disgust. “If some one handed you a government bond all you could see would be a cigar coupon! That invitation, together with this note from Dick Sherwood saying he'll call and take Maggie out, means that the fish is all ready to be landed. Try to come back to life, Jimmie. If you knew anything at all about big-league society, you'd know that sending invitations to meet the family—that's the way these swells do things when they're all set to do business. We're all ready for the killing—the big clean-up!”

He turned to Maggie. “Great stuff, Maggie. I knew you could put it over. Of course you're going?”

“Of course,” replied Maggie with a composure which was wholly of her manner.

A sudden doubt came out of this glory to becloud Barney's master mind. “I don't know,” he said slowly. “It's one proposition to make one of these men swells believe that a woman is the real thing. And it's another proposition to put it over on one of these women swells. They've got eyes for every little detail, and they know the difference between the genuine article and an imitation. I've heard a lot about this Miss Sherwood; they say she's one of the cleverest of the swells. Think you can walk into her house and put it over on her, Maggie?”

“Of course—why not?” answered Maggie, again with that composure which was prompted by her pride's desire to make Barney, and every one else, believe her equal to any situation.

Barney's animation returned. “All right. If you think you can swing it, you can swing it, and the job's the same as finished and we're made!”

Left to herself, and the imposing propriety and magnificent stupidity of Miss Grierson, Maggie made no attempt to keep up her appearance of confidence. All her thoughts were upon this opportunity which insisted upon looking to her like a menace. She tried to whip her self-confidence, of which she was so proud, into a condition of constant pregnancy. But the plain fact was that Maggie, the misguided child of a stolen birthright, whose soaring spirit was striving so hard to live up to the traditions and conventions of cynicism, whose young ambition it was to outshine and surpass all possible competitors in this world in which she had been placed, who in her pride believed she knew so much of life—the plain fact was that Maggie was in a state bordering on funk.

This invitation from Miss Sherwood was an ordeal she had never counted on. She had watched the fine ladies at the millinery shop and while selling cigarettes at the Ritzmore, when she had been modeling her manners, and had believed herself just as fine a lady as they. But that had been in the abstract. Now she was face to face with a situation that was painfully concrete—a real test: she had to place herself into close contrast with, and under the close observation of, a real lady, and in that lady's own home. And in all her life she had not once been in a fine home! In fine hotels, yes—but fine hotels were the common refuge of butcher, baker, floor-walker, thief, swell, and each had approximately the same attention; and all she now felt she had really learned were a few such matters as the use of table silver and finger bowls.

It came to her that Barney, in his moment of doubt, had spoken more soundly than he had imagined when he had said that it was easier to fool a man about a woman than it was to fool a woman. How tragically true that was! While trying to learn to be a lady by working in smart shops, she had learned that the occasional man who had ventured in after woman's gear was hopelessly ignorant and bought whatever was skillfully thrust upon him, but that it was impossible to slip an inferior or unsuitable or out-dated article over on the woman who really knew.

And Miss Sherwood was the kind of woman who really knew! Who knew everything. Could she possibly, possibly pass herself off on Miss Sherwood as the genuine article?...

Could Larry have foreseen the very real misery—for any doubt of her own qualities, any fear of her ability to carry herself well in any situation, are among the most acute of a proud woman's miseries—which for some twenty-four hours was brought upon Maggie by the well-meant intrigue of which he was pulling the hidden strings, he might, because of his love for Maggie, have discarded his design even while he was creating it, and have sought a measure pregnant with less distress. But perhaps it was just as well that Larry did not know. Perhaps, even, it was just as well that he did not know what his grandmother knew.

Maggie's pride would not let her evade the risk; and her instinct for self-preservation dictated that she should reduce the risk to its minimum. So she wrote her acceptance—Miss Grierson attended to the phrasing of her note—but expressed her regret that she would be able to come only for the tea-hour. Drinking tea must be much the same, reasoned Maggie, whether it be drunk in a smart hotel or in a smart country home.

Maggie's native shrewdness suggested her simplest summer gown as likely to have committed the fewest errors, and the invaluable stupidity of Miss Grierson aided her toward correctness if not originality. When Dick came he was delighted with her appearance. On the way out he was ebulliently excited in his talk. Maggie averaged a fair degree of sensibility in her responses, though only her ears heard him. She was far more excited than he, and every moment her excitement mounted, for every moment she was speeding nearer the greatest ordeal of her life.

When at length they curved through the lawns of satin smoothness and Dick slowed down the car before the long white house, splendid in its simplicity, Maggie's excitement had added unto it a palpitant, chilling awe. And unto this was added consternation when, as they mounted the steps, Miss Sherwood smilingly crossed the piazza and welcomed her without waiting for an introduction. Maggie mumbled some reply; she later could not remember what it was. Indeed she never had met such a woman: so finished, so gracious, so unaffected, with a sparkle of humor in her brown eyes; and the rich plainness of her white linen frock made Maggie conscious that her own supposed simplicity was cheap and ostentatious. If Miss Sherwood had received her with hostility, doubt, or even chilled civility, the situation would have been easier; the aroused Maggie would then have made use of her own great endowment of hauteur and self-esteem. But to be received with this frank cordiality, on a basis of a equality with this finished woman—that left Maggie for the moment without arms. She had, in her high moments, believed herself an adventuress whose poise and plans nothing could unbalance. Now she found herself suddenly just a young girl of eighteen who didn't know what to do.

Had Maggie but known it that sudden unconscious confusion, which seemed to betray her, was really more effective for her purpose than would have been the best of conscious acting. It established her at once as an unstagey ingenue—simple, unspoiled, unacquainted with the formulas and formalities of the world.

Miss Sherwood, in her easy possession of the situation, banished Dick with “Run away for a while, Dick, and give us two women a chance to get acquainted.” She had caught Maggie's embarrassment, and led her to a corner of the veranda which looked down upon the gardens and the glistering Sound. She spoke of the impersonal beauties spread before their vision, until she judged that Maggie's first flutter had abated; then she led the way to wicker chairs beside a table where obviously tea was to be spread.

Miss Sherwood accepted Maggie for exactly what she seemed to be; and presently she was saying in a low voice, with her smiling, unoffending directness:

“Excuse the liberty of an older woman, Miss Cameron—but I don't wonder that Dick likes you. You see, he's told me.”

If Maggie had been at loss for her cue before, she had it now. It was unpretentiousness.

“But, Miss Sherwood—I'm so crude,” she faltered, acting her best. “Out West I never had any chances to learn. Not any chances like your Eastern girls.”

“That's no difference, my dear. You are a nice, simple girl—that's what counts!”

“Thank you,” said Maggie.

“So few of our rich girls of the East know what it is to be simple,” continued Miss Sherwood. “Too many are all affectation, and pose, and forwardness. At twenty they know all there is to be known, they are blasees—cynical—ready for divorce before they are ready for marriage. By contrast you are so wholesome, so refreshing.”

“Thank you,” Maggie again murmured.

And as the two women sat there, sprung from the extremes of life, but for the moment on the level of equals, and as the older talked on, there grew up in Maggie two violently contradictory emotions. One was triumph. She had won out here, just as she had said she would win out; and won out with what Barney had declared to be the most difficult person to get the better of, a finished woman of the world. Indeed, that was triumph!

The other emotion she did not understand so well. And just then she could not analyze it. It was an unexpected dismay—a vague but permeating sickness—a dazed sense that she was being carried by unfamiliar forces toward she knew not what.

She held fast to her sense of triumph. That was the more apprehendable and positive; triumph was what she had set forth to win. This sense of triumph was at its highest, and she was resting in its elating security, when a car stopped before the house and a large man got out and started up the steps. From the first moment there was something familiar to Maggie in his carriage, but not till Miss Sherwood, who had risen and crossed toward him, greeted him as “Mr. Hunt,” did Maggie recognize the well-dressed visitor as the shabby, boisterous painter whom she had last seen down at the Duchess's.

Panic seized upon her. Miss Sherwood was leading him toward where she sat and his first clear sight of her would mean the end. There was no possible escape; she could only await her fate. And when she was denounced as a fraud, and her glittering victory was gone, she could only take herself away with as much of the defiance of admitted defeat as she could assume—and that wouldn't be much.

She gazed up at Hunt, whitely, awaiting extermination. Miss Sherwood's voice came to her from an infinite distance, introducing them. Hunt bowed, with a formally polite smile, and said formally, “I'm very glad to meet you, Miss Cameron.”

Not till he and Miss Sherwood were seated and chatting did Maggie realize the fullness of the astounding fact that he had not recognized her. This was far more upsetting to her than would have been recognition and exposure; she had been all braced for that, but not for what had actually happened. She was certain he must have known her; nothing had really changed about her except her dress, and only a few weeks had passed since he had been seeing her daily down at the Duchess's, and since she had been his model, and he had studied every line and expression of her face with those sharp painter's eyes of his.

And so as the two chatted, she putting in a stumbling phrase when they turned to her, Maggie Carlisle, Maggie Cameron, Maggie Ellison, that gallant and all-confident adventuress who till the present had never admitted herself seriously disturbed by a problem, sat limply in her chair, a very young girl, indeed, and wondered how this thing could possibly be.


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