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CHAPTER XXV
When Maggie sped away from Cedar Crest in the low seat of the roadster beside the happy Dick, she felt herself more of a criminal than at any time in her life, and a criminal that miraculously was making her escape out of an inescapable set of circumstances.

Beyond her relief at this escape she did not know these first few minutes what she thought or felt. Too much had happened, and what had happened had all turned out so differently from what she had expected, for her to set in orderly array this chaos of reactions within herself and read the meaning of that afternoon's visit. She managed, with a great effort, to keep under control the outer extremities of her senses, and thus respond with the correct “yes” or “no” or “indeed” when some response from her was required by Dick's happy conversation.

Near Roslyn they swung off the turnpike into an unfrequented, shady road. Dick steered to one side beneath a locust-tree and silenced the motor.

“Why are you stopping?” she asked in sudden alarm.

“So we can talk without a piece of impertinent machinery roaring interruptions at us,” replied Dick with forced lightness. And then in a voice he could not make light: “I want to talk to you about—about my sister. Isn't she splendid?”

“She is!” There was no wavering of her thoughts as Maggie emphatically said this.

“I'm mighty glad you like her. She certainly liked you. She's all the family I've got, and since you two hit it off so well together I hope—I hope, Maggie—”

And then Dick plunged into it, stammeringly, but earnestly. He told her how much he loved her, in old phrases that his boyish ardor made vibrantly new. He loved her! And if she would marry him, her influence would make him take the brace all his friends had urged upon him. She'd make him a man! And she could see how pleased it would make his sister. And he would do his best to make Maggie happy—his very best!

The young super-adventuress—she herself had mentally used the word “adventuress” in thinking of herself, as being more genteel and mentally aristocratic than the cruder words by which Barney and Old Jimmie and their kind designated a woman accomplice—this young super-adventuress, who had schemed all this so adroitly, and worked toward it with the best of her brain and her conscious charm, was seized with new panic as she listened to the eager torrent of his imploring words, as she gazed into the quivering earnestness of his frank, blue-eyed face. She wished she could get out of the machine and run away or sink through the floor-boards of the car. For she really liked Dick.

“I'm—I'm not so good as you think,” she whispered. And then some unsuspected force within her impelled her to say: “Dick, if you knew the truth—”

He caught her shoulders. “I know all the truth about you I want to know! You're wonderful, and I love you! Will you marry me? Answer that. That's all I want to know!”

He had checked the confession that impulsively had surged toward her lips. Silent, her eyes wide, her breath coming sharply, she sat gazing at him.... And then from out the portion of her brain where were stored her purposes, and the momentum of her pride and determination, there flashed the realization that she had won! The thing that Barney and Old Jimmie had prepared and she had so skillfully worked toward, was at last achieved! She had only to say “yes,” and either of those two plans which Barney had outlined could at once be put in operation—and there could be no doubt of the swift success of either. Dick's eager, trusting face was guarantee that there would come no obstruction from him.

She felt that in some strange way she had been caught in a trap. Yes, what they had worked for, they had won! And yet, in this moment of winning, as elements of her vast dizziness, Maggie felt sick and ashamed—felt a frenzied desire to run away from the whole affair. For Maggie, cynical, all-confident, and eighteen, was proving really a very poor adventuress.

“Please, Maggie”—his imploring voice broke in upon her—“won't you answer me? You like me, don't you?—you'll marry me, won't you?”

“I like you, Dick,” she choked out—and it was some slight comfort to her to be telling this much of the truth—“but—but I can't marry you.”

“Maggie!” It was a cry of surprised pain, and the pain in his voice shot acutely into her. “From the way you acted toward me—I thought—I hoped—” He sharply halted the accusation which had risen to his lips. “I'm not going to take that answer as final, Maggie,” he said doggedly. “I'm going to give you more time to think it over—more time for me to try. Then I'll ask you again.”

That which prompted Maggie's response was a mixture of impulses: the desire, and this offered opportunity, to escape; and a faint reassertion of the momentum of her purpose. For with one such as Maggie, the set purposes may be seemingly overwhelmed, but death comes hard.

“All right,” she breathed rapidly. “Only please get me back as quickly as you can. I'm to have dinner with my—my cousin, and I'll be very late.”

Dick drove her into the city in almost unbroken silence and left her at the great doors of the Grantham, abustle with a dozen lackeys in purple livery. She stood a moment and watched him drive away. He really was a nice boy—Dick.

As she shot up the elevator, she thought of a hitherto forgotten element of that afternoon's bewildering situation. Barney Palmer! And Barney was, she knew, now up in her sitting-room, impatiently waiting for her report of what he had good reason to believe would prove a successful experience. If she told the truth—that Dick had proposed, just as they had planned for him to do—and she had refused him—why, Barney—!

She seemed caught on every side!

Maggie got into her suite by way of her bedroom. She wanted time to gather her wits for meeting Barney. When Miss Grierson told her that her cousin was still waiting to take her to dinner, she requested her companion to inform Barney that she would be in as soon as she had dressed. She wasted all the time she legitimately could in changing into a dinner-gown, and when at length she stepped into her sitting-room she was to Barney's eye the same cool Maggie as always.

Barney rose as she entered. He was in smart dinner jacket; these days Barney was wearing the smartest of everything that money could secure. There was a shadow of impatience on his face, but it was instantly dissipated by Maggie's self-composed, direct-eyed beauty.

“How'd you come out with Miss Sherwood?” he whispered eagerly.

“Well enough for her to kiss me good-bye, and beg me to come again.”

“I've got to hand it to you, Maggie! You're sure some swell actress—you've sure got class!” His dark eyes gleamed on her with half a dozen pleasures: admiration of what she was in herself—admiration of what she had just achieved—anticipation of results, many results—anticipation of what she was later to mean to him in a personal way. “If you can put it over on a swell like Miss Sherwood, you can put it over on any one!” He exulted. “As soon as we clean up this job in hand, we'll move on to one big thing after another!”

And then out came the question Maggie had been bracing herself for: “How about Dick Sherwood? Did he finally come across with that proposal?”

“No,” Maggie answered steadily.

“No? Why not?” exclaimed Barney sharply. “I thought that was all that was holding him back—waiting for his sister to look you over and give you her O.K.?”

Maggie had decided that her air of cool, indifferent certainty was the best manner to use in this situation with Barney. So she shrugged her white shoulders.

“How can I tell what makes a man do something, and what makes him not do it?”

“But did he seem any less interested in you than before?” Barney pursued.

“No,” replied Maggie.

“Then maybe he's just waiting to get up his nerve. He'll ask you, all right; nothing there for us to worry about. Come on, let's have dinner. I'm starved.”

On the roof of the Grantham they were excellently served; for Barney knew how to order a dinner, and he knew the art, which is an alchemistic mixture of suave diplomacy and the insinuated power and purpose of murder, of handling head-waiters and their sub-autocrats. Having no other business in hand, Barney devoted himself to that business which ran like a core through all his businesses—paying court to Maggie. And when Barney wished to be a courtier, there were few of his class who could give a better superficial interpretation of the role; and in this particular instance he was at the advantage of being in earnest. He forced the most expensive tidbits announced by the dinner card upon Maggie; he gallantly and very gracefully put on and removed, as required by circumstances, the green cobweb of a scarf Maggie had brought to the roof as protection against the elements; and when he took the dancing-floor with her, he swung her about and hopped up and down and stepped in and out with all the skill of a master of the modern perversion of dancing. Barney was really good enough to have been a professional dancer had his desires not led him toward what seemed to him a more exciting and more profitable career.

Maggie, not to rouse Barney's suspicions, played her role as well as he did his own. And most of the other diners, a fraction of the changing two or three hundred thousand people from the South and West who choose New York as the best of all summer resorts, gazed upon this handsome couple with their intricate steps which were timed with such effortless and enviable accuracy, and excitedly believed that they were beholding two distinguished specimens of what their home papers persisted in calling New York's Four Hundred.

Maggie got back to her room with the feeling that she had staved off Barney and her numerous other dilemmas for the immediate present. Her chief thought in the many events of the day had been only to escape her dangers and difficulties for the moment; all the time she had known that her real thinking, her real decisions, were for a later time when she was not so driven by the press of unexpected circumstances. That less stressful time was now beginning.

What was she to do next? What were to be her final decisions? And what, in all this strange ferment, was likely to germinate as possible forces against her?

She mulled these things over for several days, during which Dick came to see her twice, and twice proposed, and was twice put off. She had quiet now, and was most of the time alone, but that clarity which she had expected, that quickness and surety of purpose which she had always believed to be unfailingly hers, refused to come.

She tried to have it otherwise, but the outstanding figure in her meditations was Larry. Larry, who had not exposed her at the Sherwoods', and whose influence had caused Hunt also not to expose her—Larry, who without deception was on a familiar footing at the Sherwoods' where she had been received only through trickery—Larry, a fugitive in danger from so many enemies, perhaps after all undeserved enemies—Larry, who looked to be making good on his boast to achieve success through honesty—Larry, who had again told her that he loved her. She liked Dick Sherwood—she really did. But Larry—that was something different.

And thus she thought on, drawn this way and that, and unable to reach a decision. But with most people, when in a state of acute mental turmoil, that which has been most definite in the past, instinct, habit of mind, purpose, tradition, becomes at least temporarily the dominant factor through the mere circumstance that it has existed powerfully before, through its comparative stability, through its semi-permanence. And so with Maggie. She had for that one afternoon almost been won over against herself by the workings of Larry's secret diplomacy. Then had come the natural reaction. And now in her turmoil, in so far as she had any decision, it was instinctively to go right ahead in the direction in which she had been going.

But on the sixth day of her uncertainty, just after Dick had called on her and she had provisionally accepted an invitation to Cedar Crest for the following afternoon, a danger which she had half seen from the start burst upon her without a moment's warning. It came into her sitting-room, just before her dinner hour, in the dual form of Barney and Old Jimmie. The faces of both were lowering.

“Get rid of that boob chaperon of yours!” gritted Barney. “We're going to have some real talk!”

Maggie stepped to the connecting door, sent Miss Grierson on an inconsequential errand, and returned.

“You're looking as pleasant as if you were sitting for a new photograph, Barney. What gives you that sweet expression?”

“You'll cut out your comic-supplement stuff in just one second,” Barney warned her. “We both saw young Sherwood awhile ago as he was leaving the Grantham, and he told us everything!”

Persiflage did indeed fail Maggie. “Everything?” she exclaimed. “What's everything?”

“He told us about proposing to you almost a week ago, and about your refusing him. And you lied to us—kept us sitting round, wasting our time—and all the while you've been double-crossing us!”

Those visitors from South and West, especially the women, who a few nights before on the roof had regarded Barney as the perfect courtier, would not have so esteemed him if they had seen him at the present moment. He seized Maggie's wrists, and all the evil of his violent nature glared from his small bright eyes.

“Damn you!” he cried. “Jimmie, she's yours, and a father's got a right to do anything he likes to his own daughter. Give it to her proper if she don't come across with the truth!”

Jimmie stepped closer to her and bared his yellow teeth. “I haven't given you a basting since you were fifteen—but I'll paste you one right in the mouth if you don't talk straight talk!”

“You hear that!” Barney gritted at her. He believed there was justice in his wrath—as indeed there was, of a sort. “Think what Jimmie and I've put into this, in time and hard coin! We've given you your chance, we've made you! And then, after hard work and waiting and our spending so much, and everything comes out exactly as we figured, you go and throw us down—not just yourself, but us and our rights! Now you talk straight stuff! Tell us, why did you refuse Sherwood when he proposed? And why did you tell me that lie about his not proposing?”

Maggie realized she was in a desperate plight, with these two inflamed gazes upon her. Never had she felt so little of a daughter's liking for Old Jimmie as now when she looked into his lean, harsh, yellow-fanged face. And she had no illusions about Barney. He might love her, as she knew he did; but that would not be a check upon his ruthlessness if he thought himself balked or betrayed.

Just then her telephone began to ring. She started to move toward it, but Barney's grip checked her short.

“You're going to answer me—not any damned telephone! Let it ring!”

The bell rang for a minute or two before it stilled its shrill clamor. Its ringing was in a way a brief respite to Maggie, for it gave her additional time to consider what should be her course. She realized that she dared not let Barney believe at this moment that she had turned against him. Again she fell back upon her cool, self-confident manner.

“You want to know why? The answer is simple enough. I thought I might try out an improvement of our plan—something that might suit me better.”

“What's that?” Barney harshly demanded.

“Since Miss Sherwood fell for me so easy, it struck me that she'd be pretty sure to fall for me if I told her the whole truth about myself. That is, everything except our scheme to play Dick for a sucker.”

“What're you driving at?”

“Don't you see? If she forgave me being what I am, and I rather think she would, and with Dick liking me as he does—why, it struck me as the best thing for yours truly to marry Dick for keeps.”

“What?” Though Barney's voice was low, it had the effect of a startled and savage roar. “And chuck us over-board?”

“Not at all. If I married Dick for keeps, I intended to pay you a lump sum, or else a regular amount each year.”

“No, you don't!” Barney cried in the same muffled roar.

“Perhaps not—I haven't decided,” Maggie said evenly. “I've merely been telling you, as you requested me, why I did as I did. I refused Dick, and lied to you, so that I might have more time to think over what I really wanted to do.”

Instinctively she had counted on rousing Barney's jealousy in order to throw him off the track of her real thoughts. She succeeded.

“I can tell you what you're going to do!” Barney flung at her with fierce mastery. “You're not going to put over a sure-enough marriage with any Dick Sherwood! When there's that kind of a marriage, I'm going to be the man! And you're going to go right straight ahead with our old plan! Dick'll propose again if you give him half a chance. And when he does, you say 'yes'! Understand? That's what you're going to do!”

There was no safety in openly defying Barney. And as a matter of fact what he had ordered was what, in the shifting currents of her thoughts, the steady momentum of her old ambitions and purposes had been pushing her toward. So she said, in her even voice:

“You waste such a lot of your good energy, Barney, by exploding when there's nothing to blow up. That's exactly what I'd decided to do. Miss Sherwood has asked me out to Cedar Crest to-morrow afternoon, and I'm going.”

Barney let go the hold he had kept upon her wrists, and the dark look slowly lifted from his face. “Why didn't you tell a fellow this at first?” he half grumbled. Then with a grim enthusiasm: “And when you come back, you're going to tell us it's all settled!”

“Of course—if he asks me. And now suppose you two go away. You've given me a headache, and I want to rest.”

“We'll go,” said Barney. “But there may be some more points about this that we may want to talk over a little later to-night. So better get all the rest you can.”

But when they had gone and left her to the silence of her pretentious and characterless suite, Maggie did not rest. She had made up her mind; she was going to do as she had said. But there was still that same turmoil within her.

Again she thought of Larry. But she would not admit to herself that her real motive for suddenly deciding to go to Cedar Crest on the morrow was the chance of seeing him.


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