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Kitty hung up her hat and coat. She did not pat her hair or tuck in the loose ends before the mirror - a custom as invariable as sunrise. The coat tree stood at the right of the single window, and out of this window Kitty stared solemnly, at everything and at nothing.
Burlingame eyed her seriously. Cutty had given him a glimmer of the tale - enough to make known to him that this pretty, sensible girl, though no fault of her own, was in the shadow of some actual if unknown danger. And Cutty wanted her out of town for a few days. Burlingame had intended sending Kitty out of town on an assignment during Easter week. An exchange of telegrams that morning had closed the gap in time.
"Well, you might say 'Good morning.'"
"I beg your pardon, Burly!" In newspaper offices you belong at once or you never belong; and to belong is to have your name sheared to as few syllables as possible. You are formal only to the city editor, the managing editor, and the auditor.
"What's the matter?"
"I've been set in the middle of a fairy story," said Kitty, "and I'm wondering if it's worth the trouble to try to find a way out. A Knight of the Round Table, a prince of chivalry. What would you say if you saw one in spats and a black derby?"
"Why," answered Burlingame, "I suppose I'd consider July first as the best thing that could happen to me."
Kitty laughed; and that was what he wanted.
What had that old rogue been doing now - offering Kitty his eighteen-story office building?
"It's odd, isn't it, that I shouldn't possess a little histrionic ability. You'd think it would be in my blood to act."
"It is, Kitty; only not to mimic. You're an actress, but the Big Dramatist writes your business for you. Now, I've got some fairly good news for you. An assignment."
"Work! What is it?"
"I am going to send you on a visit to the most charming movie queen in the business. She is going to return to Broadway this autumn, and she has a trunkful of plays to read. I have found your judgment ace-high. Mornings you will read with her; afternoons you will visit. She remembers your mother, who was the best comedienne of her day. So she will be quite as interested in you as you are in her. I want you to note her ways, how she amuses herself, eats, exercises. I want you to note the contents of her beautiful home; if she likes dogs or cats or horses. You will take a camera and get half a dozen good pictures, and a page yarn for Easter Sunday. Stay as long as she wants you to."
Burlingame jerked his thumb toward a photograph on the wall.
"Oh! This will be the most scrumptious event in my life. I'm wild about her! But I haven't any clothes!"
Burlingame waved his hands. "I knew I'd hear that yodel. Eve didn't have anything to speak of, but she travelled a lot. Truth is, Kitty, you'd better dress in monotones. She might wake up to the fact that you're a mighty pretty young woman and suddenly become temperamental. She has a husband round the lot somewhere. Make him think his wife is a lucky woman. Here's all the dope - introduction, expenses, and tickets. Train leaves at two-fifty. Run along home and pack. Remember, I want a page yarn. No flapdoodle or mush; straight stuff. She doesn't need any advertising. If you go at it right you two will react upon each other as a tonic.
Kitty realized that this little junket was the very thing she needed - open spaces, long walks in which to think out her problem. She hurried home and spent the morning packing. When this heartrending business was over she summoned Tony Bernini.
"I am going out of town, Mr. Bernini. I may be gone a week."
"All right, Miss Conover." Bernini hid a smile. He knew all about this trip, having been advised by Cutty over the wire.
"Am I being followed any more?"
"Not that we know of. Still, you never can tell. What's your destination?" Kitty told him. "Better not go by train. I can get a fast roadster and run you out in a couple of hours. Right after lunch you go to the boss's garage and wait for me. I'll take care of your grips and camera. I'll follow on your heels."
"Anybody would consider that Karlov was after me instead of Hawksley."
Bernini smiled. "Miss Conover, the moment Karlov puts his hands on you the whole game goes blooey. That's the plain fact. There is death in this game. These madmen expect to blow up the United States on May first. We are easing them along because we want the top men in our net. But if Karlov takes it into his head to get you, and succeeds, he'll have a stranglehold on the whole local service; because we'd have to make great concessions to free you."
"Why wasn't I told this at the start?"
"You were told, indirectly. We did not care to frighten you."
"I'm not frightened," said Kitty.
"Nope. But we wish to the Lord you were, Miss Conover. When you want to come home, wire me and I'll motor out for you."
Another fragment. Karlov's agent sought his chief and found him in the cellar of the old house, sinisterly engaged. The wall bench was littered with paraphernalia well known to certain chemists. Had the New York bomb squad known of the existence of this den, the short hair on their necks would have risen.
"Well?" greeted Karlov, moodily.
"I have found the man in the dress suit."
"He and the Conover girl left that office building together this morning, and I followed them to Park Row. This man uses the loft of the building for his home. No elevator goes up unless you have credentials. Our man is hiding there, Boris."
Karlov dry-washed his hands. "We'll send him one of the samples if we fail in regard to the girl. You say she arrives daily at the newspaper office about nine and leaves between five and six?"
"Every day but Sunday."
"Good news. Two bolts; one or the other will go home."
About the same time in Cutty's apartment rather an amusing comedy took place. Professor Ryan, late physical instructor at one of the aviation camps, stood Hawksley in front of him and ran his hard hands over the young man's body. Miss Frances stood at one side, her arms folded, her expression skeptical.
"Nothin' the matter with you, Bo, but the crack on the conk."
"Right-o!" agreed Hawksley.
"Lemme see your hands. Humph. Soft. Now stand on that threshold. That's it. Walk t' the' end o' the hall an' back. Step lively."
"But "began Miss Frances in protest. This was cruelty.
"I'm the doctor, miss," interrupted Ryan, crisply. "If he falls down he goes t' bed, an' you stay. If he makes it, he follows my instructions."
When Hawksley returned to the starting line the walls rocked, there were two or three blinding stabs of pain; but he faced this unusual Irishman with never a hint of the torture. A wild longing to be gone from this kindly prison - to get away from the thought of the girl.
"All right," said Ryan. "Now toddle back t' bed."
"Yep. Goin' t' give you a rub that'll start all your machinery workin'."
Docilely Hawksley obeyed. He wasn't going to let them know, but that bed was going to be tolerably welcome.
"Well!" said Miss Frances. "I don't see how he did it."
"I do," said the ex-pugilist. "I told him to. Either he was a false alarm, or he'd attempt the job even if he fell down. The hull thing is this: Make a guy wanta get well an' he'll get well. If he's got any pride, dig it up. Go after 'em. He hasn't lost any blood. No serious body wound. A crack on the conk. It mighta killed him. It didn't. He didn't wabble an' fall down. So my dope is right. Drop in in a few days an' I'll show yuh."
Miss Frances held out her hand. "You've handled men," she said, with reluctant admiration.
"Oh, boy! - millions of 'em, an' each guy different. Believe me! Make 'em wanta."
Cutty attended his conferences. He learned immediately that he was booked to sail the first week in May. His itinerary began at Piraeus, in Greece, and might end in Vladivostok. But they detained him in Washington overtime because he was a fount of information the departments found it necessary to draw upon constantly. The political and commercial aspects of the polyglot peoples, what they wanted, what they expected, what they needed; racial enmities. The bugaboo of the undesirable alien was no longer bothering official heads in Washington. Stringent immigration laws were in the making. What they wanted to know was an American's point of view, based upon long and intimate associations.
Washington reminded him of nothing so much as a big sheep dog. The hazardous day was over; the wolves had been driven off and the sheep into the fold; and now the valiant guardian was turning round and round and round preparatory to lying down to sleep. For Washington would go to sleep again, naturally.
Often it occurred to him what a remarkable piece of machinery the human brain was. He could dig up all this dry information with the precise accuracy of an economist, all the while his actual thoughts upon Kitty. His nights were nightmares. And all this unhappiness because he had been touched with the lust for loot. Fundamentally, this catastrophe could be laid to the drums of jeopardy.
The alluring possibility of finding those damnable green stones - the unsuspected kink in his moral rectitude - had tumbled him into this pit. Had not Kitty pronounced the name Stefani Gregor - in his mind always linked with the emeralds - he would have summoned an ambulance and had Hawksley carried off, despite Kitty's protests; and perhaps he would have seen her but two or three times before sailing, seen her in conventional and unemotional parts. At any rate, there would have been none of this peculiar intimacy - Kitty coming to him in tears, opening her young heart to him and discovering all its loneliness. If she loved some chap it would not be so hard, the temptation would not be so keen - to cheat her. Marry her, and then tell her. This dogged his thoughts like a murderer's deed, terrible in the watches of the night. Marry her, and then tell her. Cheat her. Break her heart and break his own.
Fifty-two. Never before had he thought old. His splendid health and vigorous mentality were the results of thinking young. But now he heard the avalanche stirring, the whispering slither of the first pebbles. He would grow old swiftly, thunderously. Kitty's youth would shore up the debacle, suspend it indefinitely. Marry her, cheat her, and stay young. Green stones, accursed.
Kitty's days were pleasant enough, but her nights were sieges. One evening someone put Elman's rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" on the phonograph. Long after it was over she sat motionless in her chair. Echoes. The Tschaikowsky waltz. She got up suddenly, excused herself, and went to her room.
Six days, and her problem was still unsolved. Something in her - she could not define it, she could not reach it, it defied analysis - something, then, revolted at the idea of marrying Cutty, divorcing him, and living on his money. There was a touch of horror in the suggestion. It was tearing her to pieces, this hidden repellence. And yet this occult objection was so utterly absurd. If he died and left her a legacy she would accept it gratefully enough. Cutty's plan was only a method of circumventing this indefinite wait.
Comforts, the good things of life, amusements - simply by nodding her head. Why not? It wasn't as if Cutty was asking her to be his wife; he wasn't. Just wanted to dodge convention, and give her freedom and happiness. He was only giving her a mite out of his income. Because he had loved her mother; because, but for an accident of chance, she, Kitty, might have been his daughter. Why, then, this persistent and unaccountable revulsion? Why should she hesitate? The ancient female fear of the trap? That could not be it. For a more honourable, a more lovable man did not walk the earth. Brave, strong, handsome, whimsical - why, Cutty was a catch!
Comfy. Never any of that inherent doubt of man when she was with him. Absolute trust. An evil thought had entered her head; fate had made it honourably possible. And still this mysterious repellence.
Romance? She was not surrendering her right to that. What was a year out of her life if afterward she would be in comfortable circumstances, free to love where she willed? She wasn't cheating herself or Cutty: she was cheating convention, a flimsy thing at best.
Windows. We carry our troubles to our windows; through windows we see the stars. We cannot visualize God, but we can see His stars pinned to the immeasurable spaces. So Kitty sought her window and added her question to the countless millions forlornly wandering about up there, and finding no answer.
But she would return to New York on the morrow. She would not summon Bernini as she had promised. She would go back by train, alone, unhampered.
And in his cellar Boris Karlov spun his web for her.
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