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Hawksley heard the lift door close, and he knew that at last he was alone. He flung out his arms, ecstatically. Free! He would see no more of that nagging beggar Ryan until tomorrow. Free to put into execution the idea that had been bubbling all day long in his head, like a fine champagne, firing his blood with reckless whimsicality.
Quietly he stole down the corridor. Through a crack in the kitchen door he saw Kuroki's back, the attitude of which was satisfying. It signified that the Jap was pegging away at his endless studies and that only the banging of the gong would rouse him. The way was as broad and clear as a street at dawn. Not that Kuroki mattered; only so long as he did not know, so much the better.
With careful step Hawksley manoeuvred his retreat so that it brought him to Cutty's bedroom door. The door was unlocked. He entered the room. What a lark! They would hide his own clothes; so much the worse for the old beggar's wardrobe. Street clothes. Presently he found a dark suit, commendable not so much for its style as for the fact that it was the nearest fit he could find. He had to roll up the trouser hems.
Hats. Chuckling like a boy rummaging a jam closet, he rifled the shelves and pulled down a black derby of an unknown vintage. Large; but a runner of folded paper reduced the size. As he pressed the relic firmly down on his head he winced. A stab over his eyes. He waited doubtfully; but there was no recurrence. Fit as a fiddle. Of course he could not stoop without a flash of vertigo; but on his feet he was top-hole. He was gaining every day.
Luck. He might have come out of it with the blank mind of a newborn babe; and here he was, keen to resume his adventures. Luck. They had not stopped to see if he was actually dead. Some passer-by in the hall had probably alarmed them. That handkerchief had carried him round the brink. Perhaps Fate intended letting him get through - written on his pass an extension of his leave of absence. Or she had some new torture in reserve.
Now for a stout walking stick. He selected a blackthorn, twirled it, saluted, and posed before the mirror. Not so bally rotten. He would pass. Next, he remembered that there were some flowers in the dining room - window boxes with scarlet geraniums. He broke off a sprig and drew it through his buttonhole.
Outside there was a cold, pale April sky, presaging wind and rain. Unimportant. He was going down into the streets for an hour or so. The colour and action of a crowded street; the lure was irresistible. Who would dare touch him in the crowd? These rooms had suddenly become intolerable.
He leaned against the side of the window. Roofs, thousands of them, flat, domed, pinnacled; and somewhere under one of these roofs Stefani Gregor was eating his heart out. It did not matter that this queer old eagle whom everybody called Cutty had promised to bring Stefani home. It might be too late. Stefani was old, highly strung. Who knew what infernal lies Karlov had told him? Stefani could stand up under physical torture; but to tear at his soul, to twist and rend his spirit!
The bubble in the champagne died down - as it always will if one permits it to stand. He felt the old mood seep through the dikes of his gayety. Alone. A familiar face - he would have dropped on his knees and thanked God for the sight of a familiar face. These people, kindly as they were - what were they but strangers? Yesterday he had not known them; to-morrow he would leave them behind forever. All at once the mystery of this bubbling idea was bared: he was going to risk his life in the streets in the vague hope of seeing some face he had known in the days before the world had gone drunk on blood. One familiar face.
Of course he would never forget - at any rate, not the girl whose courage had made possible this hour. Those chaps, scared off temporarily, might have returned. What had become of her? He was a1ways seeing her lovely face in the shadows, now tender, now resolute, now mocking. Doubtless he thought of her constantly because his freedom of action was limited. He hadn't diversion enough. Books and fiddling, these carried him but halfway through the boredom. Where was she? Daily he had called her by telephone; no answer. The Jap shook his head; the slangy boy in the lift shook his.
She was a thoroughbred, even if she had been born of middle -class parentage. He laughed bitterly. Middle class. A homeless, countryless derelict, and he had the impudence to revert to comparisons that no longer existed in this topsy-turvy old world. He was an upstart. The final curtain had dropped between him and his world, and he was still thinking in the ancient make-up. Middle class! He was no better than a troglodyte, set down in a new wilderness.
He heard the curtain rings slither on the pole. Believing the intruder to be Kuroki he turned belligerently. And there she stood - the girl herself! The poise of her reminded him of the Winged Victory in the Louvre. Where there had been a cup of champagne in his veins circumstance now poured a magnum.
"You!" he cried.
"What has happened? Where are you going in those clothes?" demanded Kitty.
"I am running away - for an hour or so."
"But you must not! The risks - after all the trouble we've had to help you!"
"I shall be perfectly safe, for you are going with me. Aren't you my guardian angel? Well, rather! The two of us - people, lights, shop windows! Perfectly splendiferous! Honestly, now, where's the harm?" He approached her rapidly as he spoke, and before the spell of him could be shaken off Kitty found her hands imprisoned in his. "Please! I've been so damnably bored. The two of us in the streets, among the crowds! No one will dare touch us. Can't you see? And then - I say, this is ripping ! - we'll have dinner together here. I will play for you on the old Amati. Please!"
The fire of him communicated to the combustibles in Kitty's soul. A wild, reckless irony besieged her. This adventure would be exactly what she needed; it would sweep clear the fog separating one side of her brain from the other. For it was plain enough that part of her brain refused to cooperate with the other. A break in the trend of thought: she might succeed in getting hold of the puzzle if she could drop it absolutely for a little while and then pick it up again.
She had not gone home. She had not notified Bernini. She had checked her luggage in the station parcel room and come directly here. For what? To let the sense of luxury overcome the hidden repugnance of the idea of marrying Cutty, divorcing him, and living on his money. To put herself in the way of visible temptation. What fretted her so, what was wearing her down to the point of fatigue, was the patent imbecility of her reluctance. There would have been some sense of it if Cutty had proposed a real marriage. All she had to do was mumble a few words, sign her name to a document, live out West for a few months, and be in comfortable circumstances all the rest of her life. And she doddered!
She would run the streets with Johnny Two-Hawks, return, and dine with him. Who cared? Proper or improper, whose business was it but Kitty Conover's? Danger? That was the peculiar attraction. She wanted to rush into danger, some tense excitement the strain of which would lift her out of her mood. A recurrent touch of the wild impulsiveness of her childhood. Hadn't she sometimes flown out into thunderstorms, after merited punishment, to punish the mother whom thunder terrorized? And now she was going to rush into unknown danger to punish Fate - like a silly child! Nevertheless, she would go into the streets with Johnny Two-Hawks.
"But are you strong enough to venture on the streets?"
"Rot! Dash it all, I'm no mollycoddle! All nonsense to keep me pinned in like this. Will you go with me - be my guide?"
"Yes!" She shot out the word and crossed the Rubicon before reason could begin to lecture. Besides, wasn't reason treating her shabbily in withholding the key to the riddle? "Johnny Two-Hawks, I will go as far as Harlem if you want me to."
"Johnny Two-Hawks!" He laughed joyously, then kissed her hands. But he had to pay for this bending - a stab that filled his eyes with flying sparks. He must remember, once out of doors, not to stoop quickly. "I say, you're the jolliest girl I ever met! Just the two of us, what?"
"The way you speak English is wonderful!"
"Simple enough to explain. Had an English nurse from the beginning. Spoke English and Italian before I spoke Russian."
He seized the wooden mallet and beat the Burmese gong - a flat piece of brass cut in the shape of a bell. The clear, whirring vibrations filled the room. Long before these spent themselves Kuroki appeared on the threshold. He bobbed.
"Kuroki, Miss Conover is dining here with me to-night. Seven o'clock sharp. The best you have in the larder."
"Yes, sair. You are going out, sair?"
"For a bit of fresh air."
"And I am going with him, Kuroki," said Kitty. Kuroki bobbed again. "Dinner at seven, sair." Another bob, and he returned to the kitchen, smiling. The girl was free to come and go, of course, but the ancient enemy of Nippon would not pass the elevator door. Let him find that out for himself.
When the elevator arrived the boy did not open the door. He noted the derby on Hawksley's head.
"I can take you down, Miss Conover, but I cannot take Mr. Hawksley. When the boss gives me an order I obey it - if I possibly can. On the day the boss tells me you can go strolling, I'll give you the key to the city. Until then, nix! No use arguing, Mr. Hawksley."
"I shan't argue," replied Hawksley, meekly. "I am really a prisoner, then?"
"For your own good, sir. Do you wish to go down, Miss Conover?"
The boy swung the lever, and the car dropped from sight.
"I'm sorry," said Kitty.
Hawksley smiled and laid a finger on his lips. "I wanted to know," he whispered. "There's another way down from this Matterhorn. Come with me. Off the living room is a storeroom. I found the key in the lock the other day and investigated. I still have the key. Now, then, there's a door that gives to the main loft. At the other end is the stairhead. There is a door at the foot of the first flight down. We can jolly well leave this way, but we shall have to return by the lift. That bally young ruffian can't refuse to carry us up, y' know!"
Kitty laughed. "This is going to be fun!"
They groped their way through the dim loft - for it was growing dark outside - and made the stairhead. The door to the seventeenth floor opened, and they stepped forth into the lighted hallway.
"Now what?" asked Kitty, bubbling.
"The floor below, and one of the other lifts, what?" Twenty minutes later the two of them, arm in arm, turned into Broadway.
"This, sir," began Kitty with a gesture, "is Broadway - America's backyard in the daytime and Ali Baba's cave at night. The way of the gilded youth; the funnel for papa's money; the chorus lady; the starting point of the high cost of living. We New Yorkers despise it because we can't afford it."
"The lights!" gasped Hawksley.
"Wreckers' lights. Behold! Yonder is a highly nutritious whisky blinking its bloomin' farewell. Do you chew gum? Even if you don't, in a few minutes I'll give you a cud for thought. Chewing gum was invented by a man with a talkative wife. He missed the physiological point, however, that a body can chew and talk at the same time. Come on!"
They went on uptown, Hawksley highly amused, exhilarated, but frequently puzzled. The pungent irony of her observations conveyed to him that under this gayety was a current of extreme bitterness. "I say, are all American girls like you?"
"Heavens, no! Why?"
"Because I never met one like you before. Rather stilted - on their good behaviour, I fancy."
"And I interest you because I'm not on my good behaviour?" Kitty whipped back.
"Because you are as God made you - without camouflage."
"The poor innocent young man! I'm nothing but camouflage to-night. Why are you risking your life in the street? Why am I sharing that risk? Because we both feel bound and are blindly trying to break through. What do you know about me? Nothing. What do I know about you? Nothing. But what do we care? Come on, come on!"
Tumpitum - tump! tumpitum - tump! drummed the Elevated. Kitty laughed. The tocsin! Always something happened when she heard it.
"Pearls!" she cried, dragging him toward a jeweller's window.
"No!" he said, holding back. "I hate - jewels! How I hate them!" He broke away from her and hurried on.
She had to run after him. Had she hesitated they might have become separated. Hated jewels? No, no! There should be no questions, verbal or mental, this night. She presently forced him to slow down. "Not so fast! We must never become separated," she warned. "Our safety - such as it is - lies in being together."
"I'm an ass. Perhaps my head is ratty without my realizing it. I fancy I'm like a dog that's been kicked; I'm trying to run away from the pain. What's this tomb?"
"The Metropolitan Opera House."
As they were passing a thin, wailing sound came to the ears of both. Seated with his back to the wall was a blind fiddler with a tin cup strapped to a knee. He was out of bounds; he had no right on Broadway; but he possessed a singular advantage over the law. He could not be forced to move on without his guide - if he were honestly blind. Hundreds of people were passing; but the fiddler's "Last Rose of Summer" wasn't worth a cent. His cup was empty.
"The poor thing!" said Kitty.
"Wait!" Hawksley approached the fiddler, exchanged a few words with him, and the blind man surrendered his fiddle.
"Give me your hat!" cried Kitty, delighted.
Carefully Hawksley pried loose his derby and handed it to Kitty. No stab of pain; something to find that out. He turned the instrument, tucked it under his chin and began "Traumerei." Kitty, smiling, extended the hat. Just the sort of interlude to make the adventure memorable. She knew this thoroughfare. Shortly there would be a crowd, and the fiddler's cup would overflow - that is, if the police did not interfere too soon.
As for the owner of the wretched fiddle, he raised his head, his mouth opened. Up there, somewhere, a door to heaven had opened.
True to her expectations a crowd slowly gathered. The beauty of the girl and the dark, handsome face of the musician, his picturesque bare head, were sufficient for these cynical passers-by. They understood. Operatic celebrities, having a little fun on their own. So quarters and dimes and nickels began to patter into Cutty's ancient derby hat. Broadway will always contribute generously toward a novelty of this order. Famous names were tossed about in undertones.
Entered then the enemy of the proletariat. Kitty, being a New Yorker born, had had her weather eye roving. The brass-buttoned minion of the law was always around when a bit of innocent fun was going on. As the policeman reached the inner rim of the audience the last notes of Handel's "Largo" were fading on the ear.
"What's this?" demanded the policeman.
"It's all over, sir," answered Kitty, smiling.
"Can't have this on Broadway, miss. Obstruction." He could not speak gruffly in the face of such beauty - especially with a Broadway crowd at his back.
"It's all over. Just let me put this money in the blind man's cup." Kitty poured her coins into the receptacle. At the same time Hawksley laid the fiddle in the blind man's lap. Then he turned to Kitty and boomed a long Russian phrase at her. Her quick wit caught the intent. "You see, he doesn't understand that this cannot be done in New York. I couldn't explain."
"All right, miss; but don't do it again." The policeman grinned.
"And please don't be harsh with the blind man. Just tell him he mustn't play on Broadway again. Thank you!'
She linked her arm in Hawksley's, and they went on; and the crowd dissolved; only the policeman and the blind man remained, the one contemplating his duty and the other his vision of heaven.
"What a lark!" exclaimed Hawksley.
"Were you asking me for your hat?"
"I was telling the bobby to go to the devil!"
They laughed like children.
"March hares!" he said.
"No. April fools! Good heavens, the time! Twenty minutes to seven. Our dinner!"
"We'll take a taxi.... Dash it!"
"Not a bally copper in my pockets!"
"And I left my handbag on the sideboard! We'll have to walk. If we hurry we can just about make it."
Meantime, there lay in wait for them - this pair of April fools - a taxicab. It stood snugly against the curb opposite the entrance to Cutty's apartment. The door was slightly ajar.
The driver watched the south corner; the three men inside never took their gaze off the north corner.
"But, I say, hasn't this been a jolly lark?"
"If we had known we could have borrowed a dollar from the blind man; he'd never have missed it."
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