12. The great challange
When John Martin came into tea that afternoon, he gave Gladys a shock. Despite the fact that he had been in the sun all day and was much tanned in consequence he had never looked—so Gladys thought—so old and haggard.
"You dear old Daddie!" she said, hastening to pour him out some tea, "you shouldn't work so hard—this silly digging has quite knocked you up! Haven't you finished?"
"Yes, I've finished!" John Martin said, catching his breath. "I've found water!"
"It's true all the same. We struck it at exactly the distance he said—twenty feet."
"Then of course he knew."
"How? How the deuce could he have known?"
"I can't say," Gladys replied. "All I know is, that he's not straight, and that there's some underhand trickery going on. But do have your tea now, and dismiss it from your mind. Anyhow, he can do you no harm."
"Here's a letter for you, John," Mrs. Templeton exclaimed, entering the room at that moment.
John Martin took it from her, and tore open the envelope curiously. It was a handwriting he did not know, and did not like—its characteristics were sinister.
"I knew it!" he cried; "I knew the fellow was a scoundrel. What the deuce do you think he has the impertinence to do now?"
"He!" Gladys said, looking anxiously at her father. "Whoever do you mean?"
"Why, that confounded young bounder who came here last night—Leon Hamar he signs himself. In this letter he declares that he can perform any of our tricks, and will accept the wager I offered for their solution some little time ago. He also says that unless I consent to see him, and to listen courteously to what he has to say, he will publicly announce his intention of taking up the wager, at our Hall, in Kingsway, to-night."
"Do you think there is any possibility of his having discovered the secrets of your tricks?" Gladys asked. "Could he have bribed any one to tell him?"
"I don't think so," John Martin said. "The only people who have any clue as to how they are done are my two attendants—both as you know natives of Cashmere, and men who, I feel pretty certain, could not be 'got at.'"
"In that case," Gladys remarked, "I fail to see what there is to worry about. Your course is perfectly clear—take no notice of it."
John Martin was silent—dazed. He did not know what to think or do! There was something painfully ominous to him in the discovery of the money and the water—something that accentuated the impression Hamar's sinister appearance had made on him. The man did not look ordinary—his manner, gestures, walk and expression were decidedly abnormal—in fact they put him in mind of the superphysical. The superphysical! Might not that account for his knowledge? Bah! There was no such thing as the superphysical. The man was extraordinary—but, after all, only a man—his knowledge only that of a man. And it must be as the shrewd Gladys conjectured—he had put the money in the tree himself and had learned of the presence of water through some subtle artifice—perhaps only guessed at it. He would defy him—let him do what he would!
This was John Martin's decision as he finished tea. An hour later he had changed his mind, and was speaking to Hamar on the telephone, expressing his willingness to grant him a brief interview if he came at once.
In rather less than an hour a motor drew up at the Martins' door and Hamar stepped out of it.
"Glad to find you in a more tractable mood, Mr. Martin," he exclaimed on being ushered into the latter's presence. "I reckoned you would sing to a different tune when you found that water. Would you like me to give you a few more samples of my skill, before we proceed to business?"
"Name your business at once," John Martin replied gruffly; "I haven't many minutes to spare."
"No!" Hamar said, "that's a pity; because part of what I have at the back of my brain may take more than a few minutes arranging. The situation in a nutshell is this. You have a pretty daughter, Mr. Martin?"
"How dare you, sir?" John Martin broke in, clenching his fist.
"Gently, gently, Mr. Martin!" Hamar observed, backing towards the door. "Gently—you promised to give me a courteous hearing. I meant no offence. I say I admire your daughter immensely—she takes the shine out of our American girls."
"The deuce she does!" John Martin foamed.
"She does, you bet!" Hamar went on. "And I see no reason if she likes me, why we couldn't get engaged. I would do the thing handsomely as far as money goes. What do you say?"
"I say that unless you're very careful I shall break my promise and kick you."
"I would pay you a big lump sum to take me into partnership," Hamar went on complacently, "and I would introduce a number of new tricks that would stagger creation. I shouldn't be in any hurry to marry—the length of the engagement would be for you to decide."
"Then it would be ad infinitum," John Martin said grimly, "for you'll never get my consent to a marriage."
"Never is a long day—and even a John Martin may change. You want new blood and new capital in your Firm—you would have both in me. I assure you your show would boom as it has never boomed before!"
"And the only condition on which you offer me all this is my daughter?"
"You have said it—that is the one and only condition. Your daughter—my brains, my dollars."
"I have decided!" John Martin said.
"Good!" Hamar exclaimed; "I guessed you would! There's nothing like the almighty dollar, is there?"
"Yes!" John Martin rejoined; "the almighty fist—and that's what you'll get if you don't clear out of this house instantly. And if you ever come skulking round here again, or write me any more letters I'll set my. solicitor on to you."
"Then it's war—war to the knife!" Hamar sneered. "How melodramatic! But it won't last long. I shall yet be your partner—and I shall yet have Miss Gladys! Au revoir—I won't say good-bye!" and with a mock bow he hurriedly took his departure.
That night Messrs. Martin and Davenport's entertainment had progressed as usual for about half an hour when it suddenly came to a full stop. A man in the lowest tier of boxes had risen and was addressing the audience in a loud voice: "Ladies and gentlemen!"
In an instant all heads swung round and there were stentorian shouts of "Silence!"
But Curtis—for it was he—was not easily daunted. "Do you call this fair play!" he demanded; "I am here to-night to make a sporting offer, and one which will afford you vast entertainment."
Cries of "Shut up!" "Silence!" "He's drunk!" "Turn him out!" merging into one loud roar forced him to pause. Several uniformed officials now invaded the box, but Hamar—who, as well as Kelson, was with Curtis—fixing them with his big dark eyes that gleamed eerily in the half-lowered lights of the house—for the stage only at that moment was fully illuminated—held them in check, and they hung back not knowing what to do. This move of Hamar's took with a large section of the audience—some of whom were possessed with sporting instincts, whilst others were merely curious—and the somewhat premature cries of "Turn him out!" etc., were soon lost in vociferous shouts of: "Let them alone!" "Let them speak!" "Let us hear what they have to say." It was in the midst of this hubbub that John Martin in a great state of nervous agitation came to the front of the stage and inquired the cause of the commotion. The shouting still continued, and Gladys, who had come to the performance anticipating something of the sort, called to her father, from the wings, bidding him give Curtis permission to speak.
"You will lose all sympathy if you don't, Father," she added; "and besides you have nothing to fear. It's sheer bravado and impudence on their part."
Thus advised, for Gladys was a level-headed girl, John Martin gave in; and the audience showed their approval by a vigorous round of clapping.
"I wish I were spokesman," Kelson sighed, his eyes glistening at the sight of so many pretty upturned faces. "Go on, old man!" he added, giving Curtis a nudge. "Fire away, and show them you know a bit about elocution, for the credit of the Firm."
Curtis needed no encouragement. What little bashfulness he had once possessed he had certainly left behind in San Francisco, for he leaned over the front of the box and smiled familiarly at the audience.
"I am Edward Curtis," he said, "one of the directors of the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd. Messrs. Martin and Davenport have so often boasted that no one outside their firm can perform their tricks that I have come here to-night resolved to disillusion them. I not only accept their offer of ten thousand pounds for the solution of their tricks, but I agree to pay them double that amount—cash down—if I do not do everything they do—from 'The Brass Coffin' to their world-famed 'Pumpkin Puzzle.' With Messrs. Martin and Davenport's permission I will explain one and all of their tricks to you to-night, and the only thing I ask of you, ladies and gentlemen, is to see that I get fair play."
A spontaneous outburst of clapping followed this speech, and as soon as it had ceased one of the audience who had risen and was waiting to speak, said: "I trust Messrs. Martin and Davenport will accept this challenge, and allow the Modern Sorcery Company the opportunity here, in this hall to-night, of displaying their skill—or their ignorance, as the case may be. If Messrs. Martin and Davenport's tricks cannot be performed by any outsider—the Firm in accepting this challenge will merely be twenty thousand pounds the richer—and if—as is hardly likely, Messrs. Martin and Davenport should be outwitted, I am sure they themselves will be amongst the first to congratulate their successful rivals. I, for one, am quite ready to act as referee."
"I too!" shouted a dozen other voices. "Be a sport and accept his bet!"
"Ladies and gentlemen," John Martin replied with dignity, "you have given me no alternative; I accept the challenge. Perhaps those who have so kindly volunteered to act as referees will see that order is maintained whilst I go on with my performance, at the conclusion of which Mr. Curtis—I think that is the name of my rival—will be quite at liberty to try his exposition of my tricks."
The performance then proceeded, and when it was over, Curtis, Hamar and Kelson, accompanied by six of those of the audience who had volunteered to act as referees, stepped on to the stage. Seats were provided for the referees—three on the one side of the stage and three on the other; and having seen that everything was fair and square John Martin retired to the O.P. wing, behind which Gladys was concealed.
A brief description of "The Brass Coffin" trick, which was the first Messrs. Hamar, Curtis and Kelson proceeded to explain, will, perhaps, suffice.
A massively constructed brass-bound coffin is handed round to the audience, who carefully examine it, and being unable to discover anything amiss, pronounce themselves satisfied that it is genuine.
The operator then summons an assistant, jokingly refers to him as "the corpse"—puts him into a sack, made to represent a winding-sheet, securely binds the sack with a piece of cord, and asks one of the audience to seal it. The sack and its contents are then placed in the coffin which is locked and corded. The operator then throws a sheet over the coffin, lets it remain there for a few seconds, and on removing it and opening the lid, the coffin, is found to be empty. A shout from the front of the House makes every one turn round, when, to their amazement, "the corpse" is seen standing up at the back of "the Pit," holding the sack with the rope and seal—intact—in his hand. Such was the marvellous feat which had been accomplished in Martin and Davenport's Hall night in and night out for years, the solution of which no one as yet had been able to discover. One can imagine, in these circumstances, the tremendous excitement of the audience at the prospect of seeing this notorious puzzle tackled—and tackled by a member of a Firm which was already reputed to be doing all kinds of weird and extraordinary things. But, whereas it was quite obvious that John Martin was greatly perturbed (his eyebrows were working nervously, and his lips and fingers twitching), Curtis, on the other hand, was as cool as possible—he literally did not turn a hair.
"Now, gentlemen," he said, turning to the referees, "keep your eyes well skinned and observe everything I do. Ladies and gentlemen," he went on, raising his voice, "I am now about to show you how the coffin trick is done. Observe me—I'm 'the corpse'—Mr. Kelson, here, is the operator—" and Matt Kelson, rather to Hamar's annoyance advanced, down the stage to take part in the proceedings.
"Watch me get into the sack!" He stepped into it as he spoke. "Look at what I have in my hand," he went on, holding up his right hand in full view of the audience. "I have a plug of wood covered with the same material as this sack. As soon as I stoop down and the sack is pulled over me I shall thrust this plug into the mouth of it and Mr. Kelson will bind the sack round it. I shall then be put into the coffin. You think you know this coffin but you don't. See!"—and stepping out of the sack he tapped the head of the coffin, which was very broad and deep. "Come closer!" and he beckoned to the referees, whose numbers were now augmented by three newspaper reporters—representatives of the Daily Snapper, the Planet and the Hooter respectively. "Here is a secret panel worked by a spring. I will press, and you will press too."
And amidst a breathless silence—the nine members of the audience on the stage following every movement—Curtis put his hand inside the head of the coffin and touched a very slight elevation in the wood. In an instant, by a wonderfully neat piece of mechanism, a panel slid back, leaving just sufficient room for a man of moderate dimensions to squeeze through.
Everyone now looked at John Martin—he was leaning back in his chair, breathing hard, his eyes starting out of his head, his cheeks white. Hamar saw him and grinned, grinned malevolently, but the smile died out of his face when he glanced at Gladys—the scorn in the girl's eyes made his blood boil.
"All right, Miss Martin," he muttered between his teeth; "you adopt that attitude now, but you will adopt a very different one later on! I'll win you body and soul, or my name is not what it is."
He was interrupted in this amiable reflection by Curtis. "I'm too stout to play the rôle of the corpse, and so is Matt," Curtis said to him; "you must undertake that part. Now!" he went on, "take this plug and get into the sack," and he whispered a few instructions in his ear. Then he tied the top of the sack—in reality tying it round the plug Hamar was holding—and one of the audience sealed the knot. Curtis and Kelson then lifted Hamar into the coffin, shut the lid and corded it. Then Curtis, turning to the audience, said:
"What is now happening inside the coffin is this—'the corpse' pulls the plug out of the mouth of the sack from the inside. The cord thus becomes loose and 'the corpse' is able to open the sack. He at once touches the spring I pointed out to you in the head of the coffin, and the panel slides back—So!"
And as the audience looked, they saw the panel slide back, and first of all Hamar's head, and then his body, wriggle through the aperture thus made.
"The reason why you, audience, cannot see him make his escape is this," Curtis explained; "the head of the coffin is always turned away from you and placed against a mirror which you can't see, and which to you appears but the continuation of the stage. In this mirror exactly opposite the head of the coffin is an aperture, and it is through this 'the corpse' makes his exit to the back of the stage. I will show it you. Here it is"—and beckoning to the referees to come quite close, he pointed to a glass screen, in the centre of the base of which was a glass trap-door, corresponding in height and girth to the head of the coffin. "Here, corpse!" Curtis said, "crawl through"—and Hamar, looking as if he by no means appreciated the undignified task of wriggling on his stomach before so many eyes, drew himself as tight together as he could, and squirmed through.
"Does that satisfy you, gentlemen?" Curtis inquired.
"Perfectly!" the referees answered. "Nothing could be plainer. We see exactly, now, how the trick is done."
At this there was a loud outburst of clapping, and Curtis bowed in the elegant manner in which he had been patiently and assiduously coached by Kelson.
He then proceeded to the second trick—"Eve at the Window," a trick almost, if not quite, as famous as "The Brass Coffin," and for the solution of which Martin and Davenport had frequently offered huge sums of money.
A large pane of glass some nine by six feet in area, and set in a frame, made to represent that of a window, is placed on the stage, about eighteen inches from the floor. Thirty-six inches from the ground a wooden shelf is placed against the window. An assistant—usually a woman—then mounts on the shelf and, looking out of the glass, proceeds to kiss her hand vigorously. The operator in a shocked voice asks her to desist. She refuses and, to the amusement of the audience, carries on her pantomimic flirtation more desperately than before. The operator pretends to lose his temper, and snatching up a screen places it at the back of her. He then fires a pistol, pulls aside the screen, and she has vanished. As the top, bottom and sides of the window, all in fact except the very middle, have been in full view of the audience, and as the window has been tightly closed all the time, the disappearance of the girl completely mystifies the audience.
Curtis explained it all. He pointed out that the keynote to the illusion lay behind the wooden shelf, which was so placed as to conceal the fact that the lower part of the window was made double, the bottom of the upper part being concealed from view by a second sheet of silvered glass placed in front of it. The shelf covers the line of junction and enables the window frame to be scrutinized by the audience.
As soon as the screen is put in front of the lady on the shelf—the glass pane slides up about a foot and a half into the top of the frame, purposely made very deep. The bottom of the window is cut away in the middle, leaving an aperture about two feet square, which was previously hidden from view by the double glass at the base. Eve makes her exit through this hole, and slides on to a board placed behind the window in readiness for her. The pane of glass then slides down again, the screen is removed, and the window appears just as solid as before.
When Curtis concluded his verbal explanation he gave the audience a practical illustration of how the thing was done; he manipulated the screen and pistol, whilst Hamar posed as Eve, and directly he had finished there was another outburst of applause. Kelson dared not look at John Martin or Gladys. The brief glance he had taken of them at the conclusion of the giving away of the first trick had shocked him—and he purposely stood with his back to them. With Hamar it was otherwise—the joy of triumph was strong within him, and the picture of John Martin, leaning forward in his chair, with his mouth half open and a dazed, glassy expression in his eyes, only thrilled him with pleasure; he laughed at the old man, and still more at Gladys.
"That's the way to treat a girl of that sort," he whispered to Kelson; "scoff at her—scoff at her well. Let her see you don't care a snap for her—and in the end she'll run after you and haunt you to death."
"I'm not so sure," Kelson said. "It might act in some cases, perhaps, but I don't think you can quite depend on it."
"Pooh! You are no judge of women, in spite of all your experience," Hamar retorted. "I'll bet you anything you like she'll come round and make a tremendous fuss of me."
"Supposing you fall in love with her, how about the compact?" Kelson asked. "You've warned me often enough."
"Oh, but I'm not like you," Hamar replied. "There's nothing soft in my nature. I fall in love! Not much! Why, you might as well have apprehensions of my joining the Salvation Army, or wanting to become a Militant Suffragette—either would be just about as possible. No—! I shall make the girl love me—and we shall be engaged for just as long as I please. If I find some one that attracts me more, I shall throw her aside—if not, maybe, I shall marry her—but in either case there will be no question of love—at least not on my part. She shall do as I want—that is all! Hulloa! Curtis is beginning again."
There were five other tricks on the programme—all of which were world renowned. They were "The Floating Head"; "The Mango Seed"; "The Haunted Bathing-machine," "The Girl with the Five Eyes," and "The Vanishing Bicycle" illusion. As with the first two tricks, so Curtis did with the following five—he explained them, and then, aided by Hamar and Kelson, gave practical demonstrations of their solutions; and so thoroughly and clearly were these solutions demonstrated that the referees asked no questions—they were absolutely satisfied. Turning to the audience—at a sign from Curtis—they announced that the whole of Messrs. Martin and Davenport's tricks had been solved to their entire satisfaction, and that Messrs. Hamar, Curtis and Kelson of the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd. had, without doubt, won the wager.
"Have you anything to say?" Curtis asked, addressing John Martin.
"I acknowledge my defeat, though I do not understand it!" John Martin said with very white lips. "I shall pay you the ten thousand pounds to-night."
"Don't worry about that," Hamar interposed; "we don't want to take your money, all we wanted to do was to prove to you we could perform the tricks you believed to be insoluble.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" he went on, raising his voice, "the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd. has given you some proof to-night of their capabilities in the conjuring line, and if you will give us the pleasure of your company to-morrow night—we invite you all free of charge for the occasion—we will give you a still further demonstration of our powers. May we count upon your patronage?"
A terrific storm of clapping was the reply, and as the audience slowly filed from the hall, John Martin staggered into the wing, reeled past Gladys ere she could catch him, and sank helplessly on to the floor.