14. Shiel to the rescue
Gladys did not feel too happy when she read notices such as these; she could not do other than see in them destruction to her father, and the worst of it all was she could do nothing to help him. Who could? Who could possibly invent anything as wonderful as the marvels of the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd.? And yet unless John Martin gave up altogether, that is what he must do. Nay, he must do more—he must not only equal the Modern Sorcery Company's marvels, he must eclipse them. But after the affair of the challenge, it seemed to Gladys that there was no help for it—the Hall would have to be closed for a time. Now that Dick Davenport was dead, there was no one to take her father's place. On the night succeeding the catastrophe, she had persuaded one of the Indian attendants to undertake the rôle of operator, but his skill was not equal to the tax upon it, and the audience—a poor one—was very lukewarm in its applause. The following day she talked the matter over with her father. The latter was in favour of keeping the show on at any cost; Gladys, for closing it temporarily.
"A bad performance is worse than no performance," she said, "much better to close till you have invented some new tricks."
John Martin groaned. "I fear my days of invention are over," he muttered. "If I can read the papers and write letters, that will be about as much as I shall be able to do."
"Couldn't you retire?"
"I would if I were not a Britisher," John Martin replied, "but being a Britisher I'd sooner shoot myself than give in to a d——d Yank!"
And Gladys, in terror lest her father should over-excite himself, promised she would see that the entertainment was carried on as usual, and that the Indian continued in the rôle of operator.
But when out of her father's presence, Gladys gave way to despair. How could she—a woman—hope to cope with such a difficult situation? And she was racking her brains to know how to act for the best, when Shiel was announced.
A wave of relief swept over her. She could explain her difficulties to Shiel, in a way that she could not to any one who had no knowledge at all of her father's affairs—and she told him just how matters stood.
"Look here!" he exclaimed, when she had finished, "why not let me take your father's place at the Kingsway? I have done a little amateur acting, and am not nervous at the thought of appearing in public. Your father confided in you so much—you must know all his tricks by heart—couldn't you coach me!"
Gladys looked at him critically.
"It wouldn't be half a bad idea," she said. "Supposing you come with me to the Hall, I can explain the tricks better if I show you the apparatus at the same time."
Shiel thoroughly enjoyed that journey up to town. He knew it was wrong of him to think of his own pleasure, when the affairs of his companion were in such a critical condition. He knew he ought not to look at her in the way he did—as if she was the most precious thing in the world, and he would give her his soul if she wanted it—he knew that he—a penniless artist without any prospects—had no right to behave thus. But her beauty appealed to him with a force he was entirely incapable of resisting, and he went on looking at her in the way he knew he ought not to look at her, simply because he couldn't help it.
He lunched with her at her club in Dover Street, and then they taxied to the Kingsway.
The door-keeper, the only living creature in the building, saving themselves, seemed to share in the general depression hanging over everything—the great, empty front of the house with its gloomy, cavernous boxes and grim, grey gallery—the dark, dismal flies—the chilly wings—all hushed and still, and impregnated with the sense of desertion. But with this man beside her, who, she knew, would do anything he could to help, the place did not look quite so bad to Gladys as it had done the day before. There was a ray of light now where, before, ebon blackness had prevailed.
Without delay Gladys rang up the Indian attendants on the telephone, and occupied the time prior to their arrival by describing to Shiel how each of the tricks was done.
Her pupil proved far more able than she had anticipated. After several rehearsals he was able to go through the whole performance without a hitch.
When they had finished, Gladys stretched out her hand impulsively. "I don't know how to thank you enough," she said. "You are a brick, and if only you do half as well this evening as you have done now, we shall get on swimmingly—that is to say, as well as we can expect, until we can arrange a fresh programme. If only you were an inventor!"
"If only I were. If only I had money!"
"Why, what would you do?" Gladys asked curiously.
"Give it to you! Give you every halfpenny of it!—But as I haven't any, I mean to give you all the energy I possess instead."
"Why me? My father you mean!"
"No, you!" Shiel said impulsively, "both of you if you prefer it, but you first."
"Me first! That doesn't seem very lucid—but I can't stay to hear an explanation now, for if I miss the four-thirty train I shall miss my dinner, which would indeed be a calamity!" And slipping on her gloves, she hurried off, forbidding Shiel to escort her further.
Left to himself, Shiel strolled along the Strand into the Victoria Gardens, where he bought an evening paper, and sat down to read it. The first thing that caught his eye was—
"MAGIC IN LONDON"
"This morning the West End received a shock. About twelve o'clock, a gentleman, fashionably dressed, turned into Bond Street from Piccadilly, and when opposite Messrs. Truefitt's prepared to cross over. The street happened just then to be blocked by a long line of taxis. The gentleman, however, had no intention of waiting till they had passed. Measuring the distance from one pavement to the other with his eyes, he jumped about fifteen feet into the air and cleared the intervening space without the slightest apparent effort—a feat that literally paralysed with astonishment all who beheld it. On being remonstrated with by a policeman, who was highly perplexed as to whether such extraordinary conduct constituted a breach of the peace or not, the gentleman calmly leaped over the policeman's head, and striking out with arms and legs swam through the air.
"Continuing in this fashion, the cynosure of all eyes—even the traffic being suspended to watch him—he passed along Bond Street into Oxford Street, where he once more alighted on his feet. On being questioned by a representative of the Press, it transpired he was Mr. Kelson, one of the partners in the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd., whose wonderful performances at their Hall, in Cockspur Street, have already been reported in these columns."
"I should well like to know how that flying trick is done," Shiel said to himself. "According to Kelson it is entirely a question of will power. I'll see if I can't develop my concentrative faculty and introduce a few of the same performances in our show. I'll go to the Hall and try them now."
But his preliminary efforts were certainly far from successful. He jumped off chairs saying to himself, "I'll fly! I will fly," and he struck out heroically each time, but the result was always the same—gravity conquered—he fell.
Had he not been so much in love with Gladys, he would have desisted; as it was, the more he bumped and bruised himself, the more determined he was to go on trying. In fact, flying with him became a mania; and according to the daily journals, his was by no means the only case. All over England people were trying to fly. An old lady, in Gipsy Hill, appeared in the Police Court to answer a charge of causing annoyance to her neighbours by practising flying, from off her bed, at night. Her bulk being large and her will power apparently small, she yielded to gravity and landed on the ground with prodigious bumps, which set everything in the room vibrating, and which could be plainly heard in the adjoining houses, through the thin brick walls on either side of her room.
An old gentleman in Guilsborough had an extremely narrow escape. Being warned on no account to practise flying in the house or garden, lest his grandchildren should see him and want to do the same, he retired to the seclusion of an old, disused and dilapidated coach house. Here, in the upper storey, he practised by the hour together. He climbed on to a stool which he had taken there for the purpose, and when he fancied he had acquired the right amount of concentration, he sprang into the air, arriving, presumably through want of will power, on the floor. For two whole days he practised—bump—bump—bump—and the more he bumped, the more he persevered. At last, however, the floor gave way, and with loud cries of "I will! I will!" he fell on the ground floor, ten feet below! He was unable to go on experimenting, owing to a broken leg and a fractured collar-bone.
In Aylsham, Norfolk, there had been a perfect epidemic among the children for trying aeronic gravity. Rudolph Crabbe, aged five, after listening to an account of the performances at the Modern Sorcery Company's Hall, which his father had read aloud, sprang off the dining-room table crying out "I will fly! I will stay in the air." Fortunately, he fell on the tabby cat, which somewhat broke the shock of concussion, and he escaped unhurt.
In College Road, Clifton, Bristol, an octogenarian thinking he would add novelty to the Jubilee celebrations at the College, leaped off the roof of his house, crying, "I'll fly over the Close! I will fly over the Close!"—and broke his neck.
In St. Ives, Cornwall, where the treatment of animals is none too humane, a fisher-boy threw a visitor's Pomeranian over the Malakoff saying, "You shall fly! You shall remain in the air;" whilst at Bath a girl of ten, snatching her baby brother from the perambulator, leaped over Beechen Cliff, calling out, "We will fly together! We will fly together!"
These are only a few of the many similar cases Shiel read in the paper, and which he narrated afterwards to Gladys Martin.
"I am quite convinced," Gladys said, "that Kelson does his flying through supernatural agency. His assertion that it can be done through mere will power, is sheer humbug. It wouldn't be a bad idea to consult a clairvoyant. What do you think?"
Shiel thought it was an excellent suggestion. He saw in it an opportunity of spending yet another afternoon in Gladys's company, and asked her to go with him to an occultist the very next day. When she assented, the pleasure of it tingled through every pore of his skin. Of course, Gladys assured herself there was no harm in her acceptance of Shiel's escort—that neither he nor she meant anything by it—that it was on her part merely a sort of an acknowledgment that he had been awfully good to her in her present predicament. Besides, if she needed further excuse, she had no reason for supposing Shiel to be in love with her—and had her father not spoken to her about it, she would not have remarked anything different in his glances, from the glances—for the time being, perhaps, earnest enough—bestowed upon her by other young men; which excuse, was, certainly, in Gladys's case, a more or less honest one.
They had some difficulty in selecting a psychometrist—so numerous were those who advertised, in an equally alluring manner—but they at length decided in favour of Madame Elvita, whose consulting rooms were in New Bond Street. When they arrived there, Madame Elvita was, of course, engaged. Shiel was delighted—it gave him an extra half-hour with Gladys. When Madame was free, she had much to tell them. First of all she spoke to them of Karmas, Kamadevas, Rupadevas, vitalized shells, etheric doubles, the Nermanakaya, and afterwards solemnly announced that she must relapse into a state of clairvoyance, in order to get in touch with Tillie Toot, a certain spirit from whom she could learn all that Gladys and Shiel wanted to know. Accordingly, in the manner of most other two-guinea clairvoyants, she composed herself in a graceful and recumbent attitude, made a lot of queer grimaces and still queerer noises, and spoke in a falsetto voice, which purposed to be that of Tillie Toot, once a barmaid in Edinburgh, now one of Madame's familiar spirits. And the gist of what "Tillie" told them was that Hamar & Co. derived their powers from Black Magic; and that the secrets thereof could only be learned from Madame, after a series of sittings with her—sittings for which Madame would only require a fee of fifty guineas: a most moderate, in fact quite trifling, sum, considering the wonderful instruction they would receive.
But Madame's magnanimous offer tempted neither Gladys nor Shiel; and they abruptly took their departure.
Kateroski (née Jones) in Regent Street, whom Gladys and Shiel had agreed to consult in the event of a non-successful visit to Madame Elvita in Bond Street, also told them that Black Magic was the key to Hamar, Curtis & Kelson's performances. She advised them to get on the Astral Plane, where they would meet spirits who would give them all the information they desired.
Madame Kateroski's instructions were simple. "It is really a matter of faith," she said. "All you have to do is to go to some secluded spot—the privacy of your bedroom will do admirably—sit down, close your eyes, look into your lids and concentrate hard. After a while you will no longer see your eyelids—your lids will fade away and you will be on the Astral Plane, and see strange creatures, which, although terrifying, won't harm you. When you get used to them, you will communicate with them, and learn from them all you want to know."
"Shall we try?" Gladys remarked laughingly to Shiel, as they stepped into the street. "But if faith is essential to success, I fear failure, as far as I am concerned, is a foregone conclusion. I know I shouldn't have sufficient faith."
"Nor I either," Shiel said. "But, perhaps, we could acquire a necessary amount of it, if we were to experiment together. Supposing we try in that delightfully secluded copse in your garden."
Gladys shook her head. "I'm afraid it would be useless. Besides, if my father were to hear of it, he would fear worry had turned my brain, and most likely have another fit. No, we must think of something more practical. In the meanwhile, if you will keep on with the part, you have so generously undertaken, you will be doing me an inestimable service."
"Then I'll keep on with it for ever," Shiel replied, and before she could stop him, he had kissed her hand.