16. Hamar makes advances
The doctors had stated that the tenth day would see the crisis of John Martin's illness; if he could tide over that period, he might go on for years without another attack. When the momentous day arrived, Gladys was simply eating her heart out with suspense. Not a sound was permitted in the house. The servants, tiptoeing about, hardly ventured even to exchange glances; the errand boys were waylaid and sent to the right-about, with a vague notion that if they opened their mouths their heads would be off; and some one was posted at the garden gate to deal, in a scarcely less summary manner, with visitors. Indeed, so fearful was Gladys lest her father should hear Shiel, who had managed to elude her outpost, that without meaning it, she greeted him curtly, and, more plainly than politely, gave him to understand that she wished him elsewhere.
"What have you been saying to Shiel Davenport?" Miss Templeton asked Gladys, when they met at lunch. "I passed him in the road just now, and he looked so wretched that, despite his ineligibility, I felt quite sorry for him. I am sure he is very much in love with you."
"Nonsense," Gladys said, "he is only a boy." But boy though it pleased her to call him, she knew that he had played a man's part during her father's illness. Every night he had faithfully performed the rôle, she had allotted to him, at the Kingsway Hall, and upon him she was forced to admit the success of the entertainment, in a large measure, depended. Without pushing himself, or being the least bit officious, he had been equally helpful behind the scenes. He had held in check all those who, taking advantage of her father's absence, were disposed to dispute her authority and shirk their work—and he had also, on her behalf, successfully resisted their demand for higher wages. And, over and above all this, he had always considered her personal comfort. Her meals—which she could never bother about for herself, when engaged all day at the hall—were, thanks to him, brought to her as punctually, and served as daintily, as they would have been for her father; he had taken every care that she should not be disturbed when resting; and there was, in short, nothing he had not thought of doing to lighten the load, so unexpectedly laid upon her shoulders. The only fault she could find with him, was that he had not gained the good graces of her father.
The day slowly waned. Gladys had stolen into her father's room repeatedly to see how he fared, and to her his condition had seemed much about the same—he was as usual tired and peevish. But when, at six o'clock, she again stole in to peep at him, and found him lying back on his pillow absolutely still and motionless, and without apparently breathing, she was immeasurably shocked. Had he had another fit, or was he dead? Wild with grief and terror, she rushed from the room to telephone to the doctor, and met him on the landing.
"You need have no fear," he said to her the moment he had looked at John Martin, "he is sound asleep, and, when he awakes, the crisis will be past. To-morrow, he may go out for a bit, and, in a week, he will be himself again. Only you must take care that he does not use his brain too much."
Gladys could hardly restrain her delight. She felt pleased with everything and everybody; and her greeting of Shiel, some two hours later, at the theatre, almost turned his brain. In fact it was owing to this pleasant surprise, that he made one or two stupid mistakes in his performance, and was sharply pulled back to earth by the ironic laughter of the audience. When the entertainment was over, and he was preparing to accompany Gladys as usual to her motor, the thought of her sparkling eyes and animated features again overcame him.
"What shall you advise your father to do?" he asked.
"I think he ought to lose no time in getting a partner," Gladys replied, "some one who can attend to the business side of the concern for him. It is essential he should not be worried with figures."
"I suppose my services won't be required much longer?" Shiel said, speaking with rather an effort.
"Of course I can't answer for my father," Gladys replied, "but I should imagine he would be only too glad to employ you. The only thing is the salary. You can't live on air, you know, and with the poor attendances he gets now, I don't see how he can afford to pay much."
"I would work for very little," Shiel said. "I should be awfully sorry to give up now. I wonder if you would miss me at all?"
"Of course I should!" Gladys retorted. "You have behaved admirably, and I am most grateful to you."
"You needn't be grateful to me. I have never enjoyed anything half so much as I have trying to help you. I am poor, penniless in fact, since my uncle left me nothing, but supposing—supposing I were to get some lucrative post, do you think—do you think there would ever be any possibility of—"
"Of your caring for me! I am terribly in love with you."
"I fear I must have given you encouragement," Gladys said. "I'm awfully sorry. You see I never thought of this, and I don't know what to say to you."
"Won't you give me a chance, just a chance?"
"But my father would never hear of it. Unfortunately he seems to be prejudiced against you. Won't you wait a while, and then, if you are still in the same mind, speak to me again in—say—a year. By that time you will, no doubt, have made some sort of a position for yourself."
"And in the meanwhile you will get engaged to some one else," Shiel exclaimed.
"I don't think I shall," Gladys said. "Of course, I meet crowds of men, but you see I am not the marrying sort."
"Do you think you would care for me just a bit?" Shiel asked eagerly.
"A tiny, tiny bit, perhaps," Gladys said, "but I'm not at all sure. I can think of no one now but my father, so that if you value my good opinion, or really want to prove your devotion to me, you must, for the time being, devote yourself to him. Who knows—it may lie in your power to do him some service."
"I don't see how," Shiel replied, somewhat despondingly. "But no matter—after you, your father and your father's affairs shall be my first consideration. You will let me see you sometimes, won't you?"
"Sometimes," Gladys laughed. "Good-bye! Don't make any mistakes to-morrow. Your performance to-night was not as good as usual." And, with this somewhat cruel remark, she stepped lightly into her motor, and drove off.
Shiel now gave way to despair. There are few conditions in life so utterly unenviable as penury and love—to be next door to starving, and at the same time in love. Day after day Shiel, who was thus afflicted, had revelled in Gladys's company, and had intoxicated himself with her beauty, fully aware that for each moment of pleasure there would, later on, be a corresponding moment of pain. It was only in romance, he told himself, that the penniless lover suddenly finds himself in a position to marry—in reality, his love suit is rejected with scorn; his adored one marries some one who has, or pretends he has, limitless wealth; and the despised swain ends his days a miserable and dejected bachelor.
All the same, Shiel determined that he would for once fare like the hero in romance—that he would either win the object of his affections or perish in the attempt; and no sooner did the fit of the blues, consequent on the conversation just related, wear off, than he set to work in grim earnest to discover some means of breaking up the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd., and of restoring to the firm of Martin and Davenport their former prestige.
In the meanwhile, affairs were by no means stationary, as far as Hamar and his colleagues were concerned. The appearance of their paper To-morrow, a morning journal, that chronicled faithfully every event of the following day, caused a tremendous sensation; and the sale of every other paper sank to nil—no one, naturally, wanting to buy the news that had happened yesterday, when, for the same money, they could obtain news of what would happen that very day. The stupid method of chronicling past events, Hamar announced in the first issue of his organ, was now obsolete. It was, perhaps, good enough for the Victorian era, but it was utterly out of keeping with the present age of hourly progress. Who, for instance, wanted to know that at 6 p.m., on the preceding evening, there had been a big fire in New York? Was it not far more to the point for them to learn, for example, that at 2 p.m., on that very day, Rio de Janeiro would be partially destroyed by an earthquake; that the Post Office in King's Road, Chelsea, would be broken into by thieves; that Nelson's Monument in Trafalgar Square would be blown up by Suffragettes; or something equally fresh and exciting? One cannot get thrills—at least not the right kind of thrills in reading of what has already taken place. To say to ourselves, or to a friend, "Just fancy, we might have been in that railway accident," or, in reading of a shipwreck "What a mercy we did not embark after all, is it not?" is not half as enthralling as to be wondering if, at eleven o'clock that night, when the terrific storm in which twenty-six people will be killed by lightning in various parts of England, we shall be among the fatal number. One is not much moved to find oneself alive when a danger is passed, but one does get terribly excited in contemplating the risk we are bound to run of being killed. Within a week, the circulation of To-morrow had gone up from fifty thousand to ten million, and Hamar, inflated with success, said to himself, "Now I will go and have another look at John Martin."
When he arrived, Gladys was in the garden. His stealthy approach had given her no chance to escape.
"What is your business?" she asked, glancing nervously in the direction of the house, and dreading lest her father should see Hamar from his window.
"I've come to see your father," Hamar said, his eyes resting admiringly on her face and then running leisurely over her figure. "How is the old gentleman?"
"He is not well enough to see visitors," Gladys said, with absolute hauteur. "Perhaps you will state your business to me."
"Well! I don't mind if I do!" Hamar replied. "Let us sit down. It's more comfortable than standing." And he dropped into a seat as he spoke. "Now I've been noticing," he went on, "that your Show in the Kingsway is not getting on very well—that there are fewer and fewer people there every night, and I've no doubt it will soon have to dry up altogether. We, on the other hand, are doing better and better every night, and we shall go on doing better—there is no limit to our possibilities. We are worth half a million now—next year, we shall be worth ten times that amount!"
"You are optimistical, at all events," Gladys said.
"I can afford to be," Hamar grinned. "Now, do you know what we intend doing before very long?"
"I haven't the least idea, and I am not in the slightest degree curious."
"Aren't you? Well, you should be, since it concerns you. We mean to buy up the whole of Kingsway!"
"And later on, of course, the whole of Regent Street!"
"You are satirical. You are not alarmed at the prospect of having me for a landlord!"
"I don't understand you! The Hall in Kingsway is my father's own property."
"If that is so then you have nothing to fear," Hamar laughed, "but I think it just possible you are mistaken. At any rate, I've been in communication with some one styling himself the landlord."
"My father would have an agreement, anyhow!" Gladys said.
"Of course," Hamar replied, "and I've a pretty shrewd idea of the terms of it. But enough of this—let me come to the point. I intend buying the property, and I shall refuse to renew your father's lease, unless he agrees to give me what I want!"
"Of course a preposterous price?"
"No, you—only you!"
"Yes! I've never seen a girl I like more. I've limitless wealth and I'll give you everything you want—a steam yacht, motors, diamonds, anything, everything, and all I ask in return is that you should consent to be engaged to me on trial—say for fifteen months—just to see how we get on! What pretty hands you have."
And before Gladys could draw them away, he had caught hold of them in an iron grasp, and, turning them over, cast admiring glances at the slim, white fingers with the long, almond-shaped and carefully manicured nails.
"I reckon," he said, "I shall never find any one prettier all through. What do you say?"
"Your proposition is impossible—monstrous! I detest you," Gladys retorted, her cheeks white with anger. "Leave go my hands at once, and never let me see you again!"
"I can't promise not to see you again," Hamar said, "but I'll let go your hands now, for I'm no more a lover of scenes than you. I anticipated a little fuss at first—it's the way all you women have—you are so modest, you don't like to appear too eager to snap up a good offer. You'll close with it right enough in the end. I'll call again in a few days. By that time you may have changed your mind." And, before she could prevent him, he had again seized her hand and was kissing it over and over again.
With an ejaculation of the utmost indignation, she sprang away from him, and with all the dignity she could assume, walked to the house. What became of him she did not know. Some few seconds later she told the gardener to see him safely off the premises, but he was nowhere to be found.
A week later, Hamar turned up again at the Cottage, and, despite the vigilance of Gladys and the servants, caught John Martin alone.
When the latter, at last, came to the end of what had, at first, seemed an inexhaustible stock of invectives, Hamar stated his proposals with mathematical exactitude.
"I don't believe for one moment my landlord would be such a blackguard as to play into your hands," John Martin spluttered.
"Oh, yes, he would!" Hamar replied. "An Englishman will do anything for money, and I am prepared to offer him just twice as much as any one else for your Hall. Do you think he will refuse—not he!"
"But what on earth's your object! You've ruined me already."
"Your daughter!" Hamar cried. "Miss Gladys! I am prepared to go any lengths to get her. Refuse to give her to me and I'll turn you out of your Hall, I'll torment you with every kind of insect, I'll plague you with disease, I'll make your life hell. But give her to me—and I'll—"
"But I won't! And I defy you to do your worst, you—you—" and there is no knowing what would have happened, had not Gladys suddenly come in and dragged her father out of the room.
"How dare you?" she exclaimed, returning to the study to find Hamar still there. "I've telephoned to the police, and unless you go instantly and promise not to come again, I shall give you in charge, for annoyance."
"Foolish of you—very foolish!" Hamar said, "when I want to be friendly. Sooner or later you must give in, so why not end all this needless unpleasantness now, and receive me—if not with open arms—at least amicably. You are so awfully pretty! I must have just one——" but before he could kiss Gladys the police arrived, and Hamar once more retired—with somewhat undignified haste, and more than a little discomfited.
On arriving in Cockspur Street, Hamar's temper underwent a still further trial. Kelson, taking advantage of his absence, had gone off to tea with Lilian Rosenberg.
In ill-suppressed fury, he waited till they returned.
"A word with you, Matt," he said, as Kelson tried to shuffle past him. "So this is the way you behave when my back is turned. I suppose you've had a good time!"
"And you know the consequences!"
"Only that I'm looking forward to the same thing another day."
"She won't," Kelson chuckled. "She is far too valuable. So there, old man! A month ago your threat might have held good. It won't now. You daren't—you positively daren't part with her—because, if you did so, you'd not only part with a good few of your secrets, but you'd part with me."