17. The course of true love
"What's to be done with Matt?" Hamar asked Curtis, soon after the interview just recorded. "He's as sweet on Rosensberg as he can be, and says if I dismiss her he'll go too!"
"Then don't dismiss her," Curtis replied. "Leave them both alone, that's my tip. I don't believe Matt's such a fool as to fall in love, and I'm quite sure the girl isn't. Why, she went to the Tivoli with me two nights ago, and to the Empire with another fellow the night before that. It isn't in her to stick to one, she would go with any one who would treat her. Don't worry your head over that. Matt might say 'How about Leon and Gladys Martin.'"
"So he might, but there's no danger there. The girl is deuced pretty—splendid eyes, hair, teeth, hands and all that sort of thing, and I've set my heart on a bit of canoodling with her, but as for love! Well! it's not in my programme."
"Still, stranger things have happened," Curtis said. "Anyhow, I guess you're both mad and that I'm the only sane one. Give me a ten-course dinner at the Savoy, and you may have all the women in London—I don't go a cent on them."
To revert to Kelson. From the hour he had first seen Lilian Rosenberg he had become more and more deeply enamoured. In the hope of meeting her, he had hung about the halls and passages of the building; had never missed an opportunity of speaking to her, of feasting himself on the elfish beauty of her face, of squeezing her hand, and of telling her how much he admired her.
"You really mustn't," she said. "Mr. Hamar has given me strict orders to attend to nothing but my work."
"Oh, damn Hamar!" Kelson replied, "if I choose to talk to you it's no business of his. You've not treated me well. I got you the post, and it is I you should go out with, not Hamar."
And in the quiet nooks and corners, perched on the window-sill, with one eye kept warily on the guard for fear of interruptions, he told her his history—all about himself from the day of his birth—told her about his parents, his childhood, his schooldays, his hobbies and cranks, his indiscretions, extravagancies, his carousals, debts, flirtations, with just an excusable amount of exaggeration. He even went so far as to speak of a chronic rheumatism, of a twinge of hereditary gout, and of a slightly hectic cough with which, he suddenly remembered, he had at one time, been troubled.
"Don't you think," Lilian Rosenberg said, with mock earnestness, "you are somewhat rash! Have you forgotten that no woman can keep a secret—and you are not telling me one secret but many. Supposing in a fit of thoughtlessness or absent-mindedness, I were to divulge them! I should never forgive myself."
"Would it distress you so much?"
"Of course it would. I should be miserable," she laughed. And Kelson, unable to restrain himself, seized her hands and smothered them with kisses.
"Your fingers would look well covered with rings," he said. "I will give you some, and you shall come with me and choose. Only on no account tell Hamar." And he kissed her—not on the hands this time—but the lips.
Hamar saw him. He watched him from behind the angle of the passage wall, but he said nothing—at least, nothing to Kelson. It was to Lilian Rosenberg he spoke.
"It is really not my fault," she said. "I don't encourage him, and if you take my advice, you will not interfere, for I am sure at present he means nothing serious. He is the sort of man who imagines himself in love with every one he meets. If you prevent him seeing me, you may actually bring about the result you are most anxious to avoid."
"I'll risk that," Hamar said, "and I absolutely forbid you doing more than merely saying good morning to him. It is either that, or you must go."
"Well, of course I will do as you wish," Lilian said. "I don't care a snap for him; and, after all, you ought to know your own business best! It is only natural that you should want him to marry some one who can bring money into the Firm."
"I don't want him to marry at all, or anyhow, not yet. However, there is no necessity to discuss that point. We have definitely settled the line you are to adopt, and that is all I wanted to speak to you about. When next you feel inclined to flirt, come to me, and you shall have kisses as well as—rings."
It was shortly after this tête-à-tête that Lilian Rosenberg was interrupted in her work, by a rap at the door.
"Come in," she called, and a young man entered.
"I believe a clerk is wanted here," he explained. "I've come to apply for the situation. Can I see Mr. Hamar?"
"I'm afraid he's out. There's no one in at present," Lilian Rosenberg replied, eyeing the stranger critically "If you like to wait awhile, you may do so. Sit down." She signalled to him to take a chair and went on typing.
For some minutes the silence was unbroken, save for the tapping of fingers and the clicking of the machine. Then she looked up, and their eyes met.
"It's not pleasant to be out of work," he said. "Have you ever experienced it?"
"Once or twice," she said. "And I never wish to again. You don't look as if you were much used to office work."
"No! I'm an artist; but times are hard with us. The present Government has driven all the money out of the country and no one buys pictures now; so I'm forced to turn my hand to something else."
"I love pictures. My father was an artist."
"Then we have something in common," the young man said. "Would you like to see my work? I love showing it to people who understand something about painting, and are not afraid to criticize."
"I should like to see it, immensely—though I won't presume to criticize."
"May I inquire your name?" the young man asked eagerly. "Mine is Shiel Davenport."
"And mine—Lilian Rosenberg," the girl said, with a smile.
"If I don't get the post, may I write to you sometimes, Miss Rosenberg, and ask you to my studio. I call it a studio, though it's really only an attic."
Lilian Rosenberg nodded. "I shall be delighted to come," she said. "I am afraid I am very unconventional."
There was no time for further conversation, as Hamar entered the room at that moment.
"What do you want?" he asked curtly.
Shiel told him.
"You're too late," Hamar said. "I've engaged some one. If you'd called earlier, there might have been some chance for you, as you look tolerably intelligent. But it's no use now, so be off."
As Shiel left the room he caught Lilian Rosenberg looking at him; and he saw that her eyes were full of sympathy.
The acquaintance, thus begun, ripened. She went to see his pictures, they had tea together, and they spent many subsequent hours in each other's company. And although Shiel saw in Lilian Rosenberg only a rather prepossessing girl from whom, after cultivating her acquaintance, he was hoping to learn the inner working of the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd., with her it was different.
In Shiel, Lilian Rosenberg saw the qualities she had always been seeking—the qualities she had almost despaired of ever finding—and which she had so often declared existed only in fiction. He only interested her, she argued; but she forgot that interest as well as pity is akin to love—and that where the former leads, the latter almost invariably follows.
"I don't believe you have enough to eat," she said to him one day. "You are a perfect shadow. How do you exist if you have no private means?"
"I just manage to exist, and that is all," Shiel laughed, and he spoke the truth, his present state of semi-starvation having resulted from the untoward events, which had happened prior to his application for the post of clerk to the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd., and his subsequent acquaintance with Lilian Rosenberg.
Whilst John Martin had been ill, and he had helped at the Hall in Kings way, he had lived well. Gladys had taken care he was paid—not a big sum to be sure—but enough to keep him. But directly John Martin, in spite of Gladys's remonstrances, had resumed work, Shiel had been dismissed.
"I wish I could help you," John Martin said to him, "for I really feel grateful to you for all you have done, but to tell you the candid truth, I can't afford to pay any salaries. As you know, the receipts of the Hall are next to nothing; but the expenses continue just the same—rent, gas, and staff—all heavy items. Moreover, at your uncle's death, many of his creditors put in claims on the Firm for debts—debts he had incurred without either my sanction or knowledge—and it has been a serious drain on me to pay them off. In fact, my finances are now at such a low ebb that I cannot possibly do anything for you. If only the Modern Sorcery Company could be cleared off the scenes."
"You would, I suppose, feel extremely grateful to whoever cleared them off?"
"I would," John Martin replied, with a significant chuckle.
"Even though it were some one who had not stood very high in your estimation?"
"Even though it were the devil."
"Now, look here, Mr. Martin," Shiel said, trying to appear calm. "I will devote all my energies and all my time to your cause—the overthrow of the Modern Sorcery Company, if only—if only, in the event of my being successful, you will give me some hope of being permitted to win your daughter."
"I promise you that hope, and any other you may see fit to aspire to," John Martin said, with a grim smile, "since there isn't the remotest chance of your succeeding in the task you have set yourself. Believe me, it will take both money and wits to get the better of Hamar, Curtis and Kelson."
"Anyhow, I have your permission to try. I shall do my best."
"You may do what you like," John Martin rejoined, "so long as you don't talk to me again about Gladys till you've redeemed your pledge, that is to say, till you've overthrown the Modern Sorcery Company. In the meanwhile, I must ask you to abstain from seeing her."
"I am afraid I can't promise that."
"Can't promise that," John Martin cried, his eyes suffusing with sudden passion. "Can't you! Then damn it, you must. I'm not going to have my daughter throw herself away on a penniless puppy. There, curse it all, you know what I think of you now—you're a bumptious puppy, and I swear you shall not come within a mile of her."
"I shall," Shiel retorted, drawing himself up to his full height. "I shall see her whenever she will permit me—and since she is not at home at the present moment, I shall now await her return outside the house, and defy the savage old bull-dog inside it." Leaving John Martin too taken aback with astonishment to articulate a syllable, Shiel withdrew.
True to his word, he waited to see Gladys. He paced up and down the road in front of the house from eleven o'clock in the morning, when his interview with John Martin had terminated, till eight o'clock in the evening, and was just beginning to think he would have to give up all hope of seeing her that day, when she came in sight.
"Really!" she exclaimed, after Shiel had explained the situation. "Do you mean to say you have stayed here all day?"
"Of course I have," Shiel answered. "I told your father I would see you, and I meant to stay here till I did."
"And what good has it done you?"
"All the good in the world. I shall sleep twice as well for it. I'm more in love with you than you think, and I mean to marry you one day. My prospects at present are absolutely Thames Embankmentish, but no matter, I've hit upon a capital way of ferreting out the secrets of the Modern Sorcery Company. I shall get employed by them"—and he told Gladys of the advertisement he had seen in the paper.
"Well! I wish you all success," she said, "but I'm afraid you've upset my father dreadfully, and the doctor says excitement is the very worst thing for him and may lead to another stroke. You must on no account come here again, until I give you leave."
"But I may see you elsewhere?"
"If you're a wise man, you'll do one thing at a time. You'll discover the secret of the Sorcery Company first, and then—"
"When I have discovered it?"
"My father may forgive you. Have I told you I'm going on the stage? I know Bromley Burnham, and he's offered me a part at the Imperial. It is imperative now, that I should do something to help my father."
"If you become an actress," Shiel said bitterly, "my chances of marrying you will indeed be small."
"Not smaller than they are now," Gladys observed. "Au revoir." And with one of those tantalising and perplexing smiles, with which some women, consciously or unconsciously, counteract—and sometimes, perhaps, for reasons best known to themselves—completely nullify the needless severity of their speech, shook hands with Shiel, and left him.