26. In Hyde Park at night
But now that Lilian Rosenberg was possessed of all this information respecting the trio, she was once again in doubt how to act, or whether to act at all. Supposing she were to attempt to warn Gladys Martin against Hamar, how would Gladys take the warning? Would she pay any attention to it? The odds were she would not; that having set her heart on marrying Hamar for his money, she would blind herself to his faults and resolutely shut her ears to anything said against him. Also there was the very great possibility of Gladys being rude to her—and even the thought of this was more than she could bear to contemplate. If only Shiel were reasonable! If only he could be made to see how utterly ridiculous it was for him to think of winning such a girl as Gladys—Gladys the pretty, dolly-faced, pampered actress, who had never known a single hardship, had always had a well-lined purse, and would never, never marry poverty! Then back to Lilian Rosenberg's mind came her parting with Shiel—she recalled his intense scorn and indignation. A liar! He did not wish to have anything to do with a liar! It's a good thing every man is not so fastidious, she said to herself bitterly, or the population of the world would soon fizz out. She laughed. He had never questioned her morals in any other sense—perhaps, in his innocence or assumed innocence, he had thought them spotless—at all events he had most graciously ignored them. But a liar! A liar—he could not put up with. And why! Because the lie had touched him on a sore point. When lies do not touch a sore point, they, too, are ignored.
She walked to the Imperial and looked again at Gladys's photographs. How any man could fall madly in love with such a face, was more than she could conceive. It was a mincing, maudlin, finicking face—it irritated her intensely. She turned away from it in disgust, yet came back to have another look—and yet another. God knows why! It fascinated her. Finally she left it, fully resolved to let its odious original go to her fate—without a warning. Soon after her return to the Hall in Cockspur Street, she was sent for by Hamar.
"Didn't I tell you," he said, "that you were on no account to encourage Mr. Kelson?"
"You did!" Lilian Rosenberg replied.
"Will you kindly explain, then," Hamar said, "why you have disobeyed my orders?"
"How have I disobeyed them?" Lilian Rosenberg asked.
"How!" Hamar retorted, his cheeks white with passion. "You dare to inquire how! Why, you were on the point of accompanying him to his rooms last night to supper, when I stopped you! I have overlooked your disobedience so many times that I can do so no longer. Your services will not be required by the Firm after to-day fortnight."
"Won't they?" Lilian Rosenberg replied, her anger rising. "I think you are mistaken. I know a great deal too much to make it safe for you to part with me. I know—for instance—all about your Compact with the Unknown!"
"You know nothing," Hamar said, his voice faltering.
"Oh, yes, I do!" Lilian Rosenberg answered. "I know everything. I know how you first got in communication with the Unknown in San Francisco; I know how you receive fresh powers from the Unknown every three months (the old powers being cancelled). I know the penalty you will undergo should the Compact be broken—and—what is more—I know how the Compact can be broken."
"How the deuce have you learned all this?" Hamar stammered.
"Never you mind. Am I to remain in your service or leave?"
"I think," Hamar said, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "it is better that you should remain—better for all parties. I owe you some little recompense for your loyalty to the Firm, and for the admirable way you spoke up for the Firm in Court. I will make you out a cheque for a hundred pounds now—and your salary shall be doubled at the end of this week. Promise to keep out of Mr. Kelson's way in future—for the next six months at any rate—after that time you may see him as often as you like—and I will give you as a wedding present a cheque for twenty thousand pounds!"
"Twenty thousand pounds! You are joking!"
"I'm not. I vow and declare I mean it. Is that a bargain?"
"I will certainly think it well over," Lilian Rosenberg said, "and let you know my decision later on."
From what Curtis had told her she knew it was the last day of stage four, that the trio that evening would be initiated into stage five—the Stage of Cures, and a mad desire seized her to witness the initiation. But how would the Unknown manifest itself on this occasion—and to which of the trio? She could not keep a close watch on the three of them. If only she had been friends with Shiel, they might, in some way, have worked it together. Curtis had carefully avoided her since the supper; but she had seen Kelson, and he had looked at her each time he met her as if he yearned to fall down at her feet and worship her. Should she attach herself to him for the evening—and run the risk of another quarrel with Hamar? She dearly loved risks and dangers—and the danger she would encounter in defying Hamar appealed to her sporting nature. It was easy to secure Kelson—one glance from her eyes—and he would have followed her to Timbuctoo.
"Charing Cross—under clock—after show to-night," she whispered as she flew hurriedly past him. "I want to speak to you."
Now it so happened that Hamar had given Kelson orders to return to his rooms, directly the performance was over, and to remain in them till morning, in case he was wanted in connection with the initiation. But he might have spared himself the trouble. It was Lilian, and Lilian only, that Kelson now thought of—it was Lilian, and Lilian only, that he would obey. The idea of meeting her—of having her all to himself—of being able to do her a service—filled him with such uncontrollable delight, that he hardly knew how to comport himself so as not to arouse Hamar's suspicions. Directly the performance was over he sneaked out of the Hall, and pretending not to hear Hamar, who called after him, he jumped into a taxi, and was whirled away to the trysting-place. Lilian Rosenberg, who arrived a moment later, was dressed in a new costume, and Kelson thought her looking smarter and daintier than ever.
"You shall kiss me at once," she said, "if you promise me one thing."
"And what is that?" he asked, looking hungrily at her lips.
"I want you to let me see the Unknown when it comes to you to-night," she said.
"Good God! What do you know about the Unknown!" he exclaimed, his jaws falling, and a look of terror creeping into his eyes.
"A great deal," she laughed, "so much that I want to learn more"—and of what she knew she told him, just as much as she had told Hamar. "And now," she said, "I repeat my promise—you shall have a kiss—think of that—if only you will hide me somewhere so that I can see the Unknown or its emissary."
"I would do anything for a kiss," Kelson said, "but I fear it is impossible to fulfil the condition, because I haven't the remotest idea where or when the Unknown will appear. Besides, it is just as likely to go to Hamar or Curtis as to come to me; and up to the present I haven't felt the remotest suggestion of its favouring me. Is this the only condition I can fulfil, so that you will let me kiss you?"
"Certainly," Lilian Rosenberg replied. "I am not in the habit of being kissed. Such an event can only happen in the most exceptional and privileged circumstances—such, for example, as exist at the present moment, when I ask you to put yourself to some considerable trouble—if not actually to incur danger—in order to accomplish what I wish."
"And yet I remember kissing you unconditionally," Kelson commented.
"Memory is a fickle thing," Lilian Rosenberg replied, "and so is woman. Times have changed. I'll leave you at once, unless you promise to do your very utmost to grant my request."
Kelson promised, and—after they had had supper at the Trocadero, suggested that they should take a stroll in Hyde Park.
"I hope you are not awfully shocked?" he inquired rather anxiously, "but a sudden impulse has come over me to go there. I believe it is the will of the Unknown. Will you come with me?"
"We shan't be able to get in, shall we, it's so late?" Lilian Rosenberg said. "Otherwise I should like to—I'm rather in a mood for adventure."
"They don't shut the gates till twelve," Kelson said, "and it's not that yet."
"Very well, let's go, then. I'm game to go anywhere to see the Unknown," and so saying Lilian rose from the table, and Kelson followed her into the street.
They took a taxi, and alighting at Hyde Park Corner entered the Park. It was very dark and deserted.
"It's nearly closing time," a policeman called out to them rather curtly.
"We are only taking a constitutional," Kelson explained. "We shall be back in five minutes."
They crossed the road to the statue, and were deliberating which direction to take, when they heard a groan.
"It's only some poor devil of a tramp," Kelson said. "The benches are full of them—they stay here all night. We had better, perhaps, turn back."
"Nonsense!" Lilian Rosenberg replied. "I'm not a bit afraid. There's another groan. I'm going to see what's up," and before he could stop her she had disappeared in the darkness. "Here I am," she called; "come, it's some one ill."
Plunging on, in the darkness, Kelson at last found Lilian. She was sitting on a chair under a tree, by the side of a man, who was lying, curled up, on the ground.
"He's had nothing to eat for two days, and has Bright's Disease," Lilian Rosenberg announced. "Can't we do something for him?"
"Two gentlemen told me just now," the man on the ground groaned, "that if I stayed here for a couple of hours—they would pass by again and guarantee to cure me. I reckoned there was no cure for Bright's Disease, when it is chronic, like it is in my case; but they laughed, and said, 'We can—or at least—shall be able to cure anything.'"
"What were the two gentlemen like?" Kelson asked.
"How could I tell?" the man moaned. "I couldn't see their faces any more than I can see yours—but they talked like you. Twang—twang—twang—all through their noses."
"Sounds as if it might be Hamar and Curtis," Kelson remarked.
"That's it!" the man ejaculated. "'Amar. I heard the other fellow call him by that name."
"How long ago is it since they were here?" Kelson asked.
"I can't say, perhaps ten minutes. I've lost count of time and everything else, since I've slept out here. They talked of going to the Serpentine."
"We had better try and find them," Kelson said.
"If you had the money couldn't you get shelter for the night," Lilian Rosenberg said. "It must be awful to lie out here in the cold, feeling ill and hungry."
"I dare say some place would take me in," the man muttered, "only I couldn't walk—at least no distance."
"Well! here's five shillings," Lilian Rosenberg said, "put it somewhere safe—and try and hobble to the gates. If they haven't closed them, you will be all right."
"Five shillings!" the man gasped; "that's—it's no good—I can't count. I've no head now. Thank you, missy! God bless you. I'll get something hot—something to stifle the pain." He struggled on to his knees, and Lilian Rosenberg helped him to rise.
"How could you be so foolish as to touch him," Kelson said, as they started off down a path, they hoped would take them to the Serpentine. "You may depend upon it, he was swarming with vermin—tramps always are."
"Very probably, but I run just as much risk in a 'bus, the twopenny tube, or a cinematograph show. Besides, I can't see a human being helpless without offering help. Listen! there's some one else groaning! The Park is full of groans."
What she said was true—the Park was full of groans. From every direction, borne to them by the gently rustling wind, came the groans of countless suffering outcasts—legions of homeless, starving men and women. Some lay right out in the open on their backs, others under cover of the trees, others again on the seats. They lay everywhere—these shattered, tattered, battered wrecks of humanity—these gangrened exiles from society, to whom no one ever spoke; whom no one ever looked at; whom no one would even own that they had seen; whose lot in life not even a stray cat envied. Here were two of them—a man and a woman tightly hugged in each other's embrace—not for love—but for warmth. Lilian Rosenberg almost fell over them, but they took no notice of her. Every now and then, one of them would emerge from the shelter of the trees, and cross the grass in the direction of the distant, gleaming water, with silent, stealthy tread. Once a tall, gaunt figure, suddenly sprang up and confronted the two adventurers; but the moment Kelson raised his stick, it jabbered something wholly unintelligible, and sped away into the darkness.
"A scene like this makes one doubt the existence of a good God," Lilian Rosenberg said.
"It makes one doubt the existence of anything but Hell," Kelson said. "Compared with all this suffering—the suffering of these thousands of hungry, hopeless wretches—the bulk of whom are doubtless tortured incessantly, with the pains of cancer and tuberculosis, to say nothing of neuralgia and rheumatism—Dante's Inferno and Virgil's Hades pale into insignificance. The devil is kind compared with God."
"I believe you are right," Lilian Rosenberg said, "I never thought the devil was half as bad as he was painted. The Park to-night gives the lie direct to the ethics of all religions, and to the boasted efforts of all governments, churches, chapels, hospitals, police, progress and civilization. There is no misery, I am sure, to vie with it in any pagan land, either now or at any other period in the world's history."
"True," Kelson replied, "and why is it? It is because civilization has killed charity. Giving—in its true sense—if it exists at all—is rarely to be met with—giving in exchange—that is, in order to gain—flourishes everywhere. People will subscribe for the erection of monuments to kings and statesmen, or to well-known and, often, richly-endowed charitable institutes, in exchange for the pleasure of seeing, in the newspapers, a list of the subscribers' names, and themselves included amongst those whom they consider a peg above them socially; or in exchange for votes, or notoriety, they will give liberally to the brutal strikers, or outings for poor."
"I suppose, by the poor, you mean the pampered, ill-mannered and detestably conceited County Council children," Lilian Rosenberg chimed in. "I wouldn't give a farthing to such a miscalled charity, no—not if I were rolling in riches."
"And I think you would be right," Kelson replied. "But for these really poor Park refugees it is a different matter. Obviously, no one will make the slightest effort to work up the public interest on their behalf, simply because they are labelled 'useless.' They belong nowhere—they have no votes—they are too feeble to combine—they are even too feeble to commit an atrocious murder; consequently, for the help they would receive, they could give nothing in return. By the bye, I doubt if they could muster between them a pair of suspenders—a bootlace—a shirt-button, or even a—"
Lilian Rosenberg caught him by the arm. "Stop," she said, "that's enough. Don't get too graphic. What's the matter with that tree?"
They were now close beside the banks of the Serpentine; the moon had broken through its covering of black clouds, and they perceived some twenty yards ahead of them, a tall, isolated lime, that was rocking in a most peculiar manner.