28. Whom will he marry?
Had Lilian Rosenberg been able to see the effect of her conversation upon Shiel after she had left him, she would have been disappointed. He had, prior to this interview with Lilian Rosenberg, as he told her, made up his mind to abandon all idea of marrying Gladys Martin; and there is a possibility that had her name not been mentioned, had she not been recalled so vividly to his mind, he would have adhered to that resolution—at all events so long as he refrained from seeing her. But such is human nature—or at least man's nature—that directly Lilian Rosenberg had left him, Shiel's love for Gladys burst out with such wild, invigorated force that it swept reason and everything else before it. Gladys! He could think of nothing else! Every detail in her appearance, every word she had spoken, came back to him with exaggerated intensity. Her beauty was sublime. There was no one like her, no one that could inspire him with such a sense of ideality, no one that could lead him on to such dizzy heights of greatness. It was all nonsense to say, as Lilian Rosenberg had said, there were just as many good fish in the sea as had ever come out of it—there was only one Gladys. Hamar should never marry her—he would marry her himself. She must be told at once of Hamar's infamous designs. A mad desire to see her came over him, and disregardful of the doctor's orders that he should remain in bed several more days, he got up, and dressing as fast as his weak condition would allow him, took a taxi and drove to Waterloo.
On reaching the Cottage, at Kew, he found Gladys at home, and to his great joy, alone.
There is nothing that appeals to a woman more than a sick man, and Shiel, in coming to Gladys in his present condition, had unwittingly played a trump card. Had he appeared well and strong she would probably have received him none too cordially—for she was very tired of men just then; but the moment her eyes alighted on his thin cheeks and she saw the dark rings under his eyes, pity conquered. This man at least was not to blame—he was not of the same pattern as other men, he was not like so many men whose adulations had grown fulsome to her, and—he was totally unlike Hamar.
In very sympathetic tones she inquired how he was, and on learning that he had been sufficiently ill to be kept in bed, asked why he had not told her.
"Aunty and I would have called to see you," she said, "and brought you jelly and other nice things. Who waited on you, had you no nurse?"
Fearful lest he should give her the impression he was speaking for effect, or trying to trade on her feelings (Shiel was one of those people who are painfully exact), he told her as simply as he could just how he had been placed.
"But why come here," Gladys demanded, "when you were told to stay in bed till the end of the week. It is frightfully risky."
Shiel then explained to her the purport of his visit.
"Then it was to warn me, to put me on my guard against Hamar, that you disobeyed the doctor's orders," she said.
Shiel nodded. "You are not displeased, are you?" he asked nervously.
"I am displeased with you for thinking so little of yourself," Gladys said, "and more than obliged to you for thinking so much of me. You know I only consented to marry Mr. Hamar to save my father—and you say he no longer has the power to work spells?"
"I believe that to be a fact," Shiel replied.
"Then he lied to me!" Gladys observed. "He threatened that unless I saw him as often as he wished, and went with him wherever he wanted, and a good many more things, he would inflict my father with every conceivable disease. You are quite sure your information is correct?"
"Then, thank God!" Gladys said with a great sigh of relief. "I shall know how to act now."
"You will break off your engagement?" Shiel inquired eagerly.
"No! I can't do that!" Gladys said sadly. "I've promised to marry Mr. Hamar, and, therefore, marry him I must."
"Promises made under such conditions are mere extortions, they don't count."
"I fear they do," Gladys replied. "I've never yet broken my word."
"Then there's no hope for me," Shiel gasped. "I must go—it maddens me to see you the affianced bride of that devil."
He rose to go, but had hardly gained his feet, when his strength utterly failed and he collapsed. Gladys helped him into a chair, and then flew for some brandy. In the hall, she met her aunt, who had just returned from an afternoon call. In a few words she explained what had happened.
"Poor young man," Miss Templeton said. "I thought he looked very ill the last time I saw him. And he came here solely to benefit you! Well, you have a good deal to answer for, and your face is not only your own misfortune, but other people's too. But it will never do for your father to see Mr. Davenport. He went off in a very bad temper this morning, and if he comes back and finds him here, there'll be a scene."
Miss Templeton and Gladys consulted together for some minutes, and then decided to send for a taxi and have Shiel conveyed back to his rooms, Miss Templeton accompanying him.
Miss Templeton knew that Shiel was poor, but like most people who have lived in comfortable surroundings all their lives, she had no idea of what poverty was like—the poverty of a seven-and-sixpenny a week room in a back street; and when she saw it she nearly swooned.
"Why this is a slum!" she ejaculated as the taxi stopped next door to a fried fish shop in a narrow street swarming with children sucking bread and jam, and rolling each other over in the gutters.
"I don't wonder the man is ill here!" she said to herself, as the door of the house they stopped at opened and she snuffed the atmosphere. "The place reeks—and—oh! gracious! is this the landlady?"
Yet the woman was ordinary enough—the type of landlady one sees in all back streets—greasy face, straggling hair, dirty blouse, black hands, bitten fingernails, short skirts, prodigious feet, a grubby child clinging on to her dress and every indication of the speedy arrival of another.
"I suppose you're 'is mother hain't you, mum?" she said, gaping at Miss Templeton's rather fashionable clothes in open-mouthed wonder. "I told 'im 'ee ought not to go out, but 'ee never 'eeds what I says."
Miss Templeton, though not particularly flattered at being taken for Shiel's mother—since, like most ladies of mature age, she wished to be regarded as much younger—nevertheless, thought it better not to disillusion the woman. The poor, she told herself, often have very decided views on propriety. With the woman's aid she got Shiel upstairs, and, as he was too feeble to undress himself, despite his protestations, helped to disrobe him. She had thought, when she first saw the slum, of returning to Kew at once, but she did no such thing. She stayed with Shiel; persuaded the landlady to make him some gruel (which proved to be a sorry mess, but had at least the advantage of being hot), and bribed one of the children to fetch the doctor. Shiel nearly died. Had it not been for the careful nursing and good food provided by Miss Templeton, who visited him every day, he would never have turned the corner.
"The poor boy is terribly fond of you," Miss Templeton said to Gladys. "In his delirium he talked of nothing but saving you from Leon Hamar—from that devil Leon Hamar—and if one can place any reliance at all, on the ravings of a sick man, a devil, Leon Hamar undoubtedly is. What a pity it is Shiel hasn't money."
These remarks were naturally not without effect on Gladys, and she could not help growing more and more interested in the man, whose love for her had proved so deep-rooted and ideal, that he had practically sacrificed his life, in an attempt to serve her. Finally, she found herself awaiting her aunt's daily report of his illness with an anxiety that was almost acute.
In the meanwhile, John Martin came home one evening in a rare state of excitement.
"What do you think!" he exclaimed, throwing a bundle of letters on the table, "one of Dick's speculations has turned out trumps, after all. He had invested several thousands of pounds—in Shiel's name—in enamel-ivorine, the new stuff for stopping teeth, which looks exactly like part of the teeth. I remember I thought it an absurd venture at the time, but for once in a way I was wrong—"
"Ahem!" interrupted Gladys.
"There has been a sudden boom in the patent, every dentist is using it, and, as a consequence, the shares have risen enormously. I've heard from Dick's lawyer to-day that Shiel is now worth fifty thousand pounds!"
"Good heavens!" Miss Templeton ejaculated, "and Gladys has bound herself to Hamar! I suppose," she said afterwards, when John Martin and she were alone together, "that you would not have any objection to Shiel now, if Gladys were free to marry him."
"Certainly not!" John Martin said, "certainly not, I always liked Shiel. A fine manly young fellow, very different to the type one usually meets nowadays. I only wish Gladys were free!"
"You would raise no obstacle to her becoming engaged to Shiel?"
"None whatsoever! But what's the good of talking about an impossibility. Gladys is stubbornness itself—when once she has made up her mind to do a thing, nothing in God's world will make her not do it."
"Wait," Miss Templeton said, "wait and see. I think I can see a possible way out of it."
She had learned much from Shiel in his "wanderings." He had constantly alluded to Hamar, Curtis, Kelson—and Lilian Rosenberg; to the great compact, and to the one possible way of breaking that compact—namely through the instigation of a quarrel between the trio. From several of the statements he had made, Miss Templeton deduced that Kelson was greatly under the influence of Lilian Rosenberg—and it was from these statements that she finally received an inspiration.
Miss Templeton saw deeper than Shiel—it had always been her custom to read between the lines. "Now," she argued, "if Kelson were so easily influenced by Lilian Rosenberg, who was young and attractive, it was almost a sine quâ non that he was in love with her," and as marriage was one of the eventualities strictly forbidden to the trio in the compact—"they must neither quarrel nor marry," Shiel had exclaimed—here was their chance. Kelson must marry Lilian Rosenberg, and by so doing, break the compact and overwhelm the trio in some sudden and dire catastrophe. But the marriage must take place within six months' time. How could that be arranged? Could Lilian Rosenberg be bribed or persuaded into it? for of course Miss Templeton being a woman—albeit an old maid—had at once divined that Lilian Rosenberg was in love with Shiel—that she did not care a straw for Kelson, and that to marry the latter she would need some very strong inducement. And the only inducement she could think of was Lilian's genuine love for Shiel.
"Yes, it is upon this one weakness of Lilian's that I must work," she said to herself. "It is the only way I can see of saving Gladys."
Resolved at any rate to experiment upon these lines, she lost no time in seeking out Lilian Rosenberg, who received her very coldly and was distinctly rude.
"What have my affairs to do with you? Who sent you here?" she demanded.
"Humanity!" Miss Templeton replied. "I have come entirely of my own accord to plead the cause of one who is seriously ill—possibly dying!"
"Seriously ill!—possibly dying!" Lilian Rosenberg said incredulously, nevertheless, turning pale. "Mr. Davenport is surely not as bad as all that!"
"When did you see him last?" Miss Templeton asked.
"A fortnight ago," Lilian Rosenberg replied. "I have been inundated with work the past two weeks."
"Then you've not heard that he's had a relapse," Miss Templeton said, "and is now in a most critical condition! He has something on his mind, and the doctor assures me that whilst he is still worrying over that something, there is no chance of his recovery."
"Do you know what it is—the something?" Lilian Rosenberg asked, the white on her cheeks intensifying.
"Yes!" Miss Templeton said slowly, and trying to appear calm. "He is very worried about Miss Martin's engagement to Mr. Hamar."
"And why, pray?"
"Because he knows all about Mr. Hamar—and the compact."
"He has told you?"
"I have gleaned it from what he has said in his delirium."
"Has he been as ill as that?"
"Yes, he has. He had a temperature of a hundred and four the day before yesterday."
For a few moments there was silence. Then Lilian Rosenberg said, "Can you believe what a man says in delirium?"
"In this instance I feel sure you can," Miss Templeton replied.
"Why should Miss Martin's engagement be of such interest to Mr. Davenport?"
Miss Templeton thought for a moment. "Because," she said at last, "he is in love with her."
"Are you sure of it?"
"Do you think she cares for him, even as much as that?" and she snapped her fingers.
"I think she may care for him a very great deal some day—she has begun to care for him already!"
"But she would never dream of marrying any one as badly off as Mr. Davenport. He is practically starving."
"He was—but he's not now. He's come into money." And she explained about the fifty thousand pounds.
"I see!" Lilian Rosenberg said after a prolonged pause, "that accounts for her having just begun to care for him. Supposing there was some one who had been fond of him all along—in the days when he hadn't a halfpenny to his name, and every one else shunned him!"
"I should feel very sorry for that person," Miss Templeton said, "but setting aside the sacrifice of his happiness—it would be wrong for him to marry her if his heart was fixed elsewhere."
"Which you say it is."
"Which I am sure it is!"
"Well, supposing it is—what does it concern me? Why tell me all this?"
"Because it lies in your power to put an end to the Compact and bring about the catastrophe the Unknown threatened."
"I think you credit me with rather too much. I do not quite see how I can accomplish all this?"
"But I do," Miss Templeton said, briskly. "I believe I am right in saying Mr. Kelson is in love with you—that you can make him do pretty well anything you please. Well, all you have to do is to lead him on to propose and insist on his marrying you at once—or at all events before the expiration of the Compact. If you succeed in doing this the Compact will be broken!"
"That may be," Lilian Rosenberg exclaimed, "but where, pray, should I come in? Why on earth should I marry a man I don't care a snap for?"
"Why!" Miss Templeton replied, slowly, "why, because by marrying a man you don't care a snap for, you would save the life of a man—I am quite sure, you care a very great deal for."