NOTHING but dire necessity would have induced Tom Webb and his wife to allow little Heather to appear in pantomime on the stage of the Cosmos Theatre. But what was a man to do who had lost his job owing to the amalgamation of two great daily papers and found himself facing the world with no means of supporting them beyond the fleeting emoluments derived from free-lance journalism?
It was only when Tom was down to his last half-crown, with no prospect of further income that he consented to listen to the suggestion made by a one-time celebrated actor that little Heather was born for the stage.
"I'm only a back number now and waiting for the end, with a small pension to keep me from the workhouse," Penfold told Tom. "But my opinion goes. Mossop, of the Cosmos, is one of the few moderns who pay any attention to what I say, laddie, though I do live in a dingy bed-sitting room on thirty shillings a week. Only yesterday he was moaning over the fact that he couldn't find the exact type of child he needed for pantomime. Going into rehearsal almost at once, so he tells me. So I told him that I could put my hand on the little lady he is seeking."
"What—meaning Heather?" Tom asked.
"Nobody else, dear boy. The loveliest child I ever saw. Her brightness and intelligence, her combination of velvet-black eyes and honey-colored hair! And a born mimic. I tell you, she is born for the stage. Let's be frank Tom. We are both down and out, and even a few shillings a week make all the difference. If you consent to my suggestion, Heather is sure of a shop for three months, counting rehearsals, to say nothing of a salary of £5 a week."
Five pounds a week! Why, it meant salvation. The awful arrears of rent, for instance. A matter of shillings more or less, but as far out of reach as so many millions. Was it possible that a girl-child in her tenth year could work something in the nature of a miracle?
But old Crawford Penfold had not spoken in vain. Came a visit to the Cosmos, and after that two or three interviews with the god in the car, otherwise Gladwyn Mossop. Little Heather dancing attendance, thrilled to the marrow as she watched a preliminary rehearsal in progress.
"Like to be one of them?" Mossop asked.
Heather's eyes danced like little wavelets in the sun.
"Oh, oh, if I only could!" she cried.
Within the next few days she was. Mossop was delighted. Nor did he demur when terms were mentioned. He would have a scene "written up" in which Heather was to play the star part. He would pay for rehearsals, too.
And so it came about the five blessed treasury notes trickled into that desperately poverty-stricken household, and the rent nightmare was no more. It was like a gift from heaven, and Tom so regarded it coupled with a certain shame which he could not quite shake off. He and his wife were still desperately poor, but there was enough. And there was the pleasure in watching little Heather and seeing how happy she was in her work.
"Makes me feel infernally ashamed of myself," Tom told Mary, his wife. "One can't but feel grateful to a wise and kindly providence, but anyone with an atom of self-respect must feel that——"
"I think it is wonderful," Mary Webb cried. "My dear boy we ought to feel nothing but thankfulness. Besides, what a chance it gives you to turn round. Now you can have the new shoes and suit you need so terribly. And I am sure that you will write better short stories now that your mind is not so much on the rack."
Tom took that pretty, brave little wife in his arms and kissed her fondly.
"What on earth could I do without you?" he murmured. "Never thinking about yourself, darling. Let us hope that all this excitement and flattery won't unsettle Heather. Will she fret when the pantomime comes to an end?"
"Don't meet trouble half way," Mary smiled. "There may be better things in store for the darling yet."
So Tom had to let it go at that. Still, he fretted and worried over the matter of the new outfit, knowing from bitter experience that rags were at as great a discount in Fleet street as anywhere else. Wonderful what a difference a good suit of clothes meant in dealing with editors and other gods on the high Olympus of journalism. He was wishing with all his heart now that he had taken that New York offer which had come his way four years ago.
Still, he was much easier in his mind now. He could sit at his desk, and give his mind free rein without dread for the immediate future.
There was nothing to worry about either between little Heather and the theatre. Old Penfold had seen to all that. He loved the child for her beauty and intelligence, and that utter lack of self-consciousness which was not the least of her charm.
It was the old man's pleasure to undertake the duties of chaperon to and from the theatre, and to sit watching her in an atmosphere which was the breath of life to him.
"She's a wonder, she's a fair knock-out," he enthused to Heather's parents. "And, egad, beginning to be talked about, too. The finest child actress the stage has seen since the days of the Terrys. And she don't know it. Takes it all for granted. And the way she picks up business! Just marvellous! Bless those lovely black eyes of hers."
"Seems to me that we are all responsible for a genius between us, Mary," Tom smiled. "When I came down from Cambridge full of hope and ambition, I little dreamed that within a few years I should be beholden for my daily bread to a tender offspring. That's what hurts, old man."
"Cheap, old bean, cheap," the old actor laughed. "It isn't as if you had been anything but model parents to the little one. And you a young man yet."
"Well, there's that," Tom agreed. "I must come down to one of these rehearsals and see for myself what a genius of a daughter I possess."
Those rehearsals were well in progress ere Tom found himself in a darkened auditorium watching the progress of matters on the stage. And when Heather came on more or less dressed for her part, Tom hardly knew her. There were other children in a sort of fairy scene reminiscent of Peter Pan, in which Heather took the lead as if it were her natural place. The child seemed to dominate the stage, her voice rang out loud and clear. Something like a tear of pride shone on Tom's face. Little Heather! Well, well.
Tom rose to leave presently. He wanted to get back to what he called home, and tell Mary what he had seen. She must come and watch for herself—never could he explain to her the amazing personality of their child.
He was quitting the theatre when a stranger accosted him; a tall, thin man with a thrust-out jaw and a huge cigar in the corner of his mouth.
"Guess your name is Webb," he drawled in an accent not altogether unpleasing. "If that's so, stranger, I'd like to have a mouthful of words with you."
"Quite at your service, sir," Tom said politely.
The big man led the way into a sort of office which had apparently been placed at his disposal. That he was a person of some importance there Tom did not doubt. In the office somebody had hung up a bough of mistletoe, and, with a shock, Tom suddenly remembered that it was Christmas Eve. But then, what was Christmas Eve to him?
"My name's Amos P. Salsman," the big man said. "Guess that it strikes a familiar chord."
It did indeed. The head of the famous Salsman-Kobe film company. With practically Hollywood in his pocket. The "big" noise in picture photography. A millionaire 20 times over—and conscious of it.
"Waal, I'm out for business only," the great man went on as Tom bowed. "I know what I want when I want it, and I usually want it now. That's why I am here in this lil' old town looking for a spot of child personality that don't seem to thrive in the States."
"I wish you success," Tom murmured.
"I calculate it's in your hands, stranger."
"Mine?" Tom cried. "What have I to do with it?"
"Now listen," the magnate proceeded. "It's that lil' gel of yours. I got money in this show, and I come here looking for a sort of Jackie Coogan in petticoats. In fact, there's a world-beating film depending on my finding the only thing I am looking for. And that kid of your is IT. I want her in Hollywood right now. Is it a deal?"
"But the pantomime," Tom stammered. "Her engagement to the manager here. And she's only ten years old."
"I should smile," said Salsman. "Suppose I want to kidnap the babe? Gangster work, eh?"
"I'm a poor man," Tom declared. "A poor man out of a job. But if you think you can separate me from my child you're mistaken. And, as to my wife——"
"Cut it out," Salsman growled. "You and your dame can come along if you like. Bit of an author, ain't you? Very well, then. You can both come along, and I'll fix you up a job in Hollywood within a week. What Salsman says goes. And don't you forget it."
A job. A home and occupation in a perfect climate! Tom's mind reeled before the prospect. Surely some good fairy was watching over his humble roof this Christmastide.
"Call it a day, what?" the big man went on. "I sure thought you would. That's why I had the contract drawn up directly I heard you were in the theatre. Got 'em here in my pocket. That's the sort of business man I am."
Before Tom's dazed eyes Salsman produced two sheets of paper partly printed, with blanks here and there, and laid them on the table before him.
"Five years' contract," he went on. "Sliding scale of payment. All expenses paid for the lot of you. Starting the kid somewhere around thirty-five."
"What!" Tom cried. "Thirty-five! I suppose, being poor, you can play on my poverty."
"Come off the roof," Salsman jibed. "Fifty, then, if that suits your book better."
With that the big man bent over the sheets of paper and seemed to be inking in certain figures.
"Well, there you are, then," he said. "And my signature to the contract. You sign the counterpart and the thing is done. The kid can stay and carry out her panto engagement so long as she—and you—come back home when the show comes off. Now what's biting you?"
Tom Webb said nothing—he was past words. Ere he could pull himself together a head was projected into the room and a voice asked for Salsman's presence elsewhere.
"Only keep you a minute," the voice said. "Very important and urgent."
With a gesture of impatience Salsman left the room, and in a dazed way, Tom took up his half of the proposed contract and in a sort of dream, appended his signature. Then, after a hurried glance, stowed the Salsman signed counterpart in his breast pocket.
"Good enough," Salsman smiled as he returned to the room. He was a picture of smiling amiability now.
"A bit rough just now," he half apologised. "My way in business till the deal is through. You won't see me again until you reach Hollywood, but my London secretary will do the needful when you call on him at our city office. Now what about wardrobe for the kid and yourselves? Better take this as a sort of premium on the contract."
From his hip pocket Salsman produced a thick wad of notes. He rapidly peeled off a handful and thrust them into the hands of the wondering Tom.
"There!" he said. "My best day of work for years. And yours, too. Mr. Webb. So long."
He was gone, actually gone, before Tom could say another word. And in Tom's hand were five Bank of England notes for ten pounds each. Enough to fit out the family, and leave a substantial margin behind. Amazing!
He was clear of the theatre at length with Heather by his side, taking her home himself for once in a way without calling on the good offices of the old actor.
"Christmas Eve," he pointed out. "I'm going to take Heather round to look at the shops. I might even manage to get her a toy or two. You look in late this evening, and I will tell you something rather startling."
Once he had the freedom of the street, Tom called a passing taxi, at which little Heather opened her eyes. She had never been inside such a vehicle before.
"What's it mean, Daddy?" she asked. "Have you come into a fortune or something?"
"Fairies," Tom laughed. "Wonderful beings, fairies. You don't believe in them? Much too old for that sort of thing, eh? But I do, darling. Because the most wonderful fairy in London this Christmas Eve is my own little girl."
"Guess I give that one up," Heather said, sedately.
The streets were thronged with people, all on Christmas shopping bent. The shops one long dream of dazzling delight. Everyone smiling and happy as if poverty and distress had ceased to exist.
"It must be lovely to have money to spend Daddy," the child said wistfully. "Money you can spare. If I had it, I would buy up a whole shop and give presents to all the poor children I could find."
"And nothing for yourself, darling?" Tom asked.
"Well, perhaps one little thing, Daddy. But what is the driver stopping for?"
The cab had pulled up before one of London's mammoth stores, and Tom alighted telling the taximan to wait. And then followed half an hour of sheer delight. When the two emerged it was with a pile of parcels that filled the cab almost to overflowing, and was crowned with a large turkey that made Heather gasp with delight.
"But where did all the money come from?" she asked.
"That fairy," Tom said. "Yes, really and truly."
And Heather was fain to be content.
"Won't Mummy be pleased?" she crowed.
Mummy was pleased and puzzled, and remained so until it grew late and Heather was at length in bed there to await the joys of her most perfect Christmas Day. Not till then did Tom explain to Mary all that had happened on that red-letter day. Her heart shone in her eyes.
"The cream of the whole thing is this," Tom explained. "When Salsman offered what he called thirty-five for the contract I refused it so he jumped to fifty. And I was fool enough to think that he meant shillings instead of pounds. And, in our dire need, I was prepared to take it."