Read CHAPTER II of The Sign of the Spider , free online book, by Bertram Mitford, on ReadCentral.com.

ADAM’S FIRST WIFE.

The R. M. S. Persian was cleaving her southward way through the smooth translucence of the tropical sea.

It was the middle of the morning. Her passengers, scattered around her quarter-deck in the coolness of the sheltering awning, were amusing themselves after their kind; some gregarious and chatting in groups, others singly, or in pairs, reading. The men were mostly in flannels and blazers, and deck-shoes; the women affected light array of a cool nature; and all looked as though it were too much trouble to move or even to speak, though here and there an individual more enterprising than his or her fellows would make a spasmodic attempt at a constitutional, said attempt usually resolving itself into five and a half feeble turns, up and down the clear part of the deck, to culminate in abrupt collapse; for it is warm in the tropical seas.

“What a lazy Johnnie you are, Stanninghame! Now, what the deuce are you thinking about all this time, I wonder?”

He addressed, who had been gazing out upon the sea and sky-line, plunged in dreamy thought, did not even turn his head.

“Get into this chair, Holmes, if you want to talk,” he said. “A fellow can’t wring his own neck and emit articulate sound at the same time. What?”

The other, who had come up behind, laughed, and dropped into the empty deck-chair beside Laurence. He was the latter’s cabin chum, and the two had become rather friendly.

“Nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in,” he went on, stretching himself and yawning. “I’m jolly sick of this voyage already.”

“And we’re scarcely half through with it? It’s a fact, Holmes, but I’m not sick of it a bit.”

“Eh?” and the other stared. “That’s odd, Stanninghame. You, I should have thought, if anyone, would be just dog-gone tired of it by now. Why, you never even cut into any of the fun that’s going such as it is.”

“You may well put that in, Holmes. As, for instance listen!”

For the whanging of the piano in the saloon beneath had attained to an even greater pitch of discord than was normally the case. To it was added the excruciating rasp of a fiddle.

“Heavens! Are they immolating a stowaway cat down there?” murmured Laurence, with a little shudder. “It would have been more humane to have put the misguided brute to a painless end.”

Holmes spluttered.

“It reminds me,” he said, “of one voyage I made by this line. Some of the passengers got up what they called an ‘Amusement Committee.’”

“A fearful and wonderful monster!”

“Just so. It’s mission was to worry the soul out of each and all of us, in search of some nefarious gift. Oh, and we mustered plenty, from the ’cello to the ‘bones.’ Well, what is going on down there now is sheer delight in comparison. Imagine the present performance heaped up only relieved by caterwauls of about equal quality and that from 6 A. M. until ‘lights out.’”

“I don’t want to imagine it, thank you, Holmes; so spare what little of that faculty I still retain. But, say now, when was this eventful voyage?”

“In the summer of ’84.”

“Precisely. I remember now. It was in the newspapers at the time that in more than one ship’s log were entered strange reports of gruesome and wholly indefinable noises heard at night in certain latitudes. Some of the crews mutinied, and there was an instance on record of more than one hand, bursting with superstition, going mad and jumping overboard. So, you see, Holmes, your ‘Amusement Committee’ doubly deserved hanging.”

The delicious readiness of this “lie” so fetched Holmes that he opened his head and emitted a howl of laughter. He made such a row, in fact, that neither of them heard the convulsively half-repressed splutter which burst forth somewhere behind them.

“Well, you were going to explain how it is you haven’t got sick of the voyage yet,” said Holmes, when his roar had subsided.

“Was I? I didn’t say so. What a chap you are for returning to worry a point, Holmes. However, I don’t mind telling you. The fact is, I enjoy this voyage because it is so thoroughly and delightfully restful. You are not only allowed to do nothing, but are actually expected to perform that easy and congenial feat. There is nothing to worry you absolutely nothing not even a baby in the next cabin.”

“I don’t mind a little worry now and then,” objected the other, in the tone and with the look of one who was ignorant of the real meaning of the word. “It shakes one up a bit, don’t you know relieves the monotony of life.”

“Oh, does it? Look here, Holmes; I don’t say it in an ‘assert-my-superiority’ sense, but I believe I’m a little older than you. Now, I’ve had a trifle too much of the commodity under discussion. In fact, I would take my chances of the monotony in order to dispense with any more of the other thing.”

Holmes cast a furtive and curious glance at his companion, but made no immediate reply. He was an average, good-looking, well-built specimen of Young England, and his healthy sun-burnt countenance showed, in its cheery serenity, that, as the other had hinted, he was not speaking from knowledge. At any rate, it was a marked contrast to the rather lined and prematurely careworn countenance of Laurence Stanninghame, even as his frank, jolly laugh was to the half-stifled grin which would lurk around the satirical corners of the latter’s mouth when anything amused him.

“What a row those women are making over there!” remarked Laurence, as peal after peal of feminine laughter went up from one of the groups above referred to.

“That ass Swaynston, I suppose,” growled the other. “Don’t know what anybody can see funny about the fellow; he makes me sick. By the way, I haven’t seen Miss Ormskirk on deck this morning.”

“That’ll make Swaynston sick, won’t it? Isn’t he one of her poodles?”

“Eh? Her what?”

“Fetch and carry; stand up on his hind legs and beg. There good dog! and all that sort of thing, you know; go to heel, too, when ordered.”

Holmes laughed again, this time in rather a shamefaced way, for he was conscious of having filled the rôle whose subserviency was thus pungently characterized by his cynical companion.

“Oh, dash it all, Stanninghame, don’t be such an old bear!” he burst forth. “A fellow can’t help doing things for a devilish pretty girl, eh?”

“A good many fellows can’t, apparently, for this one. Directly she appears on the scene they go at her like flies at a honey pot. There’s the doctor, and the fourth brass-button man er, I beg his pardon, the fourth ’officer,’ and Swaynston, and yourself, and Heaven knows how many more. And one gets hold of a cushion which she doesn’t want; another a wrap of which the same holds good; two of you strive to rend a deck-chair limb from limb in your eagerness to dump it down on the very last spot in the ship where she desires to sit, what time you are all scowling at each other as though there was not room for any given two of you in the same world. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Holmes, but, upon my word, it’s the most d ridiculous spectacle on earth.”

“I don’t see why it should be,” was the half-snuffy rejoinder. “There’s nothing ridiculous in common civility.”

“No, only to see you all treading on each other’s heels to do konza to a woman who’s nearly losing her life trying not to laugh at the crowd of you.”

“Hallo! what’s this?” sung out Holmes, not sorry for an excuse to change the subject. “Why, you used a Zulu word, Stanninghame, and yet you say you never were in South Africa before.”

“Well, and then? I’ve once or twice known fellows use a Greek word who had never been near the land of Socrates in their lives.”

“Still, that’s different. Every fellow learns Greek at school, but no fellow learns Zulu, eh?”

“You can’t swear to that. Well, never mind. Perhaps I have been mugging it up as a preliminary to coming out here. Note, however, Holmes, that I used the word advisedly. Konza does not mean to show civility, but to do homage, and that of a tolerably abject kind in fact, to knuckle under.”

“All the same, I believe you have been out here before,” went on Holmes, staring at him with a new interest. “Only you’re such a mysterious chap that you won’t let on.”

“Have it so, if you will. Only, aren’t you rather drawing a red herring across the trail, Holmes? We were talking about Miss Ormskirk.”

“Um yes, so we were. But, have you talked to her at all, Stanninghame? I believe even you would be fetched if you did.”

“H’m well, I’d better leave it alone then, hadn’t I, seeing that I undertook this voyage not for love, but for money? What’s her name, by the way?”

Holmes stared. “Her name,” he began “Oh er I see; her other name? By Jove! it’s an odd one. Lilith.”

“An old one too; the oldest she-name on record, bar none.”

“What? How does that come in?”

“Tradition hath it that Lilith was Adam’s first wife. That makes it the oldest she-name on record, doesn’t it?”

“Of course. What a rum chap you are, Stanninghame! Now, I wonder how many fellows could have told one that?”

“Well, I am a ‘know-a-little-of-everything,’ they tell me,” said Laurence, without a shade of self-complacency. “But, I say, what do these two want bothering around? Not another subscription already?”

Two individuals, armed with mysterious pencil and paper, were moving from group to group, with a word to each. The hawk-like profile of the one bespoke his nationality if not his tribe, even as the pug-nosed, squab-faced figure-head of the other spoke to his.

“It’s the ‘sweep,’” said Holmes, with kindling interest. “They’re going to draw it in the smoke-room. Come along and see it. It’ll be something to do.”

“But I don’t want something to do. I want to do nothing, as I told you just now, and Hallo! By George, he’s gone!”

One glance at the retreating Holmes, who was making all sail for the smoke-room, and Laurence tranquilly resumed his former occupation gazing out over the blue-green surface, to wit. Not long, however, was he to be left to the enjoyment of the same.

“Can I have this chair? Is it anybody’s?”

He turned, but did not start at the voice, which was soft and well modulated. The two deck-chairs had been backed against the companion, in whose doorway now stood framed the form of the speaker.

Rather tall, of exquisite proportions, billowing in splendid curves from the perfectly round waist, the form was about as complete an example of female anatomy as humanity could show of whatever race or clime. The head, well set, was carried rather proudly, the cut of the cool, light blouse displaying a pillar-like throat. Hazel eyes, melting, dark fringed; brows strongly marked, enough to show plenty of character, without being heavy; hair abundant, curled in a fringe upon the forehead, and drawn back from the head in sheeny, dark brown waves. Such was the vision which Laurence Stanninghame beheld, as he turned at the sound of the voice. Well, what then? He had seen it before.

“It isn’t anybody’s chair,” he replied, rising.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, stepping forth. “No, don’t trouble; I can carry it myself,” she added.

“Where do you want it taken to?” he said, ignoring her protest, and thinking, with grim amusement, how he was about to fulfil the very rôle he had been satirizing his younger friend about, namely, fetch and carry for the spoilt beauty of the quarter-deck.

“Oh, thanks; anywhere that’s cool.”

“Then you can’t do better than leave it where it is,” he rejoined, with a quiet smile, setting down the chair again and resuming his own.

Lilith Ormskirk smiled too, but she made no objection, sliding comfortably into the chair, and gazing meditatively at the point of the neat and shapely deck-shoe just peeping forth from beneath her skirt.

“What are they doing over there?” she began; “drawing the ‘sweep,’ are they not? How is it you are not there too, Mr. Stanninghame? Even those of the men who won’t help us in getting up any fun are always ready enough for anything of that kind. Well, I suppose it gives them something to do.”

Something to do! that eternal “something to do!”

“But that’s just what I don’t want not on board this ship, at any rate,” he retorted. “It’s a grand opportunity for lazing, an opportunity that can’t occur often in life, and I want to make the most of it.”

She glanced furtively at his face. It was a face that interested her, had done so since she first beheld it. A very out-of-the-common face, she had decided; and the careless reserve, the very indifference of its owner’s habit of speech, had powerfully added to her interest. They had met before, had exchanged a few words now and again, but had never conversed.

“A thing that is a standing puzzle to me,” he went on “would be, rather, if I knew a little less of human nature is the alacrity with which people waste their precious time in order to make a few shillings. It isn’t a craving after profit either, for there can’t be much profit about it. Yet Myers there, the Hebraic instinct ever to the fore, must needs throw away the splendid recuperative opportunities afforded by a sea voyage, must needs spend the whole of each and every morning getting up that miserable ‘sweep.’ It must be the sheer Hebraic instinct of delighting to handle coin the ecstasy of contact with it even.”

“And the other the one who helps him? He’s not Hebraic?”

“No, he’s English. Therefore he must be forever ‘getting up’ something. We pride ourselves upon our solid deliberation, yet we are about the fussiest and most interfering race on the face of the globe.”

“Then you don’t have anything to do with the popular midday delight?”

“Oh, yes. I hand them my shilling every morning when they come round, and pouch tranquilly later on what they see fit to restore to me as the result of that modest investment.”

She laughed, and as she did so Laurence looked her full in the face. He wanted to find out again what there could be in this girl that reduced everybody to subjection so utter and complete. Was it in the swift flash of the fringed eyes, in the sensuous attractiveness of a certain swarthy, golden, mantling shade of colour which harmonized so well with the bright clearness of the eyes, with the smooth serenity of the brow? He could not determine; yet in that brief fraction of a moment, as he looked, he was uneasily conscious of a certain magnetic thrill communicating itself even to him.

“You are stronger-minded than I am,” she said. “I’m afraid I bet shockingly at times.”

“Well, whenever I do I invariably lose, which is a first rate curative to any temptation towards that especial form of dissipation.”

“Look now, Mr. Stanninghame, I’m going to take you to task,” she went on. “Why won’t you ever help us in getting up anything?”

“But I do help you.”

“You do? Why, there was that concert the other night you refused when you were asked to take part in it.”

“But I did take part in it as audience. You must have an audience, you know. It’s essential to the performance.”

“Don’t be provoking, now,” she said, with a laugh which belied the rebuke, for this sort of fencing delighted her. “You never take part in our dances.”

“Dances? Did you ever happen to notice the top of my head?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied, with a splutter of mirth, wondering what whimsicality was coming next. “Why?”

“Only that its covering is getting rather thin, as no self-respecting haircutter ever loses the opportunity of reminding me.”

“That’s nothing. Look at Mr. Dyson, for instance. Now he might say that. Yet he is a most indefatigable dancer.”

“Yes, and that ostrich-egg of his bobbing up and down above the gay and giddy rout is one of the most ridiculous sights on earth. Are you urging me to furnish a similar absurdity?”

“But you might do something to help amuse us. In fact, it is only your duty.”

“Hallo! Excuse me, Miss Ormskirk, but that’s exactly what that fellow Mac Mac something I never can remember his name the doctor, you know was trying to drive into me the other night. I told him I didn’t come on board this ship for the purpose of amusing my fellow-creatures not any but with the object of being transported to Cape Town with all possible despatch.”

“Then you leave the ship at Cape Town? Are you, too, going on to Johannesburg?”

“Not being dead, yes.”

“Not being dead? Why, what in the world do you mean?”

“Oh, only that Holmes was asking after all his old friends one night in the smoke-room, and all who were not dead had gone to Johannesburg. Others I’ve heard talking the same way. So I’ve got into the habit of thinking there are but two states death and Johannesburg.”

“Tell me, Mr. Stanninghame,” said Lilith, struggling with a laugh, “are you ever by any chance serious?”

“Oh, yes; I’m never anything else.”

She hardly felt inclined to laugh now. There was a subtle something in the tone a something underlying the whimsicality of the words, that seemed to quell her rising mirth. Again she glanced at his face, and felt her interest deepen tenfold.

“We may meet again then,” she said, her tone unconsciously softening; “I am going to Johannesburg soon.”

Meet again? Why, they had only just met; and what was it to him? Yet still more was he conscious of a thrill as of latent witchery thrown over him, as he lounged there in the warm luxuriousness of the tropical noontide, with which this beautiful creature at his side, in her careless attitude, all symmetry and grace, seemed so wholly in keeping.

“What a strange name that is of yours,” he said, in the abrupt, unthought-out way which was so characteristic of him.

She started slightly at its very abruptness, then smiled.

“Is it?” she said; “well, your own is not a very common one.”

“No, it isn’t; which is a bore at times, because people will persist in spelling it wrong. It might have been worse, though. They went in for giving us all more or less cloth-of-gold sort of names, though mine smacks rather of the cloister than of the lists. One of my brothers they dubbed Aylmer. He was in a regiment, and the mess would persist in calling him Jack, for short. He resented it at first afterwards came to prefer it. Said it was more convenient. Well, it was.”

“Mine is older than that. The very oldest feminine name on record,” she said, with just a spice of quiet mischief. “Lilith was Adam’s first wife.”

If she thought the other was going to look foolish at hearing his own words thus reproduced in such literal fashion, she never made a greater mistake in her life.

“So tradition hath it,” he rejoined, with perfect unconcern. “It’s a queer out-of-the-way sort of name I’m not sure I don’t rather like it. There’s a creeping suggestion of witchery about it, too, which is on the whole attractive.”

He was looking at her straight in the eyes, for they had both risen, the luncheon-bell having rung. She unflinchingly returned the glance, which on both sides was that of two adversaries mentally appraising each other prior to a rapier-bout.

“Then beware such unholy spells,” she replied, with a light but enigmatical laugh. And turning, she left him.

Now Holmes, who, bursting with astonishment and trepidation as he beheld how his friend was engaged, came bustling up, with a scared and furtive demeanour.

“By the Lord, old man, we just have put our foot in it,” he sputtered. “All the time we were sitting here, Miss Ormskirk was just inside the companion. She must have heard every word we said.”

“Don’t care a hang if she did.”

“Man alive, but we were talking about her! About her, and she heard it! Don’t you understand?”

“Perfectly; still I don’t care a hang. A hang? No, nor the rope, nor the drop, nor the whole jolly gallows do I care. Will that do?”

Holmes gasped. This fellow Stanninghame was a lunatic. Mad, by Jove! Still gasping as he thought of the enormity of the situation, he left without another word, diving below to try and drown his confusion in a whisky and soda, iced.

But the other, still lingering on the now deserted deck, was conscious of a very unwonted sensation. The spell which he had derided so bitterly when beholding others drawn within its toils had begun to weave itself around him. This vague stirring of his mental pulses, what did it mean? Heavens! it was horrible. It brought back old memories, whose tin-pot unreality was never recalled save as subject matter for bitter gibe and mockery. He could not have believed it possible.

“It’s the nerves,” he told himself. “These years of squalid worry have done it. My nerves are shaken to bits. Well, I must pull them together again. But oh, the bosh of it! the utter bosh of it!”