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

KING SCRIP.

“Hallo, Stanninghame! And so, here you are?”

“Here I am, Rainsford, as you say; and from what I have heard in process of getting here, I’m afraid I have got here a day too late.”

The other laughed, as they shook hands. He was a man of Laurence’s own age, straight and active, and his bronzed face wore that alert, eager look which was noticeable upon the faces of most of the fortune-seekers, for of such was the bulk of the inhabitants of Johannesburg at that time.

“You never can tell,” he rejoined. “Things are a bit slack now, because of this infernal drought; but a good sousing rain, or a few smart thunder showers, would fill all the dams and set the batteries working again harder than ever. It’s the rainy time of year, too.”

It was the morning after Laurence’s arrival in Johannesburg, and, while sallying forth to find Rainsford, the two had met on Commissioner Street. The brand-new gold-town looked anything but what it was. It did not look new. In spite of the general unfinishedness of the streets and sidewalks, the latter largely conspicuous by their absence; in spite of the predominance of scaffolding poles and half-reared structures of red brick; in spite of the countless tenements of corrugated iron, and the tall chimneys of mining works which came in here where steeples would have arisen in an ordinary town; in spite of all this there was a battered and weather-beaten aspect about the place which made it look centuries old. Great pillars of dust towered skywards, then dispersing, whirled in mighty wreaths over the shining iron roofs, to fall hissing back into the red-powdery streets whence they arose, choking with pungent particles the throats, eyes, and ears of the eager, busy, speculative, acquisitive crowd, who had flocked hither like wasps to a jar of beer and honey. And to many, indeed, it was destined to prove just such a trap.

“Well, what do you advise, Rainsford?” said Laurence, after some more talk about the Rand and its prospects.

“Wait a day or two. You don’t want to buy in a falling market. There are several good companies to put into, but things haven’t touched bottom yet. When they do and just begin to rise, then buy in. Meanwhile lie low.”

“You speak like a book, Rainsford,” said one of two men who joined them at that moment. “There’s a capital company now whose shares are on the rise again. Couldn’t do better than take two or three hundred of them. What do you say?”

“Name?”

“Bai-praatfonteins.”

“I’ll watch it!” said Rainsford, with an emphatic and negative shake of the head.

“I say, you don’t want a couple of building stands? They’ll treble their value in as many weeks. Going cheap as dirt now.”

“Not taking any, Rankin,” was the uncompromising reply, for Rainsford knew something about those building stands.

“You’re making a mistake. Bless my soul, if only I had the money to spare, I’d take them at double myself. I’m only agent in the matter, though. I can’t do any business at all with you fellows this morning.”

All this was said in the most genial and good-humoured tone imaginable. The speaker was a spare, straight, neatly dressed individual of middle age. His face was of a dark bronze hue, lit up by a pair of keen black eyes, and his beard was prematurely gray, almost white. The expression of keenness on a deal was not characteristic of him alone. Everyone wore it in those days.

“That was a great old shot you did on me, Rainsford, with those Verneuk Draais,” cut in the other man, in a jolly, hail-the-maintop sort of voice. He was a tall, fair-haired, athletic fellow, whose condition looked as hard as nails. “Ja, it just was.”

“Well, I’ll buy them back if you like, Wheeler.”

“How much?”

“Sixteen and a half.”

A roar of good-humoured derision went up from the other.

“Sixteen and a half? And I took them over from you at twenty-eight. Sixteen and a half?”

“Well, are you taking?” said Rainsford.

“Dead off,” returned the other.

“What do you say, you fellows?” cut in the first who had spoken. “A little ‘smile’ of something before lunch won’t do us any harm. Eh? what do you say?”

Ja, that’s so. Come along,” sung out the tall man, spinning round upon one heel and heading for the Exchange bar.

“There’s nothing like an Angostura to give one an appetite,” said the dark man to Laurence as they walked along. “It gives tone to the system. Angostura with a little drop of gin in it.”

“With a little drop of gin in it?” repeated Wheeler, with a derisive roar. “That’s where the tone to the system comes in eh, Rankin?”

“Only just out from home, are you?” said the latter to Laurence as, having named their respective “poisons,” the original four, with two or three others who had joined them en route, stood absorbing the same. “Heavens! did you ever hear such a row in your life?” he went on, as through the open door connecting with the Exchange came the frantic bawling of brokers, competing wildly for Blazesfonteins, and Verneuk Laagtes, and Hellpoorts, and Vulture’s Vleis, and Madeiras, and Marshes, and up and down the whole gamut. And there in the crowd lining the bar, and in the crowd outside the Exchange, and in the crowd upon Market Square, where the auctioneers stood, well-nigh elbow to elbow, bellowing from their tubs, and where you might bid for anything from a building stand or a pair of horses to a concertina or a pair of stays everywhere the talk was the same, and it was of scrip. King Scrip ruled the roost.

Just then, however, the subjects of King Scrip were undergoing rather an anxious time, for the drought was becoming serious. Dams being empty, batteries could not work; result, scrip drawing within alarming distance of touching its own value paper, to wit. And as the dams became more empty, those with an “n” appended became more and more full yea, exceeding full-bodied, and both loud and deep. In the churches they were praying for rain, praying hard, for rain meant money; and in the bars they were “cussing” for lack of it, “cussing” hard, on the same principle. Then the rain came, and in the churches they sang “Te Deum”; and in the bars they drove a humming trade in champagne, where “John Walker” had been good enough before. Up went scrip, and Laurence Stanninghame, having judiciously invested his little all, cleared about three hundred pounds in as many days. Things began to look rosy.

By this time, too, Laurence got sick of hanging around the Exchange and talking scrip. He had no turn that way, wherefore now he was glad enough to leave his affairs in the hands of Rainsford, who, being an inhabitant of Johannesburg, was, of course, a broker; and, having picked up a very decent N bore on one of the open-air sales aforesaid, laid himself out to see what sport was obtainable in the surrounding country. This was not much, but it involved many a hard and long tramp; and the Transvaal atmosphere is brisk and exhilarating, with the result that eye and brain grew clearer, and his condition became as hard as nails. And as there is nothing like a thoroughly healthy condition of body, combined with an equally healthy mental state, in this instance the elation produced by an intensely longed-for measure of success, Laurence began to realize a certain pleasure in living, a sensation to which he had been a stranger for many a long year, and which, assuredly, he had never expected to experience again.

For the market still continued to hum, and by dint of judicious investments and quick turnings over, Laurence had more than doubled the original amount he had put in. At this rate the moderate wealth to which he aspired would soon be his.

And now, with the ball of success apparently at his feet, so unsatisfying, so ironical are the conditions of life, that he was conscious of a something to damp the anticipatory delights of that success. Those long, solitary tramps over the veldt after scant coveys of partridge, or the stealthy stalk of wild duck at some vlei, were very conducive to introspection; that wealth which he imagined within his grasp did not now look so all-in-all sufficing, and yet he had deemed it the end and all-in-all of life. Even with his past experience the depressing, deteriorating effects, mental and physical, of years of poverty in its most squalid and depressing form, “shabby-genteel” poverty he realized that even the possession of wealth might leave something to be desired. In fact, he became conscious of an unsatisfied longing, by no means vague, but very real, which came to him at his time of life with a sort of dismayed surprise. He would give up these solitary wanderings in search of sport. The sport was of a poor description, and the intervals between were too long. He had too much time to think. He would knock around the town a little for a change, and talk to fellows.

One morning he was walking down the street with Rainsford and Wheeler, the latter, who was an up-country hunter, busy, in pursuance of the prevailing spirit, in trying to trade him sundry pairs of big game, horns, and other trophies, when he heard his name called in a very well remembered voice. Turning, he beheld Holmes.

“Stanninghame, old chap, I am glad to run against you again!” cried the latter, advancing upon him with outstretched hand.

“I begin to believe you are,” answered Laurence genially, with a comical glance at the other’s beaming countenance. “Why, you actually have a look that way. When did you get here?”

“By last night’s coach. And, I say,” trying to look wondrously mysterious and knowing, “who do you think travelled up by it too?”

“I can’t even venture the feeblest guess.”

“Can’t you?” chuckled Holmes. “What about Miss Ormskirk, eh? How’s that?”

“So? Now I remember, she did say something about a possibility of coming up here before long,” replied Laurence equably, while conscious that the announcement had convulsed his inner being with a strange, sweet thrill. For it came so aptly upon his meditations of late. The one unsatisfied longing her presence. And now even that was to be fulfilled.

“You don’t seem to take it over enthusiastically, Stanninghame,” went on Holmes. “And you and she were rather thick towards the end of the voyage,” he added mischievously.

“Did you ever know me enthuse about anything, Holmes? But it’s about lunch time; let’s go and get some, and you can tell me what you have been doing since we landed from the old Persian, and what the deuce has brought you up here.”

This was all very friendly and plausible; but before they had been seated many minutes at lunch in a conveniently adjacent restaurant Holmes was discoursing singularly little upon his doings spread over the weeks which had elapsed since he had landed, but most volubly upon his recent coach journey congested within a space of three days to which topic he was tactfully moved by his audience of one and also by his own inclination, as will hereinafter appear.

“Was Miss Ormskirk travelling alone, did you say, Holmes?” queried Laurence, in initiation of his deft scheme for “drawing” the other.

“Not much. There was a big parchment-faced Johnny with her. He scowled at me like sin when we were introduced was inclined to be beastly rude in fact, until he saw that I er that I talked most to the other; then he got quite affable.”

“To the other? What other? Out with it, Holmes,” said Laurence, with a half smile at his friend’s thinly veiled embarrassment.

“Oh, there was another girl in the crowd Miss Falkner deuced pretty girl, too. The sulky chappie was her brother.”

“Whose brother? Miss Ormskirk’s?” said Laurence innocently.

“No; the blue-eyed one’s. At least they both called him George.”

“Yes. I remember they came on board the Persian. You had landed already, I think. From your description I recognize them. So they are up here? Where are they staying?”

“At that outlying place where the coach first begins to get among houses. I can’t remember the name. There’s a biggish pub, you know, and a lot of houses.”

“Booyseus?”

“That was it; Booyseus. They asked me to go and see them. You’d better come along too, Stanninghame. I say, d’you think it’d be too soon if we went to-morrow, eh? Sort of excuse to ask if they’d recovered from the journey eh?”

“Was George so very exhausted then?”

“Oh, hang your chaff, Stanninghame! What do you think? You’re an older chap than I am, and know more about these things. Would it be too soon if we went to-morrow?”

“Be comforted, Holmes. As far as it rests with me, you shall behold your forget-me-not-eyed charmer to-morrow if she’s at home.”

The conversation worked round to the inevitable topic, King Scrip. Holmes was fired with eagerness when in his unenthusiastic way the other began to tell of such successes as he had already scored. For he, too, had come up there to take advantage of the boom. He was eager to rush out there and then to buy shares. Nothing would satisfy him but that Laurence must take him round and introduce him to Rainsford on the spot.

But on the way to that worthy’s office something happened. Turning into Commissioner Street, they ran right into a party of four. Result exclamations of astonishment, of recognition, greetings from both sides.

Three of the quartette we have already made the acquaintance of. The fourth, Mrs. Falkner, a good-looking middle-aged lady, was the aunt of the other three, and with her they were staying.

“I’ve heard of you, Mr. Stanninghame,” said this one, when introductions had been effected. “I hope you have made a success of Johannesburg so far. Everybody turns up here. I can hardly come up to the camp we used to call it that in the old days. I was among the first up here, you know, and it’s difficult to get into the way of calling it the town I can hardly come up here, I was saying, without meeting some one or other I had known elsewhere.”

“Yes, it’s an astonishing place, Mrs. Falkner,” answered Laurence. “Only bare veldt but a very few years ago, now a population of forty thousand mostly brokers.”

She laughed, and Lilith cut in:

“I thought you were going to adopt the Carlylean definition of the people of England, Mr. Stanninghame.”

“Oh, that’ll come in time. I only trust I may not hold on too long to come under its lash.”

“Let us hope none of us will,” said Mrs. Falkner. “Oh, dear, we are all dreadfully reckless, I fear. We are nothing but gamblers up here. Have you caught the contagion too, Mr. Stanninghame?”

“I’m afraid so,” he answered, thinking how, even among the softer sex here, King Scrip bore the principal sway.

He was thinking of something else at the same time. Lilith was looking even more sweet, more bewitchingly attractive than when last he had seen her. There was a warm seductive glow of health in her dark brilliant beauty, a winsomeness in her simple, tasteful attire the cool easy-fitting blouse and skirt in a soft harmony of cream colour and light gray, and the plain, wide-brimmed straw hat of the “sailor” kind which made, to his eyes, an irresistibly entrancing picture.

She, no less than himself, was comparing notes as two people will who have been apart for a space, and have thought much of each other in the interim. He, too, was improved in appearance. The fine climate, the open-air life had lent a deeper bronze to his face and a clearness to his eyes even as an emancipation from sordid cares, together with a present modicum of success and a prospect of further in the future, had imparted a certain stamp of serenity to his expression which was not there before. “Air, freedom, life’s healthier side are good success is good all good things are good behold their result,” was Lilith’s inner verdict as the summing up of this inspection.

Now George Falkner’s efforts at cordiality were about as effective as the demeanour of a crusty mastiff encountering another of his kind well within sweep of his owner’s lash. His jealous soul had noted the glance exchanged between his cousin and Laurence Stanninghame the responsive glance which for a brief second would not be disguised; the great and deep-reaching gladness, which shone in both pairs of eyes as a result of this meeting. He stood gloomy and grim, while the two were talking together, and then rather brusquely and to the disgust of Holmes, who was discoursing eagerly with pretty Mabel Falkner he reminded his aunt that they were due to call at So-and-So’s, and were far behind their time.

“Ah, yes, I was forgetting. Well, good-bye, Mr. Stanninghame. I hope you will come and see us. It is nothing of a walk out to Booyseus, and besides, there are several omnibuses in the course of the day. Mind you come too, Mr. Holmes. Good-bye.”

And the four resumed their way, and so did our two.

“Jolly, genial old party that Mrs. Falkner,” pronounced Holmes, half turning, slyly, to sneak a last glance after the blue-eyed and receding Mabel.

“Spare my susceptibilities, Holmes, even in your exuberance. That ’old party,’ as you so unfeelingly define her, cannot own to more than two or three years seniority over my respectable self four at the outside,” said Laurence maliciously.

“Oh, go along with you, old chap,” retorted Holmes, yet conscious of feeling just a trifle foolish. “But, I say,” eagerly, “can we still go and look them up so soon as to-morrow, eh?”

“Don’t let that misgiving interfere with your beauty sleep, Holmes,” was the reply, dashed with a touch of good-humoured impatience. “People are not so beastly ceremonious over here.”

“I’ve brought you another sheep to shear, Rainsford,” said Laurence, as they entered the broker’s office. “Don’t clip him any closer than you did me, though he’s dying to set up as a millionaire on the spot.”

And then, having effected this introduction, he left the pair to do business or not, as the case might be, and strolled back to his own quarters.

What was this marvellous metamorphosis which had come upon him, flooding his life with golden waves of sweetness and of light? Now that he had beheld Lilith once more, he realized what entire hold she had taken of his thoughts since they two had parted on the deck of the Persian. It was a certainty there was no getting away from but a certainty now which he was not in the least desirous of getting away from. He had beheld her once more. Their meeting had been of the briefest, their interchange of remarks of the most commonplace, every-day nature. Yet he had beheld her, had listened to the sound of her voice, had looked into her eyes. And the glance of those sweet eyes had been responsive; and his ear could detect a subtile note in the tones of her voice. Sweet Lilith! the spells she had begun to wreathe around him, so unconsciously to herself, so unconsciously to him, when first they talked together, were drawn, woven, more thoroughly now. And in his strange, new revivification the return of strength and health and spirits he rejoiced that it was so, and laughed, and defied circumstances, and Fate and the Future.