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

“PIRATE” HAZON.

If the population of Johannesburg devoted its days to doing konza to King Scrip, it devoted its nights to amusing itself. There was an enterprising theatrical company and a lively circus. There was a menagerie, where an exceedingly fine young woman was wont nightly to place her head within a lion’s mouth for the delectation, and to the enthusiastic admiration of Judaea, and all the region round about. There were smoking-concerts galore more or less good of their kind and, failing sporadic forms of pastime, there were numerous bars and barmaids, all of which counted for something in the relaxation of the forty thousand inhabitants of Johannesburg mostly brokers. We are forgetting. There were other phases of nocturnal excitement, more or less of a stimulating nature frequent rows, to wit, culminating in a nasty rough-and-tumble, and now and then a startling and barbarous murder.

Now, to Laurence Stanninghame not any of the above forms of diversion held out the slightest possible attractiveness. The theatrical show struck him as third-rate, and as for circuses and menageries, he supposed they had been good fun when he was a child. He did not care twopence about the pleasures of the bar unless he wanted a drink, and for barmaids and their allurements less than nothing. So having already, with Rainsford or Wheeler, and seven other spirits more wicked than themselves, gone the round three or four times, just to see what there was to be seen, and found that not much, he had subsided into a good bit of a stay-at-home. A pipe, a newspaper or book, and bed, would be his evening program normally, that is; for now and then he would stroll out to Booyseus. But of that more anon.

The hotel at which he had taken up his quarters was rather a quiet one, and frequented by quiet people. One set of rooms, among which was his, opened upon a stoep, which fronted a yard, which opened upon the street. Here of an evening he would drag a chair out upon the stoep and smoke and read, or occasionally chat with some fellow-sojourner in the house.

One evening he was seated thus alone. Holmes, who had taken up his quarters at the same hotel, was out, as usual. We say as usual because Holmes seldom stayed in at night. Holmes was young, and for him the “attractions” we have striven to enumerate above, and others which we have not, were attractions. He liked to go the round. He liked to see all there was to be seen. Well, he saw it.

One evening Laurence, seated thus alone, became aware that another man was dragging a chair out upon the stoep, intending, like himself, to take the air. Looking up, he saw that it was the man to whom nobody ever seemed to talk, beyond exchanging the time of day, and that in the most curt and perfunctory fashion. He had noticed, further, that this individual seemed no more anxious to converse with other people than they were to converse with him. He himself had never got beyond this stage with him, although on easy and friendly terms with the other people staying in the house.

Yet the man had awakened in him a strange interest, a curiosity that was almost acute; but beyond the fact that his name was Hazon, and the darkly veiled hints on the part of those who alluded to the subject, that he was a ruffian of the deepest dye, Laurence could learn nothing about him. He noted, however, that if the man seemed disliked, he seemed about equally feared.

This Hazon was, in truth, somewhat of a remarkable individual. He was of powerful build, standing about five feet nine. He had a strong, good-looking face, the lower part hidden in a dark beard, and his eyes were black, piercing, and rather deep set. The bronze hue of his complexion, and of the sinewy hands, seemed to tell of a life of hardness and adventure; and the square jaw and straight, piercing glance was that of a man who, when roused, would prove a resolute, relentless, and a most dangerous enemy. In repose the face wore a placidity which was almost that of melancholy.

In trying to estimate his years, Laurence owned himself puzzled again and again. He might be about his own age or he might be a great deal older, that is, anything from forty to sixty. But whatever his age, whatever his past, the man was always the same, dark, self-possessed, coldly reticent, inscrutable, somewhat of an awe-inspiring personality.

The nature of his business, too, was no more open than was his past history. He had been some months in his present quarters, yet was not known to be doing anything in scrip to any appreciable extent. The boom, the one engrossing idea in the minds of all alike, seemed to hold no fascination for Hazon. To him it was a matter of absolutely no importance. What the deuce, then, was he there for? His impenetrable reserve, his out-of-the-common and striking personality, his rather sinister expression, had earned for him a nick-name. He was known all over the Rand as “Pirate” Hazon, or more commonly “The Pirate,” because, declared the Rand, he looked like one, and at any rate ought to be hanged for one, to make sure.

Nobody, however, cared to use the epithet within his hearing. People were afraid of him. One day in the street a tough, swaggering bully, fearless in the consciousness of his powers as a first-class boxer, lurched up against him, deliberately, and with offensive intent. Those who witnessed the act stood by for the phase of excitement dearest of all to their hearts, a row. There was that in Hazon’s look which told they were not to be disappointed.

“English manners?” he queried, in cutting, contemptuous tone.

“I’ll teach you some,” rejoined the fellow promptly. And without more ado he dashed out a terrific left-hander, which the other just escaped receiving full in the eye, but not entirely as to the cheekbone.

Hazon did not hit back, but what followed amazed even the bystanders. It was like the spring of an animal of a leopard or a bull-dog combining the lightning swiftness of the one with the grim, fell ferocity of purpose of the other. The powerful rowdy was lying upon his back in the red dust, swinging flail-like blows into empty air, and upon him, in leopard-like crouch, pressing him to the earth, the man whom he had so wantonly attacked. And his throat was compressed in those brown, lean, muscular fingers, as in a claw of steel. It was horrible. His eyes were starting from his head; his face grew blue, then black; his swollen tongue protruded hideously. His struggles were terrific, yet, powerful of frame as he was, he seemed like a child in the grasp of a panther.

A shout of dismay, of warning, broke from the spectators, some of whom sprang forward to separate the pair. But there was something so awful in the expression of Hazon’s countenance, in the glare of the coal-black eyes, in the drawn-in brows and livid horror of fiendish wrath, that even they stopped short. It was, as they said afterwards, as though they had looked into the blasting countenance of a devil.

“Leave go!” they cried. “For God’s sake, leave go! You’re killing the man. He’ll be dead in a second longer.”

Hazon relaxed his grasp, and stood upright. Beyond a slight heaving of the chest attendant upon his exertion, he seemed as cool and collected as though nothing had happened.

“I believe you’re right,” he said, turning away. “Well, he isn’t that yet.”

The attention of the onlookers was concentrated on the prostrate bully, to restore whom a doctor was promptly sent for from the most likely bar, for it was midday. But all were constrained to allow that the fellow had only got what he deserved, which consensus of opinion may or may not have been due to the fact that he was, if anything, a trifle more unpopular than Hazon himself.

Now among those who had witnessed this scene from first to last was Laurence Stanninghame. Not among those who would have interfered oh, no for did he not hold it a primary tenet never, on any pretext, to interfere in what did not concern him? nor did this principle in those days involve any effort to keep, all impulse to violate it being long since dead. Moreover, if the last held good of the badly damaged bully, society at large could not but be the gainer, since it was clear that he was a fit representative of a class which is utterly destitute of any redeeming point which should go to justify its unspeakably vicious, useless, and rather dangerous existence.

This incident, while enhancing the respect in which Hazon was held, in no sense tended to lessen his unpopularity, and indeed at that time nobody had a good word to say for him. Either they said nothing, and looked the more, or they said a word that was not good oh, no, not good.

Now in spite of all such ill repute, possibly by reason of it, his temperament being what it was, Laurence felt drawn towards this mysterious personage, for he was pre-eminently one given to forming his own judgment instead of accepting it ready made from Dick, Tom, and Harry. If Hazon was vindictive, why, so was he; if unscrupulous, so could he be if driven to it. He resolved to find an opportunity of cultivating the man, and if he could not find one he would make it. Now he saw such an opportunity.

“What do you think of this rumor that the revolution in Brazil is going to knock out our share market?” he said, suddenly looking up from the paper he was reading.

“It may do that,” answered Hazon. “This year’s boom has been a mere sick attempt at one. Wouldn’t take much to knock out what little there is of it.”

Laurence felt a cold qualm. There had been an ominous drop the last day or two. Still Rainsford and one or two others had recommended him to hold on. This man spoke so quietly, yet withal so prophetically. What if he, in his inscrutable way, were more than ordinarily in the know?

“Queer place this,” pursued Hazon, the other having uttered a dubious affirmative. “Taking it all round, it and its crowd, it’s not far from the queerest place I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen some queer places and some queerish crowds.”

“I expect you have. By the way, I suppose you’ve done a good deal of up-country hunting?”

“A goodish deal. Are you fond of the gun? I notice you go out pretty often, but there’s nothing to shoot around here.”

“I just am fond of it,” replied Laurence. “If things turn out all right I shall cut in with some fellow for an up-country trip if I can. Big game this time.”

The other smiled darkly, enigmatically.

“Yes. That’s real real,” he said. “Try some of this,” handing his tobacco bag, as Laurence began to scratch out his empty pipe, “unless, that is, you haven’t got over the new-comer’s prejudice against the best tobacco in the world, the name whereof is Transvaal.”

“Thanks. No, I have no prejudice against it. On the contrary, as to its merits I am disposed to agree with you.”

Throughout this conversation Laurence, who had a keen ear for that sort of thing, could not help noticing the other’s voice. It was a pleasing voice, a cultured voice, and refined withal, nor could his fastidious ear detect the faintest trace of provincialism or vulgarity about it. The intonation was perfect. There is nothing so quick to betray to the sensitive ear any strain of plebeian descent as the voice, and of this no one was more thoroughly aware than Laurence Stanninghame. This man, he decided, was of good birth.

The ice broken, they talked on, in the apparently careless, but in reality guarded way which had become second nature to both of them. More than one strange and very shady anecdote was Hazon able to narrate concerning the place and its inhabitants, and especially concerning certain among the latter who ranked high for morality, commercially or otherwise. There were actions done in their midst every day, he declared, which, for barefaced and unscrupulous rascality, would put to the blush other actions for which the law would hang a man without mercy, all other men applauding, but with this difference, that whereas the former demanded a creeping and crawling cowardliness to insure success, the latter involved iron nerve and the well-nigh daily shaking hands with death death, too, in many an appalling and ghastly form. All of which was “dark” talking as far as Laurence was concerned, though the day was to come when its meaning should stand forth as clear as a printed page.

Even now, however, he was not absolutely mystified far from it, indeed; for he himself was a hard thinker, owning an ever-vivid and busy brain. He could put half a dozen meanings to any one or other of his companion’s utterances, and among them probably the right one. And, as they talked on, he became alive to something almost magnetic a sort of subtile, compelling force about Hazon. Was it his voice or manner or general aspect, or a combination of all three? He could not tell. He could only realize that it existed.

For some days after this conversation the two men did not come together, though they would nod the time of day to each other as before, and Laurence, who had other considerations upon his hands monetary and agreeable did not give the matter a thought. At last he noticed that Hazon’s place at the table was vacant remembering, too, that it had been so for a day or two. Had he left?

To his inquiries on that head he obtained scant and uncordial response. Hazon was ill, some believed, while others charitably opined that he was “on the booze.” Whatever it was no one cared, and strongly recommended Laurence to do likewise.

The latter, we have shown, was peculiarly unsusceptible to public opinion, which, if it influenced him at all, did so in the very opposite direction to that which was intended. Accordingly, he now made up his mind to ascertain the truth for himself to which end he found himself speedily knocking at the door of Hazon’s room, the while marvelling at his own unwonted perturbation lest his overture should be regarded as an intrusion.

“Heard you were ill,” he said shortly, having entered in obedience to the responsive “Come in.” “Rough luck being ill in a place like this, or indeed in any place, for that matter. Thought I’d see if there’s anything I could do for you.”

“Very good of you, Stanninghame. Sit down there on that box it’s lower than the chair, and therefore more comfortable. Yes, I feel a bit knocked out. A touch of the old up-country shivers, or something of the kind. It’s a thing you never entirely pull round from, once you’ve had it. I’ll be all right, though, in a day or two.”

The speaker was lying on his bed, clad in his trousers and shirt. The latter, open from the throat, revealed part of a great livid scar, running diagonally across the swarthy chest, and representing what must have been a terrific slash. Two other scars also showed on the muscular forearm, half-way between elbow and wrist. What was it to Laurence whether this person or that person lived or died? Why, nothing. Yet there was something so pathetic, so helpless in the aspect of the man, lying there day after day, patient, solitary, uncomplaining shunned and avoided by those around that appealed powerfully to his feelings. Heavens! was he turning soft-hearted at his time of life, that he should feel so unaccountably stirred by the bare act of coming to visit this ailing and unbefriended stranger?

In truth, there was nothing awe-inspiring about the latter now. His piercing black eyes seemed large and soft; the expression of his dark face was one of weariful helplessness, yet of schooled patience. A queer thought flashed through Laurence’s brain. Was it in Hazon’s power to produce whatever effect he chose upon the minds of others? Had he chosen, for some inscrutable purpose, to render himself shunned and feared? Was he now, on like principle, adopting the surest means to win over to him this one man who had sought him out on his lonely sick-bed? and if so, to what end? It was more than a passing thought, nor from that moment onward could Laurence ever get it entirely out of his mind.

“Fill your pipe, Stanninghame,” said Hazon, breaking into this train of thought, which, all unconsciously, had entailed a long gap of silence. “I don’t in the least mind smoke, although I can’t blow off a cloud myself just now at least I have no inclination that way,” he added, reaching for a bottle of white powder which stood upon a box by the bedside, and mixing himself a modicum of quinine.

“Had a doctor of any sort, Hazon?”

“What good would that do except to the doctor? I know what’s the matter with me, and I know exactly what to do for it. I don’t want to pay another fellow a couple of guineas or so to tell me. Not but what doctors have their uses in wounds and surgery, for instance. But I’m curiously like an animal. When I get anything the matter with me which I don’t often I like to creep away and lie low. I like to take it alone.”

“Well, I’m built rather that way myself, Hazon. I won’t apologize for intruding, because you know as well as I do that no such consideration enters into the matter. Still, I want you to know that if there’s anything I can do for you, you have only to say so.”

“Thanks. You are not quite like other people, Stanninghame. Life is no great thing, is it, that everybody should stir up such a mighty fuss about clearing out of it?”

“No, it’s no great thing,” assented Laurence darkly. “Yet it might be made so.”

“How that?”

“With wealth. With wealth you can do anything command anything buy anything. They say that wealth won’t purchase life, but very often it will.”

“You’re about three parts right. It will, for instance, enable a man to lead the life he needs in order to preserve his physical and mental vigour at its highest. Even from the moralist’s point of view it is all round desirable, for nothing is so morally deteriorating as a life of narrow and cramped pinching, when all one’s best years are spent in hungering and longing for what one will never again attain.”

“You speak like a book, Hazon,” said Laurence, not wondering that the other should have sized up his own case so exhaustively not wondering, because he was an observer of human nature and a character-reader himself. Then, bitterly, “Yet that pumpkin-pated entity, the ponderous moralist, would contend that the lack of all that made life worth living was good as a stimulus to urge to exertion, and all the hollow old clap-trap.”

“Quite so. But how many attain to the reward the end of the said exertion? Not one in a hundred. And then, in nine cases out of ten, how does that one do it? By fraud, and thieving, and over-reaching, and sycophancy in short, by running through the whole gamut of the scale of rascality rascality of the meaner kind, mark you. Then when this winner in the battle of life comes out top, the world crowns him with fat and fulsome eulogy, and falls down and worships his cheque-book, crying, ‘Behold a self-made man; go thou and do likewise!’”

“You’ve not merely hit the right nail on the head, Hazon, but you’ve driven it right home,” said Laurence decisively, recognizing that here was a man after his own heart.

Two or three days went by before Hazon felt able or inclined to leave his bed, and a good part of each was spent by Laurence sitting in the sick man’s room and talking. And it may have been that the lonely man felt cheered by the companionship and the friendliness that proffered it, what time all others held aloof; or that the two were akin in ideas, or both; but henceforward a sort of intimacy struck up between them, and it was noticed that Hazon no longer went about invariably alone. Then people began to look somewhat queerly at Laurence.

“You and ‘the Pirate’ have become quite thick together, Stanninghame,” said Rainsford one day, meeting him alone.

“Well, why not?” answered Laurence, rather shortly, resenting the inquisitional nature of the question. Then point blank, “See here, Rainsford. Why are you all so down on the man? What has he done, anyway?”

“You needn’t get your shirt out, old chap,” was the answer, quite good-humouredly. “Look here, now we are alone together so just between ourselves. Do you notice how all of these up-country going fellows shunt him Wheeler, for instance? and Garway, who is at your hotel, never speaks to him. And Garway, you’ll admit, is as good a fellow as ever lived.”

“Yes, I’ll own up to that. What then?”

“Only this, that they know a good deal that we don’t.”

“Well, what do they know or say they know?”

“Look here, Stanninghame,” said Rainsford, rather mysteriously, “has Hazon ever told you any of his up-country experiences?”

“A few yes.”

“Did he ever suggest you should take a trip with him?”

“We have even discussed that possibility.”

Ah! Then Rainsford gave a long whistle, and his voice became impressive as he resumed: Watch it, Stanninghame. From time to time other men have gone up country with Hazon, but not one of them has ever returned.”

“Oh, that’s what you’re all down on him about, is it?”

The other nodded; then, with a “so-long,” he cut across the street and disappeared into an office where he had business.