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

DARK DAYS.

The share market at Johannesburg was rapidly going to the deuce.

Some there were who ardently wished that Johannesburg itself had gone thither, before they had heard of its unlucky and delusive existence, and among this daily increasing number might now be reckoned Laurence Stanninghame. He, infected with the gambler’s fever of speculation, had not thought it worth while to “hedge”; it was to be all or nothing. And now, as things turned out, it was nothing. The old story a fictitious market, bolstered up by fictitious and inflated prices; a sudden “slump,” and then everybody with one mind eager to dispose of scrip, barely worth the paper of which it consisted in fact, unsaleable. King Scrip had landed his devoted subjects in a pretty hole.

“You’re not the only one, Stanninghame no, not by a long, long chalk,” said Rainsford ruefully, as they were talking matters over one day. “I’m hard hit myself, and I could point you out men here who were worth tens of thousands a month ago, and couldn’t muster a hard hundred cash at this moment if their lives depended on it worse, too, men whose overdraft is nearly as big as their capital was the same time back.”

“I suppose so. Yet most fellows of that kind are adepts at the fine old business quality of besting their neighbours, one in which I am totally lacking, possibly owing to want of practice. They can go smash and come up smiling, and in a little while be worth more than ever. They know how to do it, you see, and I don’t. Smash for me means smash, and that of a signally grievous kind.”

Rainsford looked at him curiously.

“Oh, bother it, Stanninghame, you’re no worse off than the rest of us. We’ve got to lie low and hang on for a bit, and watch our chances.”

“Possibly you are right, Rainsford. No doubt you are. Still every donkey knows where his own saddle galls him.”

“Rather, old chap,” replied the other, whose hat covered the total of his liability. “The only thing to do is to hold on tight, have a drink, and trust in Providence. We’ll go and have the drink.”

They adjourned to a convenient bar. It was about noon, and the place was fairly full. Here they found Holmes in the middle of a crowd, also Rankin and Wheeler. The consumption of “John Walker” was proceeding at a brisk rate.

“Hallo, Stanninghame, how are you?” cried Rankin; “haven’t seen you for a long time. I think another ‘smile’ wouldn’t hurt us, eh? What do you say? I’m doing bitters. Nothing like Angostura with a little drop of gin in it; gives tone to the system. What’s yours?”

Laurence named his, and the genial Rankin having shouted for it and other “rounds,” proceeded to unfold some wondrous scheme by which he was infallibly bound to retrieve all their fortunes at least cent. per cent. It was only a matter of a little capital. Anyone who had the foresight to intrust him with a few hundreds might consider his fortune made. But, somehow, nobody could be found to hand over those few hundreds. In point of fact, nobody had got them.

“Here, Rainsford,” sung out somebody, “we are tossing for another ’all round.’ Won’t your friend cut in?”

Laurence did cut in, and then Holmes, who, being of genial disposition, and very hard hit too in the scrip line, began uproariously to suggest a further “drown care.”

“Excuse me, eh, Holmes?” said Laurence. “It’s getting too thick, and I don’t think this is a sort of care that’ll bear drowning. I’m off. So-long, everybody.”

“Hold on, Stanninghame,” sung out Rankin, who was the most hospitable soul alive. “Come round to the house and dine with us. I’m just going along. We’d better do another bitters though, first. What do you say?”

But Laurence declined both hospitalities. A very dark mood was upon him one which rendered the idea of the society of his fellows distasteful to the last degree. So he left the carousing crowd, and betook himself to his quarters.

Now the method of drowning care as thus practised commended itself to him on no principle of practical efficacy. He had care enough to drown, Heaven knew, but against any temptation to fly to the bottle in order to swamp it he was proof. His very cynicism, selfish, egotistical as it might be in its hard and sweeping ruthlessness, was a safeguard to him in this connection. That he, Laurence Stanninghame, to whom the vast bulk of mankind represented a commingling of rogue and fool in about equal proportion, should ever come to render himself unsteady on his feet, and hardly responsible for the words which came from his brain, presented a picture so unutterably degraded and loathsome, that his mind recoiled from the barest contemplation of it.

Yes, he had care enough, in all conscience, that day as he walked back to his quarters; for unless the market took a turn for the better, so sudden as to be almost miraculous, the time when he would any longer have a roof over his head might be counted by weeks. And now every mail brought him grumbling, querulous letters asking for money when there was none to send bitter and contentious letters, full of complaint and the raking up of old sores and soul-wearying lamentation; gibing reproaches, too, to him who had beggared himself that these might live. It would have been burden enough had it mattered greatly to him whether anyone in the world lived or not; but here the burden was tenfold by reason of its utter lack of appreciation, of common gratitude, of consideration for the shoulders which, sorely weighed down and chafed, yet still supported it.

But if the refuge which is the resort of the weak held out no temptation to him, there was another refuge of which the exact opposite held good. In weird and gloomy form all the recollections and failures of his past life would rise up and confront him. What an unutterable hash he had made of it and its opportunities! It did not do to run straight the world was not good enough for it; so he had found. That for the past; for the future what? Nothing. For some there was no future, and he was one of these. He saw no light.

Lying on his bed, in the heat of the early afternoon, he realized all this for the hundredth time. The temptation to end it all was strong upon him. Stronger and stronger it grew, as though shadowy demon-shapes were hovering in the shaded, half-darkened room. It grew until it was well-nigh overmastering. His eyes began to wander meaningly towards a locked drawer, and he half rose.

Against this temptation his hardened cynicism was no safeguard at all; rather did it tend to foster it, and that by reason of a corrosive disgust with life and the conditions thereof which it engendered within him. Then, in his half-dreamy state, a sweet and softening influence seemed to steal in upon his soul. He thought he would like to see Lilith Ormskirk once more. Was it foolishness, weakness? Not a bit. Rather was it hard, matter-of-fact, logical philosophy. He had made an unparalleled hash of life. If he were going to leave it now it was sound logic to do so with, as it were, a sweet taste upon his mental palate.

Was it an omen for good, an earnest of a turn in the wheel of ill-luck? On reaching Booyseus he was so fortunate as to find Lilith not only at home but alone. Her face lighted up at the sight of him.

“How sweet of you to toil out here this hot afternoon,” she said, as he took within his the two hands she had instinctively held out to him. For a moment he looked at her without replying, contrasting the grim motive which had brought him hither with this perfect embodiment of youth, and health, and beauty, with all of life, all of the future yet before her all of life with its possibilities. She was in radiant spirits, and the hazel eyes shone entrancingly, and the slight flush under the dark warmth of the satin skin, caused by the unaffected pleasure inspired by his arrival, rendered even his strong head a trifle unsteady, as though with a rich, sweet, overpowering intoxication.

“Well, the reward is great,” he answered, still retaining her hands in a lingering pressure. “Are you all alone, child?”

“Yes,” she said, that pleased flush mantling again, the diminutive sounding strangely sweet to her ears as coming from him.

“But you we may not be much longer. People might drop in at any moment, and I want to be alone with you this afternoon. I am spoiling for one of our long talks, so put on a hat and come for a stroll across the veldt. Or is it too hot?”

“You know it is not,” she answered. “Now, I won’t be a minute.”

She was as good as her word, for she reappeared almost immediately with a hat and sunshade, and they set forth, striking out over the bare open veldt which extended around and behind the Booyseus estate. The heat was great, greater than most women would have cared to face, but the blue cloudlessness of the sky, the sheeny glow of the sun upon the free open country was so much delight to Lilith Ormskirk. In her love for all that was bright and glowing she was a true daughter of the South.

“Oh, Laurence, how good it is to live!” she exclaimed, as they stepped out at a brisk pace in the glorious openness of the warm air. “Do you know, I feel at times so bright, and well, and happy in the very joy and thankfulness of being alive, that it almost brings tears. Do you understand the feeling? Tell me.”

“I think so.”

“But did you ever feel that way yourself?”

“Perhaps in fact, I must have, because I understand so thoroughly what you mean; but it must have been a very, very long time ago.”

His tone was that of one gravely amused, indulgently caressing. Heavens! he was thinking. The contrast here was quite delicious; in fact, it was unique. If only Lilith could have seen into his thoughts at that moment, if only she had had the faintest inkling as to their nature an hour or so back. Still something in his look or in his tone sobered her.

“Ah, Laurence, forgive me,” she cried. “How unfeeling I am, throwing my light-heartedness at you in this way, when things are going so badly with you.”

“Unfeeling? Why, child, I love to see you rejoicing in the bright happiness of your youth and glowing spirits. I would not have you otherwise for all the world.”

“No, I ought not to feel that way just now, when you when so many all round us are passing through such a dreadfully anxious and critical time. Tell me, Laurence, are things brightening for you even a little?”

“Not even a little; the case is all the other way. But don’t you think about it, child. Be happy while you can and as long as you can. It is the worst possible philosophy to afflict yourself over the woes of other people.”

Now the tears did indeed well to Lilith’s eyes, but assuredly this time they were not tears of joy and thankfulness. One or two even fell.

“Don’t sneer, Laurence. You must keep the satire and cynicism for all the world, if you will, but keep the inner side of your nature for me,” said she, and in the sweet, pleading ring in her voice there was no lack of feeling now. “You have had about ten times more than your share of all the dark and bitter side of life. You will not refuse my sympathy my deepest, most heartfelt sympathy will you, dear? Ah, would that it were only of any use at all!”

“Your sympathy? Why, I value and prize it more than anything else in the world in fact it is the only thing in the world I do value. ’Of any use at all?’ It is of some use of incalculable use, perhaps.”

A smile lit up the clouded sadness of her face.

“If I only thought that,” she said. “Still it’s more than sweet to hear you say so. Tell me, Laurence, what was the strange sympathetic magnetism that existed between us from the very first yes, long before we talked together? I was conscious of it, if you were not a sympathy that makes it easy for me to follow you, when you talk so darkly that nobody else could.”

“Oh, there is such a sympathy, then?”

“Of course there is, and you know it.”

“Perhaps. Tell me, Lilith, do you still cherish certain fusty and antiquated superstitions which make that good results and beneficial can never come out of abstract wrong? Abstract wrong being for present purposes a mere conventionality.”

She looked at him for a moment. The interchange of that steady silent glance was sufficient.

“No, I do not,” she said.

“I thought not. Well, that being so, you can perhaps realize of what ‘use,’ as you put it, that sweetest gift of your deepest, most heartfelt sympathy may be to its object, and in its results wholly beneficial. Do you follow?”

“Why, of course. And is it really in my power to brighten life for you ever so little? Ah, that would be happiness indeed.”

“Continue to think so, then, for it is in your power to do just that, and you are doing it at this moment. And, child, when you feel that sense of boundless elation with the joy of living, add this to the happiness you are feeling, not to lessen but to enhance it.”

“I will do that, Laurence,” she said. “And if the consciousness that you have what you say is of use to you, let it be to strengthen you. Clear-headed, strong as you are, dear, there must come hours of terrible gloom, even to you. Well, when such come on, think of our talk to-day and strive to throw them off because of it because of the strengthening influences of it.”

Thus she spoke, bravely, but beneath her outwardly sweet serenity a hard battle was being waged. She was fighting with her innermost self; striving hard to retain her self-control. She would not even raise her eyes to his lest she should lose it, lest she should betray herself. And all the while the chords of her innermost being thrilled and quivered with an indescribable tenderness, taking words within her mind: “My Laurence, my love, my ideal, what would I not do to brighten life for you you for whom life is all too hard! I would draw down that life-weary head till it rested on my breast; I would wind my arms round your neck and whisper into your tired ear words of comfort, and of soothing, and of love. Ah, how I would love you, care for you, shield your ear from ever being hurt by a discordant word! And I would draw your heart within mine to rest there, and would feel life all too blissfully, ineffably sweet to live.”

His voice broke in upon her meditations, causing her a very perceptible start, so rapt were they.

“What is the subject of your very deep thought, my Lilith? Are you wreathing some strange and hitherto unsuspected spell, sorceress?”

The tone, playful, half sad, nearly upset her self-control then and there. Was it with design that, after the first keen penetrating gaze, he half averted his glance?

“I am afraid I am poor company,” she said rather lamely. “I must have been silent quite a long time. I was thinking thinking out some knotty problem which would draw down your superior lordship’s indulgent pity,” with a flash of all her former bright spirits.

“And its nature?”

“If you will promise not to sneer I’ll tell you. You will? Well, then, I was thinking whether I would have that gold-yellow dress done up with mauve sleeves or black, for Wednesday week.”

Whether he believed her or not it was impossible to determine from the demeanour wherewith this statement was received. She was inclined to think he did, which spoke volumes for his tactfulness; and is it not of the very essence of that far too uncommon virtue to impress your interlocutor with the conviction that you believe exactly as he or she wants you to? In point of fact, there was something heroically pathetic in the way in which each mind strove to veil from the other its inner workings, while every day showed more and more the impossibility of keeping up the figment.

Yet, for all this, there were times when the possession, the certainty of Lilith’s “sympathy” she had called it, would fail to cheer, to strengthen. Darker and darker grew the days, more hopeless the prospect, and soon Laurence Stanninghame found himself not merely face to face with poverty, but on the actual verge of destitution. Grim, fell spectres haunted his waking hours no less than his dreams. Did he return from a few hours of hard exercise with a fine appetite, that healthy possession served but to remind him how soon he would be without the means of gratifying it. He pictured himself utterly destitute, and through his sleeping visions would loom hideous spectres of want and degradation. Day or night, waking or sleeping, it was ever the same; the horror of the position was ever before him and would not be laid. His mind was a hell to him, his heart of lead, his hard, clear brain deadly, self-pitiless in its purpose. Obviously, there was no further room in the world for such as he.