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

“GOOD-BYE--MY IDEAL!”

Johannesburg once more. The great, restless gold-town had passed through many changes, many booms and rumours of booms the latter for the most part since that quiet trek now four years ago. Many of those who then were among its busiest inhabitants had departed, some to a land whence there is no return, others to the land of their respective births. Many, who then had been on the verge of millionaires, “buzzing” their rapidly acquired gains with a lavish magnificence which they imagined to be “princely” were now uncertificated bankrupts, or had blown their brains out, or had come within the meshes of the law and the walls of a convict prison; while others, who at that time lived upon hope and the “whiff of an oiled rag,” now fared sumptuously every day, and would do so unto their lives’ end. But for those who had held on to the place through good and evil report, since the time we last pioneered our reader through its dust-swept streets and arid surroundings, something of a surprise was in store. For the old order of things was reversed. Instead of Hazon returning without his travelling companions, the latter had returned without Hazon.

“Bless my soul, Stanninghame, is that you?” cried Rankin, running right into Laurence one morning just outside the new Exchange. “And Holmes too? Why, you’re looking uncommonly well, both of you. What have you done with the pirate, eh?”

“Oh, he’s coming on!” replied Laurence, which in substance was correct, though it might be weeks before he came on; for, as a matter of fact, Hazon had remained behind at a certain point to collect and reduce to cash such gains as were being custodied for him and the joint undertaking by sundry of his blood-brethren the Arab chiefs.

“Coming on, is he? Well, well! I think we’ve been libelling the pirate after all, eh Rainsford?” as that worthy just joined them. “Here’s Hazon’s trek come back without Hazon, instead of the other way about.”

Laurence thought how nearly it had been a case of the other way about. Had he not offered himself instead of Holmes, it would have been, for he would have remained with the Ba-gcatya, and Hazon would have returned alone. Of the fate of Holmes well he knew what that would have been. Holmes, however, did not, for the simple reason that Laurence had refrained from communicating a word relating to that horrible episode to either of his associates when, shortly after parting with Rahman ben Zuhdi, and the death of Lindela, he had found the two, safe and well, at the principal town of a prominent Arab chief. And Holmes, possibly through ignorance of its nature or magnitude, never did fully appreciate the sacrifice which the other had made for him.

“What do you think?” went on Rankin, when the requisite amount of greeting and chaff had been exchanged, “this fellow Rainsford has gone and got married; has started out in the nursery department for all he’s worth.”

Laurence laughed.

“Why, Rainsford, you were as stony broke as the rest of us when I left. Things looking up, eh?”

“Of course. I told you it was a case of ’down to-day, up to-morrow’ told you at the time. And it’s my belief you’d have done better to have remained here.” Then lowering his voice; “Where’s the pirate?”

“Coming on.”

Rainsford whistled, and looked knowing.

“What do you say?” cut in Rankin, “a drop of gin and soda wouldn’t hurt us, eh?” Then while they moved round to the Exchange bar, he went on; “I’ve got a thing that would suit you to a hair, Stanninghame. I’d take it up myself if I could, but I’m only an agent in the matter.”

“Shares, eh?”

“Yes Skinner and Sacks.”

“Dead off. See here, Rankin you must off-load them on somebody else. If I were next door to certain of making half a million out of it, even then I wouldn’t touch any sort of investment connected with this place. No, not to save my immortal soul if I’ve got one, which at times seems doubtful.” And there was something in Laurence’s laugh evoked by old time recollections which convinced the other that no business was to be done in this quarter at any rate.

There was method in the way in which Laurence had sought to dawdle away the morning. He had arrived late the night before, and as yet had made no inquiries. How strange it all seemed! Surely it was but yesterday that he was here last. Surely he had slept, and had dreamed the portentous events which had intervened. They could not have been real. But the stones the great diamonds they were real enough; the metal box too the “Sign of the Spider.”

How was he thus transformed? Later in the day, as he stood on the stoep knocking at the door of Mrs. Falkner’s house, he was conscious that his heart hardly beat quicker, that his pulses were as firm and even as ever. Four years of a hard, stern schooling had done it.

Yes, Mrs. Falkner was at home. He was ushered into the drawing room, which was empty. There was the same ever-clinging scent of roses, the same knick-knacks, the same lounge on which they had sat together that night. Even the battery stamps across the kloof seemed to hammer out the same refrain.

The door opened. Was it Lilith herself? No, only Lilith’s aunt.

“Why, Mr. Stanninghame, I am glad to see you. But how you have changed!”

“Well, yes, Mrs. Falkner. Time has knocked me about some. I can’t say the same as regards yourself, though. You haven’t changed an atom.”

She laughed. “That can’t be true. I’m sure I feel more and more of an old woman every day. But sit down, do, and tell me about your adventures. Have you had a successful trip?”

“Pretty well. It has proved a more paying concern, at any rate, than the exhilarating occupation known as ‘waiting for the boom.’”

“I am very glad to hear that. And your friends have you all returned safe and sound?”

Laurence replied that they had. But for all his outward equability, his impatience was amounting to torment. Even while he talked his ears were strained to catch the sound of a light step without. How would Lilith look? he wondered. Would these four years have left their mark upon her?

“And how is your niece, Miss Ormskirk?” he went on.

“Lilith? Oh, but by the way, she is not ‘Miss Ormskirk’ now. She is married.”

“Oh, is she? I hadn’t heard. After all, one forgets how time slips by.”

That was all. It was a shock possibly a hard one; but of late Laurence Stanninghame had been undergoing a steady training for meeting such. Mrs. Falkner who had made the communication not without some qualm, for she had been put very much up to the former state of things, both by her nephew, George, and certain “signs of the times,” not altogether to be dissimulated, however bravely Lilith had borne herself after that parting now so far back felt relieved and in a measure a trifle disappointed, for, womanlike, she dearly loved romance. But the man before her had not turned a hair, had not even changed colour at the intelligence. It could not really matter, she decided which was as well for him, but for herself disappointing.

“Yes she married her cousin George, my nephew. You remember him,” she went on. “I was against it for a long time; but, after all, I believe it was the saving of him, poor fellow, he was so wildly in love with her. He was simply going to the dogs. Yes, it was the saving of him.”

“That’s satisfactory, anyway,” said Laurence, as though he were discussing the fortunes of any two people whose names he had just heard for the first time. But meanwhile his mind was inwardly avenging itself upon its outward self-control. For vividly, and as though spoken into his ears, there seemed to float fragments of those farewell words uttered there in that room: “You have drawn my very heart and soul into yours.... Oh, it is too bitter! Laurence, my darling my love, my life, my ideal, good-bye and good-bye!

Well, the foolish dream had been a pleasant one while it lasted. Nay, more, in all seriousness it had borne momentous fruit, for no less than three times had that episode yes, now it seemed a mere episode intervened between him and death.

“Lilith will be so glad to see you when you are passing through; for of course you will be returning home again. They have taken a bungalow at Kalk Bay for the summer. I’ll find you the address.”

They talked on a little longer, and then Laurence took his departure.

As he gained the outer air once more there was that about the shimmer of the sunlight, the hum of the battery stamp, the familiarity of the surroundings, which reminded him of that former time when he had thus stepped forth, having bidden a good-bye which was not a good-bye. Yet the same pain did not grip around his heart now not in its former acuteness rather was it now a sense of the falling away of all things. By a freak of psychology his mind reverted to poor Lindela, dying in his arms in the steamy gloom of the equatorial forest: dying slowly, by inches, in pain; yet uttering no cry, no complaint, lest she should rob him of a few minutes more or less of sleep. That was indeed love. Still, even while making it, his sense of philosophy told him the comparison was not a fair one.

Well, that was over another chapter in his life to shut down. Now to make the best of life. Now, with the means to taste its pleasures, with hard, firm health to enjoy them; after all, what was a mere sentimental grievance? Perhaps it counted for something, for all he told himself to the contrary. Perhaps deep down there gnawed a restless craving, stifle it as he would. Who can tell?

“The R. M. S. Alnwick Castle leaves for England at 4 P. M.”

Such was the notice which, posted up in shipping office, or in the short paragraph column of the Cape Town newspapers, met the public eye.

It was the middle of the morning. Laurence Stanninghame, striving to kill the few hours remaining to him on African soil, was strolling listlessly along Adderley Street. A shop window, adorned with photographic views of local scenery and types of natives, mostly store-boys rigged up with shield and assegai to look warlike for the occasion, attracted his attention, and for a while he stood, idly gazing at these. His survey ended, he backed away from the window in a perfectly irrational and British manner on a busy thoroughfare, and trod hard on somebody’s toes. A little cry of mingled pain and resentment, then he stood profusely apologizing.

But with the first tones of his voice, she whom he had so awkwardly, if unintentionally damaged, seemed to lose sight of her injuries. Her face blanched, but not with physical pain, her lips parted in a sort of gasp, and the sweet eyes, wide and dilated, sought his in wonder almost in fear.

“Laurence!”

The name was hardly audible, but he heard it. And if his steely philosophy had stood him in good stead before, assuredly at this moment his guard was down; as he recognized that he had last beheld this serene vision of loveliness, arrayed as now in cool white, strained to him in farewell embrace alone in the solemn night, those parted lips pressed to his in heart-wrung pain, those sweet eyes, starry, humid with love, gazing full into his own. And now they met again, four years later by chance in a busy thoroughfare.

“Pray excuse my inexcusable awkwardness; I must have hurt you,” he said, as they clasped hands, and the tone was even almost formal, for he remembered they were in public.

“You you have changed. I should hardly have known you but for your voice,” she said unsteadily for he had turned to walk up the street with her. “But when did you return? I had not heard.”

“Had you not? I called on your aunt in Johannesburg on the way through. She was telling me all about you.”

Something of relief seemed to manifest itself in Lilith’s tone as she rejoined:

“But you are you staying here?”

“Well, no. I have been trying to kill time until this afternoon. I am leaving by the Alnwick Castle.”

“Oh! By the Alnwick Castle?” she repeated again and in the catch in her voice, and the quickness of utterance, he knew she was talking at random, for the sake of saying something, in fact.

“Do you care to hear a little of what has befallen me since I went?” he said. “Then let us turn in here,” as she made a mute but eager gesture of assent.

They had gained the entrance to the oak avenue at the back of Government House. Strolling up this, they turned into the beautiful Botanical Gardens. Nobody was about, save a gardener or two busied with their work.

“What I am going to tell you is so marvellous that you will probably refuse to believe it,” he said, after narrating the incident of the sign upon the metal box which had arrested the uplifted weapons of the unsparing Ba-gcatya, and, of course, editing out all that might have revealed the real nature of the expedition. “I have never breathed one word of it to any living being not even to those who were with me. I would rather you did not either, Lilith, because it is too strange for anybody to believe, and for other reasons.”

She gave the required promise, and he drew forth the box. At sight of this relic of the past, that sweet, entrancing, if profitless past Lilith could no longer quite keep herself in hand. The tears welled forth, falling upon the metal box itself hallowing, as it were, the sweet charm of its saving power.

“Your love had power to save one life, you see,” he went on in a cold, even voice, intended to strengthen him against himself. “But look, now see those marks on the lid, just discernible? Now listen.”

And Lilith did listen; and at the description of the awful rock prison, with its skeleton bones, the long hours of helpless suspense and despair and the final struggle in the ghastly moonlight; the struggle for life with the appalling monster that tenanted it, her eyes dilated with horror, and with pallid face and gasping lips she begged him not to go on, so great a hold did the incident take upon her imagination, even there, in the blaze of the broad midday sunlight.

“I have done now,” he said. “Well, Lilith you see what that token of your love has rescued me from. It was given as an amulet or charm, and right well has it fulfilled its purpose. But to what end?”

“Did you did you come back with what you went for,” she broke forth at last, as with an effort.

“Yes. Therein, too, you proved yourself a true prophet. And now tell me something about yourself.”

“Were you angry with me when you heard what I had done, Laurence?” she said, raising her eyes full to his.

“Angry? No. Why should I be? Your life is your own, though, as a rule, sacrificing ones’ self to save somebody else, as your aunt rather gave me to understand was the case here, is lamentably apt to turn out a case of throwing away one’s life with both hands. It is too much like cutting one’s own throat to save somebody else from being hanged.”

“And is that your way of wishing me well, Laurence?” she said reproachfully.

“No. I wish you nothing but well. It would be futile to say ‘happiness,’ I suppose.”

“The happiness of doing one’s duty is a hard kind of happiness, after all,” she said, with a sad little smile.

“Yes. An excellent copybook maxim, but for all purposes of real life bosh. Am I not in my own person a living instance to that effect? As soon as I pitched ‘duty’ to the dogs, why then, and only then, did I begin to travel in the contrary direction to those sagacious animals myself which, of course, is simply appalling morality, but it’s life. Well, child, make the best of your life, and prove a shining exception to the dismal rule.”

“Do you remember our talk on board the dear old Persian? Yes, we had so many, you were going to say; but I mean our first one, the first serious one that night, leaning over the side, I asked you: ’Shall I make a success of life?’ Do you remember your answer?”

“As well as though it were yesterday. I replied that the chances were pretty even, inclining, if anything, to the negative. Well, and was I right?”

Lilith turned away her head. He could see that the tears were not far away. Her lips were quivering.

“I likewise told you you were groping after an ideal,” he went on.

“And I found it. Perhaps I had already found it when I asked the question. Oh, Laurence, life is all wrong, all horribly wrong and out of joint,” she burst forth, with a passionate catch in her voice, as she turned and faced him once more.

“Yes, I know it is. I came to that conclusion a goodish while ago, and have never seen any reason since to doubt its absolute accuracy.”

“All out of joint!” she repeated hopelessly. “It is as if our lives had been placed opposite each other on parallel lines, and then one of the lines had been moved. Then our lives lay apart forever.”

“That’s about it.”

She was not deceived. His tone was hard; to all appearances indifferent. Yet not to her ear did it so ring. She knew the immensity of effort that kept it and what lay behind it under control. Then she broke down entirely.

“Laurence, my love my doubly lost love!” she uttered through a choking whirlwind of sobs. “Teach me some of your strength some of your hardness. Then, perhaps, I can bear things better.”

“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, remember, and perhaps you have shown me the weak link here that of my ‘hardness.’ Child, I would not teach you an iota of it, if I could. It is good for me, but no woman was ever the better for it yet. But keep yourself in hand now. We are in a public place, although a comparatively secluded one. For your own sake, do not give way. And for the very reason that I feared to stir up old memories, I had intended to go through without attempting to see you once more. Tell me one thing would it have been better had I done so?”

“Better had you done so? No no. A thousand times no Laurence, my darling. I shall treasure up this last hour we have spent together shall treasure it as the sweetest of memories as long as life shall last.”

“And I shall treasure up that reply. Listen! Twice has your love stood between me and death, as I have told you. Yet of the third time I have never told you. It was the day I decided to go up-country. I had done with life. The pistol was pressed hard against my forehead. I was gradually trying how much more pressure the trigger would bear. A hair’s breadth would have done it. Then it seemed that your voice was in my ear. Your form stood before me. I tell you, Lilith, you saved me that day as surely as though you had actually been within the room. I put the pistol down.”

“I did this?” wonderingly. “Why, that must have been the day I had that awful dream.”

“It was. Hazon came in just after, and we made our plans for the expedition. I remember telling you of it that same afternoon.”

“Why, then, if this is so, it must have been with some great purpose,” she cried, brightening up, a strange, wistful smile illumining her face. “Oh, how glad I am you have told me this, for now I can see comfort strength. In some mysterious way it seems as if our two lives were intertwined, that it would ever be in my power in some dim way to watch over yours. My darling, my darling until this moment I had not the strength to part with you now I have. Let me do so before it leaves me, for we have been here a very long time. I would have seen you off on board, but that I dare not. I simply lack the strength of will to bear that, Laurence, my dear one. We had better say good-bye here not in the crowded street. Then I will go alone.”

Both had risen, and were holding each other’s hands, were gazing into each other’s eyes. Thus they stood for a moment. Nobody was in sight. Lilith lifted her lips, and they moved in a barely audible murmur.

“Good-bye, my ideal!”

One long, close, farewell kiss, and she was gone. And the man, as he flung himself back on the garden seat, with his eyes fixed dreamily on the jutting end of the massive rock wall of Table Mountain towering on high to the cloudless blue, realized at that moment no elation such as one might feel who had found considerable wealth, and was returning full of hard, firm health to enjoy the same. More than ever at that moment did life seem to him all out of joint more than ever, if possible; for his had been one of those lives which, from the cradle to the grave, never seems to be anything else.