The Spider (Vance)

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The Spider.

HIS LAST FIGHT IN THE RING, AND ANOTHER FIGHT LATER.

BY LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE.


I.

THIS was to be his last fight—in the ring, at least. Of that the Spider felt sure, as he jumped over the ropes with a tawdry simulation of his one-time jauntiness. He was telling himself that he was a goner, a has-been. But he would fight this fight, anyhow; and after they had counted time on him—as they were bound to, he felt—he would quit it dead.

His opponent, the Harlem Smasher, lingered in his dressing-room; he was in no haste to win. Impatiently the Spider moved about within the squared circle, feeling of the padded posts, testing with his feet the resiliency of the padded flooring—pawing it with something in his manner suggestive of a veteran cavalry charger sniffing again the smell of powder.

The air was humid and foul with the reek of cheap beer and the fumes of doubtful cigars. Some two hundred men were herded together in the narrow confines of Maguire's secluded back room. They smoked, drank, spat ceaselessly, exchanging rude persiflage and making wagers in subdued tones. The gas in the chandelier above the ring flared yellow and smoky.

A faint disgust stirred within the Spider; hardened as he was, the faded, blowsy atmosphere well-nigh sickened him. Since noon of yesterday no food had passed his lips save a handful of free lunch which he had appropriated as he made his way through Maguire's crowded bar-room.

He moistened his dry, cracked lips with the tip of his tongue, furtively glancing out over the flushed sea of upturned faces; seeking a friendly eye, and finding none, in all that assemblage of calloused, indifferent, brutalized "sports." Somehow, he had felt that the encouragement of a well-wisher's presence at the ringside would have heartened him to put up a stiffer fight, to give the Harlem Smasher a run for the money. But no; even his own second, puffing a cheap cigarette as he squatted upon a stool in the corner of the ring, a coarse towel over the arm that held the sponge, was betting against his principal.

There was a stir at the door. The keeper opened it cautiously, to admit a party of three or four swells—young, careless men in evening dress, obviously something the worse for drink. The Spider looked them over anxiously, but they scarcely noticed him. Vaguely disheartened—if he could now be more so than before—he turned away, shading his red-rimmed eyes from the glare of the gasolier. He gulped convulsively. His last fight!

Suddenly the crowd was electrified by the appearance of the Harlem Smasher himself, boyish, smiling, throwing a confident word over the serried heads to an admirer. The heart of the Spider sank as the other vaulted over the ropes, a laugh on his lips; they were cheering him—but softly, that the police might not hear.

The Spider's second abandoned his cigarette, and whispered a word or two of conventional encouragement to his principal. The Spider shook his head.

"Naw," he said; "ye know I ain't got no chanst. Yer money's safe," he added bitterly.

Maguire rose from the midst of the crowd and announced in the stereotyped form the conditions of the match. The Spider listened listlessly to his mouthing of the familiar terms:

"'Steen ounce—twenty rounds—Markis er Queensberry—purse—winner take all——"

What a farce!

The gong sounded. For a moment the two men, bare to the waist, the plump condition of the one in striking contrast to the pain fid emaciation of the other, faced each other in the middle of the enclosure as their gloves met amicably. At once they danced apart, watchful, fiddling for an opening. The Spider feinted, landed once or twice and got within the Smasher's guard almost at will; but his blows lacked steam. Indigestion and the weakness that is own brother to privation were losing for him. He could have pitied the youth before him for his clumsiness, for the Smasher scarcely know how to hold his hands—a year back he could have pitied; but now—the Spider's transient sun was setting, lie struggled desperately against the odds of youth—that endless struggle of age and wisdom, ever hopeless.

The gong clanged; he walked to his corner mechanically. Mechanically he made some edged reply, biting in its embittered irony, to his second's "Aw, brace up an' soak 'im. Ye're all right!"

The following round was short—short as was the Spiders wind as he jumped from his second's knee. In some way he found an instant wherein to search the hard, brutish faces again, and this time one of the swells at the door caught his eye and nodded to him pleasantly. Ah, that was what he had been needing! The Spider sprang forward with something of his old-time fire—its last, expiring flicker. The Harlem Smasher broke, astounded, under the unexpected onslaught; the Spider pressed him to the ropes relentlessly; but it was too late, too late!

The room reeled, the lights circled dizzily in a whirl of smoke; he struck out blindly, dazed, his ears ringing with catcalls, the stench of the stale beer and cold cigar butts sickening him. Darkness came upon him, crashing, and a red flame danced before his eyes. Subconsciously he knew that he was down, struggling to rise, that the arm of the referee rose and fell steadily, that the Harlem Smasher stood over him, alert, ruthless, to deliver the final blow should he win to his knees. He slumped back wearily.

"Ten!"


II.

After a while the Spider was standing in the outer doorway of Maguire's. His head ached dully, his back felt strangely weak and invertebrate, he was conscious of a drawn sensation about his deep-sunken eyes—and his stomach yearned unutterably for food.

He stepped out to the curb, turning up the collar of the threadbare coat which he hugged about him. The wind of night whipped screaming through the narrow, darksome street and bit frostily to the bone. The gas in the corner lamps flickered blue. Whither should he turn? What difference did it make? No matter where he went, he would be an object of derision, a fallen idol of the ring.

The saloon doors opened, and tho crowd, its lusts unsated because of the poor showing the Spider had put up, seethed out, dividing right and left. The Spider, quivering for shame like a whipped cur, turned aside his head that he might not be recognized. He need not have troubled; none noticed him save Worth.

Perhaps Worth was more sober than either of his companions, or than his wont. He saw the trembling figure at the curb and stopped.

"You fellows go on," he told them. "I'm not going up-town just yet."

So they piled into a cab, howling, and left him. Presently, calculating his moment with cold-blooded nicety, Worth touched the Spider on the arm.

"Have a drink?" he suggested good-naturedly. One may with impunity offer liquor to the wretch of the slums: to offer food, even when needed—or, rather, especially when needed—is to insult.

At his voice the Spider started, staring vacantly at the swell in the dress suit. His benumbed intelligence was some time in comprehending the import of the words. At last, however, he recognized Worth.

"Aw!" he muttered, "youse is de guy wot——" He hung his head. "Hope youse didn't lose nuttin' on me," he added.

Worth made the pressure on his victim's arm more insistent.

"Have a drink?"

"Don't care 'f I do. Aw, say—not dere!" he pleaded, almost piteously, as Worth moved back toward Maguire's.

Worth silently nodded his comprehension, and as silently, kept pace with the shambling, dispirited prize-fighter. They entered the back room of another gin-mill some blocks distant. The Spider ordered whisky. As he poured it out, the neck of the bottle chattered upon the thick rim of the glass. He downed the stuff in feverish haste to feel its furtive heat.

Worth, with a grimace of disgust, swallowed a dose of poisonous sherry. He ordered cigars. He was soft-voiced, contained, even in his cups bearing himself imitatively as a gentleman; with a thin face, narrow-browed, dominated entirely by his eyes, which were cold, hard, black, selfish, and unsympathetic.

The Spider—short, stocky, lowering—stared restlessly about the dingy hole, avoiding Worth's eye; he wanted to say something grateful, but the words stuck in his throat. Worth broke the pause.

"What are you going to do—now?" he asked, his tone cynically impersonal.

"Aw, I dunno—I ain't got no chanst."

This he reiterated hopelessly.

Worth needed a valet, a body-servant who should be devoted to his master's interests. He mentioned the fact, named wages. At any rate, he argued, it would do the Spider no harm to try it on.

"Naw," said the Spider; "I wouldn't do. I ain't got no chanst. I'm—too old!"

He quvered again, tracing meaningless circles with his forefinger on the sloppy table-top. "Thanks all the same."

He was twenty-six—not seven months more. But the "ring" drains the veins of its devotees; youth fades in its blush.

Afterwards he yielded and went with Worth.


III.

At the end of five years he was changed greatly, although he was still, to Worth and to his master's intimates, the Spider, the former light-weight champion. He had become clean-shaven, low-spoken, deferential; his arrogant self-assertiveness of old was gone; he even stooped slightly—his shoulders bent as if in outward and visible manifestation of his accepted bondage. He was yet slim, wiry, alert, quick of temper, if he had learned to suppress its showing. Time had altered little the inborn fighter.

He served Worth, doggedly submissive, intensely his "man." He came to know his master as you know your desk; and both loved and despised him. He kept him daily faultlessly groomed, and at night, often enough, assisted a grumbling cabby to carry the bemused, bedraggled drunkard to his rooms. He served without wages for months at a time; and without the flicker of an eyelash, he saw Worth cheat skilfully at his card-parties, and pocket the gains. He knew the mural worthlessness of the man, and loved him for the semi-occasional word of approval or appreciation which Worth weighed and flung him us a bone to a dog.

In the fifth year, Worth was at the end of his resources. His slender means were long since dissipated, his credit vanished; a whispered word or two about the clubs had cut off from him his main source of income—the card-parties. He was deep in debt.

Then began the systematic hunting of the heiress—the hounding of Helen Cuyler, in which at first the Spider played his part, assisting willingly. Means to him were naught if the end assured the content of his master. He carried flowers to the house, hiding the carefully worded, impassioned note in the leaves—flowers which he obtained on credit from a reluctant florist. He provided for cabs out of his own means, arranged the meetings, kept Worth in good physical condition despite his nightly wanderings.

At last the girl herself attracted his attention—by what it would he hard to say: whether by a kindly word or a tip inoffensively bestowed, or by the soft, white magic of her, shining translucent through her dark, clear eyes. Suddenly the Spider was worshiping her at a distance—and fighting Worth tooth and nail in every skirmish of his strategic courtship.

Thus came the break. Worth apprehended the veiled opposition, traced it back to its source, accused his man. The Spider went back to his fighting pose; his head and shoulders came forward, his eyes were keen and shifty, his hands unconsciously clenched. He threatened Worth with a complete exposé should he not give up his prey.

The girl's own family were keenly suspicious of Worth; a word would ruin him. The man, the crafty egoist, took thought; for the Spider must be eliminated for a time. "He will be glad to be taken back afterwards," Worth forecast.

He had influence of a sort that better men disdain; and abruptly he had a new valet. As for the Spider, he was serving ninety days in the workhouse for a crime which he had not committed.


IV.

Into the sultry splendor of an August afternoon a black squall leaped furiously from the cloud-bank that lowered in the west. Almost without warning. New York was shrouded in somber twilight. The East River was first lulled to sullen darkness, then lashed with a tremendous rain-storm, maddened to white-caps by a tearing wind.

On Blackwell's Island, when the greenish gloom settled, the working gang was ordered to shelter. At once the rain began to fall, sheeted, blinding. The sentries were drenched and confused; but the Spider was cool and swift to take advantage of this, that chance whose coming he had awaited long and with what patience he might. Under cover of the momentary disorder, he dodged into the boiling river without fear; the old dock-rat was a strong swimmer.

When the squall had passed, derisively flicking a tail of filmy cloud in its wake, his escape was discovered; but by then he was safely ensconced in the shelter of a pier on the Manhattan shore. Here, lying hidden on the top of a broad and slimy stringpiece, he heard the tumult of the chase; and his black eyes snapped jubilant as he saw it pass his hiding-place in boats loaded with profane keepers.

In time the excitement decreased, the search was abandoned; but yet the Spider skulked in hiding, stark and shivering—for at once he had sunk the workhouse garments to the bottom of the river—awaiting the night that should cloak his further flight.

Night came tardily, hot and sticky, densely black beneath a sluggish pall of heavy-laden clouds that traveled slowly eastward across the zenith. Now was his time. He let himself down, slipping silently into the warm embrace of the waters, and struck out boldly into their wide freedom.

The tide ebbed swift and strong. A powerful tug, north-bound with a tow of obstinate floats balking at the hawser, labored mightily with stentorian puffs, gaining slight headway. A revenue launch—in the gloom a slim white ghost—tore down-stream with the speed of an arrow fresh sped. A Sound steamer, blazing with lights, blatant with music, lumbered stubbornly toward Hell Gate. And the Island, the hated, bulked near at hand, huge, sinister, monolithic.

The Spider was openly thankful for the still, hazy air. for the soft darkness of the night, for the tepid, rushing tide. For the most part floating on his back, he abandoned himself lazily to the will of the stream, little reeking whither it might bear or where land him; it was enough that it should be carrying him to freedom.

And the tide betrayed his trust. The hiss of a head-on ripple, the sudden loom of a ship's freeboard, were his sole, swift warning. Half stunned by a glancing blow on his temple, it was as if ages passed reverberating while he fought to break the clutch of the hungry waters, while he struggled desperately for the right to breathe—his inalienably. Then his fingers encountered a bit of wood-work, slipped horribly, tightened their grip; and he drew himself up, panting, to fall upon the lower grating of a yacht's passenger gangway.

When he had revived somewhat, his ancient knowledge of the water-front enabled him to determine exactly the position of the yacht. It rode opposite the foot of East Twenty-Fourth Street, in the anchorage for pleasure craft. This was no place for him; but his spent energy was not returning. He surmised that this vessel, like others he had seen, had a little boat dangling tethered to her stem. If he could get aboard unobserved, acquire clothing—for the night air now nipped keen—he might yet accomplish his evasion in that boat.

Very cautiously he dragged himself up the gangway, a step or two. To his gaze the deck appeared deserted—only from the stern-sheets came a shore, where the anchor watch drowsed. The saloon companionway was at hand and brilliant with the light within. He dodged below, and found the cabin vacant. There was brandy on a buffet, to which he helped himself; he found food, of which he snatched a few mouthfuls ravenously.

There remained the question of clothing; that he must have. Only the closed stateroom doors met his roving glance. And his time, at best, was brief; realizing which, he chose quickly, at random, flung open the nearest door and instantly shut it behind him. Quietly he felt about, standing in blank blackness. In mid air his groping fingers found the switch of an incandescent bulb; the glare responded, blinding momentarily. He was alone in the box-like compartment.

The lockers held much clothing; he attired himself in the first that came to hand. And then, as he rested for a moment on the berth's edge, sleep stole upon him in his exhaustion, cruelly razing his strongest defense—the cunning of the man.


V.

His sensibility to his peril was his surest safeguard, after all. The primal minutes of blank rest past, he slept lightly, as a hunted thing must. At a hail from the launch he sprang to his feet, wide awake.

His first move was to switch off the light; then he listened. Through the open deadlight came the scraping of the boat upon the gangway grating. The yacht had quickened to life; on fleck voices resounded, and the vessel began to thrill to the vibration of the engines.

The Spider opened the stateroom door the merest trifle of an inch, making a space through which he could command a view of the companionway. A donkey-engine chug-chugged, winding in the cable; the winches rattled. The noise drowned all others. The Spider was almost unwarned of the figure of the young woman who swept down the companionway—a very young and beautiful woman, laughing back over her shoulder. It was a peculiarly happy, tense laugh.

The Spider swore softly, vindictively: the girl was Helen Cuyler.

At the foot of the steps she paused, her face upturned. A man, laughing tenderly, came down suddenly and caught her in his arms. He murmured a word, soft-toned; she colored, hiding her face conveniently. The man turned—he was Worth, of course.

"In a minute," he said, and ran up on dock.

The Spider's mind acted quickly. He had but one course, in honor. He stepped quietly out into the saloon.

"Miss Helen," he said, raising a hand to emphasize his injunction; "not a word, please, ma'am!"

The girl wheeled about with a little, startled cry, quickly repressed. Then she moved forward to the center table and sank into a chair, resting her bare elbows upon its polished surface.

"Nervy!" whispered the Spider to himself, admiringly. He stepped more near, respectfully. "Quick, Miss Helen, ma'am, tell me——"

"But I thought," she began, "I thought you——"

"Yes, yes," he interrupted impatiently; "I was sent up to the Island, ma'am, for ninety days. I'm escapin' now. Please answer me straight, miss—this is more important than that: how is it that you an' him is here? What's he doin' on this ship, ma'am? Hurry, please!"

Something in his manner nullified his impertinence. She waived her just resentment and answered him breathlessly.

"This is Mr. Worth's yacht, Spider, the Heloise."

"Where'd he get it? His? Him? Why, he ain't got a cent in the world——"

"Mr. Worth penniless?"

"Yes'm. But quick. I got to know. What's the game, ma'am? What's——"

"We—why——" Her head drooped, flower-like. "We're eloping——"

"The blackguard!"

Her cheeks flamed crimson with her anger, at length aroused.

"Spider!How dare you? What do you mean?"

"Quiet one minute, Miss Helen—I'll explain."

Somehow he managed to make her listen; hut half-way in his narrative she stopped him with a gesture supplicating. Now she was livid, her eyes blazing.

"Don't," she pleaded. "don't say any more. If one half is true—oh, why should you have told me? Why should you lie? It can't be! I can't believe it!"

"Don't youse take me word fer it, ma'am," he begged hoarsely. "Don't believe me. Just put it off till t'morrow—ask an' see if I've told the truth——"

Suddenly she rose and tied up the companionway. The Spider followed instantly—to find the girl confronting Worth himself.

The man stood in the stern, alone, but for the presence of the sailor at the wheel. The Heloise was not yet under way, though it was now but a matter of moments, even of seconds. The Spider noted that the launch had not cast off.

At the rustle of her garment, Worth turned his head.

"Why, Helen!" He did not see the Spider at first; he could not understand the girl's changed demeanor. "What——"

"Tell me!" she commanded imperiously, flaming in her anger. "Is it true?"

"True? What?"

"What he—Spider—says about you. Is that true—half true, even?"

"The Spider!" Worth wheeled upon his former servant; for an instant he paled; but he kept the grip on himself. At once he mapped out his plan of action. "What does he say, Helen—that convict? What would you have me deny?" He pretended indignation. "Am I to stand trial upon a servant's word?"

It was a losing move; perhaps from it she gained the clue to the man, was enabled to read him more clearly. "I am answered," she said haltingly. "Put me ashore."

"Too late," said Worth coolly.

She echoed his words.

"Yes," he affirmed stolidly. "Too late; I'll not put you ashore. You will marry me in spite——"

"I will never——"

"Oh, yes, but you will—after you've compromised yourself with this little trip!" He turned away, raising his voice to reach the ear of the man on the bridge: "Go——"

But the Spider, the despised, cut him short. His arm shot out, his foot crossed Worth's—and the man was rolling on the deck, half-a-dozen feet distant. The Spider caught the girl roughly by the arm; there was no time for formalities. He hurried her toward the gangway, at the foot of which lay the gasoline launch, with two white-clad figures still busy therein.

"Quick!" the Spider told her. "Tell 'em—they'll see you safe——"

She stepped out upon the grating.

"Oh, thank you—thank you," she faltered.

But he did not hear. Worth was upon him. He turned barely in time, closed with and whirled the man across the deck, and broke away, to fall naturally into the fighting pose. Forward, the men, suddenly aware that something was amiss, were shouting; from over the waters came an answering hail—which neither Worth nor the Spider heard.

Worth crouched, gathering himself together, sprang. The Spider met him half way, with a little yelp of joy, his blood afire with the old lust of battle. He side-stepped and caught Worth a stinging blow on the side of the head as he lunged past. But the man returned, undismayed. They fought the round of the deck savagely, snarling, bestially rabid.

The Spider's eyes left Worth's for not an instant; only when he heard the launch splutter away from the side—when he guessed that the girl had prevailed upon the men. that she was saved—he was caught off-guard. Worth bore him to the deck, and while they rolled in the scuppers the harbor patrol ranged alongside and police clambered aboard. When the Spider squirmed away and staggered to his feet, his arms were clipped behind him. Worth still raged; he was up with no loss of time. Blindly again he went for the Spider's throat.

The former champion wrenched his arms free just in time. He met Worth steadily as a rock, and let him have them—both fists full in the face. The man collapsed, senseless, upon the deck. Again the police seized the Spider.

He was the victor. He was resigned, nay, ineffably happy, for one final time.

"Put the nippers on me!" he gasped, vibrant with triumph. "I'm the duck youse is after—from the Island!"

So they clubbed him into insensibility.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.